Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Sixth Annual Russells

"Woah, Norris Was the Thing?" - Biggest Surprise of the Year
-Obvious Child
-Grand Budapest Hotel
-Edge of Tomorrow
-Blue Ruin
-The Lego Movie


"The Jack Burton" - Best Action Scene
-"Time in a Bottle" - X-Men: Days of Future Past
-Lights Out Fight - Snowpiercer
-Prison Break - Guardians of the Galaxy
-Nick Fury Assassination Attempt - Captain America: The Winter Soldier
-Gun Fight in the Club - John Wick


"Kurt Russell of the Year" - Best Actor
-Noah Wiseman - The Babadook
-Michael Keaton - Birdman
-Ralph Fiennes - Grand Budapest Hotel
-Macon Blair - Blue Ruin
-Edward Norton - Birdman


"Goldie Hawn of the Year" - Best Actress
-Scarlett Johannson - Under the Skin
-Jenny Slate - Obvious Child
-Tilda Swinton - Snowpiercer
-Essie Davis - The Babadook
-Emma Stone - Birdman


"Call Me Snake" - Best Hero of the Year
-Peter Quill - Guardians of the Galaxy
-Baymax - Big Hero 6
-Angel of Verdun - Edge of Tomorrow
-John Wick - John Wick
-Lucy - Lucy


"Is It My Scar?" - Best Villain of the Year
-The Babadook - The Babadook
-Winter Solider - Captain America: The Winter Solider
-Howard Howe - Tusk
-Ronan the Accuser - Guardians of the Galaxy
-Archibald Snatcher - The Boxtrolls


Best Animated Movie
-Big Hero 6
-The Lego Movie


Best Screenplay
-Blue Ruin
-Grand Budapest Hotel
-Obvious Child
-The Babadook


Best Score
-Under the Skin
-Only Lovers Left Alive


"The John Carpenter" - Best Director
-Johnathan Glazer - Under the Skin
-Christopher Nolan - Interstellar
-Jim Jarmusch - Only Lovers Left Alive
-Bong Joon Ho - Snowpiercer
-Alejnadro G. Inarritu - Birdman


Best Movie I Haven't Seen, But Know I'll Like
-The Raid 2
-A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night
-Inherent Vice


Most Anticipated of 2015
-Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens
-Avengers: Age of Ultron
-Crimson Peak


"The Golden Plisken" - Best Picture
-Captain: America: The Winter Solider
-The Babadook
-Under the Skin
- Snowpiercer


TOP 10:
10. Blue Ruin
9. Boxtrolls
8. Interstellar
7. Big Hero 6
6. Guardians of the Galaxy
5. Captain America: The Winter Solider
4. Snowpiercer
3. The Babadook
2. Birdman
1. Under the Skin

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Top Video Games of 2014

While definitely catering to the YouTube screaming Let's Play crowd, at least this game tries to craft something different than another Slender clone. While the premise of the location's set up is a little flimsy (why would you have to use power to keep a door closed?), it creates a tense game of resource management. The setting is perfect (because who doesn't find animatronics kinda creepy already) and the art direction really drives it home. It's a jump-scare machine, but at least it's a unique one.

I had quite high hopes for this one, but it ended up falling a bit short. I loved a lot of the elements of the story of this one. Setting it in an insane asylum with constantly shifting reality is a a great place to start, and the monster design was pretty gruesome. The only problem is that even though they look different, the enemies all feel kinda similar. I also wasn't a huge fan of the combat. It seemed to take way too many shots to kill things no matter where you hit it. I really wanted this to be a new Silent Hill, but it was more like the more recent Resident Evil games.

This game certainly is a pressure cooker. It feels a bit like choice based adventure games like Walking Dead, except it's more concerned with survival mechanics than story. Gods Will Be Watching is basically a series of scenarios where you have to manage a whole bunch of different things going on. It's tough, but immensely satisfying when things finally go your way.

The game that set the bar for Kickstarter projects finally came out this year. It was pitched as "Double Fine Adventure," and that's exactly what we got. It's a beautiful and whimsical point and click game that fits in perfectly with Tim Schaefer's previous output. The writing is clever and the art style is unique. I can't wait for the second part to drop this year.

