Wednesday, March 31, 2010

SoulSilver Log Part 2:

Happy Passover.  And now for Pokemon.

The story so far:  Blue once again set off in New Bark Town, having been given a Chickorita from Prof. Elm for an errand.  This time, however, Blue was a girl, something he hasn't been since "Crystal".  Why be a girl?  Well, Blue tried started a boy, but the game accidentally reset on Boy-Blue, killing him, his Pokemon, and all record of his existence.  So Girl-Blue is now taking over this adventure.

While Blue was out performing her errand to find a Pokemon Egg*, her rival, Red came along and stole a Cyndaquil.  But while Red has the massive disadvantage of being an artificial being moving a fixed path, Blue is control by an external power that already predicated these turns of events.  So that power ordered her to level up Chickorita to at least level 8, guaranteeing a victory.  And once Red was beaten for the first time and Blue said goodbye to Mom, she began her journey to be the very best, that no one ever was.

The great power soon, however, revealed its limitations.  Having only seen Blue's universe back in archaic time, which it called "the original games on the Game Boy Color", it was surprised to see how much the universe had changed.  For example, now there was a new person in Blue's life, a childhood friend named Ethan, who looked exactly like the erased Boy-Blue.  Blue was annoyed by this character.  "What the heck is there to see in a guy with a Marill, anyway?", she though.  "It isn't going to happen, Ethan.  Total creeper."  The great power consorted some vast mysterious well of all the knowledge of its universe called "the Internet", and assured Blue that Ethan would be gone very soon.

Along the way, the great power that spoke to Blue told her that Chickorita would be essentially worthless for half the gyms in the game.  So he called upon Blue to capture a Bellsprout.  Blue was quite confused by this, wondering how capturing another Grass-type could at all help her out strategically.  But what Blue didn't know was that in Violet City a nice man was willing to trade a glorious Onix, named "Rocky", for that Bellsprout.  Blue thanked the great mysterious power for helping her out once again, and went ahead to beat Faulkner.  The great power was immediately disappointed in two things:  1) the remakes did not help at all distinguish if Faulkner was a boy or girl, and 2) that Rocky turned out to be a horribly disloyal piece of garbage.  Apparently raising it up from level 5 to 14 was not enough for Rocky to love Blue, it was incapable of love.  Blue still won, but already she was beginning to doubt the great power.

Next up was Bugsy, master of Bug Pokemon and even more androgynous than Faulkner.  Along the way, Blue caught a Mareep because she liked sheep.  Rocky was punished by being thrown into a Box at the Pokemon center for his lack of faith.  Bugsy proved difficult, and Blue felt her first defeat.  The great power demanded that Blue restore Rocky to full status, as bugs would be unable to get through the hard rock.  Blue did as she was told, and proved triumphant. Rocky, however, was so worthless that he nearly lost, again.  Along the way, she once again ran into Rival Red, who was no problem at all.

The next gym leader was none other than Whitney.  Blue was shocked to find that the great power trembled just from hearing her name.  What in the world could make such a mysterious and omnipotent force shake with terror.  All the great power could say was a warning:  "ROLLOUT!  ROLLOUT!"  Not knowing what to make of that, Blue decided instead to catch a Vulpix.  During the climatic battle with Whitney, which was so epic that the great power left Blue's side to weep in a corner, Rocky once again proved a failure.  Whitney's Miltank, the master of the "horrible" Rollout, made Rocky fall in love with it.  The Onix, despite having every advantage in the universe, was defeated.  Luckily the others were able to take up the slack and win the battle.  Blue had a special punishment for Rocky:  "welcome to a box, you loser".  Worse yet, in a fit of rage, she released it out into the universe.  As for as Blue was concerned, Rocky was dead.  Dead forever.

From then on the great power gave Blue various gifts:  a Ralts that would evolve in Gardevoir, a Glaceon, and a Feebas.  The great power told Blue that Feebas must be given a haircut every night for eight nights, then it will evolve into a force mightier than anything she had ever seen.  Blue, however, didn't want to use the Glaceon yet, and instead made a Vaporeon**.  Three more gyms were taken down with Blue's growing party.  But there were rumblings in the wind.  Legendary Pokemon were running wild across the land.  An evil organization from the past was on its way to return.  And Chickorita, now a Meganium, was proving to be completely worthless***.

Will Blue be able to defeat the scourge of Team Rocket?  Will she ever reach the rank of Pokemon Master?  Where do I, the narrator and usual central character, fit into all this?

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* How is it that in the world of Pokemon, the field of Biology is so poorly advanced that people don't even know how Pokemon reproduce?  Its like they're all shocked to find a Pokemon hatching from eggs.  We're supposed to be in modern times in Pokemon.  In the real world, humans could tell you how a good deal of animals reproduced by at most 8000 BC, by the time we began domestication on a large scale.  Then the dudes at the Day Care Center act all coy when an egg is found when my Vaporeon was left alone with a Ditto.  "Look, an egg!  Where did that come from?"  Look, I know its a children's game, but we can at least admit that the parents are actively involved in the creation of children on some level, okay?

(On the other hand, I really don't want to be involved in the process.  Please no minigames where I use the stylus to artificially inseminate my Rapidash.  Thanks.)

** You can very easily get evolutionary stones in this remake.  In the original, those stones were next to impossible to find.  Here, all you have to do is compete in the Pokeathlon. The Pokeathlon is this collection of minigames where you compete against the computer or other humans if you so wish.  The games generally are okay, not exactly the best ever, though.  Some are quite poor, in fact.  I recommend the Stamina games, since its pretty much impossible to lose the first two games no matter what party you have.  By the way, Blue looks cute in her track suit.  All together, this is a much better game than that stupid Beauty Contest crap back in the last generation.

*** Grass-type Pokemon are easily the weakest of the main starting types.  They're weak against Fire, Ice, Flying, Bug, and Poison attack, and can only really work effectively against Water and Ground types.  But there are much better ways of being effective against them.  I figured this out years ago, but for some reason this time around I decided to start out with a pure-Grass type just to be different.  Meganium is not going to be in my/Blue's final party.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Pokemon SoulSilver Log: Part 1

I bought "Pokemon SoulSilver" last week, and since its a rather long game, I'm hoping to begin another one of those extra long playthrough adventure things.  Only this time its going to be for a game that I actually like.  Don't worry, I'm not going to update every day.  Maybe once a week for the month or so I'll be playing this game.

But before all that, I must first tell my story:

I've had a torrid love affair with Pokemon for just over twelve years now.  It happens to be one of the very first video games I ever got into seriously, and my very first RPG ever.  But there was more to Pokemon than just a game.  It was a culture.  It was a lifestyle.  It was the closest thing to a religion that I have ever believed in. Me and every other grade schooler in all of western civilization were part of the Pokemon Movement.

Yeah, there were games, but there was also the TV show, which happens to be the first anime I ever saw.  Did spend years watching it, waiting for Ash and Misty to realize them were in love?  Was that just me?  And there was a trading card game, which happens to be the first and last card game I ever bothered with.  And there were movies, and we all went, didn't we?  While our Moms fell asleep from the mediocrity of those terrible movies, we sat back in religious ecstasy, throwing popcorn at the screen and giggling like the school kids we were when our favorite Pokemon came on screen.  Remember the Burger King toys?  Remember getting Grandma to burn like thirty bucks on a cheap 24 karat gold Poke Ball we just lost on the car ride home?  Truly, there was something to all that.  Something magical.

