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Knights of Sidonia Season 2 Review – Don’t Mecha Around

Knights of Sidonia

While the first season of Knights of Sidonia managed to blend realism with robots and aliens into a decent drama, the second season stumbles just as much as it flies off into the great beyond. It often fails to deliver its narrative with any appreciable pacing and occasionally dips into unfortunate cliché territory, but it still crafts a worthwhile, character-driven story.

Picking up right where the first season left off as a streaming Netflix Original, we find Nagate Tanikaze in the throws of fame following the spectacular battle with the Crimson Hawk Moth. But of course, the Gauna once again are at the doorstep of Sidonia, but with an interesting twist: they’ve developed countermeasures to the previous silver bullet armaments of core-piercing rounds.

This is where we’re introduced to the big impetus for the season in Tsumugi Shiraui, a Gauna/human hybrid “piloted” by “Norio Kunato.” Now let me explain the scare quotes. First off, as a hybrid, Tsumugi doesn’t actually need a pilot. Instead, she is a fully conscious being that can simply be directed how to act in battle. Second, Kunato isn’t actually Kunato. He’s been taken over by a parasite and now is under Ochiai’s control.

On her own, Tsumugi is a pretty interesting creation. Standing at the same height as a mechanical Garde with a Gauna-like complexion, she is as unsettling as the things that have been ravaging what remains of humanity for the past millennium. However, she only bears the awareness of a newborn, though her intelligence seems to be fully developed.

Tsumugi, much like everyone aboard Sidonia, doesn’t quite understand what she is. Her first formal introduction to the Garde pilots is disastrous as she causes what is basically an earthquake with her gentle swaying, rekindling the fears of those present for the previous hybrid debacle a hundred years prior.

It’s fascinating to watch her meander around the trust and admiration of those aboard Sidonia, just as she delves more personally into the lives of Tanikaze and Izana Shinatose. Despite being part Gauna and bearing the voice of his mostly dead girlfriend Shizuka Hoshijiro, Tanikaze is immediately engrossed by Tsugumi’s existence. This happens simultaneously while Izana, a middlesex friend and fellow pilot, nurtures feelings for Tanikaze that emerged last season.

Knights of Sidonia – Season 2

This makes for a strange but entirely interesting love triangle that informs a great deal of the drama in the season. It makes for each character’s arcs and resolutions and actions all the more weighty and believable. (Well, as believable as a space opera about mechs and aliens can get.) You mix in Tanikaze’s lingering memories of Hoshijiro and Tsugumi’s rapid and tumultuous integration into human society and you have a delectable story.

It would be a lot more digestible, however, if the pacing was simply better. It’s incredible how much of each episode is incredibly pointless in both the overall plot as well as character development. If you wanted, you could get away with just watching the little recaps at the beginning of each episode and nothing else.

The show seems to mire itself in frivolity while giving the viewer an incredibly compressed retelling of major events. It’s not that all of the side dishes are fluff, but they seem to come up at the immense sacrifice of providing any meat. For example, the aforementioned Ochiai parasite controlling Kunato? It played like an everyday event. So did the sudden acceptance of Tsugumi with the vast majority of Sidonia. Weren’t these people angry at her existence just, like, five minutes ago?

Knights of Sidonia – Season 2

There seems to be some additional transformation into a stereotypical anime as well. While the first season seemed to relish the idea of only wearing an anime’s skin and steeping itself in the rigors of a Battlestar Galactica, this go-round falls for far too many traps of the genre.

The drama of going into a Garde seems to have all but evaporated as the constant worry over space logistics has disappeared and the suits have reached Gundam-levels of durability. Tsumugi starts out and never leaves the realm of a deus ex machina with a voice, basically bending previously established rules to her will.

And then there’s the thick smattering of anime-style sexuality and the jokes that derive therefrom. The number of times Tanikaze stumbles across a set of barely covered breasts or visually vulnerable upskirt even in the first few episodes is laughable, eye roll-inducing, and generally off-putting. Then the predictable recourse manifests: punched in the face, kicked into a wall, girly scream while cutting to an exterior shot.

