Wednesday, June 4, 2014

How To Train Your Dragon review

With the sequel coming out soon, I thought it would be a good time to write a review of the original. I'm just going to start off by saying that this is one of my all-time favourite animated movies, definitely the cream of the Dreamworks Animation crop in my eyes. As usual, this means that this is going to be a short review, because I'm much better at pointing out flaws than explaining why something works. I wonder what that says about me?

I've probably seen How To Train Your Dragon four times by now, and I would almost say that I enjoy it more every time. I attribute this to the great story and characters; it's a very strong story and the characters are all likeable and relateable. The later scenes with Hiccup and his father still bring a tear to my eye, while the ones with Hiccup and Toothless bring a warm soft smile to my face. Gobber is a fun character, and the while the other kids might come across as slightly annoying at first and aren't given much development time, they still grow on you. I'm hoping the sequel will give them a bit more depth, as the slightly shallow way they are portrayed here is probably the most negative thing I can think of to say about the whole movie - and yet it's something that I understand and believe was both necessary to maintain focus and potentially useful as it gives the series room to expand and explore.

Special mention here goes to Toothless, who is brilliantly designed - sleek and streamlined, emotive, intelligent and mischevious yet still an animal who realistically doesn't understand the situation at times as it pertains to humans, making him vulnerable, relatable to those of us who have pets. They were smart enough to avoid the trap of creating a "perfect" animal, like many children's movies do; an animal (typically a dog) that pretty much always does the right thing and always seems to know what's really going on even when the people around it don't, and that solves the all the human character's problems, etc. Toothless, in contrast, is much better thought out, much more realistic and believable.

I will say that it's not the funniest animated movie (Despicable Me 2 has far more laughs-per-minute, for example) or the most action packed (I don't think anyone outside of Japan has topped the Kung Fu Panda films for animated action), but what it lacks in slapstick humor or animated violence it more than makes up for with heart and genuine warmth. This is a movie where the message came first, rather than being slipped in later to try to add emotional weight.

Let me just say that I think the voice acting was brilliant. The casting decisions were perfect; while Jay Baruchel's voice as Hiccup comes across as strange and out of place at first, that's actually the genius of it all: Hiccup himself is so different from everyone around him, and his out-of-place voice and speech patterns make that instantly clear. His dry humor and sarcasm just doesn't register with most of the other characters because they just have so little in common that they don't understand him, yet I think it resonates with many of us who have found ourselves exasperated by larger problems or issues that no-one else seems to notice or care about.

Gobber is the only character who can, to some extent at least, understand Hiccup, so it's fitting that his voice, mannerisms, and character are likewise a little off; like Hiccup he is quite self-aware and quick to joke about things (though his humor is less fatalistic), and Craig Ferguson fills the role nicely. Mr. Gerard "This! Is! Sparta!" Butler is perfect as Stoick, Hiccup's father and the village leader. The rest of the vocal cast are likewise perfectly matched to the characters they play and do a great job.

While we're on the topic of sound, I'll say that even though it's not a musical I still enjoyed the music. There's also some noticeably characterful sound design, such as the Night-Fury's roar and the sounds made by flocks of dragons, which are almost whale-like and can be suitably unnerving when it serves the plot.

While the movie's visual style comes off as a little "safe" in my eyes, there are some impressive moments. The flying scenes are gorgeous and breathtaking, and are enough to make me want to take up gliding. Obviously fire and smoke play a big role, and luckily they are spectacularly well animated; in fact the fire effects are probably the best I've ever seen in an animated movie.

I feel good enough about this movie to give it a 10/10, and I happily recommend it to everyone.

It's worth mentioning by the way that the movie was followed by several shorts. I've only watched one of the three ("Gift of the Night Fury" to be exact), but I really enjoyed it and I'm going to try to watch the rest before I see the sequel.

There was also a TV series made. I've seen some other Dreamworks animated series such as Penguins of Madagascar and Monsters vs Aliens, and based on that I expect "Dragon Riders of Berk" to be fun, but perhaps not exactly "canon", so I think I'd rather watch the sequel first.


