Video Game Review: Spelunky [PS Vita/PS3]

Spelunky [PS Vita/PS3]

Spelunky
System: PS Vita/PS3 (also on PC and Xbox 360)
Genre: Action/Adventure, Platformer
Developer: Derek Yu, Blitworks (PSN)
Publisher: Mossmouth
Price: $14.99 (cross-buy on PSN)
Release Date: August 27, 2013

Spelunky is one of the most infuriating games I have played all year.

It’s also ridiculously fun and insanely addicting.

Originally a 2009 PC game, the 2D cave-exploring sensation known as Spelunky received an enhanced release on the Xbox 360 last summer. Last month this upgraded edition made its way back to PC while also hitting the Playstation Network for the first time. The PSN release happens to be a cross-buy title, meaning one purchase nets you both the PS3 and Vita versions. For the sake of this review, I focused on the Vita, and for good reason: Spelunky is especially efficient in bite-sized gaming sessions (and it’s only ~100 MB!).

The game’s general concept revolves around you, an unnamed adventurer, who must make his way from top-to-bottom in a series of randomized dungeons, all while collecting loot and upgrades along the way. Each level is full of a wide variety of dangers. The first world, the mines, is filled with snakes, spiders and spikes, just to name a few obstacles. Falling into the spikes results in instant death, forcing you to start all the way back from the beginning. Later worlds, such as the jungle and an ice cave, present even graver difficulties.

Spelunky [PS Vita/PS3]

Every new game starts you off with four hearts (touching an enemy = loss of one heart), four bombs and four ropes. The bombs are incredibly helpful for paving your own way through each area, and they can be used to wipe out enemies and find hidden treasure. The ropes are used to get to locations unreachable by jumping, or to descend lower without having to take a huge fall. More of these items can be found within each level, and occasionally a shopkeeper even shows up with new upgrades for sale. His items are random, and they range from machetes to jetpacks to cameras, all of which can be crucial survival tools.

Each level has its own little quirks and secrets, and because of its randomized nature, you never know what you’re going to get. There is one constant, however; hidden somewhere in each level is a damsel in distress (which can amusingly be turned into a pug in the game’s settings). Rescue her and you’ll get one extra heart added to your life — these are critical to your success, and it is almost always worth the effort to save her.

Spelunky [PS Vita/PS3]

Spelunky has so many secrets, such as hidden rooms and characters, that there is *always* something new to discover. I’ll never forget the first time I stumbled upon the black market — a new room where seemingly every item in the game can be purchased. Too bad I didn’t have much gold on me at the time.

Now, as this is a roguelike title, the permanent deaths and constant restarts can be an exercise in patience. The obscene difficulty can be a huge turn off at first, but if you stick with it, the game is immensely rewarding. I can’t say I have ever played a game that made me jump for joy just for being able to reach the second world! It takes time to learn the behavior of every enemy, as while as how to avoid booby traps, but with every game you will get better. The game never feels cheap, as everything acts as it is supposed to. Enemies can fall to their death onto a bed of spikes just like you. It’s because of these consistencies that Spelunky truly works — it doesn’t resort to cheap tactics to raise its difficulty.

Outside of the main adventure mode, there is an option to play deathmatches. This throws four characters into a cramped environment where they fight to the death by throwing bombs, using powerups, etc. It’s basically a throwaway addition to the game, but it can be a fun diversion with friends.

Spelunky [PS Vita/PS3]

One nice perk about the PSN edition is that the game can be played LAN-style between the Vita and PS3. This means that two players can do a co-op campaign with one person using the Vita, and the other playing on the PS3. It’s an incredibly cool addition, and it’s something I would love to see other games do. There is no online multiplayer, unfortunately, but that’s not a huge loss given the game’s splendid local options.

In the end, Spelunky is a clever little title that works perfectly on the Vita. Its addictive exploration gameplay and randomized dungeons offer seemingly endless replay value, and its small download size means it will earn a permanent place on my memory card. There is a demo available so you can try this for yourself, but chances are you will get hooked just like I did.

