Saturday, March 31, 2012

Duty Calls: The Calm Before The Storm (Parody)


NOTE: This is a parody review of a (parody) game and should not be taken seriously.

In today's gaming market, you don't have to look hard to find a military-themed First-Person Shooter, such as the long-running Call of Duty series by Activision. Sometimes however, you need something different in order to prevent monotony, which is where the downloadable title Duty Calls: The Calm Before the Storm (aka Duty Calls), released in early 2011, comes in. This military shooter does things that separate it from the crowd, perhaps making it one of the best shooters in this generation.

Normally, a military shooter puts you in the place of an American soldier, and your job is to lead your squad to victory against a foreign army. This formula, however, is not present in Duty Calls, instead taking a bold new direction. In this game, you are an American soldier, and your job is to lead your squad to victory against a foreign army while trying to retrieve a deadly nuclear missile bomb from the hands of the enemy leader boss before he can use it for evil purposes.

The story in this game is very rich and deep, even for a military shooter. Your character goes through a lot of emotional depth, making you connect with him as if you were actually in his place. A particularly dramatic and memorable moment is a cutscene where someone dies while delivering important information. Over the course of the game I had grown so attached to these characters that I felt really sad when this happened. Awe-inspiring setpiece moments help to capitalize on your emotions, bringing the appropriate one to mind when faced with certain obstacles.

The graphics of this game are very realistic, helping to set the tone of the story. The music further helps to set this up, giving a truly epic soundtrack that perfectly matches any given situation. The voice acting is, for lack of a better term, simply amazing, allowing you to become more attached to the characters and get to know who they are.

While the controls may be simple and easy to pick up, there is plenty of variety to be found in the combat. You start out with a standard assault rifle, but as you progress you can pick up other useful items such as sticks and notebook paper, which can help you get out of nasty situations, such as when you are facing off against a persistent paratrooper near the end. There is also a bit of challenge in this game, since it is easy for you to see a bloody screen as soldiers attack with a barrage of bullets. With a little perseverance though, and an awesome moment of slowdown, you can get by them just fine.

There is a ranking system in this game, like in plenty of military shooters, and man do you have to work hard in order to rank up. Even on easier difficulties, it can take a while, but once you get the next rank, you can breathe a sigh of relief before having to rank up again. With enough time and investment though, you too can be a Sergeant of the Master Sergeants Most Important Person of Extreme Sergeants to the Max!

Duty Calls: The Calm Before the Storm is quite a step forward in the way of FPS', especially when it comes to the military genre. It attempts to stand out with some unique ideas and they really work. If you are a fan of military shooters, Duty Calls is a game you should definitely check out.

NOTE: thedutycalls.com, the site from which this game could be downloaded originally, is (as of this writing) a dead link.

Devil May Cry - The Devil That Never Dies


In an effort to build up to Capcom's upcoming DmC: Devil May Cry, I have taken it upon myself to replay and review every Devil May Cry game released to date. I will begin of course with the original Devil May Cry, released by Capcom in 2001. It was originally intended to be Resident Evil 4, but during development it was transformed into the gaming juggernaut that is still around today. Having barely played the Resident Evil games, though I do plan on doing so in the future, I don't really have anything much to say regarding this point.

Before I start, I'll admit right off the bat that I played on the Easy Automatic mode, mainly because I completely sucked at the Normal difficulty setting. At some point during this coverage however, I do plan on actually beating it on Normal, since I actually did a little better on the start of my second ever playthrough.

The story of Devil May Cry focuses on the demon hunting half-demon Dante, son of the legendary dark knight Sparda, who runs a business called Devil May Cry in modern America. One night he gets approached by a woman calling herself Trish, who requests his presence on Mallet Island for business regarding the demon king Mundus. As Mundus had battled his father long ago, Dante jumps at the chance to be able to kill him, traveling to the island to begin his quest. Not much happens to completely flesh this out, but enough happens to serve a complete story without the plethora of plot twists that other survival horror games had at the time. I liked the complete badassery of Dante, who is the kind of man who wouldn't back down from a fight or resist the opportunity to kick demon ass, and yet I also appreciated his more compassionate side, seen when he shows a little concern for one of his enemies as well as during an event near the end of the game. Trish and Mundus are never really fleshed out beyond the role they play in the game, but the former's character growth that occurs gave me enough of a reason to like the character.

Dante's combat prowess is not to be taken lightly, an aspect of his character that gets translated perfectly well to the player in both the sword and (infinite ammo) gunplay. The weapons available are all fun to use, as is knowing which ones are best suited to the given scenario, and the items are all very useful should you need to use them. While there is a learning curve at first for the controls, given how unconventional they are for a PS2 game, the setup is reliable anyway and the fact that actions are assigned to a single button makes the feeling of power even easier to immerse in. What makes the experience even better is the Devil Trigger mechanic, where Dante can become a thunder or fire demon with the push of a button once a gauge has lit up at least a certain length. In this state he regenerates health over time and all of his attacks are even more powerful, plus some specific attacks related to each form depending on the skills the player purchased.

The enemy variety for this game is astounding. I loved how each one not only looked different, but required a different strategy altogether to take out. The fact that the AI is pretty smart helped the experience and made fighting more of a thrill. I could say the same about the bosses, who all require a completely different plan of attack each time if you want to efficiently take them out.

I am also impressed by the replay value of this game. Not only are there plenty of hidden secrets, mainly finding items and orbs or orb fragments scattered around the levels, but also secret missions that I had no idea existed until the final tally was added. The fact that the player is ranked after each level creates the desire to go back and do the level again in hopes of getting a better score, something I can applaud it for. The unlockables present also serve as a nice motivational tool to keep playing over and over.

On the technical side of things, I found the voice acting and sounds to be pretty well done, though one thing I enjoyed the most was the music. I liked it so much in fact that sometimes during a fight I would pause the game just to keep hearing it. The graphics are also still impressive for when it came out, with architecture that is impressive to view and enemy design that was not only a little gross but also very well detailed to help everything stand out. I also thought that while the fixed camera did give the best angle for the action on screen, it seemed odd at times when I would get to a certain spot on the map and it would become something a little less convenient for the action, though this was mostly during jumps to grab items. I also had to get used to the fact that the controls don't reorient themselves between camera shots until you stop moving for maybe a second.

Is Devil May Cry a good game? Yes. Being able to annihilate all that stand in your way, and look cool while doing it, is an experience that no one should pass up at all. If you've heard of this game at all or wanted to know where "Stylish Combat" or "Extreme Combat" came from, then pick up this game immediately. Again, this is definitely not a title to ignore and I wholly recommend it.

Now, with a great game like this, it stands to reason that the sequel, advertised in the back of the manual, would be served to fans as a good follow-up that continues moving the franchise forward in great strides, right?




Right?

Stubs - You Can't Take It With You



YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU (1938) Starring: Jean Arthur, Lionel Barrymore, James Stewart, and Edward Arnold. Directed by Frank Capra. Screenplay by Robert Riskin. Based on the play by George Kaufman and Moss Hart. Produced by Frank Capra. Run Time: 126. Black and White. U.S. Comedy, Romance, Drama.

