Friday, December 31, 2010

Berzerk Ball - Violence Never Solves Anything (but that Doesn't Mean it isn't Fun)

An odd little Flash game for computers, Homerun in Berzerk Land features you playing as various characters and getting the chance to smack a geek off the edge of cliff to see just how far you can get him to travel.  It goes well beyond that however, the geek doesn't just get smacked with a flyswatter, baseball bat, sausage, sword, or whatever else you buy in the shop (we'll get to that later), there are also various creatures and items on the ground that can propel the geek to new heights as well.  It's an oddly good time in the Penguin Smack tradition (something the developers acknowledge).

Of course, as all iPhone owners are well aware, our precious little phone doesn't support Flash (don't get me started on that).  No worries though, Berzerk Studio has now released Berzerk Ball, a mobile iOS version of Homerun in Berzerk Land with the same cartoony graphics and fun.  Even better than that, the game is just as fun as the computer version if not more so (because now you can bash the geek wherever you go).

In case I have been unclear, this isn't one of those games that requires hours of your time and brain power – there is no story, there are no traps, there is no deadly evil; there is only your character (you get your pick of several) and a geek to be bashed as far as you possibly can.  The controls too are quite simple.  At the start of each turn you tap the screen once to determine the angle at which you will bash the geek and tap screen again to determine the power with which you will bash the geek.  At that point, the geek gets bashed.  As he flies through the air, Berzerk Ball keeps track of his height and the distance from the starting line, with the goal being to simply hit him as far as you can.

The more times you play and the further you hit the geek, the more money you earn and the more experience you gain.  Gain enough experience and you level up, allowing you to increase your basher's stats in one of three categories worries though, Berzerk Studio has now released Berzerk Ball– strength, the speed at which the altitude/strength meters move (slower being easier to get the best bash), and the number of creatures on the ground that will help you keep the geek going.  Money can be used to buy better weapons with which to bash the geek and various items that will increase your stats.  There are also various achievements within the game (hit a certain altitude, get a certain distance, level up a certain amount, etc.) that unlock other items and weapons.  The items and weapons unlocked by getting the achievements carry over from one character to the next while things that are purchased in the store do not.

Berzerk Ball is one of those easy concepts that has had a ton of replay value added to it by virtue of the multitude of unlockables, characters, and achievements.  Additionally, within the game, you can send ideas for geek phrases (the geek is a big talker via word bubbles) to Berzerk Studios for possible inclusion down the line.

Yes, it is true that after a while it does get a little tiring to keep on bashing the geek, particularly when you end up with a massive bash that sends him nearly a worries though, Berzerk Studio has now released Berzerk Ball 1,000,000 feet (it requires luck, skill, and a whole lot of time).  It is also somewhat disappointing that the game actually states that you've finished once all the characters are have been unlocked even if you haven't gotten all the various achievements – if there really is no point to the game other than bashing the geek, why should it ever be declared finished?  Can't geeks be bashed infinitely?

In the end, the game is fun – a stupid sort of fun, but unquestionably fun.  There will certainly be folks who, upon hearing the concept, decry it as the end of Western Civilization and a harbinger of doom.  Rather than attempting to bash such folks yourself (violence is wrong), sit them down with the game and see if they don't enjoy themselves just a little.  They will, it's a fun game.

Berzerk Ball has no rating but features cartoon violence. It is also available on PC and Mac.

Article first published as iPhone Game Review: Berzerk Ball on Blogcritics.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light Tomb Raids onto the iPhone (But it's Kind of Like Looting a Corpse)

With some games I find myself either really enjoying the title or greatly disliking it without being able to put my finger on exactly why I feel as I do.  More often than not, this difficulty arises with a game I don't enjoy, but it doesn't make for a satisfying review to simply refer to a title as "blah."  Whether or not a game is blah is certainly a worthwhile question to answer, but the why is equally important.

The iPhone iteration of Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light is one of those games that gives me a blah feeling without my really being able to pinpoint a reason for it.  I'm going to certainly try as the game is not without some obvious faults, but I don't know that there's really anything definable as to why the overall experience isn't a good one.

The game finds our hero, Lara Croft, on the hunt for a way to re-imprison Xolotol (a demon) within the Mirror of Smoke before Xolotol takes over the world (he was released by accident from the Mirror).  Aiding Lara on her quest is Totec, the titular Guardian of the Light and a 2,000 year-old Aztec god.  If that sounds confusing, ridiculous, and kind of weird, don't worry about it – it's wholly irrelevant in terms of gameplay.  The only time the story really appears is in comic book-style cutscenes between levels. The levels themselves are full of monsters and traps and puzzles.  Usually in a Tomb Raider game (even if this doesn't carry the Tomb Raider moniker it is a Tomb Raider game) that's a good thing – the traps are ingenious, the puzzles clever, and the enemies fun to dispatch.  Virtually none of that is true here.

And there it is dear readers, that is why the game is blah – none of the three things gameplay is built around (traps, puzzles, and enemies) are very enjoyable to experience, the story is even more foolish than a typical Tomb Raider adventure, and it's really only told between levels.  Great, so then what's the next question we need to answer?  Right – why are the traps, puzzles, and enemies not terribly interesting.

First and foremost, the camera is horrible and the controls terribly imprecise.  On a regular basis, Lara will be blocked from view as you're trying to do something because the camera is in a fixed position which doesn't afford you the ability to see what's happening. 

Then, when you're required to actually shoot something – including the spear you use to allow yourself to reach higher platforms – it proves nearly impossible to hit the exact spot you mean to hit.  The controls are dual analog sticks with a couple of other buttons thrown in as well so that you can do things like drop mines and change weapons.   It's a lot to try and cram on an iPhone screen and managing all the controls takes some time to get the hang of (usually that's not a problem, but when the game isn't compelling before or after you get the controls sorted it doesn't feel like learning the system is time well spent).

Perchance as an attempt to appease folks who like goals on each level besides simply "reach the end and don't die," Guardian of Light gives Lara a set of bonus objectives for each level, things along the line of getting a certain score (yes, unlike a traditional Tomb Raider game you get a score for picking things up and killing enemies), grabbing jewels, jumping from place to place, and finishing tasks within a time limit.  It is, almost certainly, impossible to actually accomplish all these goals on one play through of each level which makes it seem like the developers included them to add to the replay factor.  But, when you're not that enthused by the game the first time around, the odds you're going to go back to et 100% completion are kind of slim.

Even combat here is disappointing.  While there are several different types of weapons that can be found/unlocked, there is nothing terribly remarkable about any of them.  In fact, at least in the early levels, you'll find yourself relying on your mines more than your guns which feels like an unintended (but good) use of them.

One of the highlights of the title is the multiplayer factor – the game can be played either locally or through the iPhone's Game Center, with one person getting to be Lara and the other, Totec.  The puzzles are rearranged a little for two folks and while the experience can be more enjoyable playing with a friend in the same room, we were never able to have Game Center successfully connect us with another person which grossly limits the multiplayer ability.

I would suggest that it makes sense for Lara Croft as a character and Tomb Raider as a franchise to grow and change, but that seems like a pretty obvious statement and the fact that the developers have announced that they'll be rebooting the franchise in 2011 make it even more so (even a rebirth is a kind of growing).  I don't think the problem lies with this game being outside of Lara's normal territory and that is particularly evidenced by the game having gotten good reviews on consoles.  The iPhone port however isn't engrossing, the graphics merely average, and the troublesome cameras and controls only make a mediocre situation worse.  Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light doesn't dampen my enthusiasm for her as a character or the franchise, but it certainly isn't the pinnacle of her career.  It is instead merely another entry in the franchise and one that will leave you feeling distinctly… blah.

See you in the next life, Lara Croft.

Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light is rated T (Teen) by the ESRB for Animated Blood and Violence. This game can also be found on iPad and (in a slightly different iteration) on: PC, PS3, and Xbox 360.

Article first published as iPhone Game Review: Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light on Blogcritics.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Altered Beast and the Evils of Nostalgia

It is a sad truth that not every game needs to be ported to every system, particularly when the game doesn't have anything other than the nostalgia factor going for it.

Back in the day, I popped many a quarter into the Altered Beast machine, I spent a lot of time playing it when I got a Sega Genesis, and even played it on a PC as well. It's a game I remember fondly from my past, unfortunately it probably should have stayed there.

I thought the game was the greatest thing since sliced bread. The voices may not have been very good, but they were different and it was excellent side-scrolling beat'em-up fare with a character who changed repeatedly and some weird mythic story going on.

