Posted by: smirkdirk | June 16, 2013

Some Notes on Man of Steel from a Man of Baggage

3 1/2 out of 5 Cookies

As an 8 year old in 1978 I vividly recall attending Superman with Christopher Reeve at my local theatre with a friend. We attended sans parents and, in fact, walked to the tiny local movie theatre, a single screen venue in a concrete rectangular building with a small popcorn counter. I also saw Star Wars and the Jeff Bridge’s version of King Kong in that uno-plex of long ago.

It was a different time to be sure. Not only did we walk to the movie theatre unaccompanied, but back then movie theatres played the same couple of movies all summer long, as opposed to these days when some entertainment news outlets already proclaimed Man of Steel a loser on Friday morning due to some less than stellar reviews during Thursday night’s screening. We live in a jaded time to be sure. A time when entertainment often seems like so much detritus and is rarely gazed upon thoughtfully, critically, or even as art. They are, in their lowest common denominator, seen as commodity, worth only as much as their opening weekend box office. So often movies seem chewed up and spit out before the flavor has even soaked in with the next item already being consumed mid-vomitus. Last week’s output already is considered hopelessly dated and 6 months ago is forever.

But, yeah, it was a different time. My pal and I walked to the theatre to see Superman and flew home – as literally as we could anyway. I recall running along the sidewalk, arms outstretched in Superman’s signature style pretending to fly. I also remember being sort of freaked out by Lois Lane’s death by earthquake – Margot Kidder being buried in gravel until it was filling her mouth.

Gravel: Its what’s for dinner.

A few years later, still a kid and highly susceptible to movie magic, Superman II came out. Never in my wildest dreams did I think that the original could be topped, but here was Superman throwing around city buses with 3 bad guys with his same super powers. Some of these effects still hold up today as far as I’m concerned.

In short, as far as superheroes go, I’m a Superman kind of guy. But as far as that goes, I’ll be the first to admit that besides those two movies, Superman has never been done right. Superman III was a total wash and I don’t think I’ve seen it all the way through – ever. It’s not for lack of trying either. It just doesn’t keep my interest long enough to prevent me from giving up on it or falling asleep. Superman IV – The Quest For Peace, although certainly Chris Reeve had his heart in the right place when he produced this clunker, the movie is cheesecake and reminds me of everything that’s wrong with squeaky, clean Superman.

All of this preface is to explain that I have a certain personal history with Superman built firmly upon the opinions of my former 8 year old self. Opinions that, right or wrong, are unswayable because you just can’t fucking win against your 8 year old self.

Don’t you have a bill to go and pay? Leave the thinking to those who have time for it.

So when I heard about Man of Steel I was curious. Superman Returns was on par with Superman IV in my book: Cheesecake. A better looking cheesecake to be sure, but cheesecake none the less. In the superhero renaissance that has taken place in the last decade, there just was no place for the extra good good-guy. But Man of Steel, by its title alone, was going for something different. The very moniker was gone.

And when I heard Zack Snyder was directing? I was all in. I will be the first to admit that I am a Snyder fanboy. When I walked out of the Dawn of the Dead remake years ago, I noted his name, and he has yet to disappointment me. Whether you like his movies or not, the man has got a definitive style – and even his less than stellar projects like SuckerPunch have a visual flair to recommend them. His music sequences alone – check out the opening of the aforementioned SuckerPunch, or even better, the opening of Watchmen – are worth the price of admission.

Then the first stills started appearing across my internet feeds about a year and a half ago. A bearded Clark Kent who looked little like the nerd that Christopher Reeve created, and thankfully nothing like the milquetoast from Superman Returns. The supporting cast made my feeds – Russell Crowe, Diane Lane, Kevin Costner. This thing kept looking better and better.

Everything was looking so good I decided to do something I’ve never done before. About six months ago I liked the Facebook page. My Facebook feed starting filling up with bullshit immediately. Links to this and that, promotions here and there, advertising sponsors left and right. None of this stuff was really all that informative or interesting, it was all just shill. After a few weeks I decided to unlike the Facebook page as it was having the opposite of its intended effect. Instead of getting more excited about the movie, I was rapidly becoming less excited about the movie. Despite my unliking of the page, several times a week their posts would still show up in my feed as sponsored content. I resented this terribly as with each succeeding post the little 8 year old inside was becoming more and more suspicious that Man of Steel wasn’t going to fill the Superman void that had been left since 1980.

Look, 60 Ways To Be An Asshole!

And so, Friday night, my 40-some year old self, informed by all the baggage of nostalgia herein described up to this point, drove to the 22 theatre multiplex with my son and took in Man of Steel in a full theatre. I will add, a theatre full of some others who must have also been informed by some edge of excitement, an air of fandom for Superman. How else to explain the whooping as the corporate logos danced across the opening, and clapping and cheering as the end credits came up.

