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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
As much as people will say “Lightning never strikes twice,” the Empire State Building in New York City would beg to differ. It’s why sequels keep getting made. The folks in charge of the production of entertainment like to keep giving the people what they want. Sometimes this leads to degradation through iteration, like seasons of Jersey Shore or movie adaptations of Star Trek: The Next Generation. At other times, though, quality is preserved for the most part, like seasons of Supernatural or the sequel Red 2.
Retired & Extremely Dangerous ex-CIA counter-intelligence asset Frank Moses is settling into a domesticated life with his main squeeze when his paranoid buddy Martin tries to rope him into a job. Martin’s car is bombed and Frank decides it’s time to strap his spurs on again. It turns out that an operation they did back in their heyday is coming back to haunt them in the form of a weapon of mass destruction hidden somewhere in the Kremlin. With the US government sending relentless goons and hiring expert assassins, and betrayal waiting around every corner, Frank must stay one step ahead while trying to keep his girl safe, even as she tries to be a bigger part of his life.
So here we are again, in a follow-up to Red, a harmless and somewhat formulaic action comedy based on Warren Ellis’ graphic novel about old folks kicking ass. To the film’s credit, it’s more than a little aware of its roots in the media of panels and dialog balloons, as transitions from one world-wide locale to the next find the characters rendered as art before they’re swept away. It was a little touch I appreciated, and I also liked that Red 2 feels more like a global film. Like Pacific Rim, it feels larger in scope than the unfortunately jingoistic tendency of Hollywood films to remain focused on America. I mean, this year alone we had two movies in a row about the White House getting smashed by terrorists.
Just another day out with friends…
The other aspect that Red 2 shares with Pacific Rim is the fact that not a lot of time is spent in emotional low states. This is a movie more concerned with having fun and keeping the story moving than being grim or brooding or even all that realistic. Like its predecessor, the aim is for largely unoffensive entertainment for audience members of age for its subject matter. The movie is kept afloat on its situational humor, some inventive fight and infiltration scenes, and a good deal of star power. If you’re interested in Red 2, chances are it’s because of who’s in it. A good deal of Anthony Hopkins’ role involves what I might uncharitably call fan service. While it’s enjoyable on the whole, a few elements feel slightly tacked on to emphasize this or that star. It doesn’t take anything away from the movie, at least for me, but it’s a flaw that bears a mention.
As much as Red 2 does what every sequel sets out to do – build on the experiences of the previous story, expand its scope, raise the stakes, and draw in more audience – it also bears mentioning that more of the same might not be what you’re looking for as a movie-goer. Then again, enough people went to see Man of Steel and Star Trek: Into Darkness to justify more of those same coming soon (and yes, I was one of them, so I’m just as guilty), so maybe I’m just making mountains out of molehills here.
Classing up everything she’s in.
Stuff I Liked: The broader scope works in keeping the formula fresh. The action remains inventive and, at times, quite funny. It’s nice to see a relationship dynamic that, while troubled, is stable enough that discussions do not explode into arguments or pointless shouting matches. There’s a maturity to this action comedy that I appreciate; no cheap jokes or toilet humor here, save for one scene.
Stuff I Didn’t Like: It’s still a formula piece, for better or worse. The motions the cast goes through are familiar and for some it may be a case of more of the same not being enough. There’s very little to challenge the mind, and the writers take no real risks with the material.
Stuff I Loved: I’m so glad they brought back Brian Cox, albeit briefly. I loved seeing Anthony Hopkins switch so easily from tottering old crazy man to razor-edged mad scientist. For someone who wasn’t a big fan of the GI Joe movie but appreciated the martial artistry of Storm Shadow, Byung-hun Lee was a delight to see in action. The entire cast is on board for this, they have a great time, and the fun is infectious.
Bottom Line: Red 2 is, ultimately, completely inoffensive. On the one hand, it’s a sequel so safe and linear that some might find it downright boring. On the other, though, it’s infused with more than enough character and just enough heart to keep any audience who liked the first movie interested in seeing the second through to the end. If nothing else, in a summer that seems overly concerned with making their movies grim and dark and brooding and serious, sometimes all you need is the sight of Helen Mirren shooting people with all of the elegance you’d expect from someone of her stature.
Moving pictures are first and foremost a form of entertainment. As much as the storytelling form has evolved to deliver stunning achievements such as 2001: A Space Odyssey and introverted art-haus “tour-de-force” experiences like Antichrist, not every film has to reach for those existentialist or high-minded goals. Sometimes, a writer or director wants to tell a straightforward story. They want to pay homage to the films that made them interested in the medium in the first place. They want to use the tools they’ve learned to wield to craft something previously considered impossible. One such director is Guillermo del Toro, and one such movie is Pacific Rim.
Sometime within the next year at the time of writing this, a major geological event will happen in the depths of the Pacific Ocean. Two tectonic plates will pull apart and reveal a rift between our world and another dimension. Out of that rift come massive, city-destroying monsters, which we come to call kaiju. Conventional weaponry is barely effective and dangerous to use, so humanity bands together to create Jaegers, human-piloted robots comparable in size to the kaiju and capable of throwing down with them. While they prove capable of handling the kaiju, many world leaders feel more confident in massive safety walls to hide behind, and so the Jaeger program is discontinued. Unwilling to go down without a fight, the remaining Rangers and their Jaegers rally for a last-ditch assault on the rift itself.
