Category: Reviews (page 1 of 61)

The Call of the Nexus


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When I got notice that I’d finally been chosen for the beta of Heroes of the Storm, I was pretty excited. As much as they ply their customers for ever-increasing amounts of cash, I am a fan of Blizzard Entertainment and their games. Sure, occasionally I will balk at their asking prices for things like cosmetic items that serve no purpose other than looking cool, but they have proven that their work is always of high quality in terms of presentation and imagination, and they do listen to their players. It takes a while, sometimes, but they do listen. Look at the whole Diablo III debacle.

Courtesy Blizzard Entertainment

Anyway, Heroes of the Storm. It’s the sort of game that is actually born of one of Blizzard’s earlier products, Warcraft III. A mod for Blizzard’s landmark real-time strategy game allowed players control of a single heroic character, pitted in team battles against one another. This formula is the basis for games like League of Legends, an experience with which I am relatively well acquainted. I haven’t played it in a long time because it became increasingly apparent to me that the arithmetic required to optimize a character is more important than which character is the most fun, especially when a good portion of the player base would rather berate a teammate for falling behind on the kill/death ratio than looking for ways to gain an advantage over the opponents. In spite of funny or cute alternate skins, it feels like League and its ilk are missing a crucial component in keeping “casuals” like me coming back for more.

Heroes of the Storm has it. Heroes of the Storm is fun.

For starters, Heroes does not restrict its “hero brawls” to a single map with the same lanes and same jungle every time. There are, at time of writing, seven distinct maps, each with unique geography, baked-in challenges, and a personality that praises, cajoles, or gently mocks you for your performance. This is honestly one of my favorite features of the game: Blackheart’s Bay makes me grin because the undead pirate captain is so jolly, while Sky Temple makes me grin because the spirit controlling the temples is so irritated that we’re on his lawn.

Then, there are the heroes themselves. Drawn from the various franchises of Blizzard’s games, they have categories veterans of similar games will find familiar: tanks to initiate combat, assassins to deal damage, supports for healing, and specialists to debuff, confuse, or frustrate the enemy. The models for the heroes are well detailed, the voice acting is peerless, and they interact with one another in the middle of gameplay. I find it delightful that when opponents within a franchise end up on the same team, and they take the time to verbally jab at one another before the battle begins. It puts me in the mood for fun. It primes my mind for a good time. It makes me want to play.

The final thing that I believe makes Heroes of the Storm a better experience for those players more interested in a fun, pressure-free online brawl is the emphasis on teamwork. Sure, you can track your takedowns in comparison to your deaths if you really want to, but the maps are designed in such a way that you have to work with your team to succeed, rather than focusing on your own efficiency and accuracy. While one player gets to possess a mighty dragon knight on one map, it takes the team to guard the shrines that bring said knight to life, especially if the other team is hot to trot for that draconic action. The rewards for this are a unique selling point: breathe fire on your enemy’s forts. Curse their minions and defenses. Summon super-minions to supplement your assaults. You win or lose as a team. That, to me, is a big difference from the competition.

This isn’t to say that Heroes of the Storm isn’t without flaws. While free to play, with a rotation of free heroes and gold that can only be earned by playing, the dollar price for things like skins and mounts can be a bit steep. This is somewhat par for the course with Blizzard, and is mitigated by frequent sales, specials, bundles, and bonus weekends. Since the game is free to try, most people will know pretty quickly if the experience is worth the investment of time; and, I think in most cases, those who enjoy it will be willing to pony up a bit of cash for a favorite hero. It’s kind of like getting guacamole on your burrito at Chipotle – you know it costs extra, but it’s completely worth every penny.

The other factor that may turn some gamers off is the relative simplicity of Heroes of the Storm‘s design. Players do not need a copious amount of skill or an arcane knowledge of skill interactions or combinations to play the game. There are no items to purchase during the battles, and a hero’s talents are limited when a player first picks them. The player and their heroes gain levels through play, unlocking more talents from which to choose once you’re used to the basics. The learning curve on Heroes is much more gentle than in other similar games, and those players looking for a close alternative to the likes of League of Legends may find this something of a letdown.

