Thursday, January 31, 2013

Warcraft, Duncan Jones and videogame movies in general

I don't play World of Warcraft, but I am a big fan of Duncan Jones so far. This was originally posted as a reply to a comment on the Badass Digest story about Jones' opinions on how to make a "proper" videogame film.

Posted by "FuckYouAsshole"
I feel like Nevaldine and Taylor pretty much gave us the blueprint for making a good video game movie- Crank and Crank 2.

This strikes me as a fundamentally flawed way of thinking about videogames. Those films seem, to me, a blueprint for making a film that feels like you're watching someone else play a certain type of videogame, rather than how to make videogame movies generally.

In the last few years it feels like there's been a concerted effort across the games industry to tell compelling narratives in games - whether it's something linear like Uncharted 2, an atmospheric anthropological discovery like BioShock or an emotional grinder like The Walking Dead.

Even Grand Theft Auto 4 tried to tell a more complex story than most of its predecessors, although in that instance the extreme juxtaposition of Niko's character in cutscenes and his actions while under player control did a lot to undermine the moral complexity the writers seemed to be going for.

The problem with translating a lot of those linear cinematic stories to film is that they're already aping other movies in a lot of ways - if not lifting character developments and plot points directly, they've certainly been heavily influenced by genre conventions. So yeah, you could make an Uncharted movie, but what's the point? A film version would just cut out the "game" bits, so you'd have the cutscenes plus some minor new connective tissue. I've seen that already.

Something like World of Warcraft is a much bigger challenge to translate in a way that everyone who plays the game will recognise. It's got mountains of lore and backstory, but a large number of players probably don't care about that in their day-to-day gameplay. Which side of the Horde/Alliance divide you play on is going to change your perspective of characters (depending how much RP you do) too, and while the actual mechanics might be similar the experience of playing one class or race is going to be different from another.

How do you tell a story in that world that players are going to respond to, but that isn't going to alienate non-players? Is it going to be a canon story? Is it going to feature known characters, or follow a small group of amateur adventurers drawn into the larger conflicts?

There are a lot of ways this could go down, and even though I don't play WoW (I've installed it twice, but never bothered actually starting it up) I'm intrigued to see which route Duncan Jones takes with it.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Truth to power, with dick jokes

I've been watching The Daily Show, on and off, since about 2004.

I'd like to follow it through official channels, but as much as I love Jon Stewart's work I don't think I could justify upgrading our entire TV package to get the Comedy Central sub-channel that airs it in the UK. Can't watch it on the US website either, and the UK site doesn't have entire episodes.

The show was at its peak in the Bush years, with Stephen Colbert's frankly astonishing testicular fortitude when facing interview subjects1. I'm not entirely sure when I stopped watching regularly, but it's only in the last year or so - mostly due to the John Oliver co-hosted Bugle podcast - that I've started putting in the effort to keep on top of it.

I've mentioned before that I find anger amusing, but the kind of directed frustration in the best Daily Show pieces is different. When I lose my temper at something, I wish I had half the righteous fury and elegant expression that Stewart gets to deploy.

That same anger - part rage, part disbelief, part disappointment - is the driving force of all my favourite satire; The Onion's 6 Best Dresses At The Golden Globes is so close to the bone that it couldn't have been anything but the product of frustration with the world.

It's debatable how much of an impact something like satire has in the real world, though; in the UK, Have I Got News For You is probably more noted by politicians than The Daily Show is likely to be in America, mostly by virtue of how many politicians appear on it, but there are regular polls that trumpet the importance of Jon Stewart's output on the way young people in the US get their news. Stewart himself is more trusted as a news source than a lot of "real" new anchors.

It's kind of a shame that a lot of it gets dismissed - even by Stewart himself - as "just comedy", as if telling a joke about something automatically means it's not important any more. The best comedy lowers your defences with a laugh just enough to let the truth get in.

1 I've never been as big a fan of Colbert's spin-off show; I don't think his character works as well in a longer form. But his speech at the 2006 White House Correspondents Dinner - a hilarious condemnation of George W. Bush's policies delivered fewer than twenty feet from the man himself - is probably the best example of his style.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Rant on Rails

This isn't going to be particularly interesting, or make a whole lot of sense, to a lot of people. Probably best to just ignore it.

Over the last couple of weeks, there have been two major vulnerabilities identified in the parameter-parsing in Ruby on Rails - first in the YAML, then in the JSON bit. I don't really understand the ins and outs of it myself, but essentially it allows a malicious user to run unapproved code by forcing the Rails app to read input as if it was an object created in the application. This has knock-on risks for the database, which obviously isn't ideal.

Upgrading recent Rails apps is pretty straightforward; you just update your Gemfile to point to the new Rails gem, then bundle install and deploy your app.

One of our sites, however, runs an ancient version of Rails on an ancient version of Ruby - so old that I can't actually get it working right on my own PC at work. And that's without even trying to update Rails.

Long story short, I spent pretty much all of today trying to get things working on my own machine, and didn't get anywhere. I attempted to use a simpler solution to the problem on the live server, but that went horribly wrong and I had to roll it back pretty quickly.

I'm still not sure how I'm going to get this problem sorted. I don't think my preferred solution is going to be acceptable given the number of our customers who would flip out if this particular offering was to disappear - but it's getting so very, very tempting.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Assassin's Creed ZZZ

I'm pretty sure I hate Assassin's Creed III.

The process for even getting into the thing - insert disc, would you like to update?, downloading update, installing update, installing game, would you like to pay for an online pass?, please sign into/up for uPlay, all before the main title screen - was a pretty tedious affair, but I'm tempted to say that the game itself is surpassing even that snoozefest so far.

It's just tutorial after tutorial, with all-too-regular loading screens and badly-designed cutscenes. I'm pretty sure every cinematic so far has had at least one shot where a speaking character's face has been partially or entirely obscured by a low-poly wine bottle in the foreground.

And that's once I've made it into the Animus; all this Desmond nonsense at the start is skating on the very thin-ice notion that anybody actually gives a shit about the ridiculous scifi conspiracy/apocalypse story supposedly underpinning the narrative. I'm not here for the story, goddamn it, just f--king let me stab guys.

Oh what's that? I've got to play through the entire 16th-century voyage to America? F--k you, Assassin's Creed III.

Even when I have gotten to actually play a bit of murder, the game seems so determined to hold my hand the entire way through that my slightest deviation from its exact instructions has caused me to repeat a couple of sections several times. Maybe my memory's wrong, but I don't recall being spotted by guards having such a disasterous insta-fail outcome in the original game (my favourite) or Assassin's Creed II (objectively the best).

I'm going to force myself to get to the Conor stuff. I'm hoping the world opens up a bit once you get to the guy on the box, but I have a bad feeling it's not going to be any different.

Just give me a target and an environment. That's all I've ever wanted from Assassin's Creed, but the series has become so obsessed with micromanaging your progress that every two minutes you're interrupted with a checkpoint or cutscene or loading screen and you're rarely trusted to do things by yourself. Except hunting for flags, feathers or Benjamin Franklin's almanac pages.

So long as it's not important, knock yourself out. But don't get any bright ideas about how you're going to approach the actual game. Ubisoft has a script, you know.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Practical makes perfect

A couple of nights ago, The Matrix was on TV again. And I had to watch it all, again. It'd be rude not to, when it's there. I've already written about The Matrix here, but long story short: it's really good1.

Tonight, Aliens was on. And I would've watched it all too, if we didn't have to go to the gym in the morning.

I could go into detail about how much I like Aliens (quite a lot, but less than Alien), but the thing that really struck me was how brilliant the special effects work looked, even in HD, 27 years after it came out. Especially compared to The Matrix, which was at the pinnacle of effects work at the time but looks frankly atrocious when they have to use CGI for exteriors.

Computer effects have come a long way even in the last few years though, and in some films it's difficult to tell whether something's a physical or CGI effect - it's actually surprising how many of the shots of GERTY in Moon are computer-generated. But that's on a closed, controlled set; once you get natural lighting involved things get very difficult. Even Gollum from Lord of the Rings - still probably the most realistic computer-generated character ever - is starting to look a little rough around the edges in HD.

Model shots are timeless. They'll always look good. Not just in big-budget films like Aliens, either - the effects in early series' of Red Dwarf look brilliant, and that's on a TV budget. They certainly look better, years down the line, than the newer series' computer effects2.

I'm not sure why CGI ended up taking over so completely - surely it can't be that much cheaper to override the fact that models just look so much better?Movie budgets are getting bigger and bigger, and although there are some things that would be difficult with primarily practical effects, I'd love to see a resurgence in doing things "for real", even if it is only at 1:35 scale.

1 Watching it with someone else - my wife, in this instance - changes the experience somewhat; suddenly all the little things you can forgive watching it alone become hilarious, unavoidable embarrassments. Tank's entire performance, for example.

2 Which is probably why they went back to practical model shots for Red Dwarf X.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

True North

When I was growing up, I didn't have much interest in music. I remember wanting to play guitar, but I can't remember liking any specific bands or musicians. It wasn't until I was nearly out of secondary school (so, around 16 or 17) that I started listening to stuff for the sake of it, rather than just what happened to be playing on the radio.

