Saturday, December 6, 2014

The Penguins of Madagascar

Directed by Eric Darnell and Simon J. Smith
Written by John Aboud, Michael Colton and Brandon Sawyer
Based on characters created by Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath

     Ever since the first movie, it was almost inevitable that there would be a Penguins of Madagascar spin-off. From day one they were the ensemble darkhorses, and while the TV series was surely nice for merchandising, we all know that's nothing compared to box-office money. And it certainly would've been easy to make this a quick cash-in, but Penguins is a lot of fun, if light on drama.
     When the penguins – Skipper (Tom McGrath), Kowalski (Chris Miller), Rico (Conrad Vernon), and Private (Christopher Knights) – get kidnapped during a break-in to Fort Knox, they end up in the hands (or tentacles) of Dr. John Brine, aka Dave the Octopus (John Malkovich). He has a plan to get revenge on the world's penguins, and it's up to our group of heroes to stop them, even as they butt heads with the secret agent group North Wind, led by the wolf, Classified (Benedict Cumberbatch).
     It's easily the most absurd plot so far in a series that almost prides itself on its absurd plots, but it works, mainly in the sense that it means the movie spends less time caring about the plot and more time throwing every possible gag it can at the audience. The movie makes puns any chance it gets, switches to an energetic action sequence that keeps you laughing along the way, and then goes to some silly slapstick (Rico's habit of eating everything is a regularly used one). It rarely settles down for even a moment, layering things wall-to-wall with jokes and excellent voicework. We knew how good the penguins would be, so it's especially great to have Malkovich and Cumberbatch being given a chance to stretch their voice acting abilities, with Malkovich clearly having a lot of fun playing an evil octopus.
     All the comedy does mean that there is little to no room for drama or morals. Maybe Dreamworks thought they should have a breather after the particularly intense How to Train Your Dragon 2, or maybe it was just a decision to keep Penguins light – even lighter than the main Madagascar movies. It works, in that there's little slowdown of plot or any hint that they don't just want you to have fun. But it does result in a third act that shoehorns in a moral at the last second. And you can get one or two (looks aren't everything, accept help when it's given), but it's less like the movie is leading to a moral or something to think about afterwards, and more like an optional thing you might pick up or leave behind at your choice.

     Penguins' success is being light fun and never trying to be anything but. It leaves itself as one of the fluffiest animated movies from a major studio in a while, but it's hard to argue with its comedic success.

Friday, November 21, 2014


Writing and art by Gabriel Hardman

     I'm going to be up front on this: I enjoyed Kinski. It was a thoroughly enjoyable comic from start to finish. There's just one problem that can't get out of my head: what does it mean?
     Kinski is about Joe, a man who, on a business trip, finds a stray dog by the hotel. What starts as trying to take care of the dog turns into obsession as he steals the dog back from its owners and is even willing to sacrifice his job...all in the name of a dog he doesn't own.
     Needless to say, Kinski is a little weird. It's not bizarre-weird, it's not mind-screwy weird. It's just weird in the sense that the story is decidedly offbeat. Joe's clearly obsessed with the dog, but the obsession never becomes entirely creepy, just obsessive. There's never any reason given for his obsession, either. It's not supernatural, there's no backstory. His coworker asks “Did you have a dog as a kid?” but there's no response. We're just thrown into this story and we're told to deal with it.
     And maybe that's what makes this comic so enjoyable. It's not lingering too hard on the symbolism or the meaning behind things. Everything that happens is moving forwards in the story. If Joe talks to someone, they have a meaning in the story. When the dog gets lost in a trailer park, he climbs up on a roof, which leads into an argument that distracts him from his search. Hardman's art is similarly straightforward. Detailed as much as it needs to be, the lack of color showing just what it needs to show. He's telling a story, and anything the reader gets out of it may just be inconsequential.

     So I'll admit that if there's further meaning here I don't know it. But I guess I don't care. Kinski is wholly unique, neither dark nor light, neither deep nor shallow. It's a story and you either enjoy it or you don't, and I happened to enjoy it.

Monday, November 10, 2014


Developed and published by Valve Corporation
Played on PC

     Playing older FPSes tends to be a very different experience. The generation of Doom and Quake was less focused on story or any sensible cohesion of level design, more focused on blowing monsters up. Half-Life was one of the first FPSes to actually make a story, with levels that naturally transition into one another. And surprisingly, all the years have not hurt its playability.
     Gordon Freeman is a physicist on his first day at the Black Mesa facility. And in the middle of an experiment, something goes terribly wrong, unleashing a connection with an alien world. Now Gordon has to make it out alive in the middle of both aliens and the military looking to clean things up.
     One of Half-Life's greatest strengths, something that remained in the sequel, is its ability to switch genres on a dime. The game starts off closer to a survival horror game, giving you nothing but the iconic crowbar and pointing you towards the many zombies and headcrabs that want to kill you. As the military comes in, though, it becomes more of a shooter, building up your arsenal. While the aliens are fairly straightforward, the military will use tactics, flushing you out of cover or using pincer maneuvers to make things more frantic. And in the middle, you're having to figure out puzzles and platforming. There's very little direction given to you, but it also always manages to push you in the right direction, losing the labyrinthine maps of Doom for a more straightforward but still exploratory experience. You might wander around a room for a little bit, but then you'll say “Ah, that pipe up there looks suspicious, I should get to it”.
     Half-Life's form of storytelling also remains strong. There's no true cinematics in the game, never breaking from the first-person viewpoint of Gordon. But you still pick up the story going on from the short conversations with scientists and security guards. And you also pick up the story as you go through the environment. The labs you walk through hint to exactly what's been going on, the new enemies that come after you show how much opposition Gordon is up against. And you always feel like you have a goal, not that you're just wandering wildly. And sadly, this all falls apart in the final levels. The infamous finale loses any sense of story and feels more like you're just wandering around aimlessly until the game ends. It does show exactly how strong Valve's games normally are that this only becomes a problem in the end—not that it stops it from being a problem.

     Half-Life remains an FPS giant, aging well and standing as one of the strongest debut games of a developer. It's rare to play an older game that stays this fresh today.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Book of Life

Directed by Jorge R Gutierrez
Written by Douglas Langdale and Jorge R Gutierrez

     It can be incredibly difficult for animated movies not made by a major studio to get a foothold. Never mind not being Disney, Pixar, or Dreamworks, even Sony Animation and Blue Sky at least have some push. Book of Life is done by a first-time feature length director (he's done TV work before), and his vision shines through clearly, even if it gets a little muddled along the way.
     Manolo (Diego Luna) and Joaquin (Channing Tatum) are best friends who have also been in love with the same girl, Maria (Zoe Saldana), since they were kids. What none of them know is that the love triangle is also being watched by the death gods La Muerte (Kate del Castillo) and Xibalba (Ron Perlman), who've put a bet that whoever wins will get to rule the vibrant Land of the Remembered, while the loser rules the desolate Land of the Forgotten. And Xibalba is not above cheating...
     Book of Life's greatest strength is its visuals. The movie takes place as if it's being told with wooden figures, and it shows with the character designs. They exaggerate features, giving war heroes chests full of medals, making round mariachis who can just roll around, and having characters who look like 2D paintings given life. The wooden features give the characters visible joints, older characters will have more visible wood grain, stubble is just a different layer of wood. It's truly remarkable from start to finish, and gives the movie plenty of visual gags to work off of. And once it hits the Land of the Remembered, it's easy for your jaw to drop completely.
     Sadly, for its dazzling visuals, the writing has issues. The story and themes are so standard as to be cliché, with no real surprises along the way. This doesn't mean it's not enjoyable to watch, it's just not going to throw any twists your way. The pacing is also off. Trailers made it seem like a majority of the movie would take place in the Land of the Remembered. Instead, about 10 minutes are spent there. Considering how awesome the skeletal character designs look, you'd think they'd give that part of the movie the majority. But the biggest problem comes from the movie's framing device: a story being told to a group of kids in a museum. It means the movie constantly stops to narrate what's going on or give exposition. Or just cut away to the group of white kids. It reeks of executive meddling, the studio getting terrified that a movie full of Mexican characters won't be watched, so they tacked on some white characters at the last minute.

