Thursday, November 28, 2013

Gaming Top 10s: Top 10 Best Modern (Current-Gen) Video Game Themes

By Andrew Braid

http://www.wired.com/images_blogs/photos/uncategorized/2008/11/04/vgl_high_res_logo_finalsized.jpg
BTW, if you get a chance to see this, DO SO. Totally worth it.

Welcome to my first of (many) planned Top 10 lists! While we fondly remember a lot of the classic 8-bit and 16-bit tunes from the medium's more youthful days, the capabilities for music and scoring in games has been greatly expanded since then. Nowadays, many a game not only strives for but outright demands a full orchestral score on par with (and in more than a few cases surpassing) that of Hollywood feature films. As much as many of us (myself included) love the good old magic of catchy chiptunes, that used to be the only option. Now that the doors are wide open, it seems to make choosing one's favorite scores from the more recent crops of games more of a challenge. After all: art, in it's many forms, defines who we are. Our tastes in art follow suit. So perhaps you'll all get to know me just a bit better through the choices on this list: my Top 10 Best Modern Video Game Themes!

Conditions:

-The game in question must have been released during the current (seventh) console generation (between 2006 and 2013).
-The main systems in question: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Nintendo Wii and PC (as well as handheld systems Nintendo DS, Nintendo 3DS, PlayStation Portable and PlayStation Vita)
-Games for older systems (ex. PS2) can be eligible, but only if they were first released during the aforementioned timeframe (I'm using North American release dates, BTW)
-One game per series/franchise
-The themes/songs must have been composed from the ground up specifically for the game in question in order  to qualify (no remixes of older themes, no reuse of pre-existing songs)


Before we begin, lets' feature some honorable mentions (in no particular order) that, while great, just missed the cut! Take a listen below!

 Another Winter- Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game (Xbox 360/PS3, 2010)





Calling- The World Ends With You (DS, 2008)




Ethan Mars' Theme (Main Theme)- Heavy Rain (PS3, 2010)






The Last of Us (Main Theme)- The Last of Us (PS3, 2013)





Will the Circle Be Unbroken- Bioshock Infinite (Xbox 360/PS3/PC, 2013)




And now, on with the Top 10 Best Modern Video Game Themes! (Because that totally needed to be emphasized a second time!) Starting off...

#10: Land of the Living Dead- Rayman Origins (Xbox 360/PS3/Wii, 2011)


We kick things off with a game that completely took me by surprise to become my favorite 2D platformer in what feels like ages (until Rayman Legends came out, anyway). The theme is for the bonus level "Land of the Living Dead", a very long and brutal stage unlocked only after collecting all 10 ruby teeth from the chest chase levels (already a challenge in and of itself). The first third or so of buildup is good in and of itself (and more the kind of music style to expect from much of Origins), creating an atmosphere both inviting and foreboding, mixed with the humorous chants And then at about 1:39 into the song, it goes into full-blown Leone-style western theme, adding a whole new level of invigoration to (by far) the most challenging stage in the game. It's ideal contrast to such intense feats of running, smashing and jumping. Even the developers themselves were clearly in love with it, as follow-up Rayman Legends both brings it back for a few obstacle course levels and remixes it for one of the game's absurdly fun music levels (which you can watch here).


#9: Rising Sun- Okami (PS2, 2006)



A game as stunningly beautiful as Okami (brought to vivid life through its watercolor paint style and basis off Japanese folklore and Shinto mythology) deserves a stirring score to match. And while much of the game's music is a treat, it's "Rising Sun", the theme that plays for the final boss battle, that really stands out. After losing your powers, the prayers of the people you have helped and befriended across the course of your adventure allow you to steadily regain your strength. This theme sets the stage for a rousing final bout, the score motivating you to achieve victory as you regain the upper hand, as if it's the final round of an against-the-odds sports movie. It is the perfect note (pun intended) to close out your epic quest.

#8: Reach Out to the Truth- Persona 4 (PS2, 2008)



Ah, nothing like good ol' J-pop to get you in the mood for hours of dungeon-fighting fun. In all seriousness, Persona 4 is a truly fantastic game that really stands out as a unique gaming cocktail mix- part turn-based RPG, part Pokemon-style collecting/fusing system, and part high-school social sim, with a heaping helping of murder mystery, comedy, and deep psychological study. One of its most celebrated elements is undoubtedly the killer soundtrack by Shoji Meguro, making the small town of Inaba feel almost alive. While the truly badass boss theme comes close, it's your main battle theme "Reach Out to the Truth" that's guaranteed to stay stuck in your head for all time. It not only summarizes the central theme of the game, but it also proves to be just as infectiously catchy every time, getting you pumped for a fight even if it's what feels like your hundredth or so in a row (probably because it was your 200th- this is one addictive game, as my severe loss of sleep will attest...)



#7: Dragonborn- The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (Xbox 360/PS3/PC, 2011)




I'm going to be honest here: I haven't actually played Skyrim. I know, seems a bit blasphemous, right? Partly it's because I haven't found the time, partly it's because of my personal tastes and preferences with games (more on that another time- though it looks like a great game). But if you want epic, Lord of the Rings-esque game music filled with chanting, then the awesomeness emanating from "Dargonborn" is undeniable. Makes me really want to try and hunt some dragons... (even if How to Train Your Dragon taught us how it's wrong)

#6: Hidden Village- The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess (Wii/GC, 2006)



Okay, I might just have a thing for western-style themes in video games. But not only does "Hidden Village" itself evoke a very western feel in the most overtly mature Zelda game to date (a lone warrior in a shootout against an army of bandits holed up throughout the small town), but the music really manages to stand out among the soundtrack for the rest of Twilight Princess (and probably the whole series for that matter). Hell, Link's Crossbow Training was almost worth playing just to have gallery shootouts set to this theme!
Almost...

#5: Arie ~Recollection~ - Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch (PS3, 2013)




When I heard about this game, an RPG co-produced by the much-revered Japanese animation giant Studio Ghibli, I was sold on it right then and there. When I heard that composer Joe Hisaishi, regular collaborator with Hayao Miyazaki, was doing the score for the game, I knew to expect something special. And damn did it ever deliver. This is undoubtedly the best score for any game released in 2013, not to mention the best orchestral soundtrack for a role-playing game that I've heard in ages. There are too many great tracks to choose from: the incredible overworld theme, the awesome boss battle music, and not to mention the one that plays when you ride your freakin' dragon. But my choice must go to "Arie ~Recollection~", a theme that is not adventurous or whimsical, but rather quiet, simple and deeply emotional.
In other words, it's the only theme on this list guaranteed to inspire waterworks. It gently builds, almost as if to lull you into a sense of security, good memories of days gone by, all before it goes straight for the heart. It is a theme that is undeniably, indisputably moving, and a prime example of why Hisaishi's score stands apart from your average game.

