Thursday, January 27, 2011

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

If you were to ask me what my favorite Harry Potter book was, I think my gut reaction would be Prisoner of Azkaban. After reading and watching it again, I don't think that's entirely the truth. What is true is that this book features my absolute favorite character of the series, and that character is Remus Lupin.

My love for Remus can be simplified down to two reasons. For one, he's an underdog (no pun intended): poor, not particularly well respected, and has a rather large problem to deal with through no fault of his own. For another, he doesn't look down on the children at all. He's the perfect kind of teacher that we all loved growing up, the one who encouraged us to be the best we could be and made us really feel good about ourselves for trying even if we didn't succeed right away.

For the story as a whole, I can't say it's my favorite. I have one major issue with the ending, and another major issue with something they left out of the movie version. The story formula departs from the previous books. It's no longer a whodunnit, instead we're told straight from the beginning that Sirius Black is after Harry and we're brought through a lot of twists and turns until we get to the end. This is really far more a transition book than a stand alone story; we learn a lot about the events leading up to Voldemort's defeat and the end sets us up for some key events in the next book.

While Rowling lays out plenty of evidence for the true answer ahead of time, much like in Chamber of Secrets, we are once again left in the dark until the very end. While there are mentions of werewolves and animagi littered throughout the book, and of course the Marauder's Map, there's nothing really there to tie them all together until the climatic scene. The movie actually does a better job of providing us with a clue by showing Peter on the Marauder's Map ahead of time. It makes such sense that I was surprised when it didn't happen in the book. I also think the movie does a better job of simplifying the scene in the Shrieking Shack. It's long winded and a bit of a mess in the book whereas in the movie it touches most of the right notes with a great feeling of suspense.

One thing I noticed on this re-read is that Fred & George giving Harry the Marauder's Map is a bit too convenient. They want to help Harry so that he can sneak out into Hogsmeade, I get that much, but would they really need to give him the map for that? Couldn't they have just told him about the secret passageway? It would seem to me the map's real convenience is letting you know where everyone is at any given time, something that Fred & George could still use when conducting their own mischief.

Another thing I noticed, and maybe this was obvious from the get go but I just missed it before, is the obvious way that James and his friends tie into Harry and his friends. James is Harry, Ron is Sirius, Hermione is Remus, and Neville is Peter. There are some obvious differences between all of them, but she seems to go out of her way to make the comparison. It's the Neville/Peter comparison out of those I find the most interesting, as their stories end very differently.

I also still can't determine whether Snape knows who Mooney, Padfoot, Prongs, and Wormtail are. He definitely knows that Lupin is a werewolf, obviously, but does he know about the others being animagi? It would seem like he doesn't.

For the most part, most differences between the book and movie are related to the usual time constraints, though there are some very strange and blatant changes. Harry uses magic at home in the very first scene, which contradicts with the possibility of him getting in trouble for blowing up Aunt Marge in the next one. There are talking shrunken heads on the Knight bus and in The Three Broomsticks, apparently just for comedic effect. But the most aggravating part is that they leave out any mention that Mooney, Padfoot, Prongs, and Wormtail are Remus, Sirius, James and Peter. In fact, there is absolutely nothing in this movie to explain that James Potter was an animagis at all. It completely takes away the meaning behind Harry's patronus turning into a stag. It's also such a simple thing that could have been explained in one or two lines of dialogue. We wasted time on a made up bit where the boys are eating some kind of candy that makes them sound like animals, but we can't get actual real important plot details included? It's just silly.

The biggest problem I have with the book, and it's made even worse in the movie, is the fact that Sirius must remain on the run at the end.

"The words of 13 year old wizards won't convince anybody"

This infuriates me. Maybe things are different in Britain, but in America, there is a clear dividing line between the ages of 12 and 13. Child things are pretty much always marked "12 and under." It's an acknowledgment that as we hit our adolescent years, we are gaining much in the way of maturity as well as growth. To say that no one will believe a 13 year old is complete rubbish and an insult on the part of Dumbledore. It makes a little more sense in the books - Snape is claiming that Sirius put a spell on them, but in the movie we receive no explanation at all except "You're just silly little kids, no one is going to believe you." We're also told in the book that no one will believe Lupin because he's a werewolf, which is sort of like saying no one would trust the word of a leper in our world. It all feels way too much like "because I said so" rather than any real justifiable reasoning.

