Sunday, November 27, 2011

Hugo - A Fully Functional Machine

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In early 2007, a book was released titled The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznik. It's a rather interesting book in that while some of the story is told through written word, some of it is also told through gorgeously detailed drawings that help carry the narrative. This is one of the best books I have read in recent years, and if you find it anywhere I would highly recommend picking it up. Recently, this same book was adapted into a movie, simply called Hugo, directed by Martin Scorsese. Having enjoyed the book, I was curious to see how a book like that would translate to film; I was not disappointed one bit with the final result.

In a 1930 Paris train station, a young boy named Hugo (Asa Butterfield) is keeping the clocks running behind the scenes after his uncle disappears. After he gets caught trying to steal a wind-up toy from a toy shop, he is forced to relinquish a notebook to the shopkeeper. After failing to get it back, Hugo retreats to his living space within the walls of the station, where it is discovered that he is working on repairing an old automaton, which he requires the notebook to accomplish. He later meets a girl named Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), a relative of the shopkeeper, as he discovers the secret behind the automaton.

The movie does a very good job of adapting the book, even if it takes a few creative liberties (saying which ones would likely ruin the story for you). It's amazing how much attention to detail is put into the setting, especially the intricacies of moving mechanical parts. A particular favorite of mine is when the automaton begins to move because it's fun to see all the small parts interact to achieve the end result.

On the subject of interaction, the acting is rather impressive, even the performances coming from the supporting cast. This really helps the dialogue flow naturally and you really get a sense of what the characters are feeling. At times when special effects are used, they are simply stunning and help bring certain scenes to life, particularly within Hugo's dream sequences.

One of the themes of Hugo is the history of older films, and the usage of such footage is used to its full advantage. Several clips can be seen from the works of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd (particularly Safety Last), and especially from the many films of Georges Méliès. It's a little better to be aware of some of the older films featured going in, but it's still really nice to see how it helps tell the story.

Hugo is a simply wonderful movie that one shouldn't miss, especially for fans of the book on which it's based. The attention to detail is astounding, to where even the little things are amazing to watch. You also might want to have some tissues on hand, because it can get really emotional at times.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Assassin's Creed: Revelations - An Assassin With A Broken Blade

At last the wait is over. After finally playing through all of the Assassin's Creed franchise, I really wasn't sure what to expect based on the twist ending of Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood as well as the various previews I had read of the gameplay systems. With this next entry, released only a year after Brotherhood, I had expected something that would at least be an enjoyable improvement. Since completing the campaign however, I find myself liking it and yet feeling like it could have done better.

While the campaign does shed some light on the protagonists Desmond and Altair, Ezio is still the big star. After the events of Brotherhood, he undergoes a pilgrimage to Masyaf in an attempt to leave his Assassin life behind him, only to be sucked into another adventure that leads him to the city of Constantinople. When he gets there, two plots emerge. In one, he becomes involved in a power struggle between the Ottoman Empire and the Byzantines, while in the other he comes across a beautiful woman who helps him locate important artifacts once belonging to Altair. I enjoyed watching both paths unravel, while introducing some interesting new characters, and then later intersect to help conclude the well-written narrative in a pounding cliffhanger. The story missions themselves are very balanced and offer good variety without being overly frustrating, along with some more engaging cutscenes.

Like with the other games, a number of side missions can be played to help break up the action, including the return of the economic system built in Brotherhood. Thankfully, the shop quests that I also found an annoyance have been scrapped, in favor of just simply allowing the player to buy the item they need. As with before, Ezio can also raise an army of Assassins to assist him around the city as well as send on missions around the Mediterranean. This feature felt improved and more fun, with Assassins now upgrading much easier and offering more content with each level up. They can also now be assigned to Assassin Dens and be put on special missions from there to increase their strength and skill.

New additions are made to the game outside of general tweaks, such as a new Hookblade in Ezio's arsenal. This allows for more combat options such as flipping enemies over, as well as navigation abilities like going across zip lines or grabbing ledges that would normally be out of reach. I found this to be fun and useful, though it wasn't as big a difference as the introduction of bomb crafting. While this feature is unique and interesting, with the game pushing you to use the system by handing out parts at every opportunity or even whole bombs in chests, I didn't really feel any incentive to indulge in this feature. I ended up just doing missions how I had always approached them before using the tools on hand.

But what is perhaps the most disappointing addition is the new Den Defense game, which you may regularly be called upon to play. While it tries to add even more variety to the game by adding an element of Tower Defense, the execution of the idea fails horribly. The controls are sloppy and sometimes hard to wrestle with, since trying to place units with an analog stick requires incredible precision that the controller simply can't provide. It seems designed more with a computer mouse in mind, although I'm not quite sure how much more enjoyment PC users would get out of it thanks to the very awkward camera angle. To top it all off, the whole idea seems a little absurd when compared to the Assassin philosophy of staying hidden and fighting a secret war with the Templars. Lowering your level of suspicion will decrease the likelihood of encountering this game, which is what I ended up doing to avoid it most of the time, but it definitely could have been easily scrapped without negatively impacting the overall product.