#4: Nate's Theme- Uncharted Series (PS3, 2007/2009/2011)



You know a theme is great when you'll wait around on the game's title menu, stalling from actually starting up the game, just to hear that music. "Nate's Theme" stands the tall challenge of having to be a call to thrilling action/adventure to rival the iconic "Raiders March" from the film series it takes the most inspiration from, Indiana Jones (seriously, you could write a whole thesis paper on the similarities between Uncharted 3 and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, following its trilogy-capper formula to a "t"). And while nothing beats John Williams (to be fair, nothing ever will), "Nate's Theme" sure isn't a disappointment. Just try listening to that theme and not feeling a stir within you to go looking for treasure and globe-trotting thrills (though if it makes you want to watch National Treasure, you may want to consult someone about that).

#3: Apotheosis- Journey (PS3, 2012)



It's that moment in any journey, when the hero rises up in triumph after reaching his lowest point, that gives us as audiences the utmost feeling of satisfaction. It is a constant (arguably flat-out necessary) component to any good story. In seven awe-inspiring minutes, that is exactly the sensation "Apotheosis" doesn't just give, but downright embodies. Combined with the game's truly astonishing visuals, it makes Journey's climax and denouement not just memorable, but transcendent. In a game that already raises the bar for the medium's recognition as an art form with its gallery-worthy art design and simple-yet-powerful  use of gameplay to convey theme, Austin Wintory's astounding score ensures its legacy.

#2: Suicide Mission- Mass Effect 2 (Xbox 360/PC, 2010)



In a truly epic science fiction trilogy filled with outstanding cinematic music (this incredible track from Mass Effect 3 was in very serious contention), none of them had quite the same personal impact as the theme for the climactic assault against the Collectors in Mass Effect 2. The slow build creates a sense of tension as you and your team make plans for the final assault. Every experience in the game has been leading to this, to what has been deemed a suicide mission. Your team's trust and loyalty is crucial, and your decisions can (literally) mean life-or-death for those friends and comrades you have connected with. As the action kicks in so does the theme in full, managing to be simultaneously intense, stirring, and altogether exhilarating. It says something when a game actually gets me to jump up and cheer at its end- not because of overcoming great difficulty, but because the score had given such a triumphant feeling as I blasted away from the exploding Collector base, my party having survived the impossible.



#1: Gusty Garden Galaxy- Super Mario Galaxy (Wii, 2007)



Super Mario Galaxy is one of my favorite games of all time (and definitely my favorite 3D Mario title), and the "Gusty Garden Galaxy" theme does so much to encapsulate why. Listening to this theme, what does it make you feel?
Adventure via cosmic road trip. Exploration, awaiting whatever wonders, good or no, that you'll encounter next. The sense of an epic quest unfolding in front of you. Bust most of all it embodies the feeling that best sums up the game as a whole: joy. Pure, bright, unbridled joy, no matter how old you are, whether you're playing for the first time or the fiftieth.
To me, that is what Super Mario Galaxy is. And the heights it reaches are a lofty standard that more games need to try and strive for (more recent Mario games included).


Thanks for reading! Expect a new list sometime on the horizon!

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Persona Announcements: Persona 5, a new P4A, and... a Rhythm Game? 

By Andrew Braid


Well, lots of exciting (and... interesting) news for Persona fans today...
First off:


Persona 5



What we know: That it's the new official entry in the Shin Megami Tensei: Persona series of role-playing games. Also, something about chains, and being a slave to... something (definitely a metaphor).
Who cares? PERSONA!
Available on: PlayStation 3
Japanese Release: Expected Winter 2014 (or sometime by the end of 2014)
North American Release: 2015 (sometime...)

Persona 4: The Ultimax Ultra Suplex Hold

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zqmnp2wZRU4

Couldn't seem to embed it normally since it's all Japanese and it won't show up on Blogspot's video search. Sorry about that, folks.

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Just don't piledrive me over it, ok?

What we know: A follow-up/upgrade to the highly-acclaimed fighting game spinoff Persona 4 Arena, developed by Atlus along with Blazblue creators Arc System Works. UUSH (that subtitle will never stop sounding weird/awesome, will it?) continues the story of Persona 4 Arena, while also adding three new playable characters: old Persona 3 favorites Yukari Takeba and Junpei Iori and redheaded blade-wielding newcomer Sho Minazuki. In addition to upgraded move sets and re-balancing all around, the game will also add a new "Shadow Mode", which lets you play as the Shadow versions of each character (with some exceptions). These Shadow modes swap the defensive BURST option with an offensive equivalent that allows for unlimited special moves to be used for a brief timeframe.
Oh and that extra tease at the end of the trailer hints at the involvement of a certain old "friend" from Persona 4... you know who I'm talking about, Persona fans!
Available on:
PlayStation 3
Japanese Release: 2014
North American Release: Fall 2014

Persona 4: Dancing All Night


What we know: Well, this is... unexpected, to say the least...
This seems to be Atlus' response to the huge success in Japan for Hatsune Miku: Project Diva, a rhythm game spun off from a virtual anime pop star software (here's an example, if that's your bag). Dancing All Night features everyone's favorite P4 idol Rise Kujikawa as she and protagonist character Yu Narukami dance to the beat of all your favorite Persona 4 tunes (and considering the hugely acclaimed soundtrack for P4, that would make for a lot of favorites), and likely many more. Hopefully other Persona 4 cast members make it in on the action. Because why not, really?
So when you really think about it, this isn't really that surprising at all (especially considering how popular Rise is among fans, and the aforementioned soundtrack acclaim). It has a (very) specific audience it's catering to, so I encourage you all not to knock it just because you're nowhere near its demographic (if it turns out to be crap for whatever reasons later, then you have my permission). Nothing wrong with a fun spinoff title, as Persona 4 Arena proved last year.
Available on: PlayStation Vita
Japanese Release: Fall 2014
North American Release: Sometime 2015

Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth



What we know: Also unexpected, but in a very good way.
This will be a new RPG spinoff game, crossing over the casts of Persona 3 and Persona 4 (and some plot beats- it appears to involve the Dark Hour again). But now in chibi form! Because come on, SOOOO CUTE!

 The 3DS Is Getting a New Persona Game. It Looks Different.

Though I don't know what to make of the P3 characters using their gun evokers in chibi form- does that make it less or more unsettling?
Ah, who cares? SOOOOO CUTE!

The 3DS Is Getting a New Persona Game. It Looks Different.

Available on: Nintendo 3DS (a first for the series!)
Japanese Release: June 5, 2014
North American Release: Fall 2014

And as a bonus, for anyone unaware...

Persona 3 The Movie: #1- Spring of Birth



What we know: It's the first in a series of feature films adapting the story of Persona 3. With a theatrical feature budget. And just as dark and action-packed as you'd want, with all your favorite characters.
WHY AREN'T YOU HERE YET??!
Japanese Release: November 23, 2013... so it's actually already out! Wohoo! (And they've also just released a teaser for movie #2, Midsummer Knight's Dream)
North American Release: TBD, but it's an anime, so we all know how we're going to end up seeing it before that anyway...

