Jonathan Gregory

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Dragon Age: Inquisition Review – A Fresh Start

Dragon_01_WM_web
(Screen shot courtesy of game website)

There was a moment in “Dragon Age: Inquisition” where the hours of content in BioWare’s massive new game sneaked up on me. As I approached the top of a cliff and a gorgeous vista a little counter indicated that after two hours of exploring one of the game’s massive areas, I’d discovered just four of it’s 26 different regions.

Behind me a pair of masterfully written companions squabbled over a pivotal moment from an hour prior. Everything clicked into place and the world around me settled down like a grandfather in an easy chair, ready to tell his audience a story of all the little things. In a game that easily tops the 50 hour mark, it’s the small stories that make it special – for better and worse.

“Inquisition” is a triumph of scale from BioWare that would have seemed impossible when the series originally launched in 2009. The days of tight dungeon corridors and combat scenarios is gone, swapped out for staggeringly large sandboxes where the player is just a part instead of the focus. A simple but fun blend of action and strategy combat carries players from point to point well, keeping combat active and players moving across the large areas. There are fewer instances in the game where enemies exist solely to attack and harass players’ inquisitor, and the conflicts in the game feel more genuine as a result. From top to bottom, “Inquisition” is the best realization of Thedas’ scale as a world the series has ever seen.

However, BioWare attempts to use a handful of these new or dramatically altered areas to form a welcoming world for new and old fans, but falls short of creating the sense of cultural and environmental diversity previous games from the developer have achieved, or a genuinely good starting point. They’re gorgeous, big and fun to play in but they lean heavily on fairly obscure points of lore and fall short of providing everything a new game in the series needed. Knowing the significance of a sea of sand at the edge of the Anderfels, for example, is hardly explained and important locations are thrown around during conversations with little in-game context.

The larger story tying everything together suffers similar identity issues. In the simplest terms, “Inquisition” tells a story of Thedas’ humans and the history of the Dalish – the series’ vehemently independent nomadic elves. To say this is an overly reductive explanation is an understatement that speaks to both the game’s inability to completely fill its predecessors’ shoes or avoid overwhelming newcomers.

The story feels small in its breadth, like BioWare told the rest of the richly realized world to pack its bags and take a hike for simplicity’s sake, but still too crammed full of enough references to important information from previous games for new players to be comfortable with the rapid pace at which it moves. A handful of important events from past games are hardly mentioned, and the complexity of Orlais’ political maneuvering, a primary part of a central story mission, is enough to overwhelm series veterans and possibly alienate newcomers.

Those picking up “Inquisition” as a starting point are unlikely to have the knowledge necessary to appreciate how carefully the story threads surrounding a handful of key characters, and the complex history of the Dalish, have been constructed over the last half decade. Meanwhile, the complete absence of meaningful roles for the series’ Dwarven and Qunari races as well as the culturally independent City Elves is likely to leave returning fans scratching their heads.

As with the world, however, none of these issues make the story bad, just not what it could have been. BioWare has set their own bar high in the past, and despite not hitting the mark some people might expect of them “Inquisition” is still good enough. Though too tightly focused, the tale is at least focusing on two of the series’ most interesting elements. The history surrounding the Dalish is home to some of the best lore in the series and the identity crisis of the Chantry, previously little more than a Christian allegory, creates a much needed transformation in a series cornerstone.

From moment to moment “Inquisition” stands toe to toe with anything BioWare, or anyone else in the video game industry, has written. Though their impact is slightly diminished due to unfamiliarity, the entirely new cast of companions are more than strong enough to carry the extra weight. They also fix the issues BioWare has previously had when tracking relationships – there’s no reduction of characters to a number or slowly filling approval bar. It’s impossible to make them all happy in every situation, and when they’re upset you learn about it through speaking to them instead of a menu.

“Inquisition’s” biggest struggles again come back to its size though. Like other large games, it’s filled with bugs ranging from infuriating to distracting and ridiculous. Companions regularly fail to load in the game’s hub areas, making it impossible to talk to them unless the area is reloaded. Sounds regularly disappear or play when they aren’t supposed to, and certain areas experienced significant performance drop off despite my PC exceeding the recommended technical specifications.

Worse than the bugs, however, are all of the animation issues. For a game so dependent on close-ups and cinematic shots, Inquisition’s animation is appallingly bad. It’s understandable to think animations wouldn’t be consistently great in such a large game, but it’s unacceptable when a soldier has a hammer sticking through the back of his hand instead of holding it or the bows of archers clip through their own bodies because of how their arm is animated. Scenes often cut away abruptly, and there are a handful of occasions when animations simply didn’t play for large groups.

