Saturday, July 31, 2010

Resistance is Futile

Not long ago, I was bemoaning how poorly a well-known graphic novel, Whiteout, had been translated to the big screen. Among other things, the film simply didn't translate into the riveting entertainment I'd hoped for when I rented it. In writing that review, I neglected to mention two other films that had also been born from graphic novel format. One is obvious, the biggest blockbuster of them all, Watchmen, which I did not enjoy (in the immortal words of Jay Sherman: "It Stinks") nearly as much as I should have.

The other was released last fall to much less fanfare: Surrogates, based on the relatively little-known comic series of the same name which ran from 2005 to 2006, and was written by Robert Venditti and drawn by Brett Weldele. Despite never having heard of the graphic novel, my first impressions of the movie trailers that preceded the movie's release were mostly positive: In a world where humans control synthetic bodies called surrogates to carry out everyday tasks, the future almost looks idylic as violent crime is down to a standstill and even if an operator's surrogate is accidentally damaged or destroyed, no harm can come to the user. People never even have to leave their homes.

Of course, this wouldn't be much of a film if that was all there was to it. When two people are murdered by a weapon that somehow manages to kill the user as well as disable the surrogate - and one of them happens to be the son of the Surrogate's creator, Dr. Lionel Canter (James Cromwell), it's immensely remarkable because these have become the first murders in fifteen years. Also throwing trouble into the mix are nationwide pockets of people who live on anti-surrogate land that they call Dread Reservations and are led by the charismatic Prophet (Ving Rhames). Claiming that Surrogacy has caused people to forget how to be human, a Surrogate attempting to enter these zones would be violently opposed by the Prophet's fanatical followers.

What I had at first found fascinating about Surrogates was that it had been filmed in my hometown (and where I still call home) of Boston, MA, and some of the surrounding towns. It was actually interesting for once to see familiar territory, as far too often films claiming to be in Boston film elsewhere, Toronto for instance. I was sure that would be the only thing I would enjoy about the movie, especially after a less-than-stellar opening which was informative as to how this universe came to be but otherwise not entertaining. However, the slick storytelling and visuals quickly vacated those thoughts from my mind, and I proceeded to mindlessly enjoy one of last year's more underrated films.

The story moves along as a brisk pace as we're introduced to FBI agents Tom Greer (Bruce Willis) and Jennifer Peters (Radha Mitchell) as they take on the double murder case. Like most people, they use surrogates for their daily tasks, though Greer seems to tire of the entire surrogate idea, especially as his wife (Rosamund Pike) seems to use their surrogacy to escape the trauma of losing their son to a car accident. In fact, we barely see most people's real faces, as almost every major character is using a surrogate in place of their real bodies. In a major turning point of the film, Greer irreperably damages his surrogate in pursuit of the man suspected of committing the murders and must continue his investigation in person. He doesn't even remember the last time he left his home, and the movie does a good job explaining that, even seeing the world through a surrogate, reintroducing someone to the outside world after so long would introduce all kinds of mental trauma (such as anxiety, which is depicted). In his pursuit of the people responsible for the murders, he is also discovering a conspiracy to destroy the surrogates, and perhaps even those who would use them at all.

I've never read the graphic novel (or it's prequel, Surrogates: Flesh and Bone), but while I can't comment on the comic's art styles in comparison to the movie's, I can definitely say that from a quick synopsis of the comic's plot that the movie took numerous liberties with the plot, one for instance being that in the comic, there are no murders that push the book forward, only the desire to eliminate surrogacy by destroying the bodies. It's a good thing the movie changed that aspect, as in the comic's story, that would add to little more than vandalism. Also, in a positive turn, the leads of the comic, which had been two men, change, with one of them having eventually become Peters. Remember those few weeks ago when I decried the reduction of Whiteout's two lead females to one female because the studios wouldn't buy two female leads? Here's one for Surrogates showing some guts. And it's not as if Peters has been changed that way just so she can become someone's romantic angle, it's just a case of someone saying that they wanted a female for this role and made it happen.

Acting performances will never be considered the highlights of your typical action movie, that's why I was actually surprised by the level of performances shown in this film. Willis does a little above his typical acting level, while others like Cromwell, Mitchell, Pike, Jack Noseworthy and Boris Kodjoe puting forth solid performances, with nobody dragging the acting talent down. The only one I wasn't crazy about was was Rhames as the Prophet, as the character seemed a little too cliche in it's portrayal. I assume it was intentional, but I didn't think it was particularly smart to show one of the main villains of the movie in this way, though perhaps that aspect was derived from the comic. But the best performances may have been a collaborative. There's just something about the way a surrogate move and speaks that lets on that they're not the same as you and me. Besides the startling attractiveness of the surrogate, there's almost a robotic, unnatural way that they walk, talk, dance and interact that makes it easy to discern the differences, and whoever was responsible for making sure every last extra was moving just the right way deserves a ton of credit, as it did tons to assure the legitimacy of the piece's atmosphere.

