Batman Begins

Batman: Arkham Origins

Your enjoyment of Batman: Arkham Origins is entirely predicated on your feelings toward the previous game in the series, Arkham City. Did you like that game and its open city? Did you buy the DLC? Do you find yourself longingly staring at its case on your shelf, wishing there was more? Then I think you’re in for a good time. If, however, you weren’t such a big fan of all the choices that game made, but dedicated to completing games before you review them, Arkham Origins can be a bit of a slog.

Set two years into Batman’s war on crime in Gotham, Arkham Origins takes place, as is series tradition, over one night. This time it’s Christmas Eve and the Black Mask has just put a $50,000,000 bounty on the Dark Knight’s head. Despite Alfred’s objections, Batman sets out to beat up all the super villains who’ve come to town to capitalize on this and to find why the hell this is going on.

Taking place early in Batman’s career lends Arkham Origins a lot of the story trappings you might expect. Batman’s more moody and cocky. The cops don’t really recognize him as a friend or foe, just a vigilante, and thugs treat him more like a myth… Or a monster. Gordon isn’t commissioner yet, and he too wants Batman arrested. The Joker hasn’t even gone public, although, as you might expect given the arc of the last two games, that changes over the course of this story.

Kevin Conroy and Mark Hammill have been replaced as Batman and the Joker by Roger Craig Smith and video game superstar Troy Baker, who are both good, but basically do impressions of their predecessors. And that’s kind of the whole story – it does a fine job, maybe even better than the storytelling in the previous games, but it breaks basically no new ground. I feel like Batman’s first years on the job are extremely well-worn territory, and while there are fits of inspiration, there’s not a whole lot in Arkham Origins that has shocking impact that the ending of the last game did.

I’m still not that big on the open world gameplay, especially now that we’re in ghostly Gotham City proper. Big surprise: it’s full on criminals. Sure, Arkham City‘s weird setting let it get away with not having civilians on the street, but here it is jarring. The game explains that away by saying there’s a big storm, but it makes the city seem so desolate and crime-ridden that it’s hard to understand why Batman would want to save it. It’s also just weird to think of Batman just flying around in his free time, randomly beating on dudes who are otherwise just standing there. Yeah, they are bad guys, but not high priority targets in the least.

This is the stuff that I think the developers could have really capitalized on to make Arkham Origins stand out. Remember Year One and The Long Halloween comics? Part of what makes those compelling stories is following the passage of time, as Batman evolves as a crimefighter while solving a particular case. Why couldn’t that work in this game? Why does it have to be the story of one of the most chaotic, disastrous Christmas Eves of all time? Some truly horrible stuff happens, which leads to some extremely quick character development that would be better if it was allowed to happen over time.

Lest we get bogged down in the overall design choices of the game, at this point I’d like to remind everyone that these games have really, really great stealth components and some of the best melee combat in the industry. A few new gadgets (which is a weird prequel thing, why doesn’t he have these later?) spice up the stalking gameplay, which I still really love. It is so fun to hang a goon from a gargoyle or knock one out by blowing a wall up on them. It is still kind of weird how easy it is for them to lose Batman when he zips away, and yet how quickly they can hear him when he knocks out one of their buddies a few hundred feet away. I don’t like stealth in a lot of games, Arkham Origins still doesn’t it really well.

Fist fights are still fast and furious, depending heavily on counters and careful timing. It still doesn’t quite make sense to me how this somewhat simplistic, rhythmic approach to combat can be so satisfying, but it really easy. Building up that combo meter was one of the biggest motivators for me throughout the entire game. Thugs with knives and shields, giant monster men, and others add variety to the fighting, but it’s still can be fun just to take on a gang of regular guys and just flatten them in one long streak. Others, notably Assassin’s Creed, have mimicked this system, but it is still at its best in the Arkham games.

If you remember piecing together crime scenes and tracking people and all that stuff in the other games, that’s all back here too. What’s new, and coolest, is the ability to scan a crime scene really heavily, to the point where Batman is watching virtual reality re-creations of the crime being perpetrated. He can rewind and fast-forward through the re-creation do spot additional clues, which doesn’t make sense, but it’s cool so whatever. It’s fun, but painfully easy and underused. Also, the Riddler has hidden a bunch of stuff all over the city which you can collect, but I really, really, really don’t want to.

For the first time in franchise history, Arkham Origins has some multiplayer options. You get to play in a three-way battle between Joker’s goons, Bane’s thugs, and Batman and Robin. It’s fun, asymmetrical combat, but horrible bugs out of the gate and microtransactions hamstrung the launch and probably mean that the audience for it will dwindle away in the next few months.

