Cinema Sins: Godzilla 2014

And this is pretty much exactly what was going through Rob’s head as he watched this film…

Star Wars Rebels Premiers!

This past weekend, the new CGI animated series Star Wars:REBELS premiered on the Disney XD app with the first two episodes strung together into a “movie” (which is all of 43 minutes long…). It’s basically the story of how Aladdin comes to join the crew of The Firefly and…err…I mean how EZRA comes to join the crew of the GHOST and fight against the evil oppressive Empire. I wish I was joking, but ever since someone online referred to Ezra as Aladdin, I can’t not see him as Aladdin in space, they even refer to him as a “street rat” during the episode, like they want us to make the connection or something.

As first episode stories go, it’s a confused mess of bad tactics and jumps in logic mixed with lots of action, which means it’s pretty typical and not bad. I’d actually say it’s a better first episode than Clone Wars had, and Clone Wars turned out to be pretty fun series, so I have some hopes for this one. (Having the same creative team from Clone Wars mixed with the creative team for Young Justice gives me extra hope.) On the downside, the core story looks to be another Jedi-Padawan training story, but that can’t be helped since Jedi sell toys and without the Jedi the Star Wars universe is pretty a pretty generic Sci-Fi setting.

I’ll keep watching to see where this one goes. It has real potential, and I trust the people in charge, so it could be a good ride. Rebels premiers on regular TV next week, and with this and the final season of Legend of Korra starting next weekend (officially) it looks like I’m going to have some good weekend TV to look forward to each week!

Rob

Batman: Assault on Arkham

I just finished watched the new DC animated “movie” Assault on Arkham, and I have to say that to date it’s probably the best of the direct to video animated films DC has done. This might be because the main character, despite the title, is actually Deadshot (who is leading the Suicide Squad) not Batman. Batman is more of a presence/antagonist to the main characters, and this provides a nice change-up of the usual roles that makes the story kind’ve refreshing.

This is also the most “adult” of the movies they’ve done, which is probably meant to be in line with the “New 52” dark and dirty philosophy, and there’s a fair amount of sex and graphic violence in this one as well. (Perfectly in keeping with “villains” being the lead characters.) I’m generally not a fan of this new “darker” DC approach, but in this case it actually works for the story, so I’ll give it a pass. The story itself is full of odd holes and logic gaps, but that’s par for the course for these DC movies, and they’re not as bad as some of the other movies they’ve done. (Batman: Son of the Demon was so stupid I had to turn it off halfway through because I couldn’t take it anymore.) In fact, the only real complaint(s) I have about this movie are Batman’s costume (which is this weird half-armored thing) and the fact Batman has pupils, which bugged me a lot every time they showed them.

And hey, Kevin Conroy is back as Batman! C.C. Pounder is Amanda Waller (who is the real Waller, not an anemic model like the New 52 version) and hearing the two of them spar off against each other really is like old times. That alone made the watch worth it for a Batman:TAS series fan like me!

Rob

Skritter

Hello, my name is Rob, and I’m an iPhone addict. No, I’m not addicted to Farmville, Angry Birds, Candy Crush, or any of the other hyper-addictive Apps that have come out for the iPhone. I managed to avoid all of those handily because I had no interest in wasting my time or money on something so pointless as those tricky games. I admit, I even considered myself better for not falling into those time-sucking traps and laughed quietly to myself at the people who did. But then, I found the most diabolical iPhone App I’ve ever seen, one that is now the first thing I do in the morning, and the last thing I do at night. I have dreams about this App now, and find my fingers twitching in patterns from playing the App. When I’m cooking or doing housework, I think about the App. I even learned how to play one-handed so that I could play with my poor dogs while I play with the App. I am hopelessly and totally addicted. So, what did this App do that none of the others did? How did it burrow so deeply into my brain that I can no longer even keep track of time? Those bastards made it educational! They made it fun to LEARN! God help me, I’m actually learning useful real-world skills, and I’m loving it. So what is this sick App? It’s called Skritter, and it’s a program to help people learn to write Chinese and Japanese. Available originally as a website in 2009, and now for iPhone and iPad as well, Skritter is an extremely advanced piece of Spaced Repetition Software (SRS) similar to Memrise (which I blogged about last week). In fact, it was while I was talking online to other Chinese learners about Memrise that I learned about Skritter and decided to check it out. Like Memrise, Skritter is quizzing you on decks of what are essentially Flashcards in an extremely advanced way that maximizes your chances of remembering the information you learn based on new neural research developments. Unlike Memrise, however, Skritter also includes a physical element where you don’t just have to recognise the Japanese and Chinese words and characters, you have to actually write them out.This really maximizes your chances of learning these characters, and makes it a lot more practical (since you’re developing motor skills for writing) and just plain old fun. Skritter’s iPhone app is lively, with sound effects and other extras to make it more like a game, and instead of learning being boring, you always want to do just one more character or word to see how far you can go. The knowledge that you’re learning real skills while you’re playing what feels like a game really helps push you forward, and maybe that’s why my chart for my first week with Skritter looks like this…

