Movie Review: Enough Said [2013]

Enough Said [2013]

Enough Said [2013]
Director: Nicole Holofcener
Writers: Nicole Holofcener
Genre: Comedy
Starring: Julia Louis-Dreyfus, James Gandolfini, Catherine Keener, Toni Collette, Ben Falcone
Running Time: 93 minutes

Enough Said will always be remembered for being James Gandolfini’s final lead role before his premature death last summer, and it’s a bittersweet performance.

Gandolfini plays Albert, a sweet, gentle giant of a man who catches the interest of a masseuse named Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfus). Both are single parents and relatively recent divorcees, and they are each struggling to come to grips with their daughters leaving for college. When the two of them meet at a party, they amusingly bond over how they aren’t attracted to anyone there. A little bit of flirting leads to a first date, and the two seem to hit it off from there.

Both characters are lonely souls with little in the way of friends. However, at that same party, Eva gives her business card to a poet named Marianne (Catherine Keener). At their first meeting, the two of them start talking and develop a friendship of their own. Things seem to be looking up for Eva, who now has a new love interest as well as a good friend.

Enough Said [2013]

Naturally, there’s a wrinkle in her newfound relationships. There’s a pretty significant plot twist here which I won’t reveal (though you will probably be able to guess it within moments of the film starting), and it causes the film to dig deeper into Eva’s personality. She learns things about Albert from a biased perspective, and it causes her to look at him in a different light. This actually amounts to a fairly conventional romcom plot, but it works here because of the great characters within.

Louis-Dreyfus and Gandolfini have a strange, enigmatic type of chemistry between them, and they are completely believable as a new couple. Albert is a self-proclaimed slob (though not the hoarding type, he says) and maybe a bit too simple-minded, but it’s clear he has a good heart, and Eva is drawn to him right away. The banter between them is well-written and often funny, and nothing feels forced.

Enough Said [2013]

Gandolfini plays against type here, and his performance is so strong that it makes it even more depressing that he is no longer with us. I would have loved to have seen him take on other parts like this, which is about as far from Tony Soprano as you can imagine. Louis-Dreyfus is also in excellent form, and it’s great to see her in a rare lead role. Catherine Keener, Toni Colette and Ben Falcone round out the supporting cast, with each playing small but pivotal roles.

Enough Said isn’t a complex film, but it is a well-made one. It’s the rare romantic comedy (a middle-aged one, at that) that isn’t too saccharine, and it’s genuinely funny more often than not. Don’t let this one slip under your radar.

8/10

Movie Review: 12 Years a Slave [2013]

12 Years a Slave [2013]

12 Years a Slave [2013]
Director: Steve McQueen
Writers: John Ridley (screenplay), Solomon Northup (based on “Twelve Years a Slave” by)
Genre: Biography/Drama/History
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong’o, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Brad Pitt
Running Time: 134 minutes

No film this year has left me as emotionally shaken as 12 Years a Slave.

Based on the 1853 autobiography of the same name by Solomon Northrup, Steve McQueen’s latest effort unflinchingly shows the horrific atrocities of slavery in the southern United States. In 1841, Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor, in what is sure to be an Oscar-nominated performance) is a free black man living with his wife and two children in Saratoga Springs, New York. An accomplished violinist, he is offered the chance to go on tour with a band in a traveling circus. However, this turns out to be a ruse, as Solomon is drugged, kidnapped and sold into slavery during a night out in Washington DC.

12 Years a Slave [2013]

Forced to use a new name, “Platt”, Northrup is now treated as if he were a piece of property, being traded among multiple owners. His pleas describing how he is actually a free man fall on deaf ears. His first owner, William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), appears to have a slight bit of compassion, but make no mistake: he’s still a slaver. An incident on the plantation prompts Ford to send Northrup away to the only other owner who will take him: the brutally violent Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). From there, Solomon’s plight only gets worse.

Epps essentially serves as the film’s main villain, a drunken, religious nutjob with a tough wife (Sarah Paulson) and an obsession with one of his female slaves, Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o). If any of his slaves fail to meet his daily quota in terms of cotton picked, they are taken out back and whipped over and over again. Both Northrup and Patsey feel the rage of Epps, and these moments make up some of the film’s most disturbing scenes.

