Friday, May 31, 2013

Human Sacrifice, Spirit Photography and a Cursed Village Haunt Nintendo Wii's Project Zero II: Crimson Butterfly

Two people who are lost in the woods find themselves in a strange village that vanished a long time ago under mysterious circumstances. No, it's not Brigadoon--it's the Nintendo Wii edition of Tecmo's Project Zero 2: Crimson Butterfly (a.k.a. Fatal Frame 2).

Project Zero 2 was one of the last major releases for the Wii, but it was only sold in Europe and Japan in June 2012. I was able to purchase a copy of the European version at a reasonable price through eBay, and then I played it on my Wii console through the region-free Gecko OS application that I downloaded for free from the Homebrew Channel. This might sound like a lot of effort just to play a video game, but I'm glad I did it. Even though it arrived late in the Wii's release schedule, Project Zero 2 is one of the best horror games available for that console. Read on for my complete review.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Avengers Assemble Arrives on Disney XD

Last weekend saw the debut of Avengers Assemble on Disney XD, with a two-part pilot episode. This is the second Avengers cartoon to air on Disney XD, the other one being The Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes that ran for two seasons. So how does the new Avengers series hold up? It's too soon to tell about Assemble's overall quality as a series, but here are some initial thoughts about the pilot episode and some speculation about where the cartoon might go in the future.

The Good: Regardless of whatever else I thought about the pilot, it's nice to see the Avengers back on TV. Other superhero teams have made repeated appearances on TV throughout the years (particularly the Justice League and the X-Men), so I'm glad that Marvel's team of A-list superheroes is getting a second chance.

The Bad: The two-part Assemble pilot is a jumbled mess. It features not just one but two attacks by the Red Skull against the Avengers: first, he kidnaps Captain America in an attempt to swap bodies with him, and then he infects the Avengers with mind-controlling nanobots for the purpose of distracting them so that he can destroy the Avengers Mansion and the rest of New York along with it. Between these attacks and the subplot of Iron Man's mission to reassemble the Avengers team of Black Widow, Captain America, Hawkeye and Hulk, the pilot episode tries to cram far too much into so little time. Yes, the pilot is supposed to establish the Avengers as a team and the Red Skull as their main adversary, but it could have done so in a much better way. (Fun Marvel cartoon trivia: The previous Red Skull's plan to swap bodies with Captain America was seen in "The Capture of Captain America", an episode of the syndicated Spider-Man cartoon from the early 80s.)

Another problem with the pilot is its emphasis that it is a continuation of sorts--that the Avengers were a team that disbanded before the pilot--but then it doesn't commit to what exactly Assemble is continuing. Given the team's lineup and settings, the new Avengers cartoon is obviously meant to capitalize on the popularity of the live-action Avengers film from last summer; however, since this series isn't the official sequel to that movie, it tries to be vague enough so that it could also be interpreted as a continuation of the previous Avengers cartoon. In short, Assemble wants to have it both ways but it can't and because of that, the reassembled team lacks chemistry. (While watching the pilot, I found myself sorely missing Black Panther and Wasp from Earth's Mightiest Heroes.) The Assemble team will hopefully find its rhythm soon, but it's hard for any cast of characters to recapture a sense of camaraderie when they can't identify what kind of camaraderie they had in the first place. That said, Falcon has been added to the team's roster, but he's given so little to do in the pilot that it's hard to tell how well he'll fit in with the rest of the characters as the series progresses.

The Intriguing: Judging from the pilot's voice cast, it appears that Marvel is lining up its animation style and voice talent for possible crossovers between Assemble and Disney XD's other Marvel cartoons, Ultimate Spider-Man and the upcoming Hulk and the Agents of S.M.A.S.H. Not only are the character designs identical between Ultimate and Assemble, but the voice cast for the characters of Captain America, Hawkeye, Hulk, Iron Man, Thor, Nick Fury and J. Jonah Jameson is the same for both shows. I'm hoping that Marvel and its parent company Disney is doing this with the intent of producing an epic Ultimate/Assemble/S.M.A.S.H. crossover miniseries--they'd be foolish not to--but only time will tell.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Remembering Return of the Jedi

This last weekend marked the 30th anniversary of the theatrical release of Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, which was released on May 25, 1983. Being a life-long Star Wars fan, it would be wrong for me not to do some kind of retrospective about this moment in modern geek history.

