Lawbreakers Review

Developer: Boss Key

Publisher: Nexon

Release Date: August 8, 2017

Platforms: PC (reviewed), PS4

Me and arena shooters go back to 2001 with Aliens vs Predator 2. That was the game that seduced me to the genre, to the exhilarating fragfest of twitch aiming and explosions—and Xenomorph pouncing. After that came Unreal Tournament: 2004 and then Team Fortress 2, but by then, I was starting to play a wider variety of games on a wider variety of systems. This lead to a gradual falling out with the genre as playerbases dwindled alongside my free time.

Those good memories never left though, and I’ve been on this lazy hunt for another arena shooter in the same vein of AvP2 and UT2k4 for what feels like a long time. TF2 is great, but it doesn’t have the speed I want.

Cue Boss Key’s Lawbreakers hitting the scene in 2017. My search is over.

In a way, Lawbreakers is a combination of two of the aforementioned arena shooters. It has the class system of TF2 mixed with the massive gunplay and wild speed of UT2k4. It’s just as addictive as both.

Yet the game isn’t a simple A + B = C. Lawbreakers throws enough twists and turns at the genre to stand on its own and succeed at everything it tries to do. It’s the best of old-school mechanics with all the shiny polish of 2017.

The biggest twist is the zero-gravity bubbles that reside in the middle of every map. Lawbreakers demands its audience go vertical when fighting, and that means getting off the ground and into the air. It makes for a strong learning curve, but once it clicks it feels absolutely amazing. It helps that most characters have their own ways to zip around the map, either through actual flight or things like grappling hooks and teleportation.

Lawbreakers is its own animal when it comes to combat, because attacks can come from any direction.

lawbreaker screen2

The game is class based, featuring a cast of nine characters to play, each coming with two special moves and an ultimate on a timer. There’s a lot of personality to each of them, though not quite as much as TF2 or Overwatch. Still, the little things help set them apart, such as the Battle Medic barking, “Here comes health!” or Juggernaut going, “Remember when I told you I’d kill you last? I lied!” I’m quite fond of most of them.

Before we continue, here’s a quick rundown of the cast:

  • Assassin: Glass-cannon, melee-DPS class with two swords and a shotgun side arm
  • Battle Medic: Healing class equipped with a grenade launcher and capable of flight
  • Enforcer: Support soldier class with a nice machine gun and grenade
  • Gunslinger: Precision class with two handguns, the first precision the second auto
  • Harrier: Support class complete with a laser rifle, laser boots, and a small heal
  • Juggernaut: Tank class with a big shotgun, a big health pool, and the ability to deploy barriers
  • Titan: Heavy DPS class with a rocket launcher and a electric flamethrower-style side arm
  • Vanguard: Glass-cannon DPS class equipped with a Gatling gun and flight
  • Wraith: DPS class mixing melee abilities, gunplay, and speed

On first look, there are a lot of classes that can play supporting roles (Battle Medic, Enforcer, Harrier, and Juggernaut); however, what most class-based arena shooters call support and what Lawbreakers calls support are different levels of violence.

In Lawbreakers, you help the team by being fast and killing regardless of who you’re playing as.

The Battle Medic, for example, has fire-and-forget heals, meaning you’re spending most of the game flying above everyone else and raining down grenades or picking off stragglers with her pistol. I do a lot of healing sure, but I also do a ton of damage. She’s an absolute joy to play and probably my favorite healing class in a video game ever.

The other supporting classes follow in a similar line, with the Enforcer and Harrier packing fairly high-DPS weapons despite offering team buffs. Juggernaut is the only one who really feels more like a tank, but he offsets that by being able to deploy shields that can stop enemies from scoring objectives or entering healing stations.

As someone who loves arena shooters but isn’t very good at them, I love that the supporting roles are just as viable and fun to play as the DPS ones.

The DPS ones, meanwhile, are absolutely insane. Aside from the lumbering Titan, movement is nonstop speed and action, with teleports, grapples, and a lady that’s half fighter jet. Everyone feels good to play as, especially the Vanguard and Assassin classes who have more erratic movements. The Vanguard really does feel like you’re flying an airplane complete with machine guns and cluster bombs, and the Assassin feels like a cross between Spider Man and Ryu friggen Hayabusa.

Every time I jump into another match of Lawbreakers, I’m always surprised at how good and fun the general movement is.

On the whole, the game is pretty balanced, with one or two ultimates being a little more powerful than they need to be. Still, given the wide disparity in health values, I very rarely find myself exploding with no reason behind it. There’s always that little chance I can exit a bad fight and grab more health.

I’d say the TTK is about perfect, or as perfect as a class-based shooter can be.

The game modes themselves offer another twist on the arena-shooter genre in that there is no Death Match or Team Death Match. Everything is objective based, which is something I really, really appreciate. Objectives breed more variety than simple run-and-gun, and I feel less bad about dying left and right when I’m helping guard a battery or cap a blitz ball.

Lawbreakers comes with five modes, two based off of King of the Hill, two off of Capture the Flag, and one off of Assault. The two King of the Hill type modes are standard, but the others act as an evolution of their predecessors. The two CTF modes involve holding a battery at your base to charge, meaning capping isn’t just about retrieving the battery—you have to defend it too. I’m not sure that’s an inspired change or not, but it does add a new dynamic (and a new level of tension) to a tried-and-true game mode.

Blitz Ball is the Assault-style mode, though it’s more of a sport than an assault. The ball has to be taken to the enemy base, but given how fast Lawbreakers is, it typically winds up shooting everywhere like a deranged game of soccer where everyone has a gun. When a Titan or Juggernaut grabs it, the mode slows down to a tense trudge ala football.

Suffice to say, it’s an absolute blast.

It should also be noted that while Lawbreakers is $30, it comes with a lot of content. There are nine characters, five game modes, and eight maps. There are also tons of unlockables, though they’re all found in loot ‘Staches that have to be found our purchased via real money. Thankfully, they only contain cosmetic items such as weapon skins and decals, so you don’t have to worry about any pay-to-win mechanics here.

lawbreaker screen

While fun can be had in spades, Lawbreakers isn’t without its few quirks and problems. The first big one is that it wastes the player’s time. Time between matches can last up to a minute and a half, even when the lobby is full and everyone is ready. There’s no “Ready” system to speed things along. What’s worse is you can’t open ‘Stache boxes while waiting, so you’re stuck watching the clock tick down.

