Friday, October 29, 2010

Oliver Stone Heads South of the Border (2009)

I have no desire – particularly with an election quickly approaching – to enter into any sort of political discussion or debate and I do not intend to do so here.  My discussion of this film will be about the arguments it lays out and their strengths, keeping my own beliefs out of it as best I can. It is not that I do not have strongly held opinions, I most certainly do, it's just that my opinions are my opinions and any attempt to convince people of my opinions will only serve to engender bad feelings, mistrust, and a general sense of discomfort amongst everyone involved.  I don't begrudge others their ability to speak on such things and am more than happy to read the opinions of those around me – provided that they're stated with respect – I just don't care to express my own beliefs (other than that everyone should vote).

Filmmaker Oliver Stone has no such qualms.  The left-leaning writer/director/producer has a very distinct world view and that view is on full display in his new documentary, South of the Border which is now available on DVD.  The film finds Stone venturing to South America to talk with current and past Presidents of countries on that continent to discuss the leftward movement of the area.

The basic premise of the film is that the United States has a relatively poor attitude towards our neighbors to the south, often dictating to them what we'd like to see done and branding lawfully elected officials "dictators" and "enemies" should they choose not to abide by our wishes.  Stone argues that these are sovereign nations whose citizens have elected officials and that if we were ordered about as they are ordered about we would be incredibly displeased.  Consequently, the argument goes, we shouldn't be surprised when they are, and, beyond that, these leaders are actually doing some great things for their countries. 

South of the Border spends the vast majority of its time with Stone hopping from one nation to the next, sitting down with their Presidents and asking those Presidents questions.  In specific, he talks to Hugo Chávez (Venezuela); Evo Morales (Bolivia); Lula da Silva (Brazil); Cristina Kirchner and her husband and former President, Néstor Kirchner (Argentina); Fernando Lugo (Paraguay), Rafael Correa (Ecuador), and Raúl Castro (Cuba).  There are also some clips of U.S. politicians and news anchors/reporters discussing South America, but those moments take a backseat to the South Americans themselves.  In fact, nearly half the film is focused solely on Hugo Chávez.   With Chávez being one of the Presidents in South America who has made the most noise, had one of the more contentious relationships with the United States, and who is a man with a huge personality, the choice is a good one.

Watching President Chávez and Oliver Stone interact is really and truly an interesting experience.  It also highlights one of the biggest issues with the documentary, namely that it is monolithically one-sided.  As we have seen in other works by Stone, his world is apparently nearly black and white and that comes across very strongly in the documentary as well.  Again, as best I can without getting into a political discussion, there are almost certainly two sides (at least) to the South American issues Stone presents, but he so quickly and fully comes down on one side, arguing so completely that the other side is entirely ludicrous, that he undercuts himself and that is disappointment. 

Stone is a good filmmaker and had he made more of a nod to the opposite side before slashing it to bits, South of the Border would carry more weight.  In fact, while some interesting discussions with all the Presidents are had, far too often it feels as though Stone – a smart man with a good grasp on the issues – is asking puff questions to support an opinion that he's already made as opposed to truly getting to the nub of the issue.

Perhaps a better way to put it would be to say that South of the Border is like Michael Moore-lite.  Moore, who also makes one-sided documentaries, goes over the top with everything that he does which makes his films more event-pieces than regular documentaries.  Stone, on the other hand, takes the one-sided approach but almost entirely leaves it simply at a discussion level rather than doing much more (or much Moore, if you prefer) and that leaves the audience with more time to focus on the holes, or unanswered issues, in his argument.

On the upside, it is undeniable that the discussions presented in South of the Border are interesting and that Stone raises many valuable and worthwhile points.  Additionally, whether most of his points are right or wrong, it is certainly the case that we in this nation don't know enough about what is taking place South America and the documentary is a great springboard to perhaps have us all learn more.

The DVD release doesn't just sport the basic documentary, it also contains several special features beyond the usual deleted scenes (which are present).  Also included are two South American TV interviews with Stone, a piece on the work Chávez has done in Venezuela, another featurette which has Stone returning to South America with the finished version of the film, and a last one that has more questions Stone asked Chávez during his return.  While they all are vaguely interesting pieces (particularly the new questions Stone has for Chávez), there is nothing there to truly change one's opinion on the film itself.

In the final summation, South of the Border is a perfectly interesting documentary that raises some very good points.  Stone and his interviewees are all terribly compelling figures and well worth watching.  Where the film falls flat is not in raising important issues, but in swaying people's opinions.  If the film disappoints it is only because Stone ought to be able to do a better job creating his argument than he does.  It is a film worth seeing and an area worth exploring but will leave you wanting more from everyone involved.

Article first published as DVD Review: South of the Border (2009) on Blogcritics.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Samurai II: Vengeance or why Reading Books gets you in Trouble

Fair warning before reading the rest of this review – I'm most of the way through reading Tom Bissell's excellent (and highly recommended) book, Extra Lies: Why Video Games Matter.  The book focuses itself on narrative videogames (that would be how we spell it here at Blogcritics) and the reading of that book has, necessarily, influenced this review. 

Bissell is, amongst other things, a gamer, and a gamer who loves immersive environments with great stories, stories in which the player has some sort of agency or power to influence things.  At a basic level, and his discussion does go far deeper than this, heading from point A to point Z and being forced to hit all the other points in between doesn't impress or interest him, nor do tales with a "laughable" story.   Bissell further argues that a problem with videogames is that good gameplay and a horrific story can result in a well thought of and reviewed title, whereas horrible gameplay and a great story doesn't.  He wants more from videogames, and he has made me want more from them as well.

It truly is a difficult concept to fight against, particularly as games that allow you to do what you want to do how you want to do it are in fact more fun.  Games that truly draw you in to the title and make you feel as though you have a decent amount of control are better games than ones that don't.  They resonate better emotionally, and you will spend more time playing them.

 So, here I am, reading Bissell's critiques, comments, and philosophy on videogames and at the same time playing the exact sort of game which I fear he would put down after an hour or two.  There is a lot to chew on in Extra Lives, and all of it has been swirling about my head as I both play and contemplate my review of Samurai II: Vengeance.  A sequel to Samurai:  Way of the Warrior, the press release describes Samurai II: Vengeance as a 'hack-and-slash action game" and further states that there are "between levels, gorgeous hand drawn comic panels" which "tell the samurai's tale."  Being that the story is told between levels in comic strip panels, guess how much control over the story you, as the samurai, exert in this title? That is right, you have no control over what takes place whatsoever except, that is, whether you live or die, and if you die you just restart from the nearest checkpoint (it will cost you in your point total at the end of the game, but that's it).

It is easy to admire the gorgeous graphics Samurai II sports on the iPhone 4.  It is also important to note that the game has a very good control scheme, with a virtual d-pad in the lower left and three buttons (two attack types and a roll) in the lower right.  However, every step I make my samurai take in the pre-determined direction I am forced to go in makes me lament the fact that I have absolutely no choice about what is taking place, none.  I find myself completely offended that the option to skip past the anime-style comic that gives the story between chapters is boldly displayed and that skipping the story panels does not affect a single thing (except that you miss some of the vaguely offensive caricatures).  And yet, it is fun to literally take apart your enemies, and that is partially where my problem lies.

If you play Samurai II, unquestionably you will remark how beautiful the title is, how great the massive swinging scythes look, and the detail of not only the buildings, but the clouds as well.  As you earn experience, level-up your samurai, and learn new attacks, it is impossible not to note the devastating and detailed nature of your strikes.  The game is an excellent example of hack-and-slash gameplay, and has a lot going for it.  It is playable in bite-sized chunks, with your progress repeatedly saved for you so that you can play when you have five minutes here or five minutes there to do so.  It also attempts to be more than just a button-masher, even if the combos you learn don't always seem to work as promised.  The smoothness with which it plays out – except for the times when it stumbles and pauses – is truly impressive on the iPhone and it features Game Center support and achievements if that's your sort of thing.  There is also a Dojo section to the title where you can just take on wave after wave after wave of enemies to see how long you can go without dying.  The music and sounds are nowhere near as impressive as the graphics, but they don't offend either.

As I have gone through the game, figured things out, and defeated some impressive bosses, I have found myself enjoying the experience of Samurai II.   However, Bissell's critiques still nag at me and I know that in the end he is right – Samurai II is not a title that I will ever feel like I need to revisit.  Once it's done, it's done and great games don't make me feel that way.  It took me weeks to sit down and write  my review of Assassin's Creed II because any time I thought about writing it I realized that while I had finished the main story there were eight million other things I wanted to see and do and experience and that without accomplishing all those side tasks, without standing on the top of every building, getting every feather, etc., I simply wouldn't have done enough.  That is a game I still think about on a regular basis, and Samurai II: Vengeance will never make me feel that way.

How then do I rate Samurai II?  Do I say that for iPhone game or for a hack-and-slash game it really is above par and give it four stars?  Should the same depth be expected from an iPhone title that I would want on a console?  Should even the hack-and-slash genre allow for choice?  The scoring system I use tells me that three stars is the appropriate score for an "average" game, but is that average in terms of what games should do or what games actually do?  I would call Samurai II a better than average hack-and-slash iPhone affair, but a game that I still wanted more from in terms of choice and in terms of story.  So, it seems to me that what I ought to do is average those things together which leads me back to an overall "average" score.  That is an unsatisfying answer but after much hemming, hawing, and gnashing of teeth it is the only one I have.

