Wednesday, December 29, 2010


After a good two weeks of trying, I finally managed to get to the theater to see the latest Disney movie (no, we still aren’t done with them, thank you), and it’s a damn good one. As I said in my Princess & the Frog review, Disney’s been doing great since Pixar took control of their animation department, and if this isn’t quite as good as that previous effort, it’s still a damned impressive outing.

This film actually took roughly a decade to be completed, as its main developer and initial director Glen Keane (who sadly didn’t get to see the film through to completion due to other engagements) had a grand vision for the visual scheme of the movie that the best technology Disney had at the time couldn’t achieve. He basically wanted the film to look like a moving, 3D painting (specifically Fragonard’s “The Swing”), and combine that with his firm belief that all Disney needed to do to reclaim their animation throne from Dreamworks was to get back to basics and tell a simple fairy tale. Well, by the time the film was finally finished, under the joint helm of Nathan Greno and Byron Howard, the idea of getting back to basics had already been co-opted by The Princess & the Frog, which also managed to be a slightly better movie, but this may still be the single most visually incredibly film Disney has ever made. It’s tough to say if Disney will feel that it’s been worth it financially: after such a long development time that was mostly spent on creating new technology, the film ended up costing a crazy $260 million (making it the second most expensive film ever made, behind only Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End at $300 million -- what the hell is up with the rampant spending, Disney?) , which is about how much the film has grossed worldwide so far, so it’s going to take some time on DVD before it can even make back its marketing budget, but at least now Disney has a completely incredible new visual capability that it can use for any of its future films. So I guess it’s all a matter of how many uses the company finds for all its new toys.

The film, for those who’ve managed to miss all the commercials, is based on the story of Rapunzel, and features a girl (Mandy Moore) with magical, ridiculously long hair that must never be cut, who is locked away in a tower deep within the woods by an evil witch (Donna Murphy) that has made Rapunzel believe she’s her mother, and is only keeping her there to help protect her from all the menaces of the outside world. Oh, and also to use her hair’s magical powers to keep restoring her youth, since she’s several hundred years old. Of course, as her 18th birthday approaches, she encounters a dashing young thief named Flynn Ryder (Zachary Levi) who invades her tower while trying to hide from some soldiers, and winds up taking her away on a grand adventure, of the kind which her adoptive mother does not approve.

While the film does largely achieve its goal of being a more traditional Disney film (incredible visuals aside), it apparently wasn’t always going to be that way. From what I understand the first draft of the script was very much a product of Disney’s recent obsession with aping Dreamworks, and was filled to the brim with horrid pop culture references and juvenile humor. While these have thankfully mostly been excised from the film, faint traces can still be found, particularly in the opening narration by Flynn which made me more than a little nervous at the film’s start. Another issue I had is that, while there are songs constantly throughout the film (thanks to the musical talents of Alan Menken and the lyrical talents of Glenn Slater), they’re mostly pretty damn bland, with only a couple standouts (namely the two songs by Murphy, where she is just trying to terrify Rapunzel, and the big chorus number in the bar). I don’t really know that any of them will prove as memorable as numbers like “Almost There” or “Friends on the Other Side” from Princess and the Frog, which I don’t mean to keep bringing up, but since it’s the very last Disney film prior to this one, and they both feature brand new Disney princesses (since neither film has really done gangbusters in theaters, I’m going to assume Disney will be backing off from all the princess films for a while after this, though I suspect that in this case it‘s at least somewhat due to the rather ghastly trailer, which can be found below), so it’s kind of hard not to directly compare.

Still, I don’t mean to be so harsh on the film. It’s definitely the best animated film I’ve seen all year (with The Illusionist being the only major effort I haven’t watched yet), and if it loses out on Best Animated Film at the Oscars to something like Toy Story 3 or Shrek Forever After, I will be very surprised. It’s sweet, clever, funny, imaginative, it has an awesome horse, and may very well be the best visual feast you’ll find outside of Avatar. You need to check it out.

Rating: *** ½


Contra: Shattered Soldier

Every old-school gamer has a bit of a love-hate relationship with the Contra series. We love them because they’re so fast paced and fun (seriously, can you name a better series based entirely around you running around shooting at everything you see, because I sure can’t), and we hate them because they are so ridiculously hard you want to hurl your controller down and scream obscenities at your TV. Contra: Shattered Soldier continues in this proud tradition, while making the crucial upgrade to three dimensions and adding stupid cut scenes (Note: I haven‘t played either PS1 Contra, so it‘s very likely that both of these advancements came in one of them).

Much like in the original games, you play as Bill (or if you’re the second player, you get to be a new character in the cybernetic soldier Lucia), who is released from prison (??? The hell did I miss in this series?) to help the government fight off the menace of the Blood Falcon, a terrorist organization that seems to be siding with the aliens against Earth’s government, and which is being run by an old friend of Bill’s…

Okay, let’s get one thing off the table right away. This game is absurdly difficult, to the point where I died almost immediately and had to give myself Infinite lives to win. When a game is so hard that people in Japan refer to it as Hard Like Cancer, the developers may have gone a little overboard. It’s to the point where apparently I didn’t get a good enough rank on each level to get to watch the last two levels and get the good ending even with infinite lives, so now I’m left to watch someone else doing them on Youtube. To be sure, the controls are just about perfect (after all, they were perfect in the late 80s, and Konami hasn‘t screwed with them), and while the game utilizes a 3D environment, you’re still moving along a 2D path, so there’s never a point where you die because the camera got stuck anywhere and you can’t see what’s going on. I’d say this means that when you die, it’s your own fault, but no, it’s because there’s a ridiculous number of enemies on the screen at any given time, all charging at you or shooting you. I don’t think I’ve played a game this hard since Silver Surfer on the NES. No mercy is to be found here.

The game is thankfully pretty short (yes, even if you manage to get to levels six and seven, which I didn’t), so if you can withstand the insane difficulty you can play the entire game in under an hour. This puts it at just a little longer than Contra 3, which was just a bit longer than the original. I kind of like that, as it makes the game feel a bit more like a throwback to an earlier age of gaming, back when games were often pretty short, but so amazingly frustrating that Nintendo had to make their controllers super durable to survive their customers’ childhoods. There’s no save feature, so you pretty much have to finish it in one sitting, making the brevity of it extra appreciated.

The controls need to be touched on briefly as well, or at least the weapon system. Whereas in previous games you’d upgrade your gun by shooting various power ups that went flying alongside the screen, always hoping for the spread shot and crying if you accidentally picked up that one that would send all your bullets out in big looping circles like you were playing Fester’s Quest, here you get no such power-ups at all. Instead, you just have three different guns that you can switch between at any time: the standard fast firing machine gun, the short range but highly damaging flamethrower, and the slow-firing homing bombs, all three of which can be charged up for a super shot that I never found extremely useful. While I miss my spread shots, having three permanently available is extremely helpful, as you always have one for whatever situation you’re dealing with, and most importantly, they don’t disappear each time you die and leave you with nothing. I also like how the game tries to change up the gameplay a bit while retaining the “run and gun” atmosphere the series is known for, by giving you segments where you’re racing on a motorcycle, riding a snowboard down a mountain, or straight up flying around by holding onto a rocket with one hand and firing with the other a la Contra 3. It keeps things good and fresh for the duration of the game.

Remember what I was just saying yesterday about liking Prince of Persia because it was the right level of difficulty for me? Well, this one is just so ridiculously hard that I wouldn’t have been able to complete a single level if I hadn’t cheated (by the way, you can do the first four levels in any order you choose). If you’re a much better gamer than I am, maybe the challenge will just be more fun for you (though if even Japanese gamers are making jokes about how hard it is -- the same Japanese that gave us Super Mario; the Lost Levels, and who went around the original Resident Evil using nothing but a knife because they didn’t think it was hard enough normally -- then there may be a problem), but it kept me from fully enjoying what is otherwise a really fun game. The controls are great, the graphics are great (particularly for such an early release on the system), and the driving techno music gets you good and pumped to start tearing through some mutant alien baddies. I just kind of wish there had been more of me tearing through them and not the other way around, that’s all.

Rating: ** ½


Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Prince of Persia: the Sands of Time

Wait, didn’t I just review this a couple weeks ago? Yes, now that I have watched the terrible new movie, I have finally decided to play the non-terrible game, aided in part by my Persian friend Shana getting it for me for Christmas. I’m rather glad I did, in fact, as despite it having a few of the same problems as Rogue Galaxy (mainly involving the camera), it was a much more fun and exciting game to play.