‘Staches open very, very slowly I might add. There’s no reason for it.

There’s also no way to pick what maps or modes you’ll be playing. Quick matches means it’s all random. I honestly don’t know why there isn’t a voting system with even two or three choices to pick from, as games like Halo have been doing that for ages. It’s one of the few times where Lawbreakers doesn’t feel modern at all.

Finally, the game does come with a very hefty skill ceiling. That’s less of a complaint and more of a fact of life, but there are a lot of little things to learn. The game doesn’t always do a great job of teaching those things, either. Some characters have side arms while others don’t, and none of that is effectively communicated.

I didn’t learn the Assassin had a shotgun until someone told me, for example. (Admittedly, I’ve never touched the tutorial area.)

That all being said, Lawbreakers is a fantastic arena shooter with a lot to love. It aims for fast, frantic, and fun, and it hits all three consistently. The classes are all fun to play, but the way it treats its supporting roles is really what I find shines the best. No one feels left out. Everyone feels viable. Little twists and turns abound, both in the gunplay and the game modes themselves, and while I have some small gripes, they’re just that: small.

I’ve been looking for a new arena shooter for what feels like a long time. I’ve finally found one.

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The Dark Tower Review

I can see why Hollywood would want to adapt The Dark Tower into a movie series. It’s seven books, or eight movies, and Stephen King’s name is on the cover. That’s an easy sell. The problem is, the source material is anything but easy to adapt. It’s thick and dense, the characters aren’t always chatty, and the books tend to get Stephen King weird.

Really Stephen King weird. His best kind, but you know, hard to put to film. To faithfully adapt this series would mean hundreds of millions of dollars, which means general audience buy-in, which means major cuts, changes, the removal of Stephen King weird, and a new ending.

At that point, why even bother?

As someone who has read and loves the series, I don’t think it’s suited for the big screen. I’m not sure I’d put it on the silver screen, either. There’s a reason King’s books are hard to adapt.

But first we have to take a step back, because calling this an adaptation is being disingenuous. The Dark Tower is The Dark Tower in name only. Yeah Roland, Jake, and Walter are here, but their characterization, their plot, and their conclusion are so different from the novels that I’m left wondering why anyone even bothered.

The Dark Tower novels are about obsession first and everything second. Roland is searching for the tower, and it’s not made him a good person. Obsession is the key word. His quest only turns cosmic and world ending in the later books, and while he’s changed some by then, he’s still obsessed. Saving the world is always less important than simply finding the tower.

The Dark Tower movie is about a young boy who is having nightmares about the coming apocalypse and his quest to stop it. Along the way, he meets Roland, develops psychic powers, and becomes the key to both saving and ending the world.

It’s a young adult movie.

I suppose the question is: Is it a good young adult movie, but that’s a hard one to answer because I don’t really know. I saw The Dark Tower a few hours ago; however, I don’t remember much. It’s very generic—or the exact opposite of the source material.

The movie runs wild with young adult tropes, such as Jake hating his step father, the step father hating Jake, bad dreams that become prophetic, black-and-white morality, Jake getting super powers, and then some generic acclimation to a new world. In the books, Jake’s entrance into Mid World is an accident; in the movie, he goes there on purpose.

It’s up to him to find and convince the last Gunslinger that there’s still hope left.

If you take the adaptation away from the movie, I suppose nothing here is inherently bad. The acting ranges from fine to Matthew Mcconaughey, the action scenes are pretty cool, and the movie is shot competently. The problem is, it never goes beyond “fine” in anything it tries to do save Matthew Mcconaughey as Walter, who is wonderful to watch.

Matthew Mcconaughey is great. He kind of reminds me of Nicholas Cage, in that he can play some really strange, twisted characters and sell it all, even if the script is rather rote.

And to give credit to The Dark Tower movie, adding more Walter isn’t a bad idea. He’s pretty much a background character in the books, an unseen agent that we’re told is dangerous but is hardly ever shown. It works to a point, but seeing him cast actual spells and go toe-to-toe with Roland does a better job of selling him as a villain. Matthew Mcconaughey is deliciously evil in the role, and genuinely threatening to boot.

The rest is, as I said, fine. Idris Elba makes for a wonderful Roland, but he doesn’t get near enough screen time. Save for a dream sequence, it takes maybe twenty minutes for him to show up, and when he does, he doesn’t always feel like Roland. He’s obsessed sure, but it’s not the forefront. He cares too much about those around him, and he’s after Walter to kill him, not for information. Plus, seeing him enter Keystone Earth so quickly doesn’t jive with me, even if some of the plot points from The Drawing of the Three do show up.

That in itself is its own mess. If you know the books at all, you’ll be seeing little bits and pieces of every novel here, typically in the wrong order and with the wrong execution. It makes for a fascinating watch, because The Dark Tower movie is by and large a Frankenstein monster of parts. Roland gets a bad infection and needs antibiotics is from the second book, Jake’s mental nonsense is from the third, breakers show up, and that’s either book six or seven, and we get a bit of Roland’s past, which is book four. I believe there are elements of five in here as well, though no wolves.

All of this makes the movie a very strange animal, especially when it comes to pacing. It clocks in at 90 minutes, but often times it feels slower than that. A lot happens—basically every young-adult story beat you can think of is here—but it’s less rushed and more…plodding.

Never once is it confusing though, and given the development turmoil, that’s more interesting than the film itself.

Also of interest is how Jake’s powers show up; or rather, it’s less that they show up and more that “The Shine” is used in other Stephen King novels, so him having it feels less plot-stupid than it really should. I was less upset with the young-adult protagonist developing super powers and more with the fact that Jake doesn’t have The Shine in the books. It’s bad storytelling, but because it’s rooted in Stephen King mythology, it gets a pass.

Which is maybe the one thing the whole movie gets right, even if it does it in the wrong way.

