Review — The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

(Sorry for the late post! Busy week!)

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) is an interesting movie. It explores the lives of three men struggling to get by in America circa the 1920s. It’s a gritty film about greed and its power of corruption.

As far as genre goes, it’s very hard to place. I wouldn’t immediately classify it as a western, for example. It is set “on the frontier”, has gunfights, and features thematic elements of “civilization versus nature”. But there is no lawful sheriff-type hero, and the movie is much more about inner and intrapersonal conflict rather than about external political or territorial disputes. In fact, I would argue that this movie has no hero, as the only two “good people” are not proactive at all, merely reactive.

But at the same time, I would say this movie identifies most as a western. There is no mystery, little suspense, no easily identifiable antagonist, and an admittedly predictable plot.

To be honest, I didn’t like the film at all. It had a cool adventure element of the main characters going out into the wilderness on their quest for gold, but it proved early on that their quest was not a significant plot thread. It had a few scenes of action; a short train scene of robbers assaulting a train and later when the characters fight off the same bandits, but this was also clearly not a focus of the movie. The plot didn’t revolve around them attacking the bandits or a raid on the local town, for example. The movie had little mystery, as it was obvious that as soon as mistrust was foreshadowed, the camaraderie of the group would deteriorate by the end. At the same time, though, this specific element isn’t specific enough to tie it to a specific genre.

So it’s difficult to pin down. It clearly has strong “western” leanings, but it pulls away from that in the fact that there really is no hero. The first character established in the movie solidified in my head as “the protagonist” (even though it was more of a Three Musketeers situation), so when he was the one that was consumed by greed, I was frustrated as a viewer because I felt betrayed. I wasn’t sure who I was supposed to be rooting for, because he was given so much attention it felt strange to root for anyone else.

The whole movie felt unsatisfying in that it seemed to be half-finished. Every subplot it introduced was either resolved too quickly or given so little attention it seemed out of place. What’s worse, the main plot of searching for gold, figuring out the logistics of transporting it, and the devolution of trust, was uninteresting to me, so I was actively searching for something new to grab my attention, but everything the movie brought up seemed arbitrary or half-explored.

Watching movies that are obviously classics and being extremely disappointed with what it turns out to be is always strange. I suppose it’s safe to assume that in cases like this, cliche things that happen are because that movie established the cliche, so at the time it was made it was revolutionary. I’ve found that in such cases, these things don’t tend to age well.

Review — Grand Budapest Hotel

Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) is an interesting film for a number of reasons. I admit that as I was watching it, I thought it was much older than a 2014 release, which shows how little I keep up with the film industry. I also had no idea it was a comedy, so when funny things started happening it was a welcome surprise.

I think that one of the most interesting choices made in this movie is the fact that the form if its narration has several layers. This isn’t simply a guy talking about a hotel. This is (to my admittedly limited understanding) the last writings of a famous author, who spoke directly to the last owner of the hotel, who has an amazing story to tell about what it was like in its prime. This many layers of distance adds a layer of mysticism to the entire concept of what the hotel “is”, implying that any story to come of it would have to be amazing. It does somewhat retract from its accessibility, as this many flashbacks makes it hard to understand which characters/plot threads are actually important, but this is dispelled once the narrative of the busboy is introduced and the movie sticks to it.

Another amazing thing that this movie does is play with the color palette. The different scenes in this movie all play important roles in what they mean for the plot, such as the whites, pinks, and reds of the Budapest Hotel, or the dark greys and blacks of the prison. Anderson uses these sets and color palettes to mirror the mood of both the scene and the characters, and I would go so far as to say that he uses this to imply that Agatha and Zero are meant for each other, because the bakery Agatha works at is also characterized by pinks, when most of the other major sets are contrast from the setting of the Hotel.

Grand Budapest Hotel also uses lots of cutting, especially during heavy action, to keep the pacing of the scenes. This is not a heist movie, so when something akin to a heist happens, they don’t bother to explain to the audience what the plan is, they just show the plan in action with lots of cutting and edits to make this scene happen quickly. Since this is a comedy movie, it also allows ample opportunity for humor.

It’s important to note that while emotion is not the focus of this movie, Anderson does a great job at slowing the pacing when he wants the audience to feel some, such as Zero watching Gustave insult the soldiers for daring to touch his busboy, or later when Zero confides his past in Gustave. These lapses in the pacing of the scene never last long enough for the audience to breathe and think “Oh, this movie is really hitting at something here”, but instead are meant to slow us down and remind us that, while this movie is funny, these people are normal and well-rounded, not caricatures. This raises the stakes and increases the verisimilitude of the character’s actions.