One more little nitpick and then I swear I'll quit: Harry gets awfully excited to go live with Sirius rather quickly. I understand that the Dursleys are miserable people and he wouldn't want to be around them anymore, but Sirius has spent over a decade in a jail that specializes in driving its residents crazy. He may not be the actual person responsible for Harry's parents' deaths, but he's also really excited to kill off someone else and thought it was justifiable to drag Ron around and break his leg just to get to Peter. The man's clearly got a screw loose.

Overall, there's a lot of fun in this book. The quidditch matches are kept interesting, it's really great to see them finally learn some real defense against the dark arts magic, and the scenes between Lupin and Harry in the books and in the movie both really make me happy. The places in Hogsmeade and the hippogriphs are all excellent editions to this fun magical world. It's just a little disappointing to find out that the book is not as strong as I remember it being.

I'm taking a short break to read Stephen King's On Writing before I dive into Goblet of Fire, which is of course a very long read in and of itself. So I imagine it may be a bit before I get to the next entry in this series. I have to admit, there's a part of me that's going to miss these short and sweet reads!

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Waking Sleeping Beauty

I think most of you that read this blog are already aware that I've started a sketch diary where I am drawing a new sketch every day in an effort to improve my skills. But for the few who may not, please feel free to check it out if you wish. I mentioned over there that I watched Waking Sleeping Beauty last night. Since this movie is slightly flying under the radar, I thought it deserved a full post here.

The documentary uses old home movies and various stock footage along with audio interviews to tell the story of Walt Disney Animation from 1980 until 1994. As someone who grew up during this time period and has lots of memories about the films made during that era, both good and bad, I found it fascinating.

In the beginning I thought it was a little hard to follow. They toss a lot of names and history at you and I felt like they were moving a little too quickly. However the key players are all introduced in a much more detailed way and I think you won't have much trouble following it after the first few minutes.

There's something adorable about getting to see a very young Tim Burton. It's so telling that the first video we see of him is this very bored, slightly anti-social looking guy sitting in a dazed stupor at his desk. He's also shown smiling, so apparently the job wasn't all misery all the time for him. We also hear the voice of John Lasseter and see and hear a brief story of Don Bluth's time with the company.

I think the doc does a good job of expressing the emotional journey of the animators during this tumultuous time. You feel bad for them when their early movies flounder, and you rejoice when they start to reach success. Even if you're not a big Disney fan, I think following this journey is enough to make the film enjoyable.

As a Disney fan, it's incredible to get this very honest look behind the scenes. I gasped in horror when I heard that Jeffrey Katzenberg originally demanded that "Part of Your World" be removed from The Little Mermaid. It was also wonderful to see the moment where Howard Ashman was guiding Jodi Benson on exactly how to sing it. There are tons of these kind of behind the scene moments scattered throughout the film.

One of the things that kind of surprised me was when they said that Oliver & Company outsold The Land Before Time. I really loved Oliver as a kid (I'll admit I haven't seen it since) but I remember the latter being the much bigger deal. Merchandise everywhere and now it has so many straight to DVD sequels it's really not funny. Meanwhile Disney released Oliver & Company to DVD with hardly any announcement at all. I really need to get my hands on a copy and see how well it does (or doesn't) hold up.

I definitely think this documentary is worth a rent for anyone with an interest in animation.

EDIT: I watched Oliver & Company in 2013.  It's amazingly mediocre.  I recommend just watching a video of the Billy Joel song instead.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest

I've mentioned before that I actually owned very few games for the NES and SNES systems when I was young. My dad had owned an Intellivision and he knew enough about the lifespan of most video games that he wasn't going to spend so much money on games we would probably stop playing after a week or two. Of course, as technology leaped ahead, suddenly you could play games for longer and longer. When renting such games, it became an issue. Could we possibly finish it all in one weekend? If you didn't, it went back to the store, and most likely the next kid was going to erase your game file before you got a chance to rent it again. I think sometimes we successfully begged for an extension in order to finish.

