Saturday, August 31, 2013

Saints Row IV - Everything You Want in Open World Gaming

I’ve mentioned before that open world gaming isn’t a genre that I normally pick up. My main experience in this genre of gaming has come from the Assassin’s Creed and Infamous franchises as well as Batman: Arkham City and Saints Row: The Third (as well as a couple hours of Grand Theft Auto). While I have some experience with Saints Row 2, it was Saints Row: The Third that got me into the Saints Row franchise, so my anticipation of Saints Row IV had already begun when development of it became known. As it turns out, while they were developing this game, they had cancelled the planned Enter the Dominatrix DLC for the third game, as they realized that they could expand the concepts from it into a full game and fold it into what they already had (though now Enter the Dominatrix will be DLC for this game, which is kind of weird). This explains why Volition returned to Steelport for Saints Row IV and recycled assets, but doesn’t explain why no one was mad at them for reusing Stilwater between Saints Row 1 and 2.

Every video I saw of it increased my anticipation, with the reveal of some of the customization and weaponry wishing I could play it quicker. In that time however, THQ sadly went under, which briefly put the franchise in a state of limbo. As the publisher’s properties went on sale to other companies, publisher Deep Silver acquired developer Volition as well as the Metro franchise. It is through this acquisition that Saints Row IV was able to be published last week and how I’m able to share my opinion on the game. This latest entry in the Saints Row franchise is an improvement on Saints Row: The Third and is a game that open world fans should definitely look into playing.

Five years after the events of Saints Row: The Third, the Saints have risen from taking over Steelport to taking over the White House, with The Boss as President of the United States. Things seem to be going well, although the President’s approval rating has dropped to only 20 points. Just before he can give a big speech however, an alien race known as the Zin invade and abduct the important members of the President’s cabinet. While the President attempts to fight them off, he is ultimately taken by Emperor Zinyak, leader of the Zin Empire, who places him in a simulation of Steelport for his own amusement. The President manages to escape from Zinyak’s control, ending up on a spaceship with Kinzie and Vice President Keith David. Seeking revenge, the President decides to use the simulation to rescue more people he thinks will be useful so that the Saints can defeat Zinyak and take back Earth.

Emperor Zinyak at his throne.

By focusing on a single villain, the story of Saints Row IV seems to have more focus than the previous game. While I did say I liked the story of Saints Row: The Third, though there were problems with it, there seems to be more to this entry. I saw some character moments that seemed to mean something and there is a specific scene which gives the player good motivation to try and kill Zinyak. We even get to understand the kind of person the President is and see that the justification for his actions is quite sound. However, while the story is longer than that of Saints Row: The Third, it does prove itself to be nothing more than an excuse to throw as much over-the-top lunacy as possible to the player, and I consider that a good thing considering what we get to play around with.

First off, let’s talk about the super powers. That’s right; the President of the United States has access to super powers. This feature seemed to be the one discussed the most, which is why I wish to bring it up first. Among the abilities accessible are Super Speed, which can extend to gliding and running up buildings, and a Super Jump, which will eventually let you leap tall buildings. Other powers, like Blasts and Telekinesis, also have further sub-abilities based on what element is selected at the moment. This means that, for instance, a Blast augmented with fire has different effects from one augmented with ice, which allows the player to use their newfound abilities as they see fit. Using these powers in combat gave me new thrills, but it was especially fun to just roam around Steelport with a combination of powers, especially as they got more powerful, which also really increased mobility and made it more fun to get to places, rather than having to drive a long way to a mission or go somewhere to acquire some kind of jet. Just having the powers gave me a sense of glee, and even if it does make things easier, I like that they didn’t completely remove the sense of challenge from the game.

Of course, just because you get super powers, it doesn’t mean you can’t use any weapons. Saints Row IV sees the return of the standard weapons from previous games (Pistol, RPG, etc.) as well as their different versions, but now there are a slew of brand new weapons that are so ridiculous you’d be crazy not to use them. Apart from standard alien weaponry –laser-firing versions of standard weapons– Volition has included such things as an Inflat-O-Ray, which cartoonishly expands people’s heads until they explode, a Bounce Rifle, which fires balls with the properties of a pinball ball, and my personal favorite, the Dubstep Gun, which fires Dubstep instead of bullets. The preview that introduced the Dubstep Gun was the one that sold me on the game and, as a result, this was pretty much the only weapon I used regularly, especially when fully upgraded, which made the wubs generated by the weapon explosive. If you have the Commander in Chief upgrade, you also have access to the 'Merica weapon, a combination of a dozen guns as well as flamethrower and rocket launcher, which is so American that it hurts.

The Dubstep Gun, the best weapon in the game (no, really).

The best thing about having weapons and super powers is that you can combine them in combat, such as using a freeze blast followed by a gunshot to break the frozen enemy, or even use a particular power to enhance your bullets with a selected element. You even have the option, should you desire, to only use conventional weaponry and keep the use of your powers to a minimum, but it’s good to be aware that you’ll need to use your powers sooner or later to fight off the Zin, particularly against Wardens and shielded variants of the Zin (as well as shielded Wardens).

In addition to the weaponry, there’s also a rather wide selection of vehicles. All of your favorites from previous games are back, along with some new ones acquired from story progression or completion of certain challenges. Your super powers may allow you to run faster than a car or fly at the speed of a jet plane, but sometimes you want to just go for a drive, or get into a tank and shoot the crap out of everything or even take a plane and do some barnstorming; whatever floats your boat. While you don’t have a garage anymore, vehicles you are currently in can be saved by pressing the down button on the d-pad so that you can summon it at any time with your phone. If that doesn’t sell you, then consider that you can even combine super powers with vehicles, which includes jumping off a tall building and then summoning a jet to your location, such as the awesome Screaming Eagle (available with the Commander in Chief upgrade), thus now letting you pilot it while you’re in mid-air. You can even steal a car Dukes of Hazard style by running up to the desired car while going at supersonic speeds and then initiating the action. Performing this on my own generated some laughs as well as amazement from accomplishing it.

