KK's Great Big Random Review Thread

What have you been watching?

Re: KK's Great Big Random Review Thread

Postby KleinerKiller » Sun Oct 02, 2016 7:39 pm

Attack On Titan / AOT: Wings of Freedom (2016)

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Basic Summary: The first season of Attack on Titan is retold, along with additional manga chapters.
Genre: Hack 'n Slash
Systems: PC, PS4, PS3, Xbox One, PS Vita
Created by: Omega Force, Koei Tecmo
Directed by: N/A
Written by: N/A
Starring: All Japanese voice actors from the anime (English is sub-only)
Story-Gameplay Ratio: 1:9
Source Material: Ongoing manga by Hajime Isayama, and ongoing anime by Yasuko Kobayashi


(This is the best, least extra content spoiler-y trailer I could find, and even it's not that great. This isn't a game made for trailers. However, it does show off some of the gameplay and the art style, so watch it if you want.)


For the unaware, Attack On Titan: Wings of Freedom (alternatively titled just Attack On Titan or A.O.T.: Wings of Freedom depending on where you are) follows Eren Yeager in an expanded retelling of the hit anime series. When gigantic, man-eating entities called Titans start to breach the walls that make up humanity's last sanctuary, Eren and many others join the military and take up arms to try and fight back against them. However, no matter how many Titans they slay, nearly all of them are doomed to meet the same fate as the citizens they've failed to protect...

Spoiler: show
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Until this game came out, I was pretty ambivalent toward Attack on Titan. I followed the manga story online, but I never had the desire to read actual copies or watch the anime, despite literally everyone recommending it to me. Then I saw that this game had come out and sources I trust were giving it positive attention, so I picked it up one day and binge-watched the whole anime in a day to prepare. Turns out it's actually pretty great! It's not among my favorites, but it's an adventure I quite enjoy and will continue to follow, both through the manga and when the second season finally airs next year. The point is that I'm now able to judge this game through the lens of both an objective gamer and an Attack on Titan fan -- so how does it hold up, and is it worth playing even if you don't know or don't like the source material?

The answers are very well and absolutely.

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The story is a simple and relatively unimportant matter. It merely retells a slightly-altered-to-accomodate-more-gameplay version of the anime's first season (and the manga's first eight volumes), and then reaches further into unexplored territory in unlockable Epilogue Missions that lead to the true final battle. Whether you enjoy said story or not, or just don't care, it's easily skippable with the push of a button to no detrimental effect. It's a good and generally faithful adaptation, but from that angle, it's nothing special for a licensed title.

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The characters aren't worth talking about in detail, because I'm reviewing the game, not the manga or anime. By the time you've beaten the story up to the anime's conclusion and unlocked everything sequentially, you can play as ten characters: Eren Yeager, Mikasa Ackerman, Armin Arlert, Jean Kirschtein, Connie Springer, Sasha "Potato Girl" Braus, Krista Lenz, Lieutenant Levi, Erwin Smith, and my beloved Hange Zoe. All characters are voiced well by their original actors and actresses, whether reciting the anime's content or covering new situations, and they all feel sufficiently different to play with varying speeds and movesets: Eren is a jack-of-all-trades who unlocks the ability to transform into a Titan, Mikasa is a speed-focused ace fighter with a powerful multi-strike dash, Armin and Hange can order NPC combatants to strike specific targets, etc. You won't be stuck for variety if you get sick of one character while binging Survey Missions.

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The graphics are only slightly more important the story; the partly cel-shaded, partly realistic art style is typical for adaptations of anime, but it has a level of additional detail and polish that make it clear how much effort was put in. The character models look distinctly different, the environments are vast and eye-catching (the cities in particular have surprising levels of destructibility), and the Titans that fill every area are just as disgusting-yet-oddball as they are in the source material. And on music, sadly the infamously catchy opening theme is nowhere to be found, but the various basic guitar tracks are serviceable for the action.

All right! With that preamble out of the way, let's talk about what matters the most, what the single greatest reason to buy Attack on Titan: Wings of Freedom is... THE GAMEPLAY. This is some of the most fun I've had with a game purely for its gameplay in a long, long time, and it's the sole reason I'd recommend it to everyone even with Attack on Titan's divisive nature.

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The basic gameplay has you zipping around with 3D Maneuver Gear and taking down titans by striking their limbs and napes. To start, the movement itself feels incredible. Slinging yourself around the environments at lightning speeds handles perfectly, gets the adrenaline pumping, and just feels so satisfying -- it's easily the best grappling-based movement system in any game I've played, including the legendary Spider-Man 2 game. It's such an amazingly polished and well-handled system, and it needs to be when you're relying on it so much to stay alive and dispatch threats. My only complaint regarding the basic systems is equipment management: just like in the source material, sustained combat leaves you at risk of draining your Maneuver Gear air tank or breaking your blades, and if you don't have any replacements to quickly change out on hand, you have to find a Logistician on the map and get a supply refill. This can take the flow out of a great battle if you're not careful, and does get annoying when larger and sturdier Titans drain your resources faster, but it's nowhere close to a deal breaker and you can upgrade your gear to more reliable versions with enough cash.

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Speaking of, Titan combat is just as satisfying as simply moving around. There are many variations, shapes and sizes that demand their own strategy, but the basic approach is the same: you lock onto one and target either a limb (severing a leg interferes with its movement, and severing an arm takes away its retaliation ability) or the nape of the neck (much like zombies' brains, the only target that kills them), and time a strike as you're automatically pulled in by your grapple. Once you're used to the system, it becomes relatively easy to carve through the hordes in less difficult situations, while more difficult ones turn even the most basic engagements into challenging dances of rushing and dodging. When boss fights start being introduced, you'll also have to balance chipping away with their specific strategies while also slaughtering the basic Titans to keep the situation manageable. It does get frustratingly difficult to take larger Titans down if they're grouped together, as one can just grab you out of the air and pull you into a life-or-death struggle while you're trying to kill another or rescue an endangered teammate, but as with the equipment management, it doesn't even come close to compromising the fun.

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But that's not all! As already mentioned, Eren gains the ability to turn into a Titan, both at several points throughout the campaign and at any time post-anime that you have a full combat meter. These bursts of power (limitless in story moments, and timed in a meter use) aren't very complex, simply consisting of running around punching, curbstomping, and executing grab-based beatdowns on Titans, but GODDAMN IT'S THE BEST. After spending so much time being at a disadvantage, being able to dash around and kick the shit out of basic and boss Titans is such an astoundingly satisfying feeling -- you're not all-powerful by any means, but if you play right, you might as well be. The first mission where Eren gets to transform is among my favorite gaming moments of this year.

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It's fortunate that everything about the gameplay is fucking awesome and doesn't get tedious, because you have a lot of work to do to get to the end. In addition to the story, you can take on Survey Mission sidequests with any character, which usually consist of slaying Titans and protecting teammates in a specific area and fighting a miniboss (or a full-on boss in later missions). Each Survey Mission you complete fills up a completion meter for that area, with a new area full of missions being unlocked at around 80% completion of the prior one. Unlocking all five Epilogue Missions requires getting the six areas to at least 80% (I'd recommend playing the first Epilogue Mission before delving too far into the latter half of the areas, because the first "secret" boss becomes a regular enemy in the final areas and it spoils the fun of seeing it as it's meant to be seen). But doing this is more than worth your time: in addition to the fun and challenging new Titans, the true final boss is an awe-inspiring display of scale and difficulty that rapidly becomes the game's centerpiece. I picked up the game partly because someone excitedly talked about how awesome the final battle was, and I have to agree wholeheartedly -- no other engagement in the game stacks up to it.

Ultimately, Attack on Titan: Wings of Freedom is one of the best licensed games I've ever played, purely for its stunning gameplay. You can take or leave the story; it's not for everyone, obviously. But the game itself is so fun and satisfying that it handily compensates for any misgivings you might have about the source material. I'm giving it my wholehearted recommendation.

Rating: Colossal Amounts of Fun
  • 4

Last edited by KleinerKiller on Fri Oct 13, 2017 10:28 am, edited 2 times in total.
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Re: KK's Great Big Random Review Thread

Postby KleinerKiller » Mon Oct 03, 2016 10:37 pm

Virginia (2016)

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Basic Summary: Two FBI agents venture to a small Virginia town to find a missing boy.
Genre: Mystery-Thriller, Environmental Narrative Game / "Walking Simulator"
Systems: PC, PS4, Xbox One
Created by: Variable State
Directed by: Jonathan Burroughs, Terry Kenny
Written by: Jonathan Burroughs, Terry Kenny, Lyndon Holland
Designed and Programmed by: Terry Kenny, Mikael Persson, Kieran Keegan, and others
Starring: N/A
Story-Gameplay Ratio: 10:0



For the unaware, Virginia follows Anne Tarver, a newly graduated FBI agent ready to take on her first case. In the summer of 1992, she's assigned -- along with her more experienced partner, Maria Halperin -- to drive out to rural Kingdom, VA and solve the disappearance of young Lucas Fairfax. However, not everything is as it seems: Maria is under Internal Affairs investigation, and it's Anne's job to watch and report any suspicious activity from her. Anne seems ready for the dual responsibilities, but as soon as they arrive in Kingdom, things start getting weirder... and weirder... and weirder... and weirder...

Spoiler: show
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In the immortal words of the Best Friends Zaibatsu: what a mysterious game.

This is going to be a rather difficult review for me, because this is a rather difficult piece of media I'm reviewing. Yes, that's exactly the word I'd use to describe it: difficult, in so many differing ways. Virginia is a linear, two-hour investigative drama that plays out like a Lynchian fever dream, or perhaps a linear, two-hour Lynchian fever dream that plays out like an investigative drama. And there is not a single line of spoken dialogue, and only the barest amount of environmental text, to help you understand it.

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Getting the basics out of the way before we dive into the aforementioned fever dreaminess, the first thing likely to jump out at you about Virginia is its graphical style. It's made in the Unity engine, a common favorite of zero-budget indie developers, and anyone familiar with Unity games can see that it looks great for a Unity game. The simplistic character models are distinct and expressive enough that they don't feel lacking, and the slightly off-kilter presentation fits the game's tone perfectly. The environments are pretty enough, but they don't feel as bountiful or lived-in as "walking simulators" tend to be, and you're shunted through different sections too quickly to take much in. But the music... if there's one thing I'll commend Virginia on with no qualifiers or confusion, it's the gorgeous soundtrack. The music tends to run continuously, propelling along the scenes in a gradual escalation of sweeping orchestral tunes until either a grand revelatory moment or a mellowing point down to a quiet scene. Even as I scratched my head at the story, I felt something just by virtue of the music's power.

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The gameplay is the barebones standard for the genre. You plod along, observe the environment, and interact with things. Unlike a lot of my favorite "walking simulators," the journey is both rapid-fire and sluggish, having you walk and ride through a series of relatively tiny areas that suddenly jump-cut to different places as if you're watching a movie being edited live. You don't have any serious investigating to do; any clue or item you need to find is obviously placed, and there's usually only one per area, if you're even in an area where you have to search for something. Several scenes require you to move things along with a prompted action like showing someone your badge, but it's presented in such an unclear way that I often thought I was waiting for something to happen rather than being asked to participate. As you might be able to tell, I remember very little about actually playing it -- it's more in the style of Dear Esther's "no time to stop and smell the roses, keep going where we tell you" style than later advancements like Gone Home.

And now... the story.

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I'm no stranger to ambiguous storytelling; many of my favorite films, books and games aren't keen on wearing their plots on their sleeves, and I'm usually decent at untangling even the most opaque symbolism to make sense of a narrative. House of Leaves, for example, doesn't make a lick of fucking sense at first and has dozens of different possible interpretations by the end, and it's one of my all-time favorite novels in any genre. So when I'd heard that Virginia's plot was so ambiguous and murky that almost every reviewer had to play through it twice (as did I when recommended to), I was on board. So after several hours of contemplation and attempts to piece everything together, I'm just... not sure how I feel about this one.