I can't remember exactly where my love of RPGs began. I figure it has to be when we got Dragon Warrior for free with our Nintendo Power subscription. It was hard and I knew virtually nothing about where to go or what to do, but I still played it over and over again all the same. I plan on restarting it soon, this time turning to friends and online walkthroughs in order to actually make some progress in it. Don't hold your breath for my full review of that one because I imagine it will take quite awhile.

Obviously, my (and my brother's) enjoyment of that game lead to us renting other RPGs. I think anytime I saw a guy with a sword and armor on the cover, I wanted it. For whatever reason, I don't think I ever saw a copy of the original Final Fantasy on the NES in my youth. As far as I was concerned Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest was in fact the first, Final Fantasy II came next, and then Final Fantasy III all for the Super Nintendo. I'm sure someone explained it to me eventually, but it was a fairly logical conclusion given what I could see in front of my face.

We rented both Mystic Quest and Final Fantasy II (which is actually IV in Japan, and has been released under that number now in America) quite frequently. At the time, I didn't think one was better or greater than the other - just different. As such I've been very surprised to discover that popular opinion is that Mystic Quest is a terrible game, and even most Final Fantasy fans hate it. I found it for a reasonable price at the used game store, and I set out to play it - both for my own personal nostalgic enjoyment and also to see if I could realize just what everyone was so unhappy with.

The game is a very basic RPG. You only control two characters at a time, and you have the choice to put the second character (who rotates depending on what's happening in the story) on auto control if you want, meaning the game will play them for you. You can play with many different weapons (sword, axe, claw, bomb, etc.)that you can scroll through each round of play by pushing the L and R buttons. You can also use magic. Rather than have traditional MP (magic points) like many RPGs where different spells cost a different number of points, you simply have a number that counts for three different types of spells. You use one point each time you use a spell from that category.

Since there are only two of you, the enemies only come in groups of four or less, though some of them have the ability to multiply or regenerate. There is no such thing as random battles in this game (in other RPGs, you walk on the screen and are randomly stopped by the game to fight enemies) as all enemies are given tiny visible sprites and the overworld map has battlefields where you select to go in and fight the enemies there. As you level up, your hit points and magic points increase. You find spells as books or stones scattered throughout the world. You also very rarely buy your armor, often being given it in chests scattered in dungeons. Most of your money goes toward buying items, if you really need to, or staying in INNs to recover your life. Random boxes scattered about towns and dungeons also hold items, and these will regenerate the moment you leave the room. So if you wanted unlimited cure potions, for example, you could go into a house, open a box to get the three inside, walk out the house, walk back in, open the box, etc. until you reach 99. The potions seem to cure a certain percentage of your hit points, whereas the Cure spell in this game always brings you back up to full energy. In most other RPGs, there are multiple levels of cure spells that gradually heal more and more hit points as you earn them.

So yes, as you can imagine, this game is for the most part incredibly easy to play. On top of all that, if you die in a battle, either small time enemy or boss, a menu will come up saying "Give up?" and if you select "No" you will simply start the battle all over again. The second party member you pick up will always be a couple levels ahead of you, so that they will usually have little trouble killing things, often in one hit, and they all come equipped with the Life spell to bring you back to life if you die. The A.I. used if you put them on Auto can sometimes cheat. For instance, if you were controlling the character, you might choose to have them attack the enemies because your character was doing just fine. In the middle of the round, an enemy will hit you with a Doom spell that kills you. So now you'll have to wait an additional round to cast Life and revive yourself. If you have them on Auto however, the PC will cast Life in that same round, even though they couldn't have possibly known to do so ahead of time. Of course, sometimes they choose really stupid attacks rather than the powerful ones, so it's sort of a give and take.

I think it's this level of (non)difficulty that makes so many people unhappy with the game. There's no challenge, I guess they would say. I don't really see this as a bad thing though. As a kid especially, there was nothing more infuriating than having to play "Can I survive killing this enemy?" in Dragon Warrior over and over again. I made zero progress in that game. Meanwhile, I was able to beat Mystic Quest, something I hardly ever did back then. I got to see a full game and its ending. If you want to introduce a child to Final Fantasy, this is the perfect game with which to do so. Even though there's not as much a chance of failure and no real repercussions for death, that doesn't mean the game isn't entirely without challenges. The dungeons are set up as detailed mazes with switches to open doors and in one case, you have to take leaps of faith through holes to floors below. It does take a bit of thought and can be a little frustrating depending on your patience. Also, it took me a very large number of tries to beat the final boss because apparently I had avoided too many enemies along the way and hadn't quite leveled up enough. It took a bit of luck to help me get through it.

