Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time - Time Is On Sly's Side

It's been about 8 years since the last one, but finally, after all this time, a brand new entry in the Sly Cooper franchise has been released. To celebrate this, this blog has gone over as many of the entries in what has been referred to as Sony's "platforming trio" (Sly Cooper, Jak and Daxter, Ratchet & Clank up to All 4 One) as possible before the release of this game. However, it should be noted that, rather than Sly creator Sucker Punch Productions (who seems to be busy with their Infamous IP), it is developer Sanzaru Games, the ones who ported the original Sly trilogy to PS3, that is responsible for this game, as they are actually fans of the Sly Cooper franchise. Though the game was theoretically made by fans, it's clear that Sanzaru had a real passion for the franchise, said passion helping to keep this game feeling like a true and welcome entry in the series.

An undisclosed amount of time has passed since the end of Sly 3: Honor Among Thieves, Sly Cooper himself having faked amnesia so he could be closer to Inspector Carmelita Fox. Bentley has been conducting scientific research with his girlfriend Penelope; one day, Penelope mysteriously disappears, along with, as Bentley discovers, the information written in the Thievius Raccoonus, the book belonging to the Cooper Clan. As generations of Cooper history literally vanish from the book, Bentley shows this to Sly and Murray, along with his advances in the field of time travel. With the Cooper Gang's van fitted with Bentley's time machine, they perform a museum heist so they can get the machine working (in order to travel through time, you need an object from the same era) and save Cooper history from being permanently extinguished.

The plot of Thieves in Time is, I must say, pretty well executed. It does its job by jumping off from the end of Sly 3, taking its premise from Bentley telling the player at the end that he has been working on a time machine while also expanding upon Sly's false amnesia. There is also some focus on the relationship between Sly and Carmelita, exploring on their feelings for one another as they see it from each other's perspectives. The main plot is rather interesting, as the Cooper Gang has to rescue Cooper history as they face equally interesting adversaries along the way. There's plenty of intriguing plot twists to keep the story interesting, though one in particular doesn't feel entirely justified despite its shock value. That aside, it feels very much like a real Sly Cooper plot and a true expansion on the third game's ending.

The Cooper Gang (from left): Sly, Murray, and Bentley.

The story of the game is told through cut scenes of course, both animated with in-game graphics and through special animations. The animated cut scenes are narrated much like the previous games, but what sets them apart from the others is that they are in full motion, rather than like a motion comic, and the animation is simply amazing. The fluid animation helps the characters seem more alive, and the variety of expression helps create some interesting scenes while the full motion enables easier insertion of humor. A few of these scenes also use a variety of art styles to help illustrate a character's backstory, which helps them feel more unique. (A particular cut scene I like is the one describing a boss named The Grizz, where as Sly is explaining his origins, The Grizz only stands in one spot while everything changes around him accordingly.) This effort, combined with the promotional short released prior to the game, make Sly 4 the closest you will ever get to a full-fledged Sly Cooper animated series, which this franchise seems like it would be able to pull off in reality. Fortunately, as with previous games, you can go back and watch earlier cut scenes in all their animated glory.

If you've played Sly Cooper before, you should be able to recognize this scene.

On that note, the in-game graphics are equally spectacular, updating the designs of each character while still retaining the cartoonish elements in a way that looks visually appealing. Character designs such as Murray's are more closely modeled after their real-world counterparts, though they are thankfully still stylized to fit more in line with a Sly Cooper game. There is a lot more detail to be found here, mainly due to the game being designed for HD, especially when it comes to the more furry characters such as Sly and his ancestors, among others like Carmelita and another boss named El Jefe. The characters also move very fluidly and characters with long tails have equally fluid and realistic tail animations, which is something I (admittedly) have always enjoyed about the Sly cooper series' idle animations.

Then there is the voice acting. Aside from the returning actors of the main trio (Sly, Bentley, and Murray), the game also has the talents of Steve Blum and Nolan North, voicing Sly's ancestor Rioichi Cooper and Sly's enemy El Jefe respectively. These voice actors, along with the likes of Yuri Lowenthal and Grey DeLisle and many others, help make each performance worthwhile and give each character their unique personality. Though it's been years since the returning cast has been involved with Sly Cooper, save for the recent PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale, their performances in this game prove that they've still got it in them. Grey DeLisle's performance as Inspector Carmelita Fox works really well for the character, though how any of her other voices compare is up to you, much like another video game character who can't seem to keep his voice straight.

Gameplay is similar to previous entries in the series, making it familiar for returning players, but with some new twists. First off is that the Cooper ancestors each have their own unique abilities in addition to Sly's own, such as Rioichi Cooper having an extended version of the Ninja Spire Jump and Tennessee "Kid" Cooper being able to shoot multiple targets at once with the gun in his cane (with one in particular showing a nice bit of attention to detail regarding his abilities). The ancestors also each have their own stealth take-down animations and special attacks, making each one feel different enough to not feel like a rehash of Sly's move set. There's also some challenge to be found in the boss fights (except for the last one, since it's just a series of Quick-Time Events), each one bringing something new to the table in such a way as to make them memorable (for example, The Grizz's boss fight involves ice-skating of all things).

Sly facing off against El Jefe.

Another addition to the game is a set of costumes Sly can wear, each of which also give him special abilities (in some cases in exchange for being unable to use his regular thieving moves) rather than just providing a disguise for sneaking around in. For instance, a set of Japanese armor allows Sly to be fireproof and reflect fireballs while an archery costume allows Sly to interact with a bucket of arrows to fire at a distant target, creating a tightrope to walk on. These costumes can be switched out through a special menu by holding down a button, then selecting your outfit while holding the button (otherwise it defaults to the last one you used). Some areas require multiple costumes, while others are made to show off what your new clothes can do, and the game does what it can to make sure you use every costume. Carmelita and Bentley have similar menus for their weapons, but you'll probably be less likely to explore those options, as I was.

