Monday, June 30, 2014

Transformers: Age of Extinction

As a fan of the Transformers franchise, I have seen each of the live-action movies as they came out in order to keep up with the brand. While I have been excited for each of them, only two of them have fulfilled that excitement and continue to do so after multiple viewings (Revenge of the Fallen is the one I consider a bust, and as such I have not watched it as much as the original 2007 movie or Dark of the Moon). When I first heard about the new movie, Age of Extinction, I decided I may as well see it since it’s related to Transformers and the third in the series exceeded my expectations (those being “being better than Revenge of the Fallen”). However, the more I learned about the fourth installment, based on pre-release info and trailers, the more my excitement grew, though I tried to retain a sort of cautious optimism. Recently, I got the chance to view Age of Extinction through a free screening at Paramount Pictures, and in 3D no less. So, do I think the hype is worth it? My answer: Yes.

This Bumblebee statue was also in attendance
at the screening.

On pre-historic Earth, 65 million years BCE, during the time of the dinosaurs, a group of alien ships drops a number of bombs on the planet, presumably causing the dinosaurs to go extinct. Cut to the present day in Arctic, where a scientist named Darcy Tyril (Sophia Myles) sees the result of an operation that uncovered a dinosaur covered in an unknown material, declaring that the find will change history. Four years after the events of Dark of the Moon, Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) and his employee, Lucas Flannery (T. J. Miller), arrive at a run down theater to purchase junk that can be salvaged. As the two look around, Cade spies an old-looking truck riddled with bullet holes and decides to buy it, albeit with Lucas’ money. Later, Cade’s daughter, Tessa Yeager (Nicola Peltz), is dropped off at home by her friends, finding out that while preparing for College, she has been denied financial aid; we find out that this is because Cade spends a lot of his time and money fixing things for people and trying to create new inventions, thus the Yeagers are low on cash to the point where they are at least 6 months behind on Mortgage payments (which makes the financial aid bit a little odd, but whatever). Meanwhile, Harold Attinger (Kelsey Grammer) is in a conference with the head of the CIA and the President's Chief of Staff, where he declares the age of the Transformers to be over, and that night leads a group called “Cemetery Wind” to hunt down the Autobot Ratchet (Robert Foxworth) with the aid of Lockdown (Mark Ryan), while also attempting to get information on the whereabouts of Optimus Prime. The next day, when Lucas and Tessa discover and eviction notice on the Yeagers’ front door, they attempt to tell Cade before he shows them something about the truck, believing to have found a Transformer. While working on it, a missile is accidentally fired, at which the truck changes shape to reveal itself as Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen), who is initially angered but eventually calms down. As Cade tries to help Optimus recover, the government arrives due to a call that had been placed by Lucas (with the promise of money), at which point Cade becomes involved in something much bigger, including a conspiracy that threatens humanity’s very existence.

The story of Age of Extinction is much better written this time around, though what helps is not only the further characterization of the Transformers themselves, but also the handling of the human characters. In past live-action installments, save for characters from the army, most of the human cast seemed to drag down the story a bit, often forcing it into a complete stop, due to how they were written. In this movie, the human characters are much more tolerable and believable, particularly the relationship between the Cade Yeager and his daughter Tessa, as well as Tessa's involvement with an Irish Texas racecar driver (naturally) named Shane Dyson (Jack Reynor), and how the issues between the three of them get resolved over the course of the movie. Said relationship between Tessa and Shane also replaces the ones between Sam Witwicky and Mikaela Banes/Carly Spencer in the last three movies, but the Tessa/Shane one seems better handled since it felt like it had more depth to it, especially with the way Tessa's father Cade reacts to the whole thing. The human actors certainly help this, with Mark Wahlberg being more than a suitable replacement for Shia LaBeouf in the main human role, due to his character feeling more actively involved with the Autobot/Decepticon war, and Kelsey Grammer seeming to give it his all as the primary human villain, Harold Attinger. Some of the antagonists, especially Lockdown, are actually pretty intimidating, though in Lockdown’s case it may involve his ability to turn his face into a giant (and awesome) gun.

The Autobot Crosshairs (voiced by John DiMaggio) in a moment of badassery.

As usual for a live-action Transformers film, the visual effects are very impressive, though it seems here that they’ve been taken a few steps further. The general redesigns of the returning robot characters are welcome as the Transformers generally look more streamlined, but there is still an incredible amount of detail in their character models, as well as anything Cybertronian, that easily provide a feast for the eyes. The Dinobots, who are heavily shown in promotional material, don’t exactly follow this streamlining, but their designs also show how advanced the effects for these movies have gotten, to the point where you may end up half-distracted by just seeing small parts moving and interacting seamlessly with each other and their environment.

The voice acting for the robots is also very good, with Optimus Prime once again being played by Peter Cullen, who sounds as great as ever and displays his experience with the character well (although the character himself seems a little more blood-thirsty in this movie than in previous ones). While the robot characters’ voices were very well-cast, perhaps one of the more surprising ones is John Goodman playing the Autobot Hound, though he still does a good job with his portrayal of the character. Similarly, I found it surprising to see Kelsey Grammer involved in a Transformers production, not to mention Stanley Tucci, but they each give strong and believable performances in their roles. Titus Welliver also did a good job as James Savoy, Harold Attinger's assistant in the movie; it was a fairly small role, but Welliver does well enough with the character to make him memorable.

The music is good as well, with an amazing score by Steve Jablonsky (with some additional music by Sonny Moore, aka Skrillex) that helps set the tone of each scene really well. Other artists have songs in the movie, but a more well-known song would probably be “Battle Cry” by Imagine Dragons; in general though, the soundtrack for this movie is really good (and no Linkin Park in sight).

How is this not awesome?