I thought this movie was a load of fun, and it’s a nice movie to sit down, relax, and have fun with, though it certainly deserves its R rating.

Review — Black Panther

This review is going to be super casual because I’m super tired and I saw this movie like two weeks ago. In all honesty, I usually review things within a few days, so all the concrete stuff and details I would have had to talk about has already left my brain. Plus, I’m not a big fan of reviewing current stuff because I can’t do it justice without spoiling it, but I also hate spoiling things if it is current. So read on without worry. No spoilers here.

So, obviously, you have to see this movie because it’s pretty much as awesome as everyone says it is. It’s your typical fun Marvel movie with all the humor and cool action stuff you’d expect, but Black Panther has had some of the best emotional scenes I’ve experienced in any movie in recent memory. With as well made as those scenes were, it’s hard to pinpoint it down to one reason, but if I had to pick one thing, there is just some stellar acting.

Now, I’d never consider myself a big Marvel person. I have (relatively) no interest in the comics, and apart from playing some games (such as Marvel: Ultimate Alliance), I really have no knowledge of the characters. I know some people who are comic buffs, so I know some background, but really this isn’t my thing though. As a child, though, if you had asked me to pick a favorite Avenger, though, I’d have said Black Panther. In all honesty, none of the other characters really stuck out as interesting to me (except Iron Man a little bit). Because come on, how is a stealthy ninja-cat guy not at the top of everyone’s list always? Dr. Strange is cool, too, but I knew nothing about him before the movie and he’s not an Avenger, so he doesn’t count.

Anyways, here’s the number one thing that made this movie really work for me: the worldbuilding. The culture of Wakanda was quite interesting, and the steps it took to be so different from the everyday world shows some real creativity. I found it inspiring for both classic epic fantasy worldbuilding and interestingly informative in both sci-fi, as well.

The biggest, and admittedly nit-picky problem I had with this movie was that it just had so much going on. There’s tons of characters, several plot threads, and a few time skips. I got it by the end, but the extra legwork I had to do to follow which character was which and how they were related to this other character was a bit tough sometimes. Again, it’s not that bad, but I’d imagine older audiences might have the same problem. And this is one of my biggest concerns for Infinity War—I suspect it will just have so much going on that actors and plot pieces on an individual scale will start to get lost. Black Panther started to tread into that territory, so we’ll see.

There’s a lot that’s amazing about this movie, and it’s actually very impressive that they managed to introduce so many characters with so much depth so quickly. I did have some other critiques, but they’re really negligible, unpopular, and (slightly) spoiler-y. Not to mention, I’m super tired. So I’ll just leave it here. I would say that this is probably the best movie in the MCU yet, with maybe Wonder Woman at #2. (That’s a joke.) I honestly don’t expect to like either Infinity War movie more than this one, but who knows?

 

Review — Singin’ in the Rain

Singin’ in the Rain (1952) is one of my mom’s favorite movies, but the last time I had seen it was probably when I was five or younger. (The only two things I had retained from that age was the last scene and the “Moses Supposes” number). As such, I was pretty excited to see what I would think of it now, and even though I expected to like it, I was pleasantly surprised. It’s a great film, with one big exception I get to later.

I think the biggest reason I loved it was how natural the humor was, especially the back and forth between Don and Cosmo. (My favorite two lines include “Okay, you’re a cab” and “Hey, Joe! Get me a tarantula!”) There’s simply a chemistry there that is scarcely achieved in cinema.

Singin’ in the Rain does a lot of things simultaneously, and it uses sound to employ lots of them. One moment is the film’s asynchronous sound during the first premiere of Don’s talkie. The repetition of “no, no, no” and “yes, yes, yes” being voiced by the wrong actor is very comical for the audience (both in the film and the real life viewers. But it also sparks Cosmo’s idea to have Kathy lip sync for Lina’s role. It’s this duality of many scenes that truly make the movie shine.

What’s more, the title song “Singin’ in the Rain” expertly employs a great deal of action accompanying Don’s emotion. In this scene, both internal diegetic sound and external diegetic sound play key parts. This song is an entire musical number of one person, but in the reality of the movie, Don is singing alone in the pouring rain. None of the passersby can hear the music that is clearly in his head (as proven by the loud timpani synchronizing with Don’s stomping in the puddles). In this circumstance, the full orchestra actually is diegetic, it’s simply in Don’s head. Without the music, people might think he’s crazy, which is exactly what happens when the police officer approaches him with disapproval.

