January 9, 2015

Tak3n - Film Review

Whether you call it Taken 3 or the more absurdly appropriate Tak3n, Liam Neeson's latest continues the fine tradition of devaluing the charms of the first film. The original Taken wasn't very good either, but it had good quotes, good moments, and enough to merit required viewing from any action/revenge movie fan. The concessions you have to make -- the "not very good" part -- have had a brighter light shone on them with every passing sequel.

I laughed at Taken 3 enough times to deem it entertaining, but the stupidity comes at a cost. I've provided a simple bar graph to illustrate what I mean:

This carefully calculated data doesn't even consider the string of Taken-likes that have arrived in recent years, some of which, like last year's golden trifecta of A Walk Among the Tombstones, The Equalizer, and the unironically fantastic John Wick make the entire Taken franchise near-obsolete. Even Nonstop, which was dubbed by many to be "Taken on a plane", turned out to be a far more entertaining film than it had any right to be.

Another graph could illustrate the cross-section of how often the viewer is laughing with the awesome moments in the Taken films or laughing at how poorly acted and edited they are. In this sense Taken 3 at least fares better than its predecessor, with moments of deadly seriousness that can actually be taken seriously, mixed with moments so monumentally stupid that they seem intentional. Somehow it ended up amounting to something more respectable than the 100% ridiculous Taken 2.

But enough graphs and comparisons. What's important is that while Taken 3 brings the action home to LA -- complete with the required LA River moment, cop chases, and suburban fence-hopping -- it quickly injects some Eastern Europeans into the plot for Brian (Liam Neeson) to kill. Framed for murder, Brian must both evade the cops and track the real killer. It's an energetic plot that keeps things interesting enough, but ignores important lessons from the previous films.

The Taken films paint such a criminally evil picture of Eastern European men that it's a bit absurd that Brian would ever willfully trust one. What's more, his patented background checks (which he employed on his daughter's boyfriend in the previous film) seem to completely elude him here. But hey, I guess you have to cut some corners when the franchise demands that its hero exclusively murder those dirty, uncontrollable foreigners.

An aside: I think it's time for more ethnically diverse criminal organizations. Even Al-Qaeda has some white guys on its side, right? So how about we let Liam Neeson murder a more diverse cast of gangsters. Why are bad guy groups always so segregated?

Anyway, Taken 3's strongest aspect is the entertaining cat-and-mouse chase between Brian and the LAPD (led by a scene-chewing Forest Whitaker), not the mobster-killing stuff. I'd also like to give a shout-out to two distinct scenes in which Brian is literally inside of an explosion and manages to survive without a scratch -- it explains how he's managed to stay alive so well throughout these movies. If Taken 3 succeeds at anything, it's these violent tonal shifts that left me going from taking it seriously to laughing out loud and back to serious again. 

Overall, Taken 3 is entertaining enough, different from its predecessors in a few interesting ways, and not nearly as dumb as Taken 2. That said, I think we can all agree we'd be better off without either sequel. That's not a ringing endorsement of the film at all, but if you've already seen John Wick, there are worse things you can do with your time.

November 20, 2014

Destiny's Iron Banner is better, but still needs some work

I've put a lot of time into Destiny's Iron Banner "Reforged" over the last three days. The event, set to run through November 24th, is a twist on Crucible PvP where the gear you bring into battle can give you a big advantage. A level 30 player is going to have an easier time, and that's the whole idea -- to reward the players who have spent dozens of hours leveling and raiding to get the best stuff.

It's also an opportunity for those who have been unlucky with raid gear drops to finally (maybe), get those boots or gloves they've needed to reach level 30. That's been the case for me, and I'm happy to report that the grind through Iron Banner's reputation ranks is pretty reasonable if you're dedicated and can do some of the tougher bounties.

There are some tips and tricks for ranking up in the Iron Banner, but this isn't the place for that. What I want to talk about is what Bungie could do to improve the event. While they've gone a long way to patch and improve the game, and Iron Banner 2.0 addresses a ton of the issues that the first event had, there's still some kinks to be worked out.

The Bounties are Repetitive and Encourage Boring Play

For the last three days, the Iron Banner bounties have been the same set of six repeated over and over again. For the most part that's fine, if not a bit lazy. Earn 10000 experience points in the Iron Banner Tournament? Sure, that can be earned in a multitude of ways. Where I take issue with this design is in the bounties that encourage the use of specific weapons.

The 20 Auto Rifle headshots bounty, for example, has been the bane of my existence for the last three days. For one, I prefer to use hand cannons in Destiny, and my best raid gun, Vision of Confluence, is a scout rifle. I wasn't lucky enough to grab the SUROS Regime, an auto rifle sold by Xur one week that gives the Vex Mythoclast a run for its money. Basically, I'm stuck doing this bounty with Shadow Price, an auto rifle I grabbed from the Tower because I needed SOMETHING to get those headshots with.

And that's fine, I don't mind that I don't have the best auto rifle for the job. My issue with this design is that it is encouraging more players to use a gun we all know needs a slight nerf, and it discourages a wide swath of primary weapons from being used in the tournament. Basically, you can't go three feet in Iron Banner without the iconic staccato of a SUROS.

Every day with Iron Banner is a rush to finish the auto rifle headshots bounty and swap back to my Hawkmoon, and I'm sure it's the same case for those having to forgo their favorite rocket launcher for the 10-headshot heavy machine gun bounty. For the next Iron Banner, I hope Bungie spices up the bounty board with goals that encourage diverse play, and hopefully, new, unique ways to win day-to-day.

