Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Batman: Arkham Origins

As I have previously established, I am a fan of Batman. I am currently reading Scott Snyder’s take on him in DC’s why-is-it-still-called-the New 52, which I really like reading, and I’ve seen a few movies about the character. While not all of his movies have really been that great, his more recent games are. Rocksteady’s Arkham games, Arkham Asylum and Arkham City, have been hugely successful by defying all conventions and being licensed Batman games that are actually good, helped by the fact that the entire dev team clearly put a lot of care into the story and gameplay and showing their love for the Dark Knight. Following Arkham City, which I consider to be a perfect video game, I was pleased to learn that there would another entry called Arkham Origins. To my surprise however, I found out that it would not be Rocksteady handling the latest game, but rather WB Montréal, the people who ported the previous game to the Wii U. I knew that Arkham City would be a really tough act to follow from the get-go, but knowing that a different developer would be handling the game made me a little nervous about how it would turn out. While Arkham Origins came out in October, it wasn’t until I received it as a Christmas present, and did some other stuff, that I was able to get my hands on it. Having played the game for a few days now, I’d say that WB Montréal is very competent, but the end result is not without its own share of problems.

Befitting the title, Arkham Origins is a prequel to Arkham Asylum, though at an unspecified point in time (all we know regarding this is that Batman’s been around for about two years). On Christmas Eve, Batman intervenes at a breakout in Blackgate Prison instigated by Black Mask. After prevailing against Killer Croc, the caped crusader discovers that not only has Black Mask placed a $50 million bounty on his head, but eight of the world’s deadliest assassins have gathered in Gotham to try and collect it. At the same time, some of the GCPD’s corrupt cops want to claim the reward themselves. Now Batman must learn why Black Mask wants him dead, defeat the assassins and prove himself as a hero that Gotham can trust. Not far into his investigation however, he also finds out about a mysterious new criminal named “the Joker” and tries to figure out how he fits into the equation.

The eight assassins after Batman's bounty. Only six are plot-relevant.

While Paul Dini has no involvement with the writing this time, the story is actually very well-written. It follows a nice arc for Batman, showing him in a somewhat harsher light as someone who wants to work alone, but as the game goes on he learns the value of teamwork and being able to depend on others for help when he needs it most. There are some moments that show him in a more vulnerable state, as in more human, which is fine because these moments are a good source of his character growth. Black Mask, from what I can tell, is also portrayed well and is a very competent villain, though eventually the spotlight is given completely to the Joker, who is very much a true monster. His antics are very in-character and finding out his past before and with Batman, at least in the context of the Arkhamverse, was very interesting and fleshed out his character a little more.

Despite my praise though, there are a couple of things which stand out. There are a couple of continuity errors that go against what was established in Arkham Asylum and Arkham City, the most noticeable one being how Joker and Harley Quinn first met, or even in the Arkham Unhinged comics, that being the first encounter between Batman and Black Mask. I was able to let these go for the sake of this game’s plot, but in the long run I find it bad that WB Montréal couldn’t take the time to go through the other games or the comics and try to stick closely with the canon that was already there. There is also at least one plot point mentioned that never really goes anywhere, though the one that immediately comes to mind is the fact that Calendar Man is set free at the beginning of the game but there is no special story revolving around him, which would actually have been quite interesting.

Black Mask (center) is a formidable adversary.

While I’m at it, I might as well talk about the character selection. The game establishes that there are eight assassins within Gotham, although a few of them are only accessible through side quests (more on that later). As the game mentions, the assassins are Killer Croc, Deathstroke, Firefly, Copperhead, Deadshot, Electrocutioner, Shiva and Bane. Other villains in the game include Penguin, The Riddler (as Enigma), Bird and Anarky. Thanks to having played the previous Arkham Games and seeing quite a bit of The Batman when it first aired, as well as passing knowledge of Beware the Batman, I was able to identify some of the villains (at least those who weren’t already heavily in the public eye). However, I must say that some of the ones chosen are quite obscure (to me), since I had absolutely no idea who Copperhead, Electrocutioner, Bird or Anarky were before now. Maybe it’s my fault for not watching Justice League or reading any pre-New 52 Batman comics, but I get the feeling that WB Montréal scraped the bottom of the barrel for new villains to face. On top of that, the boss fights are kind of a mixed bag, with some being really fun (Firefly, Deathstroke) or just plain ridiculous in the setup (Deadshot).

Deadshot does sniper work with his wrists (?!) and
feels a compulsive need to ricochet his shots.

The gameplay of Arkham Origins is largely the same as Arkham City, which isn’t too surprising considering that WB Montréal developed Arkham City: Armored Edition. There is a strong sense of familiarity because of this, which isn’t bad all things considered since I like the gameplay of Arkham City, but at the same time I can’t help but feel like it isn’t as polished. Combat doesn’t feel as strong and the gadgets that are at Batman’s disposal are essentially slightly weaker versions of what he had in Arkham City. The Freeze Blast and Freeze Cluster, for instance, are both replaced with the weaker Glue Grenade, and the Remote Grapple, while very useful in Predator situations, doesn’t have as many viable places to use it as the Line Launcher. I understand that this would make sense in the context of the game’s placement as a prequel, so Batman isn’t as strong, but a game should still be polished to the fullest anyway and the combat generally wasn’t as fun or tight as its predecessors. Despite this shortcoming, Free Flow combat is still fun enough that you feel like a badass and the Shock Gloves from Arkham City: Armored Edition help with that feeling a lot.

Gotham City is still very impressively detailed, though there was a huge sense of Déjà vu from the fact that about half of the map in Arkham Origins is Arkham City but presented at a different point in time. This makes sense due to the nature of the previous game and if anything Gotham is now bigger than ever by being able to explore the other half, opening up new possibilities for side quests. While I liked being able to explore the city again however, I did find it a little less fun to go through this time around, which isn’t really a good sign, although this is mitigated somewhat by the integration of a Fast Travel system involving the Batplane. I hope that the inevitable next game either takes the story to a new location or makes going through Gotham feel fun again.

