Monday, December 31, 2012

Double Indemnity

Directed by Billy Wilder
Written by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler
Based on the novel by James M. Cain

            Double Indemnity is one of those movies that, even if people haven’t seen it, they probably know the name as one of the film noir classics.  But this is not noir with trenchcoated detectives and a murder to solve.  This is about two people committing a murder.
             Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) is an average insurance salesman until Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck, in an Academy Award-nominated performance) asks him if it’s possible to take out accident insurance on her husband (Tom Powers) without him knowing.  Walter is repulsed by the idea at first, but then enters into an affair with Phyllis and they work out the perfect plan to get away with murder.
            Part of what makes this movie so interesting is that the two characters are pure villains.  There’s an explanation that Mr. Dietrichson abuses her, but ultimately, they are in it for the money, and they are willing to do what it takes to get it, such as setting up the murder on a train to get the double indemnity clause, which pays double for unusual accidents.  It provides a perfect reason as to why they have to pull off the murder the way they do, and also shows that Walter is truly the one enjoying being the villain.  We watch as he plots and schemes to get around what he knows his friend/insurance investigator Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson, who probably should have been nominated) is going to do.  And as they pull off the murder, the audience is thrilled.  It’s one of those interesting cases.  In any other film, Keyes would be the hero for Walter’s villain.  Instead, the audience gets attached to both of them succeeding.  We want to see Walter and Phyllis get away with murder in the first half, but after the murder, we also want to see them get caught. 
            The movie also plays up its film noir to an extreme, but instead of coming off as cheesy, it works.  Walter has an omnipresent narration throughout, which not only helps us figure out more of Walter’s personality and planning, but is actually justified by the fact that he is recording it for Keyes to find.  The suspense of Keyes’ investigation in the second half is also well done.  In particular, one iconic scene has Phyllis hiding in the hallway behind Walter’s door as Keyes leaves Walter’s apartment.  Doors don’t swing out into hallways, but the scene it creates is such a perfect piece of suspense that facts can be ignored.  There are few films that can get away with something like that, and this one of them.  And the double crosses near the end twist the film’s plot right when you think you know the whole story, leading to a surprisingly tender final scene.
            Double Indemnity is top notch film noir, with interesting characters and a plot that gets the audience attached to what’s going on. 

Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Rocketeer: Cargo of Doom

Written by Mark Waid
Art by Chris Samnee
            The Rocketeer is a character I knew absolutely nothing about before reading the recent Rocketeer Adventures series.  If you had asked me before reading, I would’ve just shrugged and said I’d heard of the movie.  Afterwards, I realized that this is the current incarnation of the fun adventure character, and Cargo of Doom is just fun adventure.
            A mysterious villain has plans involving the destruction of New York, and his henchman thinks those plans would be even better with jetpacks.  So he decides to try and steal Cliff Secord’s, aka The Rocketeer, which only ends up getting him involved as he has to stop the plan.  And what is the cargo of doom?
            It’s dinosaurs.  Dinosaurs from Skull Island.  Yes, that means it’s in continuity with King Kong.  And it is absolutely awesome.  While I found the first issue a bit of a slow start storywise, since it’s mainly just setting things up and getting new readers familiar with the characters, the next 3 issues pick up considerably, culminating with The Rocketeer shooting dinosaurs.  This is not a thoughtful book.  But it perfectly captures the adventure that we love from movies like Indiana Jones.  The hero is good, the villain is evil, and the dinosaurs are giant rampaging lizards.  It has a nice sense of humor along the way, especially a panel showing the dinosaurs using jetpacks that may qualify as one of the greatest comic panels ever.  The nice thing is that it never winks or nudges at the reader.  It knows that anybody who’s going to enjoy this story is just going to have a blast and it doesn’t need to make it campy or silly.  It’s not serious, but it doesn’t feel like it’s trying too hard.
            Chris Samnee’s art is a nice complement to the writing.  It’s stylized just right so that it’s almost cartoonish without being over-the-top.  It captures the mood perfectly.  The action scenes are also very well done.  Despite everything that’s going on, it never gets confusing.  It’s just good art.
            If you like an adventure that’s funny, exciting, and/or contains dinosaurs, this is a must-read.  The revival of The Rocketeer just makes me want to go back and experience the original comic, and I hope IDW keeps it up.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Resident Evil: Revelations

