Sunday, March 23, 2014

Game Review: The Walking Dead: the Complete First Season (PS Vita)

The Walking Dead: the Complete First Season won nearly 100 "Game of the Year" awards in 2012 and with good reason. Its storytelling is superb, the voice acting is excellent, and the script can go from tender to brutal in a heartbeat. This is a game with a lot of heart and a lot of brain, and I'm not talking about the ones splattered all over the streets. (It is the zombie apocalypse, after all.)

In the game, players take control of Lee Everett, a convicted killer on the way to the big house when the world goes to hell. After gaining his freedom and encountering Clementine, an orphaned girl, Lee must decide how to keep them both alive in the world where the dead walk.

The game is episodic and adapts itself to the choices players make, usually in the form of dialogue or a critical action such as pushing away zombies. For instance, in a tense situation among fellow survivors, Lee could either be reasonable or aggressive. Or, if a herd swarms the group, Lee frequently has to choose between saving one person or the other. Decisions need to be made quickly; there's a bar that counts down whenever Lee is presented with a choice, and not choosing in time has consequences, too. In my first playthrough, I couldn't figure out the controls, so the guy I was trying to help got eaten. That got Lee and Clem kicked out of a safe place.

The stakes get higher and higher as Lee discovers that staying put is not a good idea, and neither is trusting others completely. Here, puzzle-solving and action take a back seat to figuring out how to get your character's--and everyone else's--personal baggage out of the way in time for the next crisis.

The writing is strong and often takes jaw-dropping turns. Characters react believably to situations. The only exception is Episode 4, which I thought was weak and contrived, and no wonder -- developers switched to another writer for that one. Fortunately, trusty Sean Vanaman came back for Episode 5, the final chapter, which had me wincing at the start and in tears at the end.

The graphics are great -- comic-book style, and everyone's faces are expressive. The only issue I had with the PS Vita version was the game's inability to process intense action. I would know when a cut scene was coming up because there would be an interminable pause. This technical glitch took me out of the moment several times over the course of the game. Ruiner!

There's a bonus episode called "400 Days," where players control five different characters for short vignettes. A diner acts as an anchor throughout the disparate paths. The choices made affect the ending of the episode.

Speaking of endings, players can see if they made the same decisions as other players after every episode. It was interesting to see how close the differences were in some cases, like a 48/52 split between letting someone annoying get killed and trying to help them. In one case, I was in the minority for choosing to save someone. Huh.

Still, for all the moral ambiguity that the game writes in, the message is always clear: as soon as one of the living opts for survival at the cost of compassion, humanity loses a little bit more of its soul, and the world becomes darker still. I guess that's why end-of-the-world type stories are so fascinating -- you have to wonder: What if society breaks down and all the rules and laws and niceties can't be enforced anymore? Who's always had that little dark corner in their head that's been wanting to let loose all this time?

The answer: PAFO! Play And Find Out! (Taken from the late Robert Jordan's "RAFO!")

This post brought to you by sleeplessness. Seriously, I slept fitfully after I finished the game. That doesn't sound like a ringing endorsement, but it is. The ROI on my emotional investment was high! Well done, Telltale Games, well done! NOW FINISH SEASON TWO AND TAKE MY MONEY

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Movie Review: The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

Wes Anderson's latest artwork comes with a broad palette of vivid interiors, a gently-delivered lesson in the horrors of war, and his usual array of tools: snappy dialogue, charismatic leads, whimsical music, and an unusual plot. The Grand Budapest Hotel is beautiful. Full stop.

The movie takes place in Zubrowka, a fictional European country. The narrative is essentially a quadruple-decker sandwich: it starts out as an introduction of the country's national hero, a writer; then moves to the writer speaking about his greatest work, a book about the eponymous hotel; next comes the writer in his younger days in the hotel itself; and finally comes the main story: the relationship between a boy and the man in charge of The Grand Budapest Hotel during the final days of its glory, on the eve of WWII. (I apologize for the clumsy analogy. I am still hungry as I write this.)

The film starts slow but springs to life once Ralph Fiennes' character comes on screen. Fiennes plays M. Gustave, concierge of The Grand Budapest Hotel, vacation home of Europe's upper classes. He's a firecracker: at once supercilious and crass, sincere and smarmy, yet always demanding perfection from his staff. His counterpart is Zero Mustafa (newcomer Tony Revolori), a bellboy who becomes his loyal protege and trusted ally when a wealthy woman's last will and testament sets in motion a chain of events that involve murder, theft, prison, secret societies, and pastries.