9/10

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

Movie Review: World War Z [2013]

World War Z [2013]

World War Z [2013]
Director: Marc Forster
Writers: Matthew Michael Carnahan, Drew Goddard and Damon Lindelof (screenplay), Matthew Michael Carnahan & J. Michael Straczynski (screen story), Max Brooks (novel)
Genre: Action/Drama/Horror
Starring: Brad Pitt, Mireille Enos, Daniella Kertesz, James Badge Dale
Running Time: 116 minutes

World War Z seemed to be doomed from the start. With production delays, a burgeoning budget and multiple script rewrites, Marc Forster’s film struggled to get off the ground. In fact, it took a good 5+ years of development before the final product came together. Surprisingly, even with these miscues, the film isn’t half bad, though it does fall into some familiar traps.

Brad Pitt stars as Gerry Lane, a former UN employee who, after the zombie outbreak hits, is called upon by The Powers That Be to help investigate the source of the virus. Forced to leave his wife Karin (Mireille Enos) and two daughters behind, Gerry embarks on the desperate journey that takes him all over the world in order to (hopefully) save mankind.

World War Z [2013]

World War Z crams a lot into its two hour running time, as Gerry and company travel to South Korea, Israel and Wales. With so much globe-trotting, the film never really finds its footing, instead opting to use these jaunts as action set pieces with increasingly unrealistic outcomes. Some characters are seemingly invincible, surviving disasters that would swiftly kill “real” people. Many in the film also act like complete tools (i.e. forgetting to shut off a cell phone while sneaking past a group of zombies), and they are often getting into cheap predicaments meant to rivet the suspense.

Outside of Brad Pitt’s Gerry, none of the characters receive any real development, and they are merely there to fill the screen. Pitt deserves a lot of credit, however, as he is more than capable of shouldering the load. His portrayal of the near-perfect hero works well, and he helps keep the film entertaining even during its slower moments.

World War Z [2013]

World War Z is rated PG-13, and this raises some issues. I don’t have a problem with a film getting this rating, but WWZ so desperately wants to show the usual zombie gore and violence that it seems frustrated in not being able to do so. Zombies are shot in the head, impaled and otherwise brutally massacred, but all of this happens off screen. We know it happens, but the frequent cuts away from the action are distracting.

Now, that’s not to say World War Z is a bad film. In fact, it is quite entertaining, and it moves along at a very crisp pace. It’s just that it is also a remarkably generic zombie movie, one that has been done better in the past. In short, it’s pretty much what I expected from a summer blockbuster of this nature, for better or for worse.

6/10

Movie Review: This Is the End [2013]

This Is the End [2013]

This Is the End [2013]
Directors: Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen
Screenplay: Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen
Genre: Action/Comedy
Starring: James Franco, Jonah Hill, Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel, Craig Robinson, Danny McBride
Running Time: 107 minutes

“Something totally not chill happened last night.”

This Is the End is the type of comedy that has something for everyone. Its cast is a veritable who’s who of today’s most popular comedians (all of whom are playing themselves), there are a number of hilarious cameo appearances and, of course, seemingly endless raunchy jokes. Oh, and it’s an apocalyptic flick that isn’t afraid to show its fair share of gore.

When Jay Baruchel arrives in Los Angeles, he’s expecting a weekend of sitting around, getting high and playing video games with his old friend, Seth Rogen. However, Baruchel is reluctantly dragged to a housewarming party held by James Franco where a large number of Rogen’s other, “new” friends are hanging out. Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson, Michael Cera and Emma Watson are among the attendees, but Baruchel doesn’t really know any of them. Feeling left out, Jay asks Seth to take a walk with him to the convenience store for cigarettes.

It’s here where the apocalypse hits. Hellfire and brimstone.

This is the End [2013]

The two of them quickly head back to the party where everyone is seemingly oblivious to the end of the world happening outside. A massive sinkhole then erupts outside of Franco’s “fortress”, wiping out most of the partygoers.

Eventually just Franco, Rogen, Baruchel, Robinson, Hill and an unexpected Danny McBride are left inside the house. The six of them band together in an attempt to survive the apocalypse.