The Dark Tower is a bad The Dark Tower movie. It does everything wrong, from the pot to the characters. I don’t know who asked for this or why anyone bothered. As a film on its own, it’s fine. It doesn’t do anything interesting, but the action is okay and Matthew Mcconaughey is a joy. I’m not sure if I’m more offended in that it’s a poor adaptation or that it’s so inoffensive in everything it does, but either way, I’d say skip it.

Alien: Covenant Review

SPOILER WARNING: PLOT AND ENDING DETAILS FOLLOW

So I’m that weird guy at the party who, when the topic of the Alien franchise comes up, will swear up and down that Prometheus is one of the best movies in it. Depending on how much alcohol I’ve had, I’ll say it’s the best one. I adore that movie and what it tried to do, and while it may have missed the mark here and there, it ultimately is a gorgeous flick with some really compelling questions at heart.

Alien: Covenant is the direct sequel and everything its predecessor is not, which includes being good.

I’m honestly not sure where to start. It’s hard to separate Alien: Covenant from Prometheus because both try to do the same things, just one fails while the other succeeds. Both look at the Alien mythos and aim to expand upon it and answer questions, and both try to tackle themes that the previous movies never considered.

Answering questions is a very bold—and honestly very stupid—goal when it comes to horror. Monsters are scary because we know so little about them. The Alien is terrifying because it is this brutal force of space  outside our realm of thought and maybe time itself. It is the OTHER.

The Engineer, the Space Jockey, is scary because it has even less going for it. Here is this THING affixed to a chair with its belly blown open and calcified. It’s old, it’s dead, and the cargo that presumably killed it is not. Where was it going and why? Not knowing is better than knowing.

Or so I thought.

See, I believe Prometheus succeeds at answering questions first because its focus isn’t on the Alien but on the Engineers themselves. That dead transporter plays such a little role in the series that he’s fair game to work with. He’s a divergent path, and he’s why the film is called Prometheus and not Alien: Prometheus.

Second, every question Prometheus answers brings bigger and more terrifying questions to the forefront. The few hard answers we do get—and there are very few—only serve to enhance the Alien universe and make it bigger. There are devils as we have seen, but there are gods too. The problem is, they might also be devils. Kicking that question could doom more than just the bit characters stuck on LV223.

Alien: Covenant isn’t interested in asking more questions, only answering them. It doesn’t make the Alien universe bigger but smaller, and in doing so, it hurts the Alien and every question Prometheus asked in the process.

Perhaps this is why I’m so disappointed (and have hardly talked about Alien: Covenant so far in this review). I’m less upset that Alien: Covenant is a bad movie and more that it killed everything amazing about Prometheus.

We started an odyssey with Shaw and David off to figure out who created humans and why, and then we fast forward ten years and not only do those questions not matter, but Shaw has gone the way of Hicks and Newt and David has gone from morally grey to mad-scientist villain.

Alien: Covenant gives us a new cast of characters, a new cargo ship, and the mission of finding a habitable planet and planting new life. Their cargo is a thousand bodies and another thousand embryos.

That’s…fine, I guess. It’s a soft reboot away from Shaw and David, but I can work with it. However, I just need to stop again, because the goal here is just way less impactful and interesting than in Prometheus. The size of our character cast is pretty much the same, but finding God is so much bigger than just making more humans that I feel like we’ve taken a massive step backwards before we’ve even started. By scifi standards, our plot is pretty tired.

The first twenty or so minutes are also just straight boring. We get a parallel view of Walter (oi Ridley, why not name him Eric and continue the tradition?) walking through the ship and checking on his crew much like David did, only for Walter, something goes wrong long before they get to their destination. He has to wake everyone up, and wouldn’t you know it, they intercept a distress beacon.

I’m not sure if this is boring because we’ve seen it before in Alien or because the characters just don’t have anything gripping about them, but watching everyone debate what to do holds no real weight. We all know they’re going to the damned planet even if it’s literally the dumbest idea on the table.

You have a cargo of humans bound for a specific planet to kickstart a new colony of life. You’ve done scans and probably thousands of hours of research, but because this planet is closer, it’s cool to jet over and maybe live there instead?

At least the captain has faith!

The rest we’ve all seen before. We’re now six movies deep not counting the Alien vs Predator flicks, and that means that half of the Alien films have featured a different set of characters finding an Engineer ship, walking through it, and then something really bad happening.

Half of these films have had this exact same sequence. Let’s let that sink in.

The heart of Prometheus was creation, and that continues in Alien: Covenant, though in a very different way. The first had hope at its core, while this movie is just bitterly cynical and even misanthropic at times. Shaw wanted to better our understanding of the universe, and David is just a bored guy on an empty planet with nothing better to do.

His creating the Aliens through experimentation is also woefully bad for the Alien mythos as a whole. The mysterious OTHER outside of space and maybe time itself is the result of a bored dude with too much time on his hands! Real scary there.

There are, thankfully, some great moments to be found. Ridley Scott needed another few rounds of script editing sure, but man is he a master of visuals. Alien: Covenant is a gorgeous movie with some wicked-awesome monsters, and its only real flaw is that you can tell some of the stuff on screen is CGI. There’s a lot less practical work here, which feels odd, but none of it is by any means bad.

The Aliens look good, and the other creatures do too. They even bring a few nice scares to the table, though the movie is ultimately not scary or all that tense.

And despite my qualms with David, he really is the star of the show here. His interactions with Walter are especially great, shoving him somewhere into the uncanny valley with his AI-driven logic and human sociopathy. Fassbender really does phenomenal work. It is a shame that his motives don’t always work and the actual timeline of events falls apart when scrutinized for even a little bit. Or maybe he’s just not as smart as he thinks he is.

Speaking of which, if you were upset with stupid decisions made in Prometheus, you’ll have a right fit here. Yeah, Milburn and Fifield getting high and petting an alien snake ain’t smart, but they were fodder characters. We knew going in they’d die because horror movies need bodies. With Alien: Covenant, the smart people are just as stupid as the fodder.

Our ship’s captain gladly looks into a facehugger egg when David tells him to, even though David had just spent the last five minutes explaining why he was the bad guy.

“No, it’s totally safe. Please ignore my macabre museum of dissected and crucified monsters.”

“Well, I did just get done calling you the devil, but okay!”

