Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Stubs - The Godfather

The Godfather (1972) Starring: Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, Richard Castellano, Robert Duvall, Sterling Hayden, Richard Conte, Diane Keaton. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Produced by Albert S. Ruddy. Screenplay by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola. Based on the novel by Mario Puzo.  Run Time: 175 minutes. U.S.  Color Crime, Drama

When The Godfather was released in 1972, it was a phenomenon. Based on a bestselling novel, the film grossed $285 million worldwide on a budget of $6.5 million. The film was nominated for 11 Academy Awards, including three nominations for Best Supporting Actor (none of the three would win; Joel Grey would for Cabaret); and Best Music, Original Dramatic Score (for which Nino Rota would be disqualified when it was found he used a similar score for another movie). The film would win three, including Best Picture, Best Writing Adapted Screenplay and Best Actor (which Marlon Brando would famously decline).

But while Coppola did not win the Academy Award for Best Director (Bob Fosse did for Cabaret), this film would make his career. Up until then, he was perhaps best known as a screenwriter, winning the Academy Award for his work on 1970’s Patton and as a producer on George Lucas’ first feature film THX 1138 (1971). Up until then, Coppola had not made any film that would give him the clout to found his own studio (American Zoetrope) and Francis Ford Coppola Presents, a lifestyle brand under which he sells goods from companies he owns, which include a winery, resorts, restaurants, magazines and films. No one would be buying Coppola red wine, if the biggest film he’d made was You’re A Big Boy Now (1966) or The Outsiders (1983). And he certainly wouldn’t have been allowed to make Apocalypse Now (1979).

At the time this film was made, Paramount Pictures was run by Robert “The Boy Stays in the Picture” Evans and they were in need of a hit. While Coppola was not the first choice to direct, Sergio Leone was, Evans insisted on an Italian-American director. Coppola and Paramount had differences from the beginning over casting and several times during production Coppola was nearly replaced as director. Certainly, not the most conducive conditions to great filmmaking. But give credit where credit is due and Coppola made a great movie.

While Marlon Brando as Vito Corleone received topped billing, the movie is really about his youngest son, Michael (Al Pacino), a former military officer, who initially wants nothing to do with the family business, but slowly gets pulls in anyway and by the end has taken over the reins of the family.

The film opens at the wedding of Vito’s daughter Connie (Talia Shire) in late 1945. Sicilian custom is that a man cannot refuse a request on his daughter’s wedding and being the head of a crime family, you can only imagine the types of requests he gets. One of those making a request of the Don is an Italian singer, Johnny Fontane (Al Martino), who also happens to be Vito’s godson.

During his daughter's wedding, people come to see the Don for favors.
Johnny’s singing career has apparently hit the skids, at least momentarily, and there is a part in a war film he wants that he can’t have that he thinks would be perfect for him. Vito dispatches Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall), his adopted Irish-German son and consigliere to Hollywood to handle Jack Woltz, the studio head who won’t cast Johnny in his film.

Meanwhile, Vito is waiting for Michael to arrive, who brings with him Kay Adams (Diane Keaton), his non-Italian girlfriend. Eldest son, Santino “Sonny” (James Caan) bangs a bridesmaid (Jeannie Linero) while his wife is down at the reception.

Tom arrives in Hollywood and even though Woltz (John Marley) knows who Corleone is, he cannot grant his request. Jack has personal reasons why he doesn’t want to help Johnny, but Tom is insistent. In one of the film’s classic scenes, Woltz goes to bed one night and wakes up with the bloody head of his favorite horse in his bed. He takes the hint and Johnny gets cast.

Woltz (John Marley) wakes up with the head of his prize horse in his bed.
One of the many iconic images from The Godfather.
Around Christmas, Vito meets with Virgil “The Turk” Sollozzo (Al Lettieri) who is looking for an investment of $1 million dollars for his burgeoning heroin business. Virgil is also in cahoots with the Tattaglia family, a rival crime family. Vito has political connections that he is not willing to share, even for the promised return on his investment. He is convinced his connections will look the other way over the gambling business, but they’ll run for cover if he gets involved in drugs.

The Turk (Al Lettieri) asks Vito to invest money in heroin. Vito says no.
Vito sends Luca Brasi (Lenny Montana) to spy on the Tattaglias, saying he’s disenchanted with the Coreleones and to then find out all he can about their operation. However, the Tattaglias are in on things and they assassinate Luca, sending Vito Luca’s bulletproof vest and some dead fish to indicate Brasi sleeps with the fishes.

Luca Brasi (Lenny Montana) gets whacked when he's sent to spy on the Tattaglias.
Vito is then the subject of his own assassination attempt. With only Fredo (John Cazale), his simple-minded middle son, to drive him, Sollozzo sends men to kill him. But even though he’s hit five times, the Don just won’t die and his hospitalized. With father down, Sonny takes over the command of the family. Sollozzo also takes the precaution of kidnapping Tom, hoping he can negotiate a deal with Sonny.

