Saturday, March 30, 2013

G.I. Joe: Retaliation

G.I. Joe: Retaliation (2013) Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Jonathan Pryce, Lee Byung-hun, Elodie Yung, Ray Stevenson, D.J. Cotrona, Adrianne Palicki, Channing Tatum, Ray Park, Luke Bracey and Bruce Willis. Screenplay by Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick. Directed by Jon M. Chu. Produced by Lorenzo di Bonaventura, Brian Goldner. Run Time: 110 minutes. Color. U.S. Science Fiction, Action.

Rarely are sequels better than originals. But that is not to say G.I. Joe: Retaliation is better than mediocre fare. The film, while a continuation of G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (2009), is a virtual recast from top to bottom. In fact, only four actors make it from Rise to Retaliation: Jonathan Pryce, Lee Byung-hun, Ray Park and Channing Tatum.

Gone are Marlon Wayans, Sienna Miller, Christopher Eccleston, Rachel Nichols, Dennis Quaid, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje and Joseph Gordon-Levitt and for the most part good riddance. It’s sad to say, but the acting is better in the sequel. However, with the changes come plot holes that are never resolved, nor even addressed. It’s as if they didn’t expect you to have seen the original or if you had, hoped the convening years would have made you forget characters like Ripcord (Marlon Wayans) and the Baroness (Sienna Miller).

The character of Cobra Commander also makes it to the sequel, but Joseph Gordon-Levitt has been replaced by a mask-wearing Luke Bracey. The Cobra Commander’s plan, once he escapes from prison is, well, what else, to rule the world.

The additions to the cast include Dwayne Johnson as Roadblock, Duke’s (Channing Tatum) good friend. Bruce Willis as the original Joe, General Joe Colton, plays a character not too dissimilar to the one he played in RED, a retired, but still dangerous guy and one you’d want to have on your side in a fight. But the original Joe is not really teamed with Roadblock. Rather, he fights with new recruit Lady Jaye (Adrianne Palicki), whom he insists on calling Brenda. The other new member of the troop is Flint (D.J. Cotrona).

Lady Jaye (Adrianne Palicki) is one of the new additions to the cast of Joes.
With the change in cast, the internationalism of the G.I. Joes is one of the casualties. For the most part they are an American outfit, though there are Japanese Ninja members, Snake Eyes (Ray Park) and Jinx (Elodie Yung), a new recruit. It becomes clear that the Joes report to the President of the United States. Since this is a film currently in theaters, there will be not a synopsis, except to say the President of the United States’s (Jonathan Pryce) switcheroo at the end of The Rise of Cobra does have much to do with the plot of Retaliation.

Snake Eyes (Ray Park) trains new recruit Jinx (Elodie Yung).
While special effects are used to make up for the lack of things like believable plot, they are much more subdued than they were in the first film. Gone, for the most part, are the nanomites, though they’re replaced by exploding fireflies which are controlled by a new character, cleverly enough named Firefly (Ray Stevenson), a loyal member of Cobra.

Cobra Commander (Luke Bracey) and his loyal minion Firefly (Ray Stevenson)
The ninjas Snake Eyes (Ray Park) and Storm Shadow (Lee Byung-hun) are at it again and at each other’s throats in one of the better sequences of the film. The action is better as well, easier to follow though sometimes it goes over the top, way over the top, and pushes the boundaries of credibility. And it doesn’t just push the envelope, it rips it open and cancels the stamp.

Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow continue their fighting in one of the film's better sequences.
The release of Retaliation was pushed back several months from last summer to now partly so that it could be revamped for 3-D. The effect is interesting and even though it is used subtly the gimmick isn’t enough to save the picture.

If you must see a G.I. Joe movie this is the better of the two. But don’t worry, if you miss this one, like a streetcar, there will be another one along in a few years. Retaliation seriously lays down the premise of a third film. Maybe the third time will prove to be the charm.

Stubs – G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra

G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (2009) Starring: Channing Tatum, Marlon Wayans, Sienna Miller, Christopher Eccleston, Rachel Nichols, Dennis Quaid, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ray Park, Lee Byung-hun, Jonathan Pryce. Screenplay by Stuart Beattie, David Eliot, Paul Lovett. Based loosely on the Hasbro G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero toy franchise. Directed by Stephen Sommers. Produced by Lorenzo di Bonaventura, Bob Ducsay, Brian Goldner. Run Time: 118 minutes. Color. U.S. Science Fiction, Action.

For the second week in a row, we’re reviewing a Sci Fi Action film. This time in preparation for the new G.I. Joe: Retaliation (2013), we’re reviewing its predecessor in cinema, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra.

G.I. Joes hit American toy shelves in 1964 as an action figure for boys, rather than a doll, which were only for girls. (This is the mid-60’s we’re talking about here, so understand times and attitudes change.). The audience was clear, as the toys were referred to as America’s movable fighting man. Over the years, storylines have been written. There have been comic books, television series and video games all telling the story of G.I. (Government Issued) Joe.

But over the years, the storylines have skewed less to the war-making side of the military, the name derives from soldiers in World War I, to a more Special Forces bent. Instead of killing Nazis, the toys would hunt for terrorists. In 1982, Marvel developed a comic book to accompany the line of toys, as well as a TV Series. Each had their own continuity and the Terrorist organization they’re fighting, Cobra, and its leader, Cobra Commander, differs depending on the medium.

As with their other toy lines, specifically Transformers and board games: Battleship, Hasbro has been trying to reimagine their intellectual properties into film and television franchises. Sometimes, they are pretty good adaptations: The Transformers films and the Transformers: Prime TV series, other times the tie-in seems to be in name only: Battleship (2012).        

