© Copyright Sega Corporation

Top Three: Underrated Video Games

Part two of our conversation on console video games! In this episode, Nick and Dimitri discuss the mechanics of old-school video games and then each list their top three underrated console gems. Also, Nick hints as to why he maintains a flexible work schedule.

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© Copyright 20th Century Fox

The Wolverine (2013)

Director: James Mangold
Writers: Mark Bomback and Scott Frank
Cast: Fukushima Rila, Hugh Jackman, Famke Janssen, Svetlana Khodchenkova, Will Yun Lee, Okamoto Tao, Sanada Hiroyuki, Brian Tee, and Yamanouchi Haruhiko


© Copyright 20th Century Fox

© Copyright 20th Century Fox

It’s astonishing how much super-hero movies have changed in just five years. Compare Wolverine’s (Hugh Jackman) first solo cinematic foray in 2009 with his latest in 2013. Even their titles denote a fundamental shift in approach. Whereas X-Men Origins: Wolverine practically cries out, “Watch this movie! It’s connected to a franchise you like!”, The Wolverine not only expects you to know that the titular character is a mutant X-Man rather than an overgrown weasel; it even goes so far as to distract you with a misleading determiner.

Perhaps a bit of context is needed here. Production on X-Men Origins: Wolverine started before Jon Favreau’s Iron Man (2008) revolutionised the genre, back when such films seemed ashamed of featuring costumed titans. As a result, every bit of dialog was devoted to explaining Wolverine’s mutant abilities, apologising for the film’s high concept, and streamlining its mythology. The Wolverine, on the other hand, belongs the new super-hero tradition, which values above all else character development, reverence for the source material, and obscure inter-continuity nods.

For instance, even though Wolverine spends the whole movie moping about it, we’re never explicitly told that, two instalments ago, he killed a resurrected Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) to save the world. This suits me fine, as it helps me pretend X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) never happened. More to the point, though, The Wolverine wisely strips our hero from all that X-Men baggage, relocating him to Japan, where people favour his civilian moniker “Logan” (or “Logan-san”) over the code name “Wolverine”. As in Iron Man and Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), the goal here is to explore the man behind the powers.

Heck, The Wolverine even cripples Logan’s infamous healing factor by way of a mysterious virus that still allows him to survive minor gunshots but not without passing out from blood loss. Though you can only pull this trick once, it’s nice to see our hero have to break a sweat to defeat the baddies. Consider the pulse-pounding set piece atop a high-speed train, how much excitement we get from knowing Wolvie can’t just plough his way to victory. Forget the flesh-disintegrating energy beams and amnesia bullets of X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Director James Mangold ramps up the tension without escalating the central conflict to cosmic levels.

© Copyright 20th Century Fox

© Copyright 20th Century Fox

In fact, the stakes in The Wolverine turn out refreshingly small. Summoned to Tokyo by an old acquaintance (Yamanouchi Haruhiko), Logan finds himself in the middle of a conspiracy to kidnap Mariko (Okamoto Tao), the sole inheritor of the Yashida corporate empire. Our hero falls in love with her, of course, and discovers his presence might have been planned all along. It’s a simple crime story that perhaps loses its way in the final act, when a giant samurai robot shows up to siphon Wolverine’s marrow. Still, the film offers up plenty of soulful moments and characters to whom we can genuinely get attached.

The X-Men movies have a long-standing tradition of taking the names and abilities of minor mutants and attaching them to any random personality. The Wolverine feels like the first entry in the series for which the filmmakers bothered to read the source material. Sure, some details have been altered, like Viper’s (Svetlana Khodchenkova) powers and occupation, but screenwriters Mark Bomback and Scott Frank get every voice right. I particularly like Yukio, the rebellious action junkie assigned to look after Logan. In this version, she can foresee the deaths of those around her, but, otherwise, Fukushima Rila portrays the character straight out of the comics page.

By the end of The Wolverine, I found myself eager for the further adventures of Yukio and Logan-san. I wanted to know more about the impossible love between our gruff, cynical hero and the delicate, idealistic Mariko. I may yet get my wish, seeing as the post-credit Easter Egg sets the events of X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) a full two years later. Granted, the X-Men timeline is getting a bit convoluted, but compare this small concession with the continuity mess that is X-Men Origins: Wolverine. We’re making progress here.

