Saturday, May 28, 2011

Kung Fu Panda 2

         Kung Fu Panda is one of the best action comedies I’ve seen.  It can be very tricky to hit that perfect medium between action and comedy where you don’t lose one when the other kicks in, but it hit it perfectly.  I was a bit worried seeing the trailers for Kung Fu Panda 2, but then, I felt the same way when I saw the trailers for the original.  Fortunately, Kung Fu Panda 2 more than exceeds the expectations I had for it.
            The story gets kicked off by Shen (Gary Oldman, hamming it up as much as you can with just a voice), a peacock who killed all the pandas because of a prophecy that one of them would be his downfall.  He comes to Gongmen City with a cannon, kills the kung fu master Rhino, and threatens to take over all of China.  When Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) finds out, he sends Po (Jack Black) and the Furious Five (in estimated order of lines: Angelina Jolie, David Cross, Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu, and Jackie Chan) to stop him.
            The movie really seems to have ramped up a lot on its action scenes, which makes sense.  The first movie was really the training of Po as the Dragon Warrior.  This movie, he is the Dragon Warrior, and gets plenty of opportunities to show it off.  He’s still a very goofy hero, but he’s also an effective one.  My absolute favorite action sequence in the movie is a chase between him and the wolf boss on carts through the streets of Gongmen.  It’s just one of those moments where the action and humor comes together so well.  While I can’t find that Jackie Chan had any creative credits on the movie, it really wouldn’t surprise me to learn that he helped out with the fight scenes.  They just seem so similar to his style, but in a way that’s pure homage to the great martial arts movies it bases its world around.
             The movie also adds some more drama to the story, what with Po having to learn about his family.  It doesn’t quite hit the heart like Pixar does, but hey, so little does.  It does manage to add some more to Po’s character, giving him some tragedy.  Some movies would let this drag it down.  Kung Fu Panda lets it flow right into the story, making sure that drama, action and comedy are all evenly paced enough that, even when the movie slows down for an extended flashback of Shen’s attack on the panda village, it doesn’t come to a complete stop.  We also seem to be seeing some more of Tigress’ character.  I have no idea if Dreamworks is planning on spinning her off into her own movie, but if they are, I would be absolutely for it.  We only see a little of her character, but it’s a hardened warrior that’s obviously had to deal with an unknown tragedy.  Among this character development, Shen himself is a bit more of a maniac, but I suppose this was to even out the problem where the first movie’s villain ended up too sympathetic for some people.  Even he still gets enough development, not to mention some awesome kung fu moves, to make a very interesting character.
            I can’t pass up mentioning the animation.  It’s absolutely gorgeous from start to finish.  It uses all of its strengths from before, making Po furry and huggable-looking, while also giving him a good sense of scale.  I always love the detail of him having to bend over inside his dad’s noodle shop.  They put in little details, like somebody throwing a knife at a board and having a few flakes of wood.  And the environments…it’s like looking at a CGI painting.  This is just a beautiful movie.  I saw it in 3D, which adds some depth to the animation.  I’ve always thought Dreamworks has done very well with their 3D, so if you’re up for it, I’d recommend going for it.
            We’ve got a long summer of movies ahead, but I’m pretty sure that Kung Fu Panda 2 will stand as one of my favorites, especially for action movies.  It’s got great fight scenes, it’s hilarious, and it’s a little heartwarming.   Definitely a must-see.

