Tuesday, August 2, 2011


Don't worry, I have a new one: The High Horse

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Spartacus: Gods of the Arena Season Premiere

Blood and Boobies

Last year’s Spartacus: Blood and Sand won fans over with gladiator action, softcore pornography, laughable dialogue (“By Jupiter’s cock!”) and heaping portions of blood…and sand. There was also a fair share of plot twists and backstabbing, but the instant the pace got bogged down by boring things like talking, a blood drenched throat cutting or two hot slave chicks making out would always be there to pull us back in. It was the TV miniseries equivalent of scarfing down a greasy Mickey D’s quarter-pounder: it was messy, loaded with cheese and you felt guilty with every bite—but you just couldn’t help yourself.

Spartacus probably won't even appear in this prequel focusing on the rise of gladiator owner Batiatus...and his wife Lucretia. Does the carpet match the drapes you ask? Tune in to find out!

Amidst this orgy of violence and sex was our hero Spartacus. By refusing a very powerful and very douchey military commander’s orders to save his hometown instead, Spartacus was torn from the love of his life and thrown in the coliseum to die a very gruesome and very public death. In classic hero fashion, Spartacus survived his own execution and won the bloodthirsty hearts of the crowd. Seeing the talent in this fresh hunk of man meat, the greedy gladiator owner Batiatus (John Hannah) took Spartacus in to train to become a champion of the ring, promising him that if he fought well his woman would be returned. But Batiatus, realizing that Spartacus would no longer fight with the same vigor knowing his beloved was safe and sound, decided to whack her instead. Bad move. The season ended with Batiatus face down in a pool of his own blood, Spartacus poised to lead the historical gladiator revolt.

Rather than move on with what last season set up, this year’s Spartacus: Gods of the Arena is a prequel focusing on the rise of Batiatus—but things really haven’t changed all that much. Batiatus is still pretty successful: he’s got his wealth, his gladiators, his ludus (a gladiator training academy), hell, he’s even got his gorgeous wife Lucretia (Lucy Lawless). What more could a guy want? –power. Batiatus has his eye on the top spot as the most powerful ludus owner in Rome. Lucky for Batiatus, he’s got the best gladiator in town, a loose cannon named Gannicus (Dustin Clare). Unlucky for Batiatus, the reigning head honcho also knows how good Gannicus is—and has the power to get what he wants.

Spartacus was SO 2010...Gannicus is all the rage right now

With the spotlight taken off of Spartacus and honed in on Batiatus and his selfish quest for dominance, we’re left with no one to root for. I’m all for watching a villain’s origin story, but even comic books know that a good villain has character development. I want to see what made Batiatus the ruthless, conniving gladiator tycoon he is, not what made him slightly richer and more powerful than he was.

Fans of the series need not fret, however. There’s still plenty of gory ultraviolence and nudity to warm our perverted little hearts. Within the short hour I saw multiple decapitations, opium-induced girl on girl action, and enough stylized 300-esque blood to fill the Mediterranean.

If you’re really interested in the other characters’ lives in the time leading up to Blood and Sand, than the several subplots in the works should also provide incentive to tune in weekly. Oenomaus (Peter Mensah), the whip-cracking trainer who went by Doctore from the first season, and Ashur (Nick taraby), the crippled bookie from the first season, are still gladiators vying to become champions. Solonius (Craig Walsh Wrightson) and Batiatus, who later become great nemeses in the arena, are still good friends and business partners. It will be intriguing to see what causes these characters to change so drastically in the coming weeks.

Oh, and Crixus (Manu Bennett), the prized fighter from Blood and Sand, is merely a lowly slave that Batiatus purchased because he “saw something in his eyes.” I’ll have extra cheese on my quarter-pounder, thank you.

Spartacus: Gods of the Arena airs Tuesday nights on the Disney Channel, right after Sonny With a Chance

With a full season to go and a full roster of charcters, it would be a sin to give Gods of the Arena a thumbs down so early. There have already been hints at juicier plotlines that may be on the horizon—who is Batiatus’ father people have been talking about? With or without a strong story, as long as these characters (as static and archetypal as they may be), keep humping and killing each other, Spartacus: Gods of the Arena will keep us coming back to indulge in our guilty pleasures.


