Tag Archives: action

Great Graphics and Music, but Mediocre Overall : GODZILLA – MONSTER OF MONSTERS for the NES

GODZILLA: MONSTER OF MONSTERS

for the Nintendo Entertainment System


(3/5)

Pros: Graphics, sound, music, ending; appropriately strange at times


Cons: Excruciatingly repetitive; difficulty level presents some problems

“In the year 2XXX, the earth receives a declaration of war from Planet X. With the whole solar system as the battlefield, bloody combat begins between space monsters and our guardians, Godzilla and Mothra!” Essentially, that’s the basis for any number of Japanese sci-fi movies relating to , the giant fire-breathing reptile, so why wouldn’t it be the basis for Godzilla: Monster of Monsters, the first of several Godzilla video games?

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Rutrow! Those lousy Planet X-ians….

Developed by Toho Studios and released for the NES in 1989, the game finds the player controlling both the titular creature and giant insect as they gradually progress through the solar system, from Earth to the far reaches of Planet X, battling evil monsters and enemies of all sorts along the way. In the main game screen, the player manipulates chess-like representations of Godzilla and Mothra around hex grids in order to ultimately reach a base which allows for transport to the next planet. Maneuvering through any space on the grid instigates a pretty standard side-scrolling level in which either Godzilla or Mothra (whichever monster was being controlled) has to fight off smaller enemy units and destroy obstacles in order to advance. Each each monster in the game has both a life meter and a power bar: the life is self-explanatory (when it hits zero, the monster dies), but the power bar represents the monster’s ability to use a special attack (such as Godzilla’s radioactive death breath or Mothra’s life-zapping powder). Enemy monsters are scattered throughout the hex grids in the game and when these are contacted by a player’s monster, the game transitions to a sort of “beat ‘em up” level which plays out in front of a black background. The goal here is to reduce the enemy’s monster’s power to zero through hand-to-hand combat, with the special weapons being the attack of choice.

Main hex grid screen, with several monsters visible.


All the hex grid maps in the game are made up of different types of terrain which seem (somewhat) appropriate given the planet they’re on – Earth, for instance, is made up mostly of mountains and rocky outcroppings, while Mars is mostly volcanic. The farther the player gets in the game, the more difficult and frankly, bizarre the terrain: some planets are made up almost exclusively of so-called “sub-space” terrain, in which multi-colored blobs swirl around or giant, bubbling brains must be destroyed. Each planet includes a heavily-fortified “base” as its final hexpoint – all the player actually has to do is reach and occupy this base with both Godzilla and Mothra (or the last surviving one of the two). It really pays to defeat all the enemy monsters on any given planet however since this is the best way to “level up.” Advancing Godzilla and Mothra’s level gives them more life points, but also increases their power bar, allowing for more devastating special attacks.

Godzilla working through a side-scrolling level….

One of the things a player will notice about this game is that the side-scrolling levels are pretty chaotic. Godzilla’s basic weapons during these stages are punches, kicks, and tail swipes, while Mothra can fly around the screen using her eye laser to dispatch enemies – and plenty of enemies there are. Aside from various types of ground units, many of which fire beams and projectiles, a constant stream of missiles and bombs of various type swirl around with the player in the crosshairs at virtually all times. Godzilla and Mothra wind up taking substantial damage throughout any level they’re in, but in many cases, this abuse is almost inconsequential since there is an almost endless supply of life-replenishing power-ups available. There’s no incentive for the player to try and avoid incoming enemy fire, since it’s all but guaranteed that a power capsule will pop up within a short amount of time, so for the most part, Godzilla just stumbles right into enemy fire (though he can jump and duck to avoid it if desired).

01-620xand here’s Mothra progressing in front of a striking background.

I suppose the fact that Godzilla and Mothra can just absorb damage is fairly consistent with the movies (these are monsters after all!), but it winds up making the game somewhat pointless. There’s not much skill involved in negotiating levels since Godzilla and Mothra simply push through most any opposition coming their way with minimal difficulty. I should note that it is possible to be overwhelmed and killed (particularly in the “city” areas) and that there are a few enemies (including a flying torch of doom) that will severely damage the player if it is encountered. For the most part though, the side-scrolling levels lack much of a challenge and get painfully repetitive – there are a relatively limited number of level layouts, meaning that the exact same one will be encountered numerous times. Consider that a player has to negotiate eight hex grid planets before beating the game and you can begin to understand how and why this quickly becomes tiresome.

hqdefaultBattle scene – Godzilla squaring off against Gigan.


As much of a breeze as most of the side-scroll levels are, the actual monster battles get increasingly difficult over time. While the Earth board only features two enemy monsters, later levels feature up to eight, at least three of which are incredibly tough to defeat. The selection of villainous monsters in the game is pretty interesting since it seems that Toho was trying to raise the profile of some of their lesser-known films. It’s not a shock that fan-favorite monsters like and would show up in Monster of Monsters and even , the smog monster, isn’t that much of a stretch, but the appearance of cuttlefish , reptile/flying squirrel , giant robot , and four-legged (creatures who didn’t feature in any of the legitimate Godzilla films) is surprising – one can even notice imagery that relates back to , , and even , a.k.a. .

nesThe various monster graphics are outstanding for a game of this era.

Though Ghidorah pops up as the (obvious) final boss, my pick for the most imposing monster in the game is , a beast who first appeared in a pair of movies in the 1970s and didn’t make much of an impression. In Monster of Monsters, Gigan proves how formidable a monster it really is, attacking with laser beams, hooked claws, and a buzz-saw that juts from its abdomen. This saw attack is probably the most devastating thing a player will have to deal with in the game: it has the potential to pin Godzilla against the side of the screen, diminishing his life bar at an alarming rate. While Godzilla has the ability to stand up pretty well against the enemy monster assaults – and can deliver plenty of punch of his own, I have to say that Mothra frequently seems entirely useless. Since her body is quite small, she can avoid some enemy attacks and is able to do things that the bulkier Godzilla can’t, but it becomes a chore to drag her through the hex grid and I often wind up purposely killing her.

hqdefault.jpg3Mothra, your journey is futile, even against a leper mushroom blob.

Graphically speaking, Monster of Monsters is actually pretty impressive: backgrounds during the side-scrolling levels are rather stunning at times, with the individual sprites being pretty cool to look at as well. The actual monster animations steal the show however: all these gorgeous-looking and surprisingly detailed creatures move fluidly and seem to react well to what’s happening around them – they all respond to attacks in different ways and seem to show pain (this is especially true in the case of Varan, who reels back in agony when an especially brutal attack comes his way). Sound throughout the game is also excellent, with the various creatures all having their own war cries and whimpers…though strangely, Godzilla’s trademark howl is conspicuously absent. I’ve also got to point out that the music in this game is fabulous. Each monster and every planet has its own theme, and many of these are extremely memorable and catchy; I think this is one of my favorite NES game soundtracks.

GMoM_endingA melancholic, lonely ending…which I rather like.


The frequently quirky Godzilla: Monster of Monsters has numerous problems that keep it from becoming a great game or even an above average title for the NES, but I think it’s OK for its time overall. Though very repetitive, with side-scrolling levels that are eventually dull and mostly a time-waste due to the over-abundance of power-ups, the monster battles deliver the goods in terms of what a player would want and offer up significant challenges. I really enjoy the visuals and sound present here and find the almost somber game ending to be quite satisfying – a real contrast to the typical NES game “Hollywood ending.” Monster of Monsters isn’t something that I’d entirely recommend, but I’ve certainly played worse; those who enjoy the Godzilla series might want to check this out just to say that they did.

Click above to read the (pretty cool) creepypasta based on the game.

