Monday, April 21, 2014

Movie Review: Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014)

Here's another reboot, this time for Jack Ryan, the American James Bond (you can tell the difference because Jack's collar is generally undone and sometimes he wears jeans). Tom Clancy's hero has been played by some decent actors before in a loose series of films that include The Hunt for Red October (1990), Patriot Games (1992), Clear and Present Danger (1994), and the Sum of All Fears (2002). These are all compelling, or at least decent, political thrillers based on Clancy novels (unfortunately, my favorite Jack Ryan novel, Executive Orders, hasn't been adapted yet). This one is not adapted from a novel, and it shows. Rather than the fairly realistic political backdrop to these other Ryan films, Shadow Recruit is more or less a straightforward action film. It's not a bad action film by any means, in fact it's quite competent, but as a sequel or prequel or whatever to the Ryan series this is a fairly by-the-numbers thing that scarcely benefits from the brand name.

Ryan is an economics student who volunteers for dangerous missions in Afghanistan post-9/11. While recovering from a pretty severe injury, he falls in love with his doctor. Rushing ahead 10 years later, she's totally unaware that Ryan is now an undercover Wall Street trader tracking suspicious market activity. He's sent to Moscow to investigate some firm, and that's when a hulking fellow tries to take him out in his hotel room. Ryan drowns him in the bathtub and the plot gets hectic from that point on. Virtually all of the action scenes are organized, suspenseful, and gloriously free from sloppy handheld camera movement. This is the kind of thing reviewers would describe as "taut," and for once I'd agree with them. Shadow Recruit pushes along quite nicely and never really gets boring. It never really gets great, either.

"Pay attention to ME~!"
Thespian Kenneth Branagh is the Russian guy, truly playing it to the back of the room with his hilarious Yakov Smirnoff accent. Everyone else is fine, even Keira Knightley, playing Ryan's needy, globe hopping gal pal. She follows a fine cinematic tradition of females who get in the way of espionage. In another familiar trope of the spy genre, and there's plenty of them in Shadow Recruit, she becomes tactically useful in distracting the Russian from some fine, Grade A American data theft. As for the Ryan character, Chris Pine has all the skills necessary to channel the gruffness of a counter-terrorist operative, plus all the teddy bear qualities of a man whose girlfriend is bothering him yet again with her need for companionship and intimacy and such. I welcome anything that distracts him from playing his smarmy dickweed version of Captain Kirk in the recent Star Trek retreads. Shadow Recruit is decent. I'm not sure that the economic catastrophe plot is entirely plausible, but what's here is loud, dumb, and worth a few hours if you have little else to do.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Triple the Van Dammage: Maximum Risk (1996), Knock Off (1998), and Replicant (2001)

More Van Damme for you. Shockingly, I have even more of his films to watch and review in the future. Stay tuned to Code Redd Net for more clones, twin brothers, cops that play by the rules and cops that don't, and so on.

Maximum Risk (1996)

In this one Van Damme runs afoul of the Russian mafia, and by Van Damme I really mean Van Dammes, as he once more plays twin brothers. It all starts when French cop Van Damme is summoned to a crime scene by one of his partners, where he discovers that his twin brother from Russia has been killed by the mob. He then follows the trail of evidence to New York City and goes undercover as his deceased bro. This includes shagging his girlfriend and only telling her the truth after. JCVD's search for the truth is complicated by a few corrupt FBI guys. This is an excellent stupid action movie. The opening car chase is super fun, and the combat is pretty neat and well-done. Even the production values are better than usual for a Van Damme film. He even has a decent sauna fight, years before Jackie Chan did it in Accidental Spy. That's the thing with Van Damme: very little of what he does really stands out. Van Damme's best stuff is merely solid when compared with virtuosos like Chan. Van Damme is never boring, but he's never that exciting, either. But if you dig the action genre, there's nothing safer than choosing a Van Damme film at random. You know what's going to happen, and he consistently delivers totally competent, short, inoffensive, and dumb movies. You can unwind to Van Damme. In that sense, Maximum Risk works.

Knock Off (1998)

This is my favorite Van Damme film. He plays a fashion designer who pals around with Rob Schneider in Hong Kong. They're both involved in counterfeiting apparel, leading to one of the weirdest pieces of product placement in cinema history: a subject point-of-view shot from inside a pair of fake "Pumma" shoes. It gets weirder. The CIA then blackmail our heroes into working with the agency to bring down the Russian mafia. You see, it turns out that the Russian mafia is using these counterfeit jeans or whatever to smuggle small bombs across the world. You would think there would be a better way, but not for these guys. For some reason, fashion designer/martial arts impresario Van Damme is virtually the only one the government trusts to stop these terrorists. Our national security rests with the big oaf. Van Damme is up to the challenge, however. I love this film. Sure, there's fewer martial arts in this one than in some of his other films, but watching the final rain-soaked shootout is like watching a ballet on the moon, complete with knee-slides. It doesn't make a lick of sense. I feel like I write this for most Van Damme films. Bless him.

