Monday, 10 October 2011
Batman, the 8-bit incarnation of the seminal Tim Burton film, was well received when it debuted in the closing weeks of 1989. The game garnered accolades for its satisfying side-scrolling gameplay, a very competent mixture of platform and enemy challenges bookended by confrontations with a curious array of Batman foes including Killer Moth, Firebug, and the Electrocutioner — all of them, along with a variety of rolling, jumping, and projectile-launching enemies, hired by the Joker in a plot to derail Gotham City's 200th Anniversary Festival.
Nintendo Power, that hard copy bastion of video game wisdom and wizardy, had this much to say: "The ominous graphics capture Batman's smooth agile movements and unique super hero action. The finely honed physique, billowing cape, and graceful movements which have long been associated with Batman highlight the adventure." Mean Machines, the U.K. equivalent of Gamepro, dubbed it "a visual treat," and warned Nintendo players to "miss this game at your peril." Julian Rignall, chief editor of the magazine, called it "a first class cart deserving of any Nintendo owner's collection."
But it was apparent to all those who'd followed the game's storied development that all was not right in the land of Batarangs and emotional baggage. Sure, the finished product featured some pretty spiffy animated screens, including a pair of memorable Batmobile animations. But where were the Ninja Gaiden-esque cutscenes promised in the pages of Nintendo Power (September issue, 1989)? Where was Firebug's bad-ass intro as the Joker's right hand man? And what had happened to Vicki Vale's abduction and subsequent rescue, the very reason for the whole 8-bit Bat-quest in question?
You could almost hear Thom and Martha Wayne rolling over in their graves.The mystery of Batman's lost cutscenes ranks right up there with other infamous Nintendo-era conundrums, such enigmatic tales as the much grieved cancellation of California Raisins: The Grape Escape, over which several emotionally stunted adults of my acquaintance are still rattled, and Taito's odd RPG version of Hit the Ice, victim of a similar fate. (A good thing, in this case.)
But Batman was different. Here we had a completed game, and a damn good one at that. These "cinema-graphics," the ones mentioned in Nintendo Power and fawned over by the editors of Mean Machines, were already designed and realized. Pre-release beta copies of Batman showcased them to great effect.
After pressing the Start button at the title screen, Batman would shake down a nameless punk for info and then set out on his journey with purpose. Vicki Vale would fawn over him after her rescue and then, with matching lip sync, proceed to direct us to the AXIS Chemical Factory. Batman would streak across the sky towards his next challenge. And a seated Joker, his features gaunt in the half light, would taunt old "Batbrain" before the final boss fight — a most dastardly act, coming as it did after the ludicrously difficult belltower climb of level 5.
Alas, none of it would make it to the final version. The reason was never publicly revealed. Was Sunsoft antsy about releasing a licensed game whose storyline didn't match that of the film it was based on? Even in its released form, the game had precious little in common with its big-screen counterpart. Was the shameless act of expunging the cutscenes really going to make this fact less noticeable? Or were the designers acting under pressure from the movie studio? If so, what exactly was the complaint, and why was the deletion of these beautiful animations even considered as possible appeasement?
We may never know. The lost Batman beta and its cutscenes never saw official release.
Wednesday, 01 June 2011
I don't often admit that I'm wrong. I'm a pretty good judge of character, and historically, any enmities that I foster — whether for discernible reasons or by some secret intuition — turn out to be warranted. Rarely do I renege on prior assessments. But I was wrong about Family Guy.
As recently as 2007, I could be heard disparaging the series with overweening confidence. It seemed to me easy to be funny when structure, plot, and character are thrown out the window and the entirety of your runtime is given to shot-gunning pop culture references. Wouldn't the laughs come from a superficial, insincere place?
The giggly and ADD-addled among TV viewers could rave about it all they liked. Family Guy was just fluff, and its staggering popularity only served to cement the fact. A healthy suspicion of universal acclaim underpinned my deep hostility. Remember, a very wise (and funny) man once said, "Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it's time to pause and reflect."
