Monday, May 23, 2011

Video Game Review: "Dragon Age II" by David Pretty

 All Hail, Champions of Kirkwall!

The number of role playing video games I've begun and then abandoned is numerous.  So, what was it about Dragon Age: Origins that kept me feverishly playing though to the very end and left me anticipating it's sequel like Scooby-Do for one of his eponymous snacks?

To me Dragon Age: Origins was the perfect storm of RPG evolution.  It had all the party-building dynamics of the Bioware's original classic Baldur's Gate.  The personalities of your fellow adventures were strong and varied as in KOTOR, but unlike that game, the combat was more real-time and tactical versus the turn-based tedium of Final Fantasy VII.  The production design of the game was beautiful, such as in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, but without the Alice In Wonderland-style high fantasy of it's goofy expansion pack Shivering Isles.  And most importantly, the difficulty scaled nicely, unlike in Fallout 3 where some of the grossly-overpowered special abilities made the endgame such a cakewalk that I became bored with it.      

The alchemy the designers used to brew up Dragon Age: Origins in such perfect measure never fails too transport me to nerdvana.  So much so that I feel as if should be collecting a check as an unwitting consultant.  I loved the min/maxing of equipment, the graphics, the controls, the creature design, as well the distinct personalities of my fellow as well as their clever banter.  I also liked the moral and ethical complexities at work in the game.  Try as you might, there was absolutely no way to keep everyone in your vast sphere of influence happy.

So, after a relatively speedy two month development process, the game's sequel, simply titled DragonAge II was released in March 2011.  I finally completed the game and I wanted to share my thoughts.  First, here's the game's high-octane trailer...

By the way, you actually get to fight that horny motherfucker, and let me tell ya, folks...he ain't no Darth Maul-style house o' cards.

It's during the character creation process that a felt the first threat of possible disappointment.  Unlike Origins, I couldn't pick a character of a different race, like a dwarf or elf.  There were only human options, and of this, only three-quarters of the classic archetypes normally found in most self-respecting RPG's were present: the fighter, the rogue and the mage.

But my disappointment quickly turned to feelings of guilt over being two-faced.  After all, in the past I'd rarely ever cursed my RPG avatar with the body of a drunken, capricious, cranky, midget and, frankly, I'd rather staple my nuts to a log then play the fantasy equivalent of an emo hippie tree-hugger.  So, really, I had nothing to bitch about. 
I began the game with the class I seem to always default to: the fighter.  I guess I always pick fighters because, I've always secretly wanted to be the dude with no neck that no one trifles with.  The sort of guy who, if he ever witnessed a girl being verbally abused by her asshole boyfriend, could conceivably pop the douchebag's head like a zit.

Anyhoo, I put my newly minted scrapper (who I'd christened "Gareth") through his paces in the game's extended prologue, which sees your family fleeing the destruction of Ostagar in the war-torn nation of Ferelden as depicted in the first game.  En route to sanctuary in Kirkwall, you hook up with the square-jawed no-nonsense fighter Aveline and her wounded husband Ser Wesley.  At one point during our flight, we're surrounded by enemies and it's only through the intervention of the previous game's magical wild card Flemeth do we reach our virtual Promised Land.  So far, so good.

But as soon as we reached the gates Kirkwall, I felt compelled to switch classes.  Aveline seemed more then capable to be the party's tank (King Tiger, to be exact) and the group needed a Rogue.

Besides, I'd passed by a couple of tantalizing locked chests that I couldn't get into.  Why do the designers tempt the Curious George in me like that?     

I rebooted my efforts as a ranged Rogue (partially modeled after my current D&D character) and instantly I was pleased by my decision.  My re-constituted Gareth (hey, what can I say, I'm lazy?) was opening those chests with a breeze and nicely supplementing Aveline's hack-slashery and sister Bethany's fire-flingery with my own trademarked hail of death-rain.

Once your party gains entrance to Kirkwall the game really begins in earnest.  I loved that Gareth starts the out with barely two dimes to rub together.  I've always loved the initial struggle at the start of most RPG's: the challenge to outfit your poor squishy character as best you can to avoid an untimely demise.  In fact, just as soon as I feel like I've got the best equipment and stats (the usual tell here is that you start to mow down monsters like weeds) I feel that there's nothing to strive for and my attentions start to wane.  It's like the video game version of a Monty Haul D&D campaign ("Google" it, kids).

So I really liked that, at least in the first act, young Gareth Hawke is the equivalent of a Dickensian street urchin, just trying to make ends meet and support his sister, moms and (to a lesser extent) his pervy, deadbeat uncle who's frittered away all of the family fortune.

Alas, just by talking to small handful of people, Hawke's Blackberry soon becomes choked with quests.  Which brings me to another thing I love about this franchise: the quests are quick, do-able and plentiful.  Play this game for fifteen minutes and it'll provide you with a tremendous sense of falsely-inflated accomplishment.  You won't even bat an eyelash when you see the hideous amount of time you've sunk into it, time which you could have used for such frivolous pursuits as writing the great American novel, discovering the cure for cancer, figuring out how Israelis and Palestinians can co-exist in harmony or teaching a squirrel how to play chess.