Playing it again now, it strikes me that all my fond feelings for the title stem from playing it in the arcade and that I found the Genesis version somewhat lacking. In the port, it was hard to get your character to do exactly what you wanted--movement felt very stilted and the attacks never quite worked properly (the punch wasn't long enough, the button responded too slowly, the shot was meant to go up and it went straight, etc.). Plus, not that I ever got very fair in the arcade version no matter how many quarters I put in, but the Genesis version was notably shorter.

What we're now getting for the iPhone is, as with the port for the Wii's Virtual Console, the Genesis version of Altered Beast once more. On the iPhone, the game sports all the same faults and issues that the Virtual Console and Genesis versions had. Even if the Genesis version wasn't inferior though, the overarching sad truth of the matter, the thing that it has taken me a long time to accept, is that regardless of how much I may have liked the game years ago, it simply isn't very good in today's world.

As the story goes, Zeus has you rise from your grave to save his daughter, Athena, from the bad guy, Neff. Why Zeus needs a dead guy to do this for him instead of doing it himself, having Athena (she is a god, after all) take an active role in her rescue, or calling on some other god to help is one of those things you shouldn't concern yourself with. You go through the various levels battling all manner of undead thing and can transform yourself into a variety of beasts (perhaps most famously, a werewolf in the opening level) by destroying blue oxen and collecting the spirit balls that eminent from within them. You punch, kick, and jump your way through the levels, getting knocked over repeatedly and listening to some pretty poor synthesized sounds and music.

The game can be played either full screen with the controller on the lower left and buttons on the lower right covering part of the image or as a smaller image in the middle of the screen and with the controls sitting outside. Neither really affords you a better opportunity to control your fate, your character will never quite respond as you want both experiences are frustrating. You can also opt to play with the accelerometer turned on and tilt your device to move around, but that affords you even less control over the action. There is also a local multiplayer ability should another player with an iPhone or iPad be around. And, long-time fans of the game will be happy that all the Genesis cheats are included.

Nostalgia is a powerful thing. I may not find the game all that difficult today, and it may no longer be all that enjoyable to play, but every time I put it down, I manage to convince myself that I have to be wrong, that it has to be better than I think and I pick it up again only to both smile and be vaguely disappointed.

Anyone out there who, like me, played the game and has fond feelings for it should certainly consider getting it on the iPhone (it is currently priced at 99 cents), just don't expect it to live up to your memories. By the same token, anyone out there who lives retro side-scrolling may also enjoy their time with Altered Beast, but if you're not a huge fan of the game, a lover of videogame history, or a devotee of the genre you'll never get what any of the fuss at any point may have been about.

Article first published as iPhone Game Review: Altered Beast on Blogcritics.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Rush Hour Gets Blu

The buddy cop flick isn't exactly a new sub-genre of film in 2010.  Throw a grizzled, tough-as-nails veteran in the same squad car as a wide-eyed rookie, add some laughs and a criminal plot, and you have yourself a film.  The genre isn't exactly made diverse by changing the types of cops you're putting together, but simply altering the stereotype cops does allow for a new movie to be made.  The genre wasn't even new in 1998 when the first Rush Hour hit theaters.  But, new or not, the Jackie Chan-Chris Tucker buddy cop film proved that you don't have be hugely different to be hugely successful.

It is true that the film is somewhat different from the majority of buddy cop flicks, but it certainly fits into the general mold – two cops with different tactics and attitudes make an unlikely pairing but manage to succeed in the end.  In this case, the two cops are both minorities, which is certainly against the norm in the genre.  The cops are, in fact, from opposite sides of the Pacific.  Jackie Chan plays Detective Inspector Lee of Hong Kong while Chris Tucker is Detective James Carter of the LAPD. 

The story is very much placed at the tail end of the 20th Century as it deals, in part, with the British handover of Hong Kong to the Chinese.  A hidden criminal mastermind, Juntao, is forced out of Hong Kong as the handover is taking place, but follows one of the men who forced him out, Consul Solon Han (Tzi Ma), to Los Angeles, where Juntao has his men kidnap the Consul's daughter.  When Consul Han asks the FBI to allow his man, Lee, in on the investigation, the FBI is hesitant.  They view any outsider as an unneeded distraction and consequently stick Lee with Carter, telling Carter to keep him away from the case.

Lee and Carter, as you probably have surmised, don't stay out of the way.  Instead, they cause a ridiculous amount of trouble for everyone and yet still, magically, crack the case and get the bad guy.  The entire thing may be obvious from the beginning, but Chris Tucker's wisecracking and Jackie Chan's martial arts manage to win the day, creating a film that may not break new ground, but makes the old ground great to tread once more. 

It is true that after a while, Chris Tucker's over-the-top foolishness can get somewhat annoying, but Brett Ratner's direction balances out Tucker with Chan's comedic style of martial arts.  One can, in fact, imagine many an actor who could have taken on Tucker's role without the film losing anything, but Chan is indispensable.  That is not to say that Tucker isn't funny and doesn't handle his role well, just that he–much more than Chan–feels as though he could be replaced.  Jackie Chan fans will note that there are better films which showcase the actor, films solely devoted to him, but with having to split screen time here, he still manages to do quite well   And, even if he does get annoying at times, Tucker is a funny man and has some pretty good moments in the film.

Rush Hour also sports a good supporting cast.  Tom Wilkinson, Chris Penn, Ken Leung, Elizabeth Pena, and Philip Baker Hall all appear in the film.  The film belongs to Tucker and Chan, but they have been surrounded by good people.

While I will not delve greatly into it, it must be noted that despite the film putting two minority characters front and center, it is not necessarily as forward-thinking as it may appear.  Both Chan and Tucker's characters fall squarely within stereotypical boundaries and a good argument can be made that rather than the film being progressive for using the actors, the way they are depicted makes it a far more regressive film than it would initially appear.

It must also be said that this particular Blu-ray release is not the greatest.  The visuals are distinctly unimpressive, with colors sometimes appearing rich and full and other times somewhat washed-out.  Dark scenes look relatively poor, with too much noise that creates almost a flicker in some shots.  There are some close-ups which look like they got better treatment than others, but it is not a film that you'll want to use to highlight the brilliance of Blu-ray. There is also the occasional scratch.  The sound is a somewhat better affair, with the DTS-HD Master Audio track pounding out bass and the surrounds putting you in the center of the action.   Everything is crisp and clear, and it's just a little unfortunate that the visuals aren't as good.  It almost makes it feel as though the release wasn't given the studio's best efforts.

That feeling is enhanced when one examines the bonus features.  They are not bad, they are all simply recycled from previous DVD releases.  There is a commentary with Brett Ratner as well as an isolated score commentary with the film's composer, Lalo Schifrin.  Two music videos are also included as well as deleted scenes, a student film made by Ratner, and a pretty good behind-the-scenes featurette.  This last item actually does a better than average job delving into what went into the film's production and how the pieces came together.  Like the film itself, it may not be new, but it is interesting.

What Rush Hour proves is that reinventing the wheel isn't necessary to create a successful and enjoyable film.  Rush Hour succeeds because the leads are, more often than not, enjoyable and Chan's martial arts' skills are always a wonder to behold.

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: Rush Hour on Blogcritics.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The 7th Guest and Henry Stauf Return

Ah, memories.  There are moments in my life which I remember quite clearly, things which can instantly be recalled – I know the first Star Trek episode I ever saw, the first James Bond movie I watched, where I was the first time I ever played Super Mario Bros.,  the moment I was first ever eaten by a grue, and calling the computer software store repeatedly to find out when The 11th Hour would finally hit store shelves.

The 11th Hour, developed by Trilobyte, was a game I was hugely excited for, having finally forced myself to get through its predecessor, The 7th Guest.  The first game in the series about sinister toymaker Henry Stauf and his haunted house, The 7th Guest is one of those titles which made an immediate impact on me the first time I played it.

Never being a fan of scary games, books, movies, television shows, etc., I was somehow still compelled by the box to play the game (score one for marketing)  and made the mistake of doing so alone, at night, in an empty house.   The extended opening sequence gives players the background story on the sick and twisted Henry Stauf, a ne'er-do-well turned murderer turned rich toymaker.  Featuring real actors hamming it up and drawn backgrounds, the opening is both intriguing and vaguely disturbing.  Once it ends, you find yourself in the mansion of Stauf years after a fateful, and deadly, party.  You are not so much an actual person as an entity without form known simply as Ego.  You travel through the house often, but not always, as a person would, but without a defined body. 

Your job is to go from room to room, solving a wide array of puzzles and piecing together what happened that fateful night.  These puzzles include things like moving pieces on a chessboard, solving word puzzles, and going through a maze or two.  As you enter new rooms and solve the puzzles, you are rewarded with the unlocking of new locations to visit and more ghostly visions of what happened.  It is played somewhat for laughs and yet, at times, quite spooky. 