At the time of its release, Return of the Jedi marked the end of an era for me. Star Wars wasn’t just my gateway drug into all things geeky; it was a rehab-worthy addiction that began with Star Wars in 1977 and ended in 1983 with Jedi. That’s six years of toys, books, comics, posters, bubblegum cards, board games, magazines, t-shirts, Underoos, pajamas, bed sheet sets, window curtains, towels, wallpaper, drinking glasses, vinyl records, and dozens of other licensed items that I cannot recall at the moment. That list doesn’t include the release of Empire Strikes Back in 1980 and the subsequent theatrical re-releases of both Star Wars and Empire before the arrival of Jedi; each of these trips to the movie theater helped to spur the anticipation for anything and everything connected to the Star Wars franchise.

What might have been: Revenge of the Jedi poster

After spending so many years being obsessed with one franchise--a lifetime in the eyes of a child--things just weren’t the same after Jedi. At the time, George Lucas and Lucasfilm didn’t seem interested in continuing the Star Wars franchise (at least on the scale of another movie trilogy), so a pervasive feeling of finality had set in quickly after Jedi left the theaters. Marvel kept publishing issues of their non-canonical Star Wars comic until 1986 and Star Wars would appear every now and then on TV with the Ewoks and Droids cartoons and the Ewok TV movies, but the fan enthusiasm that permeated the years of the original trilogy had evaporated. There were no new movies on the horizon, so kids my age sobered up and moved on to other things.

Looking back, I don’t recall anything else like what the original Star Wars trilogy brought to pop culture, or any other series that provided the kind of final act that Jedi was. There have been plenty of fantasy and sci-fi trilogies since then, as well as noteworthy third movie installments in other film franchises, but none of them could match the mood of Star Wars. Sure, Lord of the Rings was a popular movie trilogy, but you could always read the novels if you couldn’t wait for the next movie installment; in contrast, you couldn’t read ahead in the Star Wars trilogy, so you had to wait three years at a time with everybody else for the next movie. There were also other movie-only trilogies such as the Back to the Future and The Matrix trilogies, but their mediocre second installments and overall lack of kid appeal quelled whatever excitement those series could muster.

George Lucas and R2-D2, surrounded by the original Star Wars trilogy in miniature.

Between its overall quality and uniqueness, as well as its significance both within the original trilogy and to the prequel trilogy, I think that Jedi is a gem of a film that deserves much more respect than it gets. At its heart, the Star Wars series is sci-fi pulp serial along the lines of Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers and the visual sophistication of Jedi is a celebration of that kind of storytelling. It featured a huge selection of new aliens (Jabba the Hut, Admiral Ackbar, the Rancor monster, etc.) and action sequences that pushed the envelope of what practical special effects were capable of during the early 80s. While these dazzling visual treats flashed by on the silver screen, story arcs came to an end, an empire lost its emperor, the Jedi were beginning to return, and a cast of characters who matured over the course of three movies made their final curtain call. If another movie trilogy provided a better ending than Return of the Jedi, I can’t think of one.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Nerd Rant: Is it the Beginning of the End for Home Video Game Consoles?

While I consider myself to be a gamer, I only play video games that fit within my disposable income budget, a budget that has been quite modest as of late. Thus, I have only been gaming within my financial means, playing discount or used games on a Nintendo Wii console that I bought a few years ago and playing older games on my PC. I've tried to play newer PC games, but my computer has an integrated graphics card that causes newer games to stutter; thus, I can’t play new PC titles until I can afford a new PC, and that won’t be for a while.

