It's been years in development. The hype surrounding this game has been swarming to a crescendo since the get-go. It's billed as the most expensive video game ever made at a production cost of just over 135 million dollars. And it's finally here.
Star Wars: The Old Republic launched on December 20th, a mere five days before Christmas. Having been priming their fan base with early game access and beta testing weekends for months leading up to the official launch, Bioware and Electronic Arts (and Lucasarts, sorta) have finally unleashed this colossal achievement to the general public and the fans have been going wild, with good reason.
The events of the game take place shortly after the events of the first two Knights of the Old Republic games and thousands of years before the events of the films. There's a lot of new Star Wars territory to be explored, and unfortunately this review will only cover a small fraction of the game as I've only rolled two characters so far. But my hope is that the immense achievement that this game already is, and will likely continue to become, will be evident in this critical evaluation of such a small portion.
This game is huge. I can't emphasize that enough. And in an MMO, bigger is definitely better. Part of the big hoopla made over this game during its pre-release buzz was due to its being the first fully-voiced MMO. Both player characters and non-player characters have full conversation cut-scenes and that, at the very least, is an innovation in and of itself within the genre. Beyond that, the voice-acting displayed here is top-notch - true to Bioware's form. But having already encountered several characters and side missions (in addition to the main quests) in my intergalactic travels, I'm continually confronted by how much sheer content this game possesses. Side quests abound on map after map, and I've yet to recognize overlap in voice-actors.
Where this game shines brightest is in its commitment to quality story-telling. That's manifested on a surface level of course in the superb cutscenes and monumental voice-work. But at the heart of this game is every ultimate Star Wars fantasy. Characters are divided first by political allegiance - Empire or Republic. Within each side are 4 classes: Empire has Sith Inquisitor, Sith Warrior, Bounty Hunter, and Imperial Agent. On the Republic side: Jedi Knight, Jedi Consular, Smuggler, and Trooper. Along with these, players can choose from a variety of species from humans to Chiss to Zabrak to Twi'lek...the list goes on. Each class generally adheres to one mode of play (Bounty Hunter/Smuggler are ranged...Sith Warrior and Trooper are ideal for tanking, etc.) and with it comes a tailor-made storyline that puts the player at a level of control and immersion in the Star Wars universe we've yet to see. What Bioware has done with each character class is carve out the classic Star Wars fantasies for that character, while still leaving the player free to adhere or eschew said fantasy as they see fit. I'll use my two existing characters as examples:
Finch - my Smuggler - has a story right out of Han Solo's "early days." The story opens on the daring captain making a gun-run for some resistance fighters, only to be betrayed and have his ship hijacked by the people he was allegedly working for. From there, the main quest pertains to how he'll get back at the no-good slime-ball that double crossed him, while fitting into an over-arching story of political upheaval in the galaxy. The "ideal" path Bioware has laid out for this character involves playing things fast and loose - being that cool, swaggering gunslinger who plays by his own rules and answers to no one...but perhaps still has a soft spot somewhere under that rough exterior. That's how I play that character. When some side-mission involves retrieving medicine for some refugee children, I prefer to do "the right thing" and risk my neck for the kids and up my light-side points. But if I see some thugs roughing up a girl, I shoot first and negotiate later - dark side points be damned. With the Smuggler, it's the opportunity to live the Han Solo fantasy complete with cocky one-liners like "I wasn't planning to live forever anyway."
Skawnra, my Sith Inquisitor, is exactly the opposite. The fantasy carved out for the Inquisitor is that of a conduit of pure dark side power. Brought to the Sith homeworld of Korriban at the game's outset, the Inquisitor rises up from slavery to claim a place at Lord Zash's side as her dark apprentice. While playing this class, I get the most out of the existing content by engaging that fantasy as Bioware has it laid out: to be the imposing figure that others immediately fear because they know lightning could erupt from his fingertips at any moment. When given the opportunity to interrogate a prisoner I was presented with attempting to reason with him and play "good cop" or wring the answers from him through force of painful torture. Needless to say this minor character suffered some great pain at the hands of Skawnra's force lightning, and my dark side points piled on. Had I been playing as Finch or maybe another Republic class, I would have preferred to be more diplomatic or empathetic. But fulfilling the role of the dark side in the flesh, challenging anyone who dares to obstruct my path and never taking prisoners, is the real fun of playing the Inquisitor.
I've yet to sample the other classes just yet because I've been so caught up thoroughly enjoying the characters I currently have. I fully intend to play through every class eventually, but there's SO much content with a given class and all of it (thus far) has just been so much darn fun I'm getting my money's worth out of this game already. But even while I'm playing within the "default" fantasies the game provides, I'm aware of how many divergent ways there are to play this game. One has the opportunity to play an Imperial Agent who, instead of pulling the strings for the Empire, subverts the Empires intentions and sabotages their operations from within. Or perhaps act as a Jedi Knight who's swayed by the dark side of the Force. The combinations and permutations aren't endless, but the opportunities to nuance those choices are; layered over and over again with conversation choices and actions that determine a character's ultimate path, and all of it under the complete control of the player.
A handful of moments during the story really stand out as well. As a Jedi or Sith, the moment you receive your lightsaber isn't necessarily filled with pomp and circumstance. But it just feels SO COOL to get your own lightsaber. The same is true of receiving your starship (yeah, you get your own STARSHIP) - it's a brief cutscene that doesn't necessarily come with a parade - metaphorical or otherwise. But its such an integral detail to fulfilling that dream of truly being in the Star Wars universe, and Bioware hasn't overlooked anything in making sure The Old Republic is the ultimate in Star Wars wish-fulfillment.
As I've said before, I'm only reviewing a very small portion of this game and unfortunately that portion does not cover Flashpoints (dungeons/raids) or PvP. I'm not a huge fan of the MMO as a genre, so this title was already a bit of a gamble for me. From what I've heard and seen, PvP and Flashpoints should be just as rewarding as the rest of the game has been, but I can't say anything about them from my own experience.
The main drawback of this game is intrinsically tied to its own genre: it's an MMO. I'm not a huge fan of MMO's personally, mainly because I'm kind of a solo gamer and so much of the MMO is based around coordinating play. I'm sure I'll eventually work my way up into more cooperative gaming in the near future, but for the time being I enjoy playing The Old Republic for the stories I'm forging on my own. Take that as you will.
As an MMO, of course there are occasional frame rate/lag issues. I've found lag is *almost* unbearable in certain indoor vignettes. If you peruse The Old Republic's user forums you'll find this is a topic of much heated discussion. MMO lag and/or frame rate issues can be tricky, because sometimes the computer itself and not the game (or the server) is to blame. In my case at least, most of my lag issues seem related to server trouble. But, I'm withholding real condemnation on these grounds given that Bioware might beef up their servers in the coming months to deal with the traffic that's causing said lag. But it is pretty annoying to be almost completely unable to play through certain side quests because of something as arbitrary as network latency.
