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My name is Wayne Chamberlain and I'm a geek daddy who is into Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, books, movies, video games and talking to creative people about their work in these mediums. And that's what you'll find here, along with news, previews and reviews. I'm a journalist, an editor and co-host of the Star Wars Book Report podcast. So come on in and feel free to geek out in a fun, friendly environment.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Cruise, director Bird shine in Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol DVD (plus other reviews...finally!)

Greetings from my new hut, which is why it’s been a while since I cracked open the old DVD vault and filed a report.
But I’m back and ready to bring you reviews, previews and a look at some of the latest and greatest flicks on the market.
Let’s dive into the most recent big release first.
Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol, starring Tom Cruise, Simon Pegg and Jeremy Renner is an enjoyable home theatre experience, especially on Blu-ray, which showcases some of the absolutely gorgeous locations director Brad Bird and crew chose for this action-spy flick.
MI is one of those rare franchises that seem to be getting better with each movie. Like The Bourne Trilogy that gave us Matt Damon: Action Star, Mission: Impossible has become more accessible, interesting and entertaining with each installment. And No. 4, Ghost Protocol, is by far the best of the bunch to date.
Maybe that’s because Cruise needed a bit of a career makeover after some recent PR stumbles. His image took a beating because of his religious-political views and he became a little too toxic for a while. But Ghost Protocol showcases that Cruise, the actor, is still likeable, watchable and engaging. Throw in his appearance in the upcoming musical Rock of Ages, based on ’80s hair bands and music and I think Tommy boy is going to find himself back in the pop culture good books so long as he keeps his wacko views to himself.
OK, enough of that stuff.
Bird is a remarkable director and this marks his first non-animated film. It’s one heck of a live-action debut. Ghost Protocol, which sees the Mission: Impossible team going rogue after being disavowed for their supposed participation in a terror-style bombing attack on the Kremlin, showcases some truly eye-popping stunts and solid character work.
Let’s start with the stunts. Cruise, in one of the real set pieces, dangles outside Dubai’s largest building, the Burj Kahlifa, having to move between several floors by using special spy gloves that stick to the glass. It is a breathtaking sequence, extremely well shot and taut. Cruise proves he still has great action chops and Bird, who is best known for directing The Incredibles and The Iron Giant, shows that he can hold an audience in the palm of his hand with real flesh and blood actors and images.
There’s also an amazing showdown in an automated parking garage in which Cruise takes an absolute beating while chasing down the villain, trying to secure proof that will exonerate him and his team. Between bouncing off cars, falling multiple storeys and a physically brutal fight between the two main characters, it’s another great action set piece.
Pegg, Paula Patton, Renner and Cruise form a great crew of spies. They have real chemistry between them. Pegg’s comedic chops as the gadget geek, Renner’s quiet intensity as a character whose allegiances and motivations seem suspect, Patton’s beauty and intelligence sparkle, while Cruise leads the way with his confident, take-charge demeanor. Characters in action-driven movies are often paper thin and their arcs usually play second or even third fiddle to the plot. Not so here. These characters are front and centre and make Ghost Protocol a much more personal journey than a typical action flick. Credit to Bird, producer JJ Abrams and writers Josh Appelbaum and Andre Nemec. They have crafted a really spectacular movie from start to finish – one that was amazing on the big screen, but still packs plenty of punch in the home theatre arena.
I cannot recommend this DVD highly enough.
Extras include a look at the filming of the movie, the gadgets, special effects and stunts, as well as deleted scenes and an alternate opening.
* * *
Here’s a quick look at other DVDs currently on the market:
* The Descendants: Director Alexander Payne’s brilliant tale of a family in crisis, starring George Clooney as a man dealing with an accident that has left his wife brain dead, as well the knowledge that she has been having an affair that even his children were aware of, is deeply moving.
And yet, rather than being maudlin, Payne and Clooney inject bits of comedic genius here and there to keep the mood a little bit light while exploring a deeply upsetting plot.
Complicating things for Clooney’s character is the fact he has to come to grips with the idea of raising two daughters on his own, plus dealing with a family that wants him to sell off the last and largest remaining piece of pristine land on one of Hawaii’s islands – a deal that would give the family members vast sums of money.
This film was more than deserving of its multiple Oscar nominations as Clooney and Payne deliver a truly powerful movie that works on so many levels.
Extras include some great behind-the-scenes featurettes. One of them reveals why I love watching the extras and listening to commentary tracks. The last image of the movie always confused me. Clooney is sitting on a couch, surrounded by both daughters. One by one, as they are watching TV, they begin to share a colourful blanket, tucking themselves beneath it. When the movie faded to black, with none of the characters speaking in the scene, I thought that was a truly bizarre and, let’s be honest, stupid way to end a really smart film.
But in the extras, you learn that in Hawaiian tradition, they have a version of a healing blanket and that people give these blankets as gifts to help soothe the soul. So by seeing each character get under the blanket, it’s a statement that they have begun the healing process and, we presume, will be ok going forward. That gives the final scene so much more impact. Payne is a truly gifted filmmaker who lives by the ‘show, don’t tell’ rule and it’s obvious that one should always delve deeper into his movies because nothing gets in without having a reason for it.