Minor characters are played by stars: Jude Law, Tilda Swinton, Edward Norton, Saoirse Ronan, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Murray, and, of course, Jason Schwartzman and Owen Wilson. Yet everyone takes a back seat to Fiennes' and Revolori' characters, whose relationship shapes the story and whose shared persistence helps resolve the film's central mystery.

Fans of Anderson will be delighted at this tribute to the late writer Stefan Zweig. It's a fond look back at an era of literature and civility, where genteel decadences helped one forget about the brutalities of the world outside. It also pulls off the impressive feat of unveiling a very real pain through almost farcical comedies. The "grand" in the title is certainly true of both the hotel and the men who rule it.

Bottom line: Recommended for fans of Wes Anderson, Ralph Fiennes, or of quirky, well-made films.

This post brought to you by WHY ISN'T IT SPRING YET.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Movie Review: Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013)

If you're looking for a light snack of a movie to take your mind off missing planes or Russian imperialism, Hansel & Gretel can fill that void in your soul! This action-horror movie boasts a cheerful "fuck it!" attitude and in no way takes itself seriously, which allows everyone involved to pull off ridiculous action, dialogue, tech, and plot. Thankfully, the movie is of the bad-LOL variety, rather than the bad-CRINGE type, like Van Helsing.

Strips of the German fairy tale are filleted and served as the prologue. Little Hansel and Gretel are abandoned in the woods by their father, and they find their way to a house made of candy. The witch, wroth at their most impolite eating of her domicile, tries to fatten up Hansel for a bit of Boy-B-Q, but ends up becoming grilled herself when Gretel fights back and frees her brother. The shitty editing that shall rear its ugly head throughout the movie makes its proud first appearance here.

The opening credits track what happens next: over the years, the siblings become renowned witch hunters. Their next assignment becomes their greatest challenge: find the children abducted from a small village. Trope-tastically, there's an evil/incompetent sheriff complete with thuggish henchmen determined to get in the way; a wise old guide; and a damsel in distress with a secret. Anachronistically, there's shotguns, rapid-fire crossbows, insulin shots (?), a Gatling gun (??), a defibrillator (???), a geeky fanboy, and almost as much leather outfits as The Matrix.

Apart from those eye-rolling impossibilities, two things stand out in Hansel & Gretel: the gore and the ass-kicking. The tremendous amount of beatings dished--and received!--by the main characters is phenomenal. It's like the Bourne Identity but with a dash of X-Men: a brutal punch or tackle sends someone flying as though they were on wires. Which they are. Meanwhile, humans are dispatched with copious amounts of blood and spatter. Never let it be said that this twisting of a beloved children's tale flinched in the face of buckets of corn syrup, methyl paraben, and food coloring! Such brave.

Speaking of color, I was delighted to see the range of representation during the orgiastic witches' sabbath near the end of the movie. There was a Chinese opium den madam witch, a paraplegic witch, conjoined twins witches, transvestite witches, a frog witch, and so much more! Very diversity.

The leads comport themselves well, mostly by not giggling throughout the movie. Gretel (Gemma Arterton) gets probably more than her fair share of the blows intended to cause grievous bodily injury, but that's fine because she apparently has no internal organs or bones to be damaged -- all that ever happens are attractive facial cuts. As Hansel, Jeremy Renner is clearly comfortable playing the gruff and buff big brother with a slightly plot-affecting weakness. Plus, they're super adorable as devoted siblings. One does not get a Game of Thrones tingling when they smile at each other.

Famke Janssen returns to her roots as a supervillain. Alas, this time around no one meets their end between her thighs of steel (what a way to go!), but she is delightfully malevolent without chewing on every piece if scenery. She's evil yet elegant. Hilariously, the magnificent Zoƫ Bell is cast as "Tall Witch" -- she must not have been standing anywhere near the 6-foot-tall Xenia Onatopp.

If you think this is all just too weird, don't worry! Neither jarringly displaced words and weapons nor underdeveloped villains won't disrupt formula! The heroes must prevail!

Bottom line: Seriously, give it a try! Lower the volume and add your own audio track! I dare you to be even more ridiculous than this movie already is!

This post brought to you by Amazon Prime! Amazon Prime: for just $99 a year, you'll never have to leave your house again!

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

I Finished Reading A Game of Thrones!

