Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Lego Movie (2014) Trailer

The next toy-based film is coming in 2014 and features one of the most universally loved toys of all time: Legos! A movie based on Legos is hardly an original concept, one needs only to search YouTube to find thousands of stop motion videos made with Legos. I even created several videos myself years ago and surprisingly I was able to find one of the files on a flash drive and uploaded it to YouTube. It is a silly short film largely characterized by being out of focus. This upcoming Warner Brothers film looks to be created using computer animation meant to look like stop motion and should remain in focus throughout the entire feature.

I am completely surprised that this film even has a recognizable cast (Heard of someone named Will Ferrell? How about Liam Neeson? Alison Brie? Nick Offerman? Elizabeth Banks? Morgan Freeman? Will Arnett?)

Now I like Legos as much as anyone else (see my video above and note the date) and I like the people in the cast.  But I really don't think these wonderful things will come together well, and I expect the film to rate 6/10. The trailer really isn't great besides the initial OMG! Legos and I give it a 5/10. Don't watch this film in the theater unless you're incredibly bored and have tons of money to spend on the 3D release.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Bioshock Infinite (2013) Review

I finally had the chance to sit down and play through the universally acclaimed Bioshock Infinite. It completely blew me away and exceeded my wildest expectations. This game took me on a skyline ride of emotion, displaying dark, gritty themes against a mind-bending sci-fi backdrop.

The protagonist of Bioshock Infinite is Booker DeWitt, a former soldier and Pinkerton detective. DeWitt is haunted by his past decisions, such as a gambling debt which compels him to travel to the airborne city of Columbia to find a girl and pay a debt. DeWitt is changed by the experiences throughout this quest, and is forced to some truly unexpected conclusions.

Following the themes of the preceding Bioshock games, Infinite's Columbia is a strange place dominated by a central figurehead, Zachary Hale Comstock. Comstock rules with an iron fist (as well as dozens of Iron Patriots) which leads to a rift between his devoted followers and those who revolt against his authority. The rebels band together in a group known as the Vox Populi under the command of the brutal Daisy Fitzroy. DeWitt must carefully navigate between these warring factions in order to achieve his own ends.

The other central character is Elizabeth, the girl DeWitt must find to "wipe away the debt". DeWitt finds her early in the game and they travel together, leading to some truly innovative and enjoyable gameplay. Elizabeth functions in a support role to DeWitt, tossing him ammo, health, and other necessary items during battles and unlocking doors. Elizabeth also has the ability to open "rifts" in the space-time continuum of Columbia, allowing additional objects to be introduced into each situation. These rifts are integral to the central storyline, and are involved in many of the game's pivotal moments.

It's hard to delve into the plot in great detail in this review without spoiling many of the great moments. Suffice to say, the story is fantastic, and I was very glad I had avoided any spoilers until after my first playthrough. Many of the main plot points would lose their impact if they weren't a surprise. Before playing this game, I assumed the "Infinite" portion of the title simply referred to the fact that the action takes place in the sky. This is not the case, as that portion of the title is given a very literal role in the plot...and I don't really want to say anything else about that. Bioshock Infinite is very rewarding on a second playthrough. Many details become more apparent and certain dialogue is more powerful when understood in light of the information discovered previously. There is also a difficulty mode called "1999 Mode" that is unlocked after the completion of the game. I am currently playing through on this mode, and am really appreciating the challenge.

Bioshock Infinite is a hauntingly beautiful game:

There are a few faults in this game, several times Elizabeth will toss items through a wall to Booker, but this happens rarely and is hardly noticeable. Bioshock is a graphically demanding game, I dealt with a dip in frame rate from time to time on my old PC with graphics set to medium. There are many unsavory things to be found in Columbia, and high on that list are negative racial and religious stereotypes. The game does not condone these stereotypes, and I did not have a problem with them as I thought it further reinforced the atmosphere of the strange floating city. Bioshock 1&2 made a staple of creepy, unsettling environments, and Infinite follows in that vein.

There are many little details in this game that really help complete the experience. The sound design is superb, from the voice acting to the sound effects. Many actions (such as a enemy turret locking on to your location) are associated with distinct audio cues to assist the player. The usual tiresome cutscenes are replaced by a dynamic and interactive environment, with NPC's freely conversing among themselves and with Booker. I really like this departure from the pedantic cutscenes found in many story-focused games such as Assassin's Creed III. The downside is that a casual player rushing through the levels might miss some important details, but it's their loss.

