Sunday, July 31, 2011

Coming This August

            Only one last month left in the summer movie rush.  August tends to be when the studios dump the stuff that wasn’t big enough for the other months, but there are some big names here.  A bad sign, or just trying to avoid the bigger boys?  We also have the end of the summer gaming doldrums with a few major franchises making their mark.  Let’s see what’s coming up!
Rise of the Planet of the Apes: This is looking very cool.  The first PotA movie in the series (ie, not counting the remake) since 1973, we’ve got James Franco as the scientist who creates the too-smart apes, and Andy Serkis playing a CGI simian, which should be familiar for someone who played King Kong in Peter Jackson’s version.  I have high hopes that I hope aren’t going to be let down.
The Change-Up: Since I show up to the movies pretty early, I tend to see First Look each time, which as been having a behind-the-scenes (read: purely promotional BS) look at this movie, where Ryan Reynolds and Jason Bateman flatly read off cue cards—oh, excuse me, I mean give absolutely spontaneous and non-scripted responses about the pedigree of the director, how the gross-out comedy is worked into the movie’s plot, and how it’s OK that it’s been done before because that just means people love it.  Dear Mr. Bateman and Mr. Reynolds: Hell. No.
30 Minutes or Less: The concept isn’t exactly pushing me to go see this.  The fact that it’s done by the director of Zombieland and has Jesse Eisenberg and Aziz Ansari has me interested.
The Help: Looks like pure and simple Oscar bait. At the same time, it also looks like that Oscar bait movie that’s actually fun to watch.  I guess the choice is do I see it now, or do I see it after it gets a Best Picture nomination.
Glee: The 3D Concert Movie: Oh yay, now Glee can join the stunning ranks of Hannah Montana and Justin Bieber.
Fright Night: Holy crap, I was just looking at the cast list and David Tennant is in this.  Why the hell are Colin Farrell and Anton Yelchin’s names on the poster, but not his?  Suddenly, my interest has gone up.
Conan the Barbarian: This looks cheesy as hell.  It’ll probably be fun to rent.
Spy Kids: All the Time in the World in 4D: You see, it already has 3D, but it’s also going to have Smell-o-vision, hence the 4D.  Remember, every terrible kids movie that Rodriguez makes is one more year until we see Sin City 2.
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark: Guillermo del Toro produced and wrote this.  Do I need to say anything else?
Colombiana: Could be decent.
Video Games
Street Fighter III: Third Strike Online Edition: I only ever played a little of this game, but it’s apparently very popular.  Street Fighter is one of those series I’ve meant to play more of, so I am all for an XBLA/PSN port of the third one.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution: The third game in the series, and the first since Invisible War.  I’m hoping they’ll hit the mark they missed with IW and make the game console-friendly without making it mediocre.
The Lord of the Rings: War in the North:  On Machinma’s Trailer channel on Youtube, footage of this game has started to be called “Lord of the Eagles: Eagles in the North”.  Every trailer just has a bunch of giant eagles coming down and killing all the enemies.  Oh, also, the game’s going to be really bloody.  Tolkein would be proud, I’m sure.
Driver: San Francisco: I have no idea if this has the video-editing from Driv3r.  I really hope it does.  If not, well, there hasn’t been a Driver game yet that’s had a story mode really worth playing, so maybe they can change that.
Bloodrayne Betrayal: A side-scrolling downloadable Bloodrayne game from WayForward, the creators of Contra 4 and A Boy and His Blob for Wii.  Very interested.

Antique Bakery, Episodes 1-4

            I really cannot keep up with current anime series.  I’m still working on seeing stuff that came out ages ago.  I only saw The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya last summer.  Code Geass, Lucky Star, Gurren Lagann, the new Full Metal Alchemist series.  Haven’t seen any of them.  I always have this shock when something suddenly emerges with a huge fanbase and I get this feeling of “Guess I should really see that sometime”.  Antique Bakery is never going to have a huge fanbase.  And any fanbase it has will love it because it’s hilarious.  Unfortunately, it’s hilarious for all the wrong reasons.
