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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.


First Impressions: The Wolf Among Us

Telltale Games has a lot going for them. Their Poker Night games demonstrate some pretty solid design choices, while The Walking Dead is one of the best storytelling experiences I’ve had gaming in recent memory. Adventure games, to me, remain a charming and underrated way of combining gameplay with story, ensuring our actions and choices define the outcome of what’s happening in front of us. I was looking forward to trying out The Wolf Among Us, and recently finished its first episode, “Faith”.

Courtesy Telltale Games

The Wolf Among Us introduces us to the world of Fables. A series of graphic novels from DC’s always-interesting Vertigo studios, Fables are literally fairy tale characters who live in our world. Having emigrated from their original settings, these legendary characters do their best to live among normal humans, with the less than human-appearing ones needing magical spells to pass as everyday people. They live in their own little corner of New York City, dubbed ‘Fabletown’, and order is kept thanks to an unlikely sheriff in the form of Bigby Wolf. He’s our protagonist, but he’s not much of a hero.

In fact, in the past, he’s played the villain most often. As the Big Bad Wolf, he’s gone after and devoured pigs and little girls alike. However, that was the past. The character we see in The Wolf Among Us is much more reserved and far less malevolent, though he still has a surly attitude and is more than capable of beating down someone trying to put a hurt on him. He’s trying to make things better, for himself and for Fabletown, so he tries not to ‘wolf out’ or abuse people. He’s complex and magnetic, a great lens for us to experience Fabletown through, and like all Fables, he’s very hard to kill – this is, after all, a character that once has his stomach filled with rocks before he was thrown into a river. And yet, The Wolf Among Us is something of a murder mystery, meaning Bigby must use skills other than his ability to punch people really hard.

The combat in The Wolf Among Us is an improvement over that in The Walking Dead. Movement keys prompt dodging, the mouse helps Bigby use the environment or strike key portions of an opponent, so on and so forth. Prompts from the environment are also improved. If I had a complaint about the game, it’d be that the on-screen prompts from the environment make puzzles a bit too easy to solve. I’m not sure if you can turn this feature off or not – I’ll just have to play again to find out!

‘Faith’ is a great start to this new series of Telltale episodes. Fabletown is full of great characters, who both maintain the aspects that made them timeless and present them in a new, modern way that smacks of a noir classic. I’m a sucker for the blending of genres in general, and this particular mix is right up my alley. I’m very much looking forward to coming episodes. The Wolf Among Us offers a ‘season pass’ on Steam for all five of its episodes, and you can get individual ones on the console of your choice. It’s definitely worth your time to check out.


Movie Review: Bram Stoker’s Dracula

It may be hard to realize for some young folks these days, but vampires didn’t always sparkle. Nor did they collectively get obsessed with a particular young woman who happens to have really tasty blood or a particular smell. The roots of the vampire tale go deep, and one of the earliest tales to reach a mass market was a novel by Bram Stoker. It’s served as the core for a lot of stories since its publication in 1897, and my favorite adaptation thus far is the 1992 film helmed by legendary director Francis Ford Coppola, concretely entitled Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Courtesy Columbia Pictures

The year is, in fact, 1897, and solicitor Jonathan Harker is being entrusted with the job of a lifetime. His colleague, a man named Renfield, has gotten locked away in bedlam, and it falls to Harker to do the last bit of paperwork to secure the real estate acquisitions of an influential but eccentic Romanian businessman. Harker says good-bye to his fiancee Mina and heads to Transylvania to meet his client, the reclusive Count Dracula. Dracula welcomes Harker with warmth and hospitality, but when he sees a photograph of Mina among Harker’s effects, he suddenly becomes… something else. When Dracula goes to England to claim what’s his, he not only draws Mina and her circle of friends into his perilous life, he attracts the attention of one Abraham Van Helsing.

Before I get into the characters, which are the true pulsing heart and hot blood of Dracula, I want to talk about how Coppola put this movie together. The first word that springs to mind when I consider the film is “sumptuous.” While some more modern tales opt for a washed-out aesthetic, colors have a tendency to pop off of the screen and elements like shadow and camera movement are used excellently. Some portions of the set design and establishing shots feel informed by an earlier era of creature features, and the film boldly shuns most modern special effects techniques, adding even more to the feeling of cinematic nostalgia. Monstrosity and the powers of the night are achieved through Oscar-winning makeup, sound editing and costume design, brought to life by a mostly excellent cast.

Courtesy Columbia Pictures
“Come in, come in. Stay a while. Have a drink.”