Also, occasionally character textures don't load correctly. So your character or companion suddenly becomes a wire-frame for the duration of a quick cutscene. It doesn't affect gameplay so much as just the aesthetics of the game, but it's worth noting. So fair word of warning, The Old Republic is not without its share of bugs.
I've been pumped about this release for a couple of years now. The prospect of a fully-voiced MMO seemed really cool. The fact that it was set in the Star Wars universe sounded awesome. And given that it was produced by Bioware, arguably the most story-driven developer in the market today, seemed like it could only be a good thing. Add those three elements together and the combined result is a game that's been every bit worth the wait, despite its occasional technical flaws.
As a personal snicker, I think it's pretty safe to say that not only will The Old Republic be able to compete with the only other major MMO on the market - World of Warcraft - but will likely be its death knell. While playing earlier this week a good deal of the chatter between players had to do with how many of them plan to take a break from WoW to play The Old Republic, or cancel their subscriptions altogether. Much of this shift is likely due to Bioware's timing; WoW has already lost a good deal of its steam and has been trying desperately to hook new users with "Free to play" campaigns for a while now. The other factor in solidifying The Old Republic as a worthy contender is just the sheer volume of content. It will be years before another game will even have a chance at being as big as The Old Republic, let alone any good. And with The Old Republic not only a monumental achievement in terms of just sheer content but also a damn fine game in its own right, I think it's safe to say that this game is very much here to stay.
The game already boasts almost 2 million users and counting, and this particular user has only begun to scratch the surface of what this game has to offer. Star Wars fans, THIS is the game we've been waiting for. When those commercials close with that "Your Saga Begins" title, it's not a hook - it's a promise.
George Lucas isn't the real Force behind Star Wars any more - Bioware is. The Force is most definitely strong with them, and with this game. I'm not a fan of MMO's, but I love this game and I've only been playing about a week now. So regardless of your taste in video games, I defy you to give this title a shot and not be happily humming your way through a galaxy far, far away. And, as always:
May the Force Be With You.
Wednesday, December 21, 2011
We've come to the end of another harrowing season of one of TV's finest programs: Dexter. I've been hooked on the show since I first clicked "Play" on Episode 1 - back when the first two seasons were available through Netflix Instant Watch. I haven't been on the Dexter bandwagon since its beginning, but I've been a huge fan since the moment I started. It's a show that's without peer when it comes to engaging characters, consistently well-written scripts, and white-knuckle suspense. And for old fans of the show and new, the latest season is rock solid. It's not without it's shortcomings of course, but that's what this blog is here for.
Dexter's journey as a character has been an incredibly colorful one. The first few seasons of the show spent a good deal of time with Dexter trying to figure out how to "be human." Much of his character's inner struggle came from a growing desire to resist his sociopathic tendencies; but invariably such pursuit was waylaid by circumstance. The most disastrous of which was, of course, the death of his wife Rita in the last moments of Season 4. Season 5 saw Dexter making one last bid to "be human," embodied in the person of Lumen. But once Lumen's revenge-streak was over Dexter was left once again with only his Dark Passenger. It's been a troublesome back and forth that verged on growing tiresome, but thankfully the writers decided to open on a much more self-confident Dexter in this past season. Some time has passed since the events of Season 5 and Dexter has moved on to completely embrace his role as both father and serial killer. It's something of a return to the characterization in Season 1, and it's very welcome.
In place of Dexter's struggle for identity, we're treated to Dexter's struggle to determine his religious beliefs - if he has any at all. On the one hand, Dexter (along with the entire city of Miami) is presented with another incredibly disturbed and creative serial killer (played by Edward James Olmos and Colin Hanks) who's obsessed with bringing about Armageddon through re-enacting several tableau's in the Book of Revelation. It's a puzzling query: can one balance devotion and faith with the pursuit of a savage instinct?
It's the first place Season 6 scores major points in my book. At first, I feared the show had finally lost its glimmer by taking one of the most overused stock characters, the religious nut-job, and hoisting it up as Dexter's latest arch-nemesis. Had this been the case, I would likely have dismissed most of the rest of the season. But the writers wisely (and brilliantly, I might add) do a compare-and-contrast between the Doomsday Killer and the character of Brother Sam (Mos Def). Sam is something of a blast from Dexter's past; one of his targets that managed to slip through his fingers. Originally suspecting that no man can truly change and become born again into a new life, Dexter plans to put Sam "on his table." But as Dexter gets to know Sam, he realizes that Sam's journey of faith has genuinely changed him into a better man. It's one of the most favorable treatments of a Christian character I've ever seen on a show this dark, and works as a much needed refresher from the tiresome cliche of the Bible-thumping wacko. Not every Christian is a nut-job, just like not every Muslim is a terrorist and it's high time this kind of honest characterization was employed.
Presented with two sides of the same coin (Sam's genuine transformation through faith, and the Doomsday Killer's perversion of Scripture to murderous end) Dexter wrestles with where he fits on that spectrum. Ultimately, he decides that the pursuit of faith in God is just not for him, which makes perfect sense for his character. But again I was very impressed with how the writers still allowed room for those who do claim faith to not be completely marginalized. In the end, when Dexter finally has Doomsday on his table he says "I know people who believe in God; they would never use their faith as an excuse to murder innocent people. You used God, not the other way around."
The show also explores some fresh territory with Deb, Dexter's foul-mouthed adoptive sister. Promoted to lieutenant early on in the season, Deb's character is very much thrown to the wolves as she becomes the new face of Miami Metro Homicide. But during this turbulent time, Debra comes to realize - through speaking with a therapist - that she's developed feelings for her adoptive brother, Dexter. It's a tough sell, because we as an audience have been used to Dex and Deb as brother and sister - despite having no blood relation. I'm not sure audiences will really go with where the writers are taking it because it might just be *too* big a stretch. But one thing this show has proven is that the writers have done their homework on their characters' psychological profiles. So while it's maybe a little unsettling that Deb is coming to terms with romantic feelings for Dexter, it does make perfect sense. As a child, Deb yearned for her father's attention - but Harry was quite occupied with trying to focus Dexter's homicidal tendencies in a less destructive direction. So dealing with the psychological pain of a father that she felt didn't give her enough attention, it naturally follows that she would develop complicated emotions toward the object of Harry's attention: Dexter. Those complicated emotions have matured, and they're generally romantic in nature. I'm interested to see exactly how the writers are going to tackle this obstacle in the next season, because it could very well cause the show to jump the shark. But for now, I'm quite pleased with the writers' continued commitment to making artistic risks and shaking up the formula of the show. It hasn't served them wrong yet, so I'm still largely optimistic.
This season also saw the maturation of a few other characters, namely Maria LaGuerta. Why this season couldn't be the one in which *that* poor excuse for a leader wasn't offed is beyond me. I cringe every time she comes on screen and in this season she seems more confidently committed to being one of the show's actual villains - rather than just an occasional obstacle. Her treachery is less veiled here and I prefer it that way; her passive-aggressive and shadowy characterization verged on being just too annoying to abide.
