29 December 2013

#2LR Game Review - Civilization V, "Brave New World" Expansion -- with bonus partial walkthrough!

Review/FAQ/Walkthrough for Civilization V - Brave New World

Part 1/?

I know, I usually write reviews in this space.  And yes, there's already a place to upload walkthrough and FAQ information online.  I know that because I've already posted one, quite a few years back now, for Railroad Tycoon III, which also helpfully comes up in Google search if you look for "Railroad Tycoon 3 Walkthrough".  I do still get the occasional feedback from it, and I'm glad that I was able to help more than a few people in understanding the game and also to get through the scenarios/campaign missions.

Additionally, I would not be surprised if someone already has posted something akin to this; I'm sure that there are more than a few members of the public able and willing to write this up, and I also know that I am not one of the best Civilization V players out there.  However, I have won games at level five (out of eight), and I'm willing to at least post some of the things that have brought me success in this game.

So... the review! "Brave New World" is the second add-on to Civilization V.  It introduces new civilizations to the mix and also reconfigures one of the major aspects of the game, culture (and culture victories).  Previously, culture was by itself, representing all of the beautiful buildings that a civ could create.  Gain enough culture, win bonuses.  Gain even more culture than everyone else (quite a BIT of it), and if you'd gained 30 total culture bonuses, you'd be eligible to build a "utopia project" (if I remember correctly) which is an automatic game winner.  Chained to this modification is that the bonuses and headings are reconfigured, and there are "governments" that work through the culture menu that allow the world to split into factions somewhat like the Cold War of the second half of the twentieth century.

Now, culture has been split into culture and tourism.  Tourism is gained via either building wonders or earning points toward "great people", split between musicians, artists, and writers.  Get a great writer and you can create a great work of art, which increases your "tourism".  Or, alternately, build the Eiffel Tower and increase your tourism.  Bonuses come along the way to a Civ's tourism.  If one Civ's tourism number goes above another Civ's culture number, then the first Civ is said to be "dominant" (think US/Canada... sorry, northern brethren, though your culture is kinda cool).  If one Civ manages so much tourism as to dominate all other Civs, the game ends with the first Civ winning.

The other major addition to the game is caravans.  Previously, money appeared on the map on river squares and on ocean squares.  Not anymore!  Caravans now take the place of this money trade.  And, quite like historical life, caravans can be used to boost tourism, to spread science, and to spread religion.  They are also the first to go when one civilization declares war on another.  New buildings and existing buildings add bonuses to caravans.

The last update is now there is a "World Congress".  This is much like the modern United Nations.  For those more historically inclined, it seems to work far more similarly to the Congress of Vienna in 1815 after Napoleon's defeat.  Two nations can advance worldwide proposals, such as increasing either scientist or artist generation, or increasing culture, or proposing a "world's fair", and the group of currently active civilizations can vote on it.  There's more to come for this, I sincerely hope, because the proposals are so very limited.  For instance, you can only raise culture instead of lower it... you could also have a "scramble for Africa" setup where either settlers can come with happy bonuses for making new cities/connecting new luxuries, or nations can get bonuses for attacking the single-city nations that proliferate on the map.  At any rate, it's a new wrinkle in the game, though it could have been so much greater.

Taken as a whole... it definitely increases the complexity of the game, and that's not actually a bad thing.  There are additional nuggets hidden within, such as culture playing a very large role in government types that may or may not work.  I quite enjoy the changes that the developers have made, though I certainly hope that they attempt to take some of the changes a bit further to support other aspects of the game that were ignored.

Of course, for a fan of the genre and of the specific game, I would heartily endorse the upgrade and recommend it.  If you're not a Civ fan, or if you're not crazy about where they've taken the game, then feel free to skip to any of the other reviews/articles posted here.  Below this, I will go into some of the strategies that I've been able to make work for me when playing Brave New World on the higher difficulties.

1. Go in with a plan... before the game even starts

Sounds simple, right?  I mean, who doesn't?  However, this means to figure out the basic path that your game will take based on the civilization that you chose (or have had picked for you via random).  I've noticed many times over that the games I have the worst time with are the ones where I just kind of winged it.  When I prepare, I check to see which units/buildings are available, when they're available, and what aspect of the game (e.g. money, military, culture, etc.) the civ's bonus will take.  One recent for-instance was when I played as the Mongols, who have a mounted bowman with ranged attack as their special unit, replacing the knight.  This means that I have a pretty clear path to take out any enemy city or even enemy civ around the middle of the game when Chivalry is researched, so I need to plan to put in place the basis of this plan... have the horses as a resource ready, or better yet have the horsemen already built for a quick cash upgrade.  (FYI, I was taking out cities all the way into the 1900s with those mounted bowmen... when you get them upgraded all the way with +1 range and +1 attack, a group of six can hit for a combined total of 120 points on even a mature city and still stay out of reach... food for thought.)

2. Use the first few turns of the game to refine or rethink your plan.

Who is around you?  Are you in a crossroads or off in a corner?  Hemmed in by city-states or by the ocean? Within ten turns or so, you'll know the type of lands you're starting on (e.g. islands, continents, or a pangaea), but you'll likely have an idea of some of the other civs.  If you are playing against religious civilizations, they might have already formed their pantheons within ten turns, fifteen at the outside.  In the beginning of the game, you're most likely already waiting on either the monument to be built, or a scout (or two), so there's not a whole lot of variance... but then you will be able to figure out if you can start out as a builder, or if you need to get defending.  If you're surrounded on all sides, getting defense is priority number one, to make sure that you can not only keep the other civs out but to be able to exert force if necessary.  If no one is immediately apparent, you could either squeeze out that extra settler or begin that wonder a bit earlier to reap the benefits of the earlier start.

Knowing what the land will give you can tell you whether or not a tall (few cities with lots of population) or wide (lotsa cities with luxuries, small population) will be the way to go.  Tall civs have the ability to build quicker, but don't forget that defense... you can't trade land for time going tall.  Of course, make sure your culture bonuses match your plan too.  The for-instance is the difference between the Tradition and Freedom paths... Freedom gives you +1 per city connected to the capital, while Tradition gives you both a +1 for each 10 population plus a +1 for each two population in the capital.  So an empire with a capital city of 24 and two additional cities of 12 would have +3 happy via Freedom, but a +12 and a +2 from the capital as well as +2 from each of the two other cities, for a total of +14 happiness.

By the way, a surefire way to tell that you're going to get invaded (especially at the higher levels) is when you see a computer civ that only has one city and a marker in the diplomacy screen saying "They covet your lands!"  That means that they've been building pretty much nothing but military since the start, and they're coming after YOU, especially if you happen to have the last-ranked military in the world.  Sniff these threats out as soon as possible.

3. Losing production is NOT an option.

When building new cities, do not let the computer dictate your food/production ratio.  Do it yourself.... or at the very least, set the flag to "production".  You can make up the food via the granary if you care to, but most likely it will be that much more important to get either defense (an archer) or culture (a monument) to consolidate your new gain.

There's a side-effect to not letting the game grow your cities too much as well.  Production drops by percentage points in each city with the "Brave New World" rules when you go underneath zero happiness.  It's better to get the production and to make your few citizens work smarter, not to grow out the city and make the whole rest of your kingdom suffer.

The other side-effect is that there are wonders that are limited by either culture (e.g. Forbidden Palace, Porcelain Tower) or by terrain (e.g. Colossus, Machu Picchu) that a small city could absolutely build if given the time.  A food focus early could defeat this purpose though, especially if you're also trying to build the national wonders (e.g. National College, Heroic Epic) because food-focused cities rarely build all the buildings you need quickly enough to make the national wonders viable.  And also FYI, the Colossus wonder is really far more useful now than it was before.

Oh, and that losing production is not an option?  That goes for wonders too.  Don't go after wonders if your empire can't support it.  Trusting one archer to defend against a horde of Aztec Jaguars while you finish Stonehenge in a desperate attempt to make up for lost religion is pretty much a white flag of surrender.  The best case scenario is that you're defending your cities with a lone archer while getting +5 religion per turn.  The worst case scenario is that you're defending your cities with a lone archer while not getting +5 in religion while at the same time earning a pittance for not finishing your Stonehenge in time.

Even in a normal situation, losing the production is not ever really a good thing.  That's not to say to never build wonders, but to make sure that your empire can support the possible lost production.  The replacement gold is really crummy when you don't make it, and you could have been building a military that could have taken the wonder from the city that builds it anyway.

In the upper levels, when you get past Level Four (Prince) and higher, the computer goes from being even in production to needing less production to finish buildings/projects.  All you have to do to verify this fact is to get to the midgame on a King-level game and view a city that you've sent a spy to.  The city will only need 90% of the production you need in order to finish everything, including wonders.  If you lose 300 production to a failed Alhambra, remember that it could have meant a trebuchet plus two pikemen to take the city that ended up building it... and the gold that you get for the consolation prize is definitely not enough to buy all three units.

Extra hint... the secret to military in the game is that military is how you steal someone else's production.  Not only in taking over cities that have built buildings/Wonders, but even in tying up an enemy Civ's time and resources into building an army rather than building improvements.  An army costs money and does not come with an immediate boost in any resource, unlike a building or a Wonder.

4. Research what you need (and can use) immediately.

This is in reference to two contexts.   In the beginning of the game, there's just so much that needs doing, such as getting the technologies to develop your resources, building certain units (archers/composite bowmen/horsemen), exploration (trireme), and Wonders that you need to get set up.  It may sound trite, but it's pointless to work on a technology that you really don't need.