My three and a half cookie review is as follows; This is less a Zack Snyder movie and seems to be more of a project that Snyder was hired to direct. A lot of the things I love about Snyder’s movies in general are not present here. There are no musical interludes or slo-mo sequences. That said, the Americana aspect most clearly seen in the Smallville sequences with Kevin Costner worked for me, and in fact, were the most interesting part of the movie for me. This is not the Superman of my childhood, but he is a Superman I can live with – and for the record, his inner conflicts worked for me. Basically, what didn’t work for me were the action sequences. Shaky cams and nonsensical blurring destroyed the sense of place in many of these portions and really seemed, in a word, lazy. It seems that Zack turned in his slo-mo card used so well in 300, for membership into the Michael Bay school of action wherein if you make it so they can’t see shit, they’ll think they saw some shit. Which just doesn’t work for me.

But you know what? It’s hard to talk about this movie without bringing in Christopher Nolan’s producing credit and his Batman pedigree. It was only in hindsight, after The Dark Knight, that I developed an appreciation for what Nolan brought to the table in Batman Begins. In short, Batman Begin was really just the first part of The Dark Knight. And so too do I hope it is with Man of Steel, that now, with the origin story out of the way, the real movie can begin.


4 and 1/2 out of 5 Cookies!

Warning: Herein There Be Spoilers

When I started reviewing games on this blog I never thought I’d actually rate one a 5 cookie game. A 5 cookie anything – movie, book, album – is pretty rare. It means it comes pretty damn close to absolute perfection. I would even argue that rating something that high can only be done in hindsight, after a few months, or more realistically YEARS of living with the piece of art or media and still not coming up with any particular weakness or flaw in it.

Hence the 4 and ½ cookie rating for Bioshock Infinite. It quite possibly is a 5 cookie game but not enough time has passed yet to warrant that. Bioshock Infinite does have a few slow spots, particularly in the 3rd and 4th hour of gameplay, but really – even to fault it for that is to go out of your way to find something wrong.

This cookie’s chips per inch quotient is off. Off with the baker’s head!

Gaming is generally seen as a mindless entertainment. At its best it’s an exercise in ersatz visuals and twitching reflexes, at its worst an anti-intellectual time killer, a relief from the boredom of existence. And it can be all of those things. Which are not necessarily bad. But Bioshock Infinite, which I completed on Thursday has stuck with me in the ways the best media do – by keeping my mind going back to the plot threads, the narrative, and the ideas and ideals on display, much like the best movies, music and writing do. In short, it’s an amazingly written game, full of depth and challenge, and open to interpretation and deconstruction.

As a gaming experience it has everything a gamer could ask for. Gorgeous pastel graphics, multiple weapon combinations, some pretty thrilling capabilities such as sky-line riding which comes off as so roller-coaster-esque that when you first do it you can almost feel your stomach lose itself. All of this complements the intriguing story which is at once engrossing, but also challenging in a truly aesthetic sense.

As Booker Dewitt you are thrust into the 1910’s world of a floating cloud city. A city built by one hardcore Christian cult leader Zachary Comstock (no doubt named after Comstock anti-obscenity postal laws of the late 1800’s which proposed to dictate morality) and suspended far above the United States. A city that has seceded from the Union as the Union itself refuses to recognize moral rightness and, most importantly, the racial superiority of the white race. In this ciry, Abraham Lincoln is a race traitor, a tool of the devil even. John Wilkes Booth? A hero worthy of giant statues and fine art celebrating his heroic act. Even George Washington and Ben Franklin are carved in giant statuary portraying them more like Greek gods, rather than mere men.

Hardly anyone notices Mary Lincoln’s beautiful blue bonnet she bought just for the occasion.

Now video games have been thrusting racism and Nazis into their mix for a long, long time. I mean, racists are the go to bad guys. But rather than just having this world exist for the player to have someone to righteously kill, wandering around the city of Bioshock Infinite, Columbia becomes an exercise in the propaganda and brainwashing that go into making such a society. There’s nary a soldier to kill in the first couple hours of the game, as most of the people wandering around the beautiful city are its white citizens and their polite black servants. Parades appear out of nowhere celebrating Comstock the great leader, barbershop quartets sing “God Only Knows” – yes, The Beach Boys song – in the tightest harmonies you’ve heard, with the most sinister undercurrent flowing beneath as the song becomes an ode to a dangerous cult. You’re even given a chance to play racist yourself as you get to throw apples at a mixed race couple who’ve been caught, well, mixing the races. It’s a simplistic message of racism is bad – well no shit Sherlock – but how they get the message across, displaying the indoctrinations methods, the group think, that make it interesting.

