Friday, April 1, 2016

Film Review: Mission Impossible

Previously on the SDP, I wrapped up the 007 Golden Jubilee once again with my Spectre review last month.  But it would seem there's one corner of the James Bond film series I've left unaddressed.  Maybe there's some Bond movie out there not recognised by EON Productions?  Well ladies and gentlemen, that ends now, because today I'm reviewing...

Mission: Impossible
  • Publisher: Paramount
  • Studio: Cruise/Wagner Productions
  • Genre: Action
  • Release: 22 May 1996
  • Director: Brian de Palma
  • Producers: Tom Cruise, Paula Wagner
  • Writers: David Koepp, Robert Towne
April Fools!  ...But seriously folks, 2016 does mark the 20th anniversary of the Mission: Impossible film series, plus the 50th anniversary of the TV show that inspired it to begin with, so I figured, why not kick off a new mini-series devoted to them?  Hence, the Mission: Impossible Golden Jubilee.  Links to reviews of the other movies will be provided below as they are made available.
  • Mission: Impossible (1996)
  • Mission: Impossible II (2000)
  • Mission: Impossible III (2006)
  • Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol (2011)
  • Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation (2015)
Now just so we're clear, this event is focusing solely on the five Mission: Impossible movies released thus far.  As of this posting, I have not seen any episodes of the TV shows (yes, plural), so the extent to which I can use them as a frame of reference is limited.  On the flip side, that means I don't have to worry about coming in with expectations that may not be met.  So, how well does the introductory entry hold up two decades on?  Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to read on.

Our story starts in Prague, where the Impossible Missions Force (IMF) is seeking to recover a list of the CIA's non-official cover (NOC) agents from the American embassy.  The team is directed by Jim Phelps (Jon Voight), its leader from the TV series.  The mission starts off well enough, but the agents are killed off one by one -- except its point man, Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise).  Hunt is later debriefed by his boss, Eugene Kittridge (Henry Czerny), that the mission was a trap to identify a mole inside IMF -- and by surviving, Hunt is fingered as a suspect.  His mission is then three-fold: clear his name with the IMF, protect the NOC list from the hands of an arms dealer named Max, and identify the mole working with Max.
Mission: Impossible boasts a number of unique shots,
including many slanted camera angles.
Kicking off a long line of star directors handling this franchise, this first entry was directed by Brian de Palma, whose eouvre includes Carrie (1976), Scarface (1983), and The Untouchables (1987).  Among the touches he brings to the table is his use of simultaneous events in the foreground and background to advance the story without cutting, which is good, and a slight over-depenence on tilted camera angles, which is... weird.  Huh, maybe the director of Battlefield Earth got inspired by this movie.  Other notable scenes in this movie, from a directorial standpoint, are a brief section shot in Ethan's first-person view as he gets picked up by Max's henchmen, and two different scenes where flashbacks are used to illustrate Ethan's thought process as he works out the twists laid out to him.

And then there's movie's most iconic scene: the computer room cable drop.  See, Ethan and some other disavowed agents need to steal the real NOC list from a computer room at the CIA headquarters, in order to flush out the real mole.  Said room has only two entrances: a door, guarded by biometric locks he won't be able to fool, and an air vent from the ceiling.  On top of that, the room is guarded by three types of sensors: sound, temperature (to detect the body heat of an intruder), and a floor-mounted pressure sensor.  Ethan thus has to be lowered by cables into the room.  This whole scene lasts about ten minutes, with little to no music or other sensory overloads to accompany it, but keeps managing to find new ways to inject tension, some of them admittedly more contrived than others.  (A wild rat appears?  Come on Franz, you should've brought a Max Repel!)  Still, if you gave this scene to a more flashy director like the Michael Bays of the world, it just wouldn't work in the same way.  For the record, this scene is an homage to the climax of Topkapi, a 1964 heist film about a group of con artists attempting to steal jewelry from the titular palace in Istanbul.
The computer-room cable-drop scene succeds in its quiet tension.
Mission: Impossible got a mixed reception at the time of its release.  Among the disapproving voices were actors from the original TV shows, including Peter Graves and Martin Landau, due to a late-movie plot twist which seemed out-of-character for that person.  (Namely, former hero Jim Phelps is revealed as the aforementioned mole.)  But to its credit, it does manage to respect some of the show's traditions here and there.  Both the initial embassy mission and the CIA break-in show Phelps or Hunt building and briefing their teams, and it is subsequently clear that the success of those missions depend on all of the members doing their part, not just one pointman.  It's just a shame that few team members, apart from Hunt and perhaps Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames), manage to show off any sort of personality to distinguish themselves with.  If anyone else had a chance in that department, it would be the wisecracking hacker Jack Harmon (Emilio Estevez) and the weaselly pilot Franz Kriegler (Jean Reno), but of course they both get killed at different points.