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A letter from the developers states that one of their main inspirations in making Virginia was Thirty Flights of Loving (pictured above), a little indie title I have some fondness for. The influence is clear, because TFOL's gimmick is that it rapidly shuttles you through snapshots of confoundingly vague plot developments at various points in a timeline, relying on increasingly unclear connections that often seem to contradict each other, and all just packed out of the ears with symbolism. With TFOL, it works flawlessly, because that game is only 20-30 minutes long and plays out like a deliberately surrealist art piece. Virginia is around two hours and presents itself as more Twin Peaks than Dadaist, and it intends to tell a meaningful story with character arcs and resolution, but it clings to the same enigmatic, dialogue-free structure of TFOL and comes out as a bit less than I feel it could be.

(image crashed, too lazy to find a replacement)


The plot seems simple at first, as summarized above. The two arcs -- Lucas's disappearance and the Internal Affairs investigation -- initially mingle nicely, and while I was confused by some plot points and character relationships due to the absence of dialogue, I just tried to turn my mind to overdrive and absorb everything I could as it went on, leading me to piece together some early plot points that the game leaves hanging for a while. However, once the women actually get to Virginia and the search begins in earnest, it lost me completely numerous times. It runs the course of about six or seven days, and at the end of every day, I thought I had a handle on what was going on, only for something to happen the next day that promptly rattled my train of thought to the ground. Scene transitions get more frequent and unpredictably placed, leaving a lot of threads dangling and depriving anything of context. It only gets more complicated when you realize that reality sometimes transitions to a dream sequence without warning. The characterization becomes incoherent, with everyone from Anne and Maria to various authority figures and civilians taking bizarre, out-of-left-field actions and being shoved into different lights by the minute; Maria is the only character with tangible and understandable motives for the entire game. By the time the final day rolled around, I was unsure of where we were, whether I had always been playing as the same character, who was involved in what, and why certain objects and areas had even the most remote significance. A second run through clarified only slightly more.

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And then it gets fucking weird. I had thought I had the barest grasp on what was going on regarding Lucas's disappearance, but the content of the final day throws everything up in the air with a madcap dash through an endless sea of bizarre encounters and concepts that were only "foreshadowed" in the most basic sense of the word. Sparse concrete answers are mixed evenly with illogical Shyamalan-esque twists and turns, such that I couldn't tell you which is which. Hell, I could honestly not recap to you how it all went down, or how much of those final minutes took place in reality, or who was involved in something shady and whether they were really punished, or where Anne and Maria even were by the closing scene. I'm still deeply unsure of who specifically was responsible for Lucas's disappearance (or even if he ran away himself), whether the young man died or not, why it happened, whether we caught the culprit, or how closely related anything in that plot is to the things going down back at the FBI. I DON'T EVEN KNOW IF MAGIC, GHOSTS, OR ALIENS WERE INVOLVED OR NOT.

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I wouldn't have so much of a problem with the story if it didn't clearly think of itself as more profound and high-minded than it is. It comes close to being the artsy, meditative piece that it wants to be, but it's plodding, pretentious, and frequently loses its focus. There are important themes at play here regarding racial biases and gender equality, made obvious from the moment the game starts, but those themes are hammered home bluntly rather than mixed in subtly, to the point where they don't quite mix with the story content as they come so close to. The incoherent characterization and muddled story meant that any emotional connections I could form were tenuous and fleeting, leaving a lot of the revelations and confrontations feeling hollow. It's certainly art, I won't dispute that, but it's nowhere near as emotionally profound or complex as other games in the genre.

In the end, Virginia is a game that sees you trying to get invested and pointedly, silently turns away. I gave it every chance I could, and I was even willing to devote four hours to two playthroughs, but it just didn't strike me where it was aiming and left me unsure of how to feel about it. As a story, it starts strong and then falls flat; as a Lynchian puzzle box, it's often too unsatisfying and unfocused to be much fun to ponder. There are some bright moments and clever tricks at play, but not enough to warrant buying it for yourself unless you're really curious. A lot of critics have said that this game completely reinvents the mold and tops every "walking simulator" to come before it in terms of meaningful storytelling: suffice to say I don't agree. Maybe you will if you give it a shot, but I don't.

Rating: The Fever Dream of the 90s Is Alive In Virginia
  • 4

Last edited by KleinerKiller on Fri Oct 13, 2017 10:30 am, edited 3 times in total.
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Re: KK's Great Big Random Review Thread

Postby KleinerKiller » Tue Oct 11, 2016 7:19 am

This was intended to be an article I sent in for editing back in June under the truncated "KK's Rando-views" column that consists solely of Firewatch (in fact, this is the "one still in the pipeline" I mention in the very first post of this thread), but it never got through, so I'm posting it here. Minor edits have been made to correct some things, add more images, and reflect the passage of time, but the bulk of it is still what's left over from June (including the format that isn't quite the same as prior thread reviews), so bear that in mind as you read.

The Beginner's Guide (2015)

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Basic Summary: The creator of The Stanley Parable narrates a collection of an old friend’s abandoned games… but something is wrong.
Genre: Environmental Narrative Game / “Walking Simulator” / Stanley Parable-esque Thing
Systems: PC
Created by: Davey Wreden
Written by: Davey Wreden
Designed and Programmed by: Davey Wreden
Starring: Who else but Davey Wreden
Story-Gameplay Ratio: 8:2


(I don’t entirely recommend watching this trailer, as it both gives away a few too many core sequences from a game best appreciated blind (I hope it still can be appreciated as such by most of you, given that it released in October of last year) and dramatically misrepresents the tone of Davey Wreden’s narration. But if you’re still on the fence when the review is over, give it a click, I suppose.)


For the unaware, The Beginner’s Guide follows… well, you, the player, playing The Beginner’s Guide. There isn’t a main character, per se. Instead, The Stanley Parable creator Davey Wreden wants to guide you through a story – in particular, a series of events that took place between 2008 and 2011, revolving around his friend and amateur game developer “Coda”. Steeped in appreciation for the cryptically rich content packed inside the games Coda made for himself and never released publicly, Davey eagerly takes you on a guided tour of the short, experimental, and oft-bizarre little adventures while unpacking his own theories and recounting his personal history with Coda. However… something is wrong.

And that’s all I can say about it.

Spoiler: show
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I don’t hesitate when I say that there has likely never been a video game as difficult to review as The Beginner’s Guide. Much like The Stanley Parable, it’s a unique and immersive experience best played through completely blind from the start, but that can be said for plenty of games. What differentiates The Beginner’s Guide is how its basic premise and themes are so deeply rooted with both the nature of the game and the nature of talking about it that it actively discourages anything but thorough discussions by players who have all finished the game completely and had time to process their feelings. Even that is an utterly incompetent, borderline incoherent explanation.

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I compare the game to To The Moon for two reasons. Like that narrative masterwork, its storyline is essentially a series of vignettes, explored through a framing narrative of an outsider trying to understand the mind behind said vignettes. The Beginner’s Guide’s approach, firmly grounded in the realities of game development rather than sci-fi memory exploration, obviously presents itself in a different light (rather than seeing the events of someone’s life directly play out, you and Davey interpret things from the content of Coda’s games) and is allowed to explore vastly different gameplay styles and settings.

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The second comparison is that, like To The Moon, The Beginner’s Guide is a knife designed to twist straight into your emotional core. It’s a heartbreaking and mind-crunching journey on its own, but if you consider yourself a creator or an artist of any kind (as I do), the tearjerking sucker-punches will be multiplied many times over, without question. Its narrative digs into various aspects of what it means to create, why we do it, and… other questions that I can’t touch on at all. When the credits rolled (to the tune of this uplifting little ditty), I curled up in a ball and felt flushed with sadness, rage, and a surprising amount of disgust aimed at myself – again for reasons too wound up in the core theme of the game to really get to the meat of.

I’ll just establish one thing: this is not the “artist grows disillusioned, spirals into self-loathing depression and commits suicide” story you’ve probably guessed at as you’ve considered my hints and secrecy. Coda’s journey and its effects on Davey are far more layered than that, and the eventual conclusion violently smashes apart so many narrative standards and expectations that only players who pick over potential subtext in every single line of dialogue or pixel of Source Engine-rendered environment would be able to start seeing foreshadowing toward it.

But then again, picking over subtext and pixels is the name of the game, isn’t it?

With that long-winded preface out of the way, I’ll start on the game proper; as will always be the case with games focusing more on narrative, I’ll start with the gameplay, what little of it there is to speak of in this case. On a pure interactivity scale, Firewatch this is not. It also lacks the rich player choice and branching paths of The Stanley Parable, leaving only the standard Source-born gameplay mechanics of “walk, interact with interactables, appreciate the environs, occasionally solve a basic puzzle or two, and listen.”

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What it lacks in raw gameplay, though... the story makes up for tenfold and beyond. As I’ve exhaustively restated, I cannot dig into what really makes the game so unforgettably powerful without ruining everything for you. What I can say is that diving into Coda’s psyche by way of the little things he programmed for his eyes only, and watching him evolve as a game dev while apparently devolving as a person (all while Davey narrates), is at once an inspiring and ruinous experience. It just gets deeply personal and tragic, particularly since Davey’s narration as himself, the presentation of the game, and the circumstances surrounding climactic events lend the whole thing an unshakeable air of ambiguous reality; every event, as well as the way the game is presented and its reason for being so, is entirely plausible in the real world. It isn’t really a true story (I wish I'd played it without initially knowing that), but it’s one that is told and experienced in such a way that it gets progressively easier to just let yourself get sucked in and accept it all as undiluted fact. I strongly recommend going in with no prejudgments about how much is truth and how much is fiction, regardless.

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Since you as the player are merely yourself, the only two "characters" are Davey and Coda. Davey is essentially what his followers and fans of The Stanley Parable would expect: a charmingly smarmy, but highly intelligent and thoughtful man with strong opinions about game design and a keen eye for subtext. His narration is at times entertaining and at times enlightening, but it always contributes to the effect Coda’s games are intended to have on you. Without broaching too many spoilers, there’s much more to him than just a voice, and the cracks in his emotions that start to get rubbed raw as the game draws to a close contribute wonderfully to the proceedings.

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Coda, meanwhile, is a unique case in that you never see hide or hair of him. You don’t know what he looks like, you don’t hear his voice at any point, and whatever happened to him and wherever he is now, Davey makes it plainly obvious that there will be no word from him. Yet through his game design and Davey’s occasional anecdote about their spirited debates and encounters, his vivid personality shines through to the point that it feels like you have a second, silent narrator with you -- one who likely wouldn’t be too keen on random players being allowed to peek inside his mind. Indeed, with such a powerful presence lingering over the game, playing it starts to take on an uncomfortably voyeuristic feel that grows increasingly more disturbing as it winds down to a close. Coda is certainly not a perfectly likable person -- Davey is all too quick to admit that he could be rather cold and pretentious -- but by the time the credits roll, I challenge you not to feel embittered and wholly empathetic to his story.

The Beginner’s Guide is the kind of gaming experience that is going to linger in my mind for years to come (and it deeply pleases me that I can say that more and more often). It had a profound effect on me that I’m still struggling to come to grips with, one that seems replicated in a great many of the people who play and/or review it, and I imagine that those of you who play it blind will follow a similar rollercoaster of emotional turmoil and sudden bursts of insightfulness. As with Firewatch, I cannot recommend The Beginner’s Guide enough; it’s one of my favorites of its genre, one that I wish I’d been able to experience immediately upon its launch in time to qualify it as one of my favorites of 2015, and easily ranked among the strongest arguments for video games as an art form to stand on equal-or-higher ground with every other medium.

