Sunday, July 2, 2017

Baby Driver - Review



Despite the fact that Edgar Wright is one of my favorite filmmakers, I wasn't really super hyped for Baby Driver until fairly recently. Since I knew I was going to see it, I was avoiding any information about it. It wasn't until I saw the cast list and read the concept behind the movie that I really got caught up in the excitement. 

For those who don't know, the concept behind the film is that it's basically a musical, but instead of song and dance numbers, there are gun fights and car chases timed to the music. Apparently, Edgar Wright has been kicking this idea around in his head for 22 years, and it's something that you can see throughout. The roots of it can be seen in the sequence in Shawn of the Dead where they beat the zombie with pool cues to Queen's "Don't Stop Me Now." Even Scott Pilgrim had a full fledged musical number in it, so it wasn't a long stretch for him to make something like this. 

The story itself is a fairly well-worn tale of Baby, a young man who owes money to the mob and falls for a girl right before his 'one last job.' The characters themselves also fall into fairly common categories: professional mob boss, psycho criminal, but the dialog and performances really make them all stand out. Jamie Foxx's Bats is the perfect dangerously unpredictable partner, intimidating enough to scare the normally tough as nails Buddy, played wonderfully by Jon Hamm. The romance between Baby and Debora grabs you right by the heart, thanks to charming performances by Ansel Elgort and Lily James. They even make the cliche 'two people falling for each other while sharing head phones' scene feel fresh. 

The dialog in this film is all sharp and keeps everything moving at an intense clip. Every line seems to be a perfect response to the previous, but not in a stilted and unrealistic way. There are some really amazing exchanges that find smart ways to slowly ratchet up the tension line by line. The plot also takes a ton of really smart turns that become unpredictable by the end. Wright is usually known for his comedy, so I was surprised how much more of a crime/heist drama this was than I thought it would be. There were some very funny moments, and the action was flashy and thrilling, but I found myself thoroughly invested in Baby and Debora's plight. 

Speaking of the action scenes, that's what really sets this movie apart. The car chases, which were filmed practically, are more thrilling than anything I've seen since Mad Max. The visual storytelling involved in the sequences were astounding, telling a complete story using nothing but fast cars and gun shots. There are some car stunts in this film that I've never seen anywhere else. Not only were the chases and fights amazing, but the way they were synced to music made them something unbelievable. The timing and dedication need to edit these sequences is astonishing, and all the hard work paid off. The gunfight set to a Tequila cover was really something to behold. 

I'm not usually a big music person, but this film's mind for music really helped add a ton of personality and set it apart from a standard heist film. From what I remember, every scene in the film has music playing in the ears of Baby, and each scene is informed and paced to the song. It's such a hip move that makes the film into something special. 

Edgar Wright is such a talented filmmaker, and I hope that this film is a hit. After spending so much time working on Ant-Man only to drop out before the film was made, he deserves to have his talents recognized with a commercial hit. This is probably his most marketable film, so hopefully it will find a way to connect with mainstream audiences in ways that Scott Pilgrim vs the World didn't. Baby Driver proves that he is one of the most vibrant filmmakers working today, and I absolutely cannot wait to see what he does next. 

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

E3 2017: Part II - Sony

I was lucky enough to be able to check out the Sony E3 press conference at a local theater. Even though I was in the ideal viewing conditions, I feel like I was a little bit disappointed in the conference overall. Last year we had the announcements of games like Death Stranding, Spider-Man, God of War and Days Gone. This year we just were shown deeper looks at those game in action (aside from Death Stranding). While the games all really do look stunning, I feel like there were very few surprises throughout, making it a little bit of a letdown. 


UNCHARTED: LOST LEGACY
I was a little surprised Sony used some time for this game since it's out in just under two months, but the game looks good. It's hard to argue against more Uncharted, especially when this one is a bit more bite sized. I always like the idea of making shorter, AAA games for a discount price. One of the big criticisms of Uncharted 4 was that it ran on a bit too long, so hopefully this smaller version will be just the right size. 



GOD OF WAR
While we did get a lot more footage from this game, I don't know if it did anything to change my opinion or get me more hyped. Given what we learned last year, this was exactly what I expected to see from this game. I'm interested in seeing how the father/son relationship plays out, but I'm not necessarily super into the big 'epic' battles that Kratos is known for. Early 2018 is a good release window for the game, so hopefully it turn out to be something good. 



