Archived entries for Reviews & Opinion

First Impressions of ‘Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller’ [Episode 1]

Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller

Back in August I shared the trailer for Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller, an episodic point-and-click adventure game that was Kickstarted by Phoenix Online Studios. (I won’t be surprised if you don’t remember/don’t care; that’s probably one of the least-viewed posts on this blog. This one will probably suffer the same fate, but I’m OK with that.) A few days ago the first episode was released and I’ve spent a good part of this dreary Saturday settling into its serial killer murder mystery with a steaming chai latte.

It feels wrong to write a full-blown review for a game that only has one episode out so far, so instead I thought I’d share a list of first impressions which I’ve been adding to as I play through.

Good stuff:

  • Jane Jensen (my favorite game designer) served as story consultant on this game, and it shows. I can feel her touch all over it.
  • The 2D art style of the cut scenes and animation is very similar to Gray Matter. I hope that doesn’t sound like a complaint–I love Gray Matter, and I realize this is probably due to budgetary constraints.
  • Right out of the gate, this game goes to some pretty dark places. Within the introductory sequence I had to make a blood self-sacrifice and also attempted to burn a man alive. Huzzah!
  • Love the music. The intro song in particular (after you play through the mausoleum part) is fantastic. During gameplay the background music is chill and pensive with an undertone of intensity; perfect for murder investigations. There’s also some spacey synth music on the map screen that sounds like it was borrowed from this track on the Neverending Story soundtrack. This is not a complaint.
  • The interface is very well thought-out and intuitive. Inventory is a breeze to manage.
  • The cognition ability and the way you use it adds some unique gameplay elements. I like the way it was integrated into the puzzles, using flashbacks to understand how objects were affected in the past so you can manipulate them in the present.
  • Great story so far and interesting murder M.O. Definitely not cookie-cutter.

Not-so-good stuff:

  • Decent voice acting, but it was hard for me to keep a straight face in some parts because of the Boston accents, which I find humorous. Nothing against you Bostontonians, but those SNL skits (“You are SO RET-AH-DED!”) have ruined it for me.
Boston Teens
  • In some of the close-up scenes–like when you’re examining the FBI’s wanted list, for example–the graphics look all choppy and pixelated. I can live with it, but it does make the game seem a little rough around the edges.
  • The 3D animation isn’t bad, but leaves a lot to be desired. The movement is a little stiff and unnatural. Also, sometimes the characters look down or too far to the left or right and the irises of their eyeballs disappear. It creeps me out.

Easter Egg!

In one of the scenes I found a poster for The Scarlet Furies, which is Jane Jensen’s step-daughter’s band. Ha!

The Scarlet Furies poster in Cognition

 Play the Game

Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller – Episode 1, as well as a Season Pass for all the upcoming episodes, is available for download via RainDG, GameStop, and Gamersgate. In the future it might also be coming to Steam.

‘The Office’ Still Hilarious in its Final Season

The Office Season 9

Last night was the season premiere of The Office. It’s the beginning of the end for NBC’s Thursday night comedy staple, as this will be the show’s 9th and final season. Though I have my doubts about this season due to the cast members who left, I’m just so excited and happy that it’s back.

Since Steve Carrell’s exit, not many people care about The Office anymore, and that’s just fine. For the majority of those people, Michael Scott was the anchor of the show and viewers have steadily dwindled since his departure (and also because Jim and Pam are all boring nowadays).  I, however, have been watching the show since the beginning and still find it genuinely hilarious.

As much as I loved Michael Scott, for me, the funniest moments of the show are contributed by the quirky cast of supporting characters–Toby’s seemingly endless misfortune, Meredith’s drunken antics, Creed’s steadily-advancing senility, Stanley’s reactions (of which there are only 2 possible: un-amusement and disapproval), or Darryl just being Darryl. I loved it when they brought in Kathy Bates, I’m think Gabe is hilarious (though I’m certain I’m in the minority on that one), and I thought James Spader’s bizarre, awkward turn as Robert California was brilliant and it kept me watching.

Last night it was Kevin who got the most laughs from me. He opened the show with an anecdote about a turtle–well, here, just watch it–I don’t want to ruin it:

Episode Review

SPOILER WARNING for the handful of you out there who even still care what goes on at Dunder Mifflin.

The rest of the episode was a bit of a mixed bag, but not in a bad way. Andy is back as manager, much to Nellie’s chagrin, and Erin is her usual ditzy, overly-enthusiastic self. Both Kelly and Ryan are gone (which is no surprise to anyone who’s been keeping up with casting news) but we at least got to see them get a nice little send-off. Toby is, of course, thrilled at this development. Taking their place are two new interns who have already been dubbed Mini Dwight and Mini Jim.

All is not well in Jimandpamlandia, however. Jim seems to be growing increasingly dissatisfied with his job/life and fantasizes about starting a new business with a buddy of his. Meanwhile, Dwight is eager to prove himself to the new guys and continue to assert whatever shred of authority he feels he has. Dwight is usually my favorite character, but I just wasn’t feeling it in this episode. His antics were a little too ridiculous this episode, even for Dwight. I guess he’s gone a bit crazy, well, crazier than usual since learning Angela’s baby isn’t his (sorry Team Dwangela). The most surprising turn of events, however, was learning that Oscar is sleeping with Angela’s husband. BOOM, as Andy would say.

Oh, and this also happened.

I think we’re in for a weird farewell season.

P.S. Will we ever get closure on that whole Scranton Strangler thing?

Did Hogwarts really exist or was it all in Harry Potter’s head?

The Cupboard Under the Stairs

Today I came across this weird article in my news feed, which discusses a theory about the Harry Potter books I had never heard before:

“Here’s one that might be new to you: there’s a rumor going around that the entirety of the Harry Potter franchise existed completely within the realm of one troubled boy’s imagination – and that his abusive aunt and uncle drove him to insanity by making him live in a cupboard.”

Fascinating. I did some additional poking around and found this lengthy post (extreme tl:dr warning!) on a philosophy board about “The True Meaning of Harry Potter” which suggests that the Harry Potter series is about mental illness and that Hogwarts is an insane asylum. “I’ve heard it suggested to me more than once that Harry actually did go mad in the cupboard, and that everything that happened subsequently was some sort of fantasy life he developed to save himself,” Rowling said in a behind-the-scenes interview with Steve Kloves for the Harry Potter Wizards’ Collection box set. It’s interesting that she didn’t confirm or deny it, though.

There’s certainly plenty of evidence to suggest the “Harry is insane” theory could be true:

  • The Magic realm is invisible to Muggles (for the most part).
  • Harry’s pre-Hogwarts life with the Dursleys could definitely be classified as child abuse
  • The Dursleys’ embarrassment, fear and over-zealousness to rid Harry of any and all abnormalities
  • And perhaps most convincingly, this quote spoken to Harry by Dumbledore toward the end of the last book: “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”

I’m sure you can conjure up many additional examples that I haven’t bothered to list. However, I don’t believe any of these theories are true, or that making us believe something wasn’t quite right in Harry’s head (other than that whole Voldemort mind connection thing) was ever J.K. Rowling’s intent.

These insanity theories are always fun to knock around, but they’re completely subjective and like most creative interpretations, you can find always find evidence to support your wild theories if you squint your eyes and blur the details enough. Some people have a hard time simply accepting things at face value and always try to search for a hidden meaning; I guess in this case it’s because they don’t feel Harry Potter is awesome enough without some extra layer of headtrippy LIKE WHOA Sixth Sense “He was dead the whole time!” bullshit.

Not everything is a conspiracy theory, guys.

I’d rather be in a ‘Coma’ than waste 4 hours of my life watching this one.

I’m sorry, was that too harsh?

Last night’s conclusion to A&E’s “four-hour epic mini-series” COMA left me feeling incredibly underwhelmed after what I felt was a solid opener. I’ll admit to falling prey to clever marketing: for a made-for-TV movie, phrases like “presented by Ridley Scott” and “star-studded cast” tend to resonate with me. I mean, just look at the names at the top of this poster:

A&E's COMA

Geena Davis? James Woods? Richard Dreyfuss? Ellen Burstyn? Ridley and Tony Scott (R.I.P.)? Plus, a disturbingly creepy sci-fi/medical mystery? How can this go wrong?