Steadily, however, Pokemon died for me.  First to go was the card game.  I know every child in the late 90s had to have gotten at least one pack of Pokemon cards.  Unfortunately, nobody actually knew how to battle with Pokemon cards.  What the heck did the elemental cards do?  What's the point of a Potion?  How many cards can you use?  Did we care?  No!  It was all about collecting stuff.  And I'm not a very good collector.  After playing just one round of Pokemon card battling, I immediately got bored and took out my GameBoy Color Link Cable to have some real fun.  As of this moment, my entire extensive collection of Pokemon cards (even my rare naked Misty card) is in some guy named Niko's basement.

Next to go was the anime.  It was stupid from the beginning, and we all knew it on some level.  There was no real plot, no real enemy, no real danger, and no good reason to watch.  What the anime tried to do was recreate the true experience of the games, to the expense of making a serious plot.  Pokemon is, in its most fundamental level, a community experience.  You certainly can beat the games all by yourself, but you'll never catch 'em all, you'll never get a good battle challenge, and you'll never feel the true enjoyment of these games until its done with a group of friends.  The anime tried to boil down that experience, but failed.  Yeah, its cool to see your favorite Pokemon in full cartoon life, but there was just no soul to it all.  You can't make community experience of sharing Missingno and Mew rumors into a non-interactive storyline, no matter how good.  And Pokemon the anime was not good!  The only thing that I particularly liked, even from the start, was the relationship with Ash and Misty.  The sort of back and forth "I'm not going out with him!" childlike mentality was a nice long arc you could follow along to its inevitable conclusion (they kiss)... which never happened*.  I haven't watched this show in years, but I do know that Ash has since had like two other Misty replacements, neither of which will ever go anywhere.  The show will continue endlessly, entertaining a small age demographic before they realize too "this show sucks".

At some point, I just stopped loving Pokemon as much.  There were other games to play.  I stopped drawing my own Pokemon regions in my notebooks.  I stopped designing my own Pokemon like "Mewthree" and "Charvenustois".  The world had moved on.

The games too, unfortunately began to die out for me.  "Gold and Silver", I feel, were the heights of the Pokemon experience.  After that, things began to sour.  "Ruby and Sapphire" gave me this crazy feeling of a reboot.  It wasn't a sequel anymore:  none of the old locations, characters, or enemies were back, or even mentioned.  Only half the Pokemon I had known and loved for years now were available initially, the rest were these new and weird monsters I had never seen before.  At this point I honestly was not following Pokemon all that much except for the games, so I couldn't amass an encyclopedic knowledge of every new one before the game began.  The Elite Four was replace, Team Rocket was gone, I couldn't revisit old regions like "Gold and Silver" had allowed for, things just were restarted.  It was still the same game in every fundamental fashion, but all these little details were shifted around.  We're rehashing the sound ground, yet removing a lot of things I had come to enjoy.

Even so, a few years later I did do my best to catch all 350 or whatever the insane number was by that point in my "FireRed" version.  That wasn't my most exciting summer, was it?

When "Diamond and Pearl" came out, I decided that this time I would actually look over the entire new generation before getting the game.  Only one problem:  they were all terrible.  Ugly, Ugly, Ugly.  There was maybe two in the whole bunch that I'd even consider owning**.  Piplup look cute, but then he evolves into this terrible, monstrous thing called Empoleon.  Others were these horrible evolved forms of Pokemon I had known and loved for years.  Rhydon, what happened to you?  Oh my God, Electabuzz, what have you become??  Eww...  Why in the world would I ever want to play this generation?  More importantly, it was following the "Ruby and Sapphire" standard of simply restarting everything without being a real sequel.  There's nothing to enjoy here.  So I never got it.

Instead, I eagerly awaited the remakes of "Gold and Silver", the best that Pokemon has ever been.  And now that I have them, I'm happy to see just how much the Pokemon world has changed.  Your starting party member follows you around now.  Its a minor thing, but it makes it feel so much more intimate.  They also redesigned the entire world, so that each town now has its own individual look, feel, and background music.  The world of Pokemon has never looked so alive.

At the moment I'm training up to beat Jasmine with my four Pokemon team.  I went with a Chikorita as a starter this time because I've never actually started with a Grass-type.  Then I caught a Mareep because it was just about the only Electric Type nearby.  Next up was a Vulpix because I love that Pokemon.  And finally I made a Vaporeon to both have a strong Water-type and to get across the ocean.  At the moment I've acquired a Feebas from my roommate's "Diamond".  I'm working to one day make it a beautiful Milotic.

What will my final team look like?  I have no idea.  There are so many options.  So many choices.  But that's the true wonder of Pokemon:  freedom.  So join me in my quest for freedom as I take my next step into the larger Pokemon world.

You're going down, Jasmine.  Just because you're cute that doesn't mean I'll go easy on you.

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* If only Rumiko Takahashi of "Inuyasha" and "Ranma 1/2" fame had been brought in to write the anime, things would have been different.  Yeah, the love arc would have been dragged along for a decade, but it would have gone somewhere!

** Those two, interestingly, are Eevee's new evolutions.  Especially Glaceon. I also like Luxray.  I did like Lucario, until he started kicking my ass in Smash Bros.  Now its over between me and him.  Shaymin's second form is pretty cool too.  The rest are all rubbish.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Pro-Life, Pro-Choice

I'm not going to delete this post, because nobody should bury what they've said, but this isn't correct.  I was wrong here, and I'm sorry for that.  You can't find a moral absolutionist perspective on abortion, its impossible.

Once again, I will try to use my logical processes to solve a major political cultural debate.  This time, we handle a real big baddie:  abortion.


Something I've always found interesting is how "Pro-Life" and "Pro-Choice" can mean political polars, and yet, the literal definitions of these two terms do not at all mean anything close to any close to antonyms.  How can "life" and "choice" be opposites?  I would very much like to know which side of the political spectrum first thought of this brilliant bit of political framing.  On the one hand, they both terms make their positions seem to be in the most positive life.  "We're not 'anti-abortion', we're for the life the of the child!"  "We're not supporting abortion, we're supporting a woman's right to control her own body!"  The inverse also comes about.  If you're "Pro-Life", then your opponents must be "Pro-Death", while if you're "Pro-Choice", your opponents must "Anti-Choice", neither of which sounds like a term somebody would put on their bumper sticker.


Of course, one can have all sorts of fun breaking through the specific jargon of political framing on both sides.  Is the physical organism being abortion an "unborn fetus" or an "unborn baby".  Or it could be a "pre-born child" (that one, I must admit, is a little tortured).  Are you talking about "performing abortions" or if you want to be crude, "killing babies"?  Does abortion count as a legal right, or is it actually a form of "manslaughter"?  It becomes very difficult to argue any sort of logic when the debate is obscured though all these complexities of language.  Simply picking one side's terminology over the other side's can mean an implicit support, despite the content of your actual meaning.  Since I'm trying to be as neutral as possible in my commentary, I'll simply use the Associated Press's standard for the issue:  Pro-Life will be called "anti-abortion" and Pro-Choice will be "Pro-Abortion".


Worse yet is that the abortion debate has evolved into such a wide-ranged cultural divide.  Feminism, separation of church and state, privacy rights, the definition of life, Constitutional interpretation, Supreme Court authority, natural rights, bioethics, and the sanctity of life all have some kind of stake in the outcome of the abortion conflict, which most likely will never end.  Its a huge tangled web of hidden meanings and unknown factors hiding behind every single commentary in every form.  Most anti-abortion advocates have both a moral and a religious dispute with the practice, and most pro-abortion folks support it both on moral and feminist grounds, seeing reproductive rights as a major step towards woman's liberation.


The best way to divide up the abortion debate is to separate it into two key forms:  a political debate, and a moral one.  The moral debate is the most obvious to people and the most simplistic:  is abortion a morally correct action to take, and if so, under what grounds?  But there is more to this situation.  Even if you were to find that something is morally wrong, should the government be allowed to step in and regulate the situation?


