Friday, November 11, 2011

Film Review: Airplane II The Sequel

Airplane II: The Sequel
  • Publisher: Paramount
  • Production Studio: Paramount
  • Release: 10 December 1982
  • Director: Ken Finkleman
  • Producer: Howard J. Koch
  • Writer: Ken Winkleman
The 1980 movie Airplane! proved itself to be a landmark in the history of comedy. And yet, it's tough to pinpoint what makes it all work, other than the fact that you'll be laughing every step of the way. This x-factor has become even tougher to define given all those who have tried to emulate it and failed. Anyone who's familiar with the names Seltzer and Friedberg know what I'm talking about. But in case you didn't know... they made a sequel, with the very meta title Airplane II: The Sequel. Is this a worthy successor to the comedy crown, or does it deserve instead to be tossed into the ever-expanding peanut gallery?

Despite the rapid-fire comedy assaulting you at all times, there is a plot to be had, although since it's spelled out in bits and pieces throughout, I might as well give it to you straight now. Ted Striker (Robert Hays) has received great fame after his daring, life-saving landing in the first film. Eventually, he was hired to test-pilot a space shuttle called the Mayflower, only to have it crash. While the damage was supposedly caused by a hardware failure, the company used Ted as a fall guy and, after a trial, he was ruled as mentally insane. He is committed in an asylum until he learns that the Mayflower is about to embark on its maiden voyage to a moon colony, and breaks out to warn the passengers and crew, including his now-ex-girlfriend Elaine (Julie Hagerty).

The Mayflower takes off, with no incidents until ROC, the on-board computer, suffers a short-circuit and locks the shuttle on course to the sun. In their attempts to manually disable ROC's systems, co-pilot Unger and navigator Dunn are forced out of the airlock, and the pilot, returning Captain Oveur (Peter Graves), is nerve-gassed. So once again, Striker is drafted to take over for the pilots, with McCroskey (Lloyd Bridges) providing radio support, but this time he can't do much for himself until ROC is disabled. Then things get complicated when passenger Joe Seluchi (Sonny Bono) intends to detonate a suicide bomb in order to give his family (what he thinks is) life insurance money, but Striker confiscates it and uses (part of?) the explosives to "blow ROC" (their words, not mine) and high-tail it to the moon.

Waiting for him on the radio is the Captain of the lunar base, Buck Murdock (William Shatner), who unfortunately for Striker was involved in a bungled mission from "the war" (apparently not the same mission referred to in the first movie). But Striker is able to get over his past, and manages a safe crash-landing on the moon's surface, where somehow there is gravity and breathable air. Ladies and gentlemen, they just didn't care. So Ted and Elaine get married, and Seluchi asks for his briefcase back. You are now free to turn off your TV. So as you can see, the plot is very much a clone of the original movie's -- IN SPAAACE!! Even though the original's directors (Jim Abrams, David & Jerry Zucker) were not involved in the project, the powers that were at least were nice enough to bring back the original cast.

So does the humour set this sequel apart? It's true that some of the gags were recycled from the original. For example, in the trial flashback alone, passengers from the first movie (the Jive-as-a-second-language talker and the hysterical woman who needs sense literally beaten into her) provide testimony and replay their famous schticks. On the pop-culture side of things, while this is (thankfully) neither of the Airplane movies' strong suits, there are thinly-veiled allusions to sci-fi fare this time around, some more recent (Star Wars) than others (2001: A Space Oddysey). At the very least, I can't blame the writers for having a memory span no longer than a couple of years, unlike some guys I know.

If I could pick one point that the original Airplane! did best, it would be its ability to look at everyday occurrences, portray them in an absurdist manner, and I can't help feeling I've discussed this before. Welp, you'll be pleased to hear that Airplane II: The Sequel also has this in spades. If it takes a lot of creativity to invent gags like the spaceport's information desk which gives out increasingly non-spaceport-related information, the barrels of flammable material reading "Explosive / Dynamite / Brilliant / A Must-See", or the machine in Murdock's moon base which does nothing other than send lights back and forth across a series of tubes, then I'll certainly applaud the effort, given the alternatives. (Although given the one where visibly heavily-armed raider-types pass through a metal detector and are ignored, in retrospect this isn't always a good thing.) Too bad this sort of humour was already pioneered by the first movie.