Just like in the movie, the game follows the exploits of (wait for it) a Persian prince, who, during an invasion of an enemy city, acquires a magical dagger capable of briefly turning back time. Of course, you and your father are soon betrayed by the evil vizier (he’s never named, but I think we can safely assume he’s named Jafar), who manages to unleash the dark time powers in a way that alters the entire palace so that it’s crumbling into ruins and turning all the people into demonic sand figures -- all, that is, but the prince, the vizier, and the Maharajah’s daughter (whose city you attacked), who accompanies you in your quest to stop the vizier and save Persia.

The game is largely a combination of platforming and puzzle solving, as you generally spend your time figuring out how to get from point A to point B by way of leaping off ledges, swinging from poles and ropes, and dangling from just about every last nook and cranny you can get a grip on, while avoiding the perils of spinning swords, saw blades, and the like. You also frequently find yourself fighting enemies made from the sands, so you need to brush up on your sword fighting/button mashing skills as well. This may all sound a bit daunting, but at least you’re aided through the use of your magic dagger, so when you fall into a pit or take too much damage, you can just turn back the clock a little bit so you can save yourself.

This was a pretty revolutionary effort when it first came out in 2003, and unfortunately that frequently showed in the problems with the camera, which will often “helpfully” try to give you the best possible view of the action by way of completely shifting location while you’re in the middle of a jump, or sometimes will simply get caught on something so you can’t see a damn thing. It’s a problem that really makes you like that dagger, since there were quite a few occasions where it was needed to avoid a cheap death at the hands of the magical unhelpful camera.

To the game’s credit, though (unlike with the makers of Rogue Galaxy), the developers understood the camera had problems, and figured out every way they could to help alleviate the problem. There’s the dagger, frequent save points, and the fact that there are only four directions you can jump off a rope, pole, or stalactite, so that you always know if one direction turns out wrong, there’s only a couple other possibilities available. The camera, when it’s working properly, also tries to show you the direction you need to go so there’s a bit less confusion than I may be making things sound. The controls are also pretty fluid, though there are occasional problems with buttons that are being used for multiple tasks getting confused as to which task you are trying to use them for. For instance, the Triangle button is for the dagger, which either finishes off a downed opponent or freezes a standing one, and in more than a few fights I found myself trying to finish off an enemy that was on the ground, only to watch my character repeatedly lunging with the dagger at an enemy that’s too far away to hit, giving the guy on the ground time to get back up. In general, though, it’s a pretty smooth, intuitive effort.

The gameplay mainly sticks to the platforming/fighting angle, though there are a few instances where it tries to change things up, either in the case of the occasional puzzle that needs to be solved (seriously, those mirror puzzles in the library were aggravating as all get out), or trying to protect the Maharajah’s daughter during some of the fights, which gets especially frustrating when you go to take out an enemy that she’s fighting with only to have her accidentally shoot you with an arrow. Typical woman, right guys?

Hardcore gamers may find that the frequent save points and dagger make the game a little too easy (plus the end boss is kind of a chump), but speaking as a fairly rusty gamer, I thought it was pretty well balanced. There were a couple times when I got stumped by a puzzle, which is of course what Gamefaqs is for, and I was not particularly a fan of how you lose the dagger near the end to ratchet up the difficulty some more, but overall it was a pretty fluid increase in overall difficulty.

Put simply, while it has its flaws, this was a pretty fun and fast-paced game. It looks pretty damn nice, even when I was making myself dizzy looking down in first person view while on a high ledge (Seriously, you can see quite a bit farther than you would ever need). While the game is pretty linear, there’s still some exploration available in trying to find all of the upgrades to your health and dagger, and at one point you can even unlock the original 1989 Prince of Persia. After beating the game, I decided to play the original for about five minutes before remembering why I hated it, but I know a lot of people out there have somewhat fonder memories of it. You ask me, if they were going to do a sequel more than a decade after the original, they should have gone with something like Super Mario Bros. I always thought that game had some real potential, don’t know why it never went anywhere.

Rating: ***


Monday, December 27, 2010

Six-String Samurai

In keeping with the spirit of the holidays (We’re on Kwanzaa now, right?), I figured I’d do my part for all of you by finally getting around to this recommendation by BalladeersBlog, who I hope is still reading despite having suggested this back in September. Don’t worry, BB, the mail may occasionally be late but it is always delivered!

The film is set in a post-apocalyptic world in which the U.S. and Russia launched nukes at each other back in 1957, leaving most of the world a smoking ruin. The last remnants of civilization all managed to band together in the city of Lost Vegas, which was ruled by Elvis for forty years until his tragic recent death. As the new power vacuum has bred an increasing amount of violence across the land, we must turn to a new hero in Buddy (Jeffrey Falcon) a guitarist and samurai who is traveling across the desert, along with a kid (Justin McGuire) that he rescued, to Lost Vegas to play at a gig there. Along the way he must do battle with a colorful variety of adversaries, from a group of cavemen in a pickup truck to a Soviet army to Death (who really hates rockers). It seems a little much just for the chance to play guitar.

This was kind of an odd film to watch, and I’m honestly not sure if I just didn’t “get” it, to put it in a term that I rather hate. The film doesn’t have any real overarching narrative, instead playing out as the pair traveling to one location, getting into a battle, going to another location, getting into a battle, etc. all done in a very laid-back manner with constant surf guitar playing by the Red Elvises. It’s pleasant enough for what it is, but what it is is very slight. The villains are colorful and fun, but they don’t really get much more depth than their appearances (in fact, neither does the hero -- there’s rather a shortage of dialogue in this film, which only increases the feeling of the film being padded), so as cool as it may look to see, say, the cavemen riding around in their pickups, grunting at each other and attacking Buddy with femur bones, it could have been a lot better if we had been given an actual reason to care about any of this.

A great example of the padding this film contains comes towards the end of the film, when Buddy is fighting with Death and his henchmen. There’s three of the henchmen, armed with bows, while Buddy has his sword. One archer fires, and Buddy slaps the arrow away with his sword. Then two of them fire, and he slaps both arrows away. Then all three fire, and he starts rolling around, leaping, doing cartwheels, and so on, as they fire again and again and again, long past the point when all of this has grown tiresome. This, and similar moments in the film, seem like they were being stretched out long past where they should have been just to get the film to a 90 minute running time. I’ve said it before, and it’s something co-writer/director Lance Mungia should take to heart if he ever makes another film (as of yet, the only thing he’s made in the twelve years since this film’s release was 2005’s The Crow: Wicked Prayer): there is no shame in making a film that’s only 70 or 80 minutes long. If you don’t have the material for a legitimate 90 minute feature, any attempts you make at artificially increasing the length are only going to make the movie worse, and leave the audience a good deal less satisfied than they’d have been with a shorter, tighter film.

Like I said, this isn’t a bad film at all, it’s just rather light and fluffy and inconsequential, like a more child-friendly early effort by Robert Rodriguez. You know, with surfer music and lots of slow-motion jumping, and a rather terrible scene where the kid decides to fake cry so that Buddy will do backflips and hand walks to try to cheer him up. Because nothing makes a film better than a child loudly crying, right? Indeed, the very concept of a rocker going around constantly getting in wild battles was soon to be perfected in the Japanese epic Wild Zero, which came out a brief two years later. So if you’re reading this, BalladeersBlog, I’m sorry I didn’t think your recommendation was that great, but by all means recommend another one. Just maybe a better one next time, thanks.

Rating: **


Sunday, December 26, 2010


While some might find this to be an inappropriate movie to be watching on Christmas, I always find it to be a nice palate cleanser to watch something with a hard R rating to counterbalance the sugary sweetness we get to enjoy the entire month. That’s what I say, at least, and Buddha would totally agree with me if he were here. Probably Santa and Jesus would, too.

Anyway, Devil is probably the best film M. Night Shyamalan has been involved with in years (since Signs, I’d argue, though others might go back even father), and of course is the first one he didn’t actually direct, instead being the first in a series of films in which he was to come up with the basic story and allow another (in this case John Erick Dowdle) to direct. It’s curious, as it may well be the best screenplay Shyamalan’s been connected to in some time (the screenplay was actually written by Brian Nelson, which would indicate that the frequent claims of critics that what Shyamalan needs most is for someone to co-write the scripts with him are correct), and would certainly have been better for him career-wise than his last horror venture, The Happening, turned out.

