Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Trophy Unlocked Special Announcement

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Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Kingdom Hearts II - Sanctuary

Hot on the heels of my review of Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 Remix, I’ve recently replayed through Kingdom Hearts II, originally released in Japan in 2005, in anticipation of Kingdom Hearts HD 2.5 Remix (which will feature Kingdom Hearts II Final Mix). I had been playing Kingdom Hearts around the time that this game came out, so on my 14th birthday in 2006, the year it came out in the US, I obtained a copy and began playing it almost immediately. I remember playing it to completion in the days that followed and then, in at least the year 2009, replaying the game from the beginning because I liked it that much. Of course, being pretty young, I also used a cheat disc (that I still own, but didn’t use on my most recent run) to screw around with the game afterwards just to see what I could get away with. Since the 2013 announcement of the very long-awaited Kingdom Hearts III, I’ve been going back and replaying every game in the series as a build-up. It is now Kingdom Hearts II’s turn and for the purposes of this review, I played the game on Proud Mode for the very first time to make the unlocking of the end-credits teaser much easier (simply complete all worlds, including Atlantica and 100 Acre Wood). As my once favorite game in the series, I think that this game has aged surprisingly well, but while the game is a significant improvement on its predecessor, I am now more aware of its missteps.

The game begins with an extended prologue following a boy named Roxas within Twilight Town. His summer vacation is almost over and his friends Hayner, Pence and Olette have a general plan for what they want to do. However, those plans go awry as Roxas finds out for the first time about the Keyblade and his connection to it. He finds out that the cause of the recent string of strange events is a group of beings called the Nobodies, a revelation made more confusing by the continuing appearances of a man named Axel who claims to know him as a past friend. Eventually, Roxas finds out that his world is nothing but a virtual simulation and that the virtual town’s purpose was to fully revive the memories of Sora, who Roxas had recurring dreams about. After this occurs, Sora, Donald and Goofy reawaken from a year-long slumber resulting from the events of Chain of Memories and see that Jiminy’s Journal has only a single note reading “Thank NaminĂ©.” Sora’s party eventually arrives in the real Twilight Town, where Roxas lived previously. At the train station, after a surprise encounter with King Mickey, they make their way to the Mysterious Tower, home of Master Yen Sid. At the tower, the trio run into a new villain named Pete who serves under Maleficent. However, he leaves once he learns of her demise from the original Kingdom Hearts game. Afterwards, the three ascend the tower and speak with Yen Sid and Sora gains new clothes and powers to accomplish his new mission: to seek out many worlds and protect them from the Heartless and Nobody threats as well as bring an end to Organization XIII (introduced in Chain of Memories). As Sora, Donald and Goofy set out on their mission, they learn more about Organization XIII’s past and goals, as well as find out more about the identity and nature of Roxas.

The mysterious Roxas (only playable in the prologue).

I’ll admit right away that the plot is not Kingdom Hearts II’s strong suit. The discussions of the light and darkness in one’s heart return from the first game, but this time we also have discussions of how human a Nobody really is, someone who doesn’t have a heart or emotions and yet remembers feelings as though they are really happening, someone who isn’t supposed to exist and yet does. We are left to wonder by the end if Organization XIII’s leader, Xemnas, has a point and a worthy purpose, yet simply going about it the wrong way. Members of Organization XIII are consistently painted as the bad guys and yet they all have fully fleshed out personalities, with some even coming off as people who aren’t truly evil, just following orders. Like in Chain of Memories, it is possible to feel empathy for at least one of the members when they die, bringing a more human quality to them. In this sense, the plot can get interesting in places, but that is not why what we witness is consistently considered inferior, even from me, to the first game.

The problem that arises is not how the Disney films are integrated into each world, though there are a few issues with that including Atlantica basically redoing its plot from the first game, but rather how confusing the events that unfold become. The first Kingdom Hearts had a very self-contained story, making it possible for someone to actually follow along from beginning to end. In Chain of Memories, or rather Re:Chain of Memories in my case, it was also possible to follow along pretty well and the introduction of Organization XIII set up an interesting mystery that you want to see answered. However, Kingdom Hearts II is when things get weird, since it doesn’t really wrap things up so much as it answers some questions while asking quite a few more that would be answered in future installments. In essence, this game is the tipping point in the franchise that merely sets up the kudzu plot that the franchise is now very (in)famous for. When you do complete the game, you feel a sense of accomplishment for defeating Organization XIII, and yet you also feel like you need more information. The ending credits sequences totally tease this by creating a sequel hook that would later be fulfilled by coded/Re:coded and 3D: Dream Drop Distance. Pretending that those don’t exist at the moment however, I’d say that I’m satisfied, yet very confused but eagerly anticipating what is to come.

Who knew that one coat could cause so many headaches?

