Saturday, February 18, 2012

To Squee Or Not To Squee, vol. 2

So it’s 2012, the world is probably gonna end, and if it does, my biggest regret (apart from the whole “being dead” thing) will be that there’s so much cool stuff coming out and I may never get around to enjoying it all. On the other hand, if any of that cool stuff turns out to be sucky and/or disappointing, I’ll be glad I got melted by planet-wide lava flows rather than live to be let down. Here’s my second list of (mostly) upcoming stuff that I hope gets here before the Apocalypse, so I can see if my excitement was warranted and my anxiety was unfounded!


American Horror Story
WHAT IT IS: A new TV show you might have heard of. Season One aired this past Fall and surprised everyone by being pretty damn scary and quite good, in a campy kind of way. Series creator Ryan Murphy and his sidekicks then dropped a bombshell by killing off all the main characters by season’s end (uh, spoiler alert) and announcing that Season Two would have a brand-new setting, cast, and story.
WHY I’M EXCITED: I tend to wait on TV shows in case they get canceled, but now that AHS is doing well, I plan to gobble Season One right up. I love horror and you don’t see much of it on TV, unless it be of the lame, watered-down variety (I’m looking at you, Supernatural). Plus, it’s quite rare to have a show that tells a different story every year, and it should be awesome to see how they play with the concept. Plenty of work for character actors!
WHY I’M SKEPTICAL: Season Two will prove if this ambitious project will even work. Not all AHS fans were pleased to learn that the show will pull a tabula rasa each season, and if the network gets nervous, we may have another Heroes -- a show that gets stuck in a creative rut while promising “big changes” with increasing wretchedness. Murphy tends to craft shows that start out strong and then get lame (Glee and Nip/Tuck), and I wasn’t pleased to hear that Season Two would take place in an institutional setting because I’m kinda sick of haunted hospitals and asylums. Give us a second stellar season, please, and don’t fall on your high-concept face!

UPDATE: I've watched Season One! Read my reaction here.

The Witness
WHAT IT IS: The next game by Jonathan Blow. Who? Why, the chap who made Braid, a game that everyone (myself included) drooled over, that near-flawlessly blended fun gameplay with highbrow aesthetics and helped lead the new indie game revolution! That Jonathan Blow! He’s changing direction quite a bit with The Witness; it’s a first-person explore-a-thon in which you must solve puzzles on a lovely, mysterious island.
WHY I’M EXCITED: Children of the 1990s, did you do a double take upon reading that last sentence? Yes, The Witness is a helluva lot like Myst...and I happen to love the Myst series to an unseemly degree. I’m a fan of any game where you can explore at leisure and solve puzzles without ever dying. We already know Blow can make a crazy-good game, and the early footage from The Witness looks dreamy and picturesque. Gotta love the air of mystery that hangs over the project!
WHY I’M SKEPTICAL: According to demo gameplay, the puzzles consist of easy, repetitive little mazes that you complete to unlock doors. That...doesn’t sound too engaging. Yeah, I know, it’s just a tease. But I worry that The Witness will be more about making some sort of artistic statement and less about being a freaking GAME. If you haven’t noticed, indie gamemakers such as Blow tend to be incredibly pretentious, and if you give any artist too much leeway, they may drift into the clouds and never come down. It’ll look pretty, that much is certain, but The Witness had also better be as fun as Braid was. And it had better not be a self-congratulatory arsty-fartsy wankfest on Blow’s part.

EDIT: I played it! Read about my experience here.

Pacific Rim
WHAT IT IS: An upcoming kaiju film. For the non-nerds out there, kaiju is the genre that deals primarily with gigantic monsters such as Godzilla stomping through cities. It can also involve giant robots. Pacific Rim involves both. Unlike most kaiju films, it is directed by Guillermo del Toro.
WHY I’M EXCITED: Because Guillermo del Toro has not directed a single bad movie. Even the one about giant sewer cockroaches was pretty damn good. I expect nothing but quality from the man who gave us Pan’s Labyrinth, The Devil’s Backbone, Cronos, and the Hellboy films. I love him to death, and after breaking my heart twice by walking away from The Hobbit and At the Mountains of Madness, he’s finally settled on a project, and you know? I’m damn excited to see his take on Japanese giant-robot-stompy-monster-explosion films! He’ll bring his own special flair, and it doesn’t hurt that he’s got interesting actors like Idris Elba, Charlie Day, Rinko Kikuchi, and his go-to guy, Ron Perlman.
WHY I’M SKEPTICAL: I’m only a little skeptical. I suppose it’s conceivable that del Toro could make a flop, and something about this film reminds me of the disappointing Cloverfield. Perhaps...maybe...we should leave Japanese monster/robot/etc. movies to the Japanese? Whatever; I’m still all over this when it comes out. Del Toro is the MAN.