I just want to say that I felt the end of the movie had genuine integrity; they earned their happy ending, but it didn't come without sacrifice. At the same time, Hiccup losing his leg only serves to bring him closer to Toothless, to strengthen their bond; they're both "damaged", in a way they both complete each other. It's a very powerful image and I think it adds a great deal to the movie.

I'm not really sure how I feel about Gift of the Night Fury, as it's shown that Toothless can be "fixed" so he doesn't need Hiccup anymore. I feel a little bit as if it undermines the original movie by removing that dependence, but on second thought it seems that it's better that they aren't forced to stay together but chose to do so. In fact the more I think about it the more I think having toothless rip the prosthetic fin off his tail so he would be dependent on Hiccup was the mistake. Don't get me wrong, it's very powerful scene; it's how Toothless shows Hiccup in the strongest way he can that he wants to be with him, wants to be connected to him. But when I think about it, it feels unhealthy for him to cripple himself just to stay in a relationship. Oh well, what do I know? I'm probably overthinking things, and besides the story's not over yet.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Raid 1 & 2 Reviews

I just saw the Raid 2. In order to discuss it, I first need to talk about the original. So here's two reviews for the price of one (technically true since zero times two is still zero...).

The Raid

The Raid is easily one of the most intense action movies I have ever seen, but perhaps more than that it's one of the most unrelenting action movies I've seen. The action is fast and brutal takes up most of the run time; action scenes are long and intense and there's just enough time between them to catch your breath before the next one comes along and outdoes the last. It's this pacing that is perhaps one of the movie's strongest points: if they'd spent less time between action scenes you might get "desensitized" and it would end up with weaker context and possibly tension, if they spent more it would get bogged down and lose it's momentum and intensity.

The martial arts is fast and brutal, and very different from what I've seen in Hong Kong movies, feeling like less of a beautifully choreographed dance and more of a gritty and believable scramble for survival. It does remind me of Ong Bak, but that's probably more to do with it's brutality and the fact that they are both different to more traditional kung fu movies, as the two martial arts styles are quite different.

Pretty much the whole movie takes place in a single building, and while this may sound like a limitation, the film turns it into a strength, as it creates a feeling of hostility and claustrophobia that is a big part of what gives the action context and makes the movie work, of what makes it so memorable in fact. When you talk about this movie years from now, it will be "you know, that one where the whole thing takes place in that one building, remember?". It makes the movie unique and helps it stand out. And yes, Dredd did have almost exactly the same set up, but it came out later and is a very different kind of action movie.

It's natural to assume that a movie that focuses so heavily on action would have a bad plot. While the plot of The Raid is rather minimal, I wouldn't call it bad; it does a good job of setting the scene and giving context to the action, without falling into the trap of thinking that "the plot doesn't really matter so it's OK if it's bad, it just needs to get everyone from point A to point B", the way many action movies do. I would say it does exactly what it needs to and doesn't overstay it's welcome, allowing the true strengths of the movie to shine.

I want to take a moment to talk about the main character. I like that when the movie opens he's already chosen to be part of this extremely dangerous undertaking. No, it's not something he's looking forwards to, and we do see him dealing with the emotional weight in his own way, but the point is he's not dragging his heels and whining for the entire movie about how it's not his fight in the tired Reluctant HeroTM cliche that every Hollywood movie seems to think is a brilliant and revolutionary new way of creating a deep and relatable character that has never been done before. No, our hero is actually far more impressive than most, not because he's so much better at hitting people, but because he has the courage and sense of duty to shoulder a heavy burden without complaint, rather than whine and and try to pass it off to someone else.

Overall it's a 10/10: one of the best pure action movies of all time and almost certainly the best action movie of the last few years.

OK, a solid 10 may seem too much for a movie with very little plot or character development or, well, anything that doesn't involve people being grievously wounded, but the thing is that it is possibly the pinnacle of it's genre: a pure action movie. It spent enough time on other things to make them work, if it spent more then that would likely take away from the intensity of the action. It knows what it wants to be, it focuses on it, and pulls it off spectacularly.

