Sunday, May 15, 2016

Captain America: Civil War - Review

This seems to be the year of Superhero Slugfests. We first had Batman vs Superman, now we've got Civil War, then we'll have X-Men: Apocalypse, which features mutant becoming Apocalypse's Horsemen. Heroes fighting heroes is a classic trope in comic books, so it's cool to see this really coming to a head in films. I'll definitely say that I think Captain America: Civil War pulls this concept off in a stronger fashion than BvS.

Captain America: Civil War does an amazing job at trying to be a ton of different things. It picks up on threads that were introduced in Winter Soldier, with the real center of the action focusing on the hunt for Bucky and what to do with him. While it is trying to continue the Captain America series, it also acts as an Avengers film as well, since it features almost all of the Marvel Universe roster (minus Thor and Hulk). Not only that, but the movie also takes on the task of introducing two big characters: Black Panther and Spider-Man. It's a lot of plates to be spinning, but for the most part, it does it admirably.

I think the strongest thing about the movie is how the relationship between Captain America and Iron Man plays out. They both have a logical reason for choosing their sides on the issue at hand (whether or not the Avengers should have government oversight). They do a really nice job throughout the movie of explaining why the others join each side, but I feel like the real core comes down to Rogers and Stark, a dynamic that has been challenged throughout lots of the Marvel films.

I loved the way they built up the Winter Soldier as a really credible threat. Even though he's just an enhanced soldier with a robotic arm, there are a ton of scenes that believable show why he's such a big deal in a world where gods exist alongside alien creatures. While the villain, Zemo, wasn't really the focus of the film, he did a great job of finding a way to use the Winter Solider to drive a wedge into the Avengers. He was a really simple character, but his motivation and plans were just enough to work in the film.

The two big introductions are handled wonderfully. Even though it kinda feels like the addition of Spider-Man was a bit tacked on, it still fits in well and does an amazing job of creating a full version of the character with limited screen time. Based on what we see here, this is probably the best on-screen interpretation of the character, and doesn't waste your time with fully explaining everything about him. Black Panther does an awesome job of holding his own in the film. He kinda does his own thing throughout, which is great, and also shows why he's a big threat even though he's just 'a guy in a suit with some claws.' He's got a wonderful emotional hook throughout, and I can't wait to see more from his character.

The action scenes in this film were on another level. While I was watching the opening scene, I realized that I could just watch a series of 30 minute films that are just about the Avengers going out and taking down villains all over the world. The way they find to have each of the members work together and play off each other is amazing and really helps set it apart from the normal solo Marvel films. Some of the action gets a bit too shaky cam, but overall, it's exhilarating.

The biggest and most talked about action scene in the film is the big showdown at the airport where Team Iron Man clashes with Team Captain America. It's a fantastic scene that really shows off the powers of all the characters involved and gives them all something to do. While there could be a more simple version of this scene (I feel like trimming a couple characters out of the movie would have benefited the plot just a touch), there were so many wonderful moments throughout that I don't think I'd want to change anything. Surprisingly, the two biggest standouts in this scene were Spider-Man and Ant-Man.

Even though that airport sequence was the big showdown, the movies smartly focuses its climax on Iron Man, Captain America and the Winter Solider. Right when the movie is in danger of going a bit off the rails, it snaps right back into the main character based conflict in a super smart way that leaves the Avengers in a really different spot for future films.

I really want to applaud the Marvel Cinematic Universe for being brave enough to really shake things up in big ways that will have to be dealt with in future films. They started doing things like that with Winter Solider and the destruction of SHIELD, and they just keep getting bolder. Civil War definitely ranks up there with the top tier of Marvel's films, and it makes me very excited to see what the Russo's will do in their two part Avengers film.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice - Review

There was a long period of time where I wasn't even sure if I was going to try to make it out to the theater to see Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. I was disheartened by the direction that the DC Universe decided to go in after the grim and dower Man of Steel, and the huge slate of films they announced without having laid a substantial groundwork was very worrying. Despite the negative reviews, I heard enough good things from friends to make my way out to the theater to see it.