As I pummeled the Joker while he went on about how futile it was since I’ll never kill him, yet again, I realized how tired I was of that trope. I’ve reviewed sequels that didn’t feel like they changed enough before, but this is the closest I’ve seen a game get to the bare minimum. At least this is only the third Arkham game, so it gets a bit of a pass. I just hope things get mixed up more next time around.

Nebraska State Of Mind

Nebraska

I really have no business critiquing a film directed by Alexander Payne.  At this point, he could literally film a pile of dog shit for two hours, and I’d probably give it a solid three out of five stars.  What can I say?  I’m a fan.  And perhaps being an ardent fan of someone can get in the way of assessing their work in the level-headed manner that we strive for at Mildly Pleased.  But regardless, I think Payne has done a wonderful job of staying true to his distinctive style of making deft, existential comedies that are rife with an underlying sadness.  And though this is the first film of Payne’s that he didn’t write, with it’s overt Nebraska setting and colorful midwestern characters, it’s hard to mistake it as the work of anyone else.

Still, as a lifelong fan of the Seattle-based sketch show Almost Live!, I feel obligated to point out that the script was written by Almost Live! alum Bob Nelson, who’s deadpan touch seems particularly suited for Payne’s version of middle America.  At the center of this script lies Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), an absent-minded old bastard who may or may not be suffering from some form of dementia.  Woody thinks he’s won a million bucks in a scam Mega Millions Sweepstakes prize, and wants nothing more than to make the drive from his home in Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska in order to claim his fortune.  Recognizing that the trip would do the old fool some good, Woody’s son (Will Forte) takes it upon himself to drive him to Lincoln.  Though after several mishaps, the two end up staying in Woody’s hometown of Hawthorne, where he’s forced to face his past and all the people he’s fucked over.

First of all, I’ll say that Bruce Dern’s performance in the film is pretty incredible.  It’s somewhat rare when we get a movie that stars anyone over 50, but it’s even rarer when we get to see someone in that age range who’s not a bona fide “movie star” merely trying to pull off that old charm.  Dern has none of that, as there’s a well-worn scraggliness in his demeanor and a vacant helplessness in the man’s eyes that truly makes it feel like he’s living this character.  And the performances all around are pretty great, with a particularly memorable turn from June Squibb, who’s one of the more broadly comedic characters in the film, yet I still found it hard not to be reminded of some of my Midwestern relatives while watching her.

Which leads me to the most common complaint that I’ve heard from Payne detractors, and that’s the idea that Payne is often condescending towards the characters in his films.  As I’ve already hinted at, I’m probably not the best person to argue against this accusation, since I’m an avowed Payniac.  Yet I think you just have to look at the fact that in Nebraska, Payne once again decided to cast a bunch of local non-actors in many of the smaller roles to give it that extra bit of authenticity, not that the film necessarily needs it.  So to me it seems apparent that Payne has a genuine camaraderie and affection for these people, it just happens that he also has a knack for pointing out that there’s something singularly funny about the Midwestern way of life.

As is the case with any Payne film, there’s an undeniable amount of melancholy bubbling underneath the surface of Nebraska‘s quirky characters and subtle comedic set pieces.  This is driven home further by the film’s striking cinematography, which isn’t so much black & white as it is grey & grey.  Which I’m sure could make some viewers look at the film as an altogether depressing affair.  Though as I mentioned earlier, I’ve still got plenty of family in the Midwest, so getting to spend time with these characters had quite the opposite effect, evoking instead this weird sense of familial warmth and quiet dignity.

T3 68: Top 10 Sequels We’d Like to See

Some of the best movies of all time were sequels, like The Godfather Part 2, The Empire Strikes Back, and… uh… Ghostbusters 2? But also sometimes sequels are a dumb idea that only manage to tarnish the legacy of a good first movie. And that sucks. So this week, we’ve put together a list of surefire successes, so that those Hollywood fat cats don’t throw their money in the wrong direction.

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Thor 2 is the Star Wars Sequel We Always Wanted

Thor: The Dark World

If you refer back to my Iron Man 3 review, you’ll remember that my biggest problem with that movie was that it just felt unnecessary in a post-Avengers world. Tony Stark had joined a team and while he wouldn’t be hanging out with them all the time, a worldwide terrorist plot involving an attack on the president didn’t feel right as a one-man operation. Thor doesn’t have that problem. He is so much bigger and more powerful than everyone else he can take on much greater foes on his own than as part of a team. So, since every super hero movie is about destroying the world now, Thor: The Dark World puts the whole universe in the balance.

