“Blackfish” review

blackfish

Sea World was never really my favorite place in the world, mostly because marine animals seem unnatural to me. Yeah, you can have tons of fun with the silly otter shows, but, at the end of the day, they know a couple of giant squids that will gang up on you (and now that Pacific Rim has exposed the existence of Kaiju, they are more than willing to put the beat down in retaliation). However, there was definitely a period of time when I thought Shamu was the bee’s knees, and wanted to grow up to be him. (only 11, 800 pounds to go!). The killer whale has truly permeated culture as the badass of the sea, floating where no man has floated before, and doing tricks for minimal compensation that no man has done tricks for before.

In the words of my hero: “They aren’t tricks, Michael. They’re illusions!”

GOB: 1. Me: 0.

Blackfish is one of the rare films that can immerse you entirely in a world you had never considered. This movie succeeds because it doesn’t make the case that “Killer whales are intrinsically predators and should be let go”, or merely “They’re hurt inside their cages and made to do things that are innately unacceptable”. Instead, the filmmakers decide to go the far more intriguing route and portray the blackfish (title drop!) as near-human, particularly with the whale Tilikum that is portrayed as the “killer”. Being ripped away from his mother as a calf, regularly beaten by his companions, and generally misunderstood by those training him (a drastic oversimplification, but still true) present a scenario befitting the formation of a serial killer. Watching these horrible things happen to Tilikum inspire sympathy and understanding, and, most interesting, relation. The audience truly feels that his actions, though horrifying, are somewhat justified.

Thinking back on this film, I am impressed that the only way I can discuss Tilikum is as a human. Everything about him seems so relatable, from the interviews with his former trainers to the people who have watched him in the audience, that he becomes one of the most prolific animal beings to have graced the screen (my apologies to Uggie, whom I actively campaigned for to receive an Oscar nomination for The Artist).

However, one minor flaw with the film is that Tilikum cannot communicate with us. This whale that has killed two trainers (and a strange man who broke into his tank) will never demonstrate if this was just an act of playfulness gone wrong or an innate will to kill. Despite much speculation as to this regard, the film resolves to not make a straight answer. The two camps on either side, though, rise against the claims of the Sea World Corporation, who assert that the death of Dawn Brancheau was due to fault of her own.

This leaves Blackfish as a puzzling feature, in that we feel pity for such a majestic and beautiful creature but realize the power and terror he can inspire. It truly plays like an episode of a Criminal Minds-esque thriller. Though no questions are finally answered (except for the age-old adage, “Fuck big business”), Blackfish is engaging and memorable, and one of the most interesting pieces of film work I have seen in a long time.

Oscar Chances: The Documentary categories are always strange for Oscar, and they often leave off beloved choices for more politically-aware options (Jiro Dreams Of Sushi, you were mistreated). However, this has enough political punch and engaging story telling that I see no reason why it should be left off the Documentary shortlist.

Brief side-note, before you go back to the Internet: It is high time a documentary gets nominated for Best Picture. One of the most shining examples is Man On Wire, which you should watch the moment you get an opportunity. What does a film that shows real life have to do to get recognition?

That’s an essay for another time.

New Smash Bros. Games Won’t Feature Single Player Story Mode, Cutscenes

Smash Bros Wii U

Fans of Super Smash Bros. Brawl‘s highly entertaining Subspace Emissary single player mode are apparently to blame for the lack of a similar mode in the new Smash Bros. games coming to the Wii U and 3DS. According to game director Masahiro Sakurai, via the Escapist, too many people uploaded videos of Subspace Emissary’s elaborate cutscenes to YouTube.

“Unfortunately, the movie scenes we worked so hard to create were uploaded to the internet,” said Sakurai. “You can only truly wow a player the first time he sees a [cutscene]. I felt if players saw the cutscenes outside of the game, they would no longer serve as rewards for playing the game, so I’ve decided against having them.”

