Sunday, September 28, 2008

Choke: A Wort Report Review

Chuck Palahniuk is a writer with a voice, this much is clear. Each of his novels, peppered with brutally detailed and sometimes nauseating passages, can be described as a nihilistic deconstruction of modern culture with a comedic twist. A previous film adaptation of his work, David Fincher’s Fight Club (1999) carried that voice to a new medium, propelling that film to cult classic status. Many of Palahniuk’s fans expected Clark Gregg’s film version of Choke—which hit theaters in limited release on September 26—to do the same. Unfortunately, due to its schizophrenic tone, Choke is difficult to recommend to even the most strident of Palahniuk enthusiasts.

On the surface, Choke is reasonably faithful to the text. The story centers around Victor (Sam Rockwell), a sex addict who works at a Colonial-themed theme park and has a penchant for choking on purpose at fancy restaurants. You see, when he chokes, restaurant patrons are compelled to save his life. One Heimlich maneuver later and these saps feel responsible for Victor, mailing him checks after the fact. This isn’t as despicable as it sounds, as he uses that money to support his ailing, senile mother Ida (Anjelica Huston), who is confined to a nursing home and does not even recognize him. It is there that Victor meets a nurse named Paige (Kelly Macdonald) who has a plan to save his mother, which happens to involve having sex with him. She needs embryonic tissue after all.

If you’ve read Choke, the setup is exactly the same. Victor is just as reprehensible as readers remember him, and the scenes in which he attends a sex addict support group are pure Palahniuk. His friend Denny (Brad William Henke) is still a loveable, goofy chronic masturbator who goes around collecting rocks every day as proof of his sobriety. Even the surprise (and wildly offensive) twist in which Victor finds out that he is the half-clone of Jesus Christ (Victor learns that his mother was allegedly impregnated with DNA obtained through Jesus’ petrified foreskin) is intact. Then why the heck is this movie so unsatisfying?

Gregg, who also wrote the script, adapted Choke literally while seemingly abandoning much of the caustic wit and dark humor that makes the novel so much fun (in a sick way). Rockwell conveys much of that spirit in the character of Victor, but the rest of the film sags as it attempts to hit each of Palahniuk’s story (and gross-out) points. Yep, an anal bead does get lodged in Victor’s ass at one point and yes, the manner in which said bead is expelled from his anal cavity is pretty hilarious. Everything plays out as you would expect it to, but it’s devoid of any style or thematic cohesiveness. As an audience we're never quite sure how to feel about these characters because Gregg never ties the film together in any definitive fashion, making the whole enterprise seem downright hollow. Are we really supposed to care about these damaged people? Are we supposed to sympathize with Ida, who is revealed to be wildly unstable in the film's oddly sentimental flashbacks? Isn't the book a lot better than the movie? In short? Yes.

If you've never read the book, then by all means read Choke. As a film, appropriately enough, it's pretty hard to swallow.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Taking Theaters by Force?

Star Wars: The Force Unleashed project leader Haden Blackman told the Los Angeles TimesHero Complex blog that a film adaptation of the multiplatform action game just might happen.

"Oh, that would be incredible," Blackman told the LA Times. "And it's not impossible. Never say never. George [Lucas] has looked to tell new Star Wars stories through the games and with the entire Star Wars Expanded Universe, and then he has also shown a willingness to let the characters come into the films.”

While this does not necessarily mean that a film version of the game is definite, Blackman’s—and apparently Lucas’—enthusiasm is promising. Most gamers will probably agree that the story of The Force Unleashed is its strongest suit. Despite some persistent gameplay issues, The Force Unleashed is a solid, solid Star Wars story that deserves the cinematic treatment. It's worth playing for that reason alone, and you'll get to electrocute some stormtroopers along the way.

We've seen time and time again that great things happen when other creators are given a chance to make their mark on the Star Wars universe. From the extraordinary Knights of the Old Republic role-playing game to the Dark Horse comic books to many of the novels, there's a variety of great Star Wars stories that would benefit from the big-screen treatment. Like the Batman franchise before it, perhaps what the Star Wars films need is some new blood and some fresh cinematic perspective. Lucas’ mythology is pretty vast. Let’s explore it.