Meet Martin Vanderhof (Lionel Barrymore), the head a very eccentric family. His daughter, Penny Sycamore (Spring Byington) writes plays because someone accidentally delivered a typewriter to the house. Her husband, Paul Sycamore (Samuel S. Hinds) builds fireworks in the basement with former ice-man, DePinna (Halliwell Hobbes). His grand-daughter Essie Carmichael (Ann Miller) wants to be a dancer, but makes due as a candy maker. Her husband, Ed (Dub Taylor), a former football player from Alabama, sells the candy, prints hand bills and plays the xylophone.

Rounding out the household are Rheba (Lillian Yarbo), the maid and her fiancé Donald (Eddie Anderson, better known as Rochester from the Jack Benny radio and TV shows). There is the newbie, Poppins (Donald Meek), a bored accountant that Martin comes across in a real estate broker’s office. Poppins hates his job and wants to make masks and toys and there is no better place to pursue such things than Martin’s house. Essie’s dance instructor Boris Kolenkhov (Mischa Auer) tends to show up whenever dinner is being served to give her lessons. And last but not least, is Martin’s other grand-daughter, Alice Sycamore (Jean Arthur). A bit of an odd ball, she works out of the house for banker Tony Kirby (James Stewart), who has just asked her to marry him.

Tony is a Vice President who works for his father, Anthony Kirby (Edward Arnold). Tony’s mother (Mary Forbes) is uptight and not at all happy with Tony’s love of middle class Alice. Kirby is a banker trying to corner the munitions market by forcing a munitions manufacturer, Ramsey, into selling. Part of Kirby’s plan is to buy up the 12 blocks around Ramsey’s operations. The one hold out that prevents him from controlling the entire 12 blocks is someone known around the neighborhood as Grandpa aka Martin Vanderhof.

With that premise laid out, it is not hard to see where the story is going. In a modern retelling of Romeo and Juliet, Alice invites Tony to bring his parents over to her grandfather’s house for dinner. But Tony, wanting to see how his father and mother, Mary Forbes, will react to seeing the Vanderhof’s as they are, brings them over a full day early. This turns out to be the date that G-Men, including Ward Bond, decide to move on Ed Carmichael, for distributing what they think is pro-communist literature in his candy box. They don’t buy that the inserts were intended to advertise a fireworks show with a Russian revolution theme. It doesn’t help that while the G-men are there, the stash of fireworks goes off.

Everyone in the house is arrested, including the Kirbys. In a scene that reminds me of another Capra film, It’s a Wonderful Life, Martin’s $100 fine is paid when everyone, including the judge (Harry Davenport), chips in.
Humiliated, Alice leaves the house. Her absence prompts Martin to finally sell his house. If she won't come home, then he'll bring the house to her. With his sale, the businesses around him are forced to close and Kirby is able to force Ramsey (H.B. Warner) to sell. But on the verge of his celebration, his son resigns to pursue what he wants to do. And distraught over losing his business, Ramsey dies of heart failure.

Ramsey's sudden death, and the resignation of his son, prompts Kirby to re-evaluate his own life. Rather than going through with the mega merger, Kirby goes to Martin's house, where even though they are moving, they still have time for him. Kirby comes to the same realization that Martin had come to years ago: life is too short not to do what you want. In the end, he sells Martin back his home and doesn’t force the neighborhood businesses to shut down and move away. Alice comes home and is once more engaged to marry Tony. One imagines that Kirby will one day be a part of the Martin household as well.

There is a lot to like about the movie. The cast, especially those in the Vanderhof household come off as an eccentric and loveable mix of characters. Who wouldn’t want to live there? Lionel Barrymore, who I find to be a fascinating actor, gives a very good comedic performance. He is seen on crutches, with the pretense Martin broke his foot, but it would not be too long before Barrymore would be wheelchair bound due to arthritis.

Jean Arthur and James Stewart (who was on his way to stardom and top-billing) give their usual good performances. But most of the silliness comes from the supporting cast of Ann Miller, Dub Taylor, Eddie Anderson, Mischa Auer, Spring Byington, Donald Meek, Samuel Hinds and Halliwell Hobbes. Even Ward Bond appears as one of the G-men who come to arrest everyone at the Vanderhof house. Many of these actors would appear in other Frank Capra films. The one that comes quickest to mind is It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) which stars Stewart, Barrymore, Hinds and Bond from this film.

In some ways, this is a bit of a forgotten movie, even though it did win the Best Picture and Best Director awards. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that Capra made so many fine movies that this one gets lost in the shuffle. After all it was his third best director Oscar in five years: It Happened One Night (1934) and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) and the fourth film to be nominated for Best Picture in the same span. Capra would go on to do Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and the aforementioned It’s A Wonderful Life. There are so many to choose from over his career that one had to be “forgotten”.

Perhaps it is Capra’s style which like a lot of filmmakers of the time, is not a big hurry to get to the end. You spend time with the characters in a way that you don’t with movies anymore. And in spending time, these movies seem to be slower paced than what we’re used to today. This is as much a character study as anything else. You get to meet the people in scenes that are not always moving the main plot forward. Example, Eddie Anderson is down in the basement putting together something while being assisted by a raven. Or Spring Byington is writing a play no one ever reads, but is using a kitten as a paperweight. These scenes add to the atmosphere and don’t propel plot, but are memorable nevertheless.

When watching a film like this, I’m always struck about how comedy has changed over the years. Maybe it has to do with the fact this is based on a stage play by Kaufman and Hart, but it just seems that comedies from that time were written up to people and didn’t rely on the gross out or the strange for their humor. You have to listen as well as watch these movies, while nowadays paying attention too closely is not such a good idea. Sometimes it’s better not to know what is being said or done.

Capra is someone whom I respect as director and story-teller. He is not necessarily my favorite director, but I do enjoy most of the films he directed, including this one. I would recommend it as viewing for anyone who wants to see a well-made, but slightly off tilt Hollywood romantic comedy.

