Thursday, November 22, 2012

My thoughts on the Wii U

Throughout the day Sunday, I kept watching reviews of the Wii U and decided to go on the hunt sometime around nightfall. Two hours and several stores later, I found one in a Sears. They informed me had I gotten there any earlier, I wouldn't have gotten it. Apparently they screwed up a shipment or something. So, lucky me, I bought the deluxe model for $479 including tax. 

What puzzled me was the lack of an ethernet port (I would have liked a dedicated optical port for audio as well, but I understand most people wouldn't need it). The exclusion was fine for Wii as it wasn't really geared around online multiplayer games, but isn't the Wii U supposed to feature "hardcore" games that could really benefit from a hardwired internet connection? And I've got a router that's literally two feet away from my Wii U so it's a shame I can't plug it in. Anyway, my assumption Wii U would get more involved with online play was apparently wrong. So far, most of my games only offer local multiplayer and the online features are typically social networking options.

My next complaint is understandable, but it still sucks. It's the day-one patch that takes an hour to download. If you bought one of these for your kids on Christmas, you should probably wait until the little bastards are in school and secretly set the system up early so they won't chew your ears off while they wait for it to update on Christmas morning. You don't need to update if you only plan on playing disc games, but to do anything else (including accessing a disc game's online features) you will have to update. Not only that, but every single game I've tried requires an individual update, which can take ten to thirty minutes.

Lastly, I just want to say something about the graphics. No, graphics aren't everything, but it's nice to have the option for good graphics for the Call of Duties and the Assassin Creeds. And when you play AC3, you're probably going to be pretty disappointed by the limited draw distances (objects pop in and out of view) and the way shadows and hair take on a strobe effect. It's really hard to believe this is a next-gen system just by looking at it.

So Nintendo shouldn't be your choice for FPS games and AAA action titles. If that's all you're into, wait for Microsoft and Sony to release their next consoles (or, better yet, just beef up your home computer). But if you're looking for something different the Wii U might be for you. Although the system feels more like a toy than a gaming unit, it's a fun throwback for those of us who grew up playing games with friends on the same TV.

The things that I liked:

1. The gamepad

It looks big and bulky and uncomfortable, but the second you pick it up, you'll wonder how they crammed so many electronics into such a lightweight device. It fits in your hands nicely and the touchscreen works like a charm despite the lack of multi-touch controls. It's just as cool as the Wiimote was in 2006, but mostly because it didn't end up making the entire unit $600+.

2. The gamepad's functions

Maybe I should have included this in the heading above, but what I didn't expect was the option to pair the gamepad with your television. That's right: last gen brought us the era where we didn't need to get off the couch to turn the system on and this gen brings us the era we don't even need a remote for the TV. It sounds insignificant, but I love it. 

3. Internet browsing

Ever tried browsing the net on a PS3? Don't. It sucks. It sucked on the Wii, too. In fact, every other TV web surfing experience has sucked for me. Now, the Wii U browser isn't nearly as good as browsing on a computer, but it's a lot better than its competition. My favorite feature about the built-in browser is the ability to "close the curtains" on the TV while you continue to browse on the gamepad's screen. This means if you have a roomful of people, you can close the curtains and input any passwords or sensitive user information in private. 

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

It's a smooth launch day for Black Ops 2

I thought I was done with Call of Duty. As the reviews came tumbling in this morning, I got excited about the latest installment, which released today. In particular, it was videos of the newest additions to zombie mode that got my attention. So I bought it and downloaded it while I was at work.

And holy shit.

It's good. It's different. Everything that people dislike about COD games has been addressed... well, almost everything. I still think there are a few too many button prompts in the campaign mode, but there are a few stretches of balls-to-the-wall entertainment during which I can't believe it's a COD game. Amazingly enough it runs better on my system on launch day than MW2 and 3 do after being out for months. I can't say that I've encountered any memorable bugs in the three hours I've played it, either.


