Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Movie Musings: The Kwisatz Haderach of the Wind

Man is about to meet worm.
I haven’t watched David Lynch’s take on the space saga Dune in quite a few years Now I say David Lynch’s take because from a visual standpoint the movie is very much a David Lynch film. Lynch’s style permeates everything including his shot selection, editing and the acting styles. Even elements of the visually stunning design (sets, costumes and creatures) seem to come right out of Lynch’s subconscious. Is it just a coincidence that the Third Stage Guild Navigator looks like a huge version of the Baby from Eraserhead?

Paul is the stranger in a strange land.
I know most hardcore science fiction fans dislike the 1984 version of Dune. While you can see some key portions of the novel on the big screen, most of it was edited, compressed and reimagined. You could also argue that it impacts the entertainment value of the film (but that is for a full blown review of the movie). This version of Dune focuses on the story of the messiah coming to save the oppressed people.  That very same year another science fiction epic arrived in theaters with many similarities to the Lynch film. It was all about  a messiah saving her people from oppression. And both featured giant worms!

This princess shows no fear.
Nauiscaa of theValley of the Wind is like a bizarre mirror of Dune. This struck me in my most recent viewing of Lynch’s film. I was contemplating the character of Paul Atredies (Kyle Maclachlan) and realizing that the guy is rarely wrong about anything. Most of his choices (in the film version) are the right ones and when he tests himself he always comes out on top. It is that perfect hero paradox. We can admire this kind of hero, but we can’t identify with them.

I realized I felt the same way about Nausicaa. When I was writing the review of that film I struggled with the fact that we are told about her destiny at the start of the film and she makes all the right choices to achieve that prophesy. Dune starts the same way, with Princess Irulan (Virginia Madsen) telling us about the Fremen prophecy about their messiah.

"War does not make one great." Nausicaa learns this
hard lesson.
What is perhaps more interesting are the differences between these two characters. Obviously you have a male messiah in Dune and a female messiah in Nausicaa. This actually reflects directly into the tropes for sexes. Paul becomes a holy warrior, literally unleashing a jihad against the forces of the Emperor. Nausicaa is a skilled warrior and shows her prowess a number of times. But she is more of protector and in the end a unifier.

The emperor of the known galaxy faces his destiny.
Both characters commit self-sacrifice during their story. Paul drinks the Water of Life in order to obtain great knowledge of his enemies. It turns out to be a potent weapon and one he uses to his advantage. Nausicaa places herself directly in the path of the rampaging mass of Ohmu. They proceed to trample her and there is no way anyone could survive that. Her sacrifice  moves both the humans and the Ohmu. Hostilities cease around her dead body.

Like Paul, she rises again from certain death, now imbued with an inner power. But for Nausicaa this power is one that brings peace. She defeats her enemies, but most of them end up alive at the end of the film. When Paul defeats his enemies most of them are very dead.

Nausicaa shows that humans can live with nature and
not fight it.
Also interesting is their relationship to the giant insects of the film. Paul and Nausicaa see the insects as part of the natural world, but she also realize that there is some secret around the creatures that may lead to a greater revelation. Paul discovers that the worms and the spice are linked – the spice is actually the worm’s eggs, and that is why they attack the spice mining (something explained in deleted scenes or in the extended cut). Nausicaa discovers that the insects of the toxic jungle are spreading the jungle over the world, but not to destroy it, they want to cleanse it.

Paul harnesses the power of the worms and uses them as giant weapons against the Emperor and his minions. Nausicaa tries to calm the Ohmu, the most sentient of the giant insect life, and create understanding between humans and nature. She never fights the insects or tries to use them, her approach is almost like a diplomat/bug whisperer.

"Long live the fighters!"
But the main difference between the two is their origins. Paul is basically the prince from a foreign land who meets the natives, becomes enamored with their society and culture and then turns into their leader against the oppressive powers that he was once a part of. This is a trope based in ancient mythology, and one that Hollywood has used time and again. Dances with Wolves, The Last Samurai and Avatar all have the same basic plot: the outsider has to come in and lead the oppressed (native) people to rise up against oppression. An interesting trope, but one that feels a bit overused these days. It had been used two years before in Tron, with a bit of a twist.

Nausicaa is not the outsider, but essentially the chosen one within her own tribe. Again this comes directly from mythology. In this case the oppressive outsider comes to a new land and is ignorant of ways of the natives. They outsiders cause havoc while the hero attempts to guide them to see the error of their ways. Time and again they fall into conflict. It takes the sacrifice of the hero to get everyone to see the error of their ways.