One thing I will bring up though is how obvious some of the product placement is. In one scene is a rather obvious placement for Beats by Dr. Dre and another later on features noticeable advertising for Bud Light. As previous films have shown, even the robots themselves are not immune to this, as there is one shown briefly that evidently turns into an Oreo truck. While this wasn’t too distracting in the long run and could have been worse, this can be a distraction for some, especially since the advertising of car brands like Chevrolet are a bit more subtle by comparison. Overall, this isn’t too bad, since it doesn’t take too much away from the story, but it still deserves mention.

Another thing to mention is how China is involved in the movie, being where much of the third act takes place. There seems to be a recent trend in Hollywood blockbusters where special attention is given to China in order to appeal to a Chinese audience, not that it's necessarily a bad thing, which includes Iron Man 3 having special footage made for its Chinese release. This might also explain why Chinese actress Bingbing Li was cast in one of the main roles and why there was a reality show in China (called Transformers 4 Chinese Actors Talent Search Reality Show) for contestants to appear in the movie, as well as why this movie had its world premiere in Hong Kong. While this may be one of the biggest examples of this trend, due to how much of a presence China has in the climax, the action present wasn't altered in any significant way by this and, admittedly, at least provides a change in scenery for the climactic battle (as each movie seems to have said fight in a new location each time, with the first being in Mission City and the second in Egypt) and allowed it to avoid becoming a total repeat of Dark of the Moon's battle in Chicago. Hopefully, the next movie will have its climactic fight take place somewhere other than China in order to keep the action fresh.

Transformers: Age of Extinction is an improvement over Dark of the Moon, but I honestly also found it to be the best of the live-action Transformers movies. The Transformers themselves get more development with a well-written human cast that doesn’t get in the way, the special effects are even more impressive than before, and the movie really knows how to deliver on the action. Overall, the movie also takes itself a bit more seriously, which also definitely helps with its overall quality. Fans of the live-action movies and Transformers in general will definitely get some enjoyment out of this movie, though those who aren’t big fans of the series should weigh their options. Even with a running time just shy of 3 hours, I ended up really enjoying this movie and I can’t wait to see it again (and again).

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Killer Is Dead

Ever since I played Lollipop Chainsaw in 2012, I’ve become a fan of Giochi Suda’s work. Since then I had sort of followed what he was up to, but I haven’t yet gone back and played any of his other well-known works, including Killer7 and the No More Heroes duology. When I heard about Killer Is Dead, I had planned on playing it, but after a while I forgot that it existed and moved on to other games (see the archive to the side). On a recent trip to Fry’s Electronics however, I noticed the Collector’s Edition of the game being sold for $20 and remembered that it was a Suda 51 game, so on a whim we bought it. After finishing up my playthrough of Gears of War: Judgment, I put the game in my PS3 and ended up spending a couple days with it. As I played, I read about how polarizing the game was on release, including the more scathing U.S. reviews compared to Japanese reviews, but I didn’t really let that affect my enjoyment of the game. When all is said and done, I think that Killer Is Dead is actually a pretty good game, though it has a couple issues here and there.

The story follows a 35-year-old executioner named Mondo Zappa who works for the Bryan Execution Firm, run by a cyborg named Bryan Roses. With a katana in his right hand and a cybernetic arm named Musselback replacing his left arm, Mondo is often commissioned to take down super-powered criminals who have committed otherworldly acts. As he engages in contracts, Mondo fights beings known as Wires who have come from the moon to wreak havoc on humanity. During one contract, where Mondo is tasked with rescuing a girl named Alice, he learns of a man named David who may be behind the assault of the Wires on earth. Coincidentally, his next contract is from a woman named Moon River, who tasks him with killing David. Mondo goes to the moon to confront the man, but unbeknownst to him, he is about to embark on a strange journey that reveals not only the kind of person he really is, but also uncovers the mysterious connection he may have to the moon, including the man named David.

Mondo Zappa with his left arm, Musselback, active.

At first the plot felt pretty strange, considering the rather offbeat nature of Goichi Suda to begin with, but once I played every mission, including Episode 51 from the Collector’s Edition, the pieces actually fell into place and the story made a decent amount of sense. Considering how others felt about the story, I don’t know if this is because I’m good at following complicated plots (ex. Inception, Memento) or if I’m used to offbeat storytelling and the weirdness, taken at face value, ends up forming a straight plot line in my mind (ex. FLCL, Adventure Time). Either way, the story isn’t all that hard to follow once you let it sink in and try not to think too hard about the logistics of going to the moon in penny-conscious moon gear (or none at all) or how a man can speak and yet only be heard when the recipient is wearing special headphones. There is certainly an overreaching arc that makes sense at the end, but each episode can also have its own self-contained plot that actually works in its own regard and presents Mondo with an interesting series of events that the player doesn’t necessarily need to keep track of later. In a weird way these disconnected plots actually made the story more realistic, since he’s an executioner-for-hire so of course he’s going to have to go through the mission regardless of what he’s going through outside of them.

No matter how you look at the story though, it won’t take you very long to see it all. The game is pretty short, running at about 7-15 hours depending on how you play it, which is one of the only things I’d really hold against the title. It would be great for there to have been more content in the form of extra missions or something else to add depth to the story. But seeing as I got this for $20, the complaint has less of a sting than it would have at full retail price.

Of course, you can extend the play time through the side missions. By completing certain story missions, you can unlock two side missions which take place in areas from that mission. There are twelve of these in all, each with their own unique challenges and objectives, such as grabbing bottles of wine and fighting your way to the exit or getting an elevator with a weight limit of two Wires to rise to the top of a building. Additionally, finding the nurse Scarlett in all of her hiding spots during each story mission will unlock special challenges that you can complete for a special reward. This reward turns out to be a version of the Gigolo missions present in the game.

Simply finding Scarlett during a mission is easily its own reward.