It's not long before you'll find yourself in frequent combat, and I have to admit, the game is a helluva lot easier then it's predecessor.  Perhaps this is due to the fact that I went into this one knowing the basic tactical priciples that I had to learn the hard way in the first game.  In fact, I like that the game rewards players for fighting smart, and using the benefits of movement, terrain and good co-ordination to tremendous effect. 

Although it's a point of pride for me to never play video games on Easy, but I almost had to eat those words in Origins.  In fact, in my first few tentative scraps there were a few "poopidy-do's" and "fiddle-dees" as I suffered several spectacular TPK's or had half of my party groggily get to their feet at the end of a tilt sporting dislocated jaws, ruptured spleens and sucking chest wounds.  I distinctly recall clearing one vendor after another out of all of their Injury Kits and Healing Potions and then panicking when failed to restock them five minutes later.

But then I realized: "Wow, oh my God, the designers actually created smart enemy A.I. here!  The monsters are actually going after members of the party that they don't have to attack with a can opener in order to get to the soft, tasty bits bits underneath.  I can't keep rushing into these rooms willy-nilly!  I have to use my...*GASP!* brain..." 

So, as soon as I started to play tactically (creating choke points in doorways, keeping fighters up front, pausing the action every few seconds to check everyone's status, having a healing mage in the party at all times, concentrating attacks on one minion at a time, taking out enemy sorcerers immediately...etc) then I finally began to stockpile a few poultici and come out of most skirmishes lookin' pretty!

I love games that force me to learn and adapt and Dragon Age: Origins  did that in spades.  Regrettably, fore-armed with my bag of tricks, there were very few times in the sequel in which I had any real challenge on Normal difficulty.  In fact, the designer's only real counter-move was to let enemies inexplicably rappel down from the ceiling to create chaos behind my closely-guarded lines.  Now, I can accept this if I'm being attacked by roof-dwelling spiders, but I had to bark a reflexive "Awwww, c'mon!" at the T.V. when bandits jumped in behind me like rejects from Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark

Having said that, combat is even more fun to watch this time out.  The character animations, flashy powers and spell effects all convey a genuine feeling of chaos and spectacle.  Even after hundreds of battle, I still rush giddily into combat, trying to "crush my enemies, see them driven before me and listen to lamentations of their women" as quickly, efficiently and spectacularly as possible.

The other thing that was kinda odd was more restrictions in party equipment micromanagement.  Whether you like to admit it or not, this aspect of video games is kinda like playing dress-up with dolls: except with plate-mail, maces and poisoned daggers.  In Origins if you were playing a mage and found an wearable suit of heavy armor, you could at least pass it on to the party's enforcer.  In DAII, you can outfit your fellow peeps with weapons, accessories and potions, but they apparently draw the line at being told to get nekkid and wear "somefin' pretty" that you just stripped off a corpse in a cave.

Kinda frustrating but it does succeed in making these character seem more willful and not so much paper dolls who are just there for your pervy amusement.  Hey, I'm lookin' at you, buddy!  Keep both yer hands where I can see 'em!

The more restrictive nature of equipment allocation is counterbalanced somewhat by a fantastic star-rating system that gives players an at-a-glace idea if that Belt of Wicked-Awesomeness you just picked up is better then the Sash of Bitchin' Superiority.  Now, instead of going into each item, drilling down on the stats, flipping back and forth, casting bones, and reading tea leaves, the game designers give you a hint to an item's relative value so you can quickly equip it or throw it in the quick-sale junk pile.  At the very least, little time savers like this get you back in the action quicker.   

Eventually you gather together a veritable Rogues Gallery of allies, followers and potential fuck-buddies.  For those of you out there who still think that your co-adventurers in Origins were more interesting, then I'm afraid that you are both wrong and stupid.  Go away, Andraste hates you.

Just kidding, I actually kinda felt the same way at first but by game's end they'd really grown on me.  Here's my (hopefully) non-spoilery take on the characters:


Aveline is like that chick in university that worked at the security desk who you always suspected could cut a junk of wood in six minutes flat.  She got a pretty sizable stick up her sphincter but is still very loyal and stalwart.  She does get her nose out of joint somewhat if you side too frequently with the mages, but comes back around if you've exhibited at least a modicum of human decency.  She may know her way around a battlefield, but she's humorously inept in romantic situations.  Her ability to (dare I say it) draw aggro (Ewwww, I feel dirty...) is clutch.  Just wind her up, send her into a monster mosh pit while the rest of the party slings arrows, spells, anvils, spitballs and sarcasm.  She is the best fighter you can have, IMHO.  Plus, if she's combined with Isabella in the party, get ready for some side-splitting dialogue between the two of them.


Varric is pretty progressive for a dwarf.  He's not a melee fighter, he doesn't speak in a bad Scottish accent and all of his facial hair seems to have migrated to his chest.  He carries a crossbow with him named Bianca which I'm pretty sure he has sex with on a regular basis.  He's laconic, funny, easy-going and his ass-clown brother Bartrand is a major story lynch pin for the first part of the game.  Since my own character filled the Rogue slot for most of the game, Varric wasn't around nearly enough.  The promise of having him as a full-time party member makes for a compelling reason right there for me to re-play the game.   


