20 December 2010

Black Swan

It's been a little while since I've seen a film by Darren Aronofsky, as I've only really seen Pi (1998) and Requiem for a Dream (2000). Black Swan (2010) certainly follows in their footsteps in its attempt to chronicle a descent into madness, but it does so with more grace, maturity, and artistry. Perhaps I should go back and watch The Wrestler (2008), to which this film is a companion piece, as it will likely show a similar maturation of Aronofsky's style.

Internal rivalry
Synopses of the film often describe a focus on a rivalry between the ballerinas Nina (Natalie Portman) and Lily (Mila Kunis), but I don't think this is really the point of the film at all. It is quite obvious that the film's main focus is Nina herself. This is evident first and foremost by the film's subjective nature. We are always present with Nina, and often the camera literally follows her, peering over her shoulder to see what she sees. I will point out, though, that we do not get actual point-of-view shots. Never do we explicitly enter her head and see exactly what she sees or hear what she is thinking. While we are limited to her, and privy to glimpses of her psyche, we are always removed from her—able to contemplate Nina in ways that she is unable. (This is an important dynamic in the relationship between cinema and its spectators, and one that is excellently handled in Roman Polanski's Chinatown, but I will return to Polanski later.)

At any rate, the "rivalry" seems to exist more in Nina's mind than in reality, and serves more as a part of a greater focus, which is Nina's conflict against herself in her attempt to reach "perfection" as a ballet dancer. This connection occurs time and again as Nina has visions of a doppelgänger, a hallucination which will often incorporate Lily as well. Nina is technically superior but lacks the passion, the ability to "lose herself in the music" like Lily can. As the film unfolds, Lily's role takes on a symbolic position of the darker side of Nina, one that Nina must find and incorporate into herself to reach true perfection.

The Swan Queen as both the White Swan and the Black Swan
You do not have to go into this movie being completely familiar with the ballet Swan Lake, as the film explains the main conceptual elements of the story that are important to the film, but having some understanding certainly wouldn't hurt. In fact, the film could be described as a filmic take on the ballet, as there are numerous parallels. The film is most interesting in how it takes the story to different levels. On one hand, the competition between Nina and Lily for the role of Swan Queen (and thus trying to win the love for the director), could be compared to the original plot, but this reading lacks much added interest. However, if we apply the contest between the White and Black Swan to Nina's own mental struggle for perfection, the original story really does take on new life.

Polanski-esque surrealism
Not surprising for Aronofsky, there is a fair amount of unsettling imagery in this film, and a tendency to play with the boundary between reality and insanity. However, unlike Requiem for a Dream, Black Swan handles this with more subtly and maturity. The dark surrealism has been compared to Roman Polanski's earlier films, and in particular, his "Apartment" triology. It's a comparison I whole-heartedly agree with. Like the trilogy, this film focuses on in the inner psyche of one character and their descent into the darkest depths of their own mind. They all break reality in such a way that, even at the end, we are sometimes unable to sort everything out into neat categories of "reality" and "delusion." Yes, some things are obviously one or the other, but the line that divides them is blurry at best.

As another note, the film is very well shot, and makes excellent use of the handheld camera that has, for better or worse, become a norm (due in part, I'm sure, to reality TV). Often, such jittery camera work feels unnecessary, a mere repetition of a current style without any actual substance, and at first, I feared this might be the case. However, as the film progresses, I saw how the camera seemed to dance with its primary partner, Nina, carrying the ballet theme into the cinematography itself and adding credence to the idea that the film is, in itself, another take on Swan Lake.

Ultimately, the film is well-done. The acting is superb, especially from Portman, who never wanes in quality despite being consistently framed by the camera's lens. The supporting roles are quite good as well, especially Nina's mother (Barbara Hershey) and the director (Vincent Cassel). Mila Kunis did a decent job as well, though perhaps not as well as the other two. Black Swan is certainly a compelling, visceral film. It could also be an excellent change of pace if you want to go to the theatres but don't want the usual Christmas blockbuster fair.

08 December 2010

Samurai Assassin

It's no secret that I love samurai flicks (or chanbara). In some ways, it's my go-to action genre. Don't get me wrong, there are some great standard action movies out there that can be really entertaining. However, I think samurai flicks often add a certain Shakespearean drama to the mix that makes me love it that much more. Samurai films tend to be tragedies. The mood tends to be darker, with endings that are often, at best, bittersweet. Samurai Assassin (Samurai, 1965) by Kihachi Okamoto is a perfect example of this.

Historical influences
Although Samurai Assassin certainly has it's share of action, much of the film revolves around secretive conversations. The film is inspired by an actual historical event known as the Sakuradamon incident in which the daimyo Ii Naosuke was assassinated by a group of ronin outside the Sakurada Gate on March 24, 1860. As such, most of the film focuses on the efforts to plan and organize the assassination, finally culminating with the incident itself for the grand, bloody, tragic climax.

However, the film deviates from history quite a bit, though in typical chanbara fashion, it makes excuses, namely the fact that files could have been easily altered or erased. History is written by the victors, they say, and this has become a favourite route for inserting dramatic narratives into historical contexts with regards to samurai films.

As such, the primary protagonist is Niiro Tsurichiyo, played by the beloved actor Toshiro Mifune. His mother, now dead, was a prostitute and his paternity remains unknown to all but one man, a friend of the family who has vowed to keep it a secret until the proper time. All that he will say is that his father was of a high rank, and as such, samurai blood flows in Niiro's veins.

