Monday, November 28, 2011

The Muppets

            I love The Muppets.  I’ve loved the Muppets since I was a kid, I love them just as much, if not more, now.  And a few years ago, I had an idea, something I just kept in my head, for a Muppet movie.  It would be a simple movie, where all the Muppets have to do is put on a show at their theater, but at the same time, it would be the Muppets’ big return to the screen.  The Muppets is my idea put on screen.  Only it’s better than I ever could’ve imagined.
             The plot is so simple.  Gary (Jason Segel, who also co-wrote), Mary (Amy Adams), and new Muppet Walter travel to Los Angeles, and Walter wants nothing more than to see the site of his dreams, Muppet Studios…only to find it’s completely run-down, and oil baron Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) wants to tear it down.  So he finds Kermit, they get the gang back together, and they put on a show to save the theater.
            What this movie really has is two things: the heart and the laughs.  The heart is really what’s most important.  This is a Muppet movie.  This is not “The Muppets take on A Christmas Carol”, this is the Muppets as the fans always want to see the Muppets: they’re themselves.  You know how Kermit is going to be, you know Gonzo’s going to be weird, Fozzie’s going to tell bad jokes, and Animal is…well, AN-I-MAL.  Even with their voices that little bit off, the movie loses nothing from the lack of Jim Henson and Frank Oz.  These characters have been so well-defined ever since The Muppet Show that just getting to see them be them again is a joy to watch, and that’s what Jason Segel did: he wrote a script that came from a love of the show and the characters, and it shows every second.
            And there are also plenty of laughs.  The plot itself comes from that sense of self-depreciation that the Muppets has always done so well, along with plenty of self-awareness.  They comment on important plot points, musical numbers, montages, anything they can find.  The fourth wall will be casually broken for a joke, only to be immediately repaired as if it was never brought up.  And in that true Muppets fashion, it just hits you with so many jokes and so many things going on from background events to celebrity cameos that even if one joke falls flat, you barely remember it because you’re laughing at the next one that’s come along.  And then it twists right back to the love of the Muppets that touches your heart and brings a tear to your eye.
            I could nitpick.  I could say that there are some sequences that just don’t work, and some Muppets I wish we had gotten more of (there’s barely a scene each for Rowlf and Swedish Chef!).  Or I could say that this is one of the best movies I’ve seen this year.  I feel like everybody is saying this, but The Muppets are back.  And watching the movie, I just didn’t want them to go again.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Left 4 Dead: The Sacrifice

            Sometime around Half-Life 2, Valve really started to get a lot of praise for their storytelling techniques.  Which is funny, because most of the story isn’t really in the game.  If you want to know what’s going on in Half-Life 2, you have to read the supplementary material.  Left 4 Dead pretty much eschewed anything resembling a story besides the survivors trying to get from Point A to Point B without dying to the hordes of zombies.  So is there really anything you can do with a comic?  Turns out there is.
            The story takes place sometime before the crossover with the cast of Left 4 Dead 2.  The group of survivors (Louis, Francis, Bill, and Zoey) have finally got to an armored carrier driven by the army, and assume that they’re going to the safe zone.  Turns out they’re headed to an army base, where the army is trying to figure out why they don’t turn into zombies…shortly before a horde of zombies starts attacking.  Cue much zombie-killing action, interspersed with flashback sequences that fill in background information on the survivors.
            I’ll warn you right now, this really is a story for the fans of the game.  Now, it’s entirely possible that somebody who doesn’t even know what Left 4 Dead is would read the story and enjoy it.  But there’s plenty of in-jokes and character information that’s not put in this book.  It does its best to try to acclimate the non-gamers who just want a good zombie story, like explaining about the different zombie types.  And thanks to Left 4 Dead’s general lack of story, there really isn’t much you’re missing out on.  The people who are going to get the most out of the story, though, are those who already know these characters well.
            And they really do shine through in this story.  Francis in particular has his rough, snide personality front and center, and provides most of the laughs throughout the book.  But there’s plenty of room for the reader to get to know every other survivor.  The flashback sequences help.  Not only do they tell you what that character was doing before they met up with the rest of the survivors, but they give you an insight into the character themselves.  The game has plenty of back-and-forth between the characters as they’re shooting their way through zombies, but this is the first time dialogue has really been put as the focus.  It’s hard to tell whether it’s the writers strength of writing the characters or Valve’s strength of creating them that really makes the story work, but they’re well done.  These are not your four random people who you’re waiting to see get chomped.  These are characters you don’t want to see die.
            But if half the reason the story works is thanks to how well it’s written, the other half is thanks to the art.  It’s bloody, it’s violent, it’s visceral.  It’s what you want of a bunch of people killing zombies.  This is one of those comics where you also really notice how the panels are laid out.  They’re chaotic, but not in a confusing way.  It’s really in a way that stops any bland form of layout, and more importantly, always makes sure to keep things moving.  It captures the action well.  If there was any complaint I had about the art, it’s that it does get a bit too cartoony for the survivors from time to time.  Then again, I’ve seen many a Garry’s Mod video where “a bit too cartoony” would’ve been the understatement of the century.  It didn’t really impede the story at all, so it’s not worth complaining too much about.
            The Sacrifice does what it set out to do well.  It gives this world some background story that it was lacking, it gives some character development, and it gives plenty of zombie carnage.  A must-read for any Left 4 Dead fans.
           The Sacrifice is one of the stories featured in Valve Presents: The Sacrifice and Other Steam-Powered Stories, along with Portal: Lab Rat and various Team Fortress 2 comics.  Special thanks to NetGalley and Dark HorseComics for letting me review this story.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Puss in Boots (with a bonus review)

