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 combat...is still not that great, but hey, even perfect games are a little less than perfect.