Thus, Niiro's ultimate goal is to prove himself as a samurai and become famous. Thus, when the conspirators against the daimyo request his help after seeing his skill, he jumps on the opportunity. Here is a chance to do something that will change the course of history, winning himself fame and a place in the history books, and as an orphan and poor ronin, he has little to lose.

Narrative elements
Much of the story is told through conversation, with various characters relating events. The film will then cut away to the scene, with the character acting as the narrator. This breaks up the time line of the film, as we experience some of the events out of natural order and have to piece things together from there. This gives the film some added complexity and interest.

The film has numerous twists, though most of them were fairly easy to spot. However, this never becomes a bad thing, as the film is steeped in literary irony. We as the audience ultimately know more about the truth than every individual character, Niiro included. The final tragedy stems from this irony, as we understand all that the assassination will ultimately entail while the characters are only partially aware of the consequences of their actions. I don't want to give away too much, as guessing and learning for yourself is a large part of the fun. Still, this film is a classic example of literary irony done right, and it culminates in a fantastic finale.

The film is fairly well shot, and I love the scenes with the snow and umbrellas that provide a nice stylistic touch. The assassination is frantic but beautifully done.

However, the contrast seemed rather low, with the film never reaching the bright whites and deep blacks that really make black and white films shine. Maybe it was the DVD, which was a cheaper release than the Criterion Collection treatment so often applied to great chanbara. It could've also been the fact that I watched the DVD on Emily's computer, which I haven't calibrated the contrast on for watching black and white films. (And yes, I do calibrate my contrast. I am that big of a nerd.)

Still, the film was quite entertaining and beautifully tragic. Perhaps one of the darkest chanbara I've seen, in a very good way.

07 December 2010


Desperate (1947) is one of the earlier films noir from Anthony Mann, back during his B movie days. If you don't know who Mann is, just know that he's a popular name with regards to the film noir genre. If you do know who Mann is, well... you probably watch a lot of films noir, so good for you!

I saw this film at Cinematheque, a group on UW–Madison's campus that shows classic films on the weekends. It was my first time there, but certainly won't be my last.

The group often specializes in film series, with this one appearing in a series devoted to Mann's films noir. I missed the first two films in the series—The Great Flamarion (1945) and Strange Impersonation (1946)—but that's okay. Mann has been quoted saying that he considers Desperate his first real film, as it was the first where he was actually afforded considerable control by the studio, rather than more or less working under another's vision.

The desperate seldom make good decisions
The film follows an ex-soldier named Steve Randall who now works in the trucking business. He takes a well-paying job without realize that he is, in fact, being hired as the getaway driver for a criminal heist. When things go wrong, Steve ends up on the wrong side of the law and the criminals who hired him. His wife's well-being threatened, he determines to get her to safety before confronting the police and the mobsters, which ultimately digs him in deeper.

The film ends up a rather enticing thriller, even if you are a little frustrated at Steve's incredible knack for finding newer and more effective ways to make matters worse for him and his darling wife, Anne. However, the film really excels in its visual presentation.

Beautifully orchestrated
The film looks amazing, and not just because we watched it on film reels instead of digital formats. In fact, Cinematheque only managed to get a 16 mm copy instead of the preferred 35 mm, much to their dismay. And while 35 mm would've surely afforded a better range of contrast, there was something about the grainy feel of 16 mm that felt right for film noir. After all, it was a B movie, and a dark, gritty one at that.

Anyway, there are numerous iconic scenes throughout the film. Perhaps my favourite occurs early on, when the mobsters set about roughing up Steve a little. Although we see the beginning of the scuffle, most if it takes place off screen. In fact, the beginning primarily aids in allowing us to see Steve thrown against a hanging light, causing it to swing wildly back and forth. The rest of the fight centers around the boss's stoic face, cast rhythmically into light and darkness by the movement of the lamp, creating a truly sinister atmosphere.

Likewise, a much later scene seems to provide a template for spaghetti Westerns decades later, as we sit in suspense, waiting for a gunshot. The scene oscillates between progressively closer shots of the character's eyes and a ticking clock. It stretches, building tension as we wait for something to happen. Will the man with the gun finally pull the trigger? Or will the would-be victim finally break the tension in an act that, instead, gives him the upper hand? Or, perhaps, something else? I won't give it away, but it's a great scene.

Where's the femme fatale?
After the film, I heard another audience member remarking that, though it was a good film, it didn't feel that "noir-y" to them. Namely, it didn't have that all important femme fatale. Well, it's true. There is no sultry seductress there to make Steve's life hell.

However, it's important to note that Desperate came out at a time when film noir was still a fairly new genre. Earlier films noir were still in the process of establishing archetypes that would be so often used in the '50s and then deconstructed, analyzed, and recontextualized in later decades. One of this big archetypes is, no doubt, the femme fatale, and while it appears as early as The Maltese Falcon (1941), it did not become as frequent in the genre until the genre began to take on darker and grittier aspects.

Desperate is definitely a film noir, but an early one. The primary focus of early films noir was the male character, who was, as is the case here, an ex-soldier. See, after WWII, a lot of American soldiers returned home feeling alienated and disillusioned. The war was one of the worst ever, and the world they returned to no longer felt like the perfect ideal they had left behind. Yes, on the surface, it seemed idyllic, but underneath there was something unsettling. Something sinister. Film noir tapped into this psychological feeling of disillusionment and unease with films about good men lead astray. Ex-soldiers, fresh from the war and tossed back into harms way once again.

Really, this fits Desperate to a t. This is where noir started, and to discredit it for not fitting the exact mold is silly, especially considering that the phrase film noir was not even known during the classic era (1941-1959) and that the directors at the time had no concept that these were genre films in the same way that a director would intentionally make a western. Genres, like art movements, are usually defined after their prime, when we have the sufficient perspective of time that we can sit back and consider what has happened.