Vito is the subject of an assassination plot while Fredo watches helplessly.
Michael goes to see his father in the hospital and notices that there is no one guarding him. Sensing there is a second assassination attempt in the works, he convinces the only night nurse on duty to help him move his father’s bed to another room. And while Michael manages to scare off a second hit squad, he is not so lucky when the police arrive. They are led by Captain McCluskey (Sterling Hayden), a corrupt policeman who is on Sollozzo’s payroll. McCluskey breaks Michael’s jaw, an injury that takes Michael more than half the movie to completely recover from.

Sonny, who is a bit of a hot-head, retaliates by having Don Tattaglia’s son, Bruno (Tony Giorgio), killed. But Michael devises a better way to settle things. He agrees to meet Sollozzo and McCluskey at a restaurant to discuss things, but instead of talking, Michael uses a handgun hidden ahead of time in the restroom to blow holes in the men.

Michael (Al Pacino) killing Sollozzo and McCluskey.
Because he’s hot, Michael is sent to Sicily where he is to stay under the protection of Don Tommasino (Corrado Gaipa). With all an out war between the families brewing, Fredo is also sent away to Las Vegas to work with and be protected by Corleone associate Moe Greene (Alex Rocco). Carlo Rizzi (Gianni Rosso), Connie’s husband, beats her when they fight. When Sonny finds out, he hunts down Carlo in the street and beats him severely in broad daylight with a crowd watching.

Back in Sicily, Michael falls in love with a local girl, Apollonia Vitelli (Simonetta Stefanelli) and marries her. Meanwhile, his whereabouts are no longer a secret and Don Tommasino moves him around to stay ahead of possible assassins. But one move is too slow and Apollonia is killed in a car bomb meant for Michael.

Apollonia Vitelli catches Michael's eye while he hides out in Sicily.
Back in New York, when Connie tells Sonny that Carlo has beat her again, he jumps into his car to seek revenge. But at a tollbooth, Sonny is gunned down in a hail of gunfire. A carload of bodyguards arrive, but only after the assassins have already fled.

Sonny gets gunned down at a toll booth.
Vito calls together the heads of the five families that run New York and New Jersey for a meeting to end the feud. He withdraws opposition to the heroin trade the Tattaglias are involved in and promises not to seek revenge for Sonny’s murder. In return he wins safe passage for Michael to return to America. At the end of the meeting, Vito and Philip Tattaglia (Victor Rendina) embrace. But Vito has realized that Tattaglia is really taking orders from Emilio Barzini (Richard Conte), the head of the Barzini family.

Michael returns to America and a year later, seeks out Kay, who is now a school teacher. He tells that he loves her and wants to marry her. He admits that he’s working with his father, but promises her that in five years, the family business will all be legit. Kay believes him and marries Michael, who has risen to the head of the family through default. Vito makes a point to warn him that someday someone he trusts will set him up for assassination by Barzini. He’ll know who it is because they will offer him a place to meet where he will be protected.

Michael makes the long term decision to move the family operations to Nevada and to leave New York to members who stay behind. He also replaces Tom as the consigliere with Vito, a move Tom doesn’t appreciate. He is assured by Vito that the family has long term plans for him.

Michael flies out to Las Vegas and offers to buyout Moe Greene’s interest in the casino the Corleones are financing. But Greene is defiant and tells Michael that the Coreleone’s power is a thing of the past. Even worse, than being called a bunch of names, is that Michael sees Fredo is siding with Greene.

Back home, Vito dies while playing with Michael’s son Anthony. At the funeral, Salvatore Tessio (Abe Vigoda), a caporegime (or made member) of the Coreleone family, arranges a meeting between Michael and Barzini, promising Michael’s safety. This is just as Vito had predicted and warned him. The meeting is set for the same day as Connie and Carlo’s son, Michael (Sofia Coppola), is to be christened. Acting on his orders, while Michael is pledging to denounce the devil, his assassins take out the other leaders of the New York families as well as Moe Greene.

Salvatore Tessio (Abe Vigoda) betrays Michael's trust at Vito's funeral.
But Michael had been warned by Vito that this would happen.
Tessio is told that he’s been found out and despite his pleas to Tom to help him, is taken away to be killed for his betrayal. There is only one piece of business left. Michael talks with Carlo and, after promising not to hurt him, gets a confession that he was in cahoots with Barzini and helped to set up Sonny’s ambush. Carlo is given a ticket to Vegas and is killed by a wire garrote in the car by Peter Clemenza (Richard Castellano), a still loyal capo in the family.

The film ends with the Corleone house up for sale and the family packing up to move. Connie bursts in to confront Michael about the murder of her husband. Michael tells her he had nothing to do with it. When Kay asks, he at first rebuffs her, telling her that he won’t discuss family business with her. But he softens and lets her, just this once, ask. When she asks if he was involved in Carlo’s murder, he tells her no.

In the final scene of the film, Kay is busy packing, while in his office, Michael is being greeted by his capos and we see he is firmly in place as the new Don. Just as Kay must realize all the lies he’s told her, one of the capos closes the office door on her.

Kay finally realizes that most of what Michael has told her is a lie.
This is a very powerful film and holds up very well over 40 years later. The story, though involved, is fairly easy to follow and is told with beautiful cinematography by Gordon Willis. This is truly a masterpiece for Coppola, who really upped his game. I’ve seen You’re a Big Boy Now and there is nothing in that film that remotely indicates he was capable of making a film as good as this.