Apart from that, criticisms were leveled mainly against the convoluted nature of the plot.  If you don't pay attention, it's easy to miss some leaps of logic that take Ethan from one scene to the next.  I for one never had a problem following it, but then again I'm one of those weirdos who could keep track of all the dream-diving in Inception.  Personally, I'd point to the aforementioned altered-flashback scenes as key to deciphering much of the plot twists, as they present exposition in a much-needed "show, don't tell" fashion.  In fact, I'd go so far as to say that in this regard, Mission: Impossible is no worse than some of the more complex Bond films, like Octopussy or The Living Daylights.  So, as long as you don't nod off for whatever reason, and you're not too attached with the Jim Phelps of the TV show, I'm sure you'll agree with me that this movie still holds up.

Positives:
+ Several creative shots.
+ The computer-room cable-drop scene is just BOSS.
+ Honours some of its source material's traditions, while doing its own thing with them.
Negatives:
- Bland side characters.
- The plot is challenging, but not insurmountable, to follow.
- Certain plot twists may irk fans of the TV show.

Acting: 4 out of 5
Writing: 3 out of 5
Technical: 5 out of 5
The Call: 80% (B)

Monday, March 21, 2016

Random Shots: The Locations of Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon

Previously on the SDP, I reviewed Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon for the Nintendo 64. To summarise it, while it had its flaws, it was still creative and engaging enough to be memorable for the lucky few who got to play it, myself included.  It's the sort of thing I would love to play again as some sort of updated HD remake, although its publisher, Konami, seems to have no idea what the [verb] they're doing these days.  But it was after I posted that review that I learned something about the game, after all those years of it living in my memories.  I was looking at a map of Japan's old provinces -- the regions that existed before the 1868 Meiji Restoration replaced them with the prefectures in use today -- when I recognised one of the province names as a location from the game.  Then another... and another... until I realised this wasn't a coincidence.  Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon doesn't take place in some fake, fictionalised, fantasy version of Japan.  It's set in the real fictionalised, fantasy version of Japan!  So allow me to be your tour guide in a journey through the game, as we attempt to link its whacked-out take on the Land of the Rising Sun to its real-world counterpart.

The game starts at Goemon and Ebisumaru's home in Oedo Town.  Okay, this is obviously Tokyo, or Edo as it used to be known.  (The 'O' at the beginning of the word is a prefix denoting honour.)  Whilst wandering about Oedo Town, you may notice a few landmarks.  For instance, you know that big red gate blocked by a big red lantern?  That would be the Kaminari-mon, or Thunder Gate.  The real Kaminari-mon is located in the Asakusa district, on the approach to the temple Senso-ji.  And if you happen to cross a curved wooden bridge, you would be walking on the Nihonbashi, the "mile zero" from which all roads across old Japan were measured.  Alas, the real Nihonbashi was replaced with a new concrete bridge in 1911, but you can try out a replica of the original at the Edo-Tokyo Museum.  Anyway, after taking a trip out to Mount Fuji (yes, that Mount Fuji) and picking up a new weapon for Goemon, you'll head back and take on the first castle level, Oedo Castle.  There was indeed a real Edo Castle built in 1457, but over the centuries parts of it burned down; what's left currently serves as the Tokyo Imperial Palace.

With Oedo Town wrapped up for now, your journey will take you to Zazen Town.  Now, "zazen" refers not to any specific place, but to the meditation performed as part of Zen Buddhism.  But there are a few obvious clues which relate Zazen Town to the city of Kyoto.  The Golden Temple, where Ebisumaru will eventually learn his shrinking power, is a scaled-down version of Kinkaku-ji, a.k.a. the Golden Pavillion, one of Kyoto's most famous landmarks.  Then there's a section called Mt. Nyoigatake.  To get there, first you go up a staircase covered by a row of bright orange torii gates, just like the approach to the Fushimi Inari shrine, another iconic Kyoto destination.  Once through that, you'll end up facing a mountain with a kanji character written in flames on its side.  There are several of these mountains in Kyoto, commonly named the Daimonji-yama, and they are lit up in such a manner at the end of the O-bon festival in August.

Next door to Zazen Town is a place called Yamato.  The province it was named after is now Nara prefecture.  Yamato and Nara also share another connection besides their name -- it has to do with the centrepiece of Yamato, a giant pagoda-like building.  Nara is home to Todai-ji, a Buddhist temple boasting what was, at the time the game was made, the world's largest all-wooden structure.  The main hall at Todai-ji houses a giant bronze statue of the Buddha, itself the largest statue of its kind.  The similar building in Yamato is indeed equally big, and whilst this digital re-interpretation does not contain a similar statue, it is worth unlocking and checking out for an extra life and a Fortune Doll life upgrade.  Not far from Yamato is Kii-Awaji Island, from where you can warp to the Husband and Wife Rocks, a pair of islets tethered together by a giant rope.  The real Wedded Rocks, known as the Meoto-Iwa, are located off the eastern coast of the Kii peninsula, near Ise in Mie prefecture.

After a brief mini-boss atop a dragon, you'll land on Shikoku, another of Japan's four main islands1.  Your landing spot is Kompira Mountain, and directly from there lies Folkypoke Village.  "Kompira" likely refers to Kotohira Shrine in Kagawa prefecture, which sits atop Mount Zozu, and is also called Konpira Shrine.  As for Folypoke Village... offhand, I have no idea.  The biggest city in that prefecture, would be Takamatsu, so that's the best guess I've got.  Anyway, across Shikoku lies the second castle level, but immediately beforehand are the Dogo Hot Springs.  There is indeed a Dogo Onsen in the city of Matsuyama, and whilst the main building of the complex today was not constructed until 1894, the waters of this hot spring resort have been mentioned in the Man'yoshu, a work of literature which dates back to AD 759 at the latest, so it certainly could have existed in Goemon's world in some form.