The Raid 2

Let's not beat around the bush: I didn't think this one was as good as the first. It did most of what the first did, and arguably better: there was at least as much action, if not more, which was at least as intense, if not more so. But it didn't manage to pull off one of the more characteristic features of the original: the unrelenting non-stop pace that was a big part of what made it so memorable.

The biggest problem is that this movie has a lot more story, but while the story is not bad, it mostly revolves around characters who we don't really care about; the main character is quickly relegated to a bit player in his own movie. I'm not even exaggerating; for most of the movie the hero pretty much just does what he's told while all the other characters drive the plot. He barely even has any lines for much of it, while everyone else is running around yelling at each other.

As a result we don't really care very much about the story, and it ends up just being padding. Worse, it breaks the flow; while the first one gave us just enough time to catch our breath between action scenes, this one gives us enough time to drift off. As a result it loses it momentum, each fight feels isolated and almost unrelated, it just doesn't sustain that intensity that the first one had.

What's more, what little we see of the main character is unfortunately cliched. That's right, in this one he's just another Reluctant HeroTM. This time he doesn't want to be there, he would walk out if he could and indeed tries to twice, but he is denied that luxury, and as a result he just mopes around doing what's immediately necessary pretty much up till the end. What's more, the first movie took the time to give us a chance to like the character by showing him helping others, even in the midst of seriously high-stress situations when his comrades are too focused on the herculean task at hand. Here, all we see him do is hurt people, he never really has a chance to come off as any more than just a thug, if you hadn't seen the first movie you wouldn't have any reason to see him as being any better than the crooks he's surrounded with. Well, OK, it's true they show him missing his wife and son, but they also show a mass murderer who kills for fun and profit "missing his wife and son", so clearly that's not a sufficiently strong indication of virtue or morality.

Another unfortunate issue is the change of setting. While the first one's setup and setting led to a memorably claustrophobic movie, with a practically tangible sense of being trapped and surrounded by hostiles, this one has far more varied settings that, perhaps counter-intuitively, make it less memorable and more generic. It lacks a strong theme or style, and turns into just another martial arts movie in a generic city (no offense to Jakarta intended, it's just that it's, you know, a modern city).

Should I be surprised that the sequel does not reach the same heights as the original? Normally I wouldn't be, but I was hearing good things about this movie even in spite of my refusal to read any reviews or watch any trailers, and despite my usual caution I ended up allowing myself to hope it wouldn't forget what made the first one so amazing.

But I think the series has become something of a victim of it's own success, as many do. You see, part of what made the original so great was arguably the limitations; limiting the scope to a single building with minimal plot made it unique, and now that they've expanded the scope it's basically ended up doing, well, what everyone else does when they don't have to work under strict limits. I believe I first heard Terry Gilliam describe the phenomenon, and one has only to look at the video games market to see it in full force; the big developers with the big budgets keep making the same games we've seen before, only a little better, while the tiny indy developers with no budgets whatsoever are the only ones producing games that are new and innovative and stylistically different.

So is there anything good about this movie? Well, the acting is pretty good, the cinematography is great, and did I mention the BLOODY AMAZING ACTION? The martial arts is stunningly intense and brutal and even more inventive than in the first. Despite all my whining and complaining, this is an amazing action movie. Period.

Overall I'm giving it an 9/10. The plot may be a little boring but it's punctuated by some of the best martial arts action there is.

Monday, March 10, 2014

The Drama of Games Workshop

So Games Workshop has been going through a lot of changes in the last couple of years, and even more in the last few months. This has sparked a lot of debate recently about what their plan is and what they are doing wrong and what they should change etc. One thing that I heard mentioned was that essentially the barrier of entry is now too high, especially for children. It's important to keep bringing new blood into your customer base in order to keep it healthy in the long run, but in a time when videogames are everywhere it's hard to get kids interested, and with the prices being what they are now... at least that's the argument I hear. Another point I just heard mentioned was that it takes a lot of space, while videogames take no more space than a box under the telly or a phone in your pocket.

