Tuesday, February 2, 2016

It's DAVID OSCAR VOTES TIME

On a related note... IT'S DAVID OSCAR VOTE TIME! No, I don't care that you don't care.

Note that any opinionated snarkiness is purely for humor's sake. Really, people, you shouldn't take me so seriously.

BEST PICTURE: The Revenant

Bridge of Spies is a close second, but The Revenant wins out. For reasons I already covered in my review. I also would dearly like to support Fury Road since it's all kinds of awesome, but in my heart I know that it's really not Oscar material and it probably only got nominated because of feminist street cred. Pity they don't have a "movie we're all going to get on DVD/BluRay and rewatch until our eyes bleed" catagory.

The Martian is ok, I guess, I just didn't really like the part where Matt Damon had a dream about a unicorn, then dissolved into alien DNA and floated downstream.

(Serious talk, I need to see The Martian)

BEST LEADING ACTOR: Leonardo DiCaprio

First, because there are about fifty gagillion other times he should have won Best Leading Actor, and second because he's the only one of the nominees I've seen. I'll just assume Matt Damon was merely ok in The Martian because he's merely ok in every movie he's ever been in.

BEST LEADING ACTRESS: I have no idea

Geez, I haven't seen any of those movies. Erm... I'll just pick Cate Blanchett since she's generally great. She was even good in Hanna, and that movie was a freaking disaster. And don't give me that bullcrap about the score being "European." It was garbage. If that's what it means for music to be "European," then European music is garbage. Take that, Europe.

Also, Luna Lovegood really should have stayed at Hogwarts.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Mark Rylance

Good lord, if successfully out-acting Tom Hanks in his own movie doesn't earn you this award, I don't know what does. Oh, good place to award Tom Hanks the "should have been nominated for Best Actor but wasn't" award. Again. Did you Academy people even see Captain Phillips??

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Anne Hathaway

She isn't nominted this year, but I haven't seen any of the nominated movies and she was great in Les Miserables, so...

BEST ANIMATED FILM: Anything but Inside Out

Actual answer is The Shaun the Sheep movie, because it's fantastic and because I didn't see any of the other nominees, including Inside Out. But I would be remiss if I didn't do my job of being the only person in the world who thinks Pixar gets more credit than they deserve. Ooh, I'm SO sorry The Good Dinosaur had rubbish characters, an inconsistent tone, and a trope-laden plot you could predict before the beginning credits were over. Because Pixar NEVER does that. Eye roll cough cough sarcasm.

Toy Story sucks. Deal with it, everyone's childhood.

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY: The Revenant

Because Emmanuel Lubezki was the cinematographer. That's why. No, his whole "long take" schtick has NOT gotten old yet. Nor will it ever. Because it's awesome.

BEST DIRECTING: The Revenant

It's really hard to pick between this and Fury Road. Like, really hard. In fact, let's just say both. Not only did George Miller bring his franchise back from the dead, he delivered one of the best action films in years, with an attention to detail that rivals many "art" movies. And... well, just watch The Revenant. If nothing else, it's a masterpiece of direction and cinematography.

BEST MUSIC: Fury Road

How did you not nominate Fury Road for this, Academy? How? Didn't you HEAR those electric guitars fading in and out during panning shots?

What, are we going to reward John Williams for writing "daaaaa daaaaaaaa da da da daaaaaaaa daaaaaaa" again? Bridge of Spies? Seriously, it had music? Oh, wait, that was Thomas Newmann, wasn't it? I guess it was ok. The Hateful Eight? Oh, did Tarantino license more outdated pop music for a period western? What's Carol, some sort of chick flick? Let me guess, does it have Avro Part-esque solo piano tracks? Maybe some string chords? Sicario? More like, "try not to be sick-ario when you listen to this score," ha ha ha ha... I should really see Sicario at some point, it actually sounds pretty good.

But no. Fury Road. Screw you all.

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS: The Force Awakens

Everything in me wants to say Fury Road, for its jaw-dropping practical effects. But let's be honest, TFA is a near-perfect visual fusion of practical and CG. Fury Road looks great when real stuff is really exploding for reals, but those few CG shots really don't blend in well. In fact, they put me more in mind of George Lucas than anything in TFA.

BEST ORIGINAL WRITING: Bridge of Spies

Apparently all you need to (mostly) cure Spielberg's Spielberginess is a Coen brother helping with the script. And apparently all you need to cure the Coen brothers... whatever it is that causes them to make films like Burn After Reading and The Big Lebowski (no, I didn't like The Big Lebowski. You can all grab a pitchfork and torch from the pile and form an orderly mob) is Spielberg directing. Maybe splitting them up helped too.

