Review: Firewatch

firewatch coverFirewatch (2016)

PS4 / Rated M


Publisher: Panic

Developer: Campo Santo

What is Firewatch?  It’s a question that has been asked multiple times leading up to the game’s release as a joke, but also in seriousness as well.  It’s because the game, developed by Campo Santo, was largely a mystery.  Details on aspects like the story and gameplay were scarce and hard to find.  Demos were shown and previews were written, but there was never a good sense as to what Firewatch was actually about.  The game is now upon us and after playing it, I now have the answer to that question.  Firewatch is a narrative-driven experience that delivers a memorable experience along with some frustrations.

firewatch 1
via Super Gameplay

The game follows the story of Henry, a man on retreat from his issue-ridden life.  His wife is struggling with the effects of early onset dementia, which devastates Henry.  As an escape, he decides to move out to the wilderness of Wisconsin to work as a fire lookout.  He’s alone for the most part, aside from a handheld radio that connects him to fellow fire lookout Delilah, who is serving in another lookout tower farther away.  On the first day, Henry is tasked with investigating the usage of illegal fireworks in the forest, which leads him on a walk through the beautiful and lush Wisconsin forest.  However, what seems like just an ordinary job turns into a deeper and more involved mystery as you start to run into some strange things.  Henry’s normal fire lookout duties are put on the backburner as he and Delilah work to uncover the strange mystery clouding the wilderness.

The game starts off very strong, beginning with a text-based sequence serving up the backstory on Henry and his wife.  It’s an emotional wrecking-ball that slaps you pretty hard.  The game then throws you into the forest where you are introduced to Delilah as well as your duties.  As the game goes on, the story starts to trail off.  I was hoping that the story would dive deeper into Henry’s motivation for leaving his problems behind as an act of escapism, but instead, the game goes places that I did not expect.  Luckily the ending picks things back up a bit, but the journey to the conclusion was a little weak and aimless.  With that being said, the story was still memorable but it could have used some work.  It had the potential to be something so much more.

firewatch 2
via Only SP

Dialog between Henry and Delilah was witty and generally fantastic.  You never meet Delilah in person during the short duration of the game, but I still felt like I knew a lot about her.  As you walk around, Henry and Delilah talk about their lives and you start to realize how similar the two actually are.  They’re both dealing with their struggles and problems and their relationship starts to grow as the days go by.  There’s a bunch of jokes and sarcasm thrown around, but some of the jokes don’t land.  However, I found myself laughing more than shaking my head.  Some of the best moments include Henry’s confrontation with a pair of skinny-dipping teenagers…because how would you deal with something like that?

The game shines in its environmental storytelling.  Roaming around the National Forest was a therapeutic and breathtaking experience.  The game’s visual style, designed by artists like Olly Moss, is fantastic and really makes the game stand out.  The amount of interaction that the game gives you makes the experience more immersive as well.  I found myself getting lost in the world, stumbling upon secret caves and little valleys.  The game is short so the map isn’t as big as most open world games, but it felt large.

firewatch 3
via Thumbsticks

The downside of having an immersive forest to explore is the chore of navigating the world with a compass and a map.  I understand Campo Santo’s decision to exclude an interactive map screen and waypoints, but the actual task of walking around with a map in one hand and a compass in the other made me realize how bad at directions I am.  The game’s characters do a good job at telling you what direction your next objectives are, but I still found myself going down the wrong pathways or running into trees.  The fact that there is some backtracking doesn’t help the case either.

I had a fun experience with Firewatch.  There are a ton of things to like about it.  It’s just too bad that things like an in cohesive story and some frustrating mechanics put a blemish on the final product.  Despite the frustrations, the game is still worth a look.  It’s a short game, taking around three to four hours to complete, so there is no excuse not to give the game a try.  I’d also suggest teaching yourself how to read a map before playing Firewatch.  You’ll thank yourself later.

firewatch score


Review: The Babadook

the babadook poster
via Rotten Tomatoes

The Babadook (2014)

NR / 93 mins

Drama / Horror / Thriller

Starring: Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Daniel Henshall

Director: Jennifer Kent

Everybody remembers the classic ritual of bedtime stories.  As kids we would brush our teeth, put on our pajamas, and then climb into bed excitedly as we would wait for night’s fairytale or children’s story.  At least that’s how I remember it.  The Babadook, an indie horror flick directed by Jennifer Kent, is an example of bad parenting.

the babadook 1
via Cine-Nerd

The movie stars troubled mother Amelia (Essie Davis) and her delinquent son Sam, played by child actor Noah Wiseman.  Through the use of flashbacks, we discover that the two are grieving the death of their father.  Things are not easy and over the course of the movie we watch as the two spiral down a dark path.  Sam is a problem child, throwing frequent tantrums that begin to turn violent.  He’s fascinated with the idea of fighting and protecting his mother from monsters.  This soon leads to a mysterious book, called “The Babadook,” which Sam asks his mom to read.

