Monthly Archives: May 2015

Trying to be a Game

Trying to be a Game

At some point, the umbrella is too small. You keep throwing things under it, hoarding definitions and references and landmarks, until it stops being an umbrella altogether and starts being a noose. The ones that hoisted the parasol as a banner start to resent the foisted structure.

Of course then the problem is one of nomenclature. What do you even call it if not this thing? This is a struggle that strikes all artistic mediums after a certain point of maturity. Once all the obvious bits are done away with, you have to start asking “what not” instead of “where to begin.” All the fruit, low-hanging or otherwise, has left the tree.

That’s how you encounter situations like the 240-hour Modern Times Forever, a Danish film that depicts how Helsinki’s Stora Enso headquarters building would decay over the next few millennia. Few would dare call it a film as something you could casually watch on your television, but it still is a categorical fit. (Strangely, though, it has a lot in common with many of the first films ever made including Eadweard Muybridge’s galloping horse.)

Video games are finding themselves critically and quickly at this point. Over the short span of 70-ish years, the industry has gone from figuring out what it needs to do to figuring out what it can do. It needed to give people an interactive experience. But what could it necessarily do beyond that?

The term “low-hanging fruit” has earned a negative connotation, but it’s not always a bad thing. The grasp and execution of it all lays the foundation for what lies higher up. Lower doesn’t mean it’s within reach; it doesn’t preclude innovation. In fact, it often requires it.

Certainly the earliest and most recognizable video games were of the needs variety. Consider Pong, a tennis-based game that took a simple and immediately intuitive competitive structure and gameplay loop into the history books. Then Asteroids and Centipede, two classics that arguably rode the space wave amidst the recently launched NASA Space Shuttle program into relevancy and, consequently, popularity.

Very quickly—relative to other mediums like music and film—video games wanted to do more, jumping from tree to tree in pursuit of higher and higher fruit. From simplistic coin-ops to the home console to the modern era of games, we eventually arrive at the like of Proteus and Dear Esther. Whole genres push the greater corral like interactive novels and, well, I guess you could call them experiments.

This is all a very long and roundabout way to bring up something that has been cropping up lately: Mad Max previews. First off, it’s crazy for any of the previewers to compare with or expect anything resembling the recent film Mad Max: Fury Road. Their mostly aligned release schedules seem to be more coincidence than anything else. It’s completely detached from the movie.

But the second part is that ignoring that first thing brings up some interesting considerations. Whereas the film was full of life and drama and implements that are exceedingly specific to what director George Miller wanted to achieve, the game appears to be a by-the-numbers affair, albeit a rather competent one. But lifeless it is by comparison.

It’s not that the game itself lacks content or life; on the contrary, developers Avalanche Studios (the folks behind the rambunctious and teeming Just Cause games) and publisher Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment (the same behind the Batman Arkham franchise) seem to have instilled a lot of freneticism into the game. With that combined pedigree, it seems inevitable the kind of game they would make.

That inevitability seems to have trapped them, though. Instead of questioning what the game can be, they made what it needed to be. It reads like a checklist (car combat, melee combat, open world, outposts, etc.) and even more so when the layers peel back. Things like throwing up into the air trackable/countable achievements like yanked tires or freed territories. Jason Shreier of Kotaku made the astute and appropriate Ubisoft comparison.

Not that there’s anything even wrong with the 1 + 2 = Mad Max equation. The structure seems like a natural fit for the fiction and the universe, so it can hardly be blamed as a capitalization on a gift horse. But the described framework quickly became a prescriptive one where reach and grasp were easily met by fruit so low it might as well already be in the basket.

Mad Max

It seems like Mad Max is trying so hard to be a game that it never wanted to explore what else it could be. It seems almost comfortable under the umbrella, watching others push out into the rain and stumble and fall. In the expansion under the brim, you go further and further until a new shelter takes in your borders.

This is not to disparage a game that isn’t even out yet nor is it to put down the artists and developers and designers behind the scenes putting it out. This is just a statement—a plea to not always want to be a game but rather be whatever you need to be. You may not fit under this umbrella and others may not join you under yours, but that’s better than slotting into a mold that never quite fit.

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Mad Max: Fury Road Review: Pedal to the Metal

Mad Max: Fury Road

Mad Max: Fury Road is the most cogent insanity you will see all year. Every step of the way is another that takes you further away from recognizing anything resembling reality but each thunderous push forward makes sense. With so much empty action and hollow drama out there, it’s remarkable to find a film that gives madness with substance.

Not a sequel (fan theories be damned) but not being touted as a reboot, this entry into the franchise finds Max (Tom Hardy) once more trying to survive in a desert wasteland following some cataclysmic event forcing the total collapse of society. He’s captured by a battle-tuned gang called the War Boys only to be set out again as a chained up “blood bag” for a pursuer in the chase.

The hunt is after an Imperator named Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a leader of the group that has turned against their cultish king Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). Joe has been holding beautiful women as his wives for breeding—seeing as how the desert near-apocalypse has turned everyone hideous—but Furiosa could abide no more and seeks to set it right.

From the beginning to even the end of that narrative setup—and all the way to the end—is the most bat shit crazy and overwhelming dive into a pool of lunacy. It’s a hungry sort of insanity surrounding all of the action, like if a red-tailed hawk didn’t just want to but had to dive faster so he took hold of a passing F-16 and went headfirst into a pile of fireworks and gasoline.

