Thursday, January 31, 2013

Movie Review: Parker (2013)

Oi, even loike this, they still call me 'andsome Rob.
I thought Parker could work, I really did. It's essentially the same thing as The Transporter, and more of the The Transporter couldn't possibly be a bad thing. Just switch up some character names, surround our hero with some "new" characters, new locales, and new circumstances to put a hurting on ne'er-do-wells, and you're well on your way to a successful action film. Only a dab of panache is necessary. I waited throughout the opening for something, anything, to let me know that a bit of thought, beyond rudimentary craftsmanship, had gone into Parker. I had to wait until much later to find that satisfaction, and it was a fleeting satisfaction at that. As in most tepid action movies, the plot works fine for what it is: Statham, as the titular square-dealing thief, finds himself left for dead by his crew following a particularly sloppy heist, and the rest of Parker's runtime is spent on his vengeful reacquisition of the money (that is, when it isn't spent on Jennifer Lopez's boring real estate job). The problem, then, isn't in the kind of story Parker tells, but in its execution of that story. Statham's character is guided by an ethical code strikingly similar to the "rules" laid out by his Frank Martin in the three Transporters, but unlike in those films, Parker's code comes to us piecemeal and is simply superimposed upon the action. In other words, this code gives him a few neat things to say while doing his job, but doesn't really tell us anything significant about him and serves no purpose in the overall goings-on. Furthermore, the introduction of J-Lo's debt-ridden real estate agent only muddies the waters, effectively derailing Parker's (already fledgling) narrative momentum to shoehorn in an uncooked love triangle that does nothing to raise the stakes. Sure, he needs to use her knowledge of the affluent Miami neighborhoods to find the hoods he's looking for, but the scenes between them are absolutely awkward and their relationship is never satisfactorily worked out, even in a totally oblique or open-ended fashion. Statham gets in a few choice lines, as well as some beautifully absurd disguises, but nothing truly memorable. And unlike most entries in the Statham catalogue, even the beatdowns are letdowns in Parker.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Classic Chan: Jackie Chan's First Strike (1996)

Jackie Chan fights for 'Murica! Perhaps even more exciting is the upcoming review of one of Jackie's works that is nearest and dearest to our hearts:
Mr. Nice Guy! Thrasher will demonstrate just why we're really good at cuttin' things off.

 I'm a bit confused why this movie is called Jackie Chan's First Strike. The cover of my DVD says, "The world's most explosive action star fights for America for the first time," yet none of the movie takes place in the US and he worked with the DEA in Supercop. Also confusing is the plot itself. Even Jackie asks, "Why does the CIA need me? They have so many people." Yet, for some reason, a Hong Kong police officer is sent to track a woman to the Ukraine. That is supposed to be the extent of Jackie's involvement, yet he inevitably finds himself tangled in stopping a scheme to sell uranium to the Russian Mafia. He then is somehow working for the Russian Federal Security Bureau ("the new and improved KGB") rather than the CIA, only to find out that the FSB is involved in trying to secure the uranium and have blackmailed a CIA agent to do their bidding. It seems to be a mystery why a CIA agent would have a greater ability to obtain uranium from a former Soviet satellite than the FSB and Russian Mafia would. But, thankfully, an intricate plot is not why we like to watch Jackie Chan. He is an action-movie star and I think First Strike demonstrates his visionary choreography ability as well as any of his other films. He seems to be perfectly comfortable in any environment, whether it's in the Ukrainian snow or on stilts in Chinatown. It was exactly this that struck me most: the variety of action scenes in which we get to see Jackie perform. He seems to be a very capable snowboarder (though the cuts seem a bit sketchy where he will be riding goofy-footed in one shot and then regular-footed when he is cut back to), shows off his impressive capability in bearing the cold, has one of his most iconic fight scenes involving a ladder (I surely hope that The North Face paid handsomely for the best product placement that a pair of winter overalls have ever received), creatively demonstrates how to fight with stilts, and has an underwater fight scene almost as epic as Thunderball (though maybe not quite). Viewing it is a very quick 85 minutes. To me, this is because of Jackie's wide range of talent. He really pushes the boundary of what an action star can be. Can a Steven Seagal do half of what Jackie can? Would you consider Sylvester Stallone athletic? In comparison, he is simply a guy who carries big guns and flexes and has a speech impediment. Not nearly as entertaining. Not nearly as funny, either. I now feel a bit silly in pointing out the light-heartedness of Police Story. First Strike is definitely one of Jackie's most cartoony movies in terms of the humor (though City Hunter takes the cake). He sings while being stripped-down to his koala bear undies. He plays made-you-look in a shark tank. And so, yet again, I think this also demonstrates the wide array of emotions Jackie can elicit. He can be silly and he can be serious. He can be a secret agent and a cook. This is why he was able to perform in scores of films without becoming stale. Though I wouldn't consider First Strike one of his best films overall, it definitely has one of the top ten fight scenes and makes us unable to see step ladders in the same way ever again.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Book Review: Shanghai Girls (2009)

