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Reviews

Pilot Review: Gotham

It’s officially Autumn. New television shows are starting to come out of the woodwork. After the season premieres of The Blacklist (which was excellent) and Sleepy Hollow (as delightfully and shamelessly fun and adventurous as always), I watched the pilot of the new series Gotham. With the sort of premise that guarantees a built-in fan base, a top shelf cast, and the promotional power of the FOX network, I was curious to see what the show might bring to the table every Monday night.

Courtesy FOX

Most stories involving Batman gloss over the years that follow the murder of his parents. Gotham opens with that event, and what follows immediately after. The focal point of the story is James Gordon, who is a recently-promoted homicide detective of the Gotham City Police Department. He and his salty, potentially dirty partner Harvey Bullock get saddled with the Wayne murders, and tasked with solving the case as quickly as possible to allay the fears of the populace. In their investigation, the detectives inadvertently become involved in the underworld rivalry of crime bosses Carmine Falcone and Fish Mooney, and come across more than a few characters with names quite familiar to Batman fans watching the show.

While I have only seen a few episodes of Smallville, I got a very definite and similar vibe from Gotham. As much as stories that blossom from the fertile fields of comic books tend to be grandiose in scale and scope, this show is more intimate, more human, and more gritty than a lot of that fare. We’re dealing with the origins of a great deal of characters beyond Batman, which is definitely not a bad thing – it’s been said that Batman is the least interesting character in the Batman mythos. But as I said, the overarching plotlines write themselves, as they have already been written, and the end of the series is likely to be Bruce donning the cape and cowl, so the devil is clearly going to be found in the details.

Courtesy FOX

If nothing else, Gotham has an excellent cast. Donal Logue is doing fantastic work as Harvey Bullock. In the animated series, Bullock was mostly a fat slob bent on arresting Batman and being a pain in Gordon’s ass, but here, he’s a nuanced character who is not necessarily completely corrupt but nonetheless operates in a gray area between the law and the underworld. The nascent versions of the Caped Crusader’s villains are appropriately cast, from the sadistic and ambitious Oswald Cobblepot (Robin Lord Taylor) to the quiet and meticulous Edward Nygma (Cory Michael Smith). The incomparable Sean Pertwee plays Alfred Pennyworth opposite a young actor named David Mazouz who is already showing the sort of deep disturbance that would cause a grown man to dress up like a bat and fight crime. So far, the linchpin of the whole enterprise, Ben McKenzie’s James Gordon, seems a bit non-descript, but there are hints to more going on beneath his surface, so in spite of his dry delivery, I’d say I’m on board.

Gotham looks to be off to a decent start. The background of the city feels authentic, and rather than drawing direct parallels to the animated series, the Burton/Schumaker years, or Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, television’s Gotham City feels very much like its own urban beast. The characters have bite to them, and the performances come from authentic places. It’s entirely possible that this will fall off as the series goes on, and not every episode will be up to snuff, but this is a good start. I would recommend checking it out, even if you’re not that fond of the Caped Crusader.


Movie Review: Good Morning, Vietnam

“GOOOOOOOOOOOOD MORNING VIETNAM! It’s Oh-Six-Hundred, what does the Oh stand for? OH MY GOD IT’S EARLY!”

I don’t think the 1987 Barry Levinson film Good Morning, Vietnam needs any introduction beyond that.

Courtesy Touchtone Video

Airman Adrian Cronauer, United States Air Force, was the main radio personality stationed in Crete in the 1960s. During the Vietnam War, he was transferred to run a morning program for Armed Forces Radio out of Saigon. He brought his own style, his comedic style, and a taste for modern rock-and-roll music. Unfortunately, his personality and energy run counter to those of his superiors. He does his best to maintain his independence and commitment to the truth, and starts befriending locals. Things begin to get complicated when he runs afoul of both a vindictive base commander and the mascinations of the Viet Cong. The troops love him, though – if there’s ever a time to be reminded of the importance of laughter, it’s wartime.

Before we delve into the people responsible for bringing Cronauer’s true story to life, we should take a step back and consider that this film, broadly considered a landmark comedy, also took it upon itself to depict the conflict in Vietnam in very human terms. When Cronauer isn’t cracking jokes over the radio and flipping off authority, he’s teaching people English slang and trying to get to know a local girl and her brother. None of these secondary characters are treated as parodies or charicatures. In a time when the United States was still wrestling with its conflict against Soviet powers, this film eschewed jingoistic viewpoints and presented both the Americans and the Vietnamese as what they are – human beings.

Courtesy Touchtone Video
Every character in this film feels very real.

Barry Levinson, Good Morning, Vietnam‘s director, was already a veteran film-maker in 1987. He worked with Mel Brooks, and had major success with The Natural. He clearly demonstrates that he has an excellent sense of balance and timing in his direction. The comedy that practically runs rampant through a great deal of the film is balanced out perfectly with character development and the aforementioned pathos. All of the shots are clear, and everything is clearly defined. But I feel I’m stalling a bit, so let’s get to the heart of the matter.

It is a great tragedy that we recently lost Robin Williams. This film is one of his best performances. Much like the direction, his work is very well balanced. When he’s on the radio or mouthing off, his comedy is fantastic and side-splitting. When he’s teaching people or trying to relate to his ladyfriend or her brother, he’s likeable and charming. And when he’s faced with adversity, we believe his agony and frustration. On top of his comedy skills and improvisation, he was a fantastic actor. We miss him already.

Courtesy Touchtone Video
His performances are, thankfully, immortalized.

Good Morning, Vietnam is a bonafide classic. It is a slice from the past that tells its story with authenticity and earnestness. Despite the fact that it’s told from an American perspective, it shows the conflict in a very human light and keeps us engaged from beginning to end. And the comedy is on-point and fantastic. It’s available on Netflix, and if you haven’t seen it, even if it’s been a while, you should call it up. It’s a fantastic watch.


Movie Review: Guardians of the Galaxy

It really feels like Marvel Studios can do just about anything. Back when it was announced as a film, Guardians of the Galaxy felt like a risk, an out-of-the-blue change in direction. Most franchises prefer to play it safe, sticking with the recognized story and character beats known to work. But Marvel’s big idea dreamers do not rest on their laurels. They looked outward from the world of the Avengers and began to pull in more threads from the greater universe. But they’ve done this before – several years ago, Iron Man was relatively obscure in comparison to other superheroes that have graced the silver screen, and now Tony Stark and Robert Downey Jr are practically synonymous. Marvel takes chances. They try new things. And they went back to the well of obscurity and elevated a band of five cosmic misfits into this summer’s most anticipated blockbuster.

Courtesy Marvel Studios

Peter Quill was eight years old when he got abducted from his homeworld. Having grown up among a rather nasty band of pirates called the Ravagers, the Terran is on the trail of a mysterious orb people are paying good money to acquire. There are also those who would rather kill than pay: Ronan the Accuser, a Kree extremist, dispatches one of his chief lackey, Korath the Pursuer, to retrieve the orb. Quill (who for some reason calls himself ‘Star-Lord’) escapes to Xandar, home of Ronan’s enemies. Ronan sets the assassin Gamora on the trail, while the Ravagers post a bounty for Quill, a hefty sum saught by Rocket (an enhanced raccoon) and his best friend Groot. When they wind up in prison together, along with a well-spoken but driven maniac named Drax, they hatch a scheme to escape and split the reward for the orb, even as Ronan hunts them down.

As a complete, start-to-finish film, Guardians of the Galaxy has a consistent and strong storyline that is not difficult to follow. Its tone has a tendency to vary, but that is definitely a strength rather than a weakness. James Gunn, director of Slither and Super, is just as adept with comedy as he is with emotional scenes heavy with pathos. In the final equation, it balances out extremely well. The heavier scenes pulls us into sympathetic embraces with our characters, and their comedic turns let off some of the pressure to pave the way for more antics and action.

Courtesy Marvel Studios
Something tells me they don’t want to talk about having a personal relationship with Galactus.

These characters, in addition, are definitely worthy of their places in Marvel’s cinematic universe. In particular, I was very happy with Gamora’s characterization. In my previous discussion, purely based on some erroneous conjecture, I feared that she would exist as the ‘token girl’ and disappoint in doing little more than rolling her eyes at the tomfoolery of the males. Thankfully, she is very much her own character, with agency, drive, and independence, from start to finish. I was wrong in what I said before; I couldn’t be happier to admit that. What we see on screens is most definitely the deadliest woman in the galaxy, and Zoe Saldana brings her to vibrant, captivating life.

The two CG characters, Rocket and Groot, are incredibly well-realized. Rocket, in particular, is a wonder just to behold. While we’ve seen mo-cap characters before, Rocket is easily believable with his attitude, outlook, pain, and power. You actually feel something for the little guy. Similiarly, Groot conveys a great deal without saying more than a few words. His expressions, actions, and presence all speak to an individual that means well, and that can’t help but stand out in light of other characters behaving in very selfish ways. As for Drax, I definitely need to see the movie again because I swear I missed some of his loquacious dialog in the middle of all the ray-guns and explosions. I like what they’ve done with him and I’m eager to see more.

Courtesy Marvel Studios
“I’d flash you my business card, but my hands are too full of guns.”

The glue holding the entire endeavour together, however, is Chris Pratt as Peter Quill. This man is going to be very busy in the years to come. He carries the mantle of leading man very well. His performance draws out the best in the cast around him, and he very much gets both what motivates his character and how the audience can relate to him. Under the flippant demeanor and die-hard nostalgia is some very real pain and more than a couple unresolved issues, and as I mentioned before, the whole film exists in the same balance between the two feelings. Both the actor and the story do more than just walk that line, however; they outright dance on it.

I could spend a lot more time discussing the villains, universe, and greater implications of Guardians of the Galaxy, as it is a surprisingly dense film in terms of lore and setting. There is a huge universe implied in almost every shot of the movie, and I am merely scratching the surface. What I will say is this: we have not had a romp through space like this since Serenity, and even that had a rather intimate scope within which to tell its tale. In many ways, Guardians of the Galaxy is the direct opposite of the previous Marvel film, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but that just makes them two sides of the same excellent coin. The previous film was a powerful story of intrigue and personal trial with a very modern bent; this one is a deliberate throwback to more whimsical tales like Flash Gordon or Star Wars, but bearing extremely modern sensibilities. The universe we behold has a very lived-in feel, is filled with color and wonder, and clearly contains perils and unknown terrors that are ripe for the exploration. It expands Marvel’s cinematic arm exponentially, and gives us just the right mix of heroes and villains to leave us wanting more.

Courtesy Marvel Studios
Even minor characters have distinct personalities and memorable traits.

As a movie-goer and erstwhile critic, I would say Guardians of the Galaxy is exemplary science-fiction action-adventure storytelling that I unreservedly recommend. As a long-standing fan of the comics, particularly since I picked it up back when Dan Abnett was starting to write the team we see on screen, I could not be happier. Much like our first real shot of the Avengers, seeing these misfits, murderers, and makers of mayhem come to vibrant life tugs at all of the right strings in my heart. Guardians of the Galaxy is exactly what you want and precisely what we need in the middle of summer surrounded by drek and drudgery: a damn good time at the movies. It is definitely worth seeing. Just don’t be surprised if you do, in fact, get hooked on a feeling.


Movie Review: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

I have a soft spot in my heart for what I and others call ‘big idea’ science fiction. You see, sci-fi is not always whiz-bang laser fights and exotic, distant worlds. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a work of science fiction, as is Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park. Without aliens, particle beams, faster than light starships or time travel, I think some folks would pass over something like Dawn of the Planet of the Apes in the search for sci-fi. But trust me: this movie is science fiction, it’s ‘big idea’ science fiction, and it’s delivered blockbuster-style to a cinema near you.

