Saturday, December 31, 2011

2011 - The Highlights (EHeroFlareNeos)

With 2012 upon us, it's time to look forward to what we can enjoy in the new year. However, this is also the perfect time to look back at what releases made 2011 so great, as well as others that didn't quite hold up. Below is my list of the top movies, games and disappointments of the year (in no particular order), along with links to the reviews of each title on this blog for further reading.

Top Movies of 2011

Captain America: The First Avenger
Among Marvel Studio's run of contributions to comic book movies, Captain America is easily one of the best. With a great cast and a greater emphasis on the title hero's original time period, this film provides a great balance of action, comedy, and drama to stand as one which all Superhero movies should aspire to be. If other studios took notes from this, then the comic book movie would definitely blossom into a much more widespread and competent genre than it is now.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2
If you're like me and have read the Harry Potter series of books since you were a child, then you were no doubt looking forward to seeing this movie for years. As an adaptation and continuation, it sticks very closely to the book and yet manages to make the final fight against the powerful Voldemort even more of a spectacle worthy of cinema. It served as a fitting conclusion to the franchise, save for perhaps the epilogue, and I'm very happy to be able to say my final goodbye to the boy who lived.

Kung Fu Panda 2
As one of the few movies from Dreamworks Animation that feels worthy of being called a movie, Kung Fu Panda 2 shows just what the studio is capable of creating without stuffing a film with dated pop cultural references. In addition it stands as a great modern martial arts flick, with plenty of over the top action and lore to keep the action fan in you satisfied, combined with a great blend of humor and character development to leave you wanting more.

The Artist
As a black & white silent film, The Artist sticks out among every other movie released in the past few decades. When viewing it as a movie in general, it is a masterpiece of cinema that lets the audience learn not only what life was like for stars during the transition from silent films to talkies in the earlier days of Hollywood, but also that sometimes a movie doesn't need to be filled to the brim with special effects and sound to be enjoyable. It is one of the few films I have ever cried at as much as I did during one especially emotional scene and also one of the few that gave me time to actually care about what happened to the characters onscreen. I would encourage anyone interested in this era of film making to watch this masterful throwback to a time where less was more.

Top Video Games of 2011

Batman: Arkham City
For a studio with only two other games under their belt, it is very clear how passionate Rocksteady is about Batman. With an absolutely powerful script penned by Paul Dini, fantastic performances by Mark Hamill and Kevin Conroy, improved combat, and plenty of incentive to explore the titular city, Batman: Arkham City is a game that literally no one with a gaming system should pass up. For me personally, it stands as a great contender for the best video game I have ever played, though it is safe to say I feel that way regarding Superhero games in general.

Dead Space 2
While Dead Space 2 may reside in a genre I would normally avoid, it managed to build up the right atmosphere and tension to get me sucked into the action onscreen. Having to retrain yourself to shoot the limbs instead of the head also brings out the player's more tactical side in a great effort to stay alive in space. If more games like this and Bulletstorm existed to help introduce more variety in this fashion, then there would probably be more worthy single player campaigns out there for the FPS genre today.

Portal 2
While the original Portal was a very short game, it also provided plenty of entertainment to make repeat trips into Aperture Science enjoyable every single time. For the sequel, Valve Software managed not only to retain what made the first one fun, they made the overall experience even better. From expert integration of Cross-console Co-op to wildly fun new game mechanics, there is hardly anything this game gets wrong.

Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception
As action games continue to set the bar in video games, the Uncharted franchise will continue to vault over it. Drake's Deception not only defines what is possible to display on PS3, but also sets a new limit on how many setpiece moments you can put in a game without taking away from an outstanding plot and characters. While at least one mechanic hiccups despite improvements to combat, there is a lot to like about Uncharted 3 for PS3 owners, even if the series is just starting to feel a little formulaic at its core.

Top Disappointments of 2011

Cars 2
Right off the heels of Toy Story 3, Cars 2 is a perfect example of what happens when you make a sequel with the sole purpose of selling more merchandise. This movie is not only a drastic drop in quality from most of Pixar's earlier works, it takes a swan dive through every spy movie cliche imaginable and heads straight toward the number in the title. Hopefully their next project, Brave, will restore faith in Pixar enough to help audiences pretend this one never existed.

Green Lantern
While I hadn't been looking forward to this film as much as I did the ones coming out from Marvel Studios, I at least wanted to see if Warner Bros. could help satiate my interest in Superhero movies in between releases. Unfortunately, the overemphasis on loud visuals and constant exposition seemed to really make this the blackest night for its genre in 2011.

Assassin's Creed: Revelations
I wanted to like Assassin's Creed: Revelations after my buildup of playing every other game, really I did. But when you take the increased emphasis on Multiplayer, abysmally incorporated Den Defense, and zero incentive to take advantage of bomb crafting into account, it creates a game that, while more enjoyable than Brotherhood, almost looks like a mess when you look at the big picture. With 2012 comes a new protagonist to the Assassin's Creed franchise, and hopefully one whose story isn't nearly forgotten in the pursuit of attracting the multiplayer crowd.

2011 – The Highlights (lionsroar)

Best Films of 2011

In no particular order:

While this is in some ways a novelty: a modern black and white silent film shot in the 1.33 aspect, this is really a very good movie. Set in Hollywood at the time silent films gave way to sound, it tells the story of two stars whose paths cross, as one goes to the top of the heap and the other falls into obscurity.

Based on an award winning book, the film tells the story of an orphaned boy left on his own in a major Parisian railway station, who is obsessed with fixing an automaton that his father had found in a museum. His quest for parts puts him into contact with an old man who owns a toy shop in the station, who happens to be the great French silent film director, George Méliés. A departure from most of the films Martin Scorsese has made, this is a film that both entertains and inspires.

Woody Allen continues his tour of European capitals and this may be one his better efforts of late. In typical Allen fashion, the film has many stars, but none of them outshine the script or the direction. This is a fantasy film like few others and shows that the writer/director still has some magic left.

While I am normally dismissive of summer blockbusters, this is perhaps one of the best comic book based movies ever and certainly the best one since SPIDER-MAN 2. After the mini-disaster of THOR, this film points the way to what should be an exciting series of AVENGER films.

An interesting and beautifully rendered take on the animated film, RANGO is a modern western, starring the voice of Johnny Depp. Clever and funny, the film manages to rise above the normal animated films and aims at a more mature audience than expect from Nickelodeon.

Biggest Film Disappointments of 2011

In no particular order:

It wasn’t so much the film as it was the presentation. This is was the nadir of my 3-D film experiences and was almost a cure. There are a lot of industry insiders that think viewers are idiots for complaining about 3-D, after all we see in 3-D and don’t get headaches. But they never have to sit through too dark to comprehend presentations, either.

I guess we’re supposed to be overly impressed whenever Steven Spielberg works with another director. However, the sum is oftentimes much smaller than the parts. That was true of these two films. SUPER 8 presented yet another can’t kill space alien from J.J. Abrams and TINTIN, Spielberg's teaming with Peter Jackson, makes one wonder why this thin story was made and why it was made as motion capture. What’s the old saying about too many cooks?

This is what you get for blindly supporting Pixar. The little studio that never seems to miss is way off target with this little abomination, designed solely it seems to sell toys. For the first time I’m worried that maybe John Lasseter and his folks have gotten a little too big for their creative britches. They seem to be fully engulfed by Disney consumerism, which of late has been merchandising over storytelling.

While not a bad film per say, one wonders why it was made at all. This is an example of lazy filmmaking. It is sad when Hollywood can’t be more original than making remakes and sequels. Sometimes there is something wrong with the original film that a remake corrects, see last year’s TRUE GRIT. But that wasn’t the case here. At the end of this year there are reports that film attendance was down. Maybe if Hollywood was more original, then the audience would be more willing to come back to the theaters.

2011 - The Highlights (Tetris_King)

2012 is just around the corner, so this is a perfect time to reflect on some of the best and worst releases of 2011. Included is a list of what I liked and didn't like out of my experiences this year, with some added links to the full reviews elsewhere on the blog. Keep in mind that what I list is not in any set order.

