Saturday, December 29, 2007
Although released following the Simpsons’ successful foray onto the big screen (The Simpsons Movie, for cave dwellers), The Simpsons Game has absolutely nothing to do with the blockbuster film. Instead, it’s a self-referential romp in which each of the family members discovers that they’ve been given video game powers from a mysterious game guide (for The Simpsons Game, naturally) that falls from the sky. Of course, they use these powers for good, mostly. Lisa (with her magical Buddha powers) foils Mr. Burns’ plot to cut down a forest to produce a line of luxury tooth picks, Bart (as Bartman) goes after a gang of bullies at the museum, Marge uses her crowd control powers to ban a violent video game and Homer, well, Homer competes in an eating contest after acquiring the power to get really, really fat. Then there’s the obligatory alien invasion (courtesy of Kang and Kodos), which forces the family to seek out help from the Internet, where they must play through various Simpsons games currently in development. Complicated? Sure. But it’s pretty fun.
The game skewers just about every game genre along the way, lampooning popular titles such as Gauntlet, Space Invaders, Pokemon, Medal of Honor, Shadow of the Colossus and Grand Theft Auto just to name a few. The writers and developers definitely knew their audience, and packed the game with a lot of gamer in-jokes. One of my favorite stages is “Enter the Cheatrix,” where Bart and Lisa must make their way through the various stages of game development while fighting off wave after wave of Madden football players before coming face-to-face with Donkey Kong….or a giant barrel-throwing monkey that isn’t Donkey Kong due to fear of copyright violation.
Graphically, the game looks amazing. If you’ve ever imagined what a 3D Springfield might look like, this is pretty much it. It’s done in a cel-shaded style (think The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker), with some 3D elements thrown in. From the first stage, which puts you smack dab in the middle of Homer’s imaginary Land of Chocolate (if you’ve seen the show, you’ll get the reference), you’ll know that you’re not just playing a cash-in licensed title. The Simpsons Game looks great, and for the most part, it plays great.
Gameplay is platform-heavy, with a fair amount of button-mashing combat thrown in. Fending off enemies is the most laborious task in The Simpsons Game, as the fight mechanics aren’t exactly solid. Enemies (who often respawn again and again) just sort of rush at you while you tap the attack button and hope for the best. Also, there usually aren’t more than two enemy types per level. For example in the Japanese level, you’ll be fighting dozens of sumo Comic Book Guys who never seem to let up. Would it have killed them to throw in some variety?
Speaking of Comic Book Guy and gripes, he often chimes in to point out gaming clichés as you come across them, such as the inability to swim, exploding barrels, and, yes, lack of enemy variety. This lets you excuse some of the game’s lesser points, of which it has a few, but you’ll overlook them for the most part. When it sucks, it lets you know it sucks, so that makes it sort of ok. You’ll chuckle, at least.
Which brings me to my next point: This game features some of the best recent Simpsons writing outside of the movie. All of the cutscenes are animated in true Simpsons style, with roughly 40 minutes of new footage. This is like a fully interactive, brilliant episode of the series.
While it may only be worth a rental for the casual Simpsons fan, as it only takes around 8 hours to complete, hardcore fans should really consider picking up The Simpsons Game. It’s funny, it’s fun to play and lets you play Dance Dance Revolution with God at its finale. What other game lets you do that?
The story’s pretty much what you’re used to. Bowser has once again kidnapped Princess Peach, only this time, Mario must go on an interstellar voyage to rescue her. Of course, he’s going to have to collect a fair amount of stars—familiar to anyone who has played the last two installments of the series—in order to power the spaceship that will lead him to Bowser.
Controls are fairly basic, and make use of both the Wii remote and the nunchuk attachment. Spin attacks are performed with a flick of the wrist, and the jumping mechanics are similar to previous 3D Mario outings. With many levels requiring Mario to travel from planetoid to planetoid, you’ll make use of Sling Stars and Launch Stars to progress, accessed through shaking the remote or using it as a pointer. Certain levels also require other unique uses of the remote, such as a surfing stage where Mario must mount a manta ray.
