Sunday, June 23, 2013

The Lost Weekend

Directed by Billy Wilder
Written by Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder
Based on the novel by Charles R. Jackson

            Sometimes, an attempt to make a movie about a social issue can turn out laughably bad in the future, if not at the immediate point it’s released.  Reefer Madness is still hilariously inept, and the many shorts on Mystery Science Theater and Rifftrax often have ridiculous morals.  It’s ultimately rather shocking that The Lost Weekend handles its subject of alcoholism so smartly that, close to 70 years later, it’s still relevant.
            Don Birnam (an Academy Award-winning Ray Milland) is an alcoholic whose brother Wick (Phillip Terry) and girlfriend Helen (Jane Wyman) are trying to get him to go on a weekend retreat to the countryside.  Don skips out, though, and ends up on a drinking binge that sees him constantly spiraling downwards.
            What makes the story work so well is the simple fact that Don is the only one who can help himself.  Everybody around him is trying to help him.  Helen has stayed with him for 3 years trying to fix his alcoholism.  A visit to an alcoholic ward in a hospital has a sardonic nurse doing his best to help Don, even with the many people around them who have been there since prohibition.  Even Nat, the bartender at the bar Don frequents, has his small moments of trying to give Don just a little bit of help.  But nobody can stop Don except Don.  And he simply does not know how to stop, he only knows how to go to lower points.  He goes to a fancier bar and ends up short on money, forced to try stealing from another patron.  A writer, he desperately searches for an open pawn shop to sell his typewriter.  He believes that there’s two Dons, the writer Don and the alcoholic Don, and the latter frequently threatens to eclipse the former.
             The movie could easily threaten to turn into one note over and over again, but it keeps finding new ways to turn, new ways for Don to find himself lower than before.  This is bolstered by expert camera work throughout.  As Don searches for a bottle of rye he knows he bought, the light he hid it on is framed in the background.  Don’s search through the city to find an open pawn shop is a series of cuts between closed doors, street signs that show how far he’s going, and Don’s own frantic persona.  And even a cheesy special effect of an obviously fake bat can’t kill the effect of the violent scene that follows.  At some point, nothing can slow this movie down, right to its ending, which stays suspenseful and, even with its Hays-Code-forced hope at the very end, still has touches of the real-life darkness that this movie exists on.

            The Lost Weekend holds up really well, creating a movie that is suspenseful and shocking, losing none of the edge from its initial release when alcoholism wasn’t talked about in movies.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Saga Volume 2

Written by Brian K Vaughan
Art by Fiona Staples

            Brian K Vaughan is one of the top comics writers out there.  His work on Y the Last Man and Ex Machina was great science fiction, and even Runaways was like a creator-owned book integrated into the greater Marvel universe.  Which puts plenty of pressure on Saga being good, and he’s made something that’s just naturally addictive.
            Marko and Alana are from different sides of a war between a planet of winged people and its moon of horned people, and since they’ve fallen in love and had a baby together, they’ve made enemies with both sides and beyond.  This volume features their initial journeys in their wooden rocket ship, the appearance of Marko’s parents, and a battle with the freelancer known as The Will.
            First things first, as always, can you jump on to this volume?  No.  Well, theoretically, you can probably catch up on what’s going on.  But it’s like coming into the middle of a movie.  Saga is, well, a saga, and you can’t just come into the middle of it.  This book is picking up on a cliffhanger from the last volume, and ends on a cliffhanger for the next volume.  Start with the beginning.
            Especially since you don’t want to miss any of the craziness that Vaughan and Staples have come up with.  Whereas sci-fi in TV shows or movies is restricted by what’s realistic to show, nothing is out of bounds in the world of Saga.  This volume alone features a planet that’s really an egg, a medic who looks like a mouse, and a giant ogre-ish alien with disgusting genitals.  It’s all part of this constant sense of fun to the series.  You don’t really know what’s going to show up next, you don’t know how the story will go on, and it all just makes you want to continue.
            And with this all, Vaughan still has the heart and brain that makes his series a success.  While the series could survive on its atmosphere alone, the voice that he brings to the characters is what really makes it shine.  Alana and Marko are people that you care about and you want to see them get away.  And we’re still not sure if they’re going to succeed.  The threat of death for both of them lurks everywhere, and the death of a character in this volume shows that it’s not something beyond the realm of possibility.  At the same time, you don’t want the villainous characters like The Will and Prince Robot IV to die either, because they are so fascinating in their own right.  We’re still getting hints of who, exactly, The Will is, with his relationships with The Strand and Slave Girl expanded.  And it says something that the final issue in this volume is solely focused on Prince Robot (who’s basically human besides having a TV for a head), and it’s just as great as everything else here, as we find out about his time in battle and the ruthlessness he’s willing to go to in order to get Alana and Marko.