The answer is every which way imaginable. First of all, even though it’s “presented” by the Scotts, it’s not directed by either one of them so don’t bother getting excited about that. Secondly, even though it boasts some big names, the majority of COMA stars Lauren Ambrose and Steven Pasquale, and neither of them are exactly what I’d call a great actor. Outside of the big stars, the acting was pretty atrocious all around, but bad dialogue is certainly to blame as well. Though it had slick production values and looked good for a TV movie, the direction and editing felt on par with an episode of CSI. Blah.

The biggest problem with COMA, however, is how painfully obvious the plot is. I confess, I have not read the bestselling book this movie was based on, nor have I seen the original 1978 film. From what I understand, it’s one of those twisty-turny thriller types with a lot of slow-building tension and a huge twist ending. That’s a movie I would like to see. A&E’s version, however, seems to spoil the mystery early and spends the rest of the time beating you over the head with it. Once you know what’s really going on at the creepy Jefferson Institute, there’s no reason to keep watching. Every scene is painfully dragged out and felt like it was padded to fill up the four-hour time slot. By the third hour, I was bored out of my mind and kept watching out of sheer desperation that it would get better.

This is one of the first times in a long time that I’ve actually made an effort to commit to a “two-night television event,” as I typically prefer to let them pass me by and wait for the reviews to roll in before deciding if it’s worth my time. I sorely regret not having done so in this case. I mean, four hours is a LOT of time to commit to something that sucks this much, so consider this a public service announcement if you haven’t seen it yet.

ShezCrafti’s Rating:

4 out of 10 stars.

                                  

Did ‘Breaking Bad’ just completely break bad?

Breaking Bad

Spoiler Alert

Warning: if you’re not completely caught up with Breaking Bad, you read this post at your own risk. Spoilers are guaranteed.

Tonight’s episode of Breaking Bad left with me with a very uncomfortable feeling–but uncomfortable in a good way because it means the show is living up to its name. Every episode is a masterstroke of drama and tension that pushes Walter White one step closer to the edge; a precise, carefully-balanced formula,just like the one he uses to cook meth, that keeps me addicted. But I think tonight’s episode was a standout, and possibly the definitive point on the timeline of Walter’s transformation into the antihero.

Who is Walter White now? Do you recognize him anymore? For the first time in the series I feel as if I don’t. We’ve known from the beginning that Breaking Bad is a show about a man who goes from good to bad. We’ve been witnessing his disturbing metamorphosis since the first episode, little by little, as he unravels. But up until tonight, I was still kind of rooting for the guy. I can’t say that anymore.

Walter Winking

I think Walter has almost completely lost his shit by now. There were a couple of moments tonight that really brought this home: his happy whistling after Jesse’s breakdown over the murdered child, his not-so-subtle power play with Skyler at dinner (was that not the most awkward dinner scene EVER?), and most of all, his insane-sounding tangents about wealth and power that clearly indicate he’s willing to sacrifice everything for it.

As Jesse so aptly points out, when Walter got started in the meth game, his goal was $737,000. Tonight we saw Walter turn his back on $5 million. He claims his business is the only thing he has left, despite the two children he’s been neglecting for several episodes now. Even more chilling is Walter’s skillful manipulation of Jesse’s emotions and the blatant disregard for his well being–as long as Walter continues to benefit from the relationship, it seems he’ll continue to pull Jesse’s strings.

There may not have been much action in tonight’s episode, but I think it will go down as one of the most important in the series for Walter’s character development. He seems completely detached from his former life at this point, spiraling ever downward into…well, what, exactly? How much darker can the show get? To what extremes will Walter go for his “empire?” I have a sinking feeling we haven’t seen anything yet.

By the time Breaking Bad is over, I wouldn’t be surprised if we see Walter kill a member of his own family. Or worse.

Yes Virginia, there is a perfect super hero trilogy: ‘The Dark Knight Rises’

The Dark Knight Rises

(This is a spoiler-free review.)

Up until approximately 3:00 AM this morning, I didn’t believe that a perfect superhero trilogy existed. The Dark Knight Rises changed my opinion.

Now, when I say “perfect,” I don’t necessarily mean that each individual movie is perfect in and of itself, for I certainly have nitpicks with all of them. I’m referring instead to the trilogy as a whole, a singular entity, which is the first superhero trilogy ever to make good on its promise of delivering three solid, consistent films while avoiding what one fellow blogger friend of mine calls “The Superhero Curse of Three.”

I want to start off by talking about the film’s pacing, which is always a concern when a movie is as long as the running time of The Dark Knight Rises (a whopping 168 minutes!). I spent so much time on the edge of my seat or engrossed in the story that I never had a chance to “feel” the two hours and forty eight minutes, nor was there ever a moment when I felt the film dragged.

If I had to sum up The Dark Knight Rises in one word: intense. Going in, I was skeptical that director Christopher Nolan would be able to top his established vision of terror and despair for Gotham City that we saw in Batman Begins and more so in The Dark Knight, but my God he does it. This is unquestionably the darkest, bleakest Batman film yet. And its main villain, Bane, is utterly terrifying—once you get used to his voice, that is.

Bane

I'VE SEEN SOME SHITThe film wastes no time establishing Bane (Tom Hardy) as a man who—to put it bluntly—is not to be fucked with.  His very presence is menacing and the acts of extreme violence and terror he commits against the citizens of Gotham City had me gasping in disbelief. Nolan doesn’t hold anything back here. Imagine the worst terrorist act you can think of. Now multiply that by eleven—that’s how Bane rolls. You thought The Joker was badass? Psh!

But Bane isn’t just a heartless villain archetype. He’s given a backstory that slowly unfolds throughout the film and culminates in a rather shocking twist ending that will make you actually feel for the guy. When we finally learn his true motives, we’re also given answers to questions we’ve had since Batman Begins concerning The League of Shadows. I don’t want to say too much more for fear of treading into spoiler territory.

The performances were incredible all around, but I’d especially like to commend Michael Caine (who damn near made me cry) and The Batman himself, Christian Bale; of the three films, I feel this is by far and away his best. I really bought his pain and suffering, and the emotional transitions he goes through as Batman’s story builds to an epic conclusion. Newcomers Joseph Gordon-Levitt (as Detective John Blake/mystery character who isn’t revealed until the very end of the film) and Marion Cotillard (as Miranda) are also impressive, but I was really surprised by Anne Hathaway as Catwoman. I’ve said before that I’m not really a fan of hers, and I feared her scenes in this film would be campy and irreverent. But DAMN she seems to have been born for this role.

Bruce Wayne & Selina Kyle

Have I mentioned how spectacular the action sequences are yet? I caught myself wringing my hands in nervous excitement as   the action unfolded before my eyes, being so caught up in the moment of everything, unsure of what would happen next. The visuals, direction, special effects, sound, editing—all of it—mindblowing. It truly is an epic cinematic experience that deserves to be seen on the big screen. And when you hear it all set to Hans Zimmer’s raw, powerful score, you will feel it in your bones.

And how about that ending, huh!? Huh!? That fucking beautiful ending! (How much do you hate me right now?) For real, though, I am wholly satisfied with Nolan’s vision of Batman and the conclusion he brings to Batman’s story. I left the theater in awe. Chris Nolan, you have outdone yourself. Thank you for giving us this amazing trilogy. It is a masterpiece.

Run, do not walk, to the theater to see The Dark Knight Rises.

ShezCrafti’s Rating:

10 out of 10 stars.

                                     

I Couldn’t Put Down ‘Thomas Was Alone’ Until I Beat It

Thomas Was Alone

A sure sign that a game is good: sitting down to play it and not stopping until you’ve beaten it.

I woke up this morning to the news that Thomas Was Alone had been released and promptly forked over $10 for it. It had been on my radar for a couple of months due to the rave reviews it’s been getting, but it was IndieGames’ description of it as “the Portal 2 of the indie world” that sold me. I proceeded to fork over the rest of my Saturday as well, because I soon learned this game is highly addictive.

Designed and developed by Mike Bithell, Thomas Was Alone is an indie puzzle/platformer with minimalist graphics but a brilliant, well-developed narrative. You begin the game as Thomas, a simple red rectangle, and you are indeed all alone as the British narrator (voiced by Danny Wallace) guides you through the game’s beginning levels that acquaint you with some of the controls and obstacles you’ll encounter throughout the game’s 100 levels.