Yes, yes, fellow nerds, I'm aware the proper title of this series of books is A Song of Ice and Fire. Anyway, I can't wax too poetic about George R.R. Martin's fantasy novels because Fragrant Husband has yet to read them and cannot abide spoilers. By contrast, I hate not knowing what's going to happen, so I read all five books in about a month. Mwa-ha-haaaa, try me now, HBO!

The books start out solemn and become DARK. Martin throws in heaping amounts of incest, rape, betrayal, murder, deception, cannibalism, and all manner of human corruption. As a result, every little victory earned by the main characters, especially the most popular ones (Tyrion, Arya, Dany, and Jon), is like the sweet nectar of the gods.  

Martin's narrative style (point-of-view characters) is effective in showing the epic scale of, say, war or religious fanaticism, while keeping readers grounded through a strongly developed personality. It goes without saying that characters don't have all the information, or believe something false to be true, so readers get to experience the "NOOOOOO" feeling of dread, excitement, and/or anticipation that makes reading so enjoyable.

Speaking of enjoyable, writing the characters' changes and growths in A Song of Ice and Fire is one of the author's greatest strengths. It's so much fun to read the characters that I get excited when a new POV comes along, like Davos in the second book or Brienne in the third book. I was enraptured to see Cersei as a POV character in book four, because I adore Lena Headey, and then was simultaneously impressed and chagrined by the fact that, as written, Cersei Lannister is the biggest prick in all the land, despite having ovaries.

What I most emphatically did not enjoy was anything that had to do with the Krakens (the men, I mean -- Asha's cool). Damphair is a nutball and Victarion is a thug, and together or apart they are very, very boring. "Raaar! Drown, murder, murder!" (YAWN.) "Raaar! Rape, slay, slay!" (SNORE.) I think they're uninteresting because they're narrow-minded and have zero potential for development. See also: Faile/Zarine in A Wheel of Time, who started out a snooty, foolhardy noble needing rescue more often than not...and that's how she ended. The bright side is that I could safely skim Damphair and Victarion chapters because I don't care, thus easing my road to book completion!

While we're on the topic of characters--there must be thousands in this series. Every great House has vassals, and even outlaws get names and backstories. Martin lists all of them in the appendices, which are almost chapters unto themselves. Caramba. At least Robert Jordan grouped his characters according to society/culture/shadowy secret world-ruling organization.

Dreams play a big part in the series. Many of the characters have portentous dreams, even arrogant pretty boy Jaime Lannister. In the HBO show, Bran Stark gets to be dreamiest, but in the books, most everyone has visions when they're unconscious. Dreams can help obsessive readers guess future events, and so can prophecies, which this series has in abundance. A lot of them are obvious, like Dany's three loves and three betrayals, unless of course some new, unexpected, series-changing character (*cough*Young Griff*cough*) emerges in books six and seven.

Natch, there must needs be an epic showdown between ice and fire, as it were, the forces of good versus the hordes of evil. I cannot wait. Given Martin's publishing record -- 1996, 1998, 2000, 2005, then 2011 -- we'll probably get an ending in a decade? Hopefully? I WAITED FOR THE WHEEL OF TIME, SER, I CAN WAIT FOR A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE.

In conclusion: I shall give my favor to The Hound. I like him. More dark than gray in terms of morality, but he's not a complete monster. That's a prize in Westeros! And even Essos!

This post brought to you by the Game of Thrones RPG.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Sour Cream is My Nemesis

Just look at that white abomination. Uggghhhh

Yesterday I succumbed to my desire for nachos. I forgot to shout, “SOUR CREAM ON THE SIDE!” so the giant dish was brought out with the vile stuff squirted on everything. No matter, said I, wolfing down half of it.

An hour later, I was in agony. Demonic forces stabbed daggers into my stomach. As Fragrant Husband looked on in concern, I kept eructing uncomfortably in the hopes of expelling the noxious byproducts of the thrice-damned lactic acid bacteria used to ferment that foulest of dairy products.

Alas, I had no choice but to forcefully expel the contents of my tummy. And then I felt better…until my gastrointestinal tract, already on high alert from the presence of mysterious bacteria, decided to contribute some flatus to the expulsion.

It was bad, readers. I attribute my remaining married to cosmic intervention, possibly from that asteroid that broke up. Its blood (mineral?) sacrifice shall not be in vain!

This pointless post brought to you by Friday. Friday: I give up.

Movie Review: Hereditary (2018)