12 Years a Slave [2013]

By all means, 12 Years a Slave is a difficult watch. McQueen is relentless in exposing us to the heinous reality of slavery, particularly through his signature long takes. One of the most uncomfortable examples of this involves an unhinged Paul Dano (playing a plantation overseer) beating Northrup repeatedly before proceeding to hang him from a tree. Although Dano’s character is forced to stop, nonetheless Northrup is still left hanging, with just the tips of his toes able to support him on the ground. It’s a disgusting sequence, and McQueen makes sure to show us damn near every minute of it.

By the end of the film, I was a wreck. I was so angry at what was happening on screen, and it made me sit down and start to reflect on my country. Although legal slavery in the U.S. and the subsequent Civil War happened 150+ years ago, that’s really not all that long ago. It’s mind-boggling to think that this happened at all, let alone in the not-so-distant past. I felt like I was put through the wringer, and chances are most will feel this same way.

12 Years a Slave [2013]

Everyone involved with this film is in top form here. Ejiofor is sure to get endless acclaim during awards season, and any accolades are well-deserved. I can’t think of a better leading man for this role. Fassbender is terrifying and unpredictable as a sadistic slave owner, further cementing his status as one of the best in the business right now. The supporting cast, which consists of such big names as Brad Pitt and Paul Giamatti, all turn in noteworthy performances, but special mention must be made of two of the most prominent women in the film: Sarah Paulson and Lupita Nyong’o. Paulson is the perfect counterpart as Fassbender’s wife, driven by her intense jealousy, and frightening in her own way. Nyong’o, in her first feature film, is given some of the worst treatment, but she is more than up to the task. She is certainly someone to keep an eye out for in the near future.

12 Years a Slave is one of the most important films I have seen in some time. Not only is it the best 2013 film I have seen this year, it is the best film I have seen all year, period. It’s often a difficult watch, but it absolutely must be seen.

10/10

Movie Review: 12 Years a Slave [2013]

12 Years a Slave [2013]

12 Years a Slave [2013]
Director: Steve McQueen
Writers: John Ridley (screenplay), Solomon Northup (based on “Twelve Years a Slave” by)
Genre: Biography/Drama/History
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong’o, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Brad Pitt
Running Time: 134 minutes

No film this year has left me as emotionally shaken as 12 Years a Slave.

Based on the 1853 autobiography of the same name by Solomon Northrup, Steve McQueen’s latest effort unflinchingly shows the horrific atrocities of slavery in the southern United States. In 1841, Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor, in what is sure to be an Oscar-nominated performance) is a free black man living with his wife and two children in Saratoga Springs, New York. An accomplished violinist, he is offered the chance to go on tour with a band in a traveling circus. However, this turns out to be a ruse, as Solomon is drugged, kidnapped and sold into slavery during a night out in Washington DC.

12 Years a Slave [2013]

Forced to use a new name, “Platt”, Northrup is now treated as if he were a piece of property, being traded among multiple owners. His pleas describing how he is actually a free man fall on deaf ears. His first owner, William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), appears to have a slight bit of compassion, but make no mistake: he’s still a slaver. An incident on the plantation prompts Ford to send Northrup away to the only other owner who will take him: the brutally violent Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). From there, Solomon’s plight only gets worse.

Epps essentially serves as the film’s main villain, a drunken, religious nutjob with a tough wife (Sarah Paulson) and an obsession with one of his female slaves, Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o). If any of his slaves fail to meet his daily quota in terms of cotton picked, they are taken out back and whipped over and over again. Both Northrup and Patsey feel the rage of Epps, and these moments make up some of the film’s most disturbing scenes.

12 Years a Slave [2013]

By all means, 12 Years a Slave is a difficult watch. McQueen is relentless in exposing us to the heinous reality of slavery, particularly through his signature long takes. One of the most uncomfortable examples of this involves an unhinged Paul Dano (playing a plantation overseer) beating Northrup repeatedly before proceeding to hang him from a tree. Although Dano’s character is forced to stop, nonetheless Northrup is still left hanging, with just the tips of his toes able to support him on the ground. It’s a disgusting sequence, and McQueen makes sure to show us damn near every minute of it.

