2013-08-29

Announcement: Movie reviews moving to Mondo Bizarro

Just a little announcement: Bates Motel is the last of the film reviews that I'll be putting up on Gaming Creatively. I'm not stopping movie reviews--I'm just going to be doing them for Al's blog, Mondo Bizarro. Movie reviews on a movie review blog...what a concept!

Gaming Creatively content will still likely continue intermittently whenever I have something I just feel the need to write about, but should be focused on video games, RPGs, and the like when it does come around. The film reviews I've posted so far will stay here, but my reviews for future rounds of Project Terrible and any other films/shows that I decide (or am forced by Al) to review will be over on Mondo Bizarro.

2013-08-28

Project Terrible: Bates Motel (1987)

Here's my final film for this round of Project Terrible, and I saved Maynard's for last because, well, I was honestly kind of hoping it would somehow cease to exist before I got the chance to watch it.


Where do I start...

First off, the reason this took so long to get up here after my last review. There's no nice way to put this. This movie is very boring and very stupid. I got about 28 minutes in and something so amazingly dumb happened that I actually had to stop the movie and walk away.

It took me weeks to feel up to coming back to finish it off.


A little background: Bates Motel (the 1987 attempt, not the current series) is a TV pilot for a show that never went further than the pilot. Basically, Psycho III was such a colossal financial failure that Universal wanted to change things up and make a TV series spinoff to keep the series alive. Apparently they were somewhat inspired in this by Friday the 13th: The Series, which basically just took the name of the film series and did a general horror theme with it. However, Friday the 13th: The Series was actually pretty quirky and fun. Bates Motel? Not so much.

The show centers around a man named Alex, who inherited the Bates Motel from Norman Bates for reasons I'll get into in a little bit. He tries to get the place up and running again, and eventually...very eventually...strange things start to happen. The idea for the show, it would seem, is that each episode would feature different guests coming by the hotel and getting wrapped up in some supernatural event or another, while Alex and his friends...well, judging from this episode, they wouldn't be much involved at all, or they'd have their own plot going on separately. Not a terrible idea for a series, necessarily, although one wonders why they wanted to do it as a Psycho tie-in if it was going to regularly involve actual supernatural events, which to my recollection Psycho didn't.


For this pilot episode, we obviously had to get the setup out of the way, and the film primarily concerns itself with that. After an opening in which we see Not-Anthony-Perkins Norman Bates being driven off after a trial evidently following up from the end of Psycho (with coverage by one of the most over-the-top reporters I've ever seen, who immediately killed my ability to take the film seriously), we are introduced to Alex, a young boy who went catatonic and was institutionalized after he killed his father after suffering years of abuse. His only friend is a stuffed bird he named Jack, not that that matters after a few minutes. The doctors don't know what to do with the poor kid, but one doctor has a great idea. I'll let him explain it.

  • Doctor: "I think you need a real friend...I mean, a buddy. Someone to talk to, someone to trust. But most importantly, someone who knows an awful lot about how to ensure that Jack here [the patient's stuffed bird] stays healthy, and doesn't lose any of his stuffing."
  • Doctor's Narration: "And so I took the small boy, so frightened and all alone, to meet Norman Bates."

ARE YOU KIDDING ME?

Oh, heck, I could stop the review right there. "This boy's lived through a terrible experience and offed his own abusive father and now treasures a bird he stuffed himself and won't talk to or even look at anyone...well, sure, it seems like a good idea to introduce him to the area's most infamous serial killer. Should open him up and get him stalking...I mean, talking to people. I don't see how that could possibly go wrong."

Right after that, we skip 27 years in like a minute. Norman's dead now. We never even really get to see him interacting with Alex--just some photographs.

You know, the story of Norman Bates, psychopathic murderer, trying to redeem himself by helping a young boy recover from his mental trauma and become a functioning and good person...still a ridiculous premise in that I don't think a psychiatrist would actually allow it, mind, but nevertheless...that could be a good story. Too bad we just kind of skipped it.


I'm not going to get into a bit-by-bit examination of the plot, but to give you the rest of the idea, Alex inherits the Bates Motel from Norman on the condition that he get it up and running again, and sets out to do that. He meets a helpful handyman and a tremendously unbalanced and hyperactive girl who seems crazier than Norman ever was if you ask me, and the three spend the first full hour basically just getting the hotel up and running. The last half hour of the movie brings in the supernatural events in a very sudden and short side story, setting up what would probably have been the main theme of the actual show if it had gone any further. Meanwhile, Alex and friends try to figure out how they're going to start paying back the loan he took out to set the place up, and if someone's actually trying to scare Alex out of the place. Not a bad plot, necessarily, but believe me when I say that this film chooses exactly the wrong parts of that synopsis to spend its time on.

Now that that's out of the way, here's what the film does well.


First off, Bud Cort is quite good as Alex. He does a great job of portraying this kind of lost soul, intelligent but awkward, who has never had to deal with the real world. There's something really touching about his character, and I honestly love how Bud portrays Alex's honesty and his good-heartedness, as well as his acknowledgement that the man he's looked up to as a father figure for most of his life is regarded as a psychopath by everyone else. Norman was a good man to him, but he wasn't a good man to others, and Alex knows and accepts that. It's a complex portrayal and Bud does a great job with it. I am not exaggerating when I say that watching his portrayal of the character is pretty much the only thing that kept me going for this film.

Plot-wise, again, this is not a terrible setup. I can see how this could work, and with some trimming...a lot of trimming...this could have been a pretty nice little film. The ghost story in the film's last half-hour is a nice little tale, though there are major issues with it I'll get into later. Alex is endearing, and seeing him develop as a person and kind of open up as the film goes on is great. And even the concept for the non-supernatural side of the story isn't bad--the idea that someone wants Alex out of the hotel so it can be used for something else can make a nice mystery. So in concept, this is a good film.

The film also does have a decent understanding of suspense concepts. In the few scenes where it tries to set up a suspenseful mood, it actually does a nice job. It's reasonably subtle, it refrains from jump scares for the most part, and it makes some skillful use of lighting (admittedly, harder to acknowledge on the degraded copy that I had available to watch, but still evident). It in no way matches up to Psycho itself, of course, but it was never going to. For what it is, it's makes some very good attempts.


Finally--the side story that comes up in the last half hour is actually fairly entertaining. I'll comment more on it later, but it does belong at least partially on the good side.

Unfortunately...that's about all I have to say that's good about Bates Motel. Now we get to the bad, and the downright stupid.

First off...Willie. Honestly, this character is pretty much nothing but raw annoyance. Played by Tank Girl herself, Lori Petty, Willie is hyperactive, completely unreasonable, dangerously unbalanced, and utterly unsympathetic. Note: not necessarily Lori Petty's fault, though the crazed acting job she gives here does contribute--but the character is just plain scripted badly. She pretty much forces herself on poor Alex and takes command over his life, even to the extent of feeding him meatloaf on a shattered plate and being offended enough to walk out on him when he (after having to remove a shard of broken plate from a piece of it) only calls it "good." By the end of the movie she is indeed being genuinely helpful, but she's just so aggressively irritating for the majority of the film that it became impossible for me to like her even then. It doesn't help that she basically ends up a Deus ex Crazygirlia to resolve Alex's portion of the plot, something I'll get into later. I get what they were going for here--Alex kind of gathers people who are a little unbalanced because he's more comfortable with them, so the main cast all have their problems, but Willie just doesn't work too well.


She's also involved in The Moment, the bit that made me stop watching the film for weeks as I just gave up and called it quits for a while. In the grand scheme of things it isn't that bad, but it's just so stupid that I just couldn't muster the will to keep going. Basically, in the film's only real jump scare, Alex is in the hotel at night putting away some groceries when he hears a noise, goes to investigate, and encounters...a fast-food mascot, a girl (Willie) dressed as a gigantic feathery bird. The girl proceeds to steal the table leg or something he's using to defend himself, threaten him with it, eat his groceries, and generally be an abusive jerk, all while I'm wondering:

  • Who the heck is this girl?
  • Why is she wandering around the Bates Motel at night?
  • Why is she still dressed in her mascot uniform from her job? I'm pretty sure they don't let you take those home, and even if they did, would you actually walk home like that?
  • She claims she's been living at the motel because it's abandoned, but by the time they meet Alex has been staying there for at least a night or two, so why don't either of them notice each other until now? He's been wandering pretty freely inspecting the place, and if she's in the habit of wandering around it a big old chicken suit, it seems like that might catch his eye.
  • Why do people always seem to think that playing "wacky" music over humorless scenes will make them funny?


So yeah, that's about where I just gave up for a while.

We also have the sheer length of time before anything interesting happens. Most of this movie is about setting up a hotel, which would be fine if it bothered to inject any real suspense into setting up said hotel. It doesn't, really, until very late in the movie when we finally hear that Alex has a very tight timetable for paying back his loan in unreasonably large payments. It isn't until 40 minutes in that we finally get some indication that something bad is going on, when a body is discovered on the grounds...and even then, that's really more of a momentary pause before we get back to the exciting hotel management story. The film really crams all of its suspense and/or drama into the last half hour of its hour and a half runtime, which is just not acceptable.