While Ezio may play a big role in the game, there is still opportunity to interact with the other two characters. Throughout the story, Ezio will recover Masyaf Keys that allow him to look at the memories of Altair spanning the rest of his life. This allows players to not only find out what happens to him at the end of the original Assassin's Creed, but also control him one last time. The missions may be short in this department and take place exclusively in one location, but they are also fun and memorable and let players feel more emotion for the character.

As for Desmond, the game also gives some follow-up since the events of the previous game while he tries to restore his shattered memory. Collecting Animus Data Fragments in the main game allows for a playable side quest that explores his own past and delivers more depth into his character. While I did find the stories intriguing, the gameplay felt a little iffy. His memories are rendered in First-person platforming levels, which can be a little difficult given the limitations of that gameplay mechanic.

Overall, Assassin's Creed: Revelations feels like a mixed bag. I had more fun than I did with Brotherhood, but some of the new gameplay additions I either ignored or got frustrated with in the long run. However, the story is very much worth it and serves to help lead fantasticaly into the upcoming Assassin's Creed III due next year. I would not recommend newer players to start with this game due to the attempts at variety. However, getting the PS3 version of the game also allows access to the original Assassin's Creed for free, which is a great incentive for purchase and should offer those players a proper place to begin.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Stubs - The Matrix

THE MATRIX (1999) Starring: Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Hugo Weaving and Joe Pantoliano. Directed by Andy Wachowski, Larry Wachowski. Written by Andy Wachowski, Larry Wachowski. Produced by Joel Silver. Music by Don Davis. Run Time: 136 minutes. Color. Australia/U.S., Science Fiction

One of the most visually interesting films to come out in the 1990’s, THE MATRIX is one of those special effects films that your parents warned you about. It does not always make sense, and can drag a little in places, but the film is best known for its action sequences and something known as bullet time, a special and visual effect that alters time, space and point of view.

There are two alternate realities at work in THE MATRIX, and neither of them is good if you’re a human being. There is the simulated reality, fed by Artificial Intelligence machines to keep the human population subdued. This is a dream state in which people think they are living their lives. This is the reality we all know. We sleep, go to work, go to school, hack computer systems and eat.

Then there is the real reality, in which humans are nothing more than an energy supply for the A.I. machines that have taken over the world. This is their revenge for mankind permanently darkening the sky, in our last ditch effort to stop the machines by cutting off their primary energy source, the sun. In this reality, humans are treated like cattle; fed and used. When a human dies, it is turned into food for other humans. If this starts to sound like THE TERMINATOR meets SOYLENT GREEN, you’re not too far off.

But humans are not completely defeated. There is Zion, the last human city. And there is a band of people who are trying their best to disrupt the simulated reality. This group is led by Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne). Morpheus, for some never explained reason, has latched on to a hacker called Neo (Keanu Reeves) as the last great hope for mankind. During the day, in his simulated reality, Neo, aka Thomas Anderson, is a computer programmer. He knows, through his hacking, that there is something called THE MATRIX, but he doesn’t know what it is or what it means. Enter Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), another hacker, who tells Neo that Morpheus has the answers to his questions.

Neo is then arrested by Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) and other men in black, who warn him to stay away from Morpheus. But Neo doesn’t listen and meets with Morpheus anyway. At the meeting he is given the choice between the red pill and the blue pill. The blue pill basically takes Neo back to sleep and he awakes in the morning and will remember nothing. The red pill will provide him with the truth. Naturally, Neo takes the red pill or we have no story. After taking it, Neo wakes up in his pod, connected to wires and tubes. These connections are severed and Morpheus rescues Neo and takes him aboard the Nebuchadnezzar, his ship.

There Neo is repaired, given the low down and uploaded with handy to know things like Martial Arts. “I know Kung Fu.”. (This learn through uploads would be the premise for TV’s Chuck series, but instead of the Matrix it is the Intersect.) Morpheus gives Neo the back story on what happened to humans. He tells Neo that he is the One who the Oracle has prophesized will end the war through his control of the Matrix. Morpheus and crew go around unplugging other humans and having them join their rebellion, but not everyone on board the Nebuchadnezzar is happy about it. Cypher (Joe Pantoliano) seems to regret not taking the blue pill when he had the choice.

Everyone though is amazed at how quickly Neo learns and adapts to his new environment. Like all of Morpheus’s crew, Neo can bend the simulated laws of physics. Morpheus is convinced that Neo will have no trouble dealing with the Agents, who are computer generated programs who are designed to stop any threats to the simulated world.