Since I’ve mentioned it a couple of times already, I think I should talk about the sidequests. These make a return from Arkham City, though naturally they are a bit different. A running one involves thwarting Enigma and by collecting his extortion data and taking out his radar networks to access his HQ and stop him from exposing the darkest secrets about Gotham’s citizens. Another involves finding out the perpetrators of certain murders through an awesome new mechanic where you reconstruct a crime scene gradually and scan the evidence that you find over time by doing so. Overall, the sidequests are a bit fun, though I’ll admit I haven’t played all of them since I have idea how to trigger events which lead to certain assassins and at least one path was severely glitched anyway, which is a shame because otherwise I would have really tried to do everything barring the Enigma stuff.

Reconstructing a crime scene is actually pretty cool.

A lot of praise I might give the game however is overshadowed somewhat by the number of big glitches still in even after extensive patching. I’ve had situations where enemies clip through walls after I knock them out and a time when the Triangle button absolutely would not work, necessitating quitting the game and reloading. The biggest glitch of all however was when I tried a side mission to track down the character Bird and the first mission would not execute properly. After beating the game I tried it again and it failed to go off at all, meaning that I’ll now have to start all over again just to try that one mission. At that point I felt like I had played enough to write this review.

This game is so glitchy that they removed this awesome Worst Nightmare
skin from the game, which they even waited until SDCC to announce!

The visuals are easily among the game’s strong points. Everything is magnificently detailed and the stylized look of everyone and everything still looks good the third time around. I also liked the costume designs of the characters, since they pretty much fit the overall tone and setting of the story. However, there are a couple of snags. There is sometimes quite a bit of texture loading, more than was present in Arkham City, which was a bit distracting when it did happen and did nothing but elicit a laugh from me (I also laughed hard at some of the funnier glitches). Also, there is a point in the game where the fire is frighteningly low-res, which is enough to take you out of the immersion and try and figure out just why it was so difficult for WB Montréal to program fire in an otherwise detail-oriented game.

Apart from the great sound effects in the game, I should also mention the voice acting. Everyone is good in their roles and I have no real complaints, but two voices in particular that need addressing are the roles of Batman and Joker. Rather than Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill, the respective roles are played by Roger Craig Smith and Troy Baker. Both are very competent at what they do and I respect their decision to try and emulate their predecessors, just sounding younger in the process. This, to me, helps the characters sound believably younger, as they have a continuity to uphold, but I think that even if another great Arkham game was made and they couldn’t get Kevin Conroy again, these voice actors could still work as incredible substitutes. Heck, even if they got Kevin Conroy back, they should still keep Troy Baker on standby because of his uncanny ability to channel Mark Hamill in his depiction of Joker; unless you knew beforehand that Hamill retired the role and Baker took over, the difference is nearly indistinguishable and I love the voice even more for accomplishing that.

Troy Baker does an excellent job voicing Joker.

Batman: Arkham Origins is a great game and a strong entry in the Arkhamverse, though not quite as good as the Rocksteady titles. It has a very good story and the gameplay is still good, though the combat is a little less polished and more time could have been spent ironing out the texture problems and numerous bugs. I would recommend this game to existing fans of the Arkham games so that they can form their own opinion about the voice acting and change of studio, but for new fans I would say that there are two routes ahead of you. If you want the experience in chronological order, begin with Arkham Origins. If you want the highest quality Batman games around, begin with Arkham Asylum and Arkham City.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Stubs – The Killers (1946)

The Killers aka Ernest Hemingway’s The Killers (1946) Starring: Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner, Edmond O’Brien, Albert Dekker, Sam Levene.  Directed by Robert Siodmak.  Screenplay by Anthony Veiller, Richard Brooks, John Huston.  Based on a short story by Ernest Hemingway. Produced by Mark Hellinger. Run Time: 105 minutes. U.S.  Black and White. Drama, Crime, Film Noir

It’s not every day you come across a movie that ignited not only one film career, but two. The Killers (1946) is such a movie. Prior to this film, Burt Lancaster had never appeared on film and Ava Gardner, as beautiful as she was, had only had minor roles in about 20 plus features, oftentimes in an uncredited role. But both careers took off after they appeared in this film.

The film was produced by Mark Hellinger. A journalist by trade, Hellinger, at one time, had a syndicated column that appeared in 174 newspapers. (Yes there used to be that many.) In 1932, Jack Warner hired him as a writer/producer. He provided the story for The Roaring Twenties (1939), directed by Raoul Walsh and starring James Cagney. He then became a Hollywood producer with such films as They Drive By Night (1940), High Sierra (1941), The Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947) and Naked City (1948), all for Warner Bros. Hellinger decided to go it alone and paid Ernest Hemingway $36,750 for the screen rights to his short story, The Killers, which had first appeared in Scribner’s Magazine in 1927.  

The Killers opens with two hit men, Al (Charles McGraw) and Max (William Conrad) arriving in Brentwood, New Jersey, in search of Pete "Swede" Lund (Burt Lancaster). They initially stake out a diner he frequents, questioning, among others, customer Nick Adams (Phil Brown) about Swede's whereabouts. After the men leave, Nick races to Swede's boardinghouse room to warn him and is stunned when Swede seems resigned to his fate. "I did something wrong, once" he says to Nick as an explanation. Shortly after Nick leaves, Al and Max arrive and shoot the Swede to death in a hail of gunfire.

In the opening, Al (Charles McGraw) and Max (William Conrad) arrive at a diner, the Swede frequents.
Customer Nick Adams (Phil Brown) (l) and the proprietor George (Harry Hayden) (r) are briefly taken as hostages.

When it is discovered Swede had a small life insurance policy, through his job with Atlantic Casual, insurance investigator James Riordan (Edmond O’Brien) begins investigating his murder. The Swede worked at a filling station with Nick, so Jim starts his investigation with him. Nick recalls that Swede stopped coming to work the week before his murder after waiting on a wealthy, middle-aged stranger who arrived at the station driving a black Cadillac sedan.

The last car the Swede (Burt Lancaster) ever worked on.

Jim then calls on Swede's beneficiary, Mary Ellen "Queenie" Doherty (Queenie Smith), a cleaning woman at an Atlantic City hotel. Queenie recalls Swede staying there six years earlier and that she stopped him from throwing himself out of the window, distraught after a woman left him.

Jim Reardon (Edmund O'Brien) is an insurance investigator who takes a great interest in the Swede's last words.