Top Movies of 2011

It feels sort of obligatory for me to include this, but I really enjoyed this movie as a Transformers fan. The special effects are better than ever, the 3D was spectacular, and there was some nice pacing to the action that eats up about half the movie. It still wasn't my favorite movie this year, but I definitely felt it was exciting, unlike Revenge of the Fallen from two years ago.

As an adaptation of a book, this movie does a fantastic job, enough to let it stand on its own. Its theme of older movies is handled quite nicely, mainly in the way it revolves around the life and works of Georges Méliès, and it also gives a nice emotional story that is very unforgettable. The 3D adds a sense of depth to the environments, as well as some of the scenes themselves, and sometimes it's really cool to see very intricately placed automaton parts work in motion.

In an era where every movie has sound and most have some sort of special effects, The Artist is unique in that it is a black and white silent movie much like those from the early days of the medium. There is plenty of time to get to know and feel for the characters in this movie, and some scenes can even make you cry because you are given time to care. Though most modern film-goers probably wouldn't be caught dead watching this film, it is one that you have to see if you appreciate the era that this pays homage to.

Top Games of 2011

The original Portal is a very interesting, not to mention fun, puzzle game, and the sequel truly ups the ante. More complex puzzles, new gameplay elements, humorous characters, fantastic music, and the ability to play together with someone else across systems really add to the experience and make it one of the best games this year. This is especially a must for puzzle gamers to witness for themselves.

The God of War games have been consistently good thus far, and this collection of two PSP games is no exception. Even though the only major differences are shinier graphics and a more dedicated dodge command, it feels nice to play them with a controller in hand on a bigger screen.

Top Disappointments of 2011

This game was disappointing, if only due to some flaws. Ledges cannot be grasped, mid-air attacks are impossible, and some of the horror aspect becomes a little generic as the game progresses. Still, while it does not hold up to its predecessor, this sequel provides a solid, worthwhile experience.

The movie itself isn't too bad, just the awful 3D that bogged down my theater experience. It was difficult to see exactly what was going on in several scenes, particularly when there was any fighting on another world. Hopefully I'll have a better experience once I watch it again on Blu-ray.

This is quite possibly the worst movie I've seen from this year. The plot is made of nearly every spy movie on the planet, it's filled with national stereotypes, and the character we hear for most of the movie is practically unbearable. What's made even worse is that this abomination to cinema was made by Pixar, a very highly respected animation studio with an impressive track record up to this point. It seems rather obvious that this movie was made just to sell toys, which is rather sad, though unlike Transformers 3 which had a similar intent, this one is severely lacking in thrills.

Honorable Mentions of 2011 (Things I Did Not Review, But Deserve Mention)

Yu-Gi-Oh! 3D: Bonds Beyond Time
As a Yu-Gi-Oh! fan, I really enjoyed this movie. Sure, there are some logical fallacies here and there, but it was still amazing to watch the 3D make all the monsters pop right out at you. Even if you see this movie and don't like it, it's at least a vast improvement over 2004's Yu-Gi-Oh!: The Movie.

Tetris (PS3)
Tetris is a game that is pretty much expected to appear on any gaming platform nowadays, and this recent addition to the series doesn't disappoint. I have yet to dip into the multiplayer aspect of this version, but I can say that while it isn't too much different than its PSP counterpart, this game can easily provide hours upon hours of addictive fun.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Artist - One of The Year's Best Films

THE ARTIST (2011) Starring: Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo, John Goodman, James Cromwell, Missi Pyle, Penelope Ann Miller, Malcolm McDowell. Directed by Michel Hazanavicius. Written by Michel Hazanavicius. Produced by Thomas Langman. Run Time: 100 minutes. Black and White. France. Silent, Romantic, Comedy, Drama.

The silent era of filmmaking has been the subject of two extraordinary films in 2011: HUGO and THE ARTIST. Both deal with how the change in public tastes and expectations affect early filmmakers and stars. HUGO poignantly touches on the real life story of George Méliés. THE ARTIST on the other hand, tells a story reminiscent of WHAT PRICE HOLLYWOOD? (1932). In that film, Constance Bennett stars as Mary Evans, an aspiring actress who meets, falls in love with and who’s career eventually eclipses that of director Maximillan Carey (Lowell Sherman).

In Michel Hazanavicius’s brilliant film, set at the end of the silent movie era, aspiring actress Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) turns a chance encounter with swashbuckling actor George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) into a career path. Valentin has just premiered his latest Kinograph film, The Russian Affair, to an excited audience. A mixture of Douglas Fairbanks and Gene Kelly, Valentin has an ego that is as big as the silver screen. The word ham comes to mind as he milks the applause of the audience for all its worth by dancing for them and playing with his dog co-star, before finally bringing out, and then quickly leading off, his female lead Constance (Missi Pyle). Outside the theater, the news photographers, what we now call paparazzi, take photo after photo of the star, when out of the crowd accidentally tumbles Peppy Miller. Swept up in the hoopla, she poses and preens for the camera, even landing a kiss on the always smiling actor’s cheek. The photo lands on the front page of Variety under the headline asking Who’s That Girl?

The photo and the story rub both Valentin’s wife Doris (Penelope Ann Miller) and his boss, Al Zimmer (John Goodman) the wrong way. Doris, who really never has much to do in this film other than be dissatisfied, doesn’t like seeing her husband kissing another woman and Zimmer doesn’t like the fact that the story pushed publicity for The Russian Affair off the front page. Meanwhile, Peppy is just happy to see her photo in print. She even brags to another one of the extras waiting to be cast (Malcolm McDowell) about it. And though she is cast, Zimmer recognizes her and fires her off the set, only to be overruled by Valentin who wants Peppy to stay. Rather than lose face, Zimmer leaves the set.

During a lull in filming, Peppy goes to Valentin’s dressing room and there is a bit of business with his trademark tux jacket that would be worthy of any silent comedy. When Valentin returns, he catches her in mid self-caress. Playing the part of mentor, Valentin suggests she use a drawn on beauty mark as a way of distinguishing herself from the other actresses. The beauty mark will not only become her trademark, but will also be the name of one of her first starring films, reminiscent of The It Girl for Clara Bow and Platinum Blonde for Jean Harlow. There is a smoldering attraction between the two, which gets derailed when Clifton (James Cromwell), Valentin’s faithful chauffer and manservant returns from a shopping trip to buy something for Valentin to give Doris.

Over the next two years, we see Peppy’s career ascend as she moves up the billing block, while Valentin stays a star making The German Affair. It is interesting that every time we see Valentin walking he is usually headed downstairs and Miller is always shown going up on the same set. Then, in 1929, everything changes in Hollywood with the coming of the talkies. As was the case for many silent stars, most notably John Gilbert, sound meant the end of their career. Valentin, who refuses to even attempt a talkie, is fired by Kinograph and ventures into forming his own production company, making and paying for his own jungle adventure film, Tears of Love. Meanwhile Peppy is one of the rising young stars at the studio and in Hollywood. Tears of Love are slated to open opposite Beauty Spot on October 25th. Only days before the release of his film, Valentin is also hit hard by the collapse of Wall Street. He is wiped out unless Tears of Love is a success. No one is surprised when it isn’t. Adding insult to injury, Doris decides to kick Valentin out that same night, giving him two weeks to move out his memorabilia.

Broke and down on his luck, Valentin becomes a drunk, pawning whatever he can to buy another bottle. Even though he hasn’t paid Clifton for over a year, the chauffer stands by his down on his luck boss, having to be fired before he leaves. Totally broke, Valentin sells everything he has, save his films, at auction. Everything is purchased by a mysterious man, who we quickly learn works for Peppy. By 1932, Valentin sits alone watching his old movies while he drinks himself into greater depression. Suddenly, feeling sorry for himself, he goes on a rant and decides in a whimsy to burn all his old films. Valentin is only saved when his dog runs for a policeman, in a scene out of every TV episode of Lassie. Before passing out from the smoke, Valentin grabs one reel of film back from the flames.

