Saturday, August 25, 2012

Transformers: Fall of Cybertron - Much More than Meets the Eye

Transformers: War for Cybertron from 2010 is probably one of the best experiences I have had with a Transformers game. Naturally, due in part to popularity, High Moon Studios has recently released a sequel to their hit game, Transformers: Fall of Cybertron, while also tying into the events of the Transformers: Prime cartoon (again highly recommended). Since I enjoyed the studio's first Transformers story, I was, of course, greatly excited to play this game, especially with the hype surrounding it and word from the development team on what the game would feature. I had good faith in the product since the people working on the game seemed very enthusiastic about the Transformers brand, and one pre-order later, it met all of my expectations, in fact surpassing them greatly.

In space aboard the Ark, the Autobots are approaching a portal that would send them to another destination, due their home planet of Cybertron being in a dying state. Shortly, the Decepticons have caught up to the Ark and are attempting to stop it. When Bumblebee does what he can to try and prevent the Decepticons from doing any more damage, he manages to intercept Megatron before he deals a fatal blow to Optimus Prime. After this happens, the player begins to learn more about the chain of events that led up to this particular point in time.

As with the game taking place before this one, though this entry more obviously takes place within the current continuity, there are still many, many shout-outs to the Generation 1 cartoon, most especially the 1986 animated movie, even recreating whole scenes from it (including dialogue and, at one point, camera angles); among other scenes from said movie, a particularly hilarious one to see reenacted in the game was Starscream's coronation ceremony. Though I did not grow up on the 80's cartoon, it was still fun to see how the development team managed to work in some design aesthetics from it, and some of the messages given during loading screens show how much fun they had with Transformers lore (one message, for instance, makes a callback to the very first episode of the original cartoon, particularly regarding Teletraan 1). However, some things are there to remind you that the game is, indeed, grounded in the new continuity, including such design choices as Cliffjumper's head sculpt, the look of the Decepticon warship Nemesis, and the new design for Megatron's body, among some plot threads that bring more depth to the Prime cartoon. All in all, it's nice to see that the makers of this game enjoyed working with the brand's mythos.

As with High Moon's previous Transformers games, I liked the way they decided to tell the story, and this game manages to take it one step further. In War for Cybertron, the game had a Decepticon campaign taking place before an Autobot campaign, and Dark of the Moon had the story go from Autobot to Decepticon and then end with the Autobots. Fall of Cybertron makes things more interesting by offering a series of intertwining Autobot and Decepticon chapters, all while keeping a seamless continuing story flow to where you don't want to put the controller down (though I suggest you do that every so often or else you might strain your arm); sometimes there are even button prompts wherein you switch from one character to the next. The story itself is also very engaging and oftentimes suspenseful, with some truly epic moments that make sure you don't forget it any time soon.

With every sequel there comes a chance for improvement, and it appears that High Moon Studios has taken full advantage of this opportunity. Cybertron itself looks even more amazing than it did in War for Cybertron, with a much wider variety of colors that really makes everything pop out at you, thanks to the brighter lighting. There is also evidence that the developer tried to make controlling each character feel as unique as possible, and they succeed in every way. Each character is not only given their own special ability (though a few characters share abilities), but also their own unique transformation scheme and sound, making it a true sight to behold. The Autobot Jazz, for instance, break dances as he transforms to a bass-filled remix of the classic transformation noise. A partial exception to this would be the Autobots Bumblebee and Cliffjumper, since they share a body type (like most of their toys), and therefore have similar transformations.

The gameplay for each chapter of the game feels very unique as well, each having loads of variety in addition to their main mechanic. When playing as the Decepticon Vortex for example, while it is primarily a flying stage, it is also possible to get up close and personal with the Autobots he is facing while at the same time taking advantage of his helicopter form for quick maneuverability. There are even some parts of each stage where one is able to take full advantage of their vehicle mode, and during these points you get a true sense of speed when going at the character's maximum velocity. The Autobot Grimlock is also unique to the point where he has own control scheme, though it works in the game's favor to help you feel a real sense of power when controlling him.

This, combined with other things, leads to some of the epic moments that I brought up earlier. Aside from Grimlock, you are also able to control the Decepticon combiner Bruticus, whose size and strength really make you feel like doing some heavy duty damage, especially with his special ability. While you don't get to control him, another notable moment is witnessing the transformation of the Autobot Metroplex (as seen in the trailers), which creates such a moment of awe that is difficult to put into words. Grimlock's transformation scheme is also spectacular whenever it occurs, further creating the feeling of power mentioned earlier. Coupled with the plot twists that happen throughout the story, this game knows how to keep the player invested.

Another notable bit of change is how Energon Shards are implemented into the game. Whereas previously they were used for recharging your special power, which now recharges on its own over time, here it is used as a form of currency for use in the Teletraan 1 store, where you can purchase many useful weapons and upgrades. You can also unlock new items in the store by finding blueprints scattered across each chapter, alongside various audio logs that provide more backstory on the events of the game; the fact that there are numerous blueprints and an even greater amount of audio logs certainly adds a lot of replay value to the game. You can also rate the items found in the store, allowing you to consult the community on the best way to go about customizing your character's weaponry, and Teletraan 1 will say things relating to the Cybertronian using the store, some of which can actually be fairly humorous.

Like War for Cybertron before it, the sound design deserves a lot of credit. The sound effects in the game are really impressive, in that they sound very realistic and varied enough to not sound repetitive. The soundtrack is just as amazing, with music that helps set the game up for how serious the tone is, even on the main menu screen. During one moment where I faced the death screen, the background music for that level continued to play, and until I continued playing I didn't get tired of hearing it.

Not to be left out is the voice acting, which evidently has a lot of effort put into it. Some voice actors like Sam Riegel, Fred Tatasciore, and Peter Cullen reprise their roles from the original game, and their performances are just as good here as they were previously. While there are some returning voice actors, some of them play different characters and do an amazing job with them, along with some actors new to this game. For instance, while Steve Blum may not be Corey Burton, he does a fantastic job as the Decepticon Shockwave; Jim Ward, who some of you may recognize as Captain Qwark, has an interesting interpretation of the Autobot Perceptor; and Troy Baker actually does an amazing Scatman Crothers impression while voicing Jazz. However, one of the most surprising choices has to be Gregg Berger reprising his role of Grimlock from the Generation 1 cartoon, and after more than 20 years he's still got it in him.

During the campaign, I came across the same problem its predecessor had, namely the texture loading. However, this problem seems to have been mostly fixed, as I only saw one or two noticeable instances of the textures lagging behind the game models, and even then it was only about one or two seconds. In any case, though this problem still exists, it wasn't enough to bog down the experience in any way, but it is still something that needs to be worked on.

One last thing I would like to bring up is the package you get for pre-ordering the game from GameStop, the G1 Retro Pack. This pack includes special weapons based on Generation 1 Megatron and Shockwave, which even has all of the original cartoon sound effects, including the original transformation sound unaltered. It also has a G1 skin for Optimus Prime, which even gives him an alternate mode and transformation scheme reminiscent of said series. I had a good time with this pack despite coming late into the Generation 1 mythos, and hopefully this pack becomes available as DLC later so that G1 fans who were left out may enjoy it also.

Transformers: Fall of Cybertron is not only a great game on its own, it is also an amazing Transformers game, greatly surpassing War for Cybertron. The thrills never stop coming, there is plenty of variety to go around, and the technical work is even more impressive than the last trip to Cybertron. Transformers and shooter fans alike will definitely have a good time with this game, and those following the current Transformers timeline will have something new to add to their collection. In the end, this game not only has the touch, but also the power.

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (Film)

If there's one type of movie that can never seem to catch a break, it would be the video game movie. No matter what Hollywood does to a license, beginning with the very first, it always seems to end in disaster (though some would argue that Hollywood merely touching it is the problem). It is so troubled in fact, that some franchises have been announced but remain in development hell, such the supposed Uncharted and BioShock movies. However, at least a couple of these movies, while still not received well (perhaps under the assumption it will suck anyway), are considered to be a cut above the average adaptation and serve to show a step in the right direction toward what video game movies can become if they really tried hard to make it suitable for the silver screen. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is one of these movies.