I don't know how true this all is - remember miniatures wargaming was always a bit of a niche so for most kids to not be interested is nothing new - but it does make some sense, and it got me thinking about the hardships I encountered (and still do) getting into the hobby, and what some possible solutions might be.

So here's some ideas for GW. I don't for a moment think I'm some kind of genius who's figured out how to fix all their problems, these are just some suggestions for things that might make it easier for some people to get into the game.

First of all, let's take a look at where most people start playing: the starter box. Now, this is a great box of goodies, and it's good value compared to the rest of GW's product line AND to most board games and similar starter products I've seen, in that for only slightly more you get a whole heap more models. But it's still not cheap.

Lets take a look at the Privateer Press battle boxes for a moment. A single player battle box only has a few models, and only one faction so it's not all you need to start playing with a friend. But it's a lot cheaper, and they have them for a range of factions, so if you have friends who already play (which to be honest is probably how you're going to get pulled into the game) then it makes it a lot easier to get started with a faction you like the look of. They also have a set of "quickstart" rules that are probably (I don't really remember reading them) a lot easier to start with than the full rules. And hey, if you're buying stuff for two players, then each player is probably going to want his own copy of the rules and other bits in the long run, and there's a sense of ownership to picking your own faction and having your own box of figs, so at the end of the day just sticking with single player boxes probably works quite well.

But the models you get are still un-assembled and unpainted. That's great for some people, but other's just want to get into the game. Many board games come with very nice 1-piece models in different coloured plastics that you can start playing with right away, but I've even seen boxes of pre-painted figures in hobby shops (I think they were generic role-playing game style figures). Obviously we know it's not too expensive to manufacture fully assembled and painted figures as we've been buying them our entire lives.

Now such figures wont be as complex or detailed or have as much variety in poses, and the paint jobs would be very basic, but they work as an introduction. "Here's some simple stuff you can start with, and if you enjoy it you can eventually move up to the big-boy toys that you get to assemble and paint yourself" sort of thing.

Another thing I've seen in board games is, well, better packing. Essentially with a board game you want to take everything out of the box, have a game, then put it all back in and put the box away. For traditional board games this is quite simple as there's not much more in there than booklets, cards, dice, and a board - nothing too bulky or damageable - so it's easy to just drop them all in an empty cardboard box. But some modern board games come with more complex contents, and occasionally these have quite well thought out internal packaging that holds everything safely and securely. And lets face it, a sheet of foam with some basic cutouts isn't very expensive. I think Mantic sells boxes of figures that are robust and come with foam so they make pretty good cases for those same figures once they're painted, for example.

So that's the first suggestion: smaller, cheaper one-player starter boxes that cover a wider range of factions, have everything you need to play including pre-painted figures and some cardboard-cutout scenery, and are intelligently packaged such that you can continue to store and transport your stuff without needing to buy any additional carrying cases. In other words REALLY EVERYTHING you need to play (very) small scale games.

Ideally there should even be room to store more models: seeing those empty slots in the foam will probably serve as an incentive to buy more models after all (at this point the painting starter kit will be looking quite attractive...), and it more gradually transitions players into expanding their army. And while we're on the subject: when a prospective new buyer walks into a GW and starts buying stuff, it seems to me that the staff typically are quick to load them up with all the added bits: the codices and the carrying cases and the paint kits etc. What they should be doing is selling them as little as possible - the bare minimum they need, and not mentioning all the rest. That way they the don't get home, tally their purchases and realise the hobby is much more expensive than they expected. That might end up discouraging them before they are really invested. Get them started, and they'll be back for more soon enough.

OK, that might sound like I'm trying to help GW rip-off customers, but what I really want is a situation where customers never regret spending the money (the way I sometimes do), and enjoy a healthy long-term relationship with GW. Then they will continue to spend reasonable quantities over a lifetime rather than a lot in a hurry then decide it's all to expensive (the way I kinda feel right now) and quit the hobby.

