Sunday, April 27, 2014

Super Mario Bros. 2

Developed by Nintendo R&D4
Published by Nintendo
Played on Wii U Virtual Console

     It's a pretty well-known trivia fact for pretty much any Mario fan. The Japanese version of Super Mario Bros. 2 was either too hard or too samey for American audiences (even today, both are easy to see as reasons). The solution? Take a completely different game, Doki Doki Panic, reskin the four main characters with Mario character, and release it to America as Super Mario Bros. 2. It remains a controversial decision that can sometimes put the game towards the lower end of people's favorite Mario games, but as a sequel to the original actually makes a lot of sense.
     It's kind of insane in a way. You're playing a game nothing like the original Mario. The platforming feels slower, the timer is removed, the power-ups are replaced with a basic two-hit health system (three if you can find a hidden mushroom). Bowser and his minions don't make an appearance at all. And instead of jumping on enemies to kill them, you pick up veggies (or, more likely, the enemies themselves) and toss them. Doing a sequel this bizarrely different from the original is normally a way to alienate a fanbase. Here, shows where Mario could go. Level designs became more varied than the original, and required wild tasks. You get used to killing Birdo by throwing her eggs back. You're pleasantly surprised when you have to ride an egg across a level, or steal an enemy's flying carpet. And although there are many, many Birdo fights (one on every one of the game's 20 levels), the end of world bosses are fairly unique, rather than the repeating Bowser fights from the original. They all have to base themselves around the “pick stuff up, throw it” mechanic, but catching bombs in mid-air or dodging Wart's bubbles adds extra excitement. The game is also fairly difficult—the Wii U's save state feature helps quite a bit, as the game can be unforgiving at times. When you figure it out, though, it's magic.
     And the game also ended up being hugely influential to Mario. For the first time, Luigi wasn't just a palette swap, he was taller, changing the character perception forever. The four different characters also have different mechanics, with Mario being good all-around, Luigi jumping higher, Toad pulling items faster, and Peach being able to float. The latest Mario entry, Super Mario 3D World, even brought back most of these attributes. The enemies leave a lasting impression, from birds riding magic carpets to hopping Ninjis to the Shy Guys, Snifits, and Bob-Ombs who forever became attached to the franchise (big bad Wart wasn't so lucky—but what do you expect out of a boss that's defeated by eating vegetables?). It's probably hyperbole to say that everything being so different led to the wild changes taken for future Mario games. But then, with the Japanese Super Mario Bros. 2 being so “the same, but harder”, maybe a completely different change forced major innovations becoming a part of Mario.

     It's an easy game to overlook, but Super Mario Bros. 2 is still very fun and incredibly unique. Take it as Mario or as “Mario and the gang pasted over someone else's adventures”, but if you haven't played it, it's worth playing.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Mr. Peabody & Sherman

Directed by Rob Minkoff
Written by Craig Wright and Michael McCullers
Based on the series created by Jay Ward

     The Rocky & Bullwinkle movies have had it rough in the past. The eponymous duo's movie was a disastrous mix of live action and animation, while Dudley Do-Right was odd and dull, both embracing too much darkness that put them at odds with the original series. Mr. Peabody & Sherman, the newest stab at it, goes animated over live-action and, far more importantly, captures the spirit of the shorts that previous movies lacked.
     Mr. Peabody (Ty Burrell) is the world's smartest dog, not to mention one of the smartest people all around. After conquering everything else in the world, he decides to adopt Sherman (Max Charles) and creates the WABAC Machine to travel through time and teach Sherman about history firsthand. But when Sherman's first day of school has him biting fellow student Penny (Ariel Winter), he could lose Sherman—and things don't get better when Sherman takes Penny back in time without Mr. Peabody's permission.
     The desire to modernize the movie is clearly there in the opening, where Peabody lists off a bunch of modern fads he invented, including a painful scene of him dancing to Zumba. This has killed so many adaptations of older shows that right then I had to brace myself for something awful. And's gone. Almost immediately, it cuts over to a sequence that basically mimics the classic shorts, with all that implies, and sets up the movie much better. And once the movie really starts time travelling, it just takes off. There's intentionally ridiculous portrayals of famous figures, there's fun action sequences, there's plenty of jokes, and there's even some history somewhere in there. It's just pure fun, and although there's some lowest-common-denominator jokes (they really seem to love having characters come out of the butt of animal statues), there's also plenty of jokes that will appeal to the older fans, with mentions of Oedipus and a reference to William Shakespeare's signature.
     And the few times the movie slows down is to look at the very real problem that Mr. Peabody faces. After the opening shows that Peabody himself wasn't adopted, he clearly has a lot of care for Sherman, and losing him would be the worst thing for Peabody. At the same time, Peabody's skills as a parent do come into question. While he's clearly done what he thinks is best, he also has to face the fact that he's almost sheltering Sherman. And that's Peabody's biggest flaw he has to overcome. The early scenes show him able to conquer almost any problem, but when he's finally given something that he's not perfect at, he has to learn how to do it. Rob Minkoff is certainly no stranger to stories of adopted parents (he also directed The Lion King and Stuart Little), but this might be one of the most interesting portrayals of it that he's shown.