In short, it is not the sort of thing that an easily frightened me ought to have been playing at home… alone… at night… in the dark.  Quickly figuring that out, I quit the game and stood up from my computer only to jump no fewer than three feet in the air as, once my back was turned, Stauf issued a plaintive and angry "Come back!" from my computer speakers.  Very little sleeping was done that night.

Despite scaring me horrifically, I felt compelled to return to the game, to finish the puzzles, to beat Stauf, and to learn the mystery of the seventh guest (I just made sure to turn off my speakers before quitting). 

The game, which taxed my poor computer so heavily back in the mid-'90s, is now available as an iPhone app and it retains everything that made that first visit to Stauf's mansion so wonderful.  The game is built around small, puzzles in each room, and as such works perfectly for the iPhone where it seems that folks often find that they have five or 10 minutes to play, but not more.  You can open the game, try to work out a puzzle, and then close it again without really losing the flow of what's happening.  There is a save function included – which I recommend using – but unless you've updated or turned off your phone, you do generally start from where you closed the game and an autosave exists as well.

The port here is a faithful one,  the original game was all point-and-click which translates beautifully to the touchscreen interface of the iPhone.  Additionally, Trilobyte has included the ability to click on "Farewell" in the menu screen to quit the game and cause Stauf to scare the bejesus out of me (which he still does) with his "Come back!"  despite the fact that clicking to quit only resets the menu screen as opposed to actually exiting the title.

There are some issues with the translation, including the fact that the opening cinematic is long enough where many an iPhone will have their screen first go slightly dark and then completely black, locking the phone.  Touching the screen to keep the phone unlocked and alive also causes the rest of the opening to be skipped.  Additionally, there are some areas of the Stauf mansion which are exceedingly dark if the brightness is not turned up (which can't be done within the title).  The video clips don't look particularly good here, but then again, they were never great-looking in the original either.  Lastly, when the actors speak or voiceover is provided, there is, at times, the background hiss accompanying the vocals is far too evident.  While it seems unlikely that this last problem can be fixed, Trilobyte has already addressed other issues with the game, delivering an update this week which fixed a problem with background music stopping.  

In its latest incarnation, The 7th Guest remains as spooky, funny, and puzzling as it has ever been.  The puzzles range from easy to exceedingly difficult (help is provided in-game should it be needed), and while I won't say that it's enjoyable for all ages, it is an exceptional example of a story-driven puzzle game.  The new

Trilobyte has already announced that The 11th Hour will be coming to the iPhone in 2011.  Hopefully the wait this time around between the original and the sequel will be shorter than last time.

The 7th Guest is rated T (Teen) by the ESRB for Realistic Violence. This game can also be found on: iPad, PC, and Mac.

Article first published as iPhone Game Review: The 7th Guest on Blogcritics.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Doctor Who: The Mazes of Time - Well, It's no Cliffs of Insanity

It would make me exceedingly happy to be able to sit down and write that the new Doctor Who iPhone game, Doctor Who: The Mazes of Time, was a brilliant digital transition for our beloved Time Lord.  It is not.  Plagued by poor controls and uninspired gameplay, Doctor Who: The Mazes of Time feels like it has only had one of the Gallifrean's two hearts used in its development.

Ostensibly, the game is a puzzle title – with Matt Smith's 11th Doctor and companion Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) having to retrieve a family and spaceship that gets dispersed after the Daleks decide that they would very much like the ship for their own (it's powered by time currents).   So, you travel in the TARDIS from level to level, going from point A to point B, opening rooms and unlocking doors, and retrieving whatever it is that you're supposed to retrieve in that location.

Each level is divided into a series of rooms that have to be crossed.  Rooms can have multiple entrances and exits as well as switches, traps, spikes, things that can be climbed over (if you're the Doctor), crawled under (if you're Amy), and otherwise manipulated/traversed depending on who you are.  Plus, there are baddies like the Cybermen and Daleks wandering around. As you run through the rooms, outside of accomplishing the necessary tasks, you also collect items like Time Orbs (which are fragments of the ship's drive system), and gold (because apparently Cybermen don't like it).

  The game is setup so that despite being one player, you have to take both the Doctor and Amy across each room and to the same exit.  You do this by switching back and forth between the two with the push of a button.  The process becomes highly annoying, especially when you get one character to the exit and are automatically flipped to the other just in time to get killed by an enemy.  Inactive characters can be killed when in the room, but not at an entrance or exit but once you go active you're fair game.  That is annoying in the extreme, particularly as there are some rooms where you're virtually required to maneuver one character to the end before going to the other, and if the timing works out badly for you… well… you're exterminated or assimilated or just plain dead.  And you are going to die in this game, a lot. 

Perhaps it is because you die so frequently that not only does the Doctor, upon perishing, look like he's regenerating, but Amy does too (somehow I doubt that we're going to be seeing a storyline where we learn that Amy is in fact a Time Lord in the upcoming season of the TV show though).  Regenerating really doesn't set you back to far, you simply need to redo the room that you're in – which makes it maddening but not too time consuming.

The game is also hampered by poor controls.  Rather than having a specific D-pad/joystick/controller location for a finger on your left hand to move the characters, every time you place your finger on the screen, the D-pad location re-centers to that spot.  The end result of that is that if you lift your finger even momentarily when running and quickly place it back down you've now re-centered the controller and are at a stand still.  It is, in short, a good idea that proves to not be great in practice.  Beyond that, fine movements are both required and difficult to perform.  There are lots of things like sliding floors and if you don't place yourself perfectly, you're going to fall and start the room again.  The game also requires a lot of back and forth movement between rooms as switches in one room will affect something in another room.  But, there's no map available so hitting a switch might require travelling to a half dozen rooms before figuring out what the switch you just hit did.

Between the lack of fine controls, innumerable traps, and the absence of a map, the pace of the game can at times slow to a crawl, with little sense of accomplishment once you've actually gotten to where you need to be.  Without a truly compelling story (and the story here is minimal) to go with the poor controls and disappointing gameplay, the experience works out to be far more frustrating than it is enjoyable.

If you're a big fan of the Doctor and need to experience all of his adventures, you will certainly find things to like about this title (it is fun to hear the music and see the opening upon loading the game).  If you aren't that big a fan however, this may not be a great choice.

Doctor Who: The Mazes of Time is not rated by the ESRB. This game is also available for iPad.

Article first published as iPhone Game Review: Doctor Who: The Mazes of Time on Blogcritics.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Salt (2010) Hits Blu-ray, but Lacks Flavor

The tagline for the 2010 movie Salt, upon its initial release to theaters this past summer, was "Who is Salt?"  While the short answer to that question is a character played by Angelina Jolie in this spy thriller, it may be better to say that by the end of the film you won't particularly care. 

Directed by Phillip Noyce, the movie stars Jolie as Evelyn Salt, a CIA agent who gets accused of being a secret Russian sleeper who will eventually be tasked with destroying the United States and replacement for the real Evelyn Salt.  The issue with the film certainly isn't that it's kind of preposterous, although it is (whether or not governments ever planned such things, it's all still rather silly).  No, the issue is that the twists and turns are rather boring, the betrayals and backstabbings rather obvious, the action sequences merely decent, and the overarching plot pretty weak.

Salt is, in short, one of those films that features a good cast and has some nice ideas, but just never really bothers to go anywhere interesting.  The actors do their level best with the roles that they're given, but they're not given all that much. 

Appearing alongside Jolie are Liev Schreiber and Chiwetel Ejiofor, and there's even a brief appearance by Andre Braugher (blink and you'll miss him… don't blink and you'll wonder why Andre Braugher is there).  Schreiber is Ted Winter, Salt's boss at the Agency and her defender once Ejiofor's Peabody – who works in counterintelligence – starts seriously considering that Salt is a traitor.  Ejiofor has the best role in the film as he's the only one who seems in any way willing to logically consider what is taking place and why.  Jolie, as we've seen in some of her other work, can certainly be an action star, but the script never offers her the opportunity to do anything besides the action.  In fact, the only way that the film seems to be able to give us any sort of internal thought for Salt is by throwing in a few flashbacks here and there.  Unfortunately for the film and the audience, they never really provide her with a character that is interesting or fully developed.  Perhaps the tag asks us "who is Salt" because no one, including the filmmakers, really know. 

The film is not all bad however, there are certainly some solid (but not outstanding) action sequences, including a car chase that features Salt jumping from truck to truck and a fight at a funeral in St. Bart's in New York City.  That is just not enough though to recommend the film, particularly when it promises to be so much more.

There are certainly stories that can be told about the new political realities in Russia following the fall of the Soviet Union and how those realities affect the United States.  In fact, we've seen movies like that on more than one occasion already; we've been seeing movies which examine that basic question for more than a decade.  The sub-genre is by no means closed forever, but any movie which attempts to add itself to the canon at this point really ought to have some sort of strong point of view and plot behind it – and the only thing that seems to differentiate Salt is that there's a female action character in the lead which is not enough.

