Sunday, September 23, 2012


Directed by Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman, and Steve Purcell
Written by Brenda Chapman, Mark Andrews, Steve Purcell, and Irene Mecchi

After Cars 2, I think it’s right to be wary of Pixar.  OK, so this is really more on John Lassiter, but the fact that this was the first significant dip in Pixar’s normally high quality didn’t help.  And from the trailers, my hopes were not high for Brave restoring them.  After seeing the movie…it’s a mixed bag.
            The story is about Merida (Kelly MacDonald), a princess in a Scottish kingdom.  She wants to be an adventurous archer, while her mother, Elinor (Emma Thompson), wants Merida to be a princess and marry one of the sons of the other clans.  One disagreement and a magic spell later, and now Merida has to fix her problems before time runs out.
            It can be hard to talk about the story without spoiling plot twists that the trailers and merchandise have already sufficiently hinted at, if not outright said.  In fact, the trailers may have completely killed the entire first act.  Pretty much every joke in it has already been ruined.  In general, the jokes just aren’t at the Pixar high here.  It’s pretty pure slapstick, and not necessarily well put-together slapstick.  There’s also the mute triplets, who got the audience laughing every time, even when they weren’t necessarily doing anything funny.  The addition of a witch voiced by Julie Walters adds a few nice jokes, but she’s a sadly minor character in here.
            Where the movie does succeed is in its dramatic moments and its good looks.  This is Pixar’s first movie that doesn’t take place in modern times or the future, and it’s a genuinely unique feel for one of their movies.  The pure backgrounds in each scene are a joy to look at.  There’s also Merida’s hair, which is just an impressive feat.  And at its dramatic core, the first Pixar movie with a female protagonist is a feminist movie.  The conflict doesn’t come from a villain or an evil plan, it comes from the differences between Merida and Elinor.  I do wish Merida had ultimately been more accepting of her mother’s ways, but it does generally work.
            Although the movie’s primary downfall is the finale, a cluster of unnecessary action, plot points quickly being resolved, and a villain who’s absolutely unnecessary in this movie.  Whereas most Pixar villains are so great because of their dark reflections of the main character, the villain here feels like he was thrown in for the sake of having a villain.  And ultimately, if he had been cut, there would’ve been more time for the actual conflict of the movie to build up.  Instead, it ends up as this whirlwind of things happening which I wished could’ve been stretched out over an extra half hour.
            Brave is a step up from Cars 2, but it’s a baby step.  This isn’t Pixar at pure form, and maybe that’s just the most disappointing part about this. 

Monday, September 17, 2012

The Strange Talent of Luther Strode

Written by Justin Jordan
Art by Tradd Moore
            The superhero deconstruction has long been “the big thing”, at least as far back as Watchmen, and probably even further back.  The problem with some of these deconstructions is that they can fail to work on an emotional level.  It’s nice and all to take what we think about superheroes and tear it apart, but if you do it out of spite, then the audience can’t connect.  The Strange Talent of Luther Strode is a comic that lets the audience connect, just so it can hurt emotionally.
            The book stars Luther Strode, a weak high school nerd who orders a Hercules Method book that’s supposed to give him muscles.  What it actually ends up doing is giving him incredible powers of strength and foresight, able to see what people are going to do before they do it.  From there, his friend Pete suggests the next logical step: become a superhero.
            And a big part of this book is exactly how much things go wrong in that idea.  On a simple level, Luther’s attempts to find criminals quickly end in failure and boredom.  But then there’s the fact that Luther’s power might be driving him further than he wants to go.  An early page of the book shows a preview of the level of violence that he ends up causing, and I’ll say now this is not for the squeamish.  Tradd Moore’s art is unflinchingly gory, and the often unique ways that people end up being killed, maimed, or otherwise harmed becomes more frequent the further the book goes on.  If you look past the simple violence, though, it’s this feeling…well, to go to another hero, great power and responsibility and etc.  Justin Jordan himself, in some of the notes, says that part of Luther’s problem is that he never had an Uncle Ben.  And in this case, there’s only so much pure fantasy of what he could do and trying to hold back until he finally lets loose.
            And so the book does deconstruct in that way.  But it makes sure you care for Luther as a character.  In Mark Millar’s Wanted, I ended up not really caring for the main character.  This was more than likely the point of Millar’s own deconstruction, but it’s hard to read a comic when you want the main character to just shut up.  Luther Strode, on the other hand, is a character you grow to like.  He cares for his mother, wants to get the girl, and just wants to be a superhero.  And that’s what makes it so much harder when things start falling apart for him.  Everything he has can’t stop either human nature or the ultimate villain of the story.
            With a sequel series coming out later this year, it’s really time to read all about Luther Strode’s strange talent.  It’s violent but intelligent, deconstructive with heart.  It’s the comic you can’t put down, especially once you realize where things are going.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Rock Band Blitz

