Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Stubs – Boy Meets Girl

Boy Meets Girl (1938) Starring: James Cagney, Pat O’Brien, Marie Wilson, Ralph Bellamy, Frank McHugh, Dick Foran, Bruce Lester. Directed by Lloyd Bacon. Screenplay by Bella Spewack and Samuel Spewack. Based on a play by Bella Spewack and Samuel Spewack. Run Time: 86 minutes. U.S. B&W  Comedy, Romance

While not a great film, Boy Meets Girl has the distinction of being the first onscreen teaming of James Cagney and Pat O’Brien. The two would be teamed up nine times throughout their career, including Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) and Cagney’s last film Ragtime (1981).

Cagney, perhaps best known at this point of his career as a gangster, plays Robert Law and O’Brien plays his writing partner J. Carlyle Benson. They are a pair of wacky writers working at Royal Studios, which is very reminiscent of Warner Bros., except Royal is on the market. They are assigned to write the new film for cowboy star Larry Toms (Dick Foran) for producer C. Elliott Friday (Ralph Bellamy). Part of their problem is inspiration, which comes in the form of commissary waitress Susan Seabrook (Marie Wilson), who is pregnant and faints in Friday’s office.

Law and Benson want to take care of Susie and arrange for her hospital care when she gives birth, but also for her financial future when they come up with the idea of teaming her yet unborn baby, Happy, with Toms in his next picture Golden Nuggets. The film turns out to be a big success. This gives Susie the chance to go to high school which has been her dream, while Happy works on his next pairing with Toms. But Toms doesn’t like playing second fiddle to a baby.

He and his agent Rossetti (Frank McHugh) dream up the idea of marrying Susie as a way of taking back  Rodney Bowman (Bruce Lester), who had been fired by Friday from the film Young England.

Susie asks Law and Benson if she should accept Toms’ proposal and they tell her no, but ask her to leave them alone. They don’t spring into action until Rossetti tells him that he’s signed Toms to a new contract with Royal that includes Happy. He tells them that Susie thought they had grown tired of her and she was on her way to a premiere with Toms. Rossetti further tells them that with Toms having control of Happy, they could get kicked off the lot as revenge for having made fun of Toms.

They decide they have to get back control of Happy. The plan they devise is for Happy’s “real” father to show up at the movie premiere. They first call central casting until Rodney walks into the office, having been called to Friday’s office. They hire him to play the part, telling him that he’s making a trailer.

At the premiere of The White Rajah (a supposed Errol Flynn movie) at the Carthay Circle, Ronald Reagan plays the radio announcer. When Toms and Susie go to Reagan’s mike, Rodney comes forward to make a spectacle. He claims to be Happy’s father and then gives her a kiss. Back at Royal, Friday hears the radio broadcast as does studio boss BK Whitacre (Pierre Watkin), who orders Friday to get to the truth.

Rodney manages to escape the police, but doesn’t know what’s going on. Back at the studio, Toms tells Friday that he was embarrassed in front of his fans and refuses to work with Happy again or for Royal Studios. Law brings Rodney back to the studio and stashes him in an office. Benson, who has a high spending wife and needs to keep his job, gets Law to move Rodney, but when he goes to get him, he finds he’s escaped and is loose in the studio.

Susie comes back and tells them about what had happened at home. Happy has the measles. Studio security brings Rodney back to Friday’s office and blames Law and Benson. Law does some quick talking to counter his story. Rodney insists he was put up to the prank. Friday can’t wait to tell BK about them, who insists Friday fire them. Larry comes into Friday’s office because he caught the measles from Happy.

Cut to the hospital. Benson comes to visit Happy, whose room is across the hall from Toms, and runs into Susie. Benson confesses that he’s fallen on hard times. Law shows up, on his way back home to Vermont so he can write a novel. Benson tells Law that his wife, Pearl, left him, but confesses he wants her back. Law tries to get Rossetti to get Benson a job, but he refuses. While Law says good-bye to Happy, Benson begs Rossetti to get them a one picture deal somewhere to prevent Law from leaving. But before he can leave, a registered letter comes from Friday, firing Happy for being gone from the studio for two weeks. Law tries to leave, but Benson tries to talk him into staying, but Law is committed to leaving. But as a joke on Toms, Benson convinces Law to call their friend Jascha Alexander (Eddie Conrad) in Paris on his hospital bill. Law gets the idea to get Jascha to send a telegram from London, pretending to be the head of Teddington British studios, offering $5 million to buy Royal Studios as long as Happy is under long term contract.

Everything at Royal is in flux. Toms finds that he’s out and Susie shows up in Friday’s office while Law and Benson are in BK’s office drawing up Happy’s contract. Friday leaves Susie in his office so she can do her homework while he tries to get in on the new contract negotiations. Rodney shows up and asks Susie to marry him. She tells him that Happy’s father, Jack, was an accidental bigamist, whose Mexican divorce from his first wife was invalid. She sent him back to his first wife, who ended up shooting and killing him.

Rodney, who turns out to be a well-to-do Englishman, won’t take no for an answer and convinces her to take Happy out of films and come to England with him. Law and Benson try to make Rodney out to be a confidence man, but when Toms shows up with Major Thompson (James Stephenson) the Los Angeles representative from Teddington British, Thompson verifies that the $5 million offer is a fake. But he recognizes and vouches for Rodney, which is good enough for Susie.

With Happy leaving with mom for England, Friday wishes he could fire Law and Benson, but their contract is airtight. Friday is just happy to be through with babies, but that lasts only a few seconds, when his wife calls to tell him she’s pregnant. Law and Benson spin another baby-centric yarn and the movie ends.

While this is supposed to be a comedy, it is not really all that funny or as funny as it could be. Boy Meets Girl has many of the hallmarks of a screwball comedy. What it lacks is the rapid fire dialogue of say His Girl Friday (1940). The dialogue has humor, but it’s delivered a little too leisurely. While Cagney can do comedy, he doesn’t quite pull it off in this film. The plot is also more than a little far-fetched and the holes it leaves are just glossed over.

Boy Meets Girl also has a huge time issue that it never really addresses. When Susie is pregnant, Law and Benson pitch the idea for Golden Nuggets. It’s shot when Happy is 8 months old, but even after it’s released and they’re negotiating Happy’s next contract, Friday is still editing Young England, the same film that Rodney was an extra in when he met Susie. Young England has to be Olde England by that time, given the usual quick turnaround of films during the studio’s heydays, which the film takes place smack in the middle of.

It is interesting to note that Susie, who is pregnant at the beginning, is not legally married. An oddity considering the Production code had been in place since 1934. They try to address that with the story about the accidental bigamist she was married to when she became pregnant, but Happy, by any definition, would be a bastard.

Susie is played by Marie Wilson, the quintessential dumb blonde. Wilson made a splash in Satan Met a Lady (1934), the second, but not the best film adaptation of Dashiell Hammet’s The Maltese Falcon. Some say her portrayal of Miss Murgatroyd in that film is the blueprint for Marilyn Monroe’s on-screen persona. Ironically, Monroe’s emergence on the scene spelled the end of Wilson’s film career. Wilson would have her biggest success as Irma Peterson, the lead of My Friend Irma, first on the radio series in 1947, then in two movies and finally on a TV series from 1952 to 1954.

Not the best pairing of Cagney and O’Brien and far from the best comedy Warner’s would produce, there is still some fun in watching Boy Meets Girl. The brief behind the scenes glimpses of Hollywood in the late 30’s: the Warner’s sound stages, the studio commissary and the arrival of stars at the premiere being broadcast over the radio, are interesting. As with any Warner Bros. film of the era there are plenty of character actors to note, including John Ridgely as Simmons the editor on Young England and a young Ronald Reagan as the radio announcer. I think he went on to something big later on, too.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Stubs – Cyrano de Bergerac (1950)

Cyrano de Bergerac (1950) Starring: José Ferrer, Mala Powers, William Prince. Directed by Michael Gordon. Screenplay by Carl Formen, Based on the play by Edmond Rostand and the translation by Brian Hooker. Music by Dimitri Tiomkin. Produced by Stanley Kramer. Run Time: 112 minutes. U.S. B&W Drama, Comedy, Romance

Something I didn’t know until researching for this review is that Cyrano de Bergerac was a real person, and like his fictional counterpoint, a French dramatist and duelist. And according to some portraits, the real Cyrano had a large nose, but nothing like the proboscis José Ferrer wears in this film.