Developed by Capcom and Tose
Published by Capcom

            Before Resident Evil: Revelations, I considered horror on a portable system to be absurd.  The scariness comes from the atmosphere, and when the atmosphere is coming from a screen about the size of my hand, can it really be scary?  The rather surprising answer is that yes, it can, along with providing an exciting game in general.
            Taking place between 4 and 5, Revelations has Jill Valentine and Chris Redfield working for the BSAA, the same organization that appeared in 5.  A year after a city of the future is destroyed by the terrorist organization Veltro, Jill and newcomer Parker Luciani are looking for Chris and his partner Jessica on a ship in the Mediterranean Sea, only to find out that Veltro is involved.  And from there, things get…complicated.  On the one hand, it’s a story that propels the game forward.  It tells why every character is where they are, and there’s plenty of twists and turns along the way.  On the other hand, it’s just confusing.  The twists are silly, the whole plot is tangled up, and at the end of the day, I don’t know if it really “revealed” anything so much as just proved that any hold on plot that Resident Evil had has long gone away.
            What makes the game so good is its gameplay.  RE4 and 5 both went towards loading the player up on guns and letting them blast away.  Revelations manages to toe the line between action and its survival horror roots a little better.  In particular, your resources are fairly limited.  You can only have 3 guns and while there are sections where I felt good on ammo, other sections had me frantically searching every corner for anything.  The guns you have create a decision you have to make at the weapon crates, what you want and what you can actually use.   The ever-powerful rocket launcher or magnum taking up a precious weapon slot makes the decision to take them that much harder.  Each weapon also has several upgrade slots where you can put in higher damage or stun mods, if you can find them.  The game also removes any sort of pausing to mess with the inventory.  Instead of fumbling around to use herbs, you simply press a button on the 3DS and use them.  This manages to make sequences that much more frantic, as you quickly try to heal or reload while also being attacked by the game’s creatures.
            The real star of the show is the ship itself, the Queen Zenobia.  While the game switches between characters at several points, from Jill to Chris to the “comic relief” duo, it’s Jill’s adventure on the ship that’s the real focus, and it’s done extremely well.  Constantly finding locked doors gives you a feeling of place and a knowledge that you can come back.  And several swimming sequences up the tension as you go as fast as possible to the next source of air, sometimes having to dodge underwater monsters.  It also manages to have a good variety in environments, from casinos and cabins to the mechanical underbelly.  And the tight corridors make every open space a relief.  Here’s a tip: play this with headphones on.  And I mean real headphones, not just earbuds.  For me, the sense of being closed in was increased, along with the fact that the screen truly is right up where you’re playing.  It just increases the horror factor.
            This game uses the CirclePad Pro accessory for the 3DS, which I used to play the game.  As an advanced control scheme, it works very well.  It adds another CirclePad on the right side, along with an extra R and L button which this game uses for aiming and shooting.  It was basically like a full controller to play the game.  Having the batteries already in mine (I bought it used, apparently new ones require you to insert them), it was as simple as putting the 3DS into it and I was ready to go.  Unfortunately, it does have some downsides.  One is that it’s bulky.  I can’t see anybody carrying the system around with this thing attached to it.  It also blocks off the stylus.  Considering that some sequences in Revelations require the stylus, this means taking the CirclePad Pro off, taking the stylus out, putting the Pro back on, going to Options, activating it again, and then getting back to the game.  It’s just annoying to do in the middle of playing something.
             Besides the campaign, Revelations also includes Raid Mode, which has you going through the levels with a heavier emphasis on blasting enemies away.  It can be played single player, or co-op local and online.  I played some of it online, and when I had someone good at the game, it was just fun.  It’s cool to just run through shooting at enemies.  It also has some more of the customization from the main game, with plenty of weapons, even more weapon mods, and characters who have different weapon strengths.  You can even use points you get through playing it, along with the Play Coins that the 3DS stores, to buy weapons.  While the campaign is more of a dedicated experience, this is the pick up and play mode.
            Revelations is a surprisingly solid experience.  Plenty of scares and action, a good amount of replayability thanks to Raid Mode, and just full game quality all around.  This isn’t just a handheld system cash-in, this is a full game that RE fans will enjoy, possibly even more than 5. 