Replicant (2001)

There's a whole subgenre of Van Damme films out there in which our favorite kickboxing poseur plays long-lost identical twins, or brothers, or past versions of himself, or clones of himself. This includes classic films like Double Impact, TimecopMaximum Risk, and Replicant. In Replicant, definitely the best of the bunch, Van Damme plays both a serial killer and a clone created by the NSA from forensic evidence. It's assumed that the clone, fabricated from the serial killer's DNA, has some sort of psychic connection with the serial killer and can sense his presence or something. Goodness knows how exactly this happens, but it seems logical enough to the government. Since he's created in a lab, the clone is born with no prior experience and must learn how to walk, talk, interact and all that from scratch. In a fascinating montage, an adult Van Damme goes from crawling to doing his trademark splits in mere moments. Lots of conflicts follow: identities are mistaken, loyalties are questioned, sex is had, spin kicks are spun, you know. Van Damme gets plenty of philosophical mileage out of this whole "double" thing, and it culminates in a head-to-head fight between the original and the clone in a parking lot. This is the kind of action film I enjoy most; Replicant is both philosophically earnest and absolutely unafraid (or unaware) of its own stupidity. It's corny as all get-out, but it sure does try, and it's never boring. That's always nice.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Netflix Review: Bernie (2011)

Without a doubt, Bernie is by far the best comedy I've seen in years. It was refreshingly different from most trash coming out of Hollywood with a "comedy" label. It is based on a true story of a small town assistant funeral director who befriends an old widow who is universally hated by everyone in town.

The most appealing aspect was the charming and funny interviews with the actual people from this small town, seamlessly integrated into the film alongside the actors. These people are genuinely hilarious, showing the wit and humor found among Southrons, in a classier package than one would find in the likes of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.

As Bernie, Jack Black may be funnier than any other role he's ever played. The way he walks, how he interacts with older women, his ability to sing, and his enthusiasm for his job as a funeral director make him quite the character. This may be the best performance of Black's career.

There's really not much more I feel like saying about this movie, except that I highly recommend you watch it. 

PS3 Review: Hitman: Blood Money (2006)

I'm filing this review of Blood Money under PS3 because I own the Hitman HD Trilogy, which also includes Silent Assassin and Contracts. Of the three, Blood Money's HD version is by far the purtiest. Definitely pick the collection up if you don't already own the games for PS2. Nevertheless, this review still applies to the PS2 version.

Blood Money fixes virtually all of the issues I had with Silent Assassin and Contracts. Don't get me wrong, I love Silent Assassin, but it had some problems, specifically: uneven difficulty, too much trial-and-error progression (especially on the higher difficulties), guards with an often preternatural ability to see through disguises, and concomitantly, somewhat wonky stealth that works about as often as it doesn't. Blood Money fixes just about everything, though.

Unlike Contracts, which presented missions in a more episodic manner, Blood Money returns the series to a more straightforward, linear narrative. Missions are presented as flashbacks, introduced by cut scenes from the present that follow a reporter's investigation into the alleged death of Agent 47. These flashbacks do an excellent job of introducing each mission without interfering with or inhibiting a player's freedom to complete the job as desired, not as dictated by the plot (this is my main gripe with Absolution; more on that in a later review). Blood Money rarely requires you to go about the mission in any specific manner. Now, this is not to suggest that there is total freedom; there's certainly an optimum way to skin these cats, but it's rarely clear from the start, and as a result finding that optimum path feels organic rather than forced. The game is also more forgiving than the others in the series as there's a considerable margin for error, even on the higher difficulty settings, just in case everything doesn't go exactly the way you planned. Your creativity and skill, rather than your patience and memorization, win you those coveted "Silent Assassin" rankings. This is an especially nice touch given the long, involved missions in the latter half of the game.

For instance, consider "A New Life," one of my favorite missions. In this one, 47 is tasked with taking out a former mafia boss currently hiding out in suburbia with his family. You can complete the mission in numerous ways: you can tranquilize the guard dog from a neighbor's tree house, sneak into the backyard, and set the barbecue on fire; you can steal the outfit of a clown and infiltrate the birthday party; you can poison the donuts of the FBI, turn off the outside security cameras, sneak inside the house through the basement, and push the mafia boss as he's walking down the stairs; you can use a surveillance van to prank call the mafia boss, and when the poor guy picks up the phone, you can snipe him from a neighbor's garden; you get the idea. Each method has positive and negative aspects, and while some will undoubtedly score better than the others, the real replay value is in finding new and increasingly weird ways to off you targets.

