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Reviews and articles on movies, music, video games, and more

Archive for the month “November, 2012”

“Another Earth” (2011) Review

When I say science fiction, what do you think of? Do you think of spaceships and far away universes? Or maybe movies with huge budgets and massive scopes? Maybe you just think of futuristic technology and extraterrestrial beings. But, I am sure very few, if any, think of modern day Earth and the tragedy in the decisions its inhabitants make. “Another Earth” takes this focus and paints a wonderful story with a backdrop of a new planet discovery, and in turn gives the viewer a lesson in how science fiction can become less about the extraterrestrial, advanced technology, and space travel, and more about how tragedy affects ordinary people and what it is to be oneself.

The plot itself is able to be introspective, emotional, and captivating, all while keeping you wondering what will happen next. Rhoda is a teenage girl whose guilt put’s a burden on the viewer, while John’s suffering can truly be felt. The interactions between the two feel completely real, while the interactions Rhoda has with the rest of the world bring us deeper into her promising-turned-tragic life. While the characters themselves fuel the story, the science fiction backdrop does much to further enhance the overall plot. At first, it may seem that the story about the “other Earth” is merely a parallel story to the main characters’ lives. However, as the film progresses, the two slowly intertwine and become one, with the “other Earth” story enhancing the main plot and acting symbolic as well. I will not spoil any plot details (as per my usual spoiler-free reviews), but here is an example of an open-ended ending done right. I did not expect it, yet when the film was over, I couldn’t think of a more fitting closure.

Though the plot itself was well designed, it could not have succeeded without a great performance from its lead, Brit Marling. She does more than just act the role, however. Through her performance, she seems to become Rhoda, bringing the character to life and making every part of her role feel fully believable; all the guilt and emotion feels real. There is a point at which Rhoda gives a monologue on a Russian cosmonaut – it is absolutely perfect.

“Another Earth” features many beautiful shots of Earth 2, a planet that becomes slowly entwined with the fates of our two main characters.

This particular scene is helped by some great sound design. The soundtrack itself is composed to nicely fit each section of the film. The sections on John have an appropriate classical approach, while the philosophical “other Earth” sections feature electronic, industrial undertones. The aforementioned monologue has a beautifully progressing sound design, where a knock slowly builds into something much more, capturing the story being told perfectly.

Adding to all of these pieces is some wonderful cinematography, full of intimate shots depicting each character’s emotional/mental state, and some evolving and recurring shots of the “Earth 2”. It may lack high-budget CGI and other such eye candy, but it more than makes up for it with its wonderfully filmed shots of Rhoda and “Earth 2” along with the slowly evolving story through the media of the other Earth.

Overall, “Another Earth” is an enthralling sci-fi drama, light on the over-the-top effects, and heavy on the plot and characters. There is one side-story I wish was explored a little deeper, but the film is easily one of the best sci-fi films I’ve ever seen. For any fan of sci-fi or drama, “Another Earth” is a wonderful film that will give you a new perspective on the sci-fi genre.

Final Score: 9.4/10

“The Sessions” (2012) Review

It’s hard to describe “The Sessions” as anything but an unusual, no-boundaries drama with bits of comedy. Based on previews, I was expecting the film to be more comedy-driven than drama, but I will give you a heads-up – “The Sessions” is a drama at heart, with pieces of comedy littered throughout. Don’t go into the film expecting a laugh-filled ride, as you will likely be disappointed if you do.

In reviewing this film, I must praise the writing. The film has some of the most well-written dialogue this year. The bits of humor are smart and memorable, and will always have you laughing (it’s a shame there wasn’t more of this humor throughout the film). The parts of the film that focus more on drama and character interaction still have the great writing, though they just don’t have the depth to propel the film forward.

