Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

High fantasy seems to be a difficult genre to exploit in Hollywood and only a few films are worth mentioning in that niche category: Conan the Barbarian, Excalibur, The Princess Bride, Willow, The Dark Crystal and of course, The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Based on the book The Hobbit (or Bilbo The Hobbit) by J.R.R. Tolkien, the story of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Hobbit), takes place 60 years before Frodo’s departure from the Shire in the LotR trilogy of films and for any lover of high fantasy, it is pure joy.

Concerning The Hobbit.
Purists be damned, I loved this film! Despite the many additions and the length of the movie, Hobbit is a great roller coaster ride. It takes about thirty minutes to reach its stride, after that it’s a constant series of ups and downs between action scenes and character development sequences, until the very end when we are served a very nice helping of magic and swashbuckling swordfights in an exceptional escape sequence reminiscent of the best pursuits of the Indiana Jones films… minus the monkeys.
The structure of Hobbit is almost the same as The Fellowship of the Ring. It begins in the Shire with Gandalf presenting the Hero with an adventure, all the way to the end when the heroes look upon what is left of their journey from atop a hill, towards the peak of the Lonely Mountain. Even the halfway point is in Rivendell, where a council is convened.
The story of The Hobbit is a mere three hundred pages, but Peter Jackson and his team have incorporated many elements from Tolkien’s appendices to add length and meat to the tale. Many will use these tidbits to criticize the work in a negative way, however it is also interesting to witness how Hobbit links to LotR and how the lore is presented to the viewer. It almost seems as though Jackson has purposefully tried to tell most of what is to tell about Tolkien’s universe in his new trilogy. Personally, I hope this is the case.

The desolation of technology
Movie goers have the option of watching Hobbit in the normal 24 frames per second, or in 48 frames per second (plus the usual assortment of Ds, screen sizes and powered seating options). I have seen Hobbit twice in 24 FPS, but it is said that the other speed makes the film look like a cheap wedding video, less lifelike. The fact is this is the opposite, as the human eye actually functions at 60 FPS, and 48 FPS is simply closer to reality. Being unaccustomed to this may generate much flak for an otherwise flawless visual execution. If the viewer doesn’t want to pay that extra 5-10$ on extra tech though, the 24 FPS format still looks amazing!
The same visual effects as to the size of the characters are back and better than ever. Where there were some anomalies in Fellowship, Jackson’s team has mastered this technique and it is seamless on screen; although Bilbo should be much smaller standing next to a dwarf…
It is also worth noting that much like the first trilogy, the effects here serve the story, not the other way around. Even the all-CGI creatures Azog (Manu Bennett) and Gollum (Andy Serkis) are flawlessly created and the strings are nowhere to be seen. Very impressive.

The Company of Old Friends and New
 As usual, Sir Ian McKellen takes the cake. This Gandalf is slightly more joyous and mischievous, specifically when it comes to his intimate relationship with a certain Elf. All thirteen dwarves get decent exposure without stomping over each other’s toes, all the while leaving enough screen time for Thorin, Balïn, Gandalf and… Bilbo.
Martin Freeman was a stroke of casting genius. At times oblivious, at others sensitive and always a Took, Bilbo is a great character expertly personified by Freeman, who even looks the part. We only wish this first volume of the trilogy would be more centered on him instead of the dwarves, specifically Thorin.
In the book, Thorin Oakenshield is a jerk. This trait is apparent in Hobbit, but it is tempered by a sense of loyalty and honour, and the fact that he is a great warrior and leader. He doesn’t think much of Bilbo at first, but this changes during the course of the journey. His quest is the motivation for the company, a quest to reclaim their home from Smaug (pronounced Sma-ôg), a fire drake from the north.
All the other dwarves bring various types of comical relief and we can only hope each will get their turn in the spotlight. They already have distinct personalities and roles within the company but the focus of Hobbit is mainly on Thorin and Bilbo.  

There and back again, next year.
So far, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey has more of a magical and adventurous feel to it than the LotR trilogy, after all this story is not about a couple of midgets walking towards a mountain for twelve hours. There is more happening; the series of events is more focused, there are more characters who each get their turn at shining, for the most part.
Some additions to the original story sometimes feel out of place or tacked on, but taken by themselves are always interesting and add to the lore of this world that anyone who hasn’t read the books may be curious about.
The effects are flawless, the acting is much better and the new set of tunes from Howard Shore help drive the story home as much as his previous score for Jackson did.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey lacks the emotional impact of The Fellowship of the Ring, but its many strong points outweigh its few flaws and any fan of Peter Jackson’s previous trilogy should enjoy this immensely. I know I did.
See you all again in Middle-Earth… next December.