     Mr. Peabody & Sherman could've easily failed, but instead it's funny and touching, showing that there's plenty of room to adapt Jay Ward's work without feeling the need to modernize it.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Blue Velvet

Written and directed by David Lynch

     David Lynch is one of the most infamous directors out there for the simple fact that a majority of his movies are incomprehensible. Not in an “Oh yeah the themes can be hard to understand” sense, but in a “Nobody knows what they're about and he's not talking” sense. Blue Velvet is one of the few films he's made that has a fairly straightforward plot, and there's STILL pieces that can just confound.
     Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) comes home from college after his father has a heart attack, forcing him to work at his store for a while. Walking in a field on the way back from the hospital, he finds a severed ear. He brings it to the police, but decides he doesn't want to be left out of the investigation, and the chief's daughter Sandy Williams (Laura Dern) helps him out by pointing him towards a nightclub singer, Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini), who has something to do with the case.
     And from there, it's clear that Jeffrey ends up over his head. The movie starts out with bright, idyllic imagery of suburbia, contrasted by that severed ear. And Jeffrey's early attempts to play amateur detective are nice enough. But by the time Dorothy enters the picture, things change. She's a broken person that Jeffrey seems to believe he can be a white knight for. He is horribly, horribly wrong. Their relationship is uncomfortable more than anything, with sex scenes that are touched by darkness. And the person he thinks he can save her from is Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper). Frank Booth's role in the movie is minimal, even as the villain. It makes him more effective. Frank is odd, off in the world, saying phrases and doing things that pinball between bizarre and outright disturbing. It's never made entirely clear what he does as a crime lord (besides drugs and practically enslaving Dorothy), but it is very clear that he is pure evil.
     And as Jeffrey realizes this, he becomes more and more distanced from the investigation. In a way, he's like a normal person dropped into a David Lynch movie. You think you can figure everything out, and then you realize you're not even close, and then you're too engrossed to get out. And Jeffrey makes an attempt to just stop, but he realizes he can't, as the dark world he's found is threatening to take over. But he still tries. His smartest moment is when he finds several dead bodies towards the end, and rather than thinking “I need to tell the police” simply says “I'll let them find this.” The mistakes from the beginning are learned the hard way, and the happy suburbia at the end is clearly not the same as the one at the start.

     Blue Velvet is a great place to start for people who haven't seen David Lynch before. From here, it's easy to see both how he can do linear storytelling if he wants to, and how he can still include plenty of disturbing elements. An unsettling experience, which is just what he wants.

Saturday, April 19, 2014


Directed by Alfonso Cuarón
Written by Alfonso Cuarón and Jonás Cuarón

     Alfonso Cuarón blew me away with the third Harry Potter and Children of Men. What was he going to do next? The apparent answer was nothing, as he dropped off the face of the Earth for 7 years, apparently waiting for technology to catch up with his vision for Gravity. It's easy to see that it was worth the wait.
     Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is a medical engineer on her first space mission to repair the Hubble Telescope. Everything is going OK when debris from a satellite is created, destroying the Explorer and leaving Ryan floating in space. And even with Matt Kowalski's (George Clooney) help, Ryan is running out of oxygen...and it's 90 minutes until the debris comes around again.
     Gravity takes all of 10 minutes to set the story up (using one of Cuarón's signature long takes) before the debris hits, and from there, it is nothing but tense. The repeated timers of oxygen and debris keeps you on edge since the danger won't be over unless they make it back to Earth, and when things are calm for just a moment, Ryan will mention how her oxygen is going down. And naturally, if something can go wrong, it will. There are brief moments of respite, but always with hints that something is about to go wrong.
     The movie also shows so much proficiency all around, by an incredibly talented cast and crew. The score helps build up to every moment. The otherwise silent space scenes will have music that cues the audience in, but doesn't give the moment away. The visual effects are rightfully lauded, giving the feeling of zero gravity throughout, and, indeed, heightening the fear. A shot before anything had actually happened threw me off just because you see Ryan floating in space, and far, far below her, the Earth. The point is made from there: there's the Earth on one side, and on every other side, nothing. The effects are just so good that you don't even think about them most of the time, you just wonder if they actually filmed it in space. Cuarón's direction is pitch-perfect. His use of long takes is done several times throughout, but always to great effect. And because of them, Sandra Bullock has to be perfect every time. And she is, showing fear that becomes despair that has to, above all else, become hope if she's going to make it back. The transformation is genuine.