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Hotel Transylvania

Directed by Genndy Tartakovsky
Written by Peter Baynham, Robert Smigel, Todd Durham, Kevin Hageman, and Dan Hageman

            Genndy Tartakovsky’s treatment in recent years hasn’t really been the best.  After Dexter’s Lab and Powerpuff Girls, Samurai Jack managed to never get a conclusion despite its popularity, and Sym-Bionic Titan was on TV for such a short time that I still haven’t seen an episode.  Mix this in with various film projects falling through, and I simply didn’t know how Hotel Transylvania would turn out.  Turns out it’s a pleasant surprise.
            After Dracula (Adam Sandler) loses his wife and has to take care of his daughter Mavis (Selena Gomez) on his own, he ends up building a hotel where he can keep her, and all the other monsters, safe from humans.  And even as she’s turning 118, he’s still not ready to let her go out into the world.  Things become worse when a human, Jonathan (Andy Samberg) manages to find the hotel and starts shaking things up.
            Here’s the obvious thing: some of the story points clearly aren’t the most original.  Let’s just point to the overprotective father angle taken right from Finding Nemo, and monsters being afraid from humans just like Monsters Inc.  The overall idea though provides plenty of imagination.  Having a getaway for monsters is just interesting and funny.  The hotel itself is filled with plenty of different monsters, from classics like Dracula and werewolves to flying brains, and they’re always doing something.  Particularly in lobby scenes, there’s just so much stuff going on to take in.  Even background monsters have been given some sort of personality and keep showing up.  You get familiar with each one of them and learn to like them.
            One of my biggest fears going into this movie was the all-star voice cast.  Adam Sandler, I can count a handful of movies he’s in that I’ve liked, and most of those are in spite of him rather than because of him.  He does a surprisingly good job here, keeping up the Transylvanian accent and giving the uptight Dracula a lot of humor and pathos.  His regular cohorts Andy Samberg, Kevin James (as Frankenstein) and David Spade (as the Invisible Man) are all also doing fine jobs.  It almost makes me wonder if the camaraderie between them has simply made them stronger, such that, even in an animated space, they know how to play off of each other.  Their characters, along with Steve Buscemi as a werewolf and Cee Lo Green as a mummy, just come off as best friends.  It’s enjoyable to watch them.  Maybe this is what Sandler was trying to do with something like Grown Ups, but as monsters, they’re much more enjoyable to watch.
             Tartakovsky’s own touch can be seen in the animation.  I don’t think he’s ever worked in a CG space before, and yet you can see it come through.  The characters will be moving and dancing and suddenly you realize that you’ve seen that style in one of his shows.  It helps that he really knows how to make things big.  Characters will make big cartoonish movements, dramatic gestures, Dracula talking normally until it suddenly goes to a close-up of him hissing.  The movie has no worries about fully realistic character movements and just wants them to be cartoons, and it works.
            Not only is Hotel Transylvania surprisingly good, but it continues the theme of good Halloween movies for families this year.  It might not reach the emotional heights of ParaNorman or Frankenweenie, but it’s funny, imaginative, and most importantly, shows that Tartakovsky is still around and just as good as you remember him.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Conan Volume 13: Queen of the Black Coast