Friday, March 30, 2012

The Hunger Games - Why I'm Still Hungry

File:HungerGamesPoster.jpg

THE HUNGER GAMES (2012) Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutchenson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland. Directed by Gary Ross. Screenplay by Gary Ross, Suzanne Collins, Billy Ray. Based on the book by Suzanne Collins. Produced by Nina Jacobson, Jon Kilik. Run Time: 142. Color. U.S. Science Fiction, Action, Adventure.
Before I start this review, I should admit that I have never read any of the books by Suzanne Collins. However, a movie should stand on its own and not necessarily be judged by how well it follows the book it is based on. And to be honest, there may be some things that the book explains better than the movie does. A book can take pages and pages to explain something that the movie has to do in a few minutes or less. Things like the premise, which passes before the movie audience in a few frames of text.
Being new to the world of The Hunger Games, I don’t believe that the movie makes the premise all that believable. Because the districts, which are numbered rather than named, revolted against their country, the 12 districts must pay tribute by putting up two teenagers, one boy and one girl, to fight to the death in what will be called the Hunger Games. These games, which would make what the Romans did seem almost tame, are broadcast to the 12 districts. In only one is there a riot, when you would imagine there would be revolts every year in every district and their innocent children are taken to their deaths by the state. It would stand to reason that the Games would lead to the same behavior that they were designed to curb.
And people watch as the tributes, what the combatants are called, are interviewed by Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) when they know that most of them will be dead in a matter of days. How horrifying it is that the interviews are conducted in such a civil and carefree manner. And the leader of the country, President Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland) has as much concern for his countrymen, especially those in Districts 10, 11 and 12 as one would have for a housefly. One wonders what kind of government this country has since the President is treated more like a king.
I won’t go into too much detail about the plot of the film, since it is still out in the theaters. However, there are points where I felt the movie dragged (the beginning) and motivations that seemed to be questionable at best. I couldn’t understand how in a one against the rest contest why five of them would band together when in the end, they would have to kill each other to win. Nor did I understand why Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) would be so willing to help her fellow District 12 tribute Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) after he betrayed her.
That aside, I did find myself rooting for Katniss. But I think that has as much to do with Lawrence’s acting abilities as with how well the story is told. I also thought that about Woody Harrelson as Haymitch Abernathy, a former victor in the Games who serves as a drunken but supportive mentor to the two contestants from District 12. I was also impressed by Lenny Kravitz as Cinna, the stylist for the District 12 tributes. Tucci, who plays Caesar as an over the top version of his own character Nigel from The Devil Wears Prada, is usually always good in the parts that he plays.
On the other side of the coin, while I’m a big fan of Donald Sutherland’s I’m not sure what he brought to the character of the President that any older male actor couldn’t. But I have to assume Sutherland has bills to pay like everyone else. The part seemed to be a bit of a waste of his talents.
Again, while I don’t know if this comes from the book or not, but the costumes for those who live in the Capitol (the Capitol’s name), dress in polar opposite to the drab outfits worn in the districts (at least 11 and 12). But their outfits are over the top, not only in their bright colors, but the fashion is Dr. Seuss meets Brazil (the film not the country) meets the 1940s. It was so out there that it almost seems incongruent with a culture that thinks teenagers killing each other with arrows, spears and blunt instruments is good entertainment.
So bottom line, would I recommend this film? If you’re a fan of the book, no doubt you’ve already gone, judging by the opening weekend gross that was north of $150 million and are making plans to see it again. But if you’re like me and have not read the books, the only reason to go would be to see what all the fuss is supposed to be about. Otherwise, you might be better served holding on to your money to see the summer blockbusters The Avengers and The Amazing Spider-Man, which are both coming out later this year.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Asura's Wrath Episode 11.5 (DLC)


If you've read my review of Asura's Wrath, you'd probably take away that despite the game being relatively short, I greatly enjoyed having the opportunity to play that particular niche title. It didn't resort to filler and took a risk in design elements that I can't help but admire. Now that it's been out for a while, a little over a month, Capcom has begun releasing a series of planned DLC over the next few weeks, the first of which I will cover in this brief review.

Simply put, this $2 DLC fills the player in on what caused the mysterious explosion in Episode 11. While you can't directly control Asura at any point, the episode is filled with animation bSTUDIO4°C, the same studio responsible for the beautiful animation in Catherine. Their amazing quality is still present here, with gorgeous visuals matched with perfectly mapped Quick-Time Events that offer some, limited, sense of control. Since the ability to advance is based on having the Burst Gauge filled at specific points, it makes you really pay attention to what you need to press, though there are plenty of opportunities to get it right.

However, I do have one minor problems with this offering. While I again highly praise the animation, the quality does seem to change a little over time, which I'm sure is actually tied to a stylistic choice, although it mostly seems to be with Asura's character model changing its anatomy a little between shots. Still, it's mostly consistent and I do commend the animators for doing this.

Episode 11.5 is an interesting offering that manages to do its job quite well for the price. I'll note though that the content is about 10 minutes long, but that shouldn't immediately stop you from buying it, if at least to get some visual variety and a possible question answered.

Ratchet & Clank Future: Tools of Destruction



Continuing through the Ratchet & Clank series in anticipation of Sly 4, we come to Ratchet & Clank Future: Tools of Destruction, released in 2007. It is the first game in what is known as the Future Trilogy, as well as the first Ratchet & Clank game released for the PS3. For the first next-gen game in this series, I would say that it's really well done, though a minor problem arose during play.

On the planet Kerwan, Ratchet is fixing up a hoverbike when Clank gets a distress signal from Captain Qwark, who is under attack by a swarm of heavily-armed robots. They try to reach him through the hoverbike, but crash before fighting their way to Qwark's base. Once there, the duo finds out that the robots are actually trying to eliminate Ratchet, and try to escape. However, they are stopped by the robot army and learn that they are being controlled by Emperor Percival Tachyon, leader of the Cragmite race, who's goal is to wipe out all Lombaxes for eradicating his kind. However, Ratchet escapes before Tachyon can finish the job. As the last Lombax in the universe, Ratchet must defeat the Emperor, also the last of the Cragmites, with help from some friends he meets along the way. Meanwhile, Clank comes into contact with a mysterious group of aliens called the Zoni, who seem to know more about the future than one might anticipate.

The new characters introduced in this installment are pretty enjoyable and not annoying, though it was also nice to see some old faces every so often. I also felt the new female lead, Talwyn Apogee, seemed fairly well-rounded, complimented by some amazing work from her voice actress, Tara Strong (she recently lent her voice to Harley Quinn in Batman: Arkham City). However, that is not to say the rest of the voice acting isn't great, as everyone gave a solid performance overall. While I'm on the sound side of things, I should also compliment the music, which is just as engaging as ever, including an entertaining bit of music from a new gadget, the Groovitron.

Speaking of which, there's a plethora of new weapons and gadgets to use in this game, in fact so much that the Quick Select is now divided into three rings instead of two. Switching between these rings is much easier than in Deadlocked, since it utilizes the shoulder buttons to go through them really quickly. Like in previous games your arsenal can level up over time, though here the maximum Level is back to 5. There is a system similar to the Mods in Deadlocked present through a vendor, but this time it can be used to upgrade various aspects of your weapons, including Ammo capacity, Bolt drops, and Raritanium drops among others, the latter of which is used for the upgrades in the first place. One of my favorite items to use was a robot called Mr. Zurkon, who can be very handy in taking down tougher enemies while hilariously delivering trash talk (one of my favorites is where he compares a target's fighting to "an infant bird-fly").

An interesting addition to the gameplay is the way that the DualShock 3 controller is utilized. Using the Sixaxis functionality of the controller, you can perform actions such as cutting through rock by moving the controller in the desired direction. Fortunately, if there is a point where this becomes too hard to handle, you are given the option to use an analog stick instead for the rest of the game.