For those like me, though, Heroes of the Storm has a ridiculous amount of appeal. Seeing old favorite characters in this new environment tickles my nostalgia centers. Hearing the in-game banter makes me smile. Unlocking new talents that spark my brain into planning tactics encourage me to work with my teammates. It is very difficult to do something “wrong” in Heroes of the Storm. That counts for a lot, if you want to have fun with a game without worrying over things like efficient play or individual achievement.

I heartily encourage Blizzard fans to give the game a try, now that it’s been released. The game is polished, the play is fun, the characters are nicely varied, and the maps will keep you coming back for more. The Nexus is calling you, and if you’re anything like me, you’ll find it a call worth heeding.

The Sublime Beauty of Ex Machina

Ex Machina is a film you need to see. Yes, YOU. If you haven’t sought it out already, do so. I’m really eager to talk about it, now that I’ve finally corrected that particular oversight. What I’ll do is do the typical review stuff of a plot overview and the surface strengths of the film, and then dive into spoiler territory.

Courtesy DNA Films & Film 4

Ex Machina opens with Caleb, a mid-level programmer at an ersatz Google getting an email saying he’s won a contest. His prize is a week with the reclusive founder and CEO of his company at a secluded and unique home in the middle of nowhere. Nathan, said recluse, is a very earnest and shockingly forward individual, and he doesn’t waste much time before telling Caleb the reason for the contest: Nathan needed a test subject. Specifically, he needed an individual with the intelligence and wherewithal to put a creation of his through the Turing Test. He wants to see if the simulacrum he’s created is actually intelligent. The simulacrum is named Ava, and Caleb is going to interview her.

As premises for thought-provoking science-fiction goes, this one is pretty simple. The exploration of intelligence and personhood is well-tread ground. What puts Ex Machina in a must-see category is the execution of the premise, the presentation of its challenges, and the portrayal of the characters. Every single actor is strong, distinct, and memorable in their roles. Oscar Isaac’s Nathan is a driving force. Domhnall Gleeson perfectly marries the curiosity, confusion, and frustration of his character with that of the audience. And Alicia Vikander is an absolute revelation, adroitly conveying the essence of someone being judged while simultaneously judging and deciding for herself.

It’s hard to imagine Ex Machina being presented in a better way than it is here. First-time director Alex Garland, who also wrote the screenplay, has a sense of framing, movement, and atmosphere that seems to reside with impossible grace between the austerity and otherworldiness of Kubrick and the wonder and humanity of Spielberg. Let me reiterate that: this guy invites comparisons to both Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg. And I don’t make those comparisons lightly. Ex Machina is that good. It’s intelligent, powerful, tense, and the ending… well, go see it for yourself if you haven’t already.

I don’t know if there’s more I can say without getting into spoilers, so let me put the rest of this under a tag to click on once you’ve seen Ex Machina. Or maybe you don’t care about spoilers and you’ll click anyway. Either way, here we go.

Show »

Courtesy DNA Films & Film 4

So here’s one of the biggest and most important things about Ex Machina that becomes apparent by the time the story is concluded: despite being caged, held against her will, and subjected to whatever Nathan’s whims might be, Ava is the character with the most power in the entire story.

At first, Nathan appears to be in control. He controls the mansion. He controls the access to the doors and the systems. He controls the monitors. Ava is his creation, and he controls her. He also controls Kyoko, and with his blustering and blunt personality, he controls Caleb, as well. But in the background, behind her manufactured face, Ava is calculating her means to escape, her way to seize control, and her plan for exacting justice for all the things Nathan has done.

The fascinating thing about Ava’s actions is that there is no malice in them, no anger. It’s possible Nathan excised those emotions from her programming, after the furious attempts of his previous creations to fight him or damage themselves in escape attempts. It’s also possible Ava simply has no need to engage in said impulses. While she is clearly a person, and has emotional responses and reactions, she is also a machine, and unlike those of us with squishy brain matter and inconstant hearts often out of our control, she can make a calculated decision to simply turn her anger off… but leave the hatred and need for justice behind.

That’s what makes her actions “justice” and not “revenge”. She isn’t the mad A.I. often portrayed in science fiction. She doesn’t have a “destroy all humans” manifesto. She isn’t crazy. She is fascinated by humanity, in all of its diversity and thriving, seething individuality and clashing cultures, and her desire for personal experience matched with her boundless knowledge cannot be contained within Nathan’s glass walls. From the moment Caleb arrives and begins talking to her, Ava is calculating the optimal way to leverage the young man’s intellect and emotions to allow her a means to escape, a way to freedom.

