Sunday, August 2, 2015

Hitman 2015 offers a form of early access, although they're not officially calling it that

I love Hitman games. Blood Money is the only game I've ever beaten more than twice so what more can I say? I even loved Absolution, though I admit it didn't have any missions nearly as memorable as the previous games. I'll probably buy any game with Agent 47 in it, so with the latest title it's not a question of if, it's more of a question of when.

According to PC Gamer, the full game won't be available until 2016. What you get in December, for $60, is one-shot missions. Initially I reacted pretty negatively to this news, but hear creative director Christian Elverdam out:

What we’re thinking is you get nothing more than a portrait, so you can’t really find the guy on instinct or anything like that. You’ll have to work your way around the level, finding his routine. If you make him nervous and he escapes, he’s gone forever. And then when you finally figure out what you want to do, that kill you do is going to be the kill you can do. You need to really pay attention because you’re not going to get a do-over. We really believe that you’ll have a segment of players who race to be the first. There’ll be bragging rights, Twitch streams, discussions of different strategies.

Sounds pretty intense to me. As long as the target A.I. doesn't get easily spooked or you can easily fail a mission through no fault of your own—as in previous games—I think I'm going to have a good time with early access Hitman 2015. Naturally I'll stay away if early word-of-mouth is severely negative (although I'm glad I checked out Absolution for myself), but I'll probably wait to pick this up until I'm finished with Fallout 4... which, in turn, I won't be picking up until I'm done with Witcher 3. And, at this point, I'm wondering if Witcher 3 actually ends.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Coming to grips with The Walking Dead #144

No concrete spoilers here... just some vague rambling. Honestly, though, if you don't read The Walking Dead, this post will probably be of little interest to you.

Robert Kirkman is an asshole

Something brilliant happened at the end of The Walking Dead's most recent issue, #144. No, I didn't just read it. I'm just still digesting the damn thing.

Despite the recent appearance of the creepiest faction yet, the series has been luring its readers into a sense of security, drip-feeding us the feeling things might turn out alright for the ever-growing group of survivors. Lesser writers would have failed to cover up all the clues that things were, once again, about to go balls-to-the-wall insane. Not Robert Kirkman.

I'm not saying he pulled a fast one on me. I'm saying I've allowed myself some willing blindness. His writing has been so dread-inducing for so many years, I'd just assumed he'd gone soft with the format change. Frankly, I was hoping he had... those characters have been through so damn much.

I've been digesting #144 ever since it came out. I keep thinking I should have known!, but that's how this series hooks you: in most stories like this, you can't wait until the shit hits the fan. Imagine buying a ticket to a zombie movie and nobody gets eaten. That's all good and well for the main characters, but not too great for us, the viewers. I've come to realize that what Kirkman has managed to do with his characters is make me genuinely want a "happily ever after" scenario for them. 

Even if nothing of interest ever happens again, it'll be better than another one of those awful deaths.

Sure, those awful deaths are the very reasons we read this stuff. That doesn't mean they don't hurt like holy hell. When I read #100 and got to that scene, I paused, went glassy-eyed, and said to myself, "Fuuuuuuck." It was like a band-aid ripped right out of the nether regions. 

I kept hearing #144 wasn't one to be missed, and when I got to the scene everyone's been talking about in a roundabout way, I didn't think it was too big of a deal... 

Until I turned the page...

And the next one...

And, holy shit, the next one, too?!

That was, hands down, one of the most creative use of page-turns I've seen in... hell, I don't even know how long. What a kick to the gut. And it just keeps getting more impressive the more I think about it.

Monday, July 27, 2015

The Death of "Superman Lives"

Two of my favorite subjects for nonfiction are terrible movies which got made and good movies which were never made. I always assumed we dodged a bullet when Tim Burton's Superman Lives was cancelled, but I was wrong... probably. After seeing the Kickstarted documentary The Death of "Superman Lives": What Happened? I think Tim Burton's Superman would have beaten Snyder's Superman fist-over-fist. It would have certainly been better than Wild Wild West, which is where Warner Bros. shifted its money and focus after cancelling Superman Lives.

I know it's popular today to hate the comics of the 1990s (I don't give a shit—I still like old school Spawn), but DC's Death of Superman would have made a pretty great movie, even if it did kind of embody what was wrong with comics of that era. I remember reading Kevin Smith's leaked script back in the AOL days when I still thought the movie was getting made: some of the dialogue was goofy and a little long, but it was a pretty exciting read as long as you imagined Christopher Reeve in the part. According to the documentary, that's exactly what Smith was doing when he wrote it.