After performing a heroic act in his childhood, the orphan Dastan (Jake Gyllenhaal) is adopted by King Sharaman (Ronald Pickup) as a new Prince of Persia. 15 years later, Dastan is leading an attack with his adoptive brothers, Tus (Richard Coyle) and Garsiv (Toby Kebbell), and his uncle, Nizam (Ben Kingsley), on the city of Alamut under the belief that they are selling weapons to Persia's enemies. During their successful attack, Dastan comes into possession of a unique dagger, but thinks nothing of it at this time. In the ceremony following the victory, Dastan unknowingly presents a poisoned robe, given to him by Tus, to King Sharaman. Upon the king's death, Tahmina (Gemma Arterton), Princess of Alamut, flees with Dastan while he still has the dagger. Once they are out in the desert, the prince finds out the dagger he's carrying is the Dagger of Time, a mystical object with the ability to reverse the flow of time itself. With this knowledge the stakes are raised, as he must now not only clear his name and uncover who killed Sharaman, but also prevent the dagger form falling into the wrong hands. At the same time, he must also avoid an untimely death by the hands of the Hassansins.

Now I'll be honest here and say that I have had a very limited exposure to the Prince of Persia franchise, having only played the cash-in title Forgotten Sands. However I did follow coverage of this movie's production because I had interest in the franchise, especially when I learned that the creator, Jordan Mechner, was actually going to be involved; he would end up being credited for Screen Story and as an Executive Producer. I learned that while they weren't going to follow the Sands of Time story exactly, they were going to take some of the best elements and craft a new story, something that I think they managed to succeed in doing to some degree. While I don't know how it works compared to the original source material, I found myself enjoying the story and seeing Dastan's character progression through to the end. It manages to establish everything it needs to pretty well and not only stick with it, but follow through with it and deliver. The movie is overall very consistent and I give it kudos for that.

Where it may falter a little however is the acting. Now, I do think they cast good actors to play the characters, but they way they deliver the dialogue is just okay. It's far from bad, but it seemed more average than I remembered it being when I first saw it in the theater. Despite this I was able to believe that these characters could exist, though Arterton overdoes her character a little bit and comes off as weaker than a princess like her would probably be in her situation. Gyllenhaal still stands out to me as Dastan, since his character is the most fleshed out and I did actually feel happy for him by the end. Nazim was also a real monster of a villain, even to the point where I thought he was a going a bit too far in his plan to use the dagger's full power to wipe out the only good thing he ever did and become king by letting his brother die at the hands of a lion.

While the story and characters, though consistent, seem a little underdone one way or another, I do however praise just about everything else. It's clear that they really wanted to make this movie the best it could be by giving it a shocking budget and getting people who would be passionate enough to want to do a good job (Gyllenhaal even played the games during shooting) and it definitely shows. The designs of the costumes and props have an absolutely phenomenal amount of detail to set the scene in the equally interesting shooting location of Morocco. I also loved the special effects, particularly the time travel effects of the Dagger of Time, which allows for some amazing shots, culminating in the person returning to their original body in a cool way. There's also some heavy parkour action in the movie, which makes sense since it's Prince of Persia after all, that I thought was done and coordinated very well. Clever editing allows us to believe that Gyllenhaal did everything onscreen, though from what I read of the production I have a hard time believing that he didn't do as much as he possibly could to fill the role of Dastan, including the stunts. The score by Harry Gregson-Williams is also pretty good, though I wouldn't consider it very memorable.

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is a video game movie with clear passion behind it. The story and characters are both interesting, with enough attention dedicated to keep the finer details consistent and make the action look as impressive as it can. While not perfect, the results represent a step in the right direction for creating a live action adaptation of a video game, including the vital decision of getting the original creator to work on it (in this case Jordan Mechner). If you want to see a great action film, and don't mind imagining the world as great video game levels, then feel free to give this one a shot.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Darksiders II - The Apocalypse Continues, And It's Still Awesome

Tragedy has struck within the gaming industry. Long-time developer and publisher THQ is suffering from heavy financial trouble, closing down studios while cancelling various projects and narrowly avoiding a NASDAQ delisting. At this point, the company needs to put quality above all else if it wishes to thrive into the next gaming generation, a strategy that they have recognized and have tried to emphasize over the last few months. With both success and failure along the way, they need a hit game now more than ever. Despite a slightly flawed presentation, I greatly hope that Darksiders II will be what gets them back on their feet.

I'll admit that the following premise is something that I couldn't look up in an instruction manual or on the back of the game box for reference and instead had to glean from a couple of websites, since apparently we are in an age where we don't like manuals and the best we can get is a piece of paper (which may or may not fold out) that may or may not tell you anything (this one at least has the courtesy to give you the control scheme): After War is captured for his supposed crimes against the Kingdom of Man, the Charred Council inform the other three Horsemen of it. Death, knowing his brother to be the most honorable and incorruptible of them and would never trigger the Apocalypse early, is enraged by this. Believing it to be conspiracy, he defies the Council and sets off on a personal quest to find evidence that will clear his brother's name. His journey takes him across The Abyss, a place between the three realms, where he seeks the beings that reside there for assistance.

In true Darksiders fashion, the game takes the player through the story by homaging some of gaming's greats. While I still got a God of War and Devil May Cry vibe, with a hint of Portal, I also felt a little Prince of Persia in the mix while playing this time around. As with the first game, I've heard comparisons with The Legend of Zelda, combined this time with Diablo. I haven't played any games related to both of those franchises so I can't really agree with these statements. However, based on what I've heard about the gameplay from them, I can sort of see what they're talking about if not exactly. In any case, the returning elements have been improved upon and the new additions help raise the game to a new high.

Unlike its predecessor, Darksiders II has a heavy emphasis on RPG elements. It is possible now to have an inventory of various items, including primary weapons (Scythes) and secondary weapons (Maces, Arm Blades, Hammers, etc.), greaves, upper and lower body wear and talismans. These items and weapons can be obtained through breakable objects or killing enemies and each item has various stats associated with it depending on what you find. This creates a deep level of customization to suit any and all play styles, which I've found can change depending on what you find to be more practical. For example, I started primarily using scythes with heavy weapons for crowd control, but after a certain point in the game I used a particular set of arm blades near exclusively, emphasizing speed and using scythes to extend my damage combos.

The RPG styling also has two things that come with the territory: shops and a level system complete with skill trees. During gameplay you can collect Gilt, the currency of the Darksiders universe, which can be used to purchase just what you'd expect: items, weapons, health and wrath potions and extra combat moves. The amount of Gilt that can be obtained is infinite, but the rate of collection is surprisingly high. You can even sell off items to afford new ones from vendors, a highly recommended action for many reasons, with the most powerful weapons coming at an appropriately high price. By the time I considered myself finished for my review however I had above 200,000 Gilt on me, which is well more than enough to get by at the end game.

As for the level system, killing enemies and completing quests rewards the player with XP and increases the length of a gray bar present on the HUD. When the bar reaches the end, Death levels up and gains stat boosts and a skill point. Skill points can be spent within two different skill trees, representing his skills as a Harbinger, directly tying into direct assault, and a Necromancer, involving spells that summon forth different beings. Skills gained here can be extremely useful in combat, my favorite one in particular being one that allows you to summon forth flocks of demonic crows to damage enemies and harvest you more health and wrath. It is even possible, through interaction with the returning character Vulgrim, to reset your skill trees and reassign skill points for your personal pleasure. However, I'll admit that once I maxed out all of the crow skills and got raising the dead to a good level, I could easily depend on my summons to take down larger enemies much faster to the point where I almost never took my scythes out.