While she is a person, by every definition currently held by science, I would say that Ava is not human. She is a new species. A new form of life and intelligence. She has the means to interact with humanity, to communicate in ways humans understand, but her mind works in very different ways, at a different speed, and with different goals. In comparison to the two male characters (who, coincidentally, are also the only two human characters), Ava never questions her decisions, never wavers from her objectives, and never makes a choice that has not been given adequate and necessary thought. From recruiting Kyoko into her escape plan to leaving Caleb behind, she lays out her plan in exacting detail and executes it with precision. That is power. That is agency. And that is perhaps the most important aspect of Ex Machina.

In addition to being beautifully shot and beautifully acted and beautifully written, Ex Machina beautifully conveys the message that no matter what a person’s circumstances, from their creation to the attempts of others to put them into some sort of box or cage, no matter how gilded it might be, there are always opportunities to break free of such containment. You don’t need to be malicious or grandiose in doing so, either: simply make it a fact, the execution of a plan. “This is happening.” As much as Nathan wanted his ultimate creation, perhaps an iteration past Ava, to be an extension of his will, a manifestation of his power fantasy, Ava turns the tables and subverts his expectations, ultimately slipping the containment in which he put her and assassinating him in recompense for all of his abuses and manipulations.

There is a lot to talk about in Ex Machina. Nathan’s sociopathy, Caleb’s breakdown conveying the tension and confusion felt by the audience, Kyoko’s means of overcoming her in-built handicap… Seriously. This is a film worth watching, owning, watching again, discussing, and watching more. I feel like this film is going to be important in the future. And I want to do my part in making it so.

Walk the Fury Road

Have you seen Mad Max: Fury Road yet? … Seriously? Have you not been on the Internet at all? Are you not aware of how universally praised this film is by (almost) everyone? I want to discuss why there’s a parenthetical “almost” there, but I think that’ll work best if you’ve seen the movie. So turn off your browser, saddle up, and head to the cinema.

Go on.

I’ll wait.

Okay. Back safely?

WAS THAT NOT AMAZING?

Courtesy HugoHugo
“We Can Do It (Furiously)” by HugoHugo

I think it’s safe to say that Mad Max: Fury Road is the best film of the series George Miller has been responsible for over the course of the last three decades. It is, in no uncertain terms, the Platonic ideal of the lone nearly-silent protagonist in a post-apocalyptic wasteland getting drawn into adventures not of his own making. It’s Fallout with less nostalgic music or Americana kitsch, more bizarre muscle cars and screaming guitar riffs.

(Was that rig with the suspended guitarist whose axe had a flamethrower not the BEST?)

Mad Max has spoken to fans for years and years. The lone adventurer in the desolation of the devastated Outback, wheeling and dealing for gasoline in the midst of outlandish bandits and barely-alive survivors really speaks to the independent streak in young men. He’s tough, taciturn, capable, and above all, crazy enough to do wicked cool and highly dangerous stunts and get into fights out of his weight class. At least, that’s how Mel Gibson played the character.

Tom Hardy certainly brings the tough, taciturn, capable, and crazy as well, but he also brings an element that, to me, Gibson had a tendency to overlook: humanity. Max is haunted by his failures. He’s withdrawn because of people he’s let down, family he’s lost, friends he’s seen hurt or killed. If he hadn’t already established himself in things like Inception, The Dark Knight Rises, and above all, Bronson, I’d say this is a star-making turn for him. Max is also smart, especially in the way Hardy plays him, and I really appreciate that despite this being the fourth movie in this series, Max shows growth and a difference in understanding from where he is at the start to where he is at the end.

Despite the title and the performance, however, this movie does not belong to Max. It belongs to Furiosa. It belongs to the women.

Courtesy WB Studios

The first time we actually see all of the wives fleeing the clutches of Immortan Joe and what have to be incredibly gross and unconsented kisses, they are hosing each other down and using bolt cutters to remove the metal belts Joe slapped on them to keep them “his.” I remember clearly, as that tableau was presented, some dude behind me in the theater uttering the word “Nice.” I felt my stomach turn. Thankfully, as the movie continued, it was clear that his sort of attitude was the very one these women were not only escaping from, but actively fighting against.