 Shanghai Girls is a novel about two sisters living in Shanghai at its pre-WWII peak, working as model girls for an ad painter. They are just becoming adults, and are stuck between the cosmopolitan lifestyle of modern Shanghai and the customs of their parents. Similar to the stories of the mothers in The Joy Luck Club, turmoil strikes and they are forced to make their way as immigrants to the United States, or more specifically, San Francisco. However, this book goes much deeper into the Chinese immigration experience and is a better story for it. Indeed, the sense of history Lisa See provides the reader is the most charming part about the novel. We feel the struggle and pain of the characters, who have to go through hell just to live in a land where they are treated perpetually as foreigners and with suspicion. They have to live cautiously as not to be accused of being Mao sympathizers. I am ignorant of the factual history that Chinese immigrants of this period faced, but if Ms. See's fiction could be considered accurate then it is masterfully told. BUT, and this is a big "but" for it is all-caps, the novel's non-ending left me with such a bad taste in my mouth that I can hardly recommend it or even suggest it without placing this large caveat on it. It was as if the author felt like the story was getting long enough and just chose to end it. If the condition of literary blue balls exists, then this novel surely causes it. Needless to say, I felt quite a sense of let down with the author. I have followed her for 300 plus pages, forsaking all other reading materials to read her story. Why would she sell herself short and call this a finished work? Thus, if I can summarize this work, it is an interesting and graphic dramatization of the Shanghai of the period and the Chinese immigrant experience. It has hiccups with predictable circumstances that try to be passed off as dramatic revelations and issues with some slow sections that don't contribute to the overall plot and test the reader's attention. The non-ending cannot be merely brushed off as something to let the reader fill in the blanks. There is just too much left untold. It is difficult to recommend as a novel, and I need to do my own research before being able to pass it off as an educational tool if one wishes to learn about the period.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Classic Chan: Rumble in the Bronx (1996)

Classic Chan rolls on with Rumble in the Bronx/Vancouver, also known as Rumble in Vancouver or Rumble in the Vancouver Bronx around these parts. Take your pick; Thrasher thinks it's a fine action film any way you slice it. Next time around Chicken Man takes up Jackie Chan's First Strike, so get your ladders ready now.

As Chicken Man hinted at in the introduction to his review of the always super Supercop, we affectionately refer to this film as Rumble in Vancouver primarily because of the charmingly discordant NYC skyline:

The awe-inspiring and majestic beauty of the Bronx Mountains.
There's plenty of other equally wacky aberrations spread throughout Rumble in the Bronx, including our favorite high-strung, cushion-loving Sega Game Gear enthusiast, Danny, and his unstoppable, perpetually cheerful magic-out-of-mire disposition:

He's got no game, but at least he saves a lot of money on batteries.
"It's powered by my imagination!" says the stupid, positive child.
These "goofs", to speak like IMDb, become something more to us Chanphiles. They become markers of our fascination with his cinematic exploits, the attention to (and eventually love for) these mistakes an unmistakable result of repeated viewings.

Like many others new to Chan, Rumble was one of our key introductory texts. It has since become one of the yardsticks used to judge the success/failure of subsequent films. It's not his best film, not even close, really, but it's everything you could possibly want or expect from a film of this kind. Jackie plays Keung, visiting the Bronx nee Vancouver to help his Uncle Bill sell a supermarket. Keung hangs around to help out its new owner, Elaine, while Uncle Bill goes off on his honeymoon. Soon enough, Keung runs afoul with a local gang and from then on it's on. The admittedly poor dubbing adds another layer of humor to the film, and at least Jackie dubs himself rather than letting some other doofus do it. Sappy as the story may be, it takes us where we need to go, often hilarious so: supposedly hardcore gangsters turn over a new leaf following a lukewarm moral browbeating from Jackie; yokels easily fall for the old "I'm with the FBI because I'm wearing a nicely-tailored suit and have the build of an ex-pro wrestler" bit; and wholesale destruction of both public and private property in the name of justice is, well, justifiable (aesthetically if nothing else). Yet, as always, it's the stunts that matter most. Rumble scores fairly high in this regard, though few stand out as especially noteworthy. I suppose the pool-pinball fight would make a career highlight package, but everything else is merely serviceable, particularly in comparison with the showstealing numbers that make First Strike and Who Am I? truly memorable. That said, there's nothing at all wrong with Rumble. In fact, it has a rightful spot among his most significant, solid, and truly enjoyable films.