When he turns to his office, Jim learns that Swede was a former boxer, whose real name was Ole Anderson, and that after his fight career ended, he served three years in prison for robbery. Jim visits Swede's arresting officer, police lieutenant Sam Lubinsky (Sam Levene), who tells him that he and Swede had grown up together in Philadelphia and that his wife Lilly (Virginia Christine) dated Swede before their marriage.

Sam talks to Jim about the night of the Swede’s last professional fight. Despite the urgings from his corner by his manager, Packy Robinson (Charles D. Brown), to lead with his right, Swede doesn’t and gets knocked out. Only after the fight do they discover that the knuckles on Swede’s right hand have been broken. How they got broken is never explained. With his career over, Sam suggests the Swede join the police force, but he rejects that idea.

Lilly then recalls her final date with Swede that shows he got mixed up with the wrong crowd. At a party given by Jake "the Rake" (John Miljan) in a lavish apartment owned by "Big Jim" Colfax (Albert Dekker), the two meet Blinky Franklin (Jeff Corey) and singer Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner), to whom Swede is immediately and quite obviously attracted.

Despite bringing Lily (Virginia Christine) to the party, the Swede can't take his eyes off of Kitty (Ava Gardner).

Then Sam tells Jim that sometime later, while working on a jewelry heist, a tip led him to Jake and Kitty, the latter whom he suspected of wearing a piece of the stolen jewelry. He followed the lead to a nightclub. Sensing the jig is up, Kitty removes the pin she’s wearing and tries to hide it in the dirty dishes. Then when Sam tries to arrest her, Swede intervened. Swede, now involved in running numbers, tries to convince Sam to let Kitty go for old times’ sake. But when that doesn’t work, he claims responsibility for stealing the jewelry, which lands him in prison for three years.

Sam (Sam Levene) confronts Kitty with the broach she tried to ditch. The Swede will take the fall.

Sam asks Jim if he can help with the investigation and later that afternoon, at Swede's burial service, Sam points out Charleston (Vince Barnett), a small-time hood and acquaintance of Swede's, to Jim. Over a bottle in a bar, Charleston reveals that he and Swede shared a prison cell together and that Swede referred to Kitty as "his girl," and asked Charleston to visit her upon his release.

Charleston (Vince Barnett) was the Swede's cellmate.

After Swede gets out, Charleston is sent by Colfax to summon him to a meeting with Blinky, another thug, “Dum Dum" Clarke (Jack Lambert), and a mysterious woman, who turns out to be Kitty. Colfax has planned a payroll heist at a hat company which promises a $250,000 payoff, but the older Charleston finds the risk too great and withdraws, and never sees Swede again.

Kitty is there when Colfax plans the payroll robbery. The Swede tries to ignore her.

After leaving Charleston, Jim digs up information that Atlantic Casual insured the hat company and discovers details of the heist. Sam then contacts Jim to inform him that Blinky has been discovered shot and near death, or as a doctor says, "He's dead now, except for he's breathing". Both men hurry to the hospital, where Blinky, semi-conscious, rambles about the robbery: After the heist, the group was forced to change their meeting place because the scheduled halfway house had burned down unexpectedly. Swede arrives last and, after accusing Colfax of trying to cheat him, takes all the money and flees, shooting out the tires on the other cars so no one can chase him.

After Blinky dies, Jim feels sure the robbery is connected to Swede's murder and stakes out his old room at the boardinghouse. Soon after, Dum Dum rents Swede's old room and starts to ransack it. Jim breaks in on him and demands to know more details of the robbery, specifically why the meeting place was changed. Dum Dum admits Kitty was involved and that just after midnight the night before the robbery she had told each of them separately about the change, which Swede later claimed he was not told. Jim tells Dum Dum that Swede had run off with Kitty and that later in Atlantic City, Kitty had disappeared with the money. Dum Dum escapes from Jim and, despite a police cordon, gets away.

Jim rents the room next to the Swede's old one and is about to confront Dum Dum.

Later when Jim receives notification that the halfway house burned down after two a.m., not midnight, he is certain Colfax and Kitty are behind Swede's murder, but Sam insists Colfax has gone straight. Jim goes to see Colfax, who is now a successful building contractor. Jim lies, telling Colfax that he has enough evidence to convict Kitty, but Colfax claims no knowledge of the robbery or of Kitty's whereabouts. Jim puts out the word that he wants to speak to Kitty and she does call him. She suggests meeting at the Green Cat night club, but Jim nixes the idea, suggesting instead a meeting outside a theater. He tells Kitty that he’s sending a man who will bring her to him, but he goes himself to the rendezvous. But despite his cautions, Al and Max trail them as Jim has the taxi take them to the Green Cat club.

An interesting establishing shot of inside the Green Cat using a mirror reflection.

Once there, Kitty tells Jim that the night before the robbery, she convinced Swede that the others were double-crossing him, so he would agree to take her away from Colfax. She insists that she left Swede in Atlantic City with the money and pleads with Jim not to involve her further as she is now married and has a good home. Jim tells her that he’s interested in the money, but Kitty only still has less than a third of the take left. To compensate, Jim demands that she give him proof of Colfax's participation and she agrees.

Kitty pleads with Jim to show her leniency, but it's just another set up.

Before they leave the club, she excuses herself to the ladies room. While she’s in there, Al and Max begin to move in on Jim, but are cut off and shot by Sam who is also at the bar. When they break into the ladies room, they discover Kitty has escaped out the window. Jim, with Sam and a police backup, head to Colfax's house. They arrive to a series of gunshots and find Dum Dum dead at the bottom of the stairs and Colfax fatally wounded on the landing with Kitty hovering over him.

Jim tells Colfax he had discovered Kitty was his wife and could not testify against him. Colfax admits to having Swede killed, in fear that the other gang members would find him and realize that Colfax and Kitty had double-crossed them and kept all the money. Colfax dies as Kitty pleads for him to declare her innocence. Back at the office, R.S. Kenyon (Donald MacBride), who has leniently let Jim go above and beyond the normal investigation, congratulates him on a job well done. Seeing as it’s Friday, he offers to let Jim take a long break; seeing as its Friday afternoon, Jim can have until the following Monday.

Sam and Jim watch as Kitty hovers over a dying Colfax (Albert Dekker)
and pleads for him to confess her innocence, but to no avail.