Gameplay remains largely the same from the original Kingdom Hearts, though there are a lot of tweaks made to the combat systems that give Kingdom Hearts II a more action-oriented feel without really sacrificing what was good about its predecessor. For one thing, physical attacks have a noticeably greater amount of speed and precision, showing that Sora has become stronger since his year-long coma. Added to that is the introduction of Reaction Commands to the series, where you press Triangle during certain situations to counter what an enemy Heartless or Nobody is doing and gain the upper hand; outside of combat, Reaction Commands are used for quick interactions with NPCs or Party members in certain areas. When used against bosses, Reaction Commands can trigger a cinematic that inflicts damage and looks really cool. It is also possible, in some situations, to use a Reaction Command to trigger a Limit with another party member, resulting in highly damaging combos usually capped off with a cinematic attack.

One major addition is Drive Forms, which allow Sora to use the new Drive Gauge to absorb one or more Party members to access an array of new abilities, the most notable being the ability to wield two Keyblades at once and use both of their abilities. As you level up each Drive Form, Sora can also have a Growth Ability equipped that grows stronger over time; these abilities include High Jump, Quick Run, Double Jump and Glide. Naturally, these new forms give you an edge in combat, though you must use Drive Orbs to extend the longevity of an active Form or replenish the Drive Gauge to be able to activate a given Form once more. You also need to be careful however, as overuse of the Drive Forms can randomly trigger Anti-Form, in which Sora looks like a Pureblood Heartless and has increased speed and strength, but at the cost of more useful abilities, such as healing. On a related note, there are fewer summons in this game, four compared to six in the original, and they too rely on the Drive Gauge rather than MP, making it easier to have a summon out and cast whatever magic you want.

You can't avoid Anti-Form forever!

On the subject of magic, MP works a bit differently this time around. Rather than having several segments determine how much you can cast, you instead have a blue bar that goes down with each use of magic (though each spell still costs a certain amount of MP to cast). With this system, it is actually possible to cast a spell that requires more mana than you actually have and still have it cast perfectly. Once the MP bar goes down to zero, it begins to recharge by turning purple and gradually going down, allowing you to once again use magic when the bar turns blue. It should be noted that no matter how big your MP bar is, the recharge bar will always be the same size, plus you can equip abilities that will make it easier to recharge MP. This system isn’t perfect, since it can be a pain to wait for the bar to fully recharge during a difficult fight, but I overall like it better since there’s more freedom with casting magic by way of not having to attack a lot to get your MP back.

In general, I’ve always preferred the combat of Kingdom Hearts II over the original game. The systems are a bit more streamlined to actionize the game, but I think that this streamlining is done in such a way that it doesn’t sacrifice what made the first game good. Yes, there are two menus that you can scroll through instead of one, adding a little complexity to the fights, but at the same time they are very easy to scroll through and lay out all of your options in front of you so you don’t have to go hunting for them. With the threat of the Nobodies and Organization XIII now more dangerous than ever, it only makes sense for Sora to have taken a level in badass in order to gain an edge. Plus, there is still a high degree of challenge present, especially on Proud Mode, where you take double the damage and only inflict half.

A screen showing a lot of the gameplay elements at once.

The biggest source of difficulty would be the boss fights and some of the mini-games. By no means are the bosses a walk in the park, but the two campaign bosses that stand out within the fandom are Demyx and Xaldin, and for good reason. Demyx (encountered in Hollow Bastion), described as “not a very good fighter”, uses a sitar and is capable of summoning water clones of himself (and just control water in general). Sure some of his attacks are pretty easy to dodge, but they hit really fast and he’s just really relentless to the point where the best strategy is to use Wisdom Form, which enhances magic, and spam Fire. You’ll really need this strategy however when dealing with the water clones, where you have to kill a certain number of them within a time limit or else you lose for no discernible reason. Now imagine that, but you hear him say “Dance, water, dance!” so much that just hearing it is enough to cause a lot of grief.

"Dance, water, dance!"

But then we have Xaldin (encountered in Beast’s Castle), wielder of six lances and the element of wind and capable of completely destroying you if you have no idea what you’re doing. It can take several tries to finally take him down due to his insane power, teleportation ability and impossibly long reach; this is not helped by the location of the fight: a very narrow bridge. To reliably damage him, you have to use a Reaction Command called Learn in order to replace your basic attack with Jump, which can be stacked up to nine times, so that you can spam that. Of course, he’s also capable of combining his spears through wind to form a dragon and then, just out of reach, unleash an unblockable whirlwind. Really, the only reason you’re able to keep going at all is because this is usually the first time that the player can have King Mickey bail them out (each time you trigger him it lowers the chance of him appearing; I ended up needing him twice during the same encounter just to stay alive). Now, on top of all that, Organization XIII fights have a very high chance of triggering Anti-Form, causing much aggravation, and an empty Drive Gauge, should this happen to you (and it will). Once you beat either of these bosses though, you really feel like a winner (an exhausted winner, but still).

This is when things really get hard.

