Tag Archives: review

The Good, The Great, And The Greatest

I have had the pleasure over the past few weeks of partaking of a fabulous selection of films, both in theaters and at home.  Along with finally getting around to watching Children of Men, as well as re-watching District 9 last night, I saw three movies multiple times on which I would like to comment.  They are Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, a good movie that achieves exactly what it was going for, Inception, a great movie that fails to achieve what it was going for, and Let The Right One In, a great movie that seems to achieve what it was going for superbly.

Scott Pilgrim is the most straight-forward to write about, so I will cover that one first.  I fell in love with the graphic novels a few months ago, and as such was primed to love this movie.  And love it I did, although I have no delusions that it is, in and of itself, any sort of classic, nor will it even achieve cult classic status.  It is a fine adaptation of the comic, and by-and-large nailed the tone and style perfectly, while making necessary sacrifices to the pacing in order to fit seven evil exes into two hours of film.  Like most reviews that I read, I found the action to get a bit tedious by the end, but the film seems to know when it’s starting to overstay its welcome.  I do highly recommend it to people who aren’t afraid of a little off-the-wall action and intelligent-sarcastic humor.

Inception, from what others have said, seems to be the most mind-blowing thing since the Matrix.  It is a strange film for me, as most films like it (ostensibly high-minded action films, such as the Matrix movies, V for Vendetta, Dark Knight and the like) seem to leave me emotionally satisfied directly following my first viewing, but break down upon closer examination.  Inception bucks this trend by leaving me wholly unsatisfied upon leaving the theater, feeling betrayed by what appeared to me to be an emotionally manipulative ending which lacked true profundity, while at the same time the pieces manifest into a cohesive whole in my head as time goes on and I further discuss the film and read reviews.  There are two ways I can look at this admittedly supurbly directed and acted film (although Christopher Nolan cannot direct vehicle sequences to save his life).  Either the director, Nolan, knew exactly what he was doing, and put the utmost care into placing every detail and bit of imagery, in which case I pretty much proscribe to the interpretation posited by this reviewer (warning, link contains spoilers), or he is extremely sloppy in his execution and description of the film’s internal logic, as he was with Dark Knight and, to a lesser extent, Batman Begins, and the ending is left ambiguous not because it carries any meaningful significance to the filmmakers, but because those kinds of endings are proven to illicit emotional responses from most audiences, regardless of their depth of meaning.  I may not be too cynical yet to give Nolan the benefit of the doubt here, although I feel that Shutter Island explored similar themes better, with a deeper performance by DiCaprio, and I trust Martin Scorsese to put more thought into the details than Christopher Nolan.  Regardless, Inception is a great film that should be seen, although I would urge you to watch it with a more critical eye than you might otherwise.

Now, and this is what I really wanted to get to, we move on to Let The Right One In.  Do you know the feeling of falling in love with a work of art?  Where after reading a book or watching a film or experiencing a piece of music for the first time, that piece permeates your mind, forcing you to look through the world through the lens of said work?  I believe the last time this happened to me was when I saw Psycho for the first time, almost two years ago, and fell in love.  I had similar experiences with Fritz Lang’s M, Isaac Asimov’s The Mule, and the entire Beatles’ catalog on that fateful night some years ago when my dad let me stay up well past my bedtime to listen to those records.  It’s an overwhelming desire to experience nothing but that work.  You wish that every movie or book or album were as good in all the same ways as Psycho.

This is what happened to me with Let The Right One In, the 2008 Swedish vampire film which deserves none of the scorn or apprehension that might come with the label “Swedish vampire film.”  This is a film that is not about vampires, at least not in the Twilight or even Dracula sense of the term.  It is not about what vampires do, or how people fight them, or what happens when a vampire moves in to the neighborhood.  It is more of a tone poem than a narrative, a meditation on what a vampire might represent, rather than how it might act.  It is the best directed film I have seen since Psycho and features a similarly tight economy of action, with nary a wasted frame.  It is an absolutely brilliant film, and I do not want to spoil anything in this so far relatively spoiler-free post, but I will say that I first watched it at 1 in the morning, and was very worried that I would have trouble sleeping after it.  Two hours later, I felt not dread or fear, but euphoria.  I have since watched it two more times, and plan on showing it to anybody who will watch.  It is, quite simply, a film that you can not afford not to see.

