Tag Archives: adventure

TV Pilot Hell: Danger Bay

A lot of TV series that had a degree of success in their day do not really live on long into the annals of pop culture history; Danger Bay from 1985 is one such series.  Character actor Donnelly Rhodes stars as Dr. Grant Roberts, or ‘Doc’ as he’s called, who manages a wildlife reserve and also acts as a sort of de facto animal sheriff/veterinarian.  He supports his two annoying kids and their pet otter named Danger while wrestling with local politicos who care nothing for the wellbeing of the defenseless animals and saving the day from those who would do the environment minor-to-medium levels of damage.

The pilot episode centers on the family searching for Danger after he runs away.  It cuts back and forth between the struggling father trying to console his kids and find their pet while also telling the story of how the otter came under their care in flashback.  All of the blander, more uninspired moments of Danger Bay are then punctuated by something utterly insane.  Two fishermen who are apparently fishing out of season, are busted but instead of paying the presumed fine they would be faced with, they begin to not only open fire on Doc, try to kill Danger for eating fish out of their net and evade authorities for a relatively-minor offense, but they ultimately result in trying to kill Doc’s son, Jonah, for no rational reason other than he might be a witness to their very minor criminal activities.  This isn’t zero-to-60.  This is more like negative 60 to 100 all in a 30 minute pilot that is so overblown and apparently lacking in any real sense of humor that it makes me wonder how this show actually got to six seasons!  Firefly didn’t even get a full season and this goes on for six years?!  I mean sure, it’s Canadian, I don’t know what they watch up there, but dammit!  Why?!

I can only assume the writers of Danger Bay had a degree in psychology as every element in this show is designed to be emotionally manipulative.  A struggling, despondent single father raising two abnormally-smart Disney kids who only want to rescue animals while facing off against greedy penny-pinching suits and sleazy, unscrupulous interlopers with no regard for minor wildlife preservation laws…  It’s a Sophist’s dream..?  I think?

The environmentalist themes are not lost on me.  Hell, they probably wouldn’t be lost on anyone.  This is about as subtle as Captain Planet only without the Speedo (unless that comes later in the series).  The kids are reading off queue cards that could have had dialog pulled straight from of a Green Peace flier and their father, who is apparently supposed to be the grounded realist, is actually struggling with “The Man” over an otter!

Now, I definitely remember this show from the 80’s.  I didn’t remember the name, the plot, or the absurdity; but I definitely remember the otter and the theme song.  Oh!  That theme song.  Never before has a show with such a limited scope been graced with such an over-the-top, absurdly-80’s action theme.  It is almost comical in its bombast.  This would be like playing the theme to MacGyver over the opening reel for Golden Girls.

Danger Bay premiered on CBC (Like I said… Canada!) but saw syndication in The Disney Channel around the same time, which is undoubtedly where I watched it during its run before its cancellation in 1990 (presumably due to its failure to compete with Booker).  I don’t know what anyone was thinking with this pilot, but it is so ridiculous that I almost kind of liked it.  It isn’t offensively-bad by any means, the acting was lazy but that isn’t atypical for this sort of show and there were a few attempts at tension (albeit those attempts were mostly just hilarious to me).  What makes this show come off so strangely is it would be like sending Magnum, P.I. after a teen who stole his neighbor’s television.  It’s all so overwrought and really is a shining example of much ado about nothing!

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Comic Quick Review: Sideways #1 (2018)

There have been quite a few cool new series starting up over the last few months.  Some, like Silencer and Mister Miracle, have been cool fresh starts on older, largely-forgotten comics.  Sideways is a new hero from DC that has branched off from events in the ongoing Dark Knights Metal series and is now part of DC’s “New Age” lineup.

Sideways is the story of Derek James, a seemingly-unremarkable teenager who is the adopted son of a family who, due to previous events in DC’s “Metal” run, have grown to be extremely over-protective.  What they do not realize is Derek, after facing down the darkness, has been imbued with the power to create “rifts” and teleport freely to just about anywhere on a whim.  This comes at a cost, however, as someone (or something) has become aware and disturbed by Derek’s abuse of the space time continuum, so now he has become a target of forces that are not of this world.