I maintain that Gary Oldman is one of the best and perhaps most underrated actors of his generation. He has an impressive range and natural charisma that informs just about any role he adopts. His Dracula makes full use of both of these aspects, as he goes through many fascinating and sometimes disturbing changes over the course of the film. He is the magnetic center around which the rest of the film revolves, and his work here is truly impressive. Anthony Hopkins is no slouch, either, and counters Dracula’s outright alien nature with a very human and determined Van Helsing. The stiff and somewhat staid performances of Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder as Harker and Mina can be off-putting at first – in fact, Reeves is often called out for “ruining” the movie – but what I like about these initially wooden portrayals is that they show us the sort of people to whom Dracula was introduced by Bram Stoker over a century ago.

In Victorian times, the roles of men and women in terms of sex and sexuality were extremely strict and defined. Not everyone subscribed to this, but the common thinking was that men were almost constantly poised to take advantage of the women around them, and women thus subjected to such lusts would essentially transform from ladies of innocense and purity to insatiable, wanton women. Thus sex contained an element of fear and terror, something against the enlightened individual must always be on guard, and Stoker’s novel takes that juxtaposition to a natural conclusion, personifying these elements in the vampire. Bram Stoker’s Dracula preserves this in that the film’s luscious visuals and content often walk a fine line between the erotic and the macabre. The effect is, not unlike the character himself, hypnotic and seductive, drawing us into a world that feels ancient yet familiar, and refusing to let us go.

Courtesy Columbia Pictures
It’s amazing what a jaunt outside of the castle can do for you.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula does have some flaws, including a couple missteps in pacing and storylines that can make the plot feel a touch crowded, but its energy and presentation balance these elements out and the casting and direction push the film into an even more positive category. Dracula as a character can be difficult for an audience to sympathize with, but Oldman’s performance demonstrates how to pull off such a feat. The film, like the character, is a noble and passionate if somewhat cursed and depraved relic of yesteryear, and is all the more charming and seductive in an age of sterile CG and lifeless characters, to say nothing of some of the pretenders to Dracula’s throne. He is the unquestionable and ultimate lord of darkness, and Coppola’s vision of his story remains one of the finest vampire movies ever made.


Game Review: Dishonored

Subtlety can be underrated in video games. A great deal of them rely on glitzy graphics or bombastic action to carry their experiences. Rock-solid gameplay that relies on things other than frenetic twitchy skills, a unique world with a lived-in feeling, and an interesting story with characters that have depth and complexity all contribute to a game rising above the average. In the case of Dishonored, two out of three ain’t bad.

Courtesy Bethesda Softworks

Corvo Attano had it all. From his birthplace on Serkonos in the Empire of the Isles, he rose from obscurity and a mysterious past to become Lord Protector of the Empress and her daughter. Unfortunately, he did not foresee assassins bestowed with a dark power storming Dunwall Tower and assassinating the Empress. Framed for the murder and on the run, Corvo is on the run with few options – until the same power approaches him with an offer to help him get his revenge. Even as a plague ravages the streets of Dunwall, Corvo finds his way to a Loyalist group willing to back him up, directing him where to point his deadly dagger.

As I mentioned in the intro, world-building goes a long way in making a game both worth your time to play and memorable after. Dishonored‘s Dunwall is one of its main draws. The city seems to have a very unique mix of Victorian-style architecture and dress while things like the Tallboys and Walls of Light have a somewhat dystopian electropunk feel to them. Graffiti, conversations, artwork, and the variety of items to pick up all work together to provide a sense of immersion in the world through which Corvo will be sneaking from target to target.

Courtesy Bethesda Softworks
From its canals to its adverts to its balustrades, Dunwall looks amazing.

Much like Deus Ex and Thief, the sneaking and the possibility of bypassing combat entirely instead of being shoved into it the way you are with other first-person games is what sets Dishonored apart. No enemy, from the standard street-walking mook to what would qualify as boss fights, needs to be confronted directly. You always get a clear indication of how aware guards are to your presence, you’re agile enough that running on rooftops is always an option, and you don’t dissolve in water so swimming can work, too – provided the vicious barracuda-like fish don’t have you for lunch. Your gadgets and powers are a big help, as well. Even the lowest level of the Dark Vision power lets you see guards through walls so you can better plan your routes, and Blink, a short-range teleport, lets you cross open areas and even lines of sight without raising the alarm. Couple these powers with the option to choke folks out and a sleep-dart crossbow, and you have the opportunity to prove that assassins don’t have to kill to be effective and feared.

This leads me into talking about some of the drawbacks to Dishonored. The number of dead bodies you create and the degree to which you use certain powers contribute to what’s called Chaos, a mechanic that functions a lot like morality systems in other games. A high Chaos rating alters the last mission of the game, and the game has multiple endings based on it, meaning that if you want the best ending, you need to be as non-lethal as possible, even if it’s more organic to silence a guard with a quick stab or you’re just fed up with a section and want to blast your way through. On top of that, the characters you encounter, especially your erstwhile Loyalist allies, are very flat and not terribly emotive, many of them having the creepy unblinking constant-eye-contact problem NPCs have had since Oblivion. I almost would have preferred text screens between missions or, even better, a voice-over from Corvo so our protagonist could have a little more personality of his own. Deus Ex (especially Human Revolution) and Thief games benefit greatly from their heroes not being silent.

