Wednesday, February 29, 2012


Well this is one of the stranger movies I've ever seen...

Now usually, when you read a statement like that, you expect a film with, say, a lot of hallucinations, trippy cinematography, or just plain peculiar activity. By contrast, what makes Léon so strange is its shockingly seamless blend of genres. It takes a serious hitman/action thriller and mixes it with a snarky, comedic, father-daughter/pseudo-romantic relationship. Yes, that sounds insane. Yes, it works brilliantly.

Misanthropic Badass meets Precocious Pre-Teen

Léon (Jean Reno) is a quiet and secretive assassin who watches from his room as a group of extortionists arrive to butcher the family of a man who didn't pay his dues on time. They kill all but one: Mathilda (Natalie Portman), the 12 year old daughter who was out buying milk at the time. When she returns to the scene of the slaughter (where the extortionists still are), she is smart enough to hide her horror and march straight up to knock on Léon's door. If he doesn't answer and stays out of it, the extortionists will recognize something is wrong and kill her. If he does, he risks getting involved in a nasty conflict and must take responsibility for a girl he barely even knows. Given that he is a hitman, babysitting is understandably not something that he wants. But, naturally, he sympathizes enough to take her in, which kicks off one of the strangest and hilarious relationships I've ever seen in a movie.

Léon is a simple man. He works out every day. He waters his plant and sets it out in the sun. He watches the occasional Gene Kelley musical and falls asleep in his chair every night under a distinctive pair of shades. He applies himself wholly to his art of assassination (“cleaning”, as he calls it) and, as a result, is very anti-social. His disconnect from society is so complete that he doesn't even know how to read. This is a man who is destined to spaz out when forced to live with a 12-year old girl. Especially one like Mathilda.

Mathilda, by contrast, is a mixture of wannabe no-nonsense bad girl and giddy fun-loving tyke. She manages to convince Léon to take her in by sheer audacity, demanding that he teach her to be an assassin like him. She takes his gun and shoots it casually out the window like it's nothing, to Léon's blank astonishment. Her subsequent training with Léon is as hilarious as it is practical and awesome. Part of what makes all of it so hilarious is how nonchalantly they do it; there's something to be said about how amusing it is to watch an introverted stone-cold killer teach an enthusiastic twelve-year old how to murder people.


Aside from the quirky feel of the movie, what really makes it spectacular is the acting. Jean Reno turns Léon into someone who you grow fond of very quickly. His horrified and shocked reactions to Mathilda's shenanigans are so epic that he just make you want to go, “Aww...” every time the child surprises him with something new. He manages to look so out of his element with the girl that it becomes quite endearing. And, on top of this, he manages to switch into ice cold killer mode without losing stride. The ability to make these two very different personas work together seamlessly is truly a treat to watch.

Despite all of that praise, his character doesn't hold a candle to Natalie Portman's Mathilda. This was her first role in a movie, and she manages to inhabit the character with such depth that I still don't know quite what to make of her. Sure, she's assisted by an effective script, but she manages to, at times, make the character street-smart beyond her years while simultaneously the vulnerability and naivete one would logically expect from a girl her age. What was especially powerful (and near downright disturbing) was her infatuation with Léon that grows throughout the movie, to the point where she declares love for him and asks him for sex. One definitely empathizes with Léon as he freaks the hell out, unsure what to do aside from let his jaw hit the floor and sputter weakly. It is only in a movie like this that they could approach such a taboo subject, and it is done here in a way that creates far more laughter than it does intense nausea.

Last but not least, we have Gary Oldman as the villain, Stansfield, the most insane corrupt cop you will ever see. It is just mind boggling how, even though the powerful relationship of Léon and Mathilda could carry the movie by itself, there is still room for one of the most funny, creepy, and unusual antagonists in film history. It's like they handed the script to Gary Oldman and then challenged him to come up with the most over-the-top and yet sinister performances he could think of. And it works brilliantly. He races around like a kid on a sugar high, he skulks around like a footpad, and snarls and snarks around so often that sometimes you can almost see the other actors struggling not to laugh as they have no idea what to do with him. The movie is worth seeing for Oldman alone, and he isn't even the main focus of the story!


In the end, I found it very easy to see why Léon is such a classic. I'd heard so much about how great it was and, watching it for the first time, it became immediately apparent within minutes. So long as you are okay with the moments where it goes serious and brutal, this comes highly recommended. I really have almost nothing for it but praise. The only 'complaint' I have is that Natalie Portman's insinuations that Jean Reno should romance her freaked me out as much as it did his character. I wonder what Portman would think if she watched the movie again now?

Monday, February 27, 2012

Mass Effect 2 and the Alien Experience

One of the most common traps that science fiction can fall into is the tendency to treat aliens in an overly basic manner. It happens all too often; we are introduced to a species who are identified by, say, their warrior instinct or attuned sense of honor. This would be fine except for the fact that most science fiction writers tend to make this trait the defining characteristic of every member of that race. The leader of the tribe? Dedicated warrior. The old grandma who takes care of the kids? Waxes eloquent with war stories of her grandsons. Baby alien? Wants to grow up to be a noble hero, just like his dad, brothers, uncle, grandfathers, etc etc. The entire species becomes subservient to these general and stereotypical character attributes and, once you see one, you know immediately what to expect with dreary regularity.

Star Wars: An Exercise in Single Dimensions

The Star Wars series is a classic example of this. It maintains a sci-fi universe chock full of diverse alien species. In the more recent prequel movies, it gets to the point where any public gathering that you see contains a dozen new aliens that you've never seen before, products of George Lucas' artistic expression given an absurd amount of free reign. But, when you think about it, these aliens are a collage of mind-numbing simplicity.