Samurai II: Vengeance is rated 12+ for Infrequent/Mild Profanity or Crude Humor, Frequent/Intense Cartoon or Fantasy Violence, Frequent/Intense Realistic Violence, and Infrequent/Mild Horror/Fear Themes.

Article first published as iPhone Review: Samurai II: Vengeance on Blogcritics.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Spin Again with DJ Hero 2

With the massive success of rhythm games over the past few years, a charge led by the likes of Guitar Hero and Rock Band, it only makes sense that companies would look for a way to expand the genre.  Enter last year's DJ Hero.

Made by the same folks who make Guitar Hero, DJ Hero, rather than giving you a fake guitar or drums or bass to pretend to strum, gives you a pretend turntable to spin.  It is certainly an enjoyable experience, and the new DJ Hero 2 does have some interesting features that the first does not possess, but it still seems to lack that which makes Guitar Hero and Rock Band great.

Before we get too far into issues however, let us start with the basics.  The game itself functions much like last year's original – each controller setup consists of two parts, the turntable and the doodads.  Okay no respectable DJ would call them doodads, but that's neither here nor there, the doodads are the crossfader, Euphoria button (like Star Power in Guitar Hero, Euphoria helps increase your score), and the effects knob.  The turntable – which can be placed either on the right side or the left side of the doodad section– has red, green, and blue buttons which get tapped, held, and manipulated in conjunction with the table and doodads to score points.  The turntable itself can be oriented so that the buttons are on either the right or left side.

As with almost every rhythm game, DJ Hero 2 has a wide black line that runs down the middle of the screen (or the middle of each split if you're in multiplayer) which tells you what to do with the turntable and doodads.  Crossfading, scratching, taps, and effects all return from the original version of DJ Hero, but added to the new version are held notes, length scratches (long, single direction scratches), and allegedly more freestyle ability. 

One of the knocks against the first DJ Hero is that being a DJ is about doing new, different, and potentially unplanned things; it's about being in the moment and DJ Hero doesn't allow for that.  These new freestyle elements in the sequel attempt to correct that mistake but aren't hugely successful in that endeavor.  The new game will allow you to – at certain points – run some pre-selected samples, crossfade from one of the tracks to the other as you desire, and scratch as you want.  The mechanics to these elements are all good, but they don't really allow for all that much creativity.  As stated, samples are now pre-selected for you, but even if they weren't, forcing them – or any other move – into a specific slot stifles creativity and right there is where the game runs into "bigger picture" issues.

Everything that you do in the game is really and truly enjoyable, but if being a DJ is about freedom and choice and mixing what you want to mix the way you want to mix it, telling people what to push and when (even if it's telling them "and for the next few bars you have the freedom to crossfade, not to sample or scratch, but to crossfade") eliminates something intrinsically important in DJ-ness.  That isn't as much a problem for Guitar Hero as you're playing a song that already exists as opposed to mixing two songs together as you do here.  Yes, there is unquestionably improvisation that takes place with good musicians doing live performances, but the basic song exists as an entity which isn't as true when you're putting more than one song together.  The addition of the freestyle elements makes the game more fun, but don't address the basic problem in the representation, and I'm not sure anything could.

Before we talk game modes, it also ought to be stated that while the turntable and doodads feel pretty substantial and look decent, the crossfader remains a problem.  The crossfader still has that little hiccup point in the middle to let you know that you've returned to center after moving the mix to entirely one song or the other, but that middle point is still too week.  When you're in the midst of mixing, slamming that Euphoria button, hitting the effect dial, scratching, and generally tapping out a beat, you're going to miss that little click to tell you that you've centered the crossfader and consequently are going to lose points.  Hopefully any future iteration of the title corrects this deficit.

The single player action in DJ Hero 2 is centered around Empire Mode (there is also a Quick Play), which is your relatively standard career mode.  You start at the bottom and by performing well, earning enough stars, and defeating other DJs in the occasional DJ Battle you unlock venues, tracks, characters, accessories, etc.  There is some suggestion in the game that as you move along in your career you're somehow forming an entertainment empire, but as that empire is solely focused on your success spinning records and nothing else, you seem to be a pretty wretched businessperson (either that or it really shouldn't be called an "Empire" Mode).

As you would expect, the game comes with multiplayer functionality including now supporting vocals.  In fact, the most expensive version of the game you can buy, the Party Bundle, comes not only with two turntables but with a microphone as well.  Not every song has a vocal track however, so if you are playing with multiple people you do need to be aware of what tracks you're selecting.  There is also a Party Play mode which allows people to join and leave the game in the middle of a set without any interruption to the flow. 

Online play is also available, and one of the overall highlights of the game – whether it's done in single- or multiplayer – is available online too, and that's Battle Mode.  Battle Mode actually subdivides, allowing you to choose one of several different objectives in order to beat your opponent.  These include gaining the most stars, having the longest note streak, and a checkpoint battle which ranks performance in sections of a mix (win more sections, win the battle).  Playing various mixes and setlists as a single player can make you think that you're actually far better in the game than you are.  It is really only in Battle Mode, whether you're taking on another human or a computer controlled DJ, that you can see how good you actually are.

DJ Hero 2 contains 83 different mixes, and if you've ever turned on the radio, you're going to know a lot of these songs.  The setlist  is full of great music and completely enjoyable even if you're someone who would never, even on a bet, venture into a club.

As for flavors in which the game can be purchased, there is the aforementioned Party Bundle which has the game, two turntables, and a microphone (MSRP $149.99); a Turntable Bundle with one turntable and the game ($99.99), and the software by itself ($59.99).  That is to say, even if the price is down somewhat from the original release, it's not cheap. 

The game is a better game than the original – though the guitar portion of it is now gone – and does have some added flexibility with the freestyle aspects.  It is both an exhilarating and immersive experience, but playing it, you simply don't get the feeling that you're creating the music as you do in Guitar Hero.  Instead, you almost get the sense that the mixes would be just as good if you didn't press a single button; you wouldn't score enough points to advance, but the music would be just as good.  I'm not sure how that problem can be solved, but if FreeStyle Games and Activision can work that out for DJ Hero 3 they may approach perfection.

DJ Hero 2 is rated T (Teen) by the ESRB for Mild Suggestive Themes, Lyrics. This game can also be found on: Wii and Xbox 360.

Article first published as PlayStation 3 Review: DJ Hero 2 on Blogcritics.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Gotta Get Back in Time - Back to the Future on Blu-ray

For people of my generation it is virtually impossible to forget what happened at 1:15am on October 26, 1985 at the Twin Pines Mall in the town of Hill Valley.  There are, in fact, few moments quite as momentous as that one.  Oh sure, November 5, 1955 was pretty important what with that being the date that the Flux Capacitor was invented, but 1:15am October 26, 1985 is when Marty McFly arrived at the mall and soon after saw the Libyans shoot Doctor Emmet Brown. In short, October 26, 1985 is the date that Marty McFly revved the DeLorean up to 88mph and found himself in 1955.  And, as with many of my contemporaries, I know exactly where I was the first time I saw it happen.

From the moment the first Back to the Future ended until the sequel arrived in 1989, I could not wait to find out what happened to Marty, Jennifer, and Doc Brown.  When I did finally see Marty's next time travelling adventure and all the havoc that the sports almanac wreaked, I was not disappointed.  Nor was I disappointed when Marty found himself in the Old West for the third installment.  The Back to the Future trilogy may have a few hokey moments (like the aborted drag race in the third and the slightly too long attempt to get the almanac back in the second), but now that both Star Wars and Indiana Jones have been extended beyond their original three movie runs, Back to the Future is unquestionably the best filmic trilogy of my youth.

For the uninitiated few, the trilogy chronicles the adventures of Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) and Doctor Emmet Brown (Christopher Lloyd) as they – singly, together, and sometimes with others in tow – travel both forwards and backwards in time within the town of Hill Valley.  It all starts out simply enough, with Brown inventing a time machine out of a DeLorean, but he fails to get to try it out himself as some of his unbeknownst-to-them investors/Libyan terrorists catch up with Brown and demand their plutonium back (the time machine requires 1.21 gigawatts of energy to function and he generates that energy via a nuclear reaction).   It is Marty who ends up travelling in time in his attempt to escape the Libyans and it is there where the film truly gets going.

Despite their sci-fi trappings, all three films are really about family and learning to do the right thing.  No matter what era Marty and Doc travel to, almost all the plots revolve around Marty and his family.  In 1955, he meets his future parents, George McFly (Crispin Glover) and Lorraine Baines (Lea Thompson).  In 2015 he meets his kids (played by Fox), and in 1885 he meets his great-great grandfather (Fox again) and great-great-grandmother (Thompson again).  He not only helps them out in these meetings, but they help him as well.