By the end of the film, I was a wreck. I was so angry at what was happening on screen, and it made me sit down and start to reflect on my country. Although legal slavery in the U.S. and the subsequent Civil War happened 150+ years ago, that’s really not all that long ago. It’s mind-boggling to think that this happened at all, let alone in the not-so-distant past. I felt like I was put through the wringer, and chances are most will feel this same way.

12 Years a Slave [2013]

Everyone involved with this film is in top form here. Ejiofor is sure to get endless acclaim during awards season, and any accolades are well-deserved. I can’t think of a better leading man for this role. Fassbender is terrifying and unpredictable as a sadistic slave owner, further cementing his status as one of the best in the business right now. The supporting cast, which consists of such big names as Brad Pitt and Paul Giamatti, all turn in noteworthy performances, but special mention must be made of two of the most prominent women in the film: Sarah Paulson and Lupita Nyong’o. Paulson is the perfect counterpart as Fassbender’s wife, driven by her intense jealousy, and frightening in her own way. Nyong’o, in her first feature film, is given some of the worst treatment, but she is more than up to the task. She is certainly someone to keep an eye out for in the near future.

12 Years a Slave is one of the most important films I have seen in some time. Not only is it the best 2013 film I have seen this year, it is the best film I have seen all year, period. It’s often a difficult watch, but it absolutely must be seen.

10/10

Video Game Review: Proteus [PS Vita/PS3]

Proteus [PS Vita/PS3]

Proteus
System: PS Vita/PS3 (also on PC and Mac OS)
Genre: Open World
Developer: Ed Key, David Kanaga, Curve Studios
Publisher: Curve Studios
Price: $13.99 (cross-buy on PSN)
Release Date: October 29, 2013

Labeling Proteus as a video game is a bit of a misnomer. Sure, it is playable on gaming systems (the PSN release is cross-buy for both PS3 and Vita) and there are a handful of trophies to obtain, but that’s about where the familiarity ends. This is more of an experience, one completely unique in the world of gaming.

Proteus is all about exploration from a first-person perspective. Every new “campaign” places you near a randomly-generated island, and your only task is to explore it as you see fit. There is no proper end goal or set destination — what you get out of your experience is entirely up to you.

Proteus [PS Vita/PS3]

Every island is filled with hills, trees and mountains. Leaves float through the air, flowers sway in the wind, the sun rises, the sun sets. It rains, it snows. Small animals — which resemble frogs and rabbits — hop through the forest, hitting musical notes every time they hit the ground. You can’t really interact with them, but you can chase them until something else catches your eye.

Walking throughout the vast, colorful island produces new sounds with nearly every step. Ambient music plays in the background, creating a beautifully tranquil atmosphere, and different areas change the tune in ways that only enhance the mood. It’s as if you are traveling through your very own musical forest in which even random objects alter the soundscape.

Proteus [PS Vita/PS3]

The pixel art style used for the graphics provides a surprisingly lush environment. The visuals, while decidely retro in appearance, actually work quite well in creating alluring scenery. The vibrant colorscape certainly helps in this regard, as do the changes in weather and seasons. Watching the snow fall during winter is especially serene.

A single trip through the island and its seasons can be completed in an hour or less. However, each visit provides an entirely new experience, so this isn’t exactly a one-and-done endeavor. For the Playstation Network release, the inclusion of cryptic trophies strengthens each playthrough, as the descriptions are vague enough that it can take some serious thinking to figure out what to do.

Proteus [PS Vita/PS3]

All of this culminates in a truly special, fantasy-like adventure. The $13.99 price point is a bit steep, but if you have a good imagination and are willing to step outside the boundaries of conventional gaming, Proteus may be just what you’re looking for.

8/10

 
(A copy of this game was provided for review.)

Movie Review: Gravity [2013]

Gravity [2013]

Gravity [2013]
Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Writers: Alfonso Cuarón, Jonás Cuarón
Genre: Drama/Sci-Fi/Thriller
Starring: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney
Running Time: 91 minutes

It’s easy to get swept up in the hype surrounding Gravity. Alfonso Cuarón’s latest effort is truly a technical marvel, and it is one of the most visually stunning films to come out in years. This is the type of feature that begs to be experienced on the biggest screen possible — IMAX 3D, preferably — and it’s the rare release that is garnering nearly unanimous praise from critics and audiences alike. Taken on these merits alone, Gravity is worth the trip to the theater. However, it is lacking in a few crucial areas, and these issues keep it from reaching the “instant classic” status that many are quick to label it as.

