Game #10: VVVVVV (2010)

creator: Terry Cavanagh
took me: 3:46
finished on: 31 July

I bought this with the Humble Indie Bundle when it came out recently. No, wait, I bought the Humble Bundle solely on the description of this game alone (and was pleasantly surprised by some of the other games too). It’s a “retro platformer”, in this case literally meaning that it looks like it could have come out of another era of gaming. Each level is one colour and the pixels are large and blocky, and the music is entirely synthesized from beeps and boops. Its defining feature is that instead of jumping, one must reverse or flip gravity and fly up towards the ceiling, avoiding any spikes in the process. In some places, this can result in jumping up and down in a sequence, and it is said that this is one possible origin of the game’s strange name, as it’s the shape that you make as you jump.

And it’s utterly charming, particularly for something that can be quite garish in style. The little character you control is the captain of a ship that gets stranded or something – but there’s something so childlike about his relentless happiness (and occasional sadness) that I didn’t realise that the character wasn’t a baby separated from his parents until several minutes into the game when the dialogue didn’t match with that assumption.

Anyway, it’s also an incredibly difficult game, where fast reflexes get you places. You die all the time, but you come back straight away at a checkpoint, which is probably on the same screen. One of its strengths is that it really explores different possibilities for using the main game mechanic to its full potential, and doesn’t get bogged down in different abilities for the character; it’s a three-buttoned game, basically. There are also objects to interact with like conveyor belts and lasers which make you flip in mid-air. One thing it could maybe have had more of is levels where these different objects are combined; the game is divided into sections which each focus on a new mechanic or object.

But then you get to the optional trinkets, a sort of catch-em-all object that is strewn around the game map, and then you get to the much more difficult challenges. I think the ultimate has to be the section “Veni, Vidi, Vici” (aka “Doing Things the Hard Way”), which takes piss with the no jumping mechanic just a little bit. It’s somewhat foreshadowed by at least one earlier level, but essentially, your trinket is on the opposite side of a waist-high fence, and in order to get to it, you have to fly up a 6-screen long, spike-infested tunnel and back down again (to the only nearby ceiling). I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that I spent about half of the 3 hours of my first playthrough trying to get this one trinket (my death count went up significantly, too, of course, although I didn’t record what it was at the time); and the only way to complete it is to play it so much that it becomes muscle memory. I didn’t have as much trouble replaying it a couple of months later. It’s worth noting that this is one of the few places where the game really becomes arm-gnawingly frustrating. Most of the game is difficult, yes, but because death is so cheap, you don’t notice, as you just come back and try again two seconds later.

Then we come to the music… which is superb. The musician, a Swede known as SoulEye, seems to be some kind of master at taking music written to a limited format such as that of 80s era game music and turning it into something dynamic, fun, catchy and toe-tapping. So good, in fact, that I went and bought the soundtrack from the guy’s website. The music really adds atmosphere to the game, as well; I fear it would feel much blander without it.

For all that is good about VVVVVV, however, it’s frustratingly short, and the original doesn’t come with much replayability value – all you can do once you complete it is replay it upsidedown (topologically the same, of course, so nothing new there, strictly speaking), or do a timetrial, or the frustrating unlockable minigame. Or for the extreme masochists, no-death mode, which I swear must be impossible or something. You can also get trophies for under a certain number of deaths. But it doesn’t feel like much extra.

Fortunately, the game also came with a level editor and a bunch of user-made levels – apparently a brand-new feature that Cavanagh implemented for the HIB version – and new levels have been appearing on the game’s website since the beginning of August. They do vary massively in difficulty, of course; I’m now stuck on a particularly difficult one called 333333. But they do serve to highlight that the original VVVVVV didn’t really scratch the surface of what one can do with the game engine, and a lot of them are, naturally, brilliant. The aforementioned SoulEye even made his own level with two extra tunes in it.

Anyway, it’s definitely the best game that I played out of the HIB. Fast, fun and addictive, and with the addition of the player levels, it has lasting power too.