And then it gets really interesting. A few hours into the game you are introduced to the Columbia underground, a group of black rebels who have every intention of bringing the city to its knees, led by Daisy Fitzroy. And why shouldn’t they? It’s a horribly racist place built on the backs of people who are figurative and literal prisoners of its racist ideology. Columbia turns into a political and literal war zone between these two factions half-way through the game. Believe it or not, you’ve got other fish to fry that I haven’t even broached yet – mainly you’re in Columbia to rescue a kidnapped girl – so essentially all of these politics are merely a sideshow to your main quest. And yet, it is the politics and this war which elevate this game and its narrative to heights not usually seen in videogames. Daisy, at first a sympathetic figure becomes more and more of a frightening propagandist herself, leading her once-righteous revolution against the racist tyranny, she herself becomes an advocate for genocide against the white citizens of Columbia. And as racist as they are, when you see these misguided white citizens clamoring to escape ships – frantic, screaming, terrified – men, women and children it’s hard not to feel sorry for them. All of this crescendos into a moment when Daisy, once the righteous leader of a much-need revolt, but now tyrant herself, holds a white child in her arms with a gun to his head and screams in bitterness and hatred why it makes sense to murder children: “You need to cut it out at the root!”

And yet, all this spoilerish detail regarding the politics of the game doesn’t even touch on its philosophical entanglements. What is the nature of time? Does predestination exist? Are we constant or are we a result of the decisions we make, the doors we walk through? The game stakes out much of the same territory as Fight Club and Apocalypse Now – and like most great art throughout the ages asks the basic unanswerable questions about what it is to be human. What it means to be born, and what it means to die, and the nature of the time we spend in between those two events. As two of the recurring characters say over and over again, “Lives, lived, will live, Dies, died, will die” Do we make our choices, or do our choices make us?

There’s a lot here, and it’s all presented in such a way that the player never feels lost as to what is going on. Honestly, a lot of games present an outlandish plot leading from one set piece to another – the set pieces being the focus of the designers and the plot being a mere way to link them all together regardless of whether or not it makes sense, and often times it doesn’t. Bioshock Infinite makes sense always.

In closing, in addition to crafting an amazing narrative and a luscious, visually arresting world in which to unfurl it, the creators of Bioshock Infinite have also paid careful attention to the soundscape and music that accent the gaming stage. The standard Mozart is here, as well as Scott Joplin. In addition to this, the creators have also inserted several contemporary songs redone in the jazz stylings of the early 20th century. I’ve embedded some of these below as well as the aforementioned barbershop quartet version of God Only Knows.

I fucking loved this game. You should play it.

1 and a 1/2 out of 5 Cookies

Epic Mickey 2: The Power of Two is an incredible looking game. I mean, look at that box art. Its a lush, colorful, vibrant world. On top of that, it has got some great ideas like animated operatic musical numbers, delightful 2D gaming sections, and an off-kilter Disney universe that mainly features the characters and art-style of the early Disney – the 1910’s through the 1940’s – rather than the modern Disney universe.

This seems to be heading right into 5-Cookie territory except for three things: Its playability is hampered by less than exact controls, it’s never quite clear where to go or what to do next, and a pretty punishing difficulty level made even more baffling by the fact that its main market is children. In a word, despite amazing art and ideas, as a videogame it’s got issues. Okay, two words; Serious issues.

I’ve listed each of these failures into sub-topics that show how each problem was divided into this would-be masterpiece and notched it from a 5-Cookie to a less than 2 –Cookie game.

The Controls Quotient: Mickey’s main item to interact with the game world is a paint brush which works to spray paint and thinner all over the game world to solidify things, or to make things disappear to get tasks done. While the first Epic Mickey was a Wii exclusive, its control-scheme based primarily on the Wii motion controls that allowed the player to point and aim the controller directly at the screen to paint whatever he or she wanted, this one relies on the right-stick of the controller for all the aiming. It’s an inexact process which is perfectly tolerable in relaxing portions of the game, but becomes infuriating while fighting enemies and bosses which are designed in such a way that you have only a second or two to shoot them, and that precious time is wasted trying to aim and pinpoint the brush.

How I felt trying to aim in Epic Mickey 2

As a platformer Epic Mickey 2 also is tolerable, and you can tell that a lot of inspiration was drawn from the Mario games like Galaxy, Sunshine, and even Super Mario 64. It works but still lacks the precision of a true Mario game. When you’re trying to jump onto a small surface, often you’ll miss, or not grab on. You can easily retry, but hell, getting from point A to point B shouldn’t be a labor.

“The Power of Two” in the game’s subtitle refers to Oswald, your sidekick who stays with you throughout the entire game. Oswald does stuff you, as Mickey, cannot do, such as electrocute baddies, open doors, shock consoles to make stuff happen. Oswald doesn’t really do exactly what you need him to do and is pretty worthless. In fact, Oswald has the power to revive you when you die, but as often as he does it, he just as often ignores your slow melting into the ground ala the Wicked Witch of the West and lets you die. He sucks. And there most certainly would have been a way to give Mickey his abilities and allow the player to rely on themselves instead of rely on a sidekick they have no control over. (Actually, there are some walkthroughs on the web that recommend that even as a single player you keep a second controller handy to take control of Oswald just to make sure shit gets done.)

