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Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Brian Fuller's Hannibal: The Best Thing Since Sliced Sweatbreads.

I'm gonna say it. The first three episodes of this new series is better than all the previous Lector films combined. I'm gonna skip the song and dance to jump right to my gut feeling, which is that this is one of the greatest police procedural shows ever made.

Its scary, its atmospheric, its inventive, its trippy, and every role is perfectly cast as well as expertly acted. This isn't just a breath of fresh air, its a damn hurricane. The problem is, I find it very hard to describe to those who have already made up their minds. To some this looks like a desperate network going back to well that dried up years ago and that’s true. But Brian Fuller has tapped that old well and hit a oil geyser filled with new ideas and possibility. The first two serial killers alone are more interesting than either Buffalo Bill and the Tooth Fairy, and on a related note, don't eat mushrooms while watching this show. Its a bad plan and I promise you'll thank me later.

Fuller retained the essence of everyone's favorite cannibal while also ingeniously rebooting Will Graham into a basket case with a condition called “perfect empathy.” A hokey tacked on super power if written by the likes of other lesser shows, but the flashback scenes it allows to take place coupled with Hugh Dancy's devastating performance makes the implied ridiculousness hypnotic. That's actually a good way to describe the whole show: hypnotic. 

Each scene in Lector's massive office will arrest every bit of your attention as you search Mads Mikklesen's face for any shred of blood lust or unspoken malice. Some may call his performance too understated, or worse, boring. You won't see him sucking the air like a wood chuck on Hannibal, but you will see him go to town on a pair of lungs with a cleaver and come on people, with someone like Lector less is always more.

This is one of the very few shows I have ever had to watch through my fingers and I've sat through a couple Saws and the majority of Dexter's run. Hannibal still managed to shock my dulled senses and no one is more surprised that happened than me. Mutilation and desecration is the rule of law on this set and it is definitely not for everyone. But if you are starved for violent, though provoking, and beautifully shot drama? It's all on right now. What in god's name are you waiting for?!

Recommended Viewing:

Mads Mikklesen:
After The Wedding
Flame and Citron

Hugh Dancy:
Black Hawk Down

Sunday, April 28, 2013

42 Review: Chadwick at the Bat.

There's no getting around it, the film 42 is a relic. I could make a half-assed Indiana Jones joke here, but... nah.This is a movie straight out of the early 90's, but the thing is, it's still a remarkable film from the early 90's. The opening scene with Ford's tin eared “old codger” voice talking about how it's time to integrate pro baseball while bathed in bronze quasi-holy light is as hokey as they come. I was ready to bail, that is, until the film's namesake finally made his entrance.

Chadwick Boseman plays Jackie Robinson like his entire career was leading to this role while never tipping his hand to the audience of any shred of desperation. He is beyond exceptional and I suspect we will being seeing much more of him in the future. When Jackie makes it to the bigs we feel for him, when he laughs we laugh with him, when his heart breaks under the daily barrage of bigotry so do ours. I hate to use the phrase “a star is born” but he has, and with the help of his equally compelling wife in actor Nicole Beharie we cross the line from a passable project to an labor of love. Sure you have to sit through the obligatory proposal/marriage/”you're special” pep talks, but thankfully the two get to share a couple touching left field (sorry) moments that spice the pacing up when it needs it most. And to be fair the final pep talk is all kinds of adora-awesome, which is now, obviously a word.

The supporting cast is a mixed bag of swings and misses (I'm so sorry). Christopher Meloni has a nice run for the first quarter as the manager that has to knock the less agreeable Dodgers into line and Alan Tudyk absolutely nails the thankless role of Ben Chapman. As the most outwardly racist caricature in a film chock full of the suckers, he's a flesh and blood Yosemite Sam. That may sound like a knock, but seriously, he is an entirely convincing Yosemite Sam. But we need to talk about Ford.

He's bad, really really bad. There's a stuffy odor of white man's burden around the character on paper and his forced voice always broke my immersion. He hasn't been a character actor before, to my knowledge, and this is proof positive as to why he never should be again. That’s not to say he doesn’t have a good arch or that his voice does eventually become kind of endearing, but he wears you down instead of winning you over. If half of his scenes were cut it would have been a better film.

