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All reviews - Movies (22) - Games (8)

The Force is Mediocre with this one

Posted : 1 year, 11 months ago on 27 December 2015 08:58 (A review of Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens)

The Force Awakens... I didn't hate it, but I certainly didn't love it either. It nails a few key elements that make action movies enjoyable, but it has a long list of failings to go with it (see my list of pros and cons below.) I found myself thoroughly enjoying the first 45 minutes only to feel my enthusiasm steadily drop for the next hour and a half as it became clear how paint-by-numbers this movie was turning out. Its biggest problem is that it's instantly the most derivative Star Wars film ever made. The events are almost entirely a retread of things that happened in the original trilogy (OT) and it adds little of interest to the Star Wars mythos. It's the cinematic equivalent of a highly caffeinated soda: tastes good going down and gives you a nice energetic zing, but ultimately its empty calories and will be harmful to the body in the long run.

Pros

1. Most of the new characters are likable, especially BB8 who is a genuinely endearing droid  with lots of personality.
2. The action scenes looked and played out well on a technical level. (Hooray for competence!)
3. It successfully recreates the inherently dangerous but intriguingly exotic feel of the Star Wars universe from the OT.
4. Mostly well paced. (Hooray for competence part 2!)
5. Humor was hit and miss, but when it did hit (mostly BB8) it was good.

Cons

1. Poe / Rey / Finn bond WAY too quickly, almost to the point of incredulity.
2. It re-enacts too many scenes / scenarios from A New Hope (Storm Trooper slaughter on a desert planet, Cantina 2.0, Death Star 3.0 blows up planets, X-wing full scale attack followed by trench run attack, etc.)
3. With a few beautiful exceptions (Jakku, new Cantina, night time light saber battle in the forest) the film's locales really did not look that good.
4. No details about why "The First Order" or "The Resistance" emerged from the old Empire and Republic / Rebellion or how these new incarnations are even different from the original ones.
5. OT characters feel like cheap nostalgia distractions, because they are.
6. Kylo Ren becomes too vulnerable way too quickly, removing all sense of mystery and menace about the character before the first movie is even over.
7. The title of the movie is bullshit: The force does not "awaken" in any general sense. The force may have awakened in ONE character, but it was already awake in other characters, so this is clearly not what the title implied.
8. Rey's "awakening" is completely vague to the point of shit just happening because the plot wants it to happen.
9. An untrained force initiate defeating a trained Sith is ludicrous to the point of breaking my suspension of disbelief. That was a cheap, unearned victory. Luke Skywalker, by contrast, spent three films learning, training and being battered down by the forces of darkness before emerging victorious in Return of the Jedi.
10. Highly derivative: What substance did this movie add to the Star Wars universe? For all the shit the prequels get, at least a lot of new things were tried and an entirely different dynamic (the slow rise of evil instead of the hero's journey to fight evil) was presented to us. This movie showed almost no creative courage.

The Force Awakens will not age well, even in the short term. As the release hype dies and people who engage in thoughtful movie analysis realize how much of the movie was carbon copied, reviews will moderate and scores will drop. Given how much longer my list of cons is than my list of pros, I'm giving The Force Awakens a generous 5/10. It seems "the force" of nostalgia holds some sway over me as well. JJ Abrams and Disney benefit more from that nostalgia than they do from anything they've contributed to the franchise.


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A Stellar Mess

Posted : 2 years, 5 months ago on 21 June 2015 07:10 (A review of Interstellar)

First hour: Interesting premise, but tainted by hokey mysticism driving the plot.

Second hour: Lots of bad editing cutting back and forth between Earth and the space expedition. These cuts are often extremely rapid and have a terrible affect on pacing. Much of the action is high stakes docking maneuvers. Matt Damon shows up just long enough to inject some clumsy dialogue about human survival instinct, completely tipping his hand that he's about to go batshit.