DAYS GONE
This is the slickest looking game I've ever seen that I just can't get into. I'm fatigued from saying I have zombie fatigue, so the setting really doesn't do a ton for me. The graphics were completely jaw dropping, and the amount of characters they were able to render on the screen was beyond impressive, but I still don't know what the hook is. Biker gang meets zombie survival isn't exactly the the most unique idea in the world, and I don't think the game did anything special gameplay wise. The same could have been said for The Last of Us before launch, I suppose, but at least that had the pedigree of Naughty Dog behind it. I'd love to be wrong, but right now Days Gone is just a very pretty game without a great reason to play. 



HORIZON: ZERO DAWN - THE FROZEN WILDS
I loved the world of Horizon, so any excuse to return to it is a good one. I don't really have a ton to say about this I guess, but it's cool that they are really dedicated to this new franchise and want to further fill in the gorgeous world they created with the main game. 



DETROIT: BECOME HUMAN
Another year, another look at this, with yet another perspective highlighted. I think the more I see of this, the further I am from understanding exactly what it's about. There's a lot going on between all of the trailers, and the jury's still out on whether director David Cage is capable of juggling all these plotlines without letting any of them take a back seat. The gameplay (maybe) shown here was pretty cool, providing you lots of options to take on a certain scenario, so hopefully the game lives up to its huge ambition. 



SPIDER-MAN
It was smart of them to end the conference with this one, because the segment they showed was certainly a crowd pleaser. There were some really amazing, action-packed set pieces on display here, and the graphics looked stunning. I do have two concerns with the game so far. One is that it looks to borrow a lot from the Arkham games. I was just starting to fall out of love with those games by the time the last one rolled around, so hopefully a new character can freshen that gameplay up a bit. The second thing is that some of the big moments really relied heavily on quick time events, which are generally not my favorite thing. The most interesting thing to me about it is the story, which features Mr. Negative as the villain. A 'post credit' sequence for the trailer gave an interesting twist to the classic Spider-Man, and I'll be interested to see how that plays out. 



MATTERFALL
Housemarque is one of the most interesting smaller studios out there. Resogun is one of my favorite twin stick shooters I've ever played, and it looks like they are combining that with one of their other great games, Outland, for their latest game Matterfall. As far as I recall, this was the first time we saw gameplay, and it has a good amount of the visual flair that Resogun had. They really know how to make a 2D sidescrolling game look visually interesting. The most exciting part of this trailer was that the release date for this one is right around the corner: August 15!



HIDDEN AGENDA
This was one of the two game announced that make me pay attention. Hidden Agenda is a new game from the creators of Until Dawn that follows the investigation into a serial killer. The neat thing about the game is that it plays like Until Dawn or Telltale games, where you make choices about your actions or dialog, but the choices are voted on by up to five players who are watching. In addition to that, each player, who votes on their smartphone, has a hidden agenda that they are roleplaying, trying to steer the player character in a certain direction. It's a brilliant way to add some of the wonderful interaction you get from playing board games into a digital space. I think they said this would be out around the end of the year, and I'm really excited to have some people over and give it a try. 



MONSTER HUNTER WORLDS
This other new title sent me on a weird rollercoaster. Initially, based on the weird creatures and huge sword, I legitimately thought this was a weird sequel to Bloodborne and I was so hyped. After I realized that wasn't the case, I lost a little momentum, but then immediately gained it back based on the cool looking gameplay. I love the boss battles in Bloodborne and the hunting in Horizon: Zero Dawn, and this looks like a combination of the two. I've never played a Monster Hunter game, but they seem like something I would really dig and can't wait to take the plunge!

Monday, June 12, 2017

E3 2017: Part I - EA / Microsoft / Bethesda

It's the biggest week in video games: E3! For someone who isn't on the show floor, the most exciting part of it all is always the press conferences which are live streamed to everyone. While I didn't watch them all the way through, there are a couple fun pieces that I'd like to highlight. 


STAR WARS BATTLEFRONT II
The biggest thing that EA showed off during their press conference was the follow up to the multiplayer shooter Star War Battlefront. While I heard their attempt to show live multiplayer matches was awful, what I watched of the game looked great. It was cool to see them mix and match things from all three Star Wars eras, and the action looks fast and intense. What is really grabbing me about this game is the single player, which was noticeably absent from the first game. Interestingly, the game will follow an elite squad of Imperial Stormtroopers right after the end of Return of the Jedi, making for a fresh, if strangely dark, change of perspective. 


THE WAY OUT
One of the coolest little surprise games was The Way Out, which comes from the director of Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. This game is a narrative heavy game that forces you to play in co-op, which really opens up a very interesting set of possibilities. You and a friend work together to break out of prison and run from the law. It's an interesting premise that hasn't really been explored in the video game space in quite this fashion, so I'm very intrigued. I imagine much of the success of the game will lean on how much your choices can steer the story, but I'll definitely be keeping tabs on this one.