You can usually tell when a film is made by people who wanted to be there versus when it was more of an obligation and 42 is definitely the former. It's a good story with good casting with a familiar yet affecting path to the end credits. Yes it's hokey, yes Ford is painfully miscast, and yes the racism is more than a little melodramatic. But you know what? I'd bet money on that part of American history being just as melodramatic as this film depicts it. And for every go nowhere scene with the Dodger malcontents there’s one with Jackie and Rachel, which is more than worth it. Also the scene near the end with a small white child reacting to a racist crowd was appropriately dark and showed a draft of a much better film that was probably sanitized...probably. I loved that scene and I really liked this movie. It's not a showstopping grand slam (SORRY!) but rather an honest, heartfelt double play. (I have a problem...)

That's the real Rachel in a picture that made my whole damn week.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Don't Starve Review: The Shadow over Farmville...smouth

Don't Starve is a game that really doesn’t want you to know what kind of a game it actually is, in fact, “Don't Starve” is the only direction you're ever given. 

As a lovcraftian mad scientist named Wilson, you make a devil's deal with a stranger in a suit for knowledge of the natural world. But upon the completion of your masterwork; you find yourself whisked away to an otherworldly wilderness where pigs live in houses, mushrooms drive you insane, rabbits scream, and frogs want you dead. What the hell are you supposed to do about any of this? Figure it out.

This man did not know cold”

First I noticed that my character was upset by night fall, so I looked over at my building options on the other side of the screen. I saw a option for fire. Naturally I wanted a big stone fire pit, but I had no stones, and I had no logs. So I was left to my sapling twig devices and rode out the night lighting torch after torch, fearing the big white eyes blinking just out of reach of the light. 

The next day would be different I scoured the land for some flint, my option bar dinged and I could now cobble together an axe! A few more flints and I made a pickaxe. Now all I had to do was chop some trees and break some boulders and now I had my fire pit... but I couldn't light it in time and the darkness took me. Game Over.

The fire provider had failed”

You're going to die in Don't Starve. You are going to die many, many, times. The only thing you can take with you is knowledge. Knowledge like “I really shouldn't go anywhere near giant spiders” or “I should try cooking raw rabbit meat before shoving it into my face.” Each time you die (and start over) you've hopefully died trying something different and thereby testing more limits of the game world. 

But dying isn't without it's own reward, the number of days you manage to survive are tallied into experience points on death. Which are then used to unlock new, more effective, or versatile characters. Maybe Wolfgang the body builder and his bigger stomach is more your speed or Wendy the little girl whose dead sister's ghost protects her at night (it's that kind of game). DS is very observant of how best to alleviate the tedium of starting over, from random wilderness generation to the new characters, no single play through is exactly alike. It works...for the most part anyway.
Whoa, whoa, whoa, STOP! ...where did you get that hat?

It was a clear day, and yet there seemed an intangible pall over the face of things"

Don't Starve remains an experience I wanted to like more than I actually did. Which isn't to say I feel disappointed, or worse, ripped off. No, instead I can only call it a very good game instead of a great one. The resource management becomes a tremendous pain in the ass. For all the grass it takes to make a bed roll why does it magically disappear in the morning? You will probably end up spending half your time in the game picking berries or pulling up grass, and as disturbingly compelling as it is in the moment, you will find yourself getting up from your seat wondering “What the hell did I just spend the last hour and a half doing?
This inspired lunacy can be yours for $14.99!

It's Instinct Told a Truer Tale”

Here boy! Have thirty founds of manure.
But if I’m being honest, I just can't stay mad at this game. Its atmosphere and art style oozes wit and personality. It feels like something we'd like to imagine Tim Burton creating, instead of the drivel he actually makes, and that is an art direction worth praising. For every game day I spend picking grass, I’ll find something new and interesting the next. Maybe I’ll stumble across my beloved bouncing pet backpack Chester! Or a pig-friend resurrection stone, or a dead adventurer clutching a ruby, or... I don't know what! All I know is that I can't wait for DS to surprise me again.


Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Off My Chest: The Ratchet and Clank Movie, why I'm optomistic.

Yesterday I awoke to the startling news that there was

 A. A feature length film based on Ratchet and Clank was in the works, but more importantly...
 B. It was actually getting a theatrical release
The prospect was to me, a no brainier. Insomniac Game's animation has always been nothing short of feature quality. In fact, after finishing “Crack in Time” a few years back I was half convinced I’d already seen the R&C movie. The cut scenes were just barely below Pixar standards. So I’d like to get into why this property has the chance to be a real charmer as well as a movie that breaks video the game to film transfer curse, so lets get to it.