Courtesy 20th Century Fox

Ten years after the so-called ‘simian flu’ engineered in Rise of the Planet of the Apes was unleashed on the world, humankind is all but wiped out. The apes that were granted intelligence by that same retrovirus, on the other hand, have flourished. The first to ‘awaken’, Caesar, has lead his fellow apes to a colony in which a code of conduct, a school, and an organized military have all been established. While hunting, those militaristic apes happen across a human. Tensions immediately flare, with one of the humans fascinated by the apes as the others gear up to defend themselves, and Caesar waiting to see if these humans are reasonable while his general, Koba, seethes with a desire to avenge himself upon his former captors.

So the big idea, here, is that not only humans have engineered their own end, but they have also uplifted their successors. In older movies set in the Planet of the Apes, it’s seemed that the apes are conquerors, brutally claiming territory once held by humans. However, Dawn smartly shows the apes simply moving in to occupy a role once held by humans: the top of the food chain, apex predators due to their intelligence. The natural world is clearly reclaiming itself from the ravages of mankind; we see it in the trees, the waters, and the streets of San Francisco. Mankind is already no longer the masters here; the planet belongs to the apes.

Courtesy 20th Century Fox
Two of a kind.

This is a world fully realized, one we can conceptualize and connect with even if it is unlike our own. Thankfully, the characters in that world are just as thought-provoking. Whereas some sci-fi lets the ideas take center stage while cardboard cutout characters act as ciphers for bigger themes, Rise gives us well-written ones that invite multiple perspectives on the world. As in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Caesar is our main protagonist, realized in breathtaking work done by Andy Serkis and an expert team of motion capture artists, who expresses himself eloquently and is a pensive, dedicated, and driven leader. He commands respect, both from his apes and the audience. Koba, Caesar’s vengeful general, is also incredibly compelling, surprising in his pathos and clearly showing that Caesar’s cunning is no accident. On the human side, Jason Clarke’s Malcolm serves quite adequately as Caesar’s counterpart; he is curious and diplomatic, opting to talk before he fights. Gary Oldman as Dreyfus is far more protective of the human survivors huddled together in San Francisco’s ruins, but his cagey nature and desperation are completely understandable. It’s the mark of good storytelling when you can see things from the perspective of each player, be the results of their actions positive or negative. Everybody has a personal agenda, and while neither apes nor humans have anything to gain from fighting, the more the tensions rise, the more a fight seems inevitable.

With all of these big ideas floating around, realized through very human and well-written characters, you may think that Dawn opts away from any of the whiz-bang action stuff I mentioned in the first paragraph. But it’s smarter than that. It’s smart enough to know that in the midst of all of the philosophy and commentary on human nature, it’s still a summer blockbuster and still a fun time at the movies. When fighting breaks out, the combat is energetic and imaginative. Action scenes are cleanly shot and some of the things we see are quite inventive. When you can say that the movie you saw about the sociological battle between our better natures and our desires for survival and vengeance also features a bonobo dual-wielding machine guns while on horseback, it’s safe to say you’re on to a winner.

Courtesy 20th Century Fox
Not even kidding.

I walked out of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes thinking about it in a way you wouldn’t think about Transformers: Age of Extinction. This movie is, as I’ve said, very smart. It never takes the audience for granted, delivering both satisfying action and thought-provoking characters and themes. It does not fall into the prequel trap of taking its outcomes for granted, either. I wasn’t sure how it was going to end. It kept me guessing and, by extension, on the edge of my seat. It has big fights and big set pieces to go with its big ideas, and it shows us just how powerful and exciting good science fiction can be when done right. It also makes its preceding entry, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, even better than it was by coherently continuing the story while expanding the world and deepening the ongoing themes. I am going to have to buy both of these films for repeat watching. They’re that good. You should definitely consider seeing Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Even if you’re not on board at first with some of the over-arching ideas, I will repeat: Bonobo on horseback with a machine gun in each hand.


From The Vault: Drill, Baby, Drill

Watching Gurren-Hen last night, I come back to the reasons why I fell in love with Gurren Lagann in the first place. I want to revisit that.


Courtesy Rabbitpoets
Courtesy Rabbitpoets, will credit original artist!

When I encounter a new story that I find myself enjoying thoroughly, there’s a part of me that can’t just leave it at that. I have to look deeper than my superficial glee and take a look at what really calls to me about the tale. I have to examine characters, plot points, meanings and development. I don’t know if it’s my background in doing so for years at university, or my desire to better understand other stories so I can write mine better, but in any case, it’s what makes me review and critique stuff on a regular basis.

Case in point: I just finished watching the anime series Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann and I enjoyed the hell out of it.

I’m no stranger to big robot anime. Voltron and Robotech (Macross in particular) were staples growing up. When I hit university I was introduced to more – Macross Plus, Gundam Wing and the brilliant but bizarre Neon Genesis Evangelion. There are plenty of other mecha anime out there, and plenty of anime that get classified as shounen – aimed primarily at young or teenage boys with exciting action and plenty of fighting. One might think, with a cursory glance, that Gurren Lagann is in the same vein as these, even with its unique aesthetic, but it doesn’t take long for the series’s true strengths to reveal themselves.

In a few other series I’ve dipped my toe into and even enjoyed, the main character gets his special power or destiny, and pursues it with dogged determination that, while admirable, does not vary his character much. Gurren Lagann, on the other hand, lets its characters develop naturally. The character of Simon, in particular, goes through a lot of growth from the beginning of the series to its end. In addition to the respect I give a story for the willingness to actually end legitimately and well, there’s the fact that the Simon at the end of the story is a different person, a more developed person, than he was at the beginning. The same goes for Yoko; a character that easily could have been relegated to simple fan service is also allowed to grow, breathe, develop, and take on a life of her own.

Another way in which the series sets itself apart is in the fact that actions have consequences. Each victory that our heroes gain take them deeper into a world they did not anticipate, and as much as the show likes to treat the laws of physics more like loose guidelines than actual rules, there’s no cheap resurrections and no going back. Changes are irreversible, and consequences must be dealt with. In a general genre and specific sub-genre that is usually all about an empowerment fantasy free of consequences, seeing a show that drops the hammer on its character multiple times for things they do is refreshing.

As cool as it would be to pilot a giant mecha, Gurren Lagann seems to treat its unique and strikingly designed machines as exactly what they are: vehicles. They’re the means by which the story and its meaning are delivered, and the meaning is this: it’s okay to be yourself. In fact, the ideal way to live one’s life is to forge ahead making one’s own destiny with a sense of self-belief. Believing in yourself can be hard to do, especially when it feels like the whole world is against you, but when people have faith in you, and you have faith in yourself, there is literally nothing you can’t do. Rather than relegate such things to occasional character moments or after-credits messages, Gurren Lagann makes this the driving force behind its narrative, a massive drill that bores a hole right through your expectations. The individual’s sense of self-worth is a weapon in and of itself; when fully realized, it’s an extremely potent one.

I may be reading too much into an anime series, or drawing an inordinate amount of inspiration from it, but that’s who I am. I take the lessons I find from what I experience and I try to make them a part of my life. I am, as always, a work in progress. I will never stop learning, never stop growing, and never stop writing about it. That’s what I do. And the more I do it, the more proud I become of what I’m doing and what I will do in the future. I may not live up to some expectations, I may make mistakes, but I will make my future my own, because that’s what you do when you come to realize who you are and what that means to you and to the world around you.

I’m a writer. I’m a fanboy. I’m a critic and a philosopher and I fight for what I believe in.

Who the hell do you think I am?


Movie Review: How To Train Your Dragon 2

I’m not sure why I didn’t see How To Train Your Dragon sooner. Other than the fact that it has dragons in it, it also features Vikings, who tend to make things more interesting and fun as a general rule (see also The 13th Warrior). While I was aware that its protagonist wasn’t a physically capable specimen and relied more on brains than brawn, which is another interest of mine when it comes to characters. Even with all of these elements I was all but guaranteed to enjoy, How To Train Your Dragon surprised me with its writing, its vivacious and highly detailed art, and the fact that actions had consequences that were not easily dismissed or explained away. In the interest of supporting such art, I made it a point to see How To Train Your Dragon 2 on its opening weekend.

Courtesy Dreamworks Animation and thegrzebol.deviantart.com

Five years after defending Berk and teaching its people to embrace dragons rather than hunt them, Hiccup is exploring both the ocean around his home and new ways to expand both his abilities and those of his dragon, Toothless. His father, Stoic the Vast, wants him to become chief so Stoic himself can retire, but Hiccup fears he is inadequate or ill-suited for the task. Hiccup and his girlfriend Astrid run afoul of some dragon hunters, who are capturing the beasts to join the army of someone named Drago Bloodfist. Determined to try and talk some sense into Drago, Hiccup sets out in defiance of his father’s orders, and is quickly caught up in events that teach him more about dragons, people, and himself.

A proper sequel should spend the bulk of its time on expansion. Since characters, locations, and plot points were established in a previous outing, there’s no need to rehash them in the new story. Those that do tend to feel bloated, boring, or both – for examples, look no further than the sequels to The Matrix or Michael Bay’s Transformers. How To Train Your Dragon 2 is very quick to get a bit of exposition out of the way through a voice-over from Hiccup, and then gets right into telling its own story. The world outside of Berk is expanded rapidly, and established characters show varying degrees of growth, holding on to attributes that made them memorable while demonstrating how they’ve changed.

Courtesy Dreamworks Animation
There’s a lot going on even in the backgrounds of this movie.

There is a great deal of good storytelling here, and much of it is not contained within the dialog. DreamWorks Animation has shown that it can convey a great deal of meaning and emotion in quiet scenes bereft of dialog, and How To Train Your Dragon 2 is proof that their skills are only growing. Toothless, in particular, is even more expressive than he was in the previous film, interacting with Hiccup and other dragons in fascinating and endearing ways. We feel we know this otherwise inscrutable and even alien creature as well as we do Hiccup, and Toothless doesn’t speak. We are shown, time and again, that the two have an indelible bond, and its depiction is lovely to behold, even moving at times. The art in general is gorgeous, with characters well-defined and bearing unique facial features and mannerisms, and landscapes all but leaping from the screen with their fresh and breathtaking vistas. This is even the case in non-3D viewings.

When characters do speak, they do so in spite of any celebrity association. Nobody’s a stunt voice, and nobody’s phoning it in. Despite multiple opportunities, the likes of Gerard Butler and Cate Blanchett never wink at the audience or make clever references to other established characters. Indeed, the film avoids pop culture references altogether, and while Jay Baruchel and the other voices of younger characters speak with a more modern affect, it feels natural given the disposition of said characters. Our immersion doesn’t break when Astrid and her friends plan their next move. Instead of relying on their voice actors as gimmicks, the creators of How To Train Your Dragon 2 ensure that what we’re hearing underscores rather than overshadows what we’re seeing. The scene where Hiccup’s mother and father see one another for the first time in twenty years is particularly moving for this reason. Butler and Blanchett emphasize the emotions we’re seeing, and we’re shown rather than told the depth of feeling between these two characters. It’s absolutely brilliant.

Courtesy Dreamworks Animation

I really don’t know if there’s anything more I can say about How To Train Your Dragon 2. Its story focus is tight, its visuals are breahtaking, it moves at a healthy but not breakneck pace, and its characters are extremely likable. Any quibbles I have are relatively minor ones: Drago Bloodfist is somewhat one-dimensional as a psychopathic anti-Hiccup, and Valka (Hiccup’s mom) could have demonstrated more combat skills and shown why she’s been able to hold off Bloodfist for so long. While it’s difficult for any story to be completely free of concerns, How To Train Your Dragon 2 is refreshing in its earnest intent and nearly flawless in its presentation. It doesn’t shy away from intense scenes, continues to show us that actions have lasting consequences, and while bad things can and do happen to good people, there are forces that will always be more powerful than tragedy and mad ambition. It’s very much its own animal but it undoubtedly shares its DNA with the previous film: it is a true family film. There’s comedy and bright colored animation for children, and compelling storytelling with rich characters for adults. It hits all of the right notes and balances things out pretty much perfectly. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I’m considering seeing it again, in 3D this time to get the most of those fantastic visuals. How To Train Your Dragon 2 is a wonderful time at the movies for all ages. It’s not just a treat for the kids; it just might awaken your kid at heart, as well.


