Sunday, November 9, 2014

Interstellar

Title: Interstellar
Director: Christopher Nolan
Written by: Christopher Nolan, Jonathan Nolan
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine


In an interview last month, director Christopher Nolan stated that his latest movie Interstellar is "about human nature, what it means to be human."

It makes sense. All of the great science fiction auteurs -- Lang, Kubrick, Scott, among others -- were wise enough to weave terrestrial apprehensions and dreams among the distant stars. For all their alien life forms, inhospitable worlds, and cerebral scientific ideas, science fiction movies are a reflection of what is happening right here, on planet Earth. So too is Interstellar, which stands as the most ambitious and personal of Nolan's brilliant young career. It's also, in many ways, his most uneven.

Set in the near future, Interstellar tells the story of Earth on the brink of collapse. Devastated by blight and dust storms, the planet is slowly losing its food sources and its breathable atmosphere. One day, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a test pilot-cum-farmer, and his daughter Murphy (Mackenzie Foy) discover a set of coordinates via a gravitational anomaly in Murph's bed room. Soon Cooper is off to investigate, and, soon after, he's on a mission to save the human race far beyond the limits of the Milky Way galaxy.

Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway as humanity's last hope

Informed, emotionally, by Nolan's own fatherhood, and inspired, visually and thematically, by Stanley Kubrick's seminal masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey, Interstellar is a movie of colossal size and scope. Nolan, a virtuoso behind the camera, moves back and forth between the silent, alien blackness of space and the verdant, dusty cornfields of Earth seamlessly, piecing together a story that, quite literally, transcends time and space. Penned by Nolan and his brother Jonathan, the story and script of Interstellar are overflowing with heady ideas about mankind's place in the universe, about sacrifice, about love. And it's here, ultimately, where the movie stumbles.

Equal parts astrophysics and metaphysics, Interstellar never quite manages to find harmony between high concept science fiction and believable human drama. When the movie leans on its degree in theoretical physics, it gets lost in technicalities; when it focuses on its characters, many of whom are woefully underdeveloped, it gets buried under sentimentalism. There are a handful of scenes where Nolan comes close to piecing together the two halves of his space opera. One of the best moments of the movie is a simple, quiet shot of Cooper breaking down while watching years of footage of his children back on Earth. It's here, and in other scenes, that Nolan captures something essentially human, and fulfills Interstellar's raison d'etre.


Friday, October 24, 2014

Top Ten Reasons I Love My WiiU

Over the last 40 years, a lot of video game consoles have underperformed or failed commercially. Some, like CD-i and Virtual Boy, earned their fate. Others, like Saturn, Dreamcast, and most recently, WiiU, deserve better. Starting off strong in the fourth quarter of 2012, WiiU was unable to capitalize on early sales, falling fast on the sales charts compared to its competitors PS4 and Xbox One. Thanks to Mario Kart 8, which released at the end of May, WiiU has staged something of a comeback, but to call the system a success would be incorrect, especially when compared to the extraordinary sales of its predecessor, Nintendo Wii.

Despite its low sales and in defiance of the doom and gloom articles that have shadowed the WiiU since it first launched almost two years ago, I adore Nintendo's newest home console. Its controller, much maligned, is a game-changer when it comes to asymmetrical gameplay and local mutiplayer; its online social network is unlike anything on PS4 and Xbox One; and its exclusive software ranks among the best in the business.

Below is a top ten list of the reasons I love my WiiU. Please enjoy.


#10
Web browser 

Having used the web browser on WiiU, I can't imagine using the inferior browsers on other systems. Compared to the clunky, inconvenient web browsers on Xbox 360, PS3, and PS4, WiiU is a dream come true. Being able to type with a touchscreen and stylus makes navigating pages and filling in text fields fast and easy. After a good old-fashioned mouse and keyboard, it's the next best thing.