  1. The Central Cast is on Board

Whether it's due to budget constraints or not, the cast of R&C wasn't broke and Rainmaker Entertainment isn't going to “fix” it with disinterested celebrity talent. As seen in the delightful teaser Clank sounds like David Kaye, Quark sounds like Jim Ward, and Ratchet sounds like James Arnold Taylor. Which is great because Taylor was the best damn thing that ever happened to the series and he remains an underrated actor in general. He's just one of those guys that can make any line sound funny, tense, or dramatic, whenever the script needs that little extra push. The stupidest thing the studio could have done was to recast him, so BRAVO.

   2. The Writing has Always been Solid

I was reminded the other night after catching “Paranorman” on Netflix of just how big a pass animated films get on scripting. Now I thought the film had its moments and the dramatic irony that’s revealed near the end was absolutely brilliant, but if I’m being honest with my self, the script was GOD awful. Even in Pixar films sometimes I find myself twitching in my seat if the characters start reading lines in a way no rational actor would read lines and it bothers me that no other critic seems to care. Because no live action film under the sun would get away with a character so bizarrely abusive as Norman's dad.

I now realize I have never had this issue with any R&C production. Never! While the stories almost always loose their steam and direction, the characterization and general dialogue was reliably witty and brisk. Seeing as “Crack in Time's” writer is clacking away at the script I could not be more pleased, as that was the most emotionally resonant chapter of them all... but not the best one. Speaking of which:

  3. Ultimate Supreme Executive Chairman Drek

Drek is confirmed as the villain and I am over the moon. Kevin Michael Richardson had simply too much fun playing what was essentially a loving homage to both Gordon Gekko and the Vogons respectively. His PSAs apologizing to planets he was about to rip to pieces were fantastic and echoed with diminishing returns in the series's subsequent villains. I'm certainly looking forward to Ratchet and Clank's initial more antagonistic dynamic, as Taylor wasn't cast until the second game, but choosing Drek over other more popular villains allows for faithful a re-boot of the origin story and that was honestly some of its strongest work. (and I just hope to god he gets to keep his ponytail.)

   4. It Means We're Not Done Yet
The last real entry into the franchise was over three years ago, since then there's been two poorly received multiplayer and tower defense re imaginings of the core gameplay. With the movie on the way it is simply not possible that there won't be a cannon entry either before or during its release.This is a good plan seeing as "Crack in Time" was the closest we've seen to a perfect R&C. In fact I think if they gave it another six months and made it just bit longer they really could have ended the whole series on one mother of a high note. But unlike say, god of war, there is a certain timelessness to these characters and situations that can (and has) stand the test of time and could very well go on forever. Nobody thinks Mario's outstayed his welcome, why shouldn't these guys stick around just a little bit longer? So to sum up my feelings on the movie...
It's about Friggn' Time.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Top of the Lake: The Best Kept Secret on Netflix

I don't know where it came from or when it got here, but after stumbling over this gem of a miniseries I am now honestly afraid to cancel my account ever again. Because after over twenty years there is finally( finally) a worthy successor to twin peaks, with Elizabeth Moss and the New Zealand wilderness as its stars.

Moss plays a detective brought in on a case involving a suicidal twelve year old girl and her eventual disappearance. Rote stuff on paper but the script, setting, and casting will make it so even the most bitter cynic will at least give the first couple episodes a shot. Because besides Kenneth Branagh's “Wallander”(also worth your time) there is really nothing else out there quite like it...and buddy this show is out there.

Note the fuzzy Chihuahua.
From the gleefully sexist local police station to the (kiwi neck?) meth cooking mini mafia as well as the battered woman’s naturist commune TOL has a riveting revolving door of sets and locations to the point where even if one gets on your nerves there’s another that’s worth sitting around for. There isn't a weak link in the cast and the brass ring of the leads are award worthy.

Really, if all I had was Peter Mullan I probably would have finished the series out of spite, because Mullan is honestly one of the best villain actors out there right now. But no, I also got Moss who not only nails the Australian accent, but gives the best damn performance of her career. After ten minutes of watching her play Det. Griffen I had all but forgotten about Peggy Olson. As a long time admirer of Mad Men, that was no small feat I assure you.

While the ins and outs of the ancillary conflicts of Laketop are interesting at first, when the case hits the doldrums around the middle of the third episode it hits them hard. It's not that I don't want to know why a bunch of middle aged women are living in shipping containers in the middle of a field, its just that I’d much rather know what happened to Tui and whether or not she's still alive. It's not a dip in quality...well it kinda is, but it remains very well acted and scripted. But it does turn into a soap opera for a good two and a half hours.