Courtesy Bethesda Softworks
“Fly, my pretty ones! FLY!!”

Still, none of these problems can prevent me from recommending Dishonored. For all of its faults, the game plays extremely well and feels rewarding when you pull off the right combination of teleporting, sneaking, distracting guards, and finding your unique route to your target. The world is rich and well-realized even if it is populated with stiff characters lacking true depth, and the visual and sound design pull you into Dunwall every time it loads up. A little characterization here, a touch of personality for our hero there, and removing the Chaos issue would make the game damn near perfect. As it is, it’s simply a very good game that fans of stealth, assassination, and games with a stand-out look and feel are bound to enjoy.


Game Review: Mark of the Ninja

One of the reasons I thoroughly enjoyed games like Deus Ex and its sequel Human Revolution is due to the stealth elements. I’ve dipped my toe into Thief, and I also got a charge out of both of Rocksteady’s Batman games (Arkham Asylum and Arkham City). Stealth-based games need a few things to work well: clear indicators of how easily the enemy can detect you, multiple routes to your objective, and an atmosphere of tension generated by foes and situations that present you with puzzle-like ways to overcome their deadly obstacles. Klei Entertainment’s Mark of the Ninja has all of these things, with the added bonus of appealing to aficionados of the legendary spies and assassins of feudal Japan.

Courtesy Klei Entertainment

For centuries, the Hisomu clan has defended its secrets and maintained its traditions. Without warning, the diabolical company Hessian Services storms their dojo and makes off with those secrets. Our hero is awakened from his recovery from an extensive tattoo (the titular ‘Mark’) to rescue his master, and embarks on a path of revenge and assassination. However, the Mark that allows him to move undetected and leap superhuman distances comes with a price: before it drives him mad with power, he is expected to take his own life.

Klei Entertainment previously made the Shank games, somewhat over-the-top side-scrolling action games in the vein of Mad Max or some of the nastier, in-your-face encounters of Borderlands. The designers have traded frenetic, button-mashy action for a more quiet, measured approach. Like the good stealth games mentioned above, Mark of the Ninja is built around smooth motion and wide-open level design. Moving around the maps feels natural and intuitive, and you think less about button-presses and combos than you do about guard search patterns and the locations of fuse boxes and lights that ache to have darts thrown at them.

Courtesy Klei Entertainment
The cutscenes are like something out of Gargoyles.

Adding to the atmosphere is the art style, steeped in darkness and flowing like ink from a brush. While the faces of the characters may be a little cartoonish for the game’s occasionally violent content, it definitely works within the context of this game’s world. When the game plunges into darkness, be it due to the environment itself or your darts shattering lights above the heads of hapless mercenaries, it becomes clear the art style was more than just an aesthetic choice. Your character becomes a shadow of his former self, literally, with only the ink of his mark visible to us as we sneak from one hiding place to another. It lends the game incredible atmosphere and tension all on its own.

Sooner or later, though, you will encounter your enemy. The decision must be made if you will dispatch them or try to sneak past. Killing guards does make it easier to make it across the room, but at the end of each level, if you manage to avoid killing anyone you get a substantial bonus to your score. The game also rewards you with Honor, which can be used for upgrades. Paradoxically, your upgrades make it easier for you to kill people. It’s hard to say if the trade-off is substantial enough to prevent you from doing fun things like hanging bodies for other guards to find, or picking off a room full of enemies one by one just to see how scared the last one gets.

Courtesy Klei Entertainment
“Hmm. Where does one stab a laser?”

Let me draw your attention to the screenshot used above. Pretty dark, isn’t it? As much as I’m uncertain as to how well-balanced the game is in terms of sneaking versus killing, I want to reiterate how lovely the game is and how well its art style informs its gameplay. Being reduced to a dark silhouette against a dark background, especially when it happens just as a guard turns to face your direction, never stops producing a sadistic little grin and the desire to jump on the big dumbass to give him a wedgie. Unfortunately there is no “wedgie” option, and we’re back to deciding if we want to try and move on in spite of the challenge or if we take the quick and easy path of murder.

As much as I like Mark of the Ninja, I haven’t gotten too terribly far with it, which may make this more of a “First Impressions” write-up than an actual review, but the flow of gameplay is so smooth and the storytelling so organic I can’t help but recommend it. Scaling a tower to close in on an enemy feels like an achievement in and of itself, the challenges the game presents provide incentive to be even more inventive and careful, and there’s something inherently badass about a game featuring a ninja behaving in this way. When was the last time Ryu Hayabusa actually snuck up on someone? I think it’s been a while. Mark of the Ninja is available on Steam and XBLA, and it’s definitely worth checking out.