Written by Brian Wood
Art by Becky Cloonan and James Harren

            I followed Dark Horse’s Conan series for quite a while before dropping it for reasons I don’t entirely remember at the moment.  Bringing in Brian Wood, who wrote DMZ and Northlanders, certainly intrigued me enough to get back on board.  And I have to say I’m happy that I did, because this is a perfect return to form.
            After becoming a criminal in the city of Messantia, Conan escapes to a ship called Argus.  There he finds out about the pirate ship Tigress and its captain Belit, the titular Queen of the Black Coast.  When the Argus is raided and its crew killed, Conan ends up joining up with the Tigress and falling in love with Belit.
            So let’s get the big thing out of the way first: that big, scary 13 up there.  Does that mean you have to read 12 volumes of Conan before you can read this one?  Not at all.  Having missed a few volumes of the series myself, I didn’t feel lost at all.  It’s a completely standalone story, and that makes it a perfect jumping on place.  I say if you like this, you should feel free to go back, but it also works on its own.
            The big reason for that is that this is the first story arc that Brian Wood has done.  In the past, Wood has been a hit or miss creator for me.  His ideas tend to be top-notch, but his work can sometimes be almost too intellectual and political for me, sometimes going right over my head.  Conan manages to balance this better.  It has enough intelligence to get the reader thinking, especially about the clashing personalities of Belit and Conan and what makes a man like Conan fall in love.  He even manages to draw some parallels to modern-day America.  But there is also plenty of exciting action, with Conan facing down pirates and soldiers.  The omnipresent narration is one of those things that could easily drag the book down, especially during big fight scenes, but it works.  The book is relatively light on dialogue, and the narration fills in those gaps well.  Also, the back-to-basics story works very well.  There’s a single fantasy element with a shaman, but this feels more like sword and sandals than sword and sorcery.  It’s like he wanted to get Conan himself right before he worried about having Conan face monsters.  It’s a case of getting to know Conan again, and it’s welcome.
            The art works well for the book.  Now, the one problem with having two artists is that there’s a rather sudden shift.  Cloonan does the first 3 chapters, and Harren does the latter 3, and it’s obvious.  Cloonan has an almost cartoonish style to characters, while Harren leads more towards realism.  Here’s the cool part: they’re both good.  They both handle the mix of dialogue and action well.  Cloonan handles the more seafaring first half well, while Harren’s style lends more detail as the story shifts back to Messantia.  He also loads the action up with a good helping of blood and gore.  My one complaint across the two of them is a sequence at the end of Chapter 1.  I’ve gone over it several times now, and I still don’t completely know what’s going on.  This could also be a writer problem, since this sequence has no narration.  I’ll chalk it up to Wood taking an issue to get his voice on the book, but it comes through in full by the end.
            Queen of the Black Coast stands as a high point for both Brian Wood and Conan.  It’s an exciting and smart book, letting the reader think before heads start rolling.  

Monday, December 10, 2012

My 5 Favorite (and 4 least favorite) Daria Episodes

     Daria seems to have gotten a cult status over the years since it was on, probably thanks to its initial showing on MTV being followed up by airings on The N and Logo which helped reach out to the audience in the time before the DVD release came out.  There’s a good reason for that.  Its sarcastic wit about high school life from the point of view of an alienated teenager is just one of those things that reaches out to people.  Having recently watched through the series, here’s my pick for the 5 must-watch episodes (and a couple that are easily avoided).  Mild spoiler warning, as most of the reasons for these episodes hinge on certain moments.

            5. The Lost Girls: While there’s a handful of adult characters in the show, they’ve moved past the high school life that the characters are in.  Enter Val, a teen magazine editor who still acts like a teenager.  And of course, after Daria wins an essay contest, she follows her around.  This might be the single funniest episode on this list, one that deals with the very sad fact of the situation: some people don’t get past high school.

            4. Lucky Strike: The school’s teachers go on strike and Daria’s class ends up with an elderly woman who thinks she’s teaching kindergarteners, while Daria herself ends up as the substitute teacher for her sister Quinn’s class.  This episode ends up coming to a peak for Quinn’s own character development.  For most of the series, she and her group of fashion club “friends” are seen as a vapid punching bag for Daria’s comments.  This is Quinn’s breakout episode of proving that, not only is she smarter than she seems, but Daria and Quinn actually do love each other.