There's also some points where you have to complete a rhythm-based mini game, much like in Sly 3, only this time you must hit them in time as they pass by on the bottom of the screen, similarly to Guitar Hero (or Secret Agent Clank if its rhythm sections had any actual semblance of a beat). There's also one near the end that provides a small workout as it requires you to shake your controller, though I won't tell you the context here.

Bentley once again does his hacking thing in this game, but with some improvements. The twin-stick hacking you've come to expect is there, but with some major graphical improvements that make it gorgeous to look at. Thanks to the graphical power of the PS3, there's plenty of detail to behold here, the end result being something that wouldn't feel out of place in Tron. There's also some variety in the hacking this time around, with a side-scroller of sorts where Bentley's avatar looks like a Ninja Turtle with guns (though not exactly), and one where you use the SIXAXIS controls to move a ball of energy through a pinball-like set-up with a timer and pitfalls. This level of variety in the hacking helps the game feel like a fresh installment and not a simple rehash of Sucker Punch's existing work on the franchise. Of course ThiefNet is back in full swing, taking its more convenient money-making system from Sly 3, though I should point out that you will never be short on coins in this game, since they are rather easy to come by (though I'm not complaining, since it alleviates excessive grinding).

There's also plenty of collectibles scattered around each level, which are actually required to unlock more things in the game. Collecting hidden treasures scattered throughout each (hub) map unlocks arcade cabinets in each hideout, while collecting hidden masks in every area unlocks hidden items, such as character and Para-Glider skins (I have yet to collect all of them). Clue Bottles also make a return in this game, which provides a perfect incentive to explore every new territory to unlock a safe containing a useful item, a few of which make call backs to the first Sly game. But if collecting items tires you out, you can always play a round of virtual ping pong with Bentley back at the hideout.

For when repairing the time-space continuum gets boring.

Finding these treasures is made infinitely easier thanks to the power of the PlayStation Vita, which you can get a free copy of this game for if you purchase the PS3 version via Cross-Buy. In the PS3 version, if you turn the AR Server on, then you can activate the AR Treasures feature in the Vita version of the game to scan your TV screen for hidden treasures and Sly masks in applicable areas. If you tap the Vita screen while in this mode, a helpful cross hair will show up on the TV in the PS3 version to help you find each item. However, this feature is best implemented when you have a second player, since using it by yourself is rather awkward and unwieldy. With another person at the controls, it makes finding collectibles infinitely easier.

This game also supports Cross-Play, where you can Cross-Save your data from one version onto a cloud server and then continue playing on the other. This is a very useful feature, since I was able to keep playing when the PS3 was being used or I was on the move (I even transferred my save to another PS3, using my Vita as a sort of vessel to transfer data between consoles). Gameplay is very similar to the PS3 version of Sly 4, with clever use of touch screen and touch pad controls to make up for the lack of shoulder buttons, while also taking advantage of the Vita's gyroscope for certain tasks, mostly anything that would normally involve the SIXAXIS. Of course, everything in this version is sort of a visual downgrade of its bigger sibling, but the experience is nonetheless similar to what you can find on the PS3 version and is perfect for when you want to continue playing outside of your own home.

As I was playing this game after beating the campaign, I gained knowledge that there is a secret ending to the game, which is obtained by getting the Platinum trophy and then (re)watching the credits. I have yet to complete all the objectives necessary to see this ending for myself and, while a YouTube upload is tempting to watch, I would much rather earn this ending on my own time so I feel more satisfied with all my hard work.

In short, Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time is an excellent return to the Sly Cooper franchise after such a lengthy absence. Sanzaru really did their homework on this one, pulling out all the stops to make sure you get the full Sly cooper experience and more. While the opening does try to explain the happenings of the series to newcomers (for those who choose the option at the beginning to watch it), I would actually recommend playing the original Sly trilogy first, if only for the sake of the plot and to gain a better understanding of Sly's world and history. For both new and existing fans of the series, I would tell you to get both versions of this installment, if only because both versions actually go hand-in-hand with each other. Sanzaru clearly knew what they were doing when they were allowed to to make their own Sly Cooper game, and I can't wait to play Sly 5 when it comes out (hopefully we won't have to wait 8 years for that one).

Monday, February 25, 2013

Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance - Lightning Bolt Action

In case you haven't been keeping up with this blog, I've recently become a huge fan of the Metal Gear franchise. The series has been able to demonstrate truly masterful storytelling ability and have stealth-based gameplay that only seems to get better and better with time. While I had known of the legacy and impact of this series on gaming culture overall, to the point where it made a sort of cameo appearance in Wreck-It Ralph, this recent exposure has gotten me hooked on trying to explore as much I can of this series. This led me to be even more excited about the two announced Metal Gear projects, the upcoming Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes and the recently released Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, the subject of this review. Having begun life as Metal Gear Solid: Rising, the project was to be a balance of stealth and action, but Kojima Productions could not get the original vision to work the way they wished. To alleviate this, the project was handed over to Platinum Games, who is perhaps best known for creating the action game Bayonetta, itself a product of the original creator of Devil May Cry. As a result, we now have a game that's attempting a blend of Metal Gear's storytelling, Kojima Productions' original ideas and Platinum Games' brand of style-based gameplay. So now, you may be asking, does it work? I would say: Yes, yes it does.

For curious readers, here's the logo for the original project.

Spoiler Note: Before I continue, I must warn you. Due to the placement of the game within the Metal Gear timeline, there will be unmarked spoilers regarding the premise. I'll try to keep spoilers from the game proper to a minimum, but keep in mind that I won't be using white text due to its nature.