This takes us back to an era where cutscenes served only as rewards for successful play, and not narrative devices meant to help drive a story forward. Perhaps the attitude of treating cutscenes like… well, treats, is partially responsible for this decision. Or, it could be based on Nintendo’s decision to attempt to control rights and revenue for YouTube videos and live streams of their properties, most recently seen in a quickly overturned decision to ban Super Smash Bros. Melee live streaming from EVO2k13.

At least we’re still getting some kind of cutscene treatment, albeit in the form of promotional videos for new characters like Mega Man, Villager, and Wii Fit Trainer. These videos “potentially benefit by being spread around,” which I can personally attest to. The second a new Smash cutscene comes out, my social media feeds are generally abuzz with posts, re-blogs, and gifs of these infinitely re-watchable little vignettes. Maybe the game’s cutscenes would have helped serve to promote the game as well, but now, we’ll never know.

“Only God Forgives” review

only god forgives

Before I start discussing Only God Forgives, let me just say I loved Drive, the film that universally showed us that Ryan Gosling is a star whether he talks or not.

Until today. Mr. Gosling, you can’t ride this train forever. You can start talking in your movies again. We made a grave mistake.

Only God Forgives. the latest film by Nicolas Winding Refn, might definitely mean something. I just have no idea what it is. The amount of violence and general human depravity in the film has been thrown around as a reason why people dislike it, but it really has no bearing on my opinion- to me, it was no more graphic than any other R-rated action film. Then again, rarely do those films have so much riding on them.

I thought this movie would establish Refn as one of the greatest filmmakers of his generation, a Tarantino that pours less into the screenplay and more into the visual insights, the balance of light and art and film all into one (not that Tarantino neglects these things, but he’s mostly concerned with his ability to say the N-word, permission that was apparently granted in a secret ceremony that only Samuel L. Jackson was invited to attend). To be fair, Refn’s flair for production design and striking visual images is what keeps the movie afloat.

But I really, really didn’t like it.

The lack of a succinct screenplay really upset me, more than I thought I would. As you will come to learn through my writing, I herald the screenplay above all else with a feature film, but there are ways around that. If you have phenomenal actors and a thrilling director, you can make a brilliant movie. Hell, Pacific Rim only had one of those (and yes, I would say Pacific Rim is brilliant, in a robots fighting monsters kind of way). But drive was definitely lacking (heh) in Only God Forgives. I felt like I was watching the Kodak slide show of the vacation from hell. Let this be a lesson to all young directors- you probably think a movie can come together through only your unique vision. This is probably not the case, and, if it is, you’re only allowed to prove it after you have three pictures cross the $100 million mark and you win an Oscar.

The problem is a lack of respect for his audience. Refn is aware that his audience is, largely, American men under the age of 50. This is the age group that has idealized Gosling’s character of “The Driver”, and what he stands for. His calming silence, ability to get shit done, and his desire to do what is morally right in his mind made him the new “Man With No Name”. Refn took that character we came to respect, and made him awful. I have no problem with taking a character to new depths- indeed, Gosling is not even technically playing that role again. But the intricacies of the way both roles are acted indicate that they come from the same place. Refn is too smart to think that audiences won’t see similarities, and the result is what truly darkens the film. Julian, played by Gosling, isn’t so much deliberate in his silence as he is……silent. There’s a difference between silence and acting, Ryan, I’m sorry Mr. Refn misled you.

And the ending. Fuck that ending. I won’t give it away, but let me say this: I used to joke that a show like Breaking Bad, a really taut drama with numerous twists and turns, should end the final episode with nothing happening. Like, Walter White goes into a restaurant, eats a meal, and leaves. Done. After seeing Only God Forgives, I would never wish that ending on my worst enemy.