01 December 2010

Njom Njom Kitchen: Coconut lentils and steamed couscous

Today, I updated over on Njom Njom Kitchen instead. Go check it out here.

28 November 2010

The Last Farm

I hope you'll pardon the fact that this review is a bit late, as I was busy seeing my family for Thanksgiving and was rarely at my computer. Still, I wanted to get something done, even if it went up a tad late.

The Last Farm (Síðasta bærinn, 2004) by Rúnar Rúnarsson is probably best known abroad for one of two things: 1. The movie was nominated for Best Live Action Short Film at the 2006 Academy Awards and 2. The soundtrack was composed by Kjartan Sveinsson, a member of Sigur Rós.

The second reason is, honestly, probably the main reason it was really noticed outside of Iceland. The film is certainly interesting and well-shot, but I don't see the style or narrative as being particularly innovative for Icelandic cinema. In fact, it sort of felt like the beginning and ending of Friðrik Þór Friðriksson's Children of Nature (Börn náttúrunnar 1991) mashed together into a new, somewhat darker narrative.

No reason not to watch it
That said, people should not hesitate to watch The Last Farm. In fact, you can watch it right now, for free, on YouTube. It'll only take you 17 minutes. Actually, here, watch it right now, and then I can talk about it without spoiling anything:

(Or click here and watch it in full screen HD. Probably the best way to go.)

Okay, so there you have it. A man named Hrafn prepares to leave his farm behind for good. His wife, Gróa, has died, and he prepares her a grave. And when the time comes, he buries himself with her.

The film is a somewhat bittersweet but ultimately sad story. Universally, we can identify with his pain. It is, at least at the global level, a love story. You probably watched it and thought he was killing himself out of the pain of losing his wife. This is certainly a possible motive, and one with which almost anyone can connect. However, I think in the context of Icelandic film and literature, there are other, more prominent motives and themes at work. Ones that are very iconic of Icelandic filmmaking.

The Icelandic Perspective
This film is, ultimately, a film about the clash between old customs and modern society that occurred in Iceland during the first half of the 20th century. Hrafn is an old man with old ways of doing things. He does not want to venture into the city to live with his daughter and her family or, perhaps, a retirement home. Perhaps if his wife were alive, this would be an easier change to bear. But alone, he cannot face it. All his life, he has known the farm. He is a true Icelander, with Icelandic ideals.

For many centuries, Iceland was subjugated by the Danish and lived in stark poverty. It was considered a sign of a good life's work if one did not have to be buried at another's expense. In a sense, to have enough money to your name to pay for your own burial and funeral was a sign of a life well-lived. Hrafn harkens back to these older values when he buries himself and his wife without bothering his daughter or Jón, the friendly man who delivers his mail and groceries. He is burying himself as an independent person, indebted to no one, not even in death, and this is a trait so characteristically Icelandic that Hrafn almost feels like a character from the mind of Halldór Laxness, Iceland's beloved novelist and Nobel laureate.

The tension between old and new, tradition and technology, and countryside and city is a major element of a lot of Icelandic storytelling in recent years, and in particular in Icelandic cinema. This issue lies at the heart of three of Iceland's biggest film classics—Land and Sons (Land og synir, 1980), Father's Estate (Óðal feðranna, 1980), and Children of Nature. In fact, Birgir Thor Møller argues in his essay "In and Out of Reykjavík: Framing Iceland in the Global Daze" that this conflict is at the heart of nearly all Icelandic films, and especially those during the first era of directors immediately following the "birth" of Icelandic cinema in the early 1980s.

However, unlike those classics, The Last Farm does not have much to add to this dialogue that has not already been said. Instead, it is merely rehashing old themes and motifs. In many ways, it seems best suited to a foreign audience interested in pursuing Icelandic cinema further, but not sure quite where to start. It provides an introduction to this thematic concept in a short, easy-to-follow film. The cultural references are not particularly dense, and dialogue is sparse, allowing us more time to contemplate the theme and motifs for ourselves.

It is definitely a well-done film, and the music is certainly beautiful, so kudos to Kjartan on that one. I would recommend it to all, but especially those new to Icelandic cinema. Veterans of Icelandic cinema will find little new here, though it is a well-told short narrative that is remarkable concise in encapsulating this oft-tred thematic avenue.

25 November 2010

Arc the Lad II

Update on the Arc the Lad article.

Not long after I posted my review of Arc the Lad and bemoaned the fact that we might not be seeing Arc the Lad II on PSN, Sony had to give me something to be thankful for this Thanksgiving.

Arc the Lad II is now out on PSN, and needless to say, I already have it downloaded. Expect a review in the coming weeks, I suppose!

24 November 2010

True Stories

In a way, David Byrne's bizarre film True Stories (1986) reminded me of another '80s film centered around music: Michael Jackson's Moonwalker (1988). Now, don't get me wrong. Just like the music itself, there's a lot of difference between these two films. However, at their core, both of them are like extended music videos coupled with in-depth insights into the minds behind the music. Both Michael Jackson and David Byrne certainly have... very interesting minds, but in different ways.

Defying traditional logic, Moonwalker has a more confusing and bizarre plot, but is actually more accessible. Music probably plays a big role here. Everyone has heard of Michael Jackson and probably likes a few songs (which are most likely ones included in the movie). Talking Heads? They are completely obscure and underground, but aside from actual fans, most people know just a few songs, none of which are in this film. Probably the most popular song from the movie is "Wild Wild Life," probably best known today for being referenced in two very bad animated films from 2006 by Dreamworks and Columbia Pictures respectively. It's probably best to just take the song in its original context:

And yes, that is John Goodman in one of his earlier roles.

