Friday, January 31, 2014

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)

Directed by Tay Garnett
Written by Harry Ruskin and Niven Busch
Based on the novel by James M Cain

            Consider that I’ve seen a good deal more film noir since I wrote my review of Double Indemnity.  Before seeing that, I thought noir was detectives and femme fatales.  At this point, I know that noir is really any crime film, although inevitably, it still falls into two categories: “Who killed her husband?” or “How are they going to kill her husband?”  The Postman Always Rings Twice falls into the latter category, but as with all good noir, it’s a fascinating scenario with plenty of twists.
            Frank Chambers (John Garfield) is a drifter who winds up at the Twin Oaks, a small California diner.  He’s persuaded by Nick Smith (Cecil Kellaway) to take up a job there…well, Nick and the presence of his wife, Cora (Lana Turner).  And as Cora and Frank begin a secret affair, they also start to plan to kill Nick.
            In most cases, Cora would be the femme fatale here, the one who leads the plot, leads Frank to love her and murder Frank.  That’s not really the case here.  In fact, the love affair is more pushed away by Cora, who seems set on keeping things as normal.  The plans Frank has to simply run away with Cora tend to be ended thanks to Cora wanting to stay at the Twin Oaks.  We’re even given a handwave for why Cora can’t just leave Nick, as if she did, she would lose the Twin Oaks.  She’s also the one more nervous about the murder plans, while Nick stays calm and collected.  But Cora is a woman fighting in a man’s world, and when it becomes clear that she’s losing ground, she has no choice but to go through with the murder.  She’s not a femme fatale.  She’s just someone forced into a situation beyond her control.
            The movie’s other interesting twist is what happens in the second half.  Even though the movie is over 60 years old, I’d feel poorly about giving it away.  Suffice it to say, though, that as usual for film noir, while the murder may succeed, what happens after the murder is doomed to failure.  And the world quickly shows itself to be a chaotic environment.  Nobody can truly be trusted.  Good characters and bad characters become indistinguishable.  It’s all here, and it’s all surrounding Frank and Cora, who become more and more lost as they seems to realize that their affair was nothing but a fling.  The tragic but inevitable ending puts the final mark on the whole thing.

            The Postman Always Rings Twice shows how classic film noir can be, remaining suspenseful and interesting after all these years. 

Lollipop Chainsaw

Developed by Grasshopper Manufacture
Published by Kadokawa Games and Warner Bros Interactive Entertainment

            Suda51 is an incredibly inconsistent game developer, and it’s glorious, if only because each game is different.  His games have gone from third-person shooters to beat-em-ups to…whatever Killer7 was, with bizarre story and dialogue to match.  Lollipop Chainsaw is not his craziest, but it may be one of the most fun ones to play.
            Juliet Starling (Tara Strong) is a normal high school girl.  She’s a cheerleader, she’s got a boyfriend, and she’s a zombie hunter.  On her 18th birthday, though, things go terribly wrong as her school is infested with zombies unleashed by the resident goth kid, Swan (Sean Gunn).  It’s up to her and the decapitated head of her boyfriend, Nick (Michael Rosenbaum) to defeat the zombies and save the world.
            Most of the gameplay takes a fairly standard hack-and-slash style.  Armed with, what else, a chainsaw, the game throws hordes of zombies at you that you have to slice through before you can move on.  The game does help to avoid the button mashing that can sometimes become too easy in this genre, with a good use of combos required to kill zombies effectively.  You’re also rewarded with extra medals (the game’s currency) by killing 3 or more zombies at once, so it’s in your best interest to line them up and knock them all down at once instead of just making wild slashes.  The game also gives you more abilities as you go through that change up the zombie-killing game.  Even giving you a gun, though, just adds to the strategy instead of turning it into an outright shooter.  It’s smartly done.
            And, of course, there’s a little more than just killing zombies normally.  Right at the edge of getting on repetition, the game will throw something new at you that changes things up.  Playing zombie baseball and basketball, throwing Nick on a headless zombie for a QTE event, arcade games, riding a combine harvester.  Part of the fun of the game is just finding out what you’re going to do next.  And the game also has plenty of hilarious dialogue (adapted for America by James Gunn, the director of the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy), especially between Nick and Juliet.  Their pointless conversations are endlessly amusing, discussing things from Nick’s favorite color to Juliet’s oddball sisters.  There are some repetitive parts where the characters will just keep saying the same thing over and over.  The use of licensed music in the game also has to be praised.  The Runaways’ Cherry Bomb on the start screen, Toni Basil’s Mickey playing during the super mode, Buckner & Garcia’s Pac-Man Fever in the arcade level, and naturally, Lollipop in the shop screen.  It all fits in well and puts a smile on your face, and is perfectly mixed with the game’s normal OST.
            There is one thing that has to be pointed out: the sexualization of the main character.  This being Suda51, it’s entirely possible that it’s all done in jest or it’s meant to be satirical.  People have even pointed out that Nick’s treatment in the game mirrors the normal treatment of female characters in games.  However, there are parts of it that still just feel unnecessary, not least of all being that there’s an achievement for looking up Juliet’s skirt.  Juliet is a badass female character, but just like Bayonetta and Lara Croft, it feels like we still can’t have badass female characters in games without some cheesecake.