Friday, January 25, 2013

PS3 Review: Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow (2004)

For the record, Thrasher's part in this Splinter Cell series has been conducted via the Splinter Cell Classic Trilogy HD collection for PS3. Though the presentation has certainly been upgraded in terms of graphics, as well as the exclusion of any online game modes, these reviews nonetheless apply to their original PS2 versions.

Immediately after finishing Pandora Tomorrow, I switched right over to Chaos Theory and was somewhat startled by the differences between them. The shift is most obvious in terms of graphics. Even by PS2 standards, Chaos Theory is a beautiful thing. In terms of gameplay, too, Chaos Theory has a certain smoothness that its predecessor lacks. Now, that's not to say Pandora Tomorrow is clunky, indeed far from it. What you get with Pandora Tomorrow is a tense, rhythmical stealth experience that pairs up well with the original and improves upon it in virtually all aspects. My initial encounters with the Splinter Cell series were, much like Chicken Man's, more a process of reprogramming than anything else. I was used to twitch shooters like TimeSplitters where stealth, or anything approximating it, was disregarded if not actively discouraged. So imagine my frustration (and eventual gratification) with learning to rely on my wits rather than my trigger. Situational awareness, patience and improvisation carry the day in Pandora Tomorrow.

This time, our wearied hero is sent to intercede in the terrorist activities of Indonesian guerrillas following the bombing of a U.S. embassy. "Pandora Tomorrow" refers to the terrorist's scheme, the release of a biological bomb which could rapidly spread the smallpox virus across the country. Despite the intricate plot, chock full of vague alliances, political allusions, double-crosses and double-agents, Pandora Tomorrow does an amazing job keeping everything in check and keeping players informed not only of what they are doing, but why. Thus, the in-game ear-piece chatter between Sam and his boss Lambert carries special significance, simultaneously informing you of what you need to do, why you need to do it, and how each character feels about it. There's a great depth of characterization in that and the key to this depth is integration, so that while Sam is busy trying to nab a drug trafficker, Sam/Lambert/other voices in his head carry on a conversation about the political and ethical dimensions of this action without interrupting the game for a tedious cinematic. The most striking moment of this kind of storytelling comes when, after working with a female undercover agent for most of a mission, Sam is suddenly told by Lambert to shoot her, no hesitations, no questions asked. In a wonderful touch, players can either follow the orders or not, thereby giving a moral weight to the otherwise highly guided decisions made elsewhere throughout the game. Even though Lambert subsequently justifies this order by revealing her to be a double-agent, Sam argues against shooting an unarmed woman, double-agent or not. Point is, shooting her reduces the number of enemies you face in the final area of the mission, while not shooting her places snipers on the roof. It's a fascinating dynamic that I wish more games incorporated.

Unfortunately, most other missions in the game are quite linear and don't have the same degree of choice. There's often a preferable, and clearly marked, method of progression. Theoretically you could complete each area in any number of ways, but generally those other ways involve a much higher percentage of shooting in order to push through them. At times trial and error becomes the only way to figure things out, but there is some fun to be had in trying to find that preferred route or in improvising an escape as a result of mistakes made earlier. This is why I don't particularly enjoy missions in which a single alarm raised results in failure; as such, too much time is spent on learning the scripted paths of your adversaries. There's a few of those sprinkled throughout Pandora Tomorrow, but they are thankfully surrounded by more forgiving missions in which the escalating alarm stages result in progressively more armored and anxious guards, and  the results are undoubtedly more thrilling when you have adjust dynamically to the consequences of your initial sloppiness.

As far as the actual mechanics go, all aspects of gameplay have been retained from the original Splinter Cell, with a few key additions to improve things. For one, you can now open doors while carrying bodies; as I'm sure you remember how frustrating it was to hide bodies previously (when you would open a door and hurriedly heft the limp moron onto your shoulders, only to watch the door close itself by mystical force in your face) this is a small but welcome change. Similarly, it's nice to have a laser sight option for your pistol to insure greater accuracy, but despite this upgrade shooting is still problematic in Pandora Tomorrow. Too often clear short-range shots, taken from a crouched position, would either miss entirely or, upon hitting an enemy's head, fail to kill/incapacitate; they twitch, as if the bullet merely made them itch, then raise an alarm before returning fire. Besides the gunplay, however, everything else is tight as a drum. Sam is responsive to commands, and even though his animation is sometimes stiff he always does what he should. While I wish we could get a mission rating system of some sort in order to evaluate our skills, the game doesn't suffer without one. It's a little short on replay (and mission ratings would undoubtedly bolster that), but Pandora Tomorrow is part of a fine lineage.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Classic Chan: Supercop (1992)