ANTHEM
Speaking of surprises, Bioware revealed their new game they had been developing for years under the code name Dylan. Anthem looks like a cross between Destiny and Evolve, tasking players to work together with friends to venture out past the protective wall of a futuristic city to fight the creatures on the outside. Hopefully they will still have a good focus on story, despite their move from action-RPG to more of a co-op shooter. I'm not a huge multiplayer shooter guy, but the footage shown got my attention. The mech suits your characters wear, called Javelins, have a lot in common with Iron Man's armor, and the environments look really stunning as you fly through them. If the story and world end up being well realized, this game could be something special. 


CODE VEIN
Bloodborne was one of my favorite games of all time, and it's good to see other developers taking inspiration from the type of game From Software creates. There's not a ton of footage to go on yet, but this looks like an anime version of Bloodborne where you fight monsters in some sort of vampire post-apocalypse. It's cool that the vibrant anime style provides a break from the normally dark and drab settings Dark Souls games are set in, so I'll definitely set up to the plate and take on this challenge. 


THE EVIL WITHIN 2
I didn't really enjoy the first Evil Within game, but I'm always excited for a new AAA horror game. There was a lot of promise in the first one, so hopefully they'll have ground down some of the rough edges and emphasize the strengths of the game. I wish they would have taken the approach the Silent Hill 2 took for a sequel where it would be set in a similar world but with a different set of characters, but hopefully they can make the world and protagonist a little more interesting. 


WOLFENSTEIN II: THE NEW COLOSSUS
Everyone knew this was coming because of a hint in last year's Bethesda press conference, but the trailer still wowed. Wolfenstein: The New Order was such an amazing narrative-driven first-person shooter, and it looks like this one will follow it up with just as solid of a game. This time, we bring the fight against Nazis to America. There's so many cool moments in the trailer, so I can't wait to get back to the outlandish yet grounded world that they've created. Even better, it's coming out this year! 

I'll be back tomorrow with my thoughts from Sony's E3 press conference, which I'll be watching from a local movie theater!

Monday, May 15, 2017

Arc Reactor: Ms. Marvel - Damage Per Second

I feel like as time goes on, I'm less interested in the "big" superhero storylines where the world is in danger or timelines are irrevocably changed and find more excitement from smaller, more intimate stories that are focused like a laser beam. Don't get me wrong, a well done spectacle is a well done spectacle, but I think with the episodic nature of comics, I prefer my storytelling more like TV episodes than blockbuster films.

Ms. Marvel is a perfect example of that concept done right. She's got her own little corner of the Marvel universe, and while she does interact with other big players, writer G. Willow Wilson always finds a way to make it matter to the character in a way that feels organic and unforced. Damage Per Second is a shining example of what can happen when publishers don't mandate a comic be integrated thoroughly into the greater picture and just let the book do its own thing.

For those who don't know, Ms. Marvel is kind of a modern day Spider-Man-like story for the modern age. Kamala Khan is high school student who gets super powers and tries to balance her social, family and superhero lives. Not only does it capture that good old fashion fun feeling of Spider-Man, but it tackles modern issues without feeling forced. Kamala is Muslim, and while it's an important part of her character, it never comes across in a way where it just feels like they are doing it to make a point. She's an authentically Muslim character that brings a different perspective to the table, making these old superhero concepts feel fresh and new.

Damage Per Second takes on another modern issue: online bullying. The arc starts out with a scene that could have felt corny in the hands of a less skilled writer: Kamala is playing a World of Warcraft type game with her friends when a sentient virus infects her computer. The arc deserves credit for being able to make this sequence actually feel like a group of teens playing video games rather than an approximation of the dialog written by an out of touch old person.

The virus, known as Doc.X, takes the form of one of the in game avatars and starts to taunt Kamala, even threatening to reveal her secret identity. The virus ends up spreading and eventually outs one of Kamala's high school friends as a lesbian by releasing unsent love letters to everyone in school. In a heartwarming scene, her friends come together to support her after this act, showing that Kamala is a real hero both in and out of the costume.

Eventually, Ms. Marvel figures that the virus is getting more and more viscous because it was programmed to learn from the internet, and the internet is full of hate. She enlists her friends on the most impossible mission she's ever undertaken: trying to make the internet nice. It's a cute concept that really gets to the heart of what it means to be a hero.