UPDATE: I watched it! Read my reaction here.

Upside Down
WHAT IT IS: It’s Romeo and Juliet meets Inception. The setting is two worlds that are vertically flip-flopped mirrors of one another: when you look up, you don’t see the sky, you see an upside-down landscape. Kirsten Dunst and Jim Sturgess play the star-crossed hotties who break the laws (and the physics) of their respective worlds by being in love. I could make a “69” joke but that would be crude.
WHY I’M EXCITED: I’d never heard of this movie until I saw the trailer, and then...holy shit. The plot is what you’d expect, but the special effects! Practically every shot has something really fucking cool, and it looks like they’re taking the inverted-worlds concept to the extreme. I want to see this for the visuals alone, though it doesn’t hurt that A) it’s a French-made film with cool foreign sensibilities, and B) Dunst and Sturgess are adorable.
WHY I’M SKEPTICAL: I worry that, as is often the case, the trailer shows all the cool stuff. For all we know, the bulk of the film takes place in boring rooms. Also, love stories with a sci-fi twist often come out shitty; just look at The Lake House (Keanu woos Sandra...from the fuuuuuture!) or The Time-Traveler’s Wife (Eric loves Rachel...but he’s lost in tiiiiiiime!). You just gotta accept that these films are goofy, and I can do that, but Upside Down could well turn out to be a good-looking coat of paint slapped on a flimsy cardboard house. Give me a decent script and plausible characters, that’s all I ask! Don’t ruin the special effects with an un-special everything else!

UPDATE: I watched it! Read my reaction here.

A Song of Ice and Fire
WHAT IT IS: If you’re the type of dummy who only watches TV, I’m talking about Game of Thrones here. George R.R. Martin’s ginormous fantasy epic contains five thick books (with at least two more to come) and has been spun off into an acclaimed HBO show which provided Sean Bean with yet another opportunity to buy it onscreen. Spoiler alert.
WHY I’M EXCITED: I’m expanding the guidelines of this list to include things that are already available, but that I just haven’t gotten to yet. I didn’t pay much attention to Martin’s series until the arrival of the show made me take notice. Now I’m interested, all right. It’s like Tolkien, but more down-and-dirty, more sexy, more REAL. I wanna read the book series and, time permitting, get into the TV series as well! Both are going strong and promise to provide entertainment for years to come.
WHY I’M SKEPTICAL: Because of the phrase “years to come.” I already have a titanic stack of books waiting to be read. And I’m thinking of adding a series that spans thousands of pages and features dozens of characters? Really? I worry that diving into A Song of Ice and Fire would be more exhausting than rewarding, and if I actually don’t like it, I’ll feel like a doofus. Even worse, I will join the ranks of hapless fans who typically have to wait years for a new novel by the notoriously un-prolific Martin...and you can bet their fanboy whinging will make me want to eat my own eardrums. I’m probably still gonna become a Martin fan, but I have to get psyched first...and accept that it will consume even more of my precious downtime.

UPDATE: Read my reaction to the first three books in the series here!
UPDATE 2: My thoughts after reading books four and five can be found here! 

Sly Cooper 4: Thieves In Time
WHAT IT IS: Way before Cole McGrath was running around shooting lightning from his nipples, Sucker Punch Productions put themselves on the map with Sly Cooper and the Thievius Racoonus, a stealth-based platformer about a suave raccoon thief. Two more well-received games followed, and then...Sucker Punch moved on. Now Sly’s back. And he’s lost in tiiiiiiiiime!
WHY I’M EXCITED: Sly Cooper is my favorite video game franchise after Silent Hill. Three games is not enough, and quite frankly, everything about the fourth one makes me jizz myself. The released screenshots and footage look gorgeous. The gameplay seems to be faithful, with the old emphasis on context-sensitive sneaking and acrobatics. And time travel is awesome. The promise of meeting Sly Cooper’s ancestors (who are repeatedly referred to in the earlier games) and borrowing their moves and costumes....fuck, yes! I’m also curious to see what they’ll do with the story (Sly was last seen faking amnesia in order to cozy up to his lover/nemesis, Inspector Carmelita Fox) and the large cast of characters they’ve amassed. Thank you, Sucker Punch!
WHY I’M SKEPTICAL: OH, WAIT, Sucker Punch isn’t making this. Nope, they’ve moved on to Cole McGrath and his lightning nipples, handing the reigns to Sanzaru Games, a company primarily known for....porting. Not good. We’ve seen time and time again that game franchises tend to suffer when they change hands. Either the newcomers decide to fuck the fans and change everything, or they’re so enamored that they basically copypaste the original and it feels like a goddamn expansion pack. Like I said, what I’ve seen of the game so far looks stellar. But the more excited I get about something, the more nervous I become that it’ll fall short of its promise. Also, they’re bringing back my least favorite character, Dimitri the lizard. I hate that douchebag.