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Film #23: Lost Highway (1996)

director: David Lynch
language: English
length: 128 minutes
watched on: 24 July

Let this be a lesson to you all: don’t leave it two months to write a review of a film that you were half-asleep while watching anyway. I find it hard enough to follow David Lynch’s films as it is, I have to say, and this was no exception, and I was very tired when I watched it, so I missed bits.

What I remember was good. There was a particularly surreal and comical scene where a gangster jumps out of his car and threatens a guy with a gun for tailgating, or something like that; I liked that. And there was the guy in the picture, whose function in the film I can’t quite remember; I just remember him being creepy as fuck.

Anyway, I’m partly only writing this for completeness, and so that I can get onto meatier topics…

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Book #15
written by: Stieg Larsson
released in: 2005
original language: Swedish
length: 533 pages
finished reading on: 22 July
Film #22
directed by: Niels Arden Oplev
released in: 2009
language: Swedish
length: 152 minutes
watched on: 23 July

aka: Män som hatar kvinnor (“Men who hate women”)

Thought I might try a new layout for this one, seeing as otherwise there’s masses of white space. So the astute among you may notice that I finished reading this book and watched the film adaptation the day after. And the even more astute might then infer that this means that I quite liked the thing. And yeah, it’d be fair to say you’re right. I’ll concentrate on the book first, though.

No, actually, I’ll concentrate on that damn title, which is the biggest amount of bile that I’ll fling at the thing so I may as well get it over early. I don’t fucking blame the author’s widow for hating the fact that the title of the book was changed from the rather imposing “Men who hate women”, which one can only say is unambiguous as to its subject matter, to the infernal English title, which I can only describe as wishy-washy, and liable, importantly, to get mixed up with The Girl with the Pearl Earring – which is a painting and a Colin Firth film… and rather not like this one. So you’ve got people like me at one end, avoiding it because they don’t like that sort of stuff, and you’ve got Colin Firth fans at the other, probably, thinking they’ll get some kind of -ahem- romance. Yeah, right. Basically, I had to be bought the book for Christmas and have it sit on my shelf for six months before I bothered to actually try it. Where am I going with this rant again? Oh yeah, the title of a work is important, people!

I can’t really see why they changed it. It seems to upgrade Lisbeth Salander to unambiguous heroine character rather than one of two main protagonists in this book – and I’d argue that the other one, Mikael Blomkvist, gets a much bigger role in the first book. It upgrades an aspect of her description to something much more important-seeming; in the book it’s a small dragon, and one of many tattoos, while in the film, possibly to keep better with the adopted title, it becomes a veritable work of art covering her back. I can possibly see where they got the idea for the title, because the Swedish title of the sequel The Girl Who Played with Fire really does translate literally as just that, and themed naming seems to be popular with publishers for some very annoying reason (for another international look at this, the German versions are Verblendung, Verdammnis and Vergebung – fucked if I know what they mean, but they’re obviously named on a theme). Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself massively. Back to the first book…

So it’s a crime novel set in Sweden. A crime novel which paints a very realistic world around itself, presumably a portrait of a sadistic Sweden that Larsson knew; rather different, perhaps, from other portrayals of the country, such as Pippi Longstocking or Abba…

Now, if the original title doesn’t give it away (of course, English speakers don’t get that luxury), the statistics about violence against women in Sweden printed before each chapter will probably give you a bit of a sense of foreboding. Yep, it’s a violent book alright, and it comes to a head with a particularly gruesome scene in which our heroine is raped about halfway through the book – although if you didn’t know that already, you’re probably living under a rock or something. She manages to pull a level in badassity in the subsequent scene in which she makes the sadistic bastard pay, however.

That was really the moment that the book really gripped me and wouldn’t let me put it down. Before that, it had been building up very slowly; when Blomkvist was told that he was to investigate the murder and disappearance of the niece of the obsessive businessman Vanger, I knew it was probably going to get good, but I didn’t quite know how much, and it still hadn’t gripped me properly. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, but what with all the hype about it, you’d expect to be gripped on page 1, but it wasn’t like that for me; it was more like page 200 – still half the book to go, but it could have come earlier.