Destruction on a massive scale is a staple of blockbuster movies. Even this year, cities and buildings and skyscrapers alike have been leveled. What sets Pacific Rim apart, other than its unique premise unfettered by extant intellectual property, is that it is shot and presented in a way that gives the audience a true sense of scale in terms of the battles and the disaster. Everything is cleanly shot, and the kaiju in particular have unique looks, abilities, and even personalities that come across in their design and movement. It is a testament to del Toro’s eye and imagination that these monsters, which could have been generic and interchangeable, have a sense of uniqueness without a word needing to be spoken. And considering how much time is devoted to them, that goes triple for the Jaegers.
There’s nothing wrong with keeping your story & characters simple.
In addition to the fact that they’re giant warrior robots that are definitely an homage to everything from the many Gundam suits to Big O, the Jaegers are the vehicles by which are heroes are destined to ride to victory. What sets them apart is the fact that running a war machine that massive with a neural interface is too taxing for a single human brain. As the pilot is essentially the brain of the machine, two pilots, one for each hemisphere of the brain, should be linked together to operate a Jaeger. Not only does this make the realization of the Jaegers another unique aspect of Pacific Rim, it allows characters to come into their own without wordy exposition. While there will be moments that are certain to cause frothing rage amongst physics experts, none of the admittedly questionable science is explained away with overly wordy technobabble. Both of these facts are marks in the favor of the film.
Going back to the characters, the mechanics of the “Drift” (the connection the pilots share) allow our main characters to become three-dimensional and realized through action and visuals rather than more traditional back-and-forth dialog. Mako Mori, in particular, gains her depth and motivation from what we see of her when she enters the Drift for the first time. Raleigh Becket, who until this point was a somewhat typical if well-implemented action movie protagonist, shifts to our point of reference character, and shows us the hidden depths of the characters while continuing to deliver on scale and powerful visual style. The characters in Pacific Rim may not be the most complex you’ll ever encounter in cinema, but what is done with them is done very well, showing instead of telling at almost every turn. At no point are we thrown out of the experience because Idris Elba or Ron Perlman have to turn to the camera and explain something to audience. Performances are immediate, immersive, and another well-polished facet of this absolute gem.
It’s good to see movie monsters this unique, diverse, and menacing.
When you get right down to it, Pacific Rim is a simple movie. Big monsters, big robots, they fight, restart the clock. But its simplicity is actually a strength. Without the expectations of a franchise, anticipation of a sequel or prequel, and freedom from existential angst or greater metaphors, the story can be told at a good pace with visual panache and a deep and abiding love for all of the inspiration that’s lead us to this moment. I would like to reiterate something I’ve said in the past, however: simple is not the same thing as dumb. The story is not interested in any cinematic or narrative slight-of-hand to convince you that it’s anything more than the apex of monster movies, the spiritual descendant of everything from Godzilla to the Power Rangers all grown up and going about its business of thrilling action set pieces and swaths of wanton destruction with brains, style, and precision. Simple as it is, Pacific Rim is also very smart as well as being downright joyous and boisterous in its presentation, which is a very nice change of pace from most of the stuff we get from Hollywood these days.
Stuff I Liked: This world feels real in a lot of ways. I like that people react to both the kaiju and the Jaegers in realistic ways – some love them both and just like seeing them fight, some fear the Jaegers just as much as the kaiju, some are just in it to make money, etc. A lot of little touches stand out to me: Gypsy Danger’s ‘nose art’, the use of the Hansen’s dog on their jackets, Pentecost’s name stenciled onto his tin, the way each kaiju appears to be inspired by a different sea creature, etc.
Stuff I Didn’t Like: The quirky scientists were perhaps a bit too quirky. The simplicity of the plot leads it to be somewhat predictable, even if the presentation is good and smart. We barely get a feel for the Rangers who are not our heroes.
Stuff I Loved: The action set pieces rightfully take center stage, because they are truly awesome in scope and implementation. There are genuine thrills to be had from beginning to end. Idris Elba and Ron Perlman are two of my favorite actors, and I’m glad that they’re the biggest names in the cast. The movie does not feel its length, does not overstay its welcome, does what it does with panache and flair, and is certain to stand up to repeated viewings.
Bottom Line: Pacific Rim is pure, undiluted, unashamed, and utterly enjoyable cinematic entertainment. It doesn’t bring you down with dour plodding and stone-faced seriousness like Man of Steel. It may crib notes from everything from Godzilla movies to Neon Genesis Evangelion, but it does not retread ideas wholesale like Star Trek: Into Darkness. Masterful direction, decent characterization, a fully-realized and original world that feels both lived-in and inclusive, surprisingly realistic proportions and physics, and an overall sense of fun and excitement elevates it above the mediocrity of other summer movies. While it may never win any awards for gripping interpersonal drama or mind-bending existential angst, it should win one for existing at all in this cynical, materialistic, overly smug and downright depressing age. It’s fun at the movies the way fun at the movies should be. If you can get behind the idea that it’s okay for a movie to be fun, you’ll enjoy Pacific Rim quite a bit; if, on the other hand, you think “movies” and “fun” are not something that should cohabit, I guess you’ll have to wait until Nietzsche’s Ecco Homo gets adapted into a film before going to the cinema again.