The movie starts off doing something that most people wanted to see in Man of Steel: dealing with the consequences of Superman's battle with Zod. We see that sequence from the viewpoint of Bruce Wayne, who is running around the ground level of Metropolis attempting to save employees of Wayne Enterprises. It's easily the film's most effective sequence, creating real world consequences for the over-the-top battle between titans.

If only the rest of the film kept up the same level of quality. I guess first I'll mention the other things I liked. Everyone in the film was well cast, particularly Ben Affleck as Batman. Snyder also creates some really nice visuals in the film, especially in the way he interprets the characters. Batman's costume and build is just perfect for the old grizzled version of the character represented here. I will also say that the movie is thematically consistent throughout. It definitely picks and tone and doubles down on it.

Unfortunately the tone that it chooses does nothing for me at all. I know that Batman is a darker hero, but this version of the character makes the Dark Knight look like Spider-Man. In this film, we have a violent Batman that has no problem killing people during the course of a car chase and even goes as far as to brand criminals with the intention of them getting killed in prison. He also very quickly decides that since Superman is so powerful, he has to be murdered. For someone who is supposed to be the guy who can solve his way out of anything, it seems weird that he immediately settles on the most extreme measure as his only method of dealing with Superman.

The film also makes weird choices with Superman. There are some really great ideas about the world trying to figure out how to react to a being with that much power that isn't under the control of any nation. Much of the plot involves Superman being questioned in the public eye after he's associated with some big disasters. Again, great idea, but I feel pretty much every one of these problems he faces could have been solved by simply talking for a couple minutes, yet he remains publicly silent.

This highlights one of the main problems with the film: no one acts like a real person and instead acts however the plot needs them to act. It is very obvious that Lex Luthor is manipulating things from the background, but not even the world's greatest detective realizes it. It's very frustrating to watch, and only escalates as the film goes on. I feel like the titular battle could have been avoided completely if there would have been a little bit of dialog beforehand.

There are some interesting action sequences, but ultimately they feel perfunctory. When Batman and Superman are fighting, you kinda know how it's going to end before it's over. The final battle is made a bit more fun because of the electric introduction of Wonder Woman, who leaps onto the screen in the films most fist pumping moment. Even without spending a lot of screen time building her up, she believably holds her own with the other two leads.

When the movie ended, my wife looked over to me and said, "Well that wasn't nearly as bad as I expected it to be." That was about as positive as we were on the film, and it's only degraded in my mind. Much like The Dark Knight Rises, the more I think on the film, the more I realize how the plot doesn't hold together and how the dumb the characters act. I tried to stay in the film as characters were doing odd things, but my suspension of disbelief was never rewarded. I wonder what the R-rated cut of the film looks like, but I can't imagine that another half hour of footage would do anything to repair the already overlong film.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Metal Gear Solid War Journal - MGS1

I'm really amazed how much of this game I actually remember from when I played it. Metal Gear Solid came in out September 1998, when I was the ripe age of 14. I remember snapping the game up immediately when it came out and devouring it as fast as my teenage self could. Even now as I was playing the game with my wife watching, I could accurately tell her what was coming up before it happened. There were a couple stretches of the game that I didn't really remember, but for the most part my several playthroughs when it came out were memorable enough that I could remember it 18 years later.

One of the biggest deals about MGS at the time was the sheer technical prowess of the production. It was a fairly late cycle game on the first Playstation, so this was the system at its finest. Gone were the pre-rendered backgrounds seen in such technical marvels as the Resident Evil series, replaced by fully polygonal worlds. This technique allowed for a much more cinematic presentation, giving the camera freedom to move throughout the world rather than being stuck in a static position. MGS was also one of the most extensively voiced games that I played at this time, with (for the most part) movie level voice acting.

The movie-like aspects of the game carried over into its plot. This was easily the most intricately plotted video game I had played at this point, and it did so in a near-future sci-fi setting in a relatively real-world fashion. MGS in an improbable combination of a spy movie, anime and political statement about the nature of war in the nuclear age. I had never seen anything like that in a game before (the most heavily plotted game I had played at this point was FFVII), and this resonated with me immediately. The plot of the game is presented through numerous cut scenes as well as codec transmissions. These are just audio conversations accompanied by pictures of the characters talking. This shouldn't be something that works at all, since it's such a visual medium, but these are somehow still engaging.