It is four years after the events of Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots. Since the fall of the Sons of the Patriots System, the world has mostly recovered from the war economy and is rebuilding toward a more peaceful state. In an unknown African country, Raiden, who now works for the PMC Maverick, is acting as a VIP guard for Prime Minister N'Mani. Everything goes smoothly until a group of cyborgs from Desperado Enforecement LLC. show up with the intent of kidnapping the Prime Minister. Though they succeed, Raiden follows after their leader, Sundowner, and arrives at a train. There, N'Mani is offed and a mysterious man named Samuel Rodrigues, aka Jetstream Sam, fights Raiden as the train passes through a tunnel, the end result being the latter's loss of both his left eye and arm. Before Raiden can be killed however, the train leaves the tunnel and Maverick arrives to provide assistance, forcing Desperado to leave. Three weeks later, Raiden is supplied with a brand new and improved body and deployed by Maverick to Abkhazia to prevent Desperado from leading a military coup against its government. As the mission continues, Raiden soon finds himself as part of something far bigger than anyone could have realized, as well as his past coming back to haunt him.

Raiden, somehow even more badass than last time.

What follows is actually pretty well-written. It's not on the exact same level as some other Metal Gear titles, but the string of events still suit the universe well. Having Raiden confront his past as a child soldier nicknamed "Jack the Ripper" was interesting, as we get a look into his past and just what effect that has on him in the present day (2018 in-game). There are still some good twists and discussions on the theme of revenge, as well as tackling the subject of child soldiers in general, mainly how wrong it is, and just what benefits certain entities that deploy such soldiers see out of it. I also like how it tackled the issue of the war economy from Guns of the Patriots and just what it meant for the world when it ended, like the fact that there are some people like Desperado Enforcement LLC. who enjoy the business end of an endless war. The rhetoric given by the final boss on this subject is also worth listening to, as it is a perfect example of just how extreme people can become about their ideals and what they'll do to accomplish them, even if it means dooming the entire world. Within all of this, I also felt that Raiden's character was fleshed out pretty well. His goals and motivations made sense to me and, for the most part, his character is consistent with his portrayal in Guns of the Patriots. I know that some may disagree, but it is, in my opinion, a story that wouldn't feel out of place in the Metal Gear franchise.

If there's anything wrong with the story however, it would be how much sense it makes in the long run. Players will still be able to follow what happens just by watching the cut scenes and listening to mandatory codec calls, but that only gets you part of the story. If you really want all of the details, you're going to have to make a lot of codec calls yourself while playing, since it's an action game and having any more cut scenes would only really get in the way. By listening to these codec conversations, you'll better understand where everyone is and what's been going on in the world for the last four years. Even if you just want to constantly cut people up, I would encourage you to make as many codec calls as possible until they begin to recycle, then do it again in any area you could possibly hear more info.

There's also the fact that Metal Gear Rising makes plenty of nods and call backs to previous games in the franchise, so anyone starting out with this game will be a little confused as to what people are actually talking about. To remedy this, for those who actually care about story in a video game, I would suggest waiting on this game and first playing, on PS3, Metal Gear Solid off of PSN, the PS3 version of the HD Collection and then Metal Gear Solid 4; you could also just play Metal Gear Solid 4 and read the downloadable Metal Gear Solid 4 Database into oblivion. If you don't really care about the story though and just want to slice soldiers into little pieces, then you can get along just fine, but you'll miss on a pretty good action game story.

Jetstream Sam: Raiden's main rival.

As this is an action game however, there's one of the most important aspects that needs to be discussed: gameplay, more specifically combat. There's the standard light and heavy attack buttons, complete with special moves that can be acquired through spending BP earned by doing certain actions. Combat is fast, fluid and fun, but there's one mechanic that makes it all worth it: dynamic cutting. While it seems that some observant gamers have pointed out the Afro Samurai video game possessing a similar mechanic, it should be noted that not only does Metal Gear Rising use this mechanic, it improves upon it dramatically. Wherever Raiden cuts on an object, that object will be cut in that exact direction and respond with the perfect physics to match. This is taken one step further with the Blade Mode mechanic, which slows down time and allows control over the precise angle that an object can be cut, especially against enemies. Blade Mode is most useful with the Zandatsu technique, which allows Raiden to slice an enemy at a specific point on their body to grab a fuel cell and replenish his health and fuel cell gauges, the latter of which is required for Blade Mode to work to the fullest. I absolutely love this ability, as it's something people have probably been waiting decades for a game to finally do. To see it in reality is simply miraculous and I honestly can't get enough of it.

Memorable bosses are one thing that Metal Gear has been known for, and Rising: Revengeance is no exception. Almost every level ends with a boss fight against one of the Winds of Destruction, a specialized group within Desperado whose members are all named after a type of wind that is also indicative of their nationality: Mistral, Monsoon and Sundowner. Each fight is tailor made to showcase their unique abilities and serves to not only display how ridiculously awesome the game can get, but also test the player's skill with Raiden's abilities. The fights can get very tense and thrilling, though Monsoon stands out for being rather annoyingly difficult on a first play through thanks to his spectacularly broken moves (he can stun you and then attack you while you're trying to break it, which can make you stunned again, allowing him to attack you in your stunned state to extend it, etc.).

Beating each boss will also net you a unique weapon, which can be equipped in addition to the High Frequency Blade Raiden starts out with. Another annoyance here though is that the newly equipped weapon will replace your heavy attack moves, which means you can't do everything you'd like to at once and will need to get used to whatever weapon you equip. For this reason, I did actually use the Pole Arm, gained by beating Mistral, to advance better through my first run and then abandoned it later on to test my skills with the sword alone. This felt better to me in the long run, so I'd suggest doing the same thing.

One unlucky soldier on the receiving end of a Zandatsu strike.
While action is the name of the game here, there's also still some of the signature stealth action the series is known for. It is possible to sneak past enemies with a cardboard box or drum can, or even sneak up behind them and perform a stealth kill so you can try and get fuel cells without anyone noticing. Keeping this element in helps the game retain the Metal Gear identity and presents a different route that players can take with completing missions, which also offers its own rewards. Variety can help a video game become all it can be, and in this game it certainly helps.

Also useful is Augment Mode, which rolls Thermal, Night Vision and Infrared Goggles all into one package. It's a little like the Detective Mode from the Arkham games, since it scans the environment and provides Raiden, and thus the player, with all kinds of useful information, most importantly the locations of items and objects that can be cut.

