Monday, February 27, 2012

Stubs - Let It Be

LET IT BE (1970) Starring: John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Billy Preston, Mal Evans, Yoko Ono, and George Martin. Directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg. Produced by Neil Aspinall. Songs by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr. Run Time: 81 minutes. Color. UK. Documentary

It all comes down to this. The penultimate project of the Beatles as a group before breaking up, Let It Be documents the disintegration of the band that defined music in the 1960s. What the documentary set out to do was something very different. After the unpleasant recording sessions for the previous album, The Beatles aka The White Album, the group wasn’t sure how to proceed. Despite the album’s title, the recording sessions had been less a cooperative effort, with Paul and John oftentimes recording in different studios. George Martin, the Beatles longtime producer, left for a holiday in the middle of the sessions and even Ringo quit the group for a couple of weeks, tired he was of how things were going.

By 1969, Paul had taken over leadership of the band. He was filling the hole left when John, who was more fascinated with Yoko Ono than the Beatles, abdicated his position as leader of the group. Paul wanted very much for the band to continue and looked for ways of creating harmony. His first idea was to tour again, but the others were not open to it. Then the idea was to play a live concert, but once again, despite throwing around a lot of ideas, they couldn’t decide on one. They finally decided on a TV special of the band performing new songs and it was suggested that they film their rehearsals as part of perhaps a companion special. To this end, the Beatles hired Michael Lindsay-Hogg, the director of some of their earlier promotional films for "Paperback Writer", "Rain", "Hey Jude" and "Revolution".

Filming began on January 2, 1969, at Twickenham Film Studios in London. Since the group was working with a film crew, they had to work more during the day rather than at night, which had become their preferred work time. The film studio, unlike Abbey Road Studios, where the group had done most of their recordings, was cold and austere. This combined with being followed around constantly by a camera crew and it is easy to see that tension within the group did not get better. 

Twickenham Studios was not conducive to recording and harmony. 
On January 10th, Harrison announced he was leaving the band (in a scene omitted from the film). While rehearsals and filming continued in his absence, Harrison did agree to return on the 15th. However, he had conditions, including moving the recording sessions to Apple Records and abandoning the idea of an elaborate live concert. 

George also wanted Billy Preston (l) to be in on the sessions.
However, filming was to continue for a feature film to complete the group’s obligation to UA for a third film. (UA did not accept their brief live appearance in Yellow Submarine as a Beatles film.)

On January 21st, filming began again. In order to improve the vibe, George invited Billy Preston, a keyboardist the Beatles had known since 1962 to join them. During these sessions, the Beatles apparently played many songs that were not featured in the film or would appear on a Beatles record. During the film, we do see the band run through McCartney’s "Teddy Boy", which appeared on this first solo album the next year. They also work on some songs that would appear on the next and last studio album, Abbey Road; "Maxwell Silver’s Hammer", "Oh! Darling" and "Octopus’s Garden".

In an effort to complete the film, the Beatles agreed on January 30th, to do a lunchtime rooftop concert. From those sessions, the next Beatles single "Get Back" and its B-side; "Don’t Let Me Down" would be culled.

The last Beatles live appearance was the lunchtime rooftop concert that ends Let It Be.
The final film shows the Beatles falling apart, but still managing to make some pretty good music along the way. One of the original concepts of the album was to just have the Beatles play, and the film retains some of that with Paul singing "Besame Mucho", a standard they no doubt covered in Hamburg and used in their Decca audition. The group also plays covers of "You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me", "Rip It Up", "Shake, Rattle and Roll", "Kansas City", and "Lawdy Miss Clawdy" and others from their Hamburg days, some which they had previously released.

Despite the bickering, which the film manages to document, including a famous exchange between George and Paul prior to the former’s departure, there is a feeling of nostalgia. Paul can be seen talking about footage of them he had recently seen of images of them following after the Maharishi Yogi looking like they were in a trance (if memory serves me.) The group also rerecords one of their earliest songs "One After 909", the original recording of which dates back to March 1963 and can be found on the Beatles Anthology 1 album.

And despite the discord one can sense while watching, the Beatles still manage to make some great songs, including "Get Back", "Don’t Let Me Down", "Two of Us" and "I’ve Got A Feeling", all of which seem to show the Beatles enjoying playing together. "I’ve Got A Feeling" is a throwback of sorts, as it seems to be a combination of snippets that John and Paul had written individually, a la "A Day In The Life" from the Pepper album.

John and Paul could make great music together. Here they're singing "Two of Us".
Overall, the quality of the film is not helped by the fact that the original footage was shot in 16mm, blown up to 35 mm and then edited from full-frame to a wider aspect ratio by cropping off the top and bottom of every frame. So the resulting film is grainy and the composition within the frames differs from what was originally shot.

There are two problems with writing a review of the film Let It Be. First is that the soundtrack album, produced by the infamous Phil Spector, features versions of songs not found in the film, leaves out "Don't Let Me Down" entirely and, of course, the songs are overdubbed, in some cases adding strings and a choir. An attempt to correct that, Let It Be…Naked, really isn’t much better. McCartney’s 2003 attempt to strip away Spector’s Wall of Sound, sometimes uses different takes than what appeared on the 1970 soundtrack. Naked also changes the running order and eliminates the ambient talking. So one can’t listen to either and remember how it was shown in the film.

The album Let It Be isn't a true soundtrack to the movie of the same name.

The second problem is that this final Beatles film has never been released on DVD, though it was briefly released on VHS in the 1980s. It is reported that the surviving Beatles, Paul, and Ringo, don’t want it released since it shows the group in a bad light. And that is true. 

This is not the happy go lucky Beatles of A Hard Day’s Night. This is the real group at the precipice of its own dissolution. But by now, everyone knows the story and no one would be shocked to watch them bicker their way through another project. The Beatles themselves discussed the end of the group in their own Anthology documentary series.

