Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Arrival - Review

This was movie is exactly why I like to stick to my policy of knowing as little as possible about movies I'm interested in. The combination of Denis Villeneuve, director of Sicario and Prisoners, and Ted Chiang, who wrote the source material, was enough for me. I had previously read Chiang's Life Cycle of Software Objects and have always liked Villeneuve's visual style, so this seemed like a must-see.

Not having seen any extensive amount of advertising, I wasn't fully prepared for what this movie would be. I knew it was going to be an alien contact film that focused on the language barrier, but I wasn't prepared for how heady and emotional this film would end up being.

Amy Adams gives an excellent performance, probably my favorite in her filmography, as a high level specialist in the field of language that's haunted by emotional tragedy. Her character, Dr. Louise Banks, is such a fully drawn character, and Adams fleshes her out perfectly. All the other actors and characters do a great job playing their parts, but the focus is squarely on Louise.

Her journey throughout the film is definitely what took me by surprise. The brief glimpses I saw of TV commercials had it looking a bit more cold and intellectual, and the premise is one that certainly seems to want to focus on the global implications of aliens arriving on earth. While there is lots of talk about the geopolitical landscape that ratchets up the tension throughout, it's really about Louise and her interactions with the alien creatures as she tries to learn their language while teaching them ours. I wasn't sure how they were going to make this premise interesting throughout, but they managed to do it.

While there isn't any action in the film per se, it definitely has some thrilling moments, including one of the best uses of Hitchcockian suspense I've seen in quite some time. The direction throughout is masterful, and the designs of the creatures and ships truly convey a feeling of 'alien' in every sense of the word. The film is a little slow to get going, in a good way, but really picks up near the end. The last act of the film features some of the most innovative ideas I've seen in a sci-fi film in a while, as well as one of the most hard hitting emotional twists.

In a time where our country is divided thoroughly, it's so refreshing to see a film that's about the main characters striving to solve the problems with understanding and communication rather than violence. The film is about trying to keep people together in times of uncertainty and fear, and that message is one that we all need at a time like this. From script to acting to cinematography, this film is a knock out, and easily my favorite film of the year so far.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Batman: The Telltale Series Episode 3: New World Order - Review

I've been very happy with the schedule that Telltale has been able to keep up with their Batman series. If I remember correctly from my time playing The Walking Dead, it's usually a bit longer between episodes. This pace really makes it easier to play such plot heavy games, as it's easier to remember what happened last time. 

In the interest of staying spoiler-free, I think these reviews will get shorter as they go on. This new episodes doesn't do anything different from the previous episodes. You still have the neat investigation mechanic at the scenes. You still have well choreographed fight scenes. What really drives this series forward is the plot. 

And what a plot it is. They set up some really interesting emotional beats. This whole deconstruction of the Wayne legacy is really cool, and all signs seem to point at it not being a fake out. An great wrinkle is added to the Bruce Wayne story in this episode by drastically altering his standing within Wayne Enterprises. The Harvey Dent storyline also goes to interesting places, especially in relation to the love story with Selina Kyle (at least based on the choices I made). This part seems to be going a bit more traditionally in line with the comics, but the writing and acting is great so it works. 

There's also a big confrontation that I didn't anticipate coming in this early. Batman and Catwoman end up colliding head to head with the Children of Arkham and their mysterious leader. It definitely has an element of climax to it, with a big brawl that leads to you foiling what appears to be their master plan. I was very surprised to see something this large happen in episode three, but that wasn't even the end. 

The cliffhanger of this episode is excellent. It completely blindsided me with the reveal of the identity of the Children of Arkham's leader. I was excited when they introduced this villain, because there didn't seem to be any existing villain that was the model. When the identity was revealed, it really threw me for a loop. Much like the Arkham series, they aren't beholden to keeping the Batman story relatively status quo for the sake of the long term comic and the rest of the DC Universe. Telltale is really taking advantage of this freedom and telling a shocking story that feels like uncharted territory for the first time in a long time. I hope the wait for the next one is short, because I can't wait to see how this turns out. 