Friday, May 27, 2011


Imagine a world where people have powers that could completely change the world, and you’d never be sure.  People could manipulate objects to change what they look like, or change people’s memories just by making eye contact.  The very idea of this would make a perfect paranoia thriller.  Sadly, that concept is completely passed over in Push, a mediocre superhero movie minus any action, character development, or fun.
            The plot first begins by explaining that there are people with special powers in an opening narration that’s boring and ultimately pointless.  The focus is on Nick (Chris Evans, the soon-to-be Captain America), a man with telekinetic powers.  After the death of his father 10 years ago by a government organization called The Division, headed by Henry Carver (Djimon Hounsou), he moves out to Hong Kong.  The Division is trying to develop a serum that will enhance these people’s powers, but it keeps killing people.  The first success is Kira (Camilla Belle), a “pusher” who can manipulate people’s memories and thoughts, but she’s escaped the facility to Hong Kong.  There’s also Cassie (Dakota Fanning) a future seer who’s somehow ended up in Hong Kong because…that’s how the plot works.  She manages to get Nick to go after the serum or something.
            And at this point the plot completely falls apart.  The movie is spent with Nick’s gang, the Division, and a Chinese family which has no relation to any of them also trying to get the serum.  It’s never completely sure why anybody wants the serum, considering that it kills people, and the success with Kira doesn’t seem to have made her any more powerful than anybody else.  Nobody’s trying to run away from the Division, and the Division isn’t trying to do anything but find the serum, but nobody knows where the serum is anyways so…why are these characters doing anything with each other?  It’s confusing, meaningless, and pointless.
            The characters are poorly developed.  I didn’t really feel any emotion for any of them.  Nick just exists.  He’s also been given a very weak power.  They’ve given the main character telekinesis in a world where it’s obvious there are far more interesting powers.  One side character has the ability to manipulate objects, like turning a blank sheet of paper with 500 written on it into a 500 yuan bill.  It’s not completely said whether he does it by manipulating the mind or the object itself, but it doesn’t matter because it’s cool.  I would’ve loved a movie about him.  But no, we get telekinesis.  And he’s not even a good telekinesis user.  His abilities start out weak, and get better near the end because…the plot calls for it.  Henry Carver is also just a weak villain.  He’s not a sympathetic villain, he’s not a complete monster, he’s not even an “ends justify the means” kind of guy.  He just does things.  There’s some talk that he wants to make an army of super-powered people with the serum, but it’s not followed up on enough so that I care for him.  And the Chinese family…I don’t even know why they’re in the movie.
            For all of this, it could’ve been saved with some good, cool action scenes.  There’s three.  And it’s not three as in “Well, there’s just three, but they’re a BIG three!”  They’re weak.  The silliest has to be when Nick starts using his powers to levitate guns.  It’s a terrible effect, apparently done with practical effects instead of digital, not that it would’ve made floating guns look any better.  At one point, a rival telekinetic carries a gun by having it float in front of him.  There’s no reason for him to not just carry it normally, so it just looks ridiculous.
            There’s so many ways this movie could’ve been saved.  It could’ve had interesting characters, instead of flat, forgettable ones.  It could’ve had some high-octane action scenes, instead of weak ones that are too little too late.  It could’ve been fun.  Instead it’s dull and joyless.  At the end, they seem to be setting things up for a sequel.  That is just hopelessly optimistic.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Wolf Man (1941)

      It’s weird to imagine seeing a werewolf movie without knowing beforehand some of the standards of werewolf mythology.  For instance, everybody knows that werewolves are killed by silver, right?  Well, not before 1941.  It was the screenwriter of The Wolf Man who created key parts of the werewolf mythology like this.  But just creating something doesn’t mean it’s necessarily still watchable today.  Fortunately, The Wolf Man is still very entertaining.
            Larry (Lon Chaney Jr.), an American, returns to the English village where his father (Claude Rains) lives.  There, he kills a wolf that’s attacking a girl, but not before getting bitten by it.  And then strange wolf attacks start plaguing the town.  Which must surely be a coincidence.
            What rather surprised me as a jaded modern viewer is how the condition is treated.  Larry is sure that he’s turning into a werewolf and absolutely insists that he’s the one causing the attacks, but the townsfolk just think that he’s going mad.  The only one who believes him is a gypsy fortuneteller (played by Maria Ouspenkaya, showing up in the third movie I’ve watched recently), whose son was the werewolf that bit Larry.  Still, there’s nothing she can do to save him, even as Larry realizes that he’s becoming a menace to the village.  It adds a hopelessness to the movie, a knowledge that Larry can either keep killing people as a monster or die.
            The make-up could’ve easily been one of those things that falls apart after 70 years.  The haircut on the wolf man is frankly rather goofy, and the transformation sequences are just several frames of (very time-consuming in production) hair growing on put in a row.  But it works.  I think part of what saves the makeup is that it’s mainly seen in low light.  Being able to see it clearly would’ve likely ruined the effect.  There’s also Lon Chaney’s acting of it.  He lurches and prowls around the screen, overacting but in a good way.  It’s pure classic movie monster, and it just works without being able to explain it in words.
            So The Wolf Man is worth seeing, both as a classic genre turning point, and just as a good movie.  It’s entertaining, psychologically interesting, and it has a good monster.  I don’t know what more you need from a horror movie.

