Monday, December 31, 2012

2012 - The Highlights (EHeroFlareNeos)

With 2012 coming to a close, this is the time to look back at what came out this year and reflect on how we felt. While not all of it was great, there are still some things that deserve mention. Below, in no particular order, is my personal list of the top games, movies and disappointments of the year, plus a special new category (that hopefully I will never feel the need to use again).

Top Movies of 2012

The Avengers
As the culmination of Phase 1 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, The Avengers combines humor with action and well-written characters to create the ultimate comic book movie. While Joss Whedon isn't reason enough to fall in love with this movie, his hand in it cannot be denied, for he shares both writing and directing credits. The Avengers is one of those movies that I would be willing to watch over and over again, having seen it three times already, and this small space cannot do it enough justice. This is simply a movie to see without question.

Wreck-It Ralph
Video game movies have always been the butt of jokes across industries, with complaints that aren't that unfounded. However, Wreck-It Ralph has managed to prove that not only can they not suck, they can be worth repeat viewings. Though it can be compared with Toy Story in some aspects, the different spin it has on its genre is rather unique and sends its message across in a way that doesn't talk down to anyone or appeal to a single niche audience. Although there is some fan service of sorts for avid video game players, there is enough to satisfy even complete outsiders.

The Expendables 2
Let me be honest here, The Expendables 2 isn't the greatest movie ever made, nor is it something I'm going to immediately watch again on DVD. However, I placed it on this list for its ability to not only advertise exactly what it was going to do, but also sticking with it and staying true to itself. It establishes early on that there will be badass moments of awesome and it delivers badass moments of awesome. It's a true action movie through and through and I have no regrets watching it.

Top Video Games of 2012

Asura's Wrath
In a realm of gaming where God of War and Devil May Cry clones (and Bayonetta) run rampant, it's nice to see a game that manages to stand apart and take everyone else by storm. Asura's Wrath operates like an interactive anime, but it weaves an epic tale of a Deity named Asura, betrayed by his own kind and ripped away from his daughter. His resulting feats reach a status that exceeds its ilk and reaches beyond the heavens to deliver a very memorable experience.

Sometimes what doesn't really matter is the destination, but rather the journey. This is the tenet that Journey is built upon, drawing out the player's sense of isolation in a way that firmly establishes that video games can indeed be works of art. It may only last a couple of hours, but what truly matters is the experience it creates and that you may find yourself wanting to go on that journey again and again.

Penny Arcade's On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness 3
It may be better for fans of Penny Arcade like myself, but OTRSPOD 3 is a game that I liked well enough to put on this list. The painful wait and change of developers proved to be well worth it, thanks to the unique approach to gameplay and tidal wave of humorous lines and references to Penny Arcade's entire webcomic run up to that point. Plus, the plot surrounding the Four Below takes a darker turn and knows when to generate genuine suspense. Also, it's only $5 (this cannot be stressed enough).

Assassin's Creed III
As I played the Ezio Trilogy, I was really waiting for a fresh new assassin to join the ranks and give me something new to do. Thankfully, Assassin's Creed III does just that, shifting the focus to the assassin Connor and changing the setting to the American Revolution. Though Brotherhood and Revelations are still required reading, so to speak, this entry is when things really kick into high gear and the framing device actually becomes interesting. As the conclusion to a long build-up, Assassin's Creed III is not a game to miss. Plus, it has some significance to me thanks to some of my ancestors being involved in the American Revolution.

Top Disappointments of 2012

After Cars 2, I feel that Pixar has really started to let themselves go. Brave is an improvement, but that doesn't change that this seems like the point where Pixar has lost some of their luster; having already achieved their earlier visions, they have now become more of a regular movie studio. The characters in Brave aren't as engaging, the plot has some holes and unusual anachronisms and there just seemed to be an overall lack of effort to make me want to rewatch this mother-daughter bonding tale. But hey, kids and die hard fans seem to like it.

The Amazing Spider-Man
In the wake of the successful Marvel Studios movies, Sony created a reboot of their successful Spider-Man trilogy in order to maintain their grasp on the franchise. Unfortunately the result isn't as great as the Sam Raimi films, with a darker tinge to try and compete with Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy, a plot that leaves several threads dangling (pun intended) and the revelation that being bitten by a radioactive spider actually gives you just Spider Sense and the ability to perform spider-based parkour. I wasn't impressed, but I won't challenge anyone for genuinely enjoying it (just don't say "because it was dark like Batman"). Hopefully the inevitable sequel will be better.

I Am Alive
This is an example of a game stuck in development hell and managing to come out, but as a different entity. I Am Alive originally had a very brilliant premise and gameplay ideas, but somewhere along the way it turned into a survival horror with only a few fleeting remnants of the original vision intact, thanks in part to the new setting being deemed "more realistic." I don't entirely regret finally playing I Am Alive after its seeming disappearance from the fabric of space, but in hindsight I'm still waiting to play the game that I got excited for.

Assassin's Creed III
I admit that it's weird to see Assassin's Creed III take up a slot on two contradictory lists, but just hear me out for a minute. The story was handled very well and there are plenty of improvements to the gameplay systems that make Connor one of the best assassins in gaming. However, the game also failed to recapture the addiction I felt when playing Assassin's Creed II for the first time and the mission structure just isn't up to par. While some bugs and annoyances have been fixed in a patch, what I played wasn't enough to keep me occupied for days on end. I'll play the sequel, but I hope Ubisoft actually puts more time into that installment than this.

Worst Video Game of 2012

Ever since the day I decided to play NeverDead, I have spent every day since regretting that awful two days of my life. Bryce Boltzmann is not a hero I can get behind, the gameplay is absolutely abysmal, the story falls flat on its face and the enemies are relentless so as to make the game a possible way to turn into The Hulk. Not even Megadeth's amazing contribution could bring this game up from being nothing more than a plastic container full of urine.

Honorable Mentions of 2012 (Not reviewed, but worth bringing up)

SoulCalibur V
It may be the game I exchanged NeverDead for, but I had a really great time with this game. This installment in the series manages to fix what was wrong with SoulCalibur IV and improve upon such things as story, art style and combat. It's a well-balanced fighting game that I think fighting game fans would appreciate, even if they are fresh to the series. Plus, you get to be Ezio Auditore, so what's not to like?

2012 - The Highlights (Tetris_King)

As the year 2012 wraps up, it's sometimes good to look back at what was good or bad about the year. Below is what I thought were the best and worst things this year on the blog, with links provided to each review. As with before, these items are not in any set order.

Top Films of 2012

The Avengers
This has everything you could ever want from a superhero movie. The plot is easy to follow, the characters are well-balanced, motives are clear, and it has just the right mix of action, humor, and tension to make it all worthwhile. Though it's a better movie after seeing Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger beforehand, that does not stop this movie from being made entirely of awesome.

The Expendables 2
Another movie made of awesome, The Expendables 2 takes everything that made the first movie enjoyable and ramps it up even higher. Admittedly, this is a movie where I actually think the plot, or what little of it there is, actually gets in the way of all the action, although it at least justifies what happens on camera. Even then, this film is practically made entirely of testosterone and contains some of the most badass footage you will ever see in your life.

Wreck-It Ralph
Wreck-It Ralph proves that a video game movie can not only be good, it can also be very creative. Instead of adapting a single game or series of games, it instead focuses on the video game characters themselves in an arcade as the primary character, Ralph, questions his role as a video game villain. The plot can easily be understood by casual and non-gamers alike, and there's plenty of subtle references thrown in that more experienced game players will appreciate. Whether it's the story, gaming references, or the nostalgia of the dying arcade, Wreck-It Ralph is a Disney movie that has plenty to offer for everyone.