Masuka also proves that he can think with more than just his sexual urges, and I was particularly proud of him when he managed to fire the intern who was insanely hot...but also bad news.
Colin Hanks and Edward James Olmos make magnificent additions to the cast, and jump into their rather unnerving roles whole-heartedly. The same can be said of Mos Def, whose characterization of Brother Sam is as genuine as it is accessible. Though he did look oddly like Dave Chappelle with those glasses and the goatee.
Dexter is a show that manages to kill people off and somehow still get away with either bringing them back or just keeping them around. I'm talking of course about James Remar - who plays Dexter's adoptive father Harry - and the fact that he's been a staple of the show since the beginning...despite having died long before the show officially started. Harry plays something of "an angel on the shoulder" for Dexter, appearing occasionally to give him guidance and act as a manifestation of the code he imparted to his adopted son. For a brief two episode stint, the formula was shaken up a bit, as Christian Camargo (who played Dexter's murderous brother Brian in Season 1) replaced Harry as a manifestation of Dexter's Dark Passenger. It was an interesting arc, and the cinematography of those episodes became a bit unhinged to reflect Dexter's psyche in flux. It was brilliantly handled and continues to prove that Dexter is a show that knows when and how to bend the rules.
Following up a left hook and right jab (Seasons 4 and 5, respectively) with something equally stunning was quite a task, and Season 6 comes admirably close. The big difference between the ending of this season and every season previous is a profound sense of "unfinished business." Even with Season 4, there was a moderate sense of closure to all the loose ends - despite ending on a shockingly disturbing note. Season 6 instead opts for a true cliff-hanger - closing on the very moment Deb walks in on Dexter killing Travis. It's a great hook, and just what the finale needed after a mildly disappointing build to little payoff. But I was a little miffed to have so many other details in the story left completely un-dealt with yet.
Up to this season, Dexter has been one of the few crime dramas to not out its writers as complete morons when it comes to computers and technology. You don't have to be an IT guru to know that there's no such thing as the "high score" on an MMO (much less the possibility of having achieved it in "almost every MMO"...the offender here is NCIS, I'm sad to say), and there are plenty of other examples of shows that don't know what they're talking about when it comes to "computer stuff." Season 6 marks the end of Dexter's streak as a show without any such missteps, as one moment finds Masuka's new intern saying he "deleted any trace of the transaction from the internet." Ya know...with that big "Delete This" button the internet has. At another point he uses the term "IPA" to reference an IP address. It's not "technically" incorrect, but in my 4+ years in the IT field I've never heard anyone say "IPA" in place of "IP" or "IP address." Part of the character's arc is his making a video game...which he apparently manages to do in the space of a few weeks. That's not entirely impossible, if that's all he did every waking hour for those few weeks. But between being Masuka's intern, stealing from the evidence department, and wooing Batista's little sister there's just no way he could have made a complete video game by himself in that amount of time - at least not the kind he shows to Dexter, complete with fully rendered versions of some of Miami Metro's detectives. Maybe these are minor gripes, but for a show that's been so meticulous in every other detail I was a bit let down by their apparent sloppiness.
Season 6 ain't no Season 5, and it sure as heck ain't no Season 4. But being one of the lesser seasons of one of the greatest shows on television is kind of like graduating in the lower portion of your class...you still graduate.
This season started off decidedly strong and really upped the ante with some of the most gruesome kills we've seen since the Ice Truck Killer's exploits. There was an ominous quality to much of the cinematography, and the entire season was billed as a no-holds-barred type of outing. My expectations were incredibly high, maybe a little too high, because I didn't feel like this season fully lived up to the hype. It just barely misses the mark, just barely. But the white-knuckled dread I'm accustomed to about midway through a given season didn't really take hold until the last two episodes. Moreover the character of Dexter doesn't seem to really evolve as much as in previous seasons. The premise of Dexter getting back to basics was a great hook, but it doesn't feel like the writers totally committed to it.
Season 6 had quite a tall order to fill, following hot on the heels of two knock-out seasons. But it isn't quite the season to end all seasons, despite its "All Hell Breaks Loose" ad campaign.
That's not to say I didn't enjoy it greatly. True to form, every episode of this show is utterly engrossing. And the writers continue to showcase their prowess; that team of scribes is undoubtedly without peer. So I'll take the good with bad this go 'round, especially since what little "bad" there is doesn't truly besmirch this show's sterling reputation.
Dexter, however, does have some 'splaining to do. And I hope the show manages to handle the challenges it's made for itself with as much panache is it has in past years. Dexter has its work cut out for it, but I'm confident the wait for Season 7 will be quite worth it. Here's to another half a year of waiting!
Tuesday, December 20, 2011
Sherlock Holmes is one of the most iconic characters in Western culture. Despite sporting that super-cool name to begin with, the exploits of Arthur Conan Doyle's inimitable detective have been adapted and retold countless times. He's been played by everyone from Rupert Everett to Wishbone -the latter being the greater, in my opinion (no offense meant to Mr. Everett, in all likelihood he agrees as well). But in the spirit of the first decade of the 21st century, Sherlock Holmes has been among one of many characters and franchises getting the boot; uh, the re-boot that is. 2009 saw the return of the titular character in Guy Ritchie's fast-paced and deliciously entertaining Sherlock Holmes, with Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law playing the detective and his partner-in-not-crime, Dr. Watson. The movie made a big splash for all involved, and deservedly so. But Guy Ritchie had to scratch that sequel itch and released Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows last week. So is the game still afoot?
Most writer-directors have a decidedly unique directorial style; Quentin Tarantino samples genres to perfection and is known for his love of near-manic homage. Christopher Nolan constructs intricate and gripping narratives underscored by an appropriate amount of violence. The Coen Brothers blend darkly humorous wit and pitch-perfect writing with Roger Deakins masterful cinematography. And Guy Ritchie makes movies that are defined by a sense of kinesis and visual energy. Beginning that tradition with Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, Ritchie has refined and experimented his way through several movies. With A Game of Shadows, it seems to me he's reached the critical mass he was working toward. His visual style is fully matured here, and once or twice verges on overdoing things. But true to form, Ritchie manages to balance impulse with temperance for a film that works wonders with motion - from a cinematographic standpoint. You've likely seen snippets in the trailer of the chase scene through the woods, shot at an incredibly high frame rate for maximum effect during slow-motion. The scene is just jaw-dropping and downright fun, despite a generally negative opinion in the critical community (more on that later). Ritchie also employs the Snorricam or body-mount rig in this sequence in a similar manner to the way he did in RockNRolla. It's quite innovative actually, as I don't know that I've seen the rig mounted to an actor's side before. But a few shots employing this method - the actor fixed at one point in the screen while the locale flows by behind him - really up the ante in this sequence and make that much more of a visual treat.
