Monday, September 26, 2016

Arc Reactor: Batman - I Am Gotham

One of the most refreshing parts of DC's Rebirth was the shakeup of creative teams, and no book needed it more than Batman. Don't get me wrong, Scott Snyder is a great writer, but I think that he got a little too focused on telling large-scale Batman stories just because he was on the main book, and those didn't connect with me as well as his Detective Comics run. When Tom King was announced as the new author, I was intrigued to see what this up and coming writer has in store, especially after reading some of his run on The Vision.

I was a little concerned about the book after the first issue. For the most part it had a decent grasp on the tone of Batman, but there wasn't really anything great about the book. The story didn't start in proper until the end of issue one. Even when it started, it was just another version of the old Gotham's-got-a-new-vigilante trope, which doesn't always resonate with me. The second issue introduced us to Gotham and Gotham Girl, two new heroes with power seemingly equivalent to Superman. While the kitchen sink approach to powers usually doesn't appeal to me, the idea that Batman sees them as someone who can do the things he can't is an interesting one.

There are villains in the story, but they are kinda pushed into the background, with more focus on the Gotham siblings and their relationship with Batman. Hugo Strange and Psycho Pirate make appearances and really end up kicking the story into high gear. As the trope usually plays out, Gotham ends up having a huge confrontation with Batman which was absolutely thrilling. The last two issues of the story were really exciting, and even had a really funny moment featuring Alfred. It was totally worth taking the time to lay the groundwork in the first three issues for the finale that we were provided. Some of the Justice League even got involved, which really upped the stakes of the encounter. The art by David Finch does a great job of conveying all the action. Finch can sometimes have very stiff looking art, but he manages to capture the scenes with crisp line work and great detail.

Issue six serves as an epilogue to the story, following the fallout of the encounter through the eyes of Gotham Girl. While she isn't a terribly well built character, they do a good job of making parallels to Bruce Wayne's life and allow him to use their similarities to understand what she is going through in the aftermath of the story. The final page leaves Batman in an interesting position, setting him on a course straight into Bane's stronghold with the help of Amanda Waller.

Before we get to the Bane story, we'll have a brief detour into DC's first crossover of the Rebirth era: Night of the Monster Men. It will be a crossover that will take up two issues of Batman, Nightwing and Detective Comics for a total of six issues. The story involves a re-imagining of Hugo Strange and the Monster Men, but this time the Monster Men are kaiju size. I'll be skipping it (I could use the breathing room in my pull list), but I can't wait to return and see what Tom King has in store with his next arc, I Am Suicide. It seems like he's got his feet under him with Batman, and it's so refreshing to see a new voice in the Batman canon.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Blair Witch - Review

I could not have been more excited about the reveal of this film. It was originally announced as the new film from Adam Wingard and Simon Barret, the writer/director team of You're Next and The Guest, called The Woods. The film was screened at Comic Con, where it was revealed that the film was actually a sequel to the Blair Witch Project simply titled Blair Witch. I was already interested in the film, but my hype level went through the roof with this reveal. Secret sequels like this always work for me, and the Blair Witch Project is one of my favorite horror films.

The setup was simple right from the start: Heather's younger brother gets a lead on finding her out in the woods and brings a group of friends, including one who is making a documentary for her film class, to investigate. It's a great way to call back to the original and give us an excuse to have such a similar set up with the documentary gimmick. There's a really effective conflict that is set up in the beginning with their camping group that gives the film some tension even outside of the threat of the mysterious witch in the woods.

There have been a lot of technological advances since the first film, which was shot in part on 16mm, and the tech is used well enough. GPS and drone tech allow for more variety, but mostly just get thrown out when they 'mysteriously' stop working. The use of earpiece cameras really helps open things up for the actors and gets rid of the pesky 'why do they keep filming when things get crazy' problem that most found footage movies have to address.

