May 18, 2014

Godzilla - 2014

Overall disappointment.

So I saw the new Godzilla on opening day. And while it wasn't awful by any means, it wasn't anything special either. Spoilers ahead.

The opening sequence had promise, and I was very intrigued. The music fit well, and felt like an homage to '50s monster movies. Then we got introduced to our main characters. I was on board for all that too. As soon as that "15 YEARS LATER" popped up, unfortunately, the rest of the film flatlined.

Most of the major elements went through the motions of what they were "expected" to be, but if you took a step back and really thought about it, you would see that there was no substance to any of it whatsoever. It's too bad, because I had some hope after seeing director Gareth Edwards' Monsters (2010). But the bigger you get, the less control you have.

The characters were incredibly one-dimensional. The only one with attempted development was Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), but it was forced and had a feeling of afterthought all over it. Ford's wife, Sandra (Elizabeth Olsen), didn't contribute anything. In every single scene she appeared in, she was either crying or making out (except the last one, where she did both simultaneously). If she had died at the end (which honestly, she would have due to the events happening all around her), then it would have given Ford's struggle some emotional impact. But instead they do the thing where everybody lives happily ever after. There's no feeling of consequence, because we only really see one person die. Joe's (Bryan Cranston) death doesn't really have a big impact though, because Ford hasn't seen him for a very long time, and has since distanced himself. He really does nothing except show frustration at his father's actions. Joe's death was meant to mean something, but the fact that we didn't really know anything about him other than "he works hard and is slightly crazy," and since Ford is annoyed with him too, means that his death is inconsequential. It was kind of a mercy that he died so early on though, because every scene he was in was pretty much the same as the one before it. I doubt it would have changed.

Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) was basically the haiku machine in the corner that someone kept plunking quarters into. He did nothing the entire film except stand off to the side, wait until the actual conversation was over, then mutter some "deep" statement with a furrowed brow. Because heaven forbid that a Japanese person is the main focus in an iconic Japanese, Japanese-created, culturally relevant Japanese film series. This is an American movie, damn it, and an American studio wouldn't be so foolish as to put the focus on some *shudder* non-American *gasp* non-White person! Give me a break. And what was the purpose of Serizawa's fellow scientist, Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins)? Whenever she spoke, all she did was agree with one of Serizawa's statements. These are not secondary characters, they are the main ones, so please have them actually contribute.

Then we get to Ford, our main human character. We understand that Ford is a good guy, he's all about doing the right thing and all that. We establish that pretty early. But for all the kaiju and counter-kaiju events happening (all over the country, mind you), we're expected to accept that Ford somehow manages to be at absolutely all of them, no question. Not to mention that he ends up saving the day at absolutely all of them, no question. It was just too much, and again, since there's no development past "he's a good guy," there's nothing else for him to do. Even the painfully implemented "character development" fell flat. The scene where he helps the Japanese child find his parents immediately comes to mind. It didn't help that throughout the whole thing, the kid couldn't care less who Ford was or what he was doing. Then the kid just happens to wander off into a crowd of thousands of people and walk right into his parents a full fifty feet away, despite them losing him so long ago and over so far a distance. And Ford just stands off in the distance with a goofy smirk and his hands on his hips. "What a good guy Ford is," we're supposed to say (again). "And how great of him, a full-blooded goddamn American, helping out those poor helpless foreigners. Man, I love America. We are so damn great."

That whole scene was so painfully shoehorned in. And of course, Ford has not one, but two moments where he "connects" with the monsters, their eyes meeting and unspoken messages passed between them. Why? Why why why why why? The egg sequence presented some questions as well. Why did none of the other soldiers decide that they should at least report a huge nest of hundreds of eggs ready to hatch? Well, because Ford is a good guy, and he'll solve it by himself, that's why.

The monsters themselves had no clear consistency or motivations other than the MUTOs wanting to mate (which again, was just an assumption). I guess I can understand that, but what about the rest? There were too many assumptions made by pretty much everybody, without any clear evidence, that just happened to be correct by pure chance. At no point did anybody stop and say, "Please explain how you came to that conclusion." And if I had been there, that statement would have come out plenty of times. Some general questions:

  1. If the MUTOs seek out radiation to eat, then why didn't Godzilla at any point?
  2. If all monster from that period feed on radiation, then why didn't Godzilla eat the MUTOs?
  3. Since it shows the MUTOs literally eating nuclear bombs, how did they consume radiation millions of years ago? Did they literally eat radioactive rocks?
  4. Wouldn't all the monsters be emanating radiation like crazy? They were even using Geiger counters when they found the two pods, so that answer would be yes.
  5. Wouldn't everybody that got near any of the monsters suffer from radiation sickness/poisoning?
  6. Wouldn't the battlegrounds be a radioactive hotspot, since the monsters are running into everything and bleeding all over the place?
  7. Why did Godzilla decide to leave after defeating the MUTOs? Because Serizawa said he would?
  8. After the MUTOs were gone, why didn't Godzilla then live normally, seeking out nuclear devices of his own?
  9. Didn't Godzilla contribute to the deaths and injuries of many, many people? Why is everyone cheering him on at the end?
  10. If all it takes to counter the MUTO's EMP is rubbing some wires together, then wouldn't everybody be able to just re-start their cars and all other electronic devices?
  11. Why didn't anyone ever find any other evidence of creatures from that time period?
  12. Are there more of these creatures from millions of years ago still walking around the bottom of the ocean? Would they react and follow the three on the surface? Especially since one is calling out specifically to find others?
  13. Why do they assume the MUTO species and Godzilla's species are natural enemies? The skeleton and pods could have multiple explanations. The MUTO species could found the dead Godzilla skeleton years after it had died for all we know.
  14. How did the MUTOs know exact tactically strategic points and times to set off their EMPs?
  15. Why would the MUTOs develop an EMP defense mechanism in a time millions upon millions of years before electronic devices would even present a threat?
  16. The EMP only has a limited range. Why not airlift the bombs far, far away from the MUTOs (which you are determining the pathway they choose) and therefore their EMP as well?
  17. Why didn't Godzilla use his atomic breath sooner if it's so effective?
  18. How the hell did Godzilla and the first MUTO stay hidden, even while actively being sought by a team of people whose specific job it was to find them with the most advanced levels of technology?
  19. If Serizawa had spent decades trying to find out everything about the kaiju, then wouldn't he make looking through every person's research that worked at the nuclear power plant a top priority? Joe's floppy disks would be one of the first things he'd find, since they were conveniently sitting right on top of the freaking desk.
  20. What message is Serizawa trying to convey by giving the head military guy his father's watch?
  21. Why did Serizawa make a "profound" statement about how, "man can never win the fight against nature," when he himself has been trying to kill Godzilla for the past fifty years?
  22. If you are guiding monsters on a certain path (across the whole world), wouldn't you want to make damn sure they didn't even come close to the one thing you plan to use against them?
  23. How can all of the monsters be absolutely silent and absolutely still apparently whenever they want?
  24. If these monsters have been active since the '50s (and in plain sight), then why didn't anyone at any point know/see/hear/report/record anything about them whatsoever besides Serizawa?
  25. What is the reasoning behind calling the monster Gojira?
  26. Why did everybody (including Serizawa himself) suddenly shift to calling him Godzilla instead of Gojira?
  27. If they're desperately trying to cover up what really happened at the nuclear plant all those years ago, then why do they a) let Joe and Ford see it, then b) let them go home afterwards?
  28. Did everyone just assume Godzilla was dead at the end without doing any real tests to confirm it? Because he had fallen down before (and had a massive building fall on him).
  29. Why are people milling about the destroyed city when a multi-megaton nuclear device just went off less than a mile away offshore the day before?
  30. How the hell did those "HAPPY BIRTHDAY" cards hold up, unscathed, for decades in a house totally exposed to the elements?

I suppose when you cycle through five writers, things will get jumbled (but it's still no excuse). And the fact that your foundation writer it the guy who wrote Doom and The Expendables does not bode well. Even worse, your follow-up writer is David S. Goyer. Great. Last real writing credit goes to a relatively unknown Max Borenstein, which could go either way, but look whose work he has to build from. The script was "polished" by Drew Pearce (likely because of his work on Pacific Rim). It should also be noted that the characters were not the age they were in the film until Pearce got to it. Meaning that the first three writers had a bunch of teenagers running around. That is an infuriating trend we need to stop, ASAP. Frank Darabont came in at the end, but I feel that was mostly for publicity. His name pulls weight, so throwing it around makes your movie more notable. I'm sure he did contribute some ideas, but the production wheels were already well in motion by the time he came on board.

The effects looked pretty damn good, but was a lot of the same. Every fight between the monsters seemed to recycle. The male MUTO would fly up and come down on Godzilla's shoulders, digging his legs in, while the female would try to tackle him. Lather, rinse, repeat. Godzilla's eventual triumph against the male MUTO seemed pretty anticlimactic. I didn't think that slamming him into a building would kill him, since he had already done worse, but apparently it did. The female's death was pretty definitive, but begs the question as to why Godzilla didn't try something like that sooner.