Come to think of it, Airplane II is a retread of the original in many other ways. The characters - whether the same people or just similar roles - are recycled, and numerous events follow the same structure. (At least they made a joke about this sort of thing: at one point McCroskey poses next a portrait depicting him doing the same thing next to another portrait of him doing the same thing, muttering, "Things sure haven't changed.") It gets to the point where it's almost the same exact movie, only set in space - and they couldn't even get that part right. It's true the content of the jokes is different, and if that's enough to get you to like this, then more power to ya. But like the Airport series it set out to parody, Airplane! sadly is not immune to a formula-induced sequel slump.

Acting: 4 space shuttles out of 5
Writing: 3 space shuttles out of 5
Special Effects: 3 space shuttles out of 5
The Call: 70% (C+)

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Game Review: Initial D Special Stage

Initial D: Special Stage
  • Publisher: Sega
  • Developer: Sega Rosso
  • Release: PlayStation 2, 26 June 2003 (Japan)
  • Genre: Racing
  • Players: 1
  • Save: Memory Card, 230 KB
  • Rarity/Cost: Uncommon, US$20-40

(This review was updated on 14 August 2013.)

With home console video games gaining so much relevance over the past decade, the only way for arcades to catch up was to employ gimmicks of all sorts. One such gimmick was employed by Sega's Initial D Arcade Stage series from the early-to-mid 2000s. These racing games let you purchase a "memory card" of sorts, a thin, cardboardy-type dealie which would save your stats and upgrades to your car. This proved to be a big draw for me once I got into it. Being a good licenced game (based on a manga and anime franchise) was only icing on the cake.  Sadly, by the time I did get into the Arcade Stage games, its popularity in America was supplanted by the The Fast and the Furious series by Raw Thrills, a spiritual successor to Crusin' USA.  While it had a similar game-save mechanic, and despite my resignations I still pumped in numerous credits to the games, I found it to be a basic, unpolished, unfulfilling alternative to Initial D once arcades started replacing it with this Americanised tripe.  The good news is that Sega saw fit to make a home version of the games, in the form of Initial D Special Stage for the PlayStation 2. The bad news... it was only released in Japan. ...Pfft, like that's gonna stop me!

Initial D started life in 1996 as a manga series written and drawn by Shuichi Shigeno. The universe of Initial D centers around Takumi Fujiwara, a teenager who develops spectacular driving skills from working for his father's tofu shop, and reluctantly enters the world of touge racing, one-on-one duels on Japan's winding mountain roads.  Through his years of driving experience, he transforms his car, a sleeper Toyota, into the stuff of legends among his friends and rivals.  In fact, the popularity of this franchise has given renewed fame to drift racing, and Takumi’s car in particular, the Sprinter-Trueno, also known by its chassis code "AE-86" or just "86", or as the Corolla in the US.

Special Stage lets you live the action in three ways. The "Legend of the Streets" mode is identical to the arcade experience. There's also the "Story Mode", a series of thirty or so scenarios which re-create scenes from the manga, and “Time Attack”, where you can run through courses without opponents or even a time limit. The other choices available from the main menu are the Replay Theatre, Koichiro’s Car Museum, which plays demos of the game’s various cars with a Japanese narration about the car, Save and Load controls, and other Options. Also, unlike in most Japanese PlayStation games, you can move forward in menus by pressing the X button as well as Circle, whereas Triangle and Square take you backwards.

I’ll start with the Arcade mode. On the first menu, you have a choice of setting up a new profile, or loading an existing profile from the garage. You get to pick your car from brands like Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Mitsubishi, and others, and change body colours by pressing Up or Down. Then you get to choose an upgrade course. Playing races, win or lose, earns you upgrade points, which are used to add modifications to your car at certain milestones. These mods are mainly of the decorative variety, but it helps create a sort of bond between you and your virtual car. And this, ladies and gentlemen, is why I grew addicted to the arcade version, but on a home console where you're not charged a dollar a game, I have to say the impact isn't quite as profound. Once that’s done, you have to set up your name, which uses katakana symbols by default but also supports Latin letters.

