Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Top 64 N64 Games #64 - 57


Exactly twelve years ago on September 29th, 1996, Nintendo released their third home console, the much-hyped Nintendo 64, alongside Super Mario 64 and Pilotwings. When I first played Super Mario 64 at a public store demo I couldn't even fucking believe what I was seeing; running around in a fully three-dimensional environment, jumping and flipping and sliding in every axis of motion, it was like playing a cartoon, it was better than seeing tits for the first time. I knew right then that the world would never be the same.

But all was not well in Nintendo land; a foul portent hung in the air. The Big N had managed to conquer the threat of the Sega Genesis in the 16-bit era (a blow from which Sega would never fully recover and eventually fold as a hardware manufacturer in 2001), but the Nintendo 64 found itself under siege from the Sony Playstation, a deadly siege indeed that relegated Nintendo to second and then to third place in the console wars until finally regaining their lead with the Wii a full decade later. Why did the Playstation outsell the N64 by such colossal margins? I see two major reasons:

1. Marketing. In the 16-bit console war, Sega briefly managed to gain on Nintendo by advertising the Genesis as the cool kids' system, whereas Super Nintendo was the little kids' system. Sony took that concept several levels of magnitude further, painting Nintendo 64 as a toy for kids, period, while marketing their own system as a sleek entertainment package for all ages. Adults bought the PS1 in unprecedented numbers and kids emulated the grown-ups, peeling off from Nintendo in droves. The fact that Nintendo's primary financial IV during these years was Pokémon did little to alleviate this kiddy image, and although they are again financially on top the specter of this marketing campaign continues to haunt the Big N to this day.

2. CD-based technology. Playstation opted for CDs. Fearing load times, Nintendo opted for a third round of cartridges. It was and is an incredibly controversial decision to this day that caused several previously Nintendo-centric developers like Capcom, Konami, and Squaresoft to embrace cheaper and easier CD-based development. NES and Super NES franchises with names like Mega Man X, Castlevania, Metal Gear, Street Fighter, and (perhaps most crushingly) Final Fantasy suddenly became Sony franchises alongside new hit series like Resident Evil, Tomb Raider, and Spyro the Dragon. Nintendo found themselves leaning primarily on their own IPs and those of Rare, and long story short, the system just didn't have that many games. Probably about a quarter of what Playstation had, and being cartridges, they cost much more to produce. It just became hard to keep up financially.

All that said, I fucking love my Nintendo 64. It's one of my favorite systems of all time, and I have a pretty nice collection to prove it. I played it nonstop from 5th to 10th grade and the very sight of its rounded black plastic casing sends me cascading back through a blissful half-decade of early 3D gaming, hazy and clouded yet highly fond memories of a time long past when Mario, Zelda, James Bond, and Star Wars were the most important things on earth. So I figured what better way to pay tribute to the 64's twelfth birthday than a list of the top 64 N64 games?

Usual disclaimers apply - this of course a 100% biased list, and certain genres will receive minimal representation (sorry sports games). And I haven't played everything; hell, I still find NES and Super NES and PS1 and Genesis gems to this day I was fully unaware of, and I'm totally open to the idea there's some stellar N64 games I just flat-out haven't played. But I've done the best I can. That said, I will admit that due to the previously discussed relatively small pool of games to choose from there's some definite mediocrity towards the bottom tiers of this list. But trudge through, brave soldier, for there is brilliant, golden light at the end of the tunnel. Golden showers, if you will. Let's get the extended love letter to N64 started:

64. Mega Man 64 (2001)


Pros: Mega Man 64 is actually a direct port of a Playstation game from a few years previous, Mega Man Legends, a game that fuses the Blue Bomber's running, jumping, and shooting roots with what we now know as Zelda formula. There's a big overworld, lots of dungeons you go to one at a time with treasure chests and items and bosses at the end, towns to visit with stuff to buy and people to talk to, and a plot that unravels propelling you from one dungeon and action set piece to the next. Adventure gaming 101.

Cons: That being said, if Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon is the poor man's Zelda, Mega Man 64 is the impoverished Ugandan orphan's Zelda. The dungeons are all incredibly drab, the puzzles are bland and methodical, and the whole thing plays out with a sense of tedious inevitability. When I play Mega Man, I want hyperactive music, awesome bosses, intense platforming, and hordes of bad guys to shoot - this game has none of those things, just lots of plodding through empty overworlds. Also, the game wasn't really pretty in 1998 on Playstation, in 2001, the graphics looked positively primeval.

63. Quest 64 (1998)


Pros: One of only five RPGs on the N64 (along with Aidyn Chronicles: The First Mage, less a game and more a harlequin fetus-esque tragedy, and three more we'll discuss later), Quest 64 finally brought turn based fighting and level gaining and casting spells to the N64. The world is bright and colorful and free to explore, and the combat system - involving laying out fields of movement for you and the bad guys and having you strategize on where to best land hits from - interestingly elaborates on simple menu-scrolling RPG fights. The music isn't bad either. I've seen several people on message boards enthusiastically defend it as an underappreciated gem.

Cons: Quest 64 has absolutely no cut scenes, character development, puzzles, or mini-games. You are given a plot objective in the 30-second opening dialogue sequence ("Go kill bad guy"), and from there on the game has arguably less depth than the original console RPG, Dragon Warrior on the NES. The game just has no fucking personality, let alone any sense of style. It's a shame, because the battle system is honestly original, but put up against the 60-hour densely-plotted FMV-packed techno-fantasy mega-epic Final Fantasy VII that had come out on the Playstation over a year beforehand, it was more than a little embarrassing that this was what N64-owning RPG fans had to settle for.

62. Tetrisphere (1997)


Pros: One of the first attempts to do a full 3D puzzle game (you still don't see too many of these), Tetrisphere took some of the fundamentals of standard 2D Tetris and wrapped them around a ball. Like its younger cousin the game involves you finding where to fit four-block pieces to make other tetrominos disappear, knocking out layers, and cutting your way to the bottom of the stack (or in this case the core of the sphere). It's pretty amusing, and the techno music is pretty sick.

