Category: Reviews (page 1 of 60)

Me And My Spider

Courtesy Vertigo

As of yesterday, I finally have a complete set of Transmetropolitan. When the final volumes arrived, and I got home to pick them up, I immediately stretched out on the couch to finish reading the series. Then, last night, I started reading it again. I’m planning on reading through every trade paperback in sequence once a year going forward.

Why, you might ask?

Well, for one thing, it’s absolutely brilliant.

For those of you who don’t know, Transmetropolitan is a story set somewhere in our future. It’s an interesting future. It isn’t a good one, like Star Trek, nor is it a terribly bad one, like so many dystopias. Sure, there’s an underclass and poverty and police brutality and incredibly corrupt politicians, but we have that now. There movements for human rights and outraged citizenry and sex on street corners and incredibly inane television, but we have that now. What we don’t have is the technology to rearrange matter on an atomic level or the ability to download ourselves into nanotech cloud-bodies.

We also don’t have Spider Jerusalem.

Maybe that’s a good thing. Spider’s kind of like if Hunter S. Thompson came back from the dead and came back incredibly fucking pissed. Short, angry, blunt, manic, and unpredictable, Spider is described as an “outlaw journalist”. He barely tolerates rules regarding decorum or rights to privacy, as such things can get in the way of the pursuit of Truth. His column is absolutely scathing, completely undiluted, and takes no prisoners. His writing and his character make for an extremely compelling read.

On a deeper level, though, I have to say that I understand Spider Jerusalem pretty well.

Part of that is because Spider needs to write. It isn’t a profession or a hobby, it is a compulsion. Seriously, his necessity for expressing himself and pursuing Truth in the written word is only slightly an exaggeration of that of many writers. And he does with that need what all successful writers must do: he writes. Even when it’s hard, especially when it’s hard, he puts himself in front of his machinery and he produces words. His two-fisted editor knows how to get the work out of him, with four little magical words: “Where’s my fucking column?”

In that regard, I envy Spider, and I see a level of production I wish to attain, which is the second reason why I want to read Transmetropolitan every year. Inspiration.

Not just for writing in general. I also get inspired to keep an eye on the Truth. Spider comes across as a very angry, bitter, cynical man. He pursues religious bigots and political powerhouses alike, with boundless zeal and merciless brutality. He’d be the first to break down why the tenets upon which your entire life has been built are absolute bullshit, and why you’d do the world a favor by jumping into an industrial wood-chipper right goddamn now. But he’d only do that if you’re an asshole. Spider, under all of the bluster and bravado, is a good person. He wants what’s best. He wants what’s right. He wants the Truth. And he will do what it takes to make sure the Truth wins out, no matter what.

While I envy and admire Spider in several ways, though, I won’t be shaving my head or getting an excessive amount of tattoos any time soon.

A very dear and close friend of mine describes Parks & Recreation‘s Ron Swanson as “my favorite person I wish nobody would try and emulate.” I see Spider in a similar way. I don’t want to be Spider Jerusalem, nor would I want anybody close to me to try and be him, either. I’d be glad for his presence, sure, but I can’t see him interacting with people around me on a daily basis in a way that’s conducive for staying out of jail or keeping my genitals intact.

I’m going to read Transmetropolitan every year because it’s brilliant, it’s inspiring, and it keeps the spirit of Spider Jerusalem fresh in my head.

People talk of having angels or devils on their shoulders. I think, sometimes, Spider perches on mine. He’s definitely on my shelf. Kind of like Bob from The Dresden Files, only instead of inhabiting a skull, Spider just ambles around my bookshelf. I see him being about six inches tall (which he hates). He’s smoking up a storm (not that I can smell it, his cigarettes are tiny). He’s glaring at me. And when I write something that isn’t to the best of my ability, he starts spitting nails and curse words and implications regarding my mother’s virtue at me. Spider’s never one to mince words. And I know he’s angry because he gives a damn.

The anger isn’t the point. What you do with that anger is the point. Do you sit back and complain at the television? Or do you wing your bottle at the damned talking box, grab your bowel disruptor and filthy assistants, hit the streets and do something about it?