            Keisuke is a businessman who decides to drop his high corporate lifestyle (or something, I’ll freely admit I missed the first few minutes of the first episode that explained this) and open up a bakery in a former antique shop.  Across the first three episodes, he picks up his employees.  There’s Yusuke Ono, a pastry chef who’s also the Gay of Demonic Charm, since he ends up attracting straight and gay men, which has gotten him fired from his previous jobs.  Episode 2 has the assistant to him, Eiji Kanda, a former boxer who’s recently gotten a detached retina, forcing him to stop his boxing career.  Finally, we get Keisuke’s childhood friend, Chikage, who ends up falling for Ono.  He also hits his head on the door frame a lot.  This is a running gag that you want to run off a cliff after about the second time.  Especially since the perspective makes it hard to tell if he’s even taller than any of the other people on the show.
            The show’s problems are many.  The biggest might have to be the very awkward snaps from comedy to drama.  The comedy is…ok.  There’s some funny moments, but a lot of the comedy comes too much from “See, it’s funny because Ono is gay” or “Eiji really likes cakes”.  It’s single character traits that end up reducing the characters to nothing.  Eiji doesn’t really seem to have any pain about losing his boxing career.  Ono got harshly rejected after declaring his love for Keisuke in high school, but it’s only brought up when the show wants to try to force drama down your throat.  And any time it does, it suddenly becomes wonderfully bad.  All the drama is so overwrought that it’s impossible to take seriously.  The worst moment is at the end of the 4th episode, when Keisuke is asked about the kidnapping that happened to him as a kid.  He says he can only remember one thing.  Are you ready for this?  The kidnapper liked…cakes.  I pumped my fist and cheered because I completely predicted that this would be the revelation.  I want to see how this works out in future episodes.  Are they going to go profile everybody in the city who’s eaten a cake?  My God, anybody could be a suspect!
            The animation of the show is passable, I guess.  It didn’t exactly scream out to me as wonderful.  There’s a lot of CGI which doesn’t fit in with the traditional animation of the rest, and just makes the show look bad.  The main problem is the pacing.  It spends long shots on complete filler.  Did we really need a 10 second shot of the rain falling outside the bakery?  Did we need to spend any time at all with this character?  You’d think they could’ve spent a little more time per episode actually doing something.  Instead, it seems like they were stretching to fill those 25 minutes.  The DVD even played the end credits twice, in Japanese and English.
            The show’s just bad, but in such a great way.  Come for the comedy that sometimes works, stay for the drama that’s always funny.  The only way to watch it is to snark your way through it, and it is prime material for the snarking.   


            Rio was one of those movies I was absolutely unenthused about ever seeing.  The trailers looked like they were aiming for kids and no one else.  It was from the director of Ice Age, which I loved the first one but absolutely despised the second one.  It had the kind of star-studded cast that got advertised in a way that screams, “Look at all these people we got!  Now give us money!”  Yet having it at a second-run movie theater that serves dinner can change my opinion, and I was very pleasantly surprised.
            Blu (Jesse Eisenberg) is a blue macaw who was taken from Rio at birth, and smuggled to Minnesota, where he was found by Linda (Leslie Mann).  And from there, he’s perfectly adjusted to his life…until Tulio (Rodrigo Santoro) shows up and reveals that he’s the last male blue macaw, and has to return to Rio and mate with Jewel (Anne Hathaway).  From there, the two birds get kidnapped by smugglers instead, and have to find their way through Rio chained to each other.  Which is a problem when Blu can’t fly.  Along the way, they meet a cast of other big name celebrities voicing characters.