#9
Backward compatibility 

What was more or less standard during the seventh generation has become, depressingly, a Nintendo exclusive in the eighth. Only on Nintendo 3DS and WiiU can consumers boot up their seventh gen games. Moreover, with WiiU it's not only games that are backward compatible. It's controllers too. All those Wii Remotes and nunchuks you collected over the last eight years? Those work again with WiiU.

#8
Pro Controller

If you want to upgrade those controller, however, you can do so with the Pro Controller, arguably the best "traditional" controller on the market today. Comfortable, light, ergonomically-superior, with battery life that would outlast a Doctor Who marathon, it's simply a joy to use.

#7
Support for the little guy

With the help of Dan Adelman, Nintendo's former indie boss, the Japanese gaming giant pushed into the "indie" space, tentatively with Wii and now much more forcefully with WiiU. "Indie" darlings like Guacamelee! and Shovel Knight are yours for the playing on Nintendo's unfortunately-named console.

#6
Free online 

Microsoft and, more recently, Sony are in the business of charging their consumers for online multiplayer. Not Nintendo. The online infrastructure of the WiiU might not be as sophisticated or as robust as its counterparts on Xbox One and PS4, but it works and it's free.

#5
Miiverse

This is probably the most revolutionary thing about the WiiU, a fully-realized community-oriented social network where like-minded people can share achievements, artwork, tips, and experiences.

#4
GamePad

The GamePad has its share of detractors, sure, but to me it's a brilliant, if underused, controller. The avenues it opens up for asymmetrical gameplay, demonstrated by Nintendo Land and others, and for local multiplayer, demonstrated most recently by Hyrule Warriors, makes the Pad worth the extra price of admission.

#3
Virtual Console

It may not be as robust as the Wii Virtual Console (what is?) but overall it's a great repository for classic, hard-to-find games. Don't want to pay $200 for EarthBound on eBay? OK, how about $10 on WiiU?

#2
Local multiplayer 

Although the WiiU has only been on the market for 23 months, it wouldn't be premature to call it the best local multiplayer console of all time. Several of its games feature local multiplayer options for two, four, even five people. Super Smash Bros., arriving in November, will support as many as eight players locally. In an industry dominated by online multiplayer, it's refreshing to see Nintendo double down, so to speak, on local multiplayer.

#1
Nintendo EAD

For all its features, accessories, bells, and whistles, WiiU is, ultimately, a video game player. And all video game players should be judged by their library of games. Well, WiiU has a mighty impressive library already, thanks mostly to Nintendo EAD, which, after thirty years, remains the single best video game developer in the world. The only place to play its newest software, outside of the 3DS? You got it, WiiU.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Nintendo Celebrates its 125th Anniversary

Nintendo celebrated its 125th Anniversary today. 

Founded on September 23, 1889 in Kyoto, where its headquarters remain, Nintendo, which means "leave luck to heaven," originally sold Hanafuda playing cards. Beginning in the 1950s, Hiroshi Yamauchi, grandson of founder Fusajiro Yamauchi, began to experiment in other industries, including taxi services, food products, and, surprisingly, love hotels. 

It was only in 1966, when Nintendo employee Gunpei Yokoi created a toy called the Ultra Hand (in his spare time, mind you), did Yamauchi transform Nintendo into a toy company. Ultra Hand, pictured below, was a commercial success for Nintendo, the first of many. Throughout the 1970s and 80s, by way of the business savvy of Yamauchi, the technology design skills of Yokoi, and the game design skills of a young product developer named Shigeru Miyamoto, Nintendo gradually transitioned from toys to video games. Then in 1981, after a few small arcade successes, Nintendo released Donkey Kong, designed by Miyamoto, reaping huge profits. Two short years later, Nintendo released the Family Computer in Japan, alongside ports of its most popular arcade hits. Two years after that, in 1985, the Family Computer, now renamed Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), launched in North America. Bundled with Miyamoto's Super Mario Bros., the NES was a huge hit in North America, resurrecting a fledgling video game industry that had all but collapsed in 1983 and making Nintendo a household name. By 1990, 30% of American households owned the NES. In 1989, Nintendo followed up the NES with its portable gaming system Game Boy. In North America, it sold its entire first shipment of one million units in a matter of weeks.