Cons: Amusing, but nowhere near as sublime and classic as its traditional 2D cousin. It's a novelty - a fun one, to be certain, but indisputably a novelty - and I challenge anyone to play it for more than an hour without succumbing to the desire to put in regular Tetris (be it on NES, N64, or Nintendo DS) and play the REAL game.

61. BattleTanx (1998)


Pros: Within two seconds of starting this game you're told that a plague killed 99.9% of the world's women and the few remaining women are now fought over like countries. So legions of tanks go to war over them. That's fucking hilarious. That's like the best premise I've ever heard, and alone wins the game several points. As for the gameplay itself, it's a fairly amusing swirl of pretty mindless destruction; there's not too much subtlety or variety, but you shoot the shit out of lots of tanks and can also blow up pretty much every building in your path.

Cons: But there's ultimately not too much depth. Once you've played the first few levels you've pretty much experienced exactly what every level is going to be like, just with slightly different layouts and slightly more difficult ratios of enemy tanks.

60. Gauntlet Legends (1998)


Pros: Who doesn't enjoy a little bit of hack and slash action? Gauntlet Legends hews fairly closely to its roots going all the way back to the 1985 Gauntlet arcade game and NES port; you take control of one of four fantasy-themed warriors (ideally the scantily-clad Valkyrie, as to prevent allegations of your same-sex tendencies amongst your friends) and violently slash your way through several levels and the legions of zombies and goblins therein. And that's pretty much it. It's brainless but fun - especially if you have the full four players.

Cons: That said, if you don't have at least two players, it can get real monotonous real fast. There's not too much thinking, just a lot of fighting fighting fighting, and it's meant to be played with a friend. It's a lot like Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles in that way.

59. Chameleon Twist (1997)


Pros: One thing I'll complain about in this list is that too many post-Super Mario 64 platformers ripped off that game's idea of collecting items spread about worlds and pushed it to absurd lengths with overly sprawling levels and hundreds of doo-dads to collect. Chameleon Twist refreshingly rejects all of that. It's the rare post-Super Mario 64 3D platformer that just has a series of levels and the only goal is to get from one end to the other. Stripped-down, stress-free fun. You play a lizard and there's this pretty neat game mechanic where you use your long lizard tongue to grab poles and swing around them like you're Indiana Jones or some shit. When I rented it back in '97 I found it fun enough to play through the whole game in one or two sittings.

Cons: That said, it's strictly by the numbers in every aesthetic way. Drab, flat visuals with tons of sprites, strictly utilitarian music, no real innovative elements in the level designs. Like many games of the 8 and 16-bit eras that tried to be Super Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog, it's platforming paint-by-numbers, not incompetent, but not special.

58. Star Wars: Battle for Naboo (2000)


Pros: The game is kind of an unofficial sequel to Star Wars: Rogue Squadron, and like most Star Wars flight sims is pretty entertaining to play. You fly around and shoot down enemies with very good graphics all set to John Williams music. A fun time.

Cons: But I didn't find it to be nearly as likable as Rogue Squadron, which had you criss-crossing the galaxy in tons of different settings going on all kinds of neat Rebel Alliance missions. Here there's just the endless grass plains of Naboo and instead of the Galactic Empire you're facing off against Episode I's Trade Fedetation, a downgrade that's about as jarring and unpleasant as waking up to find your girlfriend's been replaced by a Komodo dragon. It's certainly not bad on any level, but as with the relationship between Tetrisphere and Tetris, more than anything else Battle for Naboo makes me say "This is fun, but you know what might really hit the spot? Rogue Squadron," and pop that game in instead.

57. Pokémon Snap (1999)


Pros: Now this is an original game. You're on safari on an exotic island armed only with a camera and some apples and have to take photographs of as many Pokémon as you can. You're then graded on your photography based on how large the Pokémon is in frame, how well they're facing the camera, how many of them you can group together, and whether or not you can catch them using their elemental powers. You have to manipulate your environment and figure out where to find the Pokémon, how to get them to emerge, and how best to goad them into using their powers, giving it a neat puzzle element. Honestly, it's a GREAT idea, but -

Cons: The problem is that rather than being one huge, free-roaming island for you to explore at length, you're set on several on-rails levels. This robs the game of what could have been a neat element of adventure, exploration, and discovery, and while it does allow you to really hone those levels, it also undermines the potential of a neat idea and a neat photography engine. If they made a downloadable sequel for WiiWare that actually let you roam the island and manipulate the environment with the Wiimote Elebits-style, now that would be a whole different story. Also, only 60-something of the original 151 Pokémon appear in the game. Weak.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Righteous Kill



"Mediocre" is the word for Righteous Kill, a strictly by-the-numbers cop drama / murder mystery which plays out like an unnecessarily blown-up episode of Law & Order. It's basically about - oh, wait, that's right, no one (including the filmmakers it seems) gives a shit what it's about, just that it's starring Al Pacino and Robert De Niro and they share nearly every scene. So how are they?

Okay, I guess. The two acting titans both have undeniably powerful screen presence and watching them chew the same scenery is a bloody feast indeed. But they mostly play exactly into the hands of their own stereotypes - Pacino's voice rasps out behind some sickening amount of gravel as if he's a near-death throat cancer victim, while De Niro carries his trademark squint for damn near every frame. It's entertaining, yes, but would I call either a great performance one second after the credits begin to roll? Not in the least.

But getting back to the plot, Pacino and De Niro play two NYPD cops (god damn is this movie original or what??) assigned to track down a serial killer who offs criminals. That's pretty much it. And the plot unfolds like a million and one movies before it; rigid, unyielding, and painfully predictable clockwork. That's not to say it's out-and-out bad necessarily, because formula by and large becomes formula because it works at least to some degree, but holy fucking shit is it predictable. The final twist is nothing short of insulting. Here, watch the trailer. Now guess the final twist. The first, most absurdly obvious thing you can think of. Yep, that's it.

