Sunday, January 30, 2011

Tekken 4

I’m at a bit of an impasse here, as I have made it my mission this year to automatically do a review of every video game I beat, and yet I’m fully aware that it’s largely missing the point to be playing a fighting game on single player mode only, particularly when over half a decade of avoidance (this is literally the first time I’ve played a fighting game since all of my college friends graduated before me in 2003 -- well, outside of Smash Brothers) has led to my fighting game skills very badly atrophying. Still, if nothing else I owe it to my own perverse sense of self-hatred, and so you can all enjoy what is no doubt going to be one of my more awkward reviews of the year.

For those that don’t play many video games, Tekken is a long-running series of semi-3D fighting games that features a fine blend of real martial arts styles and video gamey violence. It also, as tends to be the problem for a series with so many playable characters, has an increasingly convoluted and insane storyline, filled with robots and devil energy and there’s two bears that have their own storylines and several of the endings overlap and I don’t know what else is going on.

I made sure to play the game through once with each character, both to get a feel for everyone and to see all the endings, and Namco seems to have done a good job of making a character for pretty much anyone’s preferred fighting style. There’s the standard mix of strong-but-slow and fast-but-weak fighters, a Bruce Lee clone, a Jackie Chan clone, a robot that keeps switching to a different character’s fighting style with each new fight (one of the more frustrating characters to try to beat the game with), and Yoshimitsu, who has now added to his repertoire of swordplay and teleportation some freaking giant insect wings and a voice that makes him seem like he’s auditioning to be a new Protoss unit. He just wasn’t ponderous enough beforehand, I suppose.

While most of the characters from Tekken 3 have returned, there has been some replacement with different characters. Eddy’s gone, though he’s been replaced by his protégé Christie, who has the same capoeira fighting style while also dressing like a stripper, so it’s really an upgrade there. Gun Jack is also gone, but since Kuma and Panda both have the same moveset he was kind of redundant anyway. Really, the only thing I’m very much upset about so far as vanishing characters goes is the news that Armor King was killed in some lame bar room brawl by new character Marduk, who’s one of the stereotypical strong-and-slow guys (he towers over all the other characters), and isn’t very interesting at all. Somewhat better is Steve, a British boxer who doesn’t have much of a story line, but has a neat fighting style (he doesn’t kick, except when getting up off the ground -- instead, the kick buttons just have him duck his head to the left or right to set up more powerful punches).

The gameplay is largely the same as in the previous games, with a couple minor modifications. It’s still largely 2D with the ability to swerve into the foreground or background, which means that whenever I fought on higher difficulties any time I fought a faster opponent they’d just spin all around me whenever I tried to attack and made me look like a jerk. That stupid girl Xiaoyu was particularly annoying at this, as she’s such a small opponent to begin with that it was sometimes a struggle just to keep her from getting a Perfect on me. The levels now also have some barriers to them, so that you can sometimes deal extra damage to your opponent by smashing him into a statue or pillar or the wall. Of course, the same thing can just as easily happen to you, so you have to constantly watch where you are on the level.

I’m not sure what else there is to really say. It’s a very fun game, and there’s a lot of variety to the different fighting styles (though you can get pretty far on Easy with most characters just by doing basic kicks and grabs), though playing a fighting game by myself didn’t really give me the best possible experience the game could have offered. Still, if you happen to enjoy fighting games, it will make a fine addition to your library, though I suspect if you like fighting games and have a Playstation 2 then you’ve already picked this one up. Still, enjoy the confirmation of your good taste here!

Rating: *** ½


Friday, January 28, 2011


I briefly debated giving this a horror tag since quite a lot of other people have been talking about it as if it were a horror movie, but while I can see their argument this one felt more like a thriller to me. Possibly that’s due to the deeply political aspect of it all, but regardless, a thriller this shall be for the purposes of this site. It’s still currently on my list for top ten horror movies of 2010, but that’s just because it was a really weak year and I didn’t want The Wolfman making it on there.

Ryan Reynolds plays Paul Conroy, who wakes up buried in a coffin somewhere. Using a lighter to take stock of his situation, he finds that his wallet’s been emptied out, but he’s got a surprise new cell phone in his pocket that’s (rather ominously) in Arabic instead of English. We learn that he’s a U.S. contractor working in Iraq whose convoy was ambushed by terrorists or insurgents or whoever -- we never learn exactly, beyond that they’re Arabic -- and they now want to ransom him for five million dollars or he will be killed. We never leave the claustrophobic confines of the coffin, so the only actors are Reynolds and various people he talks to on the phone -- a 911 operator, a Pentagon representative, his employers, his wife, his wife’s friend, the head of the hostage rescue taskforce in Iraq, and, of course, the kidnappers -- and all of them seem like an exercise in frustration. For a man that’s stuck in a big box that’s slowly running out of air, everyone sure does seem eager to place him on hold for interminably long periods of time, and are astonishingly unhelpful when they do get around to talking to him.