And this is where I need to create a new paragraph or two to address this specific mission type. Gigolo missions are unlocked by playing through the campaign, with a total of three you can unlock if you also include Episode 51. In these missions, Mondo meets up with one of the girls, Natalia, Koharu or Betty, and must woo them over with presents, which you can buy from the Gift Shop. To be able to offer a present, you have to maximize a certain meter, which increases by focusing on different areas of their bodies, with more you can look at when they’re not looking; they will also know when you are ogling them, so you can regain the mood by physically using the right analog stick to look away. Completing Scarlett trials to gain the Gigolo Glasses allows you to increase the meter even faster by being able to see each girl in their underwear as well as gain a bonus by simply staring into their eyes.

These missions have been pretty controversial with Western critics, partly because completing them at least once is the only way to obtain three of the sub-weapons for Musselback and that completing them multiple times leads to increasingly raunchy sex scenes (though not too explicit), as well as the fact that trophy info has the third completion being Mondo making the girls his prisoner in both body and soul. I can see why someone would consider these missions sexist, and I don’t disagree that they might be, but at the same time they’re mostly just kinda boring. Sure the game offers you interesting views of the women when you’re successful, but getting to see that requires nothing more than just looking at them and giving gifts, plus when you get the Gigolo Glasses you can just spam those to not only increase the meter, but know exactly what presents to give them. Not much else really happens and while the rewards may be worth it at first, subsequent tries aren’t because you don’t really get much out of the experience. The lack of challenge is part of the boredom, as well as the fact that they just aren’t that interesting to begin with. I highly doubt these missions will lead to Goichi Suda’s downfall, as some professionals have declared, but I think that if they were made more interesting to go through, they might have actually worked better for the game’s atmosphere.

The Gigolo Glasses make Gigolo missions too easy.

Moving on, the combat in this game is actually pretty fun. Sure, it’s nothing like Devil May Cry or Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, but still simple and fun to get into. With action buttons dedicated to attacking, guard breaking and dodging, the sword-play becomes a series of dodges and attacks, which are fun to string together, especially when the result is very sleek and, at times, majestic. It’s also very easy to switch over to Musselback, thanks to a simple aiming and shooting mechanic in place, as well as swap sub-weapons, as there is a dedicated button for that purpose. The ease of switching between swordplay and gunplay allows for the player to create impressive combos of differing styles and, though limited, still has the opportunity to look pretty stylish. That said, a couple things hold it back, the most notable being the lack of a lock-on function. When Mondo has enough blood to enter a special state and tear through opponents in one hit, it’s very easy to accidentally go toward the enemy with enough armor to protect them, which potentially leaves Mondo open to attacks or otherwise puts him in a bad position. The other grievance would be the camera, which is responsive but a little floaty and, during fights, can be pointed at an extremely awkward angle that makes it difficult to clearly see what you’re hitting. It takes some getting used to, but when you have to fight the camera more than the Wires, something’s a little wrong.

Visually, Killer Is Dead has some of the most impressive cel shading I’ve ever seen. The high contrast and shadow placement offer a very unique spectacle and helps the game stand out well from the competition. What helps are the unique character designs, such as the highly detailed Musselback or characters with references to Hindu mythology, as well as the art shift for the cutscenes that open some story chapters. The Wires are also pretty distinct, if at times hard to figure out where the head is, though the bright color schemes can help them be seen even in the darkest parts of the map. But while I like the cel shading, there were certain times, especially during Episode 51, where it looked like the top of the screen was a little bright, so I felt like adjusting the screen of the laptop to make it look better. But then I realized that I was playing on a TV rather than a laptop, so I couldn’t change it (not sure how much changing the gamma levels would have really helped anyway). Also, while western critics heavily mentioned screen tearing issues, I didn’t really notice anything wrong (and I don’t want to look for any).

Killer Is Dead is very visually striking.

The soundtrack, composed by Akira Yamaoka, is another aspect I would consider to be very well done. Rather than have one singular style, as with most action games, Killer Is Dead has a whole range, going from heavy metal to symphonic or blues. This helps create a rather unique experience and gives each stage its own unique feel due to the matching music. As for the voice acting, I would consider it overall to be just all right. I don’t really think anyone is bad, though there are definitely some cheesy lines and I can see how some characters might be a little annoying (though for some reason I liked how energetic Mondo’s assistant, Mika Takekawa, is). Maybe it could have been better, but for what it is it’s not too bad.

Would I recommend Killer Is Dead to anyone? Yes, at least to Suda 51 fans who by now know what to expect from one of his games. The story is offbeat but makes sense by the end, the combat is fun and the visuals are striking, though a floaty camera and boring Gigolo missions bog the experience down a bit. Those who are not familiar with the works of Goichi Suda are perhaps better off starting with one of his more classic games, such as Lollipop Chainsaw, before even considering Killer Is Dead as an option. For everyone else, the lowered price by now ($20 for the Collector’s Edition in my case) may provide some incentive to try it out on a whim. There may be more controversy among western critics compared to the more glowing Japanese critics, but really the only way to know if those feelings are overblown is to play it yourself.

Now I really want to try to play Killer7 and No More Heroes when I get the chance.

Stubs - Second Opinion: Transformers: Dark of the Moon

Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011) Starring: Shia LaBeouf, Josh Duhamel, John Turturro, Tyrese Gibson, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Patrick Dempsey, Kevin Dunn, Julie White, John Malkovich, Frances McDormand. Staring the voices of: Peter Cullen, Hugo Weaving, Leonard Nimoy. Directed by Michael Bay. Screenplay by Ehren Kruger. Based on the Hasbro action figures. Produced by Don Murphy, Tom DeSanto, Lorenzo di Bonaventura, Ian Bryce. Run Time: 154 minutes. U.S. Color. Science Fiction, Action

With the fourth installment of the most successful toy-inspired film franchise about to be released on the big screen, and in the case of IMAX, bigger screen, we thought it was a chance to take a last look at the third in the Witwicky trilogy, Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011). The review at the time of its original release can be found here.