All in all, maybe I’m overplaying my disappointment. I somewhat enjoyed the picture (although it was a fairly boring film, despite the fact it was designed to “elicit reactions”). The other actors were fair, Kristin Scott Thomas and Vithaya Pansringarm being the biggest stand outs in two vastly different performances. At the end of the day, though, I will probably see the next Refn picture, oddly enough. I’d rather see a director divide an audience than please one all the time. I’ll accept this as an artistic exercise, and see him on his next go-around. Here’s hoping it means more.

“The Conjuring” review

For my first ever article for The Russell Bulletin, it seems fitting that I should talk about The Conjuring, one of the best horror films to debut in several years. I feel like I have to keep my love of horror movies a secret from the general public, and my friends to an even greater extent. Some of my earliest memories involve my dad and me going to the video rental store (insert “those are gone now” joke here, people who can’t get past the fact technology changes) and picking out some of the scariest classics: the original House of Wax or Night of the Living Dead when I was younger, graduating to Halloween or Nightmare on Elm Street when I was older. None of them, though, ever came close to the horror of The Exorcist.

The Exorcist was a movie of legend around my elementary school. If your parents let you watch The Exorcist, you got to be king of the playground. Kids would let you win at tag. No joke, one kid said that during his Student Government speech, and it got him elected Student Body President. My parents, though, were mostly sane and knew I would cry myself to sleep for the subsequent three years after seeing it, so they told me to wait until I was older. I resorted to only pretending I had seen it. (“Yeah, I’ve totally seen it. Remember when her head spins around? So totally tubular.”)

I apologize for the previous flashback, I was in my Rocket Power phase in 5th grade.

It wasn’t until high school when I made the call that I could watch it and would not cry. I talked my dad into renting it (I was very dependent on his desire to watch these movies also, in retrospect), and watched it on a cold rainy night in October.

Oh, how scared I was.

I always had a minor fear of the devil, so that movie ballooned it like Eddie Murphy in The Nutty Professor. I had to buy holy water from my Catholic friends in the most wacky misunderstanding of a drug deal the school administrators had ever seen. I thought that was the tops of scariness. I would never be scared again. And, in a sense, that was true. I thought I’d seen it all. Movies ever since have done little in terms of innovative scares. Every once in a while, you’ll have the calculated horror of Funny Games or The Strangers, or even the rotating fan camera action of Paranormal Activity 3, but nothing new really strikes out as, “Yes! I have never been scared like that before! You, film-makers, have added a new phobia to my list of things to remember to tell my girlfriends.”

Which brings me to The Conjuring.

The Conjuring is really nothing new. A scary doll, a family being tormented. These are all things that you can find in a McDonald’s in Pasadena right now. The impressive thing is the caliber that improves this often-gimmicky genre.

The acting is among the best I’ve seen in a horror film, particularly from Vera Farmiga as Lorraine Warren and Lili Taylor as the mother looking for safety for her family. The screenplay is not particularly revolutionary (usually a problem for me, as an aspiring playwright), but the passion that director Joseph Wan clearly has for the horror genre apologizes for these small missteps with a subtle flair of creepiness, in place of goriness. His concepts in movies such as Saw, Dead Silence, and Insidious have established him, in my opinion, as the leader of this often critiqued genre.

To quote my father: “Anyone can be gory. Add blood. There, it’s gory! Creepy, now there’s something.”

Truly, though. The production design of this film is reminiscent of a non-indulgent Tim Burton. Everything is in just the right amounts to make sure we understand something is off. Not dangerous or innately scary, but just….off. The camera work is usually awful in scary movies, but this struck me as everyone in the film business saying, “Hey, we haven’t made a good one of these in awhile. Let’s try this time.” Maybe that’s ultimately frustrating (or maybe I just have no idea how Hollywood works). The Conjuring succeeds because it trusts the movies that have come before it, and loves them, and shows them to the audience with the utmost respect.