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) has been busy proving himself in all nine realms of existence, fighting in wars to the hopes that his dad, Odin (Anthony Hopkins), will recognize his worthiness. As you remember, Thor’s being groomed to replace his dad, even though it’s not really clear if Odin is actually aging and needs to retire or if it’s just an arbitrary thing. Anyway, Thor’s having a great time with his Asgardian friends, Loki’s in jail, and things are just great.

Meanwhile on Earth, Jane Foster (NatPo) is in London on a date with Chris O’Dowd, because that guy in the non-threatening sort of shlub that could just never compare to Chris Hemsworth’s musculature. Their crappy date is interrupted by Kat Dennings, who says they should check out this thing. They go there and Jane accidentally gets exposed to a source of infinite evil power from before the beginning of the universe and simultaneously releases the dark elves who need that to end the universe.

You can guess where it goes from there: Thor takes Jane to Asgard, it’s fun, they fight the bad guys a few times, the stakes are raised, etc. This is a surprisingly epic movie, but it manages to make it work without just filling the screen with destruction, like Iron Man 3 and Man of Steel did. There are armies in Thor: The Dark World, but most of its battles come down to just a handful of powerful people wrecking each other, and it’s awesome.

We get space ship battles, people fighting with laser guns and swords, giant monsters, and plenty of sweet, sweet lightning. Despite the Thor’s legit mythological roots (and whatever the comics are actually like) this feels a lot more like they couldn’t decide if they wanted to make a Star Wars movie or a Lord of the Rings movie, so they just made both. It’s pretty sweet.

The first Thor movie, in my memory, worked like this: exposition and fighting for a few minutes, then it’s a comedy for like half the movie, the Thor beats the shit out of everybody right before the ending. I was about it, because the fish-out-of-water stuff was pretty amusing. This movie is heavy on jokes too, but they’re not nearly as fun – a lot of it is Kat Dennings being shticky and Stellan Skarsgard destroying his credibility. I wasn’t groaning or anything, but, really, did Kat Dennings need to be a big part of this franchise? I would much rather learn more about Thor’s still underdeveloped Asgardian friends.

Speaking of undeveloped, Thor and Jane are really, really in love with each other. Like Thor’s depressed he can’t be with her and willing to throw everything away for her in love. Because, you know, they got along for a couple days two years ago. Neither Thor movie does a lot to make the relationship seem anywhere near as important to the audience as it is to the characters, and you just kind of have to accept it.

Anyway, I had a surprisingly good time watching Thor: The Dark World. The trailer for the new Captain America movie looks pretty cool too, a fun take on the spy thriller genre, mixed with ridiculous super hero action. I like that the Marvel super hero movies all feel different and take on different things, for me it’s really kept them from getting stale. I know that’s not the case for a lot of people. But fantasy + sci fi + hitting dudes with hammers? That’s a good time.

Obsessong: Song for Zula

This might not strictly meet the criteria of Obsessongs, but I’m trying to keep the post-a-day thing going as long as we can. So here’s a chance to write about probably the best song on one of my favorite albums this year that I haven’t had a chance to write about yet. Are you going to complain about that? You shouldn’t. This song’s really good, have you heard it yet?

Song: “Song for Zula” by Phosphorescent
Album: Muchacho
Year: 2013
Written By: Matthew Houck
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All Reds

Los Campesinos! – No Blues

No Blues is a really Los Campesinos-y record, which is kind of surprising because the group has been bleeding bandmates ever since their terrific, incredible, magnificent, never-to-be-topped double debut in 2008. We all know that they lost the manic energy that made those first two albums great as they went on, and that’s probably because for a lot of the band, things got bigger than they ever thought they would. After five years and as many albums, Los Campesinos!, you’d think, is down to just the members who really want to make music their careers. And if No Blues is any indication, this isn’t a bad reality.

After my first few listens, I’m inclined to say I liked Hello Sadness more than No Blues, but that may be entirely because having just one lead singer is throwing me off. I mean, Gareth has pretty much been the only lead singer for a while, but this is the first time that a Los Campesinos! album feels like its just his. I like the guy, I like the way he writes pun- and wordplay-heavy lyrics, and even though he doesn’t scream as much anymore, he’s a fine singer. But the album could have really used a “The Black Bird, The Dark Slope.”

The band feels smaller, because, it is. The music feels less rambunctious, because, well, they got older and sadder, I guess. I don’t think anyone who has been paying attention to Los Campesinos! will be surprised by these realities. But the scariest thing of all would be that a band so full of energy and potential could find a way to keep going on. Thankfully, they did.

Favorite Tracks: “For Flotsam,” “What Death Leaves Behind,” “Cemetery Gaits”