The other big issue is the complexity of the rules. It takes a long times to figure things out, even when playing with more experienced players to guide you. A bunch of friends who haven't played tabletop wargames before trying to learn how to play 40K from the rulebook without some more experienced players around? It's going to take some effort, and I don't think they'll be enjoying themselves very much for a while - at least not as much as they could be, and if they don't really "get into it" after a game or two they probably won't stick with it. This is pretty much what happened with my friends when I tried to get them playing; at the time I was just starting to figure out the rules myself and as a result the games were slightly confused and they didn't enjoy themselves much and didn't play again.

I've been thinking about ways to solve this, and here is what I've come up with: a tiered rules system. The idea is that that are several "tiers" of rules; in theory you only need two, but I think it's useful to split into around four tiers. Alternately you could have two tiers and any number of optional "bolt-on" rule sets, with two initial ones in the main rule book and others as added releases. All named rules belong either to a tier or to a bolt-on. Let me explain.

The first tier is the introduction rules: the basics of movement and combat. These should fit on just a few pages; one or two would be ideal. The idea is that these let you start playing in a hurry. These rules may not be balanced across armies, but the starter boxes can be designed to be reasonably balanced with just these rules.

A second tier includes more advanced rules. This could be ALL the remaining rules for infantry if deemed appropriate, though if possible it should be more granular. The important thing is that these add on to the first tier, rather than replace them; by which I mean you don't need to un-learn a rule when learning a more advanced one, you just add some more rules into your game by moving up to the next tier when you're comfortable with the current one. This way you build up rules knowledge gradually, but always know enough to play.

Rules for terrain, vehicles and flyers could be additional tiers or bolt-ons, but I think tiers works as typically once you learn all those rules you will be playing with them all, so you would basically walk up to someone and say "Want to play a tier-1 game?" meaning you're a beginner, or "Want to play a tier-2 game?" meaning you're an intermediate player, or "Want to play a tier-4 game?" meaning you understand the rules and are no longer a beginner.

Now additional rule sets, like Cities of Death, Escalation and Stronghold, would be classed as "bolt-ons" and would essentially be additional optional rule sets that you can use one or more of as desired. Which is pretty much what they already are, but it would be more formalized and structured. Hell, I would probably suggest making flyer rules a bolt-on, since those change the game so much and not everyone likes playing with them. This would all serve to make it easier to play the game at the level of complexity that you are comfortable with.

Now this may be a tall order for GW as clear intelligent structured rules writing hasn't been their strong suit as of late, but that's probably something they should work on anyway.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Brainsmasher: A Love Story review

I was at a local pound shop the other day and, out of sheer morbid curiosity, I stopped to check out the crappy DVDs these kinds of places stock. So yeah, the title was so silly that I was actually intrigued enough to read the back: "Sam Crain, a professional model, is asked by her sister to smuggle a package from Europe to Portland, Oregon where she discovers that her sister is battling Chinese Shaolin Monks.". Um, what? I was almost surprised when the back was even sillier than the front, so I decided to give it a go.

After watching it, I can conclusively and without any doubt say that it's a movie. I don't really have much else to say really. It's neither good nor particularly bad; at least it's not worse than I expected or better than I had hoped considering it's clearly a made-for-TV or perhaps direct-to-DVD flick. It was mildly entertaining at points, and never particularly annoying.

That last part is kind of a big thing actually. These days I get annoyed with movies and TV shows very quickly; I've grown very impatient, and I actually find it very hard to sit and watch things sometimes. Well, a lot of the time in fact; when I tried watching season 2 of the Walking Dead, for example, I turned it off less than ten minutes in because that's how long it took to start feeling stupid and contrived.

But Brain Smasher didn't annoy me. Much. Perhaps it's because it didn't take itself seriously, or perhaps it's because it never had enough ambition to make me care enough to get annoyed when it acted stupid, I don't really know.

On the positive side, the monks were fun, and the main characters were more likeable and in fact more capable than I expected. On the negative side, the movie was somewhat uneventful, there's a surprising lack of romance or chemistry for a movie with "a love story" in the title, and you will get sick of hearing the phrase "ten thousand dollar watch" long, long before they stop saying it. Seriously, the damn thing practically has a speaking role.

