Film #94: Austin Powers in Goldmember (2002)

vlcsnap00003gadirector: Jay Roach
language: English and some Japanese
length: 94 minutes
watched on: 3 October 2013

Again, wanted to round off the series. I’m not as familiar with this as the other ones, because I never had it on video when I was younger, basically. My first impression when watching it this time was that there were a lot of celebrities doing cameos compared with previous efforts. The opening scene is actually one of the best in the film, with a movie directed by Spielberg about Austin Powers, starring Tom Cruise, Kevin Spacey, Gwyneth Paltrow and Danny DeVito. I’d almost like to see some more of it just for giggles.

In this movie Austin has to go back to the 1970s to fetch Foxxy Cleopatra, apparently an ex-girlfriend of his, played by Beyoncé (singing 2000s R&B music in the 1970s? Go figure), and find Goldmember, who is evil and likes to turn people’s penises into gold, and is the fourth character played by Mike Myers. He’s also a bit of a racist caricature of Dutch people (not that we particularly stereotype them in the UK really), and caused a bit of an outcry over there, which is probably fair because he’s a pretty disgusting character, just like Fat Bastard. Actually I can’t really remember why he did this, but I think it was to do with his father going missing or something? I found Nigel Powers to be a bit of an unwelcome addition to the series, to be honest, because he does the Austin Powers stereotypes much better than Mike Myers can, and really steals the scene and makes you realise how bad Myers is in the role.

Scott Evil also departs from character in a big way, as does Dr Evil himself to some extent and Mini-Me too, and it left me feeling that there weren’t enough of Dr Evil’s dysfunctional family scenes, because the dynamic has completely changed.

Then the movie changes settings and heads to Japan. I can’t really complain as much about this, because the intent was never to realistically depict Japan, like “The Wolverine” at least implicitly purports to do, but it starts out with a shot of Los Angeles with Mount Fuji pasted in in the background, looming over the city like it really doesn’t in reality (you can see it on a clear day on the horizon, looming over other mountains but not the city). Fuji was in practically every shot depicting the outdoors. Again I can’t complain too much because the Japanese are at least as guilty of this kind of depiction. Japanese language dialogue was used mainly for a gag involving subtitles, but for me it was interesting to try and understand it now that I’ve almost been here for two years.

It’s not quite as good as I remember, but not really so bad. I heard there might be a 4th film, so I’d be interested to see what they do with that, because they’ve already pretty much deconstructed most of the characters by the end of the film. We’ll see.


Film #93: Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (1999)

austin powers 2director: Jay Roach
language: English
length: 91 minutes
watched on: 1 October 2013

An old favourite from my childhood which I decided to watch again recently. I think I watched the first one of the series last year, and the next two have been sitting in my movies folder waiting to be watched ever since.

Unfortunately I actually didn’t find it that funny this time around. Although I used to love characters like Fat Bastard when I was a teenager, now I’m just offended by him on more than one count (making fun of Scottish and fat people).

However, Dr Evil’s scenes were the funniest, as I’ve thought in the past, and I particularly like Mini-Me, even now. I also still have a soft-spot for the penis-shaped spaceship gag. But now I firmly think the first movie was the best, and the next two are just fodder.

TV: The IT Crowd Special (2013)

hqdefault1creator: Graham Linehan
language: English and some Chinese
length: 48 minutes
watched on: 1 October 2013

I found out about this special-length episode when someone spoiled one of the jokes on tumblr, which is a shame. I think it’s their last episode, in lieu of making another series, but it was double the length of a normal episode.

It was kinda funny in general but had lost the spark of the earlier series overall. Many of the jokes were callbacks and injokes from the previous series, the actors clearly revelling in being able to tell them one last time.

The plot devices were about as nonsensical as they’d ever been, to be honest, but the way their viral video becomes so big was unrealistic to me, more than I’d expect even for this show. In some ways there were almost too many of these, as if they need to streamline it a bit more than they did.

Overall, fine, but since the episode was double length I think I’d have liked to see the characters interact more with each other rather than splitting off into two substories very early on. They do interact, but they do more in the set pairs than across to the other pair, if that makes sense. Glad they did this special, anyway.

