Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Movie) Review

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Movie) Review

After successfully reviving the franchise back from the dead last Christmas with The Force Awakens, Disney is back in the Star Wars game. Their latest venture is the beginning of a new brand of Star Wars picture that the corporation hopes to keep cranking out long after the new trilogy is complete. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story falls somewhere between spin-off and prequel. It takes a Star Wars story that everyone knew from the opening crawl of A New Hope and expands it out to a feature length rebellious adventure. Although the movie is clearly rooted deep in the Star Wars mythos, the tone, style, and execution do take some rather large departures from the usual Star Wars we’ve become accustomed to. That family so unavoidably at the core of every Star Wars story to date is pretty much gone and there isn’t much talk of the force either. Instead, it’s a swashbuckling tale of Rebellion against the Empire through scrappy ingenuity and sacrifice. It’s a good time. Not the best Star Wars movie to date, but certainly the best prequel to the original trilogy by a mile.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Movie) Review 2After ditching the usual opening scrawl, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story kicks off relatively quietly and takes time introducing its characters. Felicity Jones stars as a young woman who spent her life causing trouble for the Empire, which landed her in an Imperial internment camp. She’s busted out by the Rebel Alliance and told that the plan is for her to help rescue her father (Mads Mikkelsen), the man who designed the Death Star. The truth is more complicated than it seems, but she’s quickly whisked off with Diego Luna’s troubled rebel and his wise cracking droid sidekick (Alan Tudyk, thankfully more 3PO than Jar-Jar). They slowly build up a band of rebel buddies including Riz Ahmed’s imperial defector, Donnie Yen’s blind monk and Wen Jiang’s sharpshooter. Meanwhile, Ben Mendelsohn’s chilly careerist imperial is supervising the building of the Death Star under the intimidating watchful eyes of Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing revived through impressive CGI) and Darth Vader (James Earl Jones, naturally). There are scrapes and surprises, all leading towards the grand Death Star plans stealing climax that is the stuffy of giddy fanboy dreams made real.

Directing duties for the film fell into the hands of Gareth Edwards, the man who recently revived Godzilla. It’s worth noting off the top because the basic strengths and weaknesses of that flick return here, though thankfully the final results are an improvement. Edwards seems to be fascinated with the idea of starting a blockbuster as a muted character drama and then gradually blowing it up until it’s the biggest blockbuster on the block. The trouble is that he’s not as good at the first part as the latter. So it takes a while for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story to get going. The tone isn’t as joyfully light and goofy as previous Star Wars projects either. It’s a little too quiet and dour, and the characters aren’t quite as complex as the movie wants them to be. After all, this is a cartoon world and Batman aside, watching cartoons brood isn’t as interesting as watching actual humans do the same.

The cast is damn good though, and that sure helps. Felicity Jones provides more strength and intensity than the script gives her, and Diego Luna hints at tragic depths that his character doesn’t quite have. Ben Mendelsohn and Mads Mikkelsen are two of the best actors of their generation, so obviously they are fascinating every time they walk on screen. Everyone else feels a little two dimensional, and the stabs at humor woven in fail more often than they should. Thankfully, the overall story is sound even if the individual pieces aren’t quite as strong. Once the movie finally gets out of it’s rough ride setting everyone up, it takes off. Edwards keeps cranking up the scale and excitement. Familiar sights, sounds, and characters start to pile on and Rogue One grows into its Star Wars Story.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Movie) Review 6The effects and set pieces  are as stunning as you’d hope once the flick takes flight. The CGIed from the dead Peter Cushing works surprisingly well, and the ways in which Vader is slowly weaved into the narrative are amusingly appropriate, right up to a stunner of a finale from the man in black. Best of all is the grand ol’ climax of the movie. It’s an explosion of Star Wars action that will leave you breathless. Edwards’ knack for communicating scale and excitement from Godzilla is in full force using all familiar sights like AT-ATs and X-wings to get your inner child giggling. The action is insane, but it also hurts. With very little magical force guiding the tale, the stakes feel more desperate and dangerous. There are no future films for these characters, so there’s no guarantee of survival. Edwards skilfully makes his climax an emotional peak as much as a visceral one. Easter eggs are mixed with new surprises too, and some questions about A New Hope are answered. It all explodes into a heady, heart-pounding rush and then rolls credits right when viewers will be desperate for more. That’s where the original Star Wars takes over.