Monday, October 31, 2016

#7DaysOfHorror Day 7 - Horror Podcasts

In the last few years, I've learned to enjoy podcasts of the fictional variety. I started with Welcome to Night Vale, but eventually branched out as the format began to catch on. It's a format I would actually like to explore in my own creative endeavors. Here's a quick rundown of my favortie spooky podcasts.

This is the one that really made me want to find more fictional podcasts. The Black Tapes sort of plays off the populatrity of nonfiction podcasts like Serial. It focuses on one person's investigation into a series of supernatural events that the enegmatic Dr. Richard Strand have looked into. Host Alex Regan and Dr. Strand have a great rapport, and the series does a good job of producing spooky stories. The episodes start out a bit more one-shot in nature, but the series quickly begins to connect the dots and make each case part of a larger picture. Most of the subjects are ghosts and demons, and the direction it takes ends up being an apocalyptic one.

Limetown also follows a Serial-type journalist, but this one focuses on a singular mystery: what happened to the titular town and all its residents? The story is definitely one of mad science gone wrong and shadowy conspiracies, and it's extremely effective. They also construct smart personal stakes for the protagonist to keep you emotionally engaged during all the weirdness. I'm a little worried about the future of this one. It only ran six episodes during its first season, and there hasn't been an episode since last December. Hopefully it returns soon, because it left off on a good cliffhanger.

If you're looking for something quick and standalone, this is the series to try out first. There are only eight episodes, and they run about 12 to 22 minutes, so this one can be finished very quickly. The Message focuses on a group of people trying to figure out a strange message that came from outer space. From there, it takes lots of twists and turns until its excellent finale. There's some issues with the main character's voice acting, but once you get used to it, it's an engrossing listen. It didn't seem like there was anything really to follow up on with this one, and I think they would be smart to just let it stand as it is and make something else with the same crisp writing and high production value.

I like Archive 81 because it has a couple layers of story that work well in the audio format. The framing story of the podcast is that these are being released because the person that recorded them vanished without a trace. The recordings are an archivist listening to a bunch of old interview tapes about the strange and possibly sinister tenants of an apartment complex. The acting in this one is a little bit spotty, but the writing and sound design really make up for it. The season finale was really strong, so I hope they came back firing on all cylinders.

If you aren't looking for the longterm commitment of a serialized podcast, Knifepoint Horror probably has the best collection of horror shorts in the podcast sphere. All of the episodes are narrated from a first person perspective and have a palpable level of menace to them. I don't think they are still making them, and even when they did, they just kinda popped up out of nowhere, but there are so many to go back and listen to this isn't a problem. I would suggest POSSESSION, SOUNDS and PROOF as episodes to check out to start off. 

This was the first podcast that was released by Night Vale Presents in the wake of the massive success of Welcome to Night Vale. The series, though still quirky, has a much different tone than Night Vale, focusing much more on eerie horror and mood. Alice Isn't Dead follows a woman who takes a job as a trucker to try to find her missing wife and runs into some strange, otherworldly things. There's a really menacing antagonist throughout, and the performance of Jasika Nicole brings all the writing to life vividly. They recently wrapped up their first season, and I can't wait for more. Easily one of my favorites.

For me, Tanis is probably the best fiction podcast out there. It's a sister podcast to Black Tapes, featuring a couple characters that crossover between the two. The host begins by looking into the vague mystery of Tanis, which barely has any information on the internet. The idea of trying to look into a mystery in an age when the internet has made so much information available that we really don't have true mystery any more is an awesome one. They find ways of creating their own fascinating mythology out of pieces of weird internet legends and creepypastas. This one felt more confident right out of the gate than Black Tapes and quickly built towards an engaging season finale. The second season followed up well and deepened everything from the first one, answering questions while leaving more; it's textbook mystery storytelling. They are on a between season break, but are still putting out mini-episodes every once in a while. I can't recommend this one higher.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

#7DaysOfHorror Day 6 - Glitterbomb

For today's entry, I'm going to recommend something that is earlier enough in its run that you can get in on the ground floor. Glitterbomb, which is on its second issue, is a new horror comic by Jim Zub, who is known for his long running fantasy series Skullkickers.

