Monday, August 29, 2011

The Thin Red Line

The only thing crazier than how many recognizable actors there are in this movie is how many had their scenes cut completely during the editing process, including Martin Sheen, Gary Oldman, and Mickey Rourke. War movies have a funny away of apparently attracting attention from everyone in the business, as The Thin Red Line was released the same year as Saving Private Ryan, which itself has an extensive and extremely famous cast. I thought it was less distracting here though, except for the scene near the end where George Clooney shows up to give a speech than Sean Penn narrates over.

The Thin Red Line is overall a more painterly and less action-oriented war film than Ryan, focusing more on the internal lives of the soldiers than the combat they take part in. I think they're actually pretty good companion films. Ryan is in the European theater and wears its heart on its sleeve, Line is in the Pacific and a bit more introspective and detached. Ryan begins with one of the most famous war scenes ever made, a gigantic, loud, violent slaughter. Line begins with a soldier played by Jim Caviezel resting on an island with some natives, and there's a full 45 minutes before anyone is in real danger. They're both gorgeous movies, Ryan with its color correction and perfectly chaotic action, Line with its more natural cinematography and focus on wildlife, and intricately pieced together battle scenes.

This is the first movie by Terrence Malick that I've seen (hey, he's only made five), and I was very impressed by his work, though I'm not sure how much I'd like his other stuff. The way intense fighting punctuates and breaks up the long periods of slow moving or still scenery with minimal dialogue creates an intriguing contrast, but a film of nothing but the latter might be tough to handle. Of course, I have no idea if any of his other movies are like that, other than to say I get the impression that that's what The Tree of Life might resemble.

In any case, The Thin Red Line is not a perfect war movie, but I do think it is a great one. There are many brilliant and captivating scenes, and even when things slow down, it's still very nice to look at. If there's one viable criticism, it does seem a bit scattered at times, as it sort of lacks a central figure, and instead bounces from soldier to soldier, letting them narrate their thoughts in turn. The performances are generally very good, even if none of them are terribly substantial. John C. Reilly gets what I think is a single scene of dialogue, and certain characters will pop in at a certain point and then just disappear completely, like the parts played by John Cusack and John Travolta. Nick Nolte might have the most dialogue as an impassioned Lieutenant Colonel, though Penn and Caviezel probably have the biggest parts from a screen time perspective.

It's hard to say whether the somewhat disjointed nature of the film is entirely intentional, or a result of Malick having to trim about 40% of his original cut, or if the full thing was even worse with the additional characters. I didn't really mind the movie being this way, because it was an engrossing experience while watching it. It does result in a slight feeling of dissatisfaction though, especially in retrospect, not having a real central plot to grasp onto. I guess war though can be a pretty existential experience, and this is about as existential as war movies can get. In that way, it's sort of a masterpiece.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Movie Update 15

A bunch of movies this weekend, as several were about to disappear from my Netflix streaming queue. Let's get right to it.


One of Woody Allen's earliest films, starring him as a sort of a deadbeat who moves to a South American country in the middle of a revolution after his activist girlfriend dumps him. This movie was quite strange to me, as it mixes Allen's natural film technique and some pretty Woody Allen jokes like the giving and receiving conversation with a lot of really silly and over the top gags that don't quite fit. Stuff like his dad making him assist on a surgery when he's saying goodbye or the whole courtroom scene would feel more in place if the whole thing was a wacky spoof like Airplane!. I did enjoy the movie, though. Lots of great gags prop up a simple story.


On the one hand, Edward Zwick should be commended for finding a way to tell a story about a Jewish resistance against Nazi occupation in Belarus with a Hollywood budget. On the other, after seeing movies with similar subject matter like Come and See, I kind of wish he had taken a smaller budget and just made a slightly better movie. I respect him for focusing on unexplored parts of history in his work, but Defiance as a whole feels kind of whitewashed. It's a pretty decent movie, but too much is just standard American war movie stuff. Daniel Craig and Liev Schreiber give very good central performances, and their Belarusian accents sounded pretty good even if I still don't like the compromise of having a non-American character speak with an accent rather than his actual language. Really nice cinematography, too.

Jerry Maguire

This movie had a huge impact on popular culture at the time, and was nominated for a bunch of awards, but I don't think it really holds up as a great film. It was on AFI's list of the top 10 sports movies, but they must have been stuck at 9, because it's not actually a sports movie. Yeah, Tom Cruise plays a sports agent and a big part of the movie is his relationship with Cuba Gooding Jr's wide receiver character, but it's much more a romantic comedy, and a story about a man learning how to connect to people. He could have been in almost any other kind of business and it would have been the same movie. There are several iconic lines in the movie that are kind of entertaining to watch unfold, especially when Cruise is overselling them. The whole movie is sort of overly sappy and emotional, but it's slick and amusing enough to keep it watchable for most of the time it's on. Gooding is really quite entertaining too, though it doesn't strike me as the typical award winning performance.