            3. Dye! Dye! My Darling: Most of the episodes of the series are purely standalone, which makes season 4 stand out.  Throughout the season, Daria’s best friend Jane ends up with a boyfriend, Tom, and as the season progresses, it becomes obvious that Daria’s animosity towards him turns into feelings.  This episode is the final bursting point, when Daria’s feelings finally come out and her friendship is tested.  For a series built on very light situations throughout, it stands as one of the toughest episodes, especially one that doesn’t end with everything wrapped up.  The movie Is It Fall Yet? is also essential here, since it does solve the plot points between here and season 5.

            2. Boxing Daria: The final episode of the series does not focus on resolving plot points or doing anything resembling a grand finale (the second movie, Is It College Yet?, focuses more on that).  Instead, a refrigerator box brings back some painful memories for Daria, when her parents were fighting about her.  While her anti-social behaviors are played for laughs through most of the series, this is one of the few times it’s taken in a serious manner, and its ending proves the point of the series: for as messed up as her family is, they are all together.

            1. Write Where It Hurts: And on that note, there’s my favorite episode of the series.  Daria has a creative writing class and gets writer’s block.  Most of the episodes gets some good laugh off of the various stories that Daria creates about the people around her, but it’s the ending that makes it top the list: her story about the future of the family.  Daria’s cold personality melts in the finest moment of the series, proving that for everyone she hates, there’s at least three people she will always love.

            And as promised, here’s a few of my least favorite episodes of the series.  In general, note the theme here.  My favorite episodes tend to be the ones that had very touching or tough moments.  These are just ridiculous:

            -The Lawndale File: The school begins to believe that Daria and Jane are alien communists.  Even for the deliberately stupid characters like Kevin, this just goes too far.

            -Murder, She Snored: An actually interesting plot where Kevin and some of the other football team members are accused of cheating on a math test is derailed into a dream-murder mystery that just brings in random elements of shows Daria was watching.  It doesn’t work.

            -Life in the Past Lane: Jane dates someone who’s obsessed with 1940s style.  It’s not a particularly funny episode and I’m just left scratching my head as to what the point was.  Was this a real thing?  Possibly, but that doesn’t make it a better episode.

            -Depth Takes a Holiday: Oh good lord this episode.  Daria has to convince the personifications of Christmas, Halloween, and Guy Fawkes Day to go back to holiday island.  Not only does it take the series’ general basis in reality and just discard it entirely, it doesn’t know what to do with it.  Daria, Jane, and about every other character just spend the entire time lampshading it by constantly going “This is so weird!” but that doesn’t really make it any better, it just means they knew how bad it was.  My best guess is they were forced to do a holiday episode and just made something deliberately bad so they wouldn’t have to again.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Walking Dead, "No Time Left"

Developed and published by Telltale Games

            We should’ve known from the start that The Walking Dead would not end well.  The ending of the 4th episode pretty much confirmed that, as bad as things had been up to this point, no matter how many deaths, how many zombie attacks, how many tough decisions you’ve had to make up to this point, there’s always something worse coming.
            In the final episode of the first season (the second has already been confirmed), Lee (Dave Fennoy) has one chance left in Savannah, Georgia.  With whoever’s left, whoever still trusts him, he has to rescue Clementine (Melissa Hutchison) from a mysterious kidnapper and get out of the city if he can.
            Very rarely does a game work on such an emotional level as this series has, and it has just been building to this point.  Telltale knows everything they’re doing.  They know how to set things up, give you information on the characters, make you like them, make you despise them.  They make you want these characters to survive.  They’ll give you the tough choices that make the difference as to whether these characters will survive.  Ultimately, the game has followed a rather linear structure, with things going to happen eventually so the plot will go as it goes.  This hasn’t really made things any different.  This hasn’t made any choice easier.  It hasn’t made tragic moments shortly followed by thoughts of “What if I could have done something different?”
            The game also masterfully controls its tone.  Zombies are at their biggest here, but ultimately it’s the human moments that make up the game.  The finest moment is a swarm of zombies that Lee has to slaughter his way through, a huge action climax…which is immediately followed by an eerily quiet setting that leads up to the confrontation with the kidnapper.  Where the two sit down and talk.  And what a talk it is.  Suddenly pieces come together and your past decisions are thrown in your face.  You can defend or you can accept, but you probably already know how you’re going to act.  Lee is the reflection of us, and we had to make every decision. 
Simply by removing the karma meter that games tend to latch on to, The Walking Dead simply told us to do what we thought was right.  And maybe we did and maybe we didn’t.  But ultimately, we end up feeling like we had a hand in the tragedy.  Like we wouldn’t do the same thing twice, like we know more now and we know what we’d do if we could do it again and were just given one more chance.  While most games with multiple paths I want to replay, here I feel like the story I’ve made is what should stay in my memory.  I created Lee, I created his responses and his emotions and his surrogate fatherhood of Clementine.  You hit the end and fully realize why Clementine has become the starring character of the game, why her presence ended up being missed and there’s so much you want to do in the final moments.  But as the title says, there’s no time left.
There’s a reason why a licensed game by what was previously a fairly cult developer is what everybody’s talking about.  The Walking Dead is the true evolution of narrative form in video games.  It’s not just that it asks you to make every decision, it’s that it connects you to the characters and the world.  This is video game storytelling at its finest.