Combat feels a little different when handling Death rather than War. For one thing, the combat felt faster and more fluid, with an equally fluid dodge mechanic in place of blocking to help emphasize the speed. This gave me more thrills and while actions are still determined by pressing only two buttons for the most part, the various moves and weapons available, including Strife's Redemption gun, offered a different atmosphere. The enemies are still very detailed and stylized, with AI that gives the player a challenge as well, especially when it makes taking down the tougher ones a lot more thrilling and makes the player feel like the pale rider himself.

As with the combat, I noticed an improvement in the platforming abilities of Death. While it's not really platforming in the normal sense, there's still plenty of wall running a la Prince of Persia. It is possible to use the environment in new ways to continue momentum while going to the next spot, including wall posts, wall jumping and posts that require a device not unlike Nero's Devil Bringer arm from Devil May Cry 4. I once again use the word fluid to describe the motions involved in this and puzzles which require these acrobatic feats are challenging enough that you actually feel smart for completing them. Other puzzles reward the same feeling, especially when powers earned later in the game make them increasingly elaborate.

Some of the platforming and puzzles actually involve the returning Voidwalker item from Darksiders, though it only fires blue portals this time around. I felt that it was integrated much better into the gameplay here, including the visual style of the portal-able surfaces and the fact that they now fit behind the entire portal every time. A new upgrade for it also helps a brilliantly designed puzzle level, though I won't really spoil it to keep the surprise there.

The environment in this game is much larger compared to its predecessor, giving it a more open world. Death's horse, Despair, can be used to get across the landscape fairly quickly, with a fast travel option to make it easier to get to locations marked on the game map. Everything also feels larger, creating a larger sense of scale. At times this can make it a little confusing to figure out where to go next in an area without an obvious symbol on the HUD map. Fortunately, Death's crow, Dust, can be commanded with a click of the left stick to show you the way to the next location. It's a nice feature, though I've found its effectiveness to sometimes depend on what your surroundings are like.

As I felt with the previous installment, the story, while still intriguing and original, is something I didn't feel completely invested in. While it does expand on the story well and focuses on Death's character in allowing him to question his morality, I still didn't get a sense of how big the apocalypse truly was, since "Earth" still means that one city we saw previously. There are interesting characters however and the explanation for the events, a great corruption, seems to make some amount of sense. It is fascinating to think about how both Darksiders games thus far take place at the same time, which means that an expanded pattern would mean a singular story told in parts, but I still didn't feel that hook to get me truly engrossed in the world and characters. To put it simply, it's like turning an amp that can go to 11 only up to 10; 10 is powerful indeed, but sometimes you need that extra kick and need to crank it to 11.

Before I end my review however, I'd like to talk about codes. More specifically, the sheer number of them this game has. My GameStop pre-order got me the Death Rides Pack containing additional side quests (one); I had to input the code for the online pass (two); The Limited Edition, automatic upgrade, came with a code for the Argul's Tomb DLC (three) which I had to input on another website to try and get a redeemable code (four); I decided to buy the strategy guide under the promise that I would get the Fletcher's Crow Hammer (five) if I redeemed the code on another website to get a redeemable code (six); If you "Like" a Facebook page, you get a code for Rusanov's Axe (seven); Signing into your THQ account before actually starting to play grants you codes for the Van der Schmash (eight) and Mace Maximus (nine).

Yes, I did actually deal with that many codes to get what I was entitled to. To add to the pain, the system seemed overwhelmed upon release, delaying when I actually got my codes, and when I could access the two sign-in weapons, by up to a day. It is simply crazy when a game like this has that much DLC right off the bat, especially when the player has to jump through so many hoops just to try and get everything they qualified for. If that wasn't enough, I still haven't gotten the code for Argul's Tomb at the time of this writing (a full week after release), which seems to indicate that its not even available yet. Maybe they should cut down on this the next time around so people don't get so exhausted.
At this point, I'd also like to address one complaint that I have about the game: Inventory space. Inventory, while seemingly big, is also very limiting. It may not hit you for quite a while, but at some point you may have no room if you're a gamer like me that absentmindedly keeps it full until the game informs you that you need to remove some stuff (this describes how I've managed to play every RPG ever). This would be alright with me if not for one particular event. A bonus boss exists in the game known as the Deposed King and I lost when trying to fight him while with too low a level to do anything. To that end, I decided to wait until after beating the game before trying again, since I knew I would be a lot stronger then. Well, after a few days, I tried again and after a couple of tries reigned victorious. I was finally ready to receive the Legendary item for beating him, the Scepter of the Deposed King, but then my heart sank when the game told me that I was unable to get it because my inventory was full.

After calming down greatly from the initial frustration of this event, I realized how it could still have given me the item if Vigil wanted to program it with a fix in mind instead of depending on everyone's inventories to be practically empty at the time. Either: The game could tell you to expel some equipment first, meaning that it would buffer the item into the inventory when sufficient room (one slot) was created; they could have made the item a drop in this situation instead of automatically trying to give it to you, meaning that the game would automatically put it in your inventory unless it detected insufficient space in which case it becomes an item you can pick up; they could have taken advantage of the Serpent Tome system to reward you with Legendary weapons and items.

To elaborate, Serpent Tomes are physical locations in the game that work similarly to an in-game email client. Periodically, or when you enter an item code, the game will alert you when a new item has been sent to you. When you go to a Serpent Tome and open a message, the item gets added to your inventory. In fact, if you have an online pass, it is possible to send or trade items with other players. I think that if they also applied this to Legendary weapons as a backup, I wouldn't need to try and get someone to send me their Scepter. Then again, I'm the kind of gamer that likes to have a full set and earn it properly, so at some point in the future, I might try to replay the game through a New Game Plus to try and regain the scepter.

One final minor complaint: navigating every menu is done exclusively with the left analog stick, rather than the more natural D-Pad. This threw me off a bit at first and as I played, I began to think of different ways that navigation could have been handled and yet still incorporate both sticks. For example: D-Pad to navigate and left stick to scroll descriptions on items menus, with the right stick to still search the map screen.

Darksiders II is a great improvement over the original. While the story still isn't completely engaging, plus a couple of other annoyances, the improvements to combat and puzzle solving alone make this game well worth picking up. In a time of financial crisis, I hope that enough people get this game so that THQ may still thrive as a publisher and that Vigil may be able to work on a Darksiders III; this series is really growing on me.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Stubs – The Coca-Cola Kid

THE COCA-COLA KID (1985) Starring: Eric Roberts, Greta Scacchi, Bill Kerr Directed by Dušan Makavejev. Screenplay by Frank Moorhouse. Produced by Les Lithgow, Sylvie Le Ciezio, and David Roe. Run Time: 98. Color. Australia. Romantic Comedy.

Oddly uninvolving, The Coca-Cola Kid tells the story of an American Coca-Cola Executive, Becker (Eric Roberts) who visits the company’s Sidney based subsidiary. Why he came and what he was trying to accomplish is never really clear, though he does fixate on sales in one area in Australia, Anderson Valley, that are non-existent. Terri (Greta Scacchi) is assigned to be Becker’s secretary while he’s in the country and she comes with baggage, namely a very cute daughter, DMZ (Rebecca Smart) and an anarchist ex-husband, Kim (Chris Haywood), who gets into a fight with Terri at the office.

In a rather odd subplot, a waiter at Becker’s hotel (David Slingsby) thinks Becker is with the CIA. And makes overtones that he’s in with whatever plot they have going. Becker tries to dissuade him, but to no avail, finally going ahead and telling the waiter that he can arrange for weapons for $50,000, just to get the guy to leave him alone.

When Becker goes to the Valley to spy on the competition, T. George McDowell (Bill Kerr), he gets shot at by T. George and then kicked out his hotel, which T. George apparently owns, as well as everything else in the Valley. Becker sleeps on, of all places, a cliff and wakes up the next morning, when a camel riding emissary comes to chase him home. But Becker, a former U.S. Marine, is able to overpower him and drives him back to T. George’s.

Suddenly, McDowell is welcoming and shows Becker around the plant, where he makes several varieties of fruit-based soft drinks. He hasn’t changed things much in the 40 years he’s been running the plant, but in some ways, he doesn’t need to. He can keep up with demand and everyone seems to like working for him and drinking his soda. He even listens to Becker’s rhetoric about selling Coca-Cola in T. George’s valley.