Morpheus takes Neo to meet the Oracle (Gloria Foster), but she tells Neo that he’s not The One, which is a little confusing, since he is. She also tells him that Morpheus believes in him so much that he would sacrifice himself for Neo. When the group tries to get back aboard ship, they are surrounded by Agent Smith and other security. Morpheus stays behind so that the Trinity and Neo can escape back through the hacked telephone lines to the ship. Once on board they find out that Cypher has killed most of the crew by unplugging them from THE MATRIX and made a deal with the machines to return to his dream pod in exchange for giving them Morpheus.

But not everyone on board is dead. Dozer (Anthony Ray Parker), the ship’s pilot and a native of Zion, is only wounded and he kills Cypher before he can kill Trinity and Neo. Meanwhile, Morpheus is being interrogated in a government building by Agent Smith and others. What they want from him are the access codes to the mainframe for Zion. Neo and Trinity, armed to the max, storm the building. Here Neo is able to put into practice all that he has learned. He is able to twist around the bullets being fired at him. The Agents can’t stop him and Neo and Trinity save Morpheus. On the way back to the ship, Neo is ambushed by more Agents while Morpheus and Trinity escape.

Neo, though is not able to bend his way out of trouble and a barrage of bullets “kills” him in the simulated world and in the real one. But Trinity won’t let him die. The Oracle had told her that she would fall in love with The One and Neo is The One. Like Harry Potter, love saves Neo and he revives in the real world and in the simulated one as well. Now he is able to see THE MATRIX and he destroys Agent Smith. He vows to save everyone imprisoned by THE MATRIX and then he flies off, presumably to the two sequels spawned from the original.

Keanu Reeves seems to be born to play Neo. His range as an actor is almost non-existent, but that works well in this film. Rather than wooden, he comes across as machine-like in THE MATRIX.

For the most part, all the characters are pretty one dimensional. There isn’t a lot of growth or change for them throughout the film. Trinity’s love for Neo seems a little tacked on, as if the writers were looking for something, anything, to bring him back from the dead. (There were those sequels that needed to be made.) The only character that goes through any change is Cypher and he goes from being a disgruntled rebel to spy for the machines, but even that is telegraphed long before it happens.

But THE MATRIX isn’t about things like character development. It is all about the visual effects and in this category it excels. Whether it is the bullet time effect or it is the time slice, with completely frozen characters and objects or spinning cameras THE MATRIX set a new standard in action scene choreography. For many, the lobby scene, when Neo and Trinity are on their way to save Morpheus, is among the greatest action scenes ever.

Throughout the film, there are references made to Alice in Wonderland. At times, the viewer feels that he has fallen down the rabbit hole with Neo. But in the end, THE MATRIX is able to keep its rather convoluted plot moving forward, even if not everything gets explained in the process.

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Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Ratchet & Clank: Going Commando

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In 2002, Ratchet & Clank started off with a decent game. It wasn't perfectly constructed, but it was still enjoyable nonetheless. Ratchet & Clank: Going Commando, released in 2003, is not only an improvement over the original, it also racks up the difficulty for those seeking a challenge.

Months after the defeat of Chairman Drek, Ratchet and Clank reside back on Planet Veldin, having remained inactive in the intervening time. It is then that they are teleported to another galaxy by Ambercrombie Fizzwidget, head of Megacorp, and tasked to retrieve a stolen experiment. What follows is a story deeper than the last one, with a few nice surprises thrown in.

The game still has some likable characters, including the main duo and Mr. Fizzwidget, backed up by some great voice acting. Also in terms of sound, the background music is still very catchy, some of which you will never get tired of listening to. The graphics are still good for the time of its release, using much clearer cutscenes and a nice mix of light and dark palettes while having everything still easily stand out.

As with the original Ratchet & Clank, there is a large variety of weapons to pick from, which can be helpful in different situations. In fact, the weapon variety is even bigger than last time since you can recover weapons from the last game to assist you (you can get these without spending bolts if you have a Ratchet & Clank save on your PS2 Memory Card). This adds even more to the gameplay as you can more carefully decide what you need to use at a given moment. Another addition to the gameplay is the ability to upgrade weapons, sans the older ones, with more frequent use, which sometimes comes in handy when up against a large wave of enemies, and in a New Game +, you can actually upgrade your weapons a second time for even more power. It is also now possible to have the game pause while using Quick Select, which helps to change weapons more easily without taking damage.

On the aforementioned difficulty, This game is a little more challenging than the last. A few times when playing through certain areas, I got frustrated at how difficult it was, since enemies can now dish out what feels like an unfair amount of damage, even when some of these enemies aren't wearing any armor. Despite this, I actually had a feeling of satisfaction once I got past these stages, preparing not to go through them again. Though the Save system remains generally the same as the last game, it at least tells you this time when there's a checkpoint so you don't have to go through any frustration trying to figure it out.