To further enhance the writing, the cast wonderfully capture the characters being portrayed. John Hawkes delivers an outstanding performance that should be considered for an Oscar – the feeling he captures and delivers, all from a supine position, is incredible. Even each member playing the smaller roles are great at playing their characters. Plus, I’ve been a fan of William H. Macy since “Fargo”, and he is still a great actor.

John Hawkes is outstanding as Mark O’Brien, delivering one of the best performances of the year.

Where the film runs into trouble is after about the 20-minute mark. The comedy dies down and the film becomes a character drama. The overall plot is unique, but at times, the characters themselves just don’t make the story compelling enough on their own,  and at a few points the story seems to lose its way. It certainly isn’t boring or bad, it is just average. Though when the comedy kicks back in at times, and especially when it is heavily present in the beginning segments, the film soars.

Two things I can’t really go into much detail on are the cinematography and the soundtrack. What little there is in the way of a soundtrack is unremarkable. Whereas the cinematography is standard as well. This kind of movie doesn’t really open itself up to great camera work or stunning visuals (unless, of course, you have a strong desire to see Helen Hunt nude for 1/3 of a film). There is one or two interesting shots, but on the whole, nothing stands out on the production end.

Overall, “The Sessions” is a movie caught between two spectrums. On one hand, it is a surprisingly original comedy that has the right components to be great. On the other, it is a drama that misses its mark. The writing and acting carry the film through some of the less-interesting moments, and when the film hits its stride, it can be great. The problem is that it just can’t seem to find its identity.

Final Score: 6.2/10

“The Hunger Games” (2012) Mini-Review

I have been avoiding “The Hunger Games” for as long as possible – mainly due to my appreciation for “Battle Royale” and a belief that “The Hunger Games” is highly unoriginal next to that work. Yet, the time came that I had to be exposed to the film. I had low hopes going in, and the film itself did little to raise my opinion.

The Good:

  • The Cast (Part 1) – Jennifer Lawrence is a talented actress (she surprised me with her talent in “Winter’s Bone”), and she certainly made the most out of what she was given in this film. The writing and plot were both “meh”, but Lawrence uses her talent to put forth as good of a performance as possible with the material she was given. Woody Harrelson, as well, does a good job as usual. The inclusion of Lenny Kravitz gave me a laugh as well (maybe that’s not a good thing).
  • The Plot (Part 1) – I know I just mentioned that the plot was “meh”, but there were some pieces that had some promise. The idea of “sponsors” for the event was an interesting idea, and I think the economy behind the games was worth exploring deeper (though that didn’t happen).

The OK:

  • Cinematography – The actual visuals of the movie varied from impressive to bland. The stark contrast between the Capitol and the Districts was captured well, and the environment for the Games was nice as well. However, the actual look of the Capitol population was off-putting, and the Games themselves were bland. To me, none of the scenes had any major emotional impact, at least nowhere near what they seemed to be trying to accomplish.
  • The Plot (Part 2) – The plot follows (or “borrows”, depending on which side of the fence you are on) many of the things that made “Battle Royale” great. This made for a successful formula for “Battle Royale”, but here, many of the pieces just don’t have the same impact. Yes, the Games themselves have some interesting pieces and twists, but the plot on the whole remains underwhelming and poorly crafted (see below).

The Bad:

  • The Plot (Part 3) – Having mentioned the better parts of the plot, I must say that those pieces never go anywhere. We are fed all this information about the absolute need for sponsors, but the whole idea is suddenly abandoned, and we are jarringly thrown into the Games, throughout which sponsors never play a part. This is not to mention the fact that for all the back story and lore that the film tries to develop, little really matters – most feels like swiss cheese, with holes in the back story that leave the viewer with more questions than answer. There is a severe lack of a cohesive back story at any point in the film. Further, the ending feels like a complete cop-out – it removes what would be the largest, most-interesting conflict in the film.
  • Soundtrack – Ummmm….. I didn’t notice a single compelling part to the music in the film – so unmemorable, that I can’t even recall if the majority of the film had any kind of musical work.
  • The Cast (Part 2) – For all the talent in the leading lady, the rest of the Tributes lack the talent of the aforementioned actors. The script may have played a role, with plenty of cheesy lines and scenes, but I still couldn’t help feeling that Josh Hutcherson and others could’ve done better.