The plot itself is a reasonably standard closed-group crime-scene affair; anyone who could have committed the crime was by a fairly contrived coincidence on the island of Hedeby on the day that it was committed, and because there was a festival, there was plenty of photographic evidence, which is scoured over in detail in the book. Mainly I view it as a contrivance (an exciting contrivance, nonetheless) to bring together the characters of Blomkvist and Salander and get them copulating. And to explore some issues like violence against women and touch on the issue of trafficking of prostitutes (expounded on in greater detail in the sequel), without seeming too preachy, something that the book does very well.

Salander’s own backstory provides plenty of room to explore similar issues – there is of course the scene where she’s “taken advantage of”, but despite the book not giving away very much about her backstory (again, expounded upon in book two), it does paint a picture of a young women very much let down by society and placed into the care of bad men. Evidently, Larsson witnessed a rape of a girl as a teenager, and a lot of the book, and the way he writes Salander, is about his guilt that he never did anything about it.

As for the other characters, I thought they were all brilliant. I loved the way that little details about the background of Salander’s boss Armansky, a fairly minor character, were described fully and without abbreviation. It was things like that that really made the book come alive for me. But, and it’s a fairly big but, there were masses and masses of characters, and I’m a great fan of keeping things simple. This was perhaps compounded by the fact that half of the characters in this book were Vangers. They could be called by their first names, but it did start getting confusing after a while. Helpfully, however, a family tree was provided at the beginning of the book. At the same time, it was only a few characters like Armansky who got a full lowdown by the book, and some other names, particularly of Blomkvist’s colleagues, were mentioned once and then brought back up in more detail many chapters later, leaving me going “who?” a couple of times.

The structure of the book was in parts, which seemed to work for the most part, but the narrative kind of breaks down towards the end, because the main storyline is finished, but there are still loose ends from the beginning of the book to tie up – a story for the magazine that Blomkvist needed to write and Salander was to research for him. It makes for interesting reading, and it was nice to focus on Blomkvist’s magazine Millennium, which had been in the sidelines for most of the book and becomes more important again in the sequel, and it wouldn’t have fit into the second book, but it makes the book suffer from a massive case of Lord of the Rings-style ending fatigue. It’s kind of as if Larsson had forgotten about the plot elements he introduced in the first few chapters and had gone back to them last minute to tie them up again, when he could have just left them out and it’d have worked OK.

Now, the other thing I’m going to complain about in the book’s case is the translation. Apart from the title change, it gets sloppy in places. Presumably to try and create a sense of Swedish atmosphere, it never translates any names out of Swedish. So you get lines such as “at Svenska bork bork bork, the Swedish national television station” rather than just “at the Swedish national television station”. Perhaps it can’t be avoided – in this particular example, it probably had to introduce the acronym or something, which is fair enough. But it manages to wildly fuck up at various other points, like using “Goteborg” instead of the Swedish “Göteborg” or traditional English “Gothenburg”, or in one particularly infuriating example, “the village had a road running through the centre of it, which was naturally called __”, __ being what I presume is the Swedish word for “Main St” or something. I think the translators need to sit back and remind themselves that they have this job to do because we don’t understand Swedish.

Anyway, aside from the assorted complaints, brilliant book which should be read by everyone. Now onto the film… I’ll try and keep it short!

As I mentioned earlier, I watched this straight after reading the book, so I got a fairly good impression of all the bits they’d cut out – quite a lot, with a dense book like this. Essentially, it was pared down to the basic plot of the murder mystery and the various plotlines involving Salander; the fact that Blomkvist goes to prison, which is a big deal in the book, and the epilogue section where they tie up all the loose ends, and his magazine job and lover Erika Berger, are now mere footnotes. They still solve the mystery, but by a less convoluted route.

I thought they did a very good job, all things considered. The book is dense, but not nearly as dense as the later ones. Noomi Rapace is pretty much perfect as Salander – she carries herself in exactly the right way and has that petite look which is appropriate for the character, while Blomkvist’s actor is evidently a very famous man in Sweden and gets all the major acting jobs like this one – and he’s quite deserving of it, too.

The details beyond that would be nitpicking and it’s been a while since I watched the movie, so I can’t add much more than that. However, I will say that I did get very pissed off at it when it gave away what was essentially a spoiler for the second book near the end. It is a spoiler, about Salander’s mercilessly hidden backstory, that gets revealed fairly early in the second book, but a spoiler nonetheless. Grr.