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World Action and Adventure (or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Pointless Tables)

On a recent visit to the mall to go see Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (which was very entertaining, despite including nothing from the last volume of the comics) I stopped in to one of those sports memorabilia stores that also has a small section of comic books and Magic: the Gathering cards and their ilk.  While there, I discovered this wonderful roleplaying supplement from 1985 for a game called World Action and Adventure.  This book is so obscure, I couldn’t even find a picture of the cover on the first 14 pages of Google Images.

We'll have to make due with Quasimodo (page 13)

The supplement, which is subtitled “Actor’s Book of Characters,” is not something that I would typically associate with a product named “World Action and Adventure.”  I mean, that’s a title that you look at, and you know exactly what you’re getting.  There’s gonna be action.  There’s gonna be adventure.  They’re going to be together.  The action is going to be… worldly?  I don’t know, but what I do know is that you can’t go about calling a game “World Action and Adventure,” and duping people expecting some manner of Indiana Jones-style romp through – well, the world, I guess – into purchasing a book filled with bland descriptions of different careers throughout the ages and various tables to aid players in selected said careers for their characters.

That’s right, it’s not enough to decide “I want my character to be a baseball player.”  Nope, you have to choose to be an athlete.  Then, you get to either roll on a table, or choose on the table, depending on the results rolled on a completely different table at the beginning of the book (of which there are seven, one of which the DM specifies at the beginning of the whole process).  Then you get to read such brilliant descriptions as, “Basketball can be a rough game.  The players there have the same span of years that they can play as their football counterparts.  But when a top basketball star is on the court, he is the highest paid professional athlete in the United States.  Earnings of one million per year are the rewards for the best of the basketball athletes.”

Don’t get me wrong, I love randomized character generation, but this whole thing is an exercise in pointlessness.  In “World Action and Adventure” (which, by the way, calls its players “actors,” calls the GM the “Action Guide,” and features a back-of-New-York-Times-bestselleresque picture of the game’s creator, Gregory L. Kinney, on what appears to be his yacht, wearing what appears to be an epically douchey expression) I want to roll up a character capable of taking on Nazis or fighting evil voodoo witch doctors, not accurately filing tax reports or executing a bitchin’ triple-axel (that’s a thing, right?).

If anyone has any information on this game or how it came about or who this G. Kinney guy is, it would be very much appreciated.  To give you the ultimate sense of how pretentious this book is, I leave you with the following quotes, which are taken in order, in their entirety, as presented on the “World Wisdom” page, which comes just after the table of contents:

“The great creative individual . . . is capable of more wisdom and virtue than collective man ever can be.” – John Stuart Mill (1806-1873)

“One man with courage makes a majority.” – Andrew Jackson (1767-1845)

“Act well at the moment, and you have performed a good action to all eternity.” – Johann Kaspar Lavater (1741-1801) [I have this sinking suspicion that Kinney though he was talking about acting in the sense of theater, but I could just be projecting]

“There is more treasure in books than in all the pirates’ loot on Treasure Island . . . and best of all, you can enjoy these riches every day of your life.” – Walt Disney (1901-1966)

“Patriotism is the same as the love of humanity.” – Mohandas Gandhi (1869-1948)

“Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves.” – Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865)

“As life is action and passion, it is required of man that he should share the passion and action of his time, at peril of being judged not to have lived.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. [so perhaps Kinney used Action in the title simply in the sense of the act of doing anything, be it exciting or or otherwise?]

“God so loved the world . . .” – excerpt from John 3:16

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What Six-Year-Olds Are Good For

I’m just going to come right out and say it, Adventure Time is the best show on television right now.  Yes, it is on Cartoon Network.  Yes, I was introduced to it by my six-year-old brother.  Yes, The Simpsons is still on air, and The Simpsons is the greatest show of all time.  But right now, at this moment, I have seen nothing else that is as refreshing, as creative, or as downright entertaining as Adventure Time.

