Friday, June 29, 2012

Video Game Assessment: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim: Dawnguard

I thought Skyrim couldn't get any better. It was an excellent game. Yes, it had it's problems, and no, it wasn't always perfect, but for the most part it was beautiful and an incredibly interesting game. Dawnguard adds a great deal to the base game, really pushing both good storytelling and character, my two biggest gripes in the base game. Hell, when I can barely name any characters that have REAL personalities in the base game besides Cicero and the Emperor, it really is a pretty big problem. But Dawnguard really does its best to address those issues. It speaks of Bethesda's commitment to both the series and the people who love their games. When vampire lords, an incredibly well-written character, a good story, and some fantastic scenery are added into an already very good game, it goes from being, again, very good to being absolutely brilliant.

I can favorably compare this game to some of the best DLC and expansions I have ever played in modern games, like the DLC in Fallout: New Vegas, some of the Mass Effect 2 DLC, the Dragon Age: Origins expansion, and The Shivering Isles from Oblivion. This is seriously one of the most interesting DLCs/expansions I've played in a while, as well as one of the longest, but for 20$ I was really hoping for a good amount of gameplay. I wasn't disappointed. With two new dragon shouts, a whole new vampire plotline, tons of new locales, and some incredibly beautiful graphics, this game adds so much to what Skyrim is and represents. It becomes so much larger, so much more complex, and maybe a little bit tighter around its edges.

The new enemies introduced in the game, mostly Falmer, some dragons, and some new creatures add difficulty and intensity into a game that kind of becomes easy when you reach a certain level. I actually died a few times in the game, mostly when I played through as a Dawnguard rather than as a vampire. I found that the Vampire Lord plotline made Dovahkiin a little overpowered in general as well as making the expansion seem both smaller and less intense.

So, I've showed my hand already a little. You can choose two different factions as you explore Dawnguard. You can choose a faction of vampire hunters that come from the Vigilants of Stendarr called the Dawnguard, or you can can choose to ally yourself with vampires and become a Vampire Lord, which is both overpowered and pretty cool looking. Dawnguard also adds the ability to level up your progress as a vampire or a werewolf. These are improvements, vast improvements, to the overall game.

I like the new weapons that come out of it, some being incredibly strong, others having effects that are both strange and wonderful. I love the two huge locations that are added with the Forgotten Vale and the Soul Cairn. They are both beautiful and add a ton of new exploration options into an already huge game. I loved learning more about the Falmer, and I love both fortresses of the factions. The vampire castle is imposing and wonderful, while the Dawnguard fortress adds a feeling of being at a home base, something that none of the other faction areas within Skyrim proper really did for me. (What I mean by this is that the Dark Brotherhood Sanctuary or the Thieves Guild for instance never felt like a home base. I had no reason to ever go into most of these places unless I wanted to chat with characters or get quests, whereas I have a ton of reasons to go into the Dawnguard fortress, like being able to easily enchant and improve weapons and armor, being able to have a nice place to both sleep and put stuff into storage, and staring at huskies in armor because they are incredibly cute.)

For all of the things I mentioned though, although they are all improvements, they are not the improvement I liked the most. The one I liked, nay, LOVED, the most was the character of Serana, her family, and the Dawnguard themselves. There is a huge improvement in the way characters are portrayed, making them feel both more real, and not like cardboard cutouts. It was my biggest gripe while I played the base Skyrim game, and its improvement fills me with both happiness and hope. Serana, a vampire companion for both factions, interacts with the environment. She sits down, talks, rests, looks around, and enjoys the scenery. Yes, there are some characters that say things like, "That sure is a cave. We should look in it." and "I am an adventurer." but there are really no characters that feel as fleshed out or as real as Serana. She's the first character I was actually proud to have as a companion, as well as the first one that I had any emotional interest in at all. I mean, seriously... Lydia was a lump of wood. I have no idea how people love her so much. Serana talks to you; she interacts. She has a heavy storyline and there's actual emotional intensity in both her voice and her actions. This tells me that there is some real writing talent at Bethesda just itching to write even more compelling and wonderful characters. I sincerely appreciate that. It was the one aspect of everything that I saw in the expansion that made me legitimately fall in love with the game.

I've always liked Bethesda games, but I've always had the gripe that they can't write characters to save their souls, and if they ever actually do they kill them off as quickly as possible. Hell, Oblivion is famous for doing that. Any character that you could possibly have any attachment to will die horribly soon after you meet them. I always hated that. It came out in Fallout 3 as well, except there were very few characters that were actually good in that game. See, now I can compare Skyrim's portrayal of characters to Fallout: New Vegas and won't feel like I have to hang my head in shame. They created a rich and wonderful character in Serana. Her parents are also complex characters albeit less focused on, and even a simple sidequest, the one involving Aetherium, has an incredibly strong character in Katria. So, all-in-all Skyrim's DLCs and expansion seem to have gotten off to a great start, focusing on some of the weaker elements of the baseline Skyrim  and really vastly improving things. I was so happy to see a realistic and well done female video game character that I basically want and need to see more of the same from Bethesda and the Skyrim crew. They outdid themselves with this one, and I can only hope that all of the others will truly be going in this same direction.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Video Game Assessment: Mass Effect 3's Extended Cut DLC

So, I've ranted and raved about Mass Effect 3 and its crummy ending a ton over the course of the last few months. Hell, ever since I first played it I had some negative responses to it. But now here is the ending DLC, that which is supposed to save the franchise and reinvigorate my love for both BioWare and Mass Effect...