This replay value is only furthered by an inventory system in which the money you earn from each mission can be used to upgrade your weapons, adding silencers, laser sights, larger clips, and so on. It's not as effective or integral as it could be, as the missions rarely demand that you constantly upgrade your tools. Still, though, it's a welcome addition if not a totally necessary one. But my only real complaint about Blood Money is the poorly implemented "Notoriety" system. As you play through the game, your actions in each mission attract a certain amount of attention: going in silent and eliminating only your targets keeps you a shadow, while additional casualties and gunfire raise your profile considerably. At the end of each mission you can bribe witnesses/police to keep your notoriety low. The problem is that you always have more than enough dough to pay these people off and reset your notoriety rating, thereby rendering the whole idea relatively pointless. The consequences of your actions in one mission, then, rarely affect your behavior in the next, unless you accidentally skip through the menu too fast or you spend an obscene amount of money on upgrading your inventory. The whole idea is more innocuous than anything else, but it could have added an interesting dimension to the game.

Overall, however, Blood Money is one of the best; it's easily the best game in the series, and certainly one of the best games on PS2. For a game without a multiplayer option, Blood Money has amazing replay value. Too bad Absolution failed to match it. More on that soon.

Monday, February 10, 2014

PS2 Review: Hitman: Contracts (2004)

Some think of Hitman: Contracts as the weakest of the trilogy (Hitman 2: Silent Assassin, Contracts, and Blood Money). In a way, they might be correct. However, this is more a testament to the strength of the series, as Contracts is not at all a bad game. I think what people have in mind when they consider it to be the weakest link of the series is the story; while Silent Assassin and Blood Money have interesting narratives that culminate in confronting the worthy adversary of Agent 47, Contracts is told in the form of flashback missions that don't come together to make a story. It is somewhat comparable to 007: Legends, where as Daniel Craig sinks after being shot off the train by Moneypenny in Skyfall, he takes time to reflect on favorite memories such as Goldfinger, OHMSS, and Moonraker. These do nothing to tell the story of Skyfall, just as the old assassinations have little to do with advancing the story in Contracts. They are little more than a bit of character development and tying in some continuity between the original Hitman: Codename 47 and the trilogy.

Fortunately, the weak points would appear to end here. The gameplay resembles Silent Assassin closely and offers the familiar, open-ended style of missions, only now with greater autonomy in deciding how to complete missions. This was probably the weakest point in SA, where several missions appear to only have one way to complete them properly (by which I mean attain the mission-rating of “Silent Assassin,” which pretty much requires perfection; no alerts, no blowing cover, no dead civilians, no missed shots, etc.). Contracts is also more forgiving (at least on the easier difficulties), whereas guards in Silent Assassin seemed ready to shoot at you if you looked at them funny. This created what I thought to be a slightly more playable game. Several times in SA I saw no easy way to complete a mission other than precisely by the book or shooting my way through; there were no other options. In this respect, Contracts received less credit than it deserved.

But it's funny. If you've followed CRN for awhile, you might know that I tend to discount the importance of story-telling in games. The Timesplitters series is easily one of the best FPS franchises ever, yet story-telling was not one of its strong suits. This suited me just fine; with its quirkiness and oddball style of characters, it didn't really seem to need that. However, other series have led me to consider the narratives told in games to be more important. This is quite clear in my treatment ofSplinter Cell: Blacklist, where I felt that the character and spirit of Sam Fisher had been sold out (as had the stealth gameplay). And I think the same goes for Hitman in the sense that the story-telling is important. Without it, Contracts feels more like an expansion pack that offers many playable levels rather than a story of its own.

Bottom line is that Contracts is a must-have if one enjoys the Hitman series. One cannot like the rest without liking this one. It doesn't quite reach the standard set by Blood Money, and it doesn't add much to the Hitman mythos, but it is a solid entry in the series.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Double the Van Dammage: Hard Target (1993) and Street Fighter (1994)

Unfortunately, these are the last two films in my Van Damme quadruple feature DVD set. But don't worry, I bought another one, this time with even weirder straight-to-video stuff. It should make for some enjoyable Van Dammage in the future. Stay tuned.

Hard Target (1993)

This one's probably most famous for being really weird. Van Damme, sporting a mullet worthy of the Hall of Fame, plays Chance, a Cajun with a shifty past and some mad kung fu skills. He's hired some lady looking for her missing father. They quickly find out, however, that he was killed by a rich butthole who hunts homeless Vietnam vets for sport. Naturally, there's revenge to be had. Hard Target is an exercise in absurdity: each scene is exponentially weirder than the last, with the chase sequence in the Bayou being by far the weirdest. Even for a Van Damme film, this one is a bit out there. In terms of the martial arts, there's not much here. There's a few decent fights, but they're almost all filmed in super slo-mo. In a way, they're perfect for a poser like Van Damme, but the choreography is substandard, particularly in comparison with Van Damme's contemporaries in the genre. But as an action film more generally, Hard Target is beautifully unselfconscious. There's not a single halfhearted idea or concept thrown out there; rather, each stupid idea is followed to its "logical" conclusion. As long as you don't go in expecting a martial arts tournament, Hard Target is one of the better Van Damme films.