For the uninitiated, Adventure Time is based on a short that came out a few years ago, and it follows the antics of self-proclaimed adventurers Finn (a human boy with an awesome hat) and Jake (his canine companion, who inexplicably has the power to alter his size and shape at will) as they explore their native Land of Ooo.  The Land of Ooo is populated by all sorts of zany surrealistic characters, including a puppy-sized elephant, a rainicorn, a cantankerous old-man-winteresque Ice King, and all shapes and sizes of monsters to be slain and princesses to be rescued.  At the beginning of one episode, Finn and Jake are seen melting beached icebergs with flamethrowers in search of parts to be used in building their gauntlet-dock (“A dock which is also a gauntlet!”).  Jake, however, can find nothing but left childrens’ booties.

It is this kind of wonderful surrealism that saturates every moment of the show.  The ridiculous situations in which these characters find themselves are made all the better by the protagonists’ relative groundedness.  Perhaps “grounded” is too kind.  Finn and Jake relish the opportunity to perform heroic deeds, to fight monsters, to rescue princesses, and, more to the point, go on adventures.  In short, Finn and Jake are PCs.

More specifically, they are PCs in a decidedly old school world.  If you don’t believe me, or you think I’m overthinking things, one recent episode features the following:

  • A descent into a clearly dangerous dungeon in search of “The Crystal Eye”
  • A Mimic
  • A Trapper
  • A Gelatinous Cube

This episode, titled “Dungeon,” is currently available on Kids On Demand if you have Time Warner Cable (at least it is in my region).  I strongly suggest anybody who has ever been remotely interested in anything I’ve ever said on this blog or elsewhere go and watch as much Adventure Time as you can.  There has so far not been a bad episode.

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A Long-Awaited Return, and a Confession

After what I’m calculating to be a month-and-a-half hiatus, I’m back on board with this whole blog thing. Surprisingly, I keep getting a decent amount of hits per day, which must mean I am extremely popular, probably with the ladies.

So what have I been doing with all this time you ask? Playing through countless video games? Digesting some work of great literature or film making? Studying intently for my future career as a wandering minstrel? Well… um… how to say this?

I did something bad.

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Mass Effect: “Game”

If Mass Effect does nothing else (and it does plenty), it shows the importance of solid gameplay.  The game seems like the result of some designer attempting to shoehorn gameplay into his totally awesome science fiction story which, frankly, would have been better suited for film than a video game.

The folks at Bioware obviously have a very specific story they are trying to tell, which they try to cover up with the illusion of deep an meaningful player “choice,” although this usually boils down to whether or not you will pursue side quests and whether you will try to get a villain to join you before he inevitably refuses and draws a gun, or just skip the middleman and order your squadmates to attack.  When you’re not running around and navigating conversation trees (which is what they are, no matter how they try to dress them up as “Incredible, real-time character interaction”), you’re running around weilding one of four types of weapons, occasionally pausing the game to use the Force/biotics or to switch to a new type of weapon.  Most of the combat is just “shoot the big guy, shoot the big guy, use ‘warp’ on the big guy, wait for ‘warp’ to recharge, while shooting the big guy, big guy goes down, move on to next biggest guy.”  It’s not terrible, but there’s nothing innovative about this system, and this kind of thing has been done much better in other games (I’m thinking particularly of squad-based shooters “Star Wars: Republic Commando” and “Brothers in Arms”).

This picture is to keep you on guard.

Although combat is bland and uninspired, it pales in comparison to the sections of the game where you’re driving the Mako, an obstensively off-road vehicle that handles something like Stephen Hawking on speed, except Stephen Hawking would probably be able to aim a gun at an angle greater than 10 degrees from the horizontal.  Undoubtedly the worst, most grating, experience I’ve had so far has been a portion where I had to drive the Mako through several groups of rocket troopers and armatures where I was not allowed to save in between.  It was fun in that “OK, this is my character performing what is needed to complete the mission, even though the gameplay kind of sucks” way, but it ceased to be that when the third group killed me and sent me back to the beginning of the level, with my squad standing just outside the vehicle.  This section spawned a few questions I would like to ask Bioware:

  1. Since when am I in combat if nobody is shooting at me, and there are no enemies on the radar?
  2. What is the tactical advantage of a land vehicle that cannot shoot up when every race we could possibly be fighting have some sort of airborne unit?
  3. Why can the car jump when the humans can’t?
  4. Look at every single driving game ever.  Do you know how they differ from you?  They understand that vehicles are not people, and do not move like them.  Stop trying to make us control cars with the joysticks, please.