Once the scares started happening, I realized that this film was a lot louder than the first one, both in volume and in filmmaking techniques. There were far too many jump scares where one of the characters turned around to see another sanding right in their face making a loud noise. I don't mind jump scares, but they need to be something substantial and can't be that many cat in the closet scares. Blair Witch also has bigger things going on in the woods. In the first one, subtle things like piles of rocks and stick figures were the main scares, but this one has creatures (?) in the forest and trees falling down. I wish they would have tried to tone things down and do things in a more restrained manner like the first one, as it wasn't as effective.

That being said, the last third of the film is an extremely scary ride. There's a turn that starts with a super clever moment and it never really lets up from there. The main characters make their way to the iconic house from the first one and things get really surreal from there. The fact that they showed off this skill to have more well written scares makes me wonder if there was some requests from studios  to make things bigger and crazier, but who knows.

There were some plot threads that I wish were followed up on more, but overall this is a worthy successor to the first film, even if it's not nearly as effective. Based on box office results, it doesn't look like this will reinvigorate the franchise, but I never really saw the original as a franchise starter. It's an idea that's fun to revisit, but I don't think that it's a mythology that really leaves me wanting more information. I kept wondering what it would be like if it still was just The Woods, but I guess we'll never know...

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Batman: The Killing Joke - Review

Warner Brothers has done a lot of work to make this animated adaption feel like a big deal. Killing Joke is a classic property, and they went all out to give this film a one-night run in a limited number of theaters nationwide. When I heard all this news, I was a bit confused. Even though the Killing Joke is a classic, it's not an especially long title, and I had no idea how they would end up filling that out to a 75 minute feature. For me personally, Killing Joke isn't as big of a deal in the Batman canon, so I was interested to see how I would react to the film.

A good portion of the film ended up displaying both the strengths and weaknesses of the source material. I've always liked the present day portion of the story the most, with Joker going off the chain and trying to prove his final point. The Joker presented here is a vicious one, holding nothing back in his physical and, more importantly, mental torture of Commissioner Gordon. The mad funhouse he creates is wonderfully captured, despite the slight art style change that happened during the transition into animation. The menace of the Joker is also accentuated by the wonderful performance of Mark Hamill, who has really created the definitive version of the character.

His work on the film also helps get me through what I consider the weakest part of the story. Killing Joke was famous for giving the Joker and origin story, which I have always found less than interesting. Where he comes from doesn't really match the insanity of the character he becomes. I love the idea that the Joker believes we are all one bad day from becoming him because of his origin, but it's kinda dull. Luckily, Hamill brings a lot of sympathy to the generic sad sack comedian that becomes Joker, so it's not as rough as it could have been.

Unfortunately the concerns about it not being long enough end up being its downfall. In order to pad out the length, they added about 30 minutes to the beginning about Batgirl/Barbara Gordon. This is where the movie really falters. This section feels a lot like an episode of Batman: The Animated Series, except without any of the quality associated with the series. In this part, Batgirl is hunting down a criminal that is constantly flirting with her. The story never really clicked with me, and I just kept waiting for the actual Killing Joke to start. There was also a very out of character moment where Batgirl and Batman have sex, which didn't make sense to me at all. I'm not sure what they were trying to achieve with this move; maybe they were just trying to justify giving the film an R rating, but it feel completely flat for me and emphasized the already questionable use of the character in the main story.

To prepare for this film, I reread the graphic novel, and honestly I just ended up being underwhelmed by both. The writers were very faithful in their adaption of the original story, but I just don't think it should have been chosen to be a full feature. To me, the most interesting thing would have been for them to take three different Alan Moore superhero stories and make them into a little anthology. I would have loved to have seen this along with Superman: For the Man Who Has Everything and Tales of the Green Lantern Corps: Tygers. That, to me, would have been a more interesting way to spend 75 minutes.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Batman: The Telltale Series Episode 1: Realm of Shadows - Review

I've had a long hiatus from Telltale games. I played (and loved) The Walking Dead: Season 1 and The Wolf Among Us, but never really connected with any of the other properties that they've adapted in between. Minecraft and Borderlands were not games that mean anything to me, and while I like Game of Thrones, that wasn't exactly a world I wanted to live in for an extended period of time away from the characters I like in the show. Maybe it was the slightly underwhelming feeling that Batman: Arkham Knight left me with, but Telltale tackling Batman was unquestionably going to bring me back into their fold. 