Bioshock Infinite truly sets a high mark for 2013 and all future games. This is game that all serious gamers should take the opportunity to play. Bioshock Infinite is a definitive statement in the ongoing debate about the artistic nature of video games, standing among a select few as shining examples of true art. I rate this game 10/10.


Friday, May 10, 2013

Iron Man 3 (2013) Review

Tony Stark is back on the big screen! This next installment in the Marvel superhero films is a fun-filled, exciting adventure with a lot of laughs along the way. The film starts with Stark's (played again by the brilliant Robert Downey Jr.) narration over images of exploding Iron Man suits. The scene then shifts back in time to a chance encounter between Stark and some interesting characters before the events of Iron Man (2008). Unsurprisingly, these seemingly insignificant characters come back to play a significant role in the film.

Across the board, the acting in Iron Man 3 is really good. RDJ is perfect as Tony Stark, and really displays a vulnerability in his character after the traumatic events of The Avengers. I think it's a great touch by director  Shane Black, showing the darker reality behind the comic book violence we have become accustomed to. Guy Pearce is excellent as a slimy villain who can breathe fire (seriously). Ben Kingsley plays the Mandarin, a villain associated with a surprisingly comedic plot twist. Gwyneth Paltrow (aka the world's most hated celebrity and the world's most beautiful woman) is adequate as Pepper Potts, but didn't really surprise me until she fell hundreds of feet into burning wreckage and emerged as a glowing zombie. Ty Simpkins, an experienced child actor (Insidious, The Next Three Days) serves as a great comedic foil to Downey Jr. at a crucial point in the film.

The brilliance of this film is in its reduction of Tony Stark from a superhero to a human being (albeit a rich, brilliant, witty human being). Stark's vulnerability keeps the audience in suspense, and breaks from the normal flow of a typical superhero movie. The bad guys in this film are red-hot zombies who can regenerate lost body parts, rendering them essentially invincible. And by "red-hot" I don't mean physically attractive, but rather capable of reaching temperatures that can melt iron. These enemies do seem ridiculously overpowered, but they actually work well within the structure of the plot as a worthy opponent for Iron Man and his variety of suits. The regiment of various suits were a major part of the marketing campaign, but I was surprised by their relative ineffectiveness against the enemies, not to mention their shocking demise.
As many others have pointed out, there are certain parallels between Iron Man 3 and The Dark Knight Rises. That isn't to say that they are clones, each film has its own unique plot, but the concept of a superhero being reduced to almost nothing is a common thread throughout both films.

 Director Shane Black created one of my all-time favorite films in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and the same characteristic clever banter can be found in Iron Man 3. As with most comedies, some of the jokes don't work (such as a situation revolving around an odious bathroom) but as a whole, the humor is excellent including a malfunctioning suit, an inquisitive child, and a cowardly thug; all situations which induced hearty laughter from the audience (and myself).

I felt the plot unraveled a bit in the final act, as the action scenes got more intense. I physically cringed at the ludicrous Mandarin terrorist videos as they look like they were created by Quentin Tarantino on speed, but the plot does explain the reasons for these strangely edited videos. My least favorite aspect of the film was the deus ex machina resolution to the dilemma Pepper Potts finds herself in by the end of the film. Notwithstanding, enough correct notes were hit in the final act so as to not completely derail it.

Iron Man 3 is a great superhero film, certainly an improvement from Iron Man 2 and at least on par with the first Iron Man, the film that kicked off the wildly popular Marvel cinematic universe. I rate this film 8/10 stars, and highly recommend watching it in the theater.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Pacific Rim (2013) Trailer Review

I was initially tempted to dismiss this film as as a lame action clone. But after watching the most recent trailer for Guillermo del Toro's upcoming film Pacific Rim, I have realized that it may be a lame action clone, but it might be one that will be worth watching.

The basic premise is that alien monsters of excessive size and extravagant design begin to attack earth with the obvious goal of killing all humans. Rather than fight back with ineffectual fighter jets, helicopters, and missiles common in such giant monster films as Godzilla and Cloverfield, the humans turn to the only logical next step: giant mechs. And these aren't just any mechs, but towering monstrosities controlled by "two pilots, mind-melding through memories with the body of a machine".

