Archive for the 'Reviews' Category

1920’s Faust (movie review)

Feb 03 2014 Published by under Reviews

Faust (1926 film)Wow.

It’s rare to come upon a movie that is such a masterful tour-de-force. Faust fires on all cylinders, creating a work that’s innovative, artful, and complete.

Faust’s first few minutes are composed almost entirely of complex special-effects shots, showing angels and demons riding through the air. This in a film made in 1926.

We then see a conversation between an angel and a demon, a bet that any mortal can be corrupted. The bet centers on a pure man, the eponymous Faust, who works tirelessly to cure the Black Death. The devil goes to him and offers him a truly devilish bargain.

Here’s where Faust elevates itself above so many other films. We’re so used to obviously lopsided “devil’s bargains” that we forget how clever they’re supposed to be.

The devil offers a 24 hour test of the devil’s every supernatural power. The devil points out all the good he can do: heal the sick, rescue those in peril, stop wars. Faust agrees, and it works! He heals the sick. Throngs come pleading to him. A girl clutching a cross reaches out to him…and you can see the horror in his eyes as he realizes that he cannot touch her. The crowd around sees this, and they realize his limitation. They spurn him. He rushes back to his house, tries to throw himself from the roof, and the devil intervenes: No! Faust agreed to a 24 hour test, not less!

Again, it’s devilishly brilliant. Of course the devil won’t let him off that easily.

The devil then shows Faust the other things he can do: return to youth! A flight to the other side of the world! Beauty and love! Faust, being human, tries it all. And when the 24 hours are over, you can guess how he responds.

And we’re only halfway into the film.

One of the most pleasant attributes of Faust is the clarity of its presentation. The plot moves with singularity of purpose from high to low, from temptation to revelation. You always know where you are, and you never know where you’re going to go.

I won’t spoil the ending; suffice to say it shocked me and felt perfectly appropriate.

Unfortunately, some of the minor actors fall into the over-the-top affectation of so many silent film actors. However, the leads act with solidity and grace. I felt their emotions.


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Go Goa Gone (Movie Review)

Jan 27 2014 Published by under Reviews

Go Goa Gone PosterIt’s as though Raj Nidimoru and Krishna D.K. watched the first Hangover movie, looked at each other, and said, “You know what that needed? More zombies.”

I watched Go Goa Gone on my flight back from Japan, so I was in a loopy mood, so my apologies if this review is overly charitable.

Go Goa Gone tells the story of a few brain-dead young Indian men who excitedly decide to crash an ultra-hip party on an island in the ultra-hip Indian state of Goa. They arrive, the party is even crazier than they imagined, drugs pass from person to person (though the protagonists abstain), and everyone falls asleep.

The next day, everyone who took the drugs is now a zombie.

Cue a comedic zombie survival horror movie. Unlike, say, Shaun of the Dead, which focuses on character relationships and personal journeys, Go Goa Gone is more of a comedic set piece. It’s about the marriage of a college frat boy movie with the constant threat of things trying to eat you.

Fortunately, the film maintains a certain level of intensity, just enough to drive the characters forward and create genuine tension. These people are not in the right frame of mind to fight off zombies, and being Indian, they haven’t seen enough zombie movies to know the “rules” of fighting zombies. This provides a clever solution to the problem of characters in a zombie movie acting like they’ve never seen a zombie movie.

Fundamentally, though, Go Goa Gone is a comedy. It’s mostly a collection of jokes and brief scares as zombies leap out.

The filmmakers were smart enough to keep the horror at the right level of intensity. The movie rarely terrifies, but it delivers a few scenes of characters searching through empty houses where you just know a zombie is going to leap out any second.

The actors deliver wonderfully broad performances, never annoyingly over-the-top but just ridiculous enough to create conflict and generate a few laughs. Even better, there are no song-and-dance routines. I suppose you could count one rave sequence, but it’s…well…a rave sequence, so the actors aren’t square-dancing and looking at the camera.

None of the special effects will shock or horrify. While effective, most of the zombies are just messy-faced extras. While this lack of gore might disappoint some viewers, it also ensures you’ll never be distracted from the on-screen action. These are all simply zombies.

There’s absolutely no depth to the film, other than exploring very bad decisions made by a few characters. Instead, it sends up both party movies and zombie movies, and does so very effectively.

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Sherlock with Naked Women and Werewolves: Review of Strippers vs. Werewolves

Jan 20 2014 Published by under Reviews

Strippers vs. WerewolvesEvery so often, I feel a need for a dumb, fun movie. I want a movie that will entertain with flair, not necessarily with spectacle but at least with energy. It’s almost always dumb.

Strippers vs. Werewolves isn’t dumb.

