Monday, November 30, 2009

A Charlie Brown Christmas hits Blu-ray

One of the greatest things about the Christmas holiday is the availability of Christmas specials from years' past. Even when though specials sit on one's DVD (or Blu-ray) shelf, they really only come out once a year. These specials contain iconic moments – moments which are, perhaps, known universally. Out of all of those moments, all of those sad and happy scenes, there is perhaps nothing more iconic, nothing more memorable than Charlie Brown's Christmas tree. That sad little Christmas tree not only encapsulates Charlie Brown beautifully, but perhaps also our own Christmastime frailties. The special which brought that tree into all of our homes, the first Charlie Brown special ever, A Charlie Brown Christmas, is now available on Blu-ray.

Charlie Brown's main issue throughout the 25 minute runtime is the crass commercialism of the holiday. Charlie Brown looks around him and notices that everything at Christmas has become about purchasing gifts, about selling things, that it is no longer about the Christmas story itself. He is left saddened by what he sees all around and in the face of that he opts to purchase the saddest Christmas tree on the whole lot, hoping to salvage some sort of truth about the holiday.

As the special reminds us, Charlie Brown is, in this instance, absolutely correct. Christmas is about more than just what can be bought and sold during the holiday. It is, at its core, a religious holiday, and one that has expanded into being about love and family and hope in general. Charlie Brown's little Christmas tree can be made beautiful, all it needs is some tenderness and love, all it needs is for people to get into the Christmas spirit.

The special has been released several times previously, including last year in a "Remastered Deluxe Edition." This new Blu-ray contains the exact same material as that release, save for the fact that the main feature as well as the second Charlie Brown special that appears on the disc, It's Christmastime Again, Charlie Brown, are in high definition. The one other special feature, "Christmas Miracle: The Making of A Charlie Brown Christmas," appears in standard definition, and the digital copy of the special is not compatible with any Apple device.

The story in A Charlie Brown Christmas is a simple one and a small one, but what makes it so endearing is the fact that it is well told and manages to resonate so well today. There may be an argument to be made here about the irony of this special getting released to DVD (and now Blu-ray) repeatedly, that doing as much is the exact sort of thing Charlie Brown rails against in the special. However, it does look exceedingly good on Blu-ray. There are still bits of dirt and imperfections in the print, and there are those odd little moments when a character's skin will suddenly change tint a few times within a single scene, but that is part of the charm of the entire affair. The dialogue here is unquestionably muffled and somewhat disheartening as well, but as the documentary that accompanies the main feature reminds us, the special was made under severe time constraints.

From the music by Vince Guaraldi; to the classic dialogue ("of all the Charlie Brown's in the world, you're the Charlie Browniest."); to the simple, unadorned story, A Charlie Brown Christmas is simply beautiful. It is difficult to contemplate purchasing this new Blu-ray version if one purchased last year's Remastered Deluxe DVD (or possibly any of the earlier DVD releases), but for anyone who in any way appreciates Christmas or anything to do with Christmas, A Charlie Brown Christmas is a must own.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Godzilla (1998) Takes Manhattan

One can't slam a monster movie for being silly – there is something inherently silly about a giant monster lumbering through a city destroying things.  Yet, in the most basic sense, Roland Emmerich (writer/director) and Dean Devlin's (writer/producer)  reimagining of the famed Toho monster, Godzilla, is silly.  Titled quite simply Godzilla, the 1998 feature moves the monster from Japan to New York City, where, in true Hollywood style the monster (and the good guys) proceed to destroy landmark after landmark.

The film stars Matthew Broderick as Dr. Niko Tatopoulos, the ever-present monster movie scientist; Jean Reno as Philippe Roache, the French army specialist; Maria Pitillo as Audrey Timmonds, the love interest trying to make a name for herself; and Hank Azaria as Victor 'Animal' Palotti, the comic relief.  They are all essentially stock characters in a stock monster movie flick.

If Emmerich's Godzilla does everything one expects from a monster movie, from featuring a massive, death-defying Godzilla (1998)creature to destroying world-famous landmarks to loading the film with generic monster-movie characters, why does it fail to work?  Why have, by including everything one thinks should be there, Emmerich and Devlin created such a dull, disappointing movie?

At least partially, the answer lies in the plot.  A key piece Godzilla's reimagining changes the monster from a big, lumbering slowpoke into a big speed demon.  Godzilla is somewhat less fun running and playing cat-and-mouse than he is standing and fighting (he does still get to destroy things pretty well).  Additionally, there is an extensive portion of the film where Godzilla himself disappears, and in his stead the audience is treated to Godzilla's offspring, which look and act all too like low-rent versions of Jurassic Park's velociraptors.  The mini-monsters ("mini" being a relative term) chase Broderick and company all over Madison Square Garden, destroying everything (including popcorn dispensers) in their path.  Thus, not only do the creatures look like velociraptors, but they act like velociraptors, and the those whom our raptor-wannabes are chasing act just like the kids in the dinosaur flick.  It is barely warmed over material than has been done far better elsewhere.

Perhaps it is unfair to knock the mini-Godzillas as velociraptor-esque as they most certainly do look like what one imagines the offspring of the creature termed "Godzilla" in this film would look like.  That is to say, he doesn't very much look like the Godzilla we have come to know and love at all.  Emmerich and crew very consciously chose to make a new monster and simply give him a similar origin story to the Tokyo-destroyer.  It was a bad choice.

Though the film did win some Razzies the year it was released (and was nominated for several it didn’t take home), they were most likely undeserved.  The film is not laughably bad, it's just grossly disappointing.  Emmerich does have a talent for blowing things up, and the film is certainly at its best destroying things or panning over the aftermath of the destruction.  But the rest of this film, and Godzilla's trip to New York, leave a lot to be desired. 

Without a doubt, the film looks and sounds absolutely astounding on Blu-ray.  Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin have a lot of experience destroying the world in his films and, like him or hate him, the man knowsGodzilla (1998) how to make an explosion look good.  There are moments where the CGI shows its age as it is clear in some scenes that the human characters and monsters may be in the frame but clearly exist in different worlds.  The print, however, is free from issues and the details – be they CGI or real – are abundant.  The sound is, perhaps, even better than the visuals, with the 5.1 channel DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack providing a completely immersive, bass-pounding, experience.  The lackluster plot (and really, who could have expected a good plot from this sort of film) falls somewhat by the wayside with the experience the Blu-ray delivers. 

The extras on the Blu-ray are in no way as exciting as the technical side of things.  There is an audio commentary provided by the visual effects team; a brief, tongue-in-cheek behind the scenes hosted by Harry Shearer as his character from the film; a music video by The Wallflowers; and a collection of some classic Godzilla fight sequences which are included solely as promotional material for other Godzilla films currently available on DVD.  The Blu-ray also comes with Sony's movieIQ feature, a PS3/PSP-only digital copy of the film, and (if one buys it soon enough) a code for a free ticket to Emmerich's latest film, 2012

Emmerich and Devlin's Godzilla features a mayor named Ebert whose right-hand man is named Gene.  They are a reference to the two famed critics who gave negative reviews to earlier work by the men (they even look like them).  They are something of a silly and unnecessary swipe, only serving to add to the monster film's monster 139 minute runtime.  Though the lack of restraint exhibited in the explosions and destruction here are certainly commendable, a little bit more restraint in the screenplay – and the creation of some better moments leading to the destruction scenes – would have behooved the film.

 

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Gone with the Wind Goes Blu

As gilded and over-the-top as the Old South itself, the Gone with the Wind 70th Anniversary Collector's Edition Blu-ray release is an impressive tribute to one of the best loved films of all time. The Victor Fleming-directed (at least Fleming gets the credit) classic, based on Margaret Mitchell's book of the same name, looks exceedingly good in high definition, and the bonus items (video and otherwise) which accompany the release are sure to please fans.

Everyone knows the tale of Gone with the Wind – Scarlett O'Hara (Vivien Leigh) comes of age as the Civil War breaks out. It forces her to become an adult far sooner than she, and her family, may have wished, but Scarlett somehow manages – usually through conniving, lying, deceit, and other less than ladylike methods – to hold her family and her fortune together. Gone with the WindThat is, until true love (if it is true love) in the form of the dashing and handsome Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) comes along.

Gone with the Wind is an epic. It is a war film, it is a history, it is a love story, it is a melodrama. It is also one of those films which represents incredibly different things to different people. Someone in the film industry might note that the film has sold more tickets than any other film ever. Someone who focuses on fashion might note the incredible costumes worn by the characters. Some might note the idyllic way it paints the pre-Civil War South with much pomp and circumstance and the post-Civil War South as constantly having to struggle against wretched northern Carpetbaggers. Still others might note that the same portrayal of the South is full of negative portrayals of African Americans and that a film made in 1939, even if it is one that highlights plantation life, ought to have made a far stronger attempt to not create racial stereotypes.

As beautiful as the film is, and as great as the performances by Leigh, Gable, Olivia de Havilland, Leslie Howard, and the rest of the cast are, it is hard to watch the film and not note these stereotypes. The film seems to be completely uninterested in drawing any representation of African Americans that is remotely three-dimensional.