A musical mockumentary?
Okay, so I wouldn't really consider this film a mockmentary, but it does reference certain documentary styles at time. I also wouldn't call it a musical, but that seems to be the genre it is general grouped in to.

It's true that the movie often breaks away into a song, and in that sense it's a musical. But it doesn't have the same feel as a musical. All the songs are in context, sung by actual characters or, in the most unusual one (seen above), they are lip-syncing on stage like some sort of weird karaoke game. Likewise, out of the nine songs featured in the film, only three are performed by the entire band. For example, John Goodman actually sings one of them.

Ultimately, the music takes on a different role, some sort of spiritual outlet for the people of the small town of Virgil, Texas.

The documentary feel takes over. David Byrne, unnamed throughout the film, comes in to the town as a stranger and introduces us to its many unique inhabitants. He often provides us with various facts, some relevant and others irrelevant.

The quaintness of small-town consumerism
Much of the documentary feel takes the form of a humorous look at small-town America and the rise of consumerism. In one scene, he describes to us the significance of the shopping mall, describing it as the new city center. Likewise, he discusses metal housing, which is supposedly more prevalent in Texas than elsewhere, saying:
"Metal buildings are the dream that Modern architects had at the beginning of this century. It has finally come true, but they themselves don't realize it. That's because it doesn't take an architect to build a metal building. You just order them out of a catalogue. Comes with a bunch of guys who put it together in a couple of days, maybe a week. And there you go! You're all set to go into business! Just slap a sign out front."
Like much of the music by Talking Heads, the commentary never really becomes mean-spirited. The most farcical of the characters is Miss Rollings, a woman who was so wealthy and content with everything that she owned that she decided to live the rest of her life in bed watching television, but even she is treated gently by the camera lens. At his worst, Byrne states matter-of-factly, "Some people say, 'Freeways are the cathedrals of our time!' Not me."

Rather, the commentary is too far removed from one of the Talking Heads last songs, "(Nothing but) Flowers." The song tells the story of a time when civilization has fallen and humans have returned to a Eden-like paradise on Earth, in which a man finds himself missing microwaves, billboards, Dairy Queens and 7-Elevens. Neither the film now the movie never specifically imply that this world of consumerism and capitalism is, in itself, a bad thing. However, behind it all, we find ourselves feeling that things are somewhat empty... hallow...

We just want someone to love
The film's climax occurs when Louis Fyne (John Goodman), the character who comes closest to being the main protagonist, sings "People like us," which features the chorus, "We don't want freedom / We don't want justice / We just want someone to love."

[WARNING: This video contains spoilers, though if you stop it right after he finishes his song you should be safe.]

His character's main trait is his strong desire to find love, and not just a fling, but a wife. In his heartfelt song, he finally breaks the music free from the commercialism that surrounds the rest of the film's music (perhaps best exemplified by the overtly poppy "Love for Sale," which features a slew of pop culture references and advertisements).

Amidst the superficiality of the world in which these characters live, Louis calls for a little bit of humanity. His aim is not great. These are not huge, lofty ideals that he is calling for like freedom and justice. No, he just wants love. He wants a little bit of genuine, human interaction. An intimate connection. [Spoiler: highlight to read] Perhaps most powerfully, his song is able to stir Miss Rollings from her bed, if only long enough to call him on the telephone. In his song, she saw her own desire for human interaction, and though the two of them will no doubt spend the rest of their life together in bed, in front of a tv, it will, at the very least, be spent together.

Are you a fan?
Ultimately, the main people who are going to enjoy this movie are people who like David Byrne and the Talking Heads. That's not to say it's a bad movie or one completely inaccessible to outsiders. However, the music does figure heavily, even if most of it is performed my cast members rather than the band itself. Also, the themes are ones that will be familiar to fans of David Byrne's lyrics, and the film's quirky style will fit right in with fans of the awkward, thoughtfully poppy sound.

If you like the Talking Heads and you haven't seen this movie yet, you really should. It's quite entertaining and, really, it does give you a nice little look into the head of David Byrne. If you're not a fan of their music, it's up to you. You could really enjoy it. Or you could just think it's weird and pointless.

22 November 2010

Arc the Lad (on PSN)

I have to admit that the main reason I got Arc the Lad on PlayStation Network (PSN) is that it was mentioned in Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden, Chapter 1 of the Hoopz Barkley SaGa. The later is, quite possibly, the best RPG to have ever been released for free. Not "limited time promotion, get it while you can" free, but "you can just download this for free" free. And in spite of (or more likely because of) how campy and ridiculous it is, it's actually really well done. The combat system is well developed and the story can be genuinely amusing. Someday, I may write a full review of it here. Until then, you should just go download it and see for yourself.

But anyway, the save points in Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden usually go on long, rambling, somewhat facetious monologues on how much better Japanese RPGs are compared to Western ones. Arc the Lad was one of the JRPGs frequently mentioned. With a little more research, I found out that it really is well-received. It also goes for about $80 for a used copy on eBay. You might be able to find a copy for $50 on Amazon, or $30 if you don't care about having the case or manual. So when I saw it crop up on PSN as a downloadable PlayStation Classic for just $6, I decided to give it a try.

Shorter than expected
After downloading it, I started playing it pretty much immediately. As usual when I start a new game, I get in to it and for a few days, it becomes my main way of passing time in the evening. Usually, I'll clock a solid 15 to 20 hours that first week, and then it'll go to join the slew of other games I'm all slowly completing. I really should adopt a better system, but oh well. It is what it is.