It's almost a meta-twist because it's SO fucking obvious I didn't even think they'd go there, but fuck me I guess. I'm kind of surprised it's from the writer of Inside Man; I had a few problem with that movie but one thing it wasn't was predictable.

But perhaps more so than the plot I was bothered by the tone, dark and gritty to the point of becoming comical, hurling as much profanity, sexual deviancy, rape, gruesome murder, blood, drugs, and everything else at the wall as they could, hoping some of it will stick and make their movie edgy and badass like Se7en. Of course none of those elements bother me - no one is more desensitized than I am - but at a certain point it just becomes truly juvenile, like a grade schooler who just learned to swear or something. An odd criticism for me to be making of a movie where the average actor age is easily twice my own, but by the end I was literally rolling my eyes. Nonstop cocaine and headshots and profanity doesn't make your movie super cool, Righteous Kill director, it just makes you look like a child.

So all in all, unless you fucking live for Al Pacino or Robert De Niro or just have such a hard-on for cop thrillers you have to see them all, Righteous Kill just ain't righteous. Save your time and money.


2 Stars out of 5

Burn After Reading



The Coens' latest, Burn After Reading, swings hard away from the scorching dramatic thriller that was No Country for Old Men and instead delivers a largely delightful tribute to absurdity, stupidity, and pointlessness, skewering the stuffiness of CIA thrillers and then twisting the knife. It's one of the best and arguably the cleverest comedy of the year.

The film centers around a good old-fashioned MacGuffin (in this case a misplaced CD full of what appears to be "secret CIA shit"), the pursuit for it, the people who get their hands on it, and the blackmail, spying, and death that ensues. The plot could be that of a drama if it weren't for the fact that the people who get ahold of the CD are idiots. Fucking retards. Absolute boneheads who quickly end up way over their heads and drag just about everyone they meet down with them into the web of manic absurdity. While the first act picks up steam a hair slowly as we are introduced to John Malkovich and Tilda Swinton's characters, it escalates into one of most preposterous and hilarious third acts I've seen lately as all the plot threads come colliding in unpredictable and bizarre ways that spit in the face of conventional narrative structure.

Like many a Coen brothers comedy, Burn After Reading is pitch black. Not quite to the degree of Fargo, but it can be compared to that film in terms of the unfortunate miring of people into a mess of their own making, one that becomes increasingly hopeless. The characters are all pathetic in their own ways and the film is messy, dark, and violent - playing it all for laughs, of course. More power to it; anyone who doesn't like it can go see that fucking Dane Cook movie.

The cast is a solid combination of Coen regulars (George Clooney, Francis McDormand) and several newcomers, the best of whom and the primary scenestealer is Brad Pitt. I gotta say, I love Pitt. He occasionally cashes in on his looks / coolness and picks up a tepid paycheck (Mr. & Mrs. Smith), but he fucking comes to life in just about any edgy, independent fare - Twelve Monkeys, Fight Club, The Assassination of Jesse James, and hopefully The Curious Case of Benjamin Button this winter all come to mind - and although his character here is just a simple idiot (one of the two who winds up with the "secret CIA shit" along with McDormand), he sells it with his overly intense and earnest line readings. He had the whole theater I was in cracking up every time he opened his mouth and I was bellowing right along with them; great performance.

All in all, definitely liked it, would and will definitely watch again. The Coens aren't quite infallible (The Ladykillers), but they have a style all to their own and do dark comedy like just about no one else. Burn After Reading is smart, it's funny, it's original. See it!


4 Stars out of 5

Friday, September 26, 2008

Babylon A.D.



The new Vin Diesel sci-fi action movie Babylon A.D. is bad beyond words. Beyond reason. Beyond hope. Beyond dreams. Beyond reckoning. Its retina-searing, soul-crushing, potentially universe-ending ineptitude blots out all happy memories of your life before watching it and reduces you a shattered, broken shell, weeping and pleading with a cold, unforgiving deity that may you never again witness such an abomination wrought unto cinema. Its bizarrely high 06% on Rotten Tomatoes is generous beyond all that the Christ could ever have capacity to offer.

This film should probably be officially classified by the government as a war crime. Some country, somewhere, must be nuked for this movie. We must find who was responsible and bring them to justice.

I would not show my worst enemy Babylon A.D. If a cruel torturer put me in a room with a table on which was the DVD of Babylon A.D. and a pistol and said "Choose," I would unhesitatingly grab the pistol and blow my brains all over the wall. I would rather be curbstomped American History X style than watch Babylon A.D. again. I would rather have my dick split down the middle with a straight razor. I would rather give Hitler a rimjob than watch Babylon A.D. again. It proudly and indisputably stands tall with the ranks of Dreamcatcher, Van Helsing, and FeardotCom in the hallowed halls of awfulness, a horrible ghetto into which sane men dare not tread.

I knew going in that it was a sci-fi movie about an escort mission in a semi-post-apocalyptic future and from the reviews (which weren't good of course, but I have in the past enjoyed action movies starring bald badasses that critics hated) and plot synopses I basically assumed it was the dumb, action version of Children of Men. Well, I was wrong. It's more like the fetal alcohol syndrome version of Children of Men. Let me break it down for you:

Basically, some mysterious chick with no personality (and telekinesis, we later learn) needs to be transported to America. This sci-fi gangster contacts Vin Diesel to do it, and Michelle Yeoh goes with them. Vin Diesel is apathetic and basass at first but gradually comes to care. Then there's like forty-five minutes of mind-numbing explosions and gunfire and fights so jumbled and so generic and so constant and so boring that I started to doze off. Michelle Yeoh dies.

We see that the gangster who hired Vin Diesel was, holy shit, being manipulated by some evil High Priestess! She needs the chick Diesel is escorting for world domination and just needed Diesel to get her into America so she could snatch her, you see. High Priestess kills the gangster. Diesel and the chick meet up with some resistance fighters who fill them in on the story. Diesel and the chick leave; shortly thereafter, the High Priestess invades the resistance fighter camp and kills the leader. Some of her henchman chase Diesel and the chick in SUVs in a boring, generic 2-minute car chase and get blown up. Diesel and the chick stop in a house. The other allies are dead, they can't run much more, the villain is onto them - board is clearly set for the final pursuit between the High Priestess and Diesel! Then we tilt up to the sky, fade to black, and roll credits.

