2503: What We Do in the Shadows

Watched a pretty great movie this evening: What We Do in the Shadows.

This is a 2014 movie written by and starring Jemaine Clement (Flight of the Conchords) and Taika Waititi. It’s a mockumentary film that focuses on the lives of a household of vampires that live in Wellington, New Zealand, and chronicles both the mundanity of their daily lives and some of the more outlandish events that transpire over the course of several months.

It’s a brilliantly written, beautifully acted film, delightful in its understatedness and use of awkward humour. The mockumentary style is used effectively in a similar style to The Office — there’s no commentary on the action, it’s pure “fly on the wall” observation, and in presenting itself in this manner it seems oddly plausible even with the obviously supernatural nonsense going on throughout.

The movie captures the struggle between vampires’ baser urges and their desire to retain at least some of their humanity. The central characters are all rather likeable chaps despite obviously being killers, and it’s all set up so that we sympathise with them. You get the real impression that they feed only out of necessity, and certainly aren’t averse to befriending humans, as exemplified by the presence of “Stu”, a singularly unremarkable man who works in IT that the gang all latch onto and make a pact never to feed on.

It’s not an angsty vampire movie by any means, however. There are a couple of tragic scenes that are played down to such a degree that they’re almost shrugged off, and this is both amusing and representative of the rather casual attitude towards existence that those blessed or cursed with eternal life tend to hold. The movie also subverts the audience’s expectations in a number of places, particularly with regard to one of the central cast members supposed nemesis, known only as “The Beast”.

It’s a lot of fun, in short. It’s a movie where not a lot happens — much like mockumentary TV series such as The Office didn’t really have a lot going on either — but this means it can focus almost entirely on the characterisation of the central cast. In doing so, we’re led to sympathise and empathise with them despite their obviously dark tendencies, and shown that a touch of humanity can show up in the strangest of places.

Most of all, though, it’s a movie that’s just plain funny, whether it’s the ridiculous visual gags involving the vampires’ ability to fly, the overblown gore when one of them accidentally nicks a major artery while feeding and makes “a real mess in there”, or the hilarious rivalry between the vampires and the werewolves, with both groups acting like silly teenagers rather than immortal beings of pure darkness.

Highly recommended, in other words; if you get the chance to sit down and watch it, it’s well worth a couple of hours of your time, even if you’re not typically into horror or vampire movies. It’s just some wonderfully gentle — and, at times, deliberately awkward — humour with plenty of heart, and a real feeling that everyone involved just wanted the audience to have as much fun as they did. And, for me anyway, something being produced with that kind of attitude is well worth praising and enjoying in this age of increasingly commercialised productions.

2489: Kingsglaive

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I watched the Final Fantasy XV movie Kingsglaive this evening. It was pretty spectacular, and as something to get one in the mood for Final Fantasy XV it does its job admirably. Taken by itself, it’s perhaps a little heavy on the action sequences and light on the justifications that link them together, but for a Final Fantasy fan such as myself, it was fanservice heaven.

Unlike the previous Final Fantasy movie The Spirits Within, which wasn’t based on an existing game and only had the loosest of thematic similarities to the venerable series, Kingsglaive very much knew who its primary audience was. As such, the whole thing was riddled with little nods and references to other games in the series.

A wide shot of the Lucian city of Insomnia had a billboard for the “Bank of Spira”, a reference to Final Fantasy X’s world. Water-based summon Leviathan just happened to be in a giant fishtank present at a highbrow reception. One of the enemy airships inexplicably had everyone’s favourite pervy octopus Ultros inside it, though sadly without a speaking role. The “demons” that the antagonists of the piece, the Empire, bring to bear on the Lucians are a dead ringer for Final Fantasy VII’s Diamond Weapon. And let’s not, of course, forget the presence of Knights of the Round who, after Heavensward, have now played a starring role in two consecutive Final Fantasy works as opposed to being a “secret” summon for the truly dedicated player to uncover.

The movie did a great job of setting the scene and introducing some of the lore that is clearly going to be central to Final Fantasy XV as a whole. It’s nice to see that the game is incorporating elements of both classic Final Fantasy — crystals being of paramount importance to the world’s magic being the main one — and the more recent titles with modern-to-futuristic technology being in evidence.

I’m a big fan of settings that combine technology and magic, and I think it’s traditionally been a rather underexplored variant on fantasy. Sure, the idea of magic combined with the modern world has been popularised by the Harry Potter series in recent years, but it’s something that is always interesting to explore, I think. There’s a quote from horror game Outlast that stuck with me and that I will now probably butcher for you now: “show a man from the past technology and he will think it is magic; show a man from the present magic and he will think it is technology.” This is the core of what’s interesting about it, I think: if you have magic, why do you need technology, and vice versa?