TV: Breaking Bad Season 6 (2013)

Screen-shot-2013-09-16-at-8.55.27-AMcreator: Vince Gilligan
language: English
length: 8 episodes of 45-55 minutes each
finished on: 30 September 2013

I think this is usually billed as the second half of season 5, but I think that’s stupid, because season 5 was started last year. Perhaps it’s because they were shot at the same time or something. But in that case they should have released it last year with the rest of the season… and not keep us waiting around for a year to find out what happened.

I was hooked on the last season, whatever it’s called. In this season (spoiler alert) Hank finally finds out about Walt and starts to hunt him down. It’s missing a lot of the features that made the early episodes great, like the relationship between Walt and Jesse, but it also contains all the most hard-hitting episodes of the series, climaxing in the third-to-last episode, where everything really happens. The last two episodes felt like a coda or an epilogue, resolving all the loose ends. It ended on a bittersweet note, basically fulfilling everything that fans wanted from the series. I don’t think they had to do this, but it worked out well.

Some loose ends weren’t quite finished: Huell and Brock are the main two characters people feel have been left hanging. A lot more of it is left to the viewer to fill in the details. They were pretty minor, though. Apparently Saul will get a spinoff series, so we can maybe look forward to that.

Great, though. I like how it really became a talking point in its last few weeks. Now it’s finished and everyone has to find other things to watch, sadly. Let’s hope to see more great things from these creators.

Film #92: The Wolverine (2013)

The Wolverinedirector: James Mangold
language: English and some Japanese
length: 126 minutes
watched on: 25 September 2013
aka: “Wolverine Samurai” in Japan

A perfectly passable action movie about Wolverine (although I thought we already had one of those). I went there with a friend last month, but we didn’t realise that the film would be set in Japan until we got in there. Unfortunately for the film, this in effect meant that we laughed at the inconsistencies, and various things that didn’t match with our version of reality. Spoiler alert: it wasn’t good enough for these things to be minor.

Basically the film played like a tourist’s guidebook to Japan, and not necessarily a particularly favorable one. Like tourist versions of Paris that include the Eiffel Tower in every shot, Tokyo Tower was included in every shot as the only internationally recognized Tokyo landmark (which makes me wonder why they haven’t heard of the Skytree or the Rainbow Bridge). A lot of the scenes were actually shot in Sydney – not so obvious at first, but some scenes looked inexplicably off in the details. One major early scene was shot in a mixture of the Zojoji temple near Tokyo Tower and a similar landmark in Sydney.

Geography was thus rather a mess: I counted the characters running from there to a briefly-glimpsed on-location shot in Takadanobaba (at least 7 kilometres) to Ueno station (another 6-7 km) in barely 2 minutes. It’s like, movies are allowed to cut out extraneous time, but it was too quick. Later in the movie they drive back into Tokyo over a mountain and get a very clear view of the city with Tokyo Tower taking prominence over any other landmarks – anyone who’s seen the city can tell you it’s much more spread out than that, and if you drive over the mountains to enter the city, the skyline, mostly of Shinjuku, is barely a blip on the horizon, if you can even see it through the haze, and Tokyo Tower is surrounded by other skyscrapers, which is what necessitated building the Skytree in the first place.

Many of the unrealistic parts came in the form of the way the Japanese characters talk in the movie: many of them are obsessed with the idea of honour and their fluency in English is slightly too perfect to be realistic. The family structure, albeit one of a high ranking criminal family, didn’t seem familiar, and their house was a huge antiquated building of the kind that precious few live in in Tokyo. Yeah they’re meant to be rich, and Wolverine needs space to have a fight scene, but it’s still jarring.

The Shinkansen scene was also a point of contention for me: Wolverine manages to get on the train without a ticket, or without knowing where it’s going, and calls it the Bullet Train to reinforce the tourist guide book impression. Then he manages to get onto the roof of the train to fight some yakuza (somehow the girl doesn’t believe him when he says they’re yakuza – like “how did you know they were yakuza?” Well duh.), somehow not falling off in the process, but the weirdest thing here is that the entire train ride is through a claustrophobic cityscape, with buildings at close quarters on either side, and the train doesn’t go through any tunnels or anything. Moments later they’re getting off at Osaka without any sense that they had gone between two cities.

