Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug Review: Second Verse, (More or Less) Same as the First

By Andrew Briad

Directed by Peter Jackson
Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Benedict Cumberbatch, Lee Pace, Evangeline Lily, Luke Evans, Orlando Bloom
Release Date: December 13, 2013
Presented in 2D, 3D, High Frame Rate 3D, and IMAX 3D

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey greeted us last December to very high, albeit in retrospect rather unreasonable, expectations. It was director Peter Jackson returning to the Tolkien lore that made him a household name in the film world, directing the first of an epic multi-movie adaptation of a book that in and of itself was a revered literary classic, regardless of its Lord of the Rings connections. The first full trailer came out an entire year before its release, and spun a huge frenzy of hype among many fans. While many were relatively pleased with it, the overall response to An Unexpected Journey would be best described as lukewarm- no one really seemed to hate it or anything, but a fair number of people were left feeling disappointed.
While some of these reasons weren't exactly invalid (that it was too long, that the pacing was fairly slow, that The Hobbit didn't need to be made into three movies), some of these complaints do seem somewhat misguided by expectations. Namely, is it a problem that the film isn't enough like The Lord of the Rings trilogy, that it's smaller in scale as a story, that it's often sillier and more comic? To these complaints I respond with a resounding no. While the connections to Lord of the Rings are certainly there (and the filmmakers seem intent on cramming in a bunch more of them), The Hobbit is not LotR. This is namely due to the nature of the story itself, a fairly simple (for Tolkien) fantasy adventure written to appeal to children (whereas LotR was written with an older audience in mind). As a result the tone of The Hobbit also differs in some ways. The visual aesthetic of the films, shot digitally with a very clean, bright appearance (coupled with a deluge of first-rate CG effects from Weta Digital) is fitting for a lighter, less complex adventure tale (simply replicating how the darker, grittier Rings films looked would have been a mistake- though a few more practical effects wouldn't have hurt). Whereas the somewhat more cartoonish and over-the-top physics of many action scenes would feel out of place in much of the Rings trilogy, they play better in The Hobbit's more generally jovial, adventurous context of old-school fantasy. The stakes and drama are certainly there, but the fun lighthearted elements get to be more pronounced. The early scenes of An Unexpected Journey should have tipped enough people off to this right away (Bilbo's first conversation with Gandalf, the party with the dwarves, the songs), and while things get a bit more serious in our second installment, The Desolation of Smaug, that more lighthearted sense of fantasy fun still largely remains.
"No, no no! Singing elves are that side. This side is the dancing elves!"

So, where were we? Resuming right where An Unexpected Journey left off, Desolation of Smaug finds Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) continuing his quest with Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and his band of dwarves to retrieve the Arkenstone from the Lonely Mountain, guarded by the greedy, powerful dragon Smaug. With the Arkenstone Thorin will reclaim his birthright as king and unite the Dwarves, which the orc party of Azog the Defiler (yes that's his real title) is intent on stopping. In this installment Bilbo and the dwarves encounter Giant Spiders, are held captive in the kingdom of the Wood Elves led by Tharanduil (Lee Pace), make a daring escape through barrels down a river (in a particularly fun action sequence replete with 3D arrows, decapitated orcs, and weirdly-inserted handheld camera shots), and encounter Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans), who smuggles them into his home of Laketown. Thorin is perhaps somewhat too eager to reclaim his homeland, as his quest for redemption begins to consume him. Meanwhile Bard debates the destruction that his actions may bring in their wake, concerned for the safety of the citizens of the nearby Laketown. This all leads to the dwarves finally reaching the Lonely Mountain, where Bilbo must steal the Arkenstone from the dreaded Smaug...
The barrel escape is one of several great action sequences in DoS (and a shoo-in for which part of the movie gets its own theme park ride).

Like the first Hobbit film, Desolation of Smaug expands on the story with materiel from Tolkien's  appendices, as well as completely new content just for the film. While all this expansion worked well enough for An Unexpected Journey, it proves a decidedly more mixed bag here. New material with the elves proves quite a bit of fun, reintroducing Legolas (Orlando Bloom) as a rather dickish elf prince with a lot of arrogance to shed off, as well as a crush on new character Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), who despite her friendship does not seem to share these feelings. Her eye does fall towards the dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner), providing probably the biggest surprise in a series mostly lacking in them- a romantic subplot that, while not really necessary to the story, proves to be one of the more engaging parts of the movie. A dwarf/elf romance- who knew, right? (and yes, the shipper community is already having a field day with this one)
Tauriel proves a fun addition to the story, plus more ass-kicking women is always a good thing.

Meanwhile, anytime the film cuts to Gandalf's (Ian McKellen) subplot involving the Necromancer it seems to grind the movie's pacing to a screeching halt. In the original book this subplot was entirely absent, merely existing as an excuse for Gandalf to leave the action midway through the book (and thus give all the later Smaug action some actual stakes now that there isn't an all-powerful wizard fighting with them). The film pulls from the Middle-Earth appendices, actually showing this action as its own subplot, showing Sauron's growing presence. Unnecessary tie-ins to the original trilogy notwithstanding, this sounds like it has promise to expand on the story. Onscreen however it mostly amounts to Gandalf walking around the same ruins for a while, having a surprisingly unmemorable fight scene, and then seeing Sauron's eye before the movie decides to save the rest for the next installment. All it really ends up accomplishing is padding out the running time some more, distracting us from the main storyline with Bilbo and the dwarves in Laketown, where all the important events are actually happening. Your mileage may vary, but there's a reason why Tolkien left that stuff for the appendices.
Again, it's mostly just more wandering around like this.

