Sunday, June 15, 2014

How to Train Your Dragon 2 3D review

I loved the first How to Train Your Dragon (2010). It was also a financial and critical success. The former kind of success usually guarantees one thing in Hollywood. A sequel. Just released is How to Train Your Dragon 2. The question then becomes is the sequel as good as its predecessor?

How to Train Your Dragon 2 starts out where the last movie left off. The Viking village of Berk is now integrated with dragons. The Vikings ride the dragons for sport and take care of them. Stoick, (Gerard Butler), Berk's chief, wants Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) to take over as leader the village. He also wants Hiccup to marry Astrid. (America Ferrera) Hiccup would rather explore he world with his Night Fury Dragon, Toothless. While riding their dragons, Astrid and Hiccup are captured by Eret (Kit Harrington) He's under the employment of Drago Bludvist (Djimon Hounsou), a ruthless dragon hunter. Astrid and Hiccup escape to warn Stoick who puts the town on war footing. Hiccup leaves to find Drago in order to negotiate a peace. During his journey, he's captured by the mysterious Valka (Cate Blanchett), another dragon rider.

One of the the good things about this film are the performances of the actors. All the voice acting is delivered with sincerity and warmth. Jay Baruchel is able to subdue his annoying nasal voice to portray a more mature young man. Gerard Butler is now a man whose heart has changed in his relations with his son and dragons. America Ferrera's Astrid is charming. She's a strong woman who in her own right is a leader. Djimon Hounsou is unrecognizable as Drago. He's power hungry villain. And Cate Blanchett is again marvelous as the dragon rider Valka whose life is full of secrets.

Dean DeBlois returns to write the screenplay and direct. He wisely uses flashbacks to explain plot points. And under his direction, the movie is able to make exaggerated characters feel real. The animation is spectacular whether it's capturing flying a dragon or Valka's graceful, yet mysterious moves. The movie is a little cold until we meet Valka. Then once her secrets are revealed, How to Train Your Dragon 2 takes flight. However, with most sequels, there's a the tendency to go bigger. That's not always better. This film is a little on the bloated side in the third act. This fat tends to obscure the wonderment of flying dragons. Thankfully, composer John Powell returns with his soaring themes from first film.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 was filmed in 3D with good results. Like its predecessor, the 3D process was well thought out. DeBlois uses the effect to emphasize landscapes and distance shots. The result is a film with real depth. My only problem is that he seems to shy away from shots that pop or push out. Those shots can often make the audience feel as if there's an object in the theater. Still, the movie is worth the extra money you pay to see it in 3D.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 is a worthy follow up to the first movie. It might get a little too busy at times, but the return of Hiccup and Toothless is more than welcome. The grade is B Plus.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

John Oliver on Net Neutrality

John Oliver on Last Week Tonight with John Oliver did this very funny and educational piece on net neutrality. As you are reading this on the Internet, it's important because companies like Comcast are trying to offer two speeds of internet downloading. Just check out what happened to Netflix during negotiations with Comcast over download speeds. Not good for Neflix until it agreed to Comcast's demands. Funny stuff especially when Oliver urges trolls of the world to unite.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Edge of Tomorrow 3D review

I think I'm been here before when writing this review of Edge of Tomorrow If you're going to see this film, you'll have to accept its time travel rules. Hold on. I have written that line before. I said the same thing about last month's X-Men: Days Future Past.

It's the near future. Aliens known as Mimics have invaded earth. They're winning due to advanced technology. Mankind has created exoskeletons that give the wearer super human strength. These exoskeletons can turn any man into a super soldier. Soldier Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt) leads the United Defense Force, mankind's military to defeat the aliens, to victory at Verdun. The UDF has planned a major invasion to oust the aliens in France ala D-Day in World War II. They plan to send Major William Cage (Tom Cruise) to document the events for public relations reasons. He's a coward and tries to blackmail the commanding general. He's arrested and placed in a squad of misfits to lead the attack. This squad is basically going to be cannon fodder.