But for a group that wanted to give their fans the best they could, it is time to once again let the fans see the men behind the curtain. Let It Be should be released so that the fans of the group can see the reality of what happened and not rely on the memories of those who managed to see it before the Beatles withdrew it from the public.

For other Beatles films, see our Beatles Film Review Hub:

Second Opinion - Asura's Wrath

I have seen (and played) my share of action games, but never have I experienced one like Asura's Wrath. This game had me hooked from the very beginning of its story all the way to its shocking and unexpected finale. This is helped by its characters, who are themselves deep enough to be interesting and able to contribute to the plot, including the ones that don't show up very often. The structure of the story itself plays out very much like an episodic anime, complete with very attractive eyecatches, which only serves to aid the presentation of the product as a whole.

The combat system of this title is simple, but effective. You have two buttons dedicated to light and heavy attacks and one for rapid fire, and in some rail-shooting sections the heavy attack button becomes one that unleashes a hail of projectiles after locking on to enemies. When an enemy is down, you can unleash another attack that can deal great damage to them, although after performing it (or heavy attack) you must wait for a cool-down period to expire before you can do it again. When you take or deal damage, an Unlimited Gauge fills up that, once activated, temporarily makes you even more powerful and removes the cool-down during this time. As the battle advances, the damage you deal fills up a Burst Gauge, located underneath your Health, which allows you to advance the story once it is filled up and activated with the lower right shoulder button. As I said, this is simple and works really well, and is also quite easy to pick up.

These combat sequences don't happen too often or last very long though, since a lot of the interactivity comes from cutscenes combined with special Quick Time Events, in which you must synchronize your button presses to the actions on-screen. This is not a complaint however, since this works in the game's favor of immersing you in its storyline. All of this is backed by amazing music and phenomenal voice acting (thought the sound mixing makes it a little hard to take in), both set in beautifully rendered environments within a mythological sci-fi world filled with equally amazing character designs. Aside from a few instances of clipping here and there, there are surprisingly no other technological problems to speak of throughout the entire game.

Asura's Wrath may be a short game (it can be beaten in a single day on easier settings), but it is nonetheless enjoyable. If you're looking for something that can take several days to beat and/or has a very deep combat system with long button combinations, I would advise you to look elsewhere. If you're looking for something short, but engaging or want something new that stands out in a sea of shooters, this is most definitely a game for you.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Asura's Wrath - "Over-The-Top" Is Its Middle Name

Imagine putting God of War, DragonBall Z, Bayonetta, Heavy Rain, and Star Wars into a blender. Now imagine drinking this tasteful combination and finding yourself with an experience that equals that of this game: The event doesn't last very long, but the delightful and addicting taste has you making another one. That would describe Asura's Wrath in a nutshell, but to cap off this review then and there would not even begin to do Capcom and CyberConnect2's joint venture any justice.

Asura is very pissed, but understandably so. One day he's one of the world's Eight Guardian Generals, tasked with eliminating the world of an enemy race called the Gohma. The next, he's being exiled with false blood on his hands, his wife Durga murdered, and his daughter Mithra taken from him by the other Generals to further their own cause with her unique powers. When he tries to rescue his daughter and clear his name, he is instead killed by the General Deus and sent down to Naraka. After 12 millenia pass he reemerges, only to find that the world's landscape is in ruin thanks to his former allies, now more powerful and known as the Seven Deities. Now to reclaim his daughter, Asura must fight not only the Gohma, but also the Deities before they can initiate a plan known as the "Great Rebirth".

The setting for which this all unfolds is rather unique, with a great blend of sci-fi and Hindu mythology that really sells itself well. The Deities can all be attrributed to a vice (lust, greed, sloth, etc.) or fill an archetype (mentor, sadist, etc.), with Wrath of course being Asura's primary attribute. Their overall designs also take the blend into account, complete with all of the Generals/Deities being cyborgs to help explain away abilities like breathing in the dark vacuum of space.

If there's anything that really needs to be addressed first for this title, it would be the controls and overall design. As Asura's goes through the game's 18 levels, or Episodes, he'll be spending most of his time building up two special gauges: the Unlimited Gauge and the Burst Gauge. By way of combat, through taking or dealing damage, the Unlimited Gauge builds up. When it's full, the player can press the lower left shoulder button on the controller to increase the damage Asura can dish out on his opponents, but only for a limited time. Most importantly however, it also serves as another way to quickly build up his Burst.

To elaborate, the Burst Gauge is the most important thing on the screen to worry about. Asura's combat prowess, as stated before, combined with the player being good at nailing the numerous Quick Time Events both help to build it up at a good rate. The effort of the player is then culminated by pressing the lower right shoulder button to go onto the next part of the game. In a sense Burst is basically the "end sequence" button, as it is the only way players can truly advance through the Episodes. This isn't really a bad thing since it enables one to see everything in proper sequence.

To extend my opening drink metaphor, the actual combat of the game is like a shot glass: very simple to pick up but not very deep. While Asura can lock onto his targets and jump with ease, he has one button for shooting airborne targets, another for his regular attacks, and another for special attacks. If special attacks are used, he'll overheat and need to cool down before being able to do another one either freely or to damage a downed enemy; an activated Unlimited Gauge temporarily removes this restriction. While rushing and diving attacks do add something to combat, it probably won't be enough to satiate the types of players who find enjoyment in systems that rely on deep menus, multiple button presses and combinations, input cancels, or the like. In spite of this I still found what was used here to be very satisfying in that it's basically designed to express Asura's dominant anger and frustration.