First there’s the kidnappers, who force him to make a video about his situation (in his pocket they’ve prepared a speech for him) by threatening to kill a female co-worker of his that they’ve also captured, and then after he sends them the video they send him a video of them shooting her anyway, for seemingly no reason other than to be cartoonishly evil. His regional director also calls him up just to let him know that they had started filing dismissal proceedings against him a few hours before he was captured due to allegations that he was having an affair with said co-worker, and as a result his family will not be entitled to any of his insurance benefits. The head of the hostage rescue team isn’t exactly encouraging either. He tells Reynolds that it’s government policy to never negotiate with terrorists, so the ransom is never going to get paid, and they also somehow can’t track exactly where the cell phone is, but they do narrow his location down to a city, which they proceed to bomb, which damages his coffin and causes it to start filling up with sand. Seriously, he makes Jack Bauer look lucky.

The film’s direction, by Rodrigo Cortes, is appropriately dark and cramped, and the choice to have the camera never leave the coffin is the correct one. Ryan Reynolds also shows himself to be a surprisingly decent actor when he’s not appearing in rom-coms (I didn’t see Wolverine, so I can’t comment on his turn as Deadpool that had everyone demanding a spin-off), appearing appropriately frazzled and managing to alternate between screaming at people on the phone and talking semi-calmly while visibly wanting to scream at them (Look, I said that he did a decent job, not that he was Brando). No, most of the problems with the film come in the form of the script by first-time writer Christ Sparling. Everything here, while mostly realistic (let’s face it, anyone that calls up a generic number for a business instead of a direct line to someone is just asking to be put on hold for a tediously long time and left talking to people whose main goal in life is to shuffle them around to someone else), builds up to something ridiculously over the top, and is compounded by the ridiculously evil antics of the kidnappers. Seriously, look at that list of absurdities in the above paragraph, and then consider that I didn’t even cover all of it. I was watching it with three friends, and by the end we all just wanted him to die already, since the entire universe was clearly conspiring against him.

And I’m sorry, but while I could sympathize somewhat with the shitty situation he’s in, I can’t help but think about how anyone that decides to make extra money by working in a country that’s been in a semi-civil war since we blew up the government makes very bad life’s decisions indeed. I get that the economy’s sucked for the past decade, but there are always options that don’t involve putting your life at risk. Hell, just so far this year (a good eight years after our dumb cunt president decided to invade because Saddam Hussein had tried to assassinate his daddy back in the 90s) almost 200 people have been killed in bombings in Iraq. Anyone that decides to go to move out there for work is, quite frankly, an idiot.

You can see my problems, then, with this film. It gets quite a lot of things right -- it’s well directed, the acting’s pretty good, some of the film is pretty believable -- but is brought down by the more over-the-top elements and a main character that I can’t manage to root for. For a man that needs all the help he can get, he sure does spend an awful lot of his time screaming at the people on the other end of the phone, and it’s his own atrocious decision-making that led to him getting stuck in this situation in the first place. He’s also fairly useless within the confines of the coffin as well: it’s somewhat oversized, no doubt to leave extra air in there for him and not at all to help with the camerawork, and yet even after it’s weakened by the bombing, he makes no effort at all to try to break through the side or top to dig his way out. He instead chooses to sit there passively and wait for rescue or death. Not the most compelling lead one could hope for.

Rating: **

P.S. If you watch the trailer, it mentions he only has “90 minutes of oxygen”. I don’t think that’s actually the case, I’m pretty sure that’s just the length of the movie outside of the credits. Also, yes, you are not allowed to just buy it on DVD. It is only available as a combination DVD/Blu Ray, because Lion’s Gate has no respect for its customers whatsoever.


Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Fighter

It’s gotten much easier this week for me to make predictions about which of the Oscar bait movies I’m watching is likely to actually get a nomination, since they announced the nominees yesterday (No nomination for Tangled? Nothing for The Town but a Best Supporting Actor nod?), so I think I can confidently state now that this movie will indeed have gotten nominated for several awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. As to whether it fully deserves to have been one of the most nominated films (with seven nominations, it was fifth behind The King’s Speech, True Grit, Inception, and The Social Network), I don’t know that I fully agree there.

The film follows Massachusetts boxer Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) as he struggles to improve his career. With him is his brother/trainer Dicky Eklund (a fairly unrecognizable Christian Bale), who helps train him whenever he’s not disappearing to score crack. It becomes clear very quickly that a large part of Micky’s career troubles are coming from his family: his brother is completely unreliable and obsessed with his own personal fame from his glory days years ago (we get to hear him talk of how he once knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard a great many times through the film), and his mother Alice, who also manages him, and his five or six sisters, are all as overbearing as a family could possibly be. Wahlberg has surprisingly few lines in the film for a lead, perhaps because his character’s family talks so much that he’s used to never being able to get a word in edgewise.

After a humiliating defeat (his fourth loss in a row) when he’s pressured by his family into accepting a last minute fight against a fighter in a higher weight class, his new girlfriend Charlene (Amy Adams) manages to convince him that maybe his family doesn’t exactly have his best interests at heart, and he starts to look into other avenues for his management and training. As one could expect, with his new manager and trainer, he finally gets back on a winning streak, much to the consternation of his jilted family.