Some of the big names in game development have been around for decades. It can be intimidating to look at a field long occupied by well-known names, and even consider the possibility of entering it. But it’s important to have fresh voices and new blood join the fold. Unique perspectives and provocative ideas are the lifeblood of any industry, game design in particular, and nobody can accuse Devolver Digital and Dennaton Interactive of not being unique and provocative. Of course, taking a glance at Hotline Miami, others may describe the designers as “batshit.”
The plot of the game is, on the surface, rather thread-bare. The protagonist is not given a name within the context of the game; he seems to be just some random dude in Miami during the heady, gratuitous days of the 80s. He gets calls on his answering machine, telling him places to be. He drives there in his DeLorean, and when he gets there, he starts bashing brains in. We’re not sure who his targets are, why he’s being sent there, or why he even started doing this. All we know is that we have a top-down floor plan of the target building, a bunch of folks with weapons intent on killing us, and the primary goal of killing them first.
I’ve discussed Hotline Miami previously, focusing on its gameplay, so I’m going to hit other things that make this game so interesting to experience. The aesthetic is both infused with the neon and garish juxtaposition of color that is thoroughly 80s, and flickering and pulsing in a way that can only be described as psychedelic. While we see buildings and cars, we see no roads or sidewalks that connect them. The houses and offices in which we commit our brutal acts of mass murder are disconnected from the rest of the world, isolated and afloat in the flickering sea of colors, which makes the entire experience at once unrealistic and searingly unforgettable.
You’ll see this message quite a bit. Get used to it.
As you play the game, you’ll unlock masks and weapons that increase your options for dispatching your fellow man (and the occasional canine). Here, again, the aesthetic and presentation of the game lead to a disconnect between the reality of the situations and our perception of them. While the focus of the gameplay is on the puzzle-like nature of the layouts, patrol patterns, and speed required to successfully avoid getting killed and clear the level at the same time, here again is an example where the art informs the story. Much like ourselves, “Jacket” (the main character) is disconnected from what he’s doing on a fundamental level. The presentation of the game’s core content not only encapsulates the violence as a challenge to be overcome, but also provides another layer at which we are witnessing the slow decent of a human being’s sanity into the dark depths of madness.
Before I elaborate more on this point, the game’s excellent soundtrack deserves a mention. Rather than going for popular tunes of the time, the developers tapped some very talented independent artists to lend their music to the experience. Sun Araw, M|O|O|N, Jasper Byrne, Scattle, and Perturbator are among the minstrels who pour their talent into make the experience of Hotline Miami incredibly unique. Subtle, low-key trance music playing while you bash someone’s skull against a kitchen floor is another level of cognitive dissonance that makes the experience of playing the game both surreal and unforgettable.
Does Jacket even understand what the concept of mercy is at this point?
As the game proceeds, events begin to change even as you witness them. People change before your eyes. Events become more and more disconnected. The pace of Hotline Miami coupled with its unique presentation and subtle use of the medium to convey a narrative on several levels makes it a work of mad brilliance. The longer you spend playing it, the deeper you get into its systems, the more it reveals to you in terms of unlocks, ways to approach the challenges, and a deeply satisfying play experience. I can’t think of a triple-A studio that would take the chances Hotline Miami takes, and it’s one of the many reasons supporting independent game development is in the best interest of anyone interested in this hobby and its growth.
I’m not sure what it is about tales of the occult and the supernatural that fascinate me so deeply. It could be the notion that the things that go bump in the night are more than just settling houses and gusts of wind; that right in front of us, just out of sight and barely beyond our reach, is a world full of wonders, horrors, secrets, and history both enlightening and terrifying to behold. What’s especially interesting are those who choose to, as some would say, “bump back”. Characters like Abraham Van Helsing, the Ghostbusters, Sam & Dean Winchester, and a demon child raised by American soldiers and scientists in the 40s who goes by the name Hellboy. Mike Mignoal’s creation has been in two feature films after many graphic novel appearances, and he’s also been animated. Available on Netflix, Hellboy: Blood and Iron is one of those animated adventures.
Hellboy was summoned by the Nazis to win World War 2. Instead, he was found by Professor Trevor Bruttenholm and raised normally, or as normal as a boy can be when he’s red-skinned, bears a tail, and has a right hand that’s made of stone. Bruttenholm and others gathered around the boy, and formed the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense, or BPRD. Today, the BPRD is a subsidiary of the government, and one of its government friends wants the BPRD to check out a supposedly haunted house. Despite the assignment apparently being a publicity stunt, Professor Bruttenholm convinces Hellboy and his friends Abe Sapien and Liz Sherman to accompany him to the house, saying nothing of his memories of a vampire hunt from his youth.