With the second castle down, the road to Chugoku opens, and with it some of, I think, the game's most interesting locations.  Bizen and Kurashiki are quasi-urban areas lined by white-and-black warehouses, examples of which can be seen in cities like Kurashiki, in Okayama prefecture.  Aki-Nagato is a coastal area with a giant red torii gate in the middle of thewater, modeled after the one off of Itsukushima (a.k.a. Miyajima), an island not far from Hiroshima.  Inaba is a vast, hilly desert, to which you may be thinking, "A desert?  In Japan?  Seriously?"  It's more likely than you think -- there actually is a plot of sand dunes in Tottori Prefecture named, obviously, the Tottori Sand Dunes.  Finally, there's a vast, hilly plains area with little rock plilars strewn about, named Akiyoshidai.  A mouthful, sure, but I didn't even have to break out the list of old provinces to locate that -- the real Akiyoshidai is a park in Yamaguchi Prefecture, near the western tip of Honshu. 

With the third castle down, you'll get cut off from your destination of Kyushu due to... I won't spoil it, but suffice to say, it couldn't have happened in a game less light-hearted in tone as this.  So instead, you'll be going north from Oedo Town into northern Honshu, current known as the Tohoku region.  Much of Tohoku, both in-game, and in historical Japan, is taken up by a snowy area called Mutsu; the real Mutsu province corresponds with four modern-day prefectures: Fukushima, Miyagi, Iwate, and Aomori.  The big city around the Mutsu region is... Festival Village.  Again, that gives me little to go by.  There are lots of notable festivals in Tohoku's cities, such as the Nebuta Festival in Aomori, and the Kanto Festival in Akita.  But there is a cluehidden in the town's restaurant.  One of the HP-giving dishes on offer is kiritanpo, a dish of rice patties pounded into a cylindrical shape, served in miso soup.  And it originates from... Akita prefecture.  Well, that's good enough for me!

Behind Festival Village, you will find Mt. Fear, named after Osore-zan (literally, "fear mountain") in Aomori prefecture.  The real Osore-zan is known, among other things, for a festival (kuchiyose) in which blind mediums (itako) channel and contact spirits of the dead.  And indeed, you do this in-game.  Alternately, you can head back and take a fork southwards to the Waterfall of Kegon, where Yae can learn her mermaid power.  The real Kegon Falls is located near Nikko, Tochigi Prefecture.

With the fourth castle down, it's time to wrap things up in Kyushu.  Again, I shan't spoil how you get there, but much of it takes place in yet another castle level.  But it is briefly bisected by one last town area, Sogen Town of Bizen.  Alas, I drew a blank at the name alone; there isn't even a historical province in Kyushu named Bizen (that could be a mistranslation of either the Buzen or Hizen provinces).  So once again, I was forced to turn to the local cuisine for clues on its real-life counterpart.  One such offerring was sponge cake, described as a culinary import from the Dutch.  That clearly tipped me off to the city of Nagasaki.  See, for much of Japan's history until the Meiji period, the country managed to protect itself from colonial influences simply by shutting themselves off from all foreign trade -- with a few exceptions.  One of them was in Nagasaki, where the Dutch and Chinese were allowed to set up shop.  Although, sponge cake in Japan, where it is known as "castella", actually came from the Portugese beforehand so, close but no cigar.

Lack of cigar aside, this has been a delightfully informative journey, both for me as I wrote this article, and I hope for you, the reader, as well.  It may even get you to look at Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon in a new way.  Who knows, maybe you'll even visit Japan yourself and see the real-life inspirations behind the game's locales!  Special thanks to Zeality of GameFAQs.com for recording and posting the game's script (http://www.gamefaqs.com/n64/198022-mystical-ninja-starring-goemon/faqs/45558).

1The four main islands of Japan refer to Honshu, Hokkaido, Shikoku, and Kyushu.  However, Hokkaido, was never part of the Japanese state until the Meiji period, which explains why it is never visited in the game.

Monday, February 29, 2016

Film Review: Spectre

There's a pattern I've noticed with the James Bond series.  For any given set of entries starring a particular actor, the fourth entry is the one where things go bad.  For Pierce Brosnan, it was Die Another Day, which sucked.  For Roger Moore, it was Moonraker, which sucked.  For Sean Connery, it was Thunderball, which... didn't exactly suck, but still wasn't as good as the last movies.  And now we come to the fourth Bond film to star Daniel Craig.  Will it manage to break the "fourth-film curse" or not?  Find out in an encore presentation of the 007 Golden Jubilee!
Spectre
  • Publisher: MGM / Columbia
  • Studio: Danjaq / EON Productions
  • Genre: Action
  • Release: 26 October 2015 (UK), 6 November 2015 (US)
  • Director: Sam Mendes
  • Producers: Michael G. Wilson, Barbara Broccoli
  • Writers: John Logan, Neil Purvis, Robert Wade, Jez Butterworth
The Girls: The primary Bond Girl is Dr. Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux), a psychologist and the daughter of Mr. White from Casino Royale and Quantum of SolaceFor most of her role, she keeps complaining about the way Bond protects her from the bad guys, so her chemistry with Bond starts out rockier, and she doesn't exactly leave the best first impression.  I will say that unlike most of his flings these days, Bond does seem to earn his night of sex with her, coming after they fight off Mr. Hinx.  Rides off into the sunset... er, cloudy London morning with Bond.  3 out of 5.