A Night at the Opera

This is the Marx Brothers' follow-up to Duck Soup; their first film at a new studio and without their brother Zeppo. The plot is less out-there than Soup's, featuring Groucho, Chico, and Harpo as a few guys who travel with an opera company to America and try to help a down-on-his-luck singer score with someone else in the company and get the break he deserves. What really interests me is how the brothers continue to be giant assholes to everyone, even if they don't deserve it. The only people resembling antagonists here are the boss who doesn't want to give the singer a job until he has a better reputation, and a man who is his rival professionally and personally. But the first is just making a smart business decision, and the second never really does anything wrong, he just has more status as a singer and is also attracted to the same beautiful woman. It doesn't matter though, the film considers them the bad guys, and they get their shit ruined by the brothers constantly. The crowning moment comes at the end when the boss finally agrees to sign their friend, and while Groucho and Chico are debating the contract, Harpo tears open the boss' tuxedo jacket for no reason. God, I love the Marx Brothers.


Most people probably don't know that the Brian De Palma film starring Al Pacino is actually a remake of this, which is loosely based on the life of Al Capone. It comes right out at the beginning and denounces both organized crime and the government for not doing a better job of fighting it, and then tells the story of a man's rise to prominence and eventual downfall in the 1920s underworld of violence and illegal booze. It's an early film by Howard Hawks, and I think I would have liked it a lot more if it wasn't for Paul Mini's performance as the titular character. I really can't stand it. Tony Camonte bounces around, getting overly confrontational, pursuing his boss' girlfriend while flipping his shit when his sister so much as looks at a guy (what, is he hoping she'll join a convent?), and generally acts like a jackass. I'm aware that crime movies are built on their central figures being bad people, but they're supposed to be redeemable or at least likable in some way so we don't get annoyed whenever they're on screen. It's something they just hadn't figured out yet. Important and fairly well made movie, but a hard one to enjoy.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Movie Update 14

I really liked all of these except for one. See if you can guess without reading the capsules!

All the President's Men

Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman star as the two Washington Post reporters who broke the Watergate story. The film was only released a couple years after Nixon resigned, and it's fascinating to see a film linked so closely to a historical event. Parts of it would be unbelievable if it wasn't a true story, and it sheds a light on just how crazy the scandal was. The two leads are great, their boss also does a fine job, and it's just an extremely well-put together film. My only real disappointment is that they don't cover as much of the timeline as I would have liked, but at some point they just ran out of time. It's still over two hours.

Bonnie and Clyde

I have to think this is one of the most important films in cinema history when it comes to the depiction of violence. It's quite a bloody movie, and though The Wild Bunch holds the title as the king of violent mainstream 60s movies, it didn't come out until two years later. Bonnie and Clyde is also just a good movie, turning another true story into an interesting plot and resting on great performances by a young Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty. Gene Hackman also has a nice little role as Clyde's older brother. There were a few spots that felt a bit aimless, but the film lays a blueprint for movies about heists and criminals that would be copied for decades.

In the Heat of the Night

This movie actually beat Bonnie and Clyde for Best Picture at the Oscars, and it was an odd coincidence that I saw them on the same day. Night is also an important film, mostly for its depiction of racism. Sidney Poitier is a Philadelphian homicide detective who gets pulled into a murder investigation in a sleepy southern town after being essentially arrested for the crime of being black. He butts heads with the chief, played by Rod Steiger, who won Best Actor. They eventually try to put their differences aside in order to solve the crime. Night is notable for having real things to say about race while still managing to just be a really good crime movie. Some of the scenes involving race almost border on parody now, but things are still bad enough now in some cases that I guess it's mostly believable for an uneducated, isolated town over forty years ago. Another well acted, solid film.


I usually manage to find something good in these old movies even if the general act of watching them isn't particularly pleasant, but if there's one area where I sometimes struggle with that, it's silent dramas. I didn't like D.W. Griffith's Way Down East, and if anything his earlier Intolerance is even more of a struggle. It's over three hours long, and doesn't really have what I'd call a plot. It has four story threads from four different periods in history, showing the bad things that happen when people can't get along. It's sort of a response to how people reacted to Birth of a Nation (which I still have to see), and feels more like a very long history lesson acted out by mimes than a movie. I can understand how it was significant at the time, and how huge of a production it was. But I just didn't really like watching it at all.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

127 Hours

I guess if you had to pick someone working today to turn a story of a man trapped in a canyon with his hand pinned under a rock for five days into a movie, and set it entirely within that five day period, Danny Boyle would be one of the better choices. I've only seen a few of his films, but he has shown a consistent ability to make his kinetic sense of style work in a variety of genres and moods, spicing things up without distracting from the story at all. It's a perfect approach to the story of Aron Ralston, as the film is dedicated to its premise but still has a bit of free roam to experiment as it gets inside the man's head, and reveals details of his past generally with experimental visions rather than straight flashbacks.