As expected with a houseful of comedians, hilarity ensues.

This Is the End [2013]

This is easily one of the funniest movies I have seen in a while, and a lot of that goes to how willing these celebrities are to make fun of themselves. There is *a lot* of self-deprecating humor here, as everything from Rogen’s acting skills to Franco’s sexuality are the recipients of harsh — but hilarious — jokes.

The cameos are even better. Michael Cera damn near steals the show in his limited screen time by blowing countless lines of coke and engaging in illicit party acts. It’s Cera as you’ve never seen him. Another brilliant cameo — one which I will not spoil — happens near the end of the film when a Pulp Fiction Gimp-like character makes an appearance. You’ll never guess who’s under the mask.

Also, this movie gets major props for getting Emma Watson to drop an F-bomb.

This Is the End [2013]

This is the End may be self-indulgent, as it revolves around Rogen (who co-directed and co-wrote this) and his friends, but damn if it isn’t funny as hell. Every character has their fair share of great lines, with everyone playing some version of their own self (though Danny McBride is near full-on Kenny Powers here).

The horror elements come in the form of painful character deaths (an impalement and a severed head are just two notable examples) as well as some rather grotesque-looking demons and other creatures of Hell. The CGI is surpisingly well-done for the latter, though the characters are crudely designed (let’s just say some are so well-endowed that Dr. Manhattan would be jealous).

All of this ties together to form the best comedy of the year so far. I haven’t laughed this hard in a theater in ages, and nearly every line had the audience in stitches. Who knew the apocalypse could be so funny?

8/10

Movie Project #13: Hard Boiled [1992]

The 50 Movies Project: 2013 Edition

In what has become an annual tradition, I have decided to embark in a third round of the 50 Movies Project. The premise is simple — I have put together a list of 50 movies that I feel I absolutely must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. With so many films to see, it’s easy to get off track and forget about some of the essentials. This is my way of making sure I watch those that have been on my “must see” list for too long.

Hard Boiled [1992]

Hard Boiled [1992]
Director: John Woo
Screenplay: John Woo (story), Barry Wong and Gordon Chan (screenplay)
Country: Hong Kong
Genre: Action/Crime/Drama
Starring: Yun-Fat Chow, Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Teresa Mo, Philip Chan, Philip Kwok, Anthony Wong Chau-Sang
Running Time: 128 minutes

Reason for inclusion: I had never seen a John Woo film.

Accolades: Hong Kong Film Award for Best Film Editing, #70 on Empire’s 100 Best Films of World Cinema

Hard Boiled is the type of action film that defies logic and just throws everything at you at 100 MPH. There are epic (and I mean EPIC) gun fights, huge explosions, seemingly endless bullets and witty remarks (You’re full of shit, you know that? There’s a toilet over there.). Oh, and there’s a baby that pisses on a dude’s leg to extinguish a fire.

Chow Yun-Fat stars as Inspector “Tequila” Yuen, a police officer who also happens to be one of the baddest ‘muthas on celluloid. After his partner is killed by a group of gun smugglers, Tequila vows revenge against the gang that ambushed them. His boss, Superintendant Pang (Philip Chan), has had enough of Tequila’s wild antics and tells him to give it up, but there’s no stopping him at this point.

Hard Boiled [1992]

Meanwhile, an undercover cop named Tony (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) is working his way up the ranks of said gang. He has quickly become a favorite of mob boss Johnny Wong (Anthony Wong), and that also puts him on the radar of Tequila. Once the two detectives run into each other, the cat gets out of the bag, causing them to work together to take down the evil Triads.

This film is famous for its penultimate action scene, a 40+ minute sequence that sees our two “heroes” fighting off waves of bad guys inside a maternity ward. It’s utterly outrageous, but this setting gives way to some truly outstanding choreographed violence. One scene even has Tequila holding a newborn baby in his arms while mowing down a couple of goons. Like I said, absolutely ridiculous, but so much fun at the same time!

