Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Fallout 3

I was ready to hate Fallout 3.

I'm not a fan of sandbox games. As an adult gamer with a toddler and a day job, I have a limited amount of time on my hands. I played Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion for a few days before I threw it down in disgust, aggravated by the lack of plot direction, frustrated by all the constraints placed on me by polite society (don't even think about stealing a wooden plate!), and bored by the long walks it took for my character to get anywhere. Yes, Elder Scrolls is a hugely immersive game, but I don't have time to be that immersive.

Fallout 3 starts with you being born. It's at that point you determine your gender and, as a toddler, you learn about your SPECIAL (an acronym for your character's attributes) abilities. How many games let you walk around a playpen as a toddler while teaching you the fundamentals of the game at the same time?

You continue as a pre-teen, dealing with all the difficulties of life in the Vault, a fallout shelter to protect you from the nuclear war raging outside. As the outside world intrudes, it becomes clear that all is not as it seems. Your scientist father disappears and it's up to you to leave the safety of the Vault and find dear old dad.

Nuclear war struck in the 1950s, locking the outside world in retro-future state. Ray guns, Robby-the-Robot style automatons, and cars with fins dominate the landscape. But it is a broken, shattered landscape littered with the detritus of humanity's failed hopes and dreams. And it is here where you will find everything from post-apocalyptic preachers, cannibalistic ghouls, super-mutants, and a whole pile of Mad Max-style survivalists.

There are still the annoying holdovers from Elder Scrolls – you can't just take things without consequences. And you do get tired from all that walking, of which there's a lot of walking to do. But for some reason, this is all less aggravating than Elder Scrolls.

Part of it has to do with the sheer depth of the game. Fallout's blend of post-apocalyptic with retro-future creates a unique setting that makes you want to explore the game. From your grainy PIPBoy 2000 to the Mohawks of the wasteland raiders, to the cheery 1950s-style manuals and billboards, Fallout 3 is an immersive experience.

Like BioShock, there are multiple means of overcoming a challenge. You can be stealthy. You can reprogram robots to do your work for you. You can be a charmer, smooth-talking your way out of difficult quests. Or you can just bash stuff over the head with a baseball bat.

Unlike all the promises made in Mass Effect, Fallout 3 actually delivers. The pausing system for combat actually makes sense (it's called VATS), and yet you can still shoot an enemy's head off from a distance without using VATS. The world is large enough to make getting lost at night a terrifying prospect, but not so imposing that you can't make it to a safe place to rest. And there are plenty of quests to keep you busy.

I'm still not a fan of sandbox games. But Fallout 3's so good, I'll make an exception.


Changeling is most famous for being produced by Clint Eastwood and its lead actress, Angelina Jolie. Those two names unfortunately overshadow a disturbing true tale of one woman's struggle to find her son.

The film follows Christine Collins (Jolie), a single mother rising in the ranks of the 1920s workforce in Los Angeles. When the hectic workday demands of single parenthood conspire against her, Collins is forced to leave her son Walter alone at home. And then Walter disappears.

But that's not the story. Changeling focuses on what happens to Collins afterwards. The LAPD, under increasing pressure for its thuggish behavior, is desperate for an easy PR-win. When a child comes forward claiming to be Walter, the LAPD publicly declares the case solved. There's just one problem: it's not Walter.

What happens next is a heartbreaking tale of male-dominated institutions bringing their full weight to bear against a single mother without family, friends, or resources. Fortunately, her plight gains the attention of Reverend Gustav Briegleb (the always superb John Malkovich), who uses Collins as part of his public chess game with the LAPD. As tensions escalate and Collins continues to deny the faux Walter as her real son, she is committed to a mental institution to shut her up. The story would end there, if it weren't for evidence that Walter was murdered by Gordon Stewart Northcott.

The status of Jolie as an object of male lust often obscures her acting ability, and it is all the more evident here, where she plays a meek woman who only wants the police to find her son. Her nemesis is Captain J. J. Jones, played by Jeffrey Donovan, he of Burn Notice fame. Donovan seems a little uncomfortable in the role; he slips in and out of his Irish accent and he doesn't always exhibit the hard-edged indifference that makes the character so loathsome.

Changeling's author is the eponymous J. Michael Straczynski, most famous for Babylon 5 but also a scriptwriter for numerous cartoons, Jake and the Fatman, Murder She Wrote, and Walker Texas Ranger. Straczynski knows how to spin an investigative yarn and his attention to detail shows in the film. This is as much a commentary on the changing role of technology, media, and women in American society as it is a historical tale. Oddly, some attributes are glossed over: Northcott's mother is notably missing, as is the fact that many of the political and legal improvements made at the conclusion of the film were ultimately reversed.