Since the moral issue is somewhat simpler, I'll tackle this one first, to the best of my ability.  I think ultimately, from a very fundamental level, one's first reaction to abortion is that it is morally wrong.  And there's probably something to that initial reaction.  Notice how guilt is the single most common emotional reaction after an abortion*.  If there was nothing wrong with the act, there should be no guilt, shame, or depression following it.  When you finally get down to the very bare bones of abortion, you are depriving a human being of his or her yet unlived life only because giving birth to them is highly inconvenient.  Pregnancy is a major choice for a person's life, whether they keep the child or not. Though does it need to be considered a horrific burden?  That our society has come to view childbirth has a great burden - something to be feared - rather than the miracle of creation.  Of course, I'm speaking as somebody who will never be pregnant (and am just the slightest bit jealous) so I can't say I fully understand the magnitude of this event in life.  One should be proud to be reproducing, to be fulfilling the fundamental purpose of all life.  Only a person with a very grim view of this world could consider the act of creation as anything less than the most important achievement we humans are meant to fulfill.  I guess all I'm saying is that there is nothing particularly wrong with pregnancy.  Any society that sees this as a condition to be pitied, or abhorred, no matter what the circumstances, must not be a very healthy one.


Let's be honest, here.  Nobody really wants there to be abortions in the first place.  Both those for and against its legality will tell you that in a perfect world, there would be no abortions at all.  For those supporting its use, its at best a very tragic decision that only the woman** can make.


Of course, I can claim abortion to be a morally incorrect act when in general, but any specifics is where my voice immediately becomes silent.  I can't say that "Mrs. So-in-So" should not have aborted her baby, because I have absolutely nothing to say in that circumstance.  My voice is neither required or wanted.  Its not my decision, not my choice, and not where I or anybody else should be interfering.  I will advise that in nearly all cases of unwanted pregnancy that adoption is a far better decision for all involved***.


I think perhaps more important for the abortion debate is not the moral issue, but the legal one.  Is this a place where we want our governments to have power over?  It is one thing to admit that a practice is wrong, but its another to go ahead and say it should be stopped, and a far bigger thing altogether to call on the government to end it.  That seems a little odd when you walk around listening to people constantly saying "there should be a law for X", but our system of government is based quite firmly on the idea that the government can take part in some areas, but not others. 


My feeling of the subject, and this is one that is shared by many, is that the government should not interfere in any situation unless there is compelling state interest for the common good.  For example, murder is outlawed here and everywhere because the government has a charge to protect the lives and welfare of its citizenry.  I suppose if fertility rates were dropping down to crisis levels, the government would have compelling state interest to ban abortion and force the population to maintain itself or expand.  But otherwise, fetuses are not citizens legally until birth.  As much as abortion is distasteful to me, equally distasteful is the government taking control of women's bodies and uses them as mobile incubators for the next generation without good cause.  The government can imprison a person, legally require them to take medication, but it has never had the power to control natural bodily processes beyond the will of the person.  I don't believe anybody does or should have that kind of power.


I think ultimately we have to conclude that there are no easy answers here, as there shouldn't be for a debate that's raged for half a century in this country.  If everybody could stop having abortions altogether, I think that it would be for the best.  But it must be done voluntarily, by their own will.  This is not an area for the government to be sticking its nose in, I believe.  I can't hope to make an ultimately final choice here, because either choice leads to such difficult consequences.  This is a case where both the right of the woman to control her body, and the right of the fetus to exist is under question.  Picking which one is more important is a difficult one.  Nobody really can know what the final answer is, because nobody has complete wisdom.  In fact, there probably isn't a final answer at all.  Who ever said that there was?  All one can ever do in this situation is to be true to himself or herself, and try not to judge too harshly if somebody decides the other way.


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* There is now even a medical term for the emotion trauma:  "Post Abortion Syndrome" (PAS.  Suicide rates are particularly high following an abortion, by the way.  Not surprisingly, PAS is highly common amongst teenagers who have not fully emotionally developed.


** I dare not call any woman who has an abortion a "mother", like so some support groups and sources do.  They consciously decided against this job by killing their unborn children.  I don't want to be overly cruel, but calling these people "mothers" seems to be a perverted mockery of the word.  You can't be a mother to the fetus and have an abortion, that's the literal and figurative truth.


*** There's an exception to every rule of course.  In cases of severe birth defects to the point that quality of life would be one of constant pain, abortion is a very reasonable choice.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

On Final Fantasy XIII

Yo, Space Monkees.  Don't get too excited.  This is just a short message, not a review, or a playthrough, or anything.  There is nothing final about this post.

I've been asked a few times around here and my direct email about my thoughts about "Final Fantasy XIII".  One would assume that I, the guy who tried to start a FFXIII walkthrough nearly three years before it was released in the US, would be jumping at the opportunity to play it immediately.  I mean, the trailers are playing on TV with "My Hands" blaring at full volume, so obviously I should have already bought the game and spent the last sixty-four hours playing it non-stop until I collapsed from exhaustion, right?  That's how a true Final Fantasy fan should act, correct?  Obviously.  Forget that the fact that I would need to buy a PlayStation 3 and the game, and get a high-def TV, and forget about schoolwork for the next week and then flunk out of college - all that needs to be left second for this one silly little video game.  Because that's being a goddamn fan!

Well, I'm not really much of a true fan then.  Beyond all the other practical reasons why I haven't bought the game, there's one issue which I figure to be above all the others.  I'm not convinced.

I'm not convinced that the game's lack of exploration, world-building, or secondary characters was actually a stylized design choice on the side of the creators.  Honestly, from what I can tell, they just couldn't have any world-building in this game.  Square Enix has become a company crippled by their own obsession with the highest quality graphics, now to the loss of the game's atmosphere.  One of my favorite parts of this series, and all RPGs for that matter, is how open the world is.  Even in "Final Fantasy I", you could wander freely around the World Map.  Now all that is over.  I never did forgive "Final Fantasy X" for making a world that was just a giant straight line.  How can I forgive FFXIII for doing the same thing, but worse?

I'm not convinced that the battle system was so complicated that it takes the game twenty-five hours for you to finally gain full control.  Every game slowly builds up your control in this series, slowly handing you greater depth in battle while teaching you the skills to use it.  But no matter how complicated FFXIII may be, it can't require a length of time equal to a six week adult education seminar to teach you it.  How good can a game be if you have to suffer through a length of time longer than an entire day before you're finally given full control?  Are you kidding me?

I'm not convinced that the action sequences, which are amazing to look at, are worth it in a video game.  Why have the coolest parts of your video game non-interactive?  If you wanted a game where this sort of thing took place, why not make your battle system look like that?  I want to fly around and fight giant robots in super-cool real time too.  Why should the game have all the fun?  "Final Fantasy VII:  Advent Children" was an awesome movie.  But it was a movie.  I don't play a game to watch, I play to play.  If you were to make sequences like this playable, it would be the most awesome game ever made.  Until then, it will only disappoint.

Finally, I'm not convinced that this game is at all superior to the last game, "Final Fantasy XII".  It all just seems like we're moving in a weird direction - where graphics and storyline have finally devoured all freedom for the players.  For years I've been saying the series needed more storyline and plot freedom, not less.  Greater exploration, a more believable and alive world, not a tunnel.

So ultimately I'll probably buy FFXIII.  And I might even come to enjoy it despite all these worries I have.  But I'm not going to buy it full-price.  If FFXIII is going to prove itself despite my worries, its going to have to do so at a bargain.  For four years now I've harbored such high hopes for this game, and what finally came out was decidedly not what I was expecting or wanted.  Don't get me wrong, this isn't my final opinion.  This is just an explanation for why I don't have a final opinion.

