Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Rise of the Guardians

Directed by Peter Ramsey
Written by David Lindsay-Abaire
Based on the book by William Joyce

            With Madgascar 3 clearly filling in Dreamworks’ pure comedy of the year, I was expecting Rise of the Guardians to fill in more of the serious heart, especially with the trailer’s emphasis on action and comparisons to How to Train Your Dragon.  Instead, what we get is a mixed bag.
            Jack Frost (Chris Pine) likes his fun-filled existence of creating winter and starting snowball fights, but he doesn’t like the fact that none of the kids believe in him.  When the boogie man, AKA Pitch Black (Jude Law) starts planning to ruin childhood beliefs, Jack ends up recruited into the Guardians, consisting of Santa Claus (a Russian-accented Alec Baldwin), the Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher), the Easter Bunny (Hugh Jackman), and the Sandman to fight back.
            Here’s the big plus of the movie: it looks fantastic.  Just the work that has gone into Sandman’s abilities alone show that, with the sand clearly showing through with all his creations.  Characters look great, the environments are vivid.  And continuing the Dreamworks tradition, it uses the 3D effects well.  This is a movie based on wonder, and it just leaves the audience in awe.  It also has some great ideas here with how the Guardians get their tasks done.  From the Tooth Fairy’s minions to a scene of Easter eggs being decorated, it’s clearly well thought of.  The action scenes are great and exciting.  Even the humor tends to work fairly well, and there’s enough of it to keep the movie light.
            So why am I not just in love with this movie?  One word: story.  The movie doesn’t have a clear enough direction here, so it just meanders around.  The Guardians have to do the Tooth Fairy’s job.  Then they have to save Easter.  It doesn’t feel natural, it feels like we’re just going through the motions.  I was expecting them to have to save Christmas next.  When they’re not doing something, I just wanted the movie to get going.  Pointless scenes throughout had me bored.  And the movie is also weighed down with exposition.  The fact that Jack isn’t believed in, so the kids can’t see him?  It’s repeated at least three times in the first half of the movie alone.  A pivotal moment in the climax feels the need to flash back to a scene that was shown 10 minutes ago.  It hammers the ideas in instead of letting them naturally develop.  And then there’s just logical flaws.  For instance, Pitch Black’s plan makes no sense.  He wants to be believed in too, so he makes it so the Guardians aren’t believed in, which…doesn’t help him at all.  And the world works on belief-based powers, but Pitch and Jack are two of the strongest characters.  It almost feels like, for all the exposition they did, some very important plot points were left out. Pitch in general is just a very generic villain that doesn’t feel fully realized.  He has the same creation abilities as Sandman, but he never does anything with them besides make horses (they’re nightmares).  I would’ve loved to see some great scary monsters, but there’s nothing.
            As much as I hate to say this, Rise of the Guardians is a kids movie.  Kids will probably love the world, the jokes, the action sequences, and the message to believe.  Adults are the ones who will care about a story that goes nowhere and endless exposition.  Not Dreamworks’ worst, but easily their biggest disappointment in recent years.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Spaceman Deluxe Edition