It helps that the movie's only an hour and a half, but one of the most impressive things about it is just that it never gets boring, even though the main character is stuck in one spot for most of the running time. It's a combination of the screenplay's structure, Boyle's visual style, James Franco's arresting performance, and of course the looming dread of knowing what he'll have to do before the movie's over. I don't think it's a spoiler to say that he cuts his own hand off to escape the canyon, because it's easily one of the most famous true survival stories of the last decade. I also wouldn't want anyone to not know about that detail before seeing the movie unless they have an amazingly strong stomach, because it's one of the most gruesome scenes I've seen in a film.

I usually have no problem with violence in movies, because it's either quick enough or silly enough to not seem real, and I tend to avoid the kind of horror films that really focus on the brutality of it. But here they strove to make the scene as medically authentic as possible, and while it avoids really sensationalizing it or focusing on it too closely, it's still a tough scene to watch. It's one of the most harrowing and gripping climactic scenes I've seen in a movie, ever. It probably would have been worse if I wasn't expecting it, but even after bracing myself it was amazingly intense.

It's also really thrilling because you come to know Franco's Ralston really well in the hour and change before then, and you can see his anguish and desperation grow so vividly as the film goes on. It's an incredibly natural performance, and as much as I kind of like Franco's aloof genius stoner demeanor in public and many of his roles, I'd like to see him push himself like this a bit more often. Other actors are kept to a minimum, and the film relies the most on a single performance of maybe any that I've seen, so it was great to see him totally succeed. It's not my favorite movie of last year, but I was really impressed to see what felt like the dedicated work of basically two guys (I know there are plenty of people that are essential to getting Boyle's vision actually brought to life) get pulled off so well.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011


In this age of development teams numbering in the hundreds and multi-million dollar budgets, it still amazes me sometimes what a handful of people can do. The group behind the actual making of Bastion consists of a couple programmers, a designer, an artist, a sound guy, and a former game critic doing the writing. Greg Kasavin was always very likable when he worked at Gamespot, and it's cool seeing one of the many journalists who have switched over to the development side actually have a tangible, positive effect on a game. He contributes to one of the best combinations of story, gameplay, and presentation I've seen in a while in Bastion, despite it being a relatively small downloadable game.

At first the game seems like a fairly straightforward brawler with an interesting gimmick of a gravelly-voiced narrator, but it quickly reveals the depth behind everything. There are eleven different and completely distinct weapons available, and you can wield any two at the same time, giving you a wide range of options from both up close and far away. You combine these with special skills you can learn or buy at the shops do further broaden your choices in combat. Leveling up unlocks slots that you equip additional spirits, which give you a variety of combat bonuses, and you can buy more of those from the shop as well, and buy or find materials that let you upgrade your weapons in a number of ways and enhance their usefulness. Combine these with the idols that let you customize more difficult encounters in order for XP and money rewards, and there is a ton of depth to explore as you play and replay the game.

Along with the truckload of options available to the player, the game has solid controls and a variety of enemies that combine in interesting ways, making the combat constantly fun and challenging without getting overwhelming. If the game focused solely on this, it would succeed on the strength of the mechanics and the freedom they allow. The game views combat though as a means to an end, of telling a story that doesn't have a ton of dialogue or elaborate backstory spelled out in an encyclopedia in the pause menu, which is all the stronger for it. The environments you explore do a lot of the talking, really selling the idea of a world that's been torn apart by a horrible, unexplained event. Of course the narrator does a lot of the talking to, filling you in on what he knows and providing more than his fair share of wit. It's like a mix of hard boiled Noir dialogue and old timey folk stories, and the lines are all sold wonderfully by the actor. His is practically the only voice you hear in the game, but you never grow tired of it as he comments on what weapons or spirits you chose or how people react to certain mementos you can find in the game.

So you travel from area to area, searching for items you need to build up the Bastion, a special structure that can undo all the damage that's been done. There's a lot of fighting, although sometimes an area will take a break from that to try out a few other things that generally work very well. Eventually things start to get really heavy, and Bastion capitalizes on the idea of a game telling you its story through the act of playing it, with a few well considered and strongly resonant moments. There are a couple choices you'll have to make, and the game actually makes you think about them rather than just letting you decide whether you want good or evil powers, which I appreciated.

