Osamu Tezuka’s Metropolis

Osamu Tezuka’s Metropolis (2001)

I’m a great fan of the 2001 anime Metropolis. This movie arrived in American theaters in August, 2001, and was not only a thrilling, dazzling spectacle, it eerily prophesied the terrorist attacks of September 11. The films images of the towering Ziggurat in ruins, the very symbol of modern human civilization, cut a little too close to the bone.

We are reminded of the urban apocalypse of Akira, the landmark 1988 anime film written and directed by Katsuhiro Otomo, and its depictions of urban corruption and decay. This is no small coincidence, as Otomo wrote the script for this new Metropolis, which was directed by the skilled veteran Rintaro, an old Toei Doga alum who gave us such hits as Galaxy Express 999, Harmagedon and X. A freelance director by trade, Rintaro specialized in dystopian science-fiction, and added with his animation experience working on Osamu Tezuka’s Tetsuwan Atom (Astro Boy), makes him a perfect choice to helm Metropolis.

What makes this Metropolis so compelling is how freely it mashes together its varied influences, creating something new in the alchemical furnace. It’s original inspiration, of course, lies in the 1927 Fritz Lang masterpiece, not only with the Ziggurat and the main characters, but the underlying political and social themes. When Tezuka created his manga comic adaptation, he famously claimed to take nothing from Lang’s work but the image on the movie poster. That is a slight exaggeration, but fairly close to the mark. Rintaro fuses these two sources together nicely, giving us the thick, rounded character designs with a gritty urban environment, combining story and character elements and adding new influences and ideas to the recipe.

The movie’s strong cyberpunk design owes much to Akira, and we can spot how seamlessly Otomo’s world integrates with the Lang-Tezuka-Rintaro mashup. We almost expect to find motorcycle gangs lurking around the underground stations, although a thrilling chase scene involving rickshaws fills the void.

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Devo: New Traditionalists

Devo, New Traditionalists (1981)

Since I’m on my major DEVO kick at the moment, I thought I would just go through all their albums. Today’s killer Devo record: New Traditionalists from 1981.

New Traditionalists took more than one listen for me to really click with it. On first listen, it sounded a little flat, a little dull, sandwiched between the quasi-industrial sound of Oh, No! It’s DEVO and the guitar-synth pop hooks of Freedom of Choice. I wrote this first impression off as exhaustion from listening to too many Devo records at once. Also, it was 4:00 am. Everything turns to mush in your head by that time of night.

So a couple days later, I came back with fresh ears, and was hooked. The first song, the single, “Through Being Cool,” sounds a little off, but it’s really just different, and it gets stuck in your head before long. You’ll notice that singing duties are split among band members on New Traditionalists, giving a real variety to the singing (Mark Mothersbaugh, skilled as he is, always sings in the same high range).

The balance between guitars and electronic synthesizers has begun to shift away from the guitars on this album, clearly foreshadowing where the next album would go. This has always been Devo’s plan, to get away from the guitar-and-drums sound, and into new territory. So perhaps there’s less of that punkish vibe, and more of those magnificent hooks. So what?

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NES Play Action Football

Nintendo for NES – Sports – 1990 – Rating: 4/10

Across the spectrum of video gaming, there’s something you learn fairly quickly: Nintendo can’t do sports games. They really can’t. Only on rare occasions could they create a really great one; definitely Ice Hockey on the NES, maybe Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out. Wii Sports and Wii Sports Resort definitely qualify. These are rare exceptions to the rule.

For the sake of this review, the important thing to know is that this videogame is not Tecmo Super Bowl. This is NES Play Action Football, NOT Tecmo Super Bowl.

Thank you and goodnight!

What, you want more? Why? What would be the point? Play Action Football sucks. No, really, it sucks like a bilge pump. It’s a shame, actually; you can tell that it’s a game Nintendo put great effort and time into. I will give them that much credit. The graphics, the whole visual presentation, are top notch. Not only do you have players that are large and drawn nicely, but numerous animated scoreboard sequences appear after crucial plays. You have something that, in the modern mindset, would be a strong foundation for future versions.

But here’s the problem. Well, the problem after the fact that it’s not Tecmo Super Bowl. It’s just this game doesn’t play very well. It’s incredibly slow and choppy. Do you remember those old Game and Watch handhelds that Nintendo made in the early ’80s? Play Action Football moves exactly like that. I can’t even call it animation, really. The players don’t move. They just shuffle from one still pose to the next down the field.

Perhaps the NES just couldn’t handle speed with a field full of players, I thought. But then I clicked on…you know, that other title, wink, wink. And that game plays fast and smooth with no problems.

Then consider that Play Action Football switches to a faraway aerial view for pass plays. See those screenshot on the back of the box? Forget it. The close-up view is replaced with tiny ants. And they still move in patches. So I really don’t know what Nintendo was thinking. Either the programmers were too inexperienced, or the game was designed way over in Japan, where no one in their right minds has any clue what the heck “American Football” is all about.

But then, once again, we have Tecmo. So those excuses are thrown out the window.