WHAT THE FUCK. Worst ending ever? Yes, but not only is it that, it's the single most poorly-structured movie I've ever witnessed, with predictable characters arcs, frontloaded with brain-numbing action, loaded in the ass with clunky exposition, with no resolution, no climax, nothing. Nothing is fucking resolved! Nothing worth noting happens! There are no memorable characters, events, or set pieces. It's ugly and drably shot. It's loud. It's bad. God it's bad. I hate this movie. I hate this fucking movie so much; next time when a director publicly denounces their work and calls it a piece of shit, I'll believe them. Because Babylon A.D. is a fucking piece of SHIT.

Honestly, I like Vin Diesel. He's no great thespian but he seems like he means well, has always come across as a really nice guy and I've never heard otherwise, and is a prominent, proud, and unrepentant fan of video games, Dungeons & Dragons, and all forms of nerdiness. The man just wants to make cool sci-fi action movies for people, and I can respect that. But Babylon A.D. is not that. This is not even the basest, dumbest, most guilty entertainment, because there is no "entertainment" here, just psychological torture. I certainly had my problems with The Chronicles of Riddick, but if it's between Vin Diesel doing more Riddick movies or more movies like this, for the love of god give us Riddick II, Riddick III, Riddick IV, Riddick V, and ad nauseam to the end of time, because movies like Babylon A.D. must not happen. Humanity can't survive it.


1 Star out of 5

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Traitor



Traitor is a competently well-made, well-acted, and moderately exciting if ultimately unremarkable little espionage thriller. It straddles a slightly uncomfortable line between a suspense flick with brief bursts of vaguely Bourne-esque action and a heavier sort of sociopolitical element, but is entertaining enough for the duration of its runtime even if I doubt I'll ever watch it again.

Don Cheadle plays a United States operative on a years-long mission - so secret only one man knows he works for the USA - going deep undercover with a terrorist cell to unravel and compromise them from within. However he is relentlessly pursued by an FBI agent played by Guy Pearce (who doesn't know Don Cheadle is working for the States) and grapples with the moral dilemma of keeping his eye on the big picture, having to go along with terrorist plots and collateral damage to stay undercover.

As I mentioned, there's a Bourne flavor to some of the proceedings, with the narrative following our protagonist largely on the run and cutting away now and then to the room of operatives discussing him, reading over files about him, debating how best to pursue him. There's some chase scenes, there's some fight scenes, guns are fired. It's fairly well done and although the movie builds a touch slowly in the first act the climax is exciting.

It's the sociopolitical element I found a little bit stilted in a couple of ways. Don Cheadle's character is a devout Muslim, you see, and the movie treats the fact that he's both a Muslim AND a US operative trying to dismantle the terrorist cell like it's some kind of stunning revelation. And he has a "friend" in the terrorist cell and the movie also seems a little too convinced it's making a bold statement by having the terrorist actually be a person with (however twisted) motivations rather than a cartoon supervillain.

While Don Cheadle is a terrific actor and sells the drama of these situations about as well as anyone could have, I don't think the fact that not all Muslims are terrorists and not all terrorists are motivation-free cartoon villains will be a revelation to anyone who doesn't regularly attend NASCAR events.

That said, the movie isn't terrible by any stretch, nor is it great. I'd say that any big thriller fans could Netflix it and enjoy it, because Don Cheadle and Guy Pearce do carry it and the final twenty minutes or so are pretty cool, but keep expectations modest.


2 Stars out of 5

Monday, September 22, 2008

Disaster Movie



Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Aaron & Jason.

You don't need me to tell you that Disaster Movie is an emotionally and spiritually ugly affront to cinema, an incoherent and sickening swirl of pop culture references mixed lackadaisically with bathroom humor so unfunny and so loathsome as to be considered among the ten worst movies of the decade. You know this and dozens of critics have wasted their time writing slightly different versions of the same review saying so. If you so desire you can even read a scene-by-scene synopsis of the entire picture (and I will confirm that the three references in that synopsis to "five-minute" sequences are not exaggerating at all).

But no, that review would be a waste of time. I am here instead to analyze the collective series of Date Movie, Epic Movie, Meet the Spartans, and Disaster Movie and proclaim my appreciation and dare I say love for writer / director duo Aaron Seltzer & Jason Friedberg.

It goes without saying that they are the worst filmmakers in the history of the medium, but it should also be clarified that they are the single worst artists who have ever worked in any medium since the first caveman drew in the sand - film, literature, painting, photography, poetry, architecture, sculpture, video games - drawing together every human who has ever tried their hand at any tangible creative effort, Aaron & Jason stand proudly above (below?) the fray as the absolute worst, a logical nadir that can and must never be topped.

And so it seems that their bi-yearly movie would inspire only tears from me, a lover of film comedy who believes the genre is currently basking in a new golden age. But no. Aaron & Jason serve a valuable and perhaps necessary purpose in the collective cinematic dialogue, and when they make Iron Man, the Hulk, and Hellboy appear and get crushed by cows one after another and Indiana Jones appear as a black midget, it operates as a bottoming-out and a point of harmony for film nerds everywhere.

You see, the Internet is a contentious medium; anonymity allows for people to express their opinions loudly and aggressively with excessive profanity while declaring that anyone who disagrees with their views on a film is a piece of shit douchebag faggot who should get AIDS and die in a gutter. Ergo disagreements on message boards quickly escalate, even the most popular film has loud, angry detractors, and few opinions seem truly ubiquitous amidst the infinite, ever-expanding flame war, a civil war that seemed headed for inevitable apocalypse.

But Aaron & Jason proudly rose above the fray and saved us from ourselves, and every six months when a new movie rolls around there is a blissful truce as everyone joins hands to unite in hatred and loathing against them. And for a moment, there is peace - no e-voices are raised, no insults are flung, and all discussion turns to a similar tone of disgusted ire all directed towards Aaron & Jason. Their attack on the medium unites us. Their awfulness begets harmony.