The following decades saw high points and low points for the gaming giant, but it maintained its popularity and independence throughout. In the years since the Family Computer launched in Japan, Nintendo has sold 654 million units of hardware and 4.1 billion units of software, including many of the most popular and critically acclaimed titles ever made.

Happy birthday, Nintendo. Here's to 125 more.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Tearaway

Game: Tearaway
System: Vita
Genre: Platform
Developer: Media Molecule
Release date: November 22, 2013

Pros: Amazing art direction, good music, immersive and interesting use of the Vita hardware

Cons: On the short side, not challenging at all, tedious gameplay


From the makers of LittleBigPlanet comes Tearaway, a visually beautiful game with impressive art direction and and a great sense of style. Unlike the majority of Vita games it uses the Vita system nose-to-tail, so to speak. The touchscreen, rear touchpad, gyro sensors, camera, and microphone are all used creatively and in a way that immerses the player, who, by the way, is able to customize this adventure to his or her liking by way of papercraft models and designs.

That's the good. Now the bad. It's not much fun to play. The game is far too easy. The platform sections, which are few and far between, are simple and straightforward, and, with infinite lives and checkpoints every 20 feet, there is no cost to failure. The same holds true for the arena sections, where waves of disposable enemies appear. They're dispatched with little effort.

Yes, riding a rampaging pig through a field is as fun as it sounds.

Apart from that, the gameplay in general is underdeveloped. There are some interesting sections of the game, slides and piggyback riding most notably. But they're too short and too simple. Platforming is woefully underused and unsophisticated. As mentioned earlier, it's foolproof. And, while the rear touchpad and touchscreen functionality makes Tearaway unique, it serves to make the platforming areas uncomfortable. It's no fun doing finger gymnastics while trying to cross a bottomless pit. The awkward camera doesn't help either.

The best way to describe Tearaway might be as an interactive art exhibit. Using the Vita camera, players can, quite literally, put themselves in the game. They can photograph their living rooms or soda cans or even their own faces and impose those images into the papercraft world. In addition, they can cut custom objects from colored paper using their fingers as a stylus, and customize the hero (or heroine) of the story at an time with a range of facial features and accessories.

In the end Tearaway is an interesting, artistic game that celebrates individuality, but also one that's too easy, too simple, and too in love with it's own papercraft universe.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy

Title: Guardians of the Galaxy
Director: James Gunn
Written by: James Gunn, Nicole Perlman
Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Lee Pace, Michael Rooker

Guardians of the Galaxy is a study on contradiction. It manages, somehow, to parody its source material – indeed the entire superhero sub-genre – yet, simultaneously, produce a sincere, serious sci-fi adventure movie. It’s subversive and self-referential, but it also conforms to the tropes and parameters established by the Marvel Cinematic Universe, to which Guardians, like Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America, belongs. In short, Guardians of the Galaxy, despite its big bankroll and big studio backing, boasts the heart and soul of a budget B-movie. It makes the proceedings a little corny, a little silly, and a lot of fun, and it goes a long way toward making Guardians the best Marvel movie since The Avengers.

Guardians of the Galaxy begins on Earth in 1988. The audience meets a young Peter Quill, who, shortly after losing his mother to cancer, is abducted by an alien spaceship. Fast forward 26 years and Quill, now a professional space pirate, is roaming the galaxy in search of treasure. His latest trophy is a mysterious orb, coveted by the Nova Corps – an intergalactic police force – a genocidal madman named Ronan, and several others. When Quill escapes with the orb, he immediately becomes a wanted man.

Like other movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Guardians borrows the worlds, characters, and technology of Marvel’s comic book collection. Unlike many of them, however, Guardians is interested in the extraterrestrial. The results are some spectacular environments, characters, and alien technology, brought to life by cinematographer Ben Davis (Kick-Ass) and makeup designer David White (Thor: The Dark World, Troy). From the rusty, industrial prison known as the Kyln to the cloudy, rocky, and lifeless basins of the planet Morag, Guardians paints a visually provocative picture of life on the other side of the galaxy (think Star Wars meets Heavy Metal).