Movie Review: Equilibrium

It seems that the general audience of dystopian fiction like action with their social commentary. From The Road Warrior to The Matrix, Fallout to The Last Of Us, many tales set in a world of ruin follow their heroes from one action sequence to another. Considering the less than favorable reaction that people had to the film adaptation of R M’s The Road, maybe the action route is the way to go. One of the best examples of a movie that mixes its action with an interesting standpoint on the human condition is Equilibrium, a film from 2000 that appears to be aging gracefully.

Courtesy Dimension Films

In the aftermath of World War III, the survivors gathered to determine how to prevent their extinction. To curtail future wars and aggression, they introduced humanity to a drug called Prozium, which suppresses human emotion. Within the city of Libria, all citizens are required to take the drug, a universal law enforced by the exceptionally trained and singularly uncompromising Grammaton Cleric. Some have fled Libria into the area called the Nether, trying to live and feel on their own terms. But the Cleric are hunting them down. The greatest among the Cleric is John Preston, a stoic and implacable example of Libria’s new order. But then John’s partner and mentor begins to feel…

It’s clear from the outset that the foundation of Equilibrium is some unholy union between George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. The austerity of Libria and its harsh stance against emotion are indicative of a leadership that suppresses its populace, a feature in both novels. The presence of “Father” and the ways in which the Cleric execute their duties are strongly reminiscent of “Big Brother” and the thoughtcrimes of 1984, while Prozium’s direct manipulation of people’s minds and emotions harken to the psychological manipulation and manipulative eugenics of Brave New World. The focus on emotional suppression as opposed to direct thoughtcrimes is an interesting one, but neither of the novels have as many visceral gunfights as Equilibrium does.

Courtesy Dimension Films
The gunfights having their own aesthetic and energy compared to other movies is a true strength.

In addition to its classic dystopian influence, and a good amount of Yeats, Equilibrium has the gun katas. The ‘martial art’ of the Grammaton Cleric, the gun katas are a high-energy method for fighting with firearms that emphasizes rapidly changing body movements, precise aim, and dodging incoming fire. Much like the martial arts in a movie that is often compared to Equilibrium, The Matrix, the gun katas are one of the main draws of the film, other than its theme. Unlike The Matrix, the “cool factor” of the martial arts do not overwhelm the story, and remain fresh and interesting even as multiple fights happen. It seems like Preston is always doing something slightly different in each fight, which keeps the audience engaged as the story rolls along.

If Equilibrium has a flaw, its that the film feels a bit like going to a dystopian sci-fi buffet. It borrows a little from this source, a little from that source, and the result can feel a bit like a hodgepodge that struggles to be more than the sum of its parts. Long-standing sci-fi aficionados may get annoyed at this approach. There’s also the fact that burrowing as much as it does from other sources causes the movie to both struggle to find an identity of its own and maintain a feeling of originality in its story. V for Vendetta may feel like a more grounded dystopia, and The Matrix for all of its flaws does have a somewhat unique aesthetic and world, putting Equilibrium squarely in the “average” category when it comes to story and world-building. Neither of those are why I’d recommend this film, however.

Prozium - Courtesy Dimension Films
Proof that it’s not natural to be a completely stoic action hero (looking at you, Master Chief).

I’ve mentioned Equilibrium in the past, regarding how characters that emote reasonably are easier for an audience to relate to. And the courses the characters take when it comes to feeling, not feeling, and beginning to feel again are extremely relatable. Over and above the theme and the action, the characters may be the best draw of the film. They easily could have pushed their emotions and reactions into camp or overwrought territory. Instead, the cast keeps their feelings understated and nuanced. Christian Bale may have had a terrible Batman voice, but he also shows that he is capable of transmitting a variety of emotions from someone unused to them and uncomfortable with them without saying a single word.

Stuff I Like: The gun katas are pretty cool. None of the cast phones it in. The film has a solid foundation and inspiration.
Stuff I Don’t Like: The film has to work really hard to maintain its own identity given how much it borrows from other sources.
Stuff I Love: The puppy, the red ribbon, Sean Bean, and the scene in the library. The fact that Preston does not succeed in everything he attempts. The presence of subtlety in an over-the-top action movie. The emphasis on the importance of human emotion, and how the positive aspects of it can overcome the negative.