The Best Motor Racing Movie Detailing the Sport’s Most Grueling Event: LE MANS

LE MANS

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(4.5/5)


Pros: A marvel of technique that places the viewer in the middle of the racing experience

Cons: Many viewers just won’t appreciate the way this film operates

Almost reminiscent of the 1970 documentary Woodstock in terms of the way it covers a real-life event, the 1971 film Le Mans is perhaps the finest auto racing film ever made. Chronicling the running of one of the world’s most well-known and dangerous racing events, the 24 hours of Le Mans – run each year on an eight-mile configuration that combines public roads with purpose-built racing corners, the film mainly follows driver Michael Delaney throughout the course of the race weekend. Honestly, the “story” here is almost non-existent and wholly irrelevant: director Lee H. Katzin focuses almost entirely on the racing action itself. The lack of a conventional story and minimum of dialogue means that Le Mans very clearly isn’t to all tastes, but in my estimation, the true flavor and essence of auto racing has never been better captured by a fictional theatrical feature.

phoca_thumb_l_24hdumans1971-0059Run since 1923,  the 24 Hours of Le Mans stands, with the Monaco Grand Prix and Indianapolis 500, as one of auto racing’s true marquis events

The film begins with a scene that finds a lone Porsche street car whizzing through the French countryside, passing through rows of trees, town squares, and stretches of farmland before stopping on a remote section of road. Steve McQueen (playing Delaney with a confident but low-key swagger) emerges from the vehicle and stares intently at a newly-installed section of metal Armco barrier running alongside of street. To those unfamiliar with the world of auto racing, this may seem an inconsequential, pointless sequence, but to anyone who knows a thing or two about racing – and specifically, Le Mans – it has devastating implications. Any time a major accident occurs, the likelihood that this Armco barrier will be destroyed is relatively high, thus a brand new section of barrier indicates a spot where a possibly horrific accident occurred previously. This turns out to be the case, since a flashback sequence shows Delaney’s involvement in a crash that killed a fellow competitor the year before.

urlSteve McQueen, who actually competed in several sports car races  and did much of his own driving in the film, stars as Delaney

Shortly afterward, we rejoin Delaney in the midst of the hustle and bustle of race weekend, with the sounds of a distant PA announcer providing the on-site crowd (and in turn, the viewer of the film) with a sort of crash course in how the famous Le Mans 24 hour race operates. An intense sequence leading up to the race start is next, punctuated by a rapidly accelerating heartbeat, a piercing moment of silence, then an absolute explosion of roaring engines and screeching tires. The race itself, filmed from a variety of camera angles situated around the track as well as on, in, behind, beside, and around the actual racing machines, makes up the main body of the film, with some downtime popping up when Delaney relinquishes control of his car to a secondary driver.

The Porsche 917K #031/026 of J. W. Automotive Engineering driven by Richard Attwood (GB) and Herbert Müller (CH) receives a full service

The Porsche 917K, one of which McQueen’s character pilots in the film

The first genuine dialogue in the film occurs around the 38-minute mark, a fact which should provide some indication of how this film is constructed. Removing the action cues, Harry Kleiner’s script would easily fit on one typed-out page and seems to delight in giving the viewer only brief glimpses of a typical Hollywood-type story. Perhaps the amazing thing then is that a viewer is able to pick up on the major dramatic elements of the piece, many of which relate to Delaney’s interaction with the widow of the driver killed in the previous year’s crash. These two exchange a very limited amount of words between one another, but the knowing glances they pass back and forth speak volumes. Aside from this rudimentary subplot, all attention is paid on getting through the endurance (and some might say torture) test that is the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and things do get rather exciting as the race nears its conclusion.

Racing in the rain at Le Mans; the race also runs through a full night of darkness

Truth be told, it’s quite shocking to watch a feature film in which the conventional story elements are downplayed to the degree they are here, but the nature of Le Mans makes it much more an experience to behold rather than an entertainment picture to sit through. The masterful film technique on display here only accentuates that notion – sound design, editing, and cinematography featured are absolutely stunning. It’s immediately clear from the film’s opening moments that an absolutely colossal amount of footage was shot during the production phase (much of the filming took place during the actual 1970 race, with additional footage shot to accentuate the film’s narrative). From the mechanics in the pitlane to the massive infield area at the track, to the actual on-track action itself, there’s coverage of anything and everything related to the Le Mans race, and even sifting through this massive amount of film to assemble a coherent work had to be a monumental undertaking. The cinematography by René Guissart Jr. and Robert B. Hauser is not only gorgeous to look at but incredibly innovative. Trackside vantage points provide eye-popping glimpses of the race, but the in-car perspectives are truly hairy, sometimes uncomfortably so – sequences filmed from the cockpit and in the rain prove just how far racing drivers push towards the edge of catastrophe. These amazing images are combined with fabulous sound design that accents the gut-rattling roar of the racing engines as well as the alarming silence that drivers face while away from the cars. All these elements are edited together precisely (to a wonderful, jazzy score by Michel Legrand) to create one of the screen’s most jaw-dropping and authentic portrayals of auto racing.

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One of several wild crashes in the film.

As I mentioned previously, Le Mans simply won’t appeal to everyone, but to car and/or racing enthusiasts, it’s simply a must-see. The 1970s were arguably one of the most thrilling periods in motor racing: the cars were wickedly fast, achieving speeds on the Le Mans circuit of some 230 MPH in spots – yet driver safety technology had lagged to the point where these vehicles were often described as “bombs on wheels.” The tracks themselves were often insanely hazardous as well, as evidenced in the film by the lack of a pit wall (literally, the mechanics servicing these vehicles were directly beside the racing line) and presence of a track-side runoff area that would virtually launch a car into the nearby forest. Though the fatal accident detailed in the film’s opening moments isn’t clearly seen, a pair of other nasty crashes feature prominently in the picture. One sequence, which finds a driver reliving the accident he just suffered in slow-motion while sitting in his mangled cockpit, pretty much nails what goes on in the mind of a racer following such a shunt, and I think the overall film captures the mindset of a racing driver very precisely and accurately.

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No pit wall at the Circuit de la Sarthe in 1971 – fans of motor racing will be keen to note the many, many safety innovations that have been introduced since the making of this film

Over the years, audiences have gotten used to the “come from behind” story that features in sports movies of all types, but I was pleasantly surprised that Le Mans unveils a more realistic ending of the Rocky (I) variety. Combine its denouement with the documentary-like presentation of its story and Le Mans stands as the polar opposite of pictures like 1966’s thrilling but formulaic Grand Prix – to say nothing of the more recent, utterly loud and obnoxious Days of Thunder. It’s not at all surprising that audiences used to Hollywood endings and more or less predictable scripts wouldn’t quite know how to take this largely free-form and dialogue-free picture – it bombed at the box office back in 1971 – but I’m glad that over the years, the audience that could appreciate the picture has discovered Le Mans. For my money, this is the flat-out best motor racing film ever made and those interested in racing – or artistically-satisfying cinema – would probably enjoy it.


Widescreen format DVD includes the theatrical trailer as well as a take-it-or-leave-it featurette: “Filming at Speed: The Making of the Movie Le Mans.” One wishes there were more…


3/10 : A few incredibly violent auto racing accidents, showing the bloody aftermath.


1/10 : A single instance of the word “ass.”


1/10 : Apparent sexual innuendo on one occasion and plenty of onscreen tension.


4/10 : Not at all a movie the general public would appreciate, but it would hold significant appeal to the arthouse crowd and racing enthusiasts.


“Lotta people go through life doing things badly. Racing’s important to men who do it well. When you’re racing, it’s life. Anything that happens before or after is just waiting.”

Destroy Everything Onscreen: GUERRILLA WAR for the NES

GUERRILLA WAR

for the Nintendo Entertainment System

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(4/5)

Pros: Extremely fun when taken in small doses – especially with two players

Cons: Difficulty level is frustrating for various reasons; gets tiresome down the line

Probably one of the games that caused the most confusion for youngsters when it came out back in 1988 (“why is this called Gorilla War?”), Guerrilla War for the NES remains one of the best overhead-perspective, run-and-gun titles the system had to offer. The players (up to two can play at a time) assume command of unnamed guerrilla fighters as they attempts to infiltrate an island nation all the way to the Capitol, where they hope to “destroy” an enemy leader and therefore bring peace to the land. After being dropped near the coast by boat, the players quickly find themselves in the middle of swarms of enemy fighters – normal commandos firing machine guns as well as more specialized personnel launching grenades or firing rockets. Levels progress at the players’ pace (they don’t self-scroll) and not all enemies have to be eliminated in order to progress: once a certain location is reached, a boss battle commences regardless of anything else going on. The game consists of ten levels, sending the player through forests, swamps, towns, a sewer system, and finally to a heavily-guarded enemy fortress, and the action throughout the game is absolutely furious.

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Main perspective of the game – note the yellow hostage in the upper right of the screen.

Players have initially have two options with regard to their offense: a relatively low-powered machine gun is the basic weapon and the player can also throw grenades which inflict more substantial damage. Throughout the course of the game, various power-ups can be acquired which significantly increase the firepower of the basic gun. Ranging from missiles to a devastating flamethrower attack, these power-ups only last as long as the player stays alive then disappear, but they nonetheless make playing the game much easier. Ammunition supplies are infinite, so one can literally blast away with little regard for much else…unless saving various hostages who appear throughout the game is viewed as a priority. To be honest, there’s little incentive to save these hostages, most of whom appear to be tied to posts in the ground. A player receives 1000 (relatively useless) “points” for each hostage rescued and is docked 500 points for each one inadvertently killed, but the “points” don’t do much except keep a tally of how much destruction the player has wrought. Since hostages can quite easily be killed in the chaos of battle, it’s almost a miracle to save any of them.

Guerrilla_War_-_NES_-_Boss_1Boss Battle!