None of that detracts from the tale. Whenever a child is endangered, every parent can't help but be alternately terrified and enthralled. We keep hoping for a happy resolution, knowing that it will never come. The best we ask for is that Collins finds some semblance of justice and peace – if not for her missing son, then for herself.

Although it takes a long time to get to its conclusion, Changeling delivers. This is a powerful, heart-wrenching film.


Legendary is one of those games that seems like it was created for me. It combines fantasy monsters and lots of guns to create a modern-day first-person shooter that takes on the creatures of Greek myth.

Wait, did I say Greek myth? Where did you get that idea? Oh, probably from the notion that Charles Deckard opens Pandora's Box (which is, you know, Greek) and unleashes: griffons, minotaurs, werewolves, firedrakes, Nari (evil little pixies), Tscuhigomo's Children (spiders that explode), a golem, a kraken, and poltergeists. Minotaurs and griffons make perfect sense. You could make an argument that the myth of Lycaeon places werewolves in Greek mythology. The firedrakes are modeled after the mythical salamander, a myth that harkens all the way back to the Talmud. But the rest? The rest is an excuse to throw monsters at you to blow up.

My delicate historical sensibility aside, Legendary is still a peculiar beast. Deckard's supposedly a jewel thief, but his lock-picking skill consists of standing at electrical panels and waiting for a counter to finish so the door opens. It seems like there was supposed to be a lock-picking mini-game that didn't make it into the finished product.

Deckard also has the ability to absorb energy from every monster he kills. This allows him to heal, shoot a burst of energy at his opponents, and power certain gadgets to defeat bigger monsters like the golem and the kraken. Reminiscent of Lost Planet: Extreme Condition, this "kill more to survive" game mechanic is only slightly less forgiving.

Every game has a developer's favorite monster, the one that the designers clearly put a lot of thought into, sometimes to the exclusion of the actual focus of the game. In F.E.A.R. it was the amazingly life-like, intelligent, and vulgar clone soldiers. In Legendary, it's the werewolves. They climb, they throw stuff from afar, they regenerate unless you chop their heads off, and they're hideous-looking. You will learn to hate werewolves with a passion in Legendary.

What's curious about Legendary is that it wants to be a horror game. There are several scenes wherein everyday citizens are torn apart by the supernatural horrors unleashed by Pandora's box, right before your very eyes. Which seems a bit out of place for a game about mythical creatures taking over the world. Given the range of monstrosities foisted on thus in most modern horror games, a man being eaten by an eagle/lion isn't all that scary.

Legendary is pretty linear too. You can only shoot the bad guys you're allowed to shoot (no putting those civilians out of their misery!). You can only go in the designated areas not blocked off by debris, which is everywhere of course. And you can't jump. Period.

The ending has to be the most hilarious, over-the-top, death scene of a villain ever. Assuming you even make it to the end (spoiler alert!), you will have the distinct pleasure of watching the main villain killed in a Rube Goldberg-ian game of monster volleyball, with each monster mangling and then tossing the bad guy off to the next until he it tossed over a ledge…and then bounces on the way down!

This isn't a bad first-person shooter, merely a mediocre one trying to compete with superior action horror titles.

Friday, April 24, 2009


By now, everyone knows about Beowulf, if only because they were forced to read it in high school. Judging from the audio track of the DVD, some folks clearly resented having to read the "boring" heroic saga of a man who rips a troll's arm off with his bare hands, slays its monstrous mother, becomes king, and later dies fighting a dragon.

There's some odd defensiveness about Beowulf from the directors. This movie isn't JUST going to be about Beowulf, it will have a tightly wrapped story from beginning to end! It won't JUST be about a hero slaying monsters, it will be about father and son guilt, mother and son pride, and the lies they tell each other! There won't JUST be actors, there will be beautifully rendered superbly animated avatars! It won't JUST be a movie, it will be a movie in 3-D!

For the most part, it works. Beowulf and the king who hires him to slay Grendel are at times drunken louts and macho warriors. Grendel isn't just a disgusting monster, he's a piteous troll-child that throws a deadly tantrum. And Grendel's mother? Mmm, Grendel's mother is a delicious golden-skinned incubus who actually sprouts high heels (because, hey, human isn't her real form anyway so why not?) and a slinky tail. Gone is the random moment when Beowulf finds the sword that will slay Grendel's mother just laying around in her treasure horde, a situation I always found a little lazy on the part of the mysterious author. Replacing the somewhat jumbled juxtaposition of heroic mythology and Christian values is a tale of men tempted by lust and greed who go on to father the demons that ultimately destroy them.