Top Games of 2012

Asura's Wrath
If you thought you have seen the pinnacle of scale in a video game (God of War III, Bayonetta, etc.), you haven't seen anything yet. Over the course of the game, you fight one boss that's bigger than a planet and one whose sword can reach the moon and beyond when unsheathed (and with the DLC, that's only the beginning). The anime-style plot is a good setting for this sort of action, which by itself is very intriguing to see unfold. Asura's Wrath not only features a sympathetic protagonist, it also features some of the most concentrated rage you will ever see in fiction.

With an industry full of big-budget titles with intricate plotlines and deep gameplay, it's nice to take a break from all that with something more simple. Journey features controls that are easy to pick up and its desert setting gives the player a true feeling of isolation as they reach their destination. Though the game has no dialogue (and for good reason), you can still get a good grasp on the happenings of the world around you and what emotions it makes you feel. This is, put simply, a game that's required playing for any PS3 owner and an experience that you will remember for quite some time.

Penny Arcade's On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness 3
I am a big fan of the Penny Arcade webcomic, and like many others I was happy to see news of the long-awaited third installment of the On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness series of games. Though the gameplay and developer are different, it does not stop this game from embodying the true essence of Penny Arcade. What's more, you can get a good story, great gameplay, absolutely hilarious humor, and a time-worthy experience, all for the low price of $5. It may not be the best game I've played this year, but it's definitely the funniest.

Transformers: Fall of Cybertron
High Moon Studios has topped themselves in regards to delivering a solid Transformers experience, which I appreciated as a major fan. The game delivers some high-quality graphics and story presentation, as well as some really great gameplay and characterization. For the Transformers fan, there's references abound, some of which may make you chuckle a bit. It's clear that the developers love Transformers, especially with the multitude of Generation 1 references and terminology, although it's best to look at this game as a tie-in to the amazing Transformers: Prime cartoon, since the events of the game are integral to the current continuity.

Top Disappointments of 2012

The Amazing Spider-Man
After some creative differences with Sam Raimi's run after the third movie, it was decided that a reboot was in order, primarily so that Sony could keep the Spider-Man license. (Note: Despite what you may think, this movie is not part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, nor can it ever be.) While this movie attempts to recreate the same experience, its webs actually snap in midair, followed by it falling flat on its face. Several plot threads go nowhere, events are either too contrived or convenient, and apparently "spider powers" now means "heightened awareness and mastery of parkour" instead of "heightened awareness and special powers akin to a spider". Though I did not think it was a good Spider-Man film, I will respect the opinions of anyone who thought differently, as long as they didn't just like it for deciding Spider-Man should be Batman. Of course, there's the chance of a sequel, so hopefully that is able to redeem this pile of spider guts.

As my fellow contributors can tell you, while this is a step back in the right direction for Pixar, it's certainly not the best. This is a story you have definitely seen before, and while Pixar has shown the ability to make that sort of thing interesting, this attempt at a mother-daughter bonding tale feels more generic at best, which I actually compared unfavorably to Finding Nemo, an earlier father-son bonding tale of theirs. Pixar isn't as innovative as they used to be, but it's still a good film for children and die-hard fans of the studio. I would suggest seeing this movie once, and even if you don't like it, at least it isn't Cars 2.

The Darkness II
I really enjoyed my experience with the first The Darkness game, based on one of Top Cow's flagship comic book titles, so I was hoping for an equal, if not better, experience with the sequel. In the end, while I thought the gameplay was really, really good (quad-wielding!), the story is really, really horrible. Jackie Estacado saw some great character development in the original game, but his character here felt like it had taken a major step backwards, having failed to come to terms with the death of a loved one from two years ago (I think hallucinations of your dead girlfriend warrant seeing a therapist). Still, this game is worth at least one play-through, if only for the feeling you get from being able to use four weapons at once against your enemies.

Quantum Conundrum
This game showed some promise when preview material got discussed, to where I even pre-ordered it on Steam for future DLC (and a few Team Fortress 2 items). In all the excitement, the game eventually begins to unravel by the end, its final levels failing to live up to the rest of the game and the ending feeling rather anti-climactic. Hopefully the eventual DLC will salvage my experience with this game, and while I do like John de Lancie as a voice actor, I don't think he was able to fully save this title.

2012 – The Highlights (lionsroar)

Best Films of 2012
In no particular order:

In some ways, this was a pleasant surprise. The five films leading up to this had been uneven. Iron Man was great, but Iron Man 2 had problems. Captain America was up, Thor was a bit down, though the film has grown on me since I first saw it. And I don’t have to say what a disappointment the previous Hulk films had been, of which, The Incredible Hulk was canon for the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

But this film brought the good and bad together and came up with not only perhaps the best comic book movie ever, but also maybe the best film of 2012. There is action and humor mixed together and while the subject matter might be “light” the overall film is great.

Okay, so technically this is a film from 1927, but since it was once considered lost and I saw it in a theatrical setting, I’m going to count Wings for 2012. One of the things that sets this film apart are the action sequences, which are as real as a film can get. The actors in the airplanes are actually the actors in airplanes flying them. Throw in Clara Bow at her cutest and a bit part for Gary Cooper and you’ve got a movie to remember and one that may be 85 years old, but can still take your breath away.

Finally, a video game movie that doesn’t suck. A spin on the Toy Story formula, we find out what video games do when the arcade is closed. Turns out the villains are more like us than the heroes. They have doubts about their worth, they seek out friendship and they long to break from the rut they find themselves in.

Biggest Film Disappointments of 2012
In no particular order:

I’m sorry to say that it seems Pixar’s best days may be behind it. The sequels seem to be having diminishing returns, see Cars 2 and Toy Story 3, and the new films aren’t as fresh as the first group the studio put out. Pixar in some ways is like a rock band that puts out all their best stuff, the projects they worked on and honed before anyone knew who they were. But now that they’ve played all those songs, their new batch isn’t quite as good as their original hits.
Brave isn’t a bad film, it just isn’t as good as I used to expect from Pixar. But now I guess I’ll learn to expect less and to accept less from Pixar in future.

This is not a film I would normally pick to watch, but after The Avengers (Joss Whedon co-wrote and produced CABIN) and the hype I heard about the movie, I thought I’d give it a chance. The humor is a little too dark for my tastes and the satire goes a little too far.  And a blood bath is still a blood bath, even if you’re supposed to be laughing about it.

Hollywood makes films for all sorts of reasons. In the case of The Amazing Spider-Man, Sony made this film in order to keep the franchise. After the original run of the first three films, it is no surprise they would hope for the same success with the reboot. But there are so many problems with the movie that I don’t want to spend the space rehashing my original review. Suffice to say Andrew Garfield is no Tobey Maguire and Marc Webb is no Sam Raimi. No doubt there will be an Amazing 2; let’s hope it gets better from here.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Stubs - When Harry Met Sally

When Harry Met Sally (1989) Starring: Billy Crystal, Meg Ryan, Carrie Fisher, Bruno Kirby. Directed by Rob Reiner. Screenplay by Nora Ephron.  Produced by Rob Reiner, Andrew Scheinman. Run Time: 96 minutes. U.S. Color. Romantic Comedy

After surviving A Bruce Wills Christmas, the Mayan Apocalypse and Movie Day and with New Year’s Eve approaching like a speeding train, I thought it would be nice to review a film that not only uses the coming holiday as a backdrop, but would also be fun to watch if you’re not going out. When Harry Met Sally fills both bills quite nicely.