He is aided along by some very famous and very good actors. His lead, Marlon Brando, was already an acting legend by the time he made this film. Brando first achieved fame in 1947, as Stanley Kowalski in Tennessee William’s A Street Car Named Desire on Broadway. Known for his mumbling delivery and animal magnetism some view Brando as one of the greatest actors of the 20th century.

He first made an impact in Hollywood, reprising his Street Car role opposite Vivien Leigh of Gone With the Wind fame. Throughout the fifties, Brando appeared in many powerful roles, including Marc Antony in Julius Caesar and Johnny Strabler in The Wild Ones, both in 1953; and Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront (1954). He even appeared in the Sam Goldwyn movie version of the musical Guys and Dolls (1955).

While Brando was riding high in the 50’s, the 1960’s were not good to him. None of the films he was in were a financial success and by the end of the decade he had also earned a reputation as being difficult to work with. Paramount originally wanted Danny Thomas (of all people) for the role, partially to get a production deal with the actor. But Thomas had the sense to turn down the part and encouraged Paramount to hire Brando, the actor Coppola wanted, for the part.

Brando gave a great performance as Vito Corleone, but he is far from being the only actor who did. Al Pacino, who in 1972 was a relative unknown, having only appeared in two films prior, gives a very subdued and powerful performance as Michael. Pacino, whose acting style has developed over the years to be much more demonstrative, draws power from playing everything low-key. He felt snubbed by the Academy, since he actually has more screen time than Brando, but was only nominated for Best Supporting Actor.

Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) confers with Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall).
Robert Duvall is also excellent in the part of Tom Hagen. Again, this is a subdued performance. Tom never lets himself get riled up about anything. That cannot be said for James Caan’s Sonny, who seems to live on the edge. While Tom is about thinking of a solution and acting smart, Sonny is all about action. He easily flies off the handle and pays the price for it in the film.

Veteran actor Sterling Hayden was also very good as Captain McCluskey, the corrupt policeman working with heroin dealer Sollozzo. Hayden brings his own presence whenever he’s on screen. Maybe he’s not at the level of Brando, but Hayden easily holds his own in a film filled with great actors.

Capt. McCluskey (Sterling Hayden) doesn't know it, but he's enjoying his last meal.
There isn’t really anyone in the supporting cast that misses the mark. This goes for Abe Vigoda as Tessio, Robert Castellano as Peter Clemenza, John Marley as Jack Woltz and Richard Conte as Emilio Barzini, but really everyone was good.

The parts for women are not nearly as strong. Talia Shire, Coppola’s sister, makes the most out of her role as Connie, who for most of the film is her husband Carlo’s punching bag. She does get to exhibit some emotions, but they seem to be over the top when they are. Diane Keaton’s Kay is really not very well explained. She should have bolted after Michael left her for a couple of years. Why she is drawn back in and can’t see through the lies is never explained, though we get a hint that she’s finally catching on at the very end of the film.

So now comes the part of the review where I pick up on something that doesn’t quite work for me in the film. There are two things in The Godfather that I don’t quite get. Though the scene of Woltz waking up in bed with a horse’s head is very powerful, have you ever considered the logistics it would take to pull something like that off? Whoever did it would have to break into the grounds, break into the stables, decapitate a horse, break into the house and break into the bedroom without making noise or setting off an alarm. And what a sound sleeper Woltz must be, not to be awakened when a bleeding horse’s head is added to his bed. I know it’s picky, but these are the things I think about when I’m watching a movie.

The other problem for me is the plot between Carlo and the Barzinis to kill Sonny. While I don’t doubt Carlo had the motivation to kill Sonny, the set up seems a bit chancy. The fight between Carlo and Connie, which is set in motion by a call from Carlo’s lover, seems quite spontaneous and while it is very believable they would escalate from words to throwing dishes to belts, this means someone had to know where Sonny was at that particular moment and the route he would take to get into the city and that he would be alone. Obviously to pull off an assassination like this, there has to be a conspiracy, but the coordination required, in the days before cell phones, seems a little too over the top to be believable.

I don’t know if these “holes” are from the source novel or are in the screenplay. I just know that someone would point these out as problems if I presented them in a work of fiction.

The Godfather is a brutal film with what they refer to now as a hard R rating. None of the characters can afford to let their guard down for even a minute as they never know which close and trusted ally hasn’t turned against them. The murders, when they are depicted, are hard to watch; they seem so real, which is why they stay with you long after the credits have finished. I’m thinking of you Luca Brasi. He certainly didn’t see his demise coming; compliments one moment, a knife through his hand and a string around his neck the next.

The Godfather is an essential film to watch, not only as a high point in filmmaking, but for the references made to this film in pop culture at large. Who hasn’t seen or heard some reference to an offer that can’t be refused or to a horse’s head in the bed? The problem may be that some of the more powerful scenes in The Godfather have already been parodied, copied or referred to so much  as to dilute some of their impact if you’ve never seen the film before. If this is you, then you certainly owe it to yourself to seek The Godfather out.

