The Zero Hour

Reviews, rants and oddities on video game and film culture.

Category Archives: Features

Hollywood into Darkness: Star Trek, 3D and the potential default shift in cinema viewing

Today, I found out my local, erm.. “big corporate multiplex cinema chain” isn’t going to be showing the 2D print (oh, how archaic) of Star Trek into Darkness when it’s released in a couple of weeks and that 3D will be the only option they’re providing. I’d heard about other cinemas doing this a couple of weeks back, but I assumed “as release gets closer, more 2D showings will appear, Paramount just want to prioritise the 3D version for advance sales” Now, I’m finding this isn’t the case, and that priority has left any other version lost in the mud. Now, this worries me because there is absolutely no reason for them to do this.

See, Star Trek is a big name franchise, JJ Abrams is a big name director, and whilst the cast aren’t exactly “Tom Cruise” in terms of household names, they have at least some power in getting the audience to see it based on that, (esp. w/ the casting of Cumberbatch who is the actor of the moment). it’s impossible to predict the success of a movie, but Star Trek follows the “Hollywood formula” pretty closely that it’s a safe bet, so why are they essentially jeopardising their own movie?

So, what’s the problem with only doing 3D showings? Sure, they cost more to go see, therefore giving the studios a slightly bigger return, but Avatar aside, they are still not as popular 2D showings, which remain the default since that film of the train parking at a station that scared half the room of patrons in the 1800s (and ironically did a better job at showing depth then most 3D movies). Most movies still predominantely get their money from 2D screenings, although obviously 3D is still relatively popular and accesible to the casual cinema goer.

Which is fine, but there is still a large amount of people who find 3D uncomfortable, can’t see 3D, dislike or find the effect distracting or have to wear two pairs of glasses to watch the movie, which not only looks silly, but stops them fitting on your face and you have to constantly be distracted from the action by sliding them back up. Not to mention that most 3D movies are converted in post production gives it less of feeling of immersion and more of a feeling of a cash cow gimmick.

And allowing that cash cow gimmick be the default option is therefore alienating a good chunk of your potential audience. Star Trek is a film that inevitably will make money, but it will make considerably less because it’s not as accessible. Maybe that’s the plan though, and they’re hoping for a resurgence through home release in 5 or so months time.

A similar thing happened to Dredd, one of the more surprisingly solid movies of last year. Both movies were made with the ultimatum of “This has to be in 3D” (assuming because of the increased ticket prices?) and both movies have very limited 2D screenings (at least in Britain)  Dredd did not do well at the box office, performing lower than expected. It did make a lot more money on DVD/Blu-Ray though, and I think partly down to it being more accesible to people. I never saw it at the cinema because I have trouble with 3D movies, but I bought the DVD the day of release because I wanted to see it.

And Star Trek is doing a similar thing, as I’ve said a few times, it’s going to be successful in some capacity (whether it’ll be “Hollywood succesful” is anyones guess), but this is a huge gamble and one that could either kill the series, or shift the default towards 3D for films in the future, which as a fan of cinema, I do not think would be a positive move. 3D will make them money on opening weekend, but without the big 2D release to steady it, will it be enough?

It’s possible that this is just early worrying and by release date 2D screenings pop up all over the shop, but it just makes me think this is a trend that’s just going to get worse. I’m fortunate in that I’ve a cinema that is showing a 2D version (at double price to my usual haunt though??) but some won’t have that luxury and will be forced to wait till DVD release day, which to me, isn’t really fair.

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7 years of Mother 3

This article is spoiler free.

7 years is probably not a traditional milestone to celebrate an anniversary, but then Mother 3 was never a traditional game, its tagline perfectly summed it up as “strange, funny and heartrendering” after all. Nevertheless, I felt that celebrating its anniversary this year, what with the announcement only a few days ago that it’s prequel, Mother 2, or Earthbound as it’s more commonly known, is finally getting a re-release (and acknowledgement from Nintendo at all) in America and a first time release in Europe this year means that this year is the last year the series can really exist in an environment where it’s only known to hardcore Nintendo fans and video game affecionados (although it’s unlikely to set the world on fire anyway).

Earthbound itself is merely a footnote when talking about its sequel, sure elements and a couple characters are repeated but Mother 2 and 3 are so far apart, some fan theories predict Mother 3 is actually a prequel! But it’s still an important footnote, being the only game in the series released outside of Japan. Earthbound was not a commercial success, but those who liked it, loved it and kept a part of it in them, and as the years past and the game became rarer, it had developed into a wonderful cult fanbase online, without which, the re-release this year wouldn’t have been possible. And neither would the translation of the game we’re talking about today.

