Monday, May 30, 2011

Sidney Lumet Movies: Network

After he died earlier this year, TCM devoted a night to showing Sidney Lumet movies, and so I used the opportunity to catch two of his movies that I hadn't seen all the way through before: Network and Dog Day Afternoon.

Network (1976)

Two old newsmen, Max Schumacher and Howard Beale are out drinking. Depressed and drunk out of his mind, Howard Beale declares to Max that he's going to kill himself. Trying to diffuse the tension of the situation, Max jokes that Howard should kill himself on the air. It would be great for ratings. The next night, Howard is doing his nightly newscast for fictional station UBS and declares that he's being replaced due to low ratings and that he's going to kill himself on the air for his last show. Uh oh. This is how Sidney Lumet's well-acted and weirdly prophetic Network begins. Beale manages to convince his superiors to let him on the air again and apologize, only to break into a diatribe about how his real problem was that he "ran out of bullshit" to say every night. Initially the network is going to do the sensible thing, and get Beale off the air and hopefully let him get some help, but suddenly in comes Diana Christensen (Faye Dunnaway), the young upstart who's been charge of programming for the network, who sees potential in the freak show quality of Beale's on-air rantings. And so, with the blessing of network exec Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall), Diana develops the idea to retool the network news, and turn Howard Beale into a "mad prophet."

UBS knows they have a hit on their hands when Beale shows up on the set a fidgety, sweaty mess and delivers the now famous "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore!" speech and viewers around the country actually open up their windows and start yelling along with him. They give him a brand new set with a live studio audience for him to speak his crazy babble to directly. Max is genuinely concerned that his friend really is every bit as insane as he's presenting himself on the air, and tries to say as much, but he doesn't hold much sway at the station anymore. In his dealings with Diana around the station, however, he becomes entranced with her, even though he pretty much has nothing but disdain for what she's done to his beloved news department. Diana says she used to have something of a girlhood crush on Max in his younger days, and so they enter into an affair (Max is very much married) together. Max actually confronts his devastated wife about Diana--in a brief part that won Beatrice Straight a Best Supporting Actress Oscar--and is really to abandon his marriage for her. It's somewhere around the time that Diana manages to continue talking about ratings points and the 18-54 demographic while they're in the middle of having sex that Max realizes that Diana is pretty much a hollow shell of a person whose job is her life and realizes he's made a huge mistake.

Meanwhile, Howard Beale runs afoul of the higher-ups when he devotes one of his mad prophet rants to a not yet publicly announced deal to sell UBS to a conglomerate of Saudi Arabians. Even though the crowd can't possibly care that much, they're completely sold on the whole Howard Beale schtick at this point, and so when he tells them to mail letters to the White House en masse opposing the deal that's exactly what they do. The big wigs are not pleased. Beale gets marched in front of the network president, played by long time character actor Ned Beatty, in a cool scene that takes place in a darkened boardroom that has kind of a surreal quality. The president seems to genuinely put the fear of God into Beale as he tells him to take back what he says (why will they listen to him? "Because you're on television, dummy!"). And so, Beale makes amends and can keep his show, but when his ratings start declining, his superiors begin to devise different plans for him, leading into the last act of the movie.

The biggest praise I can give Network is that it's almost terrifying in how predictive it is. The greying of the line between news and entertainment is something that can be seen on any of the 24 hour cable stations today. I have to admit that there's a lot of Glenn Beck to be seen in Howard Beale, even though Beale is a sympathetic figure and, conversely, I want to kick Glenn Beck repeatedly in the nuts every time I see a clip from his show. In the case of each of them, though, they represent people (one fictitious, one real) who got famous because they gave a voice to the fear and feeling of helplessness of the disillusioned populace of their era. You can argue that the policies Glenn Beck advocates aren't actually at all good for anybody except the moneyed interests that his show is supposed to run counter to, but that's a topic for a different blog post. The show successfully predicted the end of the era where everything that came out of the mouths of anchors like Walter Cronkite could be considered the God's truth, and the beginning of an era when news began to feel exploitative and when you couldn't really tell where fact ended and opinion began. In 1976, the filmmakers never could have known that one day Nancy Grace would be sitting behind what's ostensibly an anchor desk spending an hour yelling about how every high profile defendant is history's greatest monster regardless of the facts of the case. And yet, Howard Beale's retooled show in Network is pretty much cut from the same cloth.

