Sunday, November 30, 2008

Mad Men - Season 2

Mad Men's second season is a lot like the first. From a quality and style perspective, not plot. They do a lot of things that they didn't do before. I still don't think the show is outstanding, but it's certainly of a consistently high production quality. The period feel still seems authentic, the characters are still interesting if rarely good people, and things are rarely stagnant. There are some new elements that fill a lot of the story this time, like a new minister played by Colin Hanks who tries to reach out to Peggy and the culmination of Don's transgressions as they cause a big problem in his home life. The Two Towers is on in the background on TV right now and man, those movies have some long stretches without dialogue.

The dialogue in Mad Men is serviceable to the story more than it is entertaining. There's nothing wrong with writing everything to drive the narrative, but part of what's holding me back on really digging it is the lack of just enjoying listening to the actors talk. It's not bad, just not the greatest. I did feel like I liked the show more than I did it first, although I'm not really seeing a noticeable change in anything about it. I'm just more attached to the people in it the more I see. I kind of like how they portray that time as just as filled with imperfect people and moments as ours. Everything from the past is always idealized and the current generation is always seen as the worst yet, but in the end we're all just humans. With all of the typical story devices and character archetypes, the setting is probably Mad Men's greatest asset. It really ties you into it when things happen like the season's climax coinciding with the Cuban Missile Crisis. I don't watch many serialized dramas that don't have an element of violence, so it's interesting to see how they can keep things compelling with more subtle means of conflict.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Fallout 3

I haven't played any of the other Fallout games, but from what I can tell, Bethesda's first stab at the series takes the skill system and trademark sense of humor and transplants them effectively into Oblivion's engine. Coming out two and a half years later Fallout 3 isn't the big step forward I was hoping for, but it's still a great game when you play it. It still has some of Oblivion's glitches and awkward moments, but it does do a fair amount of things better. Characters look better, and there's way more variety in the voice actors. The speech and bartering system relies on numbers and chance instead of a conceptually moronic mini-game. There are little additions like an indicator if a container is empty so less time is spent searching for items. And they finally got the auto-leveling enemies thing right, in a best-of-both-worlds sort of scenario. The way it seems to work, wandering around outside will always produce enemies at a similar skill level to you, so it doesn't seem too easy. But once you've been to a specific location like an underground tunnel, the enemies will always stay at the level they were when you first went there, so going back for whatever reason lets you take care of them easily without having to worry about constantly getting beaten. It's a pretty good system, maybe the best that can be done with this sort of extremely non-linear game.

On that end, Fallout is in ways better and worse than the Elder Scrolls games. Doing only the side quests that naturally came my way while playing, I beat the main story in about 22 hours. I don't think that's much less than Oblivion, and Fallout's story is certainly more interesting. They really did a lot with the humor, making it a bit more enjoyable to just be in the world, and it has a number of quests that are more creative than anything else I've seen them do. Tranquility Lane springs instantly to mind. And there's a bit more freedom in proceeding through it, with multiple ways to complete certain objectives and a lot of options in the dialogue that make it replayable. But the whole world around the main quest is a bit more barren, and that's the part of Oblivion I liked the most. I know there's a number of significant things I haven't done yet, but it seemed like fun diversions just weren't as easy to stumble across. Only the Wasteland Survival Guide came close to having the depth of one of the Elder Scrolls' factions, and it's not even just the quests - wandering around a deserted wasteland and ramshackle towns built on destroyed pieces of the old civilization is a bit more depressing and purposefully empty than an intact fantasy empire. Fallout 3 is designed to be more focused and narrow than Oblivion, and I liked that game for its breadth.

Not that Fallout isn't very good at what it does. There was some concern about the combat system, but I think it works pretty well. The V.A.T.S. system to target specific weakpoints is useful, although I tended to go for the head pretty exclusively. The normal aiming isn't very good for a shooter, but it's functional enough that you don't feel helpless when you can't use V.A.T.S. and it can actually be satisfying to use it by itself. I didn't try too much melee combat, but it seemed to function a lot like Oblivion's without any blocking. The karma system seems a little deeper than the average good-or-evil gimmick more and more games seem to be having, and unlike most of the others, it actually gives a compelling reason to be neutral. The writing is better than some of their earlier work, and overall it's a bit more polished as a product. I've been comparing the game to Oblivion for the entire review, but in the end it's probably worth checking out if you're interested, even if you've never touched an Elder Scrolls game.