The Map Rotation is Painfully Small

I suppose the fans have spoken about those vehicle maps, huh? I personally like them, at least when they're properly weighted in the map rotation. In Iron Banner they're nowhere to be seen, and that, coupled with several maps that go unused in the Control gametype, limits the rotation to five possible maps. That means a lot of time spent playing one map back-to-back-to-back if the random rotation isn't on your side.

It's a shame because there are three maps that go unused in Iron Banner, even though they don't require vehicles. One, Exodus Blue, is a Playstation exclusive, already designed for Control, just sitting there going unused for those players who went with Sony's platform to get more variety. The other two, Anomaly and Burning Shrine, are almost never seen outside of less popular gametypes. Presumably they aren't made for 6 vs. 6 control matches, though I'd like to at least see Bungie give it a try so I can play one less match on Twilight Gap.

More confusing is why Iron Banner features Control exclusively. Destiny's gametypes are simple, certainly a step down from the Oddballs, Invasions, and Headhunters of Bungie's Halo days. It wouldn't be jarring at all to jump from a Control match, to a Clash, to a Combined Arms. There's barely a difference between any of them, it would allow more maps into the rotation, and Bungie is the damn inventor of the multiplayer hopper...it's odd that they'd forget so quickly.

Weapon Reforging is an Awesome, Underused Concept

Legendary weapons in Destiny generally have two bonus modifiers that are randomly selected from a pool of potentials. That means the Shadow Price auto rifle I bought would handle the same as one that came from a Legendary Engram, but it may have different bonuses.

For the Iron Banner event, players can pay two Motes of Light to re-roll those bonuses and, with a little luck and a lot of Motes, craft a weapon into something they truly love. The problem is that the reforging ability is limited to Iron Banner weapons only, and the few available, while somewhat interesting, won't become my weapons of choice any time soon.

The next event should allow for more reforging, with more pricey reforging of raid weapons and armor. The limited time availability of the forge would keep it exciting, and people would care because it would be with weapons they already love using.

If Iron Banner Reforged is a fix, the next one better be a refresh

I'm far more satisfied with Iron Banner this time around. For one, I can finally stop running the Vault of Glass week after week because I got my Warlock those gloves he needed. That's huge. It also got me back into Crucible, which I hadn't been playing as much because the rewards weren't as good. It was a nice reminder that Destiny's PvP is every bit as phenomenal as it's PvE in terms of pure gameplay.

It was also a reminder of how starved for content this game is, as a special one-week event is really just a rotation of five crucible maps over and over again. Going forward, I hope Iron Banner can encourage new ways to play, or be the introduction for new maps and gametypes. I hope Bungie has something up their sleeve to encourage me to grind to rank 5 all over again.

November 10, 2014

Interstellar - Film Review

A review should be your own take on a film -- your subjective opinion. Unfortunately, I went into Interstellar expecting the next Prometheus or Gravity. The reviews under RottenTomatoes 74% consensus describe another preposterous sci-fi film with big ideas that handles them in sloppy ways. I was ready to see characters making nonsensical, frustrating decisions in the style of Prometheus. I figured the adherence to the rules of space travel would start and stop with the needs of the plot, just as Gravity handled it.

What I'd hoped for was another Christopher Nolan joint. Nolan's filmmaking has an undeniable energy to it that I can't shake. He's one of the few directors capable of creating artful, powerful, meaningful action sequences. He creates riveting plots where you can hear every cylinder pumping away at once as gears turn and each piece falls together in perfect harmony. He may have a logic gap here, an odd character choice there, but generally his films display a mastery of the Hollywood blockbuster.

Interstellar is no different, and I'm frankly at a loss for the response its getting. Everyone is entitled to their informed opinions, and when those opinions are about the tone of the third act twists, or the awkward handling of certain plot details and characters, I get it. I didn't see it, and I find it a bit odd considering this is easily Nolan's most emotional and character-driven film yet. But if you saw a character doing something that felt incongruous, I'm not going to hold it against you.

Where I start to get angry is when critics call the movie preposterous. There are critics out there who, because their imaginations are too limited, blame Nolan and his team (including theoretical physicist Kip Thorne) for reaching too far. Interstellar doesn't ask audiences to hang their thinking caps at the door. In fact, the vast majority of the science is sound (with an apparent thumbs up from Neil deGrasse Tyson to boot), up to and including the theoretical science where most Hollywood films drop all pretense and start having a field day.

It isn't until the film goes beyond the theoretical and dares to imagine extra dimensions that it starts taking liberties, and at that point it has every right to go hogwild. Interstellar thinks big, dreams far, and dares to venture out into the unfamiliar while retaining the things that make us human. It uses time dilation to tell a powerfully emotional, family story. One reviewer implied that time dilation is something we've seen again and again in sci-fi, and if that's the case it's certainly never been handled like this.

Perhaps more importantly, it has some navel-gazing, critical things to say about humanity's priorities. It's a film that's rightfully pessimistic about our view and fear of the stars. We need more films that ignite the imagination and inspire a push for space travel over earthly matters. At one point Michael Caine's character brags about how much metal his projects have taken away from the manufacture of bullets -- if only that were a political platform I could vote on.

You can come away from Interstellar disappointed and I wouldn't blame you. Perhaps the story wrapped up too neatly, maybe the emotional heart of it was too precious for you. I'll admit, Interstellar takes chances that wouldn't have sat well with me if handled only slightly differently. Something about Nolan's work always elevates it beyond critique for me, in those ways at least.

But if you walked out of Interstellar flabbergasted by the science, appalled by its fifth dimensional ending, then I have some news for you -- you're boring. You are simple-minded, unimaginative, and you're probably part of the problem. Not Nolan's problem, or Hollywood's problem, but humanity's problem. Go back to fighting your wars and engaging in endless selfish debates, the rest of us will keep looking up to the stars and dreaming.

