Thursday, July 7, 2011

Review: inFamous 2

Just over two years after it's predecessor, inFamous 2 hit shelves in early June of 2011.  The first inFamous, released in May of 2009, was a great success, blending sand-box style game play with an innovative style of third-person shooter/action and complex moral choices.  For those who didn't play the original inFamous, I will give you a bit of a synopsis.  You play as Cole MacGrath, a bike messenger who was given a mysterious package to deliver.  The package explodes and rather than dying, Cole suddenly exhibits electric powers.  You go through the first game fighting other people with powers (or as the story calls them, conduits) and are given the option to either be good and save Empire city or be evil and conquer it.  In the second game your sole objective is to defeat "The Beast," an ominous and looming figure ever present in the background as you try and increase your power as Cole MacGrath.  The game takes you to a new city, New Marais, quite obviously a replica of New Orleans, so much so that New Marais was recently hit by a hurricane.  As Cole you fight new enemies consisting of three factions: the Militia, the Corrupted (swamp monster type things), and Vermaak 88 soldiers (ice conduits).  You go through the game searching for blast cores which will increase your power and help you to eventually defeat The Beast.

As the story goes, it's solid.  You actually have a motive from the very beginning and a solid of idea what to do.  It isn't straight and linear, however, and there are some significant bumps and twists in the storyline, a few of which were quite unexpected.  The characters are memorable and you will undoubtedly have those that you grow to like and those that you grow to hate.  The only character that didn't have as much impact as I would have liked was Bertrand, the second most threatening antagonist, but without doubt the most present.  Interactions with him are few and far between and when you do confront him, you never really feel an overwhelming sense of dread or danger.  The best character development comes in the form of Cole's sidekick from the first game, Zeke, and a new operative, Lucy Kuo.  For those that played the original, Zeke and Cole had some complications toward the end of the game, and Sucker Punch did not forget about this, successfully carrying both their long friendship and awkward tension into the second game.  Kuo is potentially the most interesting character in the game, in particular because something drastic happens to her, but I'll let you find out what that is for yourself.

Two factors play the largest role in concerns to the game play of inFamous 2: the powers and the moral choices.  The electric powers are just as sharp as they were in the first game.  Firing is accurate and your power choices are varied.  Toward the middle of the game you're even given the choice to add a power: fire or ice.  I chose ice and some of the ice moves were some of my favorites throughout the entire game, especially the ice jump which made traveling and evading even more efficient.  While I had my go to favorites (such as the generic electrical shot and the electric grenade), the game does a good job of making you want to change your favorite power.  At times I found I liked grenades the most, but then I would get an upgrade for my Amp (the games melee equipment) and found myself enjoying hand-to-hand combat more.  Then I would get and upgrade for my grenades and they would quickly become my most used.  Another thing that is great about the game is the upgrade system.  Even though I made it through the entire game and did every single side mission, by the end there were still powers I hadn't unlocked or purchased.  This is in part because I decided to take the good route and there are both good and evil powers, but some of the more expensive upgrades I didn't get a chance to purchase, which only made me want to do a second play through that much more.  The moral choices, unfortunately, aren't as well developed.  While the first game made you decide between sharing a care package of food between a group of hungry survivors or using your powers to keep all of the food for yourself, inFamous 2's choices aren't quite as morally confusing.  One option that is present during the entire game as a side option to gain more positive or negative karma is to chose between stopping a mugging or beating up a group of cops.  The moral decision there is pretty clear and is very cut and dry in terms of which option is good and which option is evil; what inFamous 2 lacks in its moral decisions is a gray area, something the first installment succeeded at.

The graphics in the game are excellent and quite detailed.  The city of New Marais is teeming with life with people running around, street performers lining the streets, and cable cars running through the city.  The buildings also provide a touch of life with colorful, glowing lights, art deco exteriors, and even sunken buildings later in the game.  The AI is also pretty diversified in terms of the way they look and act.  The voices are all relatively distinct and while you will hear an AI say the same thing every now and again, they don't talk every single time you're around them, so it isn't frequent enough to become an annoyance.  Furthermore, while all of the characters are made from the same basic model, none of them look exactly alike, with slight variations such as hats, clothing style, and facial hair.  This just makes the city breath that much more life and seem all the more authentic.  The one downside to the AI is that the citizens are incredibly stupid.  They run everywhere and seem to fall down at the slightest tap.  Citizens carrying blast shards (which you can take from them for negative karma) run away from you screaming, even if you've been proclaimed the "Hero" of New Marais.  Another instance where the AI broke the believability barrier was when I was watching a news report and several of them ran up to the screen holding their heads and screaming, even though the report wasn't about any imminent doom (at least not yet).  The unfriendly AI on the other hand is great with varying sizes of unrelenting enemies.  The small enemies don't take breaks from shooting you and will pump an entire clip into you if you let them, immediately killing you.  This makes the fighting more challenging and makes you up your game when confronted with a swarm of enemies.  The larger enemies aren't frequent enough to become an annoyance, but I found that they sometimes get stuck in particular areas and freeze, making them a sitting duck.  Beyond that, all of the body motions (Cole's especially) are fluid and believable, as are all of the special effects and explosions, and I ran into very little frame rate issues.