The third point and click adventure game on this list, and this one is definitely the most in my wheelhouse. This game was released episodically for free throughout 2013, but was released in a collector's edition at the beginning of 2014. The Last Door's pixel art style somehow perfectly melds with the Lovecraftian inspiration of the story. The lack of definition in the things fits in with the themes. While not outright horrifying, the game definitely knows how to ramp up the creep factor. Another one that will be continued this year.

The video game industry needs more games like Octodad. While so many games are obsessed with upping the intensity and creating a more realistic experience, Octodad just wants to be goofy. You play as an octopus who is trying to maintain his cover as a totally normal human being so his family doesn't find out his secret. The game is purposefully difficult to control, and hilarity ensues. The great part is, among all the fumbling through supermarkets, there's a heartfelt story in there about accepting your family. The game is pretty short, but its gag never gets old and it wears its heart on its sleeve.

There are few games out there as addictive as Hearthstone. This is one of my go-to games for right before bed. It's a digital version of a collectible card game like Magic the Gathering set in the Warcraft universe. While none of those things have historically appealed to me, there's something about this game that's fantastic. I've played tons of matches, but I still feel like I'm learning new strategies when I play and am always tweaking my decks. Blizzard seems like they will be supporting this game for a long time, so I'll keep on playing!

Supergiant, the team behind the wonderful Bastion, took everything that worked about their previous game and created something that was more in line with my interests. They drop you in a beautiful sci-fi setting and begin introducing a combat system that is both chaotic and strategic. The way they set up the upgrades and attacks is nothing short of genius. To me, this game exceeds Bastion in every way and shows that they are a unique and powerful voice in the indie game market.

Who would have thought that this would end up being Irrational Game's swan song? I guess if you have to go out, this is the way to do it. This DLC did an amazing job of tying their vastly different Bioshock universes together in a way that was surprising and satisfying. The second part of the DLC where you play as Elizabeth particularly shined. Her gameplay focused a lot more on old-school FPS stealth with limited resources. I absolutely loved the circle created by the ending. I'll miss this world, but I can't think of a better way to send it off.

This game feels like it was built for me. The Alien franchise is one of my favorites in all of science fiction, and they finally created a game that perfectly captures the mood of the first one, which remains my favorite. And that isn't hyperbole, this game IS Alien to a tee. The space station you are on in designed with the sort of retro futuristic look the movies feature. What really stands out about the game is the tension. You always feel underpowered, but never unfairly so. The android and human enemies are a nice challenge, but the real star of it all is the xenomorph. It's designed with an AI that will track you and behave differently on each playthrough. You truly feel like you are being hunted. I can't tell you how many times I've freaked out at small noises and frozen in place when I see it in the corner of my screen. I'm so happy with this game and can't wait to see what Creative Assembly does next (I kinda hope they get the chance to do their own thing rather than getting forced to make another Alien game).

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Silent Hill 2 - Silent Heaven

It's always a little intimidating going back to revisit something you consider your favorite in a given medium. What if it doesn't hold up? What if it looks dated and silly and all that time you spent telling people why you love it is called into question? This is especially true in video games, where technology evolves at a rapid pace.

This was my worry about starting to play Silent Hill 2. In a world with HD graphics, where people have gotten a chance to really experiment with the storytelling strengths of the medium, how can a 13 year old game stack up? I was recently going through my stuff and finally found my power cord for my PS2, so I thought why not brave it and fire the game up.

Right off the bat I was struck by how good it still looked. While you can definitely tell the game is dated, they use what they have wisely. The fog in the game looks lightyears better than in Silent Hill 1, where it was really just a creepy gimmick to explain draw distance. Weaknesses in character models are hidden well by superb animation. Just the way the monsters move is unsettling, especially the mannequin leg monsters and the evil nurses. All of the environments have such strong design that went into them that I couldn't even pay attention to the technical aspects of it.  Everything visual comes together to create an atmosphere like no other game out there.