© Copyright Norstar Entertainment

Dumb Ways to Die: Prom Night III: The Last Kiss (1990)

Which homophobic slasher victim got pinned by the girliest throw in football history? Find out in this episode of Dumb Ways to Die as Dimitri reviews Ron Oliver and Peter Simpson’s Prom Night III: The Last Kiss (1990), the notional follow-up to 1987′s Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II despite it completely ignoring the latter’s plot.

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© Copyright MGM Studios

Don’t F— with the Original: Sequels

Celebrating Hollywood’s chronic lack of imagination! In this episode, Nick and Dimitri take a break from their usual reviewing duties to discuss the mechanics and history of the movie sequel. Then they go through every different type of cinematic follow-up, all the while bagging on Russel Crowe’s career choices.

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© Copyright Sony Pictures

The Grudge 3 (2009)

Director: Toby Wilkins
Writer: Brad Keene
Cast: Johanna Braddy, Jadie Rose Hobson, Horiuchi Aiko, Ikehata Emi, Laura Giosh, Matthew Knight, Michael McCoy, Gil McKinney, Beau Mirchoff, Mukai Takatsuna, Mihaela Nankova, Marina Sirtis, Shawnee Smith, and Tsuchiya Shimba


© Copyright Sony Pictures

© Copyright Sony Pictures

Back when Ghost House Pictures first announced their remake of Ju-On: The Grudge (2002), I braced myself for the worst. I didn’t know Shimizu Takashi, the creative mind behind the original film, had been brought on board, so I feared that Hollywood would impose its formula on the material, that the plot would get streamlined to cater to slasher fans, that a greater emphasis would be put on gore and violence, and that exposition would take precedence over atmosphere. As it turns out, I expected something like The Grudge 3.

Consider the opening teaser, in which Jake (Matthew Knight), who apparently survived the previous movie, gets drawn and quartered by the ghost of Kayako (Horiuchi Aiko). Whereas The Grudge (2004) and The Grudge 2 (2006) both start with a death scene so absurd as to leave us deeply perturbed and disoriented, The Grudge 3 goes for shock tactics more befitting of torture porn: mutilate a child in a gratuitously explicit fashion to introduce the monster, establish her modus operandi, and alert the audience that nothing is sacred. Then we cut to a horny couple making out in a haunted crime scene because, in America, sex is the root of all evils.

Written by Brad Keene, who either did not watch or did not care for the Japanese original, The Grudge 3 is the first entry in the Ju-On series to consist of a single story rather than a collection of interlocking nightmares. Picking up where The Grudge 2 left off, the plot centers on Max (Gil McKinney) and Lisa (Johanna Braddy), orphans struggling to manage a Chicago apartment complex in order to pay for their sister’s (Jadie Rose Hobson) medical bills. Unfortunately, the tenants keep dying off on account of Kayako and a strangely pubescent Toshio (Tsuchiya Shimba) roaming the halls.

Kayako’s sister, Naoko (Ikehata Emi), eventually moves in, convinced that she can contain the curse by repeating their mother’s mystical ceremony from The Grudge 2. Those who paid attention to the latter film will remember that the ritual turned out a red herring. More to the point, by obfuscating the ghoul’s story with childhood exorcisms and magic potions, The Grudge 3 not only complicates her origin but also robs it of its poetry. The Ju-On movies once pertained to the way grave personal injustices affect the very fabric of society. Now they merely reiterate the same old platitudes about the dangers of toying with the occult. It’s so Catholic, or rather typically Western.

© Copyright Sony Pictures

© Copyright Sony Pictures

The same can be said of the graphic manner in which the kill scenes are handled in The Grudge 3. No longer content to just scare her prey to death, Kayako now snaps their neck, breaks their bones, pierces their throat, or pulls out random body parts like an eighties slasher monster, and director Toby Wilkins captures every gory detail, making sure blood spurts out whenever the occasion arises. Ironically, all this violence turns out a lot less scary than the image of a long-haired ghost perching herself above your noggin.

I don’t mean to characterise the filmmakers as bloodthirsty maniacs. If anything, the explicit nature of these sequences have more to do with “the rules”: the Hollywood belief that, to engross themselves in a story, viewers need every bit of continuity to be addressed, explained, and consolidated with the rest of the established universe. Ever wondered why Kayako is able to spread her grudge while other murder victims stay dead? The Grudge 3 tells us it’s because her itako mom fed her all the evils of the world. Ever wondered what happens between those shots of her twitchy spirit crawling right up to her victims’ faces and the subsequent scenes in which their bodies are being picked up? Well, now you know.