While you can use super powers with your guns, you’ll no longer be able to use grenades, as they have been removed from the game…Whatever.

Of course, I should also mention the customization options, which blow Saints Row: The Third right out of the water. Not only can you customize the President or your car collection to absurd degrees, but now guns have a much greater degree of customization. Aside from a series of skins, your guns can also assume different shapes, including making your RPG look like a guitar case or a Burst Rifle appear as a Super Soaker, perhaps even making a Quickshot Pistol into a Star Trek phaser. There are even skins for these different looks and it’s amazing how much attention to detail there is on the weapons, such as how the different skins for the Dubstep Gun change the music that comes out, one being an industrial mix of the default music and another allowing it to fire “Vindicate” by Datsik & Excision; the Dubstep Gun even has dials which react in time with the wubs. The level of customization is insane and I like this game all the better for it.

You didn't believe me about the guitar case, did you?

Most importantly, I like the fact that the options are open for the players. Whether you want to use your powers or conventional/alien weapons or just go for a joy ride, you can do it all and have everything look the way you want. I applaud Volition for this move, as, even if I don’t take full advantage, I’d rather have the option be there than not have the option at all.

Another improvement over Saints Row: The Third is how activities work. In the previous game, the only real incentive for completing activities was to take over 100% of Steelport or complete another version of the same activity at a higher difficulty (Easy, Medium or Hard). In Saints Row IV, activities now have completion tiers (Bronze, Silver and Gold) in addition to having different levels of difficulty. Not only will you want to improve your performance, but getting enough Silver and Gold medals across all instances of the activity will earn you new stuff to play around with, which is fine by me because I want to be able to run on water and get Gold in everything I possibly can.

As for the activities themselves, you won’t be finding all of your favorites from the course of the series, including the oft-mentioned Septic Avenger activity from Saints Row 2, but what they do have are better versions of activities from the previous game, or at least in the way that they accommodate both cyberspace and the super powers. Trailblazing, for example, is now Blazin and has you using the Preisdent’s Super Speed and Super Jump to collect orbs that will increase his speed and temporarily freeze a timer, with the goal of running all the way to end while hitting every checkpoint. The Mayhem activity also returns, but with many more variations in the level at once, such as Tank and Mech Suit versions, to provide some variety and let you blow stuff up with whatever you happen to use. I’ll admit that super powers did make the Insurance Fraud mission a little easier to do, but in the fun way where I tried to see just how much damage I could rack up with my ragdoll flying a few stories into the air in its travels. There are others, one which features Professor Genki again, but most of them are really fun to play and the Gold medal rewards are worth it.

Yay! More Genki!

You can also perform missions for your Homies, which are actually the open world activities grouped into sets, their completion tied together loosely for one reason or another. As these missions grant worthwhile rewards, there are a couple of ways you could go about them Either you could keep going back and forth between your ship and the simulation, or you could actually complete every mission available and then talk to your Homies a few times to receive every available reward. This is something to keep in mind for those who don’t like the idea of constant movement, but all you really have to do is take advantage of the option to circumvent movement and give you more time to play around.

If you want to get the best ending in the game however, you’ll also need to complete each of your Homies’ Loyalty missions. These Loyalty missions reveal more about the characters and provide different spins on certain things, such as one referencing Genki Bowl, but reward you with a super powered version of that Homie to call on in combat with the phone. On the subject of references, the missions you perform to rescue members of the cabinet are isolated and warped simulations based on fears that those characters have. These levels are also unique in that they reference past games all the way back to the first one, as is the case with Benjamin King, or actually act as vehicles to lampoon other popular video games, such as Asha Odekar’s targeting Metal Gear Solid (as a fan of the series, I actually found it to be quite funny, though I was a little disappointed by the use of an inexplicably popular misquote). These levels contribute to the story, but also let you have some more fun with how ridiculous the game can get.

Before I end my review, I’d like to mention the music. How good the licensed music selection is in a video game is very subjective, but I think that the songs in Saints Row IV are more miss than hit. A lot of the radio stations return, including a new one devoted entirely to the Mad Decent record label. However, what I didn’t like was the complete lack of a Heavy Metal station, which had been a series tradition since the first game. Personally I liked most of 106.66 The Blood, as well as the presence of an Adult Swim station, and the former was actually the only station I listened to with any regularity. So, for the first time, I created a Mixtape of what I thought were the best songs in the game, including the lone In Flames song since it was the closest I could find to Heavy Metal; I hope that a fifth Saints Row game brings back this station. The only consolation I had was that the radio can now be heard anywhere in the world, not just when you’re driving a car, which is a huge improvement (and would’ve let me enjoy Heavy Metal at all times).

I find your lack of Metal...disturbing.

Though extremely over-the-top and occasionally nonsensical, Saints Row IV is the open world game to play. It improves over Saints Row: The Third in almost every way and while the story is ultimately useless in the long run, it did actually have a good progression and gave the player some reason to care about the events taking place. Fans who don’t mind an insane premise and equally insane execution should pick this up, as well as open world fans in general who want to be able to experience things they won’t be able to anywhere else (though if you liked Crackdown, Prototype and Destroy All Humans!, you’re in for a treat). While this entry did start life as an expansion, it has managed to become, and should be seen as, a full game in its own right.

Stubs – Modern Times

Modern Times (1936) Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, Henry Bergman, Stanley Sandford, Chester Conklin. Directed by Charlie Chaplin. Produced by Charlie Chaplin. Screenplay by Charlie Chaplin. Music by Charlie Chaplin Run Time: 87 minutes. U.S.  Black and White. Silent. Comedy, Drama

Seeing as we’re coming up on Labor Day on Monday, we thought it would be appropriate to review a film that deals with issues of employment, in this case Modern Times (1936), a tour de force from Charlie Chaplin. He does just about everything on the film but paint the backdrops, as he not only writes, stars, directs and produces, but he also composes the music, though this level of involvement is not unique to this film.