However, this also has reference to the middle of the game too.  The computer usually goes into specific tracks, especially to pick up currency (to gain Petra) and to get to Civil Service (to gain both pikemen and Chichen Itza).  You can use this to beat the computer either to the Education track, setting up your research for the long haul, or to pick up the lower end of the spectrum (Engineering/Metal Working) so that you can boost your shields and your defenses.  Another way to go is one of the new bonuses in the Commerce track, which is that Landsknechts are available as the second Commerce bonus.  Of course, your defenses will be more than set if you pick up Crossbowmen, and getting all your cities in shape to start setting up a military to deal with those Civs that go in a different direction would be helpful.

Just remember that if you follow the other Civs into the same track, at higher levels they'll be likely to get the upgraded soldiers as well as the wonders first unless you have a solid plan (e.g. a Great Engineer to help finish Wonders, or a ton of catapults/spearmen just waiting for the Civil Service tech to become a pikemen/catapult invasion force).  Whenever a new tech comes up, have either a plan for what you're going to do with the immediate tech or open up the tech screen to figure out a tech that's two or three downstream that you can really make hay out of.

5. Culture

Gotta have it even in the beginning, or else the end game will absolutely suck the bag.  There's two ways to go about it... either build it yourself or take it from someone else.  Just remember a couple of principles here.

--If someone's building culture nearby you and building it quickly, they may have a weak defense.  Getting them to stop building culture could be as easy as declaring war and putting a few troops in position to threaten... as above, forcing them to build military will be tantamount to wasting their production, especially if you defend via ranged units (archers, catapults) with the occasional horseman to keep their own ranged units honest.

--If someone's building it far away, you're going to have to figure out a way to get others around that Civ to declare wars against them, or to build culture buildings as a defense.  And whatever you do, only engage in open border treaties with them when absolutely necessary, and trade with them (via caravan) only when absolutely necessary.  Those two things will help their tourism bonus overwhelm your culture bonus... but their tourism bonus will definitely go down far quicker if they're defeated.  Also remember, one of the culture tracks will raise the tourism bonus for shared trade routes/open borders/shared religion.  Allowing them to buy your extra luxuries can also lead to them getting more happiness and therefore additional culture as well, so be careful when dealing with the culture hog!

This will likely be a three-part series, as I am planning to cover the middle game next and wrap up with the end game.  Good luck!

11 November 2013

#2LR: Nihilism, starring Grave of the Fireflies (among others)

When autumn begins, late September, it's still warm but getting a bit cooler... and it's nice to get that cool after the heat of August.  October brings a bit cooler weather, but here in the northern Midwest, we are treated to one of Nature's greatest exhibitions -- the trees putting on a show of color change, all putting on costumes just like the children do for Halloween.

For me though, there's two times of year that are the most depressing.  Late February, just because winter always seems to take forever and I'm more than done with it at that point.  And... now, mid- to late-November, most of the way through autumn.  Each nice day is thought to be the last nice day for months... today, 10 November, was mild in the sun and refreshing in the breeze.  Half of the yard was raked in the twenty minutes or so that I had free (from preparing dinner).

The next two days are scheduled to be below freezing.  And oh yeah, did I neglect to mention last year's completely unnecessary unemployment adventure?  There's definitely that too, memories of Novembers past that have sucked the bag.

So, how do I celebrate this time of year, when the outside is getting ready to get buried under a blanket of solid water in the form of snow, ice, and sleet for three months and the bad feelings start taking hold?  By watching depressing movies, of course!

Saturday night was the first level of depressing, watching the Will Smith vehicle Seven Pounds.  It is the SPOILER SPACE story of a man who texts while driving, causing an accident that takes the lives of seven people, including his fiancee.  This leads to Will Smith killing himself so that he can serve as a one-stop organ bank for seven other people while he kills himself to atone for what he's done.  There's not a whole lot else to say about the movie, except for the fact that the Will Smith character had a small chance to turn back... he ended up getting involved with one of the seven people, a woman with congenital heart disease.  Even this is not enough for the Will Smith character to rethink his plan to die, and the movie ends with Katniss' mentor getting his eyes back.  Sorry, Woody Harrelson, you're even LESS believable as a dramatic actor... and you're standing next to the friggin' Fresh Prince of Bel-Air!  I don't know who's lost worse... Woody, or the American Public.  SPOILER SPACE OVER

So!  I knew enough to only pay a half-eye's worth of attention to the movie, especially after reading the Wikipedia entry for it and realizing that what little I was watching was even more unbelievable than the plot synopsis made it out to be.  That truly pales in comparison to the star of the weekend, the incredibly depressing Grave of the Fireflies

In this, SPOILER SPACE, Japan is in the last throes of war.  Seita, a ~14 or so year old boy and his ~4 or so year old sister Setsuko find themselves orphaned towards the end of World War II in one of the firebombings carried out by American bombers.  They attempt to live with the one family member they know of, their auntie in the country.  After bringing luxury foods to the aunt's house, the aunt and Seita sorta-kinda fight over food, with the aunt constantly getting in passive-aggressive digs at the fact that Seita's not helping (despite the fact that Seita's dad is serving aboard a likely-already-sunk Japanese cruiser).

Seita and Setsuko decide to take off on their own, and find an old abandoned cement structure to call home.  Seita has to resort to stealing, first taking a few crops from local farmers, and then looting houses during air raids in order to get enough money for food.  Setsuko waits behind, but the lack of food makes her weaker and weaker.  Eventually, the war ends... Seita has pulled what little money remains from his parents' accounts, but it's too little too late for Setsuko, who has had to endure months of living effectively outside while dealing with what looked like a massive case of eczema, impetigo, or some other skin disease.  Setsuko passes, leaving Seita behind... and that pretty much snuffs out the last of Seita's flame for life.

By the way, we see Seita die in the first scene of the movie.  So it's not like we don't know where this is going... it's almost as if the artists responsible are taunting their audience.  "This movie WILL END BADLY.  And there's nothing you can do about it."


Feel spoiled yet?  Feel... well, numb inside, to some extent?  I'm not sure I've watched two such movies in quick succession like this before.  It's sobering, emotional, maddening, all sorts of things.  It reminds me of human imperfection.  The movies show me that there's a world outside mine, where I'm just complaining about the weather up above but someone somewhere really is not able to eat their fill... or has caused accidents and is living with the survivor's guilt eating them up inside.  I wish that I could fix the world.......


but then, one of the messages that I feel from these movies is that the world is to some extent unfixable.  We humans are an imperfect species... causing grief to each other even though our actions weren't meant to cause grief, fighting each other, getting lost in the minutae of our situations without really being able to see past our noses.  My tween daughter, all of eleven years on the planet, proclaimed Grave of the Fireflies to be one of the worst movies that she's ever seen, if not the worst.  I explained to her that there was a time that I hated nihilistic literature too... being forced to read John Steinbeck's The Pearl while in high school.  Man, I hated that book... in some regards though, it's a very depressing book for high school students especially.  After all, the protagonist in the book stumbles across something that should make his life better, and finds out that it actually makes his life worse... just the thing to give high-schoolers that are trying to figure out how to make their lives better.  Failure in The Pearl ends in death for multiple characters.  (At this point, eff the Spoiler Space warnings, and you can direct all hate mail for this topic to my email box.)

So, these two movies were the emotional equivalent of getting caught in the proverbial late-autumn cold-front rainstorm.  There's no escaping this rainstorm with a cup of hot chocolate and a fuzzy blanket, though.  Towards the end of Grave of the Fireflies, we find out the family that owns the land that the two children were squatting on... were really well-off.  There were multiple young women entering the house at the end and finding that their "phonograph still works!" while playing a tune.  Contrasting that with the scene of devastation only a couple hundred feet from their front door.... it's powerful, emotional, and even though the movie is trending towards fifteen years old, it's still effective in getting a reaction from its viewers.

Watching these types of movies or reading these types of books I feel is a challenge to your ability to be human.  Realizing that not every ending is a happy one is a hard realization for someone like me, who would far rather stay with humor.  It's hard for a child to think about these things too, as my tween reminded me.  Myself, my wife, and our tween daughter discussed both films after the final images of Grave of the Fireflies twinkled off of our screen.  There were so many things that could have been changed in both stories... characters that seemed to be on self-destructive paths, or could have made better decisions.  Could they have been fixed?  Should they have been fixed?  Would they have been any different had the characters known the depth of their situation going in, or does Fate really hold the wheel while we go along for the ride?

All stories are about conflict.  It just so happens that these two stories are about conflicts where the main character(s) are found to be on the losing side, and as above major consequences follow.  They're both fiction, so liberties will be taken with their conflicts as well as their resolutions... but it's not so difficult to imagine yourself or someone you love up on that screen, dealing with these challenges at the same time.

You may think that I would give both movies high grades.  To be honest, I don't think that they fit within the scale... or at least one doesn't.  Seven Pounds, you are the weakest link here.  Will Smith... I don't know, you feel insufferable at this point, and I'm not sure that I can really take you seriously in much right now.  I'm barely even sure I could laugh at you in a comedy really.  Seven Pounds, for the ridiculous situations, bad acting, and all around 'bleh'-ness, I'm giving you a well-deserved 0.6.  If I watch you again even once the rest of my life, it'll be once too much.  You felt contrived, forced, almost as if you're trying to wring my tears from my eyes by squeezing my brain in painful ways.