* The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: Director David Fincher is a man with a dark vision, as his previous films such as Se7en, Fight Club and even Alien 3 have shown. Given the nearly impossible task of turning the Swedish Lisbeth Salander trilogy into a Hollywood production, Fincher dives in and proves adept at crafting a dark thriller that, while different in several ways than the original foreign film and novels, gets so much right that I’m ready to sign on for another two flicks if he’s at the helm.
Daniel Craig plays disgraced journalist  Mikael Blomkvist, who is hired by Canadian actor Christopher Plummer’s dying industrialist, Henrik Vanger, to unravel the mystery of who killed his beloved niece decades earlier.
The suspects are his family members, a twisted group that includes child abusers, wife beaters, former Nazis and truly psychopathic sickos.
Craig is outstanding as Blomkvist, which surprised me greatly as I’m a huge fan of the original foreign films.
But Rooney Mara is an absolute revelation as punk computer hacker Lisbeth Salander, a woman who has been subjected to one of the most disturbing on-camera rape scenes in film history. Mara, who is unrecognizable when you consider her most prominent role prior to this was as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s ex-girlfriend in The Social Network, sparkles. That’s no mean feat given how much love film fans have for Noomi Rapace, the original actress in the Swedish trilogy.
Fincher actually manages to bring out more of the richness and pathos of his main characters, which for a story nut like myself, actually elevates the film above the Swedish original – something I thought would be impossible when I first popped it into my Blu-ray player.
Stellan Skarsgard, Joely Richardson, Robin Wright and Goran Visnjic round out the superb supporting cast.
Extras include a great look at the making of the movie and some of the differences between the original and the Hollywood version.
* Chinatown: Director Roman Polanski’s brilliant 1974 classic crime story, starring Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway, gets the Blu-ray treatment and the studio has gone all out to give film fans a truly great disc.
Nicholson’s Jake Gittes is hired to investigate a California Water and Power engineer’s death, Gittes is drawn into a darker world of politics, sexual deviance and corruption as he tries to figure out the motivation of the woman who hired him, as well as solve the murder of Hollis Mulwray.
The film is gorgeous in high-def, with a cleaned up transfer that brings the crisp images to life in a new way. There’s also a whole bunch of extras that add tremendously to the enjoyment of this true classic, which was voted one of the top 100 movies of all-time.
A commentary track featuring screenwriter Robert Towne and David Fincher is a must-listen, as he reveals great bits about the plot and the characters. There’s a complete 90-minute documentary that looks at the history and the politics of bringing water to California’s big city, which has taken a huge environmental toll to this day. It’s fascinating viewing in its own right.
There are also extras looking at the film’s cultural impact and the shooting of the film.
Due to politics and legal issues, Polanski isn’t involved in the updated extras, which is a shame. I know he should face the music in the U.S. so that he can become a member of the Hollywood film elite once again, because he’s a remarkable artist and we’re missing out on so much because of his cowardice.
But there’s no denying the skill he has as a filmmaker because it’s on full display in this beautiful Blu-ray release that should be a must-buy for any true film lover.
* Monty Python and the Holy Grail: The British comedy troupe’s classic gets the Blu-ray treatment and while it’s not exactly enhanced by going high-def, there are some fun elements to explore on the disc.
There are outtakes and extended scenes, some lost animations, the priceless Holy Book of Days Second Screen Experience, as well as commentary tracks featuring the Python boys (John Cleese, Eric Idle, Michael Palin, Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones), a Lego Knights of the Round Table short, a special Japanese version of the film, as well as an ‘educational film’ on how to properly use coconuts.
* Bob’s Burgers: The Complete First Season: This two-disc set features 13 episodes from the animated comedy’s first TV season. The family-run restaurant is one I’d never eat at and this dysfunction family continues Fox’s long traditional of messed up parents and kids smart-mouthing one another through funny, but often distasteful situations.
Extras include commentary tracks on all episodes, audio outtakes and more uncensored material.
* Patton Oswalt: Finest Hour: The 20-year vet of stand-up comedy delivers his unique view on life and work in this funny 67-minute performance. A geek blessed with a cutting wit and snarky delivery, Oswalt is truly a joy to watch work over an audience.
Extras include his encore KFC bit, as well as a look at his pre-show superstitions.
* Alvin and Chipmunks: Chipwrecked: The boys and girls are back. It’s a family flick. I hate talking animal movies for the most part, but there are a few cute scenes in this family comedy, which sees Dave, Alvin and the rest of the group working a cruise ship.
* Ernie Kovacs: The ABC Specials: These five 1961 specials, featuring the soon-to-be-deceased 42-year-old comedian, are a real revelation about someone who was trying to push the boundaries of broadcasting while it was still in its infancy. The set features only five of the eight specials he made, but you can see how his work influenced others who followed, such as David Letterman and early Saturday Night Live comedians.
* And finally, something for the kids: Four sets of animated TV shows they can watch. Real Monsters: Season Two, The Wild Thornberrys: Season Two, Part Two, Hey Arnold: Season Two, Part One and Danny Phantom: Season Two, Part One, bring some smart, entertaining work to the home theatre environment, where your kids can enjoy these series.
Real Monsters aired back in 1995 and featured the voices of Charlie Adler and James Belushi, focusing on the upbringing of three young monsters. Lacey Chabert and Tim Curry starred in Thornberrys, which was a brilliant series about a family of wild life documentarians, their two daughters, an adopted jungle boy and a monkey. The hook was that daughter Eliza could talk to the animals, unbeknownst to everyone else, allowing her to converse with their chimp, Darwin, who has some great lines.
Hey Arnold was an underappreciated series, best known for the boy with the football-shaped head. This 1997 series features the voice work of Dan Castellaneta and Jamil Walker Smith.
And Danny Phantom, which was on the air in 2005, tells the tale of a boy who can turn himself into a crime-fighting apparition.