This is something I also found interesting about Shadowrun Hong Kong, which I finished earlier today. Shadowrun actually almost plays down its fantastic elements outside of some occasional references to “The Awakening”, mages occasionally being among the foes that stand in your way and the fact that orks, elves and dwarves are happily wandering around in a traditionally human-only world. By de-emphasising the fantastic elements, they simply felt natural and “normal” even though they’re far from reality.

Final Fantasy has always played up its more fantastic elements, by contrast, and Kingsglaive was no exception to this rule, with a spectacular and lengthy final battle raging between the protagonist and the antagonist, set to a backdrop of gigantic summoned titans and demons smacking the shit out of each other, the foreground and background conflicts taking turns to mirror one another.

I absolutely love this particular breed of overblown insanity and always have done. It’s so fantastic and unbelievable that it becomes perfect escapism: something that literally cannot be done in reality, so becomes all the more appealing to be a part of, even if it’s only as a passive observer.

If the main game of Final Fantasy XV is half as spectacular as Kingsglaive was, I’ll be very happy indeed. But since it’s the centrepoint of an incredibly ambitious transmedia campaign encompassing a computer-generated move, an anime series, mobile games and then finally the damn game itself when it comes out at the end of this month, I’m anticipating something even more joyfully exuberant.

I don’t doubt the game will have its haters, as its predecessors also have. (I’ve given up arguing with people who can’t see the good in the FFXIII series, it’s just not worth the stress.) But I for one cannot wait to step into Noctis’ lovingly-rendered boots and start exploring this fantastic new world, and watching Kingsglaive this evening has made the wait just a smidge more agonising.

2384: Turbo Kid: The Best ’80s Movie That Wasn’t Made in the ’80s

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After repeated exhortations of extremely enthusiastic approval from my friend Tom, I decided to watch the movie Turbo Kid this evening on Netflix. I was not disappointed.

Turbo Kid is a study in contradictions. It’s a movie that is a perfect recreation of 1980s action flicks, but it was made in 2015. It’s not a comedy, but it’s hilarious. It is, at heart, simplistic and straightforward, but nonetheless compelling and thought-provoking. More than anything, though, it’s terrible, but it’s stunningly brilliant.

Turbo Kid is set in the apocalyptic far-off future wastelands of the year 1997, where some awful disaster that isn’t really explained (but was probably something to do with the Cold War and/or robots) has turned everything to shit. Our story centres around a nameless young boy, known only as The Kid, who was orphaned early in the post-apocalyptic period, but who has, against all odds, managed to survive in the wasteland through scavenging and keeping his childish hopes and dreams alive through vintage comics about his favourite superhero, Turbo Rider.

Early in the movie, The Kid meets Apple, who initially seems to be a charmingly dimwitted young girl, but subsequently is revealed to be a robot, because ’80s movie. Apple is dying thanks to getting hit in a skirmish, and The Kid, who after some initial reluctance to even be around her having been alone for so long, agrees to help her find some replacement parts before her “heart gauge” (rather beautifully depicted in Zelda-style pixel art on an embedded display in her wrist) runs out and she deactivates forever.

I’ll spare you the rest of the details, but suffice to say, The Kid finds himself taking on the role of Turbo Rider to the best of his capabilities, and there are plenty of ridiculous action scenes along the way, not to mention a particularly loathsome villain in the form of self-appointed wasteland baron “Zeus” — who of course has a connection with The Kid, because ’80s movie.

I was reading an article in a GamePro from a couple of years ago the other day, and someone — I forget who offhand, but I think it was someone like Tim Schafer or his ilk — made the very good point that the best comedy is made of juxtapositions, most commonly the juxtaposition of serious words with silly visuals, or vice-versa. Turbo Kid is pretty much entirely designed around this philosophy: it takes itself very seriously and never, at any point, winks knowingly at the audience to go “DIDYA SEE THAT?!”. Instead, it makes use of the exact same techniques ’80s action movies did to juxtapose the ridiculous with the deadly serious: terrible, extremely obvious special effects; excessive amounts of blood and gore; unnecessary swearing at the most bizarre moments; but, at heart, a rather touching story of a kid who realises he doesn’t want to be alone in the world any more.