Now on the surface, the film had a lot of promise. The actors, while somewhat below A-list level, had proven themselves to be pretty good overall: Dennis Quaid, Jonathan Pryce, Sienna Miller, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. This was about the time Gordon-Levitt’s career was rebounding; he had just starred in one of the great modern Rom Coms: (500) Days of Summer (2009).

Other promising attributes was that the franchise was a familiar one, for which many people had grown up with, especially men. Paramount and Hasbro had already made a hit out of a similar male-skewing toyline, Transformers, so why couldn’t they do the same with G.I. Joe? And if that weren’t enough, the trailer showed the female villains and heroines in skin-tight outfits.

Rachel Nichols as Scarlett and Sienna Miller as The Baroness
So what’s not to love?

Answer: G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. The film has so many things that work against it to be even a mediocre actioneer, let alone one I could recommend for anyone to watch.

For most of the movies I review, I try to give a complete synopsis, (Many times it’s because one does not necessarily exist in the places most people look, IMDb, TCM, Wikipedia.) But in the case of G.I. Joe, I’m going to dispense, since to rewrite the hot mess of plot would be too time consuming and not really worth the effort. There is so much that is unbelievable and unfathomable about the world the movie sets up, that if after reading my review you want to learn more, then by all means watch the movie.

Earlier I mentioned two franchises that Hasbro has developed: Transformers and Battleship. G.I. Joe feels like it belongs in the category of the latter. There are special effects in G.I. Joe, but they don’t make up for what’s missing in the rest of the movie.

Rather than an expression that was applied to the grunts in the trenches during World War I, G.I. Joes have become an international elite force out to save the world. When terrorists steal nanomite bombs capable of eating through metal and unstoppable unless you have the kill codes, from a U.S. Army transport team, the G.I. Joes, or just “Joes” as they call themselves, spring into action. This elite fighting force seems to be responsible to no government, but given their hidden base far below the desert in Egypt, someone must be fronting this organization. Think U.N., but the movie never really deals with it.

 Christopher Eccleston as Destro, the evil head of MARS.
The Joes are made up of guys with nicknames that might work well for the action figures, but just seem silly when applied to living men and women. Take Heavy Duty (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), a black British ordinance expert and the field commander of the team; Snake Eyes (Ray Park), the ninja commando you didn’t know you’d need on an elite fighting force; Breaker (Said Taghmaoui), a Moroccan communications specialist; Scarlett (Rachel Nichols), a pretty, smart and tough intelligence expert: Duke (Channing Tatum), an American soldier who, along with Ripcord (Marlon Wayans), survived the demolition of the Army Transport team and are now new Joe recruits. The leader is General Hawk (Dennis Quaid), an over the top general who has been assigned the responsibility of protecting the world.

The Joes: Duke, General Hawk, Ripcord, Scarlett and Snake Eyes.
Fighting the Joes is Cobra, led by Cobra Commander (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who in another life had been Rex Lewis, smart guy and the brother of Ana Lewis (Sienna Miller), Duke’s fiancĂ©e. Rex was sent into a bunker to retrieve some scientific stuff and meets Doctor Mindbender (Kevin J. O’Connor), who teaches him about nanomites after the bunker is destroyed and Rex is partially mutilated. Since this tragedy, Ana has become The Baroness by virtue of marrying The Baron de Cobray (Gregory Fitoussi) a very rich scientist, who knows nothing of his wife’s alter ego. Besides looking hot in her tight fitting costume, The Baroness seems to have no empathy for anyone. Destro (Christopher Eccleston) is the head of the Military Armament Research Syndicate (MARS), whose company developed the nanomite bombs and built them in Kyrgyzstan, hence the U.S. Army transport. Cobra’s mission is to steal back the bombs and use them to some aim that is not quite spelled out. Destro, called Laird James McCullen throughout most of the film, has a thing for the Baroness as does Storm Shadow (Lee Byung-hun), a ninja commando, who unlike the Joe’s Snake Eyes, dresses in all white for some reason. It is Storm Shadow who kills the Baron after he helps “weaponize” the bombs. (Yeah, I know, it makes no sense.) We also learn through flashbacks that Storm Shadow and Snake Eyes have been adversaries since they were small boys in Japan, even though Snake Eyes appears to start out as a white orphaned child.

Storm Shadow in white and Snake Eyes in black continue their rivalry.
Unlike the Joes, Cobra warriors are controlled by nanomites, who have made them fearless, impervious to pain, obedient and with their own healing factor, which makes them nearly impossible to kill, and the nanomites also will self-destruct them in case they’re ever captured. The Baroness, we learn, is also controlled by nanomites, no doubt implanted by her brother, but whom she doesn’t know is her brother. If you can follow this, then you’ll do well with the movie. We also learn that the effects of the nanomites can be overruled by the power of love, in much the same way as love trumps magic in Harry Potter.

There is also the President of the United States, played by Jonathan Pryce. When there is an attack on Washington, the President, who is never named by the way, is taken to a bunker for protection and it is  revealed at the end of the film he’s been replaced by Zartan (Arnold Vosloo), Destro’s aide-de-camp, who looks like Jonathan Pryce. And that despite the fact Cobra Commander and Destro are captured, replacing the President has been the point of the plot, which might actually have one.

Jonathan Pryce as the President of the United States.

