Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Oscar Nominees: My Thoughts

I woke up this morning in time to catch the tail end of the Official Oscar Nominees Announcement of Officiality, brought to us by Jennifer Lawrence (who I swear grows a foot taller every time I see her) and that Academy president with the Danny DeVito accent. So I was in time to scream “Are you fucking KIDDING me?!” at least once with joy and once with disgust. Sprinkled in amongst this year’s safe, predictable nominees are some legitimate long shots, and that’s cool! A lot of “just maybes” became “totally yesses.” So, even though (as usual) we can pretty much predict all the winners already, I still feel like this Oscar season is a teeny-weeny bit unpredictable. I’ll take it!

A Few Thoughts and Mini-Rants...

Warning: I’m just like the average dude in that I haven’t seen most of the major nominees and probably never will. So my own biases are shallow and crude indeed, as most of yours will be. Wheeeee!

First and foremost, the thing that pisses me off the most: the fact that enough Academy fools thought Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close was worthy of a Best Picture nod. Really, guys? A movie that critics didn’t like and audiences didn’t flock to, a facile and emotionally boring attempt to adapt an interesting novel, and you picked it for top honors? Look, I’m not saying you shouldn’t make movies about 9/11. But I am saying they probably shouldn’t have made this one. Tom Hanks at his Tom Hanksiest can’t hide the fact that the tragedy of 9/11 cannot and should not be summed up by a plucky autistic kid running around NYC on a magical quest that Changes People’s Lives. I’m especially mad because the book was really good. The book worked, because it was a book. I hate that Hollywood thinks they can adapt anything they want and then pat themselves on the back for doing so. It’s not gonna win, but still. EL&IC has no place at the Oscar table.

Yay for Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer! We knew it was coming, but still. Thank you, world, for realizing that (despite its misleading nature) The Help is not about an entitled white girl congratulating herself for being nice to poor black ladies. It’s about the goddamn black ladies. Who are beautiful.

The Best Animated Feature category: damn. On the one hand, I’m right well annoyed that Tintin got snubbed. While it was hardly a masterpiece, it was a damn fun film with really good production values and brilliant action sequences. On the other hand, it is REALLY cool that two foreign films I’ve never heard of, A Cat In Paris and Chico & Rita, snuck in. I’m glad that Pixar is being justly punished for dropping their first turd (seriously, can we just jam our fingers in our ears and deny Cars 2 ever happened?), but I’m irate that the mediocre Puss in Boots got a spot. Kung Fu Panda 2, I actually liked a lot. Go figure. Basically, if the tiresome Spanish kitty was replaced by a teenage Belgian journalist with a gun, this would be my favorite category.

I am very happy about Rooney Mara, Gary Oldman, and Melissa McCarthy; they are three of the maybes that became yesses, and they totally deserve it. On the whole, it’s awesome that Oscar is acknowledging other film genres besides Weepy Death-Ridden Drama, Pretentious Indie Pesudo-Comedy, and Epic Mangling of Historical Event. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad that films like Brokeback Mountain or Precious exist; it validates that we are human beings with complex feelings. But we should always leave room for the Bridesmaids, the Dragon Tattoos, the Dark Knights. Because they, too, define who we are and how we think and live.

I wish I could comment on the snubs everyone’s mad about, such as Michael Fassbender (Shame), Shailene Woodley (The Descendants), Michael Shannon (Take Shelter), or Ryan Gosling (like three different roles). But I haven’t seen any of those movies. Derp.

Time for another mini-rant, even though it’s redundant: fuck the Academy for ignoring Andy Serkis. Yes, I am onboard with the pro-mocap crowd. That chimp in Rise of the Planet of the Apes was far more than a sophisticated special effect; Serkis made the character a hundred times deeper, richer, and more relatable than James “Everyone Thinks I’m a Good Actor Because I Cut My Arm Off On Camera” Franco and Freida “I’m Just Here Because the Movie Needed a Pair of Tits” Pinto. We live in an age when, yes, the line between real and digital is getting blurrier all the time. Motion capture is a form of acting. Yeah, it takes a ton of special effects people to make it work, but they are building the faces of their characters off the faces of the actors. That, coupled with the sheer physical work Serkis has done in this and other roles, makes him worthy. I hope this is one wall that’ll be torn down soon.