Take Chewbacca and the Wookiees. He is steadfast, loyal, strong, and ferocious to those who are his enemies. While he is one of the only members of his species that we ever see, we find out from Han that his entire species is essentially full of Chewies. Their loyalty is cemented by the cultural concept of the Wookiee 'life-debt', and they are altogether identified by their hairiness and fortitude. There are no voiced or visible exceptions to the rule.

How about the Jawas or the Ewoks? Each are small species that are all subservient to their assigned traits with little to no diversity or uniqueness outside of them. The Jawas are cowardly merchant scavengers and that is all you ever see of them. The Ewoks are cutesy tenacious tribal teddy bears. Tusken raiders?  Perpetually angry, nomadic... raiders. Remember those long necked svelte white aliens from the second prequel (Kaminoans, for the nerdy)? All of them were defined by a cool scientific attitude and apparently their entire race was dedicated to cloning people. The only possible exception I could think of was Jar Jar Binks being distinctive from the rest of his Gungan people. Unique in the worst way possible.

The point is that you never saw an Ewok who acted apart from the mold. You never saw a Jawa casually toting a laser rifle. You never saw a cowardly Wookiee. In Star Wars' defense, this simplification of entire species was probably necessary given the sheer amount of them. But it seems very limiting and not at all true to reality. After all, you can't label humans simply as aggressive imperialist impulsive warmongers. If you think that's correct, then you've never heard of Confucius, Marcus Aurelius, or Buddhist monks.

Battlestar Galactica: An Exercise in Bipolarity

The next step up is to classify your aliens in strict this-or-that terms. This is also flawed and unsophisticated, but it is a bit better. To do this is to comparably regard life as only having those who are Democrats and those who are Republicans. Sure, there's a significant population to both sides, but there are still people who exist outside of these ideologies. Another example is the knee-jerk reaction to look at everything in life as good or evil. Many things can be classified as such, but there's also a plethora of things that aren't quite so clear cut.

Battlestar Galactica gives us the Cylons who, while initially are just set on killing all the humans, gradually evolve into allowing the existence of a splinter faction: those who believe the humans can be spared and worked with. Some Cylons may look different, but all of them fit into these two categories and that becomes their most important characteristic: pro-human or anti-human. Any side quirks are subservient to this overall identifier. Battlestar Galactica makes an effort to give the Cylons some nuance. The Boomer models are known for being duplicitous. The Leoben models are known for being manipulative. But in the end, all that really matters is their alignment to the humans, making them two-dimensional at best.

Mass Effect: Aliens with Depth

Despite how easy it would be, Mass Effect avoids the sci-fi writers' trap in its totality. And you wouldn't quite think that going in. After all, the game's internal Codex (encyclopedia) identifies the separate species through some generalizations. The turians are opportunistic, imperialistic, and prone to find themselves in combat. The quarians go on pilgrimages and rites of passage, as well as generally being known for stealth. The asari are empathetic and known as diplomats and lovers.

The key difference here is that Mass Effect uses these stereotypes merely as guidelines. Much like regarding humans as impulsive, stereotypes have a grain of truth but aren't necessarily indicative of races or species as a whole. Mass Effect has countless examples of this. Sure, turians are known for being mean and aggressive, and yet you find one (Garrus) twisting those traits toward something you wouldn't expect, serving as a Robin Hood to a destitute population. Similarly, the crimelord Aria T'Loak (an asari) is a subversion of what you'd expect from the stereotypes; she's the ultimate socialite... of illegal enterprises.


 I could go on, but the point is that Mass Effect depicts aliens in a way that uses established stereotypes as a foundation of understanding, a mere stepping stone to further depth instead of the end point. The aliens aren't all the same traits like in Star Wars, nor do they only tack to a bipolar definition like the Cylons of Battlestar Galactica. Instead, like us, they are capable of operating completely independent from what you might expect, while simultaneously allowing you to recognize what makes them a member of their unique species/race.

I still am not very far into Mass Effect 2, but I did want to point out this particular facet of science fiction storytelling that the game has excelled at so far. It gives me great hope in the continuing quality of this stellar story.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971)

by DionysusPsyche

 It was recently decided among my family that we should rewatch Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Not the new fangled, frightening Johnny Depp version, but the wholesome, sweet original of the early 1970's. Yet, to kick it up a notch, we watched it with Rifftrax-which was how we decided to watch it in the first place. That and this new, weird Willy Wonka meme...

Riff What?
For those of you who aren't familiar with it, Rifftrax are a spinoff website of the 1980's-90's television show called Mystery Science Theatre 3000 where a poor mortal (first Joel Hodgson the creator and then Mike Nelson) is trapped in space and forced to watch bad movies with his robot sidekicks (Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy). To sum up, think about when you and your friends/family go to the movies or watch a film and spend the entire time making fun of it. That's the premise behind Rifftrax.

I don't recommend watching a film with Rifftrax if A) you've never seen the film before and really want to watch it, or B) Don't like it when people talk during movies. I do recommend it if it's A) you've seen it and would enjoy watching it objectively, B) like watching commentary—but only if it's funny, C) have never seen it before but are under the impression that it's hokey/sappy/or downright miserable without banter, or D) you're just really bored (they also offer outdated educational videos like when seatbelts were first invented or “Going Steady” a guide to dating). Some of them are excellent, some are okay, and a few aren't even bearable on account of how bad the film itself is (my friends and I are split on “Manos, Hands of Fate” from Mystery Science Theatre so don't start with that!).