I always watch my films with the end goal of the Oscars in mind (just wait for me around award season, kids), and I see little hope. Only one scary movie has ever made it to the Oscars, and that was that scary movie from my childhood, The Exorcist. I wonder if those kids knew that they were watching history in the making. If it got one nomination, I would consider it a success. Production Design is a long shot, but it would be deserved. Make-up and Hair would be the closest possibility, but horror movies are often overlooked for period pieces……or The Hobbit (curse you, Peter Jackson!). Too bad inanimate objects can’t win awards, because then I would have to give Best Supporting Actress to Annabelle, the doll that’s too big to be small and too little to be life-size, but sure knows how to look like Amy Winehouse’s final hours.

Is that too soon?

“Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition” PC review

Dark Souls Prepare to Die Edition

Thanks to the recent Steam Summer Sale, I finally own a copy of Dark Souls. Unfortunately, I own the worst version of the game. 

It’s my own fault for not looking at reviews of the port before purchasing.

Dark Souls on the PC is almost a straight port of the Xbox 360 version. The game assumes that you’re going to be using a 360 controller – even if you’re using a keyboard and mouse, all button prompts show the icons from the 360’s controller, which only increased the already steep learning curve.

Despite my computer’s vastly superior hardware (the 360 did come out 8 years ago, after all), there aren’t any noticeable improvements to the graphics in the PC version. It also runs in a windowed mode by default, and at an awkward resolution at that.

In addition, the game’s innovative multiplayer is stifled on the PC by requiring the use of Games for Windows Live. I haven’t used the service in so long that I couldn’t remember my account details, so I decided to forgo multiplayer altogether. That’s a shame, because the online experience on the PS3 is unlike anything I’ve seen before. You can either summon friends/random players to assist you on your quest, or “invade” another player’s game world, essentially becoming another mini-boss for them to deal with. Here’s a video demonstrating the co-op play.

Thankfully, I was able to fix most of the issues with the help of mods and a helpful community on the Steam forums. The game now runs at my screen’s full resolution and I was able to rebind the keys (something you can’t do in the game!) to something more usable.

Once I got past those issues, the game is still fantastic. Insanely difficult, but fantastic. “Prepare to Die” isn’t just marketing language – you die over and over in even the earliest segments of the game. 

Dark Souls strikes an interesting balance between frustrating and rewarding. Each kill earns you souls, which you can spend at checkpoints to level up your various attributes. When you die, all of the souls that you carry are dropped where you fall. At times, this can be devastating. Conversely, the fact that you can retrieve them gives you a reason to press forward one more time

Every enemy encounter in Dark Souls can be deadly. Giants rats and skeletons, fodder in other RPGs, can  easily kill you if you let your guard down at the wrong moment. You have to be constantly aware of your surroundings and be ready to block, parry, or dodge attacks.

The bosses in Dark Souls are all impressive sights to be seen and challenging to boot. While each has a set of attacks that can be learned and adapted to, you will die several times before you figure out how to do so. Don’t expect Zelda-style bosses where you figure out their weakness and spend another 10 minutes repeating some pattern.

The game lets you combat your enemies in a wide variety of ways, with no particular play style seeming particularly overpowered. One can use a single-handed weapon of choice and a shield, two-handed weapons, bows, and magic. While the game certainly lets you become a “jack of all trades,” I’d advise focusing on one gameplay style per character and becoming really good at it.

The game doesn’t offer as many options when it comes to the story. This isn’t an Elder Scrolls or Mass Effect. The plot is sparse and if you want to learn about the world’s lore, you have to spend some time exploring to find it. That’s not to say that the story is boring – it’s just not what most gamers have come to expect from role-playing games of similar length.

If you’re the type of gamer who doesn’t quit because of a few hours of frustration, I can’t recommend Dark Souls highly enough. Just be sure to buy it on PS3 or Xbox 360 so that you can have decent controls and experience the multiplayer elements.