Case in point: on the movie message board I frequent, the Disaster Movie thread had over a thousand replies over the three or four months before the film's release. The only movies all summer that had more disucssion were The Dark Knight, Iron Man, WALL•E, and Indiana Jones - an impressive feat for a film everyone claimed to detest the very existence of. People talked of their hatred for Aaron & Jason, lamented the poor writing and production values of the film, predicted jokes. Screenings were organized, people went to see the movie and documented the experience, it was a spectacular event unto its own. Aaron & Jason's lack of talent gets people talking, agreeing, organizing.

Not to mention that the work of Aaron & Jason lifts up everything around it. Like the morbidly obese friend of an average-looking girl whose proximity makes the latter seem quite the goddess, Disaster Movie and its predecessors make every other comedy in theaters seem incredibly vibrant, funny, and creative. I saw College and thought it was a weak Animal House wannabe that should have gone straight to DVD. Then I saw Disaster Movie and College was retroactively filled with rich characters, clever jokes, energy, and excellent cinematography. The same could also be said of The House Bunny, let alone legitimately good comedies like Tropic Thunder, Hamlet 2, or Pineapple Express, which while you're watching Disaster Movie seem to be among the greatest masterpieces since the advent of film.

You see, Aaron & Jason nobly sacrifice their own good standing amongst humanity to make every other comedy ever made seem better. Other comedies merely try to muscle their way to the top of the crowd, try to win some laughs, try to make a little money. They exist unto themselves and do not effect other comedies. Disaster Movie shuns these obvious notions of humor and self-respect and instead harnesses its grotesque awfulness as a sort of fulcrum and lever with which it lifts up an entire genre. Amazing!

It may be coming to an end, though: the caliber of stars in this series has slowly but steadily declined over the years. Date Movie was actually starring a bona fide if minor celebrity, Alyson Hannigan. Epic Movie had Kal Penn, Jennifer Coolidge, and Crispin Glover. Meet the Spartans had only former Hercules Kevin Sorbo. Now Disaster Movie leans on an uncomfortable ensemble of minor MADtv players with no other film experience, amateur porn star Kim Kardashian, and someone called G. Thang, with black midget Tony Cox by far the biggest celebrity to appear onscreen at any point.

Between this and the declining box office revenue I have a feeling that Aaron & Jason's next spoof will be Straight-to-DVD Movie, a downgrade which might be the end of the collective mass anger over their work - a theatrical film is an imposing event, with theatrical previews and commercials and posters and websites and advertising. A straight-to-DVD movie is like a picture on the wall; if you don't care for it, it is easily ignored, and discussion will atrophy to a scant, negligible fraction of what it is now. The truce will sadly be ended.

But if Disaster Movie proves the end of their theatrical journey, I must thank Aaron & Jason for the ride. Their unspeakably awful movies have allowed us, as a species, to step back and re-acknowledge the beauty of the other films we have. The proximity of such pungent feces makes us admire the sweet aroma of the flowers all the more. Aaron & Jason united us. They brought us together. They made us look within ourselves and realize that we are better than this. And they did it all without winning one legitimate laugh in the process. I salute them.


1 Star out of 5

Sunday, September 14, 2008

College



College is a worthless movie. It's not the worst of the year - off the top of my head The Happening and The X-Files: I Want to Believe are both worse - but it's a lukewarm Animal House / Revenge of the Nerds wannabe leaning on halfhearted jokes and performances cobbled together to an end result that had no business anywhere except straight-to-DVD.

In fact, it's actually a little worse than the straight-to-DVD American Pie Presents: The Naked Mile (yeah, I Netflixed all the American Pie Presents movies, what of it?), with which it shares a structurally identical plot: three high school kids go on a college visit and have a wild and zany weekend! There's a bunch of gross-out / sex gags and a moderate amount of female nudity. In the end our heroes achieve their goals and there's a "we learned something" moral tacked on. And that's it. The Naked Mile was unfathomably dumb, yes, but it at least had a bit of a pulse and didn't feel so unpleasantly grimy.

College has a Revenge of the Nerds framing device as an evil fraternity terrorizes our heroes, and in the end they get their extremely juvenile revenge on the evil frat by putting superglue on their toilet seats, giving pigs laxatives and having them shit all over the frat house, setting off the water sprinklers, and three or four other acts of vandalism that in the real world would just get you arrested. But in this movie this means they have now defeated the evil frat, the evil frat leader is hauled off by the police (?!), and some hot college chicks inexplicably have sex with the good guys and I'm left gaping at the screen wondering what the fuck I just watched.

That's not to deny there are two or three laughs, but that's only because I'm a borderline-retarded member of the unwashed proletariat and generic gross-out gags involving shit and cum make me laugh. The movie also coins the term "scrotum-eating baby rapists" as an insult, which may have been my one legitimate bellow of from-the-gut-laughter the whole hour and a half. But by and large it's a tired, bloated, exhausting waste of time and makes me look back on The House Bunny as vibrant and likable.

HOWEVER, I have one further note. I must call out America's film critics on lazy journalism. I won't defend one frame of the eye-rollingly derivative College as being original, but it seems like every other review accused it of being a Superbad ripoff, presumably because there are three leads, one of whom is shy and well-meaning, one of whom is vulgar, and one of whom is a nerd. It's similar, yes, but it took me all of two minutes of research to find out that College was shot in March of 2007. Superbad was released in August of 2007.

Again, not defending the movie, it's a piece of shit, but it's just flat-out impossible for it to be a Superbad ripoff if you look at the dates and if it's your only job to watch and journalize film you should have the integrity to do it well and research and accurately report on every film whether good or bad. Okay, stepping off soapbox now.


1 Star out of 5

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Hamlet 2



Now and then you gotta take a stand and vouch for something you believe in, and although it's getting so-so reviews I must say that 63% is way too low for one of the best comedies I've seen all year. I really enjoyed Hamlet 2. I thought it was clever and funny as hell.