For the most part, the acting is either wooden or over the top, as if the cast had taken acting lessons from Nicolas Cage. No one really distinguishes themselves. The only one who seems restrained is the uncredited Brendan Fraser as Sgt. Stone, one of the Joe trainers. One wonders what sort of financial issues requires actors of Pryce’s status to take roles in these kinds of films. Does he not have a good agent or doesn’t anyone read the script beforehand?

Which are the actors and which are the empty accelerator suits?
The convoluted story relies on a consistent stream of special effects to prop it up. I imagine most of this movie was shot against green screens. We have nanomites, pulse weapons, missiles, the super-secret Night Raven jet that only responds to Celtic commands, attack submarines, snowmobiles on steroids, control centers under the Egyptian desert and the North Pole, the Baron’s lab, the destruction of the Eiffel Tower, fight scenes that look like they’re choreographed by Cirque de Soleil, car chases with streets full of flipping and exploding cars, a go-go gadget SUV, mole-cycles and accelerator suits that aren’t fast enough to name the ones that come to mind. While they are pretty well made, special effects do not equate to great story-telling. And I didn’t forget the holographs, which get used to death in this film. The novelty quickly wears off when you see it as many times as you do in this film. Who needs a cellphone when you can communicate with holographs ad nauseam?

The car chase through Paris with accelerator suits, missiles and exploding cars.
The film seems like a business calculation to take what had been an American fighting force and to internationalize it for maximum box office. It apparently paid off as the film made $300 million worldwide, enough to spawn a sequel four years later. Ominously, Retaliation has been delayed so it could be retro-fitted to 3D, which leads me to believe the FX are supposed to carry the film’s water again. Filmmaking can be an expensive way to make money, but I’d love it if they would pay enough to have someone write a good story.

While film watching requires a certain amount of willingness to suspend your disbelief, G.I. Joe requires you to have a complete lobotomy to enjoy it.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Stubs – Blade Runner (The Director’s Cut)

Blade Runner (1982) Starring: Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young, Edward James Olmos, Joanna Cassidy and Daryl Hannah. Screenplay by Hampton Fancher and David Peoples. Directed by Ridley Scott. Produced by Michael Deeley. Run Time: 117 minutes. Color. U.S. Science Fiction, Action.

There are few films that seem to have more versions than Blade Runner. There are seven, count ‘em seven versions of this film. If you think George Lucas f’s around with the original Star Wars trilogy, he’s got a ways to go to catch up to Ridley Scott’s messing abouts with this film. Originally released in 1982, the version we’re reviewing dates from ten years later and shouldn’t be mistaken for the Final Cut, which Ridley Scott released in 2007 for the 25th anniversary of the film’s release.

While each version has things that make it unique, we’re going to be concentrating on the Director’s Cut only in this review. We’re not going to assume that everyone has seen it or the original or the Final or any one of the other official and unofficial versions floating out there in the ether. There is a certain mystique that surrounds this film and it is often referenced whenever SciFi gets mentioned in current culture, such as in The Big Bang Theory, when Howard tries to get Leonard interested in a “definitive cut”, which is supposed to be the Final Cut plus 8 seconds. Dialogue from the movie is even quoted in, of all things, a My Little Pony Micro-Series featuring Rainbow Dash comic.

Set in a quickly approaching 2019 Los Angeles, the story revolves around Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), a former Blade Runner, who’s job had been to track down bioengineered beings known as Replicants and “retire” them.

Los Angeles of the future.

Replicants, per this version’s prologue, are robots who are virtually identical to humans. And like all things in the future, they are made by one company, the Tyrell Corporation. The Nexus 6 models are superior in strength and agility and are at least as intelligent as their human makers. Because Replicants might develop emotions, which would be bad, they are given a very short lifespan of four years. They are used “Off World” as slave labor. After a mutiny by a team of Nexus 6 built for combat, Replicants are forbidden on Earth under the penalty of death. Special police units, called Blade Runners (which is never explained by the way) are tasked with killing or as the film refers to it, retiring, Replicants it finds on earth. Presumably, every police force around the world has such a unit, sort of like they all have SWAT units (the movie never talks about anything outside of LA.).

Replicants from Off World.

The movie starts with a new employee at the Tyrell Corporation, Leon (Brion James), being administered the Voight-Kampff test by a Blade Runner named Holden (Morgan Paull). Leon is suspected of being one of four Replicants, the others being Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), Zhora (Joanna Cassidy) and Pris (Daryl Hannah), who have come to Earth Illegally. They have tried to get into the Tyrell headquarters to meet the head man in hopes of gaining a longer life. The Voight-Kampff test is a series of unrelated questions and scenarios which are supposed to elicit a certain emotional response. Replicants won’t react the same as humans, so that’s how you can tell them apart. When Holden asks Leon about his mother, Leon kills him.

Which leads us to Deckard. He is brought by officer Gaff (Edward James Olmos) to meet with his former supervisor Captain Bryant (M. Emmett Walsh). Bryant wants Deckard to track down the four Replicants and retire them. He shows Deckard video of Leon killing Holden. Deckard doesn’t want to get involved, but Bryant overtly threatens him so he reluctantly agrees. (We’ll get to the problems with the writing in more detail, but it’s a very overt threat, to say the least.)

Deckard is sent to Tyrell Corporation to make sure the Voight-Kampff test works on their model, Nexus-6. There he meets Tyrell’s (Joe Turkel) assistant Rachael (Sean Young) who is an experimental Replicant who, due to a real person’s memory being planted into her consciousness, thinks she’s a human.

Tyrell (Joe Turkel) and Rachael (Sean Young). Talk about Coke bottle glasses.