...And you know what? Fine. It worked. The game still has flaws. I still won't say it's better than the second game, but the HUGE problem has been fixed. The endings now make sense. They now work. I could never see myself choosing anything but the "Destroy" ending, but I'm glad they've fixed what was wrong. I just watched the cinematics, the additions to the ending, the additions to make baffling things make sense, and... yeah, I'm pretty cool with everything. It's not perfect. There are still some baffling decisions, but mostly that involves the Normandy somehow landing in front of Harbinger (while also not fighting) and Harbinger not attacking. That was odd. But I'll take it. It's fine. I wish the Normandy had never landed, and had your party members just chill back at the base or something... and honestly, in some ways I kind of see that as my own headcanon.

As for everything else... I think there's a good chance Anderson is a figment of Shepard's mind. My personal opinion. I think the Indoctrination Theory still has ground to walk on even though I don't subscribe to it personally. I think that I like the addition of a Rejection ending and the ability to off the Star Child. I also like the additional scenes showing our party members and shipmates as well as the species fighting alongside of us. I think there could have been more overall, like showing Elcor and Hanar and Volus too... but I'm not going to be picky right now. If I had seen this ending instead of the vanilla one, I would have never ranted. I would have been fine with everything and it all would have been cool. Obviously BioWare was rushed and this is what they intended. It makes sense. I feel justified with every last statement I've made.

I don't understand why the DLC was SO HUGE though. I downloaded both this and the Skyrim Dawnguard DLC, and this one is about four times as big for a few words and a few slideshow pictures... I have to assume a lot of it is variable calculations and such... but still it's absolutely huge for a DLC that doesn't do THAT much more. It kind of just fills in the blanks and shapes stuff up so that there's no terrible mess.

Anyway, I liked it. It has given me some hope for BioWare's success and for the quality of the game itself. I can now see myself playing through the series again, something I was thoroughly opposed to if things were not fixed. I know a ton of FANS will hate this ending still, looking to watch a snuggle party with their Shepard and that Shepard's love interest... or hell, they'll hate it because they don't like having to kill somebody or having to suffer through something... And yeah, I'm still not overly fond of PICK YOUR CHOICE... but it works well enough. Well enough, in fact, that I'm done complaining about it. FANS will be FANS and they should calm down a little and enjoy the ride. It's now a decently enjoyable ride, and I'm happy in general. Yeah, I still have some issues with the game besides the ending, but I had issues with the first and second games too, and I still recommend them to people.

So, yeah, BioWare, good job! I'm glad I played it and can look at Mass Effect as a stunning series again.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Movie Appraisal: Dead Air (2009)

"People get the government they deserve, so fuck your people."

Dead Air is yet another radiohost-centered zombie film. It shares a few similarities with Pontypool, but for the most part the movies are completely different, with both different styles and different feels. While Pontypool is an incredibly good movie with a few small issues, Dead Air is rougher all the way around. It is the worse movie of the two, so before you choose which of these two movies you should watch (It should be Pontypool.) realize that this is just not as good of a movie.

That being said, it's not a bad movie either. Most of the movie is both suspenseful and tense, although there is very little horror here. Hell, barely any gore either. You did get the barest bit of nudity with a single bare breast showing before and after a woman gets turned into a zombie, but it easily done much more for the art than to be a sexual thing. And that's fine, but it seems both out of place and a little odd. But I digress.

As much as I'd like to call this a zombie horror film, it really isn't. It's very much a zombie thriller, something I've never really seen before. The horror is so downplayed and kind of pushed aside that it never really feels all that scary. The scariest element in the movie is the human element, and that really leads me into saying it's much more of a thriller than a horror film.

There's also a ton of stock footage in this movie and... well, I rolled my eyes a ton. I hate stock footage in films, and seeing both basketball and riot stock footage basically made me have a dislike for the movie from the get go. I didn't dislike this movie after it was over though. Rather I found it somewhat effective, often kind of amusing, and generally fun to watch. It does have its problems, but for the most part it is a fun zombie flick to watch, even if it isn't even close to the best around. Corbin Bernsen (I know him as the father on Psych, so maybe you will too.) directs an all around competent horror film. If Pontypool hadn't come out around the same time and been all around better I might be giving this film a better pass, but... I guess that's how the cookie crumbles sometimes.

So, there's a Bible quotation in the beginning: "Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof." -Matthew 6:34. How do I take this? What does it even mean? Well, as a knowledgeable person about Biblical and theological STUFF, I'll tell you. It's talking about anxiety, and the idea that anxiety should be saved for the things that are happening now rather than things that could or might happen. Jesus says it so it must be true.