The sound is crisp and clean, but Treyarch's default mix of sound levels seems uneven on my speakers, which I admit are a little wonky at the moment. Joining games has been a breeze for the most part and although I lagged a couple of times, so far it's been pretty smooth. I like the customization. I like the futuristic weapons and tactical gear. I like Call of Duty again.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The time travel movie of the future: Looper review

The year is 2044, thirty years before the invention of time travel. A voiceover tells us that as soon as time travel is invented it's outlawed, but the most powerful criminal networks in the world continue to use it. So Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a looper. Loopers are essentially hitmen, but not the Joe Pesci variety who sneak into your house and shoot you in the back of the head. No, they just wait in a field for a target to be sent back to their time. When the target arrives the looper blasts him away and the body can't be found in the time in which it belongs.


Targets arrive in a kneeling position. There's often a hood over their heads and their hands are tied behind their backs. After killing the target, a looper strips the unfortunate soul out of his jacket to find his payment strapped to the body. Typically the payment comes in the form of silver bars which can be cashed for age-appropriate currency. But there's a reason we call these hitmen loopers: when the future employers decide to retire a looper, they send the future looper's self back to be executed by his younger self. When a looper finds gold strapped to a body he knows he's been retired in the future and he essentially killed himself. It's called "completing the loop" and the main character tells us people in his line of work aren't exactly forward-thinkers.

If this sounds needlessly complicated then that isn't a fault of the film. It does a better job explaining in it five minutes than I can in a few paragraphs. Why would someone decide to get a job with such a lethal retirement plan? When we see that Joe lives pretty well in a future where very few people are well-to-do, we can see the attraction of the looper's job. The real question: Is looping really as clean and effective as Joe makes it out to be? Satisfactory answers to that question aren't prominent, but that's the fault of the two-hour movie format, not the movie itself.

If you've seen the trailer, you know this much: Joe's future self (played by Bruce Willis) is sent back and Joe fails to kill him. You probably expect a cat and mouse game between the two characters. It's not. It's more like a cat, mouse, dog, and tiger game in which timelines and alternative realities twist and tangle like pasta. While there is the occasional paradoxical plot hole (the fault of time travel movies in general, not the movie itself), the film is as close to a classic science fiction novel as you can get. As long as the trailer is the only introduction to Looper you've had, twenty minutes into the movie you're going to realize it's nothing like what you expected. So as not to spoil the fun, I won't mention any more of the plot.

Obviously I'm a huge fan of science fiction (see: this blog), but what I'm usually not a fan of is Hollywood science fiction. The last absolutely great one was Minority Report, a film I actually disliked the first time I saw it because it was yet another mangled Philip K. Dick adaptation. Well, there was District 9, too, and I must say Duncan Jones's Moon and Source Code certainly fit the bill of "real science fiction." Those are really the only recent standouts I can presently think of. I'm thrilled to say Looper stands among them.

Writer/director Rian Johnson actually tops Brick, a film I went absolutely crazy over. He presents us with a dystopic future, but it's one that we've never seen before. Sure, most people are living in poverty, there are flying motor cycles, and giant, futuristic skylines, but the brushstrokes are of a variety we haven't seen before. There are hints that Joe's city situation isn't the same all over the world. When Emily Blunt's character is introduced, we see that some people live very well indeed. So there's a lot of dark stuff in this movie, but it isn't bleak and it's never completely hopeless. 

Another creative decision I applaud: people from the future don't appear with all the CGI bells and whistles you'd expect from a modern film. They just appear in crude stop-motion, as if Barbara Eden nodded her head on I Dream of Jeannie.


Early on there's a movie death that's absolutely chilling despite the lack of blood and on-screen violence. There's also a few places I absolutely could not believe a modern Hollywood film would go, moments which remind me of a scene in... well, I better not say, but it was a western, not a science fiction film. 

Jeff Daniels is in this picture. He's a bad ass. At first you believe he's the main villain of the picture. Then you think someone else is the main villain. After you're given a few more possibilities, you finally give up trying to figure it out. Looper doesn't give a shit about movie standards that came before it. It really is like nothing you've ever seen and either you like that kind of film or you don't. 