Let’s be frank, “The Hunger Games” is no “Battle Royale”. The film looses its bearings trying to develop a back story that never becomes fully realized, and introduces what seem to be crucial parts of the story, only to abandon them like they never existed. Yet, the film remains an entertaining experience. Taken on its own, without comparisons, it can be a decent watch. Just understand that with all the interesting ideas and scenes, you get equal parts of poor plot development and sappy character interactions.

Final Score: 6/10

The Greatest Album I Ever Heard – “Takk…”

Sigur Rós is one of those bands that can’t be classified into one genre. Each album brings something new to the table, with the band evolving on each release. Prior to hearing “Takk…”, I had never listened to Sigur Rós – on many occasions I had heard of them mentioned alongside of other post-rock greats, but I never took the time to check them out (having the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had followed them since their first album). Thus, when it was time to see what Sigur Rós was made of, I started with “Takk…”, and that was when my outlook on music changed completely.

“Takk…” is an album cannot be described as anything but perfect. The care put into each track shines through with each shifting melody  and evolving soundscape. Each song has so many layers that on their own are quite simple. However, carefully place these layers together and you end up with a enthralling mesh of sounds and harmonies that is impossible to describe in words…

But I will try.

First, however, I must note for the unfamiliar reader that Sigur Rós is an Icelandic group, whose vocals consist of a combination of Icelandic and a “nonsense” language called Vonlenska (aka “Hopelandic”). “Vonlenska” is made up of sounds that fit melodic and rhythmic patterns to create vocal sounds for a specific song (check out the band’s site for a better description). This was too good to be true with regards to my musical outlook, as for me, vocals are another musical instrument and lyrics take a backseat to the melody (though lyrics are still important, one does not need lyrics to create music with the voice –  where lyrics are nothing without a melody for them), an outlook perfect for the Sigur Rós listener.

The king of made-up words seems to enjoy Sigur Rós, too.

With that said, let’s break down the album a bit. I will touch on the highlights, but note that the whole album itself is amazing and should be enjoyed seamlessly for the best experience (it is fine to skip tracks to find your favorite song, but at least listen to the album straight through once – one must enjoy this work as a whole to fully appreciate its excellence). The album open with an intro (“Takk…”) which leads into the first substantial track, “Glósóli”. In this plodding track, layers are slowly added to create a richness in sound that is nearly trance-inducing. Not to mention we get a nice taste of the bowed guitar that is a staple for the band.

This moves right into two tracks that act as one – “Hoppípolla” and “Með blóðnasir”. This piece is one I can only describe as beautiful. The delicate piano melody combined with Jónsi’s brilliant vocal melodies produce a natural harmony amongst the slowly building rhythm section full of brass, strings, and choir. As “Hoppípolla” ends and seems to fade, “Með blóðnasir” picks right back up with an altered form of the original “Hoppípolla” melody, and builds into another magnificent sonic aura. I will say that this two-track piece is my personal favorite song, and may give you goosebumps as it does to me with each listen. You can check out a live version of the piece seamlessly performed below:

The next highlight is “Sæglópur”. This epic track begins with a nice piano progression and light mallet parts. Jónsi’s falsetto really shines in this track, and just when everything begins to settle in, the track erupts amidst thundering drums and some distorted ambient guitar, all the while continuing the melody. This a shining example of how a song can be so weighty with layers that most wouldn’t consider to be particularly heavy.

One last song I’d like to credit is “Gong”. This song demonstrates some of the odd timing that the group has used for many parts of the album. We start with a simple volin and guitar part that set a somber tone. Once the drums enter, the same guitar part shifts slightly and the rhythm is completely changed with such little effort and a smooth transition. Once again, Jónsi brings both mid-range and falsetto vocals to create some nice textures as the track twists and turns.