But again, worth watching, and worth reading. Definitely worth it.

Film #21: 9 Dead Gay Guys (2002)

directed by: Lab Ky Mo
language: English
length: 80 minutes
watched on: 14 July

Apparently this movie was universally panned by critics when it was released. I quite liked it, although I thought the acting was a bit terrible, and the premise was a bit naff (probably the best word for it), and the production values were a bit low. I certainly wasn’t offended by it, which I think was a criticism regularly levelled at it.

The characters, which is ultimately the aspect which this film is going to prop itself up with, were funny, I thought (if badly acted a lot of the time), although it is true that every single one of them is one crude stereotype or another. The DVD extras say that they were all based on a weird story that the director was told by mates in the pub… not sure how much of that I believe, but I think some of the ideas in there are quite funny, like the “discreet” Jewish guy who loves massive cock, or the Indian taxi driver with a foreskin problem (his nickname is Knobcheese), desperate for a blowjob that he’ll never get.

The premise is just a bit silly; it’s basically two Irish guys prostituting themselves to gay guys for a bit of easy cash, leading into a convoluted gambit plot involving the Jewish guy’s legendary money. A lot of it’s very predictable, of course, even aside from the obvious hint given away in the title of the movie – like one of the guys coming to a “realisation of his own” halfway through the movie. Essentially, it’s a movie that should be taken light-heartedly, because if you take it too seriously, you’ll probably just get angry at how stereotypical and awful it can be. I’d say, take it or leave it. Quite funny but not hilarious.

Film #20: Tampopo (1985)

aka: タンポポ
director: Jūzō Itami
language: Japanese
length: 114 minutes
watched on: 7 July

This was a delight of a film. It was advertised as a “Noodle Western”, which I thought was just a lame pun on “Spaghetti Western” implying that it was a Western made by the Japanese, but actually, it was a film about noodles that heavily used the conventions and tropes of the Western genre. In fact, more than just noodles, it was about Japanese food culture in general. It was also delightfully surreal at times. I’m getting hungry just thinking about it.

The main plot of the story involves a woman trying to be successful at running a local ramen bar. She enlists the help of a behatted stranger who shows up in a lorry one day, some kind of lone ranger. The list of supporting characters gradually grows over the course of the movie, and they’re all weird and cool in their own special ways.

Over the course of the movie, the cowboy character has to fight off various obstacles in a typical Western style, culminating in a really quite strange substitute for a shoot-out of two men decking it out underneath a busy highway on an industrial estate, while he forever pushes the woman further on her voyage of discovery.

Or something. While the story is interesting, in some ways, what actually made this film stand out were the numerous vinaigrettes (“vignettes” seemed a bit inappropriate for a film about food, so out come the malapropisms!), which each surround an aspect of food culture in Japan. They pop into the story occasionally to break it up into chunks.

Some of the more memorable ones include a young intern who humiliates his older superiors by knowing loads more about French cuisine in an expensive restaurant (a massive faux pas, I hear), followed shortly by a woman trying desperately to teach her class of young, impressionable débutante type girls that one should eat spaghetti without slurping, only to be foiled by a fat American slurping loudly at the next table – of course, seeing this they don’t believe her and they all start slurping loudly in imitation. Later we see a woman on her deathbed who just manages to summon the strength to cook for her husband and children – presumably, it’s all she does all day – before dropping dead in front of them. Morbid black humour by this point, of course.

Then, in one of the funniest scenes of the movie, we see two massive food fetishists going at it like bunnies – the bit where they pass an eggyolk from one’s mouth to the other’s goes from being almost understandable to downright bizarre after they keep doing it for more than a minute…

That’s not to say that the vinaigrettes were the only good thing about the film. I already mentioned the characters of the main storyline – one memorable introduction halfway through the film, for instance, was an old man who stubbornly refuses to follow the instructions of his minder when eating – she only wanted to prevent him from choking, and, of course, he chokes. And there are some great scenes where the two main characters are snooping around trying to steal ramen preparation techniques and recipes from their main competitors; evocative of the Western genre but keeping that air of slight ridiculousness.