Salt would work better if one got the sense of why the events build in the way that they do, but that doesn't really happen.  We have no solid motivation for any of the bad guys and the various moves that they make seem to be done solely so that we can get another action set piece not because they have a clearly defined goal other than to wreak havoc.

Perhaps most disturbing about the entire endeavor is that the final scene between Peabody and Salt appears to exist solely to set up possible sequels down the line.  Like the rest of the film, it doesn't feel well thought out but rather as though someone realized that the door should be left open and so some lines were tossed in to make it possible.

The Blu-ray release comes with not one, not two, but three different versions of the film.  That's right, if you buy the Blu-ray you get the theatrical cut, the unrated director's cut, and the unrated extended cut.  The first of these versions runs 100 minutes, the second 104, and the third for 101.  There are definitely some minor differences here and there between the theatrical and director's cuts, but the biggest changes occur with the extended version.  The alterations don't make the film any better or worse, just altered (particularly the ending).

Also included on the Blu-ray is a commentary track from Noyce and a picture-in-picture track that shows storyboards and features discussions on how the film came together.  There is also  a radio interview Noyce did with Elvis Mitchell, and several featurettes including a making-of piece, one on the disguises Jolie wears, one on Jolie's work in the film, another on Noyce's work, and a featurette which intersperses discussions with actual spies with footage from the film.  The most interesting behind-the-scenes bonus piece we get is on the various CG work used in the movie.  Rather than covering things like big explosions or obvious stuff, it shows how they created a false White House, added in a butterfly, and did tons of little things to change the reality of the film.

The technical aspects of the release are as mixed in result as Salt itself.  There is a lot of detail to be seen, but the black levels aren't consistently good, no detail whatsoever can be spotted in shadow, and the amount of noise that appears in some scenes is variable from shot to shot.  Although the surrounds are used frequently, and the bass is ample, the 5.1 DTS-HD MA soundtrack isn't well balanced.  Anything said quietly gets lost unless you turn up the volume significantly and doing that will result in the music and effects track being blaringly loud.  In short, the release is as inconsistent as the film.

The final reason why Salt is such a disappointment (and this may really be the main reason) is that it feels like one lost opportunity after another.  The film has a good cast, a good director, and good (if well-worn) premise – you can't sit there and watch the film though without getting the feeling that it really ought to be far better than any of the three versions presented on the Blu-ray.  If they do opt for a sequel I certainly hope it results in greater success than this film.

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: Salt (2010) on Blogcritics.

Friday, December 17, 2010

If can Find it, Maybe you Should buy The A-Team

We have all seen a myriad of absolutely wretched TV show remakes hit the big screen.  There are unquestionably moments when just seeing a trailer for the latest remake is enough to make you cringe.  Hearing about a some of these films is enough to make many think to themselves, "They're going to make what into a movie?  Why?  Why would they bother?  Seriously, why?"  I am therefore pleased to report that the latest of these TV remakes, The A-Team, is actually pretty good.

The film is directed by Joe Carnahan (Smokin' Aces) and stars Liam Neeson as Hannibal Smith, Bradley Cooper as Templeton "Faceman" Peck, Sharlto Copley as H.M. Murdock, and QuintonPhoto Credit: Doug Curran "Rampage" Jackson as B.A. Baracus.  Yes, that's right, Liam Neeson stars as Hannibal Smith, and what may be surprising to some is that he's really good in the role – the man honestly appears to be giving it his all and enjoying himself immensely at the same time.  He is not just sleepwalking through the film for a quick payday.  In fact, the sense of enjoyment that Neeson gives is the same vibe one gets from the rest of the cast (which also includes Jessica Biel, Patrick Wilson, Brian Bloom, and Gerald McRaney).

The film, while certainly not part of the same timeline as the original series, functions as an origin story for the these soldiers of fortune.  We get to see them meet one another (except for Face and Hannibal who were already working together), become great at their jobs, and before too long get framed for a crime which they did not commit.  The particulars of the story revolve around the DOD going up against the CIA as well as a private security company, Black Forest, with the A-Team caught in the middle.  It is probably better to not get too bogged down in the particulars, because that is certainly where the film is at its weakest.  Motivations for the bad guys revolve almost solely around cash, and there is more than one particular which will make you scratch your head if you think too much.

Also unfortunate is the fact that one does get the sense watching the movie that the four leads are perfectly safe the entire time, no matter how bad things look.  Outside of the everyone-hates-everyone-else plot—they're Photo Credit: Doug Curranall dupes or bad guys except for the A-Team—it never really feels like Hannibal's crew is in trouble, and that is a problem.  Hannibal Smith is still a man who loves his plans in this movie, and even it appears as though the plan isn't working, there's never a moment when you will think to yourself that Hannibal and company haven't actually considered the various reversals (no matter what the guys may claim).  And that is a disappointment.  It is fun to watch things unfold, but if there was actually a greater sense of danger or more of a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants sensation it would work better.

Nearly all of those issues, however, are made up for between the cast's incredible enthusiasm for their roles and the ridiculous plans that the A-Team successfully employs.  They aren't quite as ridiculous as some of the things we've seen MacGyver do, but they do approach that level.

I hate to use the word "fun" to describe such a movie, especially a movie with the sort of plot holes, silliness, lack of character development, and other flaws with which The A-Team is rife.  Yet, from start to finish, if Photo Credit: Doug Curranyou're an action fan, if you're a fan of any of the actors, and probably even if you're a fan of the original series, you're going to have a smile on  your face while you watch this incarnation.  Carnahan is smart to not stick too closely to the original tale and the film is far better for not including any of the original members of the A-Team in cameos save after the closing credits (they're added back in, along with some other scenes, for the extended cut on the Blu-ray, but the film is better without them).  The film is undemanding action with some laughs thrown in and is pretty good popcorn filmmaking.  Plus, there's the definite sense that the door has been left open for a sequel, and I would by lying if I said that after watching the original I wasn't hoping for a sequel to be made.

The Blu-ray release of the film certainly looks very good.  Carnahan and his DP, Mauro Fiore, have opted for a lot of handheld shots, quick cuts,  and close-ups of action—the sort of close-ups that too often obscure what is actually taking place.  While that isn't the fault of the Blu-ray, it is very distracting that some of the handheld shots have more grain and a distinctly look than the rest of the film.  The colors are rich, and black levels good, but the myriad of CG used in the climactic sequence appear far too obvious.  On the plus side, every time Hannibal lights up a cigar, the puffs of smoke look unbelievably detailed and truly great.  The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track will certainly put you in the middle of the firestorm and has loads of bass, but has the quieter moments of dialogue too hushed.  Happily, there really aren't too many quiet moments and those that are there deal with bits of the plot that don't really make too much sense anyway.

Beyond the theatrical version and aforementioned extended cut of the film, the new release comes with a picture-in-picture audio commentary track by Carnahan.  There are also deleted scenes, a gag reel, and a short featurette on the characters in the film as well as a longer making-of piece.  Also included is a short piece showing some of the CG work done for the film, but after watching the disappointing look of the climax, you may wonder why they bothered to highlight the work on the Blu-ray.  In addition to a trailer, there is also a "mash-up montage" of moments in the film accompanied by the A-Team theme, which simply feels like another trailer.

In a big screen world filled with so many disappointing TV remakes, The A-Team proves that with the right cast, right crew, and right person at the wheel, remakes don't have to be dismal cash-ins.  Despite its faults, the movie is enjoyable from start to finish and that is all it needs to be.

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: The A-Team on Blogcritics.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Plumber's Still got it: Super Mario All-Stars - Limited Edition

There are some games which are legends, untouchable bits of greatness.  These are the games which, no matter how many times they may get rereleased to new systems, made playable as DLC, updated, tweaked, etc. you just know that you're going to buy them over and over again. 

Ladies and gentleman, may I present to you Super Mario All-Stars Limited Edition.  This isn't just the Super Mario All-Stars initially released for the SNES 17 years ago, with its inclusion of Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Bros. 2, Super Mario Bros. 3, and Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels; no, this is the limited edition, and it includes a CD of Mario music and a booklet where the creators give little bits of insight into the games.

It is always my hope when writing a review that I manage to impart new or beneficial information, that I somehow say something that hasn't been said before or say it in a better way than has been said before.  I'm just not sure how to go about doing that here.  This is the first three Super Mario games; the Lost Levels, which was released as Super Mario Bros. 2 in Japan; and Mario music – each title has been reviewed repeatedly. 