What one immediately notices about this game (developed by SNK and based on a popular arcade cabinet of the time) is that it’s very, very busy: the stream of enemies thrown at the player is both constant and voluminous. Players are all but surrounded by enemies coming from all sides and behind from the time the game is started to the point where it’s shut off. Considering the steep difficulty then, it may be a good thing that Guerrilla War offers an endless number of continues – at the game over screen, the session can be immediately restored from the last point reached. The downside to this, of course, is that this game (like the monster mash Rampage) isn’t much of a challenge: the sense of accomplishment one receives from finishing it is minimized by the fact that it’s literally impossible to “lose” Guerrilla War provided an hour or so is dedicated to completing it.

guerrilla-4Sadly, achieving this screen doesn’t feel like much of an accomplishment.

Graphically-speaking, Guerrilla War isn’t especially flashy, but is quite decent for its time (remember, it’s damn near thirty years old at this point), with nifty level design and plenty of colorful visuals. There’s also some nice attention to detail considering its age: for instance, certain varieties of enemies (including those crouched down or in foxholes) are lower than the player’s machine gun, so they can’t be dispatched in the same manner as others. Some of the landscape objects (sandbags for example) can be destroyed by grenade or rocket fire, allowing for level destruction that was uncommon in games of this time. It’s also pretty neat that enemy tanks spiral out of control and fire wildly just before they explode.

guerrillawarnes-08Twisting and turning through the sewer level.

I like the fact that the game doesn’t necessarily just progress from the bottom of the screen to the top; there are some twists and turns to the levels that a player has to negotiate, which can lead to some intense crossfire and firefights to deal with. The bosses thrown at the player during the course of the game are fairly memorable, and an appropriately hectic if unremarkable music score adds to the frantic pace of the proceedings. I should also note that this game provides genuine catharsis since the goal is to essentially shoot every damn thing on the screen. I even can’t entirely deny a sense of satisfaction that’s achieved from “accidentally” torching hostages with the flamethrower: call me a sadist, but this becomes amusing in the same way that shooting the nurses who rush across the screen during the side-scrolling shooter Operation Wolf does. Finally, this game is an absolute blast to play cooperatively along with a friend; one of the most downright fun two-player titles out there as far as I’m concerned.

Guerrilla War-2Graphics aren’t especially flashy, but I think they’re nice-looking.

Probably the most frustrating thing about this game (aside from the fact that a player is likely to get killed many, many times while playing it) is the fact that gameplay and formula of the title is rather familiar. The sheer number of military-themed shooting games for the NES was staggering – the system was introduced in the midst of the Cold War after all – and while the capably-made Guerrilla War is a definite step up from some of the more listless titles out there, one can’t quite shake a feeling of “been there, done that” while playing. Additionally, the game’s strengths work against it on some level: since there is so much going on onscreen at any given time, the game has the potential to flicker and noticeably slow down on occasion. This can be very irritating to deal with, especially during the final few levels. It also should be said that there’s not a ton of variety to the gameplay here: though immensely fun in relatively small doses, the game does get tiresome down the stretch, seeming like absolute overkill by the time one reaches the last stage.

Guerrilla_War_-_NES_-_Stage_ClearWait a second…is that Cuba?

An interesting note: in the original Japanese version of this game, the playable characters were named “Fidel” and “Che,” and since the country being infiltrated bears a striking resemblance to Cuba, it’s not hard to figure out what this game was based on. Per Nintendo’s strict censorship requirements, most traces of the game’s original story were removed from the North America version of the game, but a title screen showing a recognizable portrait of Fidel Castro does inexplicably remain.

guerrilla-war-02Definitely NOT Fidel Castro…

Imperfect though it may be, I think the developers behind Guerrilla War honestly made the best out of the technology of the time that they could. This game is extremely playable and quite fun for what it is: a title that’s ideal to throw on and chill out with for a few minutes after a long day. It might be a little rough around the edges, but game publishers hadn’t quite figured out the capabilities of the NES in 1988. That this game functions exactly as it’s supposed to – and as one would expect it to – isn’t necessarily an altogether bad thing despite the fact that the game might seem somewhat blah in comparison to both later NES titles and (obviously) to games of today. Despite its , I probably wouldn’t call this one of the absolute best NES games, but it is a very solid B-title that’s well worth playing – especially if you can snag a friend to play along with.

Gameplay Video:

US versus Them: AMERICAN SNIPER

AMERICAN SNIPER

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(3/5)

Pros: Bradley Cooper; nice-looking production

Cons: Emotionally flat and kinda pointless; is this film sending the wrong message to viewers?

It’s interesting to note how films dealing with the subject of armed conflict have a tendency to reflect the social values and popular mindsets of the time in which they were made. In recent years, several high-profile and undeniably well-made films have dealt with either the war in Iraq (The Hurt Locker) or the “war on terror” (Zero Dark Thirty for one), yet there appears to have been a conscious effort to present these films in as straight-forward a manner as possible without passing too much judgment on the events depicted in them. Many war films over the years have consciously or subconsciously promoted a more humanistic, “war is hell” sort of message, but modern Hollywood appears to be downplaying that message in an effort to appear more “patriotic.” Add the 2014 film American Sniper to that list.

Kyle and Routh
The real-life Kyle (on the left) and the disturbed young man who killed him in early 2013.

Directed by Clint Eastwood, the film is based on the admittedly amazing true story of Chris Kyle, a quintessential “redneck” who becomes a Navy SEAL sniper with the most confirmed kills in American history, and follows Kyle from his early days tooling around on the Texas rodeo circuit through four tours of duty in Iraq throughout the 2000s until his discharge in 2009. American Sniper starts off with a scene in which Kyle, sitting prone on an Iraqi rooftop peering through the scope of his high-powered rifle, spots a young child carrying a grenade towards a group of American ground forces. This scene sets up the inevitable struggle that Kyle faced throughout his tours of duty: how can a God-fearing, patriotic American justify killing 160 human beings in the defense of his country – and even mentally deal with the horrors of war in the first place? Unfortunately, while this basic idea is extremely relevant and undeniably interesting, it’s never handled in a manner which relates genuine insight.

Bradley Cooper
Bradley Cooper looks and sounds the part playing Kyle – though I suspect the film tones down some aspects of his personality.

One might expect that the fault for this situation might fall on the shoulders of the actor who handled the central role, but this isn’t the case: to put it simply, Bradley Cooper (previously known mostly as a comedic actor in films like Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle, and The Hangover trilogy) as Kyle is extraordinary.   As mentioned, we follow Kyle from a youth spent with a father who instilled in him a cut-and-dry view of the world, to his time as a stereotypical “country boy” through to his transformation into a “legend” of the armed forces, and there is a definite evolution of the character in the hands of Cooper. Kyle initially comes across as a genuinely warm personality who gradually loses touch with the real world due to his activities in combat, and American Sniper is at its strongest when depicting the effects of Kyle’s obvious but unspoken and debilitating PTSD. While it would be easy to go overboard when dealing with this sort of material, Cooper’s acting is gloriously restrained, saying more with a foggy and distant facial expression than would be possible with any amount of dialogue. The scene featured in numerous trailers for the film which finds a confused and completely spent Cooper talking to his wife from a dive bar is flawlessly performed and very nearly heartbreaking, showing just how broken Kyle the man has become.

comparisons
One could easily draw comparisons between various scenes here (like this training sequence) and ones featured in earlier, better war movies like Full Metal Jacket.

Though the film is anchored by this strong performance, it stumbles numerous times when putting its disjointed and downright clunky script (which borrows a “battle of the snipers” subplot straight from 2001’s Enemy at the Gates) into action. Individually, there are some extremely effective scenes in the film, but the script (written by Jason Hall from the book by Kyle, Scott McEwen and James Defelice) never quite settles into any sort of rhythm, jumping back and forth between intense moments of combat on the ground in Iraq and awkward moments which finds Kyle attempting to reconnect and indeed reconcile with his long-suffering wife Taya (played by Sienna Miller). The abrupt, jump-cut transitions occurring throughout the film may be an attempt to replicate what is happening in Kyle’s mind (it’s very apparent that he feels more “alive” – and indeed thrives – when under duress on the battlefield and is completely lost when dealing with “normal people”), but it winds up disconnecting a viewer from the characters and events depicted. While there’s a significant amount of action and drama in the picture, the narrative is very jerky; I lost interest after awhile and eventually became bored.

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Good thing Cooper effectively relates his character’s anguish – the script doesn’t do him any favors in spelling things out.

The fact that there doesn’t seem to be much of a point to the picture only added to my level of frustration. American Sniper simply tells the story of Chris Kyle, one which undoubtedly would appeal to the flag-waving crowd, and ends with a final scene that attempts some sense of foreboding but instead seems corny. I should note that Kyle’s eventual murder, which took place in early 2013 at the hands of a schizophrenic ex-Marine, is included as an epilogue to the film, with real-life footage of his funeral procession and ceremony being played during the end credits. Considering the powerful story, it’s really a shame that this film didn’t achieve substantial emotional resonance, but I could hardly think of a film that’s more disappointing and “flat” than this one. The writing seems downright lazy in this regard and the viewer leaves the picture having gained no perspective from having watched it.