It begins with a very cheap shot of a strip joint exploding in a ball of flame. It then cuts to a long shot of a man entering another strip joint, and as he passes by the various girls scattered around the floor, we get little vignettes for each one. This one trips, that one pushes away a customer, and this other one looks out over the tables with her brows furrowed. For each, a name pops up. We now have a sense of our cast, and we’re 2 minutes in.

I was impressed.

The film then progresses into its main plot. A pack of werewolves roams the streets. They’re basically local mafia, with the added horror that they’ll rip your foot off, then eat it in front of you.

This works partly because it’s a British production. These feel like Shakespearean actors, radiating intense presence. Of course, a few play simple buffoons, but the others…you can feel their history and their desires.

The werewolves soon cross paths with the strippers. This would be a one-sided matter, except that the strip club’s owner knows one of the werewolves. Their history goes way back. This is personal. And it gets even more personal.

The tense nature of the plot is marred somewhat by the special effects. the werewolves look more like punk vampires with mutton chops than beast-men.

Fortunately, the tone frequently bounces out of intensity into a light-hearted parody of its subjects. The werewolves are mostly frat boys, the strippers are mostly not very bright, and one of the strippers’ boyfriends is an overweight, perpetually nervous vampire hunter. One of the movie’s running gags involves phone conversations between the two, as she’s just trying to get a piece of information from him while he’s frantically defending himself from anonymous vampires.

The plot also plays to the lopsided nature of the conflict. The werewolves outmatch the strippers physically and (most of them) intellectually. The strippers have to outwit the werewolves, which only stalls for time. You really wonder how they’re going to get out of it–and they don’t all get out of it–and the ending feels satisfying.

While not high art, and not complex, Strippers vs. Werewolves delivers an alternately tense and light-hearted horror experience.

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The Complete Short Stories of H.G. Wells

Nov 04 2013 Published by under Reviews

Complete Short Stories of H.G. WellsThere’s much to recommend curation.

If you’re not familiar with H.G. Wells, by the way, he wrote The War of the WorldsThe Time Machine, and The Invisible Man, amongst other classic SF novels.

He also wrote dozens of short stories in his life (Wikipedia maintains a list). His last short story was published over 50 years after the first. His skills undoubtedly improved over time, which highlights the central problem of this book: a lot of the stories are dull.

Let me describe two of them to illustrate Wells’s strengths and weaknesses:

In “The New Elixir,” an inventor and his companion test a potion that greatly accelerates their physical and mental processes, allowing them to functionally slow down time relative to their own experiences. They proceed to wander through a motionless park and play with the effects of this. They observe the tip of a cracked whip, and discover they cannot move too quickly or the friction of their clothing will catch fire.

As the elixir wears off, they return to their apartment, and…that’s it. The story ends. It’s a pure exploration story, interesting for the imaginative or curious, but dissatisfying as a narrative.

“The Valley of the Spiders” introduces us to a group of riders in the Old West, who are pursuing…well, something. The story is a tour de force of showing, not telling. There are no “As you know, Bob” passages. Instead, we glean context from passing references within dialogue. We slowly realize that we don’t like these men. Then they encounter a certain danger, and our sympathies shift. We may not like them, but we don’t want them to die like this. The story ends with a bang, on a characteristically ambiguous note. We know what happens, but we’re not exactly sure what it means. It left me breathless, with multiple strong images in my head.

That’s my primary memory of this book: Some forgettable stories, and some that leapt into my soul.

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Reading News From Nowhere

Oct 07 2013 Published by under Reviews

Claude Lorrain's "Harbour Scene at Sunset"

Claude Lorrain’s “Harbour Scene at Sunset”

Like many great books, William Morris’s News From Nowhere left me with several conflicting feelings.

In a sense, it’s a science fiction novel. The author awakes in a future several hundred years distant from his own time in the 1800’s. He discovers a gentle society of friendly, calm people who go about their daily lives in peace and comfort. Each pursues his or her interests in trade for daily bread.

He discovers that mankind has adopted complete communism, though it hews a bit closer to libertarianism. Everyone produces according to pleasure and takes according to need. Nobody owns anything.

Now, I grew up with plenty of objections to this. But he provides plenty of…if not counter-arguments, then explanations for why this might work.

He points out that few people will hoard items of no value. People want to satisfy their basic needs. So, make that easy. That gives people the mental space to consider higher, better things.

There’s some ugliness here. The author’s stand-in eventually stumbles on an old man who describes the intervening history, and he describes a nightmare of communist cells, revolution and blood in the streets. There are also massive General Strikes involving nearly every working person, lasting for days, while somehow they still find things to eat. Hmmm.

And yet…every time I put down the book, I felt like a better person. I felt like behaving the way those people do: helpful and thoughtful. They are always looking at their neighbors to see if help is needed. They are outwardly focused, motivated by the increase in beauty and health of their communities. Who wants to live surrounded by sick people and ugly buildings? Why not do something about that?