The film apparently is very faithful to the Hemingway short story, but that only accounts for about the first 20 minutes. The rest if fleshed out by Arthur Veiller in a Citizen Kane meets Double Indemnity fashion. Like Kane, the story of Swede is told through a series of interviews after his death and through flashbacks, but instead of a news reel producer, the person asking the questions, trying to figure out the Swede’s last words, is an insurance investigator who becomes more fascinated by the case than simply tracking down the life insurance benefactor.

The movie is very slow paced, which does make it more suspenseful, but also makes it seem overly drawn out. The movie is under two hours, but seems longer, which is not a good thing. But overall the film was critically well received at the time, receiving Academy nominations for Best Director (Siodmak), Best Film Editing (Arthur Hilton), Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic Picture (Miklos Rozsa) and Best Adapted Screenplay (Veiller). Hemingway also apparently thought this was the best film adaptation of one of his stories and used to show the film regularly at his home to friends.

There is nothing like the look of a black and white film noir, with its deep black shadows. The opening sequence, as the hit men descend on Brentwood, in particular looks great with it play of light and dark. When we first see the Swede, his face is in shadows. The reveal of his face is like the introduction of a new star, Burt Lancaster. 

Love the Black and White: Al and Max arrive in Brentwood looking in the shadows for the Swede.

Lancaster was plucked from obscurity by agent Harold Hecht after appearing in a Broadway play, A Sound of Hunting (1945), which ran for only three weeks. Hecht introduced him to Hal Wallis and the rest is, as they say, history. The Killers was the start of a very long career for Lancaster. Already 33 at the time the movie was released, Lancaster would become a very popular and versatile actor. Nominated four times, he won an Academy Award for Best Actor only once for Elmer Gantry.

Burt Lancaster became a star from the first moment he was on film.
As an actor, Lancaster played a very diverse group of characters across many genres. He starred in film noirs, Brute Force (1947), I Walk Alone (1948) and Criss Cross (1948); suspense: Sorry Wrong Number (1948), Rope of Sand (1949); adventure: The Flame and the Arrow (1950), Ten Tall Men (1951), The Crimson Pirate (1952); biography: Jim Thorpe – All American (1951), Birdman of Alcatraz (1962); westerns: Apache (1954), Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), Valdez is Coming (1971); dramas: Separate Tables (1958), Elmer Gantry (1960), Sweet Smell of Success (1957); comedies: Tough Guys (1986) and even worked in foreign films: 1900 (1976); La pelle (1981); Il Giorno prima (1987) and La Bottega dell’orefice (1989).This list doesn’t even include From Here to Eternity (1953), Seven Days in May (1964) or Atlantic City (1980).

Not only was Lancaster a big major star, but he was also an independent producer forming a production company in the mid-50’s with producer Harold Hecht and screenwriter James Hill. The company not only produced films for Lancaster: Apache, Sweet Smell of Success and Run Silent, Run Deep (1958) to name a few, but also films such as Marty (1955) which starred Ernest Borgnine and won the Academy Award for Best Picture.

But Lancaster was not the only one to benefit from success of The Killers. So did his co-star, Ava Gardner. Up until this film she had labored in obscurity, but afterwards, she would become one of Hollywood’s leading actresses. Her films include My Forbidden Past (1951), Show Boat (1951), Lone Star (1952), Mogambo (1953),The Barefoot Contessa (1954), The Sun Also Rises (1957), Seven Days in May, and Earthquake (1974). She was nominated once for an Academy Award for Best Actress in Mogambo.

Ava Gardner was not only a good actress, but was considered
by many to be the most beautiful woman in Hollywood.
She is also remembered for her three marriages to actor Mickey Rooney, bandleader Artie Shaw and to singer/actor Frank Sinatra. Gardner also had much publicized romances with billionaire-odd boy Howard Hughes, bullfighter Luis Miguel Dominguin and actor George C. Scott and a friendship with writer Ernest Hemingway.

My only complaint about the story is the slow pace. But if you can stay awake, the film has got pretty much everything you could want in a film noir: a handsome, but flawed leading man, a beautiful femme fatale, a complicated plot and a bunch of great supporting characters. The acting is good across the board and the film looks great. All in all I would recommend The Killers (1946).

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Bejeweled 3 (PS3)

One of my earliest reviews on Trophy Unlocked was for Bejeweled 3, the latest entry in PopCap Games’ popular Bejeweled series of puzzle games (it’s likely the first thing you think of when a match-three game comes to mind). It being one of my first for the blog, I am honestly not satisfied with how it turned out, since I was still learning at the time how to type reviews on a semi-regular basis and I had no idea what I was doing. As such, I wanted to make up for it somehow, so I decided to use the PS3 port of the game, the subject of this review, as an opportunity to do so. Originally I was hesitant about playing a console version of the game, since I feel that many puzzle games of its kind are better with a mouse, but I decided to give it a shot anyway, receiving the game as a Christmas gift (much like how I obtained the original PC version). Having played it for a while I think that, though it is a good port, it does have a few minor issues.

The gameplay of Bejeweled is rather simple: your goal is to match 3 or more like gems on the board to clear them so that more come down and the cycle repeats, generally until you run out of moves. While simple, it can get surprisingly addicting and sessions can last for a good while before you realize what time it is. Each Bejeweled game since the first has improved upon this formula while also adding their own spins on the concept (in one case literally). One thing Bejeweled 3 has to offer is the ability to make matches even while gems are falling, which improves upon gameplay significantly and allows more freedom for combos. It also has some of the best visuals seen in a Bejeweled game yet, which is also evident in the PS3 port, where the gems look more visually appealing than in previous installments. These improvements were in fact so popular that they were used for the retail release of the Bejeweled Blitz Facebook spin-off game. The music is also very good, in that not only is it somewhat memorable, but it also helps to create an atmosphere for each game mode without being distracting.