There are two other bosses I’d like to address though, but more briefly. First, Sephiroth returns as a bonus boss in Hollow Bastion. He’s a little easier to handle compared to the first game due to being slower and telegraphing his moves more, but at the same time he’s more aggressive and can rip you a new one the very second the fight begins. In other words, he’s more dangerous than he looks and can even give the most experienced players a run for their money. Second, I’d like to mention Xemnas, the final boss of the game. I bring him up because we previously did a list of memorable fights on this blog and I wanted to confirm that he totally deserves the spot he has. He may seem easy to some (admittedly I knew exactly what to do because as I played, the memories of intentionally fighting him a lot from five years ago came flooding back), but throughout the multi-stage fight he can be a killing machine for those who are unprepared. Plus, the fight is really awesome and gives a true sense of accomplishment once you’ve taken him down.

This is how the fight starts.

Before I truly move on, I want to briefly bring up a couple of mini-games that always give people trouble, myself included. Trying to complete Jiminy’s Journal can be a real pain in itself, since some goals require you to have ungodly patience and skill, but the one goal that truly stands out is trying to complete Poster Duty within 30 seconds. To put this in perspective, I could never do it when I was younger and there wasn’t much help aside from the BradyGames Guide (which continues to serve me well by the way), but a quick video search as an adult helped me finally accomplish it; long story short, max out all of your Drive Forms and practice a route until you have it down. The other mini-game I want to bring up is the Underdrome, which is this game’s version of the Olympus Coliseum tournaments. More specifically, it is the Paradox Cups that are aggravating due to the constantly changing rules within them, especially in the Hades Paradox Cup. This particular tournament is a nightmare, since even being Level 99 isn’t enough to save you. Fortunately if you die you can get a new checkpoint every 10 waves (out of 50) so you can jump back in, but that isn’t much comfort when you suffer death after painful death against virtually every enemy type in the game, including bosses, as well as the Final Fantasy characters who always fight in teams.

Now we move onto the worlds themselves. Kingdom Hearts II brings back some of the worlds from the previous game while adding a few more to keep things interesting. Some of the worlds also have what I’d consider sub-worlds since you have to enter a specific area to access another world that you couldn’t otherwise get to. One of these sub-worlds is the Timeless River, which mimics the style of early B&W Disney shorts, and the other is Space Paranoids, also known as the Tron world. I found these to be pretty fun to go through overall thanks to the former having its own fun atmosphere and the latter being a more condensed, but also more exciting, version of Tron’s story. In general, I thought that the worlds were chosen pretty well, though the stories have varying degrees of success. I tried not to dwell on it too much however since I just focused on taking it all in and having a good time. Of course, that doesn’t stop certain worlds from having their own unique problems.

Also, Bruce Boxleitner giving a care.

Returning worlds retain the feel that they had previously, although there is a case that could be made against trying to shove them into every Kingdom Hearts game. Agrabah, the Aladdin world, keeps the same sort of minimalist format for the city portion, which, while having a better layout than before, feels old since the story is somewhat recycled from the first game. Apart from the unique Heartless bosses, the player still has to go through the same motions, though the only real excitement in the world comes from the redesigned Cave of Wonders, which challenges the player during exploration. Atlantica, another recycled world, is no fun at all, since they not only recycle the story entirely from the first game, but they also seem to have done it purely to make it more accurate to the film by giving Prince Eric a presence. The real waste however comes from how they make the swimming controls at least 100% better and yet the only real use it has is getting you to different rhythm-based mini-games. The songs are too easy, get grating really fast thanks to cringe worthy lyrics/performances and they are also required to complete if you want to get closer to having the best stuff in the game. I really wish that more thought had been put into this world, or at least have the swimming mechanics contribute to something more useful.

The only other world I have any major complaints about would be Port Royal, based on Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. When Sora, Donald and Goofy get involved in the events of the movie, they end up hardly contributing anything, opting to instead take a backseat to Will Turner and Captain Jack Sparrow; fine, they have to fend off Barbossa as a boss, but that’s pretty much it. Remember earlier when I said that combat in Kingdom Hearts II has a generally quick and exciting pace? Well, that all comes to a grinding halt in Port Royal thanks to the enemy pirates who have the medallion curse upon them. The game decided when you fight them to introduce a new infuriating mechanic where the pirates can only be damaged when they are out in the moonlight, being invincible otherwise. You do have to think about your environment more, but that also makes battles more frustrating and is the reason that I never visited the world after fully completing it and opening every chest. But the worst part about the world is how it creates a deep uncanny valley effect by putting Sora, Donald, Goofy and the Heartless against a more realistically rendered backdrop with realistically animated human beings. No matter how I look at it, one thing’s for sure: I’m not buying it. The only thing I’m fairly certain about is that Port Royal was included because the franchise was enjoying a long streak in popularity around that time.

I'm still not buying it.

One last thing to note is that the Gummi Ship levels are spectacularly improved. They are no longer annoying and tedious, but instead awesome and filled with replay value. It helps that you get automatic ship upgrades rather than having to take the time to construct something decent (though you can still do this if you wish).