More perplexing is how the stiff, impersonal animations of the characters clashes with the outstanding facial animations. Though not as nice as their performance captured counterparts, BioWare has always done an excellent job with facial animations. To pair those subtle movements and detailed faces with dead eyes and marionette like bodies is bewildering. They don’t detract from the story being told, but they are a major distraction. The least BioWare can do is make sure the big scenes in their games look as good as possible, but even those look just as rushed as the rest of the animation.

“Dragon Age: Inquisition” is BioWare’s biggest, but not their best. It’s the start “Dragon Age” as a series should have had, and in a lot of ways it feels like the first game in a new franchise. It’s a good game, more than worth the price of entry, with fun combat and excellent writing that hasn’t quite realized all of it’s potential. There’s more than enough for anyone who decides to pick it up, and a lot of great things to build off of in the future, but it’s unlikely to be everything anyone hoped for.

 

(STRIKE: Score would be 3 1/2 out of 5 stars if this goes in the paper.)

Gaming Roundup: Weeks of Nov. 24 and Dec. 1.

The Crew
(screen shot courtesy of game website)

The Crew (PS4 / Xbox One / PC / Xbox 360)

Ubisoft has had a somewhat tumultuous month, but the publishing giant is set to make a rare foray into the racing genre at the start of next week. “The Crew” was originally planned for early November, but a packed lineup of competition got it knocked back to Dec. 2. A new IP for Ubisoft, “The Crew” hands players the keys to a garage full of fast cars and sets them loose in a massive open-world based on the United States. While there is a story, in which the player must infiltrate and sabotage a powerful gang in Detroit’s street-racing scene, much of the focus leading up to launch has been put on the games unique seamless multiplayer experience. As players travel their open world, other people drop in and out like a massively multiplayer online game (MMO), making sure there’s always someone around to compete with around every turn.

Geometry wars 3
(screen shot courtesy of game website)

Geometry Wars 3: Dimensions (PS4 / Xbox One / PC / Xbox 360 / PS3)

The original Geometry Wars was a side-activity accessed through the garage in “Project Gotham Racing 2,” the second of Bizarre Creations’ critically acclaimed but now defunct racing series for the original Xbox. The introduction of the Xbox Live Arcade spawned the game as it’s own separate entity, “Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved,” and helped usher in a new era of downloadable games. It’s successor was just as critically acclaimed as the first, but Bizarre Creations shuttered not long after it’s release as “Forza” continued to cement its role as the Xbox 360’s premier racing series. The property was recently picked up by Activision’s relaunched Sierra Entertainment branch and and a new game has been in development since. It’s worth noting that the two leading members of the original game’s development team are no longer working on it, but that should not scare fans away. The studio behind “Geometry Wars 3” is made up of former members of Bizarre Creations, so it’s a good bet they know their way around it’s unique blend of old-school vector art and twin-stick shooting.

Kingdom Hearts
(image courtesy of game publisher)

Kingdom Hearts HD 2.5 Remix (PS3)

Its name may be hard to say, but Square Enix’s newest HD update for their hit “Kingdom Hearts” franchise is just as packed full of content as it’s name. The new remastered collection includes the “Final Mix” version of “Kingdom Hearts 2,” originally only available in Japan, and the hard to find but highly reviewed “Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep” – complete with a massive visual overhaul compared to it’s original Playstation Portable (PSP) version. Like the first HD pack, “Kingdom Hearts HD 2.5 Remix” will also include a smaller game, in this case the super pack of the series’ episodic games called “Kingdom Hearts Re:Coded,” in the form of a massive cinematic. The first HD pack was a great way to catch fans back up to the action, and with “Kingdom Hearts 3” on the horizon the newest is sure to keep them hooked.

Persona_Q
(image courtesy of game publisher)

Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth (3DS)

The two most recent entries in the “Persona” series, three and four, are widely regarded as two of the best Japanese RPGs of all time. Their rich, colorful worlds and superb cast of characters easily set them apart from their competition and keep players coming back time after time. The bar for handheld versions of the series was set high after “Persona 4 Golden,” a remastered version of the game’s most recent entry, made waves on the PlayStation Vita around the handheld’s launch. “Golden” is considered the handheld system’s best title, but for the newest release the Persona series is heading to unfamiliar waters. The series has lived on Sony’s platforms since its inception, but “Persona Q” is headed to competitor Nintendo’s 3DS as it merges the casts of the previous two installments for a blast of fan-service with all the depth players have come to expect from the “Persona” name. A few of the series’ recent and well received mechanics, like its trademark Social Links, have been tweaked, but a strong reception in early reviews means there’s little for fans of the series to worry about. Atlus is excellent at playing to it’s series’ strengths, and there’s no better way to stave off the painful wait for “Persona 5” than with an all new story to dive into.

UNC Charlotte builds on a new Homecoming tradition

In mid October, a small house slowly began to rise on the corner of University City Boulevard and John Kirk Drive, just behind East Deck. Two weeks and more than 250 volunteers later, Peggy McMullen’s new house – and UNC Charlotte’s homecoming Habitat for Humanity project – is finally ready to head for it’s permanent home. It took more than just a couple weeks to successfully continue one of homecoming’s newest and most ambitious traditions for a second year, though.