The unlikely heroes of Guardians of the Galaxy

Inhabiting these alien worlds and environments are the true stars of Guardians of the Galaxy, the motley crew of anti-heroes charged with protecting the galaxy. In addition to Quill (Chris Pratt), there’s Gamora (Zoe Saldana), an assassin with a mysterious past; Drax (Dave Bautista), a muscle man tortured by the death of his wife and child; and, the dynamic duo of the ensemble, Rocket, an anthropomorphic raccoon, and Groot, a sentient tree creature. Rocket, voiced by Bradley Cooper, and Groot, voiced by Vin Diesel, bring a healthy amount of energy and emotion to the movie. Their Han Solo-Chewbacca relationship provides some of the biggest laughs and saddest moments of the movie.

The breakout star of Guardians, however, has to be Pratt, whose muscular, wise-cracking, womanizing Quill is a far cry from the doughy slacker Pratt portrays on the TV show Parks and Recreation. His character, greedy for profit but willing to risk his life for a treasured keepsake, is the anchor that a space opera like Guardians needs. Without him, and director James Gunn’s ironic and knowing screenplay, the movie could easily have become a leaden, self-serious mess. Fortunately, for viewers, the exact opposite is true. Guardians is a breezy, wacky ride full of accidental heroes and fantastic alien worlds that embraces the heritage of Saturday morning serials and pulp fiction. It’s a B-movie with a AAA budget, and it’s all the better for it.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Snowpiercer

Title: Snowpiercer
Director: Bong Joon-ho
Written by: Bong Joon-ho, Kelly Masterson
Starring: Chris Evans, Song Kang-ho, Go Ah-sung, Jamie Bell, John Hurt, Tilda Swinton

Snowpiercer is something of an amalgam. Part high-concept science fiction, part social satire, part action thriller, the movie weaves in and out of several different genres and moods during its 126 minutes. Much like its director, Bong Joon-ho (The Host, Mother), Snowpiercer is interested in many things at once, and demonstrates mastery over all of them.

Set in the year 2031, after a devastating ice age freezes much of human civilization, Snowpiercer follows what's left of humanity on a giant train powered by perpetual motion. Rattling along icy rails and crashing through frozen overhangs, the train is home to a tiered class system, in which the upper class lives in the nose of the train and the lower class lives in the tail. Snowpiercer tells the story of this lower class staging a rebellion against the status quo.

What begins as a fairly typical jailbreak movie quickly and surprisingly morphs into something much deeper, more layered, and more intellectually, viscerally, and visually stunning than any other movie released this summer season. The screenplay, adapted by Bong and Kelly Masterson (Before the Devil Knows You're Dead) from a French graphic novel, is a tapestry of political provocation, dark humor, shocking violence, and big ideas, all wrapped up in a powerful human drama set against a fully-realized and convincing dystopian future.

Chris Evans stars in Snowpiercer.

Breathing life into that drama is a stellar international cast, anchored by Chris Evans (Captain America: The Winter Soldier) who plays Curtis, the stoical leader of the proletariat, and South Korean actor Song Kang-ho, who disappears into the role of Minsu, a politically pessimistic security specialist addicted to a toxic inhalant.

On a visual front, Snowpiercer is spectacular. Production designer Ondrej Nekvasil (The Illusionist) and his team of art directors, makeup artists, and costume designers have created in Snowpiercer a believable universe within the confined, steely space of a train. Each car has its own visual identity and story, and informs the pacing, action, and trajectory of the movie. Punctuating this trajectory are some thrilling and rattling action set-pieces, one of which is as good as any previously committed to celluloid. Expertly staged, visually inventive, and breathless in its brutality, this sequence is an instant classic.

