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

Archive for the month “May, 2013”

One Epic Pub Crawl to “The World’s End” Preview

Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are teaming back up for what seems to be another hilarious adventure. The duo, whose past credits include Shaun of the Dead and more recently Paul, have a way of taking popular movie topics (zombies, aliens, and action films) and turning them on their heads. With the upcoming film, The World’s End, the focus is an epic pub crawl. A group of five friends fail to complete an epic crawl when younger and now reunite to finish the deed – until things take a crazy turn and the crew end up becoming humanity’s last hope for survival. The film should be a nice breath of fresh air compared to more brainless comedies (i.e. Identity Thief) which I always try to avoid. Look for The World’s End when it releases this October and let me know if you enjoyed Pegg and Frost’s past films or are looking forward to this one.

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“Iron Man 3” (2013) Review

I wasn’t really hyped to see Iron Man 3 when the first trailer was released. Truth be told, I enjoyed the first two Iron Man films, but didn’t really think they were that amazing by any means (the same goes for The Avengers). Sure, Robert Downey Jr. is a perfect fit as Tony Stark, but the films often felt high on style, low on substance for me. With Iron Man 3, Marvel has gone in a different direction – this entry features less Iron Man and more Tony Stark. Does this change work for or against the new film?

Looking at the plot, Iron Man 3 succeeds in focusing more on its characters. This helps make each event more impactful, as the viewer can connect with the film’s characters. Good thing, then, that Iron Man 3 has some great new characters. The Mandarin is a well constructed character (played perfectly by Ben Kingsley) and Harley is played nicely by the young Ty Simpkins. Still, not every character is great, and the main villain, in particular, is underwhelming in motive and characterization. Despite that though, the cast as a whole does a great job bringing the characters to life and Robert Downey Jr remains an absolutely perfect Tony Stark.

This focus on characters causes a shift in typical “superhero” film content. The majority of the plot is centered on Tony Stark outside of his suit. That is not to say that there isn’t any action in the film (there is, and it looks awesome), but there is much less of it. This will certainly turn off some fans, though this change was a breath of fresh air for me.

One thing "Iron Man 3" always has going for it is Robert Downey Jr. - he has always been a perfect choice for the character and fit the personality of Tony Stark perfectly.

One thing “Iron Man 3” always has going for it is Robert Downey Jr. – he has always been a perfect choice for the character and fit the personality of Tony Stark perfectly.

As far as the other components of the film go, the cinematography is fairly standard. There are some incredible shots during the more frantic action sequences, and the chaos looks beautiful. Despite this, you know exactly what to expect going in, and the presentation of the film does nothing to break free of the general “superhero blockbuster” standards. This goes dually for the soundtrack, which features some intense compositions, but again feels like I’ve heard it in every other Marvel hero film.

In the end, Iron Man 3 combines some genre standards and adds a few twists to them (mainly its focus on characters and not on action). This works in the film’s favor, as this newest entry into the Iron Man series feels more fresh than its counterparts. Despite its many typical pieces, the formula of sarcastic humor combined stunning action sequences works for Iron Man 3 (as it did for its past entries). What sets this third film apart from and ahead of the previous two is its choice to take a risk and focus more on Tony Stark and less on Iron Man. It’s just a shame that a better central villain wasn’t present, or even some better characterization. Thus, as it stands, Iron Man 3 is the best entry in the series (for me), but still lacks the pieces it needs to move from being a good film to a great one.

Final Score: 6.8/10

“Upstream Color” (2013) Review

Upstream Color cover

 

I have never seen a film like Upstream Color. Simple as that. Shane Carruth’s recent release is a film that can be described in many different ways – “experimental”, “art film”, “abstract” – however, no classification could really do it justice. Even in broad terms such as sci-fi or drama, Upstream Color cannot find a home. Be assured, you have never seen anything like Upstream Color – and I mean that in a good way.

If you’re familiar with Carruth through his first film, Primer, you know he has talent. Upstream Color has a similar, yet completely different style than that first release. While both films are highly complex, revealing most secrets upon repeated viewings, they differ in their approach. Primer was a rational, sci-fi story with a heavy emphasis on dialogue to push the story forward and make sense of the film’s logic. Upstream Color relies mostly on its audiovisual presentation to portray its story – there is much less of a focus on dialogue (with the last half-hour being nearly free of any spoken words) and more attention on ambient sounds, thematic imagery, and striking visuals. This focus allowed Carruth to create on of the most original films I’ve seen in a long while.