The style of the characters and their surroundings are most definitely inspired by Mignola’s dark graphic novels. Shadows are long, darkness is deep, and moments of horror are surprisingly chilling at times. That said, some of the animation feels a little choppy, even in comparison to some television series. The occasional dip in quality can strain the immersion of the audience, but it’s never enough to fully break it. Some of this can be chalked up to stylistic choices, and the overall quality of the presentation doesn’t suffer, but it’s enough to warrant a mention. Those more interested in the art composition than the story or characters may find it hard to ignore.
Even vampires need a spa day.
However, I think most people interested in Hellboy: Blood & Iron would not be checking it out for its artwork. The appeal of Hellboy tales, regardless of their venue, lies in the characters. Hellboy himself has a down-to-earth attitude and general sense of snarky self-awareness that makes him very endearing and defies his demonic appearance. Abe works as an intellectual foil to “Big Red”‘s more straightforward “punch it until it behaves” mentality, Liz Sherman has a good relationship with the big guy, and for all of his strength and devil-may-care attitude, Hellboy pretty much dotes on Professor Broom. The fact that their film cast counterparts appear as voices is a huge help, as well: It’s hard to imagine Hellboy at this point being portrayed by anybody but Ron Perlman.
The other major pillar holding up this and many other tales of Hellboy is the storytelling. The tale is well-paced, operates several facets at once, and does not short-change any of its characters. Even minor roles are shaded to provide depth and nuance, the myths have a good feeling of authenticity, and the nature of the threat feels appropriate given the protagonists involved. I do want to avoid spoilers, but suffice it to say that whole the characters are the focus of the story, the story itself is still interesting enough to justify the film’s running time.
They’re here to help. Believe it or else.
Stuff I Liked: I’m a sucker for myths of the old world, incarnations of old gods, and protagonists willing to punch both of them in the face. The diversity of the BPRD crew is appealing in and of itself. The multi-faceted nature of the threat is interesting, as wel.
Stuff I Didn’t Like: The artist kept adding what felt like an extra line to the noses of some characters. It was more an odd annoyance than anything else. Some of the animation felt a bit choppy.
Stuff I Loved: A fantastic cast of interesting characters voiced by talented people with good chemistry. That should sell it in and of itself, if you ask me.
Bottom Line: Hellboy: Blood & Iron is a story worthy of its predecessors. Its run time may be short, at just over an hour, but its packed with good character moments, a balanced mix of action and terror, and more than its share of humor. I would definitely recommend it.
I kidnapped my father to see Man of Steel in celebration of both Father’s Day and his birthday, which fall on the same date this year. I will admit I went into the movie theater carrying some fears. It was my hope that Zack Snyder’s visual panache, Hans Zimmer’s music, and the performances of these actors could put those fears into the Phantom Zone and I could truly fall in love with Superman on the big screen. It’s difficult to put yourself in front of a big summer blockbuster and eject all preconcieved notions from your had, but I did my best when the lights went down and this film began.
Krypton was a world destroyed by its own hubris. Having exhausted its resources and bent its population to a strict genetic template, it was on the cusp of disaster when its most brilliant scientist, Jor-El, chooses to have a natural born child with his wife, Lara Lor-Van. At the same time, General Zod and his officers stage a violent coup. When Zod comes for the Codex, a Kryptonian device containing the aforementioned template, Jor-El fights him off while Lara launches the rocket containing their son, Kal. Kal-El lands safely on Earth while the last act of his doomed homeland is to banish Zod and his followers to the Phantom Zone. Thirty years later, Kal (known as Clark Kent thanks to his adoptive parents) is on the cusp of unlocking the secrets of his past, while a mysterious spacecraft makes contact with Earth.
That’s about as concise as I can make the synopsis of the plot of Man of Steel. It’s a little convoluted and some things are explained at great length, but then again, this is David S Goyer and Christopher Nolan we’re talking about. Now, I like these guys. They gave us three very good Batman movies in the Dark Knight trilogy. But something DC Comics writers discovered years ago is you can’t write a Superman story the way you write a Batman story. Batman is all about a lonely man waging a neverending and possibly self-destructive war on crime with his wits and funds. Superman is about a truly alien immigrant making a place for himself amongst puny creatures that, for all of their flaws and failings, he really admires and finds himself fond of. He’s supportive of us, as a whole. He wants to challenge us to aspire to greater things. He’s whimsical about us.
And damn if he ain’t a fine-lookin’ specimen.
My big hangup with Man of Steel, the thing that keeps me from outright loving it as a whole, is that there’s no whimsy. There’s no levity. There’s barely even any humor at all. Much like the Dark Knight trilogy, the film is solidly grounded, quite cerebral, and intent on explaining everything to us in detail. I very nearly shouted “SHOW, DON’T TELL!” at the screen at least once. As much as I admire the time spent with the Kryptonian world-building (more on that in a bit), so much of it was laid out in plain English rather than relying on visual storytelling that it fails to engage on any emotional level whatsoever. A story like this needs pathos to overcome its more fantastical elements, not an in-depth schematic on how those elements work. Time spent outlining the particulars of those schematics is time that could have been spent making characters people instead of ciphers.