The graphics are amazing for an earlier PS3 title, and the physics are actually improved upon, if only in a more minor, yet noticeable sense. Crates this time are smaller and have more weight compared to previous games, in that if you manipulate them in certain ways they will fall over as opposed to just dropping down. While this might cause you to lose a crate if you aren't too careful around gaps, it's still very impressive to behold. When you visit some planets throughout your journey, since there is more texture it's interesting to think of it as Ratchet placed in a modern video game setting, as well as the subtle contrast it creates.

I've brought up the checkpoint system in previous games, and the qualities of it seem to work the same way here. However, this is not the minor problem I mentioned before, since I've learned to expect this sort of thing from a Ratchet & Clank game. The aforementioned problem is actually an instance where the sound in one cutscene went out of synch for whatever reason. Aside from that incident, the synchronization was perfect throughout the game.

Ratchet & Clank Future: Tools of Destruction is a nice step forward for the Ratchet & Clank series. It has many great improvements to the formula, the graphics are still stunning after a few years, and there are plenty of strong performances all around. The story also is very engaging and leaves on an interesting cliffhanger. If you are a Ratchet & Clank fan, this is one game you don't want to miss.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

I Am Alive - Is It?


March 2009. This was the issue of Game Informer where I had first heard of I Am Alive. As I read the preview, I became intrigued by its concept and believed that it would be released in retail for consoles later that year. I anticipated the game, but then it just seemed to fall off the face of the earth, with only speculation and rumor as to its final fate. Then sometime last year I had finally heard that it would be coming out, but as a downloadable title instead. I also learned at that time that the project had changed hands, going from developer Darkworks to Ubisoft Shanghai. Since the Xbox 360 version came out first, with the PS3 version soon to follow, I have decided to review that version.

The premise of the game is one other thing I should mention that has changed. Originally, it would follow 27-year-old Adam Collins, a normal office worker who happened to be in Chicago when a 10.9 Earthquake had struck. He would have dug himself out after 3 days to a city in ruins, in which he must search for his ex-girlfriend Alice, whom he still had feelings for. He would have also had to band together with other survivors to get them to a base camp so they could be rescued in a week, all while aftershocks continue to shake the city and turn the environment into the game's greatest enemy. What I ended up playing however, was a bit different. I Am Alive instead follows a man, still named Adam, after he travels to the fictional city of Haventon to search for his wife, Julie, and daughter, Mary. A worldwide cataclysmic event has left the city in nearly uninhabitable ruins, as a cloud of toxic dust is now prevalent in the air. Almost immediately, he gets involved with the wheelchair-bound Henry, a little girl named Mei, and her mother Ling as he tries to help them with various tasks that will ultimately help them leave the city for good.

Of course the important thing about the differing premise is how it's executed, and I think it was done quite well. The story isn't the best, but it is compelling enough to keep the player interested, plus the characters are interesting and fleshed out enough to suit the relatively short title. However, the rest of the execution is where the gameplay takes the reins.

The combat in I Am Alive comes in two flavors: Melee and Shooting. Shooting is pretty responsive, with only two buttons needed to aim and shoot while the shots are auto-aimed. It is possible to switch between targets by moving the camera, though sometimes it takes a bit longer than it should to get to the target you want in a tight situation. There are only three weapons that can shoot, a pistol, bow, and shotgun, which all have their own effective uses. Both of the guns can be used to intimidate enemies and control a situation effectively, as long as you don't take too long to stall, and the bow is more suited to firing from an exceptionally longer distance while the shotgun is best for rare crowd control scenarios. Ammo is scarce throughout the game, with the shotgun having only five shots and the bow having two shots maximum but the arrows easily retrievable, which does create more of a tactical mindset while figuring out the exact steps needed to take out a group of enemies under certain conditions while still trying to conserve ammunition as much as possible. Melee combat on the other hand isn't very free, instead taking the form of machete battles not completely unlike the chainsaw duels of the Gears of War franchise. Since the minigame can be interrupted however, melee is best used when there's only one enemy left.

Enemy variety however, is just about equal to the number of weapons in the game in terms of how many types there are. They can all be taken out in the same ways, but their tactics are different. Machete wielding enemies are more likely to rush you, while ones with pistols are more likely to attack from a distance. However a third type, which wears armor, requires that you manually aim the gun at their head with the click of a stick, a mechanic where I wasn't quite sure if I was aiming right until they were right in my face. One mechanic the game mentions is that taking out the tough guy in a group will automatically make the weaker ones surrender, though I questioned this since it was a bit difficult to tell which one would be considered the "tough one" and thus I accepted it at random. In any case, there is some risk to be involved with trying to use certain maneuvers in combat, and with it comes reward. Enemies with pistols will drop a bullet for you to use and armored enemies will drop some much needed protection that can extend how long you last in a fight.

Adam's success is dependent on two gauges: Health and Stamina. Health is drained when taking damage, obviously, and Stamina is drained when doing anything that would require exerting above a certain level of physical effort, mostly from running, climbing, and machete combat. If this gauge is drained completely, then a rapid press of the trigger button will keep him going, but will feed off of the maximum capacity instead until death. Fortunately Adam's Stamina regenerates automatically while standing, although the maximum capacity doesn't. Should either bar drop for whatever reason, items exist in the world to aid in their recovery, such as placing a Piton during climbing to act as a temporary breathing point. These items are scarce however, which does contribute successfully to the atmosphere of the world, since I not only tried not to use the items so that they may be used to help other survivors, I also tried to ration as much as I could in an attempt to be as efficient as possible. One annoyance however was the lack of health items in comparison to stamina items, hence the efficiency comment.

Of course, one of the biggest enemies would be the air itself, which is rendered so toxic that the Stamina gauge drains all by itself. This increased the alertness of my actions and helped heavily contribute to the tone, at times reminding me of Silent Hill or Resident Evil to some degree due to the heavy dust acting as a very thick fog. Climbing to a higher elevation can lead to recovery, though exploring enough will yield items that can accomplish the same task.

On the technical side, the graphics are very decent for a downloadable title and do provide a solid amount of detail work on the environments to help each location stand out, be it a building, the dust-filled streets or the subway. However, the characters models, especially Adam, didn't seem completely attractive by way of resembling graphics from the older games of this console generation. Voice acting is also solid and music is pretty well cued, although the enemies could have had more varied dialogue. The sound effects also weren't annoying, which is a plus.

I Am Alive is a game with an interesting premise and solid execution. For $15 it's a pretty decent download and fans of Survival Horror may get a kick out of it. As I played however, I could only wonder what the original premise would have been like to play through. Still, I don't regret playing what I got anyway.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Stubs - Stranger on the Third Floor


STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR (1940) Starring: Peter Lorre, John McGuire, Margaret Tallichet and Charles Waldron. Directed by Boris Ingster. Produced by Lee Marcus. Story and Screenplay by Frank Partos. Run Time: 63 minutes. Black and White. US. Film Noir, Thriller.