Friday, May 18, 2012

The Avengers

Six films were needed to bring The Avengers to life. One would think that with so much material on the table, not much would be left of the story to fill a two and a half hour movie.

One would be wrong.

With perfect pacing, a huge budget dumped in marvellous special effects that actually serve the story, a fantastic cast that have mastered each and every character on screen and a director (Joss Whedon) who knows the material as well as the core audience it is intended for, The Avengers becomes the perfect blockbuster, the type of film that Hollywood has produced since the 70’s (Jaws and Star Wars) but has truly succeeded (above the financial) in only a handful of cases.

The six heroes and the villain of The Avengers all had their origin story told in previous features, allowing the film to begin with a bang, gripping the viewer’s attention and never letting go, until the full story is told and shown.
Everyone gets their dues, from Iron Man to Hawkeye. If any one of these heroes is your favourite, you will love this movie!
It is the best Iron Man film, the best Captain America, the best Thor and certainly the best Hulk. In fact, Hulk’s scenes are few but they leave a very definitive mark.

There are no filler scenes in The Avengers. Even when the action settles down, the masterful dialogue keeps us entertained with clever, witty Whedonian humour that helps develop the characters even further than the prequel films ever could. The action set pieces are wonderfully fun to watch and completely satisfying, from a very effective struggle between two hot-headed heroes to the final climactic battle. Everything is there, for everyone to enjoy, in a very nifty and complete package.

All this being said, I’m not sure if I should look forward to a sequel. There is the fear that the studios would add more characters, more villains, more action and special effects but less great dialogue. What if another director is at the helm? What if Joel Shumacher is involved?

As it is, The Avengers is a completely satisfying piece of entertainment that deserves every little ounce of hype it is receiving.

Go see it. Now. Twice.

Ok, that’s impossible.


Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Raid - Movie Review

The Raid is a particularly brutal martial arts film about a SWAT team attempting to arrest a sadistic criminal bunkered at the top of a 15-stories apartment building filled with his machete-wielding thugs.

Don’t let the simplistic story fool you, The Raid is not about the complexity of its script or the caliber of its thespians.

The Raid is about punching your face.

Rarely has a martial arts film been so brutal in its combat sequences, and this sentiment is even more potent when one realizes how little CGI is used in The Raid.
 The movie reminded me of older MA films from the 80’s, when stuntmen died because the combat was real, or so I’ve heard.

The Raid is filled with punches and kicks and machete strikes that make you think “how’d they do that without hurting this guy?” In one fight, Rama (the protagonist) twists the arm of an opponent and the skin on the arm twist and the bone visibly breaks, without any apparent editing cut. Also, a first for this kind of film, enemies do not attack the heroes one at a time, but in groups of 4 or 5, feeding the action very effectively.

The fights are fast, but they are also well lit and shot, so the viewer can see every single move and hit in glorious Hi-Def! The sound design is spectacular and so is the music. Acting-wise one would think it horrible, but it’s actually pretty good. The laughs are induced by the surprise from extreme ways in which the enemies are dispatched, not for the appropriately dramatic acting performances.

With The Raid, you go in, you get punched in the face, you come out. Simple yet effective.


P.S. Not a date movie.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Review

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
Bethesda Softworks, 2011

Skyrim is the northernmost province of Tamriel, the fictional continent on which all of The Elder Scrolls (TES) stories take place.
A land largely covered in snow and ice, with numerous high-peaked mountains reaching through the clouds, separated by vast tundra-like valleys and misty swamps.
Aside from its assortments of bears, large feline predators, wolves, walruses, mammoths, giants and trolls, Skyrim is inhabited by the Nords, a powerful and proud norse-like people with names like Sven Battle-Born and Gunther Silver-Blood, as well as other humanoid races, in lesser numbers, such as the feline Khajit, the reptilian Argonians, the shadow-skinned Dark Elves, the silver-tongued Imperials, the magically-inclined Bretons, the warrior-blessed Redguard, the agile Wood Elves, the enraged Orcs and the apparently evil and magically-endowed High Elves.