The film tells the story of two people who have known each other since 1977. Harry Burns (Billy Crystal) catches a ride from the University of Chicago to New York from Sally Albright (Meg Ryan), a friend of his girlfriend Amanda (Michelle Nicastro). Sally is on her way to journalism school and Harry to start his career. On a journey like this, the two would talk and one of their topics is relationships. Harry doesn’t believe that a man can be friends with a woman because he’ll want to have sex with her at some point. Even if they’re unattractive, Harry says “You pretty much want to nail them, too.” Sally disagrees, believing that a man and a woman can be friends without sex ever entering the picture. By the time they get to New York, they’ve had their fill of each other and part ways.

Five years pass before they meet again. They meet at an airport as they are about to board the same plane. Sally is dating Joe (Steven Ford, son of Pres. Gerald Ford) who happens to be an old friend of Harry’s. Harry is engaged to a woman named Helen, which surprises Sally. Harry suggests that they be friends and has to say that this is an exception to his earlier rule that men and women can’t be friends. But Sally doesn’t buy it and once again they depart concluding they will never be friends.

That is until five more years go by and they once again meet at a bookstore. They go to have coffee and talk. Both of their relationships have ended by then and they decide that they can be friends after all. We see them sharing late-night phone calls, dinners and in general spend a lot of time with each other. One of their topics of discussion is their dating experiences. Harry still has a different idea about sex than Sally. But at a New Year’s Eve party, they find themselves attracted to one another. But instead of acting on it, they try to set the other one up with their best friend. Sally brings Marie (Carrie Fisher) and Harry brings Jesse (Bruno Kirby). But instead of falling for Harry and Sally, Marie and Jesse fall for one another and quickly become engaged and move in together.

One night, Sally calls Harry in tears saying that she’d found out Joe was getting married to his legal secretary. Harry rushes over to her apartment to comfort her. One thing leads to another and the two have sex for the first time. This results in an awkward morning after, which carries on through their relationship. Things boil over at Jesse and Marie’s wedding night dinner. Following their fight, Harry tries to repeatedly make amends, but Sally repeatedly rebuffs his attempts.

When New Year’s Eve rolls around again, Sally feels alone without Harry by her side. Harry is trying to spend the night alone, but he can’t. He rushes to Sally who is just about to leave the party. There, Harry declares his love for Sally, they make up and kiss.

In the final sequence, an older Harry and Sally discuss their wedding.

The film has everything a good Rom Com should. It is funny, romantic without being schmaltzy and co-stars Meg Ryan, who made a career out of starring in romantic comedies for the next decade, including Sleepless in Seattle (1993), French Kiss (1995) and You’ve Got Mail (1998), the latter of which was a second remake of The Shop Around the Corner (1940).

The script, written by the late Nora Ephron is very quotable and memorable. One of the most famous scenes in the film has Sally faking an orgasm in Katz’s Delicatessen, following a discussion the couple has about a man’s ability to tell if a woman climaxes or not. After Sally’s screaming faux orgasm, a woman at the next table, played by Estelle Reiner, the director’s mother, tells a waitress, “I’ll have what she’s having.” That quote is listed as 33rd on AFI’s list of 100 Movie Quotes.

Billy Crystal, who started out as stand-up comic, broke into television on Soap, in 1977, playing Jodie Dallas, one of the first gay characters on television. He later made movies, such as Rabbit Test (1978) directed by Joan Rivers, Running Scared (1986) a cop/buddy/comedy film which paired him with Gregory Hines and Throw Momma From the Train (1987) in which he co-starred with the film’s director, Danny DeVito. Crystal also had small parts in This is Spinal Tap (1984) and The Princess Bride (1987), both films directed by Reiner. Crystal would go on to direct films as well, Mr. Saturday Night (1992), Forget Paris (1995) and 61* (2001) an HBO movie about Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle chasing down Babe Ruth’s single season home run record. Crystal has also made a name for himself hosting the Academy Awards.

The supporting cast is also strong, featuring Carrie Fisher and Bruno Kirby. Fisher, who will forever be Princess Leia of Star Wars IV, V and VI, had also appeared in The Blues Brothers (1980) and Hannah and Her Sisters (1986). The daughter of the great Debbie Reynolds, Fisher would eventually turn to writing as both a script doctor and a screenwriter under her own name.

Kirby, who usually played the male leads’ best friend, played in both comedies City Slickers (1991), Good Morning Vietnam (1987) and This is Spinal Tap (1984), as well as dramas, including The Godfather Part II (1974) and Donnie Brasco (1997). Sadly, he died in 2006 from Leukemia.

While When Harry Met Sally might not prevent you from going out on New Year’s Eve, it is quite a nice way to spend an hour and a half if you decide to stay home. This is a feel-good film that still rings true to this day.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Touch My Katamari

In the wake of Christmas, among the many gifts I received were some video games, which I will get to over time, among them a PlayStation Vita along with a few games for the system. One of those games, which I am going to discuss in this review, is the next installment in the Katamari Damacy franchise, the unfortunately-named Touch My Katamari. Coming out last year as a Vita launch title, this game seeks to please fans of the franchise while shaking things up with the handheld's unique layout. Having just completed it, as a Katamari fan, I feel that while it is a rather unique game, something feels a little off about it.

It's expected for a Katamari game's plot to be no more than just an excuse for balls to be rolled and stars to be made, but this one felt flimsy even by Katamari standards. What literally gets things rolling (pun intended) is that the King of All Cosmos hears a comment about one teacher being just as awesome as he is, and so he sends his son, the Prince, to roll Katamaris to please the fan base. Otherwise, every other mission sees an installment in the exploits of the crudely-animated Goro the Slacker, who's trying to purchase a study guide while avoiding being distracted by whatever's around him, most especially "babes" (and yes, this does tie in to the main game eventually). I'm not trying to come off as expecting a story of higher quality, since Katamari games can actually pull off having little story, but at least other games in the franchise had their stories serve a greater purpose in-universe (ex. Beautiful Katamari involved trying to save the universe from a black hole caused by the King playing tennis too hard, the end result being the black hole is plugged up). At least the Goro the Slacker sub-plot has more of a conclusion.

The gameplay follows those of the other games, but Touch My Katamari also introduces a twist. Not only can you perform the Prince Hop from Katamari Forever (a mechanic that I liked), you can also to use the Vita's touch screen and rear touch pad to stretch and squeeze the Katamari itself to reach smaller spaces and  gather more objects at once. I rather enjoyed this feature, since I was able to complete the objectives faster, though the game is short and there's hardly anything that forces you to utilize this form of gameplay. Still, I used the new touch functions, especially the stretch feature, whenever I could to (barely) complete some of the tasks. In this respect, I give praise to the innovation displayed in this game and I hope that, if further Katamari titles are released for the Vita, these features will be kept.

I have no complaints about the in-game visuals, since they follow typical Katamari graphics...except for the King of All Cosmos. This game sees him in a different art style than the previous games, and while I like that they tried to give him more fluid animations, it feels a little jarring since they made his face more realistic. I usually have no problems with realism if it fits the game and platform, but the problem here is that his face gives off a slight uncanny valley sort of feeling since, while it appears more real, it clashes with his cartoonish nose and other design features. What I'm saying here is that the King's face is overall kind of ugly, but I do give the animators props for trying. (But did they really have to make his default costume a skin-tight yellow body suit? I didn't really want to get that good a view of the King's bulging crotch.)

The game also introduces a system of currency involving candy, which you get after completing objectives and can spend on things within the game, such as clothes for the King, new gameplay modes, and the in-game soundtrack. You can also collect something called a Fan Damacy within a level, which you can use as one way to obtain Candy Tickets (otherwise I have no idea what sort of purpose they actually serve). Candy Tickets can be used after an objective is completed, when the in-game fan gives you candy based on your grade, in order to Sweet Talk more candy out of them by multiplying said candy in multiples of 2 (you can also buy more on the PlayStation Store, but I don't want to). There are also times where the fans or the King will just give you candy that they found, making your purchases easier to make. (Though I was really disturbed when the King wanted a bridal cape and went into excessive detail over the purchase.) Candy can also be acquired further by collecting all the special objects, or Curios, within each level.