Additionally, there's the general mood of the film. Though I mentioned that it does suspense fairly well at times, it doesn't do suspense very often. No, more often, it resorts to low-grade comedy, even slapstick comedy. About the first twenty minutes or so after the introduction consists of a lot of "wacky" events, like Alex utterly failing to get directions to the Bates Motel, Alex suffering pratfalls from collisions with little kids, The Moment I described above, and other things of a similar nature. It's so very bizarre and just doesn't fit with the idea of the film, and makes it very hard to remain interested even when you're trying very hard to do so for a review!


I'll get back to the suspense and drama in a little bit, because to discuss that I really have to discuss the ending, but I do have to say one other thing about that last half-hour. It's here that we see the actual premise of the show, as I mentioned above. The hotel is open, and a guest checks in, and we get a story surrounding that guest--basically, she came to commit suicide, but is accidentally discovered by a teen girl entering the wrong room, who drags her off to a party some friends of hers are having. It's actually a fairly nice little story that I'm not going to spoil, and though there are some ridiculously over-complicated moments in it (especially the teen's big speech near the end, in which she really, really dances around things that could easily be said straight out), it helped me push on through to the end, so I'm thankful for it. What's bad about it is that it basically doesn't involve Alex, Willie, the handyman whose name I can't recall, or any of the other characters we've spent a full hour with to this point. Alex is tangentially involved by providing punch and snacks for the party, but he's in no way central to the story. What that means is that an hour into the film, a completely separate story starts, quickly builds, has its climax, and ends, all without any involvement from the actual main characters of the movie.

It's like if you were watching, I don't know, The Avengers, and then just before the attack on New York a totally separate cast of characters was introduced and waved hello to Captain America as he walked towards the plane they took to the city, and then this new cast went off and had a totally separate plot about, say, a high stakes poker game, and the film skipped back and forth between the two plots until the end despite none of the main characters being involved in the poker plot. Even if both plots are high quality--and they certainly could be--you just don't do that! Would have been that bad to have the first supernatural events of the show actually center on Alex, and then from the second episode on you have it happen to the guests and Alex helps them out of it? He becomes a background character in his own movie!


Okay, now on to some more minor stuff for a bit, and then I'll come back to this and discuss how the film screws up its ending pretty darn badly. Here's some notes I took while actually watching the film, because I actually can't think of a better way to state any of this:

  • Seriously, I know it's been 27 years, but every single person he talks to has never heard of the Bates Motel? Yeah, right. You know what happens to sites of major serial murders in reality? They become a central point for community lore. I'm not saying that every single person would know how to direct you to the Bates Motel, but it would be at the center of rumors, ghost stories, tours, etc. for years upon years to come. It would at the very least be that old building everyone talks about in hushed tones, but more likely given the evident publicity of the Bates case from our enthusiastic reporter earlier, it would a tourist destination.
  • Worst...pratfall...ever. Three kids are suddenly shown running, then we cut back to Alex, who goes "aaah" in the dullest tone he can manage--almost exactly as though he were saying it as a cue for the kids to run at him--and then kind of slightly falls back when the kids vaguely run near him and falls on his back in the bushes very lightly.
  • Arrrgh. And the guy he finally runs into who knows about the Bates Motel confirms exactly what I've been thinking: it's well-known in the community, rumored to be haunted, etc. It's just that Alex had the astounding bad luck to, for the better part of a day, run into only people who were so new to the area as to have never heard a famous community ghost story! Implausible, much?
  • We pretty much continually find new people in this movie who have no idea who Norman Bates is, which is just goofy. This guy was local, sure, but he was a serial killer. If there's one thing that's unfortunately true about serial killers, it's that they tend to get to be pretty well known, especially in the town where they committed their crimes. Really, it's like if you asked around about Ted Bundy in Washington and elsewhere along his trail of murders, and pretty much everyone you asked said, "Who's that, now?" except for one guy who claimed that the Bundy story was well known, and even after that you kept encountering people who seemed clueless about it.
  • Oh, finally, a plot! They dig up a skeleton with a construction machine. Oddly, the skeleton seems to have been buried on top of an electrical cable, and the driver nearly electrocutes himself by cutting into the cable with his machine. I have no idea why the electrical stuff was necessary--maybe to ensure Alex and company have something to react to? But I'd think that someone screaming "HOLY CRAP, A DEAD BODY!" would get their attention just as well.

Okay. That's enough of that...on to the ending. As usual, spoiler warning here.

I already mentioned that the last half hour of this hour and a half film is split between two stories, one of which just kind of suddenly starts up and doesn't involve the main cast. While that gives us a decent little side story, it also means that whatever resolution we were going to have to the already thin "someone's trying to scare Alex away from the hotel and/or he's seeing ghosts" story is going to be totally dissatisfying. And boy is it ever. Here's what we get:

  • Pretty much out of nowhere, Willie suggests that someone is trying to scare Alex away from the hotel.
  • They open the hotel.
  • Alex reveals that he only has one night to earn $10,000 to start payment on the loan. This is, by the way, the first time there's any suggestion that the loan is actually unfair, as until now the banker has seemed to be a pretty stand up guy.
  • Willie talks to the handyman about one of the guys who helped with renovations and found the bodies earlier.
  • The side story starts up as the customer and the teens arrive.
  • Midway through the side story, Alex comes to Willie for more punch, and she reveals that the construction guy who found the bodies is connected to...honestly, I don't even remember, because it wasn't the guy who ends up being guilty but I've forgotten who the person she references actually was. O_O In any case, it's not exactly a blow-away revelation, and it's questionable how she even found out because we're never shown her investigation.
  • As the side story concludes, Alex comes back in to the hotel and sees someone dressed as Ms. Bates, who yells at him to get out. He refuses, and she rushes him, only to be stopped by the handyman, who unmasks "her" to reveal the banker who gave Alex the unfair loan.
  • The banker claims it doesn't matter what they say to the cops because the cops will take the banker's word over theirs. (I kind of doubt that if the cops come over while he's still partially dressed like an old woman with a big old knife, but whatever.)
  • Suddenly, another Ms. Bates appears in an equally unconvincing costume and charges at the banker, who admits the whole plan in his fear, yelling that he was trying to force Alex out of the place for...some reason. Ms. Bates #2 unmasks to reveal Willie, who evidently had the foresight to discover the banker's plan, find an identical costume and weapon, grab a tape recorder, and take up just the right position at just the right moment to be able to scare the banker into confessing.
  • Wow.
  • Just wow.
  • I repeat: Willie figured out the banker's plan based on no evidence at all, got an identical costume, got a tape recorder, and hid out until the banker attacked Alex. She let the handyman's lucky arrival save Alex (in no way is it suggested she clued him in, even though that would've been smart), and only once he'd been dealt with and was, to be honest, as good as caught anyway despite what the film tried to sell us, she "saved the day" by threatening his life until he confessed.
  • Again: Wow.
That isn't even the worst part. With the banker dealt with by forcing him to renegotiate to a much more favorable loan, the night passes, and Alex meets the customer from before, who is happy and energized and ready to get back into her life and give things another shot. Nice little bit, actually, if sappy. But then, once she drives off, we get an amazingly odd bit where Alex suddenly looks right at the camera and starts talking to the audience, inviting them to the Bates Motel like he's filming a TV commercial. And that's it. That's the end of the film.

I'm not really a fan of breaking the fourth wall in the middle of a serious story--don't mind it for comedy (in fact, tend to like it for comedy), but in a serious story it's really jarring. But this? Ending your movie on a sudden shattering of the fourth wall in a film that has done nothing of the sort so far? I kept waiting for the camera to pan over and reveal that he was actually talking to the sheriff or something, or in fact filming a TV advertisement, but no such luck. Just a total out-of-nowhere moment that was a completely bizarre way to end the movie.

Spoilers over, and time to wrap this thing up.

Bates Motel is pretty awful. It's not utterly hopeless, but it's clear the people involved were concentrating much more on setting up eventual future stories than on telling one now. It's basically an hour-long exercise in extremely boring setup, followed by a half hour of parallel, quickly-resolved stories, and the entire thing is tremendously unsatisfying and even actively irritating at times. It has an inconsistent mood and tone, several flat-out bizarre moments, and one extremely annoying character who just wouldn't go away, no matter how much I wanted her to. It utterly abandons its main cast for part of the film, resolves a mystery without ever showing the slightest bit of investigation (or even bringing up the mystery until just before the resolution starts up), and ends on an incongruous bit of fourth-wall decimation. Definitely terrible.

And come on, people...you're making a spinoff of Psycho. A jump scare with a fast food mascot? A little more dignity, please.

2013-07-01

Project Terrible: The Absent

Welcome back to Project Terrible! Today's film comes to me from Michele of The Girl Who Loves Horror.


This...was awful.

I could just end the review right there and I'd be a lot happier.

There are so very many things wrong with this movie and if I'm going to do this I kind of want to jump right to the worst of it, but let me start with the basic concept, as usual. A kid, Oscar, finds out his parents are trying to kill him, and kills them instead. His brother, Vincent, discovers it before he can hide the evidence...I guess...and so Oscar goes to prison for quite a long time. In the meantime, Vincent becomes a science teacher and also a pedophile--I'm not joking, it's very clear. Then Oscar gets out of prison and people, mostly high school students, start dying.