As you move through the levels, you’re introduced to other characters who are also quadrangles with distinctive personalities, each one with a unique ability–often one that appears to be a limitation at first. For example, there’s Claire, a rather depressing large blue square who laments that she can’t jump very high, only to later find out she can float in the poisonous water that would otherwise kill Thomas and his acquaintances. This makes Claire feel like a superhero and gives her a renewed sense of purpose as she’s excited to show off her abilities and come to her friends’ rescue–just one example of how the game breathes life into its characters. Yes, this game made me empathize with colored shapes!

Claire

Thomas gets by with a little help from his friends.

Actually, I wouldn’t be surprised if Thomas was inspired, at least in some small part, by the classic cartoon The Dot and the Line which kept popping into my head as I was playing through, and I couldn’t help but draw comparisons between the narration styles. The characters in Thomas Was Alone also grapple with feelings of loneliness, insecurity, romance, and the desire to find their place in the artificially-rendered world in which they find themselves.

Let’s talk about the audio for a minute, because it’s fantastic. In fact, the first thing I noticed was the game’s gorgeous music, which was composed by David Housden. Retro gaming fans will also appreciate the Atari-esque sound effects when you jump and complete goals; it makes for an interesting fusion of old and new.

Movement is simple: arrow keys to move, space bar or the “up” arrow to jump. You must also use Tab (or the Q key) to switch between characters for most levels where you’ll be required to make them work together to solve puzzles. Standing on the extreme edge of things is going to be your bread & butter maneuver in most cases, using the flat surfaces of the shapes to your advantage.  At times I found myself really wishing I was using a controller, as some of the jumps are pretty difficult to land and there are obstacles like moving platforms and spiked barricades to contend with that require precise timing. But by around the twentieth level or so I was more than comfortable with the keyboard.

Puzzle

Level 5.0 is where the anti-gravity kicks in and things start to get a lot more challenging; I felt like a genius when I finally figured out the twist in level 5.6.  Though there are 100 levels, some of them are much easier than others and you’ll most likely breeze right through. Overall, the game presents a good mix of difficult and easy puzzles, some of which seem to exist to further the story along. On the other hand, there were levels that had me completely stumped for 30 minutes or more. In total, I think I spent a good 5 -6 hours on the game, with the exception of a few breaks.

There isn’t much negative I can say about the game, other than the few small glitches I encountered where my character got stuck to the side of a platform. In one case it was actually helpful to get past an obstacle, but I’m pretty sure that’s not how I was meant to do it. I also felt the ending was a little lacking, but still satisfying.

ShezCrafti’s Rating:

8 out of 10 stars.

                                    

‘The Pact’ Totally Creeped Me Out

The Pact - My Review

On a whim I decided to watch The Pact last night, an independent horror film from the festival circuit that’s currently available On Demand.

I’m generally pretty jaded when it comes to most modern horror films, which, more often than not, are cheap scare fests with vapid, one-dimensional characters that reveal too much and rely too heavily on flashy special effects. I was fully expecting as much from The Pact, whose premise and above poster remind me of another recent horror film, Dream House,  in which I was extremely disappointed because it violates all of the above.

Thankfully that wasn’t the case for The Pact. It’s a methodically paced creeper of a film that takes its time building up to the big scares, all the while keeping things sufficiently spooky with plenty of Poltergeist-like phenomena that made my hair stand on end.

The Pact

Caity Lotz (whom I found quite mesmerizing) stars as Annie Barlow, a young woman who returns to her childhood home following the death of her mother and subsequent disappearance of her sister. We learn that she’s been detached from her family for quite some time, having survived traumatic abuse that’s only hinted about in the film, which leaves much open to interpretation later on. This isn’t a film that wraps everything up neatly in a bow; you’re left to your own devices to make sense of the plot and ending, which, frankly, I found refreshing. I enjoy movies that force you to pay attention to subtle clues and connect the dots for yourself. And because I’d rather you experience it for yourself, I won’t spoil anything for you.

For a film that takes place primarily inside of a tiny, two-bedroom rancher in California, The Pact drips with atmosphere.  I’m usually not a fan of haunted house type movies that take place in such locations, preferring dreary, drizzly, or wintry climates to the sunny backdrop of California, but The Pact makes it work with grim lighting, deep, dark shadows and minimalist but effective score. I was also very impressed with Nicholas McCarthy’s direction, who makes his feature-length debut with this film. I’ll definitely be looking forward to whatever his next project will be; hopefully another horror film like this one.

ShezCrafti’s Rating:

6 out of 10 stars.

                          

I like Adam Sandler, I just don’t like most Adam Sandler movies.

 

Adam Sandler Unfunny

So, Adam Sandler has a new movie coming out. I can practically feel your excitement permeating through my screen.

Regardless if you like the guy or not, I think we can all agree the ratio of terrible Adam Sandler films to good Adam Sandler films is pretty unfavorable.

Let’s go through the list, shall we?

Good Adam Sandler movies:

  • Airheads (1994)
    I know this isn’t technically an “Adam Sandler film”, but I’m including it for pity’s sake.
  • Billy Madison (1995)
  • Happy Gilmore (1996)
    Which is really just Billy Madison golfing.
  • The Wedding Singer (1998)
    Which has less to do with Adam Sandler and more to do with it being set in the ’80s and starring Drew Barrymore, whom I adore.
  • Big Daddy (1999)
  • 50 First Dates (2004)
    I’ll give this one a pass (again, saved by Drew Barrymore) even though it’s just rinse & repeat of the Wedding Singer formula. 

I can’t help but notice that most of these movies are from early in Adam Sandler’s film career. It could be that Sandler blew his comedic wad too soon, but I’m more inclined to believe that Fry’s analysis is accurate:

I'm not sure if Adam Sandler used to be funny or I was just 12.

Bad Adam Sandler movies:

  • The Waterboy (1998)
    Yeah I know, there are a lot of you out there who love this film and I admit it has its moments, but even Fairuza Balk and Kathy Bates, whom I both love, couldn’t save it for me.
  • Bulletproof (1996)
  • Little Nicky (2000)
  • Punch-Drunk Love (2002)
  • Mr. Deeds (2002)
  • Eight Crazy Nights (2002)
  • Anger Management (2003)
  • Spanglish (2004)
  • The Longest Yard (2005)
  • Click (2006)
  • Bedtime Stories (2008)
  • You Don’t Mess with the Zohan (2008)
  • I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry (2007)
  • Funny People (2009)
  • Grown Ups (2010)
  • Just Go With It (2011)
    I’m not much of a Jennifer Aniston fan, so this one was two scoops of fail for me.
  • Jack and Jill (2011)

Clearly, the list of bad Adam Sandler movies is substantially longer.

I’m sure some of you are also going to give me flack about Punch-Drunk Love and Spanglish, which are more serious films that Adam Sandler fans love to hold up as proof of his supposed acting “range” and “ability.” I’m sorry, maybe I’m just pre-conditioned from decades of movies where Adam Sandler acts like a complete idiot, but I’ve seen both of these movies and nobody has been able to successfully convince me they’re any good. (I’ve yet to see Reign Over Me, so I’ll reserve judgement on that one.)

Red Hooded SweatshirtAdam Sandler is funniest, even charming, when he’s just being himself. Give me Red Hooded Sweatshirt Sandler over any of his dumb movie characters any day. Hell, I’ll even settle for Jimmy Fallon’s Celebrity Jeopardy impression of Adam Sandler over the likes of Zohan or Jill.

I don’t dislike Adam Sandler. Honestly, I don’t. He has a lot of good ideas (which would probably be better executed by someone else) and he’s contributed a lot to his craft. I just think the guy tries too hard.

By the way, here’s the trailer for That’s My Boy, that new Adam Sandler movie I mentioned earlier.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rUU0tV0zv5E

I won’t pay to see it in a theater, but I’m sure I’ll catch it on Netflix or cable eventually because I enjoy torturing myself I keep holding out hope that one of these days Adam Sandler is going to make a good movie again.

Are you offended by this tentacle rape card game? [Updated]

Tentacle Bento = Tentacle Rape?

So apparently there’s a crowdfunded card game on KickStarter called Tentacle Bento, which recently surpassed and more than doubled its $13,000 fundraising goal and still has 24 days left in the campaign. Why is it so popular? Well for one thing, it’s got plenty of super cute anime girls for you to ogle, and oh yeah–it’s about (implied) tentacle rape!

Note  the “implied.” That’s key for the point I’ll make in a bit.