Ultimately, and without getting too academic here, the most interesting question is whether or not the film approves of Scarlett and her actions and attitudes. Perhaps the film is rejecting of Scarlett's less than Southern attitudes towards men, love, business, slavery, Gone with the Winddealings with the North, and/or the employing of convicts. Perhaps it's just upset that she left her childhood home and the land, or, perhaps the film happily accepts all of Scarlett's actions and leaves her exactly where she wants to be.

It is the fact that the film isn't necessarily as obvious and clear as one might think that makes it great. It does not squarely come down in one camp or another, and has left itself open to interpretation and examination in the decades since its original release.

The audio and video quality of the release are quite impressive. The picture itself is beautifully clean and generally very sharp. The only complaint one can issue about the image quality are with scenes that utilize rear projection. The rear projection footage looks substantially less good than everything else in not just the film in general but the rest of the shot in particular, creating an awkward – and bad – juxtaposition which pulls one out of the film instantly. The TrueHD 5.1 channel remix is impressive, with the surrounds mainly utilized for the film's score. As clean as the video track is, the audio one is equally impressive (and obviously uninfluenced by the rear projection issues).

In terms of special features, the Blu-ray set contains a double-sided DVD with the six-hour documentary MGM: When the Lion Roars which is hosted by Patrick Stewart and delves into the history of the studio. Gone with the WindA good, and lengthy, look at the studio, it is somewhat odd that it is only included in the Blu-ray boxed set, not the DVD one. The Blu-ray set also contains a third disc with several hours more behind the scenes features. They are, quite wisely, divided on the disc into several sections, including: Behind the Story (this is a catch-all section with looks at everything from Hollywood in general to the film's production to its stars to its reception), Trailers (which contains trailers for the various re-releases of the film as well), Extras (which only includes a movie called Moviola: The Scarlett O'Hara War and is the story of the search for an actress to play Scarlett and stars Tony Curtis), and Additional Footage (which has the international prologue to the film and snippets of foreign language dubs).

An impressive compilation of recycled bonus material, there are also some "new to the collection" features, including: 1939: Hollywood's Greatest Year and Gone with the Wind: The Legend Lives On, and the aforementioned The Scarlett O'Hara War. As 1939 features Kenneth Branagh as narrator and argues (as the title indicates) that 1939 represents Hollywood's all-time greatest moment in terms of quality of releases. The hour-long piece does make a good case and is extremely interesting, though there are moments when the script Branagh reads is less than stellar: "…Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, led by its tenacious leader, Louis B. Mayer." The Legend Lives On, mainly focuses on the history of the reception of film from its production to today.

It actually takes some digging into the box to get to the discs discussed above, because the massive, velvety box that houses the discs is a limited edition (each with a different number somewhere between one and 150,000) that also houses a large amount of ancillary materials. There is a 52-page photo and production art book, 10 five-by-seven prints, a reproduction of the original program, a CD sampler of the soundtrack, and some reprinted letters, memos, and telegrams written/dictated by David O. Selznick. Gone with the WindWhile devoted fans of the film may find all this ancillary material fascinating, and others may find it momentarily piques their interest, there is something overly excessive about it all. At this time, Warner Bros. is not releasing a simple Blu-ray version with just the film, so anyone who wants to have the movie in high definition needs to spend their money on all the extras as well.

Gone with the Wind, an impressive feature when it was released 70 years ago, remains equally impressive today. Even if one is not a fan of the film, it is easy to see what would cause so many to be so utterly devoted to it. It looks and sounds great in high definition, far better in fact than one might expect, and much of what is included in the set is interesting even if it is, combined, over the top. Gone with the Wind is a film from a bygone era about an entirely different and yet equally bygone era, it is a piece of history about a piece of history, and it is truly captivating.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Crossing the Line or Just Looking at it - Last Night's The Amazing Race

There's a line one shouldn't cross when going on reality television. Cross the line and everyone (at home and the people you're playing against) will hate you, don't cross the line and you may end up going home. The only real question that has to be asked is exactly where that line falls. Contestants, in my estimation, need to get right up to that line and yet not go over it – maximize their potential for success while minimizing their potential to be hated. Go the right distance and you Richard Hatch yourself into $1,000,000. Go too far and you'll forever be known as "The Next Omarosa."

For my money, while some of the teams on The Amazing Race last night approached the line, none of them actually crossed it. I think that while some of what they did may be questionable in social situations, on a reality show their actions were wholly appropriate.

First up last night we had Flight Time delaying Meghan & Cheyne's descending from the Detour. Flight had to wait for Big Easy before he could continue, but he descended from the scaffolding that marked the end of the Detour first and he did so slowly. The basic idea behind his action was that he could slow down Meghan & Cheyne until Big Easy was finished and they would all be able to progress at roughly the same time.

Was Flight Time out of line? You already know that I think he wasn't. The teams were fighting for first place, not last – there was no worry that an elimination was going to result from his actions. I'd also argue that what he did wasn't technically against the rules, he was simply doing everything in his power to legally slow down someone else. It should be noted though that I didn't buy it when Flight said he didn't have the idea of slowing Meghan & Cheyne down until Cheyne suggested it – Flight was smart enough to know what he was doing.

Next up in the questionable tactic area was Cheyne & Meghan teaming with the Globetrotters to get to the next location only to instantly ditch them once a cab came along. That was even less egregious an action than Flight's slowing Cheyne & Meghan down. There was no cab available where both teams were and Cheyne & Meghan did get the Globetrotters directions that the guys wouldn't have otherwise had prior to ditching them. Cheyne didn't approach the ditching well, he should have said "goodbye" or let them know his actions, not doing so was kind of rude, but he certainly wasn't wrong.

The last questionable action was Sam & Dan's stealing Brian & Ericka's taxi. Both teams were at the Detour and Brian & Ericka had requested that their cab wait for them. They were, presumably, paying that cab for his time. Sam & Dan, finishing the task before Brian & Ericka, went to their opponent's cab and paid him to ditch the married couple and take them.

That was the closest any team cam to crossing the line, but I still say that they didn't get there. They certainly didn't win themselves any friends, in fact, all the other teams could easily end up hating Sam & Dan for stealing the cab, but it wasn't wrong. Those two teams were battling for last place, getting to the next clue first could have played a major role in who was going to get eliminated. I think one could almost argue that it would have been foolish of Sam & Dan to not try to steal the cab. Plus, can't we blame the taxi driver himself? After all, he took the money, ditching Brian & Ericka.

No team made friends last night on The Amazing Race, but they're not there to make friends, they're there to win $1,000,000. It has always bothered me before when teams don't play a cutthroat but within the rules game. Last night not one, not two, but three teams realized exactly what they had to do to win and opted to make those tough choices, even if those choices resulted in our maybe not thinking that they were all quite as swell people as we would hope.

Wouldn't you do whatever it took – within the rules – to get the money? I certainly would.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Longing for Sitcoms

I hunger for sitcoms. There was a time that wasn't the case. There was a time when I hungered for more dramas, but that time has passed. It was back in the day, you know, when comedies were an 8-10 pm staple and dramas mostly limited to the 10 to 11 hour. Now that dramas are on almost all the time and comedies relegated to just a couple of nights a week, it doesn't matter how many comedies I watch, I still find myself with a hankering for more.

Maybe I'm looking at it all backwards though. Maybe the reason that I keep hankering for more comedies is not because there are so few on, but because the few that are on are of higher quality than the ones from back in the day. Never mind, I take this whole paragraph back, I'm talking about a time when Cheers, Friends, Growing Pains, and Seinfeld were on.

How about this then — it's the fact that a higher percentage of the comedies on today are good? No… that can't be it either. CBS and NBC combined air a fair number of unfunny comedies Photo Credit: ABC/Danny Feldmixed in with their funny ones.

Let's forget all the possible reasons that I hunger for more comedies. Let's just accept the fact that I do. I say that mostly because I do, I do hunger for them.

There I was last night sitting in front of my TV (and by "TV" I mean streaming HAVA video player, but that's not relevant), watching The Middle, Modern Family, and Cougar Town, and just thinking to myself, "Oh goodness, how excited would I be if I could watch three funny comedies every single night." I answered myself, "Oh, you'd be excited, very, very excited." I then responded, "Yes, yes I believe I would." The conversation went on a while longer, but it's probably losing some of its gusto now, so I'm going to stop reciting it.

In any case, there were 90 minutes of funny on television last night. It's all a shame that it has to start at 8:30, but I've got my fingers crossed for ABC to work out what they're going to air at 8pm pretty soon. I don't know if it's the lack of comedies currently airing, but ABC was actually able to get stars, film stars, to guest on Modern Family. Ed Norton was on (Elizabeth Banks too, and Alan Ruck was on Cougar Town). Photo Credit: ABC/Danny FeldNorton was in serious costume last night complete with a terrible wig, but it was definitely him, and, he was funny.