I know I’m not alone on this, but I thought that 2002’s Super Mario Sunshine was a massive disappointment. Billed as a follow-up to 1996’s groundbreaking Super Mario 64, Sunshine was a repetitive, gimmicky letdown that hardly felt like a proper Mario title. Thankfully, Galaxy looks, feels and plays like a true sequel to Super Mario 64 and may be one of the best games in the series. The platforming is challenging without being frustrating, and the level variety ensures that you’re never stuck in the same environment for too long.
While graphically the Wii doesn’t stand up to the visuals of the Xbox 360 or the Playstation 3, Super Mario Galaxy is a sight to behold. It’s colorful without being nauseatingly saccharine, and stands apart in the series while at the same time paying visual tribute to earlier entries in the series. Each level is swarming with Mario-esque bad guys, including goombas and koopa troopas, and you'll see plenty of familiar green pipes, mushrooms and gold coins mixed in with some new surprises.
Setbacks are minor. Some of the suits, such as Mario’s new bee outfit, don’t work as well as you’d like them to, and some of the environmental mechanics can be a tad frustrating, but chances are you won’t find yourself throwing the controller in disgust. You may throw it, however, because you forgot to tighten your wrist strap, but that’s your problem. Not Mario’s.
While it’s always risky saying that one game is worth buying a system for, the latest Mario adventure really is one of those games. For anyone that has been dissatisfied with game variety on the Wii, Super Mario Galaxy is a breath of fresh air. Although, of course, there is no air in space.
One of the most welcome surprises this week came after a fateful trip to the local Toys R Us. I made the trip in search of a new guitar controller, since for some reason it felt wrong playing the latest Guitar Hero game without the latest equipment. Lo and behold, this Toys R Us had a huge post-holiday shipment of the impossible-to-find Nintendo Wii. With money to burn, I purchased the elusive white box, in addition to Super Mario Galaxy, the current flagship title for the system. Welcome to Geek Heaven. Population: Me. Since then I've gotten Super Paper Mario, Wario Ware: Smooth Moves and just about every classic Mario title on the Wii's virtual console. I also picked up an extra Wii remote or two. After all, why play with your Wii by yourself? Okay, that's the last dirty Wii joke you'll hear from me...today.
Hope everyone has a Happy New Year. I plan on writing up each of these bits of gaming goodness as soon as the holiday dust settles for good. Or maybe just a few of them. Whatever. You keep reading, I'll keep writing.
Monday, December 24, 2007
Of course, I’m joking. It is Christmas Eve after all, and what better way to kick off the festivities than to review Tim Burton’s new song-filled splatterfest? Based on the Stephen Sondheim Broadway musical, Sweeney Todd tells the story of Benjamin Barker, a London barber who is wrongfully imprisoned for 15 years. Upon his release, he learns that his wife was raped and murdered by the slimy Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman), who has adopted his daughter Johanna (Jayne Wisener). Under his new moniker Sweeney Todd, he opens a barber shop above a failing pie shop run by Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter) and plots revenge against Turpin. Reunited with his razors, Todd becomes bloodthirsty, and when he can’t lure the judge into his shop for a shave and a sliced throat, he decides to off just about everyone else in London right in his barber’s chair. They’re all terrible people, after all.
Of course, this begs the question: what do you do with the bodies? After slicing the throat of Signor Adolfo Pirelli (played brilliantly by Borat’s Sacha Baron Cohen), he and Mrs. Lovett decide to grind him up and bake him into meat pies. Their joint death and cannibalism venture soars: London lines up for a taste of Mrs. Lovett’s delicious meat pies (humans apparently taste a lot better than alley cats), while Todd gives his customers the closest shaves of their lives before dumping their lifeless bodies into the basement. In other words, Sweeney Todd provides fun holiday hijinx for the whole family.
Having never seen the show, I was impressed by the singing abilities of Depp and Carter. Heck, even Alan Rickman surprised me. While the commercials have downplayed the fact that this is indeed a musical, the uninitiated may find themselves loving it just the same. With Burton behind the camera, Stephen Sondheim’s macabre tunes find new life. It’s no wonder Burton was drawn to this play when he saw it for the first time in college.