In Tentacle Bento, a trick taking card game by Soda Pop Miniatures, you play as an alien monster disguised as a student at an all-girl university whose mission is to “get your slimy tentacles on as many of the student body as you can before time runs out.” You do so by cornering girls (who are represented by the four suits of Cute, Sexy, Sporty and Smart) in locations such as The Freshman Dorm and by laying down “Sneaky Snatch Action” cards.

I heard about the game on Twitter when @stillgray tweeted a link to this rather assertive post by Brandon at Insert Credit that pretty much dismisses the game as nothing but offensive, rape-glorification material that shouldn’t be allowed on KickStarter:

“The style is a cute, lighthearted, pastel-colored look at the wonderful world of forcing your way inside a female against her will. There are, to my mind, a lot of things wrong with this.

For one thing, rape is not cute. Amnesty International states that 1 in 3 women is molested, sexually assaulted, or otherwise beaten in her lifetime. I’ve heard many advocates say this number is low, due to under-reporting. And it’s not cute, and should never be depicted with such saccharine sweetness as Tentacle Bento does. It is terribly damaging to anyone it happens to.

The more troubling thing is how many people are supporting it without thinking about it. Or even worse, maybe they are thinking about it.”

While I’m in total agreement with Brandon’s position on rape, I can’t say I agree that Tentacle Bento is as bad as he’s making it out be–which is a shame because I had my pitchfork all cleaned up and ready to go.

After reading the KickStarter project page, watching the video and looking closely at the cards, I’ve come to the conclusion Tentacle Bento is a relatively harmless slice of tongue-in-cheek humor aimed at anime fans and yes, those weirdos with a tentacle fetish who are genuinely turned on by the idea of being sexually probed by tentacles (which, frankly, I will never understand, but if that’s your thing, hey).  However, I’d wager that for most of the world tentacle rape fetish is a fringe curiosity–just one more bizzarre thing to come out of Japan, like used panties vending machines.

Like Munchkin or Killer Bunnies, this is the type of parody card game you whip out at a party to play with your nerdy friends while drinking and having a good laugh about terrible anime. Because it’s a card game, and not say, a film or videogame, if there’s any actual “rape” in this game, it exists solely in the player’s imagination. The project description and video don’t use the word “rape” either, but even as implied rape I’m not offended. There’s a major difference between the reality of being brutally raped by another human being and this breed of bizarre alien fetish porn that is the stuff of fantasies.

Looking through the comments section, I’m inclined to believe the people who are donating money to this project are not the pro-rape, women-hating, sexual assault apologists the article above would have you believe. They’re just a bunch of dorks who want a cute, funny, mildly-inappropriate card game to play–and some of them are even women.

Update 5/16 – Well, looks like KickStarter has given in to the few overly sensitive people out there crying “rape!” because the Tentacle Bento project has now been pulled–which I’m sure has a lot to do with Luke Plunkett’s hit piece for Kotaku. I’m really disappointed in KickStarter’s decision to censor this project. What will they censor next? Leisure Suit Larry?

’21 Jump Street’ is Surprisingly Not Terrible, Almost Makes Me Pee

21 Jump Street

The original 21 Jump Street was one of those ’80s shows that seemed really cool at the time but looking back on it nowadays you’re embarrassed you ever liked it. It’s worth watching for the glimpse at Johnny Depp’s early, pre-superstardom career and perhaps as a fun stroll down Regrettable ’80s Fashion Lane, but not much else.

So when I heard about the new 21 Jump Street movie I wasn’t exactly quivering with anticipation in my sparkly leotard. If not for the recent overabundance of pseudo-nostalgic reboots of popular TV shows from my youth, I might have been a little more excited about it, but my initial reaction was a full-fledged “meh.”

After seeing the film last night and laughing so hard I almost peed myself (seriously), I’m completely rethinking that position.

Like the premise of the original show, 21 Jump Street is about a special unit of young cops who go undercover to fight youth-related crime. In this case it’s the awesomely-named Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum), two underachieving cops forced to go back to high school in order to bring down a synthetic drug ring, with the fun twist that they used to be enemies in their own high school days.

Have you ever seen The Other Guys? Well 21 Jump Street is kind of like that except set in a high school and Ice Cube is there to make it more awesome and uncomfortable.

Ice Cube in 21 Jump Street

Forgoing the cheesy teen melodrama that the original series was known for, the new 21 Jump Street is all comedy. While Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum are hilarious together, I think the real source of the comedy is in the editing.

As fodder for funny quotes and animated GIFs, 21 Jump Street is a goldmine.  At the center of the plot is the fictional synthetic drug HFS (short for Holy Fucking Shit) which has five phases:

  • Phase 1: The Giggs
  • Phase 2: Tripping Major Ballsack
  • Phase 3: Over-Falsity of Confidence
  • Phase 4: Fuck Yeah Motherfucker!
  • Phase 5: Asleepyness

Throughout the movie you’ll see various characters take the HFS drug and react accordingly, while helpful on-screen title cards announce what phase you’re witnessing. It hilarious, trust me.

If you are a diehard fan of the original show you’ll probably be disappointed to know that the new film is nothing like it aside from its premise and the  Johnny Depp / Richard Grieco double cameo that you’ll have to wait over an hour and a half to see.

At a running time of 109 minutes, my biggest complaint is that the movie is too long for a goofball comedy and toward the end I felt it was getting old. There’s a lengthy car chase scene with a running gag where you keep expecting an explosion, and when it finally does happen you’re just kind of like “meh,” which sums up how I felt about seeing this film in the first place.

ShezCrafti’s Rat­ing:

         

6 out of 10 stars.

‘American Reunion’ a Hilarious & Fitting End to the American Pie Franchise

American Reunion Review

Note: for maximum preservation of lulz, this is a spoiler-free review!

Being a graduate of the Class of ’99 and having grown up along with the American Pie gang, it was inevitable that I’d see American Reunion, the fourth and final film in the Pie franchise that takes place 13 years after the original.

There’s a reason why these films are considered by many to be classics (with the exception of those horrible straight-to-video cheap spin-offs). For those of us squarely in their target demographic, the American Pie films are like milestones by which we can measure our own lives:

  • 1999: American Pie came out. I had just graduated high school. Prom (and disposable boyfriend) was behind me. My friends were the most important thing to me in the world.
  • 2001: American Pie 2 came out. I was in college, had started my first “real” job, and was trying to figure out what to do with my life in between partying and trying to hold on to my youth.
  • 2003: American Wedding came out. I was in love, engaged, and looking forward to my own wedding. (It didn’t end well, by the way, but that’s a whole ‘nother story.)

So last night it was with great interest and pangs of nostalgia that I went to the theater to see American Reunion.

From the moment I heard the first lines of R. Kelly’s gloriously cheesy sex anthem Bump N’ Grind–the film’s opening song–I knew I was in for some serious laughs. Actually, there were very few moments during the whole film when I–along with everyone else at the theater–wasn’t in hysterics. Like the previous films, American Reunion opens with a spectacularly raunchy gag that made me glad I decided to skip the soda.

American Pie fans will be happy to know that everyone from the entire original cast has reunited for this film–and I mean everyone. Just when you’re thinking “Hey, where’s so-and-so?” that character shows up; usually to great comedic effect.

Thirteen years later, we learn Jim (Jason Biggs) and Michelle (Alyson Hannigan) are still married but now with a toddler and fizzling sex life, Kevin (Thomas Ian Nicholas) is an architect and happily married, Chris/”Oz” (Chris Klein) is a famous sportscaster and TV personality with a huge L.A. mansion and a trophy girlfriend, and Stifler (Seann William Scott) is a temp at a large investment firm.  Oh, and Finch (Eddie Kaye Thomas)? He’s essentially “the most interesting man in the world” to have ever graduated East Great Falls High, but that’s all I will tell you without spoiling anything.

American Reunion: The gang's all here.

Everything that made you fall in love with these characters in the first place is present and accounted for:  Jim’s awkward conversations with his Dad, Finch’s too-cool-for-school attitude, Kevin’s wistful interludes with Vicky, Oz and Heather’s elusive romance, and Stifler’s obligatory obnoxiousness.

Although the premise is a little flimsy (a 13-year high school reunion?), you’ll be laughing so hard it won’t even matter.  You know those comedies that blow their wad early by including all the funniest bits in the trailer? I can assure you that’s not the case here. It’s not just a film full of sex jokes or one-liners, either (even though there’s plenty of that too).  Some of the gags are pretty elaborate and the payoffs are huge. (Again, so glad I opted not to drink anything.)