And it’s all totally comprehensible. With the combat-ready big rigs and “pole cats”—the guys you see in the trailer riding atop swaying poles attached to speeding trucks—and the inexplicable but absolutely necessary flaming guitar War Boy, it would be easy to lose sight of the purpose of each action sequence. But director George Miller has an uncanny knack for making visual absurdity wholly digestible and beautiful.

At no point does it come across as action happening for the sake of action. A great deal of it borders on gratuitous, but it fits so well within the world Miller has built that it all seems natural. There’s a logic to the reactions and nutso solutions for even the smallest problems that crop up. Siphoning nitro from mouth directly to the engine and tank-convertible cars and even more hysteria that defies words all nestle right into your arms like an exploding, bleeding, screaming teddy bear.

Mad Max: Fury Road

That is perhaps the most impressive part: the world-building is so exhaustive. Like how scarcity of resources have led to distinctly exclusive encampments that specialize solely in those assets. Or how singularly capable a cult leader can manipulate beliefs into unwavering loyalty and a twisted sense of camaraderie. Every single piece of Fury Road seems completely considered.

That part is not a surprise considering Miller has been storyboarding and concept arting since the late 1990s. There wasn’t even a screenplay for the longest time. The surprising part is how from that unconventional development there also emerged several strong, stout themes.

There isn’t a lot of dialogue—just like the other Mad Max films—but that allows everything to be intellectually distilled into just primal senses. While primarily all about survival, characters emerge from their visually stated origins just as do your desires for these characters. You know who you want to survive and who needs a bloody retribution right off the bat and you begin to intuit why along the way.

Mad Max: Fury Road

Take for example the War Boy Nux (Nicholas Hoult), the aforementioned pursuer to Furiosa. You might recognize him as the fellow in the trailers yelling into abject terror something about a lovely day. Already a delectable turn for normally nice boy Hoult, Nux goes through several transformations. And as you understand the strangely Norse-infused ideologies of Joe, it makes more and more sense in a demented way.

The mythology extends further into even the name of the movie. Joe’s wives act very much in the fashion of Greek Furies, or Norse Valkyries. In their pursuit of reclaiming Joe’s “property,” these women are guiding—picking and choosing—those that die and ascend to the prize promised them.

And then there’s the feminist angle, which is not necessarily feminist so much as it is humanist. “We are not things,” says the wives. And once the elderly women enter the picture, they make a structured and bold entrance. It’s a statement about possession of people as well as the intrinsic value of a body versus spirit. Absolutely there is a feminist statement in it, but there’s also a core that seeks to defeat universal folly. (But really, those women kick ass. Don’t forget that.)

Mad Max: Fury Road

There are a few disappointing bits to the film, though. As a consequence of the lack of dialogue, which is also a consequence of being incessantly chased and exploded, there isn’t much of a discrete arc outside of Nux. Max and Furiosa are mostly the same as when they started by the end of the movie and the wives don’t project much personality beyond wanting to not be sex slaves. And due to the heavy use of mouth-obscuring masks and Hardy’s trademark gruff, much of that dialogue is indecipherable.

So then unless you are able to pick up and buy into the instinctual development of these characters, it’s a lot harder to care for them. You begin with broad swaths of personalization and as the movie goes on, you see the layers emerge rather than listening for them. Showing is a lot harder to do than telling anyway, but it’s so much more effective. With all the carnage, though, showing is even harder, but Miller still manages it, though not as much as he could probably do with a few dozen more hours.

Miller is still a master of kinetic filmmaking, and this time he has injected his cinematic statement with hefty social commentary. He never overindulges himself into a gratuitous state, never going chargeless into a pointless fight or explosion. He’s hewn Mad Max: Fury Road into a sharp and profound and striking film that you should definitely see.

Mad Max: Fury Road

Final Score: 10 out of 10

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Pitch Perfect 2 Review: Aca-Something

Pitch Perfect 2

Pitch Perfect 2 is barely a movie. And that should be a massive consideration. While Pitch Perfect managed to capture pop culture lightning in a bottle that also happened to house a story about finding friends and a sense of belonging, the sequel squeaks by in being a collection of loosely connected jokes, songs, and scenes. And it’s still probably worth seeing.

It opens a few years down the road following the first movie with the Barden Bellas, the all-girl a capella group at a fictional Georgia college, performing at the John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts. Still riding high from their national victory (and, apparently, subsequent repeats), they have official gone big time.

Unfortunately, a classic wardrobe malfunction in front of President and Mrs. Obama sends them into the gutter and forces them to compete in the international circuit to regain their respect. The problem arrives in three parts: 1) a new legacy pledge shows up, 2) the reigning international champions are dangerously German, and 3) Becca Mitchell (Anna Kendrick) gets a job at a recording studio.

Despite all the surface-level differences, the plot moves in very much the same way as the first film. Becca, in fact, repeats her arc of going from too-cool-for-you to “I love you awesome nerds” once more. But then the beats involving being new to competitive a capella, finding a love interest, and integrating personal musical desires get excised and put onto newcomer Emily Junk-Hardon (Hailee Steinfeld).

The repetitive structure manages to feel worn even halfway through the film’s 115-minute runtime where even the predictable act structure of a modern comedy can’t be popcorn’d away. Even the ordering of song and choreography build up is similar, following bigger and bigger moments with more and more intimate singing exchanges. They even manage to cook up a fantastically ill-explained Riff-off simulacrum hosted by David Cross.