Of particular note is the blood and gore, of which there is lots, but it’s so insanely exaggerated — again, like the best worst ’80s action flicks — that it’s impossible to feel grossed out by it. In one scene, a man gets his face thrust into the spinning blades of a blender. In another, someone gets his guts pulled out by them being attached to the back wheel of a bicycle (in this particular post-apocalyptic future, everyone rides pedal bikes — which sort of makes sense, when you think about it, as fuel would eventually run out). In the climactic battle scene, the dismembered torso and legs of two other enemy grunts become firmly lodged on the head of a third enemy. And, of course, Turbo Rider/Kid’s unique gadget is a device on his wrist that immediately causes anyone it is pointed at to explode into a fine red paste.

Turbo Kid really benefits from being written and constructed as an ’80s action flick, without any fourth wall-breaking self-awareness going on. In being designed this way, it provides commentary on how desensitised to violence we are these days — many of the more gory scenes in the film would likely have got the movie banned as a “video nasty” back in the ’80s — while at the same time pointing out how far popular culture has supposedly come in the last 30+ years. Or you can look at it another way: it can be interpreted as a fond look back at the ’80s, when not all entertainment was expected to have some sort of socially aware “message” behind it (with the possible exception of children’s cartoons, which tended to lampshade these messages extremely obviously) and it could sometimes just be about many boys’ childish fantasies: the ability to point at a bad guy and have them explode into goo.

If you have an hour and a half to spare, then, be sure to check out Turbo Kid on Netflix. If you grew up in the ’80s and/or you enjoyed Far Cry: Blood Dragon (which is a similarly hilarious but loving homage to the more ridiculous side of ’80s popular media), you will very much appreciate what it has to offer.

1914: I Wish I Liked Star Wars More

Recently, there were a couple of big bits of Star Wars-related excitement: the release of a new trailer for the upcoming movie, and some “not gameplay footage” footage of the upcoming new Star Wars Battlefront game.

And… I don’t really care.

This post isn’t, however, a tirade where I get angry at people who are into Star Wars — certainly I don’t begrudge anyone their excitement over the new stuff, and it’s nice to see something people can get enthusiastic rather than angry about for once. No; rather, it’s a contemplation of why I’m no longer into Star Wars now, in 2015, when many of my peers are.

In theory Star Wars should be right up my alley. I like sci-fi and I like fantasy, and Star Wars combines elements of both, being, essentially, a tale of heroic fantasy, mysterious magic and dastardly villains… and a tale that just happens to be set among spacefaring civilisations rather than the more conventional quasi-medieval setting of most fantasy.

And yet I just can’t muster any enthusiasm for it any more.

I don’t think it’s the fault of the films themselves. A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi are all still solid films, albeit somewhat cheesy at times; The Phantom Menace is a bit poo but inoffensively so, and Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith are both perfectly competent, exciting movies. I recall a couple of years back I watched them all through in sequential order — The Phantom Menace first, Return of the Jedi last — and found it to be an enjoyable experience that actually made the prequels seem a bit better than I had previously thought.

I’ve not felt any sort of urge to watch them again, though; I don’t think I even own a copy of them any more, having ditched most of my DVD collection the last time we moved house. I’m kind of done with Star Wars; I got all that I wanted to out of it, and moved on.

Except Star Wars didn’t want to move on, and I think this is why my excitement and interest in it has completely faded over the years. Over the years since the prequel movies, we’ve had TV shows, animated shorts, websites, video games, toys, novels, comics, fan movies, endless speculation, memes, and the Great Unwritten Rule of Geekdom: that if you don’t like Star Wars you’re not a proper nerd. (I don’t actually believe this last one, of course, but I have had a few looks of surprise when fellow nerds have asked me what I think of something Star Wars related and I’ve responded that I’m not really into it.)

In other words, Star Wars was inescapable and being used more as a gigantic marketing juggernaut than anything else. I’ve become very aware of this sort of thing over the last few years — I think working in the press and seeing long-running PR campaigns for various blockbusters “from the inside” jaded me somewhat — and I was just getting a little fed up of seeing it seemingly everywhere. That manifested itself in the realisation that I didn’t really care for Star Wars any more, and a response to the announcement of the new movies and games best described as “meh”.

I’m kind of sad about this in a way, and I do stand by my title for this post; I do wish I liked Star Wars more, because it would be nice to share in some of this excitement, and it’s nice to reminisce about classic games like Super Star Wars, X-Wing and TIE Fighter. But, for me, at least, I think that ship has sailed (or done the Kessel run in however-many-parsecs-it-was, insert your own tortured metaphor here) and I’ve moved on to my own things that people give me blank looks about when I express my own excitement and enthusiasm. It all balances out, I guess.