The award for Film Whose Omission Will Be Endlessly Whined About By Insufferable Young Hipster Film Students Until You Want to Strangle Them With Their Own Scarves goes to Melancholia.

The award for Film Whose Omission Is Probably Correct But Still Makes You Just a Little Unhappy goes to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, pt. 2.

And the award for Film Whose Omission Just Makes Me Laugh My Ass Off goes to none other than J. Edgar, the movie which proved that when Clint Eastwood joins forces with Leonardo DiCaprio, their combined scowling curdles all quality. Ahhh, schadenfreude.

Who I Want to Win...

BEST PICTURE: I am so ticked that I missed Hugo in theaters. I want it to win, just because it’s not an emofest like so many of the others. Also, when has a movie that is ostensibly for children ever gotten Best Picture? Needs to happen.

BEST DIRECTOR: Dunno. Probably Terence Malick.

BEST ACTOR: Gary Motherfucking Oldman. It so won’t happen, and I so want it to.

BEST ACTRESS: Viola Davis. It would be hilarious if Rooney Mara got it (I imagine the comical look of outrage on the face of every Academy member over the age of 55), but Davis broke my heart and then healed it again in a single movie.

SUPPORTING ACTOR: I do not like thee, Jonah Hill. The reason why, I cannot tell. Other than the fact that you glorify being a fat, immature, self-entitled manchild in a world with way too many of those already. That said, I’ll go with Christopher Plummer because he’s gonna win anyway, and also because of the gay factor.

SUPPORTING ACTRESS: My funny bone says Melissa. My head and heart say Octavia. I’d be happy with either, and good thing, because Octavia’s pretty much a given at this point.

ANIMATED FILM: Anything but Puss in Boots is okay by me.

MAKEUP: Gotta go with Albert Nobbs, based on the stills alone.

MUSIC: No Dragon Tattoo? Lame. I’ll go with Tintin.

ORIGINAL SONG: Wow, two whole nominees. I haven’t heard the song from Rio and I don’t think the “Man or Muppet” song from The Muppets was that great, so I’ll pass.

SPECIAL EFFECTS: Hard choice! A Harry Potter win would be essentially rewarding the whole series, which is cool. Hugo’s effects are classier. Real Steel had some damn good robots (let’s just let Transformers 3 cry in a corner; that wretched franchise is lucky it got within a thousand miles of the Oscars). But I think I’ll go with the damn dirty Apes. Realistic chimps, gorillas, and orangutans gifted with subtle, wordless emotions and visibly evolving minds. Wow.

ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY: Bridesmaids all the way. It’s high time the Academy recognizes how brilliant comedic writing can be.

ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: Wish I’d read all the things the other things are based on. I guess I have to pick Hugo.

That’s it. With the other categories, I either don’t know enough about the nominees or just can’t be arsed. I’ll do another post after the ceremony itself, which will hopefully contain some well-deserved wins, a shocking upset or two, and the comforting balm-like presence of Billy Crystal. Stay tuned!

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Gaming Letdowns of 2011

Have you noticed that I have a huge fetish for making lists of things? Here’s another one.

I mentioned in my Top Games of 2011 list that I played a lot of different games this year. Some were good, some were okay...and some were flops. Nothing matched the sheer awfulness of the worst game I’ve ever played, which is Super Monkey Ball Adventure, but a handful simply let me down, and I’ll share them with you, for chuckles and as a warning.


Big Brain Wolf (PC/Mac)
I like brain-teasers, I like comedy, and I like folklore. Big Brain Wolf combines all three......poorly. It’s a point-and-click game based around old-school puzzles, starring a vegetarian wolf who’s training to be a genie. Yeah, it’s the old “fairy tales get a snarky modern update” thing again, and it’s not as clever as it thinks it is. I wouldn’t call it a terrible game; the graphics are cute, the hero is funny, the puzzles are fine. But it felt clunky overall: bad controls, confusing structure, a lot of padding. It’s easy to miss some of the puzzles, and if you get stuck and need a hint, you’re punished with tedious “brain exercises.” Also, the first few spoken lines in the game use recorded voices...and only the first few lines. That is a fucking gyp. I really don’t think the (small) budget of Big Brain Wolf was handled very well. It doesn’t know what it wants to be, and once I beat it, I forgot most of it quickly. As will you.