However, The Godfather is not a movie I could watch again and again. While I can appreciate the epic grandeur of the storytelling, the visual artistry and the acting, seeing it once every twenty-five  years or so seems about right for me. The film doesn’t pull me in, the way something like Casablanca or The Maltese Falcon does. I hate to say it, but I’m more likely to change the channel if I see The Godfather is on, than sit down and watch it.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Dead Rising: Road to Fortune (Comic) - Jackpot!

Yesterday, Dead Rising 3 was released as an exclusive for the Xbox One. It serves as the latest installment in the 7-year-old Dead Rising franchise, itself known for being able to display waves upon waves of zombies on the screen, the number of which escalates with every new entry. Dead Rising 3 not only marks another escalation of number of zombies in one’s line of vision, but also introduces plenty of new changes, such as a new protagonist and the ability to have characters in the game call you in real life with a compatible phone. With this hefty new entry, it will be interesting to see just how it turns out and if the improvements over the previous games make for a better experience.

Unfortunately, that is not what we are going to look at today.

Instead, in lieu of being able to actually play it, we will be taking a look at Dead Rising: Road to Fortune, a 4-issue comic meant to bridge the gap between the events of Dead Rising and Dead Rising 2. Admittedly I haven’t played the original Dead Rising on Xbox 360, but I did play both Dead Rising 2 and the Off the Record rerelease on PS3, the former of which spurred my interest in this comic and the latter of which is old enough to appear in the comic’s ads. With that out of the way, let’s see if this comic is worth reading.

The premise goes as such: Following the events of Dead Rising, reporter Frank West is the host of a struggling show called Uncovered, which presumably seeks to cast some light on hidden truths. After waking up from a nightmare one morning, he goes about his normal business until a report from KDED 24-Hour News by Rebecca Chang regarding a new infestation of zombies in Coyote Springs grabs his attention. After hearing the full report, he calls up his agent to try and get Rebecca a spot on Uncovered. Despite his insistence, Frank learns that his show has been cancelled by the network, effective immediately. After telling his agent off, his words apparently being inspiration for another particular show, he calls Rebecca himself so that he can still try and meet up with her. Meanwhile, Motocross racer Chuck Greene is travelling with his wife, Pam, and daughter, Katey, to Las Vegas, excited about an event called the Las Vegas 250. Confident that he will win, and that the news reports of zombie outbreaks are exaggerated, he eventually reaches Vegas, completely unaware of just how much his life will change that night.

Frank West about to rescue Isabella Keyes in his nightmare.

From what I can tell based on my Dead Rising experience, and the helpful expository text on the inside front cover, Road to Fortune manages to do a good job with continuing from the first game and establishing elements that will return to play in Dead Rising 2. What helps is that the writer, Tom Waltz, is a huge fan of Dead Rising and was excited at being able to write new continuity to the series. The story he writes is well-paced and transitions well between the parallel stories of Frank West and Chuck Greene. Personalities for each character seem intact; Frank is a journalist who will find any opportunity to get a big story and Chuck is very self-confident but also cares for the safety and well-being of his family, especially Katey once his situation goes south. This helps paint Tom Waltz as the kind of fan who, given the opportunity to work on a favorite series, will try to make logical connections between installments without disrupting the overall continuity.

While I do like what Waltz has written, I’ll admit that the way I’ve played the games has become a bit of a double-edged sword. The expository text on the inside covers of each issue help fill me in on what happened in the original game, as well as remember what happened between issues, but the comic ends with Chuck arriving at a gas station at Still Creek, which I recognize from screenshots of the Xbox 360 exclusive Dead Rising: Case Zero, which is a direct prequel to Dead Rising 2. Since I haven’t played Case Zero, or the parent game’s direct sequel Case West, this affected how I viewed a couple of the characters in the comic. We get to see the Director of Phenotrans, a pharmaceutical company which sells the ever-important Zombrex medication, as she manages to control two important parties for her own gain, along with another character named Mr. Singh who helps directly put her plan into motion. Thanks to not playing the aforementioned Xbox 360 titles, I have no idea if these characters are ever revisited or if we never see them again and they’re still at large.

The art of Road to Fortune, done by Kenneth Loh with colors by Esther Sanz, is also pretty good. The characters are very accurate to their in-game models, though Loh’s style helps give it a little flair, and the zombies are very well-drawn, with plenty of variety to distinguish their suitably off-putting features. The inking isn’t overdone, for the most part, and the colors use a bright palette to help different objects, both living and inanimate, stand out from each other. In this way the art is more realistic than works which would have used more muted tones and overall it fits in with the aesthetic of the Dead Rising universe. However, I do have a couple of issues. In situations with darker lighting, the art can become a little muddy and hard to make out and in some cases, the proportions of certain character’s faces, while still anatomically correct, aren’t as appealing. Thankfully these moments are few and far between and are more like anomalies than anything.

The zombies are suitably ugly and gross.

Overall, Dead Rising: Road to Fortune is actually a pretty good read. The story is internally consistent and makes certain connections with established elements pretty well while also setting up ones that will come back into play in Dead Rising 2. The artwork suits the genre, though it doesn’t hold up all the time, and the dialogue is also fairly consistent with what I understand the characters to be based on my time with Dead Rising 2 and Off the Record, though I’ll admit I’m not an expert on the franchise. Fans will, naturally, get the most satisfaction out of this mini-series for what it sets out to accomplish and it should be read for being able to fulfill its objectives. Non-fans just looking for a good zombie story may also get some satisfaction out of this, though they will only be confused in the long run. In this case, buy the trade and see if it grabs your interest enough to get into the franchise.