At $85,000, UNC Charlotte’s homecoming build was cheap for a house, but still a daunting task for the campus chapter, which was formed in 2009. “At times, we might have felt setbacks when we weren’t sure if we were going to be able to fund the house because it’s someone’s home we’re dealing with,” says Nhoell Inthavong, the publicity chair for UNC Charlotte’s Habitat for Humanity chapter. Even with large donations from local supporters of Habitat for Humanity, the campus chapter still had to do a bit of extra leg-work.

“We also fund-raised, as a campus chapter, with a 5K in the spring, fundraising events at restaurants, and letter writing campaigns to family and friends,” says Inthavong. “It’s been a combination of help and support from students, faculty, staff, alumni, and the Charlotte community. People really understand what a great cause this is …”

UNC Charlotte’s involvement in construction of the house doesn’t end when it’s trucked off campus though. “We started it and we would love to help finish it! It’s also a chance for those who could not find time to volunteer these past two weeks to build on it now,” says Inthavong. They’ll have a special guest for the rest of the build, as McMullen – affectionately referred to as Miss Peggy – has planned ahead to take time off from her job as a custodian at Irwin Academic Center in uptown Charlotte to help finish her future residence.

The campus chapter of Habitat for Humanity doesn’t save all it’s big ideas for the fall semester, however. “Every spring break, our campus chapter goes on an alternative spring break called Collegiate Challenge. The entire week, we build every day working with a Habitat affiliate in whatever location we are at,” says Inthavong. This year’s trip will take groups of 15 students to Atlantic Beach and Vero Beach in Florida. Students interested in the trip can check the chapter’s website, and apply by Nov. 1. Those interested in smaller, regular events and projects can follow them on Facebook.

Gaming Roundup: Weeks of Oct. 28 and Nov. 4

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(screen shot courtesy of Insomniac Games)

Sunset Overdrive

It has been a slow start for the two leaders in the current console race. Both launched a handful of middling titles around the time their consoles hit the streets, but the reality of development created a lull as more ambitious games were delayed. “Sunset Overdrive” was a surprise hit when it was announced with a colorful trailer last year at E3, and marks the first big, new IP to debut exclusively on Microsoft’s Xbox One. Early adopters of Microsoft’s newest console can begin grinding, bouncing and shooting their way across “Sunset Overdrive’s” vibrant city on Oct. 28.

 

 

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(screen shot courtesy of Sledgehammer Games)

Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare

There is no denying “Call of Duty’s” juggernaut status, even if many would argue the series has stayed roughly the same since it hit it big with “Call of Duty 4.” The series’ latest installment, “Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare,” seeks to take the blockbuster franchise into the battlefields of the near future with the help of Hollywood powerhouse Kevin Spacey. Players get the chance to dive into “Advanced Warfare’s” hallmark multiplayer and classic first-person action on just about any platform starting Nov. 4.

 

 

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(screen shot courtesy of Platinum Games)

Bayonetta 2

“Bayonetta 2” actually came out last week, but the story behind its development is odd enough that it deserves to be mentioned – even a little late. Though it earned critical acclaim and spawned a cult following, the original “Bayonetta” did not fare well enough to earn a sequel in the eyes of it publisher, Sega. Desperate to draw new owners to their flagging Wii U console, normally family-oriented publisher Nintendo agreed to fund the racy action series’ sequel in exchange for exclusivity. As it stands, Bayonetta 2 is one of the best, and only, reasons to own a Wii U. Players can step back into the high-flying gun-shoes of the bullet-witch the series draws it’s name from right now.

 

 

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(screen shot courtesy of Headup Games)

The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth

“The Binding of Isaac” came out of nowhere to earn a massive following for such a small, odd indie game when it released in 2011 on PC through Steam. Over the past three years its exceedingly dark, but humorous religious themes and repeatable design built a small army of YouTubers, modders and streamers. “The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth” completely overhauls the already popular game with new items, item-combo effects and visuals updated to replace the game’s previous flash-style art that developer Edmund McMillen previously said he hates. Rebirth is set to hit, PC, Mac, Linux and Sony’s Playstation 4 and Vita on Nov. 4.

Gaming Roundup: Week of Oct. 13

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(screenshot courtesy of Tango Gameworks)

The Evil Within

The horror genre has recently seen a massive re-emergence in video games, with titles like “Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs” and “Outlast” sparking a slew of other scary games. It wouldn’t be October without a few screams, and “The Evil Within” has the pedigree to create more than a few. It’s director, Shinji Mikami, is better known as the creator of classic horror franchise “Resident Evil,” which many people point to as the progenitor of modern interactive horror. “The Evil Within” joins recent releases “Alien: Isolation” and “The Vanishing of Ethan Carter” in rounding out October’s lineup of creepy games.