Spider taught me that.

And right now he’s telling me we both need some goddamn coffee.

Movie Review: Casablanca

There are some iconic scenes in fiction, and a lot of them happen in watering holes and cosmopolitan places where people gather. The Mos Eisley cantina in Star Wars, Knowhere of Guardians of the Galaxy, The Prancing Pony in Bree from Lord of the Rings… the list is extremely long. When it comes to films, there are few taverns that have had quite as much influence on the tone, composition, and nature of goings-on within such places as Rick’s Cafe Americain. After all, everybody comes to Rick’s. That is the name of the play upon which the unquestionably classic film, Casablanca, is based.

Courtesy Warner Bros

The year is 1941, and it is early December. The city of Casablanca is relatively neutral territory, even if it is controlled by Vichy France and the oversight of the German Reich. It is a hotbed of clandestine activity, from smuggling to gambling and even the sale of exit visas, which desperate refugees require to flee Europe for the promise of freedom and opportunity in America. Many of these sales happen at Rick’s, where the proprietor is surprisingly neutral and reserved, conveying only quiet bitterness and healthy scepticism towards both starry-eyed freedom-fighters and ironclad fascists. All of that changes, however, when the one woman who has ever truly captured Rick’s affections walks into his cafe, asking the piano player to play the one song Rick insists he never plays, and changes things in Casablanca forever.

It is pretty clear that Casablanca is adapted from a stage play. The settings, dialog, and even the lighting of the scenes could easily be recreated by a savvy director and a good stage crew. In the 1940s, many films were produced in this way, opting for a faster route from script to screen rather than saddling the production with glitz and glamour. In fact, when it was released, a lot of people didn’t expect anything groundbreaking from Casablanca; it was just another of the hundreds of films being produced by the studios. But even as it was being made, those directly involved with its creation knew that it was something special.

Courtesy Warner Bros
“Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world…”

A big reason for this is the talented, international cast. Only Humphrey Bogart (Rick), Dooley Wilson (Sam), and a minor role or two were American actors. The woman in question, Ilsa Lund, was played by luminous Norwegian actress Ingrid Bergman. Paul Henreid, Ilsa’s husband and a reknown freedom fighter named Victor Lazlo, was Austrian. Many actual refugees played roles of all types in the film, including the main antagonist, Major Strausser, who was portrayed by Conrad Veidt, a German who had himself fled from the Nazis. This gives the entire production of Casablanca a palpable sense of authenticity and earnestness. In one of its most famous scenes, Lazlo leads the people in Rick’s in a rendition of “La Marseilles”, and during the scene, many of the actors burst into tears on set. The nature of this cast is one of the things that makes Casablanca singularly special.

There’s also the fact that every single leading role is brilliantly executed. Bogart hadn’t done any romantic work before Casablanca, but watching Rick’s carefully crafted demeanor crack under the pressure of Ilsa’s presence is clear evidence of the actor’s talent. Bergman smolders, and the two have electric chemistry. Just as good is the interplay between Bogart and the inimitable Claude Rains, who plays Casablanca’s prefect of police Louis Renault with equal parts legitimate sleaze and good-natured humor. Henreid is compelling as a man who has witnessed horrid injustice first-hand and will stop at nothing to combat it, and Veidt gives Strausser real menace barely contained by the sort of impersonal, surface-level diplomacy that villains use just long enough to get what they want. Even smaller roles have real talent and nuance behind them, from Wilson’s unflappable and loyal Sam to Sydney Greenstreet’s unabashedly profit-minded underworld magnate. The performances in Casablanca are more than enough to keep an audience riveted to the screen, far moreso than any amount of modern special effects or computer-generated gimmickery.

Courtesy Warner Bros
The 40s were a great time for hats.

Full of classic quotes, unforgettable scenes, scintillating performances, and a true time-capsule of the atmosphere of its day, Casablanca has a lot to offer an audience even in the 21st century. What was once anti-Nazi propoganda now plays as dramatic historical fiction, as uniformed German officers never occupied Morocco and the MacGuffin of the film, the “letters of transit”, never existed. Still, as a setting for intrigue, drama, romance, and suspense, Casablanca and Rick’s are the foundation upon which many future tales were built. It is film noir at its finest, a shining example of a tightly-produced character-driven story, and one of the best films ever made.