The movie can hardly expect to be perfect, however. Though I understand that most people who are bigots rarely are well informed about the thing they're bigoted towards, it was a drag that no further intelligence could have been gleamed for the people in the Dread Reservation towards surrogacy. They were mostly portratyed as redneck gun-toting racists for the most part, and that, while accurate, was not wholely welcome when I hoped they would have some more higher understanding about why their way was better (or perhaps get an explanation for why the military didn't put a clamp down military-style on these pockets of resistance where they basically seceded from the Union). Critics have stated that the movie devolves to pure action-y for the final act of the film, and while that's at least partially true, it's done smartly with enough surprises that you want to find the next piece of the puzzle. It's all done smartly and never makes you feel like you're riding the wave, going only where they take you.

Smart is the best word I can associate with Surrogates, in fact. It's a slick film and probably the best film by occasional director Jonathan Mostow, who hadn't directed a film since 2003's Terminator 3. It's a great comeback film for Mostow and an extremely entertaining film in it's own right. Mostow might give Zack Snyder or Dominic Sena a lesson in how to make a good comic-movie adaptation. Maybe they'd learn something.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Spoiler Alert!

It's about dreams.

Okay, it's actually a whole lot more than dreams, but to be completely honest, I'm not sure how much I can say about Christopher Nolan's latest piece of art, Inception, without giving away any of the plot devices, spoilers, twists, turns or character development that the trailers were quite careful not to give away (unusual for a big-budget Hollywood flick). It's quite the conundrum, wanting to write a thousand-word review without saying anything revealing..

And so I've come up with a compromise. See Inception. That's all I can say right now, all I SHOULD need to say right now. If I can't talk about the movie without giving it away to those of you who HAVEN'T seen it, and it it's an excellent enough movie that I don't want to spoil it for you, then I suggest you see the movie, come back, and we can continue with this conversation.


Are you still there? Or have you come back? Well, then... (clears throat)


(Just to make sure you were paying attention)

Anyone who knows me realizes that I have had, and still do have, problems with Leonardo DiCaprio. I know, he gets touted as Hollywood royalty, and no I haven't seen What's Eating Gilbert Grape which was supposed to be his early-days best film, but I never got into his movies. For years, I would justify these feelings with how bad his movies were (The Beach) or how he was constantly being overshadowed by his supporting actors when they simply out-acted him (Gangs of New York). And of course nobody talks about his performance in Titanic (except perhaps to ridicule it). So for years I remained unimpressed by this so-called wunderkind while others flocked to rightfully steal his thunder and shove themselves into spotlights which before might have been reserved for Leo.

Then came The Aviator.

The Howard Hughes biopic, while not a perfect film, was up to that point owner of the finest Dicaprio performance to date, with the actor almost flawlessly stepping ton Hughes' loafers, portraying the industry magnate with a fiery energy almost unseen in his career. Of course, one movie makes not a career, and only time would tell whether this had been a fluke or if he was truly beginning to "get it." The latter seems to be the case, since after The Aviator, Leo has starred in several notable films with nary a blotch inbetween. With The Departed, Revolutionary Road, and Shutter Island, DiCaprio finally seems to be living up to his potential as a performer (and, though the Academy didn't agree, actually deserved an Oscar nomination for his role in Revolutionary Road). It remains to be seen if he can keep it up but for now I don't have the dread feeling of impending failure when I see he's headlining a film these days.

And so I was actually excited to see Inception, the latest mind-fuck by Christopher Nolan (the man who made Batman cool again), but not just for Leo. Inception boasts a strong cast, with up-and-comers Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marion Cotillard, Tom Hardy and Ellen Page, and veteran performers Michael Caine, Ken Watanabe, Cillian Murphy and Pete Postlethwaite flanking DiCaprio. It was like Nolan got his shopping list out and grabbed every great actor he wanted, no fuss no muss. As the writer, writer, and producer of the film, Nolan took what could have easily been a glorified Matrix rip-off and instead produced a fine piece of filmmaking, creating what might be one of the better films this decade, let alone this year.

You might think that last bit was a little bit of hyperbole, but I honestly think this film is too smart, too clever, too GOOD to end up on the wayside. I once thought Nolan would be remembered for reviving the Batman franchise, but I'm confident that he'll be to this movie what the Wachowski Brothers are to The Matrix. What makes Inception different from the superhero-like Matrix, however, is it's genre. It's a heist film, and a giddy heist film at that, but one that, unlike most such films, also has emotional stakes which drive the movie forward, in addition to the genre's standard practices. As Cobb, the group's leader, DiCaprio had to be that character who's doing what he can with what he knows to recover from his wife's death and be able to return home to his children. That, more than the dream scenarios or fantastic effects, are what drive the film forward, and Leo handles the role with a talent I honestly didn't know he had ten years ago. You see the pain in his eyes, the tiredness and wanting to go home, to somehow redeem himself for the guilt he feels he put on himself.

