Posts tagged “reviews”

Video game review: Sonic Mania

August 17th, 2017

This week saw the release of Sonic Mania, the latest entry in the long-running Sonic the Hedgehog series of video games, and a throwback to the franchise’s earliest entries on the Sega Genesis. It’s built on the Retro Engine, a platform which brings modern console features like 16×9 widescreen support, 60-frames-per-second animation, and online functionality to retro-style games. Sonic Mania lead developer Christian Whitehead originally developed the engine for a Sonic fan game, then worked with Sega to produce a port of 1993’s Sonic CD to modern consoles using the engine in 2011. Similar ports of the original Sonic the Hedgehog and Sonic 2 followed.

I picked up the Nintendo Switch version of Sonic Mania, and I was immediately hooked. Its controls and gameplay feel just like those of a classic Sonic game. That’s a good thing, because Sonic’s simple control scheme, using only the directional pad (or the analog stick, in this case) and a single action button, has always been one of the series’ strengths. Of course Sonic Mania includes the spin-dash technique introduced in Sonic 2, and it features Sonic 3’s elemental shields. It also adds a new “drop dash,” which allows you to perform a spin-dash immediately after landing from a jump. As in Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles, you can choose to play as Sonic, Tails, or Knuckles, each of whom has different abilities. Tails can fly briefly, while Kuckles can climb walls and glide through the air. You can also play as Sonic and Tails together; you control Sonic directly while Tails is controlled by the computer, but a second player can join in and take control of Tails instead. This effectively gives Sonic Mania a two-player cooperative mode, which is welcome, although not having tried it extensively, I suspect it will be of limited fun for the second player, since the game is very fast-paced and the camera always follows player 1, meaning player 2 will inevitably be lost off-screen fairly often.

Its graphics are also reminiscent of the style of its predecessors, but upgraded to take advantage of modern hardware. Sonic Mania runs in 16×9 widescreen at 60 frames per second. And of course it includes the requisite CRT-scanline filters (a much more subtle pixel-smoothing filter is enabled by default, but the graphical filters can be disabled altogether). The game features a lot of smooth, detailed animation (not to mention the fully-animated intro, clearly inspired by the one from Sonic CD). It also includes a vibrant color palette which invokes the look of the Genesis games, but which I’m pretty sure could not actually have been pulled off on the 16-bit hardware. There are a handful of instances which use more advanced graphical techniques, such as polygonal models. These are chiefly employed to add subtle perspective effects to stage backgrounds and the like, so they don’t usually stand out as anachronistic next to the pixel graphics. If you haven’t played a Genesis-era Sonic game in years, Sonic Mania looks like you probably remember those older games looking. It’s the perfect combination of old and new.

Sonic & Tails in Sonic Mania

Again borrowing from earlier titles in the series, Sonic Mania includes twelve themed “zones,” which include two “acts” each. Most zones are repurposed from previous Sonic games, while a handful are new to Sonic Mania. However, even the repurposed ones have been rebuilt and “remixed” from the ground up. They usually include recognizable segments integrated into a new layout and with new stage elements. Green Hill Zone returns from the original Sonic the Hedgehog, but can now be traversed via zip line. Chemical Plant Zone is back from Sonic 2, but features pools of chemicals that Sonic can bounce on to reach higher areas. And Sonic CD’s Stardust Speedway Zone now includes giant man-eating (hedgehog-eating?) plants for Sonic to climb. Within a single zone, the two acts are often visibly distinct from one another. For example, the new Press Garden Zone is covered in snow and ice for its second act, while Stardust Speedway Zone uses the “past” and “present” graphical themes from its Sonic CD incarnation for acts 1 and 2, respectively.

The level design itself is outstanding, and is easily on par with the best of the Genesis-era games. The Sonic games have always emphasized speed (of course), but at times that emphasis has clashed with gameplay—while it can be exhilarating, it’s not very exciting to “play” through an area of the game that doesn’t require you to do anything more than hold right on the directional pad. But Sonic Mania deftly avoids this trap, and throws lots of interesting puzzles and obstacles in for players to traverse along the way. Each stage also includes multiple paths, some of which are accessible only by certain characters due to their unique abilities.

Every act ends with a boss fight, which means there are a lot of bosses in Sonic Mania. Fortunately, the bosses are creative, unique, cleverly-designed, and fun to fight. One early boss in particular is a nod to an oddball Sonic spin-off game that made me giggle uncontrollably when I saw it—I’m grateful not to have had it spoiled before encountering it myself. Some of the bosses fairly tricky, but the “you’re safe as long as you have at least one ring” mechanic combined with the ability to retrieve up lost rings after taking damage means you always has a fair shot at winning.