Third hour: A bad Outer Limits episode. The hokey mysticism is explained (with the Christopher Nolan trademark WAY TOO MUCH FUCKING EXPOSITION SO ALL THE IDIOTS KNOW WHAT'S GOING ON) but it doesn't matter how much they try to make it sound scientific, it's still just a deus ex machina channeled through the power of LOVE. The main character and the human race are saved because... plot says so.

On top of those glaring flaws we get the other Nolan trademark, an overbearing soundtrack that rarely, if ever, lets up. It was also amazing how little he was able to coax out of an all-star cast of actors. There's a reason that great sci-fi films tend to have little-known actors, and it's because the material is strong enough to stand on its own without relying on star power. This was clearly not the case for Interstellar.

There is little to nothing under the hood to analyze here. Like Inception, this movie throws lots of concepts at the audience (only this time it's mostly well understood physics instead of hypothetical dream experiments) and many people mistake this for depth.

I'll say it again Nolan: stick to smaller projects like Memento and The Prestige. Whenever you attempt something grand, you accomplish the exact opposite.


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Edge of Mediocrity

Posted : 2 years, 6 months ago on 28 May 2015 08:30 (A review of Edge of Tomorrow)

This hot garbage gets a 90% on RT and a 7.9 on IMDB? How much crack are you people smoking?!? I was really hoping this movie would be more than the sci-fi version of Groundhog Day, but that's essentially all it was.

Sure, the human battle-mech suits and the alien combatants were cool to look at it, but beyond that this film offers nothing new or interesting. Forget how incredibly contrived the time-loop logic is, how many more sci-fi movies are we going to watch about a "superior" alien force that is controlled by some kind of hive mind and all you need to do to win is to take out the brain? Hasn't this gotten stale? Didn't they make fun of this concept in Starship Troopers 17 years ago? (WE CAUGHT THE BRAIN BUG!)

Despite its flaws the movie was at least engaging, so I could have potentially given it a 5 or even a 6. But then that goddamn goofy ending... As everyone is cheering, Tom Cruise has to swagger his way back to his new girlfriend (who doesn't even know she's his girlfriend) and put on his stupid smile before they take this turkey out back and shoot it. ANY OTHER ENDING would have been better than that ending! Hey, before we roll the credits, here's a reminder of the standard leading guy / leading girl romance-on-the-quick we wedged into this focus-grouped Hollywood crapfest!

This could have been a good movie. MAYBE it could have even been a good sci-fi movie. But it tried to be too many different things and it relied too much on an old plot device that was used more effectively in a 1993 comedy.


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An indie RPG that delivers

Posted : 2 years, 8 months ago on 5 April 2015 01:03 (A review of Transistor)

It was a true pleasure to play through Transistor, a short but potent sci-fi indie RPG. It's undisclosed whether this game is taking place inside a computer system (ala the old CG animated show "Reboot"), if it's some sort of simulation, or if this is simply the future and humans have integrated with technology to the point where the two are inseparable. Regardless, people are disappearing and the world is disintegrating as "The Process", a malicious program, begins wiping the city of CloudBank from existence. Standing in its way is "Red", a woman who's lost her voice, but gained a unique piece of technology that enables her to fight the virus.

There are no "skills" or "attacks" in this game. There are "functions" and the more you unlock, the more you can customize how you play. Each function can be used as a primary, passive, or upgrade to another function. All of the functions are named after various programming and technology terms, so the game appeals to the inner geek as well as those who enjoy a good noir sci-fi setting.

I was seriously impressed with the emotional impact that the end of such a (relatively) short RPG had. It was certainly a more interesting and satisfying ending than many big budget titles I've played in recent years, and both the achievements and the promise of deciphering more of the mystery provide good motivation for a second playthrough.

Highly recommended!


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Even Great Film Makers Stumble

Posted : 3 years, 1 month ago on 30 October 2014 09:59 (A review of Noah)

So, yeah... Noah.

No winning streaks last forever, not even Darren Aronofsky's. It was pretty much exactly what I feared it would be but with some angelic rock monster fantasy creatures thrown in to help the plot along.

Observations:

1. The great irony is that the rock creatures were there to make the movie's plot feasible (building the arc and defending it would have been impossible without them) but by adding them, it just made an already ridiculous piece of religious mythology even more ridiculous.