Sideways does a good job of establishing its characters early on through quality sequential storytelling and very solid artwork.  Even though each of the core characters are in their own ways archetypal, they are written in a mostly-naturalistic fashion which makes them far more convincing.  The world in which this story is set feels somehow more real than many of the more over-the-top settings we see so much in comics, despite taking place in DC’s own Universe.  There is a human quality to things that can sometimes be lost when dealing with superhero stories.

In its first issue, Sideways establishes a cast of individuals that I look forward to following in the future.  If you have a chance to hit the comic shop, give Sideways #1 a shot!  It’s worth a read and shows the potential for a huge plot with real stakes.  I look forward to #2, which is slated for a March 14th release!

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Batman & Robin: Is It Really That Bad..?

For nearly two decades, a popular contender for “Worst Movie of All Time” from multiple mainstream media outlets has been Joel Schumacher’s 1997 bomb, Batman & Robin.  The question I’ve since asked myself is, how bad is this movie, exactly?  Well, I will say I have watched Batman & Robin several times and will assert, right off the bat: It isn’t bad enough to be considered “Worst Movie of All Time”, but believe me when I say, it’s pretty bad.

First it’s important to lay out some context; Batman & Robin may seem anomalous by today’s standards, with its neon colors, flashy costumes, bad one-liners and cheesy performances, but this was the late 90’s, people!  If you did not grow up in the period, from about 1997 to 2003, we witnessed a virtual legion of over-the-top, goofy, brightly-colored pooch-screws that dominated cinemas.  Some of these contemporary flicks were passable; Most of them were terrible.  However, for its time, B&R was not really all that out of place aesthetically or in its tone.

Now, let’s paint an objective picture of Batman & Robin before we delve into everything wrong with this money pit.  First off, Joel Schumacher was not a bad director before this film more or less ruined his career.  He did make the (I would say ‘classic’) film Falling Down starring Michael Douglas, the sleeper thriller Flatliners, the dramatic courtroom epic A Time to Kill and the arguably-underrated 8mm.  He isn’t a slouch or an underdog in spite of what one may think of these movies, and yes, I DID like Flatliners.  So, hot off the heels of the successful-but-underwhelming Batman Forever (which primarily rode the popularity of Jim Carey at the time), Schumacher did not do much differently with this final entry in the 80’s-90’s Batman Saga.  The tone was the same, the ideas were similar and the bleakness of Tim Burton’s vision of Gotham City was replaced with one that was more cartoonish and reminiscent of the ’60’s TV series; whether or not this is a good thing is debatable.  Now, the casting was more than a little questionable.  It’s obvious there was some hesitation on the part of the casting director to bring in someone who is too “different”, and they wanted stars who were recognizable to help Warner Bros. attach butts to theater seats.  So, by that standard it made sense to cast Alicia Silverstone (who was still riding her Clueless fame), Arnold Schwarzenegger (who was top-billed) and George Clooney (who’s portrayal of a passionate pediatrician on the hit series ER made him a super-star).  I think it is safe to declare it a fact that Batman & Robin was handcrafted to be a hit; or, at least, that’s what WB hoped…

Now, for a more subjective perspective, let us consider what made Batman tick as a series leading up to the 1989 Burton film.  The comics took a much darker turn in the 80’s, focusing more on the societal conflict of the presence of Batman as a vigilante than it ever had before, and the vision of Batman went from blue and purple to grey and black.  Why?  It was a sign of the times, a shift in the idea of comics as the age of the average reader increased, but it was also a reflection of the period.  As crime continued to rise throughout the 70’s, the following Neon Decade wasn’t all Lauper and stretch pants.  Dramas and crime thrillers turned to brutality as an answer to the projection of inner cities from news, movies and TV, and films like Robocop satirized the extremes we could have been headed toward.  Yet, this did not translate well to the big screen if I was to be entirely honest.  Most of the movies from this time were too dark and often gross in their depictions of grit.  The few films that did work landed because of the underlying idea within their plots being more than just bleakness, offering us characters and stories that reach beyond the cynical depiction of a collapsing social contract.  Where does Batman fit in to all of this pretentious rambling?  Well, the 1989 Batman was great.  It had that darker mood we expected from the time but it shared it in a way that was still humorous.  The evil, murderous Joker (played masterfully by Jack Nicholson) injected memorable moments into the film, his bright purple getup and wild antics being a stark contrast to the drab, unpleasant aesthetic of Gotham City.  Even the city’s ray of hope in Harvey Dent (Billy Dee Williams) was somewhat shadowed in suspicion, especially for fans who knew what Dent was to become in the future.  Sadly, we never got that Two-Face.

