Monday, March 31, 2014


Noah (2014) Starring: Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Ray Winstone, Emma Watson, Logan Lerman, Anthony Hopkins Directed by Darren Aronofsky Screenplay by Darren Aronofsky, Ari Handel Producedby Scott Franklin, Darren Aronofsky, Mary Parent, Arnon Milchan Run time 139 minutes. US. Color. Biblical, Epic. Drama

Hollywood has had a love affair with the Bible and biblical fiction going almost as far back as film was first cranked through the camera. One of the earliest examples is a fifteen minute short based on  Lew Wallace's novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ from 1907. But sections of the Bible have been mined for feature films including The Ten Commandments, which was made into movies twice by Cecil B. DeMille in 1927 and again in 1956. Noah’s Ark has also been given the feature treatment three times: Noah’s Ark (1928) directed by Michael Curtiz; Noah’s Ark (1999) directed by John Irvin and Noah (2014) directed by Darren Aronofsky.

The story of Noah is not just a Christian story. Since it appears in the book of Genesis in the Old Testament, it is also part of Judaism and the story is also told in the Islamic Quran. The story itself does not take up much room in Genesis, being told in Chapters 6 through 9. In short, based on the wickedness of the world, God has decided to wipe the Earth clean and start again. He speaks to Noah, who builds an Ark to save the animals of the world, while it rains for 40 days and 40 nights. As the water recedes, the Ark crashes into Mount Ararat. Noah releases the animals and makes a covenant with God, who promises He would never flood the Earth again.

Watching the new film Noah, I was reminded of my experience watching the Lord of the Ring films in that situations and characters were introduced as if I was already familiar with everyone. I’m not a Bible scholar and I had never read Tolkien’s work. The character names are sometimes hard to catch and I spent a lot of time wondering if Noah’s middle son’s name Ham was spelled like the pork product, the actor from Mad Men or like the rock group (Spoiler alert, it’s the pork product).

Russell Crowe plays Noah.

While a self-proclaimed atheist like Aronofsky has as much right to make a Biblical film as anyone, the question might be why? His take doesn’t try to disprove the story or the existence of God, though He is only referred to over and over again as the Creator. What Aronofsky does do is embellish the story with characters and events that were not part of Genesis and he adds an even more surreal mythical paranormal element to it as well. I had to do some post viewing research to determine the elements he and Ari Handel had added to punch up God’s story. (I’ll leave it up to you decide if He needs a rewrite.)

The film is heavily laden with special effects, which sometimes look unreal. There were supposedly no animals used in the scenes involving the Ark (and this is not your daddy’s Ark either, in shape). The acting is pretty good, though I sometimes get lost when a character says one thing, but then does something completely different. I won’t go into who and what; don’t want to ruin the film for you.

No animals were harmed in the making of Noah, because no animals were used.

Russell Crowe, as usual, gives a very strong performance of a very troubled man. Again, there are elements of Noah’s personality and choices that he makes that I don’t believe are in the original story. They do however provide a depth to the character and give the actor more to do than just be righteous. Jennifer Connelly is also pretty good as Noah’s wife Naameh. Anthony Hopkins, last seen as Odin in Thor: The Dark World (2013), plays Methuselah, Noah’s grandfather. His part is serious, mystical and provides the only comedic relief in an otherwise very serious film. Emma Watson of Harry Potter fame plays Ila, Noah’s daughter-in-law and the wife of eldest son, Shem (Douglas Booth). Ila is one of the “new” characters added to fill out an otherwise thin story.

Naameh (Jennifer Connelly), Shem (Douglas Booth) and Ila (Emma Watson) in Noah.

The film has found its fair share of controversy. Any Biblical inspired film is likely to attract some unless it is a strict word for word adaptation of chapter and verse. I don’t know or really care about their beefs with the films, since many criticized it sight unseen. Perhaps it was an evolution spin put on the first Seven Days, as we see fish venture onto land and become mammals all during one of those days; a Clarence Darrow interpretation of Biblical verse.

I hate to say it, but I found the film rather slow paced and uninvolving. If you have a strong interest in seeing the film, for whatever reason, I would tell you to go ahead. But if you’re a little iffy, then I would recommend a pass.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Stubs - The Lion King

The Lion King (1994) Starring the voices of: Matthew Broderick, James Earl Jones, Jeremy Irons, Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Moira Kelly, Nathan Lane, Ernie Sabella, Rowan Atkinson, Robert Guillaume, Madge Sinclair, Whoopi Goldberg, Cheech Marin, Jim Cummings. Directed by Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff. Screenplay by Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts and Linda Woolverton Produced by Don Hahn Run time: 88 minutes. US. Color. Animated, Musical, Adventure

The period between 1989 and 1999 is known as the Disney Renaissance. Following the death of founder Walt Disney in 1966 and Roy O. Disney in 1971, The Walt Disney Studios continued to produce animated films, but they did not perform as well or were not as critically acclaimed as their predecessors. Adding to Disney’s woes was the departure of long-time animator Don Bluth, who left during the making of The Fox and The Hound (1981) to form his own rival animation studio, Don Bluth Productions. For a time films produced by Don Bluth actually outperformed those from Disney, including The Secret of NIMH (1982), An American Tail (1986) and The Land Before Time (1988).

Changes began in 1984, when Michael Eisner and Jeffery Katzenberg, both formerly from Paramount and Frank Wells, formerly of Warner Bros., arrived on the mouse lot. After the failure of The Black Cauldron (1985), Disney animation seemed in jeopardy. In 1988, Oliver & Company opened against The Land Before Time, which went on to be, for a time, the top-grossing animated film of all-time.

With the help of Steven Spielberg, who had produced An American Tail and The Land Before Time, Disney released Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), a hybrid live action-animated film. That film’s success sparked renewed interest. Films, like The Little Mermaid (1989), which had been in development since the 1930’s, were greenlit and the Renaissance was on.

Conceived on a European promotional trip for Oliver & Company, The Lion King’s setting of Africa was jumped on by Katzenberg (a setting he would revisit as head of DreamWorks Animation with Madagascar I, II and III). It was Katzenberg who also added the elements of coming of age and death to this family feature. While this was the first Disney animated feature to be based on an original idea, the filmmakers did admit the story was influenced by the Bible’s Joseph (The 11th son of Jacob who was sold into slavery by his jealous brothers, but rose to the second most powerful man in Egypt next to the Pharaoh) and Moses (a former Egyptian prince and warrior turned religious leader, bringing the Jews out of slavery and receiving the Ten Commandments from God); as well as William Shakespeare’s Hamlet (a tragedy wherein Prince Hamlet takes revenge on his uncle Claudius for murdering King Hamlet and taking the throne). Incidentally, the Bible and Shakespeare are two of Hollywood’s favorite source materials and just happen to be in the Public Domain.