Charlie Chaplin is perhaps the best known figure from silent films. While Mary Pickford might have been more popular in her heyday, her legacy pales in comparison to his, in shaping the medium they both worked in. He was a contemporary of both Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton, but again, he is held in higher regard than either. Chaplin’s films get treated by many as high art. I would argue that in his heyday Keaton was funnier than Chaplin, but I’m not trying to get into a cinematic rap battle between the two, which ironically would be silent. Chaplin did try to do more in his films than say Keaton, bringing not just laughter from the audience, but also pathos as well.

Chaplin came to America as part of the Fred Karno comedy troupe from his native England. He was scouted by Mack Sennett and signed to Keystone Pictures in 1913. Chaplin was 24 at the time. His first appearance in film was the short, Making a Living (1914), released in February. By May, he was directing his own films, the first being Caught in the Rain (1914). That same year, he appeared in the first full length comedy film, Tillie’s Punctured Romance, starring Marie Dressler. When his contract came up for renewal at the end of the year, Sennett balked at Chaplin’s salary demands, so Chaplin moved to Essanay Studios out of Chicago.

With Chaplin went The Tramp character, which he developed at Keystone and tweaked at Essanay to be more gentle and romantic. His production pace slowed from one film a week at Keystone to one every month or so. In all, he made 14 films for Essanay before moving on to Mutual. The issue always seemed to be money and how much the young comedian was worth.

Chaplin's iconic Tramp character. Devised at Keystone and refined over the years.
At age 26, Chaplin was making $675,000 a year. During the first year of his Mutual contract, Chaplin produced one film every four weeks. But over the last ten months of his contract, he made only four films, Easy Street, The Cure, The Immigrant and The Adventurer all in 1917. He made 12 films for Mutual before moving to First National in 1918 (ten years before the exhibitor merged with Warner Bros.).

His contract with First National allowed Chaplin to build his own studio, currently the location of Jim Henson Productions. While under contract to First National, Chaplin made some of his better known films, including A Dog’s Life (1918) and The Kid (1921), his first time to direct a feature. During this time he also formed United Artists with Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and D.W. Griffiths, but had to complete his commitment with First National before he could release films through UA.

The inmates take over the asylum as Pickford, Griffiths, Chaplin and Fairbanks form United Artists.
Finally on his own, Chaplin turned from shorts, which had been his bread and butter, to making feature length films. And his pace slowed even more. Modern Times was only Chaplin’s sixth feature film, after The Kid, A Woman of Paris (1923),  The Gold Rush (1925), The Circus (1928) and one of my personal favorites, CityLights (1931). Following this film he only made five more films, The Great Dictator (1940), Monsieur Verdoux (1947), Limelight (1952), A King in New York (1957) and A Countess from Hong Kong (1967).

The idea for the film came to Chaplin while he was touring City Lights in Europe. He saw the deplorable conditions on the continent, also affected by the Great Depression. He also had a conversation with Mahatma Gandhi, in which the Indian complained to the filmmaker about machinery being used to replace people with only consideration being profit.

In Modern Times, Chaplin plays the Tramp as a factory worker, who works on an assembly-line at the Electro Steel Co., where he tightens two bolts on a metal face plate as they move past him. The factory itself reminded me of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) with its oversized engines and treatment of workers as nothing more than cogs in a wheel. The President of the company (Allan Garcia) even watches and communicates with employees via video screens; big brother is watching. (Note: George Orwell’s 1984 wouldn’t be published for another 12 years.)

Big Brother, in the form of the President of the company, watches his workers from his office.
The job Chaplin performs is so repetitive that he can’t help but still make the motions even without the wrenches in his hand. This makes it hard to do anything, including handing a co-worker, Big Bill (Stanley Sandford), a bowl of soup at lunch.

On the assembly line at the Electro Steel Company.
When an inventor comes to Electro Steel Co. to demonstrate his Automatic Feeding Machine to the President, guess who is chosen at random as the guinea pig? The machine, which is supposed to eliminate the need for lunch breaks and allow workers to keep working, malfunctions, driving Chaplin over the edge. 

The Automatic Feeding Machine malfunctions, helping to drive Charlie over the edge.
Shortly afterward, Chaplin has a nervous breakdown. First, he follows his bolts down the assembly line into the machinery of the plant, literally into the wheels, before someone reverses the process and frees him. Chaplin wreaks havoc on the factory floor, spraying everyone with oil and randomly pulling levers, turning handles and setting dials.

Chaplin becomes one with the machinery in Modern Times.
After a stay in the hospital, where he recovers, Chaplin is let out, but quickly finds himself in trouble. When a presumably red flag falls off an extended load on the back of a truck, Chaplin picks it up and tries to wave down the driver, but to no avail. He doesn’t see or hear a union march coming up behind him. As the flag waver at the front of the procession, he is arrested as the mastermind and labeled a communist, foreshadowing Chaplin’s own troubles later.

Chaplin as Communist organizer. America would never forget.
He is still new to prison life, when at his first meal, the man next to him, a suspect cocaine smuggler, dumps his stash into the table salt before he is taken away by prison officials. Chaplin liberally salts all his food, including the bread. Inhaling the coke gives Chaplin nervous energy. (It should be noted using drugs on film was against the now enforced production code, but hey, he’s Chaplin.) He manages to get turned around when the prisoners are sent to their cells and gets locked on the outside. While looking for a guard to lock him up, he comes across a prison break, with the warden trading places with a prisoner in his cell. Chaplin manages to subdue the group and takes the gun away from the leader. Thanks cocaine.

