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

“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.

Break of Reality – “Spectrum of the Sky” Album Review

Break of Reality album cover

By chance I happened to be listening to Pandora radio the other day (as much as I enjoy Pandora, I don’t often use it due to my vast music library) – and by chance, a song happened to come on that took me by surprise and didn’t let go. It was the title track of Break of Reality’s 2009 album, Spectrum of the Sky. It impressed me so much that I went home and purchased the album – I was not in the least bit disappointed.

Break of Reality are a four-piece cello group whose music I would describe as a mix of post-metal, classical, and progressive rock (they are often labeled as “cinematic rock”). To hear the style of music normally reserved for distorted guitars and heavy bass played on cello, with some tracks featuring drums, is completely refreshing. The group is extremely talented in terms of both writing and playing ability, something that allows them to really transform their style of music into a wholly unique sound.

Looking at the album, there are a few standout tracks, though every song deserves its playing time. The first is “The Accidental Death of Effie” (which you can listen to below). This track shifts between multiple completely different song sections, with layered rhythm patterns and some very nice melody lines. After the song had evolved into new parts multiple times, I looked at the time and realized I was less than two minutes into the four and a half-minute song. The constant shifting and progressive nature of the track make this one my personal favorite. Another one worth mentioning is “Che” – another heavy sounding, progressive track that deserves its own mention for an intense cello solo section. Lastly, the concluding track of the album, “Anodynia: IV”, has a really cool breakdown that sounds so unique being played on cellos. Honestly, the only negative I can think of regarding the above tracks and the others on the album is that since the whole of the music is played on cello, there is some lack of fullness at part – though the intricate structuring and wonderfully somber/haunting melodies more than make up for it.

Overall, I highly recommend Spectrum of the Sky to any fan of metal and classical music. Even more, I would recommend it to post-rock fans, as well, due to some nice structuring and progressions. Truly, I have not heard anything quite like Break of Reality, whose sound must be heard to understand. The group is incredibly talented, and I look forward to hearing more from them in the future.

Final Score: 8.0/10

Check out a live performance of “The Accidental Death of Effie” below:

9 Years Later, “Riddick” is Back

If you are familiar with the Riddick series of films, you know how long it has been since the second film The Chronicles of Riddick was released (about 9 years). After such a long wait, fans will be finally receive the next film in the series, simply titled Riddick, this Fall. Based on the short teaser trailer, it seems that, in the new entry, previous series director David Twohy will bring the spirit of both prior films and mesh them into one – there is the grand sci-fi adventure side of The Chronicles of Riddick combined with the tense, almost survival horror of Pitch Black. This combo should please fans of both films when Riddick releases on September 6th, and be an excellent continuation to a great series. Let’s just hope we don’t have to wait another 9 years for a potential next follow-up.

“Life of Pi” (2012) Review

Life of Pi poster

With all of the awards it received, along with its widespread critical acclaim, I’m sure many have at least seen previews for/heard about Life of Pi. As a film lover, I felt it was a duty of mine to see a film which took home four Academy Awards, despite my hesitance toward it. After having seen the film for myself, I must disagree with the majority of praise the film received – it seems to me that every year there is one film that receives exaggerated praise. This is not to say Life of Pi is a bad film, per se, but it is just not that great of one.

Life of Pi tells the tale of Pi, from his childhood, to his unbelievable (and by that I mean extremely, extremely coincidental) adventure at sea after being stranded by a shipwreck, to his adulthood. The tale is structured as a narrative told by the adult Pi to a youthful writer who was told Pi’s tale would make him believe in God. This structure and tale are wrapped around some “deep” themes and storytelling, something I, quite frankly, could not find in the film. Sure, there’s some symbolism here and there, and the ending tries to make the whole story into something seemingly deeply philosophical – this ending did honestly manage to somewhat save the plot from being tolerable to just decent for me, but still faltered by falling into the trap of over-explanation. Worse yet, there were some scenes that became almost comical due to their poor design (scenes that were meant to be serious). Still, the story manages to hit capture some decent moments, but there are too many flaws in the plot that keep it from being highly engaging.

With the plot faltering, Life of Pi has to fall back on its visuals to capture the viewer’s attention. Here is an area that the film largely succeeds in – it is absolutely stunning at times. The cinematography put together by Ang Lee and crew is excellent, with some exemplary CGI modeling and animation work. Despite the unbelievable tale being told, the film’s visuals manage to bring to life every detail. Still, at times the crew seemed to be trying to accomplish too much as various pieces of the film seemed slightly rough around the edges (a minor gripe for such great animation). Along with this, there were multiple scenes that failed to add anything to the plot and seemed to be presented only for the sake of showing off the films visual effects, causing these scenes to feel hollow and forced.

While "Life of Pi" may be visually ..., the film never amounts to much in ...

While “Life of Pi” may be visually stunning, the film never amounts to much in terms of its story and characters.

