Lego Batman: The Movie – DC Super Heroes Unite (2013)

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If this movie has shown me anything, it’s that Lego Batman is a dick, whether it’s in this more canonical version or his less canonical appearance in the Awesome Lego movie. Here he’s not a complete jerk, but his reaction to Superman’s honest Can I help you?-attitude comes of as less than mature. Plot-wise this story seems to take inspirations from a couple of comic stories, though I’m not sure it’s actually a direct adaptation of anything.

Lex Luthor has teamed up with the Joker to get elected as president, hoping that using Joker’s mind-controlling gas will help with all the votes. This has forced Batman to team up (reluctantly) with Superman and try to stop them. Honestly, the plot is thin, but serviceable and it keeps the action going. It’s not like anyone is watching this for the plot or deep characterization anyway. It’s because we want to see DC superheroes as Lego figures and in a DC universe entirely made of Lego bricks and some mayhem and action along the way, and in this regard the movie absolutely delivers.

Lego DC Comics: Batman Be-Leaguered (2014)
A 20 minute short that is mostly an excuse for Batman to visit the various Lego versions of the heroes of the Justice League and fight together with them against some of their more known enemies and finally to get Batman to join the League. Has either the most annoying or the most fun and meta super-villain of Batman’s villain gallery (depending on how much you can take camp and general weirdness over the usual Batman grim’n gritty).

Ghost in the Shell: SAC 2nd GIG (2004-2005)

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2nd season of the Ghost in the Shell TV-series that deployed the same heady mix of philosophical musings and political intrigue as the first season. Again, another social emergent meme is at the core of the narrative (which also seems to have no real origin, just like with the Laughing Man case), though deeply interlinked with a powerplay of old-school hardliners who want to strengthen ties between the Japanese and the American government and those who rather would not. Most of the major players think they know what’s going on, often not realizing that they are just a pawn in a deeper game.

The emergent meme thing and the connected philosophical musings about human nature were just, as in the first series a bit too wordy for its own good, with lots of talking but often lacking anything to tell. It’s an extreme show don’t tell approach, by way of exposition-heavy seemingly pointless drivel (what they are telling you is not what they are telling you, clever but tedious) and it often makes for very long, boring scenes that contain few nuggets of real information among all the noise. And since the second season has worse pacing than the first, that’s not a good combination.

There are lots of interesting ideas and concepts, though nothing really mind-blowing. One bigger theme is that the environment that is shaping humans, both on the individual and group-level, has changed drastically with the dawn of cyberspace (basically next generation, virtual reality internet), yet most humans aren’t even aware how distinct that change is as they lack the perspective and/or means to really see the big picture. One of the players in the series has a two-layered game of revolution going, with the base layer taking place in the real world but hiding inside a deeper game where lots of human are forced to upload their minds into cyberspace, go through a forced evolution and basically become transhumans who see cyberspace for what it really is.

It’s a bit on the naive side and the overall concept is not very well thought-through (though this could be a matter of the anime just not giving the viewers enough information), but it’s at least more interesting than the whole emergent social meme with no real origin thing both seasons had going on.

Overall I appreciate what the season was trying to do, but I found the delivery seriously lacking. The first season had just the right mix of individual and overarching-plot-related episodes that I was easily drawn into it. The 2nd season felt just like one long slog from start to finish with fewer episodes that dived into the personalities of the characters while the pointless drivel-talking was ramped up a notch or two. Still worth seeing, but to a much lesser extend than the first season.

The Voynich Hotel (2006-2015)

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Three volume manga that is pretty hard to categorize or summarize. It has a lot of fantasy elements (ghosts, witches, demons) and one science fictional one (an utterly useless police robot), but it’s not exactly fantasy or science fiction either. It’s about a hotel on a small island, where bizarre and weird stuff happens daily, yet most people act rather indifferent despite knowing how strange all this is. They take it in stride and go on with their lives (or as is often the case, their afterlife).

The main plot arc is about three witch sisters who got destroyed by European invaders and how one of the three survived to the present day (alive, her other sisters are still sort of around) and now works in the hotel and gets closer to one of the guest, who is former yakuza guy and run away with all of his boss’ money. Nearly every character has a crazy backstory like that and often the more fantastical elements seem like the most mundane aspect of them.

Despite having a main story arc, the romance angle between the witch sister and the former yakuza (though this is overstating things as the romantic aspect is downplayed in favor of situational comedy and the other stuff that is going on 99% of the time), the entire plot is often side-tracked, e.g. into a murder spree and a gang of youngsters trying to solve the crime (as well as the above mentioned police robot making fun of the robot cop cliche), into a demon creating his competitive hotel, a female trio of drug dealers, the assassination attempts of the former yakuza guy and so on.

A lot of the individual plot elements seem like running gags that went out of hand, a lot of the individual characters arcs intersect with each other and when they do usual hilarity and mayhem ensues. It’s overstaffed, overstuffed and most of the time just plain bonkers. But it’s also a lot of fun.

The Secret of Kells (2009)

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The Secret of Kells left me vaguely unsatisfied, as it seems a movie that doesn’t knows which of two major stories it wants to tell: the story of a boy who meets a magical wood sprite and of an ancient threat deep in the woods that both of them can only confront together or the story of the creation of the Book of Kells. And when the plot about the Book of Kells becomes the main thrust of the story toward the end, it feels like the movie has settled on the less interesting path plotwise.

There is one major reason to watch the movie and even enjoy, despite the weak plot, which is the animation style. It’s entirely different from any major animated movie from the US or Asia and reminiscent of some of the small short animated movies you can see on European animation festivals sometimes. Its utterly charming and beautiful too look at and it makes its characters and the setting coming alive despite the flaws of the movie. It can’t completely negate the weakness of the plotting, but it’s a very good reason to overlook it and just watch it for the gorgeous art alone.