Bottom Line:

3/5 Severed Heads

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Unveiled

It’s been almost five years now since I spent hundreds of hours playing the last Elder Scrolls game, so you can imagine the intense nerdgasm I experienced when I saw the cover of the latest GameInformer announcing the next entry in the series, The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim. Their post-apocalyptic Fallout dish was a tasty distraction, but I can’t wait for Bethesda Softworks to serve me up some more of that wholesome, Middle-Earthy goodness. If you feel the way I do, then grab a fistful of tissues, lock your bedroom door, and pour over these dirty deets on the game your loins have been yearning for.
-Dragons! Instead of tracking down Oblivion Gates in need of closing, as the last remaining “Dragonborn”, you’re tasked with tracking down dragons in need of slaying.

-Attention to Detail: With the insane new graphics engine, every object casts a shadow, every tree branch sways independently, and every snowflake and raindrop falls on an object according to its size and shape. Giggity.

-Unforgiving Terrain: Skyrim is a diverse, harsh and rugged environment. Think less Renaissance Fair, more Conan the Barbarian.

-New Combat System: Now you can dual wield weapons and gut fools with brutal finishing moves. You can also assign spells to both hands simultaneously and combine their effects for a unique attack. With 85 different spells available, the possibilities make me giddy.

Yeti didn't react well when Todd suggested he try a little "Manscaping".

-Bring on the Freaks: Now your body, as well as your face, will be totally customizable. Unless Bethesda puts limits in place, I know I'll be completing the game as a morbidly obese midget.

-Smarter Trolls: Enemies have more combat prowess and require players to look for breaks in their defense to strike. Mindlessly hacking away with your sword and shooting fireballs while back-pedaling (my strategy for most games) won’t cut it anymore.

-Level Better: No more classes, meaning no more restricting your play style by locking in on Mage or Warrior. If you use a certain skill a while, than your level for that skill increases and more options for that skill open up.

-Perky: When you level up, you can choose from a list of special power-ups offering things like the ability to carve through enemy armor with your mace. While that’s not the most creative perk, I’m sure the brilliant minds of Bethesda will come up with some cool ones for the final product.

-The Art of Conversation: Now when you talk to NPCs, they’ll show more expression and continue whatever they were doing while they talk. It looks infinitely better than the awkward (and often times creepy) conversations of Oblivion and Fallout, where NPCs stand straight up and talk as the camera zooms in on their fish-like faces. Oh, and they hired way more than 5 voice actors this time.

-A Living, (Fire)Breathing World: Using advanced AI technology, every NPC follows a unique daily schedule. Watch a dragon wreak havoc on a village, then come back a day later and find the villagers rebuilding.
Every piece of geography visible in Skyrim can be walked on, even the top of that mountain.

-Personalized Experience: The “Radiant Story” adapts to how you play the game. Become a skilled magic user, for example, and a wizard might approach you on the road for a duel. Skyrim also tracks every damsel you save and every peasant you slaughter, your actions determining the way people treat you and the quests that become available. The game will even generate sidequests sending you to places it knows you haven’t explored yet with foes tailored to your strengths and weaknesses-- hopefully this won’t make things too easy.

-Simplified Menus: Bethesda promises their new interface, inspired by Itunes, will keep you in the action longer. New features include the ability to tag weapons and spells as favorites for easy access.

-Speak Up: As a Dragonborn, you can absorb various Dragon Shouts through the souls of the dragons you slay. When spoken-- er, shouted-- these Dragon Shouts give players the power to do things like freeze time momentarily or summon a dragon for assistance in combat. Bethesda even created a 30 character alphabet the shouts are formed from. No word yet on how these magical words are recited, but imagine if they made it voice compatible using the Kinect—your parents will call in an exorcist when they hear you screaming “FUS-ROH-DAH!” at the TV.

A new reign of terror threatens the existence of the world as you know it: dragons...and mexican children.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim should be flying onto shelves 11/11/11, but with a game this massive, a delay wouldn’t be too surprising. In the meantime, wipe that drool off your keyboard ya sicko…and change your pants.