Let’s get one thing out of the way here: this is absolutely Christian Bale’s show. He is so wild and energetic that he steals every last scene he’s in. The film opens with Wahlberg trying to get some road work done for his main paying job, and Bale just keeps trying to box him and mug for him that he just gives up from weariness, and joins Bale in posing for Bale’s camera crew. Bale has been telling everyone that the HBO crew is there to film Bale’s comeback, though of course it’s very soon uncomfortably obvious what the documentary’s really about (Hint: Bale eventually gets to see it while in prison). Now, I’ve never thought Wahlberg was that exciting an actor to begin with, but he’s not being given a chance paired off with Bale like this. He might as well be one of the audience members that gets dragged onstage during live theater and tries to gamely play along, but mostly just stands there awkwardly smiling while everyone else just acts around him. He’s a fairly internalized actor at the best of times (The Departed notwithstanding); here, he might as well be a wooden prop in half of his scenes.

Which is not to say that he’s outright bad here, he’s just largely a nonentity, almost serving more as one of Hitchcock’s MacGuffins rather than being an actual person. Somewhat more clumsy are the fights, which almost look like old Hulk Hogan matches. In most of the fights we get a good look at, we just see Wahlberg getting pounded on mercilessly until it’s time for him to win, and then he suddenly Hulks up and drops his opponent with a few well-placed hits. Granted, the movie as a whole is a bit over the top, but come on.

Still, these are fairly minor complaints, all told. The movie as a whole is just plain exhilarating and fun, filled with people that make you better appreciate your own, calmer family, and a lot of great performances by everyone not named Mark (since I haven’t really said it earlier, some mention must be made of Amy Adams, who once again shows why she’s one of the brightest stars in Hollywood). If I don’t quite agree that it’s a Best Picture worthy film, nor should David O. Russell have gotten a Best Director nomination instead of Christopher Nolan, it’s still a damn fine movie.

Rating: *** ½


Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana

Yes, I am doing another video game review, Rich. Deal with it. This one’s another RPG, one that’s both on a significantly smaller scale than Rogue Galaxy was (it’s only one planet that’s at stake, not the entire galaxy, and I don’t think the world’s even at risk of ending, just being much less pleasant to live in, and is a lot more “traditional“ than the various innovations Rogue Galaxy tried) while also being a good deal more fun to play. Funny how that one aspect always seems to trump everything else.

In this game you’re an alchemist named Klein (pronounced ‘clean’ for some reason, despite looking like the German name) who leads a group of adventurers that go around ridding the land of monsters and promoting alchemy and mana, before running afoul of villains like the alchemist Mull, who wants to use ancient forbidden arts to twist mana to his own ends, or Beggur, the leader of a local order of knights that keeps trying to bully you into joining him. The plot isn’t incredibly elaborate, and the villains aren’t as menacing as in some games (though some of the bosses are really damn hard if you don’t have your game face on), but after having played so many RPGs where all of existence is at stake, it’s kind of nice to play one that takes a different approach to things.

Much of the game is spent synthesizing various items and mana, to either give you new, more powerful items, or to bond any acquired mana to your equipment to heavily beef up your attack and magic powers. If that sounds tedious, you can always just skip those aspects of the game, though it does mean you’ll be missing out on many of the game’s best items, and the later boss battles will be much harder. There’s also a great deal of optional side quests you get to go on, from collecting special items to help various NPCs out, to an entire bonus dungeon that gets unlocked after beating the final boss (yes, make sure you save your game afterward), to help keep the game from being too linear.

There are some pretty notable flaws, however. First and foremost, while all the main characters and many of the NPCs are pretty fun and colorful, the English voice acting is pretty rough to get through. You can change it in the Options screen to the original Japanese voice actors, who are much better, but due to some wonderful programming quirk every single time you start your game up again it resets back to English. I’d like to say that the game was playtested enough to find such an obvious flaw, and so it was an intentional decision on the part of some malicious programmer, but given that the end credits announce things like how the game was made “In Cooperated With Sony Computer Entertainment of America”, it seems quite likely that many of those involved in translating the game for North America weren’t completely focused on their duties.

There’s also a wee problem with the length of the game. I didn’t really do many side quests on my run through (at least not before beating the end boss the first time), so they may stretch it out a bit more, but I beat the game in under twenty hours, which makes this the shortest RPG I’ve played since…I don’t even know. Breath of Fire 1 or Super Mario RPG, I guess. The bonus dungeon will add another hour or two, not because it’s all that long, but rather because the monsters in it are incredibly difficult (that is of course unless you’re “cheating” and using the Avoid Monsters mana). I got the game for free, so I suppose I can’t complain much, but it would hardly be fair to all of you cherished fans out there if I weren’t to mention it. I also have an issue where my favorite character early on gets injured for the bulk of the game, making it a pain in the ass to use her until she gets fully fixed. If you’re going to make it a chore to use her, why not just remove her as a playable character entirely? She’s not doing anyone any good staying on the roster.

