Transference

After some consideration, I’ve decided to transfer my current movie reviews to a Blogspot site, T. Martin Reviews, and continue to post them there. I do like WordPress’s customization options; the reason I’m using Blogspot now is because Blogspot doesn’t have ads, and my content doesn’t get enough traffic for me to want to pay to get rid of ads here. You can keep track of the reviews by following either the blog itself, my Twitter, or my Google+. I’m still keeping this site as an archive for deleted (and sometimes cringey) content—from old movie reviews to video game reviews—I wrote on my various WordPress sites since I started on writing on WordPress on April 10th, 2014.

04/10/2014 | “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”

The summer movie season has started early this year with yet another comic book movie. With nine films released so far, and after low-grade attempts like Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World, is the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) getting stale? Well, after an enjoyable but half-baked first solo outing, Captain America: The First Avenger, the star-spangled man, Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), returns in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which may be Marvel’s finest to date.

So far in the MCU, the first Iron Man has been my favorite solo movie for its sense of realism and human drama. But The Avengers has been my absolute favorite for the way it was able to fit the heroes together perfectly and for its consistently witty and thrilling screenplay penned by Joss Whedon, who also directed the massive blockbuster.

…That is until the Cap’s comeback. Directors Anthony and Joe Russo along with screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, who also wrote the Cap’s first solo outing, take the most just and selfless superhero in the MCU and put him in a truly thrilling and dramatic political/conspiracy/espionage thriller where he has to uphold his principles more than ever.

After being frozen for seventy years, Steve Rogers is now working with SHIELD (Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division). Though he’s still doing the job that he was doing back in World War II, fighting bullies, he soon finds out that he’s been fighting alongside bullies.

With SHIELD compromised, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) gives Steve Rogers a warning not to trust anybody. This conspiracy causes World Council member Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), a good friend of Fury’s, to turn Captain America into the organization’s number one target. Rogers teams up with fellow Avenger Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and war veteran Sam Wilson/Falcon (Anthony Mackie) to find out what SHIELD is hiding while facing a mysterious assassin, The Winter Soldier (stating who portrays him would be giving away too much, unless you already know who it is).

Chris Evans, Samuel L. Jackson, and Scarlett Johansson bring their best performances yet to their respective roles. Also returning is Cobie Smulders as Maria Hill with a small but important part. New to the MCU are Robert Redford, whose performance is stern and commanding; Anthony Mackie, who adds a touch of fun to the film’s occasionally overly serious tone with his and Evan’s witty exchanges and cool mechanical wings; Emily VanCamp as Kate, Steve Roger’s next-door neighbor; and Frank Grillo as Brock Rumlow, an edgy SHIELD officer.

The directors and writers keep the pace and the suspense moving with one thrilling action set-piece after another, featuring everything from martial arts combat, car chases, shootouts, and even aerial dogfights. But it’s not all action and mayhem. The filmmakers make sure we’re here for the characters as well as the thrills by breaking up the action with moments for the characters to develop and spout some witty one-liners. To go along with that, as a consequence to a big reveal in the film’s second half, the film’s obligatory climactic showdown between the hero and the villain, who in this case are Captain America and The Winter Soldier, is something much more heartfelt and emotional than your usual obligatory climactic showdown between the hero and the villain.

All-in-all, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a smart, complex, character-driven, suspenseful, thrilling, and surprisingly touching superhero blockbuster that is currently pleasing many Marvel fans, whether they’re comic fans or just Cinematic Universe fans like me, and, though it may not win them over, will most likely entertain casual viewers, teens and older, who are looking for an action-packed time at the movies that’s mostly free from other objectionable material.

07/23/14 | “The LEGO Movie”

Two movies based on toys came out this year (2014): Transformers: Age of Extinction and The Lego Movie.  The former is my least favorite movie of the year, while the latter is one of my absolute favorite movies of the year.

Toy-based movies and tv shows are the ultimate marketing scheme.  Take an action figure, turn it into a character who kids will love, and get kids to buy that action figure.  Not that Trans[4]mers features any memorable characters, but Age of Extinction does what Transformers always does: show robots kill each other and advertise toys.  It’s part of the same big marketing scheme that the Transformers cartoons and movies have always been apart of.

However, though The Lego Movie takes place in a partly stop-motion animated, mostly computer-generated world based on the titular toys, it’s much more than a toy movie should be.  Yes, it does feel like an advertisement at times, but most of the time directors/screenwriters Phil Lord and Christopher Miller are pushing a message against our culture’s movement of conformity and consumerism, just as we as Christians are called to be.  Also, a twist near the end reveals a deeper layer to the story that encourages the importance of parents putting family before work.

The world of the The Lego Movie is made up of several realms: The Old West, a parody of spaghetti Westerns; Middle-Zealand, a Renaissance-era world; Cloud Cuckoo Land, a colorful, hidden world of happiness and no negativity and consistency; and a bunch of other realms that I either forgot about or aren’t important enough to mention.

One of these realms is a city ruled by the evil Lord Business (Will Ferrel) where everybody follows a set of instructions that controls every one of their actions: wake up, eat breakfast, watch the latest episode of the most popular tv sitcom, listen to the latest popular music, drive to the coffee shop to buy overpriced coffee, drive to work, etc…

Emmet (Chris Pratt) is one of these people.  He follows the rules wherever he goes.  That is until his life is interrupted by the presence of martial-arts expert Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) who is told that Emmet is the prophesied Special: the chosen one who will put an end to Lord Business’ evil scheme to end the universe by gluing it together with a superweapon called the Kragle.

As I mentioned before, the animation is partly stop-motion animated, mostly computer-generated.  But the computer-generated animation is made to look like stop-motion, also allowing everything to look like it’s made of little Lego pieces, from clouds, to the ocean, to even the explosions that amount from the almost endless barrage of frenetic mayhem.

The film’s sense of humor matches my taste almost perfectly, featuring sudden sight gags, sly movie references, over-the-top slapstick, and memorable one-liners.

Also in the cast is Liam Neeson as Lord Business’ sidekick, Good Cop/Bad Cop; one side of him is commanding, ruthless, and has a habit of kicking chairs around during his fits of rage, while the other side of him is kind with a calm, high-pitched voice.  Will Arnett hams it up as a very arrogant Batman, and Morgan Freeman has perfect comedic timing as Vitruvius, a blind wizard who makes the prophecy about The Special and is also Wyldstyle’s mentor.

07/27/14 | “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2013) is the most epic, engaging movie I’ve seen this year.

Though this year’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) had me on the verge of tears, more so than any scene in DawnWinter Soldier is generally a mindless popcorn flick, but an especially smart, touching, and well-made one at that.  However, Winter Soldieris a movie that I’ll probably forget if I get tired of these big, loud superhero movies.  But, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a movie that I’ll remember for a long time.

Dawn’s predecessor, Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), is about the apes’ rise up against humanity for the cruelty that humans inflicted on them.  On the contrary, director Matt Reeve’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is about the desire for peace between humans and apes.

The story takes place ten years after the virus caused by ALZ-112, a drug that was invented to cure Alzheimer’s but ends up killing humans and making apes super intelligent, has spread across and destroyed most of humanity.  Caesar (Andy Serkis), the offspring of an ape that the drug was tested on, is in charge of a colony of his own species.  They come into contact with a group of humans living in San Francisco who have a natural immunity to the virus, and the only source that can bring power back to the city is in the apes’ territory.

Caesar begins to grow more fond of humanity through Malcolm (Jason Clarke), his son Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee), and his girlfriend Dr. Ellie (Keri Russel) and begins to trust them.

However, there are those on both sides who are less than willing to trust the other.  With the apes we have Koba (Toby Kebbel), who is prejudiced against mankind for the experiments they once performed on him.  With the humans we have Carver (Kirk Acevedo), who is prejudiced against apes for spreading the virus across humanity, and Dreyfuss (Gary Oldman), the leader of the colony in San Francisco.

The apes are brought to screen by real actors enhanced by CGI.  Andy Serkis is phenomenal as Caesar; his commanding presence gives us a way to connect with an ape in an unimaginable way.  Toby Kebbell is equally adequate as Koba.  Unfortunately, where the ape characters soar, the human characters fall flat.

It’s not that Jason Clarke, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Keri Russel, Kirk Acevedo, and Gary Oldman give poor portrayals.  I think that their performances are quite good; I just find their characters rather cliché for the most part and not nearly as memorable or engaging as the apes.  Despite this flaw, unlike Rise, the film focuses on the good in humanity more than the bad.

Though I found the first half of the film a little bit mundane (at least the first time I saw it), the emotions and intensity ramp up in the second half.  When the truly epic climax is resolved and the credits start rolling, I just sat there in awe, trying to ponder the story that I had just witnessed.  No other summer blockbuster has had that effect on me.

10/11/14 | “The Original Star Wars Trilogy”

Nobody, not even writer/director George Lucas predicted that a big-budget B-movie that was made as a throwback to Saturday matinee serials such as Flash Gordon (1936) would change the history of cinema and pop culture, especially considering that everybody involved in the film thought it was going to be a disastrous box office flop.

Though the first official summer blockbuster was Jaws in 1975, Star Wars, later subtitled Episode IV: A New Hope, took the world by storm in 1977 and solidified this tradition.  Since then, summertime has been filled with special effects-laden spectacles, such as The Avengers (2012), Man of Steel (2013), Transformers (2007), etc…  (I’m not saying that all of them are good.)

Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope is less science-fiction and more of a space fantasy, featuring Leia (Carrie Fisher), a princess in distress; wizards in the form of elderly Obi-wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) and the masked Darth Vader (performed by David Prowse/voiced by James Earl Jones); Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and sasquatch-like Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), a pair of rogue smugglers; comical androids C-3P0 (Anthony Daniels) and R2-D2 (performed by Kenny Baker); and Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), a farmboy who wants to go off and become a soldier for the Rebel Alliance to fight the tyrannical Galactic Empire, which has built a moon-sized space station that has enough firepower to destroy an entire planet.

However, the film also introduces the concept of the Force: an energy field that binds the universe together and wills each living being just as God does.  There is both a Light Side and a Dark Side to the Force.  The former is used by Jedi, such as Obi-wan Kenobi, while the latter is used by Sith, such as Darth Vader, indicating that this God-like energy can be used for evil as well as good.

Despite theological issues, the film remains a timeless, exciting swashbuckling adventure of good conquering evil.  Though it does have production flaws: the then-groundbreaking special effects show their age (though I personally prefer model spaceships flying around in space over the glossy CGI that we get these days); the story is a bit straightforward; and the characters are simple, though likable.

However, its sequel, Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980), makes up for these drawbacks.  Though I do enjoy the simple, innocent fun of Episode VI, The Empire Strikes Back is a much more compelling story.  Instead of a giant space station as the central conflict, the story’s conflicts are deeper, more personal, and more painful, as Luke separates from Han and Leia in order to further his journey to become a Jedi and the Empire plays a game of cat and mouse with his friends.

It’s also the artsiest of the trilogy, featuring the trilogy’s richest imagery, from the desolate, ice-covered landscape of the planet Hoth to the climactic lightsaber duel taking place in a dimly lit chamber that glows orange as blades of blue and red are clashing against each other.

Under the direction of Irvin Kreshner, the characters are much more defined this time around with strong performances from the whole cast, especially Mark Hamill as he improves over his less-than-stellar performance in Episode IV.  Plus, Darth Vader’s menacing presence this time around, as well as James Earl Jones’ voice performance, rightly gives him his place as one of cinema’s most iconic villains.

Though there are problems with the film’s spirituality, as the Force is explained further and it sounds more and more like a pagan, New-Age deity (the review at decentfilms.com has a more thorough analysis).  On the plus side, the film retains the same sense of self-sacrificial heroism displayed in the first film.

But what really prevents this movie from being a great movie on its own is that the ending is left wide open.  It’s unfortunate that the smartest, if most problematic Star Wars film to date is only the middle chapter of a trilogy and not something that can stand solidly on its own.

Fortunately, Star Wars Episode IV: Return of the Jedi (1983) brings us a satisfying, if dumbed-down conclusion.  Writer George Lucas decided to add teddy bear-like creatures that do an unrealistically good job at helping the Rebels battle the Empire with their primitive technology to make it more kid-friendly, though an opening act featuring scary alien creatures and erotically clad slave women contradicts the kid-friendliness as well as the overall innocence.

These aren’t the only problems that I have with the movie.  In fact, there’s another big twist that I dislike even more than the ewoks.  However, I think that Return of the Jedi, directed by Richard Marquand, has enough good in it that I can overlook its flaws.  It feels mostly at place with its predecessors.

It’s lacking in character development, but it features the trilogy’s most exciting action sequences, including a final act consisting of three major battles happening spontaneously, ending the trilogy not only with a bang but also with a redemption that’s brought about by the love for a suffering family member.

Now if you haven’t seen the movies you’re probably wondering, what about episodes I, II, and III?  Well, George Lucas decided to single-handedly write and direct that entire trilogy, consisting of Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999); Episode II: Attack of the Clones(2002); and Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005).  Unfortunately, he tried to make them super serious and all he proved is that he couldn’t write and direct anything beyond B-movies, resulting in them being nonsensically written, blandly acted, and infamously disappointing.

It’s not that the original trilogy is flawless; its a little bit corny, and there are plot holes here and there.  However, its stories have heart, its characters are appealingly witty, and its actors have charm, especially Harrison Ford in his breakthrough role.  John William’s musical score also brings a great deal of bravura to the films that would be missing without its presence.

What also helps these movies stand the test of time is that they were made in an age where special effects were made using physical objects as opposed to the CGI spectacles that have been filling cinemas for the last couple of decades.  Since everything we see is real, it helps this fictional galaxy seem real.

Unfortunately, the trilogy has been tampered with other the years.  In 1997, the special editions were released, which add unnecessary CGI and additional scenes that don’t work.  Since then, it’s been hard to find the original theatrical versions.  They haven’t even been released on Blu-ray, the versions of which have even more unnecessary changes.

I’m glad that I managed to find them on DVD, but they’re not the best quality, and they’re included along with the special editions.  At the least, they’re still the versions of Star Wars that made history.

Though the films are not entirely Christian, their themes of good and evil, likable characters, mythological influences, and cultural impact make them must-sees for anybody who’s interested in movies.  Like many Star Wars fans of my generation, I grew up with them, so they also call back to my childhood.

I admit, I liked the prequels more than the originals when I was a kid.  In terms of the original trilogy, I watched Return of the Jedi the most.  Now that I’ve grown up, I prefer Jediover the prequels any day, but I prefer The Empire Strikes Back (the one I watched the least as a kid) and A New Hope over Jedi.

Though Episode III brings the two trilogies full circle, Star Wars has not ended for good.  Since the franchise will be revived in December 2015 with Episode VII, directed by J.J. Abrams and starring the original cast, it’s safe to say that this far, far away galaxy will be at the cinema for a long, long time, for better or for worse.

10/24/2014 | “Jaws”

I recently enjoyed the experience of seeing Jaws (1975) for the first time ever.  I’d seen clips of it before, including the ending, but nothing compared to seeing it in full.  The question is, why did I wait so long?  I suppose I’m afraid of the ocean already, so it didn’t scare me as much as I thought it would.  If you haven’t seen it either, this is the review for you.

Though the film’s title refers to the great white shark that terrorizes the island of Amity, what engages us is its humans: Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), a police chief and family man; Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), an oceanographer and shark expert; and Sam Quint (Robert Shaw), a shark fisherman with sort of a Captain Ahab complex.

The shark’s attacks on various swimmers may be what drive the plot, but they’re just as important as the light-hearted moments of human interest such as Brody sitting at the dinner table as his young son mimics his mannerisms.

Steven Spielberg, directing the film that made him one of the top names in Hollywood, builds upon the fear of the unknown, beginning from the horrifying opening scene until he finally reveals the shark in full over halfway through.

The technique of hiding the shark actually benefits the thrilling climactic showdown between the leads who are on a boat that should be bigger and the predator of the ocean who lurks below the surface.

Though Jaws set the summer blockbuster tradition, Star Wars (1977) set the formula, and by doing so it undid what Jaws could have started.  Nowadays, every blockbuster has to be laden with big special effects and explosions, which isn’t to say that I don’t enjoy any of them.

We love superheroes, but their movies almost always guarantee one thing: the good guys will win in the end and live to star in either a sequel or a big superhero team-up movie.  In contrast, the protagonists of Jaws are normal people who may or may not have the skills to survive the journey.

There are recent non-superhero flicks with this scenario such as Edge of Tomorrow with Tom Cruise, which also falls into the “big special effects and explosions” category and flopped at the box office, but why can’t there be more crowd-pleasers like them?  (I actually answered my own question.)

Spielberg at least brings the same type of thrills back for Jurassic Park (1993), another hit creature feature that broke new ground in terms of special effects (and is actually more to blame for the mindless, CGI-laden spectacles than Star Wars), despite its underdeveloped characters.

This year’s Godzilla, directed by Gareth Edwards, is heavily influenced by Jaws, hiding the titular monster until the big reveal halfway through and even focusing the story on a Brody family.  Unfortunately, the story misses a level of human interest that’s neither found in Jaws nor even Jurassic Park.

I can see why Jaws began a new era of cinema.  The thrills, the shocks, the laughs, the humanity…  It’s forty years old, yet it blew me away and made a lasting impression on first viewing.  The film’s biggest drawbacks are a fairly high amount of profanity and other content listed below, as well as the possibility of never wanting to go out on the ocean again.

11/16/14 | “UHF”

I used to consider UHF (1989) my all-favorite comedy.  After my latest viewing, I think Galaxy Quest (1999) takes that spot, but UHF is still okay at the least.  If you didn’t know that comedian songwriter Weird Al Yankovic both starred in and co-wrote a motion picture that his music video director Jay Levy co-wrote and directed, now you do.

Yankovic plays George Newman, a guy who finds a job as the manager of U-62, a local, washed-out UHF television station, which along with his overactive imagination is used as an excuse to shove aside plot for montages of random gags.

The jokes range from over-the-top, cartoony slapstick to parodies of movies that were popular at the time, such as Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Conan the Barbarian (1982), and even Gandhi (1982).  There’s also a dream sequence of a spoofy music video, which is the biggest story-halting gag in my opinion.

It’s hit or miss stuff.  Some of it is funny, with the more subtle moments making me last the most; some of it is trying too hard; some of it is plain weird; and some of it comes off as tasteless, such as a nature show host throwing poodles out of a window to teach them how to fly.

The story does show how the media can impact a community as U-62 eventually falls on hard times and the whole town donates money to keep the station alive.  With that said, I question the community’s taste in entertainment with show titles such as “Wheel of Fish”, “Celebrity Mud Wrestling”, and “Strip Solitaire” among others.  Though at this point I’m analyzing the movie more seriously than it’s meant to be taken.

Despite their questionable shows, the people running U-62 are pretty decent people, and I’d rather hang out with them than the people running the rival Channel 8, led by the ever-nasty R.J. Fletcher (Kevin McCarthy) who has no respect for humanity.

The movie in general all depends on the viewer’s taste.  If you like Weird Al’s wacky, spoofy sense of humor, you’ll probably get a kick out of it.  If not, you’ll probably be thinking to yourself, “Please stop forwarding that crap to me.”

10/22/2015 | UHF post (can’t remember the original title)

If you didn’t know that musical parody artist Weird Al Yankovic co-wrote and starred in a motion picture, UHF (★★☆☆), now you do. There was a time when I considered said motion picture my favorite comedy. But, tastes change when we’re affected by superior entertainment, so now, UHF is little more than hit-or-miss silliness that’s too bizarre for a wide audience.

With Weird Al starring as a guy with an overactive imagination, George Newman, who lives with his best friend; can keep neither a job nor a promise to his girlfriend; and becomes the owner of a rundown UHF TV station, U-62, it’s basically an incoherent combination of plot development and cutaway gags.

The movie hasn’t completely lost its appeal for me; there are a lot of laughs throughout, especially in an opening scene that puts a few zany twists on Raiders of the Lost Ark. Yet, even though Weird Al is known for his music videos, a dream that George has about a Beverly Hillbillies parody of Dire Straits’s “Money for Nothing” feels completely out-of-place.

There’s also plenty of over-the-top but fake looking slapstick violence including enemy soldiers/mannequins getting blown up, a guy/mannequin getting cleaved in half, a thug/T-shirt getting punched through the abdomen, and a guy embarrassingly rather than traumatically getting his thumb cut off by a table saw. As twisted as these sound, they’re too cartoony and cheesy to be disturbing.

That’s not to say that some gags aren’t genuinely tasteless, such as when the host of “Raul’s Wild Kingdom” unsuccessfully teaches poodles how to fly by throwing them out a window. As revealed in a brief montage, U-62 also includes titles like “Bowling for Burgers”, “Celebrity Mud Wrestling”, and “Strip Solitaire” – the last of which actually looks harmless compared to the sexed-up and nihilistic shows that I see advertised during the commercial breaks between Agents of SHIELD.

On the other hand, as Catholic Skywalker pointed out to me on Twitter, these types of comedies are usually filled with jokes about sex and drugs, so UHF is pretty inoffensive for its genre.

Speaking of nihilistic, U-62’s competition, Channel 8, is run by the nastiest guy in town, R.J. Fletcher whom Kevin McCarthy hams up to the extreme. The highlight of the cast is Michael Richards as the lovably dimwitted janitor Stanley Spadowski who brings an endearing innocence. Master Kuni is my favorite of the film’s one-joke characters as he spouts one of the most memorable lines, “STUPAAAAAAAAAAD!!! YOU’RE SO STUPAAAAAAAAAAD!!!”

Against all odds, U-62 becomes the most popular station in town, and its fans would do anything to support it. I’d question the taste of an entire community that would be entertained by this stuff, but this implausibility is all part of the intentional goofiness that makes it a one-of-a-kind-movie. Its gags come fast and unexpectedly, and any other movie that uses a TV station as a device like this would feel like a ripoff.

UHF is mediocre storytelling – not that it’s trying to be more – , and not all of its jokes land, but I have fun with it nonetheless, especially during the times I’ve shown it to friends. I still can’t picture many other people outside of its cult following having fun with it though.

10/28/2015 | “This is (A Secularist) Halloween”

Ah, what I’d do to be able to dress up as a monster to get free candy and/or dress up as a scarecrow to jumpscare trick-or-treaters on my uncle’s lawn again. Those were the days. Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas (★★☆☆) triggered these memories, which is the biggest compliment I can pay this movie.

I also watched it when I was a kid, but those viewings are such isolated incidents that my memories are less nostalgic and more, “Yup. I remember that,” or, “I liked that song.”

The constant musical numbers are catchy without being particularly memorable, though I’d probably feel differently if I cared more about the subject matter as well as the purposefully creepy stop-motion animated art style – not that the effort behind it isn’t impressive.

As the beginning explains, holidays originated from alternate dimensions that can be reached through a specific set of magical trees. Soon after, we’re introduced to Halloweentown whose inhabitants include ghouls, ghosts, vampires, a mayor who I kept wanting to call the King of Town due to a Homestar Runner cartoon, and, thankfully, no girls who wear prostitute versions of costumes that guys get accurate versions of.

The main scream of this community is Jack Skellington (sang by Danny Elfman and voiced by Prince Humperdink) who longs for something more than becoming a spectacle every Halloween. And so he stumbles upon those magical trees I mentioned earlier and teleports into Christmastown, a place of idyllic joy as opposed to the totalitarian North Pole of Rudolph, the Rednose Reindeer that throws people under the bus for being different.

After Jack tries to explain the joys of Christmas to his fellow monsters with no success, he himself tries to figure what Christmas really means, and, apparently, it ain’t about Jesus. Instead, he figures that the best way to explain Christmas cheer is to become a part it by replacing Santa Claus on Christmas Eve.

It certainly sounds like a subversive fable that could have been passed down for decades before Tim Burton – who’s often wrongfully attributed as being the director instead of Henry Selick – made it up, but even at a measly seventy minutes (excluding credits), it feels overlong and half-baked.

There is one character who I genuinely liked for: Sally, a sentient scarecrow who’s constantly incarcerated by her creator and relates to Jack’s longing for a more meaningful life. She even acts as a voice of conscience as she tries to persuade Jack that stealing Christmas could end up being as disastrous as predicted in an out-of-the-blue premonition.

And then her character loses believability when she sings a lamentation about Jack’s poor choices, which is understandable, but she’s singing about him as if he’s a friend. Sure, she gives him a basket of (what he would consider) goodies after somewhat stalking him, and Jack hires her to sew him a Santa outfit, but that’s pretty much their relationship until their inevitable falling in love.

Am I overthinking the nonsense? Most likely. But the character development could at least be competently written.

I can also sympathize with the kids who think they’re going to meet Santa Claus who’d give them fun toys and end up meeting a skeleton who in his own attempt to make Christmas better gives them toys that unforeseeably almost murder them. The movie’s sense of humor is pretty twisted up to that point, but that’s messed up. No heroic triumph by the real Santa could undo the psychological damaged. But hey, a scarecrow and a skeleton fall in love with no substantial basis.

We’ve never had any traditional Halloween movies in my household, and I can’t picture The Nightmare Before Christmas ever falling into that category. Yet, it does have quite a fanbase, so maybe I’ll have a different impression if I watch it again around Christmas time. …If.

10/30/2015 | Jaws post (can’t remember the original title)

Traditional Halloween movies feature ghosts, zombies, aliens, demonic possessions, or masked serial killers, but not sharks. That’s why many reading this wouldn’t consider Jaws(★★★★) to be fitting for the season, but I prefer my horror to be suspenseful rather than lurid. Plus, due to how it’s affected me as an amateur critic since I first saw it, I might as well take this excuse to review it.

Even if you haven’t seen it, you most likely know John William’s foreboding musical theme. You’ve most likely heard the adlibbed line, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.” You might even be afraid of the ocean due to this movie’s cultural impact.

You most likely also know that it began the tradition of tentpole popcorn movies along with Star Wars [Episode IV – A New Hope]. Yet, Hollywood took more notes from Star Warsthan Jaws by focusing more on effects-laden spectacle than humanity. On the other hand, it’s much more enjoyable to munch on popcorn while spaceships battle than it is while people get eaten alive.

It’s not that Jaws deals with particularly deep themes, but its characters are unforgettable: Martin Brody, a police chief and family man who’s afraid of the ocean despite having recently moved to Amity Island; Matt Hooper, a twenty-something oceanographer who comes from a wealthy family; and Sam Quint, an extremist shark hunter with the mouth of, well, a sailor who’s basically a caricature until he reveals the story behind his obsessions. Although the title refers to the great white shark who terrorizes Amity’s community, the true villain is Mayor Vaughn who refuses to let the beaches be closed during the upcoming Fourth of July weekend. He too is apparently a father, but that isn’t established until a throwaway line about his kids. This revelation makes his greed even more irrational.

The shark itself isn’t revealed in full until well over the halfway mark. This lack of screentime is due to difficulties with the mechanical shark that mainly portrays the beast. Yet, as many other critics have pointed out, it’s more effective because it’s hidden; the opening scene which depicts a skinny dipper getting thrashed around and pulled underwater as she screams to God for help is horrifying enough without having to see what’s attacking her.

Fortunately, the tension is often relieved by light moments such as Brody sitting at the dinner table while his youngest son mimics his mannerisms and the protagonistic trio joining each other in song after they’ve been arguing throughout their climactic fishing trip of death. It’s this balance of action and character development that made me look for the human element in every movie since I first saw it last year.

Although this is Steven Spielberg’s second theatrical feature film, it’s still undeniably one of his best. Jurassic Park, his other famous monster movie, surpasses Jaws in awe, cinematography, and accessibility (since its subject matter isn’t quite so close to home), but it doesn’t surpass Jaws in empathy, terror, and believability. Jaws may be one of the perfect summer movies, but it’s a scary enough pick for the Halloween season if you still have yet to see it, unless you’d prefer otherworldly subject matter. If that’s the case, then I can’t help you there.

11/10/2015 | “You’re Still Relevant, Charlie Brown”

I’ve rarely been acquainted with the Peanuts gang since I was a kid. I was never into their comics, but I liked their movies and TV specials, and I enjoy the witty A Charlie Brown Christmas more than any annual Christmas special, so The Peanuts Movie (★★★☆) ends up being a nostalgia trip for me.

For the most part, it’s little more than an homage delivered in CGI that operates like a combination of the traditional animation of the TV specials and stop-motion. The story plays out episodically as shy, clumsy, melancholic Charlie Brown who can’t succeed at anything even as simple as flying a kite tries to work up the courage to impress the new-in-town Little Red Haired Girl while his dog Snoopy types out stories of saving an imaginary love interest from, of course, the Red Baron.

Other throwbacks along the way include the original piano theme, Snoopy being rejected from entering a library where there are “no dogs allowed”, Lucy reciting her “I’ve got dog germs!” speech, adults’ voices being played by trombones, carolers singing “Christmas Time is Here”… The only thing that’s missing is, “I got a rock,”…and Linus’s Christianity (but hey, this is Hollywood).

Despite all the references, the story has enough meaning for it to stand on its own (and this is where I vaguely spoil a couple of major plot points). Surprisingly, it comes to a point where things actually start going right for Charlie Brown, but there ends up being a catch. However, Charlie Brown does ultimately get the reward he deserves, but not for his victories, but for the honest and selfless work he puts into his unintended failings.

In between every laugh (the most literally breathtaking of which is a twist in the aforementioned Christmas caroler gag), the movie had me grinning with childlike glee. It’s sincere, it’s hilarious, it’s visually unique, it’s mostly true to what I know of its source material – even to the point where the phones have cords and the kids write out papers – , and it touches my inner seven-year-old.

The Peanuts Movie is definitely for those who are familiar with its titular gang, but I can’t imagine it not putting a smile on anyone else’s face. I haven’t been to many movies where the audience clapped at the end, but this was one applause that was truly deserved.

11/10/2015 | “All Dogs Go to Hyrule”

Although The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess (★★★☆) is actually the first Zelda game I ever beat, it came and went too quickly for it to have as big an impact on me as Ocarina of Time, one of my pinnacle childhood experiences. The kid in me won’t let any Zelda game replace Ocarina‘s place in my heart, but this recent replay of Twilight Princess comes pretty dang close to doing so.

Since it takes place hundreds of years after the events of Majora’s Mask in a Hyrule that isn’t flooded – and if that sounds like it contradicts Wind Waker, then the Official ZeldaTimeline explains that these two games take place in two of three separate timelines that branch off from Ocarina – , it’s the closest thing there is to that trilogy capper I wished for in my Majora’s Mask review.

So, if Ocarina is A New Hope and Majora’s Mask is The Empire Strikes Back, then Twilightis Return of the Jedi in how it borrows heavily from the original. Many fans criticize this game for being too much like Ocarina, and I see their point. The recycled plot points, such as our new Link turning out to be the next Hero of Time, prevent the story from standing on its own two feet. Yet, it’s more than just a rehash; it’s a reused formula that’s pushed to its creative limits in the darkest, most outlandish, most grandiose, and most emotionally satisfying ways.

If we know nothing about the convoluted story beforehand, it keeps surprising us at every turn. Most Zelda games foreshadow the main conflict at the very beginning, such as how Wind Waker‘s prologue sets up its main antagonist. Not Twilight Princess. Here, we’re thrown straight into Link’s hardworking life in Ordon Village.

While this new Link is still mute (from our perspective), he’s such an inspiration to the kids of Ordon that young Colin at one point commits a selfless act that could have taken his own life over another’s. Before the plot truly begins, Link saves one of the kids as well as a monkey from getting killed by goblins. This guy is clearly a hero before he learns from a literal spirit animal that he’s the Hero. Oh, and he has a love interest in the form of Illa, the mayor’s daughter who likes hanging out with Link’s horse more than Link himself.

The items that he obtains along the way include bomb arrows, a pair of clawshots, a giant spinning top that can glide along rails, and the ability to turn into a wolf as permitted by the goddesses through the powers of an alternate dimension known as the Twilight Realm whose evil forces, led by the creepy tyrant Zant, aim to take over Hyrule. How much cooler can Link get than this (sans Majora’s masks)?

Whereas the characters’ faces in Wind Waker are a series of textures on solid-shaped heads, the faces here are fully rendered with bodies designed similarly to the OcarinaDuology. Not only are the movements more realistic but the scenery is vast and detailed. If the color pallet were vibrant, the visuals would be downright gorgeous rather than merely impressive. Another flaw is that these enhanced graphics make way for a few women who dress more provocatively than needed; two in particular are designed so sensually that they’re a big enough concern to prevent the game from getting a full four stars.

Majora’s Mask‘s Tatl is a step-up from Ocarina‘s Navi in terms of characterization, but their replacement here, Midna – a citizen of the Twilight Realm, or Twili – , has the most fleshed-out arc in the whole series so far. At first she’s annoying, and then her hilarious sarcasm shines through, and then she conveys pathos, and then her underlying anger is revealed and unleashed in a disturbingly cold-blooded act.

The way each character develops is just as thrilling as the plot’s abundance of action in between the dungeons, including horseback chases and mini showdowns that give Hyrule Field a much more exciting use than running from point A to point B ala Ocarina.

The heroic and touching musical score is also beautifully utilized; the music in the OcarinaDuology is memorable, but there are hardly any tracks that I’d want to listen to over and over again. With Twilight Princess…well, I can could listen to the music all day.

While the story’s ambition and complexity is certainly enjoyable – dynamic side characters, two main villains, and a recurring minor villain is a nice change of pace – , it is quite overstuffed, with ideas ranging from something as frightening as a benevolent yeti’s face suddenly turning demonic to something as silly as a toddler with an advanced intellect becoming a businessman (not that Majora’s Mask is without silliness). The whole story would feels like a complete mess of everything except the kitchen sink if it weren’t for the character development. However, if there’s one aspect that truly drags the game down, it’s its difficulty…or lack thereof.

Sure, the dungeons are long, often confusing, and sometimes tricky – one complication in the second-to-last dungeon is edge-of-your-seat terrifying – , but most of the boss battles, as conceptually creative as they are, are pitifully easy as they deal us hardly any damage and run the “hit the boss’s weak spot three times” strategy into the ground.

It also features the series’ usual mixed spirituality, with polytheistic themes being more emphasized here as Zant gets his powers from a different “god”…who turns out not to be so. I also have mixed feelings about us getting our wolf ability from the villains’ dark magic, and one sidequest involves us collecting the souls of nefarious spectres called poes in order to break somebody’s curse. …If poes are already ghosts, how can we take their souls?!

Despite its weaknesses, the game is still an incredible graphical and humanistic achievement (I’ve only played the Wii version whose controls allow for a delightfully immersive experience, but there’s hardly a graphical difference from the GameCube version). It’s not the most thought-provoking or frustrating Zeldagame (Majora’s Mask is the former and Wind Waker, not in a fun way, is the latter), but for what it lacks in a challenge it makes up for in a rich and epic story that’s rooted in genuine heroism (other than Midna’s ambiguous morals).

I would prefer to re-experience the simpler storylines and colorful visuals of the OcarinaDuology – not to mention, they touch my inner seven-year-old rather than my inner twelve-year-old – , but Twilight Princess is nonetheless the magnum opus of everything the series has accomplished thus far. I definitely accept it as Ocarina‘s honorary threequel.

11/10/2015 | “An Inevitable Attack of the Clones Post”

Wait, Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (★★☆☆)? I go straight from the beloved middle chapter of the beloved Original Trilogy to the infamous middle chapter of the infamous Prequel Trilogy? How can this be?!

To answer the questions that you may or may not being asking yourself, the family with whom I’m watching through the saga agreed to view it in the Machete Order: episodes IV, V, II, III, and VI. It fits in the most relevant Prequels without spoiling a mind-blowing twist at the climax of The Empire Strikes Back that’s so engraved into pop culture that most of those who haven’t seen Star Wars already know it.

Even so, I refuse to spoil this twist myself, but I will say that it’s a crucial revelation about the Original Trilogy’s main antagonist, Darth Vader. The widely despised Prequel Trilogy that was made years after the Originals sloppily recounts Vader’s past, from his rise to a Jedi to his fall from grace (which we hear the gist of in A New Hope).

In Attack of the Clone‘s sluggish predecessor, Star Wars: Episode I – The PhantomMenace, we’re introduced to a young Obi-Wan Kenobi, the one who introduces the future Luke Skywalker to the ways of the Force; a teenage Queen Padme Amidala, played by Natalie Portman, who must face the Trade Federation which aims to overtake and raise the taxes on her home planet of Naboo; a pre-teen Darth Vader in a career-destroying performance by Jake Lloyd; and Jar Jar Binks, the Navi of the Star Wars Universe.

Obi-Wan’s a Jedi padawan himself, but in the end, he’s forced to take up the task of training the future Darth Vader who happens to be the one prophesied to bring balance to the Force by destroying the Sith, who have had a recent resurgence.

Now, in Clones, Padme is a senator with assassins after her, Obi-Wan has been training Vader for ten years, the Trade Federation is spreading across the galaxy, Jar Jar’s role in the story is significantly reduced, and the CGI hasn’t aged well. Sure, it would look amazing for video game graphics of this generation, but it clashes horribly with the live-action aspects.

George Lucas’s lack of talent for writing and directing believable stories doesn’t distract from the abundance of outdated effects. His choice of casting the flat Hayden Christensen as Vader is poor in itself, but it isn’t helped by giving him a personality that’s so whiney and stalkerish that it’s unintentionally hilarious.

“You’re just the way I remember you in my dreams,” he once tells Padme. Of course, Padme who’s also stilted performance-wise ends up falling in love with him even after all of his creepiness. “I truly, deeply love you.” …Okay… Their farfetched forbidden love story slows down a plot that has a couple of ridiculous conveniences and more than a few unanswered questions.

That’s not to say that there aren’t any saving graces, especially Ewan McGregor as Obi-Wan. The actions scenes are just as creative as they are silly, including an early flying car chase on a planet that’s essentially one big city and a sequence where the heroes fight for their lives on the conveyor belts of a robot factory; there’s even a bit of the wit carried over from the Originals. The image of an army of Jedi charging into an army of said robots is the highlight of the movie for me.

The clones in the title refer to an army used by the good guys that’s cloned from a single bounty hunter. While there isn’t anything bad said about the process of cloning, there’s definitely an ambiguity about what this army is truly going to be used for (and if you’ve seen any of the Originals at this point, it’s pretty obvious).

Attack of the Clones is bogged down by weak storytelling, but it has its moments, even if some of those moments weren’t meant to be amusing. Now, how does it feel to go from Empire to this? Well, considering that I watched Empire nearly three months ago, I can’t quite say, but I am ultimately glad that I watched this movie. I also seem to feel differently about Episode III every time I watch it, so I’ll see how that one holds up.

11/19/2015 | Lord of the Rings post (can’t remember the original title)

The Lord of the Rings Trilogy – consisting of The Fellowship of the RingThe Two Towers, and The Return of the King – means so much to me that I can’t write for it a full-fledged review – not to mention, I have yet to finish the books – , so this post is rather a list of personal observations about the movies that would be best understood by their fans.

  • …And the first thing I say is that others before me have pointed out the story’s heavy Christian symbolism, such as how Frodo carries the weight of the soul-destroying Ring like how Christ carries the weight of sin.
  • The special effects create some of the most astounding imagery I’ve ever seen put to screen; sure, the CGI hasn’t aged well enough to say that it doesn’t look like video game graphics, but whereas the Star Wars prequels look like top-notch graphics of the previous generation, these look like top-notch graphics of this generation. It helps that they’re used to support a story rather than become a story ala the Star Wars prequels or the Hobbit movies.
  • These movies have some of the funnest video game adaptations I’ve ever played, from the straight-up adaptations of The Two Towers and Return of the King to especially the real-time strategy The Battle for Middle-Earth (but its sequel…not so much).
  • Frodo once says, “I spent my whole childhood pretending I was off on an adventure.” That’s totally me – growing up playing video games like Zelda and watching movies like Star Wars and…Lord of the Rings. Samwise Gamgee is the story’s true hero, anyway – not only assisting Frodo in various ways but also offering some of the films’ most inspiring lines; “There’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo! And it’s worth fighting for!” Everybody needs a Sam.
  • Gimli and Legolas are largely regulated to cheap comic relief and superhuman stunts so that Aragorn can shine, and this Aragorn isn’t even as cool as he is in the book; J.R.R. Tolkien’s Aragorn is like, “Do you know who I am?! I’m the King of Gondor!” whereas Peter Jackson’s Aragorn is like, “Oh dear…I’m the King of Gondor.”
  • As creative as Tolkien is with names, he could have been a little bit more creative. I mean, Arwen/Eowyn, Sauron/Saruman…not only could these names be confusing for casual viewers (just look at this spoilerific parody, which contains some offensive language), but also a couple of plot points in the movies don’t make any sense outside the books.
  • “I have to save you.” “You already did.” …So did George Lucas rip off Tolkien or did Peter Jackson rip off George Lucas?
  • The three main female characters have various connections with the men in the story ranging from mentor to romantic interest, but none of them pass the Bechdel Test. For an epic that so strongly celebrates the power of brotherhood, the power of sisterhood is left in the dust. On the other hand, in a society that lacks true masculinity, perhaps more stories need to remind us of wholesome brotherly love.

And that’s all I really have to say. I could find more dramatic flaws to nitpick, but what’s the use? None of them can ruin my favorite movie trilogy of all time. Sure, Star Wars is more fun and more formative to my childhood imagination, but Lord of the Rings has more heart, better acting, and more agreeable spiritual resonances than Star Wars has ever had.

12/01/2015 | “An Inevitable Revenge of the Sith Post”

Once again, as I say in the postscript of my A New Hope review on Catholic Movie Nerd:

The belated Prequel Trilogy of Episode I – The Phantom MenaceEpisode II – Attack of the Clones, and Episode III – Revenge of the Sith have their moments – mostly in Clones – but their overly serious tones degrade the B-movie-type writing and acting that help make the Original Trilogy fun.

After a fresh rewatch, I can say that Clones has the most genuinely fun moments of the Prequels, but Sith – the one that recounts how Darth Vader turns to the Dark Side – takes the cake of being the most engaging of the trilogy, even if it’s less engaging in a superbly crafted, Tolkien-inspired way like the recently reviewed Lord of the Rings movies and more in a cheesy, melodramatic, action-packed nonsense way.

It’s not that the Originals aren’t imperfect, but they have such a sincere spirit that their imperfections don’t matter. On the other hand, the Prequels suffer from harder to overlook imperfections: unintentionally hilarious dialogue, nonsensical character development, and flat acting, even by Samuel L. Jackson whose most memorable moments in the whole trilogy are a great one-liner in Attack of the Clones (“This party’s over.”) and surviving longer than three Jedi masters against one Sith (though a Sith lord at that) here.

Revenge of the Sith still features these imperfections, especially regarding the over-the-top romance between Vader and Padme. Yet, the story itself is so tightly paced that the flaws don’t drag it down. I’ve actually seen this movie three times this year, and I felt differently about it each time. With this recent viewing, I felt like, “Yeah, that part’s hard to take seriously, but I’m in the mood to embrace and enjoy this.”

Though there are moral imperfections that are hard to embrace. As Padme has become pregnant, Vader has visions of her dying in childbirth, and so one of the reasons he’s convinced to turn to the Dark Side is to prevent her death. In other words, his love for another turns him to evil.

On one hand, Vader delves into powers that he shouldn’t delve into in order to save his wife – and there are serious consequences – , but on the other hand, Yoda directly warns Vader to remove worldly attachments to an extreme that doesn’t agree with Christianity. And to what end do these detachments reach? Sure, Jedi have an afterlife awaiting them, but what about non-Jedi?

I’ve been trying to avoid who to blame for the flaws of the Prequels, so it’s time I give a name: George Lucas. His B-movie writing and directing worked when he took the reigns of A New Hope, but similarly to what I said earlier, the more serious, politically-driven stories of the Prequels were beyond his abilities.

Not to mention, he’s tried to justify Jar Jar Binks – who is at least mildly amusing and one of the few lively aspects about The Phantom Menace; I’ll give him that – by claiming that Star Wars is for children and then makes Revenge of the Sith, the first PG-13 Star Wars movie – and it would have been hard not to make this one darker than any other – , where it’s implied that Vader kills a whole room full of children. …Actually, he’s implied to have slaughtered the entire colony of Tusken Raiders who killed his mother in Clones, but there are other surprisingly brutal moments onscreen here.

Lucas may struggle with keeping a consistent view of his own franchise and realizing realistic characters – at least when he’s not writing/directing A New Hope – , but he sure is one heck of a visionary; while the CGI here has only aged slightly better than that of Attack of the Clones, the visuals it creates are some of the most imaginative of the whole saga, with one planet featuring giant pits that are essentially entire cities and one planet being made of volcanos. The opening and climactic action sequences, the latter of which consists of two simultaneous lightsaber duels each in wildly different environments, are spectacles to behold.

The closing shot recalls one of the most iconic moments in A New Hope, and it’s made even more striking through advances in visual effects. Sure, the circumstances leading up to this scene could make more sense, but that visual combined with John William’s timeless musical score make it feel like a perfect, optimistic way to end the Prequels.

And really, perhaps it is best to fit Clones and Sith between Empire and Return of the Jedibecause they remind me that while the Originals are great space operas, they aren’t works of art like The Wizard of Oz nor thoroughly developed myths like Lord of the Rings – they’re entertainment. Don’t get me wrong, they’re mythic, inventive, and emotional enough to be taken more seriously than just popcorn movies, but they strive more to delight than to enlighten us.

Even though the Prequels are space operas that could use much improvement, at least Revenge of the Sith is very enjoyable for what it is; not to mention, it carries a little bit of nostalgic value because I watched it a lot when it was first released.

…And I can’t believe that was ten years ago.

07/17/2016 | “REVIEW | The Last of Us (2013 GAME)”

In case this is the first time you’ve heard about The Last of Usthank God I’m the one you’ve come across. In case you’ve heard about how “great” The Last of Us is, jump the heck out of the hype train, even if it’s moving. I mean, the praise this game has received horrifies me as much as the story it tells!

I can certainly understand its emotional appeal for an artistic medium so disparaged outside of gaming culture; the lead motion-capture performances by Troy Baker as middle-aged Joel and Ashley Johnson as teenage Ellie are phenomenal, and the drama surrounding their characters’ willingness to pursue the greater good in a world ravaged by zombies, crazies, and corrupt military regimes emotionally invested more than any other video game I can think of.

The father/daughter bond that Joel and Ellie develop not only explores how humanity would react to a zombie apocalypse—which isn’t pretty—but also the universal question of how far a father would go to protect his child—which also isn’t pretty.

They’re certainly not pleasant people, even though their quest to escort Ellie across the United States to get a cure produced from her immunity to the zombie spores is quite noble. In fact, one character who describes the state of humanity uses crasser words than I do, and said words aren’t as crass as what usually comes out of the characters’ mouths. Nobody here is a clear-cut hero, not even the leading Joel; everybody’s just another survivor who constantly resorts to savagery.

Would it make sense for a worldwide crisis such as zombie spores to bring out the absolute worst in humanity? Perhaps. But I don’t think a fictitious world that normalizes such savagery should be approached without strong reservations.

And yet, the story’s reliance on horrific incident, from the harrowing deaths of two sympathetic allies to the ghastly ways Joel can kill and be killed to Ellie nearly getting butchered by cannibals—the last of which is where I finally checked out and watched the rest of the story on Youtube, make the occasional glimmers of hope, such as Joel and Ellie coming across a community that strives to live in peace and Ellie taking up the task of caring for Joel after he gets seriously injured, that much more powerful.

But even if these glimmers of hope were to come out on top in the end, would they make the thorough nastiness of the journey worth trudging through in the first place? Ultimately, that question is never answered. Instead, it succumbs to the nihilism it toys with throughout, leaving us with the impression that humanity is ultimately too corrupt to be redeemed, and it does so with a subversion of a Christlike sacrifice.

…So, what are the lessons learned from all of this? Never pay twenty dollars for the sake of critique, and never try to be a game critic, unless you’re getting paid for it. I mean, I originally bought a PS3 for the sake of my formal Gaming with Faith archive, but that site didn’t work out. I also wanted to find games that I could cherish, and so far, I haven’t found much beyond disappointment for the PS3.

I certainly wouldn’t play Grand Theft Auto for the sake of a Catholic critique because, well, those games are so controversial that it’s pretty easy to decide whether or not to buy them. But The Last of Us has had nothing but good said about it, so at least I can say first-hand how big a problem that is.

F

08/02/2016 | “REVIEW | Portal 2 (2011 GAME)”

If you have a Steam account (or a PS3 or an Xbox 360), get the Portal games, and you really can’t play one without the other. Portal 2 particularly is one of the best things I’ve played on PC, and I grew up on PC games!

…Of course, if you were to check my Steam profile, you’d see that over the past year I’ve put more hours than I should have into Deus Ex and the unfinished Half-Life saga, but this review isn’t about my complicated relationships with those games; this is about a game that I can actually recommend (along with its predecessor).