We continue our exploration of some of Jackie's famous Police Story film series, today joined by the lovely Michelle Yeoh. Next time, Thrasher will re-visit the cult-classic, Rumble in Vancouver. I know I'm excited.
Also known as Police Story III in Asia, Supercop builds upon the adventures of Jackie/Kevin Chan, who is now officially recognized as being a "supercop." As such, he is sent to partner with Jessica Yang (played by Michelle Yeoh), a member of the mainland Chinese police, in a dangerous undercover assignment that involves breaking a convict out of a labor camp in order to infiltrate his older brother's drug cartel. Jackie brings the same brand of lovable yet lethal goofball who is not afraid to slap a woman if she gets too sassy. He still has the same lovely, though perhaps under-appreciated, girlfriend from the previous films, but is now joined by a woman who slaps back. And this is my favorite thing about this film: it is one of the few times where Jackie has a true female counterpart (unless, of course, you want to count Jennifer Love Hewitt in The Medallion) who can rival his ability to provide spectacle through stunts. She is a pleasure to watch, whereas watching Scarlett Johannson (or most other actresses put in an action-fighting role) often requires the suspension of disbelief. Indeed, she does all of her own stunts, too, of which there are quite a few to be found. And I find that this can make for a better martial arts film. In contrast, there are some cases where Jackie has very impressive fight scenes but a story that is hard to sit through or follow, causing me to have the desire to simply save the parts of these movies I do like and make an action compilation. Supercop does not have this problem at all; action scenes happen often and always further the plot. It all culminates in a stunning visual climax involving stunts with a helicopter, dirt bike, and train. What is unfortunate is that I found certain problems about the scene that distracted me from enjoying it in all its glory. The largest is the method by which Chaibat, being pursued by Chan who is hanging on the rope ladder of his helicopter, tries to stop him. Chaibat has his pilot run Chan into some of the more iconic spires in Kuala Lumpur, which fails, and eventually into an oncoming train, which catches the rope ladder and forces the helicopter to land on it. I typically dislike when villains leave the protagonist in some elaborate trap and leave, allowing him or her to escape. The feeling I get from that is quite the same I get here. Chaibat is carrying a large assault rifle in the helicopter and there ought to have been some explanation as to why he wouldn't use it to get Chan off his rope ladder (something like he ran out of ammo or it dropped out of the chopper). Also puzzling is why they don't just cut the rope ladder (and the excuse that they didn't have a knife is belied by the fact that one of the men on the helicopter pulls out a huge bowie knife to attack Jackie). The ending also left me puzzling why Chaibat's wife would assist in rescuing Jackie and Jessica, since she had previously been sentenced to death by the Malaysian government for conspiracy against the state. Some explanation about how they could extradite her to Hong Kong for leniency in providing the numbers to the Swiss bank accounts would have been welcomed. These three seemingly small quibbles caused disproportionately large problems in my enjoyment of what otherwise is a fantastic action scene. But please don't let my spending half of the review talking about some problems give you the impression that this movie was anything less than one of Jackie's best outings. It is, in fact, my personal favorite of the Police Story series.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Classic Chan: Digging Around in the Archives

Seems a bit impractical, Jackie, but impressive nonetheless.
If you haven't had a look yet at our ongoing Classic Chan review series, we implore you to do so by checking out our reviews of Police Story and Police Story 2. Keep an eye out for more reviews in the coming weeks. In the meantime, though, you should know that there's a wealth of Jackie Chan content already awaiting you on Code Redd Net. Here's what you may be missing:


Jackie Chan's Stuntmaster
The Forbidden Kingdom
The Medallion
Rush Hour
Rush Hour 2
Rush Hour 3
Shanghai Knights
The Tuxedo
Twin Dragons

Code Redd Net Awards:

Best Jackie Chan Movie
Finest Fight

From our Finest Fights series (featuring spectacular embedded videos!):

Police Story
Jackie Chan's Thunderball
Jackie Chan's First Strike
Rumble in the [Vancouver] Bronx
Who Am I?

and, of course, there's always the golden Time Life CD box set Solid Gold Chan.

Danny should upgrade to a PS Vita. A higher resolution screen
would be much better for playing those games which Jackie always
forgets to give him.

Friday, January 18, 2013

PS3 Review: Haze (2008)