Developed by Harmonix
Played on Xbox 360

            This year I made a decision going to school that haven’t made in the last four years: to leave my Rock Band equipment at home.  Naturally, this was more of a space thing, as even just not having a plastic guitar around saves a lot of room.  But the knowledge that Rock Band Blitz was already out made it a lot easier.
            The gameplay of Blitz seems simple at first.  Instead of using any instruments, it’s all done with your controller, and instead of having 5 lanes, there’s only two lanes.  You switch between all the instruments playing at once and try to hit as many notes as you can.  There’s no way to fail a song, and unlike Harmonix’s earlier Amplitude or Rock Band Unplugged, completing an instrument doesn’t stop it for a time.  Everything keeps going.  The goal is to get a high score and see your name on the leaderboard.  This also ties in socially.  As you play a song, you see the scores of your other friends and if you’re passing them (or some of the standard Rock Band musicians if you lack friends – it can be just as fun to see how you’re doing against Mothership Q).  You can also tie into Facebook and compete in goals with your friends helping you.  Considering how much Xbox Live Arcade has changed since its early days, this is one of the biggest arcade-style games to actually debut on the service in a long time.
            The challenge in the game comes in several different ways than the regular Rock Band.  Yes, hitting the notes is still there, and even with only two lanes, some of the more intense solos can be just as difficult to keep up with.  The real challenge, though, is in the strategy and the power-ups.  There are 3 different power-up slots, and plenty of power-ups that can go in each slot.  It’s up to the player to decide what they like most and what they want to bring into a song.  There are basic power-ups that give a certain instrument a better score, a basic multiplier, or some crazier stuff, like launching a ball that turns the game into Breakout.  The strategy comes in with the multipliers.  While, initially, each instrument goes up to the basic 4x, if they’re all at a high enough level when you hit a checkpoint, you unlock more multipliers.  Suddenly you have to decide whether you want to methodically go across the track, getting each instrument to its max, or bringing each one up a little before each checkpoint.  It requires fast thinking and decisions like “Do I want to stay on this held guitar note and get points, or go over to drums and level them up?”
            The basic song selection is a bit of a low point for the game, sadly.  Certainly, there are some fairly notable songs in here, like Pumped Up Kicks, Shine, and Once Bitten, Twice Shy that definitely qualify under “FINALLY!”  Then you get stuff like lesser-famous songs from bands that have already had a ton of DLC in the game.  I like Blink-182, I don’t think I really needed Always.  And then there’s the odd addition of pop songs from Maroon 5, P!nk, and Kelly Clarkson.  I imagine these were added to get the mainstream appeal, and they probably will be fun on main game vocals, but it can be a bit odd for a song list to include Metal Health right by Moves Like Jagger.
            The two big things that offset this, though, involve the DLC.  First off, all of the game’s 25 songs instantly transfer over to Rock Band 3.  At the normal price of $2 per song, and with this game being $15, that’s a huge bargain.  The other fact is that, after a small wait at the start (bring a book), any DLC you already have transfers over to Rock Band Blitz.  And that’s where the game really becomes awesome.  Before, there’s always been this feeling of “I really like this song, but I don’t know if I really like how it plays on guitar”.  Having played several songs that don’t play well on plastic instruments, I can say that they become much more fun in the world of Blitz.  And with the absolutely huge music store at your fingers, it’s very easy to pick up your favorite songs and just have a good time experiencing them.
            And Blitz really is an experience.  The next big rhythm game?  Maybe not.  An absolutely fun game that I can just sit down, play, and go “Ooo, I haven’t played that song yet”?  That’s where it succeeds.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Donkey Kong Country Returns