That atmosphere is something that is matched in very few games (Bioshock's Rapture and portions of Fallout 3 are the only things to come close). There is so much that is off putting about the world you experience. Finding a room that has a box chained to a bed with four heavy locks on it, only for it to contain a piece of hair is just one example of the type of strange environmental storytelling that goes on. There are so many notes and pictures that you find throughout the game that don't really end up having anything to do with puzzles or the main story, but just go to further the mood of the game. Not only is there such an eeriness created, there is an overwhelming sense of loneliness as well. You do run into a handful of character throughout the game, but between the fog and the dark hallways, you really feel alone for much of the game. That's not really a feeling that you are used to in video games, so it's refreshing to see something strive to capture that.

The characters that you do meet throughout the game are very interesting, as they all have their own reasons to be trapped in this hellish town. Since the game is over a decade old, I don't feel bad spoiling the ending of the game, but if you haven't played it, I'll give you a chance to stop here. The reason that James is in Silent Hill is because his dead wife sent him a letter telling him to meet her there, and it's revealed by the end of the game that you are the one that killed her. Silent Hill drew him there to force him to face what he had done. Other character in the game seem to have the same fate. Angela killed her father who sexually abused her, and now battles constant suicidal thoughts. Eddie killed someone for making fun of him, and he sinks further and further into fits of violence. They both represent different ways your path could lead if you give in.

The most interesting character in the game is Maria. James finds her in the park, and she is a spitting image of his wife, but more sexualized. Throughout the game, he is confusing her with Mary, and she either snaps at him for it, or tells him that she'll be his Mary if he likes. She represents what James wishes he could have had with his wife. The reason he killed her was because she was ill and bedridden. Depending on how you interpret the game, it could either be seen that he killed her as a mercy, or that he killed her because he was frustrated that she was holding him back. There are also undertones of sexual frustration in the latter choice, as they obviously could not be intimate during her illness. There are some very surreal scenes in the game with Maria that drive home this point. This idea is one of the most mature I've ever seen explored in a video game. Even without the sexual frustration portion of the theme, there's a very relateable notion of being upset at someone who can't hold up their end of a relationship, even though they have it much worse off than you.

These themes are also explored in the enemies. There are not a ton of different enemy types in the game, but the ones that exist all have a purpose. From the creepy nurses, who represent Mary's time in the hospital, to the double leg creatures, which are just two sexualized sets of lower halves, all of the monsters are meant to disturb the player. The infamous Pyramid Head is easily the best example of this, and possibly one of the finest creatures in video game history. He fully represents that sexual frustration I spoke about earlier. The first time you meet him, he is raping another monster, and both his giant weapon and his helmet suggest a phallic form. The encounters with him are all wonderful, including a battle where you can't kill him and just have to avoid him for a certain amount of time. 

Despite having the same setting, this game feels like a different beast than the rest of the Silent Hill series. While the other games have a very large focus on the mythology of the town, this one is a very personal journey that doesn't tie into anything else in the Silent Hill series. It feels more like a story of a man who descends deeper and deeper into his own personal madness on a mission of self destruction. One review I read of the series recently mentioned that you do a lot of things in this game that you absolutely would not do in real life, like jump down a series of holes in the ground, but pointed out that this made sense in the context of the game, since James seems intent on punishing himself for what he has done.  

To wrap up, I'll share one of the smallest details of the game that terrified me the most. It's doors.  I remember when I played it when I was younger, I found it maddening that there were so many doors that you couldn't open. Why even program them in if they were functionally the same as a wall? But I realize now that all the doors that are broken make it scary when they do open. I get so used to finding them unopenable that I shudder every time I hear the noise of a door opening. I'd rather be frustrated and stuck in the same room than have the door open and be forced to face some unknown horror.

And that is why Silent Hill 2 is brilliant. 

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Arc Reactor: Captain Marvel - Higher, Further, Faster, More

Marvel has had a very strong push recently to move things to the cosmic corners of the Marvel Universe. Since Marvel Now, Tony Stark has gone to space, the Guardians of the Galaxy had a huge push, Silver Surfer got his own book, just to name a few. One of the characters that got moved to this setting was the relaunched Captain Marvel book by Kelly Sue DeConnick. I had been hearing a lot of the hype around DeConnick's Captain Marvel book and the following it had been gathering, so this relaunch seemed like a great time to see what they hype was all about.