In this particular Rifftrax edition, Neil Patrick Harris (How I Met Your Mother and Dr. Horrible's Sing-a-Long Blog) guest stars. He loved the film as a kid, but he's also capable of making fun of it, and let's face it, as an adult there are a lot of movies you thought were great as a kid, but actually weren't. WW&CF still is, and Harris is the perfect addition to that voiceover as a talented actor who can be a walking musical himself.
It's based on the most famous book by Roald Dahl (others include The Witches, Matilda, and my personal childhood favorite, Revolting Rhymes). In small town America, lives an impoverished family. The son, Charlie Bucket (Peter Ostrum), has no father and a part time job. His mother works for very little to support their family which includes two sets of grandparents. For some unknown reason, the grandparents are all bedridden, but maybe it's just ridiculously cold and they can't afford heat. If they did explain it, I was too busy laughing over the commentary. The only interesting thing in their life is the occasional chocolate or candy that they rarely afford. They also happen to live near Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory, and one day out of the blue, it is announced that Willy Wonka (Gene Wilder!) will be giving a private tour in his factory to 5 lucky winners who eat their way through bars of chocolate to find it. The bars have been distributed across the globe, and children everywhere (like they need a reason to demand more sweets) set off on a mission to find these golden tickets.

There's a Silver Platter...For Me?
Of the winners, Charlie is the only one who lacks wealth, worldly travel, and everything at his fingertips. Unlike his competitors, he lacks the mentality that the universe is his alone and he the very center of it. Nothing has ever been handed to Charlie in his whole life, and his boyhood hopes and dreams remain cautiously optimistic, if for no other reason than to put a smile on his family's face. He wants for nothing but opportunity, however small. He understands like a grown up that reality is not a fantasy land like his peers and connects more to his grandparents, particularly his Grandpa Joe (Jack Albertson).

Mine, Mine, Mine
As a child, you can write off other kids as “that one is a complete weirdo,” or “I don't really connect to my peers.” As an adult, you're usually faced with a more polarized version of children. Willy Wonka's character accurately portrays a number of people's feelings regarding children: 1 out of 5 kids is actually a true, good soul. The rest (and if you don't agree with the former statement, maybe this will clarify), like their older counterparts, tend to be babied, out of control, candy grabbers—all rottten eggs. Wonka exposes each character for what he or she really is (kind of like the serial killer in Seven, but less horrifically and more family friendly)—not only children but their parents too. We see that in an effort to make their children happy, the parents are corrupt and are just as spoiled as their offspring. It makes a good lesson for all (and every lesson is better through song, right?).

Sign of the Times
As I mentioned earlier, this film was made in the 1970's. While it's full of fun, the audience can't help but be reminded of a drug trip, or what one we can assume to be one if we paid attention to our health education. The less scrupulous characters are all addicted and an obsessed with fame, television, food, money, power, and greed. As for the tunnel that Wonka puts everyone through, well, it was the '70's. I have no idea.
There is a political undertone to it as well. Why is Willy Wonka sharing his deepest, darkest secrets with kids especially when he closed his factory because of spies? Hell, why is he sharing his Oompa Loompas? What's in it for him?

I'd Like to Buy the World a...Candy Bar”
While the film was intended to sell candy bars (according to the article, turns out they sucked), it was a full song and dance—literally. There is more singing and dancing than I recalled as a child (to be fair, as a kid who grew up with every cartoon singing and dancing, I probably barely noticed). It does bring the message that the meek, honest, and good willed should inherit the earth.

From the bright colors to some truly unforgettable lines, Willy Wonka is an affair to remember. If you've never seen Willy Wonka, I'd try giving the original a shot. If you've already seen it or aren't enthusiastic enough, I'd give the commentary a shot.

Loved Willy Wonka? I'd recommend The Way it Should've Ended and this episode of Family Guy.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Better Off Dead (1985 Film)

by DionysusPsyche

In this comedy, John Cusack stars as Lane Meyer, a clutz of a teenager who keeps busy with his hobbies like skiing and drawing cartoons. The only thing he loves more is his girlfriend, Beth (Amanda Wyss)--beautiful, blonde, and ever popular with boys. One might call it an obsession, and everybody does except Lane.

When Beth ditches him for jock jerk Roy Stalin (Aaron Dozier), Lane is beyond depressed. He decides that without Beth, life isn't worth living. His parents try to distract him by forcing him on bad dates, inviting over company, making terrible food, and pushing Lane into a job down at the local burger joint. He makes several failed attempts at suicide, and during that time makes a friend with the French, foreign exchange student named Monique (Diane Franklin) who is staying across the street with his boring neighbors, the Smiths.

With the help of his friend, Charles DeMar (Curtis Armstrong) and Monique, Lane realizes that killing yourself (literally and figuratively) over someone who doesn't want you is immature, pointless, and pathetic. Charles sticks by him, and Monique teaches him how to fix up the car his parents bought him, ski, and fall in love with someone who does like you without all the creepiness.
The movie is cheesy, very 80's, and worth a try. There are some excellent one liners, especially from Curtis Armstrong and some hilarious and weird situations that Lane finds himself in. It's chalkful of crazy, lovable characters who, while embarrassing in their own way, prove that life is about being silly, being yourself, and being loved for all that you are. While I wouldn't call this movie Cusack's greatest cinematic achievement, it is enjoyable, and I prefer it to One Crazy Summer and yes, Say Anything. All teenagers should watch it just to know that when one relationship ends, it doesn't mean that your world should too.