October 31, 2014

Nightcrawler - Film Review

I can't help but imagine Jake Gyllenhaal's turn as Lou Bloom in Nightcrawler, forced to go on a roadtrip with Ryan Gosling's character from Drive. Would the driver ever speak a word as Lou Bloom prattled on about the state of the job market? How long would it take before one of them killed the other?

They're two characters impaired by neurological issues that keep them from connecting with the general populace, yet they channel that strangeness in entirely different ways. The driver is an idealistic fantasy -- a stranger who takes matters into his own hands to save people. Lou Bloom is the sad truth, the thing you're more likely to get: a slimy, manipulative, exploitative sociopath who sees would-be connections as opportunities to get ahead.

From the jump we are shown that Bloom is up to no good. He steals fencing and sewer caps, tossing them into the back of his junker to be sold off at a scrapyard. You can see it in his sunken eyes and his nervous energy that he's always poking and prodding for a way to succeed, but the world has never given him a shot.

He's the face of lower class desperation in the internet age -- full of knowledge, eager to learn, devoid of opportunity -- he preaches the ways of the unforgiving economy as if it were gospel. An employee is only as good as what they can offer, an unpaid internship is a chance for growth, bonuses come at the end of the year.

You wish he had the world all wrong, but his character is a product of a machine that spits out the weak and rewards exploitation. He's a sad, dark window into reality. It only makes sense that he finally finds his calling as a TV cameraman, chasing down accidents and crimes in progress to film them for a quick paycheck from the morning news stations.

It's a seedy underbelly if ever there was one. The nightcrawling world combines some of the worst aspects of humanity -- the rush to be first, to feed voyeurism, to fuel fear and TV ratings. You wonder how dark it will go, as Bloom is rewarded for pushing his way to a close-up of a man shot and bleeding out after a hit-and-run -- and that's only his first success.

I hesitate to say anymore, because it's where his character evolves, and where the plot goes, down, down, down, into the darkest corners of humanity, that surprises most. There are more graphic scenes of violence in most horror films, but it's often what's said between Bloom and the other characters that really leaves you feeling dirty.

Nightcrawler works on several levels. Gyllenhaal is phenomenal as Bloom, and his trajectory is a disgusting trainwreck to watch -- the film turns the audience into the same voyeurs that sign his paychecks. The dive into the TV cameraman nightshift is fascinating as well. I couldn't tell you how to true to life the particulars are, but it's an intriguing world nevertheless.

In the end, though, it's the thematic core of Nightcrawler that will leave the lasting impression. It asks the question: what is this world when we are all nothing but our dollar value, our desperation to sell the best angle, and snag the exclusive story, all at the expense of others?

October 29, 2014

Everyone hates Hatred

Hatred, the new mass-murder shooter from Polish dev Destructive Creations, seems to be universally hated by the press, despite the fact that no one has had a chance to play it or assess it on any fair terms beyond the trailer. The almost universal reaction against the game rubbed me the wrong way when I first saw it. There's nothing wrong with criticizing a game on its own merits, but when those merits have yet to be revealed, the carpet-bombing of hate against the game starts to sound like a call for censorship -- even if that's not the intention at all.

"We all hate your game and we want to wish it away," is all I was hearing. Everyone might be tired of gamings' ultra-violent leanings, but I saw potential in something that could dare to go THAT dark. I was nearly upon my soapbox, ready to call out how unfair the reaction was, but I stepped down after reading an interview with one of the developers on Polygon.

In it, creative director Jarosław Zieliński more or less confirms everyone's worst fears about the game:

"Our target is basically a gamer that is coming home after a long, tiring and overall a shitty working day. So we give him the opportunity to just sit by his computer and let some of the steam go by shooting NPCs and destroying the level."

Ugh, crap...

That, to me, translates to: "We have no artistic aspirations for this game but we wanted to throw a bone to the angsty, miserable gamer dudes seething in their parent's basement."
It's a shame because I was ready to defend a game that portrays violence in its ugliest, darkest manner. Yes, there are more than enough violent games out there, but most of them glorify violence and empower you with epic ways to behead your enemies. What I saw in Hatred was a game that could suss out some more complicated emotions, forcing you to question your own actions.

I think there's a genuine value to any media that can turn you off to violence rather than glorifying it. There are many examples of films and books which portray the ugliness of human nature. They aren't easy to digest, but they're valuable art for the emotions they illicit and the self-reflection that follows.

But hey, apparently Hatred is just another game about shooting people for high scores when you feel bad about yourself, so I guess I hate it too.

September 16, 2014

On Destiny...

Destiny is a failure. It is a failure in the sense that it has reviewed poorly for “the next great game from the creators of Halo.” It is a failure in that fan reaction is mixed. It is a failure in the sense that, no matter how much “potential” it has, the only reason it will earn the right to follow through and earn that potential is because it has Bungie and Activision and that $500 bajillion dollar budget that it can’t live down. An indie-developed game making the kind of missteps that Bungie has made would not turn around and become a 10-year-long franchise, but Destiny surely will.

That’s the vibe I’m getting from the world, from the reviews, from the news, and the chatter around the game so far. I understand it, I don’t think it’s unjustified. It just makes me glad that I don’t have to review the game and glad that my experience with it has been so wildly different.

I have not played a game with this kind of voracity since I was skipping classes in college to get a few more Halo 2 matches in. I’m an adult now, with a job and responsibilities. I attempt some semblance of well-roundedness, and I didn’t think it was possible to commit 40 hours to a game in a single week anymore. Yet here I am. I’ve still got my job, my girlfriend doesn’t hate me (except in the sense that I’m 3 light levels higher than her), but when I’ve got free time? It’s nothing but Destiny.