Hard Boiled [1992]

While watching Hard Boiled, I couldn’t help but think of its massive influence still seen today. Not only do most modern action films owe a great deal to this John Woo feature, so do many video games. Two 2012 releases in particular are indebted to this — Sleeping Dogs and Max Payne 3. The former is basically a Hong Kong action film in video game form, and many of its storytelling techniques bare striking similarities to those found in Hard Boiled. With the latter, Max Payne‘s “bullet time” combat system is a dead ringer for some of Tequila’s slick shooting techniques.

Hard Boiled is excessive, and at times, there is so much going on that the mayhem is difficult to keep up with. Yet this is also an adrenaline rush from beginning to end, and it never lets its foot off the gas. This quenched my thirst for a good action flick, and it’s made me eager to see more from Mr. Woo.

8/10

Video Game Review: Guacamelee! [PS Vita/PS3]

Guacamelee! [PS Vita/PS3]

Guacamelee!
System: PS Vita (crossbuy with PS3)
Genre: Action/Platforming (Metroidvania)
Developer: Drinkbox Studios
Release Date: April 9, 2013

If there’s one video game genre I enjoy most, it’s what is commonly referred to as Metroidvania. These are typically 2D side-scrolling affairs that invite exploration of a large in-game world. As the game progresses, new abilities are unlocked that allow you to reach previously inaccessible areas.

Drinkbox Studios — creators of the brilliant (and criminally overlooked) Tales From Space: Mutant Blobs Attack — have taken the Metroidvania genre and given it a fresh twist with their latest, Guacamelee!. Here is a game steeped in Mexican folklore with a beautiful artstyle. It is also an adventure that does not take itself seriously. At all. (This is not a bad thing)

You play as Juan Aguacate (translation: Juan Avocado), a downtrodden Mexican farmer who is trying to rescue El Presidente’s daughter from the evil Charro skeleton. Juan receives a huge boost to his efforts when he discovers a magical lucha libre mask. This grants Juan an impressive array of wrestling-related powers, as well as the ability to switch back-and-forth between the land of the living and the dead. Now rejuvenated, Juan hits the road to save the princess and restore order to his beloved hometown.

Of course, the world is not safe, and there are plenty of enemies that stand in the way of Juan’s goal. Poncho-wearing skeletons, large armadillos and bomb-throwing cacti are just a handful of those ready to annihilate our hero. Never fear, for Juan is combat-ready with a number of powerful attacks at his disposal. Defeating enemies earns him cash to purchase even more abilities, including options to suplex, slam and otherwise destroy his opponents.

Guacamelee! [PS Vita/PS3]

As the game progresses, Juan gains a whole slew of new ways to reach other areas. The genre staple of the “double jump” is soon added, as well as ways to rapidly dash across the screen (both vertically and horizontally) and turn into a completely different object (I won’t spoil it for you, but the secondary character is great). As you move throughout the world, you’ll notice areas that can only be accessed with certain abilities. Thankfully, these are pointed out on a map once you find them, so it’s easy to go back and explore with your newfound powers.

Combat is generally well-done. Certain enemies will be color-coded, meaning you can only damage them by using a specific type of attack. This adds some welcomed strategy to what at first seems to be a pretty basic combo-based system. Every now and then the game forces you to clear out an area of respawning enemies, but these moments are actually quite fun, and I grew to anticipate stumbling into them.

Guacamelee! [PS Vita/PS3]

While I love the general combat system, I did run into some issues during boss fights, especially the last two. Boss battles basically amount to remembering their attack patterns and fighting back when applicable, but their attacks often feel cheap. It’s not uncommon to get hit by a boss, fall backward and then get hit again while recovering. This led to some severely frustrating moments where I was just a hit or two away from finishing off a boss, only to lose thanks to these cheap shots.

As such, it should go without saying that Guacamelee! is a pretty challenging game. It takes some of the punishing old-school gameplay that worked so well in the 16-bit days, with the end result being a real sense of accomplishment for clearing out some of the harder areas.