Mother 3 never officially got a translation in English, if you play it on an emulator in English, see screenshots in English, it’s because of its dedicated fanbase, or more specifically Tom Ato of Starmen.net, who spent two year singlehandedly translating it so English fans could play the game, if they hadn’t, I wouldn’t be writing this article right now.

So clearly someone doesn’t spend two years coding and translating Japanese and a legion of people (over a million at this point) wouldn’t have found a way to play the game if it wasn’t something truly special, it would have to be something more than the sequel to “that quirky RPG where you fight a pile of puke” fortunately, it is, it is so much more. It’s almost an epic, tackling themes of loss, family, nature  vs technology, the fall of utopia and so much more, seeing the change to the world through the eyes of an innocent child, with clear parallels to Nazism and this is no coincidence, Shigesato Itoi, more or less the series auteur, said he was heavily influenced by Agota Kristoff’s “The Notebook, and the game shares major themes and its lead characters names are the same as the books narrators. It’s interesting how he noted that the book read “like an RPG” whereas vice versa some have claimed Mother 3 as the closest video games have reached to literature.

On paper, it’s a crazy prospect, originally in development on the N64, the game was cancelled for many years before being revitalised for release on the Game Boy Advance, now sporting a look more reminiscent of Earthbound and truer to the series previous incantions. Whilst the early N64 footage looks interesting, and seems to contain elements of plot points that would be in the final game, it’s clear that game belongs on a 2D sprite plain, and if anything proves that the fanciest graphics and techniques aren’t the main ingredient to make a classic game, this is a 2D game that was on a system that was outdated, powered by clear nods to late 80’s RPG’s and a desire to tell a good story. If the story did more to address a commentary on the medium, it may have been regarded as a postmodern classic the way Bioshock, released a year later would, but sadly save for, one boss battle and the potential of the naming system, it sticks closely to traditional story structure and narrative.

But “traditional structure and narrative” are never a problem when they’re done well, through strong characterisation (again, props to Ato for really nailing this down in the translation) and decent pacing, as the game begins we are told “Welcome to Mother3 World” and by god Itoi went so far out of his way to create just that, every character has their own unique design and personality, creating that small town allowed him to really hone in on everyone involved. Minor characters have their own little arcs that you can completely miss as you progress through the storyline, and if you put in the effort to engage emotionally with these people, it makes the games ending all the more powerful.

Mother 3 takes place on the utopian Nowhere Islands, far away in both time and place from Earthbound’s pastiche of Americana, with clearly more of its homegrown Japanese influence on it, although the village in the early sections of the game isn’t dis-similar to that of a small town in say, a Western. The game mostly centres around Lucas and his family and how quickly it falls apart, within a short period of time into the game, things escalate and the family break in two, as strange creatures fusing of technology and nature begin to make the people of the idyllic Tazmily Village scared and sad for the first time, and then a bizarre army adorned with pig imagery begin to show up and slowly gain influence, introducing money and “happy boxes” that hypnotise the townsfolk (allegedly not a metaphor for television, but it makes you wonder…) the game takes a turn in its second half when the town is completely taken over by the Pigmask army, with Lucas essentially the leader of a 3 man (and dog) rebellion, uncovering the Pigmask’s dirty secrets and true plans and awakening ancient power to put things right on a roaring adventure through old castles, under the sea, a rock club, factories, mushroom tripping islands, and finally the “big” city.

Is it perfect? Of course not, the turn based battle system is horribly dated and incredibly slow (this is the same concern with a lot of Pokémon games), chapter 7 is far too long in comparison to the others and a big part of chapter 1 involves grinding for EXP, but really these minor things don’t dilute the experience, which I’m trying to really avoid spoiling for you because it’s something you have to see for yourself. It’s a world where mole crickets are sparring for a fight, where you can ride a table across a tunnel, and where tomboy princesses befriend monkeys and pigs sunbathe. And maybe one day soon you will get to visit that world as Nintendo intended, if Earthbound can be re-released, it opens that door for the rest of the series, I don’t think it is as big a crowd pleaser as Earthbound, but to me, it’s a richer experience, and you’ll never want to leave the world it creates.

The fan translation page
Starmen.net
A really interesting (but spoiler heavy) interview with Itoi about the game

And here’s a couple bits I’ve written in the past about it.