The best comedy storyline of the night though, hands down, goes to Travis (Jules' son) on Cougar Town. He pretended to come out to their next door neighbor Grayson. Travis kept him there for hours with Jules out of town, just to mess with him. In Travis' lie it was the first time he'd ever come out and so Grayson felt obligated to spend hours there. I don't want to say that "you had to be there" to find it funny, but perhaps you do have to know Travis and Grayson. Travis is the smart-alecky, dry-witted teenager type, and Grayson is the middle-aged male divorcee who sleeps with all the college-aged women he can. That is to say, Grayson had it coming, and who better to give it to him than Travis. Poor Grayson, he was just trying to help out the kid he was supposed to be looking in on while Travis' mom was out of town, and he ended up getting jerked around for hours. Good times.

I could go on, I could tell you all about the news promo during Cougar Town last night. It explained how the mall Santa Clauses want priority for swine flu vaccine, but I think the point about there being funny and my hungering for it has already been made abundantly clear.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Nothing Terribly Elite About Star Wars: Battlefront - Elite Squadron

There was a point in time, one which lasted several years, in which every Star Wars game that one played featured a run down the Death Star trench. It is an iconic moment in film history and carries over exceedingly well into videogames – it's the classic hero moment. It may feel a little played out by the umpteenth game one has to negotiate the turrets and juke away from TIE's in that tiny little trench, but after an hour or so with Star Wars: Battlefront – Elite Squadron, it is a moment many might often wish to repeat. The second Battlefront title to appear on the PSP, Elite Squadron is more frustrating than trying to bulls-eye wamp rats in your T-16 back home.

The game spans multiple Star Wars films, and as with other Battlefront titles, while one may be a part of important battles and play crucial (yet unseen in the film) roles in the battles, they do not take center stage. Here, in Campaign mode (the main single player mode), the player is X2, a clone made from a Jedi, and younger brother-cum-twin (as they're clones of the same person) as X1. The two, as is apparent from the word "go," won't always be getting along in this game.

In terms of gameplay itself, while the reasons for the objectives and the planets that they're carried out on may vary in the game's Campaign mode (the main single player mode), the objectives remain awfully stagnant. In a typical level an enemy exists on the ground, in the air and/or space, and aboard a ship (Star Destroyers are a common theme there). Users have to eliminate the right people or disable the large vessel or blast enough small ones out of the sky to move to the next area. The levels may change, the enemies may vary slightly, but the typical objectives are the same. Perhaps the developers are making a statement regarding the nature of war, but it doesn't make for a particularly enjoyable game.

Frankly, it could be that the tasks would be more enjoyable and exciting if the controls weren't endlessly frustrating, and the various ways X2 can be equipped were interesting. Taking the latter first, though the weapons do change somewhat, they don't change in interesting ways – the various equipment combos only seem to exist so that the player can be required to travel great distances hampered by a lack of a second gun in order to blow up something big or fix a piece of equipment. There is no real-feeling advantage in playing with different loadouts, only greater and lesser disadvantages.

As for movement, controlling a player requires using the ever-annoying PSP analog stick, so if the user's hand doesn't cramp within the first 20 minutes of gameplay, they will find themselves disheartened at never getting X2 or the vessel X2 is flying to quite face the correct direction or go where they want, how they want, when they want. Then there is the fact that the camera is never positioned correctly, which means that even if one is in the right place, all too often they don't know it.

It is as though the developers were aware of this shortcoming as they put in an auto-targeting feature which will have the player snap to the correct position to fire on an enemy character. As with so many other good ideas in the game, if this had been carried out correctly, it could have improved things. As it stands though, the auto-targeting feature has a mind of its own and all too often won't target the closest enemy, won't target the enemy firing at the player, won't target the player's objective, and can't be made to switch very easily from one enemy to another. On the upside, as opponents never appear damaged even when they are, without the handy-dandy life meter that appears over an enemy's head when they're being targeted, one would never be able to figure out how close they were to taking the bad guy out.

Combat in space is far more enjoyable than on the ground or in a larger ship, with things being more separated and it being easier to get the ship oriented correctly so as to get a clear shot at the enemy. The controls are somewhat sluggish in space, but it is still a far better game there than on terra firma (or aboard a big ship).

Elite Squadron also features a Galactic Conquest mode which is a combo of turn-based strategy gaming (without much depth) and action-based battles. The basic goal is to, well, conquer a galaxy (bet you couldn't tell that based on the name alone). Conquest is actually a lot more fun than the regular campaign mode, if only because one can often ignore commands being given and just score enough points any way they want to in order to capture a planet and get one step closer to galactic domination.

Elite Squadron also features a multiplayer component in which one can play as better known villains and heroes, but the bad controls and faulty targeting scheme still make themselves far too well known to make multiplayer an enjoyable experience. Two users can also use a single PSP in order play in Galactic Conquest mode, which, in this form, resolves any takeovers of occupied planets by simulating the combat.

The Star Wars universe is a fun one. There are, as this game demonstrates, more stories that can be told, and even if they're side stories, they can still be both deep and interesting. That being said, Stars Wars: Battlefront – Elite Squadron is hampered by deficiencies in so many other areas, that even if the story here were as great as Empire Strikes Back, it still wouldn't be the best videogaming trip into the Star Wars universe one could take.



Star Wars: Battlefront - Elite Squadron is rated T (Teen) by the ESRB for Fantasy Violence. This game can also be found on: Nintendo DS.

two stars out of five

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Three Times the Kevin Smith Comes to Blu-ray

It would probably be wrong to say that Kevin Smith speaks for my generation. He certainly has, as his production company name tells us, a View Askew, and that means that we'd all have to have the same sort of skewed view if he spoke for my generation. While it might be that we all see things somewhat off-center, I'm not convinced that we see things from the same off-center angle. Even so, while Kevin Smith doesn't speak for my generation, he certainly has the ability to speak to my generation — telling us things in a way we want to hear them.

Miramax is now releasing as a boxed set three of Smith's films on Blu-ray – Clerks (1994), Chasing Amy, and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. It may seem like an odd group of Smith films to put together (it most likely has to do with which films Miramax has the rights to), but all the stories of all three films do take place in the same universe.

Clerks, Smith's directorial debut, is a terribly low budget piece, the vast majority of which takes place in a convenience store and which, as the title suggests, revolves around the lives of two clerks, Dante (Brian O'Halloran), who works at the convenience store and Randal (Jeff Anderson), who works at the video store next door. It is a film in which surprisingly little happens. Dante spends much of his time complaining, Randal spends much of his time cursing.

The success of Clerks, of all three of these films, rests not on what happens, but how it all unfolds via the dialogue. Smith, who wrote all three films, has a unique use of language. At its best, Smith's writing is full of smart references to all forms of pop culture – the dialogue is profanity laden but still smart. At its worst, the dialogue is full of references that were dated by the time the film hit the big screen and still profanity laden.

As smart and funny and low budget wonderful as Clerks is with its ability to tap into the ennui of apathetic, lazy, slackers from the New York suburbs, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back takes the stance that more is more. It takes two recurring characters from earlier Smith films, the titular Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith himself), and moves them front and center as they travel across the country to stop a film based on comic book characters which are, in turn, based on them from getting made.

It is certainly possible to argue that Jay and Silent Bob are two of the funniest characters in Smith's earlier films (they appear in both Clerks and Chasing Amy as well as others), but – as is acknowledged within the film itself – the notion of the two of them carrying a film is a little far-fetched, it also doesn't come off quite as well as one would hope. The characters, as with many supporting characters in sitcoms, are funny as supporting characters.

Perhaps though the biggest problem with the film is the utterly outlandish nature of the plot. Where the other two films included here are merely improbable, the story here is utterly ridiculous, particularly the portion where the guys aid (albeit unknowingly) in a diamond heist.

The film does feature some great cameos and numerous references to Smith's earlier films – in fact, without seeing other Smith films not included in this set, some of the jokes will be missed. Those moments certainly prove satisfying to fans of Smith's work and pop culture in general, but they are only moments and don't improve the film itself.

The best of the three films herein is Chasing Amy, the third entry into Smith's "New Jersey Trilogy" (coming after Mallrats, not a Miramax film and therefore not included here, and Clerks). The film is filled with great dialogue, a funny – and yet wholly appreciated – view of comics, and good performances by leads Ben Affleck, Joey Lauren Adams, and Jason Lee. The story, which centers on Holden McNeil's (Affleck) affection for Alyssa (Adams), who is a lesbian, is certainly the best crafted of the three features and the least juvenile as well (not that there's necessarily anything wrong with juvenile).

Though the story focuses on love and loss, Smith manages to handle it in a way which prevents it from ever becoming overly sappy. It is a love story, an odd one, but a love story, and as such repeatedly opens itself to moments where it could become tedious or bogged down. Smith avoids those pitfalls, and despite the serious nature of some of the discussions, keeps things moving appropriately and makes sure to crack enough jokes to keep the audience laughing.