This is where the bad parenting comes in.  The book is introduced around halfway through the movie and by that point Amelia should have noticed that her son wasn’t doing well.  The decision to read her son a (rather frightening) book about a dark monster who lives in the dark side of the bedroom is probably not the best.  As one would expect, this drives Sam’s mental state into a deeper downward spiral and things start to go pretty bad very quickly when the demonic book starts to haunt their house, and everything in it.

the babadook 2
via Joblo

I’m normally not a huge fan of horror movies; not because they are dumb but because the premise behind most of them are stupid and often times predictable.  The concept behind The Babadook is not entirely new, but it provides enough dumb fun to make it enjoyable.  A lot of the scenes, especially the ones dealing with the storybook, are kind of silly and stupid, but they aren’t bad enough to make the movie unwatchable.  I found myself snickering a lot more than getting scared, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Speaking of getting scared, the movie is generally tame when it comes to the spooks.  Although, there are some disturbing scenes and imagery that will make anyone cringe.  One of the best parts about the movie is its reliance on disturbing imagery, rather than jump scares, to frighten viewers.  It made the movie feel less cheap and gives the movie a more authentic quality.  The imagery used during the storybook sequences are really well done and the pages literally come to life on screen, which was really fun to watch.

the babadook 3
via TVQC

Performance wise, you can take it or leave it.  The movie primarily focuses on Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman, with some supporting cast here and there.  Their acting isn’t necessarily the best, but it is good enough to be passable.  In the end, I didn’t really care because when all’s said and done, The Badadook is a B-movie affair.  The acting took a backseat for me, as I was too caught up in the fun that was happening on screen.

Perhaps the big takeaway from The Babadook is that you shouldn’t read your young kids a dark storybook about the monsters that make noises in the night.  C’mon, that’s a disaster waiting to happen, as evidenced by the movie.  There are a plethora of better horror films out there, but this one holds its own as being a dumb fun kind of movie that you can just give a mindless watch.

the babadook score

Review: Khalifa

khalifa album cover
via The Daily Loud

Khalifa (2016)

Wiz Khalifa

Rap / Hip-Hop

Taylor Gang / Rostrum / Atlantic

Today is the day that Kanye West’s new album, The Life of Pablo, releases to the world.  The album has been a storm of publicity, featuring everything from large-scale listening parties to Twitter rants.  Speaking of Twitter rants, Wiz Khalifa was on the other side of one of West’s social media rants which was sparked after the use of “kk” in one of Wiz Khalifa’s tweets.  It was a mess.  Maybe it benefited Wiz more than Kanye, considering Khalifa, Wiz’s sixth studio album, released around the same time as the Twitter feud, giving the album some publicity.

khalifa 1
via Rolling Stone

Khalifa, unlike Kanye’s newest project, pretty much flew under the radar in terms of publicity.  Wiz has been working on the album for a long time, releasing bits and pieces from the album here and there.  It was only a couple of weeks before the project actually dropped that we started to become aware of the album’s existence.  The lack of publicity for the album shouldn’t fool you however, as this is a solid album from the Pittsburgh rapper.

Wiz’s previous album, Blacc Hollywood, was pretty good…at least in my opinion.  The reaction was varied, with the most common critique being linked to the radio-ready pop sound that encapsulated the album.  It reflected Wiz’s career at the time, going from small-time Pittsburgh rapper to world-wide rap superstar, but a lot of people started to become fearful that Wiz was turning away from the sound that got him famous.  Luckily, Khalifa dials things back a bit and sounds more like the old Wiz Khalifa that we all fell in love with.

khalifa 2

The project gets off to a shaky start, but starts to pick up some steam with “City View,” a song that the Wiz has been working on since 2012, and “Cowboy,” a pointed song that delves into the gang violence that has taken place in the Pittsburgh streets.  There’s also “Bake Sale,” the album’s main single featuring Travis Scott.  It’s a marijuana-laced album that will make any Wiz fan feel right at home.

