PC Game Review: To the Moon [2011]

To the Moon [2011]

To the Moon
System: PC
Genre: Adventure, Visual Novel
Publisher: Freebird Games
Developer: Freebird Games
Release Date: November 1, 2011

It’s always interesting when a new game comes out that tries to do something different with the medium. With last year’s indie hit, To the Moon, actual gameplay was basically scrapped in favor of telling an emotional story. Many fell head over heels for this, and it even won “Best Story” in Gamestop’s 2011 “Game of the Year” awards. It’s clear that the game struck a nerve for most. Unfortunately, it seems everyone is grading on a curve here because of the medium and not for the actual quality of the game.

To the Moon tells the story of a dying old man who has a lifelong dream to go to the moon. In a setting not unlike that of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, there is a company that allows artifical memories to be constructed, letting its recipients live out their dreams. Two employees of Sigmund Corp. — Dr. Eva Rosalene and Dr. Neil Watts — are sent to help this old man get his one wish.

To the Moon [2011]

In order to do so, they have to go back through his actual memories in reverse chronological order by picking up “mementos” along the way. This allows the scientists to learn about the man’s life while discovering exactly why he wants to go the moon. Without getting into spoilers, it isn’t a happy story, as the old man has suffered from a number of traumatic events throughout his life. In fact, by the end, this becomes a bit of a tragedy, with a few scenes included specifically to tug on the ol’ heartstrings. Unfortunately, these big reveals feel forced, and I felt little empathy for the old man, who wasn’t much of a likable fellow.

The game’s dialogue, mostly between the two scientists, is laughably bad. Neil, in particular, is a poorly-written character who acts incredibly immature — to the point of sheer annoyance. The writing is full of weak attempts at humor, as well as references to internet slang and acronyms that will surely be dated in a few years. In short, it comes across as amateur, and it is a significant cut below the films and novels that undoubtedly influenced it.

To the Moon [2011]

As for the actual gameplay, there is little. It mostly consists of walking around different areas in the old man’s life, talking to characters and picking up random “mementos” throughout. There are also half-assed attempts at sliding puzzles between each stage of his life, and they never increase in difficulty. There are a few diversions here and there, such as a brief “whack a mole” mini-game and a segment that involves riding a horse, but they just feel tacked on, and they add little in terms of entertainment.

While I am willing to overlook certain gameplay limitations if there is a good narrative to back it up, To the Moon lacks in both areas. It’s clear the emphasis here is on the story, but it cannot hold its own when compared to other dramatic works. Are we so starved for quality plot devices in video games that we are willing to grade anything resembling something different on a curve?

To the Moon [2011]

I will give the game credit for its aesthetics. Despite using the dated RPG Maker engine, the 16-bit graphics work well in this setting, and I enjoyed the throwback to days gone by. The original music score is beautiful and fits with the game’s more serious moments wonderfully, even if the title theme is played a bit much.

I hate to talk down an indie game, especially one that tries to differentiate itself from the rest, but To the Moon doesn’t come close to reaching the stars it so desperately seeks. The in-game writing, highly praised by most, would get laughed at in any other medium, and the actual gameplay is far too simplistic. At a brief four hours, at least the game doesn’t overstay its welcome.

5/10

Movie Review: The Perks of Being a Wallflower [2011]

The Perks of Being a Wallflower [2011]

The Perks of Being a Wallflower [2011]
Director: Stephen Chbosky
Genre: Drama/Romance
Starring: Logan Lerman, Emma Watson and Ezra Miller
Runtime: 103 minutes

It’s not often that someone is able to write a (successful) novel and then both write and direct a film adaptation of that work, but that’s exactly what Stephen Chbosky did with The Perks of Being a Wallflower. The popular young-adult novel was published in 1999, and after taking on such projects as writing the screenplay for Rent and co-creating the CBS show, Jericho, Chbosky went back to his roots and brought us this adaptation.