With all of that said, the graphics are a real improvement over the original Kingdom Hearts. There are still some shortcuts taken here and there with facial animations, particularly on Sephiroth for some reason, though these seem to be fewer in number than before. There is more detail in the environments coupled with a sometimes bold decision to go trippy and abstract at times. I overall like Sora’s design in this game better, if only because it fits his older appearance really well, and I find the aesthetic of the Nobodies to be unique and interesting. On that note, I also noticed that the animations in this game are wilder than before, especially when it comes to the Nobodies, who can twist, turn and stretch in ways I haven’t really seen before or since. I’m sure the intention is to make them otherworldly in this regard, which they really succeed in doing.

Sora after getting new clothes from Master Yen Sid.
Notice the additional zippers and belts.

The score is also phenomenal, though I wouldn’t expect anything less from a Kingdom Hearts game. A variety of musical pieces help contribute appropriate emotions to each situation, plus some themes, like the Underdrome battle music, are extremely catchy and easy to remember even with extensive time away from the game. The heavy use of the piano for the more tense music is an interesting choice, since the dissonant tone helps establish a feeling of dread and, when combined with the quick tempos, communicate a sense of urgency that more scores need.

I’d also like to compliment the voice acting. Haley Joel Osment’s voice has clearly aged, though he still provides a great performance as Sora. Since there are too many characters to really discuss, I’ll just say that the Disney characters sound very close, if not exact, to the voice you’d associate with them. This extends to the Port Royal characters, whose sound-alikes are fairly convincing (I’m certain that the real actors would have asked for too much money). The Final Fantasy characters on the other hand are more of a mixed bag. Aerith’s VA in this game, Mena Suvari, has a very wooden delivery that makes her less interesting to listen to compared to Mandy Moore from before. Her voice actually sucks emotion out of a scene instead of contributing, so it’s really no surprise that this was her last time voicing the character; some have this same problem with Steve Burton as Cloud, though it’s really up to you to decide if this is due to his talent or Cloud’s characterization.

Then we have Sephiroth. I dedicated a paragraph to him in my last review and concluded that Lance Bass simply wasn’t the right choice for the character. Fortunately they didn’t bring him back for the sequel, instead recruiting the talented George Newbern, who some may recognize as the voice of Superman in the popular Justice League cartoon and beyond (his most recent appearance as the character being the Injustice: Gods Among Us fighting game). Newbern’s take on Sephiroth is much more imposing and captures the feel of the character much more accurately. It’s little wonder then that he’s pretty much become the go-to guy to voice him.

With George Newbern, Sephiroth sounds how he looks.

Overall, Kingdom Hearts II is a phenomenal game. The gameplay is improved upon in just about every way from its predecessor and introduces more action elements without truly compromising what made the first game so good. On the other hand, the story is much more convoluted and can at times be difficult to follow, leaving questions unanswered for prospective future installments to clear up. In any case, I’d highly recommend this game since it has just about everything you could ask for in an action-based RPG. Newcomers should definitely not begin with this game, as they will be impossibly confused as to what’s going on, so I’d suggest instead beginning with HD 1.5 Remix on PS3. In the end, I really enjoyed this game and seriously can’t wait to play Kingdom Hearts III (sort of teased during the normal ending sequence); I’ve waited eight years already, so what’s a couple more? Of course, the real treat for completing the game is unlocking the secret ending, which is an early teaser for Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep.

The Gathering

Next time Kingdom Hearts is reviewed on this blog, it will be an in-depth look at that very game.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Stubs - Humoresque

Humoresque (1946) Starring: Joan Crawford, John Garfield, Oscar Levant. Directed by Jean Negulesco. Screenplay by Clifford Odets, Zachary Gold. Based on a short story by Fannie Hurst. Produced by Jerry Wald. Run Time: 125 minutes. U.S.  Black and White. Drama, Romance, Woman’s Film

When you first hear the title Humoresque, do you think of George Gershwin? I know, I don’t either, but the film Humoresque apparently owes much to the Clifford Odets screenplay for the Gershwin musical biopic Rhapsody in Blue (1945). The screenplay, which was apparently a little heavy-handed with social commentary, wasn’t used for that film, but when time came to adapt Fannie Hurst’s short story, producer Jerry Wald used Odets’ themes of a slum boy musical genius being exploited by the wealthy. At the time, Humoresque was being made as a vehicle for John Garfield, who earlier in the year starred in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946).

Casting for an actress to play Helen Wright, the philanthropist who sponsors violinist Paul Boray (Garfield), Wald jumped at the chance to work with Crawford, who was already getting buzz for Mildred Pierce (1945). During the filming of Humoresque, Crawford received the Best Actress Oscar ®. To build on that, Wald had Crawford’s part expanded to the point, where she receives star billing over Garfield.

The film opens with renowned violinist, Boray, cancelling a concert performance at the last moment. Back at his apartment, Boray is confronted by his manager Frederic Bauer (Richard Gaines) who is angry about the cancellation. Boray confesses to his longtime friend, Sid Jeffers (Oscar Levant) that he always wanted to do the right thing and wishes he could get back to the kid he once was.

Paul Boray (John Garfield with pal Sid Jeffers (Oscar Levant) in Paul's apartment.