Sprinkled throughout the game are two different styles of special stages. Passing a mid-level checkpoint lamp post with at least 25 rings gives you access to the “Blue Sphere” mini-game first seen in Sonic 3, a pseudo-3D affair in which your character runs forward automatically, and you must turn left and right to collect blue spheres and avoid red ones, with the gameplay gradually becoming faster as the stage progresses. This special stage plays exactly like its Sonic 3 incarnation as far as I can remember, but I’ve apparently become terrible at it in the intervening years; though there are many lamp posts in Sonic Mania, and therefore many opportunities to play Blue Sphere, I’ve only managed to succesfully beat it a handful of times. Your reward is a medallion of some kind which has no discernible affect on gameplay. A tally of the medallians you’ve earned appears on the game’s “extras” menu; I presume that some extra features are unlocked after collecting certain amounts.

Slightly less common are giant rings, jumping through which sends you to a special stage reminiscent of the one from Sonic CD. In these 3D stages, the camera follows behind your character who must chase a UFO around a track in a limited amount of time. Initially, you runs too slowly to catch it, but collecting blue spheres increases your speed, while collecting rings gives you more time. Catch up to the UFO, and you’re rewarded with a Chaos Emerald. I have not collected all of the Chaos Emeralds, but in previous Sonic games, doing so would allow you to transform into “Super Sonic,” granting invulnerability and increased speed, and change the ending of the game upon completion. I presume that collecting all of them in Sonic Mania produces similar effects, though I have not yet had the gumption to find out.

Knuckles in Sonic Mania

The Sonic series has long been known for its great music (and that’s even before Michael Jackson’s involvment in the Sonic 3 soundtrack was known). I’m happy to report that Sonic Mania lives up to the series’ reputation on this front. A lot of classic Sonic songs appear, particularly from the returning stages. But there’s plenty of new music, too, and all of it fits right in, invoking the FM synthesis of the Sega Genesis’ distinctive Yamaha sound chip. Since the first time I heard it, I’ve been unable to get the theme from the first act of Press Garden Zone out of my head, which is pretty much my measure of how effective a game’s soundtrack is. The soundtrack is even available on vinyl.

The story plays out mostly through brief in-engine cut scenes between stages, with a more detailed plot summary in the accompanying electronic manual. But it hardly matters. As always, Sonic and his friends are going after Dr. Robotnik/Eggman and his robot minions, and have to save a bunch of cute animals along the way.

Sonic Mania is reasonably long for a side-scrolling platformer, certainly longer than most players will want to tackle in a single sitting, so it includes save system very similar to that of Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles, with a whole bunch of save slots. It also includes some additional modes, such as a time trial mode and a two-player head-to-head mode, plus a variety of extra features and secrets, most of which I still have yet to unlock (there’s both an “extras” menu and a “secrets” one, both of which are mostly filled with question marks so far).

I absolutely love this game, and I was ecstatic the entire time playing through it. It perfectly captures everything that was great about the 16-bit Sonic games, builds upon them with great new content, and serves it all up in a gorgeous package that will make you feel like a kid again. I even got goosebumps at certain moments that were especially nostalgic. This is what 2010’s Sonic 4 tried to do, with some success, but Sonic Mania blows it out of the water. I don’t have a single complaint about this amazing game, except the lack of a physical release. There is a “collector’s edition” that includes a Sonic statue and a replica Sega Genesis cartridge with a gold ring inside, but even that release includes only a download code for the game rather than an actual physical copy.

Sonic Mania is available now for the Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One, with a PC version coming next week. At $20, it’s a steal and I cannot recommend it more highly.

Street Fighter II animated film released on Blu-ray disc

August 14th, 2017

I don’t know how I missed this least year, but I recently learned that the Japanese animated Street Fighter II movie was released on Blu-ray disc in October. This film has a long and complex history of Western releases, varying greatly in content and quality.

Following its 1994 theatrical release in Japan, SMV Enterprises released two versions (As Street Fighter II: The Animated Movie) on videotape in the US in 1995: a PG-13 version, and an urated version. Both versions were English-dubbed, and completely replaced the soundtrack with songs by Western artists like KMFDM and Alice in Chains. The PG-13 version included milder language for some scenes that included harsh dialogue in the unrated version, and it edited out the more graphic violence. But, even aside from the dubbing and soundtrack, neither version was faithful to the Japanese original—even the unrated version trimmed a number of shots, presumably for pacing rather than content in most cases, though the infamous Chun-Li shower scene was also truncated. The unrated version was also released on laserdisc, and eventually on DVD.

Chun Li vs. Vega

In 2006, Street Fighter II was re-released on DVD by Anchor Bay, in an edition that was labeled “Uncut, Uncensored, Unleashed.” This was a double-sided DVD containing the original Japanese version of the film (with optional English subtitles) on one side, and the English-dubbed version on the other. However, while this DVD’s English-dubbed version was not identical to the previously-released unrated version, neither was it completely uncensored. Instead, it was the version of the English dub originally released in the UK, which contained even harsher language than the US unrated version, and left all of the violence intact, but still trimmed incidental scenes for pacing. The shower scene was also more explicit than that of the US unrated version, but still edited compared to the Japanese original.