Prison becomes cushy for Chaplin. But unbeknownst to him, a parole is arranged and Chaplin is freed. Despite a glowing letter of recommendation, Chaplin has trouble finding work. And when he does find a job, he loses it right away after he launches a half-built ship into the water where it quickly sinks. Desperate to get back into prison, he takes the blame for the Gamin (Paulette Goddard), who is caught red-handed stealing a loaf of bread. Gamin is another word for street urchin.

In a separate story, we’ve been introduced to the Gamin, the eldest of three daughters to an unemployed father. She steals bananas so her family and other poor children have something to eat. One day during a demonstration of the unemployed, her father is killed by a policeman. Authorities arrive as child services plans to take care of the three juveniles. However, when no one is looking, the Gamin escapes. She has just stolen the bread to stave off hunger.

Paulette Goddard as a street urchin. Her younger sisters are on either side.

But while Chaplin takes the blame for the girl, an eye witness insists that the police arrest the Gamin for the crime. Chaplin, however, will not be so easily deterred. He goes to a cafeteria and eats two people’s worth of food before admitting, in front of a police officer, that he can’t pay. When the policeman takes him outside to call for a Paddy wagon, Chaplin gets a cigar from the stand next door and gives candy and cigars to other street urchins, as if to pad his offenses for prison.

And lo and behold, Chaplin and the Gamin end up in the same Paddy wagon. When the Gamin tries to escape, she causes the van to swerve and gets thrown out the back, as does Chaplin and a police guard. Chaplin tells the girl to escape while the getting is good, but she beckons Chaplin to follow her, which he reluctantly does.
They end up in a middle class neighborhood and watch a man leave on his way to work with his wife encouraging him on. The two imagine themselves having their own house, with plenty to eat, including oranges off a tree and grapes right off the vine. When they find out about an opening for a night watchman at a local department store, Chaplin uses his letter of recommendation to get the job. At night, he lets the Gamin into the store, where they eat and play before he puts her to bed.

Food is plentiful in their dreams.
Downstairs, three burglars have broken in and hold Chaplin at gunpoint. But one of the burglars turns out to be Bill from Electro Steel. He explains to Chaplin that the men aren’t bad, they’re just hungry. They celebrate their reunion, but perhaps a little too much, because Chaplin is found asleep in amongst the fabric samples and bolts. He is arrested once again.

While he’s in prison, the Gamin finds a house for them, an abandoned shack at the edge of the harbor’s waterline. The house is falling apart, literally held together by good wishes and broomsticks. When the factory re-opens, Chaplin scurries to the plant and pushes his way to the front of the line of workers. He is the last man through the gate before the police shut it down. He gets a job as an assistant to an engineer (Chester Conklin), but Chaplin proves to be anything but helpful. He manages to squish the mechanic’s coat and is dismissed and arrested again by the police.

The house the Gamin finds is a fixer-upper. Chaplin's chair falls through the floor.
Meanwhile, the Gamin is discovered dancing in the streets and hired by a café proprietor (Henry Bergman) who thinks they can use her in their floor show which features singing waiters. When Chaplin gets out of prison, she takes him to get a job at the restaurant, which means he’ll have to sing, which naturally makes the silent actor and character nervous. She agrees to help, writing the words to the song on cuffs, which unfortunately come off while he dances before singing. The nonsense song he sings though is a big success and the proprietor wants to hire him.

Chaplin is a big hit with his nonsense song and dance routine.
But when the Gamin goes out to do her number, police, who have been waiting, arrest her for vagrancy and for running away from juvenile officers. She and Chaplin make a run for it, ending up together on a deserted road, where the two walk hand and hand into the sunset.
Chaplin and Goddard walk off into the sunset and with them go silent films.
Some credit the film as walking silent films into the sunset as well. This is the last silent film, coming nine years after the release of The Jazz Singer (1927). Originally intended as Chaplin’s first talkie, the director decided that if audiences heard the Tramp talking, it would lose some of its universal appeal. Instead, rather than talking, the Tramp sings and perhaps as a jab to the talkie movement, it is a nonsense song. Sound films would be all the rage from then on, until The Artist (2011), which, like Modern Times, is really more of a hybrid than a strictly silent film.

While neither Chaplin nor Goddard speak in the film, there is talking, as supplied by Allan Garcia, the company’s President. Chaplin would put off talking himself until The Great Dictator (1940) and the Tramp character does speak in that film.

The film has several very funny scenes, though one attempt at humor, over etiquette and stomach gurgling, doesn’t really work. The humor can also come from physical comedy as well. I’ve already mentioned the scene in which Chaplin goes inside the machine. But there is another that takes place at the department store. After having dinner, Chaplin and the Gamin go to the toy department, where they don skates. Chaplin tries to show off for her, by putting on a blindfold while he skates. But he doesn’t see that the railing is out and several times nearly skates off the edge until the Gamin can stop him.

Speaking of the Gamin, Chaplin plays a little fast and loose with her age. While she runs rather than be taken into custody by juvenile services, Goddard, a future Mrs. Chaplin, was 26 at the time the film was released and is mature enough in the film to establish a relationship with an older man. While the two don’t sleep together, that’s as much to do with the production code as their relationship in the movie. Chaplin is obviously trying to have things both ways, making the woman be both an innocent girl and a sexual being at the same time.

Paulette Goddard as the Gamin in Modern Times.
Goddard, who had been a fashion model, had been in films since 1929 and was even a Goldwyn Girl, however most of her appearances were uncredited. Modern Times marks her first substantial role and one of her first credited parts. Chaplin, who had an eye for the ladies, married her in 1936 and the two remained married until 1942. In the meantime, she would also appear in his film The Great Dictator (1940). Once considered as Scarlett O’Hara for Gone with the Wind (and who wasn’t?) Goddard would go on to appear in The Women (1939) and then sign on at Paramount Pictures, where she would be a major star until her career faded in the late 1940’s. She was nominated once for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Lt. Joan O’Doul in So Proudly We Hail (1943).