In theory, the idea behind the film is simple. Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), a rookie on her first space mission, and veteran astronaut Ray Kowalski (George Clooney), on his last mission before retirement, are performing a routine spacewalk before disaster strikes. A Russian missile strike has caused a massive chain reaction, sending seemingly endless amounts of space debris heading directly toward them. Their shuttle is destroyed, and soon the two protagonists become split apart.

At this point, our attention is focused primarily on Ryan and her will to survive. She is given a slight bit of back story involving a tragedy that occurred back home, and this is used as an attempt to get us to connect with her. In reality, this little nugget of information feels contrived. Ryan’s story is something that has been done to death in cinema — can this emotionally broken character overcome the overwhelming odds to stay alive? — and the overall writing leaves a lot to be desired. There is also quite a bit of on-the-nose symbolism regarding the rebirth of human life, some of which feels out of place.

Gravity [2013]

Yet it is a testament to Ms. Sandra Bullock that we are in fact still able to resonate even slightly with her character. The decision to cast Bullock and Clooney — both of whom are comfortable and longtime fan favorites — was a stroke of genius. Going into the film, we already have some sort of connection to the characters simply because of who plays them. Bullock delivers what may be her finest performance yet, and she will certainly get some love during awards season. Clooney is basically playing George Clooney here, but it works for this role. His casual demeanor is the perfect complement for Bullock’s nervousness, and he makes the best of his limited screen time. I truly believe that much of the love for this film comes down to these two actors; if Robert Downey Jr. and Angelina Jolie, both of whom were originally attached to the project, had remained in the film, it could have been an unmitigated disaster.

It is especially impressive that even with these script problems, Gravity is a compelling film. The combination of Alfonso Cuarón’s direction and Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography is a match made in heaven — just take a look at the film’s remarkable 17-minute opening shot as an example. Their work truly makes it feel as if you are floating in space, and the 3D is entirely organic. It remains to be seen how the film will hold up on DVD/Blu-ray, but as a theatrical experience, few are better.

8/10

Video Game Review: Killzone: Mercenary [PS Vita]

Killzone: Mercenary [PS Vita]

Killzone: Mercenary
System: Playstation Vita
Genre: First-person shooter
Developer: Guerrilla Cambridge
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Release Date: September 10, 2013

For the past year or so, Playstation Vita owners have been clamoring for a new, big-budget exclusive AAA title. The recent focus on indie games has resulted in an impressive downloadable library, but there’s something to be said about having a portable blockbuster title. Enter Killzone: Mercenary, the first FPS worth playing on the Vita.

Money is the name of the game in KZ:M, as you play a mercenary by the name of Aaron Danner, a man who has no allegiances to either the ISA or the Helghast. Basically, he goes wherever the money is, and this lack of devotion offers a fresh look at the ongoing battle between the two sides.

Killzone: Mercenary [PS Vita]

In the game’s single player campaign, money is acquired by killing enemies and scavenging supplies, with headshots and silent takedowns being worth the most. This cash can in turn be used to purchase ammo, new weapons and special VAN-Guard equipment at conveniently located Blackjack stations scattered throughout every level. By unlocking more and more equipment, you can customize your loadouts as you see fit. Prefer to go the stealth route? Buy some light armor and a silenced handgun, and you’ll be able to sneak past most enemy-infested areas. If you would rather go in on full-on badass mode, you can load up with some heavy-duty weapons and go nuts. The choice is yours, and you can use these loadouts anywhere and anytime you want.

The campaign, while lacking in memorable set-pieces, is still good fun, but it is also rather short. I finished my first playthrough in a mere four hours, though beating the game does unlock multiple new ways to play each level. Every single player mission can be replayed in the form of three new contracts — covert, demolition and precision. Each of these contracts require you to play the level in a different manner while providing several goals that must be accomplished in order to earn the full amount of money. Although it can feel redundant to play through each level multiple times, there is plenty of replay value here for those willing to do so.