            Saga can easily go next to Brian K Vaughan’s previous work as a must-read, and this second volume just solidifies that.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Man of Steel

Directed by Zack Snyder
Written by David S. Goyer and Christopher Nolan
Based on characters created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster

            Despite the bad press Superman Returns has gotten since its release, I rather enjoyed it when I saw it.  Granted, I haven’t seen it since then, but I thought it was a perfectly fine revival of the series.  And I was also rather excited to see the series rebooted with Man of Steel and given a new take.  Unfortunately, while there is a new take here, it’s not the kind of view I was looking for.
            When Krypton is about to be destroyed, Jor-El (Russell Crowe) sends his baby son, Kal-El, off to Earth.  Now grown up, Kal-El (Henry Cavill) has to adjust to the role of Superman and show the world his powers when General Zod (Michael Shannon) attacks.
            As usual, we’ll start with the praise.  The special effects are pretty breathtaking.  All of Krypton looks like a visual effect, and when it gets to the battles, there are plenty of good-looking shots of spaceships and buildings being destroyed.  And there is also some good acting here.  Both Russell Crowe and Kevin Costner as Jonathan Kent play the mentor roles well.  The real treat is Amy Adams as Lois Lane, giving a determined performance that makes me wish the movie had focused on her.
            Sadly, this is a Superman movie, and Henry Cavill does not impress me.  He has a few nice Superman moments, but too often, he’s reduced to the muscle, and his expressions seemed little more than mild confusion, which is all I could think trying to read what he’s actually thinking.  But the big problem lies more on the writing, the fact that the movie simply doesn’t have enough glimpses into how Superman is.  It’s hard to get a reading on his world philosophy and his personality, which is a shame, since Superman’s personality is what makes him Superman.  Instead, the movie transforms him into the flying brick archetype, who does nothing more in the fight scenes then just fly around and punch things.  The movie’s climactic moment hinges on Superman being the savior of the people, yet all we’ve seen of him up to that point is the big strong guy that seems really obsessed with the demolition of Smallville and Metropolis, considering how often he flies the villains into pieces of it.  Perry White gets a better scene of trying to save someone than Superman does.  And the final battle scene seems to go on forever, without enough good moments to make it worth it.
            The movie’s absolute biggest flaw, though, is its constant use of exposition, flashbacks, and a combination of the two.  Superman enters the Kryptonian ship and activates a 5-minute exposition scene.  Zod explains his plan in an exposition scene that flashes back to his time as a prisoner.  Long after the opening sequence uses up its supply of flashing back to Clark’s childhood, the movie continually shoehorns more scenes of it in, and again, we don’t get Clark nearly as much as we get Jonathan teaching Clark a lesson.  It’s lazy writing, and it’s spread all over the movie.

            Man of Steel is dull and endless.  If this is DC’s answer to Marvel’s movies, then I’m sticking with Marvel.  