Lastly, one major part in many of the numbers, (especially the ones with Cosmo), is mixing. A lot of the energy put into these songs is placed in the very physical choreography, as shown by “Make them Laugh” and “Moses Supposes”. Without mixing the physical sound effects with the words being sung, these numbers would feel far less dynamic.

So what didn’t I like about the movie? Well, the entire ten-ish minute sequence of the proposed musical finish in The Dancing Cavalier. It has no context, little to no dialogue, three separate songs and three separate plot threads that don’t mean anything to the main directive of the film. I was honestly exhausted when I watched this movie, and had I known it was practically meaningless, I would have taken the chance to shut my eyes until it was over. There probably is a good reason for that sequence to be in the film, but it never would have made it through if I had produced it.

Overall, it’s a great movie. Rarely do I enjoy anything with important romantic plot narratives, but this one worked for me because it was neither overdramatic nor unrelatable. It depicted a very plausible relationship between two people, which was nice.

Review — Psycho

I saw Psycho for the first time recently, and I was actually pretty surprised with how little of the movie I was aware of. Basically, the only knowledge I had going into it was the shower scene and the fact that the Bates Motel was important. After watching it, it’s easy to see how Hitchcock got to be so famous.

The editing of this movie in particular struck me, because several shots managed to do a multitude of things at once. For example, the excessive cuts of close-ups in the shower scene did [some] things. First, it provided the audience with a sense of panic. If there was a single shot that showed the murdered stabbing the victim several times, it wouldn’t have held any suspense. Since the audience couldn’t quite see what was going on, but could very easily understand, it ramped up the tension. The cuts also make a point not to show the murderer, so even when you “know” who it is, not seeing the assailant makes it scarier. Lastly, the shots obviously have to be strategic, as Hitchcock didn’t really want to show a nude woman. So he took this handicap and made the scene all the more engaging for it.

At the end of this scene, there is a graphic match from the shower drain to Marion’s lifeless eye as the camera zooms into one, transitions, and then zooms out from the other. This shot does a lot of things, but I’d say it’s primary purpose is probably to give the audience a chance to breathe and take in what just happened, as well as provide a very clear transition to the pacing and “goal” of where the movie is going next. This was the moment that I became invested in the movie, because Marion had pretty much been the only important character thus far, and while I expected her to die, I didn’t think it would be until towards the end of the movie, and it got me far more interested in what might happen next. I’d hazard to guess that many first time viewers would feel the same way.

The last important edit I want to mention is the fade in of Norman’s mother’s skull at the end. It was pretty subtle, but I think all the implication that edit provided can speak for itself. I think it also serves as something of proof that the weird monologue after the climax was injected into the movie after the fact to give the audience more time to breathe and process. That fade in shot, I think, was all the explanation an audience would have needed.

I think the movie was great. The shots and cinematography of the entire movie did an amazing job at grabbing and maintaining suspense without wearing the audience out. It’s also not a modern horror movie in that you’re (probably) not going to lose any sleep after having watched it.

Review — Voice Acting Mastery

A few months ago I started listening to Crispin Freeman’s podcast, Voice Acting Mastery. Crispin has done tons of roles in both anime dubs and video games. I’m personally most familiar with him for his role as Winston in Overwatch and Itachi Uchiha in Naruto, but he’s also Alucard in Hellsing and prominent characters in Fate/ZeroFate/Stay Night, and Young Justice.

Voice Acting Mastery is a podcast about learning the fundamentals of the craft of voice acting. It includes tips on everything from learning the craft to establishing a professional career to interviews with actors in the field.

The primary reason for my interest in this podcast is not of vocational purposes. Mostly, I want to learn how to use my voice to become different characters in both Dungeons & Dragons and my acting career (as a hobbyist and instructor). Also I’d like to be a better narrator for my own stories when I record them.

That said, much of the content of the podcast is irrelevant to me, so here’s the disclaimer. I don’t need to know how microphones work, I don’t need to look for an agent or anything technical or “business”-y about the field. I was mostly looking for tips on how to change the quality of my voice.