Halo: Reach

         I hadn’t really played a Halo game since 2.  I never really got into 3 from the little I played of it (although I bought it recently, so hopefully I can change that), and completely missed out on ODST and thought I was going to miss out on Reach, too.  I’m glad I didn’t.  Halo: Reach might be Bungie’s last Halo game, but it’s also the perfect jumping on point for the series.
            The game takes place before the original Halo game, on the planet of Reach.  Noble Team, six Spartan super-soldiers, are initially dealing with what they think is a human rebellion, but quickly find out that the Covenant are starting a full-scale invasion.  I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that Reach gets destroyed.  You know from the very start that fighting the Covenant is a hopeless battle, and yet, you have to do what you can.  The game also doesn’t get too bogged down in cutscenes, generally only having them at the beginning and end of each level, and letting most of the story flow in gameplay.
            A minor grievance: Subtitles.  For some reason, they only show up in cutscenes, not in game.  This is very unfortunate.  Several members of Noble team have very thick accents, and there’s generally a lot of shooting going on, so it can sometimes be hard to hear dialogue.  Also, this may just be my beta copy (not Reach beta, but Xbox Live beta), but the subtitles would randomly turn off when loading the game again, and in one case, my Spartan switched from female to male.  Just odd, and not a major portion of this review, but it’s worth pointing out.
            This does have the unfortunate event of making the game a bit of a slow starter.  Although it gets you in the action pretty fast, when you’re just fighting Covenant in grassy fields or inside military bases, it doesn’t feel like anything special.  Once they really start destroying things, though, the game gets a better scope.  I think it also helps that it changes to more interesting levels, starting with Long Night of Solace (recently made available in demo version), which has you piloting a ship in space.  Radically changing gameplay like this can sometimes have bad consequences on the game, but it works because Halo’s always been big on vehicles and it’s just a really fun level.  Afterwards, you get sent to a series of city levels, which I found were just a good atmosphere.  The game does hit a bit of a bad spot on the final level, where it overwhelms with enemies that have powerful levels, and it was absolutely terrible about giving me checkpoints.  It starts to peak over into frustration, but it’s worth seeing it through to the end.
            Having skipped two games in the series, it’s hard to judge on the gameplay, but I’ll point out new things to me.  The health system from the first game is back.  It’s actually works nicely.  It gives you a better judging of how dead you’re going to be when your shield goes down, and the game gives you a fair amount of health packs.  It also regenerates it to 3 levels (full, medium, and low), so it doesn’t have too much of an effect on the gameplay.  The weapons seem really varied.  It’s lost the dual-wielding from 2, but to compensate, it seems like there’s more weapons on each side.  Every weapon has its ups and downs, so there’s enough room to play with your favorite weapon loadout.  I’ve also always like how the god-weapons are balanced in multiplayer.  The sword can kill you in one hit and the user can leap with it, but it’s also very killable.  It’s not like whoever gets the sword instantly wins the entire match single-handedly.  Since 2, they’ve also added in special abilities that you can get, like sprinting, doing evasive rolls, or the very popular jetpack.  It adds a lot to the game, and I found in multiplayer several times where I said “Y’know, this just isn’t working, let’s try one of the other abilities”.
           I keep talking about multiplayer without talking about it, which is a shame.  The single player of Reach is fun.  The multiplayer is where the game completely takes off.  It’s frantic, addictive, and a whole lot of fun.  I think the biggest advantage is the sheer number of gametypes it has.  You have your standards, like capture the flag and team deathmatch.  But you also get so many other gametypes, like Living Dead, where the players are split into sword-equipped zombies and shotgun-equipped humans, and Rocket Race, where teams of 3 ride around in rocket-launcher-equipped Warthogs while trying to get to designated points on the map.  My favorite is Headhunter.  You kill the other players and get skulls, and then have to take them to certain spots.  There’s nothing more satisfying than getting a huge collection of skulls before turning them in.  I also really liked Firefight, a co-operative gametype where you fight against waves of Covenant.  It could’ve been repetitive, but there’s a good number of maps for it, and other variations, like having everybody equipped with melee weapons.  If I had any complaint about multiplayer, it’s that there’s no pure random matchmaking type.  Sometimes I look at the huge number of types of matchmaking and just don’t know what I want to play.  I’d love a way to just say “Give me anything!”  But that’s a small complaint when I could gush about how much fun multiplayer is forever.  They add community maps to matchmaking.  When does a console game ever do that?  There’s always a ton of people on.  You can set up a psych profile, which makes it more likely that you’ll get paired with people who play like you.  This is the kind of standard that most multiplayer games simply can’t match to.
            Come to Reach for the single player.  It’s a fun experience that really starts to show its real power in the final half.  Stay for the multiplayer.  It’s the real meat of the game, and if I was going to say one reason to get Xbox Live Gold, this would be it.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Metroid Other M: A not review

