Saturday, December 6, 2014

The Penguins of Madagascar

Directed by Eric Darnell and Simon J. Smith
Written by John Aboud, Michael Colton and Brandon Sawyer
Based on characters created by Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath

     Ever since the first movie, it was almost inevitable that there would be a Penguins of Madagascar spin-off. From day one they were the ensemble darkhorses, and while the TV series was surely nice for merchandising, we all know that's nothing compared to box-office money. And it certainly would've been easy to make this a quick cash-in, but Penguins is a lot of fun, if light on drama.
     When the penguins – Skipper (Tom McGrath), Kowalski (Chris Miller), Rico (Conrad Vernon), and Private (Christopher Knights) – get kidnapped during a break-in to Fort Knox, they end up in the hands (or tentacles) of Dr. John Brine, aka Dave the Octopus (John Malkovich). He has a plan to get revenge on the world's penguins, and it's up to our group of heroes to stop them, even as they butt heads with the secret agent group North Wind, led by the wolf, Classified (Benedict Cumberbatch).
     It's easily the most absurd plot so far in a series that almost prides itself on its absurd plots, but it works, mainly in the sense that it means the movie spends less time caring about the plot and more time throwing every possible gag it can at the audience. The movie makes puns any chance it gets, switches to an energetic action sequence that keeps you laughing along the way, and then goes to some silly slapstick (Rico's habit of eating everything is a regularly used one). It rarely settles down for even a moment, layering things wall-to-wall with jokes and excellent voicework. We knew how good the penguins would be, so it's especially great to have Malkovich and Cumberbatch being given a chance to stretch their voice acting abilities, with Malkovich clearly having a lot of fun playing an evil octopus.
     All the comedy does mean that there is little to no room for drama or morals. Maybe Dreamworks thought they should have a breather after the particularly intense How to Train Your Dragon 2, or maybe it was just a decision to keep Penguins light – even lighter than the main Madagascar movies. It works, in that there's little slowdown of plot or any hint that they don't just want you to have fun. But it does result in a third act that shoehorns in a moral at the last second. And you can get one or two (looks aren't everything, accept help when it's given), but it's less like the movie is leading to a moral or something to think about afterwards, and more like an optional thing you might pick up or leave behind at your choice.

     Penguins' success is being light fun and never trying to be anything but. It leaves itself as one of the fluffiest animated movies from a major studio in a while, but it's hard to argue with its comedic success.

Friday, November 21, 2014


Writing and art by Gabriel Hardman

     I'm going to be up front on this: I enjoyed Kinski. It was a thoroughly enjoyable comic from start to finish. There's just one problem that can't get out of my head: what does it mean?
     Kinski is about Joe, a man who, on a business trip, finds a stray dog by the hotel. What starts as trying to take care of the dog turns into obsession as he steals the dog back from its owners and is even willing to sacrifice his job...all in the name of a dog he doesn't own.
     Needless to say, Kinski is a little weird. It's not bizarre-weird, it's not mind-screwy weird. It's just weird in the sense that the story is decidedly offbeat. Joe's clearly obsessed with the dog, but the obsession never becomes entirely creepy, just obsessive. There's never any reason given for his obsession, either. It's not supernatural, there's no backstory. His coworker asks “Did you have a dog as a kid?” but there's no response. We're just thrown into this story and we're told to deal with it.
     And maybe that's what makes this comic so enjoyable. It's not lingering too hard on the symbolism or the meaning behind things. Everything that happens is moving forwards in the story. If Joe talks to someone, they have a meaning in the story. When the dog gets lost in a trailer park, he climbs up on a roof, which leads into an argument that distracts him from his search. Hardman's art is similarly straightforward. Detailed as much as it needs to be, the lack of color showing just what it needs to show. He's telling a story, and anything the reader gets out of it may just be inconsequential.

     So I'll admit that if there's further meaning here I don't know it. But I guess I don't care. Kinski is wholly unique, neither dark nor light, neither deep nor shallow. It's a story and you either enjoy it or you don't, and I happened to enjoy it.