I kid, but seriously, it's a pretty decent passage to use when talking about terrorism or stuff, but does not really work for the message in the movie, unless the message is don't worry about anything and US government, dudes, you really shouldn't make zombie biological weapons that can be hijacked by Iranian terrorists so easily. I guess that's a pretty valid message though, isn't it?

Moving on, although I did find large chucks of the dialogue in the movie pretty snappy and fun to listen to, I found the actors not very good in general. I mean, Bill Moseley is the best actor there (playing the main character Logan), but even he seems to have a pretty big problem acting effectively. It seems that everybody has the same kind of acting issues, overacting or being more comedic than serious... and it comes off very strangely, kind of like the movie is more comedy than it is serious, which I don't think is the intention. The acting can be pretty hard to watch at times and it's the BIG THING that Pontypool shines in over Dead Air. I have to believe it had to do with the direction rather than every actor suddenly having a ton of issues, but I have no idea. All I know is that it is really odd and takes one right out of the movie. Again, the dialogue is actually pretty good though despite the acting. The cat food discussion in the beginning is comedy genius, and much of the dialogue is quick-paced and enjoyable. I just wish better actors or more effective actors had those lines since mostly they come off as a tad forced. There is stuttering as well and I wonder how much of the dialogue was on and off script. It would be an interesting thing to be able to figure out.

The movie is very tense though. Engaging even for the most part. But then there are these odd moments of comedy sprinkled in, like Logan's ex-wife and producer Lucy (played by Patricia Tallman) putting a small plant up as part of a barricade against a door that opens outward. At least Logan had the same response, word-for-word as I did while I talked to my screen.

I think I was expecting the film to be smarter or more intelligent than it actually ended up being. I was wondering if the zombies were blind because their eyes were bleeding. I was wondering if that would come into play. It didn't. I was expecting some character development, some kind of hero or something to emerge... but it never happened. I was expecting a big fight or some great jump-scare cheesy ending... but no,cit was cheesy and dumb in another way entirely. I mean I though Logan's cough was setting up his change into a zombie, but he never does. I figured Gabbi would murder him in zombie form... or his daughter would... but no, they aren't zombies and Gabbi seems immune for some reason. I just want to sigh and keep sighing at the sappy, overly dramatic ending to a horror movie where no horror really ever happens.

The funny thing is that the movie never disappointed me. It was baffling at times, but came off as a pretty usual and standard horror affair for the most part. I didn't like certain parts of the film, but the suspense was good and the tension worked quite well through the first three-fourths of the movie. Not so well after that though. Then it became awfully ridiculous, but it was good for a little while despite the acting.

The political message here is obvious, and obviously one of my least favorite parts. It's about terrorism, but not really, about the US being terrible, but not really. It has a soft political message that never really says anything and goes around and around itself and I find it kind of dumb and offensive. Why didn't labs notice that a bunch of their created zombie virus had gone missing? I think it was kind of dumb with some inconsistencies, but that's probably me thinking too hard.

I don't really feel the need to recommend this film. Watch Pontypool instead. They are very similar films but Pontypool does everything better. The acting is better. You can relate with the characters. The plot means something more than blanketed political messages. The radio program is much more enjoyable to listen to. It's a much more artistic film. And it has a great deal more gore and fun to it. So, yeah, I won't say to avoid this one at all costs. It's not bad, but I can't really recommend it without saying it's a worse version of Pontypool, and that's not much of a compliment.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Movie Appraisal: Marebito (稀人) (Stranger From Afar) (2004)

Well, here is a twisted film. Superbly twisted really. Hell,this is the kind of film that is the definition of twisted. I could compare it to Possession, as it does have some similar elements to that film, but it mostly stands on its own as a macabre and twisted road through madness. I could call it a descent into madness or into hell, or into any dark and terrible place one could think of. It could be a movie about an abyssal road that ends in an eye-openingly horrifying way. Takashi Shimizu, director of The Grudge and Ju-on films directed this film, and did a very competent job, especially because I am not a big fan of The Grudge  and films like it.

This movie is very open to interpretation, almost any kind of interpretation. I could easily call this movie horror, but there are very few horrific bits. I could call it supernatural horror, it definitely has elements of that, but it never really feels supernatural or anything but ordinary. Mostly I think this is a psychological film, one that delves into the mind of a man who wishes that he could see terrifying things, wishes he could experience those things that cannot be experienced, wishes he could experience the same fear that takes the life of some... but instead he falls to he emotionless world.

I think the movie is intelligent and well put together. This is the kind of movie that any interpretation could be correct, and I feel certain that my interpretation probably has elements of both being correct and being way off. It comes down to the interesting story of a man searching for fear, hallucinating or desiring himself to hallucinate so much that he hallucinates in his mind at the very least. He murders, kills, bleeds dry, and emotionally abuses his way to finding the terror he had so longed for. His "daughter," F, is probably the biggest question mark in the movie, and I have to admit that even I have a question in my mind as to whether she was his daughter or a figment of the daughter, a memory, an interpretation, or the physical daughter. I have to wonder whether he had an incestuous relationship with her because all signs point to yes. I also have to wonder if the people he murdered within the movie: his wife, the high school girl... if they really were killed or if that was all in his mind too.