Grave of the Fireflies, however, feels different.  The problem is that I would have to be in a very specific mood to watch this movie once again, and my scale is reposted below for reminder's sake:

1.I wouldn't watch it even if it was halfway through on TV.
2.I would watch it if it was on, but not intentionally cue it up.
3.I would get the tape and watch it occasionally
4.I would get the tape and watch it often.

Here's the problem.  I like the movie.  I think it is a strong, powerful movie about people fighting the odds... and in this situation, the odds end up fighting back.  For me, it is a textbook definition of both a 1 and a 3.  I would definitely not watch it if it was halfway through on television, nor would I watch it even if I managed to catch it as it was starting on television.  I can certainly see a situation where I would get a copy of it and watch it occasionally though.  I suppose that the rating won't be a 0-4 star situation, so I'll give it a C.  Not as in average, but as in challenging.  C as in conflict.  C as in watch it once and C how you feel afterward.  C as in cinema, check out this movie if you want something that will not unnecessarily press your "feels" buttons but at least makes you think, tries to lift you to a higher plane of contemplation, and hopefully allows you to C your own situation in a new light.  This movie will stick in your mind, for better or for worse.

Mindless action is back on tap through the week, as Netflix will take away Grave of the Fireflies and return with the first two movies of the recent Sherlock Holmes reboot.  I could use some escapism, to escape from the bad moments of my present life and the worse moments that I watched a couple short hours before.

09 November 2013

#2LR - Star Trek... from the FUTURE!

New form of posting today, writing it in.  Today's movie is the reboot of the Star Trek franchise, otherwise known as "The Universe Hates James T. Kirk's Face."  Please follow me below, warp speed into Spoiler Space Below, and we'll explore all the ways.

The movie starts with one of the most bizarre "spaceships" that have been trotted onto the screen. It's all long spikes and no propulsion (or safety from the void of space).  How does it move?!  Anyway, it manages to completely trash a starship, and we find out that one of the escapees was James T. Kirk's mother... while his father, the acting captain "for twelve minutes", kamikaze's his ship into the attacker... but doesn't completely damage it.  Barely even scratches it, and come to think of it... with a whole starship and a suicidal captain, how did it manage to do NO DAMAGE?

Anyway, the story jumps forward more than a few years as we see a snot-nosed ten-year-old kid driving a cherry Thunderbird (IIRC), which turns out to be a young Jim Kirk.  However, we know WHY "The Universe Hates James T. Kirk's Face" pretty much right off the bat, as in a dick move L'il Jimmy manages to play chicken near the cliffs of Iowa (?!), letting the Thunderbird fall five hundred feet to its doom while he laughs about it.  Curse you, Kirk!!

Anyway, some years later, he ends up in a bar where he gets beat up by Starfleet Academy plebes as he's trying to make the moves on a young Uhura.  One of the men from Starfleet come in to break up the fight, and it just so happens that he remembers Jimmy's dad.  After some convincing, Jim's ready to sign up to Starfleet.

Oh, and Spock's in it... he's a not-a-Vulcan who gets into fights when someone disses his momma.  Important for later, too...

Kirk runs across Bones on the flight into Starfleet and the two make fast friends over a flask of hooch.  It cuts to a couple years later, as Kirk is taking the Kobayashi Maru test for the third time.  Instead of using Marrissa Flores Picard's smooth moves, Kirk just reprograms the computer so that he wins by disabling all of the simulated attackers' ships.  The computer programmer is hopping mad, though... well, he's Spock, so he's quietly seething now that he's got a crapload of emotions and all.

So, Kirk gets dressed down in front of Starfleet, and instead of giving a hell of a good excuse ("A captain has to pull out all the stops to complete his mission and save his ships, including changing the parameters if needed"), there's pretty much just no defense.  He gets dressed down by Tyler Perry and the "American Idol" jury.  At that point, we find out that Vulcan is under attack, and all the cadets are assigned to ships... except for Kirk.  Bones manages to half-beat-up Kirk (through the use of viruses and pharmaceuticals) to subterfuge Kirk onto the ship that Bones has been assigned to, the Enterprise.  At the same time, Uhuru half-blackmails Spock to be put on the Enterprise, where Chekov and Sulu are already manning the help... and Captain Christopher Pike is in control.

So the starships all go off to Vulcan, but Kirk bullies his way to the bridge... he tells the Captain and the first officer Spock that the reports indicate that it's a trap.  As the Enterprise gets to Vulcan, they find Spiky Ship.  Spiky Ship ends up launching a drill at Vulcan.  Kirk is sent to take out a drilling platform that the ship launches against Vulcan, getting beat up by a Romulan in the process and both saving Sulu as well as being saved by Sulu.  Spiky Ship and the Romulans succeed in destroying Vulcan.  Spock attempts to beam down to the surface and beams back up a few of the elders of Vulcan, but unfortunately his mother falls in a rockslide and is not grabbed by the transporter.

The captain has been taken hostage by the Romulans, and prior to his leaving he places Spock as acting captain with Kirk as first officer.  After the Romulans take off, Spock moves to join up with Starfleet and Kirk argues vociferously to go after the Romulans.  Spock has Security beat up Kirk for the third time this movie and sends Kirk to the ice planet Hoth... err, Delta Beta Whatever, which is a snow planet.

Kirk gets chased by an almost-Wampa, but the Wampa is beat back by a huge lizard-ish thing that ends up chasing Kirk into a cave.  Kirk gets saved by the lizard-ish thing by the actual Nimoy Spock (known as Spock Prime), who runs off the beast and tells Kirk about the time-travelling Romulans and time-travelling Spock.  They both head to the Federation outpost, being manned by none other than Scotty.  Spock Prime tells Kirk to take control of the Enterprise through compromising Current Spock, then gins up Alternate Universe Scotty's warp transporter calculations and ends up sending them back to a speeding Enterprise.

Kirk rescues Scotty from the hydraulic system and gets beat up by Security, which happens to include the original bar cretins from the beginning of the movie.  Predictably, Kirk gets beat up.   Before Kirk is thrown in the brig though, he starts insulting Spock's momma.  The beginning of the movie showed us that Spock hates the Yo Momma jokes, and Spock ends up beating up Kirk.  (We're up to four and a half!)  Spock realizes that he's acting like a jerk and takes himself from command... leaving the Acting First Officer Kirk in charge.  Immediately he sets a course for Earth to intercept the Romulan Spiky Ship.

The final part of the movie starts with the Enterprise getting in range of the Romulan Spiky Ship and both Spock/Kirk beaming over.  There's a firefight on the Spiky Ship, and for a change Kirk doesn't get beat up.  Spock finds the part of the Spiky Ship that the Romulans are using to destroy planets, which happens to be Spock Prime's Scooty-Puff Jr..  Spock runs off with it, leaving Kirk in the Spiky Ship.  He ends up getting a rifle-butt to the side of the head (Five-and-a-half!) as the remaining Romulans try to get the Scooty-Puff Jr. back.  Kirk wakes up but starts getting beat up by the Romulan captain, who's just about ready to drop Kirk to his doom... until Kirk grabs the Romulan's holstered gun and shoots him in the gut.  We'll call that one a draw, one-half to one-half... bringing the final total of The Universe Hates James T. Kirk's Face count to six.

Nimoy Spock shows up for the epilogue and looks on as Kirk is proclaimed a Hero of Yavin.  Shortly after, the credits roll but unfortunately they don't drop on top of Kirk's head.

Spoiler Space over.

Whew.  There's a lot of action that they packed into these two hours.  I could tell that Shatner wasn't involved though, he'd end up winning those ridiculous fights rather than losing them.  To be sure, the movie worked far better as "The Universe Hates Jim Kirk's Face"... he's still young and he's not worldly enough to either avoid these fights nor smart enough to bluff his way through them.  However, there is one aspect of his character that shone through and was most endearing was his perseverance.  He did NOT give up one single inch.  Thankfully, letting Kirk be right about everything also is helped by Kirk's signature luck (such as finding Spock Prime in a random Hoth ice-cave.

Other than that, the movie had its share of humor, Chris Pike was good a taking both a punch and a pratfall.  It's certainly a worth-enough story for Star Trek, and while derivative at times it's still a solid movie... especially if you like sci-fi.

Final Rating: 3.5

18 October 2013

Grand Theft Auto V Review

Needlessly frustrating.

That's how I sum up my overall experience with this game. I felt 'Grand Theft Auto V' was an asshole when it didn't have to be and much like 'Red Dead Redemption', it seemed determined to punish you for having any sort of fun outside its established parameters within the story mode.

I know this game has already sold like a billion copies so what I have to say here will probably make little to no difference to Rockstar Games or its fans who have declared their unequivocal love for this series. And hey, I loved and still love to play older Rockstar titles like 'Grand Theft Auto: Vice City', 'The Warriors' and 'Bully'. But nowadays, I personally just don't understand the loyalty some people have for this company anymore. Ever since 'Grand Theft Auto IV', it seems to me more and more like Rockstar has forgotten how to make their games FUN.

Warning: Spoilers follow:

You've probably heard a few of the complaints people have had about 'Grand Theft Auto V'. The misogyny, an unskippable torture scene, animal cruelty, unlikable protagonists, etc. Personally, none of those were more offensive to me than the game's overall general attitude towards the player but let's briefly tackle those complaints one at a time.

Misogyny: This has been a staple of the Grand Theft Auto series for some time now. I sold my copy of 'Vice City Stories' after finishing it because I found it to be too vile and hateful towards women, despite enjoying the 80s setting. I've also never liked the idea of being able to kill a prostitute to get your money back after she healed your ungrateful ass in any of the GTA games, but ultimately the choice is given to you whether or not to kill the hooker after sex, so it's on the player.