Now, since Aveline was my primary fighter, this broody bitch barely saw much action, which really doesn't upset me very much.  As an escapee/amnesiac/guinea pig/science experiment/Black Ops patsy who's body has been laced with a substance that augments his natural abilities, I saw the character as a ginormous rip-off of a certain Canadian-born, beer-swillin', tough-talkin', Japanese chick-bangin' X-Man who also has an affinity for sharp things.  "Hey, Fenris!  A guy named Logan called...he's want his entire shtick back!"  Plus, he's also a pansy elf so that's one major demerit in the whole "Hey, look at me, I'm a bad, bad apple and I'm rotten to the core!" assertion.  Fuckin' ponce.  


Bethany is the hottest chick in the game, which is regretful, 'cuz she's also very closely related to you.  Is it bad that  I was cursing the game designers for not including a "Do Your Sister" option on the conversation wheel?  Sorry, but I gotta call 'em like I see 'em and I really wanted to get all Luke up in her Leia.  Bethany seems to specialize in 'splodey magic, which dove-tails nicely with Anders's ability to bake Healin' Muffins. Speaking of screaming at the designers, well...I won't spoil it, but they do something with her that just pisses me off.  Suffice to say that she made such an impression on me that I constantly (and one might say mindlessly) sided with the Mages against the Templars even when it didn't make much sense for me to do so.  "Hey, sis. I'll catch you later..." *Wink*


Isabela is a privateer Rogue with bosoms that could easily give shelter to a small troupe of very appreciative Boy Scouts.  Once you dip her in Javex for a bit, every red-blooded male (and likely about 10% of women) are gonna want to take a tumble with this dusky jewel.  Again, since I was the active Rogue in the party she didn't see a lot of game time.  In fact, I kept her active just long enough to bang her like a screen door and then throw her away like a used Kleenex.  

Actually, I can't even lie about that.  I'm such a pathetic sap that, even in the video game world, I tried to start up a relationship with her post-coitus but she kept pushing me away because I was "too nice" for her.  Wow, talk about life imitating art.  In combat she's a bit of a mixed bag (pun not intended) who has a tendency to rush in, draw DPS (Eeeeeew, another dirty WOW term), get ganked and gobble up Injury Kits like Oprah eats turkey burgers.     

Still, it's fun to have her in the party just to watch her try and dry-hump all the male characters and solicit mutterings of disgust from aspirin-betwixt-her-legs Aveline.  


Merrill is a elven mage/contrarian/milksop who always looks like she needs someone to wipe her nose.  In a desperate (and failed) bid to try and make herself less of a loser, Merrill decided in her infinite wisdom to embrace Blood Magic, a type of sorcery that specializes in demonic consultation, hellfire and rank sarcasm.  When she isn't morphing into a suit of Rock Armor or hurling Arcane Bolts, Merrill likes to indirectly cause the deaths of people with her ethically questionable arts n' crafts projects.  None of this really prevents her from being a sniffly, weepy nebbish who shows more concern for the unkempt state of her flat versus the fact that she's tampering with EVIL, UNHOLY FORCES.  Stupid bim.  

After being used then tossed aside by Isabela (the National Bicycle of Thedas) Merrill became my inadvertent rebound fling.  At one point I made the mistake of picking the "Heart" dialogue option and the next thing I know the needy bitch is all over me like...well, like Oprah on a turkey burger.  And let me tell ya, guys, this chick consistently brings the crazy from there on in.  The next thing I know, she's moving into my crib, racking up credit card bills for flashy new duds and accusing Bodahn's barefoot in the head son of trying to touch her goodies. 

God, I soooo wanted to hook up with my sister instead.  

But, in all fairness, Merrill is kinda sweet in her own neurotic way.  She's also better in a scrap then Isabela and makes a good second banana to Bethany.  As such I can live with her many, many, many peccadilloes.

Anders is a jackass.  'Nuff said.

So, as the eventual Champion of Kirkwall, you need to co-ordinate this wildly disparate band of misfits into a cohesive fighting unit.  You face several challenges together including "Spelunking 4 Cash" in the spiderlicious Deep Roads, trying to tamp down an uprising from the Qunari (led by the Arishok, aka Mr. Horny in the trailer), and trying to mediate a bitter dispute between the unpredictable Mages and the letter-of-the-law Templars.

Now, none of this is as world-reaching or as epic as the subject matter in the first game, but frankly, I really dug the more realistic, low-fi story.  I can imagine the game designer's collective relief after the powers that be told them that they didn't have to come up with yet another tired "end of the realm" scenario.  I liked this entry's Jack Kerouac "stream of consciousness" approach and the fact that it just about an average schmo who achieves fame just by trying to make his way in the world and do a few good deeds.   

This does come with a pretty big visual demerit, however.  Although the lush environments you explore during your travels are well designed and sometimes quite spectacular, you're still based in and around Kirkwall for most of the game.  As such, the game tends to recycle the same dungeons, caves and assorted generic underground lairs over and over again at different times.  This certainly cuts down on the game's visual variety and eventually makes things seem a bit stale.  

The challenges provided generally scale quite nicely, regrettably, this doesn't extend to the boss battles.  For example, my 12-round, mid-game donnybrook with the Arishok was like trying to run the world's most grueling biathlon whilst and at the same time being chased by a ten-foot tall goat-headed psychopath wielding an axe the size of a manta ray.  Frankly, no other challenge (save perhaps the High Dragon battle), comes close to the feat of endurance required to overcome this challenge.  Frankly it's a bit of a letdown when the big climactic final confrontation is a veritable cake walk in comparison.
Is Dragon Age II better then it's precursor?  No.  Is it still absolutely amazing?  Absosmurfly!  Most of this boils down to how much care and attention to detail that's been lavished on character design.  The dialogue of your companions is memorable, smart and often uproariously funny.  The voice acting is perhaps the best I've ever heard in a video game.  Their decisions either make you fall in love with them or engender barely-restrained rage.  All of this adds up to overseeing an odd, dysfunctional virtual family that you just can't wait to revisit just to witness their reactions to the next set of developments.