In the Pride Lands of Africa, King Mufasa (James Earl Jones) and Queen Sarabi (Madge Sinclair) welcome the birth of their only child, a son named Simba (Jonathan Taylor Thomas). The whole jungle celebrates the arrival of their future sovereign, with one exception, the king’s younger brother Scar (Jeremy Irons). Having been displaced as next in line to the throne, Scar is jealous and resentful and does not attend the presentation at Pride Rock. And Mufasa is not pleased.

Rafiki holds up baby Simba for all of the kingdom to see.

Months go by and Simba grows into a curious cub. Mufasa starts training his son to rule in his place and takes him on a tour of the Pride Lands. He tries to teach his son that there are limits to the power of the king and that he has responsibilities to the other animals, even the ones they eat.

The future king in training. Father and son look out over the kingdom.

Scar takes advantage of Simba’s curiosity by enticing him to explore an elephant’s graveyard, which is just outside of the Pride Lands. Simba convinces his best friend, Nala, a female cub to go with him. But Queen Sarabi only gives her consent if Zazu (Rowan Atkinson), Mufasa’s hornbill (bird) majordomo, accompanies them. Knowing he would not approve, Simba and Nala manage to shake loose of Zazu and make it to the graveyard.

Simba and Nala under the watchful eye of Zazu.

But the Elephant’s graveyard is the domain of the Hyenas and three of them, Shenzi (Whoopi Goldberg), Banzai (Cheech Marin) and Ed (Jim Cummings), attack the defenseless cubs. But Zazu has alerted Mufasa of the cubs' peril and the king arrives in time to ward off the attack. After the rescue, Mufasa forgives his son’s actions.

The three Hyenas that attack Simba and Nala at the Elephant's Graveyard.

Later that night, the hyenas plot with Scar to kill Mufasa and Simba. The next day, Scar lures Simba to a gorge and has him wait while he gets Mufasa. On Scar's orders, the hyenas stampede a large herd of wildebeest that run into the gorge towards Simba. While he tries to outrun them, he is no match for their speed and takes refuge in a tree. Mufasa arrives and saves Simba, but can’t get out of the gorge. He manages to climb to the ledge where Scar is watching and asks for his brother’s help. Scar reaches down for the King’s paws all right, but only to disengage them from the cliff and he throws Mufasa back into the stampede where he is killed.

Simba narrowly escapes being trampled in the wildebeast stampede.

Simba finds Mufasa's body and Scar convinces the young cub that Mufasa's death is his fault. He advises him to run away forever, which Simba does. And no sooner is he on the run than Scar orders the hyenas to kill him. But the hyenas lose the cub in a thick briar of thorns. Figuring Simba is as good as dead, the three stop their pursuit.

Scar then announces to the pride that both Mufasa and Simba were killed in the stampede and steps forward as the new king. He allows the hyenas to live in the Pride Lands, calling for co-habitation of Lions and Hyenas. (I’m not aware lions and hyenas are mortal enemies, so I’m assuming it’s a cat and dog sort of situation).

Simba collapses from exhaustion on the desert floor and is about to be picked apart by buzzards, when Timon (Nathan Lane), a meerkat, and Pumbaa (Ernie Sabella), a warthog, chase the birds away. After some discussion about helping a predator, Timon and Pumbaa nurse the cub back to health. Simba joins in the pair’s carefree existence in the jungle under the motto "hakuna matata" ("no worries"). Since this is a musical there is a song of the same name sung.

Simba grows up sharing the carefree life of Timon and Pumbaa.

Years pass and Simba (now voiced by Matthew Broderick), now a young adult, rescues Timon and Pumbaa from a hungry lioness, who turns out to be Nala (now voiced by Moira Kelly). The two friends reconcile and fall in love. Nala encourages Simba to come back home, telling him about the state of the Pride Lands under Scar’s rule. Once a lush jungle, it is now a wasteland with not enough food and water. But Simba’s guilt over causing his father's death still runs deep. Simba refuses Nala’s pleas and storms off.

Now adults, Simba and Nala get reacquainted.

Wise mandrill Rafiki (Robert Guillaume), a former adviser to Mufasa’s, senses Simba’s presence once again and tracks him down. Rafiki spouts some nonsense, but tells Simba that Mufasa is still "alive" and takes him to see him. But the trail ends at a pond where Rafiki convinces the boy that Mufasa lives on in him. Then Simba is visited by the ghost of Mufasa who appears in the clouds in the sky. Mufasa tells Simba that he must take his rightful place as the true king of the Pride Lands. Convinced, Simba realizes he can no longer run from his past and goes back home with Nala, Timon, and Pumbaa in tow ready for a fight.

At the Pride Lands, Simba confronts Scar, who once again taunts about his "part" in Mufasa's death. But in the confrontation, Scar admits to Simba that he killed Mufasa. Enraged, Simba forces Scar to reveal the truth to the other lions. Timon, Pumbaa, Rafiki, Zazu, and the lionesses fend off the hyenas while Simba corners Scar at the top of Pride Rock.

Scar then begs Simba to show him mercy, saying he is family and places the blame on the hyenas for what he’s done. Simba who doesn’t believe Scar still spares his life, but commands him to forever leave the Pride Lands. Scar meekly walks past him, but then attacks his nephew. In the ensuing fight, Simba throws Scar off Pride Rock. Even though Scar survives the fall, he is attacked and killed by the hyenas, who have overheard his betrayal.

Scar in the final fight with Simba. More scary imagery for the kids.

With Simba now in charge over the kingdom, the rain falls again. Later we see that the Pride Lands have once again returned to their former glory. Simba looks down happily at his kingdom with Nala, Timon, and Pumbaa by his side as Rafiki presents a newborn cub to the inhabitants of the Pride Lands and the "circle of life" continues.

Seeing as this is a musical, the songs are very important. Having written the songs for Aladdin, lyricist Tim Rice was asked to write songs for The Lion King. When his Aladdin co-writer, Alan Menken, wasn’t available, Rice chose Elton John as his partner. Influenced by the Jungle Book (1967), John and Rice tried to write fun and catchy songs they thought would appeal to the children the film was aimed at, as well as the parents that brought them. Together they composed five songs that were used in the movie: “The Circle of Life”, “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King”, “Be Prepared”, “Hakuna Matata” and “Can You Feel the Love Tonight”, the last one sung by John over the closing credits. Morning Report”, a sixth song, was rescued for the subsequent stage musical.

While The Lion King was aimed at children, the movie covers some very dark subjects like death and murder. It’s hard to imagine a film featuring cold-blooded premeditated assassination would receive a G rating from the MPAA. No doubt there is a little magic pixie dust in play with that decision.

I always find it hard to critique acting from voice-talent, since they are reading lines with emotion, but not acting in the traditional sense. That said, Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella provide comedic relief. Lane would eventually be teamed with Broderick on Broadway, but not in the Disney musical based on the film, but rather in The Producers based on the first film from Mel Brooks and later in a revival of Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple.

