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.

July 20, 2013

Pacific Rim Review - You Can (Not) Reference

Pacific Rim is, for a large portion of its runtime, a pornographic recreation of my childhood. It’s an amalgamation of cartoons, comics, video games, and Japanese anime turned up to a visual volume that no cartoon, comic, video game, or anime can compete with. If the things Pacific Rim references resonate with you, it will be hard to deny the goosebumps of excitement every time an epic battle between Jaeger (robots) and Kaiju (monsters) begins. It also makes it easier to laugh it off when someone says something incredibly dumb.

For everything Pacific Rim seemingly references, one of my favorite animes as a kid seems to sit at the heart of it: Neon Genesis Evangelion. The similarities are uncanny -- giant robots fight giant monsters that appear from nowhere with regular frequency, pilots form an intense bond required to drive the robots, they’re delivered to the fights in epic fashion, and the battles are overseen from a metallic fortress where commanders shout orders under the neon lights of computer screens. At one point, one character even suggests that the Kaiju come from the heavens as some form of punishment for humanity’s sins, which is more or less the actual reason for the monsters in Evangelion. It got to the point where it was impossible for me to avoid comparing the two.

The problem with the comparisons is that Pacific Rim only dabbles in concepts that Evangelion went whole hog on. From the battles themselves, to the mental toll they take on the pilots and the utter hopelessness of humanity’s final hour, Pacific Rim sets a stage nearly as dark and potent as Evangelion, but it loses its edge in the final act.

There is no doubt that Pacific Rim sets the stakes incredibly high early on. The story of the Kaiju arrival, the creation of the Jaegers, and the ensuing war is told in prologue form at the opening of the film, and needless to say, Pacific Rim’s apocalypse is dire. It takes every resource humanity has to keep the threat at bay, and when those resources start failing it paints a sense of hopelessness few “end of the world” films attain.

We learn a lot about the Jaeger pilots, who must “drift” with their co-pilots, sharing memories and forming powerful bonds so that they can split piloting duties. These scenes are some of the film’s best. We see the trauma the pilots must share with each other and the ways the system can backfire if a pilot lets their emotions run wild. Again, this has a lot in common with Evangelion, where the only people capable of piloting an EVA are pubescent teenagers in the most irrational and emotional stage of their lives. But while Evangelion embraces the internal struggle of the various pilots, Pacific Rim gives up its best themes before the climax.

It wouldn’t be a huge problem—this is a summer blockbuster after all—except the film replaces its admittedly simple bit of thematic depth with a ton of ugly apocalypse cliches. You’ve got everything from the wacky scientist outrunning a giant monster in comic relief style, to an inspirational speech delivered so blatantly on cue that “EPIC SPEECH TIME” should have started flashing at the bottom of the screen. Most of the film’s third act plot points seem to be cribbed from the US Godzilla remake and Independence Day, and if it wasn’t delivered with Guillermo Del Toro’s child-like charm we’d be talking about a very different kind of disaster movie.

The battles and special effects remain awe-inspiring and hard-hitting from beginning to end, but the plot and themes driving that action wither and die before the end of the film’s 131-minute runtime. It’s an undeniably fun and exciting ride, but it trades in potential depth for cheap cliches so swiftly that its hard to ignore.

Maybe I was expecting too much. That’s the inherent danger in homage. If you’re going to reference material brimming with pathos and philosophical questions, you’d better be willing to do more than dabble in those concepts yourself. Perhaps the references are meant to be superficial, and I’m having some unfair expectations squashed, but either way I was disappointed. Many will find the simple cartoon joys of Pacific Rim entertaining enough, and I’ll surely watch it again one day just to experience those epic fights all over again, but I’ll always reach the credits hoping for a little more to chew on.

May 22, 2013

The Hangover Part III Review - Hangover Fanfiction

The Hangover Part III presumes that you have so much love for this cast of characters that you'd watch them in any genre of film. It presumes you care or even remember what happened to these characters in the last two films, weaving together a narrative from small plot points in the first two entries. It reads like fanfiction -- what if Phil, Stu, and Alan got dragged into a crime plot instigated by Mr. Chow? What if John Goodman were an angry crime boss threatening the Wolfpack with death if they couldn't track down Chow?

Ever since the second film, The Hangover writers have put a lot of stock in how "cool" their characters are. They're the Wolfpack, man! What started as a joke that Alan took too far has become a genuine identifier that the writers feel can hold up to a semi-serious crime story. Yes, The Hangover Part III has jokes, but they're few and far between, and the very funniest ones were carefully plucked and featured in the preview.

This is a film about the trio fumbling around in the dark, out of place in a violent world of crime. They're in over their head but manage to trip and fall into not dying at every turn. It's the kind of story that you write after binge-watching all of Breaking Bad, and I can only assume that's exactly what happened here. It was pretty clear with the first sequel that The Hangover was a one-time thing and the concept had run out of ideas, and Part III only solidifies that notion by drawing inspiration from left-field.