So I should probably leave aside the Japan parts because I could rant all day about that without getting anywhere. In terms of the film’s X-Men roots, it refers back to the death of Wolverine’s girlfriend a lot – she appears in his dreams to chastise him a lot. It took me a while to figure out where in the saga it fits, because his earlier film was a prequel, but this follows on from the 3rd movie. He’s one of only about three mutants in the movie, though. One Japanese girl can apparently tell when or how people will die, and there’s an evil girl called Viper or something who acts like a snake and spits poison in people’s eyes. I kinda felt it didn’t take enough opportunities to make use of the mutant gimmick. It’d be nice to see how mutants are treated in Japan, for instance. Instead, Wolverine is treated fairly normally, except by his enemies who try and sap his power.

One of the problems that I think a film about Wolverine will always face is that Wolverine is essentially immortal and very difficult to harm due to an unbreakable skeleton and superhuman healing power. The power-sapping in this film was an attempt to remedy that, so that he’s temporarily mortal – but somehow you knew all along that he would bounce back and regain his strength. Predictable.

I enjoyed it overall, as an action movie whose premise of “Wolverine beats people up” was fulfilled, but the inconsistencies distracted me, the plot was meaningless and confusing, and the characters didn’t develop at all during the course of the movie, at least as I can see. Wolverine remains a stoic and disinterested hunk of muscle. Of course, that was the other saving grace of the film: Hugh Jackman spends most of it with his top off.

TV: QI – Series “J”

hqdefaultcreator: John Lloyd
language: English
length: 16 episodes, 45 minutes each
finished on: 23 September 2013

I feel like I should just disregard what the BBC says is their “J” series of QI, because the last episode was only released last month, rather than with the other ones around the beginning of this year, and only a week before the first “K” series episode. Why do I care, though? I’m slowly beginning to dislike QI through overexposure: I got into the habit of using it as a sleeping aid a few years ago and now I feel like I’ve had enough of it. I don’t know what else to use, though. Maybe I’d be fine without it?

Anyway, the “J” series was more of the same. Nothing special. It’s still funny and interesting to watch new ones.

Film #91: Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)

HowlsMovingCastleSophieSteeringaka: ハウルの動く城 (Hauru no ugoku shiro)
director: Hayao Miyazaki
language: Japanese
length: 115 minutes
watched on: 22 September 2013

I’ve been slowly rewatching the Ghibli movies and decided to watch Howl’s Moving Castle last month. The last time I watched it was about five years ago, and I’d mostly forgotten what happens during the movie except the broadest of details.

It’s an adaptation of the novel by Diana Wynne Jones, which I haven’t read. It’s set in a pseudo-Europe in which the most powerful people are witches and wizards, as far as I can tell. The title character, Howl, is one such wizard, and as can be predicted, he lives in a moving castle. The castle also acts as a kind of teleporter, and has several alternative exits in various cities.

The main character is Sophie, who starts as a young woman but is bewitched by the wicked witch to be old and frail. Ironically, this sets her free from some of her insecurities, as she takes on not only the looks, but also the carefree attitude of the oldest of women. She runs away and meets Howl, and then they have to try and defeat… uh… someone. Maybe the witch who controls the king or something like that.

Towards the end of the movie I started becoming disengaged with it, losing track of the plot and dozing off a bit, which I think basically sums up my general feeling about the movie: not Miyazaki’s best. I think this might be one of the ones which would be better in the book, although I don’t know for sure. There were just a little too many plot strands and minor characters to keep track of, many of whom weren’t fleshed out fully. In the background to the story there is a war on, but I can’t remember what the war was meant to be about.

In general I think the other Ghibli films are better. This is certainly alright – I suppose overall I did like it – and it fits the Ghibli mold very well, but it wasn’t as fulfilling as some of the other movies. I think Ghibli’s original stories tend to be better than their adaptations: that might be it, anyway.