But you won't care once the finale revs up. It saves just enough little twists for the end to keep the average viewer entertained and rewards the more hard boiled police procedural veterans like me. So to sum things up, this a fantastic little miniseries for any one looking to scratch that creepy small town itch and for mystery lovers in general. Check it out.

P.S. There is a ton of middle aged nudity and sex. So now you know that.

Recommended Viewing

  Peter Mullan:

The Red Riding Trilogy

Session 9



Elizabeth Moss:

The West Wing
 Mad Men...obviously.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

ONCE MORE INTO THE FRINGE: a beginner's guide to a great, but convoluted, show.

Fringe is finally available for binge viewing on Netflix and it is arguably the best project Abrams has yet produced. When Lost was screwing up it's story and when the X Files was letting its lead characters calcify into marionettes, the writers of Fringe were behind them furiously taking notes.

This is a one of a kind project, in that we will probably never see a show this weird and wonderful with this kind of a budget ever again. Fringe, ladies and gentleman, is a science fiction unicorn and I’d like to help you get on the saddle. So here are, what I believe, to be the best points of entry to a  show whose first act was its weakest. Bear with it and it will fill that mad science sized hole in your heart in no time.

Season 1 Ep,7: In Which We Meet Mr. Jones

Perhaps you've see Jared Harris around these days, doing his thing all over Mad Men and Sherlock Holmes. This is the reason. His villain arch on Fringe's first season is a high water mark for the show and sci fi in general. While this may not the best episode featuring the good doctor, more on that later, its case of the week gives you a great idea of how accomplished the effects team handle body horror. Here the show gets screaming close to hitting its stride.

Season 1 Ep, 9: The Dreamscape

Oh, look at the pretty buterfliAAAAAAAAAAGGHHHH!!!
If you can walk away from this show after the cold open I'll really be impressed. I thought I’d never see something different in a dream sequence, but the writers and cinematographers found a way to make a warmly lit tavern scene oppressively eerie. If you don’t mind having the pilot's major cliffhanger resolved for you this is a tight little psychological horror gem.

Season 1 Ep 10: Safe
Stop me if you've heard this one before...

Here it is, the one where everything clicked into place. The one when all the cylinders fired for the first time. I don't want to give away too much but this was when the show decided it wasn't going to go the law and order route and dove feet first into it's already deep lore. But you can still catch on if you pay attention. But you'll want to poke through “The Equation” and the “The Ghost Network” to see how the heist all came together. Or at least I hope you'll want to.

Season 2 Ep, 9 Snakehead

Hands down, Snakehead is Fringe's best “creature feature.” Also now that I think about it, it may also be the best standalone chapter as well. Not only does it have a spectacular monster, but the writers drum up a sensible reason for it to exist in the first place. But that’s not why this is a great episode. Sandwiched in between the parable of socioeconomic disparity is Walter's efforts to deal with his doddering mind and old age in general. His sobbing breakdown next to a stranger at a bus stop is simply Emmy award worthy acting, and its a shame John noble never got one.
Don't you just want to hug him?

Season 2 Ep 17, White Tulip

This is it, my last ditch effort. Don't watch this one out of order unless you absolutely MUST see the best Fringe has to offer. And this is one of the best. Unfortunately it directly deals with the fallout of the second season's biggest plot twist and with a show like this, surprise is often it's sharpest tool. But if that really doesn’t bother you, then treat yourself to one of the best time travel stories out there. Or at the very least... one of the very best time machines.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Off My Chest: Will the circle (of navel gazing hindsight) be unbroken?

I'm not going to call Bioshock Infinite perfect. I may even walk back the masterpiece label a few months from now, I may even refuse to give it my personal goty. But the backlash its been getting recently is becoming absurd.

The game had done the impossible. It built up expectations to ridiculous levels, and in the eyes of the first wave of critics, it meet them with aplomb. Which is great because I almost never get to use “aplomb.” Perhaps the reviews were too positive, perhaps it made people’s already soaring expectations even higher, or perhaps some chose to tear down something that didn't fit what they believed would help the medium. Can you guess which one I think it is?