With my current financial limitations, I can only watch what’s currently happening in the video game industry from the sidelines. Nintendo’s latest system, the Wii U, isn't selling nearly as well as its predecessor, and the upcoming next generation consoles from Sony and Microsoft are causing concern among the gaming community due to their new restrictive features. For example, Microsoft’s upcoming Xbox One will require an Internet connection and a user account to play games--even single player games--which will limit the opportunities for gamers to share titles with their friends.

Another tidbit I've read is that the development costs for high-end titles for the game consoles are skyrocketing, while development costs for video games that are available for cell phones and tablets are cheaper and in turn are earning more revenue. In fact, the reason I've heard as to why the Wii U offered so few launch titles is that Nintendo management underestimated the cost and resources involved to make games for its new system and thus had to focus what it had available on the production of a handful of titles just to meet the scheduled launch date. The general consensus among many writers who cover the game industry is that the newer consoles are aiming to offer more than just games (e.g., Blu-ray disc playback capabilities and high-def TV viewing features) in order to convince consumers to buy them; in other words, in order to keep up with the new digital entertainment landscape, gaming consoles have to be more than just gaming consoles.

Being a gamer whose first home console was an Atari 2600, this has been fascinating to watch. In previous console wars, competing console companies only had to worry about each other because no other devices could do what their consoles could. Now, consoles have competition coming from the Internet, cell phones and digital tablets, mediums that can provide entertaining and addictive games at a fraction of the cost for a home console game. If this trend continues, home consoles could disappear altogether and high-end video games that are based on expansive virtual worlds and complicated game play mechanics could become limited to PCs and PC-based gaming services such as Steam. This reminds me of what happened to home video rental businesses such as Blockbuster in recent years: What used to be brick-and-mortar businesses have been replaced by online services and vending machines, venues that are cheaper to provide and sustain.

It should also be noted that many of the video games that are being offered in the alternate venues of the Internet, cell phones and tablets are following the design aesthetic of video games that used to populate the video game arcades of the 80s: simple, colorful and addictive instead of complex, detailed and immersive. I remember a time when arcade video games provided the quality standard that the home consoles aimed to emulate; now, the home consoles are being beaten by games that would have fit perfectly in an 80s-era arcade.

While video games will never go away as long as digital entertainment remains a profitable industry, I am disappointed to see the gaming consoles disappear. I am very satisfied with the gaming experiences I've had with the Wii and its motion-based controls such as the Wiimote and the Balance Board. Sure, many Wii games failed to creatively utilize the console's unique controls and instead only provided the notoriously irritating “Wii waggle” as a control system, and Nintendo itself provided limited support for its upgraded MotionPlus feature. Nevertheless, when Wii titles did something genuinely innovative with the hardware provided--titles such as Wii Sports Resort and Red Steel 2--the experience was rewarding and memorable. The Wii’s unique control system breathed new life into older games such as Bully, Resident Evil 4 and Okami, and it provided opportunities for video gaming to enter the realm of physical fitness with titles such as Wii Fit.

I’m convinced that devising new and creative ways to play games are just as vital to the video gaming experience as the production of quality titles, and I don’t see how anything other than a dedicated game console can provide new systems of play. Likewise, I’m hoping that Nintendo can turn things around with the Wii U and turn it into something other than a larger version of its handheld 3DS system. Yet while I would hate to see console-based attempts to make video gaming something more than just sitting in front of a screen with a controller go by the wayside, I don’t know how this can be avoided until game production and sales costs go down.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Star Trek Boldly Goes Where Its Merchandising and Licensing Rights Say It Can Go