Earlier on, Bond has a fling with Lucia Sciarra (Monica Belucci), the widow of a Spectre assassin.  Being 50 years old during filming, signora Belucci is the oldest actress to play a Bond Girl.  This decision caused some controversy among netizens, to which Craig (himself 47 years old) said, he's just dating women his own age.  Well said.  Still, wrinkles aside, Lucia Sciarra is basically an older version of Severine from the last movie.  She's basically there for Bond to protect, get information from, screw, and forget about.  And feminism marches on!  ...Without them.  Left under CIA protection.  3 out of 5.

The Villain: Franz Oberhauser, a.k.a. Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Christoph Waltz), the leader of Spectre.  He has a backstory with Bond: after Bond's parents died in a mountain-climbing accident, Franz and his father adopted him, only to allegedly die later on.  I could probably best describe his portrayal as a cross between Donald Pleasance as Blofeld (from You Only Live Twice) and Javier Bardem as Silva (from Skyfall).  In other words, he goes for the subdued menace of the former but cannot quite achieve it, ending up a bit quirky and too casual, which stands out especially considering the work he's done with Quentin Tarantino.  Herr Waltz seems like he would be more at home portraying someone like Steve Jobs (although to be fair, you could say Apple is basically a real-world evil organisation anyway, lol)  Arrested by M. 4 out of 5.

Other Henchmen: Mr. Hinx (Dave Bautista), a hitman working for Spectre.  Just as Silva from Skyfall proved to be the first iconic villain of the post-reboot era, Mr. Hinx could very well be its first iconic henchman character.  In many ways, Hinx is reminiscent of Oddjob from Goldfinger.  They both have similar physiques, hardly ever speak, can hold their own against Bond, and even their actors are both Asian-ethnic Americans with backgrounds in pro wrestling.  Although, his introductory scene, where he kills a fellow Spectre member by jamming his thumbs in the guy's eyes, is a little hard to watch.  Thrown off a train by Bond.  5 out of 5.

Max Denbigh, a.k.a. C (Andrew Scott), the head of the private Joint Intelligence ServiceAs it turns out, he is in fact working for Spectre, who intends to use the countries' intelligence against them.  C, as he is nicknamed by Bond, is just a touch snarky and not exactly apologetic about stealing M's job.  I could imagine him working out as 007's new boss, if not for the fact that he already got a new one in the last movie.  And besides, Ralph Fiennes's M is just badass.  Accidentally falls to his death in a fight with M.  4 out of 5.

The Gadgets: Q (Ben Whishaw) introduces to 007 the Aston Martin DB10, which exists only a concept car in the real world, and here comes equipped with guns, a flamethrower, and an ejection seat... only to give it to agent 009 instead and leave Bond with a watch.  To be fair, the watch has a time bomb inside.  That doesn't stop Bond from stealing the car anyway and using it in a chase with Hinx's Jaguar C-X75, another prototype car you will never be able to buy.

The Locations: Mexico City, Rome, Austria, Morocco, and London.  The Mexico City scene was filmed during the Day of the Dead festival, as the opening one-take shot brilliantly shows off.

The Theme Song: "Writing's On the Wall" by Sam Smith.  Sam Smith has always struck me as being a technically talented vocalist, who wastes his range on the most boring songs, and "Writing's On the Wall" is the most egregious example of this paradigm.  In fact, this very song won my wildcard slot for Most Boring Song at this year's SDP Music Awards, if you recall.  The song itself is about standing up to impending doom, but coming from Sam Smith, I don't feel it.  He sounds too weak-willed, especially when you compare it to stuff like Tom Jones in "Thunderball", and even Adele's theme from Skyfall.  I don't want to be too hard on this song, because it is melodically beautiful and has a few good themes in the lyrics.  But I don't know, it's just not something I'd want to listen to outside of this movie.  2 out of 5.

The alternative-rock band Radiohead also submitted their own title song, simply named "Spectre".  Obviously it was passed over, for some reason, but the band released it themselves online, at https://soundcloud.com/radiohead/spectre.  It has the same kind of orchestral ambience of the Sam Smith song, but with an actual drum track... which I'm honestly not a fan of.  Its irregular pattern tends to throw me off.  And honestly, it's not too much of an improvement on the not-boring front, even if it does build up to something musically.  I for one won't lose sleep over its exclusion in the film, but I guess you have to be a fan of the band in order to appreciate it fully.

The Opening Credits: Features ink and octopus motifs.  The octopus has long been a symbol of the Spectre group, with the animal's tentacles symbolising the insidious reach their activities have all over the world -- AND NOTHING ELSE.  There also flashbacks to characters from earlier in the Daniel Craig series (like what they did for On Her Majesty's Secret Service), re-creations of locations seen later in the film, and some shirtless shots of Bond in between all the silhouette girls, presumably in the interest of equal-opportunity fanservice4 out of 5.