Cliff Blezinski of Raleigh's Epic Games(Gears of War developer) and Kirk Hamilton of have written articles on why they think Infinite's violence exists to largely diminish it's artistic impact. Hamilton writes “BioShock Infinite is in many ways so, so close to being That Game, the one we can show to our non-gamer friends and say "See? Look at this! It is so awesome! Check out the story! It's like LOST! How neat is this?" Blezinski, whose opinions are sound even though they scream double standard, blogged essentially the same sentiment.

yeah, it ain't subtle.
They make good points...the thing is... the thing that really bothers me...the thing that makes my right eyelid twitch is that both knew exactly what this game was going to be. The violence was on full display from a bare minimum of two years ago. Where were these opinions then? Why was it OK to let Irrational games get a pass only for these folks to rope off it's place in history for being what it never tried not to be? Its just too damn convenient.

The discussion of video game violence, in terms of market saturation, needs to happen. It's a problem. I'd personally love it if the industry took a year off and only produced non violent material. Think about how amazing that would be! Think about what new types of game play could be devised when avoiding the crutch of violent conflict became necessary. I have no problem with this debate, I have a problem with people projecting their personal hang ups on what is objectively a wonderful “product.” A product with a budget and coffers to fill.

Games of this caliber have always been, and always will be, profit first and art second. Violence is the easiest way to sell that product, and that’s the only way a game about 20th century racism ever got a budget over $80 million dollars. The game trades off intellectualism with popular tastes and everyone knew that going in. So what the hell happened? A bunch of critics,in so many words, called it “art.”*

The actual game may not be as imaginative as this concept piece...but its scary how close it gets.
But could you call Infinite “art?” I'd certainly like too. Daniel Golding at would try to choke me to death with his monocle chain, but I think time will be very kind to the game. I'm not even going to bother with Golding, he's...set in his ways, so I'm driving the conversation back to Kotaku. Hamilton wanted validation from his non-gaming peers. That's a great goal, and I hope he finds his bright shining example one day (portal 2). Yes, I agree there was too much shooting, and I would have loved for the last act of the game to have slowed down a bit and maybe eschewed violence all together. I wouldn't have seen that coming. But jumping from that point to practically dismissing its existence because its a shooter is sanctimonious and just plain mean.

These people didn't have to play it, and they don't have to like it. But they can't fault the developers who poured the last five years of their lives into a shooter only to have people like Hamilton hang the entire genre around their neck like an albatross. So please. Talk about video game violence. Talk about better ways for shooters to tell stories. Stop dragging Infinite into it, it knew it was never anything but popular entertainment and it tried some new things. It can't be everything to everyone and it shouldn't have to explain itself that way.

Lets all just take a step back, look at the game's strengths and weaknesses, and talk it out over some cotton candy.
Serenity from Spun Sugar.

*He doesn’t use the word, but he really really wants to.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Bioshock Infinite Review: Through the Booking Glass and what Elizabeth Found There

Once in a blue moon, a piece of popular art makes an impact some will claim it doesn’t deserve. Irrational games has done something here a lot of people won't understand. They have once again turned a first person shooter into a barbed critique on human idealism. And once again I find myself not just completely enthralled by the floating city of Colombia, but genuinely moved by it's literal downfall.

The year seems to be 1912. You are cast in the role of Booker Dewitt, a former Pinkerton and wounded knee veteran, as he is sent to a city in the sky to extract a 19 year old girl being held against her will. At least this is the plan initially. Eventually the fringe elements of the story take hold, bringing to the fore front the major, mostly forgotten, racial issues of post civil war America. Seeing a black man in a white suit offering my character a drink while bowing his head is one of, if not the most, disturbing thing I’ve seen in a game. So while its setting may be patently ridiculous, it's history is deadly serious.

For all it's lofty story telling goals, of which it mostly achieves quite handsomely, this is a shooter. By the time you finish the game you will have killed just over a thousand people. The criticism that someone can't remain a relate-able character after engaging in such atrocity in the minute by minute game play is fair. And sadly the game just hangs a lampshade on it. But that lampshade is the cursory reference to being a Pinkerton strike breaker. I certainly didn't hear about them in history class and in that regard it's also fair to say that our past, much like this game, has a lot more blood on it then we'd like to admit to ourselves.