Week One

Week One

Yes, you’re reading that right, as of this screen capture I’d learned 406 characters, in a week, in a little less than 2 hours a day with a retention rate of 88.9%. However, before I toot my own horn too much, I should note that this isn’t my first time studying Chinese, and when you see that big jump between the 9th and the 12th, what you’re seeing is mostly Skritter refreshing me on characters I already knew to some degree. You could say that my real learning started on the 12th at around 370 and continued to the 16th at 406, so I only learned and mastered 36 new Chinese characters in 4 days. Still, not too bad, though. And that’s just characters, it doesn’t include actual words using combinations of those characters. (I learned 160 of those.) I love checking my stats each day to see how far I’ve progressed and testing myself to see what new words have managed to stick into my head. Getting back on the Chinese studying bandwagon was one of my projects for the Summer, and thanks to Skritter it’s now taken a huge leap forward. Now, if you choose to check Skritter out, I have a few recommendations.

  • When you sign up use a Referral Code (here’s mine), it gets you two extra weeks free. For better or worse, Skritter isn’t free, after the first trial week it costs US$8-$15 a month depending on how long you sign up for. That said, the program doesn’t stop working if you stop paying, it only stops adding new characters, so you can keep practising your current lineup for the rest of your life for free if you want, or pay for another month from time to time to add more content and then stop again.
  • My advice is to just do the free one-week trial, then if you like it do a month, and finally if it’s really something you want to invest in then get a longer subscription. View it as a language class you’re signing up for, not like a normal App. This is a life-long investment of time and knowledge. Viewed this way, the price of a single meal at McDonalds isn’t that much.
  • It’s best used on a Tablet Computer, Writing Tablet or Phone, since you want the real hand motion involved and not a mouse so you’re really learning to write the characters. I also recommend getting a Stylus of some kind so that it’s like you’re practising with an actual pen or brush. (You can also make your own stylus, and there are plenty of YouTube videos which will show you how.)
  • Don’t freak out or get intimidated when you see a large backlog of characters waiting to be reviewed. I’ve cleared away as many as 500 items in less than an hour, and if you feel overwhelmed it has various options to slow down the flow so you don’t get swamped.
  • Don’t be afraid to let the App guide you when you meet a new character. (Just tap the middle of the screen for the next stroke.) Yes, it means you don’t know it (duh! it’s new!) but it’s not about scoring points (since there are none), it’s about having the App repeat it often until you do know it, and if it doesn’t know you don’t know it, it can’t give you the right amount of repetition for your memory.
  • You’ll hate tones, we all do, just do your best.
  • You can’t share a Skritter account with another person. It’s customizing itself to your own personal learning patterns and what you know and don’t know. If you try to share it with someone else for any length of time it will mess up your own learning.
  • If you’re going to Taiwan or Hong Kong, then study Traditional Chinese characters, if you’re going to the Mainland, study Simplified. Skritter defaults to Simplified because China itself is the more likely place learners will go. You can also go back and learn Traditional or Simplified later once you’ve mastered one set. (Roughly 20% of the characters are different between the two writing systems.)
  • Skritter is a writing and vocabulary learning system, but they don’t teach grammar or  give you speaking practice (beyond repeating what you hear), you can’t really learn Chinese (or Japanese) just from Skritter, you’ll need other resources like a textbook or classes. However, it does make it easier to focus on grammar when you’re learning if you already know all the vocabulary in your textbook!
  • You can try the iPhone App free for a week through the iTunes App Store without creating an account or using any kind of credit card. (Be warned, any coupons or referrals can only be used when you first create your account!) I’ve heard the Android App is still under development, but you can use the mobile website on Android devices if you have an account.