Friday, November 22, 2013

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire Review: "These games are going to be different"

Reviewed by Andrew Braid

 

Directed by Francis Lawrence
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Donald Sutherland
Release Date: November 22, 2013
Presented in 2D and IMAX


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The Hunger Games was a pleasant surprise when I first saw it in theaters, interested by the fervor and cultural zeitgeist surrounding it. It was a (potential) teen franchise starter built on science fiction social commentary, mixed with an aesthetic of gritty realism (courtesy of director Gary Ross) that further contrasted the wealth of the Capitol and the poverty of the Districts. Katniss Everdeen was a character one could really root for, volunteering for a life-and-death reality show competition to save her sister's life when fate proves unkind, a girl struggling to be likable to a fickle public while she was really worrying about if she had what it takes to survive out there when the Games begin. It was a breath of fresh air to see the younger generation embracing a series that actually had some real meat to it, and a female protagonist who wasn't a sexist passive blank slate (you know who I'm talking about), but an actual breathing character.
In other words, I became a fan of The Hunger Games. I've now read all three books, have paid rapt attention to announcements and trailers leading up to the release of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, and have (like everyone) become a huge fan of Oscar-winning lead actress Jennifer Lawrence (or J. Law, as I call her, but never in front of anyone because that would sound stupid). So this time was different. This time there were real expectations.
And those expectations were to be excited, yet also cautious: while the second book by Suzanne Collins was on par with the first, Gary Ross (who had previously directed Seabiscuit and the absolutely wonderful Pleasantville) would not be returning to direct. Watching the bonus features and interviews on the Blu-Ray, one genuinely got the sense that this was a skilled filmmaker and an all-around smart guy. He lent the film a gritty, "shaky-cam" aesthetic that, while disparaged by some, was not done without purpose, and was in fact used to great effect to ground the world into a sense of realism, to put us in Katniss' shoes like the novel did (the problem being that many seem to jump to the conclusion that "shaky-cam" is inherently bad, without stopping to think if there's a genuine, sensible reason for it to be there). He conveyed many character and history details with a subtlety that's uncommon in such Hollywood films, when the norm is to thoroughly spell out whatever you can, whenever you can. He took great pains to ensure that we understood through basic visual terms that the Games were hell, that the murder of children was not something to be glorified or exploited, that they were in fact people (yes the Career tributes were psychotic assholes, but they were people, and some people are psychotic assholes, especially when they're sent to a reality TV death arena). For better or for worse, Gary Ross did understand the kind of tone and approach that The Hunger Games needed to be a good film adaptation.

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Above: Gary Ross' artistic intent.
 Well that undermined my point. Anyway...
 Francis Lawrence, our new director for Catching Fire, has a... decent track record (his works include Constantine, I Am Legend and Water for Elephants). He has proven a wholly competent Hollywood director who is capable with action but occasionally stumbles with drama (and for whatever reason his movies always seem to fall short when it comes to CG effects- again, see Constantine and I Am Legend). In other words, I was wary if he could succeed in adaptation and make a sequel that was worthy of the first film and of Ross' work, that it wouldn't suddenly become a glossy, for-hire studio job.
Gladly, I can say succeed he has, as The Hunger Games series manages to pleasantly surprise me once again.
Directly following the aftermath of the first film (BTW, SPOILER WARNING for The Hunger Games), Katniss Everdeen has moved into the Victor's Village back home in coal-mining District 12, trying to find comfort in longtime friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth), while avoiding fellow victor Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) in an attempt to dodge the reminders of her post-traumatic stress from the Games. A fateful confrontation with Panem's leader President Snow (Donald Sutherland, now getting to revel in full evil slimeball politician mode) forces Katniss to try to little avail to play by the Capitol books on the Games' Victory Tour in order to subdue uprising and ideas of revolution inspired by her acts of defiance that let both her and Peeta live. She must also keep up appearances with Peeta as "the star-crossed lovers of District 12", going so far as to fake a marriage proposal for the press and public to eat up. But Snow and Katniss both know that it is not enough, and with the help of new Head Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) enacts a plan to eliminate her by revealing the big twist for the 75th Annual Hunger Games (and third Quarter Quell): that the tributes will be selected from the pool of existing victors for each district.

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"You fought very hard in the Games, Miss Everdeen. But they were games. Would you like to be in a real war?"

The film remains very faithful to the novel, including all but a few choice minor scenes- including my personal favorite bit of backstory, where Katniss and Peeta view an archive taping of their mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) when he had won the previous Quarter Quell. What little is taken out proves to be of virtually no detriment to the film adaptation, even allowing for new scenes showing the behind-the-scenes machinations of President Snow and Plutarch (besides, if you cast Philip Seymour Hoffman in your movie, you'd better give him more than the 2 or so scenes his character had in the book). Despite the 2 1/2 hour running time the film keeps you raptly in attention despite spending at least 90 or so of those minutes on setup, world-building and character development. Lawrence's direction proves skilled and bigger in scale, nixing any semblance of shaky-cam while still making the world of Panem feel like the one we were introduced to a year before. There are some truly spectacular shots in this film- Katniss looking through the back window of a Capitol train, overhead cityscape shots of the Quarter Quell tribute parade, Katniss peering overhead from a gargantuan tropical tree. Yet none of this boost in production value ends up sacrificing the series' themes and intent, and the emotional moments hit hard without feeling overplayed. The film even fits in some nice touches of humor, mostly taken directly from the book, making it flow through naturally as bits of calm before things start hitting the fan.

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"Chins up, smiles on!"



An excellent cast anchors much of the film, from returning players Harrelson and Elizabeth Banks to newcomers Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright and Sam Clafin (who assuages any doubts about his ability to portray Finnick the second he comes onscreen- this is a far cry from his bland, forgettable roles in  Pirates 4 and Snow White and the Huntsman). My personal favorite new addition has to be Jena Malone (best known from *sigh* Sucker Punch) as former District 7 victor Johanna Mason: all brash, no f***s given rebellious attitude and unhinged killer's instinct. But like the first film, the screen belongs to Jennifer Lawrence, proving yet again why she has so quickly risen to beloved status in Hollywood. She commands the screen, letting us see the simmering pain, emotional masking, underlying confusion, determination, and finally courage that drives Katniss (all without the benefit of the book's first-person perspective to do that work for us). She deserves every one of those thousands of "Reasons Why Jennifer Lawrence is Awesome" lists continuously flooding the internet on a daily basis (come on, I know you've stumbled across at least one).

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Seriously, she rules.

The focus of the film shifts away from the more single-minded focus on the Games themselves that the first movie had. Instead Catching Fire opts for a much larger focus on Panem's political machinations and Capitol social satire, all while keeping Katniss' precarious media juggling act and internal struggles at its core. One aspect that remains surprisingly toned down once again is the much-ballyhooed love triangle, the appeal of which (and one's level of disappointment with its more subdued presence here) will undoubtedly vary. It is doubly curious to play it down considering its clearly rising prominence in the book (which reaches peak levels in Mockingjay), and that it is undeniably a major selling point for many fans of the books. Mostly just hinting at it in the first film made sense, since the first book wasn't all that focused on it either, but the continued downplay speaks to the film versions' borderline indifference regarding Katniss trying to decide which cute teenage boy she likes. It's as if the filmmakers want to avoid as many Twilight comparisons as possible (and likely to try and broaden the base appeal beyond teenage girls by cutting down on all the "icky romance stuff"). Personally this doesn't prove to be of any serious detriment to the film adaptation, but by the final third the film feels like it's almost totally forgotten until the last second to remind us "oh yeah, there's more than one guy she's into".