But any faults like these are (mostly) offset by the film's stronger elements, and like An Unexpected Journey before it, there's one particular standout sequence that makes the film a must-see. In the previous film it was Biblo and Gollum's game of riddles, a much-welcome return appearance from Andy Serkis that feels not just remarkably faithful to the text (as if you were seeing it literally come to life before your eyes), but also best exemplifies that The Hobbit is its own story, with its own feel separate from Lord of the Rings. Unlike many moments where the films so far try to include connections and setup to the Rings trilogy, here is where The Hobbit just gets to be The Hobbit, a relatively simple and to-the-point fantasy adventure at its core.
If you somehow didn't guess already, the big standout sequence in Desolation of Smaug is Bilbo's introduction to our title dragon, played through motion capture by Freeman's Sherlock co-star Benedict Cumberbatch. Cumberbatch, who's had a big rise in fame throughout 2013 thanks to roles in Star Trek Into Darkness, 12 Years a Slave and his continuing run on BBC's Sherlock, absolutely nails the character even better than one could hope. His powerful, prideful voice coupled with the spectacular CG effects truly bring Smaug to life, the film making the most of his entrance with a deliciously suspenseful sneak through the dragon's mountains of gold. From there it captures much the same magic as the Gollum sequence from An Unexpected Journey, the classic story bursting from the pages as Jackson gets to do what he (and legions of Tolkien fans) really wanted to see from these movies. While much of the time spent watching Desolation of Smaug was a good deal of fun, this is where I found myself just grinning like an idiot throughout- all this buildup for nearly two movies now, and it delivers in spades. If you need just one reason to go see DoS, this is most definitely it.!/img/httpImage/image.jpg_gen/derivatives/landscape_635/hobbit12f-10-web.jpg
Holmes and Watson, together again... er, sort of.

The reveal of Smaug leads into an exciting action sequence to close out the film, one that leads into an even bigger action sequence... that we don't get to see, because that's where the film cuts off at. I've mentioned cliffhangers briefly before on this blog, and in the rising trend of franchises and multi-part book adaptations they've become something that we'll have to learn to accept in the current movie age. I will make it perfectly clear right now that cliffhangers are not inherently a bad thing. In fact, there are many movies that have handled them effectively, and allowed the film to stand up fairly well on its own.
Having said that, the cliffhanger ending to Desolation of Smaug cuts out at without a doubt the most frustrating point possible. It leaves the film feeling like you just watched 2 1/2 hours of setup for another 2 1/2 hour movie due next December. Absolutely nothing ends up getting resolved (even the smaller-scale subplots), and the audience is left teased that they'll have to shell out money again next year for any of the actual payoff. At least when Catching Fire did its cliffhanger ending last month, it was just doing exactly what the book did, closing out the current story while leading into Mockingjay's big shift in focus (plus it had a great final plot twist to close out on). Hell, even the middle chapter of The Lord of the Rings trilogy managed to find a good endpoint, one that provided a satisfying feeling and capped off many plot elements for the time being. As a result, it felt more capable of standing up both as a film on its own terms and as part of a bigger trilogy. Just because you're the middle film in a series doesn't mean you can't find a solid end point to lead into your next movie, or even find a way for the film to stand up on its own. Considering how the first Hobbit film did find this kind of satisfying cutoff point, it makes the frustration with Smaug's shameless cliffhanger more palpable.
"What have we done?" What indeed, Bilbo.

Whew, sorry about that, I didn't mean to rant so long. I should clarify, before you get the wrong idea now: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is a very good movie. Definitely worth watching, especially if you're a fan of Jackson's Tolkien movies so far (though that should really go without saying). However, it's also the definition of a middle chapter: it provides all the setup, but by design lacks any true payoff. While it improves in some respects over An Unexpected Journey, it also falls greater victim to a few of that movie's faults, leaving a film that levels out to being more or less on par. We'll just have to wait until next year's There and Back Again to know for sure if all that promised payoff truly proves worth it. For now, I'm keeping myself busy imagining a spinoff where Smaug and Bilbo team up to solve mysteries across Middle-Earth.
Now that deserves three movies.
You know you want it to happen.

Final Score: 8/10

+ Many great action sequences, aided by first-rate visual effects
+ Great cast, as always (both series veterans and newcomers)
+ Retains the sense of classical fantasy established in the first Hobbit
+Benedict Cumberbatch as Smaug. 'Nuff said.
+Some of the new additions (Tauriel and Legolas) turn out quite well...
- ...While others just seem to drag things down (Gandalf's whole Necromancer sidequest)
- The story struggles to keep a steady, consistent pace
- A few story beats fall flat in a feature film context
- A frustrating cliffhanger ending that keeps the film firmly rooted in "middle chapter" territory

Sunday, December 15, 2013

A Nerfherder's Guide: Finding the Right Holiday Movie/TV Special for You!

By Andrew Braid

Happy holidays, everyone! And speaking of holidays, what better way to celebrate them than by watching some great holiday movies and TV specials? (Because pfft, it's not like the season's about family or anything)
But maybe you're having trouble deciding what to watch this year, or you want to try something new, or you don't even know what you're looking for. And there's my cue to offer assistance to those in need! So sit back and read on as we look through what you might want to be watching this holiday season!
So let's see...

If you want a good old classic animated special: A Charlie Brown Christmas

Probably my personal favorite out of all the old 60s animated Christmas specials (I was a huge Peanuts fan as a kid), it's a bona-fide classic, namely because it takes real risks. The special openly questions and critiques the commercialization of the holiday (entirely through the perspectives of children, no less). The voice actors were all real kids (all pretty much completely inexperienced with acting), lending the dialogue and singing a raw, honest and believable quality that allows the special to connect with viewers in a manner that's never really been replicated since. And of course, there's the famous (or infamous, take your pick) Linus speech, regarding "what Christmas is all about". I mean, what other special would have the balls to include a scene like that at all? (according to behind-the-scenes stories, apparently no one)
Then again...

If you want a good old classic animated special, but without all that quoted-verbatim religious text, or any direct religious connotations for that matter: How the Grinch Stole Christmas!
Come on, I kinda had to use this pic.

 Probably the best-known and revered holiday special ever, competing with Rudolph and Charlie Brown for the title (honestly, why does it seem like the 1960s produced all the best stuff?). Everything about it is just indisputably classic, and it helps that's it's a pitch-perfect adaptation of the original Dr. Seuss book (but now with songs!). So this is basically just an extra reminder to watch it again, in case you've forgotten to.
Though try to avoid any TV airings, since they often seem to cut stuff out to fit in more commercials, and that's just not the right way to treat any film, let alone a classic like this.

