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Wednesday, December 31, 2008

It's Never Too Late For Child's Play

Just a quick reminder before the year runs out, Child's Play does not close its door just because Christmas hit. I completely blanked on the charity (which provides games off a wishlist for children's hospitals around the nation) until just now, so I tossed in a set of Wii controllers, some journals and a few games for the kids. I mean, what kid should be without Uno? C'mon ... it's freakin' Uno.

Movie Watch: Southland Tales

As a rather big Donnie Darko fan, I was pretty interested in Southland Tales when I first heard about it, but then it fell off my radar. We got around to it this weekend, and the end result is almost sadly what I would have expected.

For the unfamiliar, Donnie Darko is the story about a high school kid who mysteriously survives the destruction of his house through a rift in time. Or at least that would be one interpretation of the plot. The wildly surreal movie never quite puts its finger on what is going on (although the new director's cut adds more context), but that is part of the movie's charm. Darko works for me because while the plot is woven around this really odd premise - the core is still about one kid's conflict with the rest of the world, fitting in school, dealing with his family and pretty much a lot of human stuff we to which we can all relate.

Southland Tales uses a lot of the same concepts but transports it to a national level and paints a surrealistic version of a biblical apocalypse onto southern California. It is basically Donnie Darko with a bigger budget and larger scale. And while, like Darko, it isn't for everyone, there is actually a lot of culture commentary and Lynch-esque sequences to entertain your eyes and brain for a decent portion of the movie.

But with its size and dept, Tales finds it harder to shrug off the feeling of being overwrought and slightly pretentious. Fans of a Mulholland Drive kind of thing should probably give it a try - but in a lot of ways the movie is a pretty hard sell. I recommend it, because I think its fun and unique, but even I felt the two and a half hour length droned on a bit too long without giving much satisfaction in the end.

Watch Darko first, and if you like it - rent Tales for an afternoon viewing sometime.

Movie Watch: Mummy 3, Tomb Of The Dragon Emperor

Oh. Dear. God.


There are times when it should be clear to those involved that a project is going to come out so bad that it should just be halted. Mummy 3 is such a movie. Rachel Weisz turned down the offer to return as Evie, presumably because the script was simply not up to snuff.

Kudos to Weisz for reading the script. In her place, the producers give us Maria Bello, and even insert a rather snarky joke in the movie to point out this fact. It should be noted to the filmmakers that when you have a girl from Pennsylvania doing a bad Rachel Weisz impersonation for the entire movie - you probably should not point out this fact. It's not a knock against Bello, I loved her in Payback and loved her more in A History Of Violence, but the writers would have been better off simply writing the character out than including a bad breathy English accent through the the movie.

But Evie is hardly the movie's real problem. The script suffers from not only all the normal Hollywood flaws, but manages to create a few new ones on the way. There's the odd references to the war and espionage that has apparently made our character fantastically rich and famous. There's the fact that their kid has suddenly turned college aged, mysteriously become another Indiana Jones clone without all the other Indiana Jones clones figuring it out. There's the rather awkward slamming of what feels like a draft for someone else's kung fu movie into Mummy 2. And that's not even accounting for the numerous plot holes and rather impressive suspensions of disbelief required from the viewers.

And going to jump into some spoilers here - because this is one of those movies I really think should be spoiled. Firstly, Jet Li (who heads a woefully underused Asian portion of the cast, including the generally excellent Russell Wong) spends most of his time in a mocap suit grunting and pointing. The Dragon Emperor himself is one of those "insanely powerful and yet conveniently not" kind of villians (I think he may make a cameo on the next season of Heroes). By the end of the movie, the big bad can transform into any manner of beast, including a massive three headed dragon ... and yet still prefers to get his ass kicked in human form quite a bit.

And all of this hooplah is to stop ... wait for it ... wait.... for it...

His terrible, horrible terra cotta army. Surely, you say, they are supernatural soldiers who can't be stopped by mere bullets? Because that would be really something, right? No, no, pretty much one bullet and they go down like a clay pot.

Know why? Because they are clay freaking pots, people. The movie would have been more effective threatening the world with shrubbery, because at least that would have been hilarious.

This is an outright avoid type of title, unless you're under the influence of drugs and can get it for free.

And oh by the way, if you need more proof that Ebert is hack, he considered this "the best in the series", apparently accepting the "it's so bad it's good" philosophy to the extreme.

Maybe Ebert has a taste for movies that are so good, they're good. This one, dear Roger, is just plain bad.

Monday, December 29, 2008

2008 Games In Review

2008 was a pretty decent year for games. We got to see EA try to become somewhat more creative, with titles like Mirror's Edge and even branch out genre-wise when it comes to games like Dead Space. Smaller indie shops got great breaks into the marketplace with the evolution of WiiWare, Xbox Arcade and PlayStation Network - offerings from the big three that at times rivaled anything the disc-based offerings had in store.