And let's not forget the rest of the cast, who put on something of a clinic themselves. Gordon-Levitt has gone from indie favorite to rock star in his role as DiCaprio's partner in crime Arthur, a man so bodily beaten in this film it's surprising he can still stand at the end. Whoever's running Ellen Page's career deserves major kudos as well, as the in-her-prime Canadian actress once again wows and dominates most of the scenes she's in. Those she doesn't steal are pretty much in the hands of Hardy, whose suave forger (who can imitate other characters in dreams) always has the perfect quip to suit the occasion. He also becomes one of the ones to root for in the film's closing moments, led only by Arthur. Cotillard may be the best, vacillating between the loving wife DiCaprio remembers and the scorned personification of his guilt as she foils his jobs. Not as much is seen of Watanabe or Murphy, but both put on the respectable performances they are known to be capable of. Rarely do you see this level of talent in an ensemble cast, and nobody mixes poorly with the others, proving Nolan cast this piece well.

One of Inception's best qualities is that Nolan does his best to eschew the idea of shoving CGI graphics into any part of the film that is difficult to shoot. While CGI was necessary to add to create some of the more outlandish sequences in the dream worlds (including the "folding earth" moment shown in the trailer) some of the movie's more famous scenes were done in real time, with multiple cameras catching the action simultaneousy. Some of these, like the infamous exploding Paris bistro scene with Dicaprio and Page, or the rotating hallway fight involving Gordon-Lovitt, were done without CGI in very tricky shots that any other director might have done entirely using computers. The only instance where this hurts is in the very beginning of the film, where Watanabe's old-man prosthetics look extremely fake and haggard, but that's a minor quibble. Thankfully, Nolan's old-school attitude made sure that no fake-looking CGI ruled the day, and his extraordinary directorial talents made sure the scenes looked fantastic.

(Okay, even if you didn't take it seriously before, SPOILER WARNING!!)

With a story that cuts deep and manages to surprise, Nolan has brought us a film that hopefully will be remembered years from now as a modern classic. But is is truly over? I've heard more than one viewer wondering aloud about the ending of the film, which keeps the idea open that Cobb may not have woken up and may be still in fact dreaming. My opinion is, whether yes or no, it doesn't matter. Cobb's journey was to accept the circumstances that led to his wife's death, nothing more. Whether he's really awake or stuck in a dream, his guilt is assuaged, and he can once again be happy. And that's what this last job has really been about. It was never about the idea of actually pulling off inception, but about redeeming himself, to himself, stopping his self-sabotage and being able to go home again one day.

And if you're happy, who are others to say whether it's real?

Friday, July 23, 2010

Too Salty

As I type this I've just come home from a midnight release showing of Salt, the new movie by Welsh director Phillip Noyce starring Angelina Jolie as a C.I.A. operative accused of being a Russian spy, with my good friend The Opinioness. Midnight releases are something of a risk. If the movie is good, it's money and time well spent. If the movie tanks, or is mediocre (thus failing to even bomb spectacularly), you've just wasted two hours of your life and too much money to see a movie that would barely be worth rental fees, especially if you have to be up early for work the next day. For all the attention Salt has received in recent months (including a Jolie cover on the current Vanity Fair) and a story involving espionage and outrageous stunt sequences, it was destined to become part of the former category, but still, this is the midnight release, and there's always risk involved.

The character of Evelyn Salt is definitely one that gets a lot of attention, as the natural question on viewer's minds naturally trends to whether or not she is in fact a Russian spy. But the original creation of the character bears much interest, as the original script didn't have Salt as a woman at all. In fact, the character was originally written with Tom Cruise in mind to play the suspected traitor, but Cruise declined, citing among other reasons that the character was too close in proximity to his Mission Impossible character Ethan Hunt. Jolie, who had shown interest in being part of a female espionage franchise, was shown the script (presumably with the necessary parts moved) and liked it enough to sign onto the project. It was possibly the best casting job the studios could have pulled off, as Jolie is one of the hardest workers in the industry, whether it be nailing down her part to perfection or getting in shape to pull off her own stunts. Jolie is just that good, and easily the best part of Salt.