That said however, the finished product plays very much like an interactive series, as cutscenes with QTE's take precedent over the combat sections, though some rail-shooter moments do help break up the gameplay as well. In my opinion this isn't a detriment to the game, but rather an advantage. What may seem like a mindless video game, or even God of War ripoff if one goes exclusively by text previews, is actually backed by an amazing and compelling story that serves as the true backbone of the experience, as well as offering the game its own flavor. The interesting characters, great plot twists, over-the-top moments (ranging from fighting a planet-sized Buddha to a man that wields a 300,000 mile-long extendo-sword) and fascinating world keep you playing to see how everything turns out; the shocking finale of the True Ending also helps and draws me to wanting a sequel just to see how that turns out.

Some gamers may also be turned off by the admittedly short campaign, which can be beaten in merely a day. This doesn't really hold back the game from achieving all that it can though. By sticking to the length it has, it prevents itself from resorting to padding the length, which would have probably made the game even more repetitive. Still, it's a satisfactory length that actually makes me want to go through it again if I can if only to continue unlocking extras.

The smooth texture of this enjoyable concoction is made more complete through the game's technical side. Top notch voice acting helps brings each character to life and captures their personalities perfectly, while the score backing the action onscreen is very fitting and appropriate. The visuals help bring everything, including the sheer scale of the world, to life. It's amazing how the woodcut detail of the Deities mesh perfectly with the fleshy humans and metallic technology, made even more so by the fact that no glitches seem to exist in the game, aside from the occasional minor clipping. The only thing that may hold this back a little is that the interludes, which add depth to the story, have text that can sometimes be hard to read thanks to a combination of playing on a standard def television and it being on top of visuals that are either too bright or dark causing me to move the text around a lot. I'll admit however that this allowed me to fully enjoy the beautiful artwork present, drawn by different artists. Another problem I encountered was that sometimes the sound mixing seemed to be off, with the music being placed high enough that I couldn't hear the dialogue; changing the mix in the options can fix this problem. However, it can't fix when the dialogue is rarely cut off.

In the end, Asura's Wrath is a very unique experience. With its anime-like quality, complete with loading screens that resemble eyecatches, the game is able to lift itself into a realm where it can form its own niche, which now includes me. Asura is a truly sympathetic character underneath his rage and I was happy to see his story come to a close, for now at least. For those who want to immerse themselves in a different sort of game from most others on the market, as well as a story that can be considered an Epic, I strongly encourage you to play this game.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Stubs - Yellow Submarine

YELLOW SUBMARINE (1968) Starring: John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr. Voices by: John Clive, Paul Angelis, Geoffrey Hughes and Lance Percival. Directed by George Dunning. Written by Lee Minoff, Al Brodax, Jack Mendelsohn and Erich Segal. Produced by Al Brodax. Songs by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, and George Harrison. Music by George Martin. Run Time: 89 minutes. Color. UK. Music, Comedy, Adventure, Animated

Of all the Beatles films, this one had the least involvement from the group. Based on the song “Yellow Submarine” released in 1966 as the double A-sided single with “Eleanor Rigby” both off the group’s Revolver album, the film began production in 1967. It wasn’t until after the group saw the completed work that they agreed to appear in the live-action cameo shown at the end of the film.

The roots for this project go back to the beginnings of Beatlemania. In 1964, the Beatles manager Brian Epstein was approached by Al Brodax, a cartoon producer who wanted to make an American TV cartoon series based on the group and their songs. While not enthusiastic about the idea, Epstein didn’t see any harm and agreed to do it and promised that the Beatles would cooperate with an animated feature, should the TV series be successful. The series ran for three seasons on ABC TV and in 1966, Brodax reminded Epstein of his promise. Neither Epstein nor the group was really excited about an animated film, but thought it would fulfill their commitment to UA for a third film.

Yellow Submarine has roots in the Beatles Cartoon series.
The story revolves around the magical Pepperland, a psychedelic playground that is attacked by Blue Meanies and their assorted co-horts. The Blue Meanies drain the color from Pepperland, and capture the protectors of Pepperland, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, in a bubble. In his last action, the Lord Mayor sends Old Fred, a sailor, off in a Yellow Submarine in order to get help.

Old Fred takes the submarine to Liverpool where he encounters an aimless Ringo, who is wandering the streets. After agreeing to help Fred, Ringo gathers his mates and the five take off for Pepperland. On the way they must navigate through the Sea of Time, the Sea of Science, the Sea of Monsters, the Sea of Nothing, the Sea of Heads and the Sea of Holes, which turns into the Sea of Green. In the Sea of Nothing, they encounter Jeremy Hilary Boob, the Nowhere Man whom the Beatles let join them onboard the submarine.

The Beatles and Jeremy Hilary Boob in the Sea of Holes.
After landing in Pepperland, the Beatles see that the landscape has been turned into miserable wasteland. The group dresses like Sgt. Pepper’s band and go to steal instruments from the high tower where the Blue Meanies have stored all the instruments they’ve stolen. They almost get away with it, but Ringo accidentally steps on a bagpipe. With the alarm sounded, the Beatles flee, retrenching themselves and sing “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”, which sends the Blue Meanies into retreat. The chief Blue Meanie retaliates, sending Glove after them, but John defeats it by singing “All You Need is Love.” The residents of Pepperland, revitalized, take up arms against the Blue Meanies and chase them back to the Blue Mountains from whence they came. The color is restored to Pepperland and the thorns turn into flowers.

The Blue Meanies.
Ringo frees the original Sgt. Pepper band by using a hole, from the Sea of Holes, to allow them to escape from the bubble they’ve been imprisoned in. There are some further skirmishes with the Blue Meanies, including their multi-headed dog, but as is always the case, the Beatles are victorious. When the chief Blue Meanie tries to kill Jeremy, he is instead transformed. When John offers friendship, the chief Blue Meanie has a change of heart.