Stubs - The Little Mermaid

The Little Mermaid (1989) Starring the voices of: Jodi Benson, Christopher Daniel Barnes, Pat Carroll, Samuel E. Wright, Jason Marin, Kenneth Mars, Buddy Hackett, Ben Wright. Directed by Ron Clements, John Musker, Screenplay by John Musker, Ron Clements. Based on the novel by The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen. Produced by John Musker, Howard Ashman. Music by Alan Menken. Run Time: 83 minutes. U.S. Color, Animated, Musical, Fantasy

From Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) through The Fox and the Hound (1981), no studio dominated animated features the way the Walt Disney Studios had. The first 44 years and 24 animated features is an envious streak. So much of what it means to be a child dates back to these films. What would it be like never to have seen Snow White or Bambi or Alice or Peter Pan? It wouldn’t have been the childhood many of us remember.

Disney was also synonymous with high quality hand-drawn animation that both set the standard and pushed the envelope. The studio even seemed to survive the death of its founder and guiding light Walt Disney in 1966. However, the wheels seemed to come off with the release of The Black Cauldron (1985). The word flop was not something associated with Disney up to then, but The Black Cauldron cost twice as much ($44 million) as it made ($22 million).

The next film, The Great Mouse Detective (1986) was a moderate success, but the bloom seemed to be off the rose. The next theatrical release, Oliver and Company (1988) was a box office success, but did not get a great critical response, especially when measured against the legacy it was a part of.

A new rebirth of Disney animation would wait until the release of The Little Mermaid (1989). Disney’s interest in the story dates back to the man himself. The concept of vignettes from Hans Christian Andersen stories was worked on soon after the release of Snow White, but for whatever reason never made it off the storyboard. In 1985, Ron Clements, then working on The Great Mouse Detective, rediscovered the story and suggested it to then Disney CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg. Initially rejected in favor of a sequel to Splash (1984), Katzenberg corrected himself and greenlit the film the next day, along with Oliver and Company.

Interestingly, while Clements and John Musker were working on the film, the staff came across the original story and visual development Kay Nielsen had done for Disney’s original concept and found that many of the changes they were making to Andersen’s story planned in the 1930’s were the same ones writers in the 1980’s were also proposing.

The Little Mermaid may mark a new beginning for Disney animation, but it also marks the end of traditional hand-painted cel animation at the studio. Even then, computer animation was creeping into the production. A digital method of coloring and combining scanned drawings, known as CAPS (Computer Animation Production System), developed by some upstart called Pixar for Disney, was used experimentally in the film.

The story of the Little Mermaid starts with a concert being thrown in honor of the King Triton (Kenneth Mars) which features Triton’s daughters with the showcase reserved for his youngest daughter, the 16-year-old Ariel (Jodi Benson), only Ariel is missing.

Rather than sing at the concert, Ariel and her fish friend, Flounder (Jason Marin), are off exploring shipwrecks, something Ariel has done many times before. She has a treasure trove of salvage, including cork screws, utensils, books and assorted thingamabobs. She oftentimes doesn’t know what it is she’s found and takes them to Scuttle (Buddy Hackett), a seagull who is sort of know-it-all-know-nothing. But Ariel’s treasures make her yearn for more and above all to get out of the ocean.

Ariel and Flounder take items they find to Scuttle to explain.
King Triton is not a happy merman. He doesn’t want his daughter to be associating with humans, who are, after all, barbaric. He assigns his advisor, Sebastian (Samuel E. Wright) to keep an eye on Ariel and keep her out of trouble. But Sebastian gets drawn into Ariel’s world and ends up going with her and Flounder on their next trip to the surface. There they see the birthday celebration of Prince Eric (Christopher Daniel Barnes) complete with fireworks. What Eric is prince of is never explained, but he is handsome and Ariel falls in love with him on the spot.

A storm comes, quickly turning the celebration into near tragedy. Eric is thrown overboard and plucky Ariel comes to his rescue, dragging the unconscious prince to safety on shore. Naturally, Ariel sings to him, but must retreat when he comes to as to avoid detection.

Watching all of this is Ursula (Pat Carroll), an octopus/sea witch. She wants to control the undersea kingdom and sees Ariel as her best chance to take power from King Triton. She dispatches two eels, Flotsam and Jetsam (both voiced by Paddi Edwards) to keep tabs on her.

Ursula with her evil eels Flotsam and Jetsam.
Meanwhile, Eric tells his manservant Grimsby (Ben Wright) and his sheepdog Max (Frank Welker) about how fascinated he is by the voice of the woman who saved him and vows to find and marry her.

Prince Eric can't stop thinking about the voice of the woman who saved him.
Triton quizzes Sebastian about Ariel and he tells his king about her love for the human, Eric. Frustrated, Triton does the one thing that will certainly drive his daughter away; he goes to her treasure cave and, using his trident, destroys all the human artifacts she has collected.