Then last October, Discotek Media released the film on DVD and Blu-ray, its high-definition debut in the US. Finally, this release consolidates just about every previous release, both English and Japanese, into one comprehensive package. The flim itself is uncensored, including all of the violence, nudity, and incidental shots that were omitted from previous English releases, and it includes no fewer than five different audio tracks:

  • the original Japanese audio
  • the US PG-13 English dub
  • the US unrated English dub
  • the UK unrated English dub
  • the English dub with the Japanese soundtrack

The Blu-ray’s producers went to great lengths to make this release so comprehensive. The three previously-released English dubs were all re-edited and re-synced to match up with the fully uncut version of the film, since all had previously been paired with censored versions. And the English dub with the Japanese soundtrack is a brand-new track, created from scratch especially for this release. Interestingly, this track’s English dialog isn’t a perfect match for any of the three existing English dubs. Instead of, say, using the UK version as the basis for this track just because it’s the most explicit, the producers decided to pick-and-choose the individual takes that were most faithful the original Japanese dialogue.

The Blu-ray's slipcover and case

The disc similarly includes an array of different subtitle tracks. For those watching the English versions, there’s one track that only translates signs and other on-screen text, and another that translates signs and text as well as the Japanese soundtrack’s song lyrics. For viewers of the Japanese version, a brand-new English subtitle translation was commissioned, which is presented here in two versions, reflecting both the Japanese and US versions of character names (the US version of the Street Fighter II video game upon which the film is based confusingly has three characters’ names switched around compared to the Japanese original).

The Blu-ray also includes a number of supplemental features, many of them focused on the film’s myriad versions. There are five trailers, three in Japanese and two in English, both of the latter from the UK. Also included are text-based notes covering the film’s original production and English translation, as well as biographies of the Street Fighter characters. Several production art galleries are also provided, including one especially interesting one dedicated to the film’s depiction of the game’s cartoonish, over-the-top special moves. The opening and closing credits from the original English home video releases are included as well. Since the main feature is sourced from an original Japanese print, these credits present the version English-speaking viewers remember from their old videotape or DVD. There’s also a version of the film’s ending without credits—in the film proper, the end titles play over this bit of animation. The US PG-13 version of the film is also included in its entirety. Unlike the main feature presentation, which includes the PG-13 audio track but pairs it with an uncensored version of the video, this is a faithful reproduction of the edited-down version from the old videotape release. It’s actually been recreated from scratch from the same HD master as the main film, rather than sourced from the old VHS master. So while this is the same version of the film fans will remember from their old videotape, it looks better than ever.

There’s also a collection of cut-scenes from the “Interactive Movie Game,” a Japan-exclusive video game based on the film, which included a lot of animation from the movie, but also had some new and unique scenes that weren’t actually used in the film itself. All that unique footage is compiled here. There’s a compilation of “alternate takes.” While the three different English-language versions of the film use a number of different takes between them for certain scenes, especially those involving profanity, there are just as many alternate takes that went unused. Some of them are interesting, and have nothing to do with profanity, like characters shouting the name of the attack they’re performing in English vs. Japanese. Finally, there’s a featurette titled “The Different Cuts,” which explores the many different releases of the film, particularly the numerous English-language versions, and exlpains how they were leveraged to create the disc’s verious audio tracks.

This release is virtually definitive, with almost nothing additional I can think of that could have been included. It would have been nice to have the original US & UK unrated versions included in their original forms, in addition to the US PG-13 version. But that’s a minor oversight in light of all the other great content on the disc and the lengths to which the producers went to present so many different versions of the English dub with the full-length, uncut version of the film.

I have no illusions about the quality of the film, but Street Fighter II has always been one of my favorite video games, and I was exactly the right age when this movie was originally released, so I have a soft spot for it. I’m ecstatic to finally have a definitive, high-quality version accessible to English-speaking audiences.

Jordan Peele’s Get Out

March 16th, 2017

I watched Jordan Peele’s sleeper hit Get Out last night, and I really enjoyed it. The central character is Chris, played by Daniel Kaluuya, a young black man anxious about meeting his white girlfriend’s parents for the first time. They spend the weekend at her parents’ rural home, and while the parents at first seem good-natured but awkward, Chris comes to suspect that things are not as tranquil as they seem.

The movie’s genre is a mixture of comedy and horror, which seems odd at first but turns out to serve the film well (think Scream or The Cabin in the Woods), with the lighter parts being laugh-out-loud funny (especially Lil Rel Howery as Chris’s best friend, a bumbling TSA agent, which sounds dumb now that I type it out but actually works really well) without watering down the genuine horror. There are creepy, unsettling moments, and the plot that unfolds is deeply disturbing.

Daniel Kaluuya as Chris Washington

I had a few minor reservations about the film. One of the film’s central mysteries is in the strange, Stepford Wives-esque behavior of certain characters throughout the first half. The audience expects that the explanation for their peculiar manners will be revealed, and there is a big reveal in the film’s climax, but it doesn’t really seem to fully explain the events from earlier in the film.

I was also slightly put off by the seeming lack of connection between Get Out’s important racial elements and its suspense/thriller plotline. At one point late in the movie, the protaganists flat-out asks one of the villains why they target black people. The response was basically “who knows?” and a shrug. Maybe that was the point—that so much of racism today is not overt and explicit, but subconsious and incidental—but I think the film’s critique of racial bias would have been that much more effective had it been more organically integrated into the main plot.