Still, for all that it’s definitely on the slighter side as RPGs go, it’s funny, clever, and just plain fun to play. It’s nothing you haven’t seen before, and it’s nothing particularly essential to play, but you will definitely enjoy yourself while you’re playing. Really, isn’t that the most important thing?

Rating: ***


Monday, January 24, 2011

The Social Network

I don’t know what it says about the general quality of the films that came out this year, but where my review yesterday of The King’s Speech was about a film I expect to be nominated for Best Picture, here is a film I am 80% sure will actually win Best Picture (the other 20% is going towards Inception). It’s kind of a combination of both films being extremely good, and there being a bit of a dearth of films this past year that have any kind of real buzz to them whatsoever. I’d hate to think they were going to go with ten Best Picture nominees again this year, because I have no real clue how they’d fill all those slots up. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The film is the story of Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg), the founder of Facebook and the world’s youngest billionaire. It opens with him verbally assaulting his girlfriend in a lame effort to prove his intellectual superiority (resulting in their unsurprising breakup), and his subsequent blogging about how awful a person she is for dumping him and the swift drunken creation of a new website where he illegally stole all the images of college girls from various university databases and put them online for people to compare and contrast. After this gets him on academic probation, he’s contacted by the Winklevoss twins (Armie Hammer), who decide he’s the perfect candidate to help them create a new social networking site called Harvard Connection, which differs from preexisting ones like Myspace and Friendster because you can only see the pages of people you’re already friends with, creating an air of exclusivity to the site. He agrees to help, then spends the next month and a half blowing them off in e-mail while creating his own site The Facebook with the exact same premise. The rest is history.

The film obviously has quite a few hurdles to overcome, and it succeeds at all of them wonderfully. First, it has the difficulty of showing a bunch of computer programmers doing their jobs without boring the audience or betraying any ignorance about what they’re doing, and director David Fincher and writer Aaron Sorkin manage to find a way to simultaneously show how complicated everything is while explaining it all in clear enough terms for the audience to understand. There’s also the problem with the main character being pretty much a total dick to everyone around him, and that’s solved in part by surrounding him with somewhat more sympathetic characters (and apparently also by toning down Zuckerberg’s overall awful personality somewhat from how he is in real life, though he still seems fairly miserable no matter how successful he gets), giving us some semi-likable characters to root for as they’re alternately screwed over by Zuckerberg and go on to sue him for all they can get. There’s also the issue of just how illegal his operations in getting Facebook into the powerhouse it is today were, and to the film’s credit it keeps things pretty murky here, though it’s pretty obvious that he’s at least partially guilty of the various charges his former associates lay at his feet.

Two of the main things that help the film out are Fincher’s relentlessly fast pacing, taking us through the highs and lows of getting Facebook from a germ of an idea to its first million users at a constant run, aided and abetted by a fantastic soundtrack put together by Trent Reznor. Fincher, of course, isn’t exactly a stranger to making fast paced films, having previously helmed such efforts as Seven, The Game, and Fight Club, and he and Reznor manage to blend their styles together pretty much perfectly here. My favorite moment of their collaboration comes when Zuckerberg has a meeting with his friend and business partner Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), the creator of Napster, at a dance club. While dozens of people are out dancing on the floor, they’re at a table while deafening music swells and ebbs around them like a physical addition to their group, keeping us from hearing entire sentences and leaving them in the inconvenient position of having to shout at the top of their lungs at each other for the entire conversation. It gave me some not very fond memories of the few times I’ve been out clubbing, and I don’t miss them at all.

Getting back on track, I meant what I said earlier about how I’m fairly sure this is going to win Best Picture. It’s got all the buzz, it’s got all the talent, and it has the benefit of coming out in a year without that many great films. It’s a film that’s well worth your while, regardless of your feelings on Facebook, and is every bit as smart and ruthless as its protagonist.

Rating: ****


Sunday, January 23, 2011

The King's Speech

It’s been long understood that British history is eternally ripe for great films based on and around it, and one need no greater proof than here, where a story of a man learning to overcome a speech impediment winds up being one of the year’s best films. It’s a funny, touching, intelligent, powerful effort, of the sort that one rarely finds in the movies these days. That it’s stuffed to bursting with great actors is just icing on the cake.

The film follows King George VI (Colin Firth) in the years before and after his ascension to the crown. His father King George V (Michael Gambon) has decided that, due to the rise of radio, Firth’s stammer needs to be corrected if he’s ever going to make a worthwhile king (yes, he has an older brother in Guy Pearce, but even his father thinks Pearce is worthless and will never make it as England’s ruler). To fix his problem, he and his wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) enlist the aid of speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), a man with a rather unorthodox approach to fixing speech problems that may come from having never received any actual training for his profession.