Thankfully, one of the things Man of Steel has is an extremely talented and very well directed cast. Zack Snyder, on top of his legendary visual chops, has a habit of getting good performances out of his actors even when the material involves superhumans rearranging atoms or half-naked warriors spouting fatalistic platitudes. And Henry Cavill, our new Kal-El, has an easy and natural charm about him, an aspect that’s clearly evident whenever the script lightens up enough to let him crack a smile (which isn’t often enough). Amy Adams is a clever and pro-active Lois Lane, but again, the script undercuts her and requires her to put forth more effort to connect both with her co-star and with us. I loved Russel Crowe’s Jor-El for a variety of reasons, even if the script seemed to be pushing some messianic overtones extremely hard. And while Zod may be bound by his genetic template to be a conqueror, Micheal Shannon not only makes this role his own but gives us depth and nuance to what would otherwise be an extremely one-dimensional villain.
Zod could have been cartoonish; instead he has pathos, drive, and surprising humanity.
The more I think about it, the more the problems I have with Man of Steel seem to be squarely in the writing department. Zack Snyder has yet to direct a film that does not jump off the screen at you, even without the ridiculous 3D markup. While Sucker Punch is still on my to-watch list, his work with 300 and Watchmen remains firmly in my mind. This is a man who grasps iconic imagery, well-paced action with clear camera work, proper scene construction, even facial tics and body language to make an actor state something without saying a word. He brought his “A” game to Man of Steel, and a good thing too, as he hammers great moments, from the most destructive of fist-fights to the most touching of family scenes, out of a script that must have been terrible to read through multiple times in perparation for performance.
And here’s a review that’s becoming overly long and verbose in response! I’d hate to give the impression that I did not enjoy Man of Steel, because I did. The scope of the movie is grand and bombastic, worthy of the big screen. The action sequences are spectacular to behold (if a bit long towards the end). The world-building done for Krypton in the first 15 minutes is concise and fascinating, well worth the price of admission (even if it gets a re-tread 45 minutes later). Hans Zimmer’s score is absolutely gorgeous, the overall look and feel of the film is amazing, and everything I said about Snyder’s direction and the work of these actors makes me want to love Man of Steel without reservation.
I can’t. But I want to.
Stuff I Liked: They did one of my favorite in-flight/in-space camera moves: wide shot, zoom in, track the object while focusing. It worked in Battlestar Galactica and Firefly, and it works here. The action is clean and sharp; no shakey cam or overt trickery here. CGI looks great. The palate feels fresh and real and grounded even if it’s a bit washed-out in places; I liked the feeling of weight everything had.
Stuff I Didn’t Like: The script feels drab, dour, and almost clinical in places. The action gets a bit long towards the end. They easily could have used either the opening sequence on Krypton or the history lesson Jor-El gives his son; they didn’t necessarily need both. They spent a lot of time explaining things in detail when they could have been fleshing out characters, or letting Superman rescue a cat from a tree or something. Come on, Chris, come on, David, lighten up, would ya??
Stuff I Loved: This cast, you guys. This. Cast. They are not just enjoying this opportunity to be these characters, they are working like crazy to give life to lifeless lines. Even the bit players amongst the military felt pretty fleshed out, and had actual presence alongside superhumans – great work by Christopher Meloni in particular. Zack Snyder’s direction brings out the best in the actors as well as driving home all of the action folks found lacking in Superman Returns; even the film’s most drawn out passages are quite watchable thanks to his touch. I’m still humming the score. I want a sequel, because I think this universe and these characters have so much potential to break out of the shackles of this dreary origin story. And I love the fact that I believe I will like it more if I see it again.
Bottom Line: Man of Steel is a great summer blockbuster and a decent Superman movie. Do not go in expecting the levity or whimsy of Richard Donner’s Superman films, or even the relfective humanity of Superman Returns, and you should be fine. Ignore what you can of the over-wrought, over-complicated script, and focus on the characters, the action, and the potential this has to become something even greater than it is. That, after all, is what Superman – and the human experience – is all about.
I’ve been playing poker for most of my adult life. It’s not a regular thing for me – mostly at family gatherings or parties thrown by friends – but I know the game well enough to not completely embarrass myself, usually. Practice makes perfect, though, and a couple years ago Telltale Games provided a means to practice my game with Poker Night at the Inventory, allowing me the opportunity to throw down cards and chips with some familiar Internet characters. Did it need a sequel? No. Did it get one anyway? Yes.
The doors of the underground gaming establishment open once again to allow for a no-limit high-stakes poker tournament involving some faces you might recognize. Instead of just gaming culture, however, the scope of the invites has expanded somewhat. From the animated series Venture Brothers comes none other than Brock Samson, a quiet but intimidating presence at the table. Balancing the taciturn bodyguard is Borderlands 2‘s Claptrap, who’s vocabulizer seems to be stuck on ‘snark’ mode. Ash from Army of Darkness gives the little robot a run for his money, though, in addition to having any number of catch phrases at the ready. And last but never least is Sam of Sam & Max fame, who replaces his homicidal rabbit buddy at the table. And your dealer, in the interest of computerized fairness, is GLaDOS, from Portal.