I think the film would have benefitted from sticking with the original ending, which would not have directly addressed this concern but would at least have underscored the racism angle and drove the point home that much more strongly.

If I’m focusing on the film’s negatives, that’s because so much has already been writing about how great it is (it currently holds a 99% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes). I completely agree with all of it. Get Out is worth seeing, and I recommend doing so.

Best Picture Showcase 2017, Day Two

February 26th, 2017

Yesterday was day two of the Best Picture Showcase, and featured back-to-back screenings of the remaining five Oscar-nominated films: Moonlight, Lion, Hacksaw Ridge, Arrival, and Hidden Figures. (I previously reviewed the first four films.)

Moonlight follows a young man living in a poor neighborhood in Miami though three vignettes occurring at different stages of his life. I understand this is probably the next-most-likely victor after La La Land, and I understand why. It was an interesting character study with strong performances.

Lion stars Dev Patel as a young Indian man who was adopted by an Australian couple as a young child following the failure of all attempts to track down his family after he becomes separated from them. 25 years later, he uses modern technology to try locating them again. It’s based on a true story, and while I don’t know how faithful it is to the actual events, the ending credits feature photos and footage of the real people portrayed and I was struck by how similar the actors portraying them looked.

I am very sentimental and I found Lion’s story to be very emotionally affecting; I was in tears at the end of it. I thought there were a few strange editing choices, and some character’s motivations were hard to scrutinize in a few scenes, but it was still very good overall. Incidentally, it reminded me a great deal of Pixar’s Finding Dory, also released last year, and which also had me bawling.

Hacksaw Ridge is Mel Gibson’s war movie about a conscientious objector during World War II who saves the lives of many fellow soldiers despite his personal refusal to carry a weapon. In many ways, it was a quintessential Mel Gibson movie: jingoistic, brutally violent, and featuring a deeply religious main character. While the violence was extremely graphic, I did not think it was gratuitous; it was in service of a point about the brutality of war. However, I did feel the movie had other flaws: I usually don’t have a good ear for detecting phony accents, but Hugo Weaving’s American accent was completely distracting every time he appeared onscreen. The dialogue was ridiculously hokey, though that’s most apparent during the beginning of the film; it actually turns around a bit once Vince Vaughn appears as an over-the-top drill sergeant, a genuinely funny character. Probably my biggest criticism is the cartoonishly simple and stereotypical portrayal of the Japanese soldiers. I suppose on some level I should expect that from an American film about World War II, but I would also expect an Oscar-caliber film to have more nuance and thoughtfulness.

Arrival was the movie I was most looking forward to, and it did not disappoint. It’s a science fiction film about a linguist recruited to help in communicating with an alien race following the arrival on Earth of several extraterrestrial crafts. It’s based on the Ted Chiang short story “Story of Your Life,” which I actually read last year in anticipation of the then-upcoming film adaptation. While the story is nominally about alien contact, there’s a much deeper personal story about the linguist, played in the film by Amy Adams, which I dare not say anything about lest I spoil the joy in allowing viewers to discovery it on their own. I’ll note only that, after reading the short story, I was skeptical that it could be faithfully adapted for film, and I am in awe of how effectively the makers of this film did so. Even the elements that were changed for the film, such as the increased focus on international tension, were done in service of the story and did not feel artificial or forced. Arrival is captivating, complex, and rewarding. I suspect it also holds up to multiple viewings—having read the short story, I picked up on various elements of the film’s story that would have come across differently to a viewer without that foreknowledge. While I don’t expect it to actually win the Best Picture Oscar, Arrival is my personal pick for the best film of 2016.

Finally, Hidden Figures is the story of the black women who worked at NASA as mathematicians, playing crucial roles in several critical missions during the Cold War space race, a time when people of color were highly marginalized. It was a good movie about an important subject, but I couldn’t help but feel it was a shallow, sanitized “Hollywood” version of events. There’s an early line of dialogue which references the year in a very self-conscious way, and another scene in which one of the women blows up at her boss over her treatment. She’s completely in the right, of course, but it’s hard to imagine such a scene playing out that way in real life at the time—it seems more like a moment contrived to elicit cheers from modern viewers. Maybe I’m wrong—as with Lion, I don’t have a good idea of how accurately this film portrays the real events—but it doesn’t feel genuine to me. Again, it’s a good, enjoyable film, but I see little in it that raises it to the level I would expect of a real Best Picture contender.

On the whole, 2016 was a good year for films. Even if I thought some of the nominees were not quite worthy of the honor, I enjoyed all nine of them.

Best Picture Showcase 2017, Day One

February 26th, 2017

The Oscars are this weekend, which means that AMC Theatres is holding its annual Best Picture Showcase, a two-day marathon of the contenders for the top honor. Day one was last Saturday and included screenings of Manchester by the Sea, Fences, Hell or High Water, and La La Land. I’d seen none of them before, and enjoyed all four.