Bridge of Spies has a few of those Speilberg moments that I hate, but they're minor. For the most part its a gripping drama that's never too dark or too lighthearted. Just the perfect mix of both.

BEST OTHER THINGS I DON'T KNOW OR CARE ABOUT: Norm of the North

Fin

Movie Review: The Revenant

It's not often that a movie establishes its complete mastery of the medium within the first scene, but that's exactly what The Revenant does.  With near-perfect cinematography and direction (from the same duo that brought us last year's Birdman--a film I like less and less as time goes on but which is an undeniable technical powerhouse), it paints a bleak, unflinching picture of frontier survival that's as enthralling as it is shocking.  This is a movie that will stick with you.

It's also kind of this year's Gravity.  In that these feats of virtuosity are performed on a somewhat barren stage.  This isn't to say that the discrepancy between its direction/cinematography and its script is quite as large as that in Cuaron's movie.  In fact, The Revenant's script is quite good.  It's just... simple.  Stark.  And in a lot of ways this is to the movie's advantage.  Any more would have just taken away from the Kubrickian brutal straightforwardness of the experience.  In fact the weakest parts of The Revenant are generally when it acts more like a movie and less like a piece of filmic expressionism.

That said, it's hard not to notice the contrast between a script that's merely good, and a "everything else" that's absolutely stellar.  The few stumbles it makes stick out because everything around them is so perfect.  What's more, the sense of bleakness that permeates everything does tend to call attention to the lack of meaningful characterization, and similar lack of anything but the barest hints of human warmth.

But if you put all the pieces back together, and consider The Revenant as a whole rather than a collection of parts, it's a masterpiece.  Even if you have issues with elements of the movie, it's hard to deny how effectively everything works toward its singular goal: a harsh, uncompromising frotier survival story.  In that sense it works far better as a piece of art than a piece of entertainment.

I adore Fury Road, and Bridge of Spies is the best Spielberg movie I've seen.  But The Revenant has my vote for Best Picture.  And Leo, here's hoping you finally get that Oscar.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Movie Review: Snowpiercer

Need your daily dose of facepalm?  Stroll on over to the IMDB forums and read about why people don't like Snowpiercer.  Incidentally, I just saw Snowpiercer.

Don't get me wrong, it's not a perfect movie.  In fact it's kind of a mess.  Plot holes abound, of course, a couple scenes sucker punch you with jarring tonal shifts, the last 40 minutes fall prey to disappointingly stale dialogue, the ending feels like a cop-out, and often it's longer-winded and slower-paced than it really needs to be.

But none of that matters.  Because in spite of--and sometimes because of--its messiness, Snowpiecer is one of the most raw and engaging action movies I've seen since... well, since Fury Road.  Yes, it's that good.

Snowpiercer works because it's violent, it's unpredictable, and it knows how to build suspense around both these things.  Stuff happen brutally, and it often happens when and how you don't expect, to the people you don't expect.  It's also unexpectedly smart.  Setting aside the plot holes and occasional weirdness, that is.  People seem to view the movie as a critique of capitalism, but I think it's not that clear-cut.  It's a metaphorical movie, to be sure, but it seems less like a movie with a message and more like a movie with questions.  You could interpret it as a critique of capitalism, sure.  But it works equally well as a critique of socialism.  Or of institutions in general.  It also works as a parable about the danger of destabilization, regardless of how nobel the motives are.  And probably as all sorts of other stuff I didn't pick up on.

It uses its train as a microcosm of society, and at least from my view provides no easy answers to the difficult questions that naturally emerge.  And with that in mind, of course it's messy and flawed, just like the very thing it emulates.  Sure that doesn't excuse all of the problems, but a lot of initially bizarre elements actually make perfect sense from a metaphorical perspective.

I mean, metaphors don't matter if the rest of the movie fails.  But Snowpiercer works amazingly well just as a gritty sci-fi action movie, and the whole "train as a microcosm of society" thing enhances the experience rather than distracting and detracting from it.

It's a must-see film.  Even if you end up despising it, Snowpiercer is something strange and unique that's worthy of being seen.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Maybe it's best if STALKER stays dead.


So I was goofing off today, and I randomly thought "hmm, I wonder how Lost Alpha's doing."  You know, Lost Alpha.  That mod that wanted to recreate the original alpha version of Shadow of Chernobyl.  A much larger, more ambitious game that eventually had to be cut down into the hashed-together Shadow of Chernobyl that we actually got.