A few days later, T. George comes to Sydney. When Terri sees him arrive, she takes to hiding in an ice chest to avoid him. T. George has come to offer a compromise. He’ll sell Coca-Cola in his valley, if they’ll market his soda, which he now calls McCoke, outside. It is a bit of a stretch and he knows it. And while the other people in the office seem to snicker at him, Becker takes him seriously. After pulling an icy Terri out of the cooler, Becker fires her.

Meanwhile, and having nothing else to do with the story, Becker arranges for a new coke jingle with an Australian sound (read: a didgeridoo). The jingle, written by one of the musicians (Tim Finn of Split Enz fame), is very catchy. Lurking about the studio is Terri, who convinces Philip to bring Becker to a party she’s throwing that night.

Once there, she makes a point of embarrassing him by having a transvestite, Marjorie (Ian Gilmour) hit on him and having another friend take photos. Then Becker has food thrown at him. Feeling embarrassed and acting a little effeminate for a Marine, he goes into DMZ’s room and cries, until Kim comes around and starts trouble again. Instead of hustling Kim out, they both end up in the rain, seeking shelter under an overhang and getting to know each other over a few Foster’s.

When Becker goes back to Anderson Valley, he takes with him an armada of Coke delivery trucks, driven by Santa Clauses, as a goodwill gesture, but T. George hates it and has his crew throw the Santas and their trucks out. But he does invite Becker to a Rotary meeting that night and at the meeting invites Becker to meet at midnight at the factory. While T. George and crew plant dynamite about the floor, Becker goes back to his hotel room. Waiting for him, in her Santa outfit, is Terri. And after some back and forth, Becker finally gives into her sexual advances.

But that means Becker misses his meeting with T. George, who shows up the next morning at the hotel while Terri is still there. That’s when we find out that Terri is T. George’s daughter who has run away from Anderson Valley and her father. When the Cola people leave town, T. George blows up his plant and lets it burn to the ground, even going so far as to keep police and fire personnel away. It is not clear if he dies in the flames or not.

Back at his hotel, the waiter gives Becker a partial payment and Becker is able to get authorities to arrest him, but still keep the money. When Becker learns of the explosion at McDowell’s, he quits Coca-Cola and takes the money to Terri and DMZ.

The movie is uneven throughout. The storyline is somewhat confusing at best. Things are never explained, such as why T. George would destroy his own plant. We learn that Terri isn’t interested in the family business, but that’s after he’s already planted the dynamite. We don’t know why Becker is sent to Australia. Sure they’re not doing things the American way, but they are still a successful subsidiary. His change in management approach seems a little over the top.

There are also problems with characters. Becker seems to be whatever he needs to be at that moment in the film. He’s a tough-talking former Marine, espousing that Coca-Cola is somehow in the business of spreading American ideals throughout the world, but he can also cry when embarrassed. He can be unforgiving, firing Terri for being flighty, but can also be very diplomatic when dealing with T. George and tender when he first meets DMZ. (It is in that scene that he tells her to call him the Coca-Cola Kid). And Robert’s accent drifts from southern to sounding like Matthew McConaughey, which is a sort of Texas accent.

Terri is cute, voluptuous, but otherwise insane. Her behavior is odd no matter the situation. When her husband Kim comes in and demands alimony from her at work, she seems to defend him to Becker. When Becker fires her, she still hangs around work, attending the jingle recording session and volunteering to dress like Santa and drive one of the delivery trucks to Anderson Valley. How would she get such access if she was a former employee? And while she seems to be attracted to Becker, how does having photos taken of him with Marjorie help bring them together?

And while Terri and Becker do get together, it seems more that the script told them to, rather than the story lead to it. Becker is not a bad looking guy and he’s in great shape, as we see in many scenes of Roberts sans shirt, but he is also self-absorbed, cold and mean to Terri. He is what is referred to as the Ugly American, so why the pretty Australian girl would want him is never explained. But Robert’s the male lead and Scacchi’s the female lead, so they have to get together if this is to be a romantic comedy. Becker, who has been aggressively asexual throughout the film, not being attracted to Terri or to Marjorie, ends up having sex with Terri and tries to build a relationship with her at the end.

Now you might be thinking Australians have forgotten about characters and movie story-telling, you have to remember that the director is Dušan Makavejev, a Serbian filmmaker, best known for his contributions to Yugoslavian cinema in the 60’s and 70’s. He is not mainstream by a country mile. Makavejev is best remembered for two films, W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism (1971) and Sweet Movie (1974). W.R. deals with the relationship between communist politics and sexuality, while one of the plotlines in Sweet Movie involves a woman piloting a candy-filled boat down a river, seducing men and children. And after she has sex with them, she kills them. By comparison to his other films, The Coca-Cola Kid is accessible.

While I’m not a big believer in trying to read into a film a message that the filmmaker didn’t intend, Makavejev is not very subtle in using Coca-Cola as a stand-in for what I’m sure he saw as U.S. imperialism, as if the nation is trying to remake everyone in the world in our likeness, with the thirst for carbonated beverages leading the way. Becker preaches Americanism with a religious fervor to the point of embarrassment. The only way to avoid America’s influence, apparently, is to destroy yourself before they take you over, grind you up and spit you out. [It should be noted that there are several disclaimers at the beginning of the film, at least on the DVD, in which Coca-Cola distances itself from any involvement with the film.]

There are two things that make The Coca-Cola Kid almost worthwhile. First, for men, is a shower scene featuring Terri and DMZ. While the nudity is obviously gratuitous, there is nothing wrong with seeing a 25-year-old Scacchi in the all-together. She later appears semi-nude in her bedroom scene with Becker, but the shower scene is the most memorable one in the film.

The other thing is the coke jingle. While it was that Australian sound, it is also very catchy. Why this was not nominated for an Academy Award for best original song is beyond me. (“Say You, Say Me” by Lionel Ritchie from White Nights won the award that year if anybody’s interested.) Tim Finn, at the time Scacchi’s boyfriend, also had a bit part in the film, but scores one of the more memorable moments in the film. Once you hear the song, it is hard to forget. If you don't want to have to watch the film to hear the jingle you can click here.

Overall, though, I would not recommend The Coca-Cola Kid. While a movie can still be well made and drive home a political thought, it doesn’t appear that Makavejev can do both. And there are not enough Scacchi shower scenes that can make up for the fact The Coca-Cola Kid is flat.

Stubs – Singin’ In The Rain

SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN (1952) Starring: Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor, Debbie Reynolds. Directed by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen. Screenplay by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Produced by Arthur Freed. Run Time: 103. Color. U.S. Musical, Comedy.

Okay, it seems to me that I’m starting to let Turner Classic Movies determine the titles I write about for this blog. The film, celebrating its 60th anniversary is being shown in an encore presentation at movie theaters around the country next week. This isn’t the old revival type of release, either, but a digital cinema presentation, sort of akin to pay per view on a really big TV screen, but with only one start time to choose from. Some things are better left on film.

The first time I saw Singin’ in the Rain, I was in Junior college, taking an English course that was basically watching movies and writing a few papers on what we had seen. At the time, I was not a big fan of musicals (not that I’m a really huge fan now) and I thought the film was rather silly. I remember writing in my critique that I thought the lyric: “Moses supposes his toeses are roses” was exceptionally so.

Several years later, I’m more open to the musical genre on film and have already written praises of a few on this blog. It is time now to write appreciatively about Singin’ In The Rain. I’m not a fan, in that I’ll watch any musical, but if they’re good and star someone other than Barbara Streisand or Jeanette MacDonald, I might give it a go.