But that’s maybe where fiction and reality part ways. The 1950 feature is the first English-language film based on Rostand’s play. And while there are some adaptation changes, such as the combination of some characters, the story remains pretty much intact.

The film starts with a play, but one which Cyrano (José Ferrer) disrupts. Cyrano does not like the actor Montfleury’s (Arthur Blake) bombastic style and wants the actor to vacate the stage, going so far as to threaten his life if he doesn’t. Montfleury doesn’t give way until Cyrano counts down to three. But Cyrano’s disruption is not appreciated by everyone. The Viscomte de Valvert (Albert Cavens) challenges Cyrano to a duel by insulting Cyrano’s nose.

But before Cyrano dispatches with the Viscomte, he mocks his lack of wit and gives him several other ways he could have referred to the nose. Then during the swordfight, Cyrano composes a ballad, the final line of which he punctuates by stabbing his rival.

After the duel, Le Bret (Morris Carnovsky), Cyrano’s friend and the Captain of the Gascony guards, warns him the he is making enemies of the victim’s friends. But Le Bret gets Cyrano to admit to why he truly hates Montfleury, which is jealousy over his beautiful cousin Roxanne (Mala Powers) being smiled at by the actor. Cyrano admits to Le Bret that he’s in love with Roxanne, but because of his nose feels that his love would not be returned. But when an invitation comes to meet Roxanne the next morning at Ragueneau’s (Lloyd Corrigan) bakery, Cyrano decides to act.

But outside the theater, Ragueneau, who like Cyrano is a poet, has been threatened by the man his verses mock, the Comte De Guiche (Ralph Canton), Cyrano escorts him home. On the way, he kills eight of the ruffians De Guiche has hired and chases off the rest.

The next morning, before Cyrano can tell Roxanne his feelings, she confesses to him that she has fallen in love with a young and handsome guardsman Christian de Neuvillette (William Prince), though she has not even spoken to him. Cyrano, who is crushed to hear this, agrees to help her.

Cyrano befriends Christian, who admits that he’s also infatuated by Roxanne, but is too inept to actually speak to her. Cyrano decides to help him by composing Christian’s love letters to Roxanne. And while she falls in love with the letters, Christian decides he wants to go on his own. But when he speaks to Roxanne his verse is plain and she is turned off. Again, with Cyrano’s help, Christian speaks to her under her balcony. Cyrano even takes over, when Christian falters, speaking from his heart but imitating Christian’s voice. So eloquent are his words, that Christian wins a kiss from fair Roxanne.

But Christian is not Roxanne’s only suitor. The Comte De Guiche is also trying to woo her, going so far as to send a priest to her house to marry them. But when Roxanne reads the note, she changes it to suit her desire to marry Christian. She implores Cyrano to keep De Guiche at bay until she and Christian can be married. And even though they are married, De Guiche is furious and, as Christian’s commander, orders him to join his unit for the war with Spain. This denies the couple from spending their wedding night together.

Cyrano joins Christian and helps De Guiche win respect from his men in battle. Every day, Cyrano also writes to Roxanne on Christian’s behalf. On the eve of battle, Roxanne visits her husband at the front and tells him that based on his words she would love him even if he was ugly. Christian knows that Roxanne really loves Cyrano and offers to step aside. He wants Cyrano to tell Roxanne the truth and let her decide between them. However, before Cyrano can speak to Roxanne, Christian volunteers for a dangerous mission that would have normally gone to Cyrano. But Christian is not as skilled as his friend and is mortally wounded.

Silenced by Christian’s death, Cyrano nevertheless continues to visit Roxanne, who enters a convent in mourning. De Guiche, who is still in love with her, warns Cyrano one night that there is a plot afoot by the nobility his poems mock to kill him. One night Cyrano is run down by a carriage. Even though he is mortally wounded, Cyrano keeps his appointment with Roxanne one last time. His love for Roxanne is finally revealed when Cyrano recites from memory one of the love letters that she loves. But Cyrano falls into delirium and dies.

Not the happy ending one unfamiliar with the story would have hoped for. Perhaps no better and sadder story about unrequited love has ever been told than this one, including the play and the subsequent film versions made of it. The film is filled with both wit and pathos which must be in the original work as well. Some of the lines are very funny and very clever and remind one of Shakespearean wordplay.

The film, however, has a low-budget, stagy feel to it. You never forget that you are watching a filmed play. The saving grace is José Ferrer’s performance as Cyrano. He won every major acting award of his day, including the Academy Award for Best Actor. The film is worth watching for his performance alone. While many have played the part, it is hard to imagine anyone could better Ferrer’s portrayal.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Transformers: Fall of Cybertron (Comic)

Around the release of the game Transformers: Fall of Cybertron, IDW Publishing announced a pair of tie-in comic books, both of which center on the Dinobots; the first of these comics was a 6-issue digital series that shares the game's name and was released on a bi-weekly schedule coinciding with the release of the game; the second comic is a 4-issue series titled Transformers Prime: Rage of the Dinobots and will be released on a monthly schedule beginning this month. The first comic, Transformers: Fall of Cybertron, recently finished its run, which I have been keeping up with through the Comixology digital comic service, each issue costing $1 USD for 8 pages of content each. Incidentally, this is actually the second digital comic I have ever purchased, the first being Transformers: Autocracy (another digital exclusive). At a total of $6 USD for 48 pages of story, the question remains: Is it worth it?

The story of the Fall of Cybertron comic serves as a prequel to the events of the game, focusing on how Grimlock, along with the rest of the Lightning Strike Coalition, became a test subject for the Decepticon Shockwave. This story is written by John Barber, an editor at IDW and currently the writer of the ongoing Transformers: Robots in Disguise comic. Barber has written some good Transformers material, in fact using his skills to cleverly cover up holes in IDW's G1 continuity, and I think he wrote this comic well, save for one or two spelling errors. Based on what's been seen of the featured characters in the game, I believe that everyone is in character, to where I could imagine the characters' voices as I was reading it (though since the Robots in Disguise comic also features characters in War For Cybertron bodies, I ended up almost mixing up the voices, trying to think of Sam Riegel instead of Chris Latta for Starscream and almost thinking of Corey Burton instead of Steve Blum for Shockwave). It feels like a good transition into Grimlock's side of the story in the game and his characterization was, at least for the most part, consistent. This may seem like nitpicking, but what kind of bothered me a little was that Grimlock's text boxes were purple while Shockwave's were red; Grimlock is an  Autobot, so I thought his boxes should have been red to match the color of the Autobot insignia, and vice-versa for Shockwave. I'll give it this though: the comic is at least consistent with this color choice.

The artwork for this story is drawn by Dheeraj Verma, who actually does a really good job for his first Transformers work. Every character in the comic has a great amount of detail accurately portraying how each robot looks in the game; this sort of backfires a little however, since based on the context of the story, Megatron should still be in his War for Cybertron body and the Lightning Strike Coalition should theoretically not have bodies resembling their Dinobot selves, though the latter was likely done for lack of pre-Dinobot designs in any material for the game (that I know of). Putting that aside, Verma's pencils are amazing, backed by some great colors from the handful of colorists working on the comic. Verma also draws the covers for each issue, which along with his interior work perfectly capture the essence of Fall of Cybertron.

For $6 USD, the Fall of Cybertron comic is a worthy investment. It provides more insight on what happened before the events of the game and adds more depth to the character of Grimlock. Aside from a couple errors, this comic is a must-read for Transformers fans who enjoyed the Fall of Cybertron game and/or are keeping with the current Transformers continuity. My only hope is that this comic, like Autocracy before it, gets released later in a physical form, perhaps in a trade paperback like Autocracy or something.

Beautiful Katamari - Lacks Some Luster

You may have heard of an odd Japanese game called Katamari Damacy. If you have not, it is a game created by Keita Takahashi that involves rolling a ball around in order to pick up stuff so it be made into a star; this premise came about because Takahashi wanted to re-introduce simplicity to gaming. When it was released in 2004, it became a sleeper hit, increasing in popularity to spawn many sequels to come. I myself am a fan of this series, having played the original Katamari Damacy and its sequels We Love Katamari, Me & My Katamari, and Katamari Forever (I would play the unfortunately-named Touch My Katamari, but as of this writing I currently do not own a PlayStation Vita). I had a desire to play the subject of this review, Beautiful Katamari, for a while, but for that while I did not own an Xbox 360. Now that I have had one for about a year, I recently got my hands on this game to further complete my Katamari collection. Personally, I enjoyed the game, although it isn't quite as beautiful as the title suggests.