Instead of any lethal weapons, the Portal games’ central mechanic revolves around a gun that shoots two interconnected portals to solve brain-cramping puzzles; most of the violence we cause involves incidental run-ins with sentient robot turrets.

The first Portal, which was pitched to Valve by a team of indie developers, was released in 2007 as part of a collection that also included the anticipated releases of Half-Life 2: Episode 2 and Team Fortress 2, so Portal‘s popularity came as a surprise. Remember that “THE CAKE IS A LIE” meme? That’s from Portal. But Portal‘s a game that can be beaten in a couple evenings on first playthrough, laying the groundwork for a funner sequel.

As with the first PortalPortal 2 has us playing as mute test subject Chell in the Aperture Science Enrichment Center, run by the anti-human female A.I. known as GLaDOS—a name I now associate with every computerized lady voice—who taunts us at every turn, and sometimes quite unsettlingly.

But unlike its predecessor, Portal 2 goes into the literal depths of Aperture’s lore, explained largely through the voice recordings of the facility’s long-dead CEO, voiced by none other than J.K. Simmons (and this is now the first thing that comes to mind when I hear him in other voice roles).

While said recordings reveal that Aperture’s downfall was caused by its ludicrous, nature-twisting experiments, the story also expands upon GLaDOS’s theistic role in Aperture as she shapes its mechanical environments, omnisciently watches her test subjects, and creates machines in her own sort-of image; there’s even an implication that science can raise humanity to godlike status. But before this starts sounding too anti-theistic, other plot developments have me thinking that this less of a metaphor for God but rather for the god complex that can stem from rulership.

At face value, it all seems pretty cynical, including its lack of genuinely good people. However, the charming dark wit turns the cynicism into a sort of absurdist satire, complimented by a rollicking geekiness embodied by the 8-bit tinged musical score, and its ultimate boss takeout is epic. …Then followed by an act of kindness from a character we wouldn’t expect it from.

Plus, its multiplayer mode doesn’t pit players against each other but rather forces players to work together, and since I’m not a fan of competitive games, this mode was tailor made for me, even if it features some of GLaDOS’s grimmest insults.

A

08/18/2016 | “REVIEW | Transformers (2007 FILM)”

Transformers is a movie that changed my life twice. Not joking.

The first time is when it was first released; it completely sucked me into the Transformersfranchise, and while some not-so-kid-friendly content prevented me from being allowed to see it in theaters, I saw the sequels in theaters, and I watched every new Transformers TV series and bought hundreds of action figures—many of which ended up in my Youtube videos—in the following years.

The second time was a fateful 2014 Lenten evening where I decided to rewatch it for the first time in a couple of years and realized… “WHAT THE HECK WAS I THINKING?! I LIKED THIS MOVIE?!”

In that moment, it’s like Jesus knocked me off my horse and said to me, “T., T., why are you obsessing over glorified toy commercials?” I realized that no matter how good a Transformers story could be, it’s fundamentally going to be an advertisement for toys and an excuse to revel in robots killing each other, and I was buying into it. Since then, I’ve rarely put stock into the franchise outside my own contributions to it.

It’s not the fact that the movie is cheesy that bothers me. I mean, it’s a story about robots from space that happen to be able to scan pieces of technology and fold perfectly into them. It’s not even the fact that humans overshadow the titular robots that bothers me. I mean, we’re introduced to a sympathetic soldier who just wants to get back home to his wife and infant daughter as soon as the movie opens.

What bothers me is that its focus doesn’t account for the frachise’s target audience—the life of some obnoxious teenager, played by Shia Labeouf, who has kooky parents, wants to buy a car, wants to sleep with a very wooden Megan Fox, has family relics that happen to have connections to the titular robots, and experiences situations so raunchy that I really wish a studio executive had stepped in and gone “HOLD ON A MINUTE!” Though if somebody did, they probably got shot down. With a bazooka.

I guess it doesn’t really matter to the studio what the heck they let their director, Michael Bay, get away with when the movies end up making jillions of dollars.

At least the robots retain their dignity. Or at least Optimus Prime, the leader of the good Autobots, does; Shia’s companionship with his robot car, Bumblebee, is supposed to be the story’s heart, but Bee’s dignity is compromised when he mockingly pees on John Turturro, the highlight of the human cast. However, we at one point get a glimpse of how much each Autobot cares for one another and their mission to save Earth as they discuss their next move. And then Optimus reveals what he’s willing to sacrifice in order to save humanity… I feel a tug there.

The evil Decepticons don’t fare too well character-wise. They have a presence throughout, but they’re little more than one-dimensional monsters (not that the Autobots aren’t one-dimensional in their own ways) who are nearly impossible to kill, which does give them a sense of menace. The big bad guy, Megatron, doesn’t even arrive until the final act, though Hugo Weaving brings an awesome slice of ham to his voice performance (“You want a piece of me?!” “NoI want…two!”).

Said final act is by far the film’s most entertaining sequence with its urban robot warfare—even though the good guys’ motivation to set up in a city is completely inconsiderate of the lives of citizens—, if you can tell the difference between said robots. I’ve always been able to tell the difference since I’d seen the toys beforehand, but I can see how the shaky cam can disorient uninitiated viewers, especially given the robots’ designs.

I can say that it’s better than its sequels, but that doesn’t deem it a good movie, and not even—for the most part—in a delightfully bad way. At the very least, my Youtube channel leaves this fundamentally silly franchise something better than this. …Well, that’s my goal. Still, the saddest part about all of this is that I’m probably going to end up seeing the next ones.

D

08/25/2016 | “REVIEW | Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977 FILM)”

If you haven’t seen Star Wars, you don’t need me to tell you to watch it.

It’s so engraved into pop culture that you already know the names Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader, Han Solo, and Princess Leia. You already know who Luke’s father is. And you already know that if it weren’t for the first one, titled just Star Wars until Episode IV – A New Hope was added in re-releases, we wouldn’t have popcorn movies the way they are today; it’s also the one that holds up the best for me.

As a whole, the Star Wars franchise—from movies to action figures to video games—was possibly the biggest fiction of my childhood. My history with it goes back so far that I don’t even remember my first experience with it; it was always just there, leading to a current bias that goes beyond nostalgia.

Of course, I have shown the whole Original Trilogy to friends my age who hadn’t seen it before; one of them thought it was excellent, and the other two, while they got distracted by its similarities to Disney movies (which, as of Disney’s buying of Star Wars in 2012, they weren’t irrational in doing), nonetheless liked it, so you don’t have to have grown up with Star Wars in order to appreciate it.

A New Hope is actually the one that would seem the blandest and most generic compared to its sequels. But A New Hope did more than reinvent action spectacle; it took mythic archetypes and brought them into an escapist space adventure, wondrously building a fantasy world filled with endless possibilities, and the simplicity adds to the fairy tale appeal.

It also brought us the legendary musical score, the delightfully cornball dialogue, the wit between Luke, Han, and Leia… Really, the only problem I have with it structurally is that the climactic space battle drags on too long for me, but that’s a minor gripe. Even after seeing it a million times, A New Hope is still an absolute joy to watch.

A+

09/01/2016 | “REVIEW | The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998 GAME)”

Well, my video game reviews got off to a rocky start with The Last of Us. So what’s the polar opposite of The Last of Us for me? None other than the Citizen Kane of video games itself: The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time!

No other video game in history has garnered higher critical scores, and its explorable 3D world laid the modern groundwork for one of the most popular genres: open world!

…Of course, it was made in the 90s, so if you’ve never played it and already know games that have built upon Ocarina’s influence, it’ll probably underwhelm you. Plus, since it’s the most nostalgic thing in my life, I can’t look at it from an entirely objective perspective. But if I could, I’d still call it a masterpiece.

Now, the Legend of Zelda franchise had already revolutionized gaming by the time of this jump to 3D. Heck, even though the original title for the NES was the first home console game to implement save files, it still caused the first cases of video game addiction…so I guess it didn’t revolutionize gaming in only good ways. Anyways, Ocarina follows the series’s established formula: the silent protagonist Link teaming up with the titular Princess Zelda to defeat the evil Ganon(dorf) from obtaining the Triforce of Power that holds creation together.

However, aside from the traditional vaguely monistic Triforce, Ocarina replaces subtle though direct connotations to Christianity through the introduction of the goddesses who created the world of Hyrule and have chosen Link to be their Hero of Time.

On the other hand, that opens up stronger parallels to Christianity, such as the idea of following a higher power’s good will without a fret. Many of the game’s magic powers are even given to us by the goddesses, if through freaky, exploitatively filmed “Great Fairies”, which aren’t the only oppressive fairies in Hyrule…such as our infamous sidekick, Navi, who disrupts the game at random times to tell us what to do.

But what Navi, who also functions as a targeting system to lock onto enemies in combat, usually points us to the game’s centerpieces: dungeons filled with monsters, puzzles, and mcguffins. We can also take breaks from the main quest to help out random citizens, go on treasure hunts… I mean, this is all pretty standard Zelda stuff that subsequent titles have expanded upon, so what makes Ocarina standout? Oddly, its simplicity in storytelling.

While the story tends to over-explain its own mythology, most of the characters are cutouts. Newcomers may find such characterization lacking, but I find it all charming enough to make me want to save Hyrule, and it somehow emphasizes the story’s mythic resonance, wrapped up in a sort of childlike innocence.

Granted, the Great Fairies and mixed spiritualities are only in addition to what really undermines the family-friendliness: the occasional envelope-pushing horror elements. For as much as this game made my childhood, it equal parts ruined it.

Though while we’re allowed to get away with minor property damage and theft, the story is otherwise rooted in truth, such as how our responsibilities demand more from us as we grow, how the villain can be defeated without having to be killed, and how seeking praise should never be a reason deny oneself. A central gameplay mechanic even celebrates the power of art as we play songs through the titular instrument that can make it rain, raise the sun, teleport us…

…And while no song has that power in reality, a song can make a depressed person dance, as in one of the game’s funniest moments!

With that, Ocarina of Time is pure magic. While calling it the greatest video game ever made may be an admitted overstatement, it’s the one I personally compare all others to. It’s not just great game design, but it’s also great mythmaking—a straightforward tale of good conquering evil that never loses its charm.

A+

09/27/2016 | “REVIEW | Shadow of the Colossus (2005 GAME)”

Shadow of the Colossus is transcendent—not only unique in premise and execution but a game whose violence wants us to feel guilty for being thrilled by it, where violence doesn’t solve conflict but rather worsens it.

Heck, after the “Michael Bay’s Indiana Jones” known as the Uncharted trilogy, the disappointing Metal Gear Solid sequels, my few hours of Fallout 3, and *GAH!The Last of UsShadow‘s HD remaster is so far my biggest reason not to regret buying a PS3, which means I probably would have been better off buying a used PS2. But hey, Ocarina of Time has been the only reason my N64 isn’t rejected these days.

Speaking of which, Shadow is essentially the opposite side of Ocarina‘s coin; whereas Ocarina is a joyous and colorful representation of the open world genre, Shadow is a melancholy and visually muted deconstruction of the genre, putting us into a vast world with no side quests and no other human characters except for those who intrude upon this realm. Our goals are linear, and the journeys towards them are deliberate even on horseback.

Shadow‘s other major influence is its own 2001 spiritual predecessor whose own HD remake shares a disc with Shadow‘s: Ico, a fantasy platformer that sports a kind of minimalistic, emotionally-driven artistry that hadn’t been seen in a video game before its time. Its storytelling devices that Shadow borrows also include its modicum of characterization and its fictitious language presented through subtitles.

However, unlike Ico‘s atmospheric musical score, Shadow‘s score is a majestic character in of itself, an encapsulation of the terrifying sizes of our adversaries: sixteen animalistic colossi, a number of which are humanoid in structure, that we as Wander are sent to destroy as part of a deal with a mysterious entity to have our sacrificed lover resurrected.

The score adds layers of excitement to the already nerve-racking task of climbing onto these creatures and trying to reinvigorate our stamina meter as we hang onto them for dear life and pound their weak points. And when the battle themes aren’t there to thrill me, the serene portions of the score are there to fill me with wonder.

As the forbidden land we traverse is merely a connector between the colossi’s lairs, the centerpiece boss fights double as the actual levels—so worthy of taking up the whole game that each end with a huge sense of catharsis. …That is before it hits us that we’ve just murdered a majestic creature that was minding its own business.

The death of each colossus not only affects the creatures, but it also hurts Wander, with his appearance slowly decaying as his string of violence progresses, and the consequences for dabbling in dark matters even for love’s sake don’t stop there.

Now that I’ve admired the cautionary moral of the tale, I do have a problem with the spirituality, and to explain why would spoil too much. I’ll just say that it’s because the symbolic devil that Wander makes a deal with has powers too godlike, and Wander can atone for what he’s done only in the most drastic way possible.

Still, on an objective level, Shadow is even more of a contender for the best video game ever made than Ocarina of Time, not that anything can replace Ocarina‘s place in my heart. Of course, a lot of its appeal lies in the way it assures me that video games can be great art. Its execution is so simple, yet so profound. Now to find another PS3, and not originally PS2, game that I can cherish…

A

10/13/2016 | “REVIEW | Lost (2004-2010 SERIES)”

A couple years ago, I was volunteering at a Catholic youth retreat, and somebody I knew was sitting at a table greeting me, and presumably everybody else, with a fake but familiar Scottish accent.

And so I decided to join him in the fake accentry, capping it off with, “I’ll see you in anotha life, brotha,” to which he responded, “YESFINALLY!” The details on how this next part came about are a bit fizzier, but I also remember telling him after he took a sip of water: “Now you’re like me.”

As the title of this post indicates, what we were referencing was Lost, which happens to be fellow blogger Catholic Skywalker’s number one TV drama of all time. I’ve been a fan since it first aired, starting later in season one; I was probably too young to have been allowed to watch it, but I knew it was better than any of those murder mystery shows I’d also been watching at that time (which Monk was the best of).

The story’s premise seems pretty straightforward at first: plane passengers of various races and cultures crash on an island and are forced to work together to survive…or rather, live together or die alone. And then an unseen monster rustles in the jungle. And then they get chased by a polar bear. …This obviously isn’t your average island.

The show doesn’t let us take these castaways at face value; every episode—well, most of them—takes one character and reveals their backstory through flashbacks that often parallel their given situation on the island. We see the brokenness of their lives—from Jack, a surgeon with parental issues; to Sawyer, a vengeful, womanizing conman; to Kate, a well-meaning but correctly accused fugitive; to Sayid, a former military torturer…and almost all of whom suffered from either absent or terrible father figures—that the writers reveal to be more important than it seems.

Catholicism is also a theme throughout the series, but it’s not always clear how sympathetic it is towards the Church, with one character being a fallen away Catholic, one character’s arch hinging on a priest refusing to absolve him of murder, and one character being an African drug lord-turned-self-proclaimed priest who once while trying to explain Jesus’s Baptism spouts heresy so flabbergasting that I really hope the writers are deliberately emphasizing his cluelessness there.

It’s not until the final season’s striking symbolism—which isn’t without secular liberties—where the show’s sympathies towards Catholicism are clear, and few other visual arts can reduce me to tears of both sadness and joy quite like the final minutes.

Of course, I always expect to cry at the end. What I wasn’t expecting during this watchthrough—I wasn’t as critical a thinker during my last ones—was how often the series was going to tug at me throughout, whether it’s dealing with the tragic life of John Locke (not the philosopher) or the healing marriage between Jin and Sun, and all of this is made even more impactful by Michael Giacchino’s musical score.

As for a word of advice: if you find that the writing begins to grow stale in the third season, just wait til the series keeps Shyamalaning us in the last three. On the other hand, the writers set up so many mysteries along the way that by the end, not all of the questions are satisfyingly answered, especially regarding the island’s half-baked mythology. Fortunately, what the series finale does beautifully is bring us closure to the characters we’ve gone on this insane journey with.

And said journey isn’t just tear-jerking; it’s a whole rollercoaster of emotions: thrilling, harrowing, funny, angering… In the end, even when it delves unflinchingly into the dark side of humanity, it’s a type of beauty I likely won’t see in any other TV series.

A-

10/22/2016 | “REVIEW | Batman Begins (2005 FILM)”

How I once introduced myself to a friend of a friend:

Her: Hi, I’m Rachel.
Me: RACHEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEL!!!
Her: Do you like that name?
Me: That’s what Batman said.
Her: Oh.

Said introduction miraculously did not scare Rachel away and eventually led her to watching the Dark Knight trilogy, the Batman Begins of which she claimed was “the BEST MOVIE EVER!!!!!!!” (Yes, I journeyed back to a four-year-old Facebook conversation to copy that.) While I surely wouldn’t go that far, I, a non comic reader, would call it the quintessential live-action Batman movie. And if you told me ten years ago that I’d say that, I would have thought you belonged in Arkham Asylum.

When it was first released, I didn’t realize it was a reboot and thought it was a prequel to the Tim Burton Batman movies, the twisted natures of which I now hold in much lower regard; and since I was used to Michael Keaton’s performance as the Caped Crusader, I found Christian Bale’s casting laughably over-the-top and ruined the movie for me. I couldn’t get why people were raving about it.

It wasn’t until The Dark Knight where I began to appreciate Batman Begins, the ironic part being how much my appreciation has grown since; even the gravelly Batvoice has grown on me. Now, in an age where I’m starting to get tired of superheroes, I still have quite a respect for Batman, which at one point became an unhealthy obsession back in high school thanks to these movies. I mean, take away the Batsuit and Batman’s still a ninja and, as Batman Begins actually shows, a detective!

What sells Batman Begins for me is that whereas the sequels shaft Bruce Wayne in favor of other characters, this one’s all about Bruce Wayne. We see what drives him to become the Dark Knight. We see how he not only battles criminals but understands where they come from. As Studio C has pointed out, the very premise of “Wealthy orphan goes into exile then comes back to save his people” is the bare bones of Exodus, giving the story a biblical edge. …Well, more mythic than biblical in this case. (And don’t get me started on Christian Bale’s actual Exodus retelling.)

This film may have initiated Hollywood’s obsession with dark and gritty reboots, but it still fairly balances stylization, such as the way Batman actually behaves like a giant bat—a creature that attacks from the darkness. He strikes fear into opponents who strike fear into the public. It also deals with a diverse cast of villains, ranging from a mob boss to a psychopath to a commanding mentor.

In terms of missteps, there is a death that the anti-killer Batman could have prevented through an act of mercy, and he causes nearly fatal vehicular damage with the Batmobile. And although Bruce Wayne believes that there are still good people left in a city as authoritatively corrupt as Gotham, and his belief is proven true through Katie Holme’s district attorney Rachel Dawes and Gary Oldman’s Lieutenant Jim Gordon, there’s no time for us to be shown the goodness in ordinary citizens. Though perhaps that’s more of a want for myself than a necessity for the story.

The other biggest aspect that sells me is how nothing, not even the breakneck pace gets in the way of its emotional resonance, such as Michael Caine’s wonderful Alfred’s commitment to Bruce, whether he’s trying to inspire his adopted son or discourage his reckless antics.

Plus, since we get to know Bruce’s sympathetic father before he’s killed, this depiction of the murder of his parents—the moment that defines the Batman character—has a genuine sense of heartbreak, and Bruce’s bond with lifelong friend Rachel refuses a cliche “hero gets the girl”.

All of this not only makes for great superhero storytelling, but it’s wrapped up in a sort of mythmaking, not just the biblical premise but the first act’s fictional Tibetan setting and the score’s booming horns that embody both the heroism and the darkness of its icon, that makes it one of the superhero movies I compare all others to.

A

11/03/2016 | “REVIEW | Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982 FILM)”

When I was little, Star Trek was my older brother’s thing. I mean, Star Wars had lightsabers in an exciting battle between good and evil whereas Star Trek had phasers in a philosophical, character-driven exploration of space.

Since the franchise is so rooted in philosophy and literature that its own geekiness goes beyond mine, I’m still more of a Warsie, but my affinity for Star Trek and its meaning grew as I grew, even to the point where I can agree on Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan‘s status as the quintessential Star Trek movie.

Heck, since its predecessor Star Trek: The Motion Picture—released ten years after the Original Series was cancelled after three seasons—is so rife with 2001-style tediousness, a number of Trekkies like to call this the true first movie. So, forget the logicless plotting and hyperactive action of NuTrek and get ready for real Star Trek!

Although Wrath of Khan introduces James T. Kirk, former captain of the U.S.S. Enterprise, during his time as admiral, we get a perfect sense of his history with his crew and his ship, even if you haven’t seen the Original Series. While celebrating his birthday, which he’s, as Dr. McCoy puts it, treating like his own funeral, he’s pining for the days where he could lead cadets into the final frontier as he’s now only able to oversee those in training.

Of course, some aspects of his past he finds desirable while others are soon coming back to haunt him, such as his former womanizing ways and especially the marooning of the titular Khan Noonien Singh, a superhuman with a Captain Ahab complex so blatant that he literally quotes Moby Dick!

It’s in this conflict with Khan where Kirk proves how spiffy he still is, where William Shatner (Kirk) and Ricardo Montalban (Khan) try to prove who’s the bigger ham—and without even meeting in person onscreen—, where we get riveting starship showdowns enhanced by James Horner’s musical score, and where fans of Star Trek Into Darkness will realize how much their movie is a post-9/11 Wrath of Khan.

Bringing in a villain with a personal motive also makes for more cinematic storytelling than a TV-type “discover a new planet with new species” plot, though Wrath of Khan puts a twist on the latter by being less about discovering planets and more about creating them…with this surface-level glorification of playing God being counteracted by the planet-creating device’s potential to destroy living worlds.

And just as the TV series uses space exploration as a device to explore the human condition, we get thought-provoking tidbits like, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few,” and “How we face death is at least as important has how we face life.” And indeed, Kirk must face death, just not in a way he would have expected.

And that’s what Wrath of Khan does so well: it makes me feel oh-so smart for liking it, but it also entertains me enough to be able to pop it in on a sick day. Plus, considering how bizarre the actual Original Series can be, it’s nice to have its overall spirit condensed into a package as sweet as this.

A

11/10/2016 | “REVIEW | Deus Ex (2000 GAME)”

As you’d discover through my Portal 2 post, Deus Ex, at the time of this writing, is my most played game on Steam, barely beating the time I put into two versions of Half-Life 2 combined. Yet, I wrote about Half-Life 2 so many times before I revamped this blog that I really don’t want to devote an entire post to it again. (And those who followed me during that period are probably thinking, “THANK GOD!“)

Basically, Half-Life 2 gripped me with its technical prowess and memorable characters so strongly that it took me a long time (well, until the last six paragraphs of Steven Greydanus’s article on The Revenant) to realize its fundamental flaw: manipulating us with emotionally resonant themes into wanting to shoot the bad guys through its shooting mechanics.

Deus Ex, another “first-person shooter”, isn’t that problematic, or at least not that fundamentally. And that’s one of the reasons why my feelings are left mixed instead of fully apprehensive.

Unlike a straight-up, run-and-gun shooter like Half-Life 2Deus Ex incorporates RPG elements into its gameplay. It’s not the first FPS to do so, but it does so to an extent that allows us to approach any given mission any way we want. Will we reach our objectives with guns blazing or with as little violence as possible? Given our limited ammo and clunky aiming system, the game wants us to take the latter approach.

It wasn’t made for the casual gamer. For its time, the depth in gameplay is staggering, and said depth extents to its storytelling, even to its philosophical jargon; heck, there are open books laying everywhere in the game, and one of them includes an excerpt from G.K. Chesterton. Every decision we make affects the characters around us, and we can subtly shape the fairly linear storyline in sometimes unthinkable ways, although only one of the three outcomes for the climax is somewhat ethical.

Not only that, but the augmentative upgrade system for protagonistic cyborg agent J.C. Denton isn’t the most humanistically agreeable mechanic.

But what really makes Deus Ex so dang entertaining is not only its freedom in gameplay but also its general corniness, from the stiff animations to J.C.’s dry one-liners to the botched accents that’ll either amuse or offend. The laughs—whether intended or not—dull some potentially unsettling subject matter, such as the fact that the plot revolves around J.C. stopping a “Gray Death” that’s wiping out the worldwide population whose women, questionably, either dress as or actually are prostitutes.

Alas, the story’s other biggest charm, the kitchen sink nature of its ridiculous, conspiracy-laden plot, also leads to the story’s biggest problem: how it portrays the Knights Templar and the Illuminati; although it’s unclear whether they’re currently involved with the Catholic Church, they’re implied to be practicing Catholic tradition. The villain, Bob Page, is even a fan of Thomas Aquinas, if one who doesn’t get Aquinas’s words as he uses them as the basis for his plan to become a god.

After a lone billboard illustrates how people are more willing to put their faith in a pack of “savioriffic” cigarettes over Jesus himself earlier in the game, the game’s ultimate impression of religion is that it’s merely an excuse for domination. If it weren’t for this, Deus Ex would be a lot easier to appreciate. In the infamous words of J.C. Denton…

D+

11/17/2016 | “REVIEW | Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980 FILM)”

Being called the “Empire Strikes Back” of your series is an honor as high as being called the “Citizen Kane” or “Godfather” of your entire genre.

After A New Hope, George Lucas solidified his plan to turn this current Star Wars trilogy into a set of sequels, which is why The Empire Strikes Back is Episode V and not Episode II. It’s also a project of equal ambition to its predecessor, and one that cinephiles consider the best of the whole saga.

Granted, I’d pick A New Hope over this, but this is still a brilliant followup.

As A New Hope introduces audiences to the far, far away galaxy, Empire‘s job is to expand upon it, and, with Irvin Kershner now in the director’s chair, not just in terms of its locations but also in terms of character development. Luke—the farm boy swept away from home, Han—the greedy rogue on a quest initially for money, and Leia—the princess who needed rescuing, are no longer mere archetypes, and Darth Vader—the nefarious sorcerer, is now seeping with unpredictable menace.

While we see the trio we fell in love with suffering and struggling in ways we wouldn’t expect, the story’s boldest move is ending not with victory on the heroes’ part but with failure, resulting in a bleak yet somehow climactic cliffhanger that makes the entire movie work because of its promise of a proper finale. And then there’s that highly spoiled, as well as misquoted, climactic revelation…

All of this makes Empire the most grownup of the trilogy, and the one I watched the least when I was a kid, though mostly due to one part that disturbed me. But for audiences back then, I can only picture how both mind-blowing and alienating this movie must have been. With the dominance of Marvel movies, we’re used to movies setting up other movies. But cliffhangers were uncommon for 1980, and audiences had to wait three years to find out the fate of one of their heroes.

So, if you watched A New Hope on its own and got the impression that Star Wars is nothing but fluff, then Empire will prove you wrong.

A

11/17/2016 | “REVIEW | The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask (2000 GAME)”

Zelda games usually follow a strict formula, the one that Ocarina of Time brought to 3D: “the silent protagonist Link teaming up with the titular Princess Zelda to defeat the evil Ganon(dorf) from obtaining the Triforce of Power that holds creation together.”

However, Ocarina‘s direct sequel, Majora’s Mask, is an example of making something even more ambitious with what your predecessor established. It says “To heck with the formula!” and throws us into a twisted Burtonesque nightmare, one that I’m really glad I saved until my teen years after my first full playthrough of Ocarina.

It’s not a game for everyone, and I’m not sure if it’s a game for me!

Instead of Hyrule, we get an alternate dimension known as Termina. Instead of Ganondorf, we get the Skull Kid who’s possessed by the titular mask. Instead of sidequesting without consequences, we get to be timed throughout the whole game as the Skull Kid’s slowly pulling the demon-faced moon into Termina’s land. Although we can keep turning back the clock using the returning Ocarina of Time, the song of which to do so is taught by Zelda in her lone appearance, and we face puzzles that require such perfect timing and bosses so brutally difficult that having to repeat things kills the fun factor under such apocalyptic pressure.

When the game’s not tempting us to break our controllers, it’s trying to freak us the heck out, notably through its constant macabre imagery and as we obtain magical masks made from the spirits of dead or dying individuals, which not only combines elements of reincarnation and animism but takes identity theft to a whole new level! As “Game Theory” points out, this mechanic—and the game in general—has roots in African culture, but from an ignorant perspective, it’s plain creepy.

Worse, the people we’ve helped through times of desperation always go back to the way they are when we return to the beginning. After so much existential dread, it mercifully all ends on a note as uplifting as we can expect from a Zelda game.

While I’d rather play something more, well, fun, I can’t help but admire the boldly original execution of all of this, especially for a franchise bound by formula. It stands as a masterful, if not always agreeable, rebel, and one of the most memorable gaming experiences you’d ever have.

But your mileage may vary on whether it would be pleasantly memorable.

C+

11/17/2016 | “REVIEW | Star Trek: Generations (1994 FILM)”

After the Original Series crew’s fantastic sendoff, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, it was time for the Next Generation crew—fresh off their series finale—to have their chance at the big screen, but not without some help from Captain Kirk.

And while this Generations is one of the disparaged “odd-numbered” Star Trek movies, I think it’s the most underappreciated Star Trek movie period.

I’ve actually seen a lot more of the TNG (The Next Generation) TV series than I have the actual Original Series, so I can safely say that this film follows in TNG‘s spirit, and if there’s any problem with that, it’s that it already assumes that we know the crew, preventing newcomers from getting a truly accessible introduction to them.

I mean, if someone were to discover Star Trek just through the movies—starting with Wrath of Khan, of course—they’d be introduced to Captain Kirk as a back-lit silhouette, an image that emphasizes Kirk’s legendary status. However, I think this introduction to the TNG crew would be too much, not only because of TNG‘s bloated main cast, most of which was never as interesting as the Original crew, but also because of how it ties up a couple of plotlines dangling from the series.

Not to mention, since the android Data, my favorite Star Trek character, has an emotions chip installed, newcomers wouldn’t know just how entertaining Brent Spiner can be in the role without having to emote, not that this emotional Data doesn’t offer the film’s funniest moments.

Of course, the movie’s main selling point is the meeting between Captain Picard and Captain Kirk, two captains whose eras are gapped by nearly eighty years, which sounds like a meeting of legendary proportions! So, what’s the first thing these captains do when they finally meet in the third act? Chop wood and cook eggs…which makes more sense in the context of the film. …In some ways.

Considering how idolized these cultural icons are, I appreciate how the writers go out of their way to humanize Picard and Kirk, not only having them engage in ordinary chores—before teaming up on an extraordinary mission, of course—but also putting them through life-changing crises, with Picard recovering from a family tragedy and Kirk having to pass his legacy onto a new crew and ship.

This humanization ties gracefully into the film’s central theme of true mortality versus false eternity, with the false eternity in question not being able to fully satisfy because it’s only an illusionary alternate reality, and the way to get there could mean tragic repercussions in the mortal world.

I think that’s what makes Generations the last real Star Trek movie—not only aiming for entertainment but also, for the most part, successfully realizing a brainy and resonant idea. While I wish that the Next Generation crew could have had at least one movie that stood perfectly fine on its own—and perhaps that’s the tragic repercussion of getting them from the small screen to the big screen so soon—, Generations is closest there is to a proper TNG movie.

B-

11/22/2016 | “BLOG | The first post”

Well, my site has been called “T. Martin Has a Blog” ever since I started it in August 2015, and all of my posts on the revised blog up until now have been reviews, so I might as well start a blog section for this blog, which will render an “About” page useless because I never know what this site is really about.

I mean, just recently, I turned my “Reflections” into “Reviews” and turned my “Now Playing” posts into even more concise, monthly columns, and I only fully review things I actually want to talk about (as such, I’ve been waiting for controversy to surround my slamming of The Last of Us).

There are reasons for my emphasis on tidiness. One is that I have hardly any regular readers, so I don’t want to put the time into a 1000+-word post (I like to limit them to at most 750 words) only for ten people to read it without even commenting. Another reason is that I’m not the most educated person in either the arts or Catholicism. Another reason is that my taste in entertainment is so limited that I really can’t be seen as a legit critic (and for the record, I’m so picky with paragraph structure that I can’t leave a certain number of words tangling in the bottom line).

So, what’s the purpose of blog posts? Well, to reflect on my other projects, such as my final stop-motion video that I’m working on as well as inform of the direction I could take this blog down again; I don’t like talking about my personal life, so whether or not I would is yet to be clear. I hope you do look forward to what I have to offer.

11/23/2016 | “BLOG | Out with the old”

Over the many months I’ve been contributing to and revising this blog, I’ve been learning about my strengths and weaknesses as a reviewer…and that’s why I keep revising it. So, I’m making yet another change: getting rid of the “Now Playing” posts and avoiding my first impressions on what’s playing in theaters entirely.

Given my limited taste in movies, there are critics out there way more reliable than I am. I’ve seen so few straight-up dramas and such a low variety of classics—and I’m a wimp when it comes to R-rated movies—that I don’t feel like I can give proper takes on contemporary films, especially genres I don’t usually watch. Plus, my own subsequent rewatches of movies don’t always live up to my own first impressions.

But the biggest reason I’m doing this is because I have fun writing reviews, but I write most passionately when I’ve had plenty of time to process and know what I’m writing about, like Star Wars; I have no passion towards my first impressions on movies. I mean, I don’t have many followers, and I don’t want to care that I don’t. I just want to write for the fun of it and be grateful for those who end up appreciating my passion.

Of course, there are exceptions to the “no first impressions” rule, such as one that I’ve mentioned in the second consecutive blog post: The Last of Us. That game had nearly unanimous praise, but I couldn’t find a single other Catholic critique on it, and my dissenting opinion was pretty well-formed after one semi-playthrough.

On the other hand, I’ll post about my theatergoing experiences on Twitter (@tmartinhasablog), and if there are any new releases I have something to say about, I’ll review them when they’re out on video. Who knows? Maybe there’ll be new releases down the line I’ll fully review my first impressions for.

11/25/2016 | “REVIEW | UHF (1989 FILM)”

Like TransformersUHF—the only movie music parody artist Weird Al Yankovic ever starred in—is a movie that I used to hold in much higher regard than I do now, especially since it influenced the sense of humor I put into my videos.

But unlike Transformers, it still has a favorable place in my heart.

Since it was directed by Weird Al music video veteran Jay Levy who co-wrote with Yankovic, it’s pretty much what you’d expect a Weird Al movie to be like; Weird Al’s character’s overactive imagination and UHF TV station he’s inherited, U-62, are basically excuses for random parodies and skits—including a full-on music video parody of Dire Strait’s “Money for Nothing”—to overshadow plot development, not that plot development is left in the dust.

It’s incoherent, relentlessly swinging, hit-or-miss stuff, but when it hits, it hits. The raunchier jokes are never too lurid, and the rough slapstick that earned it the PG-13 rating is too fake and cartoony to be too nasty.

What is particularly nasty is how villainized the staff at rival station Channel 8 are whereas the staff at U-62 are nothing but likable. Even then, Kevin McCarthy’s nefarious performance is too caricatured to take seriously.

Part of what makes UHF seem more competent than it is is how solid the performances are all-around; Weird Al himself may be the weakest link a cast filled with quirky characters, my favorite supporter of which being the karate master who’s not afraid to point out when people are being “STUPAAAAAAAAAAAAD!”

As the town citizens ultimately flock to U-62, we’re offered a satire on how trashy television can spawn community-wide followings, which, as Jubilare pointed out when I wrote about this movie before I revamped this blog, unfortunately resonates with the realities of junk like Game of Thrones.

All-in-all, UHF is mediocre in its storytelling, but it’s not trying to be more. It’s not surprising that it flopped at the box office, but it’s also not surprising that it garnered a cult following—me included. It’s simply mindless goofiness to be enjoyed either after a hard day or especially with a group of friends; I know both options from experience.

B

11/26/2016 | “REVIEW | Ico (2001 GAME)”

Ico is a peculiar fairytale—at once subversively cynical and refreshingly innocent. If its spiritual successor Shadow of the Colossus is the arthouse counterpart to Zelda, then Ico is the arthouse counterpart to platformers like Prince of Persia.

Actually, two years after Ico‘s release, the Prince of Persia was rebooted with The Sands of Time through a premise similar to Ico‘s, involving a male protagonist and a princess fighting their ways through a castle/palace filled with monsters. However, Sands of Time‘s morality tale is undermined by gratuitous sensualization whereas Ico is rooted in purity and chivalry.

It would sound like a children’s fable about the young, titular Ico guiding the otherworldly princess Yorda—meaning we’re the ones doing the hand-holding in a video game—if it weren’t for their motivations: to escape being sacrificed in a mysterious ritual for Yorda’s shadow queen mother.

What makes the surface of all of this so enchanting is its humble approach; while Ocarina of Time, gaming’s definitive fairy tale, celebrates humility, its scope is grand and expository whereas Ico isn’t interested in substantial characterization, with subtitles translating a fictitious language, or explaining itself.

The platforming gameplay also involves puzzle-solving, and the sections of bludgeoning shadow creatures would get repetitive—there’s not even a single boss fight until the finale—if Yorda weren’t the one they were after; it’s scary when she’s being dragged into their voids not just because it can lead to our own demise but also because she’s our lone companion who’s easy to care for. Plus, if she’s sounding like nothing but a damsel in distress, she does repay the favor in the end.

If anything undermines the chivalrous, if underlyingly harrowing, beauty of it all, it’s the subtle cynicism in its depiction of adults as mere obstacles to the children, even to the point where we have to kill tween Yorda’s nefarious mother. Otherwise, I can’t help but fall in love with the story’s main focus: the bond between Ico and Yorda.

With gameplay presented through luscious wide shots, we’re spared being convolutedly spoonfed this virtual world and allowed to discover it for ourselves, immersing us with a sense of wonder that video games are ideal for. As I said about Shadow, this was worth the PS3. …Or at least the second worthiest thing for my PS3.

A-

11/27/2016 | “REVIEW | Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983 FILM)”

Evoking the joy of A New Hope and the thematic depth of The Empire Strikes BackReturn of the Jedi should be the highlight of the original Star Wars trilogy.

It’s certainly the one I watched the most as a kid, and with valid reason: kids are its target audience, or at least they’re supposed to be. Whatever’s to blame, Jedi is an early example of an anticipated trilogy capper falling short of expectations. …Which doesn’t mean it’s not a fantastic space opera.

With George Lucas having more creative control than last time even though Richard Marquand is directing, the way that Mr. Lucas tries to appeal to young viewers is unarguably the most controversial aspect of the trilogy: the introduction of a race of primitive warriors who look like teddy bears. While they wreck the film for a lot of fans, they don’t for me. Would their goofiness be more at home in a cartoon? Yup. Are they nonetheless charming in their own ways? Yup.

Then again, this cutesiness is introduced after the off-puttingly bizarre first act has an erotic dancer meet an implicitly cruel fate, puts Princess Leia into an infamous bikini and onto a leash by a literally sluggish gangster, and depicts a humanoid pig goon getting eaten alive (mostly offscreen) by a scary monster. Oh, and the teddy bears try, and fail, to roast the heroes alive when they first meet them. Yeah, more kid friendly.

…Not that children shouldn’t be exposed to the darkness of humanity. Considering my childhood affinity for this one, I’d say the raciness is edgier than the scariness.

And really, that opening act puts a bigger stain on the movie for me than the teddy bears could. When things finally start taking flight, it becomes thoroughly entertaining and involving, especially in the heroes’ joyous camaraderie, the moral conflict between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, and the final act that not only ends the trilogy with a bang but also with a powerful act of sacrifice by someone we wouldn’t expect—the defining moment of the whole saga.

In fact, my friend who thought the whole trilogy was excellent claimed that this was the best one!—a claim that Catholic Skywalker would agree with. As for me, Return of the Jedi may be the most uneven and improvable of the trilogy, but it more than satisfies where it matters most.

A-

11/28/2016 | “REVIEW | The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess (2006 GAME)”

After Majora’s Mask came a charmingly cartoony, innovatively seafaring return to the Zeldaform: The Wind Waker…whose tedious pacing didn’t cut it for me.

Thankfully, Wind Waker doesn’t follow Ocarina of Time‘s direct timeline because time travel, so Wind Waker‘s “followup”, Twilight Princess, offers us a true honorary threequel to Ocarina and Majora’s Mask. And in between that first playthrough of OcarinaTwilight Princess ended up being the first Zelda game I ever beat.

And with a little tweaking, it would have an almost Ocarina-sized place in my heart.

Unlike the foreshadowing visions at the beginnings of Ocarina and Wind WakerTwilight Princess has no prologue letting us know what’s to come. Instead, we’re thrown right into this incarnation of Link’s hard-working life in the isolated Ordon Village. This not only deliberately though wonderfully establishes that this descendant of the Hero of Time deserves to be his ancestor’s legacy but also allows for the constantly twisting plot to surprise us.

This Link later gains the abilities to transform into a wolf through the powers of an alternate dimension known as the Twilight Realm—whose nefarious forces are out to conquer Hyrule—, hook from location to location with a pair of grappling claws, and combine bombs and arrows into aerial explosives. He also gets the most brilliantly realized Zelda sidekick yet: Midna, a citizen of the Twilight Realm with a lust for revenge that counteracts the mute Link’s heroism.

Such a rich balance of character building, emotional drama, and thrilling adventure raises the traditional Zelda formula to such operatic heights that it doesn’t take until subsequent analysis to realize how big a mess Twilight Princess actually is.

Although the reason Link even sets off on his journey is because young fellow villagers get captured by goblin creatures, the reason for the kidnapping itself is never given, nor does it ostensibly fall in line with the motivations of the main villains who, unlike in Ocarina, have to be killed this time. After the credits roll, a feeling of emptiness lingers since the whole story is grounded on a huge contrivance, with all of its substance and coolness suddenly coming off as coverups for its flawed writing.

Plus, while it has some of the most innovative dungeons in the series, its boss battles are the most pitifully easy, which makes no sense for a game that thematically deserves its T rating. It’s like if Shadow of the Colossus kept the scale of its bosses but exchanged their difficulty for full-blown Zelda tropes.

But if you ignore those misgivings and go with where it takes you, it feels like a fantastic honorary threequel to Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask—an even better companion piece to Ocarina than Majora’s Mask is, from its Ocarina callbacks to its higher emphasis on Link’s nobility than any other Zelda game.

B+

11/29/2016 | “REVIEW | Star Trek: First Contact (1996 FILM)”

While Star Trek‘s inspirations are often works of literature—which is what makes the franchise so dang geeky—, First Contact is Star Trek‘s homage to iconic sci-fi action movies, particularly Aliens and The Terminator, from the familiar plot points to the icky—if more PG-13—shock imagery to the underlying humanism.

As such, not only does it end up being the tightest and most entertaining of the TNGmovies, but it’s also the Star Trek movie I have the fondest memories of, especially from the years I memorized more lines from it than any other movie.

Yet, since Generations “stunk”, the writers decided to take First Contact into a more broadly appealing, popcornier direction, which is one reason why the way I can enjoy this movie now is as an action-oriented episode instead of as a standalone experience. The other reason is the way it would introduce a newcomer to Star Trek.

Like Wrath of Khan, this ties back to a plotline from its respective TV series, here the popular “Best of Both Worlds” two-parter where Captain Picard gets enslaved by, and brought back from, the Borg, a race of cyborgs that assimilate members of any species into their literally like-minded collective.

After an opening credits sequence that showcases Jerry Goldsmith’s powerful musical score, we jump straight into some literally nightmarish imagery flashing back to Picard’s experience with being assimilated.

…If this Star Trek is aiming to appeal to a wide audience, body horror like this isn’t the way you introduce somebody to a franchise about wonder and humanity, nor is the Captain Ahab parallel similar to Wrath of Khan‘s that now falls on an unusually angry Captain Picard—even to the point where he downright murders a helpless crew member who’s just beginning to be infected by the Borg’s nanobots—the way you introduce somebody to Captain Picard. …Which doesn’t ruin my affinity for the film.

The plotline where the writers have the most fun involves the time-travelling TNG crew trying to convince the drunken pilot Zephram Cochran, played by a priceless James Cromwell, to carry on with the first warp flight, which according to Trek history brings about the titular First Contact, that the time-travelling Borg aim to prevent.

Of course, the main action involves Picard directly trying to stop the Borg, and even though he’s previously dealt with the Borg in non-lethal ways post-assimilation, the stakes here are too high not to annihilate them, though I’m not sure what to think of Picard treating said killings as relief to those assimilated. On the other hand, the film doesn’t want us to root for his vengeance, and unlike Khan, he’s able to see the error of his whale hunt before it could destroy him.

Not to mention, one set piece creatively uses the holodeck with a sly callback to the series, and a tense set piece on the Enterprise‘s outer hull is a classic in of itself. One scene even beautifully takes the spotlight of Trekian wonder away from the awe of alien discoveries and puts it on our own planet.

While this isn’t the ideal Star Trek movie, its popcorny approach proved to be a financial and critical success, and its subsequent influence on the franchise helped destroy the franchise until J.J. Abrams brought it back with, well, more popcorn.

And if Star Trek should be full-blown popcorn, this is the way to do it, not solely through its own innovation but as an homage to iconic science-fiction movies, just as the franchise is often an homage to iconic literature. However, if its homage to iconic science-fiction is another Star Trek movie… *cough*StarTrekIntoDarkness*cough*

Of the entries scored by Jerry Goldsmith, who incidentally scored the original AlienFirst Contact is the only one that lives up to its own musical score.

B

11/29/2016 | “BLOG | How I grade”

It took me a long time to figure out a satisfying rating system for my reviews. Ultimately, I decided the most fun I’d have is with straight-up letter grades.

However, I keep in mind Steven Greydanus’s claim that a critic’s reasons for a grade are more crucial than the grade itself, and, as you know, I like to keep my review portions short because I’m just a guy doing this for fun whereas Steven Greydanus is a professional critic with a four-part rating system. Nonetheless, I’ll explain the reasoning behind my own grading system:

My grades are based less on objectivity and more on subjectivity—how highly I appreciate the subject of review. So, if a subject of review is as morally reprehensible as it is objectively masterful, I wouldn’t base its grade on its masterful craft. On the other hand, I’d give an objectively mediocre subject a higher rating than it deserves if it has a particular appeal. A+’s are usually saved for subjects that mean so much to me that their imperfections can’t tarnish their experiences.

11/30/2016 | “REVIEW | Metal Gear Solid (1998 GAME)”

The Metal Gear Solid series as a whole may be my second biggest gaming disappointment (as for the first…)—a series that’s so dang entertaining, yet so dang perverse. Not only is it the most bonkers spy fiction you’d ever experience, but it’s some of the most bonkers fiction you’d ever experience period.

The saga technically begins with 1987’s Metal Gear and 1990’s Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake, the Solid Snake of which is Metal Gear Solid‘s protagonist.

What’s notable about the Metal Gear Solid series is that its 1998 initiator is responsible for making video games a medium we can play and watch, with its fully voiced cutscenes presented through in-game graphics and lasting minutes at a time for the sake of character and plot development. And that’s precisely what makes said initator transcend the technical limitations of the PS1.

Its graphics switch from blocky, pixelated character models to traditionally animated portraits as Snake contacts his allies via comlink, which happens a lot as a conspiracy unravels outside his mission, which in series tradition has him break into a facility to destroy a titular Metal Gear mech that’s a blatant symbol for nuclear war.

From there, it’s spy fiction for grownups in touch with their inner twelve-year-olds, featuring fights with a cyborg ninja, a guy in a tank who later obtains a minigun, a telekinetic telepath, and even Snake’s own evil clone! These boss battles not only pose substantial challenges that are pumped up by their memorably urgent musical score but are made even more resonant by how fleshed out their characters are.

But the game doesn’t take the problems of cloning lightly, not even the revelation that several other cloned fetuses were aborted to create Solid and his ‘brother’, Liquid Snake; as both were bred for war, the game also explores the question of whether a human clone can choose to defy the purpose for which it was bred.

And while the gameplay involves violence—though mostly encourages us to use stealth outside of boss battles, the story is critical of Snake’s violent and cynical nature. We’re even meant to sympathize more with the supporting Meryl, a rookie who’s eager to be a soldier until she learns the hard way about the pain war brings. Not to mention, she ultimately inspires Snake to live outside of himself.

Unfortunately, Snake’s “heroic” euthanizing of an adversary in a skippable cutscene is only one incident—if the most problematic incident—that muddles the story’s view on life and death. Another problem is its occasional cheesecake shots, even though they’re pretty tame by future series standards, especially considering the primitive graphics (whose environments nonetheless sport impressive attention to detail).

By now, the game is probably sounding pretty grim. However, the edges of its gritty commentaries are relieved by how the characters know that they’re in a video game, such as when an important code turns out to be “on the back of the CD case!” Plus, ‘Solid Snake’ and ‘Liquid Snake’ are only the beginning of the ridiculous codenames.

Considering how far video games have come since, Metal Gear Solid is still pretty good (yes, MGS fans, I did that on purpose). For its meta silliness, challenging gameplay, and sophisticated storytelling, I’d even call it the best of its series. But while its ethical problems don’t completely tarnish my investment in the somewhat redemptive story, they do prevent me from wholeheartedly recommending it.