When Peppy learns of his plight, she rushes to his hospital bed, the canister of film that had to be pried from his hands nearby. When she looks at it, she sees it is from the first film she had made with him. Touched, she takes him home to convalesce. Trying to help him, she blackmails Zimmer into bringing Valentin back for another film with her. Clifton, who is now working for Miller, delivers the script to Valentin’s bed. But rather than take the hand out, the actor’s pride is too great. Discovering that Miller has all of his memorabilia stored in her house, he leaves with his dog back to his small apartment. He is intent on committing suicide. Again, this is reminiscent of the situation in What Price Hollywood? But in this case, Miller arrives in time. Driving like a mad woman through the streets of Hollywood, she has many near misses, but ultimately hits the tree in front of his apartment. The Bang the car makes stops Valentin who literally has the gun in his mouth at the time. Reunited with Miller, Valentin suddenly has a resurgence of vigor.

Having gone to the edge he lets Peppy pull him back from the precipice. But still he refuses to talk in films. Instead, she hits upon the idea of his dancing in the film, something she has seen him do on his own many times. In the last scene we see Zimmer watching them go through their routine. Valentin is back and Miller is by his side.

In much the same way The Wizard of Oz used color to distinguish Kansas from Oz, Hazanavicius uses sound. It is subtle throughout most of the movie. When Valentin dreams about not being able to talk at all, we hear the sounds of a drop of water, the laughter of extras, even a floating feather makes a whump when it finally lands. Everything makes noise, except Valentin. At the end of the film, we finally hear everyone talking, even Valentin. Like its star, the film finally moves into the realm of sound and we know there is no going back.

There are few things not to like about THE ARTIST. The casting for the most part is superb. Bejo especially looks like she could have been a flapper girl and early sound star. She is right for the era they are trying to pay homage to. I’m never surprised when John Goodman ends up in some offbeat film and his turn as movie mogul Zimmer seems to be based on cutthroat moguls like Louis B. Mayer. Goodman’s best scene is when he lets Valentin go as the studio gears up to make only sound films. Zimmer tells his star that the two of them belong to a different time, but as it turns out only one of them is going to stay.

I was surprised to see how many actors and actresses were willing to take such small parts in a small film. James Cromwell as Clifton and Penelope Ann Miller as Doris have little to do, though both characters they play are important to the plot. Malcolm McDowell has perhaps the skimpiest of parts. I’m not sure if he even warranted a title card when his unnamed character and Peppy interacted. Bit actors, like Joel Murray (best known as TV actor) and Bill Fagerbakke (perhaps best known as the voice of Patrick on Spongebob) both play policemen. My hat is off to all of the actors who participated in the film because they added to its atmosphere.

Speaking of bit parts, I would be remiss not to mention the Dog played by Uggie. This mutt can certainly do it all. Not only is he loyal to his down on his luck owner, but he is great for comic relief and is used for that throughout the film.

Despite this being a French film, it was shot in Los Angeles and locales, such as the Bradbury Building and the Orpheum Theater, are used to give THE ARTIST an appropriate period feel. Sad to say it took a French filmmaker to show interest in this fascinating time in Hollywood history, but perhaps because he was an outsider, Hazanavicius tried hard to get it right and he succeeded. I fear that a Hollywood film company might have shot the L.A. scenes somewhere else to save money.

There are few things that Hazanavicius uses as a convenience. For example, when Miller examines the reel that Valentin saved from the fire by holding it up to the light, it happens to be the outtakes of their first scene together. And while I’m no expert on the history of Variety, I don’t think it was ever such a gossip rag as to let a sidewalk kiss dominate the entire front page, the way it does in the movies. And I’m pretty sure that movie stars rarely actually owned the animals they used in the movies. But this is truly quibbling on my part and I know it.

THE ARTIST is the right film if you love Hollywood history, love films about films or just love a good story well told. As we come to the end of the year and to the official start of Awards season in tinsel town, THE ARTIST should be in the running for every award possible and should be at or near the top of everyone’s list of best films of the year.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Arthur Christmas - Naughty or Nice?

Aardman Animations, Ltd., is a highly respected animation studio known especially for their stop-motion work. Their most well-known IP has got to be Wallace & Gromit, having spawned a series of short films, a spin-off television series (surprisingly with it's own spin-off), and a theatrical movie released a few years back. Recently the company has entered the realm of computer animation, their first venture being Flushed Away in 2006, which I didn't like very well. Their latest film and the subject of this review, Arthur Christmas, is also made in computer generation, but is also a holiday film and a pretty decent one at that.

After a spectacularly awful Justin Bieber music video (explaining exactly why would turn this review into a rant), we are treated to a visual explanation as to how Santa Claus is able to traverse the entire world in a single night: elves travel down from a giant, high-tech, sleigh-shaped ship and do practically everything that Santa is known to do on Christmas night. They are led by the current Santa's son, Steve (Hugh Laurie), who keeps everything running efficiently to ensure everything goes off without a hitch. Meanwhile his brother, Arthur (James McAvoy), is tasked with answering every letter addressed to the man in the red suit, enthusiastically stating that he (Santa) will definitely be on his way. By the end of the mission, all seems well until it's discovered later that one child in England was accidentally skipped. Upon learning this, Arthur, who is always filled with Christmas spirit, sets on a mission himself to deliver the present with only two hours until morning.

What's interesting about this movie is the approach it takes to interpret how the legend of Santa Claus works. Here it's explained that the jolly Christmas icon has been around forever because it's a family by the last name Claus and every so often one of them retires to pass the torch unto a new Santa, treated more as a title than a name, which is actually pretty clever. The roles of the elves, especially the ones that perform in the field, are similar to how it's shown in Disney's Prep and Landing, but on a much grander scale, and there is also an acceptable explanation as to how reindeer can fly: magic dust.

The characters of this movie are interesting to watch, especially in the ways their personalities bounce off each other and how the family of Santas doesn't get along that well, particularly between the current Santa (Jim Broadbent); Steve, who is to be the next Santa; and Grandsanta (Bill Nighy), the previous Santa who brags about how he got things done without modern technology. One elf of note is Bryony (Ashley Jensen), who can wrap any gift very quickly with very minimal tape (and still have time for a bow). The family tension leads to some drama during the course of the movie, though some of Bryony and Grandsanta's dialogue provide a few laughs to prevent the movie from becoming too serious.

The animation of this movie is simply stunning, especially in terms of the hair on each character. Everything is very fluid and helps to display an array of body language that enhances the emotions each character feels. Comparing the animation to Flushed Away, since it was also done in CG, the look and fluidity are both greatly improved here, since they didn't try to make it appear to be stop-motion when it wasn't. The music, Bieber aside, really helps to set the atmosphere and tone of the story and make it feel even more like an enjoyable Christmas flick.

Arthur Christmas is a movie I would recommend, especially to fans of whatever Aardman puts out or anyone looking for a good Christmas story this holiday, since it hits all the right points. However, if you are not a fan of Justin Bieber, whose song sandwiches the story, this may scare you away from seeing it again right away. Regardless, it's definitely worth a look.

To read reviews of other Christmas films, please see our Christmas Review Hub.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Ratchet & Clank: Up Your Arsenal

After the success of Going Commando, Ratchet & Clank continued the following year in 2004 with a third game, Up Your Arsenal (you've probably noticed the double entendres in these titles). This game offers a few enhancements to the series' gameplay style, as well as the addition of a new Multiplayer function, which would continue to be featured in later games of the franchise.

It's been a while since the events of Going Commando, as the titular Ratchet and Clank are seen playing a game to pass the time, that is until Clank tunes into his new television show, Secret Agent Clank. Disinterested, Ratchet changes the channel to a news broadcast, where it is reported that his home planet Veldin is under attack by an alien race known as the Thyrranoids. It is also reported that the culprit behind the attack is a robot that goes by the name of Dr. Nefarious. A native of Veldin himself, the Lombax (Ratchet) decides to take action, getting himself into something much more than meets the eye.

Along with returning characters from the first installments, the game introduces a handful of new and interesting characters, helped by the great voice cast, among them the aforementioned Dr. Nefarious. I found this new villain to be much more interesting to watch than the previous two, especially with his high-pitched voice, a quirk where he freezes and picks up radio broadcasts of a soap opera whenever he gets excited, and the conversations he has with his assistant Lawrence. The quirkiness of this character has given me a few laughs and he is so far my favorite Ratchet & Clank villain.