“Takk…” remains a shining example of how wondrous music can be with even the simplest of layers being put together in such a unique way to create something more complex and full of feeling. I highly recommend this album to any music lover – it is worth experiencing at least once, though I’m sure you will come back looking for more. The album itself is just awe-inspiring, and as such, “Takk…” is the greatest album I’ve ever heard.

Why TIME’s “All-TIME 100 Video Games” List is Inherently Flawed

TIME has just released their “All-TIME 100 Video Games” List (link to original article/list here). Many “Top 100” lists end up trying to capture both the highest quality games alongside some of the most innovative, and in this process become a jumbled mess of high-quality games next to games that have no reason to be remembered outside of sales numbers or some radical gameplay mechanic. Now, I know that due to the nature of every person having his/her own opinion that everyone will find parts of each list to disagree with (nostalgia for one’s favorite titles often blinds them to the idea that the title may not be as great as they remember). That being said, there are times that lists are clearly off in some way. Where does TIME’s list fall? Does it capture the best gaming has to offer, or does it miss its mark and leave the reader doubting its credibility?

I have to say that TIME has managed to capture some truly great moments in gaming history, here – games that nearly every gamer could agree should be on this type of list (i.e. Chrono Trigger, Metal Gear Solid, The Legend of Zelda). As I scrolled through, I noticed many of these classics, and was also happy to see the inclusion of some more artistic games that I would say are more than deserving of their spots – Flower, Shadow of the Colossus, ICO. In all, TIME’s list captured 3 of my top 10 games (Final Fantasy VII, Bioshock, and the aforementioned Shadow of the Colossus). However, where the list breaks down and misses its mark, in my opinion, is in the inclusion of inferior games in their respective series, some unusual choices to represent landmarks in gaming history, and some entries that still left me scratching my head as to how they got in there.

As far as game series choices go, I will start with mentioning the inclusion of Half-Life 2. The game was a phenomenal experience, however, you can’t deny the quality of the original title, nor it place in video game history in revolutionizing the way stories are told in first-person shooters. Further, how does the original Silent Hill make the list, when clearly Silent Hill 2 is the unanimously agreed upon peak of the series. Lastly, Mass Effect 3 is present on the list. I would be fine with the first entry, which was a great sci-fi/RPG epic, but the third game was clearly a letdown to the masses, with player choices that were key in the series having little impact on the story conclusion. I will not say that these games were not good games (especially Half-Life 2), but I feel that the other entries in these series deserve the recognition more than the others.

Okami has some beautiful graphics, but I don’t think the game as a whole was great enough to be considered a top 100 game.

Outside of some of those more minor nitpicks, I noticed some games that seemed odd on such a list. Games like Wii Sports, Cave Story, and Angry Birds, whose sole purpose is to show movements/innovation in gaming history (with these games representing motion control, indie development, and casual gaming, respectively). This is where I think a lot of lists go wrong – trying to capture “landmark” titles in gaming history that aren’t really landmarks. Sales numbers don’t make a game one of the best of all time. I don’t care how many people have downloaded Angry Birds, or that it “popularized” casual gaming. It is certainly not one of the best games ever, nor is it a true landmark – casual gaming does not represent quality or game immersion, it represents a little distraction from work or waiting for an appointment. The same goes for Wii Sports. Motion control is great and all, but Wii Sports is certainly not a “high-quality” title. Cave Story is mentioned by TIME as being the foundation of indie gaming, even going so far as to say that without Cave Story, there would be no Braid or Limbo. This is its sole purpose on the list, and I can only say that I am highly skeptical of their assumptions there.

Finally, TIME decided to also include some games that are just clearly not cut out for a top 100 games list. Rez may have had some stunning visuals, but the game itself wasn’t anything special, Paperboy is laughable alongside other classics of the time, and I nearly gave up reading when I saw Desktop Tower Defense on there (in all seriousness, where does this fit in at all). There are others as well, but I will let you make those discoveries and not ruin the laughs.