MLB 12 The Show a virtual grand slam

Being a Canadian, I know that I’m supposed to have hockey in my veins. It’s April. The NHL playoffs are going to full-tilt.
And I couldn’t care less.
Whether my work as a sports writer or three years of coaching hockey recently have just pushed me over the hockey edge, I’m truly hockey-ed out. My sports focus is on baseball and football these days, specifically the Toronto Blue Jays and Buffalo Bills.
And right now, I’m in full-on Jays mode.
Thankfully, as a gamer I can get a virtual fix courtesy of Sony’s ever-improving MLB franchise. This year, MLB 12 The Show (PlayStation 3, PlayStation Vita) has somehow managed to once again top itself to stand firmly atop the virtual baseball mountain.
Let’s start with what The Show added to the mix a few years back: The Road to the Show mode. This time around, you can start at AA and play actual baseball, working your way up to the majors by playing well in any situation, rather than having to complete little in-game tasks that could take away from the flow of an actual game. For instance, as a pitcher you would often be tasked with striking out the side in order to score points. With a man on, it made no baseball sense to go for the strike out when a double play ground ball was what you needed. Yet you would be punished for doing that. Not now. And the mode is so much more true to life for it.
The season and franchise modes remain outstanding, thanks to amazing graphics and a revamped broadcast style presentation that makes use of multiple camera angles to try to give you the feel of taking in a real TV event. The broadcast play-by-play remains one of the weaker elements, but the game is so damn good that you can easily tune out the announcers and just enjoy the action and visuals.
Controls have been augmented, with more Move support added. I’m not a huge fan of this thing. If I wanted to burn my arm out, I’d reach for a Wii Remote. But if you want the gimmick of trying to swing or pitch like a virtual big leaguer, this game will give you a chance.
A new Diamond Dynasty mode that lets you build a franchise from the ground up with real and created players, having them for set amounts of games and short seasons is promising, although I didn’t spend much time with it. I’m more into The Show and the franchise modes.
Overall, MLB 12 The Show is a beauty, from top to bottom. It is truly one of the best sports games ever released and other developers would be well-served by taking note of Sony’s attention to detail.
You can also save a game to Sony’s Cloud system and continue playing on either the Vita or PS3, so you don’t have to play separate seasons anymore if you own both systems. Love this.
The score: 5 stars out of 5. Rated E.