Alone and hurt, Ariel is approached by Flotsam and Jetsam, who tell her that Ursula can help her. The deal Ursula proposes is that she’ll give Ariel legs in exchange for Ariel’s lovely voice, which she captures in a nautilus. She gives Ariel three days to get Eric to give her the “kiss of true love”.  If he kisses her before the sunset on the third day, Ariel can remain human. If she fails, Ariel becomes a mermaid again and belongs to Ursula (think prisoner/slave/polyp).

Ariel trades her voice for a pair of human legs.
With human legs, Ariel goes to the surface, accompanied by Flounder and Sebastian. Eric finds Ariel on the beach and takes her back to his castle. Eric is still thinking about the voice and since Ariel can’t talk, she has an uphill fight to win his love. And just when it looks like on day two she’ll succeed, Ursula shape shifts into the beautiful Vanessa (Jodi Benson) and, armed with Ariel’s voice, appears onshore singing. The voice captures Eric and he tells Grimsby that he wants to marry Vanessa the next afternoon.

Ariel goes to the surface, transformed into a human.
Ariel wakes up to the news that Eric is marrying someone else. Scuttle discovers that Vanessa is really Ursula and tells Ariel, who immediately goes to the wedding barge. Sebastian goes to tell Triton, while Scuttle does his best to break up the wedding with the help of other animals. The nautilus shell around Vanessa’s neck gets broken, giving Ariel back her voice and relieving Eric from his enchantment with Vanessa. Eric now realizes it was Ariel who saved him, but before they can kiss the “kiss of true love”, the sun sets.

Vanessa uses Ariel's voice to win Prince Eric's heart.
Ariel transforms back into a mermaid and Ursula reveals her true self and takes Ariel back into the sea as her prisoner. Triton confronts Ursula, but a deal is a deal, that is until Triton offers to take Ariel’s place. Ariel is released as Triton is transformed into a harmless polyp in Ursula’s garden. Ursula declares herself to be ruler over Atlantica. There is a struggle in which Ursula accidentally kills Flotsam and Jetsam.  Enraged, Ursula grows into enormous size.

Triton becomes one of the polyps in Ursula's garden to save Ariel.
 Ursula takes control of the ocean and creates a storm that causes shipwrecks. Just as Ursula tries to kill Ariel, Eric rams her with his ship, driving his bowsprit through her abdomen, killing her. With Ursula dead, her powers are broken. Triton, like all the other polyps, is turned back into their original forms.

Ursula is a formidable foe and takes control of the ocean.
Now seeing how much Ariel loved Eric, Triton turns her back into a human and lets them marry on the ship and they depart.

Ariel leaves everything behind for a happy ending with Eric.
The Little Mermaid was just what the doctor ordered for Disney, becoming the first animated film to earn more than $100 million. The film was Disney’s first animated fairy tale since Sleeping Beauty (1959) and heralded a return to musicals, something that had been de-emphasized during the 1970’s and 80’s. The Little Mermaid ushered in a new golden age of animation for the studio, with subsequent productions being even more successful. The animation division grew from 300 employees in 1988 to 2200 by 1999. The era from The Little Mermaid until Tarzan (1999) is often referred to as the Disney Renaissance, a return for the studio of making successful animated films.

The Little Mermaid has a lot in common with Sleeping Beauty, in that perhaps the most interesting character is the villain. Ursula is in many ways a waterlogged Maleficent. Like her predecessor, Ursula is a shape-shifter (though the expression didn’t exist in 1959) and like Maleficent she can grow into enormous size. And ultimately, she is killed when she is pierced through her torso. Pat Carroll’s portrayal of Ursula is definitely one of the highlights of the movie.

Ursula is reminiscent of an earlier Disney villain, Maleficent (Sleeping Beauty).
Until The Little Mermaid, Carroll was best known for her work on television starting with The Red Buttons Show (1952-1953). She won an Emmy for her work on (Sid) Caesar’s Hour in 1956, was a regular on Danny Thomas’ Make Room For Daddy and appeared as Prunella in the CBS production of Rodger’s and Hammerstein’s Cinderella in 1965. While she played some small bits in a few live action films, most of her recent parts have been working with Disney and mostly doing Ursula’s voice. As such she’s appeared in several Direct to Video features including The Little Mermaid II Return to the Sea (2000), Mickey’s Magical Christmas: Snowed in at the House of Mouse (2001), Mickey’s House of Villains (2002) and in the Kingdom Hearts video game series: Kingdom Hearts (2000), Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories (2004), Kingdom Hearts II (2005) and Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance (2012).

The other acting is good, but doesn’t rise to the level of Carroll’s performance. Jodi Benson, who voiced Ariel, also has continued to voice the character in many of the same productions as Carroll and has also voiced the Barbie character in Toy Story 2 (1999) and Toy Story 3 (2010). A versatile voice actress, Benson continues to voice Ariel in the Disney TV series Sofia the First, a 3-D animated spin-off of the Disney Princess franchise.