Ratchet & Clank: Going Commando is overall a nice improvement on its predecessor. While the higher difficulty may turn off some players of the original, it's still an enjoyable experience and provides an interesting challenge. Fans of the original will enjoy this one, though I recommend newcomers to play the original game first, if only to help the story.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Stubs - The Big Lebowski

THE BIG LEBOWSKI (1998) Starring: Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Julianne Moore, John Turturo. Directed by Joel Coen. Written by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen Produced by Ethan Coen. Music by Carter Burwell. Run Time: 119 minutes. Color. U.S., Comedy

This is one of those films whose legacy seems to grow year after year. While it would not be considered a box office success when it was first released, it has become a cultural icon, even to the point of being referenced in a recent My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic episode. When Jeff Bridges is mocked on Saturday Night Live, it is The Dude character from this film that gets used. It is one of those films that has flourished in home entertainment release.

THE BIG LEBOWSKI, which Wikipedia states as being loosely based on Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, is perhaps as confusing as that book’s best known adaptation, Warner Bros. 1946 version starring Humphrey Bogart. While the film is funny in places, it is overstuffed with characters and plot points.

Jeff Lebowski, aka The Dude, is mistaken for another man with the same name by two thugs who come to collect money that his wife, Bunny, owes a man named Jackie Treehorn. The Dude is intimidated to the point of having his rug urinated on, but he finally convinces them that they have the wrong guy. But The Dude is still short one rug and he turns to his bowling partners, Walter Sobchak (John Goodman) and Donny Kerabatsos (Steve Buscemi) for advice. They come to the conclusion that the other Jeff Lebowski aka The Big Lebowski (David Huddleston) owes The Dude a new rug.

To hear The Big Lebowski talk, he is a self-made man who has overcome losing the use of his legs to become a titan of industry. He does not see that he owes The Dude anything and kicks him up. But The Dude manages to take a replacement rug on his way out. Also on his way out, The Dude meets Bunny (Tara Reid), The Big Lebowski’s much younger trophy wife.

It is not too long before The Dude hears back from The Big Lebowski. Bunny has been kidnapped and he wants The Dude to handle the million dollar ransom payment for him. The logic is that The Dude will be able to identify if the kidnappers are the same thugs who ruined his rug. However, it is not long before a different set of thugs break in to The Dude’s apartment, knock him unconscious and steal his new rug. When he is contacted by the kidnappers, who are identified as German nihilists, The Dude brings along Walter. 

Walter has his own idea and tries to convince The Dude to swap the ransom money for a briefcase of his dirty laundry. Over The Dude’s protests, the kidnappers take the ringer and leave The Dude and Walter with the million dollars. They don’t get to do anything with the money, because The Dude’s car is stolen that night from the bowling alley parking lot. Maude Lebowski (Julianne Moore) the Big Lebowski’s daughter, contacts The Dude and he goes to her art studio. She tells The Dude that she stole back the rug The Dude had stolen, because it belonged to her mother. 

She tells The Dude that Bunny is a porn star who has worked for Jackie Treehorn. And Maude confirms The Dude’s suspicion that Bunny kidnapped herself to get the money she owes. Maude wants The Dude to get back the million dollars, because her father has embezzled it from a family charity to pay the ransom.

The Big Lebowski is not happy with The Dude over failing to deliver the ransom. The kidnappers have sent a toe that is supposed to be Bunny’s. When he gets home, The Dude has a message that his car has been found, but before he can retrieve it, three people invade his house, claiming to be the kidnappers and demanding their money or else they will hurt him. The Dude returns to Maude, who tells him that the kidnappers are not only Bunny’s friends, but also a failed German electronic band, a la Kraftwerk.

When The Dude picks up his car, the money is gone and the police are no help. The Dude finds a test paper from the perpetrator of the theft, a teenager named Larry Sellers. When The Dude and Walter go to Larry’s house, the teenager says nothing, even though there is a new car parked in front of his house. Walter tries to intimate the kid, by taking a crowbar to his car. But the car ends up belonging to a neighbor, who takes revenge on The Dude’s car.

But Jackie Treehorn (Ben Gazarra) is not through with The Dude. His thugs bring The Dude to Jackie’s Malibu home. Jackie still wants his money and offers The Dude a cut if he gets it for him. For some reason, Jackie drugs The Dude’s drink, which leads to one of the movie’s most surreal passages. In his drugged out state, The Dude has a dream that is laced with references to bowling, the Persian Gulf War and Maude’s art. The Dude wakes up while running down the street, which naturally gets the attention of the Malibu police. After being assaulted by the police chief, The Dude is kicked out of his taxi home when he complains that the driver is playing the Eagles.