The gun play of the previous title returns here, but now comes with a nice improvement. Your Quick Select can now hold double the guns and gadgets, totaling 16 instead of 8, and you can switch between two rings of your arsenal by holding R1. This helps in that it becomes less time consuming to figure out what items go into either of these wheels, though you may still end up changing around your inventory a few times. As with the last game, if an old Save of the last adventure is detected when you visit a Gadgetron Vendor, you can recover some of your old weapons for free, so you can save your bolts for something else and increase the range of items to pick from in either wheel. The upgrade system also returns, except now you can boost your weapons by up to five levels rather than two, this time including the ones you previously owned. Another change is the Health display, in that it's represented by numbers rather than in segments, which makes calculating damage you take from an attack a little easier.

On the topic of variety, a series of mini-games is introduced in the form of Qwark Vid-comics, which tell the story of how Captain Qwark previously went up against Dr. Nefarious. These comics not only have amazing art and break up the gun play a little, but they also provide a few laughs as well as add more depth to the overall story. These mini-games are actually quite fun to play, and the music provided for each of them is very catchy and quirky in itself, providing an atmosphere unique from the rest of the game.

While I enjoyed my time with this older game, there was one thing I didn't like in particular, namely the ways Bolts can be spent. The previous game had special flying segments where you can use Raritanium (introduced in the first Ratchet & Clank) to change the design and capabilities of your ship. Here, you can instead use your regular Bolts, but they are instead used for cosmetic purposes, which led me to wonder why the option was even included in the first place. Then there's Titanium Bolts; while I admittedly could not figure out how they were supposed to be used previously, when they were called Platinum Bolts, I did manage to find how they could be spent here: Skins, which serve no gameplay purpose other than to make yourself look different. Like with customizing the ship, I couldn't help but wonder what exactly the point of this is, unless you really, really want to play through the game as a snowman. This also isn't very much of a complaint, but traveling around planets is more linear here than in the last two games, since in those there was more incentive to not only go around each planet but also revisit older ones for special rewards. However this is minor and doesn't impact the experience at all.

A notable aspect of this game is that it is the first in the series to incorporate Multiplayer, including an Online option. However, since this is a PS2 game from 2004, I will not be covering the Online portion of this option, but rather the Local aspect of it. There are three different gameplay modes, two of which appear on every map: Seige, Capture the Flag, and Deathmatch. Today these are standard for many games with Online Multiplayer, but they still provide a challenge in Local, though I would recommend playing with more than two people, since it can get a little boring if you don't have enough friends to play with nearby.

Ratchet & Clank: Up Your Arsenal is a must-have for Ratchet & Clank fans, and a game one should definitely have in their PS2 library. It's a fun and quirky title that keeps you invested until the very end. If you have any friends with you and want to play something old-school, give the Local Multiplayer in this title a shot; you may end up having a good time.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Stubs - It's A Wonderful Life

IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946) Starring: James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell, Henry Travers, Beulah Bondi, Ward Bond, Frank Gaylen, and Gloria Grahame. Directed by Frank Capra. Written by Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Frank Capra. Produced by Frank Capra. Run Time: 130 minutes. Black and White. U.S. Drama, Christmas.

In many ways, IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE is an odd choice as a holiday classic. At its kernel, the story revolves around a desperate man who is contemplating suicide on Christmas Eve. Further, the film when initially released was far from a big success.

In many ways, it is the fact that the film lapsed into public domain that it has become a classic. For a few years there, before the copyright got straightened out, the film was shown on every channel possible. If it was Christmas, seven or eight channels were showing IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE. But while that made the film accessible, the story has to be compelling to garner repeat business and IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE is worthy of repeated viewings.

George Bailey (James Stewart) is an unhappy man. Time and time again, he has had to put his dreams aside for the sake of his family, the sake of the customers and employees of the Bailey Brothers Building and Loan (think Savings and Loan). He is a man that always dreamt big but always had to be pragmatic. He didn’t want to, but he got married, bought a house, had kids and in short settled down. And what has giving up on his dreams gotten him? Suddenly on Christmas Eve, he is wanted by the bank examiner and a warrant has been issued for his arrest. He faces scandal, bankruptcy and jail. All seems lost.

With the prayers of the people of Bedford Falls for one George Bailey, prompt the heavens to take action. In a long bit of exposition, for the benefit of the angel being sent to help him, we’re told George’s story. As a young boy, George (Bobby Anderson), saves Harry, his younger brother, after he falls through the ice on a frozen pond. Saving his brothers’ life causes George some problems with his ear. This problem is exasperated by druggist Mr. Gower (H.B. Warner) who smacks his soda jerk/delivery boy when he thinks he has been late with an important delivery. But the boy, knowing Gower’s mental state after hearing about the death of his son in the war, believes he has put poison in the prescription. Because of this abuse, George is now deaf in his left ear.

But even then, we meet Henry F. Potter (Lionel Barrymore). Bedford Falls is his town. What he doesn’t own outright, he otherwise controls. When young George tries to seek out his father Peter’s (Samuel S. Hinds) advice, he is in a meeting with Potter who is trying to shut down the building and loan. This game of David and Goliath goes on throughout the movie. Potter is against the rinky-dink Building and Loan, even though he is on the board of directors, and is sort of a villain to the entire Bailey clan.

Next, we see George (James Stewart) as an adult man getting ready to go to college after having worked four years at the Building and Loan to save up enough money. One fateful night, George goes to Harry’s (Todd Karns) high school party. There George gets reacquainted with Mary (Donna Reed) a girl he has known, but largely ignored, all his life. It is obvious that the two of them have fallen in love. Just when George is about to make his move, Harry and Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) drive up and tell him that his father has had a stroke.

After George works to restore the company after his father dies, Potter motions the board to shut it down. They only vote against him, if George will agree to stay and run it. So instead of going to college, George stays behind to run the Building and Loan while Harry takes George’s money and goes. The idea is that when he comes back, Harry will take over at the Building and Loan and George will go. However, Harry throws a wrench in the plans by getting married to Ruth (Virginia Patton), whose father wants to set Harry up in research. It is an offer too good to pass up and George knows it.

The night of the reception for Harry and Ruth, George goes to Mary’s house. Despite his dreams, his love for her is too strong. George now reinvents his dreams. Rather than working his way across the ocean on a cattle ship, Mary and he will see the world on their honeymoon. And they are on their way to the train when there is a run on the town’s bank and on the Building and Loan. With no other money available, George uses up his honeymoon money to placate the depositors and to keep the Building and Loan away from Potter.

Mary and George move into one of the most run-down houses in Bedford Falls, which Mary fixes up while giving birth to four children, Pete, Janie, Zuzu, and Tommy. The Building and Loan meanwhile provides many of the residents of Bedford Falls hope as it provides them with money to build their homes, even going so far as to develop Bailey Park where most of these houses are. During World War II, while Harry goes off to war, George stays behind and leads various causes to help the effort. Harry meanwhile turns out to be a hero pilot and upon the conclusion of the war is decorated by the President of the U.S. It is on the eve of his return to Bedford Falls, which also happens to be Christmas Eve, that big brother George’s world falls apart.

Uncle Billy, who is a forgetful drunkard, accidentally slips Potter the Building and Loans’ bank deposit. Making them short on their account and on the same day the bank examiner (Charles Halton) is in town to review the Building and Loan’s books. Desperate, George even turns to his adversary Potter in a last ditch effort to save everything. It is Potter who tells George he is worth more dead than alive. George can’t bring himself to tell his wife, so he goes to Martini’s bar to drink. After getting drunk, George goes to commit suicide off a bridge.

Enter Clarence Odbody (Henry Travers), angel second class. He is the heavens’ answer to the prayers for George. When George tries to jump, Clarence beats him to it and George is forced to stop his own suicide attempt to save him. But George is still not convinced so Clarence decides to show him what it would be like if he never lived.