The soundtrack, par for the course with Katamari, is amazing, keeping up the quirkiness of previous soundtracks. Some of these are songs that I would listen to over and over again, and if I could acquire a physical copy, I would try to get my hands on it. The other option is to play them back within the game, which is a feature I enjoy, but, as I mentioned earlier, you actually have to purchase them with candy in order to play them back. This is a feature I disapprove of, since earlier games just added them to a soundtrack spot in the hub world (which here is the King's head) so you could listen to them at any time post-game. However, if I ever play this game again, I'll do what I can to collect the music this way, since that's all I care to spend candy on anyway outside of the other game modes. (They've got to use this new currency system somehow, right?)

Touch My Katamari is a great handheld Katamari game for fans and newcomers alike. Despite what I saw as the game's flaws, this is a game I would actually not hesitate to tell new Vita owners to pick up. Despite the short length that comes with a Katamari game, it's actually quite fun, and you might end up wanting to spend plenty of time (and battery life) playing this game.

Darksiders II: Death's Door (Comic) - A Comic Fit for a Horseman

Among my many Christmas gifts, one of the things I received was a thin hardback collecting a digital comic tie-in to Darksiders II. Naturally I was curious about its contents and just decided to read it. Since I've read it from the hardback I was able to see the entire story in one shot, which I believe was the most effective way to read it. With that said, this is a video game comic that, while well-written, is still most effective as a tie-in.

The story, as scripted by Andrew Kreisberg and David Slagle, serves as a prequel to the video game Darksiders II. Bascially, Death is asked by the angel Abaddon to slay a demon in the White City that has killed several of his men. To accomplish his task, Death sets off to find the right weapon to do the job and even revisits a part of his past. Admittedly it's a pretty short story that can be read relatively quickly, if only due to the entire story being 60 pages long and operating somewhat under modern comics decompression. However, in that short space it is able to not only introduce certain characters and concepts that are important to the parent game, but also show us how exactly Death got his horse, Despair. When I read the dialogue, I was able to hear everyone's voice from the game in my head, a sign that the characterization was down pretty well. There is also a character that is introduced and then never appears within Darksiders ever again, but it seems to be a necessary evil to move the plot along. The script, then, does a good job at being a companion piece to the game, but isn't really much more than that, since the final panel advertises Darksiders II as a continuation. Still, I feel that under the circumstances, Kreisberg and Slagle did a good job.

However, a comic book cannot exist without its art, which I think is a highlight of this book. The combination of Roger Robinson's pencils/inks and Michael Atiyeh's colors really help the world of Darksiders II come to life on the page. There are plenty of large panels and splash pages in the book, but these also serve as a good way to showcase their talents. The art is very dynamic and has a sense of fluidity, which is effective for the many fight scenes and varied camera angles, along with highlighting big moments. At a couple of points there are scenes that take place in the past, and in one case another character's perspective, which the art is very good at with differentiating between. There are some beautiful shots of the River Styx and a mixture of light and dark tones that allow each environment to stand out and remain believable within the realms of the game. The characters also look the way they should, down to the proportions and scale, which shows that the duo actually knew what they were doing.

My only complaint about the hardback I read from would be the lack of a cover gallery. I'm used to comic book compilations supplying the covers to each issue either between issues or at the back, so the lack of them here either means that they all have the same cover online, which an internet search proved false, or Dark Horse decided not to do it for some reason. I feel a little robbed of being able to see more good art on display, but at least Joe Madureira and Avery Coleman's cover for the hardback is eye-catching and garners interest in Death's exploits. While passing between issues, I was also able to tell where each cover would probably have been, thanks in part to how each issue was written.

Overall, Darksiders II: Death's Door is a good companion piece for Darksiders II. The story is paced well, but is pretty short at only 60 pages for six issues (Issues 1-5 plus Best Buy's exclusive Issue 0). However the art makes up for this and is very complimentary to the action. It's a great read for fans of the Darksiders series, but outsiders should only really consider a read if they plan to play Darksiders II before or after; it just reads better that way.

Friday, December 28, 2012


Lincoln (2012) Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Fields, David Stratham, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, Hal Holbrook, Tommy Lee Jones Directed by Steven Spielberg. Screenplay by Tony Kushner.  Based (in part) on the book: Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, by Doris Kearns Goodwin.  Produced by Steven Spielberg and Kathleen Kennedy. Music by John Williams. Run Time: 150 minutes. U.S. Color. History, Biography

Here is a film with important written all over it. How could it not be? The subject matter is Abraham Lincoln and the passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. It’s based on a book by a well-respected Presidential biographer. It stars Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln. It’s directed by Steven Spielberg and has music by John Williams. It’s so important that you really get the feeling the film knows it and takes itself extra seriously.

When I left the theater, I wasn’t sure exactly how I should feel, but I knew that some great important message had been sent, but maybe it was me that didn’t receive it. Do I think it will be up for several of the big Academy Awards? Yes. It has Academy Award nomination written all over it, almost as if it were made to receive such an accolade.

I am not able to talk specifically about the historical accuracies of the film, that is better left to historians. I understand Doris Kearns Goodwin is satisfied, but so was Lee Child (pen name for Jim Grant) with Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher, who is supposed to be 6’5” and 250 pounds. But Goodwin’s word is okay with me. She’d be the one losing sleep if it wasn’t.

Daniel Day-Lewis is very good as Abe Lincoln. While I’ve not kept a close eye on Day-Lewis’s career, this sort of praise is nothing new. It seems every role he takes is Academy Award worthy. Sally Field’s portrayal of Mary Todd Lincoln brings some humanity to a woman that is most often discussed as being crazy. She’s still crazy here, but she seems to be aware of it and there is some grounding given to her mental funk, the loss of Willie, the couple’s third son, who died during Lincoln’s first term. The couple had already lost Teddie, their second son in 1850, but that’s not mentioned in the movie, so I assumed she’d gotten over him by this time. And you do hear right, Abe does call her Molly, which is a pet name.

Watching the film, I was amazed at what a good job the hair, makeup and costumers had done, since seeing the cast is a little like seeing photos and drawings of that time come to life. Of course, not all of the characters in the film are necessarily well known to me and I would dare say to today’s audiences. Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), may get a revival of interest, but until now his contributions and personal life had pretty much faded from popular lore, if he was ever in popular lore to begin with. But that’s one of the fascinating things about history: rediscovering people’s contributions to events that shaped the world. And the stories of William N. Bilbo (James Spader) and his fellow operatives and how they worked behind the scenes to help pass the amendment is one that is certainly not well known.

I will admit I didn’t know that Lincoln ever sat down with representatives from the Confederacy to discuss ending the war. For that matter, I didn’t know the name of the Vice-President of the Confederate States, Alexander H. Stephens (Jackie Earle Haley) until this movie.

One can see that politics have changed very little since the Civil War. While the 13th Amendment was very important, Lincoln went out of his way to let the war continue (and people on both sides die) so that he could see it passed. He was willing to sign up operatives to make political promises to help get it passed and he was willing to grant himself rights that weren’t necessarily spelled out in the Constitution. Doesn’t this sound like the usual Standing Operating Procedures for our recent Presidents as well? Though none of our recent crop has been credited with passing such sweeping and important legislation.