Knights of Sidonia – Season 2

Perhaps it won’t bother many other viewers (if you are part of a genre, sometimes you just have to embrace it), but it came across mostly as childish in terms of both craft and content. And when you throw in the talking penis with tentacles that is the extremely mobile, expressive, and handsy appendage of Tsumugi’s, it only serves to remove you from the previously compelling and well-developed world of the show.

There are so many problems with the second season of Knights of Sidonia, but with a quality story involving a handful of complex characters, it’s hard to see them as much more than quibbles. Once it’s all over, though, you can’t help but look back and see them all piled up in the corner and wonder how it is you managed to look past it all. It’s still a good show, but not as good as you’d like it to be.

Final Score: 6 out of 10

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Batman: Arkham Knight Review – Batter Up

Batman: Arkham Knight

Rocksteady Studios return to the series is a fantastic one. In closing out the same tale that they started back in 2009, they have gone back to their already stellar framework and improved upon it in ways that probably few fans could have guessed (or even desired on their own). Batman: Arkham Knight is as much as a statement about Rocksteady’s pride and talent as it is simply a fantastic game.

Arkham Knight throws us back into the present day for Batman, one year after the events of Batman: Arkham City. Scarecrow is back and has forced a city-wide evacuation in Gotham with the threat of a new fear toxin. This leaves a vacuum in which his militia fills, an effort led by a mysterious Arkham Knight fellow who seems to have some sort of history with Bats, as well as all of the Big Bad Guys of Gotham.

The Dark Knight, however, is dealing with his own set of problems. Coming out of the events of Arkham City, our brooding hero has to deal with the death and absence of the Joker. (Slight spoiler alert ahead for Arkham Knight.) It begins to manifest somewhat physically as a brush with Scarecrow’s toxin reacts with the Joker’s blood in him and he begins to hallucinate.

This is easily the strongest component of the game. Its narrative is just top-notch throughout with some spectacular turns sprinkled all around. The singular flow of Batman: Arkham Asylum is missing, but it also fixes the broad and reaching plot of Arkham City.

But most importantly, it is thematically dense and significant. Batman and Joker have always been closer than the Caped Crusader would rather admit, but this game addresses it in an exceptionally potent way. Batman can throw around tough guy lines (like responding to a concern about the militia taking him down with a gruff “they won’t”) but the Joker that’s inside his head is voicing all the fears and doubts and insecurities that his gravel-soaked machismo hides.

Some of the twists are not even twists in the conventional sense, but rather that the game does a great job of building up to increasing degrees of “oh no oh no oh no” instead of a single “buhhhWHAT.” It cultivates a sense of dread of the inevitable that, unfortunately, will likely land under the category of Divisive.

Batman: Arkham Knight

The story, however, manages to inform some of the gameplay in interesting ways. For instance, just as Scarecrow has cobbled together the likes of the Penguin, Two-Face, et al. in an uneasy alliance, Batman has friends he works with. There’s a new Dual Play mechanic that allows you to switch between characters like Catwoman, Robin, and Nightwing in combat and predator sections as well as outside of them.

It adds a much needed wrinkle to an old fighting system. That’s not to say that it’s not good (it’s just as great as you remember and a welcome reminder of how to do it right) but there certainly was a monotonous drone to it all as you reached the ends of the past games. Having you dip in and out of different move sets and teaming up for dual takedowns adds spice and variety to it all, reminding you to still have fun with it.

Other than that, though, the combat is still the Freeflow system. The difference is that Rocksteady has tweaked how you use Batman’s gadgets into a more manageable button structure as well as how they fit into reactions to certain enemies. That was a huge problem with Arkham Origins; at a certain point, it all got so convoluted that you just regressed into a meat and potatoes kind of fighter instead of a resourceful, skillful one.