It's really too bad that Haze was Free Radical Design's final release; the game is alright, don't get me wrong, but it's certainly not on the level of the TimeSplitters series, or even the severely underestimated Second Sight. That said, if you're into any of their previous games, and/or you have a few dollars to spare, you might find Haze worth a try. The single-player campaign involves a futuristic, oppressive military force called Mantel which dopes up its soldiers with Nectar, a synthetic hallucinogen that enhances speed, stamina, strength and perception. You play as Shane Carpenter, a babyfaced Caucasian everyman, who joins Mantel to fight a group of rebels known as The Promised Hand, portrayed in the opaque imaginations of Latin American pseudo-ethnicity. Most notably, the dialogue, as well as its delivery, go far beyond any claim to sincerity and into the realm of immense cheese, but not the redeemable kind. Though the story is short, predictable, and heavy handed (and more than a little bit like the politically schizophrenic Avatar), and there's not much in the way of variety, playing both sides feels sufficiently unique, particularly the difference between playing as a Nectar-addicted Mantel drone and as a rebel suffering from symptoms of withdrawal. This is particularly pertinent in regards to the multiplayer experience, where the abilities of each faction have a positive and negative impact on the deathmatch: for Mantel, this means all the enhancements of Nectar (specifically, sniping becomes superpowered when on the drug) but an occasional withdrawal and a weakness for overdosing grenades; for rebels, this means the ability to fake death and plant grenade-traps which release Nectar and engender the aforementioned overdose. It's a complex dynamic which keeps the deathmatches interesting, and for the most part these skills are well-balanced. Though I didn't have an opportunity to try online play, Haze has thankfully included offline bots to keep this feature relevant. Up to 15 bots can help to fill out the maps, but multiplayer is hampered somewhat by the few maps and modes available, as well as a lack of true, total customization. In terms of graphics, there are times when Haze looks wonderful, but numerous glitches ruin the immersion and in some cases make the completion of objectives difficult. Nevertheless, if you're looking for a shooter with some interesting ideas but can forgive several failures in execution, Haze isn't a bad choice; just don't expect to find the same kind of polished love you can find in Free Radical's classic shooters.

The last level reminded me of Spy Hunter 2, so this game
gets to be Hot Piano Chick Approved.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

XBOX 360 Review: NBA 2K13 (2012)

If there were a CRN Award for most product placements, NBA 2K13 would be a top contender.
In order to keep costs low for you, the reader, Code Redd Net engages in one of the more economical means of providing game reviews: Redbox. Let me detail what I found from the newest edition of 2K Sports NBA franchise. Firstly, not a whole lot of things are different. This may just be a fact of life regarding the annual release of sports games: they are often little more than a roster update. Regardless, I was pleased to see some new things. When last year's game boasted a large collection of classic teams, I was wondering how far they would go. In order to gain the ability to play with a certain team the player would have to win an historic game involving said team. This was quite a charming feature, especially when unlocking a '60s team and playing on a simulation of a TV broadcast from that era. But for some reason, I remember hoping that they would have the Sacramento Kings team from the early 2000s, only to be disappointed. No longer is this the case for 2K13. And this is something I would like to see more of: the inclusion of good teams from yester-years, even if they didn't win a championship or were part of a dynasty. It is a part of our history and we want to play it! (Now send me my 2004 Timberwolves who were robbed of their championship!)

Another interesting returning feature is the "MyCareer" mode, where you create a player and can only control him. You are given a "teammate rating" which improves if you do things like make good passes, set picks, and play good defense, and decreases when you do bad things like turn the ball over or if the man you're guarding scores (this can sometimes be a frustrating feature, as it seems to much more easily go down than up. Part of it is an error on the programmer's part: if my assist pass was tipped by a defending player, the assist does not register and I get no credit; as well, it seemed strange that my teammate rating would go down when I intentionally fouled late in the game to stop the clock. Apparently the team or the coach thinks we are down by too much. You are going to penalize me for trying to win a game, even if it's a futile effort? Also problematic is the coach putting me in at power forward when my player is billed as the point guard. Your teammate rating goes down a lot if your man scores. I think the system could be improved as it unduly discourages risk taking). You start by playing a rookie game and then are drafted based on your performance in that game and how you answer post-game questions (with four multiple choice options) asked by GMs. Overall, I think this is a really cool game mode and provides a unique simulation for an individual playing a team sport. But it does require patience; I would advise to restart your game until you are drafted by a team you want. If you have a soft-spot for small market teams like I do, make sure you really want to play for them before you tell the GM of the Bucks that you can see yourself as a proud career franchise player. Being on a team you with which you fit in is also important for improving your player, as you get a win bonus that allows you to increase your attributes. It can be difficult to do this if you play on a struggling team and are having a hard time getting minutes. A new feature for this game mode is that you have fans, which didn't make much sense to me since I was a bench role player for the Bucks with 20,000 fans at the start of the season. Later, when we are 1-5 and I average 4 points, 2 assists, and less than 6 minutes a game (in 20 minute games) I had nearly 100,000 fans (as well as a shoe deal with Team Jordan). Maybe it gets harder to gain fans later in the game, but I'm not sure what the point is other than unlocking achievements. There is also a feature where you answer a post-game question from the media which affects three things: team chemistry, local fan base, and your number of fans. I didn't really understand this dynamic, as answering questions as humbly as possible usually led me to have less fans and not affect team chemistry, while being cocky nearly had the same effect. It was little things like this (interviews of role players who barely play, the coach putting in the rookie with 2 minutes left in crucial situations, etc.) that made the experience less believable but perhaps more interesting.There are also some cool mini-features, like skill training with legends (John Stockton will teach you how to dribble!) or playing a game of lightning.