And I can't finish this without getting back to the presentation. I've already mentioned the visuals, which were all done by one person and give the game a sense of style it would be sorely lacking otherwise. There's also the music, which might be even more important, as it's definitely one of my favorite game soundtracks ever. There's some instrumental tracks that set the mood for whatever the occasion may be, as well as a couple full songs complete with vocals to help punctuate the biggest moments. Combine the music with the great narration, and Bastion is one of the best sounding games ever. It's pretty replayable too, as there's a new game plus to carry over stuff you unlocked to another run through and there's no way you'll fully explore all of the different items and skills in a single attempt. It's inherently a bit breezy because of the whole downloadable-game-made-by-half-a-dozen-people thing, but it's still an extraordinarily satisfying experience.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Rocko's Modern Life

When I was a kid, there were a number of different options for what channel to watch cartoons on, but my most frequent pick was the shows on Nickelodeon. I didn't like all of them, but I sure watched them all a lot. My favorite was pretty easily Rocko's Modern Life, which had some of the racier material of something like The Ren & Stimpy Show (I missed some dirty stuff but still enjoyed images like a commercial causing the TV to sprout arms and literally wash the characters' brains with soap) but still followed more traditional comedy beats that were palatable ton eight year old's brain. I was excited to find out the whole series (minus one episode that got lost somewhere) was streaming on Netflix Instant, and even happier to realize that the show totally holds up.

Actually watching the episodes in the basic order they originally aired, it's interesting to see the show change a bit over time. Initially, they stick very closely to the suggestion of the title, of a show about the silliness of the modern American lifestyle. There's hardly a subject the show didn't touch on, from garbage day in the pilot to grocery shopping, television, camping, shopping malls, road trips, public transportation, corporations, and everything in between. There's an amazingly cynical undertone to the show, especially early on, something I didn't really pick up on as a kid but is completely visible now. There are lots of instances of the show using metaphor to disguise commentary too, like an episode where Rocko's angry next door neighbor Ed Bighead hides the fact that he likes being a clown, a story that is very transparently actually about closeted homosexuals. Many early episodes consist of little more than Rocko banging his head against an inconvenience or banality of living in the 90s, and it's pretty interesting from an older perspective.

I always liked the show more as it went on though, and that stayed true on this rewatch. The series really starts clicking when Filburt graduates from the background to a major character, as it causes a nice dynamic to emerge between him, Rocko, and Heffer, Rocko's best friend. The three characters all have their own quirks and catchphrases, and the show gets a ton of mileage out of throwing them into any situation they can think of and letting them bounce off each other. Plus there's just the fun, odd visual of a friendly wallaby, nervous turtle, and gluttonous steer pal around. Unfortunately only 52 episodes were produced (resulting in about a hundred stories, as most episodes had two), which seems about standard for any kid's show that wasn't a massive breakout success, but there's so much good stuff in that time that it's hard to complain. Very few missteps, and even those aren't really terrible like some shows can get. I'm sure a big part of the fun I had seeing the show again was just nostalgia, but I genuinely think that either way, Rocko's Modern Life is one of the funniest and smartest series ever made for kids. The only question is whether it would even culturally make sense to children now, or farther down the line.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Tomb Raider: Underworld

I'm not sure how I would have reacted to this game when it came out a few years ago. The game would have still been extremely glitchy, but it's hard to say if it would have been as unacceptable then as it is now. Were the two Crystal Dynamics Tomb Raider games from the previous generation as buggy as this? They were still fresh in my mind back then. They probably couldn't be, because the fact that they were actually totally playable is what saved the series from getting completely buried. Bringing the series to a new, higher standard of hardware should have resulted in a more polished experience, not severely less. The graphics are technically superior and the grappling physics are better, but that's about the only improvement they made on the last couple games. Lara constantly clips through pieces of the environment and fails to leap in the direction you're pointing with alarming frequency. The camera is easily the worst I've had to use in a game this generation, and the game's concept of falling damage is amazingly silly.

It's like they're going for a certain level of realism with the series (physically, anyway, because the plot is filled with winged demon ladies and magic spells), and Lara can't fall even 20 feet without taking damage and probably dying, bouncing off the floor in hilarious fashion. They're not consistent enough to make this work, though. Lara can get shot multiple times and feel fine after using a health item, but she can't safely drop from distances other game characters can without a hitch? While clinging to a wall, she can leap straight up and clear a distance greater than her own height. No human alive can do this, yet she gets killed when she drops a couple stories. The combat isn't any good, either. It's a great example of the kind of combat that exists only because the developers thought they needed to break up the platforming and puzzles once in a while. Lara's pretty acrobatic, but there's no real thrill to the act of fighting. You stay away from enemies and hold down the fire button until they're dead. They didn't even bother making any boss fights like they did in previous games. When the best feature of your combat is a meter which when fully charged allows you to make it go by faster, maybe you don't need combat at all.

Despite these issues, and they are big ones, I don't hate the game. It takes you to some nice looking locations and let's you explore complicated temples filled with elaborate but logical puzzles. Climbing and jumping is still innately pleasurable, even if Lara can't jump straight and seems to have terrible balance for someone so athletic. The plot has a mildly intriguing crazier-Indiana Jones thing going on. It delves deeply into Norse mythology and how it has impacted religion throughout history, which is kind of neat if a bit arbitrary (Okay, so the Mayans were totally just biting on Viking stuff they found?), and it also wraps up threads from the two previous games, forming a sort of trilogy. I don't know if they're rebooting the series again now just because they want to or because of some reaction to this game, but I guess I'd believe either one. My experience with the game was much more up and down than it was with the first two, mostly because of the technical issues. But it does naturally extend from them, and adhere to a lot of the same ideas that made the franchise interesting in the first place, and influence modern AAA games like the Uncharted series. Of course, Tomb Raider was itself influenced by other previous games, but that's the incestuous nature of game design.