There are a couple of historical issues I have with the film and not that I’m questioning their accuracy. I just don’t think the film does a good job of explaining things. Point in question is the support of Francis Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook). The father of a member of Lincoln’s cabinet, Blair had connections in the south as well as within the Republican Party. He was able to provide a block of Republicans who would vote for the amendment on one condition. Blair wanted to try to get peace talks going. With Lincoln’s consent, he went to Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the Confederacy, and convinced President Jefferson Davis to send three commissioners to hold talks.

But Lincoln knew that bringing a swift end to the war might hurt the chances of passing the 13th amendment, since the South would certainly demand that slavery be kept and the public might go for it. So he had the three commissioners put on ice, so to speak, and made their relatively short trip from Richmond to Washington D.C. take days, if not weeks, when it should have taken hours. Now Blair was aware of the commissioners and when, on the day of the vote, the evil Democrats (when’s the last time Democrats were projected in a bad light by a Hollywood movie?) brought up that the commissioners were either en route or already in Washington, D.C. Blair temporarily withdrew his support and the votes necessary to pass the legislation.

Congress hits the pause button, so to speak, until Lincoln responds to the issue if there are commissioners from the South suing for peace in Washington. Per the movie, Lincoln responds in typical political fashion with a cleverly worded response that to the best of his knowledge there were no representatives from the South in Washington, knowing full well he was keeping them at bay on board the River Queen near Hampton, Virginia. Even though Blair must know the President is not being truthful, he still gives back his support and the votes he controls and the amendment narrowly passes. But if Blair knows it was not the truth why did he give back his support?

The film depicts a meeting that would become known as the Hampton Road Conference and shows that it becomes clear to Stephens that even if the South were allowed back in to fight the 13th Amendment, it would still pass. And while we know the Hampton Road Conference was not a success, we’re not shown why. Apparently, the conference fell apart because of the South’s insistence on independence, but that’s not really brought up in Lincoln. Rather, you’d think the South was on the verge of coming back, but just doesn’t.

The film also dodges some really big events. The surrender at Appomattox Court House is only shown after its conclusion, when General Lee gets on his horse and rides away. Nor are we shown the actual assassination of Lincoln. Rather, the film walks us up to it and then cuts away to another theater, this one with Tad Lincoln, the President’s youngest son attending what appears to be an opera. The stage manager rushes on stage to tell everyone that the President had been shot at Ford’s Theater. And we get to see Tad’s anguished reaction. While this really happened, it just feels like a contrivance made up for the film designed to elicit an emotional reaction from the audience.

There is also an impromptu parade that comes about because the House passed the 13th amendment. This seems like a contrivance too. While there was a celebration, it happened the next night, not the day of passage. You might forgive a director for moving events around for dramatic effect, but the huge spontaneous celebration seemed overblown. The film talks about, but doesn’t deal with, the fact that once the House passed it, the amendment would still have to ratified by a majority of the state legislatures before it would become law.

Having watched Lincoln once, I’m not sure I would feel compelled to watch it again. Lincoln was a film I felt I had to see, because of all the buzz surrounding it. And while I learned some things about history of the Civil War, I also feel I was manipulated and misled by Spielberg. He wanted me to have a certain reaction and nothing, lest the facts, would get in the way.

Don’t get me wrong, this is a very well-made film. Everything on the screen screams quality, but that doesn’t mean it’s really all that involving. Part of that may come from the fact that it is telling a well-known story and one that we all know how it ends. Despite all the backroom politics shown, we know the 13th Amendment passes, the Civil War is won by the North and that Lincoln is assassinated. All of this is important stuff and this film lets you know it knows it is.

Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty - What the F---?

After the success of the original Metal Gear Solid, a sequel was created for release in 2001 titled Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty. This release came with so much hype that many players infamously purchased the game Zone of the Enders for the sole purpose of playing the demo for Metal Gear Solid 2. Over time, the game has become known primarily for its introduction of a new protagonist as well as its infamous mind screw of an ending. This, and the fact that I played the first Metal Gear Solid, got me curious enough to actually see what everyone's talking about. One's thing's for certain: you'll witness the complete evisceration of the fourth wall, and your sanity, by the time it ends.

In the two years since the Shadow Moses incident in Metal Gear Solid, Revolver Ocelot sold the blueprints for Metal Gear on the black market, thus allowing corporations and entities that are rich enough to collectively create quite a few Metal Gear derivatives. Solid Snake infiltrates an oil tanker, U.S.S. Discovery, with assistance from Otacon to obtain information about the latest version, Metal Gear RAY. RAY is designed as an amphibious walking battle tank, thereby allowing it dominance over more territory than thought possible. When Snake finally obtains the information he needs, by sneaking past Russian soldiers and confronting Olga Gurlukovich, Revolver Ocelot shows up to "reclaim" Metal Gear RAY for himself, putting himself in the pilot seat and destroying the tanker to eliminate all traces of his presence as well as kill Solid Snake. This section of the game does a really good job at introducing new elements to the Metal Gear universe as well as continuing the story beyond the first game, the biggest surprise being the mention of a powerful group known as the Patriots. It is a suspenseful section that highlights just the kind of man Snake is and how he's gotten better over time.

Then Raiden shows up. Two years after the Tanker incident, Raiden is sent by a reformed FOXHOUND to an offshore cleanup facility, the Big Shell, to rescue hostages, including the United States President, from a terrorist group known as the Sons of Liberty. The terrorists, headed by a man claiming to be Solid Snake, are backed by members of a rogue SEAL anti-terrorist unit known as Dead Cell, whose core members are Vamp, a knife wielding man who drinks the blood of those he kills; Fatman, an expert with bombs; and Fortune, a woman who's luck prevents any bullet from touching her. With assistance from Colonel Campbell and his girlfriend Rosemary, Raiden must do what he can to eliminate the terrorist threat and prevent a nuclear strike on Manhattan.

What follows is a series of events that are, for the most part, a rehash of the events in the first Metal Gear Solid. The bosses, despite being clever and memorable, feel more like stand-ins for the former FOXHOUND members from the previous game and the plan the terrorists have in mind is also not unlike that of Liquid Snake. A lot of what happens to Raiden in the Plant chapter is very remniscent of what happens to Solid Snake, including the appearance of a mysterious caller named Deepthroat/Mr. X, the need to backtrack to advance the plot (hope you love that Strut F Warehouse!), using an electronic item to try and thwart the terrorists and a section where grabbing the PSG-1 Sniper Rifle is an absolute necessity among other things. My experience with Raiden was filled with memories of the first game that I was simply reliving through another character.

And then about 80% of the way through the game, the player is confronted with insanity in its purest form and is given a mere glimpse into the eye of madness. After Emma Emmerich's death and the supposed death of Vamp, the player is introduced to revelations about Raiden and the video game itself in such a concentration that they might as well be clocked with a freight train. The sudden wave of information includes piling so many gambits on top of each other that it is unclear who the actual bad guy is (if there is one to begin with); a series of convoluted double and even triple crosses; the downright confusing and possibly contradictory motives of the Patriots; deconstructions of several elements of the gaming medium; and forcing the player to question the exact reality of everything they've been doing while controlling Raiden. This is as far as I can go without just rendering an entire paragraph or so with spoiler tags and is in fact just the tip of the insanity iceberg. On top of this, just when you feel safe(-ish), the stinger at the end of the credits twists the knife deeper by revealing that the Patriots have all been dead for at least 100 years! This ending is one of the most confusing and brilliantly frightening things I've ever witnessed in any medium; I thought I would be prepared, but I never expected to witness what I did in the super long chain of cutscenes. What really didn't help however was that some cutscenes that were important to the plot were excised in the wake of 9/11, but even then I'm not sure how much better it would have turned out. I really hope there's a good explanation for what I saw because it's bothering me and I feel I really need to cool off from Metal Gear Solid for a while before approaching the next game in the franchise (don't worry, I'll still cover the other games eventually).