It is on his birthday that a young Paul (Robert “Bobby” Blake) is first introduced to the violin. At his mother Esther’s (Ruth Nelson) insistence, Paul’s father, Rudy (J. Carrol Naish), takes a few minutes from running the family grocery store to take Paul out to buy a present for his birthday. At a New York variety shop, run by proprietor Jeffers (Harlan Briggs), Rudy tries in vain to get his son interested in various toys, like a windmill or a baseball bat. Instead, Paul is enamored by a violin, which exceeds the price limit Papa has put on the gift, $1.50.

A young Paul Boray (Robert "Bobby" Blake) with his first violin.

Spurred on by the proprietor’s son, Sid, who offers piano lessons for 25 cents, “You’ll be my only student”, Paul tries out the violin. At $8, Papa Boray is put off by the price and worries that Paul will all too quickly tire of the instrument. Paul gets nothing, at least not initially. When they return to the grocery story, Mama speaks to Paul and is impressed enough by his interest in the instrument to go back to Jeffers to buy it.

Paul takes to the violin and continues to practice, even when the other kids want to play ball. He attends music school, despite the depression. When he hears his older brother, Phil (Tom D’Andrea), complain about Paul’s preferential treatment, that all he has to do is practice instead of work, and hears his father’s dismissing his chances of success, he resolves to stop being a dependent. With the help of his friend and pianist, Sid, he gets a job as a violinist for a radio orchestra, but gets fired when he openly complains about the station’s policy of cutting famous pieces to fit an allotted amount of time.

Paul develops into a virtuoso.

Paul tells Sid that he wants to go out on his own and be a concert violinist, but Sid warns him that there is already a lot of competition; That to get started will cost too much money, money being the one thing neither of them has. Sid encourages Paul to go to a party thrown by rich socialites and patrons of the arts, Helen Wright (Crawford) and her older, third husband, Victor (Paul Cavanaugh). Sid figures Paul might be able to find someone there to financially back him.

At the party, Paul meets Helen, whom is a self-centered adulterous caught in a loveless marriage to Victor. She is used to being the center of attention and there are several young men surrounding her at the party lighting her cigarettes and running errands for her. Victor admits to Paul that he’s weak and can’t stop her. Helen is surprised when Paul doesn’t treat her like the other men at the party. She is rude to him, but still intrigued by him and his talent. As a way of apologizing, she sends him a gold cigarette case the next day to the grocery. While Papa is impressed, Mama is suspicious.

Helen (Joan Crawford) about to meet Paul for the first time.

Helen provides Paul with connections, helping him get a manager, Bauer, and paying for his debut concert. Afterwards, Paul's family throws a small party in his honor, but he misses it to celebrate with the Wrights. Esther warns her son not to become involved with Helen and reminds him about Gina Romney (Joan Chandler), a fellow music student, who loves him. But Paul falls in love with Helen anyway. At first, she acts like she is not interested in him. At the Wright’s Long Island beach house, she initially rebuffs his advances, telling him she wishes to be left alone. But soon, she succumbs and admits she loves him, too.

Paul makes his feelings known, but at first Helen rebuffs his advances.

Back in New York, after a successful tour across America, Paul has lunch with Gina. Sid arrives with Helen, who is immediately jealous of Gina. Helen leaves in a hurry and Paul follows her, abandoning Gina, who cries to Sid. Helen is angry with Paul for neglecting her. He never called her, even when the tour was close to New York. Paul points out that she’s still married to Victor. But Helen still urges him to let her become more involved in his musical career.
While showing off his new apartment to his parents, Paul confesses his love for Helen to his mother. And later that night in the Wright's home, Victor asks Helen for a divorce. He is suspicious of her real intentions for Paul, but Helen admits to him that for first time in her life, despite her three marriages, she has known real love.

Victor (Paul Cavanaugh) can't help but see Helen is interested in more
than just Paul's musical ability. He will ask her for a divorce.

But when Helen attends Paul’s rehearsal, and sends a note that she has good news and wants to see him immediately, he continues to rehearse. Taking his dedication as a rejection, Helen heads to Teddy's Bar and becomes increasingly drunk. At one point she is unable to tolerate the house pianist/singer performing the Gershwin classic “Embraceable You.” Paul arrives to take her home, but this time, it is Helen who is cool; she repeatedly does not really hear his stated wish to marry her.

Paul arrives to take Helen home, but she's had a few.

Eventually Paul and Helen are on the same page and plan to marry. Helen visits his parents’ grocery store in an attempt to make peace with Esther. But Mama won’t have any of it. She reminds Helen of her three previous marriages and begs her to consider the effect of her drinking and need for attention might have on Paul’s career.
One night, when Paul is scheduled to appear on the radio, playing his own transcription of Wagners’ Leibestod, Helen doesn’t show. She is drunk out on Long Island and tells Paul to come get her the next morning and they’ll drive back into town together. But while he performs on the radio, Helen realizes that she will never mean as much to Paul as his music does and that, as Victor warned, her dissolute past can only taint his future. Her best solution is to walk into the ocean and commit suicide.