So Rogue One: A Star Wars Story isn’t exactly perfect. All the flaws are front-loaded and anxious fans might find themselves worrying. Don’t do that. Stick it out. It all pays off and it’s all pretty glorious. Best of all the film accomplishes exactly what the first of these standalone spin off tales were supposed to do. It proves that there can be a Star Wars movie that doesn’t feel entirely like a Star Wars movie. There are further tales to tell in this universe and elements of emotional and storytelling complexity that never fit into George Lucas’ deliberately simple, mythical design. Maybe there is a good Star Wars movie tell every Christmas. The new team has certainly done a better job than Lucas at reviving the franchise, so it won’t be long now before there are more good Star Wars films made after Lucas’ involvement than during his reign as king (or emperor). Bring on the next one. It’s a good time to be a Star Wars nut (aka pretty much everyone).

Moana (Movie) Review

Moana (Movie) Review

For years Disney it seemed as if had lost their way in the world of animated features. Aside from the Pixar movies they funded and distributed, the studio that was built on feature length animation had lost touch with what worked artistically and in the market place. Then, John Lasseter was asked to help Disney relaunch their animation brand while he ran Pixar and everything changed. Wreck-It Ralph, Frozen, and Zootopia didn’t just put Disney back in the win column, they’ve arguably topped Lasseter’s own studio in the process. Now we have Moana, a sweeping musical adventure that once again kicks that old Disney princess can but emerges as something that feels fresh and alive.

Moana (Movie) Review 5Youngster Auli’I Cravalho voices the titular Moana. Technically she’s a princess, in that she’s the daughter of a tribal chief on an island in the middle of the ocean who is set to inherit the village. They live a simple and happy life in isolation. The ocean and the island provide seemingly everything that they need. Moana has wanderlust though, and has wanted to leave ever since she was a child. The ocean agrees as well, magically parting and carrying her whenever she sets out into the water. The only challenge is that her father (Temuera Morrison) had a traumatic experience on the ocean in his youth and won’t let her go. However, when things start to get rough at home, Moana ventures out to find a demigod named Maui (Dwayne “The Rock, always The Rock” Johnson) to return a jewel heart to a goddess and restore peace to her home.

Moana is a very different breed of Disney princess, if she can even be called that. She’s an adventurer and a hero. There is no prince charming—only Maui’s goofball demigod buddy with superpowers and animated tattoos that tell his life story. Together their quest is filled with wild spectacle and giant monsters. Dwayne Johnson is as goddamn delightful as always, even when his performance is limited entirely to voice acting. He’s filled with jokes and heart that carry the entertainment value far. Cravalho is a natural in the lead—strong, warm, and worthy of her hero’s journey. Around the edges folks like Flight Of The Chonchords’ Jemaine Clement provide all sorts of eccentric comedic diversions. Yet, it’s the central duo who deliver the heart of the movie and they are a wonderful team mercifully devoid of anything remotely resembling a tacked on love story.

Moana (Movie) Review 4The animation and spectacle are astounding. Designs stay true to the smoothly sweet Disney house style, yet more colourful, vivid, and bizarre in keeping with the mythical Polynesian setting. It’s pure eye candy, with plenty of grand action scenes and monster battles that could put many comic book blockbusters to shame (especially those directed by Zack…no…he’s been mocked enough). Despite the fact that viewers can take solace in the safety of Disney’s usual invisible body count, there are some genuinely thrilling and even mildly frightening sequences here that are a bit more intense than the Disney norm. The studio clearly strived for something familiar and fresh here and delivered a movie that should be fondly remembered for a while. The four-headed directing team are Disney veterans with resumes dating back as far as The Little Mermaid, retaining the classic Disney charm while pushing for more epic action and mild darkness than they’ve done in a while. It’s pure crowd-pleasing stuff, just like the house of mouse is known for.

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There are also songs of course. This is a musical and the team of Opetaia Foa’i, Mark Mancina, and Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Mirand provide a diverse range of lyrical and musical styles than this sort of Disney feature typically delivers. The only catch? As sweeping and pretty and funny and exciting as this flick might be, it does feel like a mild step back from what the studio delivered already this year in Zootopia. There was a maturity in the humour, thematic complexity, message, and style of that movie that felt more Pixar than Disney. This one is more traditional Disney fare despite all of its blockbuster bells and whistles, so it’ll feel like a half step back for the animation nerds out there who care about such things. Still, a holiday Disney animated musical carries its own set of expectations and Moana delivers all of them and then tosses in a few surprises for good measure. That’ll do Disney…that’ll do just fine.