And somehow, it still doesn’t seem to matter as much as it should. This isn’t a movie so much as it is a tightly compacted sequence of Fun Things. Hell, the antagonists’ most evil quality is wearing mesh shirts. While the song selection isn’t as catchy or head-bobbing or sing-alongy as before, they are still quite electrifying to watch. It’s enough to make you wonder why you didn’t join a college a capella group as well. (It’s not too late for some of you!)

Pitch Perfect 2

First-time director Elizabeth Banks—who also plays a capella commentator Gail Abernathy-McKadden—manages to mostly keep it moving at a brisk pace, barely allowing you to recognize the failings in the moment. Jokes land with regular consistency and are even able to further explore some of the established shenanigans of the first film.

The Jessica/Ashley gag is especially choice, as are most of the Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson) bits where she interacts with, well, basically anyone and anything. However, some of the jokes fall so flat that they don’t even register as jokes, most of which occur with the minority Bellas played by Ester Dean, Hana Mae Lee, and Chrissie Fit. If they were more pointed and handled more gracefully, then some could have counted as biting commentary, but instead they just come off as shirt-yankingly awkward.

However, the spirit remains intact. It’s impossibly upbeat, even when the drummed-up drama surfaces (for legal reasons, probably), and makes you feel like you could be a Bella. Peering through the casually racist stereotyping; innumerable cameos by the likes of Snoop Dogg and the Green Bay Packers and Pentatonix(!); and mishandled narrative, it still comes out shining brighter than it should.

Pitch Perfect 2

Pitch Perfect 2 never quite reaches the smooth, comfortable grace with a side of slick rebellion that only a quirky underdog film like its predecessor can achieve, but it still manages to be mostly together and mostly entertaining. With expectations in check and a heart open to a capella mashups, then you can find joy in it, too.

Final Score: 7 out of 10

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Fearful

Fearful

They’re afraid. As consistently innovative as they are—even to the massive detriment of their biggest ongoing franchise—Ubisoft seems deathly afraid of making the big changes. The times when they should be swinging for the fences finds them tenderly dipping a toe into the water, reassessing, and then going with another toe.

Why hasn’t Assassin’s Creed, for instance, made it to the modern era? Sure, Desmond’s tale took place present day, but the bulk of the series has relied on the kindness of history’s lack of audio video surveillance. Even with Assassin’s Creed III, the game with the most Desmond bits, had him quarantined off in extremely linear, almost fearful gameplay sections.

But those parts were interesting. You were in environments that designers could wholly conjure up from their minds. You were fighting against enemies that you’ve never seen before in any past Assassin’s Creed game instead of the usual palette-swapped grunts, brutes, and elites. More than that, you were facing them in situations you’ve never faced before.

Assassin's Creed III

Since the very first game in the series, it seems like we were teased with the intrigue of a fully modern Assassin. They tested the waters with some fun stealth and subtle yet elaborate story shenanigans and quickly moved onto giving Desmond his full Assassin abilities, allowing him to freerun and fighting and whatnot. And he constantly evolved, leading any reasonable person to believe it would soon be happening.

After the culmination of the Desmond storyline, however, hopes were dashed. Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag tried something new outside of the Animus sans Desmond, but it was still the story of a seafaring scallywag. Assassin’s Creed Unity didn’t even have anything outside of Arno’s story. It wasn’t the assumption that followed Assassin’s Creed; it wasn’t the hope after Assassin’s Creed III; it was just disappointment.

It feels like fear. So much of what they’ve built relies on the lack of modern implements. And as they introduce more of them like Assassin’s Creed Syndicate‘s grappling hook and carriages in an Industrial Revolution-era England, you realize how much they could be rid of by go further into the future.

Assassin's Creed Syndicate

That’s not necessarily a good thing or a cure for the series’ ails. It’s a remark upon how much they’re afraid they’ll lose if they go full-bore on that concept, if they extrapolate out Desmond’s time out into a full game. Will they lose the core mechanics that many identify with the franchise? Will they lose the uniqueness as they skew too close to games like Watch Dogs or Splinter Cell, cannibalizing other Ubisoft lines?

They are entirely valid questions. When was the last time you saw a series reinvent themselves to such a degree? It’s just not how the industry works. You take a concept, give it a go, and if people latch on, you iterate to fix the flaws and juice up the working parts to see if they still like it. But eventually you have to call it quits.

If you look at Gears of War, Epic Games fulfilled the Marcus/Dom saga, gave it another go with Gears of War: Judgment, and called it when that failed to find traction and giving it up to Microsoft and Black Tusk Studios for something new. Visceral Games actually dipped out after a rock solid three Dead Space games.

Gears of War: Judgment

Ubisoft, however, feels content with taking a more Call of Duty or Guitar Hero—really Activision—approach: run it into the ground. For as long as people are buying, just have studio after studio go at it until they stop buying. It’s a solid strategy that responds to the essence of capitalism. After all, if consumers don’t want it, they show it with their money, or lack thereof.

That is perhaps the great virtue of indie game development. It’s not that they can’t employ the same strategy but rather that they choose not to. It’s a conscious decision and seems to be one based largely on guilt and internal obligation.

It’s not that there aren’t indie series because there totally are like Amnesia and Hotline Miami, but it’s rarely a triple-A farming situation. For all the problems of the insular, nigh incestuous component of video games that is the indie (those two descriptors, though, apply to the entire industry as well from development to press to players), it has imbued those independent devs to feel obligated to not be That Guy.