I thought it was a great movie, essentially. It’s certainly funny, and it explores the various themes surrounding food – its consumption, its preparation and the social mores concerning it – well, without getting too boring. Definitely worth a watch.

Most importantly for me, perhaps, was the fact that watching this rekindled my interest in specifically Japanese food and film culture – a month or two later and I’ve done an interview and been offered a job in Japan to start next year, having realised that somewhere else, such as Korea or China, would be a bad idea when I know so comparatively little about it, and that I’ll regret it if I don’t end up going to Japan. It’s also just the other little things, like listening to the Japanese soundtrack to the movie and realising that I can actually understand isolated bits and pieces of the language (although annoyingly, it’s mostly the grammatical markers, and even then, only a few of them). Compare this to Korean or Chinese, of which I understand zero, and I think I’m making a wise choice in sticking with Japan…

Man, I’m hungry now.

Film #19: Happy Together (1997)

aka: 春光乍洩 / 春光乍泄 / Ceon1 gwong1 za3 sit3 / Chūn guāng zhà xiè
director: Wong Kar-wai
language: Cantonese with some Spanish, English, Mandarin
length: 94 minutes
watched on: 6 July 2011

This is a tale of two gay guys from Hong Kong who go to the other side of the world in Argentina for a new life. But then everything goes wrong and they have an on-off relationship for the rest of the film.

It’s a fairly typical Wong Kar-wai affair, with long brooding shots and a slight surreal overtone. Most of the film is shot in claustrophobic darkness, with only a few shots truly taking advantage of the scenery that Argentina has to offer; of course, one is expected to focus on the characters in this particular plot. They’re good characters, although the film hasn’t stayed with me enough after two months – all I remember is the “main” one who’s more sensible and the boyfriend who’s more reckless and violent.

Overall, I quite liked it, although it was essentially about quite a depressing subject matter as the two men try and work out their differences to no avail, and often fight together. The title in that sense is quite ironic. It’s quite a bittersweet ending.

It’s also interesting at this point to look back at the date of release of the film and note that (presumably) the filmmakers were trying to escape a Hong Kong that was in a period of uncertainty. And we could easily make a metaphor about that and the relationship of the characters…

Film #18: Oldboy (2003)

aka: 올드보이 (Oldeuboi)
director: Park Chan-wook
language: Korean
length: 115 minutes
watched on: 28 Jun

I think this may be the second or third Park Chan-wook film that I’ve seen. I think I quite like them in general. This is essentially a romp of stylised violence and people doing impossible things that culminates in an incredibly confusing twist ending. I didn’t fully understand it until after the film had finished, if I’m honest. I must have got distracted.

That’s basically it; I can’t think of much else to say about the film. I saw it as completely ridiculous… the whole conspiracy, prison, espionage thing coupled with the over-the-top revenge motive. Probably most interesting was seeing how the guy reacts after he leaves his prison cell for the first time in 15 years, to a changed world.

The twist ending, something to do with hypnosis if I remember rightly, is something that I think was intended to make one want to watch the film again, but I didn’t feel that desire. It just wasn’t quite good enough for that. Oh well, it’s a decent enough action thriller.

I think at the point when I watched this I was still thinking of going to Korea to teach. That ship has since sailed – while this does show me a few good things about the country (besides the violence of the movie itself), I think I just got to worrying that I wouldn’t be able to speak the language, which I don’t know a single word of, while I at least have a few words of Japanese to start me off. It was especially obvious to me after watching this and seeing a Japanese film a week later that I was at least able to glean some meaning from, besides that which I was given by the subtitles. Actually, overall it’s probably just that I would much rather go to Japan than Korea. Anyway, Japan is the current plan… but it’s not till next year.

Film #17: The Broken Hearts Club (2000)

by: Greg Berlanti
in: English
for: 91 mins
on: 26 Jun

This film apparently has the ridiculous subtitle “A Romantic Comedy” appended to its perfectly reasonable title. Like we can’t tell that or something. Like a lot of gay-themed movies, its purpose seems to be more reaching out to closeted folk to let them know that life is alright and you can have lots of friends, or a tale of the Power of Friendship, but doesn’t have much substance beyond that; at the end of the day, all the characters in this film are massive stereotypes, often fitting neatly into one subculture or another.