Now, you get to take on challengers at your leisure. Only six courses are available in Arcade mode, and of them, only two are circuit tracks where you have to do laps. All the others are one-way courses, driven either uphill or downhill. And let me tell ya, there’s a huge difference between driving the same course up- or downhill. Not only will the turns come at you in reverse order, but your car will accelerate differently depending on whether it’s going up or down, so the limited track selection becomes less of an issue.

Not all Story missions involve straight racing.
In Story Mode, you are given a series of 30-odd missions which roughly replicate events from the manga. The missions are book-ended panels from the manga and Japanese voicovers, which you can thankfully skip over. Not all these missions require you to finish ahead of the other guy, so a little experience reading Japanese would be useful after all.  Or you could just find an FAQ online or, when all else fails, do it trial-and-error.  For example, the first mission puts you on a solo run where you have to drift in order to avoid spilling water from a cup, as depicted by an on-screen meter. And this being the first mission, of course it’s easier than it’s depicted in the comics, or in real life for that matter.

Finally, there’s Time Attack. You use the same car profiles and courses as in the Arcade mode, but you have control over what direction you want to run in, the time of day, the weather, and finally you can load a ghost of a previous run from your Memory Card. Since the events in the Arcade and Story modes utilise night and/or rain versions of the tracks, Time Attack mode is a stress-free way to practice anything that’s been giving you trouble. Sadly, there are no multiplayer offerings in this game. Unless you wanna take turns in Time Attack or something, and compete for the best time.

The controls are simple enough; X is Throttle, Square is Brake, yada-yada.  The buttons can also be manually assigned, although I’m bamboozled as to why there’s no rear-view button but there is a button to turn the headlights on and off. The racing discipline exhibited in the likes of Initial D is commonly misattributed as drift racing, but to be honest, that's not too far off the mark.  Special Stage's physics engine allows you to break into a drift rather easily. Most high-speed turns are enough to generate some smoke from the tyres, but in order to truly take on the corners without dropping precious revs, you’ll have to develop your own technique.  One method I developed is to rapidly shift down and back up, so in order to master the more technical maneuvers, get used to playing with manual transmission enabled.  Of course, you still have to brake ahead of sharper turns, so it’s better off to start out playing Gran-Turismo style and developing your skills from there. All things considered, the handling in Special Stage straddles the line between simulation and true arcade-style control.

It's easy to break into drifts.
The assortment of playable cars, predominantly composed of Japanese mid-90s models, doesn't offer a lot of variety in practice. The only statistic that has any major effect on a car's handling is whether it runs on a front-wheel, rear-wheel, or 4-wheel drive platform. On the bright side, you're not likely to screw yourself over by picking an inferior car, but anyone who's familiar with Gran Turismo should find it odd that in this game, it's entirely possible for a lowly Suzuki Cappuchino to defeat a mighty Nissan Skyline, despite a four-to-one disparity in horsepower alone.
The graphics in Special Stage pretty much reach the bar set by high-end PS2 titles from a few years prior.  It does run smoothly in 60 frames per second, but doesn't do much else of note, not that it needs to anyway. Shigeno-san's illustrations are featured in character portraits and on the loading screens; regardless of whether you like his art style, it’s nice that they worked it in, to give the game some personality. The collision model is a potential point of contention, however; depending on how you hit the other car, you may be able to slingshot past it, or him past you. Staying true to the spirit of the anime (and presumably, touge culture in general), the soundtrack is composed of licenced Eurobeat songs. As a critic I'm not supposed to account for taste, so I'll instead warn you that this high-tempo, poppy material may not be for everyone (even if it is, contrary to popular belief, sung in English).

In fact, you could make a similar argument for the game itself. It’s not just that the language barrier is a little steep; at the least, knowing the katakana letters will be a big help. Given the unique techniques one needs to learn in order to perform best in this game, and no training mode to speak of, the learning curve will come across as sharper if your racing game experience leans more toward Mario Kart than Gran Turismo. But make no mistake - Initial D Special Stage is great at what it does, and is worth putting on your list especially if you're a racing pro, or if you're looking to get your feet wet in the waters of import gaming.