B-

12/01/2016 | “REVIEW | The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001 FILM)”

Since the J.R.R. Tolkien Lord of the Rings novels were three of the many inspirations for Star Wars, it was only fair for Peter Jackson’s film adaptations to be everything Star Wars‘s influence built up to. And if you ask me, they still are.

The unfortunate side is that I’m too biased by the movies to be able to fully appreciate Tolkien’s novels, though I’ve at least read through The Fellowship of the Ring, the film adaptation of which happens to be celebrating its 15th anniversary. Not only that, but for me, Fellowship‘s film is to movies what Ocarina of Time is to video games. In fact, it resonates with me more deeply than that, even though I’ve known Ocarina longer.

As Tolkien intended and as Peter Jackson honors, the entire epic is a metaphor for Christianity, with a hobbit, Frodo Baggins, putting the weight of a corruptive ring, which can only be destroyed by the hellish volcano from which it was formed and whose corruptive power is that of an evil spirit—Sauron, on his shoulders just as Christ put the weight of sin on his shoulders.

But Lord of the Rings has a wide fanbase not only because the symbolism is so subtle that it could fall under the radar but also because the story resonates with the human experience. We’re all tempted by things that could ruin us. We all have a Hobbiton that we must leave in order to mature. We all need a friend like Samwise Gamgee—the story’s St. Peter, St. John, and Simon of Cyrene all rolled into one.

By now, the movies are more ingrained into pop culture than their source material is, which is obviously how I experience the story. As such, I can’t properly compare the movies to their source material, but I can look at them for what they are.

What really connects me with Frodo in Fellowship is when he tells his uncle Bilbo, “I spent all my childhood pretending I was off somewhere else—off with you on one of your adventures!” Indeed, I lived my own childhood in a fantasy, playing Zelda and watching Star Wars and, well, Lord of the Rings.

While the latter two entries, The Two Towers and The Return of the King, place their biggest focuses on the grittier lands of Middle-Earth—whose whole world is home also to humans, dwarves, elves, and wizards—this one takes us into Middle-Earth’s most diverse locations, from the joyous village of Hobbiton to the dark Mines of Moria to the glowing forest of Lothlorien to the factorial stronghold of Isengard.

As with Ocarina of Time, I recognize that Fellowship is not perfect, even if its flaws are lesser than Ocarina‘s; the most notable caveat is how the filmmakers, as with the sequels, use the grotesque humanoid bad guys as the victims of nasty onscreen deaths that wouldn’t fly in a PG-13 rating if they were actually human. Not to mention, one brief set piece feels out of place with its over-the-topness.

Even so, in terms of action and spectacle, Fellowship is the most restraint of the trilogy. Story-wise, it’s the most downright magical. And since it’s the beginning of a three-part story, it’s free of a proper resolution, and I remember the disappointment of first seeing this anticlimax. Now, the ending is the most affecting part.

The climactic moments don’t resolve a central conflict but rather push the characters into new directions, and these moments feature two unforgettable lines, one of which is a line called back from earlier in the film, and the other of which is tied to a powerful act of loyalty; Howard Shore’s luminous musical score tops off this most beautifully hopeful cliffhanger as it takes center stage during the transition to credits.

Of course, Fellowship is a rich film because of its rich source material, though you’d need a lot of patience for said source material. Heck, if a three-hour runtime scares you—and that’s not even the extended version, you’d need a lot of patience for the movie! But it’s a three-hour experience I wouldn’t trade even for Ocarina of Time.

A+

02/17/2017 | “What the heck do I see in video games”

After I began writing movie reviews back in 2014 (the beginning in question was, of course, on a site that no longer exists), I decided to add video games to my critical roster. You know what that meant? Catching up on a lot of games I missed throughout the years.

I’ve been playing video games since I was a kid, though the most notable games I played during my adolescent years were The Force Unleashed and Halo: Reach. I hardly played any games at all during my young adult years until late 2015 where I decided to play through and review a bunch of Zelda games. I then moved onto the Half-Life series, and I was so blown away by Half-Life 2 that it didn’t take until the last five paragraphs of Steven Greydanus’s article on The Revenant for me to realize the fundamentally perverse idea behind shooting games: having us revel in constant, merciless violence.

Since then, I’ve become a lot more apprehensive about video games, or rather, video games that are built solely around violence. Before I read that article, however, I’d already bought a PS3 to critique its most famous titles. Unfortunately, some of said titles make me wish I never bought a PS3 at all.

The Uncharted series was fun, if vulgar, during my first playthrough of it; the second playthrough, however, made me realize just how mean spirited that series is. I enjoyed the Metal Gear Solid series, yet its at times pro-death philosophies and consistently misogynistic depictions of women make me apprehensive to revisit it. And then there was The Last of Us, a game I despise more than any other game I’ve played, and not just because of its relentless brutality that broke my disgust tolerance near the end and forced me to watch the rest of the game on Youtube.

The Last of Us was so souring, in fact, that I’ll now only buy video games for as cheap as possible. Even more horrifying than its own nihilistic story is how widely embraced the game is by critics and gamers alike. It’s one of the most highly praised video games of all time; so isn’t UnchartedHalf-Life, and Metal Gear Solid.

It’s quite discouraging that such perverse titles get praised to the heavens. I don’t want to spend more time on this nastiness; I want to spent time on games that I’ll like, but I can’t even trust if the titles I think I’ll like won’t pull the rug out from under me at some point, such as the anti-religious undertones in Deus Ex, a game that would be a lot grimmer if it weren’t so corny. Why do I even stick with the medium of video games if I find so much disappointment in it?

…Because I still see its potential—because titles like The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Shadow of the Colossus exist, and I want to find more games in their league.

I love Ocarina of Time, thankfully the most highly reviewed video game ever made, not just because it’s incredibly nostalgic for me; it sports a childlike innocence—for the most part—that I haven’t seen in any other adventure game. Shadow of the Colossus is basically a deconstruction of the Zelda formula, yet it’s also a deconstruction of video game violence in general, having us go on a violent crusade that we have to pay a hard price for in the end. Although I like Ocarina more, Shadow of the Colossus may be objectively the greatest video game I’ve played so far period.

I’ve also had the pleasure of playing Beyond Eyes, an indie game I found on Steam that tells a touching, deliberate, nonviolent story, as it’s in the ‘walking simulator’ genre, that puts us into the shoes of a blind child through a strikingly artistic interpretation of such an experience. The only complaint I have about Beyond Eyes is that it’s very short; otherwise, all the potential it showed was good.

I even enjoyed the good potential in The Last of UsMetal Gear Solid, and Half-Life 2The Last of Us had me empathizing with video game characters like no other game had; such empathy I even experienced in Half-Life 2 (I even rationalized Half-Life 2‘s ostensibly pro-life themes as making the game above other brutal shooters until I realized that the way the game values innocent people is a way to make us want to shoot the bad guys more). Metal Gear Solid had brilliantly ludicrous humor and a soundtrack that I still listen to.

Had these games not been able to engage me in some way, I wouldn’t be disappointed in them as much as I am; I don’t know if a redemptive ending could have redeemed The Last of Us‘s reliance on horrific incident, but I wouldn’t be as angry about the ending had the game not been toying with a powerful humanism amid the nihilism it ultimately succumbs to.

Of course, the other question of video games other than their morals is whether or not they’re a waste of time. I always aim to limit my video game consumption per day, but I want to this spend time in agreeable virtual worlds. Of course, there are nasty virtual worlds that the games themselves don’t want us to accept for what they are, yet said games’ missions for us to change said worlds could ask us to revel in bloodshed.

All-in-all, I appreciate the potential of video games more than what they’re commonly used for: violence porn, softcore porn, normalization of theft, etc… Ocarina of Time is perhaps the one video game so far that I love as much as my favorite movies; while it’s not free from moral and spiritual flaws, the world it puts us in is generally that of beauty, inspiration, and truth. It’s far easier to find a movie of such aesthetics than it is to find a video game of such aesthetics. But video games can immerse us in ways that no other artistic medium can; they just haven’t met the potential to immerse us in beauty, inspiration, and truth as commonly as movies have.

…Of course, I’m a console generation behind, and my laptop can’t even play last-gen games at their highest graphical settings, so perhaps this current generation is offering more of what video games should offer and I’m not realizing it.

03/08/2017 | “Steven Spielberg’s signature monster movies”

Steven Spielberg’s Jaws—the first summer blockbuster, released in 1975—and Jurassic Park—the 1993 blockbuster that made CGI mainstream—are two of the many revolutionary films that are just as important to the medium as they are to many film lovers.

I actually didn’t see the whole of Jaws until late 2014 where I’d already been writing reviews for a few months. Still, Jaws managed to blow me away. What struck me was the human element, small moments like Chief Brody’s young son mimicking his mannerisms at the dinner table that give the film such a human dimension amid its suspense and scares.

Watching it a couple years on, a lot of it is actually really corny, particularly the caricatures that fill the community of Amity Island. And yet, that’s partly what makes it so dang entertaining forty years on. Sure, the film’s subject matter was a shock to audiences back then; now, it could just confirm to someone why they’re afraid to go in the ocean like it did for me. It’s like the film is saying, “Yeah, I want to scare the crap out of you; just don’t take me too seriously.”

Since I first saw Jaws, I’ve paid more attention to the human element in every movie.

The way Jurassic Park has affected me, however, is a bit sillier.

I’ve known Jurassic Park since I was a kid where I thought it was the film that invented CGI, or computer generated imagery. I didn’t learn until I was older that it merely revolutionized CGI after it was used very subtly and sparingly in previous decades and that its first prominent use was in 1991’s Terminator 2: Judgement Day.

Still, given my early impression of Jurassic Park, watching post-1977 (Star Wars)/pre-1993 action movies now always give me a sense that I’m, well, watching an action movie that was made post-1977/pre-1993, even though I now prefer practical effects over CGI. Heck, throughout the two-hour Jurassic Park, the dinosaurs are onscreen for fifteen minutes, and for nine of those minutes they’re actually animatronics.

As for the actual movie, none of its characters are as developed or interesting as Jaws‘s Chief Brody, Matt Hooper, and Sam Quint, yet Spielberg still manages to make them feel real enough for us to care for. The suspense is directed as masterfully as it is in Jaws, and the film introduces a line that rings quite relevant, “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.”

Jaws is still the better film and would have a higher place on my favorite movies list due to the way it affected how I view movies. Jurassic Park is never a bad choice though, and I hold it along with Jaws as the gold standard for Hollywood monster movies.

03/14/2017 | “Video games I like – vol. 1”

Portal 2 (2011)

The Portal games are so short that you really can’t play Portal 2 without playing the first one, which was a sleeper hit run by a small development team. Portal 2, however, is a full-blown blockbuster, expanding on the original’s puzzle-based gameplay as well as the lore.

On the other hand, none of the characters are role models, and I’m not sure what to think of the antagonistic A.I.’s godlike role in the science facility in which it resides, though certain plot developments prevent this conceit from coming off as anti-theistic. Besides, it’s all wrapped up in a dark, tongue-in-cheek wit that satirizes nature-twisting experimentation, especially when the ever-priceless J.K. Simmons is introduced. Oh, and the ultimate boss takedown is one of the most unexpectedly epic in gaming history. As sheer entertainment, both hilarious and brain-teasing, Portal 2 takes the cake (pun intended).

Shadow of the Colossus (2005)

Four years prior to Shadow‘s release, Shadow‘s developers shook the game industry by introducing an emotionally-driven minimalism with Ico. While Ico is a mechanically barebones platformer, Shadow is a deconstruction of the action/adventure genre. We as the young Wander are given a whole landscape to traverse with practically no side quests; the only levels are the sixteen colossi we’re sent to destroy as part of a deal with a dark entity in order to have our sacrificed lover resurrected.

It’s a complex dilemma. Should Wander have brought justice to those who committed injustice or taken the chance to reverse the injustice? Since he chooses the latter, the tale is ultimately about the consequences of doing the wrong thing even for love’s sake. For the ways it haunts us in both unsettling and invigorating ways, Shadow of the Colossus is plain transcendent.

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998)

Until Breath of the Wild‘s release, Ocarina of Time had no equal when it came to overall critical success. Ocarina introduced an unprecedented combination of storytelling and exploration at release, forever changing the game industry just as the NES original did.

This game makes me feel like a kid again more than anything else can, and not just because of nostalgia but also because of the innocent, childlike approach to its storytelling…for the most part. Its polytheistic, partly monistic mythology may not agree with Christianity, but the hero we play as does represent the choice to trustfully follow God whereas the villain represents the Nietzschean desire to become God.

While characterization is largely barebones, if with some very funny moments, the moments the game sears into our memories are moments like us solving head-scratching puzzles, defeating childhood-scarring monsters, discovering gold skulltulas, helping out random villagers, unlocking the Door of Time, facing Ganondorf in his castle… It makes us feel like we’re on an epic adventure in the most beautifully simplistic ways.

03/18/2017 | “Virtual Ventures #1”

I may not have all the answers as to what I want to be as an online personality, but one thing’s for sure: writing about video games makes playing video games more rewarding for me. For that, I’ll treat video game reflections like a journal, writing about them as I get to them, even if that means a post for each playthrough of the same game.

For my first entry, I’ll reflect on my third playthrough of Shadow of the Colossus.

The ironic part is that after my first playthrough around a year ago, while I certainly appreciated this game, I didn’t think I’d ever want to play it again. Now here I am, having just finished it on hard mode where the game was already hard enough; I mean, you don’t want to hear the sounds that come out of my mouth at every playthrough.

What surprised me, however, was how little the difficulty was ramped up. Sure, some colossi had extra weak points, and some seemed to attack more fiercely, but some didn’t seem to be any different at all. There was one colossus, however, that had me half-jokingly saying as I saw its corroding body during an end-credits montage, “You better rot.”

I said in my now-defunct review on Catholic Wannabe Critic: “…I do have a problem with how the symbolic devil that Wander makes a deal with has powers too godlike…” This time around, my biggest problem with the story is that the unjust sacrifice that sets off the protagonistic Wander’s journey isn’t paid for in the end, or at least not in a way that would dissuade the criminals, who seem to be religious authorities, from committing this injustice again.

I can’t say this makes the story entirely anti-religious as these authorities are proven quite right to warn people not to set foot in the forbidden land Wander sets off to. Not to mention, it’s not clear whether or not such a sacrifice they’ve committed is a usual occurrence. What the story is clear about is that Wander is wrong in the way he combats this crime.

The ultimate message is that there are consequences for doing the wrong things even for the right reasons, and that there’s always a second chance. Even then, I have mixed feelings about how Wander is given this second chance.

The game may be pretty self-important, so much so that my siblings couldn’t help but make fun of it, but its self-importance works due to how visual its storytelling is. It’s fun to play, and its boss battles are awesome in every sense of the word, but there’s a gravity to its violence. Heck, the musical score, whether it’s somber or exciting, gives a mythic gravity to the whole thing. It feels reductive to call Shadow of the Colossus a game, yet as a fable, it wouldn’t work in any other medium without getting repetitive.

There’s a reason why many claim it to be one of gaming’s masterpieces, and it’s so far the biggest reason why I don’t regret buying a PS3 outside of the Blu-ray function.

03/19/2017 | “Virtual Ventures #2”

Knights of the Old Columbus—uh, Republic, or KOTOR, was the third-to-last game I played before my last playthrough of Shadow of the Colossus, and since I don’t currently have anything to say about the in-between Portal games outside of what I said on that “FAVORITE VIDEO GAMES” list, I’d like to write about KOTOR, mostly by recycling thoughts from that deleted KOTOR post I mentioned in another deleted post, before my next playthrough of it, whenever that would be.

This first of the Knights of the Old Republic duology is currently the most highly reviewed Star Wars game ever made. When I was a kid, it was one of the many RPGs my siblings got into but I just couldn’t. Having now played through it twice in my adult years because I asked Catholic Skywalker to review it for Gaming with Faith, I can safely say it’s more my type of RPG than most.

And somehow, even though I completed as many sidequests as I could this time, I ended up finishing it a few hours shorter than my first playthrough…

In the game’s own 4,000-years-before-the-Prequels place in Star Wars history that may or may not still be canon, the Jedi are the same guardians of peace in the galaxy we know them as, but the Sith are a whole freaking empire, which means more than two Siths worth of red lightsabers! It’s up to us to side either with the Sith or the Republic in the end.

Even when The Force Unleashed and Jedi Academy give us singular choices between the Light and the Dark, they’re still straight-up action games built around us revelling in nonstop slaughter. KOTOR, however, gives us a world—nay, star system—to interact with in various ways and protagonists we can customize not only in appearance and abilities but also in moral character, where the choice between the Light and the Dark is an ongoing process.

Our alignment is represented by a Light Side/Dark Side meter. It starts out in the middle grey as we begin each game. Mercy and self-giving earn us Light Side Points; murder and vengeance earn us Dark Side points. Unfortunately, this system can be lax in some ways, and as a Catholic Light Side guy, that’s a bit disappointing.

While there are plenty of confrontations where we have no choice but to fight and kill in self defense, and while we are given occasional chances to either execute or spare enemies, the times where we have to battle our ways through entire hostile villages—which thankfully don’t include children—without being allowed to spare anyone, even though they attack us first, feel less justified. On the other hand, the game leaves it up to us how to feel about such battles, whether to embrace them or feel bad that we have to go through with them.

Still, there are other times where we have to deceive opponents as means towards ends, and we can also get away with pillaging people’s belongings without either earning Dark Side points or getting scolded at, which is a common mechanic in video games (see also: “What the heck do I see in video games?”).

But what really bothers me about this first KOTOR’s Light Side storyline is how it treats its own running theme of redemption from the Dark. While a couple of these redemptions are honest, the biggest of them is committed through a violation of the subject’s free will on the Jedi Council’s part (though not our part), yet the story wants us to believe it was the right thing to do, and it casts a huge shadow over the game.

Calling it the best Star Wars game that does exist doesn’t deem it the best Star Warsgame that could exist. Nonetheless, in terms of fundamental game design, KOTOR is just what I want in a video game.

What really sells it for me is the character interactions, whether it’s regarding a sidequest character or one of our party members, most of whom we obtain on the first couple of planets. We can learn about their varied pasts; former jedi padawan Jolee Bindo especially fascinates as he turns out to have good reasons to cross-examine the Jedi Order more than anyone, and he’s not even as important as Republic pilot Carth or young jedi Bastila. Not to mention, we can customize lightsabers, my lifelong favorite fictional weapons!

Despite the game’s philosophical problems, there’s still enough good in it for me to enjoy it as escapism. It may get that Star Wars has a spiritual component more than it gets the actual good-vs-evil spirit of classic Star Wars, but it’s still a pretty good game in its own right, and it’s worth multiple playthroughs. Or at least these two playthroughs.

03/23/2017 | “The definitive cinematic mythologies”

As I try to thoughtfully reflect on Star Wars and Lord of the Rings like I did with Jaws and Jurassic Park, I find that, while Jaws and Jurassic Park are quite formative to how I view cinema, Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, especially Lord of the Rings, are the definitive reasons why I love cinema, and it’s actually easier to try and write about them objectively like I did on Catholic Wannabe Critic than it is to write about them personally.

I mean, I’m so biased by the Lord of the Rings movies that I can’t fully appreciate the masterwork by J.R.R. Tolkien on which they’re based. As for Star Wars…well, Star Wars—and by Star Wars, I mean the Original Trilogy—has been with me for so long that I don’t even remember my first experience with it. It was always just there.

Not only are both Star Wars and Lord of the Rings cinematic landmarks, with the former setting the standard for popcorn movies and the latter setting the standard for modern Hollywood epics, but none of their prequels, sequels, or spinoffs have recaptured their magic. Both trilogies are followed up with disastrous prequel trilogies, though I have a softer spot for the latter two Star Wars Prequels than I do for any of the Hobbit movies, and I genuinely haven’t been impressed with Disney’s Star Wars thus far, partly because The Force Awakens makes every heroic victory in the Original Trilogy meaningless.

While I think Lord of the Rings is superior to Star Wars on an objective level, what hits me about it more personally is not only its more spiritually resonant themes but also a single line Frodo says to his uncle Bilbo: “I spent all my childhood pretending I was somewhere else, off with you on one of your adventures.” That’s how I spent my own childhood, with the likes of Frodo Baggins, Luke Skywalker, and Link.

Star Wars may be more fun than deeply impactful, but even as its legacy is stained by the Prequels, the Special Editions, misguided video games, and its own turning into a corporate cinematic product (all of the first two trilogies except for A New Hope were essentially big-budget independent films, which gives me an appreciation for the Prequels’ singular creative vision, no matter how flawed it is), the Originals remain a joy to watch.

03/25/2017 | “‘Spy Game’ (2015) Short Story”

This is a short story I wrote for a creative writing class; I rediscovered it and decided to share it, with a number of tweaks, some of which change the tone a bit.

The assignment was to choose from a list of first sentences from novels and build my own story from there; the sentence I chose was from John Barth’s The End of the Road (which I haven’t read), and the story I developed around it is centered on what I didn’t realize at the time is basically an MMO version of Metal Gear Solid V, though the name “Euphonia” had to have been suggested by the teacher because I have no idea how I would have come up with that on my own. Before I say too much more:


“In a sense, I am ‘Jacob-Horner’,” Blake Everton said into a microphone to a fellow player of Spy Rogues Online, the most anticipated video game of the year.

It was like many MMORPGs (massive multiplayer online role playing games), but instead of a fantasy world filled with monsters and elves, this was a modern-day world of espionage where several-hundred people had named their characters after Solid Snake from the Metal Gear Solid stealth game series. But not Blake Everton. He named himself ‘Jacob-Horner’, a tall, blue-haired infiltrator.

“Why ‘Jacob-Horner’?” asked a player who went by the username of ‘Solid-Snake541’—not to be confused with ‘SolidSnake-541’.

“It hadn’t been taken,” explained Blake.

“Oh…I thought it was going to mean something more significant. Like the composer for The Wrath of Khan’s soundtrack.”

“That was James Horner.”

“In the Hebrew dialect, they’re the same thing.”

As Blake began ruminating about how he’d realized that he’d stolen the name of a great and deceased composer, his curious mother, Euphonia, called from the living room, “Blake, who are you talking to?”

“‘Solid-Dash-Snake541’, not to be confused with ‘SoildSnake-Dash-541’,” replied Blake.

“I know what my name is,” replied Solid-Snake541, thinking that Blake was talking to him.

“That spying game again?!” cried Blake’s mom, who’d speak in the calmest voice until she’d unleash her inner banshee on occasions like this. “Can’t you take a break and do your homework?!”

After her son explained why he must respectfully change his username, she asked what he’d then change his name to. Blake retorted, “Um…‘Ethan-Hunt-007’—! Hey, that name’s not taken.”

“Okay, ‘Ethan-Hunt-007’. You changed your username. Now can you be Blake Everton for a few hours?” And his mom left the conversation at that.

During those next few hours, however, Blake Everton, or ‘Ethan-Hunt-007’, had chowed down countless Doritos and slugged down a couple of two-liter bottles of Mountain Dew. He and Solid-Snake541 also spread their mischief and ticked off several Chinese players.

With at least two countries after them, they were cornered, and they had no choice but to split up and run to their secret bases. However, one of the pursuers had a speed boosting ability. As the pursuer was just about to reach Blake, it got shot dead by an unknown player. Down a nearby hill walked username ‘Crank-Cavern’ who wielded a sniper rifle. Blake thanked this player profusely; Crank replied with “Ur welcome” in the chatbox. As the players were about to depart ways, Blake asked Crank if he could watch his back; Crank agreed.

As they chatted and got to know each other, Blake allowed Crank to enter his secret hideout—a privilege that required a special in-game invitation. To Blake’s shock, Crank planted C-4 in the base and blew it up, leaving Blake having to start over from scratch and screaming in his room.

“Blake, what are you screaming about?!” cried Blake’s mom.

Blake screamed back, “I earned some blockhead’s trust, and he stabbed me in the back!”

“That’s why you shouldn’t trust somebody by the name of ‘Crank-Cavern’! Now can you finish your homework for tomorrow?”

Blake sighed, “…Okay mom…Wait, mom?!”

She then logged out of her own account of Spy Rogues Online.

04/01/2017 | “Video games I like – vol. 2”

Mirror’s Edge (2008)

It’s the type of first-person nonstop action game I’d normally be apprehensive about, but unlike the average shoot-em-up, Mirror’s Edge wants us to thrill less in gunning down bad guys and more in parkour, parkour! Managing to outmaneuver the guys who are shooting at us feels more rewarding than stopping to either knock them unconscious or take their guns, not that the game doesn’t back us into corners. While its story, which takes place in a dystopia where everybody’s complacent and comfortable except for the parkour-trained Runners who aim for greatness, is so convoluted that it took me three playthroughs to understand it, the first-person perspective makes the stylized action set pieces exhilaratingly immersive.

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2003) 

This is the most conflicting entry on this list. On one hand, Sands of Time is a refreshing morality tale about the consequences of pride, featuring parkour platforming, puzzle-solving, a sword-based combat system pumped up by a Middle-Eastern/rock-and-roll soundtrack, brilliantly written chemistry between its leads… On the other hand, it features consistently unnecessarily skimpy female attire typical of video games. It’s not as tasteless as its sequels, which is why I haven’t played them sans a censored Wii version of The Two Thrones, but without that element, the game would be a male fantasy that actually subverts some wish-fulfillment elements of male fantasies. The indignities unfortunately undermine the subversiveness, though they don’t entirely ruin it for me. If they did, then Sands of Time would be on a “Memorable video games I won’t play again” list.

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (2003)

Although the best Star Wars game falls maddeningly short of being the ideal Star Warsgame, which I wrote about previously here, it’s still a pretty good game. Both the characters and the worlds we visit are brilliantly realized. The pause-and-select combat system is easier on my patience than a turn-based combat system ala old-school RPGs. Not to mention, what it gets right about the spirit of Star Wars delights my inner child.

Of course, beyond the Original Trilogy, it would be hard to replicate that simple good-versus-evil spirit without straight-up copying the Originals, which I wrote about here, especially since there are hints at the Jedis’ flawed philosophy there. But not only are those flaws present in KOTOR, but they’re naively celebrated here whereas the Originals disprove them. Still, as far as RPG gameplay goes, it’s more suited for me than any other.

The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword (2011)

Of course I like more than one Zelda game. While Skyward Sword may not be the most mythic 3D Zelda game (Ocarina still has that place as far as I know), and it’s so far the most streamlined 3D Zelda game (perhaps obnoxiously so), it’s nonetheless charming in its own way.

While Ocarina explains Hyrule’s and Ganon’s origins, Skyward Sword goes even further back, telling the origins of the Master Sword and Zelda herself. Although it borrows many mechanics from previous games, it implements them in fresh ways. The colorful art style feels like a playable painting. For once, Link and Zelda are in an adorable will they/won’t they relationship, and the introduction of Groose, a bully to Link head-over-heels for Zelda, makes for the most involving character dynamics in the post-SNES era.

It does, however, feature more explicitly religious themes than any other Zelda game, and the biggest problem with that is that, as implied only in relation to later entries, this religion is no longer necessary to practice in Hyrule by the time Ocarina roles around. While it would probably be too much for Zelda newcomers, its characters and overall design, including my two favorite boss battles in the franchise, make it an absolute treat for me.

Ico (2001)

Team Ico makes games that are much more involving for the players than they are for the friends watching. As I said in the previous volume, their debut title’s, Ico‘s, artsy minimalism that’s carried over to Shadow of the Colossus was innovative for its time, and it’s ironically what made Ico stand out in a year that saw the release of blockbuster titles like Halo: Combat Evolved and Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty.

By stripping the platformer and combat mechanics down to a minimum—no health bar, only one carriable weapon at a time…—, the story emphasizes the emotional bond between the titular Ico and Yorda, the otherworldly princess Ico’s guiding through a castle to prevent both of them from being sacrificed in a mysterious ritual, which means we’re the ones doing the hand-holding in a video game, and quite literally. Putting sacrifice-avoiding children at the center of the story, alas, opens up a major thematic caveat: the villainization of adult authority, even parental, though all under fantastical circumstances, especially the latter.

Despite its unsettling subject matter and more questionable messages, the bond between Ico and Yorda is so endearingly innocent and chivalrous that I can’t help but fall in love with it. Plus, the way the in-game camera, which we have partial control over even in cutscenes, presents the action in wide shots evokes a sense of wonder that video games are ideal for.

04/04/2017 | “My response to Catholic Skywalker’s response to me”

Fellow blogger Catholic Skywalker and I have been following each other for quite some time. As his name would suggest, he loves Star Wars. In fact, he defends Star Wars more than anyone I’ve seen. He could make you look at the Prequels in a new light. He even contributed to Gaming with Faith (my contributions to which I’ve taken down due to my developed apprehensions about video games), and he’s a more qualified critic than I am, having seen over 2,100 movies over his lifetime, and viewing a wider scope of movies in theaters than I do.

Our first big response to each other was a couple years ago where I, through a blog and post that no longer exists, criticized A New Hope for being “bland, silly, rainy day-type entertainment”, and Catholic Skywalker went full-on Aquinas on it. Given how little I was looking at the big picture, I deserved that one.

Now, with “The Generational Choice: A Response to Catholic Wannabe Critic on The Force Awakens“, he’s responded to my latest critique of Star Wars, “Where Disney’s Star WarsWent Wrong”. He is much more appreciative of this critique than he was of the previous critique, and so am I. And once again, he’s proven how he’s both a better critic and a better Catholic than I am, particularly because of his understanding of humanity.

The main point of his response is that even though Return of the Jedi may have brought an end to the Sith, it was the next generation’s choice to continue with that peace, and it failed. As he states, “Human beings have the power to reign down utter destruction on ourselves. But even the best of us can only offer hope with no guarantees. All we can ever leave the next generation is a chance. Even Jesus’ saving work is ultimately a free invitation. The choice is still up to us.”

Even with that, while I can excuse the First Order, I still find it a stretch to say that it was humanity’s choice to keep the balance to the Force that Anakin Skywalker was prophesied to bring. If merely defeating the Dark Side balances out the Force, then the Force could theoretically be balanced out multiple times in history; why was it so important that a Chosen One would balance out the Force if balancing the Force can be replicated? Perhaps it’s our choice to follow the path to salvation, but our prophesied redemption through Christ was never undone and repeated.

The whole “Chosen One permanently defeating the Sith” prophesy doesn’t line up with how humanity actually works, but the Dark Side returning doesn’t line up with how the whole previous Saga actually works. Saying that a spiritual evil can be permanently killed is a lie, but having that evil return contradicts what was prophesied. Perhaps the Chosen One angle doesn’t enhance Return of the Jedi‘s climax at all but rather problematizes it.

That’s why the Original Trilogy by itself stands the test of time. Without the Prequels, there’d be no promise that the Dark Side would be permanently defeated, and without the Sequels, there’d be no way for the Saga to contradict itself. Star Wars would not be about the fulfillment of a prophecy but rather about a son who saves his father for its own sake, which is still why Luke did it as he never knew that his father was a fallen messiah.

Then again, they could still pull that “Rey is the real Chosen One” twist I theorized…

04/05/2017 | “The young socially anxious filmmaker’s dilemma”

So I recently watched Martin Scorsese’s Silence, and it made me realize that I’m more fit to be a filmmaker than a film critic because a movie as complex as Silence pushes me beyond my analytical limits. In other words, it leaves me silent. (However, this horribly misleading DVD cover that oddly persuaded me to watch this film whose much-debated ending made me resistant to watching it is still making me laugh my butt off.)

So, why do I spend more time critiquing Star Wars movies than I do making my own movies? Well, because serious artists use their artforms to say something about reality.

Frankly, I don’t know what to say about reality.

Growing up home schooled, I didn’t have sufficient chances to get social life experience in my childhood years. High school was a bit more interactive as I joined youth group and took a digital media class for a year at the local high school, but even then, I was using that class to make goofy comedy videos that, although the school posted them online, I’m not comfortable sharing here for personal reasons.

My own social anxiety permeated those years and beyond. While schooling at a community college for a couple of years guarded me from temptations of university life, and while I got good grades, there was only one student I came close to making friends with, and her own anxiety issues prevented her from cultivating a long-distance friendship after our class ended whereas I’m more comfortable with long-distance than short-distance; it’s as big an appeal of making friends on statewide retreats as shared faith.

Generally, anxiety takes away my interest in getting to know people and knowing how the real world works. Anxiety even sometimes makes me question whether or not I want to go to film school. The movies I currently make are goofy comedy videos because they don’t have to be realistic, and perhaps the lack of realism was a subconscious appeal in making those Transformers stop-motion cartoons. Heck, escapism is one of the biggest appeals of blogging, and as I limit gaming per day, I don’t know what else to do as a hobby.

Don’t get me wrong, I want movie characters to be believable. Heck, I want to be able to say something meaningful through film. If I make it to the film industry, I don’t want to make movies that are Catholic in a religious sense; I want to make movies that are catholic in a universal sense. By now, I’d probably be that type of filmmaker on my own if I was given a common path for someone my age.

It’s not always my fault that I’m stuck here. Whenever I’m put into a real-world situation that could help me grow, it pulls the rug out from under me, adding to my anxiety.

At the very least, I’m going to counselling, both individual and group. It’s one of the only hopes I have in gaining life experience during this indefinite school-less period between the community college and film school that not only I could use to say something meaningful through film but also is important for its own sake.

04/12/2017 | “3rd anniversary”

Whelp, I just got a notification saying I registered for WordPress three years ago.

My first blog was The Colorful Silver Screen, and I kicked it off with a review for Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Alas, that review is gone, but I did give the film an 8 or 9/10. Now, I’d give it a B-, which is academically still an 8/10.

Since then, I haven’t found my niche as a critic, but I’m feeling more at home than ever about what I’ve been doing for the past few weeks, trying to be more a guy who runs a blog than a critic. To put into perspective how far my motivation to write has come, here’s a 6th-grade entry from a journal I was assigned to write in every school day:

“I’ll tell you why some people call manta rays ‘devil rays.’ They have fins that look like horns. I have to put in a third sentence.”

…Then again, I have been pretty picky about how I structure my blog posts…

I appreciate all who’ve been following me this blog both onsite and offsite, especially those who’ve been following me through my indecisiveness.

04/12/2017 | “Unexpected excitement (for Transformers)”

As you’d find out through my [now-defunct] review of the first Transformers movie, my history with Transformers isn’t my most favored period in my life. That’s partly why I want to finish my Transformers stop-motion videos.

I actually sort-of lost interest in the franchise during the hype period for Age of Extinction, a film which actually ended up having some of the best character moments in the whole series while also some of the most redundant action sequences. In some ways it was better than the first three, and in other ways it wasn’t. Could I ever get excited for a glorified toy commercial again?

…Well, as the latest The Last Je—uh, Knight trailer proves, my inner highschooler can. I mean, my inner critic is saying, “No matter how good this will be, it can’t redeem the last four.” However, if somebody time-travelled this trailer back to highschooler me, my head might have blown up:

youtube.com/watch?v=79oxuuvx1JE

This has an emotional vibe that no other Transformers trailer has. It’s not just a bunch of cool and exciting visuals ala the Dark of the Moon trailer; I’m feeling the stakes.

The one consistently good thing about these movies is the special effects, and this movie looks huge! Like, it could make Dark of the Moon‘s Chicago battle (the most entertaining part of any Transformers movie thus far) look like a mere fistfight!

Speaking of which, I appreciate that these last two films aren’t just brushing off the consequences of Dark of the MoonAge of Extinction treated the Battle of Chicago like a 9/11-type event that turned humanity against the transformers, and it looks like Optimus in The Last Knight is being judged for destroying Cybertron (well, it was Bumblebee [yes, I still remember details like that], but…).

As for Optimus turning evil, I hate to see the subversion of who should be one of the ultimate good guys. Heck, I didn’t like the ruthless edge Optimus has after the first one (both his character and John Turturro’s are two of the first one’s only redeeming qualities, and then the sequels ruin them), but that makes his turn to the Dark Side all the more inevitable. I could mention how silly it is that the transformers have yet another secret history with the human race, but it’s already about alien robots that can fold perfectly into the pieces of human technology they happen to have the ability to scan…

Of course, the disastrous Revenge of the Fallen‘s trailers looked awesome, and I’m not expecting The Last Knight to be a movie I’d want to watch more than once; heck, considering the whole series that came before it, I probably won’t be able to recommend it even if it turns out to be above average. Plus, I’m not sure what to think of the “species turning against its own creators” theme. But it looks like one heck of a big screen experience for my inner highschooler.

We’ll see if the actual film will leave me as impressed in my inevitable review.

04/15/2017 | “Unsurprising cynicism (towards Star Wars)”

What’s this?! A Transformers: The Last Knight trailer and a Star Wars: The Last Jedi teaser in the same week?!:

youtube.com/watch?v=zB4I68XVPzQ

As you know from my “Where Disney’s Star Wars Went Wrong” article and its followup, I’ve been disappointed with Disney’s Star Wars, especially with how this Sequel trilogy fundamentally contradicts Darth Vader’s character arc. Now, I already have a complaint about The Last Jedi: it’s revealing a relativistic approach to the Force that takes good and evil out of the question, reminiscent of Knights of the Old Republic II – The Sith Lords, and presenting it as the ideal approach to the Force.

As one of my siblings pointed out regarding Rogue One (and nevertheless liked that movie way more than I did), without consideration of good and evil, there is no truth to fight for; there’s only a personal ideology. However, Rogue One blurring the lines between the Rebels and the Empire, a physical conflict, doesn’t bother me nearly as much as how The Last Jedi is further blurring the lines within the Force itself, a spiritual reality.

Really, there’s no use writing more about Star Wars at this point because it’s not gonna please me again. Heck, having rewatched the Originals since I wrote those articles, I think Return of the Jedi forever ruined the Jedis’ image of goodness—with the help of Empire‘s climax, of course—by how Yoda and Obi-Wan turn out to be liars and urge Luke to kill Vader without second thoughts, and they’re awarded eternal life nonetheless. In that respect, I’d actually agree with The Last Jedi‘s teaser’s last line if the film went with another important detail Return of the Jedi establishes: that there is a way to the Light without following the Jedis’ anti-humanism.

Sadly, a Star Wars episode will have to be an “I’ll see it based on what reviews say” movie. Imagine that! I’m more eager to see and review Transformers than Star Wars. At least it gave me another joyous chance to see Fr. Rodrick turn into a big kid.

My appreciation for Zelda and Lord of the Rings better not waver next; my inner amatuer fairy tale geek can’t take much more existential dread.

04/18/2017 | “Memorable video games I won’t play again”

Deus Ex (2000)

I don’t know whether I’ve kept my nearly forty Steam hours of this game because I’m fond enough of it or because I don’t want to just throw that many hours away.

Deus Ex as a first-person RPG offers a lot more options than just shooting bad guys. Every choice we make influences the story. The world-spanning conspiracy plot is almost hilariously convoluted, the voice acting is delightfully corny with quotably dry one-liners (I still sometimes say “A bomb!” when I pick up bombs in other games), and the soundtrack is catchy as heck. Alas, while I had a blast with these aspects, its incorporation of transhumanism into the gameplay is an inherent philosophical caveat, only one of its three optional endings is ethical, and its main villain leads a nefarious religious organization that’s implicitly connected with the Catholic Church. In the infamous words of JC Denton: “What a shame.”

Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (2004)

I suppose all the Metal Gear Solid games (except maybe the first one) could be on this list since they were so fun but so perverse (though MGS2: Sons of Liberty was overall just…meh). But playing prequel Snake Eater, out of all of them, kind of made my life feel more complete, and unfortunately, that whole experience was marred by the game’s fetishizing of its femme fatale in a way that became series standard, and she was a genuinely interesting character otherwise.

Still, for better or for worse, I don’t think I’ll ever forget the Bond-style theme song (which I’d break into singing while mowing lawns last summer), David Hayter’s Snake voice enthusiastically claiming “That’s tasty!”, the future series villain codenamed Revolver Ocelot literally meowing, and countless other ludicrousies. Heck, even though I got this more from MGS4: Guns of the Patriots, I now sometimes point to my cat and say, “You’re pretty good!” (Not that I mean it.)

Half-Life 2 (2004)

A year ago, I was obsessing over Half-Life 2, likely writing up my fifth analysis of it for my now-defunct T. Martin Has a Blog blog. What kept me coming back to the hauntingly unpleasant dystopia Half-Life 2 thrusts into was not only the astounding attention to graphical detail for its time but also the humanism underneath its nastiness. But, that’s before I realized the inherent moral caveat of shooting games, the way they’re staged around glorifying violence, with Half-Life 2‘s sympathy for innocents suddenly coming across as a manipulation for us to revel in the constant violence against the bad guys. I indicate how I came to this conclusion in “What the heck do I see in video games?” Now, the evidence of this technical masterpiece on my Steam profile, even though its characters are still funny and moving even after the realization, has been removed forever.

04/21/2017 | “Virtual Ventures #3”

I said [in a now deleted post] that I’m playing through three Zelda games—Skyward SwordOcarina of Time, and Twilight Princess—to eventually analyze them as an unofficial Legend of Zelda trilogy. Reconsidering what I said here about writing about video games like a journal after mostly writing about them in lists, I’ve decided to write about each installment of this trilogy as I get to it. Given how I’m now into Ocarina of Time‘s second act, this is a belated post.

So, say I wasn’t already a fan of Zelda (though not big enough a fan to have either beaten any pre-Ocarina titles or bought a new console to play Breath of the Wild by now) and am just discovering Skyward Sword, the chronologically first ever Zelda, for the first time. Would I find it as endearing as I do?

If only I could picture not knowing Zelda beforehand.

Like the Star Wars Prequel and Hobbit trilogies, Skyward Sword is a prequel made with fans of the originals in mind, perhaps becoming what Steven Greydanus would call “mythology bound”. Except whereas the Prequels and the Hobbit, whether intentionally or not, cynically insult their heritages, Skyward Sword joyously honors its own, never falling short of being a love letter to its heritage. …Or at least the 3D era of its heritage.

Even so, the game is in the odd position of sporting gameplay fit for newcomers and telling a story fit for those who are already familiar with Zelda lore.

As I mentioned in the “Video games I like” list, both the motion control-based gameplay and the story are very linear, obnoxiously instructing us the whole way, but the story throws in so many innovative ideas, including a plot point that raises even more questions for the already convoluted mythology, that it could be too much for new players. (Whether Breath of the Wild expands upon such questions I want to find out for myself.)

The character development, however, may be the most charming in the series.

As we first meet Link, the not-Zelda protagonist (I like to name him after the game’s title, or however I can fit the title into the name slot, e.i. SkywrdSwd), and the titular Zelda herself, they’re teenage lifelong friends living in a town literally floating above the cloudline. Intruding upon their adorable will-they-won’t-they relationship is Groose, a bully to Link that’s head-over-heels for Zelda. Watching how they and their dynamics grow over the course of the adventure is an absolute joy to watch, and by the end, it feels like we’re saying goodbye to virtual friends. I even feel bad saying goodbye to Fi, the obligatory obnoxious sidekick who tells us how to do everything at every moment.

However, it also delves deeply into the spirituality of the Zelda mythos, featuring a religion towards a goddess and a goddess incarnate in human form.

More questionably, Fi makes a jab towards the idea of oral tradition, there are dualistic trials for Link that bring his spirit into an alternate dimension (which may be the second scariest stuff I’ve ever experienced in a Zelda game), and, as implied only in relation to later games, the religion towards the goddess doesn’t seem to be required to practice after the events of Skyward Sword. Most questionably of all is how a villainous character levitates in a crucifixion-style pose as he’s being sacrificed by his devilish master.

The mixed use of Christian conceits and symbolism concerns me, although it’s unlikely that it’s intentionally referencing Christianity. (Although the Zelda series did have direct though subtle connotations to Christianity before Ocarina of Time introduced the goddesses, so I could be wrong.)

Bracketing its problems, Skyward Sword is fine as escapism. The characters are lovable, the artstyle looks like a painting, and a couple of the boss battles are unforgettable. Its world is far more empty than that of the more definitive Zelda games, but it’s not supposed to be that way yet. As part of an epic that spans multiple millennia and involves a line of reincarnations, it’s a solid start.

04/25/2017 | “Virtual Ventures #4”

Both the problem with and the advantage of making a trilogy out of Skyward SwordOcarina of Time, and Twilight Princess is that each game follows the same fundamental formula: Link finds out he’s chosen by the goddesses who created the world of Hyrule to defeat a rising evil with the help of Princess Zelda.

Skyward Sword‘s villain is pretty much evil incarnate, a force that caused the goddess Hylia to send humanity to live in the sky until evil’s defeated. By Ocarina of Time, while this evil has been defeated and the people have been flourishing on the earth for millennia, a manifestation of this evil’s hatred, Ganondorf, is going after the Triforce of Power which holds creation together, but Link and Zelda have been reincarnated to stop him.

While plenty of elements have returned from Skyward Sword, from familiar faces to familiar locations to familiar weapons, there’s an immediate step backwards in both graphics and character development, and that is, of course, because Ocarina was made before Skyward, and it’s the game that both Skyward Sword and all subsequent gaming generations owe themselves to. It was revolutionary.

Granted, many of Ocarina‘s mechanics and story elements were established in pre-N64 Zelda titles, yet Ocarina‘s storytelling still carries a mythic resonance, somehow emphasized by the primitive tech of the N64 and in part due to both its traditional fairy tale archetypes and its legendary reputation as the greatest video game ever made. If A New Hope is the definitive entry of its own trilogy with an expansion of a middle chapter, then Ocarina of Time is the definitive entry of its own “trilogy” with a setup of a first chapter.

Nonetheless, although Ocarina of Time is the video game I want all other video games to remind me of, the adventure of my childhood whose first playthrough took me ten on-and-off years to beat, I think Shadow of the Colossus is better as a grownups’ game than Ocarina of Time is as a children’s game.

I mean, there’s some pretty “What-the-heck-were-the-developers-thinking?!” stuff in Ocarina, not limited to how we have to get a couple important items by vandalizing gravestones, such as when we learn one of the ocarina songs while getting scarred by our could-be first encounter with the horrifying redeads. And who could forget the village well that leads to an underground torture dungeon still inhabited by undead monstrosities?! Why are Hyrule’s freakiest locations hidden in the seemingly idyllic Kakariko Village?! Not to mention, the Great Fairies are as creepily fetishized as their laughs are creepily creepy.

The game also follows the series’s typical dualistic, monistic, and polytheistic spiritualities. While the Triforce is a Holy Trinity of sorts, it has more in common with the Force in how it’s a divine object that can be used by one who wields it. (Attempting to analyze the theology of this more deeply is beyond my ability).

At the very least, Christian imagery and symbolism are exclusively on the heroes’ side this time. When I say that Zelda parallels Christian motifs, I’m not saying that Zeldacould be seen as a Christian allegory, but Link does offer a positive example of following the divine’s good will without a fret. …If the goddesses are still even around. (Like I said…)

Despite its misguided elements, there’s a fairly clear distinction between good and evil, where good fights to protect creation and evil fights to distort it. Some argue that Ocarina of Time hasn’t aged well and that nostalgia’s the reason it’s still praised to this day; while nostalgia is still a big appeal for me, I think there’s more value to it than that, that its theme of good and evil is what helps it stand the test of time, especially due to the storybook approach it’s told through.

(Some would also argue that Link walking into people’s houses and stealing their rupees, Hyrule’s crystalline currency, without consequences muddles his role as a hero; that idea is hard for me to take seriously in a video game-logic world where rupees, jars, and patches of grass magically reappear every time we reenter an area and where any replenishable item, from rupees to bombs to arrows to magic jars, can be found in random patches of grass.)

The storybook storytelling is why I still get chills during the plot’s legendary transition to its second act, which not only is the point where stuff gets real but also symbolizes the transition from the joyous world of childhood to the scary world of adulthood. That makes it not just fun for grownups to revisit but also relatable for those who’ve experienced that “Oh my! I’m an adult now!” moment. Nostalgia’s probably the reason the ending chokes me up every time, like I’m watching my childhood ending right before my eyes, but I’ve still fallen in love with the adventure that leads up to it.

Unlike Skyward SwordOcarina of Time is what a Zelda game should be. Skyward may also have innovative dungeons and colorful characters, but Ocarina actually has a world to explore. Skyward Sword is a good setup story; Ocarina of Time is a great standalone story, despite how its lack of killing, though still defeating, the villain in the end, as refreshing as that is, sets up for a future Zelda game.

Actually, it sets up for two theoretical Zelda games: The Wind Waker and Twilight Princess, the latter of which is the one that actually follows Ocarina‘s timeline. As for Ocarina‘s direct sequel, Majora’s Mask… Well, it’s so distinctly original and inconsequential for the overarching mythology that it’s not worth fitting in here.