      I should begin by saying that this is not a review.  A review implies that I have completely played the game, it can judge it fairly on all points from beginning to end.  I did not do that.  I could not subject myself to that.  This is a series of complaints, every reason why I will not be playing Metroid: Other M anymore.
            The game is very story-heavy.  In theory, this should be a good thing for Metroid.  It’s usually either light or optional on story.  In practice, it means beautiful looking but dull cutscenes where Samus, voice-acted by somebody who sounds as enthusiastic as if they were narrating a nature documentary on grass growing, waxes philosophical and generally fails to shut up and let me get back to the action.  In my playtime, which was all of Sector 1 so I imagine the story eventually picks up, the story itself went nowhere.  It showed that Adam was Samus’ superior officer…but anybody who played Metroid Fusion already knows that.  There’s no point to it.  Some games live on story, thrive on it, throw you into half-hour cutscenes of it.  If it’s going to turn out like this, Metroid is not one of those games.  It also enjoys railroading you down dead-end paths just so it can progress the story.  At least put the story on the path I was going to take instead of having me go down a path for no reason other than story.
            The controls are awkward.  It uses the sideways Wiimote to play.  In order to fire missiles, you point the Wiimote at the screen, which puts Samus in first-person and locks her in place.  For a very frantic, action-heavy game like Metroid, this is a bad thing.  What I really don’t understand is why they didn’t have the completely-unused minus button to switch between beams and missiles.  Or even more sensibly, have you hook up a nunchuk, giving it an extra 2 buttons and a control stick to work with.  Every other game I can remember playing with the sideways Wiimote was either a sidescroller or something similar to a racing game.  Other M is neither, so why do it this way?
            There’s two ways to regenerate health, and neither of them involve getting health powerups from the enemies you kill, like every other game in the series.  One is to save your game.  The other games have this, so no complaints here.  The other is concentration.  Concentration is a terrible idea.  Basically, if your health goes below 25, you can hold the Wiimote up and hold A and Samus will charge up for a few seconds to get her health back.  Here’s the thing: if your health’s below 25, you’re getting your butt kicked hard.  You don’t have time or cover to stand still for several seconds.  It’s more of a taunt than anything.  It generally has the end result of making the game unfairly hard, and is the main reason I decided to stop playing it.  I don’t mind fair difficulty in my games, but once you’re removing stuff that’s been in every other entry in the series to make the game harder, you’ve stopped being fair a long time ago.
            There’s other problems throughout.  The authorization system.  Instead of collecting power-ups, you start out with all of them, and Adam “authorizes” you to use them.  This is dumb.  As far as I know, even people who like the game think this is dumb.  For one, why not authorize Samus to have her best suit from the start?  She already has it, and do you really want a weaker soldier running around?  For two, you still find some power-ups, and Samus doesn’t need authorization for those.  Samus will slow-walk in some areas, switching to a behind-the-back camera, similar to the recent Resident Evil games.  There are two problems with this: Nobody likes not moving at full speed, and the behind-the-back camera would be a much better fit for the game.  Instead, you’re stuck with a fixed camera that seems to be trying to emulate the sidescrolling Metroids, but again, this isn’t a sidescroller so why?  This is one of the best-looking games on the Wii, why not give me a better view of it?  And finally, the pixel hunts.  Suddenly, Samus decides to look around, and you have to search around for that magic thing she wants you to find.  I once spent upwards of 5 minutes looking around a screen before eventually finding some near-invisible larvae.  Which had no effect on the next cutscene.
             There are some moments where the game actually proved to be fun, a few shining examples where things just clicked.  And some people do like this game.  Even if I did do a full review of it, I would point out that it’s worth giving it a try if it still sounds like something you’d like.  Just remember, from everything I read about it, I thought I would love it.  Now I’m just done.