Ah, "Kills Mice and Rats," my favorite breakfast cereal.
So, let's try and highlight some good things about the movie. The acting isn't awful--it isn't strong, but these people do manage to actually act as opposed to reciting lines. There are some awkward moments, but also some pretty nice portrayals of subtle emotions. I actually have to give a real compliment to the kid who plays young Oscar, as he did a very nice job of a difficult part--silently sort of questioning whether he could really go through with what he was about to do as he prepared to kill his parents.

The overall film is pretty competently shot, aaaaand...I'm already kind of scraping the bottom of the barrel for compliments, aren't I? Let's move on.

Oof. I don't know where to begin. This was so very bad. I guess I'll start with the awkward and move to the terrible. So, let's begin at the beginning.

Can't you just hear the perky kiddy rock song in your head already?
The opening credits are hilarious. We have a bright, sunny day, a pretty town, a kid biking home from school, and almost whimsical opening credits using names imposed over leaves that appear and then fall apart. It's almost the intro to a children's comedy film...except for the score, which is trying desperately to convince us that this is suspenseful. And I mean desperately. Musical stings...slow, building notes...strange and creepy noises...you'd swear you were watching the opening credits to a suspense thriller. Which you are, of course, but the music and sounds don't in any way fit with what you're watching unfold. It's bizarre.

Another bizarre thing during the opening credits: everywhere the kid (Oscar) bikes, he's the only one around. No cars, no pedestrians, no nothing. I started wondering if this would be a plot thing, but nope.

I mentioned that the acting is pretty decent, but there is one particular exchange that made me giggle: when Oscar bumps into his stepdad in the hall, his stepdad yells at him, and Oscar yells back that he "had the right of way." Because that sounds natural. It's a light bump in the hallway, not a fender bender or vehicular manslaughter! (Although there is an attempted vehicular manslaughter shortly after.)

In another weird problem with the tone, after Oscar touches a lightswitch his dad sabotaged (again, his parents are trying to kill him), he sits up with that kind of spiky electrical shock hair you always see in, well, children's comedies. This is intended to be taken seriously. (It doesn't help that the parents just kind of give this goofy, "Whoops, we screwed up" look to each other. They're really, really bad at killing their kid, which is a good thing, but not exactly good for suspense!)

Oscar's plot to kill his parents is a little overkill. He uses a glass of ice water with broken glass in it, breakfast pastries with rat poison on them instead of powdered sugar, and poisoned coffee. Honestly, by the time you've got your folks doubly poisoned, the broken glass is just totally unnecessary. Doesn't help that his mom's reaction to the broken glass going into her mouth and probably her throat is just kind of, "Oh, so my son's trying to kill me," and she almost calmly gets up to run after Oscar when he runs. I'm pretty sure the reaction to shards of glass cutting into your mouth and throat would be immediate, not to mention rather screamy. Of course, there's also the fact that he uses a pretty small amount of said rat poison. I don't know anything about trying to poison someone and don't want to know, but I have to imagine you'd have to have more than just a few flakes of rat poison to get you to shuffle off this mortal coil in a matter of 30 seconds or so.


Before I get to the worse things, I just need to quickly call out a few other minor quirks:

  1. There's a bit where a high school girl waiting for her boyfriend to come over does her makeup, then goes to lie on her bed, listen to generic rock, and read an Ayn Rand book. Somehow "lovestruck schoolgirl" and "Objectivist philosophy" don't really fit together, you know?
  2. "Katie! I should probably shouldn't tell you this..." (Keep rolling!)
  3. The movie handles transitions pretty poorly at times. For instance, at one point, there's a bit in the science classroom, then suddenly a shot of two of the schoolgirls in the hallway where one says the other has cute hair, and then we're off to another scene entirely. The transition with the two girls had nothing to do with anything. What is this, A Bit of Fry and Laurie?
  4. Going back the girl waiting for her boyfriend to come over...he comes over, they start making out, and all of a sudden we get a shot of Vincent instead, like he's the one making out with her...very confusing. It's later explained that the girl has a crush on him so started picturing him, but...that's very unclear during the actual event. Not to mention creepy.
  5. Hey, you know what I really wanted to see tonight? Frog dissection. Great.

One more: We actually take time out to specifically call out the fact that the local sheriff's office just got a T1 internet connection so that it can get back information from information requests faster. Later in the movie, we take time to call out the fact that the information that the sheriff requested on a fingerprint he found (which, note, he found despite the fact that the killer was wearing disposable plastic gloves) isn't back yet. Yes, we actually have two opposing plot points--the sheriff's office can get information fast, but it gets it too slowly to solve the case early.

Moving on...a frequent problem with the film is that it consistently fails to introduce characters properly. In one case this might be due to the film's concept, but in other cases, it's just plain absolutely terrible writing. We frequently encounter characters whose relationships with other characters isn't actually clarified until something that should be emotional happens, and thus the emotional reaction we could have is destroyed because we don't know who these people even are. Some examples:

  1. We don't even find out that Oscar's "dad" is actually his stepdad until he's already drank some poison coffee.
  2. The first time we see Vincent is...I think...at baseball practice immediately before Oscar goes off to kill his folks. The second time we see him is when he appears in Oscar's house, sees his dead mother, and yells, "What did you do?" In neither of these cases is he said to be Oscar's brother or even named! And honestly...I'm not even sure if the kid at baseball practice is the same kid that shows up at the house. We get like a one-second shot of him at the house, and I have no inclination to go back and check.
  3. We finally get it established that Oscar and Vincent are brothers after Oscar is locked away in prison and we time-skip him to adulthood in a jump-cut during a game of catch.
  4. We meet one student--who I'll call "science girl" because I keep forgetting her name--just fine, but then we meet another two via a phone call from science girl. Girl 1 interacts with science girl enough that I know they're friends, while actually making out with Girl 2. (A quick interjection to note that there are a ton of "people making out" scenes in this movie and they all involve underage characters, which I could really, really do without.) Then she hangs up the phone and Girl 2 explains that she's dating Science Girl's boyfriend. Girl 1 is evidently not upset that Girl 2 is admitting two-timing her by this admission, but says that Girl 2 has to tell Girl 1 or she'll tell her. Girl 2 says she won't, so Girl 1...does nothing. Oh no! The girl I've never seen before this scene is betraying the girl I saw for the first time a few minutes ago by dating the boy I saw for the first time one scene ago! The drama!
  5. We soon meet another girl, who we find out is the sister of Girl 1...several scenes later, after Girl 1 is dead.
NAMES! RELATIONSHIPS! TELL ME NOW!
Seriously, how hard is it to just show some buildup of a relationship and establish the nature of the relationship before you do something important with it? It's really important! You can't expect me to emotionally react to, say, a friend betraying another friend by dating her boyfriend when we haven't even established that these people are friends in the first place!

This here...this is what we call "evidence."
Now we get to the big stuff. First, the very premise of the movie: Oscar, having killed his parents after he found that they were trying to kill him, gets (according to a newspaper article) 25 to life, a "stiff adult sentence." The kid's like 10, and there is clear evidence that would lead an investigator to believe he truly feared for his life. 25 to life seems unlikely. There's pretty ample evidence of exactly what the parents were planning, both from Oscar's presumed testimony and from the evidence that he very clearly discovered (what looked like plane tickets, and life insurance papers showing they recently got a big policy on him). Look, I can certainly buy Oscar getting jail or juvie time as a possibility (the law frowns on "I thought he was going to kill me later, so instead of taking the opportunity to go see the police now, I just killed him"), and I don't know how much he'd get, but "10 year old gets 25-to-life for killing parents who he clearly, truly believed were trying to kill him" seems unlikely. Furthermore, the newspaper mentions that he got a stiff adult sentence, but also that his sanity was in question. If his sanity was in question, that would make it even less likely that he'd get such a harsh sentence! He'd be under psychiatric care! That's called "Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity."


Oddly, incidentally, late in the movie the sheriff's assistant says that Oscar did "ten years on a manslaughter charge" while looking at an image of the same paper I'm showing above. I'm guessing probably what they're saying is that he got out on parole after ten years, but she's looking at the newspaper, not a prison record.


So now we get the the main part of the movie. There's one minor odd bit during the transition, in which Oscar writes a note to his brother Vincent explaining that he's coming up for parole soon, and despite the fact that we see adult Oscar writing the note, the kid's voice narrates it. That was weird.

By the way, you know what would make this upcoming reunion of the brothers more emotional, and either fill us with dread or hope? Seeing any part of their relationship as children at all!

Also, so Oscar just kind of gets out, dresses in a hoodie, hitches a ride, and just immediately stabs the driver for no reason whatsoever? And then another two years pass?


Yup. Liberty High School, all right. I guess that kid's just a prodigy. (This is seriously the very next shot.)
Okay...trying to stay focused here, but I just keep remembering other stupid little things. There are lots of little problems with this film, but I want to call out the two biggest ones and call it a review.


First...we don't really have any sympathetic characters that we spend time following to any major degree. We get the sheriff eventually, and he's okay, but we spend most of the film focusing on Vincent. Vincent, you will remember, we don't even actually meet during the childhood portion of the film in any meaningful way. Our first introduction to him is as a schoolteacher, and he's okay...until he starts very obviously romantically pursuing one of his students and accepting her reciprocation. So our main focal character of the story, the guy who I thought was going to be our hero of sorts as he would end up trying to bring his brother to justice, ends up a pedophile. Not to mention that to protect his reputation he goes around trying to cover his tracks and interfere with the case.