During the landing, members of Cage's squad are killed. He meets Vrataski who is killed by an explosion. In a fight for survival, Cage kills a Mimic known as an Alpha. It bleeds on him as he dies. Cage awakens to find he has been sent back into time right before his deployment into battle. Cage continues to relive the battle in different iterations. Each time he dies but is sent back to the same place in time. During one such time journey, Vrataski tells Cage to find her when he wakes up. He does in one time loop and she explains how the Mimics are winning the war. They can manipulate time so they can anticipate what the humans can do. The aliens blood has given Cage the power to relive the invasion over and over again. She knows this because she had the power but lost it due to a blood transfusion.

Edge of Tomorrow is Groundhog Day (1993) in a science fiction setting. Cage is stuck in a time loop. But unlike Groundhog Day, science fiction demands some type of science otherwise we're dealing with fantasy. You can forget that. Because like the aforementioned X-Men: Days of Future Past, you've got to accept the movie's time travel rules. That's because once again, we're confronted with the grandfather paradox. If the Mimics can reset time, then the future must exist. They can't erase a human victory on the battlefield and then travel back to the past. You see a human victory had to exist for them to reset.

The problem with this movie is that the screenwriters Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth don't care about any logical inconsistencies in the movie. In fact they don't care much who the Mimics are. During a scene with Cage, he overhears a London conversation in a bar where the patrons discuss the why the Mimics are here. Cage interrupts them and says it doesn't matter. Yep, the writers have just told you to not to think. Maybe they should just have Basil Exposition, address the audience as he did in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (1999) and say "I suggest you don't worry about this sort of thing and just enjoy yourself. That goes for you all too." Hold on. I've just posted the same Austin Powers video over again.

Anyway, the writers do have some fun with the time loop plot device. They milk it for some nice comic moments.

Doug Liman's (The Bourne Identity)direction is solid. He knows how to stage the action and there's little wasted time in the movie. Maybe, he's too concerned with the time loop gimmick as we are given only fleeting glimpses of the lives of Vrataski and Cage. My gripes are the overuse of fast cutting and frenetic use of the camera. It can be confusing visually and takes away from the drama.

As expected, if he writers are going to take away from the "science' details of the movie, they also hand the actors with very little to say to define their characters. But I have to commend Tom Cruise as Cage and Emily Blunt as Vrataski for making the most out of their characters. We see Cage grow from cowarice, to confusion, despair and finally to courage. Emily Blunt is more magnetic than Cruise, if that is possible. She's lovely but not in a supermodel way. She's sexy. And she is smart and kicks ass. She makes it easy for Cruise's character to fall in love with her.

If you see this movie, skip the 3D version. First, it's a conversion from 2D. That means no pop, and very little depth. It's also too dark. After comparing the trailer screen shots with the 3D version, I can tell you that you're going to miss a lot of the light in a scene if you watch this in 3D. Plus there's nothing special about this movie in 3D. Save your money.

If you want to see a time loop story handled well, watch Star Trek: The Next Generation's episode Cause and Effect. Yeah, there's some technobable but at least they try to explain things in a scientific way. And it's still entertaining. The Edge of Tomorrow is an enjoyable science fiction movie that asks you not to think too much. The grade is B.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Stephen Colbert goes to war with Amazon

Stephen Colbert has a problem with Amazon. It seems that they are discouraging people from buying books from publisher Hachette which produces Stephen Colbert's books. Here is his response.

A Million Ways to Die in the West review

You've got to give directer Seth MacFarlane credit. He follows up his riotous Ted (2012) with the difficult task of making a western comedy, A Million Ways to Die in the West in which MacFarlane co-wrote the screenplay, directs and stars. The reason why it's hard is that one western comedy casts a long shadow over the genre. I'm talking about Mel Brooks' legendary Blazing Saddles. (1974) That's some pretty big cowboy boots to fill.