This even extends to you own character.  Since now we're all playing slightly tweaked variations of "Sirrah Hawke" in Dragon Age II , our own avatars are smack-dab right in the middle of the conversational action.  We're in all the cut-scenes, we're constantly referenced by name and our responses (kindly, aggressive or wise-assed) can be heard in the exchanges and really effect what follows.  Frankly, I didn't mind sacrificing some customization in order to feel better integrated into the action.

It's a great game and it's a virtual guarantee that I'll be going back to explore the first one courtesy of the expansion pack Awakenings which I somehow telegraphed on my first pass.  I'm also sure I'll re-play DAII just for the privilege of witnessing a different group dynamic and getting the satisfaction of murdering Anders in his sleep.   

Of course it was good! 

I finished it, didn't I?  

out of five. Tilt: up.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Movie Review: "Thor" by David Pretty

Forsooth!  Greetings, Mine Movie-Centric Midgardians!

Despite the fact that I was a huge Marvel Comics fan as a kid (not to mention genuinely pre-disposed to learning about the Norse mythos) I never really dug the character of Thor.  I guess it was because he was a bit too much like Superman: too powerful, too perfect and too, well, god- like.  A figure that was certainly more difficult to relate to then, say, a Spider-Man, Batman or Wolverine.

Nevertheless, when a friend of mine loaned me a series of comics dealing with the Norse prophecy of Ragnarok (which rendered Thor's bones glass-brittle and presaged his demise at the hands of the Midgard Serpent), something with the character finally clicked for me.  At last Thor finally seemed vulnerable to something, even if it was just to his own fate.

It's good that the film-makers realized this early on and took definitive steps to address it.  In fact, although the titular character spends a sizable chunk of the film looking buff and able to handle himself in a scrap, he's also squarely mired in the undeniable trappings of mortality.

Likely a lot of the credit for this has got to go to director Kenneth Branagh.  Being a former actor, I'm sure he knew that his cast needed as much hubris and challenge as possible to give them (as well as the audience) something to smash their glasses of mead over.  This comes at the expense of the sort of incessant and mindless action that typifies most seasonal Hollywood blockbusters.  Frankly, I'm relieved because this actually might ensure that people will still want to see this film a few years down the road after the hype-machine has blown over.         

Having said that, it's very hard to get a sense of this in the film's slick-looking trailer:

Okay, I know all the crazy spectacle on display there doesn't really convey a lot of the script's humanity, but I assure you, True Believers, it's in there!

The flick begins with a preamble introducing impossibly-hot astrophysicist Jane Foster (the ever-present Natalie Portman) and her scientific team which includes Dr. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) and the winsome Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings). While chasing a crazy atmospheric disturbance they very nearly turn the exiled and disoriented God of Thunder into an Aryan hood ornament.

We then flash back to see how Goldilocks got to this point. Anthony Hopkins (a stellar choice as Odin, the "All-Father") gets us up to speed with a narration that explains how the Asgardians defeated a race of cruel Frost Giants led by the incongruously-named Laufey (Colm Feore). The giants were intent on conquering several planes of existence, including our own Big Blue Marble.  After the Asgardians lay their enemies low, they repossess the Casket of Ancient Winters which is key to their power.

Fast forward a thousand years later and Odin, now weary and seeking rest in his trademark state of slumber, is prepared to install Thor as his successor.  The ceremony is interrupted, however, when the Frost Giants stage a commando raid but fail to retrieve their artifact of power.  As pissed by the interruption of his big day as he is by the impudence of the attack, Thor decides to take the fight to the Giants against the will of the All-Father.  He enlists the aid of his trickster sibling Loki (Tom Hiddleston) as well as four legendary allies including Fandral (Joshua Dallas), Hogun (Tadanobu Asano), Volstagg (Ray Stevenson) and Sif (Jaimie Alexander) to help him stomp a mud-hole in the Giant's collective asses.

But as if their chilly oversized hosts are expecting their arrival, the Asgardian strike team quickly finds itself in over their helmeted heads. It's only through the intervention of Odin do our heroes escape by the skin of their pearly-white teeth.  In a fit or rage, Odin strips Thor of his powers, sends his hammer Mjolnir hurtling to Earth and then deposits his son right in the path of an onrushing meteorological scramble van.  He also installs his crafty adoptive son Loki as the interim ruler of Asgard.

After nearly smooshing Goldilocks, Jane and company bring him back to town where we're treated to some genuinely funny fish-out-of-water bits as the disposed Odinson copes with the loss of his powers, comes to appreciate the finer points of caffeinated beverages and tries to requisition a horse from a pet shop.      

Meanwhile, S.H.I.E.L.D., the shadowy government agency we last saw in Iron Man 2, shows up at the site where local rednecks have been trying to heft Thor's hammer to a chorus of quadruple hernias and destroyed flatbeds.  They seal the weapon off in a hermetically-sealed insta-base, y'know, the same kind of pre-fab structure that they sealed E.T. up in back in the 80's.