So out of all of this, I suppose you're wondering how I feel about both Raiden and the sheer amount of cutscenes in the game. Well, for the cutscenes, I believe that they are important for fleshing out certain details of the story and introducing the characters properly. The problems with them in this game is that unlike the first Metal Gear Solid, the amount of them gets to the point where you are no longer sure how much gameplay there really is, since there is a disproportionate ratio between them here in favor of the videos. If you were to remove every single video and codec conversation from this game, I'm pretty sure that the actual game, where you're actually in control, wouldn't even last you nine hours unless you're particularly prone to dying.

As for Raiden himself, I was a little thrown off by his sudden appearance in the narrative (yes, it is possible to be surprised about something even if you read about it before the actual experience; there's a big difference between reading about something in a game and actually playing it to get to the event) and just how long I actually had to control him. He felt like a weaker version of Solid Snake, which was in fact a deliberate facet of his design, and his bishonen nature was a little unsettling, if only because he has pretty wide hips for a man. For the most part, I really just feel indifferent about him, although I must say that his tragic backstory comes right out of nowhere and seemed like they were making it up as they went along. The revelations about him at the end also made playing as him borderline insulting, though I have a feeling that Hideo Kojima in this case made his point really clear (well played, Kojima). I hope that if they do bring him back in a sequel, they'll make him a better character.

Moving on from the heavily convoluted story, I'd like to say that the overall gameplay has gotten better. The player is now allowed to shoot from behind cover, which can be helpful in some situations when you really need to get rid of an enemy in the way. I also found the first-person aiming helpful for the handguns, since it gives more precise control over where your shots go. This is especially helpful with the biggest addition to the arsenal: tranquilizers. Both the M9 handgun and PSG-1T sniper rifle can fire tranquilizer rounds that will render someone unconscious rather than outright kill them, providing an alternative method for clearing the different rooms. These rounds also introduce a new mechanic where the location someone is shot at will determine the speed at which they fall unconscious (ex. the head or the heart will have an instant effect, but hand and foot shots take longer).

There's also a new swimming mechanic, bringing some new variety and challenge to the levels with an O2 gauge that determines your available air. However, the player will now need to worry about leaving a trail of blood or water to their location, the former of which can be stopped with bandages. Thankfully there are now also more places to hide thanks to the ability to hide out in a locker until the coast is clear. Being able to roll between cover and hide out in the shadows are also welcome additions, creating new ways to sneak around undetected and even pass certain obstacles.

Being on the PS2 allows the Metal Gear Solid series a graphical upgrade, and this one is a real marvel. Characters look more realistic and are now much more expressive, adding depth to each performance from the voice actors. With the improved environments and effects, the game is also more immersive and pleasing to the eye. This is not to say that the graphics of the previous game were bad, but the improvements help show how well the franchise can look on a newer platform.

Finally, I'd like to mention the score, touted as being done by Henry Gregson-Williams. I am not particularly familiar with his film scores, but I think he did a fine job here creating music that adds to each scene in a way similar to the previous installment. It's perhaps not as memorable at the moment, but I still think he pretty much nailed it.

Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty is an...interesting video game. Thanks to how it handles and deconstructs many themes in video games, including the concept of free will and the difference between fantasy and reality, it can be considered the first postmodern video game ever created. Its gameplay and graphics have improved well from the previous game, but the story is very confusing and complicated with an ending that will question your beliefs about what you just saw. Despite this, I'd still recommend Metal Gear Solid 2 to PS2 owners, as it is a real highlight of the system's library. Even if you've heard the twists by now, this is still an experience that you really have to see to believe.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Stubs – Jim Henson’s Labyrinth

Jim Henson’s Labyrinth (1986) Starring: David Bowie, Jennifer Connelly. Directed by Jim Henson. Screenplay by Terry Jones. Story by Dennis Lee and Jim Henson. Executive Producer: George Lucas.  Produced by Eric Rattray and David Lazer. Run Time: 101 minutes. U.S. and UK Color. Fantasy

It’s hard to imagine that the combined talents of The Muppet’s Jim Henson, Star Wars’ George Lucas, Monty Python’s Terry Jones and rock star David Bowie would come up with such a misguided effort as Jim Henson’s Labyrinth. There are too many Muppets, too much music and not enough story to make this film a worthwhile watch.

The story revolves around Sarah (Jennifer Connelly), a teenager with a vivid imagination, who is supposed to babysit her half-brother, Toby. The movie is going for a Cinderella v. evil step-mother type of situation, but doesn’t do a good job of setting up that angle. Stepmother (Shelley Thompson) is not portrayed as being bad or overbearing, just a little concerned that her attractive and well-built step-daughter can’t get a date on Saturday night.

Sarah has agreed to babysit Toby (Toby Froud) and is running late. But stepmother isn’t really mad or all that hard on Sarah. Still Sarah goes to her room to sulk. While there, she discovers that one of her teddy bears, Lancelot, is missing and goes into her parent’s room, where Toby is sleeping in a crib to retrieve it. Toby is a baby and cries, which leads Sarah to ask Jareth, the Goblin King (David Bowie) to take Toby away. The idea of a Goblin King is presumed to be mentioned in a book Sarah is reading, called Labyrinth, because it is never really spelled out.

But no sooner has she given Toby away then she has second-thoughts and tries to recant. It’s already too late, but Jareth agrees to bargain. If Sarah can get to his castle, through the Labyrinth in 13 hours he’ll give her back Toby. There is something arbitrary sounding about 13 hours, as opposed to 6, 12 or 24. Perhaps the moviemakers were trying to give the audience a head’s up on how long the movie would seem. Jareth then transports Sarah and himself to the Labyrinth and lets her fend for herself. He will try repeatedly to get Sarah to give up her quest to find Toby.

At the entrance to the Labyrinth, Sarah meets Hoggle (voiced by Brian Henson), a dwarf who refuses to help, though he eventually does. Hoggle is one of many muppet-style creatures that Sarah will meet along her way. She quickly learns that nothing is as it seems and that even solid walls have passages. While Sarah makes good progress, she eventually traps herself in a dungeon, which the movie refers to as an oubliette, but Jareth sends Hoggle in to lead her out and to misdirect her back to the beginning of the labyrinth.

During their journey, Sarah and Hoggle run across a group of goblins beating a beast named Ludo (voiced by Ron Mueck). While Hoggle runs away when he hears Ludo’s roar, Sarah saves him, but the two get separated. Members of the Fire Gang, creatures with detachable limbs, harass Sarah until Hoggle comes back to rescue her.  Afterwards, they journey through the Bog of Eternal Stench, with its fart sounds and supposedly accompanying gaseous smells. There they are reunited with Ludo and add Sir Didymus (voiced by David Shaughnessy) a fox-like knight who guards the bridge that leads them away from the bog.

Jareth has given Hoggle a peach that he wants Sarah to eat. When everyone is hungry, Hoggle gives it to her. Sarah falls into a trance. At first she thinks she’s home and that all of this misadventure was just a bad dream, but that’s not true. Next, she imagines herself in a ballroom where Jareth tries to seduce her. However, the striking of a clock reminds her that she’s supposed to be saving her brother.  She breaks free of the trance and rejoins Ludo and Sir Didymus as they near Goblin City, which surrounds Jareth’s castle. Hoggle, once again, reappears and disables the giant robot that guards the city’s gate.

Hoggle requests and receives Sarah’s forgiveness for his earlier betrayal and the four make their way through Goblin City, defeating the Goblin Army sent by Jareth to stop them. When they reach Jareth’s throne, Sarah goes in alone, but she finds Jareth and Toby in an Escher-style room, where the laws of physics and perspective don’t matter. Sarah tries, but is unable to find a way to get to Toby. Jareth confronts her and asks her to give up her quest and to stay with him forever. But Sarah refuses, reciting the lines from Labyrinth, which ends with the line that Jareth has no power over her.