The first band I ever got into properly was Bad Religion. This was entirely thanks to their presence in Crazy Taxi, which I played to death on the Dreamcast. I was already aware of The Offspring, whose songs made up the other half of the soundtrack; I found a copy of a Bad Religion compilation album, All Ages, in the only music shop in my home town.

I can't remember what order I bought their "proper" albums in, but I know it wasn't chonologically accurate. I'm pretty sure I had all if not most of the Atlantic (aka, "sell-out") releases before I got a hold of any of the earlier Epitaph stuff (I remember starting with The Grey Race and Stranger than Fiction, which had all the Crazy Taxi tracks on them); it took me forever to find Against The Grain and I ended up getting a copy from one of my university friends (from Nevada) whose dad owned a record store.

Actually, that means I bought Bad Religion's entire discography (at that time, 12 years' worth of releases, from 1988's Suffer through to The New America, one of two discs I don't still have) in a little over two years. It suddenly strikes me as an awfully quick progression from "never heard of these guys" to "omg buy all the cds". While I was still at university I even went to Dublin to see them play, which I'm pretty sure I ever went to a gig where I wasn't at school with anybody in the band1.

It turned out I was just in time for their return to Epitaph, the indie label the band had started in 1980 to sell their own stuff which meant a whole bunch of new albums in the intervening years. It's a bit like marathoning a TV show to catch up to a new season, though - I had a whole lot of new (to me) stuff to get through very quickly, then suddenly it was years between albums.

I'm still not sure what hooked me on Bad Religion in particular. I liked some Offspring stuff but wouldn't have considered myself a fan, and most of the other punk stuff I've tried since2 hasn't really stuck. I'd like to think it's the balance of social conscience in the band's politics; unlike some bands, they're never preachy and often don't have answers to the problems they're frustrated by. The general perspective is probably best expressed by the song Do What You Want - I have enough of my own shit to deal with, so you do whatever you like so long as you don't wreck up my efforts at self-fulfillment.

The exact order of my favourite Bad Religion albums varies, but my top three (at the time of writing) are No Control (1989), The Grey Race (1996) and The Empire Strikes First (2004). I'm still not familiar enough with their latest album as it only came out last Monday, but it's a very energetic and angry punk album coming from a band that's been going for 34 years.

1 Like I said, I wasn't really into music before this point; the idea of travelling any distance to listen to music I already had on CD was weird until I was a proper fan of something. I've now seen Bad Religion play three times live: twice in Dublin and once in London.

2 I've got a couple of Offspring albums (mixed), three or maybe four Pennywise discs (very good, accessible) and have also tried Propagandhi and Anti-Flag (too preachy), The Bouncing Souls and The Vandals (a bit jokey) and NOFX (made zero impression).

Friday, January 25, 2013

Not today

Today has been too much effort. Spent a more of it than I'd have liked trying to figure out how to get information I don't have (but really kind of should) out of the database at work, and I'm pretty sure it's my fault so I can't even blame the last guy. Oh don't get me wrong: I'll do my best to pass it off as his fault. I just don't think it'll stick this time.

Then I had to get the bus home. Fairly certain that the driver of the first #17 I approached saw me, but decided to drive off anyway when I got within six feet of the door. Public transport is not condusive to a calm, rational mentality at the best of times; when it's my only choice thanks to the bad weather, the slightest mistake or oversight takes on the guise of a concerted, malicious act directed squarely at me.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

From the New World

I've had a rocky relationship with Shin Sekai Yori. A lot of the early episodes felt meandering, but usually had an intriguing scene or revelation at the end to tempt me into the next one. It didn't seem to be going anywhere, and then there was a multi-episode arc that felt like filler, or at least a distraction from the massive unaddressed surprise in the preceeding installment.

There are some really interesting ideas in the series, not to mention utterly arresting mythology and terminology - naughty children being erased from existence by "Trickster Cats", for instance - introduced in the very first episode, but to begin with it feels like a lot of worldbuilding that's quickly forgotten about in favour of a storyline focusing on something entirely different.

It's only in the last few episodes that things have started to come together, with plot threads, minor character moments and even that apparently pointless arc all suddenly being massively important not so much to the plot, but certainly to the characters and what the show seems to be trying to say.

The second most recent episode in particular had a fairly accusatory tone, pointed squarely at two of the main characters' naivety and apparent recklessness. This in addition to questions about the nature of young democracies versus the preceeding structure or other competing societal models. The show also generally seems to be warning of the unforseeable and major consequences that come about following what seem like harmless lies or rash decisions - sometimes taking years after the fact to become apparent. There've also been a few moments about racism and imperialism into the bargain, and I've not even touched on the unusual sexual politics of the society the show is set in.

There's no doubt it's a much more complicated - and adult - story than the early, seemingly confused episodes had me believing; it's a bit of a pity it takes so long to get to the point, but at the same time rushing into such heavy moral quandries could have been even more off-putting.

I can see more than a little bit of Lain in the philosophy and even the art style, but really I can't think of anything quite as multifaceted as Shin Sekai Yori; if you've got the time to watch the fourteen episodes released so far, I highly recommend it. I would urge you to watch them in quick succession too, otherwise the slow pace might put you off altogether.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Internet slang: Another way the world makes me feel old

I've not been with the internet since it began, by any measure - I'm pretty sure we never had a modem slow enough to be measured in "bauds", for instance. I have been participating online for the majority of my conscious life though, mostly on forums but occasionally IRC channels too (not hacker ones; I've never had much of an interest in the misuse of computers).

I don't remember there being quite so much slang thrown around as easily or as widely as it is now, though. There was always a "lol" here and there (I made a conscious decision to stop using that particular acronym not long after I first encountered it), maybe a rofl or lmao, but there's a bewildering number of shorthand phrases around nowadays.

Okay, that paragraph made me sound (and feel) ridiculously old.

I'm a bit of a sticker for grammar, but for some reason the acronym shorthand common online isn't half as annoying as txt spk abbreviation or l337 5p34k letter substitution. I suppose it's because an acronym preserves the meaning and order of words, and although they've been cut down to a single letter each I don't have as hard a time deciphering it1.

There's usually enough context in the words or familiar acronyms around jfc for me to figure out wtf it means, but it feels like a barrier designed to keep my fogey brain out of these youngsters' internet. Or maybe I'm just getting paranoid.

1 The trick, I've found, is to work out one of the words from the context and work from there. Also, and "f" is usually pretty obviously profane.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013


Unopposed recipient of the "Dumbest Title I've Ever Seen" award, and with one of the least likeable casts I can remember, BTOOOM! essentially boils down to "Battle Royale with a videogame tacked on". A group of random strangers are sent to a deserted island, given bombs and told to kill enough of their fellow hostages to earn their escape. No indication if multiple "winners" can emerge in a game, or how often players are refilled to replace dead or victorious players.

The game being played for real on the island is based on the hugely popular (in the story) online shooter BTOOOM! (hence the name of the show) and is being inexplicably run by the same company as published the computer game version, overseen by its lead designer, and livestreamed to a shadowy cabal of unidentified silhouettes.

A central part of the story is that everyone on the island was nominated by someone they knew in their "normal" lives. While there are (literally) a couple of ordinary, likeable people who've been dragged into the game, the majority of them are brutish thugs or sociopaths who would almost certainly have happily killed others in their everyday existence anyway. Plus the handful who were were actually remorseless murderers to begin with.

The bombs - referred to as BIMs (the acronym's never explained), come in several varieties, and every episode seems to introduce a new type. As of episode 9, there have been timed grenades, proximity mines, impact explosives, remotely-detonated traps, sound-activated bombs, smoke grenades and gas bombs.

The cast is constantly shifting as players die or escape from encounters, but nobody in the show is worth rooting for. The main character - hikkikomori online shooter nerd Sakamoto, who has conveniently high social skills for a shut-in - has a self-righteous streak a mile wide which comes primarily from his experience in the online game. This also means he's a strategic genius, with a Jack Bauer-esque knack for escaping hopeless situations.

The female lead Himiko - coincidentally Sakamoto's online wife from the BTOOOM! MMO - is a terrible mix bad stereotypes, swinging from terrified schoolgirl to man-hating killer to damsel in distress from episode to episode. I have a feeling a lot of my disappointment with her character "arc" so far is that she bears more than a passing resemblance to Marlene from Blue Gender1 but Himiko lacks the interesting traits and personality.

I don't know why I'm still watching this garbage. It's caught up with the manga so there's no end to the story in sight, and I'm highly doubtful that this setup is going to be interesting for much longer.

I blame Crunchyroll. It's almost as easy to keep watching this rubbish as it is to find a new, better, show.

1 Marlene is one of my favourite characters of all time. I really need to rewatch Blue Gender at some point; I don't think I've seen it through since it aired on SciFi back in the day.