Then we have Oscar. I was actually hopeful for a moment that we might get a neat little twist where it was actually Vincent doing the killing and Oscar came back from prison to stop his brother. There were little hints that suggested Vincent was involved. Of course, they ended up meaning something different which I unfortunately guessed early and dreaded the rest of the movie, having experienced it before, but that would've been a nice story. Unfortunately, we get pretty clear, direct views of Oscar killing innocent people, so there's no reason to think of him as heroic.

So really, we only have the sheriff as a hero to root for, and...we just don't spend much time with him at all. He's actually a decent enough guy, it seems, but we spend the early part of the movie setting up to focus on Oscar, then we focus on Vincent, so by the time we start to kind of split focus between Oscar, Vincent, and the sheriff (who looked like a minor character until that point), I'm main charactered out.


Okay. There are really dozens of other minor moments I could talk about in this movie, but there's one huge thing that still needs focus. Unfortunately, it involves the ending, so major spoiler warnings apply for the rest of the review.

This movie has a twist.

It has a twist I've seen before. A twist that annoyed me quite a bit last time, and yet somehow contrived to be almost worse this time around.

That twist: Oscar and Vincent--at least, the Oscar and Vincent during the killings of the various high school students--are one and the same. I hated this concept in Ninja's Creed and I hate it now, for much the same reason I did then. In order to have this kind of work (and I should note that I called it about halfway through the film, and spent the rest of the movie in a combination of dread and rage), the movie pretty much just outright lies. It doesn't just hide information, it lies. I went over why this is a bad idea in the Ninja's Creed review, so I'm not going to go into all that detail again...I'll just note the problems specific to this film.

So, again we do have Oscar and Vincent showing up in the same place at various points--but that gets a pass because you have to do that to even have the slightest hope of this plot working. Where we get a problem is, again, when the film actually lies to you about Oscar and Vincent being at different places or messes with the timeline to kind of force things to work. The most notable things:
  1. At one point, Vincent wakes up at night and actually sees Oscar go by a security camera he set up. This can somewhat be explained as hallucination, though.
  2. Again, the movie actively lies to us at some points, with Oscar shown attacking Vincent or vice versa, Oscar shown doing things while Vincent is unconscious, or most of all, Oscar shown in drastically different positions from Vincent (such as one point where he out of a window just before the sheriff gets into a burning building and drags Vincent out).
  3. There's one point where Oscar is trying to hide a body while the sheriff's wife is driving up, and they play it like he has a tight timetable. But evidently he ends up having enough time to hide the body and go back and lie down unconscious as Vincent while simultaneously nervously watching from the bushes.
  4. At another point, the sheriff sees Oscar on the security footage of a shop. It is clearly Oscar, and the sheriff doesn't recognize him as Vincent.
  5. The fingerprint the sheriff finds is finally reported as belonging to Oscar, not Vincent.
  6. Vincent is in the sheriff's home with his wife, and goes to wash up in the bathroom. In the bathroom, he ducks down to the sink for a moment, and raises up--it's Oscar, dressed totally differently and with his usual beard. He goes out, and the sheriff's wife does not recognize him as Vincent. Instead, she goes to stab him, and is killed. Whereupon Oscar goes back to the bathroom, washes up, and in the same fashion returns to being Vincent, dressed totally differently and cleanshaven. Vincent goes in and is surprised at sight of the dying woman.
  7. Shortly after this, Oscar breaks into the home of Girl 2 and kills her. Then we're shown Vincent entering the house as well in hot pursuit.
  8. The two actually fight, and this is where the reveal happens, as Vincent stabs Oscar and then we're shown that he himself was stabbed, moments before the sheriff comes in.
Look...here's the thing. You cannot do a mystery like this. You cannot just actively lie to your audience in major fashion and break the reality of the world you've set up. Even if we accept that Vincent is actually a mad master of disguise and is able to rapidly change outfits and apply some kind of false beard to look kind of different, there's no way he'd have time to do so in some of these situations (the bit in the sheriff's home being the most notable). It gets to the point where the only explanation is that Oscar is some kind of psychic telekinetic reflection or Vincent is a shapeshifter. I know that's not what they were going for! The general idea seems to be that Oscar is an alternate personality Vincent created to protect himself (or vice versa), and that when he realizes Vincent is doing things that will ruin his reputation, he acts to protect Vincent by killing the people who can tell. That's not necessarily a bad idea for a plot, but it doesn't hold up to scrutiny here. It uses the same plot twist as Ninja's Creed and it goes wrong in almost exactly the same ways: characters who are one and the same are shown in drastically different places at the same time, and characters who should recognize the truth are somehow unable to do so. At least no one had trouble working basic doorknobs in this one.

Here's the other thing: when do they become the same character? It's really uncertain. Are they separate people as kids? There's one bit during the jail sequence where Oscar is shown running away from a prison work crew and gets shot by a guard, but then he wakes up in one of those "it was just a dream" moments. Was that not a dream? Is the real Oscar dead? Or was Vincent the real Oscar (or rather, Oscar the real Vincent) all along? I can only presume the latter, because of the fingerprint thing, in which case everything the movie told us from the very beginning was an utter lie. Heck, in that case, the dream is just a particularly nasty red herring! I hate saying this, but I actually don't know what the truth was supposed to be in this one...which I guess is another similarity to Ninja's Creed.

I do want to call out one thing I found rather nice about the use of the concept, even if it was a minor moment. Confronting the crazed Vincent, who looks to have stabbed himself, the sheriff draws his gun on Vincent. Vincent claims Oscar killed the sheriff's wife and that Oscar is going to kill the sheriff from behind, and lunges, which the sheriff mistakes for an attack. The sheriff shoots Vincent, and we get a nice overhead shot which shows the illusionary Oscar behind the sheriff, reacting to the same gunshot Vincent does and falling in the same way. It's a stylish and good portrayal of the connection and the truth. It's too bad that it's the only good portrayal of that concept to be found here.

Yup. Vincent walked off several seconds ago, and there's Oscar, still standing by listening to conversations.
Urgh. I don't have anything more I want to say on this. It was a bad, pretty boring film, with a generally horrible lead character that we can't sympathize with, and a horribly-executed twist, and worse, a horribly-executed twist I'd already seen horribly executed before! I don't know any other way I can say it: this one isn't worth anyone's time, for any reason. Absolutely terrible.

2013-06-23

Project Terrible: Clash of the Empires

Welcome back to Project Terrible, as another round finds us hurling bad (and sometimes, hopefully, surprisingly not-so-bad) films at each other just because we can.

My first selection this round comes from Al over at Mondo Bizarro, and it's an interesting one...

This poster is almost completely a lie. The helmet-clad, flag-bearing army, the fire-breathing dragons, the guy in the hooded robe...nope. Not in this film!
Clash of the Empires is yet another Asylum film, and like a lot of other Asylum films, it was a "mockbuster" made to cash in on a big blockbuster movie and try to confuse people by having a similar title. What blockbuster, you ask? Well, isn't it obvious? From that title, it could only possibly be cashing in on...The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey?

You might of course be a tad confused if you don't know the backstory for this one. Me, I'm less confused and more amused. You see, the original title for this film was Age of the Hobbits. Evidently, no one in the Asylum's legal department bothered to check and find out that "Hobbit" is, in fact, a term owned by the Tolkien estate. That's why when creatures similar to Hobbits show up in other fantasy stories, they're usually called Halflings (or, in the case of the old Ultima games, Bobbits, which I have to believe only squeaked by because no one related to the Tolkien estate was paying attention at the time). Needless to say, when Age of the Hobbits was produced, certain people were Not Amused, and the Asylum was sued. (Hilariously, the Asylum tried to argue that it was okay because they were basing their "hobbits" on Homo Floresiensis, a human subspecies that scientists have been calling "hobbits"--this apparently did not go over well.) One hasty name change later, and you'd swear the Asylum was trying to piggyback on an entirely different movie.


I love that the Asylum somehow managed to change names in a flash and still end up basically taking the title from a recent release, if one that's a tad more obscure than the others they tend to mimic. What's hilarious here is that there is no way that the new title even remotely fits. There are no empires in this film. At best, there are tribes--it's really about a battle between stone age tribes. Battles with a maximum of, say, 50 people do not constitute a clash between empires.

I'll be honest--my first reaction to being given this film was a combination of joy and sorrow. Joy, because I'd get to poke fun at the Asylum for having to change the name of one of their mockbusters and finally getting some pushback after trying to ride the coattails of better films for so long. Sorrow, because...well...

Teal'c! Nooooooo!
Poor Christopher Judge. He's a terrific actor, and I never like seeing terrific actors starring in Asylum films. Sure, it raises the quality of the film significantly, but "starred in an Asylum mockbuster" just can't look good on the ol' resume, you know?

So, let me start out the review proper by saying that this movie actually isn't all that bad. It's actually one of the Asylum's better films, and I don't mean that in a snarky manner. There are flaws--some of the Asylum's standard ones, generally--and you can really tell the points where they were actually trying to mimic some part of the Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit (I'm guessing for a trailer or something) despite their story not having anything to do with it or its themes. But all in all, this is not a bad film.