Assassin's Creed Syndicate

Instead we have multimillion dollar That Guys all trying really hard to be the Thattest That Guy in the biz, almost as if it were a point of pride. How many Hindenburgs have you piloted straight into the ground? Only four? Amateur hour.

Picking on Assassin’s Creed isn’t fair when there are a half dozen more just like it. But it did just make a recent and sizable announcement that was hilariously lukewarm in its reception. Even the most diehard of apologists could only tend to the crowd and say you could look away if you wanted while they sorted out their feelings. The well eventually dries up. Seems like Ubisoft finally found the bottom.

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Assassin’s Creed Syndicate And What It Means For You

Assassin's Creed Syndicate and What It Means For You

Innovation is dangerous. It’s a lesson that Ubisoft should be well familiar with by now. As one particularly and magnificently hairy Jeff Goldblum said in Jurassic Park, they were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.

Consider that the very first Assassin’s Creed was lauded for it’s fresh parkour traversal system (and, to be fair, it’s fascinating pseudo time travel conceit). In fact, that was just about all it was lauded for. And it remained largely the same for the next dozen or so games. Instead of refining its single biggest component, they became obsessed with innovation, often at the cost of excising additions that wholeheartedly worked.

There was a brotherhood mechanic of training and raising new assassins into the order; there was a vastly expanded property management system; there an interesting dip into two different types of multiplayer in two different games; and a lot more. There was pretty much only a single instance of refinement in the transition from Assassin’s Creed III to Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag with the naval combat.

Now, like clockwork, we stand on the precipice of another entry into the franchise based on excessive ambition and innovation. Yesterday morning saw the official announcement of Assassin’s Creed Syndicate (I guess we really are done with the colons in the titles). It’ll throw us into the Industrial Revolution in London as Assassin Jacob Frye.

If you watch that archived bit of announcement stream, you can see a lot of interesting bits that are worth mining. The first is a protracted segment lauding the single greatest folly of the franchise. The next is a categorical admission of the failure of Unity while simultaneously shifting the root cause of the problem from rampant, unfettered innovation to overflowing ambition.

They’re similar qualities, but the nuanced difference is the key here. It wasn’t that they saw a world far more grand than they could build (the world they built was actually a saving grace for the game), but rather that their failure to refine caught up with them the invention was thrust upon them. Unity was the first of the series to be totally on the next generation of consoles, so time spent drumming up new things went into making sure the old things still worked.

The loops were still as tired as they ever was. Enter a new area, climb a tower, ignore all the icons on the map, and start a mission. And during the mission, you would climb a building, sneak around, get spotted, and fight your way out. And during the fight, you would mash a button, counter, and then mash again. The random events in the water surrounding Nassau transformed into interpersonal encounters on the streets of Paris and your real estate endeavors carried a miniature narrative, but it’s mostly old mechanics trying to find value in a world built beyond their scopes.

With a settling into the new consoles, Syndicate is free to fall back into the trap. While it feels more considered in this turn—if the developers’ words are anything to go by—we’ve been burned before. Combat was never a highlight of the series, so it’s great they made it faster, keeping everything closer and more brutal. It still looks like it takes way too long to beat a brute into the ground.

The new grappling hook system allows for even more facilitated ascension, no longer restricting the skyward zip to cutting loaded lines and hauling up. But there’s still the problem of getting back down, something Unity moderately addressed but never quite resolved. And external locomotion sounds cool, but riding that horse in the smothering confines of Florence was an absolute nightmare. How is a full-blown carriage supposed to handle the increasingly narrow streets of 1800 London?

Without a doubt, though, the absolutely most impressive thing the franchise has consistently pulled off has been integrating their Assassin-Templar war into the real world. This has a great deal to do with the artistic direction of the assassins themselves. Connor’s garb looked unquestionably colonial and Arno’s kit was decidedly eighteenth century French. (I don’t know how, but even Arno’s running looked French.)

The spectacular trend appears to continue in Syndicate. Jacob and his sister Evie Frye both look 100 per cent like nineteenth century scoundrels. Better yet, while integrating Arno’s quest for vengeance into the French Revolution was cool, Syndicate seems to be building its systems directly into the settings.

From the Gangs of New York-ish street fights to the segmented districts of wealth and poverty, it world has hopefully and finally transcended the mere place of deciding what clothes should look like. And speaking of Evie, it seems like that much deserved derision from excluding women from Unity as made an impact. She will be a playable character alongside Jacob, utilizing a sort of Grand Theft Auto V-type switching mechanic.

Assassin's Creed Syndicate

So it seems like after eight main series releases in as many years, they’re finally learning. But the question is if there’s even room for this kind marginal kind of growth. The framework is old and creaky that surely stuffing it with more grandiose ideas would surely cause it to crumble. It’s still standing atop eight-year-old systems of annoying traversal that only sometimes provides moments of “god damn that was cool.” It still forces a laundry list of activity down the player’s throat that has been hated since 2007.

Is there a fear of true change? At the end of the first Assassin’s Creed, it was assumed (or, perhaps, just hoped) that the next game would throw us into solely the modern age. Assassin’s Creed but with guns and a greater exploration of the Abstergo conspiracy? Oh hell yeah. But then we were only tossed slightly forward into the fifteenth century Renaissance. Granted, the Ezio trilogy was fantastic, but it wasn’t the monumental shift we’d all hoped for.

Now we are so tantalizingly close to the true modern era. The Industrial Revolution is basically the catalyst for much of what we take for granted today as token conveniences instead of the world-shattering advances that they were. How much further can the series comfortably go until they are forced to take the plunge into today or beyond? (Yes, the Desmond stuff was the future, but it was superficial.)