Helen commits suicide by walking into the ocean.

When Paul learns of the news he is devastated and cancels his concert appearances.  He is distraught, but tells Sid, who is still by his side, that he is not running away from his music.
Humoresque is what they used to call a woman’s film, or weepy. Like Film Noir, the Woman’s film is not really a true genre, but rather films that revolve around woman-centered narratives, female protagonists and designed to appeal to women. In short, films made for women by men. They were also called weepies because they usually had a sad or heartfelt ending. These types of movies were made from silent films all the way up to the early 1960’s, but they were most popular during the 1930’s and 1940’s. They still make films like this to be sure, but the term died out in the 60’s. They’re now called chick flicks.
While I’ve written before about the careers of Joan Crawford and John Garfield, I’d like to discuss the third banana this time out, Oscar Levant. Levant is a very interesting man and somewhat hard to peg. A pianist first, Levant came to Hollywood from New York in 1928, There he met and befriended George Gershwin. Like Gershwin, Levant wrote for the movies, composing about twenty scores in the years from 1929 to 1948.

Oscar Levant, playing himself in the Gershwin bio-pic A Rhapsody in Blue
(1945), was a pianist, composer, actor and talk show host.

Around 1932, Levant began to take composing music very seriously, and studied with Arnold Schoenberg, an Austrian composer and leader of the Second Viennese School of music. Levant also impressed Aaron Copland, often referred to as “The Dean of American Composers”. But Levant became best known to America as the quick-witted pianist on the popular radio quiz show “Information Please.” Mr. Levant, as he was called, handled the musical questions and impressed everyone with not only his deep knowledge, but also his humor. As fellow panelist John Kieran, an author and journalist, once quipped, Levant had a "positive genius for making offhand cutting remarks that couldn't have been sharper if he'd honed them a week in his mind. Oscar was always good for a bright response edged with acid."

Next stop for Levant was NBC radio’s Kraft Music Hall, which paired him with Al Jolson. The two apparently were great together and had a great rapport. They both would appear in Rhapsody in Blue (1945), the George Gershwin biopic as themselves. Jolson, who appeared in the first talkie, The Jazz Singer (1927), also recorded Gershwin’s first hit song, “Swanee”, in 1920.

Levant then appeared in more films, including Humoresque, The Barkleys of Broadway (1949) and An American in Paris (1951), Gene Kelly’s musical based on the music of the Gershwins.

In the late 1950’s, Levant would host The Oscar Levant show, originally on Los Angeles independent KCOP, but later syndicated. Levant would play piano, make jokes and interview celebrities. But his humor was sometimes off key and he got in trouble for jokes he made about first the sex life of Marilyn Monroe, which got the show suspended, and then finally Mae West, the latter led to cancellation. In later years, he was a frequent guest on Jack Paar’s Tonight Show, leading to Paar’s sign off “Good night Oscar Levant, wherever you are.” He withdrew in later life and died of a heart attack at the age of 65 in Beverly Hills in 1972.

Even though he has a small role in Humoresque, Levant makes a lasting impression. He often makes self-deprecating comments like, “Me? I have no character” or delivers some of the best known lines from the film, including quipping to Joan Crawford’s character, “Tell me, Mrs. Wright, does your husband interfere with your marriage?” and to Paul Boray “You have all the characteristics of a successful virtuoso. You're self-indulgent, self-dedicated and the hero of all your dreams.” While the words may come from Clifford Odets' screenplay, the deadpan delivery is all Oscar. His performance alone makes Humoresque worth watching.

While I am not the intended audience of the film, I do like it up to a point. I don’t really see the attraction between Paul and Helen and it’s not the age difference that bothers me. One of the problems I have with some Hollywood films is that the characters fall in love more because they have to for the sake of the plot rather than a compelling reason within the film.

I also have a problem with the ending. The suicide seems a little more desperate than the situation calls for. This harks back to the idea that people can’t change, so if you made mistakes in the past, you will make them again in the future. Suicide is a coward’s way out and though Helen is a flawed character, taking her own life seems to be more expedient than called for.

Overall, I liked Humoresque, though not near as much as other Crawford or Garfield films. If for no other reason it is worthwhile to watch if you've never seen Oscar Levant before. For me this is a case when the supporting actor sort of steals the show.

Humoresque is available as part of a collection at the WB Shop:

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Monday, April 21, 2014

Report From the Front: WonderCon 2014 Video Game Demos (Tetris_King)

Although I have attended San Diego Comic-Con for a number of years, this year I attended WonderCon 2014 in Anaheim for the first time, albeit for only one day (Saturday). As with Comic-Con, along with everything else I did on the show floor, I saw it as an opportunity to check out any video games I had an interest in to see if I would play them any further in the future. At the Namco Bandai booth, I had a blast with Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure: All-Star Battle, but later in the day I went back to try another game that caught my eye. While my time with All-Star Battle was covered in detail by my brother, I have decided to write about my first impression with playing the other game.