     Regardless of faults, Gutierrez gives a solid effort here, and if he can follow the movie's moral and get out of the studio's shadow, he can do something truly incredible. As it is, Book of Life is enjoyable, but its visuals don't match up to its story problems.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Southern Bastards Volume 1: Here Was a Man

Written by Jason Aaron
Art by Jason Latour

     My first introduction to Jason Aaron's work was with the dark and gritty crime comic Scalped. With his transfer over to Marvel, it's hard to remember that he once wrote hopeless, realistic stories. But now Southern Bastards is here. And he is right back to classic form.
     Earl Tubb comes back to Craw County, Alabama, 40 years after his dad died to finally pack up the old house. But he quickly gets caught up in crime and corruption that all seems to link to the high school football Coach Boss. And he has to make in choice whether to get swept back into the town he left years ago or get out while he still can.
     The main characters here are atypical. Earl isn't the picture of the crime comic antihero. He's old, worn down, and wearing a flannel shirt. Coach Boss is...well, a high school football coach, gruff but not exactly the pinnacle of crime lord. We're not even told what exactly Boss is doing, but the actions of his men tell plenty, and it provides a nice mystery for the book to continue with. In many ways, we start the same point that Earl starts: we know something is wrong here, but we don't know what. But it becomes obvious from the whirlwind of violence that this is not good, and while we ultimately know the choice Earl has to make (it'd be a short comic if he left, wouldn't it?), it never stops feeling like a problem he won't be able to fix.
     Latour's art fits the book perfectly. His art is as dark as the story that Aaron is telling, and the character designs are so spot-on that it's instantly obvious that he spent his childhood in the south. There's no other way you can make characters that I can go to the Wal-Mart and see. And he is also the perfect choice for the book's violent moments, providing the right amount of shock every time they happen.

     Here Was a Man ends with a twist to make sure you come back. It doesn't matter. If you love crime stories full of purely evil villains and unlikely heroes, then Southern Bastards will have you hooked by the end of the first issue.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Ittle Dew

Developed and published by Ludosity
Played on PC

     As great as the Zelda series is, sometimes the wait between games can get a bit much. We haven't even seen any of Zelda U besides a small teaser trailer. Ittle Dew looks to fill that gap by being a definitive Zelda clone, and it is, for better or worse.
     The basic plot has Ittle and her flying ferret (?) companion, Tippsi, washing up on an island where there's surely adventure to be had! The game itself doesn't care so much about plot as it does its sense of humor, and it delivers there. Half of it is winking at standard Zelda conventions, while the other half is an absurd, morbid sense of humor that made me laugh out loud. The high points are the conversations with enemies that you have when you encounter them for the first time. Let's just say that a sentient moai head with wings does not have the most pleasant existence.
     The gameplay is a match for the 2D Zelda games. A top-down adventure where you fight enemies, trek through dungeons, collect items, and solve block puzzles. Block puzzles may not be the most exciting puzzle ever devised in video game history. The difference here is the game's focus on them. Pretty much any puzzle to get through a door comes down to “push these blocks on to the switches”. It then quickly throws as many elements as it can into the puzzles, and once you get the items, even more elements. Figuring out exactly what you need to do for each puzzle is tricky and satisfying, and the game's “reset room” option means that you're never afraid to experiment.
     The items themselves don't shock, with a fire sword, an ice wand, and a teleport wand. That's it. The game opens up more once you look at the achievements and realize you don't even need all three to beat the game. In fact, the game constantly encourages you to look for ways around the puzzles, with professional routes in each dungeon and an achievement for beating the game in 15 minutes. It wants you to go through again and skip a third of the game. 100% players and speedrunners will have a lot to look forward to here. Those who just want to beat the game might be disappointed. I was able to beat the game in about 2 hours with exploration of the various side-caves.

     Still, the game remains high quality throughout. It doesn't reinvent the wheel, but it makes the wheel as smooth and polished as it can be. It's not quite a Zelda game, but like the title says, it'll do.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Nailbiter Volume 1: There Will Be Blood

WARNING: The following review contains descriptions of a disturbing violent act. Please read with caution.

Written by Joshua Williamson
Art by Mike Henderson

     Nailbiter focuses on the town of Buckaroo, Oregon, home to a whopping 16 serial killers. Nicholas Finch gets a call from FBI Agent Carroll, who tells Finch he's figured out the mystery as to why there's so many from one town. But when Finch gets there, Carroll is missing, and the only lead he has is Edward Warren, aka the Nailbiter, an acquitted serial killer who bit the fingernails off of his victims.
     A book that builds itself around a mystery like this has to pay off big, which unfortunately means it's too early to tell anything about the long game. The plus side: there are enough other mysteries being set up that there is plenty to keep you coming back. Every small detail and every new plot twist seems like it's building up for something bigger and bigger. While this leaves the first volume as primarily setup, it's a fantastic setup. And we also get introduced to the town of Buckaroo as a whole. There's support groups for people who were relatives of the serial killers. There's a man running a gift shop of killer memorabilia and trying to get a convention to come to the town. And then there's the people who just want to go through a normal life in an abnormal town. It's a fascinating locale that I want to see more of.
     And Henderson's art brings it to life. The best word I can think of for it is dynamic. His less realistic art style means that the book stays vibrant, but when there's acts of violence he brings blood and darkness to it. And the character designs bring extra to the characters' personalities. Warren's so carefree that it's hard to believe he's a killer, and Henderson's art makes him charming and all the more dangerous.

     There Will Be Blood is creepy, unsettling, and fascinating. If the book can keep up its level of personality, Nailbiter will be a winner of a horror comic.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode I

Developed by Sonic Team and Dimps
Published by Sega

     Some games exist in such a wave of controversy that it can be impossible to remove the game itself from it. Sonic 4 was simultaneously loved and hated on its release. With the dust settled and both episodes out, how exactly does Episode I stand on its own? To be short: not well.
     Not to say that it's bad by any means. In many ways, it's very nice to go back to a pure Sonic experience. There's no characters besides Sonic and Eggman. There's no gimmicks like Colors' aliens system. There's no cutscenes breaking things up. It's just a 2D experience as you speed through robots and loop-de-loops. While Sonic does have some definite acceleration problems (he seems so slow from a standing start), when he takes off, it's the same exhilarating experience you know and love.  And when the game brings some new mechanics to the table, it's always entertaining.
     There's two problems here that take away from this game. The first is its length. There's only 4 zones, each with 3 levels and a boss. You can easily blast through this thing in an afternoon, and while getting the chaos emeralds may take a little longer, it's still not much. The other big problem is that it is near-impossible to get past the “been there, done that” problem. The enemies are all copied from the Genesis games. The level themes are so same-y that there's no shock. Pieces of the levels are even taken directly from the original games, and the bosses are just classic bosses with small tweaks. If this game had been, say, Sonic 2 Remix it would've been acceptable. But there's that big 4 there that you just can't ignore while you play. At the end, the worst thing I can say for it is that Sonic Generations was a game entirely based around taking levels from the older games, and even it didn't feel as redundant as this game.

     Sonic 4 is $10 on Steam. For that same price, you can get Sonic 2 AND Sonic 3 and Knuckles. Unless you're a hardcore Sonic fan, there's little reason to play this, and fans will only get mild amusement from it.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

My Top 10 Favorite Comics and Graphic Novels

The format for this one is going to be a little different. Directly comparing graphic novels (or comics which have been collected in one or two volumes) to long, on-going series is near impossible. To solve that, I'm going to list my five favorite comics and five favorite graphic novels separately.