As is the norm for a Katamari game, the story has some sort of excuse to set the plot in motion. This time, The King and Queen of All Cosmos are playing tennis, when the King hits a ball so hard that it creates a black hole that threatens to swallow the universe. He then sends you, the Prince, in order to roll up junk on Earth to recreate the Solar System (this is from back when Pluto was still considered a planet) and plug up the black hole.

If you've played a Katamari game before, the controls are essentially similar to the others before it. To move your Katamari, you must manipulate both analog sticks in certain ways: moth both forward or back to move in that direction, or tilt one a certain way in order to change the direction the ball is rolling in; alternating the sticks rapidly charges the ball to jet forward briefly, while clicking the sticks moves you to the opposite side of the ball. These are the basics of the controls, but the familiarity isn't a bad thing since it allows fans and newcomers alike to dive right into the game. However, even with the design of the analog sticks on the 360's controller, I end up running into the same problem I have with the console games where playing for an extended period causes severe pain to my thumbs, so I would suggest playing in chunks unless you think you can handle it. In addition, I run into another problem where, due to my constant thumb action and the layout of the controller, may hands ended up forming a tight, painful grip on it as if my hands were claws, so this should enforce my previous statement about playing in bursts.

The graphics of the game are simplistic, but this is a necessity in order for the game to render everything at once (depending on your Katamari size, at which point smaller objects disappear once you level up). This gives the series its trademark boxy visuals, which carry over nicely to this game. One thing I found odd at some points was when I rolled up enough objects before moving on, where the game suddenly become a lot smoother, which is actually rather unusual for a Katamari game. I don't know if this has to do with the 360's hardware or not, but in any case this shouldn't be taken as a complaint; I just haven't seen it before is all. Overall, no complaints here.

The level design is also typical for Katamari Damacy, with most goals being the usual "roll a ball this size within this amount of time". This also isn't too much of a complaint, though I should say that there's at least some variety in the levels; the most I can recall is a level where you must roll up objects that heat up your Katamari in order to create Mars. While it does feel familiar, it can be disappointing for anyone more familiar with the franchise. One thing I feel like I should mention is one level that features a large number of Xbox 360 controllers and consoles, as if to drive the point home that it's an exclusive Xbox title; this can be amusing or annoying depending on your perspective. I am also aware that this game has DLC, but I don't exactly feel like putting down more money just so I can have more levels to play.

The music, as usual, is very impressive and very catchy. It features interesting remixes of tunes from previous games that fit well with the tone of a Katamari title. Not only was this soundtrack released on CD (like other games in the series), but you can also unlock access to the soundtrack itself within the game once you beat the campaign, which is a feature that I like because I get to hear my favorite tunes over and over again. The only other audio there really is are sound effects that play for certain actions as well as when you certain things up. There really isn't much to say here other than that the sounds aren't annoying.

Aside from my earlier comments on variety and how the controller feels, I have one complaint regarding the level design. When you grow big enough in a level, the King of All Cosmos tells you that you can go somewhere else where objects are bigger so you can complete your goal. If memory serves (I haven't played a Katamari game in a while), the King usually shows you where the pylons blocking off the next section are, no matter where you are in the world, but in this game this feature is absent. I personally found this to be very inconvenient, since I ended up a few times scouring the map in search of this mysterious entry point before finally finding it and moving on. I am against games holding your hand too much during play, but I think it would have at least been nice to know where the next section of the level map was.

In the end, Beautiful Katamari is a good game for the Katamari series. It may have its share of flaws, but it's still fun to play, especially if you haven't dusted off a Katamari game in a while. If you are a fan of the series and are interested in this game, I would tell you to either give this one a shot or, in the event that you own a PS3 but aren't willing to purchase an Xbox 360, pick up Katamari Forever, which contains some of this game's levels. If you only own an Xbox 360 and have no experience with Katamari Damacy, but are curious as to what all the fuss is about, this game is a great jump-on point and a good glimpse at the entertaining madness that is Katamari.

Assassin's Creed III - New Blood

While I did start playing Assassin's Creed from the second game, I did do something last year where I played through every single game from the beginning to build up to Revelations. Personally, I felt that the first game was a somewhat rocky start, the second showed higher promise and the other two games in the Ezio trilogy showed signs of decay from having yearly releases. This year saw the release of the franchise's third major entry, Assassin's Creed III, only a couple of weeks ago to positive acclaim. Assassin's Creed has been building up to this game through the previous four, taking a total of five games to align its release with the end of this year. So now this review will try to answer the simple question of whether or not the payoff is totally worth it.

In the present day, Desmond Miles and Co. take the Apple of Eden into an underground Temple in New York constructed by the precursors. While there, they hope to use the Animus to peer into Desmond's memories and discover the location of a key that will help prevent a great disaster: a solar flare so powerful that the Earth will be destroyed on 12/21/2012. Since Desmond has learned all that he can from Altaïr ibn-La'Ahad and Ezio Auditore da Firenze, he takes to learning from following a different ancestor, a half English half Mohawk named Connor Kenway, real name Ratonhnhaké:ton (pronouned "Ra-doon-ha-gay-doon"), through the American Revolution. After his village is burned down as a child, Connor, as a teenager, learns of a destiny involving an unfamiliar symbol and heads to the home of Achilles Davenport for guidance. Though reluctant as first, Achilles agrees to help train Connor as an Assassin to combat the Templars. During his training, Connor gets involved in the events of the American Revolution and learns more about the events leading up to that faithful day in his village, as well as how much of it may involve his father, Haytham Kenway.

The story of Assassin's Creed III shows just how well the game can handle the story and tie up loose ends. There is a lot of narrative depth in both time frames, though mostly in the world of the Animus, which I found actually helped me remember smaller details about the setting better. Connor's journey is a tough one for him, but he finds the perseverance to find the Templar named Charles Lee and make him pay for the crime against his people (and is a total badass at the end when he finally offs him). It was also interesting to watch the American Revolution unfold from his point of view, partly since I have an ancestor (Major John Buttrick) who was involved in the battle of Lexington and Concord, and I trust that any creative liberties didn't get in the way of historical accuracy. I enjoyed Connor's thread and felt that his story was the overall strongest aspect of the game. While some may feel that the number of cutscenes can get in the way of this, I actually felt the opposite.

As for the present day, the story of Desmond Miles was concluded in a way that was surprisingly satisfying. I wasn't jumping for joy every time I got to control him, but he was definitely fleshed out better as a character. My least favorite bit about him was the missions he performed to gather the power sources for the precursor Temple, since the villains are defeated in a very anticlimactic fashion, but the rest of the time was certainly interesting. He has time to actually bond with his dad (voiced by John de Lancie), adding some weight to his backstory as seen in Assassin's Creed: Revelations. The information we also learn about the precursors while inserting the devices however is nothing short of fascinating, making the climax of the game more emotional and somehow transforming Desmond from a character we don't usually care about to one that we can actually feel emotion for in the final minutes. The ending, especially its twist, was pulled off rather well and can be seen as setting up a potential sequel.

The world of the Animus itself however is very impressively constructed. Between Boston, New York and the Frontier, this world is massive and simply fun to explore, though a little tiring at times. The two cities look similar to each other in some places, though I did find that enough differences existed to make them feel unique. The Frontier avoids this however by having plenty of environmental obstacles to navigate, mainly trees and steep cliffs. Everything is also beautifully rendered, with graphics that actually surpass those in the Ezio trilogy of games. The colors stand out a little more and the lighting combined with the dynamic weather help everything look visually appealing.

Of course navigating the world is important and can be accomplished in brand new ways. You could run and climb or go on horseback to get to your destination quicker, but now it is possible to climb up trees and navigate through them quickly from branch to branch simply by holding down one button while running. This method is very convenient for stealth as well, letting you strike from above with the element of surprise at your advantage. Other ways of climbing are carried over from previous games and also tweaked in just the right ways to help emphasize the focus on fluidity. Then there's the newly introduced Fast Travel mechanic, allowing Connor to go between certain locations at any given time, instead of just when you get to a station that allows it, provided you have discovered some of them first. Fast Travel comes in really handy, so it's a great idea to take advantage of it when you can and it really cuts down the time required to get to most missions.