Crayon Physics Deluxe (PC/Mac)
Not liking this game makes me feel like a terrible person. For one thing, everyone likes this game. For another thing, artsy physics puzzlers are right up my alley; I loved World of Goo and Portal and I’m really looking forward to playing Trine. So why didn’t this beloved title, in which you can draw any object into the game, click with me? Too cutesy? Music too repetitive? Well, yeah, but the main problem seems to be that my right brain is working in the wrong ways; I’m a painter-type and the game requires an engineer-type. I go on YouTube and see people playing Crayon Physics with grace and brilliance, filling the screen with cool, complex Rube Goldberg contraptions. I play the same puzzle, and my mind goes blank, crying, “I love creative freedom, but this is TOO MUCH!” I’ll keep chipping away at this game and maybe it’ll grow on me. Maybe something will click and I’ll “get” how to play it right. As it is, I keep getting frustrated and feeling dumb. So the problem lies mostly on my end. Moving on.

ObsCure (PS2)
I really, really tried to give this game a chance. It’s aptly-titled, I’m afraid -- a by-the-book survival horror romp about teens fighting monsters in a creepy prep school. It can’t decide whether it wants to rip off Resident Evil or Silent Hill, so it rips off both. Don’t get me wrong, it’s competently made. Graphics, controls, voice acting, all acceptable. But, Jesus CHRIST, is it generic. It doesn’t have a single new thing to add to the survival horror pie. Oh, wait, there’s one new gimmick: two-player co-op mode! In a game with fixed camera angles! There’s no way THAT could go wrong! Also, if a playable character dies, they’re dead for the whole rest of the game, so I spent most of the time frantically trying to keep all my teenage stock characters breathing. Ultimately, the main reason I gave up on ObsCure is that it was too dark to play. Literally. Partway through, the environment got so pitch-black that I couldn’t see a fucking thing, not even when I adjusted my monitor. Games that are guilty of such serious design errors, and don’t have anything interesting to make up for it, deserve obscurity.

Prince of Persia: Warrior Within (PS2)
The general consensus seems to be that the one huge problem with Warrior Within is its weird and inappropriate tonal shift. While its predecessor was a breezy swashbuckling adventure, this one’s a dark and blood-soaked slog. The formerly flippant prince is now a snarling emo dickface. The formerly interesting female characters are now melon-chested trinkets. And so forth. BUT, Warrior Within is still a well-made game. I didn’t even mind its pretentious gloomy tone that much. What killed me was the difficulty curve. This game is supposed to be all about awesome parkour acrobatics and dodging spiky booby traps. Soooooo, why am I suddenly stuck fighting endless gangs of overpowered bad guys with no relief in sight? Call me a pussy for failing to master the prince’s convoluted button combos, but this is not my idea of fun. It’s just dreary. I gave it up for a game that didn’t make me want to render myself prematurely bald.

Spore (PC/Mac)
People will laugh like hyenas at me for starting to play Spore in the first place. Look, I KNEW it had been labeled the Most Disappointing Game In Human History. I KNEW that. But all that I’d seen of it, the trailers and screenshots and actually watching someone else play it, made it look like something I would enjoy playing myself. And I did, for awhile. But I got hung up on the Tribal stage. I’ve never been much into RTS, and I guess it was thick of me to assume that Spore, with its dumbed-down approach, would convert me. My interest petered right out, about the same time I destroyed an enemy tribe and was then informed that I should go and destroy four more enemy tribes in the same fashion. I liked the Cell and Creature stages because they felt more like a game and less like an endless to-do list. I play games for a lot of different reasons, but micromanaging is not one of them. So, yeah. I took a risk and it didn’t pay off. Maybe I’ll try again later.