It’s hard for me to write about the game because writing assumes critical thinking, and critical thinking inspires thoughts like: “the story is thin and poorly delivered”, “the mission structure is uninspired”, “the early loot game is too linear”, “the strike bosses don’t do enough cool things”, “all you do is shoot aliens over and over and over”, “Patrol doesn’t have enough activities”, and so on. There is legitimately a lot to complain about and there is a lot that Bungie could have done a better job on.

But good god...when I’m playing the game? All the incessant shooting is just a non-stop blast. My friends and I are laughing and doing cool things with our space magic. The alien and real human opponents alike are keeping me on my toes. I’m enjoying the story, laughing ironically at the absurdity of Peter Dinklage’s and Lance Reddick’s performances, yet curious as to what hides within those Grimoire cards I keep unlocking. I'm getting chills whenever the fantastic soundtrack swells and a big fight begins. I’m always *this* close to the next great reward which will give me what I need to take down the next challenge. Now I’m level 26 and I’m hearing crazy things about the Vault of Glass and the challenges within and I CANNOT WAIT to join in.

Within this mess of poor decisions Bungie has made, they clearly made a lot of very good ones. They’ve got their hooks in me once again and there is no sign that they will let go. For me, if this is a heavily-flawed game, empty of soul and wit but full of potential, I’m scared to think of what I will do when they start truly delivering on that potential.

March 18, 2014

Wicked Blood review: Little Miss Moonshine

If for nothing else, Wicked Blood fascinated me for blending two completely different genres -- the crime drama and the quirky indie film. It stars former Little Miss Sunshine Abigail Breslin as Hannah, a precocious teen living with her drug-dealing uncle Donny and her sister Amber. She wants to be a family and have a good life, but she can’t escape under the controlling influence of Uncle Frank, the local crime boss who has Donny wrapped around his finger.

Before long Hannah cooks up a plan to work Uncle Frank and a local biker gang against each other. She gets a lot of mileage out of mistaken innocence, riding her bike around while manipulating the criminal element like so many chess pieces. She’s the Juno from the bad part of town, complete with heart-warming musical montages.

The juxtaposition works, and it makes me sad that they didn’t focus the advertising on it, because the name “Wicked Blood” doesn’t evoke anything beyond another dull gangster movie. Wicked Blood is actually a lot more dynamic than that. The mere fact that it takes the time to be deliberately paced or to pull away from the action speaks volumes. This is the seedy underbelly from the view of a teenager.

The film does still deal a little too heavily in cliches, especially when it makes the aforementioned chess metaphor about five times too many. Yes, we get it, she’s moving pawns around, she’s going for a checkmate, it’s symbolism that has been done to death.

Regardless, I was surprised by Wicked Blood. I was rooting for this little family by the end, and I wanted to see Hannah pull off her crazy plan. It may be a generic crime movie at its foundation, but Hannah gives it the necessary heart and soul to make it worth a watch.

February 9, 2014

Unidentified review - Vegas, aliens, YouTube, what could go wrong?

Combine The Hangover with IT geeks, then throw in some aliens and Paranormal Activity, sprinkle it with the budget of a YouTube video series and you have what I imagine were the hopes and dreams for Unidentified. It sounds like a winning formula for a film that would at least be fun and entertaining, if not intelligent, but the blend doesn't quite work.

Much like The Hangover, the film introduces three friends and a fourth guy who gets forced into the group. The outcast is Jodie, a video blogger with aspirations of becoming a YouTube superstar. His boss, Jeremy, picks him up for the big trip to Vegas, and Jodie insists on filming the adventure. Next we meet Nick, whose wife, Janelle, also happens to be Jodie's sister. We quickly learn that Jodie's inclusion in the trip is Janelle's idea, as is the plan to film the entire trip.

Lastly we have Dave, who takes a $10,000 loan in Vegas to get Nick into a high stakes poker game. What follows is half-a-film's worth of Vegas gambling, debauchery, and overall silliness set to some found-footage camerawork. Where Unidentified excels is in the interactions of these four guys. Perhaps it's a symptom of the loose camerawork, but the group comes off as legitimate guy friends, with all the stupidity that includes.

Where Unidentified goes wrong is by trying to reign that in with a focused plot. Every time the plot rears its ugly head the flow of the dialogue and character interactions seems to break down. Each new twist feels forced. At about halfway through it becomes a different film entirely.

Unidentified is a great premise, with great potential in its cast of characters, but as the sci-fi twist came plowing in I wished for some more subtlety. The film should have taken a page from Edgar Wright's Cornetto trilogy, which expertly built from a typical day among friends to a zombie apocalypse, shoot 'em up, and alien invasion. Here the aliens show up suddenly and completely derail the plot. 

Even the style of the film changes gears from something of a comedy into a typical found footage film. The crew run and scream and get spooked by random noises, then things get extra crazy and nonsensical in the grand finale. It follows the hallmarks of the genre that Paranormal Activity built to a T -- it's too bad we've already seen more than enough of those.

I really do wish Unidentified focused on its strengths. The cast, the little touches of YouTube viral humor, and the basic premise/setting have a lot going for them, but it doesn't come together. In fact, it almost feels like two separate movies.

On the bright side, the film goes so far off the deep end before the credits roll that you probably won't regret watching the whole thing. I've pulled far worse films off of the discount DVD shelves. They usually leave me wondering why they exist at all. Unidentified has a lot of the right parts, it just doesn't assemble them in a very satisfying way. If you can't get enough of the found footage genre (and I know many people still can't), it's worth a watch for the fun bits and the crazy finale. Everyone else may want to rewatch Mars Attacks for their "aliens on the Vegas strip" fix.