The new boxed set comes with a huge number of special features for Clerks and Chasing Amy, but only an audio commentary by Smith, producer Scott Mosier, and Mewes for Jay and Silent Bob. The other two also contain audio commentaries by Smith and Mosier. In fact, Clerks contains two commentary tracks, both with more than just those two (Mewes and O'Halloran are on both and Anderson on the second). The second track accompanies a "First Cut" version of the film, which has some added scenes and a new ending. Chasing Amy also contains a fantastic, new documentary on the making of the film, as well as a conversation with Smith and Adams and a Q & A (all of which is new). There are deleted scenes for both Amy and Clerks, an animated version of a deleted scene for Clerks, and several other special features all of which seem to have been released on the Clerks X 10th Anniversary Edition DVD. The only new bonus features here are an introduction by Smith for Clerks and a making-of piece on Jay and Silent Bob.

In terms of technical aspects of the releases, Jay and Silent Bob both looks and sounds the best of the three. This is no surprise as it was the highest budgeted and latest release of the three features. The transfer looks beautiful and sounds wonderful. Clerks, also not surprisingly, is the worst, although it does come across much better in high definition and with an English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track than one might imagine. The aforementioned "First Cut" of the film is all but unwatchable. As Smith explains in the introduction for the cut from the 10th anniversary DVD, it was obtained from a Super VHS tape, which accounts for the truly poor quality of both the video and the audio, with poor, muffled, sound (and not the soundtrack which appeared on the final cut of the film) and overly dark, indistinct, complete with wavy black lines underneath it all video. The decision to not improve the look and sound, Smith says, was purposeful but does make it awfully hard to look at in high definition. As for Chasing Amy, it lies somewhere between the two. The print is clean and the colors bold and bright and wholly appropriate for a film which revolves around comics, and, also contains a 5.1 Channel DTS-HD Master Audio track which provides crisp, clean audio (and sounds particularly good when there is music).

Though there is not a lot in the way of new features for Clerks and Jay and Silent Bob, for many the chance to purchase Clerks and Chasing Amy on Blu-ray for the first time may be too big to pass up. And, even if Jay and Silent Bob isn't the greatest film, Smith's voice is a unique one and well worth hearing. Though his films may be filled with curses as well as lewd and suggestive behavior, there is an underlying heart and wisdom about the world in them (when they're at their best), and they make for interesting - and different - viewing.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Everything Old is New Super Mario Bros. Wii

Sometimes reinventing the wheel isn't necessary.  Sometimes just giving the wheel a nice spit-and-polish is all that is needed to make the wheel seem shiny and new and tons of fun.  As old as the wheel might be, even if it, horror of horrors, is from the 8-bit world, it can still sometimes be tweaked and updated to be wonderful on the consoles of today.  Case in point – New Super Mario Bros. Wii.

For this entry into the venerable Mario franchise, the series has been converted from the 3D version we've gotten used to seeing on home consoles (save the Paper Mario series) back to a 2D side-scroller (Super Mario Galaxy 2, which is scheduled to be released next year, is going to be 3D).  It's a change thatNew Super Mario Bros. Wii hearkens back to Mario's early days (and the New Super Mario Bros. for DS, which though it has a similar name to this game, isn't the same).  It also lends an air of nostalgia to the game.  The fact that worlds are labeled old-school style with the traditional 1-1, 1-2, 1-3, etc. only further enhances the nostalgic effect.

Make no mistake however, this is not the same Super Mario Bros. that was originally released on the NES.  Levels still end with jumping on a flag and heading into a castle, and the set-up of some levels may look similar, but it is not the same game.  Where it was possible to breeze through Super Mario Bros. (and even Super Mario Bros. 3 if one used a flute or two) in a single sitting, New Super Mario Bros. Wii will take far, far more time and be far, far more difficult.  It is, however, time well spent.

Following in the footsteps of the latter 2D Mario games, this one features maps of the various worlds Mario visits, asNew Super Mario Bros. Wii well as, occasionally, the opportunity to choose which level within a world one will visit (multiple paths sometimes exist).  As the game is so enjoyable though, the odds are that anyone playing will want to visit every single level available for play.

The gameplay itself unfolds just as one would expect from a 2D side-scroller.  More often than not, Mario will start on the left side of the screen and have to progress to the right over the course of the level.  Every few levels, Mario meets up with one of the Koopalings, who, in truly dastardly fashion have dared to kidnap Princess Peach on her birthday.  Mario also comes face-to-face with tons of other old enemiess – Goombas, Koopa Troopas, Hammer Bros., Piranha Plants, and Dry Bones to name a few.

The levels are not only filled with enemies however; several other elements combine to make the game an often difficult one to progress through New Super Mario Bros. Wiigracefully.  Levels have plenty of moving (back and forth, up and down, and rotating) parts that Mario has to run on, jump off of, avoid completely, and any other possible combination one can imagine.  Few of the worlds actually progress as simple point A to point B runs, as there is always a trick and always the huge potential for loss of plumber life. 

While it might be wrong to suggest that the game is very hard, it is certainly tricky and certainly harder than many (maybe all) of Mario's other adventures.  The one disappointment in this aspect are the battles with the Koopa kids who are not particularly worthy of being "bosses."

Mario does have some new tricks up his sleeve though.  This game not only has power-ups we've seen before (stars, fire flowers, etc.), it also features new ones like a Penguin Suit and a Propeller Suit.  The former of these allows Mario to fly briefly while the latter allows him to slide and throw snowballs (snowballs can also be tossed if Mario has received an ice flower power-up).  The game also includes something callNew Super Mario Bros. Wiied the Super Guide which can be activated after dying enough times on a particular level.  Once active, Luigi will appear as an NPC and finish the level for the player (the player can take over for Luigi, but Luigi cannot be reactivated). Luigi won't find all the secrets on his way through the level, but one can get a good idea for where things are, and one can replay the course after Luigi has completed it. The Super Guide is a good addition to the game, one which helps broaden the age ranges who can successfully play the game.  Some may see it as cheating, but, if used by one who doesn't actually need it, they're only really cheating themselves (and it will cost them a whole lot of lives to boot).  Video tutorials can also be accessed to help players, but they have to be earned.

One of the other fantastic additions to the game is the ability to play simultaneous multiplayer.  Up to four people can sit in front of a single Wii, all playing the game at the same time – one as Mario, one as Luigi, and two as Toads.  While this mode can be a huge amount of fun, anyone that actually wants to progress in the game should avoid the mode – getting other people to do what one wants them to do when one wants them to do it in the game is not New Super Mario Bros. Wiieasy.  Additionally, the game will zoom in and out (only so far) as players come together and separate – if one player causes the game to zoom out as another is trying to execute a tricky jump, the jumper will almost certainly fail. 

Playable with either the remote alone or remote and nunchuk and complete with good graphics, peppy Mario music, a fast pace, tons to do, and containing a great formula at its center, New Super Mario Bros. Wii is an outstanding game.  It is nice to know that Mario still has a place in this world, and that even when he's in a game which consciously looks to his past, he still seems a few steps ahead of everyone else.

 


New Super Mario Bros. Wii is rated E (Everyone) by the ESRB for Comic Mischief.

five stars out of five

Friday, November 13, 2009

Going out with Rabbids Go Home

Rabbids, originally introduced in the Rayman series of videogames, are, essentially demented little anthropomorphic rabbits. They're less than intelligent, less than cunning, terribly violent, and sometimes mean creatures. They're also ridiculously funny things.

The Rabbids latest adventure, Rabbids Go Home, features the bunny-esque bullies attempting to build a massive pile of junk so that they can go home, to the moon. Is the moon their home? Does it matter? Is it possible to build a massive pile of junk big enough to climb there? Does it matter? Were one to attempt to build a pile of junk big enough to go to said home on the moon would they pile all that junk up in a shopping cart in order to give it to a sousapRabbids Go Homehone-playing Rabbid to hold onto, except for the really big stuff which they would instead shove directly into a toilet, then putting the sousaphone-held garbage into the same toilet in order to get all the stuff back to the junkyard where the pile is being built? Does it matter?

For the Rabbids, such a series of actions is wholly logical, or, at the very least, as logical as the Rabbids get. And that, is where the player comes into this game. Users get to help two Rabbids steer their shopping cart through various parts of Center City and its outskirts, throwing all the stuff with a white circle around it into the shopping cart. Anything without a white circle – people, dogs, vending machines, etc., – get yelled at or run into or both in an attempt to separate collectible items (like the dogs themselves, once they're docile) from non-collectible ones. It is a pretty simple concept, with pretty simple gameplay mechanics.

Rabbids Go Home

Every level contains 1,000 feet of junk, comprised of small items and larger ones. Levels can be completed only by getting the big stuff, however, it's still recommended that one grab little stuff as well in order to actually build a large enough pile to help the Rabbids achieve their moderately-insane task. The more feet of junk one collects, the more levels get opened, and the closer the Rabbids can come to… goodness knows what sort of reality.

Okay, so it's all insane, the real question is – is it fun; is it enjoyable to take these wacky little creatures through shopping malls, grocery stores, airports, office buildings, hospitals, etc., in order to get junk (like sick people in their hospital beds) to build the moon-bound pile? Sometimes.