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The film’s examination of the costs of conflict is somewhat unsatisfying despite many eye-opening scenes.

Going into a film like this, I would have expected there to be some sort of underlying message or statement to be made, but Eastwood and Hall seem to have had no interest in really saying anything with this work. This more and more seems to be the norm in war-related films and other potentially controversial pictures of the post-9/11 era, and I think speaks to the fact that some people in Hollywood are wary of being labeled “anti-American” or “unpatriotic” if they were to make a film which hammered home the ultimate futility and tragedy of armed conflict or was too critical of the “establishment.” It seems to me that the ultimate purpose of a film like American Sniper is to act as an advertisement of sorts for the military or as a piece that would help “sell” the war on terror to the public. Eastwood’s film is borderline offensive in its portrayal of the Iraqi people and/or Arabs in general, with some material that would likely disgust (and probably rile up) the crowd this film was designed for. As might be expected then, it’s very much an “us versus them” film harkening back to the “good ol’ days” of war movies, and may as well be an updated, louder, more profane and much more violent “cowboys and Injuns” flick. Considering the film has, thus far, made some $500 million at the box office however, making it the highest grossing war film of all time, SURPRISE! America doesn’t much seem to care.

portrayal of Arabs
A viewer may as well assume that every Arab seen in the film is a would-be terrorist and/or militant. That probably plays into what the target audience would want to see, though it’s kinda sad.

Even if I was disappointed by the general ineffectiveness of the storytelling and lack of real insight into the characters, in terms of the actual production and technique on display, American Sniper is impressive. I wasn’t a fan of the way the story progresses, but the actual editing here is marvelous, heightening the intensity of the numerous action sequences. Equally crisp sound design completes the effect during these scenes, and I appreciated the fact that relatively little potentially manipulative music was introduced into the film – the opening and end titles for instance play out to absolute silence. Tom Stern’s photography has a noticeable starkness to it, looking particularly washed-out and grimy when depicting situations taking place in Iraq, and the overall production design is astounding with regard to creating seemingly authentic locations. In the end, American Sniper boasts an amazing true story, handsome production, and a strong central performance, but this is hardly an outstanding or even good film, seeming to be the product of a writer and director going through the motions and covering the same ground that’s been explored before. I don’t think the film would appeal across the board to more discriminating viewers, but it’s worthwhile as populist, crowd-pleasing entertainment.

serious bidness


i'll need guns
9/10 : Lots of (fake-looking) CGI blood splatter and very intense violent scenes.


10/10 : A continual barrage of harsh profanity


4/10 : Brief sexual situations, related dialogue, and crude references. No nudity.


3/10 : Fairly straightforward, and actually somewhat dull in the long run despite the strong central performance.


“I’m willing to meet my creator and answer for every shot that I took… ”

“Don’t Offend Sabata…” Too Late! RETURN OF SABATA

RETURN OF SABATA (a.k.a. È tornato Sabata … hai chiuso un’altra volta)

Trilogy Box Set at Amazon

(1.5/5)

Pros: Trademark Van Cleef scowl; music and photography are well-done

Cons: Dull storyline with comedic overtones that never quite work; horrendous dubbing and drab production

The third and final film in the official Sabata trilogy of Italian-made westerns (which started off with 1970’s Sabata and continued with the following year’s Adios, Sabata), 1971’s Return of Sabata also marks the return of Lee Van Cleef to the title role after the actor was replaced in the previous film by Yul Brynner. This time around, the sharpshooting Sabata finds himself facing off against a land baron named McIntock who has imposed a series of taxes on the residents of a small Texas town. Though McIntock claims to be using the money collected for improvements to the town, none of these improvements have materialized thus far. The situation raises the suspicions of Sabata who, believing McIntock is scamming the townspeople, initiates his own plan to steal the money for himself.


Van Cleef and Schöne ponder their next move.

Return of Sabata starts off with a scene in which the titular character faces off against a half dozen gunmen who have cornered him in a barn. After Sabata, who carries perhaps the most unintimidating gun ever seen in a western, has apparently killed all of his stalkers whilst a group of well-dressed men inexplicably watch from a nearby table, clowns burst through a door and establish that the whole opening sequence was a trick-shooting demonstration taking place at a traveling circus. This more or less sets up the way in which director Gianfranco Parolini’s film works from then on out: as an uneven mixture of western movie action/adventure and goofy comedic elements. The previous two Sabata films also played out in much this same manner, but the formula had been all but played out by this third entry in the series – the western movie elements are tolerable, but the comedy frequently falls flat.


Sabata – he’s a bad mutha…oops wrong movie.

Co-written by director Parolini and Renato Izzo, the film offers up little to distinguish itself from the hundreds of similar Spaghetti Westerns made around this same time, instead seeming quite gimmicky and downright muddled. A viewer is never quite sure of any of the character motivations – particularly true with regard to a casino owner and a carriage driver who wind up standing with Sabata in opposition to McIntock. From one scene to the next, the nature of these characters seems to change drastically with little regard for consistency or logic. Certainly some of the ambiguity here is intentional: the flip-flopping does create tension among the major players in the story and adds twists and turns to an otherwise familiar plot. Still, poor writing and haphazard story development ensure that it’s increasingly difficult to follow what’s happening in the film at a certain point.


Clowns? Why not! The whole movie is jokey and gimmicky.

Adding to my disinterest in this picture was the fact that Sabata manages to conveniently weasel his way out of any potentially dangerous situation he encounters, with the writers not so much as even trying to explain how much of this is possible. If I didn’t know better, I might say that the Sabata character is built up as a sort of superhero: “the only invincible man in the countryside” (as the theme song says), with a lucky streak that won’t quit and a sense of premonition that alerts him to any hazards ahead of time. Since there’s never any honest or believable threat to Sabata’s well-being then, the film quickly becomes downright boring. One watching the film is all but certain of what’s going to happen in the end, and probably can even predict the way in which it will happen…which begs the question: what is the point of watching an entirely predictable movie about an indestructible smart-ass who has his way with everyone and everything he encounters?

drum
Yep – a drum filled with revolvers. They were all over back in the wild west…

Honestly, without the appearance of one Lee Van Cleef as the aforementioned indestructible smart-ass, there would be virtually no reason to watch Return of Sabata. Though the actor could easily sleepwalk through a role of this sort, he has a confident swagger throughout this picture, making it significantly more tolerable and even watchable. It’s always cool to see that devilish Van Cleef scowl – after all, the guy could pierce steel with his glare, and listening to him bark out his lines with authority and a playful disdain for the other characters is undeniably enjoyable. In the supporting roles, we have Reiner Schöne as the casino owner who has a debt to settle with Sabata, the rotund Ignazio Spalla as the buffoonish carriage driver, and Giampiero Albertini as McIntock, performances which are largely undermined by atrocious English-language dubbing (the Irish accent given to the McIntock character is especially horrific). That it’s impossible to take Schöne and Spalla seriously is not so bad – their characters are more humorous in nature, but having Albertini cast as an ineffectual and almost laughable villain may be the deal-sealer that sinks the production. It’s worth noting that the villains in the first two Sabata films were also unimposing – the lack of defining, well-crafted “bad guys” may be the ultimate reason why this series pales in comparison to the so-called “Man With No Name” trilogy.

action sequences
Action scenes in the film are actually decent, but as a whole, Return of Sabata lacks vitality.

Technically speaking, Return of Sabata isn’t bad. Sandro Mancori’s photography is magnificent even if the overall production is drab, and Marcello Giombini’s score is memorable – particularly the opening title. As was the case in the first two Sabata films, director Parolini creates some good individual sequences. Return of Sabata’s action scenes are generally well-staged, and I especially liked a shot in which the camera offers a first-person perspective of a man lining up and firing a slingshot drawn between his legs. Unfortunately, there’s not enough pizazz in in the film: at 105 minutes, the film seems overlong and really lags in between the standout moments. In the end, it’s doesn’t seem a coincidence that the utterly unremarkable Sabata films have been largely forgotten to time: this series simply can’t compare to Leone’s grandiose westerns or even the outstanding B-grade Spaghetti’s by the likes of Corbucci or Martino. Devotees of the Italo-western may want to give this final Sabata film a look just for completion’s sake, but it’s certainly not among the best of its type.


Trilogy box set from 20th Century Fox contains all three Sabata films in widescreen format with no extras.


4/10 : Typical western gun violence and fisticuffs with some blood.


1/10 : Occasional rough language; one instance of profanity.


2/10 : “Women of leisure” feature prominently in the story, and though there are a few sexual references, there is no onscreen sex.


3/10 : Easily the weakest of the Sabata trilogy and a pretty forgettable Spaghetti Western overall.