The rest is, as I said, stuff we’ve seen before. The first act is boring scifi, and the third act is a blatant callback to Alien, though with way less finesse. At this point, I’d call it just lazy instead of homage. Act two is okay with some good scares and some fun moments with David, but ultimately it holds no weight, and the more questions answered, the smaller the Alien universe becomes.

The quest to find God died with Shaw.

I was nervous going into this movie because I knew we weren’t doing a straight sequel with Shaw and David finding the Engineer homeworld. Someone at Fox or in Ridley’s head said, “no this has to be Alien and not Paradise,” and we were bound to get something lesser in return. That David and Shaw might show up did keep my hopes up, though. I was excited.

Then this movie did literally everything I had hoped it wouldn’t. It then did a bunch of stuff I had never figured it would try because you shouldn’t have that many bad ideas in one script.

Small Favors Review (NSFW)

Note, I wrote this review for WeTheNerdy.com but like how it turned out. I figured I’d repost it here.

Also note, Small Favors is porn.

Welp, I’m reviewing a porn comic for WeTheNerdy because I wanted to see what rock bottom was like. As it turns out, it’s not regular darkness but advanced darkness, you can’t tell the men’s bathroom from the women’s, the accents are strange, the bus schedule is absurd, and I’ve lost my Gloveworld balloon. Patrick is also gone.

Okay. Now I’ve hit rock bottom.

The hardcover edition of Small Favors is 258 pages of porn, specifically girl on girl. Sometimes it’s multiple girls on multiple girls. It is 100% unashamedly porn, and binging all of it in two settings is maybe not the right way to read it. Like, it’s porn. The ideal way to consume porn is just enough to get off so you can get on with your day—in this case, that would be a chapter at a time unless you’re really quick to fire. You could potentially get a lot of mileage out of this thing if you play your hands right.

Our general plot is that Annie is a chronic masturbator, so much so that her own subconscious is upset with her. Like, deep inside she’s real mad that she keeps going deep inside herself. She’s magically sent to her inner mind, scolded for having no morals, and given a manifestation of herself to make sure she remains chaste and pure. This manifestation is named Nibble. Guess what Nibble likes to nibble on?

Girls. She likes to nibble on girls.

The best thing going for Small Favors is that tonally, it knows what it is and it wants you to enjoy it. It’s fun. It’s quirky and silly, and it does its damndest to let the world know that sex and masturbation are fun and should be treated as fun things. It’s cute most of the time, sexy some of the time, and in general…well, porn.

But it’s also a 258-page comic, and as a stuffy critic, I want more than that. Small Favors doesn’t deliver more than that. The characters don’t change, they all sound the same, and personal boundaries do not matter at all in this world of theirs. Every girl Annie and Nibble run into turns out to be a cute lesbian, and every one of them is game for all types of sex.

No one ever has to think twice about going down on someone else; thus, orgies happen at the drop of a pair of panties.

No one ever has to think twice about diseases or general cleanliness, which is why Annie and Nibble lick a stranger’s dildo clean so they can use it. The internal germophobe in me screamed so loud it woke the neighbors.

It doesn’t sound like a problem because it’s porn, but it kind of is. You can’t have the same tone and energy for an entire book without the whole thing getting old. Horror doesn’t work without moments of safety, action doesn’t work without moments of peace, and I guess porn doesn’t work without moments of actual character development.

I never knew that until today, so yeah for me for learning something new.

It would have helped if some of these characters would have at least acted surprised or questioned what was going on, because it’s not like all of the sex in this book is conventional. Most of it is, but there’s some light bondage, rimjobs, anal, and size play because Nibble can shrink, and I can’t believe Annie and Nibble would bat a thousand in that department. Like, at some point having Nibble shrink and crawl into places that people can’t actually crawl into would have to raise an alarm bell.

It would have also helped if the comic had toned down the amount of sex and made what was there last longer. It’s more a collage of parts rubbing against parts than any real buildup, and not only does that get tiring, it leaves any real intimacy at the door. For a comic that’s fine with genitals and penetration, it certainly wasn’t fine with holding a shot. One position would smashcut into another without any transition, making it more busy than sexy.

And color me white privileged, but the comic hits some creepy points that are actually pretty offputting. Small Favors opens up with Annie peeping on her neighbor and going down on herself at the same time, and while the two obviously get together later on, the idea of that just doesn’t sit right.

Maybe I’m being a prude. I certainly don’t want to kink shame anyone because hey, consenting adults and all that, but that above example is missing some consent, right?

Nibble isn’t any better. She has zero understanding of personal boundaries, and honestly, comes off as a bit stupid. It’s weird in a bad way. At one point, she’s in a grocery store and asks a clerk which wine would go best with Annie’s pussy, and I can’t help but find that a bit terrifying. It’s certainly not sexy. Like, that’s the kind of thing someone whose diet consisted of gerbils and human liver would say.

It’s also, sadly, a prime example of the dialogue on display. I think the word pussy averages out to like once every other page, though I didn’t personally count. Wet shows up more than it needs to as well. Taste too.

Finally, I once again have to wonder who this is for. It’s a $20 hardcover…of porn. Those aren’t small, and most people don’t put porn next to their Shakespeare and young-adult dystopias. You can also find better on DeviantArt or FurAffinity for free, and I’ll guarantee there’ll be more character work and better pacing.

At the same time, Small Favors is porn that works as porn and unlike Sunstone, isn’t ashamed to be porn. It’s cute and quirky, and I’m probably the only person on the planet who cares about logic while two people are taking turns licking each other’s assholes.

Enjoy your wanks, everyone.

A Cure for Wellness Review

The reports of body horror and gross-out sequences in A Cure for Wellness have been grossly exaggerated.

This is a problem when you’re sold on a movie as a shockfest of Cronenbergs and good ol’ Lovecraftian horror. Normally I’m not one for goreporn—I’ll never go anywhere near a Saw movie—but I already wanted to see this flick and I figured if the trailers were tame, then the seriously messed-up parts had to be something truly special.

They are not. There are also very few of them.

The plot for A Cure for Wellness is a fairly standard Shadow over Insmouth clone dressed up in a modern setting: Stock-broker Lockhart is blackmailed into going to a Swedish hospital to retrieve Pembroke, the owner of said stock-broking company. It’s shady money stuff. Lockhart then breaks his leg and winds up stuck in the hospital, which is, of course, not what it seems.