So, let's start with what it does well. First off, the location. They really picked a place to film on this one--I don't know if it's actually Indonesia, but wherever they are is astoundingly beautiful, and they really highlight it with some trademark Lord of the Rings wide-angle shots. Sure, they probably did that just because the Lord of the Rings films did it, but it works--you get some wonderful shots of natural beauty and can totally buy the "unspoiled wild" environment for this world, which goes a long way towards making the film itself feel more legitimate...and providing some entertainment in and of itself just from being so pretty to look at.


Next, the general plot is actually not bad at all. There are plotholes and flubs, and I'll get to some of those, but at the most basic level this is about a stone age tribe (the Homo Floresiensis, hereafter "tree people" because that's what they are called in the film and Homo Floresiensis is getting irritating to type) appealing to another stone age tribe (the humans) for help against a third stone age tribe (the rock men). The movie follows tree person Goben and his father and little sister as they seek to find Goben's mother and several other kidnapped villagers, and then Christopher Judge's Amthar, a human hunter, joins them along with Judge's fellow hunters (including Bai Ling) because Amthar owes Goben's father a life debt. And it works. The main characters are actually written to be sympathetic, and I wanted to see them succeed. The rock men are appropriately evil and vile, the humans show honor and compassion, and the tree people are earnest and out to save their loved ones. The dangers faced (mostly) make sense, there are moments of genuine suspense, and I actually cared what happened--not bad at all.


The soundtrack, similarly, is quite nice. It's fairly clearly mimicking the tone of the Lord of the Rings films at times, but it isn't actually plagiarizing in any way, and it has a good feel for the picture. It swells at appropriate times, emphasizes quiet beauty at others, and fits the scenes quite well. I've seen a great many films by now that don't seem to understand how to use a soundtrack, and this one definitely understands. At no point is the soundtrack in the way or drowning out the movie or inappropriate to a scene.

I commented on this above, but I have to again highlight this--there are actually moments of genuine suspense in this film. This never, never happens in Asylum films. I've been able to "like" certain segments of some of their movies before, or compliment them on occasionally doing a sequence rather well, but actually feeling for the characters and getting into the story enough to be worried? That never happens! But this time, it did. It's simple--this time, they got me to actually like and care about the characters, and thus when the characters were in danger, I was worried about whether they'd make it out! One sequence in particular stands out--not as an exceptional sequence, but as an example of what the Asylum has been missing before that it has finally apparently figured out. The rock men, having kidnapped tree people, have decided to sacrifice them to their moon god. Midway through the film, we actually see one of the tree women sacrificed (in tame fashion, which I actually appreciate). So, late in the film, Goben's father is captured, and the rock people take him up to be sacrificed. We see him going through the same things the woman earlier did, following about the same timeline, so we know about how long he's got left to live. As the moment approaches, we're able to recognize that the danger is approaching and it involves a character we really like and want to see succeed, so we start to feel suspense! That's the basic suspense strategy. It's good to see the Asylum got it here.


The acting is more of a mixed bag. There are some actors (Christopher Judge as Amthar, for one) who really pull it off well, and others--such as Goben's father--who really grow on you as the film goes on. Others--Goben himself, for instance--are not bad, but are crippled somewhat by a dubbed performance that makes their lines a little awkward in relation to the rest of the movie. Goben emotes fairly well, but you can tell he's being dubbed and it just never feels right. Then you have Goben's little sister Omi, who is both dubbed and just not really emoting that well. I don't think she's a bad actress, but she just never seems to show enough emotion for the scene at hand. The others vary somewhat, but most do an okay job (save for one sequence early in the film where the dubbing is so bad it sounds like everyone is doing a very, very overexaggerated William Shatner impersonation) for the most part. There is one notable exception, but I'll get to him later.

It should also be noted that in an unusual step, the tree people are portrayed entirely or almost entirely by little people. (The Homo Floresiensis were quite short, thus why the scientific community has been referring to them as "hobbits" in the first place.) Makes sense, since the Asylum wouldn't have been able to reliably manage the neat camera and prop tricks used in the Lord of the Rings series. (And yes, I know that the Lord of the Rings films also used scale doubles when necessary.)


The effects, similarly, are somewhat mixed. The Asylum never really does a great job blending its CG models with the live action world and actors, and this is no exception. No one seems to know quite where to look to "see" the CG, there's no feeling of impact from anything a CG creature does, and no one reacts like they've contacted something when they hit a CG creature. I think it's mostly a direction problem in this case. I'm sure I would spot shadow problems and other actual effects problems too in some cases, but I think the central problem is that no one's really properly being directed in how to work with the CG models, so it ends up looking fake because no one is acting as though it is real. How is this mixed? Well, largely because the models themselves are actually pretty darn good this time around. I've seen a lot of Asylum films and oftentimes the CG work just looks utterly ridiculous. They've clearly worked on that. This isn't Weta Workshop work by any means, but considering the Asylum doesn't have anywhere near the budget of the Lord of the Rings films to work with, they've done excellent modeling work on the creatures this time around. I hope that continues in future films.

...not that I'm actually hoping for future Asylum films, mind.

I'm surprised that after "Age of the Hobbits" fell through they didn't try to go for "Saga of Pern" or something. Admittedly, that isn't a movie yet, but at least they could cash in on something (until the inevitable lawsuit). Actually, why isn't there a movie based on the Dragonriders of Pern series yet?
Now, I have to talk about the bad stuff. Again, I do want to emphasize that I don't consider this a terrible film. I'm going to call out some things here, but just keep that in mind--this was not bad. These are things that held it back, not things that made it absolutely unbearably awful.


First off, I have to touch on the elephant in the room: Christopher Judge. Christopher Judge is a great actor. I loved him in Stargate SG-1. He did a great job in this. However, Christopher Judge does not appear even remotely Indonesian. Christopher Judge is the only black American man in a tribe of stone age Indonesian people. There is no attempt to explain this in the movie. He's just there. No one even reacts to the fact that there is one guy who is clearly of a different race from every other character in the movie.


He's not even the only one--just the most notable. The chief of the human tribe is clearly Caucasian. In a somewhat less severe note, but still notable, we've got Bai Ling, who is of Chinese descent rather than Indonesian descent. At least that's closer to the right region of the world, but still...

It's kind of a touchy thing to talk about, I know, and I'm generally against race being a casting consideration since you can often write around it, but when you're doing a historical or regional film, even one so clearly fictionalized as this, that needs to be a consideration. You wouldn't do a film about ancient African tribes and dump, say, Christian Bale in there without giving him a backstory to explain his presence. Christian Bale's a great actor, but he wouldn't be believable in the part of an African tribesman. Same thing happens here. It just ends up pulling you a little out of the film.

Continuing on that note: the hairstyles and facial hairstyles in this movie seem...questionable for the time. Goben's father has a pretty neat mustache, and just look at Christopher Judge's shaved head and goatee. Possible? Maybe. Likely? No.

I promised I'd talk about the one exception to the decent-to-good acting, and here we go...the chief of the human tribe. He is hilarious. Unintentionally. Someone took this guy aside when they started filming and told him that he had to put on the most dramatic stone age chieftain role ever. That's the only explanation. He has ridiculous facial expressions, he draws out words to an insane length ("Iiiii haaave noooo intereeest in yooour seeeeeds..."), and he's using an accent that can only be described as "stereotypical pirate." It doesn't work at all. Honestly, I loved it anytime this guy was on camera, for all the wrong reasons. It's both good and sad that he's not in the film that much. It would've been awful, quality-wise, but at the same time it just brought joy to my heart to see such a trainwreck of a performance. It's one of those special moments for a person who likes bad films. It's rare to see a performance that utterly doesn't work, but somehow still manages to be endearing. The last I can remember is the Dagda from Max Magician and the Legend of the Rings, who was hilariously over the top but performed his role with such joy and gusto that you couldn't help but love the actor. I had the same reaction here.

On a lesser note, there's also a tree person slave of the rock men, Koto, who does a good acting job but was clearly, clearly told "act like Gollum." He moves similarly, makes some weird vocal noises at times, and just acts insane in a very similar manner to everyone's favorite ring-crazed little psycho. He's barely relevant to the plot, so this is pretty much another case (like "Jack Falcon" in Pirates of Treasure Island) of the Asylum sticking a character in just because there's a character kind of like that in the film they're trying to mimic.


As usual, the Asylum isn't that great at showing action...thus, the dramatic attack on the Homo Floresiensis village during the opening mostly involves a few dragon (read: flying dinosaurs of some kind) flybys, one or two grabs of a tree person villager, and then mostly just the rock people jogging lightly after villagers and making no attempt whatsoever to actually hit one or grab one. This continues throughout the movie. A lot of the action involves poking at things off camera with a spear, and then cutting to a reaction shot. When we do get clear action with both participants on camera at the same time, it tends to be pretty slow and not really choreographed well at all. Christopher Judge and Bai Ling both thankfully do a fair job with the action sequences, but I've seen a lot better from both--here, it's pretty clear that no one, them included, is totally clear on what they need to be doing when. I don't know if it's a lack of rehearsal time or just poor choreography and communication, but it makes the action feel recognizably fake, and that's never good. The final battle in particular is underwhelming, consisting mostly of shots of rock men moving at the camera, shots of Judge and Bai Ling stabbing at the camera, and shots...actually, most of the time we don't even get shots of rock men falling!