Nausicaa at the birth of a new world - one she
helped bring about.
What does this all mean? Well it means that both stories take slightly different views of the messiah mythology, but still follow the overall arc of that story. Of the two, I think Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind is more interesting. Nausicaa attempts to reach understanding and not all out war to achieve a goal that benefits everyone.  After all, war is what got the world into the mess it is currently in. Nausicaa’s journey is more challenging in my mind. Not to sell Dune short, I think it works well as the story of a warlike Messiah. But when you boil it all down, I think that Miyazaki crafted a better film than David Lynch.  But I’ll still watch either one of them any time you want to.

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Monday, March 28, 2016

And Then This Happened... Hired!

One of my favorite moments from one of my favorite Mystery Science Theater 3000 episodes actually doesn't come from the movie itself (Manos: The Hands of Fate) but from the short from Chevrolet that opens the experiment. It is called Hired! and it contains this image. Caption it!

And then this happened...

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Friday, March 25, 2016

Macbeth (2015)


I enjoy a good Shakespeare adaptation. Blame all those literary courses I took in college. Perhaps my favorite of the Bard’s plays is Macbeth. I really like the supernatural imagery, the battle of reason against ambition, and all the crazy medieval Scotsman yelling at each other. You don’t see too many adaptations of the Scottish play (could it be the curse?) so I relish the ones I do get. I was pretty excited to see a new version featuring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard and sticking with the medieval setting was music to my ears. Could this be the adaptation I’ve been waiting for?


Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) is the fearless vassal to King Duncan (David Thewlis). After engaging in a battle against a traitorous clan, Macbeth and his brother in arms Banquo (Paddy Considine) encounter three witches. These weird sisters prophesize that Mabeth will soon be king and Banquo will be the father of kings. Macbeth finds the idea interesting but maintains his loyalty. However, Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard) does no such thing. She believes they can make the prophecy happen, with a little push. Soon enough murder is committed, princes are blamed and Macbeth is crowned king of Scotland.

Once he tastes power and understands the means to obtain it, Macbeth begins to see enemies all around him. He targets his old pal Banquo as well as the steadfast lord Macduff (Sean Harris). But Macbeth’s fury and obsession start to look like insanity to those around him and soon an army forms to depose this tyrant. But Macbeth seeks out the witches again and they provide him with three pieces of information that convince the king he is invincible. Is it fate or will that determine the destiny of Macbeth?

Good Points:
  • Some gorgeous cinematography and visual compositions
  • Some unusual and effective twists on the execution of elements of the play
  • The cast really seems to be engaged in the roles

Bad Points:
  • Thick accents may make some of the dialogue difficult to follow
  • The music is distracting and ineffective
  • The pacing is glacial and the whole film lacks any energy


Ouch. This movie hurt, and I really like this play, but man was this a misfire. It all comes down to the directorial choices. Justin Kurzel tries to imbue every line of dialogue with meaning and portentousness. This results in long gaps between lines, meaningful staring and everyone speaking as if they are so deep and serious that there is not a drop of passion or energy on the screen. When the story should deliver impact it just shambles toward you with no power at all. Such a disappointment.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 4
Sound: 3
Acting: 3
Script: 4
Music: 1
Direction: 2
Entertainment: 1
Total:  1

In Depth Review

A showdown in a personal hell.
What is Macbeth really about at its core? It is about a man who lets his desire for power overwhelm is judgment. Once he has this power, he fears to lose it, and starts to destroy everything and everyone around him in the effort to keep the power. Folded in and around this is the concept of free will. Is Macbeth a pawn of God (or the devil) or does Macbeth forge his destiny at the suggestion of the witches?

So at the very least an adaptation of Macbeth must capture these two elements and deliver them with a punch. We should see something of ourselves in the Thane turned King. But Kurzel manages to defeat both of these elements and renders the story inert. And Shakespeare should never be inert.

Let’s focus on the positive elements first. Visually, I really love where Kurzel was going with this interpretation of the play. He puts it in a medieval world that seems to still be crawling out of the dark ages. Much of the costumes, sets and armor appear to be inspired by Viking elements, giving everything a rough and earthy feel. There is no pageantry here. It is a gritty and roughhewn world these characters inhabit.

Lady Macbeth: shrouded in death.
The lighting in the movie has a very natural look, reminding me strongly of Zefferelli’s Hamlet from 1990. And like that film it brings a sense of humanity to the setting. But it also adds an interesting chill to the proceedings in this version of Macbeth. Not only does the land feel frosty cold, but the chill seeps into the performances and music. It is an interesting and effective visual style.

The two battle scenes that bookend the film are also wonderfully realized. The first occurs in a fog-shrouded heath. Shapes of armed men emerge and melt into the mist and it as the struggle plays out it creates this wonderful uncertainty to the events. The screen is bathed in blues and greys. It also reminded me of the final battle in Excalibur where Arthur faces Mordred for their apocalyptic showdown. In many ways, this battle is the start of the apocalypse for Macbeth.