With the visuals earning their praise, another area I found failing to live up to its accolades was the soundtrack (awarded Best Original Score at the Academy Awards). I really didn’t notice any pieces that really stood out to me, and overall, it felt like a pretty standard soundtrack for this adventurous type of film – in other words, it didn’t enhance the film, or even really make its presence known at many points. Despite this, I do have to again give credit to the sound crew for the effects and mixing for the film, as the animals, storms, and other complex pieces sounded great.

Life of Pi produced an oddly similar experience to Slumdog Millionaire for me (a film that received such great praise, but I found very lacking). For all its complex visual work, the film lacks where it matters most – its plot. It may be a magnificent visual feast, but this is one adventure I did not really enjoy. I am sure there are moviegoers that Life of Pi will appeal to, but there was too much style, and too little substance (actual substance, not superficial substance) for me.

Final Score: 4.8/10

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Life of Pi just didn’t do much for me as a film. I’m no movie snob, and I realize that, but I enjoy most movies from animated to sci-fi to action and everything in between, but this movie was almost laughable. However, the only really enjoyable parts of Life of Pi were the visuals and many CGI scenes. Some of these scenes were absolutely breathtaking and beautiful, but really were not necessary for this film, seeming to be just trying to distract the audience from the unbelievable plot and story line of the film. Still, it did catch me a few times with some emotions scenes, especially Richard Parker, but probably only because I’m a female animal lover who hated to even imagine the torture that animal faced (even if it was fictitious).

I was upset that this film had received so much praise and many awards this season, that I had to see it. After seeing it, I feel even worse about the hype it received. There were much better films out this past year that deserved those awards over this film. I’ll give the film praise for the visual effects, but story line, soundtrack, and acting were just not at the level I would expect for such a film so highly acclaimed. You can watch it for yourself and see what you think, but don’t forget to let us know in the comments!

Second Opinion Score: 4.0/10

“Anna Karenina” (2012) Review

Anna Karenina Poster

One thing becomes quickly apparent when viewing Anna Karenina – the visual presentation is absolutely stunning. Still, visuals alone cannot make a movie (see Avatar or Life of Pi) and Anna Karenina succeeds on multiple levels to really showcase how to put together a great film. Sure, the basis of the film may be a love triangle story, but I can assure you that this is not just a romance film – it is much more.

As I had mentioned, the story of Anna Karenina focuses on a love triangle between the title character, her husband, and a military officer. This is contrasted against the story of a young man who has fallen for a young woman. For a plot centered on romance, there is a fair amount of depth to the plot, largely due to the excellent writing and symbolism used. This raises the plot to a level well above a romance story and into a great character-driven film. As the characters begin to interact in more tense situations (aided by some excellent acting from the talented Keira Knightly, always excellent Jude Law, and a talented cast of young actors/actresses), the viewer is drawn further into the film’s web, connecting you closer with the story and keeping you firmly engaged. Lastly, while the film follows a fairly straightforward path, there are some nice twists and turns (including some nice surprises) that keep the film from feeling clichéd.

Plot aside, Anna Karenina deserves a ton of praise for its visuals. Every piece that goes into the visual presentation has been painstakingly detailed, resulting in an incredible show for the viewer. The set design is stunning, with the film taking place in a theater setting and sets shifting constantly as the characters walk from area of the stage/rafters to another. The moving set design was a great choice, and one the use of the stage for the presentation ties in perfectly with one of the film’s main themes. In addition, the costume work and cinematography are colorful and brighten the stage, while some intricately choreographed scenes and character movements lend another layer to the film’s already great visuals. I could go on further, but I will stop now and just say that this is a masterfully constructed presentation that perfectly fits the story and themes, and goes a long way to enhance the film as a whole.

The visuals in the film are absolutely stunning, and I cannot praise the set design enough.

The visuals in the film are absolutely stunning, and I cannot praise the set design enough.

The presentation is already being a highlight due to the visuals, but that should not overshadow the soundtrack for the film. The musical pieces for the film are very well composed and stand out as another key piece of the film’s high points. Each scene is even further enhanced by this wonderful, classically rooted score. This soundtrack when put together with the aforementioned visual design even further cements Anna Karenina as such a perfectly presented film.

When compared against some of the best films of last year, Anna Karenina can certainly hold its own. It may not quite reach the heights of those other top films due to some scenes moving too quick with complexly constructed dialogue, and the somewhat slowly developing plot, but the overall presentation is about as good as it gets. I am by no means a romance film fan, but I very much enjoyed Anna Karenina due to its execution. I can easily recommend it to most movie fans, especially those who are fans of theater presentations (who should enjoy the set design and presentation even more). Give Anna Karenina a chance, and it will prove itself as much more than what some might quickly brush off as just a fancy romance film.