Lost Alpha released in an incomplete state last year, due to a leak.  I played a few hours of it and was... *sigh*.  Ok, look.  I don't want to disparage the effort and dedication of the LA team.  But if I'm perfectly honest, what I played of the initial LA release was a huge disappointment.  It wasn't bad, it just wasn't what I was hoping for.  Technical issues aside, the whole thing was just... dull.  Large empty areas, painfully weak mutant enemies, firefights that were far too spaced out, an increased focus on dialogue over gunplay, and a distinct lack of the alien sense of creepiness that made the original game so intense.

Again, it's not that it was a bad product, but it wasn't what I was looking for in a STALKER game.  The review notes I made over those few hours gradually turn from giddy enthusiasm to concern, and finally weary disappointment, as I tramped between dialogue trees, across uneventful Ukraine landscapes.  It was when I got into X18, sat through a parade of cutscenes, had a floating skeleton laugh maniacally at me, and killed a bloodsucker with a mere 4 bullets, that I realized developer dexoware and I felt very differently about what made SoC good.

But that was a year ago.  And I decided I would wait until the mod released proper to actually form an opinion about it.  Who knows, maybe all these issues wouldn't be present in the final release.  And thus we return to me checking the ModDB page, and finding that there have been very few updates since that initial release.  Three patches last summer, an SDK, and the promise of a "real" release dubbed the "Lost Alpha Director's Cut."  I wouldn't say Lost Alpha is dead, but it's probably not going to be finished any time soon.

And I started thinking.  You know, maybe I don't actually want a new STALKER game.  I mean, here we have a mod endorsed by GSC Gameworld, developed by diehard fans, based on the original unaltered vision behind Shadow of Chernobyl...  and it still didn't capture the magic.  Sure, maybe I'm just such a STALKER fanboy that I'm incapable of appreciating anything other than the original unaltered trainwreck.  In fact, that's likely... but consider this.  Shadow of Chernobyl is a broken, buggy, unfinished mess.  Even I will admit that it doesn't play great unless you heavily mod it, or you're willing to wholeheartedly embrace its weirdness.  Even modded, it's janky at best.  It's certainly not a game you'd expect to have anything more than a small cult following.  Yet look how many people utterly adore it.  Flawed games earn fans all the time, but the STALKER fanbase is comparatively huge.  The game is one of the most well-respected modern PC exclusives, and it's surprisingly rare to find anyone badmouthing it.  Despite it being--you know--the easiest target for criticism ever.

My point is, Shadow of Chernobyl is one of those magical games that does something amazingly right, and you can't really explain what or how.  You can't deliberately replicate that.  Clear Sky tried, even going so far as to reuse most of the environments from Shadow of Chernobyl, but fans were disappointed by its bugs and gameplay quirks (because Shadow of Chernobyl didn't have any of those).  Call of Pripyat tried also, and while people liked its more polished gameplay and more complete feature set, most still prefer Shadow of Chernobyl.  Despite Call of Pripyat being more accessible and easier to appreciate in almost every way.



Don't get me wrong, I'd be psyched if STALKER 2 were re-announced.  But at the same time, maybe it's best that the series ended when it did.  We got one bizarre stroke of genius and two great followups.  I used to be disappointed that we'd never get the "perfect STALKER game," but now I'm not sure such a thing is even possible.  GSC tried improving on Shadow of Chernobyl in both directions, with Clear Sky being more ambitious and quirky and Call of Pripyat being more polished and accessible.  Neither worked.   Dexoware tried realizing the original grand vision, and (at least for me) that didn't quite work either.

Like The Zone itself, Shadow of Chernobyl is a disaster filled with bizarre, inexplicable wonders.  I don't know if anyone is capable of replicating that.  Not even the original team.  Survarium, their in-development spiritual successor to the STALKER series, hasn't been very well-received by either new players or STALKER fans.  And as much as I defend Call of Pripyat as the best in the series, even I admit that some of its changes/additions were leaning in the wrong direction.  I could have easily seen STALKER 2 being a huge disappointment.

So maybe it's actually good that we're (likely) never going to see another official STALKER game.  The series never got a perfect entry... but it never got a terrible one either.  And there's probably only so many times you can try coaxing lighting to strike the same place again, before it fries you instead.

Yeah, we're gonna stick with that analogy.   

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Review of Turok: Remastered

The N64 was an awful system for FPSs.  I mean, games like Doom could kinda sorta work, since you didn't have to worry about looking up or down, but... well, just look at how well the system's "killer app" FPSs have fared.  PC shooters from the 90s are mostly still quite playable (at least, Doom onward).  Try saying "Goldeneye is still quite playable" with a straight face.