* * * 
Here’s a quick look at some other sports titles currently available:
* Tiger Woods PGA Tour 13 (Xbox 360, PS3; Electronic Arts): This year, it all comes down to two things: The good aspects of the new swing mechanics … and the bad aspects of it. How well you adapt to the more realistic swing mechanics will determine whether you enjoy this or not. It’s not easy, but once you get the hang of it, you are definitely more involved in the game. Shots feel a little less random. Not crazy about paying for all the extra courses, but that’s life in a DLC world. Avoid the Kinect function. Pretty weak The score: 3 ½ stars. Rated E.
* Grand Slam Tennis 2 (360, PS3; EA): A decent game for fans who want to learn how to play the virtual sport. Too simple for the hardcore, who are still best served by the TopSpin franchise. It’s solid, but unspectacular. The score: 3 stars. Rated E.
* SSX (360, PS3; EA): Realism in sports games usually isn’t a bad thing, but this snowboarding series is hampered by a distinct lack of fun and silliness. SSX used to be about insane tricks and cool moves. That’s been toned way down in favour of more realism and the game suffers greatly. The score: 2 stars. Rated E.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Mass Effect 3 one of top trilogies ever made

Hello faithful readers. I've had about a five-month hiatus from writing in the paper (although my work appeared online and on my blog) due to some personal issues.
But things are coming back on track and so I'm back to offer my insights and opinions on video games on a weekly basis.
There were several big issues during the past couple of months in the industry, including backlash attacks at gaming giants Electronic Arts and Activision. But the one issue that particularly drew my ire was the fan attacks on Canadian developers BioWare Ltd., over Mass Effect 3.
Many 'fans' took issue with the game's ending, specifically the fact it basically broke down into three general endings, with a couple subsets within those. Fans felt cheated because they said the choices they had made throughout the three entries - decisions totaling about 1,000 options that were supposed to have ramifications as to how the game played out - were essentially tossed out the airlock. But in Mass Effect 3 space, you could definitely hear the disaffected and the forum trolls screaming bloody murder.
Personally, I think it’s a crock.
As a story teller, you have to have the game’s hero, Cmdr. Shepard wind up in one place. So, this idea that there could be dozens of endings is a joke. And the choices people made were not meaningless. They affected how you experienced the game and how you got Shepard to his ultimate finish. Go on YouTube and search through the different Mass Effect 3 videos and you’ll just how varied the story can be depending on the choices you made.
But the end is the end. That’s where the writers determined Shepard’s journey would ultimately come full circle and culminates in what I personally thought was one of the best, most rewarding, truly emotional and fantastic video game trilogies in the history of gaming. Period.
To their personal credit, the good doctors, Ray Mazuka and Greg Zeschuk, the heads of BioWare, have promised to revamp the ending of the game via a downloadable piece of content in the near future. I think the guys caved - in a way - to pressure when they didn’t need to. I know they care deeply about their fans, but I think a special group like BioWare that is dedicated to story-driven gaming, could have made a statement here about standing strong by their editorial and creative decision because the three endings were effective and emotional.
* * *
Here’s a quick look at a couple games out now:
* Syndicate (360, PS3; Electronic Arts): A strong, interesting sci-fi shooter with a story that could have been fleshed out better. In a dystopian future, big business can sell you a lifestyle if you agreed to have a chip installed in you that can, in essence, control aspects of your behaviour. You play as a syndicate enforcer, an Agent, who discovers there may be corruption in this seemingly perfect world. The game has excellent shooter mechanics and looks great, but is hampered by some glitches that take you out of the gameplay at points. With more polish and a little deeper story, this could have been really special. Instead, it’s just a heck of a shooter. 3 ½ stars out of 5. Rated M.
*Yakuza: Dead Souls (PS3; Sega): OK, Japanese gangsters tackle a zombie infestation. Greatest game ever, right? Well, not quite. Enjoyable in sections and spurts, the lack of polish and the somewhat absurd storytelling detract from the experience. 2 ½ stars. Rated M
* NeverDead (360, PS3; Konami): A mix of hacking and shooting, akin to Too Human and Devil May Cry, this often times silly action title focuses on an immortal who can’t die, who is tasked with killing a bunch of demons. Ya, you can’t die. You’re immortal. So you can get stopped and have to reassemble yourself and then tackle sections again, so don’t sweat trying to stay safe or play strategically. Like this game, there’s really no point. 2 stars. Rated M.

Coming up: A look at the new PlayStation Vita and several sports titles, including MLB 12 The Show and Tiger Woods PGA Tour 13.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Getting ready for the return of Jedi Aragorn

Hello, dear readers. Your jedi geek has been going through a lot of personal growth and change during the past 6 weeks. I will be back with gaming and dvd and book news, previews, reviews and videos in the coming weeks as life gets back to normal.
Please hang with me and get ready for some interesting pieces, interviews and opinions in the coming weeks, months and years.
But first, with this being Titanic week, let me recommend you pick up Matt Forbeck's excellent novel Carpathia, about vampires being on board the ship that rescued survivors of the Titanic disaster. It's a great time to check it out.
Carpathia novel at Amazon.ca