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Fighter Review

The Fighter is a movie that almost never was. Like the struggling boxer he plays in his passion project, producer/protagonist Mark Wahlberg had been waiting in limbo a long time for the shot to make his dream a reality. He worked his way through countless directors and costars, while at the same time working away at the punching bag. His goal was to turn himself into a boxer who could win the world title, not just another actor playing a boxer. With the Fighter, finally taken up by director David O. Russel, I don’t know if Wahlberg will be winning any world title, but he’ll damn well be winning something.

"I told you not to call me Marky Mark!"

The film is a biographical drama of the boxer “Irish” Mickey Ward that portrays his return to boxing after a long hiatus. An aging boxer living in small-town Lowell Massachusetts, Mickey’s got only one more shot at his dream bout, but still recovering from a severe hand injury, it’s going be a tough road to the top. Not helping matters is the mismanagement of his career by his mother Alice (Melissa Leo) and coke-head brother Dickie (Christian Bale). Then there’s Mickey’s new girlfriend Charlene Flemings (Amy Adams) who disapproves of the family’s treatment of her boyfriend and his career. Throw her into the mix, and you’ve got a bigger fight outside of the ring than in it.

The Fighter is just as much a story about Mickey’s devotion to his dysfunctional family as it is about his devotion to boxing. With chipped paint and crack cocaine, the film paints a hauntingly gorgeous picture of a loving yet deeply troubled family. His mother, Alice, played to perfection by Leo with a whole lotta sass and a just a hint of sorrow, wants nothing but the best for her son, but is wildly unqualified to decide what’s best for him. Complete with baggy eyes, big hair, and cigarette after cigarette, Alice is a riot every time she graces the screen with her squawky, unabashed charm-- especially when she’s clucking away with his countless sisters in their tiny and smoky living room.

Adams also showcases a fantastic performance as Charlene, injecting the sexy, crawl-on-the-hood-of-your-car bar chick character with her own classic brand of tender sweetness. She’s the perfect fighter’s girlfriend: tough and able to push her man when he needs pushing, yet caring and able to tend to his wounds when he’s hurt. When Mickey brings her home to meet the other headstrong ladies in his life, the result is priceless. Can you say cat fight?

That top was see-through in the actual movie. Just sayin'.

While all the supporting actors escape into their roles, none sink quite as deeply as Bale does into the life of Mickey’s brother Dickie, a former boxer who’s since turned to a life of drugs and petty crime. Bale is almost unrecognizable-- I know the teeth aren’t real and I’m still deciding on the bald spot, but there’s no denying that Bale lost a substantial amount of weight for the part. A long ways away from the glory of his past yet still carrying himself with the swagger of a fighter taking his place in the center of the ring, Bale has a way of making us laugh while simultaneously breaking our hearts. There’s no greater testament to how truly remarkable his performance is then the closing footage of the real-life Dickie. Every single mannerism, from the raspy and confident tone of voice to the fidgety pacing in place, is breathtakingly identical. Goosebumps.

In the middle of all this is Mickey, struggling to do what’s best for his career while at the same time looking out for his family. Wahlberg’s played the role of underdog athlete before (see 2006’s Invincible), but he’s really in his element as a boxer. He does a superb job of being the glue that holds this story together. I wouldn’t say Bale steals the spotlight from him either. It’s still Mickey’s journey that we follow, and his triumph we cross our fingers for.

Mickey’s relationship with his brother is the heart and soul of the story. Dickie always manages to get into trouble, and always manages to drag Mickey down with him. At the same time, Mickey needs his older brother’s touch as a trainer. Dickie needs Mickey too though. Attempting to relive his days in the ring, he longs to make up for the life he squandered through his little bro, who still has a shot at achieving what he never could. It’s a toxic brotherhood, but even with the exchanging of blows, the profound love and understanding the duo has for one another is never in question.

Brotherly Love: Mickey needs Dickie, Dickie needs Mickey. Say that five times fast.