Peter Finch, who won a posthumous Oscar, is excellent as Beale, and manages to make his anti-establishment rants something you want to cheer along with, while still establishing that he has well and truly lost it. William Holden is very good as Max, playing him as an Edward R. Murrow sort of figure (they actually mention that his character used to work with Murrow at CBS) in a world where Murrow's brand of journalism is no longer coveted. Faye Dunnaway successful makes her character alluring despite her unwavering single-mindedness for business. Robert Duvall does a solid job as well, playing basically what Tom Hagen from Godfather would be if he were a TV executive instead of a mob lawyer. Apparently Lumet and the screenwriter both had experience in television and it shows. It's a very intelligently written movie, and the accurate portrayal of the industry helps sell what's a pretty high-concept premise.

The movie isn't perfect. After the affair subplot plays out, Max seems to fade into the background a bit, which I don't think does justice to a character that is introduces alongside Beale at the top of the movie. There's a subplot where Diana convinces a group of left-wing revolutionaries to star in a sort of docu-drama that breaks up the flow of the rest of the movie and just isn't really that interesting. Towards the movie's conclusion, its initial plausibility kind of gets strained, as all of the network execs sit around and casually discuss the merits of killing a guy on the air. Granted, the whole point is that the network has pretty much fully abandoned all pretenses of dignity and good taste and are fully consumed by the quest for ratings, but it was a bridge too far for me. Speaking as someone who's pretty damn cynical, I wasn't quite prepared for the level of cynicism that the coldly abrupt ending is dripping with. It's a well directed movie from Sidney Lumet, although I think Dog Day Afternoon, which I'll review next is better.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

30 Days of Gaming: Day 29: A Game You Thought You Wouldn't Like, But Ended Up Loving

Day 29: A Game You Thought You Wouldn't Like, But Ended Up Loving

Being this close to completing this thing, I don't want to now skip over a post or just write "I don't know." But I'm honestly coming up with a bit of blank on this. Obviously, most of the games I own I bought with the theory in mind that they were going to be pretty good. It's a little harder for me to come up off-hand with a game that I really detested the idea of, but then played through a friend or something and realized I actually liked. I'm honestly not sure there are many examples of that happening for me. I don't know, maybe I'm naturally optimistic about games before I play them, or maybe I'm a good judge of getting a read on a game when I first see it. There is something that would kind of fit the basic idea of this topic, though, if I stretch the rules a bit. And so to make a post that might actually be of interest to read, I'm going to go ahead and do that and answer:

The Entire Idea of the Nintendo Wii

I never owned a Gamecube. There was one in the dorm my senior year of college that gave me my fill of Super Smash Bros. Brawl, and I was willing to pass up the opportunity to play some games that looked interesting to me (Wind Waker, Metroid Prime) and just stick with a Playstation 2, rather than put down money for another console with an inferior overall library. I certainly wasn't the only person down on the Gamecube. Nintendo needed a bit of redemption with it's next console, I thought. So then comes E3, or the Tokyo Game Show, I don't remember which, and Nintendo comes out with their new system, with an easily mockable name (wee-wee!) and that uses a weird looking motion-controller. This is from a company that has a history of making some great games, but also making stuff like the Power Glove, the most pointless of all plastic musical instrument devices in the Donkey Konga drum, and the headache-inducing nightmare that was the Virtual Boy. Would the controller work at all the way it was supposed to? How feasible would be it be for games to be developed on it? Would it end up at the back of everyone's closet in three months?

I actually haven't been tempted enough to buy a Wii at this point, although with the price dropping, maybe. It still doesn't really have a huge, diverse library of games, which will always be a strike against it, but pretty much every experience I've had with the system has been positive. They made the hardware work, and have since further refined it with Wii Motion Plus and they've given you the option of using Gamecube controllers for games that require them or are easier with them. At launch, it had a simplistic, but great party game in the form of Wii Sports and it was equally adaptable to a more involved game like Twilight Princess. The success of the platform is evident in the fact that Sony and Microsoft both copied it in the form of Playstation Move and Kinect (granted, Kinect reprsents another leap forward in that it's entirely based on a camera and a controller at all). Nintendo went out on a limb with the Wii, and actually succeeded with it, unlike similar risks they've taken in the past. People will dismiss it's "casualness," but it's accessibility has brought in droves of new people to video games, and there's no reason why people who love holding an old fashioned controller and using all 14 buttons to call out ridiculously specific audibles in Madden shouldn't also be able to appreciate the simplicity of the Wii's make-whatever-motion-your-avatar-would-make style.