The Replicants are on Earth hoping they can increase their normal four-year lifespan. To that end, Roy and Leon try to find someone who can connect them to Tyrell. They first try Chew (James Hong) at an eye-manufacturing lab. While he can’t help them when he feels threatened he tells them about J.F. Sebastian (William Sanderson) who works closely to Tyrell and even plays chess with him.

Rachael visits Deckard in his apartment and tries to prove her humanity by showing him a family photo. But Deckard tells her that she’s a Replicant and that her memories are implants. Horrified, she runs away.
Meanwhile, Pris gains Sebastian’s confidence. Sebastian is a bit of an odd duck, who lives alone and creates his own genetic little buddies to live with him.

Deckard tracks Zhora down to a strip club where she works and retires her after a struggle and a chase. He is told by Bryant to add Rachael to his retire list since she’s disappeared from Tyrell Corporation. Deckard sees Rachael in a crowd, but before he can do anything is attacked by Leon. Rachael kills Leon with Deckard’s gun and the two of them go back to his apartment and later become intimate.

Zhora in her failed attempt to escape the Blade Runner.

Roy arrives at Sebastian’s apartment and informs Pris that the other Replicants have been killed. Sebastian, whose own aging is accelerated, sympathizes with the Replicants’ plight and helps Roy to gain access to Tyrell’s penthouse. Roy asks Tyrell for more life, but Tyrell tells him it’s impossible. Roy monologues to Tyrell kisses him and then kills him, thus sealing his own fate.

Sebastian at home with Pris and friend.

Deckard is ambushed by Pris in Sebastian’s apartment but manages to kill her just as Roy returns. The two fight it out, but Roy is too strong for Deckard. But Roy saves Deckard when it appears he’s going to fall to his death. Roy then gives a monologue about his memories about to be lost and dies in front of Deckard. Just then, Gaff arrives and makes some veiled reference to Rachael.

Deckard returns to his apartment and finds Rachael asleep in his bed. As they leave, Deckard finds a small unicorn made by origami-making Gaff as a calling card.

After watching this version of the film, I had seen the original when it was out in theaters, I have to wonder what all the fuss is about. This is a very slow paced, poorly written, poorly acted mess. The special effects are all right for the time, but the film is so dark that the imperfections are somewhat hidden. And the future, while a dystopian nightmare, is not all that advanced technologically. All right so there are building-sized billboards and flying cars, but did the futurist never think we’d get beyond green screen computer monitors?

The film is set in Los Angeles, but there is very little recognizable as LA. We see exterior shots of the Million Dollar Theater, a bit of the Grand Central Market sign and some exteriors of the Bradbury Building and exteriors that are reminiscent of the Frank Lloyd Wright Ennis House. And that’s it. No iconic shots of say City Hall or the Hollywood sign or even the ocean. Oh, we see the massive rows of smokestacks breathing fire into the night sky and the pyramid-like Tyrell Corp. building, but nothing that is currently here. Why set it in LA and then not use LA as the setting?

The Tyrell Building coming soon to LA?

Blade Runner has been called an Action film and even Future Noir. Frankly, there is more action in a 30-second commercial and as far as Noir, labeling this that gives a bad name to Noir. Yes, this has many of the elements of the “subgenre”, the dark atmosphere, the lone wolf cop, the femme fatale Replicant (if you want to stretch it), but it’s sort of like saying a painting of a woman smiling is the Mona Lisa.

The acting is very stiff. I don’t really ever think Harrison Ford is engaged as Deckard. He seems to be reading the lines and going through the motions, but I don’t get a sense he had any real convictions for the part.

Harrison Ford as Deckard. Once a Blade Runner, always a Blade Runner.

While I’m not a big fan of Edward James Olmos, he seems to be underutilized in this version at least. He only has a handful of dialogue lines, when they’re not in Japanese, and his character really doesn’t add much to the story. Again, maybe in one of the other six versions, Gaff is an integral part of the plot, but in the Director’s Cut, I get the feeling we’re watching what are leftovers that, try as they might, couldn’t be eliminated.

Edward James Olmos as the Japanese talking Gaff.
Rutger Hauer’s character has some of the oddest motivations. Why would Batty kill Tyrell, the only person that could possibly give him what he wants and save the one person, Deckard, who has been tasked with killing him? And Brion James’ Leon is one of those characters whose days are numbered as soon as you see him. He’s supposed to be menacing, but we already know he has a short shelf life.

Rutger Hauer as Roy Batty, Replicant.
Sean Young may not be a great actress, but she’s not given really all that much to do here. She moves with all the grace of a robot, but we’re not supposed to see it, are we? Joanna Cassidy takes a shower, shows some tit, throws Deckard against the wall and then runs off in one of the oddest wardrobe choices ever in films only to get gunned down.

Sean Young as Rachael. Replicant and Tyrell's Assistant.

The chase scenes are shot in such a way that it is very difficult to follow. When Deckard is chasing down Zhora she is constantly running through what appear to be storefront display windows. Is there really any way that would keep happening? Everything is shot so dark that it’s hard to tell what’s going on sometimes.

Any review of the Director's Cut should not neglect the use of the Unicorn. Some have used its appearance in this movie, first as a flash in a dream and later as an origami figure that Gaff leaves for Deckard, as a sign that Deckard is a Replicant. I'm not sure how the mythical beast which usually symbolizes magic and miracles fits into this SciFi film, but I'm wondering if perhaps we're trying too hard to find meaning where none may exist. Sometimes a cigar is a cigar and sometimes a unicorn is used to make you think there is some deeper meaning.