Oh, and "White Knight Chronicles" looks like a far superior game, by the way.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Ponyo


Hey, Space Monkees!  Fifty posts, can you believe it?

Hayao Miyazaki is not simply the Japanese Walt Disney.  He's the Japanese Santa Claus.  I do not have words for the visual brilliance and magic of his animated films, as any description would weaken their visual effect.  One after another he makes great classic movies, like he has some kind of magic well of pure childish delight which he spreads over the film reels with an enchanted paintbrush.  The only problem is this:  he's relatively unknown here in America.  Oh yeah, in film nerd circles and among anime fans, you'll hear plenty of praise for him.  But ask the average person on the street, or even just the majority of people you know, and you'll get nothing but a blank stare.  "What's a Mee-yah-zak-kee?"  There's a perfect word for this:  criminal.

And then entirely forgettable, DreamWorks movies infected with a disease of "clever" pop-culture" references in exchange for a good story and characters make hundreds of millions of dollars.  Uch...

So out of my hope to spread Miyazaki to the masses, or at least the barely two dozen people who read this blog, I will now give my thoughts on "Ponyo", or as its known in Japan:  "Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea:  Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire".  I wish I had a larger audience to which I can push Studio Ghibli, but that's not the case.  Though I think if all we little tiny bloggers do our part, it could eventually be pushed forward grassroots-style - you know, like those Tea Party rallies.  Actually no, not like the Tea Party rallies, since they were created and finances by a major multimedia outlet, Fox News.  If Fox News wants to stop calling democrats "socialists" all the time, and back me up in making Miyazaki more famous, they certainly are welcome to.  I'd love to see Bill O'Reilly scream into the face of some DreamWorks executive, and listen to Glenn Beck ramble about a "conspiracy" by Nickelodeon to keep Japanese cinema out of the American culture.  It would make for some interesting episodes of the Daily Show that night.  But since nothing like that is happening (or ever will), all you got is me.

Well, this movie isn't that obscure.  The Greater Rodent Reich of Disney actually did pour plenty of resources into making this movie as big as possible.  Just for starters, for the central characters Disney threw in several of their best actors who are tangentially connected to huge Disney Channel names:  Ponyo is played by Miley Cyrus's baby sister, and that one other Jonas brother who isn't in the band plays Sosuke, Ponyo's terrestrial love interest.  Both are about the right age for the parts, so it works well.  And then there's Matt Damon, Liam Neeson*, Tina Fey, Cate Blanchett, and Betty White.  Wow.  It also got the widest release of any Studio Ghibli movie ever, though tragically not close enough for me, since the closest theatre was all the way in Staten Island and I couldn't get a ride.  Just three miles closer and I could have seen this movie half a year ago.  Unfortunately the movie made only fifteen million dollars, which is about as low as a wide release in American only will get you.  Internationally there's another 185 million where that came from, so don't worry about Miyazaki or his paycheck.  He'll be fine.  As for western releases, I don't know if they'll ever throw so much support behind one of his movies like this again.  Hopefully they will, but with Disney you never know.  (These are the people who made me almost miss the Oscars, after all.)  Thankfully there's now a DVD release, so its time to start renting!  Be it RedBox, Netflix, or - God Help You - Blockbuster, make sure little "Ponyo" is inside your DVD player as soon as possible.  And get all the other Miyazaki movies too, while you're at it.  Seriously.

Okay, onto this movie itself.  "Ponyo" is essentially the Studio Ghibli version of "the Little Mermaid".  The stories are somewhat similar in that they focus on the daughter of an over-protective aquatic ruler who wants to become human so as to be "part of that world".  Only this time there's no songs, no overt gags, and no villain.  As you can see from that picture above, Ponyo and Sosuke are only toddlers, so the love story is about as innocent as you can get.  Sorry, developers of "Disgaea 2", you aren't getting anything more than that out of these kids, you weirdos. Of course, with Studio Ghibli, you'll get amazing panoramic views of an amazing world, even when this is supposed to be taking place in the "real" world of coastal Japan.

I find that the best way to describe the fairy tale whimsy of the plot is just to summarize it.  The story begins with Brunhilde, a magic fish in an undersea castle, escaping from the bubble she and her smaller sisters live in to see the surface.  Her father, an evil wizard played by Liam Neeson*, immediately goes after her so that she does not become too attached to the surface world.  However, she quickly gets stuck in a glass jar after escaping a fishing boat, and then washes up to shore next to Sosuke's house.  Sosuke finds the fish and rescues her.  Somehow the fact that she is a fish with a face and hair does not surprise him, or his mom, Tina Fay, or anybody for that matter.  Instead the fish is carried to preschool in a water-filled bucket, enjoying a slice of ham from Sosuke's sandwich, and squirting water into the face of anybody who doesn't like her.  Also she heals a cut on his finger by licking it.  Sosuke also decides to name her "Ponyo", a name which the former Brunhilde takes with love.  She even says her first words:  "Ponyo loves Sosuke!  Ponyo loves Sosuke!", just before being dragged back under the sea by her dad.  But this doesn't last long, as the free-willed Ponyo had decided she's had enough of being a fish.  Immediately she demands hands and feet to replace her dress-like bottom and nub arms, which she grows.  Then, by breaking into her father's magic elixir well, she bursts out to the surface with her sister's acting as a typhoon she can ride all the way up to the surface so she can return to Sosuke.  But in doing so, she's also broke the fabric of all reality.  Oops.

One bit that I love is how Ponyo, when growing from a fish to a girl, goes from a far more cartoony design to a realistic one.  Her fish form is a cute little creature, but one that could never exist in more realistic world above the sea.  While as a girl, she fits in with the world above.  I don't know if this was intentional, but the change in style adds a whole level to this movie's visual brilliance.

I'm not going to spoil anything, but I am going to warn you that this problem is fixed with continent ease.  In fact, it amounts to just two promises, which, since this is a fairy tale, will naturally be kept forever and then everybody can live happily ever after.  The plot is actually rather shallow, since there really isn't a villain and in fact no serious conflict, thus no villain.  You go to A to Z, pretty much with nothing being solved that wasn't established in a matter of seconds.  In fact, some issues that the movie brings up, such as Ponyo's dad trying to destroy the humans in order to save the seas, are simply forgotten without any explanation.  Maybe he only put it on hold until he can get back to it later.  Or maybe the story isn't really all that important compared to the fairy tale tone of the film.  There are plenty of fairy tales that do not have much conflict, yet they still are remembered for years to come.

I'll admit, however, this is far from Miyazaki's best work.  But even Miyazaki on a bad day is far from terrible.  When Miyazaki writes a script that isn't exactly a perfect storyline, he makes sure to make up for it with stunning visuals and pushing the limits of traditional hand-drawn animation as far as he can go.  There's always love behind these movies, which is what makes them eternal classics.  Yeah, "Howl's Moving Castle" and "Spirited Away" were better movies, but "Ponyo" still is a movie with a soul, and that should be respected.

So be good Space Monkees and take my recommendations!  Also there needs to be more of you readers, dammit!  =)

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* Its weird watching a typical anime pretty boy with the voice of Liam Neeson, trust me.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Disgaea 2: Dark Hero Days

Hey, Space Monkees.