So I was a bit disappointed to find out that most voice acting roles are signed based on the natural speaking voice of the actor. I may be pulling this number out of thin air, because I can’t remember if Crispin said it or not, but I believe I remember something along the lines of “80% of your booked gigs will be booking you for the emotion you put into your real voice, not for having an amazing pool of voices to pick from”. This isn’t the podcast for that.

That isn’t to say it doesn’t have useful knowledge. Most of the tips he provides are useful for any professional in the creative fields. It’s also never a bad thing to hear about the personal experience from anyone trying to break into industries of this sort.

So with as many podcasts exist in the world right now, is this one worth listening to? Well, it depends. For somebody looking into becoming a voice actor, absolutely. This teaches so much valuable knowledge about what it’s like, it’s a good tool. For somebody like me that is only recreationally interested in the craft, it’s not that great. My recommendation would be to go through all the episodes (there are currently 134, and the pre-100 episodes are only 20 minutes long), look at all the titles, and if they don’t sound relevant, they probably aren’t. The interviews are cool to listen to, but typically Crispin brings on specific people to talk about specific things, so if you know you’re never going to do motion capture for a video game, you can probably skip the interview with the actress he brings on for it (though she is a lot of fun).

If nothing else, I’ve learned a lot about what I need to look for in my pursuit for utilizing different voices, so I at least have that to thank Crispin for. He’s also a great teacher, and since he lives in my area I might consider taking a class or two with him to get more direct instruction.

Review — Faster Than Light

Alright. I’m reviewing this game because, while it’s been some time since I’ve played it extensively, it deserves my articulated thoughts. In fact, I actually thought I had reviewed it. Dungeon of the Endless reminded me of the game in terms of music, and I brought it up in my review of that game. I intended to put a link to my FTL review on that post, only to find that I had no FTL review to link. So here it is. Plus, now’s a good time, because their newest game, Into the Breach just came out, and buying it gives you a free copy of this game, too.

What is Faster Than Light? Simply put, it’s a rogue-like strategy game where you’re piloting a spaceship escaping from the evil Rebel fleet. There are two core aspects to the game: Game dialogue and combat. Game dialogue consists of what is probably a majority of the game. You jump to a star, and a text box opens up telling you what’s going on at this star. It’ll say something like “A pirate ship is attacking a civilian cargo ship! What do you do?” (paraphrasing here), and you can choose to attack the pirates or ignore it. (There might also be a third option to attack the civilians, too, it’s hard to remember the specifics of each event.) If you choose to attack the ship, a combat will happen. They might surrender and give you items, and you can accept or refuse it. If you kill them, the civilians will thank you, and you can still choose to steal from them. Basically, this game is largely dictated by choice.

Not everything happens the same way every time. Choices you make can help or hinder you pretty much regardless, because the repercussions of them are also randomly generated. (It’s worth noting that it’s not all random. Playing over and over again will give you knowledge of what can happen and how likely events are to be good or bad). This basically allows the game to be infinitely replayable, because if each choice always yielded the same result, you could just look it up on a wiki and win every time (as long as you weren’t bad at combat). As a side note, the combat is the only thing in the game that is real-time, but you can pause as often as you like while issuing commands to your units and guns, so if you’re bad at doing things quick, don’t worry about it.

Is the game good? Well, let me start by saying it’s hard. I’m pretty sure I’ve only beaten the final boss once. I’m not positive because my computer blue-screened while I was playing it today and deleted all my stats. (My unlocked ships are still fine, strangely enough). But it also has three difficulties, and of the dozens of playthroughs I’ve tried, I’ve beaten it once. On easy. Maybe I’m just really bad, but it is certainly not a walk in the park.

I love rogue-like games, and the single most important thing about it is replayability. FTL has a bunch of different ways to play, because there are lots of different kinds of weapons, races, ships, etc. The idea is once you beat the game with one method, you should try a different method. I’ve found that the Halberd Beam is just easy-mode. 3 Damage per room it and you can hit five or six rooms per shot? That’s insane!

Another thing this game does right is the music. Not only does it have a different soundtrack for each alien-controlled sector you’re flying in, but it also has a combat layer that seamlessly adds onto the music currently playing once you enter a combat (usually this means drums or other more percussive tools). It’s beautifully done.

So, this game does require reading. Not a lot, but you can’t just make choices willy-nilly until you start seeing the same events repeat themselves, and even then going too fast can mess you up big time. Overall, anyone who likes small, casual strategy-related games will love Faster Than Light. And though I haven’t played it yet, you’ll probably also like their new game, Into the Breach, as well.