Friday, January 3, 2014

Film Review: American Hustle

David O Russell has had a very interesting career, and it has been a great deal of fun to watch it develop. Intriguing films like Three Kings (1999) and I Heart Huckabees (2004) gave way to Oscar contenders like The Fighter (2010) and Silver Linings Playbook (2012). Hustle lands somewhere in between all of his work. Like his early work, it is unapologetic in its ambition, yet it has the polish of his recent work at the same time. In tone, it resembles the Coen brothers, and in story it is not dissimilar to a younger Tarantino.

The casting is interesting - not perfect, but still great. Christian Bale is Irving, a low-stakes New York conman who meets Sydney (Amy Adams), whose fiery intelligence and insatiable ambition intrigues him but ultimately lands the pair with Richie Di Maso (Bradley Cooper), an FBI agent who hopes to parlay the duo's skill into a bigger political catch that will catapult his career into the stratosphere. It should be mentioned that the film is a loose play on the ABSCAM fiasco of the late '70s.

Story: 3/5 - It's a fun story, to be sure, and I really like the role that ambition plays. Everybody has their own checks, and it is the characters without restraint that drive the plot. When Irving can't control his wife (Jennifer Lawrence), she gets entangled with the mob. When the FBI can't reign in Richie, he continually escalates the situation. The amount of twists made me think of Tarantino (Pulp Fiction), but I still found it relatively predictable. I wasn't a fan of the narrator, either. It wasn't really necessary and kind of dumbed the movie down.

Writing: 5/5 - The writing was thrilling, and really made me think of the Coens. You get to meet all of these characters, and somehow to like them all. Every scene is well written, and some are absolutely hilarious. The tension doesn't always work. It's not perfect, but it's close.

Acting: 5/5 - Where to begin? Christian Bale and Amy Adams as leads aren't going to disappoint, you know that when you buy your ticket. Bradley Cooper swings for the fences as the maniacal sometimes-antagonist FBI agent (think of Gary Oldman's Norman Stansfield from Leon, but with more incompetence and less evil). Jennifer Lawrence is sultry, reckless, and impossible to ignore, like a train about to go off the rails. That I want to bang. Louis CK is hilarious in a bit part as Cooper's commanding officer, and I continue to be impressed by Robert De Niro's latest work in a cameo as a mob boss. Jeremy Renner is solid as a New Jersey mayor committed to doing the right thing for his people, by any means necessary. This is a Best Cast contender.

Aesthetics: 4/5 - The music is a blast. The costumes and sets are awesome. It's really just a good-looking film.

Final Score: 85% - Not the Best Picture contender I envisioned, but its still one of the most entertaining pictures of the year.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Film Review: Grudge Match

Look, maybe I'm a sucker. I love a well-done fight movie. I love Rocky, all of them (except V, fuck Rocky V), even the one where he goes to Russia and ends the Cold War. I thought that Rocky Balboa (2006) was a very good movie and a deserving entrant in the franchise when a lot of people hated it.

On the other hand (De Niro's), Raging Bull is quite possibly the greatest bit of American cinema ever, and almost undoubtedly the finest film of the last 35 years. The title sequence gives me chills every time.

Hell, I liked Warrior.

So when I heard about Grudge Match, I didn't know how to feel. Did we really need to dust off what are essentially mimicrys of Rocky Balboa and Jake Lamotta? How much story is left to tell there? At the same time, didn't Rocky Balboa show us that this kind of movie is possible to make? Where do we set expectations for this?

Grudge Match is the story of two boxers who split a pair of enormous fights in the 1980s, only for Stallone's 'Razor' Sharp to walk away from De Niro's Billy 'The Kid' McDonnen, the rematch, and millions of dollars, for reasons he never tries to explain. After a present-day altercation drums up media attention, the son of their late promoter (Kevin Hart) encourages the two to do a rubber match.