Is it gory? Absolutely. I tend to think that I’ve seen it all as far as on-screen bloodletting goes, but Sweeney Todd really lets the red stuff fly. It spurts, it sprays and even cascades from London’s better throats, and often becomes a character in and of itself.
Sweeney Todd is one of Tim Burton’s most daring forays in film, and I doubt any other director could have pulled off this adaptation as skillfully. This is easily Burton’s best film in years.
This is a definite star-turn for John C. Reilly, who is typically known for playing ancillary characters in films such as Gangs of New York and Chicago. You may remember him most recently playing second fiddle to Will Ferrell in the lackluster Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby. While his role in Walk Hard is Ferrell-esque, particularly when Dewey has one of several drug-fueled freakouts, Reilly truly makes it his own. Here’s hoping that Judd Apatow, who co-wrote and produced Walk Hard, has some starring roles lined up for Reilly in the future.
Do some of the jokes fall flat? Of course they do. But so much about Walk Hard works that you won’t really notice. It doesn’t hurt that the songs are pretty hilarious. If Dewey singing the line “in my mind you’re blowing me…some kisses” to his soon-to-be second wife (Jenna Fischer) doesn’t make you chuckle, then you’re probably in the wrong theater. Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story is a fun, welcome surprise this holiday season.
Tuesday, December 18, 2007
The Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson, New Line Cinema and MGM Studios announced earlier today that a big-screen adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit is officically in the works, with Jackson and his team at the reins. Jackson and his partner Fran Walsh are set to executive produce The Hobbit, in addition to a follow-up film that will act as a bridging chapter to the original Academy Award-winning trilogy.
“Peter Jackson has proven himself as the filmmaker who can bring the extraordinary imagination of Tolkien to life and we full heartedly agree with the fans worldwide who know he should be making ‘The Hobbit,’” said Harry Sloan, MGM’s Chairman and CEO in a press release which can be read here. “Now that we are all in agreement on ‘The Hobbit,’ we can focus on assembling the production team that will capture this phenomenal tale on film.”
The Hobbit and its sequel are scheduled to begin filming simultaneously in 2009 with release of the two films slated for 2010 and 2011. A director has not yet been announced.
For fans of the books and the previous films, this news should come as an early Christmas gift. However, it also raises some interesting questions. Will Jackson and company be able to successfully convey the somewhat lighter tone of The Hobbit? And what of this vague sequel? Will it be an entirely new tale, or will it delve into the many ancillary (and often confusing) volumes of Middle Earth lore?
For up-to-date info on all things Tolkien, head over to theonering.net.
Monday, December 17, 2007
I know I’ve already written about my first impressions of this Xbox 360 RPG/Shooter hybrid, but you’ll be relieved to know that I’ve conquered this beast of a game twice since its release, and I plan on hopping into the commander’s seat of the Normandy for a third time. Why? It’s damn fun, that’s why.
And it’s not just because it’s fun to shoot things. Tons of games (particularly lately) allow you to do just that. Rather, it’s the customization. From the moment you boot up the game for the first time, you have complete control of your character, from their background to their class to their appearance. Hell, you can even give them a first name. Commander James Shepard, if you hadn’t guessed, is a badass bald Adonis. Remind you of someone you know?
Sure, the story of Mass Effect is your typical space opera fare. Chase the bad guy from world to world before he uses a superweapon to conquer the universe. Been here before? Sure you have. But you can tackle the quest in any way you wish. Wanna brave the snow-capped peaks of Noveria before venturing to the war-torn world of Feros? Be my guest. The story unfolds a bit differently depending on which missions you take on first and who’s in your party. I won’t spoil anything about that here.
Some of the most fun in this game comes through conversation with NPCs (non-playable characters) in your party, on your ship and in the various cities that you visit. Every conversation brings you closer to being a Paragon (good guy) or a Renegade (total dick). I have to admit, earning Renegade points can be damned fun, but you’ll often find yourself feeling a little shameful for threatening total strangers. Or maybe that’s just me.
The main story took me about 12 hours my first playthrough, and a little less than that on my second. But I’m also the type of person that completely ignores the various side missions that are thrown your way. But since all of your gear and experience points carry over from playthrough to playthrough, you’ll be able to breeze through the main story on replays.