Podcast Roundup

Courtesy Blue Microphones
One day, this lovely Blue Yeti will be mine.

I’ve come to really enjoy podcasts. They help pass the time at the office, they inform and entertain with fresh content on a regular basis, and they’ve even replaced the music I used to listen to while running. I’ve been slowly expanding the amount I listen to on a regular basis, and I’d like to share some of the highlights with you.

Welcome to Night Vale

The brainchild of two authors at Commonplace Books, Welcome to Night Vale is evocative of old-school radio dramas like Suspense or Inner Sanctum Mystery, using description, sound, and evocative music to set the scene and spark imaginations rather than relying on sight gimmicks. The sonorous voice of Cecil Baldwin narrates the goings-on in the quiet desert town of Night Vale, where the odd is everywhere and things are usually not what they seem. Sometimes they are. Most times, they’re not. While it might not be for everyone, there’s something delightfully old-fashioned about Night Vale that keeps me coming back every two weeks.

Hello Internet

The description of Hello Internet is extremely simple: “Conversations between CGP Grey and Brady Haran“. Given the nature of their individual YouTube channels, it should be no surprise that this is perhaps the most informative and thought-provoking podcast I currently listen to. Their discussions are intelligent, well-researched, and balanced, and their personalities make it entertaining. I actually feel myself getting smarter listening to these guys. Highly recommended.

9Bit Podcast

I listen to a few video gaming podcasts, like The Co-Optional Podcast and Daft Souls, but one you might not have heard of is the 9Bit Podcast. Described as ‘a podcast about games for gamers’, it does a good job of providing a balanced review of video games, engaging in discussions of gaming news, and keeping listener interest with interplay between the hosts. It’s a smaller production, but it’s a great one.

Shut Up & Sit Down

Ah, Shut Up & Sit Down. Great videos, great reviews, and now a great podcast, all about board games. Paul and Quinns have some interesting viewpoints on this hobby, and are more than willing to share them with an audience. I like the podcast because the discussions are far less rehearsed and, in a way, more informative than the video reviews. Like their videos, the podcast has high production values and are just as entertaining as they are informative.

Terminal7

I’m a big fan of NetRunner, and I’m looking forward to finding more players. Until I do, the guys at Terminal7 are keeping me up to speed on what’s happening in this exciting revival of the cyberpunk living card game. They have great guest stars, like Quinns and Leigh Alexander, and they discuss strategies and individual cards with gusto and intelligence, exploring all sorts of combinations and tactics that often make them clearly enthusiastic. While somewhat of a niche podcast, it’s still a great one.

More?

I’m looking to expand my collection of podcast subscriptions. So far I have yet to find one I don’t like. With high-quality microphones becoming more affordable, Internet connections allowing people to contribute without being in the same room, and the ease of posting things to the Internet, it seems like more and more of these shows are emerging, and some of them are absolutely worth your time.

Hell, given the success of some of these podcasts, I may get back around to starting one of my own.


Movie Review: X-Men Days of Future Past

I’d be one of the first to sing the praises of Marvel’s cinematic arm from the rooftops. Their connected films have maintained a reasonable baseline of quality, with its weaker films still being decent or fun to watch. Unfortunately, movies of Marvel franchises outside of the actual Marvel Studios have had a rougher road. Spider-Man’s suffered through a very dodgy reboot, the Punisher’s outings have been divisive, and a lot of comic fans would rather not discuss Daredevil. As for the X-Men, Marvel’s team of mutant misfits has been around for quite a long time, and X-Men: First Class made a move towards rendering some of the rougher outings of Xavier’s gifted youngers superfluous. X-Men: Days of Future Past goes one step further, driving nails into the coffin of those movies best left unnamed.

Courtesy 20th Century Fox

Things are not going well for the X-Men. Incredibly powerful and highly adaptive robot killers called Sentinels, originally programmed to hunt mutants, now dominate the planet. All of humanity save for its very worst are oppressed and face extinction. Guided by Professor X and Magneto, the few remaining X-Men hatch a desperate plan. The theory is that if the assassination of the Sentinels’ creator, Bolivar Trask, by the mutant Mystique is prevented, the future will be altered. Therefore, one of the X-Men must allow their consciousness to be projected back in time to their younger body. The only mutant with the regenerative capabilities to survive this journey is Wolverine, and it is he who suddenly awakens in 1973, looking for Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr.

It should be fairly obvious that what we have here is retroactive continuity, or a ‘retcon’. This is the third X-Men movie directed by Bryan Singer, and the prevailing sentiment is that things have been inconsistent since he gave up the helm. X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine are both held in largely universal contempt. The Wolverine had some good ideas, and X-Men: First Class was a welcome return to high-quality mutant storytelling. It seemed, at the time, that Matthew Vaughn was mostly interested in starting the timeline over – the Marvel universe, after all, has acknowledged the presence of multiple universes and timelines for a long time. Singer, for his part, has seized onto one of the most beloved tales from the comics and uses it to whip the mutant franchise back into line with his vision.

Courtesy 20th Century Fox & Empire
The more things change…

Unlike the bright color pallete of Matthew Vaughn’s film, though, Singer returns to his beloved barely-accented black leather as if it’s still 2003 and everybody is chasing the Wachowskis. He is so eager to push characters and elements of the story into position for his glorious return that he skims over a lot of details. This is especially true in his vision of the Sentinel-dominated future: some characters are barely introduced or characterized, others have powers that make no sense or have no explanation, etc. In other words, characters exist for the sake of the plot, rather than moving the plot of their own volition, which is a mark of lazy and lackluster storytelling. And while we’re on the subject, I’m still not sure how I feel about the overall use of Kitty Pryde and Mystique in the film. These are powerful, even iconic female characters in this franchise, yet they feel like they’re barely there, despite Mystique’s central role in the plot. I can’t point to any one aspect of their roles that gives me this disturbed feeling, but it hangs over the proceedings like a dark cloud.

However, it’s not all bad news. Not by a long shot. Continuing to be one of the most inspired casting choices since Christopher Reeves’ Superman, Hugh Jackman does a great job as Logan, breathing much-needed life and presence into what could have been a dull plod of a proceeding. Also returning are Michael Fassbender as the younger Magneto and James McAvoy as younger Xavier, and they still have the chemistry, intellectual fortitude and emotional pathos that made First Class so good. The scene between McAvoy and Patrick Stewart as his older self is amazing, and should have been left out of the trailers to make its already significant impact even more powerful. Our nominal bad guy, Bolivar Trask, is actually a nuanced character, and while he isn’t given that much to do, Peter Dinklage makes the most of every scene he’s in. Much like First Class, there isn’t a great deal of action, but what action we do get is staged very well, some of it carrying satisfying tension while one scene in particular is paired with a fantastic musical sting that actually made a ‘bullet-time’ gimmick fun to watch.

Courtesy 20th Century Fox & Empire
Like First Class, seeing these two interact is one of the highlights of the film.

X-Men: Days of Future Past is decent and enjoyable. It’s not as good as First Class, but the way it handles the other previous films gives me hope that Singer is moving away from the negative aspects of said films (see most of my criticism above) and towards plots and performances that let the characters guide the story, rather than the story pushing the characters around. Singer is attached to direct X-Men: Apocalypse, and it seems that he has some interesting ideas in that regard. Days of Future Past was a movie all about the restoration of hope, and it accomplishes this goal, not only for the characters, but also for the audience.


Game Review: Transistor

Big budget studios love their hype machines. They see their customers as fuel for mechanical devices that print money. They choke the causeways of industry news with information on pre-orders, exclusive editions, the latest innovations and “ground-breaking” technology, sometimes before we even get a screenshot of the game in question. Independent studios tend not to do this. The only pre-order benefit that Supergiant Games provided for Transistor was the soundtrack to their game, and if you know anything about the studio, you know that they didn’t need six different exclusive editions to win us over. They seem to have this crazy idea that solid design and powerful storytelling alone are enough to sell a game.

Courtesy Supergiant Games

Welcome to Cloudbank. It’s a nice enough town. There are plenty of modern amenities from automated flatbread delivery to concert halls with plenty of seating. But for the Camerata, it isn’t quite enough. They want to make adjustments to Cloudbank, on a pretty massive scale, and to do this, they have unleashed the Process, an automated vector for change. Voice have risen up in opposition, and one of those voices belonged to Red, a prominent singer popular in Cloudbank. Their attempt to silence Red forever is only partially successful, and while her voice is gone, she manages to escape with seemingly the only means to stop the Process and defeat the Camerata: the Transistor.

When I talk about wanting to tell stories that draw in the audience, interactive storytelling, or getting into the gaming industry, it’s games like Transistor that I have in mind. With a minimum of exposition and even dialog, Supergiant Games conveys an emotional and thought-provoking story that feels deeply personal. I still adore their first title, Bastion, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Red, as a character, is more fleshed out and more compelling than The Kid for reasons I have discussed at length – her personality shines through in her actions and design, and rather than being the blank slate many video game protagonists are designed to be, remains her own person making her own decisions from beginning to end.

Courtesy Supergiant Games
Red’s found herself some trouble.

Another advantage that Transistor has over its predecessor is the combat system. While Bastion was frenetic in its fights, player choices coming in weapon selection between arenas, Transistor offers players a robust system for dispatching the Process. The abilities provided by the Transistor have a surprising amount of depth and customization, allowing Red to mix and match what its primary abilities can do and how she benefits from the functions it hosts. The Turn() system is also shockingly flexible, in that it can either work similar to the pause function in FTL as a break from fast-paced real-time action or pushes the game towards more of a turn-based experience. You (and Red) can either stay out of the ethereal wireframes and bash heads as quickly as possible, or you can take your time to plan a perfectly executed combo, or you can mix the two to your liking. Rather than a mere set of mechanical tools, the options in Transistor are more like dabs of paint on your palette, allowing you to participate in the creation of this work of art. It provides you with just as much agency as Red is given, pulling to further into the world of Cloudbank.

I do not use ‘work of art’ lightly. Even if the combat wasn’t extremely well-realized (it is) and the story wasn’t absolutely flawless in its execution (it is), Transistor would be a treat for the eyes and ears. The richly painted and noir-inspired pseudo-future world of Cloudbank is offset by the austere white of the Process, and the wide streets and empty chairs and benches throughout the city make the experience feel very lonely at times, further underscoring the struggle Red is undertaking. Enemies each have unique appearances, abilities, behaviors, and challenges, and the Transistor’s attacks produce striking effects as it takes them apart. Logan Cunningham’s voice work remains top-notch, the uncertainty and pain of the Transistor’s voice making the narration far more immediate and intimate than that of Rucks in Bastion, as good as that was. The music, as written by Darren Kolb, adds another layer to the world we’re exploring, and hearing Red hum along with it underscores the haunting beauty of the entire experience.

Courtesy Supergiant Games
You seriously cannot tell me this game is not a work of art.