So, there are a lot of variables to look at when interpreting. I do feel pretty confident about how most of the movie probably took place in reality and his own demented mind wanted to see demons or "Deros" ("detrimental robots" from Richard Sharpe Shaver's novel A Warning to Future Man) where there was none. He throws away his Prozac at the beginning of the film. This presumably leads to all of his major problems throughout the film.

So, enough about the plot. The interpretations can go off in different places, and I like to keep an open mind about them. The characters, mostly F (played by Tomomi Miyashita) and Masuoka (played superbly by Shinya Tsukamoto), are acted incredibly with the parts being both believable and sometimes hard to watch. The act of F sucking on her father for his blood is horrifying to say the least... hell, even if he isn't her father it's horrifying. Nutritionally one cannot subsist on blood alone... so I have to wonder what the hell was going on. It wasn't about her not eating... and I think the blood is more metaphoric than real... well, unless he was feeding her blood and that was slowly killing her... which is awful, plainly awful, in its own right. F is incredibly sexualized without even actually being sexual. She's nude in some scenes of this movie, but she's so animalistic, so inhuman, that it's impossible to see her on the same level as another human... and at the same times she is human... it's Masuoka who's treating her like an animal. So, what we see in the movie is what he sees, what his interpretation of the situation is. Anyway, yes, the acting from both is incredible and visceral, hard to watch without denying the fact that it is entirely watchable.

It is a horror movie as well despite everything, but I didn't find it that scary. I never find these that scary. I liked some of the cinematography, especially the camera effects as Masuoka looks out upon the real world, how people's faces blur out or a film tear happens in the scenery. I like how the camera Masuoka holds seems to show him a much more realistic life than his own eyes do. There is a terrifying realization there as if the eyes cannot be trusted, only the film, an objective medium, can be trusted. It's a sobering issue, and one that could easily be talked about for a long time. I liked those effects, loved the descent down the stairs and into the "hollow earth" in the beginning of the film. I loved that being mirrored in the ending. I liked the chaining of F, how he finds her and how he eventually comes to the conclusion of chaining her as well. I like how much it feels like she is his prisoner and eventually he is hers. She has done nothing wrong, but he has changed her into a terrible thing, a monster without a name, a human without emotion, a person who is not. The last scene, as he realizes his great sin, the terror in his eyes is palpable and hearkens back to his "spirit guide" and the way he died, the suicide that started off the madness.

The move is very slow paced. Oh boy is it slow. It never moves fast, and it does become a bit of a chore to watch for a while. The beginning and the ending are both very interesting, but the middle bits are less so. This all creates a very unbalanced film, one that almost works against itself at times. Tsukamoto almost seems too good of an actor for the part, never breaking character certainly, but also never really growing as a character. The development is there, but it's incredibly subtle, almost nonexistent. Hell, in some ways Angel Heart has a similar character... similar ending too. I think this movie is handled much better than Angel Heart, but the sentiment remains. I like how F talks near the end of the movie, but her character doesn't truly develop either, more becoming the dominant one because Masuoka has descended into fear and sorrow rather than because she has become stronger. It's weird to say but I truly did find the acting a little too good for the story. I don't think I've ever said that before either. Weird.

The movie is also a bit jumbled. I found it interesting at times, but kind of boring at others. The slow pace didn't really help hold my attention very well. The movie was well done but a little overlong. It had an interesting premise, but simply felt too flat at times to be really amazing. Again, Possession works as a good comparison. There was a movie that had superb acting and a similar premise. It was slow paced as well, but never felt that way. There was always something happening and you could relate to the characters and feel terrified of or for them. Here in Marebito the characters feel too far removed, the subject matter doesn't seem to intersect exactly what happened... and unlike a true allegory, most of the things in Marebito seem too realistic, as if they really happened rather than being an allegory for child abuse or spousal abuse or the underground of Japan, et cetera. So, I guess that's why I would recommend this movie, but with those warnings. I enjoyed it, but found some bits rather lacking and some of it fairly dry. It's a nice film to watch and an intelligent one to boot, but it does have it's problems and seems like it was filmed fairly quickly and the symbolism is rather pushed into the story rather than subtly inserted. The example for this being his wife yelling about the daughter to him. I  kind of rolled my eyes at that part because I figured that was going to be the case but didn't need it blatantly spelled out for me. But that's me. That's not everybody. And it is a good movie all around.

Masuoka wanted to feel the insanity. And this movie certainly brought insanity despite any complaints I have about it.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Movie Appraisal: Gyo (ギョ) (The Fish) (2012)

Much like my Uzumaki review, I shall review this anime movie alongside of its manga counterpart.

Junji Ito outdoes himself again with a very well put together, very disconcerting story about the end of the world as we know it (and we don't feel fine). He does these types of stories quite well even if there are large tracts of these stories that are very predictable. The juxtaposition of horror and humor actually works quite well at parts with the manga showing an incredibly unhealthy relationship that has its own brand of intentional or unintentional humor and awkwardness. The anime, on the other hand, is a much narrower vision despite having more characters. It feels simultaneously more likable than the manga, but also doesn't have the manga's charm.