For all the fun time travel, crazy notions about how to get Marty back to the present (1985), and technical wizardry the films employ, what makes them so relatable still today is this notion of family they espouse.  In the Back to the Future world there is nothing greater than finding true love, fighting for one's family, and finding the courage to be who you really are.  The message is simple and while Robert Zemeckis' direction of the three films keeps things light, fast, and free, the message is an unmistakable one.  The films show that there will always bullies like Biff Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson), the main antagonist, and his family, but that simply by standing up to them and doing what you know is right you'll almost always walk away a winner.

There are many people out there who will be quick to state that the second movie in the trilogy is an incredible disappointment, made to only truly appeal to the youngest people in the audience and abandoning everyone else.  The argument stems from the movie's vastly increased use of time travel, far too technologically advanced vision of 2015 (it is now only five years away and our world much more resembles Hill Valley in 1985 than in 2015), and the revisiting of the climactic 1955 scenes from the first movie.  While the facts used to build the argument are undoubtedly true, the conclusions are not.  It is in the second film when Marty begins to realize just how badly his life will go if he doesn't change his ways.  Additionally, in the end, everything went so well with time travel in the first film that Marty's desire to influence his own future as he attempts to do in the second is a natural outgrowth of his success.  It is the second film that teaches Marty just how badly things can go with time travel.  The film unquestionably has a different sensibility than the first and the third, but that is more attributable to it being the only one that goes to the future than anything else.

The second film is also notable in that two of the roles from the first film were recast for it.  Gone in the second (and third) is Claudia Wells who played Jennifer, Marty's girlfriend, with Elisabeth Shue taking her part.  Also gone is Crispin Glover (though he can be seen in archival footage), with Jeffrey Weissman playing George in 2015.  Both of these changes are, if you're not watching all the movies back-to-back, carried off brilliantly, with Shue's Jennifer particularly looking like that of Well's. 

While the Back to the Future trilogy was released to DVD a few years ago, this new Blu-ray version is still well worth purchasing.  It has been restored for this release, and the visuals are quite good.  You won't be able to find any dirt or scratches anywhere in the three films, the colors – particularly in the 2015 segments where everything is brighter – are rich, and the detail is impressive.  In fact, the detail may be slightly better than what one would hope for with Crispin Glover and Lea Thompson most definitely appearing as though they are wearing copious amounts of makeup in their 1985 sequences (and the first time we see the time machine disappear at Marty and Doc's feet it looks more fake than ever).  The problem doesn't lie in the restoration – the increased clarity shows off the issues more than we have seen before, but the problems stem from the time when the effects and makeup were done.  The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack will not fail to please.  The dialogue is clean and the now classic Alan Silvestri score excellent.  The surrounds are well used; there is no hiss, pop, or crackle; and the overall mix is good. 

The previously released DVDs featured an extensive set of bonus features and many of them are included here.  There are a plethora of previously released deleted scenes, behind the scenes featurettes, trailers, photo galleries, a couple of music videos, feature commentaries with producers Bob Gale (Gale also wrote all three screenplays, the first one with Zemeckis) and Neil Canton, a talk with Zemeckis and Gale, and another with Michael J. Fox.  Then there's the new stuff, and some of that is really quite good.  Leading the charge is a six-part documentary with the cast and crew of the trilogy.  There are also storyboards for the film's original ending; a piece where Michio Kaku (Sci-Fi Science: Physics of the Impossible) delves into the physics the film is based on); and U-Control tracks where you can watch storyboard comparisons, see trivia, and one which will show you when something is said or seen in the film that will play an important part later (that one is called "Setups & Payoffs").  And, as if that wasn't enough, the set also comes with digital copies of the film.

Watching the trilogy again now, years after its original release, one can't help be struck by the fact that the films impart as much fun today as they ever did.  Filled with great performances by the both the leads and ancillary characters (I would be remiss if I did not mention James Tolkan's excellent performance in all three and Mary Steenburgen's appearance in the third), moments that have become classics, and excellent music, the Back to the Future trilogy is a wondrous bit of filmmaking.  Despite the time travel and science fiction trappings, it never loses sight of the small family tale at its core and in scene after scene never fails to deliver a smile, a laugh, or a little bit of heart. 

Go ahead, buy the trilogy and rev that Blu-ray player up to 88mph, you won't regret it.

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: Back to the Future - 25th Anniversary Trilogy on Blogcritics.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

2001's Moulin Rouge! is Still Spectacular, Spectacular

For better or worse, some directors shoot for the stars.  Their efforts may result in colossal misfires, but they could also result in a truly stellar experience.   With 2001's Moulin Rouge!, Baz Luhrmann certainly ended up with the latter as the movie not only shoots for the stars, but manages to get there.

The film stars Nicole Kidman as Satine, a courtesan and singer at the Moulin Rouge nightclub in the Montmartre district in Paris, and Ewan McGregor as Christian, a would-be poet who falls desperately in love with her.  With a script written by Luhrmann and Craig Pearce, Moulin Rouge! is an astounding and pulse-pounding reinvention of the musical.  The majority of the songs in the film are well known pop numbers and virtually the entire thing is conducted at such a frenetic pace that the audience never gets the chance to breathe.  It features medley after medley that not only end up with many in the audience singing along, but also manage to perfectly express the hopes, desires, and fears of the characters.

The task of explaining exactly what one is in for should they watch a film like Moulin Rouge! isn't quite the easiest of things.  It is an unrelenting, old-time love story.  Christian and Satine are meant to be, they are destined to be, they are a couple who will fight for their love no matter what, and yet it is clear from early on that the film will not truly have a happy ending.  They will fight for their love even through each other's moments of doubt and the wishes of The Duke (Richard Roxburgh), who is funding the play Christian is writing and in which Satine is starring, but they will never be able to escape the inevitable.

That, of course, tells you what the story is, but it doesn't tell you what the movie is like.  It is, quite literally, bright and sparkling, full of quick cuts, momentary bursts of song, and the hyperactive pace of the Moulin Rouge nightclub in which much of the film takes place.  One moment the stars will be singing The Beatles, the next U2, and then finally they'll be completely silenced when the Unconscious Argentinean (Jacek Koman) has another bout of narcolepsy and falls flat on his face. 

The film also stars John Leguizamo as Toulouse-Lautrec, who is the impetus for almost everything that takes place.  It is Lautrec who convinces the English Christian to embrace the turn of the century Bohemian ideals that abounded in the Paris of the late 19th and early 20th Century, and it is Lautrec who puts forth Christian to write the play in which Satine is to star.  It may be Lautrec who best embodies the entire production – he experiences the highest highs of the other characters and the lowest lows, and Leguizamo carries off the role with all the humor and seriousness it requires.

The films supporting characters go far beyond Leguizamo's Toulouse-Lautrec, Roxburgh's Duke, and Koman's Argentinean however.  Jim Broadbent turns in a truly outstanding performance as Harold Zidler, the owner of the Moulin Rouge and the man who hopes to put on Christian's show, "Spectacular Spectacular," with the Duke's money.

Moulin Rouge! is, unquestionably, a love it or hate it experience.  It is a musical like few others, but something clearly in the Baz Luhrmann oeuvre.  Luhrmann also brought us the Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio version of Romeo + Juliet (1996) which places the two star-crossed lovers in the modern day but keeping the original language.  He is, in short, a visionary director.  His vision may not be for everyone, but Luhrmann's films with their distinctive visual style are certainly something which everyone ought to experience at least once.  It is full of nods to not just pop music and the magic of love, but also has more than a few nods to Bollywood.

Happily, the newly released Blu-ray of the film almost perfectly captures the color, sound, and wonder of the film.  Moulin Rouge!'s visuals sport more than one look, from old-time black and white grain to that of modern-day high-gloss Hollywood, and all of them look great on the disc.  The colors are incredibly rich, the diamonds sparkle beautifully, The Green Fairy floats in mesmerizing fashion, and the level of detail is high.  It is an incredibly faithful representation of the theatrical release both in terms of the visuals and the soundtrack. This latter aspect is done with a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack which has both the bass and all-encompassing sound one would expect to get were they actually at a nightclub.  It is a clean, crisp audio track and it helps make the experience everything it should be.

Having been released multiple times previously on DVD, the new Blu-ray still manages to have some new bonus items beyond just Luhrmann's explanation of what went into creating the Blu-ray.  There is a picture-in-picture commentary mode with Luhrmann, Pearce, Catherine Martin (production designer, costume designer, and associate producer), and Donald McAlpine (cinematographer).  Beyond the interviews, the picture-in-picture track contains extra footage and stills. There is also a new behind the scenes featurette, "A Creative Adventure," as well as a previously released making of piece and individual featurettes on specific aspects of how the film got put together ("The Stars, "The Writers," "The Design," "The Dance," "The Music," and "The Cutting Room").  One of the more interesting extras the disc contains is a look at an alternate opening of the film in which Christian sings Cat Stevens' "Father & Son."

In short, Moulin Rouge! is spectacular, spectacular.   It is a love story, it is a romance, it is a tragedy, and a comedy.  It has just about anything anyone would ever go to the movies to see and it packages it all around beautiful visuals, a fast pace, and great songs.  Luhrmann may not succeed in every endeavor he has ever ventured into, but he does so here and he does so marvelously.