While Chaplin is credited with composing the music, in reality he would hum tunes to composer David Raskin and tell him to take the music down and then create a score from those. Chaplin was a violinist, but knew nothing about orchestration or synchronizing sound to the pictures. It should be noted that the theme that plays throughout would later have lyrics added to it by John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons and become “Smile”, which was recorded by Nat “King” Cole in 1954. The song was also covered by Lita Roza and Petula Clark in the UK. Even Michael Jackson recorded a version for his HIStory: Past, Present and Future Book 1 album in 1995.

The film at times seems somewhat disjointed, as if set pieces were mushed together to make a movie, which seems to be how Chaplin worked, always waiting for inspiration before continuing. The character gets arrested so many times that the intention seems to be to transition from one idea to the next. You could have a drinking game, taking a shot every time he ends up in a Paddy Wagon. (You’d be pretty drunk if you did.)

But the film is still a film by a genius filmmaker, which is both funny and sentimental. While it is successful on both counts, some of the sentimentality may not come across as well to a modern audience. Still, just about every Chaplin film is worth watching and Modern Times is no exception to that rule.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Review Hub - Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy

This is the beginning of a new type of post on Trophy Unlocked known as a Review Hub, where we take reviews on the blog relating to a particular series (when there are enough of them) and put links to them together for the sake of convenience, each Review Hub posted to tie in to a special occasion. For our first, in order to tie in to the recent film The World's End, we will be providing links to our reviews of the movies in the Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy (aka the Blood and Ice Cream Trilogy), a series of three thematically-related comedy films by Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg (which includes The World's End) that each feature a different flavor of the Cornetto ice cream brand. Below are the links to each review, but in addition I will also provide which Cornetto flavor is present in each movie:


Shaun of the Dead (Strawberry)
Hot Fuzz (Classico)
The World's End (Mint)

We have more Review Hubs planned for the next couple of years, but you will have to wait and see what's in store for this new format. Here's hoping Edgar Wright has success directing Ant-Man.

The World's End - A Fitting Conclusion to an Epic Pub Crawl

One thing Edgar Wright is probably known for directing is Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, a film adaptation of Bryan Lee O’Mally’s Scott Pilgrim series of graphic novels from Oni Press. What he is probably known more for, however, is the Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy (aka the Blood and Ice Cream Trilogy), a series of three comedy films written by him and Simon Pegg that each feature a particular flavor of Cornetto ice cream which reflects what each movie is about. The three movies in this series are Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and, most recently, The World’s End. Usually when I see a movie in a theater, I see a lot of ads for movies that, for the most part, don’t really hold my interest that much, if at all. However, The World’s End actually looked funny to me, and when I found out who exactly was involved with it, I decided I needed to watch it, my previous experiences with Scott Pilgrim and Shaun of the Dead giving me an idea of what I was in for (at the time I first saw this movie, I had not yet seen Hot Fuzz). Coming away from this movie, despite how I felt about the ending, I found it to be quite a load of fun.

In his teenage youth, Gary King (Simon Pegg) and a group of friends, Peter (Eddie Marsan), Oliver (nicknamed “O-Man” for his “6” birthmark) (Martin Freeman), Steven (Paddy Consindine), and Andy (Nick Frost), attempted a pub crawl in Newton Haven known as the Golden Mile, which would end with the titular pub, The World’s End. While in psychiatric therapy 20 years later, Gary is asked if he ever regretted not completing the Golden Mile, which leads him to try and get the group back together so he may reattempt the pub crawl and get to The World’s End like he wanted. His old friends aren’t exactly willing to go along with him, since they are busy with lives of their own, but somehow he manages to talk them into doing it (even lying a little to get his way). When the group goes through each pub, it is evident that things have changed since they were last there, but Gary doesn’t seem to care. At the fifth pub, however, while his friends discover his treachery, Gary gets into a fight with a teenager in the bathroom and things turn for the weird when he discovers the teen to actually be mechanical, spouting blue fluid after the teen’s head is knocked off. When Gary’s friends try to confront him, they end up having to fend off a group of the mechanical teens, at which point their pub crawl suddenly becomes a lot more complicated.

The movie presents itself well as a comedy, not stopping with the laughs even when the more serious side of the story is unfolding. The jokes have excellent timing and hit more often than not. Not only that, but the jokes don’t feel forced or out of place and come off as more natural in the grand scheme of things. The sci-fi elements of the story, namely regarding the robots (who rather insistently are not actually robots), are actually rather intriguing and give the movie a great amount of depth, presenting much darker implications the more we learn about them. The main characters of the movie also have their own amount of depth; while they appear one way on the surface, you begin to react to them differently when you learn more about their respective pasts. The amount of depth in this story is rather unexpected, but I mean this in a good way since you wouldn’t expect it just by watching the trailers. Personally, I wasn’t sure what to make of the ending, since I thought it could have ended better, but despite my mixed feelings on this the story is still very well-written.

Gary King holding up a map showing the gang's previous Golden Mile attempt.
While The World’s End has a good amount of laughs mixed in with a surprisingly complex story for a comedy film, the special effects presented also deserve some praise. The “robot” effects are done in a way that looks seamless and blends in with the real-world surroundings rather than coming off as out of place. The movie doesn’t come off as a CGI fest like other modern movies, but when the effects do show up they are done rather masterfully, to where the more I think about them, the more I wonder how difficult some of the effects were to pull off.

The acting is also really good, special mention going to Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, the two actors most common to the Blood and Ice Cream Trilogy. After seeing Shaun of the Dead, it is evident to me that Pegg and Frost seemed to have switched character types, which actually shows that the two actors have quite a bit of range, displaying their acting talent nicely. This is not to say any of the other actors didn’t perform well; I could really tell what the characters were feeling and I reacted accordingly, which shows a nice bit of acting talent on their end as well. Some actors in the movie have actually appeared in previous Wright/Pegg works in different ways, including Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, which gives them a good amount of experience that shows in their performance. Equally good is the background music, which matches the tone of each scene very well and helps push the weight of important scenes whenever it shows up.

