February 2008 Archives

What I'm Been Playing - Dungeon Runners

Dungeon Runners is a free MMORPG brought to you by NCSoft (also home of Tabula Rasa, Guild Wars, and City of Heroes/Villains).  It launched late last year, and has already had two major patches, with a third coming "soon".  The game is both ad-supported as well as subscriber-supported, and for $4.95/month, subscribing players get some added benefits, and have the banner ads that surround the screen pulled.  With the latest patch, free players really have a better deal here than they do in most "free" MMORPGs out there - they have an ad template that surrounds the screen, and only have a percentage chance to use higher-quality items in the game (which all subscribing players can use).

The gameplay is essentially Diablo as an MMORPG.  Each level of each dungeon is randomly generated, and the enemies for each level are scaled to the character's level (or at least for the most part).  Each set of dungeon levels has its own "theme" - there's a woodsy area for n00bs to start off in, then a set of caves, a winter wonderland, a dungeon, etc.  The characters are nicely detailed, and the enemies have interesting names - but the creatures have nothing on the weapons and armor.  Have you ever wanted to wield a Beefy Dimensional Hammer of the Cozy Bunny or wear the Motley Unclear Crystal Plate of the Unrivaled Tarantula?  Well, in Dungeon Runners you can!

For those who are long-time MMORPG veterans, Dungeon Runners will likely get a little old a little quickly - the quests are primarily fetch quests, with some exploration or "kill the beastie" quests tossed in for good measure.  But for the audience it's designed for, Dungeon Runners is quite a bit of fun.  You're always left wondering what the next item you'll get is going to be, and that's really the driving force behind this game.  If you're curious, you can check out my character, Sazerac, online.

Quote of the Day

"A government that is big enough to give you all you want is big enough to take it all away."
- Barry Goldwater, former AZ Senator (R), MG (USAFR, Ret.)

Review: Black Sheep (2006)

D: Jonathan King
S: Nathan Meister, Peter Feeney

Wow.  How do you describe this movie?  Maybe Cujo meets Evil Dead in New Zealand?  But that just barely captures the essence of this film.  The plot is simple - the prodigal son returns to his family's sheep farm (and yes, he's deathly afraid of sheep) to sell his percentage of the farm to his brother.  Unbeknownst to him, however, the brother has plans of his own for the farm - he intends to genetically engineer (through science and...well...less conventional means) a new breed of sheep.  Were-sheep.

Yes, you read that correctly - they're making were-sheep here in the New Zealand countryside.  And not just any were-sheep...no. Bloodthirsty, mean-as-hell were-sheep.  And, as you can likely surmise, there is blood.  Blood, gore, decapitations, transformations, limbs rent from bodies.  WETA did a great job with the special effects on this one (as they can usually be relied on to do), and the black humor that pervades the film just makes it that much more enjoyable.

What Cujo did for Saint Bernards, this film does for sheep.  You'll never hear a bleat again without a chill running up your spine (or a laugh brewing in your guy, depending on what scenes you're remembering).

Review: Superbad (2007)

D: Gerg Mottola
S: Jonah Hill, Michael Cera, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Seth Rogen, Bill Hader

Superbad is one of those movies that you will either absolutely love or absolutely hate.  It's another participant in the long (and some may say, prestigious) line of teen sex comedies, owing much of its roots to such true genre classics as Revenge of the Nerds and Porky's.  That alone should be enough to tell some people to stay as far away from this movie as humanly possible, and this fact probably plays into many of the more negative reviews that the film received.

I have to say it's quite apparent that this movie was written back while Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogan were themselves still in middle school.  While updated for the times, much of the repartee among the main characters in the movie is surprisingly realistic (reminiscent of some of Kevin Williamson's better work - Goldberg and Rogan know how kids - at least back when I was coming of age - talk to each other).  The humor is juvenile and puerile, and that's exactly what makes it so damned funny!

As with any number of teen comedies, the driving force in Superbad is the main characters trying to get laid.  And, of course, in order to do that they get volunteered by their presumptive "leader" to get alcohol for a party.  Being underage, their only avenue of doing so lies in the hands of one of their friends, who says he is getting a fake ID.  When it turns out that his fake ID has one name - "McLovin" and is supposed to belong to a 26-year old Hawaiian, well things just start to go wrong.

But for all the stereotypical "teen movie" angst that's present, the movie has a surprisingly tender approach to the situation.  There's backstory to all the characters - Evan and Seth are long-time best friends about to be torn apart by the move from high school to college, and through the course of the movie they go through all the classic stages of acceptance in working through this hard fact of life.  The girls that they're trying to "get with" aren't your stereotypical teen movie bimbos, and although the language and external attitude toward women in the film might be best described as misogynist, in the end you see that the boys really do respect women far more than one might assume from their words and actions (something that would probably describe how most boys feel about girls at this stage in life).  The jokes and rude comments are a projection of the uncertainty that the boys have about women in general and their futures in specific.