Japanese: 4 kanji out of 5
Graphics: 4 stars out of 5
Sound: 4 stars out of 5
Control: 4 stars out of 5
Design: 5 stars out of 5
The Call: 85% (B+)

Monday, November 7, 2011

Film Review: The Master Of Disguise

The Master of Disguise
  • Publisher: Columbia
  • Studio: Revolution / Happy Gilmore
  • Release: 2 August 2002
  • Genre: Comedy
  • Director: Perry Andelin Blake
  • Producers: Barry Bernardi, Sid Ganis,  Todd Garner, Adam Sandler, Alex Siskin
  • Writers: Dana Carvey, Harris Goldberg
Dana Carvey is a genius. Whilst writing the script for his 2002 "family" film The Master of Disguise, he must have realised that the main character he was playing had become so annoying, that he decided to have him take on all manner of other personae, so as to distract the audience from its initial displeasure. At least, that's what I'd like to think happened. But even if this was true, in practice it didn't work out so well. On the contrary -- every new character that Dana Carvey portrays only serves to bug his viewers even more.

So what character could draw out so much ire? Well, it starts out with the Disguisey (pronounced dis-guy-see) family, a Sicilian-based clan whose members fought crime since the Renaissance by impersonating various people and objects with great talent. One such Disguisey, Fabbrizio (James Brolin), was responsible for the previous arrest of our villain, Devlin Bowman (Brent Spiner) by disguising himself as... Bo Derek. Let that set the tone for the rest of the film. So even though Bowman does 20 years, Fabbrizio fears for the safety of his family, and decides to settle in America and run an Italian restaurant. A word to the wise: this film hosts some of the worst Italian stereotypes this side of Jersey Shore. (I know it's a dead horse to beat on, but at least it's a more acceptable target than Hetalia, amirite?)

Fast-forward a couple of decades, and we are introduced to our ostensible hero: Pistachio Disguisey (Carvey). In literally the first shot we see him in, he's wearing underpants on his head and a shaving-cream beard. Let that also set the tone for this film. Working as a waiter in his father's restaurant, he is a well-meaning worker, but is clumsy and has an out-of-control habit of mimicking other people's voices. I call plot significance! And his voice, oh Sabrina help me! Take the worst stereotypical Italian accent you've heard, spoken from the mouth of a meth-charged five-year-old. Yeah, I just broke you. So the newly-freed Bowman has Pistachio's parents kidnapped, and the one man who comes to help him is his grandfather (Harold Gould), who teaches him the Disguisey legacy and begins his training. And I'm sorry to say that Bowman has a running "gag" of... letting his bowels play the trumpet during his multiple evil laughs. Because... funny?

Meanwhile, Fabbrizio is blackmailed by Bowman into coming out of retirement and using his disguise powers to "borrow" all matter of national treasures. He takes the Declaration of Independence as Olympic runner Michael Johnson, the Liberty Bell as then-governor of Minnesota Jesse Ventura, and the Apollo 11 lunar lander as Jessica Simpson (all played as themselves). ...Sensing a pattern here? For those playing at home, these pop-culture references date this film horribly. Anyone who's familiar with Usain Bolt or Arnold Schwarzenegger knows what I'm talking about. On the plus side, they did add some homages to "classic" material like 10 (the aforementioned Bo Derek cameo), The Exorcist, and Jaws. You know, for the parents -- who are the only ones who would get them in the first place. Oh, and if National Treasure is to be believed, these items are being held in completely fake buildings, but I digress.

Sadly, back to Pistachio. Turns out costuming is only part of the game; a Disguisey can only attain a perfect disguise by copying their voice personality, thanks to the magical force known as "Energico". (I can has creativity plz?) Seriously, while I can admire them addressing the finer needs of disguise-acting, the name "Energico" is too silly to make me care. His training also involves the Disguisey method of self-defence which, in a transparent effort to soften any potential violence, involves open-hand slapping instead of punching, in conjunction with copious (mis)use of the phrase "who's your daddy". Oh, and he needs an assistant, too: enter Jennifer Baker (Jennifer Esposito), a single mother who was introduced to Pistachio by her son. She follows a long list of appilcants whom Grandfather Disguisey dismisses for no apparent reason, but is given the job despite his and Pistachio's mutual desire for a mate with a well-stocked caboose, which she happens to lack. But she does prove a refreshing serious foil to her new co-worker; with her help, Pistachio follows Bowman's trail to the "Turtle Club" the not-Antiques Roadshow, and finally Bowman's villa.