TIME’s attempt at putting together a top 100 video games list misses its mark nearly as often as it mentions a truly great title. There are the usual classics on there, and a few nice additions, but many of the entries will leave many gamers confused at their inclusion. That being said, check out the list, see if some of your favorite games are on there, and have a few laughs at the random inclusions.

“Dishonored” Review

“Dishonored” has been on my radar for a while after seeing some trailers that demonstrated the freedom that the player has within each mission. The game was hyped for many reasons, and for the most part, “Dishonored” succeeds and produces some gameplay that truly makes player choice a key part of the game. It may not quite reach the lofty heights of recent greats such as “Deus Ex: Human Revolution”, but “Dishonored” is still an incredible experience.

To start, I will say that few games give the player a true sense of freedom within the game world. Some games that try offer a few set paths through a mission, which often still ends up feeling like the game is guiding you down a particular path. Others bring many choices within scripted events with each option having different consequences.

In my time in the world of Dishonored, I was greeted with near endless options on how to approach each mission obstacle. Do you play it stealthy by distracting guards with thrown bottles, or maybe put him to sleep with a sleep dart, or sneak about behind him and knock him out? Do you take a technical approach, placing traps, rigging enemy technology to work against them, or possessing animals and guards to work through each level? Or maybe you just want to go in and get your hands dirty, locking swords with guards, calling on rats to attack guards, or using firearms to your advantage? You know, maybe you just want to avoid the enemy all together and sneak from cover to cover, teleporting across the rooftops. I know this is a long description, but it just goes to show how open each mission is – especially when you add in multiple paths through each level.

This freedom is wrapped in a great gameplay package. The controls are fluid and responsive, and you are given many tools to help you succeed in your tasks. Little touches, such as the ability to lean out from walls and cover are much appreciated. Should these tools fail to keep you hidden, the melee combat is intense and has a nice depth to it with the variety of weapons you are given to supplement the already great sword combat (which has a great system requiring timing, parrying, and exploiting your opponents’ weak moments as opposed to just mashing the attack button until the enemy lies at your feet). And speaking of locking swords, the sound effects for each weapon and sword attacks are unique, making each blow felt.

Your boat rides with Samuel are great experiences as you take in the scenery while beginning to note various obstacles to your goal.

To add to the quality of the game, the city of Dunwall is well-detailed, and feels like a living, breathing city. Your choices throughout each mission have consequences (a stealthy approach leads to better morale through the city, while a murderous approach will bring more rats and plague throughout each area). The way the world adapts to your actions, along with some great character voicing, draws you into the experience and makes your task all the more intense.

Graphics throughout the game have a nice style to them. The designs for each character, each piece of technology, and the city itself are brought to life through some great detailing and nice lighting effects. It certainly isn’t the best-looking game ever, but what it may lack in technical prowess, it makes up for in artistic style.

The one downside I can say for the experience is the plot. It is by no means bad, but it is nothing to write home about. With such a unique setting and detailed city, I felt disappointed by the story itself, which is a fairly straightforward tale of conspiracy and power-hungry royals.

“Dishonored” certainly puts many of the great pieces together to make a great game. The whole experience is great as you make your way through each mission, weighing your options on how best to approach each situation, and see your actions have effects on the city of Dunwall. With a better plot, “Dishonored” would be an easy Game of the Year consideration in my book, but as it sits, it will have to be happy with just being a “great” game.

Story: 6/10

Graphics: 9/10

Sound: 7.5/10

Gameplay: 9.5/10

Final Score: 8/10

“Winter’s Bone” (2010) Mini-Review

Ree Dolly is a teenager who is forced to take care of her mentally ill mother, and younger sister and brother in poverty on their small land plot in the Ozarks. One day, she finds out that her father, a locally popular meth-cooker, has a trial date – a trial that he must show at or Ree loses her house and land which her father put up for bond. And thus begins Ree’s journey to find her father and unravel the mystery surrounding his location.