A good choice if you're looking for a short, silly film with the occasional singing hamburger (spoiler alert).

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Ides of March

Power corrupts. That is the underlying theme of The Ides of March, and it is one that screams forth in every scene. While the adage that power corrupts can apply to many things, in The Ides of March the focus is primarily on politics, specifically on the United States political system within a Democratic primary before a presidential election.

The Question of Setting

The choice of having the story take place within a primary is an unusual one. On the whole, primaries tend to be just the warm-up period before a general election. In the United States, we are seeing one now for the Republicans. After a winner is decided, they will have to go on to campaign against Obama himself, the incumbent president. Consequently, primaries can feel comparatively unimportant and prompt the question, “Why have this story take place within a primary versus a presidential election?”

The answer is that everything is subservient to the plot. Ryan Gosling's character has to be presented with a scenario that tempts him to switch sides, to leave his campaign and join the opposing candidate. The only way this is feasible is if the candidate has a similar viewpoint as his own. By choosing to have the story take place during a primary (whether it is Democrat or Republican is irrelevant), this allows for the temptation to defect, which is the major instigating factor in the entire film even though the plot is moved merely by the thought of defection.

A Sea of Cynicism

My tangential analysis of setting aside, The Ides of March is at its most potent (and depressing) when we see the ramifications of people tempted by power. Ryan Gosling, though initially depicted as optimistic and innocent, is swiftly twisted into a mockery of his former self. Much like Dorian Gray's temptation with the painting, we see firsthand the painful downward spiral of a skilled and vibrant youth into somebody who is charismatic but ultimately empty and amoral. The movie is essentially a prolonged sequence of events designed to smash Gosling's character into that which he once professed to loath.

The crystal clear moral of The Ides of March is that politics (or, at least, American politics) are designed in a way that only allows the opportunistic and dishonest to succeed. Within the film we see and hear examples of those who manage to retain their morals, but they are never successful in the long run. Philip Seymour Hoffman's character is the prime illustration of this; he works hard and sticks to his belief system, but ultimately is discarded and rendered useless by the end. In the scene where he berates Gosling over his lack of loyalty, Hoffman provides a similar example of his youth, where he declined an opportunity to rise in the name of holding onto his principles and subsequently lost that campaign as well. The lesson is clear; politics are where morality and the good go to die or be rendered ineffectual. The vacant stare Gosling lays upon the camera at the end is the embodiment of this perspective.

The Ides of March proved quite effective in depicting this cynical outlook, but I found myself genuinely skeptical that the reality is this bad. Granted, I don't know much about the reality of political campaigns or the inner complexities of a primary. But my inner optimist found the soul deadening nature of the film to be so intense as to seem questionable. Something about it was just so dark that I found it unrealistic. I found myself wondering how it could be possible for political campaigns to be this nasty. From everything I've read, people are certainly capable of being corrupted when they achieve positions of power, but I've also read plenty of stories where national leaders live by their heart and do what they believe is right. I can't believe that the American system requires you to completely leave your morals at the door until you are elected. If that were the case, then why wouldn't people make an effort to change that system upon election?


I really did like The Ides of March and I think it was an incredibly intense movie. The dialogue is snappy and the characters are awesomely well acted. The side roles of Hoffman and Paul Giamatti were especially powerful. And both Gosling and George Clooney effectively portray lighter and darker sides at different stages of the story. It is a tale that, for me, was tainted only by its choice to delve so deeply into a cynical moral. It simply went so far that it felt comparable to a conspiracy theory with regard to how pessimistic one would have to be to believe that things actually are this way. And thus did I lose some ability to connect with what otherwise would have been an immaculate film.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Grey

At a certain point, wherever you are, if you head north for long enough you will hit pure wilderness. Despite how it feels when you are in the midst of a city or within the long expanse of suburbia, there are still parts of the world which are completely free of human touch or contact. In the distant waters around the icy poles, behemoth whales twist slowly and lazily through the dark currents. Up in the cold vastness on the land, trees and forests can stretch for miles and miles, interrupted only by lonely mountain peaks and tundras blasted by sub-zero winds.

It is the latter setting within which The Grey takes place. Through no fault of their own, an airplane full of passengers experiences malfunction and crashes brutally into the middle of nowhere. Most of them die, sucked out into the air as the weather barrages the plane and rips away the fusilage. The main character, Ottway (played by Liam Neeson), regains consciousness in a snowy nightmare, surrounded by nothing but wreckage and the hostile embodiment of the north. This is not a place for humans. This is not a place where one can live, not without a truly gifted talent for survival and a good amount of gear. Here Ottway and those few remaining must make do or die, against both the harshness of the elements and the viciousness of wildlife that has never seen humans before and thus knows no fear of them.

Surrounded by the Grey

As is abundantly clear by what I have written so far, the setting that The Grey takes place in serves almost as a character unto itself. The first minute of the film shows mountains and forests at the twilight hour, forbidding, wondrous, and unfathomable. There are dozens of moments like this where we marvel at nature's beauty while simultaneously fearing its power. Blizzards roll smoothly across the camera and craggy rivers meander under the sight of windswept peaks. The Grey allows us to appreciate the aesthetic beauty of the north as well as giving us abundant reason to dread how it would feel to actually be present within it.

Perhaps more than anything, this movie provides the ultimate fight of man versus nature. The primary antagonist in this manifests in the form of the wolves. It is remarkable to note that, prior to watching this movie, I didn't have any real fear of wolves. I long regarded them as beautiful creatures that mainly scavenged for their food, occasionally teaming up to take down elk. We've heard of wolfpacks and how the alpha wolf interacts with the rest of the group. It's an interesting subject, but one that rarely appears in stories anywhere.