Assassin's Creed Syndicate

But how much more patience does the public have for Assassin’s Creed? By virtue of switching between drastically different eras and studios that tell relatively contrasting stories, Call of Duty has lived far past its Old Yeller time. But Assassin’s Creed has been lead by a single creative vision and a single studio since 2007. It is exhausting.

Not just for the developers but also the players. We finished the Desmond saga and now it feels…gluttonous. Maybe not that. Perhaps just excessive. Like a shotgun blast of ideas that never quite made it when the lone view was laid out. Only last year with Assassin’s Creed Rogue and with Syndicate do we see new studios try their hand at leading the hooded charge.

Rogue was somewhat more well-received than Unity and it was led by Ubisoft Sofia instead of Ubisoft Montreal. With Syndicate, we have Ubisoft Quebec taking the lead instead of just contributing and porting. There’s a pang of hope in that exchange. Ill-advised or not, only time will tell.

Assassin's Creed Syndicate

I don’t want Syndicate to fail. That would just be crazy. It’s far more fun to have more stuff to like in the world that stuff to hate. But free of the veil of cynicism, there is skepticism, earned and valued, just as there is reason to hope. Based on the reveal, though, there isn’t as much as you’d want. Let’s all find out on October 23rd.

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Maggie Review: Not Quite Living

Maggie

There’s a lot that is commendable in Maggie, but only so much of it supported by the bits that crumble and fall apart. It tells a tired story in a tired setting, though when combined, it forms something new. It’s a film with a lot of potential but only realizes half of it.

Maggie has gotten a lot of attention from the video game world for being what trailers portray as a The Last of Us movie, though it is far from being that. The similarities lie in the zombie premise and general relationship structure, but this is more about Wade Vogel (Arnold Schwarzenegger) tending to his terminally infected daughter Maggie (Abigail Breslin).

He’s called in a favor to keep her out of quarantine a little longer, determined to spend the last of her life together. While her stepmother (Joely Richardson) contributes greatly to the familial impact of Maggie’s looming fate, the story focuses mostly on what it’s like to slowly and inevitably lose a loved one. The zombies are mostly incidental to this tale.

In fact, there are perhaps only three total undead to see, a refreshing statistic for zombie films. And it only briefly touches on the beaten horse of people being the real monsters—though admittedly, there are some real assholes hanging around—and more tenderly cuts to an interesting allegory of terminal illness. Maggie is going to die and everyone knows it.

The weight of this emotional meat is carried by two deft performances by Schwarzenegger and Breslin. Gruff and vulnerable all at once, Wade is a far cry from anything the former California state governor has done before. It certainly feels at the limits of what the notable action star is capable of but never beyond, calling up an impressive display strength and sensitivity.

Breslin has a much tougher go of it, but she wrestles down her sizable role with aplomb. As Maggie, she has to transition between several phases of illness, and while the remarkable makeup aides the downward spiral, it’s mostly thanks to her nuanced understanding and portrayal of refusal, exhaustion, disheartening joy, bitter acceptance, and everything in between.

Maggie

It’s especially noteworthy their performances when you consider that director Henry Hobson and writer John Scott 3 imbued the film with a lot of motion and sound-based storytelling over verbal. Whereas a book like The Fault in Our Stars can rely on the words and thoughts of a terminally ill Hazel, Maggie wisely opts for the actions of our characters to tell the story, to relate their feelings and desires, and does so quite well.

The problem there is that while each moment is handled well, the connective tissue between them is lacking. It doesn’t feel so much like we’re going scene to scene but more like it’s just one scene after another. It’s cohesive only so much that the same situation progresses through the whole film, instead imbuing a substantially chunkier sensation to the proceedings. The story demands a smoothness that either the writing or directing or editing just couldn’t deliver.

And while some aspects of the begrudging trip down to the fateful terminus are striking and engaging, much of it feels either empty or tired (or both). For instance, when Maggie is confronted with her old friend and is more or less forced to hang out with other kids, it’s fascinating to watch the casual lying going on. It’s almost lying for the sake of lying, like a platitude, and it makes Maggie’s predicament all the more distressing and compelling.

Maggie

But everything surrounding it is some combination of trite or underdeveloped. An uninfected boy steps up and really dicks it up with his attitude, but another infected one regards it as a fear after quickly sliding into an upfront and ultimately depressing notion. And then him and Maggie share a moment as two kids marching steadily to a sloppy doom.

It all happens so quickly—almost irresponsibly—that it felt more like a zombie movie compliance move than a desire to explore these ideas. So much of it, in fact, feels that. There seems to be a singular desire to expose this fatal relationship, but there is a lot of cruft on the side that only serves to detour the examination.

A purge of those distractions might enable Hobson to do something besides dwell on the rampant misery of the characters. The few points where we see an unmitigated glee help us to realize this was truly a descent to something dark, not some place Maggie and Wade have been the whole time. While Maggie succeeds at many points, so much of it is weighed down by an inability to circumvent old ideas on the way to new ones.

Maggie

Final Score: 6 out of 10

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Late to the Party: Ex Machina

Late to the Party: Ex Machina

Spoiler warning: right out of the gate, I have to tell you that I don’t know if there are spoilers here. I don’t lay scene out explicitly, but this piece also doesn’t shy away from detailing the contained philosophies. I guess be careful if you haven’t seen Ex Machina yet and want to.