Top 5 Comics

  1. Fables
Fables' take on the fairy tale mythos is slowly becoming less and less unique, with the idea of combining many different fairy tale people into one universe taken over by (the also great) Once Upon a Time. But Bill Willingham brings Fables to life with his unique characterization and sweeping plotlines. It takes a lower place here for its fall after the first major climax from “excellent” to “good”, but considering that you still have about 11 volumes of excellence if you ignore the later ones, I'd consider that a fair warning.

  1. Green Lantern (by Geoff Johns)
Geoff Johns' reinvention of the Green Lantern franchise, starting with bringing Hal Jordan back to life in Green Lantern: Rebirth, not only brought me to the character but engrossed me in how deep a creator can completely change a book. The addition of the whole color spectrum for rings. Huge event comics like The Sinestro Corps War and Blackest Night. Introducing memorable characters like Larfleeze. A cosmic adventure that's well worth reading.

  1. Daredevil (by Brian Michael Bendis)
Up until Mark Waid's run, Daredevil was generally considered a character who was best when terrible things were happening to him. And boy, did Bendis give him plenty of terrible things. Starting with making his identity of Matt Murdock from best-kept secret to entirely public, everything in Bendis' run is a sweeping destruction of Murdock and Hornhead's life. And with Alex Maleev's dark art as a constant companion, Bendis did some of his best work with it.

  1. Invincible
I find it hard to classify Invincible. At times it's a deconstruction or parody of superheroes. Other times, it's simply a pure comic. Whatever it chooses to be, it entertains as Kirkman creates a superhero universe all his own. Long-time Marvel and DC characters can struggle to stand up to some of the heroes and villains that Kirkman has created. From its darkest moments to its funniest, Invincible is a work that shines against entire comic universes.

  1. Swamp Thing (by Alan Moore)
The first thing you should know about Swamp Thing is that its early issues were so filled with creepy horror that it was one of the comics that helped to create DC's Vertigo label for mature comics. The second thing you should know is that it's a romance. Yes, it may feature demons and a creature made out of plant life, but at its core, Moore wrote a love story that keeps you going, creating arcane worlds and strange flora as it goes. Alan Moore may have left some huge marks on the comics industry, but he never did better than Swamp Thing.

Top 5 Graphic Novels

  1. Persepolis
This and the next one on the list I saw as movies before I read the graphic novels. Both share one thing in common (as little else as they share): the details they add. Persepolis in either format is wonderful, but the extra details that the graphic novel has enhance the true story of a feminist woman growing up in Iran, finding herself trying to get every small victory she can. Endearing, charming, and heartbreaking, Persepolis is simply wonderful.

  1. V for Vendetta
Alan Moore is the only author here to show up on both lists. No wonder. V for Vendetta is a stunning look at both a fascist dictatorship that's sprung up in London and the anarchy that wants to overthrow it if it can even sustain itself. And where the movie deals in absolutes, everything in the graphic novel is so grey that the villains are given sympathy even as we're so sure they're evil. As much as I enjoy the movie, it's a cliff notes version of the incredible world and characters that the graphic novel has.

  1. Daytripper
Daytripper shocked me the first time I read it. I happen to flip through books a lot absentmindedly, saw the main character dying, and figured I had just seen a spoiler. And then I start reading it and...he dies at the end of the first issue. And the second. And the third. Ultimately the point of the series is not shocking you at how he dies or making you guess. It's about the moments that make up a life, the pieces that come together as you go and see how everything makes up the man whose life you see the individual days of.

  1. The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck
Never in my life did I think a Scrooge McDuck comic would make a top 10 list of...anything. Especially Don Rosa's tribute to Carl Barks' work, a tribute that meticulously looks to put together the details of Scrooge's life that Barks wrote. But even if you've never read any of Barks (although if you've seen Ducktales, you've gotten pieces), Rosa gives a great story, showing how Scrooge went from an idealistic young boy to a miser, his successes and his failures, his triumphs and his mistakes. It's fantastic...and it's all about a cartoon duck. Who would've guessed?

  1. All-Star Superman

The All-Star line is one of the weirdest things ever thought up in comics, producing a whole two comic series, with one being one of the worst comics ever, and the other being one of the best. The idea of giving tribute to Superman was given to Grant Morrison, who all but dropped his trademark surrealism and metacommentary for a love letter to the man of steel. It's fun one moment. It makes you cry the next. It winks and nods at the silly silver age tropes, and then fully embraces them. If you've never gotten the big blue boy scout, it's the perfect place to start. If you've never read a comic before, it's the perfect place to start.   

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

My Top 10 Favorite Video Games

As with the movies, these may not be my absolute favorite games of all time. But they're 10 excellent games that I could pick up again and play at any moment, and I consider that to be just as important.

  1. Sonic 3 and Knuckles
Alright, so this one is closer to 2 games. After all, they were released as 2 separate games...because of the holiday rush to get Sonic 3 out. Put them together, though, and you get one of the most epic platformers put on a 16-bit console. Three playable characters, with a different story between playing as Sonic or Knuckles. Innovative and fun levels that push the 10 minute time limit. And easily the last agreeably great Sonic game. Nothing since has quite compared to it.

  1. Team Fortress 2
Very rarely am I even barely interested in a multiplayer only game. Maybe it was the inclusion in The Orange Box, maybe it was the cartoony graphics, but Team Fortress 2 hooked me so much that it's easily the game on this list I've put the most time into. The basic hyperactive, often hilarious, gameplay hasn't changed since launch, but its many additions with new game modes and weapons have only made the game more complex and a good reason to pick it up again when it falls off my radar.

  1. Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective
To my knowledge, the only game on this list that I've also written a review for. Take the intriguing and twisting writing of the Phoenix Wright series, mix it with adventure gameplay that's simultaneously challenging and fun, and give the game a style all to its own. Ghost Trick might very well be one of the best adventure games of recent years, and its unique gameplay style may be imitated in the future, but it can never truly be matched.

  1. Super Mario Galaxy 2
Flip a coin between the first and second Galaxy games and you've still got perfection. 2's additions (Yoshi being the biggest one) make it the choice for this list, but either way, there's an incredible galaxy of worlds awaiting, where you never quite know where you're going to end up next or what the challenges are going to be, but they're always exciting and vibrant. Nintendo showed off exactly what the Wii could do with this series.

  1. Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater
When Kojima doesn't want to make a sequel, he makes a story that's incredibly confusing (MGS2) or overloaded with exposition (MGS4). When he does want to make a sequel, hell freezes over and we get Metal Gear Solid 3. The story is straightforward but emotionally complex, dealing with themes of betrayal and patriotism. Meanwhile, the gameplay is tight, with the camoflage, stamina, and healing systems all adding great new elements, and the boss battles being some of the series' best—especially when you learn their secret tricks. The Subsistence and HD re-releases fixed the camera and made things even better.

  1. LittleBigPlanet
LittleBigPlanet positioned itself as the 2.5D platformer to end all platformers. Maybe not, but it was close. The fun and simple gameplay has its faults, to be sure, especially in the story mode. But when you went into the user-made content, suddenly the sky's the limit. From a recreation of the Titanic to tropical resorts, from tales of espionage to a trek through a pyramid, my favorite moments of LittleBigPlanet are the ones that people came up with. The second game gave more to do—sadly, the platforming potential ended up pushed to the sidelines.

  1. Rock Band 3
The only rhythm game you ever need. Adding the keyboards did wonders for its gameplay, with the pro keyboard mode being some of the most difficult fun I've had in a rhythm game. That may be the only thing putting it here over the first two Rock Bands, but with the full store at your disposal (sadly diminished now thanks to expiring licenses), there's plenty of songs to find for your next get-together, and the no-fail mode means that you can all play the hardest songs and not have to stare down the person who fails out within 15 seconds. The most fun you can have with your favorite songs outside of drunk karaoke.