With everyone singing and happy, the movie changes to the live-action appearance of the Beatles. When John sights “newer and bluer meanies in the vicinity of this theater”, the group sings a reprise of “All Together Now” to ward them off.

The Beatles make a brief appearance at the end of Yellow Submarine.
The animation for Yellow Submarine was markedly different from what had come before. The film’s art director, Heinz Edelmann, had been a pioneer in the psychedelic style. There was a prominent use of photographic images as backgrounds, vibrant colors and there was no effort made to completely feel the frame with animated images. The film reminds many of the art work popularized by Peter Max, though he had nothing to do with the film. Many characters were created for the film that had nothing do with the Beatles or their songs. Included amongst them are the Blue Meanies, the Apple Droppers, the multi-headed dog, the Lord Mayor, Old/Young Fred and Jeremy.

An example of some of the animation from Yellow Submarine.
The animated Beatles were based on the Beatles in their 1967 promotional film for their single “Strawberry Fields Forever.” And while Beatles music is obviously prominent throughout, only four songs were original to the movie, though not necessarily were written for it. The soundtrack gave the Beatles a chance to use songs that they mostly had sitting around: “Only A Northern Song” George’s ode to then Beatles music publisher Northern Songs; “It’s All Too Much”, another Harrison song which dates from the Pepper sessions; “Hey Bulldog” which dates from earlier in the year before the group’s sojourn to India; and “All Together Now” recorded during the Magical Mystery Tour sessions.

The animated Beatles with the Lord Mayor of Pepperland.
The soundtrack includes snippets of songs from several Beatle albums, including 1965’s Rubber Soul: “Think for Yourself” and “Nowhere Man”; 1966’s Revolver: “Yellow Submarine”, “Eleanor Rigby” and “Love You To”; 1967’s Sgt. Pepper: “Lucy In the Sky with Diamonds”, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”, “With a Little Help From My Friends” and “When I’m Sixty Four” as well as the single “All You Need Is Love” and its B-side “Baby You’re a Rich Man”. George Martin composed the score music that was featured on the B-side of the original soundtrack album released after the film’s release. A digitally remastered soundtrack featuring only Beatles songs was released in 1999 to coincide with the release of the film on DVD. However, it was the original soundtrack that got the digital remaster treatment in 2009.

The film proved to be quite popular and spawned a second wave of Beatles-related merchandise and memorabilia, the first since the old days of Beatlemania. There was even more merchandise created when the film was finally released on DVD.

In many ways it’s hard to call Yellow Submarine a Beatles film; they did not do the voices or have anything to do with the production. However, it is still infused with their spirit and is based on their music. It is worth noting that this is the last time a happy Beatles group would be featured on celluloid.

For other Beatles films, see our Beatles Film Review Hub:

Monday, February 20, 2012

Stubs - Magical Mystery Tour

MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR (1967) Starring: John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr. Directed by John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr and Bernard Knowles. . Written by John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr. Produced by John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Gavrik Losey, and Dennis O’Dell. Songs by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, and George Harrison and featuring music by the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. Run Time: 55 minutes. Color. UK. Music, Comedy, Adventure, TV movie

1967 found the Beatles at perhaps their zenith. In June of that year, they released their watershed album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, a perennial at the top of any list of rock albums. Coming as it did at the start of the Summer of Love, that album is forever linked to psychedelic imagery, drugs, and experimentation. If there was any doubt that there was talent behind the fame all of that had been forgotten. The Beatles moved from merely pop sensations to music sensations. If you have never heard the album, then stop reading this now and do so. In addition to this chart-topping album, the Beatles also appeared that summer on the One World broadcast, as Britain’s official entry. The song they performed, written specifically for the program by John, was the anthem to love, “All You Need Is Love.”

But 1967 was also a year of change. George Harrison’s fascination with Indian music, which reportedly started with the filming of Help! had escalated into a journey of all things Indian, including their belief system. And where one Beatle tread, the rest followed. On August 24th, while the Beatles were in Bangor, Wales at an audience with guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, their manager Brian Epstein died of a drug overdose. While Epstein’s management of the group did not always get them the most money, he certainly loved the band and made them world stars. While his role with the group was more tentative now that they had stopped touring, he was nonetheless the lynchpin that held all things Beatles together. There is no doubt if he was still alive at the time that Magical Mystery Tour would have never been made.

Blame this one on Paul McCartney if you must, but Magical Mystery Tour was the Beatles first venture post-Epstein and their first public failure. Shown on Boxing Day (December 26th), and in black and white on BBC-1, the Beatles Christmas film was not well-received, though the soundtrack would go to number one.

What Magical Mystery Tour must have looked like in black and white.
Ill-conceived and poorly executed, perhaps, but the film is not without its charms and musical moments, it did also serve the purpose of giving the no longer touring Beatles a showcase for their music. It is what would now be considered a long play video with the thinnest of stories connecting the six original songs written for the project. 

Paul is featured in "The Fool on the Hill" sequence.
One of my favorite bits is the segment devoted to I Am the Walrus, which is also one of my favorite Beatles songs. Dressed in multi-colored garb, and later in animal costumes, the Beatles start playing and Paul points to Ringo just as the drums are supposed to come in. The footage that follows is as nonsensical as the lyrics, with all four Beatles ending up playing on top of a cement structure. By the way, in the footage for the song inspired by Lewis Carroll’s The Walrus and The Carpenter, the walrus was John.

The Beatles perform "I Am the Walrus" in Magical Mystery Tour.
Shot in two weeks in September, the film revolves around the idea of people getting on a tour bus for parts unknown, rather than a set location. The story revolves around Ringo with his Aunt Jessie (Jessie Robins), whom Ringo is taking out after the death of his Uncle. The others on board include the tour director, Jolly Jimmy Johnson (Derek Royle), the tour hostess, Miss Wendy Winters (Mandy Weet), conductor Buster Bloodvessel (Ivor Cutler) and the other Beatles.

