Van Helsing Pilot (TV) Review

Van Helsing Pilot (TV) Review

The tale of Van Helsing is one that we’ve seen trotted out time and time again. Whether we’re talking about the mediocre Hugh Jackman vehicle, the cult anime franchise Hellsing, or the dungeon-crawling Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing series, people can’t seem to stay away from the legendary vampire hunter. Now, SyFy is finally taking their crack at the bat (stake?) in 2016. It’s a good thing, then, that Van Helsing is the most radical reinvention of the modern folktale yet.

Van Helsing takes place in 2019, when the entire world has gone to the dogs, or more accurately, to the vampires. The sun is blotted out, city streets are devoid of life, and the only humans you’ll find on the surface are bloodsucking fiends. Much like a typical zombie yarn set-up, the remaining humans have banded together in small, separate factions, clinging to their humanity and attempting to survive.

Luckily, there’s more than enough intrigue in the first episode to prevent Van Helsing from feeling like old hat. Your typical “ragtag group of survivors” winds up in a secret underground bunker housing a former military officer who is safeguarding both a ravenous vampire and a mysterious sleeping woman. The woman is the titular Vanessa Helsing, who wakes up during a vampire attack and ends up brutalizing the creatures with her bare hands.

While Vanessa herself acts as more of a setpiece than a character for about half the episode, what we do see of her is promising. She has no memories of the vampire apocalypse happening at all—or so it seems, at any rate. All she knows is that she has a daughter and a life she wants to return to. But with the earth in ruins and overrun by bloodsuckers, it seems like she’ll have her work cut out for her.
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This pilot sets the stage for what’s to follow, both in terms of narrative and tone. Tonally, Van Helsing fits right at home with SyFy’s stable of mid-tier programming. It has camp in spades, from the endearingly hammy dialogue to the very silly cursing. The violence is over-the-top and ridiculous, with scenes like Vanessa attacking somebody with a knife that’s already been stabbed through her hand. That’s to say nothing of the budget, which is clearly shoestring and in line with other things you’d find on the network.

These might sound like knocks against Van Helsing, but they’re actually anything but. Television today is, in my opinion, very self-serious and po-faced. It seems rife with dour and cynical shows full of edginess that do nothing other than feel like middle schooler’s notebook “poetry.” I miss cheesy and fun stuff like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Kung Fu: The Legend Continues, Charmed, and even stuff like Nightman (bonus points if you remember that one.) Basic cable shows of yesteryear that weren’t pretentious “art” wannabes are sort of my jam, and Van Helsing is very much one of these. It’s a dumb, silly, campy vampire show, and it’s not trying to be anything but that. I respect that—and even admire it.

Basically, Van Helsing isn’t going to win any Emmys, and I don’t think it’s trying to. Instead, I feel like we’re going to be watching a violent, campy and vamp-y bit of entertainment with the whole show. Vanessa is a strong and compelling lead, and I am genuinely intrigued as to why she’s in the position she starts in. Is she a vampire? A human? Something in-between? I want to know.

If you’re in the market for television that’s in the business of entertainment and no-frills fun, Van Helsing seems like it’s heading in a positive direction. I’ll definitely be picking it up in September, and look forward to watching something that doesn’t take itself too seriously.

Only Lovers Left Alive (Movie) Review

Only Lovers Left Alive (Movie) Review

In an age when vampires have been robbed of their dignity by teeny-bopper romance, a savior for the bloodsuckers has arrived in an unlikely source. Director Jim Jarmusch is best known for his black and white deadpan art comedies starring the likes of Tom Waits and Bill Murray, but every now and then the proto-hipster with bright white hair dips his toes into genre filmmaking and completely reinvents it as his own. This time the man has made a vampire movie with Loki himself, Tom Hiddleston, and reclaimed the Goth staple for adult audiences. It’s a radically unconventional approach to the material, but a very satisfying one that focuses on some seldom explored aspects of vampire mythology without a split second of tedious romantic melodrama. For those who have bemoaned the current state of vampire filmmaking, you owe Jarmusch a big ol’ hug and a thank you.