Movie Review: Interstellar

There is a sense of awe and wonder that comes over a lot of people when they behold images from deep space. Astronomers and physicists have long theorized about what awaits us in the void: new habitable worlds, wormholes, distortions of time, and so on. When filmmakers turn their eyes to this material, to what the future might actually hold, their visions take the form of films like 2001:A Space Odyssey and Moon, exploring not only science, but human nature and evolution. Now, Christopher Nolan has taken an exploratory flight into this rich and textured material with Interstellar.

Courtesy Warner Bros.

Environmental damage has lead mankind to the point that food is becoming scarce and the amount of oxygen in the atmosphere is depleting at an alarming rate. In survival mode, most humans have turned inward, eschewing science and engineering for farming. One obstinate man, test-pilot-turned-farmer Cooper, struggles to both make a living for his family and teach his daughter, Murphy, the truth. A phenomenon in Murphy’s room points Cooper in the direction of a hidden silo, where the remains of NASA have undertaken a daring, last-ditch effort to save humanity by relocating it to another world. The task of finding that world falls to Cooper and NASA’s scientists, but the means of getting to our potential new home will mean that he may not return until Murphy is much older… if she’s alive at all.

Christopher Nolan, as a filmmaker, has a proven record for the correct means to frame and present a shot. The depictions of cosmic phenomena in Interstellar are clear, intriguing, and at times, breathtaking. Nolan has also proven that his films ply towards fidelity for the real and the scientifically possible. One of the hallmarks of his Dark Knight trilogy, for better or for worse, places the world, villains, and gadgetry of Batman squarely in the realm of the feasible. Interstellar‘s physics and science, while at least partially theoretical, are presented with as much fact and fidelity as possible. Between these two aspects, Interstellar has elements that could have lead it to be this generation’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Courtesy Warner Bros.
Believe it or not, folks, space has three dimensions! Maybe more!

However, Christopher Nolan struggles with one of the most vital aspects of effective filmmaking: the human factor. The moments of awe-inspiring visuals, impressive and breathtaking all on their own, are often interrupted with a scientific explanation or an oppressive orchestral sting from Hans Zimmer’s bombastic, grandiose score. A great deal of this film’s significant run-time is occupied with in-depth scientific explanations of this or that portion of the goings-on, and while the film never makes the mistake of talking down to its audience, it does seem to have trouble properly conveying human emotion in the same way it does theoretical extra-dimensional concepts. This is a stumbling block Nolan has run into before, and he’s still not quite at a level of showing humans being human as, say Steven Speilberg, who was originally slated to direct Interstellar.

Thankfully, Nolan has the good sense to line up a well-rounded cast of excellent actors. It’s unfortunate that he has to make them work so hard to squeeze the right amount of emotional complexity out of his surface-level script, but these are masters of their craft. Matthew McConaughey, who has been enjoying a bit of a revival in his career, is completely comfortable and incredibly adept at conveying everyman pathos that makes scenes with his daughter deeply effective and puts his point of view squarely in line with that of the audience. Anne Hathaway and Jessica Chastain do the bulk of the non-main-character heavy lifting, every bit as effective and engaging as Matthew, bridging the gap between Nolan’s clinical, distant perspective on the human experience, and the realities of our everyday lives. It’s hard work, and the strain shows in places, but gets the job done.

Courtesy Warner Bros
When you’re not sure how to do the human thing, get the most human actors you can. This is one of them.

That is actually an apt description for the experience of Interstellar as a whole. In terms of a hard sci-fi epic that pushes the boundaries of our notions of what is possible in space exploration, it gets the job done. It’s very well constructed, and definitely takes the audience on a worthwhile journey, but the experience could have been tightened, the moments of wonder more awe-inspiring. There is a moment in Inception where the film stops explaining itself, and lets its story and drama unfold without further comment or pretense. That moment never comes in Interstellar. Its “twists” being either predictable or superfluous and its science suffering from nigh-constant in-universe fact-checking undercut what would have otherwise been a very effective storytelling experience. Interstellar could have been a breathtaking epic of proportions not seen since the days of Kubrick, and clearly had that ambition. The fact that it falls short of that mark just means that its flaws are all the more glaring, at least to someone like myself. It’s quite good, and worth seeing on the big screen, but I sadly doubt it has the kind of staying power we’ve seen with some of Nolan’s other work. What Interstellar does, it does well, but it could have done more.