Developed by Retro Studios and Nintendo
Published by Nintendo

Can you believe that there hasn’t been a Donkey Kong Country game since 1996?  Even after that, the last traditional Donkey Kong platformer (as in, not a gimmick game like King of Swing or Jungle Beat) was 1999’s Donkey Kong 64.  One of Nintendo’s most recognizable figures, a huge fan favorite series, and pretty much the reason I got an SNES, and it’s been dormant for over a decade.  Which means that right from the start, Donkey Kong Country Returns is one of the most welcome franchise revivals in a while.
The fairly loose story involves a new set of villains, evil Tikis, who rise from the island’s volcano, hypnotize the island’s animals, and yes, perform that most heinous of crimes: they steal Donkey Kong’s banana hoard.  Needless to say, it is on.
The game itself is very much a back-to-basics for the series.  It’s a 2-and-a-half-D platformer that has you running, jumping, and rolling across the stages, defeating Tikis and animals along the way, and fighting a big boss at the end of each world.  Gone are most of the more frivolous Kongs and the Kong switching mechanic.  This game is just Donkey and Diddy, and if you have Diddy, he rides on Donkey’s back (unless you’re in co-op, which we’ll get to later).  Not only does this provide Donkey with 2 extra hearts, but it also gives him a jetpack to navigate the stages.
And you’ll need all the help you can get.  At some point that’s as early as the second world, the game switches the difficulty up fast.  I think I’ve made it pretty obvious from my reviews of Ms. Splosion Man and Rayman Origins that I’m a pretty big fan of more difficult platformers, and while this game doesn’t quite match up to the former’s hardest moments, it definitely is not afraid to kill you.  Tricky mine cart tracks, crumbling platforms, rolling boulders, and a wall of spiders are all ways that Donkey can, and probably will, meet his end to.  Strangely for a platformer of this difficulty, it still has a life mechanic.  Then again, it’s quite easy to stay around 50+ lives, which seems to say that they knew people wouldn’t really be getting too low.
The game’s real strength is its level design.  Now, the worlds themselves are pretty standard, especially for a Donkey Kong game.  It’s what you do in them, and in particular, how they connect.  Most platformers just have each level in a space of their own, while here, they lead into each other.  The beach world starts calmly, then ends up in a storm which continues through several levels.  As you enter the ruins world afterwards, the first level starts on a beach before going into the ruins.  Inside the levels, there’s plenty of playing with events in the foreground and background as they affect you.  One mine cart level has a mole in the foreground throwing bombs at you.  A level based around collapsing platforms has the entire background collapsing.  You may enter a barrel and end up shot into the background, or around a tower, or straight through a column which then threatens to fall on you.  Each level ends up with its own style so that I can clearly browse through the levels and go “Oh yeah, this one’s pretty cool”.
            For the general high quality of the game, though, it does have some very significant problems.  The biggest is easily the co-op.  When I heard it was going to have simultaneous co-op, I was hoping for a New Super Mario Bros vibe to it.  Sadly, this won’t be the new go-to game.  For one, both players share a life pool, meaning that if both people die, you’ve lost two lives.  This becomes especially painful on mine cart or rocket barrel levels, where the two players are forced together.  So not only are you losing two lives when you should be losing one, but only one player ends up doing something, so the other player just sits there holding a controller.  It’s almost like they expect you to pick and choose which levels you play in co-op for the ones that are actually fun that way.  Speaking of rocket barrel levels, they’re the other big problem.  They’re horizontal auto-scrolling levels where pressing A boosts you up.  It’s a very finicky control scheme, and I never felt like I got it.  Too often, I would try to dodge over an obstacle and then just boost up into the ceiling.  There’s two vertical versions where you use the control stick, and these work out much better.  And finally, there’s the use of waggling to roll.  This feels forced, especially if you’re playing using the nunchuk and both B and Z are doing the same thing when one of them could’ve been rolling.  It almost makes me wonder if Nintendo forced the waggling on to Retro.
            Despite these issues, Donkey Kong Country Returns is a gold standard for platformers.  Simple to learn, hard to master, and an amazing journey all the way through.  A must-have for every Wii owner.

Monday, September 3, 2012


Directed by Chris Butler and Sam Fell
Written by Chris Butler

            There’s this apparent belief that animated movies are for kids.  I don’t know how it got started.  You look at early Disney and for everything kid-friendly, there’s a Chernabog right around the corner.  And if there were any doubts left that the animated movies being released by Focus Features (Coraline and 9) are being aimed more towards an older audience, ParaNorman erases them.
ParaNorman is the story of Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a would-be normal middle school kid if it weren’t for the fact that his ability to see and talk to ghosts has completely alienated him.  His parents are disappointed in him and the kids at school pick on him.  And things get worse when he finds out that it’s up to him to stop a 300-year old witch’s curse that causes zombies to rise.
             While the plot initially seems simple, things change past its seeming standard story along the way, and part of this is thanks to its very adult jokes and themes.  For the former, well, let’s just say that there’s several moments that made me surprised this got away with a PG.  This doesn’t just slide stuff past that only the parents are going to get.  This takes that content and puts it front and center.  This does mix in with some of the standard sillier jokes that could be expected out of a movie aimed towards kids, which just feels a bit odd.  The jokes still tend to work, but they also feel out of place.
            The themes, though, are what makes this movie so good and what make me want to rewatch it.  Without spoiling too much, there’s a significant focus on pacifism and non-violent conflict resolution.  It can be hard to take something like this all the way through, and yet the movie makes certain that Norman isn’t just heroic: he stays as he is.  This is mirrored with the knee-jerk violent reactions of everybody else.  There’s also a huge focus on ultimately forgiving what people have done, and how those same people’s regrets can weigh on them.  I will admit it’s a bit unrealistically optimistic at times.  Then again, maybe some optimism is nice.  ParaNorman’s world can be a dark place, and yet it shows the light at the end of everything.  Along with the central themes, there are plenty of comparisons to make here.  The reaction to Norman’s abilities can feel like a parallel to autism reactions, and the bullying of people for being different can be taken as a statement on gay bullying.  This is a movie you can do a good deep reading into.
            Maybe it’s not quite as good as Laika Studios’ own Coraline.  This doesn’t stop it from being a deep, dark animated movie that breaks the mold from what everybody else does.