February 1, 2014

Code Red review - zombie horror needs more brains

“Real” horror genre films -- the schlocky, B-grade zombie/monster/gore-fests that grace the pages of horror magazines and blogs -- don’t receive the sort of ubiquitous, nationwide criticism that a show like The Walking Dead does. That series has defined horror and zombie apocalypse discussions around the watercooler, and the results have been resoundingly backwards.

Don’t get me wrong, I often have a love/hate relationship with that show as much as anyone, but it often comes from poor plotting or characterization, not a ratio of gore-to-chit-chat. I hear the same complaint week-in and week-out from at least one fan of the show: “That episode was boring, it needed more zombies.”

For those people, I may now offer them a little zombie film by the name of Code Red. Not that Code Red is alone in its fine display of zombies being obliterated and eating everything in sight, but it is a perfect example of getting what you asked for. You want more zombies and more killing? Here it is, at the expense of everything else.

It’s not that Code Red is a terrible film, devoid of anything short of guts and gore. There’s actually an involved story and some developed characters in there, but it’s all so boilerplate that it’s difficult to get invested. And that’s the thing -- Walking Dead viewers don’t consider investment; they don’t think about what the “boring” downtime is actually building up towards. They need to watch more films like Code Red so they can fully appreciate what shows like The Walking Dead set out to do.

Code Red tells the story of a biological weapon developed in WWII, released during the battle of Stalingrad, and covered up when the city was burned to the ground. That biological weapon, it turns out, still exists today, so an American special agent is sent in the investigate. In an attempt to maintain the cover-up, a Bulgarian General destroys the facility housing the weapon and ends up releasing the zombie outbreak instead. From there it’s a desperate attempt to escape before the city is destroyed and the cover-up happens all over again.

The most irritating thing about Code Red is the assumptions it seems to make. For one, that we need American characters in order to sympathize with them. John, the American special agent, tries to save Anna, an American doctor at the site of the infestation, and her American daughter. They’re all unwelcome in the country, and the bad guys are almost entirely Eastern European sleazy stereotypes. There’s an obvious formula at work here, and honestly, they would have had a lot more luck getting me to sympathize with a mother/daughter pair that wasn’t designed in a lab to appeal to my specific ‘merican sensibilities. Can we really count that as a legitimate attempt to get the audience to care about the protagonists of the story?

So I could care less about the heroes, but as long as there’s some good blood and guts it doesn’t matter much, right? Well, the thing is that you can only watch people get eaten by zombies or watch zombies get gunned down by soldiers so many times in life. I’ve hit my apex long ago, and while I can still appreciate a creative, morally empty slasher film, the zombie genre really shines exactly when the focus is on human morality.

Code Red is a serviceable zombie film. It isn’t oppressively boring, but I wouldn’t say it’s particularly engaging either. The introductory premise is cool for the WWII aesthetic, and the zombie effects are surprisingly decent, but there isn’t much to offer beyond that. However, if you ever complained about a Walking Dead episode being short on zombie kills, I kindly offer this film as a healing salve for your zombie-starved wounds.

January 8, 2014

Red Ring Circus Awards Show 2013 - My favorite games of the year

2013's Old Game of the Year - Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater

Metal Gear Solid 3 is such an unstoppable force of awesomeness that I almost want to just quit here, call 2013 a wash, and say that Hideo Kojima's 2004 masterpiece (played in HD Collection form) is my game of the year. It's the Metal Gear game I never saw coming -- a sequel that is actually as good as the original. After the fascinating mess that was MGS2, I never suspected that Kojima was capable of good gameplay again, let alone the most methodical, intense stealth action I've ever experienced in a game. Sure, he messed it up again somewhat with MGS4, but it seems he knows what to do as long as you're playing as Big Boss. Playing through MGS3 thrust Ground Zeroes into the role of my most anticipated game of 2014.

Runners-Up -- Resident Evil (Gamecube), Shadow of the Colossus

2013 Game I'm most likely to keep playing in 2014 - Soul Sacrifice

See also: demo of the year. Soul Sacrifice's demo let you play the first chapter of the game, level up your character quite a bit, and really dig into the finer intricacies of its unique equipment and RPG elements. By the end of it I was 100% sold, and when I played the final game I was surprised to find one of the most engaging, dark, and beautifully told stories in a game this year. That the game is near endless with content, and only seems to get more with free DLC packs, makes it something I'll definitely play more of in 2014.

Runner-Up -- Battlefield 4

2013's Most Awesomemest Game - DmC Devil May Cry

Just...fuck yes. There's no other way to say it. DmC was fucking awesome. The combat was a blast and it felt more technically proficient than I was ever expecting. What should have been a decent brawler in the Western style of God of War and Dante's Inferno felt more like something that could sit with Japan's big boys: Bayonetta and Ninja Gaiden. But my favorite part? The story, characterization, and aesthetics were genuinely charming and cool, something none of those aforementioned games could get right. So fucking good. Just give this series to Ninja Theory, Capcom.

Runner-Up -- Tearaway (for making me smile in an awesome way)

2013's Most Underrated Game - Anarchy Reigns

Oh how I wish this game would get a digital re-release on new consoles. It deserves an audience and a vibrant multiplayer community more than almost any online offering this year. It is a tragedy that I'm more likely to get a Tomb Raider deathmatch going than one of Anarchy Reigns' stupendous 16-player brawls. I should have known Platinum Games would make multiplayer character action combat work right, but they really nailed it. It's just so sad that few people will ever see how insane this game is. At least they can still enjoy the amazing soundtrack!