Batman: Arkham Knight

A lot of that has to do with the enemy designs and progressions. There isn’t much of a tutorial to speak of—almost a self-aware recognition of this being “another” Arkham game—but instead relies on throwing complexity to you and have you figure it out. And it works because it’s intuitive. From preparing for encounters to strategizing the mixed use of combat and stealth techniques, it just makes sense.

Medics revive so you stop that, but you soon find out they can charge dudes up with electricity, a concept you are introduced to with henchmen with stun sticks. So now you have a similar enemy created preemptively by another one that can also bring them back. At this point, you have an idea of how to deal with the results and a priority. It’s a guidance that has a stunning lack of hand-holding that is most welcome.

Most of the game, actually, doesn’t hold your hand, and it’s better for it. From excising button prompts where most other games would harangue to letting you figure out how to find missions, it just puts you out there. There’s a bit early on where you are trapped as you attempt a rescue mission, and there’s no indication of what to do. For all you know, this is the end. But the solution teaches you how the game wants you to think about this pickles and how to get out of them: this isn’t just Batman anymore.

Batman: Arkham Knight

Namely, there’s also, like, a two-ton tank called the Batmobile. This is probably another portion of the game that will be divisive as hell, but it is handled deftly enough that it’s a welcome respite from punching people in the face and hiding in rafters. There’s pursuit stuff that has you chasing down cars (mostly okay), the Riddler race challenges (novel and pleasantly chaotic), environmental puzzles (strangely engaging), and the tank battles (superb).

Truly, the pursuits are mostly harmless palate cleansers for the other Batmobile shenanigans. You just chase other cars and try to lock-on with missiles. The Riddler races are more interesting in that you have to simultaneously manage the race track while maneuvering the Batmobile up walls and on ceilings and through the air.

And then there’s the battles. They have you up against an army of drones that require you to dodge shells and missiles while peppering airborne buzzers and blasting other tanks. It’s both frantic and measured in a way that the series hasn’t explored before. You’re keeping in mind timing and spacing and monitoring your secondary weapon gauges and anticipating openings and cover all at the same time. Save for the pseudo stealth bits where you fight Cobra tanks, it’s pretty great.

Batman: Arkham Knight

Side missions also make a return, which almost goes without saying since this is an open world game. But this time around, rather than being of the ilk of “go here, do this, come back,” each individual kind of mission plays into a specific subplot that feels wholly unique. From tracking a giant bat to helping out Catwoman to playing an entirely different character, it all feels substantially personal.

The way you touch base each time you switch between objectives is great, too. It adds context and immerses you at the same time. If you go from the main story to say you’re going to go track down gun runners, Alfred will chime in with something about Nightwing. Or maybe Batman himself will comment on the situation himself. It’s a little touch that works wonders.

There’s also a lot of times where you’ll get into a mission and that mission kind of sends you, well, nowhere. Or seemingly nowhere as there’s nothing to do there. Instead, you have to actually seek it out, kind of playing into the idea that you’re actually Batman searching for clues and not somebody playing a game and going down a checklist of objective markers on the map.

Batman: Arkham Knight

It’s not all gravy, though it does come very close. There were more than a forgettable amount of bugs from missed mission triggers to enemies getting stuck on geometry. (Note that this is the PlayStation 4 version being reviewed, not the stupidly broken PC version.) And it’s still hard to wrap your head around the idea of Batmobile stealth in tight quarters where everything it touches somehow crumbles like a dry sand castle.

There’s also a layer of endings after the story ending that is, well, either wholly disappointing or absolutely baffling, depending on your patience for collectibles. And that’s not to mention the main narrative’s linchpin twist and gameplay’s Batmobile bits, which already are splitting opinions like toppings requests in a dorm room. There is likely to be no middle ground on loving or hating those things.

Take those little lumps out, though, and it is pure, uncut, grade-A gravy. If you think you’ve had your fill of the Batman: Arkham games, you might want to give this one a try anyways. There is value to the masterful refinement of a craft, and Batman: Arkham Knight just might be that.