I felt betrayed. I fell for her. Like, hard. Ava wasn’t just a female AI that Domhnall Gleeson’s Caleb Smith could (and would) love but one that anyone with a heart would.

Ex Machina asks a lot of intellectually overwhelming questions. It is, in fact, one of the most suffocating films I’ve seen in quite a long time. It poses problem after problem for the viewer to chew on all while shoving a compelling and meaty drama down your collapsing throat.

On occasion, it does so through parables, and well known ones at that. Caleb, for example, expresses the thought experiment of Mary’s Room to Ava in one of their sessions. It’s better known as the knowledge argument, created by Frank Jackson to counter the idea of physicalism, a view where everything in the universe is purely physical.

Caleb discusses it in the context of relating one of his AI classes to his talking to an artificial consciousness, but then flips it into a quandary for Ava herself to answer. Are her interactions something physical, something derived from a set of values being one instead of zero, or are they earned from being a true, experiential AI?

It’s an interesting question to pose to an artificial entity (one that the movie presents as an entirely real and thinking being just as you are and I am) and just as interesting of one to think about on your own. Strangely, though, it feels like a mechanical notion. Not just because we are dealing with a machine in Ava but that the question itself feels discrete.

Ex Machina

Perhaps it’s because it’s already a fully formed response to a question philosophers have been dealing with for years. And it’s one of many notions I would consider mechanical in this film. The questions it poses regarding a successful AI through the Turing test and that of personal boundaries through locked, physical ones and so on feel as though they are constructed and displayed.

But there are also a great deal more that feel…softer, more ambiguous. Oscar Isaac’s Nathan Bateman throws another consideration in the face of Caleb’s inquiry to Ava’s hardcoded sexuality: isn’t that the point of the interaction of two consciousnesses? It’s an extremely base and cynical view, but it’s still a valid one.

Otherwise, what drive is there? An exchange of knowledge? The original source would be more reliable. So then perhaps it’s curiosity. But to what end? That begs even more questions since curiosity doesn’t lead to a concrete benefit. Is curiosity ingrained into a conscious being or is it an affectation of some other dire need?

Ex Machina

The film even calls to light the idea of awareness. Caleb pokes at the testing framework for Ava, wondering if testing specifically for AI-like qualities makes it a reliable test. A chess-playing computer wouldn’t necessarily know it’s playing chess, just that given a situation, it would know how to respond via a set of positions and allowed moves.

So in testing an AI, you would need to test that it knows what it is, not just that it can do what that thing should do. But then it invites the delicious question of how to test that we are what we are. How do you test that a human is a sufficient human like an AI would be a sufficient AI? Is knowing that we are one good enough? We don’t even know what we are supposed to accomplish, unlike an AI.

I’m not even sure what to make of the ending. I don’t know if it’s more statement or question, even if it feels both like an answer and a query. It could be a statement on the strength of goals over the search of them, but the nature of the film itself seems far more question-oriented. It could be an investigation of means and ends, perhaps in regards to Ava as a means to an end and positing that means could have ends of their own far beyond yours.

Ex Machina

Like I said, Ex Machina is an overwhelming movie. Intellectually, emotionally, and so many other things in between does it force you to linger a little longer than you have before. It’s also a visually beautiful film with amazing performances, but it’s mental capacity for inquisition is simply far more stunning. From the implications of universal search to humanity out of machines to the simplicity of desires, it’s staggering.

I guess Mary wouldn’t know, though.

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Revisitation Hours: Assassin’s Creed Unity

Revisitation Hours: Assassin's Creed Unity

At the time, it felt foolish. Asking if I wanted to download 8.6GB of patches to play Assassin’s Creed Unity seemed like the most effective way to make anyone turn the other way. Unfortunately, curiosity got the better of me.

Its myriad of frame rate issues and crashes and bugs were enough to stop me and many others from playing more than five minutes upon release. Now the question is whether the patches worked. Unity actually fell into two camps of terrible practices from 2014 including shipping prohibitively broken or unfinished games and Ubisoft’s seemingly nefarious dissemination of open world game design.

Luckily (I guess?), one of those two things could be fixed post-release. (The damage, however, had mostly been done at that point in terms of player trust. Not even a free Dead Kings DLC could help the situation.) Right out of the gate, yes, those problems are fixed. Somewhere in all those gigabytes, there was a solid combination of solutions that turned a burning heap of hard locks and falling through the floor into a real game.

Assassin's Creed Unity

Now that simply navigating the world isn’t a chore (a task which is at least 99% of all video games, let alone Assassin’s Creed ones), it is truly hard to deny that this is one of the most beautifully realized virtual environments ever seen. It feels often far less like a video game and more like a real tour of Paris during the French Revolution.

The streets are overflowing with people. It’s coming up on Dead Rising numbers, to be honest, and it’s spectacular, especially because Arno seems to have overcome his ancestors’ inability to run into people without falling over. But these people are also living their fully Revolutionary lives.

They are rioting, soapboxing, and amassing all over the place. It gives the worldly historical context more meat than ever before. This is in addition to the fact that most of the buildings you’re clambering over have fully realized interiors with hidden artifacts, treasure chests, and folk. Actually, it’s not most of them, but it certainly feels like that, which is just as important.

Assassin's Creed Unity

This seems to have the biggest consequence on the gameplay (right after violently shoving you into one of the most violent parts of modern history). For the first time in the series’ history, there is genuine stealth. Black Flag tried its hardest with systemic bits of hiding in bramble and bush, but holy moly, Unity has a crouch button, y’all.