The future of learning is all about Gamification (making learning into games), and if Skritter is any example, it’s going to be a great time to learn new skills! Now, if you’ll excuse me, my fingers are getting twitchy and I’ve got some Chinese characters calling to me! Rob

Memrise This!

A year or so I found a site called Memrise, which is basically a really advanced memorization card system for helping you memorize stuff. I puttered around with the Mandarin course they had on there, found their system so-so and promptly forgot about the site.

Then in May of this year I happened across the App for it on the iTunes store (it’s also available on the Google Play store) and decided to give it another whirl. It’s free, and so are the courses, so I selected the Introductory Chinese deck they had on there and began to use my phone to study Chinese hanzi characters.

To say I was blown away was an understatement.

Suddenly, I was not only learning Chinese, I was actually remembering what I learned and it was sticking like it had never stuck before. Memrise’s system of testing is amazing at helping you remember what you’re learning, and I have to say I’m a true believer! The learning itself uses several different methods to help you remember whatever the information is, most of which are fun or at least enjoyable, and then the system also comes back and has you review the material you’ve learned on a semi-regular basis to reinforce it at key intervals to improve retention. Pile onto that an interactive community-based approach to learning where people trade memorization tips and can have memory competitions, and it’s a whole new way to learn.

To date, I have learned 1076 items, most of them since the start of May, and I can say I easily remember 80-90% of them very well. Today I finished Level One of the Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi (HSK) Chinese proficiency test vocabulary, and I can say with confidence  I could write the actual test tomorrow and pass by a wide margin. I couldn’t wait to start Level 2 of the HSK, which has just over 1200 items itself (a single item in this case is the Chinese character and its Pinyin pronunciation guide, so that’s really 600 words in Chinese, not 1200) and am already at Level 8 of 54.

All this in little chunks of 5-10 minutes, 2-3 times a day when I have spare time. Each level is broken down into smaller “lesson” chunks that can be finished in a few minutes, so it’s easy to just do them on your phone when you’re waiting for something or someone. When you need to refresh your memory of older material, your phone will also notify you, which is handy, since there are certain key learning times. It’s easy, convenient, and most of all, it’s actually fun, especially when you find yourself really remembering the material and being able to call it up at will.

Now that I’ve gushed about Memrise as a tool, I should put in a few comments as someone who’s been using it for a few months. First, the App version for your phone or tablet (see the video above) is way better for learning that the actual website itself, the website turns the learning into a timed pressure game, whereas the App version uses a series of more fun visual learning exercises. Second, not all Memrise decks are created equal, as most of them are made by the users themselves by borrowing material from textbooks or other sources, so you have to hunt around for the best decks. I recommend sorting the decks by Popularity, since the most popular decks tend to be the highest quality ones. (And are often ones made by the Memrise staff or employees like Ben Whatley, who made the amazing Mandarin ones!)

And finally, Memrise is a place for memorizing rote material, not advanced concepts like grammar. So, for example, I’m learning vocabulary, and only Mandarin vocabulary, I have to go elsewhere for grammar or dialogues. This is a great way to build up large amounts of knowledge, but Memrise isn’t there to help you use it, just remember it. This isn’t a flaw, it’s simply what Memrise is designed to do, and if you need more helpful resources you can ask about them or discuss them with other learners in the forums that go along with each learning deck.

Overall, Memrise is a great example of using gamification (making things into a game) to make learning easier and more effective, and I can only wish we had something like this years ago when I was studying Japanese in University or French in High School. If you’ve got something you want to learn, check Memrise out, it’s free (for now) and is a lot more productive use of your time than playing Angry Birds or Candy Crush, but just as fun!

Rob

Movie Review: Detroit 9000

Detroit 9000 should have been called “70’s Detroit Action Flick- The Movie” or perhaps “Detroit Cops of the 70’s- The Movie”, either way it’s an odd and unique little time capsule of a film. At it’s core, it’s a simple cop drama about police detectives trying to find the culprits behind a major robbery and a black cop and a white cop trying to get along in a service where even the police force seems divided along racial lines. However, there is nothing simple about this film.