Guacamelee! [PS Vita/PS3]

It’s not just combat that presents a challenge, however. Much of the game revolves around general platforming gameplay, and many areas have puzzles that can be tricky to solve. Oftentimes, finding a room with a treasure chest or other powerups will require some slick maneuvering that involves pressing different attacks at just the right time. A little bit of dexterity goes a long way here.

Guacamelee! is a relatively short game, and can be completed in anywhere from 4-8 hours (depending on how much you explore). Beating the game unlocks a hard mode, and the PS3 version offers co-op play, but that’s about it. For me, the overall experience was satisfying enough to justify its short length, but this could be disappointing for those expecting a long Castlevania-esque adventure.

Guacamelee! [PS Vita/PS3]

I would be remiss not to mention the game’s unique brand of humor. The constant Easter eggs, tongue-in-cheek billboards and wisecracking dialogue are all incredibly amusing, and discovering hidden secrets is a real treat. During my adventure, I even found an abandoned room with just a QR code inside. I won’t spoil what it said, but it made me laugh. And, of course, all of this is aided by a gorgeous artstyle and an infectious soundtrack.

Guacamelee! is an excellent new addition to the Metroidvania genre, and it represents yet another strong showing from Drinkbox Studios. While I had some issues with cheap boss tactics, and others may be disappointed by the short length, I did greatly enjoy my time playing through the game. These guys are on a roll, and I can’t wait to see what they have up their sleeves next.

8.5/10

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

Movie Project #10: The Warriors [1979]

The 50 Movies Project: 2013 Edition

In what has become an annual tradition, I have decided to embark in a third round of the 50 Movies Project. The premise is simple — I have put together a list of 50 movies that I feel I absolutely must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. With so many films to see, it’s easy to get off track and forget about some of the essentials. This is my way of making sure I watch those that have been on my “must see” list for too long.

The Warriors [1979]

The Warriors [1979]
Director: Walter Hill
Screenplay: Sol Yurick (novel), David Shaber, Walter Hill
Country: USA
Genre: Action/Thriller
Starring: Michael Beck, James Remar, Dorsey Wright
Running Time: 92 minutes

Reason for inclusion: This is one of the essential cult films I have heard so much about but never seen.

Accolades: Part of the 500 Essential Cult Movies list and the New York Times Guide to the Best 1,000 Movies Ever Made

Warriors, come out to play-i-ay.

One of the great joys in watching film is to finally see a cult classic for the first time. I had heard so much about The Warriors already — I’m sure *everyone* has heard the quote above, right? — but watching it still managed to be fresh and invigorating.

The Warriors takes place in a dystopian version of New York City in which gangs run the streets. It’s a dark, gritty city, and it seems that everything is tagged with graffiti, including the inside and outside of subway trains. The most powerful gang in the city is the Gramercy Riffs, and their leader, Cyrus (Roger Hill), has called a midnight summit of *all* New York area gangs. He requests that every gang sends nine unarmed delegates to meet in the Bronx to hear his proposal. Cyrus calls for a truce so everyone can work together to obtain total control of the city.

The Warriors [1979]

Shit hits the fan when the leader of the Rogues shoots and kills Cyrus, then pins the blame on a member of the Warriors group. Now every single gang member in NYC is out for blood against the Warriors, and the film follows them as they attempt to make it back to their Coney Island stomping grounds in one piece.

“I’ll shove that bat up your ass and turn you into a popsicle.”

The Warriors [1979]

It’s a pretty basic story, but what makes The Warriors so great is its style. This goes for the dangerous NYC wasteland all the way to its colorful cast of characters. The gangs we are introduced to are all memorable and utterly ridiculous at the same time. The Warriors are a shirtless bunch that wear brown pleather vests with a “Warriors” patch on the back. The Orphans — a group of misfits so low on the totem pole that they didn’t even get invited to the summit — wear greasy green shirts and blue jeans, and they are anything but intimidating. My favorite gang? Easily the Baseball Furies, a silent, facepaint-wearing bunch that wears old baseball jersies. Also, who could forget the Boppers — a snazzy-looking group with bright purple hats and vests?