The game does have two downloadable episodes that continue the plot, which I have no access to due to them being exclusive to the Xbox 360. Hiding the ending of the game behind additional paid content and making paid content exclusive to a subset of your user base both seem like bad ideas to me, and combining the two is even worse. I watched video of the episodes online though, and I have to say I don't mind the results here terribly. They do take place after the ending of the game, but they feel more like epilogues than the real ending of the game. The ending that was already there feels properly climactic, and these episodes are just a bit more content to finally put a couple threads to rest. It still seems poorly thought out, but I don't really feel cheated. If this is the last we see of this continuity (I don't really know where Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light fits in), then it ends on a fine note, if a bit of an odd and clunky one.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Serenity, Volume 3: The Shepherd's Tale

Somehow, I have repeatedly forgotten over the last several months that I read this and was able to write about it. But that's not a knock against the comic itself, it's just one of those weird things that happens. The only disappointment about finally learning Book's backstory all these years later is that it doesn't take that many pages to do. In the end, his secrets aren't all that secretive, the kind of things that  most people wouldn't talk about, but they aren't world-shaking revelations either. Zack Whedon's script makes the way the story is told more interesting than the story itself, using a very familiar technique to turn a man's life story into an intriguing plot with many twists and turns. It's told backwards, starting around when he's with the Serenity's crew and jumping back years at a time, revealing his time with the Alliance and the earlier events that led to it. There's not much to it that you haven't seen before in science fiction stories, but just seeing how it all works into what the show set up and just spending a bit more time in the Firefly setting is always fun. It's not the best value for money, just based on page count, that you'll find in the world of comics, but I can't imagine many fans thinking it's not worth checking out.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Walking Dead, Volume 14: No Way Out

Recent volumes of this book have really pushed the idea that when the world is overrun by zombies, other people are just as dangerous as they are. But No Way Out really brought back the threat of the zombies themselves in a big way. The good guys are surrounded on all sides yet again, and as can be predicted, some seriously messed up stuff happens as they fight to survive. It's at the point in the book that I really can't bring myself to care about anyone anymore, because Rick is literally the only character that I don't think Kirkman would be willing to kill, if only because he's the lens through which most of the story is shown. And he's done too much out of self interest at this point to let me think of him as a real hero at this point. He's just a good survivor. I read not because I hope the characters will see things through, but out of a certain morbid interest in what the next awful moment will be. This book had a few of them, and there was little I could do besides chuckle in disbelief as I saw them come to pass. This was an extremely violent book (they usually are), but for whatever reason it hit home just how good the book is at throwing tons of horrific imagery at you. I can see how someone without empathy and a passion for monster movies could love the hell out of it. As it is, I manage to enjoy it quite a bit.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Movie Update 13

Here is a brief summary about my movie watching and the fact that these movies are all movies and that I like watching movies.

The African Queen

Some weird combination of an adventure, a buddy road picture, and a romantic comedy, The African Queen rests almost entirely on the shoulders of its two leads, played excellently as always by Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. He's an eccentric, hard-drinking boatman and she's an uptight religious woman, so the conflict between them is obvious at first, but the way their relationship develops as they face the various perils of their journey through the waters of Africa is constantly intriguing. I haven't fallen in love with any of John Huston's work yet, but he's nothing if not an extremely competent director in a variety of styles and moods. Good ending, too.

Gone with the Wind

For the 1930s, this is a pretty darn remarkable technical achievement. Vivien Leigh and especially Clark Gable do really good jobs in their roles. And those are about the only truly positive things I have to say about this film. It's an overly long story with not a whole lot of real enjoyable substance. Scarlett doesn't have much character beyond being an opportunistic homewrecker, and there's no really great alternatives to latch on to. I don't require characters in a story to be likable, but there's gotta be something, and this just seemed like a long series of unfortunate romantic events set (pretty effectively) against a dramatic historical backdrop.

The Sugarland Express

Steven Spielberg's first real theatrical film isn't bad, though it isn't great either. Goldie Hawn stars as a troubled young woman who breaks her husband out of what's basically a halfway house I guess to help rescue their young child from his adoptive parents. They end up getting chased by the police, holding one hostage, and leading them all on a grand chase across the country to Sugarland, where their kid lives. There's some humor and some brief action and some family drama. The most interesting part is the relationship that grows between the couple and their captive over the couple days the story takes place in. Other than that, it tends to drag here and there. There should be more urgency to a chase movie than this. It's mostly based on a true story, which is probably more remarkable than the film itself. You can definitely see the promise his career would later capitalize on.