I don't care about the characters in The Hangover, if you haven't noticed. I'm not interested in their bond, nor their relationship with Mr. Chow, the painfully racist character the series refuses to let die. Sometimes comedies can have depth of character and laughs, but I come to Hangover movies simply to laugh. Considering only one of them was genuinely funny I feel like a bit of a fool. Rubbing salt in the wound, I spent maybe 45 minutes or so waiting for Part III to hit its stride and "get funny." It was only after a solid twenty minutes without a peep from the entire theater that I realized I wasn't actually watching a comedy.

For the few times a laugh genuinely sneaked out, it came with the recognition that the joke was only funny because it was referencing a much funnier YouTube clip or internet meme. That's the kind of humor you expect out of cheap parody garbage like A Haunted House or the "____ Movie" series. The Hangover features Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, Zach Galifianakis, Jeffrey Tambor, and mother fucking John Goodman. It should be above these lazy references, even if the crafted humor falls flat.

And speaking of John Goodman! His sole purpose in this film seemed to be a reminder of his role in a much better film, The Big Lebowski. It's clear that Lebowski is the sort of dark crime comedy they were aiming for, and boy did they miss by a few million light years. I think the recently released Star Trek Into Darkness might have more in common with The Big Lebowski. It's funnier too.

Consider this warning: I may have laughed more during Movie 43 than The Hangover Part III. This isn't a comedy and it's one of the more useless crime capers out there. It fails on all accounts. The budget, cast, and competent filming only add to the sense that this was all an epic waste of time and talent. Go watch The Big Lebowski, Breaking Bad, and that YouTube video of the guy who cries really weird instead, you'll thank me later.

Here, I'll even get you started:

May 16, 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness Review - The Mass Effect movie you never thought you'd get

J.J. Abrams 2009 Star Trek reboot was faithful to the franchise to a fault. It was hobbled by its trans-dimensional attempts to justify its existence in the overall Star Trek lore. Leonard Nimoy's appearance as the original Spock was surprising, but the effort it took to explain left the film relatively plot-less otherwise. A strong cast of characters and overwhelming visuals kept it entertaining, but it could have been a lot better.

Enter the sequel, Into Darkness. The fear here was that the film would perhaps go too far in the other direction, tossing out Star Trek's heavier sci-fi elements in favor of an action-packed extravaganza. But while the film is indeed an action-packed extravaganza, it's also far more faithful to Star Trek. Rather than fumbling with the franchises weaker elements, it embraces the stronger themes, funneling those themes through a kinetic, action-packed plot.

The film opens with Kirk, Spock, and crew attempting to save an alien species from an active volcano. The problem, as any trekkie will tell you, is that interfering with the natural ways of indigenous life violates the Prime Directive. The Federation explores and studies, but they don't interfere. Right from the start, Into Darkness explores one of Star Trek's most interesting concepts through an action-packed sequence full of running, chasing, action, and explosions. It's smart summer popcorn fare, and it maintains that speed and depth from beginning to end.

Into Darkness assuages doubt at every turn. Did you think that perhaps the plot would be too straight-forward? The trailer for this sequel, as exciting as it is, probably has most fans fooled. There's very little this film doesn't have: action, drama, twists, turns, variety, strong themes, Robocop. It's all here and it all feels like a Star Trek film should. I dare any fan with desires for this film to come out and say that it didn't deliver.

Dialogue is as witty as ever. Zachary Quinto reprises his role as the new, young Spock and again his lack of emotions and overabundance of logic brings about some of the films best dialogue and moral quandaries. The way his personality plays off of Chris Pine's energetic and snarky Kirk is fun, funny, and thoughtful. Again, the characters are as strong as they were in the original, but the plot and themes have caught up to make a much, much stronger film.

There is only one thing about Into Darkness I take issue with, and it's perhaps a little nit-picky. If a film can be too high-energy, I think this one might take the cake. Almost every sequence, from explosive battles to moments of quiet contemplation have the same heart-pounding soundtrack and quick editing. The result is that excitement becomes the norm, and I found myself no more thrilled during the action than the talking. Maybe that's the point, but when the entire film is dialed to 11, there's no room to dial it any higher. Yes, summer movies are supposed to be endlessly exciting, but lets not get burnt out on it, okay Mr. Abrams? Leave some room for everyone else.

That's the best criticism I can muster--okay, there's a few silly bits in the villain's back story, but otherwise Star Trek Into Darkness is immensely satisfying. More than anything, it adapts what's great about Star Trek, rather than the more convoluted bits that require a ton of explanation. It presents interesting morality and challenging conundrums and blends it all into an explosive stew. It's all a summer movie can be and more.