The film follows the life of an insecure, shy 14-year-old named Charlie (Logan Lerman), who has suffered a series of traumatic events in his childhood. Now emotionally scarred, Charlie is anxious about entering high school, and he struggles to make friends (outside of his English teacher, played by Paul Rudd). Eventually, he finds solace in the form of two eccentric seniors: Sam (Emma Watson) and her stepbrother Patrick (Ezra Miller). They introduce him to new music (i.e. The Smiths, a staple of this type of film) and invite him to hang out with their group of friends, who they lovingly dub “The Island of Misfit Toys.” This includes a Buddhist punk (Mae Whitman), a blonde goth (Erin Wilhelmi) and a brownie-loving stoner (Adam Hagenbuch). Charlie fits right in with the group, and they help give him the type of friendship he so desperately needs.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower [2011]

At its core, this is a basic coming-of-age story, but Chbosky places a greater emphasis on emotions and the feeling of alienation. Everyone in Charlie’s newfound group of friends is alienated in some fashion. Sam has self esteem issues, and she has a habit of turning to older men for acceptance. Patrick is openly gay but is in an awkward secretive relationship with a jock who is afraid to come out. Charlie himself has been in-and-out of mental hospitals due to prior traumatic experiences. In a way, it seems the only thing keeping these kids going is each other.

Anyone who ever felt this way as an adolescent (and really, who hasn’t?) will be able to empathize with these characters. Since Chbosky wrote and directed his own work, he was able to present this in his total vision. The writing is sharp and witty, and the dialogue is delivered perfectly by an undeniably strong cast of up-and-coming talent.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower [2011]

Folks, keep an eye on the trio of Logan Lerman, Emma Watson and Ezra Miller. These three have fantastic chemistry together in this film, and as individual performances, all of them impress. It’s great to see Watson step out after the Harry Potter series, and Miller builds upon his fantastic take as the demonic Kevin in We Need to Talk About Kevin. But best of all — and most surprising — is Lerman in the lead role. I haven’t seen any of his recent work, but he is most impressive in showing Charlie slowly coming out of his shell while still maintaining his emotional scars.

My only problems with the film are minor ones. As a high school coming-of-age story, it does rely a bit too much on familiar tropes of the genre (i.e. being cool for liking bands like The Smiths and showing a love of foreign film). There is also one moment that I still can’t wrap my head around. David Bowie’s song “Heroes” plays an integral part of the film, and the characters are all clueless when they hear this song on the radio. How can a group of kids that are so in tune with “underground” music not know one of David Bowie’s biggest hits? Given the importance of the song to plot development, it seems a bit puzzling as to its selection.

Still, small issues aside, I quite enjoyed The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and I suspect that most will as well. I have never read the novel, but now I would like to, and that doesn’t happen often for me.

8/10

Video Game Review: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim [Xbox 360]

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim [Xbox 360]

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
System: Xbox 360 (also on PS3 and PC)
Genre: Role-Playing
Publisher: Bethesda Game Studios
Developer: Bethesda Softworks
Release Date: November 11, 2011

For the last few weeks, Skyrim has been owning my soul. Other video games have taken a backseat to the massive, incomparable world of Bethesda Softworks’ latest RPG. Despite warnings from others, I didn’t expect this to happen. Sure, I had played and enjoyed Oblivion, but I was able to expand my playing time with that one by spreading it out over months. With Skyrim, I was hooked, line and sinker.

I have put about 30 hours into Skyrim so far, and I still feel like I have barely scratched its surface. Better yet, I am still *eager* to play more. This is a rarity with me, especially when it comes to single player games. Usually I will tear through the main campaign or quest line, work on some random side quests here and there, and then move on to something else. I have a habit of trying to maximize my time by playing as many new games as possible. With Skyrim, that all went out the window.

Much of that credit goes to the impressive in-game world that allows for a seemingly infinite amount of possibilities. After starting the game and going through its mandatory opening sequence (in a nutshell, you are about to be beheaded before a dragon appears and wipes out the town), you are then dropped into this world alone with the freedom to do whatever you like. There is a quest to start, sure, but you can just skip this entirely if you wish. I felt obligated to check out the nearby town, as recommended, but after that I just said “screw it” and started wandering around on my own.

One of my favorite aspects of Skyrim, and possibly the biggest curse to some, is that it is so easy to get sidetracked. I tend to start up a quest and head out in that direction, only to find a new enticing path or cave or dungeon or whathaveyou, which I promptly decide is of greater importance to explore. The ability to just get lost in the game world and explore whatever looks appealing is simply amazing. See that mountain in the distance? Go ahead and climb it. Wait, is that a sunken ship in that lake over there? Shit, I need to check that out. Oh wait, there’s a bandit lair on that ridge. I bet they have some good loot.