I've seen parts of this before, but this is my first time watching the thing start to finish. I'm not usually a patron of films heavily featuring cross-dressing main characters, but the difference between most of them and Tootsie as I see it is they don't bother to make their female counterparts compelling in any way, while Michael Dorsey's Dorothy Michaels alter-ego becomes a full character in her own right. Dustin Hoffman is great, Bill Murray is possibly more great in a smaller role as his roommate, and the film is a nice combination of a truly funny comedy and a solid romantic drama about people who want what they can't have. It was a little too early 80s for my taste in places, but for the most part Tootsie is just a likable, fun movie from start to finish.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Portal 2

I played through this game's single player mode on PS3 around when it came out earlier this year, but because of the issues Sony had getting PSN back online, by the time I was able to get the game online (and activate my free PC copy), my friends who also bought the game had already played the co-op, and I wanted to experience it the first time with someone else who hadn't seen the solutions before either. I ended up waiting until this weekend, when another friend finally bought it and we blasted through the mode in one day. All it did was cement my position that Portal 2 is my favorite game from this generation, one of the best games ever, and also probably the funniest.

In a lot of ways Portal 2 is just more of Portal, but when Portal was already one of the most acclaimed and interesting games to come out in years, that's not really a bad thing. The sequel returns you to the same general environment of Aperture's underground laboratories, but expands on their scope exponentially in multiple directions. A lot of time has passed since the first game, and you get to explore the facility's entire history, from when it was first created deep at the bottom of a mine, and moving forward through time as they built newer and more advanced additions on top of the old ones. Part of the series' fun is the vaguely sinister nature of the environment, which is enjoyably disrupted by the games' sense of humor but still detectable through little areas you stumble upon, and the second game really explores this, creating one of the most intriguing locations ever in a game, both from an art and gameplay perspective. You frequently go between sterile, carefully managed testing chambers and the industrial decay that surrounds them, a juxtaposition reflected by every aspect of the game. The frequent changes in the feel of whatever area you're in at the time keeps things constantly fresh, and along with the clever gameplay and fantastic humor, you have a single player campaign that is longer, deeper, and ultimately more satisfying than the original's.

 There's definitely a detectable shift in the general puzzle design between games. Besides replacing bouncing energy cores with laser beams, all of the discrete elements from the original return, along with several new ones, such as energy-based bridges that can be redirected with portals and various kinds of gels that alter the properties of the surfaces in the environment. The increased number of variables to work with is accompanied by a shift away from experimentation and acrobatics in the puzzles, as solutions are generally more constrained to prevent overwhelming the player with all the possibilities inherent to the new elements and require less physical skill with the controller, letting players instead focus on thinking through the proper way to address all the obstacles present. I can see why some players might regret the slight loss in freedom this represents, but I thought the puzzles were extremely well-designed and constantly thrilling to solve, a feeling I don't think will go away that quickly on periodic revisits.

And as I already briefly mentioned a couple times, the writing and voice acting are fantastic. Valve has always done a great job of having a player experience a story through the act of playing a game, though in recent years their games have gotten more and more dialogue-heavy, usually to great comedic effect, and Portal 2 is possibly the culmination of that effort. GLaDOS was already wickedly funny in the first game, and having her be only one of a few characters in the game was a great idea. The two most significant new characters are Wheatley, a bumbling robotic friend who helps introduce you back into the world of Portal, and Cave Johnson, the founder of Aperture who had been mentioned previously in content from outside the original game and who lives on in a series of recordings in the facility's lower levels. Wheatley is played very well (and often ad-libbed) by The Office co-creator Stephen Merchant, and Cave is voiced by J.K. Simmons, who is consistently one of the most affable presences in Hollywood and does a great job as well. Johnson's dialogue is necessarily limited to solitary rants, but frequently GLaDOS and Wheatley are able to play off each other to great comical effect. It's all really memorable material without falling into the Internet meme pit that bits from the first game like all the cake-talk did. As always the script does a good job of creating a setting and telling a simple but interesting plot without having to directly explain it to you, and the ending is one of the single most gripping and unexpected things I've seen in a game.

And that co-op mode was worth the wait, as well. Just the inherent possibilities of what having two sets of portals instead of one is exciting, and I was glad to see the game fully capitalize on that potential. More portals means more complex set-ups, but even beyond that, having two sets of eyes and two brains working together on a problem means Valve could design tougher challenges, knowing that they had more freedom to try truly off-the-wall stuff and could expect players to roll with it. With the Left 4 Dead series they found an intriguing way to force players in a shooter to work together in order to survive, and they continue to have success here in making a unique experience out of cooperation. With the two player characters being easily-reconstructed robots there's a perfect opportunity to encourage experimentation and the occasional bit of messing with your buddy as you know there's no true consequence for a bad idea and the challenge is in figuring out the puzzle, not avoiding death. They also felt the freedom to bring back some of the more skill-based concepts like momentum, and find ways to combine elements that never interacted in the more straight-laced single player, like the previously mentioned bridges and gels. It's also just another showcase for GLaDOS, as she gleefully scolds the two robots and tries to set them against each other while they work towards whatever she feels like making them do.