Graphically speaking, this is the Metal Gear franchise looking the best it ever has in the current generation. Everything feels more lifelike and seems to be a little more stylized without sacrificing the iconic look of Yoji Shinkawa's art style. Colors are also more vibrant than previous entries, with a great lighting system that helps the levels all look different from each other as well as realistic. While the level design is much more linear than the Solid titles, this doesn't really prevent the game from being any fun, as it's more about what awesome things happen along the way than anything else.

Augment Mode, a very useful tool in the game.

As for the music, I'd like to boldly declare that it is one of the best action game soundtracks I have heard in quite a while. There are a lot of vocal tracks during combat, which I feel was integrated really well, especially in regards to the boss fights, which seem to feature an instrumental until a certain phase causes the vocals to kick in. The songs not only have a great beat that goes well with the action, but the lyrics also match the situation perfectly by discussing the main ideas of each encounter. It is for this reason that the final boss music is actually one of my favorite boss tracks of all time and will be hard to top.

The game also features some pretty good voice acting, with solid performances that bring each character to life and display a good range of emotions. My one complaint in regards to this however would be the amount of f-bombs that are dropped. While I should clarify that it's nowhere near the same galaxy as, say, Bulletstorm, there is still a rather disproportionate amount compared to earlier entries. Guns of the Patriots introduced international fans to the first ever f-bomb in the franchise (there were two f-bombs if you lived in Japan), spoken by Laughing Octopus to induce shock in the player and show just how serious she was about killing Snake. Here though, they throw the word around more often to the point that it loses some of the impact it might have had, though I'll admit that it did help at least one speech out.

The world can offer enemies a very colorful death.

The only other thing that I can find wrong with this game would be the length. It is a bit too short, no doubt due in part to its troubled development. If the end result screen is any indication, it is possible to beat this game in six to seven hours, though I am aware that the game doesn't count retries in this score so make of that what you will, with further runs of the game allowing you to lower this time and beat it even faster (and improve your grade for a better overall score). I think that it could probably have gotten away with maybe a couple more levels to help it not feel so short and still not take away from the story.

As an action game, Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance is one of the best of its genre. As a Metal Gear game, it is an interesting genre shift that feels right at home. It manages to do a decent job combining the styles of Kojima Productions and Platinum games, with a fun combat system combined with a fascinating story that gives us some insight into the aftermath of the downfall of the Sons of the Patriots system. I highly recommend this to fans of the Metal Gear franchise, especially if they enjoy action games or are accepting of a genre shift that suits Raiden perfectly. As for action game fans in general and newcomers to Metal Gear, if you know nothing outside of Solid Snake, Cardboard Boxes and Giant Robots and you'd actually like to follow the story and not be confused, follow the advice I gave above in my story paragraph. It'll help you out immensely.

TL;DR: Go read this.

Grammar Note: In case you're wondering, "Revengeance" is indeed a real word. It is actually an archaic word, which was split off into "revenge" and "vengeance" since they mean basically the same thing. If my research is correct, the reason "Revengeance" is the subtitle is to show that the game is getting revenge at the failure of the previous incarnation, Metal Gear Solid: Rising. Now it makes more sense, doesn't it?

Saturday, February 23, 2013


Flight (2012) Starring: Denzel Washington, Don Cheadle, Kelly Reilly, Bruce Greenwood, Melissa Leo, John Goodman. Directed by Robert Zemeckis. Screenplay by John Gatins. Produced by Walter F. Parkes, Jack Rapke, Steve Starkey, Robert Zemeckis, and Laurie MacDonald. Run Time: 136 minutes. U.S.  Color.  Action. Drama.

One more film in time for the Academy Awards. This time the film is Flight and the nominations are for Best Actor, Denzel Washington, and Original Screenplay by John Gatins. But the big surprise for me was that Robert Zemeckis directed it. Perhaps best known on this blog for the Back to the Future films, it has been more than a decade since Zemeckis directed a live-action film. While I was surprised, I was also happy knowing that Zemeckis is making this and not his god-awful idea about remaking Yellow Submarine.

Academy Best Actor nominee Denzel Washington as Whip Whitaker.

With that off my chest, let’s turn back to Flight. The film is basically a character study of William “Whip” Whitaker (Denzel Washington), a drug abusing alcoholic who reports to work drunk and high. As you might guess from the title of the film, Whitaker is a pilot. One day when he reports to work in his usual high state, he has the misfortune of flying a plane that has a catastrophic equipment failure. When the elevator controls on the tail malfunctions, the plane is headed into an uncontrollable dive. To make things worse, the engines burn out and the plane is just a big rock falling to earth.

His co-pilot, a sober Christian named Ken Evans (Brian Geraghty), cannot handle the situation. Whitaker, in a stroke of genius, inverts the plane (yes, flying upside down) to stabilize the plane and he manages to land the plane. He loses six souls (yes that’s how they refer to the passengers more than once), including two members of the crew, stewardesses, one of whom, Katerina Márquez (Nadine Velazquez), had spent the night drinking, doing drugs and having sex with Whitaker.

While Whitaker is initially declared a hero, he is a flawed human and it is only a matter of time before he implodes. His sobriety is encouraged by Pilot Union Rep Charlie Anderson (Bruce Greenwood), attorney Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle) and Nicole Maggen (Kelly Reilly), a heroin user whom Whitaker meets while sneaking a cigarette during his hospital stay following the crash. On the other side of the equation is Harling Mays (John Goodman, who else), Whitaker’s friend and drug dealer.

As the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation, led by Ellen Block (Melissa Leo), continues, Whitaker struggles to stay sober. He resists admitting to having a problem and refuses help, even as Nicole starts AA. And as reckless as he is, Whitaker almost gets away with being drunk while flying. It is not until under cross examination by Block does Whitaker finally break down.