At any rate, with a lot of the RPGs I play, even 20 hours is just the beginning. I tend to play RPGs pretty slowly, taking time to plan battle strategies, do side quests, and talk to most of the random NPCs. A Persona game will easily take me 100 hours of playtime to complete. However, Arc the Lad is far less involved. I beat it in just over 16 hours, and that's including the optional, incredibly long 50-level dungeon.

Check out these sweet graphics!
Now, 16 hours is by no means a short game, especially considering that it was released within the first year of PlayStation's life. In fact, the game was released in Japan before PlayStation had even reached American shores. As such, the game feels markedly like an SNES game apart from some sparse 3D animated scenes of the airship flying. These cinematics have hardly aged well, which is not surprising for that era of video games. Early 3D graphics just haven't held up like sprite work has. Thankfully, most of the game is done with 2D sprites which look good, if a little cartoonish for the game's serious tone. The backgrounds are, at times, a little drab, and the grid system is very obvious in the visual style. It's no Secret of Mana, but it's got it's own charm. And given that it's a strategy RPG, the obvious grid can be easily excused because, well, everything is done on a grid in game.

A strategy RPG without all that strategy
Arc the Lad is, technically, a strategy RPG, but at times you almost forget that that's the case. The combat system involves moving your characters around on a grid and then performing attacks. Each attack has a different range. For example, physical attacks can only be executed against enemies in squares directly touching the square your character is in. Meanwhile, most spells will give you a wider range. Furthermore, after you select the primary target of the spell, some will have a small range of squares surrounding the target that will also be hit.

However, spells will only affect enemies (or allies, as in healing spells), whether or not the range of effect might include a mix of enemies and allies. This is somewhat asymptomatic of strategy RPGs, which often involves much more careful planning, down to the smallest of details, such as how to attack an enemy without hurting yourself. Likewise, the equipment in Arc the Lad is very simple. You don't even have weapons and armor to worry about. There's just four generalized equipment slots per character that you can put any piece of equipment you want in (well, except for the few character specific ones).

You don't have to worry about building a party, as you use all the characters that you have in every fight that they are available to you. You don't have to place them on the field like most strategy RPGs. You don't have to level up skills or equipment in menus, or organize items in your inventory, or really do anything in the menus. Outside of battle there is no menu. Just story and picking where to go next. In battle, the game relies on different buttons doing different things. X attacks, Circle brings up magic, Square brings up items, Triangle is cancel, and Select is equipment. Most of the strategy resides in setting up equipment before a match and then which abilities to use. And really, none of that is too hard. The game is actually pretty damn easy. In part because you just have Arc spam Gale Flash and run around taking blows like no ones business while countering with hot steel.

One man army
Really, Arc is a one man army. Case in point. When I did the 50-level dungeon, I reached the final floor with only three characters out of my seven party members still alive, and one of those three died in the first round of action. Tosh and Arc were all that remained, and Tosh was lucky enough to paralyze the boss, making the fight incredibly easy. Having won and gotten my treasures, I began the arduous climb back to the entrance, but Tosh fell pretty soon thereafter to a nasty dragon or some other tough beast. I then proceeded to go through about 45 floors (i.e. 45 battles) with just Arc. And I never once came close to death. He's just too good.

i.e. Worthless compared to Arc.
In some ways, this is the biggest problem with Arc the Lad. Experience points are awarded based on how much a character accomplished in a fight, the biggest accomplishment being killing off enemies. Arc starts out as being a little better than everyone else, but that means he levels up a little faster because he's doing more. At first, it's not too noticeable, but as he got better, he would get more experience, making his level up, giving him more experience... It was exponential. By the end, Arc was over twice the level of my weakest party member. This means that, at the end, most fights consisted of keeping the weaker characters protected and ready to do their small part when needed and otherwise letting Arc, Tosh, and Iga run around and killing everything. And really, Tosh and Iga didn't hold a candle to Arc. They were just able to barely keep up.

So really, you just have Arc do Gale Flash and take out half the enemies on the field in one move.

Fun, but a little unrewarding
Really though, the game is still a lot of fun. It gives you that strategy RPG feel of moving units without bogging you down with tons of rules and menus. In many ways, the heart of the game is still very much that of the classic RPG style. The combat may feel a bit different, but ultimately, it's just about going through the story, one battle at a time.

Despite how melodramatic and intense the beginning was, the story is actually pretty simple. You need to save five Guardians and gain their blessings in order to save humanity. But the thing is, once you finally save that fifth Guardian and get the power to save the world, well... it ends. You never get to actually save the world! It just says, "To be continued..."

Continued when?
Honestly, I liked the game. And I was starting to feel the story and really get into it.

And then it ended.

I vaguely knew there were sequels, but I'd never seen them before, or at least I didn't think I had. I always just saw the one game labelled Arc the Lad that usually goes for at least $50. But then I remembered... that game had multiple discs...

So I did a little research. Turns out we never got the original Arc the Lad here in America like they did in Japan. We got Arc the Lad Collection, a single release that included all three games of the original trilogy. That's what usually goes for at least $50. I just never noticed the little word "Collection" at the bottom of the logo.

So really, up until this point, you couldn't buy the first game without having the full triology if you lived in America. But, perhaps in a move to garner more money, Sony decided to release them separately on PSN, with about a year in between each release. That's how they did it in Japan, and it certainly makes more sense there. And I'm not entirely complaining. All together the trilogy would probably total $20 or so on PSN. Not bad, all things considered.

