Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Speed Grapher

This was a surprise watch for me on Netflix that I had just finished going through.  The 23 episode series tells the story in a familiar but slightly futuristic decadent Japan where materialism and hedonism has become rampant.  In the middle of it all we meet Tatsumi Saigat - a veteran war photographer on the trail of a story about a secret hedonist club where the powerful and the rich secretly meet to play out their unbridled desires.  He has few friends and the bed of a kinky female police lieutenant named Ginza.

We as well meet a young woman named Kagura Tenousu who lives a hellish life at the feet of her mother, Shinzen Tenousu - the matriarch of an international financial empire.  Though surrounded by luxury and servants her materialistic mother has Kagura on a strict and sickly disciplined lifestyle that includes starvation and minimal encounters with the public.  She has no friends but is constantly being chaperoned by the mysterious Choji Suitengu - a crime lord at the beck and booty call of her mother.

Saigat eventually tails a prominent celebrity to the secret club and sneaks his way into a paganistic ceremony where he meets a drugged out Kagura dressed up as an occult princess.  He is found out and upon being brought in front of Kagura, she deeply kisses him and brings about a transformation with in him.  The angry spectators of the ceremony literally cut him down but his transformation brings him back from certain death with in seconds.  Even more strangely so he now for reasons unknown can blow up anything he takes a picture of, thus, literally, having the ability to kill with any camera he uses.

Saigat makes his way out with Kagura as his willing prisoner.  She too wants out of the hellish nightmare of a life she had only till recently been subconsciously aware of.  They run the country side of Japan with Suitengu's and his henchmen and other "blessed" members (like Saigat himself) on Suitengu's payroll on their trail.  The story becomes quite complicated from this point on till the end as we learn through flash backs, plot twists, and preachy monologues how the actions of greedy men and women have set the stage for a final confrontation between Saigat and Suitengu over the life of Kagura.

Speed Grapher is stylish and edgy and I do like how the characters are not clearly black and white.  I definitely would not recommend this anime to just anyone since the content out of context can be viewed as somewhat adult.  The story would also walk the fine line (by some people) with the painfully platonic relationship between 15 year old Kagura and the much older jaded Saigat which suggestively develops into an appropriate relationship 5 years after in the denouement.  The music though mainly instrumental or Japanese is quite catching - of particular note is the second credits theme of the series which is featured during the aftermath of the series finale called "Breaking the Cocoon".  It is a Japanese rock ballad with a late eighties like feel that is suppose to resound with Kagura's transformation during the series.  The singer, Yorico, does such a good job of emoting that I found it transcended my incomprehension of Japanese.

Check the complete series out on Netflix if you are up for an entertaining "adult swim" feature.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Fullmetal Alchemist

Yes, I know it has been a while.  But it just means I have more stuff to write about.  I have recently purchased a new Apple TV unit and have also signed up for Netflix which I find replaced all my video store trip needs.  It, as well, had inadvertently rekindled my love for anime series.  Netflix (Canada) has a pretty decent collection of anime classics one of which fortunately happens to be The Fullmetal Alchemist series.  I had often heard how popular the series was in the early 2K from friends but I did not realize how well written the story was.

Fullmetal Alchemist tells the story of brothers Edward and Alphonse Elric who like their absent father before them were themselves gifted alchemists - scientists of their reality who specialize in the breakdown and reconstruction of matter.  Alchemists of their world are able to invoke forces to bend and shape matter to suit their needs and desires, the only rule being that humans can not get more or less of what they put into to the process of transmutation - a law they refer to as "the law of equivalent exchange".

Trouble and the series long struggle begins when the Elric brothers decide to use alchemy to bring back their dead mother.  Although respecting the laws of equivalent exchange as best they could they could not account for the cost of a soul and, thus at the added cost of one of Edward's legs and Alphonse's body they unknowingly summon into existence a soulless creature known as a homunculus.  The creature appears to die immediately leaving Edward to realize the demise of his brother.  Distraught at the loss of his brother Edward sacrifices one of his arms to bind Alphonse's fleeting soul into an empty suit of armor before passing out.

Alphonse awakens now a tireless suit of armor and immediately rushes an unconscious Edward to the neighbors for help.  Edward recovers from loss of his limbs and gets his neighbors to build him a mechanical leg and arm.  Realizing he and Alphonse have paid heavily for their mistakes Edward becomes determined to find a way to recover Alphonse's body.  Alphonse now virtually immortal and with out the limitations of a human body decides to join Edward hoping himself that he too can recover Edward's loss limbs.