By the time I finish this trilogy, I’m sure Ocarina is going to be the entry I’ll want to revisit again and again. …As long as I don’t think about the Well level. I mean, the game’s overall mood is joyous, but that makes the Well’s inclusion even more messed up!

05/02/2017 | “Marvel movies I love (so far)”

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

This is one superhero movies that’s endeared me more and more as it’s aged, probably because superhero movies have gotten cynical to the point of Batman v. Superman…and, to a different degree, Civil War. Despite its bittersweet payoff—a subversion of cliche that’s partly what sells the movie for me—, it offers a heaping of optimism as it gets us to root for the underdog Steve Rogers. While the action scenes are often chaotic and cartoony (plus, the way that musical number exploits its dancers makes for one of the most lurid scenes in any Marvel movie), the period production design is stunningly filmed. Above all, it’s the sincerity of its cast of characters that makes the story quite involving.

The Avengers (2012)

The Avengers‘s biggest drawback is that you have to watch the first Thor, which was ironically my favorite Marvel movie at the time, in order for it to make sense (on the other hand, the wonderful first Captain America [ironically my least favorite Marvel movie at the time] is the other most essential precursor). The novelty of seeing these pre-established heroes teaming up may have worn off by now, but this first Avengers still feels as special as watching JawsStar Wars, or Jurassic Park: the sheer entertainment value stands the test of time. It’s not just one of the best superhero movies ever made, it’s one of the best popcorn movies ever made.

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

I remember thinking after I saw the first teaser for this movie, “What the heck did I just watch?” Now I know: the real new Star Wars. Of course, it could only be called Star Wars if Star Wars‘s main cast consisted of even more vulgar versions of Han Solo and the Empire were a mere terrorist sect, and its unqualified heroes’ ultimate promotion puts it more in common with J.J. Abrams’s Star Trek. Despite the antihero angle, the chemistry of the cast, two of whom are a tree and a raccoon, and the protagonists’ eventual willingness to put their lives on the line for the greater good give charm and resonance to the vulgarity and weirdness.

Captain America: Civil War (2016)

The inherent flaw with Marvel movies, that not many of them make sense unless you watch several films—both decent and mediocre—beforehand, actually works to Civil War‘s advantage. While the Avengers turning against each other would have made a more interesting Avengers 2 than Age of Ultron did, it would have been quite contrived if the fallout of Age of Ultron weren’t partly the basis for the plot. For once, said plot, crafted with surprising focus for what it is, all comes down to the characters, not another averted apocalypse; we already care for the characters, and their brilliant showdowns range from rollicking to heartbreaking.

05/04/2017 | “My response to my own ‘Absurdly Awesome Finale’ series”

It’s probably more courageous to critique your own art than someone else’s art, especially when people know that you put years of your life into something to please an audience for no profit only for you to say when it’s finally finished that you’re disappointed by its story. I suppose that makes me my own worst critic since the recently finished “Transformers: The Absurdly Awesome Finale” (2015-2017) series isn’t the first time a series I poured months into disappointed me afterwards.

That previous series, “Transformers: The Next Generation One” (2013-2014), tells the story of how a Decepticon—formerly named Deadlock, now named Drift—joins the Autobots and helps them defeat the Decepticons. Except it was built so much around comedy amid the drama that I somehow missed a couple of obvious opportunities: explain how Drift even found the Autobot base, and have Drift lead the Autobots to the Decepticon base instead of letting the Autobots wait around for the Decepticons to come out of hiding. Heck, it should have been about how Drift decided to join the Autobots in the forefront instead of explaining it in exposition after the fact.

Nonetheless, my biggest issues with “TNG1” are logical, and we can sympathize with its protagonist right off the bat. That’s where I think “The Absurdly Awesome Finale” falls flat.

“The Absurdly Awesome Finale” connects and climaxes several of my previous continuities via alternate universe portals. The series starts off in the Jaggedverse, or my version of Michael Bay’s Transformers (with a couple other universes brought into the mix later). When we first meet the main Autobots—the “good” transformers—who we’ll be journeying with throughout the series, they’re big jerks, jerks to the Decepticons—the bad transformers—and jerks to each other. I meant this as a parody of how Michael Bay depicts his Autobots, and the point of the story is how the Autobots learn to value the lives of their enemies, but we’re hardly given a chance to sympathize with them right off the bat. Heck, the way the Decepticons are shown to recognize the Autobots’ distorted values more than the Autobots do makes it easier to sympathize with the Decepticons.

Sure, these Autobots do encounter a universe where enemies’ lives are valued, but the way I kicked off this series’s characterization casts a shadow over the rest of it. Having the Autobots start out as jerks and end as noblemen works for a morality tale, but for a sci-fi/war epic, one that couldn’t always avoid the darker side of war (i.e. the aftermath of the attack from Part 2), it needed to show a sympathetic side to the Autobots, especially to each other, before it showed their ugly side toward their enemies.

The moment all the Autobots realize the personhood of their enemies comes in Part 4 from a bizarre vision. Unfortunately, from there, I couldn’t deliver what I wanted to deliver. I had a huge final part planned, one that would involve a battle between Autobots and Decepticons from three different dimensions. Before the battle, the Autobot leaders would have tried to negotiate with the Decepticons, but, of course, it doesn’t work, except for when Jagged Optimus forgives his former mentor Sentinel for betraying the Autobots.

I was not ready to film something so chaotic on that big a scale. Over the course of the following year, I kept scaling down the script, figuring out a both satisfying and filmable way to end the story. Just when I was about to give up and announce that the story won’t have an ending, I finally came up with a device to tell that this massive battle and Optimus’s forgiving happened without showing it. What is shown is the fatal climactic battle with the villainous Starscream.

Of course, Starscream’s a stubborn ghost in possession of another, and the only way to take him out is to kill him with a special ghost-killing device (to avoid major problematic spiritual implications, I made it a joke that not even the transformers know why transformer ghosts exist). Sentinel tries to negotiate with Starscream, but I’m not sure the Autobot leaders’ angry attitudes during this battle (my music choice of which had me geeking out as I was editing it) helps the theme of “learning to love your enemies”. I mean, it needed a cool climactic battle, but the good guys could have been a bit more resistant to participate in it. Even so, by itself, Part 5 is my favorite episode out of all of them.

“The Absurdly Awesome Finale” was certainly a learning curve for me, including a learning curve in directing others’ voice performances; I’m proud of it more on a technical level than a thematic level. My audience may love these characters, but I wish I’d written them in a way that I could love. I made this just for my fans; next time I provide for them, I’m going to make sure I’m proud of what I give them before I release it.

05/17/2017 | “Virtual Ventures #5”

Last weekend, a $30 game that had been on my Steam wishlist for a while, Alan Wake, finally went on sale, and I snatched it for $3. Alas, the reason it was on sale was because the game’s music licenses were expiring, and so this sale was a final chance to buy the game digitally, unless the developers decide to renew the licenses.

I don’t want to encourage binging on games, but I admittedly binged on this game, spending most of my weekend on the eleven-to-twelve hours I took to beat it. I probably wouldn’t have went that far in that short a time if a few hours in I hadn’t skimmed through the reviews on Steam and saw one that mentioned that it doesn’t have a happy ending. So, my Last of Us PTSD kicked in and drove me to finish it before Twilight Princess so that I’d have something uplifting to finish afterwards (I made the mistake of making last year’s playthrough of Ocarina of Time before my lone playthrough of The Last of Us).

Given that it’s a zombie-ish mostly-shooter, it certainly reminded me of The Last of Us, even Half-Life 2 (though any action-horror game with a gritty art style, including The Last of Us, reminds me of Half-Life 2). But Alan Wake is neither post-apocalyptic nor dystopian; rather, it’s a psychological/supernatural horror-thriller broken up into six episodes, an homage to Stephen King and Twin Peaks; given how I’ve neither seen Twin Peaks nor read/seen hardly any Stephen King, I can get much more invested in this type of stuff if I’m playing it.

The game itself doesn’t ignore its inspirations; the titular protagonistic writer Alan Wake mentions a couple of times that Stephen King was one of his inspirations growing up, only to find his life turn into a Stephen King novel when he vacations with his wife Alice to the Washington town of Bright Falls. …Or rather, it’s his own novel come to life, quite literally.

Given the T-rating, none of the violence, despite a few particularly harrowing deaths, is as viscerally unsettling as anything from The Last of Us nor as manipulatively mean-spirited as anything from Half-Life 2. The weapon-wielding zombie creatures in question are also still a bit human, except they’re possessed by the same entity of darkness that’s brought Alan’s work, which he only knows about by finding pages of it scattered throughout the town as he has no memories of writing it, to life and can be most easily vaporized by bullets when the light of a flashlight penetrates their forcefields. Though the easiest ways to vaporize them are with flashbangs and flare guns, and the easiest way to escape them is by standing in the light of a lamppost.

While I enjoyed the spooky thrills, the constant action, especially in the last two episodes, often gets in the way of what really kept me invested: the storyline. Not only are there walking simulator sections that just let the story develop, but the story is filled with mystery, intrigue, and colorful characterizations. Alan also has a strong enough relationship with his wife, whose kidnapping by the Darkness sets him on his journey, for me to want to see him rescue her, even when the insanity happening around him gets him to contemplate going down some very dark territory that largely gets averted (the most disturbing moment in the game for me was actually when Alan indirectly kills a person of nuisance and sadistically grins afterwards).

Eventually, the story gets lore heavy, and I legit didn’t get the lore. I mean, the end of the third episode reveals a character that the game assumes we as an audience are already more familiar with than we are. Did I miss something? As for that unhappy ending…well, at first, it seemed bittersweet—unhappy in a way, but not overtly nihilistic. That is until I realized that the second-to-last line implies that the Darkness has the final say. But then the cliffhanging final line suggests that everything was a delusion.

Either way, I just can’t win, can I?

I know, it was a pretty bleak journey to begin with. Yet, a virtual journey this bleak makes me desire a happy, or at least morally sound, ending even more than a virtual journey as joyous as Ocarina of Time. To, with inspiration from Catholic in the 21st Century, quote Saint John Paul the Great’s “Letter to Artists”: “Even when they explore the darkest depths of the soul or the most unsettling aspects of evil, artists give voice in a way to the universal desire for redemption.” I want video games to give me hope that evil can be destroyed, that the good in humanity can triumph. That’s one reason I love Zelda games so much: they let us feel accomplished in the end. Games like Alan WakeThe Last of Us, and Half-Life 2 beat the player, and it should be the other way around. What’s the appeal of spending hours of your life to get screwed over in the end and revisiting that experience (not that I didn’t do that during my Half-Life 2 phase…)?

I know, the credits assure us that Alan Wake will return, but the way he returns, Alan Wake’s American Nightmare, is, from what I’ve heard, more like a reimagining of this game as an 80s action fest, so we have yet to get a proper sequel. Still, a video game demands to be more of a standalone experience than a franchise even more so than a movie does.

I suppose the benefit of having played The Last of Us is that I’ve been more prepared to be let down by a gripping, cleverly written virtual adventure from then on. That doesn’t excuse how I deserve a cathartic payoff for the hours I invest in the journey, especially if said journey sets up clear weaknesses that defeat the villain, only for the rug to be pulled out from under us at the last second. It’s not that Wake was anywhere near an ideal hero to begin with, but the game would have been more agreeable with the proper ending.

05/22/2017 | “Virtual Ventures #6”

Twilight Princess, which was the first Zelda game I ever beat, even before Ocarina of Time, was a response by Nintendo to Zelda fans who found Wind Waker not enough like Ocarina of Time, putting Twilight Princess thousands of years later in Ocarina‘s timeline with a similar artstyle and formula. Of course, fans complained that it was too much like Ocarina of Time, and so Nintendo followed Twilight Princess up with the more innovative Skyward Sword and (mostly) everyone was happy.

Storytelling-wise, I found Twilight Princess this time around to evoke Skyward Sword more than Ocarina of Time. The graphics are once again high-polygon, the overworld is broken into the same provinces as Skyward Sword, and it returns to a similar depth of character development. Like Ocarina of Time, however, we’re actually allowed to explore this overworld, but not before the first few hours put us through a slog of linearity before we can get to the meat of the gameplay.

I suppose what makes it disappointing as a conclusion to the joyous Skyward Swordand Ocarina of Time is its dour tone, which might have been easier to forgive if it weren’t for its muddy visual color palette. I’ve only played the Wii version, but the HD remaster doesn’t look like the improvement I’d like for this game. I appreciate that Twilight Princess aims for deeper emotional resonance, but even though many of the more emotional moments are used to develop the story’s theme of courage and heroism, I don’t think a world as silly as Hyrule deserves to be this gritty; it’s like going from Sam Raimi’s to Marc Webb’s Spider-Man movies, though not quite that bad.

While the story ties up a long-running arc, which is why I was curious to see how it would work as a trilogy capper, it’s not that interested in the mythology of the Triforce, a major plot point in the previous chapters. What Twilight Princess‘s main focus is is an alternate dimension whose inhabitants are trying to take over Hyrule after being banished by the goddesses to their own realm. Twilight Princess is already a weirder game than Skyward Sword and Ocarina of Time; introducing such a big chunk of lore like this out of nowhere makes it even weirder as a followup to them.

On the other hand, with Hyrule in such a broken state, it’s more satisfying to explore and help people out here than it is in Ocarina of Time. Part of the appeal is riding across Hyrule and listening to the Hyrule Field theme; my spirit stirs every time the “Ballad of Twilight” cues. The dungeon design may also be the funnest in this trilogy; during that tedious opening act, I was thinking, “Maybe this game isn’t as thrilling as I once thought it was…” and then I got to the first dungeon. And that’s not even mentioning all the cool new mechanics, such as turning into a wolf and gliding on rails with a giant spinning top.

Twilight Princess is designed to be a followup to Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Maskinstead of Skyward Sword and Ocarina of Time, so coming off the twisted Majora’s MaskTwilight Princess is a welcome and tamer-than-its-predecessor trilogy capper, though its visuals are still out of place given how both its predecessors in this case were released for the N64.

I suppose the lore of Hyrule is so expansive that, while it’s possible to pick one definitive entry, you can’t reduce Zelda to a trilogy, especially not one with Twilight Princess as its conclusion. I’m not a fan of Wind Waker pacing-wise, but tonally, it probably would have worked better as a companion piece to Skyward Sword and Ocarina of Time. It also would have continued the trend of this trilogy offering a new type of overworld to explore each time: Skyward Sword‘s sky, Ocarina of Time‘s land, and Wind Waker‘s sea.

While Twilight Princess‘s outlandish straining of the Zelda formula brings uneven results, it’s still a pretty enjoyable adventure, with strong characterizations and thrilling set pieces. But unless Breath of the Wild, which I won’t be playing any time soon, proves me wrong, Ocarina of Time is the definitive Zelda game for me.

06/24/2017 | “TRANSFORMERS: THE LAST KNIGHT (2017) Movie Review”

It almost seems futile to criticize Transformers: The Last Knight for being awful because it’s not trying to be good. Michael Bay knows how bad his directing is, and he doesn’t give a crap. His commitment to schlock is almost respectable, and I’m really tempted to respect the schlock itself for that.

Alas, the most fundamental criticism, which applies to the whole series, is how inappropriate this film is for a kids toy adaptation. It’s bad enough filmmaking for adults; it could be even more ruinous introducing this crap to a child.

Then again, I have reservations about the idea behind Transformers in general, which is why I now want to distance myself from franchise. I mean, should kids really look up to a “good guy” named Crosshairs, whose very name puts a weapon into his identity? A crime-fighting superhero with an alter-ego who doesn’t have to fight crime is one thing; a robot who’s inherently built to fight other robots and look cool doing it is another thing.

I’ll give The Last Knight this: the crasser elements from the series have lessened. The sexual jokes, while there are still a couple of strong ones, are more likely to go over kids’ heads than those from earlier entries, and female characters aren’t in-your-face exploited (aren’t in-your-face exploited) for eye candy. On the other hand, the Autobots’ personalities and the violence are just as mean-spirited and cynical as usual, even if the violence isn’t overly brutal like it’s been since Revenge of the Fallen.

One of the Autobots is such a sadist that I was like “Thank you!” when it appeared that Megatron killed him until he came back later.

Age of Extinction‘s returning protagonist Cade Yeager is definitely the most likable and engaging of the cast due to Mark Wahlberg’s charisma. It’s also nice to see Josh Duhamel return as Lennox, purely because he could have been, and should have been, a fine protagonist for the first trilogy.

The plot, however, is just about as big a mess as the editing, featuring a horrific amount of subplots and a backstory so ridiculous that it stretches disbelief by Transformers standards. …Should I be concerned about how easily I could sit through this stuff?

For one, there are two main villains: the returning Megatron, whose turn from being reborn as Galvatron is unsurprisingly unexplained, and Quintessa, the apparent creator of the transformers who possesses Optimus into doing her will; if the film weren’t already fundamentally flawed, I’d be feeling more uneasy about the “turning against your own god” theme.

Megatron’s team of Decepticons are parodies of Decepticons. During their own special character introductions, complete with their names plastered on the screen like a high-tech Suicide Squad, I was trying to remember when I was hired to write them. I mean, one of them acts all ghetto and wears a gold chain. (Spoiler alert) Alas, my curiosity was short-lived when most of them are killed fifteen minutes later in their first action sequence. But hey, at least we got to know Mohawk’s, Onslaught’s, Berserker’s, and…Ghettocon’s names.

I don’t remember what Ghettocon’s actual name is, but if I had actually written that character, I totally would have named him Ghettocon.

Speaking of editing, the guilty pleasure of the opening sequence is cut short when a ramble delivered goofily by Stanley Tucci, playing not his character from Age of Extinction, shows every comment he makes through a different angle in rapid-fire progression. Why?!

Said editing might have been (might have been) less jarring throughout had the film kept a more consistent aspect ratio. As both Imax and standard widescreen cameras were used in the production, it would have made sense to use Imax cameras for the action scenes, but there are dialogue scenes that are widescreen for the most part but feature random Imax shots, and there are action scenes that are Imax for the most part but feature random widescreen shots. Could they not stick to a consistent aspect ratio for five minutes?!

Gratuitous slow-motion is also everywhere, in action scenes and beyond. Just when it seems that introducing a polo match in slow-motion is self-indulgent, an Autobot is introduced whose guns shoot balls of slow-motion! (More accurately, they’re spherical force fields that slow down time, but “balls of slow-motion” sounds better.)

It wasn’t until the end of the second act, where all the various plotlines finally start coming together, where the film really grabbed me. Sure, while the apocalypse is imminent, I kept asking where the heck Mark Wahlberg got the beanie cap he’s suddenly wearing (which reminded me of “Mark Wahlberg is wearing a hat“), and while one major fight scene concludes as conveniently as a major fight scene from Batman v. Superman, the following character choices moved me in a way I haven’t been moved by these movies since the original.

Said scene from the original is the scene where the Autobots meet at the observatory. They discuss their plans, we find out what they’re willing to fight for, and when Optimus reveals what he’d do to save humanity…that part genuinely tugs on my heartstrings. It’s a fantastic scene, one that establishes Optimus as a voice of clear conscience before the sequels turn him into a vengeful psychopath.

Even though I blast watching The Last Knight‘s final act of Bayhem, where various conflicting factions, both human and robot, join together to save Earth, the movie as a whole gave me an appreciation for how relatively small-scale the original Transformers is, which still isn’t good, especially the ruinous teen movie elements, but The Last Knightmakes it look like The Avengers.

If nothing else, The Last Knight is a great “riff on it with friends” movie. It was also nostalgic to see Optimus Prime and Megatron together onscreen again, and there were a couple of name drops that had me geeking out. How much more Bayhem I can take for the sixth movie, however, is yet to be seen; Bay may have said that this is his last one, but judging by how he ends this one, I highly doubt his word.


Spoiler alert: I otta coin the term Martha-ing: where two heroes are fighting each other until one of them, while pinned down, says something that totally snaps the other hero out of it.

07/02/2017 | “THE LEGEND OF ZELDA: OCARINA OF TIME (1998) Game Review”

It takes several looks to fully grasp a piece of art, even a video game.

There have been several times I’ve regretted writing my positive first impressions on movies as said movies fell apart the second time around (though sometimes when that happens, the third time ends up being the charm). …That is unless the game or movie is bad on first playthrough or viewing; then I don’t mind going straight to trashing it (as I did with Transformers 5).

So, if I’m going to properly label something as a review post-restarting this blog with “Finding Myself”, it might as well be for something I’ve replayed or rewatched enough times to form a solid opinion on it, so I might as well just write about games that I’ve played through more than once, even ones that dissipate over each playthrough. So, unless I’m really compelled to revisit Final Fantasy VII after I’m finished this first playthrough of it, chances are I’m not gonna review it.

For the first of these games I’m going to review, however, my opinion has not dissipated; if anything, the disappointment I’ve found in the general medium of video games has enhanced my appreciation for The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time since the years it formed my taste in video games.

It’s quite cliche to mention that Ocarina of Time is one of the most influential and critically acclaimed video games, if not the most critically acclaimed video game, of all time, and this is a review coming from somebody who agrees with such acclaim but disagrees with the praise for many other “best video games of all time”, most notably The Last of Us.

Of course, aside from Ocarina of Time and The Last of Us being video games that feature zombies (Ocarina of Time‘s of which, while less prominent than The Last of Us‘s, haunted my childhood), the latter is a character-driven post-apocalyptic survival-horror whereas the latter is a plot-driven fantasy action-adventure; comparing the two is comparing apples to oranges, though I suppose there’s a way to better understand my favorite game of all time by comparing it to my least favorite of all time.

Admittedly, The Last of Us is a technical masterpiece; it hooked me on an emotional level. That is until its violence eventually got so dark that I checked out and watched the rest of the game on Youtube. The game’s ultimate succumbing to nihilism, even more so, burned me so badly that it single-handedly makes me regret buying a PS3. However accomplished the player feels in the end depends on how they hoped it would end.

This isn’t the only time where a game I was invested in left me feeling unaccomplished, with other examples being Half-Life 2 and Alan Wake (though my overall experience with Half-Life 2 is worth a review in of itself). Shouldn’t a video game, out of any art of any medium, leave the audience feeling like the hours-long journey was worthwhile? Heck, why aren’t more gamers asking this same question?

With Ocarina of Time, as well as all other Zelda games I’ve beaten, even the twisted outliner Majora’s Mask, the game lets us feel accomplished in the end. While Ocarina‘s payoff is bittersweet, justice is served, and there’s not much ambiguity regarding who’s good and who’s bad either. It’s that black-and-white, childlike simplicity enhanced by its aged but vividly colorful graphics that makes the adventure so endearing to this day.

I should mention that The Last of UsHalf-Life 2, and Alan Wake progress in linear fashion with gameplay largely based around brutal violence with the occasional puzzle. While there’s plenty of cartoon violence against monsters in Ocarina of Time, there are plenty of opportunities to break free from the action and explore the land of Hyrule to find treasures or just interact with its lovable inhabitants, not that there aren’t enemies scattered around the open areas. I know, there are plenty of other games like this, but I have yet to find another game that balances linear storytelling with open-world exploration this perfectly.

What holds up surprisingly well is its atmosphere; it still feels like it’s taking us on the epic adventure of a lifetime. Even though Hyrule field, the hub for Hyrule’s locations, is quite empty, there’s still a joy to traversing it. Just as the original 1986 Legend of Zelda was the first 2D world of its kind, Ocarina is the first 3D world of its kind, and it embraces many of the tropes that the series had established, such as the trio of Link, Zelda, and Ganondorf, the Master Sword, the dungeons…

Granted, there are things in this game that make me wonder what the heck the developers were thinking, especially for a game aimed at all ages.

The game’s horror elements go too far into the opposite direction of joy, such as a village well when drained leading to an abandoned torture dungeon still being inhabited by undead monstrosities; that would be messed up enough for a grownups game, but it becomes even more horrifying due to the inference that people drank from that well (unless they heard the legend about where the well leads, but who in their right mind would build a well there?).

Hyrule’s mythology, which can’t be avoided as the protagonistic Link is following his destined path, includes polytheistic themes in the form of the goddesses who created Hyrule and monistic themes in the form of the Triforce of Power that holds the essences of the goddesses and holds creation together. The creepy Great Fairies that give us powers granted by the goddesses are presented in a fetishized manner. And then there’s the Gerudos, a race consisting entirely of fit women expect for one man born every hundred years; their methods of reproduction can only be theorized.

Despite these elements, Ocarina of Time is still a beautiful balance between mythmaking and escapism, from the treasures discovered to the hilarious side characters to the brain-teasing level design to the magical songs we can play with the titular ocarina. Even when the story takes more somber turns, it doesn’t lose its sense of joy and wonder. The polytheistic themes also play into the fundamentally Christian principle of following the divine’s good will.

While the Legend of Zelda series is my favorite game series in general (though I still haven’t built up the patience to beat any of the pre-Ocarina games), and while there are non-Zelda games that I like, Ocarina of Time is the one game I can revisit over and over and over again. It’s the reason I’m interested video games, and it’s the game I compare all others to.

My first playthrough of it took me ten on-and-off years (an atypically long time, or at least I hope it is), so a lot of the appeal is nostalgia. However, I can take off rose-colored glasses and consider the flaws in the things that shaped my childhood (just look at my Star Warsarticles on Catholic Wannabe Critic). I genuinely believe that Ocarina still deserves its praise.

09/04/2017 | “Where Disney’s Star Wars Went Wrong”

(This was an article I originally posted March 26, 2017 on the now defunct Catholic Wannabe Critic, which was my headquarters for media reviews for a while.)

So far, Disney has disappointingly blown their first chances of reinvigorating the Star Wars franchise on two homages to A New HopeThe Force Awakens and Rogue One. Don’t get me wrong, A New Hope is one of my favorite movies, but as Scott Renshaw tweeted: “We don’t need another love letter to original STAR WARS. It sometimes feels like the entire last 40 years of movies has been that.”

What I don’t like about Rogue One is that it’s trying to replace A New Hope‘s place as the beginning of the Original Trilogy—heck, the beginning of the whole saga if you watch it in the Machete Order, and what I don’t like about The Force Awakens is that it’s trying to be so much like the Original Trilogy that it copies it with only a few shuffled beats, but I didn’t realize how exactly that makes The Force Awakens problematic until now.

It’s not that The Force Awakens is an unwatchable movie; the new cast is dramatically compelling, and it has a couple of great lightsaber fights (“Traitor!”). With that, the other fundamental problem is that it’s a cliffhanging first act that I won’t be able to fully judge until the last two acts come out.

I can understand why Disney retreaded familiar territory; many audiences were alienated by the drastic differentness of the Prequels. However, the Prequels’ failure was more in their incompetent execution than in their ideas, but Disney decided on competent safeness over competent differentness to launch their era of Star Wars. That actually gives me a greater appreciation for the Prequels’ singular if flawed creative vision.

But there’s a bigger problem to the The Force Awakens retreading A New Hope than just “I’ve seen it all before”, and that is, by retreading A New HopeThe Force Awakens makes the Rebellion’s ultimate victory in the Original Trilogy worthless. Thirty years later, there’s still an evil empire, there’s still a rebellion, the Jedi are still myths, there’s another laser-firing, planet-sized super weapon… Heck, Darth Vader’s return to the Light is made meaningless by the villainous Kylo Ren’s idolizing of Vader.

Sure, The Force Awakens feels like the Original Trilogy, but it wouldn’t have replicated that spirit without subverting the Originals’ ending. But the Original Trilogy doesn’t stay with us just because it’s fun; it stays with us because it’s about the redemption of the ultimate villain, and the Prequel Trilogy, to its credit, brings even more meaning to this redemption by turning it into a fulfillment of a prophesy: the destruction of the Sith and the restoring of balance to the Force through the triumph of the Light.

If you don’t count the Prequels as canon, then it makes sense that the Dark Side-wielding Knights of Ren could come about. But Disney clearly accepts the Prequels as The Force Awakens features a brief voice cameo by Ewan McGregor’s Obi-Wan and Rogue One features the return of both Jimmy Smits’s Bale Organa and Mustafar. If the destruction of the Sith was so big a deal that it was foretold that it would bring balance to the Force, how could the Dark Side rise again?

There are at least two explanations as to how the Force can become unbalanced after Vader’s sacrifice: the prophesy has been proven false, or it hasn’t actually been fulfilled yet. With the latter explanation, Vader is a red herring; perhaps Rey’s an instant superhero because she turns out to the real Chosen One who will bring balance to the Force. That’s the only way this could make sense to me, yet it would further insult Vader’s redemption.

So, could Disney have continued the story of Star Wars while keeping the weight of Return of the Jedi‘s climax? Yes, but they would have to have embraced how the titular wars would never be the same after the destruction of the Sith. Since they couldn’t embrace that, then perhaps they should have left everything that happens after the Originals up in the air.

Of course, the Force, with its two sides, is a spiritual entity that can’t be predicted. But if Disney wanted to keep both Light Side users and Dark Side users while honoring the first two trilogies, how about instead focus on an even longer time ago in a galaxy far, far away, like the Old Republic? How about a trilogy that explains the origins of the Sith and who prophesied the Chosen One? Better yet, how about a re-release of the theatrical Originals to replace the Special Editions’ reign on store shelves?

Alas, the damage of Disney’s big-budget fan filmmaking is done. I don’t see how the rest of this Sequel Trilogy can redeem The Force Awakens‘s mistakes. There’s only one Star Wars trilogy that truly matters: the Original Trilogy. Even without the one or two ways the Prequels add to it—and I’m not pretending their interpretation of Anakin Skywalker isn’t an insult to it—, it’s still the quintessential modern fairy tale. The magic of the Originals may never be sincerely replicated, but the Force will always be with it.

07/09/2017 | “Virtual Ventures #7”

I think I’ve played Mirror’s Edge as many times as I have more for its unconventionality as a “shooter” than for how good it actually is.

There was a time where I had an affinity for typical shooting games, such as Halo and Half-Life 2 (especially Half-Life 2, though yet another review of that one would probably give my longtime followers headaches).

These days, I’ve pretty much written shooting games off for being built around glorifying gun violence. I’m not against justifiable gun usage (i.e. defense of self and innocents, hunting for food), and I don’t know if shooting games truly do influence real-world shootings, but I don’t feel comfortable condemning such shootings while revelling in shooting virtual people.

With Mirror’s Edge, instead of shooting bad guys down left and right, the goal is to run away from the people shooting at us; it’s our choice how to dispatch them when the game backs us into a corner. We can beat them unconscious, or we can take their guns and shoot them with them. Even with that, the shooting mechanics have more nuance than those of typical shooters. There are no ammo clips lying all over the place; each gun has limited use.

The lack of focus on combat is due to the gameplay’s domineering mechanic: parkour, which has us traverse a colorful futuristic city through wild stunts. There are exhilarating set pieces the game puts us through, or at least they’re exhilarating for the first couple playthroughs. After a few more, the novelty wears off, and what’s left is how half-baked the mechanics are.

Sure, the first few chapters work well enough gameplay-wise, but the latter chapters, where the puzzles get more difficult, are where the seams really show. When frustration stems from puzzles whose steps require utmost precision that we have to restart from the beginning when we make a mistake due to the checkpoint system, and there are couple of such puzzles, it’s more of a problem with game design than a lack of skill, and it kills the fun.

The parkour master we play as is Faith Connors, a member of a band of Runners who go above the law, traversing the city through sheer physicality, to assist others who dare to break free from the unnamed city’s highly-surveyed conformity. Only, I’m still not sure how exactly the Runner’s assist these people. I mean, the opening mission has us deliver some sort of info package for a client, but it doesn’t explain where the info comes from or what it’s for.

During said first mission, the usually passive cops become unusually trigger-happy and begin open-firing on the Runners. After that, Faith finds out that her sister, Kate, has been framed for the murder of a mayoral candidate who could have “made a difference” in the city.

As such, the storyline is also half-baked, turning out to be way more complicated than it needs to be in what seems like the developers’ attempt to squeeze as much gameplay out of parkour as they could, and it still doesn’t end up at a substantial length.

(Spoiler alert) Eventually, this whole conspiracy turns out to be a ploy to off anyone who fights for what the city used to be, especially the Runners. The story could have been simplified a great deal, and made more sense, if Faith and the Runners were framed for the assassination, with the police going after them tying into that. Why do they have to frame a cop for the assassination? And if they do, why not instead explain that Kate needed to take the blame because she followed the candidate? Explaining unspecifically that “a cop” needed to take the blame just makes it confusing. Heck, since the authorities were eventually going to unleash a unit specifically trained to fight the Runners anyway, why have the police shoot at them at all?

Not only does none of it make sense, but the nonsense is egregiously straight-faced. There’s plenty of sarcasm and snark on display, but none of it is particularly fun. The biggest missed opportunity, at least for my sense of humor, is that nobody, not even the wittiest character, tells the protagonist to “take of leap of Faith”. Does a game where we play as a skinny girl who can beat fully armored cops unconscious and punch metal doors open without breaking her hands really need to take itself this seriously?

And this isn’t even getting into the odd stylistic choice of aesthetically realistic gameplay in between seemingly Flash-animated cutscenes nor how anticlimactic the final “boss battle” is.

At the very least, the game has a catchy theme song (“Still Alive”, not to be confused with the Portal theme song of the same name), vibrant visuals (which I have yet to experience in their full glory due to my computer’s compatibility, or lack thereof), an attempt at thematic resonance in Faith and Kate’s sisterhood, and the sheer coolness of its concept.

It’s not totally unplayable; it’s just mediocre. Thankfully, I can beat it only in three hours (after a six-hour first playthrough), though it could be shorter if it weren’t for a couple of particular puzzles. I know that there’s a more open-ended (gameplay-wise) reboot in the form of Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst, but there’s no way my current PC could handle that.

The unfortunate part is that the more masterfully crafted shooters I know are built around us revelling in gun violence. I’ll take a “shooter” that celebrates the agility of the human body more than the effectiveness of a gun, even if it is mediocre.

07/15/2017 | “Virtual Ventures #8”

Ico is the type of video game that’s more meditative than fun, challenging us not only to overcome monsters and puzzles but also challenging us to be patient with its quiet moments. And that’s what keeps drawing me back to it.

When the largely elusive Team Ico released this inaugural title of theirs in 2001, the same year blockbuster action games like Metal Gear Solid 2Halo: Combat Evolved, and Super Smash Bros. Melee were released, they intended for it to be the arthouse counterpart to typical video game mayhem, opting for minimalist, emotionally-driven storytelling that would engage players in a way it couldn’t engage those watching over their shoulders.

As for me, I didn’t play Ico until I got the remastered Ico & Shadow of the Colossus Collection for the PS3, and so far said collection is the biggest game-related reason (because it can also access internet and play Blu-rays) I’m glad I got a PS3 since Team Ico’s games are PlayStation exclusives.

Despite children being the protagonists, the titular horned player-controlled boy Ico and the otherworldly princess Yorda, this was never meant to be a children’s game; the duo’s main goal is to escape a castle they’re being held in to be sacrificed in a mysterious ritual. On the other hand, the times we’re simply traversing make it easy to forget the story’s harrowing undertones, and an otherworldly beauty peeks through the art style’s muted color palette that’s occasionally contrasted with patches of vibrancy.

In arthouse fashion, the pacing is deliberate, and the gameplay is barebones, which is why it takes a while for the game to grab me. Capping off the arthouse appeal, the characters speak in a subtitled language created for the game. In between the showdowns with shadow creatures and the completions of puzzles, much of the game is devoted to Ico and Yorda just running from point A to point B, and said gameplay is presented in wide shots that make us observers of the action as much as participants in the action, which is actually a pretty interesting conceit as it invites us to reflect on what we’re playing.

If the story were about only Ico escaping the castle, it probably wouldn’t hold my interest at all; however, this was conceived to be a boy-meets-girl story, and the role of Yorda is what makes it special. Guiding her through the castle by holding her hand adds a huge layer of player immersion, and protecting her from the shadow creatures as they try to carry her into their voids and trigger our own demise adds a huge layer of intensity to the repetitive combat.

The biggest limitation to the story’s minimal scope is a lack of sympathetic grownup characters as the only ones depicted are Yorda’s sinister shadow queen mother and the soldiers who imprison Ico in the castle (my other big concern is the preteen Yorda’s dress; I can’t tell whether it’s innocuous or creepily risque). Perhaps the grownups depicted could be representing not grownups in general but a fallen society that sacrifices children, all too resonant of today’s society. It’s possible that Ico’s climactic choices affect his society for the better, but the denouement isn’t interested in answering that.

Still, I appreciate the meekness in storytelling and the refreshing purity in Ico and Yorda’s companionship. For what makes it stand out, Ico deserves to be considered one of the definitive examples of video games as an artform.

07/15/2017 | “Virtual Ventures #9”

From their revolutionary titles to their inception of Steam, no developer is more synonymous with modern PC gaming than Valve.

They first got on the map by introducing an immersive combination of storytelling and gameplay in the first-person shooter genre with 1998’s Half-Life. I’ll still call 2004’s Half-Life 2 a masterpiece on a technical level, though I can admit the same thing about Naughty Dog’s nihilistic The Last of Us.

For my first several playthroughs of Half-Life 2, I found that its ostensibly pro-life and humanistic themes put it above other violent shooters of its kind, subverting the original Half-Life‘s climactic abortion symbolism. It wasn’t until later where I realized that such themes were there to get us angrier with the bad guys and revel in killing them for turning the world into a horrifying reality.

Thankfully, there is a much less violent side to this universe, as shown in Portal, which doesn’t seem all that related to Half-Life on the surface.

In terms of unconventional “shooters” with theme songs titled “Still Alive”, Portal ended up in a higher place in gaming culture than EA DICE’s Mirror’s Edge, and with good reason: not only was it published by the legendary Valve, released alongside the debuts of Team Fortress 2 and the final spinoff of Half-Life 2 in 2007’s The Orange Box, but it’s a heck of a better game.

Of course, whereas Mirror’s Edge is still a straight-up action game, Portal is a straight-up puzzle game (for the most part…), a short, simple, yet ingenious one. Portal was actually developed by a small indie group who pitched their idea to Valve, so Portal is essentially an indie hit in blockbuster clothing.

To save resources, the team incorporated elements of the Half-Life universe, such as by including a similar gameplay presentation and Half-Life injokes, the latter of which shouldn’t bog down the game for newcomers.

Portal has us wake up as silent human test subject Chell in the Aperture Science Enrichment Center, run by its omnipotent A.I. GLaDOS. Not far into GLaDOS’s puzzles, which generally consist of us figuring out creative ways to place cubes on buttons to open the doors to the next puzzle rooms, we get to the titular mechanic: obtaining a gun that fires both a blue and an orange portal to more easily navigate said puzzles, which on first playthrough cramped my brain like Algebra problems would.

GLaDOS not only offers dark wit with her voice over, but her godlike role in Aperture turns Portal into a cautionary fable about the idolization of technology.

Such a theme is carried over into 2011’s Portal 2, a true blockbuster successor. In Portal 2, we go into the literal depths of Aperture’s past and find out the facility was messing with nature in ludicrous experiments that turned out to be both useless and self-destructive. Portal 2 is a clever expansion upon Portal, from its gameplay to its characters to its hilarious satire. However, its tone is a bit more mean-spirited, which is why I personally pick the first Portal over the second one (which I wouldn’t have said before this most recent replay).

The only significant issue I have with Portal is an incident where GLaDOS forces us to “euthanize” an inanimate “Companion Cube” by throwing it into a furnace to continue on, which, as evidence collected by “Game Theory” indicates, may be more problematic than it seems. On the other hand, the evidence for their theory that the cube contains a living human is hardly explicit, so unless one digs for said evidence, GLaDOS is just using words to twist the situation.

The game is also very short, where I’ve now gotten to the point of beating it in under two hours (if I remember correctly, my record is 70 minutes); Portal 2 has gotten to three-and-a-half hours on repeated playthroughs.

However short Portal is, it’s still a gem. For whatever reservations I have about the sequel, it too is a must-play, culminating with an unforgettable ultimate boss takedown and a surprisingly feel-good denouement. The original, though, may still be the more interesting game, with its charming simplicity and eerily mysterious atmosphere. If there’s one must-play for PC owners, it’s Portal.

09/04/2017 | “Where Star Wars’s Contradictions Began”

(This was an article I originally posted June 11, 2017 on the now defunct Catholic Wannabe Critic, which was my headquarters for media reviews for a while.)

Back in March, I wrote a critique on how The Force Awakens contradicts the Star Wars saga’s core mythology by bringing back the Dark Side, making the Prequels’ Chosen One revelation, which recontextualizes Return of the Jedi‘s climax, irrelevant. However, I’ve since realized that the allowing of such a big retcon stems from the most famous words in cinema:

“I am your father.”

This realization didn’t truly hit me until critic Peter T. Chattaway pointed out that “[the] best [Star Wars] movie ever [made] ruined the franchise by setting a precedent for constant retconning.”

Yes, The Empire Strikes Back is a brilliant sequel—the template for all sequels who want their threequels to fall flat. It takes the characters we fell in love with and brings them into deeper emotional territory, all the while expanding upon the universe and its spirituality, capping it off with the best lightsaber fight put to screen.

However, the “I am your father” revelation shakes up everything we thought we knew about Obi-Wan and, with him, the Jedi and the Light Side of the Force, and that’s opened up for the saga to keep contradicting itself. Obi-Wan’s “certain point of view” nonsense in Return of the Jedi is, well, nonsense; he straight-up lied to Luke about what happened to his father, and yet he’s still somehow allowed to become one with the Force despite having died in a state of using Luke as a means toward an end.

Along come the Prequels, and it turns out even Obi-Wan’s descriptions of the heroic Jedi and Anakin’s greatness are lies, with the Jedi turning out to be much more passive than described and Anakin turning out to be a whiney youth whose fall to the Dark Side was more inevitable than tragic.

As mentioned before, the Sequels are now retconning the Prequels, where the idea of finding balance in the Force appears that it’s going to be downright relativistic, if I’m interpreting The Last Jedi‘s teaser correctly, as opposed to balance in the Force being a predominance of the Light Side.

So, with all the flaws I’m realizing about Star Wars, why do I still care about writing about it? Because the franchise has always been with me. I knew Star Wars before I knew Zelda and Lord of the Rings, which are my favorite games and favorite movies. I remember the hype of the Prequels and seeing all of them in theaters. I grew up collecting and playing with Star Wars action figures and playing Star Wars video games. Its influence on my life is almost as significant as its influence on every other franchise.

I still love the sight of lightsaber fights, John Williams’s legendary musical score, the visuals of the far, far away galaxy, and the iconic sound design (which includes the sounds of lightsabers).

As a Catholic, I can object to crucial ideas about the Force, but I can still enjoy the Star Wars story. I can even appreciate how the Force turns good and evil into a spiritual reality. It’s what I’m realizing as a film critic, and hopefully eventual filmmaker, that I’m recently having a problem with.

So, realizing that Star Wars‘s continuity issues stem from its second installment, would it be easier for me to accept the path the franchise has gone down since? Well, fine, turn the Jedi into liars and bores. Turn the great Anakin Skywalker into a whiner. Let the Dark Side return after the fall of the Sith. Heck, The Last Jedi could even turn Luke Skywalker, the archetypical hero, into a supervillain. What I wouldn’t be able to accept is if The Last Jedi will argue to take good and evil out of the question.

The battle between good and evil is what the franchise’s main episodic storyline has always hinged on. Even when the good guys are misguided, they’re meant to be misguided, including the Jedi (and boy do the Knights of the Old Republic games emphasize this). The whole point of Return of the Jedi is that the Jedi are wrong about the nature of the Force—that familial love, which the Jedi frown upon, is needed in keeping the Dark Side at bay.

Perhaps it is “time for the Jedi to end”, but I’d agree with that if it were in favor of the true path towards the Light instead of in favor of what seems to be an ‘idyllic’ relativistic balance. Star Wars can be a mess of narrative contradictions, but relativism within the Force would be the most insulting contradiction of all—an insult to the core values of Star Wars, and an insult to what Star Wars was conceived to be: an antidote to cultural cynicism. It would be objectionable both spiritually and thematically.

Of course, I have to use the term ‘would be’ because I don’t know how The Last Jedi and the rest of the trilogy will play out. The Force Awakens may be narratively uninspired, but it’s still thematically Star Wars, and I like Rey, Finn, Poe, and Kylo. I can only hope that this trilogy won’t turn out as I fear.

I want to see more stories in the far, far away galaxy—as long as they’re in the right spirit; heck, I’d like to tell them. The main storyline we have from the franchise may be a mess, but not holding Star Wars up to a higher standard than that may help me in accepting where the saga’s gone as of now since the 1977 original. Unless the rest of the Sequels ruin it.

09/07/2017 | “Virtual Ventures #10”

Those who’ve been following me through these Virtual Ventures know that video games conflict me. At this point, part of me wants to leave them behind. It’s not because I play them too much; it’s because their gameplay often allows questionable choices free of consequence, even in Zelda. I question whether or not it’s right to thrill in fictionally committing even stylized violence.

And yet, even as I walked away from it for a few weeks, I couldn’t help but continue being fascinated by this medium. When I found out that the look of Kong: Skull Islandwas inspired by Shadow of the Colossus, my immediate reaction wasn’t an “oh” but rather a gasp of excitement, even though my opinion of Shadow of the Colossus as a game has gone from one of the greatest parables video games have told to a technically impressive but confused morality tale that’s not sure of its own message (and if that still makes it one of the greatest parables in the medium, that’s just sad).

Part of my dilemma is that I’m a movie guy. I’d rather be watching a story unfold than experience the frustration of failing at a task over and over again before the story can continue. I’d rather be involved in the discussion and appreciation of film than in the discussion of an art I don’t aim for a future in. Nevertheless, video games have great artistic potential, and there are some games I’d be curious to see what non-gamer movie critics would say about them. In terms of action games, I haven’t experienced that potential realized more beautifully than in Ori and the Blind Forest, which I actually bought from Steam in June and played through three times before this latest playthrough for this post.

Developer Moon Studios took inspiration from Studio Ghibli—the masterminds behind Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (technically, this was the film that led to Ghibli’s creation), Castle in the Sky, and My Neighbor Totoro—for the creation of Ori, and it comes as the game’s biggest detriment as well as its biggest draw.

The unfortunate part is that the titular blind forest, properly named Nibel, is rooted in New Age conceits and Eastern philosophies, from the spiritual upgrade stones that the player collects as the titular rabbit-like forest spirit Ori to the story’s ying-yang worldview. There are creatures of Darkness and creatures of Light, and the light of the deistic Spirit Tree who fathers the Light creatures prevents Nibel from falling into chaos.

When Ori gets separated from the Spirit Tree and gets adopted by the Dark gorilla-like creature Naru, the Spirit Tree envelops the whole forest in an intense field of light to find his missing child to no avail. This causes a Dark owl named Kuro to vengefully douse the Tree’s light and unleash violent creatures of Darkness upon the dying forest. Due to tragic circumstances, Ori leaves Naru’s home to set off on a mission to restore Nibel’s various sources of light and return peace to the forest.

However, later into the story, the conflict is revealed to be not as black and white as it seems. Kuro actually has a sympathetic reason to hate the Light due to inadvertently tragic consequences of the Tree calling out to Ori. In that moment, the yin-yang philosophy, or at least my understanding of it, can’t be clearer: there are no forces of pure good or evil here; there are only Light and Darkness, with both being capable of both good and evil. While it’s unlikely that the Spirit Tree caused destruction intentionally, it’s still his mistake that motivates the antagonist. Nevertheless, while the story is spiritually flawed, I’m quite moved by it.

Parental self-giving, including those of the sacrifices made for children that are misguided, is one of the major themes throughout the story; right off the bat, it’s clear that no emotional punches will be pulled with this theme when Naru gives up everything to keep her adopted child nourished. Yet, it’s heartbreaking due to the joy shown in Ori and Naru’s bond. While Ori slays many enemies along the way, mercy also plays a major role as one antagonist is affected by the mercy Ori shows to him. Ultimately, mercy has the final say, with the story climaxing not through violent confrontation but through empathy and understanding brought about through an act of familial love.

The artstyle carries an emotional power on its own. Studio Ghibli doesn’t just influence the Eastern philosophies but also the whimsical character designs and the hand-painted backgrounds. Some of the Light sections of the forest take my breath away; there’s a lagoon of vibrant turquoise water contrasted with bright green foliage that made me tear up the first time I saw it. The visual splendor feels like the ultimate reward for the most frustrating gameplay sections. The musical score, an Asian and Celtic hybrid, helps to set each vivid location’s mood, and it’s a masterpiece in of itself.

I do theorize, though, that most of this would affect me the same way if it were a movie. I also have mixed feelings about its message about love’s world-changing power due to how it ties into the theme of balancing Light and Darkness. There’s stuff that I love about this game’s story, but I’m not sure I can embrace it as a whole. Nevertheless, Ori and the Blind Forest is a stunning achievement.

