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.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Burn the Orphanage Volume 1: Born to Lose

Written by Daniel Freedman
Art by Sina Grace

     Burn the Orphanage comes with a very interesting concept: taking the style and story of classic beat-em-ups like Final Fight and Streets of Rage, and translating them into a comic. It was fascinating enough to get me to pick up the book, but there's something here that's lacking.
     After his orphanage was burned down when he was a kid, Rock has been looking for the person who did it, and beating up everybody in his way. And he always has his friends, Lex and Bear, to help with beating up people. Along with getting revenge, the other stories in Born to Lose feature Rock getting swept up in other-dimensional tournaments and other planets.
     Part of the problem here for me is that these other stories begin to take away from the feel of the book, becoming more generalized with its video game influences. The first story is a fine one-shot, but the others begin to drag the concept down some. Rock isn't quite an interesting enough character to really care about what he's doing, and in general, the humor just isn't funny enough. There's a few moments that made me laugh, and some of the ideas here are spot-on (Bear is a big, hairy gay man...who, for good measure, also has the heart of a bear), but it doesn't happen quite enough at times. Having a whole plot reference to Mortal Kombat in the second issue means that there isn't much room for Freedman to stretch on the writing, and in spots, it feels like he's filling in space. A big example is a long scene in the 3rd issue where Bear and Lex discuss their different feelings on relationships. It doesn't really add anything to the book or to the characters. I'm also halfway on Grace's art. It's rather vivid, violent when it needs to be, and adds quite a bit to the world. On the other hand, characters tend to have weird proportions and just This may just be my interpretation of it, though.

     Overall, Burn the Orphanage proves that a good concept can't hold a book up, especially when the concept is almost instantly thrown out.

Friday, May 9, 2014

The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert

Written and directed by Stephan Elliott

     Hollywood enjoys getting cheap laughs out of men dressing up as women, whether it's simple crossdressing or drag queens or...well, let's not even get into the others. And yes, I do say laughs, as it's so rarely that a movie actually tackles it with any sort of drama in the issue. The Adventures of Priscilla looks at the drama, without forgetting the comedy and camp.
     Mitzi Del Bra/Tick Belrose (Hugo Weaving) and Bernadette Bassenger (Terence Stamp) are drag performers in Sydney who, shortly after a friend's death, end up getting a gig across the country in Alice Springs. Bring along the extremely campy Felicia Jollygoodfellow/Adam Whitely (Guy Pearce), they attempt to make it through the desert in a bus that they named Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, performing their show along the way.
     I have to instantly point out the best performance of the trio of actors, and that is Terence Stamp's Bernadette. While the other two are simply men who perform drag, Bernadette is a transgender woman. Now, there is the obvious problem here of a cisgender man playing a transgender woman. What is appreciated here is the pure class that Stamp brings to the role. Bernadette holds her head up through the many problems that the group encounter along the way, keeping a quiet dignity that can instantly turn into pure fury if somebody gets on her bad side. And most importantly, her transgender status is never treated as a joke or shock value along the way. Instead, she is a character you like and care about, and her relationship with Bob Spart, a man they pick up in a small town along the way, is one you want to see end happily. Sadly, the movie does flinch in this part. Despite being in the midst of gay culture, the movie never shows two of its male actors having any sort of physical affection. It's all dialogue and hints, while a straight relationship is prominently featured towards the end. Bernadette and Bob are a straight couple. Why can't they hug or kiss or even hold hands?
     A movie about drag performers wouldn't be complete without plenty of performances along the way. The movie won an Oscar for its costuming, and it shows. Each costume is elaborately over the top. I confess that I haven't seen a live drag performance, so it's hard for me to give them any sort of veracity for authenticity. But it's purely enjoyable. You don't know what song they're going to lip sync to, or what costumes they're going to come out wearing, but you know it's going to be fun. And this is harshly contrasted with the reception that they get, which is extremely cold outside of their native Sydney. They want to bring their culture to people that haven't seen it before, and they get a shrug in response. The one aversion in the movie doesn't even take place in a town, but for a group of Aboriginal people, where one group of oppressed people openly embraces other oppressed people.

     The Adventures of Priscilla is thoroughly enjoyable, with plenty of fun moments right next to harsher scenes that are worth considering afterwards.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Dead Space 3

Developed by Visceral Games
Published by Electronic Arts

     People who have been reading this blog since the start (or have gone back to the first entry) will remember the first review I ever did for it: Dead Space 2. It's been a long time since that first review, but now we finally come around to the latest Dead Space entry. And while Dead Space 2 was sublime, Dead Space 3 is a significant step down.
     Isaac Clarke (Gunner Wright) is broken after the events of the second game. But the Unitologists are still attempting to build more Markers and turn everybody into Necromorphs. Isaac has to team up with the remnants of EarthGov to head to the Marker homeworld, where they just may be able to stop the Markers once and for all.
     The biggest change of the game comes with the new crafting system. Rather than having a shop, there's several resources you need to gather to get upgrades and build new weapons. In theory, this was supposed to help the player use several different weapons throughout. In practice, it's awful. The crafting bench is clunky, requiring going through several submenus just to even find out if you can change a weapon. It slows the game down to a halt. And then there's the very simple fact that I saw little reason to actually change my weapons. I gave them some mods and some secondary powers, but at the end of the day, I used a total of 3 weapons to get through the entire game. It certainly doesn't help matters that you now only have room for 2 weapons in your inventory. It's a very simple and outright failure.
     And in general, the series seems like it's spinning its wheels here for innovation. The new enemies aren't very interesting, or scary to fight. And even enemies that were exciting before, like the Stalkers, seem like they're ruined by bad AI and placement. The addition of sidequests along the way feels more tedious than anything. Sometimes you get some good story out of it, but mostly it's a long quest through excessive amounts of enemies just for...some additional resources. They also throw in soldiers for you to fight along with Necromorphs. It ruins the tone. The human enemies are easy to kill and just not very exciting to fight. And the mood of the game is starkly different. Most notably, the psychological aspects that made the previous games interesting are gone. There's no big twists about things not being as they seem, they just...are.
     This might all seem like I hated the game. And as disappointed as I was...overall, I did enjoy it well enough. The scope of the game, going from Earth to a flotilla of ships to the icy Tau Volantis is incredible. While having a planet means there's less zero gravity segments, there's plenty of interesting parts there. One of the best is, after Isaac's suit is broken, you're forced to run from heat source to heat source. I actually wish they had used that more, because it was thrilling. And when the game does overwhelm you with enemies, it can be appropriately scary to have to constantly run and gun when you can.

     Overall, I'm inbetween on recommending the game, though. At a low price and with measured expectations, it can be fun enough to blast through some space zombies for the third time. But compared to Dead Space 2, this is one giant leap in the wrong direction.