One had to have to XBox Live to access this feature, so I can't tell you about it. Thank you, Microsoft.

Shoe Creator
This is actually pretty fun to mess around with. You can create shoes for different major basketball shoe brands with a variety of materials and colors. These will be available for your MyCareer player to wear once he has a sponsorship with the brand you designated. A lot of time can be spent tinkering with this.

Other Comments
You better really like Jay Z. The constant playing of his music gets annoying and it seems a bit narcissistic that his music videos are often mashed in with fake game highlights before tip-off. Last year's soundtrack was much better and varied. Also, I'm surprised regarding some of the rankings regarding certain teams and players. For example, the current Lakers (now with a record of 17-21) are ranked higher than the 97-98 Bulls (who had a 62-20 record). Over-hyped, anyone? As well, one of the nice things about video games is that players don't have to be injured, allowing me to have the fantastic Hinrich-D. Rose back court as reality should be. However, does an outstanding (when healthy) player like Brandon Roy deserve to be relegated to an overall rating of 80? It makes me question whether the programmers ever saw him play. If given more time with the game, I expect that more of these questionable rankings would be uncovered. There were also a couple of goofy things within the game, one of them being the functionality of the Kinect. Now, I'm not sure what it was supposed to do, because I could see "Command Not Recognized" repeatedly show up on the screen. But, when I blocked a shot and said, "Oh sick!" I got a technical foul for language! That resulted in my unplugging of the Kinect. And while 2K13 should be applauded for its large amount of commentary, it's not without its problems, such as certain comments being aired in inappropriate situations (one of them happened repeatedly after I got called for goal tending when rebounding the ball off of the rim: the commentator said he appreciated my effort in trying to get the block). And finally, one of the great things about modern sports games is how customizable they are. For example, I nearly tore my hair out playing 2K11 with a friend because of how easily he was able to steal the ball (how in the world is Pau Gasol stealing the ball in the back court from my point guard?). With the game sliders, one can lower the frequency of such things happening. This doesn't, however, completely excuse crappy default settings, as you have to find a happy custom setting (you sound like a real whiner if you make your opponent change these things) and remember to load it each time you play. But at least it's there.

There isn't a lot of choice for basketball gamers these days (how come the question of why there are correspondingly fewer choices in sports gaming than in previous decades is rarely asked?). But fortunately NBA 2K13 does not suck, though it is impossible to say how much better it would be if it had a little competition. Though perhaps a vacuous statement, it is the best current basketball game on the market.

PS2 Review: Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell (2003)

I remember being quite excited back when I learned that Splinter Cell was going to be made available for PS2 users. Being dazzled by the graphics, I eagerly rented it as soon as I was able. I'm not sure whether it was culture shock or shell shock, but the learning curve for me was quite a long one. I started playing it at about nine in the morning and didn't stop until seven in the evening; it is certainly a strange feeling to have spent all day with a game, especially one you are just getting to know. It was like I had never played a stealth game before and this was my extra long first date. Sure, they gave you a silencer in some missions in GoldenEye and the Hitman franchise can certainly be billed as a stealth series, but you know if you get exposed you can shoot your way out of problems in both. Not so in Splinter Cell; Sam Fisher put me through a boot camp where I was broken down and reprogrammed. I had to unlearn to shoot first. (This took me a long time. It is quite strange to play it today and think there was a time when I struggled with not having enough ammunition.) And when you spend this amount of time with a game, with all of the frustration and growing pains that go with it, you can only come out with a deep sense of connection to it. Sticking with it through the hard times is proof of one's love. In so doing, Splinter Cell came to define the stealth genre for me. And it became more than just a game, just like for many Star Wars is more than just a movie. People will dress up like Storm Troopers; I will climb pipes and do shoulder rolls. It was a world I wanted to play in. As well, Sam Fisher became iconic. He is brilliantly brought to life by Michael Ironside, which is made cooler by his nearly always playing the "bad guy" role (indeed, my first exposure to him during my more impressionable years of youth was his playing the villain in Free Willy). I loved the idea of a seasoned veteran, knowing that he could only have survived this long if he knew what he was doing. You can read more about my admiration for Sam here, when I talk about the upcoming Splinter Cell: Blacklist. Splinter Cell also undeniably bears the signature of Tom Clancy and his fascination with modern military technology, especially of the near future. This, in fact, is one of the many charming things of the series as a whole: the setting is always a few years after the actual release date. The story also behaves like one of Clancy's crafted novels of geopolitical chess games, and, as enjoyable as reading them can be, I had far more fun playing them. All in all, Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell is a joy and the birth of a wonderful series (albeit one that needs to find its roots), and is a must buy at the prices for which it can be had today, particularly if one has not previously tried it.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Classic Chan: Police Story 2 (1988)

It's axiomatic: for every good action movie, there bound to be a sequel or three. In that vein, join Thrasher as he follows Chicken Man's lead with a look back at Police Story 2. Keep checking in with Code Redd Net for more Classic Chan.