In the heat of combat, it's always good to consider your options, and the latest installment has been tweaked in all the right ways to make that decision easier. Long gone are the days of struggling with your weapons to have any effect on your enemies, horrible block timing windows and relying solely on counterattacking. Okay, that last one is still there, but it's been reduced to an option rather than something to lean on. By that, I mean that combat is still based on countering the opponent, but you can now reliably attack an enemy, be they Redcoat or Patriot, in a much more fluid manner. Weapons can now be dual-wielded, a feature that's both useful and powerful. Because of this, I was able to rely on Connor's Tomahawk rather than a hidden blade during a struggle. It is also possible to use items such as rope darts, an immediate favorite, to bring some enemies down to where you could end their life with one blow.

Thanks to the advanced combat, it's also much easier to battle unarmed, since there are now enemy types with tactics to defeat them that are easy to remember, especially if you know that you can trip them up or use alternate weapons in combat. Performing kill streaks will also increase Connor's power gradually and create flashier kills, so eventually a tougher guy will die in one hit. Better block timing also helps make combat more of a breeze, since blocking enemy strikes is now more of a real possibility. Assassin's Creed III, with regard to timing and combat abilities, seems to have taken some cues from Batman: Arkham Asylum, but I think that by doing so it's much better off and has the best combat system of any Assassin's Creed game.

Also new to this game are Naval Battles, also known as combat between ships. When missions within the story required these I was able to get the hang of them and felt good with each victory, but it wasn't a feature I was ready to jump back into. It definitely increases the replay value however and is a good compression of actual naval fights, though it's rather interesting how ordering the crew to duck from cannon fire avoids any and all damage to even the ship.

As for the economy system of this installment, I couldn't really get into it. In the Ezio trilogy the economy was simple enough that I could get hooked on increasing the value of the property and earning more money extremely quickly and efficiently. In this game however, I felt that the economy system either wasn't explained well enough or it didn't do enough to grab my attention. The way they set it up is interesting and fits the time period, but I won't be trying to up the Davenport Homestead anytime soon.

I also have a couple other complaints, the first involving a rather annoying glitch. You see, there's a lock picking mechanic that involves turning tools with both sticks and mashing on one button to brute force the lock. While a little annoying from slight mistakes leading to everything coming undone in a second, it still worked pretty well. However, there were times where it was completely obvious that Connor's animations for this minigame were meant for a certain height, a very specific one at that. Sometimes the tools would be completely misaligned with their proper locations and be above the intended slot. I even had it where I just held the tools in the right spot, but then the lock would undo itself all the way without the chest opening, forcing me to redo the entire operation. I would question whether or not someone caught that in testing, but thanks to Tales from the Trenches, I know that someone must have, the developers just probably didn't have the time or didn't want to iron that bug out for release.

I also felt disappointed somewhat with the mission structure. There seem to be fewer missions this time around thanks to there only being 15 memory sequences, but at least five of these sequences are more like extended tutorials even though they advance the story. Aside from these, even though the game has a heightened sense of freedom, there are still some very strict constraints on what you can do, such as staying on one set path. Sometimes it seemed a little vague on whether or not the target could die during a chase, of which there are quite a few that are also poorly handled, but in one instance I tackled a target properly and the game still registered them as being dead! In some of them, there's even somewhat of a limit on your margin of error, which is to say none. If you get hit by one guy during a chase, you're pretty much screwed and might as well just start over, unless the environment is lucky enough to give you some way of anticipating them. In one specific instance near the end of the game, a particularly linear chase sequence with no way to get ahead of my target (Charles Lee), an explosion occurred and the game physics collided in a way that forced Connor to spin in the air and land in the water, ruining my chances of success. Then there's also the case of Samuel Adams telling you that he'll lead you through the underground, only for the game to really mean "You're leading him to your destination without a real guide. Good luck!"

Before I end my review however, I should go over a couple of bonuses I received. First off, I got the PS3 version of the game, granting me access to an extra hour of gameplay (actual time may vary, by the way). In these exclusive missions, you play through West Point missions that have Connor interacting with Benedict Arnold. This I felt was alright, since it retained the same level of mission structure as with the core game, but the story is definitely what you play them for, since it gives you an alternate insight into what went on with him at the time. However I will point out that one cutscene in particular felt more like an obvious machinima. The other bonus is from pre-ordering the game at GameStop, granting access to the "Lost Mayan Ruins" mission and the exclusive Sawtooth Sword weapon, belonging previously to Captain Kidd. This mission is pretty short, but I enjoyed it for taking advantage of Connor's skills in the core game, the weapon serving as an extremely useful and powerful reward. I felt this "GameStop Edition" was worth it.

So, is the payoff totally worth it? Yes and no. In terms of narrative, the game delivers on all fronts and is a very satisfying journey through the American Revolution with a great protagonist and a very fitting finale for Desmond Miles' journey as well. However, despite some very good tweaks, there is the occasional odd glitch and some poor mission design choices that can bog down the enjoyability for some, though the quality of the economy and the Naval Battles are more dependent on who's playing. It's a great trip for returning fans of the franchise, who have no doubt already bought this. If you still haven't played anything in the Assassin's Creed franchise, I would really recommend playing it from the beginning. The games aren't really that hard to get at this point and it seriously helps the narrative flow, especially considering the continuity lockout at the gorgeously animated opening cutscene. Otherwise, this is probably one of the best games of this year.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

God of War II - The Beginning of the End

The first God of War is simply an amazing game. The combat is simple, the story is engaging, and you really get to sympathize with the main character, Kratos. While it feels like a stand-alone game, the end of it assures more God of War, which is exactly what players got in 2007 with the release of God of War II. With two years between this game and the one that started it all, I feel that this sequel keeps up the quality of the first.

After defeating Ares and becoming the new God of War, Kratos still can't shake the nightmares of his past. The Spartans call for help, which Kratos sets out to do as Athena tries to stop him. Suddenly he is reduced to the size of a mortal, with the Colossus of Rhodes coming to life in order to kill him. Zeus then tries to help Kratos by giving him the Blade of Olympus, requiring him to channel his godly powers into it. After defeating the Colossus, Zeus reveals that it was a set-up, and sends Kratos to Hades. Kratos, however, manages to literally climb back out with the help of the Titan Gaia, setting on a journey to find the Sisters of Fate in order to change his...fate and, along with help from the Titans, get revenge on Zeus.

This game features a number of improvements graphically, with sharper and more detailed graphics while sticking to the visual aesthetic of the original. The cinematic cutscenes are a vast upgrade from the ones in the previous game, putting a lot more detail into the animations and at the same time retaining their overall fluidity, if not becoming more realistic. Occasionally there are flashbacks to Kratos' past, which generally recycle footage from the first game's flashbacks. Though it is a convenient shortcut, one can use this to see just how different the cinematics are between each installment.

The combat is carried over from the first game, making it familiar to previous players; I am unable to delve further into it since I played on Easy, but I can say that there are some slight tweaks in the controls. For instance, rather than pressing Circle for some actions, they have been replaced with pressing R1. This takes a little time to get used to, but it does introduce some variety. By pressing R1, you are also able to slide down climbable walls, which really helps get through some areas faster.

The music for this game, much like the first, perfectly captures the atmosphere of the story, due in part thanks to some more amazing choir work, including at least one or two recognizable pieces thrown in that really sell it. While playing the game I discovered that the soundtrack has also been released by itself, so I hope to pick it up when I see it. The voice acting continues to be equally impressive, with TC Carson's role as Kratos becoming somewhat more hammy than before. Excluding Carson and Linda Hunt, there has been some change in the voice actors, but they still do a really good job. Though Paul Eiding is no longer Zeus, he is replaced by the equally talented Corey Burton, who some may recognize as Shockwave from Transformers (G1 and Animated). Overall, this game still has some amazing talent behind it.