Monday, January 21, 2013

I am a jerk

The other morning, BBC Breakfast ran a piece about gamers that apparently got some complaints. I didn't see it, but I can imagine I'd have been shouting a the TV if I had. This is not unusual when I'm watching BBC Breakfast generally, so it's not a stretch to imagine.

Today, they ran a piece about elderly gamers, which you can still see on the BBC News website.

I missed the start of the article (I came in about 20 seconds into the video linked above). I saw an 85-year-old lady talking about videogames and rolled my eyes, chuckling inwardly about how much Wii she must play, or other casual games.

Then the camera panned over a stack of PS3 games, before showing her playing Disgaea 4, which is fairly high on my list of "hardcore games I can't get into". On a 65" high-def TV.

This octogenerian is a better gamer than I am1.

There's been a lot of coverage lately about gaming as a cliquey, hostile "boy's club", and there's plenty of evidence, both anecdotal and probably scientific, to support the assertion. The self-identifying hardcore nucleus of "gamers" is predominantly male, unreasonably aggressive, and visciously territorial. Every conversation about a game with a suspected Outsider is a chance to boost your own ego by belittling or downplaying the Other's achievements.

I had thought of myself as being better than that. I see myself as open-minded and fair, as someone who'll make a rational judgement rather than a knee-jerk reaction based on preconception. Maybe most people do.

But when I think about my automatic dismissal of Hilda just because she didn't meet my expectation of what a "real" gamer is, it's kind of an asshole thing to do.

1 Turns out she's been playing games for 40 years, which is longer than I've been alive.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Hanasaku Iroha

Normally I'd wait until I'd seen more than a handful of episodes of a series before trying to write about it, but Hanasaku Iroha is an odd one. I can't figure out for the life of me who it's supposed to be for.

It's not what I'd expect from a shoujo series, because there's no romance subplot (yet, anyway) for the main character; there was an unrequited romantic confession in the first episode, right before the heroine moves away from Tokyo to live at her grandmother's bathhouse. But there's no male lead, so it's avoided the kind of harem nonsense you normally see when someone moves away from Tokyo to live at their grandmother's bathhouse.

It's also got next to no fanservice, but that just makes it all the more jarring when it does happen. It's not as uncomfortable as, say, Ikki Tousen, but when the show goes from a light-hearted-but-serious character focus in one episode to implied bondage, erotic fiction or risqué cosplay in the next, it does make you wonder who they're trying to appeal to.

Maybe the director's trying to have his cake and eat it by combining a decent slice-of-life story with this level of fanservice, but it's so totally out of place that it kind of ruins all the good faith built up by the interesting characters and decent story.

It's not enough to discourage me from watching the series, but I'd prefer not to have the good stuff interrupted by transparent attempts to pander to the "typical" male audience.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

An Enemy of Fate

I think The Walking Dead has broken me. Until the final episode of Telltale's deservedly acclaimed adventure games, I don't ever remember being emotionally affected by a film, TV show or game1. The Walking Dead is definitely the first story in a long time that caused me to tear up.

A few minutes ago, we watched the last episode - ever - of Fringe.

I didn't get along with Fringe to begin with. The first season, in particular, relied a bit too heavily on "monster of the week"-type cases, and the frequency with which the weekly disaster happened to be exactly the same as something Dr. Walter Bishop had done in the 1960s bugged me right from the start.

But I kept watching for one reason: the relationship between Walter and his son Peter was such a joy to watch. Their (re)introduction in the first episode, when Peter is coralled into signing his father out of a mental institution, was a bit convenient - and Peter's initial reluctance to get involved with his dad's rehabilitation disappeared a bit too quickly. But as the core of the show, their interactions were fascinating.

Subsequent seasons moved towards conspiracy and evil scientist territory, with an approaching war between two parallel universes providing most of the tension and explanations. The central focus of the show remained on the Bishop family though, and low-budget special effects or convenient plot threads couldn't diminish Fringe's heart.

The fifth and final season was only thirteen episodes long; the way events unfold make it obvious that the writers had much grander plans for their characters than ratings would ultimately allow. Some of the story arcs end abruptly and there are a couple of obstacles that feel forced and artificial; likewise other goals are accomplished too quickly or easily.

But the emotional journey of the characters, especially Peter and Walter Bishop, always feels genuine and earned. John Noble's performance throughout Fringe is much better than the sub-X-Files first season ever deserved. He and Joshua Jackson managed to elevate the show's most important relationship into something worth sticking around for, whatever other hiccups the story or viewing figures might have thrown at it.

Their scenes together in this last series have always made me feel so sad, as they try to save the world and each other, while struggling to cope with the disasters that have affected both their literal and figurative worlds.

I'm going to miss Fringe, and especially John Noble's Walter. But I'm glad they had a chance to wrap up the story and give the characters the finality they deserved.

1 Well, maybe the "Married Life" segment at the start of Up.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Django Unchained

This post was actually written on the 19th, but I've dated it for the 18th for the sake of pretences that I was able to write something every day. We did see Django Unchained on the 18th, and if it'd been a shorter movie I'd have written and posted it that night.

This is going to be a semi-random collection of thoughts and reflections; having only seen the film once there's undoubtedly plenty I've missed. I might jump around a bit, and no doubt some of these thoughts will be only half-finished.

At 3 hours, Django Unchained is not a short movie. But it's deceptively quick; it doesn't feel like a long film, and in fact could easily have got away with a few more scenes in the early part of the story.

I don't want to go into the story in any detail because spoilers, but also because other people have already said a lot more than I could in a much better way than I could about the legacy of slavery in America and how Tarantino has challenged the rather lazy assumptions people have made, in recent decades, about the lives of slaves. In short, it's not just "working without being paid"; the violence, inhumane treatment and abuse of black slaves by white plantation owners is much worse than my white middle-class upbringing ever gave me reason to consider. I always assumed white liberal guilt was about making people feel bad about racism, but in my case it's my ignorance and indifference that's making me guilty. Surely the treatment of slaves on the plantations of the American South isn't any worse than the treatment of slaves in Britain at the same time; I've taken a lot for granted, and it's always a bit of a shock to be reminded just how much.

I've long accepted that years of consuming violent media and video games have desensitised me to violence, but Django Unchained challenged that assumption. There are two types of violence in Django. The operatic, cartoony Tarantino violence, with literal geysers of blood and cannonfire sound effects used for bullets. And there's the real violence. The cartoony stuff I can take, but the real is horrific.

The best examples of this difference are from early in the film; Christoph Waltz shoots a slave trader, and his head explodes in a fountain of red. It's actually kind of funny, and most of the violence at the start of the film - and in fact all of the deaths of white people - are treated with at best indifference and at worst glee1. White people die in either boring or hilarious ways. Then there's the introduction of Leonardo di Caprio's character, which features a protracted and uncomfortably visceral "mandingo" fight - two black slaves forced to fight to the death. The audio for the entire scene has the grunts, howls and screams of the fighters underneath it, so even when you don't see them you know what's happening. There are no fancy special effects or quick cuts. It's horrific, and it wants you to face the horror with the knowledge that, not so long ago, it was actually happening.

I can't remember the last time a fight in a film was presented as anything other than a macho, ultimately good battle between good and evil. Watching two powerless men trying to kill each other for the enjoyment of bored farmers is so far from that usual fantasy.

There's a lot of humour in the film, and the performances are universally brilliant (although when Tarantino makes his cameo appearance it did briefly pull me out of the moment). Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz are very goof, but I've not seen either of them in enough to have had expectations going in. The standout performances, for me, are diCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson, whose master/servant relationship has layers and nuance going back years. It's difficult to tell how much of their interactions is for show - for each other as well as any onlookers - and the apparent equality between them is in marked contrast with both the usual slave/owner relationship and the genuine equality between Django and Dr. Shultz.

TL;DR version: Go see Django Unchained. It's funny, violent and uncomfortably serious, and manages to pull them all off equally brilliantly. Probably Tarantino's best film, and something people are going to remember and talk about for years.

1 "Best" and "worst" in this case are not the ideal words; I don't think it's a bad thing that Tarantino chooses to gloss over their deaths. It's not a film about white people, and in every case they're very clearly people who deserve every bit of what happens to them.

Thursday, January 17, 2013


I've got a weird appreciation for graffiti. I don't mean "street art" - though I do recognise the skill and speed requried - or "tagging", which is just untidy. At least when a dog marks his territory I don't have to look at the messy result for weeks afterwards. I mean the random, angry accusations and (in my experience, usually sectarian) vitriol you get on bus shelters and school desks.

The undirected aggression and violent allegations that can only be expressed anonymously, in biro, on a wall for strangers to see, like a caveman form of the internet.

I find anger hilarious. Apoplectic rage caused by a situation you could have avoided but directed at someone (or something) that can't change anything now. Which is odd, considering how impatient I can get myself.

Misspelled invective, obscure and improbable accusations about everything from my parentage and political affiliation to baseless assumptions about my sexual preferences and physical appearance. If nothing else, the creativity on show is impressive, even if the penmanship or artistic ability of the creator is disasterous.