If that line-up isn’t enough to get you to drop $6 US on this game immediately, here’s more incentive.
Texas Hold ‘Em, while iconic in terms of poker tournament play, is no longer your only option. The game of Omaha is also available. In case you don’t know, Omaha plays very similar to Hold ‘Em except each player is dealt 4 hole cards instead of two. A player can only use two of those hole cards to make the best hand possible. I feel like this game option is a bit more forgiving to beginners, as you have more options and opportunities to create a good hand, yet at the same time it can be confusing if you’re dealt an attractive-looking set of hole cards but can’t make the right hand work with only two of them. It’s one of the things that keeps the game fresh.
Your fellow players have their particular tells, some obvious and some subtle. This isn’t new, but the ability to make their tells more obvious and their playing more predictable or exploitable is. How, you ask? Buy them drinks. The lovely Mad Moxxi of Borderlands 2 is tending bar, and if you spend some tokens, won from playing or winning tournaments, she’ll bring some booze over to your opponents to loosen them up a bit. It adds a layer of strategy to your gameplay: at what point do you buy Ash that drink so he bets bigger and stops waiting to win on the river? In addition to the libations, tokens also unlock felts, cards, and chip designs that are part of each franchise represented by the game. Unlock a whole set and you’ll change the entire look of the Inventory. The apex of success is the bounty challenges. A random set of them are laid out for you at the start of a tournament. If you complete them all, you get the chance to win an item from one of your fellow players. Winning the item unlocks prizes in the games Team Fortress 2 and Borderlands 2. All from playing poker with some iconic characters who engage in witty banter. What’s not to love?
Functionally, Poker Night 2 is pretty flawless. The AI of its various moving parts seems pretty well implemented. I’ve only seen the occasional clipping issue. As much as I’ll get frustrated when a winning hand turns to a losing one thanks to a lucky draw on the river, that’s down to the nature of poker itself rather than anything the programmers did. Some of the conversations tend to repeat themselves, but this can be minimized by only playing a few tournaments at a time. Like most diversions of this nature, Poker Night 2 is best experienced in moderation.
Still, for its bargain basement price, great execution, and hilarious writing, I’d definitely recommend Poker Night 2. If you’re a fan of any of the characters mentioned, enjoy a good game of hold ‘em, or just want the maximum bang for your entertainment buck, this is a fantastic deal.
I can finally remove a stigma from my character in the eyes of my friends. I used to confess that I’d never seen Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgandy and there would be a collective gasp. Apparently it was an ironclad classic of comedy and I was doing myself a disservice by not watching it. That was the impression I got from some, anyway. And in any event, it’s now a moot point, as I finally made the time to watch this little Will Ferrell gem.
Will takes the title role of Ron Burgundy, the lead anchor of Channel 4′s Action News team in San Diego. This is in the 70s, “a time before cable,” and network news was a big deal, especially the ‘action’ slant on it. Ron’s backed up by his suave man in the field, the ten-gallon-hat-wearing sports commentator, and a weatherman who’s a few cold fronts short of a weather map. They’re at the top of their game, and everything is going smoothly, until their boss tells them there have been some concerns raised about diversity and – much to their shock – a woman is added to their team.
There’s something timeless about Anchorman. Unfortunately, the timeless element is the misogyny observed within a male-dominated professional environment. To its credit, the movie definitely comes down against the behavior of those that would keep Christina Applegate’s character from advancing. We observe these idiotic shenanigans from the outside, and as much as the setting of the 70s may underscore the silliness of the mens’ behavior, the opportunity to point and laugh at such simple-minded perspectives is a welcome one. It’s subtle, but under the more obvious jokes is the impression that our fearsome foursome are seriously out of touch with the world around them, wrapped up in their own legends and the reputation of their news team.
Ron’s mustache is unimpressed.
I will go on record and say I’m not the world’s biggest Will Ferrell fan. I’m generally more interested in subtle or deadpan humor than overt, pie-in-the-face silliness. Timing is everything in comedy, and too much in-your-face relentless slapstick just turns me off. Anchorman does have some flashy, overt set pieces – the jazz flute sequence, the news team brawl, and so on – but the film is actually rather balanced. For every overt sight gag, there’s a subtle jab either at a character in the film or at society in general. While it’s certainly not the highest of comedies, nor is it steeped in satire like some other works, it does not make the mistake of relying entirely on on particular kind of humor, be it repeated gags or body humor or innuendo. The variety in the comedy keeps it fresh enough to not overstay its welcome.
Another factor in Anchorman‘s favor is the spot-on performances of the cast. From Paul Rudd’s unctuous Brian Fantana to Steve Carell’s somewhat simple Brick Tamland, the cast behind Will Ferrell brings their A game. Christina Applegate, in particular, not only puts Veronica Corningstone side by side with Ron Burgundy in every way, but holds her own in comedic timing and delivery right next to Ferrell. As much as the world of the movie revolves around Ron Burgundy, I was glad that his character did not entirely dominate the proceedings. The construction of the film is overall very solid and balanced, and this leads to a very enjoyable viewing experience.