Deep meaning, it's there for the finding.

Which leads me to the writing. I have to say I was very unimpressed with the screenplay. The dialogue is sort of like a stream of words thrown together that are supposed to sound good, but in the end don’t really mean much.

As an example, this is an excerpt from the screenplay where Bryant convinces Deckard to hunt down the Replicants:

                  You know the score, pal.  When
                  you're not a cop, you're little

                  Forgot there for a minute about
                  the little people.  No choices
                  I guess.

                  No choice, pal.

What the hell does that mean? If Deckard knew the “score” and doesn’t want to be one of the “little people”, why did he retire from the police force in the first place? We’re never given a good reason why Deckard retired. He tells Rachael that he never mistakenly shot a human when hunting down a Replicant, which might have been a real motivator to quit and not want to get sucked back in. He simply retired as far as we know when he was in his thirties. Talk about a cushy public sector pension plan.

Now there is a bit of science, real or fake, that the film has to deal with. Explaining the Replicants is taken care of in an expository printed prologue. Other than that, the film has to deal with certain explanations, but they end up sounding like gobbledygook. Here Tyrell explains the Voight-Kampff test:

                               TYRELL (os)
                  Is this to be an empathy test?
                  Capillary dilation of the so-called
                  blush response.. fluctuation of the
                  pupil involuntary dilation of
                  the iris......
Did you really understand what he was talking about? These all sound like words that mean something, but strung together I’m not sure what it means, except there is some reaction in the eye to emotional questions.

A lot has been made of Batty’s soliloquy at the end of the film, the so-called “Tears in the Rain” speech. Some have even called it “perhaps the most moving death soliloquy in cinematic history”. As written in the script it appears as:

                  I've seen things...(long pause)
                  seen things you little people
                  wouldn't believe... Attack ships
                  on fire off the shoulder of Orion
                  bright as magnesium... I rode on
                  the back decks of a blinker and
                  watched c-beams glitter in the dark
                  near the Tanhauser Gate. (pause)
                  all those moments... they'll be gone.

Hauer himself described this as having no bearing on the rest of the movie. So he apparently rewrote and he improvised some of the final speech, so we’re left with:

                  I've seen things you people
                  wouldn't believe (laughs)Attack ships
                  on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I
                  watched c-beams glitter in the dark
                  near the Tanhauser Gate. All those
                  moments will be lost in time, 
                  like (coughs)tears in rain. Time to die.

An improvement over the original script, but really, the most moving soliloquy in cinematic history? Batty has memories and when he dies, his unique memories go with him. Well, guess that’s what happens to everyone, their unique memories die with them, too. That’s the bitch about life. I don’t think Batty provides any real insight into that. Maybe I might have thought more of it, but I was bored by that point in the movie. Time for the movie to end.

The pacing of the movie is slow as molasses on a cold day. Even with a less than two-hour runtime, the film seems long. But I don’t think there is really enough in the movie to say it could be condensed and work better. It sort of is what it is. Edit it as much as you like and you can’t make more of it than what is already there.

Now I went into watching this film with open eyes. I remembered that it wasn’t as great as it gets made out to be, but I didn’t remember Blade Runner being so bad.

Blade Runner (Director's Cut) is available as part of a collection at the WB Shop:

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Friday, March 22, 2013

Little Inferno - A Little Inferno Just For Me

Around a recent E3, a pair of new game announcements caught my interest: Sony's Rain, about a boy who can only be seen in the rain, and indie developer Tomorrow Corporation's Little Inferno, about a child burning toys in a fireplace to keep warm. Released last year, Little Inferno is a game that I had wanted to play upon its release, thanks mainly to its unique premise. However, I only recently bought it through Steam when it was being offered at a 60% discount ($4 instead of the usual $10). After spending a few hours in front of the fireplace, I consider it money well spent.

In a world that's been getting increasingly cold, there has to be some way to keep warm. That's where Tomorrow Corporation comes in with their Little Inferno Entertainment Fireplace, where a child can keep warm by burning their possessions. As you try to stay warm, you are also kept up to date on things through letters from Miss Nancy, the Weather Man, and the mysterious Sugar Plumps. This premise, while sounding simple, can actually be emotional at times, going into the realms of thought-provoking by the end. For what it is, it's actually very engaging and, along with the gameplay, makes you want to keep playing to see the overall outcome of things.

A useful tip for surviving real life.

The gameplay of Little Inferno is simple, but mildly addicting. You can start a fire in the fireplace by clicking and holding the cursor. As long as you hold the flame, you can drag it onto an object to light it up. These objects can be bought from a set of unlockable catalogs by way of Tomorrow Bucks, then dragged into the fireplace once they arrive. You can earn more Tomorrow Bucks by burning objects, and the currency can also be used to expand your inventory space. Burning two or three particular objects at one time creates a combo, which yields stamps; these stamps can be used to deliver objects faster, the number needed depending on how close the object is to your abode (these can be useful when you have enough, since waiting for a new object can get pretty boring). You can also burn letters you receive during the game from various parties, some of which are requests for an item from you. A simple tactic, but enough to get you to see how many Tomorrow Bucks you can rack up. (Don't worry, if you're short on cash, burning a crawling spider on the wall will earn you more, sometimes even a stamp.) I should also note the lack of a save feature, but in this case, you will find out why that is as you go.

The art style is also simple, but effective, much like the gameplay. It has a stylized, rough sort of look to it that actually fits with the tone of the game and looks rather appealing to the eye. The soundtrack to the game is very good, ranging from heavy to a very catchy jingle for the Little Inferno Entertainment Fireplace. Tomorrow Corporation (the game developer) also provides the soundtrack for free on their website, which I would suggest downloading if you enjoy it.