The three-dimensional effects are lost on my television, a problem that's going to only become more prevalent as movie theaters give up trying to compete with DVDs and switch to gimmicks like 3-D. This makes some scenes more amusing than exciting, like when a flagpole juts towards the screen at the viewer.

The computer graphics, while breathtaking, seem to be almost beside the point. Yes, it's great that we have Jolie in all her near-naked glory. But why bother recreating her in CGI at all? When you watch the making-of docs, the actors acted with props, right down to Crispin Glover tossing dolls around as Grendel. Was that really necessary? Do we really care how realistically a warrior swings a lamp (a weighted prop, in case you're wondering) or Grendel tears a man in two?

Perhaps the most grating attribute of the DVD is the insistence that Beowulf was "boring." That somehow, the producers have made Beowulf better, because reading is dumb and so is high school. Maybe it's the English major in me, but I found the tone condescending.

If you can look past that, Beowulf's an entertaining if somewhat gory tale. But with its gratuitous nudity, buckets of gore, and significant changes to the plot, it's not going to be shown in high school English classes any time soon.

Monday, April 6, 2009

League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

Let me present my biases up front: I am a huge fan of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comics. I found them by accident. My friend, Rob Taylor, gave me a bunch to read. I did not know who Alan Moore was -- never realized, in fact, that I had enjoyed so much of his work in other comics and stories. I was instantly hooked.

I have also heard just how much of a car crash this movie is supposed to be. So I was prepared for something really awful.

I'm happy to report that it's really not that awful.

The movie takes place in Victorian-era London. Well, it starts there anyway. The League is gathered together to fight a new, despicable evil -- in short, a new technology that threatens to ignite a World War. You know, THE World War that's supposed to happen a few decades later.

Anyway, a bunch of public domain characters are gathered together: Mina Harker (of Dracula fame), Alan Quartermain (of Diamond Mine fame), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the Invisible Man (sorta), Dorian Gray (the fellow with that portrait), Captain Nemo (that whole thing with the Nautilus) and...Tom Sawyer.

In short, superheroes for a different century. Neat idea. It works better in the comics, because Moore is insane and has such attention to detail that he immerses the characters in the era. And in that comic, Mina's not a vampire, she's a modern woman -- which is a pretty cool superpower in Victorian times.

I digress. Let me go over the characters and their differences, for those who are fans of the comic.
  • Mina is cooler as a vampire. She just is. But she flips over from repressed gentlewoman to sexy, black-corset-wearing vamp a little too quickly and casually. It felt like they took a lot out of her character for the sake of shortening the film. She had great potential, but she doesn't realize it here. Still, Mina's fight scenes kick ass. And she is much more interesting as a semi-vampire. She also retains the scarf. Rating: 4
  • Alan Quartermain is not the opium addict of the comics. He's just an old guy who lost his son and two wives to adventuring. Sort of like a retired Indiana Jones. Sean Connery brings some dignity to him, but not much. His "super power" is that he's a crack shot with a rifle. When he's wearing his glasses. It's a cute, Dark Knight-esque, damn-these-old-bones sort of character that made him more endearing than the frail whiner of the comics. I liked him. Rating: 3
  • The Invisible Man is Rodney Skinner, not...well whoever that other psychopath was in the comics. I'm happy to say he's NOT a villain in this movie (although they want you to think he is). He's got the best lines and his matter-of-fact nature makes him a welcome addition. He's coolest when wearing his hat and trench coat (and nothing else, making him quite pervy) but alas, Rodney doesn't get much play here. Cool character, underdeveloped like Mina. Rating: 5
  • Nemo is quite similar to his character in the comic, except he has an inexplicable fondness for the English that's very out of character for someone who has spent much of his life fighting British tyranny. The Nautilus is sleek, white, and marvelous -- his Indian crewmen are just plain cool. The whole thing is about presentation and it's really quite lovely. Unfortunately, Nemo loses points for having a very fake-looking beard. Visually, he's a mirror image of the comic. To make him more interesting, they gave him weirdo martial arts. And for some reason, Nemo never fires a gun, he always charges at guys wielding machine guns (!) with his saber. But you've gotta admire his moxie. Rating: 4
  • Dorian Gray. Damn, I liked him so much I wish he was in the comics. Dorian can't be killed, so he's an immortal of sorts. Of course, that's a bit like Mina (in her vampire incarnation), which makes him redundant. But he fights with a walking stick. And he's a bored immortal. Imagine the Highlander without all that angst. Rating: 5
  • I was really ready to dislike Tom Sawyer. But once I realized his entire existence was to show Quartermain's grief over his lost son, I got over it. That, and everyone else is so mopey and depressing that it's refreshing to have someone else in the movie who likes to blow crap up. And he does it with two pistols. Sort of like in the Mummy, only with no mummy. Rating: 2
  • And last, but not least...Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Oh, the agony! Jekyll is suitably uptight. Hyde is...Hyde is...a freaky-looking gorilla. Visually, he looks like the character from the comics. But he moves with a weird, muppet-like quality. Somebody made a mistake somewhere in the visual effects department. You get the impression Hyde has no feeling in his arms. Indeed, his hands don't even seem capable of doing much. The transformation is also cheesy (flash transformations went out with the wolfman in the 1950s). Everything about Hyde is cheesy. Despite the fact he's one of the most interesting characters in the comic, here Hyde just sucks. And oh yeah, Jekyll has to drink a potion to cause the transformation (unlike the comics). Rating: 1
For fans of the comics, I'm happy to say the plot from the first series is reasonably intact. Indeed, the whole idea of the turn of the century bringing on terrible new technology is nothing new. It's been done before in movies like Sleepy Hollow. What is neat is the juxtaposition of these characters with change -- it's almost like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny getting together to lament the changes in the holidays.