While there, he learns about the mysterious past of the place, finds out some nasty stuff, and bad things happen to him.

I’ll admit to attending A Cure for Wellness in the wrong mindset. When you’re upsold on a specific thing, you go in wanting to get to that thing right away and damn the rest. However, it’s not my fault the rest is a two and a half hour slog of basic horror. When I say this is a Shadow over Insmouth clone, I’m not lying.

From the moment Lockhart arrives at the hospital, you know there’s something wrong. Everyone has that Insmouth feel.

You also know that it’s a horror movie.

Let’s take a quick step back and look at The Shining. You know going into that novel that you’re in for Stephen King horror, that the Overlook Hotel is a bad place, and that by the end, people are going to be dead. And then you start reading and forget you’re reading a book. The Torrance family are too interesting, their characters so fleshed out that you just want to learn more. When bad things start happening, you fear for them. When the supernatural elements hit, they’re compelling, and you dive deeper into the narrative.

The book owns you.

A Cure for Wellness doesn’t do that. It’s a problem of character, because at the end of the day, no one is interesting or sympathetic enough to get you to really care. Lockhart’s a complete douche, and Hanna isn’t really around enough to serve more than her plot purpose. The only reason you feel anything for either is because they don’t deserve the crap that happens to them.

Lockhart is also plot-stuck in the hospital. I can’t tell if he’s simply narrow-minded or just stupid, but there are so many red flags about the hospital that it’s intellectually offensive when he doesn’t use any of his chances (plural) to escape without Pembroke. It never even occurs to him!

The movie tries to play at psychological horror and unreliability, that maybe Lockhart’s bad experiences are all hallucinations. It’s a good idea in theory, but it’s never executed well. Does he hallucinate? Yeah. But you can always tell which ones are hallucinations and which aren’t. You also never forget that he’s in a horror movie which takes place in a creepy hospital.

I could never suspend my disbelief, is what I’m saying.

I will, however, give the film its due. The hospital is pretty great. The place is stark white and clean, and of course everyone is drinking the water like it’ll make them live forever if they believe hard enough. It’s creepy. Once you dive a floor down to the hydrotherapy machines, you’re greeted to browns and bronzes and steampunk nightmare contraptions. It’s a hidden evil, but it’s so poorly hidden that it actually becomes interesting for it.

It gets worse the further down Lockhart goes, too.

The movie is also shot really well. I like the color pallet, and I like how creepy and suffocating many of the shots are. It’s also a movie that, when it finally gets around to playing at body horror, doesn’t pull the camera away. At all.

Sadly, there are only three of these scenes. One could argue for a few more, but they never made me uncomfortable. Two at the end are shocking for the sake of it, and neither are executed well enough to warrant anything more than some eye rolls.

The score too is very interesting. There’s a ballerina doll introduced early on and a simple melody to go with her, and this melody appears over and over throughout the flick. It’s used it in all kinds of situations, from the good to the bad, and it always comes off as just a little unhinged. It certainly works.

A Cure for Wellness isn’t what I’d call a good movie, but at the end of the day, I’m not unhappy I saw it. It’s shot well, it makes the creepy hospital work, and the score is fun. There are also some nice body horror elements near the end, even if it takes two goddamned hours to get to them.

The thing is, it’s straight Lovecraftian and I want more Lovecraftian horror in my movies. This one missed the mark, but I’m happy I supported it. The hope is that one day, instead of Hollywood milking A Shadow over Insmouth, they’ll release A Color out of Space or A Shadow out of Time. That would be wonderful.

John Wick: Chapter 2 Review

John Wick: Chapter 2 opens with a mafia gang abandoning their warehouse because they have John Wick’s car in their inventory and don’t want to be caught with it. They are then caught with it. They are never seen nor heard from again.

That folks, is what I love most about these movies: John Wick embodies the badass hero to a ridicules degree; he’s Keanu Reeves at his most Keanu Reeves, feared by everyone and plot-armor invincible, yet at the end of the movie he’s got more bruises than skin on his body. Meanwhile, I’m left going, “yeah no, this works. He’d survive three car crashes like that because he’s John Wick.”

John Wick is the goddamn Boogyman, and everyone believes it so hard that I do as well. It’s fun and exhilarating and…

And then it gets boring for the next twelve to twenty minutes. John returns to his house and is immediately solicited by someone he owes a blood oath. Apparently killing an entire gang leaves the impression that you’re back to killing for money. This oath, by the way, involves the political killing of mafia leader that John is somewhat friends with. The person guarding said mafia leader is also someone he knows and is on friendly terms with. He’s stuck though, because blood oaths have to be kept under penalty of death.

It’s a pretty standard rock-and-a-hard place conundrum, and once the hit goes somewhat south and John has a seven-million dollar bounty put on his head, it all comes off as unnecessary.

Why didn’t the movie just start there?

Honestly, I blame the world building. John Wick introduced us to the assassin world right underneath the surface of our own, and it was wonderful and compelling. The Continental is awesome. Chapter 2 goes for more and spends too much time there. It takes away the fantasy and replaces it with, well, a bit more of the same and a gearing up scene that goes on for way longer than it needs to.

Do I buy the blood oath thing? Yeah. Do I think it’s good storytelling? Not really, no.

However, I can’t really fault the movie for its world building because once the bounty is in place, everything about the assassin world becomes interesting again. It all dives back underneath the surface. We get flashes of it, from John’s interactions with strangers to the actual people trying to kill him to the old-timey receptionists handling phone calls. It reverts back to being a mystery despite how much time we spent there earlier in the movie.

But this is John Wick: Chapter 2 and that means we’re here for shooty shooty bang bang; the rest is a bonus. The good news is that the movie absolutely delivers on that front. There is no bad news.

I adore John Wick as a fighter because there’s a deep level of characterization embedded in his fighting style. He’s methodical, smart, and just damn fun to watch. Like with the first movie, it’s all about the quick double taps, because John doesn’t take any risks. If he thinks someone is going to get back up and keep fighting, he’ll put another bullet in him.

This applies to every gun he uses, of which there are many.