I may not be enthusiastic about video games like I once was, but titles with artistic merit like this can keep me at least intrigued by this medium.

A collection of most, but not all, of the content I no longer want in the spotlight–from old movie reviews to video game reviews–since I started on writing April 10, 2014.

04/10/2014 | “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”

The summer movie season has started early this year with yet another comic book movie. With nine films released so far, and after low-grade attempts like Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World, is the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) getting stale? Well, after an enjoyable but half-baked first solo outing, Captain America: The First Avenger, the star-spangled man, Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), returns in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which may be Marvel’s finest to date.

So far in the MCU, the first Iron Man has been my favorite solo movie for its sense of realism and human drama. But The Avengers has been my absolute favorite for the way it was able to fit the heroes together perfectly and for its consistently witty and thrilling screenplay penned by Joss Whedon, who also directed the massive blockbuster.

…That is until the Cap’s comeback. Directors Anthony and Joe Russo along with screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, who also wrote the Cap’s first solo outing, take the most just and selfless superhero in the MCU and put him in a truly thrilling and dramatic political/conspiracy/espionage thriller where he has to uphold his principles more than ever.

After being frozen for seventy years, Steve Rogers is now working with SHIELD (Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division). Though he’s still doing the job that he was doing back in World War II, fighting bullies, he soon finds out that he’s been fighting alongside bullies.

With SHIELD compromised, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) gives Steve Rogers a warning not to trust anybody. This conspiracy causes World Council member Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), a good friend of Fury’s, to turn Captain America into the organization’s number one target. Rogers teams up with fellow Avenger Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and war veteran Sam Wilson/Falcon (Anthony Mackie) to find out what SHIELD is hiding while facing a mysterious assassin, The Winter Soldier (stating who portrays him would be giving away too much, unless you already know who it is).

Chris Evans, Samuel L. Jackson, and Scarlett Johansson bring their best performances yet to their respective roles. Also returning is Cobie Smulders as Maria Hill with a small but important part. New to the MCU are Robert Redford, whose performance is stern and commanding; Anthony Mackie, who adds a touch of fun to the film’s occasionally overly serious tone with his and Evan’s witty exchanges and cool mechanical wings; Emily VanCamp as Kate, Steve Roger’s next-door neighbor; and Frank Grillo as Brock Rumlow, an edgy SHIELD officer.

The directors and writers keep the pace and the suspense moving with one thrilling action set-piece after another, featuring everything from martial arts combat, car chases, shootouts, and even aerial dogfights. But it’s not all action and mayhem. The filmmakers make sure we’re here for the characters as well as the thrills by breaking up the action with moments for the characters to develop and spout some witty one-liners. To go along with that, as a consequence to a big reveal in the film’s second half, the film’s obligatory climactic showdown between the hero and the villain, who in this case are Captain America and The Winter Soldier, is something much more heartfelt and emotional than your usual obligatory climactic showdown between the hero and the villain.

All-in-all, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a smart, complex, character-driven, suspenseful, thrilling, and surprisingly touching superhero blockbuster that is currently pleasing many Marvel fans, whether they’re comic fans or just Cinematic Universe fans like me, and, though it may not win them over, will most likely entertain casual viewers, teens and older, who are looking for an action-packed time at the movies that’s mostly free from other objectionable material.

07/23/14 | “The LEGO Movie”

Two movies based on toys came out this year (2014): Transformers: Age of Extinction and The Lego Movie.  The former is my least favorite movie of the year, while the latter is one of my absolute favorite movies of the year.

Toy-based movies and tv shows are the ultimate marketing scheme.  Take an action figure, turn it into a character who kids will love, and get kids to buy that action figure.  Not that Trans[4]mers features any memorable characters, but Age of Extinction does what Transformers always does: show robots kill each other and advertise toys.  It’s part of the same big marketing scheme that the Transformers cartoons and movies have always been apart of.

However, though The Lego Movie takes place in a partly stop-motion animated, mostly computer-generated world based on the titular toys, it’s much more than a toy movie should be.  Yes, it does feel like an advertisement at times, but most of the time directors/screenwriters Phil Lord and Christopher Miller are pushing a message against our culture’s movement of conformity and consumerism, just as we as Christians are called to be.  Also, a twist near the end reveals a deeper layer to the story that encourages the importance of parents putting family before work.

The world of the The Lego Movie is made up of several realms: The Old West, a parody of spaghetti Westerns; Middle-Zealand, a Renaissance-era world; Cloud Cuckoo Land, a colorful, hidden world of happiness and no negativity and consistency; and a bunch of other realms that I either forgot about or aren’t important enough to mention.

One of these realms is a city ruled by the evil Lord Business (Will Ferrel) where everybody follows a set of instructions that controls every one of their actions: wake up, eat breakfast, watch the latest episode of the most popular tv sitcom, listen to the latest popular music, drive to the coffee shop to buy overpriced coffee, drive to work, etc…

Emmet (Chris Pratt) is one of these people.  He follows the rules wherever he goes.  That is until his life is interrupted by the presence of martial-arts expert Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) who is told that Emmet is the prophesied Special: the chosen one who will put an end to Lord Business’ evil scheme to end the universe by gluing it together with a superweapon called the Kragle.

As I mentioned before, the animation is partly stop-motion animated, mostly computer-generated.  But the computer-generated animation is made to look like stop-motion, also allowing everything to look like it’s made of little Lego pieces, from clouds, to the ocean, to even the explosions that amount from the almost endless barrage of frenetic mayhem.

The film’s sense of humor matches my taste almost perfectly, featuring sudden sight gags, sly movie references, over-the-top slapstick, and memorable one-liners.

Also in the cast is Liam Neeson as Lord Business’ sidekick, Good Cop/Bad Cop; one side of him is commanding, ruthless, and has a habit of kicking chairs around during his fits of rage, while the other side of him is kind with a calm, high-pitched voice.  Will Arnett hams it up as a very arrogant Batman, and Morgan Freeman has perfect comedic timing as Vitruvius, a blind wizard who makes the prophecy about The Special and is also Wyldstyle’s mentor.

07/27/14 | “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2013) is the most epic, engaging movie I’ve seen this year.

Though this year’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) had me on the verge of tears, more so than any scene in DawnWinter Soldier is generally a mindless popcorn flick, but an especially smart, touching, and well-made one at that.  However, Winter Soldieris a movie that I’ll probably forget if I get tired of these big, loud superhero movies.  But, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a movie that I’ll remember for a long time.

Dawn’s predecessor, Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), is about the apes’ rise up against humanity for the cruelty that humans inflicted on them.  On the contrary, director Matt Reeve’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is about the desire for peace between humans and apes.

The story takes place ten years after the virus caused by ALZ-112, a drug that was invented to cure Alzheimer’s but ends up killing humans and making apes super intelligent, has spread across and destroyed most of humanity.  Caesar (Andy Serkis), the offspring of an ape that the drug was tested on, is in charge of a colony of his own species.  They come into contact with a group of humans living in San Francisco who have a natural immunity to the virus, and the only source that can bring power back to the city is in the apes’ territory.

Caesar begins to grow more fond of humanity through Malcolm (Jason Clarke), his son Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee), and his girlfriend Dr. Ellie (Keri Russel) and begins to trust them.

However, there are those on both sides who are less than willing to trust the other.  With the apes we have Koba (Toby Kebbel), who is prejudiced against mankind for the experiments they once performed on him.  With the humans we have Carver (Kirk Acevedo), who is prejudiced against apes for spreading the virus across humanity, and Dreyfuss (Gary Oldman), the leader of the colony in San Francisco.

The apes are brought to screen by real actors enhanced by CGI.  Andy Serkis is phenomenal as Caesar; his commanding presence gives us a way to connect with an ape in an unimaginable way.  Toby Kebbell is equally adequate as Koba.  Unfortunately, where the ape characters soar, the human characters fall flat.

It’s not that Jason Clarke, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Keri Russel, Kirk Acevedo, and Gary Oldman give poor portrayals.  I think that their performances are quite good; I just find their characters rather cliché for the most part and not nearly as memorable or engaging as the apes.  Despite this flaw, unlike Rise, the film focuses on the good in humanity more than the bad.

Though I found the first half of the film a little bit mundane (at least the first time I saw it), the emotions and intensity ramp up in the second half.  When the truly epic climax is resolved and the credits start rolling, I just sat there in awe, trying to ponder the story that I had just witnessed.  No other summer blockbuster has had that effect on me.

10/11/14 | “The Original Star Wars Trilogy”

Nobody, not even writer/director George Lucas predicted that a big-budget B-movie that was made as a throwback to Saturday matinee serials such as Flash Gordon (1936) would change the history of cinema and pop culture, especially considering that everybody involved in the film thought it was going to be a disastrous box office flop.

Though the first official summer blockbuster was Jaws in 1975, Star Wars, later subtitled Episode IV: A New Hope, took the world by storm in 1977 and solidified this tradition.  Since then, summertime has been filled with special effects-laden spectacles, such as The Avengers (2012), Man of Steel (2013), Transformers (2007), etc…  (I’m not saying that all of them are good.)

Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope is less science-fiction and more of a space fantasy, featuring Leia (Carrie Fisher), a princess in distress; wizards in the form of elderly Obi-wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) and the masked Darth Vader (performed by David Prowse/voiced by James Earl Jones); Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and sasquatch-like Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), a pair of rogue smugglers; comical androids C-3P0 (Anthony Daniels) and R2-D2 (performed by Kenny Baker); and Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), a farmboy who wants to go off and become a soldier for the Rebel Alliance to fight the tyrannical Galactic Empire, which has built a moon-sized space station that has enough firepower to destroy an entire planet.

However, the film also introduces the concept of the Force: an energy field that binds the universe together and wills each living being just as God does.  There is both a Light Side and a Dark Side to the Force.  The former is used by Jedi, such as Obi-wan Kenobi, while the latter is used by Sith, such as Darth Vader, indicating that this God-like energy can be used for evil as well as good.

Despite theological issues, the film remains a timeless, exciting swashbuckling adventure of good conquering evil.  Though it does have production flaws: the then-groundbreaking special effects show their age (though I personally prefer model spaceships flying around in space over the glossy CGI that we get these days); the story is a bit straightforward; and the characters are simple, though likable.

However, its sequel, Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980), makes up for these drawbacks.  Though I do enjoy the simple, innocent fun of Episode VI, The Empire Strikes Back is a much more compelling story.  Instead of a giant space station as the central conflict, the story’s conflicts are deeper, more personal, and more painful, as Luke separates from Han and Leia in order to further his journey to become a Jedi and the Empire plays a game of cat and mouse with his friends.

It’s also the artsiest of the trilogy, featuring the trilogy’s richest imagery, from the desolate, ice-covered landscape of the planet Hoth to the climactic lightsaber duel taking place in a dimly lit chamber that glows orange as blades of blue and red are clashing against each other.

Under the direction of Irvin Kreshner, the characters are much more defined this time around with strong performances from the whole cast, especially Mark Hamill as he improves over his less-than-stellar performance in Episode IV.  Plus, Darth Vader’s menacing presence this time around, as well as James Earl Jones’ voice performance, rightly gives him his place as one of cinema’s most iconic villains.

Though there are problems with the film’s spirituality, as the Force is explained further and it sounds more and more like a pagan, New-Age deity (the review at decentfilms.com has a more thorough analysis).  On the plus side, the film retains the same sense of self-sacrificial heroism displayed in the first film.

But what really prevents this movie from being a great movie on its own is that the ending is left wide open.  It’s unfortunate that the smartest, if most problematic Star Wars film to date is only the middle chapter of a trilogy and not something that can stand solidly on its own.

Fortunately, Star Wars Episode IV: Return of the Jedi (1983) brings us a satisfying, if dumbed-down conclusion.  Writer George Lucas decided to add teddy bear-like creatures that do an unrealistically good job at helping the Rebels battle the Empire with their primitive technology to make it more kid-friendly, though an opening act featuring scary alien creatures and erotically clad slave women contradicts the kid-friendliness as well as the overall innocence.

These aren’t the only problems that I have with the movie.  In fact, there’s another big twist that I dislike even more than the ewoks.  However, I think that Return of the Jedi, directed by Richard Marquand, has enough good in it that I can overlook its flaws.  It feels mostly at place with its predecessors.

It’s lacking in character development, but it features the trilogy’s most exciting action sequences, including a final act consisting of three major battles happening spontaneously, ending the trilogy not only with a bang but also with a redemption that’s brought about by the love for a suffering family member.

Now if you haven’t seen the movies you’re probably wondering, what about episodes I, II, and III?  Well, George Lucas decided to single-handedly write and direct that entire trilogy, consisting of Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999); Episode II: Attack of the Clones(2002); and Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005).  Unfortunately, he tried to make them super serious and all he proved is that he couldn’t write and direct anything beyond B-movies, resulting in them being nonsensically written, blandly acted, and infamously disappointing.

It’s not that the original trilogy is flawless; its a little bit corny, and there are plot holes here and there.  However, its stories have heart, its characters are appealingly witty, and its actors have charm, especially Harrison Ford in his breakthrough role.  John William’s musical score also brings a great deal of bravura to the films that would be missing without its presence.

What also helps these movies stand the test of time is that they were made in an age where special effects were made using physical objects as opposed to the CGI spectacles that have been filling cinemas for the last couple of decades.  Since everything we see is real, it helps this fictional galaxy seem real.

Unfortunately, the trilogy has been tampered with other the years.  In 1997, the special editions were released, which add unnecessary CGI and additional scenes that don’t work.  Since then, it’s been hard to find the original theatrical versions.  They haven’t even been released on Blu-ray, the versions of which have even more unnecessary changes.

I’m glad that I managed to find them on DVD, but they’re not the best quality, and they’re included along with the special editions.  At the least, they’re still the versions of Star Wars that made history.

Though the films are not entirely Christian, their themes of good and evil, likable characters, mythological influences, and cultural impact make them must-sees for anybody who’s interested in movies.  Like many Star Wars fans of my generation, I grew up with them, so they also call back to my childhood.

I admit, I liked the prequels more than the originals when I was a kid.  In terms of the original trilogy, I watched Return of the Jedi the most.  Now that I’ve grown up, I prefer Jediover the prequels any day, but I prefer The Empire Strikes Back (the one I watched the least as a kid) and A New Hope over Jedi.

Though Episode III brings the two trilogies full circle, Star Wars has not ended for good.  Since the franchise will be revived in December 2015 with Episode VII, directed by J.J. Abrams and starring the original cast, it’s safe to say that this far, far away galaxy will be at the cinema for a long, long time, for better or for worse.

10/24/2014 | “Jaws”

I recently enjoyed the experience of seeing Jaws (1975) for the first time ever.  I’d seen clips of it before, including the ending, but nothing compared to seeing it in full.  The question is, why did I wait so long?  I suppose I’m afraid of the ocean already, so it didn’t scare me as much as I thought it would.  If you haven’t seen it either, this is the review for you.

Though the film’s title refers to the great white shark that terrorizes the island of Amity, what engages us is its humans: Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), a police chief and family man; Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), an oceanographer and shark expert; and Sam Quint (Robert Shaw), a shark fisherman with sort of a Captain Ahab complex.

The shark’s attacks on various swimmers may be what drive the plot, but they’re just as important as the light-hearted moments of human interest such as Brody sitting at the dinner table as his young son mimics his mannerisms.

Steven Spielberg, directing the film that made him one of the top names in Hollywood, builds upon the fear of the unknown, beginning from the horrifying opening scene until he finally reveals the shark in full over halfway through.

The technique of hiding the shark actually benefits the thrilling climactic showdown between the leads who are on a boat that should be bigger and the predator of the ocean who lurks below the surface.

Though Jaws set the summer blockbuster tradition, Star Wars (1977) set the formula, and by doing so it undid what Jaws could have started.  Nowadays, every blockbuster has to be laden with big special effects and explosions, which isn’t to say that I don’t enjoy any of them.

We love superheroes, but their movies almost always guarantee one thing: the good guys will win in the end and live to star in either a sequel or a big superhero team-up movie.  In contrast, the protagonists of Jaws are normal people who may or may not have the skills to survive the journey.

There are recent non-superhero flicks with this scenario such as Edge of Tomorrow with Tom Cruise, which also falls into the “big special effects and explosions” category and flopped at the box office, but why can’t there be more crowd-pleasers like them?  (I actually answered my own question.)

Spielberg at least brings the same type of thrills back for Jurassic Park (1993), another hit creature feature that broke new ground in terms of special effects (and is actually more to blame for the mindless, CGI-laden spectacles than Star Wars), despite its underdeveloped characters.

This year’s Godzilla, directed by Gareth Edwards, is heavily influenced by Jaws, hiding the titular monster until the big reveal halfway through and even focusing the story on a Brody family.  Unfortunately, the story misses a level of human interest that’s neither found in Jaws nor even Jurassic Park.

I can see why Jaws began a new era of cinema.  The thrills, the shocks, the laughs, the humanity…  It’s forty years old, yet it blew me away and made a lasting impression on first viewing.  The film’s biggest drawbacks are a fairly high amount of profanity and other content listed below, as well as the possibility of never wanting to go out on the ocean again.

11/16/14 | “UHF”

I used to consider UHF (1989) my all-favorite comedy.  After my latest viewing, I think Galaxy Quest (1999) takes that spot, but UHF is still okay at the least.  If you didn’t know that comedian songwriter Weird Al Yankovic both starred in and co-wrote a motion picture that his music video director Jay Levy co-wrote and directed, now you do.

Yankovic plays George Newman, a guy who finds a job as the manager of U-62, a local, washed-out UHF television station, which along with his overactive imagination is used as an excuse to shove aside plot for montages of random gags.

The jokes range from over-the-top, cartoony slapstick to parodies of movies that were popular at the time, such as Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Conan the Barbarian (1982), and even Gandhi (1982).  There’s also a dream sequence of a spoofy music video, which is the biggest story-halting gag in my opinion.

It’s hit or miss stuff.  Some of it is funny, with the more subtle moments making me last the most; some of it is trying too hard; some of it is plain weird; and some of it comes off as tasteless, such as a nature show host throwing poodles out of a window to teach them how to fly.

The story does show how the media can impact a community as U-62 eventually falls on hard times and the whole town donates money to keep the station alive.  With that said, I question the community’s taste in entertainment with show titles such as “Wheel of Fish”, “Celebrity Mud Wrestling”, and “Strip Solitaire” among others.  Though at this point I’m analyzing the movie more seriously than it’s meant to be taken.

Despite their questionable shows, the people running U-62 are pretty decent people, and I’d rather hang out with them than the people running the rival Channel 8, led by the ever-nasty R.J. Fletcher (Kevin McCarthy) who has no respect for humanity.

The movie in general all depends on the viewer’s taste.  If you like Weird Al’s wacky, spoofy sense of humor, you’ll probably get a kick out of it.  If not, you’ll probably be thinking to yourself, “Please stop forwarding that crap to me.”

10/22/2015 | UHF post (can’t remember the original title)

If you didn’t know that musical parody artist Weird Al Yankovic co-wrote and starred in a motion picture, UHF (★★☆☆), now you do. There was a time when I considered said motion picture my favorite comedy. But, tastes change when we’re affected by superior entertainment, so now, UHF is little more than hit-or-miss silliness that’s too bizarre for a wide audience.

With Weird Al starring as a guy with an overactive imagination, George Newman, who lives with his best friend; can keep neither a job nor a promise to his girlfriend; and becomes the owner of a rundown UHF TV station, U-62, it’s basically an incoherent combination of plot development and cutaway gags.

The movie hasn’t completely lost its appeal for me; there are a lot of laughs throughout, especially in an opening scene that puts a few zany twists on Raiders of the Lost Ark. Yet, even though Weird Al is known for his music videos, a dream that George has about a Beverly Hillbillies parody of Dire Straits’s “Money for Nothing” feels completely out-of-place.

There’s also plenty of over-the-top but fake looking slapstick violence including enemy soldiers/mannequins getting blown up, a guy/mannequin getting cleaved in half, a thug/T-shirt getting punched through the abdomen, and a guy embarrassingly rather than traumatically getting his thumb cut off by a table saw. As twisted as these sound, they’re too cartoony and cheesy to be disturbing.

That’s not to say that some gags aren’t genuinely tasteless, such as when the host of “Raul’s Wild Kingdom” unsuccessfully teaches poodles how to fly by throwing them out a window. As revealed in a brief montage, U-62 also includes titles like “Bowling for Burgers”, “Celebrity Mud Wrestling”, and “Strip Solitaire” – the last of which actually looks harmless compared to the sexed-up and nihilistic shows that I see advertised during the commercial breaks between Agents of SHIELD.

On the other hand, as Catholic Skywalker pointed out to me on Twitter, these types of comedies are usually filled with jokes about sex and drugs, so UHF is pretty inoffensive for its genre.

Speaking of nihilistic, U-62’s competition, Channel 8, is run by the nastiest guy in town, R.J. Fletcher whom Kevin McCarthy hams up to the extreme. The highlight of the cast is Michael Richards as the lovably dimwitted janitor Stanley Spadowski who brings an endearing innocence. Master Kuni is my favorite of the film’s one-joke characters as he spouts one of the most memorable lines, “STUPAAAAAAAAAAD!!! YOU’RE SO STUPAAAAAAAAAAD!!!”

Against all odds, U-62 becomes the most popular station in town, and its fans would do anything to support it. I’d question the taste of an entire community that would be entertained by this stuff, but this implausibility is all part of the intentional goofiness that makes it a one-of-a-kind-movie. Its gags come fast and unexpectedly, and any other movie that uses a TV station as a device like this would feel like a ripoff.

UHF is mediocre storytelling – not that it’s trying to be more – , and not all of its jokes land, but I have fun with it nonetheless, especially during the times I’ve shown it to friends. I still can’t picture many other people outside of its cult following having fun with it though.

10/28/2015 | “This is (A Secularist) Halloween”

Ah, what I’d do to be able to dress up as a monster to get free candy and/or dress up as a scarecrow to jumpscare trick-or-treaters on my uncle’s lawn again. Those were the days. Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas (★★☆☆) triggered these memories, which is the biggest compliment I can pay this movie.

I also watched it when I was a kid, but those viewings are such isolated incidents that my memories are less nostalgic and more, “Yup. I remember that,” or, “I liked that song.”

The constant musical numbers are catchy without being particularly memorable, though I’d probably feel differently if I cared more about the subject matter as well as the purposefully creepy stop-motion animated art style – not that the effort behind it isn’t impressive.

As the beginning explains, holidays originated from alternate dimensions that can be reached through a specific set of magical trees. Soon after, we’re introduced to Halloweentown whose inhabitants include ghouls, ghosts, vampires, a mayor who I kept wanting to call the King of Town due to a Homestar Runner cartoon, and, thankfully, no girls who wear prostitute versions of costumes that guys get accurate versions of.

The main scream of this community is Jack Skellington (sang by Danny Elfman and voiced by Prince Humperdink) who longs for something more than becoming a spectacle every Halloween. And so he stumbles upon those magical trees I mentioned earlier and teleports into Christmastown, a place of idyllic joy as opposed to the totalitarian North Pole of Rudolph, the Rednose Reindeer that throws people under the bus for being different.

After Jack tries to explain the joys of Christmas to his fellow monsters with no success, he himself tries to figure what Christmas really means, and, apparently, it ain’t about Jesus. Instead, he figures that the best way to explain Christmas cheer is to become a part it by replacing Santa Claus on Christmas Eve.

It certainly sounds like a subversive fable that could have been passed down for decades before Tim Burton – who’s often wrongfully attributed as being the director instead of Henry Selick – made it up, but even at a measly seventy minutes (excluding credits), it feels overlong and half-baked.

There is one character who I genuinely liked for: Sally, a sentient scarecrow who’s constantly incarcerated by her creator and relates to Jack’s longing for a more meaningful life. She even acts as a voice of conscience as she tries to persuade Jack that stealing Christmas could end up being as disastrous as predicted in an out-of-the-blue premonition.

And then her character loses believability when she sings a lamentation about Jack’s poor choices, which is understandable, but she’s singing about him as if he’s a friend. Sure, she gives him a basket of (what he would consider) goodies after somewhat stalking him, and Jack hires her to sew him a Santa outfit, but that’s pretty much their relationship until their inevitable falling in love.

Am I overthinking the nonsense? Most likely. But the character development could at least be competently written.

I can also sympathize with the kids who think they’re going to meet Santa Claus who’d give them fun toys and end up meeting a skeleton who in his own attempt to make Christmas better gives them toys that unforeseeably almost murder them. The movie’s sense of humor is pretty twisted up to that point, but that’s messed up. No heroic triumph by the real Santa could undo the psychological damaged. But hey, a scarecrow and a skeleton fall in love with no substantial basis.

We’ve never had any traditional Halloween movies in my household, and I can’t picture The Nightmare Before Christmas ever falling into that category. Yet, it does have quite a fanbase, so maybe I’ll have a different impression if I watch it again around Christmas time. …If.

10/30/2015 | Jaws post (can’t remember the original title)

Traditional Halloween movies feature ghosts, zombies, aliens, demonic possessions, or masked serial killers, but not sharks. That’s why many reading this wouldn’t consider Jaws(★★★★) to be fitting for the season, but I prefer my horror to be suspenseful rather than lurid. Plus, due to how it’s affected me as an amateur critic since I first saw it, I might as well take this excuse to review it.

Even if you haven’t seen it, you most likely know John William’s foreboding musical theme. You’ve most likely heard the adlibbed line, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.” You might even be afraid of the ocean due to this movie’s cultural impact.

You most likely also know that it began the tradition of tentpole popcorn movies along with Star Wars [Episode IV – A New Hope]. Yet, Hollywood took more notes from Star Warsthan Jaws by focusing more on effects-laden spectacle than humanity. On the other hand, it’s much more enjoyable to munch on popcorn while spaceships battle than it is while people get eaten alive.

It’s not that Jaws deals with particularly deep themes, but its characters are unforgettable: Martin Brody, a police chief and family man who’s afraid of the ocean despite having recently moved to Amity Island; Matt Hooper, a twenty-something oceanographer who comes from a wealthy family; and Sam Quint, an extremist shark hunter with the mouth of, well, a sailor who’s basically a caricature until he reveals the story behind his obsessions. Although the title refers to the great white shark who terrorizes Amity’s community, the true villain is Mayor Vaughn who refuses to let the beaches be closed during the upcoming Fourth of July weekend. He too is apparently a father, but that isn’t established until a throwaway line about his kids. This revelation makes his greed even more irrational.

The shark itself isn’t revealed in full until well over the halfway mark. This lack of screentime is due to difficulties with the mechanical shark that mainly portrays the beast. Yet, as many other critics have pointed out, it’s more effective because it’s hidden; the opening scene which depicts a skinny dipper getting thrashed around and pulled underwater as she screams to God for help is horrifying enough without having to see what’s attacking her.

Fortunately, the tension is often relieved by light moments such as Brody sitting at the dinner table while his youngest son mimics his mannerisms and the protagonistic trio joining each other in song after they’ve been arguing throughout their climactic fishing trip of death. It’s this balance of action and character development that made me look for the human element in every movie since I first saw it last year.

Although this is Steven Spielberg’s second theatrical feature film, it’s still undeniably one of his best. Jurassic Park, his other famous monster movie, surpasses Jaws in awe, cinematography, and accessibility (since its subject matter isn’t quite so close to home), but it doesn’t surpass Jaws in empathy, terror, and believability. Jaws may be one of the perfect summer movies, but it’s a scary enough pick for the Halloween season if you still have yet to see it, unless you’d prefer otherworldly subject matter. If that’s the case, then I can’t help you there.

11/10/2015 | “You’re Still Relevant, Charlie Brown”

I’ve rarely been acquainted with the Peanuts gang since I was a kid. I was never into their comics, but I liked their movies and TV specials, and I enjoy the witty A Charlie Brown Christmas more than any annual Christmas special, so The Peanuts Movie (★★★☆) ends up being a nostalgia trip for me.

For the most part, it’s little more than an homage delivered in CGI that operates like a combination of the traditional animation of the TV specials and stop-motion. The story plays out episodically as shy, clumsy, melancholic Charlie Brown who can’t succeed at anything even as simple as flying a kite tries to work up the courage to impress the new-in-town Little Red Haired Girl while his dog Snoopy types out stories of saving an imaginary love interest from, of course, the Red Baron.

Other throwbacks along the way include the original piano theme, Snoopy being rejected from entering a library where there are “no dogs allowed”, Lucy reciting her “I’ve got dog germs!” speech, adults’ voices being played by trombones, carolers singing “Christmas Time is Here”… The only thing that’s missing is, “I got a rock,”…and Linus’s Christianity (but hey, this is Hollywood).

Despite all the references, the story has enough meaning for it to stand on its own (and this is where I vaguely spoil a couple of major plot points). Surprisingly, it comes to a point where things actually start going right for Charlie Brown, but there ends up being a catch. However, Charlie Brown does ultimately get the reward he deserves, but not for his victories, but for the honest and selfless work he puts into his unintended failings.

In between every laugh (the most literally breathtaking of which is a twist in the aforementioned Christmas caroler gag), the movie had me grinning with childlike glee. It’s sincere, it’s hilarious, it’s visually unique, it’s mostly true to what I know of its source material – even to the point where the phones have cords and the kids write out papers – , and it touches my inner seven-year-old.

The Peanuts Movie is definitely for those who are familiar with its titular gang, but I can’t imagine it not putting a smile on anyone else’s face. I haven’t been to many movies where the audience clapped at the end, but this was one applause that was truly deserved.

11/10/2015 | “All Dogs Go to Hyrule”

Although The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess (★★★☆) is actually the first Zelda game I ever beat, it came and went too quickly for it to have as big an impact on me as Ocarina of Time, one of my pinnacle childhood experiences. The kid in me won’t let any Zelda game replace Ocarina‘s place in my heart, but this recent replay of Twilight Princess comes pretty dang close to doing so.

Since it takes place hundreds of years after the events of Majora’s Mask in a Hyrule that isn’t flooded – and if that sounds like it contradicts Wind Waker, then the Official ZeldaTimeline explains that these two games take place in two of three separate timelines that branch off from Ocarina – , it’s the closest thing there is to that trilogy capper I wished for in my Majora’s Mask review.

So, if Ocarina is A New Hope and Majora’s Mask is The Empire Strikes Back, then Twilightis Return of the Jedi in how it borrows heavily from the original. Many fans criticize this game for being too much like Ocarina, and I see their point. The recycled plot points, such as our new Link turning out to be the next Hero of Time, prevent the story from standing on its own two feet. Yet, it’s more than just a rehash; it’s a reused formula that’s pushed to its creative limits in the darkest, most outlandish, most grandiose, and most emotionally satisfying ways.

If we know nothing about the convoluted story beforehand, it keeps surprising us at every turn. Most Zelda games foreshadow the main conflict at the very beginning, such as how Wind Waker‘s prologue sets up its main antagonist. Not Twilight Princess. Here, we’re thrown straight into Link’s hardworking life in Ordon Village.

While this new Link is still mute (from our perspective), he’s such an inspiration to the kids of Ordon that young Colin at one point commits a selfless act that could have taken his own life over another’s. Before the plot truly begins, Link saves one of the kids as well as a monkey from getting killed by goblins. This guy is clearly a hero before he learns from a literal spirit animal that he’s the Hero. Oh, and he has a love interest in the form of Illa, the mayor’s daughter who likes hanging out with Link’s horse more than Link himself.

The items that he obtains along the way include bomb arrows, a pair of clawshots, a giant spinning top that can glide along rails, and the ability to turn into a wolf as permitted by the goddesses through the powers of an alternate dimension known as the Twilight Realm whose evil forces, led by the creepy tyrant Zant, aim to take over Hyrule. How much cooler can Link get than this (sans Majora’s masks)?

Whereas the characters’ faces in Wind Waker are a series of textures on solid-shaped heads, the faces here are fully rendered with bodies designed similarly to the OcarinaDuology. Not only are the movements more realistic but the scenery is vast and detailed. If the color pallet were vibrant, the visuals would be downright gorgeous rather than merely impressive. Another flaw is that these enhanced graphics make way for a few women who dress more provocatively than needed; two in particular are designed so sensually that they’re a big enough concern to prevent the game from getting a full four stars.

Majora’s Mask‘s Tatl is a step-up from Ocarina‘s Navi in terms of characterization, but their replacement here, Midna – a citizen of the Twilight Realm, or Twili – , has the most fleshed-out arc in the whole series so far. At first she’s annoying, and then her hilarious sarcasm shines through, and then she conveys pathos, and then her underlying anger is revealed and unleashed in a disturbingly cold-blooded act.

The way each character develops is just as thrilling as the plot’s abundance of action in between the dungeons, including horseback chases and mini showdowns that give Hyrule Field a much more exciting use than running from point A to point B ala Ocarina.

The heroic and touching musical score is also beautifully utilized; the music in the OcarinaDuology is memorable, but there are hardly any tracks that I’d want to listen to over and over again. With Twilight Princess…well, I can could listen to the music all day.

While the story’s ambition and complexity is certainly enjoyable – dynamic side characters, two main villains, and a recurring minor villain is a nice change of pace – , it is quite overstuffed, with ideas ranging from something as frightening as a benevolent yeti’s face suddenly turning demonic to something as silly as a toddler with an advanced intellect becoming a businessman (not that Majora’s Mask is without silliness). The whole story would feels like a complete mess of everything except the kitchen sink if it weren’t for the character development. However, if there’s one aspect that truly drags the game down, it’s its difficulty…or lack thereof.

Sure, the dungeons are long, often confusing, and sometimes tricky – one complication in the second-to-last dungeon is edge-of-your-seat terrifying – , but most of the boss battles, as conceptually creative as they are, are pitifully easy as they deal us hardly any damage and run the “hit the boss’s weak spot three times” strategy into the ground.

It also features the series’ usual mixed spirituality, with polytheistic themes being more emphasized here as Zant gets his powers from a different “god”…who turns out not to be so. I also have mixed feelings about us getting our wolf ability from the villains’ dark magic, and one sidequest involves us collecting the souls of nefarious spectres called poes in order to break somebody’s curse. …If poes are already ghosts, how can we take their souls?!

Despite its weaknesses, the game is still an incredible graphical and humanistic achievement (I’ve only played the Wii version whose controls allow for a delightfully immersive experience, but there’s hardly a graphical difference from the GameCube version). It’s not the most thought-provoking or frustrating Zeldagame (Majora’s Mask is the former and Wind Waker, not in a fun way, is the latter), but for what it lacks in a challenge it makes up for in a rich and epic story that’s rooted in genuine heroism (other than Midna’s ambiguous morals).

I would prefer to re-experience the simpler storylines and colorful visuals of the OcarinaDuology – not to mention, they touch my inner seven-year-old rather than my inner twelve-year-old – , but Twilight Princess is nonetheless the magnum opus of everything the series has accomplished thus far. I definitely accept it as Ocarina‘s honorary threequel.

11/10/2015 | “An Inevitable Attack of the Clones Post”

Wait, Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (★★☆☆)? I go straight from the beloved middle chapter of the beloved Original Trilogy to the infamous middle chapter of the infamous Prequel Trilogy? How can this be?!

To answer the questions that you may or may not being asking yourself, the family with whom I’m watching through the saga agreed to view it in the Machete Order: episodes IV, V, II, III, and VI. It fits in the most relevant Prequels without spoiling a mind-blowing twist at the climax of The Empire Strikes Back that’s so engraved into pop culture that most of those who haven’t seen Star Wars already know it.

Even so, I refuse to spoil this twist myself, but I will say that it’s a crucial revelation about the Original Trilogy’s main antagonist, Darth Vader. The widely despised Prequel Trilogy that was made years after the Originals sloppily recounts Vader’s past, from his rise to a Jedi to his fall from grace (which we hear the gist of in A New Hope).

In Attack of the Clone‘s sluggish predecessor, Star Wars: Episode I – The PhantomMenace, we’re introduced to a young Obi-Wan Kenobi, the one who introduces the future Luke Skywalker to the ways of the Force; a teenage Queen Padme Amidala, played by Natalie Portman, who must face the Trade Federation which aims to overtake and raise the taxes on her home planet of Naboo; a pre-teen Darth Vader in a career-destroying performance by Jake Lloyd; and Jar Jar Binks, the Navi of the Star Wars Universe.

Obi-Wan’s a Jedi padawan himself, but in the end, he’s forced to take up the task of training the future Darth Vader who happens to be the one prophesied to bring balance to the Force by destroying the Sith, who have had a recent resurgence.

Now, in Clones, Padme is a senator with assassins after her, Obi-Wan has been training Vader for ten years, the Trade Federation is spreading across the galaxy, Jar Jar’s role in the story is significantly reduced, and the CGI hasn’t aged well. Sure, it would look amazing for video game graphics of this generation, but it clashes horribly with the live-action aspects.

George Lucas’s lack of talent for writing and directing believable stories doesn’t distract from the abundance of outdated effects. His choice of casting the flat Hayden Christensen as Vader is poor in itself, but it isn’t helped by giving him a personality that’s so whiney and stalkerish that it’s unintentionally hilarious.

“You’re just the way I remember you in my dreams,” he once tells Padme. Of course, Padme who’s also stilted performance-wise ends up falling in love with him even after all of his creepiness. “I truly, deeply love you.” …Okay… Their farfetched forbidden love story slows down a plot that has a couple of ridiculous conveniences and more than a few unanswered questions.

That’s not to say that there aren’t any saving graces, especially Ewan McGregor as Obi-Wan. The actions scenes are just as creative as they are silly, including an early flying car chase on a planet that’s essentially one big city and a sequence where the heroes fight for their lives on the conveyor belts of a robot factory; there’s even a bit of the wit carried over from the Originals. The image of an army of Jedi charging into an army of said robots is the highlight of the movie for me.

The clones in the title refer to an army used by the good guys that’s cloned from a single bounty hunter. While there isn’t anything bad said about the process of cloning, there’s definitely an ambiguity about what this army is truly going to be used for (and if you’ve seen any of the Originals at this point, it’s pretty obvious).

Attack of the Clones is bogged down by weak storytelling, but it has its moments, even if some of those moments weren’t meant to be amusing. Now, how does it feel to go from Empire to this? Well, considering that I watched Empire nearly three months ago, I can’t quite say, but I am ultimately glad that I watched this movie. I also seem to feel differently about Episode III every time I watch it, so I’ll see how that one holds up.

11/19/2015 | Lord of the Rings post (can’t remember the original title)

The Lord of the Rings Trilogy – consisting of The Fellowship of the RingThe Two Towers, and The Return of the King – means so much to me that I can’t write for it a full-fledged review – not to mention, I have yet to finish the books – , so this post is rather a list of personal observations about the movies that would be best understood by their fans.

  • …And the first thing I say is that others before me have pointed out the story’s heavy Christian symbolism, such as how Frodo carries the weight of the soul-destroying Ring like how Christ carries the weight of sin.
  • The special effects create some of the most astounding imagery I’ve ever seen put to screen; sure, the CGI hasn’t aged well enough to say that it doesn’t look like video game graphics, but whereas the Star Wars prequels look like top-notch graphics of the previous generation, these look like top-notch graphics of this generation. It helps that they’re used to support a story rather than become a story ala the Star Wars prequels or the Hobbit movies.
  • These movies have some of the funnest video game adaptations I’ve ever played, from the straight-up adaptations of The Two Towers and Return of the King to especially the real-time strategy The Battle for Middle-Earth (but its sequel…not so much).
  • Frodo once says, “I spent my whole childhood pretending I was off on an adventure.” That’s totally me – growing up playing video games like Zelda and watching movies like Star Wars and…Lord of the Rings. Samwise Gamgee is the story’s true hero, anyway – not only assisting Frodo in various ways but also offering some of the films’ most inspiring lines; “There’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo! And it’s worth fighting for!” Everybody needs a Sam.
  • Gimli and Legolas are largely regulated to cheap comic relief and superhuman stunts so that Aragorn can shine, and this Aragorn isn’t even as cool as he is in the book; J.R.R. Tolkien’s Aragorn is like, “Do you know who I am?! I’m the King of Gondor!” whereas Peter Jackson’s Aragorn is like, “Oh dear…I’m the King of Gondor.”
  • As creative as Tolkien is with names, he could have been a little bit more creative. I mean, Arwen/Eowyn, Sauron/Saruman…not only could these names be confusing for casual viewers (just look at this spoilerific parody, which contains some offensive language), but also a couple of plot points in the movies don’t make any sense outside the books.
  • “I have to save you.” “You already did.” …So did George Lucas rip off Tolkien or did Peter Jackson rip off George Lucas?
  • The three main female characters have various connections with the men in the story ranging from mentor to romantic interest, but none of them pass the Bechdel Test. For an epic that so strongly celebrates the power of brotherhood, the power of sisterhood is left in the dust. On the other hand, in a society that lacks true masculinity, perhaps more stories need to remind us of wholesome brotherly love.

And that’s all I really have to say. I could find more dramatic flaws to nitpick, but what’s the use? None of them can ruin my favorite movie trilogy of all time. Sure, Star Wars is more fun and more formative to my childhood imagination, but Lord of the Rings has more heart, better acting, and more agreeable spiritual resonances than Star Wars has ever had.

12/01/2015 | “An Inevitable Revenge of the Sith Post”

Once again, as I say in the postscript of my A New Hope review on Catholic Movie Nerd:

The belated Prequel Trilogy of Episode I – The Phantom MenaceEpisode II – Attack of the Clones, and Episode III – Revenge of the Sith have their moments – mostly in Clones – but their overly serious tones degrade the B-movie-type writing and acting that help make the Original Trilogy fun.

After a fresh rewatch, I can say that Clones has the most genuinely fun moments of the Prequels, but Sith – the one that recounts how Darth Vader turns to the Dark Side – takes the cake of being the most engaging of the trilogy, even if it’s less engaging in a superbly crafted, Tolkien-inspired way like the recently reviewed Lord of the Rings movies and more in a cheesy, melodramatic, action-packed nonsense way.

It’s not that the Originals aren’t imperfect, but they have such a sincere spirit that their imperfections don’t matter. On the other hand, the Prequels suffer from harder to overlook imperfections: unintentionally hilarious dialogue, nonsensical character development, and flat acting, even by Samuel L. Jackson whose most memorable moments in the whole trilogy are a great one-liner in Attack of the Clones (“This party’s over.”) and surviving longer than three Jedi masters against one Sith (though a Sith lord at that) here.

Revenge of the Sith still features these imperfections, especially regarding the over-the-top romance between Vader and Padme. Yet, the story itself is so tightly paced that the flaws don’t drag it down. I’ve actually seen this movie three times this year, and I felt differently about it each time. With this recent viewing, I felt like, “Yeah, that part’s hard to take seriously, but I’m in the mood to embrace and enjoy this.”

Though there are moral imperfections that are hard to embrace. As Padme has become pregnant, Vader has visions of her dying in childbirth, and so one of the reasons he’s convinced to turn to the Dark Side is to prevent her death. In other words, his love for another turns him to evil.

On one hand, Vader delves into powers that he shouldn’t delve into in order to save his wife – and there are serious consequences – , but on the other hand, Yoda directly warns Vader to remove worldly attachments to an extreme that doesn’t agree with Christianity. And to what end do these detachments reach? Sure, Jedi have an afterlife awaiting them, but what about non-Jedi?

I’ve been trying to avoid who to blame for the flaws of the Prequels, so it’s time I give a name: George Lucas. His B-movie writing and directing worked when he took the reigns of A New Hope, but similarly to what I said earlier, the more serious, politically-driven stories of the Prequels were beyond his abilities.

Not to mention, he’s tried to justify Jar Jar Binks – who is at least mildly amusing and one of the few lively aspects about The Phantom Menace; I’ll give him that – by claiming that Star Wars is for children and then makes Revenge of the Sith, the first PG-13 Star Wars movie – and it would have been hard not to make this one darker than any other – , where it’s implied that Vader kills a whole room full of children. …Actually, he’s implied to have slaughtered the entire colony of Tusken Raiders who killed his mother in Clones, but there are other surprisingly brutal moments onscreen here.

Lucas may struggle with keeping a consistent view of his own franchise and realizing realistic characters – at least when he’s not writing/directing A New Hope – , but he sure is one heck of a visionary; while the CGI here has only aged slightly better than that of Attack of the Clones, the visuals it creates are some of the most imaginative of the whole saga, with one planet featuring giant pits that are essentially entire cities and one planet being made of volcanos. The opening and climactic action sequences, the latter of which consists of two simultaneous lightsaber duels each in wildly different environments, are spectacles to behold.

The closing shot recalls one of the most iconic moments in A New Hope, and it’s made even more striking through advances in visual effects. Sure, the circumstances leading up to this scene could make more sense, but that visual combined with John William’s timeless musical score make it feel like a perfect, optimistic way to end the Prequels.

And really, perhaps it is best to fit Clones and Sith between Empire and Return of the Jedibecause they remind me that while the Originals are great space operas, they aren’t works of art like The Wizard of Oz nor thoroughly developed myths like Lord of the Rings – they’re entertainment. Don’t get me wrong, they’re mythic, inventive, and emotional enough to be taken more seriously than just popcorn movies, but they strive more to delight than to enlighten us.

Even though the Prequels are space operas that could use much improvement, at least Revenge of the Sith is very enjoyable for what it is; not to mention, it carries a little bit of nostalgic value because I watched it a lot when it was first released.

…And I can’t believe that was ten years ago.

07/17/2016 | “REVIEW | The Last of Us (2013 GAME)”

In case this is the first time you’ve heard about The Last of Usthank God I’m the one you’ve come across. In case you’ve heard about how “great” The Last of Us is, jump the heck out of the hype train, even if it’s moving. I mean, the praise this game has received horrifies me as much as the story it tells!

I can certainly understand its emotional appeal for an artistic medium so disparaged outside of gaming culture; the lead motion-capture performances by Troy Baker as middle-aged Joel and Ashley Johnson as teenage Ellie are phenomenal, and the drama surrounding their characters’ willingness to pursue the greater good in a world ravaged by zombies, crazies, and corrupt military regimes emotionally invested more than any other video game I can think of.

The father/daughter bond that Joel and Ellie develop not only explores how humanity would react to a zombie apocalypse—which isn’t pretty—but also the universal question of how far a father would go to protect his child—which also isn’t pretty.

They’re certainly not pleasant people, even though their quest to escort Ellie across the United States to get a cure produced from her immunity to the zombie spores is quite noble. In fact, one character who describes the state of humanity uses crasser words than I do, and said words aren’t as crass as what usually comes out of the characters’ mouths. Nobody here is a clear-cut hero, not even the leading Joel; everybody’s just another survivor who constantly resorts to savagery.

Would it make sense for a worldwide crisis such as zombie spores to bring out the absolute worst in humanity? Perhaps. But I don’t think a fictitious world that normalizes such savagery should be approached without strong reservations.

And yet, the story’s reliance on horrific incident, from the harrowing deaths of two sympathetic allies to the ghastly ways Joel can kill and be killed to Ellie nearly getting butchered by cannibals—the last of which is where I finally checked out and watched the rest of the story on Youtube, make the occasional glimmers of hope, such as Joel and Ellie coming across a community that strives to live in peace and Ellie taking up the task of caring for Joel after he gets seriously injured, that much more powerful.

But even if these glimmers of hope were to come out on top in the end, would they make the thorough nastiness of the journey worth trudging through in the first place? Ultimately, that question is never answered. Instead, it succumbs to the nihilism it toys with throughout, leaving us with the impression that humanity is ultimately too corrupt to be redeemed, and it does so with a subversion of a Christlike sacrifice.

…So, what are the lessons learned from all of this? Never pay twenty dollars for the sake of critique, and never try to be a game critic, unless you’re getting paid for it. I mean, I originally bought a PS3 for the sake of my formal Gaming with Faith archive, but that site didn’t work out. I also wanted to find games that I could cherish, and so far, I haven’t found much beyond disappointment for the PS3.

I certainly wouldn’t play Grand Theft Auto for the sake of a Catholic critique because, well, those games are so controversial that it’s pretty easy to decide whether or not to buy them. But The Last of Us has had nothing but good said about it, so at least I can say first-hand how big a problem that is.

F

08/02/2016 | “REVIEW | Portal 2 (2011 GAME)”

If you have a Steam account (or a PS3 or an Xbox 360), get the Portal games, and you really can’t play one without the other. Portal 2 particularly is one of the best things I’ve played on PC, and I grew up on PC games!

…Of course, if you were to check my Steam profile, you’d see that over the past year I’ve put more hours than I should have into Deus Ex and the unfinished Half-Life saga, but this review isn’t about my complicated relationships with those games; this is about a game that I can actually recommend (along with its predecessor).

Instead of any lethal weapons, the Portal games’ central mechanic revolves around a gun that shoots two interconnected portals to solve brain-cramping puzzles; most of the violence we cause involves incidental run-ins with sentient robot turrets.