Its battle system makes for some really fun mechanics, in my opinion. I enjoy the lack of random battles. I've been watching Jak play through Dragon Warrior III lately, and sometimes he'll literally take one step before he's forced to fight again, and other times he'll walk in three circles while waiting for another encounter to show up. While playing Mystic Quest all the enemies are there, and you can often make a decision between a path of fewer enemies versus one with more, therefore letting you decide between speed or leveling up. Sometimes you have to get through a bunch of enemies just to open a chest. There are technically a couple of dungeons where the enemies are invisible until you get a certain item that allows you to see them, but overall I like being able to prepare. It also means you get to see some really cute looking sprites march in place on screen.

Speaking of cuteness, two of my favorite things appear in the battles. One is the sound effects made by your weapons. There's something ridiculously satisfying about the "thunk" of the axe hit, and I repeatedly found myself trying to mimic the "ruk-uk-uk-uk" of the ninja stars. The second is the fact that all enemies change appearance when they get closer to death. The default is two for most common enemies, but the bosses can have as many as four different versions before they dissolve with another satisfying sound effect. Some of these are extremely humorous as they either get bandages on themselves or this look of absolute horror. Check them out here at this fantastic site.

I suppose the other thing you could complain about is the story. I had to check a walkthrough once because there was a large gap between when I had last played, but beyond that exactly where you need to go is laid out before you. Since you can't walk freely on the overworld map, you generally just have to go to the end of a line in order to reach the latest town and then dungeon. There's a bit of back and forth, but the characters are telling you what to do. Essentially, the story boils down to "there are four crystals that have been stolen (based on the four elements), go get them back. Oh, there's actually one more crystal besides those, the crystal of light, and the dark king is trying to use it to take over the world. Go save us!" Honestly, this story isn't much different from the stories for Final Fantasy, Final Fantasy III (Japanese original), and Final Fantasy V, with only the last one adding a little more complexity to the storyline. It's also basically the same idea as a lot of other RPGs and the Zelda franchise - go collect a bunch of talismans before using their power to beat the final boss intent on destroying the world. Sure, it's simple, but is that really a bad thing?

Now, I'll be honest. There were times where this simple gameplay did get a little tedious for me. The length of some of the dungeons, even with their puzzles, was getting to be a chore. But I still refuse to say that this is a bad game. It's not a great one, but I still think it's a great diversion when you just want to spend a little bit of time on a classic RPG. If you don't have a means of playing the original cartridge, it's available on Virtual Console on the Wii.

I noticed something else during my last round of play. There's a lot of parallels between Final Fantasy XIII and Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest. In both, you hit the shoulder buttons to switch between different types of attacks between rounds. You only control one character in XIII, and you have the option to do the same in MQ. Magic doesn't cost anywhere near as much. If one of your party dies in battle or you have a debilitating effect put on you, it will be magically gone when the battle is over. Weapons and armor are generally given to you in chests rather than bought. In some cases in FFXIII, when you "break" an enemy, their appearance changes. Both require you to walk a straight line for much of the story. I'm willing to bet there are more similarities that I'm just not thinking of. Please feel free to add them in the comments!

The ending of Mystic Quest has the hero decide that he's going to go sail off to find new adventure. After you talk to all the main characters again, they see you off and the ship sails away into the distance.. forever. If you don't turn the game off, you'll literally just watch the ship sail and hear crashing waves and crying seagulls into infinity. When I searched Youtube for this, all I got were "Let's Play" links.. so I decided to film it myself. I apologize that it's a bit shaky. Feel free to keep hitting play on the 30 second clip if you'd like to prolong the experience.
I'll replace this with the embed link when I get home today, but for now go straight to Youtube.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Inception (*Spoiler Warning*)

As much as I hate to turn readers away, I can't stress enough that if you haven't seen the film, you really shouldn't read this unless for some reason you never have any intention of watching it. I think the less you know the better you'll be able to experience this movie.