For those who don't recall, it should be pointed out that the titles included here are as they were on the SNES – complete with improved graphics and sound as well as the ability to save your game.  While personally I wish that the former wasn't true and that we were getting the original graphics (though the tweaks are minor), the latter is quite nice to have.

It also must be said that there are, unquestionably, a group of people who will jump up and down shouting and pulling their hair out that Nintendo has dared release this with a suggested retail price of $29.99 when games already available to download individually for less money.  The Wii's Virtual Console currently has all four titles available (with their original graphics and sound) for a total of (at last check) 2,100 points or roughly $21.00 (we're going to ignore the fact that you can't actually buy 2,100 points exactly).  This means that the last nine dollars buys you the 32-page booklet on Mario's history and the CD of music. 

I cannot tell you that the music and booklet aren't worth your extra money.  Well, that's not entirely true, I can tell you that the booklet is nominally interesting but not all that great, and that I think the music – which has pieces from the original Super Mario up to Super Mario Galaxy 2 – is fantastic.  And, I may be old-fashioned, but I'd rather own the games on disc (so that I can travel to a friend's house with them) than only on the Virtual Console. 

As for the games themselves – they truly do stand the test of time.  Having Mario run through castle after castle as those he rescues get increasingly annoying with their "Thank you Mario! But our princess is in another castle" (seriously, after all that work your princess is elsewhere?  Come on!) is, 25 years later, still a blast.  If you're someone who grew up with the games, you're still going to know where the Warp Zones are, where exactly to set up the door to go into the shadow world in Mario 2, and where those magic flutes are (and not just because of that Fred Savage movie), and that, as much as anything, tells you how great these games are.

I still think that Super Mario Bros. 2, a great departure from the original or any title that has come after it, is – like Back to the Future 2 – too often overlooked, and I love the fact that I can now go back to it as often as I like and explore every nook, cranny, and turnip it has to offer.  I have always had an inordinate amount of trouble with level 8-2 in the original game and can now hone my skills as much as I like.

As a character, Mario may have been created before Super Mario Bros. was released 25 years ago, but Super Mario made him the legend that he is today.  This four-pack of games highlights some of his early years and is well worth owning if you don't already have it in another playable form.  Plus, it comes with a pretty rocking CD.

Super Mario All-Stars - Limited Edition is rated E (Everyone) by the ESRB.

Article first published as Nintendo Wii Review: Super Mario All-Stars - Limited Edition on Blogcritics.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Despicable Me - It's Gru to be Bad

For years Hollywood has been making live action movies about villains, and this summer saw animated features take up that some motif in two different films, Megamind and Despicable Me.  The latter of these two films has just been released on Blu-ray, meaning that we can all take home a villain of our very own this holiday season.

Starring Steve Carell as the voice of Gru, a dastardly super-villain with a vaguely Eastern European accent, the film is about one man's plot to steal the moon.  Yes, that's right he wants to steal the moon and he actually has a great way to go about it – he's going to steal a shrink ray and then borrow money from the Bank of Evil to finance his building of a rocket which he can then fly to the moon, shrink, and hold for ransom.  This is an animated comedy, it need not revolve around anything remotely rational, practical, feasible, or even possible, and what's more, despite – or because of – the foolishness, it all works.

A wrench gets thrown into Gru's plan when another super-villain, Vector (Jason Segel), steals the shrink ray from Gru.  Gru isn't the sort to let that sort of thing stop him, he just adds a couple of extra steps to his plan – he adopts some girls so that they can deliver cookies to Vector as a diversion so that Gru can steal the shrink ray back.  In rather obvious fashion, Gru grows to love to the girls and has some trouble reconciling his desire to steal the moon and be evil with this new found love.

From beginning to end, Despicable Me is a weird trip full of telegraphed but still funny jokes and a solid emotional core.  From the moment that Gru first adopts Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), Edith (Dana Gaier) and Agnes (Elsie Fisher), there can be no doubt in any member of the audience's mind that Gru is going to fall in love with them, learn to be a (slightly) better person, and that everything will work out in the end.  No, the only question is whether or not co-directors Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud can create enough amusing moments before the end to make the trip worthwhile.  The screenplay by Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul (with a story from Sergio Pablos) does, in fact, make that happen thanks to a trip to an amusement park; a visit from Gru's mom (Julie Andrews); and the film's version of Disney's comic relief animal sidekicks, Gru's Minions.

Taking a closer look at the last of these additions to the film, the Minions are these little, yellow, genetically engineered goofballs who are less than intelligent and yet help Gru out with his villainous plots (well, the Minions and Dr. Nefario voiced by Russell Brand help Gru).  They are the exact sort of creature which, were they used more, would prove incredibly annoying.  However, the Minions goofy high jinks are present only long enough to be a good diversion, they never wear out their welcome.

In fact, nothing in the 95 minute animated feature proves to be a mistake or letdown – it is one funny moment after the next.  Carell, Segel, Brand, Andrews, and the rest of the voice cast play every moment in an over the top fashion which works perfectly for an animated film about stealing the moon.  The biggest issue with the film has nothing to do with the movie itself.  The only real problem is that if you have to make a choice this year between seeing Universal/Illumination Entertainment's Despicable Me or Pixar's Toy Story 3, you'd be making a mistake by choosing Despicable Me.  It is a good movie, it is funny, and features solid computer animation, it just isn't as good as Toy Story 3 in terms of plot, characters, or animation.  That may be something of an unfair comparison as Pixar as been leading the charge with computer animated movies for some time, but they remain the yardstick to which ever other film in the mold must be measured, and Pixar's summer release this year was perhaps one of their best ever.  Despicable Me is a perfectly enjoy film, it is just choice number two in the genre.

The Blu-ray release of the feature comes as a three-disc combo pack, with disc number two containing a DVD version of the film and disc three with a digital copy.  For some reason, Universal has opted to put the digital copy disc solely in a paper sleeve rather than utilizing a case which could actually correctly seat all three discs.  It makes the set feel just a little disappointing every time you open it.  As for the bonus features with the film, there are three "mini-movies" which are more accurately described as shorts.  They feature the Minions and are just as fun as every other appearance of the Minions in the film.  There are also your standard behind-the-scenes featurettes, including one on the voice cast, one on the music, and one on the locations where the animation was actually done.  Those are all nominally interesting, but not particularly new nor noteworthy.  Also included are a couple of games (which never work well on a DVD or Blu-ray); some cookie recipes; and a commentary track with Coffin, Renaud, and some of the Minions (voiced by Coffin and Renaud).  It is also possible to watch the film in "Gru-Control." Similar to a picture-in-picture track, Gru-Control has the minions interrupt the film from time to time and also features a couple of interviews.  It is a relatively amusing way to watch the film your second time through.

In terms of the Blu-ray's technical aspects, it looks and sounds absolutely brilliant.  The animation is sharp, the details exceedingly good, and the colors bright and rich.  You truly get the sense watching it that anything the animators put into the film has been faithfully transferred to this release.  The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is equally good if not better.  It is a well-mixed track, with plenty of bass and great use of surrounds.  It squarely places you within the action, particularly with some of the scenes that are most obviously meant to be watched in 3D (a 3D release of the Blu-ray is also available).  There really is nothing to complain about in terms of either the audio or video presentation.

Despicable Me, from beginning to end, is an enjoyable film and it really is nice to Carell, who so often gets typecast into the role of the bumbling idiot, get to be a bad guy here.  Yes, he's still bumbling and he's not entirely bad, but it is still more than we usually get to see (or hear) from him.  The rest of the cast also performs well and the entire thing is fun.  The only thing that Despicable Me isn't, is as good as Toy Story 3, and it may be an unfair comparison to make, but if you've seen Pixar's latest, it's a feeling you will be unable to shake.

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: Despicable Me on Blogcritics.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Calling Shenanigans on Micmacs (But in a Good Way)

Translating the title of his movie in one of the bonus features on the new Blu-ray release, Jean-Pierre Jeunet states that Micmacs means "shenanigans." That is a brilliant description of this film which stars Dany Boon as the new guy in a group of misfits who happen to live in a dump. Boon's character, Bazil, and his new found friends go on a fantastic adventure thwarting evil, having fun, and even finding love.

At the opening of the film we see that as a young child, Bazil's life is forever altered when his father dies attempting to dismantle a landmine. Cutting to 30 years later, we see an adult Bazil who loves movies and works in a video store. His life changed once again when a stray bullet winds up permanently lodged in his brain.

Out of work, out of a home, and out of options, Bazil is befriended by a group of misfits much like himself who go around scavenging as best they can in the city of Paris. It is during one of these scavenging trips when Bazil comes across the two different arms dealers' buildings who affected his life so much – the one who built the landmine and the one who made the bullet. A revenge plot formulates in his head to set the leaders of the two companies against one another, and he gets his friends to help on the quest.