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: Moulin Rouge! (2001) on Blogcritics.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

RoboCop Trilogy - Blowing Things up on Blu-ray

Is it possible to compare a film that aims to educate viewers, to make them think about something in a new way, or to somehow change they way they perceive the world with a film whose goal is to do nothing more than blow things up real good?  Can these two very different types of films exist on the same continuum?  The answer to both those questions is "almost certainly," but that doesn't really get at the main question which probably ought to ask not if they can be compared but if they should be compared.   There the waters get slightly more murky, and the question becomes one that you can see written about in many a Ph.D. dissertation.  In this review, I will proceed from the assumption that the two types of films exist in different worlds and be ignoring the socially uplifting films entirely.

The issue is not that the RoboCop trilogy doesn't attempt to impart moral lessons, they are in fact all very moralistic.  The issue is much more that while they provide a funhouse mirror look at our society, the goal is less to have us question the world in which we live and the path down which we are heading than it is to hear a lot of four letter worlds, toss in the occasional scantily (or not) clad woman, and see people get shot.  Unfortunately for the films, while the first succeeds very well at its goals, the second and third entries are found increasingly more wanting.

Imagine it – it is Detroit in the near future and the financial problems that have plagued the city have only gotten worse, leading to the point when an evil corporation, OCP, led by their CEO, The Old Man (Daniel O'Herlihy),  has entered into a contract with the city to run the police force.  As all evil corporations do, OCP is looking to increase efficiencies, cut costs, and maybe snag a military contract or two.  To that end, a VP, Dick Jones (Ronny Cox), has created ED-209, a robot with substantial weaponry that has military- and police-based applications.  It doesn't work, and an up-and-coming executive, Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer), puts forth a different plan – to create a cyborg who can do the same thing.  Morton calls his idea the RoboCop program and all they need to put it into play is a nearly dead police officer.

Enter fresh-faced Alex Murphy (Peter Weller), who, on his first day in a new precinct, manages to run afoul of Old Detroit crime lord Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith).  Sure Boddicker and his band of goons blow off Murphy's hand, then arm, and shoot him in the head, but Murphy lives anyway and OCP turns him into their RoboCop.

The film then progresses in a pretty straightforward fashion – RoboCop struggles as Murphy's personality comes more to the fore, people at OCP are angry at the cops and each other, and RoboCop takes out the baddies no matter whether they wear a suit and tie or something more gangster-y. 

This is not high art.  What it is though is a whole lot of fun.  Directed Paul Verhoeven, the first RoboCop movie doesn't break any new ground, rather choosing to crush the existing ground into rubble.  The film does have Verhoeven's oft-used trope of looking at society via television and TV commercials, something that the two other films would repeat, but that really is as close as it gets to any sort of social commentary.   It is, unquestionably a social commentary, but it isn't a terribly deep one and that aspect never really comes to the fore.  The film succeeds not based on its social commentary nor its dystopian future, but because it is fun to watch stuff get blown up and to see RoboCop get his revenge.

Arriving on the scene three years after the original (and directed by Irvin Kershner this time), the second RoboCop works less well because it fails to tread any ground the original did not.  The screenplay by Frank Miller and Walon Green (Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner wrote the original) feels less like a polished final draft than a whole bunch of different possible first drafts stuck together.  There are a multitude of storylines that are picked up and abandoned just as quickly with seemingly no point to them whatsoever – some don't even result in gunplay or other violence. 

RoboCop 2 still sees RoboCop (Peter Weller again) struggling with his past life, still sees OCP as an evil corporation trying to take over Detroit, and still sees that city as crime-filled as it was before our cyborg hero appeared.  Now the main issue in terms of crime seems to be a drug called Nuke.  The manufacture and distribution of the drug is being masterminded by the would-be prophet Cain (Tom Noonan) and his helpers who aim to… well, sell drugs and thereby transform the world.  The rest of the main story, and it really only is the main story because the climactic scenes deal with it, finds RoboCop taking on his would-be replacement, RoboCop 2 (because to make money OCP needs to be able to duplicate the success of the original).  However, the fight – and almost all the fights in the film – feel more than a little ho-hum.  They lack the spark and emotional sense of the original because there it feels as though RoboCop has less to fight for this time out.

If the second film feels ho-hum, the third is just plain bad.  This one directed by Fred Dekker, who, with Frank Miller wrote the screenplay, finds RoboCop taking on OCP once more.  No, really, it's same villain again.  But, and I can't imagine that this wasn't part of the pitch for the film, the evil American corporation (being run by Rip Torn now that The Old Man is gone) has been taken over by an evil Japanese one.  So, what you get in this first RoboCop film that isn't rated R (although the cut of the original being released here is unrated the film was R, and nearly X, when released in the theaters) is a little Japan-bashing thrown in for good measure.  The absolute worst part of this wholly unnecessary angle to the film is that the evil Japanese corporation's plans are to take over Detroit and build a brand new city, Delta City, which was exactly what OCP wanted to do in the first two movies. 

What this last film doesn't have, besides a lot of cursing and tons of blood – there's some blood but with a PG-13 they couldn't go all-out – is Peter Weller.  Weller doesn't don the cyborg suit for third outing, instead handing it off to Robert Burke who plays the role just as robotically as Weller ever did.  Nancy Allen, who plays RoboCop's partner in the first two movies does return for this one, although her part is relatively minimal.  As with the other films in the series, the supporting cast does have a lot of faces one will recognize – CCH Pounder, Jill Hennessy, Stephen Root, Jeff Garlin, and Bradley Whitford all appear – but rather than anyone in the audience focusing on the cast, they'll simply be wondering why the film was made at all.  Somehow RoboCop 3 is even more formulaic than the first two and with those two succeeding at least in part based on the blood, guts, and language, why the decision was made to tone things down here is unclear.

Although the films do trend downwards in terms of quality from the first to third, the visual elements in the Blu-ray release of the trilogy actually get better as it goes along.  There are some shots in the first film which appear as though they have been worked on for the purpose of highlighting the Blu-ray's improved picture quality, too many scenes – and too many single shots within some scenes – look bad.  It isn't a matter of dirt and/or scratches – there the picture is good – but the grain and noise changes dramatically from scene-to-scene and sometimes shot-to-shot and the definition is never what one would hope. The good scenes do manage to look pretty good, but the bad ones look wretched.  RoboCop 2 suffers this problem far less than the original and certainly has increased definition in some scenes – Weller's face in close-up when the RoboCop headpiece is off really looks quite excellent.  The trend continues in RoboCop 3 which has the most consistent look of any of the movies.  To some extent, the discrepancy in the visuals in the first film may stem from the fact that the original has had a prior, unspectacular, Blu-ray release and nothing was done to fix that less-than-great job here (this is the first time that the other two movies have been put on Blu-ray).  The trilogy is more consistent in terms of its audio, each film sporting a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track.  As one would hope from a film series which focuses so heavily on destruction, the surrounds are well used as is the bass.  There are definitely moments when you will think that Detroit is in fact blowing up all around you.

At its best, the RoboCop trilogy is all about violence and destruction, reveling in the mayhem and making things fun by preying on our baser instincts.  At its worst, the trilogy is almost blasé about the destruction, making it feel as though they're blowing things up or shooting people because they have to and not because they want to.  With hardly any special features to speak of – there are some trailers included – that same blasé sense is present in this release.  The trilogy, it seems, has hit Blu-ray because the first movie did and the other are now expected to as well, not because anyone's heart was really in it.  Aiming low isn't bad as long as one hits the mark, but that doesn't happen as consistently in the RoboCop trilogy as it ought.

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: RoboCop Trilogy on Blogcritics.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Earloomz Bluetooth Headset: So Pretty, so not Functional

editor's note: an update to this piece can be found here.

Science will win out over art. 

It's become a favorite saying of mine over the past few years, not because I'm down on art, but because, more often than not, if you want to accomplish a task successfully you need to figure out the hard facts about what is required and not just what will be pretty.  Pretty has it's place, pretty is wonderful, but there has to be a strong base upon which to build the pretty.

As the perfect case in point, I was recently offered the opportunity to review an Earloomz Bluetooth headset.  Earloomz has gone out and made an incredibly wide array of attractive headsets.  They are all built on the same basic frame, and then the pretty bits are added on.  And, they are pretty bits – if nothing else Earloomz look absolutely fantastic and really can be gotten in almost any design to fit your style.  Each Earloomz comes with both a black and clear piece to go over the top of your ear, comes with multiple sizes of inserts to go within your ear, a USB cord to charge the headset, and an AC adaptor into which the USB cord plugs.

The problem comes in with the fact that the headsets really may be nothing else besides the pretty bits.  The first Earloomz we were sent had a skull-and-crossbones motif and made us sound like we were underwater anytime we talked on it using any device (and we tried multiple devices).  And not nearby underwater either – we sounded like we were underwater and a good distance from the microphone.  The speaker sounded as we would have hoped, but without the microphone working well we couldn't fathom using the headset.

Accidents do happen, sometimes things aren't quite manufactured perfectly — mistakes can be made.  Fortunately, we got a second Earloomz to try out.  This next headset had a truly snazzy Star Trek look and, even better, the microphone sounded really good. 