Game Review: Poo

I know a lot of people who have a fondness for Cards Against Humanity. I can’t deny the appeal of a social lubricant with an unlimited number of players and a puerile sense of humor. The fact of the matter is, though, that there isn’t much game there. In my humble opinion, if you want to play an actual game with your friends, and still laugh at the goings on just on the face of the cards in play, look no further than Poo, a card game by Matthew Grau, who went on to design a follow-up dubbed Nuts. More on that later.

Courtesy Wildfire Entertainment

You and your friends are monkeys at the zoo. And you’re bored. To amuse yourselves, and possibly the tours of school children walking by, you’ve decided to start flinging poo at one another. As monkeys get absolutely caked with the stuff, the keeper hauls them away to get hosed off. The last monkey standing (that is to say, least covered in poo) is the winner. The premise, really, could not be simpler.

Gameplay is simple, as well. On every turn, the monkey in question plays a card from their hand, either to fling poo or to clean themselves off, and then draws to replace the card played. Out of turn, other players have cards that allow them to defend (for example, using your buddy’s face to block an incoming wad) or cause mishaps (“Nope, sorry, that was just a fart!”), also drawing to fill their hands afterward. There are also special events, like poo landing on the lights or the tiger getting loose. With clear rules listed on the cards, written in conversational language, it quickly becomes clear that this is definitely a game that anybody can play.

Courtesy Wildfire Entertainment

Experienced gamers will recognize that Poo is, like so many other games, an exercise in hand and resource management. Timing is everything, from how long to hold on to that Dodge card to the correct moment to let fly with The Big One. While there is definitely some thought involved in these decisions, it can’t be said that Poo is a very strategic game, nor is it meant to be the sort of experience that goes on for hours. It’s quick and funny, an icebreaker or a social game, which is good because of its other flaw: player elimination.

In a social setting, say around a dinner table or with a round of drinks, player elimination is not a big deal. Conversation and kibitzing adds to the flavor of the experience for those left standing. In other environments, though, player elimination can be troublesome. Poo mitigates this with hilarious art and its blatantly worded cards, but it definitely benefits from a more casual setting than some other games. Like Cards Against Humanity, this is more meant to break the ice between people, or pass the time amusingly while waiting for food or in a queue, but unlike Cards, there’s definite gameplay, split-second decision-making, and humor based more on the content of the cards themselves than the context of how they read for a particular person.

Courtesy Wildfire Entertainment

Poo comes in a standard tuck box, which can make packing or unpacking the game slightly problematic at times. Still, it’s sturdy and travels very well. The follow-up game, Nuts, is similar in theme but sees players hoarding their resources rather than giving them away. I haven’t played Nuts myself, but if Poo is any indication, it will likely be an improvement on an already memorable and very good design. If you have a group of friends you see often, or if you want to introduce your family to gaming using a brand of humor most people can get behind (since everybody poops), I’d definitely recommend Poo.

Game Review: Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor

It has been a mere week since I wrote up my First Impressions of Monolith’s open-world Tolkien-based stab-’em-up Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor. While I have not finished the game, I have opened up quite a bit of the world, engaged in a plethora of power struggles, learned a great deal about one of the darkest corners of this famous fantasy realm, and nearly thrown my controller in frustration on more than one occasion. I think we’re on to a winner, here.