Bottom Line: Equilibrium may not be the best action film ever made, or the best sci-fi dystopia film, but it’s straightforward and earnest message coupled with some unique visuals and excellent cast do make it a favorite. A film does not have to be entirely flawless to earn a recommendation or repeated viewings, and Equilibrium is an excellent example of this. Available on Netflix and other sources, it’s great for its fresh take on classic material, even if it’s been ground that’s been tread before.


Cartoons! On the Internet!

Courtesy Cartoon Hangover
You can have one after they cool down.

In lieu of one of my more structured reviews – I’m waiting to hear back on a proposal I made to an associate before I start in on reviewing more books – I thought I’d take the opportunity to turn you fine folks on to some animated gems you might have missed floating around the Internet. Specifically, all of these cartoons are available exclusively on the YouTube channel Cartoon Hangover. For someone like me, who eschews traditional cable TV connections for the Internet to keep costs down and because most of the stuff on cable is either dreadful or not relevant to my interests, this is ideal. It’s fresh new content, it captures my attention, and it both amuses me and makes me think. Let’s take a look.

Bee and PuppyCat

“Strange” and “oddball” are words that could be used to describe Bee and PuppyCat, but for me, the word that comes to mind first is “brilliant.” Bee, having recently lost her job, encounters PuppyCat on a rainy sidewalk. It turns out there’s more to PuppyCat than meets the eye, including his ability to do temp work in alternate dimensions full of unique and dangerous creatures. He takes Bee along with him, which is a good thing: helpful and determined, Bee also takes everything in stride even when it seems absurd or extra-dimensional. Bee has a very strong sense of personality right from the start, and there’s plenty of storytelling threads in just the first episode to justify more of the show. Which we need. Immediately.

Doctor Lollipop

In a way, Doctor Lollipop is the opposite of Bee & PuppyCat. Everything in Doctor Lollipop makes sense, in that it’s set in a fantasy forest filled with fairy tale characters. Talking animals, Little Red Riding Hood, the works. However, this is no ordinary fantasy forest. The forest happens to have a unicorn doctor with the medical expertise to save all sorts of lives. With a fantastic voice cast and plenty of hilarious references, Doctor Lollipop is another show on Cartoon Hangover that needs more episodes produced as soon as possible. It’s very good.

Bravest Warriors

Bravest Warriors is the big kahuna of Cartoon Hangover. Created by Adventure Time’s Pendleton Ward, Bravest Warriors take place in the distant future and centers on four young people, all children of a legendary group of interstellar heroes who have been lost in another dimension. They undertake missions throughout the galaxy, spend time in their invisible hideout, and encounter deadly time loops, space chickens, lava mazes, and fantastic aliens and creatures of all shapes and sizes. Characters have authentic voices, the palate is colorful and intriguing, the universe has a lot of interesting aspects, and the show has Catbug.

You can watch all of these shows at Cartoon Hangover, and I can’t recommend you doing that highly enough.


Game Review: High Command

I’m a big fan of the Iron Kingdoms universe. This steampunk fantasy setting has an interesting marriage of magic to technology, several unique-feeling yet familiar nation-states, and semi-sentient steam-powered robot warriors acting as battlefield avatars for wizards who know how to handle themselves in melee combat. Until recently, the two roads into the setting were the two miniature wargames (Warmachine and Hordes) which featured finely detailed minis sure to drain your bank account faster than you can say “I need another warcaster to round out my army”, and the surprisingly difficult to find role-playing game. Privateer Press is opening more doors into their world, however, with the stand-alone deck-building game High Command, which I was fortunate enough to play at PAX.

Courtesy Privateer Press

In High Command, up to four players assume command of one of the factions within the Iron Kingdoms. The game does come in Warmachine and Horde flavors, giving players plenty of choices. The goal of the game is to acquire the most victory points by occupying territories and commanding the most powerful weapons available. Acquiring troops and getting them into the field is accomplished via drawing cards from the player’s individual army deck and spending them to acquire one of the resources available to that player. These resources then become part of the deck to be drawn later. Once in the field, troops, warmachines, warbeasts and spell-casters fight over the territories available in the center of the table. There are events that happen every turn that can tip the balance of the game one way or another, and one of those events ends the game. Whoever has the most points when that event occurs wins.

Each player begins the game with two decks of their own: a Resource Deck containing cards to acquire, and an Army Deck containing some basic means to acquire said Resources. The system feels a lot like Ascension but on an individual level. Instead of vying with the other players for unique heroes or weaponry from a common pool, a player’s turn consists of deciding how best to spend the cards drawn from the Army Deck to prepare for future engagements. There’s an element of random chance in both drawing from the Army Deck and setting up the Resources to be chosen from, which is mitigated by the ability to bank unused Army cards between turns and the removal of cards from the Army Deck each time it’s shuffled. The system is easy to understand for new players and seems flexible enough to provide interesting strategic permutations.

Courtesy Privateer Press
It’s nice to have big guns that are always available.