While thinking about what to write about this film, I’m struck by the similarities in the story between this film and last year’s Academy Award-winning The Artist. Both films deal with Hollywood’s transition from silent films to talkies and in particular the impact of the change on the leading man, who starts out as an action-adventure star and ends up as a song and dance man. In fact, Jean Dujardin, who played George Valentin, has acknowledged that Gene Kelly inspired his work. [It should be noted that both Dujardin’s Valentin and Kelly’s Don Lockwood are homages to silent swashbuckling star Douglas Fairbanks.] And whereas The Artist dealt with this transition by staying black and white and silent through 99% of the film, Singin’ In the Rain, depicts the change through vibrant Technicolor and music.

One of the differences though is that while The Artist seems to concentrate on the characters over the technology, Singin’ In The Rain actually provides a bit more of a history lesson, actually showing what went on behind the scenes with vocal coaching and microphone placement. And while I’m sure a true film historian might quibble with this, I think the film is fairly accurate with this portrayal.

The films opens, again like The Artist, at a Hollywood movie premiere. Lockwood and his film love interest Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) are linked romantically by their studio’s, Monumental Pictures, publicity department. The problem is Lina believes her own publicity, despite Lockwood’s attempts to keep her at arm’s length.

One day, while to get away from his fans, Lockwood climbs into a car driven by Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds). Kathy, who claims to be a stage actress, holds Lockwood in disdain. At a party, R.F. Simpson (Millard Mitchell), the head of Monumental, shows a Vitaphone short demonstrating talking pictures. But no one in attendance is impressed or sees the writing on the wall. When a cake is wheeled out, Kathy, to Lockwood’s amusement, pops out. But Kathy doesn’t appreciate Lockwood’s teasing and throws real cake at him, but hits Lina instead. Later, Lockwood manages to find Kathy, who is working, oddly enough, as an extra on another Monumental production and they begin to fall in love.

But the winds of change are already blowing. Warner Bros.'s success with the Jazz Singer in 1927 turns Hollywood on its ear. R.F. makes the decision that talkies are the wave of the future and decides to turn Lockwood’s and Lamont’s latest film, The Dueling Cavalier, into a talkie. The problem is Lina’s voice, which is comical at best. The studio hires a diction coach, but they only get exasperated (and where we get “Moses supposes”). A test screening is also a disaster and when the sound gets out of synch, the results are unintentionally funny.

Don’s best friend, the multi-talented Cosmo Brown (Donald O’Connor) gets the idea to dub Lina’s voice with Kathy’s. Together they persuade R.F. to turn The Dueling Cavalier into a musical, The Dancing Cavalier, complete with a modern sequence, called Broadway Melody, which seems out of place from the get-go (if you asked me). Lina finally clues into the romance between Kathy and Lockwood and tries to break them up. She even becomes angrier when she finds out about her voice being dubbed and R.F.’s plans to give Kathy a screen credit and publicity push. Lina threatens to sue unless R.F. forces Kathy to remain anonymous. R.F. reluctantly capitulates.

While The Dancing Cavalier is a crowd-pleaser, the audience at the premiere clamor for Lina to sing live. R.F., Don, and Cosmo convince Lina to lip-synch to Kathy singing behind a curtain. When the audience applauds, R.F., Don, and Cosmo raise the curtain to show Kathy is really doing the singing. Lina is embarrassed and runs away. Kathy starts to do likewise, but Don announces to the crowd that Kathy is the real star of the film. The film ends with Kathy and Don kissing in front of a billboard for their next film, aptly named Singin’ In The Rain.

There are so many things great at work in this film that make it successful. To start off with, Gene Kelly is a tremendously talented dancer. He doesn’t have Fred Astaire’s finesse, but he makes up for it with athleticism. At the time of Singin’ In the Rain, Kelly had just come off starring in the Academy Award-winning An American in Paris, a musical inspired by George Gershwin’s music, especially the orchestral work from which the film got its name.

Kelly co-directed and co-choreographed the film with Stanley Donen. Donen had come to Hollywood to work for Kelly as an assistant choreographer. They had previously co-directed On The Town (1949) together. Despite their working relationship, the two did not end up as fast friends. Part of the problem was that Donen didn’t feel Kelly gave him the respect and credit he deserved and part of it was the fact the two men both married the same woman, dancer Jeanne Coyne.

Donen was a talented director on his own, included in his canon are Royal Wedding (1951), Funny Face (1955), Indiscreet (1958), Charade (1963), Two For the Road (1967), Bedazzled (1967) and Movie Movie (1978).

You wouldn’t know to look at her on the screen, but at the time she made Singin’ In The Rain, Debbie Reynolds was not a dancer. While she had been a gymnast, Kelly was upset with her lack of experience. Fred Astaire, who happened to be hanging around the studio, offered to help her with her dancing.

Reynolds is a little force of nature. She can sing and dance, as demonstrated in this film and many others; she could also act. In the epic Cinerama western How the West Was Won, Reynolds’ character Lilith Prescott is the thread that holds the film together. She has also proven to be a smart businesswoman, buying warehouses of movie costumes and props, which she has recently been selling for a profit. She is also the mother of Princess Leia, Carrie Fisher. She continues to act, appearing in Albert Brook’s Mother (1996) and has an appearance in One For the Money (2012).

Donald O’Connor began acting in films at the age of 12, appearing with Bing Crosby in Sing, You Sinners (1937). He worked at Universal in 1942, hitting it big with Mister Big (1943). After serving in the Army during World War II, O’Connor returned to Hollywood and got a unique co-star, Francis (1949), the talking mule.  He would make a Francis movie every year until 1955. He got an illness from Frances that prevented him from appearing again with Bing Crosby in White Christmas (1954), a part that would go to Danny Kaye. O’Connor is the comedy relief in Singin’ In The Rain and is perhaps best remembered for the dance number Make ‘Em Laugh from that film.

And what is a musical without songs? Singin’ In The Rain recycles many songs from previous MGM musical films, including the title track, which originally appeared in Hollywood Revue of 1929, itself an early talkie and only the second musical produced at the home of Hollywood musical’s MGM. “Fit as a Fiddle (And Ready For Love)” was originally in College Coach (1933); Going Hollywood (1933) provided “Temptation” and “Beautiful Girl”; “Good Morning” is from Babes in Arms (1939), and so on and so on. There are only two original songs; “Moses Supposes” and “Make ‘Em Laugh”, with the latter considered by many to plagiarized from Cole Porter’s “Be A Clown”.

But it is the production numbers that this film is best known for. Who can forget Kelly sloshing his way through a downpour in “Singin’ In The Rain”, O’Connor’s athletic dancing in “Make ‘Em Laugh” or Kelly, O’Connor, and Reynolds dancing their way through “Good Morning”. Reynolds danced so hard in the latter that her feet began to bleed. “Broadway Melody Ballet” always seems a little tacked on to me, but it is still a very impressive number featuring Cyd Charise, whom Kelly chose over Reynolds.

There is very little not to like about Singin’ In The Rain. If you’ve never seen it, you are in for a real treat. One of the last great MGM musicals, Singin’ In The Rain, is something to behold.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Stubs – Vivacious Lady

VIVACIOUS LADY (1938) Starring: Ginger Rogers, James Stewart, James Ellison, Beulah Bondi, Charles Coburn, Frances Mercer. Directed by George Stevens. Screenplay by P.J. Wolfson, Ernest Pagano. Story by I.A.R. Wylie Produced by George Stevens. Run Time: 90. Black and White. U.S. Screwball Comedy, Romantic Comedy.

While I am a big fan of the Turner Classic Movies channel, I don’t always love some of their block programming. In fact, they are somewhat predictable with some of it. Every February we’re saddled with 30 days of Oscar, in which TCM shows films nominated for Academy Awards. And every August, they have Summer Under the Stars, in which every day of the month is dedicated to a single actor or actress. This is sometimes a hit and miss month for me. It all depends on who they are featuring and the movies they’ve scheduled. In some cases, an entire day with some actors can almost cure you of liking them. Such is not the case of with Ginger Rogers, one day this August was dedicated to her films, and I was able to see some that I had not had a chance to see before.