Gyo has a predictable quality to it certainly, but it is enjoyable despite that. It's a short anime film, direct-to-video, about seventy minutes long, and I would say that it is worth watching for that period of time if you've enjoyed the manga or really like the premise of the movie. The movie's premise, for those of you who don't know, is that a bunch of fish (sharks included, cue chaos) come up on shore and onto streets and the like, terrorizing people and giving off the smell of human death. As the fish die and rot, the stink and the "legs" of the fish start to infect people through piercing them. These people bloat up and are eventually captured by the "legs" themselves, thus giving us some body horror to remember. The whole story has an air of science marches forward for good or ill feel to it. This is shown when it is told to the audience that the legs were probably originally created by Japanese scientists during World War II, who were looking for a way to create a terrifying biological weapon. The ship that the "legs" were on was sunk, and the rest is hypothesis because the legs changed to something both biological and inorganic. The legs then seemed to be possessed by the ghosts of those lost at sea... and its surprisingly well done and creepy.

It's an interesting premise for a story, and it does work quite well in both manga and anime form. I tend to like the manga slightly better, but that's only because the character development is better than in the anime and the ending is incredibly poignant. The anime version is pretty good at times too though, with similar characters (but not the same ones from the manga necessarily) and some very good visuals at times. I mean, obviously the style is taken straight from the manga, but it does a good enough job at adapting it to a moving form that I can't really complain about it.

The anime version gender swaps most of the main characters from the manga. While in the manga Tadashi is the main character and Kaori is his bipolar girlfriend who becomes infected, the anime switches their roles somewhat, giving Kaori the role of the main character and subjecting Tadashi to the treasure that Kaori is searching for through a good chunk of the movie. Their characters end up being a great deal blander than their manga counterparts, and it does take away a little bit of the tension from the story, although the anime has plenty of tension to go around with the end of the world happening... you know... for instance. Another gender change is the character of Tadashi's uncle's assistant Ms. Yoshiyami being turned into a videographer in the character of Shirakawa, and him basically having the same kind of role in the anime that Ms. Yoshiyami had in the manga.

Two characters are added that are not in the manga, Erika and Aki, college friends of Kaori who have some issues themselves. Erika is a loose woman, who seems to have far too much interest in men and having sex with men even at inappropriate times while Aki is a very quiet and stocky woman who seems to resent the two other characters a bit. Erika seems to be there for pure fanservice. It's pretty blatant since she's sometimes barely clothed, and in one scene is actively having sex with two men. It doesn't happen too long and the horror and the mystery always seem to be the main focus, but the fact that a character is used for fanservice is a little grating. There is also a fanservicey squid tentacle scene out of nowhere at one point... purely for putting a tentacle on woman scene in the movie I'm sure. It was a little distasteful, but thankfully didn't go too far or last very long.

Besides those things, most of the movie was a decent adaptation. The story, although simplistic in some ways, is also quite creative and quite terrifying in others. I mean, it's not a movie that's going to keep you up all night, but it does become creepy when you think about what's going on. I like the animation quite a bit even if the anime is a little too clean for my taste. Takayuki Hirao does an excellent job at finding a great style to give the story, and I never found myself disliking a single instance of the animation despite the differences of style between the anime and the manga. The character design is simple, but I found that it grew on me to the point where I certainly didn't mind it. And the fish and leg design is simply creepy and well done. No complaints at all about that stuff.

I think the story is brilliant, telling of the sins of scientists changing beyond their control and become something relentless and awful, something that they cannot control and that can destroy... well, everything. It's a fantastic idea, and I'm glad it was executed so well. The ending of the anime does not have quite the sting that the ending to the manga had, and that really is a shame, but it was overall still enjoyable. Is it a scary film? Not really, but there is a lot blood and a lot to think about. I would recommend watching it for the visuals and story alone, especially if the story sounds at all interesting or if you like Junji Ito's works.

Anyway, I enjoyed it. I didn't absolutely love it, but I thought it was pretty good. So there you go. Take that for whatever it's worth.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Manga Judgment: Black Paradox (ブラックパラドクス) by Junji Ito (伊藤 潤二) (2009)

Well, I never thought that the day would come when I would not only be reading a manga, but would be actively reviewing it on my blog here. I've read a few of Junji Ito's works recently, and I have to say that I like most of them even if I don't love most of them. A little while ago I reviewed the movie version of Uzumaki and found it a little ridiculous, but I really liked the manga version. I especially liked the ending which reminded me of House of Leaves, which remains my favorite novel.

Anyway, Black Paradox is no Uzumaki. I don't know exactly how to proceed with reviewing this. It's a new type of review I'm trying out here and hopefully this works. I'm also finding this strangely ironic because this weekend I'm off to an anime convention with my girlfriend (She's into this stuff a great deal more than I ever could or would be, and I'll be joining her for that kind of insanity...), so I guess this is as fitting a time as any to do a review of a manga.