When Thor gets wind of the hammer's convenient proximity (thankfully it came down in Arizona and not in Scandinavia, huh?) he breaks into the base but is horrified to discover that he can't lift the hammer either.  Oh how, oh how will a disgraced Thunder God atone for his past sins and become worthy enough to wield Mjolnir once again?

The film proceeds to answer this, as well as document Loki's concurrent Machiavellian machinations, over the course of the next hour and change.  During this time we really don't witness anything particularly revelatory or original in this story but it's plotted with confidence, the dialogue is serviceable and the performances are uniformly good.

Speaking of, if Chris Hemsworth didn't exist, I believe that the film's producers would have to have commissioned his construction in some sort of genetic factory run by Lockheed Martin (all this, presumably because no-one had the guts to kidnap Alexander "Erik" Skarsgard from the set of True Blood.)  Indeed, I'm sure the female contingent in the audience (not to mention a disproportionate amount of males as well) echoed Darcy's sentiments when she mutters in a daze: "Yknow, for a crazy homeless person, he's pretty cut."  In addition to having abs you could grate a bowling ball on, Hemsworth's showing is filled with gregarious, charismatic confidence.  He even acquits himself very nicely in his few emotional scenes, such as when Loki visits him in lock up and lies about their father's untimely demise.

He's also given a lot of personality nuances to work with, relatively speaking.  This Thor starts off as an insolent,  hot-headed, vainglorious douchebag who has to learn temperance, self-sacrifice and nobility.  Only then will he be worthy enough to recover his hammer and the mantle of the Thunder God.  As I said before, this path to redemption isn't particularly mind-blowing, but thanks to the charisma of the principal actors, the ride is quite enjoyable.

And thank the Gods that Hemsworth wasn't ask to use Thor's traditional and borderline goofy "ancientspeak" which would have seen him deliver such inadvertently funny lines as "Verily! Thor, Odinson, shall vanquish the foul beasts with mine sacred hammer Mjolnir!"  Yeah, that would have gotten old in about five minutes...

I've gotta say, though, I feel that the film's M.V.P. performance has to go to Tom Hiddleston as Loki.  Even going into the film knowing what sort of nogoodnik the script would turn this character into, I was still sucked in by his proficient fibbery and subtle, yet effective, ability to steer events towards his desires.  He's genuinely slippery and devious without being over the top and I'm delighted that he's been tapped to be a foil for The Avengers next year.    

Anthony Hopkins just seems like no-brainer casting to me.  He's the kind of guy who could project a commanding air even while reading excerpts from The Rules According to J-Woww.  The only other person I could think of that could possibly have made for a better Odin is Max Von Sydow after a month's worth of weight gain powder.  Frankly, I'm just pleased that the script actually gave him something pivotal to do.

As for the film's mortal contingent, Natalie Portman is fun to watch, as always.  Her deliveries are often inordinately thoughtful and I quite enjoyed her "blink or you'll miss it" expressions or quirky line readings.  The one thing the script does, which is almost verboten now in modern films, is show Jane get flustered in Thor's presence.

I think it's rather brave that the script isn't afraid to depict this supposedly brilliant astrophysicist acting like a dorky fourteen year old girl when the Thunder God is in her midst.  It's an undeniably honest moment that, to me, doesn't denigrate the character, but actually makes her seem more real.  In a more cliched film, she'd be an Ice Queen until the last reel when she inexplicably starts making out with him.      

As a side note, occasionally Natalie's own thunder gets stolen by the super-cute Kat Dennings as Darcy.  Every once and awhile screenwriters Ashley Miller, Zach Stentz and Don Payne allow her to pop in with some comedic aside just to remind us that she's still there, even if the script has lamentably dispensed with her.  Rounding out the cast, Stellan Skarsgård brings us some Norse street credibility and also gets an added bump of importance in an intriguing post-credits sequence.  The Asgardian warriors are also well-represented with Ray Stevenson (the best thing in the the otherwise turd-like Punisher: War Zone) standing out as the gregarious and gluttonous Volstagg.  

But unfortunately, all is not well in the state of Asgard.  In fact, the almost entirely CGI-rendered realm is often woefully cartoonish-looking.  Although the film-makers get props for not making the Bifrost Bridge look like an emblem for next year's San Francisco Gay Pride Parade, the design and execution of Asgard (as well as the Frost Giant's realm of Jotunheim) is consistently murky, dark, joyless and cluttered-looking.

I also thought that a lot of the costumes looked pretty crappy, just a few steps up from a kid's Halloween outfit.  I really wish the film's production designers had gone with a more organic feel.  It gives the world of Asgard and it's inhabitants a vaguely sci-fi look that I thought was tonally inappropriate.  Mercifully, the effects do come through when they're really needed, such as during the Warrior's scrap with Loki's attack dog, the Destroyer.  In fact, when Thor is re-united with his beloved hammer the audience feels a giddy thrill as we get to witness the full extent of our hero's ass-kicking potential.

Even if the film's visual quotient is pretty weak sometimes, the film is strong enough where it counts: in the self-assured story, good performances and the redemptive conclusion.  Although the script's sense of inevitability come across as a bit too conventional for some, I though it oddly comforting.  Kinda like the inevitable march of destiny that a lot of the original ancient myths used as their own bread and butter.