However, this movie will really put a fear of canis lupus into you. While their brutality is, no doubt, exaggerated in the name of an effective story, it is still crystal clear that wolves are incredibly smart and dangerous animals. In The Grey, they slip about like shadows. They are without fear; they appear where you least expect them and with no warning. Even if you are armed, they take you by surprise and kill you in seconds. And, once you are on your own or even with one or two others, the pack can amass and simply charge you from all sides. Their power in the movie is as terrible as it is mythic. I haven't seen a movie “monster” as disturbingly competent and relentless as this since watching Jaws.

Emotional Torque

But even with an atmosphere both majestic and deadly, The Grey would just be another survival movie if not for its cast and emphasis on characterization. As the movie progresses, you really become attached to those few men who have survived. And, in the end, not many of them are people who you would probably like in real life. They are ex-convicts, alcoholics, and misanthropes. It is only in this scenario, where they have nothing to rely upon but each other and their own resolve to live, that you really empathize with them and want them to make it out. Even the most annoying and antagonistic of them go through change so that, when faced with death, even they can tug on your heartstrings. Diaz is the ultimate example of this; though initially he is an enormous asshole, he begins to take the situation seriously enough that he earns your respect and makes you root for him.

But, as one might expect, the crowning achievement in acting goes to Liam Neeson and his performance as Ottway. Described by one of the other survivors as “the great white hunter”, Ottway is the one man among them most skilled at wilderness survival. Previously hired to hunt and shoot wolves that would harass oil derrick workers, Ottway is that one guy you want by your side for mountain hikes or bar fights. But even Ottway, competent as he is, is as capable of slipping up and making mistakes like you or I.

Through a mixture of flashbacks, storytelling, and brief dream sequences, we see that Ottway harbors an intense dissatisfaction with life, unable to be with the woman he loves. The movie effectively portrays to the viewer just how much of a psychological wound that is for the man and its effect on his struggle to live, and we see clearly that there is nothing more important to him in the world than his wife. His inability to be with her makes his life feel like idle wandering through a misty void. But regardless, we find that he still manages to find the strength to go on and, as the movie progresses, we see precisely why he manages to hold fast and keep heart despite the efforts of nature to do him in.


The Grey is probably one of the best, if not the best, movies I've seen in the past year. It takes a simple premise (men crash land in an icy wilderness and try to survive) and lends it an incredibly intense atmosphere as well as powerful emotional resonance through the characters that populate it. It has the most sinister depiction of wolves I've ever seen, and the clever mix of animatronics, real wolves, and CGI manages to maintain the illusion quite effectively. The movie finishes just as one feels it would and should.

One should note that it is a very dark and mature movie, however, and that it might scare you shitless with regard to hiking or mountain climbing for some time. You also might find yourself twitching nervously the next time you hear a wolf howl. But, if you can handle these minor inconveniences, The Grey is definitely worth checking out (in movie theaters, for full effect) as one of the more intense survival/horror/thrillers I've ever seen.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Real Steel

Written by Joe the Revelator

Thus far, among those I've discussed Real Steel with, a concession has yet to be reached over which game/movie/story the writers were emulating. It looks like One Must Fall or Armored Core or Rock-em-Sock-em robots. It follows the plot line of Rocky, and of the Twilight Zone episode "Steel". And it feels like every father-son sports movie ever made. Except with robots.

Hugh Jackman plays a robot fight promoter/controller, a shiftless gambler, and an incredibly terrible father. His only son has lost his mother, and for the wealthy aunt & uncle to adopt the kid, Jackman secretly charges them fifty grand, which he immediately spends on robot parts. The catch? He's forced to spend one summer with his son.

The son, however, has plans of his own. During a midnight heist through a robot junkyard to replace lost parts from Jackman's latest bungle, the kid is saved by an old, outdated sparring robot (Stallone from Rocky) After carting the robot back to the shop despite his father's protests, the kid finds a new friend underneath the steel plates and gyros, and he soon begins his career as a robot overlord.

Real Predictable

There isn't a single scene in this movie that can't be predicted by watching the first 10 minutes. And as I mentioned, if you've seen Rocky, you've seen this movie. The only thing Rocky Balboa lacked was a 10-year-old shouting voice commands into a headset, screaming at him to jab and uppercut. Instead, Rocky had a white-haired Irish midget, who shouted commands into his cauliflower ears.

Even the end boss is a tall, sleek black robot, which might have been played by Carl Weathers, though I can't be sure since he never took off the helmet. His controller is a Korean kid they found playing Starcraft in an internet cafe.

Cathartic Boxing

During the movie, Hugh Jackman's character is revealed to have been a promising prize-fighter himself, before boxing was replaced by robot fights. Nobody wanted to watch a boxing match when they could see robots get torn limb from limb. The irony of this statement is it explains perfectly why the audience would enjoy Real Steel.

I'll make it clear: Real Steel was a terrible movie, and I enjoyed it immensely. The caveman part of my brain that likes knocking over sandcastles and watching things burn, found robots going for broke on each other extremely cathartic. Transformers lacked a sense of permanent damage, since the robots themselves were composed of shifting, shapeless masses of gears and cogs. The robots in Real Steel seem to run the gamete between clunkers and Sony-bots, all waiting to have their plastic parts ripped out.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Thing

Written by Joe the Revelator

The Thing is a Sci-Fi horror thriller about an alien creature, which can split itself off into any number of pieces to infect the hosts around it. (Not to be confused with the 1982 John Carpenter movie, The Thing, about the same alien, in the same part of Antarctica, under the same circumstances.)