See, I had personal reasons for disliking manga and anime for the longest time. I had seen people literally consumed by these ways of storytelling. Certain types of anime and manga tend to breed fanboys and fangirls who eat, breathe, and live these stories. I found it out the hard way more than once. Socially awkward anime fans... an ex-girlfriend who paid more attention to her Japanese animes and manga than she ever would to me... and some of the weirdest fetishes I have ever heard of outside of the internet. I still don't understand Yuri and Yaoi, and I really don't want to understand them. Blast it, last year I was at the same convention I'm going to this year and in a panel I was sitting in on, hardcore Yaoi conversations started up with young children in the same room! Kingdom Hearts fans are a little hard to understand at times... and teenagers and adults should know better than to be sick enough to speak about cartoon relationships and sex around young children who enjoy essentially a children's video game series.

I throw all of these things out there because, as I've mentioned before on this blog, I have a bias against anime and manga. So when I say I like something in those media, like Uzumaki or Miyazaki and his films, it really does mean something special. Trust me on that one.

So, my girlfriend, bless her crazy head, introduced me to Junji Ito not long ago. She mentioned it in an offhand type of way, something about a horror manga I might enjoy if I gave these things a chance. She set me off to reading it, but I doubt she ever really expected that I would with my bias against the entire medium. She was shocked, literally shocked, when I told her that not only had I read some manga, but that I had enjoyed it. It's new for her, seeing me actually enjoy something that she's been into long before I met her and not complaining about it, not hating on it, but actually reading it, even recommending certain stories to her! She finds it funny, but I don't like having the bias against this medium. I've had some bad experiences about manga and anime and popular and fetishistic Japanese things, so I never thought I'd ever enjoy an anime or manga thing... but I was wrong.

I really like Junji Ito's style and his storytelling. He isn't the best writer in the world, nor is his stuff incredibly horrific like some reviewers tend to think, but he tells a pretty decent story with a good pace in the vein of Lovecraft, the short stories of Stephen King, and early cosmic horror in general. He has some odd tastes, and his characters tend to all have similar looks to them in different stories, but he does a good job at drawing and writing compelling stories. I like the manga he does for the most part. Because I do like a lot of his stuff, allow me to say that I'll probably be doing more reviews of his manga and the movies based off of said manga in the future.

So, let's get started! Black Paradox is not very good.

It's starts off pretty well, with an interesting premise of four people going to commit suicide together for similar reasons, but the story simply falls apart when it gets more complex. The characters barely exist as characters. They are so one-dimensional and shallow. There is no real weight to the story either as many of the characters in it either don't accentuate the seriousness of what's going on or are simply too callous to care. There never seems to be a main character despite one of the characters, Marisol, seeming to take that role in the beginning. Only one character ever seems to even grow throughout the story: Baracchi, and that's only because of some plastic surgery and a convoluted  love triangle type of thing that never gets any closure anyway.

There is a mad doctor who is so villainous it's almost comical. He seems to want both of the women in the story without any problem at all. He, conveniently, is the main hinge of the plot, and his villainous behavior and extreme understanding of science and medicine are the only reasons this plot ever even gets off of the ground. I just want to sigh at the convenient story and ridiculously one-sided characters. I will say to Junji Ito's credit that his drawings are mostly superb, and his art shows a dramatic improvement from some of his earlier works even if there is not as much grotesque art, the characters and the backgrounds are much better done in general.

I found the story and plot a little too preposterous to set aside my suspension of disbelief, and constantly found myself wondering why things were happening, why was it these four people? What was going on? and sometimes when those question come into my head, it can be a good thing, but here it felt like a distinctly negative aspect of the manga. I didn't really enjoy reading the story after the second chapter or so, but pushed through because that's how I roll. Again, the art is pretty good, but the story is literally almost laughable and the characters are basically one-dimensional or nonentities.

I did like how Baracchi has a "birthmark" that takes up half of her face. I liked the art there and would have loved to have had her backstory explored. The same goes for all of the characters. I found their backstories so much more interesting than the story presented. Four people going to commit suicide together and are stopped by some weird forces? That sounds amazing to me. But the finished product with body parts opening up to another dimension where souls are stored in jewels of a sort?  I don't know. It just didn't do it for me.

The premise is really that weird. These four people can eventually, once their body parts are removed from them, enter into a comically enlarged removed body organ (that's conveniently stored in a tank or a pool) into another dimension to find soul stones that are used for various things like energy expenditure and such. Oh boy... Sure, there's a message in there about people being willing to exploit anything that makes their lives easier, even if it's their own souls... but... hmm... the message I just wrote there actually makes me like the story a little bit more. If the manga was written solely for that message it's still a bad manga, but at least it's trying to say something.

Honestly the idea of the story sounds a hell of a lot better than the execution. Reading through it was almost excruciating, especially when Junji Ito's visuals weren't as strange and amazing as they usually are. No, I;m not contradicting my earlier statements either. His people looked better as did the NORMAL and MUNDANE backgrounds, but his horror elements and creepy art were woefully missing from this piece. I found nothing incredibly memorable, and largely this manga is forgettable and not as good as most of the Junji Ito stuff that I've looked through over the last couple of weeks. I could compare Black Paradox fairly unfavorably to Hellstar Remina (地獄星レミナ), which I thought had some similar elements but was better executed in every single way.