If only the rest of the movie had come anywhere close to that level of quality exuded by Jolie. The story actually starts out well, with Salt being accused by a Russian defector (Daniel Olbrychski) of being a Russian agent, trained as a child to infiltrate the United States government to carry out a mission to end America's dominance as part of an ancient Soviet Cold War plot. Salt, in attempting to prove her innocence, escapes the clutches of her employers at the C.I.A. who want her to remain in custody until things can be sorted out. With agents Winter (Liev Schreiber) and Peabody (Chiwetel Ejiofor) hot on her trail, the chase sequence that ensues is quite amazing to take in, from Salt's escape from her headquarters building to shimmying window ledges of an apartment complex to leaping across the roofs of tractor trailers on the highway. It's mostly unbelievable how some things are pulled off, but only lending credence to the idea that she's one of the best. The only question is whether she's the best of us or them.

It's about this point about a third of the way through the film that it all begins to lose steam. Already we had been subjected to poor flashback sequences of the Russian child sleeper program, as well as a young romance between Salt and her soon-to-be husband (August Diehl, best known from his fantastic small role in Inglourious Basterds). The sequences, not only stupid, tell us far too much about the backstory that doesn't need to be known to truly enjoy the main plot. And the plot itself has it's moments, mostly in moments of true shocks and twists (many of which even the most astute of viewers may not see coming), but the actual plan the Soviets have to wreak havoc isn't concise or clever, merely convoluted and haphazard. And really, Soviets? Were they chosen as the villains because they don't exist anymore and the moviemakers didn't want to risk offending any of the nations or cultures that might be MORE likely to commit atrocities on American soil? Even better, how did you manage to create an action movie in which I was BORED during the ACTION sequences? For every moment I was truly shocked there were twenty minutes or more which was dull, dull, dull.

I've mentioned how good Jolie's performance was (I don't get the hate people carry for her, Angelina Jolie is one of the best workers in Hollywood) and it's unfortunate that the rest of the acting didn't live up to the top billing. Scheriber I thought was dull and dry as Jolie's friend and C.I.A. partner, but he gets a chance to redeem his performance in the second half of the film. Ejiofor, however, was the real disappointment. I've lauded Ejiofor in the past for his great performances in Serenity and 2012 but here he does little with what's given him. Don't get me wrong, what's given him IS horrible, but it would have been nice for him to infuse his bad dialogue with a little personality as Jolie and Schreiber were able to do. Olbrychski is mediocre, a typical Russian agent, and we don't get to see much of Diehl, but the chemistry between him and Salt is believable as husband and wife.

What Salt does well is make us question who's playing who, and to what end. What are we supposed to think when Salt apparently kills the Russian president when that's what we've been told is the mission of the Russian spy? The exact opposite of what we should be, but that's the best part of the storytelling. But the action is a mishmash of bad camera work and lack of balance, with one particular scene near the end lacking anything in the way of grace or poetry in motion. With a weak second half, atrocious dialogue, plotholes you could pass a 747 through, too many dull moments and a plot that reeks of leftovers from other, better spy movies (Mission Impossible, the new James Bond, the Bourne series), it's a shame that this film ended up in Jolie's lap. Jolie has made a career out of portraying strong female characters and really wanted to get a female-fronted espionage franchise off the ground. It's an inspiring goal, but Salt may end that momentum before it even gets going. I can't with any sense of decency recommend seeing this film, either in the theaters or in what I'm sure will be a quick transferal to DVD. There are mindless, fun, popcorn action films (like this summer's A-Team) that are far less believable, but since they're not trying to do anything revolutionary they can get away with the silly. Salt tried to go the intellectual route, and it burns the film and the moviegoing audience badly. Skip it.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Whiteout: Attack of the Sub-Par Comic Adaptations

Typically, you can tell how popular comic series are by how quickly they are adapted into other formats. 30 Days of Night, Sin City, Wanted, Kick-Ass and 300 have all been turned into big blockbuster movies, and that doesn't even include all the big superhero movies or series of movies like Spiderman, X-Men, Wolverine, Punisher, Batman, Superman, Hulk, and the upcoming Thor, Captain America, Green Lantern, and The Avengers, not to mention Linda Carter's popularity on the Wonder Woman TV show. And of course, the Scott Pilgrim series gets released in cinematic form next month. Frankly I'm surprised the excellent Pride of Baghdad hasn't had it's movie rights bought yet. The studios see it thus: The readers and people who love these comics or graphic novels are a built-in audience, so making these movies would seem to be as close to guaranteed success as you can get (see: video game to movie adaptations). But unfortunately, the visions of comic creators and movie studio execs rarely commingle, and the result is often less than the sum of it's parts.