If you want a movie that reminds you of a simpler time, when you still loved Jim Carrey: How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (2000)

The 2000 live-action Grinch is one of those special kinds of movies where you love it as a kid, you grow up with it, you realize that it really isn't a good movie for more than a few reasons, but damn it you can't help yourself from watching it every year anyway. I mean come on, can't I have this one guilty pleasure thing before Hollywood makes another version and really does ruin it?

Pictured: The J.J. Abrams reboot.

On second thought, I kind of want to watch that version...

If you love celebrating the holidays with child neglect and sadistic (yet still family-friendly) violence: Home Alone
Is it just me, or is this image just tailor-made for a caption contest? Feel free to post any, BTW.

Seeing how it plays nonstop on TV around this time, it's fair to expect that you'll end up re-watching this one over the holidays (if you haven't already). So I think you'll forgive me for the lack of details here.
However, it must be said: god dammit that ending is the most emotionally manipulative thing ever put to film...
...and I totally still cried when I last watched it.

If you want a Christmas-set horror movie, but then realized that those all tend to suck, so screw it: Gremlins

Because it's just not Christmas without this scene:

If you love comic books/superheroes: Justice League, "Comfort and Joy"
Truly, Santa Flash is the best Santa. I mean, you can't even tell who it is!

While "Christmas with the Joker" and "Holiday Knights" are both great Batman: TAS episodes for providing your Holiday/DCAU fix, the best one is Justice League's "Comfort and Joy", where we see the League members get some much-needed downtime (and personal time, in John Stewart and Hawkgirl's case). You know it's a good episode when Batman and Wonder Woman never even show up, and you honestly don't care.
Speaking of Batman...

If you love comic books/superheroes, but also like your Christmas movies dark and weird: Batman Returns (1992)
Selina Kyle, all prepared for Black Friday sales.

It's a Christmas movie with Batman! How could you not love that? You know, aside from the creepy (and pretty pervy) nose-biting Danny DeVito, plot elements that don't really make sense the more you stop to think about them, truly bizarre action scenes (need I remind you the climax involves rocket-equipped penguins?), and just generally being the least kid-friendly Batman movie ever (well, until The Dark Knight anyway).
Yeah, it's an undeniably flawed movie, and yet I still find myself to be one of those people who honestly likes it more than the original '89 Batman. With the first one Burton had some restrictions to work with, namely that he had to make it a Batman movie first and foremost. This one is where we got to see what a Tim Burton movie about Batman would really be like (and I'm talking early 90s Tim Burton, and not lazy, tapped-out present day Tim Burton).
And man was it weird.
Truly, truly weird.

If you love comic books/superheroes, and need your Shane Black fix: Iron Man 3
Not quite what I had in mind for a "quiet Christmas alone"...

Recent, yes, I know, but you know what? If it's an excuse to re-watch the best in the Iron Man series, I'll take it.
And if you're still not convinced that you can consider it a Christmas-appropriate movie (despite it being set all around Christmas, because Shane Black), then just pretend that Ben Kingsley's Mandarin turned out to be Santa the whole time.
Okay, I REALLY want to see that movie now...

If you really need your Shane Black fix: Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

Because A) It's a brilliantly funny film noir/comedy,
and B) This is when Shane Black discovered that he could only make good movies if he shoved Christmas into the background somehow.
Michelle Monaghan in a sexy Santa outfit = It counts!

Okay seriously, you STILL haven't gotten your Shane Black fix? Fine, here: Lethal Weapon

I mean jeez, I think you've had enough.

Obligatory mention of Nightmare Before Christmas required by anyone under 30: The Nightmare Before Christmas

Because it's kind of just a given that everyone watches this one any chance they get (myself included).

If you want to watch a recent holiday special that proves such things can still be good:  Prep & Landing

Yet another sign that Disney Animation has gotten its groove back, this 2009 Emmy-winning TV special (executive produced by Pixar's John Lasseter) takes a fresh twist on the whole Santa idea, where elves have a special job of coming to houses early to prepare things for St. Nick's arrival (this is how he gets in and out of each house so fast). This usually involves Christmas-themed spy gear and a fully functioning command center back at the North Pole. But really the special is a mid-life crisis story about a veteran of the prep & landing elves who becomes dissatisfied after decades of doing the job, and who must rediscover his inspiration as to why he does what he does. It has all the Disney humor and heart you've grown to expect, mixed with a more adult-skewering story that prevents the special from ever falling deep into cloyingly cutesy territory. Still growing in popularity (and for good reason), this is one to add to your yearly tradition of rotating holiday specials if you haven't already.
Oh, and watch the sequel special too (Prep & Landing: Naughty vs. Nice), it's just as good.

If you want to watch a recent holiday special spinoff that's actually kinda underrated: Kung Fu Panda Holiday
Come on, give it a chance! Your skepticism is making the panda sad.

While a lot of this special's success comes from its genuine continuity within the film series (taking place in between the first and second movies), it's really just a quality family and holiday-themed story at its core. Kind of predictable, yes, but the execution is very much in keeping with the humor and heart many of us are familiar with from Kung Fu Panda. Having the whole voice cast from the movies and excellent animation quality that looks near-indistinguishable from said movies certainly helps too (seriously, how much did DreamWorks spend on this thing?)
As a big fan of the Kung Fu Panda movies I was pretty skeptical going into this holiday special when it first aired back in 2010, concerned that it might just be a hollow cash grab coasting on the brand name. Since then I've made a point of watching it every year. It honestly is that good, especially if you're a fan of the series.

If you're a Whedonite who absolutely, desperately needs something, anything by Joss Whedon to help celebrate their festivities: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, "Amends"

Because what better way to celebrate Christm- er, the holidays (Willow is Jewish, after all) than with an episode about the First Evil, Buffy's erotic nightmares, and Angel wanting to commit suicide?
In all seriousness though, this is yet another excellent episode from Buffy's third (and best) season, written and directed by Joss Whedon himself (so you know it's great!). The final minutes in particular are among the best moments of the entire series, with Angel and Buffy's tearful, angry and frustrated feelings giving way to a truly affecting, life-affirming conclusion.

If you need to watch the best version possible of A Christmas Carol: The Muppet Christmas Carol

Think of it this way:
A version of A Christmas Carol with The Muppets would be amazing.
A version of A Christmas Carol starring Michael freakin' Caine as Ebenezer Scrooge would be amazing.
This movie has BOTH of those amazing things.
Do the math.