For a musical, the songs are all right, not great. The film did win for Best Score and “Under the Sea” did win the Academy Award for Best Song, beating out “Kiss the Girl”, also from the movie, for that honor. The other competition was “After All” from Chances Are, “I Love to See You Smile” from Parenthood and “The Girl Who Used to Be Me” from Shirley Valentine. (A virtual dollar if you can hum any other of the nominees not from The Little Mermaid.) “Under the Sea,” like “Hakuna Matata” from The Lion King (1994), was unavoidable when the movie was first released as it seemed to play everywhere.

Considering the movie mostly takes place under water, the animation is really very good. With a few physics exceptions aside, like pages of books turning underwater, I kept waiting for a clown fish to swim by asking if anyone had seen his son, Nemo. In order to get that look right, Disney had to use such processes as airbrushing, backlighting, superimposition and some computer animation.

Not all of the work was done at Disney or went according to plan. The drawing of the million or so underwater bubbles was farmed out to a Chinese animation house in Beijing. And an attempt to use the famed Disney multiplane camera for depth of field focus failed because the device had been allowed to fall into disrepair and that work, too, was farmed out to an outside facility.

Overall, The Little Mermaid is a film worth seeing, if for no other reason than to figure out why so many girls were named Ariel. While the film fits under the banner of “family entertainment” this is really more a movie for little girls than for little boys, though enjoyment is not restricted to gender.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Blinx: The Time Sweeper - Is It Worth Your Time?

As many of you may be aware, the Xbox One is out. This is a day I have been looking forward to for a good while, and so in anticipation I acquired my copy of the system early. The system showed a lot of promise, and from what little I have seen of it so far, I am satisfied.

Also, the new Xbox One system came out today.

But that’s not the One we’re getting into right now.

In all seriousness, we are going to dig into a game called Blinx: The Time Sweeper, released for Microsoft’s original Xbox system back in 2002. This is a game I got for my birthday a while ago, long after I came into possession of an original Xbox, making this game my first, and, at the time of this writing, only, original Xbox title. Before getting any further, let’s get into a little personal history with the character of Blinx.

In my childhood, I was well aware of the existence of Blinx, I just didn’t exactly have the system to play the game on; I would not receive my first gaming system, the PlayStation 2, until much later, so the only way I had any gaming experience was through PC/internet games, playing on someone else’s system, or playing in-store demos. Blinx was one game I demoed in a store, like maybe two or three times (which may or may not have included the now defunct Circuit City), but I got some enjoyment out of what little I was able to play, and since then the game had been in my mental wish list of games I wanted to play. I was also aware of the existence of the game’s only sequel, Blinx 2: Masters of Time and Space, but only after seeing it on store shelves, and even then I wanted to experience what Blinx was like, even after the character unfortunately faded into obscurity. Now that I was able to do so with the first game, I can say that the game is overall…just okay.

The Time Factory, whose employees are all cats, is a facility that is responsible for making and distributing time across an infinite number of worlds, in the form of Time Crystals. However, Time Glitches may sometimes occur from unused Time Crystals, resulting in the creation of Time Monsters. Should this happen, it is up to the Time Sweepers at the Factory to eliminate the threat. Blinx is but one of these Time Sweepers, minding his own business when it is reported that the Tom-Tom Gang, a gang (whose members are all pigs) who runs a sort of black market on time between worlds, has caused great unbalance in world B1Q64, causing the Time Factory to force all Time Sweepers in that world to evacuate so they can cease the flow of time. However, when the Tom-Tom Gang reveal they have captured the princess of B1Q64, Blinx instantly falls in love, heading towards the Time Portal to that world so that he may rescue her.

Blinx, the titular Time Sweeper.
During the game, you are tasked to defeat a given number of Time Monsters across each level within a 10 minute time limit. Using Blinx’s Sweeper, you can suck up trash scattered within the level, which can be fired at the Monsters. Sometimes you can even run into a member of the Tom-Tom Gang, creating a mini-boss fight as you prevent them from taking gold from within the immediate area. Levels also often feature a number of hazards and doors that can only be opened by stepping on large buttons; these buttons can also activate whatever is needed to continue the level, such as activating moving platforms and creating large jump pads. These mechanics work well to feed into the central platforming aspect of the game; however it wouldn’t really stand out without the ability to control time.

Yes, you have the ability to control time, which seems to come with the job of being a Time Sweeper, with your powers including pausing, rewinding, fast-forwarding, and slowing down time, and even being able to record yourself to aid in solving puzzles. Each of these powers can only be used for a brief period, and some of them are more useful in particular situations, so you have to be careful with how you use them. However, in order to use them, you have to worry about Time Crystals scattered in each level.

You see, in order to be able to use these powers, you need to collect the right number of Time Crystals (3 of any like Crystal + 1 different Crystal give you 1 of that power; 4 of any like Crystal gives you 2 of that power), as well as pay attention to their shape and color (ex. PAUSE Crystals are blue and moon-shaped). On top of this, you can only hold a certain number of total time powers at any time, and going over the limit overrides another power, so you have to be careful. This also extends to RETRYs, which are essentially your lives, represented by red, heart-shaped Crystals, but they are kept in a separate part of the screen away from the time powers. When you die in a level and you have at least one RETRY on you, the game will rewind a few seconds to before you lost a life, allowing you enough time to undo whatever mistake you made. However, if you don’t have any RETRYs when you die, the game ends (this can also happen when your 10 minutes in the level run out).