So what's the final score? Well, I guess it has to be a 5/10 seeing as it's a completely average movie. You probably won't regret watching it on TV or when you're really bored. Probably.

Monday, March 3, 2014

The worst thing that can happen to a comic book character is to star in their own comic

"What the hell does that mean?" you say. "How the hell does that make any sense?"
To which I reply: "Stop swearing and let me explain. Potty mouth."

Lets start by talking about team books, like say the X-Men. Now I picked the X-Men over some other groups because, in both the comics and the movies, they were a team first then individual characters went solo later, which is the kind of situation that I'm referring to in the title. Many characters start this way; either in a "team book" or as a supporting cast member in another character's comic. Of course in the world of comics it's not always so clear-cut; Wolverine, for example, generally has his own series as well as being in at least one X-Men title at any given time - after the Civil War he was a main cast member of Secret Avengers as well.

But let's get back to the X-Men. Now, in a team dynamic, most of the character development, story and drama (at least of the sort that doesn't involve alien invasions) comes from the interaction between the different characters. Personality clashes, alpha-male struggles, relationship issues, etc.

Now put a character in his own comic. Yes, there's other people around, but they're just supporting cast, they don't really matter - at least they're often portrayed that way. At the very least they are generally viewed in terms of their relationships with the main character, the focus ultimately isn't on them.

So where does the emotional content and personal drama come from now? Well, from what I've seen, what generally happens is that it now comes from the titular character's inner conflict. Their doubts and fears, their struggles with ever-increasing burdens they must bear.

In other words, when a character gets their own comic they are all too often transformed from a strong and entertaining superhero into a whiny and annoying emo loser.

Sorry! That was probably very offensive. I don't wish to say that having personal problems means you deserve scorn, far from it, I have more than enough bad days myself, days when I cannot think of a single thing that feels worth getting out bed for, days when I just want the world to go away and leave me alone.

But the thing is I don't want to read comics about that. Or at least, I don't want to read any more comics about that. Or at least, I don't want to read any more fantasy comics about people who wear skin-tight clown suits and can juggle SUVs while cooking eggs with their minds whine about hard everything is, while their whole world entirely revolves around ruining their lives. I want to see them fight evil and do super stuff.

And another thing: it seems that while most team comics seem to heavily feature the team responding to external problems, like bank robberies and demonic invasions, in solo books the threats are all too often from super-villains targeting the main character, from problems that come to their doorstep and punch them in the face, forcing them to deal with them, rather than independent crisis that they chose to try to solve. Overall they stop making the world a better place and end up just putting out fires that were fallout from people trying to hurt them specifically, meaning their existence is a net negative for the rest of the world.

I'm not saying it's wrong to portray these characters as human, or to try to make them more relate-able or sympathetic, or to admit that when the whole world really is resting on your shoulders it can be a little difficult sometimes. I'm just saying that not every character has to be like that. In every comic they every star in. For all eternity. I mean, change the tune a little, you know? It's just not fun. Any why shouldn't comics be fun? I mean, if I'm reading a comic about the adventures of a guy who travels through space saving entire planets of strange aliens from bizarre cosmic forces, I'm probably not reading it because I want to hear the guy harping on and on about how much he regrets not being a good husband.

OK, X-Men probably isn't the best example since they've always been kinda whiny emos (sorry!). When I used to read the x-men twenty years ago every single issue talked about how the world hated and feared them. OK, it was in the introduction blurb, but it was still kind of a running theme. Now, on the rare occasion when I see an issue in the news agent and pick it up to take a quick a look, the first thing that I always see is the same old whining about how everybody hates them. I haven't been able to read X-Men in years because DAMMIT STOP WHINING ALREADY!

Ah-hem. Back to the point. Um, well, I guess what I'm saying is, what I enjoy is seeing the good guys grit their teeth with determination, not bow their heads with self-pity. Shallow? Probably. Immature? I don't know. But I do know when a comic book character gets their own series, they're probably going to go from being a strong and willful hero, to a weak and whiny mess who's more victim than saviour.