Runner-Up -- Killzone: Mercenary

2013's Game of the Year for about two weeks - Bioshock Infinite

I'd be lying if I didn't admit that Bioshock Infinite felt like a rollercoaster ride of mind-blowing revelations that left me thinking for about a week straight. Had those good feelings lasted, it would have been a shoe-in for game of the year. Infinite is such a sensory assault, though, that once the dust settled and I was able to make sense of it, I developed some deep criticisms of the game. The heart of the story is a soulless puzzle box of timey-wimey craziness that is fun to sort out, but leaves the emotions I'd developed toward the setting and characters on the doorstep. It's still one of the year's best, and I actually like the combat quite a bit, but there was something lacking about the finale's sudden twists and turns.

Runner-Up -- Saints Row IV, Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon

My Second-Favorite Game of 2013 - Tomb Raider

I'm a shameless fan of the Tomb Raider series, especially the original and Crystal D's more recent entries. Tomb Raider (2013) resembled those more recent titles but blew the production values out of the water, threw in a bunch of Uncharted-isms, and reintroduced Lara for a new audience. It was looking like a betrayal of the franchise, and in the case of actual Tomb Raidering it did drop the ball, but the development of Lara, the exploration, and the combat were so well done that it didn't matter. I could have done without some of the ridiculous kill counts towards the end of the game, but even in that respect Crystal Dynamics managed to outdo Uncharted.

Runner-Up -- DmC Devil May Cry, Soul Sacrifice

The Worst Game of 2013 - Crysis 3

There were plenty of games to hate in 2013: Aliens: Colonial Marines, The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct, and Star Trek, to name a few. I played them all, but a flat-out bad game doesn't get under my skin as much as a game that should be good but falls on its ass. Crysis 3 is the epitome of this. Out of everything this year, out of all the shit I played to completion, Crysis 3 was the only big game I just couldn't be bothered to finish. That's coming from someone who thought Crysis 1 and 2 were actually pretty neat. I've never seen such amazing graphics phoned in with such lazy, boring gameplay and story. Bleh.

Runners-Up -- Batman: Arkham Origins, Injustice: Gods Among Us

2013's Definitive, No-arguments, Game of the Year - The Last of Us

It isn't even a contest, so just shut up now. The Last of Us is a masterpiece. It is a blueprint for the future of big-budget, Triple-A, big studio game development. If you want to do all the big, showboat things like scripted events; performance capture; a carefully-plotted, linear tale; out-of-place multiplayer; and a cliche, apocalyptic setting, you should probably aspire to do it all as remarkably as The Last of Us. The story was surprising, emotional, yet subtle and muted in all the right ways. The finale was brilliant. The gameplay -- while it got a lot of criticism -- was a masterful example of challenging stealth and survival horror on higher difficulties. It isn't just my game of the year, but one of my new favorite games of all time.

Runner-Up -- Nothing. Nothing came close.

2013's Shame Pile

If your favorite 2013 game wasn't highlighted here, it might be because it wasn't good enough and your opinion is wrong. More likely, though, I just didn't get around to playing it. Here are the games I am sad I missed in 2013:

  • Gone Home
  • Papers, Please
  • The Stanley Parable
  • Don't Starve
  • Kentucky Route Zero
  • Year Walk
  • Antichamber
  • Fire Emblem: Awakening
  • Assassin's Creed 4
  • Super Mario 3D World
  • Guacamelee
  • The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds
  • Gunpoint
  • Rogue Legacy
  • Rayman: Legends
  • Pokemon X/Y
  • Ni No Kuni
  • Grand Theft Auto V
  • State of Decay

October 4, 2013

Gravity review - more like "Grab"-ity

I’ll keep this brief.

It’s only fair. Gravity does not waste a second, and I feel obligated to do the same. Every scene, whether breath-taking or breath-catching, is designed to keep you in the immediate moment. It’s a simple story, if you can even call it that. More closely, Gravity is an exercise in tension, juxtaposing the beauty of space with its mercilessness.

Alfonso Cuarón makes a masterful decision here, one that few other writers would have made. At 91 minutes, Gravity fully commits to its premise, never leaving the vacuum of space for a character-developing flashback. In an alternate reality, Gravity is a full two hours, with bloated, boring scenes of astronauts Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) dwelling on their pasts.

Gravity’s characters and their backstories aren't particularly groundbreaking, but it doesn't matter because the film does not force feed them to us. Their stories are told along the way, on the move, in a way that never detracts from the immediate moment.

Clooney is fun as a wise-cracking veteran and perfectly cast -- if you need a charmer, George Clooney is your man. Bullock feels...somewhat interchangeable. Perhaps another actress could have truly owned the role (and I’m sure some will argue that she does), but I felt like she got the job done, nothing more. I can’t help but wonder if her casting had to do with her previous role as a certain bus driver. That said, I have no real complaints, because I wasn't thinking about the quality of the performances as I was watching.

I wasn't thinking about much but what I was seeing. Gravity is a deeply visual film, so much so that I implore you see it on your finest IMAX 3D screen. The 3D is the most breathtaking example of the technology I've seen. I dodged, I flinched, I was there in the vacuum of space.

I want to gush about the continuous shots that build on Cuarón’s accomplishments in Children of Men. I want to praise the film for its use of sound -- or lack thereof -- and how it strengthens the terror and tension of the events rather than muting them. I could say a lot more nice things about Gravity, but I’ll leave it at this: See it. Just do it. Don’t watch another trailer, don’t spoil another out-of-context moment for yourself. Just see it.