Thursday, December 6, 2012


Directed by Sam Mendes
Written by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan

            At the time, Casino Royale was exactly the thing the Bond franchise needed, taking the series back to basics, looking at the origin of Bond as the man he is, and adding some modern Bourne-inspired flair.  And while I was a fan of Quantum of Solace, it also went almost too far over the dark-and-Bourne line, and it seemed like Skyfall was going to continue on this route, to the point that the trailer was practically unidentifiable as a Bond movie.  Instead, it’s everything the series needed.
            James Bond (Daniel Craig) apparently dies in a mission involving a file containing the identities of undercover British agents.  When an attack on MI6 happens, though, he comes back to help M (Judi Dench) fight against and old enemy.
            The actual plot can feel a bit jagged at times, with the second half particularly distanced from the first half and the spy antics getting caught up in itself and leaving the audience a little out of the loop.  On the other hand, the parts that make it up work perfectly.  Themes about death and growing old permeate the movie, with retirement from MI6 shown as an impossibility.  As MI6 itself comes under fire from the government, the movie stands up as its own defense about the necessity for Bond, showing that, for the problems that Bond does have, we still want it.
            What makes the movie truly work is the strength of Sam Mendes as a director.  At first, it seemed rather odd to have him, considering he’s previously gone more towards art movies like American Beauty, Revolutionary Road, and the non-war war movie Jarhead.  It quickly becomes obvious why he was hired, though.  The camerawork creates truly incredible scenes.  You see the fuse lit, and you just wait and wait and suddenly the scene explodes.  The movie’s best moment is Bond sneaking up on a sniper in a dark building that’s only lit by advertisements going across it, the entire thing turning into a hall of mirrors, until it turns into a silhouetted fistfight with occasional muzzle flashes.  It’s the perfect blend of cinematography and action, and very much seems like the antithesis of the shaky-cam quick-cut Bourne that influenced Quantum. And just as every scene builds up, the movie itself builds up to an action-packed finale that incorporates its tragic themes perfectly.
The movie also has an absolutely fantastic supporting cast.  Ralph Fiennes as a government man standing up for MI6, Naomie Harris as action girl Eve, Ben Whishaw as a young Q.  And the cherry on top of it is a blonde Javier Bardem as the villain Silva, introduced in a single take shot as he slowly walks towards Bond and tells a story about catching rats.  He hams it up, but stays deliciously evil throughout.  In general, while the movie deals with some dark themes, it seems to recognize that the series got too dark.  It lightens things up just enough.  Gadgets are reintroduced in a small way, there’s enough jokes being tossed around.  One scene involving a fistfight and a lizard borders on cheese, but it’s a nice cheese.  It’s a movie that knows it’s OK to be thoughtful and fun.
Maybe not quite the reinvention of Casino Royale so much as shaking things up a little in just the right way.  It’s Bond at its finest: fun, exciting, and showing off an excellent director and cast.