Rating: The Master’s Guide
  • 4

Last edited by KleinerKiller on Fri Oct 13, 2017 10:31 am, edited 2 times in total.
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Re: KK's Great Big Random Review Thread

Postby KleinerKiller » Sun Oct 16, 2016 2:37 am

Hardcore Henry (2016)

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Basic Summary: A pissed-off cyborg fights to rescue his wife from a psychokinetic crime lord.
Genre: Action, Light Science Fiction
Directed by: Ilya Naishuller
Written by: Ilya Naishuller
Starring: Various (10 individuals portrayed Henry, including Naishuller), Sharlto Copley, Danilia Kozolvsky, Haley Bennett
Length: 96 mins


(Trailer spoils perhaps one setpiece too many, but it's the best one I found. Also, obvious warning for people who get motion sickness easily.)


For the unaware, Hardcore Henry (titled simply Hardcore in some countries) follows Henry, a man reconstructed as a mute cyborg after being wounded in mysterious circumstances. Shortly after he wakes up -- but before his voice can be restored -- his base is stormed by the forces of Akan, a ruthless crime boss with telekinetic powers, a massive grudge, and sinister plans involving the technology that brought Henry back. Henry's wife Estelle, who is also one of the facility's lead scientists, is kidnapped by Akan as Henry finds himself stranded in Moscow, leaving him with only one goal: kill Akan and get Estelle back...

Spoiler: show
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Last year it was Mad Max: Fury Road, and the year before that it was John Wick. For the past few years, we've been blessed with action movies that rise far above the bar and become some of the best viewing experiences of their year (technically this also debuted in 2015 before getting to the US this year, but... shut up, I'm making a point). I didn't get to catch Hardcore Henry until now, six months after it left theaters and after seeing scores of fantastic films in between, but it rises to the top tier and plants itself firmly as one of this year's highlights.

As long as you can handle looking at it, of course. This is absolutely not a "found footage" movie and has multiple meaningful differences to that genre, but it's still first-person perspective filmmaking, so I understand that it might make some people nauseous by that fact alone.

Hardcore Henry was shot by the people who created the wonderfully stylish, ultra-violent first-person music video duology for Biting Elbows' "The Stampede" and "Bad Motherfucker". Like those videos, the film's shot from the eyes of a silent, nicely-dressed badass who carves through swathes of outnumbering mooks using his fists, blades, many styles of firearms, and plain old parkour slipperiness; the most meaningful difference other than the budget is that while the videos were shot on a GoPro, the film uses a weird camera-magnet-mask thing apparently invented specifically for this project, and it looks all the nicer for it (though it severely injured the necks of almost anyone who wore it). I adore those videos (I can take or leave the songs they were created for, but watching them, they're great), just as I adore the feature-length execution of the same idea even more.

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I obviously have a lot to say about the filmmaking, but let's begin with the story. Like the films I named as comparisons, it takes place in a highly interesting and developed world (this one a near-future Russia casually blending modern and absurdly futuristic technology, among other things) that's slowly, subtly revealed through brief glimpses, and which I ended the film wanting to know more about. The storyline itself begins as your typical distressed-damsel revenge tale, but while it isn't masterclass material by any means and never tries to be, the unexpected wrinkles and interesting twists scattered throughout the plot change the bigger picture so that by the time it wrapped up, I was thoroughly surprised and delighted. It moves along swiftly and smoothly from one place to the next, giving you just enough time to catch a breath for propelling Henry into the next dangerous predicament, until tying up in a neat bow with one of the most brutal, viscerally satisfying endings I've seen in a while. It's not complex, but I have no complaints about it. It's also packed with tributes to video games old and new, both in its "area to area, blow through waves of enemies, occasionally fight a boss of some sort" format and a few fun shout-outs I spotted, so that's cool.

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The characters, similarly, are surprisingly good. You never see Henry's face or hear him make a sound, but he manages to communicate a clear personality through his expressive gestures and the way he approaches situations, and you eventually get clear pictures of his life and memories; it's as easy to empathize and root for him as if he'd been speaking for the duration. The omni-talented Sharlto Copley kills it as Henry's main support, a knowledgable weirdo named Jimmy who keeps seemingly dying and coming back as if nothing happened, and who is helping Henry for reasons he's all too cagey about. He gets A LOT to do here, taking on a variety of roles both dramatically potent and scenery-chewing, and I loved every minute of his screen time. And Estelle, while lacking as much screen time as Henry or Jimmy, is much more than the damsel in distress she's painted as early on.

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I want to give a special highlight to main antagonist Akan, too. Holy shit, this guy is delightful. Imagine if Tommy Wiseau grew slightly more legible, dyed his hair white, decided to be a massive bloodthirsty asshole, and got fucking psychokinesis for no reason somewhere along the way. He's such an entertaining douche, echoing some of my favorite hammy, out-there villain performances and adding his own coolly manic tendencies. Thankfully, unlike a lot of main villains these days, he's not underexposed and reserved for an end confrontation -- his superpowers essentially make him as formidable as his entire army, allowing him and Henry to continually come to blows throughout the film, and making him more lovably hatable every time he screws Henry over. Oh, he obviously is the subject of a final confrontation, and it doesn't disappoint with its sheer scale and gore value. I couldn't have expected it, but he joins such characters as Hans Gruber and Immortan Joe in my personal pantheon of unforgettable action movie baddies.

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I usually cover sound design / music alongside cinematography, but this is a special case, so here we are. One of the key differences between Hardcore Henry and a found footage film is that it's formatted like a standard film merely experienced through a character's eyes, and this includes having a running background soundtrack, timed stings and chords for intense moments, and a few notable musical sequences (including my favorite use of "Don't Stop Me Now" since Shaun of the Dead). The standard music is pretty unremarkable rock, but it's effective for the action sequences. The special musical scenes, meanwhile, are some of the film's highlights, with the aforementioned "Don't Stop Me Now" sequence near the climax serving as one of the most memorable centerpieces in the whole thing. And I would be remiss not to also highlight the stylish and gory opening credits, set to The Stranglers' "Let Me Down Easy":



And now, what you've been waiting for, and what no doubt has caused a lot of people to write the film off either because of motion sickness or on hatred of anything resembling found footage -- the cinematography.

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Hardcore Henry, like the music videos that inspired it, was not filmed this way to cash in on the cheap found footage trend. It was shot this way because it's different and, done as well as this, it looks fucking cool. Diving into the filming process, I'm astounded by the lengths they went to in order to have the film feel like one continuous perspective from one man's eyes (it's not one shot, nor does it try to present itself that way by hiding its cuts, but it feels like it at times by nature of the single running perspective), and the effort and gloriously elaborate setups are definitely worth it. I would, like many of the critics who enjoyed it, definitely consider it a form of experimental, artistic filmmaking. It took a bit for me to be sucked in fully and adjust to the presentation, but I got used to the movement before too long and didn't have any problems for the rest of the film.

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I'm glad I didn't have problems, because the action presented through Henry's eyes forms the real meat of the movie, and... yeah. It's pretty damn cool. Henry is a ruthless pragmatist, and as with the videos -- more particularly "Bad Motherfucker" -- the film constantly varies the way he dispatches his foes and the nature of the engagements he finds himself in. The significantly higher budget for choreography and special effects means that there's even more creatively bloody potential here; no two firefights or all-out brawls play out the same way, and the various different environments get exploited for every brutal kill you could think of for that situation. Whether Henry's beating down a few dozen armed guys in tight confines, engaging in a chase that harkens back to the music videos, stealthing through a run-down hotel with a silenced pistol, or going up against a tank with little more than a katana, the innumerable action scenes never disappoint or run together. As is always a boon, very little of this is CGI or greenscreen; nearly all of the effects are practical, and stuntwork done on-scene mostly as it's seen in the film, which accentuates the feel of it all. It all comes to a head with the final showdown, which is teased in the trailer but has to be seen to be believed; the elaborate scope and violent impact can't be effectively communicated. I should also mention that it's a VERY gory film, featuring everything from mere blood spatters to exploding heads, disembowelments, and more; the climactic confrontation ends with one of the more gruesome kills I've seen on the big screen in a while. If you can handle it, you're golden.

All in all, Hardcore Henry is a delightful viewing experience for those who can stand to view it. It delivers all of the intense action you'd hope for, but doesn't slack off in the storytelling or character-building departments, and stands as one of this year's best action offerings. If you liked the music videos, or you're in the mood for an above-and-beyond action movie in the vein of those I've mentioned, you're looking in just the right place. It's not for everyone, as evidenced by its mixed critical reception, but I only grow fonder of it the more I think about it.

Rating: Not Bad, Motherfuckers
  • 3

Last edited by KleinerKiller on Wed May 31, 2017 6:16 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: KK's Great Big Random Review Thread

Postby KleinerKiller » Sun Oct 23, 2016 10:21 pm

Deepwater Horizon (2016)

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Basic Summary: Workers attempt to survive the 2010 BP oil rig disaster.
Genre: Disaster-Drama, True Story
Directed by: Peter Berg
Written by: Matthew Michael Carnahan, Michael Sand
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Kurt Russell, John Malkovich, Kate Hudson, Dylan O'Brien
Length: 107 mins


(This is a decent trailer set to a powerful song, but it misrepresents the film in a lot of ways, and is one of several marketing blunders that led to the film not making its budget back.)


For the unaware, Deepwater Horizon follows Mike Williams, the chief computer technician aboard the eponymous oil rig. Mike has flown out for a twenty-one day stay aboard the Horizon, but while he expects it to be another routine bore-and-fill operation, he quickly gets more than he could have imagined. On April 20th, 2010, a series of unfortunate miscalculations and cost-beneficial measures on behalf of the BP owners causes a massive oil blowout, which then engulfs the rig in flames and leads to the beginning of a devastating spill. Mike and his coworkers are trapped aboard the collapsing inferno, and while the world watches in horror from afar, they must find the will to survive and reunite with those on the shore...

Spoiler: show
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So. I fully expected this to be disaster movie action schlock with the cover of the true story lending it minor artistic credence. That's what the trailers advertised, right? A sole focus on heroics and stunts instead of the tremendous human tragedy or permanent environmental impact. Mike Williams is a real guy and a major part of the events in question, but it'd just be a generic Mark Wahlberg star vehicle, right?

It is decidedly not that.

Deepwater Horizon is the first movie in years to provoke any volume of tears in me. Moreover, it's the first movie period to get me out-and-out crying and quivering in the theater. I had to recover after seeing this. It's fuckin' sad. It's also a gripping, well-constructed film even without its emotional weight, but... sadness.

All right, let's do the actual review now.

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The story of Deepwater Horizon is obviously a true one, and it plays out pretty much exactly as it did according to survivors' accounts and wreckage analysis -- there are bits here and there that feel like exaggerations for drama, but I can't be positive about any of them. About half of the film is peaceful buildup, depicting the daily lives of Mike and his coworkers aboard the rig while ominously showcasing the long chain of malfunctions and fuck-ups that eventually led to the disaster. This first half is definitely slow, and it takes a bit for even the first hint of trouble to be unveiled, but the effort it goes through to flesh out the rig environment and the natural interactions of the crew pays off in spades once shit hits the fan. And hit the fan it most certainly does! I spent the duration of the second half, from the initial blowout straight on through to the raging inferno, with a lump in my throat and my eyes glued to the screen. The pacing kicks into overdrive (there's obviously not a moment to rest and catch your breath on an oil rig that's blowing up and folding in on itself), and the tone shifts to match. After what feels like hours of breathless intensity, the main action climaxes with a scene I was so sure was an exaggeration, but while one minor detail has been added to streamline the story, it's still shockingly true to life. Then come a few epilogue scenes and a "Where Are They Now" / memorial-for-the-dead sequence (in the same vein as Berg's prior film, Lone Survivor), i.e. the part where I officially stopped being able to hold back the tears because that shit gets to me.