Once The Thing manages to infect a person, it effectively creates another Thing, which is able to mimic its host so perfectly it blends into the group. It can emulate their emotions, their features, and even their bad acting. This new Thing then tries to infect others to make more Things, which seem to have the same agenda as the original Thing; kill all humans in gruesome ways, and eventually cart our DNA away to another planet.

That Thing

A sense of mistrust and paranoia are the driving points of The Thing (both the original and the remake) which is amplified by the desolate, hostile setting. Everyone is forced to remain indoors throughout most of the movie, or die of exposure and chill. The immediate results are infighting and suspicion. Everyone's trying to guess who's still human and who isn't. And every once in a while someone will sprout teeth from their forehead and try gnawing on the cabin mates.

One thing I'll make special mention of is the effects of The Thing. The monsters aren't all CG. Most of the nasty beasties in the movie are a blend of puppetry and animatronics, with a liberal dose of computer animation to help the transformations along. Think a realistic Dead Space, even though the monsters from that game borrow heavily from the original Thing.

This Other Thing

Compared to the original John Carpenter movie, the 2011's The Thing is essentially the same movie. Chronologically it takes place before the original, and the leading protagonist is a mousey scientist played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World) instead of a grizzled Kurt Russel. The prequel goes so far as to remake a few monster models from the old movie, so fans of The Thing will not be disappointed by The Thing.

To end this headache, my recommendation is to go watch The Thing. Either version. And send your hate mail to John Carpenter, who couldn't be bothered to come up with an entirely new title, despite The Thing being a re-imagining of "The Thing from Another World."

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Final Fantasy XIII

To play, much less review, a Final Fantasy game is quite an undertaking. As video games go, Final Fantasy is to the average video game what Crime and Punishment or Shakespeare are to the average fiction novel. What literary classics and Final Fantasy have in common is astonishing depth; both can be pored over for months and still have new things to show you.

Evolution in Gameplay

The Final Fantasy games have had a long and varied progression to how they are played. For the early games, you had a turn-based system where you could toss attacks or magic spells around like candy, always wanting to use the specific arsenal that could cause the most damage to each unique monster. You had a set amount of damage you could take before you perished and that could be staved off or relieved with a combination of preventive and restorative magic or alchemical potions.

As the series progressed, the developers chose to tinker with a number of possible changes while retaining the core of the familiar gameplay. What if your magic could be invested in to become stronger or split off into new branches of power? What if the use of magic decreased your physical ability? What if you could perform actions to affect the order of turns? What if you could avoid random battles through a seamless combination of travel and battle modes? What if your characters could perform special powerful attacks if they reach a critical near-death condition? How can we allow the player more ways to develop their characters to become uniquely powerful in a diverse selection of ways?

These questions and more are specific references to changes made by the developers in different moments throughout Final Fantasy history. For each separate game, the designers created an entirely new combat system, holding only to a core rule of, "It must feel like Final Fantasy," which usually meant having the player characters face off against monsters in a turn-based or loosely real-time field of battle.

Final Fantasy XIII in Action

FFXIII attempts to integrate all of the best of what has come before in a system that gives the players a host of options in a way that isn't overwhelming. There are dozens of possible attacks, but you can permit the A.I. to cover for you more than competently through the use of the "Auto Battle" function. This addition is really handy; you aren't able to fight terribly well through an overuse of the "Auto-Battle", but it is perfect for allowing the battle to continue to flow while you deliberate strategically.

This is important as one of the goals of the new combat system is to make battle fast, intense, and epic. More than any other Final Fantasy before it, FFXIII keeps you on the edge of your seat as your characters hurl themselves into battle at a speed that rewards reflexive tactical decisions more than long-term deliberations. The window for attacking shifts fast, and time is of essential importance, particularly since the only way to manageably defeat most monsters is to "Stagger" them: overwhelming them with so many special attacks that they lose control and drop their guard, allowing you to really lay the smackdown.

The Paradigm system is where the gameplay's depth really shines however. At any time, your characters can change their Paradigms, which are essentially their roles in battle. The 'Sentinel' Paradigm draws monsters' attention to them and hunkers down to deflect the onslaught. The 'Synergist' Paradigm weaves magical defenses around party members so that they may do more damage or resist enemy disruption more effectively. The 'Ravager' Paradigm barrages enemies with magic in order to 'Stagger' them so that those with the 'Commando' Paradigm can really go to town, as the Commandoes do enormous amounts of damage to 'Staggered' monsters. The 'Medic' Paradigm keeps everyone alive. And, lastly, the 'Saboteur' Paradigm strips monsters of their defenses and induces weaknesses upon them so that you can reduce their damage output and defeat them easier.

What makes things really crazy awesome is that you can shuffle the roles and create customized combinations for different scenarios, all right in the middle of battle. You can control three characters at one time. A Medic, Ravager, and a Commando are ideal for an measured offense. A Synergist, Saboteur, and Medic heals and buffs everyone while weakening the monsters. But these are just logical balanced examples. What if you put three Ravagers together? The amount of magic whizzing around would light up your TV screen! A handful of Saboteurs backed up by a Sentinel would allow a swift crippling of the enemy force while they hopelessly hack away at the prepared defense of the Sentinel. You also have to keep in mind that some characters are uniquely better at some specific roles available to them, which adds another strategic element to ponder. The possibilities are near endless!

For Better or Worse?