As far as plot goes, the less you know going into Upstream Color, the better. While I will avoid any major spoilers, I still recommend not reading ahead if you are definitely going to see this film in order to get the most out of the experience…..

Still there? Okay. The easiest way to give an idea of the plot of Upstream Color is to say that the film is about the life cycle of an organism, the players who continue the cycle, and those who are affected by it. This basis becomes much more elaborate as the film weaves many themes into its story and presents the viewer with a multi-layered puzzle that at times can be both simple and incredibly complex at the same time. As it stands, the film places the viewer as an inanimate object observing these natural cycles and people and forces you to put all the pieces together actively and pass your own judgement at times. The story may seem to be abstract nonsense to some (and those that don’t enjoy experimental film-making will surely dislike the film), but I assure you there is a coherent narrative here that allows for some personal interpretation.

The Sampler is just one piece in the cycle playing out in "Upstream Color", but he is certainly the most interesting and complex.

The Sampler is just one piece in the cycle playing out in “Upstream Color”, but he is certainly the most interesting and complex.

With this narrative in place, both sound design and cinematography take over and breathe life into the story. While it is often easy to look at the visuals and sound areas of a film separately, here it is not possible – the two are intertwined and integral to the experience. That being said, the overall presentation is absolutely stunning. From Carruth’s ambient soundtrack, to his adept editing, to the striking cinematography, the film amazes its audience in each and every scene. The only real negative for this piece of the film is the dialogue volume. For some reason (possibly due to the focus on ambient sounds and nature throughout the film), the volume of the dialogue in the film is too low. In one sense, this serves to put more of an emphasis on the aforementioned ambience – in another, it is maddening as the viewer has to struggle at times to make out some of the dialogue. Still, this is a small price to pay in the scope of the overall presentation.

Lastly, it is worth mentioning that both Amy Seimetz and Carruth himself (yes, he wrote, directed, did the soundtrack for, produced, and starred in his film) both did a great job with their roles. With little dialogue in parts of the film, the cast must speak through expressions and actions – something that the entire cast does a wonderful job of doing. The nuances in each performance really help bring the viewer further into each character’s mindset and perspective.

In conclusion, as I said before, you have never seen a film like Upstream Color. Still, you will be glad you saw Upstream Color (unless, of course, you are not a fan of experimental film-making). The presentation and plot of the film are stunning and highly original, and Carruth is surely someone of talent to keep an eye on in the film industry. While there may be some issues with the dialogue audio levels, this hardly detracts from what will be the most original film you’ll see all year. Even if you don’t understand exactly what you saw, I think you will  have a hard time saying you didn’t enjoy it.

Final Score: 9.0/10

Making Choices Matter – “Beyond: Two Souls”

Are video games art? How much do your choices in games really matter? Can video games ever come close to movies as an entertainment media? These are all questions that have been brought up and discussed many times over, but never seem to quite have a definitive answer. David Cage and his team at Quantic Dream are trying to change the opinions on those on one side of the fence with their upcoming release, Beyond: Two Souls. The game is meant to put the player through a fully interactive movie/story – one where each decision matters and weighs heavily on the outcome. Looking at their past releases, in particular their most recent game, Heavy Rain (one of my favorite games ever), the team is incredibly talented and knows exactly what they are doing. Heavy Rain broke many gaming barriers and managed to allow you to take so many different paths through its storyline, with main characters being able to die and still have the story continue. With Beyond: Two Souls, David Cage wants the player to be fully immersed in the story and wants to make his presentations perfect – something the inclusion of Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe in the lead roles will certainly help. This game will make waves when it is released, so get ready to experience something different from this game if you haven’t played any of Quantic Dream’s past releases. This is one game that I can say has a good chance at actually coming close to Bioshock Infinite as Game of the Year for me. If anyone has played Heavy Rain, I’d love to hear what you think. If not, what do you think about Beyond?

Ryan Gosling Teams Back Up with Nicolas Winding Refn for “Only God Forgives”

Just knowing that Nicolas Winding Refn is directing Only God Forgives would be enough for me to want to go see it. However, after seeing the above trailer, it quickly jumped to one of my most anticipated films in the coming months. Nicolas Winding Refn has proven he is a talented director (see Drive and Valhalla Rising) and with Only God Forgives, he rejoins Ryan Gosling, who starred in his prior film Drive. This bodes well for this release as the two seem to work quite well together, with Gosling able to really let his acting skills out with Refn’s characters. Let’s hope Refn can continue his streak of high quality films. If you enjoy crime thrillers and striking visuals, and don’t mind some quite graphic violence, look out for Only God Forgives when it releases this July.