Skyrim’s countless questlines (divided into main, side and miscellaneous) provide all sorts of opportunities to explore new locations as well. The quests offer a wide variety of stories to go with them, offering you the opportunity to join more “evil” factions if you desire. Two mainstays from Oblivion make welcome reappearances: the Dark Brotherhood (where you act as a hitman/assassin for hire) and the Thieves Guild (where you use stealth capabilities while stealing from others). Throw in all sorts of oddball errands and requests, including many of which that are just bizarre and/or hilarious, and you have all the makings for a game that never gets old.

Perhaps best of all is that your character is entirely customizable, meaning you can play the way that *you* want to regardless of your selected race. Be a warrior, a mage, a necromancer, a thief, a marksman. Whatever you like. There are dozens of perks available to help level up your character in your envisioned mold. You can even find areas scattered around the various in-game towns to create your own potions, weapons and equipment. Hell, if you feel like doing menial labor jobs, there are options to do that as well.

All of this is presented in a beautiful, snowy Nordic environment. No matter where you turn, you are bound to find some sort of eye candy, whether it be breathtaking waterfalls, lakes covered in ice, or blizzardous mountains. Skyrim’s visuals are a huge improvement over Oblivion — just wait until you happen across a late-night aurora borealis. I don’t know if there is a better game that captures the cold, wintry feel present in Skyrim.

If it isn’t clear by now, I love this game. Skyrim holds its own against the last two Fallout games, both of which are personal favorites of mine, and its fantasy setting lends itself to all sorts of possibilities. There are some bugs to be found, such as characters/enemies getting stuck on walls and/or disappearing, as well as issues with graphical draw-ins, but these are to be expected with an in-game world this vast. These problems are incredibly minute in scope, and do not hinder the overall gameplay experience in any way.

Simply put, Skyrim is fantastic. Just be warned: this may consume your life.

10/10

Movie Review: Beasts of the Southern Wild [2011]

Beasts of the Southern Wild [2011]

Beasts of the Southern Wild [2011]
Director: Benh Zeitlin
Genre: Drama
Starring: Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry
Runtime: 91 minutes

Down at the very bottom of Lousiana is a place I had no idea existed. Deep in the Delta, there are communities and villages that gradually dissipate with every storm. Populations have dwindled as their land slowly washes away, yet so many of them refuse to leave. Even with governmental orders to evacuate, the citizens opt to stay and attempt to wait out the storm. They are a proud, if not stubborn, bunch.

Beasts of the Southern Wild takes place in a similar location identified as “The Bathtub”, a washed-out bayou community south of the levee. The Bathtub has a bit of a mystical feel to it — its denizens live in boarded-up shacks with all sorts of animals running around outside. They live by their own set of rules and make do with what’s available nearby.

The film, which has been tearing up the festival scene (winner of the Grand Jury prize at Sundance and the Camera d’Or at Cannes), shows this world from a six-year-old girl’s perspective. This girl, nicknamed Hushpuppy (played by Quvenzhane Wallis), lives with her father Wink (Dwight Henry), an alcoholic but caring man who is suffering from a serious illness. He is trying to hide his health problems from Hushpuppy, but this young lady is wise beyond her years. She knows something is wrong, and she begins bracing herself for the inevitable.

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Hushpuppy has a wild and vivid imagination, as most children her age do, and she has visions of mythical beasts known as Aurochs (a sort of boar/cow hybrid). She also talks to a chair, imagining her long-lost mother is sitting there. While her father still helps take care of her, Hushpuppy does a lot on her own, even cooking her own meals and taking care of her own “house” (essentially a small shack).

As the film follows Hushpuppy, so does the camera. Director Benh Zeitlin, in his full-length debut, opts to keep the camera at her viewpoint so it feels like we are seeing exactly what she sees. I love this idea, but there were moments of unnecessary shaky cam, particularly in the beginning of the film. The shakiness tamed a bit over time, but it felt a bit too exuberant at first.