If you need to watch the best version possible of A Christmas Carol, but you're also really crunched for time: Mickey's Christmas Carol

While admittedly cut a bit short of its potential by having to fit into a half-hour running time, Disney still nonetheless knocked this one out of the park. Making the most of its various Disney characters, it also nails many of the story elements, from the early introduction scenes with Scrooge to the dinner at Bob Cratchit's home. It even gives one of the darkest depictions of the "Christmas Yet to Come" sequence I've ever seen (though if you know your Disney, it's actually not all that surprising). While it still tends to get TV airings every year, I think it could still use some more attention and recognition than it currently gets, so definitely check it out if you never have.

If you want a Christmas-themed romantic comedy (comfort food edition): The Holiday

Is The Holiday actually a good movie? Well, uh... let me get back to you on that.
But is The Holiday pretty much the definition of a "comfort food" movie? Definitely, and then some.
In case you don't know the term, a "comfort food" movie is, well, a movie like The Holiday: it's light and fluffy, pleasantly sweet, and features a bunch of likable actors (Kate Winslet is way better than this movie probably deserves, but man does she commit to it). It's also kind of self-indulgent (seriously, who makes a romantic comedy that's 136 minutes long?!), and doesn't demand much thinking on your part (yet still isn't all that stupid). Throw in some extra pinch of whatever quasi-piece of intelligence that the movie can show to mildly impress you (in this case the whole old screenwriter plotline that allows the movie to point out movie tropes and cliches whenever it feels up to it), and you're all set!

If you want a Christmas-themed romantic comedy (ultimate special guest-star edition): Love Actually
Who knew Rick Grimes was such a romantic?

Set around the weeks leading up to Christmas, Love Actually follows so many different storylines involving major British actors that it feels like it really does live up to its promise of being "the ultimate romantic comedy". There's a love story with British Prime Minister Hugh Grant, we have Liam Neeson moving on after the death of his wife while his kid son has his first crush, there's the above secret love that Andrew Lincoln has for Kiera Knightley (then again, who doesn't?), and we have Colin Firth as a struggling writer who falls in love with his Portugese housekeeper. There's even a plot where Martin Freeman plays a porn actor (yes, this happens) who tries to ask out his co-worker on a date... while she's- well, you know (yes, this also happens). This is the movie that boldly proclaims: why pick one rom-com plot/scenario when you can have ALL of them? I mean I'm pretty sure I only listed about half of this movie's plotlines just now anyway...
Plus, Bill Nighy. Just... Bill Nighy.
Bill Nighy says: "Be awesome like me, and go see this movie".

And finally...

The Best Christmas Movie Ever: Die Hard

Well come on, it's just common knowledge at this point.

And that's the end! Thanks for reading, and happy holidays to all!

Friday, December 13, 2013

Anime Top 10s: (My) Top 10 Best Anime Intros

By Andrew Braid

Over the years anime has risen in prominence outside of Japan, a style of animation so ubiquitous that it has become recognized as a whole medium in and of itself outside of animation as a whole. Think about that: we herd hand-drawn, stop-motion and computer animation all together into one group, and yet anime gets to be an exception because its various tropes and characteristics are just so well-known. It seems so specifically tied to Japanese culture in ways that animation studios in other countries just don't really tend to do. If an animated film or series comes from the U.S. or Canada or France (or any country, really), there isn't some certified guarantee that it will specifically take after the given country's house style. Shows like Avatar: The Last Airbender and Teen Titans have heavily lifted from Japanese anime for their art styles, and recent box-office smash Despicable Me 2 is based in a decidedly more French-European style in both visuals and humor (no wonder it grossed so much overseas). But if it's an animated series or film made in Japan, no one ever thinks twice: it just has to be anime.
But I'm getting waaaaay ahead of myself here, so any musings on animation history will have to wait for some other day. What I really wanted to talk about is the art of the anime intro (or opening, or whatever you want to call it). Whereas such cool, memorable intros are in danger of being phased out entirely among most Western animated series, they remain an integral part of selling an audience on any anime they see. Anime just isn't anime without one, be it funny, action-packed, moody, or blasting out high-pitched J-pop while you struggle to make sense of what the hell you're watching. So I thought it would be fun to see, from the perspective of a 20-something Canadian, what stand out as the best in a large field of 90-second introductions to all our favorite anime series. 
To be clear once again, these are all personal favorites (although the top 2 are indisputably great).If your favorite isn't on here, either I haven't seen it (most likely) or I didn't really consider it. Okay? Okay.
Well, no more delays! Let's get these Top 10 Anime Intros started with...

#10: Baccano!

We start off our list with... an anime I've been meaning to get around to watching for forever, but still haven't actually seen! (Don't you just love those?) On the plus side, the buzz I've heard about Baccano! (Lost-style plotting mixed with bloody violence and raucous action) got me to check out its killer intro, which does its main job all too well: making me feel even more guilty that I haven't started watching it yet...

#9: Trigun

When all else fails to make your show look cool as hell, there's always electric guitar rock. Trigun is one of the true anime greats, and just from its intro you can see why it'd become so popular. It's an opening that makes Trigun look as genuinely badass as it possibly can, which will make it all the more surprising once you see the show is a lot like this:

And then surprise you all over again when the show eventually becomes more like this:

Yeah, anime can be a bit weird sometimes.

#8: Persona 4: The Animation (2nd Opening)

 So yeah, I've become a big fan of Persona 4, though I never got to play it on its initial release and had to wait before I could get a Vita and play P4 Golden. Having already decided to get Persona 4 Arena, I actually decided to catch up on the story by watching the anime series first. Not only was P4: The Animation a very good series in its own right (and a very faithful adaptation of the game), but the penchant for dangerously catchy music was also retained in its game-to-series translation. While the first intro for the series is good too, it's the second one that really gets the right balance between catchy J-rock beat and dynamic visuals.