Master of Orion: Conquer the Stars (PC) Review

Master of Orion: Conquer the Stars (PC) Review

Master of Orion was one of the first, if not the first 4X game I ever played. I was a youngster, unprepared for every facet of the formula (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate). Often times I’d explore, but not expand. Or I’d try to exploit, and get exterminated. You really have to at least attempt to follow all four precepts, or be aware of them, to succeed, or you’ll get stomped by people who do. Slowly but surely, by the time the sequel came out I was ready for a lifetime of these gargantuan time sinks, and the same goes for the reboot, Master of Orion: Conquer the Stars.

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Your goal, in both solo play and multiplayer, is to have the best score out of everyone playing by the time the game hits the turn limit — think Settlers of Catan, and you’ll have a good idea of how the flow works. You’ll be exploring the galaxy bit by bit, discovering new solar systems and colonizing them before moving further into the final frontier. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the concept, but with one of the more winsome visual styles in some time (with vibrant shades of purple and blue), getting on board with Master of Orion: Conquer the Stars feels natural. That extends to just about everything from the sleek menus to the voice acting, with goes above and beyond your typical 4X release.

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While the ensemble cast in Master of Orion: Conquer the Stars is comprised of talent like Nolan North and Troy Baker, who play the vast majority of ancillary voices these days in just about every game, there are two major gets that really bring a smile to my eyes — Mark Hamill and Michael Dorn. You also have John de Lancie (Q from Star Trek), Alan Tudyk (Wash from Firefly), and many more. What’s old is new again, and their performances feel fresh and inventive while carrying their storied careers along with them at the same time.

The soundtrack is what you’d hear in a queue in Epcot at Walt Disney World — soothingly futuristic (the research management track is almost a spot-on recreation of the line for the Test Track ride!). But that sort of leads into a minor quibble I have.  While Master of Orion: Conquer the Stars feels like an appropriately “epic” exploration adventure, it never really nails the dark tone that previous games touched on. It’s not that big of an issue when you consider everything we’ve talked about, but every so often I did feel the sting of not facing a foe that truly felt terrifying or ruthless.

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That leads me into the weakest aspect of Master of Orion: Conquer the Stars — combat. It’s not turn-based anymore, which feels like a massive misstep, and a radical departure from the original series. Battles feel more like a formality now, taking a backseat to diplomacy and deterrence. It’s not so much that it’s a commentary or deliberate choice as an unfinished feature — something that’s more dumbed-down than streamlined. Often times I’d feel inclined to micromanage a fleet, before I realized that there really isn’t a point to it and set battles to auto-resolve. If that’s your main draw as a fan of the older series you’ll probably be disappointed here (and rightfully so), but just about everything else is on point. That said, it’s not like preparing for war is useless, it’s just the act of actually participating in a battle that’s not engaging.

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From the initial thrill of entering a planet to colonize it, to the comprehensive voice acting throughout the game’s upgrade and tutorial menus, the presentation is impeccable, which helps lend credence to the fact that this is a living world.  You’ll see people moving about your planet while managing resource production, and although you can’t really get in SimCity granular style to manage each citizen (it’s more like assigning a group of them to jobs like research, food production, and infrastructure), the impact is there.

Master of Orion: Conquer the Stars (PC) Review 1That’s also the case for the robust espionage system that allows players to send agents across the galaxy, the ability to customize your fleet to suit your personal play style, and the diplomatic features that still manage to feel tense and exciting even though they’re just menu-based. All of this can be learned through a great tutorial that will ease you into the 4X genre, while maintaining a high ceiling that you can explore over time.

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What Master of Orion: Conquer the Stars really needs is just a set of tweaks, because the foundation is clearly there. If you’re the type of person who loves spending time crafting the perfect plan and becoming immersed in a completely new world, it’s worth diving into. It’s not nearly as complex as its predecessors and the subsequent 4X games that have been released since then, but it’s streamlined and polished in such a way that as long as you’re prepared to have a different experience, you’ll slip comfortable into its cockpit.

