20 February 2010

Shutter Island


The trailers for this movie have been showing for quite a while it seems, and every time I’ve seen them I’ve gotten the impression that it’s a pretty run-of-the-mill horror/thriller thing. I didn’t find out until relatively recently that it’s a Scorcese movie, which got me very confused. Then the reviews started coming in quite favorably. Thus, I decided I must see it. So I did, and it definitely blew the trailers out of the park.

It’s most definitely a psychological thriller. It does however make some attempts to seem like a horror movie at times, with massive crescendos of music in odd places, and slightly disfigured and unsettling minor characters; it’s definitely not what the trailers make it out to be though. There is far more going on in the story than your average thriller. It might be a little predictable for some people but it will keep you second-guessing yourself, I assure you.

Beyond the story it’s really quite a beautiful film, at least at points. There are several excellent dream sequences that just flow with imagination and foreshadowing. The imagery isn’t there just to be pretty like Avatar; it’s definitely there for a good reason. There are a few noticeable flaws in some of the shots though, usually blurry edges that I assume are the product of blue-screen processes. Not a big deal.

The acting is great and the characters are well written, playing just the parts that they need to play. Leonardo DiCaprio did a nice job in the lead role and Gandhi (Ben Kingsley) did a great job as the biggest supporting character.

It’s good stuff.

16 February 2010

Dragon Age: Origins


BioWare have made quite a few great games. I’ve only played a couple of them, namely Mass Effect and this one; but that’s good enough to make me respect the company. I purchased Dragon Age on the merit of Mass Effect and its critical reception. I knew it would be an engrossing, addictive venture, and it was.

This is the first truly traditional RPG I’ve ever played. RPGs are normally in fantasy setting; everything I’ve done up to this point has been more in the sci-fi direction. This one is unquestionably an orthodox fantasy game. You’ve got your warriors, mages, and rogues, a looming evil, dungeons, armies, and epic battles. There’s even the opportunity to have relationships (romantic or otherwise) with pretty much anybody in your party. In that aspect it’s even closer to the books from which this genre gets its material.

The story is pretty cool, if not very original. It’s hard to write an original fantasy story. There is some arch-demon thing leading an army of nasty orcish dudes to destroy everything, and you end up being one of the few people that can kill it. There’s political betrayal, demonic possession, ancient technological evils, and lots of other fun happenings to keep it a little non-linear. Your decisions made in dialogue sequences often affect the story, although usually they have more effect on your party members’ allegiances to you.

Technically speaking, the game is pretty impressive. The character models are very nice to look at, and the animations are very well done. Blood is an integral part of the game in more ways than one; it’s pretty much everywhere. Thus, bloody graphics are given special attention. The environments are varied and anything but flat. There is plenty of opportunity to revisit different locations when quests are completed, often necessary in order to get items that were unattainable before. One thing I quite like is the doing-away of “farming.” There are no respawns of enemies, ever. Once you clear out an area it’s clear, unless the plot necessitates a new batch of baddies. This makes it a little harder to advance your characters but it keeps things from getting dull.

The coolest bit though is the combat system. Since you have a party of up to four, things can get pretty complicated in the issuing of commands and whatnot. The solution is pausing, kind of similar to that in Resident Evil 4; while the game is paused, you can look at the battlefield from any angle, figure out some strategy, and issue commands to anyone in your party. Ignoring this feature is very unwise.

I do have a couple technical gripes. After a few hour of play, the game often got pretty sluggish and used increasingly more RAM. Restarting the game seemed to fix it. Also, near the end of the game I started getting one-hit kills on all base-level enemies. I’m not sure if it’s a bug or a feature though, since I was playing on Easy mode and there were an awful lot of baddies. It just seems kind of cheap.

I played as something of an asshole mage on my first run in order to unlock a specialization for my next playthrough, in which I will be a goody-two shoes. Should be fun!

05 February 2010

Shining - Blackjazz


I just got this in the mail so it’s time to review it, since it’s probably the most amazing thing I’ve heard since the intro to Merriweather Post Pavilion. Make no mistake though, this is nothing like Animal Collective. No sir.

This Shining should not be confused with all the other Shinings. There are a bunch. The most prominent (in my world) are the Swedish band, who play a very depressive sort of black metal. Their album V – Halmstad is amazing. These guys, however, are from Norway, and play pretty spastically complex genre mishmashes primarily composed of metal and jazz, leaning toward the blacker end of the metal spectrum. They’ve put out four albums before this one that I haven’t really paid any attention to because they’re just a bit too eclectic to be entertaining. For this, their fifth full-length, they’ve opted for a much more distilled version of their sound, giving in almost entirely to their metal side. The vocals are more prominent and the riffs are angular and abrasive. Once in a while you’ll hear a saxophone doing completely inhumane things alongside some schizophrenic synthesizers.

This album is a very new beast. I’ve never heard anything like it really; from the first note on my first listen I had a huge smile on my face. This kind of structured discord is really what makes me happy in music; that and the vibrant sound that just makes my ears ring. Some points of interest that might drag the more skeptical into it are a small tribute to Muse in the track “Exit Sun,” and an excellent (in my opinion) cover of “21st Century Schizoid Man” by the legendary King Crimson. I keep reading other people’s thoughts on that cover and few of them seem to like it, but I think it’s a great closer to the album.