Shopping cart physics are not the easiest thing to piece together, and having rabid fluffy creatures drive shopping carts around make them that much more complicated. Using the Wii remote and the nunchuk, players drive the shopping carts up walls, down ramps, and out windows, usually with great results. It is possible (once players advance far enough in the game) to turbo boost andRabbids Go Homethereby have even more high-flying fun. However, things are not always rosy in the Rabbid world. All too often, angles of jumps one has to hit are slightly tricky and made all the more difficult by poor and unalterable camera angles. Where exactly in midair is that bird with the white circle one needs to get? When the ramp one has to hit at a precise angle in order to get the bird puts the bird off-screen, it can be exceedingly difficult, and all too frustrating, to judge.

The levels are essentially linear, and while that is fine, problems result when the player is presented with two paths – one of which leads to a dead-end with junk in it and the other of which advances one (in a one-way direction) towards the end of the level – and it isn't clear which path does what. The first time through players will miss collecting all the bits of junk they need and miss a perfect score, simply because given a 50-50 choice with no clues, they chose the wrong path first.

That problem, though is, small in comparison to the way the game treats a player's death. Some objects and enemies – like the evil Verminators – can hurt the Rabbids, eliminating their life (displayed as three light bulbs), and falling off the side of a building means instant death. Rather than the game putting the player back to the last point where they dropped off their junk, or back at the beginning of the level, Rabbids Go Homethey're placed at some random checkpoint and without however many hundreds of feet of junk they may have had in their shopping cart at the time. As the levels tend to be uni-directional, one can't simply go back and get whatever stuff they may have picked up before hitting that checkpoint. Instead, players must complete the level and then go back and play it through again from the beginning in order to better their garbage-getting tally.

A second player can join in on the fun, but their job consists solely of pointing at extra junk and thereby adding it to the cart. In a game that otherwise seems to have been thought out very well, the second player aspect adds very little. The game features no other real multiplayer, except if one counts the ability to customize their Rabbids, which, beside making them playable in customized form within the game, also allows them to be uploaded with Nintendo's Wi-Fi Connect via a Rabbids Channel where contests are held to determine the best-looking Rabbids.

Graphically, the game looks good, but certainly not great. Objects are drawn very simply, are bright, and easily definable. Edges tend to not be as rounded as one might believe they should be, but don't detract and have a certain sense of style. Cutscenes come in several forms, one of which is more comic-book cartoony, and which are a great deal of fun to watch. Other cutscenes however stick with the game's main graphical style and look far less good. They seem to be not-quite-fully rendered, with odd lines and jump cuts breaking up the action. The truly unfortunate part of this is that some of the cutscenes with this problem occur at the end of every single level.

Different levels of Rabbids Go Home alter the basic gameplay slightly, and this is where the game is really at its best. Whether the change involves time limits, driving around an airplane engine instead of a shopping cart, or some other little or change, it are the variations on the theme that make the game so playable. However, when some levels fail to provide an interesting variation, the game, which is not terribly difficult to begin with, falls flat. It makes for an uneven experience, one with high highs and low lows, and hurts the overall impression of a game which could have been great.

Rabbids Go Home is rated E10+ (Everyone 10 and older) by the ESRB for Cartoon Violence, Crude Humor, Mild Language, Mild Suggestive Themes, and Tobacco Reference. This game can also be found on: Nintendo DS.

three stars out of five

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Getting Happy with Glee

How good was Artie's "Dancing with Myself" last night on Glee?  No, it wasn't good, it was great, wasn't it?  It was a great use of a song, it was well sung, and then they're repeating the song when everyone was riding around in wheelchairs, but using the Billy Idol version was fantastic.

Then, I think one of the better stories they've come up with this season is the one between Kurt and his father.  Kurt's dad is clearly uncomfortable with his son, but doesn't let his own discomfort get in the way of his love for his son.  Kurt's dad would do anything for his boy, no matter what.  It's a solid message.

Obviously the show isn't solely full of positive messages and goodness – just look at Puck's putting pot in the cupcakes in order to sell more.  I'm not going to argue for Puck's actions solely based on thPhoto Credit:  Carin Baer/FOXe fact that he was pushing for a good outcome – I don't accept that the ends justify the means – but it was still a great way for the show to work their way through the story they had created.  I'm not suggesting that Puck's method would have actually worked in reality but it absolutely worked within the logic of the show – it got the club the money they needed, until he stole the cash, anyway.  Puck isn't necessarily a good guy and even though the show is full of positive messages, they don't feel the need to sanitize him.

Now, you might say that the show did feel the need to sanitize Sue last night, by introducing us to her sister.  I disagree.  Sue is inhumanly evil. She wasn't being sanitized last night via her sister; she was being humanized.  It's the sort of thing we've already seen from Sue before, and we're sure to see it repeatedly in the future.  It's actually a good move – her evil is all the more evil because we know that she can be human, is human on occasion. 

Glee was not a show where I particularly enjoyed the first episode.  It was not a show where I particularly enjoyed the second episode.  But, it's one of those shows that convinces me that I actually ought to stick with a series for several episodes before wiping it forever from my DVR.  Yes, that means that I stick with stuff like Eastwick longer than I should, but Glee tPhoto Credit:  Carin Baer/FOXotally makes up for that.

I'm not saying the show is perfect, each episode is really only as successful as the songs – they're the reason I watch.  The characters are interesting, the storylines are good, but it really is the songs that make the show, for me, must watch.  When the songs aren't that good, or when there aren't enough of them, I find myself disappointed at the end of the hour.

See, that's why I'll continue to insist that I'm not turning into some sort of Gleek.  Or, at the very least, I'll never admit to being a Gleek.  It doesn't make me a Gleek to want to buy the album from the show, does it?  Tell me it doesn't.  Please.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

It's Me, Mario! A Quick Preview of the New Super Mario Bros. Wii

Ever committed to bringing you, our readers, all the latest info, we here at The TV and Film Guy's Reviews are happy to report our preliminary findings of New Super Mario Bros. Wii.  Our full review of Mario's latest adventure will be forthcoming next week, but having had the opportunity to take the retail version of the gave for a test drive, we're giving you a sneak peek at what we've found.

In brief – we're excited, very excited.  It's a 2D side-scroller version of Mario made for today and a home console.  It features good graphics, classic-sounding Mario music, and one Princess Peach who has been kidnapped by the those troublesome Koopalings. 

The levels play out like suped-up versions of Super Mario Bros. games (as one would expect from the title).  There are not only flags that one has to jump on at the end of a level (our initial attempts haven't resulted in fireworks yet), butNew Super Mario Bros. Wii question mark blocks, pipes to travel through, classic enemies to jump on, and even propeller suits.

What it isn't in our initial attempts, is a complete breeze to get through.  It may be easy to get to the end of a level, but not to do so having accomplished everything on the level, and when one has to save a Toad (as sometimes happens), the levels are downright difficult.

The game offers up to four-player multiplayer within the main story, and can even have people add or drop between levels.  There's also a "Quick Save" function which allows saves within a world, but those saves can only be loaded once before disappearing forever.
Based on what we've seen so far, New Super Mario Bros. Wii is just about everything one could want from a Mario game even if the title is a bit cumbersome.  Look for our full review next week.

V - Episode Two Thoughts

I am very happy to report that after a second week of V (the 2009 one, not the old one), I'm liking the show more and more.  Oh, in case you couldn't tell, we're probably going to be talking a lot about what happened in the episode last night, so if you don't want to know, don't continue reading.

Now, while the show has flaws (and we'll talk about those), I really did enjoy the fact that the producers didn't keep the evilness of the Visitors hidden.  There seems little to make anyone believe that the Visitors aren't out to try and destroy humanity.  Of course, they were evil in the original series, but I wasn't going to put it past the producers to try and flip the story on us – the resistance being evil, the Visitors being good.  They still could do that, but it seems increasingly less likely.

The biggest issue that the show might face at this point is the creation of the Resistance.  There are good aliens hidden among us, there are bad aliens hidden among us, and Elizabeth Mitchell's Erica and Joel Gretsch's Father Jack are going to be our leaders in forming the Resistance and right now they're scared of their own shadows.  If that remains the case, if the Resistance doesn't come about in relatively short order, the show could end up floundering.

Obviously there's a danger in the show progressing too quickly, moving the storyline ahead too quickly, not really letting the here and now develop, and not really allowing the producers themselves to figure out where the show is heading.  On the other hand, if our leads just sort of dither aroundElizabeth Mitchell Joel Gretsch every week, hold off on forming the resistance, and do very little except covering their oh-so-light tracks, it could get awfully dull. 

It could also get really dull if we get bogged down in a domestic dispute between Erica and her son, Tyler.  I can't imagine that anyone really wants to see the show go down that road.  No, what I think we all want is lizard on human fighting.

At this point I think that things are actually going to progress a little more slowly than I'd like, finally starting to move forward at good speed in two weeks.  The show is only doing four episodes before going on hiatus until next year, and two weeks from now is when episode four is airing.  See where I'm headed there?

Wow, here I am, opening with my really liking the episode and then revealing my fears for how the whole thing could possibly falter, especially because the domestic dispute I don't want to take place is going to take place.  No.  Stop that.  We're not going there.  Last night was fun.  It was a good episode.  It moved things along just enough to see where they might be headed. 