Optional Oswald shirt in-game Easter Egg in alternate universe

The What The Hell Am I Supposed To Do Next Quotient. I will be honest, if I had 47 hours to devote to this game’s campaign/storyline, I probably would have finished it without help. But seeing as I have a job and other responsibilities, as well as other games I’d love to get to it took me about 2 hours of wandering around clueless to realize that without a walk-through I would be devoting the rest of 2013 to this game. I used IGN’s walkthrough Wiki which wasn’t as thorough as it might have been, but did get the job done.

The problem here was two-fold; Often, the game just didn’t bother to tell you where to go or what to do next. At one point I got stuck so kind of started going back the way I came. Once I realized that that was no solution to my problem, I retraced my steps back and kept moving forward. Sometimes the game actually did bother to tell you what to do next through another character, a gremlin named Gus. Unfortunately, a lot of the time, Gus’ advice is so vague that you don’t even know what exactly he means. The game is a long game as it is – there is no reason to be vague or even have the player question what the next challenge is in order to artificially lengthen it. When part of your challenge is to figure out the next challenge – not good. This feeds right into the next issue…

The Difficulty Quotient: This game is hard. Unnecessarily hard. Especially for kids. Now, while exploring other people’s online thoughts on the game I came across multiple message boards featuring nerd arguments actually arguing that the “dark” aspects of the game were a cue that it was “not for children” and thus the ramped up difficulty level should not be an issue. If your game is emblazoned with a giant Disney logo and features Mickey Mouse on the cover, guess what? It’s for kids. This is not to say that it doesn’t have aspects to it that adults can and will enjoy, but its main market is children.

But that’s beside the point anyway. A difficulty level shouldn’t necessarily be dictated by the age of your customer. The last game I played was Lollipop Chainsaw which is definitely intended for an adult audience, but the difficulty level is completely set by the player. In fact, I praised the game exactly for this feature.

There was a point in Epic Mickey 2, a boss battle about half way through, that I was almost going to just stop playing. I tried and failed for about an hour on Thursday evening, and then again on Friday evening, even bringing the teenager in to take over the Oswald character to see if the co-op may make the battle easier. We tried for about another hour that way, and failed. I threw in the towel and went to bed, pretty much having decided I was done with the game. On Friday morning I decided to give it one last shot and just happened to win the battle. I say “just happened” because I actually didn’t do what the boss battle required me to do – I was trying to do it for about 20 minutes straight and suddenly it jumped to a cutscene. As though the game felt sorry for me but decided to reward me for just surviving as long as I had.

It’s a shame really because I really, really, REALLY want to recommend this game. It’s something that should be seen and experienced because there’s so much there for Disney fans, multimedia art fans, and video game fans. But unfortunately, for basic mechanical issues that would be easily correctible, I just can’t. It’s as though everyone that was on board in this game brought their best to the table except the people in charge of making it eminently playable – basically the video game experts.

Like a Mario game, this one’s got many different worlds, themes, and game spaces all of them with a very old-school Disney flair that is not celebrated and highlighted nearly enough. Just for that it is worth a look. But unlike a Mario game the beauty on the screen is never complemented with ease of use. If I could ask the creators and producers of this game one question it would be, Did you fellas even play your own game? Because you realize that it’s almost unplayable, right? Right?

If this had been a smaller studio and publisher I probably would have rated it 2 out of 5 cookies, but Disney, with gobs of money and experience in making products that appeal across the board to everyone, but especially children should know better than to allow the release of something that is pretty much just going to frustrate their target audience and ultimately, waste their money.

Epic Mickey 2 was released for the Christmas season 2012 and is now generally available in the $30 price range.

Posted by: smirkdirk | April 21, 2013

Lollipop Chainsaw – Madonna Feminism in Videogame Form

4 out of 5 Cookies

Lollipop Chainsaw from Suda 51 comes close to the greatness that was his previous offering Shadows of the Damned, but doesn’t quite match it. And for the record, Suda 51 is the dude’s name. Like he’s a rapper or something, I’ll allow him to call himself whatever the hell he wants, because he’s damn good at what he does.

Lollipop Chainsaw is 6 levels of comical zombie decapitating fun. You play a cheerleader, Juliet, from a family of zombie hunters that has to rid her town of its zombie infestation with the help of her boyfriend’s head – tragically separated from its body early in the game. The characters and story written by James Gunn, a Troma studios veteran who actually moved into mainstream filmmaking as the the screenwriter of the excellent Dawn of the Dead remake, as well as Slither, and the less than excellent Scooby Doo movie, are a perfect complement to Suda 51’s gaming sensibilities. There’s some fairly hilarious dialogue here. For instance, one of my favorite throw-away bits is when Juliet explains to Nick that she not only kills zombies, but in the past has also killed Sasquatches (evidently they’re dicks), as wells as Frankenberries.

“I killed a whole tribe of Frankenberries once.”

“Frankenberry? Like the cereal!?”