Things looked good going into Batman Returns, but Burton took things a little too far.  While I actually like many elements of this first sequel, I recognize it as a dark departure to a story that was far too disturbing for young kids and far too… ‘Burton’ for many adults.  It has gained some cult status for this reason and I think deserves a second look to those who haven’t seen it since the early 90’s.  The biggest mistake following the criticism of ‘Returns’ was the over-correction on the part of Warner Bros. and their board room full of aging, out-of-touch executive producers.  Their attitude was contrasting the reception of Batman Returns with that of the masterwork that was Batman: The Animated Series.  Their solution was to turn the Dark Knight’s film franchise into a live-action cartoon, apparently having not spent ten minutes watching the actual TV show they thought they were planning to mimic.  If they had, they’d have realized that Batman: TAS was a well-thought-out, sophisticated, smart and surprisingly-mature show.  That is NOT what we got with Batman Forever…  Now, don’t get me wrong, Schumacher gets some blame in this as well, and it’s obvious he didn’t put up much of a fight because “Batman Forever” has studio stink all over it.  Therefore, I can safely skip over most of “Forever” because it is effectively a cinematic dead zone.  It isn’t quite terrible enough to dwell on, but it was an odd attempt to wring Tim Burton’s style out of a director who really only worked on thrillers, dramas and INXS music videos while tossing in a bit of cartoon antics to make things seem a little softer.  The movie did okay, but that was more due to Jim Carey than anything else, as he was THE hot comedy commodity at the time.

So, this brings us to Batman & Robin.  The problems with this one are lengthy, so bear with me.  First the movie is ugly; very, very ugly.  Every scene is poorly-lit, over-exposed and oddly-designed.  Dutch angles and wide-angle lenses are used in excess (a trend at the time) and every single scene in the movie is way, way too long.  Dialogue was inundated with bickering, pointless banter, and face-palmingly-bad “zingers” grumbled, grunted and bawled with comical vocal inflections by obviously-bored actors.  The forced tone of this film reeked of action-figure-friendly filmmaking with a tone-deaf attempt at giving us a more adventurous, exciting universe.  It did have everything WB could have wanted out of a money-printing marketing fountain, but what the actual filmmakers seemed to have forgotten was how to tell a story.  The plans of the villains were paper-thin and their actions often made little sense, each character’s place in the events that transpire is awkward and poorly-planned, and events jump around as if somebody edited the movie using a roulette wheel… with a ping-pong ball…  while drunk.  Also, is it even possible for a story with this many ‘lead characters’ could even work in this sort of film?  Large casts can do okay when they are tied together with a tight script (i.e. Pulp Fiction and The Shawshank Redemption), but here, since every line is belted and nauseating, this many overpaid presumed-to-be-adults on screen just becomes distracting.

So, most importantly, is Batman & Robin even fun to watch?  I would have to say ‘no’.  The excess on the screen, complete with skyboarding, lame ‘girl power’ with Silverstone’s motorcycle racing and the contrived turn as Batgirl, and bizarre and mostly-confusing sexual undertones, drag it way down.  On top of that, it’s easy to forget how boring this movie is.  Sure, it has action, explosions, yelling of one-liners and attempts at dramatic tension, but man is it dull.  More than half of the movie involves tight shots of characters talking and often arguing (insert dutch angle).  The heroes deliver their bland lines over each other quickly, but with no rhythm, so there’s nothing keeping an engaging pace with the dialogue (not to mention there being nothing of substance to discuss).  To contrast that, our villains talk slowly with strange, ill-advised puns.  It doesn’t make sense because there is no consistency through the film, so each dialogue scene either spins your head or leaves you shouting “Just finish your damn lines already!”