The only way I can describe this movie is this- imagine if a millionaire (it was 1973) with almost no film experience decided to hire a top-knotch production team to help him film his dream movie about the cops of his home town- Detroit. He wrote the film himself, and filled it with local actors of highly variable quality, and then had this professional crew help them make it into a movie. That may not be what happened, but my god, it sure feels like it’s what happened when you watch this film.

The director, the editor, the sound people, the costumers, and pretty much everyone else knew how to take what was likely a medium-ish budget and make something really solid out of it. The problem is, the film they were making was horribly written and had some of the worst and most awkward dialog you’ve ever heard. The core structure of the film is okay, which keeps it watchable, but the dialog needs to be heard to be believed. You literally never know what awkward racist line going to come out of people’s mouths next, and most of the minor parts seem to be played by people who have never acted in their lives, so that makes it even worse!

The trailer above plays it as a Blaxploitation flick, but that isn’t quite accurate. It’s not so much an exploitation flick about black culture as a police/crime film that happens to have mostly a black cast. Which is good, actually, because that’s one of the things that keeps it interesting- watching the interplay between the black and white characters and seeing how they interrelate to each other as people and professionals. If anything, the movie is mostly colorblind (it treats all races, genders, classes and even sexualities as just normal people, despite the racist dialog), which I think was what the guy who wrote it had in mind- a movie about the people of Detroit just trying to get along despite the things that divided them.

So would I say I liked the film? I’m not sure I’d go that far. As I said at the beginning, it’s an odd and unique film. It’s an action movie about the people (and especially the police) of Detroit, made by the people of Detroit for the people of the city of Detroit of that time. As someone who lived in Windsor for a few years, and has a bit of an interest in Detroit as a city and its history and culture, I found it a fascinating little time capsule of a period after the white people had mostly gone, but before the middle-class black community had completely disintegrated. However, as a film, it’s so wildly uneven I don’t know whether I would actually tell anyone else to watch it unless you really just enjoy this kind of thing and are willing to appreciate it in its own unique context.

 

Godzilla 2014

My first Godzilla movie was Godzilla vs. Megalon. I was seven, and caught it while turning the dial one way on the 13” TV we had. There, on that small screen, was the biggest, coolest monster that I’d ever seen, and even seeing him in those modest circumstances didn’t blunt the power of the King of the Monsters.

I was in love.

And it would be a lifelong love affair, one that would see me glued to the TV every Saturday afternoon when Superhost or Channel 43’s Weekend Movie would run one of a dozen Godzilla films or anything else that had a giant monster in it. Godzilla was as important a part of my childhood as Star Trek, Star Wars, or Spiderman, and to call him one of my idols wouldn’t be an exaggeration. I even created a crude stick-figure comic about a guy who could transform into Godzilla and battle evil monsters to save the world. (Little did I know guys turning into monstrous superheroes was a Japanese standard even then, and I never got to see Ultraman until I was in my twenties.)

So yeah, I was (and am) a Godzilla fan.

As you might expect, I was super excited to finally see a proper American Godzilla film that didn’t star a giant iguana, and was waiting with baited breath for its release in hopes that this would be the giant monster film I’d always wanted to see. After last year’s Pacific Rim, I was especially hopeful based on how well that film had handled Kaiju (even if they sucked at marketing it) and when I saw the Godzilla trailers, any skepticism turned into outright enthusiasm. This was going to be THE Godzilla film (besides the 1953 original), I was sure of it, and wasted no time in rushing to the theatre today to check it out.

So, did it live up to my expectations?

Yes, and no.

I’d argue Godzilla is really two films, and the half which actually stars the King of the Monsters is indeed amazing and a worthy tribute to the name. The problem is, it’s paired with another completely lackluster human story that is right up there with watching paint dry and the clock tick during the last five minutes of class.

(mild spoilers from this point on)

So, here’s the thing. When you write a story, you have this little thing called a Plot Arc. It’s a writing term for the journey your character goes on, and the changes the lead character(s) experience in their lives as they go through that journey. Watching them go on that journey and undergo that change is what makes a story fulfilling and interesting to a viewer. This story can be mental, physical, emotional or spiritual, but it’s essential to making a compelling story that the audience wants to watch.