Perhaps the main key to the film comes from how Logue is Australian, and so doesn’t have the same politeness and deference to royalty that most British people did at the time. He quickly realizes that the problem with Firth’s stutter is mental and not physical, and so decides the only real route to curing him is to befriend him, beginning by demanding they call each other by first names and standing as equals at all times. This is, to put it mildly, not the normal method of dealing with a prince, though it does seem to have more of an effect than the more physical exercises Firth demands they also do, such as rolling around on the floor to loosen up muscles and saying ridiculous tongue twisters, which Rush rattles off so quickly I couldn’t even hear them, much less repeat them. Still, it’s a lot of fun watching how he works his way under Firth’s skin to help the healing process, such as when he decides to lounge for a bit in the coronation throne at Westminster Abbey. Firth is outraged that he would do such a thing, while Rush just casually says “It’s just a chair. Look, people carved their names in it!”

I’ve not seen director Tom Hooper’s previous film The Damned United, but it’s clear I was missing out. He directs The King’s Speech with a sure hand, filming most of the movie in cramped interior locations to help subtly reinforce how Firth is imprisoned within his own body. When you watch it (and I know you will, you trust my opinion so very much), note how often Rush decides to help Firth by opening up a window to let fresh air in, symbolically opening up Firth’s voice in the process. It’s nothing that’s overemphasized or clumsy, it’s just a sign of Hooper’s mastery of the form.

We’ll be finding out this week if this movie gets nominated for any Academy Awards, though I will predict here that it gets a Best Picture nod. Hopefully it'll get some acting nods as well, as Firth and Rush do some incredible work together. If nothing else, it’s earned these for being such an utterly fascinating film set in England in the 1930s, as war is rapidly approaching, and managing to not need a single scene of combat to make its point.

Rating: ****


Thursday, January 6, 2011


While it seems that I’ll have to eventually get a BluRay player just to properly enjoy Grindhouse at home, it’s very nice to see how its legacy is still living. Of the four fake trailers made for the movie (plus a fifth semi-official one that only played in Canada and select cities that were nowhere near me), we now have Robert Rodriguez’s Machete made into a feature length film as well as Jason Eisener’s Hobo with a Shotgun and Eli Roth’s Thanksgiving coming out later this year. I can only hope we also get Edgar Wright’s Don’t before this wonderful madness is over and done with, but I’ll happily take Rob Zombie’s Werewolf Women of the SS instead if it means he stops doing terrible remakes for a while.

As an offshoot of Grindhouse, this is by glorious design overwhelmingly trashy and exploitative, and may well be the most energetically race baiting film since Birth of a Nation. If this all sounds somewhat hyperbolic, then so be it: this is a very hyperbolic film, after all, one where there’s no use in the main character just stabbing a group of villains with all of his knives if he can attach them all to the end of a rope and swing them at everyone instead, and one in which Lindsay Lohan can’t possibly be expected to seek revenge against her father’s killer without randomly putting on a nun outfit first. It’s the exact kind of madness and space logic that you would get in the best exploitation films of the 70s, when you wouldn’t be able to watch the movie without understanding that some serious drugs were involved in the film’s making.

The film, before I get too carried away, stars Machete (Danny Trejo), who lives the life of an illegal day laborer in Texas after a haunting prologue where his career as a Mexican federale ends in his wife’s murder. After showing off his skills a bit in a street fight, he’s hired to assassinate a hardline conservative politician (Robert DeNiro) who’s clamoring to close off the border (with a literal electrified fence) and has been connected with a vigilante group that may have been “disappearing” illegals as they try to cross the border. Of course, it’s all a setup to boost the politician’s voting base by showing how dangerous illegal immigrants are, and soon Machete is on the run from the police while finding allies in the most unlikely places: his priest brother (Cheech Marin), an immigration official (Jessica Alba), and the head of an underground group that helps Mexicans sneak across the border (Michelle Rodriguez).

Of course, all of this is making it sound like there’s a more coherent plot than was ever intentioned: according to IMDB the film was so ridiculous that Chris Cooper refused to be in it, saying it was “the most absurd thing I’ve ever read”, and he was in Adaptation. It’s largely an exercise in connecting as many scenes of graphic violence (and wow is it violent) and hot naked women (you even get to briefly see Lindsay Lohan’s tits, for all of you that have been clamoring to see them, though Jessica Alba is still all about that No Nudity clause) as it can, and that utter disinterest in plot does unfortunately mean that all the scenes in between the action-based ones and the naked ones tend to be somewhat boring, but they’re fortunately mostly brief. Supposedly he had already filmed more than half of the movie when making Grindhouse with Tarantino, and just gathered up some friends and big names to film the rest of it. That helps explain the disjointedness somewhat, even though I wasn’t paying close enough attention to know which scenes were filmed when, beyond the ones that made the original trailer.

Still, the sex and violence in this film is completely ridiculous. Not only is Lohan topless (and while Alba and Rodriguez don’t get naked, they are in skin tight outfits in every scene), but two other women (as well as a body double for Lohan) are completely naked the entire time they’re in the movie, because why shouldn’t they be? There’s also, as one might expect from a film called Machete, nonstop stabbings, slashings, beheadings, shootings, explosions, a guy that gets his guts yanked out of him and used as a rope, a guy that gets burned up in an explosion, a man is crucified, Steven Seagal shows up with a sword a couple times…I’ll be honest, I’m a lifelong horror fan, and I can’t think of more than a handful that were gorier than this was. I noticed Roger Ebert never reviewed it; he probably would have been horrified enough for another hospital stay.