However, where does that place Batman & Robin in the grand scheme of things?  I will be clear in stating it is certainly not the worst movie ever made.  It isn’t even the worst movie I’ve seen in theaters in my lifetime!  As far as blockbusters go, it’s bad, but it isn’t as obnoxious and aggravating as Bay’s Transformers movies, or as cynical and self-indulgent as anything Adam Sandler has starred in.  It is just bad in the most obvious ways possible; bad dialogue, bad visuals, bad acting, bad story.  But nothing really drags it down below that standard ‘bad’ that we all know.  If you disagree that’s cool, but do go sit through Pink Flamingos, The Fat Spy and anything from PureFlix and get back to me on that sentiment.

I usually try not to give movies precise scores but for this I will say Batman & Robin sits safely at around a 3 out of 10.  I think it fails to be interesting enough to be so scorned.  It’s like calling Might No. 9 the worst game of all time; it’s terrible, but not in any particularly special way.  It fails at everything, but only in a way where it doesn’t really do anything right, as opposed to something like “The Room” which managed to fail at just about every aspect of filmmaking outside of simply getting the thing released.  Many people (myself included) love Wiseau’s Magnum Opus, yet hate Batman & Robin.  I guess Batman & Robin is so despised because it just quite isn’t bad enough to be loved…

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Quick Review: Mary and the Witch’s Flower (2018)

After a brief scare in 2014, fans of Studio Ghibli let out a sigh of relief as fears that their favorite animation house would be closing their doors were squelched by official statements declaring the news to be a mere rumor. However, in recent years the famous brand has certainly slowed in their efforts and their latest outing, ‘Ronja, the Robber’s Daughter’, a CG animated TV series released to Amazon Prime video, has sparked much interest but has left filmmakers and long time fans to question the direction the company has taken. Thus, a few of the talents from the ranks of Ghibli moved on to start a new chapter in Studio Ponoc.

Ponoc’s first feature, Mary and the Witch’s Flower, is a light adventure that definitely follows in the footsteps of the Master, Miyazaki-san. It has all of the things he’s known for, yet is missing a few of the things that made many of his movies instant classics. However, all things considered, this is a skillful, beautiful and fun fantasy that will certainly appeal to all ages.

The story follows the titular Mary, a young girl who has moved to her grandmother’s home in the English countryside and is awaiting her parents’ arrival. However, her attempts to connect with others in this new landscape are appearing futile. In desperation she begins to pour out her heart to a black cat, and upon following this cat into a thick wood, she finds a glowing flower. Deciding to pluck it and hold as a keepsake, she soon discovers there’s more to this flower than she ever could have imagined…

Mary and the Witch’s Flower follows many of the tropes from other films released by Ponoc’s predecessor, Studio Ghibli. The strange yet amazing fantasy world of Spirited Away, a magical ‘Castle’ in the sky, a stranger who befriends our heroine in their darkest hour… It’s all there. In fact, in many ways this is a patchwork of stories retold from a slightly more modernized perspective. Much of the whimsy has been replaced with vigor and the lead character Mary does seem to have a real personality outside of being a “spunky kid”. She reacts comically and believably to the strange occurrences around her and her first interactions with some of the odd, otherworldly characters bring some of the film’s best moments.

The Alice In Wonderland premise blended with a MacGuffin and some brief but satisfying action scenes come together to make a nice movie that only lacks in a few areas. Firstly, the film comes to a edge so often then pulls back. We get an idea of Mary’s potential with magic, but we rarely see her do anything. In fact, the apparent goal is to show how she can overcome these challenges without magic, but that is all negated in the end. In the meantime, the villains’ plans, which are never made entirely clear outside of a vague description, never really lay out any consequences. We are just meant to accept that their goals would cause some harm by having them take some “drastic measures” to achieve their ends.

That said, Mary and the Witch’s Flower is an enjoyable movie and should give fans of the classic Studio Ghibli style hope that Studio Ponoc may be the fresh new face in cinematic Japanese animation. They certainly have a knack for it. This is an absolutely beautiful movie, with some of the best animation and art I have seen from Japan in several years. The writing is quite good, with characters that are likable without being annoying and real human moments that are often lost in animated fantasies. I give this one a recommendation, especially for families with kids. This is a great start into this world of family-friendly animation from Japan and I think fans of Miyazaki’s work would likely enjoy this one as well, though it fails to live up to the high standards set by some of his notable classics.