And have I mentioned that I couldn’t find the running plays for my offense? There’s only a handful of plays in the entire game, and I can’t find any running plays. Which only adds to the confusion when the computer runs the ball. And then it just hikes the ball to the running back, which confuses me more. Did the programmers even know what this sport was, or did they just watch a videotape of a British rugby match one Saturday afternoon? Maybe they watched a commercial on TV once. Harumph.

At least the scoreboard clips are nice. Whatever. Tecmo Bowl smokes this effort by a country mile, and Tecmo Super Bowl leapfrogs the lot of ’em. Hang onto your cash for that little gem, folks. And somebody tell Nintendo to stop making bad sports videogames, not until they can learn the rules.

Oh, No! It’s DEVO

Devo, Oh, No! It’s Devo (1982)

I don’t honestly know if you have to have lived through the New Wave era of the early 1980s to really appreciate how cool Oh, No! It’s DEVO is. Probably not. This is one of those rare albums: a perfect snapshot of its era, and somehow ahead of its time. You have to keep one eye on Weird Al’s Dare to be Stupid, the other on industrial music.

I think I’m feeling nostalgic for those days, the early days of MTV (back when MTV played nothing but music videos, all of them good), Atari, Pac-Man, E.T., Rubik’s Cube, the Space Shuttle. It was a great little point in history, so filled with the joy of life and the energy of youth. Well, I was in early grade school, the early part of “youth.” But it was a fun time, the New Wave era. It’s been completely swept under the tide of corporate-sanitized history, desperate to sell brainless 12-year-olds on some vapid saltwater consumerism.

Ugh, today’s pop music sucks. It hasn’t been this bad since the hair metal days of the late ’80s. It might be worse; I don’t know if another Saint Cobain could come along and smash it. If there was ever a time for a band like Devo, it’s here and it’s now. If such a band is truly out there, somebody needs to unlock them from the garage and set them loose.

There’s always been a great degree of subversive attitude from Devo. Essentially an art-house band, they sought to criticize the modern culture and the devolution of our civilization, but wrap that within some killer pop music. There are a lot of souls who listen to Devo songs, never suspecting just what is going on. They’ll toss aside as mere fluff. Even critics, who should know better, look upon it as a big joke. Generation gap, children. The spuds are smiling, but they’re baring the fangs, and they’re laughing at you.

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Sony PS-X75 Biotracer Turntable

Sony PS-X75 Biotracer Turntable

I still miss my Sony PS-X75 turntable. It had just the perfect combination of awesome performance and stylish looks. To my eyes, this is what a great turntable looks like. Today’s designs are far more stripped down and basic, since vinyl records are a small niche. But back in the 1970s, when millions of turntables were sold, Japanese manufacturers were able to devote their considerable engineering skills to the craft.

Sony’s PS-X75 represented the third generation from their golden age of turntable design. The PS-X5/6/7 series began the peak, it then continued with the X50/60/70 series, and then the great X65/75 tables. They continued to refine this design well into the early 1980s, when Compact Disc arrived and sent all the engineers scurrying away to master the new format.

This PS-X75 features Sony’s unique tonearm, dubbed the “Biotracer.” It began on an earlier model (PS-B80 in 1978) and was nearly perfected here. The Biotracer uses magnets and electronic parts for its automated movements, promising shiny touch controls. Just press a button and Biotracer takes care of everything; you never have to lay a finger on the tonearm.

The Biotracer design also tackles tonearm resonance, one of the oldest engineering challenges in turntables. Most tonearms must be matched properly with the tonearm, so resonances do not interfere with the musical signal. Sony’s design essentially eliminates this problem. In theory, you should be able to play any kind of phono cartridge on the Biotracer, regardless of its mass or compliance (the adjustable Vertical Tracking Adjustment helps greatly).

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Babes in Toyland

Babes in Toyland

I once read the perfect description of the Minneapolis and Seattle music scenes of the 1990s: Seattle was Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, Minneapolis was Neil Young and The Rolling Stones. While Seattle had the great rock bands of our generation, towering dinosaurs like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains and Mudhoney, the Twin Cities followed the fuzz-tone punk of Warehouse-era Husker Du and the country-tinged guitar pop of The Replacements.

Babes in Toyland were always misfits for the Land of 10,000 Suburban Shopping Malls. They were enormously loud, fiercely aggressive, openly defiant. They didn’t care if the locals would rather listen to the Gear Daddies and The Jayhawks, or if Minnesota’s unique blend of passive-aggressive politeness — “Minnesota Nice” — never suited their style. This band came to make noise and shock the neighbors. They came to rock.

Babes in Toyland — vocalist Kat Bjelland, bassists Michelle Leon and Maureen Herman, drummer Lori Barbero — created a punk rock sound that was ferocious, richly textured, deeply passionate, full of sound and fury. They were clearly the heaviest and most aggressive band in Minneapolis, then or now. They played rock music on the boys’ terms. They were following the tradition of Blue Cheer’s Vincebus Eruptum and The Ramones’ Road to Ruin, of Sonic Youth and Bauhaus and early Velvet Underground.