The tour bus had a hostess, Miss Wendy Winters (Mandy Weet).
Events are controlled, so to speak, by four or five magicians (the Beatles and road manager Mal Evans) and interrupted by musical interludes, including the Beatles performing “I Am the Walrus” and George performing “Blue Jay Way”.

There really is no story to speak of, just improvised sketches, which include Aunt Jessie’s daydreams about Buster Bloodvessel, an impromptu race in which everyone on the tour chooses a different mode of transport, a walk through a British Army Recruitment office with a drill sergeant played by Victor Spinetti, and with the men of the tour watching a strip show, featuring music by the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. The film concludes with a production number of “Your Mother Should Know”, with the Beatles in white tails "dancing" down some steps in an ode to Hollywood musicals.
The Beatles perform "Your Mother Should Know" in whitetails.
Throughout the production, the Magical Mystery Tour bus became the subject of fascination by fans, and a long line of cars followed it everywhere, hampering the magic that the group hoped would evolve.

The Magical Mystery Tour bus in action.
From ten hours of footage, the Beatles edited it down to 52 minutes over the next 11 weeks. It should surprise no one that the end result is somewhat incomprehensible. In many ways, Magical Mystery Tour is a student film with a big budget, as the Beatles themselves were learning as they went. It is a hard lesson to learn on the fly as witnessed by the film. But given the fact they had no idea what they were doing, the film isn’t really all that bad. There is at least honesty to the travesty.

You have to admire the Beatles for trying to move on by themselves, after the death of Brian Epstein. No other group at the time was taking control over itself the way they tried. Magical Mystery Tour was only the beginning of the self-management experiment which would culminate with the establishment of Apple Corps in 1968. It wasn’t like the Beatles to make something maudlin. Magical Mystery Tour, though flawed, shows that the Beatles wanted to carry on as a group, making music and experimenting with their talents.

For other Beatles films, see our Beatles Film Review Hub:

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Twisted Metal (2012) - Car Combat Returns With A Bang

If you've never played a car combat game in your life, that's understandable. For as long as the genre has been around there have barely been any games to support it, leading to a point where even now the gaming landscape is practically devoid of any titles. One franchise however has managed to remain popular since its inception, and that would be the one known as Twisted Metal. While I haven't played every single game, I am familiar enough with its concepts, gameplay, and history. When first released in 1995, the game proved to be a runaway success and helped the PS1 succeed in standing out and forging its own identity. When series creator David Jaffe left the series after Twisted Metal 2, Sony's in-house 989 Studios took over production, but the two games they created suffered poor critical reception and led to Jaffe taking control back with the development of the highly regarded Twisted Metal: Black. Now about a decade later, Twisted Metal has returned to consoles with the PS3. The question now is, how does it hold up in a modern world?

Thankfully, the series seems to be here to stay. The gameplay is very well polished and is perhaps the best in the entire series so far. In a demolition derby where several cars are dropped into massive maps for total mayhem, it's a very important thing to have. The myriad weapon pickups available, like napalms and homing missiles, are mostly from all of the previous games, with some tweaks in place. Each vehicle now has two dedicated specials that can be switched through on the fly, remote bombs can be shot forward and stalker and swarmer missiles depend on a simple charge mechanic that creates better damage or accuracy depending on the timing. Being able to pick a sidearm such as a revolver or shotgun, as opposed to depending on the vehicles mounted guns all the time, also helps to mix thing up, as does the ability to turbo in reverse. Being able to remotely detonate weapons like the ricochet, which is now a toy car whose explosive range can be charged, is a good move too as it only fuels the ensuing chaos.

The controls for Twisted Metal are very well tuned, with a setup that I found much easier to use than previous games which employed a dual stick control method. This method, along with a racing layout, can be accessed in the options, but I never felt any need to do so. While the controls may seem difficult to the uninitiated, believe me when I say that within just a few minutes they'll feel like second nature. Every button is placed for convenience and makes every action actually even simpler to use. A good example of this would be the special actions; normally trying to freeze an enemy, raising a temporary shield, or placing a remote bomb on the ground would require specific button combinations to pull off, but they now each have their own dedicated button on the D-Pad. Even being able to rear fire your weapons is now the Down button, making creating a ever changing strategy even easier to accomplish. Scrolling through weapons and firing them on command is simplicity itself, and I couldn't be happier.

As this game is a complete reboot of the franchise, I looked forward to seeing what series creator David Jaffe could do as far as developing a brand new story continuity. For those who don't know, the concept of the franchise is that a man named Calypso holds a contest called Twisted Metal, where the winner, the one who survives the contest, will be granted a single wish from him no matter the size or reality. In every other game we would be seeing every character have their own story mode and unique ending to stand out. Instead we are presented with a single linear story connecting only three characters together while employing the story telling style established in Black, which is to have an introductory scene followed by a story break to flesh out the character and their motivations and an ending to conclude their arc. This lack of playable characters is understandably disappointing, especially since the story seems to leave room for more characters to step in, but I was still able to enjoy the yarn they spun. The live action cutscenes are actually quite good to look at and the stylized feel helps keep a consistently dark atmosphere throughout, with the acting form the cast helping to give Sweet Tooth, Grimm, and Dollface more depth than still or somewhat animated images might have.

The objectives during each character's part of the story are something else entirely. Deathmatch and Endurance rounds feel right at home and I instantly felt powerful during other similar types of matches. The bosses at the end of each portion of the story are also very inventive and challenging in a way that keeps the feel of Twisted Metal alive and well. Attempts at variety however have very mixed results once they inject checkpoint racing missions or objectives that involve eliminating various incarnations of a particular miniboss. While sometimes they work, there is a specific checkpoint race where falling once from a high place makes winning absolutely impossible, as well as another where the strategy to beat it is too specific, and a couple of rounds with the miniboss that became increasingly frustrating due to their admittedly poor design.