“If ya wanna get money, and if ya wanna get rich / If you wanna good life, you gotta be a son of a BUM-buh-BUM-buh-BUM-bum-bum…

Suck Wall! REMO WILLIAMS: THE ADVENTURE BEGINS

REMO WILLIAMS: THE ADVENTURE BEGINS

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(3.5/5)

Pros: Stuntwork is pretty astounding; nice use of real locations
Cons: Ending seems flat; potential problems with the Chiun character

Made in 1985 as the first installment of a series based on The Destroyer novels by Warren Murphy and Richard Sapir, Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins has to be one of best, consistently overlooked mindless action films from the ‘80s. The plot here centers around a former NYC policeman named Sam Makin who is recruited by a secret organization known as CURE who, after faking Makin’s death, rechristen him as the titular character (named after – you ready for this – a company who manufactures bedpans). CURE’s goal is to stamp out government corruption and this mainly involves taking down a manufacturer that is wasting government funds on weapons systems that are at best defective and quite possibly completely inoperable. Before that operation can proceed however, Williams must learn his craft from a “Korean master” named Chiun, thereby providing the film’s mandatory and nearly feature-long training sequence.

Remo and Chiun
Remo and Chiun: not quite Mr. Miyagi and Daniel-san.

Christopher Wood’s script presents a mixture of the typically outrageous ‘80s action film story with a comic book mentality and plenty of goofball humor. The majority of the film deals with the interaction between Williams and Chiun: as might be expected, Chiun initially believes that training the very rough-around-the-edges Williams is a hopeless proposition and obviously, a major point of the script is to show that anything can be attained through hard work and perseverance. While the training sequence provides moments of dry wit and Three Stooges physical comedy, the familiar routine is a bit dull and nothing if not entirely predictable. Thankfully, Wood peppers the film with a handful of downright awe-inspiring action sequences that effectively break up the monotony and provide definitive highlight moments.

crazy thing is
The crazy thing is, it seems like this was actually filmed at height on the huge scaffolding surrounding the Statue of Liberty. Note the Manhattan skyline in the background.

One such sequence finds Williams climbing on and through Coney Island’s famous Ferris Wheel, dodging incoming baskets and support wires as a way to test his mettle and overcome his fear of heights. Filmed in a way which really emphasizes the mind-blowing stunt work that had to be pulled off to complete the scene, even this impressive moment pales in comparison to another action set piece in which Williams encounters a gang of thugs on Liberty Island. In real-life 1985, a massive renovation project on the Statue of Liberty was ongoing, so the structure was surrounded by a tall scaffold. Needless to say, the film’s pursuit sequence that takes place in this criss-crossing maze of metal is nerve-wracking and exciting. Perhaps the most surprising thing about this film is that, unlike any number of Schwarzenegger or Chuck Norris vehicles from the period, Remo Williams doesn’t rely on over-the-top violence or plentiful explosions to keep a viewer interested. Director Guy Hamilton (who cut his teeth directing four Bond films from the ‘60s and ‘70s) simply emphasizes the impending peril that the main character is facing. His very assured handling of the material seems very old school (particularly compared to the loud and overblown action cinema of the post-Michael Bay era) yet is entirely effective: I certainly wish more of today’s directors would subscribe to his methodology in making this kind of film.

Stuntwork
Stuntwork in the film is pretty outstanding – as is the replica Lady Liberty set.

Though he’s not quite the person I might have expected to play a role like this, Fred Ward (of Tremors fame) is actually very believable in the lead. It’s immediately apparent that the actor does many of his own stunts, which adds significantly to the viewing experience: I actually could buy Ward as a bad ass who could pull off these acrobatic parkour moves while ripping off one-liners at every opportunity. The script doesn’t allow for much genuine character development, but being entirely realistic or indeed logical isn’t remotely the point of this picture in the first place: it’s more or less a comic-book come to life. Playing Chiun we have obviously Caucasian actor Joel Grey. Depending on one’s perspective, Grey’s portrayal could either be taken as being quite humorous or completely offensive – the Chiun character is extremely stereotypical across the board, but listening to a painfully white dude deliver his interpretation of an “Asian accent” may be the icing on the cake. In 1985, being politically correct wasn’t much of an issue (particularly when dealing with Asians – I’m not so sure a character named – or like – “Long Duk Dong” would fly in 2015), and I guess today’s viewers can either choose to chuckle at the absurdity of the whole thing or find something else to watch. Regardless, there’s a nice rapport between Ward and Grey, especially when the two start exchanging wise cracks with one another. Ultimately, the chemistry between this duo benefits the picture since the story mostly revolves around them.

grey and ward
Grey and Ward have a nice rapport with one another – this picture sums up their interaction during the early parts of the film.

Smaller roles here are occupied by the likes of A. Wilford Brimley (under-utilized as the mastermind of CURE who spends the entire film pecking on a very primitive computer), J.A. Preston (as the streetwise CURE agent who is Williams’s only partner), Kate Mulgrew (an Army major investigating the corruption claims), and Charles Cioffi as a shady businessman who’s the main villain of the piece. I found it refreshing that a romantic relationship between Mulgrew and Ward’s characters never quite materialized even if the film’s somewhat goofy climax left the door open for one. Andrew Laszlo’s photography is outstanding with Craig Safan’s soundtrack adding punctuation to the more attention-grabbing moments, and the film makes exquisite use of authentic NYC locations. I was completely astonished by the fact that downtown Manhattan is visible in the background of many shots – particularly those filmed on the scaffold surrounding Lady Liberty. Amazing that some of these scenes could be pulled off and again, I really commend the stunt personnel who worked on this film.

on the coney island ferris wheel
Needless to say, Remo Williams didn’t find its audience at the box office, and the planned sequels and TV show never materialized. This is somewhat of a shame considering how decent this first film is – much better than any of the various, completely asinine flicks of the era starring the likes of Ah-nold Schwarzenegger (Commando or Raw Deal in particular), Chuck Norris, or Michael Dudikoff. Maybe Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins didn’t pack enough pyrotechnics or bullet-riddled bodies into its run time (the title character leaves many of his “victims” alive and the ending is admittedly flat), but whatever the case is, this genuinely fun movie is well worth rediscovering some three decades after its release. This is what the ‘80s were all about, and while this may not be a masterpiece of cinema, it’s indisputably entertaining.

fred's hand signals


MGM’s DVD version is, unfortunately and rather inexplicably, in full screen version only with no accompanying bonus features.


3/10 : Some violence and chopsocky; just a bit of blood


3/10 : Occasional minor profanity


1/10 : Fleeting sexual references, but not even a bit of romance – which is a actually a good thing


6/10 : Though imperfect, this is a definite step above the usual moronic ’80s action vehicle


“If I’m the best you could find, you’re in pretty deep shit, pal.”

“The Lord is Sabata…” The Polished but Familiar Sequel ADIÓS, SABATA

ADIÓS, SABATA

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(2.5/5)

Pros: Memorable ending, quirky details and a nice sense of scale

Cons: Extremely familiar story that makes it very nearly a remake of the first Sabata film

The somewhat strange middle entry in the Sabata Trilogy, 1970’s Adiós Sabata sees actor Yul Brynner take over the title role from Lee Van Cleef (who coincidentally couldn’t do this film because he was replacing Brynner in a Magnificent Seven sequel). This time around, the titular gunfighter joins forces with Mexican revolutionaries and an prankster American named Ballantine to steal a wealth of gold from an Austrian colonel hiding out south of the US border. Predictably, the plot to capture the gold (initiated by a guerrilla leader who’s trying to fund an uprising against Austrian emperor Maximilian I) doesn’t go exactly to plan – after capturing a wagon supposedly transporting the treasure, Sabata and his partners discover that they’ve been fooled into stealing a cart full of sand and are forced to come up with a more decisive plan of attack. This eventually leads to an all-out assault on the colonel’s fortress, but can Sabata really trust any of his sneaky co-conspirators considering that they all have their own motives and ambitions?

adios!
Sabata (in all black) discusses his plans with his compadres.

Compared to the first Sabata film, this sequel is probably a more serious affair, mostly due to the fact that Brynner takes an entirely different approach to the main character than did Van Cleef. While there was a playfulness to Van Cleef’s Sabata, an almost emotionless Brynner (sporting an all-black get-up and a continual scowl) is all business in the part and definitively appears like the more typical (and hence, somewhat tiresome) Italo-western protagonist. Due to his stoic performance, the tone of this sequel is a bit off: the same team of writers (Renato Izzo and Gianfranco Parolini, who also directed) wrote both these films, the first of which played almost as a tongue-in-cheek parody of the Spaghetti Western genre. Adiós Sabata, originally planned as a standalone film dealing with a character named “Indio Black,” never quite seems to decide whether it wants to be a more serious film or a comic one. Parolini and Izzo throw in quite a few slightly offbeat and/or goofy details, but Brynner’s no-nonsense attitude doesn’t really allow a viewer to really buy into the efforts at comedy.

Austrians in Mexico?
Gerard Herter as Colonel Skimmel of Austria. Though the idea of Austrians in Mexico circa 1867 being the villains of this story seems odd, it’s historically accurate.