I can't recommend Black Paradox as much as I've enjoyed Junji Ito's works. Go check out Gyo, Uzumaki, or Hellstar Remina long before you waste your time with this one. I didn't enjoy it. I didn't have a good time reading it. I don't think it's really worth reading. I don't think it's the kind of quality I've come to expect from Junji Ito.

Anyway, I may do some more of these Manga Judgments, but expect harsh criticisms at times if I do. This is a style I do not generally like, so it takes something really special to blow me away. I don't want to show my bias, if I can help it, but when something is bad expect me to really scorch the boots off of it. That being said, if I get the inkling to review Hellstar Remina, you'll see me actively loving everything in that one... so much more than Black Paradox. (I said that last in a very derisive tone as I wrote it. Just thought you readers should know.)

Monday, June 4, 2012

Movie Appraisal: The Curse (Noroi) (ノロイ) (2005)

Now, here's a movie that I can't really accurately describe. Noroi is a strange Japanese found-footage film brought to us from director Kôji Shiraishi dealing with psychics, supernatural phenomena, and a paranormal expert investigating different strange occurrences that all deal with a demon by the name of Kagutaba. It's all over the place at times, moving from one scene to another with lightning fast speed, never really focusing on any of the smaller characters within the film, and setting the story up without much fanfare. In some ways the movie is very stylistic. I can imagine many people falling to one side or the other about the quality of this film, especially its quality as a horror film. It has some strange decisions in its plot and characters that are almost mystifying. And yet it does a good job all around at being a found-footage film and bringing about its story, however strange, by any means necessary.

The film is found-footage as I mentioned previously, with the paranormal investigator Kobayashi and his cameraman doing most of the filming of the strange incidents. But every once in a while a Japanese television show, either an interview show, game show, or reality show seems to come on top of the footage to show some background about characters and their situations. The pacing is all over the place through this though. It never really sets itself at a comfortable pace nor does it ever reach a high echelon of storytelling. That all being said, the story is well done and interesting. The characters are very believable. The acting is mostly very good. In general it is a good movie, maybe even a good horror movie, but I found some things to gripe about anyway.

The movie never really became a scary experience for me. There were plenty of good moments. Hell, there were some moments that felt right out of The Blair Witch Project to me, and I actually found those quite effective in general. Stuff moving inexplicably, the woods and the shrine at night, hell even some of the added in or CGI figures worked pretty well, maybe even because they looked so out of place. The boy in the film, Junko Ishii's son, is possibly the creepiest character in the film. In the beginning of the movie, as he looked through the curtain, I definitely felt a shiver creep up my spine. That face actually was kind of creepy. Sorry to say that about your face, kid, but it was a little creepy.

The movie is fairly predictable though, but even so many plot points come out of nowhere with little plot-wise reason for those things to happen. Characters die for seemingly no reason with their deaths plastered in words on the screen telling us of their deaths rather than showing or telling or anything else. It was an odd way to go about killing off characters in a horror movie, and it fell rather flat for me. I actually rolled my eyes the first time it happened because I had said, "And that was the last time I ever saw them. They died a day later." And the freaking subtitles said almost the exact same thing a moment later. It was a little ridiculous.

The main characters did a good job throughout though. They were consistent and all acted beyond my expectations. There were moments of silliness and overacting, but they were often realistic and all-in-all really well done. The shrine scenes are probably the best and most hectic in the entire film. Certainly creepy. The faces and some of the things seen in those scenes were absolutely awesome and horrific, and now all I want to do is go to a Japanese shrine. I thought that the possession scenes were particularly good too as well as the psycho... I mean, psychic... Hori, who has to be the absolute best actor in the film. I mean seriously, the guy went over and above in the insane department and it really worked. I've seen and known a good amount of homeless men who were a little off and he fits the bill perfectly. I would have taken him for a guy who was a bit off any day of the week.

I also liked the subplot for the town that was put underwater for a dam. Something about that is fascinating, although maybe that because I don't live very far away from a dam that was put over a bunch of towns and villages and the like. I've always found the lost town aesthetic interesting and cool, and the whole plot of it in this movie certainly worked really well for me.

Yes, this movie has a lot of missteps, and yes, it is overly long at times. Boy is it ever. This movie could have been thirty minutes shorter and I don't think it would have been a bad thing. It really stumbled in place with its slow pace. The faster paced scenes or the setups to some of he weirder scenes worked much better than the slower scenes where nothing much happened. But that's the nature of film, and I liked the movie well enough that even the boring and slow bits weren't all that bad. Anyway, I did like the movie, finding it as a decent fond-footage film in general with a few decent scares packed in. It's intelligent as well, but is very Japanese at points, so much so that as an American I had trouble recognizing what I was looking at. I think I also lost a lot not being able to read Japanese because of all the writing on screen at different times.

Anyway, I recommend the movie. It's good, straightforward, and shocking at times albeit tamely shocking. (I'm making myself an OXYMORON today.) I think most people will find this movie effective and well done. I wasn't ever freaked out or scared by it, but I almost never am at this point. It does have predictable elements and is very slow-paced, but I think the movie is definitely worth watching once, especially if you like odd Japanese horror with a strange and supernatural edge.