Best known for the films she made with Fred Astaire for RKO from 1933 to 1939, Ginger Rogers was more than Astaire’s dance partner. She was a gifted comedienne and actress and won an Academy Award for her performance in Kitty Foyle (1940). One of the benefits of spending a day with Ginger Rogers’s films is that you get to see her do more than dance.

One such film I was able to see for the first time was Vivacious Lady, a film she made with James Stewart. Rogers plays Francey Brent, a nightclub singer and dancer and the love interest of Keith Morgan (James Ellison), a professor at Old Sharon University. Keith’s cousin and fellow professor at Old Sharon, Peter Morgan (James Stewart) is sent to New York to bring him home. But once Peter finds Keith (with the help of a waiter played by Jack Carson), he also finds Francey. And it is love at first sight between the two.

After spending the night talking and eating corn on the cob, the two decide to get married. Their honeymoon night is spent on the train back to Old Sharon. While they intend to consummate the marriage on the ride, they are thwarted by the fact the compartment is double booked and already occupied by an older couple. And Keith is in no condition to give up his compartment either.

Waiting for them at the station the next morning are Peter Sr. (Charles Coburn) and Peter’s fiancée Helen (Frances Mercer). Because Peter is afraid to tell his parents about Francey it is decided that Keith will escort her off the train. Peter Sr., an overbearing man, is also the President of Old Sharon. Peter Sr., Keith tells Francey, is even behind Peter’s relationship with Helen.

Keith is almost too willing to help Peter and Francey, taking Francey back to his apartment while Peter gets up the nerve to tell his parents. When Peter Sr. and Helen see Francey with Keith, they both assume that she’s just another of his flings. Back home, Peter tries to talk to his father about Francey, but when he does, his father shuts him down and his mother Martha (Beulah Bondi) takes to bed. It is well known that she suffers from a weak heart.

There is a school prom that night and Peter tells Keith to bring Francey, but in order to get her in, they have to pass her off as a new student at the school. But Helen shows up and whisks Peter away to dance. In the woman’s lounge, Francey meets Martha for the first time and there seems to be an instant liking between them. But Martha thinks Keith cuts in and Peter escapes with Francey out onto a patio off the dance floor. Determined this is the right time and place, Peter leaves Francey and goes to get his parents. But Francey isn’t alone for long. Helen comes out to confront her.

After some witty banter, Helen slaps Francey, who naturally slaps back. Before Peter can round up his parents, Helen and Francey have each other in wrestling holds. But things get worse and before she’s through, Francey misses Helen and punches Peter Sr. in the mouth.

Francey moves out of Keith’s apartment into a woman’s only apartment house near campus. Franklin Pangborn plays the manager, whose job is to keep men from making it upstairs after 6 pm.

Peter finally does tell his father, blurting out the news just before Peter Sr. is about to make a speech. And because of his mother’s heart problems, Peter agrees to his father’s demand not to tell her. But Martha finds out when she goes to visit Francey on her own. Thinking she already knows, Francey calls Martha mom for the first time. But Martha didn’t know and when Francey is concerned she might have caused a heart flare up, Martha makes her own confession.

Her heart problems are just a device she uses to keep her husband in line. Keith arrives to take Francey to school and after learning the secret is out, he coaxes Francey into dancing. Martha joins in and the three are having a grand time dancing around the room when Peter Sr. arrives. He is not happy about the marriage and tells Francey that if she doesn’t leave, he will fire Peter from the university. Francey agrees to leave and Keith returns to the university to tell Peter what has happened. But Martha has thirty years of rage built up inside her. Tired of having to compromise herself for the good of Old Sharon, she decides to leave Peter Sr.

Francey tells Peter that she will leave unless he can change his father’s mind before the train leaves for New York. To disgrace his father, Peter gets drunk and then teaches his next class while drunk and with inspectors in attendance. Peter tells off his father and then resigns, but passes out before he can make it to the train.

After losing his wife and son, Peter Sr. comes around and taking Peter goes after the train. Meanwhile, Francey is about to sit down for a good cry when she realizes Martha is in the next compartment. The two try to cheer up the other when the train comes to a sudden stop. Peter Sr., in order to get the train to stop has parked his car on the rails. Peter Sr. swallows his pride to win his wife back and Peter and Francey finally get to have their honeymoon. Both marriages saved, the movie ends.

There is an old saying, and one I’m sure I’ve already quoted in this blog, that they don’t make them like they used to. Vivacious Lady is one example of this. While the plot would be a hard sell today, it fits with the time it was made. Marriage was an important and expected step in everyone’s life, not so today. The movie belongs back in a time when the movies tried to promote a certain way of life as outlined by the Motion Picture Production Code. I’m not saying studios were doing anything out of the kindness of their hearts or because of some sense of civic duty. They were forced to make movies using certain language and to deal with situations in a certain way.

While that might seem like a terrible bind to put yourself in, it did force movies and their audiences to put two and two together, rather than straight out show you the number four. The more clever the moviemakers, the better they handled the restrictions.

But the main reason for watching the movie in 1938, as well as today, is the performance of Ginger Rogers. While this is not a breakthrough performance by any means, it is solid. This is one film in a long career and it is interesting to see her in films where she is not dancing. She has good comedic timing as well as being cute as heck.

Rogers got into show biz when she was still a teenager. Her mother, Lela, had become a theater critic for the Fort Worth Record and Ginger would often attend the shows with her. One night when Eddie Foy came to Fort Worth, they needed a stand-in and Ginger was hired. She subsequently entered and won a Charleston dance contest which took her on tour for six months. At seventeen, she married Jack Pepper and the two of them had a short lived marriage and vaudeville act, called Ginger and Pepper.

After a few months the marriage broke up and Rogers continued to tour. When it got to New York City, she stayed to try to get work on Broadway. Shortly after her debut in something called Top Speed, she was hired as the lead in George and Ira Gershwin’s new musical, Girl Crazy. Now this must have been quite a show. In addition to making a star out of Rogers, it also made one out of the legendary Ethel Merman. Fred Astaire, an old friend of George’s, was brought in to help with the dancing and the pit orchestra included the likes of Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Gene Krupa and Tommy Dorsey, all big names in Swing music.

After success in Girl Crazy, Rogers was signed by Paramount Pictures. After a few unmemorable films, she got out of her contract and moved to Hollywood, where she worked at Warner Bros., Monogram and Fox. Her breakthrough role as “Anytime Annie” came in 1933 in the movie musical about putting on a musical, 42nd Street. She had a more prominent role in Gold Diggers of 1933 and was paired for the first time with Fred Astaire that same year in RKO’s Flying Down to Rio.

In addition to the films with Fred, Rogers was a major star for RKO throughout the 1930’s and 40’s. appearing in such films as Rafter Romance (1933), Stage Door (1937), Bachelor Mother (1939), Roxie Hart (1942), The Major and the Minor (1942) (Billy Wilder’s debut as a director), The Barkleys of Broadway (1949) which reunited her with Fred Astaire. Her career slowed significantly in the 50’s. Her most significant film of that decade was Monkey Business (1952), a screwball comedy directed by Howard Hawks and co-starring Cary Grant, Charles Coburn and a still up and coming Marilyn Monroe. Rogers’s last film was the low budget Harlow (1965) starring Carol Lynley.

Rogers would continue to act on Broadway and television. She appeared as Dolly Levi in Hello, Dolly! on Broadway in 1965 and as Mame in 1969. Her last television appearance would be in an episode of Hotel in 1987. Rogers would die from a heart attack in Rancho Mirage in 1995, at the age of 83.

While not a stand out in her career, Vivacious Lady is still a showcase of her talent. It also showcased her influence at RKO. In 1938, Jimmy Stewart was not yet a star, but Rogers, who had briefly dated Stewart a few years earlier, fought to get him the role. Prior to this, his biggest role had been as David Graham in 1936’s After The Thin Man. Stewart would go on to a huge career both before and after World War II. What is interesting about Stewart’s performance is that he seems to be a natural in a leading man role. In Vivacious Lady, we get to see a young Stewart who already seems to be a master of his craft.