I think what I most enjoy about Rodriguez and his films is that he’s never afraid to go as low as possible to entertain his fans, and he has never before gone so low or so far as he does here. It’s entirely an exercise in being as wild and extreme as exploitation fans all wish the drive in movies of the 70s had actually been, and in that it succeeds perfectly. If it doesn’t have anything else really going for it, well, that’s still more than enough for me.

Rating: *** ½

P.S. I’ll be in Florida next week, so no updates for any of you. Yes, I know how this breaks your hearts.


Wednesday, January 5, 2011


I’m rather more a fan of later period, trippy Beatles than I am of their earlier straight pop efforts, so it’s rather interesting to me that, of the four movies they made, their two best were the ones made during this time. Help! isn’t quite on the level of A Hard Day’s Night, but it’s infused with the same level of silly charm and chaos that their first film had.

The film opens with a beautiful young girl about to be sacrificed to the goddess Kali, when the ritual has to be called off. It seems that for Kali to accept the sacrifice, she needs to be painted red and be wearing a special ruby ring, but being a teenage girl in the mid-60s, when she got it she mailed it off as a gift to her heartthrob Ringo Starr. He’s of course now wearing the ring, and since it appears to be stuck on his finger, he now gets to spend the entire movie getting chased and attacked by the worshippers of Kali, who are now trying to paint him red so they can use him as their sacrifice. It’s just enough of a plot to give them the chance to film anything that came into their heads, and good on them for it.

In an essay that comes with the DVD, director Richard Lester said that, even when he was making A Hard Day’s Night and Help!, he knew he would always be known specifically for them. Indeed, while he’s made some good movies since then, I doubt he’d ever want to be remembered for the only other high profile films he made afterward (he took over Superman 2 after Richard Donner was let go, and also filmed all of Superman 3 -- yes, the one with Richard Pryor). He directed this movie with a wild passion that was nowhere to be found in those later films, giving us a movie that hurls about everywhere it can possibly imagine: we get a mad scientist that accidentally shrinks Paul down to mouse size, a pub with a trap door leading to a wine cellar with a deadly Bengal tiger that can only be soothed by singing Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” to it, a brief military battle, etc. One would almost wonder why they didn’t just say “screw it” and throw an actual kitchen sink in, though it might have been repetitive after the Beatles destroy the sinks in a bathroom. And interspersed throughout are lovely music videos (and yes, I believe we can safely call them that, since almost none of them have anything to do with the rest of the movie beyond starring the four main characters) showing off the band’s latest music, ostensibly the entire reason the movie was made.

The band itself was rather disappointed in the movie, mainly in how they’re not in it as much as they should be (Lennon in particular complained that they were made extras in their own movie, though he later revised his opinion and admitted a large part of the problem the band had with the film was in how they spent the whole movie stoned and so didn‘t really understand what was going on), and the lion’s share of their face time is given to Ringo. While the cultists (led by the delightful Leo McKern) do appear on screen quite often, I don’t know that it’s a completely fair criticism to make, particularly when just a few years later they demanded that other people do their voices for the animated Yellow Submarine film. Plus, while Ringo does dominate so far as the Beatles go, the appalling amount of hatred the rest of the band openly expresses for him was one of my favorite ongoing jokes in the movie. Right when the cultists first start coming after him, he complains that something weird’s going on and they all monkey pile on him that he’s making up stories again and shouldn’t be trying to drag everyone else down to his level. Later, after they learn of the cultists, and have their lives threatened, John, Paul, and George all chip in to try to convince Ringo to cut off his finger, since he never really uses that one anyway, and he’s really just being selfish putting them in harm’s way like this. I’m not too proud to admit that I was giggling uncontrollably for a good chunk of the film.

And that’s what I love about the movie. It may not have the depth that A Hard Day’s Night did, but it went out there with the specific aim of being as funny and silly as possible, and it succeeded brilliantly. Released just one year before Vietnam made the entire western world miserable, it’s a film that was designed specifically to make you smile, each and every one of you. You know what else makes me smile, thinking about the movie? Not once in this entire review did I call it pop-art, like every other review I’ve read of it has. Oh, damn.

Rating: *** ½


Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Night Train to Munich

With all the site’s recent reviews of films and games from the past ten years, it’s nice to get the chance to go way back to the world of 1940 and see how, even right at the start of World War 2, the Nazis were just perfect movie villains. While this may not have been quite as daring as later films fighting the Nazis might have been, as most Nazi atrocities weren’t common knowledge in England back then, it is quite simply never not fun to watch charming Allied forces (or at least Czech civilians and a British secret agent) outwit and outgun them.