The movie is about a high school drama teacher who aims to save his soon-to-be-cancelled drama program by putting on a big musical sequel to Shakespeare's Hamlet, and as someone who has seen one or ten too many "inspiring teacher" movies in my day I absolutely loved seeing that entire subgenre and basically every single trope of it get taken down a peg. I'm not sure I would call it a parody or a satire exactly, but just a hilariously pessimistic version of the typical "inspiring teacher" story where all the elements of that genre usually played for swelling drama are played for refreshingly negative comedy.

Not negative in the same way as the violent comedy of Pineapple Express or Tropic Thunder - there's very little violence to be found here - but there's a general pessimistic worldview, pronounced disgust from characters towards others, unrepentant political incorrectness, and a definite sense of Schadenfreude, as in not just "Ha ha! That character tripped!", but "Ha ha! That character's life and everything he holds dear is falling to pieces!". It took me a while to put my finger on what it reminded me of but then it hit me like a footlong dick slap to the face - the movie's tone feels just like Arrested Development! The director Andrew Fleming even directed for Arrested Development, and like that late great show we laugh at marital unhappiness, we laugh at people failing miserably at their jobs, we laugh at the general sense of absurd hopelessness, we laugh at contempt for humanity.

Perhaps nowhere is this more pronounced than in the protagonist teacher's dealings with his students. There is of course a time-honored tradition in the "inspiring teacher" subgenre from Stand and Deliver onward where a few of the teacher's students have personal crises and tragedy in their homelives and in their dealings with each other and our teacher reliably solves all of these problems one at a time. In Hamlet 2 there is racism and racial conflict among the students, one who is unsure of his sexuality, one suffering from crippling shyness, pretty much all of them seem to be underage drinkers, and so on and so forth, and each of these threads is treated as a joke and relegated to the hilariously inappropriate background without the teacher really doing anything to help any of them. It was refreshing and made me laugh my ass off.

Steve Coogan (who America probably currently knows best as the unfortunate director in Tropic Thunder) plays the lead and brings an off-kilter comedic energy to the film. He's not really a conventional leading man and that's a large part of what makes him so funny. The only other significantly recognizable faces are Catherine Keener and Amy Poehler (who both do solid, funny supporting work) and while they are largely unknowns the various aforementioned kids in the drama program acting in the in-movie production of Hamlet 2 are pretty much all hilarious. There's not a performance to criticize in the whole movie.

The one X-factor is the stage production of Hamlet 2 itself - it's built up to through the entire movie and the one risk with any "putting on a show!" movie is that the show needs to really deliver or the whole film leading up to it is rendered a pointless bust. And thankfully the ten minutes or so we finally see of Hamlet 2 at the end of the third act are hysterically irreverent, exactly as "bad" as they need to be in the context of the film, suitably epic in scope, and have some catchy-ass tunes. Far, far from a bust, it's the lynchpin that secures the film's awesomeness.

The entire movie straddles a fine line that entertained the hell out of me - it's pessimistic and negative without being hateful, it's vulgar without resorting to being obscene for cheap laughs, it's politically incorrect and sacrilegious without seeming like it's trying too hard to be "edgy." What more can I say? Please go see Hamlet 2 (or at least Netflix it later)! It's a goddamn travesty that it's made less than $5 million at the box office and it saddens me to think that might make it less likely for studios to take future chances with interesting, unorthodox comedies like this one.


3 Stars out of 5

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Vicky Cristina Barcelona



It's hard to say whether Woody Allen's filmmaking mojo was reenergized by his shift to novel European settings or his insatiable desire to fuck Scarlett Johansson retarded, but one way or another 2005's Match Point was posh, nasty, cynical entertainment with great dialogue and one of his best movies in years after a string of so-so, forgettable flicks.

Part of what made it work was the thriller vibe far removed from Woody's usual comedic style, and although it's about as far from a thriller as can be Vicky Cristina Barcelona again finds Woody in good form and again working in a genre that feels nothing like his neurotic Manhattanite tales, specifically Spanish melodrama / romance. I won't claim any expertise on the subject - never seen a Pedro Almodóvar film in my life - but it seems like an interesting genre for Allen to work in. It provides plenty of opportunity for him to weave in his gently cynical ruminations on the nature of love and relationships and the fact that the dialogue isn't trying super-hard to be funny actually allows a lot more laughs to flow organically from the characters than Woody's recent attempts at full-fledged comedy.

Scarlett Johansson has never really impressed me (in acting, anyway; her tits are spectacular) - she's fine but unremarkable here - but Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz are very entertaining despite the fact that they are playing to harmless-but-hilarious stereotypes of Spanish people all being tortured artists / sex gods. I was worried I wouldn't be able to see Bardem as anything other than Anton Chigurh but I forgot all about Chigurh by the end of Bardem's first scene, which speaks to his caliber as an actor. The best performance however is the less-famous Rebecca Hall as the titular Vicky. She gives the most naturalistic performance I've seen on film lately and spins Woody Allen's signature dialogue like a pro (all while masking her British accent, goddamn!). I missed her character pretty much every time she wasn't onscreen. The Prestige is the only other thing I've seen her in and I hope she gets more leading work.

There's very, very little conflict, basically just Vicky debating herself on whether or not she's getting married too young and too hastily, and the narrative is pretty much just all the main characters fucking each other in various combinations in photogenic settings accompanied by a lot of Woody Allen-style dialogue about art, culture, love, and general life philosophy, but the good writing and good performances keep it engaging and funny. I have no problem recommending it to anyone who has previously enjoyed Woody Allen films or work from any of the major cast. It's light, entertaining, mildly intellectual early autumn fare done well.


4 Stars out of 5

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The Rocker



There's absolutely nothing I can say that can save The Rocker. It's a spectacular bomb and in terms of 2,500+ theater wide releases had in fact the worst opening in motion picture history. Whether this had to do with Joe Blow not recognizing Rainn Wilson, mediocre reviews, or general August apathy I don't know, but it's a bit of a shame. The Rocker isn't a masterpiece but it's a good movie and I smiled and laughed through the majority of it.