 

 

 

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(screenshot courtesy of Harmonix Music Systems)

Dance Central Spotlight

The “Dance Central” series was one of the last-generation Kinect’s few highpoints. Developer Harmonix, creators of “Guitar Hero” and “Rockband,” are the kings of music-based games and “Dance Central Spotlight” brings one of their most popular series to the Xbox One this week. Although it released for last-generation consoles at the start of September, “Dance Central Spotlight” is a go to for people who are a bit frustrated about the lack of support for the Kinect that came with their new consoles.

 

 

 

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(screenshot courtesy of Gearbox Software)

           Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel

The “Borderlands” series ushered in a renaissance for loot driven co-op games and first-person shooters when it came out of       nowhere in 2009. It’s successor expanded on everything, adding more guns, abilities and missions. “Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel” isn’t quite as ambitious as the previous two entries, choosing to bridge the gap between the first and second games in the series, but it comes with the backing of two solid previous releases. For those who can’t get enough loot, or those who   walked away for a while, “Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel” looks set to push all the same satisfying buttons as it’s predecessors.

Jazz Arts Initiative Brings Syncopation to Charlotte

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Jazz has always occupied an interesting spot in American music. It encompasses many different famous styles, and today it often finds new life through fusion into modern music. Even as other genres cropped up and outgrew its popularity, jazz continued along at its own unique pace. It’s a consistency fitting of the music’s laid-back attitude.

Most Americans associate jazz with New Orleans, and rightfully so. The city is synonymous with the style, which thrives in a culture thoroughly intertwined with its history. Few know how much the Carolinas have contributed to one of the United States’ signature styles though; Jazz great John Coltrane grew up in High Point, NC, while Dizzy Gillespie grew up in South Carolina, just to name a couple.

The first annual Charlotte Classic Jazz Festival, created by the Jazz Arts Initiative (JAI), hopes to raise awareness about jazz in the Queen City. Lonnie Davis, president of JAI, called jazz “America’s classical music,” and stressed the necessity of spreading it’s influence outside of New Orleans. If anyone knows the importance of jazz it’s Davis, who grew up in The Big Easy while studying at The New Orleans Center for Creative Arts and New Orleans University before being displaced by Hurricane Katrina.

JAI currently organizes a monthly concert series called “The Jazz Room,” which highlights regional jazz musicians while also paying tribute to the style’s originators. According to Davis, “The Jazz Room” has been extremely successful, and its warm reception helped cultivate a desire to expand what JAI offers the Charlotte community.

The Charlotte Classic Jazz Festival takes place on Oct. 4, and begins at 11 a.m. Events during the day are free to the public including introductions to jazz aimed at a younger audience and a parade running from the intersection of Trade and Tryon streets to the Knight Theater. The festival continues at 7 p.m. with a showcase at the Knight Theater; tickets are $5. The event was also recently expanded to include a performance on Oct. 7 at Belk Theater in the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center.

A few games you can expect this October

Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor

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“Shadow of Mordor” puts players in the boots of Talion, a ranger who’s killed alongside his family and resurrected by a spirit of vengeance. The game earned buzz earlier this year with the unveiling of its unique “nemesis system,” which allows the outcomes of individual combat encounters to dynamically impact the structure of enemy groups. Monolith is open about the inspiration they drew from the combat of Rocksteady’s Batman games, focusing on fast, fluid combat. “Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor” releases on Sept. 30, and has already received a handful of positive reviews ahead of it release.

Forza Horizon 2

The original “Forza Horizon” was a surprise hit despite its departure from “Forza’s” simulation roots. The open-world, arcade racer earned acclaim for its variety, scale and polish when it released in 2012. “Forza Horizon 2” is set to expand upon its predecessor’s impressive world, moving it to Europe and stuffing in more road for wannabe speed demons to tear up. Like “Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor,” “Forza Horizon 2” has also received positive reviews ahead of its release.

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Super Smash Bros. (3DS)​

“Super SScreen Shot 2014-09-28 at 7.23.12 PMmash Bros.” has been a staple on Nintendo’s home consoles since it debuted on the Nintendo 64. Nintendo is set to release the popular brawler on their struggling Wii U console early next year, but before that happens it’s hitting handheld systems for the first time in its history. The 3DS version of “Super Smash Bros.” promises the series’ trademark action despite its smaller size, and has delivered according to early reviews. “Super Smash Bros.” scraps its way onto the 3DS on Oct. 3.

“Gotham” Slides Into the Grime of Batman’s Origins

 

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“Gotham” cast (photo courtesy of FOX.com)

There was a time when the city of Gotham was an even worse place, or so fans of the comics have long been told. Exploration into the period before Bruce Wayne fought his way to the top of Gotham’s underworld is rare outside of the comics though. In most cases, Wayne’s parents are shot and the story kicks into high gear with Bruce’s training to become the dark knight. “Gotham,” premiering on Sept. 22 on Fox, looks to change all that, and mostly succeeds.