With their 1990 debut album, Spanking Machine, the band became a local staple and earned considerable respect within the indie-rock world. Lori Barbero’s Uptown home famously became a regular hostel for every band visiting Minneapolis. Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore invited the Babes to join them on tour. British music maven John Peel declared the album the best release of the year.

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When Rock Was Dangerous: Lou Reed’s Lulu

Lou Reed and Metallica

Once upon a time, many moons ago, rock ‘n roll was dangerous. Such an attitude has all but vanished in the age of house-trained consumers, corporate conglomerates, banal no-talent television shows and the Telecom Act of 1997. Everyone plays it safe to pacify the public, company bosses and corporate overlords alike, and the result is the worst stretch of pop music in living memory.

How perfectly fitting that Lou Reed, one of the greatest, most unpredictable, most mercurial of all rock legends, would end his career by dropping a ten-megaton bomb squarely in the laps of the fanboys, hipsters and so-called experts. When his final opus Lulu detonated in 2011, it exploded across the pop landscape with a sound and fury not seen in decades. Andy Warhol would have been impressed.

Lulu is many things — terrifying in its fury, full of passionate intensity, spit and venom, a hurricane assault of atonal distortion and amplified noise. It is about as far from “commercial” as any major musical work released in this century. It is deliberately provocative in every way you can imagine. It is as welcoming as a punch to the face. It is complex, challenging, poetic, defiant. There are moments that make me chuckle (“I am the chair”), moments that make me wince (“Mistress Dread”), and moments that leave me overwhelmed by its beauty (“Junior Dad”). The album feels like White Light/White Heat, Berlin and Metal Machine Music hurled into an atom smasher. It is a brilliant masterwork of rock art.

The aforementioned Lou Reed albums were, in their time, met with universal derision and scorn, only to be hailed as classics many years later, and so we should expect no less from Lulu. This album was never going to be greeted with candy and kisses. Still, the overweening tantrums, the endless kvetching from all sides was surprising. The catalyst, I suspect, lie in Reed’s partners on the project: Metallica, the hard rock titans who inspire devotion and vitriol in equal measure, and often from the same people. It has long been fashionable to pile on Metallica for everything they do, and Lulu became an opportunity too good to pass up.

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Sega Rally Championship (Sega Saturn)

Sega Rally Championship for Sega Saturn

Sega Rally Championship (Sega AM3 for Sega Saturn)

The Sega Saturn had its best holiday season in 1995, with the spectacular 1-2-3 punch of Virtua Fighter 2, Sega Rally Championship, and Virtua Cop. The console was almost immediately written off in favor of Sony’s Playstation, and that first months as a Saturn owner was rough. These three games were just about the best to ever grace the console, and immediately renewed our faith. For a short while, Saturn had the best fighter, the best racer, and the best shoot-em-up. And to be perfectly honest, I don’t believe Playstation ever beat these three.

Ah, well, PSX won out with practically everything else. But there was still a spirit of competition in 1995. We were hoping for a repeat of the classic console war between Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo. Sadly, it was not to be, but that had more to do with the evolution of videogames into 3D and the rising dominance of polygon graphics. PSX was the future, while Saturn had one foot planted in the 2D past, which found itself suddenly out of fashion.

Saturn’s reputation is far better today, especially when you can download all those excellent import games that were never allowed to be seen in the US.  Probably wouldn’t have made much of a difference, anyway, but perhaps Saturn could have build a solid and profitable niche. Who knows?

In any case, Sega Rally Championship is one of Saturn’s finest hours. It’s easily the best racing title on the system, which became very frustrating to fans like me. I have no idea why the graphics engine wasn’t ported around and used in a dozen other videogames. Sega kept to a rigorous pattern of repeating 1995 every Christmas: fighting game, racing game, light gun game. The fighting titles improved, even if they leaned too heavily on the Virtua Fighter brand, and Virtua Cop 2 was simply spectacular — the rail car shootout remains unsurpassed for thrills and spills. But the racing hits were far and few between, and most that were released were disappointments: Daytona USA Championship Circuit Edition, Manx TT, Sega Touring Car Championship.

Sega Rally is intelligent, brilliant, requires a lot of planning and heavy thinking, and definitely many replays. It’s a very short game, like most racers of the 32-bit era, but you always wanted one more try. Rally racing was new, and the thrill of leaping across mud, dirt, water, and pavement was new, exciting. These four courses were densely packed with details, and required different enough skills to always keep you on your toes.

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The Simpson’s Movie: A Review…or, My Eyes, The Goggles Do Nothing!

The Simpsons Movie

Good Lord, this movie stinks.

I had high hopes for The Simpson’s Movie, and, indeed, it begins on a high note, with a great Itchy & Scratchy sequence that ends with Scratchy eating hundreds of nuclear warheads. Hah! Then the camera pans back to reveal we’re watching a movie, where Homer Simpson stands and berates the audience for paying money to see a show they’re already getting on television for free. Haha…more funny.

Homer wasn’t kidding. The jokes in this movie are good for about, oh, 20 minutes. Twenty minutes, the length of one decent TV. Then the writers lose any sense of creativity or wit, and plod along for two unbearably dull hours. The Simpson’s Movie is such a slave to Hollywood formula that I was looking behind my couch for a paperback copy of “Screenwriting 101.”