One other thing I want to point out is the combat system.  The combat system in inFamous 2 is incredible and is one of the best I have ever played in.  There's a solid balance of shooting and melee which makes the combat more fluid.  In the first game I found myself rarely approaching the enemies and shooting them from a distance while I strafed back and forth dodging their bullets.  In this game I would perch on a building, toss a grenade, jump into the fray, smack a couple of guys around, dodge a couple of enemies, shoot the last remaining few with an electric blast, and proceed to restrain any of the survivors.  While there have been a lot of complaints about the "action camera" during some of the finishing moves interwoven into the melee system (and yes, at times it was a little troublesome with terrible close-ups or crops), it didn't seem like that much of an issue throughout the game.  It's true that I couldn't see enemies that were behind me at times and I couldn't prepare to move left or right away from a thug with a gun, but that kept me on my toes.  After beating the crap out of a guy, I would immediately whip around, perform a back hand spring, and pull up my trusty electric powered hand and be ready to fire. 

inFamous 2 also added a create your own mission system that consists of user generated content, but from what I played of it I wasn't terribly impressed.  There have been some creative missions, but overall it seems like a petty attempt at adding extra re-playability to a game that doesn't necessarily need it.  Another quick side note that may be of concern to some.  While the voice actor of Cole was changed and was a little grating at first, I quickly grew fond of the new voice actor and his slightly smoother voice led to a much greater opportunity for comedic writing within the game.  While the writing in the game isn't superb, the comedic bits are well placed and funny enough to break up the constant action and waves of enemies.

inFamous 2 isn't as striking as the first game, but it manages to grow in areas that inFamous fans should welcome with open arms.  The graphics are crisp and detailed and I saw no evidence of pop-ups and very few frame rate issues.  Cole and his supporting cast make you want to invest in them and they help you decide which path you want to take.  They even provide for a shocking twist at the very end of the game.  While the moral choices aren't as murky as I would have liked, the upgrade system and combat more than make up for it, making for an innovative and fluid fighting style.  The game's story is strong and pointed, but has enough bumps in the road to keep the player guessing and intrigued.  While there are camera issues and the user generated content system is lack luster, the many positives of the game outweigh its negatives.  inFamous 2 is a must for any PS3 owner and fans of the first game are sure to be proud of the second installment.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Review: L.A. Noire

It has been a while since I last reviewed a video game let alone written a review for anything.  I've played a lot of games since I wrote my review for Call of Duty: Black Ops back in December and while I could write reviews for all of those games, I feel as though it is best to keep current (not to mention how incredibly backlogged I would be).  The game I'm going to review for you today is L.A. Noire.

First off I want to state that I played L.A. Noire on the Xbox 360 and as such the game came on three DVDs as opposed to one Bluray.  While I've seen various people complaining about this online, I want to point out that it wasn't that much of an issue.  Yeah, it would have been nice to have the entire game on one disc, but the moments at which you change it aren't inconvenient and walking ten feet to my DVD rack and changing the disc all of twice over 30+ hours of play time isn't that big of a hassle.  Moving on.  To fill you in a little bit about what the game is about, you play as an LAPD officer by the name of Cole Phelps who you quickly find out recently returned from World War II and was awarded the Silver Star.  The story follows Phelps as he rises through the ranks of the LAPD.  The core of the gameplay is something much different than developer Rockstar Games has ever done before.  While the game has its fair share of shootouts, chase scenes, and fist fights, the bulk of the game focuses around Phelp's detective skills.  Roughly 50-60% of the game requires the player to search a house or crime scene for clues as well as interrogate witnesses and possible suspects.

Searching for clues can some times be overly tedious, but is relatively satisfying.  Clues are not overtly difficult to find seeing as how when the player is close enough to a potential clue the controller vibrates.  I say potential clue because the controller will vibrate at useless objects such as a box of laundry detergent or a bottle of wine.  While this makes the game a little harder in terms of figuring out which clues matter and which ones don't, I found myself on a number of occasions rotating a hair brush for a few minutes trying to see the underlying clue before Phelps told me that the object didn't "pertain to the investigation."  The interrogation aspect of the game is much more engaging and interesting than the investigation part.

L.A. Noire's claim to fame is its use of MotionScan technology in which actors are recorded by 32 surrounding cameras allowing them to capture facial expressions from every angle.  With that being said, the face animation is the best I have ever seen in a game, each expression not only being believable and recognizable, but deep and wrought with emotion.  The numerous interrogations the player comes across in the game heavily rely on MotionScan.  When interrogating, you ask a series of questions and you can chose to accept the witness/suspect's statement as truth, approach it with doubt, or accuse them of lying.  Much of this relies on being able to tell whether or not the person in questions actually looks like they're lying.  However, as the game progresses, the interrogations become increasingly more difficult and at some times frustrating.  However, the way in which the entire process is set up is almost flawless.  The player can review case notes and various clues before deciding which choice to make as well as use Intuition Points (acquired with each level gained) allowing them to see the most popular answer from the L.A. Noire Social Club or eliminate one of the potential answers.  This makes interrogations a little more manageable and a lot less frustrating.  Furthermore, certain lines of questioning are not accessible unless certain clues have been found or previous questions have been answered correctly.  Overall, the interrogation scenes are the most dynamic and engaging aspects of the game.