  1. Ace Attorney: Trials and Tribulations
The visual novel genre has never really taken off in America like it has in Japan, likely due to the lack of any gameplay besides making decisions. Ace Attorney is one of the few series to have any real gameplay, which let it gain a foothold, and as much as Capcom wants to keep it down, it has continually provided some of the best stories in video games. Trials and Tribulations is the high point with memorable characters and plots that twist so much that you never know what's going to come next. This also marks the end of the original trilogy in a huge way, wrapping up many of its plotlines and providing some truly great scenes. The Phoenix Wright games don't leave much to replayability, but the excellent story can be experienced over and over again.

  1. Sly 2: Band of Thieves
The first Sly game entertained me with its Saturday morning cartoon aesthetics and mix of platforming and stealth. The second Sly game blew me away. The straightforward levels became miniature open worlds, free to explore and find their secrets as you set up for incredible heists. Each mission you completed starting putting the pieces together, but the heists themselves provided the real excitement, as every skill you've learned comes together until you hit the great boss battles. Adding Murray and Bentley as playable characters gave the game more variety, and the story, while simplistic, touched on some real emotions towards its climax (although closure would not come until the also-great Sly 3). The closest to Ocean's Eleven you're going to get in video game form.

  1. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

The first time I played Sands of Time...I didn't get it. The combat was awful. The platforming was difficult. The time mechanic seemed pointless. Something drew me back to it, and then something clicked. The parkour-based platforming is smooth and fun, with the time mechanic reducing some of the harshness while making it no less satisfying when you wall-run and jump across a room. Navigating around the palace's traps is exciting and difficult. The story is developed and stunning, based not around the sand monsters that roam the palace, but among the subtle changes in the relationship between The Prince and Farrah. The still not that great, but hey, even perfect games are a little less than perfect.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Blackwell Unbound

Developed and published by Wadjet Eye Games

     I've played several Wadjet Eye games now, and they all fall into the same category – retro-styled point-and-click adventure games with extremely strong, serious stories. The Blackwell series, the masterwork of the developer (with 5 different games, Unbound being the second) is no different.
     A prequel to the original, you play as Lauren Blackwell (Dani Marco), a medium who, along with her spirit guide Joey (Abe Goldfarb), has to help ghosts move on. This game features 2 different cases, a man who won't stop playing the sax and a woman who believes she's still in her apartment, and naturally, the more things go on, the more it seems the cases may be connected somehow.
     While this is an adventure game, it doesn't have puzzles in the traditional sense. Which is to say that your inventory exists, but rarely will trying to combine everything with everything result in anything. There's only a handful of inventory puzzles throughout the game, even. Instead, the puzzles revolve more around the dialogue. You have to use each new little piece of information to figure out how to get the next piece, and so on. You might have to look up a name in the phonebook, or combine two clues to get a new one, all so you have a new topic to ask someone about. It can sometimes feel like you're wandering around without a clue, but once you get that clue, the pieces quickly fall together.
     And having everything based around dialogue means that you're constantly invested in figuring out the mystery. You want to know who these people are, how they died, and what you need to do to help them move on. By tying the game so strongly around the story, you're that much more interested in the story. It's a loving care that shows throughout the game. The graphics are spectacular, showing so much detail with so little, and small details (Lauren will pull out a cigarette when she's not doing anything) give the game a lot of life. It's a fairly short game (2 hours max), but it's satisfying to play through. My only complaint is small, but still fairly striking—the voice acting occasionally have microphone pop. Again, it's a small thing, but it takes you so thoroughly out of the game that it's very disappointing.

     In a way, Blackwell Unbound is like an episode of a TV show (maybe not surprising, considering the series was meant to be 10 games long). It's short but engaging, with a strong story that makes you want to come back for the next one.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

My Top 10 Favorite Movies

A list of my favorite movies can seem near-impossible at times. The list fluctuates so much and can easily change depending on what I've seen most often and how I'm feeling that day. If anything, consider these my desert island movies at least, the ones I could watch a hundred times and not get tired of them. I've also tried to be representative of different directors/creators to avoid filling this up with Pixar and Ghibli movies.

     10. Sherlock Jr.
As a general rule, if somebody likes silent films, they lean towards either Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton. There's little middle ground here. To me, Chaplin's stories are always better...but Keaton can run around him a million times in terms of comedy. Sherlock Jr. is brief in its runtime (less than an hour), but filled to the brims with great comedy moments. Keaton's wild ride on the handlebars of a motorcycle is one of his best stunts, and his trick pool shots around an (in-story) explosive pool ball would impress Bugs Bunny. Short but flawless.

  1. Beauty and the Beast
It's incredibly hard for me to choose one Disney animated movie here. Lion King, Aladdin, and Bolt could easily take this spot. So why Beauty and the Beast? Because it's filled with plenty of flawless songs, gorgeous animation, and one of Disney's best reimaginings of a fairy tale (the servants being turned into talking objects? All Disney). Disney has had their highs and lows over the years, but it rarely gets anywhere as high as this.

  1. Up
Another one that could easily be replaced by...well...throw a dart at Pixar's pre-Cars-2 lineup. But I come back to Up every time for showing how Pixar's pure skill in their craft. Few movies put as much plot into them as Up has in its famous opening montage. And as you dry your tears from that, you're thrust into a world where a house can fly using balloons and one of the main characters is a talking dog. There's never any mood whiplash here, just a pure range of emotions, tied together with a catchy leitmotif and a villain who's a dark reflection of the main character, a perfect example of showing the dangerous path that he's on.

  1. Singin' in the Rain
My musical of choice. No matter how many times I see it, it takes seconds to start enjoying the songs and choreograhy, to smile at the historical premise turned as ridiculous as possible. I find myself having trouble coming up with things to say about it, possibly because it's just a pure feel-good pick-me-up movie, but it is the feel-good movie for me.

  1. Airplane!
One of my favorite jokes in Airplane is when the control tower says “They're on instruments!” Cut to the crew playing instruments raucously. It's ridiculous, it's simple, and it makes me laugh. Where so many parodies feel the need to wink towards the camera, Airplane has its actors straight-faced in a world where the absurd is a step away. And where some movies carefully set up a big joke, Airplane fires them off so fast that by the time you're done laughing at one, five more have just happened. A movie that rewards rewatches and is endlessly quotable.

  1. Pulp Fiction
What exactly has drawn me to Pulp Fiction is so hard to say. In theory, it's a movie about almost nothing. Three events happen. At the end, half the cast is dead and the other half is changed. But that's where Tarentino's script changes things. The sudden and dark violence happens around conversations about religion, redemption, and yes, what they call a quarter pounder with cheese in other countries. While some movies make everything seem so big, Pulp Fiction's events ultimately feel just like another day in the life. Somebody getting shot in the head and somebody else overdosing on heroin is the chaos breaking up business as usual.

  1. Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope
Let's get it over with: there's about a thousand versions of A New Hope out there, and there are some people who could argue for ages about whether Han shooting first or not matters. To me, it doesn't. Ever since I was a kid, what's gripped me about A New Hope has been its witty dialogue, its great atmosphere, and its stunning alien makeup. Some movies you look at and immediately know that the alien is CGI, the planet they're on is a greenscreen. When I watch Star Wars, I still have that belief somewhere in me that George Lucas flew off to Tatooine and filmed a real Jawa. His later actions aside, the vision on show here remains epic close to 40 years later.

  1. Princess Mononoke
Generally, when I think Ghibli, I think lighthearted, fun movies that mix their melancholy with magical worlds and optimism. But there's a few exceptions to that rule, and Princess Mononoke is a big one. There's no fun fantasy world here. There's darkness, there's violence. There's a classic fight of man vs. nature here. But there's no quiet acknowledgment that the right side is going to win. The further it goes, the more doubtful it becomes that nature will remain, and that even if it gets defeated, man will still be alive afterwards. Miyazaki's darkness is unleashed here, and it's powerful.