Do I really have to write more? I don’t feel like it. You’ve had more than enough time to see this movie if you’re so inclined. I’m really the last one to the party. I think the problem here is the same as the TV show: The Simpson’s has run out of gas. After 25 years on the air, every conceivable joke, story, and scenario has been played out a dozen different ways. The series is now reduced to the level of a simple gag show that sputters through tired routines and worn jokes, and has been so for years.

There’s no reason why a Simpson’s Movie couldn’t be clever, witty, biting, recapture some of that old magic. I could imagine a wacky comedy like one of Mel Brooks’ classic films — Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, Spaceballs — or any number of screwball farces. No such luck. What’s here is just a standard-issue formula picture that has been used on about a billion summer blockbusters.

About the only good thing to come out of this movie is the animation, which is much fuller than on TV. The production team definitely put a priority on animating The Simpsons as they never could on the small screen. For the most part, it works very well. They didn’t turn this movie into an overdrawn Disney cartoon, but augment the in-between animations whenever necessary.  Everything looks very nice, if still a bit bland, but that’s largely due to the art design of the series itself, and it’s far too late to do anything about that now.

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Gunstar Heroes (Sega Genesis)

Gunstar Heroes (Treasure for Sega Genesis)

Gunstar Heroes is just about the best videogame ever made for the Sega Genesis. It certainly symbolized everything that made Genesis so cool: terrific music, speed, innovation, and style, style, style. There is more style and clever ideas crammed into this game than in many consoles’ entire libraries, and I’m sure that sounds like some cheesy cliché, but this time it’s very true. Gunstar is the rightful heir to the greatest of all the run-and-gun shooters, Contra, filtered through 1990s pop culture, Japanese anime, channel surfing, and way too many explosions.

Here is a videogame where you face off against a giant bouncing cell with an enormous happy face. Here is a game where you venture through a giant dice maze. Here is a game where a villain, trapped on a burning train, hurls his own soldiers at you. In one of the early levels, you battle against suicide bombers, soldiers who set fire to houses, killer bees, flying drones, thugs who grab you from behind, and a creature, made entirely out of boxes, who attacks with the dragon punches and foot sweeps from Street Fighter 2.

That crazy sense of humor has since become a trademark quality of the game’s developer, a small Japanese studio named Treasure. The developers originally hailed from Konami during the 8- and 16-bit eras, and a number of them worked on many classics, although exactly which ones remain clouded in mystery. It’s commonly believed that they were responsible for Castlevania 4 and Contra 3 on the Super Nintendo (Gunstar’s first level is something of a homage to Contra 3), and possibly Bucky O’Hare in the arcades. I’ve heard assertions that some of these developers even worked on the original Castlevania and Contra, but I’m a little more skeptical. It’s all a part of the legend, I suppose.

In any case, these folks grew unhappy with having to churn out sequels and brand-name tie-ins. They wanted to break out and pursue their own original ideas. They wanted something new. So this small collection of programmers and artists left Konami and founded Treasure. They immediately set to work, churning out a number of games on Genesis; Gunstar Heroes was their first title.

Treasure immediately made an impact on the industry; with their first game, they demonstrated a technical brilliance and mastery of the Genesis. Truly Konami let some of their best talent slip out the door. Treasure also built up a fiercely loyal fan following, from fanzines (like mine) to magazines like Diehard Gamefan. To this day, you aren’t really considered a hardcore gamer if you don’t passionately love Treasure’s games.

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The Man Who Walked Between the Towers

Michael Sporn was a successful independent animator who lived and worked in New York City. A remarkably gifted individual, he built a long and prolific legacy of award-winning animated short films, often adapted from popular children’s books. According to Wikipedia, he produced and directed over thirty half-hour specials for PBS, CBS, HBO and Showtime. He created cartoon shorts for Sesame Street, public service announcements for UNICEF, and also music videos, documentary and film titles, commercial logos and industrial spots. He was immensely prolific and talented.

In addition to these achievements, Sporn created over fifteen short films, including adaptations of Raggedy Ann & Andy, Lyle, Lyle Crocodile, Goodnight Moon, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, The Little Match Girl, The Red Shoes, and many more. No doubt you will have your favorites from his filmography; I know I have mine.

Sporn was working on a feature animated movie based on the life and works of Edgar Allen Poe during his final years, which, unfortunately, was never to see completion. It was during this time that he began his battle with pancreatic cancer, which he fought with boundless courage and good spirits. Unfortunately, he would succumb to the disease, passing away in 2014.

In the early months of 2006, as I was beginning Ghibli Blog, Sporn was kind enough to send me a DVD copy of his most recent film, The Man Who Walked Between the Towers (I repaid his kindness by sending a package of numerous Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata films which were only then available in Japan). Based upon a great illustrated book, It tells the story of a Manhattan performance artist who famously tied a tightrope between the then-newly built World Trade Center towers, then danced and frolicked between the towers to the delight of the people below. The cartoon captures a sense of pencil and watercolor nostalgia, perfectly realized from the book, sparsely and carefully animated, as though Sporn did not wish to impose himself. It is the work of an artist with a keen eye, a sharp mind, and a humble spirit.