Police Story 2 is something of a lost classic, at least in North America, as it lacks both the critical sway of the original and the mainstream theatrical release afforded to the subsequent entries in the series Supercop and Jackie Chan's First Strike. It's a pity, as PS2 features some fine stunt work. In this one Chan plays the same cop as before, only this time he's been demoted to highway patrol duty as a result of his propensity for property damage. His obligations as a police officer and as a boyfriend are challenged when the mob boss he put behind bars in the previous film returns, determined to draw out the subdued Chan. Cornered, Chan retaliates and consequently resigns from the force, only to be reinstated when his former colleagues realize just what kind of results he's capable of producing. In something of a strange move, the film begins by recapping the most spectacular moments from the original before beginning this story in the proper manner. In a certain sense it works to set up expectations which this film seeks to supersede, but in another sense it doesn't work because it's a pretty high bar to meet. Nevertheless, Jackie continues to perfect here the action-comedy formula that has served him well throughout his career. As Chicken Man noted in his review of PS1, in these pre-watershed, pre-Rush Hour films, Chan does indeed get to play goofier characters that more effectively underline his immense talent for physical comedy as well as, and often totally in step with, his peerless athletic prowess. The choreography here is splendid, especially one of my all-time favorite fights, that being the playground brawl between Chan and a bunch of thugs. If, as Chicken Man suggests, the original's fight scenes impressed because they were "nearly believeable," PS2 is a bit of a lateral, pushing towards the ridiculous but not really going there. Jackie's films have a history of walking a narrow tightrope between the possible/probable and the pull of spectacle, and for the most part Police Story 2 keeps its balance.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Classic Chan: Police Story (1985)

Welcome to the first installment of our ten part series taking a look at some of the better known  Jackie Chan films. We are big fans of Jackie, in terms of what he did to the genre of martial arts films, his impact on global cinema, and because he is just plain fun to watch. We start here with Police Story. Tune in next time to see Thrasher analyze Police Story II.

To be perfectly honest, I hadn't seen all of Police Story until preparing for this review and it was quite fascinating to compare it with some of Jackie's later works. One thing that was a bit surprising is how tongue-in-cheek it was, even for Jackie. Police Story is not at all similar to the demeanor of Crime Story. It is actually more reminiscent of Spy Next Door in that Jackie starts out somewhat like a glorified babysitter when he is assigned to protect a mob boss' girlfriend as a witness. He plays tricks on her in order to convince her that she needs his protection, which eventually backfires in several ways. This demonstrates that when Jackie works solo he tends to be the competent policeman who doesn't take his superiors too seriously. But when paired up with a Westerner, the latter takes the part of the screw-up and Jackie is the serious one. Both styles definitely work, but I think that I prefer to see Jackie be the goofball, as he can be very funny. And this is not only in terms of his ability to do physical comedy, but also, in this case, in his chauvinistic treatment of his girlfriend and the witness he's protecting. Another interesting thing in Police Story is that it has a bit less fighting than we've come to expect from Jackie. In fact, the marquee scene from it (if the special features of the Mr. Nice Guy DVD are any indication) is Jackie driving a car through a shantytown built on the side of a hill. I can really only recall two major fight scenes from this movie. The thing that struck me most about them is that they didn't seem ridiculous (like in some martial arts movies) but nearly believable. Jackie didn't engage legions of opponents; the most at once he fought, I believe, was maybe three, and he took a lot of hits doing so. The most enjoyable action scene for me was in the climax where Jackie shows off his athleticism and daring in the confines of a large mall. The biggest drawback might be the plot, which revolves around convicting a drug lord. After witnessing the danger the police put the residents of the shantytown in during their shoot-out and subsequent vehicular pursuit to apprehend him, it's hard to be convinced that the police's war on drugs is making Hong Kong safer. But overall, it offers some good (if far between) action scenes and laughs. 

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Movie Review: Robin Hood (2010)