Monday, November 24, 2008

True Blood - Season 1

True Blood is far from the smartest thing HBO's ever aired, but it's still a pretty enjoyable take on vampires. The show's main gimmick is that vampires have recently come out as America's newest hot button demographic demanding equal rights, and the tension between them and regular humans is a paper-thin metaphor for both racism and homophobia, both of which are exemplified normally by Lafayette, a cook/drug dealer who's my favorite character. The story takes place in the deep south of Louisiana. It's not the normal setting for vampires, and they have some fun with it, although at times it seems like they're just replacing standard Anne Rice tropes with stereotypes of Southern people. The series is based on a book series, and I don't know how faithful it is, but I get the feeling Alan Ball is just using the bare bones of them to say what he wants to about social issues while at the same time filming a bunch of crazy adult stuff.

There's a murder mystery that weaves its way through the entire first season, and for what it is it's fairly intriguing, but the majority of most episodes seems to be showing people get angry at each other, having sex, and occasionally getting covered by the blood of an exploding undead creature. I'm a little conflicted on the show, because I usually enjoy it while watching, but the general content is dumber than what I'd expect from something on HBO. It has its good moments, but it also has bad ones. I'm a little tired of the weird vampire fetish our culture seems to have, and their portrayal here bugs me a bit. They do that thing where they just bare their fangs and look half-menacing-half-moronic for no reason a lot, it looks terrible whenever they move super quickly, and I don't like how their fangs are the lateral incisors instead of the cuspids. The cuspids are a much better choice! Anyway, True Blood is completely watchable but not great.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Left 4 Dead

A slight lack of content and a few connection issues are the only things holding back one of the most enjoyable shooting experiences I've had in years. The normal gameplay isn't particularly deep; there are only a few weapons and a few types of enemies. They're not particularly smart. There's only four "movies" to play, none lasting even two hours on normal difficulty. But none of that matters. Holding off a ravenous horde of zombies with a few friends, desperately huddled together and waiting for rescue, is an extraordinarily exciting and memorable experience. The key to the game is how well the cooperative aspect of it works. In most other games, you can split up and do okay. But in Left 4 Dead, sticking with your teammates is vital. The game rewards you for protecting your buddies as much as yourself, and if you get knocked down or attacked by certain foes, it's impossible to survive without a friend giving you a hand. It's best if you're playing with people you know and constantly communicating, but even with a group of strangers you can develop a camaraderie before the campaign is over. Tearing into a horde with a mounted gun, taking out a bunch with a homemade pipe bomb, working together to bring down a tank - everything is scientifically designed to be as satisfying as possible.

And when did Valve become so funny? Earlier games had occasional humor, but starting with The Orange Box they've had consistently great writing, and the graffiti on the walls and dynamic conversations between the survivors are always worth experiencing. That dialogue is part of the game's pretty impressive technology that keeps the experience fresh, with the locations of supplies and bad guys always changing so you don't know what to expect. It prevents the experience from being too sophisticated, but makes it extremely replayable, which is the real goal here. Normal is fun, but my group probably had a better time playing on Advanced, making the experience much more intense but still manageable. It can get a bit frustrating when the same place kills you over and over, but we got markedly better as a team just playing through all of the maps once, and I bet it won't be long before we try Expert. Versus mode is also a blast, where teams alternate between playing the survivors and the infected, seeing who can get farther before usually getting wiped out. Playing in the infected takes some getting used to, but is also a unique and extremely gratifying experience when you get it right. Setting up the perfect ambush to screw over the other team is pretty damn awesome.