One of the more confusing aspects of this film is that a number of the same cast who appeared in the first Sabata film show up in this sequel in entirely different roles. This takes a bit of getting used to: at first, I was under the impression that the writers were trying to make a sequel that (gasp!) was generally consistent with the first film (albeit with a different actor in the title role), but it soon became apparent that there’s about no connection in the story between the original Sabata and this second series entry. That said, one could definitely make the argument that Adiós Sabata is very nearly a remake of the first film. The main villain of the piece (the Austrian colonel played by Gerard Herter) comes across as a virtual carbon copy of Stengel from the first film (hell, even the name of the Austrian is similar – “Skimmel”). Additionally, the Ballantine character (played as a conniving jokester by musician-turned-actor Dean Reed) seems almost identical to the Banjo character in the first film, and the returning Ignazio Spalla, playing another buffoonish Mexican who acts as Sabata’s main partner in crime, performs essentially the same duty that he did in the first film. Considering that Izzo and Parolini’s script isn’t exactly the most original thing I’ve ever seen in the first place, the fact that we’re getting mostly the same exact thing this second time around makes this sequel all the more disappointing and questionable.

musician Dean Reed
Dean Reed as Ballantine, the smart-ass gringo who may just run off with the gold himself.

On the plus side, Parolini’s handling of the direction seems a bit more sure-handed during this film. The original Sabata had a handful of stylish moments that suggested that Parolini did have some nifty tricks in his repertoire, but more often than not, the director played it relatively safe. Adiós Sabata sees Parolini let loose a few times with some eye-popping visuals and wild camera moves (check out the swirling camera suggesting the feeling of jubilation when Sabata and his crew first get their hands on what they think is gold) and also seems to have a more grandiose sense of scale. Contrary to the confined nature of the first film, the sequel features quite a few scenes filmed in extreme long shots in rather expansive locations which are nicely captured by cinematographer Sandro Mancori. Thus, the picture (boosted by a fine music score from the always-reliable Bruno Nicolai) feels bigger and more spectacular, even if the story leaves a lot to be desired.

Superb location photography
This sequel features superb location photography and a more grandiose sense of scale than the first Sabata film.

I love some of the quirky, eccentric details in the film – the mute gunslinger who’s claim to fame is his ability to fling rocks at his opponent with his feet; the handful of scenes where a gunfight erupts immediately after a cowboy stops his tap-dancing routine – and it’s not hard to see why this offbeat film was a favorite of Quentin Tarantino. The entire last act of the film is actually pretty impressive, with the loud and exciting raid on the colonel’s fortress being followed up by a genuinely clever final scene which is rather funny and positively memorable in the history of this genre. Even if it’s difficult to deny that the film saves its best ideas for last, I can’t help but wish some of this inspiration had found its way into earlier scenes in the movie which are pretty formulaic and forgettable. A little spark early on would have gone a long way in making this picture better as a whole.


The film’s ending is outstanding…I just wish there were more genuine highlights on the way there.

Admittedly, a western has to be pretty outstanding for me to really fall in love with it – I usually find this genre of films to be relatively dull and predictable. Adiós Sabata is one that’s very watchable but nothing special: there are certainly some unique elements to this film, enough weird details to keep things interesting, and generally enjoyable acting performances (even if the English language dubbing is sometimes quite sketchy), but nothing can make up for the fact that everything in the film seems very familiar. Director Parolini was clearly capable as a filmmaker, but he simply doesn’t seem to possess the level of inspiration that led directors like Sergio Leone or Sergio Corbucci to produce what are easily the best films of the Spaghetti Western genre. The Sabata films then are better than many of the cheapo programmer westerns that were pumped out in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s and probably would be worth a look for genre fans, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to track any of them down.

sabata


Nice-looking widescreen DVD from 20th Century Fox as part of the Sabata Trilogy package offers no extras. This film can also be on amazon.


5/10 : Standard western gun violence with brief glimpses of gore.


1/10 : Maybe a few isolated instances of rough language; nothing major.

groan!
0/10 : Sabata doesn’t hang out too  much in the brothel this time around.


3/10 : Even with some eccentricity to it, this doesn’t hold up to the best of the Spaghetti Western genre.


“Well gentlemen, it’s been fun, but I can’t waste any more time. I wanna wish you all the…uh…very best of luck, especially you Escudo. You’re going to have a hard time convincing the revolutionaries that you didn’t steal the gold. And you know what’ll happen – I’m afraid that you must just end up dripping the fat into the fire, with an apple up your big mouth and a spit up your caboose…”

An Overlooked Classic for the SNES: SHADOWRUN

SHADOWRUN for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System

(4.5/5)

Pros: Innovative gameplay; compelling story and atmosphere

Cons: Low-key ending; difficulty level can be frustrating

Among the many role-playing games for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, a few truly stand out as being wholly unique. Earthbound, for example, switched up the setting from a medieval-like fantasy-like world to a sort of deranged interpretation of America, while Chrono Trigger threw time travel into the mix as a wild card element. It’s safe to say however that no RPG for the system was quite as odd as Shadowrun, based on the pen and paper game of the same name and developed by Data East for release in 1993. This game is set in a dystopian future ruled by all-powerful corporations (could it be that the game developers actually predicted how modern society operates?) and plays out much in the manner of an old-school film noir story, albeit one that has orcs, dwarves, dragons, and magicians as peripheral characters and enemies.

main perspective
Main perspective of the game, showing Jake (center of screen) fighting off a pair of enemies.

Taking place in a cyberpunk version of Seattle, Washington in the year 2050, the player assumes the role of Jake Armitage, who wakes up in a mortuary. As seen in the game’s prologue, Jake has been gunned down by unknown assailants only to be saved by an equally enigmatic shape-shifting fox (ok, so this game does have some weird elements to it…bear with it!). Unable to determine how he got to this point, Jake embarks on a mission to try and uncover the circumstances leading to the attempt on his life, eventually uncovering a plot in which he was used as a courier for one of the corporations, having vital information implanted in a computer inside his head. As the game progresses, more and more of the plot details surface as Jake has to take on a variety of increasingly unusual boss-like characters, including a rat shaman, an underground club full of vampires, and eventually the head of the biggest corporation in town who assumes the form of a giant snake. Along the way, in addition to battling enemies in real time battle while seeking guidance from a mysterious figure who takes the form of a dog, Jake must use his computer skills and a device called a cyberdeck to tap into and hack “The Matrix,” a digital realm (i.e. cyberspace) in which he can manipulate various objects in the real world and uncover additional information hidden behind digital interfaces. If nothing else, you’ve got to admit that Shadowrun was well ahead of its time in dealing with these kinds of ideas – remember, this was made six years prior to the original Matrix film.

inside the matrix
Once inside The Matrix, perspective switches to this overhead view showing the player’s progress through the digital realm.

Made very quickly by the same team that developed the quirky NES title Nightshade, Shadowrun has a plethora of eccentricities to it (in case that wasn’t obvious from my brief plot summary). The main part of the game is a free-roaming section that finds the player wandering through various nightclubs, shops, and rundown areas of Seattle and interacting with the oddball characters who inhabit it. The only way to progress through the game is to talk to various characters in an attempt to find out what they know, and this is where one of the game’s most intriguing gameplay elements takes shape. Throughout the game, Jake builds up a library of terms that he can question the non-playable characters about. It’s through this inquiry that new terms are learned and additional information is gained, and the process by which a player has to double back and talk to characters encountered previously in the game in an attempt to gain new perspective and insight makes the playing experience both complicated and incredibly compelling. Combine this notion that the game doesn’t necessarily proceed in a straight-forward manner with the fact that minute details and hard-to-find items (which are often quite difficult to spot onscreen) play a big role in how the game progresses and a player faces a game that’s nothing if not extremely challenging yet undeniably fascinating and completely enveloping.

talking
Talking with each and every character becomes increasingly important, since it’s the only way to learn new terms and keywords and thereby further the game.

Battle sequences in the game can occur at most any time since various hitmen and assassins are continuously trying to eliminate Jake and stop his investigation. More substantial enemies also pop up from time to time along with the expected RPG game “boss” figures, and it becomes rather difficult to manage Jake’s health, particularly late in the game (the only way to fully restore Jake’s magic and health levels is to sleep in a bed, only a few of which appear in the game). Fortunately, the mystical “Dog” character teaches Jake various magical spells from time to time which not only can heal his injuries, but also allow for offensive attacks and general assistance during battle (the invisibility spell for one is quite useful). Defeating enemies in battle using one of various firearms that can be purchased at shops or through the use of magic provides Jake with “Karma,” which is essentially Shadowrun’s version of experience points. These Karma points can be applied to expand Jake’s abilities with regard to various skills, enabling him to inflict more damage, resist enemy attacks, and even function better in the world The Matrix among other things.

adult content
Shadowrun is probably more violent and obviously adult-oriented than most games of its era.