This characterization through fighting extends to the other assassins as well. John Wick and the assassins around them are assassins first and pragmatics second. “Friend,” is somewhere in fourth or fifth place. It adds a chilliness to everyone in the movie, and it adds a small level of tragedy too. Had things turned out just a bit different, some of these characters might have been real friends and not dressed-up, water-cooler coworkers.

For those that do go after John (and there are more that don’t than do), it feels less like a grab at money and more like a grab at myth. John is the Boogyman, and only a new Boogyman can kill the old.

The best part though is the actual cinematography. Most Marvel movies have cuts every two seconds and become messy for it, but John Wick: Chapter 2 uses long, almost slow-moving shots as John plans ahead and then kills four or five people. You can see what’s going on, and you get a real sense of scale to both his environment and his abilities. The same can be said of his hand-to-hand combat, which adds weight to the punches and kicks while also making a certain pencil scene goddamned wonderful.

The environments are great too, ranging from big and open with lots of cars to jam-packed crowds. The last one takes place at a museum exhibit that’s one part M. C. Escher painting and three parts crazy carnival mirrors. It’s way more coherent than it has any right to be.

Finally, I want to give a nod to the audio work. Maybe it’s just that I’m not used to seeing movies on the big screen with massive surround-sound speakers, but damn did this movie sound great. The car chases are audibly frantic, and the bullets pack a serious punch. Every gunshot looks stylish and just feels awesome to watch. The punches, kicks, and stabs are equally rewarding.

John Wick: Chapter 2 is a great action movie that gets a bit too big for its own needs. It went from a simple revenge flick to a mafia power struggle with an expansive world, and it’s twenty minutes too long for it. Complexity is not its strong suit. Thankfully, once the first act is over, it goes back to shooty shooty bang bang, which is its strong suit.

My Top-5 Comic Series of 2016

2016 is the year I jumped out of my comic-book comfort zone. I sampled as much as I possibly could, and to me, that’s the spirit of the medium. Super heroes are what the general public see, but anyone who’s stepped foot into a comic store knows that when it comes to putting words over pictures, anything and everything is fair game.

It’s wonderful, and 2016 saw the release of many wonderful books. We had more I Hate Fairyland, more Wayward, more The Autumnlands, a new series from Jim Zub, two different Alien runs from Dark Horse, two Neil Gaiman trades, tons of scifi and fantasy from Image, a Lovecraftian crime noir miniseries featuring a talking cat, New Superman, and whatever wonderful piece of literature A.D.: After Death is turning into.

That all being said, picking my top five series and top five trades for 2016 wasn’t all that difficult. This was a good year for comics, but the best-of-the-best truly stood out more than ever. Plus, I gave myself two very strict rules to follow:

  1. No repeats from 2015
  2. The comic must have at least four issues out or completed its first arc.

This means that while A.D.: After Death is probably the best thing I read this year, it isn’t on the list. It also means I Hate Fairyland, Wayward, and The Autumnlands aren’t on here either, since those were my big favorites from 2015.

The idea is to promote new series or series with strong jumping-on points. Plus, talking about how good Wayward is at this point is just boring. I’ll be doing my top-five series in this post and my top-five trades next week.

5. Aliens: Defiance

Written by: Brain Wood

Art by: Tristan Jones, Tony Brescini, Stephen Thomson, and Dan Jackson

Publisher: Dark Horse

If you count the comic books and novels, the Alien franchise is actually jam-packed with content, and a lot of it sees the same ground being tread over and over. It’s perhaps never boring, but even I’ll admit that some of the franchise’s biggest tropes are starting to feel a bit derivative. Brian Wood seems to know this, because Aliens: Defiance is all about taking long-running tropes and expectations and shattering them. Zara isn’t your standard badass heroine, Davis isn’t your standard synthetic, and their fight against the titular Aliens isn’t your standard action romp. Everything about this series is character driven and outright lonely, because no one can hear you scream if no one is around. This coupled with a fantastic lineup of artists that know how to make great use of shadows have turned this into my favorite, non-movie Aliens series to date.

4. Glitterbomb

Written by: Jim Zub

Art by: Djibril Morissette-Phan & K. Michael Russell

Publisher: Image

In my introduction, I said that anything and everything is fair game in the realm of comic books, and Jim Zub is certainly proving that with his new series, Glitterbomb. Take one part drama and one part horror and stick both into a very dark, very strange character piece set in the worst parts of Hollywood. That’s Glitterbomb. Farrah is a down-on-her luck actress with a pig of an agent and barely enough money to pay her babysitter, and while that’s enough for a compelling story on its own, she encounters something otherworldly and…turns. It’s nail-biting horror through and through, though not because Farrah herself is scary but because she’s completely unpredictable. Well, she’s also a little scary. Her shift is some grade-A body horror, and the brutality on display would make Stephen King nod his head in approval. Djibril Morissette-Phan and K. Michael Russell excel at facial expressions that say more than words cannot, and they do blood and gore pretty darn well too. Everyone looks and feels human until they are not.

3. The Hunt

Written by: Colin Lorimer

Art by: Joana Lafuente

Publisher: Image

If it isn’t obvious by now, I’m a big fan of horror. I don’t like the gore-ridden, slasher kind though; if you want to keep me up at night, you need to give me terrifying ideas first and great characters second. The Hunt is both. The idea is that upsetting monsters that are well versed in magic is an awful, awful thing to do, and the character is Orla, a high-school girl who knows just enough magic to think she’s in control when she very clearly is not. The rest is a kaleidoscope of Irish mythology, changlings, threats of damnation, and a small beastery of monsters. The artwork here is never short of phenomenal, so much so that I find myself going back and just flipping through the pages. The Hunt just might be the prettiest comic to come out of 2016.

2. Black Hammer

Written by: Jeff Lemire

Art by: Dean Ormston and Dave Stewart

Publisher: Dark Horse

As someone that isn’t well-versed in super hero comics, it’s impossible for me to talk about the structuralism of Black Hammer, which is one of its biggest selling points. Intellectually, I know know what it’s doing, but I don’t have the experience to really appreciate it. Yet as an average fan of comics–and someone who has a strong dislike of superhero comics–I find Black Hammer to be astounding in its execution and scope. Jeff Lemire is a wonder at characters and voice, and superhero status or no, it’s the characters that sell this series. From their motives to their flaws to their backstories, each one feels ridiculously real, like they’ve been around for twenty or more issues and not six. The writing is truly exceptional. Dean Ormston and Dave Stewart match the tone and characters perfectly as artists, and while Black Hammer is never pretty to look at, it’s interesting and fits the writing.