As a lifelong Star Wars geek, Mr. Blackman, you have my blessing. Make this happen.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

The Force Unleashed: A Wort Report Review

Set in between the third and fourth episodes of the film saga, Star Wars: The Force Unleashed is a game worth playing for fans —even those who were turned away from the franchise after the prequels—for its fantastic storytelling and phenomenal graphics. However, as a video game, The Force Unleashed feels at times like a rushed tie-in product with shoddy controls, a stubborn camera and some repetitive action that makes finishing the nine-level journey a needlessly tedious exercise.

After a kick-ass opening tutorial stage which lets you control the Dark Lord of the Sith himself, Darth Vader, you’re at the command of his secret apprentice code-named “Starkiller,” who has been tasked with seeking out the remaining Jedi—now in hiding after Emperor Palpatine thinned their ranks in Revenge of the Sith—and eventually rising to the challenge of helping Vader overthrow the Emperor. Of course, this wouldn’t be Star Wars without a jaw-dropping plot twist or two, so the story stays captivating throughout.

The storyline and characters are so interesting, in fact, that much of The Force Unleashed is actually better than the prequel films. The characters are varied and likeable, from busty Imperial pilot Juno Eclipse (Nathalie Cox) to the broken Jedi General Kota (Cully Fredricksen) to the comic relief—scratch that, effective comic relief—Proxy (David W. Collins), a combat droid that continues to remind our hero that he will kill him eventually.

And that brings us to Starkiller, voiced by Sam Witwer (Battlestar Galactica, Smallville), who conveys all of the internal conflict that the role demands while channeling a Han Solo-esque cockiness. Star Wars creator George Lucas would be wise to find a role for Witwer in the upcoming live-action television series. He’s convincing in ways that the prequels’ Hayden Christensen (Anakin Skywalker) could only dream.

The graphics, as I mentioned earlier, are simply stunning and are some of the best one is likely to find on a current-gen console. The environments are varied, taking the player through an Imperial shipyard, the junkyard planet Raxus Prime, and Felucia, which could best be described as a Dr. Seuss fever dream. The cinematics in between levels are also great to look at, and most Star Wars fans will likely find themselves re-watching them again and again.

Unfortunately, those same gamers will be less likely to revisit the actual levels in The Force Unleashed, as the gameplay is repetitive and sometimes horribly frustrating. Throughout the entire game, players will be fighting the game’s erratic camera just as much as they’re hacking away at the game’s legions of boring, unvaried enemies. End-level bosses spice things up a little bit, but when you wind up defeating them merely by throwing as many Force powers at them as possible, there’s little satisfaction. You won’t win through timing and strategy, since it’s almost purely luck.

Surely those Force powers make the game a little more fun, right? Sort of. In the first few levels of the game, it’s a joy to lift stormtroopers and drop them off ledges to their demise. And electrocuting AT-STs with Force lightning is always cool. However, for much of the game, the Force is just a standard weapon. Your character never seems all that more powerful than the game’s enemies, unless you’re playing on the easiest difficulty, and most gamers will resort to hacking away at baddies with their lightsaber instead of “unleashing the Force.” Kind of defeats the point of the game, don’t you think?

That frustration is multiplied a hundred-fold in the game’s much-maligned “Star Destroyer” sequence, which charges Starkiller with pulling a massive Imperial command ship out of the sky with the Force. Players must alternate between battling wave after wave of TIE Fighters and using both joysticks to bring the ship crashing to the ground. This sequence requires precise timing when eliminating the fighters—which is made even more difficult thanks to the game’s unreliable targeting system—and the joystick prompts that players must mimic are not entirely clear. In theory, it’s a simple, satisfying section of the game. But it’s so poorly executed that it makes an already average game that much harder to recommend.