The PS2 version of God of War II also comes with a special bonus, in the form of a second disc containing special features. These features are a number of videos, much of them a peek at what happened behind the scenes while the game was in production. I haven't looked at all of them, but what I have seen contains some interesting information, including the design process of Kratos and what happened during playtesting (did you know that the Hades level in the first game wasn't playtested?); from what I've seen I got the impression that the testers were treated well and the developers listened to their feedback, which is more than I can say for what I've read on Tales from the Trenches. These videos are grouped together in categories, including one marked "Spoilers", which I can confirm is labelled as such for a reason. I would tell you to wait until actually beating the game before checking out this disc; even if you don't watch all of them, it is definitely worth  a look.

As a whole, God of War II is a good follow-up to the experience provided in the original game. The story doesn't have the same consistent impact on the player that the first one had, but, like Iron Man 2, it's best to think of this game as the middle portion of a trilogy (though it does present a really good plot twist at the end). The overall experience is still worth the time in the end, and is a necessary stop for players (of age, of course) who are just getting into God of War (in addition to aiding the flow of the story).

As a side note, for those that enjoy the first God of War, I would highly recommend the novel adaptation by Matthew Stover and Robert E. Vardeman. It does take a few creative liberties here and there, but it's still a fairly faithful adaptation of the game and a rather enjoyable read on its own.

Stubs - Citizen Kane

Citizen Kane (1941) Starring: Orson Welles, Joseph Cotton, Dorothy Comingore, Ray Collins, George Coulouris, Agnes Moorehead. Directed by Orson Welles. Screenplay by Herman J. Mankiewicz, Orson Welles. Music by Bernard Hermann. Produced by Orson Welles. Run Time: 119 minutes. U.S. B&W Drama.

In 1939, following his radio success with the Mercury Theatre’s radio version of The War of the Worlds the previous year, 24 year-old Orson Welles came to Hollywood to work for RKO Pictures. He was given complete creative freedom to develop whatever story we wanted. After taking a run at Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Welles developed Citizen Kane and the rest is history.

The film is a rather thinly-veiled attack on William Randolph Hearst and that is probably why it was not as successful on its initial release (the power of the Hearst papers) and why Welles lost final cut on his next film, The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). The rest of Welles’ time in Hollywood would be bumpy and he would never again reach the same heights of filmmaking as he did in this film, though he would come sort of close with Touch of Evil (1958).

After failing to come up with a good idea on his own, Welles developed Citizen Kane with Herman J. Mankiewicz who had once been a good friend of Hearst’s mistress, actress Marion Davies and knew Hearst socially. But Mankiewicz had been banned from seeing Davies because of his drunkenness and took it out on Hearst and Davies. It is in fact the portrayal of Davies, as Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore) which has tainted the public’s opinion of Davies. Rather than a thin-voiced untalented opera singer, Davies was a very successful Hollywood film comedienne before her long term affair with Hearst.

Citizen Kane tells the story of Charles Foster Kane, through flashbacks as an investigative reporter for a newsreel company, Jerry Thompson (William Alland), seeks to find out what the great man’s last words, Rosebud, meant. Through interviewing Mr. Bernstein (Everett Sloane), Kane’s friend and loyal business manager; Jedediah Leland (Joseph Cotton), Kane’s one-time best friend; Susan Alexander, Kane’s mistress and later second wife; by reading the unpublished memoirs of Walter Parks Thatcher (George Coulouris) a banker who becomes Kane’s guardian; and finally by interviewing Raymond (Paul Stewart), Kane’s butler in later years, the reporter gets a behind-the-scenes look at one of the most famous and richest men in the world. It is not a pretty picture and the reporter never learns what Rosebud meant.

After his mother, Mary (Agnes Moorehead) inherits what was thought to be a worthless mine, but turns out to be the Colorado lode, she is concerned about her boy’s upbringing. Over Jim’s (Harry Shannon), Charles’s father, protests, Mary signs over legal guardianship to Thatcher. Perhaps at the time this was supposed to have taken place that might have made sense, but the film never explains why Mary remained in Colorado and gave her son over to a total stranger to raise.

Kane (Orson Welles) grows up to be a rich ne’er-do-well, being kicked out of almost as many colleges and universities as Leland. Leland comes from money, but the family fortune has all been spent. We’re never told where Mr. Bernstein came in, but the three of them show up one day to run the New York Inquirer newspaper that Kane’s trust has owned through a takeover. The Inquirer’s circulation is small, but through Kane’s yellow journalism, by attacking the trust run by former guardian Thatcher and by spending money to buy the rivals staff, the Inquirer becomes a powerful paper. Kane expands his empire into other papers and other businesses, such as food, paper and travel.

In the meantime, Kane goes to Europe buying up every art piece he can and marries Emily Monroe Norton (Ruth Warrick), the niece of the President of the U.S. Kane, who fancies himself as a guardian of the people, runs for Governor of New York against Jim W. Getty (Ray Collins), a corrupt political boss. And while Kane is leading in the polls a week before election, everything comes crashing down around him when Getty reveals to Emily the affair Kane has been carrying on with Susan Alexander. Getty threatens to go to the papers about the affair if Kane doesn’t drop out of the race. But Kane is as egotistical as they come and refuses. Not only does he lose the election, he loses Emily (to divorce) and their son, Charles, Jr. (Sonny Bupp). We’re told that Emily and Charles, Jr. would later die in a car crash. Kane also loses Leland’s friendship, who takes to the bottle.

Having failed to win political office, Kane turns his attention and fortune to making something out of Susan Alexander. He goes so far as to build her the Chicago Metropolitan Opera House, which Kane thinks can overcome her lack of talent. However, despite the positive reviews of the Kane-owned paper, Susan is a flop. Only Leland, who is now the drama critic for the paper has the courage to write the truth. To Kane’s credit, when he comes upon a drunken Leland with a half-finished review, Kane completes it for him, not changing the reviewer’s opinion, though he does fire Leland on the spot.

Like most people, Kane goes through some troubled time during the great depression. Papers close or are merged. There is even a scene in the film of him having to go to Thatcher, a man he fought in print, for a bailout. It appears, if I hear it right, that he sells his holdings to Thatcher’s bank, but at some point, Kane seems to be running things again.

Kane builds Xanadu in Florida, a pleasure palace replete with a zoo, golf course, Venice Canals, pools and perhaps the largest fireplace in the world. The house, which includes parts of castles, is large, opulent and cold. Though Kane does occasionally entertain, he retreats from society. We see a beach picnic, complete with some leftover visual effects from King Kong. He and Susan live in the house in isolation, until one day Susan can’t take it any longer and leaves. After all, there are only so many puzzles a girl can do.

When the newsreel crew meets up at Xanadu, the crates of paintings and statues are being cataloged and the trash is being burned. Unbeknownst to our reporter, the sled bearing the name Rosebud is incinerated along with the other trash. Rosebud, we learn is Kane’s reminder of when he was a boy at home in Colorado. Rosebud is supposedly also Hearst’s nickname for Davies’ clitoris, which Mankiewicz would have been in a position to know, and would further explain Hearst’s efforts to squash the film.

There is so much to talk about concerning this movie, and much of it has already been written about extensively. A modern film viewer may not realize it, but Citizen Kane represents a paradigm shift in filmmaking. Prior to Kane, films were shot a certain way: establishing shots, close-ups, reverse shots, over-the-shoulder shots during conversation. What was the primary object was in focus, but not necessarily the background. Ceilings were never seen, since that’s where the lights were. In Citizen Kane, the focus is deep with usually everything in the frame, no matter where it is in focus. In order to show how big of a man Kane was, Welles wanted to be shooting up at him, so the ceiling shows. These oddly give Kane a bit of claustrophobic feel that I don’t recall sensing in other films. The ceilings, especially in the newspaper, seem to be just above the actors’ heads. A lot of the credit for the look of the film belongs to Gregg Toland, who was one of the most influential cinematographers of all time.

I have no complaints about the actors either. They all do a really top job. Welles’ Kane is not a sympathetic character nor was he supposed to be. While many of the actors came from radio, they have the face for film and television and several, including Cotton, Moorehead, Stewart, Collins and Sloane would have long and successful careers.

Props also should go out to the music by Bernard Hermann, who created some of the best remembered film scores. His for Kane was nominated for Best Music (Score of a Dramatic Picture), but didn’t win. Also nominated was the editing by Robert Wise, the Art Direction (Black-and-White) by Perry Ferguson, Van Nest Polglase, A. Roland Fields and Darrrell Silvera. Welles would receive nominations for Acting and Directing and the film for Outstanding Motion Picture. However, the only Academy Award the film would win was for Best Writing (Original Screenplay).