So let's take Whiteout, based on the Greg Rucka (Hellboy, Batwoman: Elegy) series of the same name. Right off the bat, studio execs didn't like the idea of two female leads, and so scriptwriters Jon and Erich Hoeber wrote in a male replacement into their screenplay. Apparently the studios were afraid that the movie would not draw large audiences if the film had two females in the leading roles. Apparently, these studio folks forget the critical success of Thelma and Louise. Not that it matters much, as in the film there isn't a scene not involving US Marshall Carrie Stetko (Kate Beckinsale), often with no other speaking characters around. She's pretty much the movie's compass, with others having little to add to the scenery of the film.

The movie takes place in the most unlikely of scenarios, an Antarctic murder mystery. At a geographical research settlement in the middle of nowhere, people are getting ready to leave before winter sets in. Among them is Stetko, who is resigning her place as Marshall on the base to go home. Before she can get ready to leave, she's informed that a dead body has been discovered and so she checks it out. It looks at first like he fell from a cliff to his death, but a strange stitched-up wound on his leg is odd, and on further investigation it looks like he took an ice ax to the chest. Further investigation leads to a group of scientists who were searching a remote area for meteorites but may have come upon something much bigger, and murder for greed is certainly nothing new.

All the while, a large storm approaches the base, threatening to leave anyone not gone when it hits stranded for the winter. It's here that Whiteout gets it's name, from the storm in which you can't see anything in front of you and you can freeze to death in seconds. It's this phenomena that may be the scariest villain of the film. If you get confronted by the ax-wielding murderer, you might get away unscathed. If you get caught outside by the whiteout, it's over. This however also leads to the biggest disappointment of the film; The snow effects are terrible. Both real and fake snow were used in the filming of the movie, but unfortunately it's extremely easy to tell the two apart. Certain sections (including a big outdoor storm scene) fail to look the slightest bit realistic, and in this type of movie, you need those effects to look their best, because the rest of the movie needs a distraction.

Now I haven't read the original graphic novel, so I can't make any informed comparisons between the original and the movie, but I find it hard to believe that the original story was so simple and formulaic. Worst of all, there is no real mystery. We find out everything at the same time as our protagonists, with no clues left for the audience to form their own theories before the mystery is solved. Worse, coincidence seems to be paramount, as everywhere Stetko goes, there's the black-covered ax murderer to stop a potential source of information from talking. And yet the only cringe-worthy plot point has little to do with the murders or the storm. In a minor plot piece a major character accidentally loses their gloves while being chased  by the murderer outside, and they suffer major frostbite on two digits of their hand and later must have them amputated. It's easily the creepiest part of the film and also shows the dangers of just being outside in Antarctica.

There's little to the special effects or the story, so acting has to save this movie, right? Sorry, no. Though Beckinsale does everything right in her lead role, the supporting roles are played by little-known actors such as Gabriel Macht and Colombus Short, and not because they're such great unknown actors. It's not their fault, really, it's just that the characters outside of Stetko are given so little, there's no real character for the other actors to cling to. Even Tom Skerritt is underused, as the scene-chewing ability he's gained from almost fifty years of movie making are largely unneeded here.

For a film that took almost ten years and three production companies to make and at one time had Reece Witherspoon in the lead role, I was still largely hopeful for this movie. But Kate Beckinsale has a reputation for picking poor films (Underworld, for all it's leather catsuit fun, was by far the best and hardly a great film, and I still want to see Vacancy) that is exacerbated by this one. I didn't have a bad time watching Whiteout, but I can't in good faith recommend it to anyone else, certainly not if you've already read the graphic novel. Even if you haven't, I'd recommend you read instead of watch, and leave it at that. Then watch X-Men Origins: Wolverine. See, now there was a FUN comic book adaptation.

Just as a note: I'm going to start taking recommendations for future posts of The Latest Issue. I'm still getting by with my own concepts, but if anyone has anything they want to recommend me to see, whether movie, game, comic or even book, you might see it in the future here on the site! For recommendations, just pop me an e-mail (it's in my profile) and thanks in advance for your contribution! I'd be nowhere without the people reading, and it's for you all that I'm still writing at all. So thanks again!

Sunday, July 11, 2010

X-Force: Blood Pretty Much Everywhere

Okay, I know what you're thinking: "Predators came out this weekend! Where's the Predators review?" Not that I do a lot of new movie reviews, but I did allege that I'd write something up when the aforementioned film was released. And that's still the case. Unfortunately, I'd completely forgotten that it was coming out now, learning that only when I went to the movies to see The Girl Who Played with Fire with my good friend The Opinioness. When I get a day off at work next, I'll try and get a showing in, but until then, sorry, no Predators here.

But I hope instead you'll enjoy my latest guilty pleasure, X-Force: Not Forgotten, the third collection of the excellent series written by Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost and art by Clayton Crain, Mike Choi and Sonia Oback. I've actually owned this title for a few months now (It was released in paperback form in April) but for some reason never finished reading it. Perhaps I was just too busy at the time. However, having gone back and read it cover to cover, I'm not sure how I managed that feat.