Killzone: Mercenary [PS Vita, 2013]

However, it’s clear that the meat-and-potatoes of KZ:M is its multiplayer mode. Thankfully, it does not disappoint. There are three ways to play online: free-for-all, deathmatch and warzone. The first two are self-explanatory, but warzone is easily the highlight of the group. In this mode, you join a 4v4 battle that lasts for five rounds, each one with a different goal than the last. For example, the first round requires teams to collect the Valor cards from fallen enemies. Another round forces teams to hack VAN-Guard capsules that have fallen from the sky. While every round is a variant of the same goal (kill the enemy and get more points), they are different enough to keep every game fresh.

Rather than go the conventional XP route that many FPS games use online, KZ:M uses a unique Valor card system. By playing well (and often) online, you can earn a higher-ranked card. If you play poorly, your card goes down in rank, also making you a less valuable target to scope out. Killing enemies online also makes them drop their cards, which in turn are worth a little extra cash. This is an invigorating spin on the FPS online formula, and the card-collecting has a “gotta catch ’em all” feel.

Killzone: Mercenary [PS Vita]

As for the transition of Killzone‘s console gameplay to a portable device, well, it’s damn near flawless. The controls are intuitive and easy to get the hang of, with the only major difference being that sprinting is performed by double-tapping a button rather than pushing down the analog stick (not possible on the Vita, of course). There are a handful of touch screen commands as well, though all of them mesh with the button controls organically.

This is also a visually stunning game, not far off from an early PS3 title. It’s easily one of the best-looking games for the Vita, and if you’re looking for a title to show off the system’s power, this is about as good as it gets.

With its replayable single player campaign and addictive online multiplayer content, Killzone: Mercenary has a lot of bang for its buck. This is an impressive portable effort, one that will still likely be looked at years from now as one of the system’s crown jewels. If you’ve been craving a high quality FPS on the Vita, this is exactly the game you have been looking for.

9/10

Video Game Review: Grand Theft Auto V [Xbox 360]

Grand Theft Auto V [Xbox 360]

Grand Theft Auto V
System: Xbox 360, Playstation 3
Genre: Action-adventure
Developer: Rockstar North
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Release Date: September 17, 2013

I have a confession to make: until Grand Theft Auto V, I had never completed a GTA game. I have played every game in the series, and had a (mostly) positive experience with each one, but I would always seem to lose interest at around the 10-15 hour mark. That is not the case with Rockstar’s latest blockbuster, the first GTA game to finally get nearly everything right.

One of my biggest pet peeves with the series has been its lack of mission checkpoints. There was rarely anything more frustrating than starting a mission, driving to point A, accomplishing set goal, getting killed on the ensuing shootout back, and then having to start it all over again from the very beginning. That is not the case in GTA V — now there are multiple checkpoints within each mission, ensuring that any tedium is kept to the bare minimum.

Another huge, huge addition to the series is a brand new quick save system. That’s right — instead of having to drive to a safe house and walk into your bedroom, you can now just open your cell phone and save at any point you wish. In essence, by fixing these two major issues alone, Rockstar has succeeded in creating what is truly the ultimate Grand Theft Auto experience.

Grand Theft Auto V [Xbox 360]

In another bold move, the game has three protagonists instead of just one rags-to-riches story. These characters — Michael, Franklin and Trevor — are all wildly different and can be switched between at your leisure. Michael is a rich ex-convict who is going through a mid-life crisis, and he can’t resist the urge of getting back into the tempting world of crime once again. He befriends Franklin, a repo man who is trying to get out of the hood while pursuing higher levels of crime. Later, Trevor, an old pal of Michael’s, is introduced, and he is the epitome of the stereotypical GTA gamer’s play style. Trevor is a wild, out-of-control white trash psychopath who has no problems killing and torturing others. He is completely ludicrous, but he is responsible for many of the game’s most memorable moments. All three characters have their own personal missions while also working together on the main storyline.

The absolute highlight of using these three characters together comes in the form of elaborate heist missions. These require intense planning, and the game gives you two different ways to pull off these robberies. One is usually stealth-oriented, whereas the other is guns-a-blazin’. A lot of piecework is required to be successful, including recruiting NPC helpers (the better ones require a higher cut of the score), getting proper getaway vehicles and of course, scoping out the area beforehand. There are only a handful of these heist missions, but they are easily the most fun I have had in any GTA game’s main campaign, period.