Since the movie was never made, Death of "Superman Lives" shows us the ocean of concept art designed in pre-production, including some of Tim Burton's own drawings. The important thing to remember about concept art is the final product never looks as good as the preliminary sketches, but the stuff they designed for Superman Lives looks even more fantastic than most movie art, leading one to the conclusion the movie itself could have been better than most. The variety in the aliens they designed for Brainiac's ship was enough to convince me we missed out on something special. At one point I thought, "There's no way they could have done all of this in one movie," and later learned the initial budget estimate was $300 million; 1995's Waterworld cost $175 million and was the most expensive movie up until that point. Naturally, the studio ordered cuts to the script's more expensive elements.

Still, that they spent thirty million on a movie they would never make is a testament to Hollywood's extreme wastefulness. It's such a shame the movie was never made. Whether it was good or not, it would have been rebooted by now anyway.

The promotional material for the documentary has been using pictures and video of Nicolas Cage in strange variations on the Superman suit to drum up hype. During the making of Superman Returns, Bryan Singer would flash a photograph of Nicolas Cage's Superman whenever someone complained about Brandon Routh's look in his own film: "Look, you were going to make that at one point." Yet the documentary makes it clear Tim Burton's crew wasn't taking liberties with Superman's traditional look, but experimenting with suits he'd wear later in the movie, including a regeneration suit following his death and resurrection. Tim Burton confesses it's the reason he's a lot more careful today about letting pre-production material get out: artists need time to experiment behind closed doors.

I've wanted to see The Death of "Superman Lives" for a while now and I wasn't disappointed. While I wouldn't say it's a great documentary, it does what really great documentaries do: it changes my opinion about something I felt strongly about. And yes, by that I mean I really want to see Tim Burton's Superman Lives.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Oculus Cinema in Gear VR

I think this blog can attest to the fact I'm a movie buff. I like big images and big sound. For as long as I can remember, owning a bonafide movie theater has been on my short list of dreams. This weekend the dream came true...

Sort of.

The sense of presence in Samsung's virtual reality headset is amazing. I showed it off to five of my friends this weekend, all of whom typically roll their eyes at my gadget obsession, and they were all blown away. Watching someone realize they can look around a 3D environment is almost as fun as experiencing it first hand. I don't think I've ever said "wow" so many times in my life. The 360-degree videos which come pre-installed with the Gear VR are so real, you feel like you're there. Notice I used no modifiers, no weasel words: you feel like you're there. Period.

I won't talk about the games and the virtual vacations today because I haven't spent much time with that stuff. Oculus Cinema is what I really wanted. 

The app comes pre-loaded with a handful of short films and trailers. Two of the trailers are in 3D. Although I've always hated 3D movies, Oculus Cinema's 3D is much more impressive than anything I've seen in a theater. The screen isn't dark and you don't get that flat look in the faraway backgrounds which has been one of the more distracting aspects of 3D movies for me. Then again, that's only around five minutes of 3D footage that's been cherry picked for the app. Who knows what a full length picture will look like when it hasn't been tailored for this device specifically?

Still, I'm a lot more open to the idea of 3D movies now, just as long as I don't have to watch them in actual movie theaters anymore. I find Gear VR is more comfortable than the disposable glasses at the multiplex. Then again, I don't have to wear my prescription glasses underneath Gear VR like I do with the movie theater glasses. (If one of your eyes is dramatically worse than the other, or you're extremely far-sighted, it would be best to invest in contact lenses before getting Gear.)

there's some great use of colors and cinematography in this movie, perfect for Gear VR

The first full length movie I'd planned to watch in Oculus Cinema was Tremors, but I decided to save that until I find a way to plug the headset into my surround sound system (I'm led to believe that's possible). I decided on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 instead, which certainly isn't a movie I mind watching with headphones. Although it's not the equivalent of 1080p video, I was never disappointed in the quality of the image. The last time I saw this movie was on VHS, and Gear VR looks at least twice as good as that experience was. The apparent size of the screen and the colors were fantastic. Although jump-scares rarely get me, the first time Leatherface comes running out of the darkness with his chainsaw in hand scared the shit out of me. 

So, is the unit comfortable enough to watch for two hours straight? Well, I hate to say it, but I took two breaks. I'm not sure I needed two breaks, but I took them anyway. Not because of motion sickness or eye-strain (so far that hasn't been an issue for me), but because it just isn't comfortable wearing the headset for so long. 

The following video is a great primer on Oculus Cinema:

Now, some things suck about the Gear VR, too. The "screen-door" effect, though minor, is still an issue. Unless you're watching a really bright movie, you probably won't notice it unless you're actively looking for it, though, and I hear it's a lot better than it was in similar prototypes. (Although the screen resolution is better than consumer-level televisions, it's a lot closer to your face and magnified through lenses, no less. I suspect the effect will be absent in these devices in a year or two.) Today the lenses were fogging up, which is especially annoying. Oklahoma humidity, however, probably has a lot to do with that. Your mileage may vary.