Whoopi Goldberg, Cheech Marin and Jim Cummings make for a menacing trio of hyenas, while James Earl Jones delivers his lines as Mufasa with the authority we’ve learned to give his voice. (He was Darth Vader and the voice of CNN prior, not to mention an accomplished actor in his own right.)

While there is a lot to like about The Lion King, even with the dark interludes, my only real criticism is the film’s reliance on the sadly tried and true standards of belching and farting for kids films. The warthog could smell without having to be flatulent. Instead of trying to elevate the discourse, this cliché is aiming at the lowest common denominator and really doesn’t belong in a Disney film. I’m pretty sure Walt would not have approved of the idea.

Along with the accolades, the film did win Academy Awards for Best Score (Hans Zimmer) and Best Original Song (“Can You Feel the Love Tonight”), but there is also some controversy as well. Certain elements of the film were thought to resemble those used in a 1960’s Japanese Anime Kimba the White Lion. Despite similarities in composition and camera angles, Tezuka Productions settled out of court, rather than go to trial against the much larger Disney Corporation.

Some Christians were upset when they thought they saw the word SEX spelled out in dust flying in the sky. The animators claim the word is SFX, shorthand for special effects. I have to admit, I didn’t really notice the word either way.

What word do you see? Or did you even notice?

And the depiction of Hyenas was protested as well, with one researcher going so far as to sue Disney for defamation of character. Some people apparently have too much time on their hands.

Despite these protests, the film would go on to be a huge success for Disney, along with subsequent releases in IMAX in 2002 and 3D in 2011; the box office cume is a little below a billion dollars.

The film’s success led to a TV Series for Timon & Pumbaa, which ran in syndication for three years and 85 episodes, though neither Lane nor Sabella reprised their roles. There was also a made-for-video sequel The Lion King II: Simba's Pride in 1998; video games: The Lion King (1994), and Kingdom Hearts and Kingdom Hearts II, where Pride Lands is a playable world; and of course, the inevitable Broadway musical, which opened in 1997 and is still playing to this day.

As a parent, I wouldn’t show this film to small or sensitive children. This is a hard G and really should be spared until the child is old enough to handle some of the film’s darker subject lines. After that, I would say this is definitely a film worth watching, if not for the entire family.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Tomb Raider (2013) - A Survivor Is Born

While my experience with the Tomb Raider franchise before now has been absolutely none, that didn’t prevent me from being curious about the recent reboot by Crystal Dynamics (which is also apparently the second reboot in the franchise overall). Since this new game, Tomb Raider, was a reboot by nature, I figured that it would be a good place to jump on and see what it was like. I’ll clarify now that while I was interested in playing it, I didn’t get around to doing so until this past week because not only did I keep myself busy with other titles, I started having to do stuff for school (and my semester so far feels pretty light, so I’m accomplishing more than I thought I would). Once I finally got to play this reboot I thought that it was actually very good, though of course not without its own share of problems, but these are mostly in the narrative.

Lara Croft sets out on her first archeological expedition aboard a ship called The Endurance in search of the lost kingdom of Yamatai, home of an ancient Japanese queen, Himiko, who is said to control the weather itself. By Lara’s suggestion, The Endurance veers into the Dragon’s Triangle, located east of Japan, where a freak storm causes the ship to crash into an island and shipwreck. After regaining consciousness, Lara realizes that she is split off from the rest of her group and attempts to re-establish communication so she can meet up with the rest of the expedition. With no supplies or food, Lara must learn how to survive on the mysterious island and deal with a cult which also inhabits it.

Lara Croft as she appears in this game.

As an origin story, Tomb Raider seems to tick off a lot of plot points some observant players will have seen before, but in this case the game uses them to establish Lara as a three-dimensional character and give her good motivation to do what she does near the end of the game. Her back story is gradually revealed through throwaway dialogue or video recordings from The Endurance, which is a better and much more natural way of handling someone’s past. By the end of the game I was able to feel for Lara, although by then I was also able to predict much of the plot in advance and some of the excitement had worn away. While in the end it still made me want to play through further adventures with this incarnation of Lara, there are still a couple of things off about the story which I’d chalk up more to co-writer Rhianna Pratchett (responsible for the story of the Mirror’s Edge game and comic) being kind of bad at her job.

One of these issues is that while I was able to identify more with Lara by the end of the game, I can’t really say the same for her companions. Apart from some action in the game or small bits of background, like how one of them explicitly says they are from Glasgow, I couldn’t really tell you much about anyone apart from maybe their names. These aren’t exactly memorable characters by a long shot, so when something tragic, like death, strikes one of them, I had no feelings during what I think was supposed to be a very emotional point in the story. If we were able to get to know them more then maybe I’d think they were more necessary than they felt. As it stands, the character I really know the most about is Sam, who is kind of integral to the plot.

I kind of know who these guys are, but not who they are.

This leads into the other major issue I had with the story: sometimes Lara comes off as an idiot. It doesn’t happen very often, but there is more than one instance in the game where she suddenly forgets a key piece of information revealed to her at the very beginning of the game, or even before then. Sam informs Lara that she is a descendent of Himiko, which is why the trip is special to her in particular. However, when Lara is asked why the island’s Himiko-worshipping cult wants Sam, Lara says that she has absolutely no idea why. I’ll repeat: Lara is told that her best friend is a descendent of Himiko and doesn’t think that maybe it’s possible that a Himiko-worshipping cult would want this woman who explicitly says that she’s a descendent. This infuriated me to the point where I actually paused the game for a minute and yelled at the screen, specifically at Lara, before letting the story continue. Apart from these flaws, and some other ones people might find, the story was pretty good.

What I found most interesting about this game however is just how similar it felt to Uncharted. This isn’t a bad thing at all since I like Uncharted, but I couldn’t help but feel that Tomb Raider possibly made improvements to certain aspects of the formula. It doesn’t feel like playing as a modern Indiana Jones, but Lara shows more platforming ability through the use of a greater array of gear and weapons, including a bow and arrow that can also close gaps between areas or easily unlock new ones to explore for rewards. Instead of only two weapons, Lara holds four unique ones that can all be upgraded for better firepower and more tactical possibilities. The more open nature of the island certainly helped, as exploring outside of the confines of the plot will net you some collectibles, including relics like in Uncharted, and allow you to hunt animals native to each area. Another improvement is being able to Fast Travel between certain camps, which grant the ability to go back later and collect something you may have missed the first time around. Apart from that, the controls are very smooth and the difficulty is such that every single death felt like my fault for not approaching a situation carefully enough.

I also liked the general layout of the island itself. No two places feel identical and they are all very good to look at. Rather than focus its attention on massive set pieces, a lot of the awe comes from the great camera angles and perspective shots which show just how big something really is. It was very fun to explore for collectibles and finding Tombs excited me because whenever I entered one, I looked forward to the sorts of puzzles I’d have to solve for rewards that always felt worth it. There isn’t too much of an emphasis on puzzle solving on the island, but that’s all right because it felt like just the right amount, for now at least.