Preview Note: The following write-up represents only the opinions of the writer and is based on a work in progress. Should the final version be reviewed, these opinions may change to reflect the full game.

Ranko Tsukigime’s Longest Day (PlayStation 3)

What first drew me to this game was the title before seeing a snippet of gameplay, the latter of which is what brought me back eventually to the Namco Bandai booth. I’m going to come clean and say that my time with the game was continuing from someone else’s session and, after some brief time with it, I let someone else play in order to keep the (small) line moving. Regardless, the experience led to me wanting to check out the full game.

The player character, Ranko Tsukigime.

I didn’t play enough of Ranko Tsukigime’s Longest Day to get any context as to the actions on-screen, but the game itself is a side-scrolling platformer wherein you must outrun an advancing wall of doom while also taking care of any enemies in the way. Using this premise for the gameplay, it manages to make it so that the action keeps going and is actually pretty fast-paced as far as combat is concerned. Enemies don’t take much to be beaten, but this is a necessity as you must outrun the advancing wall, and running into them without attacking can result in nearly being swallowed by the wall; this also applies to the platforming, as you may occasionally have to do some wall jumping to make any progress. While I have no clue what the story is all about, the gameplay itself intrigued me and made me want to play the full game.

Later, before I typed this, I found out that Ranko Tsukigime’s Longest Day is also a tie-in to a series of short anime films entitled Short Peace. In spite of my inexperience with this series, this does not deter me from wanting to play the full game anyway. What enhances this desire, however, is also having found out that Suda51, of No More Heroes and Lollipop Chainsaw fame, was involved with this game’s development; having liked Lollipop Chainsaw, I now have further incentive to play this game when it comes out.

Report from the Front: WonderCon 2014 Video Game Demos (EHeroFlareNeos)

This year, in addition to the upcoming San Diego Comic-Con 2014, we at Trophy Unlocked decided to also attend WonderCon 2014 in Anaheim for one day (Saturday). Though I felt tired by the end of the day, the exhaustion was nowhere near the levels it had reached previously with Comic-Con and we were able to do just about everything we wanted, although we abandoned all hope of getting to do anything related to Adventure Time (I love the show and all, but the show is impossibly popular and the line for the panel not only went outside, but filled up an entire panel room). During my time on the show floor, when I wasn’t trying to get comics signed or exploring all of the booths, I managed to preview an upcoming game at the Namco Bandai booth, where there were pretty short lines compared to the packed Nintendo booth. Though I only previewed one game, since it was a title I was actually interested in playing, I feel like sharing my first impressions of it since I did the same with the demos I played last year at SDCC 2013.

Preview Note: The following write-up represents only the opinions of the writer and is based on a work in progress. Should the final version be reviewed, these opinions may change to reflect the full game.

JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure: All-Star Battle (PlayStation 3)

I won’t pretend to know anything about JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, but after spending some time looking it up, I became interested in eventually reading the manga, more specifically Part 3: Stardust Crusaders (the only one actually released in English), or watching the new anime if it ever gets an English dub. When I heard about the upcoming North American release of JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure: All-Star Battle, I felt like playing it despite my lack of real experience with the series. Nevertheless, when I saw the game at WonderCon, I felt compelled to try it out. After playing for a few minutes with my brother, we only felt bad when our session had to end so we could keep going around the floor.

Jotaro Kujo (right) with his Stand, Star Platinum (left).

There is only one word that could describe this game: AWESOME! Even when knowing nothing about the series the game is based on, we got really into it. We played three rounds against each other, one where I played as Jotaro Kujo (from Stardust Crusaders) and my brother played as Noriaki Kakyoin (also from Stardust Crusaders), followed by two rounds where we both played as Jotaro Kujo in an attempt to shove some extra awesome into our play session. Admittedly, neither of us really knew what we were doing, but despite that, we knew that whatever we were doing was AWESOME!

Screenshot (digital photo) of our first match.

Within our play session, we got a feel for the combat, which is very smooth and responsive and takes full advantage of the series’ signature Stands, abilities which the characters of JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure (beginning with Stardust Crusaders) harness in combat to gain the upper hand. The visuals are very colorful with a somewhat dark color palette, achieving a very distinct style that really helps it stand out from all of the other fighting games I’ve played. One feature we really liked was that while the game is on a three-dimensional plane, the camera angles can be very dynamic, resembling how an anime fight scene would be framed. It is all of these elements combined with the insanely over-the-top combos, which felt easy to pull off, that kept us playing for as long as we did.

Noriaki Kakyoin (left) with his Stand, Hierophant Green (right).

In the end, we’ve decided that we really want to play more of the full version of this game when it gets released. Apart from Mortal Kombat (2011), this is a fighting game that my brother and I are both really anxious to play more of. Once we do get the full version, we’ll see just how well CyberConnect2, the studio behind Asura’s Wrath, really did in crafting what is so far a very engaging experience. In the meantime, if you own a PS3, I would highly recommend checking out the demo to see if you get drawn in the same way we were.