The comic follows an aging actress who ends up being the vessel for some sort of monster. She begins to use this newfound power to start to violently retaliate against Hollywood. The main character is such an interesting one because she brings up a problem that's so prevalent in Hollywood, the unfair treatment of women, particularly after they reach a certain age. I'm a sucker for any story about the entertainment industry, so for someone to make a book that is not a only a horror story set there, but also one that captures the anger and frustration of the system is very exciting.

Even without the horror elements, the book is very successful in presenting you with the dynamics of Hollywood. There's an exceptional scene in the first issue where the main character is waiting for an audition, striking up idle conversation with the younger actress sitting next to her. The conversation deftly moves from pleasant to biting, perfectly capturing the dog-eat-dog nature of show biz. Add in her home life, where she raises a son on her own with the meager earnings she gets from her rare roles, and you have the makings for good drama.

There's still quite a bit of mystery to the horror side of the book so far. The nature of the creature inside of her is still not yet known, but it's becoming clear that it comes out during times of stress or frustration. Newcomer Djibril Morrisette-Phan does a great job bringing this weirdness to life, especially in the shocking opening to the series. His confident linework also helps enhance the more mundane scenes, making for a visually appealing series all around.

It's always fun to get in at the start of something that becomes a big hit, and this one definitely has the potential to be something special. The drama is smart, the horror is creepy and the issues that the book address are an interesting one. I read in an interview that Zub is just going to do four issues, then take a break 'til next Fall. Hopefully that schedule doesn't end up hurting any momentum that the book has.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

#7DaysOfHorror Day 5 - Cry Havoc

Cry Havoc was announced while I was reading Simon Spurrier's X-Force run. I was completely enamored with that run, so the idea of him doing a creator owned book with Image was instantly appealing. "This is not the tale of a lesbian werewolf who goes to war. Except it kind of is." That was a tag line that grabbed me. Throw in artist Ryan Kelly and I was all in.

The book has an interesting gimmick of taking place during three time periods, each colored by a different colorist. It's a very subtle distinction, but it really goes to show you the importance that the colorist plays in creating the mood on the page. Kelly does such a great job drawing the distinct landscapes that the book takes place in and also offers unique twists on the creatures that show up throughout.

That tag line only sort of gives you an idea of what exactly you're getting into with Cry Havoc. The center of the story is a young London woman named Louise who shares a flat with her girlfriend. During the early timeline, we see how her relationship evolves in the wake of Louise getting attacked by a werewolf. The other two periods revolve around the lead up to and the aftermath of a mysterious mission to Afghanistan. The book does a masterful job of giving you little pieces in each of the segments that answer questions about the others while still creating new mysteries to be solved.

What started out as a simple horror/war story ended up being an urban fantasy tale about the nature of story and creation. It's all so wonderfully thought out and paced, but never loses the core story of Louise. Even though there are gruesome monster fights in this book, some of the most memorable scenes are just raw arguments between her and her girlfriend that feel so real.

Interestingly enough, the first arc, cleverly titled Mything in Action, really seemed to wrap everything up nicely. I'm not sure what the future holds for Cry Havoc, as I haven't seen any announcements about its continuation since issue six came out in June. I kinda hope that they leave this story the way it is and maybe go the anthology series route and do the next arc about a different set of characters. You can't very well do the timeline thing now that we've seen the beginning, middle and end, but a new set of characters would give you the chance to do it all over again. Here's to hoping we hear more about this one in the near future!

Friday, October 28, 2016

#7DaysOfHorror Day 4 - P.T.

I know I probably shouldn't be recommending something that is no longer available to download, but I've been meaning to write about this game for a long time and there's no time like Halloween to talk about it. If you don't know, P.T. was a demo/teaser for a new Silent Hill game that was to be directed by Guillermo del Toro and Hideo Kojima. Konami had a falling out with Kojima after Metal Gear Solid 5, which lead to the cancellation of Silent Hills and the removal of P.T. from the Playstation Network Store.

