Daily Archives: December 20, 2012

Ted Blu-ray Review

The current highest grossing R-rated comedy of all time, Ted, about two Bostonian buddies (one of whom is a foul-mouthed living teddy bear) is now available in its unrated form on Blu-ray. The first-time big screen directorial effort from Family Guy’s Seth MacFarlane (from a script by MacFarlane, Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild) is a lewd, crude and totally hilarious tale of a grown-ass man (Mark Wahlberg) who learns to, quite literally, put away childish things when his magical best friend, a talking plush bear voiced by MacFarlane, endangers his current relationship with his girlfriend, Lori (Mila Kunis).

Even those who may have tired of Family Guy’s humor over the years will find this movie, which is also filled with cutaways and loads of niche ’80s references, pretty damn funny. For me, it more or less solidified the fact that I’d much rather see Wahlberg do comedy now than his usual stockpile of actioners. For those of you who are still diehard MacFarlane fans, you’ll find a ton of welcome faces (and voices) here, ranging from lead Kunis to Patrick Warburton to Patrick Stewart to Ralph Garman. You’ll also get a few surprise guest stars in the form of Nora Jones (who also sings the MacFarlane-penned opening credit song “Everybody Needs a Best Friend”) and Flash’s Sam Jones. Yes, TWO Joneses.

The Blu-ray set itself is pretty sweet. Along with looking and sounding great (which is essential for making Ted feel like he’s a seamless part of the world), the extras are substantial. In particular, an in-depth look at the making of Wahlberg’s all out brawl with a CGI Ted (aka himself) in “Teddy Bear Scuffle” where the decision was made to have a brutal, somewhat-dramatic fight instead of a silly scrap. On top of that, MacFarlane’s commentary track, with Sulkin and Wahlberg (who couldn’t stay for the entire film), is both funny and informative. I do lament the lack of Mila Kunis, but all in all this movie, like most of MacFarlane’s projects IS MacFarlane. So most of the insight is going to come from MacFarlane while the most you get from Wahlberg is him letting you know every time one of his cousins pops up on screen in a cameo.

There are also a bunch of deleted scenes and a decent gag reel, but the second best thing to watch after the bear-fight breakdown is the “Alternate Takes” section which is filled with a ton of improvised lines from MacFarlane, who was always live on set, in a mo-cap suit, and ready to riff. The “Making of” featurette is standard, but still informative as it shows all the lengths the creators went to in order to make the absurd character of Ted look and feel like a regular human character.

The main draw of this Blu release though is probably Ted’s “Unrated” version, which people will automatically assume is more racy and raunchy. Which isn’t exactly what an “Unrated” version means per se. This version comes with approximately six more minutes. Some of the extra moments are just scenes that are extended by a tiny bit while the rest of the add-ons are actually more substantial; including more of Ted Danson’s cameo, some more Tom Skerritt jokes, a Tammy-Lynn wedding brawl, a few more lines from Lori’s slutty co-workers and a brief “origin” scene for Giovanni Ribisi’s Donny as a young kid. It’s a nifty amount of additions that don’t make the film feel too bloated.

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Django Unchained #1 Review

The first thing I’ll say is this: If you really want to keep the Django Unchained movie experience just that – a movie experience – wait until after you see it to read this book. As Quentin Tarantino explains in his introduction to this comic, this is a straight-up adaptation of his original screenplay, with all the extra meat that he had to cut still intact. So while there will be inevitable differences between the two, this is still pretty much what I’d imagine is the first 20 minutes or so. That being said, this was a pretty entertaining comic book.

First the negative – the opening scene of King’s rescue of Django (shown in the trailers) suffers from something that simply doesn’t work in comics, which is the only real instance of this screenplay-to-art adaptation going south without some sort of adjustment for comics. King’s dialect isn’t made clear, yet the characters he interacts with reference it constantly, despite they themselves speaking in a southern dialect. It’s odd that the dialogue isn’t adjusted to better reflect this; in spoken dialogue, of course, this isn’t an issue. But reading it on the page is vastly different, and this is a perfect example of why there should’ve been a writer involved in the adaptation process.

But with that out of the way, Django Unchained #1 works quite well as a comic. R.M. Guera’s art is a natural fit for this seedy, hate-filled world – honestly, it does feel like a sibling of Scalped, which speaks volumes to what Guera was able to bring to that series. You’ll find the same hard-hitting brutality in Django, with Guera’s deep and heavy blacks formulating a bulk of the pages. Jason Latour steps in to do the brief flashback panels that are scattered throughout the issue, and his equally gritty albeit totally different style is a fitting companion to Guera’s work.