And it is ironically with the screenplay that I have my only issue with the film. The premise on which the film hangs is Kane’s final word: Rosebud. We see through establishing shot after establishing shot that Xanadu is an isolated, empty playground. There is a lone light on in an upper window as the camera slowly gets closer and closer. Finally, the light goes off and we see the silhouette of Kane’s body as he lies dying in bed. With snow globe in hand, Kane whispers Rosebud, then drops the snow globe, which breaks on the floor. In one of the great shots, though I’m pretty sure it’s an effect, we see the door at the far end of the room open and the nurse coming in reflected in a piece of the globe. The nurse and only the nurse approaches the bedside and discovering Kane’s dead, pulls the sheet over him.

Since the film establishes that there was no one in the room as Kane dies, who was there to hear his last words? The script tries to cover up this hole when Raymond claims to Jerry that he heard him say it. However, we never see him in the room. Given how far the door was to the bed and how thick we can assume the door would be in a house like Xanadu, I find it hard to believe anyone could hear an old man’s last whisper. Okay, this is being picky, I know, but it’s an obvious problem that shouldn’t be there and could have been easily and believably filled in. And I’m sure I’m not the first person to point this out.

Citizen Kane may also be remembered for the controversy it created. Hearst naturally did not find his film betrayal flattering in the least. And Hearst was a man who had great influence in Hollywood. A real attempt was made by Louis B. Mayer from rival M-G-M to buy and destroy the film before it was released. When George Schaefer, the head of RKO, turned down Mayer’s offer, Hearst made sure that there was no mention of the film in any of his papers. While Hearst was initially successful in hurting the film’s box office, in the long run Hearst is forever linked to the film as his own real life story is compared to the portrayal in Kane.

After making such a monumental debut film, Welles’ own career in Hollywood fizzled. He was a “boy genius” after all, a mantel that doesn’t age well. But Kane was not the end of Welles’ career by a long shot. It is just that he never regained his place in Hollywood. He would direct other great films, The Magnificent Ambersons, The Stranger (1946), The Lady from Shanghai (1947) and Touch of Evil; he would never reach the same heights as he did with Kane. Welles also acted in a number of films; including most notably Tomorrow is Forever (1946) and The Third Man (1949). One of his last roles was as the voice of Unicron in 1986’s The Transformers: The Movie. Sadly, though when Welles died in 1985, he was best known for doing wine commercials as for having been a great director and actor. Welles had a meteoric rise but he peaked creatively at the age of 26 and he lived to be 70. That’s a long time to live in the shadows of your greatest glory.

Problem with the premise aside, this is one of the great films of all time. Even if you don’t like the story, you have to admire it for its style, visuals and cinematography. This is truly a landmark film. But it is not one of my favorites of all time. Again, I go back to the claustrophobic feeling I get watching it. Seeing Kane walk around is sort of like watching an animal in a cage. The characters are not sympathetic, so you’re not rooting for anyone in particular or feel for their plight.

This is a film to watch because you should see it at least once. Repeat viewings are really up to you, but if you’ve never seen it, then you are truly missing out on one of the great films of Hollywood.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Wreck-It Ralph - A Video Game Movie That's Actually Good

In your lifetime, I'm pretty sure that at one point or another you've heard the phrase "all video game movies suck" or some variation thereof. While there are some that have genuinely tried to be a good movie, they have still all fallen under this umbrella term in some fashion. Since I saw the first trailer for Wreck-It Ralph however, it seemed like it would be the one video game-based movie to finally break the mold. Upon viewing it, I feel like this has come true, thanks mainly in part to taking the video game movie in a brand new direction.

Wreck-It Ralph, the bad guy for the video game Fix-It Felix, Jr., has started to grow tired of his job in the video game. Every day for the past 30 years he's had to wreck a single building over and over so that Felix can fix it, only for the tenants to throw him off the roof once he's finished. Despite that it's been his job, he never gets any appreciation for it, since the characters of the game only see him as a villain and nothing else with no regard for his feelings, and is even left out of the party in his game to celebrate the 30 years his cabinet has been in the arcade. Wishing for a change, and some recognition of his hard work, Ralph leaves his game in pursuit of a medal, jumping to the FPS Hero's Duty and the anime-inspired kart racer Sugar Rush in the process. However, he goes through with this plan with blatant disregard for the dire consequences of his actions, including the possible termination of both him and his game.

Leaving the game for another is known as "Going Turbo," which has a spoileriffic explanation that I won't go into (though the capitalization is important), and serves as a constant source of drama in the film. It handles this well and actually makes certain moments, like those much closer to the end, have more tension and add weight to some of the characters' actions, especially when we learn that death outside of your own game means that you can no longer regenerate. While the movie knows how to be dramatic, it should be given equal credit for its humor. There are moments where the movie gets really clever about its arcade setting and uses that to its advantage to get a laugh. I can't really say if there is a character that is particularly funny, since the main cast all get in a few good jokes from time to time to break the otherwise serious tone of some scenes. But the placement of these jokes is precise enough to not get in the way of the true emotions we are supposed to feel (which we do).

What this movie will perhaps be best known for however is the sheer number of references to video games, including a number of cameos from licensed characters. There are way too many to list in one review, but in the opening Bad Anon meeting, where video game villains help each other come to terms with their roles as bad guys in their respective games, alone we have M. Bison, Dr. Robotnik, Kano, Smoke, Bowser, Clyde (the orange ghost from Pac-Man), a House of the Dead zombie and Zangief (he's not really a villain but it still works). I could easily see people flocking to this movie just for the cameos alone, but then they'd be missing out on what is actually a very well-written story. In any case, the cameos and shout outs are numerous to the point where you'd probably have to buy the DVD/Blu-ray so you can pause it and take a good hard look at any scene. Some of these references are also used for humor, including the setting of Tapper/Root Beer Tapper, an exclamation point from Metal Gear Solid and the Konami Code (won't spoil the context of that one). Again these references don't really take anything away from the setting, but rather make it more believable.

Setting the movie inside an arcade to tell the story from the viewpoint of the characters is actually a smart route to go with the genre. It gives us the idea that the denizens of the arcade all lead lives of their own after hours. They are able to leave their games for Game Central Station, which will change how you look at power strips for a while, where they can either hang out or go to other games for different purposes. If they need to go to a Bad Anon meeting, they'll go to Pac-Man. If they wish to unwind, they'll go to Tapper for a drink. In this way it is the video game equivalent of Toy Story, which is likely what influenced how the world was set up (not that it's a bad thing). While Tron and Tron: Legacy also take place inside a virtual world, a computer network or "The Grid" in their case, Wreck-It Ralph actually goes the extra mile to show how these changes in the virtual world affect how the games are seen in the real world, such as the absence of Ralph causing his sprite to not display in Fix-It Felix, Jr. and break the game.

What helps sell the rather unique setting are the visuals. The graphics of each video game are faithful recreations of the different graphical styles of the games, which also translates well to their 3D counterparts. Games that are already in 3D like Hero's Duty are of course more consistent, but games like Fix-It Felix, Jr. will have polygons in their 3D models that still imply the pixels used in the arcade screen. Characters will also move just like their respective games, like the building tenants in Fix-It Felix, Jr. having jerkier movements and Clyde from Pac-Man moving in straight lines even when idle. It is this attention to detail, including scale, that shows that the animators really did their homework.

Then there's the voice acting, which is not only pretty faithful for some existing characters, but also good picks for the main cast. John C. Reilly matches the appearance of Wreck-It Ralph and brings out the best emotions in him. Jack McBrayer, who some may recognize as Kenneth from NBC's 30 Rock, voices Fix-It Felix, Jr. in a way that his voice doesn't get tiring and brings a certain excitement to the role of the hero. Jane Lynch is also good as Sergeant Calhoun from Hero's Duty, letting us believe her programmed tragic back story. The most surprising voice though would have to be Sarah Silverman as Vanellope von Schweetz from Sugar Rush, thanks to her career as a shock comedian. She sells a tragic character very well and helps us feel sympathetic, but her other work will definitely be too much for young children should they discover it (and that's all I have to say about that).