It’s not all bad, mind you. The characters all come across as sympathetic; every cast member gives a solid performance; and the atmosphere is sufficiently creepy in that B-movie sort of way. I like as well that, in the absence of a big-screen budget, Wilkins and Keene have opted to play up the tragedy inherent to the Ju-On curse. I would’ve hated The Grudge 3, had it been marketed as the official remake of Shimizu’s J-horror classic, but, as the straight-to-video sequel to a fading franchise, it works fine.

© Copyright Warner Bros. Interactive

Top Three: Overrated Video Games

Part one of our conversation on video games! In this episode, Nick and Dimitri recommend a couple of Nintendo gems and then each list their top three overrated video games. Also, the Electric Boogaloo Factory makes a comeback as our panelists try to adapt three different video game franchises for the big screen.

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© Copyright SOny Pictures

The Grudge 2 (2006)

Director: Shimizu Takashi
Writers: Stephen Susco
Cast: Jennifer Beals, Joanna Cassidy, Edison Chen, Christopher Cousins, Jenna Dewan, Fuji Takako, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Eve Gordon, Ishibashi Ryo, Arielle Kebbel, Matthew Knight, Kim Miyori, Ozeki Yuya, Teresa Palmer, Sarah Roemer, Shaun Sipos, Amber Tamblyn, and Uno Misako


© Copyright Sony Pictures

© Copyright Sony Pictures

At the very least, The Grudge 2 makes for a fascinating experiment. A direct sequel to the perfunctory remake of director Shimizu Takashi’s own horror classic Ju-On: The Grudge (2002), the movie serves to transition the franchise once and for all from Japan to the United States. Now, some of you may be wondering why a series spawned from an American adaptation would need a bridge to its own shores. That’s because, rather than import the original concept to the Western world, 2004’s The Grudge opted to export Western characters to the original story, reusing a lot of the same settings, effects, characters, and even actors.

In fact, I contended in my review of The Grudge that the Japanese and American films could take place in the same continuity. The Grudge 2 confirms this in a throwaway exchange wherein a Hong Kong journalist points out to Detective Nakagawa (Ishibashi Ryo) that several families have died in the Saeki house and now even Americans are falling prey to the ghost of Kayako (Fuji Takako). I like the implication that the Ju-On curse has become a bigger problem for the authorities because it’s started affecting foreigners. This works as an indictment of both the Japanese justice system for prioritising appearances and Western media for attributing greater value to white people’s lives.

Having mentioned this, I remain befuddled at how little the characters speak Japanese, which strikes me as a requirement if you’re going to operate in Japan. In fairness, The Grudge 2 does make a point of pairing every Tokyo native with a gai jin or nine (the prefecture is apparently overrun with white folk), providing a reasonable excuse for their always speaking English. Also, one of the main threads unfolds in Chicago, Illinois, giving us a glimpse at how an onryō curse manifests itself on American soil.

True to the original series, The Grudge 2 functions more as an anthology than a standard monster flick, albeit the handy chapter titles from Ju-On: The Grudge have once again been left out. This allows screenwriter Stephen Susco to leap back and forth between three different storylines, melding them into a single narrative despite their taking place years apart. It’s a lot less confusing than you might think, though I’ve heard a lot of people complain just the same. The parallel threads only join in the final scene, you see, kind of like in a Saw sequel, except without the obnoxious “gotcha” flashbacks.

The first subplot picks up where The Grudge left off, with Karen (Sarah Michelle Gellar) having just burnt down the haunted Saeki estate. Her sister Aubrey (Amber Tamblyn) flies in from California and teams up with Eason (Edison Chen), the aforementioned journalist, to uncover Kayako’s sordid childhood, which, to be blunt, adds nothing interesting to the myth. I’m reminded of the scene from A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987) in which it’s revealed that Freddy is “the bastard son of a thousand maniacs”. Honestly, who cares?

© Copyright SOny Pictures

© Copyright SOny Pictures

The second storyline centers on Allison (Arielle Kebbel), a high school student who’s peer pressured into visiting the abandoned Saeki house. This thread in The Grudge 2 plays out much like a typical slasher, with the slutty bullies getting knocked off one by one until our virginal heroine has no choice but to face the monster alone. To quote The Cabin in the Woods (2012), “whether she lives or dies is optional.” As an aside, the white Ju-On makeup just doesn’t work on Caucasian faces. Maybe it’s got something to do with their more angular jaw lines. Maybe I’ve seen a few too many The Munsters reruns. Either way, I kept giggling when I rightly should’ve been terrified.

