Monthly Archives: February 2013

Quality and The Oscars

So it’s Oscar time. Which means award times. And, well, I’m mildly disappointed with some of the nominations. I find that movies, video games, and so on can’t be judged subjectively or comparatively. Least not on a flat scale of quality+writing+cinematography+explosions.

Here’s how I judge stuff: did it accomplish what it set out to do, and did it do it well? It’s an odd scale, yeah, but it’s one that works. Like Lincoln, the movie that snatched a dozen nominations: Spielberg set out to create the definitive cinematic biography of Linocln and the passage of the 13th Amendment. Not only did he accomplish that, he made it look good. So yes, Lincoln was a good movie.

In a similar but different vein, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter presented itself as a biography of Lincoln’s life, only this time vampires were woven in as the primary antagonist. Did it pull it off? Yep. Was it the dramatic/kickass action movie it billed itself as? Oh yes. So yes, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter was also a good movie. But it would never win an Oscar.

Do I want Lincoln to win Best Picture? No, not really. It’s a great movie, but it’s, well, it’s obvious. I guess Amour is too, though I haven’t seen it and won’t say anything. I’m going to watch Beasts of the Southern Wild sometime before tonight because I want to see it.

And the others? Zero Dark Thirty had the best portrayal of a military raid in cinema that I can think of. Not only did it follow proper procedure, but the whole way it was done gave it the tension and moral ambiguity that it deserved. Les Miserables was a great musical and definitely deserves the nod, but that’s about it.

I read Life of Pi seven years ago on a ship in Norway and enjoyed the book and the movie captured it perfectly. Lastly, Django Unchained is Tarantino being Tarantino, and hey, no complaints there. It’s not as good as Inglorious Basterds, but it’s not crap either.

That leaves Argo and Silver Linings Playbook and they’re my favorites of the nominees. Why?

Argo was different. It was a drama/thriller, but it was also funny. It was intense, but it remained fun without negating any of its intensity. Any idea how hard that is to pull off?

Then Silver Linings is about broken people and I love it because it takes a movie about a romance and gives it weight and worth. But it won’t win because it can be passed over as a romantic comedy and who’d want one of those to win? (Also: Jennifer Lawrence’s performance in that movie was fantastic)

So what movies would I want nominated and why? So glad you asked, dear reader, because you’ll find out.

Right off the bat: Skyfall. Yes, it’s a James Bond movie which means it shouldn’t win, but it’s just too dang good for it to not even be recognized. It’s smart, well made, and, hey, I’ve been over this before. At least we all know it’ll get the Oscar for Best Original Song.

My favorite movies of 2012 will forever be The Avengers (with Silver Linings second). Joss Whedon and crew set out to create an ensemble superhero movie and they pulled it off. At least give the man a writing nomination for being able to balance six main characters without any being terribly overshadowed. It’s simply a well made movie but gets precluded due to its ‘light’ subject matter. So no Oscar.

Beyond those two, Looper should’ve gotten a nod at least for Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s makeup and Ted for special effects. The Cabin in the Woods had a wonderfully clever script, but we all knew it wouldn’t be nominated.

At the end of the day, though, doesn’t really matter who’d I want to win. Heck, I’ve never even watched the Oscars before (I will tomorrow, though). All they do is piss me off because the movies I want to win never win. I find them to be so… not predictable but routine. Up or District 9 or True Grit would never win because they were either genre or just too fun. By nature Oscar movies have to be better than other movies. Not The Dark Knight better than Batman and Robin sort of better, but rather the Lincoln better than Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter better. Oscar movies need to be serious, maybe inspirational, but certainly dramatic; earnestness, spirit, and heart need not apply. But movies like Silver Linings Playbook and Argo have heart to spare.

Finally: If Paperman doesn’t win Best Animated Short I will strangle a baby narwhal.*

*Writer’s note: I will not strangle a baby narwhal due to a) my lack of access to a baby narwhal and 2) why would anyone want to strangle a baby narwhal (besides Paperman not winning)?

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The Problem with Play Station All-Stars Battle Royale

Yeah, I know, the game came out almost three months ago. I got it for free in a bundle a while back and have been debating selling or keeping it. I’d played Play Station All-Stars Battle Royale before and figured it was alright. The other night, some friends and I decided to finally open it up (negating resale value) and beat each other up.

Virtually, that is.