During my time with this movie, I couldn’t help but notice some similarities to Shaun of the Dead, but in an observational sense. Both this movie and Shaun of the Dead revolve around pubs in some fashion, each has a (still funny) gag where Simon Pegg’s character attempts to jump a fence only for it to fall over, and the “robots” of this movie are in a way similar to the zombies in the other. This isn’t to say these similarities take away from The World’s End, but it does seem to help enforce the relationship between them and Hot Fuzz.

Of course, since this movie is the third part of the Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy, it would be a good idea for me to mention which flavor of Cornetto ice cream relates to this film. It’s the Mint flavor, and it shows up near the end of the movie; when you are aware of the ice cream being present in each of these movies, you may find yourself looking for it here, but trust me when I say you’ll know it when you see it.

Overall, The World’s End is a very complex and funny movie. It doesn’t hit you over the head with how complex it is like some other movies do, rather it’s more of a subtle complexity that really adds a lot of depth to the film and helps it stand out from a lot of other comedies. It is possible to go into this film without having seen Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz, but if you have seen and enjoyed one or both of these movies, or are a Simon Pegg or Edgar Wright fan, chances are very high you’re going to love The World’s End. Considering Edgar Wright’s track record, I have faith in him directing the Ant-Man movie that opens Phase 3 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in 2015.

Hot Fuzz

Edgar Wright may be familiar to me because of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, but his most well-known contribution to film is the Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy, which is comprised of Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz (this movie) and The World’s End. In preparation for the last one, we saw the first one, but then after seeing The World’s End we decided to see Hot Fuzz. What’s interesting about this trilogy is that they aren’t narratively linked, but share some common themes, feature Simon Pegg and Nick Frost and are written by Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright (the latter of whom is also the Director). While Shaun of the Dead, released in 2004, is more of a romantic comedy with zombies, Hot Fuzz, released in 2007, is a parody of and homage to American buddy cop movies, but set in a rural English town. While an interesting follow-up to Shaun of the Dead, both in concept and execution, I didn’t find it to be as funny.

Nicholas Angel (Simon Pegg) is the single best officer in the London Metropolitan Police, with an arrest record that is 400% higher than everyone else and is the main reason that crime is so low. However, it seems that he is too good at his job, since he is transferred to Sandford, Gloucestershire for making the other officers look bad. Sandford is a very quiet town, having won the Best Village in Britain award for a few years straight, and is known for having zero crime, but a high number of accidents. Nicholas has a hard time fitting in, mainly because his methods clash with the laid-back officers in the station and he’s also paired with Danny Butterman (Nick Frost), who desperately wishes that being an officer was more like in the movies (a la Bad Boys II and Point Break). However, a series of grisly incidents occur, causing Nicholas to suspect foul play within Sandford. One problem though: no one believes him.

Hot Fuzz, like Shaun of the Dead, is very good at pulling off its concept. The sinister plot running through Sandford is introduced suddenly, but is interwoven throughout in a way that makes sense and has every angle of it addressed (mostly by Nicholas). Where someone sees, and accepts it as, an accident, Nicholas is able to piece everything together and manages to do a good job of it. The audience shares his frustration with trying to get anyone to see the murders as actual murders, but when he manages to finally figure it out, the twist of the true nature of the crimes, and their connection, is genuinely surprising due to how well-hidden it is from the viewers, with a questionable and ridiculous motivation on part of the killer befitting a comedy. It’s interesting how surprisingly complex and serious a movie like this can get, but it’s also good that it knows how best to play the elements for laughs.

Nicholas Angel (left) and Danny Butterman (right) after finding a disarmed mine.

Unlike Shaun of the Dead however, Hot Fuzz didn’t seem to be as funny. This doesn’t mean it’s devoid of comedy, as it’s able to exaggerate buddy cop tropes spectacularly and put a new spin on some gags re-used from the previous film, such as the ever-funny fence gag. What I mean is that there is less emphasis on the comedic elements as opposed to the more serious elements, but for how it all came together I still believe there was a great balance of the two. Perhaps there could have been more light humor sprinkled throughout, but I think that might have clashed with some of the moments meant to create nightmare fuel.

The action elements from the buddy cop angle are present, but have considerable emphasis within the final minutes of the film, which is basically one long action sequence. This sequence is also, as I have read, inspired by the ending of Bad Boys II, so it’ll be up to you to decide whether or not that is a good thing (I haven’t seen movies in the vein of Bad Boys II). In any case, the action is very creative and used the environment to its advantage, rather than just being a straight-up shootout. This I consider to be a good thing, as it shows how well the characters can think on their feet. Buddy cop fans will also find visual homages to films of that genre, which is a good bonus for those who can spot them (including one which is somewhat telegraphed). It’s also good to know that there was some research put into the script, including such things as the paperwork that’s actually involved with being an officer.

One thing which I can also commend is the acting. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost take on roles similar to the characters they played in Shaun of the Dead, but their synergy and ability to bounce off of each other has not diminished. Other returning cast, such as Bill Nighy and Martin Freeman, are still good as well, the latter of which actually receives a more expanded role as a minor character (in The World’s End, he becomes a supporting character). I also liked the subtlety in the acting, which lends to the feeling of a smart comedy wherein they aren’t heavy-handed about the humor (this is the reason why I am disinterested in most comedies nowadays based on the trailer alone).

This swan shows up more than once.

Having seen a number of Edgar Wright movies in a row now, I’ve noticed that he has a certain directorial style. There are certain gags that he seems to like re-using while still making them funny, such as the fence gag (this can also be due to Simon Pegg being one of the writers) and he also likes to zoom in during a montage. The latter has the advantage of being used for comedic timing, such as its use in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World where the montage stops so Scott can slowly tie his shoe. His collaborations with Simon Pegg, or at least this trilogy, also take place in a small town, have a pub involved in some way and also have some focus on either the girlfriend or mother of Simon Pegg’s character. While I do recognize some things between movies now, that doesn’t stop them from being good.