It's interesting that I've talked this long about the game without mentioning at all how it plays. MGS promised "Tactical Espionage Action," and that's pretty much what it delivers. The most revolutionary element of the gameplay to me was the semi-realistic way that stealth was handled. The introduction to the game did an amazing job of showing you how everything works at a perfect pace. Little touches like guards being able to track you by your footprints in the snow really went a long way to impressing me with the game's dedication to realism. While the stealth works well, there are a lot of other things about the gameplay that really are limited looking at it from a modern perspective. the top-down point of view is a bit limiting when you are trying to get a big overview of the area that you are attempting to sneak through. This view really makes the shooting difficult as well, creating a lot of frustration during certain boss fights. At times, there appears to be very little gameplay between cut scenes, but it never detracts from the overall quality of the game.

The game's awesome story really succeeds because it features a ton of memorable characters. Solid Snake, our protagonist, is one of the most iconic characters in video games. Not only is he an incredibly capable (and bad-ass) character, he's also got a lot of depth to him. At the beginning of the game, he's attempting to live a peaceful life, but gets dragged back into a life of war. Kojima uses his character in relation to others in order to discuss the effects war has on both the world and on the individual.

The villainous members of FOXHOUND are equally compelling. Each of them are given a Mega Man X style animal-themed code name and have their own unique personality and visual gimmicks. The most memorable of all of them is clearly Psycho Mantis, a floating dude in a gas mask and bondage gear who messes with the player directly. This was the first time I had really experienced something in a video game that so blatantly broke the fourth wall, and when he asked me to put my controller down and 'moved it with his mind' by using the vibration function, I was blown away.

These memorable character all lead to some really great boss battles. Each one felt unique and had a puzzle solving element to it. While they were mostly entertaining, I do feel like they sometimes chose to make bosses more difficult by just giving them more health, which lead to some frustration when you would get caught by a bad camera angle really close to finishing someone off.

My favorite set piece of the game is the entire end stretch. I feel like I could write an entire essay on how epic it is. It starts off forcing you to fight the titular Metal Gear, the giant nuke-launching robot you were sent in to neutralize. It's a tough battle, but you eventually take it down using a rocket launcher and quick reflexes. After that you are knocked out and dragged on top of the downed mech. Liquid Snake, your nemesis throughout the whole game, reveals that you are both clones of Big Boss, the villain of the previous games and the greatest soldier of all time. He then forces you into a shirtless fistfight while a bomb is counting down to the destruction of both of them. While the hand-to-hand gameplay doesn't exactly hold up, there is nothing I can think of that is more epic than two clones duking it out on a giant mech while a bomb timer ticks away. After that you jump into a white knuckle car chase to escape the facility. It all feels right out of a Hollywood blockbuster, and it was unreal to be playing something like this for 14-year-old me.

One thing I realized during this playthrough is that even though this felt like the start of a franchise, it really drew on Metal Gear 1 and 2 (which were released for the MSX2). Since the game was so exposition-heavy, it didn't feel out of place for them to give you large chunks of information about characters from the previous games, and even though I wasn't familiar with the originals, the inclusion of the characters made the game feel that much more meaningful, like it was part of this myth that had been going on forever. It's very much the feeling you get from Star Wars: Force Awakens; you don't need to know the previous games inside and out, but there is more emotional resonance for those who are completely familiar with it.

I'm so glad that I had this gap in my gaming schedule to start making this trip through the Metal Gear Solid series. Playing this game after all these years has reminded me of why I feel in love with games in the first place, giving me a bigger appreciation of what is possible in today's space. Can't wait to get through MGS2, as I'm finding I remember that one a lot less than this one.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

10 Cloverfield Lane - Movie Review

Two months ago, we didn't even know this film existed. In the age of the internet, it's increasingly difficult to keep secrets from observant fans, but leave it to J.J. Abrams to figure out a way to sneak in a sequel to one of biggest surprises he produced.

Once I read the name to this film and heard that it was a pseudosequel to the original Cloverfield, I stayed away from all marketing. I knew that it was a little three character piece that took place in essentially one location, and that was good enough for me. When the reviews started to come in, I knew this was something I would have to check out.