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Even they don't seem that interested in their own love triangle.


The film builds wonderfully to a big, epic-scale tropical arena duel, shot entirely with IMAX cameras, with bigger and better direction on the action front. Visually it's awesome to behold... and yet I still found myself liking the Games sequences of the first movie more. Don't get me wrong, Catching Fire's big third act is certainly good, but while it's an improvement superficially it lacks the more immediate personal stakes of the prior arena battles. While the Gamemaker-controlled environmental dangers were established and used at specific points in the first film's Games, here they end up supplanting the actual combatants as the major threats that Katniss and friends must face. And because the film versions don't allow for the first-person perspective of Katniss like the book had, it leads to a lack of personal human grounding to the action, at least when compared to its predecessor. It's easier to feel Katniss' fear and struggle for her life when she's running from bloodthirsty teen psychopaths than when she's running from poison fog and violent baboons. It's not something I can really blame on the filmmakers, but rather something that's just difficult to adapt as effectively to the screen when you're working so hard to remain faithful to the page. It all leads into a cliffhanger ending that effectively retains the gut punch reaction it had in the book, but will probably still off-put people averse to such "to be continued" endings in general. Then again, some of these people don't like the ending of Empire Strikes Back, without ever realizing just how perfect and appropriate an ending it really is for that film, and dislike cliffhangers pretty much just because. So, you know, don't listen to those people.
Like the first film, Catching Fire manages to surprise once again, proving its behind the scenes changes to be smart ones that will undoubtedly benefit Mockingjay Part 1 and 2 going forward (Lawrence will be returning to direct). More importantly it proves to be a sequel that effectively matches the original, even improving on it in multiple ways (particularly in visual scale and effects). It leaves one wishing more teen lit franchises could be as genuinely smart and engaging as this. Besides, it's not like teens are going to want to read 1984 anymore. I mean come on, it doesn't even have a love triangle in it!
 

Final Score: 8.5/10


Pros:
+ Excellent cast, with great new additions like Hoffman, Sam Clafin and Jena Malone
+ Keeps tone with the first film: bigger scale and new director, yet the world still feels familiar
+ Faithful to the source material, with great new additions that add to political intrigue
+ Excellent buildup, with strong emotional beats and touches of humor
+ Jennifer Lawrence rocks FTW! (sorry, rather unprofessional of me... it's true though)
Cons:  
- Big action-driven third act is good, not great
- Seems rather disinterested in its own developing love triangle
- Cliffhanger ending may irk some
- It does cut out one of my favorite backstory bits from the book (though I understand why)

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Getting to Know Comics: Entry 2- Daredevil

By Andrew Braid

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 Hey everyone, and welcome back to Getting to Know Comics! In each entry I cover a different popular character in the comic book medium, celebrating what’s made them endure in reader’s hearts and offering a selection of reading recommendations to get people started. In other words, this series is for the casual and uninitiated reader just as much as it is for the hardcore fan who just loves comics!
...You didn’t buy that for a second, did you? Well, um... just trust me on this one, okay? Anyway, let’s take a look at The Man Without Fear, Daredevil!
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Cover for Daredevil #62, my personal favorite cover for the character. Because brooding's never looked so cool.
 
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Raised by his boxer father “Battlin’ Jack” Murdock in New York (aka where every superhero lives ever), Matt Murdock is blinded by radioactive waste in a road accident when trying to save the life of an old man. While finding that he can no longer see, his other senses have been hugely enhanced by the accident- his hearing , touch, and smell. Through a combination of these senses he also gains a form of “second sight” called a radar sense. When his father is murdered by gangsters after he refuses to throw a match, Matt trains to become both a respected lawyer of the law and the crime-fighting vigilante of Hell’s Kitchen, The Man Without Fear... Daredevil!
Stan Lee created Daredevil in 1964 among his many demands for writing new characters at the time. Lee initially had concerns as to how people would respond to the idea of a blind superhero, worried that he may unintentionally offend anyone. Much to his relief, response from readers and the blind community was very positive, and Daredevil has remained an ongoing title to this day. Initially wearing a mainly yellow costume (akin to an actual stunt daredevil), the costume quickly changed to the all-red suit we know today. In the early days Daredevil fought a more colorful list of rogues akin to other comics at the time, fiends such as the Owl, Stilt-Man and Leap Frog (I really didn’t make up that last one). Around the beginning of the 70s the title had kind of settled into a status of an “also-ran”, one of Marvel’s lower-tier characters who had fans but kind of just stuck around there. Then, around the end of the 70s a young artist making his way through the comics industry was given a shot at Daredevil, initially beginning as just the artist, and soon later the writer as well. His name: Frank Miller.
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Okay, cut the angelic choirs, let’s get back to reality. I have many (and I mean MANY) beefs with Frank Miller as a writer. But despite how off-the-rocker he may be, he’s had a huge impact on the comics industry and on Daredevil in particular, singlehandedly skyrocketing the character’s popularity and defining his world and stories for decades to come. Miller infused a series that was once lighthearted and colorful like other Marvel series of the time with his signature noir aesthetic, reinventing Daredevil as a tortured vigilante with a seemingly never-ending spiral of personal troubles. A more Eastern influence pervaded the book, with a focus on the dark and mystical ninja group known as The Hand, who trained the newly introduced character Elektra, a skilled assassin and former college girlfriend of Matt Murdock. Blind mentor Stick was created as a former mentor of Matt who trained him in honing his enhanced senses into fighting ability. Bullseye, a lower-tier character whose main attribute was an uncanny sense of aim, became one of Daredevil’s greatest foes and has haunted old hornhead ever since, having killed not one but two of his major love interests in front of him. But most importantly he took former also-ran Spider-Man villain the Kingpin and turned him into Daredevil’s primary nemesis, the very representation of the overreaching power and calculating evil of the corrupt businessman. Here was a villain who played his hand indirectly, but never from the shadows, rather watching openly from his skyscraper window with a cigar and his best suit. He’s dirty and everybody knows it, but nobody dares touch him. While he and Daredevil have fought each other with their fists more than once, it was usually a battle of wills and wits, a never-ending war between crime and justice that often took place outside the ring.
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Now, I’m going to admit: for the longest time, I just didn’t have much interest in Daredevil. In fact, I seemed to keep avoiding it at every opportunity (and no, it wasn’t merely because the 2003 movie with Ben Affleck was a tonally-jumbled, poorly-acted piece of crap). Honestly, I have no good reason why. It could have been I just didn’t think the character was my cup of tea, I hadn’t really developed any taste for the kind of gritty, noir-style crime drama the series was known for and for decades defined by, my instinctual distrust of Frank Miller... many possible reasons*1. But when I heard about all the heaps of praise that the recent Daredevil series by Mark Waid had been getting, I felt compelled to check it out, especially being a fan of his run on Fantastic Four. Seriously, at this rate if Marvel and DC really want new readers, they should get Waid to write as many titles as possible, or at least follow his methods, since he knows exactly how to make a comic accessible. Anyhow, judging from all those heaps of praise you can tell I regret my prior line of thinking. Daredevil is just a fantastic, cool, fascinating character. He may not have as big a fanbase as Batman or Spider-Man, but those fans know in their hearts that Daredevil often gets the best stories.
But why is that? Well, it all comes down to what Marvel does best- flawed, human characters. Here’s a character whose superpowers were a true double-edged sword, permanently disabling him but also granting him amazing abilities far beyond most human beings. So when we see Daredevil leap through the air, swing across New York, or perform all the death-defying stunts he does, we have to know it’s just a man, a flesh-and-blood vulnerable human being under that mask and red outfit. But we don’t see that. What we see instead is larger-than-life, something so much more, someone who can seemingly do anything, someone who always finds a way even with staggering odds against him. We see a hero, and that’s before we even get into who he really is underneath all that. I know this all sounds cheesy, and you could apply that kind of statement to any major comic book superhero. But it’s that extra twist to the standard formula, a man who truly sees no fear, which makes Daredevil’s heroics all the more gripping.
The psyche of the man under that mask, Matt Murdock, is where things really get interesting, and speak to the character’s true appeal. An attorney of law, Matt Murdock is the kind of character who stands for justice both in and out of costume, often devoting as much time to the common man’s troubles as he does making a stand against the violent and dangerous men as Daredevil. His determination and frequent stubbornness play into both of his lives, for better and for worse, never backing down from a fight, but often letting his words do the sparring over his fists. He is a man frequently wrought by inner turmoil and tragedy, yet manages to find hope in the end, even if it’s just a silver lining. It is still enough to keep him going, no matter how rough things get (and believe me, I’m hard-pressed to think of any comic book heroes who have had more rough times than Daredevil). He is flawed like any of us, if not more so, yet strives harder than anyone to do what’s right regardless. Characters like Batman are driven near the edge at many points, but Daredevil is a man who seems to perpetually live on that edge, as every force in his life seems to try and push him over it. He’s had his entire life dismantled and destroyed more than once, rebuilding only for all the pieces to almost inevitably fall apart again. But Matt Murdock turns his vulnerability into strength, more fire to fuel his crusades for justice in and out of costume. That is the kind of idea we as human beings desire more than anything, the will to endure, to walk forward without fear.
           