Not only is Bedford Falls now called Potterville, but the quaint downtown has been taken over by bars and nightclubs. When George runs home to his mother, she doesn’t know him. She is a widower, who runs a boarding house and her one son, Harry, was killed as a young boy when he fell through the ice. Clarence tells George that not only did Harry die young, but all the troops on the ship he saved during the war also perished. George’s friends didn’t make out much better. Druggist Gower ends up a rummy, and poor Mary, who never found her soul mate, ends up an old maid. George gets to see all the little ways he has touched people’s lives and touched the lives they touched that he now wants to live.

Even knowing that he might be going to jail, George returns home. The Sheriff and the bank examiner are both waiting for him. But in bursts Mary, followed by most of the town and they all throw in money to help George. Even Mary’s former boyfriend wires that his company will advance whatever money he needs. Harry flies home and drinks a toast to his brother, “the richest man in town.” In a tearful final scene, for the audience, everyone gathered in George’s house sings Auld Lang Syne and the movie ends on a happy, upbeat note.

While the premise is loosely based on Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, the plot for IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, has been done numerous times on numerous television shows and has been reused in many movies, including THE FAMILY MAN (2000). But none of these stacks up or really compare with IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE. But what makes LIFE a classic is that it is a good movie, with an intriguing story, a great cast and one of the great directors of all time at the helm.

Frank Capra deserves most of the credit, as director, producer, and co-writer. This is obviously his vision. Capra, a veteran filmmaker, who started, like many in Hollywood, at Mack Sennett’s Keystone studios. By the time LIFE came out, Capra had already directed such classic films as PLATINUM BLONDE (1931); IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT (1934); MR. DEEDS GOES TO TOWN (1936); YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU (1938); MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON (1939) and MEET JOHN DOE (1940). During World War II, he worked on a series of propaganda documentaries for the War Department and also managed to direct ARSENIC AND OLD LACE (1944). IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE marks Capra’s first post-war effort. After this film, his output would fall off, as he made only a handful of films between 1948 and 1961, including A HOLE IN THE HEAD (1959) and POCKETFUL OF MIRACLES (1961).

James Stewart, who has been previously written about on this blog, appeared in numerous films and worked with directors such as Capra, Hitchcock, and Ford and moved effortlessly from comedy to drama to westerns, seemingly starring in a classic or two in every genre.

Playing Mary is Donna Reed, who is just enough sexy and homespun for the role. Unlike her co-stars, she is perhaps better remembered for her work on the little screen. While she co-starred in such films as THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY (1943) and FROM HERE TO ETERNITY (1953), Donna made her biggest impact on television with her self-named sit-com which ran from 1958 to 1966.

Like Capra, Lionel Barrymore’s career started in silent films. Barrymore began working with D.W. Griffith and appeared in such shorts as THE MUSKETEERS OF PIG ALLEY (1912) considered by many to be the first gangster film and THE NEW YORK HAT (1912). By the time he was 60 in 1938, Barrymore was wheelchair bound. But that didn’t stop him. Barrymore appeared in films until 1952. In addition to IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, Barrymore appeared in such films as GRAND HOTEL (1932), DINNER AT EIGHT (1933), CAPTAINS COURAGEOUS (1937) and KEY LARGO (1948). In addition, he played Dr. Leonard B. Gillespie in a series of films and also appeared on radio in the same part on THE STORY OF DR. KILDARE series.

Thomas Mitchell, who before this film was best known as the drunken Doc Boone in STAGECOACH (1939), plays Uncle Billy, who could easily be the Doc’s ancestor. Mitchell was a very busy actor, appearing in ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS, GONE WITH THE WIND and MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON, all in 1939. One of the great American character actors, Mitchell appeared in films and on television from 1936 to 1961.

But there are also many minor characters that deserve mention as they add to both the texture of Bedford Falls and to the depth of the story. Bert (Ward Bond), the cop and Ernie (Frank Faylen) the cab driver, would later be immortalized as characters on Sesame Street. Bond appeared in numerous films and was an accomplished character actor. Faylen would go on to be Dobie Gillis’s father in that 1950’s TV series. While Gloria Grahame is best known as a femme fatale, in this film she plays Violet Bick, a one-time rival for George’s affections. While we never know what she does for a living, we do get the impression that she has loose morals. People become suspicious of George when he tries to help her by giving her money to start over in New York City.

No discussion of the supporting cast would be complete without mention of Karolyn Grimes, who played Zuzu. After all, it is the petals from a flower she won in class that prove to George that he is back in his true life. Zuzu’s petals are almost as famous as the line about when a bell rings an angel earns their wings, which is also once delivered by Zuzu. Grimes was also in THE BISHOP’S WIFE, which came out the following year. Like Jimmy Stewart, Grimes has two-holiday classics on her brief acting resume.

While I have seen this film many times, I cannot help but to cry at the end. The film has just the right mix of love, despair, hokum, and faith to get me to react. I’m not sure what buttons Capra is trying to push, but he certainly hits mine. IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE is the perfect Christmas film. If you’re feeling blue, as many do at this time of year, the film will remind you of the effect you’ve had on others; even if you don’t think you have had any. And if you’re feeling good, then the film will remind you how lucky you are and remind you that we’re all only one action away from maybe losing it all.

To read reviews of other Christmas films, please see our Christmas Review Hub.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Tron - An Instant Sc-Fi Classic

In honor of this blog's 1st Anniversary on December 18, I have decided that it would be appropriate to try and review the original Tron, since the site's very first review was for Tron: Legacy. Tron was one of the very first feature films to integrate computer graphics with live action, helping to pave the way for feature length CG films like Pixar's Toy Story. While Tron, released in 1982, did initially fail at the box office, it gradually became a cult classic, spawning a franchise that has birthed numerous video games, comic books, and even the aforementioned sequel released 28 years later. After re-watching this movie again, I think I can see why it became such a hit later on.

For anyone who doesn't already know, the story is about a software engineer named Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) who attempts to hack into ENCOM in order to locate evidence that the company's Senior Executive, Ed Dillinger (David Warner), had plagiarized several of his video games in order to get where he is today. When he is thwarted by the Master Control Program (MCP), and with Dillinger tightening security as a result, he manages to sneak his way into the company building using lower level access, joined by Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner) and Lora Baines (Cindy Morgan). When he tries to locate his evidence on a company computer, the MCP takes control of a digital laser to digitize Flynn and punish him in the ENCOM mainframe. The rest of the plot unfolds within the mainframe, bringing to life countless visuals, such as the Light Cycle and Identity Disk, that would later become staples of pop culture and parody.

While the story does actually get easier to follow each time I view it, there are still some small things about it that bug me. Early on they establish the main characters and use the time to add some sense of depth to them, but in the last third they introduce two characters that we are suddenly supposed to care about, with no real indication of who they are outside of their server function. Without taking that into account, the story is very slow paced throughout, leaving me more tired than involved as it went on. However, it does manage to keep a mostly consistent narrative and stay within its own confines by establishing the main aspects of the digital world and sticking with them, making the events more plausible in return.

Even with the iffy story, the actors play out their parts very well. David Warner and Jeff Bridges help to let the audience know that there is definitely some history between them, with Ed Dillinger portrayed as a cautious and worried individual in contrast with the confident and more laid back Flynn. Even Bruce Boxleitner and Cindy Morgan show off some acting skill in their parts, although even the titular Tron is more of a minor character behind Jeff Bridges' Kevin Flynn.

Of course, the most recognizable and memorable aspect of the film is in its visuals. While the CG may look very primitive by today's standards, what they were able to accomplish with it is actually pretty impressive for what they had back then. The methods of transportation are very recognizable now, mainly the curvature of the Light Cycles and Solar Sailer, and the angular Recognizers and ships also help to create some visual variety. The backgrounds are also very believable as computer space given how they might have envisioned it at the time. However, there sometimes seemed to be too much going on when many intricate patterns were onscreen at once, and some of what was shown seemed to be thrown in simply because they could do it, like a brief scene where spider-like programs appear from the ground for no apparent reason. In any case, what we are presented with now seems to give off a distinct charm that makes the look of the cyber world more intriguing decades later.

As a last note, the score by Wendy Carlos is good on its own as well. While we can do more with synthesizer technology these days, what had been done at the time in combination with the London Philharmonic Orchestra goes well with the events taking place, creating the appropriate mood and maintaining the right atmosphere. It's hard to ignore how impressive Tron's music is, especially since it would later inspire Daft Punk's take on the music of Tron: Legacy.