The movie starts off with a wonderful opening sequence that does a great job of giving us a little snippet of the life of our main character, Mary Elizabeth Windstead's Michelle, before throwing her directly into a crazy situation. While we don't ever really get to know too many details of her life, we get enough to make her character turns compelling and give us a strong reason to root for her.

Michelle ends up in an underground bunker with Howard, played by John Goodman, and Emmet, played by John Gallagher Jr. Howard insists that she cannot leave because there was an attack that rendered the surface uninhabitable. This type of premise is exactly up my alley, and started off very quickly.

There are so many little twists and turns throughout the film that change what you know about the world. You'll get to a point where you think you have everything figured out, only to have something happen that completely changes how you understand the movie. It's not easy to keep that pace up, but the tight script keeps everything moving briskly, never letting you get too complacent.

The film's performances are also amazing. Windstead is great as always, but Goodman is the one that really stands out here. Here, he plays against his normally affable type and creates a menacing, yet sympathetic character. You're never exactly sure how to read him, but you know that no matter what, something is off about Howard. It's a tricky balance to strike, and Goodman makes it look easy.

10 Cloverfield Lane is also one of the most assured debuts I've seen in quiet some time. Director Dan Trachtenberg uses some wonderful tricks to really make the most out of the limited space that the film takes place in. Every aspect of the production is great, right down to the sound design.

Since this movie is so much about the experience of the plot, I don't want to get too much into spoiler territory, but I will say that the ending of this film does a great job of tying everything together in a satisfying way. It's a little bit jarring, but once you are on board it's a great little thrill ride.

I think the thing that I loved the most about this movie was that it's creating a new idea for how to look at a franchise. While there isn't any explicit connection between the films, they both share the idea of having a limited perspective to a (possible) huge disaster. In the world of franchises becoming huge shared universes with direct connections to other films, it's refreshing to see someone come up with a way of doing a 'sequel' that still gives creators room to make a unique film within the expectations of the franchise as a whole.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Metal Gear Solid War Journal - Primer

Metal Gear Solid was a huge turning point for me as a video game player. I was just getting into the Playstation ecosystem after having my eyes opened by things like Final Fantasy VII. I moved away from Nintendo Power and started reading magazines that focused on the whole game industry. MGS was one of the first games that I followed the development of. The game not only lived up to my expectations, but changed my idea of what video games could do as a medium.

As much as I loved the first game, I never ended up following the series in its entirety. I devoured MGS 2: Sons of Liberty when it was released, but didn't end up making my way through MGS 3: Snake Eater. When MGS 4: Guns of the Patriots came out, I didn't have a Playstation 3 and was not able to play it; same thing for MGS: Peace Walker and the PSP. Somehow I went from this being one of my favorite series to just letting it fade from my mind.

Fortunately, I have a good friend who has always been bothering me to play through the series. I have a fairly large gap in video game releases (I'm waiting for Uncharted 4 / Doom / No Man's Sky this summer), so I decided to finally pick up the Metal Gear Solid Legacy Collection and make my way through all these classics.

Since this series meant so much to me in the beginning, I thought it would be cool for me to write down my thoughts as I play through them. So far I'm just about done with Metal Gear Solid, and it's really interesting to see how many parts hold up, and how many other aspects really fall flat compared to today's games. Hope you guys join me on the journey!

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Review: The Witch

It seems that for the past few years, we've had one big horror movie released that has been heralded as the next big thing. Three years ago it was The Conjuring. Two years ago, The Babadook. Last year the big one was It Follows. This year, we've got The Witch. None of them really have any thematic connections, but rather are all similar in their level of polish. Going into this hearing all the buzz about it definitely gave me high expectations, and I was not disappointed.

 The Witch offers a very unique setting for a horror film: 1630s New England. First-time director Robert Eggers goes to painstaking length to build the world authentically. Allowing you to get a full sense of just how hard it was to survive during this time period makes the supernatural stresses put upon the family compound even further.

The entire movie focuses on this family that has been kicked out of their town and forced to live on their own in the frontier. Very quickly, and in a shocking fashion, the family is under attack by a sinister force from the woods. The patriarch of the family, being a devout Christian, begins to suspect that members of his family may have fallen under the sway of witchcraft.