As for the other women in this game, it's true they're almost all portrayed as either spoiled brats or total bitches and I can totally understand why people would be upset by this but IMHO, I felt the men in the game are almost all portrayed as spoiled brats and/or total assholes as well, so really, regardless of gender, I felt there wasn't one likeable person in the entire game.

Case in point: Fan favorite Lazlow, the only character whose been in every GTA game and whose twisted but still likable character has been slowly sinking into the muck with every new GTA game is now turned into a complete douchebag in order to justify a later unskippable scene where douchebag protagonist Michael De Santa forces the player to torture Lazlow with piercings and a tattoo needle in order to defend the honour of his douchebag daughter, Tracey. Make no mistake, I firmly believe this game hates EVERYBODY, especially the player.

Torture Scene: This scene IS mandatory in the story mode and can't be skipped. About the only good thing I can say about it is that you have the choice of items to torture with so you can at least attempt to pick the least damaging approach and repeat it until the scene is over. I seriously have to ask what was the point of it though? To parody real life events? Uh yeah, I play video games to ESCAPE real life, thanks. To make us feel bad and uncomfortable? This is a videoGAME, I don't want to feel bad and uncomfortable, I want to have FUN. Remember FUN, Rockstar?

Animal Cruelty: Again, this is a matter of player's choice but the animals in this game are all ink and paint, ones and zeroes and I really can't see this game encouraging people to go out into the desert and shoot up the local wildlife unless they live in an environment where that type of activity was already commonplace well before this game was released. I just feel any group that protests animal cruelty is better served focusing on ACTUAL animal cruelty than worrying about players running over virtual coyotes.

Unlikable Protagonists: It's hard for me to enjoy a game when you're not rooting for any of the protagonists and this game has THREE of them. Franklin Clinton was the least offensive character for me but at the same time, he's a soldier who basically shrugs off all the madness around him and doesn't really have much in the way of motivation or goals, just basically going where the plot tells him to go. He's a little bland and his character arc doesn't really go anywhere. He's like a more laid back C.J. Johnson from 'San Andreas' but with less backstory.

But at least Franklin isn't a hypocrite like Michael De Santa, who tries to come off as an older Tommy Vercetti but is far too much of a pussy for that. Michael is a retired bank robber who hates his life and is seeing a shrink, and ends up getting back into the criminal game through a misunderstanding with a local crime lord.

Oh, but now he has a family to worry about, although why the hell he would bother is a complete mystery to me as Michael’s family are completely and utterly unlikable and every mission involving them just made me want to kill the everlasting fuck out of them. Just because they're a parody of the spoiled rich dysfunctional family doesn't make having to spend time in their presence any less excruciating. Why the hell would I ever want to help and especially save any of these idiots? Oh right, because the game says I have to and refuses to continue until I do. Fuck you, Rockstar.

And of course, despite murdering hundreds of people during the course of the game, you are never given the choice to simply leave or kill your annoying family without immediately ending the game because THAT WOULD BE WRONG. 9_9

Our third protagonist is Trevor Philips who's a straight up psychopath... no wait, he's a killer with a heart of gold... no no, he's a sadist who loves to torture... oh nope, wait, he's just a tortured soul with a soft spot for the tormented... hold on, he just massacred a group of people for insulting his Canadian heritage... yeah. Trevor's character is all over the place, every time he starts to lean towards likable, he does something that makes me want to play as Franklin again just to get away from him.

And while I admit Trevor is probably the most willing and able to engage in the type of mayhem and murder that's supposed to make these games fun to play in the first place, his personality was just too off-putting most of the time and he's still a slave to the albatross that is this game's story which has him kowtowing to people that you actually WANT him to straight up murder the moment they looked at him funny but he won't. Oh, and he's also a pilot, which means you get to fly planes and helicopters with him, and guess what? The flying controls are every bit as clunky and nausea-inducing as the last few GTA games! Yay!

Fortunately, and in fairness, there were a few improvements to gameplay. The cars are not quite as shit to drive as the previous game. You can now play the stock market and actually drive down prices by attacking certain company vehicles, enabling you to clean up with their rival's stocks, which is a cool idea. There are also now mid-mission checkpoints, which was much appreciated and LONG overdue. The bank heist missions were probably the high point of the game for me, but there were too few of them and to be honest, they kinda made me want to play 'Sly Cooper 2: Band of Thieves' instead. ;P

And finally, we come to the main reason this and the last few Rockstar games have thoroughly pissed me off. Overall, it just plain wasn't fun for me to play. I find myself comparing GTA to the 'Saints Row' series, considered to be nothing more than another GTA clone with its first game, actually managed to surpass GTA IV with 'Saints Row 2', IMHO, and the series hasn't looked back since. Not in terms of game sales, unfortunately, but 'Saints Row fucking understands how to make a fun game that you'll want to go back and explore for hours on end, with a story mode that celebrates chaos and respects the player while never taking itself too seriously.

'Grand Theft Auto V' was the complete opposite experience for me and gives off the impression of being free-spirited while being almost completely inflexible with its story and what you can actually do in the game. It wants to be taken seriously at the expense of its gameplay and DEMANDS that you follow its story and embrace its characters and if you don't like them, tough shit cause you're stuck with them.

Now I won't deny being able to design your own protagonist was a big plus in regards to the 'Saints Row' series but I honestly didn't mind playing as an established character like Eizo from 'Assassin's Creed II' because he was a likable protagonist with interesting characters and a story that kept me intrigued throughout. But when I find that the story, characters and protagonists are all shit to me, then what the hell reason do I have to play this game?

And don't let the multiple endings fool you either. IMHO, there is NO freedom of choice or direction in 'Grand Theft Auto V'. The game tells you how you should be reacting to its characters and basically tells you to go to hell if you feel any differently. Case in point: When I reached the end of the game, I killed Michael as Franklin because during the course of the game, I came to despise everything about Michael, his family and I wanted revenge for Lazlow and the character he was before this game ruined him.

All of a sudden, Franklin is guilt-ridden about killing Michael, even as he's chasing him down with a gun. Then afterwards, his family is tearfully calling me and trying to make me feel bad about the murder and Trevor's character flip flops YET AGAIN and refuses to speak to me anymore out of spite.

The game utterly refused to consider the possibility that I felt completely justified in killing Michael and endlessly berated me for doing it, despite Franklin not really ever showing any signs of having a close relationship with Michael in the first place. Hey game? How about letting ME decide how I feel about killing Michael instead of lecturing me like I'm eight years old!? -_-;

That's when I realized I'd had enough. I didn't want to free play. I didn't want to see the other two endings. I didn't want to finish up any last side missions. I uninstalled the game and sold it as quickly as possible on Kajiji. Good fucking riddance.

If you haven't bought 'Grand Theft Auto V' yet for whatever reason, I highly recommend you just get something else. Like 'Saints Row IV', which may not have sold as many copies but was unquestionably the more fun experience for me. But that's just my opinion and I force it on no one.

Unlike 'Grand Theft Auto V'.

15 October 2013

#2LR Too Late Review: The Cat Returns

  There are times, in those early hours of the morning or when I'm relaxing, that my mind ends up wandering.  Sometimes it goes far afield, and sometimes it stays right where I am, kind of playing around my feet like a kitten with a ball of string.  When watching today's #2LR movie, The Cat Returns, the best comparison that I can make is to one of those half-aware dreams.

  To get the real-life details of the movie down on paper, this is a Studio Ghibli movie, though it's not a Miyazaki film.  It's actually a pseudo-sequel to the one of the few non-Miyazaki Ghibli theatrical films, Whisper of the Heart... which, despite owning (and enjoying) the movie, I have not done a Too Late Review of.  At any rate, both movies share a specific character... a cat figurine that comes to life, either through stories of the protagonist (in Whisper of the Heart) or by itself, to help the main protagonist in this movie.

  Consider the below Spoiler Space...

  The movie presents Haru, a high-school girl who is reluctant to get up, occasionally late to school (and laughed at by her troubles), and crushing on a boy who's already taken.  While she and her friend Hiromi are in town after school, she sees a cat carrying a curious wrapped package.  The cat attempts to cross the street, but is set upon by a large truck.  Haru gives her best efforts to save the cat with the device in her hand... a lacrosse stick, which she uses to scoop up the cat as she dashes across the road.

  The cat is safe, and oddly enough talks to her afterward to thank Haru for her actions.  Haru is confused, especially since no one else heard the cat on the busy street.  She thinks nothing of it, though her lacrosse stick is broken.  That evening, she goes to bed but hears a yowling out by the road.  There's a procession of cats, but these cats all walk on their hind legs.  At the tail end (HA!) of the procession is the King of Cat Kingdom, who thanks Haru for her actions... she saved the Crown Prince from death, and the King wants to reward Haru for what she's done.

  The next morning, Haru's yard is overgrown with catnip, which she is unfortunately allergic to.  She dashes off to school, but finds that her shoe locker is filled to the brim with mice.  Later on, her friend calls her to tell her that there's a couple gross of lacrosse sticks all over the hallway, and to ask Haru what to do with them.  In the afternoon of this very strange day, another cat comes up to Haru on its hind legs and tells Haru that the Cat King wants Haru to become his daughter-in-law, to marry the prince that she saved.