Street Fighter (1994)

And this one's probably most famous for being really awful. Truly, who knows what in the world is going on in this film. Our friend Van Damme is Guile, a military man tasked with finding the nefarious M. Bison, who has kidnapped some innocent folks and is holding them up for ransom. Bison has also turned one of Guile's pals into a green mutant because he hates him so much. Consequently, Guile gathers up some allies to launch an attack on Bison's hideout. It all leads up to one of the most nonsensical set-piece finales in any film. Street Fighter is poorly acted, poorly scripted, poorly shot, poorly edited, and poorly lots of other things, but really, the fundamental problem with the film is that there's actually very little fighting in it. There's plenty of action movies with more idiotic plots than this one (certainly with worse acting), but for a movie based on a fighting game, I need more than two or three combat sequences because the sub-slapstick comedy in this one was not working for me. This film makes the Mortal Kombat adaptation look Citizen Kane, if only because the brain trust behind Mortal Kombat had the common sense to make a fairly straightforward martial arts film. Street Fighter is somewhere between a made-for-TV children's special and a rather meandering adventure film. And in that sense, it's unsatisfying on nearly every level. The few scenes of one-on-one combat are ruined by a style of editing that most closely resembles epilepsy. And even for fans of Van Damme, there's little to like about the big lug's role: a few spin-kicks are thrown in there, sure, but not much else, not even the splits. Street Fighter doesn't even reach the ridiculous "highs" that something like Double Team stumbles fortuitously upon. I can only recommend Street Fighter for serious Van Damme devotees.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Double the Van Dammage: Timecop (1994) and The Quest (1996)

It's time for another Van Damme double feature/double review. This time, Van Damme packs up his suitcase for two adventures: one involving a trip back in time, and the other a trip to Thailand and Tibet. In both instances, he still has time to do a whole lot of stretching. Keep an eye on Code Redd Net for more Van Damme in the future.

Breakfast by Van Damme.
Timecop (1994)

In 2004, time travel has become so common that a law enforcement agency is needed to police it. Van Damme is an officer for this agency, and while he's an outstanding (and quite flexible, see above) agent, he's still consumed with guilt over the death of his wife. He's sent back to 1994, which is coincidentally the same year his wife was murdered by an up-and-coming politician. Naturally, Van Damme bumps into his past self and other things happen which lead to some fights and rayguns and so on. I assume there's plenty of plot holes and logical inconsistencies in Timecop because fluid time travel doesn't really make sense. But like any Van Damme film, I stopped following the plots a long time ago, and I recommend you do the same. Still, though, Timecop asks some basic moral philosophical questions, which it then answers in a rather trite way at the end of the film. For instance, Van Damme is told numerous times by his superiors that the job of this time travel agency is to prevent anyone from inadvertently tampering with the past, and thus from altering or erasing the future. In 1994, Van Damme not only encounters his wife, but he works really hard to save her. By selfishly devoting himself to saving her life, and thereby rewriting the past, is he not also endangering the future? Ultimately, what is the cost of his happiness for the citizens he's supposed to be serving? Besides Van Damme's selfishness, Timecop is a solid sci-fi/martial arts film. These two genres seem to work well together (shout out to Jet Li's The One). Much like the other Van Damme films I've reviewed lately, the martial arts choreography in Timecop is serviceable. Van Damme is much more of a poser than a performer. That's undoubtedly part of his charm, but don't expect to see
the same kind of physical creativity you see in a Jackie Chan film in something like this. Van Damme's martial arts rely much more on camera tricks and editing. If you can handle that level of artifice, then I can recommend Timecop.

Van Damme as sad clown.
The Quest (1996)

Van Damme plays an exceptionally well-trained martial artist and pickpocket who foolishly stows away on a shipping boat to escape the police. He's found, shackled, and forced to work on the ship, at least until Roger Moore shows up with his own crew of raiders. Poor Van Damme is then tricked by Moore and sold into slavery again on an island where slaves are taught Muay Thai. He becomes pretty good at it, and at that point Moore shows up again to take Van Damme to a mysterious martial arts tournament in Tibet. The Quest is basically Bloodsport with Roger Moore, and maybe a dash of Enter the Dragon thrown in for good measure. The first half of the film is a nonsensical slave narrative, and instead of making Van Damme sympathetic, it just makes him look like the biggest dope around. How long was he asleep in that ship? Could he not swim out of the harbor once he realized that the ship he stowed away on was moving? Why would a slave owner train his property in a deadly form of combat? And why would the slave not use his expert training in maiming and killing people to escape? However, once the tournament narrative begins about halfway through, this turns into a totally competent martial arts film. Even if it's a retread of Bloodsport, who doesn't like Bloodsport? Roger Moore is shockingly decent in this one. Unlike in his Bond films, Moore's essential sleaziness works well with his character's opportunism. Unfortunately, Van Damme and Moore never throw down: instead, Van Damme is challenged by a variety of fighters from different disciplines. The Quest does a good job of establishing the strengths and weaknesses of each style and tying them into the overall tournament narrative. In that way, each match in the tournament, whether involving Van Damme's character or not, has a certain level of intrigue. Rather than cutting together a two-minute montage of the tournament and only focusing on Van Damme, The Quest gives space to these other characters so that their eventual fights with Van Damme are more interesting. The Quest is worth recommending for this tournament sequence, but you can probably do the dishes or something during the first half and not miss much.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