Jareth acknowledges defeat and returns Toby to Sarah. Back home, Sarah realizes she can see Hoggle in her mirror. She tells her friends that she needs them and summons them to her room, where they celebrate her victory. In the end, Jareth, in the form of the white owl, watches the party from outside and flies away.

Not that I watched this film with high expectations, but I was very disappointed in what such a talented creative team had wrought. While Terry Jones is credited with the screenplay, what was actually shot was quite different, a collaboration between Henson, Lucas, Laura Phillips and Elaine May. May’s involvement should have resulted in a better screenplay. Her previous work with Mike Nichols in the 1950s and her previous work on Heaven Can Wait (1976) give her a comedic cred that is sadly missing from the film. It may be a case of too many writers spoiling the script.

The presence of David Bowie changed the direction of the film. Jones’ original script didn’t have the audience seeing the center of the Labyrinth until Sarah got there. But with someone has big as Bowie in the cast, that wouldn’t do. Therefore, we’re given a couple of Bowie songs that just seem to stop the action in their tracks and have Bowie cavorting with goblins. His talents are misused in this film.

The only other star in the film is Jennifer Connelly, who was only 16 at the time. For an actress of her age, appearing in only her fourth film, I got the sense she was capable of doing much more than the screenplay allowed. Connelly, who is still acting in films, would grow up into a bit of a sex symbol in such films as The Rocketeer (1991) and prove her acting chops in Requiem for a Dream (2000) and A Beautful Mind (2001).

The film was not a commercial success, making back only about half of its production costs at the US box office. Jim Henson apparently took the flop very hard and never again directed a movie. He would die four years later in 1990. His was an extraordinary career that lasted from the 1950’s, through stints on the Jimmy Dean Show, to Sesame Street, Fraggle Rock, Saturday Night Live and not to mention the long-running Muppets TV Shows and multiple successful movies. His legacy is set in stone despite the failures of this film.

Overall, Labyrinth is a creative disappointment; a film which doesn’t seem to know where it wants to go or how to get there. It’s sort of a lesson on that while film is a collaborative effort there needs to be a singular vision for it to work. Labyrinth is an undercooked cake of too many flavors. Perhaps one of the members of the creative team could have made a better film on their own. Sometimes when you try too hard to make everyone happy no one is in the end.

Finding Nemo

As explained in the review for Bleach: Memories of Nobody, I am one of three contributors to this blog that treats the entirety of the day after Christmas as "Movie Day", wherein we watch movies all day, some of which end up being ones received as gifts. One of the movies this year is the Blu-ray release of Finding Nemo, a classic Pixar movie that no doubt many people have seen and fondly remember, which I have been waiting a long time for. Though we have discussed Pixar's recent disappointments on this blog before, it's nice to go back to an old classic once in a while, when this studio had a consistently higher level of quality. While it has been a number of years since this movie came out when I was a kid, I have seen it a few times since then, and to this day it is a movie that never gets old.

The plot, for those of you who have not seen this movie yet, centers on a clownfish named Marlin (Albert Brooks) and his wife Coral (Elizabeth Perkins), who have recently moved into an anemone along with their abundance of eggs, which are nearly ready to hatch. Their happiness doesn't last long, since a barracuda attacks them and eats Coral, along with all of their eggs...except one, which suffered a scratch. Heartbroken, Marlin gives it the name Nemo, which Coral expressed likeness for shortly before the attack, promising not to let anything happen to it. Years later, it is Nemo's (Alexander Gould) first day of school (there's a rather subtle pun in there that took me years to figure out), and it is evident that Marlin has become somewhat overprotective of his sole surviving offspring, who has one smaller fin than the other; this is a birth defect resulting from the barracuda attack. Though he has already dropped his son off, Marlin can't seem to let him go as he chases after the class when he hears where they are going. As a result, Nemo defies his father and swims out to open sea to touch a far away boat. However, this results in him being taken by a couple of divers, causing Marlin to chase after him in desperation, not knowing the journey that lies before him.

Though I was young when I first saw this movie in a theater, it still touched me even then, which made me more grateful that I had parents who cared for my well-being. For a variety of reasons, this movie may hit close to home to many a viewer, something that Pixar has not been able to do as of late. Some moments truly capture the essence of a father-son relationship, especially when the father is willing to do anything, including running into dangerous situations (in this case sharks and jellyfish among other things), so long as it means saving their son. It's certainly a very touching story, and I believe that most people out there feel the same way.

The animation work deserves special mention, due to the fact that all the movements in the movie, especially in regards to the sea life, seem to flow very naturally. Though some obvious liberties were made for the sake of displaying emotion, everything looks and moves very realistically, and there's some incredible subtleties in the detail, in both design and animation, that may take a few viewings to notice, which is something that I like to see in a movie. Even when you know it's all computer generated, you actually believe the (slightly cartoonish) underwater setting, and this still holds well for a movie released in 2003 (a feat that is, needless to say, very impressive for the time).

The voice acting in Finding Nemo is really good all around and, much like the recent game L.A. Noire, even minor characters display a good performance. This quality of delivery really helps whenever a joke is made, but that's not to overshadow the more emotional moments in the film. You really get a feel for what each character is feeling, which is perfectly reflected in the animation, and as a result you can truly believe how Marlin and Nemo feel about each other, something that the later Brave was unable to truly replicate. Complimenting this level of acting is an equally amazing score, which hits all the right marks at all the right moments to set the stage for the narrative in just the right way.

As I mentioned, there is some humor to be found in this father-son tale to take a load off from time to time, but it's done such that, while memorable, it does not overshadow the messages to be taken away from the overall work. The timing of each of these funny moments is just right, and when the movie does get funny, it's really funny. One thing that's half-expected from a movie with children expected to be in attendance (here that's about half the target audience) is a joke relating to a bodily function of some sort (if you've ever seen a modern full-on kid's movie, you know what I'm talking about). Though there's a few of those here, what sets these apart from the rest of the crowd is that, not only are they completely justified in-universe, they're actually funny, with the reaction being the kicker more often than the act itself. In an interesting variation, Marlin's ability to tell a joke is, I have realized, actually a good sign of his character development, which is done rather well over the course of the movie.

Finding Nemo is one Pixar movie pre-Cars 2 that is definitely worth checking out. The underwater setting is fairly realistic and believable and the father-son dynamic is very interesting to watch develop over time as Marlin and Nemo learn more about what it's like to be away from home. This movie is truly heart-warming with a perfect blend of drama and humor that makes it a rather unique specimen in the animation circle. If you somehow have not seen this movie yet, I would suggest you do so right now.

Bleach: Memories of Nobody

Every year, there is a tradition that three of this blog's contributors share, myself included, which we refer to as "Movie Day." Every year on December 26, the day after Christmas, we do nothing but watch movies in our collection that we have yet to see on home video. These usually come from the ones that we got at Christmas, but we sometimes do manage to see at least one acquired from another time. This year, along with several Pixar shorts, we watched six films: Bleach: Memories of Nobody; Labyrinth; Magical Mystery Tour; The Artist; Finding Nemo; and Hugo. This review will cover the first of these films, Bleach: Memories of Nobody.