Manchester by the Sea tells the story of a man’s strained relationship with his nephew, whom he is placed in charge of after the death of his brother. Casey Affleck plays the main character in a performance that is itself Oscar-nominated, but I was unaware of the praise it had garnered and thought he was a bit stilted. Nevertheless, the movie was poignant and charming, and the revelation of the Affleck character’s background was moving and effective. I enjoyed the film.

Fences, starring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, is about a black garbageman in mid-20th century, and the pain he causes his family. Washington is a great actor, of course, but Davis completely stole the show with a powerful performance as his wife, one which I hope earns her the Best Actress Oscar Sunday night. The movie as a whole was pretty good, but extremely dialogue heavy and tended to drag in parts, particularly at the beginning. I enjoyed it but thought it could have benefited from some judicious editing.

The biggest surprise of the day was Hell or High Water, which I knew nothing about beforehand. It’s about two bank-robbing brothers in rural Texas, and the Texas ranger who’s after them. The case was uniformly excellent, but Jeff Bridges was the highlight as the ranger (another Oscar-nominated performance). The characters were well-written and relatable, and while the climax was a bit intense, the movie was surprisingly funny overall.

Finally, La La Land is the apparent frontrunner to win Best Picture. It’s a musical about a down-on-his-luck jazz musician and an aspiring actress who fall in love, and it very consciously evokes the classic Hollywood musicals. It was very fun, and I particularly enjoyed one important scene which prominently featured the ’80s classics “Take On Me” and “I Ran.” I’ll be vague so as to avoid spoiling it, but the ending was unexpected, and will probably disappoint some viewers, but I found it very realistic, relatable, and moving.

Given the film’s subject matter, I feel that La La Land’s likely Best Picture win is a bit self-serving on the part of the Academy, similar to Birdman’s victory a couple of years ago. Nevertheless, I think La La Land is much more deserving than Birdman was, and it was my personal favorite of the four, edging out Hell or High Water.

Unicomp "Spacesaver M" Keyboard Review

May 23rd, 2016

The Unicomp “Spacesaver M” I ordered last week came in today. It’s the Mac version of Unicomp’s buckling-spring keyboard, based on the old IBM Model M and apparently manufactured using some of the original equipment (Unicomp bought the rights from Lexmark, which used to be part of IBM). The Model M is known for its loud “clicky” keys and strong tactile feedback.

Unicomp

This Mac version is actually based on Unicomp’s “Ultra” product line which has a smaller housing than the original Model M. They sell a full-sized PC version as well, but the Mac line is only available in the smaller housing. The actual keys have the same full-size keyboard regardless of the housing.

The original Model M is a big, heavy monster of a keyboard. This Unicomp model is noticeably lighter in comparison, but it still has much more heft than any everyday keyboard manufactured today.

Because of the era in which they were manufactured, most Model M keyboards have a PS/2 connector. The Unicomp uses USB. Unlike the original Model M, the Unicomp’s cord is permanently attached to the keyboard. I consider that a minor downgrade from the Model M’s removable cord. Especially given how standardized USB is, it would be nice if the cord were removable, so that it could easily be replaced if it became frayed or damaged.

Unicomp

The keyboard seemed reasonably well-packed for shipping, but five or six of the keys had popped off by the time I opened the box. They snapped back on easily, so it was not a big deal.

The original Model M had 101 keys, with no “Windows” or “menu” key, and a small gap between the “Ctrl” and “Alt” keys. Unicomp’s PC model has 104 keys, adding a “menu” key and two “Windows” keys, and reducing the size of the space bar to accommodate. The Mac version is based on this 104-key version, but with the slightly different modifier key layout used by Apple.

It has all the same secondary options—brightness, volume, etc.—on the Function keys. However, the actual icons it uses for them are pretty ugly. The delete key—the one that corresponds to a PC keyboard’s delete, not backspace—is especially bad.

Like the Model M, the keycaps on the Unicomp’s keys are removable and replaceable. Unicomp sells a full set of blank keycaps, which I’d like to eventually purchase, as my previous work keyboard was the Das Keyboard with blank keys, and I loved using it, partly for the novelty.

Unicomp

I’m typing this review on the original Model M that I have hooked up to my home desktop PC. It was manufactured in 1991, and is still in perfect working order—that’s how robust these keyboards are. I’m really excited to put the Unicomp through its paces at work tomorrow, and just hope the noise won’t be too bothersome for my coworkers.

(This article was originally published on Facebook.)

In which I review the other four Best Picture Oscar nominees

March 4th, 2016

Last weekend the local AMC hosted the second part of their “Best Picture Showcase,” presenting the remaining four of this year’s eight Best Picture Oscar nominees back-to-back.

The first film was Brooklyn, a charming story about Eilis, a young Irish woman who immigrates to the United States on her own in the 1950s. She struggles at first, but eventually manages to build a fulfilling life for herself. But when she returns to Ireland temporarily after a family tragedy, she becomes torn between her homeland and the new life she’s built for herself. Saoirse Ronan plays Eilis, and her performance was rightly nominated in the Best Actress category. The movie was enjoyable, but somewhat insubstantial compared to several of the other nominees.