UPDATE: I played it! Read my reaction here.

The Hobbit
WHAT IT IS: You know exactly what it is. Ten years after the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Peter Jackson is finally making two films based on Tolkien’s first Middle Earth adventure.
WHY I’M EXCITED: Because if I wasn’t, a doctor would be declaring me legally dead. I fucking love the LotR films and this is the same director, same studio, same New Zealand setting, and many of the same actors. This is...this is like the world’s most badass family reunion. Seriously. Old faves like Ian McKellen and Andy Serkis mesh with awesome new pedigree like Martin Freeman, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Richard Armitage. The first trailer sent me through the roof with bliss. Sexy dwarves, dragons, that annoying Ring, trolls, spiders, Stephen Fry....GAAAHHHH, SOOOO EPIC.
WHY I’M SKEPTICAL: Could these movies not rock? Well...the road to production was long and rocky indeed, with tons of drama that hopefully won’t affect the filming. Also, I’m not quite sure about the choice to make two movies. Most of the new material sounds awesome (Gandalf fighting the Necromancer? YES, PLEASE), but some of it sounds a bit forced (do we really need more Legolas?). Also, I may be alone in this, but I’m actually disappointed that Guillermo del Toro walked away. As a director, he’s more consistently good than Peter Jackson (The Lovely Bones, anyone?), and I was super-delighted to see his take on Middle Earth. Now we’ll never know. But who am I kidding? The Hobbit is going to be amazing. Duh.

UPDATE: I've seen The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey! Read my review here.
UPDATE 2: My review of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug can be read here!
UPDATE 3: And the end of the whole affair, The Battle of the Five Armies, is reviewed here.

Stay tuned...well, be patient...because no matter how long it takes, I will get my paws on all these things and I will see if they live up. And then I will report the results. It’s what I do.

Friday, February 10, 2012

To Squee Or Not To Squee: The Muppets

Last summer, I made a post about some things I was looking forward to, and my enthusiasm for the end result versus my fear that I’d be let down. I suppose that the gentlemanly thing to do is actually report on the stuff in that journal as I encounter it and (to quote the original post’s stupid-ass title) squee or don’t squee.

I’m super-ass late in reviewing the new Muppet movie, because I watched it back in November when it first came out. In this case, I think waiting a bit was better than making a snap judgment, because it allowed my first impression (WOOOOO!!!) to make room for some reservations (Ehhh...) and ultimately come to a satisfactory compromise (A’ight).

Basically, this is a really fun and entertaining film that is by no means a masterpiece, but we forgive it anyway. On its own, it’s jolly and colorful, energetic for the kids and witty for the adults. But we’re all most concerned with how it lives up to its pedigree. Of all the things on my original list, this alarmed me the most, because A) the last few Muppet projects have been shit, B) Jason Segel appeared to be on an ego trip and I feared the Muppets would be stuck in the shadow of his big head, and C) Frank Oz didn’t approve. Also, the marketing for the movie got waaayyyyy out of hand. But then it actually arrived in theaters, and you know? It gets most everything right. It’s not trying desperately to be “hip” like the dreadful Muppets from Space; in fact, it’s the bad guy who plots to buy the Muppet brand name and replace our favorite characters with gritty, nihilistic, corporate-approved doppelgangers. Touché.

The plot, about saving the old Muppet Theatre from a vile oil tycoon played by Chris Cooper (who is having way more fun than should be allowed), is just an excuse for songs, dance numbers, sight gags, celebrity cameos, fourth-wall-breaking, slapstick, and tons of callbacks to the good old days of Muppetdom. Since seeing Muppets 2011, I’ve been able to finally go back and watch a bunch of the original Muppet Show on DVD, and yeah, they get things right, more or less. There’s cameos from tons of characters who haven’t been seen onscreen in decades. The modern touches blend pretty well with the retro shout-outs. Now, I have to admit, you can always tell you’re watching a fan-made project. The movie is so enamored with the Muppets of old, so respectful, that you can sometimes see the screen gleaming with fanboy saliva. But at least they poke fun at their own selves for being this way. The happy ending is incredibly over the top, basically a huge spunk load blown over the Muppets, but it knows what it is and winks through the wank.