There’s more of a premise than a plot, which is how quite a lot of quality horror movies are. Five people get stuck on an elevator in a high rise building, and one of them is secretly the devil, who proceeds to torment them and kill them off one by one, all while a Philadelphia detective (Chris Messina) watches and counsels from the security office while trying to figure out what the hell’s going on. I like how they’re listed in the credits, as despite each of them being named in the film they are officially listed as Mechanic (Logan Marshall-Green), Old Woman (Jenny O’Hara), Young Woman (Bojana Novakovic), Guard (Bokeem Woodbine), and Salesman (Geoffrey Arend). It’s discovered that each of them is stuck there because of various terrible things they’ve done in the past (Salesman, for instance, turns out to have swindled a bunch of people out of their fortunes with a Ponzi scheme), and according to an old legend about the Devil, after he’s done torturing them all, he’ll kill the final one in front of the person that loves them most just to twist the knife in further, and so it bodes rather ill when the spouse of one of the longest surviving people in the elevator arrives at the security office.

It’s pretty much impossible to guess what of the trapped occupants is actually the devil, since they all seem equally scummy and none are big enough stars to warrant extra notice. In a way that’s a good thing, since it keeps you wondering the whole time you’re watching, but it can be a bit of a negative as well, since it also means that it doesn’t really matter at all who he or she is, nor can one work up a huge deal of sympathy for them once it starts coming out what each of them did to warrant being there. Despite this, it’s very well acted, and there’s quite a lot of tension from start to finish. I kind of wish so much of it didn’t happen “off camera” (the lights keep going out each time the devil makes his move, so as to keep the victims and audience wondering, which means that there’s quite a lot of instances where the screen is completely dark and we just hear various screams and noisy sound effects), but it’s still pretty darn effective.

This was definitely one of the better horror movies to reach theaters this year. It’s a concept I haven’t seen executed in a movie in some time (indeed, every comparable example I can think of off the top of my head where a demonic figure tempts and torments sinners is from the 60s and 70s), and it’s one that’s done pretty darn well. If the characters had been more likable (okay, I liked Young Woman because she was pretty hot, but that’s admittedly not a proper reason to sympathize with a character) I would have enjoyed it more, but of course that would have conflicted with the overall premise and I’m a foolish man for wanting that. Seriously though, of the five characters trapped there, three of them are pretty much completely unlikable, so when one of them dies, it’s more of a whodunnit than a tragedy. Despite that, though, this is absolutely an entertaining horror, and one you can add to your film collection with no worries. I can only hope the rest of Shyalaman’s story ideas turn out so well.

Rating: ***


Friday, December 24, 2010

National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation

It might surprise my younger readers to learn that, back before he became a slightly uncomfortable joke (and way before he started redeeming himself with Community), Chevy Chase was considered one of the best comedic talents of the 1980s. While he had a nice string of hit films for the decade, like Caddyshack, National Lampoon’s Vacation, and Fletch, I personally feel that this, his final success (you know, unless Not Another Not Another Movie turns out to be big) was his real peak as a comedian. And it certainly doesn’t hurt my purposes that it’s a nice Christmas movie for me to have watched immediately after waking up.

There’s not honestly a huge plot to go into here, as it’s basically just the general template that all “spending the holidays with family is Hell” type movies follow. The Griswolds (formerly seen in National Lampoon’s Vacation and National Lampoon’s European Vacation, though tragically not seen since Vegas Vacation was investigated as a possible war crime) are preparing for Christmas, and Clark (Chase) has decided that all the relatives should fly out to his house this year. That’s essentially the whole story, though the movie is filled to bursting with so many gags and wonderfully mean-spirited jokes (and some really cheesy ones as well, which isn‘t necessarily a bad thing when the movie‘s earned them) that it’s just a delight from start to finish.

Honestly, if you’re my age or older, you should already have seen this multiple times by now, so I’m not sure I should give a proper review. Instead, here are some general fond remembrances to help put you all in a good mood for the holiday:

Long before Randy Quaid had turned into a tragic example of encroaching madness, he managed to make his career with this film by portraying the single most blatantly awful relative in film history. He just shows up with his family, uninvited, in an RV that he parks in Clark’s driveway, before doing delightful things like letting his completely wild Doberman run loose in the house, draining the septic tank in the RV into the sewer system, and just in general being the exact kind of horrid redneck that you’d normally want kept as far from your family and home as possible. That he turns into a crazy person at the end of the film to redeem himself does not change this.

Chase’s freakout over not getting a Christmas bonus may not be the greatest freakout in film history (I think Danny DeVito may have permanently taken that award after Anything Else), but it certainly ranks up there, and really, getting all your employees a one year subscription to the Jell-O of the Month Club is exactly the sort of thing that should make them kidnap you and hold a gun to your head, dick. Though speaking in my official capacity as a 21st century worker, I suppose he should be happy he got that much, given that my Christmas bonus on more than one occasion has been to be laid off.

While I’ve never cared for Juliette Lewis, I’ve always admired her fascinating ability to sneak into so many movies that I love, from this to Cape Fear to Strange Days to Kalifornia to Old School to the no-doubt-amazing Hangover 2. She has some weird voodoo going for her and I for one do not intend to cross her.

Out of all the many great gags in the film, probably my favorite that doesn’t involve sexy women stripping is when Clark decides that he’s going to go sledding by way of a metal garbage can lid type thing, which he sprays up so much to keep it slippery that the instant he starts to move all we see is a trail of fire leading into the distance to mark where he went. Another great bit is when the delightful William Hickey (and his awful toupee) accidentally torches the Christmas tree not long after his cat is vaporized from chewing on wires. What a joyously mean-spirited affair this film is.

I don’t know how else to hype the movie up for you. If you’re anything like me you’ve probably seen it at least once a year since it came out in 1989, and if you’re not like me then this is the perfect opportunity to start becoming more like me. Particularly now, when it‘s on sale for three bucks. Hope to it, and have a Merry Christmas.

Rating: ****


Thursday, December 23, 2010

Killer Movie

It’s always nice to get some contrast in our daily lives, and so after seeing the quite acceptable and entertaining modern slasher Midnight Movie yesterday, today I got to “enjoy” a much worse example of a modern slasher with a similar title. You can almost read this movie as an inversion of that, as this gets wrong nearly everything that Midnight Movie got right, from the characters to a plot that’s somehow even worse to all the awful reality TV references. It does have more variety in its kills, but that’s about it.

The film follows a group of people out to create a reality show or something up in the lonesome town of White Plains, North Dakota. Now, the first problem is that I’m honestly not sure what they were actually trying to film here, whether it was intended to be a reality show or a documentary, or what the premise was. They told all the townsfolk that it was meant to be a show about the local high school hockey team, but they repeatedly say they made that cover story up just to get the cooperation of the townies so they could ask questions about a mysterious death that had happened in the town loosely connected to the hockey team, and the feuding current and former hockey coaches, and while I’m certain they said this was going to be a reality show (and the stupid confessional scenes, terribly generic rock music, and overall structure of the film back me up on this), I have not the slightest idea how this was going to translate into one. Of course, it doesn’t really matter, as it’s all just an excuse to get a bunch of people in an isolated environment where there is no cell phone reception and apparently no working land lines either (one character even complains that each time she tries to get on the Internet at the local library she gets booted off after ten seconds), so that a killer can get at them. Now, everyone had difficulty with their cell phones in Midnight Movie as well, but it’s harder for me to get annoyed by that when the killer has a lot of supernatural powers that he’s repeatedly using to block the cast off from the outside world; here, apparently we’re just expected to believe that everyone in North Dakota casually accepts being completely cut off from the world.

Anyway, the big gimmick here is that the killer is making his own movie, planting cameras everywhere (particularly one on his shoulder) and filming all of his murders for his terrible -- well, terribly retarded, which almost counts -- purpose, and since he doesn’t want to get found out right away he frames the first few kills so that someone could almost look at them as suicides. And by almost, I of course mean that the very first kill in the movie involves a girl on a quad getting beheaded when she drives down a road at night that has barbed wire strung across at neck level, and the local police rule it a suicide, because clearly what else could it be? The cast of the reality show does make a lot of jokes at the expense of the local police for their overall incompetence, but quite frankly, when the bodies start piling up and nobody actually gets nervous enough to try to leave, who’s the idiot then? Of course, unlike Midnight Movie, this continues the cliché tradition of everyone not finding out there’s a killer until more than half the cast is dead, to help further drive home the point that everyone in the cast is completely retarded and we should not care about a single damn one of them.

The killer is a little bit dicey as well. We do get a much better variety of gore from him than in Midnight Movie, which is certainly important in these kinds of films, but his costume just makes him look like the killer from Urban Legend (that the first kill, with the wire across the road to decapitate someone, is a fairly well known urban legend doesn‘t help matters), and his secret identity isn’t exactly hard to figure out (hint: it’s the only major character that kind of disappears for a good half hour without anyone noticing). Also, the reason he gives for why he’s committed all these murders is simultaneously retarded and cliché, and the nonsense in the epilogue made me want to break the DVD in half. Without spoiling too much, he basically pretended to be dead after getting shot with a rifle a couple times, and then the next morning, after being confirmed dead by some EMTs, he managed to slip out of his body bag, out of his bullet proof vest (which he leaves behind, I suppose, for no reason beyond to clue the audience in on how he survived, since I can’t imagine how it otherwise benefited him), runs across a street and across a long field into the woods without any of over a dozen people running around spotting him. And then he films the heroes staring into the woods trying to spot him, because this means he won, I guess.