1. Black Monday Murders

Written by: Jonathon Hickman

Art by: Tomm Coker & Michael Garland

Publisher: Image Comics

Black Monday Murders is one of the most interesting things I’ve read in the last five years, and I make it a habit to read a lot. It’s a crime story, one with a detective trying to solve a murder, yet it’s also a story of cults, satanism, magic, money, bankers, economics, and perhaps immortality too. Everything about it is strange in the best way possible. Each issue is oversized and paced with brutal perfection, because Jonathan Hickman is a genius and he knows what it takes to tell a good story. He also knows that telling a good story sometimes means breaking rules. Black Monday Murders is not afraid to end a scene with a series of blank pages, and it isn’t afraid to use outright prose either. A character might die on page ten, and on page eleven there’s a confidential dossier with half of its words redacted out. The two are related, and it’s up to you to figure out how. Tomm Coker and Michael Garland match Hickman’s written precision with their artwork. The book is gorgeous, and like Black Hammer, the artwork fits the tone, characters, and style perfectly. It’s rare to find a team that so clearly play off of each others strengths, but every scene is better for it.

Underworld: Blood Wars Review

The first movie I ever watched with my still-best friend (hi Travis!) was Underworld. This was back in 2003 when we were both freshman in high school and, by all accounts, a pair of immature idiots. Werewolves fighting vampires? Hell yes. When Underworld: Evolution came out three years later, it became a three-city spanning pilgrimage to find a theater that would let our underage selves in.

We did, by the way. We had to drive almost an hour away, but we found a place that would let us in.

Each new sequel saw us in the theater day one, ready to watch Kate Beckinsale as Selene destroy werewolves, humans, and vampires in showers of blood and gore, and after each film we would leave going, “That was the best movie ever made!” for a full two hours before reality set in. Alcohol was always involved.

Underworld: Blood Wars broke the tradition. Travis is now stationed in Louisiana, and I’m…well, an adult. My tastes have changed. My standards have gotten higher, and I’ve been sober all day. But I’ll be damned—and I type this with a grin—I still hold the same adoration for this series that I did when I was a freshman in high school.

I was unironically and very legitimately excited to see this movie.

Our quick plot summary is this: The werewolves have once again regrouped and are hoping to wipe the vampires out for good. They’re after Selene’s daughter, Eve because her hybrid blood will grant them superpowers, and they need Selene to get to her. The vampires, meanwhile, are after Selene for a handful of reasons, half of which aren’t in her favor because she has a pretty turbulent past with other vampires.

Queue chase sequences, backstabbing, and a heaping pile of violence.

As a fifth installment, Underworld: Blood Wars has a large amount of continuity and lore to work with. This works both in its favor and in its detriment, though perhaps more to the latter than the former. Michael is still gone, and Selene’s daughter Eve is as well. The movie has to jump through a handful of hard-to-buy plot loops to make this work, especially since everyone is after both characters. It’s a grail quest with no grail at the end.

But more than that, the movie really does cherry pick what it wants to keep and what it wants to ignore. Plot points from Underworld: Awakening are brought up, yet the elephant in the room is not. What of the human purge on all vampire and werewolf kind? We went from underground covens and near extinction to gothic mansions and gross levels of wealth seemingly overnight, and that just doesn’t make any sense.

Selene too has gone through some major character development off screen. She’s so gung-ho about killing werewolves in all the other movies that it borderlines on psychopathy, but we start Blood Wars with her sick of violence and sick of living too. That’s a big character change, and one I’d have liked to see. It’s not that I don’t buy it either, but I have a feeling that that journey was more interesting than the one presented in this movie.

Meanwhile, the vampires and werewolves are still at war with each other, and at this point I can only wonder why. Victor is dead. Marcus is dead. Lucian is dead. The key people who started the war some fifteen hundred years ago are no longer around, and I’d say it’s time to let bygones be bygones. There’s no reason to continue fighting other than tradition and spite.

Underworld: Blood Wars isn’t interested in moving on though. It isn’t interested in introspection, either. It has the word “war” in its title, and plot progression and character development be damned, it’s going to deliver on that.

It does.

Similar to Evolution and Awakening, Blood Wars is using its plot as a justification for action. There are a lot of characters at play here (and more moving parts than any of the previous movies), but it’s all to arrive at bloodshed. Our new vampires are taken right out of the first movie, with their snooty politics and plays at power, while our new werewolves are of the Awakening variety: smarter, bigger, and seemingly endless. It’s not a particularly new combination of ingredients, but it’s still fun all the same. The series knows what does and doesn’t work.

As far as new characters go, they’re about what you’d expect from an Underworld movie. Other than Selene and David, we aren’t really supposed to like or sympathize with any of the vampires, and other than Marius, none of the werewolves are even named.

It’s a funny thing, really. Underworld has always played both sides as flawed and at fault, but other than Rise of the Lycans, the movies break their backs to make the vampires out to be the good guys. If I sympathize with zero of our new vampire cast and also know that once upon a time, they kept all the werewolves in thrall, why should I want them to win?

Because at this point, not even Selene cares who wins or loses.

This reduces Blood Wars to a war movie of fodder fighting fodder with Selene and David along for the ride. The thing is, I don’t really know if this is a flaw or not. I’m only here for Selene, David, and our third character, violence. All three deliver.

It’s Selene’s endless supply of bullets; it’s Marius throwing vampires through walls; and it’s David’s blood-drenched sword that brought me back to my freshman self. The fight sequences here are many, and all of them are damn fun. Both of Selene’s bouts with Marius alone made the ticket price worthwhile, and hell, Marius and David shooting four clips into each other only to sweat the bullets out seconds later did too.

It’s not intellectually stimulating by any means, but it is fucking awesome and that has to count for something.