Batman: Arkham Knight

+ Fantastic and thoughtful narrative about Batman’s nature
+ Return and girding of a defining combat system
+ Batmobile sections work well at adding variety
+ Mixing stealth and combat elements makes both more contemplative
– More than a few bugs

Final Score: 9 out of 10

Game Review: Batman: Arkham Knight
Release: June 23, 2015
Genre: Action-adventure
Developer: Rocksteady Studios
Available Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC
Players: Single-player
MSRP: $59.99
Website: https://www.batmanarkhamknight.com/

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Jurassic World Review: Dinoscore

Jurassic World

While the movie features a “highly intelligent animal,” the film itself is lacking in the smarts. Jurassic World is an above average summer blockbuster but all its posturing about having something to say and having more layers than its mid-June release would suggest fail to follow through. It is, however, still quite worth watching.

Jurassic World is a temporally adjusted sequel in the Jurassic Park series where the dinosaur theme park has gone from guided tour to full-blown Sea World. (You’d think, though, that the events of every other Jurassic Park movie would tell people to do anything but that.) John Hammond has passed the reigns of the park to Simon Masrani (Irrfan Khan) who in turn has left the business upkeep to Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard).

A classically cold and disinterested career-focused character, Claire decided that the only way to maintain visitor numbers was to manufacture an entirely new dinosaur via gene splicing. It’s a terribly large and violent thing called the Indominus Rex, an abomination that resident Velociraptor trainer Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) finds out about and warns against. By then it’s too late, as they all soon discover it’s also wicked smart.

As a review, it’s never wise to simply compare one product to another, but certainly the lineage is worth considering. Jurassic World deserves praise in this department as it is never cloying towards the vaunted 1993 original, nor is it intimidated. Instead, it is referential while being reverential, surreptitiously throwing back to the first film in a way that rewards old fans while not alienating new ones.

It does, however, have a tendency to still try to aim for the bar set by the Spielberg classic. The film wants to be as smart about its characterizations and storytelling as the Indominus Rex is about being a dick. For the most part, it gets the foundation right.

Owen is painted as a man who gets the dinosaurs, making his unbelievable control over the Velociraptors actually somewhat believable. Claire is successfully set up as a woman who singularly wants to progress her career and make sure the park is operating at peak profit levels. Her nephews—who come to visit at the worst time possible—manage to both be their own self-contained drama while filling in some familial backstory on Claire.

Jurassic World

But then they fail to go much of anywhere, though the performances backing them are quite good. They start out as people and mostly devolve into archetypes and clichés with predictable arcs. Owen, in fact, doesn’t change at all. Claire only kind of gains respect for the dinosaurs (it’s also more of a fear than respect), but it’s a moot point when it’s highly doubtful they’ll ever open another park again.

It’s disappointing, actually, that as a female lead, most of Claire’s functions revolve around shallow woman-oriented subjects like a man, children, and running (impressively) in heels while screaming. She’s never quite a helpless damsel in distress, but she isn’t a layered character with complex motivations so much as a poster for that kind of character. (Nor is anyone else, as Owen doesn’t fare much better as Guy Who Is More Solution Than Person.)

As for the actual world of Jurassic World, writers Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, and Derek Connolly and director Colin Trevorrow build quite the framework. If you were told that they built out an entire timeline of events from the opening of the first Jurassic Park to the opening of Jurassic World and then started writing this movie, you’d probably believe it. The background feels thick and believable.

Jurassic World

Either as a consequence or in spite of that, though, the things that happen from there come across as inevitable more than anything. There isn’t a sense of dread where you wonder how deadly they’ve made the park or where it will fail this time around. Right out of the gate we are introduced to the incredibly large and dangerous Mosasaurus, the answer to any sense of foreboding we might have had. From there it’s just a sense of acceptance rather than terrified refusal.

The action is pretty top-notch, though. While heavily CG’d and far removed from any amount of dread, it is supremely entertaining to watch. These feel like sequences you would play out as a kid with little dinosaur toys and action figures and it comes across with that kind of glee and irreverence. There’s not much drama imbued in these bits, but engrossing all the same.