The climax of the film occurs on a battlefield enshrouded by the smoke of the burning Birnam wood. Once again the figures of warriors appear and disappear in the smoke. But this time the world is a blazing orange. The fires of hell are all around Macbeth, a hell of his own making or a hell always destined for him?

These scenes are striking and will probably stick in my mind whenever I think about this version of Macbeth.

The witches see all, but what do they know?
I also liked how Kurzel took some of the supernatural elements of the story and twisted them in unexpected ways. In this version, Macbeth has two sons who die, leaving him without heirs. And don’t worry purists, Kurzel tells their stories through pure visuals, no new lines were added. The eldest boy dies during the opening battle. Macbeth is helpless to save the boy. This lad appears during the film. He is the one offering his father the dagger to slay Duncan in the famous “Is this a dagger I see before me?” monologue. He also appears as the blood-stained ghost that tells Macbeth that “none of women born may harm Macbeth”. I really like this take, as it gives a personal touch to the action, and allows us to understand Macbeth’s madness.

Even Lady Macbeth’s “out damn spot” speech is impacted by the appearance of her youngest child, whose death opens the film. Using these ghostly children is eerie and adds to both characters in a way I’ve never seen done in this play before.

But I can’t avoid it any more. I gave this film a 1, and there is a very good reason for that. I wanted to turn it off. Honestly, I was so frustrated with the viewing experience that I really considered stopping the film. But I kept hoping it was going to improve, that Kurzel was setting up his film in an unexpected way and I’d see what he was doing by the end. But nothing changed and the film limped along.

No time to enjoy our new found power. Let's
plot more murders!
There is very little passion in this version of Macbeth.  This is the story of a man who is driven by his desire for power. But Fassbender’s performance is cold and aloof. I see some simmering emotions appear here and there in the first act of the play, but they didn’t convince me of his desire for power. After the murder of Duncan, Fassbender plays the king as insane and paranoid. But it is a performance that still feels cold. A few moments allow us to feel the fear, horror and rage that the character goes through, but Fassbender often underplays them.

Lady Macbeth fares little better. Her key scenes in the first third feel distanced as well. I wasn’t feeling her desires. A few moments worked well, especially her torment when she sees the fate of Macduff’s family. But once again these moments were so few.

Both Fassbender and Cotillard have delivered excellent performances in previous films. So what happened?

Either Fassbender's falling asleep or I am.
It was the direction. Nearly all the lines are delivered slowly, with huge pauses after each sentence ends. The camera holds on the actor and then switches to the other. You get another ponderous delivery with so much gravity given to each word you wonder that the whole film doesn’t turn into a black hole right there. Then another pause as meaningful looks are shared.

I get it. You’ve got a movie dealing with murder for power. You’ve got characters who are living in a harsh and cold world. You’ve got fear dripping from every moment of the story. I can see how tackling certain key scenes in this manner would work well. But not every scene.

Case in point. The murder of Duncan takes forever to unfold. Not only are all the lines delivered in the slow style, but Macbeth takes his sweet time wandering over to Duncan’s tent and killing him. The murder itself is brutal and violent (as it should be) but lacks impact because it took so long to occur. Was Kurzel attempting to build tension? I’m not sure, but I didn’t see a man destroying his humanity for the sake of power. I just saw a really slow moving guy suddenly lash out. Didn’t know he had it in him.

Don't just stand there, do something!
To compound the problem is the issue of the accents. I appreciate that everyone went for the Scottish accent and we got plenty of Scottish actors in the film. Macbeth is the Scottish play so that is great. But even speaking this slowly I had trouble understanding some characters, and I know this play really well. My wife is less versed in this play and she had a real hard time figuring out what they were saying. To be clear, we both watch a lot of films and television from the British Isles, so accents are not usually that big of a problem. But man, this was a tough one. I really wonder if it was the sound mixing that made some of the dialogue sound so muddled.

One thing that I really think contributed to the issue was the score. Modern film scoring preferences rear their ugly head again. I don’t want to sound like a Film Score geek whining here, but we get an atmospheric score instead of a thematic one. Fine, that can still work. But instead of something that supports the film we get these odd long drawn out cello performances. They are dissonant reminding me of work for a horror film. They permeate the score adding additional weight and dourness to the whole thing. You get moments of lots of low-end string instruments churning away, creating some tension, but also distancing us from the emotions. The music feels like oppressive fear from the first moment and stays oppressive throughout. The result is that the atmosphere has no arc, it is flat and turgid. Worse it is distracting. I got pulled out of the film many times wondering what the heck the composer was going for with all that droning.