The 51 episode journey follows the brothers on their quest which leads them from Edward's inductance to the military as a government sponsored (State) alchemist to their eventual quest for the Philosopher's Stone which is believed to grant alchemist the power to transmute with out obeying the laws of equivalent exchange.  At times to counter the overall seriousness of the themes the show reverts to short but sweet anime humor often resulting from Edward's damaged ego regarding his height but nevertheless the series takes on very heavy and adult themes such as redemption, greed, and the bonds of family.  I would recommend the series for those looking for a good balance of action and story and just plain fun.  Netflix offers the full 51 episode series in their anime repertoire.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Vector graphics creation - Art Text 2

I was in the need of a logo for a new project of mine.  Few suggestions came - Illustrator, Inkscape, someone's daughter who was a graphic designer.  All suggestions of course involved money (I did not have much of), or a steep and frustrating learning curve on vector graphics program 101, or hacks which went against my new go legit policy.  I googled vector programs for the Mac and came across Art Text 2 on the Apple site.

I downloaded the demo and saw it had some familiar but simplified array of drawing tools.  I could do a logo in text based on any of my locally available fonts or I could add a combination of shapes into the work.  Each entity added came on its own layer and can be edited as a wire frame of nodes and curves; furthermore, I had the option to perform some simple Boolean between layers where it would produce a shape that would be the union, subtraction, or intersection of two layer entities.

Every shape/layer could also be further adjusted by color, fitted or warped into a preset shape, or set to glow or cast shadows.  The program also came with some presets and a gallery of logos, buttons, and headers that I can use to start off a project.  I can as well store my own presets for later reuse.  It essentially has enough tricks to pull off a 10 minute logo which then can be saved or exported into any bitmap format for any of my website projects or letter heads.

Vector programs are essential for printing since line art and text produced can be hypothetically scaled to any size with out pixellation.  Vector data is a road map to every shape you draw and is not bounded to pixel counts and can, therefore, adjust its resolution when being sized up and (to a limit) when being sized down.  Art Text 2 for $40 can offer you the tools to quickly come up with a logo for branding project you might want to undertake.  For developers who have at least some experience with Photoshop and no experience with vector programs such as illustrator the learning curve is relatively quick.  You can find Art Text 2 for on-line purchase on the Apple site.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Prestige

There has not been any Christopher Nolan movie that I have not enjoyed.  The director knows how to tell a story and keeps you quite entertained with a good balance of top rate acting, special effects, and action all to support a very believable story.  The man is also very good at directing movies about obsession.  Like the new Batman series, and another favorite of mine, Memento, The Prestige is definitely a movie about obsession.  Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale play two passionate magicians Robert Angiers and Alfred Borden during turn of the century England.

On the verge of going on their own from being accomplices in a dangerous act gone old, Angiers loses his wife during a performance at the reckless hands of Borden.  Borden dismisses it as part of the sacrifice of pursuing a good performance and continues on.  Angiers, of course, who had lost everything swears to out do Borden at every opportunity he gets.  Angiers ignites the war between them when he sabotages Borden's performance and blows two of Borden's fingers off with a gun in the process.

The two continue a bitter struggle of besting and sabotaging one another's acts and lives until it culminates into Angiers obsession with finding the secret to Borden's unmatchable "Transported Man" trick.  The trick has Borden bounce a red rubber ball while entering one of two cabinets quite a distance apart and appearing in the opposite cabinet to catch the bouncing ball as if he had been magically transported from one cabinet to the other instantaneously.  The trick is so great that Angiers is pushed to his limits to best Borden's trick.

After many attempts to come up with his own version of Borden's feat Angiers risks everything to get his hands on Borden's encrypted journal and the keyword "Tesla" which Borden reveals to Angiers is not only the journal's keyword but secret to his "Transported Man" trick.  The journal and keyword lead him to scientist Nikolai Tesla who had been conducting his infamous power transmission experiments in Colorado, America.