The sequence you see in the trailer where the Velociraptors run as a pack into the night in particular is fantastically done. It actually conveys how strong yet sleek these animals are and why you would and should fear these things, extinct or not. They move smooth and fast and with an immense amount of power. It was great to see.

Jurassic World

It matches the pace of the actual movie, too. The film moves quickly between its mired attempts at characterization to bits of running/screaming fast enough that it’s kind of hard to fault the static players and the lack of impending doom. By building out the scope of the world and the dinosaurs and the subsequent action, Jurassic World comes across more electric than it is.

It’s hard to believe that Trevorrow went from little indie film Safety Not Guaranteed to a huge project like this, but he and his crew pull it off with aplomb. Not to say it all goes off without a hitch or a modicum of disappointment, but everything they do well generally outweighs what they didn’t do so great. Go into Jurassic World expecting spectacle and not a lot of brain and you’ll find a good time.

Final Score: 7 out of 10

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Sense8 Review: All for One

Sense8

Sense8 is a befuddled web of narratives that’s just as hard to watch as it is to stop thinking about. In its grand ambition of a premise, it actually fails to go much farther than the idea stage and calls it quits just after qualifying as a show. But it weaves in such interesting and engaging moments and characters that you can’t quite dismiss it completely.

Coming from the Wachowskis of The Matrix fame and the infamy of just about everything else they’ve done, it’s safe to say that the announcement of this Netflix original garnered a tepid response at best. Just as they’ve always done, though, they cook up one hell of a pitch.

In Sense8, eight strangers from around the world are mysteriously tied together by seemingly supernatural means. Slowly their past and present merge together to form their futures, taking their experiences and emotions and skills and blending them all together. They are “sensates,” people born into their own respective network of other sensates that share their, well, everything.

It is fascinating, to be sure. Through each character, wholly different cultures and identities and struggles are represented. They are each thoroughly and impressively fleshed out with entire backstories that could span individual features just as well as they fill in their slots in the show.

For instance, there’s Nomi Marks (Jamie Clayton), a trans woman and former hacker and current political blogger. Not only is her current predicament lovingly crafted and intricate (perhaps informed by Lana Wachowski and Clayton’s own lives?) but you then get insight on her troubling past, all of which is simultaneously built alongside the overarching plot.

And there’s Riley Blue (Tuppence Middleton), an Icelandic DJ residing in London as she attempts to evade her past. Wolfgang Bogdanow (Max Riemelt) reveals his layers of loyalty and latent romanticism amidst his strangely dissociative behavior. Each main character is a deep and necessarily real one.

Sense8

The problem is that they don’t do much besides that. With eight individuals to tend to across the 12 episodes, very often it feels like the narrative thread that ties them together is far too thin. (And we’ve already seen the “strangers connected” trope before.) Their individual stories offer a remarkable amount of depth but then when it comes to the season-wide antagonist and set of complications, it all come crumbling apart.

We don’t find out much about the villain other than he/they exist, nor do we learn much about why the sensates exist, much less the reason the bad guys want them dead. All the treachery is instead imbued into the isolated character stories which tend to tie in the other characters through happenstance and deus ex machina. It almost becomes a game during viewing of wondering how situations can be carefully constructed to require sensate intervention.

As real as the characters themselves are, the situations they find themselves in become all too predictable. Lito Rodriguez (Miguel Ángel Silvestre) is thrown into an especially trite arc despite being one of the more compelling sensates as a closeted movie star. And then the ones that fail to find maturity in their own stories are just confusing, like Will Gorski (Brian J. Smith) and a presumably unsolved murder form his past that doesn’t seem to involve him enough to matter.

Sense8

This could be a problem of the writing. It seems like the show is more interested in telling you that it is poignant rather than being just that, almost as if in the writers room, they kept chopping out words until it felt mysterious enough to count as cerebral. And then too many oddly crafted sentences were left untouched. Especially when it comes to Nomi, it’s hard to not sigh and think to yourself that no one talks like that, like they’re constantly trying to impress James Lipton.