While the arc doesn't exactly wrap up perfectly from there (I'm still a little confused as to how the final battle actually went down), this story arc was a brisk and brilliant story that put characters first and built the excitement from there. Even if you've never read any Ms. Marvel before, this is a wonderful self-contained arc that you could definitely pick up. It's a perfect example of everything that make this book successful, and a model for how superhero comics should be handled.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Horizon: Zero Dawn - Review



This year has certainly started off with a bang in the video game world, as many have been quick to point out. I've already written about Resident Evil VII, and it's such a surprise that the very next game I play can approach such a masterpiece in terms of quality.

I remember when Horizon: Zero Dawn was revealed. The teaser trailer immediately grabbed me with its unique world and amazing design aesthetic. I had an interesting hype cycle with this game after that. The more I saw of concept art, the more I was hooked. Robot dinosaurs seemed to be a perfect cross section of my interests, and the post-post apocalyptic world portrayed was mysterious and engrossing. When the game got closer to release, I began to get worried, as many game journalists talked about the open world nature of the game. I'm not a huge open world person, as I tend to get lost in the weeds very quickly and start to feel like everything you can do is equally meaningless. Once launch day rolled around, I was impressed enough with the scores and the reports of an excellent story that I decided to take the plunge.

Horizon starts off with a really masterful beginning that immediately sets up the world as something very believable and lived in, with plenty of area to expand to and mystery to explore. You're immediately dropped in to their fascinating society which has many unique religious beliefs and a matriarchal structure. It's very had to balance this level of giving you a lot about the world while still finding a way to let you know that there's more to the story, but Horizon does it in a way that draws you in like no other. In the game, much of the human race has been wiped out, and what remains lives in more primitive conditions among beautiful nature inhabited by strange robot animals. Right off the bat, they set up the two main mysteries: what happened to the world and who is Aloy's mother.

 None of this would mean anything if the game weren't fun to play, and fortunately it is. You explore this lush world that's peppered with herds of robotic monstrosities. The best part about traversing is that the creatures generally mind their own business and graze. This gives you an opportunity to plan your attack and prepare the battlefield with traps to give you the advantage. There's such a variety of ammo types for your bow and other weapons that allows you to customize your strategy in whatever way works for you. Much like Bioshock, one of my favorites, a good battle requires just as much wit as reflexes. Each monster also has different weaknesses, and knowing those is the key to taking them out. There's something really satisfying about taking on an intimidating monster and blowing off it's huge weapons with your first sneak shot, then blasting off its armor, anchoring it to the ground and hitting its weak spot with arrows.

My normal issues with open world games didn't pop up in this game, mainly due to the strength of the story. There were a couple times where I stalled in my progress to go on fetch quests for characters, but the mystery ended up giving the game enough forward momentum. There are a couple different plot lines that go on in the main story, but the game balances them deftly. I absolutely loved the conclusion to the mystery, which had a smart answer to how the world ended up in such a unique place.

Overall, this may be the second best Sony exclusive (behind Bloodborne) and the start of a new franchise. Aloy is such an engaging character, and hopefully there's lots more to explore in their world. I don't know what exactly I would want from a sequel, as everything is wrapped up nicely in this one, but this world is too awesome to leave behind.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Colossal - Review



After seeing Timecrimes at a film festival years ago, I knew that Nacho Vigalondo was going to be a director to watch. Unfortunately, his follow ups were not well reviewed and didn't really hit theaters or festivals near me, so he fell off my radar for a while. Fortunately, Colossal got a lot of press coming out of various film festivals and grabbed me with its amazing premise and great style.

Colossal uses one of my favorite techniques in storytelling: taking a real emotional problem and blowing it up to bigger proportions with a smart, science fiction twist. The World's End did this wonderfully, using the emotional parts to enhance the sci-fi and the sci-fi to enhance the emotional parts. In this film, Anne Hathaway plays Gloria, a woman who heads back to her small town after her boyfriend breaks up with her and kicks her out of their apartment because he can't put up with her drinking and partying all the time. She returns to her childhood home, meets up with one of her grade school friends and finds out that she is inadvertently controlling a giant kaiju that is destroying Seoul, Korea. It's such a perfectly elegant metaphor: if I were to get drunk and act a fool, it could be devastating to me, but if she does it, she could literally kill hundreds of people and cause millions in property damage.

For such a silly premise, Colossal really digs into some pretty intense themes. Most of what I've said is revealed in the trailer, but there are some really wonderful twists throughout that were not in the marketing and completely caught me off guard. The movie becomes a very empowering tale of control, both about how you control yourself and what you do when others try to control you. The script manages to convey these themes in a way that doesn't feel forced, but rather emerges organically from the story presented. The ending of the film is also amazingly satisfying, providing both a clever solution to the main conflict and one hell of an emotional moment.