  Haru is taken aback, but thinks very long and hard about the offer.  The messenger cat takes her silence as consent and tells her to expect the Cat King to come around to collect her in the evening.  After the messenger cat leaves, Haru realizes that she may not want to do this... and she hears a voice telling her to find the Cat Bureau via a cat that is waiting for her at one of the cross-streets.  Haru seeks out this cat, an exceedingly chunky cat named Muta, and he leads her through quite a few paths to the Cat Bureau.  There she meets both the cat figurine mentioned above, Baron, as well as a stone crow that comes to life, Toto.

  While Haru is trying to process all of this, a massive group of cats comes to the Cat Bureau and pulls her away from her conversation with Baron.  Muta is pulled along with the cats, while the Baron and Toto try to follow along as best as possible.  The cats prove too quick... Haru and Muta are deposited in the Cat Kingdom while the Baron and Toto are on the outside looking in.

  Haru enjoys the Cat Kingdom at first... it's always noon, and the grass is perfect for catnaps.  Shortly after though, she's taken to the palace to be fitted into a dress... and finds herself starting to turn into a cat.  It's explained that she'll turn fully into a cat in order to facilitate the marriage between herself and the Prince, and Haru wants none of it.  A banquet is held for her later on, and the whole time she's despondent.  The Baron shows up and finally perks her spirits up, and manages to get her away from the Cat King.

  We find out that Haru has a chance to go back to the human world, that there's a portal at the top of a tower that's surrounded by a maze.  If she makes it back by morning, she'll be human again.  At first the Cat King is content to watch her get lost, but she and the Baron figure out the secret to the maze and get through to the tower.  The Cat King gets mad and ends up blowing the tower before she can reach the very tip-top to go through the portal.  At this point, it's revealed that Muta was a fearsome criminal (he ate all the fish in the pond) who was booted out of the Cat Kingdom, and he tries his level best to send Haru on her way out.  Thanks to timely intervention from the Prince and the cat that the Prince really would like to marry, the Cat King is thwarted and Haru manages to make it back to the human world.

  She bids a tearful goodbye to her new-found friends and ends up at the school for another school day.  During the epilogue of the story, we find out that Haru's pulled herself together far more, her adventures have helped her to realize who she is and what she needs to do in life... she gets up to go to school early, doesn't moon over her crush, and generally acts like an adult.

Spoiler space over.

  If you managed to make it through the plot, you'll see why I introduced the movie the way I did.  To me, this is almost the perfect vision of one of those lazy dreams put up on a movie screen.  The plot starts pretty conventionally, but progresses to weirder, and weirder, and weirder... little by little, so that you don't quite wake up from your dream, but it's far stranger to end with than it was to begin with.  Next thing you know, the day's crept up on you and you have to move around again in the "real world".  Heck, one of the plot points has to do with the time-limit set by the rising sun... if that's not a metaphor for the dreamy part of the plot to "wake up", I don't know what is.

  I suppose though that one of the depressing parts of this movie is the whole "growing up" thing.  The protagonist is shown as far more adult, far more put-together, far less impulsive, far more responsible... it almost feels like that equals "no imagination" to me.  There's times that I've had little to no imagination when I've been an adult, and I realize looking back on those times that I was also pretty glum and bored with life at times, especially those times when I was by myself.  Writing has been my primary outlet for getting through the imagination-less solitary glum parts of my life, and I hope that Haru has her lacrosse to get her through those parts of her life.

  In Whisper of the Heart, the message is to follow your dream, to become good at what you enjoy doing and seeing where life takes you.  In this movie, I feel that the message is to not get caught up in someone else's dream (e.g. the Cat King's), and to make sure that you're comfortable with your own self before trying to work towards a dream of your own.  It does make a lot of sense, in that at the end of the movie Haru has learned more about herself and is comfortable being who she is rather than defined by either her previous actions (such as saving the Prince, or helping those in need) nor is she willing to play someone else's role in life.  She's now in the position to dream for herself, to create her own world rather than borrow the Cat Kingdom's world to just laze around in.  So, in some odd way, the message of this movie is the prequel to Whisper of the Heart despite the characters making a reappearance for a sequel.

Final grade for this movie: 2.9 
It's especially good for a lazy afternoon, where your dreams and the movie's vision end up glomming together...

13 October 2013

New avenues for posting:

So, just bought myself a new Acer 8.1" tablet with my just-received tax refund money... evidently, the US government is open enough to still process tax returns, especially since they've had mine since April 15. It's actually not a bad setup, the tablet is large enough to type on and view, but small enough to be rather nice and portable, and only $250 to boot. At the least, this means that I can take this to places to blog or write that I would not have taken my laptop.

Things have been looking up more a bit lately, not the least of which is obtaining the new tech. A couple of major issues at work resolved rather peaceably, and I will be in high demand at work through the next couple days with the computer skills that I've been able to use lately. Today, I had the opportunity to see one of my favorite instrumental groups in person, and not even in concert. It turned out that they were in town, and wanted to visit church on a Sunday, and it just happened to be the one that I attend. It was interesting to hear them speak about their challenges.

On the MSTing front, Megane and I have been working almost at double pace lately, getting another MSTing written to be published. It's not always a smooth process, but we're trying our best. I truly apologize for not posting in the better part of a month or so... there's still challenges to overcome, including a bicycle used for commuting that I've not been able to keep on the road lately, but I'll make more of an effort to do some reviews. I do have another Studio Ghibli review coming up soon, and I am still looking to do a post or three on the history of spoof movies too. Thanks again for your patience, and thank you for your support.

(Managed to scratch this out in about fifteen minutes on the tablet... hopefully, as I get better getting these out, this will become more and more of an option.)

22 September 2013

#2LR Too Late Review: Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life

I've noticed lately that this blog is getting into much more eclectic fields lately.  A Monster in Paris isn't exactly mainstream faire... Lupin III, the Oregon Trail Wii game... it's almost as if I'm just trying to find targets that haven't really had a review yet.  It's not exactly that, but it does make the job somewhat easier.

In the introductions on these Too Late Reviews, I at least try to show the angle which I will be attacking the movie from.  This way, you know that I'm putting a spin on the source material that you may not have thought of, or one that may have been at least lightly explored but not really fleshed out.  It's odd, in that the Too Late Review that I try to write for you, the readers, is one that is new content, or at least content that I haven't seen too much of before.  I hope that using my fifteen or so years of experience with deeply analyzing text stories, trying to get into the head of writers to craft jokes based on what they write, that it translates into being able to show another side of a movie that you may not have seen before.  So, to sum up... this movie really has no reviews, so that allows me to write about it in the broadest terms possible rather than to go at it from an obtuse angle... a pleasant change from some of my reviews.

Of course, the audience for Mystery Science Theater 3000 is old and getting older.  There's still the newer Rifftrax and Cinematic Titanic where you could pick up an Imagine Dragons reference or a Demi Lovato namedrop, but the old series is what we started dealing with here on A MSTing For All Seasons and I'm not sure if any of the youngin's really will come for that.  So, I must admit that it was odd for me to have learned that the story behind the movie Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life is a recent story aimed at young adults.  I suppose that I myself am late to the party.

For this movie, Wikipedia's couple-of-paragraphs allow me to lean on them slightly, so please excuse me if there's much missing from the plot synopsis.  As always, Spoiler Space ahead.

Jeremy Fink's thirteenth birthday is coming up soon.  He and his friend Lizzy are in the lobby of their New York apartment building when Jeremy receives a package from Lizzy's father, the mailman.  In the package is a box, marked for Jeremy to open on his thirteenth birthday.  In the lid is carved "The Meaning of Life", ostensibly from Jeremy's father -- who passed away five years previous due to a car/pedestrian accident.  The box is a heavy wooden box that is locked with a total of four locks, but with no keys.  So now, Jeremy and Lizzy have to find a way inside.

Lizzy is a planner and schemer, and she figures out a seven- or eight-step plan to try to open the box.  None seem to work, even going to the locksmith, so both Lizzy and Jeremy try to go to the law office that had included a letter with the box to look for the keys.  After tossing the place, they get caught by security and sent to the police department.  The detective offers both children a way out, through community service by helping Mr. Oswald.

Mr. Oswald is quite the eccentric, an antiques dealer who will be retiring soon.  He has the kids picked up in a limousine and explains to them what he wants them to do... namely, delivering items that were pawned by their previous owners so that the owners could do something greater with their lives.  Accompanying each of the pawned items (example: telescope pawned by astronomer) is a letter describing why each was pawned.  Jeremy and Lizzy learn quite a bit from each of the persons they make deliveries to, my favorite being the old astronomer.  When Jeremy learns about why the astronomer pawned his telescope, he tells the astronomer that it just raises twenty new questions.  The astronomer comments to Jeremy that being able to keep asking questions even into old age is a rare gift, and one that he should always continue.

There are times that both children feel let down... at one point, Jeremy trashes his pet project, a time machine that he wishes he could use in order to bring back his father.  He laments the fact that circumstances weren't even slightly different in one scene of the movie, which brought back memories to a far more tedious scene played out in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (covered in previous review on this blog).  His friend Lizzy tosses the pieces after Jeremy's fit of anger.

At the end of the movie, Mr. Oswald is grateful for the help that both children provide and offers them anything that they could want in his library/study area.  Lizzy takes a porcelain doll, and Oswald produces a suitcase full of keys to Jeremy.  Jeremy takes it gleefully, and then tries to unlock each of the four locks on the box with the myriad keys.  They find three keys that fit, but not the fourth... meanwhile, it's 2AM on Jeremy's birthday, so he finally gives up and goes to sleep.