Next -- The grand finale!

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

30 Days of Gaming: Day 28: Favorite Game Developer

Day 28: Favorite Game Developer

Given the heavy representation for Square so far, you might figure I'd go in that direction, and yeah, if you ignore the couple of misfires (*cough* The Bouncer *cough*), Square has a great history with the FF and Chrono series. I suppose, too, now that they're merged, you can throw in Enix's history as well and add the Mana series and a bunch of other stuff. But gonna say that I'm including quantity and diversity in this and say...


Capcom has one of the longest running and most instantly recognizable game series in the form of Mega Man. The basic formula has maybe been overdone a bit to this point, but its a testament to what fun platformers they are that they can keep putting out sequels with the same core gameplay and still have people love them. Recently, they've revived the series with Mega Man 9 and 10, games you can download for a mere 10 bucks and are every bit as fun as the classic one. It's much more tactfully done than Sega's Sonic the Hedgehog 4, which they're putting out in "episodes," the first of which is only four stages long for 15 bucks and really isn't challenging whatsoever. There's also the Mega Man Battle Network games--RPGs with some action-y elements--which I've only played a bit of, but which I know have a pretty loyal fanbase. Capcom's also put out the Breath of Fire series, a more traditional fantasy RPG series with dragons and whatnot.

Capcom is also responsible for the mother of all tournament fighters: Street Fighter. Back in the day, Mortal Kombat was always super popular amonst my fellow adolescents, what with people getting their spines ripped out and the line, but Street Fighter was always a much more polished and more fun game than the clunky motion-captured MK. Eventually, some Street Fighter characters appear in the X-Men vs. Street Fighter arcade game that would eventually become the Marvel vs. Capcom series. On current gen systems, Capcom offers both Street Fighter IV and Marvel vs. Capcom, both fighting games but not really requiring exactly the same skill set. SF IV has more complex move sets where some moves might require a 360 or 720 degree rotation of your D-Pad/arcade stick to pull off, and thus encourages you to experiment with different combinations to find out how you can give yourself enough of a buffer to lead into a big move. MvC has some of the same strategies, but it has more standardized and simpler moves and thus is a little more about pure reaction time and knowing when to call your partners for an assist or a big crossover combo.

On the more action-y side of things, Capcom has the most celebrated survival-horror series produced in the form of Resident Evil. I've played though some of and watched a friend play through the rest of Resident Evil 2 and some of Code Veronica, but I can't say I've played the more recent REs. MC Chris gives Resident Evil 4 quite an endorsement though. There's also Onimusha, of which I've played games 1 & 3. The first is very much like a Resident Evil style survival horror game, only in feudal Japan. It had the RE style control where Up on the D-pad was always forward and went to considerable lengths to try and creep the hell out of you. Onimusha 3 was more of a straight-up action game and, just because, had Jean Reno's face and voice in it. It had more natural controls, the areas were a little less constrained and linear, and the gameplay was a little more varied. I had a ton of fun with it. Then there's Devil May Cry, which is kind of an Onimusha like-game, in that it's an action game where you might some demon sort of creatures, only it's turned way the hell up to 11. It's a big proponent of the Rule of Cool, and has some of the straight-up most ridiculous special abilities ever conceived.

Then there's the Phoenix Wright games on the DS. They're in the "visual novel" style and aren't much for replayabilty, and I can't say that they don't drag at points. Still, they represent a very novel concept that hadn't really been done before, like a lot of the best things on the DS. There's not much to the gameplay, but when the cases are at their most clever they make you think outside the box a bit and makes you use a bit of critical thinking. They also introduced two pretty enduring characters in Phoenix Wright himself and his pompous arch-rival prosecutor Miles Edgeworth.

There's a whole bunch more where these games came from. These are just games off the top of my head that I've played and enjoyed. Capcom has been around since video games are in their infancy and, yeah, has milked the hell out of their cash cows like Mega Man, but has also branched off in a lot of different directions at the same time. As time goes on, it seems like American developers are grabbing more and more of the spotlight, which is fine because it's not like the likes of Bioware don't make great games, but I hope Capcom sticks around for a long time to come.