But the thing is, I don't know if they're going to bring the rest of the trilogy to PSN in North America. If the first one doesn't sell well enough, they might not have any reason to bring the other ones here. It's not that it would be too large of an expense for Sony, but it would still involve some work. And if their customers don't seem interested, why bother?

My dilemma
I want to play the second one. It's supposedly the best in the series that improves on the original a lot. So what do I do? Wait and hope for a digital release? Or do I someday shell out the money for a used copy?

If I had three copies, I'd probably gloat by
posting photos on the internet as well.
Of course, this is where some suggest emulation. Although emulation is technically illegal, buying used won't give any money to the developers either. So if they aren't going to make it available for sale, who can blame you for finding another way to play it?

Still, I think I'll wait. At least until I have the money to by it used. Unless, of course, anyone out there wants to get me a generous Christmas gift. :þ Otherwise, well... my list of games I really want to see on PSN has grown a little: 1. Xenogears 2. Arc the Lad II 3. Arc the Lad III and honourable mention: Chrono Cross.

But seriously, it's a good game. And hey, if you're on PSN and download it as well, you'll be helping the cause. Or you could just end up feeling unfulfilled as the game ends abruptly, leaving you hanging and at a loss... staring at a page on Amazon and whispering, "Maybe someday..."

UPDATE: I was wrong. Arc the Lad II on PSN.

19 November 2010

The Muppets Take Manhattan / Muppets from Space

Over the last two days, I've watched two different Muppet films—The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984, dir. Frank Oz) and Muppets from Space (2004, dir. Tim Hill). Why these two? Well, primarily because they are the only two on Netflix Instant Streaming, probably because they happen to be the only two Muppet films not owned by Disney, who is often rather protective with their products (sort of like Apple Records with the Beatles music). They also happen to be landmark films for the Muppets, as The Muppets Take Manhattan was the last feature film from the franchise to be made while Jim Henson was still alive and was the first film to be directed solely by Frank Oz, while Muppets From Space was the last major Muppets product to feature Frank Oz as puppeteer for Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, and others.

My desire to watch some films by the Muppets started with a YouTube clip of a Muppets parody of Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody." Seeing all the characters again kick started a sort of nostalgia, and an interesting one at that.

Obviously, my strongest feelings of nostalgia are tied to my big favourites from my childhood. I loved Star Wars, Pokémon, and Chrono Cross. These games have so many memories attached to them. I know much of them inside and out. Though my knowledge of Pokémon has certainly begun to atrophy a little, I can still name all 151 of the originals as well as lot of the second generation.

But the Muppets are a bit different. It's more of a feeling of déjà vu. Sitting down to watch the films, I don't actively know what's going to happen to next, but once it happens, it all feels oddly familiar.

The Muppets Take Manhattan
I have to admit, this one was a bit outside my time. The film was made in 1984, so I'm certain that whenever I did happen to see it, I was very young. I didn't get as much of a déjà vu feeling, but I did at times. Certain gags must've stuck in my brain more than others.
The film is, essentially, a musical about trying to get a musical on Broadway. I may have said this before, but I'll say it again: Why are so many children's movies also musicals? I suppose that the change between talking and singing may help to hold a child's attention better. Still, as I've been watching more kid's movies lately (not sure why, guess I just must be on a nostalgia kick), it's really begun to sink in how often they involve musical numbers. It also seems like the older they are, the more likely it'll be a musical, while newer ones tend to be straight dialogue (for example, I can't actually think of a Pixar musical).

I've gotten off topic, so I might as well extend this tangent a little further. I said that The Muppets Take Manhattan is a kid's movie, but I'm not sure that's entirely correct. Perhaps it's better to say "family-friendly." Yes, it is entirely appropriate for kids, but there's a lot of stuff in there for adults too. Honestly, I think this is what makes for a better film. Often, especially when it comes to television, there are shows and films that are geared specifically towards children. While this isn't necessarily a bad thing in-and-of-itself, I think it does have some major defects in the long run. For one, the plots are usually incredibly simplified with very direct and obvious meanings and morals, but I don't think this is really giving kids enough credit. Kids can actually be pretty smart, and while they may not be able to explain the message of, say, Pixar's Up the same way an adult could, I don't think that means that they didn't still get something out of it. A good film will have layers of meaning and understandings, as even a five-year-old and ten-year-old are going to have different levels of comprehension. Appealing to a wider audiences not only means that the product becomes more interesting and complex, but that, well... you have more people to sell it to, and economics is, for better or worse, an integral part of cinematic arts.

The other problem, though, is that without something there to entertain the parents as well, parents are less likely to watch with the kids. My parents have always said they thought Sesame Street was one of the best children's shows for this very reason. They could sit down and watch it with us and be entertained as well. Imagine sitting down and watching Teletubbies. You'd go mad. So what happens? Well, parents let the TV be the babysitter. I don't entirely know if this is a bad thing or not, but it doesn't quite feel right. Not that parents can't occasionally use some distraction for their kids to give them a chance to do some work in peace, but I don't think this should be the standard way of doing things, and even if parents aren't always there watching, it's still nice when the film or television show is actively encouraging it through its writing.

Muppets from Space
At any rate, this film was certainly more of a nostalgia bomb for me. The biggest scene that sticks out in my mind is when the aliens sing, "Celebration" by Kool & the Gang. I believe I saw this film in theatres or shortly after it came to VHS and I really enjoyed it. And, well, that's probably the first time I ever heard that song. So in some ways, that song has always reminded me of the Muppets, even if just vaguely. That and Al Gore.