“Castle in the Sky” (1986) Review

Castle in the Sky poster

As I have mentioned previously (in my review of My Neighbor Totoro), Studio Ghibli is one of the most imaginative studios in the film business today with films spanning more than three decades. The other night I watched another of their films, Castle in the Sky. With Hayao Miyazaki at the helm as usual, the film is certainly an enjoyable experience filled with great animation, excellent characters, and an imaginative story enjoyable for those of all ages. While Castle in the Sky has all of these Ghibli standards, it also has some flaws that hold it back from reaching the same heights as some of their other works.

Castle in the Sky features a story about a young girl with a mysterious necklace, a young boy with dreams of proving a legend true, and the groups of pirates, military, and special interest personnel that quickly become interested in both of them. For the most part, this tale is just as imaginative and interesting as some of the studio’s other works. Yet, one of the biggest flaws in the film is the story’s pacing. About halfway through the film, the plot stalls and the film hits a stagnant period of chase scenes with no plot development. The foundation is there for a great plot, but this section breaks up the two better sections and takes away from the overall film. Had Castle in the Sky been cut to about 90-100 minutes (as opposed to the 125 minutes it stands at), the plot would be more powerful and the film better for it.

Though the plot has its struggles, the animation does not. Castle in the Sky is a visual masterpiece for its time. The film was made nearly 30 years ago and still looks phenomenal today. As always, there are a ton of little details that go a long way to making each scene even more impressive and complete. Even in its more action-packed scenes, the visuals remain exceptional. Though it may be flawed in other areas, Castle in the Sky‘s visuals are not.

For an animated film that is 27 years old, Studio Ghibli crafted some absolutely stunning visuals for the film.

For an animated film that is 27 years old, Studio Ghibli crafted some absolutely stunning visuals for the film.

Similarly to the plot, the sound department has some highs and lows. On one hand, the soundtrack is wonderful, capturing various landscapes and sequences nicely and enhancing each scene. On the other, the voice acting for the film is not up to par. It’s nowhere near the worst voice overs I’ve heard, but it’s still disappointing. James Van Der Beek and Anna Paquin’s performances really cause the characters to suffer due to poor vocal work.

This voice acting is a shame since the characters designed by Studio Ghibli are exceptional. Each character is given a unique personality that the viewer can easily connect with through each character’s visual design, dialogue, and interactions. With how well designed the characters are, combined with the overall animation, the imagination of Miyazaki and the artists at Studio Ghibli seems limitless. Truly each Ghibli/Miyazaki film is a work of art.

Overall, Castle in the Sky is a great film – not just a great animated film. Its visuals, story and characters are all wonderfully crafted – a standard for Ghibli and Miyazaki films. Still, some shortcomings in voice acting (on the English Disney dubs, not the original Japanese) along with pacing issues hold the film back from standing at the top of Ghibli’s resume. Despite its issues, Miyazaki fans will enjoy, and the film is great for viewers of most ages. If you’ve seen Castle in the Sky, let me know what you think about the film and where it stands against your other Ghibli favorites.

Final Score: 7.8/10

Guillermo del Toro Is Back – “Pacific Rim” Opens July 12th

With how much I’ve been staying on top of movies this year, I have absolutely no idea how Pacific Rim flew under my radar. I mean, a sci-fi film with aliens and robots directed by Guillermo del Toro (whose “Pan’s Labyrinth” is my second favorite film ever) and Charlie Day of Its’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia fame is in it? How could I not know about this? Regardless, Pacific Rim looks pretty damn awesome. Knowing del Toro’s knack for imaginative visuals and stories, this should be an incredible film – well above your typical alien/robot films. If you enjoy sci-fi or have enjoyed any of del Toro’s previous works, put this film on your radar (as I have) and look for its release on July 12th.

“Bioshock Infinite” Review

bioshock infinite cover

I’ll get straight to the point – Bioshock Infinite is one of the best games I’ve ever played, surpassing the original Bioshock, and becoming one of the best games of the generation. That is the main thing you need to know going into the game – anything more risks spoiling the experience. As such, I will keep this review spoiler-free (as usual) to make sure that those reading will be able to enjoy this game as much as I have without having any moments’ impacts lessened.