Now I have a million questions about the plausibility of this arrangement, as it certainly seems that these giant mechs might cause just as much damage flinging boats around the city as the monsters would. But who am I to argue facts in the face of pure entertainment? Facts never stopped Michael Bay, and they certainly aren't going to stop del Toro. I do have a higher level of interest in this film given the fact that it is directed by del Toro. The body of his work is generally high quality, and in the Hellboy films he showed his ability to create films in the superhero action genre. I expect this film to be a well-written and technically sound movie about monsters and robots duking it out.

In order to fully appreciate a visual and aural overload of a film like this, you have to be in a theater. I recommend you pony up the money and grab your 3D glasses to watch this, but only if you like explosions, monsters, and robots and/or are a male aged 12-29. This was a brilliant trailer, I rate it 9/10. I very optimistically expect the final film to rate a 6/10 overall, but don't let that rating deter you from what will surely be a fun weekend experience at the theater.

Pacific Rim hits theaters July 12th.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Now You See Me (2013) Trailer Review

Any trailer that begins and ends with Morgan Freeman's voice has my absolute attention. The recently released trailer for the upcoming thriller Now You See Me has the benefit of Morgan Freeman's voice and thus my attention.

This film focuses on a team of illusionists known as the "Four Horsemen" who perform bank heists...with a twist. These heists are pulled off during live performances and the money is distributed to their audience. The focus on distributing the money to the audience seems to be grounded in modern economic uncertainty, potentially providing an avenue for the moviegoers to connect with the film. Conflict is introduced to the plot in the form of a team of FBI agents who follow the magicians, attempting to catch them in their crimes.

The trailer is snappy and bold, framing the plot using bright visuals and a pulsing soundtrack. Each of the star-studded cast get their time to shine in the trailer. I know "star-studded cast" is a cliche, but check out the stars of this film: Morgan Freeman, Isla Fisher, Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, and Michael Caine.
I am excited to see each of the cast members in action. Jesse Eisenberg is an actor who I wasn't a big fan of in his earlier films (such as the awful Adventureland). His performance in The Social Network was very good, and it looks like he will be portraying a similar wise-guy character in this film. I also really appreciated his honesty in The Hollywood Reporter's 2012 Actor's Roundtable. In this interview, he explains his personal motivations for acting and was very humble about his success. I certainly gained a greater appreciation for his acting as a result of that interview.
It's wonderful that we will get to listen to conversations between arguably the two most iconic voices in Hollywood. I already mentioned Morgan Freeman's presence, but Sir Michael Caine should not be overlooked. His first appearance in the trailer is to utter this line: "I was a hundred and forty...million..dollar...distraction?" His delivery is awesomely distinctive and the trailer's soundtrack accentuates each syllable of that line.

I don't have a good read from the trailer if the magic is all physical tricks or a combination of tricks and actual magic. The trailer shows evidence of significant planning and physical props such as huge mirrors  but also has fantastical, Wizard of Oz-esque tricks like floating in a bubble. I certainly hope that the seemingly supernatural magic effects can all be explained by clever tricks (illusions, you might say). Claiming that the "Four Horsemen" really have supernatural powers would severely weaken this film.

This was a good trailer that I would rate 8/10. I expect the film to also rate 8/10, and recommend watching this film in theaters.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Video Games and the Freedom to Choose

Open World! There seems to be a definite trend towards open worlds in many modern video games. A primary motivator for this trend has to be the success of games like Skyrim, which are based on a large, detailed, "open world". Minecraft is another great example, as it features an infinite open world. Obviously, since these games have sold so well, there must be a reason that gamers gravitate towards these titles. I believe that the reason these games are so popular is their emphasis on player choice.

There isn't anything inherently wrong with a linear storyline and conventional level structure. However, the ability to make meaningful choices is an important way of increasing the immersion of a player within a game. The importance of the ability to choose is clearly evident in the critically acclaimed Mass Effect trilogy. Although the games do not take place in an open world, the player is given a large amount of control over the direction of the storyline and the game play strategy. These choices (and their consequences) led to my emotional attachment to the characters and my complete immersion in that universe.