The entire thing was almost a homerun… almost.  While the microphone worked perfectly, the speaker did not work at all.  We couldn't hear anyone talking to us, we couldn't hear the phone ring, there wasn't even a beep to inform us that we had successfully paired with our phone.  We only knew this last thing had taken place because the light on the headset was blinking the right color and the phone indicated that we were connected as well.  Other phones had the exact same result, or lack thereof, with the headset.

Earloomz slogan is "where art, fashion and technology meet…" but unfortunately the three seem to meet far closer to the art and fashion end of things than the technology end.  It is relatively easy to accept the sacrifice of headset-based volume controls on the altar of the fashion gods (the Earloomz volume can only be controlled from the device to which it is connected), but sacrificing the basic functions of the device is not acceptable.  No matter how wonderful a Bluetooth headset may look, it does not look as good as no headset at all.  So, if the headset isn't going to work in a useful way, why would you bothering wearing it at all?

If you truly love one of the designs that Earloomz offers and are willing to put up with the potential need to return defective headsets over and over again you may well be happy with the end result.  On the other hand, if you don't mind paying a little bit more for fashion but mostly just want a Bluetooth device that will work out of the box the first time, Earloomz is apparently not the way to go.

Article first published as Product Review: Earloomz Bluetooth Headset on Blogcritics.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Stringer Bell Becomes Luther

What is it that makes a television series distinctly British?  Is it the washed out colors?  Is it the stark backgrounds?  The haunting music?  The almost minimalist sense of the sets?  The perennially steel grey sky?  It can't be, because while many British series have those things in common, all of them certainly don't.  Yet, watching many British shows there can be no doubt – even before someone opens their mouth – that you're watching a British show.  I would actually venture to say that in the upcoming series Luther, even when it is paused it is clearly a British series.

Starring Idris Elba (The Wire), Luther is the story of a police detective, John Luther, a man who perennially operates somewhere near, or over, the line between right and wrong.  He is a fantastically smart person, but he's also single-minded, doesn't routinely play well with others, and has quite the temper.  Additionally, he is, like the series which he is in, incredibly compelling. 

No, John Luther isn't an entirely new character – cops who do the right thing (or what they think is the right thing) no matter the cost have been seen before – but he's no less interesting for his being familiar.  There are moments in this dark drama where even Luther and those with whom he works seem to BBCrecognize that he is something of a cliché, but his being a cliché doesn't take anything away from him or the show.

The reason the character works as well as he does is Elba himself.  If anyone on this side of the pond recognizes him it will most likely be due to either his role as Stringer Bell on The Wire or Charles Miner from The Office, but Elba has a much larger career than just those roles.  The reason he works here, and what he lends to John Luther so wonderfully, is his sense of gravitas.  John Luther is a dark and serious man and Elba portrays him that way. 

In one episode in this series, in discussing Luther, someone says that if he had simply been exposed to one different thing (book, song, movie, etc.) at a different moment in his life, he could have taken an incredibly different track.  It is stated with the idea that he could have been a better, more lighthearted, easier going kind of guy.  However, the truth of his character is that not only is that statement accurate, but had he read a different book, or heard a different song, etc., he could also easily have become one of the people he finds himself tracking down.  Luther fights on the side of justice, but one gets the sense that his perception of justice could easily have been formulated in order to make him a entirely different person.  Luther is a great detective, but he could just as easily have been one of the worst criminals.

As a detective series, Luther is certainly not for the faint of heart.  The cases which Luther attempts to solve are of a disturbing nature, and the way in which Luther approaches them is no less troublesome.  It is not simply that Luther is willing to bash in the brains of whomever he has to in order to get results, he is perfectly willing to get his own brains bashed in if it will help catch the bad guy.

It is here, with the bad guy, that the show illustrates one major difference between itself and so many other police dramas – very quickly in each episode, Luther knows who did it, that is not where the series finds is drama.  The trick is not in the whodunit, but in how the police are going to get the evidence to get their man/woman or simply to track the criminal down. 

Luther doesn't have to go it alone on these cases, he's got an assortment of co-workers too.  First, there's his boss, Rose Teller (Saskia Reeves); then there's his new partner, Justin Ripley (Warren Brown); and his longtime detective friend Ian Reed (Steven Mackintosh).  Luther also has a wife from whom he's separated, Zoe (Indira Varma), who has a new love interest, Mark (Paul McGann), and that too doesn't make Luther's life any easier.

Perhaps though this series is really set apart by one other budding relationship (I hesitate to call it a "friendship") in Luther's life, and that is the one he forms with Alice MorganBBC (Ruth Wilson).  Without giving much away about what takes place in the series, Alice is a crucial witness in an investigation in the first episode, and someone with whom Luther ends up having many dealings.  A brilliant woman, Alice has some distinct issues all her own and has no trouble insinuating herself into Luther's life whether he wants her there or not.

It sounds trite and more than a little too easy to call Luther a brilliantly conceived and exceptionally executed drama with good characters and great actors, but to call it anything less would ring completely false.  Any fan of crime dramas will fall head over heels in love with the series.  And, provided that they're not squeamish, anyone who simply likes good television will find a whole lot to enjoy in the series as well.  Created and written by Neil Cross (MI-5), Luther is not just British detective drama at its finest (although it is, as stated above, distinctly British), it is an experience worth having.

Oh, it is dark and it is sometimes difficult to watch, but Luther is wonderful.

Luther premieres on BBC America Sunday October 17 at 10pm.

Article first published as TV Review: Luther on Blogcritics.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Looking for Character on Outsourced

So there I was watching Outsourced last night and you know what, I wasn't amused.  I know I haven't written one of these columns for a while and I could delve into the funny (though slightly sloppy technically) 30 Rock live episode, but I'm not doing that, I'm doing Outsourced.

Now, I wasn't amused because Outsourced wasn't funny.  Don't get me wrong, it wasn't funny, not in the slightest, but that's not why I wasn't amused.   I wasn't amused because the impetus for the plot was ridiculous (yes, more ridiculous than the rest of the series).

If you don't know the show, it follows the adventures of Todd Dempsy (Ben Rappaport) as he goes about his newfound life as the manager of a call center in India.  It's not a life that Todd would have chosen for himself but rather one that was thrust upon him when his company outsourced the call center and he needed to keep his paycheck.  I'm not sure where the jokes are supposed to come from so I won't get into that (yet),Photo Credit: Chris Haston/NBC but the episodes so far have all followed a pretty standard formula where the cultures clash. 

We are to believe at this point that Todd has been working at the call center for at least a few weeks, if not longer, and has become chummy with some of his employees.  Last night, one of them, Asha (Rebecca Hazelwood), was convinced by the assistant manager, Rajiv (Rizwan Manji), to lie to get Todd out of the office.  Rajiv, we learned as the episode progressed, wanted Todd out of the way so that he could pretend to be the manager in front of his would-be father-in-law.

The entire idea falls down because with what we know of the characters before last night there is no way that had he known about Rajiv's wanting to pretend to be manager in advance, Todd wouldn't have gone along with it.  Plus, there's no way that Asha wouldn't have known that Todd would absolutely have agreed.  Which is all to say that Asha's internal motivation for lying was neither explored nor explained, we were just left to accept it and watch the plot progress.

That is, however, not the sort of thing I'm able to simply accept.

I can, off the top of my head, come up with several different ways in which Rajiv could have proceeded about his plan to lie to his would-be father-in-law without Asha's lying to Todd.  The potential scenarios include any number of ways for Rajiv to be caught in his lie, again with the characters remaining true to themselves.

Why then proceed with the lie to Todd?  Why have Asha act out of character?  Well, there I can only come up with one answer and that is because it allowed a joke about Indian culture to take place and at the same time make fun of American stupidity. 

The lie Asha and Rajiv told Todd was that it was a holiday in India, Vindaloo Day, where people threw spices at each other and so everyone would be taking the afternoon off.  I don't even want to get into the lack of realism of the call center being closed in the middle of the day for a holiday when obviously the people calling in won't stop calling due to a holiday they don't know about because it brings into question so many of the other established facts of the series that you have to overlook in order to be able to watch an episode without pulling out your hair.   It was just an unfunny joke created so that Todd could look dumb throwing spices at people, Indian culture mildly jabbed, and Americans called stupid. 

Or, in other woods, Asha acted out of character for no good reason whatsoever.

To this point I have only laughed at one joke in Outsourced but I'm keeping it on my TiVo for another few weeks.  I just hope that in that time they're able to show that they can deliver characters who are true to themselves, an actual role for Pippa Black beyond simply existing to come on to Todd once every couple of weeks, and do more than take cheap shots at Indian culture and American stupidity. 

We'll see what happens.

Article first published as Outsourced and My Frustration on Blogcritics.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Square Enix Shows us Tomorrow with Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Gun Loco and More

One of the excellent perks of my job – check that, let's not call it a "perk" it's definitely part of the job – is getting to see not yet finished videogames.  When I'm lucky I get to play them too, but there's still something incredibly special about having someone run through a demo for you of a title that's not due out until next year (if everything works perfectly on the development side).