I will say the adaptation of the play works fine. This version of Macbeth has scenes removed and shortened. I didn’t notice anything vital missing, and this isn’t one of the longer plays to begin with. But the execution makes this feel like it is ten times longer than it is.

Yeah playing with your sword might be more
fun than watching this.
I’m not sure what Kurzel was going for here. He has some wonderful imagery and some really interesting concepts for executing the supernatural elements. I even like how he handled the witches. They can be tricky. Go too over the top and the whole play feels silly. But he keeps them very low key and mysterious. I think he could have gone a bit further with that idea, but what we do get works fine.

The ponderous execution of the dialogue, the dreary dourness of all the performances (the entire run of the film) and the overwhelming atmosphere of oppression and importance crushes the viewer. I didn’t feel a connection here. I didn’t feel any passion here. By trying to keep things low key, gritty and important, the life is sucked out of the story. Compare this to Ralph Fiennes powerful and passionate take on Coriolanus and the difference is clear. You can make a Shakespeare adaptation of Macbeth work if you embrace the lust for power, embrace the deep fear, embrace the paranoia and embrace that final moment of nihilism that sends Macbeth into the blade of Macduff. The emotions are what deliver that final catharsis. Without them, the story is hollow. Give this one a pass and see Akira Kurosawa’s take on the same story samurai style. Throne of Blood captures everything Macbeth is about.

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Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Log Horizon: Season 1 (2013)

I’ve mentioned in other reviews that anime studios pull the same stunts that Hollywood studios do. You’ll get multiple studios attempting to tell similar stories in a couple years span. I saw it first hand with the space cowboy boom of the 90s that gave us Cowboy Bebop, Outlaw Star and Trigun. But it happened more recently with two series that tackled the concept of pulling a group of gamers into their favorite video game. I watched Sword Art Online a few years back and enjoyed it well enough. But a friend of mine told me to check out Log Horizon. It came out a year later and took things in a unique direction.

One minute Shiroe (Takuma Terashima) was playing the video game Elder Tales, the next minute he was in the game. He is not alone. Anyone who was playing the game at that moment suffered the same fate. For some players this is a dream come true, for others it is nightmare. As the players begin to explore the world and learn how the new rules work they realize one thing – they can’t be killed. This opens up all kinds of ways characters can exploit the game and each other.

Shiroe is a strategist but he is also a decent guy. He joins forces with like-minded players in attempt to bring some order to the chaos around him. But new wrinkles appear where he least expects them. Are the non-player characters more than simple programs? Why does all the food in the game taste like stale crackers? Where did all the newbie players disappear to? And will the Goblin King quest still run even if no one is playing participating? Joining him in his journey is the cute ninja assassin Akatsuki (Emiri Kato), the loud and horny warrior Naotsugu (Tomoaki Maneno), and the elegant cat duelist Nyanta (Jouji Nakata). Together they form a team that will change the shape of the world. The guild’s name is Log Horizon.

Good Points:
  • Creates a detailed world of game rules and mechanics – then uses them as story elements
  • The story elements come together to create some surprising moments in the series
  • Isn’t afraid to slow things down and have a key climax occur at the negations table instead of the battlefield

Bad Points:
  • The visuals, sound and music are all pretty average
  • Some of the characters fall into obvious anime tropes that are a little tired
  • Viewers who haven’t enjoyed or don’t enjoy role playing video games may find this series difficult to get into 


Log Horizon isn’t about the action and adventure of questing in the world of Elder Tales. It is about how people deal with this surprising shift of realities. At first the series feels like it is going into too much depth on how this fictional video game is played and how players interact with each other. But as the series continues you realize that many of the throw away episodes were actually building up to the big turning points in the series. Shiroe is an interesting character, one that thrives on challenge and uses his brain to overcome obstacles and help others. The series is worth a watch for anyone who enjoys role-playing video games and doesn’t mind a series that goes light on action but heavy on dialogue and strategy.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 3
Sound: 3
Acting: 4
Script: 4
Music: 3
Direction: 4
Entertainment: 4
Total:  4

In Depth Review
The horizon that inspired the team name.
I don’t’ think Log Horizon is going to work for everyone. You see the characters holding their swords, magic staffs and fantasy garb and you expect some kind of high fantasy adventure saga like Record of Lodoss War or Fairy Tail. Or maybe you’re expecting something closer to Tron or even Sword Art Online, which told a purely fantasy adventure in a video game environment. But Log Horizon goes even deeper than those two films with the setting. Sword Art Online used the game world to provide unique visuals and interesting characters to interact with. Log Horizon uses the game world to build the story.