While Tron may be limited in some ways by what was available in 1982, and very dated as well, it is by no means a bad film. It's not my favorite, but its relevance in pop culture today would make it hard not to recommend at least one viewing to see what it is. When you do get to see it, I guarantee that you'll be impressed one way or another, and likely gain the urge to play a video game version of the Light Cycles.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Stubs - The Shop Around The Corner

THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER (1940) Starring: Margaret Sullivan, James Stewart, Frank Morgan and Joseph Schildkraut. Directed by Ernst Lubitsch. Written by Samson Raphaelson. Based on a play by Miklós Lászlo. Produced by Ernst Lubitsch. Run Time: 99 minutes. Black and White U.S., Romantic Comedy, Christmas.

Set at Matuschek and Company, a Budapest leather-goods store, two co-workers bicker by day and write secret love letters (“Dear Friend”) to one another by night. I came to love THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER rather recently as a Chirstmas-time favorite. It’s one of those films you hear about occasionally, especially when it’s remade, most recently 1998’s YOU’VE GOT MAIL with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. I happened to catch this film one night on TCM at another time of the year and fell in love, just as Klara (Margaret Sullivan) and Alfred (James Stewart) do.

Matuschek and Company is run by Hugo Matuschek (Frank Morgan) and staffed with an eclectic group of sales persons. Alfred, the youngest and most polished of the crew is the head salesman at the store. His best work friend, Pirowitch (Felix Bressart) is a family man who tries his best to keep a low profile at work. Ferencz Vadas (Joseph Schildkraut) is the shop’s snooty phony sophisticate that nobody really likes. Flora (Sara Haden) and Inez (Ilona Novotny) are the two sales girls in the shop. Rounding out the staff is errand boy and go-for Pepi (William Tracy). Every morning, while they wait for Matuschek to open the store, the workers gather round and talk about the night before.

One morning, Alfred confides in Pirowitch that he has been corresponding with a girl whom he has never met. That day in walks Klara looking for a job. Trying to spare the otherwise occupied Matuschek from having to deal with her, Alfred tries his best to discourage her. But she won’t give up. In an attempt to show what she can do, Klara sells a cigarette box that plays Otchi Tchorniye to an overweight customer as a candy box that will help keep her from overeating. The cigarette box is an item that Hugo wants to stock that Alfred doesn’t think is right for the store. Klara selling one seems to vindicate Hugo, so out to prove he still runs things, he hires her on the spot. Almost right away, Alfred and Klara start bickering with each other, neither knowing they are in love with the other. The Dear Friends finally arrange for a meeting three weeks before Christmas.

That night before he leaves for the rendezvous, Alfred is fired by Matuschek. While he doesn’t come out and say it, Hugo believes Alfred is having an affair with his wife. The newly unemployed Alfred gets cold feet. Now is not the time to make his feelings known, When Pirowitch looks into the window of the restaurant where the meeting is to take place, he relays to Alfred that his Dear Friend not only looks like Klara, but it is Klara.

Later that night, though, Matuschek learns from a private detective that his wife is actually seeing Vadas, Alone and depressed Matuschek tries to commit suicide and he is only saved when Pepi stops him and gets him to the hospital. The next morning, the recuperating, Matuschek makes amends with Alfred and hires him back to run the store during the busy Christmas season. Alfred readily accepts the offer.

Back at the store, Alfred, per Matuschek’s instructions fires Vadas and then rallies the sales crew to make this the best Christmas season ever for the store. Matuschek returns to the store on Christmas Eve and the shop is happy again. Only when they’re alone does Klara finally admit to Alfred that she finds him attractive. In turn, he confides that he is her secret pen pal.

Part of what makes SHOP so appealing is the chemistry between Stewart and Sullivan. This is the third time the two had been paired in movies and their comfort with each other shows. There was also gossip about the two stars having an off screen affair before, during her marriages to director William Wyler and Leland Hayward. Sullivan had been instrumental in getting Stewart’s Hollywood career going and there are obvious sparks between them on screen. It is interesting to note that while Stewart had already starred in such films as MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON the year before and would go on to higher heights after World War II, it was Sullivan who got top billing in this film.

Once again, the supporting cast adds a lot to the movie. Frank Morgan, who had just played his best known part as the Wizard of Oz the previous year, is perfect as the somewhat befuddled shopkeeper with a heart of gold. But it is the two messenger boys who steal the scenes they’re in. Pepi is a scheming young man who is tired of running errands for the boss’s wife and rejoices when he can finally tell her off. And to everyone’s surprise, except Matuschek’s, gets promoted to sales.

But it is perhaps Rudy (Charles Smith), the newest delivery boy, who only appears at the end of the film that delivers a heartwarming portrayal of a young man spending Christmas alone for the first time in the big city. When Rudy accepts Matuschek’s offer for dinner on Christmas Eve, you can also see the hunger in his eyes.

Like in The Bishop’s Wife, Christmas is not crucial to the plot, but it does provide a background that allows the story to flourish. In the story, Christmas is as important to Matuschek’s bottom line, as it is to Macy’s, so it is natural that the season would be an integral part of any storyline involving a store. But Christmas is more than a time for shopping; it is also a time for romance. It is a time when no one wants to be alone and if two lovers find themselves at this time of the year, perhaps the magic of the season will make their relationship special. At least that’s our hope for Alfred and Klara.

This film has been remade twice. In 1949 as a musical IN THE GOOD OLD SUMMERTIME with Judy Garland and Van Johnson and later updated to emails rather than letters in the aforementioned YOU’VE GOT MAIL. Remade doesn’t equal made better and neither film captures the same magic as THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER.

To read reviews of other Christmas films, please see our Christmas Review Hub.

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol

Before I begin my review, I should state that I am quite unfamiliar with the Mission: Impossible franchise. I have not seen the original 1966-1973 television series, nor the 1988-1990 revival. I also haven't seen any of the other three Mission: Impossible movies with Tom Cruise, so I can't say how close it is to the show or how it compares to the other movies. Despite this unfamiliarity, after watching a screening at Paramount, I thought Ghost Protocol was actually enjoyable, even if a few things stood out.

Because the movie has yet to be released, I will try to express my opinion without spoiling too much. I will say that the plot is surprisingly easier to follow than plenty of other action movies out there, and this film has plenty of action in it. Brad Bird does an amazing job directing this movie, as he has done in the past, and except for one bit of exposition near the end of Act 3, you don't have to have seen any previous Mission: Impossible material in order to have a good time.

Though I'm not a huge Tom Cruise fan, I thought his and everyone else's acting was pretty good; none of the dialogue really felt forced and lead to some suspenseful moments throughout. I've seen a lot of action scenes before, and I thought some of them here were actually pretty creative, including the one you see in advertisements where Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) uses special gloves to climb the side of a building, and I especially praise an inventive chase sequence taking place inside a sand storm, which I will not explain the context of since that's essentially spoiler territory.

While this is a good movie, there are a few things I thought stood out from the overall product, aside from aforementioned bit of exposition at the end. Near the beginning of the movie, there's a scene involving a series of explosions at the Kremlin, which looked very obviously fake to me. When I say this, I mean the explosions in the scene, done in CGI, didn't appear to be realistic enough since to me they completely stood out from the shot they were placed over. There's also one character we see at the beginning of the movie who doesn't appear again until the third act, and even though they had some level of importance, I felt they were practically unnecessary to the overall plot. Despite these minor complaints, the film still turned out rather well.

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol is a movie I would recommend to anyone unfamiliar with Mission: Impossible, since I enjoyed it as someone in that position, or to anyone who follows Brad Bird's career. If you have any sort of curiosity about this movie, or you're just someone looking for a good action flick this holiday season but wish to pass up Tintin, Ghost Protocol is the movie for you.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Stubs - The Bishop's Wife

THE BISHOP’S WIFE (1947) Starring: Cary Grant, Loretta Young, David Niven, Monty Woolley, James Gleason, Gladys Cooper and Elsa Lanchester. Directed by Henry Koster. Written by Robert E. Sherwood and Leonard Bercovici. Based on a novel by Robert Nathan. Produced by Samuel Goldwyn. Run Time: 107 minutes. Black and White U.S., Romantic Comedy, Christmas.