#7: Beck: Mongolian Chop Squad

Yeah, you can already tell I like this one, huh? It's pretty rare to see an anime (especially an anime intro) based so heavily around American culture and imagery, and that influence is a major part of what makes Beck feel unique (and not just among slice-of-life shows). Just watching the show (which you should do, especially if you're a huge music buff) will show you just how it stands out. This is a show where many of the characters will speak both Japanese and (often hilariously) English, where 20th century American music history is discussed and referenced on a frequent basis, and I'm honestly struggling to remember if there really were any songs sung in the whole show that weren't in English, 'cause it sure doesn't feel like there were. Also there was a cockatoo, I think? There was some subplot about getting it to respond to the music somehow, I forget the specifics...
And seriously, what is up with that dog?

What was I talking about again? Oh well.

#6: Samurai Champloo

This one took a little time to grow on me. I'll admit I'm far from the biggest fan of rap, though I'm certainly not the kind to dismiss the whole genre- I usually just have different preferences (that are still to be determined- yeah, music is a thing that falls more into the "and more" part of my blog description). What I'm saying is a good song is a good song, regardless of genre, just like a good piece made in any other artistic medium. It takes a few episodes of Samurai Champloo to realize just how good its intro really is, and how perfectly it embodies the show's anachronistic sensibility, mixing many facets of modern American culture into its Edo-period Japan setting.
Pictured: Anachronism, in its natural habitat.

The song, "Battlecry" (performed by Nujabes and Shing02), is also very representative of the cultural wars that are often thrust into the limelight throughout the series, with newer rebellious counterculture styles and ideologies clashing with more traditional elements (hence the mix of more classical piano in the song). It sets the tone for the viewing experience: this ain't the stuffy old history you may know.

#5: Pokemon (1st English Opening)

I'm sorry. I'm so, so sorry...
I just couldn't help it, okay?! The nostalgia... it's just too strong!
And really, how could it not be? For most kids in the 90s generation, Pokemon was probably their very first anime, and I'm positive it was mine too (with Dragon Ball Z being the second, cooler one that we all watched afterwards). And as much as we all realize growing up just how shamelessly formulaic and repetitive the series really is (just how many times is enough for Team Rocket to try and steal the same damn Pikachu?), absolutely everyone who watched it back then still remembers that theme song, that opening that got us pumped for adventures with Ash, Misty and Brock (because Tracy who?) every time we so much as heard it, let alone saw it.
Admit it, you're singing along to it right now, aren't you? Don't be embarrassed, you're not alone...

#4: Death Note (1st Intro)

Once again this choice is driven at least partly by nostalgia (hey, the title does mention that it's my personal list... barely), but hey, Death Note, so a lot of you reading probably aren't complaining.
Death Note was an anime that came to me at exactly the right time, as I was in the midst of my high school years, growing tired with many of the seemingly never ending anime series that were also the only ones actually getting aired on the more major TV networks. And yet here comes Death Note, a show that seemed to have it all: a unique premise, a crazy twist-riddled plot that's always shaking things up, characters that don't have to be likable (and in Light's case absolutely isn't) but still manage to be engaging, great animation, and a fantastic score. On top of it, the show is both mature and over-the-top, managing some kind of near-magic equilibrium where one doesn't seriously outdo the other. The opening itself reflects the tone just right, displaying both the grounded detective elements and the Kira/L battle, elevated to just the kinds of mythic status one would expect Light's mind to jump to. Again, personal nostalgic choice, but I can't deny I still love this intro, getting me pumped to see who one-ups who (and then how that person one-ups the other back) each week.

I feel like I must give a good, honorable mention to the series' second opening. Not because I particularly love it or anything (though it has its moments, and I totally get why others might prefer it), but rather because it proves so memorable for its sheer bats*** insanity. I... I'm not even sure how to describe it adequately. There's so much that doesn't work about it, be it the tonal dissonance from what the show actually is (a cat-and-mouse detective thriller with a supernatural twist), to the grab bag of interchanging visual styles, to the music that pounds you over the head in ways that will make most heavy metal haters suffer a splitting headache (sorry, had to do that reference sometime). And yet there's still something admirable, almost transfixing about how it simply does not give a f*** whether or not you understand or even comprehend it.
Probably for the best if you just watch it and judge for yourself.

So... moving on...

#3: Fullmetal Alchemist (2nd Opening)

Fullmetal Alchemist undoubtedly ranks as one of the most popular, beloved, and widely recommended anime series ever made, be it the original 51 episode series or the more recent remake series Brotherhood (which is seen as a more faithful adaptation of the manga series). While I haven't seen Brotherhood (which is the main reason why it's not one of the many intros for that series on this list), I can definitely attest to how the original series more than lives up to its reputation. The original series has 4 different openings, each of them good in their own right, but my soft spot is for the second one, namely because it best sells the more adventurous and comedic elements of the series (which was more what the series was at this point), yet still throwing some hints at the darker roads ahead. And once the series' later episodes really put the characters through the ringer, you'll find yourself looking back on those older days, lamenting how those more wide-eyed, black-and-white days of youthful innocence have passed our heroes by (not that things weren't ever dark in the earlier episodes either- good God, "Night of the Chimera's Cry"...).

#2: Neon Genesis Evangelion

Evangelion is that one anime series that is inescapable, that makes itself a must-see nowadays mainly through force of cultural will, because the diehard fans are numerous and very, very vocal. It can make one forget that, love it or hate it, it was truly groundbreaking when it was first released. The mecha genre was all but dead before it first aired, Shinji Ikari is basically the anime standard for the emo teenage lead by which all others are measured (not to mention how Rei's character template has been ripped off by too many shows to count), and the heavy emphasis on religious symbolism and complex psychology made it clear that this was anything but a simple show where giant robots fight giant monsters (though what we get of that is damn good). As it stands, it's a flawed yet fascinating and truly personal work (inspired by director Hideki Anno's real-life bout with depression) that did much for anime as a medium.
Plus it has giant mechs.
Pictured: (supposedly) why people watch this show.

Groundbreaking is also a term that applies to its famous opening titles, which essentially established a template that has inspired all future anime intros since. From the song that will (probably) never escape your head after hearing it to the action-packed, borderline-subliminal editing of the final third coming after the calmer, more emotional build preceding it, Evangelion's intro feels like everything you think of when you imagine an anime opening. In this case, there's a good reason for that. And no list of great anime openings can feel complete without it.
Plus it has giant mechs.