A lot happened in the first episode, so last night was more of a "take a breath but give a glimpse ahead" kind of a thing.  I like where it's headed.  Lizard aliens versus humans is just fun, and I think lizard aliens versus humans is exactly where we're headed.  Everything about the show makes it feel as though ABC is sinking a lot of money into it, so hopefully the fights will be good ones.

Where exactly will the show go?  How much will things change come the new year?  Well, the show has replaced showrunner, Scott Peters, and Peters was responsible for last night's episode (though according to Sci-Fi Wire he'll be staying on as a writer).  The address of the warehouse that Erica and Dale ended up in during the first episode, the warehouse they kept going back to last night, was 4400 Pier Ave.  Peters also executive produced The 4400 (and Joel Gretsch was also in that show).  I thought it was a cute reference, but it may be the sort of thing we don't get more of down the line.

As long as we get a Resistance and they do something though I think we'll be okay.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Hitching a Ride with The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (2009)

Just because a film is a remake – or perhaps a movie based on a book that was already made into a movie – doesn't mean the film is destined to fail.  To be less cryptic, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (2009), directed by Tony Scott may not be a brilliant film (or terribly original), but it is a pretty exciting way to spend two hours.

Featuring a star-packed cast led by Denzel Washington and John Travolta, the film follows the hijacking of a New York City 6 train, the Pelham 1 2 3.  It is one of those films where the bad guys, in this case led by the enigmatic Ryder (John Travolta), have everything planned to the last detail, every eventuality worked out.  That is, they have every eventuality worked out except for there being someone with a little too much knowledge, too much intelligence, and too much guts working the other side of the hostage negotiation. 

In this case, that's Walter Garber (Denzel Washington), a former muckety-muck for the MTA (Metropolitan Transportation Authority) who, under suspicion of bribery, has found himself demoted.  Thus, he is the lucky man monitoring the Lexington Ave. subway and therefore the Pelham 1 2 3.  Garber, for some reason, strikes the fancy of Ryder and even when the real police, led by Camonetti (John Turturro) show up, Garber gets to stick around.

Also appearing in supporting roles are James Gandolfini, as the mayor (a Bloomberg-type) and Luis Guzman as Phil Ramos, one of Ryder's crew.  While both characters have some serious moments, they also serve, to some extent, as comic relief.  They also, along with Turturro's Camonetti, help take some of the burden off Washington and Travolta. 

That said, the conversations between Ryder and Garber are where the film works best.  The relationship, odd though it may be, is, if not believable, enjoyable to watch develop.  Early on, the Ryder proves himself capable of doing whatever it takes to get his money and smart enough to always be one step ahead of the cops.  Garber is just the poor guy who is in the wrong place at the wrong time, John McClane, but without the police skills.

The over-the-radio Ryder-Garber relationship establishes the film as a taut action thriller.   Washington and Travolta are strong enough actors, and the dialogue they are given in Brian Helgeland's screenplay is good enough that even though the two men aren't face-to-face, the interchanges between the two become the best part of the film.  Watching Garber in a no-win situation talking to a man threatening to kill a train car full of New Yorkers is where the film uses most of its runtime, and it is time well spent.

The problems in the film crop up when Scott takes the easy way out in the third act.  He allows Ryder and Garber to come face-to-face, and while both actors are in good form, it is an unnecessary and all-too-obvious development.  Tony Scott's style has never been one of restraint, one of holding back and thereby making a better film.  Scott's is a style of excess both in story and camera work – moving cameras, fast motion shots, slow motion shots and deriving tension from those tricks.  With two great actors in the film, Scott could have, and should have, relaxed his visual style, refrained from putting the two man in the same camera shot.  The tension in Pelham is not heightened by any of it, and the fact that the resolution of the film is just plain silly is disheartening.  Instead, the sense the audience gets is that Helgeland and Scott just found the most expedient way to get their two heavyweight actors together and took it, not thinking about what it would do to the rest of the film.  Because of the disappointing third act, what was a well above average thriller with an interesting (if unoriginal) concept is brought down to mere mediocrity.

The Blu-ray release itself looks and sounds fantastic and is perhaps the perfect place to showcase Scott's hyperkinetic style.  The colors are bold and rich, the details perfect, and the film without a hint of dirt, noise, or imperfection.  The audio, a 5.1 DTS-HD MA track, has the surrounds play out beautifully; the bass kicks; and the dialogue (of which there is a lot) is perfect, whether it comes directly to the audience from someone on-screen or via a radio, with the accompanying crackle.

In terms of special features, the Blu-ray comes with a commentary track from Scott as well as one from Helgeland and producer Todd Black.  There is also a basic making-of piece as well as an interesting one on the NYC subway system and what it takes to film there.  There is also a ridiculous featurette on haircuts in the film, who did them, and how hair is important to Scott.  It plays out almost as a joke, and one can't quite tell why it was included.  The Blu-ray also comes with Sony's movieIQ feature, a digital copy, and something called "Marketing Pelham," which is just a different way of titling the inclusion of trailers.

The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 is not a film that one can just turn off with thirty minutes to go, doing that would just leave the audience hanging.  Unfortunately, watching the last thirty minutes one can't help but get the feeling that those responsible for the film, who had crafted a good film to that point, turned themselves off.

Monday, November 09, 2009

An Amazing Race Roll in the Hay

CBS has this incredibly odd way of promoting The Amazing Race. Well, perhaps "odd" isn't quite the right word — maybe "forward" is better. They have a very forward way of promoting the Race. Whenever one sees scenes from the next episode - either right after the current one or over the course of the week - the network is always very, very obvious about what exactly is going to take place, what the big story is. There's something to be said for that – honesty and truthfulness aren't bad things in general. Sometimes, though, one ends up feeling either less than shocked at a big "twist" that's been ruined because of the promos or simply waiting to find out when the moment from the promo will appear.

We were all promised for last night's episode that we would get the hay bale task from season six again, that is, a task done nine seasons ago where one poor woman had to stay in a field all day (10 hours), unrolling huge, round, bales of hay in order to find a flag stuck in one. It was intensive labor and the flag seemed pretty easy to miss. Plus, with almost 200 bales of hay present and (at least this time out) only seven flags stuck into them, it could take an incredibly long time.

While strength and skill were certainly factors last night, luck also played a huge role. Choose the wrong bale of hay – the wrong 100 bales of hay – and one could have wound up in the field for an awfully long time. The first time the series did this task, Phil had to go to the field and tell Lena & Kristy that they were going home, and, they still hadn't found the flag. Talk about disheartening.

I actually thought it incredibly nice that this time out, Phil was right there by the hay field. He could just go, tap the losing team on their shoulders, and tell them they were headed home. I was sure that he was right there for that reason.

Not only did that not happen, but luck didn't play as big a factor as it might have this time out.

Yes, the first team to arrive at the hay field was the second to last team to find a flag, but that didn't put them all that far behind the first team, and while it may have cost them a trip for winning that leg of the race, they didn't go home. It was in fact the final team to get to the hay field that was the last team to find a flag. There's something almost right about that. Position changes do routinely come up on Detours and Roadblocks, but seeing the team to arrive last at the final task of a night finish last is something no one can really be all that upset about.

What I found equally remarkable was the fact that after finding out they were going to be last [SPOILER ALERT], Gary – of Gary & Matt – kept on working, unrolling bales of hay. Last week featured the two poker-playing quitters giving up on the leg after realizing they were going to come in last. It was massively disappointing. You never just throw in the towel like that, and the fact that Gary & Matt didn't, that they stayed there and Gary kept unrolling hay really spoke well of them. Also, this turned out to be a non-elimination leg, and I imagine that if the two guys had quit that wouldn't have been the case (I'm going with the theory that the producers have some discretion on the fly with those sorts of things).

So, Gary & Matt live another day and the Race has successfully revisited a Roadblock where not all the teams succeeded last time out. Was the visit successful? Well, depends on how you see things – I don't like luck-based tasks, and this was a luck-based task. It was however still fun to watch the contestants do such grueling manual labor.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Disputing Rocky: The Undisputed Collection

It may be foolhardy to do so, but there is plenty to dispute in Rocky – The Undisputed Collection, the new Blu-ray boxed set of all six Rocky movies.   That lovable, sometimes punchy, lug from Philadelphia; the Italian Stallion; Philadelphia's Favorite Son went through a heck of a lot over the course of the movies, but the movies, as with Rocky's life, are something of a bumpy road.

The initial Rocky is a masterpiece.  It won the Best Picture Oscar and put Stallone, who wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay and insisted that he star in the movie (he was also nominated for an Oscar for the role) on the map.  The tale is a pretty simple underdog story, nothing that hasn't been done before, but one which still manages to pull all the right heartstrings.  Stallone stars as the titular Rocky, a down-and-out fighter from Philadelphia, a guy who has never made it and though he boxes, earns a living as the enforcer for a small-time loan shark.  Rocky ends up with a "dream shot," a relatively random chance to fight the current heavyweight champion, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers).