It is Christmas time and Bishop Henry Brougham (David Niven) is preoccupied with raising funds, not for the needy of his parish, but for a new cathedral he wants to build. All of his time is spent trying to placate his major contributor, Mrs. Hamilton (Gladys Cooper). Henry neglects his family, wife Julia (Loretta Young) and daughter Debby (Karolyn Grimes, who also played Zuzu in IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE), and his flock. Henry prays for divine intervention and his prayer is answered in the form of Dudley (Cary Grant), a handsome angel who reveals himself only to the Bishop.

For a while, Henry would have preferred that his prayer was ignored. Dudley seamlessly fits into Henry’s household and nearly takes over his family as well. Everyone takes a shine to Dudley, from Henry’s secretary, Mildred Cassaway (Sara Haden) to Matilda (Elsa Lanchester), a member of his household staff, to even his wife and daughter. And Dudley’s charms also touch the lives of everyone he comes in contact with, including an old friend of Henry’s family, Professor Wutheridge (Monty Woolley) and Sylvester (James Gleason), a cab driver who picks Dudley and Julia up one evening. Dudley’s charms even extend to Mrs. Hamilton.

But as much as Dudley touches other people’s lives, he is touched by Julia, to whom he is obviously attracted. He spends an inordinate amount of time with her, substituting for Henry, when Julia visits their old church. Dudley woos Julia by being the way Henry used to be, impetuous and fun. Julia feels so much at ease with Dudley that Sylvester assumes they are a couple. The attention Dudley is paying to Julia and the way it makes her feel is not lost on Henry, who finally stands up to Dudley and tells him that he wishes he would finish his work and leave.

And Dudley does finish his work by convincing Mrs. Hamilton that she could pay homage to her deceased husband by using her wealth to help the poor rather than build the cathedral. Dudley also helps to save the old church by restoring interest in its boys choir, His work completed, and knowing that Julia loves her husband, Dudley leaves and promises Henry he will never return. And once he’s gone no one will remember that he was ever there. Rejuvenated to his calling and his family, Henry delivers a Dudley-penned sermon at the Christmas Eve service, which closes the film. The sermon reminds all of us whose birthday we are celebrating this holiday.

This is a film full of warmth and humor and makes for good-viewing anytime, but especially at this time of the year. Like most of the great classic Hollywood films, there is not one thing you can point to as being the reason why it is so good. The film is well written. There are no holes in the story. One of the things classic Hollywood did so well was seamless story-telling. The viewer is taken on a trip by the film and delivered at the end, usually to a happy ending. And that’s the case with this film. Henry who almost loses his way learns the true value of his family and faith by the end and the viewer learns that lesson along with him in a subtle way. The film despite its title is not preachy and does not take a stand for a particular religion, though it is obvious that the Bishop is Episcopalian.

My only knock about the film is a rather clumsy sequence when Dudley takes Julia and Sylvester ice skating. While the film tries hard to match the action, it is quite obvious that most of the skating is done by stunt doubles for the trio. Again, that’s looking for something to pick on, but the doubles do stand out and are somewhat distracting in a rather long sequence near the middle of the film.

The cast is great. Grant is as suave and appealing as an angel as he is in any role he plays. There doesn’t seem to be anything he can’t do on screen with the possible exception of a double axel. Niven is right for the part of the Bishop. He is likable while still being distracted. One feels for the Bishop’s predicament. Who hasn’t wished for a helping hand when their life gets to be too much? And Loretta Young is both beautiful and approachable as Julia. She is able to convey a sense of loneliness while still doing her duty as the wife of an important figure in the community. But like other Hollywood classics, it is the supporting cast that adds depth to the film.

Monty Woolley had a fairly short Hollywood career appearing in only about 30 films, may be best known for the role of Sheridan Whiteside, a cranky radio personality in 1942’s THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER. His part as Professor Wutheridge in this film is sort of the polar opposite of Whiteside. Rather than being pompous and self-assured, Wutheridge needs a push to get on with his life’s work. His scene with Dudley and Julia and the bottle that never empties is one of the highlights of the film.

James Gleason is one of those faces that pop up in such films as MEET JOHN DOE (1941), A GUY NAMED JOE (1943) and ARSENIC AND OLD LACE (1944). Never really the lead, his presence usually only makes the films he's in better. In the BISHOP’S WIFE, he keeps the mood light with his portrayal of Sylvester. Little known about Gleason is that he was also a writer, co-writing the second film to win an Academy Award for Best Picture, THE BROADWAY MELODY (1929).

Also showcased is Elsa Lanchester as Matilda, one of the household staff who falls under Dudley’s spell. Elsa, best known as the bride of Frankenstein’s monster in that 1935 film, was also married to actor Charles Laughton. Elsa played a variety of supporting roles in films from the 1920s to 1980, being nominated for Academy Awards for her parts in COME TO THE STABLE (1949) and WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION (1957). In this film she is called upon to do little more than be flustered whenever Dudley is in the room with her.

There is a story about the making of the film and while sources seem to vary slightly it comes down to second choices. Director Koster was not Sam Goldwyn’s first choice and neither apparently was Grant as Dudley. When Goldwyn was unhappy with the production on the set, he replaced William A. Seiter with Koster. And it depends on what source you use, but either Grant was originally cast as the Bishop and switched roles with Niven, or Dana Andrews was originally cast as the Bishop and when Koster came in, the role went to Niven to get Grant to play Dudley. This sort of cast changing is part of the Hollywood process. In the end it doesn’t matter who was originally cast in what part. What matters is what’s on the screen.

THE BISHOP’S WIFE is a good movie by any standard, having been nominated for Academy Awards in the categories of Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Music, Scoring and Best Picture and winning one for Best Sound. It is one of those films that can be watched at any time of the year, but it comes to the top of my playlist at Christmastime, due to the holiday’s significance as a backdrop to the movie. Heartwarming and spiritual without being preachy, THE BISHOP’S WIFE is a classic.

To read reviews of other Christmas films, please see our Christmas Review Hub.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Stubs - Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure

BILL & TED’S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE (1989) Starring: Keanu Reeves, Alex Winter, George Carlin. Directed by Stephen Herek. Written by Chris Matherson & Ed Solomon. Produced by Scott Kroof, Michael S. Murphey, Joel Sosson. Music by David Newman. Run Time: 90 minutes. Color. U.S., Science Fiction, Comedy.

If you took TIME TUNNEL, a TV series from the 1960’s about two time-traveling scientists and mixed it with 
WAYNE’S WORLD, you would have BILL & TED’S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE. Keanu Reeves (Ted) and Alex Winter (Bill) are two want to be rock stars who are on the verge of failing their History class and therefore flunking out of school. They’ve already been told they’d have to get an A+ the next day on their oral presentation to avoid failing. It should come as no surprise that they haven’t even started it.

If they fail, Ted will be sent away to an Alaskan military academy, thus breaking up their would-be rock group before The Wyld Stallyns even learned to play their instruments. And if that happens, the world as it is known in 2689 would cease to be. And the San Dimas, California of the future is apparently quite a great place to live. In order to literally save their world, those in charge send Rufus (George Carlin) back in time to assist. Rufus brings with him a time-traveling telephone booth. With Rufus’ assistance, the boys grab all the people they need to do an oral presentation on the next day.

The cast is pretty good. I know I’ve already commented that Keanu Reeves acting skills are about as deep as a piece of paper, but in this case, he has a real good goofy appeal. The same persona he would show with a little more depth that same year in PARENTHOOD. Its part stoner and part surfer dude. Alex Winter’s Bill is not all that much different, but this is more a case of Dumb and Dumb than DUMB AND DUMBER. Ted and Bill are equal partners and each knows as little as the other one does.

George Carlin, for third billing, is really not seen all that much, though he does deliver a big slice of exposition pie that is required for this film to make any sort of sense. The apparently talentless boys have no way of knowing that their songs are the cure for all that is wrong with the world and that in future their lyrics would be treated like Bible verses. Rufus is there to tell them all that, so they will cooperate with his efforts to save them.