#1: Cowboy Bebop

Because really, what else could it be?
Do I really need to explain this choice? Do I?
*sigh* Fine...
Aside from being the greatest anime series ever (and you know it's true), an all-around masterpiece of a 26-episode series, and something something *insert effusively hyperbolic words of praise here*, Cowboy Bebop also has without a doubt the best anime intro sequence ever created. It's an excellent representation of what the series is: an all-out genre mashup oozing with enough style and cool to spare for about four other shows. The theme song "Tank!" signals the viewer immediately to its more Western-based cultural influence, all while providing the perfect upbeat anthem to get the viewer ready to watch the latest episode of Firefly: The Anime, Only Better! (and oh man did I just piss off a huge portion of the internet). It's the definition of a show where you never even think to skip over the intro, no matter what the reason.
And I should probably stop here, because even I'm starting to get tired of myself endlessly frothing at the mouth over Cowboy Bebop.
Spike Spiegel: waiting for this list to be over already... and still looking way too cool doing it.

Thanks for reading, everyone! If there's any sloppiness on my part in this one, then it's because I'm still recovering from an onslaught of essay assignments, and the time and concentration for blog posts has been hard to come by. So yeah, sorry about that.
Regardless, make sure to check in again soon!

Thursday, December 5, 2013

"For the First Time in Forever...": 5 Reasons Why Frozen is Disney's Best Animated Film Since the 90s

By Andrew Braid
Yes, that's right, this movie.

Well, even with all the recent hype surrounding this one, and from the perspective of a huge Disney fan, I gotta say: expectations definitely met, and then some.
So yeah, Frozen. In short, it's a fantastic movie, and without a doubt the best animated film of the year (it's basically the only one likely to make a Top 10 spot for me). In fact, I'm not the only one saying that right now- look around and you'll find more than a few articles and posts on how this is the year where Disney Animation truly outshone stablemate and animation king Pixar (though in truth it's actually the third consecutive year they've outdone a fellow Pixar release: Brave was a pretty good movie unfortunately held back from real greatness, and the less said about Cars 2 the better). How did Frozen get to this kind of point, reaching this kind of effusive praise? Well for starters...

1. A recent resurgence for Disney Animation paved the way

No one is going to deny that the early-to-mid 2000s were fairly dark times for Disney Animation. That the once mighty king of animation was reduced to putting out limping turds like Home on the Range and Chicken Little is likely the lowest point in their decades of history. Then in 2006 Disney bought Pixar, and with this came the promotion of Toy Story director John Lasseter to head of all Disney Animation. And when I say that, I mean he's in charge of ALL their animated output- this is the guy you can thank for putting a stake through the soul-sucking demon that is the Disney direct-to-video sequel machine. As for your young daughters begging you to buy them a new Tinkerbel movie every year? Yep, Lasseter. And the guy in charge of giving us localizations and North American releases for most of Studio Ghibli's releases, consistently budging us into experiencing the wonders of Hayao Miyazaki? Again, Lasseter.
And his impact was most definitely felt on Disney Animation's output, releasing the oft-underrated Meet the Robinsons the following year and never turning back. Their output has been consistently strong ever since, from The Princess and the Frog and Tangled to Winnie the Pooh and last year's Wreck-It Ralph, even if the looming shadow of Pixar has distracted many people from realizing it (and with releases like Wall-E, Up and Toy Story 3, how could it not?). And the huge success of Tangled has already been considered by many fans a return to Renaissance-era quality (but now with the box-office numbers to match). It's taken a little time and patience, but anyone who didn't know that Disney's back in the game is definitely going to know it now.

2. A strong story that pulls from classic Disney tropes while also subverting them,+Frozen.png

Loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale The Snow Queen (which Disney himself had been trying to develop as a film decades before), Frozen follows the Dinsey formula in more than a few familiar ways: princesses, the lead characters losing their parents early on, a "true love at first sight" romantic plotline, wacky comic relief side characters, and a heaping helping of Broadway-style musical numbers. All sounds familiar enough, right?
Well, not quite. Without divulging heavily into spoilers (that's right, a Dinsey animated film that warrants a spoiler warning- that ought to be a big tip-off right there), the third act of Frozen doesn't go quite where one would expect it to, even as it's been moving mostly in line with those Disney formula expectations up to that point. In fact, it's the most subversive any Disney film has ever been with its own formula. This is a Disney princess film that has the characters in-movie criticize Anna's decision to get engaged to a handsome prince she just met... and actually get proven right. This is a Disney princess film where neither princess gets married at the end, and one of them never even gets the slightest hint of a love interest to start with (because who said she ever had to?). This is a Disney princess movie with an entire musical number ("Fixer Upper") about how love and relationships are in fact a gradual thing that actually takes real time and work. For a studio so ingrained in and renowned for its stable formula, Frozen take some refreshing steps to shake it up, all while still being true to its roots as a classic-style Disney princess movie (and an excellent one at that).

3. It's character-driven, with a surprising amount of depth


At its core, Frozen is a tale about the bond between two sisters, Anna and Elsa, distanced by circumstance and a fear of human connection only matched by an aching desire for the same. This emotional center is where the film most resonates with viewers, namely because it just feels so easy to relate to: sibling relationships are by nature a very uneven, complicated dynamic regardless of circumstances, and Anna and Elsa's forced separation has impacted each woman in how they've grown in the wake of Elsa's imposed isolation (first at the behest of her well-meaning parents, then by her own choice). Anna has grown into an excitable, high-spirited yet naive young woman yearning for any new people to meet, while Elsa has forced herself to become generally cold and introverted, convinced that her self-repression is better for everyone's sake, even as fear grips her psyche every waking day. After Elsa unintentionally ousts herself and is greeted with fear by the people, Anna is determined to make it right, to prove that despite their strained connection, the bond between family can always be mended. It's a complex dynamic that lends Frozen a level of depth that's a far cry from not just the studio's more classic archetype characters, but from many animated features in general. In a sense, this is what Pixar's Brave should have been (albeit about a sister relationship rather than a mother/daughter one). Whereas Brave's story turns often get in the way of showcasing its strongest element (the female family dynamic), Frozen's fantasy elements are more effectively established and better implemented in service of its core story, all while still making ample room for its comic relief. Oh yeah, now that I mention it...