The problem with the human story in Godzilla is that the Plot Arc of the human characters isn’t an Arc, or a hill, it’s a straight desert road leading from A to B with few gentle curves, much less a hill or even a corner. The human characters are literally just there to stand around and watch events happen, and the only character who is actually trying to go on a personal journey dies about twenty minutes in. I mean they literally kill the only guy with a goal or plot or anything to prove twenty or so minutes into a 123 minute film. After that, the only ones on a journey are the monsters, not the humans.

In theory, the lead character Lt. Ford Brody (yeah, they named the lead after Harrison Ford and Sherriff Brody from JAWS), has a shit tonne of goals and things to deal with. He loses his father (who everyone thought was nuts), he’s trying to get back to his family, he’s trying to rescue his wife, and he has every reason to want that fricken MUTO dead! He’s got so much to prove and do that he could fill a couple films worth of story.

And they do nothing with it. Not a thing.

  • Father dead? (Oh well.)
  • Everyone thought Dad was nut? (Doesn’t matter.)
  • Family? (I guess I’ll get back.)
  • Rescue wife? (He sorta tries to find her, but puts his army stuff first.)
  • Kill the MUTO? (He doesn’t seem to care much either way; he’s pretty much the antithesis of Ahab, actually.)

So instead of a driven lead who’s just trying to get through the worst days of his life, we get a guy who’s so calm he makes the Dalai Lama look like Jim Carey. Seriously, this guy literally just walks through the film, and shows very little emotion or concern. He does what he needs to do in the situations where he needs to do stuff, and then continues on little a little toy robot.

They couldn’t make a more boring lead if they tried, and the actor they have playing him doesn’t add anything to the story. Hell, he makes me long for Shia LaBoef’s character from the Transformer films, and I hated that character, but he at least WANTED something.

Almost (but not quite) every scene in that film with Ford Brody, or his wife, or his kid, was a waste of the audience’s time. He’s like a piece of the plot that just wanders through the film to give us a viewpoint, and he’s so wooden I’m shocked his wife didn’t get splinters during the romantic scenes. Oh, and speaking of his wife, she has no arc or wants either (except to see her husband), nor do any of the other characters. Even Dr. Serizawa isn’t trying to prove anything- he knows about Godzilla, and the MUTOS, and is pretty much there for just narration.

Nobody in this film wants anything, except to stop the monsters, but they stop themselves, and would have done so just fine without the humans lifting a finger. So why exactly are the people there at all?

Here’s the thing. If you removed Ford Brody from 90% of the scenes he’s in, this film wouldn’t change, and might very well improve due to getting to the point faster.That alone tells you how well written the film is.

And this, is why I say there are two films here.

There is an amazing spectacle of a giant monster film with fantastic visuals and exciting action, and there is a leaden weight of a human story about a guy travelling from A to B who just happens to be everywhere where important stuff is going on- just ‘cause he’s the middle of the plot.

I loved the Godzilla half of the film, they did an amazing job of giving Godzilla Delux (as the Japanese are calling him due to his sudden weight gain) real presence, and wish there was more of it. It’s the tacked-on ultra-boring Ford Brody GI Joe story that left me cold. (Hell, he’s even carrying around a GI Joe figure, in case we missed the reference! Subtle, guys!)

3/5 Stars (and only because the Godzilla stuff is so awesome)

If you want to see some fantastic giant monster films, and haven’t see them, go check out the Shusuke Kaneko’s Gamera Trilogy from the 1990’s. This film borrowed a lot of its approach to monster stuff from those films, but forgot to import the humanity that made them so endearing. Too bad. Big G will always be my favorite monster, but Gamera sadly has the better films.

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House of Lies

I just started to watch House of Lies on Netflix (Canada), and I have to say the writing is so sharp I think I cut myself on the remote. This (Hard) R-rated comedy about consulting packs a hour’s worth of show into half that time, and the episodes I’ve seen so far are just so solidly done I can’t believe I missed this gem. The dialogue, the story structure, the characterization, the acting, the gratuitous sex- I think I’m in love!

Oh, and it’s damn funny too. My hat’s off to whoever writes this thing. It’s my new Breakfast television!