  1. Who Framed Roger Rabbit
Most creators would use Who Framed Roger Rabbit as a chance to parody the film noir genre, turn it to absurdity. Robert Zemeckis instead used it as a fitting tribute, taking classic film noir themes (the hardened detective, the femme fatale, the over-the-top villain) and injecting it with fantastic animation. There is never any doubt that Bob Hoskins is actually talking to a cartoon rabbit. Its jokes consistently work on every viewing, and its smart storyline is so well crafted that the rumor it started as a Chinatown sequel is doubtful (the dates don't add up), but always believable.

  1. City of God

When I first watched City of God, that was when I knew that whatever I did later in life, it would have something to do with movies. Nothing in my life before then told me that you could have three scenes leading up to the same scene--one of which just being a single shot telling the backstory of the apartment where the scene takes place—but once I saw it, I knew it was right. Its narrative hops over time but never loses you. And as much as it loves its style, it hits hard with its story. The dual narrative has one man looking for the glimmer of hope in a dark and violent world, while the other embraces the violence and creates a cycle that seems unbreakable as the movie goes on. One of the few movies I could actually say is perfect.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Bicycle Thief/Bicycle Thieves

Directed by Vittorio De Sica
Written by Vittorio De Sica, Cesare Zavattini, Suso Cecchi D'Amico, Oreste Biancoli, Adolfo Franci, and Gerardo Guerriri
Based on the novel by Luigi Bartolini

     If you like dark and depressing movies set in postwar Italy (because they were filmed in postwar Italy), then the Italian neorealism movement is for you. The Bicycle Thief went on to win an honorary Oscar for good reason, showing off how the movement could be both thought-provoking while creating downright hopeless stories.
     Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani) gets a job putting up posters around Rome, but he needs a bicycle to do it or he'll get fired. When his bicycle gets stolen, he and his son Bruno (Enzo Staiola) are forced to look all over Rome for it.
     The plot seems almost simplistic, but it's the interactions of the characters that develop the richness here. Antonio is a desperate man, and he so badly wants to do right for his family with this job. He has these small sparks of hope that get destroyed as he gets beaten down by a world he simply cannot win in. And while child actors are always hit-or-miss, Staiola is perfect as Bruno. His expressions tend towards being flat, but the directing makes sure we know exactly what's going through his mind. The more he has to look for the bike, the more he begins to realize that it's hopeless and the more he loses his respect for his father. Wordless scenes still show so much by his simple actions. De Sica actually chose him by how he walked, and it's a simple thing that brings a lot to his character.
     And while we focus on Antonio and Bruno, the movie does not give protagonist focus. This is not a movie where the protagonists alone have some bad luck. This is a movie where we simply focus on two people who happen to be experiencing problems everybody is experiencing. The scene where Antonio gets his job has other men complain that they didn't get a job. A powerful early scene has Antonio's wife Maria (Lianella Carell) trading in the family's sheets so they can get back the bicycle—and we see hundreds of piles of sheets all stacked up. We're always reminded that the protagonists aren't alone in this world, and the tragedy is that Antonio never realizes it. He pushes and bothers people who have their own problems, people praying in church to get meager food afterwards, bicycle sellers trying to make a living. Antonio is in a bad place, but he's one among many.

     The Bicycle Thief is stark and can be a hard watch. There's little lightness here and the ending is bleak. But then, considering the state of things at the time, it creates a completely understandable picture of postwar Italy.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Metro: Last Light

Developed by 4A Games
Published by Deep Silver

     There is something to be said for games which are deeply immersive. Not just attempting immersion, but putting elements into every part of the game. Last Light drops you in the middle of post-apocalyptic Russia, and you never stop feeling it.
     Taking place a year after the events of Metro 2033 and following that game's bad ending, the Dark Ones have been destroyed and the Rangers have taken over the former military bunker D6. However, the news that a single Dark One is still alive leads Artyom in pursuit of it—and along the way, uncovering enemy plans to take over D6.
     Where Last Light immediately hooks you is in much the same way that the original game did so. Your objectives are shown on a clipboard that Artyom carries, allowing you to pull it up at any time (and turn on your lighter in the dark). Trips out on to the surface require gas masks and air filters, and you have to wipe water and gunk off your mask if you want to see. It brings you into the game before you even get to the superbly crafted gameplay. Running and gunning is certainly a tactic, but not a satisfying or smart tactic unless you enjoy dying and watching your resources run out. Meanwhile, it's much more fun to sneak around, turning off lights, hiding in the shadows and darting past patrols. Stealth here is fun and rarely frustrating. If it seems like you can't possibly get past a group of people without getting caught, chances are you just need to look more to find the way on. And it also rarely requires killing.
     Which is good for people trying to get the good ending because, as with the previous game, it's extremely difficult. Even if you do every good action you come across and try for a pacifist run, it's still very likely you'll get the bad ending, thanks to the laundry list of morality points you need with many well-hidden. It encourages exploration and thinking to get them all, but it can still be annoying when you play the game, look around plenty, and still find the bad ending at the end. There's also some serious flaws in the story, the biggest one being Anna. When you first see her, she's a pure badass that immediately became my favorite character. Naturally, she quickly gets shunted to being a secondary character who by the end has completely just fallen into a woman for the male gamers to stare at. Even when there's a big final battle towards the end, she gets left out for the all-male generic soldiers. I get used to games being male-centric, certainly, but it just really rubbed me the wrong way here. This, combined with the often rambling nature of the story (at times it feels like you're just going from location to location), made me enjoy the gameplay more than any time that focused on story.

     Metro: Last Light is worth playing for the top-notch stealth gameplay and atmosphere. It's just a shame that, with a game so obviously built around a story, the story is more cringe-worthy than anything.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Tomb Raider (1996)

Developed by Core Design
Published by Eidos Interactive

      I'm a pretty big Tomb Raider fan, but only a recent one. I've surely committed one of the fandom sins by only coming in with Legend. While I played the originals a little when I was younger, I didn't get them and quickly became disinterested. Playing the original Tomb Raider now, it's easy to see why young me didn't enjoy it: it's slow, methodical, and precise. And that's why it's so much fun to finally play it.
     The plot is there, but not exactly meaningful: Lara gets hired by Natla to retrieve an artifact for her. The little advancement that happens is through clunky FMVs between the acts. It's there for one reason: to provide an excuse for Lara's globetrotting adventure. Taking you from Peru to Greece to Egypt, the environments stand out as a high-point in the game. They feel unique, with the snowy cave of Peru opening into a hidden jungle, and Greece going from a temple to a giant coliseum. The game is limited by only having interior environments, but only “limited” in the sense that you're never outdoors. The levels are huge, sprawling, and atmospheric. There's no witty quips from Lara or cuts to cinematics. It's just you, all sorts of animals trying to kill you (a good alternate game title would be Lara Croft: Endangered Species Killer) and plenty of exploration along the way to the next level.
      The controls can feel odd at first. You don't run and press the jump button right as you hit the edge. You'll just fall if you do that. Lara won't hang on to ledges unless you tell her to. And she'll freely run off ledges unless you're holding down the walk button. It is very easy, especially early on, to find the muscle memory of modern platformers killing you left and right. But then it clicks and suddenly it's perfect. The basic rules of the game never change, meaning that it's easy enough to figure out “Oh, as long as I press jump and then forward, I'll do this kind of jump”, and that will get you through many situations. And once the game starts throwing traps at you, you've gotten the feel for things enough that the traps are tough, but fair. Oh, you'll die plenty, but there's only a few times when you'll die to platforming because the game didn't work right.
     And I want to emphasize “to platforming”, because while the controls have aged well in this charming, clunky way, the combat is awful. Trying to run around enough to avoid enemies while dealing with the tank controls is near impossible. At some point, the strategy is either “stand on a ledge and shoot” or “shoot and keep jumping backwards”, because otherwise you either die quickly or spend plenty of time shooting at walls. In the quiet immersion of most of the game, combat is almost always just a frustration.