            I still have to be sarcastic about this, but there’s honestly a lot of good voice work going around.  Jesse Eisenberg brings the same nerdy charm he always has to his roles.  Blu is hopelessly unromantic towards Jewel, has no idea how to survive in Rio, and Eisenberg’s voice works well for that.  Some of the other silly characters met along the way are also well done.  George Lopez plays a toucan who travels with the macaws for most of the journey, and while I’m neutral to him in general, I think he played the part pretty well.  Even Tracy Morgan as a slobbering bulldog has a lot of the possibly-craziness that makes his 30 Rock character enjoyable.  So I still have to point out some of the not-so-good actors.  Anne Hathaway and Leslie Mann are just pretty unremarkable in their roles.  They’re there, but they don’t bring anything special to the characters.  The worst has to be a pair of birds voiced by a barely-tolerable Jamie Foxx and an absolutely-intolerable Will.i.Am.  They bring nothing but two borderline-racist characters to the movie, and don’t help to advance the story at all.  It’s cringe-worthy to see any jokes they’re trying to make.  Oh, but they also sing.  I never knew before that birds had auto-tune built into them.  The songs in general are just forgettable.  The opening song, Real in Rio, is at least a good introduction to the movie.  It has a lot of vibrant visuals and fun…I don’t know if choreography is exactly the word for a bunch of birds flying around, but it’s an energetic number that gets you into the Carnival-based theme of the movie.  It’s the only song I could see myself wanting to see again.  The villain song by a cockatoo named Nigel who’s working for the smugglers is pointless.  Oh, and apparently Nigel is voiced by half of The Flight of the Conchords.  I’m disappointed they didn’t get some bigger British actor to ham it up.  Gary Oldman did a fantastic job with that in Kung Fu Panda 2 (which, as things are looking, is probably going to be the gold standard of animated movies this year), so it’s hard to think highly of this voice work.
            The humor in this movie is really one of its strong points.  It works on a level that hits the kids and the adults.  There are some good action-comedy sequences, like the escape by Blu and Jewel that has them running and sliding through Rio slums.  It’s an exciting sequence that still manages to get some good jokes in.  It also makes sure to put visual gags in whenever possible.  At one point, the heroes are fighting some evil monkeys, and one of them gets kicked in the crotch.  This is not particularly notable, but then the monkey opens his mouth and jewels fall out.  It added an extra bit to a gag rather than just saying “It’s a kids movie, better hit somebody in the balls”.  There are also a few blink-and-you-miss-it gags that will at least mean that it can be viewed again.  The visuals are probably the movie’s highest mark.  They’re vibrant and colorful.  The Carnival finale in particular is just superb.  The birds also move in the right way.  Blu’s patterns for walking without flying are down perfectly.  I’m willing to believe that these birds have enough style to them to be accurate.  I can’t say if they’re completely accurate, but hey, it looks good enough for me.
            Overall, it was just a really fun movie.  No, it wasn’t anything fantastic or special.  But there was plenty of humor, some good voice acting, and it looked really good.  The kids in the audience seemed to enjoy it, and the adults did, too.  It really reminds me of one of those mid-90s movies where everybody was trying to beat Disney by loading up on talent and mediocre songs, but somehow, the movie still works.  Well worth seeing.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Indie Face-Off Round 2: Jolly Rover vs. Hydrophobia: Prophecy

            It’s time for another round of Indie Face-Off, where two games with nothing related but the fact that they’re by independent developers face off to see who’s the better game.  Last time, puzzle-platformer And Yet It Moves bested shooter ARES in gravity-to-gun combat.  This time, we’ve got Lucasarts-style adventure game Jolly Rover vs. third-person shooter Hydrophobia: Prophecy.
            Jolly Rover could probably best be described as “Monkey Island with dogs”.  You play as Gaius James Rover, aka Jolly Rover, a weiner dog who was just trying to deliver his own brand of rum when he got kidnapped by pirates.  From there, he has to escape, make back the money for the governor, and face every puzzle along the way.  The plot is actually surprisingly good.  Maybe not fantastic, but it’s a plot of voodoo, family relations, and Rover stuck in the middle of it all.  He gets swept up in things that are far past him.  One of the essential parts for any game trying to be the next Monkey Island is witty dialogue, and it doesn’t quite succeed there.  In a way, it’s kind of going through the motions.  It hangs a lampshade on the various adventure game tropes like the bottomless inventory and the fact that you keep having to solve ridiculous puzzles, but those are things that have had lampshades put on them so many times that it’s basically a trope in itself to have to do it.  At the same time, I feel a lot of heart in the dialogue, and it’s hard for me to put the game down in that category.