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An Arbitrary List Of A Few of My Favorite Free-To-Play MMORPG’s

The MMORPG has come a long way since Ultima Online and Runescape.  Even though World of Warcraft continues to lead the genre, at the same time they have been steadily losing players since the release of Cataclysm in 2010 and I think a fair case for this is the rise of free-to-play alternatives.  I have made the argument before that any company who continues to charge a subscription fee to play MMO’s is doing so at their own risk.  Thus far it has worked for WoW as well as the excellent Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn, but how long will this last?  Even games like Guild Wars 2, which has an up-front cost to buy the game but no subscription fee to play, are on the rise.  So, with that I decided to list some of my personal favorite free-to-play games.  This is somewhat of an impromptu article but this is something that has been on my mind as we are starting to see a massive resurgence of single-player experiences dominate the gaming landscape as well as an overwhelming portion of the online market shifted towards competitive-focused MOBA’s like League of Legends and arena shooters like Overwatch.

So, without further ado, let’s begin:

TERA

Launching as a subscription title, TERA attempted to break new ground by focusing on fast, real-time action combat that centered primarily around engaging giant beasts.  The world is populated by mobs of monsters and is designed to pit you against little, regular enemies that you can easily dispatch in a few seconds of hacking and slashing as set dressing for the fights that really count.  The gameplay for TERA still holds up even against arguably superior action MMO experiences like Guild Wars 2 as TERA’s high level of customization rivals even the most sophisticated MMO’s out there.  The only downside to TERA , really, is its player base.  It is a generally low-population game, so finding players who are willing to regularly engage in skirmishes with the tougher monsters in the game can be difficult, especially around the mid levels.  Still, Bluehole Studio and En Masse have done a good job of keeping the content coming, with new classes being released and additional expanded content added with some regularity.  Add to the mix a dynamic and fairly complex and rewarding crafting system and some occasionally-entertaining story missions and you have a fun, fast and often challenging MMO for more experienced action RPG players.

 

Wildstar

Speaking of hard….  Wildstar may be the toughest MMORPG on the market right now.  I say this as someone who has played several of the classes and gone through much of the first half of the game (but need to get deeper into things, to be honest).  It’s complexity comes in the form of the combat, which focuses on abilties that require thought, timing and precision.  Unlike a lot of titles where you can simply spam your strongest skills, many of Wildstar’s class skills are utilitarian in nature, forcing you to save them for the right moment and think your way through engagements.  Wildstar also puts a lot of focus on exploration of the environment, themed on exploring an unknown planet, you can choose from specific jobs that range from documenting life forms to navigating the rougher terrain to scout out new settlements.  It’s a deep game with a lot of things to do, the only downside being its limited class customization.

 

Dungeon Fighter Online

DFO is probably the simplest game on my list in terms of design, but it’s also one of the most addictive.  Put simply, it’s an online equivalent to an old-school beat-em-up a la Final Fight or Streets of Rage.  Instanced levels with boss fights at the end are a staple for many of the lower-budget MMO’s out there but DFO handles things well by being fast and fun.  Classes are varied and have a fair degree of customization considering how simple the combat is.  The only downsides are the fact that its age is starting to show compared to some other games, and the implementation of “charges” that limit your playtime unless you are either willing for dungeon charges to replenish over time or are also willing to use or buy items to replenish them from special drops or the cash shop.

Eden Eternal

I honestly have not picked up Eden Eternal in a while.  I had thought about getting back into it, too.  This is a really fun MMORPG with a surprising turn that sets it apart in the genre.  It allows you to create a character and freely change classes as you see fit.  Think of it as something akin to a Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest game that uses a job system.  You can change your classes, which change the equipment loadout, skills and function of your character and as you level individual classes and combinations thereof up, you unlike more complex and unique classes down the road.  The ability to switch jobs makes Eden Eternal pretty interesting as it motivates you to be a little more experimental in your approach.  The downside to Eden Eternal is the gameplay is very dated.  Eden Eternal launched in 2011 and it feels like it.  While I did enjoy it the last time I played it, I’m sure I’d find some fault with it at this point just on these grounds, but that will remain to be seen.  That said, I have fond memories of Eden Eternal and for its time, I would say it was a pretty smart take on the classic MMORPG formula.