As a video game movie, Wreck-It Ralph really goes above and beyond the norm and becomes a movie of this genre that is actually good. Attention to detail, believable characters and a really good plot twist near the end are what helps this one stand apart from the rest. I can't really think of anything wrong with it (not just because it's Disney) and found myself having a really good time. Knowing the video game references certainly helps the entertainment value, but you don't have to know a lot of them in order to really enjoy the story. I'd recommend it, but if you're concerned about dark imagery, as this movie contains closer to the end, then weigh your options depending on how young your child is (unless you know they can handle it).

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Stubs – Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (Second Opinion)

Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World (2010) Starring: Michael Cera, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Kiernan Culkin, Anna Kendrick, Alison Pill, Brandon Routh and Jason Schwartzman. Narrated by Bill Hader. Directed by Edgar Wright. Screenplay by Edgar Wright and Michael Bacall, based on Scott Pilgrim by Bryan Lee O’Malley. Music by Nigel Godrich. Produced by Edgar Wright, Marc Platt, Eric Gitter, Nira Park. Run Time: 112 minutes. U.S. Color. Comedy, Romance.

While I normally don’t review movies that are only a couple of years old, I’m making an exception with Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Part of it has to do with the necessities of blogging (I needed to write something this week) and part of it has to do with the fact that one way or another, I’ve seen this movie four times (once in the theater, once on cable and twice on disc). While not every viewing has been my choice, I still have sat through and enjoyed this film four times.

Based on a graphic novel series that I have not read, Scott Pilgrim is an interesting adaptation, since it was completed before the series was finished, so the ending of the movie is not tied to how the graphic novel series ends. I have never heard of a movie based on a book that hadn’t been finished, that is until Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.

This film showcases a lot of young talent. Michael Cera is perhaps the best known of the cast, having been in several teen comedies before this one. Cera plays the title character, Scott Pilgrim, your usual Canadian bass player in a garage band, Sex Bob-omb. He hasn’t ventured very far in life. He lives literally across the street from where he grew up and plays in a band with his friends from high school, Stephen Stills (Mark Webber) and Kim Pine (Alison Pill). I will give the film credit that even though there is a real life musician named Stephen Stills, there is no mention of that fact, ironic or otherwise.

Scott is 22 going on 17. His girlfriend, Knives Chau (Ellen Wong) is that age. She is cute, smart and falls for Scott’s goofy boyish ways. And Scott would have been happy, too, if he hadn’t met the very pretty  Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). And while he gets the nerves up to ask her out and she accepts, Scott must deal with her seven evil exes, with the emphasis on exes, rather than boyfriends, if he wants to keep dating her.
These battles are played against Sex Bob-omb’s own attempt at getting to the top in the music industry. They are involved in the Toronto battle of the bands with the hope of getting a recording contract with Gideon Gordon Graves (Jason Schwartzman) who happens to be the seventh evil ex that Scott has to face.

All the while, Scott is being judged by not only his younger sister Stacey (Anna Kendrick), his gay roommate with whom platonically shares a bed, Wallace Wells (Kiernan Culkin), his bandmates and Stephen Stills’ ex-girlfriend, Julie Powers (Aubrey Plaza) who seems to have jobs that constantly interact with Scott. Julie even orders Scott not to date Ramona, which he ignores.

What sets this film apart is that the fight scenes between Scott and the seven exes are done as if they were fights within video games. The fighters fly through the air and each time Scott defeats one, he receives coins as a reward and more coins with each level he moves up. While this is surrealistic, the film makes it work. On his pilgrimage so to speak, Scott must fight Matthew Patel (Satya Bhabha), Ramona’s first boyfriend, Lucas Lee (Chris Evans), a skateboarder turned movie star, Todd Ingram (Brandon Routh), the bassist in The Clash at Demonhead, who’s super powers come from being Vegan, Roxanne Richter (Mae Whitman), Ramona’s girlfriend from her days of experimentation, and twins and Japanese electronica musicians Kyle and Ken Katayanagi (Shota and Keita Saito) before his final battle, level seven with Gideon.

The film has a really great sense of humor. One of my favorite scenes is when Scott is getting ready to go fight Gideon for Ramona’s hand. We’re shown flashes of his getting ready, but it slows down to show him meticulously tying his shoe laces. Another is when Knives drops by unannounced to see Scott post-break up, Wallace tells her he’s stepped out just as Scott jumps through the window, but has to come back to grab his jacket. And one last one to mention is when the out muscled Scott uses mind tricks to fool vegan Todd into drinking half and half. The resulting scene is one of the most memorable of the film.

Since this is a movie about a member of the struggling rock band, there is a lot of music. Most of it is very raw and very catchy. Sex Bob-omb is augmented by Beck, who wrote their songs. It is interesting to note that the actors who played members of Sex Bob-omb actually played on the soundtrack. While the only hit on the album is a 35-year old track from the Rolling Stones, the excellent Under My Thumb, it shows up at the most appropriate moment in the film.

There is too much right about this film to have it not been a bigger hit than it was. Shamefully, this film did not make back its budget. This is one time when the public messed up and missed out on a really good film that is worth a few or two. Having seen this film four times now, I would definitely recommend it to anyone who likes a good movie well made. Don’t be scared off by the subject matter or the generation of the actors. You don’t need to have read Scott Pilgrim or to play videogames to really enjoy it.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World - Why Haven't You Seen This Movie Yet?

If you were to ask me what my favorite movie of all time was, chances are that I would bring up The Avengers or even Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (my second favorite movie by the way) during the conversation. However, the most immediate answer would be Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, a true gem from 2010 that worked its way into that slot as soon as the movie ended in the theater. While this was based on the graphic novel by Bryan Lee O'Malley, I had not read any of its six issues before that fateful screening, but I did read it after the fact and enjoyed it all the same. For this review though, I'd like to forgo trying to compare this adaptation to the source, since they both go in pretty different directions while covering the same events, and instead look at this movie on its own merits. I'll try as hard I can not to gush, but after two years and multiple viewings, I find it hard not to like anything about this film.

You've heard this story before right, the story of boy meets girl? How about this then: In the mysterious land of Toronto, Canada, Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) meets a 17-year-old girl named Knives Chau (Ellen Wong), whom he shares a nice stable relationship with, even letting her attend rehearsals for the band Sex Bob-omb, in which he plays Bass. One night in a dream however, he sees a mysterious girl and begins to obsess over her. He sees her at a library and then later at a party, thanks in part to a vague squiggle being correctly interpreted as an American named Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). After learning what her job is, he orders a package for her to deliver, asking her to hang out after she comes to the door. The two of them hit it off and Scott invites Ramona to a battle of the bands performance, where his band will play against Crash and the Boys. While Sex Bob-omb is on stage though, a man named Matthew Patel (Satya Bhabha) attacks Scott as part of a bigger plot to eliminate him and control Ramona's sex life. Now, as Scott tries to defeat Ramona's seven evil exes, his relationships and his love life will be tested and his past comes back to haunt him.

The execution of this story is one of the reasons why it sits comfortably at the top of my personal list. While the events of the graphic novel are distilled in a way that suits the big screen, it still works incredibly well on its own. As more of Ramona's exes are defeated by way of bursting into coins, Scott and Ramona's pasts are explored at a pace that allows the audience to absorb the information in the best way possible. Nothing feels out of place or shoehorned in and there is certainly no filler; every bit of information and every major character is important in some way. The exposition feels more natural and the characters truly learn from their mistakes and experiences, creating proper character progression and development. By the end I felt satisfied with the story, especially how the ending (which I won't spoil) ties up every loose end and what road Scott decides to travel down next. While the first half hour may make newcomers wonder what makes Scott Pilgrim Scott Pilgrim, the arrival of Matthew Patel is where the movie really shifts gears and cranks the real essence beyond full blast.

This essence consists of both action and humor, which this movie blends together like peanut butter and chocolate. Action scenes featuring the evil exes are very creative, highlighting the individual skills of each villain and exploiting them when possible. While the close quarters combat Scott often engages in has some impressive choreography, the creativity shines through in such instances as the third evil ex, a bassist named Todd Ingram (Brandon Routh), engaging in an epic bass battle with Scott while assisted by the psychic powers his vegan diet provides. Then there's the second evil ex, Lucas Lee (Chris Evans), a professional actor and skater with his own label, who fights Scott with incredible physical prowess as well as his stunt doubles. One more highlight would have to be the Ken and Kyle Katayanagi, aka the Katayanagi Twins (Shota and Keita Saito), who engage in another battle of the bands competition against Sex Bob-omb, using music as a weapon between stages to the point where a twin-headed dragon and a yeti made of sound are summoned to duke it out. I could easily go into more detail on what makes each battle so awesome to watch, but to do so would ruin some of the fun of watching them for yourselves. These fights go over-the-top to the point where you just want to yell in excitement and occasionally laugh.