Stranger on the Third Floor is considered by many to the first true film noir movie, the stylized subgenre of crime drama, featuring low angles, Dutch (tilted) angles, heavy shadows, urban settings, flashbacks, narration and dark themed plots. Rooted visually in the tradition of German Expressionism, film noirs are also usually made on a small budget, making up for what it can’t afford in talent and writing with its visual panache.

Mike (John McGuire) and Jane (Margaret Tallichet) are a young couple, very much in love, who meet for breakfast every morning at a local drug store lunch counter. They talk about getting married when Mike, a reporter, gets his big break. That break comes when Mike, on his way home from work one night, is witness to the murder of Nick, a neighborhood coffee shop proprietor. Mike sees Joe Briggs (Elisha Cook Jr.) standing over Nick’s body at the open cash register. Nick’s neck has been slashed. Joe runs when he sees Mike and the police catch him with a packed bag before he can make good on his escape. Mike not only is a witness for the prosecution, he also gets a byline out of the incident and a pay raise.

Justice moves quickly in this film, as it seems Mike is on the witness stand almost immediately after the crime. While Mike didn’t actually witness the murder, his testimony is enough to get Joe convicted and sentenced to death for the murder. Jane, though, feels odd that Mike is responsible for what happened to Joe, but Mike is more interested in his career than justice.

Back home in his one room apartment, Mike is anxious to get out of there. Not only does he have a nosey neighbor who snores, Albert Meng (Charles Halton, best known as the bank examiner in It’s A Wonderful Life), but a landlady (Ethel Griffies) who doesn’t mind busting into Mike’s apartment unannounced. On his way to the shared bathroom, Mike sees a Stranger (Peter Lorre), a bug-eyed, thick-lipped man, wearing a long white scarf, who hides out in the shadows. Mike chases him out of the apartment house, but the man gets away.

It is only then that Mike notices that he can’t hear Meng’s snoring. Mike jumps to the conclusion, later proven correct, that Meng has been murdered. Mike frets about what to do. Based on his past run-ins with Meng as witnessed by the landlady, Mike would be a prime suspect in the murder. In flashbacks, Mike reveals that Meng got him into trouble for bringing Jane up to his room in a rainstorm and that he once told a colleague, Martin (Cliff Clark) that he wanted to kill Meng.

When he goes to check on Meng, Mike discovers that he is indeed, dead, his neck slit. In a panic, Mike packs a bag, but stops himself. He goes downstairs to the public phone and calls Jane, who agrees to meet him in the park. She convinces Mike to call the police. They are already there when Mike returns home. He tells the police detective investigating the murder about the stranger he saw. Since Meng’s murder was so similar to Nick’s, he makes the detective wake up the District Attorney (Charles Waldron) to tell him that the murders are connected and that Briggs is innocent. But the DA makes another connection, that both murders were discovered by the same man, and has Mike arrested.

Jane, though, goes out looking for the stranger. After looking all afternoon and evening, she stumbles across him only recognizing him when he puts on the white scarf. It is obvious that the man is deranged, but Jane tries to find out where he lives. She stops at a boarding house to call the police, but the landlady there will have no part of her charade. Thinking that Jane has been sent to take him back, the Stranger starts to strangle her on the front steps, but she manages to escape. She runs across the street and he follows, only to be run over by a truck. Just before he dies, the stranger confesses to a policeman that he committed the two murders.

That is enough to free Mike from prison and he returns to the drug store and to Jane. On their way to get married, they are offered a complimentary ride in a taxi driven by the newly freed Joe Briggs.

Peter Lorre, who got his big break in Fritz Lang’s M (1931) gets top billing in this film, despite only being in a handful of scenes and only speaking a few lines of dialogue. He apparently owed RKO Pictures two day’s work, which explains his limited participation in the film. Lorre, who had already appeared in a series of Mr. Moto films, would go on to be one of the great character actors in Hollywood. Perhaps his best-known role is Signor Ugarte in 1941s Casablanca.

This film has low-budget B-picture written all over it. Both John McGuire and Margaret Tallichet are so-so actors at best. The plot is both convoluted and slight and the action is mostly unbelievable, which may explain why the film is not the best loved or best remembered of the film noirs made. Being first does not always mean best.

What the film may lack in acting and story it makes up for with the use of a cookaloris. This stylistic touch lends the movie the feel of a German expressionist film of the 1920s and 30s and it is used, bordering on over used, throughout Stranger on the Third Floor.

It is always interesting to see the first example of a genre and to notice how it evolved over time. While certainly not a great movie, Stranger on the Third Floor has all the earmarks of film noir which led to such classics as The Maltese Falcon (1941), Double Indemnity (1944), The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) and Out of the Past (1947) to name but a few.

Stranger on the Third Floor is worth watching if you’re a fan, like me, of film noir and want to see how the genre came into being.

Stranger on the Third Floor is available at the Warner Archive Collection:

www.warnerarchive.com

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Stubs - The Day of the Locust


THE DAY OF THE LOCUST (1975) Starring: Donald Sutherland, Karen Black, Burgess Meredith, William Atherton. Directed by John Schlesinger. Produced by Jerome Hellman. Written by Waldo Salt. Based on a novel by Nathaniel West. Music by John Barry. Run Time: 144 minutes. Color. US. Drama.

The best way to describe the film is that it’s like taking Nathaniel West’s novel, dropping it into a blender, adding scenes and filming the results. While the film shares the same characters and interactions of the novel, many of the events in the novel do not happen in the same sequence. The resultant movie seems to be more of a series of vaguely related vignettes about people on the fringes of Hollywood that don’t add up to a congealed whole.

William Atherton, perhaps better known as the asshole news reporter in the first two Die Hard films, plays Tod Hackett, a painter who works in Hollywood doing production designs. Living in the apartment across the way is Faye Greener (Karen Black), an aspiring starlet who mostly does extra work, and her father Harry Greener (Burgess Meredith), a one-time performer reduced to selling miracle solvents door-to-door.

Faye is blonde and beautiful and Tod easily falls in love with her. But getting involved with Faye is a little like falling down the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland. Through her Tod is introduced to Earle Shoop (Bo Hopkins) an urban cowboy before there was that phrase who, like Faye, is an extra. Earle lives in the hills with Miguel (Pepe Serna) a Mexican who raises roosters for cock fighting. Donald Sutherland, who gets top-billing, is Homer Simpson, a hapless businessman who falls in love with, but never can seem to seal the deal with, Faye. Faye is the stereotypical crazy girl, who even her father refers to a c-teaser. Tod, like Earle and Homer, is infatuated with her, but never can bed her and never do figure her out.

Also living in the complex is Adore Loomis (Jackie Earle Haley) an annoying kid actor whose mother is always taking him to auditions. Abe Kisch (Billy Barty) is a midget, naturally, who has trouble with women.