There’s no multiplayer. No imposed social media or proprietary platform functionality. Supergiant Games isn’t interested in bilking their players for money or regulating their activities. These are talented and passionate folks interested in telling good stories and making great games. With Transistor, they have knocked it clear out of the park. The art is magnificent, the music is electrifying, the combat is exciting, and the story is compelling and engrossing. It hits all of the points to make for an unforgettable experience. With a New Game plus (or ‘Recursive’) option, unexplored permutations of Functions, and a world this breathtaking and characters this fully realized, there’s no reason not to enter Cloudbank yourself. Transistor is one of the best games I’ve played in a long time, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.


Game Review: Splendor

Board games come in all shapes and sizes, and run the gamut from frenetic, brief bursts of simple gameplay, like Escape! The Curse of the Temple, to day-long brain-burning grand strategy experiences, such as Twilight Imperium. Some games, however, manage the tricky feat of being both easy to learn and play, and deep in terms of strategy and puzzle-like challenge. One such game is Splendor, a contender for this year’s prestigious “Spiel des Jahres” (game of the year) award in Germany.

Set during the Renaissance, Splendor casts its players as gem merchants, using the glittering resources to build and expand their holdings. Some of these properties do little more than feed more gems into one’s pockets, while others earn the merchant prestige. Famous figures will also watch the proceedings, lending their support to merchants who play into their interests. Merchants are, of course, too refined to degenerate into violence, but that does not mean that the competition for holdings is not excessively cutthroat. You have to be smart, fast, and ruthless to earn the right combination of holdings to earn the most prestige.

The holdings are displayed on cards in a tableau available to all players, arrayed in ranks from one to three. First-tier holdings are simple mines that offer no prestige but are very cheap, and provided permanent discounts to future purposes. Second-tier holdings are pricier but offer prestige along with their discounts, and top-tier cards are pulverizingly costly but bring in tons of points. The aforementioned famous figures each display a given number of holdings in certain colors, and the first player to reach that number of holdings earns the figure’s prestige. On your turn, you can pick up a diverse number of gems, double down on a single color, purchase a holding, or reserve a holding by picking up a single ‘wild’ gem. The purchase of holdings is facilitated with thick plastic chips, each representing a different kind of gem. The number of chips is limited, and once they’re gone, they’re gone, at least until a merchant buys a holding.


The bank of gems: source of and solution to all your problems.

A good board game does not base its core gameplay around randomization, but uses randomization as part of its setup to increase replay value. The decks of holdings are shuffled, and the patrons selected at random, before the game even begins, so the tableau presented to players is always different. The challenge, however, is always the same: how can you use the limited resources available to grab the cards you need before someone else does? Splendor‘s presentation, in addition to being beautiful, always challenges its players. There are multiple ways to carve a path to victory, with some players trying to go wide in their holdings’ diversity while others opt for vertical collections of deep discounts to rush towards high-prestige rewards. Players bounce off of the tableau as well as each other in their quest for victory, and the game manages to combine the tension of competition with the intellectual challenge of puzzle-solving.

In addition to its rock-solid gameplay, Splendor is simply pretty to look at. The art of the holdings is very attractive, their color palettes informing the gems required to pick them up. In addition, the gems themselves are weighty, large chips that clack and clatters as they move from their stacks to players’ positions and back again. It lends the game an almost poker-like feel as players study the tableau the way professional gamblers study the spread of cards at a Texas Hold-‘Em tournament. For all of its relatively simple design and easy-to-explain rules, Splendor provides not only a challenging gameplay experience, but a lovely one.


The holdings are just gorgeous.

The Spiel des Jahres award is one of the highest in all of gaming. To qualify for it, a game has to be challenging and interactive but also straightforward enough that anybody can play it. Splendor hits all of the right notes: its concept lends itself to diversified gameplay, its rules are clear and simple, the layout is fantastic, and the design is nearly flawless. Even if it doesn’t win the award, it definitely deserves a place in your collection. In a world of heaving shelves full of wargaming and sci-fi miniatures, and massive boxes teeming with monsters to slay, games like this may seem simplistic and easy to overlook, but a game this attractive, this challenging, and this rewarding is truly a sight to behold. I can’t recommend it highly enough.


Game Review: Hearthstone

One of the things Blizzard Entertainment does very well is presentation. World of Warcraft‘s visual style has aged rather gracefully, StarCraft 2 has remained consistent in its high-quality art and sound assets (if not necessarily the stories it is telling), and the technical alpha for Heroes of the Storm looks and sounds impressive, from everything I’ve seen. I will write more about that when I actually get into the game. My point is that, when I first discussed Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft, it already looked good and sounded good. It is now in wide release, and is even available on iPad, so now seems the right time to give it a full review.

Courtesy Blizzard Entertainment

Hearthstone is a game that plays a great deal like Magic: the Gathering, and is both simple and free to play. In fact, there are characters within World of Warcraft that can be seen playing the game. In essence, it’s a pub or party game played by the denizens of Azeroth, either as a break from or a substitution for grander adventures. All sorts of Warcraft staples are present, from angry chickens to towering giants, and some legendary figures represent the player while others stride across the playing field. Or charge, in the case of some minions like Leeroy Jenkins.

In terms of development, little has changed between the production edition of Hearthstone and its closed beta. Some graphical glitches have been either addressed or smoothed over, cards work the way they’re intended more often than not, and Blizzard’s visual panache is as strong as ever. Its familiar characters, strong tactile design, and business model all make the game consistently appealing, and easy to pick up and play.

Courtesy Blizzard Entertainment
The game presents constant strategic and tactical questions. Provided your draw is at least half-decent.

“Pick up and play” is even more apt now that the game is available on iPad mobile devices. The app is free to download, of course, and controls with the touch screen instead of a mouse. The translation of some functionality, such as dragging the mouse to a target, is replicated or replaced rather well, making the transition from the computer to the tablet very easy. The game does lag a bit here and there, though, so the implementation could probably use a few tweaks. Still, it makes it even easier to enter the game, say if you’re on a flight path in World of Warcraft or waiting in one of Blizzard’s many multiplayer queues.

Recently, “free to play” games have come under a great deal of scrutiny. Often, such games are powered financially by business models that often lend themselves to the description of “pay to win.” In essence, such games are presented in such a way that if one pays enough money, they can get clear advantages over other players and basically pay their way to the victory within the game. In spite of accusations of one class or another being overpowered, Hearthstone avoids the “pay to win” trap by being quite well balanced. It is entirely possible to go into Ranked play with a deck using only the cards one gets for joining the game the first time, without spending a single cent, and rise to the Legendary ranks of the game. Decks with Legendary cards might be more efficient or flashier in what they do, but you don’t have to spend any real money to be successful in Hearthstone, which is definitely a feather in its cap.

Courtesy Blizzard Entertainment
Life totals aren’t everything. Warlocks know this better than most.

Hearthstone is a game I return to on an almost daily basis. It scratches the itch left by card games like Magic: the Gathering and Netrunner, does what it does with panache, and doesn’t take up a great deal of storage space on one’s shelf. It continues to be challenging months after my first game, delivers fantastic moments of fascinating turnarounds and snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, and seems to only be getting better. A new adventure mode has been announced, and the first ‘dungeon’ we’ll be facing to gain new cards is the necromantic stronghold of Naxxramas. I’m very curious to see what will happen next in this game, and if you are too, there’s never been a better time to check it out.


Movie Review: Captain America: The Winter Soldier

It would be easy, far too easy at this point, for Marvel’s creative minds to just churn out one-note sequels to its successful movie franchises. Just rehash plot points, stick in named villains no matter how they’re written, and ride the wave of money all the way to the bank. But they tried that once, with Iron Man 2. And it backfired. Iron Man 2 is the worst movie of the set so far.

My point is that Marvel’s people had to get smarter about their stories, especially in the wake of The Avengers, and they did. Iron Man 3 is a character piece with expertly-timed comedy juxtaposed with an inward realignment on the part of Tony Stark. Thor: The Dark World lets Chris Hemsworth demonstrate true heroic gravitas and, I will reiterate, acts more like Superman than Superman does in Man of Steel. And now comes Captain America: The Winter Soldier, a very smart, very intense, very electric action-thriller about conspiracies, betrayals, secrets, and what happens when you drop the ultimate Boy Scout into a very deadly cloak-and-dagger scenario.

Courtesy Marvel Studios

The scenario begins with Captain America working with SHIELD as part of a special ops strike team. He and Black Widow run covert operations to subvert things like hostage situations. However, when Captain Rogers realizes that his operations are getting ‘compartmentalized’ by Nick Fury, as in some of his guys follows his orders and others have different orders to follow, he gives SHIELD’s director a piece of his mind. In turn, Fury shows Rogers Project Insight, SHIELD’s new helicarriers meant to neutralize threats before they happen. Rogers, maintaining his stand on the moral high ground, raises his hackles even more, and Fury actually calls for Insight to be delayed. This was apparently an unpopular move, as both Fury and Rogers become targeted for assassination, specifically by the terrifying, heavily-armed spectre known only as the Winter Soldier.

For once, Marvel’s iconic heroes are in a situation that does not involve laser beams, magic hammers, or monsters of myth. This is a complete and total shift in tone, theme, and atmosphere from anything we’ve seen before in this cinematic universe. Superheroes stories always have their share of violence, perhaps more than their share given all the creatures and demigods and megalomaniacs who get punched in the face, but Captain America: The Winter Soldier goes down a different road. The violence is delivered through the entirely mundane and somehow more visceral means of blades, bombs, and bullets, and the victims of that violence are not always the bad guys. This is not a negative aspect of the movie, mind you – but it’s worth knowing beforehand so you know what you’re in for.

Courtesy Marvel Studios
It’s very cool to meet someone who has a lot in common with Captain America despite the age gap.

Tales of intrigue, betrayal, secrets, and revelation have lasted for millenia, long before the advent of superheroism as we know it, as characters compromise themselves morally and legally to do what they feel is right. This is especially true in this modern, cloak-and-dagger world, where secrets are even better concealed by technology and businessmen and bankers lie as a matter of course. That said, Captain America is a completely straightforward, honest person living in a thoroughly dishonest world, but given his skills, notoriety, and fortitude, he’s in a position where he begins to unravel conspiracies just by being himself. For all of the film’s well-timed and well-executed reveals and double-crosses, when you drop Captain America into a story like this, the conspiracies start coming apart almost immediately.

The movie spends about two-thirds of its running time on this very tense, very visceral spy thriller, and then seques very easily into rather straightforward action for its final act. I’m trying to avoid hyperbole in the name of something resembling objectivity, but i just used the word ‘very’ three times in the last sentence – this film makes an impression. From the realistic bent of its firefights to the sharpness of its dialog, Captain America: The Winter Soldier makes it clear that no punches are going to be pulled. Thankfully, beneath the callbacks to the works of John LaCarre and Tom Clancy and cleanly shot, well choreographed fights, which would make this film stand alone as an above-average action thriller, there’s even more to enjoy.

Courtesy Marvel Studios
He’s not only displaced in time, but out of his element.

Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow really steps out on her own here. While we’re still waiting for what is certain to be a fantastic solo outing, she and Chris Evans make a great double act especially throughout the middle of the movie. She always seems a step ahead, approaches her challenges with confidence, and lets the facade of cold, calculated confidence crack now and again to reveal the very human character beneath all of the flash and guile. Anthony Mackie is a breakout star, definitely feeling more like a supporting and necessary character than a sidekick, as Falcon often was in the comics. He’s a modern soldier, mostly courteous with just enough bravado to make him compelling and endearing at the same time, and his wing-suit is weaponized cool not seen since Iron Man. Samuel L. Jackson gives Nick Fury more depth and complexity than ever, and while I’m not sure how in the world a mainstay leading man like Robert Redford got into a Captain America movie, he does fantastic work and demonstrates that he is still one of the best in the business. As for our title roles, Chris Evans continues to impress as Captain America, simultaneously the sort of upstanding person you wish existed more often in real life and the kind of selfless hero that can’t help but inspire. Finally, the Winter Soldier doesn’t get as much screen time as you might expect given his name is in the title, but his role as the ultimate vector of the villainous plans afoot is superbly executed, and he has real on-screen menace and intensity when he’s around.