 

Dragon Saga

Yet another action MMORPG, Dragon Saga puts you in control of a chibi anime hero as you traverse a vivid 3D world fighting through hordes of enemies and chaining together ridiculous combos for bonus loot.  Dragon Saga is as simple as it gets with its beat-em-up style that is similar to DFO’s only with a little more complexity in the classes.  However, unlike DFO, Dragon Saga is not entirely locked to a HUB town connected to instanced dungeons.  Instead, there are field areas populated by other players and within those are special dungeons you can choose to enter for quests and loot.  The quests are pretty standard “kill 10 wolves” type-missions but the fast, addictive combat helps to elevate much of the repetition.  Dragon Saga is also a good “starter MMORPG” for those gamers who are intimidated by the vastness and complexity of many of the prominent games in the genre as it focuses primarily on fast, accessible action gameplay opposed to dense character micromanagement.

 

Rift

When World of Warcraft launched it was a demarcation point of sorts.  It’s difficult to understate what WoW did for gaming as a whole.  That said, I believe it has been on a steady decline of quality over the past eight years.  I do not want to call it a “bad game” since I haven’t played it since a few patches into Cataclysm, but I think it’s safe to say it has been greatly simplified to the point of having little to know feeling of control over the development of your character.  Controversial as this opinion may be to some, I feel the changes made to WoW around February of 2011 were the beginning of the end.  The game still does well but it appears to be in many cases that the players aren’t so much sticking around as they are being replaced by a younger crowd.  Enter Rift….

Rift is my favorite MMORPG of all time.  It’s not everyone’s first choice for sure, but I feel it being effectively a clone of WoW, captures everything Blizzard had done so right for 5+ years of running the dominant MMORPG while expanding upon those ideas and not taking countless steps to undermined the flow of the game and progress of long-time late-game players.  Rift’s world is nowhere near as large as WoW’s, but the game is primarily focused on large-scale public events, bringing players together as zones are overtaken by hundreds or even thousands of enemies, forcing players to defend the towns and hub areas of the map while closing the Rifts from which they pour and clearing a series of quests to spawn a massive raid boss and saving the day… at least for a time.  On top of the scale of these events is the fact that Trion Worlds does not make you wait until you are at the level cap to be able to participate in these events.  Rather, from the starting areas you have an opportunity to take down big raid bosses for special rewards, joining public groups to clear Rifts and exploring challenging and unique dungeons.  Lastly, Rift only has 5 classes, but each of these classes has a list of sub-classes of which you can choose 3, and each sub-class may play very different from another.  As a result you may have ranged-caster-warriors, melee tank mages and rogues that operate as healers.  It allows you to experiment with ideas and explore new ways to play your classes.  It also allows you to break up the monotony of churning out the same DPS rotation over and over again to take down a boss.

If you are like me and have grown disenfranchised by World of Warcraft and want to share in a similar gameplay experience with depth and engaging character progression, I give Rift my strongest recommendation.

Please share and let me know what your favorite F2P MMORPG’s are.  Maybe they’re some I haven’t played!

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Anime Review – A Place Further Than the Universe: Episode 1

Youth is said to be an adventure, and anime can occasionally capture ideas of youth quite well.  A Place Further Than the Universe is a slice-of-life anime series from Madhouse with writing and production from creators of shows like K-On!, Steins;Gate, Nichijou and Magical Shopping Arcade Abenobashi.

The first episode, entitled “One Mwillion Yen For Youth” (‘Million’ is misspelled in the actual title; I’m not sure why but if anyone knows, please comment below) follows a 2nd-year high school student named Mari Tamaki who longs for adventure but can never bring herself to take the leap, always backing out at the last minute with a new excuse every time.  Everything changes, however, after a serendipitous encounter with a strange girl at a train station.  This mystery student dashes past her and in her rush drops an envelope containing one million Yen!  Mari, who picks the envelope up and unable to resist peeks inside.  Mari is immediately met with a giant moral dilemma.  Resolving to do the right thing, she finds and returns the money to the strange girl, named Shirase, and through their new friendship it is discovered this detached young woman has been saving money for years to travel to Antarctica to search for her missing mother.  In the end, Mari resolves to join Shirase and they embark on a spontaneous and probably dangerous journey to one of the harshest environments on Earth.  The first episode ends as the two teenagers embark on a barge to begin their long journey across the ocean to a moving score.