The Source Material: The SPECTRE organization has largely been avoided in the official James Bond film canon, due to its ownership dispute between Ian Fleming and Kevin McClory.  But you already knew that.  Well, it turns out that in 2013, MGM, Danjaq, and the McClory estate finally settled the issue, returning the film rights of the Spectre name to MGM.  However, I've noticed that in this movie, no one refers to Spectre by its old acronym (Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion), so either that wasn't accounted for in their deal, or they just nixed it for the retcon.

The Plot: Our story starts in Mexico City, where James Bond foils a terrorist attack during the Day of the Dead festival, and steals a ring belonging to one of the perpetrators.  Cue opening credits.  Back in London, the new M is displeased over the collateral damage from that operation, and has 007 suspended.  But what he doesn't know is that Bond was following instructions from his predecessor (the one played by Judi Dench), who sent him on the trail of a secretive criminal organisation.  Bond uses the ring he found, along with the widow of one of the attackers, to infiltrate a meeting of this organisation, named Spectre.  Meanwhile, M and the 00 section are being dogged by a man unofficially code-named C, who is the head of a new private intelligence company.  In addition to shutting down M's department, C also campaigns for the formation of "Nine Eyes", an intelligence-sharing network of member nations, including Britain.

Meanwhile (again), based on intel taken from the Spectre meeting, Bond heads to the Austrian alps to meet Mr. White, who left his Quantum organisation (but not before being mortally poisoned).  He tells Bond to find and protect his daughter, Madeline Swann, before committing suicide.  From there, Bond travels to the clinic where Swann works, and rescues her from Hinx and his Spectre goons.  Q also tags along, using the ring from before to discover that the villains from the last three films were, in fact, being controlled by Spectre.  From there (again), the two head to a hotel in Tangier, Morocco, where Mr. White hid a secret room with information on a secret Spectre base in the desert.  They get there by train, fighting off Hinx along the way.

At the desert base, Bond and Swann are greeted by the leader of Spectre, now named Ernst Stavro Blofeld.  Blofeld announces to Bond that he was the mastermind behind the events in the previous movies.  He captures and attempts to torture Bond, but Bond escapes and torches the place.  Back in London, Bond returns to join forces with M and their other ex-MI6 friends, in order to stop the Nine Eyes program from going online.  M and Q succeed in doing so, with C accidentally dying, to boot.  Meanwhile, Bond and Swann are captured and taken to the old MI6 building (the one from Goldeneye on), which is about to be demolished.  Bond rescues Swann, escapes the building in time, and shoots down Blofeld's helicopter.  As Blofeld crawls out of the wreckage, he is arrested by M, leaving Bond to ride off with Swann.

The one word I would use to describe Spectre is "redundant".  It tackles a bunch of themes already addressed by previous movies.  Most notably, there's the question of whether or not the 00 agents are necessary in today's intelligence climate, which was already answered by the very last movie before this.  Although, the NSA leaks from 2013 arguably make this discussion more relevant this time around.  Apart from all that, there are many plot points from, and other references the rest of the series, almost to the degree of Die Another Day.  And Spectre doesn't even have the excuse of being a milestone celebration!  I mean, who commemorates a 53rd anniversary as a special occasion?  And it's not just within the Bond franchise -- at a basic level, the plot is virtually identical to that of the recent Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation.  It even has scenes in Austria, Morocco, and London, to boot!  Intentional or not, it sure was savvy of Paramount to move their movie's release up to the summer, instead of trying to compete with Spectre in November.

Also, I can't help noticing how many funny moments there are in this movie.  The highlight of humour has to be the early car chase between Bond and Hinx, where the former tries and fails to use his car's gadgets, and later on gets blocked by an old man in a Fiat.  They stand out because of the more serious portrayal of James Bond during Daniel Craig's tenure, and this very movie is no exception.  Arguably, this just makes the humour funnier, as the jokes' juxtaposition against the rest of the movie's hard-edged tone offers effective contrast.  I don't know about you, but I'd take that over a hundred Roger Moore one-liners.  Quality over quantity, people.

Speaking as a longtime James Bond fan, Spectre left me more confused than anything.  The film attempts to retcon into existence a backstory which links all of the Daniel Craig entries together, when they worked well enough without it.  (Although I will say, the involvement of the Spectre group would make Silva's escape and assassination plot from Skyfall quite a bit more plausible.)  Writers, just because you can use the Spectre name to replace whatever you were building beforehand doesn't mean you should!  But all the same, it doesn't exactly bring those other movies down; it just gives the impression that the writers were making up stuff as they went along.  So, is Spectre still a worthwhile film?  Yes, actually.  The action setpieces are brilliant, the big reveal is built up well, and its musings on the role of intelligence in today's world are still relevant.  So yeah, the fourth-film curse probably does apply here: it may be the worst Daniel Craig film, but by no means is it truly bad.