The graphics of Tomb Raider are very good, with a good amount of detail in the foliage and other elements, including fire that actually looks impressive. Whenever something happens to Lara, there’s an interesting attention to detail regarding how she looks afterwards; her clothes even take a subtle amount of damage over the course of the story like in the Batman: Arkham games, so I was able to be immersed in the environments. I like how Lara looks in general, as she seems more realistic in proportions than in the previous games, and I think her choice of attire is pretty practical for what she ends up going through. I suppose the other characters look all right as well, in a realistic kind of way, but, again, I don’t really remember too much about them due to having not even close to as much screen time as Lara. Voice acting also has a lot of range and emotion and the music is very well-written.

The island is a little visceral, but you get used to it.

All in all, Tomb Raider is a very good game. Though the story is predictable, it’s pretty well-written for the most part and the Uncharted-inspired gameplay only strengthens how fun it is to play. There is a good amount of replayability in trying to collect everything and exploring the island is very fun, with a great combat system to boot. Die-hard Tomb Raider fans may have some reservations about trying this game out, though I’d suggest they try it anyway to form an opinion. Newcomers should try this out too, especially since this is a pretty good substitute for the Uncharted series if they can’t possibly play it. Here’s hoping the inevitable sequel is even better.

Bionicle Heroes (PS2)

As I mentioned in my review of The LEGO Movie, LEGO was a big part of my life growing up. What I did not mention, however, was that, within that time, I was a big fan of LEGO’s Bionicle franchise, about a group of heroes called Toa who fight evil while wearing masks that grant the wearer superpowers, throughout most of its lifespan. My interest in Bionicle began when I first learned of its existence during a trip to LEGOLAND, which also happened to be when the franchise was just getting off the ground. Through getting the original toys and reading the DC comic book (which happened to be the first comic book I ever really got into) via LEGO Club Magazine subscriptions, I eventually amassed a large collection of toys and various media, which included the aforementioned comics, novels, mini-comics (through McDonald’s and Lunchables), a card game, board games, video games, trading cards (I ate a lot of Mighty Kids meals to get those), Happy Meal toys, DVD movies, clothes, Halloween costumes, and shoes (yes, shoes, with interchangeable masks; though sandals also existed, I never worn those). For a while, I was somewhat of an expert in Bionicle, even knowing bits of lore and the fictional Matoran written language by heart. I even ended up attending a few Bionicle meetings at the now-defunct Imaginarium, the first of which I coincidentally happened to be there for and the last of which happened to fall on my birthday (I attended anyway). However, as I grew older, my interest in the franchise began to wane over time, which happened to be during the final stretch of the series’ 9 ½-year lifespan, and one of the last pieces of merchandise I got before stopping completely was the fourth and final DVD feature, The Legend Reborn. Since then, my knowledge of the series lore faded over time, but I never forgot how much the Bionicle franchise meant to me growing up.

Around the release of The LEGO Movie, since I knew there was a tie-in game to said movie, I had the sudden urge to play a LEGO game, particularly one by Traveller’s Tales, who made the acclaimed LEGO Star Wars series of games and said movie tie-in. Of the games I had on hand, between Bionicle Heroes and LEGO Star Wars: The Complete Saga, I decided to go with the former, since I had played that one before and I wanted to give into said urge in a shorter time frame. As I played it, my Bionicle knowledge rather quickly came rushing back to me, even if it was just bits and pieces of the story here and there. While Bionicle Heroes does not adhere to said story at all, I still got a kick out of playing it, though admittedly it’s not without problems.

The story, as it goes, is that you take the role of the Toa Inika, having washed ashore on the island of Voya Nui, and must defeat the evil Piraka, who have taken control of the island. This is all there is to the story until you finish the game, and even then you must not only 100% the game, but also unlock every collectible (more on that later). While the main story itself is rather paper-thin, some semblance of a narrative plays out in cutscenes before and after levels, but overall it isn’t very gripping (though the cutscenes can be somewhat amusing at times, so it’s not a total loss).

The Toa Inika (from left): Hahli, Kongu (back), Nuparu, Matoro, Hewkii (back), Jaller.

In relation to the overall Bionicle franchise, however, I feel I should bring up how the story of this game does not really adhere very much to the larger mythos, although it does prominently feature the Piraka and Toa Inika, who were the main toys at the time of release. Still, while playing for the first time, I did notice that some characters that appear in the game, particularly as bosses and normal enemies, seemed rather out of place for what the game was trying to represent; for instance, two of the game’s bosses, Roodaka and Sidorak, were only present chronologically for when the Toa Metru/Hordika were previously prominent in the toyline, while regular enemies like the Bohrok hadn’t been seen on shelves since the very first set of Toa, retroactively called the Toa Mata, were the main focus (not to mention the Rahkshi, a group of bosses in the game, which were also from the same Bionicle era as the Bohrok). This is just a few things that don’t line up with the established fiction, not getting into the canon mask powers of the Toa Inika (which, to be honest, I had to look up for reference due to lack of memory). However, taken on its own, this unique interpretation of the series canon helps make it more of a stand-alone title, although I can definitely see how the departure from the fiction would upset a more die-hard Bionicle fan.

Gameplay is similar in many ways to LEGO Star Wars, one of them being that each playable character has a unique power. Hewkii, for instance, is able to make/activate constractions (sic) where applicable and Matoro is able to zoom in to attack from a distance or activate switches. The Toa Inika also gain more abilities when you fully upgrade them, such as Kongu being able to jump at designated areas and Jaller being able to burn down plants blocking your path. Once you defeat a Piraka boss, you also gain the ability to play as them during their respective levels and unlock special areas; defeating the final boss, Vezon, also allows you to play as him and interact with black LEGO pieces to make special constractions (sic), though being able to play as him overrides every playable Piraka (fortunately, he can also unlock Piraka-based areas, but it’s still somewhat of a letdown). You can also gather LEGO pieces in a level; getting enough of them puts you into Hero Mode, during which you are invincible until you create a gold constraction (sic). You can also use any LEGO pieces you have gathered to upgrade your Toa, as well as unlock special bonus areas and content, including stuff for the Piraka Playground area (which can lead to some rather humorous cutscenes).

Scattered throughout each level are Silver and Gold Canisters, some of which can only be accessed via Piraka powers or Toa upgrades; gathering all of the Silver Canisters unlocks an enemy that can be viewed in certain areas of the hub world and finding Gold Canisters in each level unlocks a Bionicle item that can be viewed in the Trophy Room, each of which has a small bio to go along with it that fills you in on the mythos of Bionicle (though basic knowledge of its lore allows you to spot a couple of errors, they are otherwise very accurate). There are also a number of in-game achievements you can acquire throughout the game, for which the ones tied to level completion have different completion levels depending on how much of the level you explored, which offers a little bit of replay value once you upgrade the Toa or defeat more Piraka.