Topping it all off are the great performances by Seth Rogan and Bill Hader as two police officers who find McLovin (aka Fogell) at a liquor store and take him under their wing for the night.  Many of the scenes play like a latter-day installment of Police Academy, with two cops who desperately want to be liked by this kid act like they themselves haven't yet graduated from high school.  Though I have to admit, some of these scenes are funny solely because Seth Rogan himself is just so damn funny to me.

If you're interested in watching a modern take on the classic teen comedies, Superbad is definitely right up your alley.  If, however, the thought of two soon-to-be-college kids discussing which porn site they want to have a subscription to next year doesn't intrigue you, it might be better to just pass this up and grab Little Miss Sunshine instead.

Review: American Nightmare (2002)

D: Jon Keeyes
S: Debbie Rochon, Brandy Little, Johnny Sneed

I like bad horror movies.  There, I said it, I've admitted the truth, and I feel a little bit better about things now.  And when I say bad, I mean BAD, not even the Evil Deads of the world, which are good for being bad.  However, that said, I do have my limits (perhaps the single most useless horror movie I've ever seen was Haunted Highway - don't look it up, don't watch it...trust me).  American Nightmare has a great premise, as do many of the really bad horror movies I've grown to love over time.  It has a villain that, although obvious from the first fifteen minutes or so, has a great signature - the victims die while experiencing their greatest fears.  The only problem is, the execution of those plans over the course of a single Halloween night stretches even the boundaries of suspension of disbelief required to make it through these movies, and find the pearl amidst the swine.

That's not to say it's a horrible movie.  The cast is interesting and the script well-written - particularly with very believable banter between the main characters.  I think the real problem here was the budget - the movie aspires to be something much more than it can really afford to be.  Think about what scares you - burning to death, drowning, the monster under your bed?  Now imagine trying to portray these things on a limited budget.  Using practical effects, and little to no CG, even.  Not easy to do, and if the underlying characters, story, and cast aren't extremely good, you're likely to stumble a bit.

The setup and conceit of the plot are great: friends hanging out at a bar on Halloween night call in to a radio show where the host is asking them what their greatest fears are.  They're trying to support a local radio show, and seem to know the DJ - and they're pretty much the only callers that he receives.  The repartee between the DJ and the friends is great, as is the back-and-forth amongst the friends, who neatly fill out the required roles for any horror films' victims - the geeky-but-secretly-hot girl, the brain-dead-jackass jock, etc.  As the night goes on, however, the friends find themselves suddenly facing the very fears that they aired over the radio during the course of the night.  The death scenes are pretty good, within the limitations of budget and effects above.  The ending is...um...interesting?  A bit of a twist that's really not alluded to at all during the movie, so it's one of those "Um...okay?" moments that's pretty common in these films.

Overall, it's definitely an entertaining ride, and if you enjoy low-budget horror, you're definitely going to get your money's worth from this one.  However, you might be left with the feeling that it just could've been so much better by the end, as I was.  Which, I suppose, is true for a lot of these movies.

Action Streams

Wow...so I just got through installing the Action Streams plugin.  Needless to say, it didn't go as smoothly as I hoped, but it's finally done.  Had to hack together a widget for the actual Action Stream itself (showing on my main page as "Other Stuff" at the bottom of the right pane), though the template-installed "Find Authors Elsewhere" widget worked fine.

Of course, when I installed the template, it completely destroyed all my layout, and in fact wasn't even listing my last blog entries either.  So...twenty minutes of restoring the templates to the default, then setting all my styles and layouts back to how I had them, and now it seems to be working.  We'll see what happens - it doesn't seem to have caught my Facebook status update, so I'm guessing it's probably not 100% functional at this point.  We'll just have to see what happens!

Review: 300 (2006)

D: Zack Snyder
S: Gerard Butler, Lena Headley, Dominic West, David Wenham

Setting the stage a little bit, there are two classic loves of my life: Greek mythology & history, and comic books.  So you can imagine my anticipation when the adaptation of Frank Miller's classic comic book series was announced.  A lot of people have focused on the historical inaccuracies in the movie - but in my opinion, that's what allows 300 to transcend the classic historical epic formula and come into its own as an amazing retelling of a classic story from the very beginnings of the history of man.

The most telling part of the presentation of 300 is that it is told in retrospect, by a Spartan warrior who wasn't there for the final battle.  In fact, no Spartan that was present survived, so it is impossible to know what truly happened.  This is the glory of the oral history tradition, and the embellishments that Snyder and Miller took in the story (either the comic or the adaptation) are true homages to oral history.  The survivors tell the story - whether that's the victors of the battle, or those who were spared death by destiny or compassion.  And here we have one vision of that glorious three-day battle between a small force of fierce warriors and an insanely overpowered invading force.