More than that, Arno has the ability to take cover behind objects and walls. Being able to stick to a flat surface no longer gives you the lingering question of “can they see me” while you uncomfortably shift about under a doorframe. And now missions are designed around those two improvements, offering you the ability to finagle around guards on rooftops and shifting inside to come up behind and shiv them in the most satisfying ways.

It’s also worth noting that imbuing the world with an early modernism is that fact that your opponents are far more deadly. Instead of throwing rocks or firing arrows, they will straight-up gun you down from a few dozen yards away and you will die. It—and the random in-world events—offers a glimpse into the lethality of this and the coming age.

Assassin's Creed Unity

But for all the self-awareness of the time and place, this is still in escapably an Assassin’s Creed game. Whenever you do anything, you just wish it was easier, and not in terms of difficulty but rather in terms of implementation. Some things have been improved from past games and it’s still not enough.

It’s easier to avoid accidentally jumping to your death, but you still wish it was faster—or at least more fun than just holding a button down. And even when I could just eagle-dive down, most of the time I just wanted to stop halfway and stay on the rooftops.

And when you just want to run straight ahead, there is invariably a chair to stop you. Or a wall that Arno simply can’t figure out what he wants to do with. I found most of my time not just holding the freerun button but also the freerun up or freerun down button as well, though the down one has height limitations while the up one takes longer to get past basic structures.

Assassin's Creed Unity

It’s really just a staple of the series. Since its inception, the games have been just as much about fighting yourself as it has been about fighting the Templars. Every step is rife with opportunity to screw yourself over simply by playing the game as it was designed because for all the chances for joy it carries in its mechanics, they are also the sole source of its greatest frustrations.

I guess it really comes down to one singular sensation that defines Unity: a total and abject lack of surprise. From its story to its new mechanics laid on top of old ones—hell, even the degree to which it was totally busted to hell—there was nothing surprising about the game. Reactions span from “about god damn time” to “oh come on” to even a rock solid “meh.”

Even after coming back to the game half a year later, it’s hard to suss out any answer to any amount of why.

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A Marvelous Notion

A Marvelous Notion

Phase 2 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) will soon draw to a close. The first of the Netflix deluge released one month ago, Avengers: Age of Ultron came out last week, and we’ll see in two months whether Ant-Man was a good or bad idea.

The interesting bit, though, is that we won’t know if the MCU was a good or bad idea until the end of Phase 3. There’s more than likely three more years until the next Avengers film—the first of a two-parter involving Thanos and the Infinity Gems—and that is also likely to be the capstone of Marvel’s massive tertiary operation.

That’s a lot of time for a lot of things to change, and by “things” I mean contracts. But let’s back up a second. When someone says “Captain America,” you probably have Chris Evans already in your head. When someone says “Iron Man,” that will almost certainly kick out the sugar plums and bring in the Robert Downey Jr.

Iron Man

Marvel’s marketing as worked so well that their faces have become the brand name for the otherwise genericized mantels of heroes like Band-Aid and Kleenex. The mere visage of them and Chris Hemsworth as Thor and Scarlet Johansson as Black Widow are money makers beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. But the problem, like I said, is contracts.

These aliases are just that: name tags shuffled about between those that are able to don them. Iron Man is just a suit that anyone can wear, as proven by War Machine. Thor doesn’t have to be Thor so much as someone worthy of wielding Mjölnir. But the faces and names under those facades are irreplaceable.

Downey 100% is Tony Stark and vice versa. It’s not that they’re kind of the same person; personality-wise, they are the same person. And to lesser degrees, after a decade and a dozen movies (almost two dozen at the end of Phase 3), these other actors have been cemented as these characters.

Thanos

Captain America: Civil War is going to be the last film on Evans’ contract. Downey barely renewed into both that and Infinity Wars. By the end of Age of Ultron, the setup for a new bunch of Avengers had been laid. Marvel is carefully and studiously transitioning to a future without their core stars.

But that doesn’t mean we won’t ever see our old heroes again. Give Cap’s shield to another All American super soldier and now he—or she!—is the new Captain America. (It seems, though, that Sebastian Stan as Bucky Barnes could be poised for that.) It’s a classic comic book move. The question is if the general populace is willing and able to take that.

By some mysterious, perhaps supernatural instigation, they nailed casting, which is at least partially why Marvel’s “these are the faces” marketing worked so well. And they all are stars in their own right, making the willingness for ensemble work so remarkable. But then it’s a question of the ones they picked up along the way like Anthony Mackie and Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany are able to hold the same indomitable position.

Ant-Man

More than that, there’s the visions behind each individual film to consider. While Kevin Feige might be the man holding the reins on the overall MCU, each entry is a personal statement from the writers and directors. Guardians of the Galaxy, for example, was basically a James Gunn film that happened to have MCU ties. And certainly the Edgar Wright, Joe Cornish, Adam McKay, and Paul Rudd team up in Ant-Man can only lead to one very particular perspective on the character and story.

Joss Whedon has bowed out of the game. Jon Favreau couldn’t find a middle ground to come back. What happens when Gunn, arguably the most perfect tonal match for Guardians material, and the Russo brothers can’t/won’t return either? Will it turn into a Spider-Man/Batman reboot-a-rama situation?