Don’t go into the film expecting a total soap opera, however (we are talking about a movie called The Fighter). The ring scenes are the most visceral in any boxing movie since Raging Bull. Actual HBO Boxing cameramen filmed the fighting, filtering the footage with a mid-80’s TV grain. The result is a seamless blend of in-your-face brutality and pay-per-view authenticity that had me itching in my seat to throw punches at the air in front of me.

Coming from the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston, a town sharing striking similarities to where Mickey comes from, there’s a special place in Wahlberg’s heart for this movie. His passion bleeds from the film he was meant to produce and the role he was meant to act. There’s a reason every single audience member left the theatre with a burning desire to jump rope and shallow box, Wahlberg has given us a masterpiece.


The Bottom Line

5/5 Sweaty Boxing Gloves

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Call of Duty: Black Ops Review

Every fall, there’s one thing gamers can always count on: the release of the latest Call of Duty. It’s just like the holidays—only earlier, and instead of sugar plums and caroling on doorsteps there’s frag grenades and trash-talking through a headset. With this year’s Black Ops, were COD fans rewarded like good little boys and girls or left a steaming lump of overhyped coal?

Black Ops’ campaign is told through the eyes of an imprisoned soldier named Alex Mason who’s being interrogated for information by some particularly rude baddies. The missions are triggered through Mason’s hazy, torture-induced flashbacks, which span from the deep jungles of Vietnam to the rooftops of Hong Kong. The plot is without a doubt the most expertly crafted of any Call of Duty game, complete with surprising plot-twists and a satisfying finale.

The campaign is fast, furious and fun, but I can’t help but feel like I’m playing what I’ve already been playing for years now. Apparently, developer Treyarch was fully aware we'd experience this de-ja-vu, and tried to compensate for the game’s linear, point-and-shoot nature by overloading the game with ridiculously over-the-top action sequences. As a result, the campaign fails to produce any truly shocking or stand-out moments, like Modern Warfare’s nuke scene or Modern Warfare 2’s airport shooting.

With the blur of Michael Bay-esque stunts crowding the campaign, I sometimes felt like I wasn’t even playing the game at all. I simply followed the onscreen button-cues as I was dragged by my eyeballs from a helicopter turret, to a jet-ski, to another helicopter turret, all the while being bombarded by a hail of RPG fire and screaming. It’s all a bit…over-the-top.

"Hold X to climb wall, hijack armored car, drive alongside low-flying helicopter, jump aboard, knife pilot in neck."

Many gamers won’t even touch the campaign, however, and why should they? Black Ops achieves the impossible by creating an even more rewarding, inviting, and robust multiplayer than MW2. In addition to the usual leveling and prestiging, players now earn “CoD points” for a job well-done. The in-game currency can be used to upgrade weapons or to buy accessories, and with over 1,500 different ways to customize your boots alone, there’s no need to worry about Becky wearing the same dress as you to the party.

The new Wager Matches let players bet their hard-earned scratch for the chance at winning big. My favorite flavor of Wager Match is the “One in the Chamber,” game type, where each player has only one bullet-- talk about making every shot count. There’s also new perks, including an exploding RC-car, and new kill-streaks, including a helicopter that you can pilot yourself while mowing down opponents like weeds. Thankfully, all this gaming glory can be recorded for the world to see with the new Halo-style theatre. Throw in a stat-tracking system deeper than a BP oil well, a party-finding tool that would make e-Harmony jealous, and a bigger, badder return of the hilarious and addictive Zombies mode, and you’ve got enough Call of Duty to put you in shell-shock ‘til next fall.

The campaign may be a little seizure-inducing but the better-than-ever multiplayer more than makes up for the single-player mode’s sins. At its heart, Black Ops is still the same old shoot ‘em, stab ‘em and blast ‘em up Call of Duty we’ve grown so fond of over the past decade.

Happy COD-Day to all…and to all a good fight.