Hopefully Valve works on some of the online stuff, though. The first time we played, it took at least half an hour before we could get a game going, and games will crash once in a while. Also, sometimes the achievements don't seem to unlock when they should, a couple friends didn't get the campaign completion ones when they should have. Overall, it wasn't that bad for a game that just got released, it was just frustrating to see happen when we just wanted to be. And I do wish there was a bit more to play with. We can count on Valve coming out with some new stuff, hopefully an entire new movie or two, but I'm certainly glad I got it for $45 on Steam instead of $60 for the Xbox. Still, that doesn't matter that much. A couple nights ago we were playing Versus on the last map of No Mercy, waiting for the helicopter to arrive. Louis just got knocked off the roof by a Tank, and after we remaining three killed it, rescue came. We raced towards the landing pad, but on the way I was grabbed by a Smoker and pulled off the ramp. My teammates freed me from its grip, and I ran back towards the ramp, desperately shoving the ravenous horde away from me, slowly carving a path towards the exit. I limped as fast as I could for the helicopter, bullets whizzing past my ears as my buds who were already on board picked off the creatures trying to stop me. Just as I reached the vehicle, a Hunter pounced and knocked me on the ground. Before it could incapacitate me my friends saved me once again, and with 3 health left, I got on the helicopter just in the nick of time, and we escaped. It was completely amazing, and this type of thing happens in Left 4 Dead all the time.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Bludgeoning Angel Dokuro-Chan

Dokuro-Chan is an insane, hilarious little series in the same vein as Excel Saga. I imagine that this style of cartoon is a little too esoteric for most people, but if you have any appreciation for complete absurdity it might be worth checking out. Ignore the cute character designs though, because the show's not for kids. The main characters are a normal kid and an angel who has been sent from the future to kill him before he can discover the key to immortality, but she comes to like him and ends up resurrecting him after every time she brutally clubs him to death. The romantic interest kicking the crap out of the protagonist is a very common device in some pretty boring anime, and Dokuro-Chan satirizes it by having the violence be completely over the top, with blood spraying everywhere and the victim writhing in pain, before she magically fixes it and they act like nothing happened. Another thing the show parodies is fan service, with the accidental encounters and titillating camera angles so unbelievable that it just becomes funny.

The show (at this point) is only six episodes, but they're packed enough with humor to be worth checking out. There's so many little touches of humor that you might have to see it twice just to take everything in. Characters talk insanely fast, with the subtitles only at a reasonable speed because Japanese words have so many syllables. The show has a breakneck pace and is enjoyable whether you're paying close attention or just catching whatever you do while relaxing. There's a lot of chaff in the anime industry and it could stand to just go nuts more often like Dokuro-Chan does.

Friday, November 21, 2008

It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia - Season 4

Sunny's fourth season is just about as entertaining as any of the first three. Its unique sense of humor isn't as shocking and unpredictable as it used to be, but they still haven't run out of sensitive social issues to make fun of or meaningless things for the characters to go on ridiculous tirades about. I'm pretty convinced right now that Sunny is currently the funniest show on television. One element that I don't particularly remember from earlier episodes but showed up a lot this time was the petty shifting alliances, where a couple of the gang would exclude another for no real reason but it would get flipped around by the next week. We're guaranteed two more seasons at least, and I'm on board as long as they keep churning out solid comedy.

One thing that I'm glad didn't return from previous years is the McPoyles. They were funny once, but got old by a certain point during season 3, and I'm glad they were able to recognize things that weren't funny anymore and just stop using them. Charlie continues to be my favorite character, a common sentiment among fans, and has plenty of great moments, like his role as the wild card in "The Gang Solves the Gas Crisis", the conspiracy theorist mail room guy in "Sweet Dee Has a Heart Attack" and mastermind of the most awkward play ever in the season finale "The Nightman Cometh". Everyone contributes though, and it's rare to go five minutes in an episode without every character saying something funny. It seems like the season went by so fast, and I await more eagerly.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

South Park - Season 12

It's hard to argue that South Park is as good as it's ever been, but it's still a good show. It's just that the great episodes are less frequent, and the average one has a higher tendency to not be as funny as it used to be pretty consistently. I still find something to enjoy every time it comes on Wednesday night, but you get the feeling that Trey and Matt are getting a little low on ideas, and it might be smart to call it quits after their contract runs out three years from now. They've even admitted to a little writer's block, as "Imaginationland" was originally the concept for a second movie but was turned into a few episodes because they couldn't think of anything else. They've said they'd like to finish the show with another real movie, and that sounds like a good idea to me.