     Tomb Raider may show the flaws that a game nearing 20 years old is going to show, but it also shows the big dreams of the time: environments as packed with puzzles and platforming as with action, a heroine able to take down almost any foe who comes her way, and an around-the-world trip without having to leave your computer. For someone who only knows the newer games, it's a lot of fun to see how things were when everything began.

Friday, September 19, 2014

State of the Stuff (aka "Is This Still Updating?")

      It's very likely you may have noticed a sudden lack of content for about a month now. Between starting a job and a general lack of anything within my interest coming out (I seriously haven't gone to the movies since Guardians of the Galaxy, and haven't particularly wanted to with the crop of movies out there), I've definitely used it all as an excuse to slack on content.
     However, don't think at all that I want to stop doing Devi Reviews Stuff. I'll take the last month as a hiatus, but now I'm going to go back into full gear. And I do mean full gear.
     For when, I want to get back into what I was doing when I started the site: reviewing every movie I watch and game I play. I'm still not going to put up a review that I'm unsatisfied with, but I'm at least going to try reviewing things and if I find myself running around with nothing to say, I'll drop it, whereas earlier I simply haven't even tried at reviewing more difficult things.
     The other thing I want to start doing is setting a schedule. At least twice a week, I'm going to be putting up reviews (and hopefully more often than that). And on Wednesdays, I'm going to put up either top lists or opinion pieces. I've always wanted to keep things focused on reviews, but I also want to provide content that can hopefully also give a better look at me and my tastes, starting with going over some of my all-time favorite movies, shows, games, and more.

     So short version: sorry for the delay, but get ready for plenty of reviews and more on the way.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy

Directed by James Gunn
Written by James Gunn and Nicole Perlman
Based on the comic by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning

     In a way, Guardians of the Galaxy is the most un-Marvel movie so far. Not in a sense of tone, but in a sense of location. Earth is barely onscreen for 3 minutes, there's no familiar characters around (besides a couple minor ones, two of which appeared in credits scenes before), and the characters are aliens and rogues—decidedly not super, and barely qualifying as heroic. And all of this makes it stand out higher in Marvel's universe.
     Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) is a rogue-type who discovers an orb that he thinks is just a normal artifact, but it ends up attracting the attention of Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) and his Kree army. Peter has to team up with Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper), and the alien-tree Groot (Vin Diesel) to figure out what the orb is and stop it from getting into Ronan's hands.
     The comparisons between the Guardians themselves and the Avengers are obvious. After all, the worst the Avengers have is Tony Stark, who's deeply sarcastic but still heroic. The Guardians practically define the ragtag group of misfits, constantly at odds with each other in their goals and morally. They seem like any minute they're just going to turn and kill each other. When the Avengers fight like that, it's a tense atmosphere. When the Guardians fight, it's closer to hilarious. The focus on humor here is big, and there's plenty of bickering remarks as they butt heads, held together by some fine acting all around. Zoe Saldana is still in her niche of “no-nonsense badass”, but it works all the better when she's surrounded by nonsense. Bradley Cooper takes the role of a bitter talking raccoon as seriously as he can, cracking plenty of jokes while showing the small shades of his backstory when you least expect it. And Chris Pratt swaggers on-screen in an opening scene that defines his role better than anything: a quiet trip into a ruin that then turns into Pratt dancing and kicking space-rats to Come And Get Your Love.
     The atmosphere here ties things together. It plays to pure sci-fi. The pristine planet which holds the galactic police corps Nova, the space jail filled with tough aliens that the Guardians have to break out of. And then it plays to the Marvel universe's bigger weirdness with a planet which is actually the head of a long-dead giant alien. If you want the 101 to Marvel Cosmic, this is it: there may be a talking raccoon, but you're still getting an honest love of science fiction that's just done without boundaries. Space battles are huge and fun. An early fight over the orb is humorous while also showing off plenty of sci-fi tech. The CGI is flawless, from the spaceships to Rocket's smaller details and expressions making him actually look like a raccoon is just walking around with a giant gun.

     Guardians is another winner in Marvel's line-up (big surprise), but it's also a huge dose of sci-fi fun. It goes over the top and then some, and it never pauses and says “Should we back off?”, but instead just looks to entertain as much as possible.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Rocky & Bullwinkle Volume 1

Written by Mark Evanier
Art by Roger Langridge

     IDW has done some fantastic revivals of licenses, and with the recent Mr. Peabody and Sherman movie, now's a great time to bring back the Jay Ward cartoons in comic form, right? Sadly, Rocky & Bullwinkle stumbles far too quickly and never recovers.
     The four issues here are all standalone stories, with the moose & squirrel going against Boris & Natasha's various evil plans. The elements from the cartoon are here in essence. There's the omnipresent narrator and the dual “Next time” cliffhanger titles, and just a feeling like these could've been actual stories on the show. But then the comic ends up relying too much on references rather than actual humor. It's funny when Bullwinkle asks a magician “How did you do that?” after he pulls a rabbit out of his hat, it's painful when Bullwinkle starts explaining what normally happens. It gets worse when modern-day references start getting put in. They just don't work in context. You've got a 60s, Cold War style plot of Americans vs. Russian expies, and then suddenly Bullwinkle starts talking about the Kardashians and reality shows. And finally, there's a lack of the self-deprecation that made the series great. Hell, even the movie got that one right. Instead, the comic almost seems to put the show on a pedestal, and that's just not a good place for a licensed comic to be.
     There are a few good points here. The idea of cutting from the main story for a Dudley Do-Right “short” is perfectly in the style of the show, and the shorts tend to be better than the main feature. Sadly, it's nothing BUT Dudley Do-Right. No Aesop's Fables, no Fractured Fairy Tales, just Dudley Do-Right. But I'll take what I can get. Bullwinkle's awful puns throughout are perfectly in style, and they're so bad that they at least put a smile on my face. The final issue here is also fairly good, the closest to what I was hoping for when I started reading, but it was a serious case of too little, too late. And Langridge's art is in top form, a simplified style that works for a similarity to the show. My main question is why he didn't also write the comic. He did an excellent job on the Muppet Show comic, and with how stylistically similar they are, this would seem like the perfect fit for him.

     Overall, Rocky & Bullwinkle is just disappointing. IDW has done plenty of quality licensed work, so to see something that uses the license so poorly just seems out of place for them.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

12 Years a Slave

Directed by Steve McQueen
Written by John Ridley
Based on the book by Solomon Northup

     Some movies take the easy way out on hard topics, implying the harder parts or making soft messages like “slavery was bad”. 12 Years a Slave does not go easy. 12 Years a Slave lets you know from the opening that there is going to be nothing held back.
     Solomon Northup (Academy Award-nominated Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a free man living a decent life in New York. When two men give him a job offer and take him out drinking afterwards, he wakes up in slavery, with nobody willing to listen to him. And over his 12 years in slavery, he has to do what he can both to survive and to become free again.
     This is undoubtedly a brutal and intense movie. The fact that there's violence as soon as Solmon gets put in slavery sets the tone for how things will go. And things get worse from there. The shock factor is there in a sense, seeing what Solomon had to be put through, but it goes beyond simple shock to show the kinds of cruel people that were involved. The early slavers seem cruel for having slaves, beating them, and simply treating them as property. This is not a movie that gives a pass to white people or tries to say “But that's what happened back then”, it shows in full that there was simply nobody who cared. But they just barely qualify as generous compared to the eventual slavers of Solomon for the movie's latter half. The Epps (Academy Award-nominated Michael Fassbender and Sarah Paulson) aren't just cruel, they're vicious. Edwin is an alcoholic who will whip his slaves for no reason, while Mistress Epps verbally abuses Patsey (Academy Award-winning Lupita N'yongo). While Patsey only has a handful of scenes, the Oscar for N'yongo becomes obvious in a heartbreaking scene where Patsey begs Solomon to mercy-kill her.
     Everything gets held together by the incredible cinematography. The lush green of Louisiana is directly contrasted with the horrors that happen on-screen. And several silent long takes throughout show more than dialogue ever could. When Solomon barely survives being hanged at one point, it would have been easy to have the aftermath scene last a few seconds. Instead, it's a full minute as Solomon simply stands on his tiptoes while behind him, all the other slaves continue on with their work. And when McQueen does nothing but focus on Ejiofor, his acting ability shines through. A scene of him simply running through emotions at the mere chance of being free is one of the most powerful scenes in the movie.