The journal talked about a machine Tesla had built that was the key to Borden's trick.  Angiers pays Tesla a fortune to reproduce the same machine for him at which he reluctantly accepts the task which takes him months.  During this time Angiers reads further into Borden's journal where he is thrown into another revelation - that Borden had tricked him again and lead him through the journal to a wild goose chase.  Not knowing if the journal revelation itself was another trick Angiers presses on waiting and Tesla manages to unveil the machine he promises.  At first the machine seemed to not work at all and did not transport several test objects through the air as he believed it would; however, it did something else even more impossible than just transporting.  The machine had duplicated the target object some distance away from the original - any object.  Angiers had his miracle.

Angiers returns to England announcing to his crew he was going to perform his last and greatest show.  The finale of his act would use Tesla's machine to perform his "Real Transported Man" trick where upon disappearing in a crescendo of electrical arcs he would instantaneously reappear at the back of the theater.  The trick is a hit and for once we see now Borden obsessed with finding out Angiers' secret.  Finally after weeks of Angiers' success Borden attends Angiers' show in disguise and sneaks behind stage to find out the secret to the trick.  Borden is surprised to find Angiers trapped in a similar water cabinet that had killed his wife.  Angiers drowns in the cabinet despite Borden's attempts to save him and Borden is subsequently arrested, tried, and found guilty for Angiers' murder and is sentenced to hang.

It is at this point shortly after we are revealed the secrets of both men at the bottom of a run down theater where Angiers hides the secret to his version of the "Transported Man" trick.  Borden who we are lead to believe is hung for Angiers' death finds and shoots Angiers who we at that point find out that he was not apparently killed the night of his last show.  As he is dieing Angiers reveals that he had been using Tesla's machine to duplicate him self a distance away from the machine and using the trap door below the stage to trap and drown the version of him self that would be on the stage.  His crew would then wheel the water cabinet and dead body to the location beneath the run down theater to hide his dark secret.  Borden reveals to Angiers that he in fact had an identical twin brother.  He and his twin had gone to great lengths to play the same man and perform their greatest trick.  The man who had hung was his brother and the Borden that stands before the dieing Angiers had been left to carry out their last act of revenge.  Angiers dies and the remaining Borden turns to raising his daughter in his immediate future.

The twisting and well thought out plot was quite entertaining; however, I find that sometimes cramming it all into the 2.5 hours of a movie results in plot holes which wouldn't have been if more attention was being put into detailing the continuity of the story.  I myself did not catch Borden's explanation of his twin and I was lead to believe for a while after the movie that Borden had used Tesla's machine to produce his double.  Despite a few minor plot holes which were cleared up after much thought and replay I did enjoy this movie.  The movie was told with flash backs flipping back and forth between the two men at different points in time reading each others journals and slowly revealing each others schemes on one another.  The story telling style gave the whole movie the same appeal as the performance of a magic trick.  The casting and acting was top rate which included the likes of Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, Micheal Caine, Scarlet Johanssen, and the most surprising of all, David Bowie, as a very believable Nikolai Tesla and Andy Serkis (of Gollum fame from Lord of the Rings) as Tesla's assistant.  The movie is a modern "must watch" on my list and lives up to its punch line of "watch closely".

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Warhammer: Age of Reckoning (online)

Ok.  I was never going to try it but the other day an old WoW friend of mine gave me the low down on the current Warhammer online experience.  The Electronic Arts attempt to cash in on disgruntled WoW players turned fail is now offering the online experience for free - up until level 11.  So I downloaded the on-line client from the Warhammer site Saturday while I hosted my Pub Club Meet-Up and when I was pretty much ready to go once my self-induced euphoria of pumpkin beers wore off.  I hastily fumbled through the 2 faction, 6 race character creation interface and made my Greenskin (Orcs and Goblins) shaman.

So what can you do with 11 levels?  Much.  Yesterday I spent my whole afternoon levelling my Greenskin shaman and manage to get up to level 5 on my own.  For an experienced WoW player there are many similarities between the interfaces - the actionbars, mini-map, 3D third-person perspectives, and paper doll interfaces are all there (which should be standard in 2010 for all following in Blizzard's path to success).  The graphics were slightly choppy in certain points but at least for now did not cramp the experience - although I was overhearing on my guild's vent constant complaints about lag.