The movie is absolutely beautiful, even in its violence.  Yes, there is blood.  Yes, there is gore.  But it's presented in such a way that it is not shocking, orchestrated on-screen in a fashion that more closely resembles dance than fighting.  The visuals are striking, and you can see many of the best-remembered scenes from the comic book rendered in live action (the Persian forces being pushed back off the cliffs of Thermopylae, for example).  This alone makes it an amazing achievement, as we all know the difficulties in rendering comic books to film, at least in the recent past.

The story is simple in its themes and storyline.  The minor complications that are introduced really become more like distractions than side-plots, though seeing the machinations of Theron played out while Leonidas is facing death is a very well-played classic machination of Greek drama (the chaos that Odysseus returns home to find, for example). 

There's probably a lot to analyze in the militaristic vision of perfection that is displayed in the film, and many people want to say it's a comment on the current situation in America...however, the comic itself was written long before the days of Iraq and Al Queda...so take those views for what they're worth.  The fact is, Spartans were born and bred as warriors (though not necessarily "free men" nor proponents of true freedom), and this movie simply takes that view as its basis, and runs with it.  There probably was not a single fighting force in the world that could take on the entirety of the Spartan army, and the 300 (-ish) Spartan warriors that faced the Persian army on the cliffs of Thermopylae probably did more to delay the inevitable than any other army at the time could have.

This film is truly a masterwork and a great example of how to translate a timeless story from history and mythology into something that's entertaining, poignant, and relevant to moviegoers today.

Quote of the Day

"Americans will put up with anything provided it doesn't block traffic."
Dan Rather, former CBS News Anchor

Review: 28 Weeks Later (2007)

D: Juan Carlos Fresnadillo
S: Catherine McCormack, Robert Carlyle, Harold Perrineau

First, let me start off by saying that I was pretty much underwhelmed by 28 Days Later. It was an okay movie, but I couldn't really figure out whether it wanted to be a zombie movie, a generic horror movie, or an arthouse flick. I found the story light, the characters relatively unsympathetic, and just couldn't buy into the movie as a whole.

That said, 28 Weeks Later knows what it is. It's really a post-apocalyptic story, about how people try to move on with their lives after experiencing something so horrible that it resulted in the entirety of Great Britain to be evacuated. And, at the same time, it's also a zombie movie (well, a "fast zombie" movie with due respect to Mr. Romero), with the requisite amounts of blood, horror, and death. The beginning of the movie, set during the Rage outbreak, grabs you from the very beginning, and you see the decisions and choices that someone would have to make in such a chaotic and life-threatening situation - decisions that we all might make differently, but either way there's no "right" or "wrong" choice. And no matter which decision you make, you will likely regret it for the rest of your life. Fast forward to the eponymous 28 weeks later, and we get to see a part of London being repopulated after the virus has burned itself out.

The choice that sets up this movie is made by Don, who hides out in a small house with his wife and several other survivors. A child appears at the door of the house, and the residents foolishly allow him entry - needless to say, the child is infected with Rage, and the former safe-house turns into a slaughterhouse. Don is forced into a fight-or-flight decision, and chooses to leave his wife and the other residents of the house in order to save his own life. Later, he claims to his children (who were in Spain during the outbreak) that he did everything he could - a lie, but a necessary one. The children then decide, after being relocated to the quarantine zone, to go back to their home (for some barely plausible reason).

The portrayal of the US military in the movie is predictable, though a little uneven. We're supposed to believe these guys are (in general) shoot-it-if-it-moves automatons, but somehow and for some bizarre reason, they let two kids out of the quarantine zone. Granted, it's a necessary plot conceit, but still it seems completely counter to the initial setup of the military mind in the film. Of course, the kids run off (as kids are wont to do), and find their mom...still alive and apparently untouched by the virus. Cue threatening music.

The government, of course, quarantines her as soon as she returns from the countryside, and begins probing her incessantly. It turns out she's a "Typhoid Mary" - carrying the Rage virus within her but completely unaffected by it. The government, of course, thinks they can create a vaccination from her peculiar blood, and it's just that kind of thinking that dooms London all over again. Needless to say, someone gets into her quarantine, becomes infected, and spreads the newly-reinvigorated Rage virus throughout the newly-returned populace.

From here, chaos reigns supreme, as group after group of former survivors are turned into Rage-induced psychotics. The military does a fairly handy job of taking them down, using firebombs, flamethrowers, and automatic weapons. Those who survive attempt to make it to Wembley Stadium for evacuation. Here again, someone's ethics misfire, and against orders they take action that instead of saving two lives may in fact doom the entire world.

The direction and cinematography are beautiful (as they were in 28 Days Later, the only thing I enjoyed about the previous movie). The acting is decent overall, and the children aren't too terribly annoying. The few faults in the storyline are pretty big, but overall it's an entertaining ride.