Monday, November 10, 2014


Developed and published by Valve Corporation
Played on PC

     Playing older FPSes tends to be a very different experience. The generation of Doom and Quake was less focused on story or any sensible cohesion of level design, more focused on blowing monsters up. Half-Life was one of the first FPSes to actually make a story, with levels that naturally transition into one another. And surprisingly, all the years have not hurt its playability.
     Gordon Freeman is a physicist on his first day at the Black Mesa facility. And in the middle of an experiment, something goes terribly wrong, unleashing a connection with an alien world. Now Gordon has to make it out alive in the middle of both aliens and the military looking to clean things up.
     One of Half-Life's greatest strengths, something that remained in the sequel, is its ability to switch genres on a dime. The game starts off closer to a survival horror game, giving you nothing but the iconic crowbar and pointing you towards the many zombies and headcrabs that want to kill you. As the military comes in, though, it becomes more of a shooter, building up your arsenal. While the aliens are fairly straightforward, the military will use tactics, flushing you out of cover or using pincer maneuvers to make things more frantic. And in the middle, you're having to figure out puzzles and platforming. There's very little direction given to you, but it also always manages to push you in the right direction, losing the labyrinthine maps of Doom for a more straightforward but still exploratory experience. You might wander around a room for a little bit, but then you'll say “Ah, that pipe up there looks suspicious, I should get to it”.
     Half-Life's form of storytelling also remains strong. There's no true cinematics in the game, never breaking from the first-person viewpoint of Gordon. But you still pick up the story going on from the short conversations with scientists and security guards. And you also pick up the story as you go through the environment. The labs you walk through hint to exactly what's been going on, the new enemies that come after you show how much opposition Gordon is up against. And you always feel like you have a goal, not that you're just wandering wildly. And sadly, this all falls apart in the final levels. The infamous finale loses any sense of story and feels more like you're just wandering around aimlessly until the game ends. It does show exactly how strong Valve's games normally are that this only becomes a problem in the end—not that it stops it from being a problem.

     Half-Life remains an FPS giant, aging well and standing as one of the strongest debut games of a developer. It's rare to play an older game that stays this fresh today.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Book of Life

Directed by Jorge R Gutierrez
Written by Douglas Langdale and Jorge R Gutierrez

     It can be incredibly difficult for animated movies not made by a major studio to get a foothold. Never mind not being Disney, Pixar, or Dreamworks, even Sony Animation and Blue Sky at least have some push. Book of Life is done by a first-time feature length director (he's done TV work before), and his vision shines through clearly, even if it gets a little muddled along the way.
     Manolo (Diego Luna) and Joaquin (Channing Tatum) are best friends who have also been in love with the same girl, Maria (Zoe Saldana), since they were kids. What none of them know is that the love triangle is also being watched by the death gods La Muerte (Kate del Castillo) and Xibalba (Ron Perlman), who've put a bet that whoever wins will get to rule the vibrant Land of the Remembered, while the loser rules the desolate Land of the Forgotten. And Xibalba is not above cheating...
     Book of Life's greatest strength is its visuals. The movie takes place as if it's being told with wooden figures, and it shows with the character designs. They exaggerate features, giving war heroes chests full of medals, making round mariachis who can just roll around, and having characters who look like 2D paintings given life. The wooden features give the characters visible joints, older characters will have more visible wood grain, stubble is just a different layer of wood. It's truly remarkable from start to finish, and gives the movie plenty of visual gags to work off of. And once it hits the Land of the Remembered, it's easy for your jaw to drop completely.
     Sadly, for its dazzling visuals, the writing has issues. The story and themes are so standard as to be cliché, with no real surprises along the way. This doesn't mean it's not enjoyable to watch, it's just not going to throw any twists your way. The pacing is also off. Trailers made it seem like a majority of the movie would take place in the Land of the Remembered. Instead, about 10 minutes are spent there. Considering how awesome the skeletal character designs look, you'd think they'd give that part of the movie the majority. But the biggest problem comes from the movie's framing device: a story being told to a group of kids in a museum. It means the movie constantly stops to narrate what's going on or give exposition. Or just cut away to the group of white kids. It reeks of executive meddling, the studio getting terrified that a movie full of Mexican characters won't be watched, so they tacked on some white characters at the last minute.

     Regardless of faults, Gutierrez gives a solid effort here, and if he can follow the movie's moral and get out of the studio's shadow, he can do something truly incredible. As it is, Book of Life is enjoyable, but its visuals don't match up to its story problems.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Southern Bastards Volume 1: Here Was a Man