Between the two, I felt like The Muppets Take Manhattan had, perhaps, a bit more creative writing. At least it felt fresher. But there were a lot of good moments in Muppets from Space as well. For one, my friends and I all enjoyed Bobo the bear in his role as Rentro, who is generally pushed around at the government agency he works at and is fairly timid despite being, well, a big brown bear.

Both films are a lot of fun, and really got me in the mood for the new Muppets film coming out next year. Too bad it's not going to be released until around Christmas, so I'll have to wait over a year.

17 November 2010

Let the Right One In

And so, finally, I got to see Let the Right One In (Låt den rätte komma in, 2008), though through no thanks to Netflix.The film was indeed less of a vampire film and more of a coming-of-age story, focusing heavily on the relationship between the 12-year-old boy Oskar and the seemingly 12-year-old girl Eli who is, in fact, a vampire.

Growing older vs. forever young
In some ways, it almost seemed like the vampire piece was irrelevant, but that's not entirely true. It is important to the narrative and adds complexity to Oskar and Eli's relationship. However, much of Oskar's development is more directly tied to their friendship (and early stages of courtship) than to the fact that Eli is a vampire. Interestingly, Eli is a bit more static. Yes, she changes in regards to how open she is with Oskar, but she never really matures in the way that Oskar does. As she says to Oskar, "I'm 12 years old. I've been 12 years old for a long time."

The main character of the story is most certainly Oskar, and in the first scenes of the film, I actually thought that he was the vampire. The film begins with him in his room, stabbing his knife at the air and growling, "Squeal! Squeal like a pig!" He is somewhat pale and awkward, with longer hair. He is also the subject to some rather nasty bullying from other kids in his class, which he usually writes to his superiors as accidents on the playground or the like.

The darkness within
So why is Eli a vampire? Sure, it adds a little to the relationship, but not too much in and of itself. However, in some ways, it provides a visual, long-running metaphor for the darker sides of humanity. During their time together, Eli encourages Oskar to stand up for himself against the bullies. The moment finally occurs during a field trip to go skating on an icy pond. The bullies threaten to push Oskar into the cold water, but he tells them to stay back or he'll use a pole he found. They try to call his bluff, and the leader (Conny) steps forward, only to get severely whacked on the ear, causing lasting damage.

Despite Conny's shouts and the blood coursing from the side of his head, the scene becomes oddly tranquil and liberating. Oskar stands with his head held high, free from their tyranny. Of course, the animosity has done anything but subsided, and increasing hostilities aren't fair off.

Where do we go from here [SPOILERS]
The film's ending is fairly open and somewhat uneasy. The violence escalates when Conny's older brother Jimmy stages revenge against Oskar, forcing him to hold his breath under water in the pool for three minutes or else lose his eye in exchange for Conny's ear. We go beneath the water's surface with Oskar, and after some tense silence, we hear commotion faintly above before Jimmy's dessicated head and arm drop into the pool. Eli has come to save Oskar, and we cut away to a train. Oskar sits with a large wooden box in which Eli hides to protect her from the sunlight. The two of them are escaping to a new life together. Ultimately, it would seem that the dark side has been embraced, perhaps without any consequences.

However, we may remember Håkan, the older man who protected and killed for Eli at the beginning of the film, and ultimately gave his life for her. Is this where Oskar is heading? Is he the next Håkan? And is that a good or a bad thing? A lot of it is left up to the viewer to decide. Like a good horror film, it enters a certain level of murky morality and taboo ethics that would be far, far harder to handle in a film set directly in reality. Horror films allow us to step back from more taboo subjects and deal with them in a safer light. After all, it's a vampire film. And can you really take those that seriously? Certainly, the film is a good conversation starter, and for that reason it's hard to write about at length in this monologue-esque format. So if anyone else out there has seen this film and would like to talk to me about it, hit me up. Of course, we can do some in comments, or if you know my personally, we can do it elsewhere. Perhaps over a few beers?

12 November 2010

The White Ribbon

Last night, I finally got around to popping in the Netflix disc of The White Ribbon (Der weiße Band: eine deutsche Kindergeschichte, 2009) by Michael Haneke. The film won Cannes Film Festival's prestigious Palme d'Or, the FIPRESCI Grand Prix, and the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film, among others. The film was also nominated for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, though the award was instead given to the Argentinian The Secret in Their Eyes (El secreto de sus ojos, 2009) by Juan Jóse Campanella.

Though I certainly intend to see The Secret in Their Eyes, hopefully before the 83rd Academy Awards. However, given my interest in Germany and some of my previous work on films related to World War II, The White Ribbon was first on my list of "must-sees."

More so than many other films, I think that The White Ribbon is very much about creating an atmosphere. There are certainly discernible characters with their own stories and personalities, but we never really fully see them or understand their true feelings and motives. In some ways, I think this is the entire point of the film, but I will address that a little later. Ostensibly, there is a main character—the nameless schoolteacher who narrates the story. However, although he is present throughout the film, we actually get to know him more through his voice-over narration in which he is considerably older.

Essentially, the film is an incompletely story pieced together from his various memories of his short tenure as teacher in a small German Protestant town called Eichwald. His own story is rather simple, revolving around his courtship of a young woman named Eva. However, throughout it's course, he also recounts numerous strange and violent instances that occurred within the town. For example, the film begins with a recounting of how the village doctor was serious injured when his horse tripped over a thin wire strung between two trees in his garden.