Part of the problem is that the show's stances on things are becoming predictable, and they stick too closely with a single joke. "About Last Night..." was an entertaining take on the election and heist movies, but you could see the jabs at supporters of both candidates coming from a mile away. And episodes like "Breast Cancer Show Ever", while having some fun moments, are fairly one note and not up to the standard of insanity people expect. But there was some really good stuff this season too, like "Major Boobage" which experimented a lot with animation, "Canada on Strike" pitting online fads against each other, the dedicated reenactors of "Super Fun Time", and the Indiana Jones segments of "The China Probrem". Primetime animation in general hasn't been fantastic lately, and South Park is still worth watching.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Tim and Eric - Awesome Record, Great Songs! Volume One

Awesome Record, Great Songs! is a fine collection of music from Tim and Eric's hilariously bizarre sketch show on Adult Swim. There's a ton of stuff here, almost any song you can think of from the first couple seasons, and there sure are a lot of them. Everything from the Kid Break songs the David Liebe Hart's duets with his dummies to jingles from the different commercials and shows is featured, with many of them extended beyond what you hear on the episodes. The full version of "Doo Dah Doo Doo" for example is even more disturbing, and truly worth a listen. Towards the end of the album they also get into some really cool things like remixes featuring bits that didn't make the cut and alternate versions of songs by bands like The Shins. Music is a much bigger part of the show than one might even realize at first, and any fan of Tim and Eric's antics should get this compilation. Every track is either funny, legitimately catchy, or both.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Quantum of Solace

On its own, Quantum of Solace is a solid action movie, but it works much better when viewed as the second part of the story started in Casino Royale. In a way, they're very different films, but their differences make the arc of Bond's character much stronger. Royale was fairly long, and not full of the goofy villains and over-the-top action scenes that characterized Bond movies for a long time. It had some pretty good action, but the focus was on the spy thriller stuff. By comparison, Solace is significantly shorter and pretty consistently violent, with a new chase or brawl seeming to occur every fifteen minutes or so. You see some of the shaky-camera treatment in these segments that has plagued Hollywood action for too long now, and it can hinder comprehension of some really complex and entertaining scenes, but Marc Forster didn't go overboard with it. Still, you get the feeling that if the old filmmakers from the medium's begining who were apprehensive to do any jump cutting at all saw one of these movies, their heads would probably explode.

Daniel Craig's Bond is the most interesting treatment of the character that I've seen, and he's a big part of why I've been enjoying this reboot so much. He still has moments of humor and suaveness, but he really hasn't reacted too well to the events of the last movie and the coldness he treats the world with fuels the shift towards more action than we saw before. There's a lot of running time spent showing Bond fight people, but everything that happens makes sense with the character and what he's trying to do, so it's better justified than a lot of the big budget summer movies that come and go every year. The movie starts to introduce a shady evil organization that has its fingers in everything, and you can see how it's all leading to something a bit closer to older Bond movies, but Forster and the producers still make a good effort to keep it more grounded in reality and a bit darker. There's nobody with iron teeth or a bullet lodged in their brain, and the bad guys are controlling the world more subtly than SPECTRE ever did. It's a new James Bond for a more modern age, and Craig is apparently closer to Ian Fleming's original character than guys like Roger Moore ever were. I look forward to where they take the series from here.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Mad Men - Season 1

Mad Men has been one of the most critically acclaimed shows of the last couple years, and seems to have stepped into The Wire's place as the show hip people call the best on television. Watching the first season, I didn't quite see it as that great, but it's certainly quality entertainment. It's about the guys who work at an ad agency in the early 1960's, as they try to please clients, get drunk, and cheat on their wives. A big part of the show is the flavor of the time period, which seems pretty authentic and makes some moments more interesting than they might normally be. It's somewhat funny to watch how often the characters light a new cigarette, and it's pretty easy to lose count. Jon Hamm is Don Draper, the main character with a shady past, and he really captures that old fashioned sort of man's man you don't really see anymore. He's surrounded by a bunch of people who usually play to those late 50's/early 60's stereotypes that are somewhat quaint now but contribute to that atmosphere pretty well.