Final Score: 8.6/10

“My Neighbor Totoro” (1988) Review

My Neighbor Totoro cover

Studio Ghibli is one of the most imaginative studios in the film business today. With Hayao Miyazaki at the director’s helm, they have created some of the best animated films out there (Spirited Away is still my favorite animated film). After recently starting Ni No Kuni: The Wrath of the White Witch for the Playstation 3 (for which Studio Ghibli helped with the visual work), I’ve been eager to get back into seeing some of the Ghibli films I had missed. My first adventure was with My Neighbor Totoro – a film that bears Ghibli’s mark proudly.

My Neighbor Totoro is a much more light-hearted film compared to some other Miyazaki works. The film focuses on two sisters and their father who move to the countryside and begin to notice some creatures that others can’t see. The plot may be fairly simple, but its execution is wonderful, with every character having a distinct and nicely developed personality. These characters are the heart and soul of My Neighbor Totoro, and the audience can instantly connect with the film’s cast. When a film can develop and cause the audience to be connected to characters that lack any true dialogue, there is a high level of praise that should be given to it.

Where My Neighbor Totoro also succeeds is in its creativity. The animation for the film shows some age (the film is 25 years old), but it is still so imaginatively constructed and has so many little touches that it is still a beautiful film. The animation brings to life the intricately constructed and highly creative worlds that Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli are known for. I once read that it takes about one month for the Studio to produce 5 minutes of theatrical quality animation, and these kinds of elaborately constructed worlds and characters show why that is the case (and how much care Studio Ghibli puts into every frame of animation). Though this film may not feature the grandiose visions of some other Ghibli films, it still brings its viewers back to a child-like sense of wonder and imagination (bonus points for the Cat Bus).

As with all Studio Ghibli films, "My Neighbor Totoro" features incredibly imaginative characters and animation.

As with all Studio Ghibli films, “My Neighbor Totoro” features incredibly imaginative characters and animation.

To enhance the animation and story, there is a wonderfully composed soundtrack throughout the film. From its thematic pieces (which feature some nice melodies) to its set pieces, My Neighbor Totoro is further enhanced by this music work – I remember my fiancé humming along to the main the at one point. In speaking of the soundtrack, it should also be noted that the voice work and sound effects for the film are nicely done as well, making each character sound natural.

In all, My Neighbor Totoro is a characteristically Studio Ghibli film. Its more lighthearted story makes it a perfect fit for both adults and children alike. Still, the sense of wonder at the artistic worlds that they create is replicated by so few animated films. Know that going into My Neighbor Totoro you will get a high-quality, and highly original animated film, and allow Miyazaki to take you on another entertaining adventure.

Final Score: 9.1/10

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Second Opinion:

I agree whole-heartedly with Will’s review. My Neighbor Totoro was a heartfelt film that made you truly immerse into the lives and surroundings of the characters. You connect with the family instantly and could feel the many emotions of the film almost first-handed. I also loved the imaginative forest creatures who truly brought the film to life and made you laugh, almost cry and wish you could ride a cat bus in real life!

The film had a very sweet and imaginative story that any aged audience could enjoy. You would never guess that the film itself is 25 years old. The imagery, soundtrack and story were just as relevant and enjoyable today. I’m so happy that Disney decided to localize Miyazaki’s work overseas and allow it to get to a wider audience, one that it truly deserves. This is one of just many of Miyazaki’s work, and one that I would definitely recommend for children and adults alike. Let us know if you’ve seen My Neighbor Totoro or any of Miyazaki’s other films and what you think of them.

Second Opinion Score: 7.8/10

Can “Elysium” Reach the Heights of “District 9”?

District 9 has earned a spot in my collection of great science fiction films. It was showered with critical praise upon release and was a refreshing entry into the sci-fi genre. Now, director Neill Blomkamp is following-up his incredible first work with Elysium, a film revolving around a decrepite Earth and a space station paradise. As in District 9, Blomkamp has made a tension here between two groups, the group of priveliged humans living on the space station and those stuck on Earth – a class struggle instead of an interracial one. With Matt Damon starring, I have high hopes for another epic sci-fi tale. Judging by the trailer, Elysium seems to be even grander in scope and its views than District 9, with a buffet of striking visuals. The views of the ravaged Earth in the trailer look incredible, and I cannot wait to take another adventure with this talented director when Elysium releases August 9th.

Zack Snyder’s Turn to Make a Superhero Blockbuster

With the recent trend toward superhero blockbusters, Zack Snyder is tossing his hat into the ring. I highly enjoyed Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy, but I still have to say that outside of that, I haven’t really been swept away by any other recent superhero films. Sure, I enjoyed the “X-Men” trilogy and “The Avengers”, but I didn’t find either of them a must-see experience. Yet, I am quite interested in Zack Snyder’s “Man of Steel”. Snyder is a polarizing director – sure, everyone enjoyed “300”, but his most recent effort, “Sucker Punch” drew some very mixed and poor reviews (I, personally, enjoyed it). With his past effort in “Watchmen”, I feel that Superman is in highly capable hands (as does Christopher Nolan, who is helping write and produce the film) and am highly anticipating this release. Are you excited for “Man of Steel”, or is “Iron Man 3” more your thing?

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