While the welcomed departure of Megan Fox allowed for the franchise to move forward, she is not the only thing that was wrong with Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009), which while not as well received critically, still managed to outperform the original live-action film, Transformers (2007), at the box-office. Some connected to the production would blame the writer’s strike, which disrupted the rewrite of the script, with the film’s shortcomings, but it was probably more to do with having a set in cement release date, even if the film wasn't quite ready for public consumption. With profitability attached to summer blockbusters, there is no way a studio can afford any delays in getting the product out the gates.

Dark of the Moon starts with the premise that the Apollo moon landing was a government conspiracy to explore the lunar crash site of an alien spacecraft. In this case, Sentinel Prime’s (Leonard Nimoy) spaceship, shot down in the last days of the war for Cybertron between the Autobots and the Decepticons. On board the ship are pillars which, used together, can create a space bridge for teleporting weapons, troops and supplies. NASA doesn’t know what’s found when the astronauts get to the site.

The moon landing was just a government conspiracy.

The conspiracy idea never gets shaken as those connected with it, including Jerry "Deep" Wang (Ken Jeong), a programmer who works at the same company Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) lands a job in the mail room at. Wang is acted out in Jeong’s usual over-the-top anything-for-a-cheap-laugh-style (better suited to the Hangover films), but he is not the first over-the-top character Witwicky comes into contact with, nor is he the last. Pretty much every human character is portrayed as a caricature, from Sam’s first boss, Bruce Brazos (John Malkovich), to his parents, Ron (Kevin Dunn) and Judy (Julie White), to old nemesis, now turned ally, former agent, Seymour Simmons (John Turturro). Include in there Seymour’s personal assistant, Dutch (Alan Tudyk), and Charlotte Meaning (Frances McDormand), the Director of National Intelligence, and you pretty much have all the main “human” characters. All have done better work in other films, so this is not a high point in their acting careers with the possible exception of paychecks.

The only humans who are in any way believable and likeable are the Army personnel, led by U.S. Army Lt. Colonel William Lennox (Josh Duhamel), and retired U.S. Air Force Chief Master Sergeant Robert Epps (Tyrese Gibson). Dylan Gould (Patrick Dempsey), who is working on Earth for the Decepticons’ cause, is also, sadly, quite believable, but I wouldn’t say likable. He represents all that we think is wrong with the rich and privileged in that they will do anything for their own success and survival despite what happens to the rest of us. Gould is the embodiment of the financial top 1% all those protests were about a few years ago.

Replacing Fox as Sam’s love interest is Rosie Huntington-Whiteley as Carly Spencer, who works for Gould managing his large car collection. A model, Dark of the Moon marks Huntington-Whiteley's first film acting gig and while she is good and good-looking, one wonders why her savvy and successful character would settle for Sam except for as a plot device.

Sam (Shia LaBeouf ) saves Carly (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley) from Gould and the Decepticons.

In this film, Sam is portrayed by LaBeouf as angry, whiny and feeling like he is owed something for past events. He either seems to be screaming in anger or screaming in fear throughout most of the film before finally stepping up to save Carly’s life. While he is not quite the messenger in the previous films that Meaning makes him out to be, I’m not sure he is deserving of the special treatment he thinks he is. Nor is he deserving of his parents’ disappointment at not having landed a job on their time table, while they drive around the country in their oversized RV.

Frankly, I’m happy to see the Witwickys in the rearview mirror of this franchise as the films always seem to stop dead when they are on screen, especially the parents. They are supposed to be comic relief, but this film is crammed full of such characters that it makes the few who are not stand out as approaching normal.

The big switch-a-roo in this film is that Sentinel Prime, who is brought back to life by the well-meaning Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen), is actually working with the Autobots' nemesis, Megatron (Hugo Weaving), not to end the war as much as to ensure that Cybertron survives. The film toys around with, but never actually resolves whether or not Sentinel Prime would have turned the tables on Megatron and ruled as the leader of the Decepticons.

All throughout his reign over the franchise, director Michael Bay has been tweaking fan expectations. While the special effects have been really great throughout, it seems at times that corporate interests and Transformers mythos have been at odds. As an example, the cars the Autobots transform into have been open to the highest bidder. Bay's Transformers film have also added characters to the universe as well as bathroom humor. Who can forget Bumblebee urinating on Simmons in the first Transformers and I’d like to forget Jeong pulling plans out of his underwear in the toilet stall in the men’s room in this one. One can hope that closing the door on the Witwickys will lead to a different and more uplifted approach to the humor and to the storytelling.

Come for the robots and stay for the action, Bay's strong suit.

I’m told that four years pass between the end of this film and the opening of the fourth installment, which I will let tell me what happens rather than speculate. I can’t believe I’m actually writing this, but I have to imagine Mark Wahlberg will be a huge improvement over LaBeouf as lead actor. I think that says something more about LaBeouf overstaying his welcome than it does about Wahlberg, as a lead actor, or myself as a viewer.

While every die-hard Transformers fan and their families has no doubt seen this film already, one would imagine they will flock to see Age of Extinction. But here is hoping, as a more casual observer and viewer, that they someday make one film that is just about the robots. These are the more interesting and compelling characters. No one is playing with a Witwicky action figure. They are what the people come to see and why they keep coming back.

All we need and all we want are the Transformers.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Report From the Front: BotCon 2014

For Transformers fans, one major event to look forward to every year is BotCon, a Transformers convention officially endorsed by Hasbro and run in a joint effort with (currently) Fun Publications, who runs the Official Transformers Collectors’ Club. Unlike most conventions such as Comic-Con or WonderCon, BotCon is one that actively travels around the U.S. so as to reach every part of the U.S. fanbase, and so it won’t always be nearby, though it seems to go to Pasadena, CA every so often. Each year under the Fun Publications run has also had a different theme, often tying back into the original Transformers fiction given to Club Members; this year’s theme was Pirates vs. Knights, following a group of Decepticon Pirates as the Autobot Knights try to stop them from plundering the multiverse (the Transformers multiverse is important to the Collectors’ Club fiction).