            The main thing of any adventure game is going to be the puzzles.  They can’t be too difficult, but they can’t be too easy.  I felt that there was generally a good enough balance.  Some puzzles I may have figured out way too fast, but that might just be from playing a lot of adventure games.  There were also only two cases when I outright went “Well, what now?” and had to look at a walkthrough, and they generally made sense after I found out the solution.  What’s really nice is that the game does a lot of things to appeal to the adventure gamer, whether you’ve played the entirety of Sierra and Lucasarts’ catalogues or if this is your first.  For one, the game has a built-in hint system, and it will give you pseudo-hints before you actually have to pay.  I never used anything past the pseudo-hints, but it was nice to know a full system was there.  Items will be blue if there’s still new dialogue or actions that happen when you click on it.  The game also features a “Quest” indicator at the top that tells you what you’re supposed to be doing.  What I really love about it is that it will update even during cutscenes, with humorous things like “Talk Faster” and “Don’t Pass Out”.  It’s one of those things that just gives the game its charm.  There’s beautiful hand-drawn graphics.  There’s a point and rank system, something that’s just not seen in adventure games anymore.  It feels like it was made by somebody who really loved the old adventure games and wanted to replicate them, and had the heart do it.  It’s far from a great game, makes some rookie mistakes (Rover walks so slow) and without the heart I would probably be dismissing it easier, but it won me over enough to recommend playing it.  It gives you some solid hours of adventure gaming.
            On to Hydrophobia: Prophecy.  If comparing And Yet It Moves and ARES was like comparing apples and oranges, comparing these two games is probably like comparing apples and nuclear missiles.  Hydrophobia follows Kate Wilson, a systems engineer aboard the ship-based city called The Queen of the World.  It gets attacked by Malthusians, followers of a document written by Thomas Malthus, who warned about the dangers of population growth.  So of course, the Malthusians have decided to fix that by displaying signs saying “Save the world, kill yourself”, killing everybody on the Queen of the World, and taking the nanobots that were being developed to destroy the world (really, I don’t think there’s any other use for nanobots).  Honestly, it’s a pretty good villain.  They have a doctrine that makes sense and a good reason for what they’re doing.  They’re never really expanded on quite as much as you would want, but that’s a different problem entirely.
            As for the gameplay…well, I could describe it, but I don’t even think the developers could decide what they wanted it to be.  It starts out acting like it’s going to be a Prince of Persia-style game, involving lots of climbing and acrobatics, which I love.  But then you get a gun, and suddenly it turns into a cover-based third person shooter.  Now, the shooting does have some really cool stuff to it (a lot of environment-based damage you can do, although also a lot of explosive barrels, and some interesting ammunition), but it’s a really sudden change.  It’s not “You do some shooting, you do some acrobatics”, the acrobatics just vanish.  In the last level, I can only think of two instances where I had to use the acrobatics the first level taught me.  And by the way, there’s only 3 levels.  Near the end of the game, it suddenly adds in a pretty cool new game mechanic, but it’s such a last-minute addition that it leaves you going “Why even bother?”  When I finished, I felt like I had played the first three levels of a game, not a complete game on its own.  On the plus side, there’s the water effects.  They are beautiful.  It looks like real water.  It’s a pretty gutsy move to make a game that’s essentially the water level, which tends to be the least-liked level in games, but the swimming works well enough and isn’t too bad.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t do anything particularly new with it, so I don’t know if I can really praise it.  Hydrophobia really ended up being a perfectly fine tech demo for a water engine, but as an actual game that they want you to pay money for?  It’s not there.  Even though this is the third version of the same game (between the original for 360, a major update for that version, and this version for PC/PS3 which is another major update), it’s still not there.  It’s rather sad when it comes down to it.
            So in this indie face-off, Jolly Rover wins.  Stay tuned next time when I attempt to compare two other completely different games for no reason than to save space and time.