It is a wildly fantastic tale, one which has little, if any, grounding in reality. Even Bazil himself has a little with reality as, due to the bullet in his brain, he has a tendency to see things that aren't there – like a full orchestra when he comes up with his plan to humiliate the arms dealers.

Bazil and his friends are only able to accomplish his task because each of them has a special ability. There is Calculator (Marie-Julie Baup), who can remember any number; Elastic Girl (Julie Ferrier), who can fold her body up; Tiny Pete (Michel Cremades), who makes machines out of junk; Remington (Omar Sy), who was an ethnographer and can impersonate people… poorly; Slammer (Jean-Pierre Marielle), who has been in jail more than he has been out of it; Buster (Dominique Pinon), a human cannonball; and Mama Chow (Yolande Moreau), who looks after the group. Unquestionably, they are a motley crew, and every part of Bazil's plan is completely ludicrous, but somehow they pull it all together and humiliate the heads of the companies, Francois Marconi (Nicolas Marie) and Nicolas Thibault de Fenouillet (Andre Dussollier).

Jeunet, who has proven himself an inventive, imaginative, brilliantly creative man with films like Amelie does so again here with virtually every scene in the film. He is given a scenario credit on the script which he worked on with Guillaume Laurant and the film succeeds not only because each individual scene is wonderfully witty, but also because the actors are able to carry it off. Bazil's multi-step plan has each piece more ridiculous than the last, but as the group is family, they're all game.

It really is a film in which imagination triumphs over everything. Bazil wins because he can think up these crazy schemes (like sticking the Elastic Girl in a suitcase at the airport to help plant drugs on a once-and-would-be-future dictator so that Remington can later impersonate the dictator and his men) and has the people to help him execute them. Jeunet wins (as do we all), because he too can think up these crazy scenarios and have actors execute them.

Perhaps more impressive than the shenanigans that take place on screen is the fact that there is a sentimental soft-side underneath everything that takes place. Bazil and company may be having fun getting even, but they're getting even for incredibly tragic occurrences and that sense of sadness still manages to permeate the entire film. It is a difficult balance act between the comedy and the tragedy, but Jeunet and his actors handle it all perfectly.

The Blu-ray release comes with several special features including a making-of piece, a short look at the different steps used to create some of the animations in the film, and a director's commentary (Jeunet speaks in English for it). There is also an interesting Q&A piece with Jeunet and Ferrier. In both the commentary track and the Q&A, Jeunet proves himself to be just as witty and wonderful as his films would lead you to hope.

Although not a massive blockbuster film, Micmacs still has been given a beautiful Blu-ray treatment for this release. You will find excellent levels of detail, good blacks, and rich colors. Particularly good looking is the amount of detail you can see on the various junkyard constructions around the Bazil's group's abode. The 5.1 DTS-HD MA audio track is, as you would expect, in French (there are English subtitles), and like the picture is quite good. Don't expect some sort of massive wall of sound, but the rear channels are used to help situate the viewer, the sound is well balanced, and the bass more than adequate.

People often complain about having to watch a film with subtitles, and unless you speak French, you're probably going to want the subtitles on here, but everything that takes place is so wonderfully amusing that you will quickly forget that you're reading the dialogue. If you want to watch a fantasy film with heart and soul, Micmacs is a great choice.

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

Friday, December 10, 2010

Leverage Reaches the End of Season Three

The mechanics of scheduling a single television series much less an entire network are foreign to me. There is a multitude of things that have to be figured out, from how many episodes each series has in a season to the production schedule to themed episodes to guest star appearances to holidays to events elsewhere you don't want to compete with, the list of concerns has to be nearly endless. It is because of the myriad of difficulties that I can wonder all I want exactly why TNT is finishing the third season of Leverage in the way that the network is without ever really understanding it.

Leverage began its third season run in mid- to late-June. Episodes ran on a weekly basis from that point until the first week in September. There were occasions during that run when a repeat was on or when the show aired two episodes back-to-back, but there were episodes on every week. However, during that period, TNT did not air all the episodes made for the third season. They had, it seems, Photo Credit: Karen Nealthree episodes left over and starting this Sunday night (December 12), we're going to get to see them.

It does seem like an awfully short run of final episodes in the season – especially when you consider the fact that they're going to run the last two back-to-back on the 19th. On the other hand, Leverage is definitely a good show and already has an established audience at this point, so whenever new episodes air those who want to see them probably will.

For those who are unfamiliar with the series, it stars Timothy Hutton, Gina Bellman, Aldis Hodge, Christian Kane, and Beth Riesgraf as a group of crooks who have decided to fight for the little guy. Well, that's not entirely accurate, Hutton's character, Nate Ford, was actually an insurance investigator and not a criminal, he just put together the group of criminals and convinced them to pull a Robin Hood act.

The third season has featured an on-going plot about a mysterious Italian woman (Elisabetta Canalis) who has been blackmailing Nate in order to get help taking down a criminal, Damien Moreau (Goran Visnjic). Similar to the on-going story on Burn Notice, it is the kind of thing that has popped up on a regular basis this season, but unlike the Burn Notice story, the Moreau tale gets wrapped up by the end of the third season (unless the writers decide to reopen it) and even if it has appeared multiple times isn't really crucial to the series as a whole.

While the final two episodes this season do show Leverage at its finest, the presence of this on-going but unessential story only serves to highlight why the show shouldn't have disappeared for months if there were so few episodes left in the season. While the Moreau story has played a role this season, as it isn't crucial to the overarching plot of the show as a whole, it makes it a little difficult for anyone not truly invested in the story to remember at this point exactly what has been going on. Pieces of the storyline will assuredly come back in dribs and drabs, but the entirety of this year's stories feel as though they could have been executed without creating the Moreau through line (particularly as Moreau is a criminal and therefore not someone Ford's team needed any convincing to go after).

Whether or not the recurring story has been necessary, what the final two episodes of the season do highlight is just how much fun the show is as a whole, and that has always been Leverage's strength. The series isn't just action, it isn't just comedy, it isn't just a show with heart; rather, it deftly manages to combine all of those elements along with some high-tech doodads and clever plots. It is nearly impossible to watch one of the series better episodes – and Photo Credit: Karen Nealthe final two ones are pretty good – and not smile as things unfold and reversals are made clear.

On the downside, the episode before the last two, Leverage's first holiday-themed episode, isn't quite as good. There is a good setup present for that one (and it also features a couple of guest stars, none of whom I'll name so I don't spoil anything), but the actual climax of the con feels like it is given short shrift. Watching the episode, "The Ho Ho Ho Job," you can't help but want it to be a double-episode so that justice can truly be done to the story.

Leverage has been renewed for a fourth season which will, presumably, start at some point next summer and it will be very interesting to note at that time whether the producers choose to go back to episodic plots or to continue with a (new) season-long one. The latter method certainly has some advantages, most notably the ability to build up the bad guy into a truly evil, and yet three dimensional, character. Ford's team has proved themselves so adept at taking down average criminals at this point that it does feel as though the ante may have to be upped in order for them to truly get tested. If they can just breeze through their schemes, the show loses something.

At this point however, all we can do is sit back and watch this awfully short final run of Leverage's third season.

Leverage airs on TNT December 12 at 9:00pm and then again with back-to-back episodes December 19 at 9:00pm and 10:00pm.

Article first published as TV Preview: Leverage - The End of Season Three on Blogcritics.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

EA Sports Active NFL Training Camp Gets us on the (Practice) Field

Training-based sports titles are becoming more and more prevalent in this generation of consoles.  The Nintendo Wii made such things easy to start with, and then upped the ante with the balance board.  Now, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 feature the Kinect and the Move respectively which puts them in the game as well.  Some studies have shown that training/exercise titles (this one specifically looks at Wii Fit) aren't as good for you as going to the gym, but they still seem to be better than nothing and developers keep making them.

EA Sports currently helps lead the training title charge with their multitude of EA Sports Active titles.  Newly released are the cross-platform EA Sports Active 2 and the Wii exclusive EA Sports Active NFL Training Camp.  We are going to concern ourselves here solely with the NFL themed title.

The NFL Training Camp package comes with a heart rate monitor, resistance band, and wireless motion tracking straps for one arm and one leg (the heart rate monitor is a part of the arm tracker).  Although at first blush the straps, bands, and settings seem a tad confusing, the game features a helpful video to get you organized and ready to go for your training sessions.  Well, the video isn't helpful if you don't know how to attach the resistance band to the handles for the band – you won't find that information anywhere (it's okay, you just knot the strap to the handles).  We did encounter a problem with the arm strap not syncing correctly to the system, but following a few on screen prompts got us sorted out.

