Sunday, May 16, 2010

Robin Hood and Little John walking through the forest - Oo-da-lalee, Oo-da-lalee Seems A Lot Like Michael Bay

Ridley Scott's latest epic action film is just that: an epic action film. And that isn't such a bad thing. The hyperbole surrounding this film is a little bit undeserved as it is a perfectly serviceable summer action film with a few foibles. Indeed, aside from its excessive length and an issue with pacing (the film begins very slowly before kicking into high gear and seemingly taking leave of all sorts of plot) it is not super offensive in any sense of the word. It may not serve any real purpose but it certainly isn't a bad film.

The only major criticism I can level against Robin Hood is its title. If they had only changed it to Medieval Movie or Russell Crowe Changes His Accent I would have passed everything off as minor complaints and went about my merry way. But no, they decided to make a movie which has almost nothing to do with legendary outlaw. First and foremost, I understand that this is a re-imagining of an already sketchy legend to begin with and there would be concessions. But when you fundamentally change Robin Hood's character to fit into your big action blockbuster you lose the very reason people would go to see a movie about Robin Hood! To the general public, he's a cocksure, smarmy, thin little fellow (maybe a fox, I don't judge) who is constantly making quips, treading the lines between hero and scoundrel, and showing off his impressive archery skills. What we get here is beefy, serious Russell Crowe who is devoid of hunour, substance and all traces of youthful exuberance. We want an older Peter Pan and what we get is a grizzled soldier who believes in liberty. Blech.

There are so many instances in which my little complaints about the film could have been solved if this wasn't a film about Robin Hood. I can look past historical innacuracies and fudging the truth but putting a beloved character through the grinder like this is ridiculous. It isn't an homage or re-imagining if you change every aspect of the character other than the name. It's a new character. Take for instance, a climactic battle scene near the end of the film. The English divide themselves into two fighting forces. The archers take to the top of a large cliff to rain arrowy death down on the enemies below while the cavalry go down to beat up on them once they're all full of holes. So where does Robin Hood go? He goes with the horse folks. And then he beats enemy soldiers with a hammer.

What the hell!

Sure we get the superfluous slow-mo action shots of Crowe shooting his bow but for an archery expert Hood sure likes to smack people with hammers'n'crap. This is also right before he runs in slow motion yelling "No!" Sigh. Surprisingly, Cate Blanchett as lady Marian is actually the bright spot in this crazy mixup. I usually don't care for her but almost every scrap of human emotion in this film can be chalked up to her efforts. Of course, this is all dashed asunder when she shows up in black armour and chain mail for no other reason than to give Crowe a reason to fight harder. Or maybe it was to remind us of Return of the King. Whatever. Also, the bad guy from the freighter on Lost was pretty cool as Little John, I guess.

Ridley Scott's Robin Hood would have been so entirely less a problem if it had settled itself for being an average medieval war movie. They probably still could have made a buck and stripped from the film all of the needless plot points to convince us that this is a story about Robin Hood. Instead we get a mistreatment of a well-known character tacked onto an already merely okay film. Stay for the animation during the credits, though. Pretty cool.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Power of Music/Excuses to use the PS3 Music Visualizer

Contrary to popular belief, I do listen to music on occasion. Even music that wasn't produced fifty years ago! One of my more recent purchases was the latest effort from seminal Canadian rock-pop group the Barenaked Ladies, All in Good Time, whose particular brand of weirdness has always held a strong place in my musical heart. With the departure of Steven Page, the band has lost an integral piece of their sound and the hole on the vocal side of things is quite noticeable. Whereas on previous albums Barenaked Ladies Are Me and Are Men have included songs written and sung by other band members, they are now being relied upon to provide a larger portion of the songs. That said, band members Kevin Hearn and Jim Creeggan have definitely improved in the intervening years, making the Hearn written and sung "Another Heartbreak" one of the better songs on the album.

The real story, of course, is Ed Robertson taking up the mantle as leading man after sharing it with Page for twenty years. Apparently he is up to task, as some of the songs included on the album are the most original and daring the band has produced in a long while. It could be said that BNL often falls into a formula when writing songs and this album does a lot to dispel this. The songs do not sound as patently BNL as one might expect, which can both be a blessing and a detriment. Songs like "Every Subway Car" (about passengers wondering who inspired the graffiti as they go about their travels), "I Have Learned" and "Jerome" are surprisingly weird departures for the band. Even their patented fast talking song, "Four Seconds" provides harsh instrumentals which betray the origin of the band. That said, the single from the album "You Run Away" and others like "Original" maintain that particular rock-pop vibe that most people would be able to point out as patently BNL. "You Run Away", inspired by Page's departure from the band is particularly strong and is a strong anchor for the rest of the album. All In Good Time is a decent attempt at legitimacy by the remainder of the Barenaked Ladies and, after some getting used to, is one of their better albums in recent years.