But I was wrong. Family Guy may be fluff, but it's funny fluff. The jokes don't always hit the mark and the pop culture references don't always translate, but they do so more often than not. I still prefer my comedy served with a side of continuity and consequence, but Family Guy has character, and attitude, and a bite that few other shows (aside from its spin-offs and sister shows, including The Cleveland Show and Bob's Burgers) can match. As with all good comedy, nothing is sacred within the confines of Seth McFarlane's creation.
Not even the venerated Star Wars mythos. Family Guy's initial take on the franchise, Blue Harvest, was quite rightly heralded as one of the best Star Wars spoofs ever, in no small part due to Lucasfilm's complete endorsement, and one of the series' best episodes. (It was the season six opener.) The Associated Press called it "a dead-on homage that hilariously picks apart Star Wars, and most of real life." It garnered an Emmy nomination, though it lost to South Park's "Imaginationland," and won the Saturn Award for Best Presentation on Television.
Something, Something, Something Dark Side, whose title ranks as a masterpiece of unwieldy nomenclature, continued that trend. Even more Family Guy characters emerged as inheritors of classic Star Wars roles this time through, with Brian's boss Carl as Yoda, Mort Goldman as Lando Calrissian, and Carter Pewterschmidt as the Emperor. Along with solid jabs at The Empire Strikes Back, the episode also featured some of the best pop culture gags in series history — including entire clips from Rocky IV's Ivan Drago montage (!) and an ending that merrily mirrors Back to the Future Part II's great cliffhanger.
The final installment of the trilogy, It's a Trap!, saw DVD release in 2010, finally airing on TV, albeit in truncated form, in May of this year. And a copy of the box set — lovingly titled Laugh It Up, Fuzzball: The Family Guy Trilogy and featuring all three Star Wars-themed adventures — found its way into my hands in time for my birthday. (Thanks, Mom!)
A tiny preamble to begin with. Numerous online reviews, before assessing the merits of It's a Trap!, first take great pains to classify Return of the Jedi as the runt of the original Star Wars trilogy, a weighty reputation the film and its Ewok inhabitants have had to shoulder these past thirty years. Everyone is entitled to their opinion. But their distaste for the Rebellion's final plight against the Empire might make one question the impartiality of their vitriol.
So, here it is, for the record: Return of the Jedi is my favourite of the original Star Wars films. Seriously. And even so, my assessment of Family Guy's It's a Trap! remains equally venomous. This is bad, bad stuff.
It begins on a bad note, with Seth McFarlane writing the following into the lengthy opening crawl:
"Look, just do me a huge favor and lower your expectations, okay? Just this one time. I promise I'll make it up to you. I mean, Star Wars, fine. Empire, still not bad. But on this one we ran out of gas."
Irony of ironies, they most decidedly did run out of gas. If forced to search for some redeeming factors, I suppose it's fair to say that a few of the gags work — Peter's flatulent awakening from his Carbonite shell, for instance, or C-3PO's rendition of the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air theme as sung to a crowd of enthralled Ewoks — but the overwhelming majority of the 'humour' on display misses the mark, oftentimes stupendously so. (Incidentally, damn near all the good bits appear in the two-minute It's a Trap! trailer. Watch that instead. You can thank me for the fifty-seven minutes you'll save as a result.)
Embarrassing video cut-ins by Conway Twitty and Ted Knight, an excruciatingly long 'head-nodding' sequence (that's as stupid as it sounds), a vapid final appearance by John Williams and his orchestra, and toothless jabs at Lost in Space, Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, and Star Trek: The Next Generation all come off as filler.
Along with the carbon copy space sequences, which were a great novelty in Blue Harvest but have gradually lost their power to impress, It's a Trap! most definitely ranks as a waste of opportunity, talent, and more importantly, time — for both the people involved and the dedicated genre fans in attendance.