The Piraka (from left): Avak, Zaktan, Hakann, Vezok, Thok, Reidak.

One major difference to the LEGO Star Wars formula though is that, rather than being a third-person platformer, Bionicle Heroes is more of an over-the-shoulder third-person shooter, which gives it a different feel than your average Traveller’s Tales LEGO game. While this is an interesting change of pace for the developer’s LEGO games, the level design is often very linear, forcing you more or less to go along a set path to the exit. Though it can take a little while, the game is also very easy to get through, in part due to the aforementioned Hero Mode, but also having to do with how easy it can be to restore health. Each playable character has a number of hearts that go down when attacked, though upgrades can add armor for increased resistance, and getting hearts from enemies restores part of your health (sometimes you can get a golden heart that restores all of your health). You can also gather Kanohi masks, which not only gives access to more Toa (which can be switched at will), but also restores all of your health. There is some difficulty added, however, in that losing a mask, which occurs when a Toa loses every heart, can be fatal since you can only gain certain masks at certain locations, and you can’t get most of them back during boss fights. However, this is somewhat counterbalanced by having particular masks available at sections where said masks are required to get through, which only moves the game back to being mostly easy.

Another thing about the gameplay that I find to be more of a complaint is this: the inability to scroll through menus in more than one direction when using certain inputs. When scrolling through Toa/Piraka during levels to play as, you have a choice of using the L1 and R1 buttons or using the Triangle button (I played the PS2 version), the latter of which you may end up using more since, when using the mentioned shoulder buttons, only R1 seems to actually work. Something similar occurs when using the D-Pad to scroll through other menus, in that only the Right and Down buttons seemed to ever work, prompting me to mainly use the Left Analog Stick as an alternate method to navigate those menus (much thumb pain was caused as a result, on top of said Stick being required to move around levels). I wasn’t sure if it was the controller at first, but I remember being able to play other games like the PS2 God of War entries without any problem, so I have to assume it came down to faulty programming.

The graphics are decent for a game released in 2006, being part of the gradual progression in graphical capabilities of Traveller’s Tales’ LEGO games over time. The character designs are actually fairly accurate representations of Bionicle toys released up to the Voya Nui saga, with some minor liberties taken such as giving applicable characters hands. Weapons that characters hold are also accurate representations of the toys’ weapons, though again with some minor liberties taken in their general appearances. The environments of each level are actually pretty nice to look at, distracting somewhat from the linear layouts of each area.

Hero Mode in action.

The music in the game is actually pretty good, with level sets standing out by featuring a different genre of music that fits the setting. The boss battle music is actually pretty epic, with normal encounters in a level changing the background music to indicate danger, and each bit of background music is able to loop without becoming distracting. However, all of that is usually overridden when you go into Hero Mode, which has its own (good) blanket theme, though if you’re in a tight spot it can actually be just what you want to hear in that moment. The Matoran Enclave (the hub world) and Piraka Playground each have their own themes that stand out as well, though, admittedly, one of my favorite bits of music from the game is what plays during the end-of-level screen (where everything you collect is counted up), since it’s actually pretty catchy.

As for voice acting, or lack thereof, characters for the most part, including Toa, speak primarily in grunts, with every Toa sharing one dialogue pool during cutscenes (including Hahli, a female Toa, who sounds masculine when you see the grunts applied to her). There only appears to be one character with actual spoken dialogue, namely a Matoran who speaks to you in the beginning and ending cutscenes (the latter of which you must get 100% completion and collect everything in every level to see), but I haven’t seen a proper voice acting credit for the Matoran in either the manual or the game itself. In any case, the performance was decent for what it was.

Bionicle Heroes is a rather interesting LEGO game. It takes the LEGO Star Wars formula and makes changes to suit the Bionicle theme, though the level design is rather linear and it’s not exactly an accurate representation of Bionicle lore. Still, the music is good and there’s some replay value present in the various collectibles. However, much like a trip to Universal Studios Hollywood, once you do everything you want to do, there isn’t really anything left to do. Fans of LEGO games even after LEGO Star Wars would get some enjoyment out of this game, and this game provides some differences to appeal to fans of Traveller’s Tales’ LEGO games that want something different. However, this is not exactly a game for the die-hard Bionicle fan, particularly since the game ignores the lore altogether while crafting a new stand-alone story from the mythos. In either case, playing this game may make the player want to, depending on the situation, seek out or revisit their Bionicle toys and fiction.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate

In an effort to continue interest, and profit, from the popular Batman: Arkham series of games, Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment released two games on the same day, October 25, 2013, which serve as prequels to the games developed by Rocksteady (Arkham Asylum and Arkham City). I’ve already reviewed one of them, Arkham Origins, but I have yet to discuss the other one, and the subject of this review, Arkham Origins Blackgate. Rather than have WB Montréal develop the game, this one is done by Armature Studio, whose only other work beforehand was the Vita version of Metal Gear Solid HD Collection (I have yet to play this version of that game, but I’d like to out of interest). Fittingly, I’m going to look at the Vita version of Arkham Origins Blackgate, which I think is all right, but could have used a lot of improvement.

Three months after the events of Arkham Origins, Batman spots Catwoman stealing from a high-tech building and chases, eventually capturing her and having her taken to Blackgate. Two weeks later, Batman is informed of an explosion at Blackgate and goes to investigate. When he arrives, he is told by Catwoman of multiple hostages being held captive underneath the prison in the Arkham Wing. In order to open the Arkham Wing, however, Batman will need to take out the leaders of three different factions running the prison: Joker, Penguin and Black Mask. With this knowledge, Batman enters the prison and begins his journey to rescue the hostages.

Also, more obscure guys like Bronze Tiger show up.

The story of Arkham Origins Blackgate is a little looser from the previous Arkham games. While there is a beginning, middle and end, the shape of the story itself is a little more dependent on what order you decide to tackle the bosses, with the ending and final mission being drastically different depending on who you take out last; In my playthrough for this review, I went in the order of Joker, Penguin, Black Mask. The script is pretty well written, and I was able to get into it, but it didn’t have the same impact on me as the other Arkham games. Despite this, the ability to replay the game in a different order to see different events is an intriguing idea and has almost roped me into playing the game again, although the gameplay didn’t grab me quite enough to get me to do that.