It is for his performance that Washington is nominated and deservedly so. It is a strong and emotional performance as we finally see Whitaker do the right thing. He only comes clean just when one more lie might have saved him. In any other year, his performance would be a stronger contender to win. But this is the year for Lincoln actor, Daniel Day Lewis. In years past, Washington’s performance might have actually carried the day. The Academy is fond of actors who play flawed characters. But it would take a catastrophic voting failure to derail the Day Lewis train. I’m not saying Day Lewis’ Lincoln performance is better than Washington’s Whitaker; just that Lewis seems destined to win. And even if Day Lewis fails to win, Hugh Jackman’s Jean Valjean in Les Misérables would still probably win before Washington won for this part.

The acting is really strong throughout the movie. Washington, whom I’ve been watching since his days on TV’s St. Elsewhere, is usually very good. Don Cheadle is one of those actors who always gives a good performance whether as a lead or in a supporting role. Despite these two, one of the standout performances in the film belongs to Kelly Reilly. While she has been acting for a number of years, I believe this is the first time I’ve really seen how good she can be. She gives a lot of depth to a supporting role. I’m a little surprised Reilly wasn’t also nominated.

Kelly Reilly gives a strong performance as Nicole Maggen.

Finally, I wanted to point out John Goodman, who seems to be in more films than Dwayne Johnson, in a role that was reminiscent of his performance of Walter Sobchak in The Big Lebowski. Harling is mild-mannered, but quick to temper. And instead of a bowling ball, Harling is carrying cocaine and what other contraband he can in his bag..

Not a bowling ball in Harling's (John Goodman) bag.

As for the screenplay, I’m a little at a loss to explain why this was nominated for best original screenplay. There are parts of it that don’t ring true to me, especially the depiction of Whitaker’s estranged relationship with his wife and son. In what is supposed to be a come full circle ending, Whitaker is visited in prison by his son. But to be honest this seems a little tacked on and could have been excised without impacting the film too much. Their reunion is not the emotional climax of the film either.

There is a Christian overtone running throughout the film. The fact that passengers are referred to as souls may be an aviation passenger industry term, but that along with Act of God being thrown around as an official explanation for the accident and the prayer meeting that breaks out when Whitaker finally visits his co-pilot in the hospital and you’ve got Christian values running as a thread throughout.

As far as production values, the plane trip is very well done, especially when the plane flies upside down (as seen in the ads for the film) and crashes. It is a really good use of special effects without making this a special effects laden film.

There's something you don't see everyday, an airliner flying upside down.

While certainly not the best film of the year, Flight was a film I was pleased to find was better than I expected and one I would recommend to watch.

Monday, February 18, 2013

A Good Day to Die Hard

A Good Day to Die Hard (2013) Starring: Bruce Willis, Jai Courtney, Sebastian Koch, Yuliya Snigir, Mary Elizabeth Winstead  Directed by John Moore. Screenplay by Skip Woods. Based on certain characters by Roderick Thorp in the novel Nothing Lasts Forever. Produced by Alex Young. Run Time: 97 minutes. U.S.  Color.  Action. Thriller.

I hate to quote myself, but in my review of Live Free or Die Hard I wrote about the fact that this franchise doesn’t seem to have a central creative force (person or production company) overseeing the story arc. And while I pointed out that each film pretty much starts anew, that is not always a good thing.

I felt that the franchise reached a new height with Live Free or Die Hard. The subject matter was current, the acting was good and I was optimistic that the new film would perhaps not fly as high, but still soar. A Good Day to Die Hard unfortunately crashes and burns like say a helicopter hitting a building.

At 97 minutes, this is by far the shortest of the movies in the franchise, but it is surprisingly the dullest as well. This is a Die Hard meets Bond meets Bourne and it just never quite comes together. There are five action sequences, one that seems to take up a third of the film, but none of them come close to the ingenuity of say taking down a helicopter with a car.

In the last film, John had to save this daughter, Lucy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) from the villain. Lucy only makes a cameo appearance in this film, which is too bad. Winstead once again doesn’t have anything to do. I thought it would have been a nice touch if she and Matt Farrell (Justin Long) had actually gotten together, but I guess that didn’t happen.

Lucy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) only makes a cameo appearance. 

But it is the other child, the son we saw briefly in the original Die Hard, Jack (Jai Courtney), who is at the center of the film. And in this one John doesn’t save Jack so much as he works with him. (I’ll try to go into that without giving away too much later.) The father-son pairing doesn’t quite work as a buddy film, which has been a winning formula for the franchise.

If you’re unfamiliar with Jai Courtney, you’re not alone. Courtney is an Australian actor whose work I have never seen before. I didn’t watch Spartacus: Blood and Sand, the Starz series he was on in 2010, or Jack Reacher (2012). Neither was I familiar with the other main actors, besides Willis and Winstead. Sebastian Koch, who plays Komarov, is a German actor and Yuliya Snigir, who plays Komarov’s daughter Irina, is a Russian actress. Die Hard got very International very quickly.

Yuliya Snigir (Irina); Jai Courtney (Jack) and Sebastian Koch (Komarov)  make A Good Day to Die Hard an International Affair.
And while I understand the needs of International marketing, what this film is missing is some of what made the Die Hard franchise so popular. The most obvious thing missing is the humor. Die Hard films have always been full of witty dialogue to break up the action sequences. While there are some attempts at that, they fall short. Humor is replaced with some sappy dialogue between estranged father and son. John has never been a good father and while he seems to have made amends with Lucy, he and Jack are still distant.

Even the hero’s catchphrase seems to misfire. Some people have written that they didn’t even hear it. If you bury the catchphrase then you don’t seem to understand what you’re doing. There is a time and place for it and when it is spoken is not the right time.

While you often hear talk of chemistry between romantic leads, there didn’t seem to be any between John and Jack. Even when John is trying to be a father he comes off as a bit of a bully, even asking Jack, who has a piece of rebar stuck in him, if he wants to cry. These are the type of father-son talks that lead to years of therapy.

But John does apparently care enough about Jack to fly to Russia, when he thinks his son is in trouble, lifetime in the gulag type of trouble. We, as the audience, are kept in the dark the same way John is. We only learn later that Jack is working with the CIA. When the mission gets scrapped and plan B goes awry, John steps in to help him thwart the bad guys.