Does it all work? My answer is a certifiable yes, with some caveats. The combat system is probably my favorite of all the Final Fantasy games I have played; the action is intense, fast and still allows for strategic thought. It is a challenging and complicated system, but it is spoon-fed to you very slowly to make sure you understand each element before moving on. I liked this but I also hated it. I felt coddled and often found myself in a rush to get on with it. But that is also my own failing for being so well-versed in Final Fantasy combat systems that I caught on to the vagaries of this one so fast. So that's my own fault.

I enjoyed the development system (simplistically put, you can invest your combat experience into the upgrading of your characters' separate roles and weapons), but it would have benefited from a combination of more player choice and somehow keeping the player more informed. By 'more player choice' I mean that, though different characters can choose from a plethora of different roles, it is immediately clear that your big boisterous boxer man is going to suck at healing. Similarly, your diminutive airy dream girl is going to suck at the combat roles. Thus, though you appear to be presented with a huge amount of Paradigm options, it is only the illusion of choice.

As for 'keeping the player more informed', I am referring to the various sequences early on in the game where you don't know who the story is going to focus on next, leading to uncertainty as to who you should develop. If I spend a lot of cash upgrading Snow's weapon, what assurance do I have that the story won't follow somebody else for a while, making that investment pointless potentially for a very long time? Though, in the long run, choices such as this don't matter by the endgame, in the early stages and middle of the game I did a half-assed development of multiple characters just on the basis of needing at least one person in each group reasonably competent in battle. And that felt like a waste later on.

In the end though, nitpicks aside, the Paradigm system is a brilliant culmination of all the effort put into every combat system prior. Usually, Final Fantasy games take one new idea and base an entire combat system around it. Instead, in FFXIII, they introduced the concept of speedier gameplay and wrapped that around a core of the best gameplay elements of every Final Fantasy before. The results are spectacular and make me look forward to the prospect of spending more time with the game.

Assuming I find time to finish this monstrosity of a game, I will follow this with a review of the game's story and characters upon completion.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Mega Mind (2010 film)

by DionysusPsyche

Mega Mind is a movie that was released by Pixar directly after Despicable Me (fall vs. summer). Since Despicable didn't awe me enough, I skipped Mega Mind, thinking, "Oh great, another villain/superhero movie." I've also seen The Incredibles and while it was something to do for a couple of hours, it didn't blow me away. I've found that sometimes Pixar is so wrapped up with a message or churning out new flicks (think Wall-E), that they don't fully work through their character development and plot/dialogue. I can't fault them, their audience is only little for so long, so they have to have something in the works at all times to avoid being put on the back burner. Even if they're great, how many Toy Stories can one make?

Looking back now, I wish I had seen Mega Mind and NOT its boring predecessor. The film takes a spin on a normal comic book/super hero movie by starting at the beginning and telling you the back story of the villain, making him more sympathetic. Mega Mind grew up "in a broken home," as he (voiced by Will Ferrell) so aptly puts it. He comes to earth with Minion, his friend and caretaker (voiced by David Cross), and goes to school with the boy who becomes Metro Man. The star of the class. The one everyone loves. No matter how he tries, Mega Mind can't compete with Metro Man. Like any kid that's been punished for accidents, failures, and half-crafted "it seemed like a good idea at the time" flops, he decides to become an evil genius as it fits him to naturally be Metro Man's nemesis and seems to be the life fate handed him.

Metro Man (with Brad Pitt as the voice) has something between Spiderman's fame and public relations and Superman's everything else. He is the savior of Metro City, and he even has his own museum! Roxanne Richie (voiced by Tina Fey) reports on him to the public, and he always saves them from Mega Mind, who is a sub par villain and unbelievably predictable. He can't even scare a kidnapped Roxanne Richie who is all too bored with his evil antics.

Roxanne Richie is a bit like the actress who plays her, but is also reminiscent of Meg from Hercules. She takes quality over quantity and is intelligent. She isn't a gawking Lois Lane or a starry eyed Mary Jane but something made of grit with looks and brains to go with it. While she does get kidnapped frequently, when Metro Man yells, "Don't panic Roxy!," she replies in all seriousness and monotone, "I'm not panicking."

Metro Man addresses his audience
Warning! The following may or may not qualify as spoilers. Read at your discretion or skip to conclusion.

Mega Mind ends up surprising everyone by actually winning a battle against his nemesis. His iconoclastic personality frightens the city and takes him and Minion on a joy ride. Yet, it's a hollow victory. He goes through what happens to everyone at some point in their lives--a specific type of mid-life crisis. He gets exactly what he wants, and then he realizes that maybe it wasn't what he needed or wanted in the first place.

Throughout the rest of the film, Mega Mind spends his time falling in love and realizing that maybe he's better than he always pretended to be. From a young age he always assumed the role of anti-hero, but there are limitations to what he can and can't do as a bad guy. "The bad guy doesn't get the girl!" Minion reminds him.

She's not afraid!
With the help from his friends and foes, Mega Mind learns that it can take your whole life to know what you want to be when you grow up. He finally begins to understand that his impression of who he is and what he thinks he should be are only limiting his options and full potential.