The next day, during the birthday party, Jeremy receives the old telescope as a gift and then opens another box... it's the key to his old time machine, which just so happened to be the fourth key to the box.  He opens the box and receives a heartfelt letter from his father.

The backstory from the father is that Jeremy's father went to Coney Island one day when he was thirteen, and went to the psychic to have his fortune told.  The psychic, mean person that she is, told him that he'd die by the age of forty.  Jeremy's father was the type to take that seriously, and in the letter describes how at first he was fixated on the idea of death being a large part of life... until he realized that life is made up of moments, and it matters more the use we make of those moments.  Jeremy's father did mention in the letter that not all of the moments of Jeremy's life will be the important ones, but wished that his son would know and understand when one of those moments would happen for him.  In the box... are rocks.  Meticulously noted are the moments that occurred when Jeremy's father collected each of the rocks, though none of the rocks are actually labelled so that Jeremy knows.

Jeremy then dashes back to Mr. Oswald's house, and learns that Mr. Oswald really is going to Florida.  However, he finds out from the limousine chauffeur that his father was the one that pretty much set everything up.  He met Mr. Oswald in the flea markets, and set about collecting all of the old items that were of importance to others... and asked all those others to make Jeremy's thirteenth birthday such a special occasion for Jeremy.  Everyone, from both Jeremy's mom and Lizzy's dad, through the locksmith, through the detective and the security guard at the law office, and all of the people they interacted with... were all on the birthday surprise.  And now, Jeremy has one more special reason to not only remember his father, but to make his life into one that he wishes to make it into.

Spoiler space over.

This movie had a very simple and beautiful way to tell the audience reading this book that even though each of the moments is personal, that they can still be shared with the person you love.  On top of that, Jeremy's father, from beyond the grave, encouraged Jeremy to make a collection of his own moments that were special.  Love allowed this message to come across to Jeremy, and... well, hey, er....

For a review, this was really a sweet movie.  The same movie watcher can watch the same movie twice and come to two rather radical decisions... in some way, I try to allow for this in my reviews when I assign a number grade to a movie.  I attempt to think about how a movie may work if I'm as ultra-receptive as possible, and then think about the movie in an almost nihilistic MSTing point of view.  I suspect that a few things going on in my life (including the fact that I have children ages 11-10-7-3) allow me to be more receptive to this movie than I may ordinarily be, but in all seriousness the emotion felt eager.  The child actors did a good job of just being children... and if you're receptive to the message, it's a strong and heartfelt one.  Just don't let the tone put you off in the first few minutes... and if you find that it is, just swap out the movie until a time that you're feeling a bit more mellow.  It'll always be there.

I can certainly understand how this could be taken as treacly... I mean, there were some really far-fetched things going on (such as the details shared in the last paragraph of the plot outline, Mr. Oswald's true gift at the end... it would have been so interesting for the gift to have been another, less-famous of the type along with a note telling him to keep searching and to never give up).

But, hey.  This movie sums up in ninety minutes really two of the reasons that I'm doing this blog.  I want to be able to share some of myself with you, which is one of the messages that the father's gift allows to Jeremy.  And remembering your moments (like your favorite movies) and writing them down will allow you to revisit those moments, to give you the feelings and emotions that you once had.  Writing is so liberating in that regard... and through writing, I hope that my emotion shines through even as the movie's does.  I don't wish to lead a life of quiet desperation (in a famous Thoreau quote)... this movie encourages you to make happy memories, and I would be remiss if I didn't do the same.

Final review: 3.2.   I would certainly watch this movie again, especially with my family.

Happy Autumn everybody, and thank you for your patience with us here in the last two months.  I'm still trying to establish a better and easier schedule for me to publish, and I truly hope that all our readers are still enjoying what reviews and articles we're able to post.

01 September 2013

#2LR Too Late Review: Epic

There's more than a little to report as the calendar shifts to September.  Our little blog is about to crest 10,000 hits, which is certainly not exactly a big deal in the Land of Internet... spamlink posts designed to get little ol' me to click on them probably contributed around 350-500 of these hits, so it's really a hollow number regardless.  At the very least, we're getting roughly the same number of legitimate hits per month, 350-500, and I thank you all for reading our musings and reviews.  It's been about a year or so since I started posting more frequently, and I can see that there's interest in the numbers.  Thanks for everyone, you readers are on the cutting edge of this ride and I hope that you all enjoy it.

I'm also typing this on my fixed laptop.  Best Buy *wants* you to buy a new laptop, hence the $300-$700 quote.  HP is at least slightly interested in keeping their equipment running.  $200 later, my screen works and all of the niggling little things (loose battery packs, cameras that don't work, etc.) are taken care of.  It's $200 that I didn't want to spend, but those people at HP managed to turn around my service call in only two days flat... I boxed up the package on a Wednesday, HP received it, fixed it, and boxed it back up on Thursday, and I had it back in my hands by Friday.  Thankfully, HP didn't do a system refresh on it, so I don't have to spend the next two weeks figuring out what software was and wasn't installed.  I'm both grateful and annoyed at the same time... gratenoyed?  ann-ateful?

Which leads me to tonight's review.  I'm at least as current as it gets around here, reviewing the movie Epic, which was released in late May of 2013.  The movie is based on a book by William Joyce, which I had never read before anyway... you're getting nothing but critique without the Harry Potter-ish book insights or complaints.

Spoiler space below:

In some indeterminate forest, there's a fight in the air between little skull dudes on larger black birds (ravens?) and little dudes in green armor, riding ruby-throated hummingbirds.  The little skull dudes -- "Boggans" -- always seem to outnumber the green armor dudes -- "Leafmen", but the Leafmen manage to make up for it with better tactics and the ability to take out multiple Boggans.

One of the Leafmen is woefully out of place, Nod.  He pulls multiple Beetle Baileys and is ultimately kicked out of the Leafmen ranks for not being a team player by another of the protagonists, Ronin.  Ronin carries himself rather like a stereotypical Japanese warrior, between the kendo-style armor (without faceguard), the katana blade, and the hand holding the blade, where one thumb is enough to expose the blade to show that "he means business".

In the world of us regular-sized people, Mary Katherine (MK) is being dropped off at a solitary house in the woods.  Her father Bomba has wired the whole forest for sound, trying to keep an eye on the little people with all the cameras he's rigged in the forest.  He's meticulous, keeping a map of all the contacts, and even has a miniature display of Boggan armor.

Back to the little people, the Queen of the Forest has to hand her powers over soon.  She helps everything to live, while the Boggans derive the power to decay from their leader.  The night that the story opens is the important one, as she needs to pick a pod in order to transfer her power, and the pod has to bloom by the light of the full moon on the summer solstice.  (Time to set up a new system, Queenie.)

Meanwhile, MK finds that she's not crazy living with dear obsessed Dad after a short time and ends up writing a goodbye note.  She packs her bag and calls the taxi to depart.  However, the little three-legged, one-eyed dog escapes the house, and MK chases after it.

As the queen and the Leafmen come back from pod-picking, they get ambushed by Boggans.  The Queen ends up shot through the chest, and at the same time MK and the dog bust onto the scene.  MK happens across the odd little panorama, and the queen's magic ends up shrinking MK to little-person size, with instructions on how to deal with the pod.

From here, Nod, Ronin, MK, and the two slug pod caretakers end up on a whirlwind adventure, getting instructions from one of the oldest trees in the forest via a caterpillar, to losing the pod, to infiltrating the Boggan headquarters, to almost getting caught by obsessive-compulsive Daddy, to almost failing when the pod is to be opened via the moonlight.  MK figures out why the Queen used her magic to call MK into the land of little people, as she serves as the conduit to her father who's able to deal with the Boggan menace and save the day at the end.

Refreshingly, the story ends as Nod and MK share one last kiss, and she returns to full size.  She realizes her dad isn't a complete kook, definitely wants to stay by the forest so that she can talk to Nod via the forest webcams, and finds out that her place in life is in the forest.  (For the time being, at least.)

Spoiler space over.

It's quite a bit up there, isn't it?  Originally, I was going to just shrug my shoulders and give up, because the screenwriters packed in a lot of stuff into the movie, including frogs, vast multitudes of talking plants, all the odd mythos that I had a bit of a hard time keeping up with, and so on.  This is a movie that you can't just get up to refresh your drink or go get some popcorn... either you're going to miss a portion of a fight sequence that you need to keep up with what's going on, or you're going to miss a plot point that will be important at some time in the future.  This movie is dense.

Our family bought the movie and decided to have a family night watching it, and I can tell how the movie was with the reactions of our children:

11-year-old: mostly interested.
10-year-old: at times, dozed off.  Other times, watched.
7-year-old: as interested in cuddling as in watching the film.
3-year-old: playing on my legs like a jungle gym.

When the ten-year-old talked to us after the movie, he expressed interest in watching it again.  I asked him why, as we had watched it last night, and he mentioned that he was asleep through a few portions but wanted to see them in context again.

So, I suppose that this will be the basis of my final grade for this movie.  The action sequences are typically fun if a bit dizzying, the plot is dense and dizzying unless you're really giving some attention to the movie, and if you do it does feel like you've seen a long, twisty-turny story.  This movie is not a pass-the-time movie, it's a "give me ATTENSHUNS! nom nom nom" movie.  The only issue is that you have to keep yourself interested in the movie to keep going forward, and if you lose focus.... you're in the net, watching the other tightrope walkers try to balance their way across to the denouement.