It's not easy to carry a surreal premise that is built on real emotions, but the cast of this film does so with ease. Anne Hathaway is wonderful in this film. Her character could easily become one that we dislike, an alcoholic that just can't learn from her mistakes, but her charm makes the character easy to sympathize with from the get go. A huge surprise in this was Jason Sudeikis. His character ends up taking on an important role in the film, and he perfectly portrays all the layers, including some very dark moments. Having only seen him in straight up comedy, it was nice to see range from him.

For a giant monster movie that was made for only $15 million, Colossal looks great. The monster has a fairly unique design that recalls classic monsters, but seen through a slightly goofy lens. The film often uses frequent cuts to Hathaway moving around her small town as the monster and leaves us to imagine the damage it's doing to Seoul. It's a smart way to save budget while still giving us the same effect. Vigalondo deserves a lot of credit for taking a subgenre that's been done for decade and turning it into something completely different, both in production and story.

I was fortunate enough to she this film with a Q&A with Vigalondo. It's clear that this film was something he was passionate about, and it's impossible not to see that passion on the screen. He took such a strange concept and turned it into an empowering film that tackles some very forward thinking, feminist issues. I hope that Vigalondo keeps making movies of this level, where he has the budget to pull off some neat effects and get a solid cast, but still has a low enough budget where he doesn't have to compromise the story.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Arc Reactor: Batman - I Am Bane



One of my favorite ways for comic storylines to play out is to have discreet arcs that are about five to six issues long that all stack to build one big mega arc. Rick Remender's Uncanny X-Force did this to amazing effect with its first 18 issues that culminated in the Dark Angel Saga, and Tom King's Batman uses this tactic very well.

I still think that there are some strange tonal shifts throughout the first 20 issues. Scott Snyder put his stamp on the main Batman title for so long, giving us big, bombastic blockbusters, so it's a bit jarring for us to have something that feels so much more lyrical and meditative. I'm not saying there aren't a lot of big actiony moments, this arc especially has that, but the tone and pace is definitely a change of pace for the title.

Tone issues aside, I Am Bane is the best arc yet on this title. After Batman broke into Santa Prisca and stole Psycho Pirate from a Bane who was trying to kick his Venom habit, Bane declares war on Batman and means to break him once again. It's a pretty classic set up for a Batman story, but the previous arcs set up the emotional stakes for both parties involved in a way that felt unique. Batman needs Psycho Pirate to try to emotionally heal Gotham Girl while Bane needs Pirate to help him quit Venom.

The first issue of this arc features Bruce meeting with all his former Robins at a Batman themed McDonalds-esque restaurant, giving us a rare funny scene for Bruce. This gives us a moment of respite before the true war begins. Bruce gives out his standard "This is my fight, and I'll do it alone" warning to the sidekicks, who ignore his advice and end up on the shelf by the end of the issue.

One thing this book does is really remind the reader why Bane is special. There's a really wonderful sequence that parallels the lives of Bruce Wayne and Bane, and it's interesting to see how each of them respond differently to the trauma they experienced. In many ways, it makes you feel more sympathy for Bane than for Bruce, as Bruce still had money and privilege while Bane was just trying to survive in Santa Prisca. There's also a really wonderful monologue delivered by Bane where he illustrates the difference between him and the rest of the rogues, and it goes a long way towards making him, and my extension this fight, feel important.

The real highlight of this story is the climax that happens in the final two issues. In part four, we see an extremely clever reverse of the very first Bane story. In Knightfall, we saw Bane releasing all of the villains locked up in Arkham in an attempt to wear down Batman before their confrontation. In this story, Batman holes up in Arkham Asylum and lets out all the inmates, leaving Bane to fight his way through them.

The final issue takes a very conceptual approach to the big showdown at the end. After Bane fights his way through Arkham's worst, an injured Batman tries his best to stop him. Cut into the fight is essentially a clip show of the past 19 issues, showing how close Batman has come to death. The whole issue is narrated by his mother, who is greeting him in the afterlife as he is at death's door in the hands of Bane. It's a surprisingly emotional way to present a fight scene like this, and does a lot to make Batman less cold than he can be.

Having read Tom King's Vision, I knew his run on Batman wasn't going to be a standard one. I've been pleasantly surprised by the lyrical and thoughtful tone he's brought to the book, even if it hasn't always meshed 100% with the story he's telling. I Am Bane was a fantastic wrap up for his first mega arc, and I can see myself sitting down with it in the near future and rereading it from start to finish to see how it holds up.