All this and I haven't mentioned the yet-again entertaining and insightful developer commentary, the great use of music (not just in the background during dramatic moments, but also as a gameplay clue with the various new toys), the clever use of trophies/achievements and title cards, and the fact that they're still finding ways to make the Source engine impressive seven years later. Valve is easily one of my favorite game developers, and they seem to only cement that further with each new release. It's a testament to what they do that despite the continued radio silence on anything related to Half-Life, I find myself only intrigued by what's possible in the future rather than truly disappointed.

Sunday, August 7, 2011


Why does it sometimes seem that despite all of the AAA blockbuster games with mammoth marketing campaigns that come out every year, it's often the small download-only games that have the best sense of identity and atmosphere? We saw it with Braid, we saw it with Flower, and now we see it with Limbo. Well, PS3 and PC players do. 360 owners got to play it last year. I'm not one of the people who have decried this gaming generation's lack of originality and innovation, but even the people who do have to admit that if nothing else, online consoles and download services like Steam have created a new market for smaller games with specific aims and purposes, something that has resulted in great little games like this one.

Much like Braid, Limbo is a 2D puzzle-platformer that uses the level and art design to help tell its brief but intriguing story. There's not exactly a lot of plot to the game; you play as a young boy who wakes up in the woods and appears to be searching for something, as he wanders deeper and deeper into a place that is both unexplainable and frightening. Traps seem to be placed everywhere to stop him, he has to avoid collapsing logs and boulders, and watch out for monstrous creatures. He gets a few fleeting glimpses of other people, but they either avoid him or try to kill him. The boy can run and jump and push and pull objects and climb ropes and ladders, but that's all he has to protect himself besides his wits and the player's skill. The game only lasts a few hours but fully explores the scope of his abilities, including some more mind-bending puzzles once he stumbles on a few unexpected things.

The game would be a lot of fun with just these elements, but its strongest asset is probably its presentation. It has a very stark and minimalist aesthetic, with only black and white used to create the haunting environments you find yourself in. The boy is just a black shape with two pinprick white dots for his eyes, and like everything else in the world is easily identifiable but still mysterious. The sound design also contributes to the creepy feel of the game. There is no dialogue at all, sound effects are sparse and pack a punch, and the music is used very sparingly to great effect. If you turn the game on and play through it without pausing, you would never once see a hint of any sort of user interface. The options that are there are actually probably too minimal, as I couldn't get my gamepad to work and there was no way to try to fix that in the game, but I appreciate how everything about the product is designed to facilitate the single purpose of playing the game and experiencing the strange world it takes place in.

I liked the first half of the game more than the second, where the puzzles felt more video-gamey and occasionally got a little frustrating. The design is just a bit more intuitive and appropriately harsh in the beginning. I was hoping for a little more from the ending too, which I can't say didn't fit the rest of the game's tone, but still seemed to lack a bit of payoff. These are small complaints for a game that I mostly loved for the three or four hours I played it. I've been neglecting playing some of the downloadable games that have been coming out, but Limbo reminded me that a game doesn't need to have an advanced, cutting edge graphics engine to impress me.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Movie Update 12

At this point I'm starting to see the finish line on the list of classic movies I compiled last year (and have repeatedly expanded on since), about in time for Netflix' two disc plan with streaming to increase in price. I might just watch regular old crap for a while after that, though there's plenty of lists I haven't gone through yet, mostly consisting of winners of various awards. Anyway, movies.

American Graffiti

This is the first non-Star Wars film directed by George Lucas that I've seen... not very surprising, since only one other such film exists. It's an entertaining and charming nostalgia-laden film about mid-century cruising culture, which consisted of teenagers in California hooking up and aimlessly driving their cars around town while listening to music. It's obvious Lucas has a history with this sort of thing, and it comes through in the movie, which is too light on plot to really be a sex comedy or anything like that, but tells a simple and interesting story about two high school graduates struggling with whether to go to college at the other side of the country while summer comes to a close. The young cast is pretty good, it's funny, and it's shot well enough to make you forget for a little while what Lucas' career has turned into. Nothing too incredible, but a good film.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

I liked this more than I expected, but it's still pretty far from the best work by David Fincher. Despite the apparent grab for awards with the sentimental, broadly-reaching script and big name cast, you can still definitely tell it's a Fincher movie from the specific color scheme and interesting using of CGI (the effects to create young/old Benjamin are far from real looking, but they're definitely interesting) among other things. And I liked most of the performances, especially surprising ones like Mad Men's Jared Harris as a salty, drunken sea captain. It's just much too long of a movie for how much story it has. It's like screenwriter Eric Roth couldn't think of anything beyond combining an intriguing short story concept with an earlier-set version of Forrest Gump. Some cool ideas, but the experience is kind of a drag.