2. The most disappointing thing about this movie wasn't the story (amazingly) but that it is, by far, Aronofsky's least interesting film, visually. The only interesting visual pieces were the apocalyptic parts, so they were relying solely on sound and fury.

3. I spent the entire movie wondering where the fuck 125 million dollars went?!? (Shitty CG I guess!)

4. While juxtaposing meat eaters vs non meat eaters was a neat idea, it never quite worked out and in the end they went completely overboard making the meat eaters all seem like murderous psychopaths. Basically, it was the first big budget pro-vegan movie ever.

5. Since they insisted on using the term "the creator" for most of the film instead of "god", I thought that maybe this was going to create a cool duality where "the creator" could simply refer to the planet itself instead of a magical sky daddy... but before long they started referring to "he" and that pretty much shattered any interesting ambiguity it might have had.

6. Even after destroying the rest of the world, Gawd's "plan" still came down to two burly guys duking it out on the ark... lulz

7. As the film was wrapping up, I began to wonder if Noah himself wasn't meant to be a proxy for god, and if it wasn't him all along deciding the fate of humanity and working out all his latent sky daddy issues. Then I realized I was giving the film WAY too much credit. Yup... I really wanted this not to suck.

8. That was a crazy amount of acting talent given absolutely nothing to do.


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Dark, Gritty Role Playing

Posted : 3 years, 2 months ago on 5 October 2014 09:18 (A review of Game of Thrones - Xbox 360)

Although it's a lower budget and less polished spiritual cousin to past Bioware RPGs, Game of Thrones is an enjoyable experience that allows you to fully immerse yourself in the lore and atmosphere of "A Song of Ice and Fire."

While having seen the show or read the books is by no means a prerequisite to enjoying the game, existing fans will almost definitely like it better and have an easier time sinking into the setting, with many of the locations and background characters already being familiar to them.

The plot of the game is just as dark and labyrinthine as the show, rarely giving you a moment of ease or a scrap of certainty before unleashing the next horrible revelation. The story does a great job of keeping you on your toes and reminding you just how frail your characters are (despite their increasing power, gameplay wise) which is something that many RPGs fail to do. If the presentation of this tale has a central flaw, it's that the tension and tragedy never let up. There's no Peter Dinklage character in the game to diffuse the situation with humor and give you a break from its dark themes.

The game takes place during season 1 of the show, starting just before the assassination of Jon Arryn and ending shortly after the death of the king. For the first half of the game, the story shifts chapter by chapter between your two main characters: (or as Martin would call them, perspective characters) Mors Westford and Alester Sarwyk.

Mors is a gruff old warrior living out what remains of his life in the Night's Watch. Alester is the son of a noble house who left the continent of Westeros in self-exile years ago and has only recently returned. Both characters served in Robert Baratheon's rebellion and have a fair amount of tragedy in their past. They also both possess special abilities that have allowed them to survive for as long as they have. Mors is a wog / "skinchanger" who can enter the mind of his attack dog (great for scouting around undetected and taking out isolated sentries) and Alester has become a red priest, infused with many of the abilities granted by the "lord of light."

I found the constant shifting between these two characters for the first half of the game a bit irritating, but at the same time it's a testament to the writing and how well the characters were designed that I never wanted to switch. If I had been playing as Mors for an hour, I wanted to keep playing as Mors, and likewise if I'd been playing as Alester. Halfway through the game their stories finally converge and the pace of the plot picks up considerably. Describing anything story related beyond this point would be too spoiler laden, but suffice it to say that the game has the kind of epic and existential conclusion that you would expect from the world of Game of Thrones.

While the game does have a strong narrative and a mostly linear path, many of the dialogue choices you make do have a legitimate affect on the outcome of your immediate quest and as a result the consequences of your actions feel quite real. For example, this isn't a game you can "white knight" your way through without paying a price. Even NPCs that have given you no reason to doubt them can let you down or outright betray you. The game's choices encourage you to consider your own needs vs simply helping out everyone else and trying to do "the most good" all the time.