Many of the bits surrounding the core of the show, however, are rather impressive. The logistics, for example, of filming all these parallel scenes on location and effectively cutting them all together is awe-inspiring. And each scene is beautifully shot with clear framing and digestible movement. All that practice with the action of the Matrix movies has paid off.

The editing is simply admirable as well. The story (and stories) move so slow and meander between nowhere and the middle of it but with the cuts moving between locations and characters with slick transitions makes it all look and feel like a much faster show. It’s almost enough to keep you awake for all of it.

Sense8

Perhaps they fell into a trap of making a play of the word “sensate.” At times, the attempts for resonance is far more laughable than potent. There is an—ahem—”origin” montage that starts out relevant and points toward emotional but by the fourth sensate and what feels like its tenth minute, it’s hard not to roll your eyes and laugh.

It’s obvious the Wachowskis have a lot of stories to tell, each one seemingly more interesting and gripping than the last. They certainly have the sense of grandeur to do so. I just can’t wait for when they finally finish one.

Final Score: 6 out of 10

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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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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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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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Broken Age Act 2 Review: Another Time

Broken Age

The second half of Broken Age is out, just a scant two and a half years after the original Kickstarter promise. And while perfectly fine on its own as an entertaining, beautiful, and engaging adventure game, it takes a step down from Act 1 in many regards. That, however, shouldn’t stop you from giving it a chance.

Spoiler warning: seeing as how this is a review for the second half of a two-part game, it will naturally contain spoilers for the first half. If you haven’t played that yet, this isn’t the kind of spoiler you can forget. It changes the entire foundation of the two characters’ stories.

Act 2 picks up directly after the events of Act 1, finding Shay coming out of his crashed ship and Vella coming up on the beach to her defeated monster. Surprise: they’re one and the same. But after Vella takes a swing at Shay, the two accidentally switch places and now much work with their counterpart’s old friends and family to fix the situation.

This is a rather interesting premise. Shay, in a world far beyond anything he’s been able to explore before, is mesmerized by the whole endeavor. And by going through a series of microcosmic worlds already influenced by Vella, we see the consequences. Some are good and some are bad, but all of them are intriguing. We see an old place through a new filter.

The same goes for Vella, though in a slightly different tact. She is exploring the innards of what she once thought was a beastly god monster who demanded maiden sacrifices. It’s not that she is in a world beyond her own like Shay, but rather her life’s institutionalized truths were altogether lies. And to find out the impetus behind the lie is something far more nefarious is shattering.

There are, however, two noteworthy consequence to this. The first is that while the actual plot of this second half is definitely a good one, it lacks the impactful themes and inquisitive nature of the first half. There is no notion of childlike curiosity and there is no push to find a deeper happiness. Instead there is the establishment of evil and the necessary defeat of it, a seemingly base concept compared to the first.

Broken Age Act 2

Next is that a great deal of Act 2 is dependent on Act 1. This doesn’t just mean narratively where stories and characters carry over. (Some jokes, as well, require past knowledge.) No, this is also a second half in terms of the puzzles. There are a lot of hints and setup in the first act that will facilitate progress in the second.

Heed Tim Schafer’s advice and play Act 1 again before you start Act 2. There are several puzzles that will only make sense after you solve them (or, more likely, accidentally stumble upon the solution) if Act 1 isn’t fresh on your mind. Either involving hugs or motivations, it’s almost impossible to just “figure out.”

It’s not just a problem of knowledge, however, in Act 2. Many of the puzzles this time around become instilled with a sense of paranoia once you realize that information necessarily crosses between the character boundaries. There are at least two times where you have to progress as either Vella or Shay to get information for the other character. Otherwise you will be brute forcing your way through a lot of things.

Broken Age Act 2

More than that, until you realize that fact, you will think you’re just not being smart or perceptive or logical or creative enough. This will most likely lead you to backtracking all over the place and seeing if you can combine anything in your inventory with anything on the screen. It wastes a lot of time not knowing that these two worlds move forwards through interfacing facts. It’s narratively smart but frustrating in practice.