And yet, when it came to blockbusters - we had our fair share. For myself, it would be a decision in between Fallout 3 and GTA IV for best game of the year, but we'll get to that in a second.

I could nitpick on titles like Mirror's Edge, whose demo actually made me far less likely to purchase, or even lament Destroy All Humans: Big Willy on the Wii - which was an atrocious abortion of design ... but my biggest disappointment was really in what we didn't see this year. Let's take it from the big three point of view.

Not being a 360 owner, I can't properly critique Redmond here, but I still knock them off points for not offering 360 owners a proper hardware revision that I think they are severely owed. When you have entire articles about how to determine if the box your getting has the latest chipset, I think you have a problem. Microsoft certainly has the resources to fix this - but they've clearly gotten a taste of trying to be profitable for a change.

I did recently get to see the new dashboard and can't say I was terribly wowed. But software-wise, it is hard to complain too much, the 360 certainly has the library to show for its early start.

Sony promised that now they had the hardware nailed down - they would deliver on the software. The problem is they're still playing with their SKU lines, or at least were until recently, and they haven't entirely delivered on the software. The much ballyhoed Home finally had an open beta - and was greeted largely by a yawn. PSN offered more than a few winners, but Sony has a long way to go before hitting "Gaming 3.0".

In short: I love Little Big Planet as much as the next guy, but it is only a taste of "social gaming" that Sony made such a big deal out of while trying to upsell the console.

On an anecdotal level, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention I had to go to Sony for repairs twice, back to back, this year.

I intentionally mention the big N after Sony because while Sony had made big promises which haven't been coming true, Nintendo seems to almost be defiant in not capitalizing on their massive demographic. I had thought Super Smash Brothers was going to be a great moment for the company, but it turned out to feel mostly like fan service. There was no channel to easily download new user-created levels, creating new levels was hampered by Nintendo's love of "play some more, and we'll unlock some more" mechanic and matchmaking in general was pretty awkward.

I know plenty of people with Wiis and nearly all of them have WiFi. So where's my clubhouse?

And really, Nintendo, stop with the hardware. I've got wheels, nunchuks, now a Wii Fit and possibly a Wii Talk in my future. For 2009, focus on software.

For the most part, I'd say I wasn't expecting to love my PlayStation 3 quite as much as a I did. We use it all the time. I'm personally a big fan of Blu-Ray. By volume, we probably spend more time with downloaded material - but that's just because we get that while we wait for Netflix (or catching up on shows, etc). Blu-Ray is just a dead simple way to get an excellent viewing experience.

We download movies off and on from PSN as well, and I'm sincerely hoping Sony gets a deal with Netflix in the near future.

Honorable Mentions:

Pain (PSN): We freakin' love Pain, a PSN-only offering which lets you toss people into environments. It's cheap, fun to watch and great with a crowd.

Endless Ocean (Wii): OK, it's technically an older title and I grant it won't be for everyone. My dad played it like twenty hours straight, but Big Brother couldn't stand it for twenty minutes. If you can find it, rent it.

No More Heroes (Wii): Yeah, I hated the Bad Girl boss fight, but for the most was utterly roped into the quirky little brawler.

Phantom Hourglass (DS): Simply a properly executed Zelda title. Great mechanics, great fun.

Battlefield: Bad Company (PS3 / 360): Some of the most fun I've had with a shooter online, and by far the best online experience I've had on a console (with the possible exception of the early days of Phantasy Star Online).

Wish I had played:
Halo 3, Metal Gear Solid 4, any Gears of War, Mass Effect and Fable 2.

Runners Up:

Dead Space (PS3 / 360): It only barely gets in there, because of some naked mechanics and disappointing story elements. However, Dead Space had atmosphere, and for me plenty of character - and I really felt like the designers had done their homework.

Little Big Planet (PS3): This is a bit on the sly, because I only barely pulled back the cover on this title before my console went belly up. But even then, you can seee that LBP makes good on its promise and begins to show a framework for things to come.

Fallout 3 (PS3 / 360): This is so close, it feels bad calling it #2. Fallout 3 is two of my favorite things - a Bethesda RPG and Fallout - in one great package. Course it should be known - combine zombie like monsters, shotguns and a dog and nearly any title will go a long way to win my heart.

Game Of The Year
If I had to give anything the title, it would be GTA IV. It is the title that got me to finally get a PS3, even before I got an HDTV (not the order I would recommend, btw). Graphics, voice acting, music - all top notch. Plus, I think the game is undersold as simply a good crime story. Niko is one of my favorite characters of all time. For all the hooplah about driving drunk and stabbing hookers, GTA IV is just damn good design, and was a lot of fun to play even on standard definition.