The Book of Life (2014)

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I’m not entirely against framing devices when it comes to stories, but there has to be a good reason to include them. Point in case the Book of Life, which starts in the present with a group of school misfits on a museum trip getting a special lesson about an old mexican story that turns out to be the true core of the movie. An utterly generic setup concerning a bet between two gods of the underworld about whom of two boys a girl would marry when grown up, the aggressive action hero type or the sensitive musician.

It’s not that the movie is without charm, far from it, (I don’t think I’ve seen a major animated movie using Mexico folklore as a setting and with an art direction vaguely reminiscent of Mexican pop culture and with characters modelled after carved puppets) and once the hero enters the underworld it really gets good despite the unoriginal setup. But even after seeing the entire movie I still see no reason why they didn’t start with that story from the get-go and instead used an utterly pointless framing sequence that adds nothing other than a few minutes playtime.

Through the Woods (2014)

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This a collection of five beautifully drawn and written horror stories by Emily Carroll that subscribe to the school of horror that is rather sparse on the horrifying itself and more on the evocative side, though some of the details you glimpse are enough if you have an overactive imagination. Most of the stories boil down to a normal person discovering something that is not quite normal until things get so far that they themselves fall prey to it and are either devoured or transformed.

To me most of the stories feel like a big cock tease, I prefer my horror more hands on, not stopping when it gets good but showing the transformation when all humanity is stripped away or the monster gets to eat his fill. Not that I’m a full-on gorehound, but I prefer to see the horror happen in detail, even if I have to admit that’s actually harder to still keep horrifying than leaving it to the imagination.

That said, one of the stories was actually a nice reversion on the other stories, where the victim managed to get the upper hand and utterly scare the monster. That story also had some more than usual detail, showing the monster in all its beautiful ugliness.

Redline (2009)

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Every medium has its own unique strength and the one thing film can capture much better than any other is motion, especially speed. Redline, a 2009 anime about a no-hold barrels futuristic race where everybody can shoot everybody and some comic-villains are out to get them all is light on characterization but its commitment to style (ridiculous, exaggerated style) and extreme speeds makes it easy to forgive any of its shortcomings. Redline knows what it wants to be, which is fast, extreme, pure, distilled entertainment and everyone in the movie is committed to that agenda.

This is not a movie for overthinking, but to lean back and just enjoy the race and the slowly mounting mass-destruction (the comic-villains are a nation of cyborgs who love order and especially don’t want any of the other galactic powers to see the secret, illegal weapons they are working on, and the race just so happens to take place on their world against their stated wishes). The movie even manages to squeeze in a romantic angle between the two POV drivers that despite it’s rather limited space and the lacking characterizations is not detrimental to the rest of the movie (it helps that both drivers exude style, just like the rest of the movie).

Plain crazy at times, but the good kind of crazy.

Don’t Move (2013)

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Don’t Move reminds me of a guy telling a joke, and starting to explain it when nobody laughs. And then somebody stops him, “Yeah, we get it, it’s just not funny.” I’m not sure how to best describe the game (and I use the moniker game lightly here). It’s one of those experimental, high concept thingies that is less game and more someone being a smart ass, but sadly not in an enjoyable way. It’s an achievement simulator where all you can do is press left or right and see your character die an endless number of deaths, while unlocking various logical and sometimes less logical achievements, each bringing you closer to the finish line.

Even at the low price this thing is selling, it still feels like you’ve wasted time you could have used better otherwise.

The evil thing is, once you’ve started, you wonder if it gets better somehow, killing your character endlessly in the hope that something interesting turns up. But it really doesn’t. Quiet a good analogy for how achievements in general string you along with stupid tasks, but I wish the game had managed that in a way that is less boring (free flash games Upgrade Complete 1 and 2 manage to make the same point without being as boring).

Escape from the Underworld (2010)

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The graphics from Escape from the Underworld look at first sight like someone did them in Paint, but considering that this was done for a game jam on a short deadline, its understandable. They are crude, but effective and while not exactly nice looking, never actually hamper the gameplay itself. The game is a bonafida example of the metroidvania genre: explore a free roam-able world, collect power-ups and items to open new passages and so forth.

Not exactly original, even the power-ups you’ve seen elsewhere (thought the angel wings and the laser sword are somewhat less common than double jump or other power-ups), but the gameplay is solid. The controls, especially the jumping seems a bit wonky initially, but is easy to get used (other games have it far worse, here it’s just not as tight as in the best examples of the genre). I definitely had fun playing it, and since Escape from the Underworld is on the shorter side, the game never outstays its welcome.

Also, those who have played Banov’s phenomenal jRPG Phantasmaburbia will realize that this is sort of a prequel for it.

Xeodrifter (2014)

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Retro-styled metroidvania that is one of the purest expressions of the form I’ve seen for some time. Explore four different planets, find new power-ups and backtrack all over the map to use these new power-ups to get into previously shut-off parts of these levels. It’s a bit on the short side (I think I played it through in three or four hours, and I didn’t exactly speed through), but otherwise it’s highly enjoyable due to the mix of excellent graphics (while it references other similar games, it does find its own style very fast and doesn’t just feel like a copy-cat), tight controls and the ever-escalating boss battles (re-skin of the same boss over and over again, but different and especially more challenging attack pattern each time).

It’s a game slimmed down to the essentials, but in this case it doesn’t so much feel like bare bone and instead like a highly potent cocktail of the best that metroidvania games have to offer without any extraneous fat to artificially extent playtime.