Saturday, June 8, 2013

The Rocketeer: Hollywood Horror

Written by Roger Langridge
Art by J Bone

            I made my love for the Rocketeer revival pretty well known with my Cargo of Doom review.  Since that time, I’ve also read the original Dave Stevens Rocketeer stories, which I highly recommend.  Hollywood Horror takes the series in a very different direction from Cargo of Doom, but doesn’t falter at all in quality.
             Betty, Cliff’s girlfriend, gets tired of playing second fiddle to the Rocketeer.  When her roommate sends a frantic call after investigating into the Cosmicism preacher Otto Rune, she decides to investigate into him—and of course, so does Cliff, as the Rocketeer.
            What shines through most in Hollywood Horror is Langridge’s love of Golden Age Hollywood, starting with the fact that this story is dialed down.  There’s no dinosaurs on a rampage in the streets of LA here, only traditional villains and heroes.  And it also moves at a slower pace than Cargo of Doom.  This doesn’t make it any less fun, it’s just more about a central mystery than about over-the-top moments.  It’s closer to the kind of fun mystery that might have been in the Thin Man movies.  And that’s not really too left field, considering that Nick and Nora Charles are prominent characters here.  No, they’re never mentioned by name, and anybody not familiar with them can easily just think they’re a random detective couple, but it’s a nice nod of the hat by Langridge.  Most importantly, he writes the characters well, along with the narrator, who also turns out to be a notable Hollywood celebrity.  But even with the cameos, the focus is still on Cliff and Betty.  And Betty does get to be a little more than the damsel in distress that she normally ends up as, which is always a good thing to see.  We also get to see Cliff evolving ever more into the role of the hero.  He tends to slide on the scale from “kind of a jerk” to “outright heroic”, and he’s farther on the latter side here.  When his rocket pack is taken away, he continues to be the hero, and that’s what makes him so endearing.
            J Bone’s artwork is also notably different.  That’s kind of the fun here, to see a completely different creative team take over Rocketeer.  So while Samnee’s art from Cargo of Doom paid a little more tribute towards pulp films, Bone goes more towards being fairly cartoony.  Not overly so, but the goons are more goonish, Otto Rune is unmistakably the evil villain.  His artwork fits the story being told here: a fun story of black and white morality where you know good is going to win, and you’re just interested to see how good wins.

            Hollywood Horror continues the winning streak out of IDW’s Rocketeer revival.  If you’re looking for pure fun in your comics, this is the place.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

The Dream Machine (Chapters 1-3)

Published and developed by Cockroach Ink.

            The recent revival of point-and-click adventure games by indie developers has been great for anybody interested in the genre.  If nothing else, there has been a great selection of them, and The Dream Machine’s first three chapters are a promising start.
            After moving into his new apartment with his wife, Alicia, Victor Neff finds a mysterious note that the previous tenant left.  From there, he realizes that there is something more going on in the apartment building, eventually leading to the reveal of the dream machine itself, which is mapping out the collective dreamscape.
            It should be noted that this game is a bit of a slow mover.  It’s lucky that the first two chapters are bundled together, as chapter 1 on its own does not stand at all.  It’s basically just “There’s something odd going on here” up until halfway through chapter 2.  If this was a game as itself, this would have been acceptable, but the fact that the game is being released episodically makes this a bit of an odd choice.  The other big note I should make before I continue is that this game may look family-friendly for a while, with only a sprinkling of harsh language, but the end of chapter 3 goes to a very dark territory.  Make no mistake, this is a game for adults.
            What sets this game apart most of all are the visuals.  They are done with hand-made claymation, giving the game a great style.  It lets it be very stylized while still being grounded.  Most importantly, it gives it that touch of love that shows that the developers really dedicated themselves to this game.  The other interesting thing Dream Machine does is in its dialogue choices.  During dialogue, you’re constantly given the chance to be mean to other characters.  It seems to have little effect on how the game actually turns out, but it is nice to give the player a chance to put some personality of their own into Victor.
            And of course, every adventure game stands or falls based on its puzzles.  I’d say the puzzles here are fairly simple.  There was only one I really had trouble with, while most of them tended to be “Pick up everything you can and find a use for it”.  Still, there were never any great logical leaps that had to be made, no games of guessing what the developer was thinking.  Everything made sense, and it may just be that things made too much sense at times.  This does make the game a good place to start for those new to the adventure genre.