Bioshock Infinite takes place in a stunning world that Irrational Games has created. Columbia comes to life before your eyes – the city itself feels so authentic and real (a feeling so few games can capture). Its many citizens, rich history, and architectural design all combine to make Columbia a living, breathing city. With such a great foundation, the game uses this setting as a basis to then craft its other parts around, enhancing the rest of the game even more.

Within this city of Columbia, a story begins. The plot in Bioshock Infinite centers around your character, Booker Dewitt, who travels to Columbia to find a girl and deliver her to someone in New York to repay his debts. This story seems simple at first, but by the end it becomes so much more complex, and becomes one of the most well-developed, told, and written stories in a game. The plot evolves consistently at a nice pace with numerous twists and turns that always keep you involved and guessing.  More so, the way the plot is told through various means (cutscenes, active gameplay dialogue, collectible recordings) helps to make the plot even deeper than it seems on the surface – it is worth your time to collect as many of the “voxophones” (voice recordings) in the game, as they help make the main story even better. If I were to be nit-picky, I could say that the ending seems rushed. Honestly, though, the way the final story segment is structured makes sense in the grand scheme of things – the “rushed” feeling that some feel is due to the presentation of a lot of information at once, not that the ending suffers in quality.

Columbia is one of the most intricately designed game worlds out there - from its lore, to its inhabitants, to its architecture, the city is fully realized in a way that makes Columbia feel like a living, breathing city (in the sky).

Columbia is one of the most intricately designed game worlds out there – from its lore, to its inhabitants, to its architecture, the city is fully realized in a way that makes Columbia feel like a living, breathing city (in the sky).

Plot aside, Irrational Games has done an incredible job (as they always do) of making characters that the player quickly becomes connected to. In building a bond between player and characters, the story becomes all the more weighted. One of the biggest strengths of the game is how involved the player feels in the story and how concerned the player is over the characters’ fates. I won’t spoil anything, but there are a few characters that I could not believe the game managed to make you feel sympathy toward.

Having mentioned how stunning the world of Columbia is, let’s move on to the gameplay. If you’ve played previous game in the series, you know what to expect. The game plays like a typical FPS, except you dual-wield your gun of choice with a special ability (from flame grenades, to lightning, to possession). These abilities can be combined to create some pretty crazy effects, making combat have a nice layer of strategy to it. There are some changes from previous entries, however. First, is the inclusion of “gear”, which act as pieces of clothes that you can equip for special effects. Second, is the ability to carry only two guns at a time – something that seems limiting, but makes sense in the grand scheme of things. Overall, this is the smoothest playing entry in the series,with some really interesting vigors (this game’s version of plasmids), and cool enemy designs.

Next, I should move on to the actual presentation. The graphics for the game are also nothing short of excellent. From both a technical and artistic standpoint, Infinite excels in creating a lavish world that is a sight to behold – it is amazing to see so many little details put into each area. Further, even with many enemies on-screen, and chaos in the streets, the game performs flawlessly and runs silky smooth. Again, if I wanted to be overly nit-picky, I’d say that the world is not destructable enough. When a world is this intricate and well-designed, though, that is such a minor gripe.

One of the biggest strengths of "Bioshock Infinite" is how well it ties the payer to the in-game characters, forming a bond that every game strives to (but few manage to) capture.

One of the biggest strengths of “Bioshock Infinite” is how well it ties the payer to the in-game characters, forming a bond that every game strives to (but few manage to) capture.

Let’s move on to the sound department for the game. As with the other pieces of the game, Infinite sounds great. The sound effects (from guns to vigors) are fitting and give each weapon and special power a weighty feel in combat. The soundtrack is even more incredible, mixing sounds of the period with some nice touches that fit in with the story. Lastly, the voice acting is superb. Every character is wonderfully voiced (with the dialogue being enhanced by some excellent writing), with even minor characters and random NPCs on the streets of Columbia sounding great.

All in all, Bioshock Infinite deserves your time investment. Even if you aren’t a fan of FPS games, give it a shot. For fans of the previous games, this latest entry surpasses even the original Bioshock and has some nice surprises in store for series fans. The story, presentation, and game world combine to make this one of the best games of the generation. If you’ve played Infinite, let me know what you think – if not, what are you waiting for?