After a certain point playing Arkham Knight, I found the combat to be tedious and really just was pushing through to try to get to the next story beat. With Telltale's focus on storytelling, this game was clearly the cure to the Batman blues. Not only did this first episode shift the focus, it focused heavily on someone that no other Batman game has: Bruce Wayne. While you did play as Bruce in the fantastic and surprising opening of Arkham City, my personal favorite of the series, his role hasn't really been explored in any depths in this medium. 

This focus on Bruce plays perfectly into Telltale's dialog choice system. Bruce gets put in a series of very interesting positions throughout the episode that can be handled in a nice variety of ways. I particularly liked the tension involved in the scene where gangster Carmine Falcone crashes Wayne Manor during a fundraiser for Harvey Dent's mayoral campaign. I haven't played the episode again to see if these dialog choices make a significant change in the narrative, but the game does a good job of making it FEEL important in the moment. 

The Batman sequences play out about exactly as you would expect them to given how Telltale has handled action sequences in the past. Fights are played out with quick time events that determine how successful you are at striking or dodging. Many of them are masterfully choreographed, making them exciting to play, even if the interaction is minimal. There's a very cool puzzle section where you analyze clues at a crime scene and slowly piece together exactly how everything played out. The majority of choices that you make while playing as Batman involve how brutal of a vigilante you want to be. Do you simply menace the thug, or do you want to actually brutalize him? It's a little too early to tell how far you can push this, but it appears this will have an impact on how the public reacts to you. 

None of this would matter if the story wasn't there, and I'm happy to say it works. While there can be some moments where they hit very familiar beats that have been covered about Batman over his 75+ year history, the game manages to carve out a new path and twist familiar things in creative ways. One longtime character is reimagined as a cockney punk who was childhood friends with Bruce Wayne. The writers also do some unique things that call into question the history and legacy of the Wayne family. I was surprised to see a certain plot element seemingly wrapped up by the end of this first episode, but the cliffhanger at the end is quite the juicy one. 

With the DC Rebirth on the comics side of thing, my interest in Batman has been reinvigorated by the new creative team of the relaunched book. Despite liking the Arkham games so much, I'm glad they've been put to rest for now and I'm glad this has risen up in its place. This game takes elements of Batman and Telltale that are familiar and combines them together to make both formulas feel fresh. Batman: Arkham City is one of my favorite Batman stories in any medium, so I have no doubt that another video game company can create a classic worthy of the hero. 

Monday, July 4, 2016

Arc Reactor: Unfollow - 140 Characters

Last year we saw Vertigo attempt its annual 'relaunch' of the brand, and this time it seemed to be a bit more successful. There were a good number of titles that seemed interesting with great creative teams behind them. Clean Room, Survivors Club, Sheriff of Babylon and Unfollow all had clever premises and sharp talent behind them. I was a big fan of Lauren Beaukes' novels, so I decided to check out Survivors Club, but ended up dropping it after three muddled and confusing issues. Now that this wave of titles has had a chance to release their first trades, I started out by grabbing the first volume of Unfollow, written by Rob Williams with art by Michael Dowling (and an issue by guest artist R. M. Guerra).

Unfollow is basically Battle Royale meets Willy Wonka in the age of social media. The series tells the story of 'The 140,' the people chosen to split the fortune of the dying creator of the social media website Headspace. All 140 winners are taken to an island, where they are told the catch: if any of them dies, that person's share is split among the survivors.

This seems like simple enough of a premise, but what makes this shine is the characters involved. While it obviously can't focus on all 140 of the people chosen, the series does a great job of giving us a small cast of main characters that we will be following. They all seem fully fleshed out and play well off of each other. Even in the first six issues presented here, they have already set up some interesting confrontations down the road between the principal players.