An example of the gameplay.

In short, Little Inferno is a great example of an amazing indie game. The gameplay is mildly addicting and the story, for what it is, is actually pretty gripping. If you're looking for a good 4-5 hours of entertainment in front of a fire, I would suggest a purchase. Just keep in mind that, in the game, you can go as far as you like, but you can't ever go back.

Minerva's Den (DLC) - There's Something in the Sea

Following the release of BioShock 2, two bits of Single Player DLC were released, known as The Protector Trials and Minerva's Den. While I did not purchase the former, I was interested in and purchased the latter, as it was to be a stand-alone campaign taking place in a new part of Rapture with a new protagonist. When it came out three years ago, I eagerly dropped $10 on it to see if it would live up to my expectations. This was another of my early DeviantArt reviews, in which I reflected positively. Now that I've played it again recently, I now feel that not only is this single piece of DLC better than the main game, it is able to elevate itself to be comparable with the original BioShock.

The story opens in 1968 and follows Subject Sigma, a Big Daddy on his way to the titular Minerva's Den. On his way over, the tunnel is detonated and he falls unconscious. Some time later, he wakes up and hears a man named Charles Milton Porter speak to him. Porter knows what Sigma is trying to do and decides to help him regain control of a supercomputer called The Thinker, which has control over the automated systems of Rapture. To do this though, he must eliminate a man named Reed Wahl, the computer's co-creator and current controller who really wants Sigma dead.

Your best view of Subject Sigma.

While the campaign is only around four to five hours, it uses this time to tell a well-crafted story that doesn't need to try to tie in to the events of the core game. Subject Sigma turns out to be an interesting character, thanks in part to how he interacts with Wahl, Porter and Brigid Tenenbaum. While Sigma doesn't speak, what goes on as he makes his way to The Thinker is very engaging and manages to create the right amount of suspense as it builds up toward a rather shocking twist. Its climax is brilliantly executed and the ending was actually written well enough to make me cry.

On the side of gameplay, it remains largely unchanged from BioShock 2, with some exceptions. There is a new weapon, the Ion Laser, which uses one of three different types of ammunition to create a focused laser that fires upon the enemy. New enemy types are introduced, such as the Fiery Brute Splicer, Wintery Houdini Splicer and the Lancer Big Daddy, who's weapon of choice is the Ion Laser. In the same vein, there are also new types of security bots that can electrocute, shoot rockets or fire the Ion Laser. It is also possible to find a number of Plasmids and Gene Tonics, including the new Gravity Well Plasmid, which creates a vortex that sucks objects into its pull; it can be upgraded to be used as a proximity mine or even secrete acid on those unfortunate enough to come in contact with it. Finally, in lieu of Power to the People stations to upgrade weapons, upgraded forms of the weapons are now found lying around, which actually helps make things more expedient and acquiring all upgrades possible.

Both the Gravity Well and Ion laser in hand.

The aforementioned additions made to combat actually help mix things up and prevent enemy encounters from getting stale. Thanks to the new weapon and Plasmid at my disposal, I also felt more powerful and they felt fun to use, though I thought the Ion Laser drained a little quickly. On a final note, the graphics aren't much different from BioShock 2, but the voice acting continues to be really well done. It is thanks to the talent for the new characters that the story ended up being as emotional as it was.

A Lancer Big Daddy ready to blind Sigma.

Minerva's Den is what DLC should be. It offers a brand new campaign that has a pretty good length for the amount of money it costs and introduces new concepts to the combat to help it feel fresh, thus allowing the player to actually feel like a Big Daddy throughout its entirety. The real highlight however is the story, which felt more focused and better written than the game required to play it. If you loved the story of BioShock but weren't sure how to feel about the yarn spun for BioShock 2, then Minerva's Den will put your mind at ease. It is an excellent offering that BioShock fans should not miss out on.

Now that I've concluded my buildup to the soon-to-be-released BioShock Infinite, I'm ready to never visit Rapture ever again. I had some fun and experienced some incredible stories, but after a while it's clear that the franchise definitely needs to go someplace new. Hopefully I'll be able to get that by leaving the underwater city of Rapture for the open skies of the cloud city known as Columbia.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Transformers Prime: Rage of the Dinobots (Comic)

I would now like to present you with my thoughts on another Transformers comic, this one also set in the current Aligned continuity. Unlike the Fall of Cybertron comic which was distributed digitally (with a recent physical collection of it that I encourage you to buy if you're interested), this one, Rage of the Dinobots, was released physically on a monthly schedule for 4 issues. It, too, focuses on the Dinobots, this time telling their story after the events of the Fall of Cybertron game and leading into the 3rd Season of Transformers: Prime (which premiers soon, actually). Due to it explicitly using Fall of Cybertron (the game) as background for the story, this comic technically counts under this blog's criteria of a licensed video-game comic, so I would now like to present my thoughts on it.

The story, written by Prime writers Mike Johnson and Mairghread Scott (the first woman to write an official Transformers comic), follows the Dinobots (Grimlock, Slug, Sludge, Swoop, and Snarl) as they try to leave Cybertron after Optimus Prime and the Autobots. While dealing with some Decepticons, Ultra Magnus comes to the Dinobots' aid, only to get shot down. When the Dinobots decide to investigate, they learn of a new enemy named Ser-Ket, who has members of a new opposing faction, the Predacons, working for her. They also learn that Ser-Ket has managed to capture Ultra Magnus, which lands the Dinobots another chance to confront Ser-Ket's boss, the Decepticon Shockwave, the one responsible for their current appearances.