This concept of player choice was very evident when I played the games Assassin's Creed III and Hitman: Absolution. Both games follow a fairly linear story line. The world of Assassin's Creed is large and open, while Hitman is significantly more restrictive. But even though Assassin's Creed had the open world as a centerpiece, it actually allowed less room for player choice. Many of the missions in Assassin's Creed require the player to chase a certain target or run from a group of enemies. As I played through the game, I became frustrated by the way I was prevented from choosing creative methods to chase some characters and run from others. Any attempt to climb a building or engage in combat with a bystander would inevitably be followed by mission failure. And then after running along in a straight line to complete the checkpoint, I would be rewarded by an hour-long cutscene. Both Assassin's Creed I and II allowed much more flexibility in the completion of each mission and avoided the drudgery of continuous cutscenes.

A quick note on cutscenes - I have no problem with them in general, and any game with a story will have to make use of some cinematics in order to develop the story arc. But there are methods of implementing cutscenes that keep the player involved and interested such as the Paragon/Renegade options in the Mass Effect games, and the ability to maintain control of your character during cutscenes like Assassin's Creed I. Assassins' Creed III drives home its finer points with a sledgehammer, bombastically repeating the same ideas over and over through hours of cutscenes. That is certainly not the way to create an engaging gameplay experience.

Hitman takes place in fairly restrictive environments and follows a linear storyline. Notwithstanding, I felt my personal choices were very important when playing through the levels. I could go in guns blazing and clean out a building, creep around silently, killing only my target, or a mix of the two. My personal choices were integral to the game's progression, the mechanics of each level, and the ultimate rating. One level stands out in particular to me, in which the player is given complete control over the fate of a certain central character, and whether he lived or died, you are still allowed to continue the storyline. Those type of choices are a staple of the Mass Effect trilogy, and put the responsibility for the direction of the plot in the player's hands. Personally, I was much more engaged and immersed in the Hitman storyline because of the ability to choose within the game.

It's important to be able to make meaningful choices within a video game. The market confirms this and it is important to my own gameplay experience. Largely because of this, I rated Hitman: Absolution 9/10 and I still haven't finished Assassin's Creed III.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Oblivion (2013)

This latest Tom Cruise vehicle is a celebration of the sci-fi genre. The setting is earth in the year 2070. Nuclear war with an alien race has ravaged the earth. Most of the humans have left for Titan, a moon of Saturn. Those who haven't yet moved to Titan live in the Tet, a tetrahedral space station orbiting earth. Cruise plays Jack Harper, a repairman who services giant seawater-processing plants and the drones that protect them. He is assisted by the beautiful Victoria (), who maintains contact with the Tet, assigns Jack his daily duties, and keeps in contact with him.
Life as a repairman on post-apocalyptic earth is not a boring job. The alien Scavs are always nearby, and Jack carries an assault rifle along with his repair kit. It's impossible to miss the parallels to Top Gun as you watch Cruise pilot his jet and its attached motorcycle with reckless abandon through a variety of stunning landscapes.

We soon find out that all is not perfect for these characters on earth. Harper is plagued by recurrent dreams of the same beautiful woman (). The intrigue deepens when he encounters this same woman while investigating a crashed spacecraft. I will not give any more details of the plot to avoid spoiling it, but suffice to say there are a number of twists that kept me engaged in the story. In fact, I think there were a few too many plot lines presented in this film, and as a result the third act felt a bit dragged out as each plot line was concluded.

The acting in this film is very good overall. Tom Cruise doesn't quite have the same "boyish charm" from Top Gun, but he still excels as an action star in this film. It certainly surprised me to hear that he turned 50 during the production of Oblivion.The two female leads played off Cruise well, and each performed well in a few key scenes. Morgan Freeman is present to play himself, and brought his usual commanding presence to the screen.

Visually, this film is excellent, the post-apocalyptic world is captivating and beautiful and the futuristic set pieces well-crafted.  have mixed feelings on the quality of the screenplay. I just jotted down on the back on an envelope eight different movies or series that I felt were represented in this film (some more than others). The source material for the screenplay is an unpublished graphic novel authored by the director of the film, Joseph Kosinski. There is a fair bit of online debate about whether this film is simply a rip off of these other films. In my opinion, truly original work is rare in modern science fiction. Only the truly great films (or the most abject flops) stray very far from the pillars of convention that have been built up over the years by great writers, directors and producers. Oblivion utilizes common conventions but as a whole does so in a creative manner, resulting in a body of work that is altogether original.

I enjoyed this film as a great weekend sci-fi adventure. As I mentioned previously, this is certainly not a "game-changer" in the sci-fi genre, but it is a thrilling adventure that is certainly worth the price of admission.
I rate Oblivion 8/10 stars.