In this installment of the great new Marvel franchise, we're seeing the beginning of the X-Men's nemesis Bastion's (think of a living, thinking Sentinel) plans come to fruition, as he controls another villain, the Leper Queen, to kidnap mutants, infect them with the Legacy Virus, and let them loose at anti-mutant rallies, where the mutant's powers overload and kill everyone in the area, including the mutants themselves. Thus Bastion hopes to drive anti-mutant hatred skyward, making it easier to pass a brand-new Sentinel program through Congress. Leper Queen recently kidnapped three well-known X-Teens - Julian "Hellion" Keller, Noriko (Surge) Ashida and Tabitha "Boom-Boom" Smith, with the intent of delivering them juiced up to the United Nations for some real explosive drama. Also, surprised by Cable's seeming unwillingness to contact them after hiding in the future with the baby that may spell salvation for all mutant-kind (a la the epic Messiah Complex) Cyclops also plans to send X-Force into the future (using scrapped-together time-travel technology) to aid Cable in any way they can.

And so goes X-Force volume 3. The installment covers issues 12-13 and 17-20 of the series. Issues 14-16 were actually installed in X-Force/Cable Messiah War, which is also an excellent title (as long as you ignore the Wasteland Blues and Lucas Bishop stories that are at the beginning and the end but not necessary reading) and needed to completely understand what happened to these characters between in between storylines. The story is exceptionally well told, with Kyle and Yost's respect not only for the characters but also the source material obvious. Both have spent much of their still-young careers with the X-Men, especially the younger mutants (even getting one of their original creations, X23, adapted from the animated X-Men Evolution to become a regular character in the X-Universe) and their black-ops X-Force is a dark, ugly team in which ultra-violent Wolverine turns out to be the balanced voice of reason.

That it's yet another Wolverine title shouldn't put people off who think it's ridiculous that he's already featured in, what, seven regular series and a half-dozen one-shots every other month? Not to mention countless appearances in unrelated series. Wolverine is Marvel's cash cow, and they'd be foolish not to use him as much as possible, but X-Force is no mere Wolverine fan service. It's got a great set of underutilized or up-and-coming characters (Warpath, Wolfsbane, Domino, Vanisher, Elixer, Archangel and X-23) who don't always play nice together and are as likely to be at each-other's throats as the enemy's. There IS caring (the bond between Wolverine and his clone X23 is subtle and well-conceived) but for the most part, the violence is the real selling point of this title, as why else would you put this many anti-heroes in one place if you didn't expect stuff to blow up? And in that there's no disappointment either, as any page not dripping with dark drama is usually filled with exploding buildings or bodies and blood, sweat and tears on every other page. Okay, maybe that's exaggerating a LITTLE, but not much. It's definitely a mature book, even if the parental advisory label is slightly misplaced (barely visible at the bottom of the back cover).

And the story would be nothing if not for the fantastic artwork. Crain (who had been with the series since issue 1) has a murky, dark method to his work that has worked to the series' gritty tone pretty effectively. Sometimes it worked a little TOO well, effectively obscuring any action or body type to the point where we don't quite understand what's happening until the next few panels clear that image up for us, but others (including an explosion in a town in Wyoming that looks FANTASTIC) where his choice as artist seems a no-brainer. And then we get to Choi, who is simply one of the best artists I've ever seen. Known primarily for his epic Witchblade run, Choi's artwork is simply perfection incarnate. Perhaps it's his ability to blend and form images into exactly what he wants us to see, or perhaps it's his realistic style and willingness to draw blood all over every page. Or maybe it's largely in part to his colorist, Oback, who has worked with him on Witchblade and X23: Target X. She certainly has much to do with how fantastic the artwork looks (There's a two-page spread from issue 17 that I wish I could have found a pic online for you to see and understand how excited I become when I read this, but no such luck) and it's all FANTASTIC.

Unfortunately, while the series is largely easy to follow there are certain aspects that those new to the X-Men universe might simply fail to comprehend. Many characters appear and although they are named no story is given about their importance or where they came from, if you don't already know. I'm firmly of the belief that X-titles should all come with mini-appendixes in the back to explain to the rest of us who haven't been reading since the early seventies who this obscure character is, what their history is, and why they're so damned important. Also, a relatively silly storyline featuring Rahne "Wolfsbane" Sinclair and her lycanthropic boyfriend take on a trio of Frost Giants from Asgard - and win - fails to entertain. These small things are largely made up for by a focus on X23 towards the ends of this book. X23 is fast becoming a very intriguing character for me, one I'm willing to go back and read all I can about. She's far more than just a simple Wolverine clone, and for such a complex character to have been created so recently and become so strong by this point is very impressive, and a credit to Kyle and Yost.