Skyrim is torn apart by a civil war opposing the ruling Imperials from the province of Cirrodiil and the local Stormcloaks, a faction of rebellious Nords determined to only be ruled by another Nord, believing the Imperials’ strings are being pulled by the Thalmor, a race of Elves who plot in the shadows to rule the whole of Tamriel.

Humble beginnings
In this world, as a shackle-wristed prisoner, you are being led to your execution in the back of a wooden horse-pulled cart. You share your apparent fate with a thief from Cirrodiil and three Nords, including Ulfric Stormcloak himself, rightful heir to Skyrim’s throne, captured some time after assassinating the King.

No time is wasted with idle chit chat after you disembark from the creaking cart. The thief tries to escape and is quickly killed with an arrow to the… back. The first nameless Nord is kneeled to the block, and his head is chopped off with a massive blood-stained axe.

And now, it is your turn.

Your head is pushed down onto the gory tree stump.
The executioner’s axe rises toward the sky.
And drops…

…quickly interrupted by a massive dragon that begins incinerating the small walled village of Helgen. The axe wielder missed and burned in the flames of the incredible beast, as an Imperial grabs your hand and leads you to the relative safety of the keep. You briefly meet Ulfric Stromcloak and quickly plan your escape from the flaming carcass of Helgen.

You grab a sword and armour from a chest and fight your way through Stormcloak invaders, frostbite spiders and a cave bear, and finally emerge in the safety of a nearby forest. Hopefully by this time, you know what kind of person you want to be, what kind of hero you will build to rid this land of Dragons.

Thus begins Skyrim, the fifth instalment of The Elder Scrolls series of video games.

First Impressions
First, let’s get this out of the way: Skyrim is good, very good. I have been playing almost every day since the release, with over 100 hours on my character. Yes, the addiction is beginning to wear off, however every time I load up my main save file (take note: use at least 3 saves), I can play for many hours before forcing my self to stop. I just don’t dream about it anymore at work, in the car, in the shower, etc.

Second, let’s get this one out of the way also: The game is vastly superior on PC. No matter if it’s the visuals, the game play or the bug count, it’s all better on PC. The controls do need some getting used to, however once the user has figured out how to use quick keys and make choices as to what should be included in the Quick Menu, the game plays very well. Tip: Tailor your Quick Menu with your play style, don’t overload it with every single piece of equipment, potions, magics, powers and shouts you have. Enter what you usually use during normal play, such as your main weapons, your favourite magic combos and maybe a couple of potions and rings. I’d say about 12-15 items in your Quick Menu should do it, with 8 of them with assigned keys. I regularly switch between 2 daggers and the Nightingale Bow. I don’t need to equip each dagger for each hand. There are some quirks to the system, but it’s nothing game breaking.
So far (100+ hours) I’ve yet to encounter a single game breaking bug. I’ve crashed twice and encountered a few anomalies here and there such as floating rocks, falling mammoths and a weird bug involving the corpse of a witch I just killed staying upright and not being marked as killed during a Companions (the warrior faction) quest (I reloaded the autosave upon entry to the cave and it was fixed), but most of the worst was triggered with the 1.2 patch and immediately fixed with the 1.3 patch.

Skyrim was very stable, right out of the box.

Understanding the Beast
Now, how to play an Elder Scrolls game, especially Skyrim, without getting bored or lost? Easy: RELAX! This is a game built to be enjoyed slowly, savoured meticulously with every minute of play time. Yes, it’s ok to stand still on top of a rock and admire the scenery. No, you don’t need to complete every quest of a faction’s quest line one after the other, although you can. No, you don’t need to catch every butterfly and pick every flower. Yes, you can complete the main quest first, or last, or never! It’s ok. The Elder Scrolls games are all built to allow the user to play any which way he/she wants, without holding your hand with a focused storyline or a “rail” mechanic.
You can overpower your character but you don’t have to. The option is there but no one is forcing you. I’ve read reviews that say this is a flaw. It’s not. It’s a design decision; it is one of the many great things that make the Elder Scrolls games unique and great.