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Tom Hiddleston stars as a burned out vampire of indeterminate age who currently lives in a rotted out house in Detroit. He whittles away his days listening to forgotten old rock albums and recording his own funeral-fueled art rock, which he slips out into the world through his only human contact (Anton Yelchin), a sad rock kid who keeps Hiddleston stocked up with vintage guitars. All the way out in Tangiers lives Tilda Swinton, Hiddleston’s longtime vamp lover. She too dedicates her life to sucking up great human art, in her case literature (and she even pals around with a vampiric John Hurt who secretly wrote all of Shakespeare’s work). With Hiddleston going through another round of suicidal depression, Swinton flies over to Detroit to visit her lost love. They cruise around the rotted out Detroit and suck back high quality blood purchased from a sneaky doctor in a local hospital (Jeffery Wright). Everything seems cool and calm until Swinton’s hyperactive vampire sister Mia Wasikowska shows up. She’s not someone who enjoys housebound brooding and enjoys her blood fresh, so she soon turns Tom n’ Tilda’s world all topsy-turvy. Yep, it’s time for trouble in vampire country, but ain’t that always the way?

As you may have gathered by now, Jarmusch’s clever and rather hilarious take on vampires is that they are the original hipsters. Thanks to an eternal lifespan, his vamps have sucked up all the great art from the past and live their lives mourning the loss of forgotten periods in history that they probably didn’t enjoy the first time. It’s an amusing take on the vampire mythos and one that director Jarmusch clearly identifies with. When he emerged as a New York filmmaker in the 80s, his unique style was as rooted in the past as it was ahead of its time. These days he clearly feels as out of place as his greasy haired vamps, and it’s a pretty wonderful and personal take on the material. Jarmusch movies tend to be based more on watching characters hang out than action, so given that vampires have centuries to hang that’s his primary focus. At his worst, that leisurely style can make his films feel a bit placid, so it’s always welcome when he adds a genre element to his movies like this one. Just the fact that the characters are vampires leaves you feeling uneasy at all times, knowing at some point something is going to go very wrong. That gives the movie a constant tension that the filmmaker exploits well as an unconventional horror movie/deadpan comedy. When Jarmusch does deliver on the vampire goodness, he definitely gets some genuine chills from the material, just not wire-fu set pieces.

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As always, the director cast his flick extraordinarily well. For Hiddleston, it’s a chance to earn a little indie cred to back his Marvel-boosted fame and an inspired career choice. His introverted, brooding vampire is everything that Loki isn’t in terms of physical energy, yet still plays off his evil/cool image. It’s a richly internalized performance that contrasts wonderfully with his snarling theatrical Loki. This was a wise move for Hiddleston and one that will hopefully earn him plenty of non-Loki work. Swinton once again plays an otherworldly eccentric that capitalizes on her unique looks. At this point there is very much a “Tilda Swinton” type of character. This is one of them and as always, delivers the goods. John Hurt adds some heartbreaking tragedy to the movie, which gives some added weight to the film near the finale and he’s as wonderful as ever. The showiest role belongs to Mia Wasikowska, who is a feline ball of energy, and trouble she brings sparks the somber comedy to life and brings in a genuine sense of danger. She’s wonderful in the film and deserves a lot of credit for segueing the blockbuster success of her Hollywood debut in Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland into a wonderful career of strange performances in works by unique filmmakers just like this.

Make no mistake; Only Lovers Left Alive is certainly an oddball vampire picture. It’s one driven by ideas, characterization, and deadpan comedy more than jump scales, gallons of gore, or eroticism. However, after the last decade or so of vampire pulp, it’s nice to see the creatures get a serious treatment again. Vampire-fueled pop culture has continued for over a century because the creatures have such fascinating habits and inherent tragedy to their character that they can be bent by talented artists to their will. Jim Jarmusch has now added his unique New York hipster spin on the mythos and it’s a fascinating experiment that should tickle anyone who enjoys new spins on old tales. The 2000s may have been a rough ride for serious vampire aficionados, but between Only Lovers Left Alive and Chan-wook Park’s deeply underrated Thirst, two contemporary cinematic vamp classics did slip out under all the populist garbage. That’s not bad and it’s safe to say there will be more serious takes on vampirism in the future. After all, as Jim Jarmusch is all too happy to point out, the most intriguing thing about vampires is that they’ll never die. That’s as true in art as it is within the vampire mythos.

 

Castlevania Lords of Shadow 2 (PS3) Review: Great Addition to the Family

Castlevania Lords of Shadow 2 (PS3) Review: Great Addition to the Family

Let’s get this out of the way. In this game, you get to play as Dracula.