May 14, 2013

The Great Gatsby Review - Baz vs. Leo

Baz Luhrmann could learn a thing or two from game designer Ken Levine. For The Great Gatsby, Luhrmann chose to incorporate modern music into the story of the decadent 1920s. He shows party people driving through ye olde decadent New York City blaring Jay Z's "H to the Izzo" from their non-existent speakers. He captures a night of drugs and drinking with a slow-motion dubstep breakdown. Meanwhile, in Levine's latest game, Bioshock Infinite, his team at Irrational Games carefully and subtly incorporated modern music into an early 1900s setting without causing an anachronistic aneurysm.

In fact, Bioshock's floating city in the sky, complete with magic powers and time travel, feels more in touch with its era of choice than The Great Gatsby ever does. Gatsby is brimming with absurd CG zooms around NYC and Long Island. It throws the camera across the bay, zipping from West Egg to East Egg and back only to wow those wearing their 3D glasses. The handful of car chases look preposterous, as the cars drift and turn at impossible, physics defying angles with their little toy people thrown around like fodder in a Lord of the Rings battle. It's no wonder Tobey Maguire is such a big part of this film, as Peter Parker he seemed at home in worlds mostly made in a computer.

The whole thing is a tasteless grab-bag of word-for-word quotes from the novel mixed with violent displays of artistic license. Baz invents things for the story at the same time he is desperately faithful, he half-captures the look of the era while tossing in top 40 hits, and this goes on unrestricted until Gatsby himself steps into the scene. If you walked out of the theater before Leonardo DiCaprio makes his entrance, I wouldn't fault you at all. But man, I've never seen such an attempt to single-handedly save a film from itself.

Leo is a goddamn force as Gatsby. He plays the part to perfection, even when the script demands that he twist the character slightly. The moment he steps in the film seems to get its act together. It's as if the cast and crew of Gatsby were a bunch of sugar-fueled elementary school students and DiCaprio was their no-nonsense teacher. It still slips here and there, but the middle chunk of the film is a watchable, decent adaptation of the book. It's kind of crazy.

As soon as he's gone from the story Baz is at it again, covering the screen in flashy quotes from the book while inventing new things for Tobey Maguire's Nick Carraway to do. The pastiche of over-faithful quotations and modern obnoxiousness is what I'd imagine a Hot Topic line of T-Shirts based on classic literature would look like. There's only so much a fine actor can do to save that.

May 3, 2013

Iron Man 3 Review - Post Traumatic Prick

Iron Man 3 adds an interesting wrinkle to the ongoing Marvel saga. We’ve had a series of loosely connected hero films all culminate with The Avengers, an experiment that paid off in spades. Now, we have the aftermath, and Iron Man 3 smartly feels like both an Iron Man sequel and an Avengers follow-up. There has been warranted concern that this whole comic book movie explosion would be a passing fad, but the interconnected nature of the Marvel films has created a wholly unique form of popcorn cinema. Iron Man 3 represents the first chapter in the post-team-up aftermath.

Iron Man 3 feels like more than a sequel. It’s almost like the next episode in a TV series that only airs one big-budget blockbuster episode per season. Every episode is an epic season finale, but if they’re all as good as this I don’t think you’ll hear anyone complaining. More than a good film, it makes keeping up with the entire Marvel saga feel more valuable.

It accomplishes this by presenting a PTSD-ridden Tony Stark. The final battle in New York at the end of The Avengers left a mark on the billionaire playboy. Apparently you don’t nearly commit sacrificial suicide by diving into a space portal without taking a serious mental toll. He has nightmares, he doesn’t sleep, and a new villain aims to catch him off guard.

The Mandarin, a bad guy from the Iron Man comics repurposed into a terrorist, is an intimidating and surprising figure. After battling aliens, you have to wonder how a villain comparable to Osama Bin Laden holds up. That top layer of down-to-Earth evil is fascinating, showing how even when the universe is blown wide open, it’s still humanity that remains the most terrifying. But there are other layers to this character, and revealing them all here would be a disservice.

That said, while the forces that aim to take down Tony Stark are more interesting than usual, this film is really about Stark himself. It’s about the man in the iron suit battling his own personal demons and trying to be something to the one person he loves. It’s a far leap from the drunken antics presented in Iron Man 2 as well. Iron Man 3 remains light-hearted despite a darker edge, but it never dips into the obnoxious the way that first sequel did.

Directed and co-written by Shane Black, of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Lethal Weapon fame, Iron Man 3 has a biting snark to it that’s much appreciated. Tony Stark is a good guy through and through, but he’s also that genius/playboy/millionaire/asshole, and when he doesn’t even shy away from being a prick to a helpful young boy, you can see Black’s influences. Iron Man and Shane Black, Shane Black and Robert Downey Jr., Robert Downey Jr. and Iron Man; they all fit together like the new Iron Man suit. 

Before the end of Iron Man 3 it descends into the typical superhero movie predictability more than I would have preferred, but that never overshadows the film’s accomplishments. Iron Man 3 is witty and exciting, with a dark edge and character depth you’re only going to get in this type of film when it’s build upon the foundation that Marvel is carefully constructing. The superhero bubble may burst, but if they keep this up it isn’t happening anytime soon.