On a final note, since this is the middle part of the Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy, the flavor featured in Hot Fuzz is the Classico flavor, which is colored blue and represents the police elements. Shaun of the Dead and The World’s End show the other flavors pretty quickly in an instance of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it, but there’s no need to worry about searching here because the flavor shows up much more often and there is more than one chance to catch it onscreen.

Like Shaun of the Dead and later The World’s End, Hot Fuzz is a great send-up of the genre of movies it wants to homage. The acting is still impressive, the comedy has excellent timing and the story get surprisingly complex while expertly balancing its core elements. Also like the other two movies however, Hot Fuzz has an ending that may not impress everyone, even more so when you see that it’s one long action sequence. Regardless, it is worth seeing Hot Fuzz at least once, if not more than once, especially if you are a fan of Edgar Wright or buddy cop movies. Please be sure to note however that it is rated R for a reason, even if it’s a good comedy from start to finish.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Stubs - Shaun of the Dead

Shaun of the Dead (2004): Starring: Simon Pegg, Kate Ashfield, Lucy Davis, Nick Frost, Dylan Moran, Bill Nighy, Penelope Wilton. Directed by Edgar Wright. Produced by Nira Park. Screenplay by Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg. Run Time: 99. Color, U.K. Comedy, Horror

Okay, after over 400 reviews, we’ve noticed, at Trophy Unlocked, a great dearth of comments. And we’ve been hearing the buzz on the street; “I’d leave a comment if only they ever reviewed a comedy zombie movie.” Well, we’ve heard you and are doing our best to rectify the situation with a review of Shaun of the Dead, the Simon Pegg – Edgar Wright penned 2004 film.

Now part of the reason we haven’t reviewed any comedy zombie movies is that we had never seen one. While there may be many funny zombie movies, we’re talking about ones that were intentionally funny, not ones so bad they write their own MST3K script. That’s why Shaun of the Dead made such a splash when it was released in 2004, seeing as it filled that void.

At 29, Shaun’s (Simon Pegg) life is in a rut and he is simply digging himself into a deeper hole every day. To begin with, he has a dead end job as an electronics store salesman and even though he is the senior member of the staff, the younger employees give him no respect. He has an estranged relationship with his mother, Barbara (Penelope Wilton), and a rocky relationship with his stepfather of 17 years, Phillip (Bill Nighy).

At home his flatmate, Pete (Peter Serafinowicz), is already past tired of Ed (Nick Frost), Shaun’s best friend since primary school, who is a mess in every sense of the word and the guest who never leaves or gets a job. And lastly, Shaun’s longtime girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield) is dissatisfied. Every night they end up at the Winchester Pub and by every night, I mean every night. The couple never does anything alone together; Shaun always brings Ed, and Liz brings her flatmates, David (Dylan Moran) and Dianne (Lucy Davis).

Shaun takes Liz to the Winchester pub every night.
After a particularly miserable day at work, Shaun meets an old friend, Yvonne (Jessica Stevenson), who has recently moved into his neighborhood. When the conversation gets around to what Shaun and Liz are doing to celebrate their anniversary Shaun realizes he’s forgotten to make reservations at the restaurant he promised to take Liz to that night. Strange things are starting to happen around them but no one seems to really pay attention.
Shaun tries to get a table but just misses out. He then tries to make amends to Liz, going to her flat, but David and Dianne refuse to let him up, so Shaun climbs up the outside. But Liz is not impressed by his determination or the flowers he gives her, which he’d originally bought for his mom. Liz breaks up with Shaun and he naturally goes back to the Winchester, where Ed is there and they drink themselves into an oblivious state. When time is called at the pub, they continue their drinking and spinning electro records at home. At four, Pete has had enough with their antics. Pete has to go in to work in four hours, is suffering from a headache and was bitten during a mugging on the way home from work. Pete berates Shaun and tells him to sort out his life, something a drunken Shaun does, making a list on a whiteboard on the refrigerator.

Drunk, Shaun and Ed play their records well into the morning.
By the next morning, the zombie uprising has overwhelmed London, but Shaun is too busy dealing with his own problems and hangover to notice. He goes to the local convenience store to get his morning coke and ice cream cone, but doesn’t even notice the bloody hand print on the cooler door, nor the fact that all around him there are dead bodies.
A preoccupied and hungover Shaun doesn't notice the bloody hand prints.
Ed notices that there is a woman in their garden and he and Shaun go out to investigate. But the woman isn’t drunk, as they suspect, but undead. Shaun manages to fight her off and accidentally pushes her down on some sort of pole in the yard, impaling her, but not killing her. She rises up with a three inch hole going through her entire body and starts coming after them again. Retreating back inside Shaun and Ed become aware of what is happening after watching reports on TV, as the woman and a man zombie attack their house. Taking advice from news reports to cut off the heads or damage the zombie’s brains, the two fight back with things from their kitchen, their record collection and finally weapons from their shed, managing to subdue the two zombies with a shovel and a cricket bat.