Beasts of the Southern Wild [2011]

Regardless, Zeitlin and his cinematographer Ben Richardson succeeded in creating a wild, vivid world that is entirely engrossing. I felt like I was right there in the bayou, and I was introduced to a community unlike any I had ever seen. The fact that these guys were able to create such an amazing set with a budget of $1-2 million is astonishing.

In a stroke of pure genius (likely aided by the low budget), Zeitlin opted to go with a cast of Louisiana locals to star in the film. In a Q&A session I was honored to see first hand, the director stated that he went through over 3,000 auditions for the role of Hushpuppy before deciding on newcomer Quvenzhané Wallis. I couldn’t imagine anyone else in this role. Miss Wallis is so endearing in this role with a great deal of personality — she has a bright future in this business if she so desires.

The story behind the casting of Wink is an amusing one. Once again, Zeitlin went through countless auditions but just couldn’t find the right guy for the part. While taking breaks from the casting process, the crew would go across the street to a bakery, which just so happened to be owned by Dwight Henry. Zeitlin instantly became a fan of Henry’s personality and essentially begged him to try out for the part. Henry kept dodging the idea — he was, after all, a full-time business owner — but they finally got through to him. Despite having to work around his odd business hours (he worked from 11pm-10am), Zeitlin and company found their man, and as Mr. Henry stated, “the rest is history.”

Dwight Henry

It’s no wonder that Beasts of the Southern Wild has been getting all sorts of critical acclaim. This is a film with some serious lasting power, one that shows life in a Katrina-like world but also wisely avoids getting into any political matters. From the perspective of Hushpuppy, this almost feels like a folk tale, one that people will not soon forget.

It still blows my mind that this is Zeitlin’s first film (not to mention the first for much of the cast and crew as well). The movie isn’t perfect — I wish the shaky cam were alleviated a bit, and the script does run errant in the final act — but I am still in awe at the cajun world that I was able to experience for 90 minutes. Folks, pencil in June 27 on your calendar. Beasts of the Southern Wild will be unlike any film you have seen.

8/10

Movie Review: Take This Waltz [2011]

Take This Waltz [2011]

Take This Waltz [2011]
Director: Sarah Polley
Genre: Comedy/Drama
Starring: Michelle Williams, Seth Rogen, Luke Kirby and Sarah Silverman
Runtime: 116 minutes

It has come to the point where I will see anything Michelle Williams is in. She has become one of the most consistently brilliant actresses over the last few years, and she does not disappoint in Take This Waltz, director Sarah Polley’s second feature film.

Williams stars as Margot, a happily married 28-year-old freelance writer who begins to fall for the curious artist across the street. This new love interest, Daniel (Luke Kirby), intrigues her in ways her loving husband, Lou (Seth Rogen), does not. While Lou is a caring, playful companion, Margot wonders what life would be like with someone else. Her strong attraction to the handsome Daniel begins a “waltz” of sorts — she doesn’t want to cheat on her husband, but she doesn’t want to cease seeing her neighbor as well. Ultimately, something has to give.

We are teased for much of the film’s running time. Margot and Daniel continue to push the boundaries of a platonic relationship, and we are there to witness the internal struggles of both, as well as the obliviousness of Lou. Clearly, this is not an ideal situation for any of them, but the emotions are just too powerful to control.

Take This Waltz [2011] -- Seth Rogen & Michelle Williams

During one critical scene, Margot and her sister-in-law Geraldine (Sarah Silverman) are showering completely nude with a number of other women at the local gym. Stripped of their self-consciousness, they are talking about whatever comes to mind, including relationships (naturally). One older woman bluntly states that “new things become old” — words that expertly resonate within Margot’s love triangle.

In essence, that statement is the moral of the film. Sure, the grass always looks greener on the other side, but is it worth leaving the comforting stability of the present in order to get there? Just how far is too far?

My favorite moments in the film have a key 80s song as their backdrop — “Video Killed the Radio Star.” In one powerful scene, Margot and Daniel are riding together in an amusement park ride as the song blasts over the speakers. They are having a great time, laughing, throwing their hands up in the air. Suddenly, the ride abruptly stops, as does the music. The stark reality of their inappropriate behavior hits them like a bag of bricks — they had a moment of pure bliss without any lingering thoughts of their situation, but it ended just as quickly as it began. The song is also used in a later scene to echo this sentiment.