The first Portal, which was pitched to Valve by a team of indie developers, was released in 2007 as part of a collection that also included the anticipated releases of Half-Life 2: Episode 2 and Team Fortress 2, so Portal‘s popularity came as a surprise. Remember that “THE CAKE IS A LIE” meme? That’s from Portal. But Portal‘s a game that can be beaten in a couple evenings on first playthrough, laying the groundwork for a funner sequel.

As with the first PortalPortal 2 has us playing as mute test subject Chell in the Aperture Science Enrichment Center, run by the anti-human female A.I. known as GLaDOS—a name I now associate with every computerized lady voice—who taunts us at every turn, and sometimes quite unsettlingly.

But unlike its predecessor, Portal 2 goes into the literal depths of Aperture’s lore, explained largely through the voice recordings of the facility’s long-dead CEO, voiced by none other than J.K. Simmons (and this is now the first thing that comes to mind when I hear him in other voice roles).

While said recordings reveal that Aperture’s downfall was caused by its ludicrous, nature-twisting experiments, the story also expands upon GLaDOS’s theistic role in Aperture as she shapes its mechanical environments, omnisciently watches her test subjects, and creates machines in her own sort-of image; there’s even an implication that science can raise humanity to godlike status. But before this starts sounding too anti-theistic, other plot developments have me thinking that this less of a metaphor for God but rather for the god complex that can stem from rulership.

At face value, it all seems pretty cynical, including its lack of genuinely good people. However, the charming dark wit turns the cynicism into a sort of absurdist satire, complimented by a rollicking geekiness embodied by the 8-bit tinged musical score, and its ultimate boss takeout is epic. …Then followed by an act of kindness from a character we wouldn’t expect it from.

Plus, its multiplayer mode doesn’t pit players against each other but rather forces players to work together, and since I’m not a fan of competitive games, this mode was tailor made for me, even if it features some of GLaDOS’s grimmest insults.

A

08/18/2016 | “REVIEW | Transformers (2007 FILM)”

Transformers is a movie that changed my life twice. Not joking.

The first time is when it was first released; it completely sucked me into the Transformersfranchise, and while some not-so-kid-friendly content prevented me from being allowed to see it in theaters, I saw the sequels in theaters, and I watched every new Transformers TV series and bought hundreds of action figures—many of which ended up in my Youtube videos—in the following years.

The second time was a fateful 2014 Lenten evening where I decided to rewatch it for the first time in a couple of years and realized… “WHAT THE HECK WAS I THINKING?! I LIKED THIS MOVIE?!”

In that moment, it’s like Jesus knocked me off my horse and said to me, “T., T., why are you obsessing over glorified toy commercials?” I realized that no matter how good a Transformers story could be, it’s fundamentally going to be an advertisement for toys and an excuse to revel in robots killing each other, and I was buying into it. Since then, I’ve rarely put stock into the franchise outside my own contributions to it.

It’s not the fact that the movie is cheesy that bothers me. I mean, it’s a story about robots from space that happen to be able to scan pieces of technology and fold perfectly into them. It’s not even the fact that humans overshadow the titular robots that bothers me. I mean, we’re introduced to a sympathetic soldier who just wants to get back home to his wife and infant daughter as soon as the movie opens.

What bothers me is that its focus doesn’t account for the frachise’s target audience—the life of some obnoxious teenager, played by Shia Labeouf, who has kooky parents, wants to buy a car, wants to sleep with a very wooden Megan Fox, has family relics that happen to have connections to the titular robots, and experiences situations so raunchy that I really wish a studio executive had stepped in and gone “HOLD ON A MINUTE!” Though if somebody did, they probably got shot down. With a bazooka.

I guess it doesn’t really matter to the studio what the heck they let their director, Michael Bay, get away with when the movies end up making jillions of dollars.

At least the robots retain their dignity. Or at least Optimus Prime, the leader of the good Autobots, does; Shia’s companionship with his robot car, Bumblebee, is supposed to be the story’s heart, but Bee’s dignity is compromised when he mockingly pees on John Turturro, the highlight of the human cast. However, we at one point get a glimpse of how much each Autobot cares for one another and their mission to save Earth as they discuss their next move. And then Optimus reveals what he’s willing to sacrifice in order to save humanity… I feel a tug there.

The evil Decepticons don’t fare too well character-wise. They have a presence throughout, but they’re little more than one-dimensional monsters (not that the Autobots aren’t one-dimensional in their own ways) who are nearly impossible to kill, which does give them a sense of menace. The big bad guy, Megatron, doesn’t even arrive until the final act, though Hugo Weaving brings an awesome slice of ham to his voice performance (“You want a piece of me?!” “NoI want…two!”).

Said final act is by far the film’s most entertaining sequence with its urban robot warfare—even though the good guys’ motivation to set up in a city is completely inconsiderate of the lives of citizens—, if you can tell the difference between said robots. I’ve always been able to tell the difference since I’d seen the toys beforehand, but I can see how the shaky cam can disorient uninitiated viewers, especially given the robots’ designs.

I can say that it’s better than its sequels, but that doesn’t deem it a good movie, and not even—for the most part—in a delightfully bad way. At the very least, my Youtube channel leaves this fundamentally silly franchise something better than this. …Well, that’s my goal. Still, the saddest part about all of this is that I’m probably going to end up seeing the next ones.

D

08/25/2016 | “REVIEW | Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977 FILM)”

If you haven’t seen Star Wars, you don’t need me to tell you to watch it.

It’s so engraved into pop culture that you already know the names Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader, Han Solo, and Princess Leia. You already know who Luke’s father is. And you already know that if it weren’t for the first one, titled just Star Wars until Episode IV – A New Hope was added in re-releases, we wouldn’t have popcorn movies the way they are today; it’s also the one that holds up the best for me.

As a whole, the Star Wars franchise—from movies to action figures to video games—was possibly the biggest fiction of my childhood. My history with it goes back so far that I don’t even remember my first experience with it; it was always just there, leading to a current bias that goes beyond nostalgia.

Of course, I have shown the whole Original Trilogy to friends my age who hadn’t seen it before; one of them thought it was excellent, and the other two, while they got distracted by its similarities to Disney movies (which, as of Disney’s buying of Star Wars in 2012, they weren’t irrational in doing), nonetheless liked it, so you don’t have to have grown up with Star Wars in order to appreciate it.

A New Hope is actually the one that would seem the blandest and most generic compared to its sequels. But A New Hope did more than reinvent action spectacle; it took mythic archetypes and brought them into an escapist space adventure, wondrously building a fantasy world filled with endless possibilities, and the simplicity adds to the fairy tale appeal.

It also brought us the legendary musical score, the delightfully cornball dialogue, the wit between Luke, Han, and Leia… Really, the only problem I have with it structurally is that the climactic space battle drags on too long for me, but that’s a minor gripe. Even after seeing it a million times, A New Hope is still an absolute joy to watch.

A+

09/01/2016 | “REVIEW | The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998 GAME)”

Well, my video game reviews got off to a rocky start with The Last of Us. So what’s the polar opposite of The Last of Us for me? None other than the Citizen Kane of video games itself: The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time!

No other video game in history has garnered higher critical scores, and its explorable 3D world laid the modern groundwork for one of the most popular genres: open world!

…Of course, it was made in the 90s, so if you’ve never played it and already know games that have built upon Ocarina’s influence, it’ll probably underwhelm you. Plus, since it’s the most nostalgic thing in my life, I can’t look at it from an entirely objective perspective. But if I could, I’d still call it a masterpiece.

Now, the Legend of Zelda franchise had already revolutionized gaming by the time of this jump to 3D. Heck, even though the original title for the NES was the first home console game to implement save files, it still caused the first cases of video game addiction…so I guess it didn’t revolutionize gaming in only good ways. Anyways, Ocarina follows the series’s established formula: the silent protagonist Link teaming up with the titular Princess Zelda to defeat the evil Ganon(dorf) from obtaining the Triforce of Power that holds creation together.

However, aside from the traditional vaguely monistic Triforce, Ocarina replaces subtle though direct connotations to Christianity through the introduction of the goddesses who created the world of Hyrule and have chosen Link to be their Hero of Time.

On the other hand, that opens up stronger parallels to Christianity, such as the idea of following a higher power’s good will without a fret. Many of the game’s magic powers are even given to us by the goddesses, if through freaky, exploitatively filmed “Great Fairies”, which aren’t the only oppressive fairies in Hyrule…such as our infamous sidekick, Navi, who disrupts the game at random times to tell us what to do.

But what Navi, who also functions as a targeting system to lock onto enemies in combat, usually points us to the game’s centerpieces: dungeons filled with monsters, puzzles, and mcguffins. We can also take breaks from the main quest to help out random citizens, go on treasure hunts… I mean, this is all pretty standard Zelda stuff that subsequent titles have expanded upon, so what makes Ocarina standout? Oddly, its simplicity in storytelling.

While the story tends to over-explain its own mythology, most of the characters are cutouts. Newcomers may find such characterization lacking, but I find it all charming enough to make me want to save Hyrule, and it somehow emphasizes the story’s mythic resonance, wrapped up in a sort of childlike innocence.

Granted, the Great Fairies and mixed spiritualities are only in addition to what really undermines the family-friendliness: the occasional envelope-pushing horror elements. For as much as this game made my childhood, it equal parts ruined it.

Though while we’re allowed to get away with minor property damage and theft, the story is otherwise rooted in truth, such as how our responsibilities demand more from us as we grow, how the villain can be defeated without having to be killed, and how seeking praise should never be a reason deny oneself. A central gameplay mechanic even celebrates the power of art as we play songs through the titular instrument that can make it rain, raise the sun, teleport us…

…And while no song has that power in reality, a song can make a depressed person dance, as in one of the game’s funniest moments!

With that, Ocarina of Time is pure magic. While calling it the greatest video game ever made may be an admitted overstatement, it’s the one I personally compare all others to. It’s not just great game design, but it’s also great mythmaking—a straightforward tale of good conquering evil that never loses its charm.

A+

09/27/2016 | “REVIEW | Shadow of the Colossus (2005 GAME)”

Shadow of the Colossus is transcendent—not only unique in premise and execution but a game whose violence wants us to feel guilty for being thrilled by it, where violence doesn’t solve conflict but rather worsens it.

Heck, after the “Michael Bay’s Indiana Jones” known as the Uncharted trilogy, the disappointing Metal Gear Solid sequels, my few hours of Fallout 3, and *GAH!The Last of UsShadow‘s HD remaster is so far my biggest reason not to regret buying a PS3, which means I probably would have been better off buying a used PS2. But hey, Ocarina of Time has been the only reason my N64 isn’t rejected these days.

Speaking of which, Shadow is essentially the opposite side of Ocarina‘s coin; whereas Ocarina is a joyous and colorful representation of the open world genre, Shadow is a melancholy and visually muted deconstruction of the genre, putting us into a vast world with no side quests and no other human characters except for those who intrude upon this realm. Our goals are linear, and the journeys towards them are deliberate even on horseback.

Shadow‘s other major influence is its own 2001 spiritual predecessor whose own HD remake shares a disc with Shadow‘s: Ico, a fantasy platformer that sports a kind of minimalistic, emotionally-driven artistry that hadn’t been seen in a video game before its time. Its storytelling devices that Shadow borrows also include its modicum of characterization and its fictitious language presented through subtitles.

However, unlike Ico‘s atmospheric musical score, Shadow‘s score is a majestic character in of itself, an encapsulation of the terrifying sizes of our adversaries: sixteen animalistic colossi, a number of which are humanoid in structure, that we as Wander are sent to destroy as part of a deal with a mysterious entity to have our sacrificed lover resurrected.

The score adds layers of excitement to the already nerve-racking task of climbing onto these creatures and trying to reinvigorate our stamina meter as we hang onto them for dear life and pound their weak points. And when the battle themes aren’t there to thrill me, the serene portions of the score are there to fill me with wonder.

As the forbidden land we traverse is merely a connector between the colossi’s lairs, the centerpiece boss fights double as the actual levels—so worthy of taking up the whole game that each end with a huge sense of catharsis. …That is before it hits us that we’ve just murdered a majestic creature that was minding its own business.

The death of each colossus not only affects the creatures, but it also hurts Wander, with his appearance slowly decaying as his string of violence progresses, and the consequences for dabbling in dark matters even for love’s sake don’t stop there.

Now that I’ve admired the cautionary moral of the tale, I do have a problem with the spirituality, and to explain why would spoil too much. I’ll just say that it’s because the symbolic devil that Wander makes a deal with has powers too godlike, and Wander can atone for what he’s done only in the most drastic way possible.

Still, on an objective level, Shadow is even more of a contender for the best video game ever made than Ocarina of Time, not that anything can replace Ocarina‘s place in my heart. Of course, a lot of its appeal lies in the way it assures me that video games can be great art. Its execution is so simple, yet so profound. Now to find another PS3, and not originally PS2, game that I can cherish…

A

10/13/2016 | “REVIEW | Lost (2004-2010 SERIES)”

A couple years ago, I was volunteering at a Catholic youth retreat, and somebody I knew was sitting at a table greeting me, and presumably everybody else, with a fake but familiar Scottish accent.

And so I decided to join him in the fake accentry, capping it off with, “I’ll see you in anotha life, brotha,” to which he responded, “YESFINALLY!” The details on how this next part came about are a bit fizzier, but I also remember telling him after he took a sip of water: “Now you’re like me.”

As the title of this post indicates, what we were referencing was Lost, which happens to be fellow blogger Catholic Skywalker’s number one TV drama of all time. I’ve been a fan since it first aired, starting later in season one; I was probably too young to have been allowed to watch it, but I knew it was better than any of those murder mystery shows I’d also been watching at that time (which Monk was the best of).

The story’s premise seems pretty straightforward at first: plane passengers of various races and cultures crash on an island and are forced to work together to survive…or rather, live together or die alone. And then an unseen monster rustles in the jungle. And then they get chased by a polar bear. …This obviously isn’t your average island.

The show doesn’t let us take these castaways at face value; every episode—well, most of them—takes one character and reveals their backstory through flashbacks that often parallel their given situation on the island. We see the brokenness of their lives—from Jack, a surgeon with parental issues; to Sawyer, a vengeful, womanizing conman; to Kate, a well-meaning but correctly accused fugitive; to Sayid, a former military torturer…and almost all of whom suffered from either absent or terrible father figures—that the writers reveal to be more important than it seems.

Catholicism is also a theme throughout the series, but it’s not always clear how sympathetic it is towards the Church, with one character being a fallen away Catholic, one character’s arch hinging on a priest refusing to absolve him of murder, and one character being an African drug lord-turned-self-proclaimed priest who once while trying to explain Jesus’s Baptism spouts heresy so flabbergasting that I really hope the writers are deliberately emphasizing his cluelessness there.

It’s not until the final season’s striking symbolism—which isn’t without secular liberties—where the show’s sympathies towards Catholicism are clear, and few other visual arts can reduce me to tears of both sadness and joy quite like the final minutes.

Of course, I always expect to cry at the end. What I wasn’t expecting during this watchthrough—I wasn’t as critical a thinker during my last ones—was how often the series was going to tug at me throughout, whether it’s dealing with the tragic life of John Locke (not the philosopher) or the healing marriage between Jin and Sun, and all of this is made even more impactful by Michael Giacchino’s musical score.

As for a word of advice: if you find that the writing begins to grow stale in the third season, just wait til the series keeps Shyamalaning us in the last three. On the other hand, the writers set up so many mysteries along the way that by the end, not all of the questions are satisfyingly answered, especially regarding the island’s half-baked mythology. Fortunately, what the series finale does beautifully is bring us closure to the characters we’ve gone on this insane journey with.

And said journey isn’t just tear-jerking; it’s a whole rollercoaster of emotions: thrilling, harrowing, funny, angering… In the end, even when it delves unflinchingly into the dark side of humanity, it’s a type of beauty I likely won’t see in any other TV series.

A-

10/22/2016 | “REVIEW | Batman Begins (2005 FILM)”

How I once introduced myself to a friend of a friend:

Her: Hi, I’m Rachel.
Me: RACHEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEL!!!
Her: Do you like that name?
Me: That’s what Batman said.
Her: Oh.

Said introduction miraculously did not scare Rachel away and eventually led her to watching the Dark Knight trilogy, the Batman Begins of which she claimed was “the BEST MOVIE EVER!!!!!!!” (Yes, I journeyed back to a four-year-old Facebook conversation to copy that.) While I surely wouldn’t go that far, I, a non comic reader, would call it the quintessential live-action Batman movie. And if you told me ten years ago that I’d say that, I would have thought you belonged in Arkham Asylum.

When it was first released, I didn’t realize it was a reboot and thought it was a prequel to the Tim Burton Batman movies, the twisted natures of which I now hold in much lower regard; and since I was used to Michael Keaton’s performance as the Caped Crusader, I found Christian Bale’s casting laughably over-the-top and ruined the movie for me. I couldn’t get why people were raving about it.

It wasn’t until The Dark Knight where I began to appreciate Batman Begins, the ironic part being how much my appreciation has grown since; even the gravelly Batvoice has grown on me. Now, in an age where I’m starting to get tired of superheroes, I still have quite a respect for Batman, which at one point became an unhealthy obsession back in high school thanks to these movies. I mean, take away the Batsuit and Batman’s still a ninja and, as Batman Begins actually shows, a detective!

What sells Batman Begins for me is that whereas the sequels shaft Bruce Wayne in favor of other characters, this one’s all about Bruce Wayne. We see what drives him to become the Dark Knight. We see how he not only battles criminals but understands where they come from. As Studio C has pointed out, the very premise of “Wealthy orphan goes into exile then comes back to save his people” is the bare bones of Exodus, giving the story a biblical edge. …Well, more mythic than biblical in this case. (And don’t get me started on Christian Bale’s actual Exodus retelling.)

This film may have initiated Hollywood’s obsession with dark and gritty reboots, but it still fairly balances stylization, such as the way Batman actually behaves like a giant bat—a creature that attacks from the darkness. He strikes fear into opponents who strike fear into the public. It also deals with a diverse cast of villains, ranging from a mob boss to a psychopath to a commanding mentor.

In terms of missteps, there is a death that the anti-killer Batman could have prevented through an act of mercy, and he causes nearly fatal vehicular damage with the Batmobile. And although Bruce Wayne believes that there are still good people left in a city as authoritatively corrupt as Gotham, and his belief is proven true through Katie Holme’s district attorney Rachel Dawes and Gary Oldman’s Lieutenant Jim Gordon, there’s no time for us to be shown the goodness in ordinary citizens. Though perhaps that’s more of a want for myself than a necessity for the story.

The other biggest aspect that sells me is how nothing, not even the breakneck pace gets in the way of its emotional resonance, such as Michael Caine’s wonderful Alfred’s commitment to Bruce, whether he’s trying to inspire his adopted son or discourage his reckless antics.

Plus, since we get to know Bruce’s sympathetic father before he’s killed, this depiction of the murder of his parents—the moment that defines the Batman character—has a genuine sense of heartbreak, and Bruce’s bond with lifelong friend Rachel refuses a cliche “hero gets the girl”.

All of this not only makes for great superhero storytelling, but it’s wrapped up in a sort of mythmaking, not just the biblical premise but the first act’s fictional Tibetan setting and the score’s booming horns that embody both the heroism and the darkness of its icon, that makes it one of the superhero movies I compare all others to.

A

11/03/2016 | “REVIEW | Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982 FILM)”

When I was little, Star Trek was my older brother’s thing. I mean, Star Wars had lightsabers in an exciting battle between good and evil whereas Star Trek had phasers in a philosophical, character-driven exploration of space.

Since the franchise is so rooted in philosophy and literature that its own geekiness goes beyond mine, I’m still more of a Warsie, but my affinity for Star Trek and its meaning grew as I grew, even to the point where I can agree on Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan‘s status as the quintessential Star Trek movie.

Heck, since its predecessor Star Trek: The Motion Picture—released ten years after the Original Series was cancelled after three seasons—is so rife with 2001-style tediousness, a number of Trekkies like to call this the true first movie. So, forget the logicless plotting and hyperactive action of NuTrek and get ready for real Star Trek!

Although Wrath of Khan introduces James T. Kirk, former captain of the U.S.S. Enterprise, during his time as admiral, we get a perfect sense of his history with his crew and his ship, even if you haven’t seen the Original Series. While celebrating his birthday, which he’s, as Dr. McCoy puts it, treating like his own funeral, he’s pining for the days where he could lead cadets into the final frontier as he’s now only able to oversee those in training.

Of course, some aspects of his past he finds desirable while others are soon coming back to haunt him, such as his former womanizing ways and especially the marooning of the titular Khan Noonien Singh, a superhuman with a Captain Ahab complex so blatant that he literally quotes Moby Dick!

It’s in this conflict with Khan where Kirk proves how spiffy he still is, where William Shatner (Kirk) and Ricardo Montalban (Khan) try to prove who’s the bigger ham—and without even meeting in person onscreen—, where we get riveting starship showdowns enhanced by James Horner’s musical score, and where fans of Star Trek Into Darkness will realize how much their movie is a post-9/11 Wrath of Khan.

Bringing in a villain with a personal motive also makes for more cinematic storytelling than a TV-type “discover a new planet with new species” plot, though Wrath of Khan puts a twist on the latter by being less about discovering planets and more about creating them…with this surface-level glorification of playing God being counteracted by the planet-creating device’s potential to destroy living worlds.

And just as the TV series uses space exploration as a device to explore the human condition, we get thought-provoking tidbits like, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few,” and “How we face death is at least as important has how we face life.” And indeed, Kirk must face death, just not in a way he would have expected.

And that’s what Wrath of Khan does so well: it makes me feel oh-so smart for liking it, but it also entertains me enough to be able to pop it in on a sick day. Plus, considering how bizarre the actual Original Series can be, it’s nice to have its overall spirit condensed into a package as sweet as this.

A

11/10/2016 | “REVIEW | Deus Ex (2000 GAME)”

As you’d discover through my Portal 2 post, Deus Ex, at the time of this writing, is my most played game on Steam, barely beating the time I put into two versions of Half-Life 2 combined. Yet, I wrote about Half-Life 2 so many times before I revamped this blog that I really don’t want to devote an entire post to it again. (And those who followed me during that period are probably thinking, “THANK GOD!“)

Basically, Half-Life 2 gripped me with its technical prowess and memorable characters so strongly that it took me a long time (well, until the last six paragraphs of Steven Greydanus’s article on The Revenant) to realize its fundamental flaw: manipulating us with emotionally resonant themes into wanting to shoot the bad guys through its shooting mechanics.

Deus Ex, another “first-person shooter”, isn’t that problematic, or at least not that fundamentally. And that’s one of the reasons why my feelings are left mixed instead of fully apprehensive.

Unlike a straight-up, run-and-gun shooter like Half-Life 2Deus Ex incorporates RPG elements into its gameplay. It’s not the first FPS to do so, but it does so to an extent that allows us to approach any given mission any way we want. Will we reach our objectives with guns blazing or with as little violence as possible? Given our limited ammo and clunky aiming system, the game wants us to take the latter approach.

It wasn’t made for the casual gamer. For its time, the depth in gameplay is staggering, and said depth extents to its storytelling, even to its philosophical jargon; heck, there are open books laying everywhere in the game, and one of them includes an excerpt from G.K. Chesterton. Every decision we make affects the characters around us, and we can subtly shape the fairly linear storyline in sometimes unthinkable ways, although only one of the three outcomes for the climax is somewhat ethical.

Not only that, but the augmentative upgrade system for protagonistic cyborg agent J.C. Denton isn’t the most humanistically agreeable mechanic.

But what really makes Deus Ex so dang entertaining is not only its freedom in gameplay but also its general corniness, from the stiff animations to J.C.’s dry one-liners to the botched accents that’ll either amuse or offend. The laughs—whether intended or not—dull some potentially unsettling subject matter, such as the fact that the plot revolves around J.C. stopping a “Gray Death” that’s wiping out the worldwide population whose women, questionably, either dress as or actually are prostitutes.

Alas, the story’s other biggest charm, the kitchen sink nature of its ridiculous, conspiracy-laden plot, also leads to the story’s biggest problem: how it portrays the Knights Templar and the Illuminati; although it’s unclear whether they’re currently involved with the Catholic Church, they’re implied to be practicing Catholic tradition. The villain, Bob Page, is even a fan of Thomas Aquinas, if one who doesn’t get Aquinas’s words as he uses them as the basis for his plan to become a god.

After a lone billboard illustrates how people are more willing to put their faith in a pack of “savioriffic” cigarettes over Jesus himself earlier in the game, the game’s ultimate impression of religion is that it’s merely an excuse for domination. If it weren’t for this, Deus Ex would be a lot easier to appreciate. In the infamous words of J.C. Denton…

D+

11/17/2016 | “REVIEW | Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980 FILM)”

Being called the “Empire Strikes Back” of your series is an honor as high as being called the “Citizen Kane” or “Godfather” of your entire genre.

After A New Hope, George Lucas solidified his plan to turn this current Star Wars trilogy into a set of sequels, which is why The Empire Strikes Back is Episode V and not Episode II. It’s also a project of equal ambition to its predecessor, and one that cinephiles consider the best of the whole saga.

Granted, I’d pick A New Hope over this, but this is still a brilliant followup.

As A New Hope introduces audiences to the far, far away galaxy, Empire‘s job is to expand upon it, and, with Irvin Kershner now in the director’s chair, not just in terms of its locations but also in terms of character development. Luke—the farm boy swept away from home, Han—the greedy rogue on a quest initially for money, and Leia—the princess who needed rescuing, are no longer mere archetypes, and Darth Vader—the nefarious sorcerer, is now seeping with unpredictable menace.

While we see the trio we fell in love with suffering and struggling in ways we wouldn’t expect, the story’s boldest move is ending not with victory on the heroes’ part but with failure, resulting in a bleak yet somehow climactic cliffhanger that makes the entire movie work because of its promise of a proper finale. And then there’s that highly spoiled, as well as misquoted, climactic revelation…

All of this makes Empire the most grownup of the trilogy, and the one I watched the least when I was a kid, though mostly due to one part that disturbed me. But for audiences back then, I can only picture how both mind-blowing and alienating this movie must have been. With the dominance of Marvel movies, we’re used to movies setting up other movies. But cliffhangers were uncommon for 1980, and audiences had to wait three years to find out the fate of one of their heroes.

So, if you watched A New Hope on its own and got the impression that Star Wars is nothing but fluff, then Empire will prove you wrong.

A

11/17/2016 | “REVIEW | The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask (2000 GAME)”

Zelda games usually follow a strict formula, the one that Ocarina of Time brought to 3D: “the silent protagonist Link teaming up with the titular Princess Zelda to defeat the evil Ganon(dorf) from obtaining the Triforce of Power that holds creation together.”

However, Ocarina‘s direct sequel, Majora’s Mask, is an example of making something even more ambitious with what your predecessor established. It says “To heck with the formula!” and throws us into a twisted Burtonesque nightmare, one that I’m really glad I saved until my teen years after my first full playthrough of Ocarina.

It’s not a game for everyone, and I’m not sure if it’s a game for me!

Instead of Hyrule, we get an alternate dimension known as Termina. Instead of Ganondorf, we get the Skull Kid who’s possessed by the titular mask. Instead of sidequesting without consequences, we get to be timed throughout the whole game as the Skull Kid’s slowly pulling the demon-faced moon into Termina’s land. Although we can keep turning back the clock using the returning Ocarina of Time, the song of which to do so is taught by Zelda in her lone appearance, and we face puzzles that require such perfect timing and bosses so brutally difficult that having to repeat things kills the fun factor under such apocalyptic pressure.

When the game’s not tempting us to break our controllers, it’s trying to freak us the heck out, notably through its constant macabre imagery and as we obtain magical masks made from the spirits of dead or dying individuals, which not only combines elements of reincarnation and animism but takes identity theft to a whole new level! As “Game Theory” points out, this mechanic—and the game in general—has roots in African culture, but from an ignorant perspective, it’s plain creepy.

Worse, the people we’ve helped through times of desperation always go back to the way they are when we return to the beginning. After so much existential dread, it mercifully all ends on a note as uplifting as we can expect from a Zelda game.

While I’d rather play something more, well, fun, I can’t help but admire the boldly original execution of all of this, especially for a franchise bound by formula. It stands as a masterful, if not always agreeable, rebel, and one of the most memorable gaming experiences you’d ever have.

But your mileage may vary on whether it would be pleasantly memorable.

C+

11/17/2016 | “REVIEW | Star Trek: Generations (1994 FILM)”

After the Original Series crew’s fantastic sendoff, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, it was time for the Next Generation crew—fresh off their series finale—to have their chance at the big screen, but not without some help from Captain Kirk.

And while this Generations is one of the disparaged “odd-numbered” Star Trek movies, I think it’s the most underappreciated Star Trek movie period.

I’ve actually seen a lot more of the TNG (The Next Generation) TV series than I have the actual Original Series, so I can safely say that this film follows in TNG‘s spirit, and if there’s any problem with that, it’s that it already assumes that we know the crew, preventing newcomers from getting a truly accessible introduction to them.

I mean, if someone were to discover Star Trek just through the movies—starting with Wrath of Khan, of course—they’d be introduced to Captain Kirk as a back-lit silhouette, an image that emphasizes Kirk’s legendary status. However, I think this introduction to the TNG crew would be too much, not only because of TNG‘s bloated main cast, most of which was never as interesting as the Original crew, but also because of how it ties up a couple of plotlines dangling from the series.

Not to mention, since the android Data, my favorite Star Trek character, has an emotions chip installed, newcomers wouldn’t know just how entertaining Brent Spiner can be in the role without having to emote, not that this emotional Data doesn’t offer the film’s funniest moments.

Of course, the movie’s main selling point is the meeting between Captain Picard and Captain Kirk, two captains whose eras are gapped by nearly eighty years, which sounds like a meeting of legendary proportions! So, what’s the first thing these captains do when they finally meet in the third act? Chop wood and cook eggs…which makes more sense in the context of the film. …In some ways.

Considering how idolized these cultural icons are, I appreciate how the writers go out of their way to humanize Picard and Kirk, not only having them engage in ordinary chores—before teaming up on an extraordinary mission, of course—but also putting them through life-changing crises, with Picard recovering from a family tragedy and Kirk having to pass his legacy onto a new crew and ship.

This humanization ties gracefully into the film’s central theme of true mortality versus false eternity, with the false eternity in question not being able to fully satisfy because it’s only an illusionary alternate reality, and the way to get there could mean tragic repercussions in the mortal world.

I think that’s what makes Generations the last real Star Trek movie—not only aiming for entertainment but also, for the most part, successfully realizing a brainy and resonant idea. While I wish that the Next Generation crew could have had at least one movie that stood perfectly fine on its own—and perhaps that’s the tragic repercussion of getting them from the small screen to the big screen so soon—, Generations is closest there is to a proper TNG movie.

B-

11/22/2016 | “BLOG | The first post”

Well, my site has been called “T. Martin Has a Blog” ever since I started it in August 2015, and all of my posts on the revised blog up until now have been reviews, so I might as well start a blog section for this blog, which will render an “About” page useless because I never know what this site is really about.

I mean, just recently, I turned my “Reflections” into “Reviews” and turned my “Now Playing” posts into even more concise, monthly columns, and I only fully review things I actually want to talk about (as such, I’ve been waiting for controversy to surround my slamming of The Last of Us).

There are reasons for my emphasis on tidiness. One is that I have hardly any regular readers, so I don’t want to put the time into a 1000+-word post (I like to limit them to at most 750 words) only for ten people to read it without even commenting. Another reason is that I’m not the most educated person in either the arts or Catholicism. Another reason is that my taste in entertainment is so limited that I really can’t be seen as a legit critic (and for the record, I’m so picky with paragraph structure that I can’t leave a certain number of words tangling in the bottom line).

So, what’s the purpose of blog posts? Well, to reflect on my other projects, such as my final stop-motion video that I’m working on as well as inform of the direction I could take this blog down again; I don’t like talking about my personal life, so whether or not I would is yet to be clear. I hope you do look forward to what I have to offer.

11/23/2016 | “BLOG | Out with the old”

Over the many months I’ve been contributing to and revising this blog, I’ve been learning about my strengths and weaknesses as a reviewer…and that’s why I keep revising it. So, I’m making yet another change: getting rid of the “Now Playing” posts and avoiding my first impressions on what’s playing in theaters entirely.

Given my limited taste in movies, there are critics out there way more reliable than I am. I’ve seen so few straight-up dramas and such a low variety of classics—and I’m a wimp when it comes to R-rated movies—that I don’t feel like I can give proper takes on contemporary films, especially genres I don’t usually watch. Plus, my own subsequent rewatches of movies don’t always live up to my own first impressions.

But the biggest reason I’m doing this is because I have fun writing reviews, but I write most passionately when I’ve had plenty of time to process and know what I’m writing about, like Star Wars; I have no passion towards my first impressions on movies. I mean, I don’t have many followers, and I don’t want to care that I don’t. I just want to write for the fun of it and be grateful for those who end up appreciating my passion.

Of course, there are exceptions to the “no first impressions” rule, such as one that I’ve mentioned in the second consecutive blog post: The Last of Us. That game had nearly unanimous praise, but I couldn’t find a single other Catholic critique on it, and my dissenting opinion was pretty well-formed after one semi-playthrough.

On the other hand, I’ll post about my theatergoing experiences on Twitter (@tmartinhasablog), and if there are any new releases I have something to say about, I’ll review them when they’re out on video. Who knows? Maybe there’ll be new releases down the line I’ll fully review my first impressions for.

11/25/2016 | “REVIEW | UHF (1989 FILM)”

Like TransformersUHF—the only movie music parody artist Weird Al Yankovic ever starred in—is a movie that I used to hold in much higher regard than I do now, especially since it influenced the sense of humor I put into my videos.

But unlike Transformers, it still has a favorable place in my heart.

Since it was directed by Weird Al music video veteran Jay Levy who co-wrote with Yankovic, it’s pretty much what you’d expect a Weird Al movie to be like; Weird Al’s character’s overactive imagination and UHF TV station he’s inherited, U-62, are basically excuses for random parodies and skits—including a full-on music video parody of Dire Strait’s “Money for Nothing”—to overshadow plot development, not that plot development is left in the dust.

It’s incoherent, relentlessly swinging, hit-or-miss stuff, but when it hits, it hits. The raunchier jokes are never too lurid, and the rough slapstick that earned it the PG-13 rating is too fake and cartoony to be too nasty.

What is particularly nasty is how villainized the staff at rival station Channel 8 are whereas the staff at U-62 are nothing but likable. Even then, Kevin McCarthy’s nefarious performance is too caricatured to take seriously.

Part of what makes UHF seem more competent than it is is how solid the performances are all-around; Weird Al himself may be the weakest link a cast filled with quirky characters, my favorite supporter of which being the karate master who’s not afraid to point out when people are being “STUPAAAAAAAAAAAAD!”

As the town citizens ultimately flock to U-62, we’re offered a satire on how trashy television can spawn community-wide followings, which, as Jubilare pointed out when I wrote about this movie before I revamped this blog, unfortunately resonates with the realities of junk like Game of Thrones.

All-in-all, UHF is mediocre in its storytelling, but it’s not trying to be more. It’s not surprising that it flopped at the box office, but it’s also not surprising that it garnered a cult following—me included. It’s simply mindless goofiness to be enjoyed either after a hard day or especially with a group of friends; I know both options from experience.

B

11/26/2016 | “REVIEW | Ico (2001 GAME)”

Ico is a peculiar fairytale—at once subversively cynical and refreshingly innocent. If its spiritual successor Shadow of the Colossus is the arthouse counterpart to Zelda, then Ico is the arthouse counterpart to platformers like Prince of Persia.

Actually, two years after Ico‘s release, the Prince of Persia was rebooted with The Sands of Time through a premise similar to Ico‘s, involving a male protagonist and a princess fighting their ways through a castle/palace filled with monsters. However, Sands of Time‘s morality tale is undermined by gratuitous sensualization whereas Ico is rooted in purity and chivalry.

It would sound like a children’s fable about the young, titular Ico guiding the otherworldly princess Yorda—meaning we’re the ones doing the hand-holding in a video game—if it weren’t for their motivations: to escape being sacrificed in a mysterious ritual for Yorda’s shadow queen mother.

What makes the surface of all of this so enchanting is its humble approach; while Ocarina of Time, gaming’s definitive fairy tale, celebrates humility, its scope is grand and expository whereas Ico isn’t interested in substantial characterization, with subtitles translating a fictitious language, or explaining itself.

The platforming gameplay also involves puzzle-solving, and the sections of bludgeoning shadow creatures would get repetitive—there’s not even a single boss fight until the finale—if Yorda weren’t the one they were after; it’s scary when she’s being dragged into their voids not just because it can lead to our own demise but also because she’s our lone companion who’s easy to care for. Plus, if she’s sounding like nothing but a damsel in distress, she does repay the favor in the end.

If anything undermines the chivalrous, if underlyingly harrowing, beauty of it all, it’s the subtle cynicism in its depiction of adults as mere obstacles to the children, even to the point where we have to kill tween Yorda’s nefarious mother. Otherwise, I can’t help but fall in love with the story’s main focus: the bond between Ico and Yorda.

With gameplay presented through luscious wide shots, we’re spared being convolutedly spoonfed this virtual world and allowed to discover it for ourselves, immersing us with a sense of wonder that video games are ideal for. As I said about Shadow, this was worth the PS3. …Or at least the second worthiest thing for my PS3.

A-

11/27/2016 | “REVIEW | Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983 FILM)”

Evoking the joy of A New Hope and the thematic depth of The Empire Strikes BackReturn of the Jedi should be the highlight of the original Star Wars trilogy.

It’s certainly the one I watched the most as a kid, and with valid reason: kids are its target audience, or at least they’re supposed to be. Whatever’s to blame, Jedi is an early example of an anticipated trilogy capper falling short of expectations. …Which doesn’t mean it’s not a fantastic space opera.

With George Lucas having more creative control than last time even though Richard Marquand is directing, the way that Mr. Lucas tries to appeal to young viewers is unarguably the most controversial aspect of the trilogy: the introduction of a race of primitive warriors who look like teddy bears. While they wreck the film for a lot of fans, they don’t for me. Would their goofiness be more at home in a cartoon? Yup. Are they nonetheless charming in their own ways? Yup.

Then again, this cutesiness is introduced after the off-puttingly bizarre first act has an erotic dancer meet an implicitly cruel fate, puts Princess Leia into an infamous bikini and onto a leash by a literally sluggish gangster, and depicts a humanoid pig goon getting eaten alive (mostly offscreen) by a scary monster. Oh, and the teddy bears try, and fail, to roast the heroes alive when they first meet them. Yeah, more kid friendly.

…Not that children shouldn’t be exposed to the darkness of humanity. Considering my childhood affinity for this one, I’d say the raciness is edgier than the scariness.

And really, that opening act puts a bigger stain on the movie for me than the teddy bears could. When things finally start taking flight, it becomes thoroughly entertaining and involving, especially in the heroes’ joyous camaraderie, the moral conflict between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, and the final act that not only ends the trilogy with a bang but also with a powerful act of sacrifice by someone we wouldn’t expect—the defining moment of the whole saga.

In fact, my friend who thought the whole trilogy was excellent claimed that this was the best one!—a claim that Catholic Skywalker would agree with. As for me, Return of the Jedi may be the most uneven and improvable of the trilogy, but it more than satisfies where it matters most.

A-

11/28/2016 | “REVIEW | The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess (2006 GAME)”

After Majora’s Mask came a charmingly cartoony, innovatively seafaring return to the Zeldaform: The Wind Waker…whose tedious pacing didn’t cut it for me.

Thankfully, Wind Waker doesn’t follow Ocarina of Time‘s direct timeline because time travel, so Wind Waker‘s “followup”, Twilight Princess, offers us a true honorary threequel to Ocarina and Majora’s Mask. And in between that first playthrough of OcarinaTwilight Princess ended up being the first Zelda game I ever beat.

And with a little tweaking, it would have an almost Ocarina-sized place in my heart.

Unlike the foreshadowing visions at the beginnings of Ocarina and Wind WakerTwilight Princess has no prologue letting us know what’s to come. Instead, we’re thrown right into this incarnation of Link’s hard-working life in the isolated Ordon Village. This not only deliberately though wonderfully establishes that this descendant of the Hero of Time deserves to be his ancestor’s legacy but also allows for the constantly twisting plot to surprise us.

This Link later gains the abilities to transform into a wolf through the powers of an alternate dimension known as the Twilight Realm—whose nefarious forces are out to conquer Hyrule—, hook from location to location with a pair of grappling claws, and combine bombs and arrows into aerial explosives. He also gets the most brilliantly realized Zelda sidekick yet: Midna, a citizen of the Twilight Realm with a lust for revenge that counteracts the mute Link’s heroism.

Such a rich balance of character building, emotional drama, and thrilling adventure raises the traditional Zelda formula to such operatic heights that it doesn’t take until subsequent analysis to realize how big a mess Twilight Princess actually is.

Although the reason Link even sets off on his journey is because young fellow villagers get captured by goblin creatures, the reason for the kidnapping itself is never given, nor does it ostensibly fall in line with the motivations of the main villains who, unlike in Ocarina, have to be killed this time. After the credits roll, a feeling of emptiness lingers since the whole story is grounded on a huge contrivance, with all of its substance and coolness suddenly coming off as coverups for its flawed writing.

Plus, while it has some of the most innovative dungeons in the series, its boss battles are the most pitifully easy, which makes no sense for a game that thematically deserves its T rating. It’s like if Shadow of the Colossus kept the scale of its bosses but exchanged their difficulty for full-blown Zelda tropes.

But if you ignore those misgivings and go with where it takes you, it feels like a fantastic honorary threequel to Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask—an even better companion piece to Ocarina than Majora’s Mask is, from its Ocarina callbacks to its higher emphasis on Link’s nobility than any other Zelda game.

B+

11/29/2016 | “REVIEW | Star Trek: First Contact (1996 FILM)”

While Star Trek‘s inspirations are often works of literature—which is what makes the franchise so dang geeky—, First Contact is Star Trek‘s homage to iconic sci-fi action movies, particularly Aliens and The Terminator, from the familiar plot points to the icky—if more PG-13—shock imagery to the underlying humanism.

As such, not only does it end up being the tightest and most entertaining of the TNGmovies, but it’s also the Star Trek movie I have the fondest memories of, especially from the years I memorized more lines from it than any other movie.

Yet, since Generations “stunk”, the writers decided to take First Contact into a more broadly appealing, popcornier direction, which is one reason why the way I can enjoy this movie now is as an action-oriented episode instead of as a standalone experience. The other reason is the way it would introduce a newcomer to Star Trek.

Like Wrath of Khan, this ties back to a plotline from its respective TV series, here the popular “Best of Both Worlds” two-parter where Captain Picard gets enslaved by, and brought back from, the Borg, a race of cyborgs that assimilate members of any species into their literally like-minded collective.

After an opening credits sequence that showcases Jerry Goldsmith’s powerful musical score, we jump straight into some literally nightmarish imagery flashing back to Picard’s experience with being assimilated.

…If this Star Trek is aiming to appeal to a wide audience, body horror like this isn’t the way you introduce somebody to a franchise about wonder and humanity, nor is the Captain Ahab parallel similar to Wrath of Khan‘s that now falls on an unusually angry Captain Picard—even to the point where he downright murders a helpless crew member who’s just beginning to be infected by the Borg’s nanobots—the way you introduce somebody to Captain Picard. …Which doesn’t ruin my affinity for the film.

The plotline where the writers have the most fun involves the time-travelling TNG crew trying to convince the drunken pilot Zephram Cochran, played by a priceless James Cromwell, to carry on with the first warp flight, which according to Trek history brings about the titular First Contact, that the time-travelling Borg aim to prevent.

Of course, the main action involves Picard directly trying to stop the Borg, and even though he’s previously dealt with the Borg in non-lethal ways post-assimilation, the stakes here are too high not to annihilate them, though I’m not sure what to think of Picard treating said killings as relief to those assimilated. On the other hand, the film doesn’t want us to root for his vengeance, and unlike Khan, he’s able to see the error of his whale hunt before it could destroy him.

Not to mention, one set piece creatively uses the holodeck with a sly callback to the series, and a tense set piece on the Enterprise‘s outer hull is a classic in of itself. One scene even beautifully takes the spotlight of Trekian wonder away from the awe of alien discoveries and puts it on our own planet.

While this isn’t the ideal Star Trek movie, its popcorny approach proved to be a financial and critical success, and its subsequent influence on the franchise helped destroy the franchise until J.J. Abrams brought it back with, well, more popcorn.

And if Star Trek should be full-blown popcorn, this is the way to do it, not solely through its own innovation but as an homage to iconic science-fiction movies, just as the franchise is often an homage to iconic literature. However, if its homage to iconic science-fiction is another Star Trek movie… *cough*StarTrekIntoDarkness*cough*

Of the entries scored by Jerry Goldsmith, who incidentally scored the original AlienFirst Contact is the only one that lives up to its own musical score.

B

11/29/2016 | “BLOG | How I grade”

It took me a long time to figure out a satisfying rating system for my reviews. Ultimately, I decided the most fun I’d have is with straight-up letter grades.

However, I keep in mind Steven Greydanus’s claim that a critic’s reasons for a grade are more crucial than the grade itself, and, as you know, I like to keep my review portions short because I’m just a guy doing this for fun whereas Steven Greydanus is a professional critic with a four-part rating system. Nonetheless, I’ll explain the reasoning behind my own grading system:

My grades are based less on objectivity and more on subjectivity—how highly I appreciate the subject of review. So, if a subject of review is as morally reprehensible as it is objectively masterful, I wouldn’t base its grade on its masterful craft. On the other hand, I’d give an objectively mediocre subject a higher rating than it deserves if it has a particular appeal. A+’s are usually saved for subjects that mean so much to me that their imperfections can’t tarnish their experiences.

11/30/2016 | “REVIEW | Metal Gear Solid (1998 GAME)”

The Metal Gear Solid series as a whole may be my second biggest gaming disappointment (as for the first…)—a series that’s so dang entertaining, yet so dang perverse. Not only is it the most bonkers spy fiction you’d ever experience, but it’s some of the most bonkers fiction you’d ever experience period.

The saga technically begins with 1987’s Metal Gear and 1990’s Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake, the Solid Snake of which is Metal Gear Solid‘s protagonist.

What’s notable about the Metal Gear Solid series is that its 1998 initiator is responsible for making video games a medium we can play and watch, with its fully voiced cutscenes presented through in-game graphics and lasting minutes at a time for the sake of character and plot development. And that’s precisely what makes said initator transcend the technical limitations of the PS1.

Its graphics switch from blocky, pixelated character models to traditionally animated portraits as Snake contacts his allies via comlink, which happens a lot as a conspiracy unravels outside his mission, which in series tradition has him break into a facility to destroy a titular Metal Gear mech that’s a blatant symbol for nuclear war.

From there, it’s spy fiction for grownups in touch with their inner twelve-year-olds, featuring fights with a cyborg ninja, a guy in a tank who later obtains a minigun, a telekinetic telepath, and even Snake’s own evil clone! These boss battles not only pose substantial challenges that are pumped up by their memorably urgent musical score but are made even more resonant by how fleshed out their characters are.

But the game doesn’t take the problems of cloning lightly, not even the revelation that several other cloned fetuses were aborted to create Solid and his ‘brother’, Liquid Snake; as both were bred for war, the game also explores the question of whether a human clone can choose to defy the purpose for which it was bred.

And while the gameplay involves violence—though mostly encourages us to use stealth outside of boss battles, the story is critical of Snake’s violent and cynical nature. We’re even meant to sympathize more with the supporting Meryl, a rookie who’s eager to be a soldier until she learns the hard way about the pain war brings. Not to mention, she ultimately inspires Snake to live outside of himself.

Unfortunately, Snake’s “heroic” euthanizing of an adversary in a skippable cutscene is only one incident—if the most problematic incident—that muddles the story’s view on life and death. Another problem is its occasional cheesecake shots, even though they’re pretty tame by future series standards, especially considering the primitive graphics (whose environments nonetheless sport impressive attention to detail).

By now, the game is probably sounding pretty grim. However, the edges of its gritty commentaries are relieved by how the characters know that they’re in a video game, such as when an important code turns out to be “on the back of the CD case!” Plus, ‘Solid Snake’ and ‘Liquid Snake’ are only the beginning of the ridiculous codenames.

Considering how far video games have come since, Metal Gear Solid is still pretty good (yes, MGS fans, I did that on purpose). For its meta silliness, challenging gameplay, and sophisticated storytelling, I’d even call it the best of its series. But while its ethical problems don’t completely tarnish my investment in the somewhat redemptive story, they do prevent me from wholeheartedly recommending it.