My favourite piece of graffiti however, which I unfortunately saw before I carried a permanently-connected internet-enabled communications device with built-in camera and GPS locator1, was on a bus stop in Belfast. Scrawled in smallish permanent marker block capitals was the immortal (for me) phrase "Higgins is a fool".

I have no idea who this Higgins was, or why he was foolish, but there's something about the lack of offence in the phrase that really sticks with me. Compared to the usual caliber of sectarian profanity you get on bus shelters on the Ormeau Road, the inoffensiveness of that sentence really stood out for me.

But my wife has seen something even better - years ago in England, someone apparently felt so strongly about the issue that they had to deface a wall to spread the important message, "I love my dog".

1 It's amazing how quickly we not only take this incredible borderline magic - which would have been unimaginable in my own lifetime - for granted, but we get frustrated and angry when we're only able to get a 2G signal.

The comic at the top of this post is by Phil Selby of The Rut, and mostly inspired this post when I found a copy of it in my Dropbox.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Sherlock's Holmes vs Elementary's Sherlock

This might be a shocking admission, but I haven't read any of Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories. Well, I have a vague memory of reading one - something about copying an encyclopaedia - when I was maybe twelve, but it's obviously not stuck with me.

As a result, my only real exposure to the Sherlock Holmes character is through the Guy Ritchie films, the Steven Moffatt TV series and the US drama - in that order1. I liked them all in different ways, but I'm not going to bother with the blockbusters in this post as A. I've only seen them once each, and B. their setting - in the original Victorian time period - means comparisons are kind of difficult with the two set in this millennium.

A lot of people I saw posting about it online seemed horrified by the idea of Lucy Liu playing Watson. In a Sherlock Holmes series set in New York, at that. But I think Elementary's not only a solid show, in a lot of ways I think it's a better show than the Moffatt adaptation.

Pitchforks at the ready.

To begin with, I was comparing Elementary unfavourably to the BBC show, but having rewatched Sherlock recently I found the comparisons coming down on the opposite side of the fence than I'd expected.

This is where my lack of Arthur Conan Doyle experience comes in: I don't know which of the Sherlocks is closer to the original character as described. But on the plus side, that means I don't care. I'm not hung up on authenticity, so I get to just enjoy what I'm watching.

For the sake of clarity (and conciseness), I'm going to refer to the respective Sherlocks (and Watsons) by their actors' names, rather than saying "Sherlock's Holmes" and "Elementary's Sherlock" all the time.

I definitely prefer Johnny Lee Miller's nervous energy, his disappointment with others when they don't see what he does, and his excitement and eagerness when he gets to explain it. Benedict Cumberbatch's Sherlock is dismissive and doesn't seem to realise that what he has is special. He looks down on people, they just don't get it because they're stupid - he's not doing anything special. Everybody else is just substandard.

There's no doubt that Cumberbatch is a fascinating character to watch, and his deductions are allowed to be more complex because of the in-picture overlays showing his thoughts or mobile phone screen. But he's totally alien to the viewer, which seems odd because I always got the impression that we're supposed to identify with Sherlock as viewers more than we are Watson.

I also feel that Miller's emotional moments - when he gets them - are more believable. His Sherlock is not as consistent and cold a manipulator of other people as Cumberbatch, which tends to make me doubt his version's honesty. Is he actually vulnerable, or just screwing with someone as an experiment?

But while I might prefer Sherlock in Elementary, the Moffatt show is probably better. The cases and puzzles aren't as predictable in Sherlock; while the US procedural format makes it fairly easy to predict whodunnit quite early, the reluctance of Cumberbatch's Sherlock to share what he's noted as quickly as Miller's version does means you're more often in Watson's position - seeing, but not observing - than the US version. Elementary seems to want its audience to identify with (and in some cases, out-deduce) Sherlock.

By bringing the audience closer to Sherlock, it also makes it easier to understand why Lucy Liu's Watson becomes attached to her Sherlock than the frankly baffling notion that Martin Freeman would put up with the constant abuse, lawbreaking and condescention of his - and Cumberbatch doesn't even have the exuse that he's a "proper" drug addict like Miller. It's worth remembering, though, that Elementary also has the advantage of a much longer season than Sherlock, which allows it to show more of the personal time between cases.

Of course Elementary isn't without its flaws; like most US crime dramas it's very formulaic and predictable as a result; it also seemed to take a few episodes before they decided what kind of a person they wanted Sherlock to be. Not to mention what his relationship was going to be with Lucy Liu's Watson; there are a few early scenes hinting none too subtly at a potential romantic encounter further down the line, which - thankfully - seems to have been forgotten about. Nevermind the assault to canon, it's nice to see that the writers don't feel the urge to make the female lead fall for the damaged, brilliant male lead. They don't have the hugely entertaining verbal sparring of Moffat's version though; Elementary certainly isn't as witty or clever as Sherlock.

For a lot of Elementary's time so far, I found myself trying not to think of it as a Sherlock Holmes story, primarily to avoid the inevitable (I thought) negative comparison to the Moffatt series. But I think I might actually prefer Elementary - if not as a Holmes adaptation, certainly as entertainment.

It's also got a much better theme tune than it really has any right to.

1 I'm not sure if I should have included Basil the Great Mouse Detective, Without a Clue or Young Sherlock Holmes in this list. Fairly sure they're all non-canonical.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Ah Um

Work's been kind of stressful the last few days, so I've been too preoccupied to come up with anything substantial to post about. I will try harder tomorrow, but I've not seen any new anime in a few days and haven't been playing games much since I finished XCOM (and restarted it on a real difficulty, i.e., Normal - I'm not confident enough yet to try it on a level more punishing than that just yet), apart from Wind Waker which is just ticking through.

So this'll be a bit of a ramble.

I haven't even been keeping on top of blogs recently, so apart from the imminent (probably kind of deserved) demise of another of the UK's high street mainstays, HMV, I've no idea what's happening in the world. Unless you count The Onion's tremendous article about "The 6 Best Dresses At The Golden Globes" - I love it when they get angry.

I have been reading a bit recently; I used an gift voucher from Christmas to pick up the Kindle version of a book I already own, which seems to be more common than buying new books for the device. I've got almost all of David Mitchell's novels on there now - the only one left is Black Swan Green, which I have in hardback but I'm not sure if I'd read it again. Might try the dead tree version again, see if that inspires anything before splashing out for the digital version.

The one I just (re)bought is number9dream, also coincidentally the first of his books that I read. I'd forgotten so many of the subplots and scenes, and it's in turns a tremendously sad and joyously happy book. I'm trying to keep an eye out for tie-ins to his other books (apart from The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, they all take place in the same "universe"); I only remember one, and haven't spotted any others this time yet.

I've also just got Charles Mingus' first Columbia album, Mingus Ah Um (I always forget if Ah comes before or after Um in that title; I had to look it up again to check) and have had that on loop at work. It's pretty good, but it's a more disorganised than I was expecting. Some of the solos really clash with the rhythm/backing sections they play over, but there's some great energy in it. And Mingus was a bass player, so his contributions to the collective aren't always as obvious as Miles Davis' were on his albums. It's probably not an album to start your jazz collection with, but if you're already a fan of bebop you'll probably get a kick out of it.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Drawing a blank

I've got nothin', today. Part of the problem is a lack of energy over the weekend, meaning I didn't get any new drafts written. Still playing Wind Waker, so I've also been rather demoralised by the Wind Temple.

So in lieu of anything original to say, I just want to recommend this article about cinematography, why it's important and where Les Misérables gets it so wrong: Film Crit Hulk Smash: HULK VS. TOM HOOPER AND ART OF CINEMATIC AFFECTATION.

You'll have to forgive Film Crit Hulk's ALL-CAPS writing style and occasionally stunted grammar, but the core of the article is brilliant, and even though I haven't seen (and have no intention of seeing) Tom Hooper's Les Mis, the stuff in there about the technical aspects of a shot's construction is so fascinating to me that not being familiar with the sequences being described isn't really a handicap.

And when you're done with that, read everything else on Badass Digest, because it's probably the best website on the internet at all of what it covers.

It is, at the very least, my absolute favourite, not least because the comments sections are (almost) always civil and every bit as interesting as the articles themselves.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Impassionate Gods


It's weird, the things anime will expose you to. A few weeks ago I'd never heard of Karuta, a Japanese card game; now, I'm fairly annoyed that I don't know enough Japanese to be able to play it. The show in question, Chihayafuru, follows the members of a high school club taking part in competitive karuta tournaments, with a version of the game that plays like a cross between bingo and snap.

The players' deck has one hundred torifuda cards, each of which has the second half of a Japanese poem printed on it1. There's a second set of one hundred yomifuda cards with the entire poem on it, which is held by the reader. Each player gets 25 of the 100 cards and sets them out in their own "territory" in three rows - the actual placement of cards is apparently up to the player. The reader picks a torifuda card at random and reads out the first half of the poem; the first player to grab the corresponding torifuda card wins it and, if it's in the opponent's territory, passes a replacement card to the other player. The first one to empty their territory wins.