Gameplay wise, the combat engine is similar to KotOR or Dragon Age. Once fighting begins, you can pull up a series of ability wheels on the fly. This doesn't pause the game, but does slow time down to a crawl as you make your selections. I thought this was well implemented since it gives you time to consider your options, but not an endless amount. Watching your opponents close in on you in slow motion or seeing one of your characters get hit while you sit there trying to choose the best response has a way of speeding up your decision making. It's also a wonderful dramatic flair to go from heated dialogue to the sudden metal rasps of weapons coming out of sheaths and then see time slowed down as you enter tactical mode.

I had a good time with Game of Thrones and I found the conclusion to be more satisfying than your average role playing game. It has some rough edges, but for a low budget RPG (with a correspondingly low price tag) I can't complain too much.


Pros
----
Excellent story
Compelling main characters
Authentic Game of Thrones soundtrack
Simple, but fun, combat engine
Choices feel consequential

Cons
----
Somewhat dated graphics
Voice acting is a mixed bag (main characters are good, most NPCs are terrible)
Limited environments that are heavily re-used
Not enough boss fights (most of your enemies are rank and file fodder)


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The Future Is Forsaken

Posted : 3 years, 11 months ago on 1 January 2014 09:17 (A review of Oblivion)

There were three big sci-fi extravaganzas in 2013, but I didn't get to see Oblivion (the first of those three) until the end of year.

I quite enjoyed it, especially the first half of the film which had me glued to the screen. It does devolve a bit into a series of more common sci-fi tropes (and one action segment that basically looked like a videogame) but on the whole, I thought it was fun and interesting throughout. Aesthetically, it was consistently beautiful and engrossing.

I loved that there was dystopia hiding below the surface of utopia in this movie. You could tell from the beginning that things weren't what they appeared and that the shiny gloss of slick looking technology wouldn't be able to hide it forever. The film's look transitioned from clean to messy just as the characters understanding of the world evolved from stunted naivete to violent revelation.

I also really liked that drones were a central theme and as the plot unfolded they went from silent protectors to menacing enemies. In a decade where drones and drone warfare are coming to the forefront of social and political dialogue, this couldn't have been more timely.

Like Elysium, Mass Effect and many other other sci-fi projects in recent years, it would have benefited from a tighter / more fleshed out third act. I think this is a common problem for science fiction. When you're writing something that's high concept and making predictions of what the future might be, and then extrapolating into the future OF that future, satisfying endings become inherently difficult to write. Writers and producers of science fiction would do well to take their cue from 2001 - A Space Odyssey. The less said, the better. Present your ideas and let the audience draw their own conclusions.

Still, between Oblivion, Elysium and Gravity, I think it can be said with some confidence that 2013 was the first solid year for sci-fi cinema in a long time.


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An Incredible Sci-Fi Thrill Ride

Posted : 4 years, 2 months ago on 7 October 2013 06:17 (A review of Gravity)

I didn't have any expectations going into this film, but if I had, I'm sure they would have been met or surpassed.

Gravity is a survival horror movie without the zombies and mutants. The only enemy is space and it's more hostile and terrifying in it's total, cold indifference to life than any foe the human mind could imagine. From the start of the film, where the opening shot lasts a good 5-7 minutes without a single cut, to the adrenaline soaked ending, it's a magnificent thrill ride and a movie that absolutely must be seen in theaters.

The cinematography is amazing and although the plot is relatively simple, that in no way hampers the film. If anything, it allows the director to remain focused on what makes the film work so well: isolation. A lesser writer / director would have shown mission control. A lesser film would have insisted on more characters. A typical Hollywood film would have made cuts all over and forced dialogue in places where it wasn't needed. Gravity does none of these things. It will be a critical success (obviously) and likely a box office success in spite of shunning all the conventions that turn the vast majority of new movies into mind-numbing, artless trash.