But American Reunion is not without a few serious moments too.  The film is anchored by the relationship between Jim and Michelle and Stifler’s growing fear and ultimately realization that his best days are behind him.  The characters are handled with care and I felt each of their stories was given a satisfying conclusion. Clearly a lot of care and attention to detail went into this movie, and it definitely shows in the cast performances.

Oh! I also wanted to be sure to mention the soundtrack, which I found to be an enjoyable blend of old and new. There’s current big hits (You Make Me Feel, Sexy and I Know It, Everybody Talks…) as well as songs that took me right back to high school (Wannabe, My Own Worst Enemy, Closing Time…).  Fans will also recognize a few songs from the previous films that reprise their role as theme music for the characters. It’s also worth mentioning how massive the American Reunion soundtrack is–60 songs! But don’t expect to be able to purchase a complete one yet.

In this disappointing era of American cinema where sequels and remakes are the norm and our childhoods are constantly being plundered, I found myself really surprised by American Reunion.  Now please don’t make any more American Pie films so we can end this thing on a high note!

ShezCrafti’s Rat­ing:

9 out of 10 stars.

         

Review: ‘Starry Starry Night’ is a Beautiful, Imaginative Coming of Age Film

Starry Starry Night 2011 Film

You’ve probably never heard of the Taiwanese film Starry Starry Night, a coming of age drama directed by Tom Lin that was released in late 2011. I had certainly never heard of it until a few weeks ago when it popped up in my DVD recommendations over at YESASIA, and everything I read about it just seemed so appealing to my interests that I couldn’t resist picking it up.

Jimmy Liao - Starry Starry Night Illustration

The film is an adaptation of a children’s book by Jimmy Liao, a Taiwanese illustrator and picture book author renown for his melancholy depictions of childhood using vivid colors and striking visuals.

The story centers on Mei, a bright, sensitive but lonely 13-year-old girl who is dealing with a lot of issues in her young life. She’s quiet and withdrawn at school, her parents are on the brink of divorce and barely notice her, her mother is growing increasingly distant and drinks too much, and her grandfather, whom she loves more than anyone else in the world, is in very poor health.

Mei is a very imaginative girl who fills her days with art, puzzles, daydreams, and yearns for the days when she used to live with her grandparents at their cottage in the mountains. One day around Christmastime, Mei hears beautiful recorder music outside her bedroom window and sees that its being played  by a young boy, who is at the window of a neighboring apartment.

Mei & Jay - Starry Starry Night

The boy turns out to be Jie, a new student at Mei’s school who is a budding artist also dealing with many issues of his own. His artistic talents and cocky attitude make him an easy target for the other boys at the school who constantly bully him. Mei can’t help but feel drawn toward Jie, and after a series of rocky events in both their lives, the pair begins a tremulous friendship.

As Mei and Jie’s relationship blossoms, they both begin to overcome their loneliness and adversity while trying to cope with the ongoing harassment of their classmates. There is a strong undercurrent of desire between the two leads, who grow closer and closer and eventually run away together on a fantastic adventure. Their summer romance is short-lived, but sets in motion the events that will forever change both of their lives.

Origami Coming to Life

Starry Starry Night has been described as a “visual feast” for its beautiful cinematography that blends together rich, imaginative visuals with dramatic lighting and shadow play.  The film is punctuated by gorgeous CGI fantasy sequences where Mei’s imagination takes over, as she envisions inanimate objects—her grandfather’s wooden animal carvings, colorful pieces of origami, fantastic shadow beasts—coming to life all around her. This focus on Mei’s imagination as an extension of her character’s hopes and dreams is a beautiful way of looking at the world through a child’s lens.

The mesmerizing score is another element that adds to the dreamlike quality of the film. It’s a mixture of delicate music box melodies, and sweeping, ethereal lullabies that really makes the imagery soar.

Mei & Jie - Starry Sky

There are a few flaws, however, such as the film’s sometimes laboriously slow pacing; but at least the film’s unquestionable beauty makes the journey worthwhile. There are also some directorial choices that pile on too much unnecessary melodrama, and visual metaphors that are too obvious.  These are only minor complaints, though.

Starry Starry Night may not wow you with its uncomplicated plot and simple special effects, but if you enjoy tender coming of age stories and deep character development, I cannot recommend this film highly enough.

ShezCrafti’s Rat­ing:

         

7 out of 10 stars.

An Honest Review of ‘Love Never Dies’ from a Non-Phan

There are generally two types of Phantom fans:

The crazy, obsessive variety who hold everything to impossible standards and will pick apart every performance and adaptation of Phantom like vultures (these are the same people  who write tawdry phan-fiction and believe Joel Schumacher’s  2004 film version is a pile of rubbish), and those like me who simply enjoy Phantom, in all of its various forms, for what it is—a damned good story no matter how it’s told.  Like Robin Hood or The Count of Monte Cristo, it’s one of those classic stories that will be retold and rediscovered through the ages, with or without Andrew Lloyd Webber’s help.

Love Never Dies

As the sequel to one of the most beloved and obsessed-over musicals of all time, Love Never Dies was bound to ruffle a few feathers, but the reality is that it has been plagued with problems almost since its inception. Die-hard Phantom fans, or “phans” if you will, have been on something of an anti-LND crusade. Feeling betrayed by Andrew Lloyd Webber’s decision to extend the canon of his masterpiece by essentially “making shit up,” they argue that the sequel takes too much liberty with the story and characters of Gaston Leroux’s original novel. Many phans simply choose not to acknowledge that a sequel even exists.

The critics have not been kind either, panning everything from the libretto to the choreography.  One even cruelly dubbed the show “Paint Never Dries.”  After a disappointing run in London’s West End, Love Never Dies was almost completely overhauled and the production moved to Melbourne, Australia, then later to Sydney, where it’s currently set to run until April.

Despite the the harsh criticism and phan backlash, the reworked show seems to have found its audience in Australia where its getting rave reviews and playing to sold out venues.  The September 15, 2011 8:00 PM performance of the Melbourne  production was filmed for release on DVD and Blu-Ray and is currently playing in theaters, so that is the version I will be reviewing.

Synopsis

Beware: lots of spoilers below. You’ve been forewarned!

Set ten years after the events in PhantomLove Never Dies shifts us from the majestic Paris opera house setting to the  carnivalesque spectacle of 1920′s Coney Island. We learn that The Phantom has established a new artistic base of operations in Phantasma, a musical menagerie of sorts, with the help of familiar characters Madame Giry and her daughter Meg, who smuggled him out of Paris. Known only to his performers and patrons as “Mr. Y,” The Phantom is the mysterious figure behind Phantasma’s—and Meg Giry’s—success.

Yearning to hear his beloved Christine Daaé sing for him once again, The Phantom sends her an anonymous invitation to make her American debut at his theater. Now married to the Vicount de Chagny, Christine accepts the invitation and arrives by boat to much fanfare with her husband Raoul and young son Gustav in tow. Evidently Raoul has become a distant husband as well as father, is in dire financial straits, and is also quite fond of the drink.

The Phantom soon reveals himself to Christine in her hotel room, who is of course shocked and bewildered, but still unable to resist him. In “Beneath a Moonless Sky” we learn that Christine and The Phantom once shared a secret night of passion, and that “Once Upon Another Time”, Christine was prepared to break her engagement with Raoul for her masked lover. But it was The Phantom who in fact rejected Christine, breaking her heart.

The Phantom and Christine - Love Never Dies

Their semi-romantic interlude is interrupted by Gustav, who awakens from a terrible nightmare. Christine introduces him to “Mr. Y”, saying that he’s an old friend of hers. The Phantom is enchanted by the boy, and Gustav likewise.

Gustav grows increasingly enthralled with Phantasma as The Phantom introduces him to his world in “The Beauty Underneath.” When Gustav plays a beautiful melody on the piano, his extraordinary musical talent causes The Phantom to begin to suspect that he’s really the boy’s father. Believing that Gustav will accept him, he takes off his mask which causes Gustav to run away, screaming. He retreats to his mother, who when confronted by The Phantom, admits that Gustav is his son. He makes Christine promise not to ever tell Gustav that he is his father, but promises to leave him everything he owns. Unfortunately, Madame Giry overhears all of this.