Recommended Reads:

-Daredevil by Mark Waid

Issues #1-36 (ending in February 2014, pending relaunch)

It’s official: Mark Waid may very well be the greatest comic book writer alive. Sure, he may not be quite as intellectual and daringly trippy as Grant Morrison or Alan Moore, but as pure unabashed superhero comics go, there’s no one doing them better than Waid. His writing reminds you why we love comics in the first place: the escapism, the action, the heroics, the emotion, the drama, the humor (oh God, this book is hilarious). But most important is the fun. Taking away the never-ending gauntlets of utter soul-crushing hell that writers have been putting the character through for decades now, Waid allows Daredevil to actually enjoy having his powers. Yes, even though those powers also make him blind, Matt Murdock and his hornhead alter ego actually get to have fun, even when faced with crazy-ass situations. Joined by some of the best artists working in comics today (Paolo Rivera, Marcos Martin, and Chris Samnee to name a few), Waid stretches his finely-honed talent of making any and every issue wholly accessible to new readers, even if it’s right in the middle of an ongoing storyline (seriously, how does he do it?). Waid’s still-ongoing run (I hope Marvel's new relaunch doesn't really mean the end for his time on the title) got me to start reading Daredevil, and I have no intentions of stopping now. 

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This. This is why I love comics. (From Daredevil #30)
Also, a while back it won the Eisner Award for Best Continuing Series. Not that awards matter, but in case you don’t know, that means you should REALLY be reading Mark Waid’s Daredevil.

-Daredevil by Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev

Issues #26-50, 56-81, Collected among 3 Ultimate Collection TPB

While Mark Waid’s run got me to start reading Daredevil, it’s Brian Michael Bendis’ award-winning tenure on the title that made me a full-blown fan of ol’ hornhead. Teamed with the outstanding artwork by Alex Maleev, lending the series its rough, gritty yet stunning visual style, Bendis took the series in big new directions, taking chances and telling stories that you’d never see in any other superhero comic. In just a few issues, Matt Murdock’s identity as the Man Without Fear gets leaked to the press, leading to a media blitz that pushes Matt over the edge in all new ways, and that’s not even close to the biggest thing that happens in his life during Bendis’ tenure. Let me reiterate: this wasn’t one of many Marvel “What if?” stories, nor was it swiftly ret-conned like it was for Spider-Man after Civil War. This was a real, in-continuity event that is still haunting the character’s life to this day. Bendis writes the title with a pitch-perfect blend of legal drama, crime noir and hints of humor, resulting in an often gripping action-thriller that makes each story a struggle to put down. And when the villains come out to play, you’d better believe they make the kinds of impressions most writers kill for. Just take a look at this moment from issue 49, where Matt’s newfound love Milla is greeted in the night by his greatest tormentor, Bullseye:

From Daredevil #49
Yeah, Daredevil saves her the very next page, but even so that one page alone minus buildup is intense as all hell, and I don’t think any moment has ever made me really hate Bullseye as much as this one. And that includes the moments where he really DID kill Matt’s girlfriends.
There are many reasons why Bendis’ Daredevil is one of my favorite comic book runs of all time (maybe even my #1 choice), but perhaps the biggest reason why is how it makes you reconsider exactly what mainstream superhero comics are capable of. To avoid spoilers I won’t say much more, aside from this: if you want a liberal helping of crime noir mixed with your superheroes, then Bendis does it best.
*As a bonus note, check out the recently released Daredevil: End of Days, written by Bendis along with fellow Daredevil writer/artist David Mack. It basically acts as a gritty, flashforward coda/ending to the character, pulling heavily from the character's long history. Considering that it's particularly heavy on references to Bendis' own run (and Mack's), I'd recommend it for more hardcore fans once they're better caught up on the character's history. Expect a post in full about the book sometime later down the line.

-Daredevil by Ed Brubaker and Michael Lark

Issues #82-119, 500, Collected among 3 Ultimate Collection TPB

Note: I’ve neglected to show any scenes from Brubaker’s run, since it’s pretty much impossible to find any showcase pages that wouldn’t provide major plot spoilers, both for Brubaker’s run and for Bendis’ run which preceded it. Seriously, there’s so much s*** that goes down.
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And I mean a LOT of s***. (Cover for Daredevil #87)
After Bendis’ brilliant, redefining run on the title and the way his run ended, the writer who was put in the unfortunate position of having to follow that up undeniably had their work cut out for them. There was literally zero chance of topping that, and honestly it wasn’t topped. But when you’re Ed Brubaker, a writer who lives and breathes crime and conspiracy fiction, you can give it a damn good try, and the result is a gripping, excellent run in its own right. I can’t risk going into details (again, tons of spoilers), but lets’ just leave it at this: if you read Bendis’ run, definitely follow it up with this one.