But it works. The game is engaging and exhilarating once you find your favorite gear load outs and tactics. Say I'm pinned down by a bunch of flying squad goons so I throw out a cloud of ravens from my left hand. In their confusion I’ll charge into the fray by hopping on a suspended roller coaster-esque fright track with my skyhook. Then I jump off on top of the flamethrower in the middle, and because of the hat I’m wearing, they all burst into flames. I win.
This ridiculousness will become second nature as you learn the language of the battlefield. You'll stop wondering how a new pair of pants makes your guns reload faster and just go with it. Because even if you hate the combat, a fair share of critics did, the story beats waiting on the other side are more then worth the effort

Infinite in a nutshell is a science fiction fairy tale. You have a princess to rescue who's locked in a tower, guarded by a monster, in a fantasy world. But it takes those elements and through literary slight of hand creates characters you grow to care about as they are tossed around by the tragedy of American exeptionalism. The Sci fi aspects are better left unspoiled, but the character of Elizabeth is not.
Games have tired and failed for years to create a companion character as interesting and emotive as she is. Sure she tries to buy the players affection by “finding” money out of nowhere like a phantom slot machine from time to time, but her story arch is layered in ways most films or novels never even bother with. She seems to be just another eye candy goal first. If you've ever wondered what would happen to a Disney princess if she was thrown into a violent populist uprising (as I have) infinite does not disappoint. Bit by bit she becomes the hero of the whole piece.

Infinite is a triumph. The hypnotic atmosphere coupled with a great script and lovable performances, makes lightning strike twice on this already charmed trilogy. This is a game for everyone, not that its appropriate for anyone under twelve, but that everyone should play it at least once. Especially if they are of the camp that believe video games are a mass opiate devoid of introspection. This is a story and a game that’s proud to be frighteningly weird whilst also portraying its history with stunning honesty. That is what makes it powerful and that is why they'll be talking,and arguing, about this game in history classes in the very near future.

If you finish it, I promise you will never forget it.

Please See Arthur Christmas: review

(written December 2012)
A year ago... last week or something, I saw “Arthur Christmas” and I loved the living tar out of it. I had always meant to do a review, and I can’t remember why I didn’t get around to it. Maybe I didn’t think it mattered, surely people would flock to it, surely it would find its little moment in the sun, SURELY it would at least get nominated for best animated feature.

A year’s gone by and barely anyone remembers it. I know I didn’t until a friend scrolled by it in red box and I stopped her, promising if she hated it I’d get her another out of my pocket. The next morning she found me in the Caf breathlessly explaining it had her from the first line and was incredibly disappointed she didn’t have time to finish the last act. I asked if I could return it myself and promptly tore through it all again. It wasn’t as good as I remembered it. It was better.

Arthur Christmas is, in a nut shell, about the lineage of Santa Clause and the sticky familial tension that arises from having to share “the greatest job in the world.” Malcolm Clause, the current Santa is little more than a figure head after his oldest son, Steve, has turned Christmas into a technologically drenched military operation. There’s nothing he wants more than to take over after his father’s 70th mission, but Malcolm decides to keep going, devastating Steve and causing one present for one child to go undelivered.

Arthur, the youngest and the most naive, is mortified over the .00000000001% margin of error and sets out with his grandfather, to make sure that Gwen Hines of Trelew UK never has to live with knowledge of being the one child on earth “Santa doesn’t care about.”
The script never lets up, if it’s not being droll or acerbic it’s affecting and poignant. The cast uniformly brings the goods, Bill Nighy (Grandsanta) in particular gets the best lines by far, an opportunity he does not squander. His kneejerk inhumane treatment of elves...
“Elf! Gift Wrap your head!”
“There isn't enough room to breathe! I've got nine seconds left before I black out!”
“... you get one breath!” in itself worth the price of the DVD. But you still have a thinly villainous Hugh Laurie, (Steve) a stupendously adorable James Macavoy, (Arthur) and a scene stealing Scottish giftwrapping ninja elf (Ashley Jenson). Forget what I just said, Jenson is worth the whole DVD. Man, I haven’t even brought up Henry Gregson-William’s  score yet ... that too is another beautiful part of what was already a very special project.

There has never been a Christmas film a FRACTION as funny, well plotted, or genuinely heartfelt as this. Yes, those are fighting words, and yes, I will fight for them. I mean sure, you have to be in the right mindset for it, and I wasn’t totally on board with it at first either. The “yes Virginia” opening was a little too twee for my taste at the time, but it was absolutely necessary and it never goes back to that well again until the last minute or so, but by then it had me by the emotional shorthairs and you’re welcome for that image.