The Call: 75% (B-)

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Game Review: Crisis Zone

So... that last article left me a little down-hearted.  I certainly didn't expect to praise something else above a Studio Ghibli movie, that's for sure.  But knowing that When Marnie Was There was, potentially, the last movie they'll ever produce makes it even more bittersweet.  Come to think of it, what's so "sweet" about "bittersweet" anyway?  Because I'm feeling pretty dang bitter right now!  Anyway in these trying times, I manage to find solace in the following words: "And now for something completely different".  Let's see, where did I leave off before I got sidetracked with Indie-Cember 2 and the SDP Music Awards?  That's right, I was going through the Time Crisis games!  Yeah, let's get back to that.
Crisis Zone
  • Publisher: Namco
  • Developer: Namco
  • Release:
    • Arcade, March 1999
    • PlayStation 2, 19 October 2004 (as Time Crisis: Crisis Zone)
  • Genre: 3D Action (Rail Shooter)
  • Players: 1
  • Save: Memory Card (80KB)
You know your media franchise has hit the big time when you can afford to make a few spin-off entries.  For Time Crisis, this would be Crisis Zone.  In many ways, it follows the example of Time Crisis 2, the last arcade entry to have been released before.  It's got the same cover-pedal mechanics, and the same health and time rules.  That's not what sets Crisis Zone apart, of course.  What does so, however, is the equipment that your player-character brings with him on his job: a sub-machine gun and a riot shield. And wouldn't you know, they figure into the gameplay itself.

To differentiate itself from the other Time Crisis games, Crisis Zone's arcade cabinet supports one player only, and uses a light-gun controller shaped like a sub-machine gun. Not having to pull the trigger for every shot you wish to fire is no doubt a good thing, especially given how relatively heavy the new controller is.  In addition, each scene in each level is packed with destructible objects which build up score bonuses as you knock them down in quick succession.  However, the game's difficulty is also balanced to account for the inclusion of rapid fire. Whereas most enemies in other Time Crisis games will happily go down with just one bullet, that is generally not the case in Crisis Zone. In fact, just about every enemy, right down to common foot soldiers, have their own lifebars to display how much of their vitals you have to whittle down. I don't mind this per-bullet weakness so much, except there doesn't seem to be any location-specific damage (i.e. more damage for a head shot) as in most shooters.
Destructible scenery is more prevalent here than in other Time Crisis games. (PS2 version.)
You and your team members are also equipped with riot shields. In most Time Crisis games, player-characters generally stick behind one point of cover until they're allowed to move on to the next one. But having a portable shield on hand allows your avatar (and thus, the camera) to move about more freely. It's not player-controlled movement, don't get me wrong; you're still stuck on a fixed path.  Honestly it doesn't affect much as far as gameplay goes, but it's a cool development choice when you think about it, as it leads to an experience that couldn't exactly be emulated by other Time Crisis games.

As for the story, it's pretty much just an excuse plot.  Crisis Zone takes place in a shopping/office park in suburban London, as it gets overrun by a generic pre-9/11 terrorist unit. They get answered by an international defence force which is not VSSE from the other Time Crisis games. You, the player, play as one of their number, a mister Claude McGarren ("Croid McGalain" in the -- likely mistranslated -- arcade version).  The three levels you have to liberate are a shopping mall, a park, and an office building, followed by one final boss level. Each of them lasts about six to eight minutes, so as with the rest of its arcade-based peers, it's not much for first-play length. Unlike the other Time Crisis games, you can play them in any order.  I suppose this is great for those who aren't as good at the game and can't clear any particular level with just one credit, but once you're comfortable with your skills, there's not much reason to do so.

Special weapons return in
the PlayStation 2 edition.
The home version of Crisis Zone came about in 2004, as Time Crisis: Crisis Zone for the PlayStation 2. In addition to the arcade mode and the prerequisite graphics upgrades, this port offers a second story, a "Crisis Mode" with stand-alone challenges, and the option to use two GunCons for dual-wielding action. Come to think of it, this came out at about the same time as Halo 2, which made dual-wielding cool again, so I wouldn't be surprised if Namco had taken cues from whatever preview material was available at the time. Another unlockable feature is the option to use alternate weapons, as in Time Crisis 3. Unlike in TC3, where alternate ammo is limited and must be replenished by shooting special enemies, the handgun and shotgun just need to be reloaded as with usual machine-gun. And remember what I said about the machine-gun being weaker to balance for its rate of fire? Handgun and shotgun rounds are strong enough to drop most enemies in one or two shots, to compensate for their lesser rate of fire. Furthermore, when you have them enabled, there are certain points where you can try out special weapons like rocket launchers, flamethrowers, and even a laser rifle. These segments are brief, but deadly fun. As home rail-shooters go, Time Crisis: Crisis Zone is another great package, and a suitable follow-up to TC3.

As for the arcade game it's based on?  Meh, it's okay.  The machine-gun controller gives it a different feel from its cousins in the Time Crisis series, and the levels are designed around that experience.  These changes don't amount to much in the end, but then again, the formula which Time Crisis II arguably perfected didn't need to be changed any more than it was.  The best way I could describe Crisis Zone is, then, "TCII with a machine gun".  You should be able to form your own opinion on the game based on that statement.

Positives:
+ Plenty of destructible targets.
+ The home edition is loaded with extras.
Negatives:
- No location-specific damage.
- The story is generic.