The rest of the cast is mostly made up of one-dimensional versions of famous people from history as Bill and Ted travel through time to grab them. The caricatures are somewhat like when someone is adlibbing a real-life character plays up the best-known thing they do, whether it is an attitude or an accent. That’s not to say the film doesn’t have fun with its premise. But it is a little surprising that all of these historical figures get into the groove so easily and no one really seems to object to being kidnapped by strangers from the future. I remember hearing in an old Time-Life commercial that Billy the Kid (Dan Shor) once shot a man just for snoring. But in BILL & TED, he’s game for being stuffed into a phone booth. The same is true for Abraham Lincoln (Robert V. Barron), Joan of Arc (Jane Wiedlin), Socrates (Tony Steedman), Freud (Rod Loomis), Ludwig Beethoven (Clifford David), Napoleon (Terry Camilleri) and Genghis Khan (Al Leong), But reality is not what this cult film is about.

As much fun as the film is to watch, it is surprisingly dated. When is the last time you’ve ever seen a telephone booth? Not only is the phone booth a nod to the TARDIS in Dr. Who, but it also shares it’s bigger on the inside than it looks on the outside quality, as it can hold up to nine adults. And the special effects, while suitable for the film, are probably something that could now be done on a personal computer with some software.

But the film is a fun view and any history that might be learned along the way (and there really isn’t very much) does not get in the way.

Saints Row: The Third - Open World Gaming On Steroids

Open World games aren't a genre I usually play. They require you to dedicate a lot of time, the distractions are numerous, and it's possible to never get around to finishing the campaign and subsequently forget what the story was about. While I did end up playing a couple later on, like Assassin's Creed II onward and Batman: Arkham City, I never thought I would ever play a Saints Row game due to my unfamiliarity. However, a demonstration of the game at the last San Diego Comic-Con (2011) managed to capture my interest. The video I saw demonstrated that not only could a game in this genre take place in a brightly colored world, but it could also have the capability to not take itself seriously. The mixture of adult humor, spontaneous urban chaos and destruction of high magnitude, vast customization, and intriguing pre-order bonus took my breath away and instantly encouraged me to not only buy the game (as designed of course), but also become a fan of Saints Row and its shift in tone from most other open world games out there. Playing about half of Saints Row 2 soon after the convention really got me excited for the potential of this game, and after spending over 20 hours already with Saints Row: The Third, I am mostly pleased with how it turned out.

With so much to talk about, I suppose I should start with the story. After the events of Saints Row II, the Third Street Saints have become a worldwide media icon, hocking energy drinks, clothing stores, and even have a movie deal lined up. After a heist falls through however, they find themselves face-to-face with The Syndicate, a corporation that wishes to take advantage of the Saints' fame to control the city of Steelport. Naturally the Saints refuse, crash landing into the city as felons. The rest of the plot is focused on them taking down three rival gangs under The Syndicate and reclaiming control over Steelport.

The execution of this plot is actually pretty well handled. Taking out the gangs one rung at a time reveals more about the relationships between the characters and just what they're willing to do when their turn comes to take down their biggest competition. The story also moves at a good pace to keep the player invested and throws in a few memorable twists and lasting events to ensure that no matter when you pick it up again, you'll know how to feel. Perhaps the most memorable characters in the cast are cyber punk Matt Miller and masked wrestler Killbane, who both want the same result, but only the latter is willing to put literally everything on the line to do it, even his own crew.

Near the very beginning of the story, the look and personality of the player character is left entirely up to you. Unlike other character creation aspects of games however, what you see is merely a small taste of the game's astounding customization abilities. During development, Volition reported the game to have 2 Googols worth of combinations, and from the amount of clothing and colors available to pick from, it seems to be completely true. Being able to wear cardinal robes, a stunt suit with a Professor Genki head, be a toilet, or even run around naked brings an element of surprise and merriment to the city-wide destruction capable of the player.

The tools available to do so is another highlight of this game. While other games like Grand Theft Auto limit you mostly to the conventional weapons of the genre, with special weapons used in specific circumstances, Saints Row: The Third allows access to an RC Drone, Fart in a Jar, a dildo bat, and even an Air Strike virtually at will. Some of these weapons can also be upgraded to insane degrees, from a pistol using incendiary rounds to a a shotgun having three barrels at once. No matter what combination of weapons I carried into battle, even if I only used a pair of fists capable of reducing someone to a cloud of meat, I had a feeling of glee as I decimated anyone in my way. With an arsenal as unique as what this game provides, it's hard not to have any fun or find a favorite.

While combat arsenal is exceptional, the controls themselves are incredibly easy to use and smartly applied to the controller. Weapons are easy to switch on the fly and aiming and shooting feel very fluid and tight. The same can be said about the vehicle control, although the only vehicle that felt awkward at first was the tank thanks to how tank controls normally operate on a single stick. Getting used to how each vehicle of each type works is also key to navigation, since just about every one is unique in handling. On another note, the ability to jump into a vehicle through the windshield or side window always felt good, soon becoming my exclusive form of entry. My other favorite ability was finally being able to hit someone in the crotch at will, and the fact that every weapon has a unique animation for trying it is also very humorous.

Of course, if you're going to be driving around a city like Steelport, you'll need a place to go. If you're running away for instance, you can simply go into a shop or crib you have purchased and your notoriety will simply vanish, also granting an opportunity to change outfits, get a tattoo, or mess around with your guns and vehicles. Owning shops, cribs, and strongholds also gives you an hourly income from the particular building or area, which you can spend on upgrades as you level up by earning Respect. Respect in turn can be earned by doing just about anything, from certain actions in combat to just performing a powerslide in a car. One of the more fun ways to do this is by going to and completing side missions, of which there are plenty. While these require you to do things like defend your homies while in a helicopter or destroy cyber tanks in a Tron-like environment as a form of hacking, the one that really stands out the most is one called Professor Genki's Super Ethical Reality Climax, which operates like The Running Man meets Japanese game show. Contestants on Professor Genki's S.E.R.C. have to make it out of a maze alive while earning enough cash by shooting mascots and bonus markers while also dodging fire and electrical traps, which both can quickly impede progress if you're not careful enough. While I do like how the side missions get progressively difficult as you go, providing a great challenge as well, I couldn't help but notice that some of my favorites from Saints Row 2 like Septic Avenger were strangely absent from this installment, which felt a bit disappointing.

Another aspect to mention is the AI. At times the enemy AI feels genuinely overwhelming, which makes it satisfying once you either outsmart them or just run away to lower notoriety. Thankfully, your partner AI is smart enough to assist in combat, which is needed given your ability to summon one via smartphone in a tight spot. These situations grant a sense of relief, but in a way that doesn't feel like you're sacrificing control of the mission over to them.

Like I mentioned before, the game world is very brightly colored, helping it stand out from other games in the genre very easily and contrasts very well with the impending gunfights all over Steelport. The graphics they are laid on are also a sight to behold, with beautifully rendered buildings and an attractive style used to create the character models. There is also a fairly large draw distance, with next to no pop-up textures in sight. Vehicles are also very sleek and shine well with the game's great lighting in day or night.

Final mentions go to the voice acting and music. To me, the voice acting never got tiring, with a great voice cast chosen to portray every character in the game no matter their importance, even Zimos and his auto-tuned voice. The radio stations also each provide a great driving soundtrack containing well chosen licensed songs spanning genres like metal, electronica, 80's/90's rock tunes, and hip hop, although some points in the game also highlight some specific tracks and made me see them from another angle (who knew deadmau5 could make an epic fight song?).

Since that first look at Comic-Con, I have been in love with Saints Row: The Third, and the final product is a very exceptional experience. With such a great blend of already established elements, as well as some newer more hilarious ones, you can't go wrong, as this product provides endless joy, even if all you do is run around and shoot. I would gladly recommend this title to anyone wishing to see something different in an open world game compared with the more dark and serious titles already out there.

[Note: I apologize for the lateness of this review. My time was spread out more due to a combination of schoolwork and my dad playing this game at every chance he got.]