I guess the highest praise I can give to Thor is that the film stands a good arm's length away from the childish disaster that it could have been.  In fact, the film's deliberate pace, investment in its character development and full-blooded performances make it a refreshingly substantial summer actioner.  

   Tilt: up.  

Friday, May 13, 2011

Movie Review: "The Book of Eli" by David Pretty

Greetings, Movie Mutants!

For some reason, I've been watching a lot of films recently that proudly wear their influences on their sleeve. Some, like Underworld, take their inspirations and build on them to create a reasonably original addition to the fantasy/sci-fi oeuvre.  Many others, however, lazily trowel on a second helping of "been there/done that" and don't even bother to come up with anything new or substantial.

Which brings me to The Book of Eli.  Since we learn right away that the film is set in a ruined, post-apocalyptic world, instantly we get shades of the Mad Max series, Children of Men and a slew of lesser imitators.  But what gives you hope is the presence of the visually ambitious Hughes Brothers in the director's-seat-built-for-two.   

Sorry, but I love these guys.  Although they played fast and loose with the original source material of Alan Moore's From Hell, they still turned in a thought-provoking and visually compelling rendition of that tale. Yes, I'll confess that I'm predisposed to buy what these guys are selling, but, hey, I also used to say that about Neil Marshall and Alex Proyas...

A bold and creative visual stamp is ultimately what will allow a film like this to rise above it's creaky premise. Keep that in mind as you watch the film's trailer:

Pretty friggin' cool, huh?  It's like Fallout: The Motion Picture...

The film begins in a shattered, desiccated forest where ash falls like snowflakes.  A figure resembling the killer from My Bloody Valentine waits patiently in a camouflaged bivouac as a hairless cat enters the frame, sniffs at an abandoned corpse and begins to feast.  Soon an arrow is loosed and the cat goes from repugnant scavenger to Combo Plate # 4.

This intro is so bizarre and visually arresting that I couldn't take my eyes off the screen for the next one-hundred and seventeen minutes.  Next we see our stoic protagonist, the titular Eli (Denzel Washington), walking across the blasted landscape carrying his End-Of-The-World Happy Meal off to where he might enjoy it in some semblance of peace.  En route to temporary shelter he navigates a landscape that makes the environs of The Road Warrior look like Lake Placid.

After discovering an abandoned cabin, he scavenges a pair of new boots from a suicide victim, takes a shower with the help of a KFC moist towelette, and then sits down to a relaxing night of feline fricassee and light reading.  It's here we're introduced to the other titular element that will prove important to the story: Eli's book.  It's a big, leather bound, tightly-guarded monstrosity that our hero studies intently.

The next day, Eli is waylaid by a pack of roadside hijackers and the Brothers Hughes show us in no uncertain terms just what he's capable of in defense of the tome in question.  In an almost balletic sequence, we witness Eli efficiently dispatch his attackers in a shadow play of hacked limbs and nasty eviscerations.

He eventually reaches the remnants of a destroyed town, which comically features the blackened and abandoned husk of a J. Crew clothing outlet.  A vicious biker gang rolls up to the local saloon and delivers a parcel of stolen plunder to Carnegie (Gary Oldman), who we first see reading a biography of Benito Mussolini.  Can you say, 'foreshadowing', kids?

When the bikers dump their ill-gotten gains on Carnegie's desk we're surprised to see that it isn't practical stuff like fuel, canned goods or Scope mouthwash but books.  Lots of 'em.  The town's overlord isn't impressed by the bountiful haul of O magazine back issues and Dan Brown paperbacks, however.  Turns out he's looking for a very specific book, one that, through script convenience, just so happened to roll into town courtesy of a stoic, machete-wielding librarian.  

Eventually Eli is tempted into Carnegie's tavern with promises of water.  Naturally, there's static and when Eli is forced to defend himself in his own inimitable way, Carnegie is suitable impressed.  He offers "Sir Hacks-A-Lot" a permanent gig but Eli adamantly refuses, insisting that he has to keep traveling west, where he's heard of a refuge.  Undaunted, Carnegie demands that our hero sleep on it.  During the night he offers up several compelling temptations to stay via the coerced advances of his own blind mistress Claudia (an impossibly youthful-looking Jennifer Beals) and when that fails, Claudia's beautiful daughter Solara (Mila Kunis).

Instead of taking advantage of Solara, Eli proposes discourse instead of intercourse.  During their dialogue more is revealed about the world before "The Flash" thirty years prior.  "People had more than they needed.  We had no idea what was precious and what wasn't. We threw away things people kill each other for now," he tells her.  Transfixed by his antiquities, Solara doesn't resist when he insists that she say grace with him before their meal.  With that, a pivotal clue about the nature of the Book is revealed.      

The next morning Solara makes the grievous error of leading her mother in prayer before breakfast.  When Carnegie overhears this he recognizes where the words came from and catches up with Eli before he gets out of Dodge.  During the confrontation, the following exchange occurs:

Carnegie: I need that book!  I want that book!  I want you to stay, but if you make me have to choose I'll kill you and take that book.
Eli: Why, why do you want it?
Carnegie: I grew up with that book, I know its power!