Over and above everything else, though, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is smart. Its ties to the rest of the Marvel Universe are more implied than explicit. If you’ve been along for the ride from the beginning, you’re going to pick up on a lot and be left wanting more. If you’re new, you’ll want to know more. Names, when dropped, feel a great deal more subtle than they have been in the past, we see more of SHIELD than we ever have before, and even the superscience bits have weight that don’t interfere with the drive of the narrative. I don’t think the tonal shift is for everyone, and some viewers may get turned off by the running time or the subject matter, as I mentioned before. But in terms of objective flaws, the movie has very few, so few that none are springing immediately to mind.

Courtesy Marvel Studios
One of many perfectly executed ‘oh SHIT!’ moments.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is some of the best work Marvel has done to date. It’s gripping storytelling from start to finish. If this is any indication of how strong ‘Phase 2′ is going to continue being in relation to ‘Phase 1′, I am even more excited for Guardians of the Galaxy in August. It doesn’t have the all-ages appeal and pure fun factor of The Avengers or the truly deep and intimate character focus of Iron Man 3, but with its very strong cast, excellent writing, engrossing action, and monstrously influential implications for the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, in spite of the 1200 or so words I’ve just written, there are no words with which I can recommend Captain American: The Winter Soldier any higher than this: It’s not the best superhero movie ever made… but it comes damn, damn, damn close.


Movie Review: Noah

Biblical epics are nothing new for Hollywood. One of the most well-known producer/directors of Hollywood’s past, Cecil B. Demille, worked with many such films, including The Sign of the Cross, Samson & Delilah, and of course The Ten Commandments. For a while, such spectacles have fallen out of favor, thanks to the rise of conservatism in the United States that lead to fundamentalist Christian audiences eschewing things like broad interpretation or the idea of the Bible as metaphor. The tide seems to be turning back, though, if Noah is any indication.

Courtesy Paramount Pictures

Ten generations after Adam and Eve walked in the Garden of Eden, Noah dreams of the destruction of the world. He goes to see his grandfather, Methuselah, who helps him understand that, according to his dream, he must build an ark to save the innocent animals of the world from the oncoming deluge. As he sets about his task, Noah is approached first by the Watchers, fallen angels cast out of Heaven for wishing to help mankind, and Tubal Cain, king of the rest of the world and its strip-mining industrial cities. Noah is dedicated to his task, but the question of what that dedication will compel him to do gets asked over and over again as the rain starts to fall.

Variations on this story exist all over the world. Long before the printing press was capable of putting copies of the Bible in the hands of multitudes, people have been passing on tales of floods, arks, and rainbows. Noah does borrow the bulk of its material from the Judeo-Christian tradition, but it doesn’t seem to have an agenda tied into that establishment. It refers to a “Creator” and at no point is a language other than English spoken, so Biblical purists will have a beef with the film long before the stone angels and magical snake skins show up.

Courtesy Paramount Pictures
The world is less Ten Commandments and more Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome

The thing of it is, some of Noah‘s source material comes from apocryphal texts such as the Book of Enoch and the Dead Sea Scrolls, which technically could be part of holy writ but no Bible printing is likely to include them. These texts speak of a world utterly unlike our own, where angels walked alongside men and miracles were worked by those tied closely to the Garden of Eden. Noah taps into this strangeness and these wonders the same way that Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings tapped into things like sentient tree-people and magic swords. In fact, director Darren Aronofsky approaches the Bible the same way Jackson approached Tolkien: there is deep respect and even love for the source material here, but there’s also a boldness that allows for expansions and cuts where you might not expect them.

Case in point: the Watchers. When these angels chose to break the Creator’s command not to interfere with humanity, they fell to Earth and were covered in stone, preventing them from flying. The way these creatures move is disconcerting and otherworldly, which makes perfect sense: they spent millenia flying through the vastness of space, but now must trudge along one foot at a time. Noah makes tangible sense of the esoteric concept of a fallen angel. Likewise, when Noah tells his family the story of creation, it is juxtaposed with a fantastic montage of a visualization concerning both the Big Bang and Darwinian evolution, demonstrating be means of a major Hollywood production that yes, such Biblical texts can in fact be metaphors for demonstrable scientific theory. So much of Noah is fearless in its respectful interpretation, that things like actors’ performances and actual story points feel almost superfluous in comparison.

Courtesy Paramount Pictures
Noah’s wife and adopted daughter have major roles to play, nicely offsetting the male swagger.

However, that isn’t to say that Noah doesn’t have merits there, as well. While Russel Crowe and Ray Winstone are playing mostly to type as Noah and Tubal Cain respectively, they do turn in good performances and neither tries to over-complicate their characters with odd accents or strange affects. In a text and story mostly dominated by men, Jennifer Connolly and Emma Watson do a fantastic job standing on their own, demonstrating strength and bravery that arguably outshine the battle scenes. Darren Aronofsky is more than just a bold storyteller bringing us the cinematic version of a beloved tale, he’s also an adept and skilled director, and the man who brought us Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain, and Black Swan continues to challenge our perception and our interpretation of events.

Outside of its context as a Biblical tale, Noah is a solid film with good character and world-building as well as fine performances and a well-paced story. Within context, it’s incredibly bold and unafraid of being as bizarre as the Old Testament could truly be, even in the mostly sanitized text that you’d find in most church pews. I can understand why it would make conservative viewers uncomfortable or even angry on the face of the visuals, but underneath the interpretation and metaphor is respect, which drives the narrative forward rather than holding it back. The fact that Noah even got made in a world of lackluster Kirk Cameron schlock and batshit Mel Gibson-style anti-Semitism is significant in and of itself, and the fact that it is this respectful, this bold, this bizarre, and this good is nothing short of its own miracle.


Movie Review: Frozen

It can be difficult to keep up when life throws things into upheaval. Most of the time it’s a matter of distractions or relaxation opportunities slipping away as we get pulled into one direction or another by so-called ‘adult responsibilities’. Sometimes the circumstances are a bit more tragic. And sometimes you just get born with a power over the elements that you can’t control and is tied closely to your emotions so things like insecurity and panic cause localized cataclysms.

You know, typical teenager problems.

Courtesy Disney

Frozen comes to us from Disney, and instead of just one princess, they give us two this time around. Elsa and Anna are the daughters of the king and queen of the cold land of Arendelle. Elsa, the older daughter, was born with the aforementioned powers, in this case giving her dominion over snow and ice. At first, this is fine, and fun for Anna as this means the sisters can build snowmen and toboggan indoors. However, an accident leaves Anna without memory of her sister’s ability and Elsa without her freedom, locked away in the castle away from Anna. A tragedy leaves the sisters without their parents, which leads to Elsa needing to be crowned queen at a time when she is both emotionally vulnerable and reuniting with her sister in the midst of all sorts of ancillary drama. As you expect, this all goes swimmingly and nobody runs into any problems whatsoever.

I kid. The whole thing collapses like an awning buried in snow.

Disney continues to set the standard for visual impressiveness in animated features. Moving from hand-drawn animation to CGI has been greatly aided by the addition of Pixar to their stable, and the influence shows. The style skews more towards realistic humans in their proportions and structure, emulating the drawing styles of classics like Beauty and the Beast, but the computing power of the Pixar folks allows for some truly impressive snow and ice effects. It’s easy to believe that Elsa’s powers are truly magical when we see how she creates what she creates.

Courtesy Disney
The characters feel very human despite their computerized construction.

I’m being deliberately vague and skimping on details, but that’s because Frozen surprised me, and if like me you’ve been hemmed in by winter already and haven’t gotten out to see the film yet, you should be surprised, too. It wasn’t a surprise in the style of a bait and switch, either. What pleasantly shocked me about Frozen was its whip-smart writing and its ability to present two very different female leads as both strong and empathetic. We understand Elsa’s struggle to both accept herself and present herself to the world, and we admire Anna’s upbeat attitude and the fact that she needs no permission to do what she feels is right. She’s more than willing to take things on all by herself, and her determination is inspiring.

Disney films in this vein are famous for their songs, and Frozen has got some good ones. There’s a reason ‘Let It Go’ has been so prominent for so long. However, the film feels front-loaded with its singing numbers. They come and go somewhat quickly, almost as if the film is in a hurry to get them out of the way so we can focus more on character and plot development. With characters and writing this good, it’s somewhat understandable, and it doesn’t really hurt the movie in any way. It just struck me as odd that the balance across the running time seemed off.

Courtesy Disney
There are great lighting and weather effects, too.

Frozen feels confident. Much like its leads, the film is going to say what it needs to say regardless of how it’s received, and it’s admirable for that. The film itself is quite good, and young girls especially should be seeing it. While its overall quality doesn’t quite match the wit, pace, heart, and pure fun of The LEGO Movie, and its Pixar-esque qualities also invite comparisons to the superior Wall-E and Up, Frozen is by no means a film to be missed. The characters are fantastic, the songs are memorable, it doesn’t overstay its welcome, and its message is one that deserves to be shouted from the balcony of any ice castle anywhere. If you have a family with young ladies, or just want to see what female empowerment looks like within the ‘princess’ genre, Frozen is right up your alley.


500 Words On Gravity

Courtesy Warner Bros

I finally got around to seeing Gravity, one of the most lauded films of last year. In fact, I’ve seen it twice. The first time I saw it was at a friend’s who has a 3-D television, and I have to say I’m a little sorry I missed seeing the film in IMAX. I don’t miss the fact that I saved on the IMAX markup, to be sure, but the visuals in Gravity are absolutely breathtaking, even in 2-D.

If you’ve followed my blog for any amount of time, you know what a stickler I am for story and character. I do make some exceptions for guilty pleasures (Flash Gordon for example), but for the most part, a cinematic storyline usually has no excuse for skimping on these important elements. Pacific Rim has a somewhat simple story and some of the characters are a bit arch, but their presentation and informing the audience through action and emotion rather than wordy exposition overshadows those aforementioned potential drawbacks.

Gravity isn’t quite that lucky. As good as the performances are, our two leads are barely more than sketches of characters. And the story, despite taking place in the unique arena of outer space (we’ll get to that), couldn’t be more watered down. Gravity is a survival film. It’s the last half of Titanic, or the entirety of The Poseidon Adventure or The Grey, just in space. It shatters a seemingly peaceful scene with a disaster and narrows the field of players to one, who must survive and evade an oncoming calamity – water in the boat movies, wolves in The Grey, space in general in Gravity. As tense as Gravity is, in the back of my mind my inner critic was saying, “Space is still trying to kill Sandra Bullock. Somehow, all of space is still trying to murder Sandra Bullock.”

Okay, enough belly-aching, let’s get to the good stuff. This is one of the hardest sci-fi movies I’ve seen in a long time. It’s up there with Moon and 2001: A Space Odyssey in terms of its depictions of outer space. Instead of classical music, exterior shots are accompanied by a haunting and driving soundtrack. Some of these shots are utterly amazing in their length and composition. The silence adds to the tension and pulls us into the plight of the survivors. It’s paced very well, and arch as the characters are, they’re likable enough that we don’t want to see bad things happen to them. This film somehow accomplishes the feat of invoking both agoraphobia and claustrophobia at the same time. Space can be a scary place, and Gravity drives that home without a single laser blast or monster.

All in all, I really enjoy Gravity, and while its narrative and characters are not as strong as Moon and its impact won’t match that of 2001: A Space Odyssey, I would still recommend it for any sci-fi fan or folks interested in tales of the human spirit triumphant.

I need to see The Grey.