My first time actually attending BotCon with my family was in 2011 when it was held in Pasadena and the theme was Transformers Animated, with special fiction canonically taking place after the events of the cartoon as an extension of it dubbed “Season 3.5” by the creators. I attended on a day that allowed for General Admission (BotCon lasts for four days, Thursday to Sunday, and getting into the first two days requires exorbitant amounts of cash) and even though I mainly spent my time on the show floor, I still had a good time since I got a taste of what BotCon was like. This year, the show came back to Pasadena, and so we decided to attend, but we did General Admission again on Saturday since we have yet to have the finances needed to attend the first two days. Interestingly, this year’s convention not only celebrated 30 years of Transformers, but also 20 years of BotCon, having started in 1994 in order to celebrate 10 years of the brand’s existence.

Since the convention center opened for General Admission at 10:00, we decided to show up early, getting there at around 9:00. As we waited in line, attendees who were 12 and under were being given a free toy, which seems to be a thing since that also happened during my first BotCon, specifically (for those who are interested) Animated Jackpot, a retool of Animated Jazz that features a different head sculpt and color scheme; comic programs were also being sold for $5 (the program for that year’s BotCon is at the back of a comic containing an original story which features every souvenir toy available at the show), so we bought one and I ended up reading through the whole comic before we got to the ticket booth. Interestingly, it wasn’t until we were in line that we were told that the $20 General Admission fee is cash only (it doesn’t say anything about that on the website), but everyone was told where the nearest ATM was so they could get more cash if they needed it. As we entered the convention, we also got our hands stamped in case we exited and wanted to go back in.

It may have been smaller than WonderCon, but BotCon still drew quite a crowd.

Since there were some exclusives to be found at that convention, mainly consisting of comic covers and prints (many of them My Little Pony-related), we decided that those would be our first priority since we thought they would run out early or might already have (given this was day 3 and the MLP fanbase tends to be rabid about this sort of thing, as we learned from Comic-Con). Surprisingly though, there were still plenty of the MLP-based exclusives available, and there were still a lot of them by the time we left. However, we decided to get these exclusives while we could, including a variant cover left over from the 2013 BotCon (we got the MLP covers and the MLP/Transformers print we were interested in mainly because they were BotCon-related; my enthusiasm for MLP has all but died down at this point). John Barber (a current writer and editor on IDW Publishing’s Transformers comics) also happened to be working at the IDW booth where we got a few of these exclusives, so we took his offer to sign the comics we bought that he wrote.

Following this, we decided to go around and get some more signatures from Transformers artists and writers who were at the convention (whilst dodging some cameras following a group of dedicated Transformers cosplayers). One of the artists, Sarah Stone (artist of the currently-running Windblade mini-series) was also with writer Mairghread Scott (who was also a writer on Transformers: Prime), whom I wasn’t expecting to see, and so I was able to compliment both of them on their work (other creators were complimented as I got their signatures). As I got signatures from colorist Josh Burcham, he was excited when I also got him to sign the latest issue of IDW’s Samurai Jack comic (which I coincidentally had on me on the way to the convention), commenting that it was a fun issue to work on. Another colorist I got signatures from, Thomas Deer, not only helped me get signatures from another Transformers artist, Matt Frank (who was a little occupied at the time, but still sounded excited to see one of the comics I brought for him to sign), but also expressed disappointment with not being able to do coloring work for the Beast Hunters comic (due to personal matters) since he enjoyed doing color work for the Rage of the Dinobots comic so much (this was prompted from Rage of the Dinobots being a comic I brought to get signed). Another interesting comment I got from another Transformers artist, Andrew Griffith, was when I had him sign the first issue of Foundation (a Dark of the Moon tie-in comic from a few years back), he made a comment about it being “a blast from the past” (a statement writer John Barber would repeat when he signed it later).

Colorist Thomas Deer in the foreground and artist Matt Frank in the background.

After getting some signatures (I did not name some of the creators I saw for the sake of space), we went over to the store by the entrance to get some souvenirs. While there are the usual shirts and hats available, the souvenirs also usually include a few packages consisting of two or three toys falling under a particular theme. Three toy packages fell under the Pirates vs. Knights theme, though another set was available, being a small Kre-O set of Kreons (mini-figures) based on previous BotCon exclusives (including the Generation 2 Breakdown toy from the original 1994 BotCon). There was also the opportunity to purchase Timelines Trans-Mutate, based on a character from the Beast Wars cartoon in an alternate universe, which came in a box with extra space intended for that year’s free toy for Collectors’ Club Members (as a Club Member myself, I found this very tempting, since this was done before with another pair of related toys). Ultimately, we ended up getting a couple of shirts and the Kre-O set, since they were the least expensive.

I then stopped by the Hasbro booth to get some pictures of the toys that were on display. Whenever Hasbro is at a convention, I make it a point to stop by their giant glass display so I get a good look at what toys are coming out or are already available. This time, the selection came from a large assortment of Age of Extinction toys, some of which were already out, which come in multiple sub-lines with varying size and degree of complexity, along with some Construct-Bots and Kre-O Transformers tie-in products; there were also a number of Rescue Bots toys on display (most of which leave me to wonder how/if they will make it into the Hub Network cartoon), alongside various other merchandise for Rescue Bots and Age of Extinction. There was also some display space reserved for the Generations toyline, which includes a number of toys that come with and/or are based on the recent IDW comics, one of which was Windblade, the first official toy created by the fanbase (through online votes) and one of the 30 exclusives for the Thrilling 30 celebration; some representation was also given to the Masterpiece toyline, a series of expensive toys aimed at adult collectors that aim to capture the characters as they appeared in the original ‘80s cartoon. One particular section of the display was reserved solely for the toys that will become available at San Diego Comic-Con (such room was required for a reason), both of which will be quite pricey to say the least.

The Autobot Crosshairs from the upcoming Age of Extinction film.
Toy available now!