The film is set in 1939. As the Nazis begin sweeping into Czechoslovakia, an old Czech industrialist that’s developed a new method of armor-plating vehicles flees to England for fear of being imprisoned and forced to give his secret to the Nazis. Unfortunately, he doesn’t flee fast enough to pick up his daughter, who is captured and imprisoned in a concentration camp to try to break her spirit enough that she’ll reveal her father’s whereabouts. Fortunately for her, she manages to befriend a Englishman imprisoned at the camp, who manages to break the two of them out and flee to England together. Unfortunately for her, he’s actually a Nazi plant that knows that if he keeps close to her, it’s only a matter of time before he can get her and her father on a boat back to Germany…

It’s kind of interesting watching such an early effort from director Carol Reed, who would later go on to helm one of the greatest noirs of all time in The Third Man. This was somewhat less impressive, but still as fun and droll as a British spy caper would be expected to be. While the opening scenes in Czechoslovakia and the concentration camp aren’t all that airy and light, once all the spy and counterspy maneuverings begin the film just lights up and becomes as clever and silly as many of Hitchcock’s 30s British spy films (though not quite as good as The Lady Vanishes, or as dark as Sabotage, but come on, being as good as mid-range Hitchcock is still pretty damn good). While absent many of his later flourishes (seriously, if you haven’t seen it, go watch The Third Man, it’s one of the most amazing films ever made), he still manages some nice visuals, my favorite occurring back in England, when the daughter (Margaret Lockwood) gets the phone call from her father (James Harcourt) telling her where to meet him. All we see behind her is the shadow of the Nazi that befriended her as he listens in, and we can watch the shadow carefully slip away as she finishes the call. Cinema’s great strength is that it can show instead of telling (go watch Shyamalan’s The Village for an example of how well a film works when everything is told instead of shown), and this is a great early example of how much better that can make things.

It’s good that the writing and directing is so fun, as the acting isn’t all that spectacular, with most of the cast being fairly one note. I can’t complain much, since they all get the job done, but they don’t really go beyond that point. Indeed, the film feels almost like a prototype of how a Nazi spy film should be, not just because it came out almost right after WW2 started, but because everything in it seems like it was developed enough to be good, but not quite legendary. We get a fun gunfight at the end, but it’s still a very basic effort, filled with close-up shots of people on both sides carefully aiming their handguns before firing one-handed because fake guns don’t have recoils. There’s some tension on a train involving the Czech family, Nazi officers, and the British secret agent, but it’s resolved so fast that I barely understood what had happened (admittedly, I was playing Sudoku at the moment, so that may have been my fault).

This isn’t entirely the film’s fault; most great art in any field comes at least partially as a result of trying to outdo everything that had come before it, and there really hadn’t been that many spy thrillers made up to that point. Indeed, I can’t offhandedly name any besides the aforementioned Hitchcock films. Still, as long as you understand what you’re getting into, it’s a perfectly satisfying adventure story, with chases, double crosses, and a teensy dash of romance for the ladies in the audience. Carol Reed would go on to bigger and better things (indeed, he would eventually go on to pick up a Best Director Oscar for Oliver!), but he shows that he already had a sure and steady hand here.

Rating: ***

Note: Apparently the trailer for Night Train to Munich isn’t online anywhere, so here’s an awesome (and tragically brief) scene from The Third Man instead:


Monday, January 3, 2011


The fields of comedy are littered with mistakes where they just throw together a bunch of comedians and assumed that the humor would automatically come, only to find that a good script and talented director were also needed (witness the weak tea that was Transylvania 6-5000 or Who’s Harry Crumb? for some perfect examples). Fortunately, Greedy had the wonderful Jonathan Lynn at the helm, whose previous efforts had included the likes of Clue and My Cousin Vinny, so we wound up getting this wonderful, incredibly hateful and mean-spirited black comedy that’s just filled to the brim with great comedic talent.

The premise of the film is that Uncle Joe (Kirk Douglas) is a rich old man whose nieces and nephews all come to his mansion to suck up to him for his birthday in the hopes that when he dies soon they’ll be the ones favored in his will. It seems that for their entire lives, Uncle Joe has been nothing but mean to them and tried to pit them all against each other, and his relatives (led by Phil Hartman and Ed Begley Jr.) have put up with it so they could get at his fortune, but now they discover that he’s recently hired on a sexy young “nurse” (Olivia d’Abo) that seems to spend most of her time swimming naked in his pool, and are terrified that he’s just going to leave his fortune to her instead. They work out a plan to bring in fellow nephew Daniel (Michael J. Fox), since Daniel’s father was the only family member who was able to walk away from Joe’s money, in the hopes that Daniel will be able to make Joe focus on his family over his hot new houseguest. Unfortunately, soon the money starts to eat away at Daniel’s principles as well, and he winds up being as much of a schemer as anyone else.