I'd assumed, when first watching Chihayafuru, that the speed and skill that the characters possess when it comes to identifying the poem and its corresponding torifuda - not to mention the lightning speed with which they grab it - was unrealistically fast. Then I watched a YouTube video of a real match. It's stunning how quick they react to the first one or two syllables of a card, and it only reinforces the importance of the players' strategy when placing their cards and how good their memories are of the overall layout.

The only other sports anime I've watched is Princess Nine, and as much as I love the its characters, the actual sport itself is a bit of a weak link. The Kisaragi Girls' High School baseball team's strength comes more from innate abilities of the characters - especially Ryo's pitching - than from any hard work or skill progression of the team as a whole. More games are won single-handedly by Ryo's "Lightning Ball" than is really necessary for dramatic purposes, which leaves most of the rest of the cast as little more than filler, at least when it comes to the "A" plot.

While Chihayafuru still gives its progagonist a little bit of a natural edge over some competitors, Chihaya's better-than-average hearing is far from the superhuman feats displayed in Princess Nine. It's not enough on its own to let her win games either; while she can pick up on verbal queues from the readers, enabling her to "hear the next syllable" before it's been read, her memory skills and speed are frequently outmatched by opponents, which makes the games less predictable.

While I'm sure there are cynical business reasons to want the characters' progression to the top of their game to take longer, it's also reassuring that the series is willing to take its time developing the characters rather than giving them a shortcut to the Master and Queen titles. They've got to earn their place to even play at those games, and it's not going to be a quick or easy road even to get to the qualifiers.

The main subplot of the first season is the unusually good-natured rivalry between two of the male characters, Taichi and Arata. It could easily have become bawdy or childish, but the way their relationship is approached by the story feels a lot more realistic. To begin with, Taichi's hanging around to keep an eye on Arata, who he fears might be making moves on his childhood friend. (It's fairly obvious that Taichi has a thing for Chihaya but doesn't know how to tell her.) The romantic rivalry is downplayed a lot, however - mostly by Arata's absence from large parts of the series, but at one point Taichi even admits (although only to himself) that "Chihaya belongs to both of us". Instead, it's their karuta that's the main focus of their competitive streak - although for Taichi at least, a large part of his motivation is probably to get Chihaya's attention away from Arata.

But Chihaya's not interested in either of them romantically. She's briefly jealous when Taichi gets a girlfriend, but doesn't seem to have any worry beyond how it'll affect his (and her own) karuta training schedule. As far as she's concerned, he's primarily her training partner, as he's initially the only person in the school karuta club capable of challenging her reflexes.

Her relationship with arata is different in a lot of ways - when he leaves Tokyo, having inspired Chihaya's borderline obsession with karuta, she's fixated on the game as a way to reunite with him. As a child she didn't have anything that she loved for herself; Arata introduced her to karuta, and her love for the game and for him are indistinguishable. It's intriguing that her driving force in becoming Queen is her need to be with Arata again, but without the romantic hopes that would entail in an only slightly different story. I can't help wondering how their relationship will change once they are together again; their few brief meetings have a hint of deeper feelings than Chihaya maybe realises, but is playing karuta enough to keep them together?

It's one of the things that keeps me going with the show, though - Chihaya's excitement at playing karuta, with old friends, new club members or other semi-pros at the local karuta society is infectious. She's so focused on it, and her gradual improvement - depite her failures along the way - is hugely different from the path of endless victory I'd expected from a sports-focused anime coming in.

Even the opponents she faces are more varied than I anticipated; rather than all high-school students, Chihaya faces off against everyone from a six-year-old girl to old men - and in almost all her matches, seems to refine her technique.

The second season started airing recently in Japan, and is being simulcast on Crunchyroll. On one hand I'm glad that I'll be able to follow along with the series as it unfolds - and I don't have to worry about hitting any spoilers, except from people who are up to date with the manga. On the other, having spent the last few weeks watching three or four episodes at a time, the seven day wait between each episode is going to be tough.

The title of this blog post is the opening phrase from one of the most important cards in the show; the full text is Impassionate gods have never seen the red that is the Tatsuta River. In Japanese, "Impassionate" is "Chihayafuru"and begins with the same kanji (千早) as the main character's name, so she has a special attachment to the "Chihaya card".

1 The poems are taken from a collection called Ogura Hyakunin Issu (Ogura Hundred Poets), compiled in the 13th century by Fujiwara no Sadaie to decorate the sliding doors of the Ogura mountain villa, the summer home of the general and poet Utsunomiya Yoritsuna. Each poem in the collection is by a different author, and are arranged based on when they were written, between the 7th and 13th centuries.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Wind Waker

Wind Waker

I'm not, generally, a fan of Zelda games. The NES original is impenetrable now; while at the time I'm sure its open world and undirected progression was a revelation (hell, it would be quite the achievement to get such a thing greenlit now), I've never been able to force myself to get more than a few screens into it.

The big-hitter in the series, at least for my peers, was Ocarina of Time, but I've long held the unpopular opinion that it's massively overrated - although the mechanics are fairly solid, it always bugged me that the story is centred around one big plot hole1. As with most in the series I haven't played the whole game, but have played enought to experience the mechanics, and have watched more or less the whole thing through.

Link's Awakening was the first in the series that I completed, but the disappointing ending kind of ruined my overall enjoyment by making the whole endeavour feel pointless. I also finished Twilight Princess on Wii, but it felt largely like a best-of, whose story was weakened by my expectations of where it would fit in the canon2.

Majora's Mask is intriguing, but I've never managed to play it myself - but again, I watched my younger brother do a lot of it. The experimental level design, the three-day limit and the mask-switching were such a brilliant departure from the tried-and-tested (and, by now, predictable and kind of boring) standards of the series.

Wind Waker was met with hostility from "fans" when its cel-shaded graphics were first revealed, but I remember thinking it looked like another attempt to do something new with the franchise. I was quite looking forward to it - although again, I never actually did play much of it myself until this year. I ended up seeing all the important story bits while my brother played it however, and I'm a big fan of the game's world-building and its versions of the characters - especially Ganon.

The biggest thing Wind Waker has going for it, in my opinion, is the story: Link has a proper motivation for getting involved. It's not his destiny, he's not roped into it by forces bigger and more powerful than he is - he just wants to get his sister back. The things Link and the player learn at the Forsaken Fortress - and after, when you meet the King of Red Lions - change your immediate goals, but at the heart of the plot Link is still doing all of this for his family. Ocarina asks you to go save the world on the apparent whim of a sentient talking tree who's been lying to Link for his entire life.

Sadly time hasn't been as kind to everything in Wind Waker as the story. While the core mechanics are fine, the lack of precise camera controls and some dodgy clipping make a few of the platforming bits trickier than they should be; it's possible that my reactions and abilities have been softened by more forgiving recent games, but a few times I have felt like the game's cheated me3. Guiding link onto ladders - especially when swimming - is awkward at best, as is trying to grab boxes or sidle along a wall. It expects a lot of precision from the player, but the Gamecube pad isn't exactly helpful in that regard.

Cel-shaded and otherwise stylised graphics always hold up better than anythink that strives for realism, so Wind Waker still looks very pretty. I would like to get an RGB SCART or digital cable for the GameCube though - playing through a composite/SCART block causes some very blurry edges on our HDTV, especially noticable on the UI. The depth-of-field effect when sailing also suffers a bit, as distant objects slowly congeal rather than fading in.

But the sailing itself is great. It always gives me the sense that I'm actually exploring a big world and going on a proper adventure, which was always lacking in Ocarina - there, I always felt like I was only a few minutes away from Kokiri Village where I'd started; going anywhere was never more than a mild inconvenience. In Wind Waker, you've got to invest much more time in a journey. Some people saw that as a bad thing, but I quite enjoy the travelling.

I've borrowed my little brother's copy of the game to finally try and finish it myself, although it took me a few months to get around to digging the Gamecube out of the attic to start. I'm still quite early in the story, having just picked up the Master Sword; I seem to have forgotten most of the details of the subquesting, so I'm not sure exactly how much further I have to go, but I know there are shards to hunt and sages to awaken, which is going to pad out the playtime a bit.

I've got a deadline, though - the tenth anniversary of Wind Waker's European release is on the 2nd of May4, and I've got to return the disc to its rightful owner so he can play it again. I'm pretty sure I'll be done by then.

1 The only reason Ganon's able to get access to the Triforce in the original timeline is because Link opens the door for him. Not that Ganon's reign is particularly bad; apart from a change in management at the ranch, only Hyrule Castle Town seems to be affected.

2 Based on the Wind Waker opening, and some comments made in interviews by the game's director, I had hoped it would be telling the story of Hyrule's flooding post-Ocarina.

3 Nico's swabbie trials can go to hell.

4 Again: I feel super-old.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Kokoro Connect

I was almost 100% sure that this was a much older show than the Wikipedia article suggests - was there another show with a similar name a few years ago? Or maybe I'd seen something about the light novels this was based on.