The monster designs were kind of disappointing. I feel like the MUTOs looked like futuristic bugs, which is counterintuitive since they're supposed to be millions and millions of years old. They should not look futuristic by any means. Godzilla wasn't too bad. But I felt that his face had too much of a mammalian look to it, and his eyes were too "warm." I know a large complaint going around is that he was too fat, and it did bother me a little bit. His torso shape is pretty much a potato. The roar was reworked from the original, but director Gareth Edwards annoyed me when he said they "improved" it. What they really did is make it sound more like modern movie sounds we expect (more lows and way louder). I wouldn't say it's "improved."

While I do enjoy Alexandre Desplat's work, it was a mistake to recruit him for this movie. Again, I loved everything about the opening sequence, including the music. After that, though, no dice. The music was too overbearing, too thick, and barged in at all the wrong places. Yes, Godzilla is a huge monster. Yes, there are giant monster fights. But that doesn't mean I want to hear your completely non-subtle, intrusive music during every single event of the film, including parts where no kaiju are present. It was as if Desplat was experimenting with different themes to use, but then said screw it and threw them all in there. Each one would sound great for opening a '50s monster movie, but they don't work well for Bryan Cranston opening a jar of peanut butter. There was no consistency, so I guess it fits with everything else.

As stated above, the pacing is breakneck, but nothing is ever resolved. This is a bad combination. Every scene starts and ends at the same emotional and energetic level. And before we're able to process or think about what just happened, we're thrown into the next scene, which does the same thing. There's no payoff or exploration of consequences for anything. This happens for the entire movie. So it's a flatline, just not at the bottom. It's more in the middle. Plus, nothing bad really happens. We never see any consequences of what has transpired from the events of the film. Three huge monsters decimated entire cities and killed countless tens of thousands. But everybody we've been focusing on lives happily ever after. Hooray!

The statement that seems to be going around is, "Thank goodness it's not the 1998 movie." However, this does not mean that the film automatically gets a free pass. The '98 movie is an incredibly low hurdle to clear, so surpassing it is not in itself a triumph. I could probably do it if you gave me a camera and a free weekend. But too many people are giving this movie way more credit than is due. I didn't hate it, but I didn't really like it either. Indifferent is a pretty good word to describe how I felt. I don't plan on watching it again any time soon.

The fact is, we're expected to accept the film on a way deeper level than where it actually is. If you ask too many questions, you're apparently not doing it right. This is another trend that pretty much every big Hollywood movie has been following as of late, because they've realized the minimum amount of effort required to get people into the theater (and therefore, their money). If you know the bottom line, then why bother exerting any additional effort? And they're always trying to sink just a little bit lower, experimenting with what they can and can't get away with (e.g. The Amazing Spider-Man 2). The ultimate control is making every movie at that bottom line, so you just don't have any other choice if you want to go to a movie.

You should not have to turn your brain off to enjoy a movie. In fact, you should be insulted that they ask you to do so. But for some reason, millions of people willingly do it without question. It's really baffling, but since people keep going, and the bigwigs are still making money, don't expect it to stop anytime soon.

I'm going to dig into my older Godzilla movies for the next month, if you don't mind.

May 13, 2014

The History of Nintendo - Vol. 2

1980 - 1991: The Game & Watch games, an amazing invention

[Note: If you're thinking of purchasing this book, read this post first.]

This book picks up right where Volume 1 left off, and is just as in-depth and well-researched. The main focus, obviously, is on the Game & Watch series. It covers all ten series (Silver, Gold, Wide Screen, etc.), as well as selected collectable models. Scattered throughout, you'll also find small bits of trivia and homages from over the years.

However, the highlight has to be the first fifty pages, which cover the inception of the Game & Watch and a look inside the mind of Gunpei Yokoi. For those who aren't aware, Yokoi is one of the major reasons Nintendo exists in its present form. His philosophy is one that Nintendo follows to this day, and he is basically revered as a god by many in the industry. Sadly, he died in 1997. Apart from his inventiveness and ingenuity on the toy and hardware front, he was also involved in a lot of software too. If you like Metroid, Kid Icarus, Dr. Mario, Super Mario Land, or the Game Boy, you can thank him. Oh, and he invented the D-Pad, too. Just a small addition to the industry of video games. Hopefully, if Pix'n Love Publishing gets its act together, we might actually get a dedicated book on his life. But I'm not holding my breath.