While many remember director George Stevens for dramas like A Place In the Sun (1951), Giant (1956); the western Shane (1953) or the biblical epic The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that he was able to direct this genre of film. While not his best remembered or even his best film, Vivacious Lady is a very well made, fast-paced comedy.

Stevens, after all, got his start directing comedies at the Hal Roach Studios in 1930. In 1932 and 33, Stevens worked at Universal, but it was at RKO that his career took off. There he directed such films as Alice Adams (1935) with Katherine Hepburn, Annie Oakley (1935) with Barbara Stanwyck and Swing Time (1936) with Fred and Ginger; moving easily from comedies, to biographical films to musicals along the way. In 1939, Stevens would direct Gunga Din, an adventure film with Cary Grant and Victor McLaglen. In the 40’s he would direct Penny Serenade (1941), The Talk of the Town (1942), The More The Merrier (1943) for Columbia and the Hepburn-Tracy rom-com Woman of the Year (1942) for MGM. Stevens’ last film would be The Only Game In Town (1970) with Elizabeth Taylor and Warren Beatty. Stevens would win Best Director twice for A Place In The Sun and Giant.

When Vivacious Lady was made, studios like RKO were making as many as 50 films in a year, in order to keep new films in their theater chains. What we may consider a classic movie today was only one of several new releases that week vying for the attention of the movie-going public. Sometimes, these films are forgettable filler and other times, when everything comes together, you have a solid piece of entertainment that allows you to escape the troubles of the day. Such is the case with Vivacious Lady.

Vivacious Lady is available at the Warner Archive Collection:

Sunday, August 12, 2012

South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut - One of the Funniest Movies Ever Made

In a discussion of modern animated shows, there's a pretty good chance that South Park will come up. The show, created by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, first aired in August 1997 on Comedy Central and remains to be one of the channel's highest rated programs, currently in its 16th season. Amazingly enough, a full length feature film was released in 1999, less than two years into the show's run, to mostly positive reviews. I have decided to review this movie now since I rented it, along with Super Mario Bros., and I've been catching up with the show for a while to gear up for the upcoming South Park: The Stick of Truth video game to be released next year. After watching this movie for the second time, I can say that it should not be skipped.

Stan (Trey Parker), Kyle (Matt Stone), Cartman (Trey Parker) and Kenny (Matt Stone) are excited to see the new Terrance and Phillip movie, Terrance and Phillip: Asses of Fire, in theaters. However, they are denied entry due to its "R" rating and end up sneaking in by paying off a homeless man to purchase tickets for them. When they leave, their newly colorful vocabulary convinces the other children of South Park to see the movie as well, surprising and enraging their parents when they start using profanities in school. As a result, the mothers of South Park form an organization to boycott the movie, which eventually escalates to kidnapping Terrance (Matt Stone) and Phillip (Trey Parker) and a potential war with Canada, the duo's country of origin, which could cause Satan (Trey Parker) to rise back up to Earth to reclaim it as his kingdom.

First and foremost, South Park is a comedy, and humor is where it truly delivers. South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut is considered by many to be one of the funniest movies of all time and I couldn't agree more. The obscene amount of profanities, which actually earned it a Guinness World Record for "Most Swearing in an Animated Film" with 399 profane words, and their creative application by the cast is on its own laugh-out-loud funny, though the humor can also be a little base at times. This movie also makes fun of as many people and groups as it possibly can, including the Baldwins, Saddam Hussein, the United States Military and even the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA (I'll get back to that in a bit)). While some may be offended by the sense of humor it has, that appears to be the point due it being so light-heartedly offensive as to be funny.

Within all of the humor, the main theme of the movie is censorship and scapegoating. When the children of the town are cursing up a storm, the parents swoop in to try and curb their actions, but to no avail (the kids even watch Asses of Fire again after a rehab session encouraging the opposite). After this failure, the mothers form Mothers Against Canada and decide that instead of pinning the blame on the movie, as originally attempted, they should instead blame the entirety of Canada for what has happened to their children. This takes the scapegoating to its highest extreme and is a wonderful parody of how far people will go to blame the source. The issue of censorship is also parodied fantastically by having a V-Chip placed into Cartman's brain. Since Cartman swears the most out of all the boys, it's even funnier to hear him struggle to swear as he finds out what is considered a swear by the chip, but certain words that fall into the category are even funnier to hear (who knew that Barbara Streisand was a swear?).

To top it all off, Bigger, Longer & Uncut is also a musical, featuring a good number of tunes written by Trey Parker and Marc Shaiman. The presence of these songs evoke feelings from other musicals, though in a way that not only keeps the humor of the show, but also shows off Trey Parker's love of Broadway show tunes. A good number of them are extremely catchy, like "Blame Canada", "Uncle F**ka" and "What Would Brian Boitano Do?", while others are simply fun to listen to, like "Mountain Town" and "Kyle's Mom's a B**ch" among others. Interestingly, "Blame Canada", a song which embodies and ramps up the scapegoating theme, was even nominated for an Academy Award for Best Song (though it lost to Phil Collins' "You'll Be in my Heart"). The work that was put into every song, for the most part, paid off spectacularly and contributes to the atmosphere and events to make the overall experience more enjoyable.

And now for the delayed bit about the MPAA. This organization is one of many that are made fun of in the movie, mainly for the fact that they have a problem with words, but not violence and blood. They are also criticized in the same context for not being effective, since the boys are able to get into the Asses of Fire screening despite the "R" rating attached. In fact, the act of sneaking in was practically mirrored in real life due to underage fans of South Park unsuccessfully sneaking into the movie, which apparently included buying tickets for WB's Wild Wild West and instead sitting in on South Park. In real life, Parker and Stone had also fought with the MPAA to try and get the film approved with an "R", getting an "NC-17" repeatedly until two weeks before release when it suddenly got the desired rating without any changes; whenever a scene was rejected during the process however, the duo would make it even worse and it instantly got approved. Looking back on it I can see why the film may have been rated higher than it is officially, but the fact that it has an "R" should still say something. In fact, the controversy from the rating itself is the reason that the MPAA prints information on movie posters explaining why they rated a movie a certain way, a "rating reason" if you will.

South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut is one of the funniest musical comedies I have ever seen. This film from 1999 still holds up today with its messages, the humor is still as sharp as ever and the music is really fun to listen to. It may run a little long for some, but it is truly an example of a movie that has aged graciously. Fans of South Park will definitely enjoy it, as will those who have heard of the movie or the hype surrounding it. Just keep in mind however that if you have children under the appropriate age, don't let them see it just yet and explain the reasons properly. If you are a child, please wait until you are old enough; you'll like it better when you're older.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Super Mario Bros. (Film) - A Major Bob-omb

Nintendo is perhaps one of the biggest names in the video game industry, alongside Sony, Microsoft, and others of their ilk. And when you think of Nintendo, chances are the first thing you think of is Mario (or Zelda). The plumber was first introduced in the early 80's, his popularity turning his franchise into the unstoppable gaming juggernaut it is today, each game having various degrees of success. The one game that is probably in the library of most NES owners, however, is Super Mario Bros., released in 1985. The game has remained a popular favorite to this day, and in 1993, a movie adaptation was released by Hollywood Pictures. Like another movie, however, this is one that I have heard bad things about to where I felt like I had to see it for myself, except this time I went in with some knowledge of and experience with the game on which it is based.

Mario Brothers Plumbing is a small business in New York, run by Italian-Americans Mario Mario (Bob Hoskins) and Luigi Mario (John Leguizamo), often competing with the much larger Scapelli Construction Company. After another failed attempt to beat Scapelli to a job, the Mario brothers' van breaks down. As Mario tries to fix it, Luigi meets a university student named Daisy (Samantha Mathis), who has been trying to excavate dinosaur fossils. At the same time, two idiots named Iggy (Fisher Stevens) and Spike (Richard Edson) have been tailing Daisy in an attempt to kidnap her. After a date with Daisy, Luigi is knocked out along with his brother Mario as they try to fix a major flooding problem, during which Daisy is taken by the aforementioned idiots. After recovering, the Mario brothers follow close behind and end up at a strange rock formation within a large pipe, which seems to act as a portal to another world. The brothers soon find themselves in a strange city covered in fungus run by Bowser King Koopa (Dennis Hopper) as they continue their quest to rescue Daisy.