I don't really understand what it is about (primarily romantic) high school anime that gets its hooks in me like this. The social structure is different from what I experienced at school; the culture of clubs and groups is different, we never had a student council with its fingers in everything, and there's something slightly weird about how all the schools in these shows have the exact same classrooms, staircases, staff rooms and rooftops, and the same lockers in the entrance hall1. They're familiar places after you've seen one show, no matter what year or which part of world the next one is set in.

The main benefit of this familiarity, for a western viewer, is that you instantly know where everything's taking place. You have a sense of geography right away, which lets you concentrate on what's different about this particular show.

Kokoro Connect follows the experiences of the five members of the Student Cultural Studies club as they're experimented on by a powerful intelligence that calls itself Heartseed, beginning with apparently random instances of body-swapping but soon moving on to more emotionally perilous tests. The members of StuCS are forced to face their own - and their friends' - darker sides and insecurities that are brought to light as a result.

This show could be a lot darker than it is. Having teenagers swap bodies obviously has some potential for serious mischief, but the show manages to keep its mind mostly out of the gutter. The second of Heartseed's experiments, which is constantly and distractingly referred to by the characters as "unleashing desires", has even more dangerous possibilities - although aside from the very first instance there's nothing risque, and there doesn't seem to be any clear indication of when anyone - apart from Taichi, ostensibly the main character2 - is actually suffering from an "attack".

It's this second part of the show that's my favourite; the body-swapping is kind of fun and does actually come closest to the sinister ideas that could have been much more common with the material, but the group dynamic changes much more as a result of the "unleashed desires" problem and it's an interesting stress to put on a group of people who are really only friends by chance. It forces them to reassess their relationships and causes some promising conflicts, although once it's all over there's really only one character with a long-term change as a result - though they are in position to have a sizeable impact on (at least two of) the others.

The romance plot is one of the weak links for most of the early episodes, but a development towards the end of the second experiment does shake things up a bit3. It also makes the earlier, token confession stuff more worthwhile and results in higher stakes and one of the most emotional scenes in the show. It's a shame that, as with a lot of the fallout from these experiences, the status quo in the group isn't disturbed much by this shift. It'd be nice to see more realistic reactions to these events, rather than either no reactions or melodramatic self-exile.

1 These might be accurate depictions of schools in Japan - a lot were probably rebuilt after World War 2, which would explain the almost-identical architecture.

2 I'm strongly of the opinion that Inaban is actually the main character, as she's the only one who seems to go through any kind of meaningful character development as the series progresses.

3 I'm trying to be vague, but making sense is proving difficult. Unlike Sword Art Online I think this one's actually worth watching, though - so I don't want to spoil anything.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Matrix

Back when it originally came out1, a friend an acquaintance of mine at school would not shut up about the "genius" of The Matrix. Not of the art, cinematography, choreography or effects work, but the story.

Don't get me wrong: the story's pretty good. But this guy was seriously obsessed with its genius, almost to the point that - looking back - I'm not entirely sure he was a million miles from believing its "virtual reality prison" setup was real. But then again, ever since I saw The Truman Show I've had moments where I've caught myself wondering if things are really as coincidental as they seem…2

A few weeks ago, I happened to stumble onto The Matrix while flipping channels. It was the scene where Neo, at work, receives the phone from Morpheus. Oh, how cool that slide-out keypad cover thing seemed when I was fifteen. Even the idea of a courier service - a postman who would take stuff right to you, not just leave it at your house? I was blown away by this technology even before the cool stuff happened.

I figured I'd watch it for a bit, but was feeling tired and didn't expect to stay up much longer. I watched the whole thing. I'd forgotten how brilliant it is - even the story, weighed down by Keanu's dodgy acting and some creaky dialogue, is great. Not genius, but the pacing and exposition are perfect.

The whole way through the film you're learning stuff. At the start you're being shown hints and images that tease out the banal weirdness of Thomas Anderson's world. Then when he gets out, we learn about the world as it was and how it came to be destroyed and then ruled by machines. We learn what the Matrix is - its rules, its restrictions - and then its weaknesses, how the limitations in the program can be bent. That's a pretty exciting idea, especially to a fifteen year old. Hell, even to a 29-year-old.

Having the film begin with Thomas Anderson, in a world we recognise, gives the audience a frame of reference, and since he's new to the "real world" outside the Matrix he's the audience's stand-in as everything - or, nearly everything - is explained.

There are elements of the story that I'm still not sure on, though - the expanded explanations of the Oracle's role and origin, in the sequels, do a lot to undermine the religious-inspired aspects of the story. I'd have been happy enough for her fortune-telling to have gone unexplained; it's not really important how she knows what she knows (and her foresight extending outside of the Matrix always seemed a bit too powerful for a construct of the program); likewise the importance of Neo's abilities is weakened somewhat by the second film's revelation that he's basically been given them in a random number generator, that in the end he's not actually special in any way other than being in the right pod at the right time.

I prefer to ignore the sequels as much as possible, but they do tend to creep in at the edges when you're not looking. As far as I'm concerned, The Matrix ended two films and fifteen seconds earlier than Warner Brothers would have you believe3.

Despite its wide reach philosophically, The Matrix has a surprisingly narrow scope for its story. There's no massive globe-trotting adventure either in the Matrix or outside, as the script and director seem happy to focus, instead of being distracted by spectacle to the detriment of the ideas. The sequels (again with the sequels) seemed to lurch wildly from COOL STUFF to PHILOSOPHY with no middle ground, but the two aspects manage to coexist quite happily in the original film.

Smarter people than I have tried to deconstruct the symbolism and philosophy of The Matrix, but I really like how the crew of the Nebuchanezzar represent different attitudes to the world. Morpheus is faith, pure and simple; he believes in Neo as The One and that's all he needs. Trinity is loyalty - she believes in Morpheus, and doesn't seem to have her own goals (that's some worryingly sexist symbolism right there). Tank is probably the closest to pure hope - as a human born outside the Matrix he shows, if nothing else, that humanity can survive, and his optimism does a lot to argue that we deserve to. Cypher, on the other hand, is almost the opposite of hope - he's acceptance of The Way Things Are. Disillusioned with reality, he'd rather be stuck in the dream (although he'll try to get an upgrade if he can). It's almost a pity he never gets to talk it over with Neo, who's still struggling to grasp the rules of both the Real World and his changed perspective of the Matrix.

Recent big-budget action film-making is the domain of shaky-cam; choreography through obscurity and quick edits that make it difficult to tell what's actually happening4. The Matrix is shot, dare I say it, properly - multi-second shots with lots of clear action, and cuts to wide angles to establish where the participants are in the room, so you don't get surprised by a pillar or phone box mid-fight. You don't only know where the actors are, you get to see them actually hit each other, rather than getting a punch's wind-up and impact in different shots.

The high points of The Matrix's aversion to cuts in action sequences are its bullet time sequences. It's hard to imagine an era without the sweeping slow-motion shots that the Wachowskis popularised, but to see someone dodge bullets in such spectacular detail is still a bit special today (although that could be the nostalgia talking). I've never quite understood why you'd use slow-motion to indicate that someone's moving really fast, but it looks cool.

Oh, that's probably why.

1 In 1999. Fourteen years ago. You may now commence feeling old.

2 I would make the most boring reality TV star of all time, by the way. Watching me play XCOM and watch anime doesn't seem like an entirely worthwile use of my own time, let alone the broadcast spectrum.

3 Having Neo fly up into the camera at the very end is an incredibly dumb way to end your incredibly smart film.

4 The best example of this is probably the Bourne series - the fight between Matt Damon and Anonymous Assassin #1 in the Paris apartment is brilliantly shot, but by the third film the hand-to-hand fights (and even driving sequences) are so unstable that you don't have a sense of their geography.

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Sword Art Online

I'm generally pretty forgiving with TV shows. The potential I see in a series is usually interesting enough for me to keep coming back, apparently without ever getting disappointed by continuing story failures, character stupidity or bad writing. It's why I was able to put up with two seasons of Stargate Universe, the first season of Dollhouse and all of The Walking Dead so far. I'm an optimist.

That's the only explanation I can come up with for why I stuck through Sword Art Online for the duration. Because this is not a good show, despite what I kept telling myself - for the first eleven episodes, at least. There's a kernel of good ideas somewhere under the pseudo-fanfic story progression, and the setup - real-world death for anyone who dies in the MMO they can't log out of - could be a really interesting look at how people behave in online environments, and why they act the way they do.

Sword Art Online tries to stick with that thought for most of two episodes, then gives up in favour of illogical character development, poorly-explained exploitation of game mechanics and a romantic subplot that, if I'm honest, goes nowhere - but gets there too fast.

Warning: spoilers ahead. Also, this is a bit of a long one.

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Quicksave is my friend

XCOM: Enemy Unknown

In one of the Steam sales last year - I think it was around Thanksgiving? - I finally got around to grabbing XCOM: Enemy Unknown. I'd been on the fence about it initially, but with the almost universal praise it was receiving, even from diehard fans of the originally who'd previously been wary, and my long-dormant turn-based strategy itch returning, I couldn't resist.