Action involving CG characters is even worse. As I mentioned above, you basically never get a feeling of impact or reality from the interaction of CG and live action characters, so the "dragon" attacks, dinosaur fights, giant spider fight, and other bits with CG creatures fall utterly flat and have no emotional impact whatsoever. Stabbing at a CG dinosaur looks uncannily like stabbing at the air because no one's told you where you have to aim or how far to extend your spear.

Oh, hi, Shelob.
I said above that the plot was pretty good, and it is. But it is not without problems:

  • It's really not a good idea to have your "strong hero" character, who the other characters insist they need to help them, basically get his butt kicked by a dinosaur in his very first appearance and need them to save him. He should look impressive in his first appearance! It's okay if you want to do the life debt thing, but Amthar should get to look awesome first--have him take out the first dinosaur with ease, but then almost get ambushed by another one he didn't see and that's when the tree people save him.
  • At one point, Bai Ling's character is "blinded" by the above-pictured giant spider. (Actually, by the little giant spider at the feet of the big giant spider.) Her blindness never really matters to the film, and in fact, while Omi is treating her eyes and saying "she won't be blind for long," Bai Ling is clearly looking directly at people and having no trouble seeing. She even has a fight scene quickly after without any trouble.
  • The first time the heroes kill a rock man, it's entirely by accident. He escapes from Amthar because Amthar just kind of lets him, and then apparently trips over Goben, falls, and hits his head on a rock. That's my best guess, because the scene is pretty poorly put together so it's hard to tell exactly what happens. I'm not sure why they couldn't just have Amthar or Bai Ling's character stab the guy...they clearly had no problem with killing.
  • There's a few different moments where Goben's "helping stick," a throwing tool he made that gives extra throwing power, is shown being able to be used to throw a spear. This is never actually used in combat, unless I seriously missed something. He uses it to throw rocks, but we never get the actual aided spear throw in combat, despite several bits that are clearly building to a long-distance spear throw. We do actually get Goben using a tool to fire something vaguely spear-like, but it's actually implied that he accidentally invented the bow and arrow, rather than using his "helping stick" (it's actually a moderately cool bit, though I'm not entirely convinced it would work the way they show--still, it's a fun bit I actually don't want to spoil).
  • The first hero death is also quite indirect. Shortly after the death of the rock man, one of Amthar's fellow hunters is trying to reassure Goben's father by telling him, "I'll keep you safe." Said hunter then turns, takes a step, and gets a chest full of some kind of spear-cage trap. If you want there to be a dramatic hero death, at least have the grace to have it come as a direct result of action from a villain! That adds emotion to it. My reaction here? Sarcasm. "Oh, great job checking the enemy campsite, guys. You've been here for like an hour or more--did no one look around?" You don't want sarcasm as the reaction to the death of a sympathetic character! More importantly, when a sympathetic character dies, you want your audience to be mad at a specific enemy so that they can cheer on one of the other heroes when he goes after that specific enemy! It's okay to use a trap to off one of the heroes, as long as you make it clear which villain set the trap, and have the heroes walk into the trap in a way that doesn't make them look like total idiots. Not the case here. The heroes spend a large amount of time in this location, and the guy still blunders into it like someone stepping on a rake and getting bapped in the face in an old cartoon. It was just time for a hero to die, I guess.
  • There's a big, important-sounding sequence where Amthar insists on leading the way, one of his men accidentally runs into trouble, and the group has to fight a giant spider. Then Goben's father tells Amthar to let him lead the way instead because he can help. I don't recall seeing any moment after that in which they even show Goben's father helping them work around a danger. I guess maybe the idea is that he did so well there wasn't anything dramatic so we just skipped all that?
  • During the final bit, there's an inordinate amount of time spent on Goben's father hauling Goben's mother out of a fairly deep pit. Which would be suspenseful if there were anything dangerous down there at all. There isn't. We really could have just had his first attempt to grab her hand work, because there's literally no suspense to the sequence. He has plenty of time to come up with a solution, and if he doesn't by the time the battle's over, he can just go ask Amthar to get her out because all he really needs is like another inch or two of reach to do it.
  • Also in the final battle...the pirate chief shows up out of the blue to help Amthar and the others. This after the last time we saw him, in which he was absolutely, positively against helping the tree people at all because he didn't want to start a war that might harm his people. There is no transition at all there! He's just against it, and then he shows up to help anyway without any sign of anyone contacting him, arguing with him, changing his mind, or even letting him know where exactly and when exactly they'll need his help. Deus-ex-piratechiefa?
  • And they basically rip off the death of Théoden with the pirate chief, which is just sad. It's not an absolute replica, but "king fighting evil villain mounted on flying creature"...well, given the Asylum, it's a safe bet where the idea came from. Again, it's totally out of nowhere here. Last time we saw the pirate chief we were supposed to be rooting against him, and now he's suddenly doing the "heroic sacrifice" thing? No. Just no.

Clash of the Empires isn't a bad film. It isn't a good one, but it isn't bad...and unlike a lot of the middle-of-the-road films I've watched in my time reviewing films, it's actually pretty entertaining. There are problems--there are definitely problems--but it ended up being fun to watch, having some stunning settings, and getting me into the film via some sympathetic characters and a reasonably rational plot. If the Asylum had just set out to make this movie without trying to cash in on The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey with it, I could really respect their efforts and even applaud them. As it is...well...they're still trying to catch the table scraps of better films, but at least they did put out something of reasonable quality this time.

But seriously, Teal'c, buddy...I hope you didn't end up on one of those Asylum multi-film contracts, because I'm going to get increasingly sad if I see you in more of these. Hope you find better work soon, pal.

I know there aren't too many ways to do "group of people walking through a landscape" scenes, but I can't help but feel that shots like this are strangely familiar...

2013-05-24

Project Actually Pretty Darn Good: Seeking Justice

Welcome back to Project Terrible--though the name doesn't always perfectly apply. Tonight's film comes to me from Michele of The Girl Who Loves Horror, who felt really guilty about giving me the torture film Vile last time and so went rather easy on me this time.


Seeking Justice is a Nicolas Cage film, which for me is actually a pretty big plus from the get-go. Nicolas Cage has some good films and some bad films, but he's one of those actors that's always entertaining to me (whether in the way he intended to be or not). It also stars Guy Pearce, which is funny since I just saw him in Iron Man 3.

I actually rather liked this one, so in keeping with my usual style when I like I film, I'm not going to do a long review here so as to avoid discussing the movie too deeply and possibly spoiling it for someone.

The general idea of the film is that there's a secret organization that comes to people whose loved ones have been victims of a severe crime--rape, murder, etc.--and offers to trade them a favor for a favor. The organization will eliminate the criminal who hurt the person's loved one, but will then call on the person to do a task or two later on. Will Gerard (Cage) is an English teacher whose wife is raped and badly beaten, and he's found by Simon (Pearce), a member of the organization who makes him the offer. Distraught over what happened to his wife, Will accepts the offer, but when it comes time for him to do favors for the organization, he balks, especially when the "simple tasks" escalate and he's ordered to kill a man and make it look like a suicide. He starts to look for a way out.

What Seeking Justice presents quite well is the situation of a pretty normal guy caught up in a bad situation. Will isn't some experienced cop or anybody with any experience in dealing with dangerous situations. He's an English teacher--just your average joe who is way over his head. Cage does a great job portraying that, and never, ever acts overly capable in a situation. He's disoriented, confused, and just kind of stumbling through events--but he's managing to keep stumbling forward towards a solution, and there's a definite feeling that he's moving things along rather than just being swept up in the current. It's a nice bit of writing, acting, and directing. I've seen a number of films and read a number of books where a supposedly normal guy gets caught in danger and somehow starts acting like he knows exactly what to do...you don't get that here, and it's refreshing. Will isn't capable of cool and calm plotting or focused action stunts...he's driven to his wits' end, afraid, and just trying to find a way through. This comes through even in the film's action sequences--mostly chases--in which Will takes action without being an action hero. He moves in a confused, panicky manner, only barely succeeds at a number of actions, and has plans utterly fail on him from time to time (I loved one bit where it looks like he's going to go for an action movie "drive past the speeding train just in time and leave the cops in the dust" but he doesn't even remotely get there in time despite gunning it, so he's forced to stop and come up with a plan B).

The cast is strong. Cage does a great job of portraying a guy who is trying to stay focused and find solutions but is really in a state near panic pretty much all the time. He has a way of showing tension, paranoia, and fear, and his Will frequently threatens to break down entirely. He's a man who is too weak to deal with what's going on but knows he doesn't have anyone else to deal with it for him. Pearce plays a good manipulator in Simon, who manages to always sound like your best friend even while he's asking for terrible things. It's utterly believable that Simon could talk people into accepting his offer, and then talk them into helping him out with his dark deeds. He finds people at the end of their rope and then pushes them to go someplace they ordinarily wouldn't. January Jones plays Laura Gerard, Will's wife, and does an excellent job as a woman who goes from confident to broken and slowly climbs back up again over the course of the film. It's interesting that despite what happened to her, she gradually comes to seem the stronger and more stable one in the relationship--she's forced to be stronger because Will is getting so erratic. The supporting cast members often play only small roles, but bring a lot of depth when they're on camera. I don't have any complaints on the acting.