The only real bright spot in the movie, aside from the blood, is the reality show’s big name star Blanca Champion, which made me keep thinking that she must have become champion through her devastating combination of Capoeira acrobatics and electricity-based attacks. I don’t know that that’s enough to justify the ending, where one of her fellow cast members asks her “Is it worth it? Being so famous?” to try to drive home a clumsily inserted moral about the perils of celebrity, but I take my fun where I can find it, thank you.

If you ever needed to make a double bill of horror movies to showcase how just a few simple changes can make or break a film, this and Midnight Movie would be perfect. They’re both fairly similar (one has people making a movie getting killed off one by one by a mad slasher, one has people watching a movie getting killed off one by one by a mad slasher), both came out around the same time (both were made in 2008, and the DVDs were released a month apart), and yet one by and large works while the other is pretty damn lousy. Sure, you’d have to watch a bad movie to accomplish this, but if I had to, damn it, so can all of you.

Rating: * ½


Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Midnight Movie

Today’s movie was originally going to be Tangled, before my plans to see that fell through (maybe later this week, maybe just when it comes out on DVD. I am not optimistic). I was then planning on doing Atlantis: The Lost Empire as an alternate, despite feeling foolish after spending the entire movie wondering why the film was making me think of Hellboy and B.P.R.D. before realizing at the end of the film that Mike Mignola was responsible for the art style of the film. However, after giving it some thought, I realized that what really gives me proper Christmas cheer are bloody horror movies, and so that’s what I bring to you on this joyous season.

The film opens with some old man rocking back and forth in his cell at an asylum, watching some old horror movie he had filmed that a doctor unwisely though might help his rehabilitation to see. One doctor vehemently opposes allowing him to watch it, but as he needs to be out of town on business, he’s been overruled. Of course, something goes horribly awry, and when he returns there’s blood everywhere and no bodies to be found. We then cut ahead five years to the present day, where a movie theater is hosting a midnight screening of the madman’s film for the first time since the massacre at the hospital, and in addition to the regular tiny midnight crowd, the two aging cops assigned to the case have turned up in the hopes that he will turn up and they can close the case. Unfortunately for them all, five years ago he managed to transport himself into the film, and now that it’s being screened again it is once more time for him to kill…

It’s a fairly generic, overused story, which gives us the benefit of examining how well it stacks up to its immediate competitors. I’ll start with what may be my biggest pet peeve in these kinds of movies, and that is how in almost all movies like this, there’s got to be one major horror buff that’s constantly talking about other horror movies and driving everyone else (and the audience) completely crazy. One could theorize that it’s to make the character intentionally annoying so we get excited when they die, but I’d personally rather have a bunch of likable characters so I actually don’t want them dead and off my screen already. That’s why I’m so happy that there’s nobody like that in this movie. The main group of guys sit there laughing and joking through the early parts of the movie and annoying their dates, and while they’re exactly the kind of people you don’t want to get caught at the movies with, at least they stop their nonsense pretty early on once it becomes clear that Something’s Wrong. The rest of the cast is also rather nice: there’s a biker and his girl that you’d expect to be the stereotypical “villainous non-villains”, but all he is is pissed off at the guys for constantly talking during the movie, as anyone else would have been. He’s actually a pretty decent guy, as is his girlfriend. The cops themselves are pretty fun too, as they make sure to let everyone in on the problem pretty quickly, so we can spend most of the film with them trying to escape the killer rather than staying oblivious for most of the movie and just wandering off one by one. Then after serving that vital purpose, they both get killed off because fuck the police, coming straight from the underground.

So now that we know there’s interesting characters and a bland story, what about the killer? Well, he’s got a pretty decent look, kind of a retarded mutant version of Crossbones from Marvel Comics. He’s huge, has a club foot, and his face is half covered by a skull mask, and in every way looks absolutely nothing at all like the old mental patient at the beginning of the film that we’re supposed to believe he is. The only major downside to him -- well, aside from all the mystical crap that’s more distracting than interesting -- is that he only has one weapon, a hand-held drill thing that he plunges into people. It leaves most of the kills looking fairly generic, to the point where even the killer seems to realize this about two thirds of the way through, when he kills one guy by grabbing him and then plunging the drill into an electrical outlet so he can electrocute him instead. I appreciate the effort, guy, but maybe for the sequel you can grab a couple extra weapons? Just a thought?

Don’t get me wrong, this is hardly a bad film at all. It’s a perfectly enjoyable modern slasher, certainly better than the over-directed mess that was Laid to Rest or the turgid efforts that one frequently finds in the After Dark collections (think Dark Ride or Lake Dead). It’s not one of the best recent efforts for the genre (for those you’d be better off trying Hatchet or Wrong Turn 2), but one could certainly do a lot worse with their slasher choices for the holidays.

Rating: ***


Monday, December 20, 2010

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

After a brief hiatus from the Disney love fest (because as we all know, that’s what this blog does best), we return with the very first Disney movie ever made. Released in 1937, it’s a rather uneven affair, showing Walt Disney’s eagerness to push technological boundaries, how much room for improvement there still was in that regard for his future films, and how wildly disparate his attempts at stretching out a story to feature length could be.

Unlike a lot of Disney’s later efforts (including Pinocchio, his very next one), the film of Snow White managed to remain pretty close to the original fairy tale, with most of the story changes either toning down the violence of the original tale (no making the evil queen dance in red hot shoes in this one) or to add a whole lot of “comic” relief in the case of the dwarfs. We still get the standard tale of an evil queen, a magic mirror, the huntsman with a conscience (though strangely, while we still get a huntsman that lets her escape because he can’t bear to kill her, we don’t get the following scene where he kills a deer and cuts out its heart to present to the queen as Snow White’s), the seven dwarfs, the poisoned apple, and the kiss from Prince Charming. It’s almost like a prototype for what would later become the traditional Disney story rather than a finished effort, kept about as basic as Disney possibly could while maintaining an 80 minute running time. Part of that padding came in the form of the musical numbers sprinkled around the film, which were a carry-over from the animated shorts the company had been making up to this point, and which apparently warranted the creation of the first ever soundtrack available in stores. While yay for being such a pioneer, I’m not really certain the songs from this film were really good enough to justify that, with Heigh-Ho and Whistle While You Work being the only ones that are really memorable in any positive way (Bluddle-uddle-um-dum is also rather memorable, though mainly because it’s such a ghastly affair that I’d almost rather rewatch that South Park episode where they showed live footage of sex change surgery).

Technically, the film is both a wonder and an occasional annoyance. It was the first major feature film to be released in modern Technicolor, as well as being the first feature length animated movie in U.S. history, facts that helped make it the highest grossing film ever made to date (outdone a year later by Gone With the Wind), despite having cost so much money that most insiders had expected it to finish the company entirely. On the other hand, it also tried to save time and money by using a process called Rotoscoping, in which they would film live actors and paint the drawings over them, which is why Snow White and Prince Charming look so much more bland and lifeless than the purely animated dwarfs. Disney continued to use the process in limited form in some of his later films (most notably Cinderella), but it’s a process that I’ve found always makes the animation less imaginative than it should be, and is normally only utilized in really cheap efforts like Ralph Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films. Not to harp on it, but it’s really about the quickest and easiest way to drain the fun out of an animated movie, and it does not help here in any way. And the animators of the film agreed with me, so nyah.

There’s also a pretty massive tonal disconnect between the pure comedy relief of the dwarfs and everything else in the film, which tends to alternate between pure joy at how beautiful and wonderful Snow White is to pure terror at how evil the Queen is. It’s not really a matter of the film blending together a number of different feels, because there is no blending to be had. It just shifts entirely from one to the other, roughly enough to give one whiplash. While each more-or-less works (though the dwarfs somewhat less so for me, as six of the seven seem to have been designed entirely for very young children and possibly mothers, with Grumpy being the only one that gets any kind of real personality), the jarring shifts do detract pretty substantially from the film.

While this was a landmark effort for both Disney and the film industry as a whole, it really doesn’t hold up particularly well today. The sheer basicness of it means that it remains a very generic effort, with as many flaws as benefits. If you have a young daughter, she may enjoy watching it with you (though given the choice she’d probably prefer watching the latest Pixar film), but I think this is mainly for the real Disney diehards and film buffs.