While Dominion only allows player interaction with certain cards available to all, and Ascension eschews direct player confrontation altogether, High Command is all about player-versus-player contention. Army cards deployed or rushed into the center of the table are bound to be opposed by Army cards employed by the other players. Each Army card has a strength rating and a health rating. Combat is a somewhat watered down version of Magic: the Gathering in that strength is directly compared to health to determine victory. Event cards and resources used from a player’s hand can tip the scales, a Warcaster or Warlock can appear in the field to give a one-time bonus to the encounter, and multiple troops can pool their strength to overcome larger foes. Much like the system of the two player decks, the combat system is streamlined and simplistic enough to appeal to new players.

My qualms about High Command are similar to the ones I have about Lords of Waterdeep, the Forgotten Realms worker-placement game. Veterans of deck-building games with more complexity and options may be turned off by the simplicity of the gameplay, and while the game can be good for getting an Iron Kingdoms fix, those with a keen interest in the universe may be more interested in either the pen-and-paper game or the wargames. My big bone of contention with the game is that it’s one of those experiences that can lead to a player focusing almost entirely on their own engine, rather than directly interacting. The pace of the game, especially in the first couple turns, feels somewhat sluggish. Players are dealing with their decks and resources and units, and it can be easy to focus on that rather than pay attention to what an opponent is doing, since your opponents are, in essence, doing the exact same thing you are. While I don’t think this is a huge problem for the game, it does bear mentioning especially if you’re introducing new players to deck-building in general or the Iron Kingdoms as a setting.

Courtesy Privateer Press
The art is high quality and the cards are easy to read.

In the end, I would lean more towards recommending High Command than not. I do feel that the direct confrontation and combat in the game make it fun and involving, and crafting your deck to execute your master plan can be intriguing. It definitely has appeal for fans of the Iron Kingdoms who are unwilling to make the monetary investment in miniatures. Everything you need for up to four players is right there in the starting box. Hardcore deck-building fans may be content with their Dominion set, but if you’re looking to check out the genre and like a bit of face-smashing to go with the card dealing and shuffling, I’d check out High Command.


Movie Review: Elysium

The summer of 2013 has been a difficult one in terms of finding truly great films. Most of the fare out there is either sequels or trash, and sometimes trashy sequels. Original ideas seemed few and far between. For the most part, I was looking forward to two films that looked like they might breathe fresh air into both cinemas and the sci-fi genre in particular. Both were not only unique in premise, at least insofar as they were not based on previous intellectual property, but they also were helmed by visionary directors who are favorites of mine. One was Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim, which I thoroughly enjoyed, and the other was Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium.

Courtesy Sony Pictures & ComingSoon.net

Max DaCosta was not having a good day. Already on the wrong side of the bed, he sassed one of the robot police at his bus stop, and got his arm broken for his trouble. Elysium, the space platform orbiting Earth populated by the super-rich and elite, hangs overhead as he explains this first to his robotic parole officer and then to his brusque foreman at the factory where the robots are built. When he suffers a workplace accident during this terrible day which will leave him dead by the end of the week, he resolves that he’s going to get himself to Elysium, where he’s certain he can be healed. Meanwhile, Elysium’s strict and brutal defense secretary finds herself fed up with the sitting government, and looks to make a change without having to worry about pesky things like elections and the opinions of the people.

Much like District 9, Elysium wraps its lived-in and utilitarian sci-fi aesthetic with a good dollop of social commentary. Disparity seems to be Blomkamp’s focus of choice, this time on wealth & class disparity rather than racial. As necessary as such commentary is, especially delivered supposedly hidden within a summer blockbuster, the problem with Elysium is that things are a little on-the-nose. Storytelling with purpose is a subtle art, and as ignorant as the masses can tend to be, hammering points home with brute force can turn people off from the story and the characters. This, unfortunately, is the case here: the lingua franca being Spanish feels realistic enough in the sordid squalor of Los Angeles, but when Jodie Foster starts talking like a female Dick Cheney, you get the distinct impression you know where this story is going.

Courtesy Universal Studios
Blomkamp still keeps his violence brutal, direct, and short – which is great.

It could be argued that storytelling is more about the journey than the destination. When it comes to Elysium, the journey is at least entertaining and at times breathtaking to behold. Blomkamp still has a knack for visuals, and his shots of both the floating platform of the well-to-do and the urban decay of the world below feel authentic, realistic, and even lived-in. Things have weight and utility, and the immersion one gets into this vision of the future is palpable. Action is cleanly shot, inventive, and pulse-pounding, making the audience put the lack of subtlety aside while the visceral beats are playing out. If nothing else, Blomkamp hasn’t missed a step when it comes to keeping an audience engaged for the running time of a film.