Story: 2/5 - It's just ok. The story is fairly predictable, but it's still fun. The relationship between the two fighters is interesting, and it was entertaining to watch them air each other's dirty old laundry over the course of the movie.

Writing: 3/5 - Maybe I bumped my head the night before the movie, but I thought the movie was funny enough. Nobody's going to win an award here, but there's enough emotion to make you care and just enough comedy to make the 113 minute runtime bearable.

Acting: 3/5 - Say what you want about De Niro (and most are appalled that he's still acting), but with his appearances in David O Russell's films, I would hazard to say his last 12 months have been his best work in the last 15 years. He at lease looks like he put on and lost a good deal of weight as part of this role. Sly Stallone is what he is. If anybody can play a run-down former boxer, it's him. I love Alan Arkin, and he's fine as Stallone's old trainer, 'Lightning.' Kevin Hart is just comedic relief, but he does a decent job. I was impressed with Jon Bernthal as Kid's son, BJ, mostly because I hate The Walking Dead. I liked some of the cameos, like Tyson and Holyfield, and Chael Sonnen.

Aesthetics: 2/5 - These guys are too old to be pretend fighting, let's just be honest. It doesn't look good, it doesn't look believable. Stallone did alright in Balboa, but 67 is a lot older than 60. The production values were good - they captured the downtrodden Pittsburgh as well as the glitz of Las Vegas.

Final Score: 50% - Grudge Match currently has a 21% rating on RottenTomatoes, so maybe I'm missing something, but though it ran a bit long for me, it was worth a watch.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Film Review: Smaug the Magnificent; Hobbit the Mediocre

There's nothing to discuss here, really. You've seen the trailers, you've probably read the books. This is about the second installment in Peter Jackson's inexplicable Hobbit trilogy, The Desolation of Smaug.

Story: 2/5 - The book is fun, and is well-loved. As a result, the movies can't help but be a pretty good time. That being said, the constant 'out of the frying pan' type of trouble the dwarves get into gets old after almost 6 hours now. There just isn't enough story here to make three three-hour movies. There's no real drama because you know there's a third movie, and the pacing suffers pretty badly as well.

Writing: 4/5 - Yeah, it's brash, dopey fantasy writing, but screenwriters Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens (a veteran of Jackson's efforts), Jackson, and briefly-signed director Benicio del Toro do a good job of making these believable, immersive characters through the writing. Critics like to throw around the word 'charming' for children's movie characters, and while I don't think that word applies, these are fun, but darker, multi-layered people.

Acting: 3/5 - The cast is pretty top-heavy. I love Martin Freeman as Bilbo, and Richard Armitage always does a great job. Ian McKellen isn't at his best, but he's probably one of the best living English-language actors, so he's probably OK mailing this one in. Benedict Cumberpatch was a fantastic cast as Smaug the dragon; his voice work and mocap (maybe Jackson's greatest filmmaking legacy) were fantastic. I liked Ken Stott as Balin, and Evangeline Lily as some elf chick made up for the movie. Stephen Fry is fun as the Master of the Men of the Lake. There are some lacking performances, though. Orlando Bloom was just there for fun, and a lot of the orcs were straight-up shoddy compared to the original trilogy.

(Note) A lot of people complained about the prequel Star Wars trilogy because of iffy acting, and something people have pointed to is Lucas basically punting on-location shooting and using greenscreen. This makes it harder for the actors to interact with the set and cast a believable performance. I think The Hobbit trilogy is another great example of this. Everything is CG. McKellan is a legend of the Royal Shakespeare Company. He has six Laurence Olivier Awards. How is he supposed to be at his best with nothing but a bright green wall as his accompaniment?

Aesthetics: 4/5 - Smaug is awesome, and is more or less worth the price of admission. Some of the sets are cool.