Control: 4 SMGs out of 5
Design: 4 SMGs out of 5

Value: 3 SMGs out of 5 (Arcade) / 4 SMGs out of 5 (PS2)
Audiovisual: 3 SMGs out of 5 (Arcade) / 4 SMGs out of 5 (PS2)
The Call: 80% (B)

Monday, February 8, 2016

Film Review: When Marnie Was There vs. Inside Out

When Marnie Was There
  • Publisher: Toho (JP), GKIDS / Universal (NA)
  • Studio: Studio Ghibli
  • Genre: Drama
  • Release: 19 July 2014 (JP), 22 May 2015 (NA)
  • Director: Hiromasa Yonebayashi
  • Producers: Yoshiaki Nishimura, Toshio Suzuki
  • Writers: Masashi Andō, Keiko Niwa, Hiromasa Yonebayashi
Inside Out
  • Publisher: Disney
  • Studio: Walt Disney Pictures / Pixar Animation Studios
  • Genre: Comedy / Drama
  • Release: 19 June 2015
  • Directors: Pete Docter, Ronnie del Carmen
  • Producer: Jonas Rivera
  • Writers: Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve, Josh Cooley



Welp, another year, another Academy Awards ceremony.  And you know what that means: they're gonna give the Best Animated Feature award to the Disney/Pixar behemoth.  It happened to Frozen over The Wind Rises, it happened to Big Hero 6 over The Tale of The Princess Kaguya, and odds are it'll happen again.  I've been preparing for the worst, especially since the "big one" of 2015, Pixar's Inside Out, is going up against When Marnie Was There, the last feature film Studio Ghibli may ever make.  In a past article, I told you how I saw Marnie in theatres, despite its limited release, and enjoyed it.  Well, in the interest of voting with my wallet, I refused to do the same for Inside Out, even when they gave it an encore run for Labor Day. Eventually I rented the movie and, I'm ashamed to say it... it was awesome.  But then I realised something: both Marnie and Inside Out tackle the same basic story in different ways.  Marnie focuses on the characters themselves, whereas Inside Out focuses on what's going on inside the main character's mind, with her personified emotions.  So, I thought, now would be the best time to do another joint review on the two movies.  That way, I can pre-empt the Academy more substantially than just a joke at the end of my last article.

In When Marnie Was There, our central character is Anna "no, not that one" Sasaki (EN: Hayley Steinfeld, JP: Sara Takatsuki), a twelve-year-old girl living in Hokkaido, who is shy but loves drawing.  When she suffers an athsma attack, her foster parents send her to live out to a seaside village with her aunt and uncle.  While exploring her new surroundings, she comes across a dilapidated mansion, and in the window, a blonde girl of her age named Marnie (EN: Kiernan Shipka, JP: Kasumi Arimura).  Over the next few nights, she starts spending time with Marnie, building their freindship and uncovering the mysteries behind Marnie's life, as well as her own.

So yeah, Marnie sticks rather closely to the Ghibli playbook.  But, as it turns out, this movie was based on a novel of the same name, written by the British author Joan G. Robinson in 1967.  Studio Ghibli has adopted Western literature before; Howl's Moving Castle and The Secret World of Arietty (a.k.a. The Borrowers) spring to mind.  The central plot device of Marnie, if there is one, is figuring out what the deal is with its titular character.  Is she a real girl?  Is she a ghost?  Is she a figment of Anna's imagination?  Is this the real life?  Is this just fantasy?  Without wishing to spoil, the way they explain all of this in the final act is kind of rushed.  I mean, Anna doesn't even start her investigation into Marnie's past until halfway through the movie!
The feels that Marnie generates are weapons-grade.
But what the film lacks in a good overarcing plot, it makes up for in the individual moments that comprise the plot.  When I was watching, I found myself lost in the emotions of the main characters: joy when they're playing together, sadness when they're sharing their darkest secrets, and bittersweet resignation when it's time for Anna to leave.  (Sort of like Ghibli themselves.)  To put it another way, this is what I wished Frozen was like when reviewed it: it focuses solely on its two main characters and how they develop together.  And I have to give a shout-out to the foley artist, because the sound effects in this movie are amazing.  For some reason, I don't normally notice this sort of thing, but when certain scenes go on without music and even dialog, you have to notice them.  And from the waves lapping at the creaking wood of a rowboat, the sound effects do even more to build upon the ambience of some scenes.

Having re-watched When Marnie Was There, I seem to have enjoyed it less than I did at first.  If it wanted to have the mystery of Marnie be its driving plot thread, they should have spaced out its developments more evenly across the film, rather than bunch them all up near the end.  And some of Anna's behaviours are downright bizarre, although I suppose they do illustrate the gaping void in her mental state that only Marnie can fill.  In conclusion, is it Studio Ghibli's best effort?  Probably not, although they have set the bar so phenomenally high for themselves in the past, mind you.  If you don't mind not having a strong plot to hook you from one scene to the next, and can get by on the scenes themselves, I would still recommend When Marnie Was There.