What? OK I'm sorry!
The film works simultaneously as a loving tribute and bitter satire not of what Christmas has become (because seriously how tired is that?) but what it has always been. It’s about family, and most of the time families are hard to deal with, they screw up, and they shatter your expectations. The point is, or at least the point Arthur Christmas tries to make, is that people need to take a step back, think about everyone’s needs and decide what’s best for the whole.
Sometimes it’s compromise, sometimes it’s a pink twinkle bike. 

Please see Arthur Christmas.

Arkham City Review: The Hype is Real

 (Written October 2011)
When future generations look back on the last couple of years, they may disagree about politics, court rulings and economic policies, but there will be at least one indisputable fact that no man, woman, or child will contest. This was one incredible decade to be a fan of the bat. While I am in no way shape or form, a batman “fan” I know a great game when I play it.

Arkham City is the sequel to 2009’s Arkham asylum. A game famous for being based on a licensed property (movie, comic book, or what have you) and was actually fun. It was more than just fun. It was one of the best games of the year, and in the annuls of video game history (all thirty years of it) that was wholly unique.

Unique, but not great. That may sound like I was disappointed, not at all, there were a few chinks in the game’s armor, but they were few and far between. Asylum captured what made batman such an iconic character and let him exist believably in an interactive world. Plenty of time and effort went into his gadgets and free form martial arts fisticuffs, but just as much dedication went into how the writing set up all the best villains from his immortal rogue gallery for the game’s story in interesting ways. It was a fevered and deliberate labor of love, the kind that never gets the right funding to get off the ground...almost never.

Everything that Asylum got right was flawlessly carried over into Arkham city and then pushed just a little bit further. This was no small feat, because I couldn’t have pictured them making a sequel that had all the same exhilarating parts as the first, but felt like a completely new experience. The folks at Rocksteady studios are modern masters of the interactive arts and they know it.
They hit the ground running two years ago and knew exactly what game they needed to make.
1. It needed to be more open ended than Asylum’s isolated island prison: Check.
2. They needed Mark Hamill (AKA: the greatest living joker) back under contract: Check.
3. They needed a dynamite premise that didn’t rip off the original’s “lunatics take over the asylum “gag, but made it seem like the introduction to the main event. CHECK.
I don’t want to give too much of the beginning away, but here goes. Through a strange political agenda running through Gotham’s prison system, the slums become walled off and turned into a laissez faire detention camp; Giving Mr. Wayne a hell of a job shutting it down from the inside, and the player the ultimate batman playground.

This game will melt days off your life. Between a battle of wits with the prison’s warden, a race to save the Joker’s life, and hundreds upon hundreds of secret puzzles and challenges (there are literally over four hundred of them.) you’re gonna need to glue your eyes to your watch if you want to keep your GPA above water. Good luck with that.

This is not a game you rent. This is the kind of game you own, the kind you come back to years from now with a grin on your face. I don’t know if it’s the greatest action/puzzle/stealth game ever made, but I honestly couldn’t tell you how to make it any better than this.

Can't stop staring at this for some reason...

Awake: R.I.P

(written March 2012)
Awake is the kind of TV I wish I saw more of. It takes a popular form of storytelling (police procedural) and gives it a premise so bizarre, yet relatable, that it almost becomes its own genre.
Awake takes place in the aftermath of Det. Michael Britten’s fatal car accident. Afterwards he can’t seem to remember who died in it. It was either his wife or his son; one lives in reality the other in his dreams. So that begs the question . . . which is the dream?

The procedural elements of the show itself are also surprisingly novel. Each episode chronicles two cases with two different partners, though they seem to have random elements in common. In one reality a killer’s apartment number may be the same as the other killer’s parking spot. It rewards those who pay attention.

But while the show ticks off its checklist of prime time TV necessities it finds the breathing room to show a family drama that’s never really been done before, and if it has, I doubt Jason Isaacs (Draco Malfoy’s dad) was there to knock it out of the park. His content confusion coupled with over medicated depression is the highlight of an already exemplary piece of entertainment. He loves the idea he never has to let either part of his family go forever, but he also has to watch them both suffer without the other. It’s heartbreaking.

As it stands, it’s one of the best TV pilots I’ve ever seen. Its complicated premise is effortlessly explained ten minutes in and then segways gracefully into the story as if it’s a show that’s been on for years. If it gets tangled up in its own overarching mystery or becomes the very formula it’s trying so hard to rewrite remains to be seen. I hope neither happens, but that’s all really beside the point. This right here is some mighty fine TV that’s well worth your valuable time and attention.