The story begins picking up on the fallout of Infinity, one of Marvel's recent events. A refugee from planet that was destroyed by the Builders ends up on Earth and in the hands of the Avengers. After a quick overview of her little family that she has set up, she decides to go into space to help out this little girl alien. Putting her into space is a really great idea, because Danvers is a pilot, so this is the ultimate place for her to fly, something that was denied to her in the previous volume. Eventually, Captain Marvel ends up finding the new homeworld of the alien refugee, and finds that they are in dire straights. After moving to the new planet, many of their people have fallen mysteriously ill. Not only that, but they are dealing with some rather sticky intergalactic politics with J'Son, king of the Spartax empire. Carol, realizing that she is the representative of the Avengers in space, takes it upon herself to solve all their problems and standing up for this displaced race. 

It's a nice set up for a compelling story. So much of the time, during these big Marvel events, we never really see the realistic fallout. We see entire planets destroyed on a regular basis, but we don't really think about what that means. To see an entire civilization have to get up and try to start over on a new planet, only to get bullied by J'Son and the Spartax, is a harrowing situation. While it's a great set up, it does take a bit too long for the story really to get rolling. There's a bit of a side track with the Guardians of the Galaxy that seems a bit out of place, but the story really sticks the landing. DeConnick does a great job of making the climax both interestingly political and action packed. When Carol makes her stand at the end of issue 5, it's really an awesome fist pumping moment.

While the story ends up being interesting, what this book really excels at is character. Even though this is a 'solo' book, what makes this unique is the family that DeConnick makes for Carol Danvers is really great. During her travels in space, she ends up collecting a ragtag group of aliens that all work together. She creates this little group of characters from the ground up and turns them into people that we genuinely care about. I just love the dynamic that she creates. On top of that, Carol Danvers is one of the most inspiring characters. Being a pilot and a soldier, she has a lot of similarities to Captain America, and inspires hope in the same way. She's kinda built a reputation as the hero that really looks out for the 'little guy.' While that may not be an completely unique trait for a superhero, Carol really makes it one of the defining characteristics in a wonderful way.

It's easy to see how this book has gathered such a rabid fanbase. DeConnick has such a great sense of creating down to Earth characters even in outlandish situations. Now that I have Marvel Unlimited, I may take some time to go back and read DeConnick's previous volume on the title. It's clear that she has a passion for the character, and that translates onto the page. Hopefully she's got all the pacing issues figured out, and the next storyline can hit the ground running. 

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy Review

When Guardians of the Galaxy was announced, people were skeptical. Was Marvel really going to put out a superhero movie about a group of characters no one had ever heard of, including a talking raccoon and a sentient tree? Directed by a small name director? Starting the bumbling character from Parks and Rec? I kept seeing articles pop up all over asking if this would be Marvel's first true bomb. But then footage was released, and people loved it. The trailer came out, and the average public took notice. People saw a film with wit and charm. When it finally opened, it smashed August records. It did business almost equal to Captain America: The Winter Solider. And critics LOVED it.

There's so much to love about this film. It both fits in perfectly with the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but still feels like something drastically different and fresh. Right off the bat we're given a quick emotional scene that plants the seeds for the strong emotional core of the film. We see young Peter Quill lose his mother to cancer, then get whisked off by aliens. Jump to an Indiana Jones-like scene where grown up Quill is looking through some ruins while dancing to music playing through his Walkman. These two scenes set up the tone and the feel of what's to come perfectly. Director James Gunn makes a fantastic decision to link this Walkman and cassette tape playing in it to his dead mother, really defining his character quickly, while giving some the film to have a reason to have such and awesome, old-school soundtrack.

From there, our motley crew of heroes crosses paths with each other, than eventually comes together for a common cause. Each person in the group gets their chance to shine. While Gamora and Drax seem to have similar motivations, they do a nice job of differentiating them. The real scene stealers of the film are the two that people were most skeptical about: Groot and Rocket. It is such an achievement that they created two completely CG characters that are voiced by well known actors and made unique characters. If I wouldn't have known, I would have never guessed they were voiced by Vin Diesel and Bradley Cooper. They have such a unique bond, and both are given time to have some really emotional moments. The whole arc of these rouges finding the heroism inside of them is nothing that hasn't been seen before, but everyone involved pulls it off perfectly.