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The "characters," insofar as depictions of real people can be called such, are phenomenally performed through natural dialogue, if not slightly underdeveloped across the board. Wahlberg's Mike Williams is your average family man who rises up to become a hero when disaster strikes, but for as generic as that is on paper (regardless of the truth of it all), Wahlberg's performance is striking enough that he completely sells it and makes you care about him; he captures various extreme emotional states well throughout the film, with his highlight being a Captain Phillips-style breakdown toward the end that pushed me over the edge. I would be shocked if he doesn't get at least nominated for an Oscar in this role. Shockingly, Mike's family is also pretty compelling; Kate Hudson's portrayal of his wife is perfectly sympathetic if not groundbreaking, and to my great surprise, the little girl isn't as precociously godawful as she seems in the trailer.

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Elsewhere in the character department, there are a ton of well-acted depictions of various workers and other figures, but only a few are notable enough in terms of story role for me to highlight. Kurt Russell is unrecognizable as James "Mr. Jimmy" Harrell, the other primary protagonist (he and Mike are just the most prominently recurring characters in what's really an ensemble cast) and the rig leader who reports only to the BP supervisors; he tends to steal his scenes early on, and he gets put through some rough shit in the latter half to further endear us to him. Gina Rodriguez is solid as rig "pilot" Andrea Fleytas, though her distance from the explosions means she only gets to show off the nitty-gritty of her performance near the very end. Dylan O'Brien impresses in his comparatively brief screen time as drill operator Caleb Holloway, and I'm disappointed that he didn't get more to do. And as the closest thing to a villain the film has, John Malkovich brings BP representative Donald Vidrine to life with all of the callousness, greed, and tireless rationalization of his actions that one would expect from BP; he sometimes gets a bit cartoonishly evil in the way he phrases things, but who knows? Maybe that's what the fucker was really like leading up to the incident.

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The cinematography and sound design aren't mind-blowing -- there are few individual shots or chords that are going to stick in my mind -- but they're consistently solid in peacetime and they shine as the chaos begins. The rig environment is effectively built up as a workplace, with its labyrinthine corridors, moving parts, and atmosphere of constant noise; but when the blowout finally occurs (in one of the film's best and most frightening scenes), everything instantly changes. The film differentiates itself from its disaster movie ilk by taking little-to-no pleasure in the destruction, even when fiery explosions start engulfing the platform; every blast or collapsing environ is played up for the grim, hopeless effect they surely induced on the real workers. The interiors become dark and suffocating, the outside is too choked with smoke and agonized screams to feel like it offers any chance of escape, and the rampant hellfire slowly and steadily devours the rig from the inside out; not a single place feels remotely safe. Watching the disaster unfold (and hearing the real-life testimonies in the epilogue) makes one realize how miraculous it was that of the 126 people on board, only 11 were killed and another 17 were critically injured -- it feels like Hell on Earth.

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If I have to give one complaint about the film, it's that for as thoughtful as it is, it's not at all subtle, which is kind of to be expected. It's a film that more or less embraces a patriotic outlook, so the BP representatives on board are constant uncaring dickheads while all of the workers seem almost prescient about the disaster that's approaching. Expect shots of the American flag in front of the raging inferno, as well as a mass prayer scene that, whether it happened in real life or not, comes off as a little too on-the-nose. The environmental impact, as well, is first given focus in a scene involving an oil-soaked seagull; this came out of nowhere and, in spite of its true-to-life tragedy, was almost unintentionally funny and moment-killing in how it was executed. However, these flaws are minor and only stand out because the rest of the film is so strong.

In the end, Deepwater Horizon is a film I'm glad I saw, even though it left me in tears by the end. Far from what was advertised, it's a fascinating and breathless trip through one of the worst environmental disasters in recent history, pulled along by an ensemble of strong performances and stunning visuals. It's one of the better films I've seen this year, and I would recommend it heartily if you think you can handle the painful denouement.

Rating: A Disastrous Tear Spill

R.I.P. The Horizon Eleven
  • 3

Last edited by KleinerKiller on Wed May 31, 2017 6:17 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: KK's Great Big Random Review Thread

Postby KleinerKiller » Mon Nov 07, 2016 4:43 am

My Hero Academia (2016)

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Basic Summary: A powerless boy tries to become a hero in a world where everyone else has powers.
Genre: Shonen, Action-Comedy, Superheroes
Created by: Studio Bones
Directed by: Kenji Nagasaki
Written by: Yosuke Kuroda
Starring (Japanese / English): Daiki Yamashita / Justin Briner, Kenta Miyake / Christopher Sabat, Nobuhiko Okamoto / Clifford Chapin, Ayane Sakura / Luci Christian
Episodes: 13
Source Material: Ongoing manga by Kōhei Horikoshi

For the unaware, My Hero Academia follows Izuku "Deku" Midoriya, a superhero fanboy in a world where superheroes are more commonplace than police. Izuku is the only member of his middle school class to remain in the school system without a Quirk (a superpower inherited at birth), yet he remains determined to try and enter the same heroes-in-training high school all of the world's most beloved heroes attended. However, after impressing world-renowned hero and personal idol All Might, Izuku is granted the opportunity to artificially acquire a Quirk of his own and fulfill the dreams he'd long considered hopeless. Under his hero's grueling tutelage and with his lifelong rival gunning for him from the first day forward, Izuku must push himself to his physical and mental limit if he's to have any hope of surviving, much less graduating...

Spoiler: show
If anyone was wondering why there was such a long gap between the ERASED review and this one after I mentioned catching up on a lot of anime I'd fallen behind on this year -- I only review anime that I finish, and I almost never finish anime that don't hold my attention or which I consider subpar. There were several between then and now, including Flying Witch and High School Fleet, but My Hero Academia is the first one I've found to be deserving of a review. Take that alone as an early statement of quality.

This series has been critically hailed across the board as one of the best to debut this year, if not the very best, receiving near-unanimous top marks and gushing praise -- which was one of the first things that kept me from overlooking it as I usually might look past shows of this style and genre. The other thing that motivated me to check it out, and might motivate you if you haven't, is that the people involved with it were also responsible for such well-regarded classics as Cowboy Bebop and Fullmetal Alchemist, as well as the more recent cult hit Space Dandy. I put it off for a while because I wasn't sure whether I'd get into it, but once I started, I ended up binging it in two days. Now let's talk about it.

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The story of My Hero Academia is easily its weakest link. It's not a bad story by any means -- well told and tightly paced, if extremely predictable by nature -- but it's one propelled along more by its rich cast of characters than much actual storytelling weight. In essence, it's a humorous, affectionate pastiche of Western superhero comics and their cliches, but it follows a distinctly Eastern narrative template as Izuku struggles, gets his power, slowly learns to use it properly, and faces sequentially tougher challenges along the way. You won't be finding any great revelations here, and unlike the similarly satirical Kill la Kill, few lampshades are hung on the story itself rather than the specific tropes and references it's packing in. If you've ever seen an anime of the type or you're familiar with basic narrative beats, you'll be able to predict almost perfectly how certain situations will turn out (almost; there were a few things that still succeeded in surprising me). It also ends at a very odd point, cutting off after the first conflict with actual villains without much sense of change, finality, or resolution usually found in an anime season ending, meaning that this first season consists mostly of Izuku's initial training and we'll get the sprouting seeds of the actual conflict in the next season.

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That being said, the animation is stellar, with mostly fluid movement backed by the colorful, poppy art style. Every character -- regardless of their importance -- has a distinct design, range of expressiveness, and movement pattern to make them feel like individuals rather than easily sorted "main" and "side" characters. After the muted, grounded tones of ERASED, this is great fun to just look at. The expected fight scenes are scarce due to the early material the anime adapts, and when they happen, they don't have quite as much punch or pizzazz as you might hope until the tail end starts dropping more powerful fighters into the mix, but everything is consistently well-animated and it's always a treat to see the inventive techniques used by various combinations of characters with vastly differing powers. Meanwhile, the soundtrack isn't all that memorable, though I do enjoy the opening theme.

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What gives My Hero Academia its unique shine, and what has drawn the majority of critical and audience attention, is its astoundingly varied and creative cast of memorable, hilarious, and fleshed-out characters. Aside from the main characters, there are dozens of students and teachers who would normally be shunted into the sidelines save a few ensemble darkhorses in other stories; these characters are all so effectively realized that I have no trouble recalling them all, from their Quirks and costumes to their personalities and interactions with each other. Everyone gets their time to leave a lasting impression, whether it's during training exercises or the big punch-up at the end, and it would take way too much time for me to detail everyone who wormed his or her way into my heart.

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First up is Izuku, one of the best anime leads this year has delivered unto us. He comes off as a bit of a pathetic dork at the start, obsessing every waking minute over various heroes (All Might in particular), painting every inch of his room in their merchandise and likenesses, running to active crime scenes to watch heroes fight as he takes notes, muttering monologues to himself while others look on in bemusement... the kind of kid in real life you're either annoyed by or immediately empathetic toward. However, by the end of the first episode, the sympathy is universal. This kid's gotten such a raw deal, and all he's ever wanted is to be able to do the same things everyone else in class can do. Being Quirkless is pretty clearly considered a disability in their universe (even "non-powered" citizens usually get genetic party tricks like mild telekinesis or underwater breathing) and it's reflected in everything from his mother's behavior to his job opportunities. When he finally gets his Quirk and sets on his journey, slowly getting a grasp of his powers and earning the respect and friendship of his classmates, the cliches of the plot are revitalized to become emotionally affecting because I cared so much about him and wanted him to succeed. He is the driving key to this show's success.

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Tied for the position of my favorite main character is All Might, the "Symbol of Hope" renowned worldwide and looked up to by kids and adults, civilians and heroes alike -- essentially this universe's Superman. And speaking as someone who passionately hates Superman and thinks he's boring as shit... this is how you fucking do Superman right. The fact that All Might is a better Superman archetype than modern Superman himself is both a travesty and hilarious. As one might expect from his name and appearance, he has the powers Superman originally had: impossible strength, speed, and stamina, functional invincibility to most attacks, and the ability to leap across great distances in a single bound. His fights are the most phenomenal of the series, even for how overpowered he starts out as (he does have weaknesses and sometimes meets his match, but you won't see any glowing cancer rock deus ex machinas around him).

What makes him so great is his personality. He loves helping people and lives to inspire hope in others. He sometimes gets sidetracked from his other duties and jobs because he hears people in various degrees of distress, and he just can't help but assist no matter how dangerous it is or how much time it takes -- something that becomes an actual plot point in later episodes. He's loud, boisterous, ridiculously manly, and fucking magnificent at all times; it's instantly clear, from the first lines he delivers onscreen, why he inspires immediate pride and admiration in all of humanity. He does have a great deal of internal struggle and there are tolls being taken on him -- which forms one of the other central emotional throughlines of the story -- but they have nothing to do with whether he's happy being a hero, or whether people deserve to be saved, or any of that other ridiculous shit. He pushes himself to the limit in ways that become clear pretty quickly, and makes immense personal sacrifices nobody else knows about, all in the name of giving people something to aspire to and motivating them to be the best they can be, whether they're superheroes or Quirkless citizens. He is the Independence Day speech given human form.

Plus, one of his signature moves is called fucking "Texas / Detroit / Tennessee Smash," a title delivered in a drawn-out bellow as he falls from the sky and punches his opponent into the pavement. You can't make this up.