The final plotline in The Grudge 2 sets up the future of the franchise, as Kayako and her son Toshio (Ozeki Yuya) haunt an apartment complex in Chicago and drive its tenants insane. I dig that the filmmakers took a more cerebral approach for these scenes, creeping us out not with gore or jump scares but with absurd behaviour like drinking and regurgitating the same gallon of milk over and over again or pouring hot bacon grease on your new husband’s noggin. It all builds to a spectacular display of surrealism that unsettled me to the core.

The details of how the Ju-On curse made its way across the Pacific Ocean are revealed bit by bit in all three storylines. It’s a complicated mechanic, making The Grudge 2 heavier in plot than all the other instalments in the series combined. This strikes me as a good thing overall, though I suspect a fair amount of tension is lost as a result. More importantly, for all of the film’s awkwardness, I remember leaving the theatre eager for more Kayako in America. That may not seem like much, but really it’s the whole point.

© Copyright Stoneblade Entertainment

Solforge (2012)

Developer: Stoneblade Entertainment
Publisher: Stoneblade Entertainment
Platform: PC


© Copyright Stoneblade Entertainment

© Copyright Stoneblade Entertainment

I’ve come to the conclusion that only a genius like Richard Garfield could’ve come up with a TGC as addictive and balanced as Solforge. Some of you may remember him as the creator of Magic: The Gathering, the first trading card game ever made. His twenty plus years of experience really shine through in this release, which tells of four factions in eternal conflict for, uh, some reason or another: the nomadic Tempys, master of elemental magic; the technological Alloyin; the necromantic Nekrium; and a bunch of hippy druids known as the Uterra. Have I mentioned that premise was never the man’s strong suit?

Solforge has you build a deck of thirty cards, choosing from a dizzying array of creatures and spells from two of the four factions. Then you’re ready to duel in colourful arenas consisting of five spaces for each opponent. Every turn, you play two cards and enter a battle phase in which every creature on the table dukes it out, taking on minions or the players directly in order to decrease their life reserves. The first person depleted of a hundred life points loses the match. Sounds like a typical TGC, right?

What allows Solforge to stand out from other titles in the TCG genre is the ability to level up your creature and spell cards so that they’ll be stronger the next time you draw them. Of course, the game is set up in such a manner that weak level-one monsters usually grow strong at level three, and powerful level-one fiends become mostly useless later on. This Pokémon-like mechanic adds an engrossing layer of strategy, as you’ll have to figure out whether you need a good creature now or down the line.

Another unique feature of Solforge is that you don’t get to keep your hand. At the end of every turn, you discard whatever cards you didn’t use and draw five new ones. Then, after four turns, all the cards you threw away get reshuffled into the deck along with those you leveled up on the table. You’d think getting a fresh set of cards every turn would fix the classic problem of starting with a bad hand, but it often makes things worse. It’s not uncommon late in a match to pick up a useless hand, while your opponent hits the jackpot with his or her best level-three cards. You can lose upwards of eighty life points in a single turn because of such a draw!

© Copyright Stoneblade Entertainment

© Copyright Stoneblade Entertainment

Another problem with Solforge is the lack of single-player content. A campaign is planned but has yet to be implemented, so, right now, all you can do is play against the computer, using a deck you built for it. Otherwise, you can join a tournament or challenge a random opponent online, which often leads to trolling despite the twenty-minute time limit between moves. Perhaps a two-minute cap for every turn should be considered as well to prevent sore loser from waiting out the clock, hoping you’ll quit.

This, of course, is not an issue when you duel your friends, provided they’re not jerks. Solforge can suspend your matches and save your progress, allowing opponents to make a move whenever they have a minute to spare. It’s sort of like playing chess by e-mail or snail mail. Heck, you can even switch seamlessly between duels and challenge yourself with a crazy amounts of bouts going on at the same time. You don’t even have to run from one table to the next or, you know, get dressed to go to Central Park!

Solforge is easy to learn, fun to play, and regularly updated with new features. Best of all, it’s free on Steam. You can buy packs of cards at a pretty reasonable price, but it’s by no means a necessity, as the game is so generous with its bonuses. Every day, you get a bonus card, pack, or amount of silver the first time you log in. You also get a bonus for your first and third wins of the day. You even get a bonus for your first online win of the day! Perhaps this largesse is Garfield’s way of thanking his Kickstarter investors. Either way, I cannot recommend this title enough.