Now, way back in the Nintendo 64 days (mid-90’s, early 00’s), Super Smash Bros. came out. In it characters from various Nintendo games could, well, fight. It made a great party game: Yoshi, Link, Pikachu, and Donkey Kong going at each other was always a great way to kill time. I tell you this because comparisons between it and All-Stars are inevitable. Both are four player fighting games with characters drawn from across their platform.

And here’s the thing: All Stars isn’t Smash Bros.

All-Stars is to Smash Bros. as the PS3 is to the Wii: the supposedly ‘more mature’ counterpart. All-Stars takes its cues from more technical fighters (like Street Fighter or Marvel VS Capcom). See, Smash Bros. has two attack buttons: one normal, one special. All-Stars has three attack buttons and accompanying it with a direction (or without one) yields all sorts of different attacks.

This sort of style works fine for traditional fighters where the arena is just that: an arena. But in All-Stars where, like Smash Bros., the arenas consist of several (sometimes moving) platforms, you’re often moving and avoiding the three other players coming at you to focus on precise move input. There’s little more frustrating than thinking your character is about to run and gun but instead stops dead right as your opponent hits you.

This is made only worse due to there being no parallels between characters for most of these moves: what makes one character do an uppercut could make another fire a shot across the stage. You can’t button mash and it can take several rounds to become familiar with a character. There’s no encouragement or incentive to play as anyone else once you’ve mastered one.

And guess what? It gets even more complicated. The only way to kill an opponent is by using a Super. How do you use a Super? By filling up your AP Gauge. How do you do that? By beating up your opponents. Like the moves, there’s no telling what one character’s Super will be. Nathan Drake throws a propane tank a few meters and shoots it, but Sackboy hits anyone right next to him. Spending one third of the match filling up your meter only to miss the shot is not only frustrating, but adds an all too high level of randomness to a supposedly ‘serious’ game. Look, Smash Bros. had a completely unique way of accessing damage and All-Stars couldn’t copy that, but surely there was another way?

That said, Superbot and Sony tried hard to make a fun fighting game and they succeeded for the most part. They put effort into recreating the characters (Nolan North voices Nathan Drake and Richard McGonagle showed up to voice Sully in Drake’s Arcade story). Sure, we can nitpick over the exclusion of certain characters (for the record, they’re working hard to bring Crash Bandicoot in as DLC), but All-Stars isn’t actually a bad game. Most importantly: It’s fun. I get to play as Uncharted’s Nathan Drake, a friend of mine can be Jak & Daxter from the games he grew up with, and another friend can go Twisted Metal on us with Sweet Tooth. Even if we’re not that good at the game, we’re still having fun. It’s not a perfect game, but that’s alright.

At the end of the day All-Stars is not Smash Bros. They’re different games that both take the mascot fighter idea and run in different directions with it. All Stars is a different game, less casual, but still a great game to play with a group. All Star’s biggest problem is that it’s not Smash Bros. Accept that, get used to the different gameplay, and you’ll have fun.


Writer’s note: Who would I want included in the game as (free!) DLC (besides Crash)?

  • Snake (Metal Gear Solid)
  • Cloud, Squall, and/or Lightning (Final Fantasy)
  • X and Zero (Mega Man)
  • Ezio (Assassin’s Creed)
  • Commander Shepard (Mass Effect, because why not?)

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The Unncessity of Dialogue

I’m in a filmmaking class here at NYU that focuses on visual storytelling. That is, no dialogue. At first that sounds like quite a challenge since it’s the script and speaking that tend to carry a story. So that got me thinking: what’re the benefits when we don’t have dialogue?

Anyone remember the video game LEGO Star Wars that came out several years ago? It’s a retelling of (obviously) the Star Wars movies only with LEGO. There’s no dialogue. The game relies on players inherent familiarity with the movies to convey the plot and also use a lot of gestures and emotions. It’s a simple form of storytelling — almost crude — but it gets the point across. What we get is a humorous, quirky retelling of and old story.

So it’s doable, sure, but is it effective?

Up. The first ten minutes of that movie tells one of the best, most heartfelt stories you will find in film. And five of those ten minutes are completely devoid of dialogue. In those five minutes (nicknamed Married Life, based on the piece from the soundtrack) we get an overview of Carl and Ellie’s life together. It’s the music that carries it. In fact, dialogue would have hurt the scene.