“That’s just propaganda they use to make you trust them!”

A “tribe” of delicious Frankenberries.

Gameplay-wise Lollipop Chainsaw is essentially a bunch of button-mashing. As you power up, your button mashing becomes more effective, but yeah – there’s not a whole lot to learn though there are combos and such if you actually want to count your button presses.

As a huge whiner on this very blog about bosses, I will say this game knows how to do bosses right. Every single level concludes with a pretty epic boss fight. The bosses themselves as well as their fights and subsequent deaths are pretty spectacular, bloody, and, yeah, funny. None of the fights ever bring the game to a halt – and the difficulty settings allow the player to decide just how hard they are. On easy – a baby could kill these bosses which keeps things moving right along for those who are into the game for presentation and story rather than pure challenge. Gamers such as – ahem – myself.

The game isn’t by any means the most graphically impressive game ever, but the creativity and design that went into the characters, levels, and other bits – like “Sparkle Hunting” wherein if you chop of the heads of 3 or more zombies in one swipe the entire action is shown replete with rainbows and hearts rather than blood spurting from their necks as their heads fly northward – give this game a wholly original visual feel that is comparable only to other Suda 51 games.

The last thing I’ll mention is that Juliet lives up to every sexist videogame trope that exists. So much so, that she is actually a satire of the big-titted females that have occupied games since graphics allowed for such objectifying. A bit of ingenious writing actually calls the player out on this objectification. I must admit that as a 40 year old man there were times I felt quite aware of the inherent sexism the game threw back in my face and it was a bit uncomfortable. I’d like to think that this smart game is playing with these tropes in a critical way rather than merely partaking in them, but I think it’s a little of both. If Madonna of the early 90’s produced a videogame, this may well have been it.

I may be being a little generous by ½ of a cookie with my 4 out of 5 cookie rating, however I did find myself returning to play chapters of the game in search of achievements and found the replays a great way to pass the time. Considering that I rarely return to a game once I finish it, this definitely is worth that extra ½ cookie. Lollipop Chainsaw came out in June 2012 and now is about $16 at Amazon. Used copies can be found at Gamestop for around the same price.

3 Out Of 5 Cookies

Battlefield 3 is the most successful challenger to date to Call of Duty’s first person war shooter dominance. Each succeeding volume of COD outsells the first. I personally know people who play no other game – meaning that they’ve invested not only in the game, but in the entire console just for the one game. Its a shame to let all that processing power go to waste by not giving any other game a chance. But I digress. COD people don’t really listen to this kind of complaining anyway. It is almost as if they are blind to the entire world of video games except for that one. As I look at them as a mysterious entity, so too do they return the gaze wondering why anybody would play anything other than Call of Duty?

Seeing that Call of Duty is the best selling video game franchise of all time, publisher Activision is more than happy to allow this to continue ad infinitum. Their main competitor, however, Electronic Arts sees market share waiting to be stolen. They have both the Medal of Honor series, as well as this here Battlefield series. (Both of this generations Medal of Honor titles, in particular the most recent Warfighter title suffered dismal reviews. For the record, I did play the campaign of the 2010 reboot and found it satisfactory – and will say that there is a “zero-gravity helicopter crash” that was ripped off in 2011 by Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 with their “zero-gravity plane crash” – a segment that they made a huge marketing deal of during the release – thieves.)

People love these games because of the multiplayer. Guess what? I don’t really dig multiplayer so all of my judgments come from the campaigns, their playability, and the enjoyment I derived from the story. Guess what again? I didn’t even play the multiplayer in Battlefield 3 because I bought it used and would have had to pay EA $10 extra bucks for the online pass. So, yeah, I’m here to review the Battlefield 3 campaign, which I guess might be a waste of time because if the mainstream video game press is to be believed nobody – NOBODY – ever plays the campaigns for these COD, MOH, Battlefield games. Which, I’m sure they’re wrong, since I’m positive that Activision has explored what would happen to a COD game’s sales if they released it without a campaign – and needless to say – every single COD game has a 6 to 8 hour campaign, and I’d be willing to bet they will continue. In fact, I think it was the Destructoid review II read back during Battlefield 3’s release that wondered why they even bothered with a campaign. Although, nowhere near perfect, I would have to disagree and say I enjoyed it.

The campaign’s storyline is centered around a CIA interrogation of a soldier and how he fits into a recently executed terrorist plot that blew up Paris and is heading for the US. Each of these interrogation cutscenes is the set up for the succeeding level and weaves the player through time and different parts of the world. While the story is derivative of most of the other stories in these COD/MOH games, I must say this one is pretty easy to follow unlike the Black Ops and Modern Warfare series where I never really know what the hell is going on except in the most basic narrative way. Black Ops II in particular is great in the set-pieces and visuals, but sort of nonsensical in plot, further confused as you move back and forth between the 80’s and the future.