No other video game encourages exploration of its game world like Skyrim does. It’s part of the addiction and the fun of playing. Where Diablo would hook its players with the experience bar, Skyrim keeps us glued to our screens with little black icons appearing on our compass, compelling us to head in that direction and find out what treasure can be uncovered in the depths of caves, dungeons, dragon lairs, forts and shrines. Oh and Skyrim also features the experience bar… IT’S HOPELESS!!!

The user can also create his items, weapons and armour. The game can be exploited to make immensely powerful equipment, a feature that many reviewers have complained about, not realizing that the game is designed to provide this possibility. Again, complete freedom.

Skyrim also offers other forms of crafting besides smithing, such as alchemy and enchanting. It also provides the user with the means to cook and chop wood. The problem with these is that they’re for role playing purposes only, as they do not offer experience, and they do not have an attached skill. If cooking would reward the user with alchemy ingredients or maybe items to boost a companion’s stats, and if wood chopping would result in enhanced stamina or parts for furniture (the user can buy houses in Skyrim), that would be something, but as they are now, these features are utterly useless.

This brings us to perks. Perks were brought in from the Fallout games, and they are basically skill enhancing bonuses and extra abilities, categorized by skill groups such as Pick pocketing, Enchanting, One-Handed weapons, armour types, etc. Every time the character levels up, the user can put one point into the perks tree. So the character can gain extra damage with bows, better resistance with armour, more potent potions and poisons, etc. The system is very effective at customizing the character any way the user wishes.

Skills, such as enchanting, blocking, sneaking, etc. are levelled up through use, just like all previous Elder Scrolls games. This is a great and unique system that allows the user to customize his character based on his play style. Skyrim also features Skill Stones that, when activated, will help level up certain skill sets (Warrior, Mage or Thief) faster. The Skills Stones can be found early in the game through exploration, and they are but one type of Stones scattered throughout Skyrim that provide extra bonuses to a character’s skills.


Combat in Skyrim has received a lot of flak since its release. “Repetitive”, “Mindless”, “Too easy”, “Too hard”, “Boring”, etc. are some of the criticism Skyrim has endured. The bottom line is that, like the rest of the game, combat is dependent on the user’s play style. For example, I use a bow to snipe enemies from afar, and if a foe is able to reach me, close quarters combat is executed with a pair of enchanted daggers. One paralyses my enemy, the other adds frost to the base damage of the weapon. I could’ve enchanted my daggers with Soul Trap and Poison, I could’ve enchanted my bow with paralyse or Magicka Drain (great against spellcasters), etc. As a Thief/Assassin I can also sneak behind an enemy and backstab him (large damage bonus), which also works on paralysed enemies during combat. A user can also cast certain spells that will enrage foes and make them attack each other, among many other possibilities. There’s nothing boring or mindless about that.

Murders, rebellions, dragons, Oh My!
The story of Skyrim is as interesting as it is short, or so I have read; I have yet to complete the main stories. On one hand, the character is hired by the Blades (a secret group of warriors who protect the Dragonborn with their lives) to investigate the resurgence of Dragons, who are supposed to be extinct. Turns out they are being revived from death by Alduin, the Boss Dragon, and it is your job, as the Dragonborn, to destroy him and his plan to eradicate the world.
On the other hand, there is the rebellion against the Empire. You must choose a side and help either quell the rebellion or remove the Imperials from power. This civil war was triggered when Ulfric Stormcloak murdered the King with his Shout, or Thu’um (a power supposedly possessed only by the Dragonborn).
These storylines seem thin when synopsised so simply, however each of these stories and others are told through events that trigger a series of quests that allow exploration and the discovery of powerful weapons, armour and magics.
It has been told that all the quest lines in the game are very short, but just like all the other aspects of Skyrim, the length of each quest line is determined by the user’s play style. They can all be rushed, gulped in one quick swallow, or savoured slowly like an old scotch; and by Talos are they gripping!