The main thrusts of the first season's story arc are Draper going through a bit of an identity crisis as parts of his life catch up to him, and the new girl Peggy, who doesn't really fit in with the other secretaries content to giggle and take phone calls. Any bit of story involving Draper is usually good, but too much of the other stuff going on around him is just a little too weird. If every guy back then was really this creepy towards every woman he was attracted to, it's definitely a time I'm glad I didn't live in. The show just made me uncomfortable sometimes, and not in a funny way. Some of what happens is the same trite romantic stuff we've seen before, and you can just see it coming a little too easily. Mad Men is a very well put together program, but I sort of feel like it holds that "Best Show on TV" title by default.

Friday, November 14, 2008

...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead - Festival Thyme

Festival Thyme is a quick four-song EP, a sort of preview for Trail of Dead's new album that's coming in early 2009, including a different mix of one of the songs that will appear on it. It's hard to gleam that much from less than 20 minutes of music, but I can say with some confidence that they're the same band that they've been for a few years, although they seem to be branching a bit, sometimes sounding like they have before and sometimes completely new. You hear a lot of piano here and there, something that seemed to start with Worlds Apart and hasn't left. "Bells of Creation" varies quite a bit in intensity, playing both ends pretty well. "Inland Sea" is a bit more melodic, but with a similar feel. The title track sort of sounds like something off Sigur Rós' latest, with a shuffle of plinking instruments that come together into a mass of pleasant upbeatness. "The Betrayal of Roger Casement and the Irish Brigade" is a loud, chaotic instrumental with some weird electronic effects on the guitar in spots, definitely something new to the band. Overall, it's a nice little collection of songs, something that would definitely make the cut on a full album, although it works as a cohesive EP too. I'm looking forward to their next full release for sure.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Jackie Brown

Jackie Brown is a bit of an oddity. It's Quentin Tarantino's third and probably least remembered film. One of the only stories he's done that wasn't his own, he took the plot from an Elmore Leonard novel (Who wrote many things that were adapted to screen, like 3:10 to Yuma) and reworked it into a tribute to 70's blaxploitation films, even starring a veteran of the genre, Pam Grier. Another big character is played by Robert Forster, who was also a long-time actor without a ton of success, and whom I only recognize from recent episodes of the increasingly-shitty Heroes. I guess Tarantino likes reviving people's careers. Some really big names (at least for the time) like Robert De Niro and Michael Keaton play smaller parts, but the movie focuses on Grier, Forster, and the always cool Samuel L. Jackson, who by the way turns 60 next month, can you believe that?

Anyway, Jackie Brown is a pretty solid crime movie, if not up to the standards of Tarantino's other work. It does a lot of things well that you expect from him, like clever dialogue that's just fun to listen to and some interesting decisions made with the filming. For some reason, I always seem to like the way he handles important scenes, especially violent ones. You can just sort of tell when something bad will happen, but it's still surprising to see how it actually comes about. Jackson is about as entertaining here as he was in Pulp Fiction, and the cast in general does a good job with the script.