Each Call of Duty campaign also has at least one pause and replay mind-blowing moment – from the nuclear blast in the original modern warfare, to the aforementioned zero-gravity plane crash in Modern Warfare 3, as well as the collapse of the Eiffel Tower in the same game. Sad to say, Battlefield 3 had no truly insane moments in it – but it almost – almost – makes up for it with its slow-burn plot and one particular moment of that reminded me of the Nick Berg tragedy. That moment was not so much visually powerful, but rather emotionally charged, particularly since it playing out in a first-person perspective. I thought it was a particularly ballsy.

The last thing worth mentioning about the campaign is its visual style and palette. Its obvious that the makers wanted something to differentiate it from the Call of Duty series since, by its very nature, it has to replicate a lot from Call of Duty right down to the control-scheme. They chose to color the game in a lot of blacks, blues and silvers. It gives the game a cool dark sheen that complements the goings-on of the story. Add to that lots of lens flare effects and water drops (which it could be argued are a little overdone as sometimes I felt relatively blind when the screen as drenched with all these effects, but then again, it complements the chaos of war) and you have a game that looks like nothing that has come before. The game also brags about its almost “next-gen” graphics and requires an extra hard-drive download of 1.some Gigs to move the game to HD. I installed this pack and honestly didn’t find the graphics to be any more superior to those of the last Call of Duty game on my Xbox 360.

All in all I found the campaign to be worth my time – about 6 to 8 hours – and about 400 achievement points. As I stated the real strength here lies in the multiplayer which evidently has huge maps and the ability to allow up to 164 players on a map – as opposed to COD’s 30 or 40.

I’m actually holding on to the game for now to see if they kids are interested in a second copy with which to try the multiplayer. If I do I may return to this post and add my thoughts on that as well.

Posted by: smirkdirk | March 3, 2013

Silver Linings Playbook – Insane in the Membrane

3 1/2 Out Of 5 Cookies

There is a formula to these types of movies and I knew going in that I would like it – mainly due to the Oscar nominations. Anytime a “comedy” receives such respect I know it’s a movie that’s going to go above and beyond.

“As Good As It Gets” is another movie that, at the time, didn’t really register with me until all the Oscar nods – a 5–cookie movie if there ever was one.

Silver Linings Playbook has the same formula: Take one or two damaged characters who are essentially alone in the world, bring them together, and watch as not only them, but the world around them, blossoms into a bouquet of feel-good-osity. By the end of both of these movies you have an entire community of characters who have grown close to one another and despite their differences and the unlikeliness of these friendships, have found their shared humanity that is a bridge all over all the bullshit. Oh, also, its easier if your characters are bat-shit crazy to a certain extent, you know, to keep it interesting and add some of that after-school special allure around Oscar time.

So, yeah, in the end it’s a feel-good movie, but it meanders its way there in a believable way – which basically means that we take feel-bad road to our feel-good destination.

The meat of this movie is actually in the script and story, so mega props really go Matthew Quick, the author of the original novel. Not to understate the contributions of the cast or the director for assembling such a great cast, but let’s face it – writer’s rarely get the credit they deserve – and without a story, a fully-fleshed out and interesting set of characters, the other players don’t really have a lot to hang their talents on.

That said, some random notes about the actors:

Never was a big fan of Bradley Cooper – and, in fact, think that he’s pretty lucky to come as far as he has. If not for the success of The Hangover series, I don’t think he would be nearly as in my face as it seems he so often is with crap like “Limitless”. But that being said, it does seem like he’s parlaying his fortune into some good choices, including this one and the upcoming “The Place Beyond the Pines” that stretch his acting chops. His character’s freak-out over his wedding video shows what the dude is capable of.

It was nice to see Chris Tucker again after such a long absence, and as a bit supporting player he added a lot of humor to the movie. Hopefully he can keep getting these small roles, as he definitely excels in them. And maybe even larger roles – hell, maybe he needs to branch out of comedy altogether and go for some seriously dramatic roles. I’m sure he’s capable of it.

Jennifer Lawrence nailed it. This movie is the first one I’ve seen her in and she reminds me of clone-mix of Renee Zelweger and Juliette Lewis, with a dash of Kate Hudson thrown in. Still, I’m not completely convinced that she deserved an Academy Award. Comparing her performance to that of Anne Hathaway who won the supporting Oscar, Hathaway seems to have had a pretty difficult task in front of her.. Cry-singing goes a long way with me, and Hathaway had those tears a-rolling away. Add to that, the song was all done in one take and sung live…? So, yeah, Jennifer Lawrence was good, but I think if she had had some stiffer competition in her category, she probably wouldn’t have.

3 out of 5 Cookies

Today I’m flashing back all the way to 2008 to write about Destroy All Humans: The Path of the Furon, the third and final game in the Destroy All Humans series, and the only one available on the PS3/Xbox360 console generation.