The Bottom Line

 4/5 Ballistic Knives

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Review: Mass Effect 2 Free DLC

BioWare promised us plenty of downloadable content to keep us coming back again and again to the universe of Mass Effect 2, and so far they’ve been pretty solid in fulfilling that promise. I just finished three of these expansions, Zaeed- The Price of Revenge, The Normandy Crash Site, and the Firewalker Pack, all of which are free. Unfortunately, aside from a shotgun and some armor, these are the only things you’ll find for free on Mass Effect’s “Cerberus Network,” the online service that supplies any available DLC.

Of the trio, the best slice of content by far is Zaeed-The Price of Revenge. It’s up to Commander Shepherd to track down and recruit Zaeed Massani, the galaxy’s most feared and ruthless mercenary, for the suicide mission. But as anyone who’s played Mass Effect 2 knows, getting someone to join your squad isn’t as easy as a welcome card and a handshake- you’re going to have to waste a lot of intergalactic thugs before earning the loyalty of anyone. You first bump into Zaeed on a dark alley in Omega, beating the shit out of some Batarian. He’s up for the job, if of course you’re willing to help him liberate some slave colony from the Blue Suns first. As the mission progresses Zaeed’s dark past is revealed, as well as his true motive for wanting to get back at the Blue Suns. There’s a new heavy weapon to be collected and added to your arsenal, too.

Zaeed quickly becomes my favorite character in the game. He speaks in a raspy British accent, like a James Bond who’s been through hell and back. The long, thick scars that gnash the side of his face he got from taking a bullet to head. How does one take a wound like that and live to tell about it? “A person who’s stubborn enough can survive just about anything,” he explains to Sheperd, “Rage is a hell of an anesthetic.” Yeah, he’s a total badass.

Mass Effect 2 is all about making difficult moral decisions, and the choice to make in this mission is one of the toughest. BioWare takes a cheap shot, forcing you to choose between the loyalty of Zaeed (and an achievement), and doing the right thing. Being a Gamerscore whore, I had no choice but to take the bad guy route, but the blood-curdling screams of the innocents I betrayed in the process made those 15 achievement points especially hard to swallow.

I think somebody needs a hug
The Normandy Crash Site add-on was a lot less action-packed than the Zaeed mission- I didn’t even lift my assault rifle. There’s no combat involved, rather, Shepherd takes a solemn visit to the final resting place of his crew and ship from the first game. The mission only lasts about 10 minutes, but if you were like me and poured hours into the original Mass Effect, the Normandy crash site can bring back some fond memories. I found the wreckage of the Mako, the tank-like vehicle used to explore the surface of planets in ME 1, to be especially moving. Oh Mako, how I miss you’re cannon, you’re little jump thrusters…the way you made it possible to free roam any surface I chose.

Almost like a gift from some kind of Mass Effect God, the Firewalker Pack soothed my aching heart with a brand new vehicle- the hover tank. The hover-tank is fun enough to speed around the surfaces of foreign worlds, and the familiar rocket boosters let you jump from cliff to precarious cliff. As I hovered around, collecting various artifacts and thrashing Geth around like ragdolls with my cannon, it felt like my old friend the Mako had returned to me in spirit. It was a nice blast from the past, but with almost no story or diversity between the five missions, this add-on felt so…added on. Also, it makes no sense to me as to why BioWare didn’t include this vehicle in the main game.

Your brand new hover is gonna be a fortune

That’s the main problem I have with all three of these expansions - they should have been included in the main game. It seems to me like BioWare initially had them as missions in the main game, but decided to pull them at the last minute so they could offer them as free DLC, thus becoming heroes in an extremely pricey Xbox Marketplace. Hey, sitting on two plus hours of free game content, I guess I can’t complain too much. My only fear is that, from here on out, getting the quality DLC is going to cost us.



Zaeed- The Price of Revenge: 3.5/5 Facial Scars

The Normandy Crash Site: 2/5 Hunks of Space Wreckage

The Firewalker Pack: 3/5 Planetary Minerals

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Review: HBO's "The Pacific"

I wrote this review of HBO's "The Pacific" for the Outlook. This is the full version that hasn't been butchered- er, cut- by the Media Editors

For the majority of America, the Pacific theater of World War Two is the greatest war story never told, a tale trapped in the glorious shadow of the European campaign. For this reason, and for the sake of honoring the First Marine Division for the hell they went through, HBO’s “The Pacific” is a story that needed to be told…and man, what a story it is. The 10-part miniseries, brought to life by the creators of the phenomenal “Band of Brothers”, is as visceral as it is gorgeous, a haunting yet surreally beautiful epic. The series drags you through Hades and spits you out, exploring the dark corners of war that “Brothers” didn’t dare to.