Zootopia (Movie) Review

Zootopia (Movie) Review

Here’s something unsurprising: Disney has made a new animated film starring talking animals about the importance of acceptance. Now, here’s something surprising: that movie is actually quite funny, creative, and treats the subject matter with moral complexity. It would have been so easy for Zootopia to fall into variety of formulaic traps and feel like every single Disney movie that’s ever been made before. Yet the filmmakers decided to get creative with their concept. Sure, there are countless sequences that crack jokes about how silly it would be for animals to act like humans. But there are also some rather inspired gags and an intriguingly complex look at the issue of prejudice and how it’s just as big of a social sickness when coming frem the perspective of the oppressed as it is coming from the oppressors. Bet you didn’t see that coming! Oh yeah and it all ends with a horrible Shakira music video…but hey! You can’t have everything.

Zootopia (Movie) Review 2Zootopia takes place in a world with anthropomorphized animals living together in one big glorious city. There are neighbourhoods of rain forests and arctic tundra. Some areas are oversized for elephants and some miniaturized for rodents. Long ago a truce was called between predator and prey that allows everyone to live together despite their natural instincts. Into this world wanders Ginnifer Goodwin’s bunny with dreams of becoming a cop. There’s long been discrimination against the tiniest and cutest of animals joining the police force, but thanks to a new inclusion program (as well as a remarkable amount of talent and hard work) she makes the team. Unfortunately, her big bull boss (Idris Elba) doesn’t trust her to do anything more than traffic duty. Determined to prove herself as a cop, she starts independently tracking a mystery involving a variety of missing mammals throughout Zootopia. In fact, she even puts aside her natural prejudice towards foxes to team up with a particularly sly one (Jason Bateman) who knows the Zootopia underground well enough to be an ideal guide. Together their sleuthing uncovers a strange conspiracy that just might be causing predatory animals to revert to their basest instincts—something that causes the central partnership to fracture in obvious ways.

First up, Zootopia works wonderfully in all of the simple family fun ways that it’s been marketed. The animation is absolutely gorgeous and Zootopia itself is a beautifully realized world filled with opportunities for comedy, action, and insight that co-directors Bryon Howard (Tangled) and Rich Moore (Wreck-It Ralph, The Simpsons) milk for all they’re worth. The comedy is particularly sharp, with excellent voice performances from a variety of unexpected comedians and actors cast perfectly to type. The humour varies from child friendly visual gags and wacky animal behaviour in a civilized context (the sloths/DMV sequences is destined to be remembered and replayed for many moons) as well as more adult friendly innuendo a pop culture references (I’ll bet you never thought there’d be a Breaking Bad joke in a Disney movie, right? Well, you were wrong). As pure pleasure mass entertainment, Zootopia delights just fine. Where it really shines is in its themes.

In the early going Zootopia feels like it will merely be a straightforward tale of a belittled outsider learning to believe in herself and prove the masses wrong. The predator/prey, tiny/large animal dynamic breaks down simply and the filmmakers have plenty of fun playing out their human themes in an animal world (one discussion involving how bunnies can call each other cute, but no other animal should is particularly on point). Then as the story wears on, things get more complicated. Without getting too much into spoiler territory, the filmmakers explore how prejudice isn’t limited to any larger social group oppressing a minority, it’s something that everyone can be guilty of. That’s a pretty complicated exploration of a social issue for a Disney film, but one that the filmmakers cover with surprising depth and sensitivity. It’s great to see a Disney movie suggest that merely believing in yourself isn’t enough and that everyone can be culpable of prejudice if they aren’t self-aware. There’s a surprising even-handedness in the discussion that almost feels like South Park without the satire.

Now all that being said, as fun and smart as Zootopia might be, it’s still a massive Disney product and beset by the usual limitations of that brand of crowd-pleasing family-friendly production. Many dusty jokes land with a thud (hey, did you know you can parody The Godfather?!), some of the CGI spectacle blurs into unnecessary noise, the detective plot gets a little too unnecessarily convoluted, and it all ends with an advertisement for a Shakira song that’s more than a little irritating. Still, you practically have to expect these limitations of a Disney animated blockbuster, almost like genre requirements. The fact that the movie works far more often than not and delivers such a complicated message is worth showering with praise. This is Disney animation at its best, for better or worse. Given that Zootopia is coming out in a time when a US presidential candidate is running with a campaign based on hate and irrational internet outrage over cultural sensitivity makes rational debate nearly impossible, Zootopia feels oddly like a movie of the moment. It’s strange to say that about a Disney family feature and given the loooooong production schedule of any CGI feature, there’s no way the filmmakers intended to make a movie of the moment. Yet, somehow it happened and that’s worth celebrating. Even if you aren’t a child or have access to one to take to the theater, Zootopia is actually worth checking out. In fact, it’s even a rather special achievement.
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Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare (PS4) Review

Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare (PS4) Review

Over the past eight years, the Call of Duty franchise has done quite a bit of era-hopping. From its original setting of World War II through the murkier periods of the Vietnam War, the Cold War, and ultimately “modern warfare”, there are few epic, global wars left for publisher Activision to plunder for source material (aside from those that are currently happening a little too close to home). So it should come as no surprise that developer Sledgehammer Games looked even further into the future than Call of Duty: Ghosts for their first original entry in the Call of Duty canon: Advanced Warfare. Preying on the current and very genuine fears of Private Military Corporations (PMCs), weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) and the proliferation of drone technology (not to mention liberally taking pages out of both 2006’s Battlefield 2142 and the more recent Titanfall’s playbooks), Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare attempts to revolutionize the franchise’s tried-and-true movement system with never-seen-before speed, verticality and lateral movement, and the result is quite impressive. To paraphrase Prince, Sledgehammer Games has seen the future, and it works.

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As the title of the game suggests however, the advanced, hypothetical technology of the 2050s is the game’s real star attraction, and while just about every recent CoD game has introduced its share of futuristic tech toys, Advanced Warfare is the first game to use them to shake up its well established formula, literally forcing players to think more vertically and laterally than ever before with the introduction of powered Exoskeletons (referred to in the game as “Exo-suits” or “Exos”). Exos allow players to rocket-boost over map obstacles and reach higher locations, as well as execute quick dodges to the side, forward, and even backward (even in mid-air), adding a whole new meaning to the words “moving target”. Exos also make CoD players hardier, faster and far more lethal than ever before, as multiple upgrade slots on the basic Exo frame allow players to enhance their defensive and offensive abilities with upgrade points earned through the campaign. In addition, there are different classes of Exo – e.g. Assault, Heavy, and Specialist, and the varied missions of the campaign will see players frequently moving back and forth between them. For instance, a stealth-focused mission will have players using mag-gloves and grappling hooks, while a battle-heavy mission will often call upon players to make heavy use of boost jumps, Overdrive (a time-slowing, fast-reaction technique a-la-Max Payne) and a retractable riot-shield as part of their arsenal. Where this becomes problematic however is that Exo classes and equipped abilities are already pre-determined for each mission, so just as players get accustomed to using an ability in one mission, they’ll find themselves starting the next with a totally different loadout and no access to the previous abilities. So if you were really enjoying using the grappling hook to reel in and stealth-kill unsuspecting guards, you’ll have to wait until the next mission that sends you into the field with the grapple before you can use it again. The only real constants in the campaign are the wide range of cool weapons and attachments that players will start out with or procure in the field (like laser beam-emitting rail guns and target sights that distinguish foes from allies when looking down the barrel – perfect for friendly-fire prone players like myself), and the variable grenades, which allow players to “dial in” the effect they will produce upon explosion, such as a lethal fragmentation or an EMP blast that only destroys machinery and/or disables certain enemy Exos.

It goes without saying that much of the fun of the campaign extends straight into multiplayer, where many of the Exo abilities, all of the weapons and more are carried over, albeit with some understandable gameplay tweaks. For example, the time-slowing Overdrive has been replaced with an optional “Overclock” (speed-burst) ability and grenades are shot from arm-mounted cannons rather than tossed, but the overall experience is nonetheless consistent. Of course, players can fully customize their Exo/weapon loadouts and gameplay style, bend the rules by equipping ability-altering wild cards that they’ve earned through online play, and even play as a male or female, an option that has become a welcome standard since Ghosts. For beginners, the “Combat Readiness Program” simulator eases players into multiplayer by pitting them into general team deathmatches against AI at a slightly slower pace until they’re ready for the real thing, and for co-op fans there’s EXO Survival, Advanced Warfare’s equivalent of Zombie mode (or Horde mode for you Gears of War fans out there). With its traditional multiplayer overflowing in game modes and promising hours upon hours of upgrades and prestige, all while EXO Survival offers the equivalent in rogue-like cooperative play, playing Advanced Warfare with friends is a blast regardless of which way you lean. And with split-screen and LAN party options, the game can be enjoyed offline just as much as online.