One last thing for those that have seen the film. I have a thought and a criticism that only came to me after the fact and that I recommend you only read after you've watched it. It isn't THAT important, but I want to say it: One issue I have with Gravity is how white-washed the film is. It’s a film about modern day space travel, but while it recognizes the presence of Russia and China up there, it treats anything non-white, non-American as nothing more than set-piece and cannon fodder. It’s especially alarming to see a Mexican director making a film that’s so… ‘MERICA. I worry that someone along the line felt this was the only way to sell a normal space movie to a mass audience and that thought is a bit upsetting.

September 27, 2013

Don Jon review - Male Feminism 101

For a film about a guy who lies about his porn addiction, Don Jon is a surprisingly honest piece of filmmaking. It tackles the darkness of how the male mind works in a way that a dozen raunchy Frat Pack comedies combined couldn’t touch, and it does so with just as much wit and humor. Guys, pay attention, because there is a smart lesson at the heart of Don Jon. Girls (and some guys too), try not to swoon on Gordon-Levitt too hard -- the man gets it.

If you’ve seen the trailer, you know the basics. Jon Martello (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is masculinity in a box. “My body, my pad, my ride, my family, my church, my boys, my girls, my porn,” is his mantra, played back with a New Jersey accent to really hammer it home. He’s both a ridiculous caricature of a man and immediately relatable. I suspect Gordon-Levitt drew this character with the goal of making the guys in the theater a little uncomfortable. He’s such a simple-minded douche, and yet, you know you’ve been on his wavelength at one point or another. If Dexter Morgan is a reflection on our own urges to kill, Don Jon is a reflection on our own urges to shamelessly objectify and beat off.

Jon’s routine is straightforward -- go to the gym, eat dinner with the family, go to church, go out with his boys, take home a “dime” (a 10/10 on their booty rating scale), and then...sneak away to watch porn and masturbate. Jon doesn’t just like porn, he doesn’t just jerk off, he ritualizes it and prefers it to sex. He loses himself in porn and he loves it because the girls will do anything and everything. His denouncement of oral sex as a two-way street is just the tip of his iceberg of issues.

And then a girl comes along. Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johanssen), is the girl that throws Jon off his game. She doesn’t have sex on the first date, or the tenth. She wants him to meet her family, and she wants to meet his. She certainly doesn’t want him watching porn and beating off ten times a day.

With the routine turned upside-down, the real heart of the film is revealed in some surprising ways. Don Jon doesn’t shy away from so much of what Hollywood seems to fear. Male arrested development is a comedy goldmine, but it’s rarely mined this expertly, and with a purpose and point to make.

Don Jon will inevitably be viewed by some as a problematic, even misogynistic piece of filmmaking. I read it as a first lesson in feminism from a male perspective. It paints its picture with vulgar, sloppy brushstrokes, but that’s exactly what a lot of guys need. In the last few years of social media and criticism we’ve been going whole hog exploring issues of objectification and misogyny, and quite frankly, it can be confusing and suffocating for guys, even if they genuinely want to take a feminist viewpoint. Don Jon is an inviting window to accepting feminism for confused, hormonal teenagers and 20-30-somethings stuck in their ways. It may seem gross, it may seem immature, it may even seem simple-minded, but I wholeheartedly believe the point sinks in better because it’s from a place a guy understands. The audible “huh” of understanding from one of the guys in the audience last night spoke volumes towards Don Jon’s effectiveness.

That the film is wrapped up in a funny, entertaining, confident package only helps to hammer it all home. It isn’t a perfect film -- the pacing gets a little weird in the final act -- but that’s just a wrinkle, an endearing flaw in an open and honest examination by a talented actor, writer, and director. Good show, JGL.

September 25, 2013

Blood of Redemption Review - Keep it dumb, Lundgren

Blood of Redemption opens with an In medias res structure that belies a pretty straightforward tale of betrayal. It’s the kind of storytelling that will leave you confused if you don’t turn your brain on, and that’s Blood of Redemption’s crucial mistake. It’s called Blood of Redemption, it stars Dolph Lundgren, and it’s brimming with corny action scenes and cheesy acting -- do you really want to turn your brain on for that?

You can almost feel a smarter, more thoughtful plot brewing beneath the Syfy channel shark-movie-of-the-week production values, but it never truly surfaces. The acting is mediocre-to-terrible all around, with big names like Dolph Lundgren and Billy Zane phoning in passable performances while Gianni Capaldi delivers what would be so-bad-it’s-good if the movie wasn’t taking itself so seriously. The true pro here is Vinny Jones, who has the advantage of being Vinny Jones, but he’s still awesome for giving it his all.

The film is schizophrenic, bouncing between deadly serious drama and fight sequences that would make the cast of They Live blush. There’s a balance to achieving fun-bad cinema, but Blood of Redemption is too dry to capture laughs with its corny moments. A shameless Godfather quote could have elicited a laugh, but a pained groan was about the best I could muster.

A fine piece of cover there.
Once the film gets out of clunkily explaining itself, the plot does level out somewhat. The core story is a whodunit with a mobster foundation. A murder in the Grimaldi crime family leads to jail time for its second-in-command and a change of guard, as the new guys take over a family business that doesn’t belong to them.

In the chaos, the family bodyguard, Axel (Dolph Lundgren), goes into hiding in an attempt to piece it all together. He even creates a crazy conspiracy wall! Working in parallel is Kurt Grimaldi (Gianna Capaldi), playing the role of the film’s biggest plothole. Why in the world would the FBI hire the son of a mob boss

That implausibility leaks into the films later plot twists, which are certainly twisty, but barely make a lick of sense. It’s never entirely clear who the protagonist is in Blood of Redemption, and the redemption at the end is hard to get excited about. The whole mess wraps up in an oddly grim manner, overlayed with a smug monologue that explains how clever the film thinks it is.