Film Review: Mr. Peabody & Sherman

When I was young, between daily corrals of mammoths and making-fire-with-rocks lessons, my mother introduced me to The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. As amused as I was by the antics of the moose & squirrel, the segments that stuck with me the most would have to be Peabody’s Improbable History. I can’t recall exactly, but I think I was introduced to the singular genius dog Mr. Peabody, and his boy Sherman, long before I read The Time Machine or saw my first episode of Doctor Who. It’s entirely possible that these short tales of historical fiction and education were my first exposure to time travel. Many years and several stories later, Dreamworks has set about the task of bringing Mr. Peabody & Sherman forward to our time, before sending them back to the past on more adventures of a modern audience.

Courtesy DreamWorks Animation

The story goes that Mr. Peabody was born in a pound, like many dogs, but had a hard time finding a home. Apparently people don’t like having a dog that talks back, especially about things like particle physics and differential calculus. But rather than let such things get him down, this extraordinary canine devoted himself to intellectual and physical perfection, eventually becoming such a player on the world stage that, instead of a boy adopting him, he instead adopts a boy. To educate the orphan, named Sherman, Peabody invents a machine he dubs the WABAC (pronounced ‘Wayback’) to introduce his boy to historical periods in the past and the figures prominent in them. But when Sherman tries to go to public school, things go awry, and Peabody must show that his home is exemplary, even as Sherman seeks to use the machine to impress a fellow student.

There were a lot of fears that the creators of Mr. Peabody & Sherman would miss the point of the original animation. This is a fear founded in some of the frankly deplorable adaptations of the works of Doctor Seuss and other franchises of yesteryear. Thankfully, despite what seems to be at first a purely aesthetic connection to the source material, within the first few minutes of the film’s opening it’s clear that the writers and animators did more than glance at a few pictures from the original show.

Courtesy DreamWorks Animation
There are some great gags and visuals here.

Not long after the movie opens, the first trip back in time happens, and it easily could have been lifted from the old show. While the look and feel of things has gotten an update, the ‘DNA’ of the core concept is very much intact. Peabody and Sherman learn about where they are and who they’re around, the situation escalates, hijinks occur, and Peabody cracks at least one pun. Even after that, the movie has a consistent tone. Peabody is well-meaning but high-minded, Sherman isn’t the best student in the world even if he is good-natured, and the two of them really do need and compliment one another. What’s interesting is that around the usual space-time shenanigans, we get to see how the world reacts to Peabody. It’s cute, to be sure, and it does feel loyal to the tone of the original shorts.

There’s also plenty of slapstick as our heroes stumble across historical figures doing what made them famous. While Mr. Peabody & Sherman does not fall into the trap of repeating the same gag over and over again for its running time, it does seem that the slapstick outweighs the puns and ‘dad jokes’. It’s definitely helpful to keep the attention of the kids, but it does take something away from the core concept and the interplay of the characters. The gags are funny in the moment, but in retrospect there might have been time for another historical stop if some of the antics had been cut. Then again, the third act of the movie kicks off with a very interesting take on the nature of time travel paradoxes, which I couldn’t help but appreciate.

Courtesy DreamWorks Animation
The relationship is very cute, organic, and endearing.

This is a film that definitely relies on the chemistry between the leads, rather than leaning entirely on its jokes or conceits. In addition to their arch characterizations, the interplay between Mr. Peabody and Sherman is geared in such a way that both characters are equally sympathetic and equally central. Mr. Peabody’s dilemma with Sherman is born out of genuine affection, even if he can’t always fully articulate it, and Sherman’s actions are framed in that same affection being reciprocated, even if the boy doesn’t think his plans all the way through. This relationship feels organic and natural, a feeling backed up by excellent voice work and animation that preserves the general tone of the original material but is most definitely modern and geared towards making use of the overabundance of 3-D.

It’s hard to come away from Mr. Peabody & Sherman and not feel a sense of satisfaction. While it lacks the seemingly boundless energy of The LEGO Movie, and the true emotional punch and poignancy of WALL-E or Up, the film is an utter and unquestionable success in how it modernizes the cartoon shorts on which it’s based. It can be difficult to simultaneously educate and entertain, and while the education merit of the film is somewhat pushed aside by the time the third act begins, the hope seems to be that kids will at least ask questions and hit up Wikipedia after they see the movie. The writing’s smart, the characters are very well presented, the action is slick and inventive and doesn’t feel repetitious, and there are a few gags and jokes clearly aimed at older audience members that don’t feel pandering or out of place. Its tone is consistent and light, it honors and exalts its heritage, and it doesn’t overstay its welcome. Overall, I’d recommend Mr. Peabody & Sherman, especially if you were a fan of the cartoon growing up. It’s nice to know that not all reworked concepts in family entertainment are going to the dogs.

Courtesy DreamWorks Animation


500 Words On Two Movies

I missed yesterday’s review for several reasons. So let me break down the double-feature I did today in about 500 words. Including those last 20. Consider this a flash review.

Robocop (2014)

My initial reaction? “Meh.” It wasn’t terrible, by any stretch, but I wasn’t blown away by it. I liked some of the things they did with the concept, to be sure. There were moments that really brought home the horror of what happened to Murphy and what was done to him after. A great deal of time is spent on Murphy’s recovery, family, and impact on the future society.

However, a lot of the film feels overly long and drawn out. As fun as it is to see Samuel L. Jackson channelling Bill O’Rielly, a few of his bits are a little long in the tooth. The same goes for several scenes of the Murphy family. On it’s own, the movie feels a touch padded and slow.

In comparison to the original 1987 film, this new version feels a great deal like it’s missing the point. RoboCop‘s ultra-violence, quick cuts to vapid press coverage, and corporate interplay all contributed to its undercurrent of social satire. I understand that remakes involve changes, and not all of the changes were bad, but some left me with major unanswered questions. Why was Lewis gender-changed to male? Why was this story laid out so deliberately and linearly, when flashbacks of Murphy’s emergent memories could have been a far more effective storytelling tool? Why was the only blood we really saw in the film coming from a kill at the end that means the victim will not be brought to justice? It’s another case where a revision of an established character could have turned out a lot better than it did, but at least it wasn’t as shameless as any of the previous RoboCop sequels, nor was it quite as dour or plodding as Man of Steel.

The LEGO Movie

I just got a haircut today, and the young lady doing me that service told me she had herself seen The LEGO Movie recently. She had expected the theatre to be full of kids – not all of the adults she found! From the sound of things, she really enjoyed seeing it.

I told you that story because I really have nothing to say about The LEGO Movie that has not already been said in a thousand other places. The universal sentiment is that this film is pretty terrific, and I have no reason or desire to disagree! This is especially good for families. It’s fun, inventive, creative, and you’ll notice things on your second viewing you didn’t see the first time.

After seeing it again, I don’t think the message is quite as strong as in Wreck-It Ralph.

Then again, Wreck-It Ralph doesn’t have the goddamn Batman.

Honestly, the two films pretty much stand shoulder to shoulder. I’d recommend either very strongly to either parents with kids, or folks just wanting a great time at the movies.


Movie Review: The Wolf of Wall Street

I’m no financial genius. I can barely keep a checkbook balanced, let alone invest in a diverse stock portfolio. If you’re anything like me in that regard, ignorant of the stock market’s inner workings, don’t worry. You can walk into The Wolf of Wall Street and know everything you need to know. And according to the tale’s narrator, all you need to know is that what’s happening on Wall Street is two things: very lucrative, and not always necessarily legal.

Courtesy Paramount Pictures

That narrator is also our protagonist, Jordan Belfort, played by Leonardo DiCaprio and working off of the real-life memoir written by Belfort himself. He starts out as a wide-eyed, straight-laced new member of a brokerage, and is just starting to get a feeling for the business when the market crashes. Undaunted, Jordan gets involved with the seedier aspect of the business known as ‘penny stocks’, and is soon turning a substantial profit. He starts his own business, builds it into a real presence on Wall Street, and amasses a huge fortune. He uses his wealth on drugs, whores, parties, and more drugs, but considering his business is built on less than savory practices, he soon runs afoul of the FBI, and things start to go rapidly downhill.

From what we’re shown, Jordan is a textbook sociopath. His charm is glib and superficial, his abilities to manipulate are what make him such a good salesman, he is incredibly entitled to the point of grandiosity, he has no sense of remorse or guilt, so on and so on. He is unctuous and at times downright repugnant, and yet as shallow as that charm is, it’s so effective and attractive that we can see why he succeeds. Hell, his pitch is delivered so well that I caught myself thinking about stock investments. He not only surrounds himself with subordinates willing to do just about anything for him, he teaches them to make themselves stinking rich, even if they don’t quite have the same chops to charm as much as he does. And we see every aspect of his excessive lifestyle in sharp, uncompromising detail – this is Martin Scorsese we’re talking about, after all.

Courtesy Paramount Pictures
Despite being such a douchebag, whenever he’s behind a microphone, you’re hanging on every word.

Teaming once again with long-time editing partner Thelma Schoonmaker, we see Scorsese doing one of the things he does best: making a good story starring bad people. Look no further than GoodFellas and Casino for more of this type of tale. Much like another film to which it is compared, Scarface, The Wolf of Wall Street features a protagonist that has no heroic qualities, very little to redeem himself, and close to zero ground when it comes to gaining sympathy. And yet, Scorsese tells his story with such poise and aplomb that we’re not only capable of watching, we’re wrapped up in Jordan’s journey. We laugh at his drunken stupors. And you may even catch yourself laughing with him all the way to the Swiss bank.

It isn’t all on Scorsese’s shoulders, of course. The Wolf of Wall Street is an exemplary double-act of a skillful director and a thoroughly talented and entertaining leading man. I’ve said before that Leonardo DiCaprio has the screen presence and affability that puts him on par with Humphrey Bogart or Clark Gable, and this film really drives that home. His delivery of the facts of his life are so conversationally put, and his relationships with his peers so natural, that we not only understand how this utter sleazeball of a person can be so successful, we also find him making it look easy. It’s a powerhouse performance, not because it’s dramatically moving, but because it’s a case of an actor truly wearing another person’s skin for the better part of three hours.

Courtesy Paramount Pictures
He may be drinking wine, but he’s selling snake oil, and making a bundle doing it.

The last thing that makes The Wolf of Wall Street a hands-down recommendation for me is that it’s a comedy blacker than the blackest pitch. For the majority of its running time, the film’s an absolute riot. Jordan makes no apologies for his life, pulls no punches in showing and describing in detail the drugs he’s on, and delivers monologues rivaling Gordon Gecko’s “Greed is good” mantra from Wall Street. The supporting cast keys into his electrifying presence, from Jonah Hill as his sidekick to Margot Robbie as his sultry second wife. Much of the dialog feels improvised and spontaneous, keeping the scenes clipping along and helping the movie not feel its length. Much like a good bender, the impact of the film doesn’t really hit you until the very end, and then long after the credits begin to roll, you’ll be thinking about it. Your head might even start to hurt, but in a good way. And there’s no nausea. At least, I didn’t feel any.

I’m not sure what else I can say about The Wolf of Wall Street to encourage you to see it. It describes in detail how phony, superficial, and fickle the stock market is. It shows the kinds of people who exploit the gullibility and vulnerability of the stock market’s investors to make themselves rich. It makes us understand beyond a shadow of a doubt why the lifestyle is so attractive. And it warns us that anything that seems too good to be true is untrustworthy, especially if the salesman is as charming as Jordan Belfort. In another story, this message would be delivered without a hint of irony and completely stone-faced. But here, we’re smiling and laughing, enjoying a cracking good time at the movies. Like Scarface and Fight Club, The Wolf of Wall Street both glamorizes a dangerous and destructive lifestyle, and shows us exactly why such a lifestyle is so dangerous and destructive, at once holding up a public ideal for all to see and taking the absolute piss out of it. It’s absolutely brilliant and, unlike these brokers’ lifestyles, built to last.