Disney is mostly a television company

According to The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson, individual box office flops like The Lone Ranger aren’t a huge problem for Disney because a majority of its revenue comes from its broadcast and cable television divisions. Cable is here to stay for the foreseeable future – as long as that’s true, Disney properties like ESPN and the Disney Channel will continue to do just fine: 

How Disney makes money

The movie business is a rotten thing. American audiences don’t go the movies every week, so they have to be lured with egregiously expensive marketing campaigns for a handful of tentpole movies that, if they blow up, can destroy quarterly earnings for the film division and take down careers. The TV business is somewhat the opposite. The subscription fee model (wherein a sliver of your cable bill goes straight to the networks’ pockets) guarantees that cable networks get paid with or without a “hit.”

“Pacific Rim”: A loving tribute to anime

Pacific rim

Pacific Rim is the best blockbuster movie released so far in 2013. If you want to know whether or not it’s worth seeing, the answer is a resounding yes.

Pacific Rim is Guillermo del Toro’s love song to mecha anime and kaiju film. Everything about it, including the characters, set pieces, giant robots, and monsters will stir up nostalgia within anyone who’s been a fan of Evangelion, Power Rangers, or classic films like King Kong or Godzilla.

There’s the protagonist who’s a good guy by all accounts. There’s the general who has a rough exterior but a heart of gold. The shy love interest who is submissive to authority until she finally finds her voice and kicks all kinds of ass. Oh, and the asshole rival to the protagonist who completely redeems himself with an act of self-sacrifice.

The fact that the main cast fits so well into these archetypes has been polarizing among critics. Among all of the reviews that I’ve read, it’s the one thing that’s been consistently called out as a flaw in the film. Here’s Twitch’s Greg Christie:

And then the film starts introducing all of the other supporting characters, each one an iconic archetype, although stereotype might be more fitting.

[…]

There’s no room or time for the characters to breath. Everyone is practically introduced in a way where they might as well turn to the camera and say, “Hi, I’m the bossy but cute Asian love interest for the white man.”  “Hi, I might seem like a hard ass military black dude, but there’s more to me than just that.” “Hey there guys, we’re the comic relief for tonight.” “Ah, ya know I’m the prick you’re going to hate but I’m totally going to redeem myself with a huge sacrifice later.” ” Yo, I’m Ron Perlman, I don’t have to be anything else cause I’m mother fucking Ron Perlman and that’s enough.”

For most other films, I would agree with Christie’s take. In fact, that’s been one of the biggest problems I’ve had with the Star Trek reboots: the characters were simply hollow clichés based on the characters from the original series. But with Pacific Rim, I found myself feeling the same was as Scott Weinberg did in his review:

The Pacific Rim heroes are as deep as they’d be in issue #1 of a new comic book, and frankly it’s a little refreshing to have some basic heroes after dealing with so many emotional superheroes with daddy issues.

None of the characters in Pacific Rim are going through a Man of Steel-style identity crisis. Even though one of the characters does in fact have “daddy issues,” the conflicting universal themes that the film is working with – wanting what’s best for your child and wanting to take your own path in life – are reliable anime tropes that add a necessary emotional center to what could have easily been a shallow Transformers knock-off.

The cast does a fine job working with what they’ve been given. Charlie Day stands out as a character that’s basically the result of his character from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia being Doc Brown’s apprentice instead of Marty McFly.

Del Toro doesn’t disappoint with the action. Like 2008’s underrated Speed Racer, the visuals are heavily influenced by anime’s style, though (as Christie notes) Guillermo also brings in his signature color palette. The fights between the robots (or “Jaegers”) and the monsters (“kaiju”) are visceral, with each hit given just enough screen time to let you soak it in – unlike Transformers, you won’t get dizzy or have trouble keeping track of who’s doing what in a fight. The result is a visual feast that you can’t take your eyes off of. 

The film even surprised me with some of the summer blockbuster clichés that it avoided. For instance, the potential for romance between the protagonist and his love interest is set up rather early in the first act, but the film makes no attempt to overtly sexualize her and when the day is saved there’s no “now kiss” moment. Seriously, Man of Steel, hundreds of thousands of people just died. Not the time.