When he finally gets home, he finds that his apartment has been gone through by Jackie’s thugs and that Maude is waiting for him. She seduces him so that she can get pregnant by him; though she tells him she wants him to have no part in raising the child. In their post-coitus conversation, she reveals that her father, despite his appearances, has no money. Her late mother was the rich one and she left everything to the family charity. In an epiphany, The Dude realizes that The Big Lebowski never gave him the million dollars in the first place and would have been happy to have the kidnappers kill Bunny, whom he had grown tired of having around and to pin the theft of the money on The Dude.

When The Dude and Walter go to The Big Lebowski’s house to confront him, they find that Bunny has returned on her unannounced get away. Thinking things are finally over, the boys go bowling. But the kidnappers, who had used Bunny’s trip as a ruse for the ransom, still want their money. When they say they’ll settle for what the boys have on them, Walter still fights them. While the German nihilists are vanquished, Donny has a heart attack and dies.

The movie ends, where else, at the bowling alley, where The Dude and Walter go after spreading Donny’s ashes. All is apparently resolved, so the narrator/The Stranger (Sam Elliott) tells us.

Even a detailed synopsis doesn’t cover everything going on in this movie. The film is character driven as opposed to plot. Chief among them is The Dude, around which the film revolves. The Dude is sleepwalking through life high on a combination of pot and White Russians. He is almost never without a White Russian in his hands, even if he has to make it with non-dairy coffee creamer rather than half and half. The Dude, though, remains unchanged by the events of the movie, as do all the main characters, save Donny who dies.

Walter is perhaps the most complex character of the film. A rather stupid hot head, he can’t get over the Vietnam war. He shows great reverence to two sets of rules: those of bowling and Judaism, even though, in the case of the latter, he was born a Catholic. Walter is really the one that gets The Dude in trouble and keeps him there throughout the movie. He tries to settle arguments by pulling a gun or crowbar.

Perhaps the problem I have with the movie can be best summed up in John Turturo’s Jesus character, or as he refers to himself The Jesus. He is part of a team that The Dude’s team will meet in the bowling league’s tournament. But like his character, Seymour Simmons, in the three recent Transformers movies, Jesus is superfilous to the film and really gets in the way more than anything else.

And this film is filled with interesting but unnecessary characters, which only take away from the plot, not add to it. Bowling partner Donny; the Big Lebowski’s assistant, Brandt (Philip Seymour Hoffman); Video artist Knox Harrington (David Thewlis); Private Detective Da Fine (Jon Polito); and apartment manager wannabe dancer Marty (Jack Kehler) are all interesting, but not needed. It is as if the Coen Brothers tried to make a part for actors they admired or knew, but didn’t really have anything for them to do. There is a lot of talent that seems to get wasted on bit parts in THE BIG LEBOWSKI.

It comes down to what I would consider to be problems with the script. An overly complicated plot with too many characters with the results that nothing really changed, except Donny’s dead and The Dude is down a rug and a car. This was a story that while interesting doesn’t really say anything or have a purpose. While BIG LEBOWSKI’s narrator tells us that all the loose ends have been wrapped up, much of it is not. Perhaps this film is best viewed not with a bag of popcorn and a coke, but with a joint and a White Russian. Maybe then it would all make sense.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception

While Uncharted: Drake's Fortune may have felt like a rough start for the franchise, Among Thieves was able to take the concepts to the limit and pull off the feel of a big budget movie spectacularly, simultaneously raising the bar to a near impossible height. I wasn't quite sure at first if Uncharted 3 would be able to live up to the expectations, but I am proud to say that, thankfully, it does.

As one would expect, the action begins right off the bat, although instead of climbing up a train we have Nathan in an extended barroom brawl. It is in the first scene that we meet Katherine Marlowe, possibly the best and most memorable antagonist out of all three games. Whereas Drake's Fortune revolved around the diary of Sir Francis Drake and Among Thieves used information regarding the lost fleet of Marco Polo, Drake's Deception has a centuries-old artifact used to aid in locating the city of Ubar, also known as the Atlantis of the Sands. What follows is an amazing journey across the world, from France to Syria, and plenty of mystery surrounding secret organizations and ancient myths made real.

However, the main focus in the story is more about human interaction. While we do see Nathan and Elena keep their romance alive, Sully and Drake take the spotlight, including a great look at their origin story that reveals exactly who they were twenty years ago. As the story unfolds, we see just what lengths they are willing to go to in order to help each other out as well as just how much they care about their survival.

Along the journey, the number of amazing set piece moments I witnessed was truly remarkable. If you've seen any summer blockbuster, you'd be able to recognize one or two memorable scenes, which this game completely outshines by throwing in as many as possible that still manage to contribute to the story. On top of this, Naughty Dog managed to improve the graphics to the point where I had to remind myself on occasion that I was playing a video game. The physics that accompany them are also well done on their own, making the locales all the more realistic.