There's not any "movie stars" present but the cast is a veritable who's-who of ambassadors from relatively classy TV comedies. Rainn Wilson from The Office of course plays the lead and brings a Dwight-esque goofiness to his failed wannabe-rock star, but there's also Will Arnett from Arrested Development, Jeff Garlin from Curb Your Enthusiasm, Jason Sudeikis and Fred Armisen from Saturday Night Live, Aziz Ansari from Human Giant, Jane Krakowski and Lonny Ross from 30 Rock, and Jane Lynch from small roles and cameos in fucking everything. They're all talented comedians and it's nice and comforting to see so many familiar faces in one spot.

Pretty much the only non-TV actors are the three kids playing Rainn Wilson's new high school bandmates. Teddy Geiger does just fine as the emo lead singer but I really liked the other two. I've never seen Josh Gad in a single other thing in my life but he has a hilarious Jonah Hill-esque, socially awkward vibe, and I've talked before about how I really like Emma Stone. I'd like to see both of them in more films.

It's probably more the actors holding together the amusing but relatively generic script than the other way around. It's all pretty inoffensive, serviceable, TV-friendly comedy. It's PG-13 so there's not really any gross-out stuff or sex jokes or profanity, but there's enough social awkwardness, pratfalls, general absurdity, and low-key satire of the music industry to keep one laughing and the movie is paced really well and doesn't drag for a second.

The general plot structure can be predicted fifteen minutes in and a lot of elements are dusty screenplay standbys that have been used a million times over - of course each of the three bandmates is going to have a personal crisis of some kind, of course Rainn Wilson, despite seeming sloppy and dumb, is going to help each one of them out of their funks, of course Rainn Wilson is going to mature and so on, of course the heroes succeed in the end, of course everyone has a romantic interest, and so on and so forth, all set to radio-friendly pop-punk music.

That probably doesn't read as a ringing endorsement, and I won't say that this is by any remote stretch some great comedy that will be remembered for years to come, but I also won't pretend I didn't have a good time, laugh plenty, and walk out of the theater smiling, if only because the cast is all really good. If you like Rainn Wilson in The Office then give it a look. It's movie snack food - mass-produced, no real nutritional value, and snobs might sneer at it, but hey - it's comforting and tasty, so who gives a shit?


2 Stars out of 5

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Death Race



Death Race
is a sick as shit exploitation flick that declines to appeal to your brain, your heart, or even your guts, skipping all the way down, grabbing ahold of your nutsack, and screaming "FUCK YOU THIS MOVIE IS AWESOME," threatening to rip your balls off if you don't agree, you pussy.

Jason Statham gets framed for murdering his wife and is put in maximum security prison, where he is forced to race against other inmates for his freedom. In the race, there are these lit-up pads on the track and when the cars run over them they can get guns, missiles, smokescreens, napalm, or oil slicks, which they are then encouraged to turn on the other racers. It's exactly like Mario Kart or Diddy Kong Racing, but with more murder. The movie is basically The Shawshank Redemption meets Mario Kart meets some arbitrary violent movie and it doesn't matter which one. It's such a fucking B-movie I can't believe it.

There's plenty of badass violence. People shoot each other with high-caliber machine guns and lots of blood sprays all over the place and in certain situations other characters are impaled on spikes, torched down to muscle and bone with flamethrowers, blown up, or rammed full-speed with cars and have their moist, crimson remains splayed across the scenery. There's this one scene where a guy gets pushed out of a 100+ mph car and his head flies into a metal pole on the way out. The violence deserves hooting and applause. This is a movie you'll want to see with a crowd of drunk Latino gang members. It would be a good movie to take your preschooler to to teach him of the cruel, grotesque monstrosity that is humanity.

Jason Statham has a cool accent and he's like some badass superhuman that could kick your ass and break all your fingers one by one and make witty wisecracks while doing it. Holy shit I cannot believe how badass this guy is. If Jason Statham and me were locked in a room together I would kill myself just to stop him from hurting me. He's so badass I am in awe. His dick is probably like eleven inches long, he should run for fucking President of the United States or something.

Strikingly beautiful, talented, and serious Tony Award-winning actress Joan Allen is reduced to hamming it up to a hideous degree as the comic book villain, commanding her underlings to kill Jason Statham (yeah right, you whore) and delivering the line "Okay cocksucker. Fuck with me, and we'll see who shits on the sidewalk." She will probably be embarrassed of this role for the rest of her life and I wouldn't have it any other way.

Tyrese Gibson plays an angry black man.

There's this subplot where all these chicks are shipped over from the woman's prison to act as the racers' navigators. They never wear anything that doesn't expose their midriffs and cleavage and whenever they step into a scene they are accompanied by ten minutes of ultra-slow motion shots of their lips pouting and sweat dripping down their breasts with some fucking Beyonce song or some shit I don't care about playing and some twelve year old will like ejaculate right there in the theater watching it.

The only problem with this movie is that there should have been like ten times more violence and profanity. It's like there's these scenes where they stop and expound on the plot when the dialogue should just be nothing but arbitrarily strung-together swear words; bad on the screenwriters. And while there is a lot of kills it would have been preferable if every murder was followed by fifty gallons of blood flowing all over the racetrack until all the character's windshields were smeared with intestines and brain matter and burst eyeballs and kidneys.

But on the other hand there's this one scene where Jason Statham like twists this guy's head and breaks his neck and it's like holy shit.

All in all, Death Race > Casablanca.


3 Stars out of 5

The House Bunny




Why would I watch The House Bunny? Well, it was described to me as Revenge of the Nerds with hot chicks, so I did some quick mental math - "I love Revenge of the Nerds. I love hot chicks. All right!" - and decided to take a risk and check it out. Unfortunately, while the basic gist of that synopsis is true, the movie is stuck in a lame-brained, risk-free 1990s comedy vibe that doesn't seem to have noticed at all that the standards of comedy have evolved and changed in the last few years.