On the villains' side of the film, the characters aren't quite as strong, but the performances are all solid. Lee Pace in particular really brings it to the role. Ronan the Accuser's motivations don't differ too much from those of Malekith in Thor: The Dark World, they both essentially just want to destroy things on a massive scale with some crazy, mystical artifact, but Pace really digs into the role and gives it the appropriate level of menace, while still leaving room for some comedic beats. It's also nice to see a little glimpse of Thanos' role in the greater Marvel Cinematic Universe. We know he was pulling the strings in Loki's attacks during The Avengers, but it's great to start to fill him in a bit more. It's very satisfying to see that Marvel has the patience to play the long game with Thanos (I was as surprised as other when they announced UltronI as the villain of Avengers 2 rather than Thanos), and I'm confident they know how to make this all pay off in the end.

I really can't think of anything I didn't like about this film. It's familiar, yet fresh; brisk, yet emotional, everything you could want from a blockbuster film. This is going to be some little kid's "Star Wars." Rocket and Groot will be his or her Han and Chewie. That's how big this film is. It's hard for me to say if this is my favorite Marvel film, because they are all finding a way of telling awesome stories in completely different genres. I would definitely say this one is in my top three. I was a little skeptical that Marvel announced another Guardians movie so quickly, as I thought it would be better to have them show up in someone else's movie (or maybe just swoop in to save the day at the end of Avengers: Age of Ultron), but the cosmic corner of universe they've created here is so rich, and does a great job of fleshing out a lot of the things in the background of the other Marvel films. I feel like I'm getting repetitive by saying "I can't wait to see where it goes from here," but I really can't. Marvel is on fire, and I'm excited to see what they do with other properties, such as Dr. Strange. MAKE MINE MARVEL!

Monday, July 28, 2014

Snowpiercer Review

Right when I heard about this film I was excited about it, and boy did the Weinsteins make it a challenge to see it. This film is the English language debut of Bong Joon-Ho, director of the excellent monster film The Host. It's already been released in Korea and did great business, but for whatever reason, the Weinsteins wanted to cut the film by about 20 minute for American release. Luckily the director stuck to his guns, but the trade off was that the movie got a very limited release.

Luckily for me, part of the small release also meant that it was released on VOD at the same time as it was in the theatres. This was my first time renting a film in this way, and I really enjoyed it. While I would have much rather seen this on the big screen, it was great to be able to experience this film while it was new despite not being in a big market.

After all that hype and hoopla, did the film live up to its promise? I believe it did 100%. The film follows the passengers aboard the last train on Earth, carrying the all that remains of humanity after mankind's attempts to curb global warming causes a new Ice Age. The train is organized by class, with the lower class being crowded into the back cars, while the upper class live in luxury in the front section. The allegory is pretty simple, but the film uses some really wonderful world building to really flesh out the concept. While it may not be a completely believable scenario, the whole thing obeys its own logic and the weirdness of the train gives the film a surreal feel that enhances the atmosphere. The tone the film strikes is one of the strongest elements of the film. It manages to be dark and disturbing while still being a bit wacky and funny at times, all without making the tonal shifts feel out of place. Bong Joon-Ho did the same type of thing in The Host, and I think it works even better in this film.

I think that the strongest element of this film is the plot pacing. Snowpiercer does a fantastic job of withholding details from the viewer then revealing them later, without feeling like a cop out. One particular scene really stands out about halfway through the film. The film also isn't afraid to kill off characters throughout, giving the movie an unpredictable nature. There are even a couple late stage twists that give some of the characters some much needed depth. A lot of the characters are kind of archetypes throughout, so I can't help but wonder if revealing some character twists a little earlier might have given the story a little more punch, but I'm perfectly fine with the way things played out.

Contrary to what the Weinsteins thought, I think that this movie may have actually benefited from expanding certain concepts a little bit more to really flesh things out. One of the antagonists in the film seems to have a strong connection to one of the characters, but it's never really explained exactly what's going on between them, or what his deal is. I also think that a little bit more focus on how the upper class actually lives (ie sleeps and works) would have really gone a long way in giving the world that last bit of detail that would really put it on another level.