Rating: **


Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Monster Squad

If the 1980s had brought us nothing else of worth, the whole decade would have been worth it just for this film. I had considered making this week a continuation of Christmas and Disney movies, to help combat the bad cheer I ended last week with (stupid, stupid Rogue Galaxy), but then I realized that there is quite simply nothing more in keeping with Christmas cheer than the heartwarming delightfulness of the Monster Squad. Really, you should know by now that it’s all about keeping me happy.

The film (and really, you should know this already) follows a group of children who have formed a club that’s all about monsters (something I did myself back in elementary school -- before this movie was made, lest anyone think I was just copying what I saw), and who find that their great knowledge of various monster strengths and weaknesses is about to have some startling real world applications, as Dracula has just returned to the world (by way of an airplane, naturally) and brought his friends with him. See, it turns out that there’s a magical Macguffin that can (depending on who gets a hold of it) either trap all the supernatural baddies in the world in an alternate dimension forever, or let evil rule the world for eternity. Now, it’s up to a small group of children, an old German immigrant, and Frankenstein’s Monster (the traitorous fiend!) to save the world from the menace of Dracula, the Wolf Man, Gill Man (the copyright had yet to expire on the Creature from the Black Lagoon, though I’m told that won’t be a problem for the remake next year), the Mummy, and three hot female vampires.

It’s hard to understand why director Fred Dekker hasn’t made a movie in almost two decades when he made two of the most awesome horror movies of the 80s (the other being Night of the Creeps, which you should also obviously see). This one gets pretty much everything right, managing to blend the charm of the old Universal horrors with the coming of age stories of films like Stand By Me. It’s so much fun I could pretty much do an entire review just based on various scenes and quotes I love, but here‘s a couple prime examples.

Alright, so when the boys first meet Frankenstein’s Monster (who had already befriended the little girl [Ashley Bank]), they all try to take cover, whether it be behind a bush or a bench or whatever’s handy. The fat kid (Brent Chalem), of course, decides that the best spot of cover is to climb into a trash can and put the lid over his head, utilizing the Looney Tunes method of personal safety. Then the little girl calls them a bunch of chickenshits, which is totally hilarious, though I’m pretty certain it was a five year old girl calling everyone chickenshits that got the film slapped with a PG-13 rating it otherwise did not deserve.

Another great scene comes when the squad decides to infiltrate the enemy lair in search of the magic amulet and find themselves face to face with the Wolf Man. Building off of a debate they had had earlier in the film about how one could kill a werewolf besides a silver bullet (guesses included blowing him up and waiting for old age to do the job), they decide here to deal with him in the time-honored tradition of all children in fights everywhere: kicking him in the balls. Later, there’s a great moment where they find themselves trapped at a three way intersection in the dilapidated old house: down corridor one, a steadily approaching Dracula, corridor two has the Wolf Man, and corridor three has the three vampire ladies. It’s a great visual as the camera pans from one life threatening danger to another, and it’s a measure of the film’s assured direction that it can pull such a thing off immediately after one of the main characters excitedly yells the line “Wolf Man’s got nards!”

Some might argue that I’m overhyping the film, either due to the great Christmas spirit within me (unlikely, as I’m currently Zachary Cranky since I’m reading up on the Republican Senators who blocked a vote on the Dream Act) or because I’m nostalgic about my childhood (possible, though childhood nostalgia hasn’t made me willing to watch the Garbage Pail Kids movie all the way through). To you naysayers out there I say to hell with your inability to feel joy at a great film. This is one of the most fun movies out there, and while it’s been criminally underseen up to this point, I can only hope that the remake next year proves to be such a hit that it sparks increased interest in this film (as opposed to, say, the remake of the Avengers, which audiences reacted to so negatively that we had to invade England to get a proportionate revenge). Despite its rating, this is an ideal horror movie for children and adults capable of remembering what it was like to be a kid. You all need to watch it. For Christmas.

Rating: ****


Thursday, December 16, 2010

Rogue Galaxy

I don’t normally review video games on this blog, but it’s been a long time since I’ve played a game so outright infuriating (well, actually it was last year when I played The Thing, but that one was so visibly terrible from the start I didn’t waste much time with it) that I wanted the opportunity to properly vent. Some might argue that I won’t be giving the most accurate possible portrayal of the game when writing so immediately after getting fed up with it, but come on. If you want a more positive portrayal of the game, you can go check out the textual blowjob at IGN. Fortunately for you and me, my income is not based on whether or not the video game manufacturers are happy with what I write about them (quite the contrary, they seem to occasionally be taking my income away from me), so you can enjoy this.

I was somewhat eager to play this one, too, as its very concept -- an RPG in outer space, where you fly from planet to planet while still curiously fighting everything with swords because Japan -- is pretty much exactly the kind of thing that I want to see. And yet developers Level 5 (who according to that IGN review also made Dragon Quest 8, a fact I cannot reconcile with what I’ve just spent the last week and a half playing through) manage to screw this up at almost every single aspect. Actually, that’s not completely true. The graphics are pretty nice, and some of the music is catchy if uninspired. That’s about all the nice things I’m going to say, so I wanted to get that out of the way now.

Now, one of the big make-or-break aspects to any RPG are the storyline and the characters. Think of all the great RPG storylines you’ve played through (you know, assuming you’ve played any), and then toss them all out the door and replace them with a thoroughly stock story about how a corporation is trying to create monsters to help increase their profits, and also there’s a secret ultimate evil type enemy that only gets revealed near the end of the game in what would be a big shocker if there hadn’t been one of those since at least way back in Dragon Warrior 2 back in the 1980s. And that is quite honestly the entire plot of the game, aside from some fairly plotless side trips (Example: the second Chapter in the game has your ship get attacked by monsters in space and crash on a jungle planet, where you need to kill a monster that’s been terrorizing a jungle village so you can get fruit to replicate engine fuel with. That’s not even a plot so much as it is a pretense to kill things but this time in a jungle setting). The characterization is little better, with many of your eight characters getting either the most cursory possible personalities, or in at least one case getting none at all. Here, I’ll run through all eight characters for you real quick, getting every detail you would need, and you can determine for yourselves if they have the proper depth for RPG characters, or if they might be better suited for, say, Contra:

- Jaster is our main character, was adopted as an infant by a priest on the desert world Rosa, and has always dreamed of going to space and having adventures. He’s also a descendent of the ancient Star King, but we don’t find that out until more than halfway through the game. His name also makes him sound like a space hillbilly.
- Kisala is the adopted daughter of the non-playable pirate captain Dorgengoa, but don’t expect her to acknowledge being adopted any time too soon. No, instead she just refers to the captain as Dad for most of the game, until it suddenly becomes a plot factor that she’s adopted and is really a princess from a hidden world. Again, you find out all of this close to the end of the game, even the part about her being adopted, even though she herself knows it.
- Zegram is kind of the Han Solo-ish rogue of the group, and is also secretly working against you with the evil corporation. About halfway through the game (have you started noticing yet that nobody has any characterization to speak of in the first half of the game?), you discover that it’s because the love of his life has died and the Daytron Corporation has promised to use an experimental new procedure to bring her back to life if he betrays you guys at a critical moment. This, of course, despite the fact that the corporate heads had no idea we would have any such critical moment when they first hired him.
- Steve is a robot, so instead of having a storyline of his own, his programmer also imprinted his (the programmer’s) dead son’s mind and memories into him, so every now and then while you’re playing through the game you’ll get to a save point and be treated to a cut scene of the programmer talking to his little artificial boy, who (SPOILER WARNING!) eventually destroys his own programming to protect his father and it’s really not the least bit touching. Also, you find out literally just before you go to fight the end boss that Steve wants to be a real boy, for which I’m grateful I wasn’t trying to drink a glass of water when they tried to toss that horrid old cliché at me.
- Simon has a Scottish accent.
- Lillika is -- oh, you wanted more on Simon, did you? Well, too damn bad. They do shoehorn in a little mini story for him (again, immediately before you go off to fight the end boss so you can spend 99% of the game with him as a total cipher) about him being horribly disfigured in an accident and being too ashamed to face his wife and daughter looking like that and that’s why he works on our pirate ship and always wears his goofy face-mask, but I honestly spent the entire game up to that point just assuming he was some weird badger or weasel person or something.
- Anyway, Lillika is a tribal warrior whose mother was killed by a monster when she was little, and who gets cast out of her tribe when we team up with her and help her kill the evil monster that’s been poisoning all the villagers, and who turns out to not only be the same monster that killer Lillika’s mother, but is also the tribe’s god. Whoops. They also force you to use her on the next world for what appears to be no reason at all aside from making sure that she’s there to flip out on a civil clerk and get us all thrown into prison.
- Junip is -- sigh -- a master hacker, who is unjustly fired from his job and has his wife leave him, and decides the proper response is to seize control of the factory he worked at, and after your team goes in and defeats him he decides the best way to avoid the planetary authorities is to join our crew. He ahs the side benefit of having the single most unpleasant voice acting in the entire game (a pretty impressive feat, considering the voice acting is uniformly terrible), and all of his special moves involve him attacking enemies with an electrified yo-yo or him doing a breakdance while a boom box plays next to him or something else so horrible that I did my best to never use him.
- Deego is a dog man from the mining planet Vedan. He used to be a soldier with his best friend Gale until the two are set up to attack a civilian space ship after being told it was run by rebels. Since then, he’s fallen into drink at the bar of the girl he likes, until finding partial redemption in joining you and helping you fight gale, who has turned to evil to deal with his own shame. So yeah, he actually has the most fleshed out character in the game by far, but despite having an axe that’s almost the size of every other character put together, he does very little damage and dies really easily, so I try to never use him when I can avoid it.