            I gave up on the Shrek franchise after Shrek the Third.  I can’t remember exact details of why I thought it was bad.  I just remember it being terribly unfunny and bloated with subplots.  The apparently-improved quality of Shrek Forever After couldn’t get me to see it after The Third.  And yet Puss in Boots intrigued me.  I’m not sure why.  I mean, it’s directed by Chris Miller, who also directed Shrek the Third.  That should’ve been a reason to just avoid it at all costs.  Instead though, Puss in Boots managed to prove itself on its own.
            The story picks up sometime before the events of Shrek 2.  Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas) is a known outlaw throughout the (un-named) land.  In the middle of an attempt to get the magic beans from Jack (Billy Bob Thornton) and Jill (Amy Sedaris), he runs into Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek), who’s working for former partner-in-crime Humpty Dumpty (Zach Galifiankis).  From there, the three of them go on a heist to get the beans from Jack and Jill and use them to get the Goose who lays the golden eggs, which will give them eternal wealth.
            Let’s get the bad out of the way first.  This movie apparently started as straight-to-DVD, and it’s rough enough around the edges to show it.  The animation is fine, as Dreamworks always is, although the humans look a little off.  I’ve always had a thing against Dreamworks humans compared to their non-human creations, though, so that might just be me.  A lot of the problems show themselves in the scripting.  It’s very simple.  It almost seems like they thought they couldn’t do enough going to DVD, so everything seems scaled down.  The action sequences don’t feel big enough.  There’s no unforgettably hilarious scenes.  There’s funny moments, but there’s no long sequences that had me hurting with laughter.  I guess part of the problem might be that this should be Dreamworks’ A-movie of the year, but next to Kung Fu Panda 2, it feels like a B-movie.  Puss also has some things that feel like they just carried over from the Shrek movies.  They keep having these nods to the fairy tale characters (although most of them are from nursery rhymes) that feel more routine than anything.  And yes, a character has to get hit in the balls.
            Fortunately, there is a lot to like here.  The voice acting rises above everything else for me.  The main trio is just on the top of their game here.  Antonio Banderas is projecting Zorro more than before, and it works fantastically.  He’s really the swashbuckling hero of legend here, albeit also a cat, prone to all the things that implies.  Salma Hayek manages to bring sexiness through to the character.  It’s not quite a character with as much depth as you’d hope for, but she plays well against Puss.  As much as the action sequences didn’t quite hit the level for me, any time Kitty and Puss are fighting bad guys, or just having a dance battle against each other, there is something wonderful there.  Zach Galifiankis was the biggest surprise for me.  After seeing The Hangover and Dinner for Schmucks, I’d expect nothing but the manchild out of him.  Yet there’s an actual character in Humpty Dumpty.  Again, not with much depth, but it’s better than I thought I was getting.  I am fully convinced that Dreamworks can get far better performances out of comedic actors like Zach Galifiankis and Jack Black than they give in their live-action performances.  The other really great thing about the movie is that it does not feel like a Shrek movie.  This is not “Shrek 5 starring Puss in Boots”.  This is Puss in Boots.  Even though I mentioned things that carried over from Shrek, everything else doesn’t feel like Shrek.  There’s no pop songs.  The skewering of fairy tales has instead been replaced with a story that feels more like the real-life legends.  The environments are changed to match it, with the forests and fairy tale towns of Shrek gone for vast deserts and Mexican-style cities.  And there’s no cameos or call-forwards.  This is a movie that stands on its own.
            I enjoyed Puss in Boots.  It might not aim as high as it could’ve.  It’s definitely not at the level of Kung Fu Panda 2.  But it’s fun and cute.  And that’s what it’s aiming to be, so I’d call it a success.
            Apparently, the popular iPhone app tying in to an animated movie is becoming a thing now.  First there was Angry Birds: Rio, and now there’s Fruit Ninja: Puss in Boots.  If you haven’t played the original Fruit Ninja, it’s a simple game.  You swipe your finger across the screen to cut fruit while avoiding bombs.  That’s about it.  The Puss in Boots spin-off adds just enough to that formula.  It has two modes, Desperado and Bandito.  Desperado is the traditional endless gameplay, as you attempt to cut every fruit or you lose a life, with the only new addition being Magic Beans that restore lives or give you bonus points.  The big reason to get this is the Bandito mode, which has three tiers of mini-games that you go through.   They range from trying to slice fruit while a giant bomb bounces around the screen, to slicing fruit that flies in certain patterns around the screen.  The amount of mini-games is just enough that they don’t repeat too often.  It ends up just as addictive as the main game.  The Puss in Boots window dressing is also a nice addition.  The backgrounds are taken from the movie's locations, the blades include a guitar and cat claws, you get several Antonio Banderas voice clips to complement your fruit-slicing, and the fruit facts after you fail are replaced with fairy tale facts.  It is a bit skimpy compared to the original game, with less blades and backgrounds and only two modes compared to the original’s 3, but it’s still an addictive, fun time-waster, and the Bandito mode is definitely worth the $1.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Green River Killer: A True Detective Story