When the Walker refuses to give up the goods it instigates an impeccably choreographed gun battle.  During the shoot-out it almost seems as if Eli is protected by some invisible force.  He manages to escape the ambush and flees town with a devoted Solara in tow.  It isn't long before Carnegie and his convoy of reprobates are hot on their heels.  Eventually this leads to a final confrontation that's as inventive and vicious as it is visually stunning.

I'm sorry, but I like this film probably more then I should.  I think it's probably because a lesser, but similar film, like Doomsday didn't even bother to install a thematic engine underneath the hood of all the spectacle.  I like what The Book of Eli says about the importance of the written word.   In fact, it's ironic that the main villain of the piece states this better then anyone else when he screams at a hesitant henchman: "It's not a fuckin' book, it's a weapon! A weapon aimed right at the hearts and minds of the weak and the desperate."

Indeed, Gutenberg would have been proud.  That', Johannes Gutenberg, by the way, not Steve.
Even as dire as everything seems to be in The Book of Eli, the central message of the film is almost giddily optimistic.  The screenwriter, Gary Whitta, seems to be telling us that as long as we have art, culture and expression, we'll never descend into the realm of the savage, regardless of how poorly we treat each other.  I can attest to to Eli's convictions since there are certainly a few books in this world that I'd gladly risk my life to protect if there was only one copy left (1984, I'm looking in your direction).

I'm not going to keep harping on about how visually slick the film is, just suffice to say that the sets, costumes, camera sets up, special effects and the desaturated colors all add up to a compelling cinematic experience.  And mercifully, unlike in a Michael Bay shlock-fest where dynamic scenes are faked using Ginsu-style quick cuts and hyperactive zooms of blurry, kinetic motion, the Hugues Brothers set their cameras w-a-a-a-a-a-y back form the action so we can keep tabs on the scene's narrative and really savor the chaos.

I love the cast.  Denzel Washington is serene, Zen-like and quietly intense.  At no point did I ever doubt his ability to kick ass and take discretionary names.  In such a high-concept film, the weight of the proceedings depends almost entirely on his convictions and the sanctity of his mission.  He passes this challenge consistently and as a result, we're drawn into his plight.  The scene where he's forced to realize that his faith in the Book hasn't made him invulnerable after all is particularly convincing.

I'm delighted that Mila Kunis managed to get That 70's Show albatross off of her neck.   Not that I'm terribly surprised since she can effortlessly segue between authentic charm and smoldering sensuality.  Admittedly, the role of Solara isn't the meatiest part ever, but she puts her talents to good use to emphasize the modest arc the script ekes out for her.  Through it all she's unpretentious and genuine as she goes from hapless waif to devoted follower and finally, a master of her own destiny.

And finally there's Gary Oldman.  Y'know in a way, it's actually kinda funny to see the guy on screen without some sort of elaborate costume, crazy makeup effect or, at the very least, some pimp facial hair.  Unburdened by the trappings of wardrobe and prosthetics, Gary really seems to be having fun here.  Let's face it, the guy could probably sleepwalk he way through the role of Carnegie, but he actually invests considerate effort in the part and  keeps us rapt with an entire host of surreptitious glances, pained expressions and strained line deliveries.

Notwithstanding his penchant for reading books about former Italian dictators, Oldman's slow-burn of villainy starts with his willingness to pimp out his own girlfriend and her young daughter and then culminates with him gleefully blowing the bejesus out an elderly couple's home.  At one point he catches a slug in the leg and as his physical condition continues to deteriorate, he becomes increasingly erratic, twitchy and feverish.  This translates into the thespian equivalent of Oldman going off the deep end and it's a blast to witness, especially in light of the unconventional poetic justice that Jennifer Beals' character metes out in the end.   

As if that wasn't enough to watch, in the film's most subversive and humorous scene, the aforementioned elderly couple turn out to be a pair of gun-toting, tea-swilling, trap-constructing, disco-listening cannibals.  Hey, what's not to love here?

Well, for the sake of full disclosure, there are a few things.  The foundation of the film's premise is pretty creaky.  Characters do things arbitrarily and events just "seem to happen" purely to serve the plot.  Not to mention that the hairless cat is let out of bag way too early when it comes to the nature of the Book and how it might be salvaged.  

But through it all, dammit, I still had a fun time.  I'd recommend you see it.

   Tilt: up.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Movie Review: "Underworld" by David Pretty

Greetings, Children of the Night!

So the other day I'm in the company of some "friends" and I casually mention "Yeah, I just saw the movie Underworld for the first time the other night".  For the next five minutes they treated me like an eighty-five year old shut-in who's idea of entertainment was televised Bingo.

I think I avoided watching this thing up until now because it always looked like a cheap pastiche of The Matrix meets House of Dracula.  It's also at least partly to blame for inspiring wardrobes for an entire legion of disaffected, pasty-faced suburban goth kids as well as kick-starting a slew of crappy Vampire: The Masquerade RPG campaigns.

But, alas, I can't ignore something that's had such an undeniable impact on pop culture for the last eight years,  so I broke down last weekend and watched it.

Over four separate sittings.    

Now, that kinda sounds as if watching this movie a chore, but it wasn't.  Having said that, the film's unrelentingly monochrome and bleak visuals kinda wore on me after while.  Every half-hour or so I felt the urge to stop the movie and then go and sit under a U/V lamp just to stave off some sort of cinematic  seasonal depression.