I don’t review comedies often, and it feels like my usual breakdown is detrimental to them. I don’t want to spoil any more jokes than I already have, so let’s just skip right to the Bottom Line:
Anchorman – The Legend of Ron Burgundy is a well-paced, well-staged, and very funny comedy. It’s silly fun, similar in tone and timbre to older parody movies like Airplane!, and while it doesn’t quite reach that level of brilliance, it’s still a good time, especially with friends.
Fair warning: I am going to spoil this movie. Forget Abrams and his mystery box, there really isn’t any mystery at all with Star Trek: Into Darkness. He likes to pretend there is – he always does – but if you still haven’t figured out the BIG TWIST of this movie, I’m about to “ruin” it for you. Seriously, jettison all of that stuff. Let go of your hatred, as another now-Abrams sci-fi franchise would tell you. Take this one on its own merits. Because it does have merits. Some good ones. They’re there, and you can see them, if you can look past the overarching disappointments that still cling to this Star Trek and make you remember the previous iterations of it even more fondly.
Since the first new Star Trek film, the crew of the Enterprise has been doing some surveying and scouting work. Captain Kirk is eager to be considered for Starfleet’s first five-year mission, but his inexperience and constant flouting of regulations have put his entire career in jeopardy. Admiral Pike is willing to go to bat for his protege, but first an imminent threat to the Federation must be dealt with. That threat takes the form of John Harrison, or as he was known in his time, Khan Noonian Singh.
At this point, it’s really difficult to consider that a spoiler. A cursory look at even the movie’s IMDB page reveals the true identity of Benedict Cumberbatch’s character. To get the bad news out of the way first, this laziness is perhaps the biggest extant problem with Star Trek: Into Darkness. While the use of the genetic super-people from the TOS episode “Space Seed” is not without its cleverness and interesting moments, the blatant copy-paste of the character of Khan invites several questions. If he is Khan, and is named Khan, why is his actor a British man, instead of someone from India or southeast Asia? If he is like Khan but not the same as Khan, why is he named Khan? The use of the same name for a villain who is only somewhat similar to the other is laziness for the sake of name recognition, and the whitewashing of the character is extremely unfortunate. Taken as a whole, it’s clear that the creative minds behind the new Star Trek are mostly working off of old themes, ideas, and even names just to get butts in the seats, rather than trying to tell a new story, and this story in general and Khan in particular suffer for that.
A perfect specimen of the 21st century superman, preserved here in the most comfortable of iBrig units.
The only thing that really saves the character is Benedict Cumberbatch himself. He is electrifying in his role. He plays the canny, manipulative villain very well, holds his own in action scenes, and steals most of the moments he’s in. The cast overall is excellent, even more settled into their roles and deepening the dynamics established three years ago. Joining the cast is Alice Eve as Carol, an indirect parallel to another of Wrath of Khan‘s characters, and she manages to hold her own in the presence of the veterans. The main draw, however, and the best performances come from Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto as Kirk and Spock. As good as everyone from Karl Urban to Simon Pegg are, their dynamic is rock-solid by this point and they are a delight to watch together.
Good acting, however, is only part of the equation. A bad script or director can ruin even the finest performance. Thankfully, Kurtzman and Orci spare us the problems they suffered from in the Transformers movies, and as lazy as they are, they can write decent dialog when they actually try. I maintain that they do decent work when under Abrams as opposed to other directors. And Abrams seems to have throttled back on some of this more bombastic tendencies, allowing the human elements and powerful performances of his actors to come through the lens flares and dubious mysteries. For all of the fears some may have had about this director, his vision, and the future of other sci-fi franchises, I personally think it could have been a lot worse.
When the captain says, “Put on a red shirt,” you’re gonna have a bad time.
For all of its failings in rehashing plot and characters, sometimes in an extremely lazy fashion, Star Trek: Into Darkness delivers a story that is both light enough to convey the space opera sense of the original series and serious enough to get real moments out of its players. It surprised me in a few places, most of which were unrelated to the overarching plot. It feels like it’s trying harder than its predecessor, both in being a good story by itself and in being amenable to Trek fans. If nothing else, it is admirable for this effort.
Stuff I Liked: There are multiple nods to continuity here, both to the old universe and the previous film. Alice Eve’s character feels like more than just a plot device, and she’s not bad in the role at all. What is done with the original “Space Seed” concept and the role the war criminal supermen play in this new universe is interesting, and reflects a discussion that’s been going on between Trek fans for decades.
Stuff I Didn’t Like: So many things in the film just feel lazy. Khan’s name and backstory most of all. Also, you couldn’t come up with a better name than USS Vengeance? No legendary heroes or conquerers came to mind? Not even Caesar or Alexander or Ghengis? Really?? Some parts of the story were a touch predictable and none of the plot twists were terribly surprising. I still don’t know what Scotty’s little friend is supposed to be or do. I still have some trouble with a couple pacing moments: Kronos and Earth should feel farther apart than they do.