There's also a very good balance of tone throughout the book. They use little Twitter-like messages as captions throughout, and those do a great job of putting this in the context of the critique of social media, which is wonderfully woven into the narrative. The straight up paranoid-horror of which-of-us-will-try-to-murder-the-others-first is great, but there is also a small amount of surrealness added to it with the inclusion of a mysterious masked antagonist and semi-frequent hallucinations. There's also an good amount of philosophizing about the nature of humanity during the course of the characters' interactions, which appeals to me.

With how much I liked this comic, I wish I had given this a try rather than Survivors Club. The characters are varied, the plot is fast-paced and engaging and the commentary on society is razor-sharp. I'll be eagerly anticipating volume two, as I can't wait to see where Williams takes the story.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

The Conjuring 2 - Review

While there are many long running series in the genre, horror movies are not necessarily known for having high quality sequels. I absolutely loved the first Conjuring film, and I really think that James Wan is one of the sharpest directors in the genre. Despite that, I wasn't really super excited about the prospect of a second film, even though Wan was involved. At least, not until the week of. I found myself remembering how thoroughly I enjoyed the first one. Positive reviews started to roll in, so I headed to the theater to check it out.

Much to my surprise, the Conjuring 2 is probably a better movie than the first one, even though I would say it's slightly less terrifying. The films follow a similar structure: opening with the Warrens dealing with a famous haunting (Annabelle in the first one, Amittyville in the second), start showing the new family experiencing some crazy stuff, then get the Warrens involved. What sets the Conjuring movies apart is the fact that the writers manage to give both the family and the Warrens a good heart to build the movie around. This one improves on the first by giving an interesting through line that connects the Warrens to the haunting attacking the family. This makes a huge difference, and really makes the film feel more cohesive than the first.

While I do think that it's not as scary as the first one, that doesn't mean there aren't some amazingly creepy set pieces throughout. Wan really understands how to direct a horror scene, and does a lot of important things to build the atmosphere perfectly. I love the way that he uses a long take in the beginning to set up the space of the house that will be haunted. This way, you completely understand where things are in relation to everyone else when the spooky stuff is going down. It's such a simple thing to do, but it really enhances the film. There's also some wonderful imagery throughout the film, including the demonic nun and the crooked man.

I'm really glad that I took the leap and tried this one out. I love seeing horror movies in the theaters because it's such an immersive experience, and this is horror at it's finest. The series is nothing innovative (I would say that Wan's Insidious series offers more new ideas, but isn't quite as refined), but this is horror polished to perfection. I think that Wan is not only one of the finest horror directors, but rather one of the most solid directors working right now. I'm moderately excited to see what he does with Aquaman, but I'm more excited to see what kind of horror thing he gets into after that.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

E3: Sony Press Conference Reaction

This year I have been more caught up in the E3 hype than usual. For some reason, I feel more connected to the industry this year, so this year I decided to check out some of the press conferences live. I watched the Bethesda conference on Sunday, but being a Playstation guy, I was very excited for the Sony conference on Monday.

I watched it live and was blown away. Sony played trailer after trailer of new, awesome looking games, many of them available in VR. I thought it would be fun to talk about some of the best trailers that were shown during the conference, though I won't talk about everything (the most notable one not below was the VR for Star Wars). NOTE: This is not necessarily ranked by anticipation for the game, but rather by the impact of the trailer.

Bend Studios is one of Sony's first party studios that's been quiet for the longest, and we were all waiting for them to drop their newest game. There had been a rumor that the game was called Dead Don't Ride and was about a biker in the zombie apocalypse. Turns out that rumor was half right. Days Gone (which I don't quite like as much as the name Dead Don't Ride) gives me a bit of a Last of Us vibe, but the biker gang angle seems like it will make the game distinct enough. The initial trailer didn't do a ton for me, but the gameplay demo that they closed the conference with really showed off just how many zombies the game will throw at you, which definitely sets the game apart on both a technical and scale level. I'm not super hyped, but I'd be willing to be convinced that this will be the next big thing.