Written by Jason Aaron
Art by Jason Latour

     My first introduction to Jason Aaron's work was with the dark and gritty crime comic Scalped. With his transfer over to Marvel, it's hard to remember that he once wrote hopeless, realistic stories. But now Southern Bastards is here. And he is right back to classic form.
     Earl Tubb comes back to Craw County, Alabama, 40 years after his dad died to finally pack up the old house. But he quickly gets caught up in crime and corruption that all seems to link to the high school football Coach Boss. And he has to make in choice whether to get swept back into the town he left years ago or get out while he still can.
     The main characters here are atypical. Earl isn't the picture of the crime comic antihero. He's old, worn down, and wearing a flannel shirt. Coach Boss is...well, a high school football coach, gruff but not exactly the pinnacle of crime lord. We're not even told what exactly Boss is doing, but the actions of his men tell plenty, and it provides a nice mystery for the book to continue with. In many ways, we start the same point that Earl starts: we know something is wrong here, but we don't know what. But it becomes obvious from the whirlwind of violence that this is not good, and while we ultimately know the choice Earl has to make (it'd be a short comic if he left, wouldn't it?), it never stops feeling like a problem he won't be able to fix.
     Latour's art fits the book perfectly. His art is as dark as the story that Aaron is telling, and the character designs are so spot-on that it's instantly obvious that he spent his childhood in the south. There's no other way you can make characters that I can go to the Wal-Mart and see. And he is also the perfect choice for the book's violent moments, providing the right amount of shock every time they happen.

     Here Was a Man ends with a twist to make sure you come back. It doesn't matter. If you love crime stories full of purely evil villains and unlikely heroes, then Southern Bastards will have you hooked by the end of the first issue.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Ittle Dew

Developed and published by Ludosity
Played on PC

     As great as the Zelda series is, sometimes the wait between games can get a bit much. We haven't even seen any of Zelda U besides a small teaser trailer. Ittle Dew looks to fill that gap by being a definitive Zelda clone, and it is, for better or worse.
     The basic plot has Ittle and her flying ferret (?) companion, Tippsi, washing up on an island where there's surely adventure to be had! The game itself doesn't care so much about plot as it does its sense of humor, and it delivers there. Half of it is winking at standard Zelda conventions, while the other half is an absurd, morbid sense of humor that made me laugh out loud. The high points are the conversations with enemies that you have when you encounter them for the first time. Let's just say that a sentient moai head with wings does not have the most pleasant existence.
     The gameplay is a match for the 2D Zelda games. A top-down adventure where you fight enemies, trek through dungeons, collect items, and solve block puzzles. Block puzzles may not be the most exciting puzzle ever devised in video game history. The difference here is the game's focus on them. Pretty much any puzzle to get through a door comes down to “push these blocks on to the switches”. It then quickly throws as many elements as it can into the puzzles, and once you get the items, even more elements. Figuring out exactly what you need to do for each puzzle is tricky and satisfying, and the game's “reset room” option means that you're never afraid to experiment.
     The items themselves don't shock, with a fire sword, an ice wand, and a teleport wand. That's it. The game opens up more once you look at the achievements and realize you don't even need all three to beat the game. In fact, the game constantly encourages you to look for ways around the puzzles, with professional routes in each dungeon and an achievement for beating the game in 15 minutes. It wants you to go through again and skip a third of the game. 100% players and speedrunners will have a lot to look forward to here. Those who just want to beat the game might be disappointed. I was able to beat the game in about 2 hours with exploration of the various side-caves.

     Still, the game remains high quality throughout. It doesn't reinvent the wheel, but it makes the wheel as smooth and polished as it can be. It's not quite a Zelda game, but like the title says, it'll do.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Nailbiter Volume 1: There Will Be Blood

WARNING: The following review contains descriptions of a disturbing violent act. Please read with caution.

Written by Joshua Williamson
Art by Mike Henderson

     Nailbiter focuses on the town of Buckaroo, Oregon, home to a whopping 16 serial killers. Nicholas Finch gets a call from FBI Agent Carroll, who tells Finch he's figured out the mystery as to why there's so many from one town. But when Finch gets there, Carroll is missing, and the only lead he has is Edward Warren, aka the Nailbiter, an acquitted serial killer who bit the fingernails off of his victims.
     A book that builds itself around a mystery like this has to pay off big, which unfortunately means it's too early to tell anything about the long game. The plus side: there are enough other mysteries being set up that there is plenty to keep you coming back. Every small detail and every new plot twist seems like it's building up for something bigger and bigger. While this leaves the first volume as primarily setup, it's a fantastic setup. And we also get introduced to the town of Buckaroo as a whole. There's support groups for people who were relatives of the serial killers. There's a man running a gift shop of killer memorabilia and trying to get a convention to come to the town. And then there's the people who just want to go through a normal life in an abnormal town. It's a fascinating locale that I want to see more of.
     And Henderson's art brings it to life. The best word I can think of for it is dynamic. His less realistic art style means that the book stays vibrant, but when there's acts of violence he brings blood and darkness to it. And the character designs bring extra to the characters' personalities. Warren's so carefree that it's hard to believe he's a killer, and Henderson's art makes him charming and all the more dangerous.

     There Will Be Blood is creepy, unsettling, and fascinating. If the book can keep up its level of personality, Nailbiter will be a winner of a horror comic.