One day, Harry has an attack while selling his solvent to Homer and Faye comes by looking for him. Homer is immediately smitten. Harry rallies, but it is short-lived. Faye and Homer at one point take Harry to a Big Sister (Geraldine Page) revival, but that doesn’t seem to help. When Harry does eventually die, Faye and Homer develop a business-deal and she moves in with him, though they never share a bed.

Tod, meanwhile, gets his break in Hollywood when he gets the attention of his boss’s boss Claude Estee (Richard A. Dysart) and is assigned to do production drawings for a film about the battle of Waterloo. Estee invites Tod out for an evening of dinner and stag films. Tod will later return the favor by inviting Claude to cock fights in Homer Simpson’s garage. The party that follows deteriorates into a drunken brawl when Faye is found in bed with Miguel, first by Homer who impudently does nothing, and then by Earle, who starts to beat up on 
Miguel and breaks furniture and windows in the process.

The film is quite disjointed and one scene rarely sets up the next one or the one after that. The film does end in a similar way to the book with a riot at the premiere of a Cecil B. DeMille film at the Grauman Chinese Theater. Homer, for some reason, is walking around carrying suitcases, though it doesn’t appear he is going any place in particular. Tod, who is caught up in a traffic jam caused by the premiere, sees Homer and tries to talk to him. But Homer is in a catatonic state and is unresponsive.

While sitting on a bus bench not too far away from the premiere, Homer is accosted by Adore, who berates Homer and even strikes him with a rock in the forehead. This sets Homer off. He chases down and eventually stomps the life out of Adore. When the crowd hears the boys screams, they come running and in mob-rule mentality literally starts to pull Homer apart. Hearing the commotion, the police, who are at the premiere, try to break up the scuffle, which in turn sets off a riot, with looting, cars being over turned and fires. Tod who has been trying to find Homer gets caught up in the riot and gets wounded.

Overall I found the film to be a little confusing, very depressing and too long. This is definitely a case where you cannot watch the movie instead of reading the book, because the book and film, while telling the same basic story, do so in very different ways. While the original novel is considered to be a classic, the film is perhaps best forgotten unless you’re doing a survey of failed adaptations.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Second Opinion - Journey


If you've ever played Flower, you should have a pretty good idea of the work that developer Thatgamecompany can provide. Placing more emphasis on generating an emotion in the player, rather than building a game around its mechanics, they have managed to create games that may be considered much closer to art than anything else. However, this route isn't all that bad, as demonstrated by their latest release, Journey. As a PlayStation Plus subscriber, I was able to play this early, and I believe my $15 was very well spent.

Journey is all about the journey taken by a cloaked, genderless figure as the player makes their way to a mysterious mountain in the far off distance, while also learning about their past, present, and even future. Along the way, you may come across a companion that may accompany you to the goal, as well as help you solve various puzzles across a handful of levels. While communication is key most often in co-op plays, the difference here is that there is no way to talk to anyone else other than through a wordless shout, and even then you can't identify them in any way until after the end credits. Isolation is the main aspect of Journey, and these qualities help to create that feeling, along with a sense of comfort once you find someone else in the lonely world.

While the levels are minimal, they are also large and absolutely beautiful. I'd have to concede that along with having a gorgeous graphical style, the game sports physics that can outdo even Uncharted 3's sand; sand is to Journey what grass was to Flower. Traversing the environments is also as easy as it could possibly get, since literally anyone could grasp the controls and the two or three buttons needed. Floating like a petal in the breeze is invigorating, as is the perfectly cued music used throughout. Mentioning any specific moment would make this review spoileriffic, but I would like to mention that I could easily have cried at one point or two in awe.

While Journey can be completed in roughly a couple of hours or so, it's the experience that really counts. It's a masterpiece that impressed me to such a degree as to tempt me to press Start immediately after the title screen came up again. Putting emotion over gameplay is something that resonates well from the game, but I'll admit that it isn't for everyone. Potential players expecting it to go the other way may not find it as thrilling as those who will no doubt fall in love with this adventure.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Journey


Soon after the release of Flower, Thatgamecompany began work on a new game called Journey. Having enjoyed the company's last game, I was so excited by the announcement that I recently went back and played Flower again as a lead-in. I wasn't sure what experience to expect as the release date got closer, but this question was answered after getting to see for myself. (This game was released a week early to PlayStation + subscribers.) Having played this game twice already, I can't wait to do it again.

In Journey, you are a mysterious hooded figure travelling through a desert with a mountain in the distance. Along your way to this distant goal, you solve a series of puzzles as you learn more about the world you inhabit. During your journey you can also meet and travel with other players online, however there are no indicators at all as to who they are, and your only form of communication is a wordless shout. All this helps to create a sense of isolation in this vast, awe-inspiring landscape, with a feeling of closure when you are near another traveler.

The controls to this game are very easy to grasp, since there are very few, allowing absolutely anyone to pick them up and begin a new journey. Early on you obtain a scarf that allows you to fly for a brief period of time, which can be refueled by either going near flying pieces of cloth or by touching cloth creatures or other players, and can be extended by touching special symbols hidden across each level. Performing your shout not only allows you to communicate, it also allows you to rejuvenate tattered pieces of cloth spread across the desert and activate statues and small pieces of tapestry that tell you more about the game world's past, present, and even future.

The graphics of this game are simply stunning, putting itself up there with many current Triple-A titles out there. However, Journey surpasses them all in terms of the detail in the sand, even one such as Uncharted 3 which features a desert prominently. The physics for the sand and cloth here, much like Flower with grass, also surpass every other modern game I've seen. I enjoy the way the robes of the travelers flap in powerful wind, rivaling the dress physics in Alice: Madness Returns, and especially how movements from the player and their shout affect the sand in very subtle ways, again beating out Uncharted 3 in this fashion. Equally amazing is the music accompanying the actions onscreen and the layout of each locale, perfectly setting up the game's atmosphere and the emotion it wants from the player.

Journey isn't just simply a game, it's an experience. And while it may be a short experience that lasts under two hours, it is most certainly one you will want to go through over and over again. If you own a PS3, this is absolutely one download you do not want to pass up for any reason.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Stubs - This Is Spinal Tap

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THIS IS SPINAL TAP (1984) Starring: Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer and Rob Reiner. Directed by Rob Reiner. Produced by Kathy Murphy. Written by Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, Rob Reiner and Harry Shearer. Music by Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer and Rob Reiner. Run Time: 82 minutes. Color. US. Mockumentary.

When the over-the-hill rock band Spinal Tap goes on tour to promote their latest, but not yet released studio album, Smell the Glove, Marty DiBergi (Rob Reiner), a TV commercial director, jumps at the chance to document it. What he hopes to capture is not only the band on stage, but also backstage as well. Focusing on the three members of Spinal Tap, lead singer David St. Hubbins (Michael McKean), lead guitarist, Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest) and bassist Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer) the film watches the group fall apart as the tour skids from one disappointment to another on a seemingly never ending downward spiral.