The family drama is really what makes this movie shine. Every actor is perfectly on point, with each character bringing something else to the dynamic of the family. Ralph Ineson as the father and Anya Taylor-Joy as Thomasin, who has her faith shaken more than the rest of her family, are the two standouts, really making you feel for them even as they are making choices you might not agree with. I always love a nice paranoia element in a horror film, and this one really had me guessing about certain character right up to (and kind of after) the very end.

One of the most notable thing about The Witch is that is almost entirely devoid of jump scares. Instead of relying on those to create tension, it focuses more on psychological horror to creep you out and get under your skin. I'm happy that this film doesn't really play the 'is there something supernatural or isn't there?' game, at least in my opinion, as I never find much is gained from that ambiguity. There are several scenes throughout that are very scary and will stay with your for a long time after.

The only thing that I can think of that takes away from the experience is that it can be occasionally hard to understand exactly what they are saying through their old English accents. Other than that, this is a top-to-bottom great film. It might not be for everyone, as it is a bit of a slow burn, those with patience will be rewarded with a wonderfully creepy family drama with a unique setting and a completely unsettling atmosphere.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Deadpool - Review

I feel like this is something that no one in the geek community thought would ever happen. Ryan Reynolds had a chance to bring the character to life in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, but the portrayal of the character was such a disaster that we all gave up on it. Since then, Reynolds seemed to have willed this character back into existence not only in a satisfying fashion, but in a way that does not compromise in any way shape or form.

Fans always figured that the crude, violent, irreverent Deadpool that they know and love would never make it to the big screen, but somehow that's exactly what happened. Deadpool is a boldly R-rated film that revels in its over-the-top violence and raunchy humor. Sometimes this kind of push to be 'extreme' can feel forced, as though it were only in the movie to do Family Guy-style 'I can't believe they went there' humor, but all of the humor feels like it comes from naturally from the characters rather than being forced in by writers. The quips come fast and furious, and many of the jokes do a good job taking the piss out of the superhero genre at large.

I would say that the weakest part of the film is the story. There's nothing really unique to write home about in the plot, but what is there is presented in a flashy manner that mixes flashbacks with the main narrative, keeping things fresh. On paper, the love story (yes there is a love story) isn't anything special, Morena Baccarin's character basically doesn't exist outside of the relationship, but they have an amazing amount of very raunchy chemistry. There's a great moment at the end that manages to be both heartwarming and crudely hilarious at the same time. Rounding out the main story is a fairly generic pair of villains that the actors bring just enough flair to.

Throughout the movie, Deadpool's sidekicks offer a lot of fun too. T.J. Miller, one of my favorite comedians, is great as Weasel, his bartender pal. The film's two X-Men, Collosus and Negasonic Teenage Warhead, are also wonderful. Warhead perfectly plays the emo teen, a diametric opposite to Deadpool's motor mouth, while Collosus acts as a force to try to drag Deadpool over to the side of 'good.' It's interesting that they let this exist alongside and reference the current X-Men franchise, but I suppose it wasn't too difficult to work around since the franchise has been focusing on the past lately.

While the action in this movie isn't exactly the most complicated, what makes the fight scenes shine is that they never lose Deadpool's personality. He never really stops with the jokes, and the violence has his over-the-top, funny edge to it. The scene where he is counting out the number of bullets he has remaining is particularly memorable. It's cool to see that they did this movie on a bit of a lower budget (at least compared to other superhero movies) and were still able to use clever ideas to make the action scenes work.

Much is made of Deadpool's tendency to break the fourth wall and address the 'real world.' While that isn't always my favorite part of his gimmick, there are several moments in here that use it to perfect effect, particularly when referencing elements of either the character's or Ryan Reynold's past. The opening credits sequence was a ton of fun for that reason, as was the post credits sequence.

Overall, the movie takes a very standard superhero origin story and puts a fun layer of paint on it, driven heavily by Reynold's go-for-broke dedication to the character. It seems like the kind of film that only works with these exact people under these exact circumstances. I worry that too many other movie studios will see this film's success and think that all they have to do is take a superhero and make him an ultraviolent potty mouth, but this kind of lightning in a bottle won't work for every character or every writer/director/actor.