But like I said, we won’t find out until the end of Phase 3. We won’t know if this was just a great run, churning out an inordinate amount of high quality films in three filmic chunks, or if it was the start of an experiment that Marvel would eventually drive into the ground. It would be neither of those things or something in between. And what does it say of DC’s attempts to keep up?

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

It’s really just a lot of questions right now with no answers. Not even Feige could tell you if it’ll work, only that it’s worked so far. See you guys in three years, I guess.

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Avengers: Age of Ultron Review: Older, Not Wiser

Avengers: Age of Ultron

There’s no possible way for the franchise to get any bigger. (Said despite knowing full well there’s the two-part Infinity Wars coming.) Avengers: Age of Ultron is a massive movie, appropriately sized for all the stars, action, and potential it contains. The problem is that its enormity is also struggling for structural integrity as it bows to an even bigger big picture.

In terms of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), this film slides in at the very end of it all, superseding even the recently released Marvel’s Daredevil. The Avengers have moved on from the collapse of S.H.I.E.L.D. following Captain America: The Winter Soldier and have started hunting all over the world for Hydra and Loki’s scepter.

Things begin to get troubled as the Maximoff twins—Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Wanda (Elizabeth Olson), two experimentally enhanced humans—futz with Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and his tender brain. With the contents of the scepter in hand, he accidentally creates Ultron (James Spader), an artificial intelligence that has taken the token logical conclusion of “world safety” to mean “destroy all humans.”

The problem here is that there’s a lot more to the interweaving narratives than just attempting to take down Ultron. Both of the Maximoff twins have entirely fleshed out and massively interesting backstories that are touched and forgotten just as briefly, instead opting to leave the lingering impression that they are validated in both their nefarious roots and their subsequent developments.

There’s also a moderately tended love story between Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), though it feels somewhat confused throughout. The connection on the battlefield is touching considering the accidental and bred lack of humanity in the two, but the romance never quite gets around to feeling natural.

Stretching the humanity thread between that and Hawkeye’s (Jeremy Renner) furtive life and the contrasting Ultron/Vision perspectives, it’s impressive that throughout the whole two-plus hours, a thematic consistency is achieved. Sight of the answer to that question rarely wavers. What it fails to find along the way is a true protagonist, one that grows and pulses along with the overall plot.

Avengers: Age of Ultron

In the first The Avengers, it was quite obvious that the contention—despite the other heavy hitters—lay solely with Captain America and Iron Man, and Iron Man grew into the selfless hero he tries not to be while Cap realized his leadership role. In Age of Ultron, none of the Avengers really change. Their motivations from the first third stay motionless through to the last third.

Between all the lack of characterization, however, is some terrific writing. Director/writer Joss Whedon still knows how to play into the strengths of putting unexpected but not unwarranted words in the right mouths at the right time. Stark, in particular, is a great playground for Whedon’s talents. He even imbues some vocal menace in Ultron while his physicality is decidedly less imposing.

And then there’s the action. A lot of it looks pretty fantastic from the snow-laden banger of an opener to the absolutely oversized climax, but a lot of it is also fairly hard to follow. The ending is especially ridden with a spatial problem where keeping in mind everyone’s location is almost insurmountable for the audience. (There’s just so much going on!)

Avengers: Age of Ultron

While some of the more marketed scenes like Hulk smashing up on Stark’s Hulkbuster are total gems, it’s hard to not think back on the last Avengers and wonder where the tension has gone. The pit of despair is nowhere to be found, nor is the constant question of who will win any given encounter. The sprawling, bursting conclusion even fails to find this quivering notion.

Then, by the end, you even come to question why some of the characters left on the screen are there. It’s not that they’re not great characters or their actors aren’t producing quality performances but rather that you’re already filled to the brim with personalities and plots to chew and digest that it feels a bit gluttonous to keep eating.

It calls to question whether it’s a product of Whedon’s trying to do too much or if it’s because Kevin Feige (the Grand Poobah of the MCU) made Whedon do it all. There’s just as much clamoring towards the future of the filmic universe as there is digging into the past and putting it all on full display. It’s even hard now to reconcile what cameos and teases existed in which movies and have been maintained or abandoned since, especially with a failing continuation between franchises of personal dramatization. (Where is Cap’s moral dilemma or Stark’s insecurity?)

Avengers: Age of Ultron

Despite it all, though, there’s certainly an almost unquantifiable fun to the movie. Seeing everyone together again is fantastic, as is their banter and the developments in their individual abilities and tech. It’s like a multimillion dollar show and tell in some ways, and it’s hard to look away. You can’t help but ask what’s next, always hungry for more and more.

A lot of that comes down to the actors behind all the heroes and villains. Each one has held entire movies up on their own either as their Marvel character or someone else entirely, so the performance capabilities are appreciable. But also the chemistry of it all is still remarkable. Whether through happenstance or careful deliberation, this core of Avengers feels rife with superhero camaraderie.

Clearly there are a lot of problems with the movie, despite all the good it does with its size and scope and buckets of fun sloshing about. None of its issues are breaking, to the point where you just give up and say no more. They’re more of the sort where you dismiss in the moment and slowly overlook as the days go on afterwards. Avengers: Age of Ultron is still worth watching, if only for the optimism of a better future.

Avengers: Age of Ultron

+ Potent writing from Whedon
+ Great ensemble performances from the Avengers
+ Unbelievably huge action with some choice gems worth remembering and talking about
– Overflowing with unrealized subplots and some convoluted ones
– Feels stretched beyond reason as it fits (and misfits) into an odd slot of the MCU

Final Score: 7 out of 10

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