Once I got enough pictures, we headed outside for lunch. While we were outside, we discussed our next course of action, after which we unloaded some stuff at the car and headed back to the convention. Our hand stamps were nearly faded away (mine was barely visible), and so they were generously re-stamped a few times.

After heading back in, we participated in a toy giveaway at the Hasbro booth, where they were giving small toys to attendees for free. They were giving away small Construct-Bots sets based on characters from the upcoming Age of Extinction film, and we walked away with a few copies of the Bumblebee and Drift toys (the latter written as “Autobot Drift” on the packaging due to trademark). We then decided to take a look around the vendors at the convention as I tried to look for a specific toy that was released only in Japan (plenty of vendors had some Japanese toys for sale, which gave me an idea of what some of the Japanese toys actually looked like along with their packaging). While I didn’t find the toy I was looking for, we did end up with a couple of Generations toys, a Transformers book, and a Deadpool comic (comics didn’t have nearly as much of a presence as the toys, which wasn’t all that surprising).

We then went around for a few final signatures. One of the creators I came across was writer James Roberts, who writes the More than Meets the Eye comic, one of my favorite Transformers comics from IDW. Alongside free signatures, he was also selling copies of two of his comic scripts (More than Meets the Eye #6 and #22 if you’re curious), which, while I didn’t get either, were rather tempting to buy. There was also a surprise set-up for voice actor Steve Blum, since he only expected to do an earlier, planned signing that day (that I didn’t end up lining up for), and so I had him sign my copy of the Fall of Cybertron game (which I had on me in preparation). After one final stop at the Hasbro booth for a few more pictures, we went home early and thought out how to prepare for a future Pasadena BotCon.

James Roberts, writer of the More than Meets the Eye comic, in the flesh.

I didn’t end up going to any panels scheduled that day (one of which, about upcoming Transformers products, will likely be at Comic-Con as well), but I still think I had a good time there. If I were to describe BotCon in a nutshell, I would say it’s like fan heaven and wallet nightmare at the same time. Some items for sale can be pretty tempting, but also pretty expensive, which may come down to a hard decision or two depending on how much you happen to have on you or how much you are willing to spend on toys and stuff. However, it’s also a good chance to meet some of the creators behind your favorite Transformers comics as well as an opportunity to get some unique exclusives and swag that you might not be able to get elsewhere.

Cosplayers are a given at any convention, and often it’s amazing to see how much effort people can put into their Transformers cosplay. There were plenty of people dressed up as Transformers: Prime or Generation 1 characters, and often they will have put a lot of effort into capturing painstaking detail from the character models, particularly the Prime cosplayers, as the character designs get very complex. Other parts of the franchise also had their share of cosplayers with varying obscurity, including a Windblade cosplayer and one dressed as the human character Mega from the Japanese Super-God Masterforce anime. Needless to say, even non-U.S. Transformers series are celebrated at this convention.

A rather impressive Prime Starscream cosplay.

The Hasbro booth also advertised a few Transformers games coming out, Transformers: Rise of the Dark Spark, Transformers: Age of Extinction – The Mobile Game, and Transformers Universe. However, Rise of the Dark Spark didn’t have much of a presence aside from advertising (perhaps Hasbro is really trying to avoid major Age of Extinction spoilers). I didn’t explore either of the other games any further, but of all these games, I am definitely looking forward to playing Rise of the Dark Spark in the future.

If you are a Transformers fan and wish to attend BotCon when it drops by your state, there are a couple of things you should be aware of. General Admission days cost $10-20 per person (age 4 and under is free), but the official website doesn’t tell you it has to be in cash, so be prepared with this fee in cash beforehand. Souvenirs can get pretty expensive as well, but you won’t know how expensive they can get until you’re there, so be prepared to also spend maybe at least around $100 on souvenir toys if they strike your fancy (apparel is always cheaper). The website will also not tell you what vendors you can expect to find (though you can definitely expect Hasbro, IDW Publishing, Shout! Factory, and Big Bad Toy Store to show up); usually the vendors are there selling Transformers toys and a few other things (that are not Transformers), but if you’re looking to peruse any of the vendors you’re pretty much going in blind unless you find any information from other sources. If you want anything signed, be sure to also look at the official website so you have an idea of who to prepare for.

I have yet to be able to attend either of the first two days, but from my experience, if you are a big Transformers fan, then BotCon is definitely a place to attend if you happen to be nearby one year as it travels around. It’s a great place not only to see more fellow Transformers fans, but also to meet some Transformers creators and get a peek at upcoming toys. You may even be convinced to become a member of the Official Transformers Collectors’ Club while you’re there, as there are plenty of opportunities to do so, as Club Members receive special benefits, including a free toy (when you sign up by a certain date) and discounts on the Club Store. Just make sure you don’t burn a hole through your wallet while you’re there; your bank account might regret it later.

You won't be able to afford something like this at Comic-Con otherwise.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Stubs – Little Miss Sunshine

Little Miss Sunshine (2006) Starring: Greg Kinnear, Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Paul Dano, Abigail Breslin, Alan Arkin.  Directed by Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris.  Screenplay by Michael Arndt. Produced by Marc Turtletaub, David T. Friendly, Peter Saraf, Albert Berger, and Ron Yerxa. Run Time: 101 minutes. U.S.  Color Comedy, Drama

Take a bankrupt inspirational speaker, a gay suicidal Proust expert, a drug using foul mouthed grandfather, a silent teenager who claims to hate everyone, a slightly delusional pre-adolescent girl and a too busy to notice mother and mix them together and you have the Hoover family of Albuquerque, New Mexico and a surprisingly funny movie. Little Miss Sunshine is a road picture pretty unlike any road picture you’ve probably ever seen.