-Daredevil: Yellow by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale

This 6-issue miniseries reteams award-winning writer/artist duo Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale (Batman: The Long Halloween, Superman: For All Seasons) in a telling of Daredevil’s origins and early days, namely inspired by the earliest 60s Stan Lee comics, when the character had his original yellow costume. If you’re looking for a telling of Matt Murdock’s origins, Frank Miller’s The Man Without Fear is also a great choice, and probably more relevant to the character in his more recent stories, but I personally find Daredevil: Yellow is a more entertaining, more powerful story. The biggest reason why is, well, it isn’t really an origin story. Instead, it’s a love story remembered, a look into Matt Murdock’s soul as he remembers the good old days with arguably the greatest love of his life, Karen Page. Sure, it isn’t quite the most cohesive story per se (it’s more a series of thinly-connected chapters and vignettes than it is a fully flowing narrative), but in this case it’s not the plot that matters, but the characters and (more importantly) the emotions. We get a real sense of just how important Karen was to Matt, the impact she made on his life, and how painful her eventual death must have been to him. If Daredevil: Yellow were just a series of early Daredevil adventures re-imagined through Tim Sale’s gorgeous artwork, that would be enough to make it worth reading, and if that’s all you really want then you’ll get your money’s worth, as we get to see ol’ hornhead do daring battle with Electro, the Owl and the Purple Man. But it’s the element that ties it all together, the ever-fascinating emotion of love, that makes this take on Daredevil’s origins something truly special.
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Tim Sale: An artist so good he even makes the old yellow costume look cool.

-Daredevil: Born Again by Frank Miller and David Mazzuchelli

I know, this is redundant by now, but I just feel like getting it out of my system. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I am not a fan of Frank Miller. Let me be clear: I was a fan of Frank Miller. He has done some works that have redefined the medium and are undeniably great (Batman: Year One, The Dark Knight Returns, Sin City). But anything he’s done since Sin City after the late 1990s has been, how do I say it...
Oh yeah: awful.
And I don’t just mean the usual kind of awful, the one that you can just shrug off and forget about. I mean the kind of awful that continuously ruins a man’s reputation, enough over time to make readers like me reflexively want to upchuck whenever his name is attached to anything. All that amazing goodwill he’d earned and impact he had on the comics industry? Nope, now it’s just “Goddamn Batman”, numbingly repetitive “noir” dialogue, questionable politics, and a now overwhelmingly obvious inability to write female characters who aren’t prostitutes (heck, this trope’s omnipresent even in his good books).
Okay, I think I’m good. Sorry about all that. Moving on.
 
Thankfully, while he has done unforgivably awful things to Batman in recent years, Miller hasn’t been allowed to write on Daredevil again for over 20 years now, meaning he hasn’t gotten a chance to undo all the great, character-defining stuff he did on the book which made him an industry name in the first place. And while not perfect, Daredevil: Born Again is his defining Daredevil tale, the one that set the standard for how to push Daredevil through living hell, and more importantly how he gets back up again. Reintroducing former flame Karen Page as a heroin junkie prostitute (gee, big surprise, Frank), the Kingpin learns that Daredevil is Matt Murdock, and relishes in destroying his nemesis thoroughly and completely. The part that really pushes the book over the top and a big reason why it still holds up is the fantastic artwork of Miller’s Batman: Year One collaborator David Mazzuchelli. His detailed, noir-flavored visual flair synchs perfectly with the material, and features many panels that are just flat-out iconic. This is still seen by several fans as the defining Daredevil story, and while I’ve liked other hornhead stories better, it’s easy to see why Born Again has such a strong reputation.
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Also, this page. Just... just this page.
Also Check Out: Frank Miller (#158-161, 163-191), Daredevil: Guardian Devil (by Kevin Smith and Joe Quesada), Daredevil: The Man Without Fear (by Frank Miller and John Romita Jr.)

What to Avoid:

-Daredevil: Shadowland

You don’t even have to have read Shadowland or any of the other titles wrapped up in this recent and best-left forgotten event series to know it’s bad. This series screwed over Daredevil so bad that it necessitated Mark Waid’s current, more lighthearted re-launch if the character were to recover his credibility. It only takes a one-sentence summary of the basic plotline to understand why fans tend to hate this story, and why Marvel gladly did their best to pretend it never happened. Here goes:
Daredevil gets possessed by a demon.
 No, really, Daredevil gets possessed by a demon.

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I don't care how many ninjas you add behind him, it's still a dumb idea.
That’s literally the plot of this entire event series. That and he kills a bunch of people, including Bullseye. Because that's what you do when you need to push a purposely street-level hero character "over the edge" for the sake of having him go on murderous rampage (also not a good direction for most hero characters, as Hal Jordan fans can attest)- you involve freakin' demonic possession. I mean, it's not like there are plenty of other non-supernatural ways to drive Daredevil over the edge for the sake of a big story. It's not like he already straddles the whole "over the edge" thing constantly as it is. I dunno, but really, do you even need to bother reading the actual story to know it’s a dumb, ill-conceived idea for a Daredevil story, let alone a major multi-title spanning event series?

-Daredevil: Season One

I know, I know, broken record and all that jazz, but in this case, it’s not just that the Season One line so far is pretty lacking in inspiration or new twists to these old origin stories (though I like what I see of Hulk: Season One and Doctor Strange: S1, and Avengers: S1 is pretty solid). No, in this case the book’s major crime is just not being good. This more than any of the other books in the line so far feels redundant, particularly since the previously featured Daredevil: Yellow is literally the SAME FREAKIN’ STORY. I swear, multiple scenes play out in far too similar fashion, with multiple lines repeated nearly verbatim. They do the scene of Daredevil getting vengeance on his father’s killers, they do the fight with Electro, they even copy the scene where Daredevil saves a kidnapped Karen from the Owl, and the plot beats play out with virtually no difference! This would be forgivable if the book didn’t come off as so boring, joined by competent yet fairly dull artwork that’s completely steamrolled by Tim Sale’s beautiful panels for Yellow. And once again, this Season One book comes with the first issue of the current ongoing run, in this case Mark Waid’s Daredevil. Because nothing makes a weaksauce book worse than having it come packaged with a tease of the far better (and cheaper) book you could have bought instead.
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I'm already yawning just looking at this.
Thanks again for tuning into Getting to Know Comics! Next time we take a look at the one, the only, the Dark Knight himself: Batman!

*1: But mostly that last one.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Top 5 Reasons to Wait on Getting a Next-Gen Console (at least a little bit, anyway)

By Andrew Braid

 

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Well, it's the dawn of a new age in the gaming world, as Sony and Microsoft launch their brand new next-generation consoles, meaning that the eighth generation of consoles kickstarted by Nintendo last year with the Wii U is truly in full swing. The PlayStation 4 (having launched this past Friday) and the Xbox One (launching this Friday on November 22) are set to make major splashes in some shape or form, inevitably set to have a huge impact on the gaming industry's future. But hey, maybe you're just not sold yet on your two new potential suitors, and you don't want to rush into things before you find out you've made a mistake and end up stuck in a frustrating, unsatisfactory relationship (for example, would you prefer your significant console other to keep insisting on sharing about yourself with others, or to keep finding that kind of privy information for itself?) Regardless of why the PS4 and/or Xbox One haven't gotten you in line already, here's 5 reasons why a little more patience to wait it out might be a good idea...