PS2 Review: Midnight Club 3: DUB Edition Remix (2006)

The Midnight Club franchise is truly one of the biggest players in the street racing/car customization genre, and for good reason. It offers a diverse selection of cars, trucks, as well as a selection of sport bikes and choppers, and many different ways to customize them, including (but not limited to) chopping the top, underglow, lowering the chassis, chrome accents, body kits, rims, tires, hydraulics, etc. More than any other car game, I felt like with MC3 I was able to make my car my own, while others, such as Forza Motorsport or Need for Speed: Most Wanted, felt more limited, with my options mostly settled for me (with the exception of vinyl and paint. However NFS: Carbon had some interesting modification abilities for wheels, albeit cartoon-looking).

Of course, the ability to do stupid crap with your car is not at the heart of any racing game. NFS: Hot Pursuit 2 remains my favorite racing game even though it offered no modifications. Why? Because it has one of the finest and funnest driving experiences of any game. And though MC3 is not quite up to the same standards, it still offers hours of entertainment.

One of the difficulties I found with the gameplay was that my ability to win races depended just as much, if not more, on upgrading my car's performance to the greatest extent possible as my driving ability. I'm happy to say that there are many close races, but this must have left me frustrated at the time; one of my controllers will no longer vibrate properly because of my slamming it against an object whilst playing this game. No doubt, the large amount of traffic in this franchise leads to many collisions, and this can by very annoying. You will rarely feel the freedom of the open road because you'll be too busy dodging crashes. Another difficulty, and one that can also be very frustrating, is the difficulty of navigating the checkpoints. There aren't really racetracks in MC3 but rather series of checkpoints, requiring one to keep one eye on the road and the other on the HUD. For most ordered races these routes are fairly straightforward, but there are also unordered races where one only need reach every checkpoint in any fashion. These can require much trial-and-error to find the best ways to tackle them.

The frustrations aren't enough to keep MC3 from being a great racing game, though. Even with its age, it remains a gem and, in my opinion, is better than more recent next-gen entries in the franchise, such as Midnight Club: Los Angeles. If you want to find some racing on the cheap, MC3: DUB Edition Remix is a good bet.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Movie Review: Ender's Game(2013)

Ender's Game is my pick for top science fiction film of 2013. Unlike something such as Star Trek: Into Darkness, it felt like a legitimate contribution to the genre, exploring themes of war, peace, love, the military, and child soldiers.

Ender is a boy who is expelled from school for fighting a bully and kicking him while he was down. This causes him to be recruited by Colonel Harrison Ford, who admires Ender's ability to battle strategize; he didn't kick the bully after the fight was won because he enjoyed it but because he knew that it would prevent all future fights from happening. This is relevant to Earth's defense, as an alien species who attacked years ago appear to be mounting another offensive; they need to be dealt with in a way that will prevent future danger. And so Ender attends a military academy in a space station, where very young cadets are training for military command (apparently the computing power of youth is seen to outweigh the benefits of experience in terms of military leadership).

What I found to be the most interesting theme of Ender's Game was that of knowing one's enemy (and subsequently coming to love them), which Ender seems to master. He finds that when he understands his enemies, he also comes to understand each one of them as another self and their reasons for their self love. In this way, Ender himself comes to love them. This puts him in an awkward position when he has to fight his enemies, one that results in anxiety and regret.

Another theme, one I find especially relevant to world issues today, is the idea of preventative war and under what conditions, if any, it can be justified. How should foreign policy be conducted? Out of fear? With demonstrations of power? Perhaps with empathy? It is my hope that stories like Ender's Game will spark many a discussion of how to think of others as equals who deserve the same respect. (For example, most Americans would not stand for a foreign military having a base on US soil, so why is it hard for them to understand why foreigners might not want US bases in their neighborhoods?)

As well, Ender's Game is entertaining. It is almost like a Harry Potter scenario except where kids learn battle strategies instead of witchcraft and play an interesting sport slightly more plausible than quidditch. It is well-paced; no scene seemed out of place and Ender's ability to gain the respect and loyalty of his fellow cadets feels authentic rather than something the script simply dictates happening.

At no point did Ender's Game feel cliché or like a rip-off of a story we have heard before. It really is science fiction at its finest, and it comes highly recommended.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Double the Van Dammage: Double Impact (1991) and Double Team (1997)

I've watched a bunch of Jean-Claude Van Damme films recently. Who knows why. However, these are two of the best. Keep an eye out for more Van Damme double features in the future, because I haven't gotten sick of this guy yet.