Where exactly doe you come to that moment where you come to sudden realization of "my God, this game I just bought is not fun, and I really don't want to play it anymore"?  When is it?  Is it when you realize that the storyline is going nowhere?  Is it when you learn to hate the battle system?  Or is it something else entirely?  I've already chronicled my slow descent into dislike for a game with my ten-part "Dissidia Log", so you should have some experience into when I'm ready to throw the game away and move on to something else.  Unfortunately, my latest purchase, "Disgaea 2:  Dark Hero Days" for the PSP, definitely is one of those games.

My first discussion point comes right at the title.  What the heck is a "Disgaea"?  Or who is Disgaea?  Where is Disgaea?  I played about a third of the game before abandoning it, and I never ever heard the word.  It can't be just a cool-sounding meaningless title like "Final Fantasy" or "Grand Theft Auto", because there isn't anything remotely cool about the word "Disgaea".  It doesn't even run off the tongue the right way.  Is it a Japanese term of some kind?  Or maybe its a combination of the prefix "dis-" meaning "negative or opposite" and "Gaea", the ancient Greek goddess of the Earth (AKA:  mother nature).  So it would mean "female personification of the opposite of the natural order".  What does that have to do with anything I've seen in this game?

But perhaps before I go into my opinion of the game, I should explain why I bought this game in the first place.  It certainly wasn't because I played "Disgaea 1".  Actually I've never heard of any of these games beyond one short X-play review of this one.  As I recall they were particularly fond of one line of dialogue:  "Napoleon Boner-part".  And that's in the game, so I can't be disappointed.  The real reason is that several of my buddies from the dark netherworld of the Final Fantasy Wiki were absolutely obsessed with these games.  They even started a wiki:  imaginatively named "the Disgaea Wiki".  (Oh and it gives no help as to what "Disgaea" means either.)  Its like going to dinner with a friend and asking what they would recommend on the menu, you can't help but order what they mention.  So I figured, since these guys love the games so much, I figure I should give it a shot.  A bit of research later and I find its a strategy RPG.  That's fine, I've had times good and bad with that brand of video game.  Some are excellent ("Final Fantasy Tactics") others are just okay ("Jeanne d'Arc").  But they always give an epic political storyline mixed in with strategic gameplay, and usually are a lot of fun.  I decided to try these Disgaea games.  Unfortunately I couldn't find a portable version of "Disgaea 1", so I skipped on to "Disgaea 2", figuring that it probably didn't matter which one I started with.

And as it turned out, it didn't matter at all.  I don't know if Disgaea games are just anthologies like the Final Fantasy series, or what, but nothing in "Disgaea 2" at all hinted that there was a game before this one.  Okay, at the start of the game, the Earth has been conquered by demons and everybody has been transformed.  That might have happened in the first game, I don't know.  But your main hero, an idiot named Adell with a giant silly necktie, definitely had nothing to do with any of it.  He's out to save his parents and his little siblings from being demons by killing the Demon Lord Zenon.  And boy, he will not let you forget it.  So along the way, you'll encounter all sorts of strange weirdos and naturally they join your party.  One of which is the Demon Lord's daughter, a pair of bouncing boobies on a 2D sprite named Rozalin.  And of course she falls in love with the hero, its federally mandated that the daughters of villains must always fall in love with the hero and turn to the good side.

It looks all standard RPG-fair, until you realize one important thing.  Why the heck should I care?  The demonized Earth isn't all that different from the regular Earth, only with sillier creatures.  Demon Lord Zenon, who the game wants you to defeat, doesn't actually do much of anything.  You don't even see much of him.  He spends the entire game plotting something or other, and never actually doing anything particularly evil.  There is nothing to protect in this game!  There's no evil to vanquish!  I have absolutely no idea why I'm playing!  I mean, couldn't you at least give me a "the princess has been kidnapped, rescue her" plotline?  Yeah, I get that this game isn't trying to take itself seriously (it is funny at times, though most of the jokes just aren't that good), but still, can't you give me something?  Never in my life have I played a game with such a pointless storyline.

Okay, here's the sad truth:  RPGs just aren't all that fun to play.  Unless you're making it a fast-paced action affair like "Kingdom Hearts", you aren't going to be able to have the game run by gameplay alone.  You need something more:  an epic storyline, a vast feeling of adventure, a huge world to explore with tons of things to do.  "Disgaea 2" has nothing of that.  You spend the entire game in the same hub-world with, which is just a town.  Yeah, you leave for battles, but you never have a sense of scale or adventure.  SPRGs are a level beyond the typical turn-based RPG snore fest, but it still isn't enough for you to build your entire game on that alone.  "Disgaea 2" knows that, which is why a good deal of it is endless meandering conversations between either sprites or static portraits, all with barely passable voice acting.  But there's nothing interesting happening here!  I just stopped watching the cutscenes very early on, because I was just completely bored with them.

Sometimes the game can be clever and funny, like with the exploding zombie penguins that call everybody "dood!".  I liked those guys.  You also get to fight the Power Rangers at one point, but they're very easy so its all pointless.  There is some black humor, though not enough really.  Other characters are just annoying.  For example, Prince Naveen from "the Princess and the Frog" returns in this game as a sex-addicted frog that floats in the air and is easily defeated by every foe on the map.  Most of the time though, the game is less funny and more simply annoying.  Its so desperate to be funny, yet so rarely provokes laughs.

Gameplay-wise, "Disgaea 2" attempts to try something new with the SRPG format, but it just isn't enough to keep me going.  Every battlefield is filled with magic colored squares that give a certain effect.  Some will boost stats, some will sap HP, and some will make you completely invincible.  At first this got me very excited, because it would add a level of puzzle solving to the battles.  But ultimately it didn't really manage to do much of anything.  All it meant in the end was that I had to position my forces in odd sections sometimes and destroy certain objects to advance.  The battles, ultimately, were no different than any other SRPG I've played.  Though actually there is one place where they were different:  range.  Ranged units in "Disgaea 2" have the saddest, most pitiful range I have ever seen.  It makes them basically worthless, because they'll never be able to fight from the distance you'd want.  That's a shallow complaint, I know, but it really made the battles infuriating to me.  Death is not permanent, which can be a good thing, but it also removes the feeling of strategy since you can be as sloppy as you want and there are next-to-no consequences.

Oh, and offensive magic is worthless.  Remember that.

Another thing that I didn't like about this game was its art style.  The artwork is okay, if not even brilliant at times (I rather like Taro's artwork, which is why you can see him up at the top).  But one thing that I find disturbing is just how many characters are little lolicon girls wearing very little over non-existent breasts.  Okay, I'm not going to out and call the creators of this game pedophiles, but it does freak me out.  I mean what is going on here?  I could go back to my old excuse of "its Japan, what do you expect?" but here its very worrying.  Should I call the police?  Should the World Court be notified about this?  Even if this was all unintentional or at the very least, a repressed desire that the developers will never act upon, it still makes me feel dirty for playing this game.  Like, I don't want people to see the box cover art or anything.  I feel like the FBI is going to confiscate it from me as "kiddie porn" - and then I'll never be allowed to play with my baby brother again or get a real job!  "Digaea 2", why are you so desperate to ruin my life???  I'm ruining it already perfectly fine without you!

Seriously, the lolicon stuff is quite simply a distracting artistic choice, and seriously weird.

So ultimately, I have to say, I thoroughly did not enjoy playing "Disgaea 2".  I made it all the way to the sixth chapter and I finally had to give up.  Maybe I simply picked the black sheep out of the series.  Maybe the other games were better.  I'll check.  [Five minute break.]  Nope!  They're all just as pointless.  Perhaps I could have liked this game if the storyline made me at all compelled or interested.  But it didn't, so I didn't like it.  This is a game that's going to GameStop in exchange for what little cash I can get back for it.  I really don't want people (or the FBI) getting the wrong idea about me if they see things like this.