Even better, the movie has the strength of its convictions. Some characters die -- and they SHOULD die. Yay!

The plot even makes more sense. The unique nature of the anti-heroes is what the plot is really about. So the plot of the story is not as much of a coincidence as it may first seem.

That said, there's so many inconsistencies that the movie threatens to unravel itself. How can the massive Nautilus sail through the canals of Venice? Did Nemo actually invent a launchable missile? As my wife pointed out -- why does Hyde always appear with his clothing torn when Jekyll intentionally swallows a potion to cause the transformation? How about taking your shirt off, doctor -- not to mention the pants. OOOOCH! If Dorian Gray dies upon seeing his painting (not true, by the way, it was destruction of the painting), then why was it HANGING OVER THE STAIRWAY, CLEARLY VISIBLE TO ANYONE ENTERING HIS HOME?

If you haven't read any of the books that detail these characters, LXG will either horrify you with the liberties it takes or amuse you with its daring. If you've read the comics, you'll be put off by some changes and delighted by others. If you haven't read either, this movie isn't going to make a whole lot of sense.

My wife though this movie was utter crap. I liked it. But I wanted to like it so much more.

Monsters vs. Aliens

Monsters vs. Aliens is an entertaining wrestling match for young children, an ironic take on society for older adults, and a delicious homage to 1950s science fiction movies for geeky parents.

Monsters vs. Aliens is one of those movies that's pretty explicit about what you get: a fight involving two critters that sometimes blur together. The thing is, while an alien could be classified as a monster, a monster can't always be classified as an alien. Although these monsters are, well, monsters, they're OUR MONSTERS, good old American-bred monstrosities created from science and evolution gone awry: Insectosaurus (Mothra), Dr. Cockroach (a riff on The Fly voiced by Hugh Laurie), BOB (Attack of the Killer Tomatoes + The Blob voiced by Seth Rogen), The Missing Link (The Creature from the Black Lagoon voiced by Will Arnett), and of course Ginormica (Attack of the 50-foot Woman voiced by Reese Witherspoon). The origins of these science fiction creations were completely lost on the audience in the theater I went to.

The story revolves around Susan Murphy's transformation into Ginormica on her wedding day. It's a thrilling tale of female empowerment – literally, as Susan transforms into an enormously powerful giantess – that seems more appropriate to a 1950s setting. After her transformation Ginormica becomes a pawn of the government, working for a secret agency dedicated to defeating supernatural threats. In other words: Hellboy and the BPRD. When a giant robot (sent by aliens, natch) shows up to destroy the Earth, it's up to this completely untrained and clueless team of monsters to save the world.

The movie is rife with in-jokes about classic science fiction movies, the current state of the U.S. government, and the complexities of global conquest that movies tend to gloss over (how does an alien overlord tell his clones apart?). The action comes fast and furious and in three-dimensions, the violence is definitely not for kids, and at various points things blow up. Although this is something of an action comedy, Monsters vs. Aliens plays for keeps.

The characters' lip-synching seemed off, but that might have been the theater I was in. Some of the characters were underdeveloped: BOB is a laugh-machine, but Link and Cockroach have little to do, especially in light of Ginormica's powers. And everyone conveniently ignores the fact that there's a bigger-than-even-Ginormica Insectosaurus wandering the countryside…but to go down that path is to question the basic premise of the movie.

Monsters vs. Aliens is a real treat for monster movie fans. For everyone else, it's a serviceable 3-D roller coaster ride. The kids in the audience (and it was almost all kids and parents) weren't bored, but they weren't laughing as much as my wife and I.