Through the years – and the next five films – Rocky would fight Creed twice more, Clubber Lang (Mr. T), Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), Tommy "The Machine" Gunn (Tommy Morrison), and Mason "The Line" Dixon (Antonio Tarver), in addition to participating in several smaller bouts.  Each movie carefully crafts Rocky's reasons for fighting and in each film Rocky has to convince a family member, usually his wife, Adrian (Talia Shire, Oscar-nominated for the original), that it's the right thing to do – that fighting is something that Rocky needs, or the country needs, or that just has to be done.

Outside of his opponents, the series certainly features some great supporting characters.  The aforementioned Creed, who appeared in four of the films and Adrian, who was in five, are certainly among them.  Also crucially important to the films, and played beautifully, are Rocky's brother-in-law, Paulie (Burt Young, Oscar-nominated for the original) and Rocky's trainer, Mickey (Burgess Meredith, again, Oscar-nominated for the original).  Rocky is always at the films' center, but without the supporting characters, Rocky would never have progressed.  In the better films, the characters grow with Rocky, learning about themselves and becoming better people.  In the worse ones, they remain shadows of their former selves.  Watching the original film, it is easy to believe that so many of the actors were nominated for awards, but if one were to only watch Rocky IV, the pictures they would get of Paulie and Adrian are not merely incomplete, they would be absurdist cartoon versions of this once three-dimensional, very human people.

As for the movies, though they may deal with the sport of boxing a really the story of this average man thrown into extraordinary circumstances.  Rocky is a guy who may not have had the easiest life, but who makes the most of every opportunity.  Rocky isn't the smartest guy, he isn't the most eloquent, but he still is the man whom we would all like to be, not because he's a boxer and the two-time heavyweight champion, but because he's a guy who always, no matter what, fights for what he thinks is right.

Within that basic outline though, the stories take on various forms.  The first two tales are ones where Rocky has nothing and is just trying to scratch out a living, by the third he's rich and famous and looking to get back to top form, and by the fourth (and by far the silliest) installment in the series, Rocky is fighting for America against the Soviet Union.  From there, the final two movies are both supposed to serve as something of a conclusion to the series.  Rocky V actually returns John Avildsen, who directed the original (the others were all directed by Stallone) back to the helm, and shows Rocky trying to cope with being retired and losing his money.  Rocky Balboa gives the ex-champ one last time to fight and help save boxing, exorcise his demons and to find a way to not go softly into that good night.

When the films focus on the small stories – the downtrodden Rocky; the Rocky just trying to first get a family, then keep his family – they are at their best.  Essentially, the films work when Rocky is an underdog, not when he is a superhero.  It may be fun to watch Rocky slug it out with the superhuman Ivan Drago in Rocky IV, but outside of atrociously overdone fights, the film has no power behind it, it has lost all that is essentially Rocky.

The fifth film actually acts as a mea culpa to Rocky IV, with Rocky no longer being allowed to fight in the ring and retiring… again.  It's the story of how Rocky tries to keep boxing as pure as he remembers it by training a young up-and-comer who is, unfortunately seduced by the dark side of the sport.  The film might actually have worked as a satisfying conclusion to the series except for the incredibly poor acting on Tommy Morrison's part – it's almost impossible to not cringe every time he speaks – and the franchise's dogged insistence on having a fight scene in every film.  As Rocky can't box in the ring anymore, the climactic fight is a street brawl between Tommy and Rocky.  For a series that has choreographed some brilliant boxing matches, it is an embarrassingly low point for the franchise.  Whereas Rocky IV is purposefully over-the-top and silly, Rocky V attempts to scale back, to return the characters to their roots, but the story concocted to get them there is unsatisfying in the extreme.

The final film, Rocky Balboa, actually does manage to provide a good ending to the films and Rocky's story.  Though certainly less believable than the already not-terribly-believable original, the final film does actually manage to create almost the same emotional pull and to get the audience back in Rocky's corner.

As for the technical aspects of the Blu-ray release, perhaps a sporting analogy would be best.  In terms of the video presentation, Rocky – The Undisputed Collection is like a weak forehand jab thrown by a featherweight who has just spent 15 rounds going toe-to-toe with Rocky himself.  Yes, the original film is over 30 years old, but from the original through the fifth incarnation, the colors are weak (though they do improve over the course of the series), the image itself actually wavers from time to time, the prints are dirty, and there is enough digital noise in some scenes so that one can't tell the difference the noise and clouds.  Does it look better than the DVDs included in the set that came out a few years ago?  Yes, but the films – even the bad ones – deserve better treatment than they've been given here.  The sound is better than the visuals, without the snap, crackle, and pop that one might assume would come with the video quality.  Bill Conti's fantastic music, as well as the classic "Eye of the Tiger" sound just as awe-inspiring as they ought.  On the downside, it is a little saddening that there is no sound to accompany the punches that land in the first Creed-Balboa fight, but that probably has more to do with the budget the film was made on.

Through the years, Rocky and its sequels have seen more than one DVD release, some quite good and which include several different special features.  It therefore makes it somewhat difficult to assess what, precisely, is new in terms of special features for The Undisputed Collection.  It certainly appears as though the Rocky Balboa disc contains all the extras (including an Easter Egg) that were on that film's original Blu-ray release and no more.  The vast majority of the rest of the extras (behind-the-scenes discussions and making-of pieces) are the same ones that appeared on the two-disc Rocky Collector's Edition and/or the 25th Anniversary release.  There was, at one point, a commentary track that accompanied the original film, it has not be included in this release (though there is one for Rocky Balboa).  The only item here labeled as a "Blu-ray exclusive" is a trivia game that tests just how well one knows the Rocky facts and which is moderately amusing.

Seeing the relatively poor quality of the video and the hodge-podge of old special features included on Rocky – The Undisputed Collection, one can't help but get the feeling that they're being set up.  As much fun as it is to sit there and watch the movies (and even the bad ones, save perhaps Rocky V can be fun), one can almost feel the rope-a-dope coming.  There is a sense that the audience is being suckered in, expending all its energy (money) on this release only to have brand-new beautifully remastered with utterly-fantastic all-new special features and commentary tracks released in another year or two.  At that point, after the disappointing way that some of these films look, we'll all just have to have the versions we thought we were getting this time out.  Maybe that one will be called Rocky – The Two-Time Champ Collection.  Until it is known if that is in the works, it may be wise to hold off on purchasing this set, particularly if one already owns the films on DVD.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Baseball's Over, Time for FIFA Soccer 10

There are many possible reasons that the sport of soccer hasn't taken off in this country the way that it has in the rest of the world.  It's not as conducive to television viewing as other sports – there's no easy way to break for a commercial.  It can often be a low scoring affair and as a nation we tend to like to see points/goals/runs rack up.  Oh, every few years, people in this country get excited about the sport, but usually that's a momentary world cup thing.  Maybe if the game was as fast-paced in real-life as it is in FIFA Soccer 10 it would be more popular in this country.

The latest version of the franchise features numerable updates to a game that was already solid.  There is a completely revamped Manager Mode, which is roughly equivalent to the Franchise Mode that exists in Madden, the player gets to choose a team and manage it (both behind the scenes and in-game) through several years so as to both win and make money.  It is here where the depth of the game really comes through and where most people will probably spend the majority of their time.

Of course, as much fun as it is to set things behind the scenes, the essential question in any sports game is how well it performs on the field.  FIFA Soccer 10 is as smooth as the arc of a perfectly bananaed corner kick and a huge amount of fun to play.FIFA Screenshot

The big on-field innovation this year is something EA calls 360? Dribbling.  Essentially, this new dribbling style means is that no longer is the user restricted to moving up, down, left, right, and at the exact middle points to those (up and right equally, up and left equally, etc.), the game can now handle a movement that is mostly up but just a hint to the right and little bit less up and a little bit more to the right, and so on and so forth – the user now has full 360-degree control over where the on-field player goes.  There does however, appear to be some real physics involved – if a player is sprinting while dribbling, it does take more time to make course corrections.

Opponent AI can be set at various skill levels, which will help many users get the hang of how exactly the game plays out, but unfortunately the AI doesn't learn over the course of a game or a season.  Set on the easy level, should one choose to be Manchester United (and why would anyone want to be any other team, even though there are a truly staggering number of leagues and teams available), every time one gets the ball starting a half or following an opposition goal, the ball gets tapped to Wayne Rooney who can sprint all the way down the field, past all defenders with ease, and end up with a one-on-one with the goalie.  It shouldn't be that easy, and it definitely shouldn't be that easy again and again and again…  Rooney isn't allowed to dominate the field like that on higher difficulty settings, but as great as Rooney and Man. U. are, such a move should never be allowed.  In these instances one can't help but be reminded of Bo Jackson in Tecmo Bowl, and that is something of a disappointment. 

The Virtual Pro mode is also new this year (or is at least a new title with vast changes over the old version).  The most impressive – and most fun – feature included in Virtual Pro is the ability to log onto a website, upload a couple of photos of one's self, and then have EA's computers turn the picturFIFA Screenshotes into a semi-realistic rendering which can then be downloaded into the game.  It is, in brief, very cool to see oneself on the pitch wearing a jersey.  Virtual pros can be drafted onto teams in Manager Mode, although this reviewer couldn’t figure out how to do it in an already existing franchise, forcing him to start again from the top.  Virtual pros can be trained both in the Arena (a fun little area that pops up as one heads from one portion of the game to the next and lets one try out various moves) and gameplay situations, and receive points for performing various feats (over 200 exist).