 

#5.- The launch price will inevitably go down (that or new, better bundles will pop up later)

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The PS4 is currently selling for $400, just the console and a controller. The Xbox One is starting at a $500 price point, and comes bundled with the Kinect 2.0 (because Microsoft cannot allow themselves to admit that the first one was a piece of crap internet punchline). While it's likely that neither is going to start as disastrously as the PS3 did all the way in 2006 when it launched with a dangerously pricey $600, that's still a good deal of money we're talking about for a console, and just the console. Even the Wii U was deemed by many as too pricey when it launched last November to a $350 price for the Deluxe Set (because what Basic Set?). Even bundled with the underrated Nintendo Land, many were put off. Sales have started improving recently thanks namely to a price drop (to $300) and cooler, more appealing bundles with either The Wind Waker HD or New Super Mario Bros. U, which not surprisingly has left more than a few early adopters feeling annoyed. And we all know that the same is going to happen with the PS4 and Xbox One. Hell, I've already heard rumblings of an Infamous: Second Son bundle for the PS4, and that wouldn't even be six months away. So for those whose wallets need a break, don't feel too guilty. You'll undoubtedly get rewarded later.

#4.-  There's tons of great games available to catch up on with your current-gen console, and still some more to come

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And these aren't even close to the best examples... well okay, Uncharted totally is.

How much have you been using your current console lately? Really, think about it. Think of all the memories you have with it, some less stellar but (hopefully) many others good. Now think of all those games that are still out now, ones you have yet to really experience, ones you've either been meaning to play for some time, ones you've been intrigued by but haven't really decided to try out just yet. Personally I've amassed quite a few PS3 games in the past year or so, some of which I've barely even played, if at all (blame PS Plus for that). And there's certainly a good handful of older games I've meant to try on the system- the new GTA, Heavy Rain, Far Cry 3, Mirror's Edge, and who even knows how many great downloadable games, to name a few. If you're like me at all, then you'd agree that it seems like a goodIf this is truly going to be goodbye to your current gen console, wouldn't you want to ensure a better sense of closure? You know, so when you dump it for its younger, hipper, more attractive sibling, you feel less guilty about it?
...Though you can still secretly hook up again later when all those new late-life RPGs come out (Tales of Symphonia Chronicles HD, Kingdom Hearts 2 HD Remix, the new Persona game). Come on, you know you're going to.


#3.- Early launch issues will be out there (and are already happening), just like last time

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When your console dies, it sees... The Ring.

Launches are rough, there's simply no way around that. If you want proof, just look back to any big online-driven game that made its big debut with major server issues, crashes and setbacks. Diablo 3, Sim City, and GTA Online all suffered major early launch issues just in recent times, despite the full might of the biggest gaming studios working today running the joints. So yeah, launches are rough. But if your issues are sparking memes and parody videos in a matter of days, you know it's not going well.
From the Xbox 360's infamous Red Ring of Death to the recent Blue Light of Death greeting a few early PS4 buyers, it's abundantly clear that the current product could still use a few tweaks and fixes. If it's new on the shelf, it seems bound to have some issues to work out- even just last year the Wii U was put on notice for its slow loading times for updates and downloads, an issue which has been given a fix by Nintendo a few months later, with considerably (if not entirely) satisfactory results. If you really want that shiny new box to live up to its expectations once it's all unwrapped and set up, then you may want to give the developers some post-launch time to work out any hiccups, all the better to work towards those good first impressions that, while not vital or definitive, certainly can't hurt. Just because the developer says it's ready doesn't mean it's ready.

#2.- Launch titles are probably lacking, as developers still need time to figure out how to take full advantage of the system capabilities

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"Meh" has never looked so good.

So yeah, the PS4 launch library isn't all that stellar, if reviews are to be believed. And Xbox One's launch titles, while having one or two more solid exclusives at their disposal, don't seem to be shaping up a whole lot better. Sadly, the old days of instant classics launching with a system right out of the gate appear to be over- games like Super Mario World, Super Mario 64, the original Halo. Mostly we get a lot of glorified tech demos, good-not-great new installments of second-tier franchises, ports of games already released on other systems, and interesting-yet-flawed experiments. This all boils down to two simple factors: a rush to put out the game in time for launch, and a lack of experience with the new hardware (Ubisoft readily admitted to these when it came time to explain what the hell happened with Red Steel on the Wii). So launch games end up in an unfortunate position of having to be the lab rats, the test subjects whose mistakes and stumbles are for the sake of paving the way for later games to resolve those faults, becoming the true defining games of the system. Heck, the last real "classic" launch game would (arguably) have to be Wii Sports. Say what you will about the game, but it was damn revolutionary when it was released, and proved the perfect showcase for what the Nintendo Wii was capable of while being a memorable game in its own right. No wonder third-party support was so weak for the system: Nintendo was the only one who really knew how to take full advantage of the hardware, and wasn't willing to share (a lesson they're beginning to learn from).

#1.- The really good "system sellers" and "killer apps" are coming out later anyway

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Infamous: Second Son. The newly announced Uncharted game. The new Halo. Titanfall. Kingdom Hearts 3. Destiny. Dragon Age III: Inquisition. Watch Dogs. Metal Gear Solid V.
These are just some of many enticing games to come in the next generation of gaming.
Too bad none of them are out yet.
I guess what I'm trying to (rather bluntly) ask is this: why rush to get a new console if there isn't really much of anything out yet that you not only want to play, but absolutely feel you have to play? It simply seems unnecessary to go through all the trouble of waiting in lines, making pre-orders, or pushing your perfectly good current consoles out to the curb if your must-have games for the system aren't even coming for several months (that is if they're even set for 2014 at all).

Honorable Mention: Wait a little while, and the PlayStation/Xbox flame wars will likely calm down... somewhat, at least

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Right on, whatever the hell your name is (look, I haven't played Fallout, okay?)

I mean it's got to, right? I mean, it's not like it will ever really go away anytime soon, but things have been heightened to such extremes in recent months that South Park felt the need to satirize it (and as we all know, that's the ultimate sign nowadays of a major cultural hot topic). But once the systems have already been out for a couple of months, and the Christmas/Boxing Week storm has calmed, hopefully the flames of inane comments will cool to the normal levels of desperate justification and unwavering brand loyalty.
...Please? Come on, for once I'd really love to impulsively scroll through an IGN comments page that isn't littered with debates about which system's graphics are better (PS4), which selection of exclusives is stronger (PS4), or which one is the "true gamer's" system (PS4).
...Damn it, I'm not helping, am I?