Next was Spotlight, which would go on to actually win the Best Picture award. It dramatizes the Boston Globe’s “Spotlight” team of journalists’ brilliant investigation of the Catholic Church’s sex abuse scandal in the early 2000s. It follows in the footsteps of other journalism films like All the President’s Men and Zodiac, and it easily stands with the best of them. It was exhilarating and while it would not have been my personal pick for the Best Picture award (I liked Room a little better and I think Bridge of Spies and The Big Short were about on par with it) I think it’s Oscar win was completely justified.

The day’s third film was The Martian, Ridley Scott’s tale of a stranded astronaut, based on the popular book. I had read the book, loved it, and already seen the movie once before. The movie is very faithful to the book, and holds up to repeated viewings. I enjoyed every moment of it and recommend seeing it, but like it’s fellow nominee Mad Max: Fury Road, it’s pretty lighthearted and I’m not sure it belongs in the same category as some of the year’s harder-hitting dramas. Still, it’s a worthwhile, eminently enjoyable picture.

Closing out the day was The Revenant, the film that would finally see Leonard DiCaprio receive a well-deserved Best Actor Oscar. It’s a brutal, harrowing tale of Hugh Glass, a 19th-century frontiersman left for dead by a fellow trapper after he is mauled by a bear. But Glass survives the attack, and attempts to make his way back to civilization and enact revenge on the man who left him to die. I understand all the accolades this film has received, but it was not my cup of tea.

I would actually have predicted The Revenant to win Best Picture, but was happily surprised on Sunday to see it go to the more-deserving-in-my-opinion Spotlight, one of several nominees I would have been perfectly happy to see take home the prize.

With The Revenant being the least satisfying of the films to my personal taste, this year was nevertheless a very good one for films overall, with an unusual number of films that stood out above the competition. As usual, I’m glad to have had the opportunity to view so many of the year’s best in one go and can’t wait to do the same next year.

In which I review four of the Best Picture Oscar nominees

February 22nd, 2016

This past Saturday was first day of AMC’s “Best Picture Showcase,” a two-part marathon of the films nominated for the Best Picture Oscar.

First up was Bridge of Spies, a Steven Spielberg film in which Tom Hanks plays James Donovan, an American lawyer defending accused Soviet spy Rudolf Abel during the Cold War. The justice system treats Abel’s guilt as a foregone conclusion, and Donovan is initially assigned to the case only to give the appearance that Abel is given a fair trial. But Donovan takes his duty seriously and serves his client to the best of his abilities, sparing him the death penalty. Later, the CIA attempts to exchange Abel for a captured American pilot, and Donovan travels to Berlin to facilitate the exchange.

I felt that the first part of the story, about Abel’s trial and Donovan’s defense of his civil liberties, was more compelling that the second, about the exchange. But the entire movie was enjoyable and everything came together strongly in the end. The best scene was one in which we see the American pilot being sentenced in a Soviet court following his capture. After many scenes of intense debate in Abel’s American trial, this single shot conveyed a lot of information in a very brief, powerful moment, as the audience realizes that the pilot must have gone through a parallel experience.

The second film was Room, a drama about Joy, a young woman who was kidnapped and held prisoner in a single room for seven years. Imprisoned with her is Jack, her five-year-old son, whom her captor fathered. Like Bridge, Room is divided into two distinct parts. The first shows what life is like for Joy and Jack, culminating in their escape. In the second, they attempt to adjust to everyday life after such a traumatic experience.

I thought both parts of the film were equally compelling, and they seemed to present a realistic picture of what this kind of horrific experience must be like. It was especially moving to see the ways in which Joy shielded Jack from the worst of the horrors, and the film had several surprisingly lighthearted moments as a result. Joy’s escape plan seemed a bit far-fetched and too reliant on their captor’s incompetence, but it played out in a believable way and was only a minor flaw in an otherwise outstanding film.

Next was Mad Max: Fury Road, the fourth film in George Miller’s series, coming thirty years after the third installment and with a new actor (Tom Hardy) in the title role. This film received a surprising amount of critical acclaim upon its initial release last summer, focusing mainly on its strong female characters and feminist themes. I saw it at the time and while I enjoyed it, I felt that it did not live up to its hype. While there were a lot of strong women in the film, it was nevertheless mostly mindless action with little story or character development. Watching it again this weekend with a better idea of what to expect, I enjoyed the film a lot more. It might not have the most compelling story of the bunch, but it paints a fascinating picture of the future with outlandish makeup, costumes, and landscapes. It was fun to watch, though I still think it’s of a distinctly lesser caliber than its fellow nominees.

Finally was The Big Short, the more-or-less true story of the financial crisis of 2007–2008. It followed several real-life investors who apparently foresaw the whole thing and followed their mounting incredulity as Wall Street continued to let things get out of hand. The film did an amazing job of presenting the details of the housing market in an easily-understandable way, with characters explaining things to the audience directly in short, funny vignettes. The whole film was much more hilarious than I expected, but while underscoring the seriousness of the economic crisis it chronicles.