Perhaps the most bizarre thing is its PG-13 rating. This is a comedy about a Playboy bunny who gets kicked out of the Playboy mansion and becomes the house mother of a nerdy sorority, whom she helps regain their dignity, regroup, and defeat the popular sorority's attempts to shut them down. So, to restate, it's a college comedy about a Playboy bunny. So why in god's fucking name is this movie PG-13?? It's a potentially funny R-rated peg jammed incredibly awkwardly into a PG-13, preteen friendly hole, and the noncommittal, tapdancing sexual humor, complete lack of nudity, and juvenile elementary school gross-out gags all speak to the fact that this was a poor choice that limited 90% of the narrative's potential. I agree with critics that Judd Apatow's new comedy brand is a bit of an all-boys club, so I think that the idea of giving females a representation in the R-rated ribaldry would have been a great idea and it's a loss they chose not to pursue that here.

No surprise that it's the product of Happy Madison Productions, whose strictly sophomoric brand of comedy has failed to grow up with its audience, repeatedly harkening back to doing their best Dumb & Dumber impersonation whether the film in question is starring Adam Sandler, Rob Schneider, (god forbid) Allen Covert, or in this case Anna Faris. Almost every single joke in the entire film is repeated, exhausting drilling that, haha, yes, the protagonist is a dumb blonde! She's flighty and doesn't know things and is slutty and forgets things and haha she's a dumb blonde! While Anna Faris is actually a talented comedic actress she has to fight the script here and just can't come out on top. I won't claim I didn't laugh once but I can honestly say I could count the laughs on one hand.

The one noteworthy bright spot in the film for me was Emma Stone (of Jules in Superbad fame) as one of the nerdy sorority girls. Okay, it's not remotely believable that she wouldn't be able to get a boyfriend because she's obviously attractive by any standard, but she has a very naturalistic and very funny acting style, effortlessly stealing scenes she doesn't even have any good dialogue in. She's an immensely likable screen presence and I hope to see her in other, better-written films in the future - in a world where Lindsay fucking Lohan is given lead role after lead role it would be a shame not to give Emma Stone at least one.


1 Star out of 5

Star Wars: The Clone Wars



Star Wars: The Clone Wars
is a Saturday morning cartoon. I don't mean that as a statement of its quality - we'll get to that in a second - but just to establish that that's LITERALLY what it is. The actual origin of the film is that they were working on the first few episodes of the upcoming Clone Wars Saturday morning cartoon, George Lucas saw it and was impressed, and said "Hey! Let's edit the first three episodes together and release it in theaters!", and hell if they didn't do just that. As such, it's hard to measure it to the same barometer of quality as the six other films, and it's even harder to get emotionally invested. I won't say it's worst Star Wars movie of all time, because the Star Wars Holiday Special is a unique sort of awful usually reserved for genocides, but it's certainly the worst theatrically released Star Wars.

Strangely, I have no nerd rage over this development. Yes, it's making the franchise look increasingly irrelevant, juvenile, and frankly like a zombie that doesn't understand no one wants to see its rotted corpse shambling about. But I've long since accepted that to be a Star Wars nerd - and of course I am; A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back are still and might just always be in my top five films of all time, and Return of the Jedi would probably make my top thirty - you have to simply accept the fact you're admiring the most beautiful passages of an otherwise flawed anthology. It doesn't render your favorite parts irrelevant or any less wonderful, and as long as you can adjust to this selective admiration you'll be fine.

This applies fifty times over to the Expanded Universe - sure, The Phantom Menace may have been a disappointment back in '99, but the Expanded Universe has been a deeply flawed and imperfect thing since product #1, the novel Splinter of the Mind's Eye back in 1978, an utterly generic sci-fi story that reads like the novelization of a Star Trek TV episode in which Luke and Leia make out and Luke lightsaber battles and defeats Darth Vader. Dozens of piss-poor novels, comic books, video games, Ewok films, and so on have followed, and although a handful of good works have floated to the top of the bloodied waters (particularly video games), it's far easier to just block it all out and view the six-movie saga as the story, with everything else - The Clone Wars included - as being strictly optional.

So it's difficult for me to really judge this with the same ferocity I would a major live-action Star Wars film. It's childish and there's a lot of stuff that spits in the face of canon - the absurd idea that Yoda would give newly-Knighted Anakin a padawan to train in the middle of a war, Jabba the Hutt's cooperation with the Jedi and his gay uncle, having Anakin and Dooku have a second duel between their Episode II and Episode III meetings, and the further neutering of the Jedi into utter lameness, not to mention that I have no idea why they have some generic new score instead of reusing John Williams' music - but it wasn't written, voice acted, or animated until the last minute for anything other than nine year olds in their pajamas, so it's kind of like kicking a three-legged puppy. Since it never really strives for anything beyond competence, I'll just review them on the basis of competency:

• The animation is bright and colorful. I never had any problem telling what anything was supposed to be. The ships are well-rendered and resemble the ships from the films, and the character's faces are well-animated enough to express emotions.

• The actors deliver their lines and there is never any stammering or the sound of breathing into the mics. The recordists were obviously teched on the equipment before recording the voice tracks. When a line is delivered in an emotionally heightened situation, the actor occasionally emotes while delivering the line. James Arnold Taylor does a fair impersonation of Ewan McGregor.

• The action scenes were not completely boring. They present the good guys doing poorly and the bad guys winning until the final turn, in accordance with narrative tradition for achieving tension. Very small children may find themselves briefly concerned for the well-being of the heroes.

• It took me all the way until the end of the first act to predict the rest of the movie scene-for-scene.

• The basic idea of further exploring the relationship of Anakin and Obi-Wan during the Clone Wars between Episode II and Episode III is interesting.

• Star Wars fans may be excited by to return to locations such as Tatooine and Coruscant.

• The musical score underscores the action and is well-composed enough that I was able to identify whether it was trying to impart excitement, fear, sadness, or comedy at any given moment.

• R2-D2 makes the same sounds he does in the films.

That's about all I have to say. Congrats, George Lucas, you have reduced the revolutionary epic intergalactic saga of Star Wars to a competent Saturday morning cartoon.


1 Star out of 5