I once read an article that tried to explain how special it is the first time you pick up a controller for a brand new console – it's a little different and your fingers aren't quite sure where each button is or how it feels.  It is an exhilarating moment, you don't know what the boot screen is going to look like and you're not yet infinitely tired of watching it progress when all you really want to do is play a game.   Seeing someone, even if it's not you, running through a playable demo is kind of like that, especially when the game shows potential.  Last week I got to sit down and watch four such demos for games by the folks over at Square Enix.

If you're a gamer in the same mold as myself, you enjoy the immersive experience of the whole thing – it's the getting lost in a new world that really thrills you about videogames.  Well for my money, Square Enix puts out some of the best worlds you can possibly visit.  No one really seems to do immersive in the way that Square Enix does immersive and some of that was definitely on display at this event.

The first title I saw was Gun Loco, a 360 exclusive, that is, as you may have guessed by the title, heavy on insane gunplay.  Due oGun Locout February 27 of next year, the game is based on some Hong Kong action figures and the demo that was run took place on a prison planet where a couple of guys (one with a rabbit head) were doing their best to get to a rocket… I think.  As far as I could tell, the storyline was kind of less important in Gun Loco than was dropping you on a massive level and asking that you get from point A to point B destroying everything that moved – be it human or mechanical – that got in your way.   The playable character we saw, Maddox, is able to do things lie slide under fences while firing his gun, drop kick bad guys, and generally wreak havoc. 

For Gun Loco, that was the main takeaway – in this game you wreak havoc.  You run around and wreak havoc.  You have a foul mouth, shoot guys, and blood spurts everywhere.  Even torsos can be sent flying and it's all done with very comic book-style graphics. 

Up next was Mindjack, a title that will be appearing on both the PS3 and 360.  The game takes place in the near future, when Bluetooth-likeMindjack headsets are ubiquitous… and evil.  Because, you know, why not.  You see, in the game there's this big bad corporation which can control people via the headsets.  Luckily for you, your character can too. As a police-type guy, you're job is to right wrongs, something you accomplish by "mindslaving" enemies which means accessing their headset and turning them into your own personal drone.  You can also "mindhack" them which sends your consciousness into their body for a while (so you can die in their body without hurting yourself).

It all sounds like the sort of futuristic story we know and love, but what may make Mindjack different is its persistent multiplayer.  You will always be online with the title and at any time folks can just jump right in and try to kill you and then someone can, etc. 

Perhaps purposefully, the third game I saw was Dungeon Siege III, the first Dungeon Siege title to make it to consoles.  The game runs on a new, designed-for-the-title, Obsidian engine and, I was told, has beenDungeon Siege III created with an eye to both to bringing in new folks and to not losing old ones.  From what I saw that goal seems to have been accomplished (again, at least in the demo). For instance, should you get lost on a quest you can just bring up a handy-dandy lighty trail that tells you where to go, and in the demo dungeon there was a huge statue of one of the main characters from the original game.  Aficionados will also be happy to know that Chris Taylor is involved in the title.

The graphics for Dungeon Siege III are very impressive, with rich colors and excellent detail.  The game sports ragdoll physics which is always fun, and promises to have multiple outcomes available.

Now, while the Dungeon Siege multi-outcomes are all well and good, the last game I saw really seemed built around multiple paths and was certainly the most impressive of the four titles.   That bad boy was Deus Ex: Human Revolution.

This latest Deus Ex title is a prequel to the previous ones and features large, fully explorable cities.   From what I saw, you're going to need to explore those cities if you want any idea of the best way to proceed on your missions.  That's because each mission can be tackled in four different ways – via combat, hacking, social, and stealth routes.  Depending on which route you choose and how well you do in it, you get more or less XP which can be used to upgrade your character's abilities. 

It was this demo that took the longest time and it took so long because I got to see a single scenario played out in three different ways – combat, Deus Ex: Human Revolutionhacking/stealth, and social.  Although the end result was the same each time – the character, Adam Jensen, left the police station having obtained what he came for – it was a radically different game each way it was presented.  If you want the game to be a shooter, it's a shooter; if you want the game to be a stealth title, it's a stealth title; if you want it to be more talky, it's more talky.  And, beyond those different paths existing, it appeared as though they were all fully considered and realized (at least on the demo level).

All four of the titles we saw looked as though they could be great upon their final release.  We can't say for certain that they will be, we're going to have to get our grubby little hands on the final versions first, but with what we saw we're aching to do just that.

Article first published as Square Enix Shows us the new Deus Ex, Mindjack, Dungeon Siege III, and Gun Loco on Blogcritics.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Taking it to the Hoop with NBA Jam

Last week I wrote up a videogame review on Atari’s new Haunted House.  I spent some time in that review talking about how it felt as though every game I had been reviewing as of late was a sequel or a reimagining or a reinvention or some other update to a classic.  Well, no sooner did I finish that review than the nice man from FedEx (or maybe UPS) left a package at my door.  Upon opening it I discovered that it was EA Sports’ latest title, another reinvention of an old game, NBA Jam.

I distinctly remember getting schooled by Bill Clinton in NBA Jam while waiting for the Super Bowl to start.  That is to say, my friend popped in the code on the old Jam to play as Bill Clinton and the President had a field day.  He was, as the saying goes, on fire.

For those who aren’t old enough to remember hearing the play-by-play guy yell “Boomshakalaka” on either a home console or in the arcade, NBA Jam is two-on-two arcade basketball at its finest.   Forget carefully managing a team throughout one season much less several, leading them to the championship, and making sure that you have enough money to pay the bills on a weekly basis, NBA Jam is about taking it to the hoop in the most stunning, the most physical, and the most fun ways.   That is not to say that there is no strategy involved, there is plenty of strategy and it begins before tipoff,  it is just that once you’re playing you don’t realize that there’s much strategy involved. 

Jumping in at the beginning, the new NBA Jam offers plenty of play modes, but let’s look at the Classic Campaign first.  This mode is, for all intents and purposes, a basic updating of the original game’s main mode.  You start off by choosing a team and then have to beat all the other teams.  The title is a licensed one, so while you won’t find the entire squad of your favorite team, you will find a few players from the team, all with different strengths and weaknesses.  You select one guy to be controlled by you and another to be controlled by the computer and then it’s off to the races.

And boy are those races great.  The entire game really is just about getting the ball, running down the court, and jamming it home.  You can, if you’ve chosen the right player, go for a jumper or a three-pointer, you can also finger roll and execute a hookshot, but the point is the jam.  On defense, forget fouls, if the opposing team has the ball and you want the ball, you go and you take the ball.  That’s right, just shove the guy and grab the ball when it hits the floor – the one thing you can’t do in NBA Jam is goaltending… sort of.

You see, if your chosen player sinks three shots without the other side sinking any he’s designated as being “on fire,” which means that not only will the net erupt into flames every time you score, but your shooting percentage goes up, you can sprint without running out of energy, and are just an all around better player.  Where the goaltending bit of this comes in is that should you get called for a goaltending penalty it does not reset the number of shots you’ve sunk without your opponent sinking one (because with goaltending while a team has been given the points, they haven’t made the basket).

The same basic rules apply to the Remix Tour mode which is mainly just a different way of organizing the basic tournament.  Well, it’s mainly that except for the power-ups.  In this mode, throughout the game power-ups will magically appear on the floor and by grabbing them you’ll get special abilities like the ability to bulldoze a defender, increased speed, increased accuracy, etc.  It takes what already was an arcade game and pushes it even further in that direction.

Then there are a whole bunch of other types of ways to play as well – you can play 21, you can play an elimination mode where it’s everyone for themselves and at the end of each round the person with the lowest score is out, you can play Domination where you need to make shots from certain places on the court, you can also play a Smash mode which is all about breaking the backboard.  The game even has the ability to play a Boss Battle mode where you take on some relatively special folks, but you need to unlock those guys first which you do by playing in the Remix Tour (you can also unlock teams and courts).

Perhaps the biggest problem with the game is its insatiable desire to try to even things out.  If you start to run up a big lead, it’s understandable that your opponents will change tactics (and they do, they always go to a press), but that it seemingly becomes harder to hit a shot (unless you’re on fire) is distressing.  It should be said though that I’m against the computer leveling the field like this in any game (see Mario Kart) – it may make things more even but it simply destroys the realism.

As one would expect, the graphics for the title have improved greatly over the initial console debut so many years ago.  I will say, however, that the reflection on the floor of some of the electronic signs from the stadium is just plain annoying.  I completely understand that it’s impressive that graphics have come to the point where such reflections are possible, but they don’t add to the excitement or the challenge, they’re just in the way.

The game has done a great job with the play-by-play announcing, both throwing in some new phrases while making sure to keep everyone’s favorite old ones from the original.  The play-by-play is done by Tim Kitzrow who is the same person who did the old game, so those who remember the old title won’t have to get used to a new voice yelling out the catchphrases.

Lastly, NBA Jam allows one to use either the Wii remote and nunchuk or the classic controller.  The remote and nunchuk combination is okay, but requires some flicking to dunk and take a jumper, and the flicking for each is slightly too similar, causing moments when you’ll mean to dunk and take an ugly, ugly jump shot.  It isn’t a huge frustration, but it would have been nice to see an option that allowed for Wii remote play without motion controls.