So, yes, Muppets 2011 is both tons of fun and about as Jim Henson-y as it could be without Jim Henson. It’s not perfect. I wasn’t a fan of Walter, the new Muppet protagonist; seriously, dude needed to get over himself and stop being a little fucking parasite. Jason Segel and Amy Adams were too cutesy for my tastes, but at least they graciously let the Muppets have the spotlight. Kermit was great; Steve Whitmire has been playing the frog for long enough to grasp the Jim Henson vibe. I did miss Frank Oz; Miss Piggy and Fozzie sounded wrong to me without him. But THANK YOU, filmmakers, for reducing my least favorite Muppet -- Pepe the Prawn, who had a huge hand in ruining Muppets from Space -- to a tiny cameo. Another thing I was surprised and appreciative about was that Rizzo the Rat doesn’t even appear, except maybe in the background. Gonzo’s schtick was always his unseemly attraction to chickens and the fact that his lady love was a comely hen named Camilla. Then Rizzo muscled in as Gonzo’s BFF and their double act rose to overdominate (See, again, the ruining of Muppets from Space). Rizzo’s gone, Camilla’s back, and the universe has achieved balance.

Look, if you want to hate on this film because you feel it’s untrue to Jim Henson’s original vision, fine. But I don’t believe the Muppets themselves would want you to -- and, yes, like most of us, I think of them as real people. They’re all about bringing happiness and laughter to the world while keeping their tongues planted in their cheeks the whole time. They’re the hippie dream, played with a wink and some snark. They’re immortal, no matter whose hands are shoved up their backsides. And they know it. And so, I hope, do we.

FINAL VERDICT: A modest but still perfectly audible squee.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

To Squee Or Not To Squee: Imaginaerum

Last summer, I made a post about some things I was looking forward to, and my enthusiasm for the end result versus my fear that I’d be let down. I suppose that the gentlemanly thing to do is actually report on the stuff in that journal as I encounter it and (to quote the original post’s stupid-ass title) squee or don’t squee.

First up: Imaginaerum, the new studio album by my favorite Finnish masters of symphonic metal, Nightwish. Actually, Nightwish is the only metal band in the world I like, mainly because their idea of “metal” includes full-on orchestras and resembles the soundtrack to Lord of the Rings if Tolkien had been a member of a motorcycle gang. Before I review the album, I must briefly address the elephant in the room. A few years ago, Nightwish’s original female vocalist, Tarja Turunen, was kicked out of the band in a very drama-filled manner. She was replaced by Anette Olzon of Sweden, who, while possessing an awesome set of pipes, can’t match the sheer grandeur of the operatically-trained Tarja. For many fans, that was the end of the band, and nothing will change their minds.

I am not one of those fans. And Imaginaerum is fucking awesome.

The album (which was originally titled Imaginarium) is going hand in hand with a full-blown feature film that will be released later. Good thing, because it feels very cinematic. Nightwish has been able to spread their creative wings a lot more recently, and it totally shows. Imaginaerum is bombastic without being annoying and leaps from genre to genre while still sounding like Nightwish at their drum-slamming, guitar-snarling best. Anette Olzon seems comfortable in her duties by now, and the new material is definitely written with her in mind. Tuomas Holopainen, the band’s keyboardist and main songwriter, has composed a gift basket of musical madness that I totally dig, for the most part. I love Nightwish’s old work, but now they’ve gotten so damn interesting!

This metal album actually dares to have quiet moments! The opening song, “Taikatalvi,” is a frosty lullaby. “Turn Loose the Mermaids” and “The Crow, the Owl and the Dove” are laid-back folk ballads. “Slow, Love, Slow” is a freaking lounge song, for Chrissake. Hardcore metalheads will sneer, but I love the outside-the-box approach to music. I also love anything even remotely Celtic and (as on their last album, Dark Passion Play) Nightwish keep leaning in that direction. My favorite track, “I Want My Tears Back,” is a pop-metal blitzkrieg in which wailing bagpipes feature prominently. Hell, yes! And there’s plenty that invokes the more traditional Nightwish, particularly the dark “Ghost River” and the momentous “Rest Calm.” Honestly, the only track I don’t care for is “Scaretale,” which dives face-first into Tim Burton/Danny Elfman territory; it’s too kooky and tries way too hard to achieve what I like to think of as the Hot Topic vibe. Why would you want to achieve that? I fucking hate zit-faced teens who stick safety pins in their noses and put Jack Skellington patches on their black hoodies and worship Jhonen Vasquez and wear pants the size of truck tarps and actually think they’re dark and edgy. But I digress.

All in all, this album is the shit. I dunno if the movie will be any good, but at least we know it’ll have a damn fine soundtrack. Yeah, Nightwish will always be a bit silly and more than a bit over-the-top. Yeah, we’ll always miss the gravitas of Tarja’s singing voice. But now they’re getting to evolve, their lyrics are getting more complex, they’re quoting Walt Whitman, they have bagpipes, and I’m already ready for their next project.

FINAL VERDICT: A big squee!