The graphics outside of the facial animations have strong and weak points alike.  While a lot of reviewers have said that the animations of the peoples' bodies are bad, that is only when held in comparison to the frightenly accurate depiction of the faces.  The bodies are no worse than in other Rockstar games such as Red Dead Redemption or Grand Theft Auto IV, but because the faces are without rival, the bodies standout as a bit of a sore thumb.  The scenery in the game as a whole is astonishing and incredibly well rendered.  Lighting and shading are impeccable and textures are smooth overall.  The city of L.A. itself is full of life with classic cars being driven around, old time advertisements hanging in store windows, and citizens sporting late 1940s fashion trends.  The entire game has a breath of life in it which makes it incredibly immersive.  The city itself is enormous, not to mention historically accurate.  Unfortunately, the player may not ever discover quite how large the city is.  Fortunately for me, I have a habit of trying to get as much out of a game as I can and attempt to unlock as many achievements/trophies as possible.  Because of this I have explored L.A. Noire up and down and have seen almost every bit of it.  However, because L.A. Noire isn't an open world game much like Rockstar's Red Dead Redemption and GTA series, the player almost has to force themselves to explore the city.  The cases are split up like levels and at the completion of each case a new one starts immediately.  Not until you complete a particular branch of the LAPD are you allowed to enter "Free Roam."  While this allows the player to go back and complete Street Crimes as well as search for hidden collectibles, it detaches the life of the city from the campaign's main plot.  One of the things I love most about Rockstar's past games is the players choice to do what they want.  Much like an RPG, if you decide to take a paticular mission, you can, if you don't want to, you can save it for later.  In between missions you're allowed to explore, look for side missions, or just have fun driving around/riding your horse and hitting pedestrians/cowboys.  L.A. Noire almost forces you to play the main story missions and staples the rest of the city on as a bonus.  Because of this, players will only see the areas in which a particular case takes place as opposed to being able to explore the city and pick up cases of their
own volition.  This has to be my biggest complaint about the game overall.

Outside of the facial animations, the strongest point of L.A. Noire is the soundtrack.  Each and every song, whether licensed or original, seems to capture the mood and time accurately.  While there's no way to change the radio station in your car, much like players have been able to do in the GTA games, you're sure to hear every bit of music they have available. Click here to listen to my favorite song from the game.  Another strong suit for the game is the cast.  Not only are they strong voice actors, but because of the MotionScan technology, you'll be able to recognize a good number of people.  Just from being a fan of Mad Men alone I recognized not only Aaron Staton as Cole Phelps, but I noticed Michael Gladis and Rich Sommer, both of which are supporting characters throughout all four seasons of Mad Men. 

A few more quick complaints before I wrap up.  As I say this I want to note that this next sentence may contain POTENTIAL SPOILERS, but all things considered it really doesn't.  For the last three cases of the game the player plays almost exclusively as another character and not Cole Phelps.  While this was refreshing for one case, to finish the game playing as someone else after having invested so much time in Cole Phelps was almost upsetting for me.  SPOILERS OVER  Another complaint is that there were two DLC cases ready to download on the day the game was released.  This just brings me to again express my frustration with the money grabbing game industry and ask why they didn't just included these two cases on the game disc.  It seems dumb for me to pay an extra ten dollars for an extra two hours of gameplay that are available on the same day the game releases.  Overall, L.A. Noire is a solid and enjoyable game that I put a considerable amount of time into.  While the pacing at times can get a little slow and the cases can get a little monotonous having to bend over and look at every single object that vibrates at your feet, the innovative interrogation gameplay supported by MotionScan technology is deeply immersive and simply fascinating to look at.  The research put into the scenery of L.A. Noire is incredible and the city is full of life, but because of the way Rockstar (or potentially their partner Team Bondi) decided to split up the main story and Free Roam, much of the city may go unexplored and therefore unappreciated.  All things considered, L.A. Noire is an enjoyable and welcome experience if not only to break up the flood of shooters and action games with an intriguing twist on the genre.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Review: Super 8

This week marks the return of director JJ Abrams to the summer movie scene with the cryptically-advertised Super 8. Abrams, who proved himself a more than capable action director with 2009’s Star Trek, charts new territory here, backed by the steady hand of producer Steven Spielberg. Indeed, the film resonates with Spielberg’s blockbuster mindset, as well as his characteristic love of filmmaking in general. It is a wonderfully entertaining film, spectacularly filmed and acted, and crafted with all the joy and care of the films it skillfully evokes.

Set in small-town Ohio in the late seventies, Super 8 follows a group of children who, while trying to make an amateur zombie film, are witnesses to the start of a terrifying chain of events that soon has the town itself tearing apart at the seams. The plot begins in earnest with a train crash, an accident whose implications I will not reveal here. The scene is filmed about as perfectly as it is possible to film a horrible accident, and is one of the best action sequences to hit the screen in years. The reason for this is because the scene it is comprised of shots that for a cohesive unit of action, rather than just a set of incomprehensible takes glued into a loud blur. Abrams knows what it is to show his audience something of this magnitude; he understands that we want to actually see what happens, not just have it implied to us through overwhelming cacophony and distorted explosions. Michael Bay could use Super 8 as a text for his next overlong, soporific robot orgy.

From there, the film takes off into a plot that draws on action, horror, and drama. Abrams builds his picture with exacting detail, filling the screen with sights and sounds of the era, and people who make the world feel real and alive and afraid. The conspiracy is intriguing, but more compelling is the human story here. The film’s young main character, Joe Lamb, recently lost his mother and feels no connection to his father, the town’s deputy. Officer Lamb tells his son about a baseball camp he knows Joe would like, despite the fact that Joe spends his free time making models and fake blood for his friends’ movies. Joe, meanwhile, finds a friend in Alice, who puts Joe into a trance even covered in zombie makeup. The two share a common ordeal in their distant fathers, but the tenderness of the friendship is deepened through the trauma of the film’s central adventure. It works because they care for each other, and the audience cares about their survival. Action is meaningless if we’re not sympathetic to the people involved; Abrams knows this, and uses the fact well.

Eventually, the conspiracy becomes something bigger than the town itself. The horror is kept out of sight just long enough to make it real, a technique that Spielberg mastered long ago and to which Abrams pays homage here. The revelation comes to the characters not through firsthand experience, but through the lens of a camera. The film has a curious way of framing its visuals in a way that is both deliberately constructed and entirely natural. From the theater, we feel as though we sit behind the camera, watching the action unfold in realtime. And at its heart, that’s what Super 8 is about: the pleasure of the moving image, and its power to expose reality in new and amazing ways. The young actors perform in ways that seem more genuine than such people might behave in the real world. The camera brings out their sadness and desire, so carefully hidden away from the world of their daily lives. In the end, the meat of Super 8 resides in the power of that revelation, the magic of the moving picture to make sorrow and fear and love real to the audience, and to make the world just a little bit clearer.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Why This Year's Oscars Sucked

Finally, the timely follow-up to my Oscar predictions post.