While the casting in Elysium is decent, and the actors feel authentic and natural in their roles, it’s difficult to point to any of them and say “only this person could have played that role.” While it’s clear that we’re intended to relate to some characters and, to an extent, at least understand others, the characters are a touch too pat and generic to really evoke emotions of empathy. Matt Damon and Jodie Foster and the others are fine, but other than being able to relate to Max’s terrible horrible no-good very-bad day and feeling animosity towards Foster’s ultra-conservative zealot, the characters they play are not all that memorable. The exception, of course, is Shartlo Copley’s Kruger, the slightly unhinged and surprisingly nuanced psychopathic Elysium hitman that is easily the best part of the film.

Courtesy Universal Studios
You wouldn’t want to meet this guy in a dark alley. Or anywhere.

I think a comparison is inevitable, so here’s how Elysium stacks up against District 9. The themes are very similar, but where Elysium slams its plot points and allegories hard, District 9 weaved a more subtle story. Elysium‘s protagonist feels a lot like your typical blockbuster down-on-his-luck tough guy with whom we’re supposed to sympathize immediately, while District 9 gave us a main character who, initially, feels more like a lackey and a spineless jerk than someone who will become capable of anything heroic. Elysium clicks along its rails with expediency and cleanliness with a dollop of predictability; District 9 had a habit of keeping you guessing and, therefore, more engrossed. In spite of being the story involving aliens, in the end, District 9 feels like a far more human story.

In the end, Elysium is decent, but unfortunately lacks the punch and pathos of its predecessor. Blomkamp still has it where it counts, and his film does entertain, but it fails to truly engage in a lasting manner. I’m glad I saw it in the theatre, as much like Pacific Rim, I want to support artists who try something new rather than simply irritating, but Elysium sadly does not do quite enough to break away from the pack and what’s gone before. It’s good. It isn’t great. I expected more. And, if I recall correctly, if the biggest problem you have with a movie is “there isn’t enough of it”, there’s a good indication that something’s being done right.


Drill, Baby, Drill

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?


Book Review: The Fault In Our Stars

I have a confession to make. I follow John Green around. I follow his Tumblr. I follow his Twitter. I subscribe to his YouTube channels CrashCourse, MentalFloss and Vlogbrothers. I do this because I believe him to be extremely intelligent and insightful. I deeply admire his goal to, as he puts it, “decrease worldsuck” through the efforts of various charities and the input of the Nerdfighters who also follow him. And he’s a New York Times bestselling author, a distinction he’s earned for the young adult tale of romance called The Fault in Our Stars.

Courtesy John Green

Hazel Grace Lancaster, sixteen years old, is living with cancer. A miracle in an ER and the advanced drug Phalaxifor left her with the necessity of an oxygen tank to help her failing lungs take in air. She’s trying to make the most of her time, attending college courses since she finished high school early, but her parents insist she also go to a local support group instead of just staying at home watching America’s Next Top Model. Reluctant as she is, Hazel tries to endure, making faces and sharing sighs with her friend Isaac, until the night Isaac arrives with a young man named Augustus Waters.

The first thing that impressed me about The Fault in Our Stars was the reality and intelligence in Hazel’s voice. She is not the kind of person to hide from or conceal her feelings or attitude, which is extremely admirable, especially in a teenager. Rather than put on airs or try to be something she’s not, Hazel owns her situation no matter what it might be, and is very much the sort of person who wishes to be the master of their own destiny. Her feelings for Augustus do mess with this inner dynamic somewhat, and reading about her difficulty in that regard is just as engrossing as Augustus himself. Charming and intelligent in his own right, it’s clear why these two fall in love, despite (or perhaps because of) their circumstances. They’re such rich, real characters that you can’t help but empathize with them, and it’s that empathy that keeps the pages turning.

The Fault in Our Stars presents some complex ideas and deep themes about life, death, identity and the contract between author and reader, but it is not itself a complex read. Green is not interested in any shadow plays or narrative slight of hand. He keeps the story moving and the points simple, yet still weaves an involving and emotional narrative. This is another case in which simplicity in storytelling does not necessarily mean the story suffers. In fact, the simplicity of the plot means there’s more room for us to get to know our characters, even minor ones, which makes The Fault in Our Stars come to life in a way that other epic tales might envy.

I cannot recommend The Fault in Our Stars highly enough. It is a rich, involving story of young love and true loss that strikes home with the power and ferocity of a bullet from a high-powered sniper rifle, and John Green has perfect narrative aim. The book will, in most cases, make the reader tear up or even weep openly at times. Every tear is worth it, though, and I hope that more young adult fiction aspires to emulate a story like this as opposed to some of the other stuff that’s out there. Young people deserve great stories, and The Fault in Our Stars is one of the best.