Written by Brian Azzarello
Art by Eduardo Risso

            100 Bullets wasn’t one of the first comics I read, but I still consider it the gateway.  Before then, most of what I read was either superheroes or licensed.  Being thrown into that series was something different altogether, and even with its flaws, it left me with the highest regard for the creative team of Azzarello and Risso.  Their return to Vertigo with Spaceman got me very excited, and it sadly does not live up to my expectations.
            Orson was one of the Spacemen, a group of brothers who were genetically created specifically to go to Mars.  Now he’s a collector of junk on Earth, in a future that’s gone to hell.  When the adopted daughter of a Brangelina-style reality show couple gets kidnapped, he ends up finding her and gets mixed up in a huge plot as everybody tries to get her.
            Which leads to one of the main flaws: there’s simply too much going on in this book.  Whereas 100 Bullets had the problem of a story that didn’t quite last for 100 issues, Spaceman has a story that needed a few more issues.  There are a lot of characters and a lot of plotlines in a mere 9 issues.  There’s Orson’s journey with the girl, Tara, then his brother shows up also looking for her, and there’s flashbacks to their time on Mars, and there’s also two detectives, and on and on.  It’s too many characters, and none are developed enough.  I barely know anybody by the end, and some of the plot points were just lost on me.
            Although that also comes from the dialogue itself.  There was a lot done with colloquial language in 100 Bullets, and it worked for the most part in identifying the characters and their backgrounds.  Spaceman creates its own future dialogue, which ends up as a mix of text speak and its own creations.  Some of the ideas in it are neat, like thinking and hearing being replaced with braining and earing.  Some of it just ends up making it unreadable.  It got to a point where I had a sigh of relief any time a character appeared that was speaking in normal English, even if it was only for a sentence.  After you’ve read pages of stuff like “Soree bout the no before, but the geepee satee in the sky”, anything comprehendible is nice.
            My big praise for the book is how well the world is built.  It’s the best kind of satirical dystopian future world.  Everyone is connected to the net, and reality shows have basically become a 24/7 thing.  The constant focus on what will make good programming, whether it’s accurate or not, is shown a lot.  At one point, a police raid is planned out for what will get the best camera angles.  And it’s all complemented by Risso’s art, building the city into a terrible flooded wasteland.  The many characters are also instantly recognizable.  His art also comprises the only extra, a few sketches and some pencils.  There are no notes or anything, which seems to be stretching the definition of “deluxe edition”.
           Spaceman is a disappointment.  A strong concept lost thanks to its last of focus and a terrible dialogue choice.  A few simple decisions end up being the difference between gold and pain.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Chrono Trigger

Developed by Square and Tose
Published by Square Enix
Played on DS

            It’s been over 15 years since Chrono Trigger was first released on the SNES.  It’s been released on multiple systems since then, constantly considered a classic and topping best game lists.  Yet it’s only had one controversial sequel and talk of anything more than ports seems to have died off.  Playing it today tells you the secret to everything: nothing this great can ever be replicated.
            In a world that’s somewhere between medieval and emerging future-tech by the year 1000, Crono is a teenager who goes to the Milliennial Fair to see his friend Lucca’s invention, a simple teleporter.  When Marle, a girl he runs into, tries to use it, she instead vanishes into the past.  From there and several other events, it’s a time-traveling adventure that leads to the trio learning a disturbing fact: a creature named Lavos is going to emerge in the year 1999 and cause the apocalypse.  Naturally, they have to stop him.
            For an RPG, the story is obviously important.  But it never overtakes the game.  It’s certainly there and a major part, but it also doesn’t consume the game whole.  The longest cinematic might breach on 5 whole minutes.  The emotions of the characters are more important.  The main trio, along with the party members they pick up throughout time, are all unique.  They’re archetypes, but they’ve been built, their backstory laid out for the player.  And most importantly, they’re heroes to the end.  Most of them will never see the apocalypse, they’ll all be dead before it happens.  They still have to stop it.  They’re going to save the world, not just toss it away as someone else’s problem.  It gives the game an optimistic attitude that’s combined with some very lighthearted scenes.  There’s plenty of dramatic moments, but it doesn’t get bogged down in them.
            The most unique thing the game does is the battle system.  There’s no random battles, you aren’t walking around on the map when suddenly the screen shatters and you’re taken to another dimension to fight some enemies.  Enemies can be seen and run into or avoided.  The battles take place right in the level.  If you run into a group of enemies patrolling a corridor, you’re going to fight the enemies in that corridor.  Sometimes enemies will pop out of hiding, but it still feels right.  The battle strategies are all hinged on enemy placements.  A cyclone move attacks in a circle around an enemy, a flamethrower fires in a straight line.  Patiently waiting for enemies moving around to line up just right can pay off enormously.  And then you get to the double techs, where two or three of your party members team up with a move.  This means that creating your party can depend not just on what each character can do, but what the characters can do together.  There’s also very little grinding involved in the game.  Most of the bosses are based more on strategy than having a high enough level.  It can become basic once you get things down, but it never becomes tedious.  The relatively short playtime also helps things out in this regard, but doesn’t hurt the game.  It’s not too long or too short, it’s just right.
            The DS version adds in several advantages over other versions.  The only other version I’ve played is some of the Playstation version, which had horrendous load times.  The DS version retains the Akira Toriyama-drawn anime cinematics and data files of that version while making any load times nonexistent.  There’s also a reworked translation, which, in addition to tying some stuff to Chrono Cross, changes item names and some dialogue.  While I’m sure it’s controversial, I liked the changes well enough.  Frog’s “ye olde Englishe” dialogue has simply become eloquent instead of ridiculous, and changing items like Revives to Athenian Waters feels more like the time travel fantasy that it is.  There’s two bonus dungeons, which I’ll admit to not touching, especially since one of them is supposed to be annoying.  The biggest advantage is the use of the dual screen.  It has a map, shortcuts to the menu categories, and it has all the battle commands.  It leaves the battles themselves uncluttered and gives you plenty of data mid-battle.  Ultimately, the choice is basically which system you like best, but the DS version gets my mark of approval.
            Chrono Trigger continues to earn its status as a classic.  A well-done story, unique battle system, and just a fun feeling that’s become lost as RPGs have become more serious and complicated.  This is when Square was at the top of their game, creating a great game that doesn’t feel like a desperate grab to try something new, but a natural creation.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Wreck-It Ralph