John (Bruce Willis) and Jack (Jai Courtney) are teamed together, but this is no buddy film.
Contrasted to that is the relationship between Komarov and Irina. At first, she’s with him as he wants to escape Russia after having served time in prison, then against him when she sides with his enemies and then with him as they pull the old switcheroo on his enemies. John and Jack seem to have a stable relationship (indifference) by comparison.

As always, this Die Hard film is about a heist. But there is no money this time. Rather it is weapons grade uranium stored at Chernobyl, yes the Soviet made wasteland. Is it just me, or does it seem that Chernobyl is a bit overused as a setting in films. I mean the Transformers were just there in Dark of the Moon (2011) and Chernobyl Diaries came out last year. Pretty soon it won’t be meet me at the top of the Empire State Building, as in numerous romantic comedies, but rather meet me at midnight by cooling tower 5 (maybe that’s wrong, I think Chernobyl’s meltdown was caused by the lack of cooling towers, but you get the idea).

There is plenty of action, but it's not all that ingenious. (It is a nice touch when John shoots the bird at the helicopter. Not shown here.)
After having watched the first four Die Hard films, I went in wanting to like this one too. I always hope that the movie will remind me of the best of the previous outings and strive to outdo them. But A Good Day to Die Hard is a Die Hard film almost in name only.

There are already rumors circulating of a sixth film. At the rate these come out, it’ll probably be 2020 and go something like this: Jack and Lucy are visiting John in the old folk’s home, but Komarov’s brother (to be cast later) is “convalescing” in the room next door and is planning on stealing all the medicine in the infirmary with the help of a cracker jack group of retired ex-KGB agents. God I hope it’s better than that and better than this one too.

For me, A Good Day to Die Hard belongs at the bottom of the films in the franchise, maybe above Die Hard 2, but it’s close. If there is a sixth, then it can only (fingers-crossed) go up from here.

Cubixx - Not About Robots, But Still for Everyone

As of this writing, I am still playing Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time, but the time the game shipped to my house combined with school has caused it to take longer than expected, and I may still be playing it by the time Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance comes out, a game which we plan to cover. As such, I have decided to write up a quick review of another game so that I at least still have something posted on this blog in the meantime. The name of the game is Cubixx, developed by independent studio Laughing Jackal. I became curious about this game while playing around with my PlayStation Vita, deciding to take advantage of it being offered for free in the Vita's PSN store. After playing it for a bit while waiting for Sly 4 to arrive in the mail, I took me a while before I could put it down.

The gameplay of Cubixx is similar to the arcade game Qix (which some of you may recognize as being the basis for the Art Class mini-game in Bully). The goal is to control a small point of light that cuts lasers on the outside of a cube, each cut further revealing what's inside until you reach a percentage goal of how much area you're supposed to erase (maybe this is the source of Peter Molyneux's fascination with cubes?). You must do this while also trying to avoid hazards such as squares of light that bounce around within each side as well as other points of light that will chase you along the edges of the cube, including where you are cutting. You gain points based on how much space you clear up at once, bonus points if you clear up a large area on more than one side at the same time. And don't worry if you cut off your only way back to the edge, for the remaining section you didn't cut will simply fall towards the edge of the cube so you can continue. It may not sound like much to a more complex-minded player, but even this simple task can be addicting as hell, especially for someone like me who enjoys a good puzzle challenge.

Navigating around the cube is very simple, in that you only use the D-Pad or the right analog stick. This is all that's needed for a game like this, although I will admit there was at least one moment where it seemed like the controls were acting up a little while I was on one of the cube's edges, costing me one of my lives. Despite this occasional hiccup, I had a really great time with this game, getting further with each try, and for a while I simply did not want to stop.

Cubixx is a great game for people who want something quick to play on the go. If you own a Vita and are looking for something simple and enjoyable, I would definitely direct you towards this game. It may even become your (next) Angry Birds if you get into it enough.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Stubs – Live Free or Die Hard (Unrated)

Live Free or Die Hard (2007) Starring: Bruce Willis, Justin Long, Timothy Olyphant, Jonathan Sadowski, Maggie Q.  Directed by Len Wiseman. Screenplay by Mark Bomback. Based on the Wired article A Farewell to Arms by John Carlin and certain characters by Roderick Thorp in the novel Nothing Lasts Forever. Produced by Michael Fottrell. Run Time: 129 minutes. U.S.  Color.  Action. Thriller.

The Die Hard franchise is unique in that every film, after Die Hard 2, pretty much starts anew. Since the salad days of the original Die Hard, we’ve lost everyone connected to the original, with the exception of Bruce Willis as John McClane and thinly veiled based on for the original novel author, Roderick Thorp. Usually, there is a least a person with a vision (George Lucas with Star Wars 1-6) or at least the same company involved (Eon Productions with Bond) to give a film series some sense of continuity, But that’s not the case with Die Hard and maybe that’s a good thing. While other franchises Bond, Star Wars, Superman, Batman, etc. have gone through periods where the series seems to be sleepwalking, Die Hard has stayed somewhat fresh as a new team seems to tackle the franchise and brings its own aesthetics to the enterprise, though the plots, and we’ll get to this later, are surprisingly similar (think terrorists and heists).

The only constant between Die Hards 1,2,3 and 4 is Bruce Willis. Alas, his hair opted out.

As you’re no doubt aware, whenever a movie from a long-running franchise is about to open, every other film in that franchise becomes available on cable and pay-per-view and home video. With  A Day to Die Hard coming out in theaters, the first four, including Live Free or Die Hard are being shown pretty much non-stop somewhere. As a DirecTV subscriber, I’m even aware that if you pay to watch one old film, Fox will pony up a ticket to the new one. And while reviewing the original theatrical version of the film, the PG-13 version, would be the easiest thing to do, Trophy Unlocked has one-upped that. We’re going to be reviewing the Unrated version.