This opening section pulls excerpts from Yokoi's actual published book (sadly only available in Japanese), but even reading a Japanese to French to English translation is fascinating. He details the origins of the Game & Watch idea, as well as the seemingly luck-based decisions that led to its eventual creation and unexpected explosion of success. The man was incredible. In order to transform the Game & Watch from an idea to an actual product, he literally had to invent things along the way in order to reach the final result. If someone told him some aspect wasn't possible, he'd invent something that made it possible. There are also interviews with Hirokazu Tanaka discussing the team, mindset, and process of the Game & Watch period, as well as why it triumphed over so many copycats. It is an unbelievably candid look inside Nintendo at one of its most important eras.

On a side note, I am insanely impressed with Hirokazu Tanaka. I knew he was a big name in the industry, and very good at what he did, I just didn't realize how much he was involved throughout gaming history.

The ten series of Game & Watch are:

  • Silver
  • Gold
  • Wide Screen
  • New Wide Screen
  • Multi Screen
  • Color Screen/Table Top
  • Panorama Screen
  • Super Color
  • Micro vs. System
  • Crystal Screen

Each series has its own section in the book, where each Game & Watch in that series is presented. There is a main chunk of text, product, packaging, variant photos, original price, release date, rarity, and several trivia facts about each one.

Scattered throughout the book are pages covering things such as Game & Watch myths, appearances in popular media, TV spots, online Game & Watch simulators, and whether or not the Game & Watch was truly the first game of its kind. The Mini Classics series is also briefly explored.

The next major section is focused on collecting the Game & Watch. It provides answers to general questions (e.g. Where do I find Game & Watch games? Which models are rarest?), as well as a list of serial numbers. It's also a nice touch that the serial numbers are explained. For example, the Silver series game "Vermin" has the serial number MT-03, because Mogura Tataki roughly translates to "whack moles." Finding these things out really shows just how much Gorges and Yamazaki care about their topic.

Gorges provides around twenty of the most sought after games by collectors, with descriptions of each and why they're so collectable. He also showcases some "fake" games made by Game & Watch enthusiasts. This includes fake boxes, actual models, and things like a DS modded to look like a Game & Watch.

There's also a pretty detailed localization section, in which the author lists several countries and their variants of Game & Watch games. He also covers more TV spots, physical advertisements, and merchandise (including those insanely awesome Banpresto figures that came out about ten years ago). Bootleg and competition LCD games (e.g. Bandai, Epoch, Casio) are briefly investigated as well.

The final section covers Game & Watch tributes. Things like the Game & Watch Gallery series for Game Boy, Club Nintendo rewards, e-Reader cards, WarioWare mini-games, Ball appearing in the Game Boy Camera, and of course Mr. Game & Watch in the Super Smash Bros. series.

Overall a brilliant read. Like the first volume, it has lots of full-color photos, high quality pages, superb layout/design, and the plastic wraparound sleeve. And in case you hadn't caught it, the cover is not a picture of an actual Game & Watch model, but rather a clever "G&W Factory" game, complete with box, manual, inserts, and batteries. Too cool!

I purchased this book as soon as it was released. But upon searching online now, I find that it is shockingly expensive (≈$100 minimum!). Unfortunately, Gorges has stated that the English translations have not been selling as well as they'd hoped. Volume 3 (focusing on the NES/Famicom) is already translated, but it's unlikely it will ever be printed and released. Low sales are possibly the reason why none of the other Pix'n Love books have been released in English. There's no way to know for sure, because Pix'n Love has already proven that they evade communication with paying customers. Gorges himself was actually an employee of Pix'n Love originally, in the trenches with the rest of them, but he has since left. I would probably leave too if my co-workers/founders were wholly incompetent and consistently dodged responsibility. What a shame.

May 12, 2014

Sunny, Vol. 1

Sweet and sad.

Sunny is an ongoing manga by Taiyo Matsumoto (first serialized in 2011), about the everyday lives of several children and teens living in a group home. It's broken up into vignettes, each revolving around a different character. "Sunny" is actually a Sunny 1200, a broken-down car sitting on the grounds.

There isn't really a set "plot" of beginning, middle and end. It's just day by day life for these regular people. But the writing digs deep inside each character, and really draws out who they are.