Even though it wasn't pushed as such, this is exactly what I think a summer blockbuster should be. It's got a lot of creativity, creates an interesting world with something to say, and never forgets to be thrilling. Even though there is a bit of a message in the film, it always remembers that it's a movie that has to be engaging in order to deliver that message. The film is so exciting, but really sticks with you due the world it presents you with. I really hope other producers see the potential of Bong Joon-Ho, and he is given a lot more leeway with his next film, because he's earned it.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Top 10 iOS Games

This is one of the few strategy games that I've checked out for iOS. It's like a reverse version of the board game Pandemic. You control a virus, and get to help it evolve and spread throughout the world. You have to decide what you want the symptoms to be, how it spreads and so forth, all in reaction to the world around it. It's engaging, and a game doesn't take overly long to play.

If I remember correctly might have been the first game that I got for my iPod Touch. It's basically a sim game where you run a game development company. You hire programmers, artists, etc and make them work on whatever type of game you want. You have to decide what you consoles you want to work with, and how quickly you want to start working on them. It gets a bit repetitive later in the game, but the theme is so strong that I was drawn  to it despite its flaws.

One thing iOS really excels at is making games with really quick gameplay loops that are easy to learn, but tough to master. Super Hexagon is a zen level example of that genre. Basically all you do is try to rotate yourself through this shape maze, but it gets really tough, really quickly. It's one of those you really need to play to see what's special about it, because the gameplay is just about perfect.

This is interesting because it's essentially a board game created exclusively for a digital platform. It comes from Firaxis, who was responsible for the newest XCOM games, so it's got a really strong sense of strategy. You basically build a haunted house, then send monsters into the town to try to scare the villagers while your opponent does the same. There's a good amount of strategy to it in regards to the type of units you can build, and it's very fun throughout.

Endless runners are a huge deal on mobile devices, and this is one of the sharpest. You're an Indiana Jones type running through underground caves fighting off various monsters you encounter. The game has a ton of charm, and there's enough things for you to get to continuously upgrade your character as you play. It's quirky sense of humor really makes it easy to come back to over and over.

This is the type of game I was hoping existed when I started playing iOS games. It takes complete advantage of the system it plays on and wouldn't play the same in another form. The game is basically a text adventure, but that sells it short quite a bit. You scroll through the text of the story, and it acts like a maze you are navigating. Sometimes you pick with direction you go first, often causing you to flip the actual iPhone as you are doing so. There are also a good amount of visuals throughout. You progress through the game by solving puzzles, the kind of old school puzzles that you need a pen and paper to solve. I haven't finished the game, but it's an absolutely refreshing experience that reminds me of the first time I read House of Leaves.

Another perfect gameplay loop type game. The game basically has three portions to each round. First, you cast your line and send your fishing hook down. While you are doing this, you try to dodge all the fish around you. Once you hit one, you start to reel it in. During this portion, you try to touch as many fish as you can to pull them up. And when your hook reaches the surface, they all get tossed up in the air. At this point, you have to shoot them out of the sky. It's massively entertaining, and there are enough things to buy in the game that make you get progressively better as you continue to play. It's an absolute blast to play.

This is the endless runner to end all endless runners. You just keep going, trying to avoid all the traps in the facility by flying up and down the screen with your jetpack. There are also some really cool vehicles you can get that give you different advantages throughout. Again, with the money you earn while playing you can buy upgrades, both gameplay and cosmetic, to give the game more variety.

Another great sim game, this one coming from the good folks at Double Fine. Basically you are the guy who coordinates a Justice League type superhero team. You hire heroes, send them out to do heroic things, like saving a bus full of children or fighting off robbers. There are different sections of the city that you can progress through, each with a different villain storyline involved with them. It's a lot of fun, and the theme works perfectly in the game. I wish there was still some new content coming out for the game, as I tore through it all quickly.

This game is a fully developed RPG that plays out entirely on iOS. The theme is that you are a group of people playing D&D, and the battles you see play out are the story you guys are playing. It's one of the few iOS games that I've really paid attention to the story. The game progresses at a great pace, though it does ramp up quite a bit towards the end. The battle system is amazingly solid, and the amount of character combinations you can create is amazing. I can't stress enough how fun this game is, providing a wonderful old school RPG experience in such a small little package.

Honorable Mentions: Dead Space, Plants vs Zombies 2, Papa Sangre II, Organ Trail, Hearthstone, Republique