On the other side of the coin, this game also has a large focus on multiplayer that I was actually very excited to check out. Everything is surprisingly balanced and the madness on the battlefield is delightfully chaotic and frantic no matter what mode I played, both online and off. Those who have played games like Call of Duty and are frustrated by the fact that they can die as soon as they spawn may be pleased by the longevity of the matches and the endurance of the cars during the chases that are sure to develop, which can involve up to 16 cars at once. At the same time though, players used to more robust leveling systems might find this title's ranking system disappointing, especially considering that what you can unlock is already what's available in story mode.

Now, while I would have loved to be able to potentially spend entire days doing nothing but blowing up cars, some current issues with the network have prevented me from doing so. As of this review the servers are acting up, giving players annoying errors and drops like crazy. Sticking with a room solved this problem for the most part, but I won't be able to fully enjoy my progression through the game until this problem gets a permanent fix.

To finish things off here, I'd like to offer praise to the more technical side of things. The game is very well detailed, with impressive designs for the cars and highly destructible environments that give this game its own identity. The explosion effects are also very flashy and the unique sounds of the special weapons are also chosen well so as to not be obnoxious. The realistic lighting for each level is also good since I could still make out everything in sight with ease no matter the time of day. But what I enjoyed most of all was the perfect soundtrack that makes every battle more exciting than ever, featuring artists like Rob Zombie, Sepultura, N.W.A., and Sammy Hagar.

If there's anything to say about Twisted Metal, it would be that it's a very enjoyable title despite the times when it gets to be hit or miss. Previous fans and newcomers alike should all pick up this title immediately, since they are bound to have a good time. I really enjoyed my experience with Twisted Metal and I hope to continue doing so in the future.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Alice in Wonderland (2010)

One of Walt Disney's biggest triumphs in animation has got to be the 1951 movie, Alice in Wonderland. While it didn't perform very well initially, it later grew in popularity during the psychedelic era of the 60's, becoming one of the best known and recognized animated films of all time. Two years back in 2010, Tim Burton had created his own vision of Lewis Carroll's books, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, and has since become another popular version of the story, if only partially due to the names of Walt Disney, Tim Burton, and Johnny Depp being attached. Having seen it again more recently, I can safely say it's actually not that bad a movie on its own.

Alice Kingsleigh (Mairi Ella Challen) is a girl who keeps having a strange dream, asking her father one night if she's gone mad because of it. Her father, a dreamer in his own right, says yes, but assures her that the best people are. Thirteen years later, Alice's (Mia Wasikowska) father is deceased while she must attend a garden party at Lord Ascot's state, where she keeps seeing a white rabbit in waistcoat go by in the bushes. She later finds out the party is actually a set-up for a marriage proposal to her. She doesn't know how to react to all this, deciding instead to go after the rabbit she kept seeing and ends up falling down a rabbit hole by a tree, where an unexpected journey awaits her.

The plot isn't actually too hard to follow and there aren't really any holes in the story that I could see. While this isn't a straight-up adaptation of the books, rather taking elements from them to form a new tale, it's pretty fun to watch (despite small moments of gore) and, if you have read the books, try to figure out what part of the movie comes from which book. Sometimes I enjoy seeing people create their own interpretation of another story/stories, and Tim Burton's Wonderland is one of the more enjoyable ones. While it's the usual duo of Burton and Depp, the latter doesn't take the spotlight like with Pirates of the Caribbean or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (which Burton actually directed), instead letting Alice take center stage for the majority of the movie.

The special effects used in this movie are really impressive, doing their job to bring the world of Wonderland Underland to life. Despite its name, Underland is a visual wonderland (pun intended), if a little gruesome in a few places. Still, this fantasy land is visually stunning and I wish I had gotten to see more of it. In fact, you could say that the designs give the place a tone somewhere between the 1951 Disney version and American McGee's Alice. The effects used on the creatures in the movie, especially those with fur like the Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry), are equally impressive and their voice actors, alongside the actual actors, help bring life to the characters.

This version of Alice in Wonderland is a movie I would recommend to anyone, whether they are a fan of Tim Burton/Johnny Depp or not. I guarantee you will have a good time with this movie or, if you've seen enough Tim Burton movies, you'll have a better time with this than some of his other works, like the aforementioned Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. If you are a purist however, and your expectations are that this movie will be like the books or whatever your favorite version of the story is, especially the first Disney version, this probably isn't a movie for you.

Stubs - Help!


HELP! (1965) Starring: John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr. Directed by Richard Lester. Written by Charles Wood. Story by Marc Behm. Produced by Walter Shenson Songs by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, and George Harrison. Music by George Martin and Ken Thorne. Run Time: 92 minutes. Color. UK. Music, Comedy, Action, Adventure.

1965 was, as Paul McCartney referred to it on that year’s Christmas fan club record, “a really big year” for the Beatles. But it was also a year that saw the group in repeat mode. They were still the biggest thing on the planet, but 1965 was in many ways a lot like 1964 had been. The year started with “Another Beatles Christmas Show” ending its run on at the Hammersmith Odeon Theater. And another number one single on the charts, “I Feel Fine”. During the year, they would put out more hit singles, do three more tours (the UK, the US and Europe), two more British studio albums and like the year before, they would make a movie, HELP!

After the success of A HARD DAY’S NIGHT it was a natural that the Beatles would make another movie. And re-teaming them with the same director, Richard Lester and the same producer, Walter Shenson, made sense, too. After all the six of them had already teamed together to make a classic film. But HELP! is not A HARD DAY’S NIGHT II. While the previous film had captured the spirit and exuberance of Beatlemania, HELP! seems to find the Beatles consumed by it. Instead of a mock-documentary about a day in the life of the Beatles, the story is more of a jet-setting James Bond-theme spoof. Instead of black and white hand held camerawork, the film is color with high production values for a rock and roll film of the time.