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Ochako Uraraka fills out the basic "cheery, positive best friend" role once Izuku meets her, and while she doesn't change much from that (her character development apparently kicks in later in the manga), she fits into the world nicely and serves as a welcome revitalizing presence whenever she's onscreen. While the archetype's characters are often depicted as simple-minded in their cheerfulness and frequently overcome by cowardice, she demonstrates both heedless bravery and surprising intelligence, in battles and in everyday life; there are implications that she deliberately hides behind her natural sweetness so people underestimate her, but these have yet to be explored. It helps that her power kicks ass: at a touch, she can drain or restore gravity from anything and anyone, including herself. Her tactical skills and resourcefulness come into play here, as she uses this simple ability to do everything from immobilizing targets to turning buildings into projectiles, and so on and so forth.

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Izuku's other close ally, Tenya Iida, equally impresses. He's introduced as a cartoonish embodiment of restrictive Japanese social norms and etiquette codes, hailing from a wealthy and respected superhero family that he explicitly tries not to bring shame on with his every move. I wasn't fond of him at first because of his harsh and antagonistic treatment of Izuku, but as he warmed up in short order, I warmed up to him. His stoic professionalism quickly cracks to expose a lot of bizarre tics and humorous traits, all while he obliviously keeps up the pretense that he's the calmest and most capable person around. His Quirk is also awesome, though he doesn't get as many chances to show it off as Ochako: he has engine boosters protruding from his legs that let him accelerate through the air at remarkable speeds, which also lends him great kicking power.

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I could go on and on about the other various heroes and allies (not so much the villains, because the sparse time frame after their introduction means only one gets meaningfully fleshed-out, and I haven't seen enough of him to write about him yet), but I have to talk about Katsuki Bakugou, no matter how much I really don't want to. He's a major part of Izuku's arc, and he's the only weak link in the cast right now. Izuku's brief childhood friend who developed a severe complex after his power (projecting explosions from his hands) earned him attention in preschool, he's become a bully and a massive asshole driven by the desire to surpass every hero in history. He's constantly angry and bitter, flying off the handle at the slightest sign that someone doesn't respect him or thinks he's weak, and reacting to help and much-needed rescues with homicidal rage. And this might be funny if done the right way, but he's just... annoying. There's a part when Izuku solemnly tells him that he's superior because he has natural power, and he takes this as a declaration that Izuku wants to overcome him and reacts with venom and violence -- this instability is played completely seriously, and he only gets worse and worse as time goes on. He also apparently gets better in the manga's continuing story, but in this little snapshot of storytelling, he undergoes no progress whatsoever and actively drags my patience down whenever he appears.

Some other side characters who stick out in my mind and can't go without a mention:

- Tsuyu Asui, a fan-favorite who has the morphology of a frog and is generally the muted voice of reason
- Yuuga Aoyama, a comically vain-yet-unpopular bishounen caricature who fires lasers from his navel
- Kyouka Jirou, who can detect or amplify sounds by plugging her earphone-shaped earlobes into solid surfaces
- Mina Ashido, an excitable girl who just shoots acid all over the place
- Mezou Shouji, an ambiguously human thing who can replicate different parts of his body at the end of his bat-wing-tendril arms
- Eraserhead, a callous and perpetually exhausted teacher who can disable Quirks with a stare
- Snipe, a mysterious staff member whose Quirk is literally just a pistol

In the end, My Hero Academia is a great ride that ends far too soon. Its predictable story is rejuvenated and propelled along by a diverse cast of wonderful characters, few of whom are forgettable and all of whom I'm looking forward to seeing more of. Its student-focused battle scenes could use a bit more 'oomph', but I'll chalk it up to the inexperience of the characters and give it time to improve. It's also very funny. If you value great characters above all else, or you're in the mood for something to make you smile and cheer in this dark and depressing shitstorm of what could be America's final election season, you could do far worse than this. It's definitely one of this year's highlights.

Rating: Plus Ultra!
  • 4

Last edited by KleinerKiller on Sun Oct 07, 2018 3:13 am, edited 5 times in total.
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Re: KK's Great Big Random Review Thread

Postby KleinerKiller » Sun Nov 13, 2016 6:17 am

The Accountant (2016)

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Basic Summary: An autistic money launderer evades numerous pursuers while trying to set things right.
Genre: Action-Thriller, Mystery
Directed by: Gavin O'Connor
Written by: Bill Dubuque
Starring: Ben Affleck, JK Simmons, Anna Kendrick, Jon Bernthal, John Lithgow, Jeffrey Tambor
Length: 128 mins



For the unaware, The Accountant follows Christian Wolff, a man with severe Asperger's Syndrome, whose mental calculation abilities and obsessive devotion to tasks have made him a brilliant mathematician. Christian works as an accountant on both sides of the law, consulting in perfectly lawful requests and cooking the books for massive criminal enterprises alike; only his unrivaled preparedness and combat expertise allow him to consistently stay alive and ahead of both the authorities and former employers. When Christian is hired by a profitable tech corporation to deal with inexplicable income losses, however, he becomes tangled in a web of pursuers, assassins, and innocent parties caught in the crossfire. With investigations against him mounting and a ruthless private contractor out for his head, Christian struggles to maintain his moral code and solve the problem he's been given without getting anyone killed -- but blood must be spilt regardless...

Spoiler: show
I was looking forward to this one since I heard about it, and man, did mainstream critics not like this one bit. It got so thrashed in the reviews, despite its great premise and seemingly solid performances, that I went in with few expectations. What I found -- fitting my later realization that audiences and independent reviewers enjoyed it a lot more than publication critics -- was another film that's going to make it high onto my "Best of 2016" list.

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The story of The Accountant is long (it's over two hours, after all), complex, and carefully paced. It tosses you into the thick of it right away, introducing its various plot arcs without giving you context for why they matter in relation to each other -- I felt somewhat lost in the lurch early on, wondering why certain characters mattered or how something going on in one place had any bearing on another place. Rest assured that this feeling, the sensation that things are unfocused or overstuffed, is intentional. The Accountant takes time to methodically build up each of its characters and concepts, sprinkling them all onto different branches that only seem to interconnect in the most basic ways before the pieces slowly begin to slide together. Puzzles are a rather on-the-nose recurring motif, because the story is essentially a giant jigsaw puzzle that's slowly being pieced together in chunks, initially seeming insurmountably complicated until all of the details are fitted next to each other and you realize how simple it all is. I do so love plots that have a bunch of different arcs and concepts ultimately coalesce together to reveal their significance, and The Accountant does exactly that.

As for the actual story, it's smartly told and paced as it needs to be. Don't go in expecting any kind of action movie -- there are a few kickass throwdowns and gunfights sprinkled throughout, and the climax is one long burst that shows off exactly how dangerous Christian is if you didn't get it yet, but it's a deliberately-paced thriller with action elements more than anything. The present and the past are blended effectively, flashbacks to different periods sprinkled in as necessary to develop the characters and history, and cutting briefly to Christian's childhood or another character's early career usually doesn't feel like it interrupts the pacing. Shortly before the climax, there is a rather long expositional monologue by one of the characters that takes up roughly half of the third act, which compiles most of the loose threads that haven't had more significance yet and clarifies them, getting them out of the way for the climax; it is a bit awkward and comically long, but the information touched upon within it and the skill of the actor who delivers it makes it tolerable. Then comes the climax, an extended display of Christian's ruthless skills and combat pragmatism building up to a powerful confrontation (and a twist that you'll probably see coming, but which admittedly took me by surprise), and the quick and satisfying ending that wraps the rest of the arcs up in a suitably touching way. Altogether, not a revelatory story, but a remarkably well-told and engaging one.

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Christian Wolff is a powerful, compelling lead from beginning to end. Ben Affleck kills in this role, taking on numerous subtle affectations and changes in vocal tone to craft a believable man with that life, and selling the emotional fluctuations he goes through as certain problems arise. He's sympathetic, funny in a deadpan sort of way that catches you off guard, remarkably intelligent, and clearly decent to most people he encounters -- yet he's also vaguely terrifying in an undefined way that gets gradually clearer as you learn more about his lifestyle and skills. Affleck also brings a brutal physicality to his performance, making it easy to believe he's capable of doing everything he's shown doing long before flashbacks show how he learned to do those things. Add in the constant aura of mystery and unease that surrounds him, and you have someone who's as easy to invest in as he is chilling to watch at work.

(Now, there's been some critical hand-wringing over the portrayal of Christian's autism, because of course there has. Critics who didn't like the movie or had mixed feelings about it tend to mark down Affleck's performance and the character's tics under the assumption that it's disrespectful stereotyping in the vein of Sheldon Cooper. Suffice to say that as someone who has what he has, just much milder, I feel he's a perfectly accurate and respectful depiction; in fact, the movie's handling of mental health in general is to be complimented. It's also worth keeping in mind that some of his more crippling characteristics and habits stem from trauma and emotional scars, not just his basic condition.)

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Moving on to some other characters of importance. Anna Kendrick is enjoyably solid as Dana Cummings, the in-house accountant for the film's central tech company, who is also put in danger and becomes Christian's partner on the run. Kendrick is a good-to-great actress depending on what she's given, and this role calls for her to be a more typical awkward nerd character, stammering over her words and getting adorably overexcited about certain things and whatnot. She serves as a good foil for Christian, and while her character isn't as developed or compelling as his, she still manages to be an enjoyable and sympathetic presence who helps develop him and move the plot along. There may not be as much to write about her as the others, but I enjoyed her all the same.

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J.K. Simmons is predictably great as Raymond King, director of the Treasury Department's financial crime investigations and the man organizing much of the lawful pursuit of Christian, whom he only knows as "The Accountant". I say 'predictably' because I can't recall a single mediocre J.K. Simmons performance even in the worst movies he's been in -- he's consistently delightful, and this case is no different. This time, he flexes his vast range of demeanors and settles on something more weary and less rage-driven than normal, but no less memorable. He's a man with a lot of weight on his shoulders that he can't tell many people about, and every day is a visible struggle for him to keep going -- for reasons that make up a small chunk of reveals later on. His role is much less active than the others, and most of his time is spent behind a desk or on a podium, so it's a good thing his vocal performance is so good.

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The last character worth highlighting is Jon Bernthal's enigmatic gun-for-hire, the leader of the various flunkies sent after Christian and Dana, hereby credited as "The Assassin". He serves as the driving antagonist for most of the film, and the one worth more focus, since the real Big Bad is of the inactive and obvious variety. Even for his high amount of screen time, he mostly remains in the shadows throughout the film, only directly encountering Christian once before the final act, and his actual character takes just as much time to surface, meaning I can't go too in-depth about him without spoilers. He's a solid antagonist with almost as much intimidation factor and physical prowess as Christian, but that's about all I can say. I can talk about Jon Bernthal's performance, which is great; he's another actor who consistently impresses me whenever he shows up in something, and while his affable, happy-go-lucky boisterousness took a bit of time to grow on me, I was fully invested by the end and anticipated the inevitable duel between him and Christian with bated breath.

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The cinematography is the only thing I would call a "mixed bag" in the film. Sometimes it's great, with long tracking shots, clever camera angles and the like; other times it indulges in the shaky-cam technique that's supposed to make things feel modern and visceral, but really just distracts and makes the scene harder to follow. It's especially bad in the first major fight scene, where Christian goes up against a few mooks on a farm; thankfully, this is the lowest point, and while it occasionally resurfaces and irritates up until the climax, the rest of the action is a lot smoother and more immersive (and while the fight scenes themselves aren't revelations, the use of an Indonesian martial art called 'Pencak Silat' that emphasizes full-body combat and weapon use gives them unpredictability and variety). In terms of sound design, background music is occasionally used to enhance some scenes, but it's nothing worth talking about; what really leaves an impact are the gunshots, which are loud as hell and feel like gut punches whenever they're fired, giving each gun a sense of weight and power that's often missing from media they feature in.