Thoughts on the importance of the games character naming system
No #2 on my top ten games of all time list

Oscar Predictions 2013 edition

Ironically, the year I unintentionally put the site on the back burner is the one where I actually got off my ass and saw, to use actual maths, a shit-ton of movies, so for once I have actually seen the vast majority of Oscar nominees. This is kind of a big deal for me, I’m usually really far behind the Oscar zeitgeist, I still haven’t seen most of the nominees from the past few years), so to be able to go “Oh yeah, these are all pretty good, it’s definitely a contender” But if you’re interested in my opinion (which I hope you are because I assume that’s why you’re here) in a bit more depth, I’ll no doubt speak critically about the movies later.

So, like any person interested in movies or pop culture around awards season, I have opinions on what’s been nominated, what was snubbed, and who should win. So let’s see what’s in the running to win, and moan about how our favourite movies were snubbed.

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Do DVD’s…kind of suck?

So I was just watching the Nostalgia Chick’s look at the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy and at one point, she brings up the Extended editions and how they were a great addition extending (duh) the story and fleshing out minor characters and contained many in-depth features on how the movies were made. This suddenly made me realise two things.

1.) I think the Extended Editions maybe my favourite DVD’s ever
2.) DVDs and Blu-ray’s are kind of terrible.

See, here’s the thing. The actual movie on any disc is for the most part fine no qualms about that unless you’ve been screwed over quality wise with a dodgy copy, I distinctly remember Warner Bros. made a hodge podge of Inception DVDs when it was first released that I had to get my copy replaced and there are obivously exceptions, but it’s more of a fault of a scratched disc or a general shoddy manufacturing error. It’s the stuff that goes around it; the cover, the menus, the extras, it’s all part of the presentation. It’s 2013, the Lord of the Rings extended editions came out about 10 years ago and this is the standard that we should be at by this point, and it’s at least the standard I judge all DVD and Blu-ray (especially Blu-ray considering you’re already paying more) formats, high standards? Maybe, because very little has actually reached that level. It’s not uncommon still to have DVD (we’ll refer to Blu-rays as this too unless specified) sets rushed out with very little than the movie poster as cover art, a blank disc with the movie name, and special features that are limited only to “deleted scenes”.

So why is this? Well, it’s most likely in most cases to be a lack of funds to do an audio commentary, going back to the original footage (or in some cases negatives, which then cost even more to develop into digital blahdy blahdy tech babble) to find “hilarious” bloopers, cast interviews and making of documenatries. But whilst with smaller films this is understandable, huge blockbusters (you know the films most people will buy) will pull this trick and give you the consumer a bare bones copy of the movie with little effort put into it. A good example of this is the Blu-ray of Marvel’s The Avengers (Nope, not calling it the UK name because no-one else does and it’s stupid), which is the third biggest movie of all time, and was clearly rushed out to capitalise on that fact. we get a rubbish cover art (One that for a big ensemble movie goes for the three most popular characters, leading to those unaware to think there are no women in the movie), no audio commentary (It’s on the US release though), deleted scenes and a one shot short film, which admittedly was nice, but felt out of place considering its little relevance.

It’s become increasingly common for studios to roll out the DVD release in a considerably shorter time frame than they used to, Skyfall comes out DVD in about 2-3 weeks (18th Feburary) and it’s cinema release was only 3 months prior to that. And this is why these releases are so barren with extras, the companies have to get everything done within a tight deadline in order to allow manufacturing and shipping, which is getting considerably smaller because studios are scared of a little something called The Internet

Movie companies are often pretty quick to demonise the internet, they regularly hound YouTube stopping any unauthorised use of their content and many were keen on SOPA when it was around, but most of all, they think piracy on the internet is killing their profits. (The fact that the second and third highest grossing movies ever were released within the last 3 years tells us that’s not true) and if they don’t officially release the movie soon after the end of the theatrical run, people will head to The Pirate Bay and download it. And whilst that is probably true, it’s still a minority.

Of course maybe this just leads us to consider the future, which is already out there; downloading through services like iTunes and streaming with Netflix/LoveFilm. Obviously there are benefits to this, you pay as much as you would for a DVD once a month and you get a large selection of movies that you can watch anywhere,  or you download a from iTunes for a lower price than a hard copy and again, watch anywhere.