I may watch it again today because it was so great. The dialogue is fantastic, the plot is wonderful, and when I think it zigs it zags. Additionally, the soundtrack was awesome. This film utterly impressed me when I was only expecting a few memorable lines. This is NOT Planet 9 or the lesser of the Pixar films. This one is worth watching and taking a chance on.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Mad Men - Season 1

Mad Men is an oddity of a TV show. I call it so because of its apparent lack of an overarching plot. Most TV dramas, especially period pieces like this one, bind themselves into a story arc that carries on for most of if not the entire season. By doing so, it provides a framing device that unifies the cast of characters, one way or another. If there is a primary antagonist, his actions force the other characters to interact with and affect each other with the prospect of his eventual defeat being one of the factors in bringing the audience back for the next episode. If the show has a main character, his trials and developments tend to be the eye of the hurricane around which the other characters find and know each other.


Mad Men doesn't have that. Sure, a reflex reaction would say that Don Draper is the main character of the show, but what does that mean? Wikipedia tells us that the protagonist is the character around whom the events of the narrative's plot revolve and with whom the audience is intended to most identify. The plot doesn't revolve around Don; he sees most of the other characters on a day-to-day basis, but he barely interacts with or affects most of them. He can't possibly be who we are expected to empathize with the most; a better match would be, well, pretty much everyone else.

Instead, Mad Men has an ensemble cast with nowhere to go. The majority of them are tied to the advertising business of Sterling & Cooper, but the well-being of the firm never seems to be a huge plot point. The politics of the day are mentioned but not an enormous topic of conversation. Every episode merely seems to feature a number of different employees or their spouses in "a day-in-the-life".

What I'm driving at is that, unlike the majority of TV dramas out there (that I've seen), Mad Men's first season has no real driving force for the characters.


At first, I found this immensely confusing and frustrating. I wondered if I would be able to find the endurance to somehow watch four seasons of this in order to catch up with friends. But then the realization hit me. In a sense, this is the very point of Mad Men, a crystal clear example of the theme it dwells upon so powerfully. Discontent.

Mad Men doesn't have an overarching plot or 'seasonal goal' because to give it one would give characters a lifeline to get out of their collective slump. This period of the Sixties is one that epitomized ritz, glamour, consumerism, and the gender gap between women and men. It is this culture that created a repressed society that would explode later, years down the road.

Thus it is that every character in the series is a product of their time. Some try to resist it. Peggy does everything in her power to resist the expectation that she prepare herself for objectification if she wishes to succeed. Some attack the meaningful relationships in their lives because society has driven them to want more, more, more. While initially happy in his marriage, Pete then undermines it because that is what his colleagues and the culture expect of him. And some can't find solace in either extreme. Don finds himself trying to maintain the 'perfect family' while simultaneously trying to escape it by sleeping around. Betty Draper reaches the model of what society expects from a married woman, and then realizes that it is an empty victory. Mad Men is the sad story of these characters and more as they fight endlessly with their own desires and the expectations of those surrounding them.


The cartoon introduction to the series merely cements this theme as an ad exec walks into a room for it all to fade and fall apart around him. He falls from the building, a free-fall symbolic of his own lack of footing and solidity  in life. Mad Men is full of moments like this that present you with ennui, wanderlust, and dismay. It isn't a show designed to leave you with a smile.

Will I continue to watch it? So long as I can stomach it. It is quite good, but it is draining to watch a show basically designed to make you unhappy with what you have. Ah well. Whenever I get too fed up with it, I can always pop in a Disney movie.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Glee (2009 TV) Part II

By DionysusPsyche

Favorite characters
Finn, because he always tries to be the big man and bring everybody together (he fails on a couple of episodes). My second favorite is Kurt, who I didn't start out liking, but over time he grew on me especially as he allowed himself to mature and overcome bullying. My last favorite character is Brittany, the dumb blonde, because she has all the best lines. Instead of the below quotations, I could just fill them all up with things she's said, however that wouldn't be a good idea of the different characters. Below is one quote from each of the main characters.

The star Rachel Berry (Lea Michele): At least I didn't fall and break my talent.
The ever fabulous gay kid Kurt Hummel (Chris Colfer): You need to call me before you dress yourself. You look like a technicolor zebra. And I look like I'm a part of it. It looks like I planned it..."
Heart throb Finn Hudson (Cory Monteith): The guys said if I took the Glee club photo, they'd make me choose between a Hitler mustache and buck teeth. And I can't rock either of those looks.
The conniving Barbie Quinn Fabray (Dianna Agron): People think you're gay now, Finn. And you know what that makes me? Your big, gay beard!
The impressively unintelligent Brittany Pierce (Heather Morris): I don't brush my teeth. I rinse my mouth out with soda after I eat. I was pretty sure Dr Pepper was a dentist.
The director in a wheelchair Artie Abrahms (Kevin McHale): He's never late. He runs like an expensive Swiss watch reproduced cheaply in China.
Bad boy Noah Puckerman aka Puck (Mark Salling): The wheelchair kid's right. That Rachel chick makes me want to light myself on fire, but she can sing.
The attitude queen Santana Lopez (Naya Rivera): Well, congratulations. Normally you dress like a fantasy of a perverted Japanese business man with a very dark specific fetish, but I actually dig this look. Yay. 
Glee coach Will Shuester (Matthew Morrison): My father always said you'd become a man when you bought your first house. I'm not sure what he meant though, because he burned ours down during a drunken fight with mom.

The show goes both ways. If you want an instant win, you can watch clips or just the songs. It helps to watch in necessary order, but that order isn't necessarily great. There's always a "previously on Glee," but they tend to be brief and occasionally leave out plot points where I've missed episodes and been lost. Whenever the team competes, there are a ton of excellent songs which cuts down the drama by half the episode. If you're a fan of show choir, musicals, and songs of all types, this show is for you. If drama, catty fights, and pointed statements about religion and sexuality make you uncomfortable, I wouldn't recommend it.