Double Impact (1991)

Van Damme really stretches the acting muscles in this one by playing identical twins, separated since childhood because their parents were murdered by hoodlums in Hong Kong. This film firmly sides with nurture over nature, as the two children grow up to be way different: goober Chad runs a martial arts school in LA with his uncle and enjoys wooing the ladies with his small neon shirts, while Alex is a criminal living in Hong Kong, unwittingly working for the man who had his parents killed and going steady with his girlfriend, Danielle. Chad is duped by his uncle into traveling to the island to meet up with his long-lost brother, and from there a lot of weird things happen. Of course, Chad is mistaken for Alex and Alex is mistaken for Chad: such is life, and life is a constant struggle. This creates all manner of conflicts between the brothers and their Triad adversaries, not to mention Danielle, who takes quite a liking to Chad. This leads to two things: one is an absolutely disturbing love scene between Danielle and Chad, and the other is a fight between Chad and Alex, and it's not bad. In fact, Double Impact has more than a few decent fight scenes, including one between Alex and Moon, played by Bolo Yeung (you know him as the big guy in Bloodsport). The dopey comedy gets to be a bit much by the end, but it's a competent Van Damme vehicle with some so-so choreography. Not exactly fine dining, but still, satisfying nonetheless.

*I don't want to spoil this for you.
Double Team (1997)

This movie is 1997 through and through. It makes no sense at all. In another tale of unlikely partners, Van Damme plays Jack, an assassin, who meets up with an arms dealer, Yaz, played by Dennis Rodman. Yaz supplies Jack with weapons for his final mission. When Jack fails to eliminate the target, he is sent to an island for retired assassins, where they play golf and such. The island is heavily fortified and monitored, but Jack's pretty tough, so he manages to escape after a bit of training, mainly by doing curls with the bathtube tied around his neck. Once he finds his way back to society, Jack teams up with Yaz to rescue his wife, who has been kidnapped by the nefarious Stavros. Putting aside the weirdness of it all for a moment, this film has no sense of a proper dramatic arc. Jack's escape from the failed assassin's retirement home/prison feels like one film, and his quest for revenge against Stavros feels like another. This is not to say that I expect a delicate emotional narrative from a Van Damme movie, but even something as monumentally silly as Double Impact keeps a nice pace and pays everything off at the end. Double Team has so many ideas crammed into 90 minutes that they all get shortchanged as a result. However, Double Team has many redeeming qualities, including: Rodman's outfits, Rodman's dialogue, Van Damme's dialogue, that part where Van Damme spin-kicks a tiger, and product placement so blatant it almost seems subversive*. Van Damme's fight scenes are ruined by the convulsive editing, so I can't recommend Double Team on those grounds, but if you enjoy the absurd, this isn't terrible.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

PS3 Review: Wheelman (2009)

Much like Driv3r on the PS2, Wheelman is an adorably stupid game. Maybe Wheelman isn't stupid so much as it is really weird. It's a fairly typical Grand Theft Auto clone, starring Vin Diesel and set in Barcelona, that has some odd ideas about people and physics. It can often be frustrating and confusing, but once you get used to its peculiarities, Wheelman is kind of a charming game.

Basically, Wheelman is about an undercover agent named Milo working in Spain, tasked with disrupting and eliminating smugglers. He's given free reign by his handlers to infiltrate Barcelona's criminal organizations. While the plot is certainly not complex, it can still be confusing if you have any mind for remembering things. There's just too many poorly defined characters and vague alliances to keep track of, and there's no mechanism in the game for recapping past events, not even something as simple as character bios. However, if you just tune out the story, Wheelman is much more enjoyable.

In Wheelman, you do two things: shoot and drive. Mainly, though, you drive, and sometimes while you drive, you shoot too. For the most part, this driving is handled well. What makes the driving in this game unique is its capacity for combat. Steering is controlled with the left analog, while the right analog is used for fighting off enemy vehicles: for instance, pushing the right analog to the right while driving will result in the car dashing in that direction to ram into a pursuer. This can be done in any direction. When a car's "health" becomes critical after three or more wallops, another one will result in that car exploding in a very pretty fireball. In addition, you come equipped with an "adrenaline" meter on the bottom left corner of the screen that you can fill by driving fast, performing risky stunts and jumps, and so on. While a full adrenaline meter can power a short nitros boost, it can also enable several "focus" shooting techniques, which allow you to shoot out the tires or engine of a pursuer in slo-mo. Altogether, these techniques make Wheelman's car combat surprisingly deep and enjoyable.

Outside of the vehicle, however, combat is rudimentary. It works, but far less spectacularly than the vehicle combat, and without the benefit of being luridly amusing. Milo is difficult to control, either sprinting full-tilt like an idiot or waddling around while crouched behind cover. Aiming is actually far too easy, and in general these sequences are tedious and unchallenging slogs between drives.