Once you're all strapped in and ready to go, Training Camp asks you a few questions about yourself and links you to your EA account (or helps you establish an account if you don't have one yet).  Although EA often goes ridiculously over the top requesting you to connect to their website all the time with every title they release, with Training Camp it does make some sense – every time you complete a workout, Training Camp uploads the data from that workout to the site and provides you with more in-depth reports than can be found in-game.

As for the exercises themselves, they are, as you would expect, all NFL based and there are several different ways to go about organizing a workout/workout schedule. There is a custom workout where you decide on the exercises; there is a game generated workout based on the intensity level, time, and focus you want; there are also preset workouts; and the 60 Day Challenge. 

[editor's note: the next two paragraphs of this review have been substantially changed — and one other paragraph removed — as an option we believed unavailable is in fact present]

It is with the last of the above list, the 60 Day Challenge, where the heart of the title lies. Selecting the 60 Day Challenge will have the game organize a 60 day workout schedule for you, with four days on and three days off per week.

Although we initially believed that the game required you to work out on a Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday schedule, the days of the week on which you choose to work can, in fact, be altered once the program has begun.  Similarly, the difficulty settings of your workout can also be adjusted. Both these options are available in the settings menu within the Challenge, not the main settings menu (which is where we first checked). 

Training Camp features more than 70 different drills and challenges, with somewhere in the neighborhood of 20-25 being used in any single workout.  What that means is that you get a whole lot of variety in your workout routine, which is always nice. 

Workouts are done in an NFL stadium or on a practice field (you can choose the location) and even feature licensed NFL players working alongside you to show you the correct moves.  There is also something of a tough-minded coach providing the instructions, and we suggest you listen to what he has to say because he'll get angry if you don't.  For instance, if you pause during an exercise he will start haranguing you, offering up phrases like "it's not going to get any easier by staring at it."  If you're anything like us, you're going to find yourself tossing a few choice epithets back towards the TV.

Your coach pushing you is certainly a little added motivator, but it becomes hugely distressing when you're doing the exercise and the monitors simply aren't tracking it.  Trust us, you don't want to hear some guy yelling at you to do five more push-ups when you've already done 15 and only 10 were required.  We encountered this problem not only with push-ups, but also with hammer curls (similar to a regular bicep curl).  In hammer curls it was particularly aggravating because in order to count the curl, the monitor required our left arm to be elevated over our head (which in no way resembles what either our avatar or the NFL player working opposite us was doing).  It is possible to just do the exercises the right way and then just tell the game to skip over it should the monitors not have recognized your work, but as everything is tracked (even if only for your benefit), it's upsetting to not get that 100% completion of a workout counted for you when you completed 100% of the workout.  You can also do it the right way and then jiggle around the monitors until they register the exercise having been completed, which is the option we chose, but it would be preferable to just have everything work right.  Happily, those sorts of issues seem to be few and far between for the title, and, in the end, you're really doing the exercising for you, to get yourself in better shape and to make you feel healthier. 

Not being doctors we can't tell you that playing one of these training games will improve your fitness level, that it's more or less beneficial than going to a gym, or that you're not going to injure yourself by doing something wrong.  What we can tell you with some certainty is that we had a great time running around the various stadiums, getting encouragement from our omniscient coach, and working alongside the avatars of professional athletes.  There are a whole lot of exercises available to you in the game and a lots of different ways to organize your regimen.  We can also tell you that having worked out several times with EA Sports Active NFL Training Camp we're feeling quite sore today and are very happy that it's a rest day.  Perhaps more important than that however is the fact that we're still looking forward to going back tomorrow and seeing what the coach has in store.

EA Sports Active NFL Training Camp is rated E (Everyone) by the ESRB.

Article first published as Nintendo Wii Review: EA Sports Active NFL Training Camp on Blogcritics.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz - It's Almost Like Knight and Day

Tom Cruise has starred in both comedies and action flicks, and his latest movie, Knight and Day, is a very successful mix of the two.  Acting opposite Cruise in the film is Cameron Diaz, who, while she may be better known for her comedy work, has starred in a couple of action moves herself (the Charlie's Angels films).  While Knight and Day doesn't always work, it does harken back to many a film by Alfred Hitchcock and succeeds well enough to be fun.

The basic plot has something to do with Cruise's character, Roy Miller, being a secret agent on the run.  As the story goes, Miller has been framed by a fellow agent, Fitzgerald (Peter Sarsgaard), for the attempt to sell a fancy little top secret doo-dad.  Miller did steal the device, but only, he claims, to keep it safe.  Miller ends up roping in a patsy to help him get past airport security, and that is how June Havens (Diaz) and Miller meet.

The entire plot, as Hitchcock would have said, is a MacGuffin.  It exists solely to get Cruise's Miller and Diaz's June together and keep them together through a series of fantastical events, and as such works brilliantly.  One certainly doesn't want to think too hard about this device Miller has stolen; the scientist who developed it whom Cruise has secreted away; Fitzgerald, with his ill-defined scheme;  or the government agency Miller and Fitzgerald work for, with their inability to tell right from wrong, good from bad.  Focusing on any of those items, or any of the other myriad of plot holes, questionable choices, or bits of luck that keep our heroes alive and on track will do nothing but spoil this high gloss action-adventure comedy.

The truth is, that it all works.  Director James Mangold (Walk the Line) deftly balances the humor and the action, and keeps things moving at a rapid enough pace that the parts of the movie that don't work slide by quickly enough that they're forgotten.

Just as it would be a mistake to stop and think too long and too hard about what is taking place, it would also be wrong to look for depth or any great life lessons from the movie.  What Mangold and company have created here is a straight-up popcorn flick, one with an ending that anyone could guess before the opening credits roll. 

At first blush it can be a little difficult to reconcile the film's obviousness, the clichés the entire thing is ridden with, and June's helpless bystander attitude with the quantity of enjoyment one will get from Knight and Day.  June does, eventually, find her footing and start taking an active role in the goings-on, but it does take an awfully long time for her to get to that point.  As for those clichés, the script seems, for the most part, well aware of when they're entering clichéd territory and knowingly winks at the audience when it does. 

One particularly good moment in the film features an escape from capture that we don't actually get to see – we only get the drugged-up point of view of June with Miller hanging upside down telling her not to worry and then quick snippets of their making their way to safety.  The script knows that the details of the escape are irrelevant, we've all seen ridiculous escapes before, so it just kind of skips ahead to the next bit.  It is that knowing, self-referential quality that really does allow the film to be more than a series of obvious events surrounding an almost wholly irrelevant plot.

The Blu-ray release is really the perfect showcase for this high-gloss flick.  For the entirety of the film, the screen is filled with gorgeous colors (the palette varies from location to location), great detail, and good black levels.  It is easy to make out individual strands of hair, the textures on the guns, and the multitude of shades that go into every explosion of flames.  The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack, as you would expect, is a highly immersive ones, with cars whizzing by during chases, bullets flying in every which way, and lots of bass.  Dialogue is, perhaps, a little quieter than it ought to be in the mix, but not by a lot.

The biggest letdown the release has is with its extras.  Knight and Day comes as a three-disc set.  One disc has a DVD, another a digital copy, and the third features the Blu-ray and the minimal quantity of extras, each of which feels like nothing more than a studio-produced item with as little depth as the film itself.  There are a total of four behind-the scenes pieces, two longer (but each still under 20 minutes) and two shorter, with focuses on the action, the story, and the settings.  That is generic enough, but the same lines from Cruise, Diaz, and Mangold are used in more than one piece which really is a disappointment.  There is also a piece where Cruise and Katie Holmes go to see the Black Eyed Peas and discuss with them the song the group wrote for the film, a couple of "viral" videos, and a trailer.  It certainly would have been nice to see a commentary track or something with a little more depth to it.

Knight and Day has Miller and June fly all over the world with plenty of beautiful location shooting, lots of gunplay, and some excellent chase sequences.  It is a well-tested formula and in the hands of a capable director, a good script (written by Patrick O'Neill) and two excellent actors, there is no reason why it shouldn't work.  Don't expect any brilliant insights into the film as a part of this release, but if you're looking for a good, if undemanding, popcorn flick, this is a great place to find it.

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: Knight and Day on Blogcritics.

Monday, December 06, 2010

The New Flesh Emerges on Blu-ray: Videodrome - The Criterion Collection

For a number of years, for a movie to simply be part of The Criterion Collection has been a glowing review in and of itself.  Criterion has put out  laserdiscs, DVDs, and Blu-rays of some of the best films ever made, and has done so with excellent transfers, great special features, and a degree of caring that you don't necessarily get from other companies.  Whether or not you particularly enjoy a film that is in The Criterion Collection is one thing, but almost universally they are films that require your consideration – if you were to build a list of must-see films, looking at what Criterion has released would be a great place to start.