I thought that all four films were enjoyable, and that Bridge of Spies, Room, and The Big Short were truly excellent. I’d probably give the edge to Room of the four of them for telling a unique story unlike any I’ve seen before, but there are four more nominees coming up next week in part two of the marathon. I plan to review them as well, though my schedule will probably preclude me from doing so before the Oscars on Sunday.

Best Picture Showcase 2014, Day 2

March 2nd, 2014

Yesterday was day 2 of AMC’s best picture showcase, a marathon screening of the remaining five of this year’s nominees for the Best Picture Oscar: Nebraska, Captain Phillips, Her, American Hustle, and Gravity.

Nebraska was a funny, quirky movie about an elderly man, played by Bruce Dern, who believes he has won a million dollars in a mail-in sweepstakes and has his son take him on a road trip to collect his prize from the sweepstakes headquarters. It was very funny, and the acting was excellent, particularly Bruce Dern, who is rightly nominated for Best Actor. It was shoot in black-and-white, which gives the picture a quaint feeling that suits the material.

Captain Phillips, which tells the true story of the captain of an American cargo ship taken over by Somali pirates, was very thrilling and suspenseful. Is especially impressed by the way the ending shows the aftermath of such an episode. Not surprisingly, Tom Hanks was superb in his role as the title character.

Her takes place in the near future, and is about a man who falls on love with his computer’s artificially-intelligent operating system. It creates a plausible vision of the future, and tells a thoughtful story of how people interact with technology. The characters were relatable and the plot believable, given the premise. It is my personal pick for best movie of the year.

American Hustle is about a con man and his female partner helping an FBI agent in a sting operation after he busts them. It’s plot was actually somewhat difficult to follow. The ’70s aesthetic was charming, and the music was great, but I didn’t think the movie was anything special otherwise. It also uses that annoying technique I complained about last week, opening with a scene from the middle of the story before flashing back to the beginning. At least in this case, the filmmakers used the opportunity to dive the Christian Bale character a memorable introduction.

Finally, Gravity, about two astronauts stranded in space after their shuttle is destroyed by debris, was as thrilling as they say, and was technically very well-made. It was also filled with a lot of very typical Hollywood-style nonsense science, at least some of which would be obvious to any viewer, regardless of their level of scientific literacy or familiarity with spaceflight and physics in particular. I don’t always find this sort of thing distracting in a mindless action picture, but it should preclude a film from being considered one of the years best and so I’m a bit puzzled that Gravity was even nominated.

Overall, I enjoyed all nine of this year’s best picture nominees, several of them a great deal. I think this was one of the better years in recent memory in that respect, and as always I’m glad to have seen all the nominees.

Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine

February 26th, 2014

Though it was not nominated for Best Picture, Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine was up for several other Oscars and so I decided to watch it recently. Despite the lack of a Best Picture nomination, Blue Jasmine has been highly praised as one of the year’s best movies, a view of the movie which completely eludes me.

The characters were mostly unpleasant, were mired in unhappy situations, and made bad decisions. The story was dull, and I was totally uninvolved in anything that happened to anyone on screen. I have not seen very many Woody Allen movies, but I did see Midnight in Paris, which was nominated for Best Picture two years ago, and I really enjoyed it. In contrast, Blue Jasmine was just difficult to sit through.

Even the acting seemed uninspired. Cate Blanchett, who plays the main character, is nominated for Best Actress, and while she was good in the role, nothing about her performance really stood out to me in a way that says, “this is possibly the best performance in the movies this year.”

If anyone who really enjoyed Blue Jasmine wants to share what they enjoyed about it, I’d love to hear it. My personal recommendation is to pass on it.

Best Picture Showcase 2014, Day 1

February 24th, 2014

This past weekend, I watched four of the nine movies nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, as part of AMC Theater’s annual “Best Picture Showcase,” in which all the nominees are screened during two consecutive Saturdays. The four movies featured during this first day of the marathone were Philomena, Dallas Buyers Club, The Wolf of Wall Street, and 12 Years a slave.

All four were excellent. Interestingly, all were based on true stories. The first two, Philomena and Dallas Buyers Club, I knew virtually nothing about before watching. Philomena in particular was excellent. It tells the story of an elderly lady, played by Judi Dench, trying to track down her long-lost son with the help of a journalist who wants to write a story about her experience. Judi Dench was funny and charming, and the story was affecting and sad without seeming overtly manipulative. I even cried a bit during some especially moving scenes.

Dallas Buyers Club was also very good, telling the story of an HIV-positive man fighting the medical establishment for medicine he believes could save his life. It turns out to have been filmed locally (in the New Orleans area), and I recognized a lot of places onscreen. The story was interesting, but I was somewhat uncomfortable with what I think was an unfair demonization of the medical indistry in general, with a seeming contempt for the practice of science as it pertains to the controlled study of the efficacy of drugs.

The Wolf of Wall Street was outrageous and fun, but it was also rather shallow. It’s certainly one of those films to have benefited from the recent increase in the maximum number of nominees from five to ten. It was enjoyable, but I didn’t really think it was anything special and I don’t think it was quite on the same level as the other movies in contention.