That last one was more of a demand than a question, but I just needed to round out that list.  Honestly, though, nothing brings me out the experience than suddenly going from cool, composed ship commander to epileptic student driver.

Now I’m going to go against what I said earlier about Mass Effect working better as a movie and talk about my favorite part of the game.  The Codex, for those not in the know, is where information about the setting is stored as you discover it.  But more than just a reminder of things you’ve learned in the game, it has tons and tons of background information that’s handily set aside for those who wish to delve into it, a lot of which is narrated.  I think even more than the plot and the characters, I’m in love with the world that the game is set in.  You never fight in ship-to-ship combat in game, but there is a lot of information about exactly how such a confrontation would go down, going in detail into heat signatures, weapon systems, and common tactics used in different scenarios.  This is reminiscent of Lord of the Rings, if instead of hinting at the backstory through the plot, Tolkien simply attached an encyclopedia that was instantly updated with a few pages of history every time the reader saw a new name or location.  I find myself hoarding Codex entries so after each mission I can return to my ship and read through a big chunk of them all at once, bringing whole new levels of depth into the setting.  The world is extremely well crafted, and it’s really a shame that the gameplay and interactive options don’t do it justice.

Next time, hopefully I’ll have finished the game (I think I only have an hour or two left), or I may write about something else.  I wonder what my throng of undoubtedly sexy female readers would prefer.

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Mass Effect: First Thoughts

A friend of mine recently lent me his copy of Mass Effect, the science fiction action roleplaying game released by Bioware for the XBox 360 back in 2008.  I’ve since clocked in around 8 hours on my first playthrough, not counting deaths and reloads, and I get the feeling I’m nearing the conclusion.  For this post I won’t put in any spoilers, but try to simply touch on the gameplay and give some of my impressions.

The first aspect of this game that really made an impression was the cinematic storytelling.  The cutscenes, which are all partially interactive, are well-acted, and the story they tell is genuinely riveting.  Rather than giving the player a list of conversation topics, or a list of canned responses as most games of this type are apt to do, in Mass Effect the player is allowed to choose between several different tones of message.  So, during a conversation, the player may choose “It’s hopeless,” but Commander Shepard (the player’s avatar in game) might say something like “It’s a lost cause, what can we possibly do about it?”

In theory this reduces screen clutter and makes conversations move along at a decent clip, but in practice it makes the player unclear on what exactly Shepard will do next.  While playing the game, I have said something that sounded like it would come out understanding, but in disagreement, only to have Commander Shepard shout down my team mate until he was so intimidated we left the conversation tree. (SPOILER ALERT: I left him for dead later, so I guess it doesn’t matter much.)

The conversation trees are also home to some of the worst railroading in the game, where the designers give the player the thinly veiled illusion of choice, when really all responses lead to the same dialogue or tone.  In one glaring example, two NPCs where arguing about a certain topic concerning the Genophage, and all of my input into the situation was pre-determined to side with one of the NPCs, even though I agreed with the other one.  It’s lazy game design, and it lead to what is supposed to be an emotional scene which actually made me feel frustrated and disconnected from the experience.

Outside of conversation, the gameplay is fairly solid, if not a bit bland.  Combat seems like it’s trying too hard to be Gears of War, with an added roleplaying element, although the cover system is too clunky and it takes too long to enter and leave cover to make it useful (granted, the fact that your allies take the good cover and charge headlong into rockets doesn’t help the situation).  I am grateful that red triangles appear over my enemies, because otherwise I would have no way to see them at the distances at which I am usually fighting, although that may be because of my ten-year-old college-dorm-room tv’s crappy resolution compared to what the game was designed for.

That feels like enough for now.  My next post I’ll probably touch on the Codex and the Mako, unless inspiration strikes and I decide to do something other than write about a game that everybody and his mother has beaten three times.

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