From what I can tell so far from this 23-minute introduction is A Place Further Than the Universe is a light drama that has a lot of warmth.  I think, however, this series is going to lean more towards the teenage girl demographic than my taste can really endure.  That isn’t inherently a bad thing, but I doubt there will be much to relate or attach to for me here.  I did enjoy the gentleness of the first episode though, the animation quality is top-notch (as to be expected considering it is a Madhouse production), and the opening to the series is also pretty good.  I will definitely give the next few episodes a watch, hoping things pick up a bit more.  However, if you are already a fan of saccharin, girlish charm, you will probably like this one more than me.

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Film Review – Coco (2017)

Coco (2017; Disney/Pixar) I will often sleep on a movie before writing about it to clear myself of any immediate emotional reaction and give a truly honest review. I wasn’t sure what to expect going into Coco. I knew it was going to be a visual spectacle based on what I’ve seen. I recalled it is themed after the mythos surrounding the Mexican tradition of the Dia de los Muertos, there’s a boy and a guitar… and that was about all I knew. I just hadn’t stayed abreast of the movie. I generally enjoy Pixar’s work (with a few exceptions), but I asserted right after leaving the theater, and still believe as of writing this review, that Coco is Pixar’s best movie yet.

The story centers around Miguel, a boy who is growing up in a family of shoemakers, a tradition passed down through three generations inspired by his great, great grandmother who so hated music that she banned it from her home. Think Rev. Moore from Footloose, except with a little less depressing motivation. No, she was so angered by her husband leaving the family to pursue his career in music that she decided it was never to be part of her home. She raised her daughter to pass down this hatred of the art and it had worked for years, only now there is a problem; Miguel is not just a lover of music, but an aspiring musician himself, driven by his love for classical Mexican actor and singer Ernesto de la Cruz.

All that is the setup and what happens from there is both insane and inspiring. To make a long story short, Miguel needs a guitar to enter a talent show and out of last-minute desperation, he steals the guitar from the tomb of his favorite actor believing he is the star’s heir and a as a result, he becomes cursed. He is trapped in the world of the dead on the Day of the Dead and while he can see his family, they cannot see him. He crosses over into the afterlife being the only living person in a massive city that spans miles and miles and towers into the sky. Here he must receive a blessing from a family member to return home. He teams up with a lowly, nearly forgotten spirit who is desperately trying to connect with the other side before he fades away for good, and thus begins their adventure.

Coco is about family, tradition, defiance and forgiveness. It is, hands down, the most heartwarming, well-crafted story in Pixar’s repertoire There was an inspiration here; I do not know what it is for certain, but there was a drive in Coco that surpassed the cynicism of modern movies and delivered a beautiful, powerful and moving adventure that is actually for everyone. Unlike most modern family movies that still lean more towards the kids, this is a film that really should be passed down as a timeless classic alongside The Goonies, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (and yes; I am saying it’s as good as those movies). In fact, I think I would say Coco is the best movie of 2017 and possibly the best movie so far this decade.

Everything you see is crafted with care. The little touches of light, the subtle facial movements, the voices, the traditional style that mimics classic films by directors like John Houston and Michael Curtiz, and just the modernized-but-still-classic story. The arc is painted perfectly and while I did see a few of the beats coming, when it all comes together it is a satisfying, albeit a little contrived, conclusion.

Coco’s animation is crafted with such astonishing detail that it makes one wonder how what they did was even possible. Every piece of fabric is tactile, it’s textures are drawn threat-by-thread, the one moment where water really makes an appearance is so convincing that it feels almost too real. Each character could have been rendered as flat, cartoonish caricatures but instead have fine details around the face giving that traditionally-Disney style a dramatic makeover that can probably only truly be appreciated on the big screen. Every wrinkle, hair and fold of fabric moves, adding a dynamic and naturalistic visual tone to the every scene. Even the dead, with their painted skulls, are not simply colored patterns painted on white, animated bones, but the bones themselves have texture, variations in color, and the paint is rough along the surface of each face, as though it wasn’t just slapped onto a piece of plastic. All of these seemingly-minor details add depth and further meaning to the world.