On the other hand, the movie has some of the problems he's known for, too. If there's one thing he needs to learn as a filmmaker, it's how to let a scene go. Maybe he just needs a more assertive editor. Jackie Brown is indisputably too long. This isn't an epic crime drama, it just wants to be. It has all the makings of a tightly woven, thrilling movie, it just has an extra half-hour stapled on. Too many scenes don't really serve the plot, just add character where it isn't needed or go on for too long. Showing the same important moment from three different perspectives is a somewhat interesting creative choice, but there's no reason it couldn't have worked with all three cut together and a lot of time saved. It just sort of feels like an unnecessary flourish. And I know he likes to follow characters around with really long tracking shots, but I'm not sure anyone else does. Tarantino took a long break from directing after this movie, and I've never really heard why, and Kill Bill's running length suggests it wasn't to rethink his style. Whatever the reason, it wasn't because he made a decent if unexceptional genre film.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Black Lagoon - Season 2

The American release of Black Lagoon's second season was delayed when Geneon USA went under, but the license was eventually picked up by Funimation, allowing us to see it. It feels more or less like the first season did, with a bit of a darker tone and less focus on characters. Considering how I said after the first season that I'd prefer more craziness and less developing personalities, that seems like a good thing, although I can't really say I liked this run a whole lot better. It's still entertaining, violent, and wacky, it just never reaches what I see as the potential for that sort of show, settling into a respectable "Hey, this is pretty good" vibe.

The first storyline of the season is the oddest, with two creepy, androgynous twins causing some trouble for some local gangsters. They seem like something out of another show, filling that insanity quotient well but not really gelling with the rest of the cast. There's another story about counterfeiting and being the target of every hit man in the city, and then the show's longest plot yet as the two leads go to Japan to help with a deal between the Russian mob and the Yakuza. It's likely the most serious the show has gotten, and might be the best subplot they've had, so I'm not sure what exactly it is I want from Black Lagoon after all. A third season is coming, and I'm casually looking forward to what happens next.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Deadwood - Season 3

How about that Barack Obama? It's weird, while the country was making its final decision and getting ready to vote, I was watching Deadwood's third and final season, which featured a running side plot about the camp's elections for sheriff and mayor. They both culminated yesterday, as America elected their first black President in history and the votes were cast in Deadwood's last episode. Unfortunately, there won't be as much closure on the latter. There were plans to finish the series properly with two special movies, but they have yet to come to fruition and at this point probably never will, leaving an actual conclusion to the great show out of reach. Things weren't looking too good either, with the series' meanest villain yet sitting pretty at the expense of the rest of the town.

Overall, the third season was up to par with the first two as far as quality of production and writing. It was more of a departure plotwise, with the newly introduced characters playing a larger role than the new ones from the second season did. I wasn't a big fan of the thread involving a troupe of actors, but they provided a flowery change of pace from the usual hard-drinking rough-talking inhabitants of the place, and George Hearst was a pretty great antagonist most of the way. Race also played a bigger role, as a big dispute erupted over control of the stables. It's just unfortunate that things worked out the way they did, because while it was still good television, it doesn't really feel like it probably would if the creators knew it would be the last of Deadwood that people got to see. It didn't have the chance some other HBO shows got, but it's still one of the better ones.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Futurama: Bender's Game

Bender's Game is the third of four new Futurama movies, and overall the weakest. It's still funny, but not as smart as the other movies and a bit strange structurally. In general, the movies haven't measured up to the quality of the series in its prime, but I saw a good point made recently, that mediocre Futurama is better than no Futurama at all, and I totally agree with that. I think it's a little late in the game for The Lord of the Rings references, but contrary to what they seemed to show in previews, that's only a portion of what goes on in this movie. The first couple movies seemed to do more new stuff with introducing characters and places, but this one mostly shows you stuff you've seen before, if tweaked a bit.

Honestly, the fantasy segment is probably the weakest part of Bender's Game. It starts out with two stories about Bender getting into Dungeons and Dragons with some kids and taking it too far and the crew trying to stop Mom's monopoly on dark matter fuel. There's some good stuff and a surprising amount of character development with Mom's sons, before the two plots converge as everyone gets sucked into an alternate fantasy-style dimension. It's at this point that the jokes get lazy and the story slows down for no particularly good reason at all. The specifics of the dimension shift don't really make sense either, as most people are completely integrated into the different setting and know what's going on but a couple of the main cast act like fish out of water and one even has the same clothes as before. Eventually they return to the original universe and things get resolved. Not a bad movie by any means, just a bit disappointing.