Here is an example. When the players eat food in the game, they notice that it all tastes like dry stale crackers.  All the wine, beer, or fruit juice tastes like water. But isolated ingredients have flavor. So if you pick up an apple and eat it, it tastes like an apple. But if you eat an apple pie – it tastes like stale crackers. Pretty darn annoying.

But our resident cat-man duelist, Nyanta, has a chef skill in the game. He discovers that if he uses the regular player menus to make the apple pie – stale crackers. But if he actually attempts to make the pie with his own paws, step by step, it tastes wonderful. Turns out that if you use the menus you get only the bare minimum of the skill you attempt to use. But if you physically attempt the task, and if you have a high enough skill level in the game, you can achieve amazing results. This doesn’t just go for food, but for any skill – including combat skills.

The setting is a mix of fantasy and modern decay,
The whole deal with the food becomes a major plot point. Few players know this secret. Shiroe uses it as a bargaining chip to get what he wants out of the other players and non-player characters. This is the kind of show Log Horizon is. There is action ,combat and fantasy creatures. But it explores the ins and outs of how this world works and how the characters (and Shiroe in particular) attempt to resolve the problems.

In order to do this concept justice the series moves pretty slowly. You get a whole episode focusing on game mechanics, so you get an idea of how a round of combat works in the old game and how it works in this new world. You get about half an episode talking about in game communication and how players can speak telepathically (using an texting type feature) but non-players characters cannot use that skill and see it as magic. Then you have the reveal that even though the players can’t truly die in the game, if they are “killed”, when they respawn in the cathedral, they actually lose some of their memories of their previous life.

Log Horizon has whole episodes that are mostly discussion and planning. Shiroe puts together the pieces of his latest puzzle and then executes his plan. We watch it all fall into place (or even go in an unexpected direction a couple times). Some of the most impressive plot climaxes are negotiations and political outmaneuvering. It is a rare thing to see in a fantasy series of any type. And I admit, I found the change of pace refreshing.

Akatsuki leads the charge into action!
Not to say that the series is devoid of action. Shiroe learns a lot during his first quest to rescue a friend from a hostile city. There is plenty of standard combat and explorations in these episodes. But they also provide vital groundwork for game mechanics that play into the series later on. Even silly episodes dealing with a local faire or a day spent on a farm with a non-player character are actually a tutorial of sorts.  From a writing point of view this was something I really admired. It takes some serious planning to go in this direction. There are no filler episodes, but they manage to vary the tone of the episodes to give things a little variety.

There is a drawback to this approach, and it comes in uneven pacing. I enjoyed the variety, but I can see some people finding the series too slow or filled with padding (which I would argue isn’t the case at all). The slice of life episodes do an interesting duel task of developing characters and telling us more about the world and game mechanics.

A hero or evil genius?
Alas, the characters aren’t terribly interesting. I mentioned that Shiroe is the bright point of the show, and he really is. He’s a nerdy guy with a keen mind and a good heart. But his plotting often puts him at odds with others. He’s an introvert who finds it hard to interact with others, and yet he is often forced to interact with Kings and powerful merchants. He’s a pragmatic guy, one that is willing to live in this strange world and figure it out. He doesn’t waste time in trying to figure out why this happened or how to get back home. Instead he focuses on making the best out of his current state and helping as many others as he can.

Some of the other characters refer to him as the Super Villain because of his plotting and planning. And like any good strategist, Shiroe attempts to see several moves into the huge chess game. Part of the fun of watching Log Horizon is seeing how these plans play out and how far Shiroe planned and had contingencies in place.

Yes there is a lovely princess, but
will she help or hinder the players?
Aside from Shiroe you have some stock characters that support the adventure. Akatsuki is a cute assassin who is dedicated to protecting Shiroe after they first meet.  Because he helps her deal with a difficult situation she declares her fealty to him like a classic ninja. There were some interesting angles this character could have gone, but they pretty much just make her the short, cute love interest. She ends up competing with the shorter and cuter love interest later in the show for a pretty dull love triangle.

Naotsugu is the hulking warrior who is also a bit of a clown. Here is another character they could have delved into a bit. But mostly he’s around to hit on the girls, make comments about breast size and get kicked in the face by an offended Akatuski.

Rounding out the guild is the cat-man Nyanta. He’s debonair, skilled with the blades and a pretty good dancer. He seems to be Shiroe’s trusted advisor. But other than him saying “Nyan” (which is Japanese for Meow) a lot we don’t get to know too much about him.