In its current configuration, Spinal Tap is a metal band, whose songs sing the praises of girls with big behinds “Big Bottoms” and ancient rituals “Stonehenge”. But as we learn through “old television footage” and interviews, the band has been around since the mid-1960s. Their first claim to fame came as The Thamesmen with the hit “Gimme Some Money”. Later changing their name to Spinal Tap, they had another hit with the psychedelic “Listen to the Flower People”. Along the way, the group had lost drummers all killed in various ways, added a keyboardist and gone heavy metal.

As the tour starts, Spinal Tap is ineptly managed by Ian Faith (Tony Hendra), who despite carrying a cricket bat, not only can’t get the record label, Polymer Records, to release Smell the Glove with a controversial cover, but he can’t even book the band’s hotel rooms. But despite concert dates being cancelled along the way due to low ticket sales the band seems to be happily going along, that is until St. Hubbins’ girlfriend Jeanine Pettibone (June Chadwick) decides to join the tour. Tufnel is not happy to hear that. Jeanine, a nod to Yoko Ono, is manipulative and she begins to act as if she is one of the decision makers for the band.

Faith’s ineptness as band manager continues; Polymer releases the new album in an all-black cover without consulting the band. But the last straw is that when a hastily drawn stage prop for the band’s song “Stonehenge” is 18 inches high instead of 18 feet. When St. Hubbins suggests that Jeanine co-manage the band, Faith quits.

The tour continues, playing ever smaller venues. Tufnel, feeling marginalized by Jeanine’s influence over his band mate, quits the group before the tour is over. The next stop is no better, as the band finds itself second billed to a puppeteer. But Tufnel returns before the last show to announce that the band, like every other band at this time, was big in Japan. Faith wants to set up a tour and the band agrees, even though they lose their current drummer when Mick Shrimpton (R.J. Parnell, drummer for Atomic Rooster) explodes on stage.

There is much to like about this film. The humor never gets bawdy, blue or gross, which sadly seems to be the current norm. They are poking fun at their subject matter, in a similar way as The Rutles did with The Beatles. The fact that Spinal Tap are so right on with their depictions makes the film even funnier. When Tufnel is showing off his custom Marshall amp which goes up to 11, rather than only 10, he seems genuinely stumped when DiBergi asks him why not just make 10 louder. And when Tufnel is showing DiBergi his guitar collection, there is one that even he has never played and he won’t let DiBergi even look at it, much less touch it.

Everything is there to be skewered by this film: inept Tour Managers, rich and out of touch Record Label executives, worthless promotional men, bossy girlfriends, exploding drummers, cocktail parties with mimes as waiters, garage/skiffle bands, flower power anthems and the egos of rock stars. This Is Spinal Tap takes aim and for the most part hits the bull’s eye every time.

The songs are funny and are surprisingly listenable even out of context of the film. Spinal Tap has a bit of a cult following and has even released additional studio albums and toured, with the three main musicians as Spinal Tap.

For the most part, the main people behind this film were better known for their work on TV prior to making this movie. Rob Reiner was Michael Stivic aka Meathead on the All in the Family series and Michael McKean was Lenny on the long running Laverne and Shirley. Shearer may have one of the most interesting careers in Hollywood. He had appeared as a child on the Jack Benny Show (1953) and was in the Leave It to Beaver pilot (1957). Mel Blanc, perhaps the best known voice from the Golden Age of Hollywood Animation, took Shearer under his wing. Shearer would go on to be, along with McKean, part of the Credibility Gap, a Los Angeles based sketch comedy troupe. Shearer would go onto appear for several seasons on Saturday Night Live. Christopher 

Guest, on the other hand, had been on Broadway and had worked with National Lampoon both on radio and on stage. Guest had previously appeared as Nigel Tufnel as early as 1978 on the sketch program, The TV Show and as a musician on the 1979 Laverne and Shirley spinoff music album, Lenny and the Squigtones.

Following this film, they have all found success in films. Reiner has directed such classics as The Princess Bride (1987), When Harry Met Sally (1988), Misery (1990), A Few Good Men (1992) and The American President (1995). McKean, who had already appeared in movies before Spinal Tap, has worked consistently since then appearing in such films as The Big Picture (1989), Auto Focus (2002), and Whatever Works (2009). Shearer has become a staple on the Simpsons TV series, voicing such popular characters as Mr. Burns, Waylon Smithers, Ned Flanders and Dr. Hibbert. Christopher Guest, who directed and co-wrote with McKean The Big Picture, is perhaps best known for directing and starring in a series of mostly improvised comedies including: Waiting for Guffman (1996), Best In Show (2000), A Mighty Wind (2003) and For Your Consideration (2006). McKean and Shearer are also part of the recurring cast members that Guest uses in his films.

This Is Spinal Tap works on so many levels. You do not have to be a fan of Heavy Metal to get the humor. You just need to stay alert, as the humor is both sophisticated and comes at you from all sides. Everyone is funny, from the main stars to the cameos by Billy Crystal and Paul Schaeffer. The film stands on its own, but is also a springboard for a group of multi-talented individuals who would all go on to greater things in entertainment. The film is also a forerunner to the many mockumentary sitcoms that are currently on the air, such as The Office, Parks and Recreation and Modern Family.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Flower - Elegance At Its Finest


Thatgamecompany (also written as thatgamecompany) is an independent game company known for creating games that are unlike any other currently on the market, with the intent to influence players' emotions. Their first game, Flow (stylized as flOw), was incredibly well-received and is, as of this writing, currently on my list of games to obtain in the future. Their last game, Flower, also got high ratings, and is among one of my top favorite PSN games. The company currently has another game called Journey on its way soon, so as a lead-in I have decided to re-play Flower and give my opinion here. Returning to this game after a few years, it has yet to lose its place as an amazing work of art.

The story of the game is very simplistic, in that you are a potted flower dreaming by a windowsill. As it dreams, you are the wind guiding a flower petal as it picks up other petals from blooming flowers, forming a long trail of petals as you go forward. To move forward is very easy: all you have to do is hold down almost any button you like, and you can change your course at any time using the Sixaxis functionality of your PS3 Sixaxis or DualShock 3 controller, and all you need to do to bloom a flower is to touch it with your trail. This makes the game accessible to anyone who wishes to play.

If there are any words I can use to describe each level, "beautiful" is not enough. This game has quite possibly the best grass effects I have ever seen in a video game, even to this day. The music in each level helps set the tone of each dream, which helps to get the right emotion from you at any given time. For instance, when my trail ran into electricity during a later stage, I felt genuinely scared as I tried to avoid any petals getting shocked. The stages aren't all like this though, as all the others help you feel very calm and relaxed. As a bonus, there are also a few secret flowers hidden within each level, encouraging you to explore every field at your leisure.