I'm still kind of amazed at how much time I spent playing Advance Wars when it first came out. There were nights I'd start at 9, playing for what felt like an hour or two, and when I had to stop because my forearms were numb from being held upright I'd discover that it was 3am.

Turn-based strategy got its teeth in good and deep, dragging me onto Final Fantasy Tactics Advance in due course. It's weird that I 'only' spent 108 hours with FFTA (I never managed to complete all the side missions); it certainly feels like a lot longer. I've played XCOM for 33 hours as of writing this, but I'd have sworn FFTA took a lot more than three times that to finish. Maybe I restarted missions more frequently than I'd care to admit.

That's certainly true with XCOM, where I rotate between three save games in fear of losing a mission (or soldier): a save in the base, which I update after every mission, research project or room construction is completed; a save that's overwritten at the start of every mission so I can hit a reset button if the whole thing turns Charlie Foxtrot; and the quicksave slot, updated before any potentially risky moves (or if the PC starts chugging, as it has a tendency to BSOD on me at the worst moments).

Every so often I'll catch myself feeling quite pleased with my all-top-rank squad's survival rate and their consistent performance in missions, and only two names on the Memorial Wall. I have to remind myself that I've also lost five members of the Council (including South America in its entirety), I've regularly restarted difficult missions when they weren't going my way, and to top it all off I'm still playing on Easy1.

But even on Easy the difficulty curve is far from gentle, and I've started rotating lower-ranked teammates into the active squad on non-Terror missions so I have a bit more of a fallback in the event that my go-to guys are out of commission.

I've become very attached to my guys - particularly Kazumi 'Twitch' Shimizu (Assault), Cali 'Deadbolt' Mehra (Sniper) and Molly 'Cobra' Collins (also Assault). I think I could probably live with losing one of my Support units and probably a Heavy or two, but those three are deal breakers - if any of them goes down, it's a guaranteed reload.

I favour Assault units over everything else; my typical squad consists of at least three Assault soldiers and my (worryingly only) Sniper, with the two remaining slots taken up by either two Support units or one Support and a Heavy if I have some new tech to try out. This does tend to leave me with clusters of units around doors, operating quite far ahead of my (frankly, awesome) Sniper. Deadbolt might not be terribly useful in some of the urban maps, but with Squad Sight, Double Tap and a plasma rifle she is a force to be reckoned with and has a kills:missions ratio of nearly 3:1.

I'm not sure how far through the game I am (I've just started encountering Ethereals); the story has been progressing in fits and starts as I've been holding back on some "urgent" research and interrogations at various points in order to get experience and materials for levelling up my squad or building and launching satellites.

I have a feeling I've not got far left to go, so I'm hoping the Earth (or what's left of it) will have been saved before too long. It's going to be weird going back to the start again - I fully intend to play it on a proper difficulty level at least once - with new people and the horribly basic weaponry you start with, but hopefully my experiences saving the world before, even against a lesser enemy force, will stand me in good stead.

And when it all inevitably goes to hell, at least I'll have a save game or three to bail out to.

1 I originally started on Normal, but was getting slaughtered. I restarted on Easy to get to grips with the mechanics, but have now become too attached to my squad to wipe the slate clean again.

Monday, January 07, 2013


I have made my opinion known to anybody who'll listen (and, no doubt, several who would have preferred not to listen) how I feel about moé anime. Traditionally, the word "moé" is followed by the word "bullshit".

This outlook is based almost entirely on my experience with a single show, K-ON!, which I found to be a tepid, cynical and borderline offensive waste of animation, music and voice talent. The show's bloody-minded determination to avoid its own central premise - that of a musical club learning to play their instruments - comes close to the most frustrating viewing experience I've had with anime.

I was fairly certain that GIRLS und PANZER would stray into similar territory. With a bright, primary colour palette, perpetually upbeat characters in their mid-teens and the familiar "setting up a school club" premise, my hopes were not high.

However, I neglected to take into account that tank battles are awesome.

Starting in the 1920s "Tankery", the maintenance and driving of tanks, was seen as an essential pursuit for young women - similar to a martial art - which gives them an opportunity to learn teamwork, self-reliance and, according to a promotional film in the show, makes girls "more polite, graceful, modest and gallant".

After a traumatic experience with tanks, Miho Nishizumi transfers to the Ooarai High School ship in an attempt to avoid Tankery, but her family's long history and illustrious reputation in the sport results in her being drafted by the school's student council to start a new Tankery club.

All the tanks in GIRLS und PANZER are real vehicles, and great attention has been paid to the way they operate, their strengths and weaknesses, and real-life tank tactics. Once the club starts competing, there are some brilliant tank action set pieces and the tension's palpable when the teams start taking each others' machines out of commission*.

There's also a much bigger cast than you might expect. Each of Oorai's five tanks has its own crew with distinct traits and unique ideas about camouflage: for instance, the Hippo team are military history buffs who constantly compare their situation to historical battles while the Duck team are the former volleyball club, hoping to boost their flagging membership numbers. The variety of personalities - even if they are universally cheery - keeps things interesting where a smaller group of just the main characters could get boring.

So far, only ten episodes (plus two recaps) have shown up on Crunchyroll; the remainder of the series is due to begin airing in March. Unless it goes seriously off the rails in the last two, and even if I have a strong sense of how it's going to end (I'm definitely expecting a Princess Nine ending), I'm really looking forward to it. The next battle is building up to be pretty epic, and if the series has proved anything so far, they know how to deliver an exciting confrontation.

I'd also like to point out that the comments under each video on Crunchyroll are brilliant; rather than the usual quality of internet debate, you have tank enthusiasts geeking out over strategy, armour and the correct use of an M4 Sherman in battle.

* A solid hit from an enemy shell causes a white flag to pop up from the hit tank, which also seems to cut its engine and prevent firing. There are apparently never any serious injuries resulting from shell hits, even though Miho spends most of her time sticking her head out of the tank during live fire games.

Sunday, January 06, 2013

Gym music

The gym we go to has a bunch of TVs hanging over the cardio machines, two of which run music videos and ads - most of which are for the gym itself, which strikes me as preaching to the choir somewhat. The ads that I really don't get, though, are the Ministry of Sound exercise/training CDs.

It's not just the casual sexism or (frankly embarassing) use of free-running in them, though. I don't understand why anybody would want to listen to that while working out.

To an extent, I can understand the appeal of high-speed (or at least up-tempo) music to keep yourself motivated when you're, say, running. If nothing else, a regular beat will keep you moving at a consistent pace, or remind you to pick it up. But when I'm in the gym, I'm not trying to set any records - if anything, I want to tune out, forget where I am and stop looking at the timer on the treadmill every two bloody minutes.

I tend to get bored pretty quickly when I'm on a treadmill or the rowing machine, too - so I need variety in both the exercise and the music I'm listening to. On the treadmill especially, its keeping the pace for me - so I don't need the soundtrack to do that too. A constant techno thump isn't interesting.

As an example, here's a selection of the artists I listened to at the gym on Friday (from memory):

  • Art Blakey*
  • Plumtree
  • The Jimi Hendrix Experience
  • Bill Evans Trio
  • Bad Religion
  • Aimee Mann
  • Passion Pit

I'm sure that, in the event I was ever doing a competitive race or similar, I'd probably choose a more consistently encouraging selection of music, but keeping the music varied makes the gym experience more enjoyable. And if I'm not enjoying it, I'll give up (again...), so every little thing I can do to ease the pain of a 20-minute jog at 6.30am has to be worth it.

*A nine-minute jazz piece might seem like it'd get a little samey, but there's enough variation with all the different solos that it's as good as several shorter songs.

Saturday, January 05, 2013

Kids on the Slope

I bought my first jazz album sometime in 2003 or '04. It was almost immediately after reading the Tokyo chapter of David Mitchell's Ghostwritten, which name-checked a number of performers and records. After Yoko Kanno's soundtrack for Cowboy Bebop, I'd been wondering where to start with "real" jazz, and the novel had given me a list of albums to check out.

I was trying to find Undercurrent by Bill Evans and Jim Hall, but the Belfast HMV didn't have a particularly large jazz section at the time and I ended up buying Waltz For Debby by the Bill Evans Trio* - the only Bill Evans they had.

Jazz and anime seem to have overlapped quite a lot in my interests, until I left Belfast for Dundee in 2007. I'd all but burned out on anime and the move to Scotland meant that my enthusiasm for running my anime website (which had basically supplied me with free titles for a few years) completely died.

With jazz, I'd been content for a long time to just stick with the three or four albums I had, especially with CDs costing up to £16 a pop and an aversion to buying digital music (I don't pirate it either; I buy the CD and rip it) that still persists. I still listened to jazz, but wasn't especially eager to buy more.

For the last few months - basically since being exposed to Puella Magi Madoka Magica - I'd been wondering what other stuff I've missed. I asked on Twitter for recommendations of recent titles, and someone mentioned - almost in passing - Kids on the Slope.