In case you didn't read my review of Bleach: Soul Resurrección, I am a fan of Bleach, the anime/manga franchise created by Tite Kubo about a high school student who becomes a substitute Soul Reaper who has to send souls to Soul Society as well as cleanse Hollows (evil spirits) so that they may be sent there as normal spirits. I personally have a love/hate relationship with Bleach, since there is a roller coaster of quality in Kubo's writing and there is so much that's both good and bad about it (ex. Interesting characters and ideas are introduced only to go nowhere or be taken too far). Regardless, I'm catching up with everything from before the Arrancar Arc and reading the Thousand Year Blood War Arc in Weekly Shonen Jump Alpha. More recently, I received some Bleach stuff for Christmas thanks to my interest in the series, and becoming more serious about it, including this movie, which was first released in 2006 and then brought stateside in 2008. As the first movie ever created for the series, Memories of Nobody is surprisingly self-sufficient.

After Ichigo (Johnny Yong Bosch) and Rukia (Michelle Ruff) eliminate a Hollow in a park, and the former escapes from paramedics, mysterious beings known as Blanks appear in Karakura Town. Before the two of them can do anything about it, a mysterious Soul Reaper named Senna (G.K. Bowes) arrives on the scene and eliminates them. However, another mysterious figure named Ganryu (Troy Baker) arrives on the scene, but disappears as quickly as he came. Ichigo later learns that the Blanks are souls without memories that have been detached from the normal cycle of souls, and that they are naturally attracted to one another, creating something called a Shinenju in the process. With no other leads, Ichigo decides to try and work with the unknown Senna to find the Shinenju and prevent a mysterious clan known as the Dark Ones from getting their hands on it and destroying both Soul Society and the World of the Living.

With the movie lasting a mere 93 minutes, its plot is a little simple, which actually works in its favor for the most part. It uses that hour and a half to its advantage by introducing newer as well as existing elements and expanding on them as much as it really needs to to create a surprisingly good story. For example, the Blanks aren't explained very well, but in the context of the movie and going by the fact that we never see them again, they really didn't need to be, since there is a reasonable amount of exposition that discuses what they are, where they are from and what they do. The plot also takes advantage of a theme of protection, which, while one of the more basic themes of movies, is expanded upon to apply to Ichigo, Senna and even Ganryu, which helps with understanding their motives. It can also get pretty emotional at times, especially as we learn more about Senna. I ended up getting pretty attached to her and feeling pretty sad about her, and her emotional range got me to like the character.

If anything though, the only real problems I actually have with the plot are both the fight with and a lack of expansion on Ganryu. Beginning with the latter, I was able to understand why he was trying to manipulate the Shinenju to his advantage, but after the credits had rolled, I realized that I still didn't know that much about the character, including how his clan ended up the way it did or why he became the man he is. As for the fighting, which ties into this, I actually felt that the fight between Ganryu and Ichigo was a little too short, since I never really got to know just how powerful the former is, which took a little of the edge from the climax away. While the interactions between Ichigo and Senna help to balance it out, I still feel like there could have been just a little more with Ganryu.

As for its animation, this film has a really good quality that looks like the show but with a much higher budget. By that, I mean that it looks better than the parts of the show that aired before it and certain things look beautifully done. The designs of the new characters also seem like ones that would actually come from Bleach and everyone looks consistent with how they are in the source media.

The score is also pretty good, with a combination of existing music from the anime and new music created for the movie. Every piece is used appropriately, enhancing and complementing each scene well. I also liked the voice acting, which is consistent with the show, allowing the new characters to have voices that match who they are. I don't really have any complaints here.

What I was most surprised by however was the movie's ability to make sense even to non-Bleach fans, hence my "self-sufficient" comment earlier. Among those in my immediate family watching the movie with me, one is getting more familiar with the series, one knew a little about it, and one knew absolutely nothing outside of me explaining who each character on the DVD menu was. The movie was able to explain characters and basic concepts in a way that even someone who knew nothing about the series was able to follow along and keep track of what was going on in the story. This I appreciated, since it allows the movie to stand up more as a separate entity than a film that is dependent on familiarity with the original source.

Bleach: Memories of Nobody is a surprisingly good movie. While not perfect, its plot and characters help to make it really enjoyable and worth watching. Fans of Bleach will like this film the most, but even outsiders might consider giving this one a try if they're looking for an animated feature with a good sense of what it is and what it's trying to accomplish. I'm glad I watched this feature, as it shows that a film based on a franchise can be written so even an outsider can get into it. If you're going to watch this but are unsure how much you'd need to know, fear not, for there is a handy theatrical program included with the DVD that will tell you all you need to know; be sure to read it before or after your viewing.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Metal Gear Solid (Disc 2) - ...iversary!

In my experience with Metal Gear Solid, I've had a hard time with Disc 2. I discovered that I had a faulty copy right at the switching point (after killing Sniper Wolf), which not even a resurfacing would fix. So I ended up purchasing another copy off the secondary market and made sure that it was in a good enough condition. I felt confident enough in the description provided by the seller, stating that the discs were professionally cleaned and tested. Well, after finally receiving my copy in the mail I was finally able to complete the game and express how I feel about the whole experience. As such, this post is actually a continuation of my anniversary post rather than a separate review altogether.

The story continues in Disc 2 with Snake infiltrating a boiler room to get to Metal Gear REX and attempting to shut it down. While this section is shorter in some ways than the previous disc, this is definitely where the most twists come to light, revealing a conspiracy that goes higher up than thought before. The final stretch also introduces new information that can change the perspective of a lot of earlier events in the game. I also found the full characterization of Vulcan Raven to be interesting, taking more advantage of his description of being a shaman. For its depth and complexity, I now fully praise the storytelling capability of Metal Gear Solid.

In terms of gameplay, there are definitely a couple new surprises in this portion. Level design remains interesting and creative, including a hallway absolutely packed with Gun Cameras mounted on each wall. The final boss fights are also the most intense, starting with Snake having to outmaneuver Vulcan Raven in a freezing room where a frontal assault simply will not work. This is when explosives come in very handy, with an element of trickery also becoming a factor in fights from this point forward. My solution involved figuring out that Claymores picked up earlier are now in their natural element, plus letting Raven give chase while only I could see where they were. This didn't take the tension away however, since even being spotted once at the wrong time can let the shaman turn Snake into Swiss cheese with the aircraft grade machine gun he holds in his hands.

The most climactic boss however would be the one against Metal Gear REX, piloted by none other than Liquid Snake. The battle tank is designed to withstand any outside damage thanks to an impenetrable outer shell. To access its vulnerable insides however, Snake needs to trigger the opening of the cockpit by attacking the only weak point on its body, and only the Stinger has a chance of reaching it. After this however is a face to face throwdown with Liquid, who uses all of his strength to try and take out Solid Snake. I'd say that, after losing a few times before taking down the behemoth for good, it is easily one of the most memorable bosses of its time.

Then there's the puzzles. The ones that are in the environment are very minor, but one that really stands out is one that takes advantage of the entire area contained on the second disc. In this puzzle, Snake has to backtrack to two particular rooms to change the temperature of a key card, thus altering its shape and allowing it to function as three key cards. These temperature changes must be done in a certain order and there is the danger of changing the temperature unintentionally, requiring further backtracking. This was only annoying due to my absolute lack of rations, but it is still a very unique concept.

Voice acting continued to stay at a high point until the end, with everyone showing the full range of their talents and matching the appropriate mood of each scene. There are a couple of tearjerkers, which they manage to execute really well, though saying what they are would involve spoilers. The music continued to impress, so I give high praise to the composers involved.

Overall, Metal Gear Solid is a PlayStation game that absolutely should not be missed. Although the actual game is pretty short when you remove the cutscenes, the story itself is complicated enough to stay interesting and the deeper character interactions are all fascinating. With excellent gameplay, storytelling, voice acting and music, I fully recommend this game to anyone looking for either a great stealth game or a good blast from the past.

Be sure not to skip the stinger at the end of the credits though, since it opens exciting opportunities for a sequel. Hopefully it will not disappoint.