The gameplay for Uncharted 3 is also improved well, but also steps back a little. Melee combat feels more natural thanks to the variety of moves Nathan now has at his disposal, which allows it to feel more like a viable method of taking out enemies than relying almost exclusively on gunfire. The gunplay on the other hand, while still relatively good, is another story. The dev team added a few more frames to his running animation that, while impressive, make it more difficult to aim while trying to run-and-gun. Still, the level design is very well done and platforming felt better in a much more subtle way, such as being able to reach for a ledge. The puzzles were also very clever and creative, which is a good thing considering they make you think a little harder about what you're doing.

While I did like the game overall, there were a couple of levels that stood out, if only because the rest of game was done so well. One in particular is the gunfight in a pirate graveyard, which has you surrounded by a seemingly never ending assault while highlighting the swimming mechanic. The section may have been easier if this was better implemented, but it did me no good, forcing me to jump from boat to boat and simply lie in wait to better line up a shot. The only other section that felt annoying was a desert level later on that had similar problems, except whatever challenge might have come from firing almost blindly turned to frustration as I anticipated specific enemy placement.

Uncharted 3 is an excellent example of what can be done not just with the PS3's tech, but also within the realms of storytelling. While I was eventually able to figure when certain gameplay moments would occur in a somewhat formulaic fashion, it was still good fun. What really got me through though was the fact that I was able to feel for the characters. I began to question as the game went on whether or not they would be able to make it out alive or even if the game would have a happy ending. This is a PS3 title that shouldn't be missed.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Stubs - Lost In America

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LOST IN AMERICA (1985) Starring: Albert Brooks and Julie Haggerty. Directed by Albert Brooks. Written by Albert Brooks and Monica Johnson. Produced by Marty Katz. Music by Arthur B. Rubinstein. Run Time: 91 minutes. Color. U.S., Comedy

Triple threat Albert Brooks’ third feature, LOST IN AMERICA tells the story of two Los Angeles yuppies who suddenly find out they are not as upwardly mobile as they once thought and decide to drop out of society.

David (Albert Brooks) and Linda Howard (Julie Haggerty) are on the brink of big changes in their lives. They are about to move into a new house and David is on the verge of a big promotion to Senior Vice President at the ad firm where he works. So convinced is he that his ship has come in, that he considers buying a new Mercedes Benz.

But Linda hates the new house and David doesn’t get the promotion. Instead, his boss, Paul Dunn (Michael Greene) offers David the chance to work on the Ford Motors account, the agency’s newest. No promotion and David will be required to move to New York and work under Brad Tooley (Tom Tarpey), the Sr. VP in that office. David doesn’t take the bad news very well and tells off his boss and gets fired.

He then convinces Linda to quit her job in the Broadway’s (now Macy’s) Human Resources department. His idea is that they will leave not only LA but the lifestyle they feel trapped in and go on the road, a la EASY RIDER. But instead of a hog, David suggests buying a Winnebago. By liquidating everything they own and including the equity they have on their old house, David is convinced they can drive around the country and live off their nest egg forever, or until they find someplace else they’d like to live. Linda goes along and the two set out for their adventure.

First stop, Las Vegas to renew their wedding vows. But they arrive late and Linda suggests they spend the night at a luxury hotel and get married in the morning. David reluctantly goes along and the two end up in a Junior Bridal Suite at the Desert Inn, which oddly enough has two heart-shaped beds in it. They agree to wake up the next morning, get married and continue their drop out from society.

All is well until the next morning. David wakes up alone and finds Linda down in the casino losing big. And by big, she has gambled away the couple’s nest egg. Day two and they are broke. And it is at this point, the movie seems to slow down. After a lame attempt to get the Desert Inn to give them back their money, David and Linda head to Hoover Dam. David is mad, but not letting it out and at Hoover Dam, ironically, he breaks.

Linda runs away, hitching a ride from a total stranger. David follows after them and finds them at a diner somewhere down the road. The man with Linda wants to fight David, who is clearly out muscled. He is saved when the police are called and the man runs, since he is wanted. Next the couple gets pulled over for speeding, but talk the officer out of the ticket by bringing up EASY RIDER, which happens to be the motorcycle cop’s favorite film.

After that, the couple decides to settle in the first place they come to, Safford Arizona, a small town with little opportunity. They each set out to find work. Linda gets a job as an assistant manager at a Der Weinerschnitzel and David as a crossing guard at a school. On his first day, David is reminded of the lifestyle he gave up when a man stops to ask how to get back to Los Angeles driving the same Mercedes Benz David was contemplating buying.