Finally, 12 Years a Slave was extremely good. It could have been the best of the day if not for a couple of confusing narrative points. Notably, it indulges in a pet peeve of mine, which is to begin the movie with an out-of-context scene from the middle of the narrative, then flash back to the beginning of the story. This is a fairly common technique, but it feels lazy and unnecesarry to me. I can think of a few movies that use this specific structure (including The Wolf of Wall Street), but none whose story benefitted from it. I’m not opposed to non-linear or otherwise unusual narratives, but this just seems like a lazy way to give a movie an attention-grabbing opening with no real effort. But maybe I’m making too big a deal out of what was honestly a relatively minor criticism in an otherwise excellent film.

Of the four movies I saw on Saturday, Philomena is my pick for the best so far, though there are five more (Nebraska, Captain Phillips, Her, American Hustle, and Gravity) to come next week. I’ve already seen two (Her and Gravity), but I’ll save my thoughts on them until I re-watch them with the other nominees on Saturday.

Toy Story 3 “Cliffhanger Edition”

April 22nd, 2010

Last night, I had the great pleasure of seeing a special screening of Pixar’s upcoming film Toy Story 3. It was a “cliffhanger edition,” comprising only the first 65 minutes of the movie. I believe it may have been an unfinished version of those 65 minutes, but there was no obvious indication that it was incomplete, no “placeholder graphics” as you might see in a work-in-progress or anything like that.

Toy Story 3

I am a great fan of Pixar’s work in general, and of the Toy Story films in particular, so I am pleased to report that Toy Story 3—at least the part I saw—lives up to its predecessors completely. It’s funny, charming, and even a little bit creepy.

The plot sees Buzz, Woody, and the rest of the toys donated to the Sunnyside day-care center as their owner Andy, now 17, prepares to leave for college. This is a natural extension of the previous films’ stories, and allows for the introduction of many interesting new characters (including Totoro!), all of whom are a perfect fit for the Toy Story universe.

The movie has just the right atmosphere, with several appropriately dark sequences to balance the film’s overall lightheartedness. The dark corridors of Sunnyside at night are unsettling and foreboding, and I especially enjoyed a slightly twisted flashback scene explaining how a certain character came to be at Sunnyside. I was also mildly surprised to see a scene involving a character speaking a foreign language with English subtitles (I was going to say that this was a first for Pixar, but didn’t The Incredibles feature a brief sequence with a French-speaking supervillain?).

Toy Story 3

Toy Story 3 is very funny, and much of its humor lies in throwbacks to its predecessors; this is both good and bad. The opening sequence is an updated take on the first film’s introductory scene, and seems likely to delight fans. However, it does grow a bit tiring to watch Buzz as the oblivious space ranger for the third time, and the elaborate planning-and-escape sequence in the middle of the film is lifted shamelessly from the original Toy Story. I would have said the same about the many gags involving Mr. Potato Head losing his parts or getting them all mixed up, but Pixar finally managed to make that bit fresh again with a brilliant sequence (you’ll know it when you see it) that had the audience roaring with laughter, so I feel they’ve earned a pass on that one. In any event, the film being perhaps just a bit too derivative of its predecessors is really the only fault I can find with it.

I don’t think I know anybody who doesn’t already love the first two Toy Story films, so I doubt anyone needs convincing to see Toy Story 3. But just for the record, its first hour alone was one of the best things I’ve seen in a theater in some time (probably since Pixar’s previous film, Up), and I’m quite looking forward to seeing how it ends when it’s officially released on June 18.

Penn & Teller Get Killed on DVD

September 29th, 2009

The Penn & Teller Get Killed DVD that I mentioned last week arrived over the weekend. Though I have not yet had the opportunity to sit down and enjoy the entire movie, I did take the time to briefly skip through the film and sample the quality of a few select scenes.

I’m happy to report that the DVD’s image quality is perfectly adequate, at least to my eyes. DVDs released through the burn-on-demand Warner Archive program are generally made with existing materials, which may be in need of remastering or otherwise not in the best condition, so quality can be a real concern. Fortunately, Penn & Teller appears to be in pretty good shape, ostensibly because a new high-definition transfer was prepared for the cable showing I mentioned previously.

Penn & Teller Get Killed screen capture

Everything else about the release is pretty basic. The audio is presented as a standard two-channel Dolby Surround track. The menu consists of a single generic screen with only one option: “play movie.” Chapter stops are placed at ten-minute intervals, rather than at the beginning of key scenes. There are no supplements, which isn’t particularly surprising for a burn-on-demand budget release, but some of the Warner Archive titles at least have a trailer. Penn & Teller has nothing.

Penn & Teller Get Killed DVD

Of course, the point of the Warner Archive program isn’t to get lesser-known films on DVD with a high-quality audio and video presentation; it’s to get them on DVD at all. All things considered, Penn & Teller Get Killed actually turned out quite well. I can finally retire my laserdisc and Asian video CD releases of the film.

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