Delicate sound of thunder
Jeremy Soule has composed the music for both previous instalments of The Elder Scrolls, and his master touch continues to amaze in Skyrim. Some pieces have been borrowed from Oblivion and possibly Morrowind.
From the smooth classical exploration themes to the thunderous symphony and chorus of the dragon battle theme, his work completes one of the best video game soundtracks in recent memory. Jeremy Soule is the John Williams of the video games industry, and not only does he prove it again with his work on Skyrim, he cements his position for years to come. Simply extraordinary.
The voice actors also do a great job in each of their many roles. Some have returned from previous games, such as Linda Carter, and we have new additions to the cast including Christopher Plummer, Max Von Sydow, Joan Allen, Michael Hogan, Stephen Russell, Kari Wahlren, Claudia Christian and of course Jim “Butt-Kicking… For Goodness!!!” Cummings, among many others.
The voice cast is much larger then previous games in the series, however the world is so huge and filled with so many NPCs (non-player characters) that even with such a large cast, there is repetition in the voices to the point where a user can easily recognize the actors speaking, some even speak with themselves in a few instances. Casting Stephen Russell as the head of the thieve’s guild was a stroke of genius, and a very special wink to gamers.
The sound design is excellent, from footsteps in the sand to the clinking of armour and weapons, to the roar of dragons flying overhead.

The End
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is not a perfect game. Some aspects leave to be desired. However the sum of its many complex parts make it completely endearing and irresistible. The fact that we as gamers can shape the game however we see fit, coupled with the great music, voice acting and the vastness of its world make it one of the best games ever made. It is in a genre all by itself, unique, spectacular.


Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Adventures of Tintin - The Secret of the Unicorn

A large grin dressed my face throughout the picture and in all honesty, it is very difficult to say something bad about The Adventures of Tintin - The Secret of the Unicorn, other than the usual exaggerations of recent Spielberg films, the ending that is not really an ending, and Milou’s stupid name translation (Snowy??!! What the hell is wrong with Milo??!!), although this was not Spielberg’s decision.

A pure pleasure.

I’m French (Canadian) and I grew up reading all the Tintin books. In fact, The Black Island was the first book I ever read/looked-at-the-pictures when I put on my first pair of glasses at a very young age, and it remains my favourite Tintin adventure to this day.

My expectations were very high when delving into the dark theatre. After all, this was one of the more interesting adventures of Tintin put on the big screen by a true Master film maker, Steven Spielberg, and Peter Jackson, who delivered the absolutely magnificent The Lord of Rings trilogy. Add to this a plethora of great voice actors including Andy Serkis as Captain Haddock (perfect casting), Simon Pegg and Nick Frost as Thompson and Thomson (no, they’re not twins!), and Daniel Craig as Sacharine/Red Rackam, Weta Workshop on special effects and music by John Williams. Things of this magnitude have gone wrong before, but this time George Lucas is not involved...

So The Secret of the Unicorn exceeded my expectations in every way. Quick but steady pacing, flawless visuals, great use of 3D (although the exasperation for the technology is beginning to grind at the enjoyment), refreshing setting (mostly Europe), fantastic story effectively told, beautiful music and impressive sound effects, etc. Like dark chocolate dipped in smooth fudge topped with cool raspberry syrup and wrapped in bacon. Delicious!

A few bumps in the road.

The Adventures of Tintin - The Secret of the Unicorn is similar to the Indiana Jones adventures in many ways. In fact, Steven Spielberg as mentioned before that Indy was partly inspired by Tintin. It is therefore not surprising that the film shares some of the flaws of Spielberg’s previous adventure efforts, most notably Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. A few cringe-inducing scenes from Tintin are painful reminders of the nuked fridge or monkey chase scenes, most notably an action sequence in which Captain Haddock restarts the engine of a crashing plane using only the fumes from his alcohol-infused breath, or when two galleons locked at the masts twirl with each other above raging waves during an intense flashbacked naval battle.
I also found that Tintin was quickly eclipsed by the exuberance of Captain Haddock, and even Milou (sorry, I can’t bring myself to call him Snowy) in many scenes. Tintin drives the story forward, but the film is more a Haddock vehicle, which I believe is the case with the book, but we are expecting a Tintin adventure, not a Haddock sea tale.
Rest assured, these are very minor gripes that pale in comparison to the complete work, like three small drops of water in a bottle of great and ancient wine.

Forget the haters who say this is a kid’s movie or that it’s too far from the source material, or who cry “SACRILIGIOUS!” at the few changes that were made to accommodate the medium. Tintin was great. Like reconnecting with a dear old friend or watching Raiders of the Lost Ark for the first time. This is Steven Spielberg film making at its best, and sometimes at its worst. But more importantly, The Adventures of Tintin – The Secret of the Unicorn is a fun time at the movies, a total blast from beginning to end.