All of the aesthetics, though, remain superb. The visuals are so deliciously sweet and overflowing with tantalizing beauty, words and sentiments that further apply to the characters. As previously siloed characters meet each other and interact, it’s dangerously smile-inducing to see how joyful everyone in this world can be. (Also, Dutch the talking knife and utensil counterpart to Shay’s spoon is one of the best characters in years.)

This naturally extends to the voice actors, the folks that bring the levity to bouncy life in the recording booths. From the side characters to the main cast, everyone is acted and written to a T. Just from their opening words, each one is personalized to being a unique entity, not just someone that will give you clues or holds something you need.

Broken Age Act 2

While this game is still incredibly easy to recommend, it does come with a set of faults not present in its predecessor. They’re not even faults, really, but retrograde developments from before. It’s a little disappointing in that way, but Broken Age Act 2 is still smart, funny, gorgeous, and worth playing.

+ Still great to look at with plenty of witty and intelligent writing abound
+ Some puzzles are devious in the way that make you feel like a genius
+ Interwoven and swapped story settings are fascinating
– A lot of futile backtracking in puzzle exploration (read: not solving)
– Not many new environments or characters to see

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Broken Age Act 2

Game Review: Broken Age – Act 2
Release: April 28, 2015
Genre: Adventure
Developer: Double Fine Productions
Available Platforms: PC, Mac, iOS, Android, Linux, Ouya
Players: Single-player
MSRP: $24.99
Website: http://www.brokenagegame.com/

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Marvel’s Daredevil Season 1 Review: Hellishly Good

Marvel's Daredevil

How can anything good happen in a place called Hell’s Kitchen? It’s a real location, named after the brutality that seems to overflow from its residents and onto its dirty streets. It’s also where Marvel’s Daredevil takes place, Netflix’s latest original series and the next entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), and it’s one hell of a trip.

This first season covers he origins of lawyer Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) as well as the origins of his alter superhero ego Daredevil. It actually follows the serial format for comic television: we track the present day hero as he develops his chops for taking down bad guys while visiting the past through flashbacks for the foundational backstory.

In Murdock’s case, he saved a man from being hit by a truck back when he was a child, but some of the dangerous substances on the truck burned away his ability to see with his eyes. But through some ways the show explains, he further develops the ability to see a different way—to see a “world on fire”—and uses his remaining heightened senses to fight crime.

The first thing that’s interesting is that this world is canonical to the MCU, taking place roughly 18 months after the events of 2012’s The Avengers. Most of New York is still recovering from “the event,” a softer colloquialism for a mass alien invasion from a floating portal in the sky. In fact, this is how we believably eschew the modern upscale aesthetics of Hell’s Kitchen to the crime-ridden one of the show. The Avengers left a hole in New York, and the filth of drugs and human trafficking have flowed forth to fill it.

It’s fascinating, though, that outside of a few oblique references and Easter Eggs to the films and some potential future developments, Murdock’s escapades are almost wholly self-contained, and for good reason. For all the grandiose explosions and world-ending consequences of the theatrical entries into the canon, Daredevil is infinitely more personal. This is the hearty, intimate endeavor of one man to save his city.

Truthfully, it’s two men trying to save their city. Opposite Cox’s Daredevil is Vincent D’Onofrio’s Wilson Fisk, better known as The Kingpin, and he is going about a different tack for redeeming his hometown. Working hand in hand with Russian mobsters, Yukuza, and Chinese gangsters, he is trying to do good through the warped filter of his past.

Marvel's Daredevil

This is one of the highlights of the show. D’Onofrio is an extremely potent Kingpin. Fisk, as a child, was terribly troubled by his father and further his relationship with his mother, and whenever his actions come to a head as an adult, you can see his history in his eyes. You can see his regret and his conflict constantly percolating just behind those big doughy peepers.