Overall, The Accountant is another 2016 favorite, and much better than its 50% Rotten Tomatoes score would indicate. It navigates several distinct and enjoyable characters, including one hell of a main protagonist, through a web of intrigue and intensity that's gradually woven together with twists ranging from predictable to brilliant. It doesn't quite reach the exceptional highs of other standouts from this year, but it's a superb watch nonetheless and something deserving of a higher recommendation than it's gotten from everyone else.

Rating: More Than Enough Brains and Brawn
  • 5

Last edited by KleinerKiller on Wed May 31, 2017 6:18 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: KK's Great Big Random Review Thread

Postby KleinerKiller » Mon Nov 14, 2016 9:35 am

Just in case y'all were under a different assumption, I don't mind if you post things in here in response to the reviews. In fact, I welcome and actively encourage it. The directory I edited into the original post means that it doesn't matter if the thread takes in more than just straight reviews one after another; if anyone has watched or played what I've recently written up, whether you agree or disagree with my judgement, or you have questions or miscellaneous sentiments or just want to voice whether you plan on taking up a recommendation (it can be recent or it can be something from all the way back in the beginning), feel free to post your thoughts -- maybe put in a quote box "The Accountant review" or "ERASED review" or whatever for clarity's sake.

I love discussions even more than I love thumbs, and I hope to start at least one every time I hammer one of these out, but so far Octoberpumpkin's been the only other one to contribute.
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Re: KK's Great Big Random Review Thread

Postby octoberpumpkin » Tue Nov 15, 2016 7:49 pm

It's always hard to get people to comment on these things, but I enjoy your write-ups!

I was thinking of watching an LP of The Beginner's Guide
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Re: KK's Great Big Random Review Thread

Postby KleinerKiller » Tue Nov 15, 2016 9:02 pm

octoberpumpkin wrote:It's always hard to get people to comment on these things, but I enjoy your write-ups!


Don't I know it. And I'm glad to hear it!

octoberpumpkin wrote:I was thinking of watching an LP of The Beginner's Guide


I highly recommend this one. It's slow-paced, thoughtful about the content presented, and doesn't take very long at all to binge through in one sitting.
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Re: KK's Great Big Random Review Thread

Postby KleinerKiller » Tue Nov 22, 2016 6:23 am

Space Patrol Luluco (2016)

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Basic Summary: A middle-schooler is forcibly drafted into the space police just as reality itself starts huffing paint.
Genre: Sci-Fi, Comedy, Romance
Created by: Studio Trigger / TRIGGER
Directed by: Hiroyuki Imaishi
Written by: Hiroyuki Imaishi
Starring: Mao Ichimi (M.A.O.), Junya Enoki, Mayumi Shintani, Tetsu Inada
Episodes: 13 (each about 6-7 mins long)

For the unaware, Space Patrol Luluco follows Luluco, a completely normal middle-school student in the frontier colonized city of Ogikubo, where humans and aliens coexist. By sheer dumb luck and a string of unfortunate occurrences, Luluco finds herself the newest recruit to the universe-policing (but only fluctuatingly competent) Space Patrol, a job she only agrees to so she can use the money to save her frozen father. She quickly finds herself joined by Alpha Omega Nova, a stoic dreamboat she falls head-over-heels for, and Midori, a snarky criminal-turned-conscript, as danger descends over Ogikubo in the form of space pirates, malicious aliens, and more. Does Luluco have what it takes to save the day? And what else is going on somewhere between the seams of reality...?

Spoiler: show
Okay, this is going to be a weird fucking series to review. Not because the premise is particularly outlandish -- in anime terms, and especially Studio Trigger terms, it's downright pedestrian -- but because much of what makes it worth watching and what it really is can barely be discussed lest the magic be ruined. TRIGGER have taken what could have been a throwaway premise I wouldn't have given a second thought to, and they've done something altogether different and thoroughly enjoyable with it. I had much of it spoiled for me (it's the only reason I even bothered to watch it), but though basic discussion is unavoidable, I'll do my best to write as much as I can without spoiling the fun for any prospective viewers.

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First and foremost, the presentation. Viewers of Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt will recognize the art style right off the bat, and as a longtime fan of that little gem of a series, I felt at home here. The basic-but-vibrant character art, crude animation, and indistinct, surreal world backgrounds will put some viewers off, but those of you who enjoy that aesthetic will find a lot to love as it's turned up to its most illogical levels. The action scenes aren't exactly thrilling when they sporadically come, but they're a lot of fun for what they are. As for music, the soundtrack is decent-to-delightful with a few standout tracks, and while I could take or leave the opening theme, I'm in love with the ending theme, both its song and its paper cutout aesthetic -- quite the reversal from my usual opinions.

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The characters are all lovable in their own way, though the series' short running time means they don't get a whole lot of time to develop or leave a meaningful impact. They're all good for laughs, but so far (in case of a continuation -- I know TRIGGER isn't known for picking things back up, but still), that's about it. Luluco is the clear standout of the cast; she's as enthusiastic and awkward as you'd expect a thirteen-year old to be, her constant attempts to maintain some normalcy in her life are a good source of laughs, and the last string of episodes (particularly the final episode, and even more particularly the final minutes of the final episode) give her a heaping helping of unexpected depth and purpose that really ties the series together. Nova, meanwhile, didn't annoy me as these bishounen schoolgirl crush types usually do, but he didn't really endear himself to me either -- consequently, the romance that drives much of the plot is a bit undercooked and hollow up until the very end, though given how many people hang lampshades on it (as well as some plot developments regarding it) and knowing these creators, I'd imagine some of that is intentional. The rest of the recurring characters might as well be gag delivery machines and extensions of Luluco's personal life (Midori in particular gets shafted as it goes on, which is a shame considering how entertaining she is in the early goings), but for the type of show this is, it's fine.

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I do love Over Justice, though. He's like My Hero Academia's All Might, but instead of a hope-obsessed superhuman, he's a justice-obsessed flaming skeleton who rarely moves and is an absolute stark raving lunatic. So really not all that much like All Might, now that I think about it.

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And without further ado, the centerpiece. The... story, more or less. Each set of three episodes is divided up into mock "seasons", denoted at the start of each episode with unfitting grandiosity for "arcs" that altogether last about as long as a single episode of a normal anime (I like to think this is one of many meta-jokes about anime structure and filler, but I can't say for certain). The first season is little more than a dream-logic ramble through a ludicrous, sometimes funny (similarly to Kill la Kill, a lot of fun is poked at various common tropes, which are exaggerated to the nth degree) and sometimes fumbling world, and the plot is little more than a wafer-thin excuse for gags while the characters and setting are introduced. I didn't really get on the show's wavelength until the second half of the third episode, and even then it was more of a "Yeah, I can put up with this" feeling than an "I HAVE TO KEEP WATCHING" deal. The second season introduces one of the antagonists and establishes the threat that gets Luluco and crew into outer space, and the jokes start to get stronger, but it's still clearly building up to something. Altogether, the first half of Space Patrol Luluco is nothing special.

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It's the second half of the series -- the third, fourth, and single-episode fifth "seasons" -- where the true purpose and joys of the show truly come into bloom. It's here that Space Patrol Luluco metamorphoses into not just a surreal, moderately funny sci-fi romantic comedy thing, but a mirror that TRIGGER itself looks into as it reflects on how far it's come since it roared onto the scene as a scrappy bunch of former Gainax employees. References -- and much, much more -- to the studio's other work (which were already peppered into the early proceedings, but it's taken into overdrive here), as well as lawyer-friendly nods and winks to other works that have influenced them in the past (some obvious, some you need an eagle eye and an in-depth knowledge of anime and manga to spot), take center stage, and some exciting ideas about the universe are put forth. To what extent these references impact or influence the primary narrative, I cannot say, lest I spoil some "HOLY SHIT" moments that are best jumped into with little prior knowledge. It goes from being a show about a young girl finding joy in a surreal world to a display of some proud creators finding joy as they examine their pasts.

In the last batch of episodes, the romance that's been struggling throughout the series finally finds some footing, and though one of the last emotional beats doesn't land as it should, the main narrative wraps up in a satisfying way. Some points are left half-open with a tease about what might come in the future, but if there's never anything else from the Luluco storyline, this is a good conclusion. And then come the final minutes of the finale, when Luluco's character arc and TRIGGER's self-reflection collide one last time for a story beat I found exceptionally sweet, clever (if you don't get the reasoning for a specific detail regarding a design shift, Google can help), and meaningful, to the point that my eyes got just a little bit misty. Not only is it the perfect way to end a series like this, but the implications it raises for the studio's future give me goosebumps just thinking about them.

In the end, Space Patrol Luluco is a heavily flawed anime in a lot of ways, but it makes up for its merely solid first half with a stirring second half and a poignant, unforgettable resolution. It is definitely not a show I would recommend to everyone; knowledge and appreciation for the majority of TRIGGER's body of work is basically a prerequisite for enjoying what's being offered. But for fans of TRIGGER who (like me) hadn't gotten around to seeing it yet because of timing or a deceptively throwaway premise, it's a must-watch.

Rating: A Safe Space For The TRIGGERed
  • 2

Last edited by KleinerKiller on Fri Oct 13, 2017 10:33 am, edited 3 times in total.
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Re: KK's Great Big Random Review Thread

Postby KleinerKiller » Fri Dec 02, 2016 7:40 am

Channel Zero: Candle Cove (2016)

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Basic Summary: A troubled man returns to his hometown to put a decades-old child murder case -- and his nightmares about a mysterious children's show -- to rest.
Genre: Horror-Drama, Anthology
Created by: Nick Antosca
Directed by: Craig William Macneill
Written by: Nick Antosca (based on the story Candle Cove by Kris Straub)
Starring: Paul Schneider, Fiona Shaw, Shaun Benson, Luca Villacis
Episodes: 6
Channel: SyFy



For the unaware, Channel Zero: Candle Cove follows Dr. Mike Painter, a renowned child psychiatrist who's been battling resurfacing demons from his own youth. When a string of night terrors leads him to a psychotic break that drives his wife and daughter away, Mike attempts to get to the root of his problems by driving back to his hometown of Iron Hill and taking up an investigation. In 1988, several children -- including Mike's brother Eddie -- went missing under mysterious circumstances and would later be found brutally murdered in the forest. As Mike tries to find the answers that have eluded the police and national media for decades, he uncovers a connection all of the others have ignored: "Candle Cove", an unnerving children's puppet show, broadcast locally by unknown parties, that appeared on various dead channels before the murders began and slipped away just as quickly when they stopped. Recalling his memories of the show, Mike is convinced that its creators must be somehow involved, but it isn't long before he realizes why he's really been driven back to Iron Hill: Candle Cove is back on the airwaves, and the local kids are starting to go missing once again...

Spoiler: show
Channel Zero is a project that truly excites me. It's a new horror anthology miniseries, SyFy's own American Horror Story sans the Ryan Murphy garbage, with its seasons based on well-known and well-done creepypastas. For all of the flak internet horror stories get due to how well-known the worst examples are (much the same as fan fiction), there are a great many that are suitably chilling and deserve to be brought into a wider space than the niches they occupy. The show has premiered with a plot based on Kris Straub's "Candle Cove" -- a brief little narrative presented as a forum conversation, which the show turns into a dinner table discussion -- and the next season is being adapted from Brian Russell's "NoEnd House". Both stories are standouts for their quality (the latter is a clunky starter, but they're otherwise both recognized as great even by people who usually rag on the stories collectively), so Nick Antosca has proven that he knows enough not to fall into the traps of "Jeff the Killer" and its ilk of horrid drivel that become popular because of stupid tweens who think they can write and lonely fangirls who fall in love with the trashy monsters. I'm eager to see where it goes from here, but for now, let's discuss the first season.