I don’t remember anything particularly interesting happening in the film until the last quarter of an hour, where hospitals become involved as people start dying or overdosing. There’s a romance which plays out in a very inevitable way right from the first scene in which the very cute love interest is revealed (first he’s unavailable, then he becomes available, then they fall out, etc), and that’s OK to watch, but the rest of the film seems to be all the young characters moaning about how awful their life is and how unattractive they all are (or in the worst case, how they’re having far too much casual sex), and yet I really just wanted to scream at them through my screen – it’s not that bad, you’re all attractive (or at least reasonable) and you live in fucking California, lighten up!

The film also suffers from having too many characters, and trying to focus on too many of them at once… but at the end of the day, the only reason I watched it was to see Zach Braff with bleached hair playing a gay guy. The idea amused me. So overall, boring, but not a complete waste of time, especially at 90 minutes, which is an excusable length for a film…

Film #16: Watchmen (2009)

director: Zack Snyder
language: English
length: 155 minutes (2:35)
watched on: 25 Jun

I think this was quite a good adaptation work. It seemed to get all the characters looking right, and I couldn’t think of any gaping plot holes that it had left – indeed, I’d probably say that it managed to pare down the plot of the book to a good extent, because the book was chock-full of stuff that wasn’t quite relevant to the plot and was more to give flavour of the world which the characters inhabit.

Of course, I’m no comic book fan, and I’m sure there are plenty of them out there decrying the film – it’s rule #1 of adaptations, after all. I enjoyed it, anyway.

Just a couple of complaints: it’s a bit long for essentially an action film, although it’s obviously based on the comic book and there’s not much they can do about the volume of material in the book even when they cut bits out.

Then there’s the Bad Guy character – I just felt a slight annoyance when there was a throwaway visual gag that implied he was gay, and it was almost as if they meant to emasculate him by doing it. (I think it was implied in the book too, but more subtly)

Any other complaints I had about the film will be ones that I had about the book, too; I think the major one for me again was Mars, where they look up into the sky to see the very picturesque scene of Phobos and Deimos hanging in the sky like our very own moon, big enough to see and with phases and everything – whereas in real life, they would look like tiny stars racing across the sky. And Phobos would be going backwards. Kinda hit my suspension of disbelief somewhat.

Also, that entire sequence is a bit annoying; I don’t really get the Dr Manhattan character – I can very well believe that he’s the supernatural equivalent of autistic, but he’s supposed to be able to see into the future. That said, the story does have some kind of midichlorians or something to make him unable to see the future. I didn’t quite get that, either… it was always a bit too much techno mumbo jumbo.

Anyway, good adaptation. Not sure what else to say about it really.

Film #15: Just Friends? (2009)

aka: Chingusai? / 친구사이?
directed by: Kim Jho Kwang-Soo
length: 29 minutes
language: Korean
watched on: 24/Jun

An interesting short gay film… unlike many other films out there, it doesn’t waste any time on much build-up or anything like that and gets fairly straight to the point, since it’s only half an hour long, but it gets its fair share of angst in there alright.

Basically, the main character visits his boyfriend in the army; they go home but run into his mother, who insists that the “friend” stay for tea; there’s a storm or something, so he can’t go home and must stay the night in the same bed as the mother and son; they start to have sex the next morning while the mother is out but then she walks in on them; then angst angst goddamn bloody angst and stereotypical vapid nonsense. Maybe I’m just privileged having never really had trouble with being gay, but I understand that this film was quite controversial in Korea, and it certainly highlights some challenges that gay guys face there… and yet I don’t really get it. It doesn’t speak to me in the same way that it probably would to a young gay guy in Korea watching it. And thus I kind of can see it’s important, but for me it was just a bit rubbish.

Acting was as wooden as a stick, too. Cute guys, though, shame it wasn’t a porno and they didn’t actually go through with the sexy bit.

Anyway, at half an hour it’s not like I wasted my life on it. Interesting look at Korean attitudes towards gays, anyway – ie they don’t seem to be much fond of them.