© Copyright Sony Pictures

Don’t F— with the Original: The Raid: Redemption (2012)

It turns out a hundred minutes of non-stop ass-kicking can be a pain in the butt! To commemorate the release of Gareth Evans’ The Raid 2: Berandal (2014), Nick and Dimitri review the first entry in the action series: 2012′s The Raid: Redemption. Come back next week as we discuss sequels.

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© Copyright Sony Pictures

The Grudge (2004)

Director: Shimizu Takashi
Writer: Stephen Susco
Cast: Jason Behr, Rosa Blasi, Clea DuVall, Fuji Takako, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Ishibashi Ryo, Maki Yoko, William Mapother, Matsuyama Takashi, Ozeki Yuya, Bill Pullman, Ted Raimi, Kadee Strickland, and Grace Zabriskie


© Copyright Sony Pictures

© Copyright Sony Pictures

Of all the different types of remakes, reboots, and revivals, none puzzle me as much as those adapted from contemporary foreign films. It’s as if Hollywood didn’t trust its audience to relate to a situation unless it involves white Americans. Take, for instance, 2004’s The Grudge, which boasts the same director as the original building on the same sordid myth as the original about the same Japanese house as the original haunted by the same tortured spirits as the original portrayed by the same actors as in the original. At this point, why not just watch the original?

In fact, what with every production element of The Grudge matching that of its source material, Ju-On: The Grudge (2002), I like to pretend both movies take place in the same universe, wherein a madman by the name of Saeki Takeo (Matsuyama Takashi) butchered his family after uncovering his wife Kayako’s (Fuji Takako) infatuation with a school teacher. Now she and her son Toshio (Ozeki Yuya) haunt their former home, killing anyone who sets foot in the suburban Tokyo estate. In the Ju-On flicks that means an awful lot of Japanese youths and, in the remake series, an unlikely amount of white American tourists.

Granted, a shared continuity would mean that Kayako keeps cycling through the same bag of tricks, what with director Shimizu Takashi repeating major set pieces wholesale, but then no one said onryō ghosts had to be creative. Besides, there are subtle differences in the execution, such as the level of gore. Whereas Ju-On: The Grudge was content to make us pee our pants with creepy imagery, The Grudge seems intent on nauseating us as well, replacing ingenious bits of surrealism, like Toshio perching himself at our heroine’s bedside, with material straight out of The Walking Dead, like the shot of a chinless corpse pulling out its tongue.

Another major omission pertains to the title cards marking each chapter. You see, Ju-On: The Grudge was really more of an anthology, with storylines occasionally crossing over the way Lost characters pop up in each other’s flashbacks. The Grudge adopts the same structure, and largely the same plot, but presents the whole thing as a single narrative, making for a hot non-sequential mess. Did screenwriter Stephen Susco think we wouldn’t notice how little Matthew (William Mapother) and Jennifer’s (Clea DuVall) misadventures in the Saeki house have to do with Susan’s (Kadee Strickland) desperate attempts to keep Kayako out of her apartment?

© Copyright Sony Pictures

© Copyright Sony Pictures

Though each thread in The Grudge proves terrifying in its own right, only one carries any real weight: Nurse Karen’s (Sarah Michelle Gellar) investigation of Kayako and her so-called relationship with Professor Kirk (Bill Pullman). Adding ever so slightly to the Ju-On myth, the subplot plays on clever notions of unspoken racial segregation and cultural alienation. It’s like Lost in Translation (2003) but with a dead little boy who shrieks like a cat. Can you imagine encountering such a creature in a strange land where everyone is a stranger speaking a strange language?

Of course, one might ask why none of these white Americans bothered to learn Japanese before moving to Japan, but that’s beside the point. Karen brings something unique to The Grudge. Whereas most characters in the Ju-On series are portrayed as helpless victims, the gai jin nurse takes active steps to wipe out Kayako’s curse, first researching what happened to the Saeki family and then setting the house on fire when her boyfriend (Jason Behr) becomes prey. Whether or not she succeeds, this proactive stance makes her a heroine in the truest sense of the word. It’s very American when you think about it, which comes a long way to justifying the remake.

Then again, I can’t help feeling like we’ve seen all this before. Even if you missed Ju-On: The Grudge, you’ll likely recognise the image of a long-haired ghoul crawling out of nowhere one jerky step at a time from Nakata Hideo’s Ringu (1998) or its own American remake, The Ring (2002). As for those completely uninitiated to J-horror, well, I suppose they might enjoy The Grudge just fine, but that brings us back to the same question: at this point, why not just watch the original?