Trauma (PC/Mac)
I’ve mixed feelings about this last one. I guess it achieves what it sets out to accomplish; there’s just so very little to it. It’s a point-and-clicker, I guess, kind of like an interactive slideshow, in which a woman wanders through memory and dream while recovering from a car crash. It looks really neat and plays smoothly, but also manages to be way too short while simultaneously feeling stretched out. You can beat this thing in a half-hour or so, hidden easter eggs included, but it gets repetitive straight away and the protagonist’s stoned, navel-gazing demeanor does not endear her to the player. After a time, you’ll want to smack this woman and tell her to get the fuck over herself, car crash or no car crash. It sure is a lovely-looking game with some genuinely inspired images, but there’s no challenge and it holds your hand all the way through. Here’s a puzzle, says the game. And here’s exactly how to solve it. Did you get that? We’ll show you the solution a few more times. You doing okay? No, Trauma, I am not doing okay. I am fed up with you. Glad you were cheap. I don’t hate this game any more than I hated any of the games on this list. But it set up my expectations and then twisted them into a limp rag and squeezed them dry.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Favorite Games of 2011

It's 2012! Ring in the Apocalypse!

Having freer and cheaper access to games (via Steam and the Humble Indie Bundle) has proven to be a mixed blessing. On the one hand, I played a ton of games this year. On the other hand, since I’m not a hardcore gamer, it became harder for games to hold my attention. There were many I didn’t finish, or even play for very long. Oh, but there were a few that grabbed me, that I played right through with delight, fully engaged. And here they are.


(Since I definitely had distinct favorites this year, I’m doing this list in countdown form, rather than alphabetically as in the past.)

7. Peggle (PC/Mac)
If playing a video game is like eating dessert, a game like Peggle is akin to chugging an entire bottle of high fructose corn syrup. That said, it’s ridiculously fun and addictive. PopCap is one of the titans of the casual arcade genre, and this garish Pachinko-like franchise has ensnared plenty of middle-aged soccer moms, cubicle drones, grandparents, and other folks who scoff at real games. Can you hit every orange peg before you run out of balls? Is there actual skill involved, or is it just chaos screaming in the void? Although I prefer games with real stories, it’s always nice to have something you can pick up and kill time with whenever. It’s also worth pointing out that Peggle deviously imbues the player with an overblown sense of achievement, awarding points in six-figure sums and blasting you with stars, rainbows and Beethoven’s Ninth when you clear a round. Who cares that you got fired and your leg fell off? YOU WIN!!!!!!!!! Shallow it may be, but I can never quite get enough of Peggle and its sequel, Peggle Nights. It’s too late for me. Save yourself.

6. The Secret of Monkey Island (PC/Mac)
“My name is Guybrush Threepwood and I want to be a pirate!” If you’re not laughing yet, you will be. YOU WILL BE. Back when LucasArts wasn’t a piece of shit company, Monkey Island was its pointable, clickable crown jewel. This is one of the funniest games ever made in the entire world, blindsiding you with gags as you guide the fresh-faced young hero on his quest to become a pirate captain. I’m faced with the problem that I want to talk about the brilliant humor but I also don’t want to spoil any jokes, for the benefit of unfortunate souls who haven’t played this yet. I was one of those souls until recently; thank Christ we live in the age of downloading. I’m glad the Special Edition includes the original as well as the updated graphics; there’s just something funnier about those old-school giant pixels and unsubtle color palette. Either way, you will laugh long and hard. Oh, and it’s also a really well put-together adventure game, too. Basically, nothing to complain about. Except the fact that there’s no Mac port of Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge. AAARGHFUCK.

5. Portal (Multi-Platform)
I hate bandwagons. Jump on a bandwagon and you’re doomed to join the ranks of the honking fanboys, too self-satisfied to realize how annoying and unfunny you are to the outside world. So, yeah, I didn’t get around to Portal until 2011. And I’m glad. Going into it knowing what its worst gags are, knowing that I hated the Cake/Lie bullshit and that overrated song at the end, I was able to enjoy it for the subtle little masterpiece of humor and design that it really is. Not too much to say; you probably know why everyone likes Portal so much. Great conception, tight as a drum, jokes that (apart from the Cake/Lie bullshit) get funnier over time, and a perfect example of how to do a lot with a shoestring budget. I wish more mainstream game designers had the breathing room to take chances and think outside the (orange) box. We’d get more Portals that way. And we also need more villains like GlaDOS, the sweetly psychotic robot overmind whose every line drips with snarky, passive-aggressive grandeur. Now, has the brouhaha over Portal 2 ended yet? Is it safe to come out from under my rock and play it?