Sunday, November 17, 2013

About Time Review: A Sweet British Treat for Rom-Com Fans

By Andrew Braid

Directed by Richard Curtis
Starring:Domhnall Gleeson, Rachel McAdams, Bill Nighy, Lydia Wilson, Tom Hollander
(Limited) Release Date: November 1, 2013
(Wide) Release Date: November 8, 2013

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I will address this as clearly and directly as possible: despite being a man, with man parts and man feels, I like romantic comedies.
Scratch that: I like good romantic comedies. Important distinction to make.
Since I'm a big film-goer, it doesn't make a huge amount of sense to me to instantly dismiss any kinds of genres, so long as they feel in some shape or form like actual movies driven by a story, characters, themes/messages, or even just pure emotion-driven spectacle- even if it's begrudging, they still deserve to be recognized as movies, be they good or not. It makes even less sense, and frankly is nowadays just feeling more and more backwards and arbitrary, to dismiss a genre based on gender-defined categories of who the intended audience is supposed to be. Shouldn't anyone be able to like a rollicking action movie, just as much as anyone should be able to like a romantic comedy, so long as the film in question is a good example of its genre? Just as there are truly great action movies (Die Hard, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Dark Knight), there are also truly great romantic comedies- The Apartment, When Harry Met Sally, and (500) Days of Summer to name a few. Add Love Actually to that list- the 2003 British all-star ensemble film dubbed as "the ultimate romantic comedy", it split itself into a wide array of (occasionally interlocking) stories set around the Christmas season in London, all unified through the theme of love in its many, sometimes surprising forms. It became a sizable hit when it was released, and is still considered by many to be one of the best romantic comedies of its decade, even if it's 63% RT score indicates a more divisive (yet still generally positive) reception. Being a favorite to bring about for the holidays around the household, I definitely recommend you go see it.
Really, go see it.
You may as well just do it if you haven't already.

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Take your time, it's a long bloody movie.

 The film was written and directed by Richard Curtis, most known for his writing of many widely-loved romantic comedies, such as Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill and Bridget Jones' Diary (oh, and Hugh Grant has been in a lot of them, if you hadn't noticed). As to why I urged you to go see it? Well this review's subject, About Time, is Curtis' latest writer/director effort, and watching Love Actually will prove the perfect litmus test regarding your feelings towards its particular sensibilities.
 About Time follows Tim Lake (Domhnall Gleeson), an awkward, shy 21-year-old man who is one day told by his father (Bill Nighy) about his family's secret: that the men in his family have the ability to travel through time. Though the ability can only be used through his own life (yeah, the movie decides not to linger on or dissect its time travel rules, and frankly neither should you), the revelation is going to make for, most assuredly, "a very complicated life". Once he moves out of his family's home to become a lawyer in London, he meets (and through various time-travel shenanigans must re-meet and re-re-meet) the reader for a publishing company, the lovely young woman Mary (Rachel McAdams).

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Bill Nighy on the limits of time travel: "It can only be through your own life. I mean, you can't kill Hitler... or shag Helen of Troy, unfortunately."

 In many romantic comedies, the wacky time-travel shenanigans of Tim trying to woo the girl of his dreams would be the whole focus of the film. It would be full of facepalm-inducing misunderstandings, contrived will-they/won't they tension, a third act post-split montage of people moping, and hugely cheesy (if not over-the-top outrageous) declarations of love leading up to the fairy-tale happy ending of an end-of-movie kiss and/or marriage. But About Time proves to be different, having its main leads happily married and expecting children just past the halfway mark, all while still having satisfied one's movie couple courtship fix. The film shifts into more emotional territory as Tim becomes a father, as well as coping with family problems involving his sister's personal struggles and his father's oncoming death. That the film spends just as much time on the characters falling in love as it does on what happens afterwards feels refreshing in a genre that Hollywood has been driving to increasingly stale lows. It also allows for the film to speak more broadly of its overarching message, sentiments on the nature of life that, while not exactly complex, still prove affirming and worth taking to heart.
Through all of this is a great cast, led by Gleeson's Tim and McAdams' Mary in an ever-charming pairing. You know your romantic pairing is good when you feel like you can just listen to the two of them casually talk about trivial things and still be altogether engaged. The dialogue and its delivery has just the right amount of human awkwardness to make it feel natural, all while still delivering laughs gentle and hearty. It even mixes in a touch of down-to-earth cynicism to keep the proceedings from veering too far into truly saccharine territory. The supporting cast hits all their notes with aplomb, yet it is Bill Nighy as Tim's father who truly stands out, a perfect match for Curtis' style, mixing deprecating wit with an often underlying yet palpable sense of warmth. His scenes with Gleeson as his son are touching without being sappy, fully selling the audience on a more dramatic shift that would likely sink a lesser film if it hadn't struck just the right notes, finding just the right balance.
At 2 hours, the film is pretty consistently engaging, yet occasionally slows in pace with an episodic structure stuffed with various side characters and subplots. While all these facets and people in Tim's life do accentuate the pivotal messages of appreciating life's many moments and details (good and bad), there are certainly a few (admittedly good) scenes that could have been excised. Then again, Curtis' other directing efforts have all proven somewhat overstuffed (The Boat That Rocked proved so such so that its U.S. distributors actually edited out a whopping 30 minutes for release there, under the new title Pirate Radio), and of the three About Time probably still suffers the least from this issue.



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The chemistry between Domhnall Gleeson and Rachel McAdams keeps much of the film aloft.

 About Time is the best romantic comedy in what feels like some time, a statement I stand by even if that praise doesn't mean a whole lot considering the dire straits of the genre at the moment (Remember Playing For Keeps? Wait, of course you don't, even though it came out just last year. Exactly.) While it won't convert any staunch non-fans of the genre in general or of Curtis' prior films, those who are looking for a love story of the sweet, charming, and decidedly British variety will be far from disappointed. Its humor and writing hits just the right spot, mixing its awkward sweetness and sentimentality with just the right pinch of raunchier, more cynical material. Its willingness to move past the standard Hollywood rom-com ending point gives it a refreshingly grounded feel, as does its emotional and bittersweet third-act, which actually results in an even stronger warm, feel-good vibe once the credits roll.
Curtis' Love Actually only seems to have inspired Hollywood to eventually try their own stab at big-star multi-story rom-coms with the toxically dull Valentine's Day (and it's follow-up New Year's Day- wait, don't remember that one either? Again, exactly.) But if we're lucky then maybe, just maybe, About Time will inspire the sputtering Hollywood rom-com machine with some tips as to how they can bring audiences back in better graces. Find some spark, look for some inspiration, think outside the most standard cookie-cutter boxes, give your leads some meat to go with their sweet. You could always try going past the "married ever after" part, for instance...

Final Score: 8.5/10

Pros:
+ Frequently hilarious
+ Gleeson and McAdams have a strong, charming screen chemistry
+ An emotional, sentimental third act that actually works for once
+ Time travel is loose yet effectively mined for both humor and life-affirming pathos 
+ Bill Nighy. Just... Bill Nighy. Seriously, he's awesome.
Cons:
- Your mileage will definitely vary
- Those who dislike rom-coms in general won't have changed their minds after this one
- A little too long, with some good scenes that still could have been cut
- Episodic, occasionally uneven pacing