Grand Theft Auto V [Xbox 360]

Switching between the three characters is quite easy, and it works surprisingly well. For example, during a heist you can switch from one character who is engaged in a gunfight at ground level to another character who is ready with a sniper from above. Being able to switch back and forth adds a new dimension to these missions, and and they are a blast to play.

Of course, if you really want to, you can avoid missions altogether and just go buckwild in the massive world of Los Santos. Unlike in previous games, the entire map is open to you right from the start, and boy is it massive. The city is full of life, with yuppies walking down the sidewalk with frappucino in hand, bar patrons lounging around outside, people walking their dogs in the park… it truly feels like a living, breathing world. Outside of the city, there’s an impoverished, redneck town (where Trevor’s trailer is located), as well as a large mountain that is begging to be explored.

Grand Theft Auto V [Xbox 360]

The game is full of bonus side quests and little Easter eggs, some of which may not be discovered for months. There are tons of random events, and each character has their own unique interactions. For example, Franklin can tow illegally parked cars to earn more money, while Trevor can work as a bounty hunter. Trevor also has the distinction of being able to kidnap random citizens and then drive them to a cult at the top of a mountain, where they will exchange money for their next human sacrifice victim. Basically, you can be as evil as you want in the game.

Other improvements in GTA V include far superior car handling (especially compared to GTA IV) and much better combat controls. The gunplay, especially, is a huge step-up, as now it is much easier to lock onto an enemy. Also, dying in the game no longer erases your weapons — you will respawn with everything in tact, which is a another nice bonus.

Grand Theft Auto V [Xbox 360]

Now, GTA V isn’t quite perfect. For one, helicopters are incredibly awkward to control, and they are mandatory for a few missions. While I was able to handle most missions with relative ease, I found myself dying much more frequently when I had to fly. It makes sense that there are flying missions since Trevor was a former certified pilot, but I could have done without being forced to use them so often.

There are also problems with the game’s writing and use of satire. The GTA series has always been tongue-in-cheek, and this game is no exception. However, some of the satire and jokes just come across as lazy. For every genuinely amusing moment, there are plenty of groan-worthy spoofs (i.e. FBI = FIB, Facebook = Lifeinvader, etc.) or overly juvenile gags. The game’s characters are also hastily written, and their reasons for working together are vapid at best. Still, shallow writing aside, I am willing to overlook most of these flaws simply because the game does so much right.

Put simply, Grand Theft Auto V is a remarkable achievement in gaming. There is just so much to do in the island of Los Santos, and every foray into its world produces new experiences. The game looks incredible — try not to be impressed the first time you dip your toes in the ocean — and it has a killer soundtrack to boot. There’s even a brand new online mode that is essentially its own full-fledged game (which will get a separate review later). In short, this is the GTA that I have always wanted, and it is easily one of this year’s must-play games.

10/10

Video Game Review: Lone Survivor: The Director’s Cut [PS Vita/PS3]

Lone Survivor: The Director's Cut [PS Vita/PS3]

Lone Survivor: The Director’s Cut
System: PS Vita/PS3 (also on PC, Mac OS X and Linux)
Genre: Survival Horror
Developer: Superflat Games, Curve Studios
Publisher: Superflat Games
Price: $12.99 (cross-buy on PSN)
Release Date: September 24, 2013

In a world where most modern horror games rely heavily on action and frantic combat, Lone Survivor: The Director’s Cut is a breath of fresh air. This is a game that manages to crank up the suspense while providing an intense, creepy atmosphere, all while being presented in a pixelated 2D environment.

The game tells the story of You, an unnamed protagonist (in his words, his name “doesn’t really matter anymore”) who is seemingly the lone survivor after a disease wiped out the rest of the population. Tired of being stranded in his apartment, he decides to head out in hopes of finding someone, anyone, who might still be alive in this post-apocalyptic world.