            Regardless of those problems, Lollipop Chainsaw is still a fun and funny game.  Plenty of variety in gameplay makes zombie killing feel fresh for the first time in a while. 

Monday, January 27, 2014

The Rocketeer

Directed by Joe Johnston
Written by Danny Bilson, Paul De Meo and William Dear
Based on the graphic novel by Dave Stevens

            OK, I don’t need to say how much I enjoy The Rocketeer, so let’s just talk about the movie.  A box office failure when it came out, long relegated to the stacks of forgettable Disney movies.  A recent 20th anniversary DVD didn’t even bother to add any features to the disc past what was on the original.  So why would you watch it nowadays?  One very good reason: it’s a fun movie.
            In 1938, Howard Hughes (Terry O’Quinn) designs a jetpack for the military, but deciding against using it, burns the plans and the stolen prototype gets destroyed.  Or so it seems to Hughes and the FBI, when it actually ends up in the hands of stunt pilot Cliff Secord (Billy Campbell).  After testing it out and having to save the day when a flight goes wrong, Cliff ends up becoming The Rocketeer…and attracting the attention of the FBI, movie star Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton) and his gang of thugs, and even the Nazis.
            One of the things that stands out when watching this movie is that, in many ways, this uses a lot of the Marvel method of movie-making close to 20 years earlier.  It certainly helps that Joe Johnston (who would go on to direct Captain America) is in the director’s chair.  But in general, we have the origin story, we have the definitely good hero fighting against the definitely evil villains, and there’s just that sense of fun.  Cliff himself may not be the perfect hero.  He can be a bit of a jerk and his flights as the Rocketeer are just as likely to go wrong, with his first flight out leading to him crashing all over the place as he’s trying to save the day (showing that just like Marvel, every action scene is just as likely to contain a few laughs).  But at the end of the day, he’s going to fight the bad guys and he’s going to do what’s right.  Even when faced with Lothar (Tiny Ron), a thug who’s so imposing and immovable that Cliff can’t seem to put a dent with him, he still keeps fighting.  In the same way, the movie captures the feel of the comics, both Dave Stevens’ original and the revival that has happened since then.
            Of course, for the mood that has held up with this movie, there are some flaws that stand out.  For one, particularly in the second act, it can be hard to tell who’s on who’s side.  It doesn’t help that the thugs and the FBI can look very similar, and Lothar’s role in the whole thing isn’t really clear.  It’s confusing, even though it all gets sorted out by the end.  But then again, it also gives a general feeling of being in Cliff’s shoes.  He doesn’t really know who’s good or bad in the whole mess of things, he just knows what he needs to do to be good.  And there’s also the flying special effects.  Plenty of them are excellent, especially for the 90s.  Some of them aren’t so much.  It’s not a dealbreaker, but it can be rather noticeable.