The same could be said for Snowpiercer as a whole. Not since Neill Blomkamp's District 9 has a movie so deftly woven political allegory and science fiction with human drama. The result is a challenging and powerful motion picture that's both cerebral and visceral. With it, Bong Joon-ho has cemented his status as one of the industry's most creative, nimble, and visionary directors.



Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Mario Kart 8

Game: Mario Kart 8
System: WiiU
Genre: Racing
Developer: Nintendo EAD
Release date: May 30, 2014

Pros: Amazing track design; new anti-gravity mechanics; gorgeous graphics; strong, varied soundtrack
Cons: Battle mode


Since 1992, when Super Mario Kart first popularized the kart racing sub-genre, the Mario Kart series has been the video game industry's premiere kart racer. Challengers to the throne have come and gone over the past twenty years, but none have managed to unseat Mario Kart, which has relied on fundamentally-sound mechanics, addictive local and, increasingly, online multi-player options, and a stable of familiar Nintendo mascots to drive sales. Never before, however, have the developers at Nintendo EAD released a kart game, or any racing game for that matter, as deep, rewarding, and immersive as Mario Kart 8, the latest and greatest kart racer from Nintendo's evergreen franchise. 

Whereas recent installments of Mario Kart have felt, at times, like variations on a theme, Mario Kart 8, for the first time in a generation, feels like a brand new game, built from the ground up. The game looks different, it sounds different, and, most notably, it plays different. Yes, it borrows some of the ideas, systems, and even tracks from earlier games in the series, but it re-purposes them in such a way to produce something entirely new. This is a game with newly found confidence and maneuverability, thanks in no small part to the spatial freedom allowed by Mario Kart 8's greatest gift, anti-gravity. 

Mario races along an anti-gravity section.

Anti-gravity goes a long way in Mario Kart 8, not just by providing the visceral thrill of driving up walls and along ceilings, but also by adding another level of strategy to each race and by opening up new physical space in which to drive. Even in Mario Kart 7, which allowed racers to glide through the air and dive under the waves, each track was neatly defined by barriers left and right, and by Newton's law of universal gravitation. In Mario Kart 8 those barriers are much more fluid and changeable. Players might speed horizontally across the face of a mighty dam or bounce off bumpers in a section of track suspended in space above a busy airport (how is that not a violation of FAA regulations?).

The end result is an amazing collection of tracks, arguably the best in the series. Stand-outs among the eight original courses include Thwomp Ruins, Twisted Mansion, Mount Wario, and Cloudtop Cruise. Even the eight retro tracks, which are usually borrowed wholesale from previous entries, are refreshed in Mario Kart 8. They feel new again, and, in many cases, better.


All these new ideas and courses wouldn't mean much, however, if it weren't for a solid mechanical foundation underpinning the game. Luckily, Mario Kart performs almost impossibly well, with a subtly altered driving system that welcomes in novices and provides enough depth and challenge for experts. In terms of presentation and performance, the game is a home run. Fluid animation, gorgeous environments, and amazing attention to detail make each track a joy to race through, offline and online. Then there's the soundtrack, recorded with a full, live orchestra, a first for the Mario Kart series. It's jazzy, it's bold, it's a perfect complement to the lavish production that is Mario Kart 8.

The only real flaw in the game is its battle mode, which eschews brand new battle arenas in favor of standard racing courses. Consequently, players will drive along each course searching, often in vain, for opposing players. At best, it's a diverting game of joust; at worst it's a painfully boring game of hide and seek.

Mario Kart 8 can be played locally via splitscreen or online with 12 players.

It's a relatively small flaw, however, when the entire Mario Kart 8 package is considered. Mechanically, the game provides enough control options and strategies to satisfy both the greenest novice and the most seasoned veteran; structurally and spatially, the game allows players to discover heights and spaces previously unexplored; and technically, the game is steady and silky smooth offline with a group of friends or online with strangers from around the world. Add to that some of Nintendo's most verdant and opulent visuals and an enlivening soundtrack and the outcome is the best racing game ever made, and an early contender for game of the generation.