That is until he loses it. And boy does he lose it, and it feels dangerous. Some of his vocal gurglings are questionable, but his explosions of emotion—be it rage or sadness or whatever—are the perfect foil to Cox as Murdock. While Murdock struggles inwardly with his desires to fix the city and his desires to remain a good man, Fisk exposes his inner turmoil rather outwardly.

This makes Cox’s performance as important to the tone and direction of the show as D’Onofrio’s, which you would expect since it’s a series named after his character. And he handles the responsibility with aplomb. Besides capably executing on the physicality of the role (fighting and blindness included), Cox holds a necessary tenderness behind his steely demeanor as both an attorney and a crime fighter.

Marvel's Daredevil

Most of the supporting cast does just as well including Deborah Ann Woll as Karen Page and Rosario Dawson as Claire Temple and Vondie Curtis-Hall as Ben Urich, each one with considerable depth and pesonality. And whether you count James Wesley (Toby Leonard Moore), Fisk’s righthand man, as a supporting role or the primary villain for nearly the first third of the season, he is a commensurate intimidator with Fisk. It’s a solid one-two of villainy, especially when you throw in Vanessa Marianna (Ayelet Zurer) emergent psychosis.

Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson) is fairly problematic, though. The childhood friend and lawfully employed partner to Murdock, he is right there alongside Daredevil and Kingpin all the way through the season, blissfully unaware of his friend’s nighttime activities. But Henson’s acting is more like constant overacting and the character itself tends to flipflop between being moral and being money-hungry without any consideration. Most of the time he’s annoying and confusing. Other times he’s just taking up space.

There is, however, an admirable and impressive amount of grit to the show. It’s a stark contrast to the rest of Marvel’s offerings, where things only ever get as dark as classic apocalyptic scenarios, but this is about taking the dirt off the streets and rubbing it in your face.

Marvel's Daredevil

This is exemplified through the excellent production and meaningful directing of the season. There’s a lot to the visual impact of each episode. It’s not just about showing you one talking head after another (though it does indulge in that inevitable trap often) but it’s about filling your head with the idea and suggestions of what is important and what isn’t but showing you some things and simply implying others.

There’s one particular scene early on that features a five-minute, one-take fight scene where Daredevil is trying to rescue a kidnapped child. It is a tiring battle for both him and the audience. This isn’t where Captain American punches a bad guy and proceeds; this is a true slugfest. You can see the methodical nature of Murdock’s combat, assessing and reassessing the tight confines of the hallway while utilizing his abilities to monitor the things beyond sight.

But towards the end, he is worn and exhausted. It’s not even fighting after that long. It’s just desire, and his desire is outmatching the several men he’s dismantling. This culminates in a shot that excludes us from the payoff of the crucible, forcing us to realize this is indeed Murdock’s journey and not ours.

Marvel's Daredevil

Speaking of the fighting, though, there is a lot of it, and it’s pretty fantastic. Very rarely do you see Daredevil get through encounters as if they were mere scuffles. These are full-on battles, each and every time. Sure, he manages to accomplish some superhuman things, but you feel like he earns each and every victory. And that’s not to mention the moves he does are pretty cool.

The story, unfortunately, isn’t nearly as consistent. The personal threads hold tight and intimate throughout, but the intrigue of the procedural elements involving a menagerie of crime organizations, lessons on the dangers of truth-seeking/journalism, and incontrovertible good Samaritanism waver in and out and all over impotent romances. It’s too many dishes stacked up and almost all tip over and break across the singular goal of taking down Fisk.

Despite that, this is still a good show. Whether you’ve watched the other bits and pieces of the MCU or you’ve read every Marvel comic under the sun, Marel’s Daredevil is a compact, forceful, and dramatic season of television. It is well worth your time.

Marvel's Daredevil

+ Intimate and personal foils between Fisk and Murdock
+ Plenty of great performances that fit this darker facet of the MCU
+ Directing that has meaning
+ Fighting that feels real and has consequences
– Wavering and confused threads in the last third of the season

Final Score: 9 out of 10

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