So there you are. Eight characters, and only one of them has anything approaching the depth you’d expect to find in, say, a Final Fantasy, or even a Disgaea. That’s even without really going into the voice acting, which starts at poor and gets to truly horrific. The game even defaults to having the characters you’re not playing as shout at you every few seconds about what you’re supposed to be doing and how much more miserable they want to make your playing experience, but thankfully you can turn that off in the options menu.

Of course, bland characters and plot can still be saved (yes, even in an RPG) if the gameplay is good enough, so how does that stack up? Well, the combat is a lot more real-time and action-based than for a standard RPG, in much the style of Kingdom Hearts, but in an attempt to add more depth (which was admittedly rather lacking in Kingdom Hearts’ combat system) they throw in two main changes. One is that lots of enemies are protected from you just whacking away at them, and depending on the enemy you have to either a) jump up and hack at their head, b) hold down the attack button to charge up your attack and break through their shields with it, or c) change Jaster’s gun to the Barrier Break gun and shoot at them to break their barriers before you can hack away at them. All three are goddamned annoying. The guns all reload absurdly slowly so that you can’t just run across the room from the enemies and just fire away at all of them until they die, but when you outright need to hit them first with your gun before you can do damage to them, you can easily find yourself in situations where you’re stuck getting pounded on by enemies you’re physically unable to damage for half a minute while you wait for your gun to reload, particularly since it doesn’t reload between battles either. The ones you just need to use a charged attack on would be fine, if not for how when you first press the X button to start charging it, it has you swing wildly once before you start charging, so your options are to either get next to the enemy, swing at it once and have your character recoil after bouncing off the shield, and hoping you can charge up and attack again before it hits you, or else start charging up while at a distance and then very very slowly creeping toward the enemy and hoping none of the other enemies attack you while you’re creeping. The ones you have to jump at are the worst of all, though it’s not entirely the fault of the enemies themselves. The problem here mainly comes from how the enemies you need to do this to generally tend to be much bigger than your character, which means I frequently found that, do to the terrible camera I often couldn’t see my character, or in many cases anything at all when an enemy backed me against a wall. By the way, not being able to see a damn thing during a battle because the camera is deeply broken is a common occurrence with this game, so if you decide to play the game, you have that to look forward to.

There’s also the maddening problem of the frequent cut scenes, which tend to drag the game to a complete halt anytime you actually progress in this bland story. You’ll frequently reach a plot advancing point, and have to sit there and be subjected to five or ten minutes of cut scenes that you can’t control at all while the voice actors (seriously, I hope they were paid in box wine for the effort they put into their work) grate heavily on you, and then you’ll go back to controlling your characters, and maybe you’ll be permitted to, say, walk out of the room, or perhaps five feet forward, before being subjected to another several minutes of cut scenes. It’s that kind of lovely start-stop-start-stop-start momentum one normally associates with someone learning how to drive stick. While most RPGs I’ve played have allowed you to skip past a page of text once you’re done reading it to help speed things up, or at least let you substitute the Japanese voice actors for the dreadful American ones, you get neither option here. You have to just sit there and watch both the text on screen and the characters very slowly and torturously speaking all the text -- including all of the drawn out sighs and grunts -- and too damn bad if you don’t like it. You can’t even get up and go make a sandwich or pee or something in the meantime, as a couple times I decided to do exactly that, only to come back and find a Game Over screen staring at me because the cut scene had abruptly devolved into a boss fight while I was away.

The boss fights are mostly fine, as these things go. They usually aren’t very exciting, though since they’re usually pretty decent they manage to become by default one of the best parts of the game, to the point where one of the game’s many bonus features is the ability to rise up in Hunter rankings by tracking down special optional bosses and killing them. Of course, lest we become too eager to go after all the bosses in the game, there are a few that are just completely obnoxious. The first of these hateful bosses comes when you’ve just acquired Deego and are fighting Gale to help redeem them both somehow. Gale’s inside a giant battle robot, because Japan, and after a somewhat lengthy but not too difficult fight, you manage to defeat him. Except not really, you just took out the robot. Gale himself now needs to be defeated, and instead of letting your default three characters fighting him like you’ve done for just about every other fight in the game up to now, Deego decides this is something that needs to be done one-on-one, so the fight is just Deego vs. Gale. Sounds okay, right? Well, not your first time fighting him it isn’t, because the very first thing Gale does when the fight starts is pull out his guns and shoots you half a dozen times and kills you in less than five seconds, sending you to the Game Over screen (By the way, the Game Over instead of an instant continue? Really fucking aggravating). See, what you’re supposed to do is spend the entire fight holding down the guard button so all the shots he fires at you only do one point of damage each, and then you just get in a few hits when Gale pauses to reload his guns. Not that they ever tell you to do that, you can just have the fun of figuring that out on your own. Hope you saved recently!

Of course, that pales in comparison to the aggravation of the end boss, where the developers evidently decided that what this RPG really needs is to throw in some nice precision jumping during the goddamned end boss. And to cap it off, you also get a camera that’s planted in the distance and aimed right at your back, to help ensure that the whole time you’re jumping from platform to platform you have no real way of knowing if you’re going to land on the next one or just fall into lava. Of course, the whole time you’re doing this the boss is hitting you or shaking the room around to make you fall off, to the point where I got so pissed off that I just turned the game off rather than face the prospect of playing any further. According to Gamefaqs, this is actually just the first end boss of -- wait for it -- TEN GODDAMNED END BOSSES, the last eight of which are one on one fights with a different one of your characters in each. And with no chance to save between any of them, so if you lose one you have to do all of them all over again.

So yeah, this game can feel free to fuck itself. It’s impossible to play for any real length of time without wanting to stab the developers, and I honestly feel like I’ve been conned by all the positive reviewers. I cannot think of a way for that IGN critic to have given this such a glowing review, unless due to his deadlines he wrote up the review before getting too far into it (at least the positive review the game got on -- yeah, enjoy those ads there -- makes it clear that the main reasons for the positive review are how it starts off like Star Wars and the graphics are really pretty, two things that are certainly true, if somewhat irrelevant in my opinion to the game‘s actual quality). As for myself, I’m stopping at the end bosses, not because I don’t think I can beat them, but because it’s the exact opposite of fun to try. There are so many quality RPGs for the Playstation 2, I can’t fathom how anyone could think this was one of the better ones, or really even an acceptable one. If I were trying to keep in the spirit of the game’s awfulness, here’s where I’d close with a joke about hwo you should travel to a distant planet just to avoid this game, but really, the game’s already sapped enough of my energy without that.

Rating: ½ *

P.S. In the video below of the start of the game, notice how the battles keep stopping every few seconds to give you advice. That should have been my first clue. Also, as I write this I see that it’s currently on sale at Amazon for $7.99. That should have been the price it debuted at.


Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Fantasia 2000

As much of a classic as the original Fantasia is now considered to be, I have to confess that I find Fantasia 2000 to be superior in virtually every way. There’s more variety to the musical selections, the animation is nicer, the intros to the various numbers are better, it has a shorter running time, and for those that missed it despite the original film being packaged with the sequel, they even included the Sorcerer’s Apprentice from the original in full. Sadly, no Night on Bald Mountain this time, but we play the cards we’re dealt.