Take This Waltz [2011]

Take This Waltz is not without faults, however. It takes a while to build momentum, and this may throw off some casual viewers. Also, a strong argument could be made for the film to end about 15 minutes earlier than it did. I was expecting the movie to end on one particularly sad note, but Polley kept it going in favor of adding a different type of resolution. In a way, everything came back around full circle. The jarring transition to the film’s “real” ending threw me off at first, and in fact, it had me question my overall rating. The more I think about it, however, the more I like it. Still, the conclusion will not appeal to everyone.

Not enough can be said about Michelle Williams’ performance here, as she is fantastic as always. Her character is eccentric and lively, and we always have a feel for her mental thought processes. Luke Kirby is also surprisingly great as the rickshaw-driving artist who is charming but with the right amount of sleaze to back it up. Furthermore, it was refreshing to see both Seth Rogen and Sarah Silverman in dramatic roles, each doing well with their limited screen time.

The initial reception to Take This Waltz has been decidedly mixed, but for my money this is a moving film that feels both fresh and authentic. Those who have been in similar situations will easily feel a connection. Folks, keep an eye on Sarah Polley — she looks to have a very bright future behind the camera.

8/10

 
Take This Waltz is currently available on demand. The U.S. theatrical release is scheduled for June 29.

2011 Movie Mini-Review Roundup: Captain America, A Dangerous Method, Mission Impossible 4, My Week With Marilyn, Young Adult

I am nearly caught up with the movies I wanted to see from last year. Here are some mini-reviews of the handful of 2011 releases I saw in April:

Captain America: The First Avenger [2011]
Captain America: The First Avenger [2011, Joe Johnston]
Captain America’s origin film is pretty much paint-by-numbers superhero fluff. A handful of quality performances, led by Chris Evans as Cap, can’t save this from plodding along and resorting to the same tired action moments. Maybe I wasn’t in the right mood for the movie or maybe I’m just not the right demographic, but this didn’t do anything for me. A shame, too, because I really enjoyed Iron Man (and to a lesser extent, its sequel). Captain America has made me lose most interest in The Avengers. 5/10

A Dangerous Method [2011]
A Dangerous Method [2011, David Cronenberg]
Students and followers of psychology (particularly psychoanalysis) will get the most out of this disappointing Cronenberg effort. Michael Fassbender was on a roll in 2011 and delivers a strong performance as Carl Jung, as does Viggo Mortensen as Sigmund Freud. The examination of their friendship and mutual respect is intriguing, but the film suffers badly whenever the overacting Keira Knightley is on screen. As such, a potentially interesting subject becomes tedious as the script never really goes anywhere. The highlight of the film is Vincent Cassel’s small role as the cocky, free-wheeling Otto Gross. Again, this film is one perhaps best reserved for psych majors. 6/10

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol [2011]
Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol [2011, Brad Bird]
Brad Bird’s live-action debut is a riveting affair with at least one unforgettable scene (climbing on the side of the Burj Dubai is just insane). Tom Cruise proves he still has “it” as secret agent Ethan Hunt, who along with the surprisingly formidable team of Simon Pegg and Paula Patton is sent on a mission to stop a nuclear launch. The villains (led by the unfortunately misused Michael Nyqvist) are a bland and uninspiring bunch, but the movie itself is still a fun ride with plenty of action and cool gadgets. Arguably better than it had any right to be. 7/10

My Week With Marilyn [2011]
My Week With Marilyn [2011, Simon Curtis]
Starry-eyed Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne) weasels his way into a movie production job and gets to spend a week on set with Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams). All of Monroe’s idiosyncrasies are on display here, and the legendary actress is played expertly by the always captivating Williams. The film itself is entertaining enough, but unfortunately starts to dabble in tired cliches during the third act. A solid, albeit forgettable endeavor. 7/10

Young Adult [2011]
Young Adult [2011, Jason Reitman]
Charlize Theron is brilliant as a thirty-something young adult fiction writer who still acts like a teenager. With her main goal being to seduce her ex-boyfriend (who is now happily married with children), she is not exactly the most likable character. Regardless, it is hard to look away from this dark comedy, even as it sometimes gets uncomfortable. Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody make a great pair, and this movie is further proof of this. Special mention must be made of Patton Oswalt and Patrick Wilson, both of who deliver strong performances in their supporting roles. One of last year’s more underrated films. 8.5/10

Did you see any of these movies? Did any of them stand out to you?