Blood of Redemption could have used a script rewrite and an injection of energy into the cast. To make matters worse the cinematography and editing is every bit as cold and clinical as the slickly designed DVD cover suggests. Even taken on the B-grade terms it aspires to, it never connects. If you’re looking for a dumb, modern action movie starring Dolph Lundgren, you’d be far better served with The Expendables 2 -- a film that understood exactly what it was and reveled in it.

August 12, 2013

Zombie Massacre review - one big Resident Evil reference

Credibility be damned, I like Uwe Boll. It's an unpopular sentiment, but it's true. Sure, the guy has made a lot of trashy, nearly unwatchable video game movie adaptations, but they aren't all bad (Postal) and some of his work is legitimately great (Rampage). That, and the guy is a lovable character in the media, boxing his way to notoriety and spouting some of the best angry rants the internet has to offer. No matter how dumb his work might get, he's entertaining through and through.

His name is what initially caught my eye when I decided to check out Zombie Massacre, and I was disappointed to learn that the film is actually "presented by Uwe Boll". Thankfully, beyond a producer credit, he makes an absurd cameo that's one of the film's best highlights. More than that, though, you can feel Boll's influence throughout. He didn't make the movie, but he may as well have, for better or worse.

The premise seems more than a little influenced by Resident Evil. A small town is infected by a deadly virus, turning everyone into zombies. The creators of the virus stage a cover-up, hiring a ragtag team of mercenaries to go in and clean up the mess. The team is as colorful as any cast of video game characters, with a sniper, bomb specialist, lady Samurai, and your typical white-washed grunt.

Unlike most B-horror, which would dive headfirst into zombie film cliches, shooting, and gore, Zombie Massacre spends an uncharacteristically long time on each character's backstory. It backfires a bit, as the film revels in some dumb, cumbersome dialogue, but that's kind of the charm. This is a movie you riff on with some friends, and it provides plenty of dumb moments to poke fun at, especially as things escalate. Most scenes go on far too long, but that eventually becomes another funny quirk if you're in the right mindset.

Zombie Massacre doesn't quite live up to its name, as the amount of zombies killed isn't any more than any other zombie movie. That said, I have to give the effects department credit for making so many unique zombie designs. It really is a grab-bag of gory zombies, bloody zombies, and strange mutations.

The biggest problem with the film is, oddly, how sharply shot each scene is. For all the so-bad-it's-good dialogue and awkward action, there's a few oddly artful shots in there. The visuals fit in more with a dreary apocalypse or disturbing horror piece than a silly-action-zombie-thing. The result is a film that at times seems to be striving for legitimacy, even when that goal couldn't be more ridiculous. The net result is something that falls squarely middle-of-the-road, neither serious or silly enough. It sits in this spot were it's simply too dry to get the full mileage off of its cheese-value.

There are worse films you could rent on a drunken movie night with some friends, but there are also a ton of better-bad and better-good films out there. That said, a fantastic Uwe Boll cameo and completely left-field ending make Zombie Apocalypse a worthwhile watch, even if it could have been a lot better. It's recommended if you're into watching corny horror movies, doubly so if you can get through a Uwe Boll movie without walking out.

July 22, 2013

Only God Forgives review - No real heroes, no human beings

The pervasive complaint among critics for Only God Forgives is that these characters aren’t human, that they don’t act in ways a real human would.

I can only imagine this made director Nicolas Winding Refn incredibly happy.

At the core of this film are a family: a mother (Krystal, played by Kristen Scott Thomas), her two sons (Julian, played by Ryan Gosling; and Billy, played by Tom Burke) and a long dead father who we can only assume had a powerful influence on how they got to be the way they are. 

When brother Billy is killed in the film’s opening minutes, the stage is set for retaliation. Julian quickly gets his chance, but spares the man responsible -- Julian has a lot of issues, but murder is one thing that registers on his moral compass. This disappoints Krystal, who has lost her favorite son and isn’t afraid to take it out on the one she still has.

The darkness in their family is something they take for granted. Krystal’s deadpan commentary on her two sons’ manhood is just about the best hint we’re given into what’s really going on. “Julian’s was never small, but Billy’s was, oh, it was enormous! How can you compete with that?”

The truth is this isn’t a family of normal humans, but a family of sociopaths, and they’ve probably been at it for a while. There’s no need to dwell on it, no need to tell the audience how they feel, because this is just how they are. As a result, Only God Forgives is 90 minutes of crazy people acting crazy, doing things normal people don’t do. It’s left to the audience to piece together the humanity in it, and if you just sit there and take it at face value it may appear to be a film with no substance.

Slow, seemingly pointless scenes of Julian reaching into darkness (and reaching into...other things) come into focus as the film moves along. There is purpose to every agonizing frame. Only God Forgives doesn’t go out of its way to be enjoyable, but to call it nonsensical would be slanderous.

Then we have Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), a police lieutenant who acts more like a mob boss. You’d be forgiven for assuming he was the latter. When Julian’s family makes a move, Chang is the one who arrives to retaliate, enacting his own twisted sense of honor. Again, this is a movie about crazy people, and Chang is just a different brand of the same product. His scenes are a highlight, to be sure, displaying Refn’s talent for juxtaposing stark violence with lighter moments.

Only God Forgives is an appropriately named film. Not only are there no apologies to be had in the film itself, but I doubt Refn would apologize for what he has made. It’s a methodical, challenging film that only rewards those who are willing to meet it in the middle. While his last film, Drive, welcomed audiences to his twisted mind, Only God Forgives simply opens a door and says “fuck you” if you don’t step through it.