The Oscars this year were, in a word, weird. Well, that’s one word, anyways. I can think of a few others. Predictable? Yeah, mostly. Frustrating? For sure. But I think I’m gonna go with weird, at least to start. Here’s how it went for me. I’m sitting in my room at 1 in the morning (Ireland time is fun!), scanning through internet streams of the broadcast, waiting for the show to start. I’m bored enough to listen to the red carpet interviews while I wait, but not bored enough to actually be interested. Two things pop out at me here. First, we need to lay down some kind of open-hand slapping policy for red carpet reporters who ask the question, “Who are you wearing tonight?” In what other situation would this question be acceptable? Who are you wearing? No, ma’am, I am not Buffalo Bill, but if I were, I would consider putting you in a hole and softening you up, because you’re ugly and annoying like that chick in the movie. Second, a request to ABC regarding the broadcast: for the sake of my sanity, please do not tell me that the awards ceremony starts at 8pm unless the ceremony starts at 8pm. Putting a 30-minute countdown in the upper-right corner of the screen does not qualify as starting the show. If you do this, you are a liar and I hate you.

So, the show finally starts. The opening sequence with Anne Hathaway and James Franco inserted into the year’s nominated films was promising, at least. At this point, the two hosts seem comfortable, and they’re kind of funny. Alec Baldwin shows up in Jack Donaghy mode, which is cool, but it does make me wonder why the show committee didn’t just bring him and Steve Martin back for a second year. After that point, though, a strange thing starts to happen. I had been looking forward to this Oscarcast; I like both of the hosts, I’m interested in the show and the films, I want it to work. But after the first twenty or so minutes of Hathaway’s strained cuteness and Franco’s unsettling detachment, I started to wonder: do these Oscars suck?

And boy, did they ever. I can’t remember a more boring Oscarcast since, well, ever. It started with the hosts, though it wasn’t all their fault. Anne Hathaway tried, she really did; too hard, at times. She probably realized, standing next to the blank billboard that was James Franco, that someone needed to do something about this. Franco, who has made a career out of burned-out stoner humor, just didn’t give a fuck. Normally, that’s his schtick, and it usually works for him. He just didn’t seem to get that, despite what he may have thought, you really do need to give a fuck in order to host the year’s biggest awards show. Strangely, that’s what made Billy Crystal’s appearance so effective. Yes, he was funny, which was a nice change of pace for the ceremony, but he was also honest. His tribute to Bob Hope was warm and genuine and personal, and though it was certainly scripted, it wasn’t forced or pandering.

Crystal wasn’t the only guest who did his part for the show. Kevin Spacey walked onstage with his typical charisma, and though he wasn’t particularly funny, he was at least smiling and apparently happy to be there. Later, Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law came out to present the awards for Visual Effects and Film Editing. They were by far the funniest presenters of the night, mostly because they pulled off the whole “let’s make fun of each other for the amusement of the people” thing way better than the show’s hosts. Speaking of which, my two cents for next year: Either Downey Jr./Jude Law or Kevin Spacey for hosts. The potential is staggering.

So yes, the hosts sucked, and the show fell flat on its face and stayed there for a solid three hours. But this year’s Oscars also sucked in far more important ways. We were warned that this would be the case weeks before the ceremony, when the Academy announced that, no, it would not nominate Christopher Nolan for a Best Director Oscar. This is the kind of snub where you immediately go to Nolan’s Wikipedia page, look at his body of work, and wonder what the guy has to do to get some recognition. He’s one of the very few directors working now without a real flop on his resumé. We’ve all heard this argument before, but it’s true. Batman Begins? Good movie. Not brilliant, but damn good, and a huge indicator of the greatness to come. The Dark Knight? Easily the best genre movie of the decade, so good that it has made other superhero movies virtually unwatchable. And now we get Inception, which somehow managed to surpass the absurd pre-release hype it received. In a weaker year for cinema, it would be a real Best Picture candidate without doubt instead of a makeup nomination without any chance of winning. Nolan is one of the two most innovative filmmakers working today, and the Academy barely knows he exists. Stanley Kubrick is chuckling from the grave.

Sadly, Nolan was not the only director to get the shaft this year. I’m going to go out on a limb here and predict that in five, ten years at the most, the film community will look back on this year as the year David Fincher and The Social Network got robbed. It’s not that The King’s Speech is a bad film, or that Tom Hooper is a bad director. In this case, everything comes down to subject matter. Hooper did a good job of taking a historically crucial event and turning it into an interesting, if predictable, movie. Fincher, on the other hand, took a (somewhat altered) story of a few computer nerds making a website in their dorms and made it into a fast-paced, thrilling commentary on the changing landscape of technologized society. Even Stephen Spielberg, who presented the award for Best Picture, seemed to know that The Social Network was going to get snubbed, and tried to offer solace in the fact that the Academy has a long history of giving the Oscar to less deserving, less relevant films.