The impact of this wonderful scene comes from the animation and music. We don’t hear Carl and Ellie discussing their inability to have a child or the postponement of their dream; instead we seem them consoling one another and going through life. The speechless montage allows the creators to show us their story rather than telling us. The absence of dialogue can be a powerful thing indeed.

If you happened to see Wreck-It Raph in theaters you were treated to a beautiful short called Paperman. Paperman, like Married Life, is devoid of dialogue. Also like Married Life, it tells a complete story.

See, Paperman is a whimsical romance. It’s not a serious drama or even a romantic comedy; it’s a story about love and the degree of magic found in life. It’s in black and white, features a sort of CGI-2D animation blend, and has no dialogue. Dialogue (and even color) would take away from it. What makes Paperman great is how it’s not quite real life. In real life the boss would yell at him more, in real life there’d be more talking. But in real life paper airplanes don’t fly as well as they do in the short. It’s not meant to be real, it’s meant to be fantastical. Paperman’s music, animation, lack of dialogue, and very precise use of color bring it all together. What could easily end up a trite and saccharine is instead a beautiful piece of animation.

Sometimes we need a story that steps aside from the rigors of reality. The flourish of romanticism that is Paperman is a reminder that sometimes life can be simple and it can be hopeful The break from dialogue — and reality with it — allows us this diversion.

Long story short: I wanted an excuse to say something about Paperman. I got that excuse.

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Why Abrams Is The Man For Star Wars

A little more than a week ago it was officially announced that JJ Abrams would be directing the new Star Wars. Some people met this news with a measure of caution.

Myself? I think Abrams is the person to direct it.

Look at Mission: Impossible III. Abrams made his directorial debut with the sequel to this established series. He kept strongly to the themes and style of the original TV show (so I’m told). Not only was it considered the best Mission: Impossible film until Ghost Protocol came along, but it elevated the series from being simple action movies to intelligent, developed thrillers. JJ Abrams entered into a franchise, captured the themes, and made it better.

But let’s move on to his next film, shall we? 2009’s Star Trek made Star Trek cool. Really cool, lens flare cool. Sure, it felt different thematically from the TV series, but it kept the characters’ personalities and dynamics. It’s not just the old names applied to new people: they’re the same! More than that, he crafted a well made adventure that, like Mission: Impossible III, took an established franchise, made it his own, and made it good. We didn’t get a half-baked sorta-Trek, we got a movie that took the idea of a cool and wonderful future and made it work. It was a sheer wide-eyed adventure of a farmboy saving the world, like the original Star Wars.

His most recent film is Super 8. If you wanted an 80’s adventure film in the spirit of E.T. or The Goonies, you loved this movie. You might be sensing a bit of a trend here: Abrams captured the spirit of movies from that decade but also infused it with a feeling of something new. He wasn’t just rehashing old stories, he told a new one. Furthermore, in Super 8 he balanced adventure and fun with some very quiet, very poignant scenes. As the world around them swirls in a mess and the film reaches its end, characters share these quiet beautiful moments. In the midst of action and visuals, Abrams still captures the emotion. Like in, y’know, Empire Strikes Back.

And through it all, Abrams has this feeling of mythology. He helped lay the groundwork for Lost, he gave us the enigmatic Rabbit’s Foot in Mission: Impossible III and the alien in Super 8. Unlike George Lucas and the prequels, Abrams doesn’t feel the need to explain away every detail. He gives his work a feeling of mystery and myth. Again, this is something the Holy Trilogy was built on (the Force is a mystical energy field, not some, well, whatever midichlorians do).

But the script must count too, yes? Doesn’t matter how good your director is if your script sucks. The writer for Episode VII is Michael Arndt. He’s the guy that did Little Miss Sunshine, a movie that balanced comedy with a lot of heart. A lot. He also did this little film called Toy Story 3 which you’ll probably recall as a sequel that effortlessly slipped into the established continuity and trumped all prior. What do we know from these two films? This man can give a screenplay heart without it feeling shoehorned in and capture the voices of characters who aren’t his own. Furthermore, the script is being supervised by Lawrence Kasdan (who wrote Empire Strikes Back).

As it stands now, Star Wars Episode VII is shaping up to be the Star Wars movie we’ve wanted for a very long time. Did we need a new Star Wars? Not really, but now that we are getting one, and now that we know who’s behind it… We have the perfect storm for a new Star Wars. Yeah, I know, it’s at least two years away… but c’mon man, I’m excited.

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