Final Score: 65% - The character and presentation of Smaug is enough to make this movie worth watching. As an art piece, though, it is far from Jackson's best work.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Album Review: Starbomb

Starbomb is something quite special. And not for everybody. It's a band that consists of two of my personal favorite internet personalities, cartoonist Arin "Egoraptor" Hanson and Ninja Sex Party. Ninja Sex Party is a two-man band, with Danny Sexbang (or Leigh Daniel Avidan for you sophisticated folk) and Ninja Brian (or
Brian Wecht, a theoretical physicist working at Queen Mary, University of London, studying string theory and supersymmetry). Arin and Danny co-host Game Grumps on Youtube together, so you can already tell even on the album's intro track that they have incredible chemistry. Arin is usually the rapper on these tracks, while Danny delivers the hooks with his incredibly unique voice and Ninja Brian does an amazing job on the production of each track.

The album itself contains 11 video game themed songs, featuring tons of popular Nintendo characters. This is obviously a comedy album, but it is put together extremely well. The tracks are usually parodying a specific
part of a game, placing the characters in strangely adult situations with a crazy amount of dick jokes. But it works. Oh boy, does it work.

I Choose You to Die (9/10)-Arin's rapping is a little bit clunky on this, but that's mostly due to the awesome Pokemon puns in this song. The track tells the story of how Ash Ketchum had nothing in life after beating the Elite Four, so he turned to beating his Pokemon and got arrested for domestic violence. The song is good enough, but is made fantastic by Danny's hooks. His ability to make jokes while keeping with beat and tune of the song really stands out here.

Luigi's Ballad (8/10)-Danny plays the part of Luigi on this song, with Arin as Mario and Rachel Bloom guest appearing as Princess Peach. This is essentially a fight between the Mario Bros. about which one of them Peach should love more. Danny plays a sincere Luigi, trying to make Peach fall for him, while Mario is much more aggressive an obnoxious. Again, Danny's vocals top Arin's rapping, but there's not enough of Danny on this song, in my opinion. Arin also did an animated music video for the song, which you can check out here:

It's Dangerous to Go Alone (7/10)-This one is about that old man in the cave in the original Zelda games that gives Link his first sword. But in Starbomb's version, the old man (Danny) is trying to give Link (Arin) a penis sword. It's such a strange song, with a few too many dick jokes, but I liked how Liberty City and Raccoon City were tossed into the song, just for more references. Dan's vocals are great again, Arin's rapping is actually better than the previous songs, and the "chilled out groove" on this song is one of Ninja Brian's best.

Meet Arin
Mega Marital Problems (8/10)-Mega Man (Arin) and his wife (Dan) are arguing about their monotonous sex life on this one, with Dr. Wily (Dan again) is acting as their therapist. The premise seems weird, but it actually ends up being pretty funny, especially when Zero (more Danny) shows up at the end, trying to steal Mega Man's wife. As Zero, Danny shows off his crazy vocal range and it's amazing. The song flows great and the majority of it is about Mega Man fighting robot masters to gain better sex skills, which is silly enough to work.

Rap Battle: Ryu vs. Ken (10/10)-This song is a quick one, but it features Ryu and Ken from Street Fighter duking it out with rhymes rather than fists. Ryu (Arin) tries really hard and Arin does it really well, while Ken (Danny) can't rhyme on beat and doesn't care as much about it as Ryu. Obviously Ryu wins with some ridiculous rhymes and kicks Ken in "his scrotums".

Crasher-Vania (10/10)-This is probably my favorite song on the album. It's extremely catchy and Danny's hooks are incredible. His hooks are accompanied with harmonies done by himself, which makes them even better. This is also the song with the lowest amount of dick jokes, which was refreshing after being bombarded by them early on. Arin does a great Dracula accent and tells the true story of Castlevania: Simon is mad that Dracula never invites him to his monster mashes. Here's a clip from the song (also Arin kisses Ninja Brian):

The Book of Nook (7/10)-Arin is Tom Nook on this track, portraying him as the ruthless mayor of Animal Crossing. He cleverly works in the other non-residents in the game, but this track only features a short hook from Danny, which is not enough.