Let’s face it, when it was released there wasn’t much love for this title. The new-fangled PS3 and Xbox 360 were still pretty new and everyone was obsessed with how much these machines could be pushed graphically. No one wanted a game that looked like it’d been made for the last console generation – and make no mistake about it – it does look like a PS2 game. During an early cutscene less than an hour into the game two mafia limousines pull up and honestly, they appeared to be blocky, cardboard boxes with wheels. Even though I was expecting a less-than-contemporary gaming experience, even I had to marvel at how ancient the graphics were in some places.

Despite its visual weaknesses, anybody who’s going to go back and play this game isn’t going to play it for its beauty, but rather, its humor. And it has high doses of it. From anal probe weapons, to its 1970’s era setting, to the random thoughts of the humans passing by, to Crypto’s one-liners, there really isn’t a lot of downtime with the game, and I laughed out loud several times during my playthrough.

A bit of history – the original Destroy All Humans was released for the Gamecube/Xbox/PS2 and was a satire of the 1950’s UFO movies such as The Day the Earth Stood Still. As Crypto, an almond-dyed alien channeling Jack Nicholson’s voice, you wandered through 1950’s suburbia on various missions collecting DNA from humans and cows alike. It was a thoroughly original game, something that hadn’t been done before. The sequel, was released a short time later and was pretty much more of the same, although instead of poking fun at the 50’s, we now were in a a groovy Austin Powers inspired version of the 1960’s. I did play the first game, although I never did finish it. When the second game came out I had sort of lost interest all together in video games so other than the basic concept, I have no firsthand experience with it. By the time this third game came out the concept was no longer original, the humor no longer surprising, and according to the critics at the time, it was pretty much a boring rehash of everything that had come before except for the 70’s nostalgia and mockery. That’s all well and good, and may be true, but since the 1st and 2nd game are no longer playable on the current systems this is pretty much the easiest shot most people will have to experience the Destroy All Humans concept – and rehash though it may be, if you’ve never had any experience with it before its not a rehash, is it?

In that spirit, though most professional critics wrote the game off, I have to recommend it. Its funny. And exceedingly playable. For all the controls and actions that are available to the player in the game, various weapons, psycho-kinesis, mind-reading, flying saucer driving, human being abducting – I was never wondering what buttons did what. For such an old game, the controls are thoroughly modern. (This is as opposed to aging games such as Resident Evil 4 – a classic and eminently playable on the Wii – but when they finally released the HD version on the Xbox 360, imagine my disappointment that they had retained the control scheme from the PS2 version, before L-stick = Look Around and R-Stick = move. I also was hoping that the Devil May Cry and Silent Hill HD collections would update the controls – but alas, they remain unplayable for me.)

The 1970’s setting is made full use of in the first two locales – A Las Vegas clone and Hollywood – with various nods to Sonny and Cher, Greg Allman, ‘Fro’s, and Bell Bottoms. The Hollywood level churns out a variety of comic situations and one-liners even mocking Invasion of the Body Snatchers which it points out is a pretty lame movie – and praising Close Encounters of the Third Kind, even as it mocks Spielberg.

The third level of the game takes place in China, while the fourth travels to Paris. By these levels the writers knew that they had exhausted the 70’s jokes. The decade itself becomes much less of a subject of scorn and mockery, in China and Paris, and rather the new targets are the respective cultures and people in these levels. “Soap or parfum? Soap or parfum? …why parfum of course!” thinks one Parisian lady when you read her mind. The Chinese level really parses the meaning of “politically incorrect” as some of the racial and cultural jokes could be construed as crossing the line into insensitive, or even – dare I say – racist.

But really, that makes the game that much more of an oddity. And for the record, some of the jokes in these levels actually target Americans and their culture-centric ways.

The weakest level is the last which sends Crypto back to his home planet of Furon. By the time you get there you are 10+ hours into the game. Since almost all of the humor in the game comes from its mockery of sub-cultures and pop culture – taking the action to a completely different planet causes a huge dip in the funniness of the game, and its fun-ness. But that’s a small complaint and almost made up for by alien carnival games featuring abducted humans – such as Human-Plinko, Kick the Human, and Human Darts.

Video games are among the fastest aging art forms around. Technology moves so rapidly that within just a few years what’s new becomes almost unplayable. As mentioned in this very review, control schemes themselves have changed so much in a mere 6 or 7 years that most people, no matter how well-received a game may have been, find such a steep learning curve (or re-learning curve, as the case may be) that its not even worth their time to attempt to play some of these older games. Other pop culture and art forms don’t have this problem. The first Iron Man movie came out the same year as this game, yet no one would say that its unwatchable due to its age, or that its special effects look hokey. But the evolution of the video game has been so quick that 3 to 5 years worth of technological advancement is the same as 20 or 30 years in the film medium. So yeah, Destroy All Humans is a dinosaur by these standards, and with the next console generation speedily coming along within the next year or so, it is aging even as you read. Odd.

Play it to see what used to be – stay for the humor.