In any case in my 5 level window of game play I got to experience the rather easy orientation of the game mechanics.  My general comment about this game is this game is what PVP WoW should have been.  This game is about PVP or what their version is referred to as Realm vs Realm (RVR) from the start of the game.  The starter areas are tame enough to get you use to the UI with out getting pwned by some rabid pack of killer bunnies.  As you progress along with running some simple experience building quests you start realizing that everything you do contributes to the progression of your faction.  You do not have to join a group but when you do participate in a realm quest everyone rolls for a substantial piece of loot once the event is successfully completed.  There are of course other solo quests to be done but these as well contribute to your faction's influence on an area.  As you progress past the noobness you can (even unto and nearing level 11) participate in actual PVP which also contributes in someway to your character's experience gain.

I also did manage to try out their crafting system (since I was just a big crafting nerd in WoW) and I actually liked its simpler but more integrated system.  Crafting and secondary skill are based on gathering and assembling recipes and on trial and error.  I chose the butchering/alchemy route.  Butchering is very much like skinning in WoW but instead of furs you gather all kinds of interesting reagents from creatures you have killed.  The reagents are classed as different grades of components in a typical alchemy formula.  In alchemy you start with a container (test tube) and a main ingredient.  The main ingredient determines what the over all effect of the potion is (i.e. immobilization, healing, curing).  To complete the concoction you have 3 slots which you can put  more support reagents to the mixture.  Since every mixture has a chance of failing you can add reagents to assure the stability of the mixture.  Likewise there are other support reagents that can enhance the potency of the formula but during the early levels of your alchemy you pretty much have to rely on stabilizing reagents to assure your success.  This system is slightly like the alchemy system in another game I still have yet to finish, The Witcher (which is probably why I find myself wanting to run around the woods killing creatures instead of participating in RVR).

I admit I have not really seen the total experience in Warhammer and I am still missing the true RVR battle experience the game specializes in.  I can, however, say that for anyone wanting a full fun try at the MMO experience that will not eat up your life or get you jones-ing for constant "IGL" hits give Warhammer: Age of Reckoning a try.  The game is available for on-line download for both Windows and Mac from www.warhammeronline.com .

Monday, August 2, 2010

MAMP - Mac Development Webserver in a box

I was looking into getting a developer account to prototype my development on the web.  There are many relatively cheap packages out there but my idea setup costs $60 USD (which I'm trying to save).  I have used WAMP - essentially a web-server-in-a-box solution that sets you up with a PHP-MYSQL server that you can install your latest PHP-web development project and can be browsed locally with any browser you have installed on a windows machine.  MAMP is the Mac equivalent.

I was quite impressed with the easy installation.  With a simple drag and drop to my application folder I had a webserver ready to go on PHP5.3 and MYSQL5.  I immediately installed a Modx 1.0.4 instance and it was running with in 5 minutes. 

I had a little trouble with installing a Modx gallery module.  It turned out I required a slight php.ini edit to turn off 'magic quotes' which I might add was even easier than editing my work development server's php.ini since the config file was easily found in the MAMP's application config folder.

MAMP comes with a configuration interface that allows you to change where the resource files are accessed and the 'big switch' that shuts down or starts up your MAMP server instance.  MAMP has two release versions - one free and one 'professional' version which allows users to setup simultaneous multiple MAMP instances.  For most of my development needs, however, I can deal with one server.  Both versions also come with a local web interface that give you easy access to the phpinfo page (that reports the status of your php server) and a phpmyadmin instance to monitor and edit your MAMP server mysql installation.  For more information and the downloads go to http://www.mamp.info/en/index.html.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Personal device enhancements - makeownringtone.com

I have recently become a Blackberry user and am quite liking the added connections to the internet on my person.  I was quite happy with my cell phone\iTouch combo but like the fact the essentials, Facebook, messengers, and phone are all one device in my pocket (though I'm told I should get a holster).

It's been a quite satisfying 2 weeks with the new personal device and yesterday I decided to add a custom ringtone to my Blackberry.  I was not quite sure how this was done but I suspected that emailing myself the audio file probably had something to do with it.  After a bit of reading and much playing around with the settings I figured how to set the profiles and attach a ringtone to an event or a number.  All that was left was to figure how to send my phone the custom audio files.

After a little bit of searching I found http://www.makeownringtone.com/ .  An app site that you can upload an audio file and with a few options set to your post processing preferences the site displays a URL that you have to browse with your personal device's browser to download the generated file.  The app offers some basic post processing to add some finishing touches to your ring tone.  The best thing about the site (other than being free) is that the send to your cell option doesn't have you add your cell number where they can put you on a phone list texting scam.