I didn't see a single movie in theaters in 2012 because I was so sick of paying high ticket prices to be grossly disappointed. This year I've seen two films, Elysium and Gravity, and both were winners. Films like these almost give me hope for the future of cinema. Almost :Þ


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Bold, Engrossing Sci-Fi

Posted : 4 years, 3 months ago on 10 September 2013 07:20 (A review of Elysium)

Elysium is the sophomore effort of director Neill Blomkamp. Much like District 9, it has fantastic visuals, political / social commentary and it experiments with the concept of trans-humanism. It's a better film, in my opinion, and an increasingly rare example of good science fiction on the silver screen.

The movie had some nice thematic touches throughout, demonstrating that Blomkamp has grown as a director. For example, the main "Elysium" characters talk in a stilted, almost robotic manner to emphasize their fundamental disconnect with humanity. Less savvy movie goers (and critics) will chalk this up to bad acting, even though it can't be an accident that Jodie Foster and William Fichtner are doing this while the other main actors aren't.

The main villain of the film, a combination of the mad monk Rasputin and Solid Snake, is not only disconnected from humanity, but driven to insanity by a life of mercenary warfare and serving the ungrateful elites that are his masters. He is the ultimate typification of the soldier, bitterly enraged once he realizes that he is to be used and thrown away.

The ending felt a bit rushed and needed some more time to earn its emotional conclusion, but that was my only serious gripe with the film. Overall, it was a great thrill ride from start to finish and never compromised its vision.

Pros

Great pacing, action rarely lets up after the introduction
Gritty realism mixed with badass technology (The Blade Runner effect)
Strong themes (social and economic inequality, survival, trans-humanism)
High production values
Exciting fight scenes

Cons

Shaky cam
First and second act are stronger than the third
The South African actors were difficult to understand at times


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Gripping. Chilling. Powerful.

Posted : 4 years, 5 months ago on 3 July 2013 09:11 (A review of The Walking Dead)

The Walking Dead (Episodes 1-5) by Telltale Games is a breakthrough videogame in numerous ways. For one, it's the first DLC game to become a mega-hit and be lauded as "Game of the Year" almost universally. It far surpasses the popular television series in artistic merit, intrigue and emotional impact. And finally, it never compromises its vision or panders to its audience, creating a story that is catastrophically tragic and completely unforgettable, regardless of the choices the player makes (which are still substantial.)

I'll get the only negative out of the way and state up front that the gameplay itself is nothing special. It can even be a little frustrating until you get the mechanics down, but those mechanics are simple and it doesn't take long to adapt. The game is a combination of minor puzzle solving and "panic events" whenever zombies or other enemies attack, forcing you to react in QTE style with little or no room for error. The saving grace of this process is that if you die, the game will automatically reload very close to or right at the point where you failed.

The graphics are nothing fancy, which is probably to be expected for a DLC game, but they get the job done and the gritty, cell shaded comic-book look serves the story and atmosphere quite well. The audio is one area where the game truly shines, particularly the voice acting which is delivered by a stellar cast and feels completely authentic throughout.

The crux of the game is difficult choices, and this is what The Walking Dead does better than any other game I can think of. In most games where the player has choices he can make via dialogue trees, it's almost always obvious which choice is "good", "evil" or which is the smartest choice to give the player some kind of immediate or long term benefit. The Walking Dead takes that old hat, shits on it and sets it on fire. There are few good options in The Walking Dead and in setting that precedent, it remains faithful to the idea of a true apocalypse, a situation in which you can't just fight or talk your way out of everything because you're some amazing, all powerful individual.

Not only are the choices hard, they are TIMED. In action situations you will have to react split-second. In conversation, where the biggest decisions are made, you will usually have somewhere between 5 and 15 seconds to make up your mind and confirm your choice, depending on how urgent the situation is. The conversations often get heated and you will feel the consequences of your choices sooner rather than later.

The best compliment I can give the game is that the characters and the relationships you form with them feel more "real" than any game I can recall. You can finish all 5 episodes in 10-15 hours, but its relatively short length in no way detracts from its potency. This is a MUST PLAY game. Get the downloads or buy the whole thing on disc like I did, and get ready for one hell of a ride.


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