     Visually striking and incredibly acted, 12 Years a Slave takes the issue and the story on in full and doesn't falter for a second in showing what happened.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Pitch Perfect (Guest Review by Aria!)

Directed by Jason Moore
Written by Kay Cannon
Based on the novel by Mickey Rapkin

     I had such high hopes for Pitch Perfect, but it let me down with more of the same.
     We have here the story of a special snowflake hipster chick with an intense passion for music and a father who doesn’t understand her.. She has her own dreams, but her father doesn’t approve and makes her go to college. The message is clear: she needs to stop being so cool and join a defunct, all-girl a capella group that doesn’t know when to quit.
     That’s great and everything, but the main plot is soon engulfed by the unnecessary and contrived romantic subplot. The story of a guy who just kinda forces himself into a girl’s space and is *sob* so heartbroken when she doesn’t take too kindly to that. Oh, well. The important thing is how self-aware they are, predicting and bashing the ending to their own movie.
     The main problem seems to be that the movie doesn't understand its own strengths, choosing to focus on the least interesting characters and turning everyone else into offensive caricatures and mere props for a cause that their depiction betrays. The whole movie seems so ready to subvert all of this and by the end reinforces that everything is exactly as it appears. Look at us subverting subversiveness! We're so original you guys!
     *spoilers* The girls’ victory at the end is undermined by the fact that the main villain leaves before the final battle. Yeah, they were awesome and stuff, but without the sweet, succulent tears of the bad guy, how am I supposed to balance my breakfast? *end spoilers*
     While it has its moments (Rebel Wilson gets a couple of good lines; Elizabeth Banks steals every scene she’s in; and the music is indisputably awesome), the seemingly girl-power plot-line is tarnished by out-of-date tropes and straw-man misogyny that serves to obscure actual male entitlement as a quirky, lovable character trait.
     Also, vader is Dutch, not German.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

A Matter of Life and Death

Written and directed by Michael Powell and Eric Pressburger

     Let's face it, the older a movie is, the less that's expected out of its special effects. You may see the zipper on the monster, but if the costume's good, you'll give it a pass. You may be able to tell that the sweeping city is a matte painting, but the sheer scope of it can still impress. While A Matter of Life and Death has a little more going for it than just its special effects, they shine out over the rest of the movie.
     Peter Carter (David Niven) is a pilot in World War II whose plane gets shot down. He's meant to die and go to heaven. However, the angel who's supposed to take him there, Conductor 71 (Marius Goring), can't find him in the English fog. And by the time he actually finds Peter, Peter has fallen in love with June (Kim Hunter), and now that love may be the only thing that can keep him from going to heaven.
     In an interesting stylistic choice, real life is portrayed in Technicolor, while heaven is in black-and-white. You'd think the majesty of heaven would've been portrayed as more colorful than real life, but then, this is a film about wanting to stay alive, making real life look far more appealing (71 even snarks when he goes to Earth for the first time, “I missed Technicolor”). Instead, heaven is dream-like, almost surreal, seeming to stretch on forever. It's done with simple and obvious matte paintings (in one scene panning down a building, you can even see the seam), and yet it works. The zoom-outs to endless environments are impressive. The climactic courtroom scene seems to have a cast of thousands watching over it. Even simpler special effects on Earth are incredible for 1946. When everybody walks through a door while time is stopped, the effect not only works, but makes you wonder how they did it.
     Of course, this should not be mistaken for simply a pretty movie. The plot here is fascinating. The ticking clock as Peter has to prepare for the trial for his life works well, especially as he desperately looks for the lawyer who can defend him, being able to choose from anybody from all of history. And the trial scene itself is suspenseful, although it starts to veer a bit into a battle between the English and the English-hating Abraham Farlan (Raymond Massey), the first American who got killed in the lead-up to the Revolutionary War. It makes sense as the movie was meant as propaganda to show how the English and Americans should work together, but it makes the movie's main plot get pushed aside for a while. The scene is interesting to watch, but you can't help but wonder what happened to Peter in the middle of it.
     And then there's the movie's big problem: the romance is too sudden. This may easily be values dissonance, a case of something that would've been acceptable in the 40s but not in 2014. Regardless, it's a little ridiculous to watch Peter come up to the woman he talked to on the radio before he died, say he loves her and kiss her, and...they're in love now! And their romance never becomes more convincing than that, you just have to go with it. This can easily be a deal-breaker for people who want their romance plots to make sense. If you're willing to ignore it and just imagine there's a bunch of off-screen stuff that happened, the movie will probably work better.

     Even with that significant misstep, A Matter of Life and Death has great visuals and a tense story, with fine performances by Niven, Hunter and Goring that keep it all together.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

The Amazing Spider-Man 2

Directed by Marc Webb
Written by Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, Jeff Pinkner, and James Vanderbilt
Based on characters created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko

     The first Amazing Spider-Man movie looked like a step in the right direction for the reboot. Its decompression of the origin events, addition of wit and humor that had always been missing from the original trilogy, and great use of a villain all made it a winner. And that all makes it so disappointing to see it all fall apart so quickly in the sequel.
     Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) is reeling from the events of the previous film, but has also quickly become the people's hero as Spider-Man. But things go bad as he has to deal with his fractured relationship with Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), the emerging supervillain and Spider-Man fanboy Electro (Jamie Foxx), and mysteries about his parents connected with Oscorp.
     There's a lot of weak points here, but praise is deserved here for several points. The action sequences are very well done, tightly filmed and with excellent special effects. They're the easy high point of the movie as a whole. There's also Jamie Foxx's performance as Electro/Max Dillon. While there's problems with the writing that I'll get to, early on, we see him as someone pathetically sympathetic, even as he gets transformed. His scene of “attacking” Times Square shortly after being transformed isn't this big first fight against the villain, it's a sad moment of a normal guy who really doesn't want the power he's suddenly stuck with. And finally, the score here is excellent. The character's leitmotifs are done well, and the dynamic nature means that triumphant Spider-Man swinging music gets suddenly turned into heavy electronic beats when the villains come in.
     But sadly, nothing can fix the narrative problems here. The film doesn't really move, it lurches around randomly. The first half of the movie even feels completely different from the second half. None of the Oscorp plotlines become relevant until later, and they just don't spark any interest. Electro's interesting nature as a sympathetic villain definitely seems like it could work, but his sympathies are lost by the end. There's no “redemption equals death” or anything, he just becomes a standard villain. The same goes for Dane Dehaan's Harry Osborn, whose transformation from diseased boy with a father he hates to outright villain is almost ridiculous. It even hinges on Peter and Spider-Man being a jerk to him for no reason—not really something you want out of him. And then there's the Gwen Stacy subplot. You can literally hear the movie grinding to a halt any time it stops to focus on Peter and Gwen's romance, which is uninteresting, creepy (at one point Peter admits to stalking Gwen while they were broken up, and Gwen just laughs at it) and poorly written (this is a movie that actually contains the line “It says I love you because I love you” with no irony). And as if that wasn't bad enough, the chemistry never really hits between the two. Which is weird when Andrew and Emma are dating in real life. Instead, Peter and Harry have more sparks flying between them (and in all honesty, would've explored a much more interesting dynamic that comic fans haven't seen before).