Cinematography is the new series’ greatest achievement. The pilot episode flows seamlessly from one scene to the next over the course of its 50 minute run-time. What is nearly an hour of TV feels like half as much. The direction makes Gotham feel suffocating, packed with the kinds of back alleys a criminal underworld might adore, but never small.

“Gotham” shifts from the typical Batman formula in its focus on Jim Gordon, a then-rookie detective tasked with investigating the murder of Wayne’s parents. Gordon must do so in a police department as corrupt as the city it serves. It’s a strong premise for an alternative take on the Batman origin story, and following Gordon allows a focus on Gotham’s signature crime despite the rather distant future appearance of Batman.

A strong group of performances turns a slightly above average episode narrative into an interesting starting point for a new series. The performances of Jada Pinkett Smith and Robin Lord Taylor are especially impressive.

Pinkett Smith fills the role of Fish Mooney, an upstart mob boss looking to challenge the infamous Carmine Falcone for control of Gotham’s criminal underworld. Mooney fills the role of a likeable villain well, and Pinkett Smith nicely offsets her character’s violent habits with witty quips and charm.

Lord Taylor takes up the mantle of Oswald Cobblepot, the man who becomes Penguin as he works in Mooney’s crew. On the surface he’s an odd choice for the role of Cobblepot – tall and skinny, instead of Cobblepot’s trademark stout stature. Lord Taylor’s delivery is immaculate though, and he perfectly captures his character’s gleeful back-stabbing but ultimately weak-willed nature.

Where “Gotham” fumbles is in how it approaches the introduction of those who will become Gotham’s biggest players. Despite the episode’s strong direction, and acting, it makes Gotham feel socially small. The opening scene follows a young Selina Kyle, as she ends up on an alleyway fire escape just in time to witness the Wayne murders. A handful of other key introductions feel similarly contrived.

The format and setting, before the arrival of Batman, forces all of the characters to be connected to Gordon and Wayne in a way that feels unnatural. Everything seems a little too convenient, even for such an outlandish fiction. Similar problems in are common in many pilot episodes, so the slightly claustrophobic social scene isn’t necessarily something to worried about. There’s plenty of deliciously dark alleys of the Batman lore to stretch into, and “Gotham” definitely has the makings of another quality addition to the caped crusader’s utility belt.

Friday Night Comedy Series Review


Photos by Christina Harris.

“Those ‘ohs’ aren’t gonna make me stop,” Byron Bowers said, chastising the crowd for their response to one of his jokes during his Sept. 5 performance on campus. Perhaps they should have. Bowers, joined by Mia Jackson, opened up this fall’s Friday Night Comedy series in the Cone building on a shaky note.

Jackson started the night with a strong set and kept the audience laughing consistently. Her ability to work with the crowd was especially impressive as she covered enough ground to get a laugh out of everyone and even managed to improvise good material based on the crowd’s reactions.

She was personable and conversational. She told jokes as if the entire crowd was her friends, and a good portion of the crowd responded in kind. Jackson was simply the best comedian on the stage. Unfortunately, the act she shared the spotlight with diminished her achievement.

There is no denying Bowers’ potential to be funny. He’s observant, knows how to work things like After Hours’ creaky stage into his set and can flow between jokes. However, a series of tasteless decisions marred his trip to UNC Charlotte.

When Bowers got laughs, they were big. He opened strong, and after roughly a third of his set the crowd was doubled over in collective laughter. He told jokes about himself, his friends and his family; about big cities and awkward moments.

Then, as if deciding the audience’s decent reception of a moderately dark joke was a free pass, he began punching down. And he punched down hard.

Towards the middle of his set, Bowers busted out a joke about feeling insulted when someone told him not to use a particular phrase associated with people who have mental disabilities. The crux of the joke, the sell-aggrandizing assertion that no one should tell a comedian not to be offensive, fell flat.

The set spiraled out of control as Bowers moved on to little more than insults aimed at people the word was associated with.

Unfortunately the joke didn’t come to an end until Bowers haphazardly associated it with red-haired people. He even managed to transition from the redhead jokes to an absurdly insulting bit about a transgender person and another about abortion being murder.

As if trying to one-up his own bad taste and somehow dig his way out of a hole with the audience he thoroughly silenced, Bowers moved on to jokes about slavery. Though he insisted it was acceptable for him to joke about the topic, most of the audience remained silent. When he worked derogatory jokes about people of short stature and a rape joke directed at the victim into the slavery theme, any good will he’d earned was gone.