Next: Day 29 - A game you thought you wouldn’t like, but ended up loving

Monday, April 11, 2011

30 Days of Gaming: Day 27: Most Epic Scene Ever

Day 27: Most Epic Scene Ever
Super Metroid: Final Battle and Escape


If I thought about it long enough, I could probably come up with an answer for this that wasn't something that's already been mentioned, but thus far I've drawn a blank for whatever reason, and I'm eager to finish this off. I trust this will still be a pretty satisfactory answer for anybody who's played Super Metroid. After you zig-zag your way throughout all of Zebes, you finally find your way to Tourain, the planet's core. Everything looks dead and barren which, you soon realize, is because your metroid hatchling friend has been sucking the life of everything in sight. Unfortunately, it tries to do this to you as well, until at the last second it recognizes you as it's "mother." After recovering, you make your way to the Mother Brain room, where you fight through a sequence that's oddly similar to the end of the first game and seemingly too easy for a final boss fight. That's when, in a fantastic "aw, crap!" moment, some shrill, creepy-as-hell music hits, and the lifeless head of Mother Brain somehow spontaneously sprouts an enormous body and the real fight begins.

Mother Brain is on the verge of eye beaming you to death, when the metroid hatchling, now knowing who you are, busts in and makes the ultimate sacrifice as it heals you while mother brain vomits on it and, for some reason, gives you the ability to fire a giant-ass rainbow laser. With this, you easily dispel mother brain, but then in three minutes time you have to haul-ass all the way back to the surface and back to your ship at the very start of the game. That's one thing I always thought was cool about Super Metroid. In most games, you reach the final boss chamber, kick his ass, and maybe there's some escape via cutscene as the villains lair crumbles to dust or something, but in Super Metroid it's actually a closed loop. You begin and end at exactly the same spot. There's something pretty cool about how they designed the game to make that possible.

Next -- Day 28: Favorite Game Developer

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

30 Days of Gaming: Day 26: Best Voice Acting

Day 26: Best Voice Acting

I could have gone back to the well once more and written about Metal Gear again, because the voice acting has really been pretty excellent throughout the series and Snake, of course, has one of the most recognizable voices in games. On Day 26 of 30, though, I'm gonna talk about a game that I haven't gotten to yet but that absolutely deserves to be mentioned something in this thing...


"It wasn't impossible to build Rapture at the bottom of the sea. It was impossible to build it anywhere else."

(some spoilers)

I've made no secret of my love for Metal Gear, but I can understand how the sheer amount of time you spend watching the massively complex narrative unravel and not actually playing the game would be off-putting to a lot of people. Bioshock is a pretty fascinating in that it manages to tell a pretty deep story, despite being a pretty traditional first-person shooter with almost no cutscenes and very little person-to-person interaction of any kind. The story is told through grainy black and white videos like the one that welcomes you to Rapture in the above video, or through audio tapes you find scattered about as you explore, and through the radio conversations you have with Atlas, Andrew Ryan, and a few other people. The voice acting, then, is really important to telling the story, simply because you're hearing people's voices much more than you're actually seeing them.

The standout voice is that of Andrew Ryan, the free-market worshiping father of Rapture. His voice has just the right amount of commanding presence and the right amount of disdain for all the no-good, lecherous, peons trying to ruin his utopia. His final monologue ("A man chooses! A slave obeys!") is great, and memorable and instantly recognizable enough for it to be subject of parody. Atlas's voice actor does a great job dramatically shifting from sincere to sinister after the central plot twist of the game is revealed. And then of course there are the voices of the Little Sisters, the various Slicers roaming about the deserted city, and the apparitions you see when you wig out on occasion are all sufficiently really fucking creepy. Bioshock is a lot of fun to play, but a huge reason why it stands head and shoulders above most first person shooters is that it created a truly unique world. The visual detail that 2K Games put into the ruins of Rapture matter a lot, but it matters at least equally that they created dynamic characters to inhabit it and that they got excellent voice actors to portray them.

The Dammit, They Tried Award:

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night

The voice acting in SotN is really... it's not good, but I love how grandiose some of it is, and I love how in this scene, even though whoever is playing Richter is pretty much just phoning it in, Dracula just goes all out. "What is a man?! A miserable little pile of secrets!!"