Stuff I Liked: The supporting cast is fantastic. I’m not a big Jonah Hill fan, but I thought he did a great job being a complete sleaze which highlights just how charismatic Belfort can be. Rob Reiner does an excellent job and comes close to stealing the boardroom scene he’s in with the other leads. And I hope we see more of Margot Robbie’s acting, as I have the feeling the real actress completely disappeared into her role.
Stuff I Didn’t Like: There are a couple scenes that other directors might have cut a bit shorter, but the dialog is so natural and the cinematography so sharp that even as I noted a scene was running a bit long, I didn’t really mind all that much.
Stuff I Loved: Leonardo DiCaprio has never been better. Scorsese puts Leo and his other actors through an incredible series of situations and gets top-notch performances out of all of them. The nature of the narration is the perfect framework for the film’s tone, and makes you feel slightly more comfortable with Belfort’s antics even as he indulges in some of the most debauched situations since Caligula.

Bottom Line: It’s pretty safe to say that if I had gotten to see it before the end of the year, The Wolf of Wall Street would have been my top movie. It has everything I adore in a good film about bad people: charisma, unapologetic sleaze, a breakneck pace, and a long and ever-escalating ramp to a climax that comes before a slam-dunk fall that leaves you both empty and deeply satisfied. It’s signature Scorsese, DiCaprio’s best performance to date, a dazzling spectacle wrapped around an acid-edged takedown message, and definitely one of the best movies. Not just of 2013. Ever.


First Impressions: Retro Shooter Redux

Courtesy PC Gamer

Back in the day, graphical fidelity on PCs was not really up to rendering 3D environments within simulations. The best they could do back in the mid-90s was some polygons stacked together to make landscapes to fly over in jet simulators. However, clever folks at studios like Apogee and id Software could fool the eye with what was called “2-and-a-half D” to make corridors and courtyards seem like 3D environments. They then filled those corridors and courtyards with squishy Nazis and demons for us to shoot at in games like Wolfenstein 3D and Doom respectively. The popularity of first-person shooters exploded, with follow-ups including the medieval-themed Heretic and Hexen and Duke Nukem 3D, back when Duke was still actually kind of funny.

This was long before concepts like “modern military” and “cover-based” would come to dominate the shooter scene. This was before shooters slowed down, when frenetic energy and sudden, panicked 180 swings with a rocket launcher was rewarded with gibbets of enemies and a slew of points instead of some distant would-be teammate calling you something offensive. Some shooters have tried to recapture this feeling – Painkiller springs to mind immediately – but to really come to grips with this difference in gaming, you have to go back to the classics, and that’s exactly what some studios have done.

I’m going to do full reviews of both Rise of the Triad and Shadow Warrior‘s remakes. I know they came out last year, and I know others have covered them. But I want more people to check them out. I want folks to realize that this sort of shooter can be a ton of fun, and you don’t need remote-control drone strikes, glitzy latest-console-generation graphics, or half-baked invasion-of-America-because-they’re-jealous-of-our-freedoms conspiracy theories to justify that fun. And I want to convey more fully the impression I get from playing these games.

And that impression is, Holy shit this is fun as hell!

Games are about having fun. They’re about distracting us from chores and deadlines and every other actual stressor in life. I may enjoy a relaxing round of daily quests or dungeon-delving in World of Warcraft, or a thought-provoking intense game of Hearthstone, but sometimes I just want to blow something the fuck up. I want the thrill of fully automatic weapons, the visceral appeal of a well-timed sword strike, the inherent cool factor of heat-seeking missiles fired from the hip, and a commanding officer I want to pound into oblivion for being a bit of a twat. These games fulfill those urges, and in ways that won’t get me arrested. You should check them out.

I’ll go into more detail in the weeks ahead. I do need to talk about boring stuff like premises, plots, characters, all of that stuff. It’s what I do, after all. But for now: Holy shit they remade Shadow Warrior and Rise of the goddamn Triad and they look great and I’m laughing and it’s fast and fun and OH CRAP NOT-NAZIS ARE SHOOTING AT ME AAAAAAAAAAH


Movie Review: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

The second part of a three-part story is often the trickiest. It can be hard to work the tale in such a way that it feels like its own complete story, yet works to connect the first part with the last. Even when a work is planned as a trilogy from the outset, the second part can suffer from a bit of ‘middle child syndrome’, and parts of it can feel artificially padded as plot points are set up for the final installment to knock over. J.R.R. Tolkien and Peter Jackson managed to avoid this with The Two Towers, which has its own contained story to tell. The question many asked is, can the same be done with The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug?

Courtesy New Line Cinema

We pick up directly where An Unexpected Journey left off. Bilbo, Gandalf, Thorin, and the other dwarves are on the run from orcs. Even as the hunters give chase, they are unwittingly driving the company closer to Erebor, the Lonely Mountain, the goal of the company’s quest. While they evade immediate capture, Gandalf must leave to join Radagast the Brown in investigating rumors of a great evil on the rise. Meanwhile, Bilbo and his friends have to navigate the shady paths of Mirkwood, deal with the king of the wood elves, and behold the area around the Lonely Mountain known as ‘the desolation of Smaug’, a land scarred by dragonfire and cowering in the shadow of Erebor.

As much as I thoroughly enjoyed An Unexpected Journey, I am willing to acknowledge that, while it doesn’t rush, its pace can be a touch inconsistent. A good portion of that film, especially the first two acts of it, are occupied primarily with flashbacks and backstory. I realize this is necessary, particularly in the first chapter of a trilogy, but it can make the story move in two directions: forward, then backwards, then forward again. It can be awkward, and I’m glad An Unexpected Journey didn’t feel that way even as it shifts gears. Thankfully, The Desolation of Smaug has only direction: Forward.

Courtesy New Line Cinema

From the opening of the film, with Thorin and company on the run from orcs, until the confrontation with Smaug in Erebor, the story is always heading into its next encounter. The nice thing is that, as much as it’s constantly in motion, it gives more than enough breathing room for its characters. We get more time with characters established in the first film, and new ones are introduced and given their own elbow room. That’s one of the advantages to Jackson incorporating so much from Unfinished Tales and The Silmarillion and expanding this relatively simple story into three extra-long films. The world of Middle-Earth, and the beings that populate it, are given ample opportunity to come to vibrant, breathing life.

Even as the world expands and the story moves along, we manage to stay with and care about our core characters, for the most part. With Gandalf leaving the company to investigate Dol Guldur, and Bilbo already having overcome his impulse to just run home and curl up with a good book under about a thousand blankets, we focus more on Thorin Oakenshield. There are moments with other characters, to be certain. Thranduil gets more personality, Evangeline Lilly’s Tauriel steals most of the scenes she’s in, and I really liked the character moments we get with Beorn, Bard, and even the Master of Laketown. More dwarven moments are always good, from Bombur doing more than just being the butt of jokes to Kili turning on the charm to Oin’s healing abilities. But really, this is Thorin’s movie, right up until we meet the dragon Smaug. Thorin definitely comes into his own, having kingly moments as well as showing the nuance and questionable decision-making that comes from obsession. All of this might sound like Bilbo is taking a backseat in his own movie, but he has plenty of great moments, and I was reminded more than once that not only is he the uncle of Frodo Baggins, he’s also related to Peregrin Took. I recall grinning at the screen, shanking my head, and saying “That’s a total Pippin moment.”

Courtesy New Line Cinema

I understand that there are quite a few die-hard Tolkien fans who aren’t satisfied with these films. And I can understand why. With its additions, expansions, and digressions, these film adaptations of The Hobbit are deviating from the text far more than Jackson’s work on The Lord of the Rings ever did. From the perspective of fans that have read and digested and lived with The Hobbit for decades, the simplicity and pace and whimsy of this story are being watered down, if not entirely lost. Since so much time is being spent with characters who aren’t the hobbit of the title, the deviations seem even more aberrant, again from their point of view. I can appreciate that perspective, and if that sort of thing is a deal-breaker for you, you’re justified in not seeing it. However, from my point of view, the inclusion of more of Tolkien’s lore and the growth of Middle-Earth around the core of this simple story and these vibrant characters is a good use of the material and leads to a satisfying continuation of a truly epic tale of fantasy. I may be overly optimistic, but I honestly believe this is building to a fully coherent and connected story that begins at Bag End with Bilbo Baggins getting a visit from a wizard, and ends at the Black Gate of Mordor. Or maybe a few scenes and a couple gratuitous fades to black after that.

Stuff I Liked: There’s a lot here for Tolkien nerds. The scene with Beorn is fantastically done. I’m glad they expanded on more of the dwarves. The execution of Bilbo in the forest of Mirkwood was very cool, from climbing the tree to the signs of his growing connection to the One Ring.
Stuff I Didn’t Like: Some of the digressions may not have been entirely necessary. A couple of the scenes’ CGI could have been sharpened up a bit – maybe they’d look better in 3D or 48 FPS?
Stuff I Loved: Thorin really seizes hold of both his destiny and our imaginations. Bard is a colorful character that makes decisions that always feel consistent from his perspective. There’s more wizardly daring-do, the fight along the river was a treat, and Martin Freeman continues to demonstrate what an inspired choice he was for Bilbo Baggins.
Stuff I REALLY Loved: Smaug.

Bottom Line: In the end, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug feels a lot more like the continuation of the overall narrative of The Hobbit rather than trying to stand entirely on its own. However, with its pace and new elements and complications, it feels a lot less like padded filler and more like a broadening and deepening of the world Bilbo is exploring. Absolutely die-hard long-standing fans of Tolkien may be turned off by its additions and digressions. However, it continues to demonstrates Peter Jackson’s directorial skill, the cast is in great form, the action’s never dull, and it delivers perhaps the best dragon on screen to date. For my money, it’s definitely worth seeing, and perhaps more than once.


DLC Review: Burial At Sea

Ken Levine’s games have taken us into the cold darkness of deep spaces, the unplumbed depths of the ocean, and into a variety of parallel dimensions. But unless you count the sequel we don’t talk about, fans of BioShock have be waiting for the game or experience that takes them to a very specific place: back to Rapture. Thankfully, Irrational Games isn’t done with the engine they used for BioShock: Infinite, and its first story DLC, Burial at Sea, invites players back beneath the waves to the city of Andrew Ryan’s dreams.

Courtesy Irrational Games

In that city, we find Booker DeWitt working as a private investigator. If you didn’t know the story was happening in Rapture, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a potboiler noir opening: the smokey interior, hazy light coming through venetian blinds, the leggy dame walking in with a mysterious job. The dame in question, however, turns out to be Elizabeth, and she hires DeWitt to find a young girl named Sally, lost somewhere in Rapture. Booker accepts for personal reasons, and the pair step into Rapture proper, with little to go on and plenty of danger ahead.

Since it’s DLC, the systems of Burial at Sea have not changed in leaps and bounds since Booker went to Columbia. Still, it’s always nice to play a shooter that lets you carry more than two weapons. Even Elizabeth serves a similar purpose in combat, opening rifts that give Booker access to supplies when she isn’t finding things laying around. However, for me at least, BioShock in general and Infinite in particular has never really been about the combat. The Plasmids/Tonics are neat, to be sure, and Infinite‘s Skyhook changes things up from normal shooters, but for the most part, I’m in Rapture for the story.