Is it the game of the year? As far as single-player campaigns it most certainly is. Sorry, BioShock. You were fun, but I really had no reason to play you again after getting both endings. Mass Effect’s universe is so immersive you’ll want to revisit it again and again to explore all of the options it has to offer before the sequel hits the shelves.
Sunday, December 16, 2007
Okay, I know I’m going to catch hell for all the Dark Knight coverage but it’s all popping up at once and it’s all bat-tastic. The official trailer for the Batman Begins sequel has hit the Internet and if you’re not sold on Heath Ledger as The Joker, then you will be after watching this. The guy has nailed the voice, the look and the laugh of the character, and the rest of the cast isn’t too shabby either. Christian Bale. Morgan Freeman. Michael Caine. Gary Oldman. We’ve even got Maggie Gyllenhaal pinch hitting as Rachel Dawes after Katie Holmes (Cruise) Scientologied her way out of the series.
We also catch a glimpse of the Batpod, which seems to be the motorcycle equivalent of the tumbler Batmobile from the first flick. It works, but I hope there’s a reason for it in the story other than “we need a new vehicle for the toy line.”
But man. Christopher Nolan just might knock the ball straight out of the park for a second time in a row. Or the bat out of the cave, whichever metaphor you deem more appropriate.
Watch it, love it, and pretend you're not ridiculously excited as you slog your way into work in the morning.
Yes, we can all forget that terrible 1999 Christopher Lambert adaptation of the story, which sought to give the simple tale of man versus monster a sci-fi update. You read that right. It’s also far more enjoyable than 2005’s Beowulf & Grendel, a little-known film starring 300's Gerard Butler.
The story of Beowulf should be simple enough for anyone who has taken an English literature course. Danish king Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins) is having a bit of trouble with a local troll named Grendel (Crispin Glover) and enlists the aid of Beowulf (Ray Winstone) to kill the monster and bring peace to Herot, the king’s mead hall. Of course, things become more complicated when Grendel’s mother turns out to be a naked Angelina Jolie (sans nipples) and, well, the rest is spoiler territory.
Spoiler territory for an 8th-century poem? Yep. You see, Zemeckis and writers Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary took some necessary liberties with the latter half of the story, particularly the relationship between Grendel’s mother and Beowulf. I can’t say I blame them. If you’ve got naked Angelina Jolie on hand, it seems a crime to not fabricate at least one sex scene. Perhaps I’ve said too much.
While the animation is superb and the 3D effects are very well done, there’s still something flat about this film. Perhaps it’s the waxy digital characters, perhaps it’s the fact that the story, while it is the foundation for much of English literature, just isn’t all that substantial. At times, I felt like I was watching a very well-crafted video game cut scene. It just doesn’t pull you in. This is one film that would have benefited from a Sin City or 300 treatment. That is, actors in front of a blue screen. You’ll constantly be thinking to yourself “Wow, that looks like Anthony Hopkins and John Malkovich (who plays the slimy Unferth), but they’ve got plastic complexions and their eyes look…off.” You’ll never feel like you’re watching a movie. It’s a fun, forgettable gimmick.
There are far worse films out right now (I’m looking at you, Alvin and the Chipmunks), and if you have any interest in seeing Beowulf at all, seeing it in Digital 3D is a necessity. Just don’t count on caring all that much about it once it’s over.
Saturday, December 15, 2007
This first poster is pretty straightforward. It's obviously Batman looking out onto the city, but there's more at work here symbolically. That is, why is Batman inside a building? Shouldn't he be on the roof? Or is he looking out a window at Wayne Tower? And what of the vertical lines? This suggests entrapment imagery, but who is trapped? Is it Batman who is trapped or is it the city itself? The plot thickens.
The color palatte here is also a lot brighter than it was in promotional materials for Batman Begins. Could this be a thematic change? Seems kinda unlikely since the Joker in this film (Heath Ledger) is rumored to be decidedly twisted and even frightening. Speaking of him...
Well, that's kinda creepy. The Joker walking through the empty streets of Gotham, hiding a knife behind his back. He's sporting his trademark purple duds, which should appease fanboys, but I'm digging how subtle this poster is. It showcases the duality of the character: a Joker playing card in one hand, a knife in the other.