Very few of the characters are even attempted to be fleshed out, but that’s not a problem here. This is a film in which you need to just sit down and enjoy the ride, campy dialogue and all. Taken on these values, The Warriors is a lot of fun. I can dig it.

8/10

 
This film inspired a 2005 video game of the same name. Anyone play it?

Video Game Review: Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath HD [PS Vita]

Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath HD [PS Vita]

Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath HD
System: PS Vita (HD version also on PS3 and PC)
Genre: First-person/third-person action-adventure
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: Just Add Water
Release Date: December 18, 2012

Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath HD is an upscaled version of the 2005 Xbox title of the same name. In this, you play as The Stranger, a Clint Eastwood-esque bounty hunter — complete with poncho! — who is looking to raise some cash for a life-saving surgery. In order to get this money, he visits various towns to accept bounty contracts, most of which have high payoffs for bringing back the bounties alive (though they pay well for dead captures, too).

Gameplay consists of both first-person and third-person shooting, and the transition between the two is seamless. Instead of using the L2/R2 buttons (which don’t exist on the Vita), a simple double tap of the front touch screen will move between the two views. The third-person view is critical for advancing between areas, as the Stranger will plop down on all fours and run extremely fast. Switching to the first-person view opens up the gun-play, with standard controls like many other shooters.

Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath HD [PS Vita, 2012]

As this is an Oddworld title, weapons are anything but conventional. The Stranger’s main weapon, the crossbow, can use several different types of ammo, all of which are actually live creatures. Boombats, zap flies and stunkz are just a few of the different types of critters that can be hunted and captured as live ammo, and each one has its own unique characteristic. Some work as rockets, some work as cannon balls, and others are used to stun and knock enemies down. As such, there are enough options to suit multiple styles of play, though most will likely find two or three types that they will want to use exclusively.

The game takes place in a relatively large world full of weird little anthropomorphic characters. Many of the towns are inhabited with chicken-like creatures — their ridiculous voice acting never ceases to amuse me — and they will give you helpful hints if you get stuck. In fact, it’s near impossible to get lost, as pushing the square button will prompt the Stranger to remark on what he’s “gotsta” do next. Another handy Stranger function is the ability to beat his chest in order to heal himself (this is done by pressing the triangle button rapidly). He’s quite a handy little character, and he makes a good central protagonist.

Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath HD [PS Vita, 2012]

Most of the game revolves around finding and acquiring bounties, but just as this becomes repetitious, the story goes in a completely different direction and introduces an all-new set of allies and foes. This is a refreshing twist, even if the final act relies more heavily on shooting than ever before.

For $15, Stranger’s Wrath HD offers a lot of bang for its buck. The campaign can last anywhere from 15-20 hours, and it’s a fun ride throughout. The game is incredibly well-suited for the Vita as well, as it is easy to pick up and play in short bursts, and the HD graphics look pretty damn slick on the OLED screen. If not for the dated CGI cut-scenes, this would blend in perfectly as a brand-new title.

On a system starved for shooting games, Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath HD stands tall. There certainly isn’t anything else like it on the Vita.

8/10

Video Game Review: Hotline Miami [PC]

Hotline Miami [PC]

Hotline Miami
System: PC
Genre: 2D top-down action
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Developer: Dennaton Games
Release Date: October 23, 2012

Hotline Miami is one of the most violent games I have played all year. It’s also the most addicting.

Heavily inspired by Nicolas Winding Refn’s brilliant 2011 film, Drive, the game places you in the role of an animal mask-wearing hitman dubbed “Jacket.” At the beginning of each chapter, Jacket receives an anonymous phone call in which he is told to “pick up the laundry” or something similar — essentially code for “go to this location and massacre everyone there.”

Every location is stacked with enemies that will kill you with one hit. It takes some serious trial-and-error to develop a successful strategy for making it through each level. As such, Hotline Miami feels most like a puzzle game. You can’t just go in guns-a-blazin’ and expect to win. Every level requires meticulous thinking and quick reactions, because not everything will go as planned.