Sonic's Best Pal (9/10)-Another great job by Ninja Brian, as Danny raps over a high-tempo beat, telling the story of Sonic and his pals having a good time and enjoying life. The beat then transitions to a heavy metal track, as Arin screams as a PCP-addicted Tails the Fox. The song is hilarious, the beats and transitions are great, and Danny's happiness works so well with Arin and Tails' rage and craziness.

Regretroid (9/10)-Arin tells the story of Samus Aran on this track and how enemies get a lot softer when they find out she's a girl. Danny does a great job as Kraid, with a great mixture of rapping and singing. Emily
And meet Danny
Valentine guests as Samus and works really well off of Danny's reluctant Kraid.

Kirby's Adventure in Reamland (2/10)-This song is terrible. Plain and simple. Kirby is probably my favorite video game character (and my main in Smash Bros), but this song was just plain disturbing. I couldn't enjoy it, it didn't make me laugh, it just gave me an uncomfortable feeling. Danny's vocals are the only redeeming quality.

The Simple Plot of Final Fantasy 7 (10/10)-Arin plays Cloud Strife in this song, which takes place during a talk show interview. Other characters such as Donkey Kong and Pac-Man state the plots of their games, which are never more than a few words, while Cloud constantly interrupts host Danny to relay the "simple" plot of his game. It's a really funny song, with a lot of classic video game references and Arin's verses flow really well.

Overall, this album gets a 8.5/10. I love these two acts and they're great when combined. They teased a next album, which they then confirmed, on the outro track of the album and I cannot wait for it. Maybe a few less dick jokes next time. Just a few. Please.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Game Review: The Walking Dead: Season 2 (Episode 1: All That Remains)

This post contains spoilers for both The Walking Dead and The Walking Dead: Season 2 games.

Telltale has done it again. After making us all feel like the vulnerable human beings we are in last year's masterpiece of a game, The Walking Dead, the geniuses at Telltale provide us with the next chapter of the epic game series. Season 2 begins a few months after where the first game left off. Clementine is now the playable character, replacing Lee Everett, who met an unfortunate end at the end of the first game. A post-credits scene in that game showed Clem finding two figures in a large field, after abandoning Lee to begin her journey alone. These two figures ended up being Omid and Christa, the only two KNOWN survivors of the season 1 group, other than Clem. Clem, Omid, and Christa appear to wander for a few months, which brings us to where Season 2 begins. And where I started going crazy. And where the spoilers for the new game start.

Right off the bat, you can tell this game is going to be darker than the last. First off, you're playing as a little girl who knows how to kill. Also, the theories about Christa being pregnant are confirmed, as she has a huge stomach and the opening scene contains an argument over whether or not to name the baby Omid. Clem and her two companions stop at an abandoned rest stop, which is actually the one that appears several times in the 400 Days DLC for the first game. Clem heads into the bathroom (which has a nice TV show reference in it; "TBone is da illest" is carved into a stall) to clean up and hides in a stall when another teenage girl walks in. The girl finds Clem and begins to interrogate her at gun point, at which point Omid tries to sneak in, fails, and is shot and killed. This was pretty jarring for me, as it came before the opening credits even rolled and Omid was advertised as a kinda "look who's back" character. Christa comes in, shoots the girl, and her and Clem travel north together for 16 months. When we flash forward, Christa's baby bump is gone obviously, but there is no baby. Hm. Some men then try to attack the two ladies and Clem escapes and floats down a river. She wakes up and walks down a forest trail and meets a dog.The dog and Clem search for food and everything seems fine, until she finds some and the dog attacks her. Clem kicks the dog back and it gets impaled on spikes. This is where you can REALLY tell that this is a darker game. Your first major decision is whether or not you want this little girl to kill the suffering animal. I needed to take a break after this part.