Meanwhile, in Inside Out, our central character is Riley Andersen (Kaitlyn Dias), an eleven-year-old girl living in Minnesota, who is goofy but honest, and loves hockey.  The difference here is that much of the movie is, in fact, portrayed from the point of view of personified emotions living in her head.  In order of introduction, they are Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), and Anger (Lewis Black).  These emotions control Riley's actions at the appropriate moments, generating memories tied to those emotions.  But then, everything changes when when her family moves to San Francisco.  Due to a series of unfortunate events, Joy and Sadness get stranded together outside their headquarters and must venture back somehow.

The world of Riley's psyche is nothing short of a joy to behold.  Functions of the brain are illustrated in inventive ways, such as the formation of memories, ideas, personality traits, and dreams.  A highlight is when Joy and Sadness wander into a section of Riley's mind where new general ideas abstracted from specific ones.  In the movie, this means that Joy and Sadness are devolved into low-polygon and eventually 2D forms as they try to escape.  Sure, nothing comes about from it in practice and it is never brought up again (making it the movie's "Big Lipped Alligator Moment"), but the process they go through shows great research of psychology on the part of the writers.  I mean, as far as I know about psychology.  We also get to see glimpses of similar mental setups of different characters here and there, each tailored to their own personality.
Inside Out's settings look like they came
straight from the mind of Willy Wonka -- almost literally.
What Inside Out has over Marnie is how it manages to create suspence to hook the viewer in.  For example, in Riley's head there exist five "personality islands", depicting her interests and personality traits.  Over the course of her mental breakdown, the island crumble into the bottomless pit below.  We are told that whatever falls down there, i.e. memories that are no longer needed, can never return.  But later on in the story, Joy falls down there herself, where said pit is decidedly non-bottomless, and of course she comes back out of it.  And of course she does it with the help of someone who sacrifices himself to let her escape.  So, it would seem that Inside Out isn't above employing the odd sappy cliche here and there, albeit rarely.  Although I will give them credit for actually showing her eventual mode of egress falling into the pit earlier on.  Let that be but one example of Pixar's attention to detail.

While I'm nitpicking, isn't it a bit lopsided for Riley to have one "positive" emotion, namely Joy, and four "negative" ones, especially when the one Joy gets stuck with, Sadness, has a bad habit of converting memories to sad ones by touching them?  To the film's credit, and without wishing to spoil, they do address this.  Speaking of the emotions, one of the most important things to keep in mind when assembling a cast of voice actors is for each actor to sound distinct from one another.  I'm proud to say that this is another of Inside Out's strengths.  Amy Poehler was perfectly cast as Joy, although I did love her on Saturday Night Live to begin with.  The other emotion characters also manage to bring their titular personality traits through by their voice alone.

My prejudices against CG animation being what they are, "pleasantly surprised" doesn't begin to describe my experience with Inside Out.  Mind you, Marnie managed to get those emotions across to the viewer without needing to personify them.  But if you ask me, Inside Out had the better story, and getting to witness such creative sights along the way was a bonus.  There are a few stupid or silly moments to nitpick, but they are rare and don't represent the film as a whole.  All things considered, I would recommend both films for different reasons.  If you want straight-up, weapons-grade feels, try out When Marnie Was There.  If you want a gripping story to go with those feels, go with Inside Out.  It's a big world out there, certainly big enough for both of them.
When Marnie Was There
Positives:
+ Individual scenes are packed with emotion.
+ Deals with a number of complex themes.
+ Brilliant sound-effect work.
Negatives:
- For less patient viewers, it lacks a suspenceful hook.
- Retreads more than a few story tropes covered by past Ghibli films.
- The rushed conclusion.

Acting: 4 out of 5
Writing: 3 out of 5
Design: 4 out of 5
Audiovisual: 5 out of 5
The Call: 80% (B)
Inside Out
Positives:
+ Well-researched and creative interpretations of the brain's functions.
+ Terriffic voice-acting that complements each character's personality.
Negatives:
- It has a few minor plot holes.

Acting: 5 out of 5
Writing: 4 out of 5
Design: 5 out of 5
Audiovisual: 5 out of 5
The Call: 95% (A)


In the end, I may not like to admit it, but not only do I think Inside Out is the better movie, I probably wouldn't lose sleep if it won the Best Animated Feature Oscar.  But that's not the whole story.  There's this thing called the Annie Awards, which has been going on since 1972, and honours animation in movies, television, and even video games.  Ghibli's movies have been nominated for the Annie's Best Animated Feature awards several times over, and just like in the Oscars, failed to actually win.

But this time around, for the 43rd Annie Awards held on 6 February 2016, they added a new category: "Best Animated Feature - Independent", and I'm glad they did.  This means that films with lower profiles but bigger hearts don't have to compete against our mainstream monstrosities.  Not that such "mainstream monstrosities" can't also have heart, as we learned in this article.  But the important thing is that now, for once, the underdogs have a more level playing field.

Oh, and for the record, the winner of the independent award was the Brazilian feature Boy and the World.  It looks great, but given the fate of Studio Ghibli, I can't help but feel a little disappointed...  Studio Ghibli may be dead, or just in a coma depending on whim you talk to, but another door to the wider world of animation is opening to us.  Let's keep opening more doors, shall we?

This is IchigoRyu.

You are the resistance.