Of course, this is all needless speculation, but I think we've got a good film to look forward to this summer.
Until then, I'm sure we'll have plenty of promotional materials to pick apart, overanalyze and geek out over before the film's release.
Monday, December 10, 2007
I didn't grow up with the "Speed Racer" cartoon show, so I can't really attest to the quality of its transition to film. Looks trippy as hell, and it actually just gave me a bit of a headache. I can already see the Mountain Dew tie-ins and the toy cars and tracks. I dunno if I'll bother, but here's the latest trailer that just hit the Internet. Enjoy!
Sunday, December 9, 2007
Verdict? Buy it!
What else needs to be said? This is the best teen comedy to emerge in years and holds up fairly well compared to other Judd Apatow productions such as Knocked Up and The 40-Year-Old Virgin. The characters in Superbad are likeable, the dialogue is hilariously filthy and there’s a heart at the center of it all, even though the film’s most staunch critics fail to see that. It doesn’t hurt that the unrated DVD version has a few extra minutes of footage not seen in theaters.
As for special features, you get what you’d expect from an Apatow disc. Bloopers, a Line-O-Rama feature (this will give you a sense of how these guys hone their rapid-fire improvisational delivery) and some great deleted and extended scenes. And that’s just the single disc version.
Verdict? Rent Only!
I know I praised this flick when it first hit theaters back in May, and I admit that my adoration may have been a tad misplaced. On second viewing, this film is talky, needlessly confusing and worst of all: it’s kind of boring. It was fun seeing it initially, trying to figure out the film’s twists and turns (too many betrayals!) and seeing how the trilogy would turn out. But now? It’s a bore-fest up until the finale.
The main problem with the Pirates trilogy is that director Gore Verbinski and writers Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio got the idea that the initial Pirates film was a hit because of its plot and computer wizardry. False. People flocked to see Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl because of Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow. His speech-slurring and half-drunk swagger made Jack Sparrow one of the most fun-to-watch creations in modern Hollywood. Having Geoffrey Rush as the villainous Captain Barbossa didn’t hurt either. Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley were just along for the ride. If there was no Depp as Captain Jack, no one would have spent their $10 on a movie adaptation of a theme park attraction.
But what did the sequels do? They got wrapped up in their own mythology. So instead of a trilogy of films with character-driven plots, we have plot-driven characters. A labyrinthine series of events that serve only to split a one-film story into over four hours of pirate meetings and triple crossing. If you’re not a first-time viewer, the only thing bringing you back is the special effects, which is sad considering that this franchise was built on the performance of an actor, not on computer graphics. If you haven’t seen it and were a fan of the first two Pirates films, then by all means add this to your Netflix/Blockbuster queue. But as a repeat viewing, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End is dead in the water.
Monday, December 3, 2007
Season Two of Heroes may have been, without a doubt, some of the most disappointing television in recent years. After a stellar first season, Tim Kring and crew have succeeded in removing everything that actually worked last year and replaced it with characters and storylines that serve only to fill up space. And, due to the writer's strike, a shortened season means a lot of buildup and absolutely no payoff.
I will say, however, that Kristen Bell is a great addition to the show. Not only is she gorgeous (see right), but she's obviously having fun in the role of Elle, a repressed, electricity-charged, sexy sociopath. What a combo. I hope to see more of her in Season Three. Assuming there is one after the inevitable fan backlash of tonight's finale.
Saturday, December 1, 2007
While this "real world" Joker is nowhere near the cartoony nature of Jack Nicholson's 1989 portrayal, The Dark Knight's Joker is far more menacing. He's a pyschotic murderer, who just so happens to enjoy smearing clown makeup on his face. Whether or not this character is given a hefty backstory is irrelevent. This isn't some thug that got dumped into a vat of chemicals. This guy's just straight-up, bat-sh*t crazy. Pun intended.
I was skeptical about the casting of Heath Ledger at first, I admit. But this photo reveals the wiry, unpredictable Clown Prince of Crime of the comics. He’s the epitome of the chaos that Batman fights so hard to prevent.
Will the film itself deliver? We'll all find out when The Dark Knight hits theaters July 18, 2008.