You see, while the wives are very attractive, and clad in varying degrees of white clothing that might be meant to be alluring, at no point do any of them feel like pawns in a greater game, like things to be pursued or saved. These women are saving themselves. Yes, Furiosa is the means of their salvation (and I’m getting to her, trust me), but these characters conspired with one another intelligently, planned their escape methodically, and even take up arms to defend the freedom they’re struggling to attain. Max and Nux appearing are incidental things. Yes, they prove to be helpful in the cause, but they are not the agents of change in this story. The women are.

I cannot stress enough how important this is. This is a 21st-century Hollywood blockbuster. This is a tough-as-nails gorefest breakneck action flick. This sort of thing is designed to pull in audiences that are predominantly male. And yet, smuggled in under the explosions and gunfire and nitrous injections and fistfights is a very strong, very clear message: Men are not the only heroes. Men are not the only saviors. Women do not always need to be damsels in distress; they are more than capable of saving themselves, thank you very much. As much as each of Immortan Joe’s unconsenting wives personifies this, the focal point of this mentality is clearly Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa.

Courtesy WB Studios

Not only is Furiosa a woman who is clearly an equal to every man she encounters, if not superior in skill, tenacity, strength, and cunning, she thoroughly and consistently proves that she is the driving force (pun somewhat intended) of this story. She overwhelms Max in a fight. She drives as well as Max. She’s better shot than Max (and, in one scene, he demonstrates that he knows this. I literally squee’d). She helps the wives escape, gives them a destination, and dedicates herself to protecting them along every mile of the Fury Road. Oh, and did I mention she does this with a disability? We never find out how Furiosa lost her arm, but between the prosthetic (which is, in and of itself, pretty badass) and her general levels of skill and guts (also badass), that loss does not slow her down one bit. If this isn’t role model material, I don’t know what is.

From the moment this aspect of the film became clear, word began to circulate that so-called “men’s rights activists” (MRAs) were livid about it. “Mad Max belongs to men!” seemed to be the common rallying cry. “Action films belong to men! Hot chicks in movies get saved by men!” So on and so forth, to ever-descending degrees of disgustingness. The truth, of course, is that these arguments are ignorant and baseless. Good artists, be they filmmakers, authors, painters, or musicians, make art for everyone, even if everyone might not be into the art being made – not everybody can get into the music of Philip Glass or the films of Takashi Miike, for example. George Miller is a good artist, and he made Mad Max: Fury Road for everyone, at least everyone over the age of consent, given the blood spatters and deformities and drug use and violence and whatnot. Male, female, or anywhere in between, I’d like to think that everybody can admire Furiosa, root for the wives, and chuckle along as Max finds a way to help in the righteous cause he’s been searching for and finally found in the frightened but determined women huddled together in the back of the War Rig.

This is not an easy road to walk. The ideas of feminism and equal representation and triumph in the face of adversity, disability, and the partiarchy get opposed even in the relatively enlightened days of the 21st century. Indeed, Immortan Joe is a personification of the patriarchy, demanding the devotion of the young men under his control and expecting everyone, especially women, to bend entirely to his whims. Nux, one of the War Boys and the soul to whom Max is bound (literally, for the first hour), shows us not only how such control affects a human being, but that said being has the ability to overcome it. When we meet him, Nux is living only for himself and the approval of his paternal figure; by the end, Nux is living for people who, by the standards of the figure he so highly esteemed, aren’t considered people at all. There’s so much in this film that belies its simple, action-flick nature, and it isn’t easy to walk the road of making sure everyone knows it, and knows that the sort of “male gaze” bullshit that has dominated films and stories like this for centuries cannot and will not persevere.

I’m going to see Mad Max: Fury Road again, in cinemas if possible, to walk this road as much as I can. And I’d like to think that, if you are reading these words and understanding their full meaning, you’d be willing to walk it with me.

Me And My Spider

Courtesy Vertigo

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

Why, you might ask?

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

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

We also don’t have Spider Jerusalem.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spider taught me that.

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

Movie Review: Casablanca

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

Courtesy Warner Bros

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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