B-

12/01/2016 | “REVIEW | The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001 FILM)”

Since the J.R.R. Tolkien Lord of the Rings novels were three of the many inspirations for Star Wars, it was only fair for Peter Jackson’s film adaptations to be everything Star Wars‘s influence built up to. And if you ask me, they still are.

The unfortunate side is that I’m too biased by the movies to be able to fully appreciate Tolkien’s novels, though I’ve at least read through The Fellowship of the Ring, the film adaptation of which happens to be celebrating its 15th anniversary. Not only that, but for me, Fellowship‘s film is to movies what Ocarina of Time is to video games. In fact, it resonates with me more deeply than that, even though I’ve known Ocarina longer.

As Tolkien intended and as Peter Jackson honors, the entire epic is a metaphor for Christianity, with a hobbit, Frodo Baggins, putting the weight of a corruptive ring, which can only be destroyed by the hellish volcano from which it was formed and whose corruptive power is that of an evil spirit—Sauron, on his shoulders just as Christ put the weight of sin on his shoulders.

But Lord of the Rings has a wide fanbase not only because the symbolism is so subtle that it could fall under the radar but also because the story resonates with the human experience. We’re all tempted by things that could ruin us. We all have a Hobbiton that we must leave in order to mature. We all need a friend like Samwise Gamgee—the story’s St. Peter, St. John, and Simon of Cyrene all rolled into one.

By now, the movies are more ingrained into pop culture than their source material is, which is obviously how I experience the story. As such, I can’t properly compare the movies to their source material, but I can look at them for what they are.

What really connects me with Frodo in Fellowship is when he tells his uncle Bilbo, “I spent all my childhood pretending I was off somewhere else—off with you on one of your adventures!” Indeed, I lived my own childhood in a fantasy, playing Zelda and watching Star Wars and, well, Lord of the Rings.

While the latter two entries, The Two Towers and The Return of the King, place their biggest focuses on the grittier lands of Middle-Earth—whose whole world is home also to humans, dwarves, elves, and wizards—this one takes us into Middle-Earth’s most diverse locations, from the joyous village of Hobbiton to the dark Mines of Moria to the glowing forest of Lothlorien to the factorial stronghold of Isengard.

As with Ocarina of Time, I recognize that Fellowship is not perfect, even if its flaws are lesser than Ocarina‘s; the most notable caveat is how the filmmakers, as with the sequels, use the grotesque humanoid bad guys as the victims of nasty onscreen deaths that wouldn’t fly in a PG-13 rating if they were actually human. Not to mention, one brief set piece feels out of place with its over-the-topness.

Even so, in terms of action and spectacle, Fellowship is the most restraint of the trilogy. Story-wise, it’s the most downright magical. And since it’s the beginning of a three-part story, it’s free of a proper resolution, and I remember the disappointment of first seeing this anticlimax. Now, the ending is the most affecting part.

The climactic moments don’t resolve a central conflict but rather push the characters into new directions, and these moments feature two unforgettable lines, one of which is a line called back from earlier in the film, and the other of which is tied to a powerful act of loyalty; Howard Shore’s luminous musical score tops off this most beautifully hopeful cliffhanger as it takes center stage during the transition to credits.

Of course, Fellowship is a rich film because of its rich source material, though you’d need a lot of patience for said source material. Heck, if a three-hour runtime scares you—and that’s not even the extended version, you’d need a lot of patience for the movie! But it’s a three-hour experience I wouldn’t trade even for Ocarina of Time.

A+

02/17/2017 | “What the heck do I see in video games”

After I began writing movie reviews back in 2014 (the beginning in question was, of course, on a site that no longer exists), I decided to add video games to my critical roster. You know what that meant? Catching up on a lot of games I missed throughout the years.

I’ve been playing video games since I was a kid, though the most notable games I played during my adolescent years were The Force Unleashed and Halo: Reach. I hardly played any games at all during my young adult years until late 2015 where I decided to play through and review a bunch of Zelda games. I then moved onto the Half-Life series, and I was so blown away by Half-Life 2 that it didn’t take until the last five paragraphs of Steven Greydanus’s article on The Revenant for me to realize the fundamentally perverse idea behind shooting games: having us revel in constant, merciless violence.

Since then, I’ve become a lot more apprehensive about video games, or rather, video games that are built solely around violence. Before I read that article, however, I’d already bought a PS3 to critique its most famous titles. Unfortunately, some of said titles make me wish I never bought a PS3 at all.

The Uncharted series was fun, if vulgar, during my first playthrough of it; the second playthrough, however, made me realize just how mean spirited that series is. I enjoyed the Metal Gear Solid series, yet its at times pro-death philosophies and consistently misogynistic depictions of women make me apprehensive to revisit it. And then there was The Last of Us, a game I despise more than any other game I’ve played, and not just because of its relentless brutality that broke my disgust tolerance near the end and forced me to watch the rest of the game on Youtube.

The Last of Us was so souring, in fact, that I’ll now only buy video games for as cheap as possible. Even more horrifying than its own nihilistic story is how widely embraced the game is by critics and gamers alike. It’s one of the most highly praised video games of all time; so isn’t UnchartedHalf-Life, and Metal Gear Solid.

It’s quite discouraging that such perverse titles get praised to the heavens. I don’t want to spend more time on this nastiness; I want to spent time on games that I’ll like, but I can’t even trust if the titles I think I’ll like won’t pull the rug out from under me at some point, such as the anti-religious undertones in Deus Ex, a game that would be a lot grimmer if it weren’t so corny. Why do I even stick with the medium of video games if I find so much disappointment in it?

…Because I still see its potential—because titles like The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Shadow of the Colossus exist, and I want to find more games in their league.

I love Ocarina of Time, thankfully the most highly reviewed video game ever made, not just because it’s incredibly nostalgic for me; it sports a childlike innocence—for the most part—that I haven’t seen in any other adventure game. Shadow of the Colossus is basically a deconstruction of the Zelda formula, yet it’s also a deconstruction of video game violence in general, having us go on a violent crusade that we have to pay a hard price for in the end. Although I like Ocarina more, Shadow of the Colossus may be objectively the greatest video game I’ve played so far period.

I’ve also had the pleasure of playing Beyond Eyes, an indie game I found on Steam that tells a touching, deliberate, nonviolent story, as it’s in the ‘walking simulator’ genre, that puts us into the shoes of a blind child through a strikingly artistic interpretation of such an experience. The only complaint I have about Beyond Eyes is that it’s very short; otherwise, all the potential it showed was good.

I even enjoyed the good potential in The Last of UsMetal Gear Solid, and Half-Life 2The Last of Us had me empathizing with video game characters like no other game had; such empathy I even experienced in Half-Life 2 (I even rationalized Half-Life 2‘s ostensibly pro-life themes as making the game above other brutal shooters until I realized that the way the game values innocent people is a way to make us want to shoot the bad guys more). Metal Gear Solid had brilliantly ludicrous humor and a soundtrack that I still listen to.

Had these games not been able to engage me in some way, I wouldn’t be disappointed in them as much as I am; I don’t know if a redemptive ending could have redeemed The Last of Us‘s reliance on horrific incident, but I wouldn’t be as angry about the ending had the game not been toying with a powerful humanism amid the nihilism it ultimately succumbs to.

Of course, the other question of video games other than their morals is whether or not they’re a waste of time. I always aim to limit my video game consumption per day, but I want to this spend time in agreeable virtual worlds. Of course, there are nasty virtual worlds that the games themselves don’t want us to accept for what they are, yet said games’ missions for us to change said worlds could ask us to revel in bloodshed.

All-in-all, I appreciate the potential of video games more than what they’re commonly used for: violence porn, softcore porn, normalization of theft, etc… Ocarina of Time is perhaps the one video game so far that I love as much as my favorite movies; while it’s not free from moral and spiritual flaws, the world it puts us in is generally that of beauty, inspiration, and truth. It’s far easier to find a movie of such aesthetics than it is to find a video game of such aesthetics. But video games can immerse us in ways that no other artistic medium can; they just haven’t met the potential to immerse us in beauty, inspiration, and truth as commonly as movies have.

…Of course, I’m a console generation behind, and my laptop can’t even play last-gen games at their highest graphical settings, so perhaps this current generation is offering more of what video games should offer and I’m not realizing it.

03/08/2017 | “Steven Spielberg’s signature monster movies”

Steven Spielberg’s Jaws—the first summer blockbuster, released in 1975—and Jurassic Park—the 1993 blockbuster that made CGI mainstream—are two of the many revolutionary films that are just as important to the medium as they are to many film lovers.

I actually didn’t see the whole of Jaws until late 2014 where I’d already been writing reviews for a few months. Still, Jaws managed to blow me away. What struck me was the human element, small moments like Chief Brody’s young son mimicking his mannerisms at the dinner table that give the film such a human dimension amid its suspense and scares.

Watching it a couple years on, a lot of it is actually really corny, particularly the caricatures that fill the community of Amity Island. And yet, that’s partly what makes it so dang entertaining forty years on. Sure, the film’s subject matter was a shock to audiences back then; now, it could just confirm to someone why they’re afraid to go in the ocean like it did for me. It’s like the film is saying, “Yeah, I want to scare the crap out of you; just don’t take me too seriously.”

Since I first saw Jaws, I’ve paid more attention to the human element in every movie.

The way Jurassic Park has affected me, however, is a bit sillier.

I’ve known Jurassic Park since I was a kid where I thought it was the film that invented CGI, or computer generated imagery. I didn’t learn until I was older that it merely revolutionized CGI after it was used very subtly and sparingly in previous decades and that its first prominent use was in 1991’s Terminator 2: Judgement Day.

Still, given my early impression of Jurassic Park, watching post-1977 (Star Wars)/pre-1993 action movies now always give me a sense that I’m, well, watching an action movie that was made post-1977/pre-1993, even though I now prefer practical effects over CGI. Heck, throughout the two-hour Jurassic Park, the dinosaurs are onscreen for fifteen minutes, and for nine of those minutes they’re actually animatronics.

As for the actual movie, none of its characters are as developed or interesting as Jaws‘s Chief Brody, Matt Hooper, and Sam Quint, yet Spielberg still manages to make them feel real enough for us to care for. The suspense is directed as masterfully as it is in Jaws, and the film introduces a line that rings quite relevant, “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.”

Jaws is still the better film and would have a higher place on my favorite movies list due to the way it affected how I view movies. Jurassic Park is never a bad choice though, and I hold it along with Jaws as the gold standard for Hollywood monster movies.

03/14/2017 | “Video games I like – vol. 1”

Portal 2 (2011)

The Portal games are so short that you really can’t play Portal 2 without playing the first one, which was a sleeper hit run by a small development team. Portal 2, however, is a full-blown blockbuster, expanding on the original’s puzzle-based gameplay as well as the lore.

On the other hand, none of the characters are role models, and I’m not sure what to think of the antagonistic A.I.’s godlike role in the science facility in which it resides, though certain plot developments prevent this conceit from coming off as anti-theistic. Besides, it’s all wrapped up in a dark, tongue-in-cheek wit that satirizes nature-twisting experimentation, especially when the ever-priceless J.K. Simmons is introduced. Oh, and the ultimate boss takedown is one of the most unexpectedly epic in gaming history. As sheer entertainment, both hilarious and brain-teasing, Portal 2 takes the cake (pun intended).

Shadow of the Colossus (2005)

Four years prior to Shadow‘s release, Shadow‘s developers shook the game industry by introducing an emotionally-driven minimalism with Ico. While Ico is a mechanically barebones platformer, Shadow is a deconstruction of the action/adventure genre. We as the young Wander are given a whole landscape to traverse with practically no side quests; the only levels are the sixteen colossi we’re sent to destroy as part of a deal with a dark entity in order to have our sacrificed lover resurrected.

It’s a complex dilemma. Should Wander have brought justice to those who committed injustice or taken the chance to reverse the injustice? Since he chooses the latter, the tale is ultimately about the consequences of doing the wrong thing even for love’s sake. For the ways it haunts us in both unsettling and invigorating ways, Shadow of the Colossus is plain transcendent.

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998)

Until Breath of the Wild‘s release, Ocarina of Time had no equal when it came to overall critical success. Ocarina introduced an unprecedented combination of storytelling and exploration at release, forever changing the game industry just as the NES original did.

This game makes me feel like a kid again more than anything else can, and not just because of nostalgia but also because of the innocent, childlike approach to its storytelling…for the most part. Its polytheistic, partly monistic mythology may not agree with Christianity, but the hero we play as does represent the choice to trustfully follow God whereas the villain represents the Nietzschean desire to become God.

While characterization is largely barebones, if with some very funny moments, the moments the game sears into our memories are moments like us solving head-scratching puzzles, defeating childhood-scarring monsters, discovering gold skulltulas, helping out random villagers, unlocking the Door of Time, facing Ganondorf in his castle… It makes us feel like we’re on an epic adventure in the most beautifully simplistic ways.

03/18/2017 | “Virtual Ventures #1”

I may not have all the answers as to what I want to be as an online personality, but one thing’s for sure: writing about video games makes playing video games more rewarding for me. For that, I’ll treat video game reflections like a journal, writing about them as I get to them, even if that means a post for each playthrough of the same game.

For my first entry, I’ll reflect on my third playthrough of Shadow of the Colossus.

The ironic part is that after my first playthrough around a year ago, while I certainly appreciated this game, I didn’t think I’d ever want to play it again. Now here I am, having just finished it on hard mode where the game was already hard enough; I mean, you don’t want to hear the sounds that come out of my mouth at every playthrough.

What surprised me, however, was how little the difficulty was ramped up. Sure, some colossi had extra weak points, and some seemed to attack more fiercely, but some didn’t seem to be any different at all. There was one colossus, however, that had me half-jokingly saying as I saw its corroding body during an end-credits montage, “You better rot.”

I said in my now-defunct review on Catholic Wannabe Critic: “…I do have a problem with how the symbolic devil that Wander makes a deal with has powers too godlike…” This time around, my biggest problem with the story is that the unjust sacrifice that sets off the protagonistic Wander’s journey isn’t paid for in the end, or at least not in a way that would dissuade the criminals, who seem to be religious authorities, from committing this injustice again.

I can’t say this makes the story entirely anti-religious as these authorities are proven quite right to warn people not to set foot in the forbidden land Wander sets off to. Not to mention, it’s not clear whether or not such a sacrifice they’ve committed is a usual occurrence. What the story is clear about is that Wander is wrong in the way he combats this crime.

The ultimate message is that there are consequences for doing the wrong things even for the right reasons, and that there’s always a second chance. Even then, I have mixed feelings about how Wander is given this second chance.

The game may be pretty self-important, so much so that my siblings couldn’t help but make fun of it, but its self-importance works due to how visual its storytelling is. It’s fun to play, and its boss battles are awesome in every sense of the word, but there’s a gravity to its violence. Heck, the musical score, whether it’s somber or exciting, gives a mythic gravity to the whole thing. It feels reductive to call Shadow of the Colossus a game, yet as a fable, it wouldn’t work in any other medium without getting repetitive.

There’s a reason why many claim it to be one of gaming’s masterpieces, and it’s so far the biggest reason why I don’t regret buying a PS3 outside of the Blu-ray function.

03/19/2017 | “Virtual Ventures #2”

Knights of the Old Columbus—uh, Republic, or KOTOR, was the third-to-last game I played before my last playthrough of Shadow of the Colossus, and since I don’t currently have anything to say about the in-between Portal games outside of what I said on that “FAVORITE VIDEO GAMES” list, I’d like to write about KOTOR, mostly by recycling thoughts from that deleted KOTOR post I mentioned in another deleted post, before my next playthrough of it, whenever that would be.

This first of the Knights of the Old Republic duology is currently the most highly reviewed Star Wars game ever made. When I was a kid, it was one of the many RPGs my siblings got into but I just couldn’t. Having now played through it twice in my adult years because I asked Catholic Skywalker to review it for Gaming with Faith, I can safely say it’s more my type of RPG than most.

And somehow, even though I completed as many sidequests as I could this time, I ended up finishing it a few hours shorter than my first playthrough…

In the game’s own 4,000-years-before-the-Prequels place in Star Wars history that may or may not still be canon, the Jedi are the same guardians of peace in the galaxy we know them as, but the Sith are a whole freaking empire, which means more than two Siths worth of red lightsabers! It’s up to us to side either with the Sith or the Republic in the end.

Even when The Force Unleashed and Jedi Academy give us singular choices between the Light and the Dark, they’re still straight-up action games built around us revelling in nonstop slaughter. KOTOR, however, gives us a world—nay, star system—to interact with in various ways and protagonists we can customize not only in appearance and abilities but also in moral character, where the choice between the Light and the Dark is an ongoing process.

Our alignment is represented by a Light Side/Dark Side meter. It starts out in the middle grey as we begin each game. Mercy and self-giving earn us Light Side Points; murder and vengeance earn us Dark Side points. Unfortunately, this system can be lax in some ways, and as a Catholic Light Side guy, that’s a bit disappointing.

While there are plenty of confrontations where we have no choice but to fight and kill in self defense, and while we are given occasional chances to either execute or spare enemies, the times where we have to battle our ways through entire hostile villages—which thankfully don’t include children—without being allowed to spare anyone, even though they attack us first, feel less justified. On the other hand, the game leaves it up to us how to feel about such battles, whether to embrace them or feel bad that we have to go through with them.

Still, there are other times where we have to deceive opponents as means towards ends, and we can also get away with pillaging people’s belongings without either earning Dark Side points or getting scolded at, which is a common mechanic in video games (see also: “What the heck do I see in video games?”).

But what really bothers me about this first KOTOR’s Light Side storyline is how it treats its own running theme of redemption from the Dark. While a couple of these redemptions are honest, the biggest of them is committed through a violation of the subject’s free will on the Jedi Council’s part (though not our part), yet the story wants us to believe it was the right thing to do, and it casts a huge shadow over the game.

Calling it the best Star Wars game that does exist doesn’t deem it the best Star Warsgame that could exist. Nonetheless, in terms of fundamental game design, KOTOR is just what I want in a video game.

What really sells it for me is the character interactions, whether it’s regarding a sidequest character or one of our party members, most of whom we obtain on the first couple of planets. We can learn about their varied pasts; former jedi padawan Jolee Bindo especially fascinates as he turns out to have good reasons to cross-examine the Jedi Order more than anyone, and he’s not even as important as Republic pilot Carth or young jedi Bastila. Not to mention, we can customize lightsabers, my lifelong favorite fictional weapons!

Despite the game’s philosophical problems, there’s still enough good in it for me to enjoy it as escapism. It may get that Star Wars has a spiritual component more than it gets the actual good-vs-evil spirit of classic Star Wars, but it’s still a pretty good game in its own right, and it’s worth multiple playthroughs. Or at least these two playthroughs.

03/23/2017 | “The definitive cinematic mythologies”

As I try to thoughtfully reflect on Star Wars and Lord of the Rings like I did with Jaws and Jurassic Park, I find that, while Jaws and Jurassic Park are quite formative to how I view cinema, Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, especially Lord of the Rings, are the definitive reasons why I love cinema, and it’s actually easier to try and write about them objectively like I did on Catholic Wannabe Critic than it is to write about them personally.

I mean, I’m so biased by the Lord of the Rings movies that I can’t fully appreciate the masterwork by J.R.R. Tolkien on which they’re based. As for Star Wars…well, Star Wars—and by Star Wars, I mean the Original Trilogy—has been with me for so long that I don’t even remember my first experience with it. It was always just there.

Not only are both Star Wars and Lord of the Rings cinematic landmarks, with the former setting the standard for popcorn movies and the latter setting the standard for modern Hollywood epics, but none of their prequels, sequels, or spinoffs have recaptured their magic. Both trilogies are followed up with disastrous prequel trilogies, though I have a softer spot for the latter two Star Wars Prequels than I do for any of the Hobbit movies, and I genuinely haven’t been impressed with Disney’s Star Wars thus far, partly because The Force Awakens makes every heroic victory in the Original Trilogy meaningless.

While I think Lord of the Rings is superior to Star Wars on an objective level, what hits me about it more personally is not only its more spiritually resonant themes but also a single line Frodo says to his uncle Bilbo: “I spent all my childhood pretending I was somewhere else, off with you on one of your adventures.” That’s how I spent my own childhood, with the likes of Frodo Baggins, Luke Skywalker, and Link.

Star Wars may be more fun than deeply impactful, but even as its legacy is stained by the Prequels, the Special Editions, misguided video games, and its own turning into a corporate cinematic product (all of the first two trilogies except for A New Hope were essentially big-budget independent films, which gives me an appreciation for the Prequels’ singular creative vision, no matter how flawed it is), the Originals remain a joy to watch.

03/25/2017 | “‘Spy Game’ (2015) Short Story”

This is a short story I wrote for a creative writing class; I rediscovered it and decided to share it, with a number of tweaks, some of which change the tone a bit.

The assignment was to choose from a list of first sentences from novels and build my own story from there; the sentence I chose was from John Barth’s The End of the Road (which I haven’t read), and the story I developed around it is centered on what I didn’t realize at the time is basically an MMO version of Metal Gear Solid V, though the name “Euphonia” had to have been suggested by the teacher because I have no idea how I would have come up with that on my own. Before I say too much more:


“In a sense, I am ‘Jacob-Horner’,” Blake Everton said into a microphone to a fellow player of Spy Rogues Online, the most anticipated video game of the year.

It was like many MMORPGs (massive multiplayer online role playing games), but instead of a fantasy world filled with monsters and elves, this was a modern-day world of espionage where several-hundred people had named their characters after Solid Snake from the Metal Gear Solid stealth game series. But not Blake Everton. He named himself ‘Jacob-Horner’, a tall, blue-haired infiltrator.

“Why ‘Jacob-Horner’?” asked a player who went by the username of ‘Solid-Snake541’—not to be confused with ‘SolidSnake-541’.

“It hadn’t been taken,” explained Blake.

“Oh…I thought it was going to mean something more significant. Like the composer for The Wrath of Khan’s soundtrack.”

“That was James Horner.”

“In the Hebrew dialect, they’re the same thing.”

As Blake began ruminating about how he’d realized that he’d stolen the name of a great and deceased composer, his curious mother, Euphonia, called from the living room, “Blake, who are you talking to?”

“‘Solid-Dash-Snake541’, not to be confused with ‘SoildSnake-Dash-541’,” replied Blake.

“I know what my name is,” replied Solid-Snake541, thinking that Blake was talking to him.

“That spying game again?!” cried Blake’s mom, who’d speak in the calmest voice until she’d unleash her inner banshee on occasions like this. “Can’t you take a break and do your homework?!”

After her son explained why he must respectfully change his username, she asked what he’d then change his name to. Blake retorted, “Um…‘Ethan-Hunt-007’—! Hey, that name’s not taken.”

“Okay, ‘Ethan-Hunt-007’. You changed your username. Now can you be Blake Everton for a few hours?” And his mom left the conversation at that.

During those next few hours, however, Blake Everton, or ‘Ethan-Hunt-007’, had chowed down countless Doritos and slugged down a couple of two-liter bottles of Mountain Dew. He and Solid-Snake541 also spread their mischief and ticked off several Chinese players.

With at least two countries after them, they were cornered, and they had no choice but to split up and run to their secret bases. However, one of the pursuers had a speed boosting ability. As the pursuer was just about to reach Blake, it got shot dead by an unknown player. Down a nearby hill walked username ‘Crank-Cavern’ who wielded a sniper rifle. Blake thanked this player profusely; Crank replied with “Ur welcome” in the chatbox. As the players were about to depart ways, Blake asked Crank if he could watch his back; Crank agreed.

As they chatted and got to know each other, Blake allowed Crank to enter his secret hideout—a privilege that required a special in-game invitation. To Blake’s shock, Crank planted C-4 in the base and blew it up, leaving Blake having to start over from scratch and screaming in his room.

“Blake, what are you screaming about?!” cried Blake’s mom.

Blake screamed back, “I earned some blockhead’s trust, and he stabbed me in the back!”

“That’s why you shouldn’t trust somebody by the name of ‘Crank-Cavern’! Now can you finish your homework for tomorrow?”

Blake sighed, “…Okay mom…Wait, mom?!”

She then logged out of her own account of Spy Rogues Online.

04/01/2017 | “Video games I like – vol. 2”

Mirror’s Edge (2008)

It’s the type of first-person nonstop action game I’d normally be apprehensive about, but unlike the average shoot-em-up, Mirror’s Edge wants us to thrill less in gunning down bad guys and more in parkour, parkour! Managing to outmaneuver the guys who are shooting at us feels more rewarding than stopping to either knock them unconscious or take their guns, not that the game doesn’t back us into corners. While its story, which takes place in a dystopia where everybody’s complacent and comfortable except for the parkour-trained Runners who aim for greatness, is so convoluted that it took me three playthroughs to understand it, the first-person perspective makes the stylized action set pieces exhilaratingly immersive.

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2003) 

This is the most conflicting entry on this list. On one hand, Sands of Time is a refreshing morality tale about the consequences of pride, featuring parkour platforming, puzzle-solving, a sword-based combat system pumped up by a Middle-Eastern/rock-and-roll soundtrack, brilliantly written chemistry between its leads… On the other hand, it features consistently unnecessarily skimpy female attire typical of video games. It’s not as tasteless as its sequels, which is why I haven’t played them sans a censored Wii version of The Two Thrones, but without that element, the game would be a male fantasy that actually subverts some wish-fulfillment elements of male fantasies. The indignities unfortunately undermine the subversiveness, though they don’t entirely ruin it for me. If they did, then Sands of Time would be on a “Memorable video games I won’t play again” list.

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (2003)

Although the best Star Wars game falls maddeningly short of being the ideal Star Warsgame, which I wrote about previously here, it’s still a pretty good game. Both the characters and the worlds we visit are brilliantly realized. The pause-and-select combat system is easier on my patience than a turn-based combat system ala old-school RPGs. Not to mention, what it gets right about the spirit of Star Wars delights my inner child.

Of course, beyond the Original Trilogy, it would be hard to replicate that simple good-versus-evil spirit without straight-up copying the Originals, which I wrote about here, especially since there are hints at the Jedis’ flawed philosophy there. But not only are those flaws present in KOTOR, but they’re naively celebrated here whereas the Originals disprove them. Still, as far as RPG gameplay goes, it’s more suited for me than any other.

The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword (2011)

Of course I like more than one Zelda game. While Skyward Sword may not be the most mythic 3D Zelda game (Ocarina still has that place as far as I know), and it’s so far the most streamlined 3D Zelda game (perhaps obnoxiously so), it’s nonetheless charming in its own way.

While Ocarina explains Hyrule’s and Ganon’s origins, Skyward Sword goes even further back, telling the origins of the Master Sword and Zelda herself. Although it borrows many mechanics from previous games, it implements them in fresh ways. The colorful art style feels like a playable painting. For once, Link and Zelda are in an adorable will they/won’t they relationship, and the introduction of Groose, a bully to Link head-over-heels for Zelda, makes for the most involving character dynamics in the post-SNES era.

It does, however, feature more explicitly religious themes than any other Zelda game, and the biggest problem with that is that, as implied only in relation to later entries, this religion is no longer necessary to practice in Hyrule by the time Ocarina roles around. While it would probably be too much for Zelda newcomers, its characters and overall design, including my two favorite boss battles in the franchise, make it an absolute treat for me.

Ico (2001)

Team Ico makes games that are much more involving for the players than they are for the friends watching. As I said in the previous volume, their debut title’s, Ico‘s, artsy minimalism that’s carried over to Shadow of the Colossus was innovative for its time, and it’s ironically what made Ico stand out in a year that saw the release of blockbuster titles like Halo: Combat Evolved and Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty.

By stripping the platformer and combat mechanics down to a minimum—no health bar, only one carriable weapon at a time…—, the story emphasizes the emotional bond between the titular Ico and Yorda, the otherworldly princess Ico’s guiding through a castle to prevent both of them from being sacrificed in a mysterious ritual, which means we’re the ones doing the hand-holding in a video game, and quite literally. Putting sacrifice-avoiding children at the center of the story, alas, opens up a major thematic caveat: the villainization of adult authority, even parental, though all under fantastical circumstances, especially the latter.

Despite its unsettling subject matter and more questionable messages, the bond between Ico and Yorda is so endearingly innocent and chivalrous that I can’t help but fall in love with it. Plus, the way the in-game camera, which we have partial control over even in cutscenes, presents the action in wide shots evokes a sense of wonder that video games are ideal for.

04/04/2017 | “My response to Catholic Skywalker’s response to me”

Fellow blogger Catholic Skywalker and I have been following each other for quite some time. As his name would suggest, he loves Star Wars. In fact, he defends Star Wars more than anyone I’ve seen. He could make you look at the Prequels in a new light. He even contributed to Gaming with Faith (my contributions to which I’ve taken down due to my developed apprehensions about video games), and he’s a more qualified critic than I am, having seen over 2,100 movies over his lifetime, and viewing a wider scope of movies in theaters than I do.

Our first big response to each other was a couple years ago where I, through a blog and post that no longer exists, criticized A New Hope for being “bland, silly, rainy day-type entertainment”, and Catholic Skywalker went full-on Aquinas on it. Given how little I was looking at the big picture, I deserved that one.

Now, with “The Generational Choice: A Response to Catholic Wannabe Critic on The Force Awakens“, he’s responded to my latest critique of Star Wars, “Where Disney’s Star WarsWent Wrong”. He is much more appreciative of this critique than he was of the previous critique, and so am I. And once again, he’s proven how he’s both a better critic and a better Catholic than I am, particularly because of his understanding of humanity.

The main point of his response is that even though Return of the Jedi may have brought an end to the Sith, it was the next generation’s choice to continue with that peace, and it failed. As he states, “Human beings have the power to reign down utter destruction on ourselves. But even the best of us can only offer hope with no guarantees. All we can ever leave the next generation is a chance. Even Jesus’ saving work is ultimately a free invitation. The choice is still up to us.”

Even with that, while I can excuse the First Order, I still find it a stretch to say that it was humanity’s choice to keep the balance to the Force that Anakin Skywalker was prophesied to bring. If merely defeating the Dark Side balances out the Force, then the Force could theoretically be balanced out multiple times in history; why was it so important that a Chosen One would balance out the Force if balancing the Force can be replicated? Perhaps it’s our choice to follow the path to salvation, but our prophesied redemption through Christ was never undone and repeated.

The whole “Chosen One permanently defeating the Sith” prophesy doesn’t line up with how humanity actually works, but the Dark Side returning doesn’t line up with how the whole previous Saga actually works. Saying that a spiritual evil can be permanently killed is a lie, but having that evil return contradicts what was prophesied. Perhaps the Chosen One angle doesn’t enhance Return of the Jedi‘s climax at all but rather problematizes it.

That’s why the Original Trilogy by itself stands the test of time. Without the Prequels, there’d be no promise that the Dark Side would be permanently defeated, and without the Sequels, there’d be no way for the Saga to contradict itself. Star Wars would not be about the fulfillment of a prophecy but rather about a son who saves his father for its own sake, which is still why Luke did it as he never knew that his father was a fallen messiah.

Then again, they could still pull that “Rey is the real Chosen One” twist I theorized…

04/05/2017 | “The young socially anxious filmmaker’s dilemma”

So I recently watched Martin Scorsese’s Silence, and it made me realize that I’m more fit to be a filmmaker than a film critic because a movie as complex as Silence pushes me beyond my analytical limits. In other words, it leaves me silent. (However, this horribly misleading DVD cover that oddly persuaded me to watch this film whose much-debated ending made me resistant to watching it is still making me laugh my butt off.)

So, why do I spend more time critiquing Star Wars movies than I do making my own movies? Well, because serious artists use their artforms to say something about reality.

Frankly, I don’t know what to say about reality.

Growing up home schooled, I didn’t have sufficient chances to get social life experience in my childhood years. High school was a bit more interactive as I joined youth group and took a digital media class for a year at the local high school, but even then, I was using that class to make goofy comedy videos that, although the school posted them online, I’m not comfortable sharing here for personal reasons.

My own social anxiety permeated those years and beyond. While schooling at a community college for a couple of years guarded me from temptations of university life, and while I got good grades, there was only one student I came close to making friends with, and her own anxiety issues prevented her from cultivating a long-distance friendship after our class ended whereas I’m more comfortable with long-distance than short-distance; it’s as big an appeal of making friends on statewide retreats as shared faith.

Generally, anxiety takes away my interest in getting to know people and knowing how the real world works. Anxiety even sometimes makes me question whether or not I want to go to film school. The movies I currently make are goofy comedy videos because they don’t have to be realistic, and perhaps the lack of realism was a subconscious appeal in making those Transformers stop-motion cartoons. Heck, escapism is one of the biggest appeals of blogging, and as I limit gaming per day, I don’t know what else to do as a hobby.

Don’t get me wrong, I want movie characters to be believable. Heck, I want to be able to say something meaningful through film. If I make it to the film industry, I don’t want to make movies that are Catholic in a religious sense; I want to make movies that are catholic in a universal sense. By now, I’d probably be that type of filmmaker on my own if I was given a common path for someone my age.

It’s not always my fault that I’m stuck here. Whenever I’m put into a real-world situation that could help me grow, it pulls the rug out from under me, adding to my anxiety.

At the very least, I’m going to counselling, both individual and group. It’s one of the only hopes I have in gaining life experience during this indefinite school-less period between the community college and film school that not only I could use to say something meaningful through film but also is important for its own sake.

04/12/2017 | “3rd anniversary”

Whelp, I just got a notification saying I registered for WordPress three years ago.

My first blog was The Colorful Silver Screen, and I kicked it off with a review for Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Alas, that review is gone, but I did give the film an 8 or 9/10. Now, I’d give it a B-, which is academically still an 8/10.

Since then, I haven’t found my niche as a critic, but I’m feeling more at home than ever about what I’ve been doing for the past few weeks, trying to be more a guy who runs a blog than a critic. To put into perspective how far my motivation to write has come, here’s a 6th-grade entry from a journal I was assigned to write in every school day:

“I’ll tell you why some people call manta rays ‘devil rays.’ They have fins that look like horns. I have to put in a third sentence.”

…Then again, I have been pretty picky about how I structure my blog posts…

I appreciate all who’ve been following me this blog both onsite and offsite, especially those who’ve been following me through my indecisiveness.

04/12/2017 | “Unexpected excitement (for Transformers)”

As you’d find out through my [now-defunct] review of the first Transformers movie, my history with Transformers isn’t my most favored period in my life. That’s partly why I want to finish my Transformers stop-motion videos.

I actually sort-of lost interest in the franchise during the hype period for Age of Extinction, a film which actually ended up having some of the best character moments in the whole series while also some of the most redundant action sequences. In some ways it was better than the first three, and in other ways it wasn’t. Could I ever get excited for a glorified toy commercial again?

…Well, as the latest The Last Je—uh, Knight trailer proves, my inner highschooler can. I mean, my inner critic is saying, “No matter how good this will be, it can’t redeem the last four.” However, if somebody time-travelled this trailer back to highschooler me, my head might have blown up:

youtube.com/watch?v=79oxuuvx1JE

This has an emotional vibe that no other Transformers trailer has. It’s not just a bunch of cool and exciting visuals ala the Dark of the Moon trailer; I’m feeling the stakes.

The one consistently good thing about these movies is the special effects, and this movie looks huge! Like, it could make Dark of the Moon‘s Chicago battle (the most entertaining part of any Transformers movie thus far) look like a mere fistfight!

Speaking of which, I appreciate that these last two films aren’t just brushing off the consequences of Dark of the MoonAge of Extinction treated the Battle of Chicago like a 9/11-type event that turned humanity against the transformers, and it looks like Optimus in The Last Knight is being judged for destroying Cybertron (well, it was Bumblebee [yes, I still remember details like that], but…).

As for Optimus turning evil, I hate to see the subversion of who should be one of the ultimate good guys. Heck, I didn’t like the ruthless edge Optimus has after the first one (both his character and John Turturro’s are two of the first one’s only redeeming qualities, and then the sequels ruin them), but that makes his turn to the Dark Side all the more inevitable. I could mention how silly it is that the transformers have yet another secret history with the human race, but it’s already about alien robots that can fold perfectly into the pieces of human technology they happen to have the ability to scan…

Of course, the disastrous Revenge of the Fallen‘s trailers looked awesome, and I’m not expecting The Last Knight to be a movie I’d want to watch more than once; heck, considering the whole series that came before it, I probably won’t be able to recommend it even if it turns out to be above average. Plus, I’m not sure what to think of the “species turning against its own creators” theme. But it looks like one heck of a big screen experience for my inner highschooler.

We’ll see if the actual film will leave me as impressed in my inevitable review.

04/15/2017 | “Unsurprising cynicism (towards Star Wars)”

What’s this?! A Transformers: The Last Knight trailer and a Star Wars: The Last Jedi teaser in the same week?!:

youtube.com/watch?v=zB4I68XVPzQ

As you know from my “Where Disney’s Star Wars Went Wrong” article and its followup, I’ve been disappointed with Disney’s Star Wars, especially with how this Sequel trilogy fundamentally contradicts Darth Vader’s character arc. Now, I already have a complaint about The Last Jedi: it’s revealing a relativistic approach to the Force that takes good and evil out of the question, reminiscent of Knights of the Old Republic II – The Sith Lords, and presenting it as the ideal approach to the Force.

As one of my siblings pointed out regarding Rogue One (and nevertheless liked that movie way more than I did), without consideration of good and evil, there is no truth to fight for; there’s only a personal ideology. However, Rogue One blurring the lines between the Rebels and the Empire, a physical conflict, doesn’t bother me nearly as much as how The Last Jedi is further blurring the lines within the Force itself, a spiritual reality.

Really, there’s no use writing more about Star Wars at this point because it’s not gonna please me again. Heck, having rewatched the Originals since I wrote those articles, I think Return of the Jedi forever ruined the Jedis’ image of goodness—with the help of Empire‘s climax, of course—by how Yoda and Obi-Wan turn out to be liars and urge Luke to kill Vader without second thoughts, and they’re awarded eternal life nonetheless. In that respect, I’d actually agree with The Last Jedi‘s teaser’s last line if the film went with another important detail Return of the Jedi establishes: that there is a way to the Light without following the Jedis’ anti-humanism.

Sadly, a Star Wars episode will have to be an “I’ll see it based on what reviews say” movie. Imagine that! I’m more eager to see and review Transformers than Star Wars. At least it gave me another joyous chance to see Fr. Rodrick turn into a big kid.

My appreciation for Zelda and Lord of the Rings better not waver next; my inner amatuer fairy tale geek can’t take much more existential dread.

04/18/2017 | “Memorable video games I won’t play again”

Deus Ex (2000)

I don’t know whether I’ve kept my nearly forty Steam hours of this game because I’m fond enough of it or because I don’t want to just throw that many hours away.

Deus Ex as a first-person RPG offers a lot more options than just shooting bad guys. Every choice we make influences the story. The world-spanning conspiracy plot is almost hilariously convoluted, the voice acting is delightfully corny with quotably dry one-liners (I still sometimes say “A bomb!” when I pick up bombs in other games), and the soundtrack is catchy as heck. Alas, while I had a blast with these aspects, its incorporation of transhumanism into the gameplay is an inherent philosophical caveat, only one of its three optional endings is ethical, and its main villain leads a nefarious religious organization that’s implicitly connected with the Catholic Church. In the infamous words of JC Denton: “What a shame.”

Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (2004)

I suppose all the Metal Gear Solid games (except maybe the first one) could be on this list since they were so fun but so perverse (though MGS2: Sons of Liberty was overall just…meh). But playing prequel Snake Eater, out of all of them, kind of made my life feel more complete, and unfortunately, that whole experience was marred by the game’s fetishizing of its femme fatale in a way that became series standard, and she was a genuinely interesting character otherwise.

Still, for better or for worse, I don’t think I’ll ever forget the Bond-style theme song (which I’d break into singing while mowing lawns last summer), David Hayter’s Snake voice enthusiastically claiming “That’s tasty!”, the future series villain codenamed Revolver Ocelot literally meowing, and countless other ludicrousies. Heck, even though I got this more from MGS4: Guns of the Patriots, I now sometimes point to my cat and say, “You’re pretty good!” (Not that I mean it.)

Half-Life 2 (2004)

A year ago, I was obsessing over Half-Life 2, likely writing up my fifth analysis of it for my now-defunct T. Martin Has a Blog blog. What kept me coming back to the hauntingly unpleasant dystopia Half-Life 2 thrusts into was not only the astounding attention to graphical detail for its time but also the humanism underneath its nastiness. But, that’s before I realized the inherent moral caveat of shooting games, the way they’re staged around glorifying violence, with Half-Life 2‘s sympathy for innocents suddenly coming across as a manipulation for us to revel in the constant violence against the bad guys. I indicate how I came to this conclusion in “What the heck do I see in video games?” Now, the evidence of this technical masterpiece on my Steam profile, even though its characters are still funny and moving even after the realization, has been removed forever.

04/21/2017 | “Virtual Ventures #3”

I said [in a now deleted post] that I’m playing through three Zelda games—Skyward SwordOcarina of Time, and Twilight Princess—to eventually analyze them as an unofficial Legend of Zelda trilogy. Reconsidering what I said here about writing about video games like a journal after mostly writing about them in lists, I’ve decided to write about each installment of this trilogy as I get to it. Given how I’m now into Ocarina of Time‘s second act, this is a belated post.

So, say I wasn’t already a fan of Zelda (though not big enough a fan to have either beaten any pre-Ocarina titles or bought a new console to play Breath of the Wild by now) and am just discovering Skyward Sword, the chronologically first ever Zelda, for the first time. Would I find it as endearing as I do?

If only I could picture not knowing Zelda beforehand.

Like the Star Wars Prequel and Hobbit trilogies, Skyward Sword is a prequel made with fans of the originals in mind, perhaps becoming what Steven Greydanus would call “mythology bound”. Except whereas the Prequels and the Hobbit, whether intentionally or not, cynically insult their heritages, Skyward Sword joyously honors its own, never falling short of being a love letter to its heritage. …Or at least the 3D era of its heritage.

Even so, the game is in the odd position of sporting gameplay fit for newcomers and telling a story fit for those who are already familiar with Zelda lore.

As I mentioned in the “Video games I like” list, both the motion control-based gameplay and the story are very linear, obnoxiously instructing us the whole way, but the story throws in so many innovative ideas, including a plot point that raises even more questions for the already convoluted mythology, that it could be too much for new players. (Whether Breath of the Wild expands upon such questions I want to find out for myself.)

The character development, however, may be the most charming in the series.

As we first meet Link, the not-Zelda protagonist (I like to name him after the game’s title, or however I can fit the title into the name slot, e.i. SkywrdSwd), and the titular Zelda herself, they’re teenage lifelong friends living in a town literally floating above the cloudline. Intruding upon their adorable will-they-won’t-they relationship is Groose, a bully to Link that’s head-over-heels for Zelda. Watching how they and their dynamics grow over the course of the adventure is an absolute joy to watch, and by the end, it feels like we’re saying goodbye to virtual friends. I even feel bad saying goodbye to Fi, the obligatory obnoxious sidekick who tells us how to do everything at every moment.

However, it also delves deeply into the spirituality of the Zelda mythos, featuring a religion towards a goddess and a goddess incarnate in human form.

More questionably, Fi makes a jab towards the idea of oral tradition, there are dualistic trials for Link that bring his spirit into an alternate dimension (which may be the second scariest stuff I’ve ever experienced in a Zelda game), and, as implied only in relation to later games, the religion towards the goddess doesn’t seem to be required to practice after the events of Skyward Sword. Most questionably of all is how a villainous character levitates in a crucifixion-style pose as he’s being sacrificed by his devilish master.

The mixed use of Christian conceits and symbolism concerns me, although it’s unlikely that it’s intentionally referencing Christianity. (Although the Zelda series did have direct though subtle connotations to Christianity before Ocarina of Time introduced the goddesses, so I could be wrong.)

Bracketing its problems, Skyward Sword is fine as escapism. The characters are lovable, the artstyle looks like a painting, and a couple of the boss battles are unforgettable. Its world is far more empty than that of the more definitive Zelda games, but it’s not supposed to be that way yet. As part of an epic that spans multiple millennia and involves a line of reincarnations, it’s a solid start.

04/25/2017 | “Virtual Ventures #4”

Both the problem with and the advantage of making a trilogy out of Skyward SwordOcarina of Time, and Twilight Princess is that each game follows the same fundamental formula: Link finds out he’s chosen by the goddesses who created the world of Hyrule to defeat a rising evil with the help of Princess Zelda.

Skyward Sword‘s villain is pretty much evil incarnate, a force that caused the goddess Hylia to send humanity to live in the sky until evil’s defeated. By Ocarina of Time, while this evil has been defeated and the people have been flourishing on the earth for millennia, a manifestation of this evil’s hatred, Ganondorf, is going after the Triforce of Power which holds creation together, but Link and Zelda have been reincarnated to stop him.

While plenty of elements have returned from Skyward Sword, from familiar faces to familiar locations to familiar weapons, there’s an immediate step backwards in both graphics and character development, and that is, of course, because Ocarina was made before Skyward, and it’s the game that both Skyward Sword and all subsequent gaming generations owe themselves to. It was revolutionary.

Granted, many of Ocarina‘s mechanics and story elements were established in pre-N64 Zelda titles, yet Ocarina‘s storytelling still carries a mythic resonance, somehow emphasized by the primitive tech of the N64 and in part due to both its traditional fairy tale archetypes and its legendary reputation as the greatest video game ever made. If A New Hope is the definitive entry of its own trilogy with an expansion of a middle chapter, then Ocarina of Time is the definitive entry of its own “trilogy” with a setup of a first chapter.

Nonetheless, although Ocarina of Time is the video game I want all other video games to remind me of, the adventure of my childhood whose first playthrough took me ten on-and-off years to beat, I think Shadow of the Colossus is better as a grownups’ game than Ocarina of Time is as a children’s game.

I mean, there’s some pretty “What-the-heck-were-the-developers-thinking?!” stuff in Ocarina, not limited to how we have to get a couple important items by vandalizing gravestones, such as when we learn one of the ocarina songs while getting scarred by our could-be first encounter with the horrifying redeads. And who could forget the village well that leads to an underground torture dungeon still inhabited by undead monstrosities?! Why are Hyrule’s freakiest locations hidden in the seemingly idyllic Kakariko Village?! Not to mention, the Great Fairies are as creepily fetishized as their laughs are creepily creepy.

The game also follows the series’s typical dualistic, monistic, and polytheistic spiritualities. While the Triforce is a Holy Trinity of sorts, it has more in common with the Force in how it’s a divine object that can be used by one who wields it. (Attempting to analyze the theology of this more deeply is beyond my ability).

At the very least, Christian imagery and symbolism are exclusively on the heroes’ side this time. When I say that Zelda parallels Christian motifs, I’m not saying that Zeldacould be seen as a Christian allegory, but Link does offer a positive example of following the divine’s good will without a fret. …If the goddesses are still even around. (Like I said…)

Despite its misguided elements, there’s a fairly clear distinction between good and evil, where good fights to protect creation and evil fights to distort it. Some argue that Ocarina of Time hasn’t aged well and that nostalgia’s the reason it’s still praised to this day; while nostalgia is still a big appeal for me, I think there’s more value to it than that, that its theme of good and evil is what helps it stand the test of time, especially due to the storybook approach it’s told through.

(Some would also argue that Link walking into people’s houses and stealing their rupees, Hyrule’s crystalline currency, without consequences muddles his role as a hero; that idea is hard for me to take seriously in a video game-logic world where rupees, jars, and patches of grass magically reappear every time we reenter an area and where any replenishable item, from rupees to bombs to arrows to magic jars, can be found in random patches of grass.)

The storybook storytelling is why I still get chills during the plot’s legendary transition to its second act, which not only is the point where stuff gets real but also symbolizes the transition from the joyous world of childhood to the scary world of adulthood. That makes it not just fun for grownups to revisit but also relatable for those who’ve experienced that “Oh my! I’m an adult now!” moment. Nostalgia’s probably the reason the ending chokes me up every time, like I’m watching my childhood ending right before my eyes, but I’ve still fallen in love with the adventure that leads up to it.

Unlike Skyward SwordOcarina of Time is what a Zelda game should be. Skyward may also have innovative dungeons and colorful characters, but Ocarina actually has a world to explore. Skyward Sword is a good setup story; Ocarina of Time is a great standalone story, despite how its lack of killing, though still defeating, the villain in the end, as refreshing as that is, sets up for a future Zelda game.

Actually, it sets up for two theoretical Zelda games: The Wind Waker and Twilight Princess, the latter of which is the one that actually follows Ocarina‘s timeline. As for Ocarina‘s direct sequel, Majora’s Mask… Well, it’s so distinctly original and inconsequential for the overarching mythology that it’s not worth fitting in here.

By the time I finish this trilogy, I’m sure Ocarina is going to be the entry I’ll want to revisit again and again. …As long as I don’t think about the Well level. I mean, the game’s overall mood is joyous, but that makes the Well’s inclusion even more messed up!