Bowers eventually – mercifully – gave up and fell back on a handful of his more well known bits. The mood lightened as he told funny jokes again; however, having run over his allotted time, the set ended with one flat delivery and a disgusting, but not entertaining, anecdote.

Maybe Bowers is right; maybe people shouldn’t tell comedians not to use offensive or questionable language in their jokes. What people should absolutely do, though, is tell them when their jokes aren’t funny.

A good portion of Bowers’ set wasn’t funny, or fun or even amusing. He threw haymakers at those less fortunate than him and regardless of what words he used to do so or what slanted justification he devised, there’s nothing entertaining about that.

Weekend movie tracker: May 2

Spidey's bacl...again. Image courtesy of Sony Pictures
Spidey’s back…again. Image courtesy of Sony Pictures

Finals start this week for UNC Charlotte students, but not everyone is buried under exams – and not everyone actually studies all week either. If you feel like slacking, or you’re ahead of the game and ready to wind down at the end of the semester, consider dropping by theaters for one of these movies on May 2.

“The Amazing Spider-Man 2”

The first movie in the reboot of everyone’s favorite web-slinger came as a surprise to many people, especially in the wake of “Spider-Man 3.” Unlike the first trilogy, the new series explores more of Peter Parker’s past and motivations beyond his conflicts with super villains. Set to continue the focus on less-familiar plot-lines from the comics, “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” welcomes Electro (Jamie Foxx) and The Rhino (Paul Giamatti)  to the big screen for the first time. The film opens nationwide on Friday.

“Walk of Shame”

The start of summer wouldn’t feel right without a comedy to kick things off. “Walk of Shame” follows the misadventures of Meghan Miles (Elizabeth Banks), a TV news anchor who goes overboard while out partying after missing a shot at her dream job. She wakes up to a message telling saying she has another chance if she can make it across town before the end of the day – a tall task without a car or any money. Those looking for a lighthearted comedy to take the edge off some hard studying might want to give “Walk of Shame” a shot when it hits theaters on Friday.

“Under the Skin”

Students who want to punctuate their exam experience with something more adventurous than super heroes and comedies should head downtown to the Regal Manor Twin this weekend for a unique blend of science fiction and psychological thriller. “Under the Skin” tells the tale of a mysterious woman (Scarlett Johansson) who roams the highways of Scotland in search of forsaken men to lure into her seductive trap. Leaning heavily on its stunning visuals, the movie explores the meaning of humanity and relationships through someone who is anything but.

 

“The Lego Movie,” “Robocop” and “The Monuments Men” are playing on campus this weekend at the UNC Charlotte Student Union Movie Theater. For showtimes, visit the Student Union Movie Theater’s website.

Summer 2014 music guide

We Are The In Crowd are performing for Vans Warped Tour. Photo courtesy of VansWarpedTour.com
We Are The In Crowd are performing for Vans Warped Tour. Photo courtesy of VansWarpedTour.com

Summer might not start until June 21 this year, but summer vacation is quickly bearing down on UNC Charlotte. For most students, summer vacation means more free time, and going to concerts is near the top of the list of ways to spend it. Here’s a rundown of notable concerts coming to Charlotte this summer.

Elton John’s Yellow Brick Road Tour (June 14)

Elton John makes a rare stop at the PNC Music Pavilion for his Yellow Brick Road Tour, opening the door for what would seem to be a once in a lifetime opportunity.  The legendary performer will be playing everything from his ’70s hits to new music from his recently released 31st album “The Diving Board.” Tickets range from $40 to $164 currently, but sections are selling out fast so snagging tickets soon is a good idea.

Zac Brown Band: The Great American Road Trip Tour (July 12)

The Zac Brown Band has become synonymous with a good-old-boys brand of country music slowly making a resurgence away from the Hollywood spotlight of acts like Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood. The eight-man band is no stranger to the Charlotte area, playing Speed Street and other venues regularly. On June 14, Zac Brown Band will take the stage at PNC Music Pavilion just a few miles from campus. Tickets start at $35 for lawn seats and climb as high as $375 (resale price) for closer sections with front of stage general-admission tickets already sold out.

Monumentour: Fall Out Boy and Paramore (July 23)

Fall Out Boy and Paramore, along with a handful of other bands, are the poster-children for the early ‘00s resurgence of rock after grunge wore out its welcome. Both bands started out as small pop-punk bands who hit it big, and both have fought through some internal strife. Together they will be heading the Monumentour as it arrives in Charlotte at PNC Music Pavilion. Seats for the Monumentour start at $34 for lawn and top out around $80.

Vans Warped Tour (July 28)

With summer in Charlotte comes the Vans Warped Tour, an all-day concert playing host to a plethora of alternative musical acts. This year sees the return of tour veterans MC Chris and I Fight Dragons while welcoming newcomers like Beebs and Her Money Makers and Icon For Hire. Tickets are $46, with a $56 20th anniversary commemorative ticket also on sale.