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Miles Davis – Get Up With It

Miles Davis, Get Up With It (1974)

The 1974 double-LP Get Up With It is the final studio album of the Miles Davis electric “fusion” era, and contains the funkiest, hardest, and wildest music of his career.

This wasn’t conceived as a studio project per se, like 1972’s On the Corner. Miles was rushing in and out of recording sessions with regularity throughout the 1970s, and while the bulk of the album features the “Pete Cosey lineup” (that’s the easiest way for me to remember this voodoo funk period), some of the tracks are recorded a bit earlier.

No doubt, at the time, this gave the impression that the album was a collection of leftovers, like numerous post-retirement Miles Davis albums of the ’70s like Directions, Circle in the Round and Water Babies. But like the 1974 release of Big Fun, which was composed of tracks recorded 1970-72, Get Up With It has a cohesion to its sound. To my ears, it sounds very much like a modern album…and, by that, I mean a ’90s rock album (21st century pop music is terrible).

1990s rock was defined by a lot of experimentation, and it was common for the great artists to jump across genres every couple of songs. It’s not quite the same as the musical brew of the late ’60s, but more of a channel-surfing thing. Maybe everyone was just taking cues from Nirvana and Pearl Jam. Who knows? My favorite ’90s albums — Soundgarden’s Superunknown, Stone Temple Pilots Purple, Hole’s Live Through This, R.E.M.’s Monster, Radiohead’s The Bends and OK Computer, Metallica’s Load & Reload — have that jukebox attitude. Get Up With It carries that very same vibe, and I think that’s the reason why I love it so much.

The two epics, which fill sides one and three, couldn’t be more different in mood and texture. And the shorter songs range from boogie blues to trip-hop dance to dissonant noise. And yet it all feels so similar. There’s a similar plan of attack from Miles and his bandmates, and to my mind it comes down to two things:

One, Miles on the keyboards. While piano and keyboards were always a staple, at this point Miles takes the keys himself, but he uses the instrument almost purely for assault. It’s there to bludgeon you, shock you, to hit you upside the head until you’re kissing canvas. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that Miles did little more than just punch the keyboard, or mash his forearm down for dissonant effect. Which brings us to…

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Ratatouille (2007): A Few Rambling Thoughts Posing as Some Sort of Movie Review

Ratatouille (2007)

I.

I’ve been following the box office numbers for Pixar’s Ratatouille on Box Office Mojo, hopeful that the movie’s fortunes turn out to surprise us. It’s a common assumption that this movie would not be a big hit with audiences, certainly not when compared to Pixar’s other hits. I’ve kept my hopes up that people would defy the suits and marketers who run Hollywood, and turn out in solid numbers. It hasn’t really happened, and at this point I don’t know if those numbers will ever arrive.

I’m really not sure why this is the case. Pixar is about as reliable a brand you can find for movies today. They’ve never made a bad picture, and many dedicated fans will insist that they never will. But you have to struggle to explain what could become Hollywood conventional wisdom: that Pixar is now a fading brand. Heaven forbid.

I’m not eager to accept such a pessimistic view just yet, but there’s no denying the numbers. Ever since Finding Nemo reached a peak, every Pixar movie since has grossed steadily smaller numbers; first with The Incredibles, then Cars, and now (almost certainly) Ratatouille. Surely this would be a concern, but add in the immensely expensive Disney buyout from last year, and you can see the stakes involved. The knives will be out for John Lasseter and Pixar’s generals, and that battle is really only just beginning.

So what’s wrong here? Is it simply that the market is oversaturated with CGI cartoons? Are parents reaching the burnout point, tiring of having to drag their children to more and more animated animal movies? Has the public become burned from an endless dirge of second-rate movies, cheap cash-ins and cynical sequels? Or is it the rats? Are folks really just turned off by rats? Maybe it’s everything, maybe it’s nothing.

I don’t know, I really don’t. I have my own pet theory, which also happens to be a running topic on Ghibli Blog. And here it is, in case you’ve missed it: Americans don’t think of animation as an artform or a facet of the movies; they primarily see animation as a babysitter. The idea that the medium could be capable of anything more, or serve any greater purpose, is embraced by artists and animation enthusiasts, but for the general population, the medium serves a more utilitarian purpose. Cartoons exist to keep our children quiet.

The explosion in mass media over the past generation, no doubt, has been a factor. When I was a small child, there were four television stations and maybe a few UHF channels. Then cable arrived and the number of stations rose to 30. Today, there are literally hundreds of stations across cable and satellite providers. Home video has made thousands of movie and TV titles available within reach. The rise of digital streaming services like Netflix and Hulu only accelerates this momentum. And let us not forget the ten billion websites, all clamoring for our attention. American families have never felt so overwhelmed with entertainment options. Does this mean the loudest movies — the biggest explosions, the loudest fart jokes, the simplest plots — will rise to the top? Where does this leave thoughtful or nuanced movies?

Because of these reasons, I can understand the challenge in making a smart movie like Ratatouille a big hit. It’s so difficult to be heard over the noise. Even Pixar must sometimes struggle to be heard. This is going to be a major challenge for our beloved animation studio.