When it comes to the gameplay itself, one could think of Arkham Origins Blackgate as a light version of Arkham Origins, only set entirely in Blackgate Prison. The spaces are more enclosed than before, even in regards to Arkham City, and strips down the gameplay of the Arkham franchise to the Metroidvania aspect, meaning that the game isn’t a Metroid title but has the backtracking elements of Metroid, which is fitting considering that Armature Studio’s founders worked on Metroid Prime 3: Corruption. Batman also only uses four gadgets, the Line Launcher, Explosive Gel, Batarangs and Batclaw, and has him placed into a 2.5D brawler with mild predator elements. This isn’t that bad of an idea, since it works pretty well for a handheld, but combat is much easier compared to Arkham Origins, eventually making a lot of fights pretty trivial. That said, Blackgate is laid out pretty well as the emphasis on puzzle-solving works out well by forcing you to really think about your environment.

There are still a couple things that bugged me about the game though, one of which is how Detective Mode is implemented. In this game, you activate it by tapping the touch screen (and like in the other Arkham games, you’ll never want to turn it off), which allows you to see a lot of hidden objects or figure out where the bad guys are. However, before you’re able to interact with a lot of the environment, you have to hold down the touch screen and scan green objects, which will have the Batcomputer analyze them and turn them orange, usually allowing you to interact with all objects of that type in the area. It may not sound that bad at first, but consider that you must do this every single time you come across a new object or obstacle, which can prevent you from coming up with new solutions for enemy encounters on the fly or making any progress with the game. I’m not kidding; I actually thought I was doing something completely wrong at one point because I tried everything, only to feel stupid once I started scanning the area. Sometimes, you even have to do the scanning every single time you find an object of the same type, primarily surfaces which the explosive gel can bust through. The main reason this annoyed me is because in every other Arkham game the interaction points were all revealed instantly upon activating Detective Mode, so I thought that suddenly they had changed the rules on me.

Now imagine that before actually throwing the Batarang,
you had to first scan the chandeliers.

The other thing which didn’t seem quite right was the boss fights. It’s interesting to be able to fight Joker, Penguin and Black Mask, but their fights, as well as a couple other skirmishes, feel rigid in their design. Essentially, there is really only one way to take down each and every boss and deviating from that path in any way or trying to be creative in your approach will get you killed. Eventually, replaying these fights to figure out the solution becomes an exercise in tedium and I just wanted them to be over with so I could continue the story. This structure causes the final boss fight to be annoying as well and it’s easy to see how a lot of players would have an extremely difficult time against them. I also want to mention that at one point in the sewers, you suddenly fight Solomon Grundy. He just shows up right out of nowhere, has no relevance to the plot and is barely mentioned again afterwards, although he is required to defeat in order to continue and the environment still requires scanning some objects individually. After a while, I just sort of rolled with it and did my best to beat him before continuing on with my mission.

Graphically, the game understandably doesn’t look as good as Arkham Origins, with decent models for a handheld game. However, this didn’t stop me from doing a double-take with Joker during his fight or questioning aloud why Batman never moves his mouth when he talks (possibly due to the alternate costumes you can unlock). The comic book style cutscenes look pretty good though, capturing the feel of the characters and events pretty well, although I think word balloons instead of captions would have made the feeling more complete. Due to how much is shown in these scenes though, I suppose that what they did was for the best. On a different note, the music is mostly borrowed from Arkham Origins and the voice acting, featuring the same people from Arkham Origins, is still of great quality.

Joker certainly looks better here than in the actual game.

Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate is a good Batman game, but not quite as enjoyable as the other Batman: Arkham titles. Its story and gameplay do allow for a good amount of replay value, but combat and Detective Mode aren’t as fun and the levels, despite taking great advantage of the 2.5D style, have a little more tedium involved in their exploration. Still, if one is looking for a decent Metroidvania brawler to fill a gap between games, as I did while waiting for Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes, and they like Batman, this would be that game.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Stubs - Annie Hall

Annie Hall  (1977) Starring: Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, Tony Roberts, Carol Kane, Paul Simon, Janet Margolin, Shelley Duvall, Christopher Walken, Collen Dewhurst. Directed by Woody Allen. Screenplay by Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman. Produced by Charles H. Joffe. Run Time: 93 minutes. U.S.  Color. Romantic Comedy

In a career filled with peaks and valleys, Annie Hall represents a very high point in the career of Woody Allen. One, some would say, that he has never really topped. While he has expressed disappointment in the final film, it represents an arrival of sorts. After an early career of  “funny ones”, Allen finally made an adult film, rather than an adult comedy. Always the darling of critics, Annie Hall represents Woody Allen being considered a serious filmmaker for the first time in his career. The winner of Best Picture for 1977, he has done good work since, but not necessarily better.

Great films take the viewer places they don’t expect while not disappointing them about the destination when they get there. Annie Hall is a stream of consciousness, taking us back and forth in time and from one side of the country to the other. We travel with Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) back and forth to various points in the character’s life searching for clues as to what led to his break up with Annie Hall (Diane Keaton). And we travel from New York to Los Angeles and back.

The film opens with Allen breaking of the fourth wall. While Annie Hall doesn’t invent this, seeing Alvy Singer talk directly to the audience about trying to understand what had happened to his relationship with Annie makes an immediate link with the viewer. It’s sort of like he is talking to you like you’re a friend.

Woody Allen as Alvy Singer directly addresses the audience at the beginning of Annie Hall.

Flashback to Alvy’s childhood where his concern about an ever-expanding universe makes him complain that there is no point to homework. Alvy then discusses his sexual curiosity as a child and we’re treated to a visit back to his old school. As neurotic as Alvy may be, he has fared as well as any of his classmates, one of which is into leather and another who has gone from being a heroin addict to a methadone addict.

Alvy Singer interacts with students from his elementary school.

Flash forward to Alvy, now a popular stand up, appearing on the Dick Cavett Show, a popular talk show of the day. Alvy tells Dick, whose other guests include a Navy admiral, that he’s 4P, which means in the event of war, he’s a hostage. 

Next, Alvy’s mother, in the past, addresses her son in the present, saying he always mistrusted the world. As if to illustrate, we’re shown Alvy talking and walking with his friend Rob (Tony Roberts) about the anti-semitism he encounters every day. To illustrate, he recounts planning lunch with some executives from NBC, hearing them ask “Jew eat?” instead of “Did you eat?”

Alvy discusses perceived bigotry with his best friend, Rob (Tony Roberts).

Rob, calls Alvy “Max” and vice versa, suggests that they get out of New York and move to Los Angeles, where there is no prejudice. But Alvy doesn’t want to live in a city where the only cultural advantage is that you can make a right turn on a red light.

Alvy is waiting outside a theater for Annie when an obnoxious and unrelenting fan recognizes him. Annie finally pulls up, saving him from what he refers to as the cast of the Godfather. But because the movie playing at the theater has already started, Alvy begs off. He can’t go in after a movie has started. They end up in line to see The Sorrow and the Pity.

Alvy is approached by fans who won't leave him alone.