Pictured: How Time Crystals work.
Adding another layer to the Time Crystals, unused powers and lives carry over into the next level, which can provide a certain tactical advantage for the time powers, but can also create more of a sense of urgency when it comes to your RETRYs, depending on how many you still have.

As an added bonus, there are Time Crystals that appear golden. These, however, are not really Time Crystals, but rather the aforementioned gold, whose value depends on size, but not shape. These will not give you any powers or add to your Crystal count, but will give you currency to spend in the Stores found in each set of levels, where you can upgrade your Sweeper to hold more and bigger items, hold more time powers or RETRYs at a time, or even buy new outfits for Blinx to wear (and of course, Sweepers and outfits are among the more expensive items). You can also purchase additional RETRYs, which may save you some pain in later levels. Levels also feature hidden Cat Medals, which more often than not require you to go above and beyond to nab them, and additional gold can be obtained by having any amount of trash left in your Sweeper (and even then it depends on the type of trash and how much you have).

The gameplay features involving time, while unique and interesting, are not without their drawbacks. The fact that you have to collect the Time Crystals from within the level to use any of your powers can be a bit of a drag at times, since the Crystals, when not placed at predetermined points in the level, are often random drops, which can alter your plans significantly if you are trying to get a specific power. I’ve had it where I was trying to get 2 of a certain power (or RETRYs), but the proximity of the one required Crystal to an unrelated one resulted either in me getting only 1 of that power or a bad combination, which annoyed me a little. As for the rest of the gameplay, while taking down monsters seems fun at first, I eventually became disinterested with the game about halfway through due to the sheer monotony of the whole thing, with little variation outside of visiting the Store for an upgrade or two or facing a Boss, especially since each Stage, or set of levels, is always 3 levels and a boss fight, with a Store unlocked after beating the first level in each Stage. Granted, some of my mistakes that lead to frustration were more a result of human error and I’m aware you can visit previous levels to improve your time, but I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to keep playing. I might go back to the game in the future, especially since at this point I have no idea what the Cat Medals are even for.

There are, however, some things that I think the game does really well. Though I have literally no other Xbox game at the time of this writing to compare the game’s graphics to, I would still say the graphics actually aren’t too bad for an Xbox game, especially for a game released in 2002, and they seem to hold up fairly well, probably helped by the cartoonish visual style. The character designs actually have a lot of variety to them, mostly when it comes to the Time Monsters, who each have a unique design so you can tell from a distance what kind of monster they are and, based on their color scheme, how hard they would be to take down. The members of the Tom-Tom Gang manage to look distinct from one another (though their names, along with a handful of Time Monster names, only show up in the manual) and, admittedly, Blinx himself looks kind of adorable sometimes.

What I’ve also noticed in my time spent with this game is a little detail regarding Blinx’s animations, specifically falling animations. When Blinx falls from a great height, he will normally land flat on his face without taking damage (unless, of course, in the off chance there is a hazard underneath him). However, if he falls from just the right height, he will move such that he lands safely on his feet. Since real-life cats can actually do this to an extent (please don’t try this at home), this is one small detail that, for me, helped sell me on the fact that he was a cat, since evidently the team working on the game must have done some amount of research on cats. Also, when you hit a wall, Blinx will slowly slide down while attempting to cling onto it, though this action also tends to make him more adorable.

Benito, leader of the Tom-Tom Gang
(according to the manual)
The levels themselves have some good design, but the way some of them are laid out tends to lend more to the difficulty than some of the Time Monsters do (levels with swinging axes present can get more than a little frustrating). While the levels themselves feel long due to how they are laid out, it often feels like you are just ascending further up within an enclosed space, but that doesn’t mean the designers didn’t go wrong when working with limited space. On the other hand, at least one or two levels felt like you had to complete the level in a specific fashion, otherwise you are wasting precious time if you mess up (fortunately, if a Time Monster goes into a currently unreachable space that would require tedious backtracking, it will simply reappear in the more immediate space with damage intact).

The music in this game is also very good, with some very catchy tunes present in each level, the music variety itself depending on Stage and whether it is a Boss fight. The tone of the music nicely compliments the design of each level, making each Stage feel more unique. Then there’s the voice acting, or lack thereof. The characters speak in a nonsense language (with subtitles provided), which makes sense from a practical standpoint as it makes it easier to carry the game over between multiple countries, with prompts and subtitles being the only language change. This also gives the setting more of a unique feel, since neither the Time Factory nor B1Q64 are evident to be related to our Earth in the first place (especially regarding the Time Factory).

In the end, Blinx: The Time Sweeper is a bit of a mixed bag. While some aspects of the game are good, especially in its visuals and sound design, it has some moments of seemingly unnecessary difficulty, especially since more difficult levels can make the 10-minute time limit a bit stricter than in earlier levels. However, despite my feelings on this game, I would encourage anyone who (still) has an original Xbox to play the game for themselves to see what they think of it, especially if they are a fan of platformers. If you do, I would recommend playing it in short bursts, particularly if it starts to feel like a chore. From what I gather, things change a bit for the game’s only sequel, which I hope to get to play at some point in the future.