The Force Unleashed
is not a bad game; it’s just not as good as it could have and should have been. Star Wars fans should give it a play-through if only to experience a great story and visuals, but there are some serious issues with the gameplay mechanics. It’s a solid rental, but with the amount of hype surrounding this game, it should have been a must-buy.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Burn After Reading: A Wort Report Short

The latest effort from Academy Award-winning writers/directors Joel and Ethan Coen is very good. It’s not great, and I would never rank it with their finer efforts such as Fargo, Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski or No Country for Old Men, but Burn After Reading is a fun, dark comedy with a tremendous cast.

George Clooney, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton and Brad Pitt each turn in a top-notch performance and they all seem to be having a good time with this labyrinthine pseudo-spy story that—in typical Coens’ fashion—examines a group of not-terribly-bright people who are in way over their heads. By the end of the film’s 96-minute running time, you’ll swear that the story never really went anywhere. But I suppose that’s the point, right? Right?

Burn After Reading Is an entertaining, satisfying and sometimes subversive film, but don’t expect the limitless quotability or rewatchability of The Big Lebowski—which remains the Coens’ strongest comedy.

But hey, that’s just, like, my opinion, man.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Castle Crashers: A Wort Report Review

Financially, times are tough even for gamers. No matter how enticing a newly-released title may be, shelling out $60 on a video game can seem downright frivolous in our flagging economy. Thankfully, developer The Behemoth—known for its offbeat 2004 Playstation 2/Nintendo GameCube shooter Alien Hominid—has unleashed an equally offbeat beat-em-up called Castle Crashers for Xbox Live Arcade. And it'll only set you back a mere $15 (1200 Microsoft Points).

With multiplayer support for up to four players—either online or locally—Castle Crashers is your standard “save the princess” affair, taking gamers through various stages which pit them against legions of cartoonish enemies and monstrous boss characters to rescue each of the king’s kidnapped daughters. If you’ve played the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles arcade game, you should have a fairly good idea of the type of gameplay employed here. As the king’s most prized warriors, each of the game’s multi-colored knights has a varied arsenal of blunt and bladed weapons at his disposal in addition to magic spells that can take out multiple enemies at once. Castle Crashers has role-playing game (RPG) elements as well, with upgradeable attributes and combos to send enemies—and their disembodied heads—flying every which way.

Castle Crashers would be a fun game no matter how it looked, but one simply cannot dismiss the charming, hand-drawn look to each of the game’s characters and locales, heightened by a downright macabre sense of humor that keeps the game fresh even in its later levels. Castle Crashers is by no means a revolutionary game, but there’s some phenomenal multiplayer fun—both local and online—to be had in this game’s kingdom. Playing it alone can be a bit frustrating, as the game’s enemies aren’t entirely forgiving when they gang up on you, but experienced gamers should have little trouble making it through Castle Crashers in a few hours of play time.

Fun gameplay, over-the-top cartoon violence and some poop jokes to boot? This is one castle worth crashing. Head over to CastleCrashers.com to learn more about this game. Every Xbox 360 owner owes it to themselves to give it a shot. At $15, you’re bound to get your money’s worth.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Armcannon: Legvacuum

A few weekends ago, real-life friend and frequent Wort Report commenter Andrew Metzger thankfully introduced me to Armcannon, a Buffalo, NY-based rock group that specializes in putting its own unique spin on video game themes. Their debut album, Legvacuum, is sure to inspire pangs of nostalgia in anyone who can, to this day, recite the "Konami code" by heart or those who toiled endlessly to earn the best possible ending in Super Metroid to get a glimpse of Samus Aran in her underwear. Not that I would know anything about that. Ahem.

But this album is more than just a showcase of pixel passion. Simply put, Armcannon rocks. From "Kraid (Metroid)" to Legvacuum’s final (and strongest) track, "The Legend of Zelda & The Adventure of Link", it’s apparent that Armcannon isn’t just about aping the musical stylings of Hirokazu Tanaka or Koji Kondo. Armcannon retains the musical flavor of each piece, but infuses these tunes with a fresh hard rock/metal sensibility that makes them more than mere homage. The album also features music from classic titles such as Mega Man 3, Mega Man X, Final Fantasy VII and Tecmo Super Bowl.