Stuff I Loved: Pine and Quinto are fantastic. Cumberbatch is downright legendary. The rest of the hero cast gets their moments, and not just action-packed ones. I adore what they do with Uhura. This film feels more geniune, deliberate, and structured than the last, and that feeling of cohesion leads to an overall better watching experience.
Bottom Line: Is Star Trek: Into Darkness a great film? I wouldn’t say so. I would say, however, that it’s very good. It stands with some of the better films of its previous franchise, and while it will never, ever, in a million years, live up to its spiritual ancestor, it has enough good moments and does enough things right that saved from being an aimless and shallow action flick with a familiar name super-glued to it. This Star Trek is definitely a cinematic animal, nowhere near as cerebral as earlier films or the television series could get, but as a straight-ahead sci-fi action-adventure, it works. Abrams sets out to make films for everybody, and this is definitely one of his more well-rounded and enjoyable successes.
Oh, And… Now that Abrams and his crew have this out of their systems, I really hope they can go in a new direction. Like they should have done last time. Seriously, guys. Give us something new.
Some may consider it a bit of a cheat for me to go over a game I’ve discussed previously. However, a discussion of body horror in video games as part of a Halloween theme is not the same as a full-blown review. And since this game is now available on Steam, I figured now would be a good time to give it the full treatment. Let’s get right into it.
The Tri-Optimum Corporation, late of the original System Shock, has backed the world’s first faster-than-light drive, installed on the science vessel Von Braun. Tethered to the military cruiser Rickenbacher, this historic trip takes the crew of scientists and pioneers to the distant system of Tau Ceti V. When your character awakens, it’s clear that the trip has not gone very well. The Von Braun has holes in it, the AI has gone a little nutty, and the crew? Well… most of them ask you to kill them as they slam your face with a length of pipe.
Like the original System Shock, the setting pits the player, effectively alone, against sci-fi corridors full of active threats. However, it quickly becomes apparent that there are more layers to this game, and I’m not just talking about the multiple decks of the Von Braun. While the malevolent AI SHODAN was the sole antagonist of the first game, it doesn’t take long for a voice other than the Von Braun‘s computer XERXES begins to taunt the player. The game is full of reveals and changes in plot and setting that are well-paced, thanks to the layout of the starships and the ways in which the player upgrades their character.
They tell you to run. They beg you to kill them. They’re very effective creatures, and they’re just the beginning.
This is a true RPG with shooter mechanics, as opposed to shooters with RPG elements like BioShock or Deus Ex: Human Revolution. This isn’t to take anything away from either of those games, as they’re both excellent. However, the focus of more modern games is on the shooting as opposed to character construction. System Shock 2‘s melee has the Half-Life feel in that you can just slam the attack button until whatever is in front of you crumbles. Shooting is better, but since ammunition is very scarce, you may not be doing it as much as you do in other games. You need to rely on other skills, like hacking, weapon maintenance, and possibly psionic powers in order to not end up like those poor hybrids.
In addition to its well-balanced and thought-provoking character system, System Shock 2 conveys atmosphere extremely well. Sound design especially stands out, from the pained groans of the hybrids to the skittering noise of the arachnids to the chittering of the creepy worms. In terms of overall creepiness, the cake is probably taken by the cyborg midwifes, while the ramblers really shocked me into nearly crapping my pants with their speed and desire to swallow my face in those really disgusting tooth-ringed maws of theirs. Yeesh. You see one of those lumpy sons of bitches, you’re gonna have a bad time.
… Yeah. This game is creepy.
The dated nature of the graphics can undercut the tension somewhat, but there are plenty of mods out there to help with that aspect. The nature of the engine can also get in the way of your enjoyment. I’ve heard of people getting frustrated when they spent all of the cyber modules on their Endurance and Heavy Weapons stats only to realize they needed something else entirely to finish the game. As much as the game does not railroad you into certain builds, and allows you to construct your character any way you like, there are “optimal” builds that will make the game less challenging. It’s not exactly a drawback for me, but I know it may turn others away, and therefore bears mentioning.
Stuff I Liked: The atmosphere of the game is super creepy and the level design is very well done. The setting has plenty of depth and background. The ability to switch around your ammo as the situation demands is a neat idea.
Stuff I Didn’t Like: Most of my complaints can be chalked up to the age of the game. As solid as it is, it’s not as smooth as some modern titles. But they’re all minor quibbles.
Stuff I Loved: The Polito thing and everything after, full stop. The necessity of managing both inventory and stats and nanites (cash) give it an entire layer of challenge that has nothing do with combat.I also loved the open-endedness of the game’s RPG system, and the replayability promised by the idea of different builds. I hear Psi-heavy builds are fun and I’m curious to try one out.
Bottom Line: Like the original Deus Ex, System Shock 2 has appeal beyond nostalgia. The systems of the game are rock-solid despite the passage of time, and it still is both enjoyable and challenging to play. The story feels decent in its construction and the layout of the levels means things are well-paced. Regardless of whether you’re new to the idea of sci-fi RPG shooters or you have fond memories of games like this, System Shock 2 now being available on Steam means you have no excuse not to play it. So go do that.