Instead we have a second tier of adventurers in Log Horizon who we get to know a little bit better. They are newbies that Shiroe encounters early in the series and they end up taking up larger role as the series progresses. This is fine because they are actually pretty interesting. Minori (Nao Tamura) leads this other band. We learn a lot about the game and the world through her eyes as a new player. She idolizes Shiroe, and following his teachings she becomes a valuable member of the guild. I liked her interactions with her brother Toya (Daiki Yamashita). In the real world he was confined to a wheelchair, but here he is a samurai with some impressive skills. The series could have dug a little more into that, but what you get is enough to invest you with these two.

Players can see the stats for everyone they meet.
Their band makes some interesting decisions during the course of the series. They are young and impulsive, so they don’t’ quite know all the rules. When they perform an action that was impossible in the old game, they reveal that the game has actually changed.  They also have an interesting adventure with a non-player character that leads to one of the big climaxes of the series. We learn that with enough skill a player may be able to write their own rules for the game!

That said there is no main villain in Log Horizon. There are challenges that the group and Shiroe face. Sometimes they come in the form of a physical threat, like the Goblin King in the middle the series. But most of the time they revolve around working with or against other players. Or dealing with the non-player characters like kings and merchants. Unfortunately, the final story arc is little hollow because it feels like it is all set up for Season 2.

The visual design of the series is solid but nothing that really stands out. It looks like they took a standard Japanese role playing game and used that style for the clothing and character appearance. It seems a little slap dash in places and certainly lacks the intriguing details of something like Vision of Escaflowne or Record of Lodoss War.

Even though players can't die, there are consequences
for losing a battle.
In addition the animation in Log Horizon is pretty standard as well. Since much of the series is dialogue and planning, they didn’t really have to stretch the animation budget. Some of the combat scenes are well executed, and the Goblin King battles are the best of the bunch. Nothing is horribly animated, but really I’ve seen better work in older shows.

Sound work is pretty much were you expect them to be. Some cool sounding effects for the magic attacks and the fantasy creatures. Plenty of clashing and clanging for the swords on armor battles. The music by composer Yasuharu Takanashi is solid. There is a theme that reoccurs for our heroes. It supports the scenes well enough, even getting a little silly for the slapstick moments (which are usually when the perv Naotsugu is getting kicked in the face by Akatsuki). A good score but not one that grabbed me like Yoko Kanno’s wonderful work on Vision of Escaflowne. But that may be the gold standard for anime fantasy music.

The Japanese acting works fine. The voices seem to fit the characters, and some of them are obviously having a really good time. There is an English dub of the first season, but I didn’t get a chance to sample it.

Cat man vs. electro man! Cat man will prevail!
With a bunch of average scores in many of the more artistic areas of the series, it almost sounds like Log Horizon isn’t worth seeking out. But I really enjoyed it. Looking at the construction of the series from a writing point of view was intriguing. I liked the character of Shiroe and seeing how he solved the myriad of issues he encountered. I love how the writers used the game’s actual mechanics to create and solve problems. I also liked how this series showed some realistic effects of being pulled into a virtual world. Some people just can’t handle it, and start lashing out at each other. Some completely give up, but since they can’t die they end up losing their minds or becoming subservient to other players. Then you had the non-player characters and their reaction to these “immortal beings” wandering around among them. Some are suspicious of the players. Some are cautiously friendly. Others are just plain hostile. It will be interesting to see where things go in season two between these two groups.

So yeah, I’m keen to see the next season. There are plenty of great story opportunities there. As I mentioned many of the characters have great potential for interesting stories too, so I hope we get beyond the tropes that were established in the first season. But I’ve learned one thing from anime series sequels and that is you usually get more of the same. But in this case that will be fine, because season one was very entertaining.

The adventures prepare for the next season...
I mean quest!

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Sunday, March 20, 2016

First Impression: The Martian

Well here was a movie with a lot of good buzz around it. I kept hearing how it was Ridley Scott looking like he was back in fine form after some disappointing movies (although I though Prometheus was pretty good). Then all the "I'm going to ____ the hell out of this" memes started showing up. Finally, my wife got her hands on the book and read through it very fast (and that is saying something because she is already a fast reader). She loved and told it me it was a must read. Sure enough, she was right. I really enjoyed the novel and was looking forward to seeing how Scott adapted it.

Two Things I Liked:

  • A fine performance by Matt Damon, managing to stay true to the novel but make the character his own.
  • Moves at a great pace, keeping the viewer invested in the fate of our lone astronaut
Two Things I Didn't Like:
  • Some of funniest moments and most interesting perils from the novel are not used in the film
  • The ending was changed to make something a bit bigger and more Hollywood... and its actually kinda silly
Minor quibbles aside The Martin was a really entertaining film. Scott's direction is spot on, building on the loneliness and perils of our stranded hero, as well as the tension and urgency of the folks on Earth struggling to get him home. Damon delivers a fine performance and it works well with the humor and horror of the situation. Fans of the novel may be disappointed by some of the changes and omissions, but all in all it is a fine adaptation. Well worth checking out, but beware the montages featuring 70s disco classics!