           It’s a shame that The Rocketeer has gone forgotten as little more than a footnote nowadays.  It holds up well, with exciting action and a nice sense of humor.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Mass Effect: Foundation Volume One

Written by Mac Walters
Art by Tony Parker and Omar Francia

            There is a definite problem with all of the Mass Effect extended universe.  When it’s a series as variable as this, where the characters who are alive or dead changes so much depending on the player, there’s simply only so much that can be done.  Prequel comic after prequel comic is starting to wear down, but the promise of Foundation being an ongoing series had me intrigued—it’s a shame that it’s an ongoing of prequel comics.
            This really isn’t so much an actual ongoing as it is closer to an anthology series.  Each of the four issues in this volume focuses on a character’s backstory, the first focusing on new character, Cerberus agent Rasa, and the other three focusing on Ashley, Kaidan, and Wrex.  Considering that, at least one of those characters I last remember doing anything with way back in 2007 when the first game came out, there’s bound to be one issue in here that won’t do much for the casual Mass Effect fan.  Rasa is interesting enough on her own, but her role in her is practically useless.  All she does is have a small part in the stories of the other characters, even smaller in Kaidan’s, as that ditches any sort of framing with Rasa and just sticks her at the end.
            The stories themselves are…I don’t know.  The honest truth is that, coming into this with the idea that they would be connected as a series, I was initially confused as things went to backstory.  Trying to look back on them separately, the initial Rasa story is fairly good, and Kaidan’s story is interesting enough just for getting some extra backstory on him.  Wrex’s story just confused me, didn’t really focus on Wrex that much, and basically just acted like “Cerberus is doing stuff”.  Ashley’s story…well, she was a character I lost at some point, so I didn’t really care that much about her as a character and the extra information about the universe in general didn’t really add anything.

            Hardcore Mass Effect fans will probably enjoy getting even more backstory on their favorite characters.  Casual fans will probably just shrug at this collection.  There’s just not enough here to spark interest.

Friday, January 10, 2014

The Rocketeer/The Spirit: Pulp Friction

Written by Mark Waid
Art by Paul Smith (#1 and 2) and Loston Wallace (#3 and 4)

            What else can I say about IDW’s Rocketeer revival?  Seriously, this has been gold from the start and it shows no sign of slowing down.  The latest series, Pulp Friction, takes the liberty of crossing him over with The Spirit, and there is no disappointment here.
            Television is about to rise, and Benjamin Trask wants to keep it private.  A Central City councilman tries to oppose this, and ends up dead the next day…3000 miles away, in Los Angeles.  From there, The Spirit flies out to investigate, and The Rocketeer gets involved in the investigation as well…when the two aren’t just butting heads.
            It’s a pretty classic team-up formula, and what the hell, it still works.  If you enjoy Silver Age comics where the characters team up, get upset with each other, but then end up becoming friends and working together to solve the crime, you’re going to enjoy this.  And the two distinct styles of the heroes come together well here.  I don’t know much about the Spirit outside of the awful movie, but the story introduces him well, and shows that he is more of the detective type, against Rocketeer’s sci-fi and pulp-ish plots, and the two come together here.  It also gives each plenty of time for their own personal styles of action: Rocketeer with a battle against planes shooting up his airport, and Spirit with plenty of fisticuffs.
            The artist switch does rather affect the comic.  They both have a fairly fun style, but while Paul Smith keeps an edge of realism, Wallace’s art is a little more over-the-top (a character who’s bald and big becomes much more rotund in the latter two issues).  I actually prefer Wallace’s art for this book, as it takes away any sort of expectation of realism or seriousness here.  Don’t get me wrong, Smith’s art is good, but Wallace’s shows that this is just a book that wants to be fun.

           Five miniseries, not including Dave Stevens’ original comic, and the Rocketeer is still going strong.  Seriously, I’m running out of ways to describe how much of a joy it is every time a new miniseries comes out.  Start anywhere, just start reading them.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Tomb Raider (2013)