Also, watching the film, I felt that the whole vampire/werewolf rivalry thing had already been done to death.  But then I had to remind myself that Underworld was actually somewhat of a victim here; having been duly ripped off by everything from True Blood to main-offender Twilight.

The film kicks off with a pretty hairy (pun intended) action sequence/extended prologue which sees a pair Death Dealers on the trail of their, sorry, lycan quarry.  The two-vampire team is led by the intense, beautiful Selene (Kate Beckinsale) who seems to enjoy her job a bit too much.  We soon learn, however, that she has a personal stake (pun not intended, I swear!) in hunting the shape-shifters because *surprise!* they were responsible for the death of her family.    

Turns out the war between vampires and lycans has been grinding on for a bit.  Hundreds of years ago it was believed that the bloodsuckers managed to finally Ol' Yeller the Lycans when they managed to kill their leader Lucian (Michael Sheen).  Now Selene and her kin spend their nights trying to hunt down and dispatch what's left of their furry kind.

The skirmish with the lycans doesn't go well and two of Selene's kin are dispatched by some pretty advanced firepower employing UV radiation bullets (!).  She pleads with the ineffective leader of the vampires, the appropriately named Kraven (Shane Brolly) for retribution but he's hesitant to act.  Selene keeps digging and discovers that the lycans are after a human named Michael Korvin (Scott Speedman).  She managed to get to him just as he's attacked and bitten by a seemingly rejuvenated Lucian.

Troubled by their old rival's re-appearance and suspicious of Kraven's complacency, Selene awakens the slumbering elder vampire Viktor (Bill Nighy).  Pissed by what must surely be the vampiric equivalent of a cold shower, he sides with the current undead administration and chides Selene for her impudence.  Soon she seeks solace in the company of her human guest, who is slowly turning into an enemy bark n' howler.

The plot continues to wrinkle.  Soon Kraven reveals his true colors (hint: it's black), the reason behind Michael's importance becomes apparent and the genesis of the schism between vampires and lycans come out courtesy of convenient flashbacks.  Throughout it all, the film consistently rises above expectation, primarily by keeping audience members guessing as to the loyalties of its players. 

In fact, despite the potentially goofy premise, screenwriter Danny McBride continues to pile up the innovations.  Selene's origins get knocked off kilter, the actions of her supposed foes becomes somewhat justified and by the end of it, established allies suddenly seem very nefarious.                    

Director Len Wiseman brings a suitable amount of gloomy panache to the proceedings, despite the fact that he's clearly stealing shots from the Brothers Wachowski playbook.  The low-angle, tracking shots of Selene stalking into the vampire coven's mansion and the slo-mo concrete fragmentation during the frequent running gun battles are blatantly cribbed from other sources.

And those aren't the only thefts.  In the action-packed prologue, Kevin Grevioux's Raze behaves less like a werewolf and more like the love child of the T-101 Terminator and Lieutenant Worf from Star Trek: The Next Generation.  Also, when lycans start scampering along the walls and ceilings I chuckled to myself as James Cameron's Aliens was invoked.  But unlike a completely uninspired rip-off like Neil Marshall's thoroughly miserable Doomsday, Underworld at least tries to contribute something new and unique to vampire/werewolf mythos.

Needless to say, in a flick like this, decent special effects are a must.  Despite the fact that I wasn't exactly getting optimal picture quality while watching the film (Curse you, Netflix!) the film-makers did a pretty good job fooling my eye when conveying the body-warping surreality necessary to depict lycanthropic transformations.  Indeed, with a clever interchange of CGI, practical effects, and costuming, it's often difficult  to tell where the film-makers drew a line with digital trickery.

I quite liked the cast.  Kate Beckinsale, in addition to being extremely easy on the eyes, actually invests so much gravitas and sincerity in the role of Selene that she ensures the viewer stays grounded during all of the insanity.  Admittedly, she doesn't always seem as self-assured during the many action sequences but she still handles herself with enough aplomb to complete the illusion.

Scott Speedman is sympathetic enough as the human piece of meet that these two tribes are grappling over in their supernatural tug of war.  Although he does a solid job portraying fear, confusion, anger and rage I can't help but feel as if the role might have better served by someone who didn't look like Chris Hemsworth's understudy in Thor or the lead singer for Creed.  For some reason, a dude that ripped never seems to be in peril. 

Michael Sheen as Lucien is tremendous.  He always appears sweaty, frantic and thoroughly put-upon: like a twitchy dog that's been kicked too much.  Shane Brolly is appropriately slimy as Kraven but in a sea of English accents, his Irish brogue is oddly distracting.

The best word, however, needs to be reserved for Bill Nighy, who is truly awesome as Viktor.  When he's first resurrected he's pretty nasty looking: dessicated, gnarled and almost snake-like.  We get the impression his state of existence is pretty miserable and he alternately pants or spits out all of his snarky lines.  Despite being buried under a pound of makeup, Nighy still has the ability to invoke a withering glare that can strip the shellac off a coffee table.

Despite its obvious inspirations, Underworld is still a serviceable time-waster.  One of the stronger testimonies I can give to a film it to confess my willingness to see it again.  And frankly, I wouldn't be totally opposed to revisiting the world of Underworld once again.

And please, I want the record to clearly show that this estimation has nothing whatsoever to do with Kate Beckinsale's skin-tight black leather outfit.    *Ahem*

Tilt: up.