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Friday, March 18, 2016

Movie Musings: Trailer Pain!

Beware the Horns of Doom!
Trailers really seem to stink these days. They either give away too much plot. Or they misrepresent the film and make it look much dumber than it really is. Or they pick all the best "funny" moments or best action sequences. Then you see the actual movie and realize that you just wasted your money on a movie that could have been a trailer.  Honestly, we've got an argument for turning these into short films of one-liners and explosions. Kind of like a Michael Bay movie but much much shorter and with more character development. Ah, but I kid Mr. Bay... a little bit.

And don't get me started on the music. Honestly if I hear the Horns of Doom blasting BWAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA one more time I'm going go back in time.  Then I will do everything in my power to keep Hans Zimmer from using those slowed down horns in Inception. It is ridiculous at this point. I hear the Horns of Doom and I just start laughing. The last time I experienced the Horns in a trailer was for the television special for Sherlock with Benedict Cumberbatch... seriously. Horns of Doom for Sherlock.

Now this...

Where do I even start with this one.

Look, I'm not against a remake of Ben-Hur. The famous film from 1959 with Charleton Heston is actually a remake of a silent film from 1925. And there was a television movie version made in 2010. So yeah you can remake this film as many times as you want. It is based off a novel, and I'm guessing there were elements of the book left out of the 1959 version. You could explore those ideas in this movie. A remake of Ben-Hur isn't a horrible idea. It's not a great idea, but it's not a horrible one.

But the trailer for this version makes it look like Gladiator... again. The visual style has the desaturated look. The action has that slow-mo affect to it. All the focus seems to be on Ben-Hur's rage and anger and rage and did I mention he's an angry guy... with a beard.

So if the angry desaturated guy with the beard looks familiar that might be because of this...

Yeah Hercules doesn't look angry, more like brooding. And Clash of the Titans and the Immortals are sans beard. But there is a trend here. The thing is, Ben-Hur doesn't have to be like this. Ben-Hur isn't just about an angry bearded guy who "fights an empire".  It is about a man who loses everything, feels that revenge is his only option, and then realizes that isn't the case. Revenge leaves him empty. The movie is about redemption. Not surprising for a film that features Mr. J. Christ.

Now maybe the movie has that element and the trailer is targeted to the teen boy crowd. Ok, I get it. But the visual approach is the same thing we've seen since Gladiator. Why do they keep pulling the color out of these historical epics set in the ancient world? Gladiator used that approach in 2000. This is because Ridley Scott was going for a new look and feel to the modern epic. He drew from movies like Braveheart and Henry V, but also put his own visual stamp on it. But just because he did it, doesn't mean that is the only approach for this kind of movie. But Gladiator was super successful, so...

Color is for wussies! FREEDOM!!!!!
The real culprit here is 300. Yes the teen boys (and lots of adult males) got all riled up by 300 and saw it over and over again. The look and feel of 300 was made to two things. One was the way the original graphic novel looked. And the second was taking Ridley Scott's style from Gladiator (especially with the action scenes being "under cranked" and "over cranked) and ratcheting the whole thing up to 11.

The minute 300 became a mega-hit suddenly every movie set in the ancient world has to look extremely stylized, feature huge amounts of gore, and lots of guys with beards screaming at each other. It's getting so so old... just like the Horns of Doom.

I love reading about the ancient world. I love movies about the ancient world. Even the old cheesy ones like the 60s Hercules flicks give me some kind of joy. But this rash of angry, gory, shouty, Horn of DOOMy, desaturated movies is taking the joy right of what could be and should be an experience that transports us back to that period.

Angry saturated guy with a beard?
I honestly hope that this remake of Ben-Hur is better than the trailer makes it look. The 50s version is a classic because it is a powerful story told with amazing visual splendor and one of the best scores of the Golden Age. Seriously, Miklos Rozsa's score is usually found in the top ten list of film score fans and aficionados all over the world. The movie has its problems, but it never feels stale.

I watch the trailer for 2016 Ben-Hur and yeah, it looks real stale.

On the plus side, Marco Beltrami is doing the score. So I'm keeping my fingers crossed that the movie gives him enough of a palette to really unleash some epic and thematic style scoring. We'll see what happens when August rolls around.

Am I overreacting? Did the trailer work for you? Are you as sick of the Horns of Doom as I am?