Meg Giry - Ooh La La Girls - Love Never Dies

As the reigning star of Phantasma, Meg considers herself Mr Y’s protege. When she learns of Christine’s opportunity, she can barely hide her jealousy.  Madame Giry is none too thrilled about The Phantom’s obsession with Christine, having a vested interest in her own daughter’s future and feeling betrayed after all she’s done for him. She exposes The Phantom and his plans to Raoul, who storms off in a fit of rage and later goes to drown his sorrows at the bar, questioning Christine’s love for him.

The Phantom drops in on Raoul and makes a bet: if Christine does not sing for him, she is free to leave with Raoul and her son. If she does sing, however, Raoul must leave alone. To make a long story short (because this synopsis is already getting ridiculously long), Christine does end up staying and singing for The Phantom, despite Raoul’s pleadings that they leave together as soon as possible.

After her stunning performance of “Love Never Dies,” Gustav mysteriously disappears. Meg Giry, in a jealous rage, has kidnapped him and taken him to the docks, threatening to drown him. The Phantom, Christine, and Madame Giry arrive just in time, and The Phantom is able to get the boy safely away from her. However, Meg pulls out a pistol and threatens to kill herself instead. In the midst of a lengthy, emotional tirade where Meg reveals all sorts of unsavory things about herself, The Phantom tries to wrestle the gun away from her and she accidentally shoots Christine in the stomach.

As Christine lay dying in The Phantom’s arms, she tells Gustav that he is the boy’s real father. Gustav runs off to find Raoul, who arrives on the scene too late. Christine and The Phantom profess their undying love and then kiss their final kiss. As the curtain closes, Gustav removes The Phantom’s mask and embraces him.

First, the not-so-good stuff:

To appreciate Love Never Dies, you have to sort of let go of any preconceived notions you might have about the characters. The Phantom a loving father figure? Raoul an abusive drunk? Meg Giry a prostitute? Accepting these new realities requires putting aside the outcomes of the events in The Phantom of the Opera. And people can certainly change a lot in ten years.

Admittedly, the plot is kind of a mess, especially toward the end. If I hadn’t known what to expect from having listened to the soundtrack so many times, I probably would not have fully grasped what was going on. One of the main criticisms of the show’s original production was its nonsensical plot. I completely understand why it had to be reworked. On the other hand, it feels strange to watch something that you know has been significantly tweaked because the edits tend to seem all the more obvious.

Being reworked also means that some musical themes from The Phantom of the Opera were injected into the score. In between the new songs, you’ll hear hints of Phantom songs like “Angel of Music” and “Prima Donna.” Supposedly the current iteration of the show includes many more of these invasive musical interludes than the original production. It’s difficult not to notice these melodies when you hear them, and I found myself wondering if they were necessary additions.

And now on to the good stuff:

My first introduction to Love Never Dies was through its soundtrack (the full original cast recording is available on Spotify), which I fell immediately in love with and ended up listening to on repeat while at work.

Musically, Love Never Dies is exceptional. It’s full of hauntingly beautiful themes (“Beneath a Moonlit Sky”, “Once Upon Another Time”, “‘Till I Hear You Sing”) and grand, sweeping waltzes (“The Coney Island Waltz”, “Look With Your Heart”) that, when they bloom, will make your heart swell with emotion.  Andrew Lloyd Webber has described it as being the most beautiful score he’s ever written, and I don’t believe he’s exaggerating.

It’s also one of the most visually stunning musicals ever produced. Coney Island provides a vibrant, spectacular backdrop to the drama unfolding on the stage. The costumes, especially those of the circus performers, are lush and imaginative.

I won’t pretend to know more than I do about theater (which is very little) but I must commend the extraordinarily talented cast. The singing, dancing and acting were all top notch. The show opens with Ben Lewis’ (The Phantom) powerful performance of “‘Till I Hear You Sing”, which kicks off the first in a long series of big, ambitious musical numbers to come.  I was especially impressed by Anna O’Byrne (Christine Daaé), whose vocals on songs like “Once Upon Another Time” took my breath away.

In terms of the overall message or moral of the story, I much prefer Love Never Dies’ mature view of life and love over the impossibly idealistic “happily ever after” ending of Phantom. Christine’s “safe” choice of suitors has always bothered me, and the sequel attempts to explore what might have been had Christine given in to her true desires. It’s a flimsy basis for a sequel to be sure, but it does manage to provide answers to the questions we’re left with at the end of Phantom. For the people who were rooting for The Phantom and Christine, Love Never Dies is like a beautifully-wrapped gift.

The bottom line:

Though Love Never Dies doesn’t quite manage to capture the same magic as the original (and let’s be honest, sequels rarely, if ever, do) it’s still a highly enjoyable production that is well worth watching. But even if the show doesn’t manage to captivate you, the music probably will.

Does the world really need a sequel to The Phantom of the Opera, the most successful musical of all time? Most people would probably say no.  But those people would be missing out on something really special.

ShezCrafti’s Rat­ing:

         

8 out of 10 stars.

Review: ‘Chronicle’ is Surprisingly Good for an Angsty Found Footage Teen Film

Chronicle - Film Review

Chronicle is a sci-fi thriller about three teenage boys who come into contact with a strange, radioactive substance found in a well near their Seattle home, and weeks later discover that they’ve developed telekinesis-like abilities.

The story centers on angsty highschooler Andrew Detmer, who begins documenting his troubled life with video.  He constantly gets picked on, his dad is an abusive drunk, and his mother lay dying of cancer.  It doesn’t get much worse than Andrew’s life.  And so he finds solace behind the camera, constantly filming at every opportunity (much to the annoyance of his friends and classmates).

The first part of the film is pretty much what you’d expect: through Andrew’s lens, we get a good introductory glimpse of his life, his friends, and his problems. About 12 minutes in, everything changes after he and his friends Matt and Steve stumble across the mysterious well.  From there afterward the boys begin documenting their powers on video, testing the limits of their abilities with genuine awe at what they’re capable of, often in humorous ways (for instance playing pranks on unsuspecting people).  With the newfound sense of belonging that Matt and Steve provide, Andrew’s personal life begins to transform as well, gaining more confidence and control in his social life even when things are falling apart at home.

And this is where Chronicle really gets interesting. Rather than focusing too much on the “Hey, look at my awesome super powers, isn’t this cool?” aspect of Andrew’s story, the film takes a much darker turn as we learn that Andrew’s intentions and motivations aren’t exactly pure.  Tired of being bullied and his miserable home life, Andrew beings to recognize that having such power also means having the ability to punish those who would do him harm.  And power in the hands of someone who is so obviously disturbed is a very dangerous thing.

The film’s unspoken question: if you suddenly developed super powers, what kind of person would you be?

Shockumentary horror films like Blair Witch and Cloverfield that favor the shaky, first-person handcam method to tell the story as if it were “real” footage usually come across as highly unbelievable because, honestly, what kind of fucking idiot would keep the camera rolling in terrifying life-or-death situations? (For what it’s worth, REC was one of the only films to get the ‘found footage’ formula right.)  But In a non-horror film like Chronicle, the found footage style makes more sense to me. In the age of YouTube, I have no problems believing that a bunch of bored teenagers who suddenly develop super powers would want to film all the awesome things they can do.

That’s why I was pleasantly surprised by how well Chronicle works. Director Josh Trank, who is only 26 years old, by the way, is to be commended for putting his unique twist on the found footage trend with this directorial debut. Rather than mindlessly mimic the first-person shooting style like so many other films have done, he creates character situations that allow for different filming perspectives, better camera angles, and more interesting frames of reference.

For example, there’s a pretty insane action sequence toward the end of the film where we get to witness the events unfold through traffic and security cameras positioned all around downtown Seattle. In some other cases, however, it felt like the filming situations were far too contrived.  But overall I think the direction was appropriate and varied enough so that you don’t feel like you’re trudging through loads of raw footage waiting for something cool to happen (fuck you, Paranormal Activity).  Cool stuff definitely happens in this movie. I don’t want to give too much away, but I can promise there are some fantastic “WTF” moments that come out of nowhere, and awesome action sequences that must be seen to be believed.

I believe Chronicle is an amazing achievement in low-budget filmmaking.  If you can put aside your expectations of what found footage films are typically like and just let yourself get immersed in the story, this movie can be a lot of fun.

ShezCrafti’s Rating:

7 out of 10 stars.