It's 1882, in the western town of Old Stump, Arizona. MacFarlane stars as Albert Stark, a meek sheep farmer. He loses his girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried), after he shows cowardice in a gun fight. Meanwhile, criminal gunslinger Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson) is searching for gold. He sends his wife, Anna (Charlize Theron) , to Old Stump. During a bar fight, Albert saves Anna. They become friends. She's a great shot and wants to help him with a duel, that Albert picks with Louise's new boyfriend, Foy. (Neil Patrick Harris)

One would expect coming from MacFarlane, the creator of not so pc comedy like Ted and The Family Guy tv series, a comedy that would rival the classic Blazing Saddles. Well, you're going to be disappointed in A Million Ways to Die in the West. MacFarlane has an easy charm but he's not Bob Hope in The Paleface. (1948) That's because MacFarlane brings to this movie a modern sensibility in language, the frequent dropping of the "F" bomb and bawdy sexual humor. The problem is that MacFarlane doesn't go far enough. If you're going to use modern language, then you might as well introduce actual modern ideas in the movie ala Blazing Saddles. Mel Brooks put Gucci, The Count Basie Band, racists, Nazis along with some other crazy things his movie. MacFarlane tends to try to straddle the fence by making a dirty joke then have majestic scenes of the west. I thought many times that his movie could have been made into a smaller, serious western.

Many times, the jokes fall flat due to execution. There's an adage in screenplay writing. Show don't tell. Many of the jokes are told by Albert (MacFarlane). That's good for a stand up comedy routine but this is a movie. For example, Albert tells Anna about one of the adventures of a sheep. It's funny but would have been hilarious if MacFarlane had written the scene by showing it in a flashback. There's another scene where Albert tells a joke to the townsfolk. I didn't get it until he turns to the camera and tells what the joke means. You know you're in trouble when you have to explain a joke.

A Million Ways to Die is sometimes funny but like MacFarlane's Albert often misses the target. I would wait for it on cable and home video. If you want your helping of MacFarlane, might I suggest watching Family Guy, Ted or the opening ceremony of the 85th Academy Awards (2013). The grade is C Plus.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The Colbert Interview: Thomas Piketty

Here's Stephen Colbert's interview with French economist and best selling author, Thomas Piketty. I've also included Colbert's introductory piece. Funny stuff.

Colbert takes on the conservatives over the Sgt. Bergdahl release

Conservatives are happy over the release of Sergeant Bergdahl from the Taliban and yet are mad about it. This dichotomy is good comic fodder for Stephen Colbert. And you got to love the punch line of his piece.

Wolfenstein: The New Order XBOX 360 review

I'm playing Wolfenstein: The New Order (XBOX 360) and listening to resistance member Anya (Alicja Bachleda) read a diary of another woman resistance fighter. It's emotional, full of anger and despair. The diary is compelling and would make a great movie. I then realize how far The New Order has come from Wolfenstein 3D. And I'm not talking about the technology but the story telling. The new game has fleshed out plot details unlike its predecessors, Escape From Castle Wolfenstein (1981), Wolfenstein 3D (1992), Return to Castle Wolfenstein (2001) and Wolfenstein. (2009)

Wolfenstein: The New Order takes place after the events in Wolfenstein. It's an alternate timeline from history. The year is 1946 and the Nazis are winning World War II due to their use of advanced weapons. In a desperate attempt to turn the tide, American agent B.J. Blazkowicz (Brian Bloom) and a team of allied soldiers attempt to storm the castle and labroatory of Nazi weapons researcher Gen. Wilhelm "Deathshead" Stasse (Dwight Schultz?!!! aka Barclay to in Star Trek: The Next Generation) By the way Schultz is excellent in the role. Anyway, the mission fails and he's captured. During an escape attempt, Blazkowicz suffers a head injury and loses his memory. He's placed in a Polish mental institution. Fifteen years pass. The Nazis have won the war and have taken over the world. As the Nazis attempt to shut down the institution by killing the patients, Blazkowicz awakens. He escapes with Anya who is a nurse at the institution. Blazkowicz vows to find the resistance and help them fight the Nazis.

There are a couple of things The New Order does very well. The gameplay is thrilling. It's relentless as you will likely have to mow down waves of Nazis. The guns make you feel like the hero of an action movie. Buildings, and outside areas feel like they could really exist, yet they are intersting. It's first person shooting at its best.