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Being a six-episode miniseries, the story is taut and void of filler or meaningless meandering. Events move at a rapid clip, with new developments and twists peppered through every episode, yet it doesn't often feel rushed and most of the events feel earned through suspense buildup and deliberately paced interaction. It's also welcomely not averse to venturing into particularly dark territory, incorporating everything from onscreen child murder to suicidal depression, bloody self-harm, and more, none of which is used purely for shock value and all of which has some thematic relevance to the narrative. This is a story about people who are all broken in some way or another, and how they struggle to avoid acknowledging it instead of truly trying to heal. Nothing is glided over or sweetened up, and it ends on an intense and bittersweet note that -- while not wholly unpredictable and far from flawless -- serves as a satisfyingly warped bow on the events that led up to it. It's a very King-esque little tale, particularly taking clear inspiration from It (including prominent characters named Mike and Eddie, though the former is just a holdover from the original story), but it quickly branches off enough to be its own beast.

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However, it also has its share of serious flaws, the first being that the brevity of the series and the speed with which it moves winds up being something of a hindrance. The first episode briskly takes us through the information presented in the source material, introducing us to the world and the core concepts at play, before serving up the story's notorious twist in the final minutes and leaving the future a blank slate. This is fine and basically what I expected, as the original story is quite short and there's little to adapt for proper story beats. However, as it moves into its own territory, the show tips its hand far too early: one of the primary antagonists is revealed in the second episode, but instead of developing that character into something more with the audience's knowledge that they're evil, "reveals" are continuously stacked on top of one another that are set up as if we hadn't been treated to the character's nature yet, and the show continuously struggles and fails not to repeat itself in that aspect. This drains a lot of the suspense from that side of the narrative. Additionally, the core mystery -- which had remained solid for most of the series -- has a rather limp and pat answer that doesn't really line up with all of what we've been told (and is pretty clearly restricted from its full potential by budget constraints), and my disappointment over the climactic confrontation was only marginally tempered by the ending it leads to.

What impresses far more than the story are the characters who populate it. As I said, this is a story about broken people, and those people are far more well-realized and well-acted than you would expect from a SyFy horror anthology miniseries based on an internet horror story. Their dialogue is often poignant and realistic, and their interactions are filled with physical subtleties and meaningful pauses that highlight how damaged they are.

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First up is our leading man, Mike Painter, and while he's certainly not among the best leads we've gotten this year, he definitely carves out some unique slot. A man locked in perpetual suffering from repressed memories, long-buried secrets, and the outreach of whatever Candle Cove really is, he is introduced right at the end of his rope and clearly a stone's throw from ending it all, no matter how well he hides it. His history is much darker and more scarring than is first let on, his relationships with the friends and family members he moved away from are constantly tenuous, and his understanding of psychology gives him a unique insight into both his own mental state and the coping mechanisms of those around him. Paul Schneider's performance isn't... amazing, but once he grew on me, I found that there's a weird sort of off-kilter charm to him that fits his personality and psychological damage.

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Equally fascinating and compelling -- if not more so -- is Fiona Shaw as Mike's mother, Marla. Battered by the loss of one son and the distant reclusiveness of the other, she has buried her scars deep within herself and put up the image of a kindly old town lady with nothing to care for but birds and neighborhood kids. Mike's return shatters the facade, and from its remains emerges one of the show's best characters and a competitor with ERASED's Sachiko for 2016's #BestMom. While initially skeptical of her son's claims and frozen by the desire to leave the past alone, she soon carries the torch with him and starts investigating alongside him, pulled along as much by her desire to mend her relationship with Mike as to discover Eddie's fate. As events progress, she proves that she can hold her own both mentally and physically against the terrors overtaking Iron Hill, and she becomes as much a main character as her son. Shaw's performance is an unexpected delight and one of the best things the show has brought out.

(Cannot for the fucking life of me find a single image of this guy anywhere on the internet.)


Last one really worth mentioning is Gary Yolen, Iron Hill's sheriff and a former friend of Mike's. While not as unique as Mike or Marla, he's still a solid foil to Mike's unhinged belief and Marla's repressive projection. Just like Marla, he puts up his own image in everyday life, that of the friendly and professional law-keeper who knows how to solve any problem the townspeople come to him with. However, it's not long before it becomes clear how vulnerable he is, how much of a blow the murders struck to him and how desperate Mike's reappearance has made him to protect his children the way the parents of old could not. This comes to a head in the third episode, which he dominates along with Mike and another cop character. Tragically, he doesn't get a lot to do after that, and his character arc comes to a rather disappointing and anticlimactic conclusion that doesn't stand up to Mike's or Marla's.

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Rather than highlight some of the other strong performances, I want to talk about the children. Channel Zero: Candle Cove deals a lot with children due to the very nature of its premise, and that means child actors have a lot of screen time, which tends to bring... mixed results. The most prominent is Luca Villacis (right), who plays a double role as a young Mike and his twin Eddie in the show's many flashbacks and a few present-day hallucinations, and he's fair for a kid his age: uneven, and sometimes too overacted, but at his best he does manage to sell the emotional material and even gets a few moments befitting his older peers. The rest of the kids are nothing to write home about, serving their functions at best and being somewhat distracting at worst, though the worst of the lot are still a far cry from the worst child actors I've ever seen. Don't go in expecting Stranger Things material, and you should be able to put up with them.

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Moving on to the visuals, we find one of the all-around strongest points about the series: even the A.V. Club's more negative review called it "a handsome disappointment". It's damn well shot, with impressive landscapes, effective blending of light and shadow, and a lot of long, held takes and slow pans that complement the eerie atmosphere. Those fearing distractingly awful CGI from the SyFy branding can rest easy, for all of the show's effects are practical and its locations sets rather than greenscreen backgrounds. Some of them leave a bit to be desired, while others are phenomenally creepy, and they're all leagues above the average SyFy CGI venture. The sound design is less notable, but there are some spine-tingling sound effects every so often, and the show uses silence and ambient noise well instead of bogging things down with constant musical tracks.

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Finally, though, we come to what must be discussed with everything that tries to bear the horror brand: is it scary? Well, not particularly, at least in conventional horror terms: the show trades a lot in "adult fears" like child abduction, undiagnosed mental illness, and losing faith in the people you once trusted, but those are more horrifying from a dramatic standpoint. In terms of traditional horror, there are thankfully almost no jump scares, but there's also not a lot to be genuinely afraid of in their place. The atmosphere is generally creepy, and the sets work best with long, dark hallways (as seen in the second episode's climactic factory investigation and the best bits of the finale). The creature designs fall all across the board, some of them fantastic and some of them less so (a recurring childlike figure made of teeth quickly loses its luster despite a few chilling first appearances). It doesn't fail to be what it sets out to be, but horror aficionados will be hard-pressed to find much of anything new save a few standout moments.

Overall, Channel Zero: Candle Cove is a flawed, but promising start to what could be a genuinely great anthology. The compelling performances, striking cinematography, and more creatively haunting horror beats don't exactly paper over the storytelling weaknesses and mediocre scares, but they do provide plenty to make up for those flawed components if you're willing to take the whole thing for what it is. Even for its flaws and the sheer number of infinitely betters shows I watched concurrently with it, I really enjoyed it while I was watching it. If you're familiar with the stories being adapted, are intrigued by the show's biggest draws, or just desperately crave a horror anthology series that hasn't buckled under the overbearing campy bloat of Ryan Murphy, then this might just be for you.

Rating: Maybe Don't Touch That Dial
  • 4

Last edited by KleinerKiller on Wed May 31, 2017 6:19 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: KK's Great Big Random Review Thread

Postby KleinerKiller » Sat Dec 10, 2016 12:36 pm

KonoSuba (2016)

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Full Title: KonoSuba: God's Blessing On This Wonderful World!

Basic Summary: A lifeless shut-in gets reincarnated into the world of his dreams, only to find nightmares waiting for him.
Genre: Comedy, Fantasy
Created by: Studio Deen
Directed by: Takaomi Kanasaki
Written by: Makoto Uezu
Starring: Jun Fukushima, Sora Amamiya, Rie Takahashi, Ai Kayano
Episodes: 10
Source Material: Web series and light novels by Natsume Akatsuki

For the unaware, KonoSuba follows Satou Kazuma, an isolated and awkward teenager whose life revolves around games, the internet, and never going outside. On the one day in a long time that he leaves his house to buy a new game, he winds up sacrificing his life to push a girl out of the way of a speeding truck, and is sent to the afterlife. There, he is faced with the goddess Aqua, who reveals that not only was his sacrifice pointless because he misread the situation, but his actual cause of death was so humiliating that even his family laughed when they heard what happened. Luckily, rather than reincarnate in Japan as would normally happen, Aqua gives him the opportunity to salvage his dignity in another dimension: a fantasy world that works according to classic RPG mechanics, currently so besieged by the forces of the Demon King that the gods have resorted to importing souls from other dimensions to fight. Kazuma eagerly accepts the deal, but out of spite for the goddess's attitude, he rejects his choice of weapons and instead ends up dragging Aqua down with him. Now, stranded together in this hostile world with no money and few useful skills, they must rely on their tenuous bond and the scant few individuals willing to join up if they want to survive...

Spoiler: show
I didn't expect to like this show as much as I did, mainly because I misjudged what it was going to be. I'm not too partial to fantasy save a few exceptions like Game of Thrones, and the premise is so uncomfortably close to Sword Art Online -- for my money, the absolute worst anime to ever break into the mainstream -- that I experienced traumatic flashbacks of that drivel when reading the summary, so I held off on watching it for a while and only started when I realized I still had so many other series to watch before the end of the year. What I got when I started KonoSuba up was an anime that made me laugh like few others have, a story that doesn't take itself remotely seriously, some surprisingly unique and lovable characters, and more. Shall we begin?

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I'll cover the presentation first, because it's clearly the weakest link in the series. The art style offers little that hasn't been seen elsewhere in thousands of other fantasy anime settings, though the parodic nature helps this be less of a flaw than it would be if it was trying to be serious. The actual animation is standard at best -- though some of the effects, particularly Megumin's explosion spells (pictured), are fun -- and otherwise riddled with off-model moments and other flaws. And the soundtrack, minus the decently fun OP, is a completely forgettable assortment of guitar riffs and slapstick comedy tunes that would have been better off not being implemented at all.

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Things get much better when we move on to the story, what little of it there is. Basically, it's the day-to-day episodic struggles of Kazuma and his party members, with a few loose arcs running from episode to episode to keep things cohesive up until the sudden action-packed finale whose plot was mainly foreshadowed by a running gag. So it can't be evaluated as a traditional narrative, but as a premise, it's golden. It's not meant to be taken seriously in the slightest degree, constantly taking the piss out of popular "lonely geek becomes a hero in an RPG fantasy world" plots like the aforementioned Sword Art Online, and it succeeds as a satire while being fun to watch in its own right. Kazuma and his allies are a party of incompetent losers with crippling personality flaws who can't stand each other, struggle to complete low-level jobs, and are frequently distracted by selfish desires and random flights of fancy. Their money troubles are so severe that they spend most of the series living hand-to-mouth, sleeping in a stable and fighting over where their next meal is coming from. Instead of progressing to become renowned heroes as is the genre norm, the four are forced to live in poverty and mediocrity, only sporadically flailing their way through more serious threats and being able to improve their lives through sheer chance. They never really get better in combat -- any improvements are due to them switching up their styles and managing to successfully coordinate, and even then they're far beneath the bar.