This new version of NBA Jam is just as much fun as the old one ever was.  It is nice to see the game resurrected and have it contain new features while not eliminating the old ones.  Now if I can only hookup with my Bill Clinton nemesis again I can show him a thing or two about how to jam.

NBA Jam is rated E (Everyone) by the ESRB.

Article first published as Nintendo Wii Review: NBA Jam on Blogcritics.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Rockin' Out: Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock

If there is one trend that has stood out over all the rest in gaming for the past few years it would almost certainly be the increasing popularity of rhythm games, a group of titles led by Guitar Hero and Rock Band.  Playing air guitar has long been a favorite pastime of many, but these titles allow you to actually play air guitar… and air bass… and air drums… and karaoke vocals for points and with an almost real instrument.  Whether or not they have ever played a rhythm game before, a huge number of people are aware they exist – they have been discussed on radio, in film, and on television shows, they are everywhere, and with good reason – they're loads of fun.  The games allow friends to get together and play till the wee hours of the morning and while the noise will still bother the neighbors, unlike so many garage bands at least it'll sound decent.

The latest expansion into the Guitar Hero franchise is the aptly named Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock.  The game represents the first GH game to have a Quest Mode.  Narrated by Gene Simmons of KISS (who appear in the game's 90+ track set list), Quest Mode is the story of the Demi-God of Rock trying to defeat The Beast and saving rock and roll.  It is, in a word, foolish.  I don't mean that it's a bad idea or that it's poorly executed, it's just kind of silly because it really is just a rebranding of any career mode by slapping some cutscenes onto it in order to tell the tale. 

Now, I don't want what you to mistake what I'm saying, I'm not using "foolish" as a derogatory term, perhaps "silly" would be a better word.  Quest Mode is a silly mode, but the entire experience of jamming buttons on a plastic guitar neck and hitting a toggle pretending that you're strumming strings is silly as well.  Silly doesn't preclude something being a great experience. 

Quest is a new wrapping for an old game and as such works really well.  Through Quest Mode, Activision and Neversoft have been able to take some of your favorite Guitar Hero characters like Johnny Napalm and give them special abilities to help earn you more bonus stars.  The idea of the Quest itself is that you need to recruit nice folks like Napalm by earning enough stars within each character's set list.  Doing this transforms the character into something of a superhero alter ego – Napalm becomes Warrior Johnny and joins your team.  There's no real action involved save in cutscenes, Quest is just a new way of going through and unlocking songs (many of which are already available at the start of quickplay) and venues.  

The pick-up-and-play Quickplay, branded Quickplay+ here, features the addition of certain challenges within songs (long note streaks, high scores, etc.) as well as the ability to use various warrior powers obtained in Quest Mode.  There are also both Party Play and Competitive multiplayer modes, which is to say that while there are some new tweaks here and there to the title, it's Guitar Hero again.

That really isn't a bad thing if you think about – Guitar Hero is fun, unlocking venues and characters is fun, and playing the songs is fun.  Rocking out with your friends is fun.  Having Gene Simmons tell you a story about how a bunch of crazy rock gods saving rock and roll for the world is fun.  Also fun is the ability to change out the wing pieces on the guitar to give the thing an entirely new look.

Now, if you own a version of Guitar Hero already, you'll be happy to know that some of your old music from World Tour, Smash Hits, GH5, and Band Hero are all importable (if you still have the back of your manual and that handy-dandy code on it).  There are also, as of launch date, more than 300 downloadable songs (which have challenges for Quickplay+) .

If you're already a fan of rhythm games the ultimate decision on whether or not you wish to purchase this title probably revolves around the set list, which is (as you would expect) very hard rock heavy.  The 93 tracks include Rush (there's an extended 2112 sequence in Quest Mode), Queen, Poison, KISS, The Rolling Stones, The Runaways, The White Stripes, ZZ Top, Twisted Sister, and more (the complete list is available here).  It unquestionably skews heavy, however I am not a particularly huge fan of that breed of rock and I was able to find plenty of songs within every character's set list that I knew or liked once I got to know them.

In the end, whether or not you care for the story that gets unspooled in front of you, Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock is Guitar Hero and there's very little bad about that.  There are loads of songs included, some great venues, and hours on end of gameplay fun.  There are still lots of difficulty levels, a good tutorial, and you can still create your own rocker.  It is a good time and a fun game.  If only all the downloadable tracks were free.

Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock is rated T (Teen) by the ESRB for Lyrics, Mild Fantasy Violence, Mild Suggestive Themes. This game can also be found on: Wii and Xbox 360.

Article first published as PlayStation 3 Review: Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock on Blogcritics.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

He's Your Dog, Charlie Brown but I'd Love to Make him Mine

It has often been a dream of mine to have a dog.  When I was but a wee lad, I certainly wanted one, and it's a desire that has stayed with me to this day.  I attribute my wanting a dog not only to the families around me who own canines, but also in part to the cartoon dog who has always epitomized everything I would want my dog to be able to do, Snoopy.  Laugh if you will, but there's nothing that Snoopy can't do.  Of course, as I have gotten older, I have come to realize that while Snoopy may be the coolest of dogs, he is not always the best pet, and no Charlie Brown story relates that quite as well as the just released to DVD as a "remastered deluxe edition" He's Your Dog, Charlie Brown.

Before we get into exactly what makes this remastered and deluxe, let's look at the basic package.  The DVD contains two Charlie Brown specials, the titular He's Your Dog, Charlie Brown and Life's a Circus, Charlie Brown.  Both are Snoopy-centric tales, and both illustrate just why Snoopy may not be the world's greatest pet.

In the first story, the famed beagle gets into a great deal of trouble.  It all starts off with Snoopy aggravating members of the Peanuts gang via various inappropriate actions like knocking people over, scaring them, and generally being a pest.  His actions cause Charlie Brown to decide that Snoopy needs an obedience refresher course and sends him off to Daisy Hill Puppy Farm (or "from whence Snoopy came" if you prefer) to get the refresher.

Unfortunately, Charlie sends Snoopy on his own to go to Daisy Hill and Snoopy decides to extend a planned stopover at Peppermint Patty's indefinitely.  Even Patty eventually has enough of Snoopy's demanding nature and puts the dog to work which helps convince the beagle that may he ought not have left Charlie in the first place.

It is a pretty simple tale, but a great deal of fun to watch unfold.  As with the other Lee Mendelson-Bill Melendez-produced Peanuts stories, it is a slowly unfolding tale, and one where the specifics of the story sometimes take a back seat to comic moments.  This particular story does have more of a plot than some, but it still takes time to have Snoopy kick a can during his walk to and from Patty's and have various other asides take place. 

The second story sees Snoopy falling in love with Fifi the Poodle and, even if mistakenly, joining the circus so he can be with her.  Snoopy comes home in the end, but seeing Charlie Brown sit there and contemplate his lost dog is hard on us would-be pet owners.  Snoopy, as Life's a Circus, Charlie Brown shows, can in fact do anything (like ride a unicycle), but he often puts his owner's needs well behind is own rather than establishing a real give-and-take relationship.

Please don't get me wrong, I love the stories and think anyone who grew up with the Peanuts gang will as well, it just has to be said that while Snoopy may be the best dog ever he's not the best pet.  The style of the Charlie Brown cartoons with their slow pace and meandering stories is something that is not seen with more recent fare, but it works wonderfully well and the tales have proven themselves timeless.

Outside of the extra story and a couple of trailers, the DVD contains one bonus feature – "Snoopy's Home Ice: The Story of the Redwood Empire Ice Arena."  This documentary focuses on the ice skating rink that Charles Schulz and his wife helped build.  Over 20 minutes long, it talks to people who have been there for the life of the arena and is a fun trip down memory lane.

As for this being a "remastered deluxe edition," what that means is that He's Your Dog, Charlie Brown was previously released to DVD and has now come around again, only this time they've gone back to the audio and video and tried to clean it all up as best they could.  The end result is really quite good, one would never guess that the story originally aired over 40 years ago.  The worrisome part of this release is that Charlie Brown tales have started being released to Blu-ray already and remastering is one of the steps on the path to becoming a Blu-ray.  This reviewer would therefore caution anyone with a Blu-ray player who is considering buying the disc to consider the fact that it may arrive on Blu-ray in the not-too-distant future.  On the other hand, if all you want is a great Charlie Brown tale and don't care about Blu-ray, you're not going to go wrong with this edition.

Article first published as DVD Review: He's Your Dog, Charlie Brown - Remastered Deluxe Edition on Blogcritics.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Atari's Haunted House is Back

It seems as though every game I play these days is a sequel or a reboot or a reinterpretation or a reimagining, etc., of an older game.  That is again true in the case of Atari's Haunted House.  Although the game it is based on is older than most and something that has been off of people's radars for decades, it is not a newly created franchise.

The original Atari title of that name was released for the Atari 2600 in February of 1982.  As with many games back then, the idea was pretty simple – go through a location looking for something.  In this case the something was three pieces of an urn; the place was a haunted house (in fact it was the mansion of Zachary Graves); and your character, represented by two eyes, was named Samuel Silverspring.