A Game of Shadows also exploits some fantastic additions to an already top-notch cast. In addition to the already proven characterizations of Holmes and Watson, Stephen Fry enjoys a turn as Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock's equally eccentric older brother. The phantasm of Sherlock's archnemesis Professor Moriarty is now replaced by an in-the-flesh villain, played with visible relish by Jared Harris. The tense banter between the two rivals makes for some of the films finest dialogue and works Moriarty in as a much needed counterpoint to Sherlock's near superhuman-level powers of observation. Noomi Rapace, whom viewers will likely recognize as Lisbeth Salander from the original film adaptation of Stieg Larsson's Millenium trilogy, also adds an additional dimension to the cast as a gypsy fortune-teller embroiled in a political conflict.
Without spoiling anything, another point I found particularly enjoyable in this film were a few very recognizable moments from the books. Ritchie has done a magnificent job of weaving in classic Holmes-moments while still telling a stand-alone tale. You don't have to have seen his first Sherlock Holmes adventure or have read the books to enjoy this one - though it certainly doesn't hurt either.
The movie does drag a bit in the beginning. With our characters already in place and defined, it seemed a bit unnecessary to spend as much time in re-establishing them as the film did. Having said that, the pace of the film picks up marvelously after the first 20-30 minutes, so it's a pretty minor concern.
There are a handful of moments in which characters mumble their dialogue, or so it sounded to me. And invariably it seemed during major plot points. So some of the details in the story were a bit clouded, though it's a visual enough film to keep up with despite this.
Critics and audiences these days are paradoxically both fickle and jaded. On the one hand, a movie like Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon breaks box office records, being the highest grossing of the franchise, the second-highest grossing worldwide of 2011, and the highest grossing film for Paramount/Dreamworks to date. But it, along with the previous films in its franchise, is vilified for being too overburdened with visual effects and bogged down by poor acting and writing. So everyone wants to see these movies - but apparently everyone wants to rip on them, too. I don't think the Transformers movies are anything to write home about, but I don't think their existence somehow besmirches the work of auteurs like Terrence Malick or Darren Aronofsky. So I'll take the good with the bad; a movie isn't inherently flawed if it's a VFX vehicle in my book. But a large amount of the criticism leveled against A Game of Shadows is precisely in that vein - as if critics were expecting a movie that was actually *less* VFX dependent. That's not how sequel-syndrome works in Hollywood, and in the case of the latest Holmes flick it's not a bad thing at all. Moreover, the VFX-laden sequences in A Game of Shadows work with the film rather than against it, and in the end there's plenty of meaty dialogue and crisp acting leftover for the film snob in all of us...er, most of...well, some at least...fine, we few.
Guy Ritchie has managed to truly blaze new territory with his directorial style, and yes it involves lots of ramping, juxtaposition of wide shots with extreme close-ups, and slow-motion explosions. Why the majority of the critical community seems to object to this is beyond me. I wouldn't go so far as to say A Game of Shadows is better than Ritchie's first outing with the iconic character, but it's pretty darn close. And in the end it's just a lot of fun to watch. I sincerely hope this isn't the last entry in Ritchie's take on the Holmes saga, because A Game of Shadows has only left me wanting more.
Monday, December 19, 2011
Symphonic power metal is like the hardcore rap of Scandinavia and Eastern Europe. Over there, bands of this particular strain routinely sell out amphitheaters and large-scale venues and comprise the majority of the auditory output of a given country. Among the demi-gods of this epic breed of heavy metal, a few artists do stand out. Chief among them is Finland's Nightwish - arguably one of the most influential symphonic power metal bands of all time. Since their inception in 1996, Nightwish has consistently released albums that beautifully marry the sophistication of orchestral arrangement with the high-energy chugging of power metal. Never a band to over-saturate, Nightwish usually leaves a few years interim between each new release - priming their fan bases' appetite for new material with increasingly satisfying releases. With Imaginaerum, the band's seventh full-length album, Nightwish continues pushing the boundaries of their own genre; blending ever-increasing levels of complexity and sophistication with the epic and sweeping sound they're known for. That's the synopsis; here are the details.
"Imaginaerum" was billed as one of the band's most ambitious projects to date, and it most definitely pays off in that department. Each successive Nightwish release claims to be the biggest and baddest since the one before it, a formula that risks reaching critical mass and fizzling all-too-soon. But they've managed to keep things fresh and alive, and it's largely due to their willingness to risk and sample new genres and styles.
"Imaginaerum" features some of the most divergent and versatile musical influences of any Nightwish release I've had the pleasure of listening to. There is, of course, the tried-and-true formula of palm-muted riffs for each verse and soaring melodies in the chorus. It's a bit of an overused formula - and admittedly they don't explore too much new territory in that particular vein. But had Nightwish abandoned it altogether the album would have definitely faltered. But mixed in with the familiar are a few songs and moments unlike anything Nightwish has yet attempted. For example, "Slow, Love, Slow" evokes imagery and motifs of film noir. The orchestration is light - drummer Jukka Nevalainen gently swishing brushes back and forth on the snare, the piano moody but restrained, echoes of wanton brass instruments in the distance - but the effect is profound. It's a definite departure from Nightwish's typical modus operandi, calling to mind pictures of lead vocalist Anette Olzon crooning into the microphone of a dimly-lit jazz club - tendrils of cigarette smoke curling up from the tables. It almost doesn't work, but the band jumps into the motifs so whole-heartedly and paints a musical image so vivid that it's impossible to deny the song's utter confidence and strength.
Elsewhere, "Scaretale" begins with decidedly familiar Nightwish motifs. The guitar cuts a dark and aggressive path through a song that vaguely calls to mind previous Nightwish excursions "Planet Hell" and "Master Passion Greed." The song is downright scary...and then halfway through yields to a completely different musical influence: Danny Elfman. Again I found myself bewildered at the dramatic shift into a darkly whimsical staccato accented by circus-music themes. And just as I begin to acclimate to recollections of The Nightmare Before Christmas and Beetlejuice in the middle of a Nightwish album, the themes transition back into the familiar territory the song opened with. It's a unique evolution - and one I wasn't entirely sure of at first. But again, the influences are so profoundly concrete and confident - leaving no room for the hedging of bets - that the song really does grow on you.
Likewise "Turn Loose the Mermaids" - this album's answer to "The Islander" from Dark Passion Play - reaches out to whistling and brass arrangement a la Ennio Morricone's work. I never would have considered the two genres compatible - acoustic Celtic music and strains of Sergio Leone - but somehow Nightwish manages to pull it off.
As for the less experimental songs, the lead single from the album - "Storytime" - is a perfect example of what to expect on this album as well. Too much experimentation probably would have killed Imaginaerum; but the lion's share of musical influence is most decidedly in familiar Nightwish territory. My favorite track is "I Want My Tears Back." It's a high-energy tune that's more anthemic than overly aggressive, and the addition of bagpipes on this particular track is an added bonus. The title track is enjoyable as well, something of an overture that reiterates all the major themes - almost as though credits are rolling up an invisible screen.