Monday, 30 May 2011
Regarding Thor, Roger Ebert wrote the following: "In the arena of movies about comic book superheroes, it is a desolate vastation." I'm not sure I fully agree with his assessment of Marvel's latest superhero narrative, and I'm not sure I exactly understand the meaning of the word 'vastation,' but his tone is on the mark.
Thor is a two-hour exercise in father-and-son melodrama combined with goofy in-jokes, explosions, government agents and Marvel references, and that might not be everyone's cup of tea. Hell, I'm not even sure if it's mine.
In his review, Ebert goes on to chide the film and its director, Kenneth Branagh, for failing to create something on par with a Dark Knight or Spider-Man 2. My gripe with the film is not of this character. I don't particularly care if Thor doesn't meet the exalted eminence of The Dark Knight. And I care even less about its contrast to Spider-Man 2, that hugely overrated piece of rubbish that won over a ridiculous number of critics upon its release.
It was always my understanding that Thor was a second-tier comic book character and that his big screen offering would most likely not change that. What else could be expected from a hero literally ripped from the archives of ancient Norse mythology? (Accusations of plagiarism would be warranted if the source material weren't 1800 years old.)
No, Thor was never going to reinvent the genre. It wasn't going to rival The Dark Knight for gritty realism, or charm critics with wimpy melancholy like Spider-Man 2. Thor could only ever hope to turn its clichéd main character and his ridiculous origin story into satisfying popcorn entertainment, and fit into the Marvel movie cannon while doing so.
I'm still not sure if it succeeds on the latter point. Thor's origins, his homestead of Asgard — suspended as it is on some celestial cumulus — his undisguised paternity to ancient Norse figureheads, and his battle with the Frost Giants of Jotunheim, seem so irreconcilably detached to most of what we've seen so far from the Marvel movie factory. As incredible as the recent Iron Man, Incredible Hulk, and Captain America adventures may be, they're all rooted within current technological conventions. Exaggerated and mythicized, yes, but still somewhat (dubious as they may be) plausible.
In other words, science fiction. Thor, by contrast, is not science fiction; it's fantasy fiction. The film forcibly injects about as much science and technology into the storyline as it can, with talk of Einstein-Rosen Bridges and other such chatter, but the entire enterprise still comes off as palpably wacky, even by comic book standards.
I suppose it's time to admit it. I have nothing against Thor or his deliciously toned pecks — I just don't want him fucking around in my Marvel playpen. I've so grown to love Tony Stark and his mechanical misadventures that I'm deathly afraid someone, anyone, will come along and sully all that I find intrinsically appealing about his persona and the world he inhabits. How can Thor and Iron Man co-exist? I mean, I know they've been fighting together for ages in print under the Avengers moniker, but really, how can Tony Stark and Thor inhabit the same movie universe?
Tony's a rock-and-roll swashbuckler with a penchant for booze, blonds, and busty female secretaries, a billionaire industrialist with a wicked set of smarts and an even bigger set of guns. His weapons are desperately wanted by the U.S. government, his relationship with 'Pepper' Potts is complex, patchy, and always on the brink, and his role as protector has been challenged not by super villains, not by mutated monsters or alien invaders, but by vengeful rivals and their unscrupulous financial backers.
Thor, meanwhile, wields a spell-protected hammer and travels 'the Nine Realms' by way of a mystical rainbow bridge.
And wears a funny hat.
Wednesday, 25 May 2011
I love Iron Man 2. Love it, love it, love it. More than The Dark Knight, which took a while to grow on me; more than Watchmen, for which I have a sizeable soft spot. And more than all those other superhero flicks — the Spidermans, Daredevils, X-Men, and Punishers of the world — combined.
Granted, Watchmen I appreciated, perhaps more for the spirit of the thing than any intrinsic quality. It was dark, and moody, and superbly faithful to the book it adapted, even though it sagged under the weight of an exceedingly long runtime. X-Men and its sequel (even I disavow the existence of X-Men: The Last Stand) bored me to tears. And I could never fathom why Spiderman 2, that spectacular waste of time and pedigree, garnered such overwhelming critical acclaim. Alfred Molina's Doc Ock was blessed with an extraordinary origin story and some bad-ass CG effects, and then spent nine-tenths of the film offscreen and unseen — the biggest filmic flimflam of the past decade.