People keep griping about how movies were so much better in eras prior to this one, but I'm not sure this film would have been made in any other time. I'm not sure it could have been made in another time, either.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

X-Men Rise... wait... The Amazing X-Men? (First Class review)

The Spider-Man review reminded me to write the Batman review. The Batman review reminded me to write this X-Men: First Class review. So uh, where shall we start?


The movie opens in a concentration camp. The boy who will one day become Magneto is separated from his parents by Nazis, which causes his mutant powers to unlock. Stricken with rage, he discovers he can bend metal gates with his mind. Cut to Professor X's childhood home, circa the same time. Young Charles Xavier can read and interact with minds. He demonstrates this ability when he discovers a young Mystique in his kitchen—yes, she's the blue chick from the other films in case you forgot.

Fast forward a few years later and an adult Magneto (Michael Fassbender) is searching for the evil Dr. Schmidt (Kevin Bacon) who studied the mutant boy's powers of magnetism, not to mention murdered his mother. We learn that Charles (James McAvoy) and Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) have been mutants-in-hiding ever since they met. Mystique (she's a shape-shifter, remember?) is forced to appear in her human form whenever they're in public. This irritates her because she thinks men are unlikely to find her attractive in her true form (um yeah, right).

To make a long story short, Schmidt has escaped to America where he masquerades as a regular joe known as Sebastian Shaw. There's a scene where a female CIA agent (Rose Byrne's Moira MacTaggert) notices a group of strippers walking into the Las Vegas club where Shaw is staying. How does the beautiful agent sneak into the club? Why, she merely strips her clothes off in the middle of the street and walks right in. I really hate scenes like this and no, it's not because of the gratuitous near-nudity—that's actually the only thing going for it, really. Screenwriters have been coming up with stupid security workarounds for decades now. According to them, you could sneak into The Pentagon with nothing more than a silly accent and a threat to call someone's superiors.

It's quickly revealed that Kevin Bacon's Sebastian Shaw is a mutant, too, and he wants to incite nuclear war. See, mutants were born of radiation so they will survive the nuclear apocalypse. Normal humans, however, will not. And when you've got mutants as dangerous as Shaw, it kind of lends credence to the government's desire to catalog and track them.

To make a long story short, Charles Xavier is recruited by the government to go after Shaw. He convinces Magneto to join him. They're going to need a team, of course, and for the first X-Men roster they scrape the absolute bottom of the barrel. See, the first ninety-three issues of Uncanny X-Men (#67—93 were actually reprints as Marvel had kind of given up on the franchise) there was a problem: it was kind of a mediocre comic. It wasn't until Giant-Size X-Men when the team got interesting. Which begs the question: Why bother making a film about the X-Men team no one gives a shit about?


So it's time for a disclaimer: I love Uncanny X-Men and own over a hundred issues from the Chris Claremont era. I typically like (not love) X-Men movies, too. I'm even a fan of this film's director, who made wonderful movies like Layer Cake, Stardust, and Kick-Ass. But try as I might, I could not get into First Class. I wouldn't say it's a terrible movie, but it's a huge disappointment for me personally.

Magneto is a character who intrigues me more than almost any other comic book character in existence. Sure, most superhero powers would be a lot more useful than his, but there's something admirable about everything Magneto accomplishes despite his relatively weak power. His greatest power might be his resolve. There's something endearing in that.

I'm not saying they screwed Magneto up, but there's a bit of the Hannibal effect going on: when you have a character as legendary as he is it kind of takes the fun out of it when his life history is detailed so thoroughly. It's to be expected in a comic book that drags on for hundreds of issues—how else would they pad the story out?—but it seems like you're wasting valuable time when the series is due for a reboot any year now. I just think it's more interesting when we sympathize with Magneto when we don't know why. Why justify his actions? We were all on board, anyway. No need to run it into the ground.

My other gripe pertains to prequels in general. I don't give a shit how a character's most mundane details came about. Doesn't matter, they're going to show us anyway.

I hope to watch this again in a few years and discover I was wrong, but I don't think so. It just didn't work for me.