Upon the first listen-through of Imaginaerum, some of the more experimental moments on this album might throw you off. They certainly did me. Had I known they were coming I might not have been so initially put off by their presence, but giving them more than just a first impression definitely softened my opinion.
The longest track on the album (clocking in at just over 13 minutes), "Song of Myself," not only references Walt Whitman's poem of the same name but actually features a complete recitation of the poem as well. Now, I'm not one to deny Whitman's importance in American literature, and I've always thought he was an incredibly talented poet - but I've never particularly cared for the content of his work; it's just not my thing, for the most part. So while this is just a personal beef of mine, being subjected to an entire Whitman poem in the middle of an album I was already having to listen through a couple of times was a bit of a challenge. Some of the imagery in the poem is also somewhat explicit, and I didn't feel that it fit the themes of fantasy and child-like awe the rest of the album sought to evoke.
Imaginaerum is quite unlike any previous Nightwish album to date. Fortunately, in most ways that is a very good thing. Their expansion into new musical territory came as a bit of a shock at first, but their confidence and precision-handling of said experimentation ultimately won the day over my misgivings.
As a band, they've truly evolved. Anette Olzon's vocals are much stronger here than on Dark Passion Play, where they were already pretty solid. The same is true of Marco Hietala's vocals; he pulls off high-octave vibrato with the best of them, evoking Rob Halford or Bruce Dickinson in the process. And as always, Nightwish continues to prove that they're without peer when it comes to a perfect harmony between orchestral arrangement and power metal. With a film being produced alongside it, Imaginaerum is definitely an ambitious work. But there's no denying the rich and visual quality this album possesses; even without the context of the film. In the end this CD, fortunately, was very much worth waiting for.
Thursday, December 15, 2011
By now, they're a cultural milestone. Beginning in the 70s and remaining - to a lesser extent at times than others - an earmark of American television and film, the Muppets were among the first to pioneer entertainment with both children and adults in mind. I've been a die-hard Muppet fan for as long as I can remember, and when Jason Segel announced he was working on a new Muppet movie (shortly after such things were hinted at in Forgetting Sarah Marshall) I was thrilled. Has the wait been worth it? Are the Muppets back to stay?
Up to this point in time, the last good Muppet movie was Muppets from Space which hit theaters in 1999. In between that time and The Muppets there were two feature-length Muppet movies (A Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie, and The Muppet Wizard of Oz); both of which were adaptations/spoofs - It's a Wonderful Life and The Wizard of Oz - and both of which were just awful. That's to say nothing about the handful of straight-to-DVD or Disney channel "specials" that came out during that time, most of which were mediocre at best. So putting it mildly, The Muppets had quite a hill to climb, and thankfully achieves this feat brilliantly. The first step to doing so is with the story. Part of what made the Muppets so great to watch was a kind of self-consciousness and reflexivity that manifested itself in both pop culture references and a good deal of meta-jokes. But these alone can't make a Muppet movie good (see the last two Muppet movies for agonizing proof), the story itself also needs to be compelling. And The Muppets is most definitely compelling.
Chronicling the story of a boy named Walter (the newest member of the Muppet cast) who grew up as the Muppets biggest fan, the movie takes the familiar jump from coming-of-age to road-movie to show-within-a-show as Walter travels around the country reuniting the Muppets for one last show to save their theater from the greedy oil tycoon Tex Richman (Chris Cooper). Along for the ride is his brother Gary (Jason Segel) and Gary's girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams). It's no spoiler to say that Segel and Adams look like they're having the time of their lives and jump into the corny humor with more than adequate ease. And with the human members of the cast allowing the audience an appropriate anchor, the Muppets themselves are free to be exactly what they've been all along: just pure fun.
Another big step in making a home-run Muppet movie is, of course, the music. It's not enough just to have song-and-dance routines, they need to be catchy and well-written. And thankfully, again, The Muppets scores big time in the music department. If you don't find yourself tapping your toes or bobbing your head then you're probably in the wrong movie. But in addition to being well-written and catchy, the songs aren't complicated; quite the contrary they're wonderfully accessible. So singing right along with much of the music can happen right on your first viewing. DOUBLE POINTS.
Finally, The Muppets manages to walk that hair-thin line of not taking itself too seriously, while taking itself just seriously enough. There is an appropriate amount of meta-humor and 4th wall bending, but it never derails into "groaner" jokes or condescension. Even the truly corny jokes (courtesy of Fozzie and of course Statler and Waldorf) are still genuinely funny because of the context. Hell, they even manage to sneak in some fart humor without making it feel like a gimmick. I've always been a bit of a sucker for fart-related humor (the "film" critic in me just choked on his Earl Grey - but that's what he gets for holding his little pinky out right?) but even I can be turned off by gags and gimmicks when they're used to low-ball the audience. But fortunately, nothing about this movie low balls the audience, or talks down to us, or puts anything too on-the-nose.
There is truly precious little to be said negatively about this movie. The villain is your typical stock character oil tycoon (Tex Richman? Well at least they're not perpetuating any state-related stereotypes...) but even he fits into the overall "cliche" that the movie isn't afraid to tackle. And seeing Chris Cooper rap - and I mean REALLY rap - is too much of a treat to bear any grudge whatsoever against this movie, despite what Fox News had to say about it.
The other somewhat minor drawback to the movie is an almost complete lack of Rizzo. I almost didn't even realize it until it was pointed out to me by a friend at the end of the movie. Every other Muppet got some decent screen time, even Beauregard. But Rizzo is painfully absent from this flick. It's a little thing, to be sure, but it bears mentioning.
The Muppets are back, officially. They've been taken off the list of "indie cred" items and I think it's high time that was the case. Going almost 11 years without a decent credit to their name was really a shame - but in retrospect, The Muppets has made that 12 years completely worth the wait. And the film does a brilliant job of referencing that very fact - that the Muppets have been "gone" and now they're "back" - so watching the movie quite literally feels like being a personal part of the Muppet journey.
This movie has EVERYTHING we've come to love about the Muppets, right down to some hilarious cameos (Dave Grohl as Animal's replacement in the "off-brand" Muppet band would have been enough on its own, but there's plenty of Mickey Rooney, Jack Black, Alan Arkin, Emily Blunt, Kristin Schaal, and more to go around!) and a few vintage Muppet songs. This is the movie old Muppet fans have been waiting for, and by the look of the critical and audience response it's getting - it's what'll probably be the start of a whole new generation of Muppet fans.
Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie, Gonzo, all of you, welcome back; you've been sorely missed.
Friday, November 11, 2011
The great thing about metal as a genre is that it's one of the few left wherein such a high percentage of its population has obtained virtuoso or near-virtuoso levels of musical proficiency. When was the last time you heard of a "classically-trained" rap artist? Or a "virtuoso" country music star? Some may exist, but they're not par for the course. Because of their very nature, most subgenres within heavy metal have a built-in "height-requirement"...you must but *this* tall to play "Raining Blood"...you must be *this* much of a perfectionist to learn "Master of Puppets."...etc.