Wheelman's graphics are nothing special either. Though the cars look nice, Diesel's cyber-scanned mug is incredibly creepy, and the rogues gallery seems culled from Central Casting's racial caricature cheat sheet. Like the graphics, the music is similarly bland. Yet Wheelman is commendable simply for the sheer weirdness of it all. Wheelman's Barcelona is not the abstract, glitchy playpen of Driv3r, but it's still a digital city with a unique understanding of gravity and law enforcement. Cars careen into each other and off ramps as if on Mars, men fly when ejected from a vehicle, and police respond like rabid dogs to a dislodged street light. There's also a series of side-missions and mini-games that ensure that very few normal things happen. Wheelman is like a Grand Theft Auto arcade game and is particularly suited to those who want the experience of an open world game, but without the fuss of exploration.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Movie Review: Elysium (2013)

This review contains what would ordinarily be called “spoilers,” but Elysium is so awful that I find it difficult to say that it could be spoiled. At any rate, I highly recommend that you avoid this movie anyway.

Nothing in Elysium  makes any sense whatsoever. I am not exaggerating when I say that it seems like a twelve-year-old wrote it. Though the sci-fi and fantasy genres often require some charity from the audience in terms of suspending disbelief, Elysium goes too far and becomes cartoonish. It is set a hundred or so years in the future, where Earth is a terrible place to live and the wealthy live in a space colony called Elysium, where “med-bays,” which automatically heal all infirmities of Elysiumites, are main furniture fixtures in every home. Let's break down what makes this movie so terrible.

Medical Implausibility

The characters in this movie recover from injuries in a way that is truly video game-like, where one only need to not sustain damage for a bit in order to heal back to perfect health, or it just completely disregards injuries later in the movie.

Near the beginning of the story, Matt Damon takes a large dose of radiation and is told that he will live for five more days. He staggers his way home, only barely making it with the help of a friend. However, after putting on an exo-suit that increases his strength, he is not healthy enough to fight robots and multiple heavily-trained commandos, even though we are given no reason to believe that Matt Damon has the martial ability to do such a thing. Furthermore, after being stabbed in the belly with a knife, an injury which likely cut his intestines and bowels, he is healed by a gauze pad and a nap and the wound is never referenced in the film afterward. This makes the film cartoonish and difficult to take seriously.

The Flat, Two-Dimensional Characters

In my review of Atlas Shrugged: Part One, I mentioned that one of the greatest of its shortcomings was the black-and-white portrayal of its characters: the protagonists are nearly perfectly virtuous and the bad guys have no redeeming personality traits. Elysium suffers from the same problem.

At Matt Damon's factory job, a door gets stuck because of a shifted pallet and the foreman tells Matt Damon to get in there and fix it or he'll lose his job. This is when Matt Damon gets hit with radiation. To add insult to injury, as Matt Damon is being treated by robots, the CEO of the company expresses his desire to get Matt Damon out of there so he won't have to go through the expense of replacing the sheets on the treatment table.

Even if we accept the idea that the foreman and CEO can lack compassion to a hyper-sociopathic level, this behavior isn't consistent with the movie's own internal logic; if all they cared about were productivity and making money, forcing workers to do unnecessarily unsafe things (seriously, all they had to do was find something to prop the door open to make sure it didn't close or even could have moved the pallet with a stick) is not in their own interests. Even if the possibility that Matt Damon could file a major lawsuit against this company (since this is a dystopian story) is taken away, the factory was closed for the day because of the accident. It is as if the foreman is too stupid to know that increasing the likelihood of an accident will decrease productivity or is so sadistic that he doesn't even care.  Either option makes the foreman seem cartoonish and makes for bad story-telling.

Elysium also presents the cliché narrative of the evil rich keeping the virtuous poor down and is extremely lazy in doing so. It appears that the audience is expected to simply accept the idea that the rich citizens of Elysium (who are really never shown in the film except for a backyard barbecue) somehow are wealthy (presumably at the expense of the poor, though how this is the case is never shown nor explained) and are, at best, absolutely indifferent to the plight of the poor citizens of Earth (and, yet again, this conflicts with the internal logic of the story, for reasons I will explain later).

It's almost comedic how the irony of this narrative seems to be completely lost on the creators of Elysium. Matt Damon is one of the most highly paid actors in the world and is probably acquainted with many wealthy people. Are all, or even most, of them evil people who care nothing about others? I also imagine great caution was taken to ensure the safety of the cast and crew during filming, even ones portraying workplace accidents. Did no one pause to think how the story they were telling directly contradicted their own personal experiences?

Major Plot Elements are Either Left Unexplained or Don't Make Sense

The most major plot element that makes no sense is the motivations of the citizens of Elysium. The only desire that the film explicitly shows them as having is to keep Earth citizens out of Elysium. But what's curious is that the “illegals” who try to make it to Elysium are not trying to immigrate; they just want to use those med-bays that completely heal people, as these devices are apparently unavailable on Earth. Thus, it would seem that the only thing required to keep the Earth people from making the trip to Elysium is to send some med-bays to Earth.