And that’s really what sucked the most about the Oscars this year. By either design or coincidence, the Academy chose this year to try to update its image, the year that also saw the release of a generation-defining film in The Social Network. The Academy had this perfect chance to prove in a meaningful way that it is not completely out of touch, not content to lean back on safe formulas and tired models of success, and it failed miserably to do so. As Spielberg said, The Social Network now enters a category that includes many of the greatest films of all time, those films that were ignored on the awards stage but remembered far beyond their competition. It’s hard to find the consolation prize here since this was such a huge opportunity, but time will show, as it always has, where excellence lies.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Review: Rango

I've been anticipating Rango since last summer.  I was a little skeptical about the film at first because it was being made by Nickelodeon, what with their last 3D animated film being Barnyard in 2006.  However, once I saw the trailer I was sold and the feature film didn't disappoint.  Rango stars Johnny Depp as Rango teaming up with other big actors such as Abigail Breslin and Bill Nighy.  The film has easily some of the most visually stunning details I have ever seen.  Each and every scale, hair, and fiber is presented in excruciating detail.  Were the characters not anthropomorphic desert animals, I would have been close to thinking the images were real.  Not only is the CGI incredible, but the cinematography is great as well.  Some of the camera angles and lighting shots are something not typically seen in animated movies.

The story is a little lack luster at times, mainly because it's your typical loser become hero, but the world in which the movie places you really saves it.  The way I feel about the city of Dirt in Rango is the same way I felt about the background story and history of last year's How to Train Your Dragon.  The atmosphere is gritty and dry and that's only reinforced by the water crisis ever present throughout the movie.  What is even better than the environment, however, are the characters.  There are lizards, mole rats, turtles, snakes, rabbits, birds and each and every one of them has a unique look, as well as individual mannerisms and personalities.  By far the best character outside of Rango is Rattlesnake Jake voiced by Bill Nighy.  Rattlesnake Jake is one of the main antagonists of the movie, sporting a cowboy hat and a mini gun on his tail as a rattler.  While he isn't in the movie very long, his presence is menacing and very memorable and he is easily my fvaorite animated villain in recent memory.

Rango has to be the one of the best animated movies I have ever seen.  The world and culture it creates are immediately immersive and fascinating.  The characters are fun, unique, and entertaining.  The story is a little weak, but still provides for an interesting and fun adventure.  By far the stand-out feature of the movie is its incredible attention to detail and CGI.  Nothing has sucked me in more or left me awestruck visually since Wall-E.  I'm going to make a large claim right now and say that Rango is going to win Best Animated Feature at next year's Oscars.  This is going based purely on the premise that Disney-Pixar is releasing Cars 2 this year and I'm hoping that Rango will beat it out.  Dreamworks' top movie it is releasing is Kung-Fu Panda 2 and I think Rango will walk all over that as well.  Rango is subtly hilarious and is an early monster contender for next year's Best Animated Feature Award.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Oscar Predictions (Colin's Version)

Ok, I haven't posted on this blog in months, my apologies. Here are my 2011 Oscar predictions, in almost every category. I'll just predict actual winner of the minor categories, but I'll do a should and a would for the major ones. Here goes:

Visual Effects

As is often the case for this increasingly important category, the competition this year is pretty stacked. I've seen all of the nominees with the exception of Hereafter, and I can say with some certainty that the only film with little chance to win is Alice in Wonderland. Despite James Cameron's success last year, the Academy doesn't seem quite convinced by 3D, and much of that film's appeal relies on that technology. This is unfortunate for the makers of Alice, but not for viewers. The less 3D wins, the less we have to see of it. Harry Potter, Iron Man, and Inception were all great special effects films, but this year's prize will and should go to Inception. It is a visual masterwork, completely convincing and entirely unique.

Sound Mixing

Always a tough category to predict, especially for viewers like myself who are uneducated in the processes of sound mixing. Still, it seems unlikely that Inception will be overlooked here.

Sound Editing

Same deal. Hard to call, but Inception is the obvious pick. Tron: Legacy looks like a possible dark horse, though.

Best Original Song

The Academy and the world at large seem to have a raging hard-on for both Toy Story 3 and its perennial bard, Randy Newman. The song from 127 Hours may have a very outside chance.


I haven't seen any of the nominees, but it seems like a toss-up between The Wolfman and Barney's Version. The Academy might go for quality over quantity in this one with Barney's Version.

Costume Design

Given the Academy's penchant both for period dramas and crazy shit, this one seems like a toss-up between Alice in Wonderland and The King's Speech. Expect the latter to win, if only on the strength of its presence in the other categories.

Art Direction

Since few people seem to understand what exactly this category encompasses, I'll throw this one to The King's Speech for the same reasons as in costume design.

Best Animated Feature

Toy Story 3. No question. End of story.


Should win: This category is heavily stacked, but no film was as technically brilliant and as innovative as Black Swan.

Will win: It's a toss-up. Black Swan will get heavy consideration, but The Social Network was very close to being as good. As the more critically appreciated film this year, The Social Network will take this one.

Film Editing

Should win: Again, Black Swan was impeccable in this regard. However...

Will win: This category is historically a barometer of the Best Picture winner, so one of this year's two biggest contenders will likely take home the statue. I'm not sure that the tradition will hold true this year, but I'm gonna take a guess and say The Social Network.

Best Original Score

Should win: Frequent readers will predict my inevitable bias here, but it will be an utter travesty if Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross don't get the award here for their work on The Social Network.

Will win: There will be competition from The King's Speech, but fortunately, I think the Academy will oblige me on this one and go with Reznor and Ross for The Social Network. No film score in years has been as musically original and as cinematically essential as Reznor's. You will see a rant on this blog next week if he doesn't win.

Best Adapted Screenplay

Should win: Sadly, I have only seen one of this year's nominees. Fortunately, I don't think I need to. Aaron Sorkin's script for The Social Network turned computer code into compelling drama, which is no small task indeed.

Will win: I don't see any way that The Social Network won't take the Oscar here. This screenplay is nothing short of brilliant, and will be used as a model for decades. True Grit is a possible, but unlikely dark horse.