Video Game Review: Torchlight [XBLA]

Torchlight [XBLA]

Torchlight
System: Xbox Live Arcade (also on PC and Mac OS X)
Genre: Action RPG
Publisher: Runic Games
Developer: Runic Games
Release Date: March 9, 2011

With the recent non-stop releases of major video game blockbusters, sometimes it’s nice to go to a mindless diversion — one that is fun to play, but doesn’t require any serious thought. Enter Torchlight, a 2011 XBLA dungeon crawler, to fill that void.

Essentially a spiritual sibling to the Diablo series (developer Runic Games is composed of ex-Diablo designers), Torchlight is a fantasy game that is all about hacking, slashing and looting. The plot is entirely irrelevant — that is to say, there is one, but it basically boils down to someone telling the main character to just keep working through a 35-floor dungeon in order to save a town from impending doom. Throw in some cheesy voice acting, and yeah, it’s ultimately rather laughable.

Torchlight [XBLA]

Regardless, Torchlight delivers the goods in terms of gameplay. After creating a main character (male or female), selecting their class (Destroyer, Alchemist or Vanquisher), and determining an animal companion (wolf, lynx or “Chakawary”), you are sent to a small village and given free reign to pick up new quests.

The main adventure sends you into a huge dungeon where you must work your way through floor-by-floor, battling countless enemies and the occasional bosses. The floor themes change at regular intervals, offering some new visuals to break up the monotony. Completing the main quest takes roughly ten hours, but additional sidequests and random exploration can easily stretch the game into a much higher number.

How much you will get out of Torchlight depends on how much you like looting dungeons and leveling up your character. The XP system is well-developed, as you can boost attributes in a number of areas, as well as learn new skills to help in combat. The battle system is particularly brilliant, as each button of the controller can be used for a different, monster-bashing spell. It’s all fluid and easy to learn.

Torchlight [XBLA]

Torchlight is great at what it sets out to accomplish, but it could be even better with a few adjustments. My biggest complaint is a lack of multiplayer. This dungeon crawler has the perfect setting for a co-op mode, but it is nowhere to be found. The upcoming Torchlight II rectifies this, but it should have been included in the original anyway. Also, the game has a bad habit of using small text in the menus. I have a good-sized TV but still had to squint to be able to read some of the items in the menu. Finally, some showdowns with multiple enemies on screen can lead to occasional slowdown. Nothing too terrible, but it can be a tad bothersome.

Still, if you’re in the market for a fun Diablo-esque adventure, Torchlight comes highly recommended. Ignore the weak story and just dig into the addictive hack ‘n slash gameplay. Keep an eye out for any future deals because the game does go on sale on XBLA from time to time (I bought mine half off for $7.50), but this isn’t a bad deal at full price either.

8/10

Movie Review: Jeff, Who Lives at Home [2011]

Jeff, Who Lives at Home [2011]

Jeff, Who Lives at Home [2011]
Director: Jay Duplass, Mark Duplass
Genre: Comedy/Drama
Starring: Jason Segel, Ed Helms, Susan Sarandon and Judy Greer
Runtime: 83 Minutes

Living as a 30-year-old shut-in would seemingly provide an ample amount of time to think about things and attempt to gain a greater meaning from life. Especially if said shut-in is a pot smoking slacker who lives in his mother’s basement. This is Jeff (Jason Segel), a guy who coasts through life while waiting for his destiny to come to him. He has a strong affinity for M. Night Shyamalan’s 2002 film, Signs, and he believes that everything happens for a reason, just like in that movie.

One day, Jeff receives a phone call from an angry person looking for “Kevin”. This is a seemingly wrong number dial to anyone else, but Jeff does not see it this way. He takes this to be a sign and heads off to run an errand, which allows him the opportunity to keep an eye out for more potential clues. This simple trip to the hardware store becomes an adventure when he sees a young guy on the bus wearing a “Kevin” basketball jersey. A series of unexpected events leads Jeff to run into his detached older brother, Pat (Ed Helms), who seemingly has it all: a wife, a house, a well-paying job.