4. The Tiny Bang Story (PC/Mac)
I wouldn’t be surprised if you’ve not heard of this one. It’s on Steam, I happened to notice it, and it promptly won my pwecious widdle heart. Sarcasm aside, this is how to do a kid-friendly puzzle/hidden object game correctly! Set on a tiny little planet that needs saving, the game takes you through a dreamy, whimsical, and utterly charming odyssey. It’s very short and not that hard, but I found it an absolute joy to play. Maybe it was the watercolory graphics, or the great music, or the abstract storyline that hints at things but leaves you to fill in the blanks. No bad guys, nothing to kill or destroy, just puzzles and secrets and exploration. I admit it’s not that substantial and certainly not for “serious” gamers, but something about it appealed to me on all levels. It means you no harm and invites rather than insists. It’s just challenging enough to not be condescending. If you have a smart child aged 6-10 who likes computer games, get them The Tiny Bang Story and play it with them. Trust me. I’ve already replayed it twice in this year alone.

3. Submachine (Free Online)
What a wondrously strange and haunting realm Mateusz Skutnik has dreamed up. This Polish artist/architect has created many cool flash games, but his crowning achievement is the Submachine series. Starting out simple, this point-and-click puzzler grows absolutely vast in scope, as you find yourself exploring the titular Submachine -- a dusty, ramshackle pocket universe where the ruined scraps of human history seem to have aggregated. I love ambiguous narratives and this one is a scattered mosaic, impossible to fully piece together...but it’s so much fun to try. The graphics and music are minimalist and spooky; a sense of loss hangs over this lonely realm. In the vast, echoey Submachine, are you the only living, breathing creature left? Each entry in the series is stranger and more expansive, and although it’s cousin to such titles as Myst and Machinarium, there is truly nothing quite like it. I was riveted. And any old prunes still sniping that video games can’t be art, can shut right the hell up.

2. Aquaria (PC/Mac)
Man, oh man, this game is good. SO GOOD. It may be a little indie title, but of all the games I played this year (Spore included), Aquaria is the one that felt the hugest. It’s about an amnesiac fishlady named Naija who must explore an underwater world, trying to figure out who she is and why the ocean seems to have been infected by an evil presence. It ain’t perfect; the graphics are lovely but quite two-dimensional, and the characters are bland. But the sheer playability! I can’t imagine why it took so long to make a MetroidVania game in a weightless, underwater location (Ecco the Dolphin doesn’t fucking count). Each environment Naija visits cries out for intense exploration; the world map is bloody gigantic, and there are countless dozens of colorful sea critters to fight, eat, ride, or just hang out with. The music is dynamite. The controls are sleek. There’s a RPG-inspired “cooking” system for creating custom power-ups and it works really well. There are epic bosses, secret areas and items to hunt down, badass special powers...and on and on. Aquaria blew me away; it made me want to be a game designer so I could make things like it. I played it way back at the start of the year, and for the longest time, I was pretty sure I wouldn’t play anything I liked more in 2011. What knocked this fun and wholly absorbing aquatic magnum opus from the top spot?

1. Killer7 (PS2)
Awwwwwwwww, yeah. Thank you, weird-ass Japan. I’d never been sure if I wanted to play this; rail shooters ain’t my style. But I finally caved in. And my mind got blown, inverted, Möbius-stripped, and then blown in the pornographic sense. You may know that this is a bizarre, category-defying title from batshit developer Suda 51. If you have not played it, I’m afraid no description will do it justice, and if you have played it, I shouldn’t have to explain anything. You play as a group of assassins who share the same physical body; the setting is some sort of trippy, Orwellian future; the bad guys are a group of giggling, dragon-skinned cultists who like to explode in your face; and the bosses include an afro-sporting Texan evangelist, a murderous albino in purple sequins, and the Power Rangers. The game plays like a fucked-up shooting gallery, as you switch between your band of killers to solve puzzles and take advantage of their unlimited weaponry. You’re also haunted by the snarky ghosts of your past victims, and take advice from a dangling freak in a bondage suit. Get the picture? There is nothing, absolutely NOTHING, like Killer7. Some may hate it. I adored it to an unseemly degree. So many games are faithful carbon copies of each other; Killer7 is a gigantic “fuck you” to all tradition and convention, interested only in being itself. If you appreciate video games, I beg you to play this. See how far the concept of a video game can be pushed.