The dialogue is a little heavy at times – again an area that should’ve been adjusted to fit the space constraints of a comic book – but for the most part Tarantino’s sharp banter translates well. The relationship between King and Django is established quickly and efficiently, while also giving the characters distinct motivations in mere pages.

One surprising benefit of this book is that it actually has some great supplemental content for the $4 it will run you (though, apparently the digital version is $5 for some reason). First is an introduction from Tarantino, who tosses out his comic book knowledge for anyone that might doubt him. Next is a mini-poster of Jim Lee’s variant for issue #1, which is actually able to be torn out without ruining the story, since its opposing pages are ads. And finally, there’s a neat 3-page sketchbook from Guera that would normally be reserved for the trade. It’s almost like a Django fanzine.

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Sky Gamblers: Storm Raiders Review

Flight simulators and air combat games can sometimes feel like an entirely separate universe. Take the feature list in Sky Gamblers: Storm Raiders. While most games are saying “incredible Unreal graphics” – Atypical Games’ new release touts accurate atmospheric scattering, refractive raindrops, specular masks and volumetric clouds. What this means in human language is that there is immense, near absurd detail to every aspect of the flying experience and amazingly all of it is boiled down to a touchscreen interface.

Sky Gamblers: Storm Raiders sets your touchscreen flight action across the World War II theater of battle, from the European mainland to the attack on Pearl Harbor. You’ll be participating in dogfights and sorties with a huge number of teammates and foes. The HUD can get hectic with the sheer number of targets zipping through the sky. Doubly so if you elect to use the on-screen control method.

Controls, sadly, were the greatest issue I had with Sky Gamblers: Storm Raiders. Atypical Games did make a heroic effort to accommodate every imaginable need someone might face in a flight combat game on iOS. Five arrangements skew from full simulation, where pitch and yaw are controlled by gyroscope and accelerometer, to the above-mentioned casual on-screen control pad. Each changes the game dramatically in difficulty, but in my case the changes took the experience from “impossible” to “merely hard.” Despite trying each method, I found acing turns and trailing foes endlessly frustrating. I found myself fumbling more than fragging my opponents. With a few hours of gameplay I was able to manage dogfights better but I never felt quite like Maverick in Top Gun. The learning curve is intense, to say the least.

Those red arrows? Enemies that want your blood. No biggie.

Controls aside, Sky Gamblers: Storm Raiders brings a veritable B-52 bomber full of gameplay modes to the table, including multiplayer (local or online), campaign, survival, capture the flag and (a lot) more. The robust collection is enough for anyone to find the mode that suits their flying style – my favorite being free flight, a casual jaunt around just to check out the compelling graphics and scenery.

THE VERDICT

There’s no shortage of historical flying action in Sky Gamblers: Storm Raiders. From the bombing of London to an entire fleet of customizable planes, the game is an ode to WWII air combat far beyond anything comparable on iOS. For me though, the steep learning curve took the wind out of the wings and kept this bird on the ground.

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Zero Dark Thirty Review

It should be noted that this review discusses the real-world events that Zero Dark Thirty is based on, and therefore might be considered spoilery by some.

Director Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty isn’t just great dramatic filmmaking, it’s also great journalism — which is a really weird concept, but there you have it. The film tells the decade-long tale of how a CIA operative slowly, methodically located Osama bin Laden in the wake of 9/11. In so doing, the movie could’ve turned into a dry, by-the-books accounting of the humdrum reality and red tape that led up to that fateful raid on bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound in May, 2011. But instead, it’s one of the best films of the year, a thrilling procedural and study of the labors of obsession.

Bigelow’s naturalistic, you-are-there direction, screenwriter Mark Boal’s fair and balanced — if you will forgive the term — take on these events (informed by research and interviews with the real people involved in the search), and deep, believable performances across the board combine in such a way that Zero Dark Thirty will have you sweating it out by the final reel as if you, too, are about to walk into that compound with SEAL Team Six. Seriously, my heart was pounding as the two Black Hawk helicopters soared through the mountain range between Afghanistan and Pakistan on their way to bin Laden, despite the fact that I, of course, knew exactly how this was all going to end!

But the viewer’s blood starts pumping long before that sequence — right from the get-go, in fact, as we meet Jessica Chastain’s Maya, a green CIA op newly arrived at a U.S. “black site” in the Middle East. Apparently not even getting the chance to change out of her inappropriately neat business suit, Maya is quickly introduced to the information gathering — a.k.a. torture — techniques of Jason Clarke’s hardened interrogator Dan. She watches, clearly troubled, as Dan coaxes, warns, befriends, and then waterboards his al-Qaeda-connected prisoner, all in a matter of minutes. (That Dan, who calls his detainee “bro,” also has a Ph.D only drives home how little we really know and understand about what goes on in the war, and who the people are who are fighting it.)