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Even as a CoD skeptic, it’s hard for me to knock Advanced Warfare. Yes, just like the Infinity Ward-developed CoD games of old, Advanced Warfare’s campaign is big, loud, over-dramatic and mostly held together by enormous set-pieces that funnel players along a path, but Sledgehammer Games has managed to recreate IW’s formula in the best possible way, reinforcing it with stunning visuals, excellent acting via performance capture, and of course, solid gameplay and multiplayer. And then there’s the Exo-suit, which not only changes the campaign significantly in sections where players have tactical freedom of movement, but also transforms traditional CoD multiplayer in its entirety. If you’re a Call of Duty fan, picking up Advanced Warfare is a no-brainer; but if you’re new to Call of Duty, this game is the perfect place to start.

To read Khari’s extended review of Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, pick up the Dec issue of CGM.

Justice League: War (Movie) Review

Justice League: War (Movie) Review

The folks at DC animation have been on one hell of a winning streak lately. Their direct-to-Video adaptations of The Dark Knight Returns, The Flashpoint Paradox, and even Superman: Unchained have all been far stronger works than the live action DC flicks as of late and there’s a specific reason for that: the major creative players in the comic book world are supervising the animated films just like over at Marvel Studios. It would be nice if that were happening in the live action world, but sadly Warner Brothers have left that in the hands of Zack Snyder and… well… ugh. Thankfully, DC obsessives can take solace in the fact that some excellent animated films are being made directly for the fanboy market. This time director Jay Olivia (who previously knocked The Dark Knight Returns and The Flashpoint Paradox out of the park) has tackled Geoff Johns and Jim Lee’s Justice League: Origin from the New 52. It’s part of a concerted effort for these DCU animated features to step into the New 52 era where continuity and crossover can be king. As a mini-franchise starter, it’s a pretty good time and filled with some of the stunning action scenes that have made Olivia indispensable to this DC production wing. Unfortunately it’s also a slight step down in quality from their last few features, so hopefully the company won’t abandon classic graphic novel adaptations in favor of this new universe. There are still many DC classics that deserve the DCU feature treatment that it would be a shame to stop now.

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The plot is a classic Silver Age alien romp wrapped around a Justice League origin story. Batman, Green Lantern, and Superman kick off the story in full force. So thankfully, not only does the flick skip their origin stories, but kicks off with an epic battle between the three heroes that is an absolute blast. Wonder Woman, on the other hand, has just come to America and gets a humorous intro using her lasso of truth on misogynist protesters and treating little girls to ice cream (it’s funnier than it sounds, I assure you). Meanwhile, Cyborg gets a tragic origin story surrounding a distant father, Shazam makes a cute debut and the Flash shows up to complete the team. Now, what brings all of these great heroes together, you ask? Why Darkseid of course, who else? Yep the ultimate figure of evil from the New Gods era is sending robotic bat alien monsters (it makes sense in context, I swear) to earth along with explosives as part of one his usual dastardly plot to take over the planet. Really, the hows and whys of how it all comes together don’t mean that much. The goal of director Jay Olivia and co. was simply to organize as much superhero smashy-smashy as possible and there’s no denying that the 79 minute flick is a nonstop epic thrill-ride that could never be replicated in live action without a budget roughly equivalent to the entire contents of the Federal Reserve.

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When Geoff Johns wrote this original comic, he built a simple story around as many team up set pieces as possible to allow Jim Lee’s artwork to shine. The film follows suit, with barebones plot and characterization there simply to facilitate as many super-powered beat-em-ups as Jay Olivia can imagine. There are some absolutely stunning ones here too. Olivia knows how to stage a fight cinematically and watching Wonder Woman, Superman, Shazam, and Flash take turns at gouging out Darkseid’s eyes offers an undeniable geekgasm. The plot itself whips by efficiently, setting up all the major players without wasting much time on exposition. Given that most of the dialogue is limited to quips and commands, the voice cast don’t get a chance to do much. But as usual, DC has assembled a stellar lineup of voice talent for future projects with notable standouts being Alan Tudyk’s winking Superman, Sean Astin’s charmingly childish Shazam, and Bruce Thomas’ creepy Desaad. As with the source material, there are some questionable moments and costume designs that will irritate old continuity purists, but overall this movie is a phantasmagoria of fanboy delights. The film might not offer much subtext or meaning, but it’s hard to care when you’re in the midst of being rocketed from one stunning set piece to the next. Justice League: War definitely isn’t the finest DCU animated feature to date, but it is certainly in the running for the title of “most entertaining.”