Mike Johnson and Mairghread Scott, helped in part by them having experience working on Transformers, have written an excellent tale based around the Dinobots. Here we see them, but mostly Grimock, trying to cope with their new forms as they embark on their rescue mission. In the process we get to learn more about these characters and the relationship between them, mainly with the Dinobots and their antagonistic rivalry with Shockwave and their friendlier terms with Ultra Magnus. The story carries some tension that makes the story work, although there are a couple of funny moments near the end to balance it out. Some scenes from Fall of Cybertron are also directly referenced near the end of the story proper, which solidifies how this comic ended up being reviewed here. (There are also, of course, a few continuity errors of sorts, especially one involving Sludge, though explaining these requires spoiling the Fall of Cybertron game.) It feels like a true modern Transformers story through and through, and it gets me excited with the prospect of seeing new characters show up in the Prime cartoon before it ends.

Augustin Padilla, another Transformers veteran, takes on the interior art duties with some amazing pencil work that truly captures the art style of the Prime cartoon. His work, combined with Thomas Deer's work on the coloring, expertly bring the story to life and help create the atmosphere set forth by the writers. There are some larger panels spread throughout, including a handful of splash pages across all 4 issues, but these are not the bulk of the work and serve to set up an epic scene or show how big something is (such a crashed ship or a big battle scene). Ken Christiansen provides the art for the main covers, and they are absolutely gorgeous, with some amazing line work and colors that help the comic stand out (you might even be compelled to hang them on your wall if you like them enough); Thomas Deer's pin-up of Grimlock at the end of issue 4 is also pretty good-looking, showing off his artistic capabilites when working solo (and is also potentially wall-worthy). Overall, the artwork is very nice and appealing to look at, displaying a good range of emotion from the characters (even Grimlock, whose face consists of a visor and mouthplate).

Transformers Prime: Rage of the Dinobots is not only a good Transformers comic, it's also one of the better Transformers stories told in recent years. Sure, there's a few issues with the continuity it's trying to tie in to, but by itself it's pretty well-written and drawn and it actually gets you to care about the characters involved. If you're someone who's currently investing in the Aligned continuity, you should definitely pick up this book and give it a shot (and if you're super hardcore about it, prepare for a headache). However, I would not recommend newcomers to Transformers to start here, if only due to its placement in the current continuity and how it requires a little knowledge from another source(s) (instead, watch this if this is your first dip into the modern mythos). It may not be the absolute best Transformers story, but, as I have said, it is certainly one of the better ones and deserves a look.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

BioShock 2 - Sea of Dreams

2007 saw the release of BioShock, a First-Person Shooter that seemed to revolutionize the genre in terms of both gameplay and storytelling. It was able to build a unique world and explore deconstructions of concepts including free will in a video game (which some observant gamers may recognize as one deconstruction present in the earlier Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty). Those who reached the end of BioShock were able to see a teaser for a sequel, which seemed to have been named BioShock 2: Sea of Dreams. During development of this expected sequel, the subtitle was dropped and multiple developers had a hand in eventually releasing it in 2010. The game received positive scores, and even eventually made it into a book called 1001 Video Games You Must Play Before You Die, though both fan and critical reception ended up being a little mixed. Regardless, I played BioShock 2 upon release and even posted a review of it on my DeviantArt account, which will now represent my opinion at the time. Since I'm building up to BioShock Infinite, I ended up playing it once more and have found myself enjoying it, but with a view more mixed than three years prior.

The early Sea of Dreams teaser image, for curious readers.

The game begins in 1958, where a Big Daddy named Subject Delta is pursuing his daughter, Eleanor. He sees a group of Splicers around her and kills them all to protect her. However, another man uses a Plasmid to hypnotize him, which is when Sofia Lamb appears on the scene. While Delta is under hypnosis, she orders him to take a handgun and shoot himself in the head; he does so. Ten years later however, in 1968 (8 years after the events of BioShock), Delta wakes up face-down in a pool of water. He is contacted by his daughter and sets out to rescue her from the clutches of Sofia Lamb while exploring what remains of Rapture and learning about the underlying conspiracy that has influenced both his own life and the city's eventual downfall.

From a story perspective, BioShock 2 manages to execute it rather well. The silent Subject Delta isn't always interesting or completely fleshed out, but his connection with his daughter offers a new perspective and eventually the player may feel like protecting her as well. Learning how much of a hand Sofia Lamb had in the events actually becomes rather intriguing, but in the end we don't get to see very much of her. She doesn't even become an end boss of sorts, instead having a mostly off-screen presence and only really makes any physical connection with Delta and Eleanor in the last hour or so of the game. There are other characters that are introduced that have some influence over Rapture in the present as well as Delta in the past, but these characters end up not being quite as interesting and in the end serve to set up a morality choice for the player to make. Fortunately these choices do in the end determine how certain things will play out, mainly the ending, but that doesn't really make up for their near lack of completeness. Basically, the part I was genuinely drawn into about this tale was the father-daughter connection, which I ended up getting caught in the most.

Subject Delta with a Little Sister. Yes, you get to do this.