What’s in the box? Jason Clarke plays CIA interrogator Dan.

Clarke, by the way, is amazing as Dan, who can be as charming as he is monstrous, though the film is Chastain’s all the way. These characters, as well as the long parade of familiar faces (Mark Strong, Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Ehle, Edgar Ramirez and James Gandolfini to name just a few) who come and go through this tale, have very little by way of personal lives or the typical movie-character anchors. No spouses, no back story, nothing to drive them but what we see onscreen: A devotion to the job, and in Maya’s case — she’s reportedly based on a real person — a fixation on finding bin Laden that perhaps leaves little room for anything else in her life anyway. She’s haunted by the search for her target, even while it changes her. In time, she finds herself matter-of-factly using the same torture techniques as Dan, for example.

Bigelow and Boal did the Oscar dance in 2010 with their Iraq War drama The Hurt Locker, but Zero Dark Thirty operates on a whole other level. First and foremost, it’s a procedural as Maya digs and digs and must deal with obstacles not just in the field or the interrogation room, but also in the home office as the mission statement from high up evolves. Eventually, bin Laden is no longer the focus as her bosses decide that the al-Qaeda operators on the ground pose the more immediate threat.

“Give me targets,” Mark Strong’s CIA boss demands in the War on Terror equivalent of Glengarry Glen Ross’ Alec Baldwin/steak knives scene. There’s no secret room upstairs, he says, where a hidden team of operatives are conducting the real hunt for terrorists. What you see is what we’ve got. If that’s a scary notion for us, imagine how Maya and the rest must feel.

Jessica Chastain as the obsessed Maya.

The film also sprawls, over years, over continents, over characters and over the murky grey area between right and wrong. You’ll get lost in it all at times, no doubt, whether it’s when the characters start throwing around suspected terrorists’ “war names” versus “family names” at the speed of Howard Hawks, or when the hunt finally takes to the streets of a Pakistani market and the camera reaches a ground-level immersion of sights, sounds and tension.

What the film doesn’t show is the stuff it can’t, or can’t without becoming a “movie” that is. The 9/11 attacks are heard in the opening moments, but never seen. Bin Laden himself is glimpsed in a blurry frame or two at most. And most importantly, Maya never becomes a Gun-Wielding Heroine. She’s actually mostly absent during the final, extended raid scene, though her presence is surely felt at times, and she’s ultimately the punctuation mark on the whole affair.

One of the keys to Zero Dark Thirty’s effectiveness can be found in that final raid and the unsympathetic approach Bigelow and Boal take as the SEALs, led by Joel Edgerton and Chris Pratt, stalk through the compound, doing their dark work. You see, they don’t just shoot a guy here. They shoot him, then they walk up to his body and shoot it a couple of more times, just to make sure. And the guy’s wife, and his kids, are standing in the other room watching. And then they do it to the next guy, and the next. The music doesn’t swell, the camera doesn’t go slo-mo, the characters don’t quip… it just happens, and then it’s over. It’s unflinching, it’s not heroic, it’s brutal — but it’s their job.

THE VERDICT

Zero Dark Thirty reminds us that sometimes real-life tales make for the best kinds of movies. While there’s no way to truly know what led to finding bin Laden, this is probably the closest we’re going to get for some time. It’s also next-level filmmaking — smart, brave and intense, and, hopefully, trendsetting.

 

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Theatrhythm Final Fantasy iOS Review

Spanning more than a dozen core titles and a quarter of a century, Final Fantasy’s musical roots are nearly unparalleled. Theatrhythm Final Fantasy, which debuted on the Nintendo 3DS and has now made its way to iOS, draws upon this rich musical legacy to create something of a celebratory rhythm RPG hybrid. The merging of these two genres is ambitious, to say the least. The result of this fusion is a rich and wholly enjoyable rhythm experience, albeit one that doesn’t utilize its RPG roots to the fullest, and was a much better financial deal on the 3DS than it is on iOS.

Like most music games on touch devices, Theatrhythm’s gameplay largely amounts to tapping and sliding on the touch screen. Nothing is lost in the transition to iOS on this front, as in this instance tapping with your finger works just as effectively as tapping with a stylus. It’s the sort of simple gesture that iPhones and iPads excel at, and it works perfectly well here too. It’s noteworthy, however, that the game controls a bit better on an iPad, as moving your finger around in time with the triggers can sometimes be a challenge on the iPhone’s smaller screen.