The album is at its strongest when we reach the last four songs (minus the actual last song) on the album, the first being “Most of Us.”  The song is a tough banger that serves as a edgier anthem for the Burgh, similar to “Black and Yellow.”  “Zoney” is the album’s most personal song, featuring the voice of Wiz and Amber Roses’ son, Sebastian.  It’s a solid song that ends with a heartwarming back-and-forth between Wiz and his son.  Sebastian mimics his dad’s famous laugh (“Do daddy’s laugh”) which gives way to one of the album’s best moments.

khalifa 3
via Zumic

“Lit” is another one of those “weed is good” songs with a nice beat, produced by guys like Dru-Tang and Big Germ.  It’s a two-part song that features two-different sounds.  The song also features Ty Dolla $ign.  It’s a classic Wiz song reminiscent of some of his past work.  Finally, the album (sort of) ends with “No Permission,” a song that he debuted last summer.  It’s another “old-school Wiz” sounding song featuring Pittsburgh’s own Chevy Woods.  The only reason why I say the album “sort of” ends with this song is because the albums actual final song, “iSay” is a bummer when matched up against the four songs that come before it.

When you talk to me about which projects rank the highest among Wiz’s work, I always point to his earlier stuff, but Khalifa is an album that feels nostalgic in a sense.  The album features production from a bunch of Pittsburgh names like Big Germ, TM88, ID Labs, and Sledgren who work to recreate some of the old-school Wiz sounds that got him famous in the first place.  The album might not compare to the rapper’s older work, but it’s the next best thing.

khalifa score

Review: Hail, Caesar!

hail caesar poster

Hail, Caesar! (2016)

PG13 / 106 min

Comedy / Drama / Musical

Starring: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich

Directors: Ethan and Joel Coen

The golden age of filmmaking was an exciting time for the motion picture industry in America.  The industry was one of the most visible industries in America, with the average citizen attending a movie at least once per week.  With their most recent film, brothers Joel and Ethan Coen pen a love letter to this golden era of Hollywood in the form of Hail, Caesar!

hail caesar 1
via Firewire Blog

What put this movie on my radar however was the star-studded cast that is sprinkled throughout the film.  Caesar! is a fictional tale about the real-life high-profile movie studio “fixer” Eddie Mannix, played by Josh Brolin.  Being one of the studio heads for Capitol Pictures is a tough job, being compared at one point to running a full-scale “circus.”  One of the more pressing matters thrown Mannix’s way is the kidnapping of the studio’s highly proclaimed actor Baird Whitlock, played by George Clooney.

Other stars that can be found in the film include Scarlett Johansson, Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, and Channing Tatum.  Most of the cast doesn’t get the screen time that you would hope, but they all give great performances that are all great in their own regards.  Perhaps the one actor that steals the show is Alden Ehrenreich, who plays the hootin’ and hollerin’ singing western star, Hobie Doyle.

hail caesar 2
via Tribute

Caesar! pretty much features everything you would want from a movie set 50’s Hollywood.  The main movie production that is featured in the movie is Capitol Records’ “Hail, Caesar!”  There’s also a western, a grandiose swimming routine, a dancing sailor movie, and a highly affluent drama being filmed in the movie.  Caesar! contains a healthy dose of Hollywood meta-humor and often pokes fun at the many different aspects of filmmaking.  Sometimes the movie’s wry humor won’t hit with everyone, but its smart and intelligent and maintains the classic Coen Brother’s wit that you have come to expect.

Despite the monstrous cast and attention to detail, the story unfortunately doesn’t keep up, essentially amounting to nothing by the time the credits roll.  There’s a lot going on during the course of the movie’s run-time and it sometimes proves tedious trying to lace all the different story lines together.  The kidnapping of actor Baird Whitlock is the primary focus of the movie, but that whole plot point doesn’t really go anywhere or reach a satisfying conclusion.  They manage to poke some fun at communism, but that’s about it.  I wasn’t expecting much from the film in terms of story, but it would have been nice to have something to grasp onto.

hail caesar 3
via Flavorwire

It’s a shame the story is a big negative, because everything else about the movie is fantastic, including the classic Coen Brothers cinematography.  The directorial duo has given us a lot of great movies in the past with some excellent direction, and this movie is no different.  Every aspect of Hail, Caesar! is brilliantly put together and everything works really well together.  It was a fun movie to watch, chock full of loving detail and tribute, making the underwhelming story a little easier to stomach.

It’s hard to say that Hail, Caesar! ranks high in the Coen Brothers filmography, but it’s a solid and enjoyable ode to the golden era of Hollywood.  Everything from the tight and well-oiled cinematography to the expertly casted actors and actresses make this movie a real treat.  If the story amounted to something more, then maybe this movie would be a lot higher on the totem pole of Coen Brothers movies.  It’s hard to be too disappointed though, because man this movie just made me smile.

hail caesar score