Posted by: smirkdirk | February 10, 2013

[REC]3 Genesis – Sell Out Zombies

2 out of 5 Cookies

I remember watching the movie [REC] blind – knowing nothing about it other than it was a Spanish language, hand-held camcorder movie of the Blair Witch pedigree. It was terrifying. All the more so because I had come to it free of any pre-conceived ideas about it – hadn’t even seen a trailer. I immediately endorsed it far and wide, this semi-unknown film which belongs in my personal pantheon of great horror movies. (Well, as far and wide as a virtually unknown dude from the Carolinas can endorse it – which means basically that I whole-heartedly recommended it to family and friends.) In fact, the only reason I’m taking time to write about the, by comparison, relatively mediocre [REC]3 Genesis is because the original is a 5 Cookie movie.

[REC] and its sequel [REC]2, take place in an apartment building under quarantine. The residents have become zombies. The conceit of the first movie is that it is shot by a camera man and his reporter who are doing a fluff piece on a fire station, and end up trapped in the building when accompanying the fire fighters on a call. The sequel takes place moments after the original ends and is shot from the perspective of swat team helmet cams, and also a group of teenagers who have snuck into the building. Not your typical zombie movies, as the plot unfolds there are religious and demonic overtones on par with the haunting ideas covered in the best possession films like The Exorcist.

For the record [REC] was remade and bastardized in an “American” version called Quarantine. Quarantine takes the same exact look and feel of [REC] and adds the English language and American actors for those too stupid to read, and too xenophobic to watch any film without U.S. citizens in the starring roles. Furthermore, it takes out all of the religious content lest a mixing of the zombie genre with anything else be too confusing. There should be an Oscar for turning greatness to shit in a single remake.

Quarantine also spawned a sequel, Quarantine 2, that has even less to do with the [REC] series and is pretty much simply zombies in an airport. An unabashed B-film it is currently available for free on Crackle.

But I digress, while [REC]2 isn’t as good as its predecessor it’s still a good horror film and works into the mythology, ideas and style set by the original.

The same cannot be said for [REC]3 Genesis. This sequel leaves the apartment building completely and instead begins the first-person conceit through the lenses of the cameras of a wedding videographer, as well as the handi-cams of various guests. In fact, the titles are intentionally corny slice-of-life still shots of the bride and groom as they were growing up, just like a real wedding video. There’s a lot of potential in the beginning and I had high hopes. We meet a wedding guest with a bandaged hand, a vet who explains that he was bitten by a dog, presumably from the first film, that he thought was dead… and then the camera pans to the other guests. Very sinister. ([REC] also spawned a comic book series, one episode of which deals with the fate of the infected dog in the first film, but it is in Spanish and, from what I can see, unavailable to order even from Amazon)

We know what’s coming, we just don’t know when. We go through the wedding and end up at the reception, where we are introduced to the bride and groom in earnest. And then the vet reappears. The first zombies begin their attack on the wedding guests. It’s a flurry of first person camerawork and gore. It is shortly after this that the movie turns into a “movie”. The first person perspective is jarringly abandoned, and we end up in an actual movie. Furthermore, it is a movie that doesn’t even take itself seriously. It becomes a horror/comedy.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m all for horror/comedies. Evil Dead 2 and Shaun of the Dead rank high on my list of near-perfect movies. My problem here is that this movie is a [REC] movie only in title. It shares little of the sheer zombie terror contained in the first two films, and instead relies on the gore for its thrills. (Not that I’m gore-sensitive, and in fact, a lot of the effects here, particularly in the 3rd act, are over the top and fun, but the [REC] series wasn’t the place for that sort of thing.) Furthermore, the haunting religious overtones brought by the originals, here become the subject of mockery. What this third installment brings to the series, not only has very little to do with the first two films, but seems to take away from them.

As an example of the horror/comedy genre [REC]3 Genesis is a fair movie. There are some funny parts to it and once you give yourself up to the bait and switch that’s occurred you will find a chuckle or two. For instance, the sly reveal of the suicide of the videographer, a man with an established appetite, the camera panning up from the empty wedding cake pan on the floor, past his slashed wrist, and up to his face, the remnants of the cake still on his lips.

[REC] is well on its way to being a contemporary cult horror classic; a film that few people have heard about, but that pays off big when they finally do. It took itself seriously. To throw all of that out in favor of some cheap jokes seems – I don’t know – cheap. The producers could have made this film and just called it Zombie Wedding. But that would go against what they learned in Marketing 101 wouldn’t it?

As a side note, I couldn’t help but notice that both [REC] and [REC]2 were written by Jaume Balagueró and co-directed with him by Paco Plaza. In this regrettable entry Balagueró isn’t listed at all, but Plaza has both directing as well as a writing credit. I guess we know who had most of the talent in that duo. (Hint: Its not Plaza)

I’ve seen internet rumors that [REC]4 is in the works. Honestly, I hope they just let it go if they don’t bring Balagueró back on board.

[REC]3 Genesis is currently streaming on Amazon Prime, free for prime members.

Older Posts »