However, the two of them stumble upon Pat’s wife, Linda (Judy Greer) having lunch with another man. In an effort to find out what is going on, they begin following her car, acting as amateur private detectives. Suddenly their mundane day has become an adventure.

Jeff, Who Lives at Home [2011]

We also meet the mother of Jeff and Pat, Sharon (Susan Sarandon), who is randomly instant messaged by someone at work, a secret admirer. This gives her normal office routine a pleasant jolt, quite similar to what is happening with her sons.

This all ties together in a charming, pleasing way, and there are quite a few laughs throughout. The Duplass brothers have an offbeat sense of humor (see: 2010’s Cyrus), but it works quite well with such strong names attached to the script. Segel and Helms are given a chance to show off their acting chops, as each are given some surprisingly powerful dramatic moments. One scene involving Helms and Greer arguing about their dysfunctional marriage is about as raw and vivid as it gets.

Jeff, Who Lives at Home [2011]

While sweet and generally pleasing, the film has some noticable issues. The Duplass brothers have a bizarre tendency to frequently zoom in and out at a rapid pace, which ultimately feels unnecessary in the context of the film. I also noticed several instances where the characters would leave a situation without properly resolving the matter (i.e. not paying for a bill at a restaurant, not paying taxi fare, etc.). Minor quibbles, yes, but these loose ends could have been easily tied up.

Jeff, Who Lives at Home has gained a wider release than I would have guessed (I saw it at an AMC Theater), which is a nice surprise for a film like this. While not perfect, the movie is an enjoyable affair that wisely mixes up humor and drama, all while utilizing a great cast with solid chemistry.

7/10

For a counter viewpoint, take the words from another moviegoer at my theater. Displeased with my reaction of “it was pretty good”, this loudmouth patron yelled “Pretty good?!?!? THAT WAS FUCKING AWESOME!” So yeah, your mileage may vary.

Movie Review: Take Shelter [2011]

Take Shelter [2011] Poster

Take Shelter [2011]
Director: Jeff Nichols
Genre: Drama/Thriller
Starring: Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain and Shea Whigham
Runtime: 120 Minutes

Take Shelter is an intelligent film that asks difficult questions about mental illness — specifically, schizophrenia. It is not an easy watch by any means, but it is one that will elicit powerful emotions upon its conclusion.

Michael Shannon, in a groundbreaking performance, is Curtis LaForche, a construction worker living in Ohio with his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and his six-year-old daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart), who is deaf. He works hard to support his family, but their financial problems have them in danger of losing their home. Perhaps triggered by the increasingly stressful situation, Curtis begins have lucid, intense nightmares. He dreams of an impending apocalypse, a storm of epic proportions that will wipe out the world as he knows it.

Take Shelter [2011]

The nightmares don’t stop. Believing these dreams to be more and more as prophetic visions, Curtis begins to build a storm shelter in his backyard. This is when the film kicks itself into high gear. People take notice of Curtis’s erratic behavior. He begins to have problems at work. He is paranoid of those who appear in his dreams. His once-stable family has become strained. Things are going downhill, and fast.

Here’s the kicker: Curtis’s mother was diagnosed with schizophrenia when she was in her thirties. Could he be suffering from the same illness? His behavior certainly suggests this. Or is he a prophet, able to see the future and trying to warn us of the forthcoming doom and gloom?

For much of the film’s runtime, we are forced to answer this for ourselves. This culminates in an unforgettable ending, one that has provoked deep and meaningful discussions from others. It has been a week since I watched the movie, and I still can’t stop thinking about it. What we decipher from this, I feel, ultimately says something about ourselves. Truly, this is an experience that will make all of us look at mental illness in a different light.

Take Shelter [2011]

I don’t know if I have seen a better movie about mental illness, and much of the credit for this goes to to the stellar cast. Michael Shannon is a tour de force here, rightfully deserving to be mentioned among last year’s biggest Oscar snubs. Jessica Chastain is the perfect counterpart to him, a caring and loving wife who does her best to support her husband even when times are rough. I feel she should have been nominated for this rather than her role in The Help.