Final review: 2.3

27 August 2013

#2LR Too Late Review: A Monster in Paris

Tonight's #2LR Too Late Review is A Monster in Paris.  Yeah, I hadn't heard of it either.  That's okay, though, feel free to check your Netflix instant queue, that's where my wife found it.  The movie is a family movie, and it's perfectly suitable for kids (not like, say, Shrek with the occasional joke that the kids ask to have explained and you feel slightly uncomfortable).  It's in the cookie-cutter CGI mold, so if you've seen, for instance, Megamind or Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, you'll be familiar with the art.

Getting back to how obscure this movie is, this movie is really obscure.  I don't know if any additional hits will generate from me writing about it here, but that's okay; me remembering the movie and telling you readers about it is fine, too.  I'm writing this description just as much for me so that I can remember the movie as I am writing for you readers to enjoy.

  Spoiler Space ahead (and this time, it really means something!)

The movie is set in Paris, 1910.  The backdrop is a Paris that is partially submerged from a flood that no one really expected.  Film projectionist Emile is shown first, daydreaming about his crush Maud, but gets interrupted by best friend Raoul.  Before Emile can ask Maud out for the first time, Raoul drags Emile away on a whirlwind adventure running Raoul's delivery route.

At the last stop of the night, they come across the greenhouse and lab of the curator of the botanical gardens.  He has a monkey valet (!) that is intelligent enough to provide cards to respond to questions.  After repeated warnings, Emile and Raoul end up playing in the lab, first creating a giant sunflower and then inadvertantly splashing an unoffending flea.  The flea grows to seven feet tall and runs off before attacking.

The police commissioner, Maynott, gets wind that a "monster" is loose in the city and uses it as a crisis to punch up his candidacy for mayor of France.  (Noun, verb, nine-eleven!)  There are various sightings of the bug through the city, e.g. an old woman, a man and wife, etc.  Eventually it comes to the doorstop of one of Paris' leading clubs, The Rare Bird.  There's a featured signer there... no, not Ol' Blue Eyes, but a girl that Raoul is crushing on but doesn't want to admit.

The singer, Lucille, also gets startled by the seven-foot flea.  The flea saves her when she swoons, making sure she doesn't hit the ground.  She comes to while still in the flea's ... uh, arms, I suppose, and scrambles back to the relative safety of the building she just left.  The flea remains outside, and then... starts singing.  (Keep following me, don't get sidetracked.)  This happened from one of the other potions that Emile and Raoul were playing with in the botanical gardens.  When the monkey was hit with it first, he gains a beautiful singing voice, and the flea is no different.  The flea can't seem to communicate by talking, just singing... much like the real-life Flea.

Lucille is enchanted by the singing and sets about disguising the bug from the city's rampaging policemen.  She manages to find a leftover mask from The Phantom of the Opera and adds a white variant on the Zorro costume for the giant flea, which she renames Francoeur.  Francoeur shows an aptitude for the guitar, and ends up on stage with Lucille when she performs next... his odd falsetto voice providing counterpart to her smooth alto as they sing a tribute to La Seine.  Go ahead, check the link out... it's only 166 seconds, and the music gets your toes tapping at least.

Afterward, Lucille and Raoul (remember, one of the two male protagonists) manage to find their mutual attraction.  As they troop down to the dressing room, Raoul and Emile find out that Francoeur is the giant flea, the Monster in Paris, and now they've been inducted into the little gang.  Commissioner Maynott receives word that Lucille is hiding the flea, and searches her quarters, but Raoul and Emile hid Francoeur well enough to avoid detection.  When the police depart, the conspirators decide on a plan, essentially staging Francoeur's death during a rally for Maynott's run for mayor of Paris.  One of Maynott's assistants sniffs out the subterfuge, and the subsequent scenes all converge on the Eiffel Tower, currently standing above about fifteen feet of water.

The penultimate scene throws Maud back into the mix, as the now four friends and the monkey try their darndest to keep Maynott from killing Francoeur.  The movie kind of loses steam at this point, I'm sad to say... the denouement was a bit surprising in that it felt like the screenwriters didn't know how to really end it well, unless you think about it a bit.

There's a final encore at the club where Lucille sings, and a short vignette about how Lucille and Raoul first met.  Then come the credits.

Spoiler space over

This is easily one of the most obscure movies I've reviewed.  It also manages to give its characters more than a bit of heart, including not just resorting to "big, ugly, scary mean person" as shorthand for the antagonist.  The antagonist is shown as venal and lazy, and with the depth (or lack thereof) on his character it's not a guilt trip that you root against him.  In this movie, people were *people*.  Heck, the monkey and the flea were even people, with the monkey providing comic relief and the flea filling in as the Frankenstein's Monster reluctant scarer du' jour.

It also helped that the music was enjoyable.  One of my own family members was not present for the Youtube scene I linked above, and I'll repost it here if anyone skipped Spoiler Space.  The actress who played Lucille did a terrific job through the singing portions, and while it was disconcerting to hear Julian Lennon singing higher than her, it actually kind of worked.

There's plenty of humor, there's very little (if any) blue humor, and it was a marvelous way to pass a quick ninety minutes.  There's not too many movies that can say the same thing, even if the moralizing was laid on a bit thick (look, ma, the giant flea wasn't the monster, it was the mean police commissioner!).

Final rating: 3.2

23 August 2013

Pissed beyond belief.

Laptop #2 was an HP Pavilion dv7.  I say "was", because it's a fricking brick now.  Well, not entirely... but the screen is now officially dead, and I've been told by the estimable people at Best Buy that it costs between $300 and $700 to get it repaired.  NOT worth it, considering that it was $700 to begin with.

So, yeah.  Thanks, HP, for giving me a laptop that CAN'T EVEN LAST TWO EFFING YEARS.  I bought it in December 2011... and now it's not a laptop anymore by August 2013.  Terrific job, you guys.

Anyone know who makes a laptop that can last for more than two years?  The Asus barely made it to the two-year mark, dying in July 2011 after I purchased it in August 2009... yet, the same Best Buy technician said that those were the BEST TWO brands.  (Wow... really?)

20 August 2013

Hitman: Absolution Review (XBOX 360 Version)

You know, I was originally going to come up with a joke title for this review, like 'Batman: Absolution' or 'Hitmans Creed', but then I remembered that those games were actually good and fun to play... this game, not so much. And if I sound more bitter than usual for this review, that's because I am.

Warning: Mild Spoilers follow:

The Hitman series, at least for me, didn't get really good until the fourth installment 'Hitman: Blood Money' which I consider to be a masterpiece of stealth gaming and a title that I'm proud to have in my collection and replay at least once a year. It's always a drag when I realize a sequel is inferior in just about every way except graphics, naturally.

'Hitman: Absolution' is yet another example of a beloved series being dumbed down in order to reach a wider audience and losing focus on what made the series great to begin with. And this time not only does the gameplay suffer, but the story and the main character, Agent 47 as well. Wonderful.

Let's start with gameplay. In past Hitman games, going in guns blazing usually got you killed pretty quickly or at least raised your notoriety to such a high level that it made the game needlessly difficult, though granted, it was fun to blow off steam sometimes for tough levels that you could try again later when you got it out of your system or just wanted to see how hard the game could get by ending every mission in a bloodbath.

In 'Absolution', gunning down everyone in sight is not only considered a practical option, there's now a point-shooting mechanic where you can mark several targets at once and then sit back and watch 47 murder all of them in cool slo-mo. Except Hitman isn't supposed to be a John Woo film. Or Rambo for that matter. Not to say you don't have the option of being meticulous and stealthy with your kills but with the new shooting mechanics and lack of long-term consequences, it just seems like the game fully expected and in some spots, encouraged the player to lose patience with it and start blasting.

Also, this game has Eagle... sorry, I mean INSTINCT vision which slows down time and lights up your target like a roman candle and makes them easier to spot in a crowd. Now I can understand how some people would prefer this to looking for your target on an interactive map and that the map isn't as necessary because the areas in this game are smaller, but it just felt out of place for me, like Agent 47 had suddenly developed superpowers and yes, I know being able to spot a moving target as a red dot on a map isn't exactly realistic either. Maybe this is just a nitpicky moment for me, but I really didn't care for this kind of mechanic in a Hitman game at all.

Another thing that REALLY annoyed me was respawning enemies. When people died in previous Hitman games, they stayed dead unless you restarted the mission. This one, they come back if you die midway through the mission for NO GOOD REASON and FUCK YOU to whoever came up with that idiotic design decision. As for the multiplayer, I didn't try it so I can't comment on that aspect of the game.

Unlike previous games, 'Absolution' doesn't assign specific missions by your handler, Diana, whom I can't really discuss without going into heavy spoilers, and the entire game has you trying to protect and later rescue a mysterious teenage girl whom two baddies want to exploit to serve their own ends. More on them later.

There's also no newspapers detailing your exploits or raising your notoriety, no weapons or tools to buy, no pre-mission briefings or optional missions to take for personal gain, just you and whatever you can find in the location you're at, which would've been interesting to do for maybe one mission or two, but was it really necessary for the ENTIRE GAME?

Also, the levels in this game are much smaller, each one feeling like you're in a single large room instead of exploring a entire area. Maybe this was necessary in order to maintain the level of graphic quality with a smooth frame rate but it felt more like a big step backwards to me.

Speaking of a step backwards, let's talk about disguises. The effectiveness of disguises in early Hitman games could be twitchy and even if you did nothing wrong, you could be found out. In 'Blood Money' they improved this mechanic by having suspicious people walk up to you and either politely ask or loudly demand for you to explain your presence in a restricted area. If you failed to respond after a few moments, THEN they would pull out their guns, which was a big improvement over them IMMEDIATELY pulling their guns to blow you away if you so much as sniffed your nose the wrong way.