The Good:

  • Setting – The setting for the film is fully realized, with dreary backdrops of grays and browns, and poverty-stricken families scattered throughout the wilderness. The local area feels wholly real with even the animals showing the same level of misery as the people themselves.
  • Characters/Acting – The acting throughout the film is very natural (with a great performance by Jennifer Lawrence) and makes some grisly situations even more intense. The characters themselves are well-written, and each actor/actress does their part in making the lack of hope for some of these families feel quite real.

The OK:

  • Plot – Ree’s journey itself starts out as a plodding series of house to house visits that serve to reveal no information outside of the fact that no one seems willing to help Ree or offer any information regarding her father outside of lies. While this demonstrates the shaky relationships between the various families, it does little to help the film’s pacing. Once we get past that section, and characters begin to reveal their personalities, the plot starts moving and each . This second half of the film is quite intense (as the overall plot is quite intriguing), filled with many appalling moments.Yet, pieces of the plot remain unexplored and/or aren’t fully developed, causing some elements to feel incomplete.

Short Summary: “Winter’s Bone” is a tense drama, featuring some great acting and a grim story about an ordinary person going to great lengths to take care of her family. While the plot may be plodding at the start, stick with it and you will be involved in a dreary, earnest journey to unravel a  mystery in a drug-riddled community where bad blood runs deep.

Final Score: 7.5/10

Between the Buried and Me – “The Parallax II: Future Sequence” Review

I am convinced that UPS has to have two drivers deliver Between the Buried and Me albums to my front door. As a group, BTBAM have been the most technical and unusual progressive metal band I have heard. They have the ability to go from intense breakdowns, to light jazz, to banjo solos with seemingly little effort. I still regard “Colors” as their best work, due to the overwhelming progressions within each song. Yet, the follow-up to that album, “The Great Misdirect”, felt like a step backward after such a masterpiece. Now, having entered into Part II of “The Parallax” (I have yet to hear Part I, and for that I apologize), in what direction is BTBAM going?

In comes “Goodbye to Everything” to pave the way for the first full track, “Astral Body”. Here, we have a feel for where the album is heading. The track opens with some nice guitar work (what else would you expect from Paul Waggoner), and throughout the song, Tom lets loose with his voice, ranging from deep growls to some nicely sung vocal work. In fact, throughout the album, Tom sings as much as he growls – a very nice change to the group that is well-known for undeniably heavy breakdowns. I never minded those heavy sections, but there came times where they lost their potency with constant thrashing. This album takes a much more progressive approach (yes, as unusual as it may be to be “more” progressive than say, “Colors”),  and largely succeeds.

“Lay Your Ghosts to Rest” is the perfect example of the new directions for the group, and the finest track on an album of fine tracks. The song opens with a bang (get your back brace ready). This is quickly followed by a sudden transition into a bouncy riff with some circus-y lead guitar; the part just must be heard (when I first listened to the song, I quite literally said “what just happened?” and had to rewind the song to make sure I heard it right). The song continues with phenomenal lead guitar work by Paul, the usual riffage, and interspersed jazzy and experimental sections. Truly, this song is perfect.

Xylophone? Coming out of a trashing breakdown? My word.

The next major track comes in the form of “Extremophile Elite”. Only two words to describe why you should hear this song (outside of the usual BTBAM staples) – XYLOPHONE SOLO! Yes, that happened. And it was glorious. Continuing on, we have “Parallax” and “Black Box”, which together lead into “Telos”.  Face-melting up front, and followed by an experimental spacey, jazzy interlude.

“Bloom” opens with one of the most unusual breakdowns I’ve heard and is followed by the beast that is “Melting City”, featuring another lighter interlude featuring an overlapping guitar lead and flute lead. Overall, this song is more of a jam-band feeling track intertwined with some heavier sections, traits that by no means make this a bad song.