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As a disc, Justice League: War is a stunner along the lines of DC Animations finest work. The HD transfer glows and pops off the screen in glorious detail while the HD sound mix rivals most Hollywood blockbusters for sheer aural audacity. Where things really get special though is in the special features section (I suppose that makes sense given the use of the world “special” and all). Jim Lee and Jay Olivia join forces to breakdown a few key action sequences in a nice 21-minute feature that delves into the differences between staging action for the page and screen. Next up, Olivia goes solo for a 25-minute look into his creation process comparing storyboards, animatics, and final animation in a nice informative piece for animation buffs. Next up comes the real gold of the disc for comic book nerds: a 40 minute documentary about legendary comic book artist Jim Lee. The perpetual Comic-Con favorite walks viewers through his entire career and his techniques as an artist. Filled with fascinating insights from Lee and his collaborators along with gorgeous showcases for some of his finest splash pages, this doc is a real treat. It might not quite be as epic as the Frank Miller documentary on the Dark Knight Returns disc, but it comes damn close.  Unfortunately, the worst feature on the disc is the preview for the next feature: Batman And Son. The story was the start of Grant Morrison’s Batman odyssey and a great one, but the early footage suggests this will be a very loose and kid-friendly adaptation in a worrisome way. I’ll reserve judgment until the final film arrives, given how good these animated flicks have been so far. But still, I can’t help but feel less excited about the project every time I glimpse new footage.

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Finally, things wrap up with a handful of classic DC Animation episodes from a few Justice League series and Batman: Brave And The Bold. The production values might be a bit more primitive than the current DCU features and the tone far more family friendly, but these episodes prove the DC has always been masterful at translating their comic characters into animation. It’s just a shame that the live action efforts haven’t been quite as consistent. So, overall it’s one hell of a Blu-ray package for a damn entertaining animated feature from DC. Justice League: War might not be quite as deep or challenging as the most recent films cranked out through the studio, but it is one of the most purely enjoyable and visually stunning efforts that they’ve made to date. That’ll do for now. After all, it is one hell of a wild ride and what more could you really ask from a superhero mash-up flick. Hopefully Zack Snyder and Warner Brothers are paying attention to these animated features, because there are plenty of lessons to be learned on how to translate comic pages into motion properly.

Injustice: Gods Among Us (PS3) Review

Injustice: Gods Among Us (PS3) Review

Finally the school yard arguments can be settled. Who would win in a fight between Batman and Wonder Woman? Could the Flash run circles around Green Lantern? Would Doomsday really kill Superman in a rematch? Injustice: Gods Among Us might not send out the signal through its title to anyone other than the most dedicated DC fan, but this just might be the finest superhero fighting game to ever be created. I can already hear the screams of theMarvel Vs. Capcom faithful and as one of them myself, it’s a tough call to make. I’d need a little more time dedicated to duking it out in Injustice to be certain, but at the very least NeatherRealm have a created a title that doesn’t pale in comparison to the fighting came classic. Building off their remarkable Mortal Kombat 2.0 engine to create something that combines traits from both the MK and Capcom franchises, the good folks at NeatherRealm have created a beat em up that’s actually worthy of the godly licensing. Before the game was even released the company hyped it as a potential franchise starter and after sampling the results, let’s hope that isn’t just talk.

From the moment you boot up the game is clear that the design team benefited greatly from the success of their brilliant MK reboot. The graphics, menus, general special move commands are similar, but once you start fighting, it’s a whole other ball game. Fights take on the dizzying speed of a Marvel Vs Capcom battle, each stage is amusingly interactive, and there isn’t a drop of blood in sight. Capcom found the perfect pacing for a superhero fighting game back the arcade heyday and NeatherRealm have adapted and refined it in a ludicrously entertaining way. If you’re a button masher you can smash your way through enough combos and special moves to be competitive, but if you are an experienced fighter with dexterous fingers, you’ll find yourself controlling the DC icons through blazing battles that previously only took place in your dreams.