Monday, March 8, 2010

82nd Academy Awards Hell

Hey, Space Monkees.

Thanks to a dispute between Cablevision and W-ABC's parent company, the Black Empire of Disney, ABC was off throughout all of Sunday for me, and apparently a good section of New York City.  This meant that immediately I would have to scramble for an online solution, preferably legal, but what can you do?  If anything, I would like to be watching the Oscars in my comfy chair and the warm embrace of moral certitude, but it seems that they weren't going to let me do that.  So instead, I had to go fight tooth and nail to find a way to watch this important event, my hajj.

I started my search at 7:30, a good hour before the Oscars were to begin, giving me a nice long buffer before I missed the opening act.  Every "legal" solution was unfortunately unacceptable.  One livestream was being run by the AP, but all I was watching was this pretty yet grating woman annoy stars on the red carpet.  This is typically the part of the Oscars that I consider "miss-able".  Its like only being able to watch the Pre-game show at the Superbowl.  Its like you're going to your daughter's wedding, but you aren't allowed in the chapel.  Instead all you can do is hang outside and make small-talk with her friends whom, you have to admit, don't seem to like you very much.  Another livestream I found, this one on the Oscar website itself, was - and I am not joking here - just a camera set up in the lobby of the Kodak Theatre.  Now you're watching the security camera of the parking lot of your daughter's wedding, but how can you see her finally say "I do"??  Can you even call yourself a good father unless you break right through the stained glass and walk her down that isle, ABC's permission or not?

So I grabbed my battering ram and started looking for some less savory spots on Ustream.  I'll say it again, I didn't want to be in this situation or breaking any international copyright laws.  In fact, I didn't even want to be watching this on my computer in the first place.  I had to drag the good living room chairs into the computer room, and then all of us were huddled around the computer, trying to get the best view while they screamed at me for not using the magic of the Internet to get the Oscars.  It wasn't pleasant.  Even the best feed I found, the very best one, was horribly blurry, filled with lags, and would have ads popping up every so often.  Then Firefox crashed, so I had to do an emergency shift to Internet Explorer*.

At this point, I wasn't happy, but at least I hadn't missed anything.  Finally I was linked to a site which usually focused upon illegally streaming sports events to the Internet, which I felt would at least get me through the ceremony.  I was ready, I had my popcorn, and the show was about to start.  Things were going good.  And then...  Neil Patrick Harris started singing.  Oh my God, this is awful!  I went through Hell and back to dig up an Internet Oscar feed for this piece of crap!!  Neil, dude, I love you, but this was a terrible idea.  But then, at least, I could look forward to our real hosts, Steve Martin and Alac Baldwin.  Surely the show would pick up with them, right?  Oh no, forget that.  Their first few jokes crashed faster than the Iraqi air force circa 1991.  Now, and just for a moment, we began to seriously discuss leaving the computer and doing something else.  We eventually decided to stick with it, too much had been put into this project to simply abandon it after a painful opening.  Look, Steve Martin's jokes actually are funny all of a sudden, there may be hope.

The stream continued for nearly an hour and a half before suddenly crashing.  I don't know what happened, but the signal was cut off.  I think Disney's agents must have stormed the streamer's house and summarily executed him for treason.  Nobody double-crossed the Mouse Empire and escapes with their lives.  Now things were looking really bad.  Not only were the Oscars cut-off, but there was also a good chance the Mouse's agents were after me.  Or worse, the death squads of Cablevision.  They say that nobody ever escapes Cablevision's Ministry of Love... at least, you never escape with your free will.  I decided to try to find another stream.  An earlier one of incredibly low-quality was dead.  Another one I found ran smoothly for two minutes before getting suspicious of me.  It asked "are you a human?"  I would have just replied yes, and even given a genetic blood sample, but the site decided that the true test of humanity was to download some software - software so clearly malware it might as well be called "virus.exe".

I gave up hope at this point.  The other viewers had left, off to bed.  The battle was lost, so it seemed.  At the moment I was missing Kristen Stewart give out some minor technical award.  How could I live without the bored pasty face of Kristen Stewart at my Oscars??  I decided to start again from the very beginning:  Google News.  Perhaps some tech blog had some news about where I could find a fresh feed.  Then I found some very strange news:  Disney was letting ABC play on Cablevision once again.  I don't know when the channel returned, I had left the TV on ABC right up until several minutes after the Oscar broadcast, but they channel was never anything more than a white screen endlessly repeating Cablevision propaganda.  But when I tried the channel now, this time around 10:30, suddenly the broadcast was back!  I had gone through all this pain and suffering, this gigantic emotion roller coaster* just to find that it had all been a futile waste of time!  I could have been watching TV this entire time!!!!!

AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!

Apparently the broadcast had been restored sometime around 8:40, several moments after I had turned off the TV.  It was yet another humiliation; a final piratical joke committed by the arch villains Cablevision and Disney.  But at the very least I had my comfy chair.  And now the big awards were being given:

Best Supporting Actor:  Christoph Waltz in "Inglourious Basterds".  Children, let this be a lesson for you.  If you want to win an Oscar, make sure you play this year's badass villain.  Its a guaranteed win, apparently.

Best Supporting Actress:  Mo'Nique for "Precious:  Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb".

Best Leading Actress:  Sandra Bullock in "The Blind Side".  Look, she was also the Worst Actress of 2009!  An Oscar and a Razzie, wow!  She's complex.

Best Leading Actor:  Jeff Bridges in "Crazy Heart".  I like your style.  The Dude abides.

Best Animated Feature:  "Up".  No surprise there.  "Coraline" still should have won.  One nominated movie in particular, "the Secret of Kells" caught me interest purely because I've never heard of it.  I definitely have to check this one out.  I love watching the Academy Awards and discovering some great movie I missed during the passed year.

Best Director:  Kathryn Bigalow for "The Hurt Locker".  Check it out, she beat her ex-husband, James Cameron!  And she has two Oscars - where he has none.  If I were her, I would tease his ass all night about it.  "Yo, Jim, check it out.  I can make my two Oscars kiss.  Can you do that?  Can you?  With your none??  HAHAHA!!  I'm the queen of the world, bitch!" 

Best Picture:  "The Hurt Locker".  No surprise there.  "Coraline" still should have won.

And then the show ended.  I mean, it just rushed right through and ended in rapid fire.  Tom Hanks didn't even list the Best Picture nominations, he just said the winner and left.  There's something to admire there.

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* I absolutely hate Internet Explorer.  Using it was more unpleasant to me than watching TV on my computer.  Seriously.

** And not the good kind of roller coaster like Nitro or Millennium Force.  The bad kind.  The ones that you wait four hours for only for the ride to last thirty seconds.  You haven't felt pain until you've waited for Six Flag's Kingdaka that long.  Trust me.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Best Picture Nominations

Hey, Space Monkies, its Oscar Weekend!

For all film buffs, there is one day out of all the others that we find particularly sacred.  For the Christians, there is Easter. For us, there's the Academy Awards.  There is no measure of quality that holds as much prestige and respect as an Oscar.  This is the day that every name in Hollywood congregates in one building to celebrate the very best of the art of film making... and then spend way too damn long handing out the minor technical awards (who cares about Best Sound Mixing, really?).  If I were only given the honor of merely attending the Academy Awards just once, I might die in a swell of religious ecstasy.  Its my hajj.

The award which I personally find to be of greatest interest is Best Picture.  My theory is that individual performances, though extremely important and worthy of acclaim, can only be as good as the movie around them.  A bad movie might have a good showing from one actor, but you can never be sure if you love them just because they're good, or because they're the one decent bit of meat left in a week-old rotten steak.  Best Picture rewards the entire effort, from the director to the actors to the editors.  You cannot give credit or blame to a single person in a work that is in its truest definition, a group effort.  There's a certain magic behind a great film that you can never find to be the creation of a single driving force behind the ensemble.  Most likely, its something that can never be defined or recreated, thus the failure of so many remakes and sequels.