Flower is a game that is very simple, yet elegant in its design. It is a game I find to be very soothing and relaxing, to where I believe it can possibly help people recover from something such intense warfare or heavy depression. This game is nothing short of artwork and to me stands high as an example of how a video game can be treated as such. I would recommend this game to absolutely anyone who owns a PS3, as it is something you will find yourself playing over and over again. If you play this and enjoy the soundtrack, you can also get it separately on PSN; this soundtrack alone is able to get a good feeling out of you and you will not want to let it go.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan


I'll admit right off the bat that I'm not a big fan of Star Trek, but this is more based on my lack of exposure to the franchise. The only other movie I've seen is the fantastic J. J. Abrams reboot and a couple of episodes of the original series here and there. Star Trek II was the only one besides the Abrams series that I had really wanted to see because I had kept hearing so many positive things about it, but only recently had I acquired a copy on DVD, specifically the extended Director's Cut. While I don't immediately wish to see more Star Trek, I have become a fan of this movie and I can see why others love it too.

The events of the movie take place 15 years after the Original Series episode Space Seed, which I had watched beforehand. The crew of the USS Reliant are searching for a lifeless planet to test something known as the Genesis Device, which can create life in an area where none exists. They stumble upon what they believe to be Ceti Alpha VI, which seems desolate enough to qualify as a candidate. However, they keep receiving a mysterious signal and decide to beam Commander Pavel Chekov (Walter Koenig) and Captain Clark Terrell (Paul Winfield) down to the surface to investigate. As they search the area, they run into Khan Noonien Singh (Ricardo Montalbán), who reveals that they are in fact on Ceti Alpha V, which Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner), now an Admiral, had exiled him to 15 years prior; Ceti Alpha VI had actually exploded, which caused his own planet to suffer greatly. He blames Kirk for everything bad that has happened to him, including the death of his wife. Khan now plans to avenge her death by eliminating Kirk, no matter what it takes, starting with a complete takeover of the Reliant.

What unfolds next is fascinating to watch. It's sort of like a classical nautical adventure, only set in the far reaches of space, pulled off by having the Federation function like an actual navy. As we learn more about the Genesis device and Khan's intentions, the plot becomes more dramatic and at times exciting. There is an interesting chemistry between Kirk and Khan that helps make this work, and the tactical thinking displayed by the two of them as they try to come up with deeper strategies is simply amazing. This carries over until the final climactic battle in a nebula, when Khan finally shows some desperation in his two-dimensional battle plan.

The way every character is portrayed helps to really sell the movie in all of its elements. Admiral James T. Kirk has to deal with being middle-aged on his birthday, something which he isn't very proud of. This is compounded by McCoy's gift of antique reading glasses, which gets used rather well as subtle symbolism of Kirk at first succumbing to old age when using them a couple of times, but then reclaiming his youth once the spectacles are cracked at the end and when he says "I feel young." Captain Spock (Leonard Nimoy) acts as a good opposite to Kirk, approaching situations with logic as opposed to letting emotions influence him. He is also shown to be very tactical as well, especially during his encoded radio communications with the Admiral as Khan listens in. Another spectacular performance shines through with Dr. Leonard McCoy (DeForest Kelley), who delivers some light-hearted and humorous moments to an otherwise dramatic and serious film, creating some balance that helps the movie be a classic.

Then there is, of course, Ricardo Montalbán's performance as the antagonist, Khan. Montalbán plays the character in ways that make him a very interesting villain to watch, especially how dead set he is on eliminating what he sees as his greatest enemy. His presence alone breathes a certain atmosphere into everything around him and I couldn't help but be impressed whenever he was on the screen. Khan will stop at nothing in pursuit of his prey, ignoring reasoning given to him by both Chekov and his own crew. This is done similarly to Captain Ahab from Moby Dick, whom he embodies and quotes at the right moments to sell the drama with graceful precision. It is this along with his quick and forward thinking that, to me, makes Khan a credible and memorable character that stands up well even into the present day.

But while Star Trek II has great characters, it also has some memorable and classic moments. One of these is Kirk's "Khan Scream", which has been endlessly copied, referenced, and parodied through TV and the internet (though incorrectly). I found myself dropping my jaw in awe when I first saw the Genesis chamber, with its vast, colorful space and impressive scale in relation to the characters walking into it. There are also a couple of moments within the nebula that stand out as well. The first is how Kirk and Khan both alter their strategies to suit the environment of the nebula cutting off their sensors, leading to an amazing scene where the Enterprise goes underneath the Reliant and then "surfaces" behind it to deliver a finishing blow. This works in the end since Spock reveals that Khan is used to battles in two dimensions, thus he isn't used to thinking in three, something which is alluded to near the beginning of the film with a checkerboard. The other moment in the nebula is when Spock manually fixes the core of the Enterprise's warp drive, enabling the ship to escape an explosion from Khan arming the Genesis device.

This moment, while leading to a moment of victory, shifts into the most dramatic event of the movie, which is Spock's death scene. As Kirk and Spock share this moment, the drama really sinks in and their emotions immerse the viewer into the scene. You can tell just how much Spock meant as a friend to Kirk, as what can be seen as a part of him is now gone, seemingly forever (he returns in the sequel, but that doesn't matter here). Everything about this death is pulled off fantastically, including the event leading up to it and how it is dealt with after the fact as the Admiral regains his sense of youth. Spock even delivers the closing narration.

Other things I liked about the movie were the score and visuals. The score is simply perfect as it matches the tone and fits whatever is happening at the moment. Even what can be heard from the original TV show is used well at the beginning and end. The special effects are breathtaking and surprisingly hold up even today, particularly those used to illustrate the Genesis chamber and the nebula, as well as the transformation of the space within the nebula into a planet after the Genesis device explodes aboard the Reliant. I also thought Ceti Alpha V had an impressive sandstorm on its surface. Set designs for the ships and other locations are also well-detailed, something I can also say about the costumes and props. I know this may sound like an odd way to praise a movie, but I actually found myself impressed by not only the well-framed cinematography, but also the lighting. Yes, the lighting. I felt it contributed heavily to the overall dramatic atmosphere and highlighted the mood of each scene, like those on the Reliant, perfectly.

While there are plenty of good things to say about this film, there are admittedly a couple of things that seem off a little. The costumes for the Federation for example, while offering a more timeless look that fits the naval feel, do seem a little heavy. A couple of plot holes also exist, the most glaring of which is the fact that Khan recognizes Chekov even though he wasn't in Space Seed and the fact that the USS Reliant was unable to detect that Ceti Alpha VI no longer existed. These quips are minor however and most of the holes, whatever others there may be, can be explained away logically. For instance, it is possible that Chekov was indeed on the Enterprise at the time and just not a prominent character then, but it is still odd that he of all the crew members would stand out in Khan's memory. I'll also admit that I found the pacing to be a little slow at times, but sitting through the movie is well worth it anyway.

Star Trek II is indeed a fantastic movie. Every element balances out very nicely to create an atmosphere that never ceased to amaze me. It's a film that stands out to me well beyond the realms of pop culture and I now consider it to be one of my favorite films. If you've ever been curious about The Wrath of Khan, and aren't a nitpicker or someone who doesn't like older sci-fi, then you should definitely give this film a viewing. If you don't own it, you may very well want to afterwards.