Friday, June 1, 2012

Movie Appraisal: Pontypool (2008)

Hello listeners. This is Saquarry coming to you from any corner of the earth you're listening from. Today we're going to read an analysis of a very interesting film out of Canada. I guess you could consider this a psychological film, a zombie film, or really anything in between. (There's a lot in between, I know, but bear with me. I haven't been on the radio that long.)

Listeners, there's a something I have to get off my chest about this movie: It's really good. Fascinating really. It's effective- yes, effective- as both a movie and a horror movie, something that I think you'd all agree is pretty difficult to find in this darkened and drastic age of sterile special effects, terribly written screenplays, and critics who think that the only movies that matter are the ones that involve historical figures of one sort or another or A-list actors. Let me tell you listeners that those things have never been true.

You have been lied to your entire life, thinking  big names and Hollywood actors are the only people you should be watching movies from. You've heard that horror movies are scum, drivel, pieces of undercover and disguised excrement on a bleeding sidewalk. And you want to know something: everything about those statements might be incredibly true, but that doesn't mean that a horror movie can't be just as good- nay- better than any other kind of film out there.

I love horror movies. I love the feel of them, the look, the style. Everything about them works so wonderfully. Of course not every horror movie is great, good, or even okay, but Pontypool, well here's a gem if I've ever seen one.

The film is all about tension, plot, and the characters. It's effective as a horror movie despite having very little gore, blood, or brains spilling out on sidewalks. Most of the tension comes offscreen where you, as listeners, can only hear what's going on, imagining it as it happens rather than being shown all the garbage gore in shocking detail. And by the tone of my voice, I'm sure you can tell that I look down on the idea of showing every detail. The horror sometimes comes from not understanding and from not seeing, and this movie takes that to heart by showing a radio station and very little else. No explanations beyond some very vague hints as to what's going on. No reason to believe that the world hasn't gone to hell.

Now, listeners, I don't feel like I should spoil this movie. It's good enough and straightforward enough that I don't think it deserves that treatment. It's slow-paced, and builds on both the characters and the plot in such a way that you actually feel for them and want them to succeed. The horror comes from the realization of infected words and phrases, especially those that infect some of the words closest to your heart. Can you imagine a world where you can't express a pet name like "honey" or "sweetheart" for your lover, friends, or children? It seems impossible, but simply imagine a world where your own language has been turned against you, that even in the understanding of a word you may get infected by it. It's horrifying in it's own kind of silly way, and I think it's wonderfully executed even if the idea is a little out there.

This is a movie that could really only be Canadian with their dual languages and historic fight over which language should be spoken and et cetera. I even remember going to Canada a few years ago, seeing the signs in both French and English and thinking that was pretty cool, but I digress. It's a serious issue over there, and this movie certainly touches upon it.

Pontypool is an easy movie to make up theories about as well. I mean, the epilogue certainly leaves a few questions. But there are even questions as to how the "virus" started and if it involved anti-English terrorists or was just a naturally occurring thing. Did the two leads, Grant Mazzy (played by Stephen McHattie) and Sydney Briar (played by Lisa Houle) end up in that epilogue? And how would they have done that? I think it has to do with the fact that most seem to point this movie out as being a psychological horror movie. I do see some elements of that, but despite the people infected with the virus not really being zombies, they're basically zombies. So, this movie really seems to be a zombie film more than anything else... until you start thinking about it. The whole idea of changing reality, the way words work, the meaning and understanding of terminology... well, listeners... maybe this movie has a lot more than meets my little discerning eye. I like to think that maybe reality could have been shifted or changed... or maybe the epilogue was nothing more than a spirited and odd death dream. Who can tell? All that really matters is that the movie was tense, well done, and actually horrific while showing very little.

The acting can be hit or miss at times, but is mostly very good. There are really only four actual characters that show up on screen, but many more who call in on the radio and become personalities through that. The filmography and direction can be odd at times as well, but is mostly incredibly solid if a little slow at times. Bruce McDonald, the director, did a great job altogether. I have to say that the way the film was shot and done all around was pretty fantastic. The screenplay and the lines themselves were also very good, and I'll have to mention Tony Burgess as both the screenwriter and the novelist from the novel which this was adapted from Pontypool Changed Everything.

So, speaking a little bit specifically, I did some work for a radio station a few years ago. Technically I can still use their soundproof studio if I ever need to record anything. I found that the radio scenes themselves were fantastic because some of them reminded me of my experiences doing what I did. The joking, the hectic pace, the one person who is often exasperated and tells everyone else to stop goofing off... It all was very true to life and really drew me into the story and its characters. I do wish there had been more though. At an hour-and-a-half running time, I thought it was a little short, possibly missing a bit of character development from the very beginning of the film.

So, loyal listeners out there, I must bit you a very fond farewell. This review has been a blast. Seeing this movie was fulfilling in some ways. I would both recommend the movie and encourage watching it. I enjoyed it, and maybe all you people desperately seeking some great horror will enjoy it too.