Speaking of laughter, the humor of Scott Pilgrim is one of the very things this movie gets right. It is pitch perfect and timed without a moment of hesitation. There is not a single inappropriate moment, yet it is virtually nonstop even at the end. This movie simply refuses to let up, though what probably helps is how much of the humor is taken straight from the graphic novel (ie. almost all of it). Some of these moments involve Scott's self-centered attitude at the beginning of the film, played for laughs of course, but in this case it's also how everyone reacts to him, particularly his roommate Wallace Wells (Kieran Culkin). Comments about his past life and how he tries to juggle two girls for a bit are sprinkled throughout and the ways he reacts to both girls are absolutely priceless; in what other movie would you see a 20-something hide by jumping out a window and casually walking away? The behavior of the exes can also be very funny, including Matthew Patel activating his supernatural powers via a Bollywood dance number and numerous moments of the exes questioning exactly how much Scott knows, or remembers, about the League of Evil Exes.

What I like best about the movie however would probably be its unique visual style. Everything is constructed just so in order to have it resemble a living, breathing graphic novel. The looks of the characters and the environments are exactly what it would all look like in real life and takes almost no liberties in that department. Special effects are rendered in a way that styles of comics and video games collide into a world where video game physics are the norm and there is visible pixelation in the appropriate scenarios. Then there's the fact that Scott Pilgrim vs. the World has the honor of the only movie in the world to have written sound effects that sometimes have a physical presence. This helps to set up a world that the filmmakers never fail to stay true to. In that case, this could arguably be considered a more accurate adaptation of a comic book than any other comic book movie (if only for that small detail), as well as the greatest video game movie of all time (that isn't based on a video game).

Then there's the music, which is important to both the original source and the movie. It's mostly original stuff, but there isn't a song from there that I wouldn't listen to again. Most of it is available on the soundtrack, which you should be buying right now, with some highlights as any song by Sex Bob-omb and the version of Ramona performed by Beck. Heck, Clash at Demonhead, in the movie at least, even performs a pop song better than any modern artist on the market. The songs and fight music all help make every moment all the more memorable and bring the right amount of emotion or energy to a scene.

But who could forget the characters themselves, specifically the actors who play them? Michael Cera does an excellent job portraying the title character by bringing forth his aloofness and making his character development seem more real. Ellen Wong is cute as Knives Chau and displays her believably, while Mary Elizabeth Winstead is the perfect choice for Ramona Flowers; I can understand why Scott would want her. Kieran Culkin helps Wallace Wells be as humorous as possible, bringing a lightheartedness to absolutely any scene he's in. He could almost steal the show as Scott's roommate, but is good enough to not take away the spotlight and keep it more focused on our main character. The other supporting characters and the exes are cast perfectly and resemble the characters physically, but in a way that this is what they would look like in real life. Their interactions are given the depth of the actors' talents and every character feels different thanks to their personalities being illustrated to the fullest onscreen.

As a movie on its own, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World gives me every reason to want to watch it over and over again. It's awesome, emotional, funny and gives us a world resembling comics and video games. Though it's now more of a cult classic, thanks to initially running against The Expendables, it's a movie that I would recommend to everyone I meet; it just has to be seen to understand why anyone who watches it has a smile on their face. If you have the DVD, be sure to also watch Scott Pilgrim vs. the Animation, an animated short that faithfully adapts part of the graphic novel in its original style which explains why Kim feels cold towards Scott Pilgrim during the movie. If you're curious by now about what Scott Pilgrim is like and have your finger hovering over your mouse to purchase the original source, I would suggest you do so only after viewing this; it's better to go in with no expectations.

Friday, November 2, 2012

God of War

If you've been playing games long enough or have have done enough research into them, chances are you've heard of David Jaffe. You may have heard that name through his best known creations Twisted Metal and God of War, both of which remain exclusive to PlayStation. While he's been involved with the majority of Twisted Metal games, including this year's reboot, he has only been involved with the first two God of War games, the first one more intimately. While there is the upcoming God of War: Ascension early next year, that is not the only reason why I'm reviewing the first game right now, since the new game is another prequel; rather, it is a combination of boredom (due to any new games that interest me not coming out for a while), my recent acquisition of God of War Saga and the fact that the only God of War reviews on this blog are of handheld and mobile games. Surprisingly, even 7 years from its initial release, this highly-regarded PS2 classic still holds up after all this time.

The story of the game seems simple enough: Kratos is a Spartan who has served under the Gods for ten years. Tired of his servitude and experiencing visions of his past, he seeks to kill Ares, the God of War, with help of the other Gods along the way in order to finally be free of his contract with him. While this appears simple on the surface, there is more depth to it revealed as the game progresses. This is actually made very interesting, since once every layer has been revealed on what set Kratos on his (lengthy) act of revenge against Ares, you begin to feel a bit of sympathy for him.

Though this game is from 2005, the graphics aren't really all that bad. They don't hold up to today's standards of realistic graphics, but for a later PS2 title the visuals still look pretty good and hit all the right marks. There's still a great amount of detail for the limitations of the time and everything can be easily made out thanks to a good balance of light and dark colors. While the in-game graphics are good, by contrast the cutscenes are animated beautifully. Each one uses an amazing blend of still art and amazingly detailed realistic animations and each one transitions and flows very smoothly. The animations have an incredible amount of detail, with hair, fur, and clothing moving very realistically. Even the various forms of cloth in the game, including flags and particularly Kratos' loincloth, have a good deal of this animation, which is still amazing for the time.

The combat system of the game is simple, which may or may not sound familiar to you. Kratos' pimary weapon is the Blades of Chaos, which can be swung at an incredible distance to slaughter anyone who stands in his way. As you kill enemies or destroy breakable objects, you obtain red orbs that can be used to power up your available arsenal to open up a whole slew of new combos with each upgrade. As you progress through the story, the other gods, including Zeus and Hades among others, grant you special weapons and magical abilities they posses in order to help slay Ares as he goes on a rampage against Athens. Opening chests gives you orbs to increase your health, magic, and red orb count, as well as Gorgon Eyes and Phoenix Feathers that can upgrade your health and magic meters respectively. In addition, when prompted, you can perform a Quick Time Event on an enemy in order to deal a finishing blow and gain an extra reward, such as increased health.

On the audio side of things, I don't really have any complaints. The voice acting, I felt, was solid. TC Carson's role as Kratos continues on from here, and while it does evolve somewhat over the course of the franchise, it's interesting to revisit the roots of his performance after so many games. Though the other characters change voice actors over time, some performances that stood out to me were Steve Blum as Ares, Nolan North as Hades (he surprisingly doesn't do a bad job voicing the God of Death), and Paul Eiding as Zeus, ruler of the Gods. Linda Hunt's voice is perfect for the narrations, becoming a staple throughout the rest of the franchise (save for Betrayal, which didn't even have voice work). The music also works perfectly well with the game itself, including the talents of a massive choir to create the game's epic atmosphere.

While God of War is an excellent game all around, I do have only one complaint, a nightmare that can be summed up in a single word: Hades. And I'm not talking about the God here, I'm referring to the location that is the ancient Greek version of Hell. When Kratos gets sent there during the game, you are almost immediately faced with what is guaranteed to be one of the most frustrating experiences of your Mature gaming career. While the environment is appropriately totally disgusting, there is a large section where you must traverse across spinning ledges (covered in blades), after which you must climb up a pair of spinning columns (covered in blades), and by the end you must create your pathway out by fighting off a group of Satyrs (wielding blades). Even when I took the opportunity earlier in the game to go down to Easy, this section was the source of the majority of all of my deaths and I nearly wanted to throw my controller in rage. However, given that it's Hell, the difficulty is probably appropriate.

After so many years, the original God of War is still a great game. It has an interesting concept and executes it extremely well, earning its rightful spot in gaming history. If you still own a PS2, are of age, and have not yet played this game, I suggest you look for a copy and play it as soon as you can. You will not be disappointed. And don't worry: On this blog, Kratos will return.