Star Trek 2.1: The Wrath of CumberKhan

I've been a Star Trek fan for a significant portion of my life-spanning geekhood, although my overall enthusiasm for the franchise has waned considerably during the last decade. It's not that Star Trek is a bad franchise as a whole; I just think that its potential has been squandered time and time again due to the absence of a strong, central leadership figure at the helm to guide the franchise through its various incarnations and effectively capitalize on its successes. As a result of this lack of leadership, Trek has been subject to Paramount's whims, which has largely resulted in competently made yet frequently bland Trek content and products. Whether it was using Trek to prop up a fledgling TV network (as was the case of Voyager and then Enterprise for Paramount's now-defunct UPN) or pushing one of the more successful Trek spinoffs onto the big screen just to makes some extra dollars (the underwhelming and uninspired Next Generation movies), Paramount's decisions concerning Trek appear to be made mostly by its accounting department and no one else.

With that in mind, I've been paying attention to the media coverage of Star Trek Into Darkness, the second movie in Paramount's reboot of the franchise that debuts here in the U.S. this weekend. The reboot started back in 2009 with a movie directed by J.J. Abrams, who has returned to direct the sequel. Most of the coverage of the new movie has been routine promotional stuff: articles reviewing the long history of Trek, fans discussing which Trek iterations were their most and least favorite, interviews with the reboot movie cast, and so on. But with director Abrams recently being hired by Disney to direct the first film in the next Star Wars trilogy, speculation has run rampant about what will become of Trek in the near future and whether Abrams will stay on with Trek or, if he leaves, who will continue the Trek reboot effort when Abrams is gone.

After reading dozens of reviews, articles and discussion boards, I finally found one article that sheds a considerable amount of light on the future of Trek and why Abrams signed on to a rival sci-fi franchise even though his last Trek film was a box office smash and the sequel looks to be equally profitable. Read on to learn more about how this Star Trek reboot might not live long and prosper after all.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

This Fall: He-Man and the Masters of the Universe Meet the Justice League

Summer is almost here, which means that superhero fans are going to be treated to all sorts of Marvel and DC goodies for the next few months. On the Marvel side, we already have Iron Man 3 in the theaters, which will be followed by The Wolverine in July and Thor: The Dark World in November. We'll also be getting two new Marvel cartoons on Disney XD--Avengers Assemble later this month and Hulk and Agents of S.M.A.S.H. in August--as well as the live-action Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. TV series debuting on ABC in the fall. Over at DC, we'll be getting the Man of Steel movie in June and the new Beware The Batman series on Cartoon Network in July. Also from DC is a crossover comic book miniseries that's scheduled for this fall, when the Justice League crosses paths with He-Man and the Masters of the Universe.

I'm not sure why DC is doing this, other than the ongoing nostalgic appeal of He-Man among people who grew up during the 80s and the fact that DC and Mattel, the company that makes He-Man toys, are owned by the same mega-conglomerate. He-Man was always a toy line first, and anything else associated with it was explicitly designed to help sell the toys. At best, He-Man cartoons and comic books were like a very poor man's version of Jack Kirby's New Gods comic book and since the characters from that series are already part of the DC universe anyway, I can't see He-Man and the Masters of the Universe doing anything memorable when they meet up with the Justice League. I suppose it would be interesting to see what would happen if Billy Batson got a hold of He-Man's Power Sword and then became, say, Captain He-Marvel or Shazam-Man, but I don't think that's going to be part of the upcoming miniseries.

I think that a much more fitting crossover would be between He-Man and Big Jim, another Mattel toy line that ran from 1972 to 1986. The crossover could depict He-Man and company teaming up with the equally muscular Big Jim and his muscular buddies--Big Jack, Big Josh and Big Jeff--and having adventures in dance clubs, Turkish bath houses and ancient Olympic wrestling competitions. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Where the boys are: Mattel's Big Jim action figures

Another idea for a better crossover we be to put He-Man characters into a sequel to Namco's Muscle March. Sure, Muscle March isn't a very complicated game, but it would fit perfectly with He-Man's hyper-muscular visual aesthetic and cast of ridiculous characters like Ram-Man and Fistor. Check out the preview video below to see the muscle madness to which I'm referring.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Ray Harryhausen, 1920 - 2013

I heard this week that stop-motion effects legend Ray Harryhausen passed away at the age of 92. Geek sites of all stripes have been doing obit and retrospective pieces about Harryhausen and his astonishing legacy, so it's only fitting that I share a few thoughts of my own about this amazing monster maker.