I loved X-Force, and can't wait to read the next volume of this VERY adult saga. As long as Kyle and Yost are at the helm, I'm confident that it will continue to be interesting, exciting, and battling for my Deadpool dollars into the far future.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Getting Lost Again...

When I rebooted The Latest Issue back in December, it was never with the idea of just being a movie blog. I have always intended it to be an extension of my earlier comics blogs, for geek-related topics in general. Despite that, I’ve been reviewing occasionally TV shows, but mostly movies both recent releases and on DVD. The reason for that has been that movies have been more accessible for the most part, with movies being watchable in a little under two hours and even most TV shows can be properly reviewed without seeing the entire series, or a series on streaming or DVD can be watched within a few days or intense viewing. I’ve basically stepped away from comics for the time being (Though with Marvel’s Siege coming out in graphic novel form soon, I may partake) and my intent of visiting video games has been stalled in two places: One, my attention spans with games often result in, even while basically ENJOYING the game, never completing it; Two, since I own an older computer and own no Next-Gen systems (Xbox 360, PS3, Wii), the option of reviewing newer games becomes extremely difficult as I can’t PLAY any of them. So for the time being, until all that can be sorted out and upgraded, I’ve decided I CAN focus on older, more classic games, or even related recent titles you may have overlooked. To those who enjoy my movie reviews DO NOT PANIC! I’ll certainly be reviewing movies or TV shows more often than not, this is simply an experiment in expanding The Latest Issue, and I hope we can enjoy this process together.

And so that brings us to our first ever video game review for The Latest Issue. Lost: Via Domus is an official spin-off of the famous ABC show that just ended it’s spectacular seven year run this past spring. The J.J. Abrams-created show is one of my all-time favorites, and so when this game was released in 2008 I was excited but also not a little skeptical, since shows and movies licensed for video games trend more to the lower end of the quality scale. So I poked around for reviews, and the results weren’t encouraging: The BEST reviews rated it in the middling range, with many decrying it’s unfinished status (plenty of game-crashing bugs and audio hiccups) and lack of authentic voice casting. This delayed my purchase of the game for almost two years, but having found it in a much cheaper form (and once it was patched, no less) I can finally feed the completionist in me it’s dessert.

As you can probably figure, the game casts you in the part of a survivor of Oceanic Airlines Flight 815, a formerly unknown character who has somehow suffered amnesia from the crash. Throughout seven “episodes” you follow your character’s story (I won’t give his name since you don’t even learn it until I believe the third episode) as he navigates the island,  discovering several famous Lost locations (The Hatch, The Black Rock, the plane fuselage, and the Swan, Pearl, Hydra and Flame Stations), all of which are loving re-created with precise accuracy, trying to find both yourself and a way home. Via Domus, by the way, loosely translates to “The Way Home” in Latin, and so it’s an apt name for this adventure. And it is definitely an adventure game, even if it does have a few action sequences thrown in for kicks and to keep the game from getting too monotonous in it’s gameplay.

It wouldn’t be Lost without the flashback sequences, and this is probably what the game does best. The character is a photographer, and when a flashback is started, you at first are shown a ripped-up photo (meant to reflect his shattered memory) and challenged to shoot that picture in a foggy flash-back loop where you can’t hear anything and  everything resets after a few seconds. Your objective is to capture all the items shown in the shredded photo (the game allows you to recheck the clues to make sure you’re looking at the right thing) in one shot, which unlocks the flashback in earnest, and letting your character remember parts of his past. I’ve said in the past that I hate amnesia as a plot device, but in this instance since your character is learning his past at the same time you are, it actually makes for good storytelling in the game. You can also use the camera in the real world to unlock Easter Eggs (little cool things game developers put in as inside jokes or rewards for the player) by photographing famous props from the show (Charlie’s guitar or Locke’s wheelchair, for instance). Finding these things adds a new exploratory side to the game that goes beyond the main game, and it’s a rewarding experience if you’re a fan of the show even if it doesn’t get you anything special.