They’re arguing, which we learn is nothing new. In line, some professor (Russell Horton) is talking loudly to his date about the indulgence of Fellini. Alvy has a hard time keeping quiet until the professor harps on the work of Marshall McLuhan, who at the time was viewed as the founder of media studies and is perhaps best known for the saying, “the medium is the message”. Tired of hearing this guy blather on, Alvy attempts to correct him and when that doesn’t work pulls the real Marshall McLuhan from the side to tell the professor that he’s full of it.

Alvy pulls Marshall McLuhan out of line to tell off a professor (Russell Horton).

Back home Annie and Alvy go to bed, but there is no interest in sex. Instead Annie starts talking about Alvy’s first wife, Allison Portchnik (Carol Kane) and their first encounter at a political fundraiser, where Alvy reduces her to a stereotype: “New York, Jewish, left-wing, liberal, intellectual”. Already married, Alvy and Allison stop having sex when Alvy can’t stop thinking about the Warren Commission report about the JFK Assassination, but Alvy realizes he’s doing that to avoid intimacy with Allison. Alvy realizes that he lost interest in Allison and couldn’t desire a woman who desires him in return.

Alvy's first encounter with Allison Portchnik (Carol Kane) who will become his first wife.

The film then moves to one of the film’s best-known scenes. Alvy and Annie are enjoying each other in the Hamptons while trying to cook lobsters, who are still very much alive. Alvy has trouble with putting them into the boiling water, even letting one of them crawl away behind the refrigerator. Alvy plans to scare it out with a bowl of clarified butter.

Annie (Diane Keaton) threatens Alvy with a live lobster.

We then go off to examine one of Annie’s previous romantic relationships. In what will become a trademark of the film, Alvy and Annie are shown talking about the action that is going on in front of them, as if they are physically present in the past themselves. We watch as Annie kisses her high school boyfriend in front of a movie theater and later, in college, has a relationship with an overly-dramatic Jerry.

This transitions to an examination of  Alvy’s second marriage to Robin (Janet Margolin). She is the sexual opposite of Allison. Intellectual to the point of being cold, Robin rebuffs Alvy’s clumsy attempt to initiate sex while they’re at a party. But she can’t with other intellectuals in the next room. Later, we see that she is unable to have sex if there is even the slightest distraction, like a car horn on the street. Robin tells him that her analyst thinks she should move to the country to resolve her sexual problems, but Alvy doesn’t want to leave the city.

Alvy would rather watch basketball than talk to second
wife Robin's (Janet Margolin) intellectual friends.

Later, Alvy meets Rob at a Manhattan athletic club to play tennis. Rob continues to call Alvy “Max”. They once again discuss Alvy’s anti-semitic paranoia and the stereotyping of New York. Rob uses the situation to reaffirm his belief that things would be different in California.

Then we’re witness to Alvy’s first meeting with Annie. They have just played doubles and Annie attempts to make small talk with Alvy, even offering him a ride home. Annie is anything but a good driver as she drives her convertible VW recklessly through the city. Finally parking so far away that as Alvy remarks “We can walk to the curb from here.”

The first time they meet, Annie invites Alvy up to her apartment.

Annie invites Alvy to her apartment. On the walls are Annie’s bleak black and white photo portraits of her family. She offers wine and they talk about books and family. On the balcony, Allen uses subtitles to show what the characters are really thinking as they make small talk. Alvy asks Annie out and accompanies her to a nightclub singing audition in front of a restless audience. Afterwards, on the way to dinner, Alvy kisses Annie so they can relax about it and get the awkward goodnight kiss over with and digest their food.

The small talk between Annie and Alvy is captioned with what each is actually thinking.

After they make love, Annie lights up a joint to relax. Next Alvy takes Annie to a bookstore to buy her two books about death, which is a very important topic to Alvy. We’re treated to vignettes from their nervous romance: their sitting in Central Park and commenting on the passersby and with Alvy telling Annie that he “lurves” and “loaves” her, in her response to telling Alvy she loves him.

Alvy introduces Annie to his obsession with death.

Most of the rest of the film settles in on examining the relationship between Alvy and Annie that we know is destined to fail. Annie moves in with Alvy, but he insists she keeps her own place as sort of a lifeboat from commitment. She also complains that Alvy doesn’t think she’s smart enough for him, always pushing her to take adult education classes, which he defends.

Later, when the couple is on vacation, Annie can’t and doesn’t want to have sex without pot. But Alvy insists, but Annie gets bored and has an out of body experience wanting to do something with her mind while Alvy has her body.

Flashback to the beginnings of Alvy’s career. He is being asked to write material for a comedian (Johnny Haymer) that he thinks is “pathetic”, so he decides to do stand up. We then see him on stage at the University of Wisconsin delivering a monologue about being thrown out of school for cheating on his metaphysics exam. “I looked into the soul of the boy sitting next to me.” Backstage, while Alvy is signing autographs, Annie tells him she is “starting to get more of the references” in his jokes.

As part of the trip to Wisconsin, Alvy and Annie go to visit her family. Annie’s family is so WASP (White Anglo Saxon Protestant) that Alvy is convinced Grammy Hall (Helen Ludlam) is a  “classic Jew hater.” Alvy imagines a conversation between his parents and Annie’s to illustrate the difference between their cultural upbringing. In another one of the film’s best sequences, Annie’s brother Duane (Christopher Walken) opens up to Alvy, confessing his desire to drive into the headlights of oncoming traffic right before he is to drive Alvy and Annie to the airport in stormy weather no less.

Christopher Walken plays Annie's brother Duane and makes the most of his small part.

Back to New York and Alvy runs into Annie on the street and she accuses him of spying on her and they argue. There is a flashback to a month earlier when while unloading groceries, Annie tells Alvy about a dream she discussed with her therapist. In it, she is suffocated by Frank Sinatra, which the therapist says is a stand-in for Alvy Singer and that he is fearful of commitment. The therapist wants her to come five times a week. Back to their street encounter, Alvy tells Annie that “Adult education is junk”

Alvy goes up to strangers on the street trying to find out their secrets to a successful relationship. Of course, they don’t have the answer, but that doesn’t stop Alvy from searching. He decides his current problems stem from his early life. The film has an animated sequence in which Annie has been transformed into the evil queen from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. A cartoon version of Rob enters and tells him that he’s found a new girl for Alvy.

Alvy stops a strange couple on the street to ask their advice
on a happy relationship. The woman is actress Shelly Hack.

Alvy goes out with Pam (Shelley Duvall) an odd, skinny reporter for Rolling Stone accompanying her to see a guru a la the Maharishi. Despite the awkwardness of their date, they still end up having sex, which Alvy doesn’t seem to enjoy. But he gets a call from Annie and goes over to her apartment to kill a spider. They reconcile and vows never to break up again.

Alvy endures an awkward date with Pam (Shelley Duvall).