Here’s a live performance of “Fisheye”

02 February 2010

Concert Review: BtBaM/Cynic/DTP/StS at Sonar, 2010-02-01

Last night I drove for about an hour and a half to Baltimore to see my all-time favorite musician, Devin Townsend, perform for thirty minutes on a Monday night. It was worth it I think. There were some other bands too, I guess.

Scale the Summit


StS is a young band playing very technical progressive metal, with no vocals. They sound at times like Cynic, Atheist, Pelican, and maybe a little Dream Theater. I hadn't heard any of their stuff before the concert and I most likely won't be pursuing any music of theirs now, but it was an enjoyable set. Like most of the other music performed that night the style was pretty uplifting. The bassist had the busiest fingers I think I've ever seen live, and I've seen John Myung of Dream Theater play three or four times.

Devin Townsend Project


This is of course why I bought the ticket. I first heard Devin's music I think in 2004, my first year of college. At that time I was still an avid Dream Theater fan and not much else, so it took me a while before I started to recognize the genius in there. He's been one of those artists that I have to see before I die, and now the list is one act shorter. A few years ago he said he was never going to perform live again, but he's always running his mouth like that. Unfortunately he's just easing back into it now and only played for about half an hour. Still, it was an half hour of AWESOME. The set started with Disruptr played way heavier than on the record, and proceeded with a few tracks from Terria and I think Infinity, and ended with By Your Command from Ziltoid. The crowd was nuts for the whole set. Devin of course was hilarious, throwing out genitalia jokes left and right and just being generally charismatic.



This band is a legendary act in the progressive metal scene, as they were one of, if not the first, prog death bands. Labeling them at all death metal is quite a stretch though, as the only feature from that genre that they incorporate is a little supportive screech/growling to offset the higher pitched robot-vocals. Other than that their music quite uplifting, dealing with very zen-like themes. Half way through their set, Paul Masvidal led the audience in a short yoga session. Seriously. It was an enjoyable show.

Between the Buried and Me


I've always had a love/hate relationship with BtBaM. I don't like their early stuff much because it's too hardcore, their latest material is too proggy, and their middlin' bits are still plagued by what I consider sub-par growls. I did enjoy Colors for a while but I wore it out pretty quickly. So, as soon as Cynic's set ended I headed for the back of the room. This was partially because I new the mosh pit would be the worst while they played. As expected I enjoyed some bits and was bored for other bits. I left before their last song ended because it was a long trip home and I wanted to beat the rush from the parking lot.

Altogether it was a pretty cool show. I brought my new etymotic earplugs, which I wore for most of Cynic and all of BtBaM's set, so my ears weren't too badly damaged. Sonar is an okay venue; the stage is a bit elevated so most of the time I could see the performers' heads at least, and there was water available in the back which was nice. Parking was free too, which is apparently not very common in Baltimore. It was cool to see the Metal Injection guys there too. I think they’ll be uploading some video footage of the show sometime soon.

01 February 2010

David Lynch's Dune


About eight or so years ago, I got a book for Christmas. It was Frank Herbert's Dune, one of the most celebrated science fiction literary works ever written, but I hadn't heard of it before. I don't remember how long it took before I started reading it, but it was definitely not soon enough. I've since read it probably five or six times. I also read most of the books that followed in the series, but none of them ever grabbed me as much as the first one. It has become my favorite book alongside Ender's Game.

Soon after I read it, I found out there had been a couple film adaptations. I was advised to steer clear of the one from the '80s, and go for the SciFi channel special, which I did. I was great. It's about six hours long and manages to get almost everything from the book into the screenplay. The acting is quite good and the visuals are okay for 2000. I've seen it a few times since then.

Eventually though, I felt the need to try the other one. It turned out to be made by a director who I have grown to respect from other works such as Twin Peaks, The Elephant Man, and Mulholland Drive. It can't be that bad right? WRONG. David Lynch's 1984 attempt at bringing Dune to life is horrible. I suppose some of the awfulness can be attributed to the time it was made, but this is after Star Wars! Apparently Lynch had never heard of the book before he was offered the job (or however that worked), but read it and loved it. I listened to a bit of an interview where he said he didn't remember all of the book afterwards. It shows.

For some idiotic reason, one of the coolest bits, something called "the weirding way," which is described as some sort of superhuman dexterity, was replaced with "weirding modules" that attached to the user's neck and amplified their voices to deadly levels. Not only does it look and sound stupid, it goes against one of the main themes of the book, that of the extinction of technology in favor of human strengths. This is definitely the worst offense, but there are others, like making the Reverend Mothers lose all the hair on the front half of their heads, and making the Harkonnens install "heart plugs" on all of their subordinates. I guess the heart plugs are kind of a neat idea, but it's not in the book and it's not needed at all.

Most of the film is pretty cool visually, if very dated. There are some great painted backdrops here and there. The great worms are almost sort of believable. The fremen's stillsuits are okay. Just so much of it is terrible enough to make me hate it more.

Lynch has said that he wasn't given enough creative freedom, and that's why it sucks. Personally I think he was just a really bad choice for a director; his movies are surreal and disturbing. Dune is a majestic, complex sci-fi epic that requires much more subtle explanation than Lynch is accustomed to giving. If you want to see it done right, get ahold of the SciFi miniseries. It's wonderful. There is supposedly going to be another movie adaptation done by some Pierre guy who claims to have read the book 10 times, so hopefully that will be less of a trainwreck.