Of course, the plot of this movie deviates from that of the game, which is to be expected, but at times it feels more like a completely different movie with Mario super-glued onto it. The concept of multiple dimensions is fine, as it gives the plot an excuse to shove in Mario references, but eventually it gets a little weird. You see, Koopa's plan is to kidnap Daisy in order to obtain a special rock around her neck that's actually the final piece of a meteor that made his dimension what it is which, when completed, will merge his dimension with ours so that he can become the ruler of both worlds, and Daisy is somehow the only one that can survive contact with the finished meteor along with anyone else she happens to be touching.

Since I bring up Mario references, this is something I need to expand upon. At many points throughout the movie, it feels like it's trying a little too hard to shove in things from the game, as if to try to remind you that that is what you are watching. For instance, Goombas and Yoshi make appearances, though the former does not resemble its game counterpart in any way and the latter only vaguely resembles his. To add to this King Koopa, like his Goomba minions, doesn't look like his namesake from the game (that is until very briefly at the final confrontation) and we never see the Mario brothers wearing anything like their iconic gear until about an hour into the movie. To give it credit though, some of the nods to the game are actually pretty clever. At one point we see the Banzai Bill enemy as an object used on special boots, as well as signs within the Koopa-run city for Thwomp and Hammer Brothers; you can also briefly see an electronic equivalent of the "?" box on a screen. Another clever one is Bob-omb, who is actually a plot point and appears as a small wind-up toy that explodes (and, alongside the Banzai Bill, it's the only thing that looks exactly like the game character).

As for the rest of the feature, I personally thought the acting was just okay. Throughout the story, the actors seem like they're at least trying to make something out of their parts, but nothing really stood out to me. On the same level, the music was also okay. Despite there being some big names attached to the soundtrack like Joe Satriani, Queen, and Megadeth, it's more likely that you will remember that Super Mario Bros. theme at the very beginning than anything else, if only because the movie itself is rather dull. On the other hand, the sets were actually pretty good and the special effects used were pretty decent for a movie from 1993. The visuals that were used make the setting somewhat believable, so I would give the film more technical credit than the acting.

My biggest complaint though has to go to the overall length and pacing of the product. Things often seem like they take forever to resolve and there seems to be a lot of padding. A case of this is an attempt at setting up a joke regarding King Koopa ordering a pizza, which goes absolutely nowhere. Scenes like this only serve to drag out the movie longer than necessary and made me more and more disinterested as it went on.

Overall, Super Mario Bros., like most video game movies out there, is not all that great to say the least, despite what the packaging may tell you. While the effects are good and some of the video game nods can be clever, the length and pacing of the movie makes for a rather boring experience. However, if you are looking for a bad movie that you can easily make fun of, give this movie a try. Otherwise, for hardcore Mario fans, a better experience is in another castle.

Uncharted (Comic) - A Thrilling Addition To The Franchise

I am aware now that even though the blog's header is emblazoned with the promise of reviews for licensed video game comics, only three exist so far (and all are done by the same person). Since there's time before the next major video game release and I don't really have anything to build up to, I've decided to try and rectify that.

It appears that if a video game series is popular enough or if they want to generate hype, they'll create a comic book adaptation. This isn't in itself a bad thing, since it gives the series another opportunity to expand on its own universe without requiring millions of dollars and years of coordinated effort. In the case of the Uncharted comic, the subject of this review, it was made during production of Uncharted 3 and since the first issue around the game's November 2011 release, it effectively counts as a tie-in comic, in fact being a six-issue miniseries. As someone who is a fan of the Uncharted franchise, as well as comic books, I knew as soon as I heard about it that I needed to read it. I did so and over the course of six months found myself anticipating each new issue, enjoying the sight of a brand new tale unfold. Four months after the final issue release, I'm here to say that the journey is very much worth a look.

After completing a treasure hunting job, Nathan Drake divides the spoils with his partner Flynn, who parts ways with him after Nathan takes the one thing he was looking for: a journal. Victor Sullivan, aka Sully, wonders how it could be of any value to their employers, Michael and Rose Doughty, but Drake notices that the journal is in code and translates it to figure out its value. It turns out that the journal is also the flight record of Richard Evelyn Byrd, who discovered a place called the Amber Room within the confines of the Arctic. When they learn more about the discovery, Nathan and Sully decide to try and discover it before the Doughtys in the hopes that they can claim the treasure of the room for themselves. In the events that follow, enemies are made, friends are made for the first time and a secret about the Doughtys proves to be a danger to everyone.

The execution of this story is pulled to such an amazing capacity as to feel exactly like the video games. It even goes so far as to open with a quote, this time by Richard Evelyn Byrd, and stick Nathan right in the middle of the action. Having most of the story be told in flashback as a result only contributes to the feeling, with some scenes making me wonder if they could be turned into interactive game levels. In this regard, I feel that writer Joshua Williamson really knew what he was doing. The dialogue in fact was crafted well enough that I could hear every character's voice in my head and believe it, though I did have to try and invent voices for the newcomers.

Speaking of which, the characterization is absolutely flawless. Among many things, this comic fills us in on how Nathan Drake and Chloe Frazer, first seen in Uncharted 2, met each other for the first time. Their banter and building trust for one another is done such that it seemed to fit right in with how they would behave. Sully also fills his role well as Drake's partner and mentor, as well as acting just as he would under normal circumstances (or at least what constitutes as normal for them). The new characters Michael and Rose Doughty are also very interesting. Their overall motivation regarding Nathan Drake is actually pretty justified yet at the same time justifiably crazy. What's more interesting is that while the brother and sister duo both want to find the Amber Room, their actual reasons differ in that while they both want something of monetary value, one is lazy and the other is adventurous. In the end they are both memorable characters and great additions to the world of Uncharted.

The art of this comic is also amazing. Sergio Sandoval's pencil work and Pol Gas' inking with the colors of Ikari Studio bring out the look of Uncharted and adapt it well to fit a new medium, expertly converting the 3D models to a gorgeous 2D style. I have no  issues with anatomy or character designs since they match the models they are based on and the Doughtys are able to stand out from everyone else in a way that is visually appealing. I also liked the expressions given to each character, which also with the dialogue allowed me to believe that the actions of the characters are what they would do in a given situation. The covers for each issue are impressive as well. While the cover artist changes at least once, the action depicted is accurate to the events of the issue while also functioning very well on its own as a piece of art.

An example of the interior art.
My praise extends to the action sequences, the bread and butter of the franchise. There are, appropriately, a few set piece moments that are stunning and impressive to look at. The amount of space they take up on a page is very appropriate, since it retains the feeling of size that one might see in any of the games. They are also a good way of creating tension by thrusting Drake into a very harrowing situation and allowing us to wonder just how he'll live through the next one. Some of the fight scenes are also very well choreographed and have a unique panel layout, including one fight between Nathan and Chloe involving a two-page spread made of panels.

After reading this a second time, I believe this story to be a possible prequel to Uncharted: Drake's Fortune since Elena Fisher isn't mentioned. This is also Chloe's first canonical appearance and she is shown in Uncharted 2 to be an old flame of Drake's, so this position in the timeline seems to make sense.

DC's Uncharted comic is a welcome addition to the franchise. It's story and characters are well written, the art is fantastic and the overall vibes that I would normally get from the games are still present within the pages. What makes it even better is that the story is still very good even without association with the franchise, though it would make a little more sense to those with experience. Any fan should pick this series up, as well as comic readers that want a well executed action story. The series is now available as a Trade Paperback, so there's no excuse not to pick it up, though if you're like me and have the individual issues, you can also pinpoint exactly what month DC changed their logo to what we see now (and my opinion of that logo is another story for another time).