After the debacle that was Mortal Kombat Vs. DC, it was fair to assume that there would be no fatalities in Injustice; however, NeatherRealm came up with some amusing substitutes. They’ve provided a power meter that builds up based on attacks and hits that can be used in a few ways. Each character has unique special attacks tied to their superpower (eg, the Flash goes extra fast, Deathstroke pulls out his guns, etc.) that can be unleashed gradually, or if you save up all your power you can unleash an animated super move as over the top as it is devastating (eg, Superman flies you to space before knocking you to earth, Batman shocks you before smacking you with the Batmobile). Ever since Tatsunoko Vs. Capcom, fighting game developers have been expanding and exaggerating their animated super moves and Injustice might just have whipped up some of the most grandiose yet and each one fits it’s character perfectly. There’s only one super move per character at this point, which is a bit disappointing and suggests some DLC and sequel baiting. However, that’s compensated for by the fact that levels themselves have built in super attacks. Time the right hit at the edge of a level and you’ll send your opponent through an elaborate animated attack that ends in a new location (ex: hit someone through the wall at Arkham Asylum and they’ll be beat up by Killer Croc, The Penguin, and Two Face before stumbling out the other side). These are ridiculously entertaining to watch and an addition to fighting game mechanics that should have been explored long ago. On top of that you can also grab items from the background of most levels to launch as character specific attacks, which is a nice touch.

As a fighting game, Injustice is a real treat and it also delivers as an excellent piece of fan service. Despite a few wonky redesigns (I’m looking at you overly sexualized Harley Quinn) each and every one of the 24 DC characters is treated with the respect they deserve. Sure, we’d expect Superman to have all of his powers fully utilized in special moves, but for Solomon Grundy to be so lovingly rendered with clever designs like having him pull blade projectiles out of his body…well, that’s a pleasant surprise. Even more of a shock is the fact that the story mode of Injustice is actually well worth playing. That’s right, thanks to hiring a pair of DC comics scripting veterans Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti, NeatherRealm have delivered arguably the most interesting narrative to any fighting game. There’s a full two hours of animation here that’s been lovingly rendered and when you add in the fights and occasional quicktime event mini-games, you could easily sink 4-5 hours into the story mode alone. The plot opens with the Joker unleashing a nuke in Metropolis that kills a vast number of heroes and civilians, eventually leading Superman to create a global totalitarian government (!). It’s a bizarre set up, but if you’re familiar with the DC universe, you’ll know what the term multiverse means and can guess how the problem is solved. It’s not exactly a Frank Miller or Grant Morrison yarn, but for a fighting game it’s a surprisingly deep story with plenty of nods and in-jokes for fans as well as some surprising emotional resonance. Throw in a pounding orchestral score and a voice cast of animated Justice League veterans (including Kevin Conroy!) and you’ve got yourself something special. Story mode is usually the last thing anyone would voluntarily sample after buying a fighting game, but with Injustice I’d actually recommend going there first.

What’s that? You want more content? Don’t worry, Injustice has you covered. If you want to do an old school MK Tower battle, it’s there’s in Battle Mode complete with limited animation MK-style character endings and over 20 variations (fight only villains, retain one health bar through multiple fights, etc.). Then there’s S.T.A.R. labs filled with odd unlockable mini-tasks like the last Mortal Kombat game, a surprisingly detailed training mode that will show inexperienced fighting gamers how to master every character, and of course online multiplayer with all that implies. Whew! That’s a hefty package for a fighting game, especially a debut entry in a new franchise.

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There are of course complaints to be made: a few shoddy bits of animation here, a few missed move opportunities there. Thankfully, it’s all stuff that falls into the nitpicking category and nothing that significantly hurts the game. Whether you’re a fighting game fanatic or a DC comics obsessive, Injustice: Gods Among Us will scratch your itch just right. Fans of both were right to be apprehensive about the title given past disappointments, but the good news is that Injustice delivers everything the developers promised. NetherRealm did such an impressive job on this and their Mortal Kombat reboot that it might even be time to dust off that old Mortal Kombat Vs DC concept again. Now that the superheroes have animated super moves this entertaining to watch, a fatality substitute is in place that could make up for DC’s insistence that their characters not get their hands bloody. I’ve got a feeling that fans will be battling it out in Injustice online for quite some time and with Lobo already announced and Martian Manhunter curiously absent, the DLC character lineup should be robust. Injustice is the fighting game the DC characters have long deserved and if NeatherRealm is committed to turning this heroic success into a franchise, well this just might be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

 

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Michael Bay has become a punching bag for the critical community, and justifiably so given that his primary interest as a director seems to be fetishizing automotive and military hardware as well as ladies’ software. You’d think by now he’d want to show that he’s capable of more, particularly after the shit-kicking he took on Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen.

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