I have never really been a God of War fan, despite being very interested in Greek mythology. Kratos always seemed to be such a one dimensional, uninteresting character, and the gameplay seemed to follow that mold. This game definitely looked like a change from that. The father-son angle really made it look like a completely different game. The idea that Kratos still has 'anger issues,' but is trying to raise his son not to entirely follow in his footsteps. Not only does this new emotional angle really help get me interested in the franchise, the idea that you are now taking creatures from Norse mythology is definitely a huge step in making this something new and fresh. The combat did look a bit like a slower version of Bloodborne, so I hope that it's something that will jive with me gameplay-wise.

I was really freaking out during this gameplay trailer while they were walking us through all this jaw-dropping. You go from dog fighting in spaceships to floating around in space, grappling from place to place. The seamless transitions, the cool weapons, the epic scope, everything made this feel awesome. Then BOOM: Call of Duty. I was really surprised at that reveal at the very end. There has been so much controversy around the negative reaction to the reveal trailer that this was the PERFECT way to get people excited for this game again. Everything looked so fresh and exciting. It will be interesting to see if this is something that they can keep up throughout the entirety of a campaign, or if this translates to multiplayer well. Hopefully everything works out, because this was the first time I've ever been super impressed with a Call of Duty game.

This game and the next one were things that I've already had on my radar since their announcements, but it was nice to see more in-depth looks at them. Since it was revealed at last year's E3, Horizon has been at the top of my 'most anticipated' list. It's so awesome to see Sony put one of their biggest first party studios behind a bold new IP, and after seeing this gameplay trailer, it's paying off in spades.

David Cage and Quantic Dream have a mixed track record in my mind. Indigo Prophecy was a decent game with great ideas and an awful ending. Heavy Rain is one of my favorite PS3 games, but doesn't quite stick the landing. Beyond: Two Souls looked so far out there that I never bothered checking it out. That said, Detroit has really wowed me. I'm a big sucker for stories about AI, and seeing a completely new android character that will be playable in the game was really awesome. The footage they showed of all the permutations of how the situation played out was fascinating. The first trailer for the game did a lot for me, but after seeing this new one, I can't wait to get my hands on this game.

I had heard the rumors that this was coming, but it was still awesome to see this. It has been so long since we've gotten a really great Spider-Man title, and I think that Insomniac is an excellent choice to bring Spider-Man back to the video game forefront. Sony is obviously putting a lot of emphasis on this game, as it is a PS4 exclusive, so I'm confident that this will end up being THE definitive Spider-Man game, in the way that Arkham Asylum was for Batman when that was released.

As many of you may know, the sting of P.T./Silent Hills' cancellation still hurts me, but now that Kojima is on his own I can't wait to see what he does. Him walking out was probably the biggest excitement moment of the whole press conference. While the trailer clearly wasn't any gameplay, since the game isn't really even in proper development, it definitely demonstrates the mood that they're going for. I'm so intrigued by what was shown here, and I can't wait to pick through this trailer for find all sorts of clues to what this is going to be about. Anything with Kojima's name I'm all in for, and I'm ecstatic to see him working on an original IP.

This one completely caught me by surprise. The trailer really went for that P.T. vibe, with you walking around a super creepy house. I loved the look and atmosphere of the trailer, along with some wonderful music to set the mood. When they dropped the title at the end, it was the perfectly holy crap moment. It looked nothing like recent Resident Evil games, and that couldn't be a better thing for me. I've always been a bigger fan of the earlier RE games, with the focus on exploration in a creepy setting, and this looks like it will bring it back to the roots in a fresh way. Not only was this trailer impressive, at the end they announced that not only was it coming out this coming January, but there was a demo available immediately. This trailer exemplifies how to bring a franchise back with a huge impact. As much as I want to see more from this game, I'm going to try to stay as in the dark as I can so everything in the game is just as surprising as this trailer.