Everyone wants to play as the monster. That’s an exaggeration, of course, but there’s evidence that gamers enjoy playing as the other end of he Gothic human/inhuman duality. Legacy of Kain is the first example I think of; the cult-hit action platformer starring its immortal and damned titular protagonist and his quest for redemption (maybe?). It’s an example we should keep in mind, as Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 has a very similar premise.

And that’s fine.

It’s not like this is new for the franchise. The original game was oft compared to a hash of God of War style action games with Shadow of the Colossus climbing elements. Those return in this game, save that the protagonist of the series has graduated from being a devoted holy warrior to a cynical and tormented vampire.

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Lords 2‘s story begins with Dracula on his throne, drinking from his cup of blood, as holy warriors break down his door. What follows is your defense of his castle, fighting knights and a giant magical siege mecha (because why not). These over-the-top antics are pretty common throughout, and the sheer absurdity of the army of demons and steam-punk mecha is contrasted by Dracula’s grim, cynical bravado. He’s surprisingly subdued, especially when he echoes the famous “What is a man?” line from Symphony of the Night‘s opening, albeit with a quietly dismissive tone. The shirtless, blood-whipping bloodsucker with a bone to pick with God is a departure from the bombastic evil of the previous Castlevania games, and while it can be somewhat disappointing, his cinematic depictions of dark power reach ludicrous levels, especially at the end of boss fights. While his quest to stave off the vampire hunters and the literal army of Satan is melodramatic, it’s not pretending to be otherwise. The voice acting is good, with some actually powerful scenes and writing that deserves credit for the attention put into it. It seems to accept its campiness without trivializing its narrative, and while you see a lot of it coming, it’s still well-done. It also summarizes the last two games in the opening, bringing us up to speed.

The gameplay is, in a word, entertaining. Combat is challenging, with multiple enemies flying in all directions with a variety of different weapons and tactics. Dracula has a plethora of powers at his disposal, and the dynamic they have with each other well-balanced. A player who practices can decimate enemies while maintaining his health with Void Sword and breaking guards with Chaos, and the game rewards switching moves with easier accumulation of energy and mastery experience. All of the different abilities have different uses for both map progression and combat, and synergize well. Quick-time events are part of the game, as well, though they are well-implemented, amounting to a timed button touch and rarely killing you outright if you fail. You can even turn them off, causing the game to automatically complete the actions. In the end, I kept them on, because they were simple enough to not become cheap but kept me thinking about the combat strategy.

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What impressed me about this is the attempt at variety. Stealth sections, the bane of character action games, are quite common here, and every one is decidedly different, with several ways of progressing. One of them took me several tries and required a lot of planning and quick thinking to mitigate noise, but I enjoyed it even when I actually died once (none of the stealth sections are instant-kill, giving you more chances to fight). There are several unique challenges presented to you as you play, some of which are somewhat useless (assembling a puzzle to open a door, for example, doesn’t really add to the gameplay), but most of which served to make the combat fresh. The bosses are rarely gimmicky, but even the simplest ones are engaging as you learn their moves and combine different abilities to take them down. The fights are some of the better ones I’ve enjoyed, and their designs are eye-catching, with even staples like Medusa getting a particularly cool redesign.

This design philosophy extends to the game’s two areas. The indulgently anachronistic gothic city of the modern era threw me off at first, and I was concerned that setting this kind of game in that time period would throw off the dynamic. In practice, the city’s grim, demon-ravaged atmosphere mixes fairly well. Dracula’s castle, the second area you explore, provides a more traditional Castlevania experience with deep, rich colours and a mixture of immense decadence and crumbling horror. Both have secrets and side-areas, as expected of a Castlevania game, and accessing these out-of-the-way sections are worth returning to if you require a later power to access them. The graphics are impressive, even if they occasionally develop a blocky haze around the edges, a product of the stylized colour palette.

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I never once got bored with the exploration, even by the end of the game, and climbing about and jumping is responsive and easy. Aside from a somewhat counterintuitive swing animation on the chandeliers (which actually doesn’t throw you off in terms of actual jumping), and one errant bug I found where I had to restart from a checkpoint due a grate refusing to give me a button prompt, the game is never a chore to get through. Luckily for the latter, the checkpoint system is quite forgiving, though you’ll need to ensure you get any upgrades or secrets again.

I recommend this game if you want to enjoy a beat-em-up. If you liked Legacy of Kain, you’ll enjoy this, and it’s actually more diverse and less buggy than those games were. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it uses the elements well. It’s a good buy and you’ll get good play out of it, and there’s a new game plus if you’d like.