Indeed, it doesn't even have to be a donation; the rich people could make profits off of these medical devices by charging only small fees to use them as they appear essentially costless to use. So, once again, the characterization of the rich people on Elysium is cartoonish and incoherent. Since they don't use their med-bays to heal Earth people, even though they would gain by taking away the incentive to trespass in their houses to use med-bays and would make make profits, we can only conclude that they hate the Earth people so much that they make themselves worse off just so they can make things worse for Earth citizens.

Another unanswered question is why the Earth residents are poor and those of Elysium are rich. It's strange that a society with robots that have the sophistication of being able to diagnose and treat illness, perform policing and parole functions, and be personal servants would not also have previously unattained levels of material abundance. Inexplicably, the only legitimate occupation for humans shown in the movie is...manufacturing robots. [Colin Farrell's job in the remake of Total Recall was also assembling robots. Does nobody see the laughable and blatantly obvious misallocation of human capital when they clearly could just have robots make other robots?] Transportation is also quite advanced, as trips to Elysium can be made in less than 20 minutes (thus even further cementing the case that a small number of med-bays on Earth would incentivize medical tourists to stay away from Elysium). With such technological adcances, it's hard to imagine how such widespread poverty would exist.

Also unclear is the system of governance, which seems to be controlled by a central computer program. Elysium's Secretary of Homeland Security, Jodie Foster, and the CEO of the robot company hatch a plan to perform a coup, making Jodie the president and giving her the ability to extend a very long contract with the CEO's company. The program for the coup is placed in the CEO's brain, but is stolen and put into Matt Damon's noggin, which then allows Matt Damon and friends to make all Earthlings citizens of Elysium and send med-bays to Earth (resulting in a poorly thought-out scene, where ships of robots and med-bays land in impoverished areas with children excitedly awaiting. Did those kids read the script? How could they possibly know that ships were coming to heal them?). It seems incredibly short-sighted and frankly stupid of the government to allow its whole apparatus of power to be vulnerable to highjacking with a single program. But if the government is controlled by computer programs, what's the purpose of having a president?

The Idiotic Social Commentary

I've already covered some of the silliness of the class-conflict narrative in Elysium, but there are other social issues that I perceive it to attempt to comment upon: immigration, the provision of medical care, and wealth redistribution. Of these, immigration is its strongest point – as far as having relation to reality -  as what it presents does have some remote relevance to the real world. That is, for example, there are some life-threatening diseases in the developing world that are either non-existent or mere inconveniences in the industrialized world, such as malaria or diarrhea. If individuals were free to move about the world, productivity and human well-being would undoubtedly increase (some economists estimate that open borders would lead the gross world product to double).

However, the package deal themes of medical care and wealth redistribution in the movie have no relevance to reality. In the world of Elysium, medical care is nearly a non-scarce good, only limited by the number of med-bays that can be used at one time. Once one uses it, she is completely healed, and the next person may use it without any resource but time being expended. These med-bays seem to be available in every home on Elysium (strangely residing right by sliding glass doors of homes, as if they are used quite often or are there to be used as displays of wealth, even though everyone seems to have one), but apparently there are none on Earth. As mentioned before, one can only conclude that the wealthy in Elysium are so absolutely heartless that there is not a single philanthropist among them willing to give away or rent out an essentially non-scarce resource, even if it would benefit themselves. The narrative tells us that the only way the poor can access this resource is to take control of the state and force people to share it. The idea that people can only “share” resources with others is such an absurd and low view of humanity that it almost seems contradictory that one could simultaneously hold it and want to save such a race.

Unfortunately, in our world medical care is a scarce good. Elysium would appear to advocate a single-payer medical care system (or at least that's how many reviewers interpret it. To me, that seems like a difficult label to apply. How can one pay for medical care when it is a non-scarce good?). But, if anything, Elysium's commentary on the subject amounts to “We think everyone should have access to the best medical care available,” a vacuous statement if there ever was one. Everybody wants that. How to best allocate scarce resources is the real question, and Elysium essentially dodges the question by making medical care a non-scarce resource. Such a commentary could make sense for something such as intellectual property, which is essentially costless to reproduce in many cases, but is made artificially scarce by law. Though medical care is made more scarce by intervention, it is not the case that it is non-scarce, and therefore Elysium's presentation of it has no bearing on reality.

What is also interesting is Elysium's presentation of the state, as something that simply needs to be commandeered and it will all of a sudden produce bountiful goodness for mankind. We only need a political messiah, as presented in the following image.

In sum, Elysiumis a hyper-violent action film containing no logic or relevance to our actual world. Its plot might be convincing to an eight-year-old, who is far too young for its dystopian creepiness. In the end, then, it ends up appealing to no one.
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