Mouse Without Borders vs. ShareMouse for Windows Keyboard and Mouse Sharing

Multiple Computer Setup - Desktop + Laptop + Extra Monitor

I recently reconfigured my desk into a multi-workstation setup, using both my laptop and desktop side-by-side, plus an extra monitor. Having three screens* to contend with, switching between two sets of keyboards and mice just doesn’t cut it.  In my efforts to find an easier solution, I recently had the opportunity to try both ShareMouse and Mouse Without Borders.  (Feel free to skip ahead if you just want to know which one is better, in my humble opinion.)

(*Yes, that’s my nerdy triple Hunger Games wallpaper you’re seeing)

ShareMouse

To try to remedy the situation, I first found and installed a “freeware” program called ShareMouse.  ShareMouse uses your existing local area network connection to transmit keyboard input and mouse cursor movements between multiple computers.  You install it on each computer you want to control, designate which computer is the server (the one controlling the others),  then adjust settings to configure your monitor arrangement.  It also allows for convenient drag-and-drop file sharing between connected computers that have ShareMouse installed.

The “free” version of ShareMouse worked great—except for the fact that it inexplicably stopped working altogether for me after only two weeks.  I got an error message telling me the “beta” trial period has expired, and to continue using ShareMouse I would have to “download the latest version.”  Which, of course, I did.  And after going through the motions of uninstalling and re-installing, I still got the same error message upon trying to launch the program.

Suspicious, I went to ShareMouse’s website and started combing through the FAQs, where I found this:

ShareMouse - Not so Free After All

“Personal home use.”  I fit that description.  So far so good.  But that still doesn’t explain why ShareMouse stopped working.  After clicking the link, I found this:

ShareMouse Detects Professional Use

Well now,  that changes things a bit, doesn’t it?  I’m only using two computers, but I’m using more than two monitors if my laptop screen is counted.  Also, I have software “which is typically used in professional environments” installed, e.g. Adobe.  But I wonder what else counts?  Does the Microsoft Office suite count?  That’s certainly typical of professional environments.  What other software is included in that sneaky “etc.”?  The ShareMouse policy also seems to equate “professional users” with “power users,” although you have to drill deep into the FAQ to figure that out.

So basically, the reason ShareMouse stopped working for me, without warning, is because the software determined that I fit their vague definition of either a professional user or a power user.  It would have been nice if ShareMouse informed me of all of the “gotchas” before I installed their “freeware” software and got really used to it!  After wasting several hours of my life trying to figure out why the blasted thing wasn’t working, I finally got fed up and started looking for other solutions.

(By the way, if you do decide to purchase a license for the full-blown version of ShareMouse, another “gotcha” is that a separate $24.95 license is required for EACH computer running ShareMouse.  And since ShareMouse is pretty much worthless/unnecessary for single-computer setups, why would you EVER purchase just one licence?  So the real price of ShareMouse is $49.90 for a two-computer setup).

Mouse Without Borders

For us Windows users, thankfully there is a very useful and 100% FREE piece of software called Mouse Without Borders from the Microsoft Garage.  It essentially does all the same things ShareMouse does, except its functionality is limited to Windows-based PCs.  It’s much easier to install and use.  Instead of having to install it on all your computers and then having to mess with cumbersome configuration settings, Mouse Without Borders works automagically after a simple prompt:

Mouse Without Borders - Easy Setup

Basically all you have to do is install it on both PCs, and enter a simple code to begin sharing.  You can download Mouse Without borders right here.

tl;dr

For Windows users in need of a dead-simple keyboard and mouse sharing solution, Mouse Without Borders is superior to ShareMouse and doesn’t try to bait and switch you into buying a paid version.  You can download Mouse Without borders right here.

‘The Beaver’ Will Make You Sort of, Kind of Like Mel Gibson Again…Maybe

The Beaver, 2011, Mel Gibson

“Hello. I’m The Beaver. And I’m here to save your career.”

Whether you’ve forgiven Mel Gibson for his self-righteous behavior, anti-Semitic tirades, racist rants, and alleged wife-beating ways or not (in which case I completely understand), I think it’s a tragedy that one of the best movies of 2011 will probably never get the recognition it deserves because it stars a man who occupies a spot on Hollywood’s permanent blacklist.

But I’m not here to throw a pity party for Mel Gibson.  I don’t think any man who hits beautiful women, drives drunk, and owns an island the size of a small country is deserving of much pity.  But acknowledgement for his extraordinary acting ability? Sure.

Like the guy or not, I think there are few people who would deny that Mel is a talented actor.  I mean, not once during The Beaver did I feel like punching him in his douchey, N-word spewing face, and that is saying something.  I went in with low expectations and a healthy dose of cynicism, yet by the time the end credits rolled I felt ready to take back every harsh word I had ever said against Mel Gibson.  Well, okay, not exactly…but it kind of felt like that!  That’s how a good actor is capable of making you feel.

And I have to agree with the critics who are saying The Beaver is one of Gibson’s best roles. For 91 minutes, I was somehow able to completely forget all about Mel Gibson the person and warmly embrace Mel Gibson the clinically depressed husband and father of two, who after a mental breakdown and subsequent suicide attempt decides to wear a beaver puppet on his arm and communicate exclusively through his new stuffed friend’s persona thereby regaining his confidence and ability to function.  It’s all very Lars and the Real Girl (a brilliant film) except perhaps with better directing (Jodie Foster), more of a focus on dysfunctional family dynamics, and a bit of a shock ending.

Though a ridiculous-sounding premise, The Beaver is a thoroughly enjoyable dramedy that just seems to work and the reason why it works is Mel Gibson, who manages to pull off two simultaneously demanding roles in a single film.  Despite his status as one of America’s most disliked people, I am not so jaded by the media’s anti-Mel Gibson crusade that I am incapable of recognizing talent when I see it.  If you’re able to separate an artist’s ability from his or her personal life and appreciate their work despite personal shortcomings, well congratulations on being a rational person. You know, Polanski may be a rape artist but I’m not afraid to admit that I really enjoy his movies. And Michael Jackson may or may not have been a kid-toucher, but whenever Billie Jean comes on, I always turn that shit up.

Go see The Beaver. It is a beautiful film that will make you laugh, cry, and all that good stuff if you just give it a chance. And if you can’t suspend your personal disdain for Mel Gibson, well, you just might be missing out on a really great movie.

Why ‘Reality is Broken’ Is a Must-Read for Every Gamer

And now for something completely different…

If you consider yourself a gamer in any capacity, you have probably not gone through life without someone telling you, at some point, that video games are waste of time, or you have no life, and other insulting misconceptions that non-gamers often spew at us.

In her new book, Reality is Broken, visionary game designer Jane McGonigal hopes to change such attitudes.

Let’s be honest: Video games typically get a bad rap.  Blood, sex, violence, gore, moms seducing 13-year-old boys on Xbox Live, the boy who shot his parents for taking away Halo… Sensational headlines about video games tend to overshadow the medium itself.

But what about all the positive ways in which games influence our lives?  Beyond basic reading comprehension and hand-eye coordination, video games can teach us how to set and achieve goals, adapt to new situations, learn from our mistakes, help and influence others, and even how to be an effective team member.

For the millions of American gamers (over 174 million, to be more precise) who already realize these benefits, Reality is Broken is a refreshing and encouraging study of how video games improve our lives and the reasons why we need them.  Jane McGonigal advocates that video games are so omnipresent today because they are able to fulfill basic human needs that we are otherwise lacking in our modern lives.  In short, “reality is broken” and McGonigal believes video games are the “fix.”

“Drawing on positive psychology, cognitive science, and sociology, Reality Is Broken uncovers how game designers have hit on core truths about what makes us happy and utilized these discoveriesto astonishing effect in virtual environments. Videogames consistently provide the exhilarating rewards, stimulating challenges, and epic victories that are so often lacking in the real world. But why, McGonigal asks, should we use the power of games for escapist entertainment alone? Her research suggests that gamers are expert problem solvers and collaborators because they regularly cooperate with other players to overcome daunting virtual challenges, and she helped pioneer a fast-growing genre of games that aims to turn gameplay to socially positive ends.”

No matter what kind of gamer you are, from the weeknight WoW raider to the casual DS gamer—even non-gamer—you will find yourself inspired by the views Jane presents in her book, and perhaps even in awe at all the innovative, groundbreaking ways that game designers throughout the world are using their talents for the greater good.

Book Giveaway!