            While its puzzles may not be the most difficult, Dream Machine’s interesting visuals and atmosphere make it a fun adventure game.  Its first three chapters are out now, and hopefully, it won’t be too long for the final two.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Darksiders II

Developed by Vigil Games
Published by THQ
Played on 360

            Few games wear their influences on their sleeves quite like Darksiders does.  The first game took God of War’s combat and mixed it with Zelda’s dungeon design, mixed it up, and ended up with a rather fun game.  Darksiders II adds more games to the mix, and somehow, comes out as a near-classic.
            Taking place during an early point of the first game, II has Death (Michael Wincott) setting out during the time when War is under trial for starting the apocalypse.  Refusing to believe that War could have done such a thing, Death travels to various realms to look for a way to prove his innocence.
            The first big change here is that the game doesn’t take place on the ruined Earth the first game took place on.  Instead, Death’s journey expands the world that the game takes place in.  There’s four different worlds you go through, and each one has a very unique visual design.  The almost idyllic Forgelands look nothing like the Kingdom of the Dead.  And the visuals of the game are rather striking.  While there are plenty of dark, gory moments, the game doesn’t try to be dark and edgy.  Instead, the character designs are very caricaturized, coming out looking somewhat cartoony, and it works in the game’s favor.  And you spend enough time in each world to make them worthwhile and worth exploring.
            The other big additions here are the extra games whose influences have been added to the melting pot.  Prince of Persia-style platforming gets added in, with Death running along walls and jumping off columns, and action-RPGs are sprinkled with an equipment system for Death.  For the former, well, I love Prince of Persia and I love parkour in games, so this was an instant hit with me.  The equipment system has its pluses and minuses.  On the one hand, it is always nice to look for and find new equipment, and there’s enough small changes you can make to make things worth messing around with.  On the other hand, I generally just went for whatever had the highest attack or defense and didn’t really mess around with the sub-stats.  It’s an interesting system, but it never quite gets the satisfaction of finding some awesome new gear or weapon that games like Borderlands or Torchlight have.
            What Darksiders II definitely does best is its dungeon design.  They’re very intricately designed, with plenty of nooks and crannies that collectibles are hiding in, without being overwhelming.  You might enter into a huge room, but you’re nudged along the set path.  And new gimmicks are introduced to keep each one interesting and unique.  It’s not just how each dungeon looks, it’s what you do in each dungeon that ends up standing out.  You control golems in one, and then have to clear out dark matter by linking up crystals to proceed in another.  It’s also helped by a very limited selection of items that you get.  Not having many items may sound like a bad thing, but it ends up meaning that each one gets plenty of time in the spotlight.  You don’t pick something up, use it against the boss, and then forget about it for the rest of the game.  When you pick it up, you think back to all the other spots you saw where you could use it, and immediately go “Oh, I can go back there now”, thanks to each one having a very clear use.  And the puzzles are just difficult enough, enough to stump for a while until that “I know what I need to do!” moment.  Overall, the dungeons are certainly Zelda-like, but in a way that rivals Zelda itself.
            The game does have a few hiccups, though.  For one, there’s some bugs that showed up, including an odd case where the door to the end of the dungeon didn’t lock during a boss fight, letting me proceed without fighting the boss.  Sound also became very buggy at one point.  With THQ out of business, don’t expect anything to get fixed.  There’s also one “dungeon” that turns the game into a very mediocre third person shooter that goes on far too long.  You get a couple minutes into it and you just want it to end.  And finally, the final boss and ending just kind of disappoint.  It doesn’t help that the big plot hook at the end of Darksiders doesn’t get followed up on.  And with the future of the series in question, who knows if we’ll ever see the other two horsemen.

            Darksiders II is an improvement over the first game, in the sense that it’s gone from “fun” to “very fun”.  It still comes off as a blender of various games the developers enjoyed, but when the final product ends up as good as any one of those, it’s hard to complain.