Given that these films are vignettes rather than standard narratives, one could actually view this as a continuation of the first film instead of an actual sequel, particularly when one of the hosts mentions that Walt Disney’s initial vision for the original was that it would never be properly finished, but instead would be perpetually re-released with new material replacing some (though not all) of the previous release. Oddly, while I complained yesterday about the overall inconsistent quality of the original film, the quality of this sequel-or-possibly-continuation manages to be much more uniformly good, despite this one having no less than eight different directors, and despite it being less groundbreaking (apparently, to help improve the audience experience, Walt Disney decided to invent surround sound for the original, because that‘s just how he rolled).

Part of that increased quality, it must be said, comes from the improved music, and I’m pretty sure that can be attributed to the use of conductor James Levins and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra doing this film, instead of Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra, which did the original (aside, of course, from the Sorcerer’s Apprentice segment, which reuses the original film’s score). Another improvement is the decision to use different celebrity narrators to introduce each segment, rather than the lone narrator from the original (Deems Taylor) talking to us as though Disney had never even entertained the thought that anyone that wasn’t a child would be watching his film. While all of the narrators here give it their all, the obvious standouts here are Steve Martin, who cheerfully claims all credit for the orchestra’s musical ability, and Penn & Teller, who inject some much-needed dismemberment into this Disney film.

Once more they leave the opening segment fairly free form visually, giving us geometric shapes vaguely resembling butterflies flitting about to the tune of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, but the film quickly rebounds with a deft one-two punch containing Respighi’s Pines of Rome, featuring a family of humpback whales that decide to leave the ocean and go swimming around in the sky with the birds, and (easily the high mark of the film) Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, which was a wild, jazzy piano number set in 1930s New York.

The other two big highlights are the all too brief Camille Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals bit, where a flamingo is totally hated on by his brethren for playing around with a yo-yo, and the closer, which gives us part of Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite while showing us the trials of a wood sprite as she is attacked by the deadly Firebird as it exits a nearby volcano and lays waste to her forest. The Fantasia series is now batting 1.000 for closing the film out with their darkest number, a trend I am eager to see with Fantasia 2060. Because I plan on still being alive at age 80--err, at age 30 Again. Yes.

I think the 74 minute running time really helped this film, as it ensured that there wouldn’t be any of the padding that riddled the original. While I think that may have hurt the film somewhat at the box office (it made $60 million, not quite making back the $80 million production cost -- I guess these films are still ahead of their time), I doubt the film would have worked nearly as well if it had had the two hour running time its predecessor had. That said though, if they make these more of a regular event (and there is no reason at all to believe that, unfortunately -- I would personally love for this to become one of Disney’s key franchises), I certainly would like to see how they would manage doing a Fantasia based entirely around one long concerto or symphony, or perhaps two mid-length ones. This series, if not quite done perfectly (sorry Disney, but to me the perfect blend of animation and classical music pretty much always involves the likes of Bugs Bunny or Daffy Duck), is still a rather noble and brilliant use of the art form, and as much of a latecomer to these films as I am, I would love to see them continue further. Come on Disney, you make enough of a profit off of your other ventures, you can afford to lose money on one of these every decade, right?

Rating: *** ½


Tuesday, December 14, 2010


Since I’ve been watching a lot of recent Disney efforts lately, I figured I’d head back in time a bit and watch Fantasia for the first time (also, my mom got it for me for my birthday). I’d been curious to see it for some time, as it’s generally considered the most experimental effort Walt Disney ever made, and seems to have been a very love-or-hate type of movie (though audiences in 1940 largely hated it enough that Disney almost went bankrupt). After all, making a two hour long film (to date, the longest animated Disney film) without any proper narrative, merely a series of vignettes that frequently have no semblance of a plot, but exist only in an attempt to marry Disney animation to famous classical music? Well, that does kind of sound like something I‘d want to see.

Unfortunately, its very nature does lend itself to being a pretty inconsistent effort. It gets off to a fairly rocky start, giving us what (in my opinion) is the greatest musical piece in the entire film, Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, with fully free form animation -- mostly just vague splashes of color, though it eventually moves on to things like animated strings and bows playing the music. Really kind of disappointing. I know Disney was aiming at creating an entirely new type of art form here, but unfortunately part of taking risks means that you will occasionally fail.

The rest of the film has less flighty animation, giving us such vignettes as the rather charming Dance of the Sugar Plum Faeries during Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite (alright, perhaps it was a bad time to say these were less flighty immediately before praising a segment that’s about faeries literally flying around, but you know what I meant), a rather epic history of the Earth from its formation to the fall of the dinosaurs done to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (complete with a T. Rex totally taking down a stegosaurus), and of course, the famous Sorcerer’s Apprentice segment done to, errm, Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. My favorite, though (as anyone regular reader would have likely guessed) would be the bit with all the ghosts and demons near the end done to Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain. It’s got a perfect marriage of one of the best songs in the film and easily the coolest visuals. Yes, because it’s filled with monsters.

Of course, I’m obviously listing all my favorite bits there. There’s quite a few, in this ponderous two hour running time, that don’t work as well. Not being the expert on classical music that I’d like to be, I’m not sure if it’s the particular selection of songs on display in the film, or if it’s more how conductor Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra performed them, but far too many of them sound so light and airy that they’re largely indistinguishable, and aren’t helped by animations that are frequently nothing more than cartoon characters dancing. The introductions to each sequence, by narrator Deems Taylor, also fell flat for me, feeling more like Disney was worried he needed the introductions to ease nervous filmgoers into the underlying concept of the film, rather than being anything truly helpful or necessary. Also, I don’t know if this should be mentioned as an actual criticism or not, but I will say that I was rather amused by how the infamous pickaninny centaur had to get excised from the film due to its horrible racism, and yet they retained some ridiculous Asian caricatures with nobody saying a word about it. Mulan does not excuse this double standard, Disney Corporation!

As I said, this is a tough one to give a proper rating, as parts of it are straight up brilliant, and completely live up to Walt Disney’s lofty goals, while other segments….not so much. I don’t think it’s quite the classic that some people have made it out to be, but I still have to say that I rather prefer it to the two more famous films Disney made immediately following (they would be Dumbo and Bambi). It’s definitely worth a viewing, though you may find you’re fast forwarding a few of the segments.

Rating: ** ½


Monday, December 13, 2010

Prince of Persia: the Sands of Time

The first indicator I had that this movie wasn’t going to be very good came right at the start, when Jerry Bruckheimer’s logo popped up and promised me this film was going to be something along the lines of Transformers. The second indicator came right afterward, when we see Jake Gyllenhaal’s character as a child, running from the law through the Persian marketplace before scrambling up onto the rooftops to continue the chase there. Now, I don’t know if the estimated $200 million budget included paying for any child-sized stuntmen, but it certainly looked to my untrained eye like it actually was two children trying to climb up a wall, every bit as quickly as one would expect children to do so. I have to say, it does kind of take some of the tension away when it appears the guards chasing them could have just casually strolled up to them and caught them, or perhaps even made a game of it and hopped backwards on one foot toward them. The rest of the movie wasn’t much better.

Anyway, the film stars Gyllenhaal as Dastan, adopted prince of the Persian Empire, who early in the film leads an attack on a peaceful city after getting some false information about the city preparing weapons for war against Persia, and is subsequently framed for his adoptive father’s murder before having to go on the run with Princess Tamina (Gemma Arterton) from the city they just conquered. Helping them in both their flight and their attempts to discover who set Dastan up (hint: it’s Ben Kingsley, who spends the entire film looking sinister and hateful as though he were afraid anyone might sympathize with him) is a mysterious dagger Gyllenhaal recovered in the attack on the holy city, that has the power to turn time back for a minute, without anyone but the wielder retaining any memory of the future that didn’t happen.

I suppose one could very well argue that this is an ideal video game movie, in that it’s very loud, dumb, and emphasizes constant action over anything approaching coherency. It’s also big on using masses of semi-faceless enemies that mostly all look alike, almost as though they just took the same character and occasionally swapped the palette a bit. If Scott Pilgrim reminded us all why we love video games, this was the film to remind us that a lot of the time they’re really stupid and annoying.

The back of the DVD case promises that this is “in the spirit of the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy”, though I think it would be far more accurate to say that this is more like a Pirates movie without Johnny Depp or Geoffrey Rush (I.e. the two main reasons to watch), and with all the colors muted down to dull sandy tones to help ensure that it looks ugly as hell. I’m not sure how the deserts of the Middle East could look so beautiful in films like Lawrence of Arabia, and yet look so ghastly here. I’m also not certain how so much obvious talent could do such a bad job both in front of and behind the camera. Gemma Arterton I’ve only seen in Quantum of Solace before (and honestly don’t even remember which of the two Bond girls she was in that), so I can believe she might just be a bad actress, but Gyllenhaal looks like he just decided to drink the whole time filming was taking place, and Kingsley is pretty much just sleepwalking here. I can’t even just place all the blame on director Mike Newell, as I know he’s capable of much better than this, having previously helmed such films as Harry Potter & the Goblet of Fire, Four Weddings and a Funeral, and Donie Brasco (then again, he also did Mona Lisa Smile, so clearly there are cracks showing).