Quite frankly, Take Shelter is one of 2011’s best films. Period. Grossly overlooked by many, this is an unforgettable movie that would surely be in my top five from the year. Now that it is available on DVD, there is no excuse to miss out on this recent gem.

9/10

Video Game Review: Batman: Arkham City [PS3, 2011]

Batman: Arkham City [PS3, 2011]

Batman: Arkham City
System: Playstation 3 (also on Xbox 360 and PC)
Genre: Action/Adventure/Stealth
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Developer: Rocksteady Studios
Release Date: October 18, 2011

It was just last month that I finally played through Batman: Arkham Asylum, Rocksteady’s breakout hit from 2009. That game totally blew me away and removed any pre-conceived notion I had about superhero titles lacking in quality. After completing Batman’s first PS3/X360 effort, I immediately picked up last year’s sequel, Arkham City.

Whereas Arkham Asylum focused primarily on a plot against the Joker, Arkham City showcases several prominent villains. After former warden Quincy Sharp is elected mayor of Gotham, his first order of business is to clean up the streets. His solution? Turn the slums of the city into a maximum security prison — its own metropolis, blocked off from everything else. Naturally, this is a terrible idea, as that means all sorts of evil masterminds are put together in one location. All hell breaks loose, and it’s Batman’s job to restore order against the likes of Hugo Strange, Two Face, the Penguin, and the Joker, among many others.

The biggest difference between the two games is Arkham City’s venture into a larger open world. The city is five times bigger than the asylum, and it allows Batman to have free reign in a massive urban environment. With the ability to use a grappling hook from building to building and rooftop to rooftop, you really feel as if you are Batman himself. The sheer freedom that the city provides is awe-inspiring, and it helps to be controlling such a badass character.

Batman: Arkham City [PS3, 2011]

The core gameplay is the same as before, a strong mix of combat, stealth and exploration. The combat system still uses the same attack/countering method that is so simple yet amazingly well-executed. Batman has some new gadgets this time around, many of which help during battles. Smoke pellets can be dropped to disorientate enemies and allow Batman to more easily escape harm’s way. A taser gun can be used to shock enemies, and it also restores power to generators. There’s even a new freezing gadget that can be used to toss ice grenades. All of these new toys are used throughout the game, often at critical points.

Stealth is largely the same as before, but the exploration aspects have drastically increased. If you couldn’t get enough of Riddler’s challenges before, you will love Arkham City even more. This time around there are a whopping 440 trophies to acquire, and all of them are scattered throughout the huge in-game world. There are also an increased amount of side missions, many of which introduce other villains not otherwise found in the main story. The Riddler himself has a side quest that has Batman stopping Saw-like puzzles to save innocent victim’s lives.

What’s great about all of these new quests is that once the main campaign is completed, everything is rolled over into a “New Game+” mode. That means that you can pick up all of the side quests you missed the first time around, but with all of Batman’s upgrades already included. I loved having this functionality, as I am the type of gamer that usually tries to finish the story first before digging into the supplementary features.

Batman: Arkham City [PS3, 2011]

Also carried over from Arkham Asylum is the expansive Challenge mode. This feature pits Batman in a series of increasingly more difficult combat sequences, with the goal being to string together awesome combos in order to achieve a high score. A new twist to this mode is the ability to tweak the settings in order to make combat even more challenging (or easier, if you are so inclined).

Yet another new addition to the game is the ability to play as an entirely different character, Catwoman. Unfortunately, she can only be used if you buy the game brand new, or if you are willing to cough up $10 extra for used copies. This is a seriously shitty move on the part of the publishers, as Catwoman was clearly already built into the game and therefore should not be considered as something akin to downloadable content. I had considered paying the $10, but from what I have heard, her campaign is very short and only lasts about an hour. That’s not worth it to me, and I am disgusted that it is not included as part of the main package.

Still, Catwoman or not, Batman: Arkham City is an incredible experience that is an absolute must play, especially for those that loved its predecessor. The dark, gritty visual style is back and better than ever, and the soundtrack feels like it could easily belong in one of Christopher Nolan’s terrific Dark Knight films. With a staggering amount of gameplay depth, this will last a LONG time. An easy contender for 2011’s Game of the Year.

9/10