Oh, but I skipped over the worst part: the disguises used in these places. Pistachio apparently mis-understood what the name "Turtle Club" entailed, because he dresses up in a giant turtle shell. Because... funny? When they finally meet Bowman at the antiques convention, Pistachio starts hitting on him as the pepperpot-like Gammy Num Nums, but for no reason s/he waffles and starts insulting him, leading to this line: "Well, guess what, Backstreet Boy! This is one Girl Scout who doesn't want to be the Malcolm in your Middle!" That... Impossibly, that was dated from the moment s/he said it. By 2002, the Backstreet Boys had (temporarily) broken up, and whether or not you think Malcolm in the Middle was culturally relevant, it getting cancelled a few years after the fact didn't help matters! And it fails as a sexual entendre, too... just think about that. Or not.

Despite Pistachio's best efforts, he and Jennifer get invited to Bowman's place for a party. Jennifer does some snooping in his house, whilst Pistachio distracts Bowman with such disguises as not-Tony Montana from Scarface, not-Captain Quint from Jaws, and... a grass suit with a cow pie on top. Because... funny? Never mind how, but Pistachio loses Bowman's henchmen in a brief foot chase which takes them back to the city's Italian district (which is how far away, might I ask?), only to go back and retrieve Jennifer from Bowman's custody. Oh, and there's some sub-plot involving Jennifer's ex-boyfriend. In theory, Pistachio having to deal with him would have given some character development in helping him become a man. But I can't get one thought out of my head: were they still dating? If so, then the other guy might be a jerk, but I'd still root for him. Anything to get rid of that tool Pistachio.

And yet despite this alleged character development, Pistachio has run out of leads on Bowman and Jennifer was re-captured, so he contacts his grandfather via Energico, who encourages him to run one last raid on Bowman's estate. A few tepid action sequences are interspersed with Bowman outlining his evil plan to some anonymous suits: sell the treasures acquired by Fabbrizio on a website called - prepare yourself - "BlackMarkEBay". I tell ya, the stupid coming out of the movie is just tangible. And not even a cameo from Kenan Thompson can save it. To top it off, Bowman has permanently affixed a mask of himself onto Fabbrizio, locked him into his own persona by somehow applying the dark side of Energico (exactly like Star Wars - and those are Pistachio's words, not mine), and sics him on his own son. I admit this is a pleasantly dark turn, I mean, if this were to succeed, how could Fabbrizio live with the pain of killing his own son? But of course that doesn't happen. Pistachio snaps his father out of his evil mode by evoking the underwear-on-head gag from the beginning of the movie. *sigh* Pretty flimsy conclusion to a flimsy movie...


Bowman is still at large, and the reunited Disguiseys track him to a resort in Costa Rica (filmed in the Bahamas). Point man Pistachio confronts him as - get this -- George W. Bush. To give you one last idea of how dated this movie is, if it were done just a couple of years later, everyone in Hollywood would've hated Dubya too much to pull off a scene like this. So Pistachio knocks Bowman into the pool, and he doesn't get up. Wait a minute, did he drown? All we get is one last, loud... um, "bubble", you tell me. Does this man have super drowning skills or something? Welp, no sense dwelling on those tribbles -- the movie's over, technically. Should some indescribable force compel you to stay in your seat of choice, the entire credits sequence is loaded with all manner of outtakes and deleted scenes. Thank you, Columbia Pictures, for giving us an excuse not to buy the DVD.

Please allow me to retract my opening statement: Dana Carvey is an idiot, albeit a thoughtful, well-meaning idiot. His man-child performance somehow manages to shine through no matter what character he plays. The plot? Sure, there could be potential in a serious screenplay with a similar premise, but the juvenile execution takes you out of it. And for a family comedy, whatever humour isn't off-colour (which sadly makes up a good chunk of the material) just falls flat. Pistachio Disguisey, your art had better be up to snuff, because you deserve to be hunted down for this travesty.

Acting: 1 disguise out of 5
Writing: 1 disguise out of 5
Special Effects: 2 disguises out of 5
The Call: 25% (F)

Next Episode: I admit I'm running low on things to review, but I do have one for another import game lined up next. Also, since this blog is edging close to two thousand pageviews, I am pleased to report that a video version of the Strawberry Dragon Project is in production. Look for the pilot episode sometime before the end of 2011.