Game #25: Fez (2012)

fez-ss01creator: Phil Fish
language: English
number of levels: 64
time it took me to complete: 9 and a half hours
finished on: 15 September 2013

Fez was one of the games featured in “Indie Game: The Movie”, and I think I noted at the time that it’d been out for Windows and Xbox for a while already, and that it was probably only a matter of time before it’d be featured in the Humble Bundle (and hence, for the Mac so that I can play it). It wasn’t even that long, in the end. Humble Bundle 9 came out last month, so I bought it and started playing Fez (and a couple of the others, but as with all the bundles, I’m usually only attracted to one or two games out of the bunch and this time it was this one).

Fez is very colourful and upbeat, for the most part. Its premise is fairly simple and yet unintuitive: you originally start out in a 2D platformer world, but that lasts for only one level before you gain the ability to turn the now-3D world on its axis. But when you do, it settles back into the shape of a 2D level (perspective doesn’t exist, apparently), and you can now, for instance, walk straight across gaps that were there before you swivelled 90°. The gameplay stays 2D, however.

The story isn’t dwelt upon much – you are given the power to turn the world by a giant cube, which takes the form of a fez on the main character’s head, but then the game “crashes” in a style reminiscent of level 256 of Pacman, and the cube shatters, spreading its fragments around the extended world, which is itself cool because it’s non-linear and you can play in any order. Then you’re accompanyed by a thing called “Dot”, which is actually a 4D tesseract (or hypercube) gently turning in a confusing manner. It gives you advice as you travel round, but it tended to be a bit useless, not remembering half of what it’s supposed to tell you. Still, its style is amusing in a simple way, and it tended to be worth reading it.

When in the 2D mode, the game harks back to the 8-bit era, as so many of its contemporary brethren also do, and it’s one of the most evocative uses of that style of graphics that I’ve seen in a while, especially combined with its soundtrack. It’s a very detailed world in general, and I really enjoyed playing the game, trying to find out all the little secrets.

A lot of the puzzles required you to put clues together, or make a logical leap of some kind. Many of these were fun, in their way, but equally many were simply frustrating. Most of the frustrating ones weren’t compulsory, as the prize was one of the “negative cubes”, although you need them for 100% completion and to get into the final level. The game includes a counting system and writing system, usually written in the Japanese vertical style, although it’s a cypher alphabet that consists of 24 letters (conflating K/Q and U/V) made of four shapes in four rotations. Many obelisks and pillars are strewn around with this kind of lettering. There is a place to learn the cyphers for each one – although I missed both of them and ended up looking them up online – the alphabet is taught through a pillar with a famous pangram on it, and I hadn’t noticed the fox or the dog nearby essentially telling you that’s what it said. There’s also a code which you use to input a key sequence with the game controls, which I managed to work out myself but didn’t get the other key to the code which was that you usually had to tilt your head to the side to use it.

Anyway, many of the higher difficulty levels in the game fall squarely in the “dick move” camp of game design. One level had four timers, one which would tick around once every minute, giving you a short window to grab a cube… but the others ticked around once every hour, day and week. The hour one is almost doable – it’s certainly not as bad as the star in Braid that required you to leave the game running for two hours – but I will be very surprised if anyone actually came back several days later to get the longest timer, instead of doing what I did, which was to temporarily reset my system clock. Another of the latest levels was originally solved by the online community by brute force – literally listing all the possible combinations and trying them until one worked. An obscure solution which made use of the release date was later found, but I just found that comical when I heard it. Basically no-one had any patience for it.

A review of Fez wouldn’t be complete without mentioning its developer, Phil Fish. He was featured in “Indie Game: The Movie”, although I didn’t mention him when I wrote my review of that movie. Fish, as he was portrayed in the movie, is an insufferable perfectionist, and doesn’t respond well to criticism. Recently, he’s famously called off the production of Fez 2 and left the video games industry, apparently because someone insulted him on Twitter (although it’s probably just the straw that broke the camel’s back, to be fair). He received a lot of flak because he was in development for so long… and this led to a lot of whining from both sides. I feel sorry for him, but I also thought he was intensely unlikable… so it goes both ways, I guess.

It’s a shame there’ll be no Fez 2, and no level editor for Fez 1 (although I imagine it would be very difficult to make), because my other criticism of Fez, although it is a very rich game, is that it could have happily gone on a lot longer. I definitely recommend it to any platform game fans.