Shaun and Ed taking care of a couple of zombies in their garden.
Despite TV reports to stay inside and not attempt to rescue loved ones, Shaun and Ed decide they need to do just that and take everyone somewhere safe. The plan is to collect Shaun's mother, Barbara, kill Phillip, who Barbara reveals has been bitten, and then collect Liz. They replay the plan as it gets revised. First, they were going to stay with Liz, but Ed doesn’t want to be somewhere unfamiliar so they plan to come back to their flat, but they only have tea to drink, so they settle on the Winchester where they think they can ride out the crisis with a pint and some crisps.
How Shaun wishes things would go with Liz and his mom both safe.
They decide to use Pete’s car, mostly because Ed’s always wanted to drive it. But Pete doesn’t answer when they call his name. Thinking he must have gone into work, Shaun is shocked to find a naked Pete hiding out in the shower in the bathroom. The pair manages to escape in Pete's car even as other zombies close in.
Zombies are everywhere in Shaun of the Dead.
After collecting Barbara and Phillip (whom they decide not to kill), they switch cars and drive in Phillip's Jaguar and head to Liz’s flat. Once again, Shaun has to climb up the outside to get in. David is reluctant to leave, but does because Dianne is going, as is Liz, and David doesn’t want to be left alone.
Shaun only wants to save Liz (r), but ends up taking Dianne and David as well.
On the way to the Winchester, Phillip dies of his bite, but only after he manages to make peace with Shaun. Abandoning the car as Phillip turns into a zombie inside, they set off on foot, bumping into Yvonne and her own band of survivors, which mirrors Shaun’s, including her boyfriend, Declan (Martin Freeman), the couple her boyfriend shares a flat with, her mother (Julie Deakin) and her ne’er do well friend. The two bands cross paths, but each is going somewhere different for refuge.
Yvonne's group mirrors Shaun's, including her boyfriend, his flatmates,her mother and slobby friend.
Discovering the path to the Winchester is infested with zombies, they devise a plan to sneak by, but Ed and Shaun get into an argument out front, alerting the zombies around them. Even though Shaun insists there is another way into the pub, David smashes one of the front windows. Shaun distracts the zombies so the others can get inside. The five take refuge inside the pub and Shaun joins them after he thinks he’s given “the zombies the slip."
Denise, Liz, David, Shaun and Ed try to fool the zombies by pretending to be one of them.
After several hours, Ed gives away their position by playing music on the jukebox when the power comes back on. The zombies converge on the pub. Shaun discovers that the Winchester rifle above the bar is functional and they use it to fend off the zombies. Barbara reveals a bite wound she picked up along the way and dies, becomes a zombie, and is reluctantly shot by a heartbroken Shaun.
Shaun's mum turns zombie.
One by one the band is overwhelmed by the attacking zombies. David, who is standing too close to one of the windows, gets pulled out and is dismembered and disemboweled by the zombies, as a frantic Dianne unbolts the door to rescue him, exposing Shaun, Liz, and Ed to the zombies. Ed prepares a Molotov cocktail to fend them off, but Pete arrives and bites him before he can throw it. Liz, Shaun and Ed manage to get over the bar and Shaun sets fire to the bar, which only holds back the zombies for a few minutes. As the zombies continue to converge, the three manage to escape into the cellar, where they are truly trapped. They contemplate suicide before discovering how to open the service hatch to ground level. Shaun and Liz escape through the hatch, leaving the mortally wounded Ed behind with the rifle. Back on the street, Shaun and Liz prepare to fight the zombies once more, but the British Army arrives and starts mowing down zombies with machine gun fire. Yvonne, the only one from her band to have survived, happens to be with the army and tells Shaun and Liz to follow her. As they approach the safety of the trucks, the couple is holding hands.
Liz, Shaun and Ed prepare to fight off zombies in the Winchester.
Six months after the outbreak, the uninfected have returned to a semblance of daily life, while the remaining zombies, retaining their instincts, are used as cheap labor and for entertainment. Liz and Shaun have moved in together in Shaun's house, and are planning their day, which of course ends with them at the Winchester before coming home to watch a little telly before bed. But while Liz makes tea, Shaun nips out to the garden where in the shed, Ed, who is now a zombie, is tethered and playing video games. Shaun now has it all, the love of a good woman and the companionship of his best mate.
Ed might be a zombie, but he still plays video games.
Having been a fan of English humor since the arrival of Monty Python’s Flying Circus on these shores, I really enjoyed a lot of Shaun of the Dead. The writing is very witty and the stars have their own appeal, Simon Pegg especially. I’d love to say that the film balances the humor and the gore, but while the film can be very funny, it can also be very gory, as when David is literally disemboweled by the zombies in very graphic form. Of all the characters, David deserves it the most. He is a real twat, the least likeable of the bunch, hypercritical of Shaun and in love, not with Dianne, but with Liz. That’s about the only thing that makes the disemboweling worth seeing.
David gets too close to the window and is about to be devoured by zombies.
My first exposure to director Edgar Wright was Scott Pilgrim vs.the World (2010), one of the best movies from that year. There are some of the same traits I saw in that film in Shaun. I really love how the scenario Shaun and Ed work out about saving his mother and Liz gets replayed every time it gets revised. Wright is definitely a talented comedic director with a certain style and I look forward to seeing more films he’s helmed.
While I had heard, but not seen, this film until recently, I had seen Simon Pegg in the two J.J. Abrams Star Trek films. In both he manages to walk the fine line between bringing humor to the part without being a parody of Montgomery Scott as played for years by James Doohan. Pegg definitely is a very talented actor and writer, he co-wrote the screenplay with Wright, and I’m sure he’ll have a very long career on both sides of the camera and on both sides of the Atlantic.
Shaun of the Dead shows what can be accomplished on a very low budget, $6 million. The effects, even the ones I tried to look away from, are done very well. The film's modest success was enough to keep the team of Pegg, Wright and Frost working together on their Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy (aka the Blood and Ice Cream trilogy): Shaun, Hot Fuzz and The World’s End. The trilogy is named after a British brand of ice cream novelty, with a particular flavor of the ice cream novelty in each movie. In Shaun, it’s Strawberry, but frankly this is something I had to learn via the internet. While Shaun does get a frozen ice cream cone from the convenience store, as part of his hangover cure, I didn’t catch the brand or the flavor as neither was mentioned.
While the movie is very funny and I would definitely recommend it, remember that it was rated R for a reason and should not, even with Pegg as the star, be considered a family film.
Okay, there you have it, our first comedic zombie film review.(Whew!) Comments are welcomed below as they are for every film, video game and licensed video game comic on the blog. Thanks for your continued patronage. 
Shaun hurries to leave a comment on Trophy Unlocked.