Bejeweled 3 has plenty of different gameplay options to choose from. One of the first ones that are unlocked from the start, and the first one I went for, is the Quest mode, which is comprised of a series of mini-games where upon completion you help restore a set of artifacts. Some of these mini-games are actually condensed versions of some of the larger options in the main game, some of which are unlocked by reaching a certain point in other modes, so this can give you a good idea of how the game plays on the system and what you are in for should you choose to explore any further. Other options include Butterflies, where you must match butterflies to free them before they reach a spider at the top; Ice Storm, where you must match gems to prevent ice from reaching the top; Poker, in which you must make good Poker hands through matching gems while avoiding Skulls; Diamond Mine, where you have to dig into the ground via gem matching while also excavating gold and artifacts; Lightning, where you must make matches as fast as possible before time runs out; Classic, which uses the gameplay mechanics of Bejeweled 3 while using the original game’s rule of being able to run out of moves; and Zen, an endless form of Bejeweled 3 designed to help you relax. The Zen mode of PS3 version of the game has slightly less options than in the PC version, mainly due to a lack of headphone use on the PS3, but otherwise it can still help with your relaxation (though the ambient noises you can pick from don’t replace the background music like in PC version). Whichever ones you want to play more often are up to your personal tastes, though personally, aside from Zen, my favorites include Lightning and Diamond Mine, and occasionally Butterflies, much like with the PC version.

While the game itself is still fun to play, the thing that took away from it a little was the inability to connect a mouse to play. I know it seems weird to want to use a mouse to play a console game, but try making matches quickly under any sort of time limit while using only the D-Pad, which lead my left thumb to feel a little numb after a while before I took a small break. You can also use the sticks to navigate the cursor across the board, which is sort of like using a mouse cursor, but to me it just didn’t feel quite the same, so I just ended up numbing my thumb with the D-Pad (I kept pulling through with it since it felt more accurate than using the stick). The PS3 version also includes leaderboards, allowing you to compare your scores to that of other players over PSN, however this did not interest me since I like to play Bejeweled without having it feel competitive, so this also may have affected my feelings on the game a little bit. There’s also the effect the port has on SD TV’s, in that the game seems to just barely fit on the screen, though it is still otherwise playable. Despite these personal feelings about certain features, the port is otherwise very well put together. It also features slightly different menu and HUD layouts throughout, but they are done to accommodate the system and are not intrusive on regular play.

The PS3 version of the game also comes with a couple of extra games from PopCap’s library, namely Zuma, a match-three game involving shooting mutli-colored balls at a trail(s) of other multi-colored balls to eliminate them before they reach the end, and Feeding Frenzy 2: Shipwreck Showdown, in which you control a fish that grows bigger by eating other fish in various locales. Since I wanted to get the most out my experience with Bejeweled 3 on PS3, I decided to try those out to see how they played on a console. I have actually played Zuma before on a PC and liked it, so I was able to get some enjoyment out of the game, though I found using the stick to aim instead of a mouse to be slightly awkward at times, sometimes causing me to go off-target with my ball shots (that, and the presence of leaderboards affected me similarly to the main game in the package). By contrast, the controller layout actually works rather perfectly with Feeding Frenzy 2, though I can’t compare it to the PC version since this was my first time playing the game (for the record, I have also not yet played the original Feeding Frenzy game as of this writing). While the game does gradually introduce new gameplay mechanics as well as different fish you can control and consume, it started to feel monotonous after a while when I played the Story Mode Lite option (in which, unlike regular Story Mode, you don’t have to worry about limited lives or continues), so while I’m not saying it’s a bad game, I simply got bored with it after a while and stopped playing.

While not perfect, the PS3 port of Bejeweled 3 is very well-made and can be enjoyable despite its shortcomings. The slightly awkward control scheme makes playing each gameplay option a little more difficult than they need to be, but the overall quality of the port makes it easy to overlook the other faults and still have fun with it. The other two games in the package are still playable for the control schemes they have and they serve as an added bonus for extra replay value (and, for some, Trophies). If you are a fan of Bejeweled, even if you have already played another version of Bejeweled 3, I would still say to give this one a shot if you don’t mind the rough patches with the port’s design. Fans of the Zuma and Feeding Frenzy games, and their ports, might also be motivated to give this game a try, even if it’s just to have a physical copy of the ports of the original Zuma and Feeding Frenzy 2. It may not be as good without the use of a mouse, but this port of Bejeweled 3 is still worth a try for fans of puzzle games.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

American Hustle

American Hustle (2013) Starring: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, Jennifer Lawrence. Directed by David O. Russell. Screenplay by Eric Warren Singer, David O. Russell. Produced by Charles Roven, Richard Suckle, Megan Ellison. Run Time: 137 minutes. U.S.  Color.  Crime, Comedy, Drama.

With Awards season well under way and the Academy Awards looming, certain films are starting to separate themselves from the rest of the field. One film that seems to be on the rise is American Hustle, David O. Russell’s follow up to Silver Linings Playbook (2012). The film is one of nine nominated for Best Picture (amongst other awards) and many feel that American Hustle is one of the three with the best chance of winning the Oscar (the other two being 12 Years a Slave and Gravity).

Some of the film’s draw for me was that Russell works again with several cast members from Silver Linings Playbook, including Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence and, even though his name doesn’t appear in the credits, Robert De Niro. It is always a balancing act for a director/writer to work with the same actors over and over again. A better working relationship is developed, but you have to avoid it getting stale or becoming forced. That is not the case here.

The story is told against the backdrop of the FBI’s Abscam sting operation and the film promises that some of it actually happened. The audience is left to decide which part did. A less than Batman-looking Christian Bale plays Irving Rosenfeld, a rather small-time conman, who bilks desperate men out of money for the promise, and only the promise, of helping them get access to more. Into his life comes Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams). He falls in love with her and confesses what he does for a living. While he suspects she’s left him, in fact, she makes up a new persona, Lady Edith Greensly with alleged British banking contacts.

Their little scam continues until FBI Agent Richard “Richie” DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) leads a sting operation against them and arrests Sydney/Edith for fraud. In order to get charges dropped, Richie offers Irving a deal to help him make four arrests to clear Sydney. Once the deal is made, the sting grows to include Camden Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), who is very interested in rebuilding Atlantic City back into a gambling hub. We also meet Irving’s wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence). She’s a bit of ditz, but she somehow has out-conned Irving and he seems powerless to leave her for Sydney.

Richie is overly excited about the sting operation, so much so that he bullies his superior, Stoddard Thorsen (Louis C.K.), and goes over his head to get the money and the trappings of wealth he needs for his sting to work. His enthusiasm and bullheadedness are to be his undoing before all is said and done.