But even amongst this veritable smorgasbord of skill and technicial proficiency, one band stands out. To paraphrase Gandalf here in description: "A demon of the ancient world. This (band) is beyond any of you...(MOSH)!"
I'm talking, of course, about Animals As Leaders. The trio is widely known as one of the most - if not THE most - musically skilled band in the technical/progressive metal breed. And as an instrumental band, their appeal manages to cross the boundaries of heavy metal to reach those listeners who "Don't like screaming music." Their full-length self-titled debut set them apart. What's to be said of their follow-up album, Weightless?
Much like my As I Lay Dying review, I feel the first major perk about this CD is...NEW ANIMALS AS LEADERS. I was still enjoying discovering new layers of genius from their self-titled debut, so it's certainly not like I was going through withdrawals. But it was exciting news all the same when they announced this album and for a quick summary (spoiler alert): it doesn't disappoint. At all.
It's hard to imagine that lead guitarist Tosin Abasi could get any better after listening through their debut. But Weightless makes it clear he's not done polishing a level of proficiency that borders on super human. And before it sounds like I'm being hyperbolic, go look up any video of him playing live...his fingers literally become a blur. And his bandmates, guitarist Javier Reyes and drummer Navene Koperweis, are only a fraction of a step behind him in their own proficiency.
But attainment of virtuoso status alone isn't enough to make the music worth listening to. As a comparison, Joe Satriani is an amazing guitarist with comparable musical skill. But what Satriani often does is simply play random strings of notes and tunes purely to showcase his prowess. So while the skill displayed is phenomenal, it's often implemented without regard to the structure of the song. That's what separates Animals As Leaders from musicians like Satriani; regardless of the flurry of notes or lightning speed of time and chord change, there's always an inherent logic to the music they play. Weightless is no exception.
Already exploring genre fringes, Weightless pushes the band even slightly further into new musical territory. There are some vague hints at deathcore in the album's title track and "An Infinite Regression." "Earth Departure" opens with some powerful tapping/slapping effects, launching forward into a frenetic display of musical ferocity. The album's single, "Isolated Incidents" is a fantastic example of how much territory the band can explore with one song. Starting out with a lonely little melody, the song gradually builds on itself, growing stronger and stronger, while never fully reaching a true crescendo. It slowly finds its way back to the original guitar melody, making it feel like a perfectly symmetrical journey.
It's hard to truly convey the album in words. Most instrumental music has a distinct visual component; when listening I'm always put in mind of this person, or that vignette. Their debut album had that quality for me, but there's something about Weightless that escapes any kind of visual ascription. Maybe it's just because the music is so nuanced and layered my brain has yet to fully digest this album. But it's also likely due to the fact that the band's increased musical prowess has catapulted them beyond the usual rules of instrumental experience.
The presence of electronic effects is a bit more prominent on this album. It's perhaps a little nit-picky for me to point that out as a shortcoming, but personally I enjoyed the somewhat organic overall feel of their self-titled album. It's certainly not intensely distracting - Weightless isn't exclusively defined by an electronic sound. But there are definitely a lot more glitches and tweets sprinkled into the mix this go 'round.
Weightless is also ever-so slightly shorter than their first. There are no 6-minute-plus tracks on this CD, though one or two stray beyond 5 minutes. It's not the worst that could be said, but it makes for a slightly less epic experience overall.
Despite it's minor flaws, Weightless has been well worth the buy. Tosin's MAD skills as a virtuoso metal-head are as impressive as they've ever been, and not a single track on this album feels forced or gimmicky.
I miss the more organic approach that characterized their first album, but the larger presence of electronic elements doesn't weigh down (pun intended) this CD in the slightest. It was hard for me to imagine that these three musical masters could get any better, but they managed to pull it off and the result is immensely satisfying. If you enjoyed their self-titled debut, you owe it to yourself and to this band to buy Weightless.
Some albums are good enough to justify a download. Others are worth picking out a few tracks of importance on iTunes or Zune or what have you. And a select few have earned the right to be physically purchased at your local Best Buy, WalMart, Barnes and Noble, etc.
Weightless is one of those albums.
Thursday, November 10, 2011
It's been ten years. Ten years since The Fellowship of the Ring released in theaters, kicking off the greatest cinematic trilogy of all time. (screw you Wikipedia! Citation NOT needed!) Ten years since Halo forever changed the landscape of video gaming and catapulted the Xbox into the forefront of adolescent preoccupation. Ten years...since As I Lay Dying officially began their journey as band - practically inventing metalcore and then keeping the bar set almost unattainably high. And to commemorate those ten face-melting years, As I Lay Dying released "Decas" - a retrospective/compilation/cover/remix/EP/full-length CD.
As a huge As I Lay Dying fan, the first pro I feel I have to mention is...NEW AS I LAY DYING. The wait from "An Ocean Between Us" (2007) to "The Powerless Rise" (2010) was almost too long, so to only have to wait a little over a year for new tunes from America's #1 metalcore band was merciful news. But "Decas" isn't exactly a "new" CD. The album features 3 brand new tracks, one re-recorded medley, 4 remixes, and 4 covers. It's a grab bag, no doubt about it. But fortunately it's a good one overall.
The 3 new tracks in question kick off the album with "Paralyzed." The song is about as As I Lay Dying as any you've heard, showcasing the band's already spit-polished musicianship and fine-tuned mixing and mastering skills. It's not anything you haven't heard before, and as much can be said of the next two tracks - "From Shapeless to Breakable" and "Moving Forward." If you like As I Lay Dying, you'll like these songs. If you're completely new to metalcore, these songs are as good as any to give you an idea of what to expect from the genre.
The covers on this album are the tracks that really shine though. As I Lay Dying brings their signature ferocity to Slayer's "War Ensemble" and the less serious "Coffee Mug," originally by Descendents. No holds barred, just shred-tastic thrash and sledgehammer-to-the-face hardcore, respectively. Sandwiched between those two gems is a little Priest. Judas Priest, to be exact. They certainly aren't the first to cover "Electric Eye" (or to thankfully tag on its intro, "The Hellion") but they do it justice and frankly, As I Lay Dying covering Judas Priest is about as METAL as things come.
The remixes. Just about any gripe or shortcoming this album can be accused of is thanks to those damn remixes. As I Lay Dying isn't a band that really *needs* to be remixed anyway, and making metalcore songs into dubstep abominations is about as bad as any remix of any kind can get. Their only saving grace is that they don't take up the majority of the CD. And to give credit where credit is due, Kelly "Carnage" Cairns remix of "Confined" actually does the song justice, mainly by leaving it largely intact and just changing up some of the instrumentalization. And to avoid sounding like a total cynic, Big Chocolate's (who you hopefully recognize from either Disfiguring the Goddess or Commissioner or both) remix of Elegy is pretty good, too. It's a remix, so there's only so much "good" to go around for it. But if you like Commissioner's sound and have always wanted to hear what that formula would sound like applied to As I Lay Dying's music, "Decas" has your golden ticket.