La Dolce Vita

This is the third film by Federico Fellini that I've seen, and I was again impressed by some things he did without being really drawn in or terribly entertained by the work itself. It's very much a 60s European art film, and is very identifiably good at that. I was somewhat intrigued by the episodic nature of the story, as it progresses through various mostly unrelated events, examining the mindset of the central character. Really though, the part that grabbed my interest the most was when Anita Ekberg was just sort of walking and dancing around on screen, so maybe I'm not quite the target audience. This is another film that was quite long, and I got through it fine but wouldn't want to watch it again.


Robert Altman is definitely known for those ensemble casts, and this is a premiere example of that. Nashville is about the coming together of many people, lots of them musicians, at a political rally for a candidate that is never actually seen. Much time is dedicated to the musical performances, and it's quite a long movie, giving fair shake to a lot of different stories. It's a well put together film, and while I'm not familiar with a lot of the cast, they all tend to do good jobs. I didn't like a lot of the movie though, which I found to be incredibly uncomfortable and hard to watch. It's the product of a very dark sense of humor, some real proto-cringe type stuff. I understand what they were going for, but too much of it was too far on the painful side of the spectrum without being that funny. It's just personal taste, and I respect the movie, but I had trouble with it.

Sullivan's Travels

Sullivan's Travels is about a comedy director who thinks people don't know enough about the real suffering going on in the world, and tries after a few false starts to discover real trouble so he can honestly make a movie about it. I tend to like movies that hold up mirrors to Hollywood, and Travels does it about as well as any. It's a nice snappy 40s road comedy, which happens to take a strange, dark, and surprising turn near the end. It's a little off-putting, but not enough to really damage a film that's otherwise got a pretty good point to make about what people really want to get out of cinema, and is honestly just entertaining on its own. The biggest issue is perhaps the movie trying to get me to believe a girl who looked like Veronica Lake would have trouble getting a break in Hollywood, but that's pretty much how movies work. Somehow not as famous as other movies of similar type and quality from the period, but deserving of a watch.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Medal of Honor

I think I liked this game more than most people, but I guess I'm a sucker for even a little bit of emotional resonance in my first person shooters. After a few years of watching Activision's Call of Duty franchise move to the modern era and absolutely explode in popularity, EA finally put together a team to do the same with their venerable Medal of Honor series, and Danger Close put together a short but solid campaign that isn't the most original thing the genre's seen in a while, but was a lot of fun anyway. I've heard about issues players have had with some gaps in the scripting, causing disbelief breaking odd situations or forcing them to restart. The only issue I had was an odd controls hiccup in the final mission, but otherwise I found it to be about as well put together as other recent military shooters.

Medal of Honor doesn't have Call of Duty's love for the over-the-top or Battlefield: Bad Company's playful sense of humor, choosing to do a more realistic take on the early days of the war in Afghanistan. It's not a completely accurate game, as you still kill far more Taliban than any reasonable soldier ever could, usually in a single mission, and the insertion of a headstrong, clueless suit-and-tie general as a villainous presence besides the mostly faceless enemy was annoying more than anything else. But I appreciate the attempt to actually depict a fairly recent conflict with some level of respect, and the game managed to sneak in a few moments that I thought were unexpectedly effective at investing me in the characters and their plights. It's too bloodless to make a really good war movie, but they helped turn gameplay moments that could have been irritating into something actually worth playing.

The score really helped there, with some nice orchestral pieces that hit all of the proper notes without going too far into cheesy territory. Even the Linkin Park song played over the credits isn't terrible. I don't really have a full appreciation for the graphics of the game because I had some difficulty getting my machine to run it properly, but after tweaking the settings a bit it ran well and looked pretty acceptable considering, besides some of the detail taking too long to pop in. The voice acting and jargon-heavy dialogue seem fine, which is good because you spend most of the game listening to a constant stream of radio chatter from your squadmates and people elsewhere. It helps set the mood of a more believable war game well.

I realize I haven't talked much at all about the actual gameplay yet. Most missions play out like a typical smaller-scaled level from a Call of Duty game, if that gives you any idea. There are moments where you're overwhelmed by enemy forces and you basically have to dig in and just shoot like crazy, but a lot of the time you're acting stealthy and well-coordinated with your team, which I like because those missions tend to have the most interesting scripting. It doesn't take a lot of true skill because you can pretty much just do what your friends are saying and come away fine, but it's still entertaining enough to go through at least once. There is one mission out of the ten that takes you out of the standard gameplay for a vehicle segment which is pretty fun, and there are a couple situations where you're just given the ability to call down various types of support and air strikes on a specific position that are pretty cool. I didn't try out Tier 1 mode or the multiplayer, which seemed like a weak attempt at replay value and a watered down version of Battlefield respectively, but they're there for people who are interested. I don't know if the game was really the best value for the money when it came out, because the campaign is pretty short and the other stuff isn't really anything that hasn't been done before. But a year later, you can probably find it for a price that's worth it.