Unlike the somewhat unfocused style of “Brothers”, switching between characters as quickly as they die off, “The Pacific” hones its attention on the true stories of three Marines. Eugene Sledge, played by Joseph Mazzello, is the doe-faced youngster of the group. Gentle and soft-spoken with a southern-tinged accent, Sledge is eager to join the fight despite his parents’ fears. Robert Leckie, portrayed by James Badge Dale, is the charmer of group; carrying himself with a certain air of intelligence and wit, he’s the kind of person every guy likes to think they are. Lastly, there’s born-to-fight Marine and Medal of Honor recipient John Basilone, played by Jon Seda. All three parts, as well as the dozens of other supporting roles, are superbly acted. Though the dialogue, especially the banter between the characters, was borderline cliché at times, I couldn’t help but care deeply for each man’s fate. Every time their amphibious carriers rolled up to the beaches and dropped the ramp, I found myself holding my breath, praying that I’d see each man alive when the fire had ceased.

Right in the first episode, these men are thrown onto the beaches to fight for their lives with only 30 minutes of background story covering their existence back in the States. While getting into the action early on sounds like a good thing, some may find watching characters who they barely know storm a hail of gunfire unappealing (Why do I care if this guy got his face blown off? I don’t know him!). Though this approach may turn some off early on, patient viewers will be rewarded with watching the young Marines grow up before their very eyes as they hop from island to island, storming beach after blood-soaked beach. From the pristine sands of Australia to the blackened dunes of Iwo Jima, we watch them find love, fall from innocence, teeter on the brink of insanity, and through it all, depend on each other.

The series really takes to heart the statement “war is hell.” These war-ravaged Marines aren’t the stereotypical “Hooah!” group of muscle-bound grunts marching valiantly into battle: the men are muddy, emaciated, and broken. In one scene, the camera swaps between close-up views of each man’s face as they trudge from battle, an unsettlingly absent gaze stricken on their dirty faces. “We were more like dogs than Marines,” a veteran recalls.

“The Pacific” is the darkest World War 2 film out there, and when the soldiers find themselves in the thick of the jungle, things really start to get grim. The Japanese are perhaps the most terrifying and awe-inspiring enemies I’ve ever seen. Charging at the Marines wave after wave through the trees, letting off a nearly inhuman battle cry, it sometimes felt like I was watching “Dawn of the Dead” rather than a war movie. These aren’t the defeated, disheartened Nazis found towards the end of the European campaign. “These Japs’ll kill themselves before they let us on their land,” a Marine whispers to Sledge.

Especially towards the final episodes, the series is unflinchingly brutal in its depiction of the atrocities the war caused. You can almost feel a Marine’s pain as his limbs are ripped from his body in a mortar-strike, almost smell the burning flesh of Japanese soldiers stumbling from a bunker incinerated with flame-thrower. Even more horrible are the images of the Japanese citizens caught in the middle: a child lying face down in the mud, a woman begging Marines to take her baby before detonating a suicide bomb. This is by no stretch of the term an easy watch.

Through all of the hell endured, perhaps the most gripping and heart-wrenching scenes come in the final chapter as the men return home and try to move on with their lives. The sight of a still war-plagued Eugene Sledge having a nightmare stands out in my mind. His tormented soul tossing and turning in bed while his father, awakened by the whimpering cries, tenderly rests his hand on the other side of the door, helpless and wondering what the world had done to his son. Moments like that reach places that no amount of blood packets and prosthetic intestines could ever touch.

“The Pacific” grabs hold of you and refuses to let go. It isn’t until the closing sequence and the stills of the actors’ faces fade into the photographs of the men, the heroes, they portrayed that you exhale and realize- this hell existed.


5/5 Stars