Now being made available by Criterion on Blu-ray is the David Cronenberg classic, Videodrome.  Starring James Woods and Deborah Harry, this particular entry in The Criterion Collection certainly is one of those films not everyone will enjoy or even "get."  It is still, however, a film well worth thinking about.

Released in 1983, Videodrome finds James Woods playing Max Renn, the operator of a small cable television station in Toronto.  The only way Renn can have his station survive, so he says, is by playing to man's baser desires, namely showing lots of violent and/or sexual shows.  Always on the lookout for new and different things to put on the air, Renn runs across a show known as "Videodrome" which is nothing but the incredibly realistic-looking torture of individuals.

Renn is soon on the hunt for the makers of the show, but as the saying goes, finds more than he bargained for.  As the odd mix of humor, sex, and horror in the film progresses, Renn ends up having incredibly vivid hallucinations and transforming into a whole new person.  In perhaps the most memorable scene in the film, his girlfriend, Nicki Brand (Deborah Harry), appears on Renn's television.   After some caresses, the television tube bulges out with a close-up of Brand's lips on them and Renn pushes his head into the screen just about as far as he can go.  For anyone who has seen the film, the image is unforgettable (and not coincidentally is also the still used on the Blu-ray's cover), even more unforgettable than the changes which Renn undergoes as the film reaches its conclusion. 

To say more about what happens and the odd twists and turns the film makes would be to deprive anyone who hasn't seen Videodrome of an incredible experience.  And, if you can stand watching some sadomasochism, what you'll get with the film is a whole new way of looking at our world.

In Videodrome, Cronenberg is questioning our society, the way we perceive things, the way television is changing us, and how we relate to one another via the medium.  One of the more fascinating aspects of the film is the character of Brian O'Blivion (Jack Creley) and a mission he runs where he and his daughter, Bianca (Sonja Smits), allow the less fortunate to watch television.  His idea is that "the television screen is the retina of the mind's eye" and therefore part of the brain – that what people see occur on television is their reality.  The mission allows the poor to watch television so that they can reconnect with our society, reintegrate. 

The idea of television becoming more real than reality may not be original to Cronenberg, but is dealt with wisely in the film.  O'Blivion's argument is, without a doubt, one that we have heard echoed in our society.  The notion that watching violent movies or playing violent videogames desensitizes us, blurs the line between what is real and what is not, and makes us more likely to hurt others is certainly one that has appeared on more one occasion over the past 25 years, and is an echo – or perhaps an outgrowth – of O'Blivion's philosophy.

Videodrome contains a number of disturbing images, but on repeat viewings of the film it is the arguments and philosophies that some of the characters espouse that become truly disturbing.  It is a film which is effective on a number of levels, and one which can keep you up at night not only out of terror but because you just want to figure out what it all means.

Clearly the questions that Videodrome poses, the reality that the film postulates, have remained relevant from the time of its original release to now.  Perhaps it is because of that relevance that Criterion, updating their previous DVD release for Blu-ray, has changed so little.  The Blu-ray comes with two commentary tracks – one with Cronenberg and cinematographer Mark Irwin, and another with Woods and Harry.  Also included is Camera, a short made by Cronenberg in 2000.  There is also a fascinating roundtable discussion entitled "Fear on Film" which took place in 1982 with Cronenberg, John Carpenter, John Landis, and Mick Garris.  Additionally, there are trailers, stills, and a promotional featurette made at the time of the film's release.  Real fans of the film will be happy that the two of the shows within the film ("Samurai Dreams" and "Videodrome" itself) are also included as separate special features.  Perhaps though the highlight of the special features is the 2004 documentary by Michael Lennick (who did some of the effects work on the film) "Forging the New Flesh," which is a half-hour discussion focusing on the film's effects.  The piece does expand to a discussion of the filming in general, but mainly concerns itself with how the crew went about making some of the more memorable moments come to life.  There are also audio interviews with Lennick and Rick Baker (who worked on the film) where they further discuss working on the movie.  Lastly there is a booklet of essays on the film and Cronenberg included.  It's all good stuff, but it also appears to be the exact same stuff that was released with the DVD Criterion Collection version six years ago.

In terms of the Blu-ray's technical aspects, they are probably best noted as being good, but not great.  It is a high definition transfer and the track is free of dirt, grain, scratches, and other imperfections.  The level of detail is quite good in most of the scenes, facial close-ups in particular tend to look excellent.  There are however some shots which contain a noticeable increase in noise.  Most of the colors are distinctly muted, but rather than that being an issue with transfer, it is more the chosen palette of the film.  The sound is an uncompressed monaural (mono) soundtrack, and is actually very good.  It is completely free of crackles, hiss, and pops.  No, you won't find yourself completely surrounded by the audio, but the film itself will manage to suck you into the story (and perhaps your television) all on its own.

I can't suggest that Videodrome is for everyone, some of its subject matter and the depiction of said subject matter will make a segment of the audience distinctly uncomfortable.  It is, however, well worth one's effort and offers viewers far more than the average horror film.

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: Videodrome - The Criterion Collection on Blogcritics.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Bing! It's The Crosby Christmas Sessions

Although stores may have Christmas things in stock right after Halloween, I don't truly begin my Christmas preparations until Thanksgiving week – which, let's face it, is still plenty early.  I get ready for Christmas when I do mostly because I love the music associated with the holiday.   Heading into Christmas this year, iTunes informed me I had 685 different Christmas songs, a relatively absurd number and certainly too many for a single playlist.  The problem for me though is they keep releasing Christmas albums, and I keep buying them.   As of this moment, I only have one new album for Christmas this year (and it was sent via a publicist, so I didn't even pay for it… although I certainly would have given the opportunity), and it pushes me over 700 songs.

While I like updates and new songs, there is something about hearing a good old-fashioned crooner roll the words smoothly off their tongue that is just marvelous, and this year's new Christmas album features one of the best crooners ever to grace a stage – Bing Crosby.  With 19 classic songs, The Crosby Christmas Sessions is a must-have for anyone with a love of Christmas music.

The earliest of the tracks on the CD, "Here Comes Santa Claus" is from 1949 and a duet with Peggy Lee; the most recent is the 1977 collaboration with David Bowie, "The Little Drummer Boy/Peace on Earth."  Things are not spread out quite evenly between those dates, with 11 of the 19 songs having been recorded between 1949 and 1953 for some of Bing's radio shows.

In addition to the Peggy Lee and David Bowie duets, Bing also sings two songs with Ella Fitzgerald and two more with Frank Sinatra.  But, whether he is singing all on his own or with someone else, it is Bing's voice that comes through loud and clear.  He may not have been the first to record some of these songs, but he certainly makes them his own.  Perhaps most notable in this regard is his take on "The Christmas Song," a Mel Torme song, and one that Nat King Cole did brilliantly (and recorded several times).  Bing's version of the (now) Christmas standard has that same smoothness Bing also seems to have to his voice, and he nearly makes you forget anyone else may have recorded it.   While it may not be the classic version of the song, it would be hard to argue that anyone else's version is better.

As the liner notes (written by Robert S. Bader) state, not only did the Irving Berlin song "White Christmas" put Bing Crosby into the Christmas song business, it is Crosby's recording that got the business started in the first place.  The version of "White Christmas" included on this CD isn't actually that original 1942 cut, Bader tells us it was worn out from overuse, nor is it the 1947 one that Bing did to replace the '42 version.  It is instead from 1952, and while I personally would love to hear the '47 version side-by-side with this later one, there is certainly nothing wrong with what's included here.

Using tracks from several different recording sessions which span nearly 30 years, it is relatively easy to note that different songs were recorded at different points.  That first Peggy Lee collaboration doesn't sound nearly as rich as the later Bowie duet.  However, as the songs aren't placed chronologically on the CD and you end up going back and forth between time periods, the difference from beginning to end is not apparent even if the difference between some songs is pretty clear.

The inside cover of the CD notes when each song was recorded and for what purpose, which does make it easier to keep track of things.  However, there is a typo on the inside cover as it lists track 18 twice, once correctly and once instead of the Bowie duet, track 19.

As the holiday season hits high gear and you put together playlists for yourself, loved ones, or any party you might be throwing, it is definitely worth considering picking up The Crosby Christmas Sessions.  There have been a lot of people to record Christmas songs and Christmas albums, but no one seems to have done it with quite the vim, vigor, and splendor of Bing Crosby.   The man sang holiday songs for years on end, a good range of them are represented here, and from first to last they are all memorable and virtually guaranteed to bring the joy of the season to you.

Article first published as Music Review: Bing Crosby - The Crosby Christmas Sessions on Blogcritics.