In this sequel to the original – and despite it having the same name, it is a sequel – you can play as one of Samuel's grandchildren, Jacob and Silvia.  We are told in the preface that the two grandchildren (adults now as this takes place 30 years after the original) have been searching to clues about their grandfather's disappearance for years.  Now, they have received a letter directing them to Spirit Bay and the Graves Mansion, with the letter indicating that their search will end there.  The game proper starts when you, as either Jacob or Silvia, arrive at the mansion for a look-see. 

Everything in Haunted House plays like an updated version of the original.  Your job is to go through the 20 levels of the game piecing together what happened to Samuel and finding bits of the urn he was looking for as well.  This basic task is accomplished by searching (via the "A" button) almost every object you encounter – sofas, chairs, shelves, bureaus, armoires, treasure chests, etc.  Some of these objects yield nothing, but others yield a light source, a treasure, a coin, or one page of several different journals. 

While the journal pages, coins, and treasures are nice (especially if you're into 100% completion), the various light sources are crucial.  You are allowed to carry any two types of light sources at a time (you can have multiple number of each type, i.e., 20 matches would count as one type), and with these light sources you can hurt enemies (depending on the type of light) and better explore your surroundings.  Light sources also allow you to light fireplaces.  In turn, these fireplaces hurt enemies, replenish your life, and provide save checkpoints.  How exactly turning on a cell phone manages to light a fireplace I couldn't tell you, I only know that within Haunted House it does.

The various enemies you'll encounter on a trip through the Graves Mansion include bats, rats, ghosts, and gargoyles, all of whom can eat away at your life.  The stronger enemies can also freeze you in place, forcing you to shake the Wii remote to get going once more.  However, even on the most difficult level, enemies are not horribly fast or strong.  What enemies are though on every level of difficulty is dumb.  With little effort you can coax any baddie into following you towards a fireplace and even after they get wounded from it once, they're more than willing to go back there again should they get the slightest hint that human flesh will be near it.  You can even play the oh-so-fun game of putting a table (or sofa or chair) between you and the baddie and running around in circles as you slowly hurt them by lighting a lamp or torch (or other enemy-hurting light) in your possession.  Often, despite getting injured and no closer to their meal, the baddie won't go away.  If he does, just getting within close proximity to them once more is enough to make them forget what just went down so you can start the process all over again.

The issues with the title don't stop there.  Atari and developed ImaginEngine have opted for a not-quite top-down view for the game, angling it slightly so as to allow for more of a 3D look.  The camera never moves from its starting position, which for the most part is fine, except if you're towards the bottom of any room, because when you are, your character will be completely blocked by the wall every single time.  There are really no items down at the bottom of rooms that you can't see, but it's still annoying to have your view of almost every room in the game partially blocked.

The graphics themselves are cartoony and fun, and all the various light sources you procure have a somewhat different look to them.  However, on one occasion we did notice a frame rate drop when more than one ghost opted to try and attack us at the same time.  We encountered multiple enemies on several occasions without such an occurrence which made the instance somewhat more odd, but it was certainly undeniable.

The sound design is pretty minimal, with the occasional haunting laugh or creepy noise, or enemy making a sound as you go through the mansion.  Additionally, Jacob and Silvia have the annoying habit of talking to themselves and to no one in particular on a regular basis.  Their vocabulary is somewhat limited as well, so you're going to hear them say the same things over and over again. 

In terms of gameplay, as you progress through the levels, things do become slightly more difficult.  As an example, not only do enemies become more numerous as you go, but while at first only different keys are required to open doors, eventually you will have to find hidden levers to open doors and then different colored lights will create magic doorways through otherwise blocked openings.  There is no map available, and many floors tend to look exceedingly similar (there are a few different styles of floors, but after a while even that is not enough to differentiate levels) Haunted House does get old pretty fast, so it is nice to see that there are some incremental changes as you progress even if they aren't really enough to keep you fully engaged. 

In the end, that's the basic problem with the title.  The original  game worked wonderfully because it was short and sweet (if you visit the Atari site for the new game you can play the original version).  The new game is significantly longer and eventually becomes somewhat monotonous.  It isn't a full-priced title and it is fun in short bursts, but you do get the sense that it should have been further expanded and that levels should be more differentiated.  There is a multiplayer co-op mode which is fun, but that too ends up suffering from the same gameplay issues.

If you're on the hunt for some nostalgia or just like minimally creepy exploration titles, Haunted House certainly fits the bill.  It is really not a bad way to spend a few hours, just don't expect the immersive and expansive gameplay experience offered by some other titles.

Haunted House is rated E10+ (Everyone 10 and older) by the ESRB for Language, Mild Blood, and Mild Cartoon Violence. This game can also be found on: PC and XBLA.

Article first published as Nintendo Wii Review: Haunted House on Blogcritics.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Top Gear - The Complete Season 13 or Happy Days are Here Again!

The gauntlet has once again been laid squarely at my feet; it has fallen to me to explain to you just why you should be watching Top Gear and just what you'll gain from the experience.  BBC America just starting airing the 15th season of the show and alongside that Warner Bros. and the BBC have released The Complete Season 13 to DVD.  In this piece we will be concerning ourselves with the latter much more than the former.

Top Gear, as I have said before, is ostensibly a car show, but not really.  In reality, the show is a comment on our society, a comedy, and an adventure all rolled into one.  The show follows the exploits of James May, Richard Hammond, and Jeremy Clarkson as they put cars through their paces in order to see just what makes for a good car and just what a car can really do.  This basic formula holds true for season 13, although it does hold true for fewer episodes than in season 12 as only seven were made as part of this season and eight as a part of the previous one (although it must be added that a mere six were included in season 11).

One of the things that has made the new version of Top Gear so special is the enigma known as The Stig.  Referred to as Top Gear's "tame racing driver," it is The Stig who is tasked with racing cars around the Top Gear Test Track to see how well they perform.  It also falls to The Stig to train the celebrities who come on the show so that the celebrities can put up their own times in the reasonably priced car they take around the track.  The Stig doesn't speak, The Stig shows no emotion, The Stig doesn't even take off his helmet.  This has actually led to much speculation in England as to who the man in the white racing suit might be.  At first, this revamped version of Top Gear (there was another, older, version of the show before this one) featured a Stig in a black racing suit. That particular Stig, announced who he was to the world, was forced to drive off an aircraft carrier, and was subsequently replaced with the white-suited one.

There has been speculation that the black Stig will return, an idea perhaps most notably spurred by the next video, but at this moment that still seems to be pure speculation.  The point of all this foolishness however is that the identity of The Stig is a closely guarded secret, and whether or not it started out as simply being a joke or whether there was a purpose behind it, it has led to an incredible amount of guessing about his identity.

The point of my telling you this is that in the 13th season premiere of Top Gear, a man dressed as The Stig comes out into the studio, removes his helmet, and reveals his identity.  It is a brilliant moment for the series, the man who reveals himself is almost unquestionably not actually The Stig, but it is a moment which highlights the sense of humor the producers and hosts have about the show and its mystique.  It also starts the season on a great note, a note which is continued through the rest of the first episode and the six others which follow the premiere.

For Top Gear fans that might be the best moment in the season.  However, for those who simply prefer entertaining television there are a lot of other great moments.  Also occurring in the season premiere is a race from London to Edinburgh via three different modes of transportation – a train, car, and motorbike all based on 1949 models.  This particular race harkens back to earlier seasons of Top Gear where the guys have raced cars against trains on more than one occasion, and have even gone up against airplanes and various other modes of transportation (and bobsleds).  Another great race this season has May and Hammond in a Porsche Panamera race a letter being taken by the Royal Mail from the Isles of Scilly to Orkney.  Anyone who has ever seen or heard tell of the classic 1936 British documentary Night Mail will instantly draw allusions between that film and this episode.  It is another instance of Top Gear proving that not only can they have a great deal of fun and be hugely entertaining, but manage to be incredibly smart as well.  For those who aren't petrolheads it is here where Top Gear will most impress – with its intelligence and understanding of the world and history.

If guests is your thing, the new season features racing legends like Michael Schumacher; world famous stars like Stephen Fry and Sienna Miller; and even well-known entertainer and ridiculously big car aficionado, Jay Leno.

In terms of special features, the DVD release sports a Stig POV segment which gives the in-car point of view of The Stig doing some laps on the Top Gear Test Track as well as a POV from the front of a Lamborghini Murcielago LP670-4-SV going 200mph in Abu Dhabi.  There is also an extended interview with Brian Johnson and another extended one with Jenson Button as well as a clip of the boys enjoying some time in a few Spitfires, a slo-mo sequence with Ken Block (who appears in one episode), and more footage of Jeremy Clarkson on the train from the train/car/motorbike race. 

With an ice race, a battle between a Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution VII RS and some of the British military, and even an attempt to make a commercial, Top Gear – The Complete Season 13 has everything in it Top Gear fans and car lovers crave. Anyone else willing to give a car show a shot will also find tons to love.  Top Gear, despite purporting to have a  narrow focus, in fact has an expansive one and season 13 proves once again that Hammond, May, Clarkson, and the producers know how to make some of the smartest television you will ever see.

Article first published as DVD Review: Top Gear - The Complete Season 13 on Blogcritics.