     Gravity is thrilling, with special effects that enhance the movie and great talent from every angle.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Hellboy in Hell Volume 1: The Descent

Writing and art by Mike Mignola

            WARNING: The following review contains Hellboy spoilers, up to and including The Storm and the Fury.  If you wish to go unspoiled, stop now.

Comic book deaths tend to mean one of a few things.  The title might end for a while.  The character might be replaced or someone else will take over and make it a legacy character.  Either way, it’s not like the title can just continue with the same character, right?  Well, as you can probably guess from the title, Hellboy in Hell takes Hellboy’s death in stride as a continuation of the series.
So yes, Hellboy is dead, and naturally, being a half-demon, he’s wound up in hell.  Which has, appropriately enough, gone to hell.  And as per usual for Hellboy, he encounters monsters, hints of his past, and maybe just some hints of his future.
Normally, a character finding themselves in hell would come with some grief, but part of the enjoyment of Hellboy is the way he simply takes everything as it comes.  His reaction to winding up in hell is little more than a “Huh” as he moves on.  Encountering demons, monsters beyond demons, and the throne of Satan gives a little more of an eyebrow raise, maybe a whole “Geez”.  But Hellboy’s seen it all before.  Far from making this boring, Hellboy as the apathetic hero makes things far more interesting for Mignola’s own interpretation of hell.  Especially when he actually shows a reaction to something, showing that things have gotten serious. 
And of course, the other matter of comic book deaths is “When are they coming back to life?”  If The Descent is any indication, the answer is “In a while”.  It quickly becomes clear this is not a temporary thing, a small story stepping stone to quickly be reset.  There is plenty going on relating to the ongoing arcs, including Hellboy’s royal status.  And when those aren’t being advanced, there are plenty of adventures to be had, with the final issue here showing a standalone story that hasn’t been out of place in the past, just from a new perspective.  And the thing that will make readers most glad to go to hell is Mignola’s art.  Returning to the artwork for the first time in years, Mignola’s surreal, gothic art is well at home here, making hell his own.  Creatures pop out of the ground, Hellboy wanders from a house to a surreal landscape.  Characters recite Macbeth and Christmas Carol in good measure.  This is classic Hellboy.

Hellboy in Hell feels like act 2 of the plans for Hellboy.  And if this is how interesting and entertaining hell is going to be, then being in hell for a while may not be such a bad thing. 

Friday, April 11, 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo
Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely
Based on characters created by Ed Brubaker, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby

           Even on rewatch, I did not entirely love the first Captain America (although my opinion has improved a little, knowing what to expect), but the Avengers has marked a definite turning point for the Marvel cinematic universe.  Iron Man 3 was more surprising, Thor: The Dark World was more action-packed.  So what’s different for Cap in Phase 2?  The answer is pretty much everything.
            Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is still adjusting to life in the modern world, and he’s joined up with SHIELD to get back to being a soldier.  He quickly discovers how out of place he is when even a simple mission has more going on than he knows about.  And when a member of SHIELD command is assassinated by the mysterious Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), Captain America and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) are forced to dive into SHIELD’s many secrets if they want answers.
            The biggest change here is that there is a far more serious tone compared to previous Marvel movies.  Oh, there’s still the light jokes and the silly Stan Lee cameo, but the atmosphere of fun is reduced.  The action sequences are more explosive, more sudden and more violent.  There’s themes of the distrust of government organizations, especially with the villain’s plan being an extreme version of the surveillance that everybody fears.  And Cap himself is far less of the invincible hero than ever.  The point is made early on, when he easily takes out a ship of low-rank thugs without breaking a sweat.  And then along comes the Winter Solider, unstoppable and able to send Captain America flying.  The stakes have to be raised for one of Marvel’s strongest heroes, and they are raised a lot.  Everything adds up to a sense that Marvel knows they have to fight DC’s darker movies, but on their own terms, and they make something remarkable by doing so.
            There’s also a very strong supporting cast here.  Anthony Mackie joins as The Falcon.  A hero who can fly isn’t too impressive in any comic, but he provides a very welcome addition to the Marvel universe, a character that Steve is able to connect with as a soldier.  Robert Redford adds a touch of Oscar-power to the movie, and gives a great performance along the way, especially when he’s sharing scenes with Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury, who gets some character development that has been unseen up until now.  And then there’s Scarlett Johnasson’s Black Widow.  This movie could probably have been called Captain America and Black Widow.  The strong hints to her past continue as we find out more and more about her character, and exactly how ahead of everybody she tends to be.  Not to mention that she’s truly able to hold her own in the action scenes.  That aforementioned scene where Cap takes out thugs on a ship?  It’s instantly followed up by Black Widow taking out several.  The message is clear: the power levels are different, the combat ability is not.

            The Winter Soldier is another huge step forward for Marvel.  Blockbuster action and real-world allegories mix together perfectly and create an early start to summer action movies.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Sex Criminals Volume 1: One Weird Trick

Written by Matt Fraction
Art by Chip Zdarsky

            Matt Fraction is one of the weirdest creators out there.  From the online persona he gives off (for a while, his Twitter account was named “BUTT STUFF WEREWOLF” – seriously) to the fact that his comics repertoire consists of the incredible Invincible Iron Man and the offbeat and absolutely wonderful Hawkeye, a superhero comic with no superheroing, you don’t know what you’re going to get from him.  Sex Criminals could get by on unique concept alone, but there is a lot more here.
            Suzie is an ordinary girl with one small difference: whenever she has an orgasm, she stops time, creating an effect that she calls The Quiet.  She’s certain she’s the only one out there with that ability until she has sex with Jon, and realizes afterwards that they’re both in The Quiet.  From there, they get up to mischief and do the natural thing since they can stop time: plan to rob a bank.
            What really makes this comic is its ridiculous, high concept story that’s mixed with very down to earth characters.  They’re real people that have their own real problems, with the whole point of the bank robbery is getting the money to save Suzie’s library.  And their dialogue about their sexual discoveries is very natural, and a fascinating part of the book that takes up the early issues and you don’t mind at all.  But then there’s Matt Fraction’s own lunacy and Chip Zdarsky’s wicked art, which combine to make the world…well…special.  A memorable issue one sequence has Suzie’s friend drawing out various ridiculous sex moves, like reverse-reverse cowgirl and ET: The Sex Move, in a bathroom stall.  Another focuses on the sex shop that Jon used to raid when he learned about his powers, with tons of background gags that can easily be passed over.  The book loves to be crude on all levels, and it is wonderful, and then it brings you back down and really makes you care about Suzie and Jon.
            There’s also quite a few special features here.  There’s a list of alternate sex moves for the bathroom scene, along with various alternate lines of dialogue for a Barton Fink porn parody (I’ve never seen the movie, but I’m sure it’s hilarious if you have).  There’s a script for an erotic radio play starring Matt and Chip (seriously).  There’s a section by Chip on how a panel is created, from script to the finished product.  And finally, there’s a gallery of the variant covers for each issue, including the wonderful 1st issue 4th printing cover, along with a “making of” for it.

            Sex Criminals is unique, funny, and surprisingly touching at times.  A home run with a perfect creative team that turns a crude concept into something very memorable.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Hinterkind Volume 1: The Waking World