Even the original Iron Man, celebrated as it was (Wizard magazine named it the best superhero movie of all time in their January 2009 issue), struck me as a mediocre effort and hardly worth mentioning. I remember walking out of the theatre that day and saying to my brother, "I should just stop watching superhero movies. They don't do it for me."
But Iron Man 2. Wow. Just...Wow! Maybe it's Mickey Rourke's dastardly turn as Ivan Vanko, better known to comic fans as Whiplash, though never named as such in the film. (A neat and appropriate omission.) I have nothing but praise for the man. He was the best part of The Expendables, the second-best part of The Wrestler (after Marissa Tomei's jigglies), and an all-around cool guy.
Or perhaps it's Sam Rockwell's Justin Hammer; inept, bumbling, and idiosyncratic, but never overblown — one of the best characters to come out of the Marvel movie factory and pitch perfect in nearly every respect. His role as Tony Stark's entrepreneurial rival adds another dimension to the film as that rare movie 'villain' whose comedic failings become dangerous in their own right when exposed and commandeered by other, more traditionally nefarious, antagonists.
Then there's Robert Downey Jr. He's great. Gwenyth Paltrow is simply lovely as Virginia 'Pepper' Potts. Scarlett Johanssen is a stunning piece of work, and her fight scenes late in the film rival the CG setpieces. And Samuel L. Jackson returns from the first film's post-credits coda, after some sketchy contract negotiations, as S.H.I.E.L.D. frontman Nick Fury. He's currently slated to star in as many as nine (nine!) Marvel productions. And a good thing, too. It's hard to think of anyone else bringing appropriate gravitas to the character.
The dialogue is zippy and fun, and bears all the hallmarks of a freewheeling, improvisational atmosphere on set. You get the sense that while the script served as a blueprint and was religiously followed in certain key scenes, the actors were given a lot of freedom to explore, interact, and play with their respective roles. Lines are delivered one on top of the other; characters burst into confident exposition and then mutter and mumble when taken to task; they make asides, shift gears, and unknowingly betray the deep-seated rivalries (and, in other cases, amorous feelings) that serve as their motivation.
Moreover, by now we've all grown to recognize under what circumstances computer-generated special effects really shine and when they traditionally fall flat. Humans remain outside the realm of realistic portrayal. Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, A Christmas Carol, Tron: Legacy, and others have tried, and all have come short. But mechanical creations — including Tony Stark's über-cool Iron Man and Rhodie's accompanying War Machine — never could come to life in quite such spectacular fashion without the raw processing power of an ILM or Weta Workshop.
R & R — robots and rubble — has never looked better, whether it be Vanko's sizzling, sparking electric 'whips', the spectacular end-over-end car crashes at the Monaco Grand Prix, the bone shattering Iron Man/War Machine fight (accompanied by Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust," no less), or the climactic final battle at the Stark Expo. All of it looks spectacular.
And all of it sounds spectacular, too. The requisite clinks and clanks are underpinned by a magisterial score by composer John Debney and a pair of AC/DC tracks by the name of "Shoot to Thrill" and "Highway to Hell" that serve as bookends to the action.
Iron Man 2's accompanying soundtrack isn't merely a collection of classic rock songs; it functions as a masterstroke of mass-market cross promotion, an effective exercise in branding that brings together some of the greatest hits from the band's storied history under the Iron Man moniker.
Admittedly not a 'Best Of' collection, the Iron Man 2 album boasts songs featured in the film plus the likes of "Thunderstruck", "T.N.T.", "Rock 'N' Roll Damnation", and other classic selections that seem tailor-made to suit the Tony Stark saga: "Guns For Hire", "Evil Walks", "The Razor's Edge"...There's even a song in here entitled "War Machine." War Machine!