I thought of your hand-grenades, of your bayonet, of your rifle... BORDERLANDS 2 REVIEW

(Written September 2012)
This is my Hyperion brand auto correcting “lady finger” pistol. There are many like it, but this one is MINE. In the Borderlands you never know what’s over the next hill or at the bottom of the next crate. You will burn through hundreds upon hundreds of rifles, shotguns, revolvers, or sub machine guns and not a single one will be exactly alike. Not. One.

Thus is the siren song of the sequel to one of my personal favorite games in all of ever. Borderlands 2 retains the narcotic-esque draw of bigger and better loot whilst handsomely outshining every other aspect in which the first stumbled.

There’s a word I want to avoid using to describe this game, but I don’t want to sound... you know, overzealous. Let’s just say it rhymes with “laster-neice”... it's masterpiece.
Where the first game was pretty, this game is gorgeous. Where the first was kinda funny, the sequel is achingly so. Where the first practically forgot to tell a story, this chapter spins a damn decent yarn.
When Borderlands 2 boils over into an act break it brings the plot developing goods and it brings them hard. Of course if you never played the first, most of the pathos will fly right over your head so . . . tough cookies.

The respect paid to the intricacy of BL2’s continuity is unheard of in the gaming world. Where most sequels start stories from scratch or hire new and indifferent writers; Gearbox software found a few that saw the potential in the world and its loveable menagerie of characters then raised them up miles beyond my rose colored expectations.

Everybody’s back and I mean everybody. If you haven’t found your favorite character yet then you aren’t looking hard enough. Even better, the playable characters from the original, who I totally can’t name from memor- Lilith, Roland, Brick, Mordicai, Have speaking roles and are each fleshed out into the most interesting characters in the series thus far! But enough about the old guard, we need to get to know Jack.

Seriously. He is just the worst.
For my money? “Handsome” Jack is one the best villains gaming has to offer. From the first entitled/painfully delusional line of dialogue I was hooked. I couldn’t wait for him to taunt me, or threaten me, or regale me with another hilariously sociopathic anecdote. Jack is a full tilt delight. That is, until he isn’t. You can’t have a great story if your villain never comes off as either threatening or dangerous. So for the sake of surprise I won’t say much more on the subject, but from the second act break on, I wanted to rip his throat out with my fingernails. Slowly.

But wait, you ask, why are you droning on about the story? This a friggn’ video game! You’re right and it is, my apologies. There is much more to discuss. Great guns don’t mean jack-monkey-squat if there ain’t nothing decent to shoot at. BL2 does not have this issue. If anything the enemies are too varied and interesting. You never stay with the same kind long enough to learn the tactics to take them all down. This is what they call a “good” problem.

You’ll need all the kinds of guns you can get your hands on for all the armored loaders, acidic varkids and flaming midgets you’ll be in the crosshairs of every other minute. But guns alone aren’t the most important decision you’ll make about combat, first, you’ll need a character. Of which presently, there are four.

There’s the runaway elemental Maya who’ll deal all the fire, corrosive, electric, and explosive damage you could possibly want. And you’ll want a lot of it. Then there’s a special opps commando/bitter divorcĂ© Axton with a detachable turret on his back. The local Pandora resident ‘roid monkey: Salvador; who makes up for his stunted growth with being able to dual wield any two guns at once. Last and least we have Zer0. A faceless assassin who speaks only in monosyllables and Haiku. . . also he has a giant blue katana and is invisible so, whatever. (He's my favorite.)

They each have three skill trees and each take a full playthrough of the game to max out. There are hundreds of ways to approach each character and one playthrough takes at least twenty hours. Suffice to say: I’ve been busy. I have only scratched the surface of my Zer0, and I plan to stick with him for a whole ‘nuther go around. That’s how much fun he is.

I can’t tell you what kind of experience you’re going to have in Borderlands 2. But I can tell you to bring friends. You’re gonna want them; because I suppose I forgot to mention the entire game was built around four player coop. The more folks playing, the better the loot, and the closer you get to your friends... unless they also want that shiny purple revolver... then you can set up a trade menu and duel them for it! Gearbox really thought of everything.

From top to bottom BL2 was everything I wanted it to be, from the laugh out loud script, to the surprisingly somber story. From the addicting loot and gunplay, to Jesper Kyd’s Twangy/ techno Sci-Fi western score. This game is, in a word, a laster-niece.
And I'd like to thank Scooter personally for coining the moniker: "Peppernip." It is delightful.