Unfortunately, very rarely does the Academy actually pick out the very best movie of the year and proclaim it Best Picture.  For example, last year "Slumdog Millionaire" won.  Slumdog was a beautiful film, one that should be remembered for many years as a triumph of hope in modern cinema, but even so, very few people can honestly believe that it was a better film than either "WALL-E" or "the Dark Knight".  I certainly do not, at the very least.  Because both of those movies were passed over for various bits of snorefests like "the Curious Case of Benjamin Button" and just plain old depressing crap like "the Reader", the Academy has decided to increase the list of Best Picture nominees to ten this year.  If you were to ask me, that is not the solution to the problem.  The issue was that you were picking the wrong movies to honor with a nomination, not the number of them.  All you've done is cheapened the distinction by increasing the list.  Though its not something I'm particularly concerned with; its nothing to get passionate about.  Even when terrible movies are nominated, you can trust that they will rarely win Best Picture (I've never seen it happen at least).  So "Brokeback Mountain" was soundly defeated by "Crash".

Since there are ten nominees this year, I unfortunately haven't seen all of them yet.  In fact, I've only seen half.  Even so, I'm going to ignorantly overview each one of the ten based upon my own very limited knowledge of them all.  There's no reason to listen to my opinions on this (why are you reading then?) but I figure my own thoughts on at least why I purposefully skipped watching those movies must have some merit, even if they are half-formed preconceptions.  So here we go (listed in alphabetical order):
  1. Avatar:  Quite frankly, I do not think that this movie should have been nominated in the first place.  Yes, "Avatar" was a brilliant spectacle of the most cutting edge of visual effects, but when you get right down to it, it was little more than "Pocahontas in Space".  Oh, it was a well-done film on every technical level, with solid work from every cast member.  But there just isn't anything more behind it all.  There's nothing truly great behind the film; nothing that kept me thinking about it seriously much longer than the time it took me to write up my impressions of it back in December.  I just didn't fall in love with this movie, that's all there is to it.  It was worth a view, oh yeah, you cannot miss the world of Pandora come to life.  But that doesn't mean it was a classic.  I really do not want this movie to win, above all others.
  2. The Blind Side:  There's a very clear and obvious reason why I did not see this movie, and it should take me just about five characters to explain it:  snore.  Sandra Bullock adopts a black child and he becomes a football player.  Yeah, there might have been an important and brilliant story of the real world to tell here, and many might enjoy it.  But this is just not my kind of movie.  I come to the theatre to be taken away from the real world and see something new and beautiful.  I don't want a harsh reality or some kind of cultural indictment.  This simply is not the kind of fiction I choose to experience.
  3. District 9:  This was an interesting film, though I found it to be a bit flawed.  The basic premise of using aliens as a metaphor for South Africa's own racial problems is a fascinating one, which handles a harsh social truth with much more tact than some films.  Instead of simply screaming the message out, its slightly hidden in a sci-fi narrative.  Unfortunately my problems with the film were two:  1) the point of view constantly shifted from a documentary style to a tradition omniscient one without much justification, I wish the film makers had chosen one style and run with it, and 2) the message is somewhat underpinned by the film's hypocritical view of the Nigerians, who are depicted with extreme stereotypical overtones (they're voodoo cannibal drug dealers for one).  Is that enough to remove it from the running?  I'm not entirely sure.  Its sure better, in my opinion, than most of the nominees here.
  4. An Education:  I've never even heard of this movie to be honest.  That's not something I'm particularly proud of.  I'll just skip this one.
  5. The Hurt Locker:  I've heard very good things about this movie, but I don't know if I'm up for actually seeing it.  Iraq seems like a very depressing subject matter, something I typically avoid on principle.  I hate feeling like absolute shit after a major downer of a movie.  That's why I stopped watching "Grave of the Fireflies", an anime film about two starving Japanese orphans after Hiroshima, about five minutes in.  I knew they were both going to die, and die horribly.  Why should I have to watch that and feel terrible for it?  Though the sheer volume of positive things I've heard about it might just make me watch it in the end.
  6. Inglourious Basterds:  Watching this movie was like going through the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art.  I knew what I was seeing was supposed to be great works of human expression and something worth remembering, but in the end I just didn't get it.  I don't understand this movie.  Its not an action thriller like Quentin Tarantino's other films, it isn't really much of a war movie either.  Its not a comedy.  Its not a drama.  I don't know what it is.  I don't know what emotional need this movie is supposed to fulfill.  Why does history need to be rewritten where we blow Hitler up in a blaze of suicide bomber glory?  I've even come to suspect that this might even be some sort of elaborate joke on the audience, just like most modern art.  Beyond the very first wonderful scene, there was not much I enjoyed here.  In fact, I found this movie to be structurally incoherent and filled with at times excruciatingly long dialogue scenes.  So I'm lost here, maybe somebody can explain to me.
  7. Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire:  Repeat what I said about "the Blind Side", my feelings about this film are about the same.  The only thing that caught my interest here is just how many R&B stars are in this.  Mo'Nique, Lenny Kravitz, and Mariah Carey - is this a film or a band?
  8. A Serious Man:  This was one of the weirdest movies I've ever seen.  And the plot summary wouldn't make you think twice about it:  a Jewish father in the 70s Midwest undergoes a journey of discovery as he deals with his place in the universe, his marriage, and his community.  But then the movie starts off in nineteenth century Jewish Poland with a short story about a zombie that is never again brought up (except in a painting that I spotted late in the film).  The entire thing is sort of like an philosophical crisis, without any clear answers.  Then it all ends suddenly and meaninglessly.  Nothing is answered, nothing is learned.  To quote the Beatles Eleanor Rigby:  "no one was saved".  Maybe such a dark and cynical has merit artistically, but I simply did not care for any of it.  At the very least, you can spend hours looking for hidden meanings in the movie, so there's fun to be had there.
  9. Up:  Nominating "Up" seemed to largely be an apology for snubbing the excellent "WALL-E" last year.  Unfortunately, that doesn't say much for the movie itself.  I really enjoyed this film, its definitely as good as can want from children's animation.  And yet...  There's something lacking.  When you compare it to "WALL-E", you're bound to find it doesn't live up.  Nothing can!  That's a sad position to put an excellent film, but I can't help it.  "Up" doesn't even surpass the brilliant "Coraline", which I honestly believe to be the very best movie of all of 2009.  Its going to beat "Coraline" at Best Animated Picture too, which makes me a bit unhappy with it.  Even so, out of the entirety of the list, this is the most unique movie in the nomination list.  Seeing an animated movie win Best Picture would be such an upset that I simply cannot resist rooting for it.
  10. Up in the Air:  I have a theory:  either this or "Up" were nominated so that this year's Oscars could have a theme of elevation.  I haven't seen this movie either, though I mean to get around to it eventually.  George Clooney is never a bad sign for any movie.  That's really all I have to say here, since I don't know much about it.  Sorry about that.
So, in accordance with the trend lately, I'll have to give my prediction for what is going to win Best Picture.  Note, this isn't what I want to win (which would be "Coraline, but that isn't going to happen so instead I'll throw my support behind "Up").  In the end, I think "Hurt Locker" has got this one in the bag.  If there's anything the Academy cannot resist, its being topical, and you don't get more controversial than Iraq.