Movie Review: The Wolverine

You would think that a prospect like The Wolverine would not be considered risky. Wolverine is, after all, a well-established character in the Marvel universe, a member of so many teams that he risks overexposure. Yet it is that exposure that threatened this project from the outset. X-Men: The Last Stand is considered by many to be a failure, and Wolverine’s first solo film, X-Men: Origins: Wolverine not only suffered from colon cancer but from a solid concept taken horribly off the rails by incompetent writers. I think it’s safe to say that I, and many other X-fans, approached The Wolverine with trepidation… and breathed a large, collective sigh of relief when it didn’t suck.

Courtesy 20th Century Fox

Logan is wandering the earth following the events of X-Men: The Last Stand, haunted by memories and visions of the woman he loved that is now dead. His past does catch up to him, but not how he expects. A young Japanese woman taps him to return with her to Tokyo. A dying media magnate lives there, a man saved by Logan from the devastation of Nagasaki during World War II. The mogul, Yashida, offers Logan a gift: mortality. Before Logan can make up his mind properly, he is caught up in the machinations of Yashida’s son Shingen, the plight of Yashida’s granddaughter Mariko, and before he knows it, his healing powers have been stolen and he’s on the run from the Yakuza. He’s never been this vulnerable… or this dangerous.

Even at his weakest, Wolverine is a guy you don’t want to mess with, and Hugh Jackman, for his part, has definitely still “got it” as far as Logan is concerned. He doesn’t so much walk as stalk from place to place. Even at his most civilized, there is something bestial about him, an animal quality that Jackman conveys perfectly. He’s quick with sarcasm and deadpan lines that are delivered with ace timing, and his fight scenes look visceral and brutal. From the stunt work to the facial expressions to his furious cries, I cannot see any other actor bringing Logan to life the way Jackman does, and it’s a huge part of The Wolverine‘s overall success.

Courtesy 20th Century Fox
If you run, he’s just gonna chase you.

Wolverine is familiar, though. To American audiences, the Canadian berserker anti-hero is a staple of comic book fantasy. Japan, on the other hand, is a world barely scratched by most American media. Thankfully, at no point does the setting feel caricaturized, satirized, or downplayed. Indeed, from Tokyo to the distant Yashida castle, Japan feels almost alien in its culture, customs, and populace. It’s subtle and understated, rather than shoved at the screen as if to say “Look how weird this place is!” and this tasteful representation of another culture is another plus in the movie’s favor. So much could have gone wrong in bringing Japan to this screen in this way, but the filmmakers nailed it.

This juxtaposition of the savage and familiar Wolverine with the civilized and alien Japan is a chemical mixture that explodes with character, potential, and wonder. Through the lens of Logan’s experiences, we see all sorts of things in new ways, from the character himself to the world he inhabits. That world feels dangerous, again, as well as lived-in. This was a sense conveyed in the original Wolverine comic mini-series by legendary writer Chris Claremont, and it is here as well. While the film doesn’t short the audience in terms of action, the story points and character moments are so good that it doesn’t feel action-heavy. It balances very well and strikes all the right chords from start to finish.

Courtesy 20th Century Fox
He cleans up nice.

The Wolverine does have some flaws, in that the story is light in terms of intellectual investment. It’s not as complex as it might seem, and while the reveal at the end does color the events differently, the execution felt like more like a shell game or common wool-over-the-eyes trick than any sort of filmmaking magic. There’s also the fact that, rated PG-13 as it is, Wolverine’s fights are relatively bloodless, which is surprising considering how he goes to town on people with his claws. Still, there’s reportedly an unrated Blu-ray in the works, and you better believe I’ll be buying it.

Stuff I Liked: The fights are well done for the most part (see below). The final showdown is pretty interesting. Viper’s an interesting character. I like that Logan still doesn’t like to fly. The cameos of Famke Janssen were a nice touch. It feels like the X-Men films, including this one, are drawing closer and closer to the Marvel universe seen in The Avengers, and that’s a good thing.
Stuff I Didn’t Like: I’m not a fan of bone claws. There’s some shakey-cam in a few of the fights. The ‘big mystery’ feels like a bit of a let-down at the end, more like information was being deliberately withheld from the audience to create false suspense.
Stuff I Loved: Hugh Jackman as Wolverine. The Yashida cast and Yukio. The portrayal of Japanese culture. The fact that character moments felt just as interesting and involving as any of the fights. STAY THROUGH THE CREDITS – there’s a scene at the end that’s well worth the price of admission.

Bottom Line: This is the movie X-fans have been waiting for. The Wolverine delivers on every possible level without going completely over the top. A few minor quibbles hold it back from being entirely excellent, but it’s a far, far cry from what we had before. I’m even more excited now for Days of Future Past than I was before, thanks to The Wolverine.