So for those of you into Star Wars, I hope the recent reveals were everything you hoped they’d be. And for those of you not… well, I’ve got a nice quiet little corner of the Internet here. Pull up a chair and I’ll put the kettle on.

1904: 21st Century TV

The Internet has brought with it many things both good and bad, but by far my favourite thing about it is to do with video.

No, I’m not talking about YouTube generally — the whole “anyone with a webcam can make videos!” culture it promotes feeds into modern youth’s unhealthy obsession with “being famous” — but rather the fact that, between the various streaming services out there, both legitimate and… less legitimate, there is probably some way of watching all those programmes/adverts/movies you wish you still had 1) the VHS tapes for and 2) something to play them with.

This last week, for example, Andie and I have watched Police Squad!, the TV-based precursor to the Naked Gun movies. Only six episodes were made, and back at university, when I “discovered” the show for the first time, I had a VHS cassette with two of them on it, so I had only ever seen those two episodes. Now, however, some helpful Polish person has kindly uploaded the whole lot onto YouTube for anyone to enjoy at their leisure. No waiting for TV networks to license them and show them again. No tracking down video tapes and VCRs. Just click and go.

The ability to rediscover old favourites is one of the best things about streaming video, then, as my rewatch of Star Trek: The Next Generation for the first time in about ten years will attest. But the fact that streaming services makes new favourites easier than ever to discover, too, is rather wonderful. I doubt I’d have become so interested in anime without my Crunchyroll subscription, for example; prior to widespread streaming video, the only real way to get into anime was to buy VHS tapes or DVDs, and with anime being niche-interest and somewhat “exotic”, particularly when it first hit these shores in the mid-90s, it was a rather expensive hobby. Anime DVDs and Blu-Rays still cost up to twice as much as a regular ol’ Western film even today, making online services like Crunchyroll much better value.

This is the TV of the 21st century, then; it really is the vision of the future we had twenty, thirty years ago: decide what you want to watch, then just watch it. In most cases, that’s possible to do, even if you have strange, bizarre and peculiar tastes. And even if you’re more fucked up than most, I can almost guarantee that there’s some dark corner of the Internet out there somewhere more than willing to cater to your particular interests, whatever they might be… for better or worse.

In these days of people seemingly constantly yelling at one another on social media and comments sections on large sites being widely (and, sometimes, justifiably) regarded as fetid cesspits, it’s easy to forget the great and wonderful things that the Internet has brought to modern life. I’m a strong believer that its ability to “archive” — for future generations to be able to enjoy movies, TV shows, animations and other videos from years ago — is one of the best things about it. And as technology improves and we find more and more ways to interact with this world-wide network, I hope we never lose sight of these simple pleasures that it’s allowed us to enjoy like never before.

1482: Lego, not LEGO

Andie and I went to see The Lego Movie today (or, if you work in PR, The LEGO Movie™) — it’s the first time we’ve been to the cinema for ages since neither of us really like going all that much, but given Andie’s admirable obsession with Lego (we have three awesome display cabinets with City stuff in at our place, and I’m sure our new home will have considerably more) there was never a time where we weren’t going to see it.

I shall refrain from spoiling the movie too much, save to say that it’s an excellent kids’ movie of the type designed to appeal in numerous ways to grown-ups as well. The concept of Lego being an all-ages toy (whatever it might say about upper age limits on the boxes) is specifically lampshaded, and there are numerous cameos from characters who have been immortalised through various Lego sets over the years — ranging from Star Wars to Lord of the Rings via the DC universe.

What I did want to talk about is how Lego has done a great job of positioning itself to a ridiculously broad market in 2014, and how that’s changed significantly over the years I’ve been alive. Or, at least, the way I’ve come to look at Lego has changed significantly over the years, anyhow.

I never really got hugely into Lego as a kid. I’m not sure why, really, since you’d think it would appeal to my inherent creative sensibilities. But no; my brother was the big Lego person in our family, though I certainly delved into the big brown plastic box full of it that was a fixture in the playroom when I was growing up. I liked the idea of Lego — something which you could use to build anything you wanted — but always felt a little intimidated by it, too.

Part of the reason for this was that in the big brown plastic box was an extremely well put-together house, complete with doors, windows and a slopey roof. I liked looking at this house because I was impressed with the craftsmanship — I assume it was originally the work of my brother, though I don’t know if it was assembled from instructions or not — but I also didn’t want to take it apart, because it was “complete”, and taking something apart that is “complete” didn’t quite feel right to me. Unfortunately, it consisted of all the “best” pieces, which made building other coherent structures a little more difficult, so ultimately I never really became much of a builder.