The ability to function in the world of cyberspace becomes more important as the game progresses, and when a player “jacks” into The Matrix, the game’s perspective switches from an isometric perspective to an overhead view that shows an effigy of Jake navigating through various digital terminals and relays. During these sequences, the game operates somewhat similarly to the familiar Minesweeper game since a player must combat various defensive computer programs that attempt to keep him from having access to sensitive information. Successfully making it through the screens in The Matrix can provide the player with money achieved by transferring funds from corporate accounts, data which further explains the rather complex storyline, or can actually manipulate objects in the real world (modification in cyberspace is the only way for instance to ensure that various elevators and lifts work as intended). The cyberspace screens in Shadowrun take a bit of getting used to and can be frustrating until one gets the hang of how they work, but I found this to be one of the most clever and fun aspects of the game.

inside the nightclub
The setting of the game includes several nightclubs populated by a colorful cast of characters.

Shadowrun gets its name from in-game characters known as “shadowrunners” who act as mercenaries of sort that can be recruited by the player to aid his journey through the storyline. Hired for a limited amount of time, all of these characters (of which there are a dozen) have a specific skill set and range of abilities: some are valuable more for their ability to fight enemies, while others specialize in magic or are computer specialists. It’s worth noting that at no point is it entirely mandatory to hire any shadowrunner: one can make it through the game without hiring any of them. These characters can however come in handy during certain parts of the game and do allow a player to accomplish things he would not otherwise be able to do.

real-time battles
The real-time battles in the game are often quite challenging.

Graphically-speaking, Shadowrun is a really nice-looking game that made the best of the 16-bit capability of the SNES. The entire world has a run-down, grungy look to it, with squalor and low-life characters lurking in the periphery of the more destitute sections of town. During the last section of the game, the player finds himself in the more bustling downtown district, which looks appropriately futuristic and imposing, with huge skyscrapers and more high-class, glitzy nightclubs. The soundtrack for the game (written by Marshall Parker) perfectly captures the menacing vibe of the game and has a hard-edged, industrial feel to it. My personal favorite aspect of the game are the character portraits, all of which are intricately detailed, plenty strange-looking, and occasionally downright creepy. I could probably make a case for Shadowrun existing as a cyberpunk Mad Max in terms of its story and the wacky characters found in it.

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There really are many elements to this game which would be impossible to cover in the context of a review, but the player willing to devote some time to learning the ins and outs of this game is likely to find it to be an outstanding title that was largely overlooked and ignored when it came out – perhaps because it was more adult-oriented than many or most titles at the time. The game has earned a reputation since the mid-1990s as being one of the most unique and captivating games for the SNES and I’d be inclined to agree with that assessment even if the ending is fairly low-key and indicative of the fact that the whole project was rushed through production and programming. The length of the game is decent and the level of challenge offered in Shadowrun is very high. It certainly forces a player to think through and evaluate his actions as he progresses through the story (though anymore, it’s possible with the help of online guides to breeze through the game without much problem), and the ways in which this game works were quite innovative at the time. It would be hard to come up with many titles that are even vaguely similar to this one, and I’d label this as being one of the best Super NES games out there: well worth checking out for the gamer looking for something definitively different.

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Real-Life Days of Thunder Racing Rivalry Plays Out in RUSH

RUSH

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(4/5)

Pros: Awesome racing sequences; nice attention to detail and historical accuracy; compelling drama

Cons: Ending was a bit on the soft side; selection of popular music on the soundtrack could have been better

Having been a fan of Formula 1 for decades, it’s always struck me as surprising and unfortunate that this form of auto racing, easily the most popular in the world, has never quite caught on in the United States for one reason or another. While NASCAR drivers typically circle around painfully similar tracks week in and week out, F1 travels to some of the most challenging and varied courses the world has to offer, with most every race playing out as high drama – particularly for those familiar with the intricacies of the sport. With the construction of the America’s first purposely built F1 circuit (Austin, TX’s Circuit of the Americas, which opened in 2012), Formula 1 appears to have finally gotten some sort of foothold in the United States, and over the past couple of years there have been a handful of films dealing with the sport.

ferraris
A sampling of Ferrari’s Formula 1 machines from over the years, from clunky bombs to jet planes on wheels.

Ron Howard’s 2013 feature Rush operates in roughly the same manner as the excellent 2010 straight documentary (which chronicled the man perhaps rightfully regarded as the best F1 driver in history) in that it focuses its attention on Formula 1’s past and plays like a biography dealing with two of the most legendary names in the sport. The film opens by introducing two young and hungry race drivers working their ways up through the ranks of Formula 3 in Europe. Almost immediately, there’s a sharp contrast between a carefree British driver named and perfectionist Austrian named : the two clash instantly on the track and a rivalry which eventually stretched across the globe was born. Flash forward several years and the pair of drivers have made their way into Formula 1, the most prestigious, high-tech, and outright dangerous form of auto racing in the world. Lauda has landed on F1’s biggest and most famous team Ferrari, while Hunt has struggled in driving for smaller and more cash-strapped organizations. Going into 1976, Hunt lands a spot on the McLaren team, arguably the “best of the rest” in the world of F1, and this sets up an epic and extremely dramatic fight for the points championship with Lauda. The main body of Rush documents this season and the ramifications it had for all parties concerned.

real life
Real life Hunt (left) and Lauda.

Howard’s film plays a bit like Days of Thunder if it was more realistic and based on actual historical events, with the brash, playboy James Hunt serving as the “Cole Trickle” type character while the wily and calculating Lauda seems like the grizzled veteran “Rowdy Burns.” Written by Peter Morgan, Rush emphasizes the differences between its main characters throughout, and details the frequently tense on-and off-track interactions that defined the relationship between Lauda and Hunt and the men themselves. A viewer really gets the idea that these guys may not at all have liked each other (at least initially), but they had to respect one another when both were piloting what amounted to a bomb on wheels that was traveling some 150 miles per hour around twisting and turning racetracks while only being inches apart. Acting from Chris Hemsworth (as Hunt) and Daniel Brühl (as Lauda) is outstanding: the two actors not only have a wonderfully compelling rapport with one another, but really seem to have identified and accentuated the true nature of their characters. It’s interesting to note that Morgan’s script and Howard’s direction seem most often to take the standpoint of Lauda, the character who comes across as the “villain” at the onset of the film. Though Hunt appears to be living the life that every male race fan would dream of, it seems like part of the goal of the film is to suggest that Lauda’s story is actually the more heroic, uplifting, and ultimately triumphant.

in the film
The pair as depicted in the film: Chris Hemsworth (left) as Hunt, and Daniel Brühl as Lauda.

Even if F1 is the most high-tech racing found in the world, in the 1970s, it was incredibly dangerous. The film drives home this point right from the beginning with the declaration that “twenty-five drivers start every year in Formula 1 and each year, two of them die,” and that statement is absolute fact. The racing scenes in Rush capture the “shake, rattle, and roll” – and overwhelming noise – of auto racing in a gritty and absolutely mesmerizing manner, and never quite allow the viewer to forget that these drivers are often quite literally teetering on the brink of life and death. The film visualizes several extremely nasty accidents (the moment early in the film where driver Francois Cevert is decapitated at Watkins Glen, though somewhat low-key in how it’s presented, really reinforces the dangers of the sport) and eventually, there are some incredibly harrowing scenes here. Midway through 1976, Lauda is horrifically burned in an accident at the German Grand Prix while leading the points standings, and the scenes relating to his medical treatments are excruciating to watch. His eventual return to the sport in just a few weeks later stands as the story’s almost obligatory “overcoming the odds” angle, but the script also takes time to point out that there are things more important than winning.


Lauda’s crash at the Nürburgring. Warning: Graphic.

To an extent, Rush is more effective as a dramatic film than as a pure action picture, but the action scenes that are here are absolutely fantastic. Editing throughout the piece is very crisp and purposeful, seeming to alternate between focusing on the humans in the midst of the action and on the mechanical beasts that they are attempting to wrangle. Camera angles during the picture frequently place the viewer right among the race participants, and we often seem to be on the verge of banging wheels with either Lauda or Hunt ourselves. I noticed a few times when the digital effects looked a bit jerky (especially during one key racing sequence), but I really appreciated the attention to historical accuracy in terms of depicting the race cars and courses of the 1970s. It was really cool for me, as a fan of F1, to see these vintage cars in action around tracks that haven’t been used in years – the epitome of which is the immense and unbelievably hazardous Nürburgring. The occasional use of on-screen graphics does a fine job of establishing the basic facts relating to this story, and the film’s sense of pacing is excellent since it seems to focus just the right amount of time on the home lives of the characters without becoming sappy or boring. Hans Zimmer provides a typically pulse-pounding and rousing music score for the story to play out in front of, and even if I thought the selection of popular music was a bit on the cheesy side, these tunes solidify the setting in which the story takes place very well.

thrill of victory
Like most sports dramas, Rush has plenty of triumph and tragedy.