This isn't a perfect film, though. I don't want to go into detail, but as the movie draws to a close it moves a little too closely to a "good vs evil" plot rather than a "good and law-abiding vs possibly also good but law-breaking" angle that might have been more interesting. The organization itself really doesn't end up explored nearly as much as you'd think, and their involvement in the film ends up somewhat unsatisfying. But in particular, what's wrong is that the ending just seems...sudden. It feels like there are still several twists left that could be pulled in, or more complexities for Will to fumble his way through, and then...the movie's just done. Things are wrapped up in a pretty nice scene, but it kind of feels like there's something missing. Not in a "how'd they even get here?" kind of way, but in a "I wanted more from this conflict" kind of way. It doesn't help that though the immediate plot is resolved, it feels like there are still a lot of issues open that are just left hanging. The ending sequence just feels a little flat and abrupt, and there are loyalties that don't feel adequately explored.

That's all I'm going to say with this one, as this is one I can suggest someone might enjoy non-ironically. Seeking Justice is a pretty fun film with a flawed final act that doesn't ruin the movie. Your mileage may vary, but in no way do I feel this one was worthy of the term "terrible." It had a good concept, some good acting and action, and was overall a fun way to spend an evening.

So, thanks, Michele! Might not have been your intent, but I appreciate the pick!

2013-05-05

Character Creation Review: Dynasty Warriors 7 Empires

Wow. Okay, this should have been up a long time ago, as the game's been out for a while now, but...I've been too busy playing it to actually review it. :-) Actual screenshots for this one, since the PS3 actually has that capability!

Dynasty Warriors 7: Empires is the latest in the Empires spinoffs of the Dynasty Warriors series. Where the main series focuses on objective-based hack-and-slash action gameplay, setting up story-based missions where you have to properly prioritize your objectives and fight fast enough to save as many officers as you can or ensure the various tasks succeed, the Empires spinoffs tend to focus more on overall kingdom strategy, empire-building, and custom battlefield strategy against an opponent who mixes things up a bit. Playing one still feels like playing the main series, but with notable differences in the form of more variable battles that have some more things to adapt to, but less of a feeling of engineered competing deadlines. I'm a fan of both variants, but the Empires spinoffs have one more notable difference from the main series: a character creation mode.

DW7:E is similar to other games in the Dynasty Warriors: Empires series. You're still beating the absolute heck out of thousands of enemy soldiers. You're still taking bases on the way to taking the enemy main camp. You're still building up your kingdom outside of combat and getting the upgrades you need to stay competitive. Not much has changed in the overall concept...what has changed, though, is the way you do just about everything.

DW7:E is much, much deeper than its predecessors.


So, first, a primer, for those who might not be familiar with this series. Dynasty Warriors is an action game series in which you play a single officer on the battlefields of ancient China. Your abilities are tremendously over-the-top and you face off against thousands of enemy soldiers. In general, only the other officers pose a one-on-one threat, though as the difficulty gets higher the minor enemies can chip away at you pretty effectively if you aren't careful. Combat is fairly simple, but you do end up with enough moves to feel like you have some choices and use some variety. There are tons of characters to choose from, each of which will use one of several different weapons. They all control similarly, but there are important differences in effectiveness of various moves, so you'll find ones you like and ones you dislike. The missions, meanwhile, are set up so that various objectives pop up on the map--such as officers in trouble, a fire attack to aid, or a fleeing enemy to track down--and oftentimes pop up at the same time on two opposite ends, so you need to get good at prioritizing and fighting quickly. Overall, it's a fun action series that some find easier to play in small doses...while others, like me, find it really easy to just kind of slip into the DW zone and find that it's suddenly midnight. Your mileage may vary.

The Empires spinoffs add kingdom building to the mix, and dumps the preset objectives for missions in favor of an enemy that actually uses abilities in more freeform manner to some degree. The combat tends to be a little less interesting just because the missions lack that inherent drama that the main series is set up for, but at the same time, the battles tend to have more variety since you don't know how one will go once you've played it a few times. The added depth of kingdom play certainly helps the game's longevity, as well.


So, how about DW7:E? Well, take all the good things I said about Dynasty Warriors above. Now take all the good things I said about the Empires spinoffs above. Now those things that I said that might be taken as bad things? Dump those.

Dynasty Warriors 7: Empires is the most perfect Dynasty Warriors game ever. It exemplifies everything that makes the series awesome, and tosses pretty much everything that doesn't work. Now, it's still a Dynasty Warriors game, so if you aren't inclined to like those you probably won't change your mind with this...but if you do like the series, this one is absolutely incredible.

Why? Basically, it very effectively manages to merge the feeling of the main series with the open and freeform play of the Empires spinoffs. This is one heck of an accomplishment, and it is accomplished mostly through two major adjustments: Strategems, and Useful Allies.

Let's talk Strategems first, because these are awesome. Strategems are the latest twist to the Empires spinoffs. Characters gain the ability to use various strategems in battle: various boosts, special tactics or traps, ally summons, or other abilities that can really change the course of the battle. Each strategem can be used once by a given character in a battle, and each character gets to take 4-5 with them to each battle. They can do things like boost your abilities, trigger a flood or fire attack, drop a rockslide to cut off a path, summon a poisonous fog, drop enemies into a pit trap or lay an ambush, instantly revive an ally and put him near you, and a whole host of other cool tricks. You get these...so do your allies, and so do your enemies.


Where earlier Empires games thus focused mostly on troop movements for strategy, DW7:E focuses on both troop movements and the use of strategems. Your battle experience will wildly vary based on your own use of strategems and those of your allies and enemies. If you have a lot of "Orderly"-type officers, for instance, your side is going to be summoning a lot of elite troops and archer volleys to wear down the enemy. Meanwhile, if your enemy has a lot of "Wise"-type officers, you're probably going to run into some nasty ambushes or fire attacks, or find your supply routes cut off by a rockslide. There are several different Fame types in the game, and most battles will involve a mix of them on both sides (yourself included), so there's quite a variety of strategems that will be thrown around in every battle.

What this means is that the battles in the Empires series finally sometimes manage to capture the sense of urgency that the battles from the main series always had. You will frequently find that one base is under attack from a terribly fast and strong Brave-type officer using the "Raid" strategy to beat everyone up, while across the field, several of your bases just got hit with an Inferno attack by a Wise-type officer. It doesn't always happen, of course, but when it does...you get the open, free-form Empires gameplay but the tension that the main series tends to bring. It suddenly isn't just about making sure you can fight well personally and avoiding leaving obvious openings in your defenses...it's about, "Oh, heck! I'd better get over there right now, and by 'there' I mean two different places at the same time and did that guy just open up a pitfall on my troops at a third spot? Where do I go first? Which can my allies handle?"

Again...this isn't constant. If it was, it'd be annoying. But it happens often enough that you really get a much better feeling of tension from this than any other Empires game. I cannot stress enough how much better this is than the previous game, especially. The previous game was plagued by low variance in battles and barely any importance to strategy...this raises the bar by an incredible degree.

One caveat: There are cases in which your buddies or enemies will use tactics in a less-than-intelligent fashion. It isn't frequent, but I have had cases where my buddies accidentally locked me in a base for a bit (or out of a base when I could have saved it), or set up an ambush where it would never come into play...and I'm sure things like that happen on the enemy side too. When it happens, it can take you out of things a little, but it's rare for it to happen in any meaningful fashion in my experience.


The other major difference? For the first time in any non-scripted event in a Dynasty Warriors game of any kind, you have useful allies. They can't handle everything...but you can actually trust your allies to take care of a lot of things on their own, if directed or supported reasonably well. Heck, you can even let them take the enemy main camp! That blew my mind the first time it happened...especially since it happened quickly. That never, ever happened in previous Dynasty Warriors games--you had to do everything important yourself. Now...I'm not going to go so far as to say I think you could regularly just direct a battle and avoid actually fighting, but you will find your allies can manage quite a bit, especially if you're actually able to direct them via the strategy screen (as with the previous Empires, you only have the ability to command battlefield movements if you're of certain ranks). Even if you can't, though, they're not utter pushovers like in previous games.

The kingdom experience has been drastically improved as well. There's now several different ways to proceed both as an officer and a ruler. You can build up your kingdom in different ways, focusing on building your economy, or your army size, or your weaponry level, or even focusing on diplomatic relations and getting other people to help you fight. Obviously in general you're going to want to mix them, but it's not hard to develop a focus on what you're most interested in. As before, you can play at the officer level and at the ruler level, and both are quite a bit deeper than before. As an officer, you'll get missions from the ruler to fulfill, and as you rank up in your empire you'll gain more and more responsibilities and even authority over a territory...or perhaps the entire army. You can even choose to rebel and take over from your ruler if you want. As a ruler, you have a lot of options each turn, but you also get to lay down a kingdom policy that affects the things your officers will sometimes decide to accomplish. Between all the different choices in how to build your kingdom, the kingdom policies and ruler choices, and the officer types you can choose to bring in, you'll honestly end up with a pretty varied experience on different playthroughs both in and out of combat. The little cinematics you sometimes get also help with this, emphasizing different events that occur as things go along, and while there aren't many of these, they also add to the feeling that this kingdom is different than earlier ones.