Click here to visit Armcannon’s MySpace for more information on the band—including performance dates, audio samples and photographs—or visit their home page at Armcannon.com to purchase a copy of Legvacuum. And don't worry, unlike most of its source material, Legvacuum isn't sold in cartridge form. You won't need to blow into anything to get it to work.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

They’re Ready to Believe You!

The long-rumored third installment in the Ghostbusters series may soon begin development. Variety reports that Sony Pictures has asked co-executive producers of NBC’s The Office Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky to write a script that would reunite Harold Ramis, Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd and Ernie Hudson for another round of paranormal investigating. The writing duo previously wrote the comedy Year One, which Ramis directed. As of this writing, Mr. Stay Puft’s involvement in the project remains a delicious, terrifying mystery.

Over the past few years, we’ve seen 80s icons Rocky Balboa, Rambo, Indiana Jones and John McClane return to the big screen, so why not Peter Venkman or Egon Spengler? With the original cast returning, a great story and some top-notch special effects, who wouldn't want to see this thing?

As for the next-gen Ghostbusters: The Video Game, sit tight. Film Junk reports that the anticipated title developed by Terminal Reality is currently without a publisher after Vivendi dropped it during its merger with Activision. Needless to say, the game will not be hitting shelves on its proposed Halloween 2008 release date. Will Activision hold off on the Ghostbusters game until the original film’s 25th anniversary in 2009?

Until further notice, there is no publisher…only Zuul.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Super Mario RPG Hits Wii Virtual Console

One of the quirkiest role-playing games ever released is now available for purchase via the Nintendo Wii Virtual Console. For a measly 800 Wii Points, you too can be the proud owner of Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars.

A collaboration between Nintendo and Squaresoft (Square Enix), Super Mario RPG was one of the best Super Nintendo titles of the mid-nineties, blending familiar characters and locations with some pretty deep RPG gameplay not too dissimilar from the earlier entries in the Final Fantasy series. It’s offbeat enough to be a must-own, whether or not you fell in love with the title when it hit store shelves in 1996.

Visit Nintendo.com for the latest updates on this and other classic titles available on the Virtual Console. See you in the Mushroom Kingdom.

Brett Ratner’s Guitar Hero?

In a disturbing bit of news from MTV’s Multiplayer blog, Brett Ratner (Rush Hour, X-Men: The Last Stand) says he wants to helm a film adaptation of the Guitar Hero video game franchise. As if video game movies weren’t bad enough. Here’s what Ratner had to say:

“I love Guitar Hero and I think it’s a part of pop culture. I would love to do a Guitar Hero movie, if Activision would ever let me. I’m trying to convince them, but why would you have a movie screw up such a huge franchise? Not that I would make a bad movie. So that would be cool, to do a Guitar Hero movie. ”

“It could be about a kid from a small town who dreams of being a rock star and he wins the Guitar Hero competition. One of these dreams-[come-true] kind of concepts.”

Well, at least he’s not Uwe Boll, and there’s really no story to Guitar Hero that Ratner can ruin. But wow, a movie based on a game that’s loosely based on playing actual guitar? The only way this could work is if they positioned it as a mockumentary. Think King of Kong meets This is Spinal Tap. But that concept is far too inspired and might actually require some filmmaking efforts.

Also, didn’t South Park already do a Guitar Hero episode that used nearly the exact same plot as the one Ratner is describing? If Ratner's going to rip off Matt Stone and Trey Parker, one hopes he at least includes a Heroin Hero segment. Then it might be worth ten bucks.

Box Office Disaster

And there was much rejoicing in the streets. Reuters reports that the latest Jason Friedberg/Aaron Setzer comedic misfire Disaster Movie earned a paltry $6.2 million at North American theaters this weekend, serving as a triumphant example of cinematic justice. Could this mean that audiences have become wary of blatantly lazy writing? Was I not alone in actually being offended by commercials for this movie? Or did America’s teenagers simply find another dimly-lit place to make out over the weekend?

Opening at number 7 at the domestic box office, Disaster Movie may be the final nail in the coffin for Friedberg/Setzer’s brand of comedy. Here’s hoping, however, that there’s still room in Hollywood for parody films in the competent hands of filmmakers who can actually tell the difference between reference and irreverence.