Report From the Front: WonderCon 2014

In last July’s Report From the Front, we talked about what it is like to spend four days plus preview night at San Diego Comic-Con. We've gone seven out of the last eight years. As discussed in that report, there is a lot to see and do and as a consequence you can be left feeling exhausted, broke and unfulfilled at the end, while still looking forward to the next year’s Con.

This year, we decided to attend Comic-Con’s cousin: spending Saturday at WonderCon, which was recently held at the Orange County Convention center in Anaheim. (WonderCon was held in San Francisco until 2012 when it “temporarily” moved to Anaheim because of work being done to the Moscone Center.) We decided to go this year specifically to attend the Comic Creator Connection panel they were going to have to hopefully find a replacement for the artist we thought we had connected with at San Diego Comic-Con 2013.

Secondly, we wanted to see what the differences were between WonderCon and Comic-Con. Both conventions are dedicated to celebrating comic books, science fiction and motion pictures, but on different scales. If WonderCon has one of something, Comic-Con has ten. Everything is bigger at Comic-Con, more booths, more panels, more artists and more attendees. But is bigger really better?

What's a comic book convention without Deadpool making an appearance?

Living in Los Angeles, going to Anaheim is much easier than going to San Diego. This is essentially a day trip rather than an overnight stay. But that is only the beginning. While Comic-Con is Line-Con, such is not necessarily the case with WonderCon. The longest line we waited in was the one to get in and even then, they let us in early. The only thing they start early in San Diego is forming the line, which is often a line to get a ticket to stand in another line at a later time. Standing in line is the worst.

There is no Hall H, with lines forming now to be the first in to see what’s supposed to be the hot new thing in entertainment. There is no Hasbro, which is mostly an expensive time suck. We literally got in line in at six one morning, but couldn’t get the ticket. Likewise, there is no Mattel booth or others that offer overpriced “exclusives”.

Fewer exclusives means there is less anxiety. Standing in line before the floor opens at WonderCon is a much more low-key affair than the same situation at Comic-Con. And there is only one line to get in, not the two or three they run in San Diego. No one is scheming how they can jump to the front or worried about people getting to that booth with the exclusive ahead of them.

There are fewer big names at this convention and fewer artists. No movie studios this year, with the exception of a small Liongate presence. There were some games to play, but no Playstation and no Xbox. No Marvel. DC was in attendance, but in a smaller booth than the massive one they have on the Comic-Con floor. This is really a place for the smaller publishers like Boom!, IDW and Dark Horse to get attention for their artists, but even then the lines were fairly short and orderly.

No Xbox or Playstation displays, but there are still games to be played.

While WonderCon sold out, the floor was not overcrowded. You had room to walk at something that more closely resembles a leisurely pace, rather than the duck and shuffle we had to do for four plus days last summer. At the end of the day, we didn’t feel dog tired with a nearly mile walk to the car as a kicker. 

Room to walk rather than shuffle your way around the convention floor.

Everything is close at WonderCon. We parked at the convention Center and there was plenty of room. (No doubt it filled up before the day was over, but we didn’t have to reserve a space in advance at inflated prices.) At the end of the day, we stopped for dinner at a nearby hotel, like just across the street, and watched an episode of the anime My Bride is a Mermaid. (Sorry, but this was the 20th episode of the series and my first exposure, so I had no idea what was going on.)

In many ways, smaller was better. There was a lot to see, but not an overwhelming amount. We never made it to any panels, other than the Comic Creator Connection, but I could imagine that it would be quite possible to visit the floor and still be able to attend as many panels as you wanted if you were going to be there for more than one day. We were only in Anaheim on Saturday.

On the other side of the coin, bigger is sometimes better. While being able to walk the convention floor in one day makes for a pleasant day, it means there might not be enough to see and do if you’re there for more than one day. You have to count on there being compelling panels or autographs that you want to attend. The problem is that they don’t release the convention schedule until long after tickets have been purchased.

There are some universal truths that both conventions share:

1) Cosplaying is popular. Though there were fewer people in costume at WonderCon, their outfits could be just as elaborate as their counterparts at Comic-Con. 

Sometimes it's not important if anyone knows who you're dressed like.

2) People still seek autographs from major comic book writers and artists. While most of the lines weren’t as long, popular artists, like Katie Cook from My Little Pony fame, still draw a crowd.

Gail Simone drew a crowd at the Dark Horse booth.

3) Adventure Time is popular everywhere. A panel about the show at the end of the day had a Comic-Con-like long line. Not only did it start in a ballroom, the line continued into the hall and even outside; too long to wait in.

If you are interested in attending a comic book convention and live in Southern California, I would definitely recommend that you consider going to WonderCon. This is an attendee-friendly convention where everything is fairly close together and convenient. It should be enjoyed for what it is. Be aware, I don’t think this will truly prepare anyone for Comic-Con. 

However, if you’ve been to Comic-Con recently, you will definitely enjoy the more relaxed pace. You will still feel tired at the end of the day, but you won’t be exhausted. Depending on the booths you visit and what you collect, money will still get spent.