Lone Survivor: The Director's Cut [PS Vita/PS3]

Of course, our hero isn’t really alone. Just outside of his apartment, he finds a truly repulsive, faceless monster whose presence is punctuated by piercing static and muted screams. Initially armed with nothing but a flashlight, the only way to get past this ghastly creature is to hide in the shadows and attempt to sneak past it. This is a common occurrence, as the monsters become more and more frequent in their appearances. Eventually, you’re able to get a gun, providing an alternate method to deal with enemies, but ammo is so scarce that it is often best to be as stealthy as possible.

Much of Lone Survivor takes place in the dark, and strategic use of the flashlight is necessary in order to find your way around. Again, supplies are scarce, so it’s best to conserve the battery. This can make it tricky when scoping out an unfamiliar location, as even the slightest glimpse of light will cast the creatures into a frenzy, chasing you until you reach a new room.

Lone Survivor: The Director's Cut [PS Vita/PS3]

Perhaps even more frightening than the relentless enemies is the rapidly deteriorating mental health of the protagonist. In order to stay in good (or at least acceptable) shape, you must eat often while also getting a proper amount of sleep. There are food items scattered throughout the in-game world, some good (fruit salad), some bad (squid on a stick), but all are beneficial for keeping your stomach full. There are no health bars or other HUD reminders — the only way to know if you need to sleep or eat is through random text prompts. Wait too long to do either and you will begin to hallucinate, which is never a good thing. You can also talk to plants and stuffed animals to keep your sanity, and if you play your cards right, you might even be able to befriend a *real* cat.

The frequent reminders to eat and get some rest only add to the already riveting tension, and with a possibly insane protagonist, it’s difficult to tell what’s real and what’s merely in his head. As such, the game has an intriguing cerebral element, becoming something of a psychological thriller in its own right.

Lone Survivor: The Director's Cut [PS Vita/PS3]

Now, while the game absolutely succeeds in providing a haunting atmosphere, it does have some noticeable issues with its core gameplay. For one, there is a lot of backtracking. In order to save progress, you have to frequently go back to your apartment and rest, although this is helped somewhat by teleporting mirrors scattered throughout the building. Many of the doors are also locked at first, requiring you to explore and find their keys in order to get through them. This can be a tedious affair at times, especially when you find yourself going back and forth between the same two locations. There are also concerns with the game’s combat, as using the gun feels clunky and occasionally unresponsive. The gun can be aimed in three directions, but it’s difficult to actually fire off a good shot in the way you want to. This does make enemy encounters even more disturbing, though it feels like kind of a cheap tactic to do so.

Still, flaws aside, this is a very unique horror experience that is an especially excellent fit for the PS Vita. As the Director’s Cut, this is the definitive edition of Lone Survivor, and it includes new locations, dialogue, music, endings and even a New Game+ mode. The campaign can be finished in just 3-5 hours, but multiple playthroughs are warranted in order to discover new endings and learn more about the game’s narrative. As such, there is a solid amount of value here for horror buffs. Just make sure to play this in the dark and with headphones on… if you dare.

8/10

 
(A copy of this game was provided for review.)

Movie Review: The Conjuring [2013]

The Conjuring [2013]

The Conjuring [2013]
Director: James Wan
Writers: Chad Hayes, Carey Hayes
Genre: Horror/Thriller
Starring: Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Ron Livingston, Lili Taylor
Running Time: 112 minutes

The real-life couple of Ed and Lorraine Warren gained notoriety as the founders of the New England Society for Psychic Research, a paranormal investigative group that attempted to help with thousands of ghost and demon-related hauntings. The Conjuring tells the tale of one of the couple’s investigations, which the opening credits describe as their most extreme case ever.

Set in 1971, the film focuses on a family of seven that moves into an old farmhouse in Harrisville, Rhode Island. The parents, Roger (Ron Livingston) and Carolyn (Lili Taylor), and their five daughters, are happy-go-lucky during their big move-in day, though they find it peculiar that their dog, Sadie, refuses to enter the house. The very next morning, Carolyn wakes up with a huge bruise on her leg, and poor Sadie is found dead outside.

The Conjuring [2013]

The paranormal activities only get worse from there, and they grow more and more frequent. Items are thrown across the house, doors are open and shut on their own, and children are pulled from their beds while they sleep. To top it off, the youngest daughter claims to have made a new friend, Rory, who no one else can see.