Have a very nice Academy Awards, Space Monkees.  I'll be watching with you Sunday!*

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* Or maybe I won't.  Right now my local cable provider, Cablevision, is in a dispute with Disney over a 40 million dollar rate increase for them to broadcast ABC, which is showing the Oscars this year.  I don't know or care which side is in the right, as far as I'm concerned, Cablevision is nothing but a company of crooks and Disney is hardly much better.  This wouldn't be so bad if there was any other option, but Cablevision holds a television monopoly in my area.  If I missed my Oscars because of some stupid cash dispute, then I would be furious.  Then again, Steve Martin is hosting, so maybe its a blessing in disguise.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Eureka Seven

Hello, Space Monkees!

(Translation note:  for whatever reason, the name of this show is not pronounced in the proper manner with a long vowels sounds.  Instead both the title and the titular characters have their names pronounced in an odd Japanese way.  The English dub doesn't even pull it off, as the first vowel sound is nearly impossible for an English trained dub.  Most of the English voice actors say "El-rekka" or "Ay-rekka".  Not that any of this matters since this is a silent review, but keep it in mind when reading Eureka's name.)

This is exactly the kind of show that I needed after "Gundam X".

Where that was pointless, scatterbrained, and ultimately just plain old boring, "Eureka Seven" is deep, focused, and a long enjoyable story.  I think one of "Gundam X"'s most singular flaw was that ultimately in the end, it was just a show about giant robots fighting, nothing more.  The plot, the characters, everything, it was just an excuse to get big machines beating the gears out of each other, with the plot just being some kind of facade to make things seem more important than they really were.  "Eureka Seven" is a full face-turn.  Yeah, there are giant robots beating the gears out of each other here, but I think the robots are the facade here - trying to draw in viewers with absolutely awesome bits of action while really telling an emotional love story.

Don't get me wrong, "Eureka Seven" isn't simply a correction of everything wrong with "Gundam X".  Even on its, without any preconceptions at all, I have to admit this is as good as anime gets.  You cannot ask for much more than this.

"Eureka Seven" is the tale of Renton Thurston, a young boy who is the son of the great hero of the entire world:  Adroc "the King" Thurston, who saved everybody from a calamity called the "Summer of Love".   (Get used to all sorts of strange terminology, as this show loves making up concepts and not bothering to explain exactly what they are for dozens of episodes.)  Renton is all alone in the worst except for his bitter grandpa, as Adroc disappeared saving the world and Renton's beloved sister, Diane has went missing years afterward.  A major gimmick of the show is that during Renton's own internal monologuing, he is actually addressing "sis".  Where she is and what Adroc did to save the world is just one of the numerous mysteries that continue on during this show.  Notably, unlike certain other giant robot animes ("Neon Genesis Evangelion"), "Eureka Seven" actually explains everything in the end for you]

All Renton really wants to do is Lift, sort of flying on surf boards while streams of visually dynamic green energy follows you, like his hero, Holland of the rebellious battleship, the Gekkostate.  Unfortunately, as he describes his life in typical teenager fashion, "everything sucks" because his boring old town has no good Lifting spots and Gramps is far too grumpy to let Renton follow his dreams.  That is until a mysterious girl crashes her giant robot, the Nirvash, onto Renton's house.  She is Eureka*, a member of the Gekkostate that Renton is inevitably going to join due to plot convenience/contrivance.  Also Renton is 100% in love with her.  There's only a few problems:  1) the typical relationship foibles, 2) she has adopted the exact same annoying little kids from "Mobile Suit Gundam", and 3) she isn't entirely human.

Normally characters of Eureka's archetype in anime are just cold emotionless on the outside dolls.  If you do get any sparks of emotion, it will be for the very briefest bits of time and then they're back to being robots.  Eureka is a robot for all of five minutes, but she breaks out of this shell fairly early.  Her love for Renton, her difficulty in understanding what exactly she is, and her fear of what the heck is happening to her make her a far more approachable character than say Evangelion's resident blue-haired alien guy.  Or being a bit more personally topical, she's better developed than "Gundam X"'s horrible, nothing-to-say love interest, Tiffa.  Also unlike "Gundam X", the supporting characters are fully fleshed out; nobody is spared an emotional backstory.  Its a cast you can love from the start for their faults and strengths - even the annoying little kids grow on you after awhile.

Yeah, I really cannot stop trashing "Gundam X".  I can't help it.  It was so bad.  I really was caught off-guard as to how boring that show would be.  Luckily "Eureka Seven" is better in every way.

The plot, though hardly the darkest thing anime has ever produced, remains fairly serious and realistic throughout.  When a character dies, they die.  There are a few random faceless mooks, but any time a named character dies you will know there entire backstory, personality, and dreams for the future.  Even the villains are shown to be either completely sympathetic or products of their environment.  Going into details would involve far too many spoilers, but needless to say the character arcs are understandable and realistic.  Renton especially has real growth, going from a whiny little kid to a almost a father of a family himself (though without aging).  This is probably due to "Eureka Seven"'s expansive size, with almost twice the length of a normal anime at fifty episodes exactly.  Instead of the story rushing at light speed to fit the medium, "Eureka Seven" gets to take its time and develop the characters' evolution.

In fact, the plot moves at a fairly leisurely pace, especially for a giant robot anime.  I mean, it isn't on the level of ".hack//SIGN", AKA the slowest TV show of all time.  Robot battles, which typically would be the focus of any giant robot anime, instead are pretty few and far between.  Maybe half the episodes actually feature a giant robot doing any real damage.  Notwithstanding, the action is incredibly cool, especially the last few.  Because the robots are all Sky Surfing, the action is fast and full of great twists and turns.  If you enjoyed the space battles of "Cowboy Bebop", the action of  "Eureka Seven" will blow your mind to sky.  I mean, simply the battle between the Nirvash and its main rival robot, TheEND makes this entire show a spectacle worth watching.  The point is, "Eureka Seven" has so much more than the spectacle, which is exactly what makes the show so wonderful.

Presentation though, is where the entire thing comes together.  The music?  Just wonderful.  I mean, there are so many tracks here that I love and have stuck in my head right now.  Especially the fourth opening theme, Sakura, which combines techno J-pop with Amazing [Freaking] Grace!  I love this song!  The art style moves towards the colorful with tons of rainbow energy blasts, chromatic robots.  Even the smoke is pink.  As for the voice acting its excellent in both English and Japanese.  You'll find that "Eureka Seven" has managed to find just about the very best anime English actors in the entire business.  Notably one of them is none other than Mr. Cripsin Freeman, also known as "Mr. Sexy Voice".  Dear God, Freeman, your voice is so awesome, it weeps me just go numb.  I would marry your voice.  I'd bare its children.

Okay, here's where I have to put the cons, I'm afraid.  If you bother to keep count, you'll find that "Eureka Seven" probably has more tears than any other show ever made.  At least once an episode, somebody is going to cry.  Renton and Eureka have cried so much and so often I'm stunned they haven't busted their tear ducts.  There's a lot of psuedo-science nonsense to explain the oncoming end of the world which I really don't buy (information quantum mechanics?).  Also, if you want your endings to make sense and not be driven by a long string of dues ex machinas created by the Power of Love, you're not going to be happy with the last episode.  However, I think it fits the theme of this show.  These are just minor issues.

So if you want an anime to fall in love with, I recommend "Eureka Seven".  Want to enjoy a rich story with character growth and a nice ending?  "Eureka Seven".  Kick-ass action and great music?  "Eureka Seven".

However, if you want something to hate and despise forever, there's always "Gundam X".

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* I assume Eureka's last name is "Seven", thus explaining the title.  No better explanation is ever given.  Then again, I thought the hero of a certain Square Enix RPG had the full name of "Chrono Trigger", so what do I know?