"Decas" can best be described as somewhere between a retrospective album, a best-of CD, and a compilation project. New songs, old songs, red songs, blue songs; if you like As I Lay Dying then you should definitely pick this one up because they're a band worth supporting.
If you only want to snag a few songs from this CD via iTunes or what have you, I'd recommend the new tracks and the covers. And their "Beneath the Encasing Ashes" re-recording medley, of course. Personally, one of the biggest drawbacks to their debut album was the low production value, so hearing a few of the great moments from that album rolled into one and mixed professionally was a real treat. But the remixes really aren't anything to write home about...unless your favorite things in life involve good music being run through a "wub wub" machine and coming out full of glitches and tweets.
It's not a new full-length album, but for my money it's worth having a little memento of As I Lay Dying's ten years as a band. And word has it this album's release is kicking off their "Decade of Destruction" tour with iwrestledabearonce, The Ghost Inside, Of Mice and Men, and Sylosis. So I'll take the good with the bad.
Monday, October 31, 2011
Sequels and spin-offs are the dual gift-and-curse of the fact that the film industry is a business. If it can make just enough money to justify its existence, Hollywood will damn near make a sequel or a spin-off out of just about anything - and they have no shame when it comes to dead horses and how mercilessly they're beaten....lest we forget Land Before Time 13.
So when Dreamworks announced that they'd be producing a spin-off of the also-sequel-laden Shrek franchise focused on the character of Puss In Boots, I was neither surprised nor impressed. I figured it would probably not do very well at the box office and would be a critical flop. Then the reviews started coming in, and it seemed that the general consensus was that Puss in Boots far exceeded everyone's expectations. So, I decided to play the role of "white-guy-in-slasher-flick" and grabbed my proverbial flashlight to go investigate.
The movie plays out like something of an origin story for the character, taking place before the events of the Shrek movies. Orphaned from an early age, Puss (Antonio Banderas) is taken in by a kindly woman who ran in orphanage in San Ricardo. There, he befriends Humpty Dumpty (voiced by Zach Galifianakis) and the two become partners in crime. Puss soon grows out of his penchant for petty thievery, and instead tries to devote his life to a more respectable path. But Humpty isn't so easily swayed and through some underhanded scheming, frames Puss for a crime he didn't commit. Branded an outlaw, Puss goes from tavern to tavern...just searching for his next shot of leche. But upon meeting the beautiful thief Kitty Soft-Paws (Salma Hayek) and learning that she is in cahoots with Humpty, the trio set off to retrieve the fabled magic beans from Jack and Jill (Billy-Bob Thornton and Amy Sedaris).
To their credit, the folks at Dreamworks know how to cast voice-actors. Antonio Banderas reprises his roll as Puss flawlessly, and the joy he brings to the job is palpable. It's little secret that Puss is a take-off of Banderas' other famous silver-screen persona: Zorro. So it's always a joy to see the ways in which he and the filmmakers send up the very persona that made him famous in the first place. Salma Hayek appears as the femme-fatale/love interest, and cliched though it might be (it's not like the two co-starred in Desperado or anything) it's a dynamic that works, so "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." Galifianakis is another pitch-perfect voice, and his characterization of Humpty as a schemer, if still a vaguely tragic hero, is a real delight.
It's no secret that Dreamworks Animation Studio isn't on par with Pixar (frankly, no one is) but to their credit, their animation style has definitely come into its own. In addition, their writing certainly seems to have recovered. And I say "recovered" because, let's face it, with Shrek 4Ever After they were using the old "What if none of this had even happened?" a la It's a Wonderful Life. And any book or seminar on screenwriting will tell you that trope is one of the last things to be scraped from the bottom of the barrel. So it was surprisingly refreshing to see that Puss in Boots, its status as spin-off notwithstanding, actually explored some new narrative territory. There's a near half-hour flashback in the first 20 minutes of the movie and it manages somehow to not stop the narrative momentum of the film. And they thankfully resisted the urge to work in other characters from the Shrek franchise - opting instead to present us with a whole new array of faces, besides Puss of course.
Puss in Boots occasionally has to go for gimmicks and gags to grab another laugh or two. I love the whole "chipmunk voice" thing, but when it shows up in this movie (the characters are in the clouds, where the air is thinner) it definitely feels like the audience being tossed a bone. Especially considering their voices change back immediately once they enter the castle from the Jack and the Beanstalk legend. Kitty asks why they're voices are back to normal. Humpty explains the castle air is pressurized. Ok, that technically closes any loopholes. But the exchange feels forced, the chipmunk voices themselves even more so.
The movie is achingly predictable. Yes, it's a kids movie. But the Shrek films - at least the first two - were all about shaking up old fairy tale cliches. As a result, there was something fresh and unexpected about them. Maybe my expectations were too high, but Puss in Boots seems to sail straightforward in one direction the whole time. It works just fine as a kids movie, but again some of the fun of the Shrek films is that there was material for young and old audiences both to enjoy.
The other thing that seems to be missing from this outing is the overall lack of pop culture references. That was where a good deal of the humor and charm stemmed from in the original Shrek movies. Puss in Boots, being a send up of the whole Zorro franchise, acts like one big pop culture reference in itself and skimps on the rest. That's not to say there are no pop culture references, just not quite enough in my estimation.
Maybe my expectations were just in the wrong place. Dreamworks definitely seemed to make a concerted effort to distance Puss in Boots from the rest of the franchise and had I known that going in, perhaps I wouldn't have come out so disappointed. I really really wanted to like this movie. I really did. Puss was always my favorite character from the Shrek movies and when the movie started garnering a lot of critical praise I was pretty excited to see it. But at the end of the whole affair, I didn't feel like my $11 for a 3D matinee was completely justified.
Having said all of that though, I'm positive that the younger audiences will eat this movie up. And maybe that's where my expectations were misplaced; I was expecting something that had more cross-audience appeal and Puss in Boots is most decidedly a kids movie. As a kids movie, it's a solid home run. There's precious little bathroom humor and there's no denying the inherent charm of the characters.
If you, like me, go into this movie expecting some of the more mature humor and snarky writing of the Shrek movies - you'll probably wind up - like me - generally disappointed. But take the kids to see it, and if you don't enjoy it, I'll put money on the fact that it will at least be worth the value of enjoying it with them, because they'll love Puss in Boots.
Monday, October 17, 2011
Quick! What's the scariest movie you can think of? No! Not...*sigh*...not "Paranormal Activity." Sure the movie was pretty awesome but that's the wrong...that's the wrong answer. No, technically this question doesn't have an empirically defined right answ- ya know what? Let's just do this. Let's pretend you said John Carpenter's 1982 horror classic, The Thing. Ok? *Ding Ding Ding* That's right! To this day, The Thing remains one of the most disturbing, most disgusting horror movies of American cinema. Even when it came out - knowing full well the movie was supposed to be a horror flick - critics derided it for being too gruesome. In the years since its release, however, The Thing has enjoyed a gradual lessening of the negative critical reaction that characterized its initial release. Going on to become something of a cult-horror-classic - The Thing spawned a prequel. So what's up with this Thing?