            We’re used to the apex of a serial killer story being two questions: who did it, and will they catch him.  Green River Killer gets these two questions out of the way in the first chapter: it’s Gary Ridgway, and yes, they did.  In fact, he’s helping the police to find the bodies they never found.  And while a serial killer is sure to draw in people who are interested in the killings, Jeff Jensen is not one of those people.  Instead, he’s interested in his father, Tom Jensen, the lead investigator on the case.
            Primarily nonfiction, although with liberties taken, the book looks at the Green River killings that happened in the Seattle area in the early 80s, yet didn’t get Ridgway until 2003.  And through those 20 years, Tom Jensen was always working on the case.  The story uses his perspective the entire time to show a man who was determined to solve the case.
            And when you have a story like this, it might be easy to focus on the family aspect of it.  But despite being written by his son, there’s really very little of the family.  It’s the man himself that’s the star of the story above all else.  We see his age affecting him, starting with him fairly young and working as a clerk during the Vietnam War, to his older days when he’s retired from the force (although still working on the case), has little physical ability and carpal tunnel is wreaking havoc.  One of the best moments in the book takes place across two panels, both just showing Tom’s face, from 1980 to 2003.  The changes that have affected him just through time are obvious.
            Of course, Gary Ridgway does play a big importance in the book.  I think there’s a certain preconception of the creepiness that a serial killer has.  Besides one very early scene in the book, Gary has none of this on the surface.  He’s a normal guy, married, and he can barely even remember the details of the killings.  Just from how he acts, there’s enough doubt that this man killed anybody at all.  Of course, the other thing about serial killers is that we’re not supposed to realize the things that are actually going on in their head.  And we dig deeper and deeper into Gary’s head as the book goes on, until we finally find the man that’s really inside.  And it’s a haunting moment.
            There are some problems with this book that stopped me from loving it.  The biggest problem for me is the use of anachronic order.  The book constantly jumps between present day and flashing back.  This works when it’s jumping from the 80s to 2003.  But it continues moving forward the flashbacks, until you’re pretty literally flashing back a few months before the “present” time of the book.  It starts to get extremely confusing.  This isn’t helped by the black-and-white nature of the book.  While Jonathan Case’s art shows definite differences between the characters with age, I feel it would’ve been easier to tell with a color book.  Along the same issues of time, I also felt that the book’s opening is rather rocky because of how fast it goes.  You go through a major portion of Tom’s life in an incredibly short span of time.  It’s ultimately not really necessary for the story, either.  It’s a bit of Jeff just giving background on his father that you don’t need to enjoy the rest of the book.
            Overall, Green River Killer is a book that just tells a classic story.  The detective story that focuses on the detective himself isn’t new, but it’s told well here.  A good read that stays with you after you finish it.
            Special thanks to Net Galley and Dark Horse Comics for letting me review this book.