While the controls are simple, the developers went to great lengths to keep players engaged with a couple of different play options. Theatrhythm is split into two different types of gameplay, each defined by the pacing of the songs. Battle Music Stages feature a faster beat, and task players with defeating as many enemies as possible by correctly responding to the given rhythm “triggers” (the circular prompts that tell you how and when to tap and slide) that scroll across the screen along four separate lines. Field Music Stages are a bit slower, and have the player moving their finger up and down along a continuously flowing line.

Unfortunately, the Event Music Stages from the 3DS version (which revolve around an important moment in each Final Fantasy game and are easily the most visually memorable) are completely absent in this release. The other two modes are just as fun from a rhythm gameplay standpoint, but it’s still a shame this version doesn’t allow players to tap and slide while Squall and Rinoa waltz or Aerith’s saga unfolds in the background.

As for Theatrhythm’s visual presentation, Square faced the interesting challenge of trying to effectively bind 25 years of wildly varying graphical styles into one cohesive package. The result is the “chibi-fication” of the franchise’s most notable characters. Small, stylized versions of Squall, Cloud, Lightning and Cecil – along with chibi Chocobos, Moogles, Summons, enemies, and the like – all populate the colorful world of Theatrhythm. While it’s a shame the Field segments all use the same scrolling background, the whole production offers an amazing, unique tribute to the franchise, an experience that should prove quite nostalgic for longtime fans of the series.

As a music game, Theatrhythm is top notch, with just about the best song selection you could ask for. The developers also incorporate some RPG elements, which FF fans should be rather familiar with. After choosing a party of four, your chibi team of notable FF characters marches into battle. If you miss a trigger or execute one poorly, the team’s shared HP bar goes down. If that hits zero, it’s game over, meaning you’ll have to start that segment over from the beginning. Each character also has customizable abilities, such as Focus or Brace, which grant them different benefits in battle. It’s too bad the ability to use items has been removed from this version, but in truth they never really added too much to the experience anyway, so it’s not the biggest loss.

The incorporation of RPG elements could have set Theatrhythm apart from other music games in a meaningful way, but unfortunately these aspects aren’t as integral to the experience as you’d think. While leveling up in a rhythm game is a fun notion, in truth, playing with a level 1 character feels no different than playing with a level 65 one. Theatrhythm is still an incredibly fun music game, but it’s a shame more wasn’t done to make the RPG elements feel necessary.

I shall call him… Chocobo Joe.

One of the best parts of Theatrhythm is how it offers something for everyone. Music game novices can stick to the Basic Score of each song and simply enjoy the music, while those looking for more of a challenge have the Expert Score and the blisteringly hard Ultimate Score to flex their skills. Each song also features a practice mode so you can work on getting to the end without worrying about your HP.

The fun isn’t just limited to the main game either. The iOS version also has a Quest Medley mode, which randomly selects songs from your catalogue for you to play through, as well as a Compose Scores mode. Don’t get too excited about that last one – you won’t be creating your own Theatrhythm Zelda with this thing, it only allows you to decide placement of triggers for songs you already own. It’s a bit of a downer compared to what it could have been, but it’s a decent enough addition to the package, and one that’s fun to toy around with.

While the game itself is still great, one downside in this version is the pricing model. The app is free to download, but don’t be fooled – it only comes with two songs. The 3DS version comes with around 40 songs, 65 if you include the Prelude and Ending Theme for each of the 13 games. So in order to rival the original version’s starting library (by purchasing 38 additional songs at $.99 each), it would cost you about $40. That’s intense for a truncated mobile version. Considering you can pick up the 3DS version for about $30 – which not only comes packaged with more songs, but also more bonus content and more playable characters to choose from (you have to buy these for $1.99 each in the iOS version) – that’s not the best deal. If you’re fine with just having a couple of songs to mess around with, you can’t argue with free, but by no means expect this to be a suitable replacement for the 3DS version unless you’re willing to drop a big chunk of cash.

THE VERDICT

Whether you’re a huge Final Fantasy fan or just enjoy great rhythm games with fantastic music, Theatrhythm Final Fantasyis certainly for you – just be prepared to pay big to get all the songs you’ll undoubtedly want to own. The RPG elements feel a bit wasted in this game (and the extra song mode and bonus features from the 3DS version are regrettably missing), but the brilliant music and adorable presentation still make for an excellent rhythm experience.

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