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Down on Skid Row

Down On Skid Row (1998)

Skid Row is a documentary movie that chronicles the lost era of downtown Minneapolis and its fabled “skid row” in the heart of the old city. It was filmed between 1955 and 1961 by John Bacich, a World War II veteran and successful real estate businessman who owned a bar and several “flophouse” hotels along Washington Avenue. He shot movies of his neighborhood patrons on 8mm film, and in the late 1980s, assembled his footage into a 30-minute short film, complete with running commentary of his memories.

This is a haunting documentary, deeply moving, and full of the human experience: tragedy, despair, misery, urban decay, but also humor, warmth, and the genuine compassion of Bacich, who was dubbed “Johnny Rex,” the “King of Skid Row.” It depicts an important part of American history that has now vanished. It is one of the most humane documentary films I have ever seen. Its power resonates and echoes in your heart and mind. I pray for the souls of these sad, lost men, as though they were here with me today, trapped in Purgatory and awaiting Salvation.

The Minneapolis Gateway district was the original heart of the old city, the merging of its three main avenues along the Mississippi River: Washington, Hennepin and Lyndale. Because its railroads lay nearby, this area became a source for cheap, easily exploitable labor — the “day laborers.” These men would work for the rail yards and trains for a short period of time, days, weeks or even months. Their temporary status prevented them from joining labor unions, thus keeping them poor and powerless. Ordinances were passed to force all the city’s liquor stores into the Gateway, and closed everywhere else. Police drove criminal elements — drugs and prostitution — into the growing slums, away from middle-class households. It was diabolical, brutally cynical, and highly effective. Soon, Minneapolis was home to the largest skid row in the American midwest.

In 1958, Minneapolis began a five-year crusade to reclaim the Gateway district, demolishing over 20 blocks and nearly 200 buildings. As the city’s business core moved several blocks west, Washington and Hennepin Avenues’ continued to decay. After World War II, a growing middle class embraced the new future of suburbs, with their clean and spacious streets, shopping malls, and luxurious cars. The age of the interstate highway had arrived. Edina’s Southdale Mall ushered in the age of indoor shopping. Skyway tunnels moved people off downtown streets and into safe, climate-controlled environments. City planners envisioned a futuristic city with gleaming highways, polished skyscrapers, a future that was bright, clean, rational. A future world totally devoid of crime, poverty, pollution.

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Street Fighter 2 Turbo (Super NES)

Street Fighter 2 Turbo
Capcom for Super NES – Fighting – 1993 – Rating: 10/10

A perfect ten out of ten, small surprise here.

I recently read that Street Fighter 2 on the Super NES was Capcom’s best-selling game of all time, over six million copies. That would include, at the time, just about every Super NES owner in 1992, plus a metric ton of new fans, eager just to play the arcade sensation at home. Street Fighter 2 Turbo was released a year later and brought home the latest coin-op versions, Champion Edition and Turbo Champion Edition. Likewise, this was a great success, continuing the momentum of the original craze.

The first three variations on SF2 are now all considered one videogame, since the later sequels and spin-offs made so many changes as to be unrecognizable. As for me, I hold Champion Edition as my personal favorite of the series. It’s as balanced and nuanced as the game gets, and after that, things just get out of control. Capcom falls victim to its chronic sequel-itis, and the need to always tinker with formulas to keep the kids coming back.

Whatever. Here is the best home version you’re likely to ever see on the Virtual Console service. Street Fighter Alpha 2, Alpha 3 and Street Fighter 3: Third Strike (the definitive versions on Sega Saturn and Dreamcast, respectively) won’t be arriving anytime in the near future. Totally unfair, but, again, whatever. This version is so perfectly playable that I can’t imagine anyone really minding. If you could never buy another home version of any Street Fighter game, you’ll be happy with this one.

If you bought the first SF2 when it was released, you’re likely wondering if you should pay again for the new cart. The answer is yes. There are quite a lot of graphics changes, especially in the character designs, which are older, sleeker, and slightly more brutish-looking. Background stages are the same, apart from some minor variations such as day-to-night. And Ryu put away those signs on his roof that were always getting smashed during fights.

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World Class Baseball (Turbografx-16)

World Class Baseball for Turbografx-16

World Class Baseball
Hudson Soft for Turbografx-16 – Sports – 1989 – Rating: 5/10

World Class Baseball was released as part of the Turbografx-16 launch lineup in August of 1989. NEC and Hudson Soft chose wisely to attract buyers at the dawn of the 16-bit era. Sports titles have always been consistent sellers for home videogames, and baseball is immensely popular in Japan. As it so happens, Sega offered their own baseball entry for their Genesis launch, also in August, dubbed Tommy Lasorda Baseball; both titles are strikingly similar, and fans of either system will enjoy defending team over its heated rival.

Unfortunately….yeah, you saw this coming, didn’t you? There always has to be a downside when we’re talking about sports games “B.E,” which, of course, means “Before Electronic Arts.” It’s no real surprise to gamers that EA muscled in and dominated every sport practically from day one. The dirty little secret for this is quite simple: most sports videogames before 1990 were not very good.