05/02/2017 | “Marvel movies I love (so far)”

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

This is one superhero movies that’s endeared me more and more as it’s aged, probably because superhero movies have gotten cynical to the point of Batman v. Superman…and, to a different degree, Civil War. Despite its bittersweet payoff—a subversion of cliche that’s partly what sells the movie for me—, it offers a heaping of optimism as it gets us to root for the underdog Steve Rogers. While the action scenes are often chaotic and cartoony (plus, the way that musical number exploits its dancers makes for one of the most lurid scenes in any Marvel movie), the period production design is stunningly filmed. Above all, it’s the sincerity of its cast of characters that makes the story quite involving.

The Avengers (2012)

The Avengers‘s biggest drawback is that you have to watch the first Thor, which was ironically my favorite Marvel movie at the time, in order for it to make sense (on the other hand, the wonderful first Captain America [ironically my least favorite Marvel movie at the time] is the other most essential precursor). The novelty of seeing these pre-established heroes teaming up may have worn off by now, but this first Avengers still feels as special as watching JawsStar Wars, or Jurassic Park: the sheer entertainment value stands the test of time. It’s not just one of the best superhero movies ever made, it’s one of the best popcorn movies ever made.

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

I remember thinking after I saw the first teaser for this movie, “What the heck did I just watch?” Now I know: the real new Star Wars. Of course, it could only be called Star Wars if Star Wars‘s main cast consisted of even more vulgar versions of Han Solo and the Empire were a mere terrorist sect, and its unqualified heroes’ ultimate promotion puts it more in common with J.J. Abrams’s Star Trek. Despite the antihero angle, the chemistry of the cast, two of whom are a tree and a raccoon, and the protagonists’ eventual willingness to put their lives on the line for the greater good give charm and resonance to the vulgarity and weirdness.

Captain America: Civil War (2016)

The inherent flaw with Marvel movies, that not many of them make sense unless you watch several films—both decent and mediocre—beforehand, actually works to Civil War‘s advantage. While the Avengers turning against each other would have made a more interesting Avengers 2 than Age of Ultron did, it would have been quite contrived if the fallout of Age of Ultron weren’t partly the basis for the plot. For once, said plot, crafted with surprising focus for what it is, all comes down to the characters, not another averted apocalypse; we already care for the characters, and their brilliant showdowns range from rollicking to heartbreaking.

05/04/2017 | “My response to my own ‘Absurdly Awesome Finale’ series”

It’s probably more courageous to critique your own art than someone else’s art, especially when people know that you put years of your life into something to please an audience for no profit only for you to say when it’s finally finished that you’re disappointed by its story. I suppose that makes me my own worst critic since the recently finished “Transformers: The Absurdly Awesome Finale” (2015-2017) series isn’t the first time a series I poured months into disappointed me afterwards.

That previous series, “Transformers: The Next Generation One” (2013-2014), tells the story of how a Decepticon—formerly named Deadlock, now named Drift—joins the Autobots and helps them defeat the Decepticons. Except it was built so much around comedy amid the drama that I somehow missed a couple of obvious opportunities: explain how Drift even found the Autobot base, and have Drift lead the Autobots to the Decepticon base instead of letting the Autobots wait around for the Decepticons to come out of hiding. Heck, it should have been about how Drift decided to join the Autobots in the forefront instead of explaining it in exposition after the fact.

Nonetheless, my biggest issues with “TNG1” are logical, and we can sympathize with its protagonist right off the bat. That’s where I think “The Absurdly Awesome Finale” falls flat.

“The Absurdly Awesome Finale” connects and climaxes several of my previous continuities via alternate universe portals. The series starts off in the Jaggedverse, or my version of Michael Bay’s Transformers (with a couple other universes brought into the mix later). When we first meet the main Autobots—the “good” transformers—who we’ll be journeying with throughout the series, they’re big jerks, jerks to the Decepticons—the bad transformers—and jerks to each other. I meant this as a parody of how Michael Bay depicts his Autobots, and the point of the story is how the Autobots learn to value the lives of their enemies, but we’re hardly given a chance to sympathize with them right off the bat. Heck, the way the Decepticons are shown to recognize the Autobots’ distorted values more than the Autobots do makes it easier to sympathize with the Decepticons.

Sure, these Autobots do encounter a universe where enemies’ lives are valued, but the way I kicked off this series’s characterization casts a shadow over the rest of it. Having the Autobots start out as jerks and end as noblemen works for a morality tale, but for a sci-fi/war epic, one that couldn’t always avoid the darker side of war (i.e. the aftermath of the attack from Part 2), it needed to show a sympathetic side to the Autobots, especially to each other, before it showed their ugly side toward their enemies.

The moment all the Autobots realize the personhood of their enemies comes in Part 4 from a bizarre vision. Unfortunately, from there, I couldn’t deliver what I wanted to deliver. I had a huge final part planned, one that would involve a battle between Autobots and Decepticons from three different dimensions. Before the battle, the Autobot leaders would have tried to negotiate with the Decepticons, but, of course, it doesn’t work, except for when Jagged Optimus forgives his former mentor Sentinel for betraying the Autobots.

I was not ready to film something so chaotic on that big a scale. Over the course of the following year, I kept scaling down the script, figuring out a both satisfying and filmable way to end the story. Just when I was about to give up and announce that the story won’t have an ending, I finally came up with a device to tell that this massive battle and Optimus’s forgiving happened without showing it. What is shown is the fatal climactic battle with the villainous Starscream.

Of course, Starscream’s a stubborn ghost in possession of another, and the only way to take him out is to kill him with a special ghost-killing device (to avoid major problematic spiritual implications, I made it a joke that not even the transformers know why transformer ghosts exist). Sentinel tries to negotiate with Starscream, but I’m not sure the Autobot leaders’ angry attitudes during this battle (my music choice of which had me geeking out as I was editing it) helps the theme of “learning to love your enemies”. I mean, it needed a cool climactic battle, but the good guys could have been a bit more resistant to participate in it. Even so, by itself, Part 5 is my favorite episode out of all of them.

“The Absurdly Awesome Finale” was certainly a learning curve for me, including a learning curve in directing others’ voice performances; I’m proud of it more on a technical level than a thematic level. My audience may love these characters, but I wish I’d written them in a way that I could love. I made this just for my fans; next time I provide for them, I’m going to make sure I’m proud of what I give them before I release it.

05/17/2017 | “Virtual Ventures #5”

Last weekend, a $30 game that had been on my Steam wishlist for a while, Alan Wake, finally went on sale, and I snatched it for $3. Alas, the reason it was on sale was because the game’s music licenses were expiring, and so this sale was a final chance to buy the game digitally, unless the developers decide to renew the licenses.

I don’t want to encourage binging on games, but I admittedly binged on this game, spending most of my weekend on the eleven-to-twelve hours I took to beat it. I probably wouldn’t have went that far in that short a time if a few hours in I hadn’t skimmed through the reviews on Steam and saw one that mentioned that it doesn’t have a happy ending. So, my Last of Us PTSD kicked in and drove me to finish it before Twilight Princess so that I’d have something uplifting to finish afterwards (I made the mistake of making last year’s playthrough of Ocarina of Time before my lone playthrough of The Last of Us).

Given that it’s a zombie-ish mostly-shooter, it certainly reminded me of The Last of Us, even Half-Life 2 (though any action-horror game with a gritty art style, including The Last of Us, reminds me of Half-Life 2). But Alan Wake is neither post-apocalyptic nor dystopian; rather, it’s a psychological/supernatural horror-thriller broken up into six episodes, an homage to Stephen King and Twin Peaks; given how I’ve neither seen Twin Peaks nor read/seen hardly any Stephen King, I can get much more invested in this type of stuff if I’m playing it.

The game itself doesn’t ignore its inspirations; the titular protagonistic writer Alan Wake mentions a couple of times that Stephen King was one of his inspirations growing up, only to find his life turn into a Stephen King novel when he vacations with his wife Alice to the Washington town of Bright Falls. …Or rather, it’s his own novel come to life, quite literally.

Given the T-rating, none of the violence, despite a few particularly harrowing deaths, is as viscerally unsettling as anything from The Last of Us nor as manipulatively mean-spirited as anything from Half-Life 2. The weapon-wielding zombie creatures in question are also still a bit human, except they’re possessed by the same entity of darkness that’s brought Alan’s work, which he only knows about by finding pages of it scattered throughout the town as he has no memories of writing it, to life and can be most easily vaporized by bullets when the light of a flashlight penetrates their forcefields. Though the easiest ways to vaporize them are with flashbangs and flare guns, and the easiest way to escape them is by standing in the light of a lamppost.

While I enjoyed the spooky thrills, the constant action, especially in the last two episodes, often gets in the way of what really kept me invested: the storyline. Not only are there walking simulator sections that just let the story develop, but the story is filled with mystery, intrigue, and colorful characterizations. Alan also has a strong enough relationship with his wife, whose kidnapping by the Darkness sets him on his journey, for me to want to see him rescue her, even when the insanity happening around him gets him to contemplate going down some very dark territory that largely gets averted (the most disturbing moment in the game for me was actually when Alan indirectly kills a person of nuisance and sadistically grins afterwards).

Eventually, the story gets lore heavy, and I legit didn’t get the lore. I mean, the end of the third episode reveals a character that the game assumes we as an audience are already more familiar with than we are. Did I miss something? As for that unhappy ending…well, at first, it seemed bittersweet—unhappy in a way, but not overtly nihilistic. That is until I realized that the second-to-last line implies that the Darkness has the final say. But then the cliffhanging final line suggests that everything was a delusion.

Either way, I just can’t win, can I?

I know, it was a pretty bleak journey to begin with. Yet, a virtual journey this bleak makes me desire a happy, or at least morally sound, ending even more than a virtual journey as joyous as Ocarina of Time. To, with inspiration from Catholic in the 21st Century, quote Saint John Paul the Great’s “Letter to Artists”: “Even when they explore the darkest depths of the soul or the most unsettling aspects of evil, artists give voice in a way to the universal desire for redemption.” I want video games to give me hope that evil can be destroyed, that the good in humanity can triumph. That’s one reason I love Zelda games so much: they let us feel accomplished in the end. Games like Alan WakeThe Last of Us, and Half-Life 2 beat the player, and it should be the other way around. What’s the appeal of spending hours of your life to get screwed over in the end and revisiting that experience (not that I didn’t do that during my Half-Life 2 phase…)?

I know, the credits assure us that Alan Wake will return, but the way he returns, Alan Wake’s American Nightmare, is, from what I’ve heard, more like a reimagining of this game as an 80s action fest, so we have yet to get a proper sequel. Still, a video game demands to be more of a standalone experience than a franchise even more so than a movie does.

I suppose the benefit of having played The Last of Us is that I’ve been more prepared to be let down by a gripping, cleverly written virtual adventure from then on. That doesn’t excuse how I deserve a cathartic payoff for the hours I invest in the journey, especially if said journey sets up clear weaknesses that defeat the villain, only for the rug to be pulled out from under us at the last second. It’s not that Wake was anywhere near an ideal hero to begin with, but the game would have been more agreeable with the proper ending.

05/22/2017 | “Virtual Ventures #6”

Twilight Princess, which was the first Zelda game I ever beat, even before Ocarina of Time, was a response by Nintendo to Zelda fans who found Wind Waker not enough like Ocarina of Time, putting Twilight Princess thousands of years later in Ocarina‘s timeline with a similar artstyle and formula. Of course, fans complained that it was too much like Ocarina of Time, and so Nintendo followed Twilight Princess up with the more innovative Skyward Sword and (mostly) everyone was happy.

Storytelling-wise, I found Twilight Princess this time around to evoke Skyward Sword more than Ocarina of Time. The graphics are once again high-polygon, the overworld is broken into the same provinces as Skyward Sword, and it returns to a similar depth of character development. Like Ocarina of Time, however, we’re actually allowed to explore this overworld, but not before the first few hours put us through a slog of linearity before we can get to the meat of the gameplay.

I suppose what makes it disappointing as a conclusion to the joyous Skyward Swordand Ocarina of Time is its dour tone, which might have been easier to forgive if it weren’t for its muddy visual color palette. I’ve only played the Wii version, but the HD remaster doesn’t look like the improvement I’d like for this game. I appreciate that Twilight Princess aims for deeper emotional resonance, but even though many of the more emotional moments are used to develop the story’s theme of courage and heroism, I don’t think a world as silly as Hyrule deserves to be this gritty; it’s like going from Sam Raimi’s to Marc Webb’s Spider-Man movies, though not quite that bad.

While the story ties up a long-running arc, which is why I was curious to see how it would work as a trilogy capper, it’s not that interested in the mythology of the Triforce, a major plot point in the previous chapters. What Twilight Princess‘s main focus is is an alternate dimension whose inhabitants are trying to take over Hyrule after being banished by the goddesses to their own realm. Twilight Princess is already a weirder game than Skyward Sword and Ocarina of Time; introducing such a big chunk of lore like this out of nowhere makes it even weirder as a followup to them.

On the other hand, with Hyrule in such a broken state, it’s more satisfying to explore and help people out here than it is in Ocarina of Time. Part of the appeal is riding across Hyrule and listening to the Hyrule Field theme; my spirit stirs every time the “Ballad of Twilight” cues. The dungeon design may also be the funnest in this trilogy; during that tedious opening act, I was thinking, “Maybe this game isn’t as thrilling as I once thought it was…” and then I got to the first dungeon. And that’s not even mentioning all the cool new mechanics, such as turning into a wolf and gliding on rails with a giant spinning top.

Twilight Princess is designed to be a followup to Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Maskinstead of Skyward Sword and Ocarina of Time, so coming off the twisted Majora’s MaskTwilight Princess is a welcome and tamer-than-its-predecessor trilogy capper, though its visuals are still out of place given how both its predecessors in this case were released for the N64.

I suppose the lore of Hyrule is so expansive that, while it’s possible to pick one definitive entry, you can’t reduce Zelda to a trilogy, especially not one with Twilight Princess as its conclusion. I’m not a fan of Wind Waker pacing-wise, but tonally, it probably would have worked better as a companion piece to Skyward Sword and Ocarina of Time. It also would have continued the trend of this trilogy offering a new type of overworld to explore each time: Skyward Sword‘s sky, Ocarina of Time‘s land, and Wind Waker‘s sea.

While Twilight Princess‘s outlandish straining of the Zelda formula brings uneven results, it’s still a pretty enjoyable adventure, with strong characterizations and thrilling set pieces. But unless Breath of the Wild, which I won’t be playing any time soon, proves me wrong, Ocarina of Time is the definitive Zelda game for me.

06/24/2017 | “TRANSFORMERS: THE LAST KNIGHT (2017) Movie Review”

It almost seems futile to criticize Transformers: The Last Knight for being awful because it’s not trying to be good. Michael Bay knows how bad his directing is, and he doesn’t give a crap. His commitment to schlock is almost respectable, and I’m really tempted to respect the schlock itself for that.

Alas, the most fundamental criticism, which applies to the whole series, is how inappropriate this film is for a kids toy adaptation. It’s bad enough filmmaking for adults; it could be even more ruinous introducing this crap to a child.

Then again, I have reservations about the idea behind Transformers in general, which is why I now want to distance myself from franchise. I mean, should kids really look up to a “good guy” named Crosshairs, whose very name puts a weapon into his identity? A crime-fighting superhero with an alter-ego who doesn’t have to fight crime is one thing; a robot who’s inherently built to fight other robots and look cool doing it is another thing.

I’ll give The Last Knight this: the crasser elements from the series have lessened. The sexual jokes, while there are still a couple of strong ones, are more likely to go over kids’ heads than those from earlier entries, and female characters aren’t in-your-face exploited (aren’t in-your-face exploited) for eye candy. On the other hand, the Autobots’ personalities and the violence are just as mean-spirited and cynical as usual, even if the violence isn’t overly brutal like it’s been since Revenge of the Fallen.

One of the Autobots is such a sadist that I was like “Thank you!” when it appeared that Megatron killed him until he came back later.

Age of Extinction‘s returning protagonist Cade Yeager is definitely the most likable and engaging of the cast due to Mark Wahlberg’s charisma. It’s also nice to see Josh Duhamel return as Lennox, purely because he could have been, and should have been, a fine protagonist for the first trilogy.

The plot, however, is just about as big a mess as the editing, featuring a horrific amount of subplots and a backstory so ridiculous that it stretches disbelief by Transformers standards. …Should I be concerned about how easily I could sit through this stuff?

For one, there are two main villains: the returning Megatron, whose turn from being reborn as Galvatron is unsurprisingly unexplained, and Quintessa, the apparent creator of the transformers who possesses Optimus into doing her will; if the film weren’t already fundamentally flawed, I’d be feeling more uneasy about the “turning against your own god” theme.

Megatron’s team of Decepticons are parodies of Decepticons. During their own special character introductions, complete with their names plastered on the screen like a high-tech Suicide Squad, I was trying to remember when I was hired to write them. I mean, one of them acts all ghetto and wears a gold chain. (Spoiler alert) Alas, my curiosity was short-lived when most of them are killed fifteen minutes later in their first action sequence. But hey, at least we got to know Mohawk’s, Onslaught’s, Berserker’s, and…Ghettocon’s names.

I don’t remember what Ghettocon’s actual name is, but if I had actually written that character, I totally would have named him Ghettocon.

Speaking of editing, the guilty pleasure of the opening sequence is cut short when a ramble delivered goofily by Stanley Tucci, playing not his character from Age of Extinction, shows every comment he makes through a different angle in rapid-fire progression. Why?!

Said editing might have been (might have been) less jarring throughout had the film kept a more consistent aspect ratio. As both Imax and standard widescreen cameras were used in the production, it would have made sense to use Imax cameras for the action scenes, but there are dialogue scenes that are widescreen for the most part but feature random Imax shots, and there are action scenes that are Imax for the most part but feature random widescreen shots. Could they not stick to a consistent aspect ratio for five minutes?!

Gratuitous slow-motion is also everywhere, in action scenes and beyond. Just when it seems that introducing a polo match in slow-motion is self-indulgent, an Autobot is introduced whose guns shoot balls of slow-motion! (More accurately, they’re spherical force fields that slow down time, but “balls of slow-motion” sounds better.)

It wasn’t until the end of the second act, where all the various plotlines finally start coming together, where the film really grabbed me. Sure, while the apocalypse is imminent, I kept asking where the heck Mark Wahlberg got the beanie cap he’s suddenly wearing (which reminded me of “Mark Wahlberg is wearing a hat“), and while one major fight scene concludes as conveniently as a major fight scene from Batman v. Superman, the following character choices moved me in a way I haven’t been moved by these movies since the original.

Said scene from the original is the scene where the Autobots meet at the observatory. They discuss their plans, we find out what they’re willing to fight for, and when Optimus reveals what he’d do to save humanity…that part genuinely tugs on my heartstrings. It’s a fantastic scene, one that establishes Optimus as a voice of clear conscience before the sequels turn him into a vengeful psychopath.

Even though I blast watching The Last Knight‘s final act of Bayhem, where various conflicting factions, both human and robot, join together to save Earth, the movie as a whole gave me an appreciation for how relatively small-scale the original Transformers is, which still isn’t good, especially the ruinous teen movie elements, but The Last Knightmakes it look like The Avengers.

If nothing else, The Last Knight is a great “riff on it with friends” movie. It was also nostalgic to see Optimus Prime and Megatron together onscreen again, and there were a couple of name drops that had me geeking out. How much more Bayhem I can take for the sixth movie, however, is yet to be seen; Bay may have said that this is his last one, but judging by how he ends this one, I highly doubt his word.


Spoiler alert: I otta coin the term Martha-ing: where two heroes are fighting each other until one of them, while pinned down, says something that totally snaps the other hero out of it.

07/02/2017 | “THE LEGEND OF ZELDA: OCARINA OF TIME (1998) Game Review”

It takes several looks to fully grasp a piece of art, even a video game.

There have been several times I’ve regretted writing my positive first impressions on movies as said movies fell apart the second time around (though sometimes when that happens, the third time ends up being the charm). …That is unless the game or movie is bad on first playthrough or viewing; then I don’t mind going straight to trashing it (as I did with Transformers 5).

So, if I’m going to properly label something as a review post-restarting this blog with “Finding Myself”, it might as well be for something I’ve replayed or rewatched enough times to form a solid opinion on it, so I might as well just write about games that I’ve played through more than once, even ones that dissipate over each playthrough. So, unless I’m really compelled to revisit Final Fantasy VII after I’m finished this first playthrough of it, chances are I’m not gonna review it.

For the first of these games I’m going to review, however, my opinion has not dissipated; if anything, the disappointment I’ve found in the general medium of video games has enhanced my appreciation for The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time since the years it formed my taste in video games.

It’s quite cliche to mention that Ocarina of Time is one of the most influential and critically acclaimed video games, if not the most critically acclaimed video game, of all time, and this is a review coming from somebody who agrees with such acclaim but disagrees with the praise for many other “best video games of all time”, most notably The Last of Us.

Of course, aside from Ocarina of Time and The Last of Us being video games that feature zombies (Ocarina of Time‘s of which, while less prominent than The Last of Us‘s, haunted my childhood), the latter is a character-driven post-apocalyptic survival-horror whereas the latter is a plot-driven fantasy action-adventure; comparing the two is comparing apples to oranges, though I suppose there’s a way to better understand my favorite game of all time by comparing it to my least favorite of all time.

Admittedly, The Last of Us is a technical masterpiece; it hooked me on an emotional level. That is until its violence eventually got so dark that I checked out and watched the rest of the game on Youtube. The game’s ultimate succumbing to nihilism, even more so, burned me so badly that it single-handedly makes me regret buying a PS3. However accomplished the player feels in the end depends on how they hoped it would end.

This isn’t the only time where a game I was invested in left me feeling unaccomplished, with other examples being Half-Life 2 and Alan Wake (though my overall experience with Half-Life 2 is worth a review in of itself). Shouldn’t a video game, out of any art of any medium, leave the audience feeling like the hours-long journey was worthwhile? Heck, why aren’t more gamers asking this same question?

With Ocarina of Time, as well as all other Zelda games I’ve beaten, even the twisted outliner Majora’s Mask, the game lets us feel accomplished in the end. While Ocarina‘s payoff is bittersweet, justice is served, and there’s not much ambiguity regarding who’s good and who’s bad either. It’s that black-and-white, childlike simplicity enhanced by its aged but vividly colorful graphics that makes the adventure so endearing to this day.

I should mention that The Last of UsHalf-Life 2, and Alan Wake progress in linear fashion with gameplay largely based around brutal violence with the occasional puzzle. While there’s plenty of cartoon violence against monsters in Ocarina of Time, there are plenty of opportunities to break free from the action and explore the land of Hyrule to find treasures or just interact with its lovable inhabitants, not that there aren’t enemies scattered around the open areas. I know, there are plenty of other games like this, but I have yet to find another game that balances linear storytelling with open-world exploration this perfectly.

What holds up surprisingly well is its atmosphere; it still feels like it’s taking us on the epic adventure of a lifetime. Even though Hyrule field, the hub for Hyrule’s locations, is quite empty, there’s still a joy to traversing it. Just as the original 1986 Legend of Zelda was the first 2D world of its kind, Ocarina is the first 3D world of its kind, and it embraces many of the tropes that the series had established, such as the trio of Link, Zelda, and Ganondorf, the Master Sword, the dungeons…

Granted, there are things in this game that make me wonder what the heck the developers were thinking, especially for a game aimed at all ages.

The game’s horror elements go too far into the opposite direction of joy, such as a village well when drained leading to an abandoned torture dungeon still being inhabited by undead monstrosities; that would be messed up enough for a grownups game, but it becomes even more horrifying due to the inference that people drank from that well (unless they heard the legend about where the well leads, but who in their right mind would build a well there?).

Hyrule’s mythology, which can’t be avoided as the protagonistic Link is following his destined path, includes polytheistic themes in the form of the goddesses who created Hyrule and monistic themes in the form of the Triforce of Power that holds the essences of the goddesses and holds creation together. The creepy Great Fairies that give us powers granted by the goddesses are presented in a fetishized manner. And then there’s the Gerudos, a race consisting entirely of fit women expect for one man born every hundred years; their methods of reproduction can only be theorized.

Despite these elements, Ocarina of Time is still a beautiful balance between mythmaking and escapism, from the treasures discovered to the hilarious side characters to the brain-teasing level design to the magical songs we can play with the titular ocarina. Even when the story takes more somber turns, it doesn’t lose its sense of joy and wonder. The polytheistic themes also play into the fundamentally Christian principle of following the divine’s good will.

While the Legend of Zelda series is my favorite game series in general (though I still haven’t built up the patience to beat any of the pre-Ocarina games), and while there are non-Zelda games that I like, Ocarina of Time is the one game I can revisit over and over and over again. It’s the reason I’m interested video games, and it’s the game I compare all others to.

My first playthrough of it took me ten on-and-off years (an atypically long time, or at least I hope it is), so a lot of the appeal is nostalgia. However, I can take off rose-colored glasses and consider the flaws in the things that shaped my childhood (just look at my Star Warsarticles on Catholic Wannabe Critic). I genuinely believe that Ocarina still deserves its praise.

09/04/2017 | “Where Disney’s Star Wars Went Wrong”

(This was an article I originally posted March 26, 2017 on the now defunct Catholic Wannabe Critic, which was my headquarters for media reviews for a while.)

So far, Disney has disappointingly blown their first chances of reinvigorating the Star Wars franchise on two homages to A New HopeThe Force Awakens and Rogue One. Don’t get me wrong, A New Hope is one of my favorite movies, but as Scott Renshaw tweeted: “We don’t need another love letter to original STAR WARS. It sometimes feels like the entire last 40 years of movies has been that.”

What I don’t like about Rogue One is that it’s trying to replace A New Hope‘s place as the beginning of the Original Trilogy—heck, the beginning of the whole saga if you watch it in the Machete Order, and what I don’t like about The Force Awakens is that it’s trying to be so much like the Original Trilogy that it copies it with only a few shuffled beats, but I didn’t realize how exactly that makes The Force Awakens problematic until now.

It’s not that The Force Awakens is an unwatchable movie; the new cast is dramatically compelling, and it has a couple of great lightsaber fights (“Traitor!”). With that, the other fundamental problem is that it’s a cliffhanging first act that I won’t be able to fully judge until the last two acts come out.

I can understand why Disney retreaded familiar territory; many audiences were alienated by the drastic differentness of the Prequels. However, the Prequels’ failure was more in their incompetent execution than in their ideas, but Disney decided on competent safeness over competent differentness to launch their era of Star Wars. That actually gives me a greater appreciation for the Prequels’ singular if flawed creative vision.

But there’s a bigger problem to the The Force Awakens retreading A New Hope than just “I’ve seen it all before”, and that is, by retreading A New HopeThe Force Awakens makes the Rebellion’s ultimate victory in the Original Trilogy worthless. Thirty years later, there’s still an evil empire, there’s still a rebellion, the Jedi are still myths, there’s another laser-firing, planet-sized super weapon… Heck, Darth Vader’s return to the Light is made meaningless by the villainous Kylo Ren’s idolizing of Vader.

Sure, The Force Awakens feels like the Original Trilogy, but it wouldn’t have replicated that spirit without subverting the Originals’ ending. But the Original Trilogy doesn’t stay with us just because it’s fun; it stays with us because it’s about the redemption of the ultimate villain, and the Prequel Trilogy, to its credit, brings even more meaning to this redemption by turning it into a fulfillment of a prophesy: the destruction of the Sith and the restoring of balance to the Force through the triumph of the Light.

If you don’t count the Prequels as canon, then it makes sense that the Dark Side-wielding Knights of Ren could come about. But Disney clearly accepts the Prequels as The Force Awakens features a brief voice cameo by Ewan McGregor’s Obi-Wan and Rogue One features the return of both Jimmy Smits’s Bale Organa and Mustafar. If the destruction of the Sith was so big a deal that it was foretold that it would bring balance to the Force, how could the Dark Side rise again?

There are at least two explanations as to how the Force can become unbalanced after Vader’s sacrifice: the prophesy has been proven false, or it hasn’t actually been fulfilled yet. With the latter explanation, Vader is a red herring; perhaps Rey’s an instant superhero because she turns out to the real Chosen One who will bring balance to the Force. That’s the only way this could make sense to me, yet it would further insult Vader’s redemption.

So, could Disney have continued the story of Star Wars while keeping the weight of Return of the Jedi‘s climax? Yes, but they would have to have embraced how the titular wars would never be the same after the destruction of the Sith. Since they couldn’t embrace that, then perhaps they should have left everything that happens after the Originals up in the air.

Of course, the Force, with its two sides, is a spiritual entity that can’t be predicted. But if Disney wanted to keep both Light Side users and Dark Side users while honoring the first two trilogies, how about instead focus on an even longer time ago in a galaxy far, far away, like the Old Republic? How about a trilogy that explains the origins of the Sith and who prophesied the Chosen One? Better yet, how about a re-release of the theatrical Originals to replace the Special Editions’ reign on store shelves?

Alas, the damage of Disney’s big-budget fan filmmaking is done. I don’t see how the rest of this Sequel Trilogy can redeem The Force Awakens‘s mistakes. There’s only one Star Wars trilogy that truly matters: the Original Trilogy. Even without the one or two ways the Prequels add to it—and I’m not pretending their interpretation of Anakin Skywalker isn’t an insult to it—, it’s still the quintessential modern fairy tale. The magic of the Originals may never be sincerely replicated, but the Force will always be with it.

07/09/2017 | “Virtual Ventures #7”

I think I’ve played Mirror’s Edge as many times as I have more for its unconventionality as a “shooter” than for how good it actually is.

There was a time where I had an affinity for typical shooting games, such as Halo and Half-Life 2 (especially Half-Life 2, though yet another review of that one would probably give my longtime followers headaches).

These days, I’ve pretty much written shooting games off for being built around glorifying gun violence. I’m not against justifiable gun usage (i.e. defense of self and innocents, hunting for food), and I don’t know if shooting games truly do influence real-world shootings, but I don’t feel comfortable condemning such shootings while revelling in shooting virtual people.

With Mirror’s Edge, instead of shooting bad guys down left and right, the goal is to run away from the people shooting at us; it’s our choice how to dispatch them when the game backs us into a corner. We can beat them unconscious, or we can take their guns and shoot them with them. Even with that, the shooting mechanics have more nuance than those of typical shooters. There are no ammo clips lying all over the place; each gun has limited use.

The lack of focus on combat is due to the gameplay’s domineering mechanic: parkour, which has us traverse a colorful futuristic city through wild stunts. There are exhilarating set pieces the game puts us through, or at least they’re exhilarating for the first couple playthroughs. After a few more, the novelty wears off, and what’s left is how half-baked the mechanics are.

Sure, the first few chapters work well enough gameplay-wise, but the latter chapters, where the puzzles get more difficult, are where the seams really show. When frustration stems from puzzles whose steps require utmost precision that we have to restart from the beginning when we make a mistake due to the checkpoint system, and there are couple of such puzzles, it’s more of a problem with game design than a lack of skill, and it kills the fun.

The parkour master we play as is Faith Connors, a member of a band of Runners who go above the law, traversing the city through sheer physicality, to assist others who dare to break free from the unnamed city’s highly-surveyed conformity. Only, I’m still not sure how exactly the Runner’s assist these people. I mean, the opening mission has us deliver some sort of info package for a client, but it doesn’t explain where the info comes from or what it’s for.

During said first mission, the usually passive cops become unusually trigger-happy and begin open-firing on the Runners. After that, Faith finds out that her sister, Kate, has been framed for the murder of a mayoral candidate who could have “made a difference” in the city.

As such, the storyline is also half-baked, turning out to be way more complicated than it needs to be in what seems like the developers’ attempt to squeeze as much gameplay out of parkour as they could, and it still doesn’t end up at a substantial length.

(Spoiler alert) Eventually, this whole conspiracy turns out to be a ploy to off anyone who fights for what the city used to be, especially the Runners. The story could have been simplified a great deal, and made more sense, if Faith and the Runners were framed for the assassination, with the police going after them tying into that. Why do they have to frame a cop for the assassination? And if they do, why not instead explain that Kate needed to take the blame because she followed the candidate? Explaining unspecifically that “a cop” needed to take the blame just makes it confusing. Heck, since the authorities were eventually going to unleash a unit specifically trained to fight the Runners anyway, why have the police shoot at them at all?

Not only does none of it make sense, but the nonsense is egregiously straight-faced. There’s plenty of sarcasm and snark on display, but none of it is particularly fun. The biggest missed opportunity, at least for my sense of humor, is that nobody, not even the wittiest character, tells the protagonist to “take of leap of Faith”. Does a game where we play as a skinny girl who can beat fully armored cops unconscious and punch metal doors open without breaking her hands really need to take itself this seriously?

And this isn’t even getting into the odd stylistic choice of aesthetically realistic gameplay in between seemingly Flash-animated cutscenes nor how anticlimactic the final “boss battle” is.

At the very least, the game has a catchy theme song (“Still Alive”, not to be confused with the Portal theme song of the same name), vibrant visuals (which I have yet to experience in their full glory due to my computer’s compatibility, or lack thereof), an attempt at thematic resonance in Faith and Kate’s sisterhood, and the sheer coolness of its concept.

It’s not totally unplayable; it’s just mediocre. Thankfully, I can beat it only in three hours (after a six-hour first playthrough), though it could be shorter if it weren’t for a couple of particular puzzles. I know that there’s a more open-ended (gameplay-wise) reboot in the form of Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst, but there’s no way my current PC could handle that.

The unfortunate part is that the more masterfully crafted shooters I know are built around us revelling in gun violence. I’ll take a “shooter” that celebrates the agility of the human body more than the effectiveness of a gun, even if it is mediocre.

07/15/2017 | “Virtual Ventures #8”

Ico is the type of video game that’s more meditative than fun, challenging us not only to overcome monsters and puzzles but also challenging us to be patient with its quiet moments. And that’s what keeps drawing me back to it.

When the largely elusive Team Ico released this inaugural title of theirs in 2001, the same year blockbuster action games like Metal Gear Solid 2Halo: Combat Evolved, and Super Smash Bros. Melee were released, they intended for it to be the arthouse counterpart to typical video game mayhem, opting for minimalist, emotionally-driven storytelling that would engage players in a way it couldn’t engage those watching over their shoulders.

As for me, I didn’t play Ico until I got the remastered Ico & Shadow of the Colossus Collection for the PS3, and so far said collection is the biggest game-related reason (because it can also access internet and play Blu-rays) I’m glad I got a PS3 since Team Ico’s games are PlayStation exclusives.

Despite children being the protagonists, the titular horned player-controlled boy Ico and the otherworldly princess Yorda, this was never meant to be a children’s game; the duo’s main goal is to escape a castle they’re being held in to be sacrificed in a mysterious ritual. On the other hand, the times we’re simply traversing make it easy to forget the story’s harrowing undertones, and an otherworldly beauty peeks through the art style’s muted color palette that’s occasionally contrasted with patches of vibrancy.

In arthouse fashion, the pacing is deliberate, and the gameplay is barebones, which is why it takes a while for the game to grab me. Capping off the arthouse appeal, the characters speak in a subtitled language created for the game. In between the showdowns with shadow creatures and the completions of puzzles, much of the game is devoted to Ico and Yorda just running from point A to point B, and said gameplay is presented in wide shots that make us observers of the action as much as participants in the action, which is actually a pretty interesting conceit as it invites us to reflect on what we’re playing.

If the story were about only Ico escaping the castle, it probably wouldn’t hold my interest at all; however, this was conceived to be a boy-meets-girl story, and the role of Yorda is what makes it special. Guiding her through the castle by holding her hand adds a huge layer of player immersion, and protecting her from the shadow creatures as they try to carry her into their voids and trigger our own demise adds a huge layer of intensity to the repetitive combat.

The biggest limitation to the story’s minimal scope is a lack of sympathetic grownup characters as the only ones depicted are Yorda’s sinister shadow queen mother and the soldiers who imprison Ico in the castle (my other big concern is the preteen Yorda’s dress; I can’t tell whether it’s innocuous or creepily risque). Perhaps the grownups depicted could be representing not grownups in general but a fallen society that sacrifices children, all too resonant of today’s society. It’s possible that Ico’s climactic choices affect his society for the better, but the denouement isn’t interested in answering that.

Still, I appreciate the meekness in storytelling and the refreshing purity in Ico and Yorda’s companionship. For what makes it stand out, Ico deserves to be considered one of the definitive examples of video games as an artform.

07/15/2017 | “Virtual Ventures #9”

From their revolutionary titles to their inception of Steam, no developer is more synonymous with modern PC gaming than Valve.

They first got on the map by introducing an immersive combination of storytelling and gameplay in the first-person shooter genre with 1998’s Half-Life. I’ll still call 2004’s Half-Life 2 a masterpiece on a technical level, though I can admit the same thing about Naughty Dog’s nihilistic The Last of Us.

For my first several playthroughs of Half-Life 2, I found that its ostensibly pro-life and humanistic themes put it above other violent shooters of its kind, subverting the original Half-Life‘s climactic abortion symbolism. It wasn’t until later where I realized that such themes were there to get us angrier with the bad guys and revel in killing them for turning the world into a horrifying reality.

Thankfully, there is a much less violent side to this universe, as shown in Portal, which doesn’t seem all that related to Half-Life on the surface.

In terms of unconventional “shooters” with theme songs titled “Still Alive”, Portal ended up in a higher place in gaming culture than EA DICE’s Mirror’s Edge, and with good reason: not only was it published by the legendary Valve, released alongside the debuts of Team Fortress 2 and the final spinoff of Half-Life 2 in 2007’s The Orange Box, but it’s a heck of a better game.

Of course, whereas Mirror’s Edge is still a straight-up action game, Portal is a straight-up puzzle game (for the most part…), a short, simple, yet ingenious one. Portal was actually developed by a small indie group who pitched their idea to Valve, so Portal is essentially an indie hit in blockbuster clothing.

To save resources, the team incorporated elements of the Half-Life universe, such as by including a similar gameplay presentation and Half-Life injokes, the latter of which shouldn’t bog down the game for newcomers.

Portal has us wake up as silent human test subject Chell in the Aperture Science Enrichment Center, run by its omnipotent A.I. GLaDOS. Not far into GLaDOS’s puzzles, which generally consist of us figuring out creative ways to place cubes on buttons to open the doors to the next puzzle rooms, we get to the titular mechanic: obtaining a gun that fires both a blue and an orange portal to more easily navigate said puzzles, which on first playthrough cramped my brain like Algebra problems would.

GLaDOS not only offers dark wit with her voice over, but her godlike role in Aperture turns Portal into a cautionary fable about the idolization of technology.

Such a theme is carried over into 2011’s Portal 2, a true blockbuster successor. In Portal 2, we go into the literal depths of Aperture’s past and find out the facility was messing with nature in ludicrous experiments that turned out to be both useless and self-destructive. Portal 2 is a clever expansion upon Portal, from its gameplay to its characters to its hilarious satire. However, its tone is a bit more mean-spirited, which is why I personally pick the first Portal over the second one (which I wouldn’t have said before this most recent replay).

The only significant issue I have with Portal is an incident where GLaDOS forces us to “euthanize” an inanimate “Companion Cube” by throwing it into a furnace to continue on, which, as evidence collected by “Game Theory” indicates, may be more problematic than it seems. On the other hand, the evidence for their theory that the cube contains a living human is hardly explicit, so unless one digs for said evidence, GLaDOS is just using words to twist the situation.

The game is also very short, where I’ve now gotten to the point of beating it in under two hours (if I remember correctly, my record is 70 minutes); Portal 2 has gotten to three-and-a-half hours on repeated playthroughs.

However short Portal is, it’s still a gem. For whatever reservations I have about the sequel, it too is a must-play, culminating with an unforgettable ultimate boss takedown and a surprisingly feel-good denouement. The original, though, may still be the more interesting game, with its charming simplicity and eerily mysterious atmosphere. If there’s one must-play for PC owners, it’s Portal.

09/04/2017 | “Where Star Wars’s Contradictions Began”

(This was an article I originally posted June 11, 2017 on the now defunct Catholic Wannabe Critic, which was my headquarters for media reviews for a while.)

Back in March, I wrote a critique on how The Force Awakens contradicts the Star Wars saga’s core mythology by bringing back the Dark Side, making the Prequels’ Chosen One revelation, which recontextualizes Return of the Jedi‘s climax, irrelevant. However, I’ve since realized that the allowing of such a big retcon stems from the most famous words in cinema:

“I am your father.”

This realization didn’t truly hit me until critic Peter T. Chattaway pointed out that “[the] best [Star Wars] movie ever [made] ruined the franchise by setting a precedent for constant retconning.”

Yes, The Empire Strikes Back is a brilliant sequel—the template for all sequels who want their threequels to fall flat. It takes the characters we fell in love with and brings them into deeper emotional territory, all the while expanding upon the universe and its spirituality, capping it off with the best lightsaber fight put to screen.

However, the “I am your father” revelation shakes up everything we thought we knew about Obi-Wan and, with him, the Jedi and the Light Side of the Force, and that’s opened up for the saga to keep contradicting itself. Obi-Wan’s “certain point of view” nonsense in Return of the Jedi is, well, nonsense; he straight-up lied to Luke about what happened to his father, and yet he’s still somehow allowed to become one with the Force despite having died in a state of using Luke as a means toward an end.

Along come the Prequels, and it turns out even Obi-Wan’s descriptions of the heroic Jedi and Anakin’s greatness are lies, with the Jedi turning out to be much more passive than described and Anakin turning out to be a whiney youth whose fall to the Dark Side was more inevitable than tragic.

As mentioned before, the Sequels are now retconning the Prequels, where the idea of finding balance in the Force appears that it’s going to be downright relativistic, if I’m interpreting The Last Jedi‘s teaser correctly, as opposed to balance in the Force being a predominance of the Light Side.

So, with all the flaws I’m realizing about Star Wars, why do I still care about writing about it? Because the franchise has always been with me. I knew Star Wars before I knew Zelda and Lord of the Rings, which are my favorite games and favorite movies. I remember the hype of the Prequels and seeing all of them in theaters. I grew up collecting and playing with Star Wars action figures and playing Star Wars video games. Its influence on my life is almost as significant as its influence on every other franchise.

I still love the sight of lightsaber fights, John Williams’s legendary musical score, the visuals of the far, far away galaxy, and the iconic sound design (which includes the sounds of lightsabers).

As a Catholic, I can object to crucial ideas about the Force, but I can still enjoy the Star Wars story. I can even appreciate how the Force turns good and evil into a spiritual reality. It’s what I’m realizing as a film critic, and hopefully eventual filmmaker, that I’m recently having a problem with.

So, realizing that Star Wars‘s continuity issues stem from its second installment, would it be easier for me to accept the path the franchise has gone down since? Well, fine, turn the Jedi into liars and bores. Turn the great Anakin Skywalker into a whiner. Let the Dark Side return after the fall of the Sith. Heck, The Last Jedi could even turn Luke Skywalker, the archetypical hero, into a supervillain. What I wouldn’t be able to accept is if The Last Jedi will argue to take good and evil out of the question.

The battle between good and evil is what the franchise’s main episodic storyline has always hinged on. Even when the good guys are misguided, they’re meant to be misguided, including the Jedi (and boy do the Knights of the Old Republic games emphasize this). The whole point of Return of the Jedi is that the Jedi are wrong about the nature of the Force—that familial love, which the Jedi frown upon, is needed in keeping the Dark Side at bay.

Perhaps it is “time for the Jedi to end”, but I’d agree with that if it were in favor of the true path towards the Light instead of in favor of what seems to be an ‘idyllic’ relativistic balance. Star Wars can be a mess of narrative contradictions, but relativism within the Force would be the most insulting contradiction of all—an insult to the core values of Star Wars, and an insult to what Star Wars was conceived to be: an antidote to cultural cynicism. It would be objectionable both spiritually and thematically.

Of course, I have to use the term ‘would be’ because I don’t know how The Last Jedi and the rest of the trilogy will play out. The Force Awakens may be narratively uninspired, but it’s still thematically Star Wars, and I like Rey, Finn, Poe, and Kylo. I can only hope that this trilogy won’t turn out as I fear.

I want to see more stories in the far, far away galaxy—as long as they’re in the right spirit; heck, I’d like to tell them. The main storyline we have from the franchise may be a mess, but not holding Star Wars up to a higher standard than that may help me in accepting where the saga’s gone as of now since the 1977 original. Unless the rest of the Sequels ruin it.

09/07/2017 | “Virtual Ventures #10”

Those who’ve been following me through these Virtual Ventures know that video games conflict me. At this point, part of me wants to leave them behind. It’s not because I play them too much; it’s because their gameplay often allows questionable choices free of consequence, even in Zelda. I question whether or not it’s right to thrill in fictionally committing even stylized violence.

And yet, even as I walked away from it for a few weeks, I couldn’t help but continue being fascinated by this medium. When I found out that the look of Kong: Skull Islandwas inspired by Shadow of the Colossus, my immediate reaction wasn’t an “oh” but rather a gasp of excitement, even though my opinion of Shadow of the Colossus as a game has gone from one of the greatest parables video games have told to a technically impressive but confused morality tale that’s not sure of its own message (and if that still makes it one of the greatest parables in the medium, that’s just sad).

Part of my dilemma is that I’m a movie guy. I’d rather be watching a story unfold than experience the frustration of failing at a task over and over again before the story can continue. I’d rather be involved in the discussion and appreciation of film than in the discussion of an art I don’t aim for a future in. Nevertheless, video games have great artistic potential, and there are some games I’d be curious to see what non-gamer movie critics would say about them. In terms of action games, I haven’t experienced that potential realized more beautifully than in Ori and the Blind Forest, which I actually bought from Steam in June and played through three times before this latest playthrough for this post.

Developer Moon Studios took inspiration from Studio Ghibli—the masterminds behind Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (technically, this was the film that led to Ghibli’s creation), Castle in the Sky, and My Neighbor Totoro—for the creation of Ori, and it comes as the game’s biggest detriment as well as its biggest draw.

The unfortunate part is that the titular blind forest, properly named Nibel, is rooted in New Age conceits and Eastern philosophies, from the spiritual upgrade stones that the player collects as the titular rabbit-like forest spirit Ori to the story’s ying-yang worldview. There are creatures of Darkness and creatures of Light, and the light of the deistic Spirit Tree who fathers the Light creatures prevents Nibel from falling into chaos.

When Ori gets separated from the Spirit Tree and gets adopted by the Dark gorilla-like creature Naru, the Spirit Tree envelops the whole forest in an intense field of light to find his missing child to no avail. This causes a Dark owl named Kuro to vengefully douse the Tree’s light and unleash violent creatures of Darkness upon the dying forest. Due to tragic circumstances, Ori leaves Naru’s home to set off on a mission to restore Nibel’s various sources of light and return peace to the forest.

However, later into the story, the conflict is revealed to be not as black and white as it seems. Kuro actually has a sympathetic reason to hate the Light due to inadvertently tragic consequences of the Tree calling out to Ori. In that moment, the yin-yang philosophy, or at least my understanding of it, can’t be clearer: there are no forces of pure good or evil here; there are only Light and Darkness, with both being capable of both good and evil. While it’s unlikely that the Spirit Tree caused destruction intentionally, it’s still his mistake that motivates the antagonist. Nevertheless, while the story is spiritually flawed, I’m quite moved by it.

Parental self-giving, including those of the sacrifices made for children that are misguided, is one of the major themes throughout the story; right off the bat, it’s clear that no emotional punches will be pulled with this theme when Naru gives up everything to keep her adopted child nourished. Yet, it’s heartbreaking due to the joy shown in Ori and Naru’s bond. While Ori slays many enemies along the way, mercy also plays a major role as one antagonist is affected by the mercy Ori shows to him. Ultimately, mercy has the final say, with the story climaxing not through violent confrontation but through empathy and understanding brought about through an act of familial love.

The artstyle carries an emotional power on its own. Studio Ghibli doesn’t just influence the Eastern philosophies but also the whimsical character designs and the hand-painted backgrounds. Some of the Light sections of the forest take my breath away; there’s a lagoon of vibrant turquoise water contrasted with bright green foliage that made me tear up the first time I saw it. The visual splendor feels like the ultimate reward for the most frustrating gameplay sections. The musical score, an Asian and Celtic hybrid, helps to set each vivid location’s mood, and it’s a masterpiece in of itself.

I do theorize, though, that most of this would affect me the same way if it were a movie. I also have mixed feelings about its message about love’s world-changing power due to how it ties into the theme of balancing Light and Darkness. There’s stuff that I love about this game’s story, but I’m not sure I can embrace it as a whole. Nevertheless, Ori and the Blind Forest is a stunning achievement.

I may not be enthusiastic about video games like I once was, but titles with artistic merit like this can keep me at least intrigued by this medium.

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