4. It's also really, genuinely funny

I'm not just talking about physical comedy, either (although that's still very funny in its own right). It's actually quite surprising just how truly funny much of Frozen's dialogue is. There's great humor mined from Anna's social awkwardness- her bumbling flirtation with Hans, the series of long pauses as she struggles to maintain conversation with her sister, her attempts at playing tough and firm as she tries to gain Kristoff's help. It's the kind of humor that stems from character, and not just writing one-liners, cutaways, or a setup/punchline. Believe me, it's not exactly easy to pull off, and it's rare to see it done so effectively in an animated feature (partly because the characters tend to be kept more simple than they are here). Even Olaf the snowman, if the marketing didn't scare you away (seriously, the film's marketing does a terrible job representing what the film actually is), is a hilarious character, yet also a very endearing one. His childlike obliviousness inspires one of the film's funniest musical numbers ("In Summer"), and it's honestly some kind of miracle that the whole ironic running joke (if you didn't guess from the song) never gets old.
Speaking of the musical numbers...

5. The music. Hot damn, the MUSIC.

Seriously, if anything else, Frozen is EASILY, HANDS DOWN the best Disney musical in nearly 20 years. Many recent Disney musicals have been very good overall, but with only one or two particularly standout songs. However, Frozen scores hit after hit, from the equally cute and heartbreaking "Do You Want to Build a Snowman?" to the rousing anthem of "For the First Time in Forever". The definite, surefire classic though is Elsa's big showstopper, "Let It Go". I swear, this one's already climbing up the ranks with the likes of "Part of Your World", Beauty and the Beast" and "A Whole New World", and for good reason (YouTube covers and remixes are popping up at a very high rate).
You can watch the whole scene below (it's official, too- thanks Disney!),though you also ought to see it in the movie itself for the full impact:

Oh, and one last note: the 3D version is highly recommended. 3D for CG animated films is generally well-done (it's being "shot" in 3D from the very beginning, after all), and Frozen is certainly no different. What really makes the 3D a must though is the attached Mickey Mouse short  Get a Horse! The short itself is an incredibly clever throwback to old-school Mickey's style and sensibility (ie. not the more innocent kinds of laughs that you'd expect from Mickey now), with a more modern twist thrown in. More importantly though, is it absolutely needs 3D to be best experienced, as much of the humor comes from how it plays with the 3D frame almost constantly. It's not just a great animated short, but a HUGE treat for hardcore Disney buffs. Trust me, it really is fantastic enough on its own to justify paying the 3D surcharge.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Gaming Top 10s: Top 10 Best Modern (Current-Gen) Video Game Themes

By Andrew Braid
BTW, if you get a chance to see this, DO SO. Totally worth it.

Welcome to my first of (many) planned Top 10 lists! While we fondly remember a lot of the classic 8-bit and 16-bit tunes from the medium's more youthful days, the capabilities for music and scoring in games has been greatly expanded since then. Nowadays, many a game not only strives for but outright demands a full orchestral score on par with (and in more than a few cases surpassing) that of Hollywood feature films. As much as many of us (myself included) love the good old magic of catchy chiptunes, that used to be the only option. Now that the doors are wide open, it seems to make choosing one's favorite scores from the more recent crops of games more of a challenge. After all: art, in it's many forms, defines who we are. Our tastes in art follow suit. So perhaps you'll all get to know me just a bit better through the choices on this list: my Top 10 Best Modern Video Game Themes!


-The game in question must have been released during the current (seventh) console generation (between 2006 and 2013).
-The main systems in question: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Nintendo Wii and PC (as well as handheld systems Nintendo DS, Nintendo 3DS, PlayStation Portable and PlayStation Vita)
-Games for older systems (ex. PS2) can be eligible, but only if they were first released during the aforementioned timeframe (I'm using North American release dates, BTW)
-One game per series/franchise
-The themes/songs must have been composed from the ground up specifically for the game in question in order  to qualify (no remixes of older themes, no reuse of pre-existing songs)

Before we begin, lets' feature some honorable mentions (in no particular order) that, while great, just missed the cut! Take a listen below!

 Another Winter- Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game (Xbox 360/PS3, 2010)

Calling- The World Ends With You (DS, 2008)

Ethan Mars' Theme (Main Theme)- Heavy Rain (PS3, 2010)

The Last of Us (Main Theme)- The Last of Us (PS3, 2013)

Will the Circle Be Unbroken- Bioshock Infinite (Xbox 360/PS3/PC, 2013)

And now, on with the Top 10 Best Modern Video Game Themes! (Because that totally needed to be emphasized a second time!) Starting off...

#10: Land of the Living Dead- Rayman Origins (Xbox 360/PS3/Wii, 2011)

We kick things off with a game that completely took me by surprise to become my favorite 2D platformer in what feels like ages (until Rayman Legends came out, anyway). The theme is for the bonus level "Land of the Living Dead", a very long and brutal stage unlocked only after collecting all 10 ruby teeth from the chest chase levels (already a challenge in and of itself). The first third or so of buildup is good in and of itself (and more the kind of music style to expect from much of Origins), creating an atmosphere both inviting and foreboding, mixed with the humorous chants And then at about 1:39 into the song, it goes into full-blown Leone-style western theme, adding a whole new level of invigoration to (by far) the most challenging stage in the game. It's ideal contrast to such intense feats of running, smashing and jumping. Even the developers themselves were clearly in love with it, as follow-up Rayman Legends both brings it back for a few obstacle course levels and remixes it for one of the game's absurdly fun music levels (which you can watch here).

#9: Rising Sun- Okami (PS2, 2006)

A game as stunningly beautiful as Okami (brought to vivid life through its watercolor paint style and basis off Japanese folklore and Shinto mythology) deserves a stirring score to match. And while much of the game's music is a treat, it's "Rising Sun", the theme that plays for the final boss battle, that really stands out. After losing your powers, the prayers of the people you have helped and befriended across the course of your adventure allow you to steadily regain your strength. This theme sets the stage for a rousing final bout, the score motivating you to achieve victory as you regain the upper hand, as if it's the final round of an against-the-odds sports movie. It is the perfect note (pun intended) to close out your epic quest.