While some may disagree, I’m of the opinion that comedy is usually at its best when it’s really dark and mean-spirited, and boy, is this one as mean as one can get short of having Danny DeVito direct it. The dialogue is about as cutting as you can get without just filming divorce proceedings. Right from the start, when the family all sits down for dinner with Joe, they immediately begin revealing each other’s dirty laundry, from alcoholism to a divorce (the pair still showed up together so that nothing would seem awry) to my personal favorite, the blackmail photos Phil Hartman acquired of his cousin with an aerobics instructor:

Glen (Jere Burns, examining the photos): This isn’t me.
Frank (Hartman): No, but it looks like you and that’s all that matters.

And all through this, and after Daniel arrives, Uncle Joe is obviously toying with all of them the entire time, lying to Fox and d’Abo about what the other had told him to see what they’ll try next to prove their greater worth of his fortune. And escalate they do: while Hartman goes the rather unsubtle route of telling d’Abo that “people have accidents”, d’Abo takes to walking around in lingerie and see-through clothes to attract Douglas’s interests, and Fox goes even farther, in a payoff that it would not be fair to reveal here.

The film does unfortunately go on a little too long, and it has a borderline sentimental climax and ending that don’t really fit with the rest of the movie. However, while it is always annoying when a movie doesn’t end as well as it begins, it’s certainly not enough to be a fatal flaw here, and if an overly long runtime also means more of Phil Hartman, then that’s something I am willing to take. There really weren’t enough good movies with him before he was murdered, and I would say that this was the best we got outside of his TV work. Oh, and obviously everyone else was good too, aside from the child actors, who were largely miserable in their brief performances. I suppose it’s an inherent flaw in the material; ask a child for his character to behave like a monster, and he’ll end up acting like the same kind of annoying child that you’re hoping not to get stuck sitting near in the theater. They don’t get much face time, though, as well they shouldn’t.

These are all small problems, though. The film as a whole is a hoot, and I highly recommend it to anyone that likes their comedy nice and dark. Put it this way: if you proudly own a copy of Death to Smoochy in your DVD collection, you should absolutely try this film out.

Rating: *** ½


Sunday, January 2, 2011

Klonoa 2: Lunatea's Veil

I hope everyone had a lovely time ringing in the new year, and doesn’t mind that I’m still busily reviewing video games on my movie site. Yes, while I spend the year trying to plow through as many of my PS2 games as I can to help justify upgrading to a new system by year’s end, you’re all going to reap the benefits here as I finish each game, and hopefully most will be at least as fun as this one was.

The original Klonoa was on the PS1, and employed a nice method of bring traditional 2D platforming into a partially 3D environment. Your character was still on a set track from left to right, but the graphics were fully three dimensional, and you could grab enemies and fling them at objects in the foreground and background (grabbing and throwing enemies, then as now, was your only real weapon in the game). This continues in that proud tradition, upgrading the graphics somewhat, and making the levels bigger, but retaining the same basic gameplay as before. While some may complain that the gameplay here isn’t very modern (the original was a bit stand-out for its insistence, over a year after Super Mario 64 had come out, on not being a fully 3D world like every other plat former in existence suddenly had to be then), it still works really well, so why not? It’s at its most fun when you start getting shot around the map by cannons, so while you’re flying you can see the whole level, both parts you’ve already played through, and parts still to come. It gives you a nice feeling of immersion, while letting you see just how big the levels are. Unfortunately, they decided to go a little too old school at some points, as several levels involve riding a board down water slides and ski slopes, because clearly our favorite parts of old NES and SNES platformers were the mine cart levels, but it’s not as serious an issue as, say, those damnable mine levels in Donkey Kong Country were.

To some extent that’s due to how smooth the game’s controls are, but it’s mostly just that the game is really, really easy. It’s not quite to the extent of the original, in which I went to the end boss with 99 extra lives in my pocket, but I did discover that near the end that if you start dying too often, the game will start tossing out a bunch of extra lives for you to help your lame ass out. Add to that the fact that you can replay any level you want to acquire all the extra lives you want, and you have a game where actually getting a game over screen means you should be ashamed of yourself.

That’s not to say that there’s no hard parts, but a little patience is all you really need. There’s no time limits to the levels (except for segments where something big’s chasing you or a bomb’s about to go off), so you can take as much time as you need or want to go exploring, or to solve one of the game’s many puzzles. Indeed, the puzzles are some of the most fun parts of the game, often involving trying to find the exact perfect enemy combination to blast through a barrier, or just how exactly to get up to a high platform to get at all the goodies up there. Each level (aside from the boss levels) has six doll parts hidden around them, so if you want to do more than just try to finish as quickly as possible then there is indeed at least something else to do.

Indeed, the main problem with the game is that it’s simply too short, and doesn’t have enough side stuff to extend your gaming options. There’s a place where you can do a time attack against all the bosses, and you can unlock a couple bonus levels if you can fully acquire enough of the dolls, but there’s not much more than that. With a little effort, you can have this game fully completed in one day.

That said, though, it’s still a pretty darn fun game, with some colorful (if largely incomprehensible) characters, great level design (my favorite being the Disney-ish haunted house, obviously), and excellent gameplay. If it’s just not long enough, at least it doesn’t wear out its welcome like some other games I could name. If you can find it on the cheap somewhere, by all means snap it up.