I was first exposed to Harryhausen's work the same way I was first exposed to most classic fantasy, horror and sci-fi cinema: through syndicated TV, during weekend afternoon sessions of channel surfing. I initially didn't know who Harryhausen actually was, but I knew his work when I saw it. The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, It Came from Beneath the Sea, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, 20 Million Miles to Earth, Mysterious Island ... whenever these movies would air, I would tune in and gawk in amazement at Harryhausen's stop motion creations as they terrorized us feeble, fragile human beings. I couldn't have told you a thing back then about how he brought his creations to life, but I knew that there was something magical about them. Harryhausen was a master puppeteer and animator, and his attention to the details of emotion, form and movement was so meticulous that even after I had a firmer understanding of how stop motion animation actually operates, it still felt like these creatures had a kind of life of their own. Some may complain that stop motion animation isn't "realistic" enough, but such a complaint completely misses the wonder and excitement that comes from artistic inspiration and ingenuity.

If we can learn anything from Harryhausen's work, it is that the creation of illusions is an art form unto itself. Making things move that do not otherwise move, making things big that are actually small, and making things appear close together when they are actually far apart were techniques that Harryhausen skillfully applied to make his creations seamlessly share scenes with flesh-and-blood actors. It's easy to take these techniques for granted, especially since movies in general specialize in creating a wide variety of fantasies, but Harryhausen was an artist in a truest sense who in turn influenced subsequent generations of special effects artists.

I don't mind CGI effects in general, but something gets lost when physical effects like stop-motion are replaced by digital images, when computers do most or all of the sculpting, animating, assembling and calculating; the craftsmanship and creativity of artistic vision gives way to the novelty and convenience of technology. The mass production of CGI effects has led to the mass production of flashy yet forgettable blockbusters with no uniqueness of their own. In contrast, Harryhausen was a pioneer of imaginative cinema and his distinct and distinguished work will live on long, long after the CGI-overloaded movie franchises are forgotten.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

This Weekend: Blood at the Beach III Convention at Virginia Beach

For as much as I love horror, I don't get to nearly as many horror conventions as I'd like, especially ones that have creative, gory-sounding names. Yet if you live in the Virginia Beach area and have some time to kill this weekend, you might want to go to Blood at the Beach III, a horror convention that's being held at the Norfolk Hotel and Conference Center from May 10th to the 12th.

Its bikini-bloodbath name aside, Blood at the Beach III sounds like it will be a fun event with a great selection of guests, including a Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood cast reunion. The convention will even have an official "Virginia Beach Zombie Walk" this Friday evening as part of the festivities. Click here to go to the official site, which has more information about Blood at the Beach III.

I also wanted to mention that among the attending vendors will be our own sell-made monster maker Georgette Gaynor, who will be selling her creations at Blood at the Beach III. (Click here, here and here to see examples of her work in previous posts). Her monsters will be selling between $60-$125, many at the low range and with up to $30 less if you don't want to include the monster's base and iron support pole. If you're at the event, feel free to stop by Gaynor's table to say hi.

Blood at the Beach III ... not to be confused with Blood Beach.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

The Following Season One Review

It's over--for now. The Following, Fox's attempt at the kind of serialized horror that has proven to be successful on cable TV with shows such as Dexter, The Walking Dead and American Horror Story, wrapped up its first 15 episode season last Monday. I love horror, so I can't fault a major network for trying to bring new horror TV shows to prime time. However, after a strong start, a great cast and some intriguing ideas, The Following sputtered to the end of its initial run with a lot of sound and fury that signified very little. Read on for my complete review of this show's freshman season.