Monday, May 23, 2011

DJ Hero 2

When Activision killed off the Guitar Hero franchise, they killed one of the best rhythm game series out there.  No, I’m not talking about Guitar Hero.  That was a long-dead zombie that needed to be put down.  Instead, for whatever reason, they also stopped the largely-unrelated DJ Hero games.  Besides the round buttons and the name, DJ Hero really had nothing in common with its Guitar cousin, and it was all the better for it, making a hugely enjoyable game with tons of catchy songs.  And DJ Hero 2 does not slouch on that.
            The gameplay, requiring a turntable accessory, is fairly complicated at first.  While tapping the buttons and doing scratches are fairly simple, crossfading, a switch that goes between left, center, and right, will probably throw people off for a bit.  I remember it being the biggest stumbling block for me when I played the first game.  However, the game is pretty kind.  You literally cannot fail out of songs (besides DJ battles – more on that later).  You’re simply trying to get as many stars as you can.  This means that, even if a song completely destroys you, you at least get to experience the whole thing.  The game also introduces several new features to the gameplay, including held notes and scratches.  The biggest addition is a focus on freestyling, with freestyle scratching and crossfading.  It really gives you a chance to make the song sound how you want it to sound, and it’s a very cool feature that’s unmatched by any other rhythm game.
            While the gameplay is more than solid, it’s the songlist that really brings this up to the next level.  Rather than simply throwing you a bunch of standard songs, every song in the game is either a remix or, more commonly, a mash-up.  The first game really focused on making the songs just sound good when mashed up, but here, they’ve made the songs sound more like stuff that would be played at clubs, stuff that people could actually dance to.  Part of this probably comes from using more dance songs in the mixes.  It hasn’t lost any of its playfulness, either.  A mash-up of Where’s Your Head At and Heads Will Roll is not only pure genius to read, but it’s fairly good.  Sean Paul’s Get Busy meets up with Axel F, and has you at one point tapping out “Shake that” to the beat of the latter.  It’s so awesome it actually made me laugh.  Each location in the game also starts with a megamix, 3 or 4 mash-ups that blend into each other.  It’s really just fantastic.
            There’s also the DJ battles, back-and-forth battles on special songs against the various notable guest DJs (the cast of them includes RZA, Deadmau5, and Tiesto.  Sadly, no return of Daft Punk) to see who can play the song better.  If you remember Guitar Hero 3, you’re probably crying at the very idea of having to repeat that.  Fortunately, for one, they’re optional (although they unlock special decks that give you bonuses).  For two, the opponent DJs act more human.  They will actually miss notes, and the game goes in your favor if it’s a tie, so it’s much more evenly balanced.  My favorites were the battles against DJ Qbert, which actually had him saying taunting you.
            There are a few flaws in the game, although they feel like nitpicks in the long run.  You can’t make a customized DJ (although you can play as your avatar, which is much less goofy than it was in Guitar Hero.  I suppose it helps that mine has a Halo helmet on…it just seems to fit in next to Deadmau5), and you can’t even choose your own club name in the game’s main mode, you have to pick from a pre-determined list.  There are also a few rather weak songs.  A mash-up of Soulja Boi’s Crank Dat and Chamillionaire’s Ridin’ sounds genius when you read it, but it ends up just being annoying.  The game also highly enjoys choosing this song to play on the menus, including right after you finish a song.  Why do you so suddenly change my listening from awesome to terrible?  Why can’t I just have a moment of silence to revel in my 5 stars?
            DJ Hero 2 is really not something to be missed if you like rhythm games at all.  It combines an awesome soundtrack, fun gameplay, and a general sense of playfulness that’s so rarely seen in the genre.  Whatever Freestyle Games decides to do next, I'm there.