Sheryl Hoover (Toni Collette) is busy with work, but she has time to take in her suicidal brother, Frank Ginsberg (Steve Carell). The premiere Proust scholar in America, Frank is distraught after his love for a male graduate student, Josh (Justin Shilton), is unrequited and Josh ends up with Larry Sugarman (Gordon Thomson), who happens to be America’s number two Proust scholar. (Author Marcel Proust is described by Frank as having “Spent 20 years writing a book almost no one reads. But he's also probably the greatest writer since Shakespeare.”) This misadventure in love has left Frank without a job, a home or much hope. But what pushes him over the edge is when Sugarman is awarded a MacArthur Genius Grant.

Meanwhile, Sheryl’s husband, Richard (Greg Kinnear), preaches his nine steps of success to mostly empty rooms of uninspired people. A financial failure, Richard keeps preaching the importance of being a winner, even to the annoyance of his own family. Richard is obsessed through most of the film with getting a book published, a key in the marketing of any self-help guru, and is trying to get a hold of his agent, Stan Grossman (Bryan Cranston), hoping for the good word that never comes.

Frank, who can’t be left alone, is brought home to share a room with Dwayne (Paul Dano), a depressed teenager who has taken a vow of silence nine months previous. He wants to be an Air Force pilot and somehow thinks this silent treatment is going to get him there. A reader of Friedrich Nietzsche, the German philosopher, Dwayne hates everyone, family included, and communicates through writing words and phrases down on a note pad.

Already in the mix is Richard’s father, Edwin (Alan Arkin), who got kicked out of his retirement village for snorting heroin. Edwin also snorts coke. His excuse is that he’s old and why shouldn’t he? Foul-mouthed, argumentative and dissatisfied, Edwin has taken a real shine to his grand-daughter Olive (Abigail Breslin), with whom he is working on a dance routine, should she ever need one for a beauty pageant.

Dinner at the Hoover house with (from left to right) Richard (Greg Kinnear), Olive (Abigail Breslin),
Edwin (Alan Arkin), Frank (Steve Carell), Dwayne (Paul Dano) and Sheryl (Toni Collette).

Cute, but not pretty, Olive is a chubby girl who wears glasses and her hair long and straight. Again, cute for a grade-schooler, but she has her eyes on being in beauty pageants. You might say she’s obsessed with the idea. She actually entered a local pageant for “Little Miss Sunshine” for which she finished, what I would think would be, a surprising second. As we all know from Miss America, being the first runner up is very important because if the winner can’t fulfill her duties …, well in the case of the local contest, the winner has been disqualified so now with less than forty-eight hours’ notice, Olive has to be in Redondo Beach, California for the national finals.

Olive upon hearing the news that she's in the finals of the Little Miss Sunshine pageant.

While money is a big issue, it is not the only one. Granddad wants to go, since he’s been coaching Olive through her routine, Sheryl doesn’t think fifteen year-old Dwayne should be left in charge of Frank, so they can’t stay behind. Dwayne agrees to go once mom promises she’ll give her permission for flight school. The solution is a road trip in a Volkswagen T2 Microbus. And comedy ensues.

With money tight and logistics impossible, the entire Hoover family crowds into a VW T2 Microbus.

That is not to say everything that happens is fun. Granddad spouts out advice to Dwayne, to have sex with as many girls as he can, like a broken sprinkler, not caring who might overhear, Olive. One would think there have been previous opportunities for this kind of advice, but it’s the inappropriateness of his timing that is funny.

When Sheryl offers to learn to drive a stick, in order to help with the driving, she manages to break the clutch. With an older van, in the middle of nowhere on a weekend, the prospects don’t look good for the Hoover family. But the mechanic (Julio Oscar Mechoso) informs them that they don’t need the clutch to shift from 3rd to 4th only from 1st to 2nd. If they can get the car up to speed, they can still drive the car. So every time they stop, the entire family has to push to get the car started and hustle to get in, since Richard can’t slow the van down. It turns out to be quite funny. And more things will go wrong, as later the van’s horn decides to honk on its own.

With the clutch shot, the family has to push start the van and then run to get
inside. This actually gets funnier as the movie goes on.

Richard, who preaches winning to his family, berates Olive when she orders her breakfast waffle a la mode, French, we learn, for "in the style." He tells her that beauty contestants don’t eat ice cream, a claim that will be refuted later by none other than Miss California. But the rest of the family convinces Olive that it’s okay to eat ice cream, which is delivered well ahead of the waffle and in a separate dish.

Despite her father's warnings, Olive eats her ice cream for breakfast.

When they do stop for gas, Olive goes off by herself to practice her routine. Edwin gives Frank money and asks him to buy him porn and to get himself something, too. While he’s in the gas station, Frank runs into Josh, who is with Sugarman. (This seems as unlikely as Albuquerque being the hot bed of Proust scholarship.) Once they get the van going and are back on the road, they realize they’ve left Olive behind, so they have to make their way back and literally scoop her up as they drive by.

There is no stopping the van once it gets started, so Olive has to run to get on board.

And what is comedy without tragedy. When they stop for the night in Arizona, Edwin ODs on heroin and is declared dead at a local hospital. Now this presents a real challenge for the Hoovers. They cannot fill out all the paperwork necessary to remove the body and transport it across state lines and still make the beauty pageant. Nor can they simply leave the body and pick it up on the return. So when given lemons, they go around the law and sneak the body out the window and into the van. Surprisingly, no one seems to report this to the authorities and the Hoovers make it into California with no problem.

Of course, that’s when the horn breaks and they are pulled over by a CHiPs officer, State Trooper McCleary (Dean Norris). Richard gives him probable cause to look in the trunk, but instead of finding Edwin’s dead body, he finds the porn magazines, which he really seems to appreciate, until they get to the one Frank purchased. But the policeman lets them go on their way. Next stop, Newport Beach.

But there are still problems to follow. One of which is that during a simple passing time in the car activity, it is discovered that Dwayne is color blind. (You might think this would have come up before now). Frank informs him that you can’t be color blind and be a pilot, which causes Dwayne to erupt. When they pull the van over, Dwayne bolts and breaks his silence with a curse word laden rant about how unfair this is and how much he hates his family. He begs them to leave him on the side of the road, but Olive goes down and puts her arm around him and Dwayne quickly comes around.