To the movie’s credit, it does expand upon the Underworld lore. There’s a new faction of vampires introduced around the middle of the flick, and they bring with them some light fantasy elements that really do add to the overall package. They also raise some interesting questions about death and the afterlife, which is more thoughtful than this series has ever gone. Of course, they also provide a ton more fodder for the inevitable werewolf invasion, which is, let’s face it, their primary purpose. It’s a war, remember?

Evenso, Blood Wars is a movie that I can confidently say gets better as it goes. The stakes don’t ever get any higher, but the battles and world both get bigger. Like I said, the series knows what does and doesn’t work.

And I have to give some mad respect for the sound engineers behind this movie. Everything sounds great, from the very loud, very punchy bullets to the numerous amounts of skin ripping. Everything feels so visceral and meaty, like in Gears of War 2 when you have to chop apart that giant worm from the inside. Each kill is so satisfying.

I hate to be that guy that gives a stupid movie a pass because it’s fun, but really, if you’re going to see an Underworld movie, your expectations are already set. I was excited for this movie because I was excited for more Underworld, and Underworld: Blood Wars is just that, only a bit bigger and flashier for the effort.

I had a blast.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them Review

2016 has been what I’d call a messy year, but at least we’re getting more Harry Potter. If there’s a consolation prize to be had, it’s that. However, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them isn’t Harry Potter. It’s its own thing, and we all knew that going in, even if we hoped otherwise. It’s a strange kind of disappointment, because it’s our own fault even if we don’t want to admit it.

Or I’m massively projecting. Either way, the movie is pretty good, but you know, not amazing because it isn’t Harry Potter.

I’ve seen Fantastic Beasts’ plot broken down into a comparison of Dr. Who and Pokemon; however, I don’t really agree. There are some beasts that need finding, but five is a far cry from 150. Fantastic Beasts is far more concerned with world building. America’s wizarding world has its own rules, Aurors, president, and a mounting tension between wizards and Muggles. It doesn’t help that the threat of Grindelwald is looming heavy over everything. In many respects, Newt Scamander and his beasts are simply along for the ride.

Fantastic Beasts is a movie that tries to do too much with too little time. There’s a reason fantasy works better in novel formats: The world building requires pages of space to work with. Hogwarts took thick books to feel real, and New York’s wizarding world feels like it needs the same treatment. Sadly, it doesn’t get pages but a few hours of our time, and that time is heavily split between America, Newt, and a few minor subplots involving a crazy, abusive orphanage of sorts. We can’t have a Harry Potter anything without some child abuse!

Other than the child abuse subplot–which, if nothing else, turns into some cool world building/lore–the two big story elements could be the main focus of the movie with nothing lost. A razor-sharp look at Newt and his animals would have made for an amazing ride of whimsy and awe while a movie about the American wizarding world by itself could have been a breathtaking journey into a new world that’s both familiar and not.

Instead we get both, and the movie  is a bit muddled for it. Thankfully, it isn’t muddled in the same way Warcraft is; I’ve come away here wanting more, not less, but it still detracts some. Had this story been a book, we could have easily had both plots and then some. In a way, Fantastic Beasts reminds me of a traditional Harry Potter flick: absolutely serviceable and fun but with a few too many cuts to feel like that 100% adaptation I want.

And for a movie titled Fantastic Beasts, they really do get waysided. The ones we do see are great, but most show up once as spectacle only to never return. The few that return do so in a Batman-styled utility belt kind of way, “Well this monster can do this to save us from this jam,” before going back to the belt.

It’s not like this is a bad thing though. It’s the beasts themselves that provide the most whimsy and potential for jaw-drops, and each is stunning in its own right. Seeing them move and interact with Newt really made this movie feel like a piece of the Harry Potter world, but a movie titled fantastic beasts should have more focus on them.

Once again, too much to do in not enough space.

If there is another problem, it’s Newt Scamader himself. As a character, he’s more quirks than actual development, making him entertaining for the first leg of the movie and somewhat boring by the end. He’s the guy that likes animals more than people, but we’re never given any reason as to why. There are hints, but without some solid background information, he’s just an eccentric in an eccentric world.

Meanwhile, we have terrorism, child abuse, shady politics, and the threat of open war between wizards and Muggles going on, and I’ll be damned, that seems more interesting.

Thankfully Newt’s two cohorts are far more worthwhile. Jacob Kowalski is a Muggle who bumps into Newt and makes the classic briefcase swap. When animals escape and start rampaging, Jacob gets wrapped up into the wizarding world. He acts as the perfect viewer cipher, going from bewildered and unsure to absolutely delighted. My reactions were pretty much on point with his from start to finish.

But the best part about Jacob is that he’s given very relatable fears and goals. While Newt is stuck in animal wonderland, Jacob wants to open a bakery because he hates working at a canning factory. That’s it. It’s that simple, and it’s in that simplicity that makes Jacob an amazing character to follow. I cared about him throughout the flick, because I sympathized with him. He makes sense.

He’s also completely adorable.

Tina Goldstein is our third hero, a down-on-her-luck Auror who is trying to make up for some past mistakes. Like Jacob, she’s not terribly complicated, and like Jacob, that works in her favor. She really just wants her job back and the respect that comes with it, and what starts as a simple arrest turns into a complete disaster for her and the rest of New York.

Fantastic Beasts falls into an interesting area because Hogwarts is half a world away and all of the characters are adults. The movie is also a few decades in the past, taking place long before Harry Potter was ever born. Yet we aren’t looking at a prequel but a compendium to the wizarding world as a whole, a piece of world building, but for the wrong continent. This is the story of the author of one textbook used for one semester in Hogwarts.

None of that is bad. Hell, in a way it’s all for the best. We all know what happened when Star Wars was given its direct prequels, and we’re all still actively trying to forget those movies. I’d be upset if Rowling approached Harry Potter in a way that was directly tied to Harry because his story is over. It’s fine to let a franchise end where it’s supposed to. It’s why I haven’t picked up The Cursed Child and have no intention of doing so.

That being said, I suppose now that I have my cake, I want to eat it too. My favorite parts of this movie were the nods to the main series as a whole, such as the namedrop of Hogwarts, Newt’s use of the word, “Muggle,” and of course, Grindelwald as the big menace hiding in the background. Let’s be frank here: We all know why we’re going to go see this movie, regardless of reviews or expectations.

It’s more Harry Potter… even if it isn’t.