Directed by Rich Moore
Written by Phil Johnston and Jennifer Lee
            Let’s face it, movies about video games haven’t had the best track record.  Never mind video game-based movies, what have we got?  The Wizard (oof), Spy Kids 3 (barf), Tron (maybe…).  Wreck-It Ralph doesn’t just change that trend; on its own merits, it’s genuinely great.
            Wreck-It Ralph (John C. Reilly) is the villain in the 8-bit arcade game Fix It Felix Jr. (which has been defictionialized since before the movie’s release – go play it on iPhone, it’s pretty fun).  After 30 years, he’s finally become tired of Felix (Jack McBrayer) winning medals and getting no recognition for himself, so he decides to game-hop, ending up in Sugar Rush and helping the outcast glitch Vanellope (Sarah Silverman).  But if he doesn’t get back to his game before the arcade reopens, it’s getting unplugged.
            The movie does well in building the world from the start.  Considering that the movie has main characters from 3 different worlds, they look different.  Ralph and Felix look like they belong in their game, but when they enter other games they look notably out of place.  The way the characters come to life after arcade hours resembles Toy Story, but the world is built differently, with the characters freely hanging out in other games after-hours.  This also gets in a lot of the well-publicized game cameos.  This could’ve easily taken over the movie, but it’s thankfully only in the first act.  This provides plenty of in-jokes for gamers (and trust me, there are A LOT in the fairly short amount of time.  Get ready to wear out the pause button when this comes to DVD), but it also means that the movie doesn’t lose the non-gamers.  In fact, the movie in general could’ve been too chaotic in its game-hopping, but once it gets to Sugar Rush, it settles in.
            And it also finds its emotional voice from here.  Ralph feels unappreciated thanks to constantly being defeated and never getting a chance to win, despite this being his job.  Vanellope is glitchy and not allowed to race because of it.  The two end up becoming a perfect pair as they build a car and practice.  They’re the perfect mismatched pair.  Ralph looms over Vanellope and their movements make it feel right.  And ultimately, the movie’s message of being yourself and loving it is the kind of proper feel-good message that I just love to see.  This is notably new territory for a Disney movie, but it fits its Disney-ness right into it.
            And while maybe it’s not meant to be more than the world itself, there is a kind of gaming message in here.  This is just me, not the attempting-to-be objective reviewer, but my feelings, and if you just want the movie review you can skip this.  But maybe it just touched me in the same way that Hugo’s message of silent film restoration ended up getting to that nerdy part of me.  The feeling of the arcade itself is this sadly ancient notion at this point.  And the fear of being unplugged that looms over the movie is something that’s happened to so many games these days, never mind games that will never be seen, either on these shores or just in general.  How many of these characters that we grow to love over the course of the movie can be mirrored in gaming characters that we’ll never see again, if at all?  I’m reminded of the fact that several arcade games had built-in death timers that could’ve stopped people from ever playing them again, and people had to quickly save the games before they were lost.  The new digital landscape means that things are being saved, and maybe someday all these old games, lost in some way, will be ready for new gamers to experience them.
            Ah well.  It’s just the feelings that Wreck-It Ralph brings in me.  It’s a truly emotional movie that’s certainly made to appeal to gamers, but has absolutely no problem bringing its message to everybody.  I didn’t expect Disney to make a video game movie, but I hope they make some more.