The on-field graphics are pretty stellar, featuring different appearances for the myriad of players, as well as very smooth on-field play.  The crowds are something of a let down graphically, but if one is looking at them, they're going to wind up in trouble on the field, but perhaps not huge trouble as AI defenders tend to match up very well against AI opponents.

As with virtually every sports game ever made, while the announcers initially seem cheery and great and wonderful, they begin to repeat their insightful comments all too soon.  Perhaps one day a sports game will figure out exactly how to incorporate play-by-play in a way that remotely resembles what one might actually hearing during a match.  That day, though, is not today.

Without a doubt, the biggest disappointment in the game is EA's relatively new desire to charge for various downloadable content.  It is one thing to have downloadable content available for a fee via the PlayStation Store or the Xbox Marketplace, it is, however, an entirely different thing to have various items available in the game's menu ask the player to pop another quarter iFIFA Screenshotnto the machine.  The main place (though not the only place) this issue crops up in FIFA Soccer 10 is with Live Season 2.0.  Here, one can "purchase a league" and receive regular updates (depending on the league) about team and player performances, transfers, injuries, suspensions, etc.  It feels rather cheap to have someone plunk down $60 for a game and then ask for more money to have all the features of the made available.

Actual online play against others can be done for free, both in ranked and unranked matches.  Play here is just as smooth as in the regular game, and can certainly help teach users just how good they are – Rooney is most definitely not allowed to streak past opponents untouched over and over again when playing against another human being.

The game actually slows down far more post matches in Manager Mode than it ever does in online play.  In fact, the post-game moments, where one sees scores and transfers, has background screens that pause and stutter on a regular basis.  There are certainly lots of teams and players, but the stuttering background is disconcerting, even if the game is doing lots of work behind the scenes.

Minor complaints and criticisms aside, FIFA Soccer 10 is a great game.  It features depth on-field and off, and several great addendums/alterations to its predecessor.


FIFA Soccer 10 is rated E (Everyone) by the ESRB.

four stars out of five

The Yankees Win! It's like a Magical Christmas for all, and more so for Mickey, who has been Snowed in at the House of Mouse

Originally a special produced as a part of Disney's House of Mouse in 2001, Mickey's Magical Christmas: Snowed in at the House of Mouse is returning to DVD.  With tons of Disney characters making an appearance as well as classic Disney cartoons, the DVD is a can't miss success for fans of the Mouse... unless of course, they bought it the first time it was released.

The basic premise of the House of Mouse series involved Mickey and friends running something of a supper club with a floor show.  Famous (and not-so-famous) Disney characters would show up, have a meal, and get to watch Mickey and company perform as well as getting to see old Disney cartoons.  There was also a story that involved the main characters behind the scenes.

Mickey's Magical Christmas: Snowed in at the House of Mouse opens with all the attendees of the evening's show trying to leave at the end of the night only to find that they have – as the title indicates – been snowed in.  While Mickey quickly comes up with the plan to celebrate Christmas there with all the guests, Donald finds himself lacking the Christmas spirit, and it is up to Daisy, Mickey, Minnie, Goofy, Pluto, and everyone else to restore his positive attitude towards the holiday.  As for the cartoons within the main cartoon, the episode includes "Mickey's Christmas Carol," "Donald on Ice," "The Nutcracker," and "Pluto's Christmas Tree." 

The entire affair is incredibly fun, both in terms of the new footage and the old.  Though "Mickey's Christmas Carol" may be the best known of the pieces (and a great version of A Christmas Carol), one of the most fun segments is "The Nutcracker," which features the legendary John Cleese as the narrator.  In true cartoon-style, the narrator spends a significant amount of time interacting with the characters involved, mainly, in this case, Donald.  The narrator is both sly and exasperated, as one imagines they might be if they had to actually convince the duck to do anything he might not want to do (in this case, Donald isn't very big on having to be the Mouse King).

Some younger viewers may be disappointed that various classic characters (Cinderella, Aurora, Pooh, and Tigger to name a few) don't really have much to do even if they are prominently placed on the DVD's box.  Many characters are simply there for brief cameos.  However, in the case of the younger viewer this reviewer watched with, she was thrilled to see her favorite characters, even if they were just there momentarily.

In terms of bonus features, the release contains a couple of sing-along songs, a kid-oriented brief featurette on Foley work, as well as the premiere episode of House of Mouse.  This last is certainly the best of the extras, but each of them has something to recommend it, and each of them feels germane to the release, not something just tossed in so that the DVD could have bonus features.

Mickey's Magical Christmas: Snowed in at the House of Mouse is a fantastic holiday treat.  It has something for adult fans as well as younger audiences.  Just looking at the House of Mouse's audience and trying to figure out where everyone is from is great fun in and of itself.  Additionally – and very importantly – the stories, new and old, are infused with the holiday spirit in a way Disney excels at.  It is virtually impossible to watch the cartoons contained herein and not receive a touch of that Christmas feeling.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Need Directions? Definitely Head North by Northwest

There is something absolutely wonderful about watching Cary Grant. Grant, no matter the role, always exudes an incredible amount of charisma and charm, and can carry an entire film on his back. It is, however, still preferable to see Grant in a great role in a great movie. Get the opportunity to see Grant in one of the roles he took on for master director Alfred Hitchcock and the experience is that much better. Put the film on Blu-ray in a special 50th Anniversary Edition and, well, you get the idea.

Coming to Blu-ray this week is the Grant-starring Hitchcock classic, North by Northwest. For those who don't remember, that's the one which has the climactic sequence at Mount Rushmore. It's also the one that has Eva Marie Saint as Cary Grant's love interest, James Mason as the bad guy, and the incredibly tense sequence with the crop duster attacking Grant's Roger Thornhill.

The film is one of Hitchcock's most polished pieces, and uses his oft-repeated Cary Granttrope of having an average individual thrown into extraordinary circumstances. Our average joe in this case is Roger Thornhill, New York City ad man, and something of a momma's boy. In an odd turn of events, it is actually due to his worrying about his mother that Thornhill gets mistaken for a fictional creation of our government and is kidnapped. Thornhill is quickly sucked into a world of intrigue in which the villain, Phillip Vandamm (Mason), refuses to believe that Thornhill is not Kaplan and Thornhill not only witnesses a murder at the United Nations, but actually opts to become the fake Kaplan in order to help protect a real government agent.

It is on this crazy chase across the country — with Thornhill pursuing the non-existent Kaplan, Vandamm and his cronies pursuing Thornhill, and the government pursuing everyone — that Thornhill meets up with Eve Kendall (Saint). Kendall, perhaps because Thornhill is irresistible, perhaps because he's Cary Grant, or perhaps because she has secrets of her own, finds herself brought into Thornhill's personal problems.

Built on intrigue after lie after twist, as with so many Hitchcock movies, the exact nature of the plot is far less important than the opportunity to watch the characters interact with each other and respond to all that happens around them. And, starring Cary Grant, what the viewer gets here are perhaps some of the best reactions ever put on film.

Even someone who has not seen North by Northwest in its entirety has unquestionably watched scenes from it repeatedly. Moments in the film have been imitated in other works, referenced in other works, and regularly show in clip reels of classic films.

Perhaps one of the reasons the film works as wonderfully as it does is because it beautifully combines thrills and comedy. Grant's Thornhill, despite being almost killed repeatedly, never seems to lose his wonderful, and wonderfully dry, sense of humor. It is his ability to add humor to any situation, no matter how dire, that turns what would otherwise be an above average Hitchcock movie into the masterpiece it is.

The 50th Anniversary Blu-ray release both looks and sounds excellent. The audio track is Dolby TrueHD 5.1 channel, and features crisp, wonderful audio, particularly with Bernard Herrmann's classic Hitchcockian score. The visuals are almost equally as impressive. The colors are sharp and bright, and one can make out the weave pattern on Thornhill's gray suits with ease. There appears to be little to no dirt nor other imperfections in the print itself. The one place the visuals represent a letdown are when Thornhill finds himself in taxis in New York. The views outside the windows from the taxi have not been given the same quality of Grant and Eva Marie Saint restoration work that the rest of the visuals have and the difference is both noticeable and distracting.

As for special features, the release comes with a commentary track by screenwriter Ernest Lehman, a music only track, a photo gallery, a trailer gallery, a TCM documentary on Cary Grant, and a making-of featurette hosted by Eva Marie Saint, all of which have been released before. Exclusive to this release is a documentary on Hitchcock's filmmaking and another on North by Northwest itself. The release also includes a booklet on the film, stars, and production.

To boil it down to its simplest terms, what one has with the Blu-ray release of North by Northwest's 50th Anniversary Edition is a great director, great actor, great screenwriter, great composer, and a great supporting cast all coming together to create a brilliant film which completely entrances viewers from the moment the opening credits begin (and they are incredible opening credits) until the last cel of the film unspools… in high definition.