On the side of gameplay though, this is where the game shows some significant improvements from its predecessor. Plasmids are now improved, with upgrades that do more than just provide a stat boost. Now, for example, Electro Bolt can be upgraded to perform chain lightning attacks, Inferno can eventually form a continuous stream of fire or even be charged and released as a bomb and Winter Blast can freeze enemies in a solid block of ice that can be shattered for splash freezing and still award items. One of my favorites ended up being Insect Swarm, which can be upgraded to summon larger swarms of bees that can linger on the battlefield within corpses so future enemies will be stunned and stung by the hive. Gene Tonics are also no longer assigned specifically to certain categorical tracks, but instead in one large block of three rows to provide more opportunity to mix and match desired abilities. These improvements made using Plasmids more fun and improved experimentation with passive abilities without having to worry about accidentally buying a Tonic or slot for the wrong track.

Weapons are also improved in some aspects, though the same basic weapon types return. Instead of a crossbow however, you get a spear gun with ammo that is almost always retrievable and the machine gun looks more like a gatling gun among other things. Upgrades can make these weapons more super powerful and fun to use, but for most of the game I actually ended up using the Drill, this game's version of the wrench, since the right combination of Tonics and Plasmids could make it more useful in the long run than any weapon available. On the flip side, it was a pain to have to constantly find fuel for the Drill, since it eats it up rather quickly and takes some of the fun out of using the drilling aspect of it unless I needed to quickly kill a powerful enemy like a Big Daddy or Brute Splicer. Melee was best with it though, so I ended up killing Splicers rather quickly with it.

Full Dual-Wielding against a Brute Splicer.

Research on Splicers in this game is also done a little differently. Instead of a camera that takes still shots requiring rolls of film, players instead film enemies and earn research points based on what went on during the encounter. No longer needing to buy film was a great upside and the bonuses for getting certain levels of research points felt worth the effort to use the camera. However, you'll need to mix up what you do from time to time to get research points quicker, but even with a Drill-focused run it's still very possible to get something different to happen.

Enemy variety is also changed up a bit, with the form of the new Brute Splicer, which focuses on physical strength, Rumbler Big Daddies, which focus more on using explosives and mini turrets, and the Big Sister, which acts as a sort of mini-boss whenever you rescue or harvest enough Little Sisters. I had no qualms about the Brute Splicers and Rumblers, but I've always had a problem with how the Big Sister was handled in the final product. In the promotional material, I expected the Big Sister to be a sort of overarching antagonist that would serve as a final boss, which the first encounter even supported. However, when I faced her more than once and there turned out to be multiples of her, I thought the potential was wasted a little. Since playing the game, I've felt, and still feel, that she should have been used as a single recurring boss that would always be just a little more powerful as the player improves and then serve as a boss at the end that would test how much the player has learned over the course of the game. Basically, I expected more of an adversary that would try to impede my progress and instead got just another enemy type.

Fighting a Big Sister is not as cool as it looks, trust me.

One other thing the game does right however is improved graphics and good voice acting. Rapture has certainly aged over ten years and the developers did a good job of translating a post-BioShock environment into a video game with new areas to explore and interesting underwater segments that finally allow opportunity to explore a little of the outside. I also thought that the voice actors were able to match their characters pretty well and give some pretty solid performances.

However, there are a couple of things that I just couldn't really get over across a few aspects as I played. While there are new places to go in Rapture, eventually it all starts to feel the same. There are only so many ways you can make the same city look new again, but after a while there's little joy in trying to explore everything as it gets closer to the end due to the overall sameness of everything. Within the city itself, it is also much easier to come across money, ADAM, EVE Hypos, First Aid Kits and ammunition, making the overall atmosphere a little less tense in the long run due to the more forgiving environment and ease of acquiring godly powers (but who am I to talk, I mostly used the Drill, so my ammo was almost always full).

Then there's the main selling point of the game, which is the ability to play as not only a Big Daddy, but the first Big Daddy. This is a very good concept and the reason to pick up a copy, but it takes too long to truly feel like one. Thanks to how the game is set up, and the initial lack of superpowers, it's only in the final hours of the game that I felt like I could kill anything just by existing. So while the concept is pulled off, it takes a little too long for it to fully come to fruition. The opening action also felt a little more abrupt than the previous game, but I was able to get into the swing of thing within a few minutes of play. Finally, there's also the fact that the game is a lot more linear in overall design, since you travel by train most of the time and can't go back to previous areas. While I didn't have too much of a problem with this, fans of full city exploration may have a few qualms, especially with the need now to try and do every possible thing in each area before trying to continue on. Also, there's no way to care about the character of Mark Meltzer unless you followed the Something in the Sea ARG before the release of the game (Spoiler: I didn't).

Mark Meltzer, for future reference.

A final addition made to this game is the presence of an Online Mulitplayer component, which I felt that with the setup of Bioshock's world, and it being an FPS, could actually work. While I'm not a Multiplayer kind of guy normally, I was convinced three years ago into trying it and found myself a little underwhelmed. While the gameplay modes were alright and you were able to customize a Splicer with Plasmids and stuff, I just didn't feel motivated to keep playing since I wasn't on the same level as other players who had obviously memorized the maps and already formed complex strategies with each other that I didn't have the time to invest in trying to do. Also certain combinations were broken, so there's that.

In the end, BioShock 2 is a rather mixed bag for a sequel. While the gameplay is greatly improved over the original, the story is a little lacking and certain things end up being a little disappointing. Environments don't do enough for me to feel varied and even some fun underwater sections couldn't make up for it all that much. However, the game does do a good job of building a father-daughter bond and the gimmick of being a Big Daddy is worth the experience alone. Fans of BioShock should give this a go and it is actually pretty safe for newcomers to jump in as well, since the only connections that are made to the previous game are ones that don't need to be understood for full enjoyment.