Dwayne learns that he can't be an Air Force pilot, because he is color blind.

The Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant is really creepy. The girls are too made up for their age and look more grotesque than beautiful. Not that Olive isn’t cute, but she is not in the same league (good or bad) with these hideous girls. The Hoovers barely get there in time and with a car you can’t slow down, Richard does some very tricky and dangerous and illegal maneuvers to get them there. They are late by a few minutes and Pageant Official Jenkins (Beth Grant) refuses to let them register, despite their pleas and Richard literally getting down on his knees to beg. However, her disgruntled assistant, Kirby (Wallace Langham), is willing to let five minutes not be that big of a deal.

One of these things is not like the others. Olive looks natural next to the other contestants.

As the contest goes on, Dwayne, Frank and Richard come to the realization that Olive doesn’t belong here, but Sheryl is insistent that it’s up to Olive and she wants to perform. While the rest of the talent has been marginal at best, no one is really ready for Olive’s dancing or her musical choice, Rick James’ Super Freak, which is presented in an extended remix. While she is really not graceful, it is the over-the-top suggestiveness, no doubt choreographed by Edwin, which alarms Jenkins. But Richard gets on stage to prevent the MC (Matt Winston) from trying to usher her off. In fact, the whole family gets on stage with her in a sudden show of unity.

The family gets on stage to support Olive's dancing.

The Hoovers are nearly arrested, but are let off with the promise never to enter Olive in a beauty contest in the state of California again. This is something the entire family can agree on. After run starting their car and nearly rear ending Jenkins (who inexplicably would leave her pageant before the Hoovers do), the family is back on the road, their horn blaring as the film ends.

It's been a long two days. The Hoovers are nearly arrested, but allowed to leave.

This is a very strong ensemble cast and they have to be to carry the film. Abigail Breslin was only about ten when she played in this movie, but she had been acting in films since she was five, first appearing in Signs (2002). She plays a very natural little girl in the film with bigger ambitions, which might not have been too much of a stretch for her. She continues to act, most notably she did some voice work in Rango (2011) as Priscilla and she was Valentine Wiggin in Ender’s Game (2013).

Paul Dano had a tough role, expressing himself without speaking for more than half of the movie. While he wrote down his dialogue, he was still able to convey what his character was feeling through facial expressions. Dano received individual attention as an actor for his portrayal of Paul Sunday / Eli Sunday in There Will Be Blood (2007), receiving a BAFTA nomination for Best Supporting Actor. He was also in another strong ensemble in 12 Years a Slave (2013).

Toni Collette, an Australian actress, pulls off the part of a normal American wife and mother pretty well. She has been acting in movies since Spotswood (1992), but her big break was playing Muriel Heslop in Muriel’s Wedding (1994). She’s been nominated for an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress for the role of Lynn Sear in The Sixth Sense (1999). She also appeared as Tara Gregson in the Showtime series The United States of Tara, created by Diablo Cody and ran for 36 episodes from 2009 to 2011.

Greg Kinnear, who got his start on TV, some might remember he used to host E’s Talk Soup from 1991 to 1995, moved to the big screen in Blankman (1994) playing, of all things, a Talk Show Host. He received a lot of attention for this performance as Simon Bishop in As Good As it Gets (1997). Other memorable roles include playing Bob Crane in Auto Focus (2002) and voicing Phineas T. Ratchet in Robots (2005).

While the entire cast is good, I think Alan Arkin and Steve Carell stand out. Arkin plays a say-whatever-I-want-to character as good as anyone. He’s been playing crotchety for quite a while now. The first example I can recall is Peevy in The Rocketeer (1991) and the latest being Lester Siegel in Argo (2012).

Carell, who is hit or miss with me as an actor, really hits this performance out of the ball park, so to speak. His underplayed portrayal of a gay man and his deadpan delivery of some of the funniest lines in the movie make him the most watchable of the actors. When he gives Dwayne advice, during the pageant, it is funny, but at the same time comes across as genuine and heartfelt:

Dwayne: I wish I could just sleep until I was eighteen and skip all this crap-high school and everything-just skip it.
Frank: Do you know who Marcel Proust is?
Dwayne: He's the guy you teach.
Frank: Yeah. French writer. Total loser. Never had a real job. Unrequited love affairs. Gay. Spent 20 years writing a book almost no one reads. But he's also probably the greatest writer since Shakespeare. Anyway, he uh... he gets down to the end of his life, and he looks back and decides that all those years he suffered, Those were the best years of his life, 'cause they made him who he was. All those years he was happy? You know, total waste. Didn't learn a thing. So, if you sleep until you're 18... Ah, think of the suffering you're gonna miss. I mean high school? High school-those are your prime suffering years. You don't get better suffering than that.

Taking a break from the contest, Frank gives Dwayne some advice about life.

The film is also well written. Started as a lampoon on the Arnold Schwarzenegger quote, "If there's one thing in this world I hate, it's losers. I despise them,” the film takes a very dysfunctional family on the car trip from hell, which most of them survive. The film relies on the characters Arndt creates and how they react to the situations presented them by the story. Dysfunctional is rarely this much fun.

The film was a huge success, raking in over $100 million worldwide on a budget of about $8 million, and was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture (losing to The Departed), and for Best Supporting Actress (Breslin). The film did win for Best Supporting Actor (Arkin) and Best Original Screenplay (Michael Arndt).

While I will admit a certain resistance to watch the film, oftentimes movies that receive as much hype as this one don’t live up to expectations, I am glad we did. The film is at times laugh out loud funny and at other times poignant and sweet. Not a film for the entire family, its R rating is well earned, though I wouldn’t say this was a hard R by any stretch.

Seen with an appropriate group of adults, Little Miss Sunshine is well worth seeing. While I can’t say it will make you cry, it will make you think and it will definitely make you laugh.