#8: Reach Out to the Truth- Persona 4 (PS2, 2008)

Ah, nothing like good ol' J-pop to get you in the mood for hours of dungeon-fighting fun. In all seriousness, Persona 4 is a truly fantastic game that really stands out as a unique gaming cocktail mix- part turn-based RPG, part Pokemon-style collecting/fusing system, and part high-school social sim, with a heaping helping of murder mystery, comedy, and deep psychological study. One of its most celebrated elements is undoubtedly the killer soundtrack by Shoji Meguro, making the small town of Inaba feel almost alive. While the truly badass boss theme comes close, it's your main battle theme "Reach Out to the Truth" that's guaranteed to stay stuck in your head for all time. It not only summarizes the central theme of the game, but it also proves to be just as infectiously catchy every time, getting you pumped for a fight even if it's what feels like your hundredth or so in a row (probably because it was your 200th- this is one addictive game, as my severe loss of sleep will attest...)

#7: Dragonborn- The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (Xbox 360/PS3/PC, 2011)

I'm going to be honest here: I haven't actually played Skyrim. I know, seems a bit blasphemous, right? Partly it's because I haven't found the time, partly it's because of my personal tastes and preferences with games (more on that another time- though it looks like a great game). But if you want epic, Lord of the Rings-esque game music filled with chanting, then the awesomeness emanating from "Dargonborn" is undeniable. Makes me really want to try and hunt some dragons... (even if How to Train Your Dragon taught us how it's wrong)

#6: Hidden Village- The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess (Wii/GC, 2006)

Okay, I might just have a thing for western-style themes in video games. But not only does "Hidden Village" itself evoke a very western feel in the most overtly mature Zelda game to date (a lone warrior in a shootout against an army of bandits holed up throughout the small town), but the music really manages to stand out among the soundtrack for the rest of Twilight Princess (and probably the whole series for that matter). Hell, Link's Crossbow Training was almost worth playing just to have gallery shootouts set to this theme!

#5: Arie ~Recollection~ - Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch (PS3, 2013)

When I heard about this game, an RPG co-produced by the much-revered Japanese animation giant Studio Ghibli, I was sold on it right then and there. When I heard that composer Joe Hisaishi, regular collaborator with Hayao Miyazaki, was doing the score for the game, I knew to expect something special. And damn did it ever deliver. This is undoubtedly the best score for any game released in 2013, not to mention the best orchestral soundtrack for a role-playing game that I've heard in ages. There are too many great tracks to choose from: the incredible overworld theme, the awesome boss battle music, and not to mention the one that plays when you ride your freakin' dragon. But my choice must go to "Arie ~Recollection~", a theme that is not adventurous or whimsical, but rather quiet, simple and deeply emotional.
In other words, it's the only theme on this list guaranteed to inspire waterworks. It gently builds, almost as if to lull you into a sense of security, good memories of days gone by, all before it goes straight for the heart. It is a theme that is undeniably, indisputably moving, and a prime example of why Hisaishi's score stands apart from your average game.

#4: Nate's Theme- Uncharted Series (PS3, 2007/2009/2011)

You know a theme is great when you'll wait around on the game's title menu, stalling from actually starting up the game, just to hear that music. "Nate's Theme" stands the tall challenge of having to be a call to thrilling action/adventure to rival the iconic "Raiders March" from the film series it takes the most inspiration from, Indiana Jones (seriously, you could write a whole thesis paper on the similarities between Uncharted 3 and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, following its trilogy-capper formula to a "t"). And while nothing beats John Williams (to be fair, nothing ever will), "Nate's Theme" sure isn't a disappointment. Just try listening to that theme and not feeling a stir within you to go looking for treasure and globe-trotting thrills (though if it makes you want to watch National Treasure, you may want to consult someone about that).

#3: Apotheosis- Journey (PS3, 2012)

It's that moment in any journey, when the hero rises up in triumph after reaching his lowest point, that gives us as audiences the utmost feeling of satisfaction. It is a constant (arguably flat-out necessary) component to any good story. In seven awe-inspiring minutes, that is exactly the sensation "Apotheosis" doesn't just give, but downright embodies. Combined with the game's truly astonishing visuals, it makes Journey's climax and denouement not just memorable, but transcendent. In a game that already raises the bar for the medium's recognition as an art form with its gallery-worthy art design and simple-yet-powerful  use of gameplay to convey theme, Austin Wintory's astounding score ensures its legacy.

#2: Suicide Mission- Mass Effect 2 (Xbox 360/PC, 2010)

In a truly epic science fiction trilogy filled with outstanding cinematic music (this incredible track from Mass Effect 3 was in very serious contention), none of them had quite the same personal impact as the theme for the climactic assault against the Collectors in Mass Effect 2. The slow build creates a sense of tension as you and your team make plans for the final assault. Every experience in the game has been leading to this, to what has been deemed a suicide mission. Your team's trust and loyalty is crucial, and your decisions can (literally) mean life-or-death for those friends and comrades you have connected with. As the action kicks in so does the theme in full, managing to be simultaneously intense, stirring, and altogether exhilarating. It says something when a game actually gets me to jump up and cheer at its end- not because of overcoming great difficulty, but because the score had given such a triumphant feeling as I blasted away from the exploding Collector base, my party having survived the impossible.

#1: Gusty Garden Galaxy- Super Mario Galaxy (Wii, 2007)

Super Mario Galaxy is one of my favorite games of all time (and definitely my favorite 3D Mario title), and the "Gusty Garden Galaxy" theme does so much to encapsulate why. Listening to this theme, what does it make you feel?
Adventure via cosmic road trip. Exploration, awaiting whatever wonders, good or no, that you'll encounter next. The sense of an epic quest unfolding in front of you. Bust most of all it embodies the feeling that best sums up the game as a whole: joy. Pure, bright, unbridled joy, no matter how old you are, whether you're playing for the first time or the fiftieth.
To me, that is what Super Mario Galaxy is. And the heights it reaches are a lofty standard that more games need to try and strive for (more recent Mario games included).

Thanks for reading! Expect a new list sometime on the horizon!