I could go on a good bit longer about all the problems with this film, from the tremendously lame sandstorm that lasts exactly long enough for Gyllenhaal and Arterton to have a Serious Discussion, and then ends as soon as they’re done, to the constant flashes of slow motion to try to snag some of that vital 300 audience, to how it clearly labors under the false impression that ancient Persians believed in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic God. However, since the film seems to have been beaten up enough by audiences already (that estimated $200 million budget translated into making a total domestic gross of $90 million), I will mention the film’s one big saving grace in Alfred Molina. Molina shows up roughly a third of the way in as an outlaw libertarian, ranting about he and his men spread rumors about how evil and villainous they are so that the Persian tax collectors will be too afraid to try to visit them. Then he shows off his ostrich races, which gives us great lines like “Did you know that ostriches have suicidal tendencies?” He feels as though he just wandered in from a far different, far better movie, and I hope he manages to get his own spinoff somehow.

I admit to being a bit of a fan of this kind of desert adventure tale, but as these types of films go this ranks somewhere below Hidalgo and the recent Mummy series. It fails on almost every level it shoots for, giving us a perfect example of why snide assholes like me scorn summer blockbusters. It doesn’t work as an action movie, a comedy, or a romance, even though it tries all three at times in a sad attempt at appealing at all audiences. It’s a movie designed by committee to sell extra video games and Happy Meals, with no more soul to it than that would indicate.

Rating: *


Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Princess and the Frog

The transformation Disney has undergone over the past decade has been nothing short of astonishing. Faced with a combination of lagging creativity in their film department and the first actual animated competition in the form of Dreamworks that the company has ever had, the company spent the bulk of the decade outright panicking, eventually settling on the idea that the key to regaining their old glory was to completely ape Dreamworks. This is the great plan that gave us films like Chicken Little and Meet the Robinsons, and worked out so well that when Disney finally purchased Pixar a few years later, it was with the demand that John Lasseter not only retain creative control of Pixar, but that he would also take creative control over all of Disney’s other animated studios. While the lengthy development time of animated films meant that there were still a couple years more of lousy movies, The Princess and the Frog finally arrived last year to show what a traditional Disney animated studio could do with Pixar guiding them along.

And quite a movie it is, too. The company’s first traditionally animated film since 2004’s Home on the Range, this is as visually beautiful as anything Disney has ever made (and looks much better than their ghastly efforts at 3D animation), particularly when the style shifts for the song “Almost There” to a style based off of painter Aaron Douglas (I looked it up, I‘m not that much of an art expert). We also get a great villain in the form of the Shadow Man (Keith David), a voodoo priest visually based off of the voodoo god Baron Samedi. I’m a little disappointed that he only gets one song in the film, though since this is Disney I suppose he’ll have plenty of time for new musical numbers when they start churning out fifty sequels.

But yes, the story: Tiana (Anika Noni Rose) is an expert cook/waitress at a New Orleans restaurant who is determinedly trying to save up enough money to buy her own restaurant, when she runs afoul of Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos), heir to the throne of Maldonia, who himself has recently run afoul of the Shadow Man, and been transformed into a frog as part of an elaborate plot to give the Shadow Man control of all of New Orleans. Naveen convinces her that all he needs is for her to kiss him like the frog prince in the children’s story and he’ll turn back to human form, but of course the kiss backfires and transforms her into a frog as well. Soon the pair is on the run, from partygoers, the Shadow Man, a pair of hunters, and some alligators out in the bayou (though in keeping with the film’s praise of New Orleans music, they do actually befriend one alligator that wants nothing more than the chance to play his trumpet), and find their chances of being turned back run out at midnight. I’d say things do not look good, except of course that things in this movie in fact look so very, very good.

Honestly, there is nothing not to enjoy about this movie. The music by Randy Newman features some of the catchiest songs Disney’s made in over a decade (seriously, The Lion King is the most recent film I can think of that could match it), and there was a great commitment made to crafting actual interesting, likable characters, eschewing the recent Dreamworks-inspired trend of having characters that mainly exist to spout off horrid pop culture references. It feels like a very intentional effort was made to use this film to get the company back to what it has traditionally done best* (which likely explains why this is the first film since 1998’s Mulan to give us a new Disney princess -- and in a surprise twist, it‘s also the first Disney film since 1946‘s Song of the South to have a black main character, so good on them for diversity), and it succeeds beautifully.

If I don’t quite give this film four stars, that’s only because it’s not quite at the level of the films Disney was routinely putting out in my formative years. It’s not really on the level of an Aladdin or a Little Mermaid or a Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, but in all honesty, I’d rather watch it again before I watch a few of the four star films I’ve reviewed here. And not just ones like Sick, either.

Also, don’t go by the star ratings, read the actual reviews.

Rating: *** ½

* You can see some of the overtness involved in that in the trailer below, which goes on about the company’s 75 years of excellence (including a brief clip of Aladdin picking up the lamp), and in the new animated Disney logo of Steamboat Willy at the start of the film.


Thursday, December 9, 2010

A Christmas Carol

Alright, so I can’t completely avoid the proper holiday here, particularly not when my mom keeps getting as many family films as she can fit under her coat. Still, in choosing today’s movie I reasoned that if anything could snap me out of the holiday spirit, it would be Disney’s new version of A Christmas Carol, starring Jim Carrey as Scrooge and the various ghosts, and directed by Robert Zemeckis, who has made the curious career decision to stop making any more movies except those that he can film as live action and then cover up with frankly creepy animation (his previous two films, of course, being Beowulf and The Polar Express, and whose next film is another animated effort in the form of a remake of Yellow Submarine, in which the Beatles will no doubt be played by your childhood nightmares).

Of course, that being said, part of what makes Charles Dickens’ novella such a classic is its perfect blend of sentimentality and creeping darkness, so Zemeckis’ new directing style surprisingly works incredibly well with the material. The story, I would hope, is already familiar to everyone: a horrid old miser in 19th century England is visited by the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come, repents of his wicked ways and becomes a wacky, beloved socialist, and Tiny Tim has God bless us, everyone. Zemeckis adds a few flourishes, such as shrinking Scrooge down to rodent-sized and having him ride an icicle across a rooftop, but these flourishes largely seem less like natural outgrowths of the story and more like an attempt to keep any children in the audience from getting bored by throwing in a few mindless action scenes here and there.

Despite that, the film works surprisingly well, though I doubt it’s the sort of movie children raised on Dreamworks cartoons will enjoy. It’s slow-paced, dark and foreboding; in short, it’s the exact opposite of drivel like Madagascar or Chicken Little (yes, I know that was a Disney movie). It’s also a complete feast for the eyes: the benefit of doing this as animation instead of keeping it in live action, aside from providing a more seamless blend between the actors and the effects, is that each ghost brings with it a new visual style. Jacob Marley (Gary Oldman) glows bright blue and green, looking as though he wouldn’t be out of place in the next Ghostbusters movie, while the Ghost of Christmas Present flings about so much multicolored lights that his segment rather resembles a Skittles commercial, and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come gives us more of a Sleepy Hollow-ish nightmare scenario. It’s the rare film that actually makes me feel a little disappointed that I didn’t see it in IMAX 3-D.

One thing that was a little surprising, after Polar Express, was in how hidden Carrey was in the film. While with Polar Express Zemeckis made the animated characters all look like Tom Hanks (he did most of the voices, this wasn’t some crazed Being John Malkovich-type scenario), here Scrooge looks nothing at all like Carrey, aside from a possibly over expressive mouth. With Carrey toning himself down (aside from the ending, at least) heavily while affecting a British accent, it doesn’t even sound like him, to the point where if you took his name off the credits I doubt any of his fans would recognize him. Actually, does Carrey still have fans, at least to anywhere near the extent that he did in the 90s? It seems like the last movie he did that has any kind of following is Eternal Sunshine, and that movie’s fan base mostly showed up years after it died in theaters. I‘m digressing here.

While this may not be quite the Christmas film people would want, I daresay it’s the Christmas film they all need. After all, the original story is largely responsible for Christmas becoming a major holiday again when it was first published (Go Wiki it if you don’t believe me), so it’s only right that it keep getting remade to frighten and delight us all (elsewhere on this blog I also reviewed one from the 1950s with Alistair Sim as Scrooge, though I have to say I prefer this version). This one has the makings of becoming a new permanent holiday fixture.

Rating: *** ½