Directed by Seth MacFarlane
Written by Seth MacFarlane, Alec Sulkin, and Wellesley Wild
Seth MacFarlane is a frustrating creator.  At his best, he’s downright hilarious, just offensive enough, and using some of his more annoying qualities sparsely.  At his worst, he crosses the line too far and too long until you get a character like Herbert that was funny once and never again.  There’s a reason I stopped watching Family Guy, and why I was apprehensive about Ted, his first movie.  Fortunately, Ted is definitely MacFarlane at his best.
The movie is about a boy and his teddy bear, which magically comes alive after a Christmas wishlist, and instantly becomes a national phenomenon.  Or that was the story 25-ish years ago.  Now the boy, John Bennett (Mark Wahlberg), is grown up and still living with Ted (voiced by Seth MacFarlane), whose fame has vanished completely, with the both of them smoking pot, watching Flash Gordon, and generally slacking off.  When John’s girlfriend Lori Collins (Mila Kunis) finally gets sick of it, she makes an ultimatum: get Ted out of the house and on his own.
The movie’s main strength is definitely its humor.  It knows how far to go, where the edge of offensiveness is, and then pushes it just a little bit further.  It might seem to be going quiet, and then it will suddenly unleash a stream of rapid-fire comedy or one huge joke that pays off big.  It seems like Seth MacFarlane’s transition from TV, with the censors looming over him, to an R-rated comedy is perfectly unleashed.  The desire to go into full nudity and gross-out humor is there, but it’s restrained.  It’s crude without becoming gross.  And perhaps most surprisingly of all, while the movie certainly isn’t sparse about its use of language, it knows the power of the F-bomb, the perfect place to unleash one that puts an exclamation point on some of the movie’s best moments.
The movie also has an emotional core to it.  After all, this is the story of a man having to choose between love and his best friend, and neither choice is easy.  And this makes the movie warm, thanks to several things.  The cast is fully likeable.  Lori’s sleazy boss (played by Community’s Joel McHale) could easily be pushed into the mud as a generic villain, but he has some depth to him and some likeability.  He’s an asshole that fully admits he’s an asshole, and McHale’s performance helps him come off as somebody who’s not a good guy, but also not someone you completely hate.  Ted himself comes off as a great guy who just happens to be a teddy bear.  While MacFarlane characters can sometimes go full-on into “unsympathetic comedy protagonist”, Ted is someone who’s never really had to live life, and has to adjust to it.  In that regard, maybe seeing this in a college theater contained the perfect audience.
The movie does have a few flaws.  The biggest is the final sequence, where a subplot fully takes over the main plot, and leads to a chase sequence which isn’t thrilling or funny.  The message of John having to fully go into maturity by giving up his teddy bear is also simplistic; so much so that the movie outright states it.  And this is just a personal preference, but I really would’ve loved more from Seth MacFarlane’s voice acting.  Ted has the same voice as Peter Griffin, and while we see a scene of him doing several imitations, it’s too short.  He’s an incredible voice actor (just look at how many voices he does on all of his shows), but it doesn’t show here.
Still, Ted is an honest surprise.  It balances being funny and warm with being crude and offensive masterfully.  Whether you’re MacFarlane’s biggest fan or you’ve written him off, Ted is worth seeing.