Well, apparently the developers of 'Absolution' decided that people should see through your disguises quicker despite what you do, forcing you to either constantly change clothes during the mission or kill the person currently annoying you. The fact that the game now allows you to stuff two bodies in a bin, instead of one as in previous Hitman games suggests to me they expected you to choose the latter option. ^_^;

Now I'll try my best to summarize the story for this game: YEE-HAW! Well, that was easy. Seriously though, it's like the developers of the previous game were replaced with good old boys and they looked at the Mississippi missions from 'Blood Money' and said "Hot Damn! We should make the whole game like that!" Maybe they should have called this game 'Hitman: Deliverance'. ^_^;

The game's... secondary villain? Primary villain? I dunno, there were a few of them and not one of them seemed all that more important than the others... is some stereotypical redneck that we're supposed to believe heads a R&D facility when the character isn't qualified to run a pie eating contest. The other villain is a typical bland American bad guy who also seems woefully unqualified as the new head of the ICA. Also notable is that both of these baddies have hot female assistants that are clearly more intelligent than either of them but they add virtually nothing to the story.

Speaking of adding nothing, let's talk about the Saints for a moment. And I don't mean the Saints of 'Saints Row' although Johnny Gat Vs. Agent 47 would be an interesting fight. I personally had no problems with the sexy killer nuns trailer that got so many people upset, because I figured those characters and their bizarre choice of costume would be explained in greater detail in the game.

Well, unless their role was drastically reduced because of all the negative publicity, the Saints had practically no presence or impact in the game at all. They were just another hit squad that appears in one level that were ridiculously easy to pick off one by one. No backstory, no explanation why they dressed like fetish nuns, NOTHING. And I don't care if the novels (which I haven't read) or the Hitman Wiki explains them in more detail, the game gave us nothing to go on and the whole exercise was in my mind completely pointless unless it was simply to generate controversy to sell the game, in which case, mission fucking accomplished but IMHO, the execution (no pun intended) stunk.

Now I'd like to discuss the main character, Agent 47 for a moment. For those new to the series, his basic backstory is that he is a clone that was trained as an assassin. He killed his creator and briefly attempted to live a normal life but found it to be impossible. He accepted this truth and what he was and became the perfect Hitman. And while he is not completely without emotion or empathy, he never lets it interfere with his job. He is also NOT a fool who takes on situations beyond his abilities to handle or acts like an idiot unless the player decides to play him that way during a mission.

In 'Absolution', Agent 47 commits several acts out of the player's control which can only be described as FUCKING STUPID. Chief among them, he gives up his famous silenced baller pistols to an informant in exchange for information, which he would NEVER do in a million years. Did the game have so little confidence in its enemy AI that it felt the need to make Agent 47 as vulnerable as possible? Or maybe they did it so they would have a weak excuse to explain away a later scene where the Redneck's main henchman, who's basically Bane from 'Batman' without the mask, knocks Agent 47 out when he attempts to GAROTTE him. REALLY?

I'm sorry, but I simply can't summon the suspension of disbelief necessary to buy that the world's greatest hitman is so stupid that he thinks he can strangle to death a man several times his own size when a bullet would do the job far more safely and efficiently. But no, the game needed to have Agent 47 unconscious and vulnerable and this was the only way the developers could think of to do it. ^_^;

Let's see, what else did I miss... Yeah, the graphics look nice, I guess. But the scope of the game felt reduced with the smaller rooms so it didn't really impress me. The music was crap, but then that's no surprise since Jesper Kyd wasn't involved in scoring this game and personally, I'm kinda glad he wasn't involved with this shit. Oh yeah, there was also a sequence late in the game where a big deal is made of Agent 47 getting his famous trademark silk suit back... which he then promptly leaves behind getting into disguise to infiltrate a building. Unless, of course, you go in guns blazing. 9_9

So yeah, I pretty much despised this game. I only played through it once and I have honestly no desire whatsoever to do so again. If you've never played a Hitman game before, I strongly urge you to pick up 'Hitman: Blood Money' for the 360 or PC instead as it is SO much better, IMHO.

18 August 2013

#2LR - Highlander, with Rifftrax

Diving right in, as there's not been too much content lately...

Tonight's #2LR review is the '86 cult favorite Highlander, featuring Conor "Le Frenchy" MacLeod and The Kurgan, not to mention Sean Connery as the world's most macholy fey Spaniard.

Spoiler(?) space below:

The movie opens with pro wrestling... I was really curious why the playacting fighting, especially since the first fight between "Frenchy" MacLeod and the odd German/Wall Street suited-type dude was just as playacting.  At one point during the fight, it broke into the floor exercise, with multiple handflips backward by the German dude, who at this point I was mistaking as a member of the East German women's gymnastic team.

Throughout this scene... really, throughout the whole movie, we get treated to an extended flashback of "Frenchy" MacLeod's childhood in Scotcherfrance.  It seems that he was intentionally wading into a battle with another clan, and this is where we first meet The Kurgan, who oddly already knows that MacLeod is a (or will be an) immortal.  Yes, Kurgan's first name is "The".  Anyway, The Kurgan manages to run Frenchy through, but before The Kurgan can remove Frenchy's head, Clan MacLeod comes to his defense and drives off The Kurgan.  (HOW??)

Back in the present, the cops find out about the deheadening, and we end up treated to The Last Grizzled Cop <tm> and the Forensics chick.  Forensics girl finds the German's sword left behind, and marvels that it would be worth "one meeel-yon dollars" (oh, wrong movie).  She happens to be a published expert on the subject of medieval weapons.  Meanwhile, our buddy Frenchy gets caught doing eighty-eight miles an hour out of the parking garage, looking like the guiltiest New Yorker ever.  He doesn't get charged (?!), and leaves the station.

Later, after a bar pickup gone back, MacLeod runs across The Kurgan again, but Forensics gets a front-row seat to the battle.  The battle ends up being a screwjob, with a police helicopter serving as the plot fodder.  Both retreat, but The Kurgan ends up blabbing more of MacLeod's past.

Afterward, MacLeod finds another Immortal, who for some reason isn't fighting him (or vice-versa).  The other Immortal ends up running across The Kurgan, who beheads him without too much muss or fuss, and the police end up learning that MacLeod is at least not the only one removing heads around New York.

The action goes away for a while to try to set up MacLeod's tragic backstory, to give Sean Connery some screentime in a desperate bid for legitimacy, and to try its awfully hardest to make Forensics Chick into the female lead.  Needless to say, all fail miserably, especially Point #3.

Back in the present, The Kurgan runs across MacLeod lighting candles to his old sweetie in a church.  Immortals are forbidden from fighting in the church (why?  Because THE KURGAN says so, dangit.), so The Kurgan resorts to verbal taunting.  Not only of MacLeod but of the whole church, almost saving what little of the film he could.  After uttering his famous line ("I have something to say.  It's better to burn out than to fade away!"), the movie is allowed to plod to its conclusion.

The Kurgan takes Forensics Chick in order to trap MacLeod, and it works.  After another tepid sword battle where the combatants may not Glow but their weapons do, MacLeod manages to separate The Kurgan's head... bummer.  Frenchy's prize(s)?  Forensics chick and the ability to die, along with "being one with all living things".  You can tell that this was back in the day, long before movies were written purely to set up sequels, and the ending just didn't matter.

Spoiler space over

This movie was... well, it is a choice piece of 80s nostalgia, at least.  The fight sequences aren't exactly Hong Kong action, especially with the sword-waving.  It certainly has its unintentional comedy though, which seemed to have saved the movie.  The Kurgan was far more fascinating than I would have thought based on his first appearance... the skull armor, in 15th century Scotcherfrance?  The church scene was absolutely STOLEN by The Kurgan, for the better.  I miss him already, and many other movies could use a character like The Kurgan as an antagonist for extra enjoyment.

Sadly, The Kurgan couldn't save this.  I know that this is a cult favorite, and I am certainly NOT one to speak down to cult favorites (*cough* MST3k, Firefly, Star Trek, etc.) but I did see my answer when I went to the Wikipedia page.  This sentence was waiting:

"Gregory Widen wrote the script to Highlander, which he then titled Shadow Clan, as a class assignment while he was an undergraduate in the screenwriting program at UCLA."

I have two words for that.  "It shows".  The back-and-forth flashbacks were odd, the casting was FAR odder, and while the movie could have had some interesting implications if they really carried through "The Prize" successfully, it was a complete cop-out to receive great power limited by mortality.  NOT an astounding prize, and while they did put together sequels, I'm certainly not watching them.

My apologies if I'm missing anything in this movie, but it heartily deserves its 1.3 .  The Kurgan, you get 1.2 of those points, and the other tenth is for Sean Connery's "Spanish" outfit, a visual feast of red velvet and regret.

The Rifftrax, however, gets the film a solid 2.8.  Mike, Kevin, and Bill did as best they could, and this is one of those movies that at least tried their darndest to build the mythos and plot.  It's just too bad that the script was so hobbled, much less "Frenchy" MacLeod and Forensics Chick, both woefully miscast.  The Rifftrax comes highly recommended for those people who love Highlander, who enjoy laughing at the 80s, or who don't mind sitting through long portions of a movie (aka "the swordfights") without much to recommend itself.

Forthcoming, the promised essays on spoof movies.