The home (Star Kids) isn't exactly an orphanage, because several of the kids still have parents (whom they even see now and then). It's just that due to whatever circumstances, their parent(s) are unable to care for them. This seeming rejection creates a lot of coping mechanisms, and the creativity that some of the kids have creates a "safe zone" of sorts between their imagination and reality. They'll sit inside the Sunny, using their imaginations to escape reality, if only for a short time.

The stories focus on the kids' everyday lives. Most of them aren't perceived as "normal" by other kids outside the home, so most of their regular social interaction is with each other. The kids can be weird, sure, but they're still people. They each have distinct personalities, struggles, hopes, and dreams. And over time, these are at least glimpsed by the reader.

Star Kids isn't a bad place for the kids to live. The adults in charge do their best to provide a good living environment, even if the kids drive them up the wall sometimes. A few of the kids have very strong personalities, and watching them bounce off of each other is pretty entertaining.

It's a bittersweet nostalgic look back, because every kid went through a period of feeling like they didn't belong at one point or another. It's just regular everyday things happening to these kids. But they're in a living situation that they don't want and have no control over. So seeing what these everyday events mean to them, as well as how they react, really hits home emotionally. When they do finally open up to someone, you can tell that not only is it hard for them to do, but how much trust they truly place in each other.

Star Kids is a place where they know they can feel safe and be themselves, but it's not the same kind of upbringing as everyone around them. Most of them are just unsure about their place in life. They each cope with their internal anxiety in their own way. Some act out, some shut down, some deflect it entirely, and everything in between. At the end of the day, though, they rely on each other more than they know.

Some characters haven't really been explored yet, which is why I'm glad the manga continues. I wasn't sure how I was going to feel about Sunny, but after finishing it, I definitely want to seek out the other two volumes available. Matsumoto's character development and ability to capture their emotions is excellent, and since that's pretty much the meat of the manga, it works out rather well. He can also have the characters say so much with the tiniest word or gesture.

The art and visual style is pretty unique. I was initially put off by it, because it wasn't very graceful. Upon reading through a second time, however, I think it works really well with the writing. Panel layout, choices of perspective/distance, and character design really adds another layer of artistry to the whole thing. The harshness and unfavorable conditions of their lives is perfectly represented by the drawing. Rough around the edges, but genuine and sincere at its core.

The book itself has a very nice hardcover, textured binding. The paper is high quality, and the inking is very solid and clean. The few pages presented in color are really beautiful. The book is slightly larger than most of the standard-size manga. Thankfully, it also reads right to left.

I would definitely recommend Sunny. But the 13+ age rating doesn't seem quite right to me. I don't know how many young teens would "get it." It seems like more of an adult-oriented read, looking back to that time of childhood, and being able to fully understand it. I feel like most young teens would still be going through that phase themselves, and therefore not fully understand the point of the manga. But maybe that's just me.

May 11, 2014

My Famicase Exhibition - 2014

10 years of creativity.

My Famicase Exhibition is a Famicom-based art exhibit held in Tokyo. The first one was in 2005, meaning that this is the tenth consecutive year. The premise is simple: design your own Famicom label for a fake game. Work can be created by teams or individuals, but only one submission per entrant is allowed.

This is such a great idea. And the fact that you only don't actually have to create the game itself is pretty nice. The only limitation is your own creativity. Entrants also come up with descriptions, characters, gameplay, and backstories for their fake games. Some of the entries are serious in nature, others rather humorous.

Check out the link at the top for the whole exhibit.

The exhibition is held in METEOR, a store in Tokyo specializing in retro gaming. It's not the biggest place in the world, but there's a lot of neat stuff inside (including a lot of those ridiculously expensive The King of Games clothing items). I am quite content with checking out submissions from here, but if you're super curious, feel free to take a virtual tour.

There's a wide range of submissions every year. Some entrants aim to replicate a certain style, others pay very obvious homages to existing carts, and others choose to be completely original. It's all good stuff, and the only rule is that you can't use existing copyrighted material (characters, etc.).

Every year has a lot of great art, so I would highly recommend checking out submissions from 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, and 2005.

When I was first exposed to Japanese retro cartridges all those years ago, my initial feeling was straight-up jealously. Why the heck are we stuck with all this boring gray stuff? And it hasn't always been that way. The Nintendo of America series Game & Watch boxes were way more colorful and artistic than their Japanese counterparts (although I still really like the Japanese boxes). All I know is, I'm envious of all the cool Famicom carts, while I'm stuck here with my dull gray monotony.

Wow. It is so exciting. I can hardly contain this bottomless well of energy.

Celebrating video games is cool! Nintendo is cool! Combining the two well is really cool!