Best Original Screenplay

Should win: Christopher Nolan spent ten years writing the screenplay for Inception, and the dedication shows. His sharply written thriller is a massive accomplishment of creative thought, and is successful on both intellectual and visceral levels.

Will win: Sadly, I think the Academy has the period-drama bug again, and will go with The King's Speech here. Inception remains a legitimate contender, however.

Best Supporting Actress

Should win: Of the films nominated, I've only seen The Fighter. However, while Amy Adams certainly deserves the nomination, I'm not sure she necessarily deserves the award itself. I've heard excellent things about Hailee Steinfeld, however.

Will win: Sure, let's go with that. The Academy likes to shake things up once in a while. Steinfeld should watch her back for Helena Bonham Carter, though.

Best Supporting Actor

Should win: Mark Ruffalo is excellent as the prodigal father in The Kids Are All Right, but Christian Bale should take this one. His portrayal of the crackhead brother of boxer Micky Ward is provocative on more levels.

Will win: There's a serious threat in Geoffrey Rush from The King's Speech, but I actually think Bale will take this one. Not sure why; just a feeling.

Best Actress

Should win: No doubts on this one. Natalie Portman was worlds apart from her fellow nominees for the award. It's the bravest role of the year, and the most demanding.

Will win: Portman. It's over. Hands down. Another rant may follow if I'm wrong.

Best Actor

Should win: Of all the actors in this year's class, the only one without the slightest chance is Javier Bardem. I've only seen one of the films, and Jesse Eisenberg was monumental in his portrayal of Facebook mogul Mark Zuckerberg. True to life or not, This is a career-changer for Eisenberg, who will never be looked at the same way again.

Will win: Like the Actress award, this one has a predetermined feel to it. The Academy and Hollywood have been in love with Colin Firth for years, and he will take the statue next week.

Best Director

Should win: This is really the toughest choice for me to make. I've seen three of the nominated films, but I'm familiar with works by all the directors with the exception of Tom Hooper. The Coens are time-tested masters, but have little chance at this year's Oscar. Darren Aronofsky is one of the most daring filmmakers of the modern era, able to work and succeed with as much or as little as he is given. The disparity in budget between Pi, his debut, and this year's nominee, Black Swan, is huge, but the cinematic values of both are astronomical. David Fincher, meanwhile, has consistently been one of Hollywood's best (and most overlooked) storytellers for years. He, like Aronofsky, bears a signature all his own. While Black Swan is a truly remarkable piece of artistic filmmaking, David Fincher deserves the statue this year for The Social Network.

Will win: This is a nearly impossible prediction, given the three huge names in the forefront (Hooper, Aronofsky, Fincher). I'm going to put some faith in the Academy this year and stick with my guns. Fincher wins.

Best Picture

Should win: One of the most difficult choices in years, this class is a massively stacked competition. It's not often that such a great range of films receives this kind of critical acclaim, and it proves, if nothing else, that the Academy was wise in expanding the category to include 10 features. The presence of Inception is the most promising piece of evidence that the mainstream film community is at least becoming more accepting of challenging material, if not more encouraging. Black Swan is the most haunting, terrifying, beautiful film in years; had it been released at a different time, it would be a legitimate contender. This year, it is a very dark horse. The Fighter is a very well-made film with a disappointingly predictable story; it deserves its nomination, but not the award. Though I haven't yet seen The King's Speech, all reports are of a film that is compelling in every way. However, only one film this year bears the marks of both a brilliant piece of cinema and a cultural phenomenon, and that is The Social Network. Exceedingly well-composed in every facet imaginable, it also holds the unique distinction of being the summary of an era. It captures all that is good and ugly about Facebook and its inventors while perfectly illuminating the technological and social angst of what will soon become the most powerful generation in the world. Such a work is rare. The Social Network deserves recognition, if for no other reason than that it was a film that desperately needed to be made.

Will win: Don't let me down, Academy. The Social Network it is.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

2011 Oscar Award Predictions (Hugh's Version)

With the Oscar Awards a little over a week away and with me having sprained my ankle, I thought it a good time to write the Oscar blog I've been meaning to get to.  Also, although I didn't finish writing reviews for all of the movies over winter break, I did manage to see everything I wanted to and then some.  The only movie I haven't seen that is nominated for Best Picture is Winter's Bone and I expect to watch it before Sunday.  Now, Colin and I are both planning on writing both who we think should win and who we think will win for all of the major categories.  I can't speak for Colin as to which awards he'll be talking about, but the ones that I'm going to write on are as follows: Best Picture, Actor in a Leading Role, Actress in a Leading Role, Actor in a Supporting Role, Actress in a Supporting Role, Directing, and Animated Feature Film.  I'll be going in reverse order because I want to.  (Note: all statistical information is taken from Metacritic's Predicting the 2011 Oscar Winners in Key Categories Article)

Animated Feature Film

Who Should Win
In the past decade or so, Disney-Pixar has dominated the category of Animated Feature Film winning five out of the past ten awards.  More often than not, Dreamworks never seems to come up to the level that Disney-Pixar does, winning only twice in 2001 for Shrek (the first year the award made an appearance) and 2005 for Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (a year in which Disney-Pixar didn't even release a movie).  This year when Dreamworks released How to Train Your Dragon I thought they may actually win once again.  How to Train Your Dragon is a wonderfully original, fresh concept, and if you haven't seen it yet, I highly recommend you do.  Dreamworks tends to have more of a trademarked look than Disney-Pixar does, but regardless the idea was great and for once Dreamworks didn't have a talking animal as it's main character.  What was best about it was the amount of history Dreamworks created: the town was full of life with each child striving to be a dragon hunter, each and every dragon has its own strengths and weaknesses, and what's best is how different each and every dragon looks.  I fell in love with this movie the first time I saw it and I strongly recommend it to anyone who has an opportunity.