Also, I would be remiss not to mention the unbelievably cool Playstation 3 music visualizer which has never made sitting on the couch watching music so fun. For all you PS3 owners who haven't listened to music on your system - do it. Apparently along with firmware 2.1 back in 2007 they added the "Gaia" visualizer which was originally intended to be the start up animation (too bad they ditched it). It's a fantastic 3D model of the Earth in different situations. Think of the start and end to Planet Earth only more awesome and your own music.
Alright. Later days.

Erroneous Man

I saw Iron Man 2 the other day, along with hundreds of thousands of my closest friends. As the first major blockbuster of '10 summer season, this film had a lot riding on it and it delivered where it counted for the mass audiences. Explosions, high action and an increasingly less clothed Scarlet Johansson makes it ideal fodder for the average movie-goer. And really, can you ask more from a super hero movie?

I'm of the opinion that you can. We've seen excellent superhero comic book adaptations in the last few years that have raised the bar on what we should demand from our mindless entertainments. Stuff like The Dark Knight shows us that we can get interesting character studies and themes out of a story which involves a man dressed as a bat fighting a clown. Or, in the case of the original Iron Man, can craft an incredibly watchable and funny protagonist while still adhering to enough action movie tropes to classify as a summer blockbuster. Iron Man 2 is straight up missing the soul present in the first film. Much less present is the quip-master Robert Downey Jr. and in his place is more brainless, hard-to-follow action sequences. What action exists is good but it doesn't eliminate the fact that the best parts of the original film took place outside of the suit and this one just doesn't cut it.

Strong support comes in the form of Mickey Rourke as a disgruntled Russian scientist obsessed with enacting revenge on the Stark name and Sam Rockwell as a rival arms dealer with more sinister ambitions but these are balanced out by the inclusion of Johansson and Samuel L. Jackson as future members of the Avengers movie we will get in a few years. These two feel tacked on and act like it, too. To say that this film felt like a stepping stone towards this bigger film is pretty accurate. I do applaud the inclusion of Don Cheadle as War Machine rather than Terrance Howard in this edition, as Cheadle has chops that Howard just could not muster. In the end, very little actually occurs in this film and Stark is not examined as a character in any meaningful matter. Perhaps if they had actually decided to film his struggle with alcoholism instead of some ridiculous special disease of his own invention I might be more inclined to look past the downplayed presence Downey Jr. had in this film. As it stands, though, he plays second fiddle to fancy special effects and loosely strung together plot about nothing.

All this said, though, Iron Man 2 is not a bad film. Far from it. It is only disappointing in the fact that it reverts back to a state that it's predecessor overcame. Iron Man managed to make a superhero movie devoid of pretention and full of fun. Iron Man 2 plays out like an unnecessary sequel written by someone who really just wants to get on with the many other Marvel storylines. As a start to the summer season, it's fair. It will be very interesting to see where the rest of the next four months take us. I am cautiously optimistic about it all. Cautiously.

3D Dot Game Heroes Or: Frustration Incarnate

3D Dot Game Heroes is the awkwardly titled new video game from Atlus and From Software, the evil, evil people behind last year's cult favourite Demon's Souls. It seems as though the company really has a penchant for making games with an old-school vibe to them, which is both a blessing and a curse. Set in the far off realm of Dotnia, Heroes tells the tale of a dark evil which attempted to take over the world before a young hero, wielding a magical sword imbued with the power of six sages sealed him away. Flash forward to present day, the evil is back and you must take up the mantle of the legendary hero, collect six orbs from these sages and defeat the Dark Lord once again. I'll stop there.

It's Zelda. No really, it's Zelda through and through. You collect four pieces of apple to get a new apple...container. There are upright pigs shooting arrows at you, octopi hopping out of water spewing stones at you and spiders hopping about after you. There is a hook on a chain which propels you between wooden posts. It's retro Zelda all the way. The interesting twist is two-fold. First, the game is in 3D. You see, the King of Dotnia was worried when tourist dollars began to disappear, so he converted everyone to 3D. The game has a very interesting aesthetic in that it is in 3D but still comprised of "pixels". Very original to say the least. The second major difference is the fact that your sword of legend can be upgraded to the point where it fills the entire screen and can pass through solid objects. In practice, once powerful enough, this means you can kill just about everything on the screen from the doorway. It's pretty cool. But necessary because, well, From Software also went retro with the difficulty of the game.

I consider myself a pretty patient person. I've long given up on playing games for any sort of real challenge. It's not a job. Why would I need to expend any effort above and beyond what I find enjoyable? For this reason, I very rarely get angry with a game. That said, today, while playing 3D Dot Game Heroes I am not proud to admit that I rage quit. I make a practice of quitting play sessions in an area where I'm not stuck so as to increase the likelihood that I actually come back and continue playing. There's nothing worse than sitting down for some relaxation and remembering that you ended on a sour note. But alas, Heroes quite righteously kicked my ass today. For, despite having a gigantic sword which engulfs enemies with steely justice, I failed to escape the grasps of the devilish programmer's whims. The culprit: the Fire Temple. The enemies: yellow tentacle assholes who, when you touch them, bring your health down to 1/2 apple (heart for those playing along at home with the Zelda comparisons) and drain you of all your magic. A dramatic re-enactment, if you will, of my reaction to this:


(Note: This was not a question.)