The next part of the game is where you meet your new companions. Pete and Luke find Clem, suffering from hunger and blood loss, about to be got by the getters. They carry her back to their group, but not before Luke freaks out about the dog bite on the way. Pete believes that it was a dog, while Luke is more hesitant and upset that Clem killed the dog. Pete seems to be more understanding so far, but Clem sees a more
Meet Pete!
welcoming friendliness in Luke. Some assholes want to kill Clem, one asshole (Nick) almost shoots her when she wakes up, and then Carlos, the doctor, comes to take a look at her. The group decides to wait until morning to make sure it really is a dog bite, then they'll clean it. So far, the only non-complete assholes in the group are Luke, Pete, and Alvin. The group of jerks lock Clem in a shed, which she promptly breaks out of. She then breaks into the house and you have to find peroxide, a needle, and bandages so she can fix her arm. Clem gets all this stuff, meets Carlos' daughter Sarah, runs back to the shed, and you then have to stitch up the dog bite, step-by-step. I could barely get through this part. The only blood I can deal with is Game of Thrones quick cuts with a sword, but having to look at Clem's cut while she stitches it up, screaming in agony, made me have to take another break.

After this, Clem is attacked by a walker and the group appreciates her toughness. They decide that she's lasted long enough without a fever, so they FINALLY treat her dog bite. Clem then has the choice to accept Nick's apology (Nick being the guy who almost shot her when she woke up originally). You can also choose to tell Luke all about Lee and the old group and then choose to make friends with Rebecca or confront her about who her baby belongs to. She's really mean and I hope she dies soon. Anyway, the next day, Clem, Pete and Nick go out to hunt and find a bunch of corpses, one being Roman from 400 Days. Clem then finds a survivor, who also has her backpack, who she recognizes as someone from the woods at the start of the game. Pete is then attacked and visibly bitten, then attacked again, and you have to choose whether to go with Nick or Pete during the attack. The episode ends with Clem running off with whoever you choose.

I really enjoyed this first episode and believe that this series has the potential to be better than the first game. It's much more difficult to play as a child, when you want people to like you and help you because you know you can't live with no friends, but you also don't want to be nice to some people. It was much easier with Lee because you knew you would always have Clementine and SOMEBODY would be on your side, but with Clem, you need to pick your sides carefully. I loved this new challenge and can't wait for the next episode, which hopefully comes out sometime next month.

My Choices:

  • I chose to distract the men in the woods to help Christa
  • I chose to kill the dog
  • I chose to make friends with Sarah
  • I chose to accept Nick's apology
  • I chose to save and go with Pete

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Film Review: Jobs

I don't know how to describe this movie. You have to watch it to appreciate... whatever it is. Make no mistake, it is not good. It is not the world's worst movie, but I would not recommend it either.

There were a lot of good names attached to the movie, Ashton Kutcher and Josh Gad among them, and it was selected to close the Sundance Film Festival. But it was not developed by a major studio and had just a $12 million budget. Ultimately it feels cheap and, while ambitious, incomplete.

Story: 2/5 - Look, it's the story of Steve Jobs's life as he drops out of university and founds Apple Computer, gaining clients and investors and turning it into a major industry powerhouse. Unfortunately, the film does not do a good job of telling the story. I hope you didn't want to care when Jobs throws his pregnant girlfriend out of his house and his life, because you don't have any reason to. When he snaps at a friend and the friend tells another character that Jobs has 'changed,' we don't ever really know why. The pacing is awful.

Writing: 1/5 - This scene actually happens: Steve Jobs presents the Apple II at a computer fair, but which I mean he shows the case, says it will revolutionize the industry, then basks in a standing ovation as an actual, I swear to God, electric guitar solo cuts into the overlay. It's that kind of movie.

Acting: 2.5/5 - I don't hate Kutcher. I actually kind of like him. But he's not right for this role. He's game, you can tell he is passionate about his character, but it just doesn't work. The guy who played Kelso can't be the same guy who dumps his pregnant girlfriend and tears a swath of destruction through silicon valley - it's a level of intensity that doesn't make sense for him. There are some other decent performances in the movie: Josh Gas as inventor/co-founder Steve Wozniak, JK Simmons as tech investor Arthur Rock.