Who Will Win
I came out of How to Train Your Dragon dead set that it was going to win this year.  I knew Disney-Pixar was coming out with Toy Story 3, but I was sure it was going to be a flop.  In my mind the series had run dry and the third one was Disney-Pixar running out of fresh ideas.  Unfortunately, I came out of Toy Story amazed and emotionally moved (I have to confess that toward the end of the movie I almost teared up).  Disney-Pixar really hit it out of the park with Toy Story 3.  I didn't think it could be done, but Toy Story 3 will be a favorite among this generation's youth as the original Toy Story was for me when it first came out in 1995 when I was six years old.  If How to Train your Dragon had come out this year and went up against the upcoming Cars 2, I think it would be a shoe in winner.  Going up against a better than expected sequel to the original Disney-Pixar classic Toy Story, it doesn't look like it has much of a chance.


Who Should Win
I sort of have a thing for Darren Aronofsky, so this may be more of a "Who I Want to Win."  In terms of direction I really think he did the best out of all of the nominees.  Not only was the direction incredible, but the overall vision and complete compilation of the movie was constantly engaging.  Aronofsky not only managed to take an incredible actress like Natalie Portman and push her to the limit, but helped Mila Kunis become a stupendous, dark counterpart.  He has a strong likeliness to win seeing as how first-time winners often have a stronger chance than past winners, but that doesn't help much seeing as how the Coen brothers are the only ones that have won in the past.

Who Will Win
This may be the hardest winner to predict.  The two strongest front runners are Tom Hooper for The King's Speech and David Fincher for The Social Network.  Why it's so hard to predict is because both movies were incredible and were easily the top two movies to be released this year.  To distinguish between the two, the true winner according to the statistics should be David Fincher:  He has won the BFCA (Critics Choice Award),  the Chicago Film Critics Association Award, the Southeastern Film Critics Association Award, among several others.  Winners of those awards have anywhere from a 70-80% chance of winning the Oscar.  Combine that with the 90% chance that a first-time winner wins, he has a pretty good chance.  Despite all of that, Tom Hooper still seems to be the favorite even though he has won fewer awards than Fincher.  However, he did win the DGA Award and 80% of the time the winner of the DGA Award wins the Oscar.  Hooper would also be a first-time winner, so he has a good chance in concerns to that as well.  The overall decision seems to come down to a stalemate, but I have to be confident in the fact that the Academy will go with the right choice and give it to David Fincher.  He's clearly more deserving than Hooper and has been recognized by critics across the board as being this years best director.

Actress in a Supporting Role

Who Should Win
One of the biggest reasons I wanted to see The Fighter was because of the supporting cast.  Christain Bale was supposed to give a great performance, but so was Melissa Leo.  I can say without doubt that after seeing the Fighter I knew she should win.  She plays a maniacal, controlling, over protective mother whose selfishness is only matched by her refusal to see her son Dicky (Christian Bale) in any sort of negative light.  Leo won both the SAG Award and the Golden Globe, both of which significantly increase her chances.  Unfortunately, the only statistical advantage she has is being nominated along side her other cast members, but that also applies to every other nominee except for Jacki Weaver (Supporting Actresses where other actors were nominated from the same film won 80% of the time in the past ten years).  

Who Will Win
This one is also pretty tough to call.  I still think Melissa Leo will win seeing as how I'm still confident that she's a favorite.  However, another possible winner is Hailee Steinfeld from True Grit.  Helena Bonham Carter is a dark horse for the award as well.  I personally don't think that Steinfeld has much of a chance.  While she did deliver an incredibly witty performance, especially coming from someone her age, I don't think she stands much of a chance against the other nominees.  Helena Bonham Carter has a chance statistically (having won the BAFTA Award), but in actuality I don't think she should win.  While her performance was good, it wasn't nearly as taxing or emotionally profound as some of her other nominees such as Melissa Leo, Amy Adams, and Jacki Weaver.  The strong winner for me is still Melissa Leo and I think she's most likely take home the Oscar.

Actor in a Supporting Role

Who Should Win
Again, the main reason why I wanted to see The Fighter was because Christian Bale was supposed to deliver an outstanding performance. The opening scene in-and-of itself speaks volumes beginning with a sunken eyed, skin and bone crack addicted Bale, the former pride of Lowell.  Not only does Bale play the part well in terms of adopting the unique dialect and mannerisms of Dicky Eklund, but he conveys the twitches and jitters of a hopeless addict.  Bale won the Golden as well as the SAG Award which significantly increase his chance of winning the award.

Who Will Win
Christian Bale is still a standout favorite to win the award, however, Geoffrey Rush poses as an ominous contender for his role in The King's Speech.  A supposed dark horse is John Hawkes, although I haven't yet seen Winter's Bone (if he ends up winning, I'll give you a synopsis as to why he won).  Overall, however, Bale seems as though he's an almost guarantee to win the award with the winner of the Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor having won 80% of the time in the past ten years.

Actress in a Leading Role

Who Should Win
This is possibly the easiest category to predict this year.  Without doubt Natalie Portman will win this award.  Not only did Portman deliver an incredible performance pushing the boundaries of insanity, but the competition that's stacked against her isn't incredibly hard hitting.  Portman most likely delivered the performance of a lifetime and (if you read my review of Black Swan) she more than deserves to win the award, not only for herself, but in my opinion, for Darren Aronofsky and Mickey Rourke who I still think got robbed in '09.