I'd never heard of it before. I didn't reading anything about it before watching. And the first episode kicked my ass in a way that nothing has for a long, long time.

This is the moment, in the first episode, that I fell entirely in love with the series.

Everything about Kids on the Slope was different from what I thought I'd find when I came back to anime; the art and the animation, the way the characters act and the way the music sounds. There are no supernatural forces at work, there are no heroes or villains, there are only people who don't really know who they are or who they want to be, and who've ended up figuring it out together.

It's difficult to express how much - and even harder to explain why - this show stuck a chord with me, but I was so excited by every episode. Not just waiting to see where the story went, which I was, but waiting for the music - to see what pieces they picked and to watch them play it.

If you'll forgive this temporary digression into internet vernacular: OH MAN, THE FEELS.

I wish I could say that everybody would get such a brilliant experience out of the show, but I have a feeling that if you don't like jazz (and some people don't; nobody's perfect) then you won't understand Kaoru's, for want of a better word, "awakening" the first time he hears Sentaro play.

The show has really reignited my interest in jazz, though. I've already bought two new albums off the back of this series (Portrait in Jazz - because you can never have enough Bill Evans - and Moanin'), and I'm already looking into where I should start with Charles Mingus.

The video embedded above was the moment that I knew Kids on the Slope was going to be something special, when I knew it was going to be something that stuck with me. But my favourite sequence in the show (arguably surpassed by the very last performance in the final episode), is when they perform this medley. Music seems like a fitting way to stop myself talking about the show, because now that I've started it's getting very difficult to stop.

One final word, that might convince otherwise hesitant anime fans to give it a shot: the show was directed by Shinichiro Watanabe, and the music's produced by Yoko Kanno. How far wrong could that pedigree lead you?

*I wish I had a specific memory of the first time I heard those opening notes. I wonder if it was a big deal? I know it was a positive experience, just judging by my CD collection, but was it transformative?

Maybe that's why was such a powerful, exciting moment for me, to see Kaoru's face when Sentaro finishes that first drum solo - hearing that music somehow makes it feel like it's okay to just wing it until you find a rhythm where everything clicks into place.

Friday, January 04, 2013

New Years Resolution

I only have one real resolution for 2013. There's the whole "get better with money and go to the gym more" thing, but that's an ongoing process rather than a specific-to-2013 goal.

I aim to buy no videogames for myself this year:. The idea popped up on The Society of using the PlayStation Plus subscription as your sole source of new games, and the rest of the year would be spent clearing your backlog or on more worthwhile pursuits.

I don't have the kind of backlog that some people do; there are maybe a dozen titles on Steam that I've never given a fair shake, but not too long ago we went through and cleared out a load of old stuff, and in the last few years my purchases have been pretty low anyway.

I figured it couldn't hurt to have a definite limit though, so the 11p-per-day* gaming challenge seems like a good way to prevent any spur-of-the-moment temptations.

This does, of course, largely rely on the PlayStation Plus subscription's "Instant Game Collection" keeping the quality up - and on my ageing PS3 staying afloat. I've had a few hard lockups recently playing Arkham City which have made me very aware of its age (it's a 60GB launch model, which I bought second-hand) and I've got the feeling it's going to be dead before the year is out - especially with the increased workload this "no games" year is likely to present. I've also got to contend with an almost-full hard drive, but spending £80 on a larger disk seems foolish for a machine that could be on its last legs - better to save the cash for now in case I need to replace the whole machine for a larger-capacity model in a few months anyway.

I almost cracked and bought FTL on the 1st when it popped up on the Steam sale, but managed to restrain myself before this - frankly, not especially difficult - resolution failed less than 24 hours into its life.

There are some caveats built into the resolution; the participants in this challenge on The Society have given themselves slightly different rules, from a limited number of wildcards to mentioning specific titles they won't be able to resist.

In my case, I'm going to let myself buy The Last of Us. I'm also not going to count games bought for me by others (although Catherine isn't going to be suddenly picking up my slack), or those I buy with Microsoft Points or PlayStation Network credit I already have, or that's bought for me. Only stuff bought with my own money counts.

I just hope I don't end up spending all the money this is supposed to save on movies or jazz albums instead.

* This is the cost of a PlayStation Plus subscription (£39.99) divided by 365, which works out as just under 11p per day.

Thursday, January 03, 2013

Ubuntu mobile

Canonical, the group that maintains the Ubuntu distribution of Linux, have announced a touch-centred phone UI for Ubuntu. The plan, apparently, is that the phone will be able to connect to a keyboard, mouse and external monitor - which should, in theory, convert it into a full desktop PC.

There are a couple of hurdles in the way, though. Firstly, the early videos and previews I've seen have been less than glowing. They all realise it's a pre-alpha, first-release version of the OS, but the lag and reliance on gestures have caused concern. The gestures in particular don't seem quite right to me; they might be more useful once the lag's worked out, but I get the impression that the swipe-down gestures in particular were thought up for use by a mouse - the target icons are minute, which has the potential to make finger navigation a right pain.

The second, in my opinion much more dangerous, problem they face is the timeline. Ubuntu Phone devices aren't going to be available until early 2014 - over a year away. That's assuming, of course, that there aren't any unexpected delays or manufacturing problems - which would be unheard of outside Apple's processes.

A long lead in, giving developers time to get used to and create software for the OS, isn't necessarily a death knell for Ubuntu on phones, but they've basically given everyone else in the smartphone market a list of features that they can start copying now to undermine all of Ubuntu Phone's USPs by the time it launches.

Palm, and later HP, made similar premature announcements about webOS that meant once the devices hit the market their features were either old news or had been effectively incorporated into Android, iOS or both.

Obviously the phone-as-full-PC feature is going to be difficult for Apple or Google to rip off, without a big-screen version of iOS or Android currently on the cards, but I'd expect the majority of smartphone users aren't looking for that as a primary use for their next device. The gesture stuff, which is in a stronger position to change how people use their phone day to day, is much easier for someone else to nab in the next twelve months.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Back on the anime bandwagon

Despite running a website about the stuff from 2003 to 2007, I've been out of the loop on anime for years - basically since I moved to Dundee (or, more exactly, since I stopped running the website and was no longer sent new stuff for free).

Recently, the newest stuff I'd seen - other than the Rebuild of Evangelion movies - were Dennou Coil (2007), Eden of the East (2009) and Puella Magi Madoka Magica (2011). I've been keen to get back into the habit though, so the arrival of the Crunchyroll app on Xbox 360 seemed like as good a reason as any to sign up for the service (I hadn't realised until that point that it was even available in the UK) and see what's out there nowadays.

Even the free offerings on Crunchyroll are decent, although a fiver a month gets you HD video and iOS/Android/Xbox streaming, as well as removing all the ads. Trying out the first couple of episodes of a show to figure out if you like it isn't a problem, and it means there's a lot less time (or money) investment to try something out - it starts playing instantly. The downside - such that there is one - is that they have a lot of stuff, going back to the start of 2009, and it's a bit overwhelming to know where to start when you've not been following any of this stuff for a couple of years.

So far I've watched all of Kids on the Slope (my new favourite show) and Sword Art Online (decent first half ruined by the second), and have seen most of GIRLS und PANZER (surprisingly awesome), BTOOOM! (really stupid but irritatingly moreish) and Shin Sekai Yori (f--king weird, in a mostly-offputting way).

As part of this 365 posts thing I'm planning to write a full post about each show as I finish it, as well as (probably shorter) posts about the stuff I give up on partway through. I've got drafts written for a few shows already, but I'm praying that inspiration strikes about something else soon and I don't end up writing about Japanese cartoons all the time.

Tuesday, January 01, 2013


Right: I'm going to give this blogging thing another shot. My plan is to do some kind of 365-in-365 thing with a post a day.

The hope is that they'll be at least interesting, but consider this post a warning about the likely content.

I ran an anime news/reviews/blog website from 2004 to 2008 called aNIme (now offline, but still embarrassing me on the Wayback Machine). I've been pretty much entirely out of the loop on anime since moving to Dundee, but just before Christmas I signed up for the free trial for Crunchyroll in an effort to catch up. I've watched some really great shows already (as well as some pretty terrible stuff), and will be talking about those in greater detail than I should be comfortable with.

My new year's resolution for 2013 is to not buy any videogames*, but with enough on my Steam backlog, a few games I'm hoping to replay and the PlayStation Plus Instant Game Collection I should have enough to keep me going. I expect I'll bring those up, months behind everyone else.

I'm guessing TV and movies will also show up, and possibly some random ramblings about web development if I can't think of anything more interesting.

I used to be ridiculously prolific with long, reasonably-researched news/politics rants on LiveJournal (years ago), but I'm in a less mind-numbing job now and won't have time to read up and fact-check myself, so those will be few and far between. Not sure if that's a bad thing.

I'm also going to be really lazy and count this as my first entry.

*An exception is to be made for The Last of Us, although that was before I remembered BioShock Infinite and a second season of The Walking Dead; I guess I'll have to hope they're gifts at some point.