There are a few areas in which Morris can’t quite see beyond his own preconceptions. For example, while he admirable portrays women as just as intelligent and capable of art and conversation as men, every house he visits is tended by women, who do all the cooking and cleaning, because they are born with the disposition to enjoy domestic work.

But that’s quibbling. News From Nowhere arrested my attention and gave me a new perspective. While I still disagree with the need for the broader social conflicts Morris implied, I want to live in that world.

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The Independent Sixth Reader

Sep 30 2013 Published by under Reviews

(Review. Elocution. We suck at this. Perhaps it’s time.)

I discovered this book in a dusty used bookstore off a major highway. The place was crammed with thousands and thousands of used books in every imaginable category, and deep in the back recesses of the store lay the gold mine: a whole case of books each over 100 years old.

I picked out The Independent Sixth Reader, an instructional book published in 1868. It’s the last book in a series of books on diction and public speaking, each one intended for a progressively older student. The first was aimed at young grade school children; this was aimed at adults.

While one might smirk at the author’s insistence on the absolute necessity of following its system exactly, the book does cover a wide variety of elements of speech, and does so in a logical order. The author leads the reader through exercises in reading aloud crisply and understanding how best to approach situations like words that begin and end with similar consonant sounds (such as “she began needling him”).

As I read, I was struck by a realization: we suck at this today. People around me slur their speech and mumble their words. I do, too.

Surely this is at least a little important. Imagine the frustration caused and time wasted by mis-heard speech.

Maybe it’s time we all learned better diction.

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The Surprising, Incredible Burt Wonderstone (review)

Sep 23 2013 Published by under Reviews

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone

This movie genuinely surprised me.

Besides the characters and story, this is a movie about stage magic. Its writers did a wise thing: they wrote a movie that’s primarily about a failing magician getting back into his game. It is secondarily a comedy.

This brings with it certain drawbacks. But let me get to that in a minute.

The film starts with two nerdy kids who face bullies. One of them discovers stage magic. It doesn’t really help with the bullies, but it gives the two something to focus on. They become engrossed in magic, and grow up to perform a stage show in Vegas.

And that’s precisely when I sat up. The film shows us one of their illusions, a dangerous substitution trick involving one of the characters being “hanged” from a scaffold. And, without calling attention to itself, the film shows us this illusion in one shot. In other words, Steve Carrell and Steve Buscemi performed the actual trick.

So the makers of this film clearly harbor a certain respect for stage magic.

The film continues to show us how Carell’s character, Burt, has grown complacent with his success, which leads to a split in the double-act. Worse, this happens in the modern day, when interest in stage magic is at an all-time low.

Enter Jim Carrey, the most outrageous and most annoying thing in the movie.

I have great respect for Carrey, and he creates a wonderfully nasty villain here in an extreme street magician who, for example, cuts his cheek open to “find” a missing card. My problem lies in the sheer amount of time that he spends in front of the camera. He stands as a certain ethical foil to Carrell’s and Buscemi’s characters, as someone who uses magic to shock audiences instead of delight them.

He ends up directly competing for Burt’s position at the Vegas hotel, which leads to even more screen time. And the problem is that his tricks are shocking and disgusting. I didn’t want to see a lot of them, but the film kept giving us more and more of them.

The film already treads a fine line by focusing on a self-absorbed character who slowly learns to be less of a jerk. It’s hard to sit through 2/3 of a movie as you actively dislike the protagonist. And Carell is excellent at acting like a boil on the backside of mankind.

But as I wrote above, the cast and crew keep to an important central theme: these characters want to delight people. It keeps them sympathetic.

I would be remiss if I neglected to mention Alan Arkin’s wonderful role, but revealing it would spoil the movie. I will say that he’s magnetically irascible.

I happily watched the film to its end. It has heart.

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Suspense! (review)

Sep 16 2013 Published by under Reviews

Suspense! banner

Suspense! banner

Daniel Solis is a brilliant game designer. He built one of my favorite RPGs, Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple, a free-wheeling story-telling game of young wuxia pilgrims flying around a fantasy world, getting into trouble and helping others. Its primary mechanic is Go stones.

He recently began demoing a new game called Suspense!, a headache-inducing card game. I was lucky enough to play it with him at PAX East I felt fascinated for about 3 games, then I desperately wanted to play something else.

You work to guess each game’s win condition based on the cards you have and the cards other players have revealed.

The game consists of a set of cards that each include a number and a win condition. One card is removed and placed faced-down in the center of the play area, while the rest are dealt to the players. The players then play cards in turn; once all played cards reach a certain value (which varies depending on the number of players), the match ends. The secret card in the middle of the play area is revealed, and the player who matches its victory condition gets whatever points it states.

The headaches come as you see what victory conditions are already revealed in the played cards. If you see “Highest number in play gets 2 points” on your opponent’s played card, you know that’s not the secret card. So now you don’t care to get the highest number in play.

Certain players will adore this game. It combines the guesswork of poker with the stark limitations of a known and rapidly diminishing field of possibilities. If you like the idea of playing a hand of poker that’s inside a logic puzzle, this will probably appeal to you!

That said, keeping track of the possibilities exhausted this novice player. This is not a game to spend hours playing on the first night!

As a bonus, Suspense! is styled with retro B-movie sayings (“What is the mad doctor’s secret?”) which keeps the game light.

You can download Suspense! today as a free PDF.

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The Power and the Glory (book review)

Sep 09 2013 Published by under Reviews

The Power and the Glory coverThe Power and the Glory is a difficult novel.

It’s easy to read. Greene writes florid, powerful prose that pulled me into memorable situations. His characters are complex and multi-dimensional (meaning they often have multiple opposing beliefs and values).

This is about people caught in difficult, desperate situations. People who have made mistakes, and pay for them. People who are people. They’re not trying to be evil.

This is most clearly illustrated by its main character, an apostate priest (he fathered a child) trying to escape Tabasco, Mexico during a time of great religious persecution. If he’s caught, the authorities will shoot him.

He struggles through a landscape of abject poverty, of parents starving themselves so their children can survive. He is a failed priest just trying to escape, yet many people protect him…because he is a priest. Because he can do the Mass. He barely believes in the Mass any more, but he does it because the people clamor for it.

This appears like a simple bit of irony. It would be easy to dismiss the peoples’ reaction as superstition. No; the people find meaning in the sacraments. This religion is important. It’s more than empty words if people will die for it, and people do.

The whole novel is like this. Nothing is simple. Humans are complex. Some people are driven by obvious motivations, and react predictably…but they have other motivations, too.

These themes infuse a breathless, grinding journey through a beautiful, galling country of injustice and misery. There’s very little happiness here. There is a great deal of depth.

Greene left me exhausted, as though I had lived another life while reading The Power and the Glory. What better tribute?

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Pacific Rim (review)

Sep 02 2013 Published by under Reviews

Pacific Rim poster

Pacific Rim poster

I’m trying to write out my thoughts on Pacific Rim without simply restating Sam Keeper’s information-dense article “The Visual Intelligence of Pacific Rim” at Storming the Ivory Tower. So maybe you want to check that out.

Worse, I’m about to make many over-generalizations about things about which I know more than the average American, but I’m far from an expert in.

I saw Pacific Rim. (That’s not the generalization.) Friends learned this, and asked me my opinion. I’ve struggled. I’ve called it a “big, dumb giant robot movie,” “mecha vs. Godzilla,” and “fundamentally a Godzilla film.”

Here’s the thing: Japanese films are rooted in a certain style of visual storytelling. From kamishibai to manga to anime, Japanese storytelling revolves around imagery. Even Japanese novels include a lot of visual imagery, compared to the Western focus on dialogue. (And the over-generalizations begin…) We are Greek; they are Chinese.

This carries over into live-action film. Japanese films are low on dialogue, because you’re supposed to look at the film and understand what’s going on. Contrast this with, say, the scene in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace when Anakin flies the fighter into the space battle. He suddenly gets very talkative, calling out practically everything in his head. Japanese films rarely do this.

Sadly, film criticism in America focuses on dialogue. If there’s not much dialogue, the critic assumes that the film’s either shallow or “arty.” Imagery is seen mainly as an enhancer of emotion: dramatic lighting heightens tension, but cannot move the story forward.

This blinds critics to the visual storytelling of Pacific Rim. Because the film’s imagery focuses on giant robots punching giant monsters, it’s not an art film, thus it’s shallow.

Note: this is not about “paying attention.” This is about a fundamental approach to conveying information, that most Westerners just don’t see, and that Asians do. This explains the furor over Western comic book panels that set mood but “don’t move the story forward.” It explains much of why Hong Kong cinema bores most Americans to tears; because they’re not looking for the same things Asian audiences are looking for.

So. Pacific Rim conveys a lot with background details, with character stances and facial reactions. The Jaegers all have different designs. Nobody in the film explains why, because you’re supposed to figure it out by looking at them. Mako Mori is quiet, so we are told her story without words. We don’t need dialogue to understand it; we need to see her fight.

This strangeness doubles with the theme of social cohesion, which is emphasized to an extent Western audiences rarely see. We focus on loners–Becket, Mori, Pentecost–an action movie cliché. But they succeed in the end when they synchronize with others or allow others to synchronize. They win, not because of their determination or their desire for vengeance, but because of their social bonds.

One can enjoy Pacific Rim purely as a super robot movie. It paces itself cleanly and hits all the right beats as an action movie.

But it is not merely an action movie.

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