Would you like to win a copy of Reality is Broken? Courtesy of The Penguin Press and TLC Book Tours, one hardcover copy of the book will be given away to one of my readers in the U.S. or Canada.  If you’d like to enter to win, simply leave a comment below using your email address.  I will randomly select a winner on Friday, January 28 and will contact you further by email.

Good luck!

Review: Reasons to Love ‘Deathly Hallows: Part 1′

When I first learned that Warner Bros. was going to split Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows into two movies, there was much kicking and screaming on my part.  I was not alone.  There were plenty of fans and non-fans alike who felt it was a poor decision, and one that further painted Warner Bros. as greedy studio execs who were trying to milk the Harry Potter franchise dry.

I saw Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 last night and I am happy to report that my attitude has changed.  My faith in David Yates still waning, I went into the movie with slightly lowered expectations.  But when the credits rolled, I walked out of the theater with only positive thoughts.  Reflecting on the finished product, I now understand not only why it was necessary to make two films, but also why the filmmakers felt it was important.  They wanted to give us a proper farewell.

Right away, the decaying Warner Bros. logo sets the tone: this will not be a happy movie.  Dumbledore is dead, Voldemort and his Death Eaters have infiltrated the Ministry of Magic, and the wizarding world is at war.  Times are so dark that even the Muggles are fleeing their homes–nowhere is safe.  Harry, Ron, and Hermione have said their goodbyes to Hogwarts (the warm, familiar school setting is noticeably absent) and set out on a journey to destroy the horcruxes: objects containing the seven pieces of Voldemort’s soul that are the keys to his destruction.

The danger is eminent from beginning to end; this is the darkest Harry Potter film yet (which should be no surprise to those who have read the books).  There are some genuinely frightening scenes and, of course, more deaths of beloved characters.  Yet all this doom and gloom is punctuated by surprising little moments of joy.  I found myself cheering at grand entrances, for example, when [spoiler] Dobby bursts into Number 12 Grimauld Place wrapped around Mundungus Fletcher;[/spoiler] and at other times laughing out loud like when [spoiler]Harry tests out the wand that Ron gives him, which unexpectedly shoots out a pillar of flame[/spoiler] (it’s much funnier than it sounds, trust me).

There were also many moments in the film that felt like a love letter to fans.  There was an especially lovely scene where [spoiler]Harry coaxes a melancholy Hermione into dancing with him; it was a touching and fitting tribute to their seven years of almost sibling-like friendship.[/spoiler]  We were also treated to an early scene where [spoiler]Hermione performs a memory charm on her parents, knowing she will have to leave them behind.  In the books, we never get to see Hermione’s “Muggle” life, so I really enjoyed this little bit.[/spoiler]

I sometimes take issue when this type of fluff is injected into books based on movies, especially if they replace scenes that are more critical to the plot, but I could not find much to complain about here.  Even the book’s most tender moments are handled with great care [spoiler]like the death of Dobby (which managed to make me cry)[/spoiler].  There are, of course, some differences between book and film that improve the flow and pacing of events, but overall I felt Deathly Hallows: Part 1 was a very faithful adaptation that captured the same feelings of isolation and impending doom.

There were some lowlights for me, however.  Let’s start with Xenophilus Lovegood–I didn’t care for Rhys Ifans’ performance.  I realize the character is supposed to be eccentric, but I felt really distracted by his screen-time.  Also, I love Helena Bonham Carter as Bellatrix Lestrange, but with every Harry Potter movie she gets more and more ridiculous.  Whenever she’s on screen I feel like I’m watching the Helena Bonham Carter show–I wish she’d tone it down a bit.  Then there was Alexander Desplat’s score, which was not spectacular, but it gets the job done.  Those are my only complaints, and yes, they’re nitpicky.

Visually, Deathly Hallows is a marvel of filmmaking, from the cinematography to the special effects.  The spells, apparitions, flying and battle scenes all looked amazing.   As much as I missed Hogwarts, this film makes up for its absence with breathtaking natural backdrops.  Seeing it on an IMAX screen was truly a memorable experience.

But as spectacular as part one of Deathly Hallows is, it’s almost a bit unfair to review it as a complete film.  Even at a whopping two hours and twenty six minutes long, I guarantee you will be disappointed when it ends; feeling rather like someone pulled the rug out from under you.  And like all good two-part movies, this one ends on a major down note.  For those wondering what part of the book serves as the ending to this film, I will only say this: they made a very good decision.

There were so many things to love about Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and I am confident it will go down as one of the best films in the Potter movie franchise, if not the best. The only bad thing about this movie…is that it ends.

Review: Gray Matter Was Worth the Wait

For gamers who have been anticipating the release of this game for over seven years (practically an eternity in game development), Gray Matter will inevitably polarize us into two groups:

  1. Those who will criticize it for not being perfect despite “all that extra time” the developers have had to work on it
  2. Those, like myself, who are simply so grateful to finally be able to play this gem that we are willing to look past its shortcomings.

The most glaring criticisms are the game’s graphics and animations.  (Let’s get the bad stuff out of the way, shall we?)  If you are expecting an adventure game with cutting edge graphics and animation, you will not find it here.  What you can expect, however, is a game that is rich in story, mystery, and the supernatural.  In other words, it’s all the things that fans of Jane Jensen’s games have come to expect.  Gray Matter tells a beautifully crafted story with interwoven themes of science vs. magic, love and obsession, death and forgiveness. Set in Oxford, the game is steeped in history and atmosphere, and features real locations from around England rendered into beautiful, softly lit backdrops.

There are two main characters that the player controls alternatively in different chapters:  Samantha (“Sam”) Everett, a young, spunky ex-goth street magician who has spent most of her well-traveled life in and out of foster care, and Dr. David Styles, a brilliant but reclusive neurobiologist with a tragic past.  Both of their lives begin to change when Sam shows up at the doorstep of Dread Hill House one rainy night, desperate for a job and a place to stay.  Still mourning his dead wife and consumed by his experiments, Dr. Styles soon becomes entangled in powerful forces he does not understand, and it’s up to Sam–who has an agenda of her own–to help him.

The story unfolds in a careful, suspenseful manner that gives us insight into both characters’ minds and emotions.  Neither of them hold all the clues or know all the answers, and both of them are deeply flawed in one way or another.  That’s all I will say without giving too much away.

The voice acting ranges from just okay to great, with Sam’s voice leaning toward the low end of the spectrum; a bit disappointing given her huge role.  There are certainly moments when her voice shines, but overall I felt it didn’t quite fit her character and wasn’t always genuine.  On the opposite end, David’s voice was excellent.  The game’s score and soundtrack is another highlight.  The few subtle musical tracks are wonderfully composed, if a bit repetitive. (I’m now a Scarlet Furies fan, by the way.)

The game also features graphic novel-style cutscenes that have a hand-painted look and feel.  I very much enjoyed the game’s art style, but critics will most likely ding the cutscenes for being a byproduct of low budget.  I at least applaud the developers for doing something unique and creative given their limitations.

Most of the puzzles are logical inventory-based puzzles that fit the situation the protagonists find themselves in.  You will not encounter any random, out of place puzzle mechanisms that seem to exist just to slow your progress, or be required to go on any tedious pixel-hunting tangents.  The game’s magic trick system is innovative and provides some unique gameplay, but it’s also not much of a challenge.

Overall, the puzzles aren’t that difficult, but they are sometimes presented in a non-linear fashion that I often found confusing.  For example, gold locations on your map indicate that there’s “something left to do” at that location.  However, the game will not let you progress until you go to another location, work on a separate puzzle for a while, then come back later.  You will find yourself checking the Chapter Progress screen frequently.

One issue I have with many adventure games is the copious amounts of reading.  Though Gray Matter does have its fair share of in-game documents and other printed miscellany, it’s usually presented in such a way that’s easy to digest and actually somewhat informative and interesting.  (You may even find yourself learning a thing or two about magic–who else tried some of Sam’s tricks out on their friends?)  And of course, in classic Jane Jensen style, there’s plenty of humor, in-jokes, and pop culture references.

Gray Matter proves, as most great adventure games do, that graphics are not the only thing that makes a game good.  If you can look past it’s rough edges, Gray Matter will reward you with satisfying gameplay, lovable characters, and a truly riveting story that comes to an exciting and satisfying conclusion.  But perhaps the more amazing story is how Gray Matter survived through years of development hell and lived to tell its tale.

Yes, Gray Matter was absolutely worth the wait.