This would not be as big a deal if your gigantic sword was not reduced to a piddling normal size if you lose any health at all. It's like the lasers shooting out of your sword in the original Zelda if you're at full health. Except that if you lose the ability to swing your huge sword, it's a big deal. A "you will die for sure" kind of deal. Not right away though. The game will let you get far enough and then kill you off with some new ridiculosity later. Now, this wasn't a big issue earlier in the game when the dungeons were easier. And later, the dungeons at least became circular in nature, so that if you died you could get back to where you were in good time. Yeah, they also borrowed that terrible checkpoint system from Zelda. Start of dungeon only. Luckily, they do grant you all your health (and subsequent perks in the form of a huge sword) so you're good so long as you reached some milestone before dying.

But not the fire temple. No, it's based around those switch cube puzzles popularized in (surprise!) Zelda. In order to get back to where you were before, you must traverse the entire dungeon. If you touch one of them yellow things, you're done. Even if you lose a teensy bit of health, your survival rate plummets. After two hours, I had had enough. Swearing at the tv screen and giving it the finger, I shut the game off.

It's unfortunate, really, since the game is quite a bit of fun otherwise. It's loaded with references to retro 8-Bit games and other From Software titles and has a great sense of humour. I guess any game which has you swing a gigantic sword and allows you to create your own dot-character (among the pre-sets are such gems as a single shark fin or a reed acting as a snorkle for an underwater ninja) has to have this type of humour. The looping midis are appropriate but only further aggravate the issues with the re-playing of dungeons. I appreciate what 3D Dot Game Heroes does right and lament the things it does wrong. After all, I do really like Zelda.

I figure footage of the game itself is probably necessary so it will do for the crazy random ending to this post. Enjoy.

Friday, May 14, 2010

April showers bring may trees/aggravation

I'll spare anyone reading this the first blog post awkwardness and just get right down to it.


A time full of sunshine, merriment and smiles. Yes, summer has arrived in full force here in Edmonton, Alberta. Despite one crazy day of wintry fun last week (whose arrival was greeted by me by a grunt and a return to bed), it seems as though the season has arrived and is here to stay for the foreseeable future. Which is all fun and good for those who enjoy the aforementioned sunshine, merriment and smiles. For me, however, this season is a sweaty, uncomfortable and downright unpleasant experience. Exhibit A: Walking down any residential street is near impossible due to the infestation of may trees, the mere whiff of which gives my sinus an epic conniption fit. I find myself holding my breath a majority of the time when walking about now, like some superstitious child passing a cemetery.

This is a pity, since Edmonton undergoes a magnificent transformation in the summer time that any normal (read: sane) out-of-town University student may never actually experience first hand. The city is abundantly green at the moment, the University grounds much reduced from their general din and the sound of inane chatter replaced by the babbling of brooks. Yes, that's right. The damn brooks here babble. It's enough to make one actually wish the rest of my body (or sensibilities) accepted summer as much as my eyes and ears do. Unfortunately, my nose generally ruins everything within sniff-range of any white or purple flowers. Did I not mention lilacs? Yeah, they suck too.

Considering I only received internet and television on Tuesday, and the environment is obviously out to kill me (or at least to make me sneeze incessantly and make my eyes water) I spent the first week of my new apartment life sequestered inside going through my collection and seeing how stuff looked on the new tv. The damn thing moves like its in fast forward. Things are so smooth and crazy looking that everything old is new again. Considering most of my rantings here will be related to various entertainment properties, I might as well do a little expose on how things went as I sat agog and, in some cases, disappointed.

Best Looking Blu-Ray: The Dark Night.
Neck and neck with Star Trek but the fact that Star Trek relies a lot on CGI and Batman'n'Friends are almost all real-world pushed this sucker over the edge. Shout out to the full screen IMAX shots. Beauty.

Worst Looking Blu-Ray: Watchmen.
Oh dear me. The Blu-Ray format combined with full 1080p is not kind to films whose special effects budgets are not up to snuff. Granted, some of this stuff looked really great but its clear that some effects were rushed for the Director's Cut and other stuff looked right out of a video game. That ain't good.

Merit Award for Being the first Video Game Played on new TV: Uncharted 2
Even though most games only transmit in 720p anyways, I thought might as well go with the prettiest game just to see how it ran. Turns out, the tv didn't know what to do. At full resolution, the game played jankily and looked pretty bad. One button press away, and it was fine. 720p fine. Game's still awesome, though.

Best Looking DVD: Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles - Season 2
Flabbergasted doesn't begin to describe this set. So long as the television visual effects don't show up too often, you'd be hard pressed to tell that this was merely an upconverted DVD. From a creative standpoint, though, the season itself felt really, really uneven and all over the place. The ending of the series was really quite excellent, though. Shame it was cancelled.

Line that still makes me laugh, 3 years later: 30 Rock, "Black Tie"
Excellent episode all around, but this just steals the show.

And that about does it. Instead of a sentimental signature or sign-off, I'm going to try to cap these things with a YouTube video which accurately portrays my mood. Or, y'know, one I find funny.

So long.