You would expect baseball to be the one sport done right, since its popularity in Japan and America would mean no shortage of titles. The growing pains, as well as the technological limitations, that hampered other sports like football, soccer, basketball, and hockey, could be overcome here. Also, baseball has always just been easier to render on the classic games systems, going back to the early days of Atari and Intellivision. Software developers should have more experience with this sport by the end of the 1980s.

Which brings us to World Class Baseball on the Turbografx. To its credit, this was a decent, presentable little game for 1989, and the bright colors and catchy synth music proved an attractive draw for the new system. But it ultimately suffers from the same problems that hurt all video baseball games of the period. Maybe that’s why I’m just as fine with the ancient Home Run on Atari 2600 as anything else. Home Run captured only the abstract, bare essence of the sport, but it was fast, competitive and extremely playable. World Class Baseball does not possess those qualities. It runs sluggishly, painfully slow. S-L-O-W.

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Altered Beast (Sega Genesis)

Altered Beast for Sega Genesis

Altered Beast
Sega for Genesis – Action – 1989 – Rating: 3/10

Altered Beast was actually a good arcade game, one of a whole pack of great Sega arcade hits during the mid- to late-1980s. Its angle was slightly unique: you play as a pair of dead soldiers resurrected by Zeus, who commands you to rescue his kidnapped daughter (because every videogame in the ’80s involved rescuing kidnapped girls). In your quest, you are empowered with glowing spheres that mutate you from Scrawny Zombie Loser to Steroid Freak to Mutant Animal Superhero. This is very screwy theology, but it resulted in a very enjoyable experience on afternoons after school.

This was one of Sega’s very first Mega Drive titles, released in 1988 in Japan, and released in 1989 as the pack-in titles for Sega Genesis. It was practically the textbook definition of a lazy pack-in videogame: barely serviceable, lazily executed, short and basic and all too simple. It’s a decent showcase for the new system’s powers, with large character sprites and digitized speech samples. But not really. Its only real function was to force you out to the mall in search of more videogames.

What’s wrong with Genesis Altered Beast? It’s a lousy, half-hearted conversion of the arcade. The graphics kinda look right, except the colors are flat and overly dithered, the animation is lacking, the difficulty severely clipped. Beyond that, the gameplay is extremely basic, with auto-scrolling, two-tiered landscapes that somehow manage to move too slowly, yet end far too soon. I swear these levels are less than two minutes long. When your character changes into his animal form, you sit up and notice because, hey, now this game is gonna be really cool. But then the stage ends five or ten seconds later and the boss appears, a complete pushover who is dispatched in mere seconds. The main villain appears, steals your steroid spheres, and you’re back to playing as the scrawny stringbean again. What a rip.

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The Legend of Zelda (NES)

The Legend of Zelda for NES

The Legend of Zelda
Nintendo for NES – Adventure – 1986 – Rating: 10/10

I.

Back in 2009, when I was finally successful in scoring a Nintendo Wii, one of the first videogames I purchased was The Legend of Zelda on Virtual Console. I hadn’t played it extensively since my early college days, thanks to my then-girlfriend who was a massively devoted fan. Since then, I skipped out on Nintendo’s reissue cartridge on Gameboy Advance, and only dabbled on rare occasions on FCE Ultra, the homebrew computer emulator.

I began playing, expecting only an hour or so of light, nostalgic fun. A couple days later, I had to pry myself away from my Wii Remote. I don’t remember if I ate or slept that weekend, one of those sort of weekends. I came away with two surprising insights: the original Legend of Zelda still rocked, and Nintendo really let their series fall into mediocrity over the years. This I did not expect.

For the longest time, I was convinced there was something wrong with me because I stopped enjoying the Zelda series. The Wind Waker struck me as needlessly cartoonish and dumb. Twilight Princess struck me as too bloated and drawn out (although it was clearly reaching back to Ocarina of Time after the Gamecube fan backlash had kicked in the doors). Phantom Hourglass felt infantile and endlessly boring. Heck, even Majora’s Mask, a quirky title I ought to champion, bored me to tears. Spirit Tracks and Skyward Sword were, frankly, enormously stupid.

Surely, something had to be wrong. I loved the early Zelda’s up to 1998’s Ocarina, which is just about the greatest videogame ever made. The games weren’t bad, and Nintendo at least continued to try new ideas within its increasingly stale formula. Something was off, and I couldn’t put my finger on it. But once I reconnected with the original 1986 Zelda, everything snapped into focus. I understood exactly where Nintendo went wrong.

The Legend of Zelda is one of Nintendo’s most iconic videogames. It is nearly as influential as Super Mario Brothers, and can be thought of as its cousin. Both games inhabit a similar obsession with parallel worlds, one on the surface, the other hidden away in the corners of the screen and packed with surprises. Both built upon the genre innovations of recent years to create something new. And their feet were equally grounded in classic arcade games.