I still remember how the whole release of P.T. went down. Sony announced the release of the 'game' during a press conference with little fanfare. Players dove into the game and found out that at the end it plays a teaser for Silent Hills. It was a crazy way to announce a game of that caliber, and it was one of the most Kojima ways to reveal a game I could think of. I didn't have a PS4 at the time, so it was a bummer that I wasn't able to be caught up in that moment in time. Thankfully I got a system before the game was taken off of the store and it's been living on my hard drive ever since. 

But besides all the drama and mystique, how is the game? Honestly, it's one of the best horror games I've ever played. The entire game takes place in a looping hallway in a house, one that doesn't spatially. It seems fairly harmless at first, but as you progress the game adds layers of nightmare onto the setting. The decision to give you a space that you get familiar with and then slowly transform it into something that feels increasingly unsafe is so effective. It reminds me a bit of how they handled the Room segments of Silent Hill 4, which were the most interesting parts of that game. One loop through really changes things up, making the hallway fold back on itself and trap you in there while you move at an extra fast speed. While there are some jump scares, most of the horror is just from the powerful atmosphere created by these changes. 

 One thing that's really interesting about the game is that the gameplay is very simple. It's in first person, which is a departure for the Silent Hill series, and pretty much the only action you can do is zoom in slightly to examine things in the world. The 'puzzles' of the game involve finding things hidden around the hallway in order to progress. It's hard to describe, but the way you figure things out is immensely satisfying. I like to call it an 'OCD Simulator' because you really have to go over things with a fine-toothed comb because the game doesn't give you much in the way of obvious guidance. The final puzzle is way too obtuse (it took my wife and I an hour and a half to figure it out while looking at a walkthrough), but other than that the game moves at a decent pace without being easy. 

Everything about this game has the makings of a great urban legend. From the stealth way it was released to its current scarcity, this will be a game that people will talk about for years in the horror community. It's easily one of the biggest cancelled games of all time, but at least we got P.T. out of it. Despite just being created as a 'Playable Teaser' for the main game, P.T. can stand alone as one of the best horror experiences of all time. 

Thursday, October 27, 2016

#7DaysOfHorror Day 3 - Eldritch Horror

Last October, I did a series called Creepy Cardboard where I highlighted some board games that featured a horror theme. One that I wanted to write about was the co-op horror game Eldritch Horror. There are few games that capture such a feeling of overwhelming desperation, and it's all the better for it.

Eldritch Horror casts you and your friends as investigators and adventurers trying to stop evil cultists and their army of otherworldly creatures from bringing about the end of the world. The game is a variation/simplification of Arkham Horror which is based in the universe of H.P. Lovecraft. At the start of each game you pick which of the Lovecraftian Great Old Ones you are trying to stop, which sets the difficulty and affects some of the mechanics of how things will play out.

The board is a world map with various cities highlighted that are centers for cultist activity. Each turn, players can take two actions, from moving around the board to fighting creatures to investigating mysteries. After the players all go, you perform certain actions that make the game more difficult. Monsters will spawn, clues will pop up around the globe and the countdown to doom will progress. Each turn you have to draw a card based on your location and complete a dice check of some sort based on your character's stats.

The gameplay really makes you feel like you are constantly spinning plates trying not to let any of them fall. You're trying to collect clues to pass a certain objective and you're just about there, but then some other evil thing shows up that has an effect on all players if it goes unchecked. Do you complete your objective, bringing you closer to winning, or do you try to stop the force affecting everyone? These are the types of decisions that you have to make as a team, and it takes a master planner to be able to figure out how to properly prioritize objectives and win the game.

The flavor text on the game is really top notch. The event cards all tell compelling little mini-stories that perfectly match the Lovecraftian tone of the game. You may find yourself going through a portal into a strange dream dimension or finding out that the clerk at your hotel is a cultist that poisoned you in your sleep. Even though each card is dense with text, you'll definitely want to read it outloud to everyone at the table to keep the mood of the game going.

To me, Eldritch Horror is a perfect combination of theme and gameplay. As the horrors on the board begin to stack up, you can feel your own sanity slipping away alongside your characters. This game isn't for everyone though. The rules are complex, so it helps if you have someone how has played before 'run' the game for you, as it's easy to miss steps in the process. The game is also fairly long, so if you're not willing to use up three hours of your game night on one game, don't bother starting.