The only major complaint about the overall game is that much like most other Empires games, there tends to be a point at which it is 100% obvious that you're going to win and the last few battles are just a formality. It would be nice to see an Empires game that let you win by owning some majority of China rather than literally all of China, so that games didn't have to go down to the last battle when one kingdom owned all but one territory. However, there have been improvements in this regard: now, when you take a territory that a kingdom's ruler is in, you take all adjacent connected territories as well as a special bonus, so it becomes easier to make rapid progress by targeting the right territories. Still, it can feel like a bit of a slog getting through the last battle or two when there's no way the enemy can turn things around. It'd be nice if the win condition didn't require you to own very last province. Actually, it'd be cool to see them take another approach and go for variable win conditions like Civilization V (not the same ones, but that could be an inspiration). It'd be cool to be able to win by diplomacy or economy or benevolent reputation or some such, and that's just not an option here. Still, this handles the overall conquest better than any Empires game before it, and that's a good thing.


So, let's talk about the actual focus of this blog: character creation and customization. It's terrific.

Honestly, this game is right up there with Dragon's Dogma for the level of appearance customization. It functions similarly: it uses a mix of part selection and morphing, starting at the easy--part selection--and allowing the morphing if you want to get into more customization. It doesn't have as many parts as Dragon's Dogma does for some sections of the face or body, but it handles quite well and allows a wide variety of appearances. Furthermore, the menu system is clean and easy to understand, and you'll never find yourself at a loss to create a good character. The parts+morphing approach is quickly becoming my favorite appearance design style, and it works terrifically here.

With this easy system, you can design a wide variety of characters. They're always going to be human, but you can make kids, adults, hulking warriors, thin and wizened figures...you can really accomplish quite a variety of appearances, and it's easy to do. If you have a good idea in mind, going from start to finish can take as little as 5 minutes or even less, even if you're doing a good amount of morphing. And since the game allows for 200 character slots, you've got plenty of space for your creations...or ones you download from other players (that's right, you can share them--you can even see them at random in your game if you've allowed that option).


On color selection, the view is a little less rosy. There's actually a variety of eye and hair colors, but they still aren't using color sliders, unfortunately, so you don't have quite the ability to go freeform that you might like. (You do, however, get to use heterochromia for the eyes, which always gets a cheer from me.) You do get a few unnatural eye and hair colors, which is nice. For skin tones, you only have pretty much natural ones--tans, whites, browns, reddish tones, etc. There's no unnatural options like greens or blues, so if you're looking to make actual fantasy orcs or aliens or something, you're going to have to be content with standard human colors. Really, it's odd that the Empires series hasn't moved to using color sliders yet, especially since the Samurai Warriors 3 character creation mode allowed them (and the Samurai Warriors 3 character creation mode was in all other ways barely even a character creation mode--so very few options!). It's really time for the series to allow a full palette! I do understand that a patch that Japan has received (not us as yet) has added more color options for hair, but that still leaves eyes, skin, and clothes with limited selection.

As far as clothes, speaking of that, you have quite a variety of outfits to select from. As before, you can choose different outfit parts for the head, chest/arms, hands, legs, and feet. You start with a pretty nice selection, and there are plenty more to unlock, plus even more in DLC. In a nice touch, every single outfit from the previous game is available for unlock in this one. With the ability to mix and match pieces, you actually have a huge selection of possible outfits--not as many as, say, your average wrestling game or Soul Calibur V (either of which adds the ability to put on a variety of textures, which expands selection significantly), but still, an impressive selection. It helps that almost everything in there is worth using for some character or another, too! Unfortunately, color selection is very, very limited...you basically have one color for each of the main series' kingdoms (Wu: Red, Wei: Blue, Shu: Green, Jin: Light Blue, Dong Zhuo: Purple, Yellow Turbans: Yellow, I believe). Fortunately, you can mix and match colors for the parts as well, so you're not stuck with just one color for the outfit. You can still get some good variety, and it works fine...it would just, again, be nice to see them add the use of a full color palette (especially as, again, this was an option in the otherwise unsatisfactory Samurai Warriors 3 mode).

Frankly, if you mixed the appearance/body creation from this game with the clothing selection, coloration options, and texture options from Soul Calibur V, and made sure heterochromia was an option, I think you'd have my favorite character creation system of all time. That would be amazing.

Once you've picked your appearance, you'll want to pick a voice, and this game does a pretty nice job with that. It's worth noting at this point that all the voice acting for the game is in Japanese. Your mileage may vary on whether that's good, bad, or neutral. For me, it's neutral. In any case, you have about ten or so voices to choose from per gender, and pitch modification is back and helps to get more mileage out of the voices. I understand Japan has also received DLC that adds alternate performances of each of the voice types, too, so hopefully that will come here to expand the selection a bit, but even if it doesn't, the selection is fairly good. Unfortunately, pitch modification only works so far, so some voices will always sound wrong for certain character designs--thus, you may sometimes get stuck with quotes that don't suit the character personality you're going for because you had to go with the voice that sounded right, or vice-versa. Still, you get a decent variety. I still long for the day when we get to record our own--that'd be goofy, but fun.

So, that's appearance and general identity. Let's talk abilities. This is an area where DW7:E shines, actually. You get to choose a few major things to set your character's abilities: primary weapon, EX attack (a more powerful common power attack that you trigger at a certain part in your combo chain--available list determined by your primary weapon), Musou attacks (super-attacks usable when you fill up your musou bar, which happens several times a battle--not limited by your primary weapon, though animations will often show a particular weapon), statistic growth type, and starting fame type (which determines available strategems and some other effects). This is quite a bit more than you've ever gotten to set in previous Empires games, and it allows you to create quite a varied character set. Variance of any one of these parts can differentiate characters to some degree, though the largest differences result from statistic growth types and fame types. An attack-focused character plays differently than a defense-focuses one, and a "Brave" fame type plays very differently than an "Affluent" one.

As one note--you choose a weapon type (such as Sword, Greatsword, Axe, Greataxe, Bow, Rapier, etc.), not a specific weapon model within that type. Weapon models are determined by the specific weapons you buy in play. Honestly, I would have liked it better if you got to choose the appearance of your weapon too, and then just...upgraded it in play or something. It would be nice to have two guys with greatswords that didn't end up using the same one all the time. But that's a minor complaint.

Customization doesn't end there, though, as even during play you'll get to modify your fame based on your actions. What's cool is that you actually get to have multiple fame types as you go through the campaign, and thus while your primary fame type determines your particular fame-based bonuses and your effective character level, you get to use strategems from multiple types. Don't worry--it's generally very easy to pick the fame types you want. First of all, your initial fame type gets points in it from every battle you fight, so it's very hard to switch it unless you specifically mean to. Second, while each kingdom action is associated with a particular fame type and gets you points for it, it's generally really easy to build up the fames you want by choosing supporters or using strategems related to those fames.

Furthermore, like the base version of Dynasty Warriors 7, characters get to use two weapons and can switch between them, so you can further customize your character based on your secondary weapon choice. One character might have a primary sword and secondary bow, while another might have a primary sword and a secondary greataxe--leading to two very different fighting styles as you do weapon switches. (You can also--as I honestly often do--just pick the secondary for its elemental effect, for use with the elemental items you can buy).


Speaking of items...those are another area of at least some customization. You can purchase items as you go through the game that modify your character's attributes and add some special modifications (such as the ability to use two different elemental effects with one weapon). Now, if the game goes long enough you'll actually oftentimes end up with the entire list, but in shorter games you may not, and even in longer ones the order in which you buy them can differentiate characters for a while. Regardless, they provide a handy way of bolstering the abilities you find most important, and add a little more variety to the game.

Finally, if you're playing as a ruler or one of the high-ranking officers who gets to actually decide who comes to the battles, you can really customize your playing style based on which officers you pick. Since Fame Type determines available strategies, you can look at the Fames of your kingdom's officers and decide who should come along based on what strategies you want to be more likely to appear. You don't have full control over this--you can't tell an officer to use Ambush here, or Elite Troops there--but you can make things more likely just by choosing the proper makeup.

There are other little options here and there as well...you can either have a horse or purchase a constant animal companion...you can select the appearance of your "war room" from various types...and you get to make little choices here and there from text-based "encounters" that happen from time to time that can give you fame points and sometimes other bonuses. All of it comes together to actually make for a notably customizable experience.

In another nice touch, though one of variable impact, once you've played through the game as a character, you can save the play history to that character. Then, on subsequent playthroughs, an AI version of that character will develop its fame along similar lines to how you did, and will tend to use the strategems you prioritized as that character. It's a nice touch and can help you make characters that behave in particular ways if you want to emphasize their personalities, helping your created characters feel more "real."

I really can't say enough good about this game. Dynasty Warriors 7 Empires is the ultimate Warriors-series game, providing an excellent mix of tension and variability and making for a fun experience in and out of battle. It does still have the feel of the series--if you aren't into hack-and-slash games, no amount of kingdom-building and strategems will fix that. But if you've ever considered trying a Dynasty Warriors game, or you like the series but really want an entry that you can play over and over and that has a lot of customization, this is the one for you. It nails just about everything, provides a great character creation mode (despite the lacking color choices), and lets you have a lot of fun with a ton of variety. Highly recommended.