A while back, I was a bit in a Robin Hood "phase" it seemed; I was watching through the BBC series of the character on Netflix and by chance during this period this movie came out. As well, I was able to indulge in Robin Hood literature when browsing through my grandmother's collection of Reader's Digest Condensed Books. Though my favorite rendition of the story continues to be Mel Brooks' Robin Hood: Men in Tights, I would say Russell Crowe's Robin might beat Kevin Costner's Hood. It certainly takes an unconventional approach to the legend, being that Robin in this story is not born of nobility. He deserts King Richard's army after being betrayed and assumes the identity of the slain knight, Richard Loxley. I rather like this take on the series. What I like even more is the fact that Robin leads the people in demanding that Prince John sign a document that guarantees certain rights of the people will not be infringed upon by the crown. To me, this provides a superior picture of the spirit of Robin Hood: he was a defender of the people and their rights. This is in deep contrast to the more childish caricature of Robin Hood done by the BBC of "robbing from the rich and giving to the poor." The problem with it is that Robin simply takes from whomever has money, while tradition (as I understand it) is that he "stole" only from the beneficiaries of the onerous taxation of the Prince! This is a big distinction: in the former he is simply a thief, in the latter he is returning stolen property. So the choice seems to be between a noble who condescends to peasants who need their superior to take care of them versus a soldier screwed by his government and fights back by defending the rights of his fellow Englishman. I know which I prefer. Suffice it to say that this movie does not suck. I highly recommend it to anyone who has a passing interest in the character. Or Russell Crowe.

Monday, January 7, 2013

PS3 Review: Sonic's Ultimate Genesis Collection (2009)

I recently got on the next-gen gaming bandwagon by purchasing a shiny new PS3. As a result, this is my first review for the system. Ultimately, what's good for me is good for you cats, our readers. Expect plenty more reviews for the console in the coming months, all while Chicken Man continues to keep you up-to-date on the Xbox 360.

Graphically, Sonic's Ultimate Genesis Collection is clearly not pushing the limits of what the PS3 can do; nevertheless, I believe this is an entirely appropriate, even admirable use of the technology for archival purposes. I love the Sega Genesis, and I'm just pleased as punch to have all these Genesis games packaged together on a single Blu-ray disc, rather than having to deal with the mess of dusty cartridges. True, this is a collection of strictly Sega-licensed games only (so no ACME All-Stars, alas), but who could possibly complain about having access to Streets of Rage 1-3, Sonic 1-3, Spinball, Knuckles, 3-D Blast, both Vectormans, Ecco, Altered BeastShinobi, Comix Zone, etc? You can even save progress in each of these games however many times you wish, whereas before many of them required you to complete them in a single sitting. I found this helpful in finally beating some of the more challenging games of that era, particularly Sonic Spinball and Comix Zone (technically I still haven't beaten Comix Zone, but I'm getting mighty close). There's a nice presentation to go along with everything else, as each game has a semi-detailed description, bits of trivia, and case/cartridge artwork. I also enjoyed the menu functionality, where you can give star ratings to each of the 40+ games in the collection, basically ranking them in order of preference and then sorting the menu accordingly. Though not all 40 games suited my fancy, there were enough quality choices to easily make this purchase worthwhile; the Streets of Rages and Sonics were worth the price all by themselves, and after that everything else was sheer gravy. Even the stinkers have a purpose, as playing the first few levels of something as lame as Super Thunder Blade can unlock additional Sega Mega Drive/arcade games or interviews with developers. My only complaint is the omission of Sonic & Knuckles' lock-on technology from the cartridge days, which allowed you to play through Sonic 1-3 as Knuckles instead. In terms of value, replayability, and variety this collection is tops for next-gen consoles. It's also an excellent archival project in classic gaming. Just stay away from Sonic 3-D Blast, I'm telling you.

Altered Beefcake, that's what I call it.

Book Review: The Joy Luck Club (1989)

The Joy Luck Club is an inter-generational novel about four mothers who grew up in China and emigrated to San Francisco and their daughters. Every chapter is told in the first person perspective of one of these eight women, each one getting two chapters; the first set are the mothers' experiences in China, the next are the childhood experiences of the daughters growing up as the children of immigrants, then those children as adults, and finally the recent experiences of the mothers, along with further details of their lives since being in China. Being such, it reads more like a set of independent short stories rather than a cohesive novel. A further difficulty is that the experiences of the daughters are so similar (more so when they are adults than as kids, the latter of which are much more entertaining to read) that I had trouble keeping them straight and they became more of a homogeneous blob of information rather than unique stories. But this apparent blemish can actually be turned into an advantage, which I will explain. It is the stories of the mothers that make The Joy Luck Club worthwhile. The reader is told of stories of one mother who lived in an impoverished village but made local women feel like trendy socialites by hosting potluck gatherings where they would play mahjong. Such comforts weren't to last, however, because this village was soon to be encountered by the invading Japanese. We witness the hardship of this mother who had to carry by hand everything that was precious to her, including her twin infant daughters. Another one of these mothers faced the difficulties of an arranged marriage and gives a humorous account of how she dealt with it. And another tells the story of how she came to live with her mother who was one of the many wives of a well-to-do man. It was stories like these that I was looking for when I began my novels about Asian women binge. The advantage I mentioned is that these auxiliary stories about their daughters could imaginably be skipped over without losing much of the overall flavor of the book. Thus, if one is interested in the subject, I would highly recommend the chapters pertaining to the elder generation with the advice that the cost of skipping the middle chapters is quite low.

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