Story: 10/10

Graphics: 9.8/10

Sound: 9.7/10

Gameplay: 10/10

Final Score: 10/10

Frank Miller’s Follow-Up to Sin City – “A Dame to Kill For” Preview

“Sin City” was a highly stylized film. I love interesting visuals, and the ability of Frank Miller and company to capture the feel and look of his original graphic novels on the big screen was a sight to behold. Combined with a wealth of talent both in front of and behind the camera, “Sin City” was one hell of a ride. This year, Frank Miller will be releasing his follow-up, “A Dame to Kill For”. Needless to say, I am really looking forward to this one, with it being one of my most anticipated films of the year. I have a hard time imagining the film turning out poorly, as Miller captured every detail so perfectly in the original film. I am even hoping that in having experience with that first film, Miller and crew are able to surpass the quality of the original and bring another “Sin City” story to life. Keep on the lookout for this release this October, and be prepared for another thrilling experience in the world of “Sin City”.

Saying Goodbye To “The Office” – Scranton’s Wrap Party

Panorama - Office Wrap Party PNC Field

I’ve watched many television shows in my life, but few have ever really made me feel a part of them as much as “The Office”. I remember hearing about the show and watching its first season due to its setting in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Having grown up about 10 miles south from Scranton, this setting was quite familiar – yet, what I found was more than just this local flavor (inside jokes that local people catch on to, whether it be props, settings, or passing mentions to local establishments), I found a show full of true-to-life characters, witty writing, and an incredible cast that brought you back week after week as if you were a member of the staff of the fictional Dunder Mifflin Paper Company.There was something special about the show that always kept me connected (even with a decline in writing the last two seasons). With the show ending and season finale airing this week,what better way could there be to say goodbye to a show that I have enjoyed for 8 straight years now (one-third of my life) than to celebrate the finale with the cast in the setting of the fictitious office, Scranton, practically my own back yard?

Office Cast All Together

The cast sit at home plate discussing their characters, favorite moments, and their experience on the show.

The Wrap Party concluded its full day of festivities at PNC Field. I took my 15 minute drive up I-81 (a stone’s throw compared to the fans that came from Washington state, Canada, and England) and got my seat right in front of the cast’s chairs. As the big screen in left field aired various bloopers and interviews, the crowd waited anxiously for the arrival of their favorite cast. Once they began introducing the cast, the whole night really became a surreal experience. The amount of excitement throughout the packed stadium was unreal – and became even more unbelievable with a late surprise announcement. The cast who were in attendance (the vast majority of the show’s characters and creator Greg Daniels) stood at home plate while the announcement was made that a special guest was in attendance. Then, Steve Carell was introduced as his most popular character, Michael Scott. The whole stadium erupted. I have been to concerts, entertainment shows, and sporting events and have never been a part of a moment like that. It was just incredible…

The cast takes one final bow as they say farewell to the fans packed in Scranton's PNC Field.

The cast and crew take one final bow as they say farewell to the fans packed in Scranton’s PNC Field.

The night went on as the crew discussed some of their favorite moments and some more behind the scenes videos were shown (to the person sitting in front of me who felt the need to stand up, scream and dance every time a cast member said something – I have never wanted to Gorilla glue someone to a seat so bad in my entire life – you made yourself look obsessive and annoyed me and others in the process). Crazy teenage girl aside, the whole night at the field was fun in being able to share in some of the best series moments with the people who represent your favorite characters. With one final bow, the cast and crew said goodbye to a packed stadium full of fans in the town they fictionally lived in.

The best part of the cast, though, was how down to Earth they all are – they really love their fans. A perfect example of this was being able to go out after the Wrap Party and go to a local bar and get served your drink by Dwight (Rainn Wilson), Pam (Jenna Fischer), Jim (John Krasinski), and other cast members – getting to meet the people who you’ve watched on television for so long. In retrospect, the whole night was a truly incredible experience, one that I will always remember fondly when watching any re-runs or my boxed sets of the show. “The Office” remains one of my favorite television series ever (my favorite comedy), with its local touch over a perfectly relatable cast and setting, combined with some exceptional writing.

Dwight and Pam Bartending - Scranton Ale House

Rainn Wilson and Jenna FIscher (among others) serve drinks to fans at a local bar in downtown Scranton.

As a last note, don’t forget to check out the show’s two-hour final episode Thursday, May 16th, at 9/8c – they showed a 10 minute-long preview of the final hour-long episode, and it seems to be set to be a fitting end to such a great show – the writing is back in classic form. I’d love to hear from anyone else who loves “The Office” or was in attendance for the Wrap Party – let me know what you think about the show, its finale, and/or the Wrap Party in the comments.

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