Nine Inch Nails and Soundgarden (August 7)

The brainchild of Trent Reznor, Nine Inch Nails has been churning out unique concept albums filled with abstract melodies and scathing social commentary for more than 20 years. Fresh back from a three-year hiatus, the rotating line-up of musicians has teamed up with a band probably more famous for a hiatus of its own than the music it made. Soundgarden dominated the ‘90s before internal conflict split the band apart for over a decade. Now back on tour, they’ve team up with NIN for show of 90s powerhouses. Lawn seats start at $39, with closer currently available seats sitting around $100 and resales topping $300.

Linkin Park: Carnivores Tour (August 12)

Following the debut of their sixth studio album, The Hunting Party, Linkin Park will be following up with The Carnivores Tour, with a new line up  for the first time this summer. Joining them along the way are last year’s headliners for Weenie Roast, 30 Seconds to Mars, as well as special guests AFI. Tickets are on sale now from $45 lawn seats to $377 (resale price) to be in the pit up front.

Weekend movie tracker: April 18

Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment
Johnny Depp, Morgan Freeman and Rachel Hall star in “Transcendence.” Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment

After being teased by summer weather only to be struck with a freeze warning later this week, we here at the Niner Times will be staying in until kinder temperatures prevail. It’s supposed to warm up this weekend, but if mother nature changes her mind here’s a few movies to check out while staying warm in the theatre.

“Captain America: The Winter Soldier”

It’s a slow week for movies, most likely because nobody has any interest in competing with the juggernauts Marvel has been churning out. With so little else of note showing up, the best bet might just be to head back to the movie dominating theaters right now. Or perhaps finally get out of the house for long enough to pop in on a movie with a rather astounding rating of 88 percent on Rotten Tomatoes.

By almost every account, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is one of the best movies Marvel and Disney have dished out over the course of revamping the “Avengers” brand – lofty praise considering the inevitable comparisons to the “Iron Man” trilogy that sparked renewed “Avengers” interest in the first place.

“Transcendence”

Joining Captain America on the big screen is Dr. Will Caster. While hardly as All-American or bullet-resistant, Johnny Depp’s latest role might be just as interesting. Dr. Caster is a scientist on the verge of creating the world’s first true artificial intelligence (AI). The controversy surrounding his research into an all-knowing, fully-emotive AI ultimately provokes a radical anti-technology group that seeks to stop him. With pressure building from all angles, Dr. Caster is ultimately forced to confront the complex ethics of creating an AI.

Although “Transcendence” seems to have slipped under the radar in regards to pre-release impressions, and the premise evokes memories of 2004’s “I, Robot,” it tackles an issue only becoming more prevalent as technology advances.

“Particle Fever”

Those who haven’t managed to slip into a screening of “The Grand Budapest Hotel” (featured on the site a few weeks ago) should head for Concord Mills before that opportunity slips away. Those with more free time, however, might want to consider trekking across town to Ballantyne for a showing of “Particle Fever” at Regal’s Ballantyne Village Stadium 5 theater.

“Particle Fever” is a documentary, originally released last year, covering the lead-up to the activation of the Large Hadron Collider. While it might not sound incredibly interesting at first glance, there’s actually a lot of meat beneath the surface. The collider is the biggest man-made machine ever created, and for a decade during its construction it set the physics community on the edge of its collective seat with promises to validate or disprove key scientific theories; oh, and there was also that time when the world freaked out about the possibility of it creating a black hole and destroying the planet. The project was absurdly large, and there’s bound to be some crazy stories of the race to complete it.

“KEEPING WATCH” on art with an impact

"Sustain Me Baby" puts plastic waste into perspective. Photo courtesy of KeepingWatch.org
“Sustain Me Baby” puts plastic waste into perspective. Photo courtesy of KeepingWatch.org

Superman sits directly over the heart of Joyce Dallal’s “The Other Toy Story,” a giant metal toddler filled with toys currently on display in The Projective Eye Gallery on UNC Charlotte’s Center City campus. The famously impervious superhero fits nicely with theme of non-recyclable plastics and the rather drastic impact they have on our environment. Like Superman, “The Other Toy Story” meshes well with the themes of the event it is a part of.

The “KEEPING WATCH” initiative is about spectacle as much as it is about art. Organized by the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute and the College of Arts + Architecture, the initiative’s goal is to make a scene and get people thinking. This year’s focus is on plastics, and how the community manages them.

“Sustain Me Baby,” the larger exhibit “The Other Toy Story” is part of, places the whimsy of Dallal’s toy filled work alongside Chris Jordan’s “Midway” photography series. The series contains heartbreaking images of baby albatrosses killed after mistakenly ingesting large quantities of plastic waste. A group of dancers from the North Carolina Dance Theater joined the thought provoking combination during the opening reception on March 28. Pairing commentary, abstract music and interpretive dance, the group performed a routine representing the plight of the albatrosses from Jordan’s work. After completing their performance, the dancers symbolically helped top off the contents of “The Other Toy Story.”