Stories about cons can be hard to follow as you never know who to trust and who is telling the truth. This one isn’t that bad as long as you pay attention. There is a twist that you won’t see coming as the movie is very careful to reveal only what you need to know when it wants you to know it.

Who's conning who?

In the film, there is a lot of narration, utilized to speed through exposition and backstory as well as to provide an epilogue to the tale. I liked the idea of more than one character providing narration so we see the inner thoughts of both Irving and Sydney, as this is really a film about the two of them.

The characters are for the most part based on actual people. I will admit that I have only a passing knowledge of the Abscam sting operation, so I don’t know how accurate these portrayals are, but that is not required knowledge to enjoy the film.

Tina Fey was correct when she quipped on the Golden Globes that American Hustle was originally called Explosion at the Wig Factory. This is a costume drama in many ways as apparently the 1970’s and 80’s require a lot of wide lapels, gold chains and hairpieces. But still the acting shines through and the cast is very strong.

The cast of American Hustle from left to right: Amy Adams,
Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, Christian Bale, Jennifer Lawrence.

Christian Bale, once again, shows that he can act out of a Batman costume. His character is about as far away from the caped crusader as one can get. Amy Adams is very good as Irving’s lover, Sydney, but her acting isn’t quite as her costumes with their plunging necklines. Jeremy Renner, perhaps best known for his role as Hawkeye in TheAvengers, plays a believable down to earth, but corruptible man of the people.

Christian Bale as Irving Rosenfeld. 

Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, are also in this film, but they have very little screen time together, so the allure of their reuniting in the film is not part of the plot. I found Cooper’s DiMaso to be a little over the top and Lawrence’s character almost seems like an afterthought. She comes into the film late and her character has more importance than her screen time would indicate.

As far as the supporting cast goes, Louis C.K. is also very good as the long suffering Stoddard Thorsen. His is a small part, but he really brings the character to life. Part of that is a story about ice-fishing that gives his Thorsen more depth. Even though he is uncredited, Robert De Niro makes a brief, but very menacing appearance as Victor Tellegio, a Miami-based mob boss. Perhaps it’s the gravitas De Niro brings to the role, having made a career playing toughs, but Tellegio definitely isn’t someone you’d want to cross let alone cross paths with.

Louis C.K. as Stoddard Thorsen in American Hustle.

While I thought American Hustle was good, I didn’t really enjoy it as much as I did Silver Linings Playbook. The film shows Russell’s ability to tell well-crafted and very interesting stories and I would definitely recommend it to anyone who wants to see what a good film is. I’ll leave it up to you to decide if you think it’s the Best Picture from 2013. And of course, the Academy voters will have the last word.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Stubs – Animal Crackers

Animal Crackers (1930) Starring: Groucho Marx, Harpo Marx, Chico Marx, Zeppo Marx, Margaret Dumont, Lillian Roth. Directed by Victor Heerman. Screenplay by Morrie Ryskind, Based on a Musical Play by George S. Kaufman, Bert Kalmar, Morrie Ryskind and Harry Ruby,  Run Time: 97 minutes. U.S.  Black and White. Comedy

Like the Marx Brothers’ first film, The Cocoanuts (1929), Animal Crackers was based on a Broadway musical the Brothers had starred in for 191 performances. The original production of Animal Crackers in October 1928 was filmed two years later in Paramount’s Astoria Studios in New York. After this film, the Brothers would move to Hollywood.

The Four Marx Brothers: Chico, Groucho, Harpo and Zeppo.

While Horse Feathers moved along at a brisk clip, Animal Crackers has more plot and more characters which means the Brothers are not on screen as much as they were in Horse Feathers. A Marx Brothers film without the Marx Brothers on screen suffers without them.

In Animal Crackers, Captain Spaulding (Groucho Marx), a famous African explorer, is the houseguest of Mrs. Rittenhouse (Margaret Dumont), a rich Long Island widow. But in addition to Spaulding and his personal secretary Horatio Jamison (Zeppo Marx), Mrs. Rittenhouse is showcasing a famous painting, Out for The Hunt, owned by art connoisseur Roscoe W. Chandler (Louis Sorin) to impress her many guests.

Captain Spaulding (Groucho Marx) makes his entrance at Mrs. Rittenhouse's (Margaret Dumont) house.

The musicians Mrs. Rittenhouse has hired for her soiree, Emanuel Ravelli (Chico Marx) and the Professor (Harpo Marx), arrive a day early. And apparently it is cheaper to let them play than pay them not to; they charge either way.

Emanuel Ravelli (Chico Marx) and the Professor (Harpo Marx) are hired as musicians.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Rittenhouse’s daughter, Arabella (Lillian Roth) is in love with John Parker (Hal Thompson), an unknown artist. He can’t afford to marry her on what little he makes selling his paintings. It turns out he made his own copy of the painting while he was student. Arabella hatches the idea of switching John’s painting for the original as a way to showcase his work to Chandler. Arabella gets Ravelli and the Professor to help with her scheme.

But they aren’t the only two who think of making a switch-a-roo. A rival society matron, Mrs. Whitehead (Margaret Irving), whose daughter Grace (Kathryn Reece) had also made a copy of the painting. They get the idea of showing up Mrs. Rittenhouse by replacing Grace’s painting for the original. Mrs. Whitehead convinces Mrs. Rittenhouse’s butler Hives (Robert Greig), who used to work for the Whitehead household, to help her.
Ravelli and the Professor recognize Chandler as a former fish peddler. Chandler denies it, but Ravelli and the Professor find a tell-tale birthmark. Ravelli blackmails Chandler to keep his true identity from the high society crowd he’s been trying to fit in with. Chandler escapes but not before Ravelli manages to steal Chandler’s tie and the Professor his birthmark.

The Professor and Ravelli recognize Roscoe Chandler (Louis Sorin) as a former fish peddler.

During a thunderstorm, the musicians steal the original and replace it with John Parker’s copy. Later, Hives, working on Mrs. Whitehead’s behalf, replaces that one with Grace’s copy. The rouse is discovered as soon as the painting is unveiled following Spaulding’s lecture and Ravelli’s piano interlude with an assist from the Professor on the horse shoes.

Ravelli and The Professor get involved in switching paintings.