Cold, distant, and oppressive
These words sum up the entire feel of the film pretty well. The cinematography by Christian Berger in particular really adds to this

In one scene, a perhaps more "mundane" act of violence in which two children are caned as punishment for acting out, we do not actually seen the event. The entire scene is shot from the hallway. First, the kids leave their bedroom and walk down a narrow hallway and into a door, closing it behind them. The camera sits in still silence, gazing down the hallway anxiously. The door opens and the son exits, walks to another door and enters briefly, then emerges with the switch that will be used to whip him. He walks back down the hallway and closes the door. More silence. More anticipation. Then, suddenly, but faint and muffled from the distance, we hear a yelp of pain from behind the closed door. One or two more, and the film breaks away to a new scene.

The cameras relative stillness during this scene gives off a sense of emotional detachment that becomes one of the primary focal points of the film. It's all very oppressive and weighs on the viewer throughout the film's two and a half hour span

Another notable element of this scene is that it is cut short. Likewise, when the doctor falls from his horse, we get fragmented images of what is happening rather than one cohesive sequence. Some of the goriest parts are omitted.

The film is in fragments, as if important details have been snipped from the film strips and left on the cutting room floor. For one, a lot of the most "disturbing" elements are left hidden, only described. We never see the doctor's collarbone sticking out of his flesh. We don't see the raw and bleeding flesh of the boy's caned buttocks. Of course, this is certainly saves on special effects costs, but it also adds to the oppressive and distant nature. And also alludes to the fact that the film will never really have a clean resolution. At the very end, though we may have a better idea who is doing these acts of seemingly random violence, we never get a definitive answer. No one is ever brought to justice. And many plotlines remain completely open and unexplained.

Ultimately, I think the point of this film is the idea that we can never really understand violence and why people do it.

The danger
The film is best taken as a look at humanity in general and some of the darker sides of human societal as a whole. This is apparently the director's intent as well, as he said in an interview that the film is about "the origin of every type of terrorism, be it of political or religious nature."

However, I think there could be some danger here in that the film itself is set just before World War I and the narrator comments that he feels the events he will describe are somehow related to or a part of what would happen later. The film also ends with the beginning of the Great War. As such, it may be easy for people to take the stance that the film is not about humanity in general but the German people in particular. This stance would echo the sentiment of Daniel Goldhagen, whose books imply that the Germans were a "demonic people." As I discuss in my essay on Passenger (Pasażerka, 1963), such a stance is counter-productive in an attempt to address and resolve the lasting emotional effects of the Holocaust.

As such, the film is a very interesting narrative. It is one that prompts a lot of thought and emotion, and while generally depressing and dismal in its outlook on humanity, does provide a few cases of hope in the schoolteacher, Eva, and one innocent young boy. However, I would warn against people drawing too narrow a parallel between this film and the Holocaust. Certainly, it can be seen as an attempt to understand why something so horrific could have occurred, but I think it takes a more broad, humanist approach rather than a very specific and focused look at German society, despite being entirely set in Germany shortly before the First World War.

10 November 2010

The Inugami Clan

I recently finished the book The Inugami Clan by Seishi Yokomizo and translated by Yumiko Yamazaki. I acquired the book on a whim at a major book sale at Snowbound Books in Marquette and eventually it became a "bathroom book" for me. So yes, I read most of this book in the bathroom. I finished it in my good old leather reading chair, though, because I had to get to the ending.

See, Seishi Yokomizo is arguably Japan's biggest mystery novelist, and The Inugami Clan is the best-selling book in his Detective Kindaichi series. Now I'll admit that I don't know much about the mystery genre when it comes to books. In fact, the only genre that could be called a part of the mystery genre that I'm actually rather familiar with is film noir, though in my youth I did read a few Sherlock Holmes books.

The novel was fairly light reading, which is something I rarely do except, well, as a bathroom book. In that regard, it certainly did well.

Despite the fact that Detective Kindaichi is ostensibly the main character of the entire series, I didn't find him particularly engaging. He sort of showed up to get the story rolling and then, until the end, largely went along for the ride. Occasionally, he would chime in with something interesting that he would happen to notice, but for the most part, he didn't really do much. That is, until the end, when he goes on to explain everything.

The other characters never really fully developed as I would sometimes expect, but the author was often good at conveying their small expressions and gestures that would give you small little glimpses at their inner thoughts and motives. A lot of the book becomes a mind game between the reader and these small glimpses. What does it mean that this one person remained silent? What someone else they flash a stern look like that? This all leads up to, what I assume, is the main point of most mystery novels.

The mystery
The book managed to weave a very in depth and convoluted mystery. Admittedly, before the big reveal, I had figured out who had done it, and even a basic idea as to why, but I hadn't pieced together all of the motive, and certainly not all the details of how they went about committing all the murders.

Indeed, perhaps the most amazing part of the book is just how everything fits together to form the final solution. The weaving together of all the seemingly disconnected events in a comprehensible whole at the very end was, perhaps, the most entertaining part of the entire novel. Hence why it moved out of the bathroom and into the living room for the final 60 pages or so.

Final conclusion
If your a big fan of the mystery genre, you might really want to check this book out. Otherwise, it was a pretty light read but a lot of fun at the end. So maybe if you need to get your head out of all those heavy textbooks and just aren't ready to tackle James Joyce for your "pleasure read," this could be a quick and interesting read.

But, ultimately, I just don't think mystery is quite my genre. The end of the book was, ultimately, unrewarding for me. I didn't really feel the characters had grown too much, only that, perhaps, we had come to see some more clearly. If the thrill of the mystery is what you're after, sure. I generally like a character-centric narrative, though. But I'm sure that's pretty obvious by now to anyone who regularly reads this blog. It's just a little unfortunate that my first book review wasn't a book where I'd have a bit more to say.