We end the album with two tracks. One a 15-minute mammoth (“Silent Flight Parliament”), opening with some heavy riffing and developing into a whirlwind of shifting time-signatures and levels of intensity. “Goodbye to Everything Reprise” wraps everything up with another beautiful solo by Waggoner (seriously, I’d give [insert non-vital body part here] to play like this guy).

As a whole, the album is the finest work to be released by BTBAM. It is a technically proficient masterpiece that sees that band reach a pinnacle of songwriting and progression. The group’s ability to easily transition between sections with stark contrasts and combine various musical styles in each track is incredible. They will remain the most forward-thinking group in progressive metal (and dare I say progressive rock in general). To any fan of metal music, and anyone who appreciates exceptional musical talent, I highly recommend this album. Just remember – lift with your legs, not your back.

Final Score – 9.5/10

“Cloud Atlas” (2012) Review

When I first saw a trailer for “Cloud Atlas”, I was confused by what I saw. On one hand, it seemed like quite an immense undertaking, and in capable hands with the Wachowski Brothers. Yet, on the other, I had a feeling that for all its style, it lacked the substance it so desperately was trying to convey it had. After seeing a longer preview prior to “Argo”, I was intrigued by some of the cinematography and beautiful scenery. With my fiancé showing interest in the film, and after dragging her to “Silent Hill: Revelation” last week, I entered the theater and awaited my 164 minute experience.

I will start by saying that there are few movies that have ever left me with a feeling of awe after my viewing. “Cloud Atlas” is one of those films. This is one of the most ambitious films I have seen in a while. The sheer scope of the film is nothing short of amazing, and the care taken to craft each world is incredible. The film features a wide variety of stories and genres (from futuristic action sequences, to sci-fi landscapes, to romance, to mystery, to comedy) across multiple stories that all blend into one overarching experience through some clever film-making and flexible acting (which, in turn, make the 164-minute running time fly by).

I’ll be frank; “Cloud Atlas” demands the viewer’s attention to be best enjoyed. There are multiple stories across multiple time periods and worlds, all involving a relatively small cast of actors (small compared to the number of characters in the film). The stories themselves vary from interesting to completely absorbing, but the breathtaking scenery created for each world, combined with some excellent cuts between stories keep even the less interesting stories moving and bring everything together (it also helps that the Wachowski Brothers still craft some of the best action sequences for the big screen).

Neo Seoul provides some of the most stunning visuals and action sequences (courtesy of the Wachowski Brothers) in the film

It is also necessary to tip my hat to the acting cast put together for this film. While Halle Berry still hasn’t made herself into a great actress in my mind, there are some great performances by all the cast, with each member adapting and evolving into each role as the movie progresses. It helps that the script and settings make each character multi-dimensional; no matter how large the cast of characters grew, every new individual felt as complete as the one prior. Here, I have to give particular credit to James D’Arcy, Doona Bae, and Hugo Weaving (in particular as Nurse Noakes) who stood out among some great performances from the likes of Tom Hanks and Jim Broadbent.

Continuing on, the plot itself is well put together and coherent, with some nice ambiguity to how the ending and connections can be interpreted. I was skeptical that the stories would reach a connection at some point as the movie began, but without spoiling anything or influencing anyone’s interpretation, I thought the connections were done perfectly, not too heavy-handed, yet not too vague. Some may miss the point entirely, but the parallels are there, and for the attentive viewer, the plot is a wonderful experience.

This scene, in particular, features some beautiful camera work and editing, and is enhanced by an excellent soundtrack piece

The last thing I want to touch on is the soundtrack. On the whole, it is quite good and each story features some unique work alongside some overarching pieces. There were a few sections in particular that really stood out for me, including the beautiful sections of the “Cloud Atlas Sextet” and what I would like to call the “heartbeat” piece from the Neo Seoul story (you’ll notice how perfectly composed and well-placed this piece is when you see the film).