Aesthetics - 2/5 - Cinematographer Russell Carpenter won an Oscar in 1997 for Titanic. He's alright, and the movie is shot fairly well. The sets are pretty good, too. What really hurts the movie is the soundtrack. It sounds cheap, and a lot of the editing is poor as well (both audio and visual).

Total Score: 38% - Walter Isaac wrote a fantastic biography of Jobs. Read that. Or wait for the Sony Pictures movie version of it. Just don't watch Jobs.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

A Monthly Dose of Westeros: Part 7-Sansa Stark

I guess it’s not-so-monthly now...but still, I will be providing my thoughts and predictions for one storyline every month until the show’s return. Since I have read the books, I know what should happen, but several plots seem to be taking turns away from the original material, while others are almost spot on. I will examine these apparent changes/accuracy, and do my best to avoid spoilers in “A Monthly Dose of Westeros”.

Sansa Stark is probably one of the most show's most hated characters. Not because she's a monster like Joffrey  Baratheon or because she burned down Winterfell like Theon Greyjoy or because she orchestrated a mass murder/wedding like Walder Frey and Roose Bolton. Sansa is hated because she's a princess. A lot of people think she's a bitchy little girl who only wants to be princess and get what she wants. But, that's what girls were in medieval times. Noble girls were groomed to be noble women when they grew up. Sansa is a product of her upbringing and that should be a reason to hate her. Sure, she's dumb sometimes, but she has gotten smarter as her situation has gotten worse and worse. Remember, she's being held captive by one of the most evil people in the realm. She's watched her father die, her direwolf lasted a single episode, her sister ran away without her, and her oldest brother and mother are dead, and she was forced to marry a drunken dwarf after being freed from Joffrey. I don't fault her for being stupid sometimes. Actually, she's one of my favorite characters. I love defending her and I do everything in my power to make people understand that Sansa is not that bad. It gets better.

It's difficult to say what's coming up for Sansa without giving too much away, so instead I'll just give a quick recap of season three Sansa and hopefully make this post long enough to allow me to include a bunch of pretty pictures of Sophie Turner. Anyway, Sansa's betrothal to Joffrey was broken off as Margaery Tyrell was brought into the picture. Sansa is still a captive in King's Landing, but Littlefinger has promised that when he leaves the
What a wedding!
city, he would bring her along with him. Sansa then meets up with Loras Tyrell, who she has a major crush on, and the two get along swimmingly. Unfortunately for Sansa, Loras is gay and also about to be forced to marry Cersei. This is when things get weird. Tyrion Lannister is now being forced to marry Sansa and has to break the news to her in front of Shae. On top of this, Littlefinger departs for the Vale without Sansa and she starts to cry. Then Tyrion and Sansa have a nice wedding, he chooses not to bed her until she's ready, and Shae appreciates that. Sansa and Tyrion begin to understand one another better and actually get along pretty well. Sansa doesn't realize it yet, but Tyrion is the only Lannister who truly cares about her well-being and this marriage makes her pretty damn safe. Just when things are beginning to go well, the Red Wedding happens. Tyrion is sent to break the news to Sansa, but she has already found out, and any good feelings they were starting to get towards each other disappear with one sad look:

She ain't forgivin' him
Sansa's story does improve. Just trust me. She's older and smarter than she has been in previous seasons. She's been forced to adapt to being a captive and she knows that she can't be a princess. For non-book readers, there are several points where you would think this story has hit a dead end and there's no more they can do with this character. Then Blackwater and the Tyrells happened. Then Tyrion happened. In this next season, there will be another major shakeup to Sansa's story that I'm hoping will cause the Sansa-hate to decrease. 

Sansa is one of the biggest pawns in the game of thrones, but in a few seasons, I feel she will be a major player. If you take a minute to rethink Sansa Stark, she might become one of your favorite characters as well.