Who Will Win
Already you should know that Natalie Portman will win, but let me give you a few other reasons as to why she's going to win.  The actress who wins the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress wins the Oscar 90% of the time.  Portman won the award for Actress in a Drama, but Bening also won the award for Actress in a Comedy which gives her an equal chance to win the award.  Between the two, however, Portman still has a leg up for a couple of reasons.  First off, Portman also won the SAG for Lead Actress which has garnered the same winner an Oscar 70% of the time in the past ten years.  While Annette Bening is a possible upset winner over Natalie Portman, on a personal note, I don't think it will happen.  While Bening did give a wonderfully emotional performance in The Kids Are All Right, Portman's performance still seemed to be the more taxing of the two performances.  Look for Portman to be the winner, but Bening and Jennifer Lawrence (Winter's Bone) are also likely contenders.

Actor in a Leading Role

Who Should Win
This may be easily the hardest award to pick because each and every actor is incredible in their own right.  I have seen every single movie for each nominee except for Javier Bardem's performance in Biutiful, but regardless I still can't forget how stupendous of a job he did in No Country for Old Men, which is convincing enough.  Each and every other actor did an incredible job: Jeff Bridges, Jesse Eisenberg, Colin Firth, and James Franco.  It took a lot of deliberation for me to decide who should win this award.  At first I couldn't believe how well Jesse Eisenberg did, but then I realized that his portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg wasn't too far removed from his actual personality (at least in terms of mannerisms).  Then I was convinced about Bridges because he seemed like he was both invincible and about to die as Rooster in True Grit, not to mention how simultaneously funny and vulgar he was.  What it ultimately came down to was Franco and Firth for me and even now I'm still torn between the two.  I am, however, going to have to stick with my original gut feeling and say that James Franco should win the award.  As I've been doing more and more research this has been hard for me to stick to because he doesn't seem to be on anyone's list of contenders or even a dark horse.  However, Franco's performance was easily the most taxing of all of the nominees.  Franco is even quoted as saying "there was a lot of physical pain" and even that he "had bruises, scars... and there were some shots of my bare arm, and it looked like track marks... So I had plenty of scars" (The Huffington Post).  Confined in a small space unable to use one of his arms and executing one of few scenes that has ever made me squeamish so convincingly, Franco deserves to win the Oscar.

Who Will Win
Luckily for me, the winner of the Oscar is most likely to be the other actor I was torn between, Colin Firth.  Colin Firth may not seem to have delivered a terrifically incredible performance on the surface, but the amount of work he put into it just comes off naturally on the silver screen.  Colin Firth mimics a speech impediment to a 'T' according to various reports and does the disability justice.  Firth evidently went through speech training in order to perfect his character.  Statistically Firth also has the best chance having won the BFCA (Critics Choice Award) as well as various other awards.  Although Firth still manages to stand above the rest as an obvious favorite, Jesse Eisenberg and Jeff Bridges are also noted as strong contenders this year (if Bridges does win, he'll be only the third actor in history to win two years in a row, joining Spencer Tracy and Tom Hanks).

Best Picture

Who Should Win
This category was a little tough to decide as to who should win as well.  Each and every movie was more than justified of a nomination, but only a few really standout as a contender for the award.  For me I knocked it down to three movies: The King's Speech, Black Swan, and The Social Network.  I'm going to go with the least likely to win and say that Black Swan should win.  Out of all of the nominees, I have to say that Black Swan had the greatest impact on me.  The direction, the cinematography, the acting, the score, everything about it flowed together more impressively and more creatively than any other movie I have seen this year.  The vision of the movie, while not as much of a mind game as had I anticipated, still managed to have a fantastic twist ending.  Natalie Portman's performance has easily scored her an Oscar and Aronofsky stands to possibly win one as well.  The only thing holding Black Swan back is the mixed feelings it has gotten intermingled with the rave reviews.  While I know this is noticeably a long shot for Black Swan to win, I would love to see it happen and think it has a solid shot as a dark horse.

Who Will Win
Who will actually win the award comes down to two movies: The Social Network and The King's Speech.  The Social Network was a movie I didn't want to stop:  The cast delivered an incredible performance, Trent Reznor's score had me in a trance for months, and the advertising campaign and art design were among the best I've ever seen.  However, The King's Speech was almost too staked with an incredible cast not to be a great movie: Colin Firth, Helena Bonham Carter, Geoffrey Rush, Guy Pearce, and Michael Gambon just to name a few.  On top of that, the cinematography was significantly more creative than what I expected for a movie dealing with its time frame and the score was impressive enough to garner an Oscar nomination.  Deciding between the two has become almost exhausting: one defines our generation while the other defines a great moment in history; one has a stacked cast of veterans while the other has a great cast of up and coming stars; one has a contemporary, electronic score and the other has a more classical, orchestral score.  Both executed their respective picture equally well and, for me, deciding between the two is impossible.  Whenever I chose one to be the winner, I couldn't help but think that the other was more deserving.  Each statistically has a great chance of winning.  Both films' director was nominated for an Oscar, as well as being nominated for either screenplay awards and film editing, an indicator of the Best Picture winner 100% of the time in the past ten years.  The King's Speech director won the DGA Award, but The Social Network won the BFCA Critics Choice Award, both an Oscar indicator 80% of the time.  The Social Network's screenplay won the WGA Award and The King's Speech's producer won the PGA Award, both a 60% Oscar winning predictor.  For me it's a tie between the two and it really is a toss up.  The King's Speech seems to be a favorite, The Social Network is a close contender, and look out for The Fighter as a dark horse.

Well, I hope you enjoyed my long, rambling account of who should win and who will the Oscars.  Let me know what you think about my picks and my predictions.  Also, let me know who you think will win Best Picture on the poll on the right.  The Oscars air on ABC next Sunday at 5 o'clock pacific time.  Enjoy the show and I'll see you afterward.