David and Linda decide that the best approach is to drive like crazy to New York and for David to get his old job back. In a hurried conclusion to the movie, they do just that, taking the long southern route from Arizona to New York via Texas, Alabama and the Carolinas. David emerges from the Winnebago just in time to confront Brad on the street in front of the ad agency’s offices. We’re told in an afterword text that David got his job back at a reduced salary and that Linda got a job at Bloomingdale’s.

I like Albert Brooks. He is a very funny man. His Comedy Minus One album (1973) is still funny after numerous listenings. But he was still a filmmaker in training at the point he made LOST IN AMERICA. He had only directed two feature films before this one, the heavily flawed REAL LIFE (1979) and his better, but still flawed second film MODERN ROMANCE (1981). (He had done a series of six short films for the first season of Saturday Night Live in 1975.) All three of his first features have some great, memorable and funny lines in them. But the premises are usually better than the final product. While LOST IN AMERICA is an improvement in many ways over his first two films, it still bogs down in places and some of the sketches are a little longer than they are funny.

Overall, though, it is a funny film and if you are a fan of Albert Brooks’ work, I would highly recommend it. However, if you have never seen an Albert Brooks directed movie before, you might want to start with DEFENDING YOUR LIFE (1991), or MOTHER (1996) or THE MUSE (1999). His work gets better and more consistent with time.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Ratchet & Clank


To celebrate the release of the fourth Sly Cooper game, Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time, in 2012, we on this blog have decided to play every game in the Sly Cooper, Jak and Daxter, and Ratchet & Clank series, beginning with Ratchet & Clank. To start things off, I will be reviewing the original Ratchet & Clank game, released in 2002 for the PlayStation 2.

The story begins on the planet Veldin, where we see protagonist Ratchet working on a ship. In a factory on planet Quartu, the robot Clank is created by accident on an assembly line, escaping in another ship soon after. He later crash-lands on Ratchet's home world, where the two title characters meet. Clank then tells Ratchet about the evil Chairman Drek of the Blarg race, who plans to create a new planet by taking apart and destroying other planets. In order to stop Drek, the two team up in search of the help of galactic hero Captain Qwark. There are also some interesting plot twists spread throughout the campaign, allowing the player to remain invested until the very end.

The characters themselves are rather enjoyable, and the talented voice acting helps the dialogue feel more natural, especially when Ratchet and Clank's personalities bounce off each other. The game also has some really neat background music; sometimes I would go back and replay a stage just to keep listening to it for a while.

The game has a standard system of combat, mainly just destroying anyone in your path, but it comes with a large variety of weapons ranging from close-quarter combat weapons to an entire ensemble of guns and bombs. The guns themselves range from conventional blasts to (guided) missiles and even bolts of electricity. Once you gather enough of these weapons, you have more room to experiment with how to take down certain foes, including times when you run low on ammo. When you do run low, you can always smash open ammo crates or buy more ammo from Gadgetron vendors.

Which brings me to a point on the Save system. During the game, you can Save your progress whenever you want to, but when you come back to the game at a later point or load a previous Save, what it looks for instead is the last Autosave. This is a little odd, though you can work around it, but then there's what happens when you die. When you die, you are sent back to the previous checkpoint with all the ammo and Bolts (in-game currency) you had from before your untimely end, meaning you must re-purchase ammo if no crates are nearby. While this normally isn't too big a problem, it can get frustrating when you're running rather low on Bolts, sometimes causing you to backtrack levels in order to obtain more. Once you get around this, getting past difficult stages is satisfying.

The graphics are impressive for a nearly 10-year-old game, although I ran into an oddity a few times where mountain and rock renders would noticeably rise up as you were walking toward them. Aside from this and the slightly-lower quality cutscenes, the game is really good with having interesting visuals. Even in the darker-lit stages of each world everything really stands out, which is really helpful. There is also a good amount of replay value present, with the collecting of Gold Bolts and an option for New Game + once you finish the story.

Ratchet & Clank provides a good start for the franchise, but it isn't perfect. Despite its shortcomings it provides an enjoyable experience, but once you have enough weapons and upgrades the game really starts kicking into high gear. Here's hoping for improvement as we go further into this series.

Stubs - Tension


TENSION (1949) Starring: Richard Basehart, Audrey Totter, Cyd Charisse, Barry Sullivan, William Conrad. Directed by John Berry. Written by Allen Rivkin; story by John D. Klorer. Produced by Robert Sisk. Music by Andre Previn. Run Time: 95 minutes, Black and White. U.S., Film Noir

Made by M-G-M, TENSION is one of the better examples of late 1940’s film noir. Richard Basehart plays Warren Quimby, a former naval officer, who lands a job as the night pharmacists and manager for a 24-hour drug store in downtown Los Angeles. One of the benefits of the job is an apartment above the store. While this might be all-right for Warren, it is not for his wife, Claire (Audrey Totter). While Warren tends the store, night after night, Claire goes out on the town, sometimes in the company of Barney Deager (Lloyd Gough).