By now Annie’s singing talents and fortunes have improved. She plays a successful engagement. We see her singing “Seems Like Old Times”. Afterwards, she is approached by Tony Lacey (Paul Simon), a successful musical performer who is there with his entourage. Lacey congratulates her on the show and asks if she records. Alvy, sensing competition begs off Lacey’s invite to go with them to Jack and Angelica’s (Jack Nicholson and Angelica Huston for those too young for the reference, were once a couple). Alvy says they have “that thing” and can’t go.

In another use of split screens, we see dueling therapy sessions and see how each couple differently views their relationship. Sex two or three times a week is viewed as “constantly” by Annie, but as “hardly ever” by Alvy.

Woody Allen once said and I’m sure I’m paraphrasing here, that when he got stuck on a script he would write something funny. The next vignette in Annie Hall is one of it’s best known. Alvy and Annie are at another couple’s apartment, talking about their impending trip to Los Angeles at Christmas for an Awards show when the other man brings out a box with cocaine in it. He asks Alvy if he would mind scoring some for him. But when Alvy sniffs a little bit, it makes him sneeze and sends the remaining coke flying.

On to L.A., where they are reunited with Rob and attend a party at Tony Lacey’s house. Alvy gets stage fright, for some reason, so he has to cancel out of the Awards show. But things get worse for the couple. On the flight back to New York, Annie and Alvy realize separately and then together, that they’re relationship no longer works and as Alvy describes it is a “dead shark”. They break up.

Tony Lacey (Paul Simon) shows Alvy and Annie around his Hollywood home.

Back in New York, they start to split up their possessions, including books, including Catcher in the Rye and the Death books Alvy bought her. And Annie sorts through his political buttons which run the gambit from Impeach Eisenhower to Impeach Lyndon Johnson and even impeach Ronald Reagen, who had only been governor of California by this time. Alvy and Annie agree that nothing lasts forever and they can just as easily get back together.

Moaning about missing Annie, Alvy comes across a bystander who tells him Annie’s in Hollywood living with Tony Lacey. Another stranger asks if he’s jealous. Alvy tries to move on with his life and tries to recreate the fun he had with Annie. But when he tries to cook Lobsters with another woman, she humorless about his clumsy attempts.

Alvy then flies to Los Angeles to try and win Annie back. They meet at a health food restaurant, where Aly orders sprouts and mashed yeast. When Annie shows up, Alvy tries to propose marriage, but Annie enjoys her life too much and accuses Alvy of being incapable of enjoying life. While Annie refuses to go back with Alvy, she does credit him for helping her find herself.

Alvy meets Annie at a health food restaurant on Sunset Blvd.,
but can't convince her to come back to New York with him.
But Alvy’s day doesn’t get better. When he tries to leave the parking lot, the rental is too big for him and he crashes into the other cars. When a policeman arrives, Alvy nervously tears up his driver’s license. He ends up in jail, where Rob bails him out.

Back in New York, Alvy watches two actors act out lines from a play he’d written, which mirrors his relationship with Annie. The big difference is that when the Alvy-character proposes the Annie-character come back to New York, she accepts.

Alvy writes a play wherein his character wins back the Annie character.

But the story isn’t over. Alvy, with Signourey Weaver on his arm, runs into Annie, who has moved back to New York and is dragging some guy to see The Sorrow and The Pity, which Alvy takes as a personal triumph. They meet again for coffee and talk and we’re treated to a montage of scenes from their relationship backed by Annie’s rendition of “Seems Like Old Times.”

Alvy with a date (Sigourney Weaver) run into Annie
dragging some guy to see The Sorrow and The Pity.

Alvy uses the old joke about the man whose brother is a chicken as a metaphor for relationships in general. When the doctor asks the brother why they waited so long to treat him, he replied: “we need the eggs.”

There are many elements that we see used over and over in Woody Allen films. In the beginning, he’s talking about Annie to us the viewer. But countless Woody Allen films seem to start with people gathered in a restaurant swapping stories about someone, which leads us to the main part of the film. Broadway Danny Rose (1984) and Whatever Works (2009) come to mind as examples. His affection for New York, which would blossom in Manhattan (1979) is on display here. He speaks about psychoanalysis in the film with a dual edge, Allen should know since he spent 37 years in psychoanalysis. The use of flashbacks to illustrate the present state of the character was used as far back as Take the Money and Run (1969), wherein we see Virgil Starkwell (Allen) playing cello in his high school marching band to illustrate Starkwell was always a bit out of step with everyone else.

As I believe I wrote in my review of Hannah and Her Sisters, there is always the Woody Allen character, the one that speaks for the writer/director. In this case, it’s Woody himself. And as always, the character Alvy Singer seems to be drawn from Allen’s own past, more so than maybe in any other film. He is a former writer (Allen worked on Sid Caesar’s Show of Shows); did standup (which Allen did before making movies). Even the relationship with Annie seems to mirror what we think was a personal relationship Allen once had with Keaton, though it was over with years before Annie Hall.

The writing is what makes this film so good. I once had a discussion with a professor at the New York University film school, during my admissions interview, in which he alleged that there was a lot of Marshall Brickman in Woody Allen’s best work. He was defending Simon (1980) a failed solo comedy effort from Brickman. When I had said Brickman could have used a little more Woody Allen in Simon, he countered that Allen used  Brickman. And then told me he had worked on Simon, which was a bit of a sucker punch.  I think time has proven me right, though. Marshall Brickman has not had the career or gained the respect that his writing partner has.  But I did not gain admittance to NYU’s film program, so I guess you could call it an intellectual push.

Music seems to play an important part in Woody Allen’s film of this time. Manhattan is pretty much a music video for the work music of George Gershwin. In Hannah and Her Sisters, Bobby Short’s rendition of Cole Porter’s I’m in Love Again is played off one of the sister’s love for punk rock. In Radio Days, the songs from the era fill the movie soundtrack. In Annie Hall, Seems Like Old Times a 1945 song written by Carmen Lombardo and John Jacob Loeb, is used throughout the film. Annie sings it in her nightclub act and it’s used effectively at the end to give them film a wistful quality.

This film was an eye-opening experience for Allen fans and for moviegoers in general. Nothing he had done up to then had prepared anyone for Annie Hall. While his films seemed to be getting more serious; compare What’s Up Tiger, Lilly? (1966) to say Love and Death (1975), there is a level of maturity that is miles above that in Annie Hall.

Woody Allen is an acquired taste for some. I feel bad that I sort of lost track of his career for a while, not seeing several of his films in theaters for various reasons. Over the years, Allen became a movie-making machine pretty much cranking out a movie every year. It’s quite a feat, but sometimes the films would seem like they were based on first drafts. He worked alone and sometimes his work suffered because of it. Maybe he needed someone like Marshall Brickman more than I admitted to that NYU professor.

Annie Hall shows what Woody Allen is capable of as a filmmaker and while some of his movies, like Hannah and Her Sisters, might be more inviting, they are really never better than this one. Everything came together for him on this film. If you’ve never seen it, you owe it to yourself to watch it at least once.