And that’s where the problems begin. If you’re playing the game, it’s because you’re a fan of the show. Sure, anyone could pick up the game from the shelves of their local store and play it, but unless you actually have followed the show you won’t know what’s going on, especially as the seven episodes are stretched out over approximately the first seventy days on the island, or the first two seasons. You actually don’t see most of the major events that happen over that span (The Claire abduction, the launch of Michael’s raft, the bombing of the hatch, or the inclusion of the “Tailies”) as you’re off on your own little quest, a linear path that you can’t deviate from in favor of exploration. And that’s where the game truly falters; there’s no open-world experience where you can  randomly visit any location on the island, only where your quest leads you. Even more disappointing, there are very few characters for you to interact with. Let me explain: There were 71 initial survivors of Oceanic 815, yet the most people I ever saw on the beach camp were less than a half dozen, all of them major characters from the series. I can thank the game creators for not recreating Nikki and Paolo, but I was a little put off that there were no anonymous NPCs (non-playable characters) just for show. I didn’t even want to interact with various nobodies, but it would have added to the atmosphere so much. The second major problem was with the voice acting. Although it was advertised that actual Lost actors were hired for their voices on the show, many of the main characters were not voiced by their real-life representations. Yunjin Kim (Sun), Emilie de Ravin (Claire), Michael Emerson (Ben), Henry Ian Cusick (Desmond), M.C. Gainey (Tom Friendly) and Andrew Divoff (Mikhail) do lend their voices, but their parts are so small that it hardly seems worth it, while every other character who got major screen time (Jack, Locke, Kate, Sawyer, Sayid, Hurley, Charlie, and Juliette) are voiced poorly by sound-alikes. Okay, Kate wasn’t poorly acted (props to voice actress Susan Goodwillie) , but the rest most certainly were, especially Sawyer and Locke who were ear-achingly bad. The claim of official voices was clearly a ploy to get Lost fans on board, and it was done in poor taste. Finally, several characters are downright uninvolved, with Boone, Shannon, Rousseau, Libby, Bernard, Walt and Mr. Eko missing completely. In the plane crash sequence, Jack is shown giving CPR to Rose, but she doesn’t appear at all after this sequence.

As in most adventure games, there are puzzles designed to be obstacles in your path of further knowledge. In Lost: Via Domus, there is ONE puzzle… several times. It’s not a bad puzzle, really. Electrical switchboards do everything from redirecting fuel lines to opening doors to opening MORE doors. I just wish there had been more than one type of puzzle, as even over such a short time it can get old fast. Other challenges involve navigating through the woods in several areas using markers to get from place to place. Conveniently-places  flags get you through two areas, while a more inspired method of Locke marking trees dominates one sequence. These are made more interesting by the occasional appearance of the smoke monster, which will definitely kill you given the chance. When it targets you, getting into a grove of banyan trees (so THAT’S what they’re called!) which will protect you is the only option. Finally, two running sequences appear (one being chased by the smoke monster) in which you must navigate a path jumping over rivers and fallen logs and sliding through gaps under fallen trees. These take from the danger element of the show and are well placed, though you often have fewer than three chances at mistakes before disaster strikes. This leads to one of the more annoying aspects of the game. Each episode plays out like a real episode of the show, beginning with a “Previously on Lost” segment with scenes from the previous episode. It does a good job of adding to atmosphere of the game, but when you “die” it re-shows the sequence before dropping you back at your last checkpoint, EVERY TIME. That’s fine for when you leave the game and come back, but when immediately re-doing a sequence I don’t want to see that sequence 3 times just because the smoke monster keeps killing me. That these scenes are also un-skippable is unforgivable.

Visually, the game is gorgeous. Vistas are breathtaking and while a few character designs are a little blocky and crude, for the most part animation is smooth and crisp. Occasional audio hiccups do occur, but most of the audio is actually pretty well recorded, with the poor voice acting being the only true downside. There are some noticeable visual problems towards the end, with animation problems coming up during graphically-intensive scenes involving more than one camera angle, but those are only minor visual quibbles, and while visually unappealing not a major concern in the short term.

Lost: Via Domus has been called anything from fan service to... other words that mean fan service. And that's true. If this had been just a story set in the Lost universe, written and performed by people who had nothing to do with the show, I’d never agree to look in the general direction of the game. Thankfully, each episode was plotted out by series creators Damon Lindeloff and Carlton Cuse, creating a story which exists in the same vein as the main Lost storyline without directly clashing with the official canon. Also well done is use of the original Michael Giacchino soundtrack which is a staple of the show, and sets the mood. These things set a solid base for what is actually a well-plotted-out storyline, replete with drama, mystery and intrigue. It leads believably to an ending that would fit right in with the classic Lost All-Time WTF cliffhangers. It’s entirely loyal to the roots of the show, but doesn’t answer any questions we didn’t already know the answer to. For that, it’s not necessary to play since if you’ve seen every episode of the show you already know as much as you’re going to get.  Still, getting to enter 4 8 15 16 23 42 into the computer at the Swan is a fun experience, and if you want to enjoy a little more fun with the series now that it’s over, Lost: Via Domus isn’t a bad option, though it’s short run time (estimates are between five and seven hours) is quite short for ANY video game, let alone an adventure game. For all it’s technical problems and lack of authentic voice acting, I’d still recommend it, just not at full price. Fortunately, Steam and other download sites will usually have it listed for much less than it’s full price, so if you’re a competionist like me, at least you won’t  have to shell out top dollar for a not-top-game.