While Coco is not technically an animated musical, it is about music, so there are a few songs here and there where characters perform in front of crowds, on stage or even just for one another in lovely character moments. I play guitar casually, so I can tell you that each chord, movement of the hand and pluck of each string is unbelievably masterful in its execution. The moments of bombast in the few big song numbers are reminiscent of old westerns and the classics of the Golden Age of Mexican cinema.

See Coco. See it in theaters. See it where it counts because this will not be the same on Blu-ray, even if you are sporting a 72” 4K monstrosity in your living room. That is not what this sort of movie is made for. This is a theatrical film through and through, and everyone should be in the seats. Coco topped the box office this opening weekend and appears to be on track to become one of Pixar’s big successes, and it deserves every penny.

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Game Review: Uncharted: The Lost Legacy

Uncharted: The Lost Legacy (2017; Naughty Dog)

A major problem with video games is sequelitis; the unfortunate trend of a long-running series seeing a steady decline in quality with each entry. Since its introduction on the PS3, the Uncharted series has shown a surprising resistance to this curse by focusing heavily on exciting and inventive level design integrated with captivating (albeit formulaic) stories. Likeable characters deliver well-written dialogue and everything just feels natural. You cannot have a story about people and not make those people relatable. Combine this with solid, consistent and responsive gameplay and bombastic, adrenaline-rush levels and you have a formula for an exciting spectacle!

Uncharted: The Lost Legacy turns the narrative away from Nathan Drake and his band of thieves and puts the focus on the popular anti-hero Chole Frazer, a thief and inspired treasure hunter who isn’t afraid to get her hands a little dirty. She was shockingly-absent in the excellent Uncharted 4 and here makes a welcome return. This time she joins up with Nadine Ross, a villain from Uncharted 4 who runs a powerful and ruthless mercenary company. This new dynamic duo finds themselves trekking across the lush landscapes of India in search of Ganesha’s Tusk, a task inherited by Chloe from her father.

Along the way they cross paths with a warlord named Asav who is attempting to overthrow the legitimate government in India for his own gains and his coup seems dependent on his attainment of the Tusk. If this sounds familiar, then congratulations! You played Uncharted 2! Yep, the plot is pretty much recycled from that game, only with a slightly less cartoonish villain. I actually like Asav, though. He’s a well-written and intimidating character and proves to be one of the most worthy foes in the franchise.

Uncharted: The Lost Legacy (2017; Naughty Dog)

The gameplay is lifted right out of Uncharted 4, polishing some of the rough edges with grabbing some ledges and interacting with objects in the world. Traversing the landscape is still smooth and satisfying and each successful swing from the grappling hook feels like an exhilarating achievement. The shooting mechanics, however, seem a little different. Enemies can absorb an insane amount of bullets before dropping and the one-woman-army idea is thrown out entirely. I would say this is an adjustment to some complaints that Uncharted 4 was a little too easy, but it can be frustrating when you land an obvious headshot with a sniper rifle only to just mildly stagger and annoy the target. I can presume this is an issue of polish on Naughty Dog’s part and hopefully we will see some patching to resolve some of this issue.

The levels are standard fare for the franchise and, while they are gorgeous, can feel quite linear for most of the game. The gunplay areas are more stricter and more confined than many of those in other entries in the series. Still, the open world segment of the game is quite good, although it is only available in one chapter. The various events are scattered throughout the game and while they never reach the level of spectacle seen in its parent series, they are well-made and exciting. They only real complaint I have is that many of the levels and associated events feel like rehashes of things we saw in previous games in the series like climbing and fighting your way along a speeding train and driving a jeep through muddy roads while taking out attacking motorcycles. There is definitely a sign here that they were running out of ideas, a fear that never crossed my mind while playing Uncharted 4.

Overall, Uncharted: The Lost Legacy is a solid entry in the series and a great placeholder until the inevitable release of a game starring Nathan and Elena’s daughter, Cassie. It is much shorter than the other games but at a retail price of just $40, it is worth checking out, especially for fans of the series. There is a lot to enjoy here!

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