But if this is the case, surely a DVD needs to do that extra something, like the Lord of the Rings extended edition, with their decorated art, tome style aesthetic and hours of extras on how they made Hobbit feel in order to sway people to spend that little bit extra on something that ultimately gives the product a bit of personality and charm and shows that they actually cared and put the effort into a product. Now, obviously what that extra something is depends on the movie and it really does suit big blockbuster movies better (I really can’t see something like This is 40 with steelbook packaging) and although it sounds like it, I’m not asking for every movie to have an hour of deleted scenes put back in (because that would ruin pacing, flow etc blahdy blah filmy stuff), or enough special features to keep you till your DVD player breaks of over-use. Films are an artform and I just want our DVD packaging and extras to reflect that and to stand out on your shelves. A good comparison to make is that of CD’s/Vinyl and downloads, sure you can download a copy of, say, Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs for £7.99, but buying a copy on CD/Vinyl for a couple pounds more (The Vinyl cost me double that) gives you not only it’s wonderful artwork (AND A CHOICE OF BACKGROUNDS!!) but you get the liner notes with the lyrics and it’s just an extra bit of warmth and luxury that a download can’t provide (Some give you digital booklets, but it’s not the same). You don’t buy an album and expect nothing else but the record itself, why are DVD’s any different?

But this could all just be nostalgia and if people didn’t go out their way for this ten years ago, it’s not going to happen now. It was a good way of getting DVD owners to buy Blu-Ray copies, now it’s an excuse to just download/stream films (which no doubt costs movie companies less so more chance of profit to them), but with The Hobbit films expected to have extended editions, I can at least expect those to look fantastic on my shelf and filled with every teeny tiny detail in regards to the making of them, and if it’s the last hurrah for craft and care before the DVD dies to Netflix, least I’ll get my money’s worth.

Music Monday #4: Howling Bells – Self Titled

I’ve never really been sure why, but I’ve always been drawn to bands with female vocalists, which would probably explain why I’ve so heavily endorsed Metric and Yeah Yeah Yeahs in the past couple of weeks. Whilst I can’t exactly give a straight answer to why, I think it partly leads into the vocal style, I tend to find that you can get more emotion out of a female voice than you can a males. I’m not saying male voices are devoid of emotion, in fact I’m sure in future weeks we’ll see many cases that are the opposite, but for now, let’s talk about Howling Bells.

Howling Bells are a band who like a lot of bands of the period, never quite managed a level of huge success. They came close to it, having toured with Coldplay, critical acclaim and being pick of the week on many radio stations, but it never translated to number 1 albums. Maybe they never will have a gold record and maybe their best years are now behind them (Their 3rd album, The Loudest Engine, whilst enjoyable, didn’t have the magic of the previous two albums), but they are a fascinating, unique band who hold a very special place in my heart.

Formed in Sydney and originally as “Wakiki”, peddling a pop rock sound, the band were dis-satisfied with their sound and decided to change direction, and this involved a big name change to Howling Bells. The making of their first album really kicked off after sending demos to Coldplay producer Ken Nelson, who wanted to work with them in England, this meant the band upping sticks and moving to Liverpool, but there was a catch. Nelson was working on Coldplay’s X&Y and the band spent 10 months waiting for him to become available after X&Y sessions ran on. The unhappiness in the band, stuck in the UK during the cold winter and the delay in production, began to seep into their sound, creating a strange mix of country, gothic blues and indie rock and it suits the vocals, coming across as part Bronte novel, part twin peaks, part PJ Harvey.

So you’d expect this strange mash of styles to be a mess, right? Wrong. It’s a beautiful album, Juanita Stein is possibly one of the best vocalists out there, and it’s her voice and lyrics that lift songs like Setting Sun and The Night Is Young to another plain. Setting Sun especially is a particularly stand-out track, its slide guitars and build-up give the sense of floating as it creates this psychedelic crazy chorus. And then we have Broken Bones, where her feather light falsetto keeps the track feeling bouncy and breezy and even youthful.

For all its gothic twang, the album does have this element of child-like playfulness. Velvet Girl has this one line of teenage ambition that, excuse the pun, completely struck a chord with me. “I’ll be your velvet girl/we’ll leave this town/and change the world” and right there, you have this simple line that feels silly in the eyes of grown-ups, but for an impressionable young teenager, it was just inspirational. That said, in my honest opinion, the album is at its best towards the end when it grows up in a sense. In The Woods is possibly one of the most heart-breaking songs I’ve ever heard, it’s got whispering intimacy against what seems like a magical backdrop and boy/girl vocals sharing each verse like airing their problems out to the world. And the chorus delivery “I can’t run away/from myself/like yesterday/and I/I’ll change my ways/someday soon” is acknowledging their problems, but being helpless to change them, it’s so startling and haunting that it sticks in your mind.

And then the album ends with I’m Not Afraid, which feels like the soundtrack to some kind of Wild West Wasteland, being lost and confused, but strong about what’s coming next. And that’s kind of a nice message to end on, don’t you think?

Key tracks

– Setting Sun
– In The Woods
– The Night Is Young