Eventually, the family cannot take any more of the abuse, and Carolyn reaches out to Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) Warren for help. As soon as they arrive, Lorraine immediately notices multiple presences within the house. It’s clear to them that there is a demon that has latched onto the family, and they will have to gain evidence in order to pursue an exorcism on the entire house. The Warrens set up an elaborate system of cameras and audio recordings in order to obtain enough proof, but this quickly becomes a race against the clock as their presence seems to infuriate the demon inside the house.

The Conjuring [2013]

The general concept for The Conjuring feels familiar, and the film itself doesn’t really break any new ground within the horror genre. However, the overall package is well put together, offering a chilling atmosphere with a relentless sense of dread and plenty of scares. The attention to detail is impeccable, as director James Wan nailed the 1970s setting, right down to the household items on display. Wilson and Farmiga are terrific in the lead roles, and the children do well at looking scared out of their minds. Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston make for a great couple as well, though the latter looks surprisingly emotionless during the film’s batshit-crazy climax.

The fact that The Conjuring is based on a true story adds even more to its freaky nature. Sure, extreme liberties were taken with some of the paranormal disturbances, but they help make the film even more entertaining. As someone who doesn’t believe in ghosts, demonic possessions or the like, I still found this to be an incredibly entertaining film. Perhaps best of all, it’s intelligent as well, something we really don’t see much of in the genre anymore.

8/10

Movie Review: The World’s End [2013]

The World's End [2013]

The World’s End [2013]
Director: Edgar Wright
Writer: Simon Pegg, Edgar Wright
Genre: Action/Comedy/Sci-Fi
Starring: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Martin Freeman, Paddy Considine, Eddie Marsan
Running Time: 109 minutes

It’s amazing what a difference 20 years makes, especially those years immediately after high school. Friends come and go, many start families, and some find lucrative jobs elsewhere. However, there are some that simply don’t change.

Gary King (Simon Pegg) is one such stalwart who is stuck in a high school mindset. A recovering alcoholic and drug addict (though obviously not fully committed to sobering up), Gary reminisces at an AA meeting about an epic pub crawl he and his mates once attempted during high school. The crawl, a 12-pub trip through their hometown of Newton Haven, was never fully completed. While telling his story, he realizes that he badly wants to see the pub crawl through to the end.

Gary starts reaching out to his long-lost pals, convincing Peter (Eddie Marsan), Oliver (Martin Freeman) and Steven (Paddy Considine) to join him fairly easily. The wild card is Andy (Nick Frost), who hasn’t had a drop of alcohol in 16 years after being involved in a serious accident. Yet even he manages to agree after being told a sob story by Gary; the caveat being that he drink tap water instead.

The World's End [2013]

And so the gang gets back together, some 20 years later, all living vastly different lives. Gary hasn’t changed a bit since high school — in fact, he is still wearing the same Sisters of Mercy t-shirt he wore during the initial pub crawl attempt — but the others seem to be well off. It takes some time for the five of them to bond, especially as Gary is all over the place with his childish behavior and inappropriate comments.

As the beers start flowing and the guys begin opening up, it’s a blast to listen to them shoot the shit over a few pints. However, it doesn’t take long for them to realize that something is a little off with their hometown. I won’t get into spoilers here, but the film goes in a *completely* different direction around the time the fellas hit the third pub. Things are not at all as they seem in little old Newton Haven.

The World's End [2013]

This jarring transition still brings plenty of laughs and some surprisingly spectacular fighting choreography, but it loses a little something along the way. There was potential for a genuinely great film about old friends catching up and trying to relive their “glory days”, but the zany direction the film takes feels like a bit of a setback. As such, this doesn’t quite live up to those from the rest of the Cornetto Trilogy (Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz).

At the same time, there is still a lot to like here. The mashup of movie genres means you never know what’s going to happen next, and every member of the cast has their fair share of humorous lines. It’s also cool to see Simon Pegg play such a foul, lowlife character who still somehow manages to get us on board with him.

Perhaps the biggest problem is that The World’s End comes after two brilliant comedies from Wright/Pegg/Frost. This is clearly the weakest of the trilogy, but then again, it was always going to be hard to top its predecessors. The World’s End is an enjoyable film, albeit a messy one, but I hope it’s not the last we see from these guys.

7/10