Our last film, Die Hard With a Vengeance, was released 12 years prior to this one. I don’t think anyone was really anticipating this film (wasn’t Bruce Willis too old?), so it came as a bit of a surprise, especially considering how well it did at the box office. (Okay, I’m sure Fox anticipated the box office return or else they wouldn’t have made the film in the first place.) The PG-13 rating made this a film that you could take your teenager to, rather than a mom and pop only film date.

While the first three Die Hards were rated R in the days before an official rating reason, it’s easy to point to the violence and the langauge. McClaine’s catchphrase is after all “Yippee Ki-Yay, Motherfucker”, which was probably enough in those days to warrant the R. But when you’re a little worried about the appeal of your movie and you want to bring in as many people as you can, you do things like delete the objectional words from the catchphrase and cut back here and there on the violence. We will make an effort to point out the differences between the PG-13 and the Unrated versions.

Unrated in and of itself does not mean anything more than the version you’re watching was not rated by the Motion Pictures Association of America, MPAA. Any film released theatrically in the U.S., with a handful of exceptions, is rated by the MPAA. Once rated, any changes to the film would require the film to be re-rated. The MPAA rating only applies to the theatrical release, even though you’ll see it on home entertainment releases as well. There it’s used as a guide for parents renting, purchasing or downloading the film.  Add a new song to say Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and that new version is Unrated until that new version is rated by the MPAA.

In Live Free or Die Hard, McClane gets involved when the FBI responds to a computer outage at their Cyber-Security Division, Deputy Director Miguel Bowman (Cliff Curtis) orders that computer hackers be brought in. But agents find several of them have already been killed by bombs planted that have been planted are going off. The bureau reaches out to John McClane, who happens to be in Camden, New Jersey, spying on his daughter, Lucy Gennero (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) to bring in one of the hackers, Matthew “Matt” Farrell (Justin Long) into protective custody. A bomb in his computer had not been triggered.

McClane arrives just in time to thwart five assassins working for Mai Linh (Maggie Q) from killing Farrell. Linh is working for her lover Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant), a software writer and master hacker. Gabriel uses a semi-trailer to house all of his computers and crew, thus giving him a mobile center of operations.

John takes Farrell down to D.C., but Gabriel orders his crew of hackers to take down the transportation grid and the stock market, while simultaneously broadcasting a threat against the U.S.

Farrell recognizes what’s going on as a fire sale, a cyber attack designed to target the nation’s reliance on computers so that everything must go. McClane and Farrell are taken to FBI headquarters by a police escort, but Linh, using transportation grids, reroutes the envoy into the path of an attack helicopter
But McClane proves to be more than a match for a helicopter, launching a police car into it. (This is one of the better action sequences in the film. But every fight scene in the film is pretty awesome.) Gabriel then broadcasts a simulated attack on the U.S. Capitol that sends everyone into a panic, until they can see the building is still standing.

Can you say "Awesome"?

Farrell tells McClane that the next step in a fire sale would be to take over the power grid, so the two head off to West Virginia to the Eastern Power Hub. Unfortunately, Linh and her crew have arrived ahead of them and have taken over the station’s controls. Farrell sets out to reverse what she’s done, but Linh comes back and stops him. 

McClane gets into a somewhat impossible car wreck, running over Linh with an SUV in the control room. The two fight hand to hand while suspended over a shaft. McClane manages to dislodge the SUV, sending Mai to a fiery death. When Gabriel finds out, he tries to kill McClane and Farrell by redirecting all the natural gas in the pipeline to the station.

McClane and Farrell escape the explosion by hiding in a van (don’t try this at home) and while the Eastern seaboard loses electricity, they manage to take the helicopter Linh had and fly away, bruised but very much alive. Farrell directs McClane to a fellow hacker, Frederick “Warlock” Kaludis (Kevin Smith) in Baltimore. 

Warlock has stayed up and online by running the computer systems in his lair using generators. Warlock recognizes the code that Farrell had written for Gabriel as a means of accessing the Social Security Administration building in Woodlawn, Maryland. The building has been set up as a front for the U.S. National Security Agency, designed by Gabriel to be the repository for all personal and financial information in the event of a cyber-security emergency such as the one Gabriel has generated.

Warlock is able to reveal Gabriel’s motivation. The talented hacker was once a top expert for the U.S. Defense Department but was fired and his reputation tarnished, when he tried in vain to sound the alarm about the U.S.’s vulnerability to cyber-terrorism. The all-seeing all-knowing Gabriel is able to detect Warlock’s hack and opens up a dialogue with him, Farrell and McClane., While McClane is forced to watch, Gabriel kidnaps McClane's daughter Lucy from an elevator she’s trapped in. (His minions are apparently everywhere and unencumbered by the transportation grid being knocked out.)

McClane and Farrell race to the Woodlawn facility where Lucy is taken and held hostage. McClane is the muscle and deals with Gabriel’s men, naturally knocking them off one at a time (just like he does in every Die Hard movie). Farrell is the brains and discovers that Gabriel is downloading all the information into a portable storage unit (can you say a bazillion megabytes?) and he is able to encrypt the data after it is downloaded. But 

Farrell is found out and Gabriel, in order to get access to the data, has to take Farrell along when they escape the facility. Gabriel and his main hacker Trey (Jonathan Sadowski), along with Farrell and Lucy, lead the way in a Hazmat van. The mobile computer center follows behind in the semi.

McClane intercepts and hijacks the semi, killing the driver. McClane contacts Warlock to patch him through to Bowman. Even though Warlock is reluctant to do so, he relents when he’s told the terrorists have Lucy. Bowman and his agents are on their way to Woodlawn. McClane tells him the Gabriel has already left Woodlawn in a Hazmat vehicle. He tells them to use LoJack tracking to find the van and gives them the license plate number. 