So what happened to the Zelda franchise? Nintendo took the “Action” out of “Action-RPG.” Like most videogame developers, they became obsessed with being perceived as “artists,” “rock stars” or “movie directors.” They became obsessed with mainstream cultural acceptance, apart from the negative stereotype of computer programming nerds. They became obsessed with predictable, simple “puzzles” at the expense of action. They became obsessed with “stories” and “characters,” even though hardly anyone possessed any talent or skill for it (mostly aping bad Hollywood blockbuster movie cliches). “Arcade videogames” became associated with everything these creators sought to avoid.

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Super Metroid (Super NES)

Super Metroid for Super NES

Super Metroid
Nintendo for Super NES – Adventure – 1994 – Rating: 10/10

Name the best videogame ever made for the Super NES. For some, it’s Super Mario World or The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. Others, Super Mario Kart or Sim City. A number will point to Street Fighter 2 Turbo, Final Fantasy 3 or Chrono Trigger. And a lot of you will insist that it’s really Super Metroid.

The Metroid fans are probably correct. This might very well be the Super Nintendo’s finest hour.

I think some part of the mystique about Super Metroid is the fact that the game remained alone, without any sequels or follow-ups, for so many years. While Mario and Zelda and the rest continued with newer games on the Super NES and Nintendo 64, Metroid held back, alone in its own little world. It really wasn’t until 2002, eight years later, that a new installment finally arrived, and even then, gamers were surprised to discover a 3D shooter that was closer to Quake or Powerslave then their beloved Metroid.

In the meantime, Konami completely reinvents its old Castlevania franchise by aping the gameplay structure of Super Metroid. Nintendo’s forgotten classic was becoming a legend, influencing others. Goodness knows Konami sure loved that game, enough to shamelessly steal from it for every 2D Castlevania game ever since.

Oh, yeah, sure, Nintendo eventually figured things out, and returned to their roots with a pair of Metroid titles on the Game Boy Advance. But let’s be honest here: those games weren’t as good. The first one, Metroid Fusion, made a mess of everything with a virus infestation that turns Samus Aran into a mutant. The second, Metroid: Zero Mission was better, but, again, it just felt like a dumbed-down kiddie version of the 1994 masterpiece. Remember those Atari 2600 games that had the child-friendly mode with the teddy bear icon? Yeah, that’s exactly what Zero Mission was all about, a Metroid that coddles you and holds you by the hand, when not stumbling into Hayao Miyazaki’s Ohmus.

Words that come to mind when I think of Super Metroid: dark, moody, mysterious. This is just about the heaviest game Nintendo ever made — “heavy” in that late 1960s, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple sense. The whole enterprise just breathes in a thick, misty atmosphere, this strange alien landscape, this mishmash of different cultures. This world that Samus Aran finds herself in, this is a world with a history. You can almost trace that history as you progress through the game, spotting the places where some poor fool vainly tried to civilize the place. You can see the corpses for yourself to see how that turned out.

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Baseball Stars 2 (Neo-Geo)

Baseball Stars 2 for Neo-Geo

Baseball Stars 2
SNK for Neo-Geo – Sports – 1992 – Rating: 8/10

Baseball Stars 2 is one of the signature Neo-Geo titles. It perfectly captures the rebel vibe SNK was going after when they launched their arcade/home system: flashy, brash, over-confident, and irreverent. It also happens to play a very good game of baseball.

There have been a million baseball videogames during the 1980s and 1990s, and to be perfectly honest, there isn’t a dime’s worth of difference between any of ’em. Most are serviceable, some are quite good, and they’re nearly all identical. The batter-pitcher view is always the same, as is the control scheme and play mechanics. Aside from a small handful of exceptions — the masterpiece that is World Series Baseball 98 on Sega Saturn always comes to mind — video baseball is a predictable, safe, and slightly stale genre of electronic games.

What Baseball Stars 2 has in spades is attitude. All of the baseball players are mutated steroid freaks, carrying powered-up bats that may as well be tree trunks. Pumping fists, breaking the bat over the knee, aggressive machismo, dramatic diving for the ball — this is almost like a cartoon spoof of sports games. What’s interesting is that SNK’s previous games in the series (two previous Baseball Stars titles appeared on the NES and Neo-Geo) were playing it straight. Isn’t that weird? Perhaps they just needed an over-the-top sports game on Neo-Geo. The system mascot was a rabid pit bull, after all.

My favorite moment in the game is when you bean the batter with a fast pitch. He gets knocked down, then rushes the mound, and punches the pitcher clean on the jaw. I don’t know why I always laugh when that happens. The closeup shot makes me laugh. I only wish the pitcher could fight back, instead of taking it on the jaw. The best part is that your pitcher becomes crippled after getting punched out; his pitches become slow and wobbly. Hah!

Other than all that, what is there to say? It’s arcade baseball. The gameplay is the same as nearly every other baseball videogame, the controls are fast and fluid, the graphics are vivid, brash, supremely detailed in that early ’90s arcade style. There are no leagues or seasons or playoffs, just a single match between two teams of rage-fueled steroid freaks. This game is best for short bursts of dumb fun, and especially good for showing off the 16-bit graphics of the Neo-Geo. I don’t know if that sort of thing can impress teenagers in the 21st Century, but if they have any sense, it should. It was really awesome back in 1991. Everything was awesome in 1991.