Unlike Warren, who works diligently, Barney is rich, lives at the beach in Malibu and all he seems to do is swim and barbecue. He gives Claire gifts, which Warren can’t compete with. Claire leaves Warren for Barney and when Warren tries to fight for her, he is beaten up. Humiliated, Warren hatches a plan for revenge. Using contact lens, Warren changes his appearance and sets up a new identity, Paul Sothern. He rents an apartment in Westwood for Sothern to live in. But this is where things go a little awry. Warren meets his new neighbor, Mary Chanler (Cyd Charisse) and he falls in love.

Warren is now literally living a double life as the nighttime manager at the Pharmacy, himself, and as a cosmetics salesman, Paul Sothern. And it is the Paul Sothern persona who threatens Barney. Warren even makes an effort to show he has no hard feelings, by taking the night time counter man, Freddie (Tom D’Andrea) with him out to the beach house as a witness that there are no hard feelings.

When the time is right, Warren hitches out to Malibu at night with the intention of killing Barney, but when push comes to shove, he can’t go through with it. Claire is not worth killing for. Warren leaves and goes back to his life as a pharmacist. He plans to tell Mary everything, divorce his wife and marry her. But his plans again go awry and Claire returns. Barney has been shot dead. She wants to move back in with Warren and pick up where they left off.

Lt. Collier Bonnabel (Barry Sullivan) and his partner Lt. Edgar “Blackie” Gonsales (William Conrad) are investigating Barney’s murder, are looking for a Paul Sothern, whom they’ve been told had threatened Barney. They can’t find Paul Sothern anywhere. The police know Claire was at Barney’s on the day of the murder, but when they interrogate her, she makes it sound like Warren was as good a friend as she was and also as likely a suspect for the murder.

Meanwhile, Mary goes to the police to report Paul is a missing person. She is the one who provides the police with the photograph of their suspect. Bonnabel is the one who puts two and two together and figures that Paul and Warren are the same man.

Bonnabel’s methodology is to use tension, playing the suspects against each other until one of them breaks. He begins a romance with Claire to try and get more information from her. Under false pretenses, he brings Mary to the Coast to Coast pharmacy to confront Warren. He takes Claire to Paul Sothern’s Westwood apartment and after making sure she knows Warren is Paul Sothern introduces her to Mary. Now Claire is jealous and wants to help Bonnabel nail her husband for the murder.

Bonnabel does go so far as to arrest Warren, but feeling that he is not the killer releases him for lack of evidence. But Claire can fix that. She goes to where she’s hidden the gun and then goes to Paul Sothern’s apartment to plant it. This is the trap Bonnabel has set for her. When the police arrive, they arrest her and Warren is left free to pursue his romance with Mary.

There is little not to like about the movie. Richard Basehart, an under-appreciated actor, is perfectly cast as the timid husband with a plan for revenge. His performance in TENSION comes one year after he established himself in films with the role of the murderer Davis Morgan in HE WALKED BY NIGHT. Basehart, though, may be best remembered for his performance as the Fool in Fellini’s LA STRADA (1954) and in the television show VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA (ABC, 1964 to 1968).

You can’t have a film noir it seems without Audrey Totter, the queen of the Femme Fatales. While Totter appeared in dozens of film and television roles, she had already appeared in such film noir classics as THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE (1946), LADY IN THE LAKE (1946), THE UNSUSPECTED (1947) and HIGH WALL (1947), before starring in this film. She brings with her a certain sex appeal and deviousness that are required to bring Claire to life.

Cyd Charisse is usually discussed as being a dancer alongside the likes of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, but she is a sweet, and tough, Mary. It does not take much imagination to see why Warren would fall for her. Mary is in so many ways the polar opposite of Claire.

Barry Sullivan’s Lt. Bonnabel is a very interesting character. He will do just about anything to get to the truth, even dating a prime suspect or lying to a witness. Sullivan may be better remembered for other roles, but his performance in TENSION is solid.

Film noirs, like TENSION, are fun to watch. As the viewer, we are allowed to dip our toes into a world of quiet desperation, where the feelings of one or two people don’t amount to a hill of beans, but their story is still worth telling. Film noirs tend to be about small stories with a handful of characters. Murder or crime is always a part of it. They have a dark mood, in line with the German Expressionist movement of the silent era. The shadows may not be painted on the walls, but they are definitely a part of the scenery and it is in those shadows where the story is told.

TENSION doesn’t break any new grounds in filmmaking, but that’s not the point. However, director John Berry, composer Andre Previn, and cinematographer Harry Strandling, work in harmony to give TENSION the right style and mood. They each add a layer that builds upon the other and makes the final film better than its individual components.

For other noirs check out our Film Noir Review Hub.