Developed by Crystal Dynamics
Published by Square Enix

            I personally did not care at all about the Tomb Raider franchise until Legend came and blew me away with a fun platforming and puzzle-solving experience. Anniversary began to show some flaws, but was still entirely fun to play.  And then Underworld came along and showed the reboot franchise going right to what killed the original, with dull environments that made the game boring to play.  And I didn’t think that rebooting the franchise again, while also making it darker and edgier, would lead to anything good.  But surprise among surprises, Tomb Raider is back and taking new, great directions.
            Taking place as both a reboot and a prequel, the game features Lara Croft (Camilla Luddington) as an archeology student on a ship, looking for the island of Yamatai in the Dragon’s Triangle near Japan.  The good news: they find it.  The bad news: the ship wrecks, the island is filled with insane cultists, and it seems like there’s no way to get off.  Lara has to go from simple student to badass adventurer in order to save the ship’s crew and get off the island.
            Lara’s personal journey is easily something that could’ve been done simply through cinematics, and yet, one of the game’s strongest features is that it works its way into the gameplay.  Early on, you have nothing but a bow and arrow, melee attacks are nothing but a shove, stealth kills require work.  But the game’s upgrade system naturally works to make sure that you get upgrades at a good rate and the environments and enemy battles just become slowly more complex.  Before long, you can hide several feet away and stealthily take out every enemy with the bow, up-close stealth kills get more brutal, your weapons start including a shotgun and an assault rifle.  When you start out, you feel you have to hide.  By the end, it’s not unusual to get the urge to go rushing right into battles.
            The game does wear its two biggest influences on its sleeve.  It’s obvious that the over-the-top, scripted action sequences are paying homage to Uncharted.  And it’s hard to argue with having plenty of big action sequences.  They make the campaign plenty exciting, although the QTEs feel frustrating sometimes.  It does help that there’s only a few actions that tend to show up, but getting the timing right can be a pain, especially early on.  The other major influence is Metroidvania titles, but especially the Arkham games.  And this is easily the game’s biggest and best change from previous Tomb Raider games.  Instead of simply progressing from level to level, you explore the island of Yamatai and gain new abilities throughout.  And as always with these games, it is great to see pieces of the environment and wonder how you get up there, and then much later discover an item that answers the question.  The scripted sequences are great for the campaign, but for post-game, roaming around the island and getting to freely use all your abilities to uncover items is the best feeling.

            This reboot may not be the most original game, and its darkness can sometimes lead to unnecessary gore, but the most important part is seeing Tomb Raider not just daring to try new things for the franchise, but also doing those new things well.  Once again, Lara Croft is back.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Fluxx: The Board Game

Published by Looney Labs
          If you haven’t played Fluxx before, it’s a simple enough card game.  The goal is simply to have two cards out in front of you.  Of course, the problem is the goal, the cards, the rules, everything is constantly changing to the point where any sort of strategy goes out the window until it gets to your turn.  The Fluxx board game is as easy to learn as the card game, but with new additions that make things even crazier.
            The main difference in the board game is that, in order to get the current goal, you must have two of your three pieces on certain spots.  And instead of simply having to obtain one goal, you have to obtain several, ranging from 3-6 (and, yes, that number can change throughout).  The board game also keeps the cards intact, making it as much a card game as a board game.  Each turn, you draw cards, then play cards and move pieces in any order you want.  Not having the plays or moves in a set order makes the strategy even crazier.  It’s not impossible to put a piece in a certain spot, then play a card that suddenly changes everything.
            The game, naturally, uses a “board” that can change.  The board here really being 9 tiles that start out arranged in a square, but can easily move.  In fact, putting on the rotate and uproot a tile rules is highly recommended.  It’s a different game when you think you’re about to get a goal next turn, and then suddenly someone takes up one of the tiles and moves it on to the other end of the board.  The game gives each player a free rule change before the game actually starts, which is the perfect opportunity to make sure things are absolutely crazy before a single card is played.
            The game’s setup is fairly simple.  Shuffle the cards, arrange the board, and you’re about good to go.  The game is also fairly light on what it has.  There’s four color cards (yes, the color you’re playing as can change—if you already thought of that without even needing to read this, you’re ready for Fluxx), three pieces of each color, a deck of cards, the 9 tiles, a changeable rule chart, a goal holder, and pegs for the previous two.  There is a slight problem with the rule chart and goal holder, as the pegs for them do not seem to stay in them.  Adding “feet” to the bottom helps out.  Otherwise, expect the pegs to constantly pop out.  It’s a good way to keep track of the rules, but it’s flawed out of the box.

            Whether you’ve played  Fluxx before or this is your first experience with it, Fluxx: The Board Game is a great pick-up and play game, with easy setup and fairly quick game times that can make it easy to do several games in a row.