HELP! revolves around Ringo and a large red multifaceted ring that a fan has sent him. The ring in question is actually the sacrificial ring of a cult that is worn by the human sacrifice to the goddess Kali. Determined to get the ring back and to make the sacrifice, the great Swami Clang (Leo McKern) and the high priestess, Ahme (Eleanor Bron) travel with the woman to London.

Ringo and the sacrificial ring that is at the center of the film.
After several failed attempts to steal the ring off of Ringo’s finger, including disrupting the recording session for the song “You’re Going to Lose That Girl”, they confront Ringo in an Indian restaurant, where the Beatles have gone to learn the mysteries of the East. Ringo learns that if he doesn’t return the ring, he will be next in line to be sacrificed. But to his dismay, Ringo finds that the ring is stuck on his finger good and tight.

The Beatles in the studio recording "You're Gonna Lose That Girl" in Help!
The Beatles go to a jeweler to get the ring removed, but the metal it is made of proves to be too much for his tools. 

The Jeweler can't help them get the ring off Ringo's finger.
Next they turn to a mad scientist, Foot (Victor Spinetti) and his assistant Algernon (Roy Kinnear) for help. But when his surplus British-made equipment has no effect on the ring, Foot is more determined than ever to get the ring, since as he sees it, anyone with that ring could rule the world. But before Foot can get the ring, Ahme shows up and rescues the boys.

Ahme (Eleanor Bron) arrives to save the Beatles from Foot (Victor Spinetti).

Back at their flat, Ahme tells them that the woman who was to be sacrificed was her sister and that her sister is now no longer in danger; Ringo is. She proposes to inject Ringo with a potion made of the essence of orchids that should shrink his finger and allow the ring to fall off. But before she can inject him, there is an intermission.

It is short with the Beatles seen in a field, jumping up and down for a few seconds.

The Intermission to Help!
Part two is equally short, showing Ahme’s sister being given a bath to wash the sacrificial red paint off her.

The film finally gets back on track with part three. We’re back to the scene that ended part one. Ringo is lying nervously on Paul’s bed waiting for the interjection. But just as Ahme is about to inject him, the gang arrives and startled, Ahme puts the needle in Paul’s leg instead. We are then presented with miniature Paul’s adventures on the floor. Ringo is doused with the sacrificial red paint, which ruins his suit and makes him cry. But before a swordsman can sacrifice him, Foot arrives and firing a shot, scares the man away. While the gang retreats, Foot makes his attempt, only to be thwarted by John and the now full-sized Paul. Foot tries to shoot John, but his British-made wembley revolver misfires. Foot subsequently leaves.

The Beatles flee to Austria, where they naturally ski and sing. But the gang and Foot are in hot pursuit. Foot and Algernon try to kill the Beatles with a booby trap during a game of curling. But George spots it and saves the group. The Swami makes an attempt out on the slopes, but Ahme detours him down a path that leads to the take-off ramp of a ski jumping contest, which the Swami wins.

Singing along to "Ticket To Ride" in the Austrian Alps.
Returning to England, the Beatles seek protection from Scotland Yard and their chief Inspector (Patrick Cargill). But their secured recording session at Salisbury Plain, within view of Stonehenge, is disrupted when the gang makes another attempt. The next place Scotland Yard stashes the Beatles is Buckingham Palace. But they are not free from Foot, who makes another foiled attempt to steal the ring using a motion ray.

The Beatles recording on the Salisbury Plain under the protection of the British Army. 
After that, the Beatles go to a pub where Swami is working. Ringo gets trapped when George accidentally opens a trap door the Swami has prepared. In the room there is only a ladder with broken rungs and a tiger. The Beatles get the Inspector who tells them to sing Beethoven’s Ode To Joy to sooth the tiger.

The Beatles in the pub. Ringo is about to accidentally open a trap door.
Next, the Beatles fly to the Bahamas, with Scotland Yard and the Swami and Foot in tow. After Ringo is nearly captured, the other Beatles pose as him to help lure out the cult members, who are then arrested by the Bahamas police. But Foot does manage to capture Ringo and takes him out to his boat so he can cut off the finger to get to the ring.
Ahme appears and exchanges a vial of the Orchid shrink potion for Ringo and the ring. 

The Beatles biking in The Bahamas.
When Ahme and Ringo leave the ship, they are captured by the cult, tied down on the beach and Ringo is prepared for sacrifice. Even though he is told that trying to warn the other Beatles will mean his instant death, Ringo still manages to break free and attempts to warn his band mates. As Ringo waves his hand, the ring falls off and he puts it on Clang’s finger. Ahme declares that Clang will be the next to be sacrificed but he gets the ring off and gives it to Foot and Algernon, but they leave it in the sand while the police round up the cult.

The Beatles seem to be a little lost in this film and it’s not due just to the marijuana they were supposedly smoking throughout the filming. They are still playing themselves, but these are much more fictionalized versions than they played in A HARD DAY’S NIGHT. On their own, they are witty and funny men, but the parts they play in this film are more superficial almost cardboard versions of themselves. Part of the brilliance of their first film is that it comes close to capturing the real Beatles or at least what fans perceive as real. But HELP! does not make that attempt.

While HELP! is a lot of fun to watch, it is a somewhat disappointing follow up to A HARD DAY’S NIGHT. There are some really classic Beatle moments, like the idea they share one flat with four front doors, and there are some great songs on the soundtrack, including the title song, “Ticket to Ride” and maybe one of the overlooked classics from this time, “You’re Going to Lose That Girl”. But for all this, there are scenes like George’s flute playing servant who cuts the carpeting with chattering teeth and locations chosen specifically for tax reasons, like the Bahamas, where a lot of the film takes place, that make this film appear to be more of an obligation than a celebration.