Courtesy Monolith & WB

Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor takes place after the time of the adventures of Bilbo Baggins in the Misty Mountains but before his 111th birthday in the Shire. At that time, Gondor was in control of the Black Gate of Mordor, its Rangers keeping watch over the dark and blasted valley of Udun that lead into Mordor. Talion, a Captain of those Rangers, lived there with his family, and was training his son to fight when the Black Gate is overrun. The assault is lead by the powerful and menacing Black Captains, on-the-ground commanders of Sauron’s armies, one of whom personally puts all of Talion’s family to the sword. Talion, however, does not die. His murder was part of a ritual, and that ritual somehow bonded him with a mysterious Wraith who has no memory of his former life. The two consciousnesses strike a deal: the Wraith wants answers, and Talion wants revenge.

It has been mentioned previously that Shadow of Mordor has some elements in common with the games from the Assassin’s Creed or Arkham games. Talion can certainly scale buildings and rock faces like an Assassin, and his combat style does have the same satisfying hit-block-hit-fininsh structure as Batman, but that is where the similarities end. These elements help shape the foundational gameplay and there really isn’t much to say either way about it. The combat is fun when it’s rolling, and it’s good to have movement capabilities that foster both exploration and escape, but a truly memorable game needs more than that.

Image courtesy Lazygamer.net
Not listed: Azdûsh’s love for ice cream sandwiches and irritation with people snickering at his name.

Shadow of Mordor does far more than giving you a list of targets to kill or a solitary objective to follow. Open world games will scatter quests, collectibles, and challenges all of the map, and this game does that as well, but apart from the map is the Nemesis system within Sauron’s Army. Every orc you encounter has the potential to become a part of this system, just by killing you. When you die, the orc who defeated you gets promoted and more powerful, possibly challenging another orc for their position. Other orc captains within the Army struggle and squabble to get closer to the Warchiefs, the cream of the orcish crop. These characters do have distinct personalities – some are afraid of fire, others become enraged when they are wounded, and still others REALLY don’t like the fact that you shot them in the face with an arrow and left them for dead. Thanks to these cantankerous Uruks, the world of Shadow of Mordor isn’t just open; it lives and breathes.

At first, the knowledge that there is no real penalty to the player for dying may sound like a deal-breaker. “Where is the challenge?” one might wonder. The answer is the Nemesis system. When you die, you have all of your powers and experience intact, but the world around you changes. Your killer gets glorified, power struggles resolve without your intervention making other orcs stronger, and another one of Sauron’s Army becomes a target for your revenge. On more than one occasion, I have put aside my desire to advance the plot or learn more about the Wraith’s story just to hunt down that one really irritating Orc that keeps getting cheap shots in on me while I am trying to kill his buddies. Dying may be free of direct consequence, but there are still ramifications that make it irritating, and coming back to exact bloody vengeance on your killer is incredibly satisfying, especially if they are in a position where killing them makes taking down one of the Warchiefs even easier. It is a stroke of brilliance that makes Shadow of Mordor unique and thoroughly enjoyable.

Image courtesy theonering.net
That “dagger” has a story. Ratbag (the orc) has a story. Talion’s story has real pathos.
The world is rich and textured, and I’m not talking about the image rendering.

There are a handful of things that keep Shadow of Mordor from being perfect. There are a few mandatory stealth missions as part of the main story that slow down the action, the way mandatory stealth always does. Getting the right prompt at the right moment can be dodgy at times, costing you precious resources as you try to detonate an explosive barrel or mount a ravenous, deadly beast to use as a mount. And your only thinking, feeling foes are the Orcs. While the Captains and Warchiefs have personalities and strengths and weaknesses, for the most part you’re just slicing through the ranks to get to those unique guys, and that can get repetitive after a while, sooner for some if you’re really itching for a lot of variety. But honestly, those are just some general nit-picks about the game, and the only real flaws that I could find that had nothing to do with my own learning curve or lack of experience.

Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor is definitely a winner. Its combat is visceral and satisfying. Its Nemesis system makes it a unique and challenging experience. The story is steeped deeply in the rich lore of Tolkien, from the identity of the Wraith to the texture of Mordor itself, from the connection of Gollum to the goings-on to the palpable sense of dread contingent with the return of Sauron. The music is haunting, the voice acting superb, the environments well-realized, and the game is filled with moments you will never forget. If you are a fan of Middle-Earth, solid combat systems, or unique gameplay features that make the game compelling regardless of its story or other aspects, you must play this game.

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