So with that being said, here we have an N64 FPS remastered for PC.  Well, ok, I guess the original Turok: Dinosaur Hunter came out on PC as well, but I know little to nothing about it and the game was primarily developed as an N64 title anyway.  So shush.  The point is that you'd expect a clunky shooter developed in a clunky era ported from a clunky console to be... well, clunky.  But surprisingly, Turok: Remastered isn't.  In fact it's probably the most fun FPS I've played since Soldier of Fortune.



There are a couple standout elements that make Turok really work.  Primarily the sense of speed.  This is just a fast game.  You're dashing through these giant levels at a breakneck pace, barely stopping even when you encounter enemies, constantly switching between weapons as you empty them (and there's actually quite a variety of weapons to use), making these terrifying jumps between cliffs and gut wrenching drops to outcroppings 50 feet below... often, it's an adrenaline rush unlike anything you get in modern FPSs.  At the worst of times, it's merely fun.

The actual gunplay itself isn't quite as notable.  I mean, it's fine.  There's nothing much wrong with it. But it's not particularly interesting either, essentially being a case of "shoot bullets at guys before they shoot bullets at you."  Again though, it's the speed that really elevates Turok.  You're not just shooting things, you're shooting things while traveling the landspeed of a cheetah.  As long as pulling the trigger remains moderately satisfying (which it does), that's really all you need.



Turok also has a really nice atmosphere.  Sure, the stark polygonal models and foggy environments owe as much to the N64's technical limitations as they do to any artistic vision.  But there's still this great sense of scale and place to everything.  Exploring Turok's ancient cities and overgrown temples is surprisingly rewarding in its own right, if you can look past the dated visuals.  Does the jungle setting get a bit stale by the end?  Maybe a little.  But not so much that it ruins the experience.  And even if it's a bit thematically repetitive, what's there is good.

Speaking of "thematically," probably the most endearing thing about the game is its complete devotion to cheesiness.  Your character, the titular Turok, is a time-traveling Native American warrior who perpetually looks like he's about to pass a kidney stone the size of a baseball.  His magical journey sees him fighting men, dinosaurs, men with guns, dinosaurs with guns, Humvees, giant insects, and did I mention the freaking dinosaurs with guns?  And everything is accompanied by a gloriously hokey soundtrack full of cheap synths and tribal drums.  Delicious.



Are there problems?  A few.  While backtracking to find the necessary keys to advance can be fun, it can also be a litle tedious in later levels.  Mostly this is due to the game's biggest issue: platforming segments.  Now, I've never had the vendetta against first person platforming that other people do.  In fact, I think it works just as well as 3rd person platforming.  Sometimes better.  The reason platforming is annoying in games like Halflife has nothing to do with the perspective.  It has to do with the level of precision it requires.  The jumps you have to make in Half-life would be just as annoying in 3rd person, or even in 2d.  And that's the problem with Turok.  Most jumping sections require quite a bit of precision, with failure either resulting in instant death (returning you to the last checkpoint/savepoint) or enough backtracking to be an annoyance.

That said, the platforming can sometimes be exhilarating as well.  In a way I haven't experienced for years.  There's no fall damage in Turok, so you're often required to make some genuinely gut wrenching leaps and plummets.  And when you miss a platform, most of the time it actually does feel like your own fault.  Most of the time.  It's kind of a mix between thrilling and frustrating, but I honestly never found it to be too frustrating.  Not on the level of Half-life or the RoTT Remake.  Just enough to make my stomach drop whenever I made a particularly harrowing jump.



I guess I'll also mention that the music regularly bugged out for me, hiccuping like a scratched CD.  But that might be because I was running the game off an external hardrive.  Also, apart from the extended view distance, most of the added effects just seem like gimmicks that don't mesh with the rest of the visuals (thankfully they can be turned off).  And... umm... well, since there's an impressive variety of weapons, sometimes it's a little clunky to cycle through them.  And maybe enemies randomly spawn a little too often.  After all, the Far Cry 2 critics taught us that it's really annoying to have to shoot things in a shooting game, salt salt snark snark.

Yup, I'm really digging to find things to complain about.  Most are nitpicks, and my biggest issue is actually a plus half the time.  Because Turok: Remastered is awesome.  It's the sort of game that reminds me, oh yeah... this is how FPSs used to be.  This is why I originally fell in love with the genre.  It's thrilling, it's immersive, and it's endearing.  Take shelter from the falling pig manure and point hair dryers at the ground.  This is possibly the best PC FPSs to come out in 2015, and its an N64 port.