That was how I thought of Lego; it was something you built things with. I didn’t really think of it as having much of a “personality” as such, despite the presence of minifigs. (Incidentally, I was very happy to see that the “spaceman” minifigs, which appeared to be all we had in the big brown box, were specifically brought up in the movie.) It was just sort of… there, and given that I didn’t end up building all that much stuff with it, it drifted out of my consciousness for many years, never to return until I met Andie, really.

Today, however, Lego very much has a personality, demonstrated aptly by the movie. But I think the slightly irreverent attitude that Lego is infused with today started somewhat earlier. I can’t say for certain exactly when it began, but I have a feeling the computer games made by Traveller’s Tales have a lot to do with it. Again, I haven’t played all that many of these, but they have developed somewhat over time, too — they began with “silent movie” recreations of Star Wars that ended up being hilarious because of their lack of dialogue, and gradually moved into movie adaptations that used actual lines and sounds from the movie, and subsequently on to original titles such as Lego City Undercover.

The personality of the latter in particular was very evident in the movie, and it’s one of the things that made it so enjoyable — it was silly, highly quotable nonsense for children, but at the same time the references and sly winks throughout were clearly aimed at those of us who are old enough to have kids of our own (whether or not we actually do).

In short, it was a lot of fun that I highly recommend you go and see. I’m glad to see something as cool as Lego endures so well in the modern world, and solid adaptations like The Lego Movie will undoubtedly help it continue to do so.

1277: Failing to Resist the Urge to Call This Post ‘Rim Job’

I’M SORRY. (I’m not sorry.)

I went to see Pacific Rim this evening with my similarly-named friends Tim and Tom. This, along with Akira the other night, means that I’ve officially been to the cinema more times in the past week than I have in the last year.

As for Pacific Rim, it was enjoyable, if cheesy. Good, dumb fun on the surface, but a movie clearly designed with an appreciation — possibly even reverence — for Japanese giant robot anime. Throughout the whole thing, I couldn’t help thinking that the movie might have been better just as a straight-up anime. In fact, partway through the movie, I found myself making mental comparisons with the visual novel Deus Machina Demonbane, with which Pacific Rim actually shares a significant number of similarities.

Lest you’re unfamiliar with Deus Machina Demonbane but have seen Pacific Rim, the former is a visual novel about giant robots battling monsters loosely inspired by the work of HP Lovecraft; the latter is a movie about giant robots battling monsters with too many mouths. Already quite similar, albeit the Lovecraftian twist on Demonbane is a pleasant break from the norm.

Then we have the whole “you need two people to pilot a giant robot” thing, which is present in both Demonbane and Pacific Rim; in the former, the pilot is paired up with a “tome” (in the case of the protagonist, an absolutely adorable personification of the Necronimicon), while in the latter, two people have to “drift” together and share their consciousness, or memories, or something.

Then there’s the fact that the main “hero” robot gets the crap kicked out of it repeatedly, yet somehow always gets repaired to immaculate condition every time, which is present in both works.

And the fact that the giant robots fighting do just as much damage — if not more so — to the places they’re trying to protect than the monsters they’re fighting, which is, again, present in both works.

Demonbane does have a bit of a twist in that the antagonists are given personalities and stories of their own, rather than just being “GRRR ARRGH MONSTERS”. There’s an overall “bad guy” in Demonbane, who is responsible for the Lovecraftian beasts invading our dimension, and there are some truly loathsome “lieutenants” who give the protagonist and the other characters in the story a lot of grief, to say the least.

Also, there is more fucking in Demonbane, while there is none in Pacific Rim, what with it being a 12A and all while Demonbane is an adults-only title. For the most part, the sexual scenes in Demonbane are more horrific than titillating, though; it’s one of those “I can’t fap to this!” games, unless you have some seriously weird tastes. Likewise, you cannot fap to Pacific Rimbut for different reasons.

Anyway, I guess what I’m saying is that if you enjoyed Pacific Rim and you’re open to the idea of playing sexually explicit visual novels, then you should give Deus Machina Demonbane a look. It’s one of the more memorable, well-written visual novels I’ve played in my time, and it’s satisfyingly hefty in length, too, particularly if you go for all the endings.

I am hot and sweaty. I am going to drink something cold and go to bed. Good night.