Hotline Miami [PC]

Before each chapter, Jacket is given the option to select a new animal mask. Each mask has its own perk (i.e. increased ammo, one shot doesn’t kill, etc.), and using the right one is crucial to succeed. There are a number of weapons in each level, most of which can be picked up after killing an enemy. Guns are a popular choice, obviously best for long-range targets, but there are a number of melee weapons (i.e. baseball bats, machetes) that can be used for up-close brawls.

Deaths in this game aren’t pretty. Enemies fall down in a pool of their own blood, with body parts often flying aross the room. Hotline Miami doesn’t glorify violence, however — it makes you question just what the hell you’re doing. After successfully wiping out everyone in a chapter, the game forces Jacket to walk back through every area, observing the carnage he has created. It feels like a punishment for following through with these anonymous jobs. Who is calling in these requests, and why is Jacket accepting them?

At times, the violence can get to be too much, and I found myself needing to take a break much more often than usual. Chapters are quick, intense affairs, and they require extreme precision. It’s a physically and mentally demanding experience, but the well-refined gameplay kept me coming back for more.

Hotline Miami [PC]

It also helps that Hotline Miami is undeniably stylish. The top-down view shows off its gorgeously retro pixelated graphics, and the 80s setting lends way to some sizzling neon colors. The soundtrack is also a perfect fit for the on-screen action, and the music is very, very similar to that found in Drive (whose soundtrack I included in my top 25 albums of 2011). Seriously, the music is amazing, and the intense gameplay really feeds off the frenetic energy the tunes provide. In an awesome moment of generosity, the soundtrack can even be listened to in its entirety online.

There has been a lot of buzz surrounding Hotline Miami, and all of it has been deserved. Quite frankly, there isn’t another game like this.

9/10

 

Movie Review: Django Unchained [2012]

Django Unchained [2012]

Django Unchained [2012]
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Writer: Quentin Tarantino
Genre: Action/Drama/Western
Starring: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington, Samuel L. Jackson
Running Time: 165 minutes

Django Unchained is an homage to many genres — the Spaghetti Western, Blaxploitation, revenge flicks — but at its core it is a Quentin Tarantino film. And no one makes movies like QT.

Set in 1858, three years before the Civil War, the film tells the story of a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx) — the “D” is silent. While being transported across the vast state of Texas with a group of other slaves, Django becomes a free man after they run into Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a German bounty hunter. Schultz hires Django to aid him in finding and identifying the Brittle brothers, a trio of wanted fugitives. Their partnership works out rather well, and they end up working together throughout the winter, raking in good money by collecting bounties.

Django Unchained [2012]

We learn that Django had been sold away from his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), shortly before meeting Dr. Schultz. After their successful season of bounty hunting, the two men discover that Broomhilda is now the property of Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), a very wealthy businessman known for his brutal “Candie Land” plantation. With a target now in sight, the unlikely duo head to Mississippi to bring her back alive.

If you are familiar with Tarantino at all, you will have a good idea of what to expect here. Violence is plentiful, the soundtrack is eclectic, and there are winks/homages to countless other films (even Franco Nero, the star of the 1966 film, Django, has a small role here). The man has no fear when it comes to directing, and he does things his own way. Want to include a bass-heavy Rick Ross song while Django walks across the screen? Sure, why the hell not? Some may question the use of modern rap during an 1850s film, but somehow it works surprisingly well. Tarantino’s soundtracks have always been favorites of mine, and Django Unchained does not disappoint in this regard.

Django Unchained [2012]

Of course, there has been a great amount of controversy with the film, most of which stems from its gratuitous usage of the “n-word” (most notably from Spike Lee, who refuses to even watch it). At times, it is uncomfortable watching all of these white actors rattling off racial slurs, but we must remember that this was what it was like during that time period. This isn’t a light subject matter, and quite frankly it would have been a mistake to stray away from this language.

It’s somewhat ironic that in a film named Django Unchained about a character named Django, that the actor portraying him has been receiving the fewest accolades. That’s unfortunate because Jamie Foxx really does a stellar job here. Django comes a long way during the film, and much of the character’s growth can be attributed to Foxx. Of course, it’s easy to be overshadowed when the rest of the cast is as good as it is. Christoph Waltz is the perfect complement to Django’s fiery character, and the two actors play off each other quite well.