All of the songs, whether old or new, share the film's common themes and all of them, predictably enough, bring the house down with teeth-rattling riffs and crazy crass vocals. There are no new tracks to speak of, but with a collection this strong, there's little reason to complain. Iron Man fans will lap it up, as will rock fans looking for a little old-school metal to bolster their music library.
Friday, 20 May 2011
What is there to be said about The Expendables? A work of art it is not. Nor, as many have said (and will say), did it ever endeavour to be hailed as such. But even in the B-movie world it inhabits, Stallone's magnum opus is a tragically mediocre exercise in almost every respect. There have been much better action movies, and much better Stallone-helmed action movies, that have effectively raised the bar and cemented the notion that a movie of this kind need not be criminally incompetent in areas outside its chosen genre.
The Expendables, by contrast, does not endeavour to break free from the cliche of the bad action movie. It prides itself in being silly and unrealistic, and that would be perfectly fine, if it didn't do such a bad job of that, too.
The plot is juvenile and predictable, a clear-cut cops and robbers tale set on a fictional South American island where a ruthless dictator (is there any other kind?) has enslaved the populace and brought chaos to a once peaceful land.
Stallone and his buddies — a group of motorcycle-loving mercenaries who ride around town on specialized choppers and plaster their feathery logo on everything from their bikes to their backs — are hired by Bruce Willis to fly to the foreign territory and solve the problem. Arnold Schwarzenegger makes a guest appearance here as a rival gunslinger selected for the same job. He appears onscreen for all of three minutes and then departs, back lit and bearing a thundering musical cue, having refused the mission and recommended his equally grizzled old pal, who "loves playing in the jungle, right?"
So the titular tattoed protagonists embark on a mission to overthrow the system of oppression on the island. Along the way they meet Steve Austin, and Eric Roberts, and other faces you'll recognize from past projects, including their buddy-turned-baddie Gunnar, played by Dolph Lundgren, who turns in one of the most ridiculously bad performances in recent memory. His part in The Expendables neatly confirms what we all suspected; that he was effective in Rocky IV in large part because he had only three lines and no real acting to do. He was a massive, muscular mountain of Soviet oppression, and that was enough.
In The Expendables, he mutters and mumbles his way through more dialogue than he has any right to, and flip-flops from good guy to bad guy and then to good guy again in time for the closing credits. The rest of the gang, including Jet Li, who figured so prominently in the film's marketing, is given precious little to work with, either emotionally or physically. They exist solely to pad out the proceedings with a lot of boisterous babble and brouhaha.
And, again, that would be just fine. If it weren't bad brouhaha.
To be fair, there's a bit of fun to be had. The movie only ever feels competent when everything's blowing up, and that only happens for a brief interval near the climax — but it sure does look pretty. And while the choppy editing may leave some feeling seasick, the shootouts and fist fights are kinetic enough to satisfy moviegoers looking for a little adrenaline to go with their Milk Duds and soda.
But the antagonists are all stock characters that do little to create any real feeling of fear, or animosity, or ambivalence on our part, like good antagonists do. They're pretty much all here: the scheming government official, the evil dictator, the towering bodyguard, the legions of foot soldiers. We've all seen it many, many times before.
And that was the point, presumably. A return to '80s-style action movies like Rambo, and Commando, and Delta Force. A tribute to the mindless, plotless action orgies of yesteryear, to simple stories of good versus evil unhindered by nuance or ambiguity. Rambo promised to be just that and wasn't; it turned out surprisingly gritty and gut-wrenching and, at times, genuinely poignant. So in came The Expendables to fill the gap, the need (for some sizeable demographic, apparently) for simple minded, cheesy, childish man action.
Stallone's called Barney this time around and he's got a group of guy friends willing to head into battle with him. But otherwise this is Rambo: First Blood Part II for the new millennium, with more wrinkles and fewer excuses.
And, seriously, who wants to see that?