And it's hilarious. Even leaving the lampshaded premise and various direct parodies aside, KonoSuba's sense of humor stands out. While you'll find the familiar comedic beats that anime and manga are overflowing with, there's loads of cleverer material outweighing them -- at times, the timing and pacing of the jokes, usage of silent beats and sudden cuts, and stylistic cues (including an excellent montage in the first episode that's still one of my favorite gags in the series) makes it feel distinctly Western in its sensibilities. And even standard Japanese sources of humor, like innocuous actions being mistaken as perverse, are polished up and drawn out to act as some of the most memorable sequences in the show. In general, it's all just really well written, and such writing compliments the tone of the series perfectly.

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Now we'll move on to the main characters, beginning with our leading man, Satou Kazuma. I was all set up to hate Kazuma, because he had all the makings of the generic anime male action heroes I generally can't stand (SAO's Kirito only deserves to exist as a lesson to all writers on everything not to do with your main character), and I feared he would be a dull asshole who needlessly took time away from his more interesting companions. This was obviously not the case. Kazuma starts his onscreen life as a lazy, incompetent shut-in, and that really doesn't change once he enters the other world where he expects to naturally become such a hero. His combat skills are pathetic to begin with, and his only improvements are by taking on low-level skills unconventional to his chosen class. And while he tries to present himself as the sole voice of reason (and sometimes is by comparison to the rest), it's clear from the start that he's just as bad as his allies: blunt, selfish, perverted to a fault, and constantly trying to justify his own flaws and mistakes without taking responsibility. This would make him utterly terrible if it were played straight, but in this context, he's just as great a character as his cohorts. And, well, I sort of feel some uncomfortable kinship with him since he's functionally an exaggerated version of me.

(Also, thankfully, he's not the center of a harem. There are some romantic subtextual teases, but it's all mostly played for laughs.)

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As for his allies, the water goddess Aqua starts off stoically abrasive and holier-than-thou (I mean, she is a goddess, so...), but all of that gets stripped away when she's forced to accompany Kazuma. Instead, she gets exposed as a greedy, hard-partying womanchild with no impulse control and as much cluelessness as her companion, and while being a goddess gives her excellent healing magic and some impressive water control, her offensive skills are just as damningly low as Kazuma's. She shows glimmers of higher intelligence on occasion, but it's always offset by her crudeness, cowardice, random spots of forgetfulness, extreme emotional instability, and at-times almost sociopathic callousness. I don't have as much to say about her as the others, but she's still pretty damn wonderful.

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Before discussing the real star of the show, we'll swing around to the last party member to join, the crusader who calls herself "Darkness". Yes, really. While she's technically smarter and more skilled than her companions, what should be an extremely useful asset in battle is offset by her ludicrous clumsiness, which causes her massive sword to miss even stationary targets in small areas. Her primary use is therefore as a shield to soak up enemy attacks, but she's only so effective at this because of the trait that also drives her down to the level of her less-bright companions: her extreme masochism. She's so kinky and obsessed with being hurt that she deliberately runs into attacks few people would be capable of even surviving, goads Kazuma into verbally abusing her on multiple occasions, and tries to force one of the key villains to take her as a sex slave, to his horror. She's fuel for some of the funniest gags in the early goings, and is likable enough otherwise to solidify herself as my second-favorite of the main group. Her material does run the risk of being a bit one-note later in the series, but she's saved from being hackneyed by both the sheer absurd extent of her masochism and the fact that she actually has some emotional weight behind her that comes out toward the end.

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And now... Megumin. The girl whose astounding popularity put the show on my radar at the beginning of the year, and who is popularly regarded as the best character of the main four, to which I would heartily agree. The most visibly useful of the four, she is a powerful but cripplingly overspecialized mage who only casts one type of magic: gigantic explosions. Unfortunately, she can only cast one explosion per day because of how much mana it drains, after which she is virtually paralyzed for the rest of the day. Her awesome-but-limited skillset aside, she's grandiose, somewhat deluded by her own imagination, unexpectedly manipulative, and frequently lies to Kazuma's face and contradicts her own statements, making her an unpredictable presence in dialogue scenes. There's also the fact that she is openly addicted to the way casting explosions makes her feel, and is so enchanted by explosions in general that she refuses to learn any other magic or refine her casting in any way. She's the brightest highlight of the show, one of the most memorable characters I've seen this year, and I love her to bits.

All in all, KonoSuba is a quick and breezy ride worth a quick and breezy review. It doesn't try to be anything serious or dark, and is instead elevated to great heights by its hilarious premise, excellent writing, and cast of flawed-but-lovable pseudo-heroes. I don't really have much more to say about it than that. Hopefully the second season arrives next year without delay, because I want to jump right back into this world.

Rating: This Is A Great Series, But Seriously, Fuck Sword Art Online So Hard
  • 3

Last edited by KleinerKiller on Fri Oct 13, 2017 10:34 am, edited 3 times in total.
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Re: KK's Great Big Random Review Thread

Postby KleinerKiller » Sun Dec 11, 2016 3:09 am

Arrival (2016)

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Basic Summary: A language professor is recruited by the military to translate the communications of an alien race.
Genre: Sci-Fi Drama
Directed by: Denis Villeneuve
Written by: Eric Heisserer
Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker
Length: 116 mins

(Can't find a single trailer that isn't stupidly spoilery, so no trailer here.)


For the unaware, Arrival follows Louise Banks, a renowned language professor haunted by the loss of her daughter. When twelve towering ships descend from space at various points around the world, Louise finds herself forcibly drafted into a military translation team to decode the invaders' language and find out what they came to Earth for. Louise successfully makes contact with the extraterrestrial beings, but with tensions boiling across the globe and a potential war on the horizon, her methodical work could become humanity's last hope...

Spoiler: show
So... Arrival. I was so certain this was going to be, if not my Movie Of The Year, very high among my favorites. The spin on the first contact premise sounded incredible, the cinematography even in the trailers blew me away, Amy Adams is a great actress, and critics showered it in universal praise. Some top-rated critical favorites have become my favorites as well (Mad Max: Fury Road), but I've also been burned by supposed "modern classics" (It Follows, The VVVVVVVVitch). I went in hoping beyond hope for the former. And, well... let's get into it.

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Unusually, I'm going to start on characters, because there's only one character worth talking about and she's one of the film's unambiguous highlights. Jeremy Renner's physicist is funny, but mostly exists for banter and the romantic subplot, while Forest Whitaker's colonel is a grumbling, forgettable exposition machine. That leaves Amy Adams as Louise Banks, and she kills it here. She is so, so damn good. In terms of her character in-universe, she's instantly sympathetic, and her innate curiosity mixed with her vulnerability make her an excellent lead to toss into a first contact scenario. She can get a bit flatly headstrong in the film's third act, but it doesn't tarnish what came before it. In terms of performance, Amy Adams completely sells the character's emotional turmoil; every facial expression conveys some grief, some fear, some awe, and more. Even when the story starts going downhill, she makes her material work on at least some level. Whatever problems the movie has, they can't be lain on her shoulders.

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What else does Arrival pull off flawlessly, to an even greater degree? The cinematography. This film looks spectacular, whether it's dazzling all-around or falling to fucking pieces near the climax. The wide shots of the monolith-like spaceships do a stunning job of establishing the sheer scale and eerie majesty of these objects, and the interior incorporates a lot of neat visual effects to spice up a fairly standard "humans conversing with aliens through a glass wall" setup. Speaking of which, the aliens look INCREDIBLE, be it in their deceptively generic design or their chilling, naturalistic movement -- I'll avoid the temptation to show them off to keep from spoiling those who haven't seen the film yet. The sound design is just as awesome, mixing a sweeping score with long stints of ambient silence, intentionally jarring sound effects, and spine-tingling pulses to create a general atmosphere of suspense and unease.

It's just the story that... leaves me with mixed feelings.

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The first half of the film, which follows the initial contact phase with the aliens, is masterful. It picks up immediately without wasting any time, establishing Louise's character before immediately shunting her into the translation effort. I could be wrong -- the second half distorted my sense of how long this movie really was -- but I'm pretty sure she takes her first trip up into the craft before even twenty minutes have passed. Most of this half consists of Louise and company venturing into the craft, making some new progress with the aliens, coming back down to put their heads together when they hit a roadblock, and so on and so forth -- while it comes off as repetitive, I loved every minute of it. Sure, a lot of the scenes in the ship end too quickly and the transitions are comically abrupt (it's especially bad at the end of the otherwise incredible "first contact" scene, to the point that I really thought an editing mistake had been made), and the intermittent visions of Louise's time with her child get kind of overwrought and distracting, but the content presented is so fascinating and tense that it's easy to brush those misgivings aside. The slow, careful, often frustrating process of building a base of communication with beings who don't even understand our language as a concept is exactly what I wanted from the film.

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It's the latter half, when things actually start heating up and tensions rise between the humans, that I just... dislike. Certain actions are taken that probably would happen if aliens tried to mingle with our backwater hellhole of tribalist idiots, and they're necessary on paper to create a conflict for Louise to solve with her plucky relentlessness, but I just didn't feel great about the story going that way, and the stakes failed to engage me like the earlier scenes had. The meeting scenes with the aliens get less frequent, depriving the film of its central conceit, while age-old political tensions with China and Russia take center stage instead. When progress is made on the alien language, fascinating concepts do come into play and some of the ground-based deciphering scenes manage to be as intriguing as the direct encounters with the aliens, but a lot of the magic is still lost. And those intermittent flashbacks get even more frequent and even less tolerable, even as they try to thrust the film forward. I went from hanging on the edge of my seat to numbly watching events unfold.

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And then we have the core twist, the climax, and the ending. Damn, do they just drop the ball here. It's not that the ideas presented are absent of potential -- in fact, the opposite is true. From a narrative and philosophical standpoint, the main idea that the film ends up revolving around is quite clever and high-minded, and in the moment when the twist is delivered, it's a successful "oh, shit" turn that demolishes your preconceptions and should elevate the film to a whole new level. It just... doesn't work in execution, really. The idea actually completely destroys any stakes and sense of suspense the movie had built up as soon as you understand it, and it comes into play so late that it only meaningfully serves as a deus ex machina that allows Louise to resolve the main conflict in the most boilerplate, cliched, and anti-climactic way you could possibly think to resolve such a conflict. Satisfying resolution for the alien narrative is almost nonexistent save a few montage-style flashes, and instead the romantic subplot takes center stage in an unsurprising and hollow way, the ending painting an attempted portrait of bittersweetness that just doesn't work the way it should. Not to mention that it commits the rare double cardinal sin for a film ending: it drags on far longer than it should, yet it also ends incredibly abruptly. Not great. Not great at all.

Overall, Arrival is a film I'm not sure how to feel about anymore. It's a great film with a strong first half, promising ideas in the second half, a brilliant lead performance, and mind-blowing shots and visual effects; it's only dragged down by poor execution of the ideas it's building toward, a trite and utterly suspense-free climax, and an overwrought ending that tries to be far more profound than it really is. It is probably going to be among my favorites of the year, yet at the same time I'm not sure how long I loved it for and whether its mistakes should drag down the rest in my memory. Definitely see it if you're a fan of speculative fiction and first contact scenarios, but keep in mind -- the journey is way more interesting and effective than the destination.

Rating: Alive And Well For The Trip, But Dead On Arrival
  • 2

Last edited by KleinerKiller on Wed Aug 23, 2017 6:10 am, edited 2 times in total.
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Re: KK's Great Big Random Review Thread

Postby KleinerKiller » Mon Dec 19, 2016 7:48 pm

Placing this here so my lengthy Dishonored 2 review will get to Page 3 instead of taking up more space at the bottom of this one.

Peace.
  • 1

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