In 1965, the Beatles could almost be said to be going through the motions. After you’ve conquered the world what else is there to do, but to keep on keeping on. Within the year they would change all that. They would stop touring in 1966 and retreat into the studio. 

Musically, Help! is more of them treading water. There are some very good songs on the studio/soundtrack album, including McCartney’s classic “Yesterday” and the song “I’ve Just Seen a Face” points to the future Rubber Soul album. But Help! is also the last studio album to feature covers, “Act Naturally” and “Dizzy Miss Lizzie”. From now on, everything would be an original composition.

The Beatles have to be given credit for getting off the merry-go-round before things got stale musically and culturally. The movie HELP! is sort of a reminder of what things could have dissolved into if the Beatles had continued to play along. They would have been good, but maybe not great.

HELP! starts with a lot of promise, but does not live up to their first film. It is to their credit that the Beatles did not make another movie like this. While the film is not without its own charms, it does not capture the magic of A HARD DAY’S NIGHT.

For other Beatles films, see our Beatles Film Review Hub:

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Darkness II

The Darkness was a really amazing game to play, and with the release date of its sequel getting closer, I became really excited to play another great experience, even with a change in developer (Digital Extremes worked on this title as opposed to Starbreeze). To keep myself interested, I even read a free comic that helped to remind me what happened in the game I played a month earlier. While The Darkness II proves itself to be a decent follow-up, there are some things that should have remained in the dark.

Two years after the original game, Jackie Estacado has officially become Don of the Franchetti family and also found a way to push back The Darkness within him. When he's attacked at a restaurant, Jackie is forced to unleash his dark powers in pursuit of his attackers. Through an informant of his named Johnny, who is an expert on The Darkness, Jackie learns of the Brotherhood and what they plan to do once they get their hands on this demonic force. Meanwhile, Jackie still thinks about the death of his girlfriend Jenny two years ago, and has been the entire time to the point where he sees hallucinations of her and times they've spent together.

The Jenny subplot bothered me as the game went on, for a few reasons. First off, Jackie seeing visions of his dead girlfriend from a couple years back is really unhealthy, and makes you think he should be sent to a mental hospital (which you actually do a few times, more on that later). Second, even though the prequel comic, Confession, had Jackie say he still thought about Jenny, it still came off to me like he had moved on from the event and that his recap of the previous game was more like a last goodbye. Finally, the game seemed to revolve around Jenny the more the story went forward, to where she is involved in a very unexpected plot twist after the credits roll, which only seems to serve as setting up a possible The Darkness III. Overall, Jackie's character felt like it had taken a big step backwards compared to what happened in the last game and its supporting material. On the subject of mental hospitals, the main story takes a break a few times to place Jackie in such a place, where Jenny is alive and he still obsesses over her. These sequences proved to be hilarious, though up until an explanation is given about this place you are left to wonder the first couple of times whether the events of the game are a dream or reality.

An interesting game mechanic that this game introduces is the concept of quad-wielding, or the ability to control two guns and two Darkness tentacles at the same time. This I found made me feel a greater sense of power than I did the first time controlling The Darkness, and also allowed for plenty of variety in terms of slaughtering enemies. Enemy encounter is another thing though. While I won't complain about the linear level design, I played on Thug difficulty (the lowest setting; the highest is Don) and a few times I felt a little overwhelmed by the enemies I was made to fight, especially in the Vendettas campaign (more on that later). This game has a nice Skill Tree system, where you can use Darkness Essence from foes to purchase Talents at appropriate Shrines (the first of which is the ability to eat hearts!), giving you the ability to sort of customize Jackie's skills. Two particularly helpful Talents can only be found in the Limited Edition of the game, which I played for this review, and in fact one later Talent you can access (in both versions) is Darkness Armor, which from what I could see on the screen is similar to its comic book counterpart.

Speaking of aesthetic, this game has really impressive graphics, giving it the appearance of a comic book similar in style to the one the games are based on (in place of the first game's more realistic appearance). This is paired with an equally amazing soundtrack that may be on par, if not better than, the music of its predecessor. The voice acting from the named characters is just as good, even with Jackie's change in voice actor.

The ability to summon an army of Darklings is dropped in this game in favor of accompaniment from a singular Darkling, who wears a Union Jack flag and speaks in a British accent. You even get to control him a couple times during the story, where he aids Jackie further by viscerally executing enemies whilst opening a door or getting him out of a tight spot. I found the Darkling itself to be another source of entertainment, though there is some potential missing from its solo sequences (I can't quite think of what that potential could be, but something felt missing).

Once you complete the main story, you can also go through a Vendettas campaign, a separate story that takes place during the main one, where you get to play as one of four people under Jackie's wing who each master a power of The Darkness in some form. There's even a Hit List option, where you can replay missions from the story as well as a handful of new ones, though some can only be played online. Having played as all four characters, I can say that while this concept is interesting, all of them play very similarly, despite having their own Talent Trees, and the Vendettas option is overall somewhat underwhelming.

And that's one word I would use to describe this game: underwhelming. Yet I would also use this word: amazing. This game takes a step forward with some of its amazing mechanics, but the other aspects of the game are underwhelming, particularly the Vendettas side-plot and the whole idea of Jackie being unhealthily obsessed with Jenny after seeing some character development from the trauma. Despite all this, I would still say to give this game a go because of the more positive aspects, including the sheer power you feel from quad-wielding. If you are a big fan of The Darkness comic you will be happy to see concepts from it finally show up here. Either way though, if you enjoyed the first game, prepare for disappointment.