Next: Day 27 - Most epic scene ever

30 Days of Gaming: Day 25: Game you plan on playing

Day 25: A Game You Plan on Playing
L.A. Noire

For all the praise they've gotten, my experience with Rockstar Games' stuff has basically been playing here and there and friends' copies. Planning on changing that with L.A. Noire though, where they've created a vast cityscape the way they did with the Grand Theft Auto games, only here they've wound the clock back to 1947 and they've created a police procedural game around it. Instead of just straight-up carjacking people and shootin' stuff, it looks like L.A. Noire will have you investigating crime scenes and interrogating suspects. I absolutely love film noir and hard-boiled detective stuff and the game looks like it's going to be steeped in that style. It looks a lot like they made Chinatown: The Game, and the idea of that sounds awesome to me. There's a ton of footage out there for the game--the above trailer is one of several they've released--and it all looks gorgeous. If it plays half as fun as it seems like it's going to, I'm going to enjoy the hell out of it. What I've seen has already sold me enough such that I'm going to buy it pretty much right at release and not really wait around for word of mouth to get around.

Also: Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

I played and loved Oblivion, and DAMN this looks gorgeous.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

30 Days of Gaming: Day 24: Favorite Classic Game

Day 24: Favorite Classic Game

Super Mario Brothers 3

The original Super Mario Bros. was The Game that Started it All and everything, but SMB3 took the basic idea of the original and improved upon it in every way. It introduced new gameplay elements like the inventory of items you could collect along the way from Toad or the Hammer Bros. stages and use as you saw fit before going into a level. The levels themselves were far more diverse and more interesting--like the level in the above video that bobs up and down in the water while the giant fish tries to eat your ass. It had some novel power-ups like the tanooki suit and cool easter eggs like the kuribo's shoe. And there was just a lot more of it. The guy in the above video obviously has the game down to a science and breezes through it, but assuming you didn't use the warp whistles, the game was long, and didn't give you the benefit of saves or passwords. To beat the game, you had to set aside a big chunk of time to work through it.

The game's difficulty curve was just right. The first couple of worlds you could get through without incident, the next few started throwing more elaborate obstacles at you, like the aforementioned oh-crap-the-platforms-are-sinking-into-the-sea level, and by world 7 you were wading through gauntlets of piranha plants. Levels would have a different feel to them depending on how you were going into them. Levels that just threw a ton of enemies at you might be easier with a fire flower, while levels with a lot of traps and jumps might be easier to fly over. Even though most of the game ultimately came down to timing, a fortress level where you were dodging fireballs and running through thwomps had a much different feel than, say, some of the midair platforming levels where the screen scrolled regardless of whether or not you kept moving forward. The game encouraged creativity and experimentation. A lot of hidden pipes were tucked away way up in the corners of levels that you'd have to go out of your way to find. There were a lot of cool tricks you could do with koopa shells if you set them off in just the right spot and watched them ricochet into enemies or power-up boxes or both.

Most importantly, even though the game was made long before the days of unlockables and branching stories and the like, it was still infinitely replayable. It had just the right amount of difficulty to keep most players from getting frustrated, while still providing enough challenge to not make the game feel like you were just going through the motions after a while (although the above Youtube video is kinda pushing that). A few years later after the SNES's release, Nintendo came back with Super Mario World. Some people might prefer World to SMB3, and you could certainly make a valid argument for it. The better hardware allowed them to create a more detailed art style, had some cool puzzles, especially in the ghost house levels, and had levels with hidden exists for you to find that would bring you along an alternate path. All of those things are cool, but there's just something about Super Mario Brothers 3 to me that's just aesthetically pleasing. The levels are all just the right length, there's just enough of them, they're diverse enough to not seem completely repetitive, and it had just the right amount of challenge to it. Simply, some of the most fun you'll have playing video games.

Day 25 - A game you plan on playing.
Lotta different directions I could go with this one...Link

Thursday, March 31, 2011

30 Days of Gaming: Day 23: Best Graphics or Art Style

Day 23: Best Graphics or Art Style


To this point, I've picked games that I've played all the way through for everything, but I have to make an exception here, because even though I've only played a little bit of Okami, I'm not sure I can come up with a better answer. Other games have used a similar cel-shading sort of technique, but no other game has used it to such great effect and used it to make a truly unique game world. Creating a game where all your abilities stem from drawing brushstrokes on the screen is novel in itself, and complementing that idea by creating a whole world that looks like it exists within a giant ukio-e painting brings it to an entirely different level. As impressive as the realism is in some of them, it gets kind of annoying seeing the vast wasteland of washed-out gunmetal gray that pervades most of the first-person shooters nowadays. Okami is the direct antithesis of this, a visually enthralling world where the colors are as alive as the characters that inhabit it.

Day 24: Favorite Classic Game
Not really sure what defines "classic" game, but I think I have some ideas to write about that will definitely qualify.