Gabriel hacks into the military’s computers and scrambles an F-35B and directs the pilot to stop the terrorist in the semi, McClane. Again, a fighter jet is no match for McClane. Even though the F-35B destroys the trailer and even the bridge it’s on, McClane manages to jump onto the fuselage of the plane just before debris from the bridge falls into the jet’s intake, causing it to spin out of control and crash. (Don’t worry, we see the pilot is able to parachute to safety).

McClane in Semi v. Pilot in Fighter Jet. You have to like McClaine's odds.
(I think that's the  Port of Los Angeles' Thomas Vincent Bridge in the background)

McClane has seen Gabriel’s van heading off into the warehouses by the port of Baltimore (with a little Los Angeles harbor thrown in). McClane again dispatches most of Gabriel’s men, including Trey, but the last henchman, Emerson (Edoardo Costa), gets the jump and wounds McClane in the shoulder. Gabriel, who has been holding Lucy as a shield, hands her to Emerson. Lucy struggles, managing to shoot Emerson in his foot using his own holstered gun. She tries to help McClane, but the machine gun she slides across the floor to him gets intercepted by Gabriel. Gabriel tries to draw out the torture, promising to kill McClaine’s daughter and Farrell as soon as Farrell is done decrypting the data. Gabriel is going to make McClane watch. With Gabriel holding the suddenly acting incapacitated McClaine upright, McClane makes Gabriel shoot his gun through McClaine’s already wounded shoulder. The bullet hits and kills Gabriel. (I’m not sure, but I think this is the real magic bullet.)

Doesn't look good, but we're only minutes away from our hero's catchphrase.

Emerson turns his gun on McClane, but Farrell, who has suddenly grown a pair, picks up McClaine’s pistol that’s fallen to the floor earlier in the confrontation and kills Emerson. Just then Bowman and his agents arrive, but all the heavy lifting has already been done. While being patched up, McClane notices Farrell and his daughter, who now calls herself Lucy McClaine-Gennero, are making googly eyes at each other.

So, once again, the Die Hard film is about John McClane stopping a heist. In the original it was stopping Hans Gruber from stealing $640 billion in U.S. Bonds, in Vengeance it was stopping Simon Gruber from stealing $14 billion in gold and in Live Free, the stakes have been raised to something like the accumulated wealth of the U.S. With each of these films, not only have the stakes been raised, but so have the villains and their sophistication. Hans was the most straightforward of the bunch. He merely took over a building. In Die Hard 2, the only one not about a heist, Colonel Stuart commandeers an airport. Simon Gruber takes over an entire city and in Live Free, Gabriel takes over the entire country.

While Holly Gennero is nowhere to be found, we are treated to a grown-up Lucy. While Winstead is a good actress, there really isn’t a lot for her to do besides try to alternatively act vulnerable and tough. We get a more complete picture of what Winstead has to offer when she starred as Ramona Flowers in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010). For the most part, she is tied up by Gabriel. The idea of making it personal for McClane is a good one, though the first two also explored this with Holly being the one in danger. Only in Die Hard with a Vengeance was there no other member of the McClane household in mortal danger.

  Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Lucy Gennero-McClaine.

Justin Long, best known as Drew Barrymore’s onetime boyfriend and for being the personification of Apple Mac cool in some commercials, is actually pretty good in this film. He plays smart nerdy Farrell, who I don’t believe uses a Mac to do his hacking. But his presence signals that Live Free or Die Hard was trying to get younger and draw a younger (PG-13) audience. I had seen Long previously on the Ed TV series (2000-2004) and think he has a likable persona, but apparently, it takes a stronger presence (Willis) to get the most out of him on film. His character will occasionally explain to the audience what's going on.

Justin Long's Matthew Farrell makes this Die Hard another buddy film, plus he provides exposition for the audience.

Maggie Q deserves mention as Mai, the computer/assassin co-conspirator and love interest of antagonist, Gabriel. The Hawaiian-born Polish-Irish-Vietnamese makes for a powerful adversary for McClane and while she had to be killed eventually, it’s too bad it was so soon in the movie. She was definitely good in her part.

Maggie Q (r) as Mai Linh intimidates Matthew Farrell (l).

Kevin Smith had a decidedly smaller role but was still good as Frederick Kaludis aka Warlock, sort of a king of computer hackers complete with his own basement command center. Smith who has acted in his own comedies, does bring humor, which this franchise is known for having, to what otherwise might be a very tense moment.

Kevin Smith as Warlock in his basement lair.

And finally, Timothy Olyphant is a really good villain, managing to go insult to insult with McClane and still remain pretty cool under the pressure. But his cocksureness wears a little thin and by the end of the film, you’re happy to see him get his just desserts. Olyphant is a fine actor. Again, a fresh face brings new life to the franchise.

In the end, the only one Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant) really shoots is himself.

Like all the Die Hard films there are plot holes, some big enough to drive a semi with a computer lab through. Perhaps the biggest is that since the government knows that Gabriel had set it up that under certain circumstances all the financial information would dump to one location; and that circumstance happened, why didn’t they figure out what Gabriel was up to before McClane did? But hey, writing a perfect film is not the point here. The action sequences are and all of them are really over the top exciting.

Now to the differences between the PG-13 and Unrated versions. To be honest, they are not that severe. There is more cursing, a little more bloodshed and some changes in scenes and dialogue. McClane comes across as more foul-mouthed, but still heroic. While the changes don’t amount to much, there are a couple of things to note. Some of the different dialogue doesn’t quite synch with the actor’s mouths and that can be a little jarring. 

But hearing the unaltered catchphrase far outweighs any of the other flaws the unrated version might have.

Of the four Die Hard films we’ve reviewed on the blog, I would have to put this one on top. This is a fast-paced wild ride. Like Die Hard With a Vengeance, this is a bit of a buddy film, but Live Free has a generation gap twist. The film is also helped by 9/11, and exploits our worst fears, but shows that one determined first responder can save us all. If you have to see only one of the four films, I would recommend this one as it is perhaps the most accessible.

So now that John McClane has saved the U.S. from financial annihilation where can he go?  How about Russia? On to A Good Day to Die Hard, currently in theaters.