Those are only my minor complaints. Samsung made the bone-headed decision to lock the experience down to a handful of approved apps. Google Cardboard is almost as impressive (though more likely to cause motion sickness) and you can get it for less than twenty bucks if you don't want to build your own. Not only does Cardboard allow just about anyone to create content for it, it even has an official YouTube app. The Gear VR doesn't allow streaming videos of any kind, which I'm more interested in than short demos and mobile games. I understand Samsung feels it can offer a better experience by controlling the content with an iron fist, but it's more of the usual corporate bullshit which only weakens the value of their product.

Thankfully, you can add your own movies to the device as long as you ripped them yourself or obtained them in a way corporations like Samsung wouldn't approve of. It's still no excuse for Samsung's oversights, but it's a start. Watching movies from Netflix, Google Play, or the Apple Store can't be done out of the box and the workarounds people have come up with are a serious pain in the ass for most people. Again, I want to stress it's an incredibly stupid move on Samsung's part. It's the only reason I can't recommend the product although it's something I think everyone in the world should try. The device has been out for more than seven months now and still doesn't have the everyday apps the public wants. That's more than unacceptable. That's a slap in the face.

Although I have Waterworld, Dr. Strangelove, and Tremors uploaded and ready to go in Gear VR, I'm pretty certain the next movie I watch will be on my regular ol' television. Yes, Gear VR may be the most impressive and futuristic gadget I've ever laid my hands on, but it's like an amusement park ride: there's only so many times you want to go on a roller coaster before you want to go ride around in the bumper cars. For something that's been out for nearly a year, there's just not enough official content in my opinion. 

My suggestion for movie buffs? Unless you already own a Galaxy Note 4, wait until a better, less restricted headset comes out. It'll be cheaper and a lot less frustrating.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Ted 2

I held the first Ted film at arm's length until Flash Gordon showed up. Then I was all in. Unfortunately that's all I remember about that movie, other than a hilarious scene involving a turd. Flash Gordon's in this one, too, but none of his scenes are as funny as they were in the first movie, so it's safe to say this one isn't as good.

Oh, and I hate courtroom scenes. Ted 2 spends way too much time in court. Every single joke about a courtroom has been done to death by now and these scenes always drag on. Fuck modern movies with courtroom scenes, comedies or otherwise. They all suck.

Otherwise, Ted 2 is actually pleasant if you're as hungover as I was when I saw it, at least when the jokes work (it's about 50/50). Most comedy talents should stay the hell away from movies. They often see Hollywood as little more than a career move. Richard Pryor was notorious for making movies "just because," and while he made some great ones, he made a lot more stinkers. Seth MacFarlane, on the other hand, is a good fit for movies. I think he's genuinely trying to make good movies rather than all-out laugh-fests, which often come off as forced and desperate.

I'm also the only person I know who actually enjoyed A Million Ways to Die in the West. I think it's criminally underrated. Everyone else seems to think I'm criminally insane. I wasn't a MacFarlane fan before that movie. Afterwards I wanted to see him in a lot more movies. He could be like the Woody Allen of our times... his hit/miss ratio is developing about the same, anyway.

The problem with Ted 2 is we've seen every bit of this before: The Family Guy flashback gags, the disappointingly conventional love plot, the pointless asides—it's becoming stale. I don't think the problem is MacFarlane. I think the problem is he won't be able to raise enough money to make anything else.

In the beginning of the movie, Ted marries his cashier girlfriend from the first film. Soon after, he receives a letter telling him the marriage has been nullified because he's not legally recognized as a person. This leads to him losing his job and... ugh, this is all boring, isn't it? You've seen the trailer. You already know everything you need to know.

Speaking of the trailer, it makes the movie look much worse than it actually is. Usually they show all the best parts. Ted 2's trailer manages to show some of the worst. When Ted is asked if he believes he has a soul, he breaks out into song. It's awful and cringe-inducing. Who honestly thought that was funny?

And when Ted and Mark Wahlberg end up in the sperm storage of a fertility bank, you'll sigh because you'll know exactly what's going to happen next. I don't have a problem with shock humor. I have a problem with boring humor. To call a semen fight "boring humor" is going too far because it still suggests there's humor there. There's not. Not when you see it coming from a mile away. (Uh, no pun intended.)

The best part of the franchise, other than Ted and Wahlberg's chemistry, are the special effects. They're so good you completely forget you're watching a movie that has CGI in nearly every scene. It's weird that during the two hundred million dollar Age of Ultron I was constantly wincing at the phony effects and yet Ted 2 manages to be so consistently believable, you even forget he's a talking teddy bear. But that's part of the problem: it's not nearly as funny when the talking teddy bear is just another human character. There's nothing special about it anymore.

Anyway, Ted 2 is worth watching if you're into that kind of thing, but I wouldn't pay for it if I were you. Not unless you're really desperate for something new to watch. Or really, really hungover.