“Cloud Atlas” is an incredible experience. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen such an expansive film/narrative on the big screen. Even if you don’t enjoy some of the stories or the overall plot, I highly recommend this movie purely for its cinematic wonder. You will be hard-pressed to find a movie that provides such a magnificent experience, leaving you astonished at what was achieved on-screen. Closing in on the end of the year, “Cloud Atlas” is now among the front-runners for my favorite film of the year.

Final Score: 9.2/10

The Greatest Game I Ever Played – “Xenosaga”

After my first trip through Xenosaga Episode I, I could not wait for more. At the time, I had never played an RPG that brought it’s story to life in such a wonderful presentation. Episode II came and was considered a letdown to many, though I enjoyed it (despite my enjoyment, I can still admit it is the most flawed entry in the series) as the story I became so absorbed in over 30+ hours in Episode I  just entangled me in deeper in its web. Finally, Episode III was released, and I have not enjoyed a game (RPG or not) to the same extent since.

Xenosaga crafts its magic in large part through its story. The story is highly complex, symbolic, and expansive (all great qualities). If you have not heard of the series, or its spiritual predecessor Xenogears, the plot is heavily rooted in philosophical (in particular Friederich Nietzsche as you can tell by each episode’s subtitle) and religious themes, with depth in character development, and clever plot twists. The story focuses around Shion, a head R&D employee at the Vector Corporation, who is involved in developing an android used for battle against an alien life form called the Gnosis. The story grows more complex as the Zohar, an object capable of immense power that supposedly spawned the Gnosis and also provides the only way to return to Lost Jerusalem (aka Earth), is sought after by different corporations and factions. More and more layers to the plot are unraveled and the story spans the universe in scope. To say more would be to spoil the exceptional plot and to deprive the player of any enjoyment of this story would be a crime.

The cutscenes are well-detailed and feature some skilled voice work that brings the story to life.

To make the story come to life, the developers present it in extremely well-crafted cutscenes and movies. When the game was released, many argued that the cutscenes were too much, pulling the player out of actually “playing” the game (and, yes, there are scenes that last upward of an hour – think Metal Gear Solid-style presentation in an RPG, which is certainly a compliment from me). The scenes are very well done and, for me, brought me further into the experience as opposed to taking me out of it. To sum up these last two paragraphs – if you play your games for plot, and are pushed forward by waiting to see what happens next, this is a game for you.

Speaking of the cutscenes, the graphics throughout the series are top-notch for the system. The cutscenes look beautiful and even the in game character models are excellent for the console generation. From battle animations, to character designs, to the mechs both in and out of combat, everything has the attention to detail that sets quality titles apart from the crowd.

Another aspect of Xenosaga that brings everything together is the wonderfully composed soundtrack. Every scene is enhanced by and each new area perfectly defined by the music done by Yuki Kajiura (and the always great Yasunori Mitsuda in Episode I). There are plenty of standout tracks across all three games and the music is another piece that makes the series such a great gaming experience.

The battle system continues to reveal more and more depth throughout each entry in the series as new features are added.

Moving on to the core of the player control, gameplay. The battle system used across the series evolves in each series, but still has a similar core. This core revolves around points that characters can use to act (with each action costing a certain number of points). This becomes more in-depth as you can save points for the following turn to allow a character to perform a more powerful special attack. This combat is enhanced by the use of mechs in combat along with some very strategic systems (including the ability to “boost” a character’s turn to alter the turn order), with more being implemented in Episodes II and III.

Xenosaga is one of those games that is a complete package. With a fun, intricate battle system, beautiful graphics, and a moving soundtrack, all surrounding the greatest video game story I have had the pleasure of experiencing, the series has crafted something that I have yet to experience before or after in a video game. Xenosaga is the greatest game I ever played.

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