Monday, November 3, 2008

The Young Person's Guide to History

The Young Person's Guide to History was made by the creators of the apparently canceled Saul of the Mole Men and features some familiar faces like Dana Snyder and Tim and Eric. It's a two part, goofy little special that takes some significant events from the early part of the United States' existence and makes some jokes about them. There was evidently an episode of Saul that had a similar idea, and this expands upon that. It's the sort of absurd buffoonery with intentionally-horrible special effects that you've come to expect from Adult Swim's live action output, and is enjoyable on a similar level. The central characters are Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, and the story follows them as we see things like a supercomputer giving Paul Revere the message that the British are coming and Jefferson's period as an aquatic monster that can both talk to and blow up fish with his mind. The truth behind some of the famous moments in history are revealed. Did you know, for instance, that Hamilton and Burr didn't actually duel, but Jefferson shot them both for annoying him? I can see people finding this stuff infantile and moronic, because it is, but that doesn't make it not enjoyable.

Sunday, November 2, 2008


Oldboy is one of the most disturbing films I've seen, but what's impressive is not the depth of its violence or perversions, but how they effectively convey the tone of the story. The tale begins with a man being imprisoned in a room for fifteen years for reasons unknown, and upon release he sets out to discover why. It's a story of revenge, and the impact of the truth just wouldn't be the same if the specifics of the reasoning and methods of retribution weren't as shocking as they are. Another fairly recent movie that affected me with similar high quality of storytelling and force of violence was Pan's Labyrinth, which also happened to be made outside of the United States, in this case by Mexicans instead of Koreans (based on a Japanese comic). I'm not saying Americans can't make movies like this, I just haven't seen it in a while.

The movie is overall just put together very impressively. There are so many moments that stand out as something you wouldn't see elsewhere. There's a pretty significant fight scene partway through that's pretty astounding, from many perspectives. It's entertaining to watch, incredibly complex technically, and enhances the plot in a number of ways. Some of the harsher segments are a bit difficult to watch, although it never becomes explicit for the sake of it like some of the more irritating entries in the horror genre. Every moment has a purpose, and nothing is there just because it's gross. Oh Dae-su is a pretty great main character, a drunk nobody in the beginning, transformed into a badass by his imprisonment, but still prone to breaking down into an emotional mess. It's a really good performance to hang a whole movie on. It wasn't necessary though, with Park's direction sculpting it into a perfect realization of the story's potential. The ending is ambiguous, which seems common in Asian cinema, but not in a way that damages what came before. Really worth checking out.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Of Montreal - Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?

I can't tell how good of a place this is to start listening to Of Montreal. It was a very highly acclaimed album, but was written and recorded almost entirely by Kevin Barnes without the band's help, and is a bit of a departure thematically. In any case, it's a damn good album. It's a bit hard to describe the sound, sort of indie pop with a lot of electronic and psychedelic elements. Barnes' high voice and the catchy choruses belie the dark lyrics, written during a bad time in his life. He's better now, but you can see how it must have affected him. I appreciate that aspect of the album's creation, but the main reason I like it is the music is entertaining to listen to. Yet more proof that I'm turning into an indie dork that will like anything if it's unique.

Being a story of his separation from his wife and descent into depression, there's a clear arc to the album, as it builds towards something and gets more chaotic and surprising later on. Early tracks like "Suffer for Fashion", "Cato as a Pun", and "A Sentence of Sorts in Kongsvinger" feature poppy refrains, nice synth melodies, and some more traditional rock sensibilities. The album climaxes about halfway through with the nearly twelve minute long epic "The Past is a Grotesque Animal", driving constantly forward with a nice bassline and creepy vocal hook as Barnes examines what's happening to him. The song really hit me the first time I heard it on the way home; besides the quality of the song, you can really feel the despair. The rest of the album doesn't seem that different musically, but you get sort of a different vibe as it's more out in the open with the subject matter. There are more frequent moments of odd musical choices, but it seems natural and gives the whole a record a consistent artistic feel. Really something I wish I heard before I chose last year's best albums.