The images of waste that kills albatrosses is an alarming look at the effects of littering. Photo courtesy of KeepingWatch.org
The images of waste that kills albatrosses is an alarming look at the effects of littering. Photo courtesy of KeepingWatch.org

Another, more mobile exhibit joined “Sustain Me Baby” at the KEEPING WATCH initiative’s opening reception. Kurt Warnke’s “Is This Yours?” exhibit takes KEEPING WATCH’s message on the road, setting up its massive 900lb bales of recycled plastic and images from photographer Nancy Pierce in front of Discovery Place and the Government Center. Warnke, already well known for what he calls “trash totems,” hopes to bring awareness to the amount of litter people create. Although the plastic bales were created using material from a local recycling center, Warnke says he originally began his trash sculptures by collecting trash from rivers while out kayaking.

Dallal’s “The Other Toy Story” will also be joining “Is This Yours?” outside of The Projective Eye Gallery by way of a trio of smaller babies which will go on display at the North Carolina Dance Theater, Discovery Place and the J. Murrey Atkins Library beginning on April 1. Dallal said she plans to create an entire “fleet” of babies for future exhibits. According to Dallal, her giant baby was inspired by the need to get rid of her own children’s toys, and after failing to find a way to dispose of them responsibly. Dallal hopes expanding the exhibit can help shed light on the problem created by society’s decision to throw away instead of reuse or recycle toys.

This year’s KEEPING WATCH on PLASTICS initiative is currently scheduled to continue into June. A fashion show focusing on clothes made from recycled material call “Recycled Runway” will take place at the Center City campus on April 12, tickets will cost $10. “Stayin’ Alive,” an exhibit by artist-in-residence Aurora Robson, will be opening May 9 at the McColl Center for Visual Art. A pair free of eco-film screenings accompanied by clean martinis from local distilleries will also be taking place at the Center City campus. “Bag It the Movie” will be screened on May 16, along with a panel on local recycling issues. “Growing Cities” will be screened on June 13, and will also be followed by panel discussing landfills.

Along with KEEPING WATCH on PLASTICS, the Urban Institute has already planned two more KEEPING WATCH initiatives. KEEPING WATCH on CREEKS will take place in 2015 and KEEPING WATCH on AIR in 2016.

Weekend movie tracker: March 21

grand-budapest-hotel
Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

The Grand Budapest Hotel

In the world of directing Wes Anderson is a relative newcomer, hitting his stride in 1998 with the release of “Rushmore” and doling out a handful of critically acclaimed films over the past decade. Anderson’s newest movie, “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” is the director’s usual brand of small-market critical darling with an added twist of star power. Boasting appearances by Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe and Edward Norton – along with several other big name actors – the movie tells the story of a concierge at a famous hotel in a fictional European state still reeling from the effects of the first World War.

“The Grand Budapest Hotel” saw it’s initial, limited release on March 7, but is only now sneaking its way into a pair of Charlotte’s smaller theaters. Anderson’s newest film will begin showing at Regal Ballantyne Village Stadium 5 and the Regal Manor Twin on March 21.

Muppets
Photo courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

 Muppets Most Wanted

The Muppets have been an institution since Jim Henson created them in 1955, even with an extended period of downtime the puppets have managed to sneak their way back into the limelight on a fairly regular basis. Over the years they have filled out the cast of “A Christmas Carol,” popped in on their “Sesame Street” brethren and even invaded the ranks of “WWE Raw.” Excellent puppetry and endearing characters have simultaneously captured the imagination of children and adults, turning The Muppets into a household name.

The loveable group of puppets’ newest adventure sees them caught up in a European jewel heist thanks to the world’s greatest thief and Kermit the Frog lookalike Constantine. Ricky Gervais, Ty Burrell and Tina Fey round out the human cast as The Muppets goofily make their way across Europe. “Muppets Most Wanted” opens in theaters nationwide on March 21.

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Photo courtesy of Summit Entertainment

Divergent

Following in the footsteps of “The Hunger Games,” “Divergent” is an adaptation of the popular young-adult fiction book of the same name. Set in a dystopian Chicago where people are segregated by carefully defined personality types, the film tells the story of Tris, a young woman who is found to be divergent and unable to fit in with the rigidly-structured society. As tension rises between the city’s five factions, Tris and her instructor Four search for answers to why divergent people are considered dangerous while Tris works her way through a grueling initiation.

“Divergent” is the first in a trilogy of young-adult novels written by Veronica Roth. Like “Divergent,” the series’ second book “Insurgent” and third book “Allegiant” have also been optioned for film adaptations, expected to release in 2015 and 2016 respectively. The film adaptation of “Divergent” opens nationwide on March 21.