First, allow me to give a brief synopsis of the first film. The film opens with a dog running across the Antarctic wilderness, pursued by two men in a helicopter who are desperately trying to kill it. The dog reaches an American outpost and seems to find refuge in the company of the Americans, as the Norwegians in pursuit are killed when the helicopter crashes. The American team goes to investigate the Norwegian camp several miles north of their position, only to find that everything has been destroyed. The only thing left seems to be some half-melted...um...thing, that looks like two men melted together; somewhere between a Salvador Dali painting and...something else utterly horrifying and revolting. They take the specimen back to their camp, examine it, (along with videos and documents from the Norwegian camp) and come to find out that this thing is actually a (*sigh* I'm sorry I have to keep doing this) thing that somehow imitates the cells of its prey and then manages to become a completely indistinguishable copy of it. The dog also turns out to be a similar thing and before you know it, the characters are all turning against each other for fear that their compadres might be, ya know, *things* themselves. It's a great premise - Ten Little Indians plus massive amounts of gore and viscera.
So, with all that context, The Thing (the 2011 prequel in question) seeks to tell the story of what exactly happened at the Norwegian camp in the days and moments leading up to the beginning of the original.
This 2011 prequel really feels more like a remake than anything else. That's primarily due to the fact that both films share essentially the exact same plot, and consequently feature many of the same plot devices. There are only so many ways to nuance the "stuck-in-the-Antarctic-with-a-group-of-people-you-can't-trust" structure and to its credit, The Thing doesn't try too hard to break that mold. It's a good - if not great - hook and allows for some exploration of sci-fi, horror, and psychological thriller simultaneously and the movie does a good job of weaving all those elements together. A handful of cast look-a-likes also give The Thing (2011) a feeling of Déjà vu.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead (who plays the lead, paleontologist Kate Lloyd) does an admirable job of providing an emotional foundation for the audience. She (fortunately) shies away from her previous reputation as "scream queen" and delivers a much stronger performance, without veering into the even more tired "kick-ass-gunslinger-girl" cliche. Think Eleanor Ripley...before that whole franchise got out of hand, anyway.
Other commendations are to be given out as well to the rest of the cast, who play the movie with an appropriately straight face. It's also balanced and refreshing to have a female join the cast, as a remake/prequel featuring a bunch of dudes - again - might have felt unbearably familiar. Marco Beltrami's score, much like the Thing itself, imitates Ennio Morricone's original music perfectly; occasionally weaving in that ominous synthesizer that characterized the original film's score.
And true to form, the movie manages to resist the temptation to fully show just exactly what the Thing looks like in its native form. Much of the suspense and tension of the original came from the fact that we never fully get a look at the Thing; the most we get is a gander at some half-mutated, not-fully-formed version of whatever it was trying to imitate. I went into this version half-expecting the film makers to use that as a hook: we finally get to see what this thing actually looks like! Fortunately, while we do see a little bit more of the creature, the majority of this alien life-form remains - as it should - in the shadows. In trade for not actually getting to see the creature, we are treated to an inside look at its space ship; buried deep beneath the ice. For me, it's an appropriate trade.
Personally, I couldn't find *too* much to gripe about. The movie falters a bit in its opening moments, unsure of how to depict certain characters. Some of the acting doesn't really flourish until about 15 minutes into the movie, but if you can sit tight and wait for the film to really get going it's not all that great a deterrent.
Another drawback is a pretty moderate dose of predictability. It doesn't take too long to figure out who's real and who's not - or who is going to make it to the end alive. (A black guy in a horror movie? So much for that...) If you've seen the original, you can practically match each character to their counterpart to figure out who is going end up where.
My biggest problem with the movie was actually the sound. The old addage "Sound is half of what the audience sees" was apparently not part of this movie's mantra. In an attempt to wring every bit of shock out of the film, The Thing opts to be an incredibly "loud" movie. Rather than simply allowing for occasional stings in the score or the soundtrack, The Thing practically blasts the audience with a sound bomb every time something "scary" is going on. It was literally so loud it sounded like the speakers were peaking. In the theater. So you definitely get a jolt of adrenaline, but it's a lot less because the film is genuinely scary and more because you fear for your own hearing. That's not to say The Thing is without a proper set of horror-movie moments; it made me jump once or twice in my seat. But ultimately the blaring of score and sound effects became so distracting it was hard to just enjoy the movie without plugging my ears.
Horror movies aren't as scary as they once were, and it's largely due to advances in CGI. While CG makes things look more realistic, or allows for filmmakers to achieve spectacles never before possible - there is just something about the way old-timey puppets and animatronics moved. It was precisely because they didn't imitate reality exactly that they were so scary; for me it was an uncanny valley situation. That's what made the 1982 version so terrifying. When that one guys' head drops off his body and sprouts legs and eyes and starts crawling away...it's movement was so unnatural it made the images infinitely more terrifying. When the Thing grabbed that one guy (I'm purposefully being vague so as not to give away anything to those who've yet to see either film) by the head and started shaking him around, it was obvious that puppets were employed for both bodies. And witnessing the otherworldly appearance, slightly disproportionate, of the mutated head shaking around a mannequin whose limbs kept bending at weird angles...I could barely look at the screen when it was happening. And fake blood from the 80s always seemed too red, and congealed in weird ways...adding another layer of "something's just off" to movies like The Thing. As much as the atmosphere and psychological tension of the original contributed to its achievement as horror milestone, so did the technology available at the time.
On the flip-side of that coin, The Thing (2011) uses much more realistic and up-to-date technology, but at the cost of what truly - in my opinion - made the original so downright revolting. It's not "un-scary" - but it's far from the visceral monument of its predecessor.
To its credit, the filmmakers behind this film put a lot of diligence in "reverse engineering" the look of the destroyed Norwegian base from what was shown in the original. For example, the axe lodged in the wall - covered in blood - that Kurt Russell finds in the original; we get to see what happened that led to that axe being put, and ultimately left, in the wall. It's a minor detail, but it makes for a good wink at the knowing members in the audience. Though unfortunately, we don't exactly find out why that one guy ends up slashing his wrist and throat, leaving all his blood frozen in mid-spill. We do see that he happens to be there by the end of the movie, but I suspect a deleted scene or two could have been left in the theatrical cut just for good measure.
As a mild fan of the original (it's not my favorite movie, but I enjoyed it) I found this prequel/remake to be quite adequate. It updated what needed to be updated and left the same what should have been left the same. It's by no means perfect, but it's sufficient. You'll probably get more out of seeing it if you've seen the original at least once, but familiarity with the 1982 version is not a prerequisite. I wouldn't recommend watching either of the movies on a full stomach, though.