I think the biggest problem I had with the film is that the emotional aspect of it all falls a bit flat. Here's this woman who keeps showing up to sabotage things. She's dead and we're supposed to feel bad about that, but she was also a huge bitch and ruined his life toward the end. He's feeling guilty about causing her death. This wasn't shocking nor did it hold any emotional weight for me. Nolan, you already did this with Memento, you can't rely on this again and expect me to still care. When Cobb makes his big reveal to Ariadne, all I could say was "Well, yeah. I totally already figured that out. Thanks. Can we move on now?" For a writer/director who has caused huge emotional responses in me previously, in Memento, The Prestige, and even The Dark Knight, this was extremely disappointing. The place he did get an emotional response out of me was that ending. The emotion was anger.

Leaving the ending of a story open to interpretation always feel like a cheat to me. The one exception I can think of is Ghost World, where she gets on the bus and we don't know where it will lead. As a metaphor for a teenager entering adulthood, it makes perfect sense to me. Enid has had trouble deciding who she was and what she wanted to be for the entire film, so the fact that she chooses to hop on a bus to no where is absolutely in character for her. We don't know where she's going to end up because to know that we'd pretty much have to follow her for her whole life and the movie would never end.

For Inception, it was obvious fairly early on that all of this could have been further layers of a dream for Cobb. The seed was planted to make you think that Mal was right, that maybe she did die and get back to the real world. I even thought that this elaborate plot was all a way to force him to finally wake up. Perhaps I had Shutter Island too much on my mind. But we spend an awful lot of time being told that no, Mal wasn't right and she was really dead. So to leave it open and ambiguous at that end just feels like Nolan flipping the bird at us.

Having avoided any and all reviews and thoughts on the film before watching it, I scoured the internet today, and I see that the stress seems to be that since Cobb has chosen to leave the spinning top behind and is no longer concerned about whether he's in reality or the dream world - it shouldn't matter to us either. I can understand that message, but I still feel like I'm being let down to not get a definitive answer.

In the story I'm writing, I'm building a mystery. If I can behave myself, the answer to that mystery will not revealed for quite some time. I say "behave myself" because I'm not very good at keeping secrets and when writing I find that means I always want to hurry up and get to the big reveal. But my characters don't know the answer and I think it's important that the readers are also left a bit in the dark along with them. When the time is right and I finally do explain it all.. rest assured I will explain it ALL. Even if not in the story, I'd probably be happy to tell any readers who needed further explanation. I've got it written out in notes that I plan to expand even further, because I'm of the opinion that if you don't know the foundation you're standing on, your story can collapse under the weight of it. And I think when you tell a story you owe it to your readers/viewers to eventually give them that foundation. Doing any less makes it look like you can't make up your own mind about it, and if you can't make up your mind and you created the thing, that's not good.

In Nolan's case, it seems that he does in fact know, he's just refusing to say. So I can't accuse him of not knowing what he's doing, but I can certainly let him know he annoyed me.

Having said all that, it's time to focus on the positive. This is a beautifully built film and an awesome concept. The effects, both physical and CGI, blend so seamlessly that I can't tell you which is which in some cases. Its pacing is also pretty excellent. It would have been easy for a two and a half hour movie to feel as long as it is, but while I did make occasional glances at the timer to see how far along I was, I was certainly never bored. The action and thrill of the movie is pretty top notch.

Most of the cast is excellent. I particularly liked Joseph Gorden-Levitt and Tom Hardy. I really wanted to like Ellen Page in this, but her character's constant pleading for Cobb to resolve his issues bugged me. Why did she care so much and so soon? Running with the whole "this is all a dream of Cobb's" idea, I had this thought in my head that she was actually a grown up Phillipa (what an awful thing to name your daughter, by the way) trying to get her dad to come back home. That's about the only way her urgency made sense. If she was that concerned that his distractions would make the job too dangerous, she didn't have to be a part of it. I also think that the reason I wasn't so impressed with that love story may in fact be Leonardo DiCaprio's fault. He didn't strike me as a man struck with guilt at all.

Like Nolan's other (non-Batman) films, people say this one gets better with repeated viewings. I think the more time passes, the less I'll feel betrayed by that ending and the more I'll enjoy the movie.
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