     ASM2's exciting action scenes can't gloss over a story that's just plain badly written. And when you compare this against the Marvel Studios output, it gets obvious that Spider-Man already needs another reboot.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Black Science Volume 1: How to Fall Forever

Written by Rick Remender
Art by Matteo Scalera

     While I've only read bits and pieces of Remender's work, I think his run on Secret Avengers (which I have read) defines him well: lots of big, high-concept stuff going on. He turned the espionage team of Avengers into a team that had to take down an evil empire of robots. And it was wonderful. Black Science takes the path of excitement right off the bat, and doesn't really let up.
     Grant McKay and his team of scientists have successfully made a device called The Pillar, which lets them reach into other dimensions. Food? A cure for cancer? If it's out in some dimension, then they can bring it to our Earth. Unfortunately, it gets sabotaged before they're able to do more testing, and now the team, along with Grant's kids and an executive, are stuck hopping between dimensions filled with stuff trying to kill them.
     And there is a definite fear that things will kill them. It's established in the first issue that anyone can die, and Remender does not let things feel safe, bringing the axe down several more times in this first volume. It could feel cheap, but it works. It leaves you on edge, not knowing when or if someone is going to die, and effectively making every danger feel like it could be a character's end. And this is kept up with a generally frenetic pace. There is always something going on, and even the one breather spot is just a gasp of air before it kicks right back into action.
     If that wasn't enough, there's always the ticking timer until The Pillar warps again. It's similar to Sliders in a way, except instead of alternate Earths, there's worlds of frog men and wars involving technologically advanced Native Americans. Scalera's art brings it all to life, with plenty of big panels to give the full view of the environment. And while the effort to fix The Pillar is there, and get back to their Earth, you obviously don't really want them to. When each dimension is something new and exciting, you just want to see what else Remender and Scalera have cooked up. The one problem being that between the focus on the worlds and the anyone can die attitude, character development is a bit light and sometimes feels pointless. But then, a lot is also said just by how the characters react to each new situation they're thrown into.

     How to Fall Forever is a solid first volume that has plenty to keep you reading. Even if the overall story is clearly developing, you want to get on now just to see where things go.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Godzilla (2014)

Directed by Gareth Edwards
Written by Max Borenstein and Dave Callaham

     While it's been years since I've seen the Matthew Broderick-starring Godzilla, its legacy is well known: it was awful. A stain on the franchise, so bad that Godzilla's creator declared the creature to be called “Zilla” in canon because they took the God out of it. The dust seems to have settled enough for them to attempt it again with the new (also subtitle-less) Godzilla, and while there's some flaws here, this is a definite step in the right direction.
     Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is a soldier who's just gotten back home when he gets a call that his dad, Joe (Bryan Cranston), has been arrested in Japan. When Ford goes to get him out, Joe convinces him to go into a quarantine zone, where they find that the organization Monarch is watching a larva that hatches into a MUTO (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism). Now, it's wrecking havoc on its way across Japan and the US, and the world's only hope may be Godzilla.
     The movie's story alone shows how there's a closer adherence to the classic Godzilla formula. Instead of a bunch of humans running around while Godzilla wrecks stuff, Godzilla is the hero here, fighting another monster. This doesn't stop humans from trying to interfere, leading to the main theme of man vs. nature. The military wants to use bombs to take out all the creatures, while Dr. Ichiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) urges them to just let Godzilla take them out, and then Godzilla will leave again. And indeed, Godzilla is generally shown to be less destructive than the MUTO. But you can't help but feel that it's a struggle mankind will not win throughout. It's explained that the MUTO resembles prehistoric life, feeding off radioactivity, and constantly, there are scenes of wild animals either running away or just not caring about the monsters. Like even if mankind were to get wiped out by everything, it was our playing with nuclear power and weapons that caused it. This may not touch as hard on the themes as the 1954 original, but the themes are still there in a sense.
     The movie's major stylistic decision is to show Godzilla and the MUTO as little as possible. This may seem disappointing at first, and indeed, it leaves you wanting more. Fights will cut off to only be seen on TV or through closing doors. You're trying to get your best glimpse of what's going on. But it's not until the very end that you get to see it in full. Even then, the movie is almost shot like a found footage. Not from shaky cams with battery indicators on-screen, but from street level or through a dirty office window. Wide shots are only used to establish. It puts you right in the middle of the destruction, and indeed, as much as it holds off on showing the battles, the aftermath where everything is destroyed is always shown in full. You think it's awesome to see them destroying stuff, and then it cuts right to the many people evacuating.
     Sadly, for the human perspective the movie wants, the one big misstep is likely with Ford Brody. He's just not a very interesting character, and he's barely distinguishable from every other white soldier in the movie. Dr. Serizawa and Joe Brody would have been more interesting characters, or even ditching a viewpoint character entirely and simply showing how people in general have to deal with it. And for how effective holding off on showing Godzilla is, I do hope that the inevitable sequel won't shy away from giving us more battles full-on.

     Still, if you want to reboot a franchise, this is how to do it. With smart direction and dark themes, Godzilla is exciting and full of great special effects.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

The Wolf Among Us Episode One: Faith

Published and developed by Telltale Games
Based on the comic series Fables created by Bill Willingham
Played on Xbox 360

     As great as The Walking Dead was, I was a bit skeptical about The Wolf Among Us, simply because taking Walking Dead's choices and throwing it on Fables didn't seem like it would work. After all, Fables has been less about hard choices and more about grand schemes. And yet, to my surprise, Faith immediately shows how Wolf Among Us can combine this gameplay with a new look at the Fables world.
     Taking place before the comic series, The Wolf Among Us has you playing as Bigby Wolf (Adam Harrington), the sheriff of Fabletown. When a woman ends up dead on the doorstep of the elite apartment building The Woodlands, it's up to Bigby and Snow White (Erin Yvette) to figure out who she was and who killed her.
     Don't worry if you don't know Fabletown from Storybrooke, or anything about Fables in general. The basic premise you need to know is just that all the people and creatures from fables and fairy tales used to live in their own lands, but now they're hiding out in New York City. Not only is it helpfully summarized at the start of the episode, each new Fable you meet gives you an entry in the Book of Fables that tells you who they are. The game is made to be friendly both to newcomers and long-time fans, with plenty of classic characters mixed together with all-new ones. This does come with the problem that people who have read even just the first arc of Fables know who's expendable and who's not.
     This doesn't hurt the game's story, though. And tonally, Fables shows once again how it can branch out by taking on more of a noir-ish feel. The cel-shaded graphics are covered in darkness and shadow. The bright coloring of the comics is replaced with poorly-lit rooms and bars. It gives the game a completely different atmosphere from the comics, and it also shows the difference of the choices here compared to Walking Dead. You're not deciding who survives or who eats. You're deciding where to investigate first, who to question, who you suspect is the murderer. It's a great feeling, and as before, the choice system makes even simple conversations intense as you decide whether you're playing good cop or big, bad wolf.
     The game does have a couple problems that pop up in this episode. For one, on the 360 version, there's a lot of loading and some lag. Nothing game-breaking or anything, it can just be disappointing to have to wait for a while between scenes. There's also the fact that the Telltale engine badly needs an update. It still looks good graphically, but the animations are old. Bigby's tie-straightening is clearly pulled from Sam in Sam & Max, and a look from a bartender gave me deja vu from the many female characters she resembles. Even just a change in art style would help make the engine feel fresh again, instead of borderline punishing Telltale fans.

     A few hiccups don't hurt a solid start to a new series. Telltale has finally perfected the “interactive movie” style of gameplay, and it's everything we knew it could be.