Chandler is naturally appalled to find that his painting has been replaced with a rank imitation. But when the lights go out, even the rank imitation goes missing. Mrs. Whitehead and daughter are very pleased that they have disrupted Mrs. Rittenhouse’s party, but Hives is nervous that the police will be called, as it turns out he has a record. Mrs. Whitehead offers to take the painting, but when Hives goes to retrieve it, he finds that it is gone as well. Mrs, Whitehead is convinced that the Professor is the thief. Hives suggests they use chloroform to subdue the Professor and the three set out to find him.

John and Arabella have their own post-heist conversation. Arabella is glad that John’s painting was taken rather than the real one. John is at first upset, but they quickly make up and break into song, “Why Am I So Romantic?” which Harpo continues on the harp.

The next morning, Arabella tells Ravelli that he needs to put the painting back before the police arrive. But when he goes to get it from the chest of drawers he put it in, they find that it is also missing. Ravelli suspects that Chandler has taken it and they go looking for him.

When Captain Spaulding finds out the police are here, he has Jamison take a letter to be sent to his lawyer, Charles H. Hungadunger at Hungadunger, Hungadunger, Hungadunger, Hungadunger and McCormick. Typically it is a rambling nonsense letter, which Jamison edits down.

Jamison (Zeppo Marx) takes a letter to Hungadunger, Hungadunger, Hungadunger, Hugnadunger and McCormick.

The police arrive in the form of Inspector Hennessey (Edward Metcalf). At Mrs. Rittenhouse’s request, Jamison takes the police to the scene of the crime. Mrs. Rittenhouse tries to appease Captain Spaulding for having disrupted his weekend, but he won’t hear any of it and storms off.

After a brief conversation with Mrs. Rittenhouse, Mrs. Whitehead talks with Hives, who has not been able to get back the painting because the Professor never slept in his room. But they immediately spy the Professor sleeping on a bench, using the painting as a blanket and one of the copies as a pillow. When Hives and Mrs. Whitehead knock him out and search him, they take one of the copies. But the Professor, a notorious skirt chaser, is only out until an unidentified party guest walks by. He chases her until she locks herself in a room. Planning on waiting her out, the Professor overhears John and Arabella talking about the painting. John tells her that he just found a copy of the painting out on the terrace. He doesn’t know it, but he’s found Grace’s copy. But the Professor beats John to his room and takes the copy back.

While Arabella is relating John’s story to Spaulding, John tells her that the painting he’d found is now missing. A red hair Spaulding finds points to the Professor and Spaulding tells Hennessy to find the Professor. But the parade of police includes a uniformed Professor who drops the purloined painting as he passes. Ravelli happens by and he offers to help Spaulding to solve the mystery, before sending John to take the copy back to his room.

And the police find the forgery in John’s room which disappoints Chandler. While the police go to find John, the Professor finds the chloroform and puts it in a sprayer, which will come up later.

In the film’s finale, with all the partygoers gathered, the police are about to arrest John, when everyone, including the Professor, confess to their involvement with the stolen painting. The Professor has both John’s forgery and the real painting on him. Never mind where he gets them. Chandler is over joyed to get back his painting, but also to discover John’s talent and hires him on the spot to paint his portrait.

Chandler gets back his painting and discovers John Parker's (Hal Thompson) artistic talent.

As Spaulding is convincing Hennessy not to arrest the Professor, Mrs. Rittenhouse’s silverware starts to fall out of the Professor’s sleeve. A few pieces at first, then a shower of knives, spoons and forks and then finally serving pieces fall from his coat. Hennessy is now convinced he has to arrest the Professor, but before he can take him in, the Professor takes out his sprayer of chloroform and knocks everyone out, including himself, but making sure he lands in the arms of a beautiful houseguest.

While Animal Crackers has the witty and fast paced dialogue you’d expect from a Marx Brother’s movie, it seems more like a stage production. The plot, with its three paintings, is a little convoluted and sort of slows down the normally frenetic action of the Brothers.

There are several memorable songs and scenes in the film. We actually get to see Zeppo play more than his usual straight man as he holds his own with Groucho in the Hungadunger letter writing scene. Two songs from the film “Hooray for Captain Spaulding” and “I Must Be Going” are classics. While “Hooray” came from the stage musical, “I Must Be Going” was written for the film. Both are written by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby, a songwriting team responsible for songs in Horse Feathers and Duck Soup. In addition to their work with the Marx Brothers, Kalmar and Ruby wrote such early hits as “Who’s Sorry Now?” (1923), “I Wanna Be Loved by You” (1928) and “Three Little Words” (1930).

Besides the Marx Brothers, Louis Sorin (Roscoe W. Chandler), Robert Greig (Hives) and Margaret Dumont (Mrs. Rittenhouse) reprised their roles from the Broadway stage in the film.  Animal Crackers was Greig’s first appearance on film and he would later appear with the Brothers in Horse Feathers (1932). Greig would also appear in a trio of Preston Sturges films: The Lady Eve (1941), Sullivan’s Travels (1941), The Palm Beach Story (1942); as well as The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945).

Margaret Dumont was a staple in Marx Brothers productions on both stage and screen. She had already been an actress in Vaudeville and on Broadway when writer George S. Kaufman hired her to appear as Mrs. Potter in the stage production of The Cocoanuts in 1925. She would also appear in the movie version in 1929. She also appeared in Duck Soup (1933), A Night at the Opera (1935), A Day at the Races (1937), At the Circus (1939) and The Big Store (1941). She played Groucho’s wealthy and regal sponsor and/or love interest in most of these films. Watching her on screen, she appears that she doesn’t know what’s about to happen, but of all people she must have been used to Groucho’s improvisations and being the butt of his jokes and on-screen insults. So important was she to the Marx Brothers, that when Groucho was presented an honorary Oscar, he mentioned her and not Zeppo in his acceptance speech.

Margaret Dumont (r) was a staple in Marx Brothers stage plays and movies.

Dumont would also play a similar character with other comedians, such as W.C. Fields, Abbott and Costello, Laurel and Hardy, Red Skelton and Jack Benny. Her final screen appearance was as Shirley MacLaine’s mother in What a Way to Go! (1964), but she is best remembered for her work with the Marx Brothers. Her final appearance on TV was taped just eight days before her death in 1965. She appeared and performed an adaptation of the opening sequence from Animal Crackers on The Hollywood Palace opposite Groucho, who was the guest host for that week’s show. She died of a heart attack in March, 1965.