Since there is no multiplayer, you had better have a good story to keep the gamer's attention. And The New Order does. Writers Jerk Gustafsson, Tom Keegan and Jens Matthies have crafted a detailed alternate world. It looks and feels like the Nazis have taken over. And make no mistake, the game does not sugar coat what the Nazis would do if they took over. Issues of Nazi racism, inhumanity, unethical human experimentation and atrocities are all here. Even the pop music stars have Nazi flavors. I do appreciate the occasional touch of humor. I laughed out load when confronted with choosing the difficulty setting screen. Check out the easiest setting graphic.

As I have pointed out, The New Order is a different animal from all the other Wolfenstein games. Blazkowicz is now a flesh and blood character not just an avatar for your first person shooting pleasure. Yeah, I get the joke behind his name. But The New Order makes him a man we like and will root for. The members of the resistance have back stories. It will endear them to you. And the relationship between Anya and Blazkowicz is as good as any romance in film today. There will be moments were you will shed a tear. This is not your grandfather's Wolfenstein.

But there are some major problems with this game. First, the graphics are wildly inconsistent. One moment, you'll look at a wall with newspaper clippings and it looks like something Nintendo 64 would produce, then you'll get detail on a wall poster. In another example, there's a battle on a bridge. You look at the ocean and can see how the water was constructed in blocks. And before you say, I'm playing this on a XBOX 360, let me say from my research, the game was designed for these last generation systems. The New Order was delayed to be ported to the XBOX One., Making Wolfenstein: A Fight Club on Top of the World., paragraph seven. Play Grand Theft Auto V on the XBOX 360. The graphics in GTA are astounding as you can see the font on a car's license plate. So, no excuses why The New Order can look like mud. That being said, gameplay always trumps eye candy. So, the graphics didn't distract enough for me to not enjoy the game.

Second, the sound mixing is horrible. You can't lower the music volume and say keep the sound effects loud. It's all one master switch. They all go up or down. The result is that I couldn't hear dialogue. I had to turn on the subtitles for everyone. Additionally, Brian Bloom whispers his part ala Clint Eastwood. I found myself often saying, "What did you say, Blazo, buddy?"

Third, the game is very difficult. I played The New Order on the normal level, i.e. "Bring it on." From the beginning, you will find running annoying. You have to push down on the left stick all the while moving it. Not easy to keep running. Switching weapons is a drag. You have to pull up a weapon wheel, then move a stick to highlight a gun. All the while, you are getting shot at. Ammo is also sparse. Making the game more like the pioneer Escape From Castle Wofenstein. Trust me, you'll want to approach the game more from stealth than guns blazing. At least the silenced pistol can still take most enemies with one shot.

Then there are the enemies. German commanders have to be killed first or else if they spot you, they will hit the alarm. Then infinite waves of Nazi soldiers come until you whack the commanders. Often, I would finish an area, only to be confronted by more enemies. The game was relentless. It caused several "Oh come on" moments. Bosses are no fun to bring down since many times the cover is not very good. There's a moment in the game where you are asked to bring down a gigantic robot. After you've done significant damage to it, you feel a sense of accomplishment. Then you're asked to run under it and shoot it from underneath. Meanwhile the thing has machine guns and can step on you. I literally yelled, "Are you crazy?" And if you get killed, you will have to start at the last checkpoint since the game has an auto save feature. This often causes you too repeat the progress you've made. When will game developers learn? No more auto save. Let the gamer save anywhere and at anytime. The lst boss was so frustrating that I came within five minutes of turning down the difficulty. You will die in The New Order and die a lot.

The Verdict.

Wolfenstein: The New Order's predecessor Wolfenstein 3D is the grandfather of all first person shooters. Halo and Call of Duty owe much to this series. If you're a fan of the series and have just the XBOX 360 , there's no reason to wait to play it on XBOX One even with the clearer graphics. Gameplay is the thing. But there's more to this game than just blowing up stuff. It's good drama.

Wofenstein: The New Order is thrilling, touching and the action is relentless. The major problems with the hard difficulty bring down what could have been a great game. The grade is B.