For this particular story, Booker and Elizabeth are walking around Rapture before the fall. People are wandering around having polite conversation, the surroundings are clean and well-lit, and only occasionally do you see someone making excessive use of Plasmids. Granted, after a couple hours of wandering around and encountering some old and new faces around Rapture, the scene shifts to dark spaces full of maniacs more familiar to BioShock fans, but the depiction of Rapture as a living, breathing city rather than a hollowed-out corpse of its former self is both fascinating and engrossing. While it’s unfortunate that there really isn’t anything new character-wise in this DLC, if you liked Booker and Elizabeth’s exchanges in Columbia, you’ll be just fine with how they get along in Rapture. Finally, the story’s mystery does keep you guessing, and the ending of Episode 1 delivers a pretty effective emotional gut-punch you may not see coming.

Burial at Sea does an excellent job of coupling the systems and characters of BioShock Infinite with the rich, occasionally terrifying underwater world of its predecessor. Episode 1 is out now on the Steam store, or your console venue of choice, with Episode 2 not far off. I do recommend it, even if its price is a bit steep for the overall amount of content it delivers.


First Impressions: Hearthstone

A few years ago, Blizzard Entertainment tried their hands a trading card game version of World of Warcraft. I was into it, for a while, as were quite a few other fans. It coupled the familiar themes and powers of the MMO with excellent art and an interesting mechanic for getting cards into play that sought to reduce some of the problems inherent with a TCG’s necessary randomization. While I no longer play it, it seems to still be going, if the shelves at Target are to be believed. And now, Blizzard seems to be working on bringing that sort of turn-based strategic and collectible experience to their PC fanbase with Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft, currently in closed beta.

Courtesy f2p.com

The game behaves like most TCGs: you acquire a starter set of cards, assemble a deck, and do battle with other players. Every turn within a game session, you receive a mana crystal with which to cast spells or summon minions from your hand, ensuring you never get shorted on the resources necessary to play. The goal is to reduce your enemy’s hero to 0 health while keeping yours alive. There’s a hero for each of the nine basic character classes in World of Warcraft, from ancient legends like Malfurion and Gul’dan to relative newcomers like Valeera and Anduin. Each hero has some class-specific cards, and a general pool from which they can gather other minions. The game is certainly not rocking the boat when it comes to traditional aspects of TCGs, and as with most things, the devil is in the details.

There’s an astounding amount of detail in Hearthstone‘s art and sound design. The play areas themselves are interactive, every minion has a unique voice, opponents slam into one another with resounding cracks to the cheers of the onlooking crowd – it all leads to a greater sense of immersion. The minions’ abilities are varied quite nicely, opening up multiple avenues and playstyles as they are added to decks. Each hero has a power to which they always have access, meaning that a player is only rarely entirely out of options. There are two play modes: regular or Constructed, in which players assemble their decks from their personal collections before doing battle, and The Arena, where a brand new deck is constructed from a pool of random cards and runs are more limited. Both modes offer up rewards, as do Quests which are distributed once a day, most commonly in the form of gold which can be used to enter The Arena or buy ‘Expert’ packs of cards. And if you don’t need some of the cards you get, you can ‘Disenchant’ some, breaking them down into Dust which is then used to assemble different cards, from Common cards all the way up to Legendaries.

As much as I like Hearthstone, I recognize it has some flaws. There’s very little to do on an opponent’s turn. There are ‘secrets’ which are cards that activate on certain triggers from an opponent, but only a few classes have them and they’re not that difficult to deal with. A couple classes feel a little unbalanced (looking at you, Priests) and it can be difficult to assemble an effective ‘theme’ deck. There are some glitches here and there, but the game is still in beta and that’s par for the course. Finally, the game can be a bit stingy with its in-game currency and rewards, and while the nature of its systems keep it from being a ‘pay-to-win’ style game outwardly, I feel like higher quest rewards or more Dust from the Arena would be better incentives to keep playing.

That said, Hearthstone is a rock-solid implementation of a good premise for an extension of one of Blizzard’s longest-running franchises. I am enjoying the beta, and continue to sneak matches in around writing sessions and bouts with longer games like Skyrim and World of Warcraft. It scratches the Magic: the Gathering itch quite well and, flawed as it is in places, I’m curious and eager to see how it behaves in its final form.


Movie Review: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

There are a lot of sequels in this world that do not necessarily need to exist. From movies to games, stretching a creative idea into three or more parts has become the rule rather than the exception, and it doesn’t always yeild good results. If a narrative is planned from the beginning to have multiple parts, it can fare better, but each part must build on those that came before and expand in its own ways, instead of just treading old ground. At first glance, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire may seem to be a case of the latter – dystopia, arena combat, etc – but just a few minutes in, it’s clear that the movie is both a continuation of the tale and has its own story to tell.

Courtesy Lionsgate Films

At the end of Panem’s 74th Hunger Games, there were two victors instead of the usual one. Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mallark sold the media-saturated elite of the decadent Capital on their love story, but as they return to District 12’s dark and dusty squallor, it’s clear that the relationship is just for the cameras. Moreover, their act of defiance against President Cornelius Snow has sparked protests and uprisings in the other Districts. Snow asks Katniss politely to behave herself on her victory tour around Panem, but when that doesn’t go well, he pulls the young couple back into the arena, this time with other victors, all experienced killers, with the notion that this ‘Mockingjay’ problem will sort itself out.

In case you missed the clear parallel author Suzanne Collins was drawing between imperial Rome and her dystopian vision of the future, the visuals of Catching Fire is sure to hammer it home. But along with the Roman influence comes something closer to our modern age. Panem is a society saturated with and bombarded by media. The allure and spectacle of the Capital is meant to distract the people of the Districts from their hardships and toils, and the media with its fixation on celebrity and drama spread and reinforce that distraction. The thing about an exploitative system, though, is that smart people can exploit it right back.

Courtesy Lionsgate Films
The parallels to things like ‘American Idol’ definitely stand out.

What strikes me most about Catching Fire is the amount of emotional nuance present in the characters. Facial expressions can be difficult to communicate through prose, but on film, any character can have a moment where a look or a gesture can speak a thousand words. From our heroine suffering from clear signs of PTSD to minor characters literally giving their all for the sake of what they believe in, the character moments in the film move us from event to event, rather than relying entirely on the mechanisms of the plot. Jennifer Lawrence carries the movie, of course, but she doesn’t do it alone. I can’t think of a performance that strikes me as bad or even mediocre, and considering that we have these strong characters being observed and possibly emulated by young people, it’s a big mark in the movie’s favor.

If I have a problem with Catching Fire, it’s that the process of adaptation has left several scenes axed that inform later scenes. Without this foundation, some of the events leading up to the climax can feel contrived, working out for Katniss more through convenience than anything she directly does. Despite the time the movie takes to have its character moments and expansions on Panem’s nature, it feels at times like some of the story’s parts are missing. I can’t guarantee I’ll buy it, but I wonder if there will be a Director’s Cut of this film that fills in some of the missing pieces.

Courtesy Lionsgate Films
Plutarch is scheming. That’s his scheming face.

Catching Fire was the strongest of Suzanne Collins’ books set in Panem, and it makes for a strong movie. With characters to empathize with, clean shots, and well-framed visuals, it draws the audience in far more adeptly than a lot of other entertainment aimed at young adults. It’s smart, it makes no apologies for its characters being who they are even as we relate to them, and it defintely feels more like a true sequel to The Hunger Games than something tacked on to the franchise to make more money. While I feel like some of its bits are missing, the fact that I can’t come up with any other major criticisms means the odds are definitely in this film’s favor.


Movie Review: Thor: The Dark World

If you look over Norse myths in their original forms, you can see why Marvel pulled ideas from its pantheon. The bombastic, fiery personalities of the gods of Asgard fit the hyperbole and spectacle of comic books very well. Jack Kirby’s imagination brought these characters to vibrant life, making their designs colorful and outlandish. The film adaptation of Thor transitioned Jack’s vision to the big screen for modern audiences, The Avengers brought these demi-gods into contact with the more grounded aspects of the interconnected narrative, and now Thor: The Dark World aims to expand the scope of its own ambition to make both its own stage and that of the Marvel cinematic universe that much wider.

Courtesy Marvel Studios

Thor’s appearance alongside Iron Man and Captain America was no accident. Having reclaimed his birthright and gained a sense of humility and perspective, the son of Odin set about bringing peace to the Nine Realms, defeating forces set on destruction and trying to bring peace instead of the war he sought with Jotunheim. In Asgard’s past, this initiative often took a darker form, and Svartalfheim, former home of the dark elves, was rendered nearly lifeless after the war that raged there centuries ago. However, the dark elf king Malekith survived with some of his followers, and awakens to seek a deadly force known as the Aether to help him have his revenge on Asgard. The perfect time for this is a convergence of the Nine Realms, which begins to play with primordial forces like gravity on Earth, bringing it to the attention of astrophysicist Jane Foster, who still anticipates the return of Thor. To defeat Malekith and save all of the worlds he knows, Thor must forge an alliance with one of most treacherous creatures ever known: his adopted half-brother, Loki.

It’s pretty obvious from the outset that Thor: The Dark World has a story to tell, and wishes to waste no time doing it. The film is front-loaded with a depiction of the ancient war with the dark elves, and much of the first half of the film is filled with dialog that is largely expository. Only the barest of connections is drawn to the previous films, and one gets the impression that the film’s writers just assume that anybody seeing this one has already seen everything leading up to it. While it’s not an unfair assumption to make, anybody new to the universe in the audience may end up a little bit lost. Still, it’s good to be back in Asgard, and as much as there’s a lot of ground to cover story-wise, the story that we get isn’t necessarily bad. It just suffers from a little bit of a pacing problem.

Courtesy Marvel Studios
You’d think they’d be more reluctant to turn their backs on Loki.

The other drawback to being so concerned with checking off story points to make sure nobody’s lost or confused is that character moments take a back seat. This is a shame, because this is a very talented cast with interesting characters to portray. Thor and Loki, in particular, have both grown and changed since the previous films. Thor is much more agreeable and humane, acting a great deal more like DC’s Superman than Superman did in Man of Steel. When Asgard is attacked and the damage severe, it is Thor who argues with Odin for a solution that doesn’t lead to more war and destruction, which is a clever reversal of their roles from the first film. As for Loki, his defeats have left him frustrated and malicious, but not in a monomaniacal myopic sort of way. Even moreso than before, he’s a calculating and conniving character, deceptively charming and absolutely deadly, especially when underestimated. It’s clear that Marvel knows how much he’s admired by fans, even though he’s clearly still an ambitious and traitorous creature. I would have liked to see more of these two, but what we get is pretty good.

Once the story gets done setting up all of its dominoes, though, the resulting spectacle is undeniably fun. Thor: The Dark World feels even more like something lifted from the likes of Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon than the previous film, and it hits all of the right chords to provide that surge of excitement and adventure from exotic new worlds and epic battles. It continues the Marvel tradition of eschewing darker, more brooding takes on comic book characters, and maintains the bright and vibrant palette of the first film. Unlike Iron Man 2, this movie is more concerned with taking us for a pretty wild ride all its own rather than pulling together threads from elsewhere in the Marvel Universe. Oh, the pulling together does happen here and there, it’s just mostly contained to the first few scenes of the film, and one of the stingers at the end of the credits, which incidentally makes me more jazzed than ever for the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy.

Courtesy Marvel Studios
Maybe if he’d had some coffee after his 5000 year nap, Malekith would’ve been less cranky.

In the end, Thor: The Dark World is a success. It builds on the established worlds and characters of the first film, but does much more with them in various ways to expand the scope and raise the stakes. I would have liked more character moments and a bit less up-front exposition, and there was so much character-building and so little compelling story in the first film it almost feel like this one’s overcompensating. However, this won’t keep me from recommending the film. It’s most definitely a great time at the movies, and especially after the story setup is done, feels more grand and exciting than the original. It ranks highly among the Marvel movies, and I definitely believe it’s worth your time and money.