Written by Ian Edginton
Art by Francesco Trifogli

            Apocalypse fiction seems to be big right now.  The zombie outbreak is the most popular, but hell, turn off the power, kill everybody with a plague, launch some nukes, whatever you want, people are into the destruction of humanity.  Hinterkind takes a twist on it by ending humanity and marking the start of fantasy, but there’s not much past that.
            Prosper Monday is one of the citizens of one of the last surviving colonies after a mysterious disease wiped out most of the world.  When her grandfather goes off to find out why another colony in Albany isn’t responding, she goes on a journey of her own when it turns out her friend Marcus has grown a tail.  And the two groups both end up finding out new information about the new world: as Mother Nature has taken over, trolls, goblins, elves, and every other fantasy creature have come out of hiding.
            The concept is definitely interesting.  It’s always nice to have a real threat in the post-apocalyptic world, and this is a serious threat as it quickly becomes apparent that humankind is not prepared to fight monsters.  There’s only one problem with it: the monsters end up outshining the human characters.  This is a threat in anything with more exotic characters (see: the Transformers franchise), and whenever it hits, it hits hard.  At the end of the book, not only did I not really care about the humans, but I couldn’t tell you anything about them.  Who is Prosper?  I couldn’t really tell you much besides “she’s the main character”.  Meanwhile, shifts over to California, where the elf queen and her daughter are, end up much more interesting.  The monsters who look to capture the humans for money are good antagonists.  Hell, even a secret military base full of people who have become monsters unto themselves are more interesting than the main characters.
            The plot here also just kind of meanders along, bringing up interesting details and then dropping them.  I want to know why Angus has a tail, but at some point, the comic just pushes it to the side.  I want to know how the monsters hid before the apocalypse, but the book just details a little before moving on.  I want to know Prosper, but she’s basically just along for the ride.  There were times when I was able to go along too, to just enjoy things as they were going, but even then, I felt like the book could be more and it wasn’t.

            Hinterkind is a classic case of an interesting concept that’s done in by a less than great execution. 

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Transformers: Fall of Cybertron

Developed by High Moon Studios
Published by Activision
Played on Xbox 360

            Some people have an incredible nostalgia for Transformers.  They grew up on the 80s cartoon, they had the toys, they probably read the comics.  I didn’t.  I watched Beast Wars a bit as a kid, but I couldn’t tell you a thing about it now.  I had a Transformer toy.  I’ve seen the live-action movies, which doesn’t count for much.  But the video games I can get behind instantly.  War for Cybertron was a fun, if unremarkable, third-person shooter, and I was interested in Fall of Cybertron.  I hoped it would be good, but from early on, this exceeded expectations.
            Cybertron is almost out of Energon, the life-giving resource for the Autobots and Decepticons.  Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) is preparing to leave the planet with the few resources they have left, while Megatron (Fred Tatasciore) is willing to let the planet die with everybody left on it.  And as always, the two sides are going to war if either of them are going to win.  Storywise, this game isn’t going to win any awards, and it knows it.  You can even see the (sometimes spoilery) level names before you even start the game, and if you’re even vaguely familiar with Transformers, you’ll be able to figure out where the twists lead.  It’s a nice reason to play, and hardcore fans may get more out of it, but I found it mainly just there.
            But it excels in gameplay.  WFC used a co-op friendly system where you were able to choose between three different Transformers in each level…which meant the levels tended to be more standard, run-and-gun affairs.  FOC instead locks you into one character in each level, and this is where it instantly improves on everything.  While any Transformer can use any weapon, their special abilities start to change everything.  Playing as Jazz or Swindle gives you a grapple beam, making the levels more dynamic as you grapple around.  Megatron can hover above the battlefield and rain down destruction.  Cliffjumper can cloak himself, leading to one of the best-done stealth levels in a non-stealth game.  And this is before you get to the giant Transformers that tower over the normal ones.  Each bot’s abilities change the game in their own ways, making the levels constantly feel unique.
            And the level design turns up the wow factor.  All I remember of WFC is constant, endless corridors.  That’s not the case here.  There’s cities, there’s warships, there’s an underground cavern that ups the creepy factor until you suddenly have to outrun flooding acid.  They’re beautifully rendered, with some of the prettiest graphics on the 360 that doesn’t rely on the “real is brown and gritty” philosophy.  They feel big, and when they add in setpieces, they just get bigger and better.  Nothing compares to shooting Decepticons as a skyscraped-sized Autobot (appropriately named Metroplex) stomps through the landscape.  And even small details just make the experience more exciting.  Playing as Megatron and having Autobots freak out at your mere presence is immensely satisfying.  There’s quick-time style events that are integrated without punishment, leading to moments where you struggle while in chains or deliver huge blows.  Fall of Cybertron is like experiencing a big action movie, and it does it well.

            Whether you’re a hardcore Transformers fan, or you can’t tell the difference between Bumblebee and Starscream, Fall of Cybertron is going to satisfy.  It’s exciting, a blast to play, and has plenty of variety to keep you interested.