Django Unchained [2012]

Leonardo DiCaprio is just as fantastic as the brutal, yet oddly charismatic, plantation owner. It is Samuel L. Jackson, however, who steals every scene he is in as Candie’s loyal head slave, Stephen. Jackson stated that he wanted to make Stephen the most hated black character in the history of cinema, and he makes a damn good case for that title. And, of course, because this is a Tarantino flick, there are a ridiculous amount of noteworthy cameos, with everyone from Bruce Dern, Walton Goggins, James Parks, Jonah Hill and even QT himself making an appearance.

Even with its lengthy running time (nearly three hours!), Django Unchained never fails to entertain. Once again, Quentin Tarantino has proven to be a master at recreating history as only he can.

9/10

Movie Review: Skyfall [2012]

Skyfall [2012]

Skyfall [2012]
Director: Sam Mendes
Genre: Action/Adventure/Crime
Starring: Daniel Craig, Javier Bardem, Judi Dench, Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris
Running Time: 143 minutes

I feel as if every Skyfall review should come with a preface stating the writer’s level of James Bond fandom. I am a novice to the series, a “rook” if you will, as I have only seen a grand total of three Bond films — the very first two with Sean Connery (Dr. No and From Russia With Love) and Daniel Craig’s first outing (Casino Royale). I enjoyed all to some degree, but I wouldn’t quite call myself a fan — yet. With Skyfall, I feel myself being drawn back into the universe, one that seems more exciting now than ever.

In this dark and rather bleak entry in the series, Bond is not quite as invincible as one might expect. Played to perfection by Craig, 007 is now old, broken down and even vulnerable. When MI6’s headquarters are blown up by the despicable villain, Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem), the British agency and its head, M (Judi Dench), are forced to rely on the rickety frame of Mr. Bond to save the day.

Silva presents a great challenge for them, as he always seems one step ahead with every move he makes. He is an excellent villain — he has superior hacking skills, a seemingly endless group of goons at his disposal, and he has an entire bombed-out island all to himself. Javier Bardem, mildly ludicrous blonde hair and all, excels in the role, making for a dangerously strong adversary despite his physical deformities.

Skyfall [2012]

When it comes to Bond films, I am always most fascinated by the exotic locations, and Skyfall does not disappoint. From the thrilling opening car chase scene through the streets of Turkey to a brutal hand-to-hand combat sequence in a Shanghai skyscraper, there is no shortage of eye candy. The Shanghai scene, in particular, is visually stunning with its black silhouettes and flashing blue lights. A later visit to the gorgeous Scottish countryside also shows off the talents of cinematographer Roger Deakins (who also worked with director Sam Mendes on Jarhead and Revolutionary Road).

The action set-pieces are flashy and loud, and for the most part this is a white-knuckled ride that rarely lets up. Since this is the 50th anniversary of Bond, there are nods and homages to every single film in the series. As a newcomer to the series, I obviously missed many of these, but I got a kick out of hearing the audience cheer in delight when some of the more obvious throwbacks were shown. Diehard Bond fans — most of whom likely saw this opening weekend — will certainly appreciate these tributes, subtle or otherwise.

Skyfall [2012]

In many ways, Skyfall is similar to The Dark Knight Rises. Both films are centered around a hero who has seen better days, one who has hit rock bottom and has to work his way back up to help save the day. Both delve a bit into their backstories; in Skyfall, we learn a little about Bond’s origin, something that I greatly appreciated. There’s even a wink at the end of both films in which a familiar character is revealed in an ode to the future. It’s an interesting thought — Skyfall simply wouldn’t be the same if it were not for The Dark Knight trilogy.

The bottom line here is that Skyfall is one of this year’s best action films, and being a Bond fan is not a prerequisite in really enjoying this. There are a few moments that could have probably been omitted — and surely a few of the groan-worthy one-liners could have been improved — but I can’t recall many trips to the theater this year that were quite as exciting. Count me in for the next one, Mr. Bond.

8/10