Check out the first Grand Theft Auto V gameplay video

This game just became a must-buy for me. The character switching – both between and during missions –  makes the game seem much more dynamic than previous offerings in the series.

It also seems like the different personalities for the characters will remove some of the cognitive dissonance that happened in GTA IV when you’d take Niko, a character trying to make a new life for himself, on a massive killing spree. Now, if you want to play “responsibly,” you can switch to Michael or Franklin and if you want to cause chaos you can switch over to Trevor and not feel like you’re not playing out-of-character.

The Velvet Underground’s Lou Reed on Kanye’s new album

The Velvet Underground’s Lou Reed put up a great review of Kanye West’s new album, Yeezus:

Kanye West is a child of social networking and hip-hop.  And he knows about all kinds of music and popular culture.  The guy has a real wide palette to play with.  That’s all over Yeezus.  There are moments of supreme beauty and greatness on this record, and then some of it is the same old shit.  But the guy really, really, really is talented.  He’s really trying to raise the bar.  No one’s near doing what he’s doing, it’s not even on the same planet.

He gives some great insight into aspects of each song that give a simple breakdown of what Kanye is shooting for. Here’s what he had to say about New Slaves, my favorite song on the album:

There are more contradictions on “New Slaves,” where he says “Fuck you and your Hamptons house.” But God only knows how much he’s spending wherever he is. He’s trying to have it both ways — he’s the upstart but he’s got it all, so he frowns on it. Some people might say that makes him complicated, but it’s not really that complicated. He kind of wants to retain his street cred even though he got so popular. And I think he thinks people are going to think he’s become one of them — so he’s going to very great lengths to claim that he’s not. On “New Slaves,” he’s accusing everyone of being materialistic but you know, when guys do something like that, it’s always like, “But we’re the exception. It’s all those other people, but we know better.”

“New Slaves” has that line “Y’all throwin’ contracts at me/ You know that niggas can’t read.” Wow, wow, wow. That is an amazing thing to put in a lyric. That’s a serious accusation in the middle of this rant at other people: an accusation of himself. As if he’s some piece of shit from the street who doesn’t know nothing. Yeah, right — your mom was a college English professor.

Arrested Development shows us the downside to binge-watching

Arrested Development and the case against binge-watching:

How strange that it already feels too late to talk about the return of Arrested Development. After all, fans waited, and lobbied, and agitated for seven years -before the arrival of a treasure trove of 15 fresh episodes of the cult comedy, and as I write this, it’s been only two weeks since Netflix unveiled them in its signature open-all-your-Christmas-presents-at-once style. But it turns out that even a binge viewer’s paradise has a dark side: If supersizing your TV portions is so great, why does Arrested Development feel so…over? And why didn’t people have more fun with something they wanted so badly and were so happy to get?

Going by the Twitter reactions and the recaps that started to appear just hours after the show was made available, many viewers seem to have taken in too much too fast. Some expressed disappointment at the pacing of the episodes; some objected to a complicated and repetitive story line in which jokes pay off only after circling back to the same event multiple times. I’ll leave that debate to more devoted buffs (I’m a latecomer), but I will point out that if you take in several episodes of anything in a row, the word repetitive will likely come to mind. No wonder many AD fans sounded a bit green around the gills in those first few days, like Cartman overeating until all he can do is gasp, “No…more…pie.”

I’ve been spacing out my viewing of the latest season of Arrested Development – I’m only on episode 4 – and so far, I’ve found that I’m enjoying it more than people who rushed through half a season the day it came out.

Of course, some people genuinely don’t like the new format for the show – it’s very different from the three seasons that ran on Fox. If you liked the original series but haven’t given the fourth season a shot, I recommend watching the first two episodes (the first is rather mediocre by itself) and then giving yourself a few days before trying more.