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Wednesday, March 16, 2016

First Impression: Zootopia

When I first heard about Zootopia it was because one of my favorite film composers, Michael Giacchino, was going to write the score for it. Giacchino usually does a fine job with animated films and so I was looking forward to the score. After all her certainly delivered with his impressive score for Inside Out. Then I saw the trailer for Zootopia featuring Judy Hopps and her adventure at the sloth populated DMV, and I was cracking up. The movie looked like a fun one, but I wasn't in any rush to see it. But then the reviews started coming out and I was surprised. Was Zootopia more than it appeared? We figured it was time to check it out. There is a lot to talk about with this film and I want to give it another viewing before I dive in. So here are some first impressions

Three Things I Liked:

  • Some gorgeous visuals in this movie - it is packed with details and visual jokes
  • Likable and relatable characters that you root for
  • Has a thematic core that is very relevant and delivered in a way that isn't heavy handed
Three Things I Didn't Like:

  • Giacchino's score is surprisingly lacking his usual personality
  • The horrible trailers for kids movies that I endured before the film started
  • Why is that Shakira song so damn catchy!
Color me surprised, this movie was a blast. It was entertaining, fun and had some stellar animation. Seriously see this movie for no other reason than to enjoy the amazing visual design of the city of Zootopia. The humor is great. The characters a lot of fun. The mystery is intriguing. But it is the theme of judging people by their looks or their physicality that makes this movie really something special. Not only is the message delivered, but it plays a key role in the story and the way the characters relate to each other. It is a timely message, but one delivered so well you don't mind hearing it again. And did I mention that Shakira song was damn catchy?

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Thursday, March 10, 2016

Anime Juke Box - Database - Log Horizon

Most of the time when I share something in the anime jukebox you get a bit of score or a J-pop song from a female singer. But I've been watching the series Log Horizon lately and this song is actually pretty darn fun. Kinda reminds me of the Beastie Boys singing in Japanese with plenty of English thrown in for good measure.

The series is about a group of video gamers who get pulled inside their massive multiplayer online game Tron style. The series covers how they cope with this bizarre event and how they learn about the world they are in and the rules it follows (or doesn't follow). A review will be coming soon. But in the meantime enjoy Database by Man with a Mission featuring Takuma. And yes they are actually saying Database a bunch of time as well as Wow. Yeah I think they know all about World of Warcraft.

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Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Movie Music Musings: Soul Surfer

I tend to write about favorite film composers who are part of the older generation. These are guys who worked films in the 70s, 80s and 90s. Some are still working like John Williams and Ennio Morricone. Others have left us a legacy to enjoy like James Horner and Jerry Goldsmith. But since I do watch current films, I do actually enjoy music from some of the current crop of composers.

One gent that I'm finding more and more to like is one of Jerry Goldsmith's students: Marco Beltrami. I posted a blog about his outstanding work on 3:10 to Yuma. But one of my favorite scores by him is Soul Surfer. Now to be honest, I've never seen the movie. And normally scores to inspirational dramas are not usually something I pick up. But Soul Surfer has such a unique sound and has a couple of great uplifting themes that it is really hard not to fall in love with it.

The film is based on the life of surfer Bethany Hamilton and her experience of surviving a shark attack and rising above it to continue her life in competitive surfing. Beltrami takes the setting in Hawaii and uses it at the basis for his score. He fuses Hawaiian style music and chanting with an orchestra and the result is unique and completely engaging.

Here is one of my favorite tracks, I just love the way he builds into a wonderful crescendo in this one, called Half Pint Boards.

See, nice and soothing with a great uplifting lilt to it. But Beltrami takes that same style and turns it dark with some pounding percussion and sinister sounding chants for this next track, the fearsome Shark Attack.

Man, that almost sounds like a horror movie in parts, and I love it. Beltrami really captures the tension and fear of that sequence in the music. And male chanting is so intimidating, and over the propulsive percussion that just keeps the tension raising. It is one of the best tracks on the album, but not necessarily something you want to listen to all the time (unless you're a film music geek).

But let's end this with something more uplifting. This is one of the final tracks in the score Bethany's Wave. It takes the themes already presented in Half Pint Boards but brings them to this great triumphant conclusion. 

The whole score is one of those that I can pretty much listen to in one go and not feel the need to skip a track. And once it ends, I have no issue playing it again. Not too many film scores fall into that boat for me. Soul Surfer is a great example of a composer allowed to try something unique and yet fitting for the film. It is one of Beltrami's great talents, and when the man is given some free reign he composes some great stuff. But like many modern composers he often gets stuck composing minimalist scores or scores that rely on atmosphere over themes and storytelling. He does a fine job with those too, and actually can make some very interesting atmospheric music. But I love a good theme and musical color. Soul Surfer fits the bill perfect. Highly recommended if you like these samples.

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