Everything we come to love about a Marx Brothers film is here. Groucho’s quick witted double entendre laced dialogue, Harpo’s silent but sound and prop enhanced humor and Chico’s scheming confidence man routine are all on full display here. So is the musical talents of Chico on piano and Harpo on, well, harp.

While there is much to love about the film, at over 90 minutes, it seems a little long. And it drags whenever the Brothers aren’t on screen for more than a few minutes. While this is not my favorite Marx Brothers movie, it is definitely worth watching a time or two or three.

The Marx Brothers always try to entertain.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Child of Eden

Child of Eden is one of those games where I had the desire to play it based on its positive reception, but in this case what I saw of the visuals also made me curious to try it out. However, it wasn’t until after I got the game (as a Christmas gift) that I saw, on the back of the box, that it was a creation of Japanese game designer Tetsuya Mizuguchi, whose best known games are Rez and the Lumines series of puzzle games. Since I enjoy the Lumines series, I figured I would likely have some fun playing Child of Eden. Sure enough, I was right.

On September 11, 2019, the first human to ever be born in space is a girl named Lumi. During her life, she had always wanted to see the Earth, which she expressed in music she sent down to the planet, so when she died, her memories were archived and her body preserved. As humans make advancements in technology in the passing years, a space-wide internet is developed called Eden, which acts as an archive of all records of humanity. Later in the 23rd century, Project Lumi is put into motion, where Lumi’s data is used to create another version of her within Eden, but unfortunately Eden falls prey to a virus attack. It is then your duty to purify the virus and help restore Lumi and Eden to get Project Lumi up and running again.

I have seen praise for Child of Eden in which the game works well with the Xbox 360’s Kinect peripheral, to the point where using the sensor is actually seen as an advantage rather than a nuisance. Since I don’t own a Kinect or the 360 version of the game, but I do own the PS3 version and a PlayStation Move peripheral, my thoughts on Child of Eden are based on playing that. With that in mind, the controls work really well. There is the option of using a regular controller, but I found myself eventually using motion controls exclusively, since they worked better for the game and increased the immersion the game was going for in the first place. The game generally plays out like a music-based rail shooter, wherein you must aim at targets on the screen and purify them with a beam. You can move the reticle over multiple targets to use the beam on all of them at once, or you can use a tracer to fire at them one at a time; the tracer is weaker than the main beam, but using the tracer is the only way to purify smaller objects colored purple. Though this can be done with a normal controller, I found it much faster to pull off with the Move, since, once calibrated properly, I found myself able to aim at targets faster and the beam was a more passive ability, even though my arm begins to hurt after a while whereas on a Dualshock the beam had be used by holding down a button and using the analog stick felt a little slower (so in a sense it’s kind of a trade-off). If you don’t have a Move, though, a regular controller should still work just as well to get through the game.

Getting through each Archive may not be easy, however, since the game follows a health system with a Life Gauge split up into five sections. When you start each attempt, three of these slots are filled up and you can fill them back up again, though each Life refill you catch only fills up half a section. Fortunately, though there are only so many, it is possible to reach the end boss of an Archive with just enough health if your reflexes have been honed enough. You can also get some assistance purifying viruses by using Euphoria, which you get one shot of at the start of an attempt. However, these are more limited than the Life pick-ups, so it is advised that you use them wisely. You also get stars based on how much of the Archive you were able to purify, and a certain number of stars are needed to unlock further Archives, so replaying Archives to get more stars becomes a necessity to gather the required stars (fortunately they stack, no matter how many attempts you make or whether you switch between control styles).

A sample of gameplay.
The visuals of Child of Eden are just stunning. Even while you are trying to purify Eden, you can still look around, and the levels, or Archives, are truly a sight to behold. Each Archive is themed a certain way, one of which is based around human achievements in technology, each of them providing a unique experience that you may end up revisiting again out of your own volition. This game has perhaps some of the most amazing visuals I have seen in any music-based game, and there’s actually a mode you can unlock after completing the game where you can go through each Archive without having to worry about any enemies. The music itself, which comes from Mizuguchi’s own virtual band Genki Rockets (of which Lumi is one of the virtual members, played by Rachel Rhodes from the band in the game in live-action), is also very good, and actually somewhat memorable on top of that. Each song fits their respective Archives rather well and when you purify a virus it creates more music that adds further to the music; in a rather nice touch, which took me a while to notice, the controller actually vibrates in time with the beat of the song being played, which adds to the overall immersion even more with how subtle it is. While I haven’t heard any of Genki Rockets’ music before (they have two albums at the time of this writing), hearing the band’s songs in Child of Eden has made me curious as to what more of their songs are like.

The game also has its fair share of unlockable content, and it’s worth the effort. Depending on your performance through an Archive, you can unlock concept art related to the game, which you can view upon completing the campaign. I always find it interesting to look at concept art related to a product, be it a movie, game, or toyline, and the art viewable here does not disappoint; even the concept art is a visual splendor. You can also unlock previews of music videos for Genki Rockets songs, including “Heavenly Star” and “Breeze” from what I managed to unlock, as well as different visual/sound effects for the game and different difficulty settings (among them the aforementioned mode without enemies). Upon completing the final Archive, an additional Archive is unlocked as a Challenge Mode, in which you must try to survive waves of enemies for as long as possible (this, incidentally, can also give you extra stars). When you complete an Archive, you also get a choice of what to add to Lumi’s Garden (the main menu screen), regardless of your star rating. These options are different for each Archive, and when you successfully complete an Archive an additional time(s), you have the option to add something different or add an upgraded version of something you already chose.

Child of Eden is a game really worth playing that goes out of its way to make it an unforgettable experience that stands the test of time. The visuals are breathtaking, complimented by catchy music, and the motion controls work really well for it. Fans of Lumines and Rez will be able to enjoy this game, as will fans of music-based games and/or rail shooters. If you play the PS3 version and have a Move controller, I would suggest using that in place of a regular controller, and if you do I would also suggest taking a break every so often because, even with the game’s fairly short length, your arm will get tired after a while.