Rob

Review: Tucker & Dale vs. Evil

So, I just watched Tucker and Dale vs. Evil– a deconstructionist horror/comedy in the same vein as The Cabin in the Woods. This is not to say that it’s as good as Cabin, which I’d argue is actually a masterpiece, but it tries to cover some similar territory. The basic premise is that two scruffy but likeable hillbillies are being terrorized by a typical bunch of college kids who think the hillbillies are psycho killers due to a series of misunderstandings. It’s meant to be a tongue-in-cheek reversal of the typical college kids are hunted by crazy rednecks movie, and is played more for laughs than horror.

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It’s a cute movie, with a nice premise, but if I had to use a word to describe it, I’d use the word “timid”.  I know that’s an odd word to describe a horror movie, so let me explain by giving an example of an early scene in the film. (minor spoiler, but it won’t ruin much)

There’s a scene early on where Dale and Earl are driving along in their truck and drinking beer. They spot a cop behind them with its lights on, and Earl (who is driving) fumbles his beer, trying to figure out where to stash it and spills it all over himself. Dale, being the nice guy he is, leans over from the passenger seat to try and clean it up, but his shirt collar gets stuck on Earl’s belt, and so his head is stuck bobbing in Earl’s lap as Earl pulls over for the cop.

What we have here is the classic awkward humor shot of the cop walking up to find one redneck who looks like he’s getting oral sex from his buddy. A nice uncomfortable situation for everyone involved, and some nice squirming humor for the audience, right?

Nope.

As they pull over, Dale unbuttons/rips open his shirt and sits up, bare-chested. The cop never sees the implied oral sex, and while there are suggested gay humor overtones to their conversation, it doesn’t actually amount to anything. No squirming humor, just a mildly amusing situation.

And the whole movie is like this.

They spend the whole film almost doing something neat with a character or situation, but almost always pull away at the last moment to give us something cute instead of actually pushing it to make us laugh or squirm. This is especially weird since there’s a scene of a classic horror movie massacre (historical flashback) that’s quite gory and almost over the top, but it’s one of the only things in the movie that is. The two rednecks aren’t quite rednecks, the college kids aren’t quite college self-absorbed or jerks, and the whole thing feels like a collection of neat ideas that they just didn’t take to the next level.

I guess that’s why I’m writing this. The whole film to me felt like a missed opportunity. If they’d just been more over-the-top with it and pushed things a bit more, it could have been a great film, but as it is, it’s just a cute one.

I rated it 3/5 on Netflix, and I’d say that’s just the right rating for it. If you’re in the mood, it’s a fun watch, but don’t expect it to quite live up to its premise.

Review- Dredd

While some of my closest friends are Judge Dredd aficionados, I am merely a casual fan of Dredd and his world. As such, I wasn’t really hung up on accuracy or continuity when I saw Stallone’s Judge Dredd film, or the current film Dredd. As a result, I didn’t hate Stallone’s take on it as much as they did, but I didn’t especially like it either, as it was an over broad and not especially well written film.

In fact, about the only baggage I had going into watching Dredd this weekend was that I watched The Raid earlier this year, which is a film with a very similar premise. I admit, like many people, I viewed Dredd through the eyes of it being a Raid knock-off, which might be part of the reason I took so long to watch the film, despite being curious about it. (As it turns out, Dredd went into production before The Raid did, and came out after it because of bad luck, so the films are the result of parallel development rather than one film copying another.)

In any case, despite its over-the-top violence and occasional flaws, I really enjoyed Dredd. It’s a solid and entertaining film that didn’t get as much attention as it deserved, and it will be a shame if it doesn’t get a sequel. (Which it likely won’t, due to poor box-office.) Yes, it could have upped the dark-humor quotient a little more, but I thought overall it was pretty balanced and well thought-out. About the only thing that bugged me was that it really made the judges look massively outnumbered and almost impotent in the face of trying to control Megacity One’s crime. Maybe that’s accurate for the comic, I’m not sure.

Also, I don’t think Karl Urban has the chin for Dredd. But he does have the attitude and his voice does convey menace pretty well…

But I’d have to say I enjoyed it, and give it a thumbs up. 🙂

Rob

P.S. 138 is the number, in case you were wondering.