Though the film takes a few liberties with its telling of the story and seems to add intensity to the rivalry between Hunt and Lauda that may not have actually existed, to me Rush seemed fairly accurate which is commendable in itself. Considering how compelling this film is both for its technical aspects and for its dramatic storyline, I’d have to call it one of the honestly better films I’ve seen in a while and a return to form for director Howard, whose career has been up-and-down in recent years. Admittedly, I probably enjoyed this film more than most simply due to the fact that I recognized the names, places, cars, and circumstances being discussed, but I think most viewers would get caught up in this intriguing story if they gave this film a chance. Despite the fact that it operates in a generally similar manner to just about every other sports biography or drama that’s out there, I’d have to call this simply outstanding cinema. Check it out if you get a chance.

uh oh


Widescreen Blu-ray from Universal includes a selection of deleted scenes, a piece focusing on director Ron Howard’s approach to the film, a multi-part “making of” feature, and a trio of documentary segments dealing with the real life story behind the film. A very nice video package overall.


6/10 : Shows the dangerous side of auto racing without flinching; some of the scenes dealing with Lauda’s medical treatments are very disturbing and graphic.


7/10 : A healthy dose of profanity, featuring many f-bombs and occasional crude remarks.


5/10 : Sexual situations pop up several times during the film and occasionally include brief glimpses of topless nudity.


5/10 : Though this would be a must for fans of F1, it comes across as a fairly typical, if more hard-hitting than usual, sports movie.


“Happiness is the enemy. It weakens you. Puts doubt in your mind. Suddenly, you have something to lose…”

Trailer:

“The Devil Rides With You…” SABATA

SABATA

(3/5)

Pros: Lee Van Cleef; some decent action down the stretch

Cons: Villains aren’t particularly threatening at any point; feels small-scale when compared to the best Italo-westerns

A few years after Italian producer Alberto Grimaldi and director Sergio Leone had wrapped up the so-called “Dollars Trilogy” with 1966’s magnificent The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Grimaldi attempted to replicate the success of Leone’s trilogy with another one revolving around a pretty familiar western anti-hero. 1969’s Sabata deals with the titular character who initially seems to be a sort of avenger figure who becomes involved in a bank robbery plot in a small Texas town. After returning the safe containing $100,000 that was stolen in the heist, the cool and collected Sabata seems content to accept a $5000 reward for his heroic actions, but it quickly becomes apparent that he’s a little less cut and dry of a hero than that when he blackmails the town officials responsible for the robbery for an ever-increasing amount of money. This, of course, doesn’t sit well with these folks who have no intention of paying Sabata off; instead, the crooked banker who devised the robbery in the first place seeks to hire various assassins to dispose of Sabata. As is typically the case in Spaghetti Westerns, this is easier said than done. Even as he’s dealing with the assassins, Sabata (with help from a somewhat buffoonish Civil War vet and an acrobatic mute) works up his own plan to eliminate the despicable town officials once and for all – but what role will a mysterious gunfighter known only as “Banjo” play in the unfolding action and more importantly, whose side will he end up on?

Sabata and his companions
Sabata enforcing his authority over his companions.

Written by Renato Izzo and Gianfranco Parolini (who also directed), Sabata provides exactly what one would expect from an Italian western of this era. The cunning main character finds himself in a variety of potentially hairy situations, yet manages to find a way out of the danger by using his cleverness and skills as a gunfighter. Considering that this same type of story had been done time and again around this period in which literally hundreds of Italian westerns flooded cinemas, I might have expected Parolini’s film to provide something a little outside the norm to really hook a viewer. Sadly that doesn’t seem to be the case: while a director like Sergio Corbucci was able to give life to his 1966 Django by overloading the film with violent action and also make the extremely bleak 1968 film The Great Silence one of the most outstanding Italian westerns ever made through use of a great gimmick (namely, the fact that the master gunfighter main character couldn’t speak), Parolini mostly seems to have been going through the motions making Sabata.


Lee Van Cleef: Western anti-hero extraordinaire.

Though the film is appropriately gritty and features a windblown setting that appears genuinely desperate, for the most part, Sabata seems uninspired: Parolini (working with cinematographer Sandro Mancori) does manage to create some visual interest by focusing on idiosyncratic details, but his scene composition is more often cluttered and clumsy. There’s no sense of purpose to many of his shots, and Sabata plays almost as the antithesis of a Leone western in this regard. The color scheme is also very drab, dominated by grays and browns – this fits the mood and tone of the story but doesn’t make the picture any more eye-catching to watch. By the time the big slam-bang finale turns up, I was mostly disinterested in a film that simply didn’t offer much to distinguish itself from dozens of obviously similar pictures and stories, and any amount of pyrotechnics and gunfire during the final ten minutes can’t really make up for the mostly forgettable hour and a half that preceded it.

tavern
I appreciated the level of detail in the film, but it’s nowhere near as polished as Spaghettis directed by Leone or Corbucci.

The most damning thing about the film in my opinion is the fact that the villains here simply don’t seem all that threatening. A rancher named Stengel is the obvious main bad guy, but as portrayed by Franco Ressel, he comes across as an incredibly meek banker-type who has a condescending view on the rest of humanity (we’re not-so-subtly introduced to the character while he’s reading a book entitled Inequality is the Basis of Society so his motivations are in plain sight right out of the gate). This guy doesn’t seem capable of doing much except talking somebody to death through use of holier-than-thou rhetoric, and his partners in crime (namely a rotund tavern owner and sheepish judge) are equally as ineffectual. The more rough-and-tumble western villains who actually performed the robbery are taken out of the picture early on in the story, meaning that the script has to introduce a series of basically throw-away potential assassins who try and gun Sabata down throughout the film. These skirmishes are fleeting and almost irrelevant: there’s no sense of surprise or tension here, and Sabata’s inevitable conflict with Banjo (played capably by William Berger, who looks ridiculous sporting what seems to be a moppy red-haired wig) doesn’t do much to alleviate the sensation that this film needs a more obvious and aggressive villain character.

Banjo
Banjo’s gimmick.

On the plus side, having the inimitable Lee Van Cleef as your main character means that it’s hard for a viewer to lose interest in Sabata even if the film as a whole isn’t all that compelling or unique. Van Cleef is simply magnetic as he scowls, snarls, chuckles dementedly, and barks out lines with pronounced intensity, and since most viewers probably would have previously seen him play some of the most nefarious villains in western film history, it’s very easy to buy into his Sabata as an anti-hero. Ultimately, Van Cleef’s performance is the one reason why this film would be honestly recommendable to fans of the genre (his interactions with Berger’s “Banjo” character are particularly good), but I actually enjoyed the supporting work provided by Italian actor Ignazio Spalla as Sabata’s main sidekick quite a bit as well. Spalla is a big, burly, grubby-looking fellow: the perfect character actor to cast in a western, and his jovial, slightly goofy behavior throughout the film provides a nice contrast to Van Cleef’s no-nonsense attitude. Aldo Canti, meanwhile, appears in an almost slapstick sort of role as a mute Amer-Indian who is able to perform amusingly outrageous acrobatic maneuvers. I found this character somewhat distracting, though it does add some additional humorous material to the film.

Van Cleef and Spalla
From left: Berger, Van Cleef, and Spalla.

In the midst of all the familiar and predictable elements, Sabata has a few standout moments, including a scene in which Banjo faces off in the middle of town against a quintet of gunmen and one in which Sabata visits a priest who has instructions to kill him – Banjo providing a “requiem” at the close of the scene is one of a handful of intriguing, more quirky moments to be found but I wish there was more of them. Marcello Giombini’s music was appropriately rousing, with a catchy main theme that features peppy guitar work and Morricone-like vocal choir, but though the music and editing adds suspense and vitality to certain scenes, the main body of the film is in serious need of a pick-me-up. In the end, I’d probably consider Sabata to be a quietly comical but relatively small-scale film that fans of Van Cleef would enjoy, but may not be all that exciting for fans of the western genre in general despite its definitive “A-HA!” finale. It’s kind of strange to me (though perhaps unsurprising given the tendency for Italians to overdo it in terms of movie sequels, hence the dozens and dozens of “sequels” to Django), that this generally unremarkable original film led to two subsequent Sabata pictures; though this first film is fine as a time-waster, I don’t think it’s much of anything special.


Neither the widescreen format from 20th Century Fox nor the from Kino Lorber have any special features to speak of. Personally, I’d go for the trilogy to get more bang for your buck, but picture and sound quality are better on the Kino release.


4/10 : The expected western gun violence and a smattering of blood.


1/10 : Isolated instances of mild profanity.


2/10 : A handful of risque scenes taking place in a brothel, with implied sexual encounters and fleeting topless nudity.


5/10 : A fairly typical Italo-western that’s neither exciting or quirky enough to truly stand out from the crowd.


“I like living at the peak of excitement, for life is only worthwhile when you can face death without showing any fear. In fact, I enjoy it.”

Trailer: