August 16, 2013

My Five Favorite Films From...1981

Honorable Mention – Time Bandits: A dark comedy of the highest order. Terry Gilliam is a fantastic director and this is, in many ways, my favorite of his films.

5. Gallipoli: It’s a war film in which very little of war is shown. But what you see is so powerful. The final scene is heartbreaking.

4. Excalibur: An epic re-telling of the Arthurian legend. The imagery and archetypes are wonderful and the battle scenes are both brutal and mesmerizing. The only downside is the now-constant abuse of Carl Orff’s "O Fortuna,” which was first used to effect in a film in Excalibur.

3. Stripes: Who knew the Army was so hilarious? Ridiculously fun and irreverent, I think it gets overlooked a lot in the discussion of great comedies. It’s highly quotable as well; I still use “Lighten up, Francis” when someone gets a little too strident for their own good.

2. Escape from New York: One the best adventure flicks ever made. Still a fun watch today, if slightly-dated. Great action and an iconic character in Snake Plissken.

1. Raiders of the Lost Ark: A throwback to the old serials of the 30s and 40s, it exceeded every expectation and is (rightly) one of the most beloved films today. It never drags, is always exciting and fires on all cylinders. If you want to learn about making movies, this is a film to watch.

Films I Like But Didn't Make The List: Absence of Malice, Clash of the Titans, Arthur, Bustin’ Loose, Das Boot, Chariots of Fire, Fort Apache the Bronx, History of the World, Part 1, Road Warrior, Outland, Prince of the City, Taps, The Great Muppets Caper, For Your Eyes Only, The Evil Dead

Guilty Pleasure – The Hand: I love Michael Caine as an actor, but this film is so stupid. Yet, I like it. A crazy animated severed hand that kills for its former owner, who happens to be batshit nuts by film’s end? How can you not like that?

Insane Film That Must Be Mentioned – Heavy Metal: I’ve seen this film more than once…and it’s still a mess. Using the idea of concentrated evil (the Loc-Nar) to thinly join together numerous stories of average quality but insane concepts…it just doesn’t work. And then you have the breast-centric art (wonderfully satirized by South Park in a classic episode) to bring the crazy altogether.

August 15, 2013

The History of the RPG: Dungeon Master (1987)

Last Installment: Starflight

In the mid to late 80s, there were three big computer RPG platforms. You had the Apple series, the Commodore 64 and the first IBM PCs coming out. Left in the lurch was Atari. They had brought gaming to the living room with their ground-breaking Atari 2600. But they were getting left behind in the computer gaming arena. So in 1985, they released the Atari ST. It was an adequate computer, but nothing was especially flashy or notable. But then in 1987 FTL Games released Dungeon Master for the ST.

And it was a hit. It achieved an unheard of rate of over 50% market penetration for Atari ST owners. The reason was simple: it was a ground-breaking game.

When you look at the game, you can not only understand why it was so popular, but see how it lives on in today's games. First, Dungeon Master was real-time and not turn-based.* It did new things with sound and lighting, creating a more immersive experience. You could click on things in the first-person 3D window. You gained experience through using your skills, not by hitting arbitrary levels.** And then there was the rag-doll.

August 14, 2013

Movie Review: Ivan's Childhood (1962)

Scouts are the soul of the front. - Ivan (Nikolai Burlyaev)

Directors: Andrei Tarkovsky

Writers: Vladimir Bogomolov (screenplay and story "Ivan"), Mikhail Papava (writer), Andrei Tarkovsky and Andrei Konchalovsky (uncredited)

Production Manager: G. Kuznetsov

Studio: Mosfilm

Major Stars: Nikolai Burlyayev, Valentin Zubkov, Yevgeni Zharikov, Valentina Malyavina, Stepan Krylov

Note: In keeping with my policy about movies 25 years old or more, I feel no compunctions about revealing what happens in the film. With that in mind, there may be SPOILERS below. If you haven’t seen the film yet, you may want to avoid this review.

Ivan's Childhood is one of the most powerful films I have ever watched. It is a war film that shows very little of the war itself but explores the impact war has on people and their lives. That it does so through the eyes of a 12-year old boy just makes it that much better.

Ivan's Childhood was Andrei Tarkovsky's first major film, one he came upon by accident. The original director, Eduard Abalov, was fired from the project. Tarkovsky was told about the film by his cinematographer, Vadim Yusov. Tarkovsky applied for, and was granted, the project. The result is a film that is akin to visual poetry.

Ivan (Nikolai Burlyayev) is a 12-year old boy whose family has been killed by the Nazis. He had joined a band of partisans who flew him to safety when they were surrounded by the Germans. He fled the school and fell in with an Army unit as a scout. His age and size allows him to go places others cannot.

But the soldiers want to get him away from the war as well and they want to send him to a military academy. Instead, he resists the plan and demands to remain as a scout, as that is the only way he can have revenge on the Germans. They give in and allow him to go on another mission behind enemy lines, one that he never returns from.

That brief description does no justice to this movie. Tarkovsky explored war and its cost in Ivan's Childhood in a way that earlier directors could not. This film was made during Khrushchev's "de-Stalinization" period between Stalin's death and the rise of Brezhnev. This was the period when other great Russian films like The Cranes are Flying and Ballad of a Soldier were made. Like these movies, Ivan's Childhood was a break from the old Russian style of war movies, where dying for Mother Russia was a great honor.

For example, you have young Lieutenant Galtsev (Yevgeni Zharikov), a good-looking, healthy soldier in the movie. In a Stalin-era film, he would be exhorting his men to sacrifice themselves for the country and telling them how lucky they were to fight. But in Ivan's Childhood he says that war is no place for a child. He tries repeatedly to get Ivan away from the war. He is bored more than anything and definitely not overjoyed to be in a war. And at film's end we see him in Berlin in 1945, his face scarred and his eyes cold and haunted. There is no joy for him in Russia's triumph.

August 13, 2013

What I Learned About Myself from Playing Deus Ex: Human Revolution

So last year Steam was offering a 75% discount on Deus Ex: Human Revolution. It seemed like a no-brainer to download it and see what the fuss had been all about. Then I kind of forgot about it for a while...but then played it through over a few months.

As I got about halfway through, I realized something quite profound in the way I was playing the game: I was actively trying to not kill people.

Now, you have to understand that this is a fundamental shift in how I approach these games. In the original Deus Ex back in 2000, I was trying to kill things as soon as possible. I am pretty sure I killed someone before the title screens had finished running. Running around in a FPS/RPG hybrid flinging frag grenades and rewiring turrets to gun down your enemies was quite enjoyable.

But now, here, I was sneaking through vents to avoid patrols. Using stun guns to take out guards. Flinging CS gas grenades to knock out mobs of people who wanted to kill me. Gas grenades! I accidentally killed a guard in a stealth takedown and I felt bad about it.

What the Hell was going on here? It's not that I have a problem with killing in video games. Half of Skyrim is a bloody mess thanks to my character, they're never getting the stains out of my suit of armor in Amalur and I've laid waste to entire fictional terrorist groups and Middle Eastern nations in whatever latest version of Call of Honor on the Battlefield just came out. And it wasn't like I killed no one; I finished off the next to last boss by dumping a clip from a grenade launcher into his chest.

But more often than not, I was going out of my way to keep people alive.

I'm wondering how much of this has to do with my age. I turned 40 last year. I have seen and experienced a lot. Some of it very good, some of it very, very bad. And outside of gaming I find that I am often quite irritated with how we all treat each other. That in this short time we all have, too many of us seem content to spend it by making other people miserable.

Movie Review: Invincible Armor (1977)

If I only had four words to sum up this film, they'd be "Invincible Armor kicks ass." Since it's my site, I can use as many as I want.

So a while back I picked up The Martial Arts Essentials: The Films of Yuen Wo Ping...and then somehow forgot about it. Recently I noticed it and decided to pop a film in. The first film I watched was Invincible Armor. I can only hope the rest are as good as this one.

The plot is remarkably solid and complex for a kung-fu flick. General Chow Lu Fung (John Li) is framed for the murder of the Ming Minister of Security by an assassin who was sent by the Minister of State, Cheng (Jang Lee Hwang). Cheng wants to kill the Emperor and take over, and the Minister of Security was in the way. Chow evades arrest to try and find the assassin. Cheng sends another lawman after Chow to have him arrested and/or executed so the truth isn't revealed. Along the way we find out that Cheng is a master of the Eagle Claw and Invincible Armor technique, Chow takes refuge with a family that knows how to defeat the Invincible Armor, and there's a whole lot of great fighting in between. The plot points slowly unfold (not that it's hard to guess where it is going) so it doesn't feel like the fighting is simply tacked on.

Here's a couple of other ways you know this film kicks ass. There are plenty of weapons; batons with blades that shoot out, spears with ejectable heads, the ever-present staff and those cool hook blades. There's also a high ratio of white-haired guys.

That's always been a way to know that a kung-fu film will rock. White-haired masters=great kung-fu. Just look at films like Snake in the Eagle's Shadow (also played by Hwang), Executioners from Shaolin or Clan of the White Lotus. White-haired guys kicking ass. And Invincible Armor has two of them. Actually, it has three. But the Minister of Security gets killed off so fast he can't really count.

I can't say enough about how awesome Jang Lee Hwang is in this film. Imagine if Samuel L. Jackson was a white-haired Chinese minister (Hwang is actually Korean, but that's beside the point here) who could kill you with one strike to the forehead. That's Hwang's Minister Cheng; a bad-ass motherfucker who isn't scared of anything. Hell, when General Chow finally confronts him in the final battle, Cheng admits everything and doesn't sweat it. (Note: I should add that I reference Jackson here specifically because Hwang kind of looks like Jackson...if Jackson were Chinese. I shit you not.)

August 12, 2013

Movie Review: Fearless (2006)

It was supposed to be the final martial arts epic in an illustrious career. Had it been, Jet Li would have gone out with a bang.*

Fearless is an epic tale on an intimate level. It focuses on a single man, Huo Yuanjia. Huo is a folk-hero in China who challenged foreign fighters at the peak of China's exploitation by the West in the early 20th century. He was also co-founder of the Chin Woo Athletic Association.

You cannot do justice in a simple review to how important Huo was to the Chinese psyche at this time. The Western Powers had made China their personal playground, dividing their cities into sectors of influence, banning Chinese from going places in their own country, and humiliating the Chinese at every turn. Huo challenged Western fighters, who usually would never show for the fight. The CWAA was an organization that gave the Chinese people back their dignity and strength. His early death, most likely from tuberculosis at the age of 42, cut short a life that seemed bound for even greater things.

This version of Huo's life has obviously had things added to it. Li's Huo Yuanjia does much more fighting in his youth than he did in real life. He goes through a period of selfishness that results in great personal loss and rebirth that did not actually occur in his life. But none of that detracts from what is a beautifully shot and performed film.

The bird's-eye shots of Tianjin and Shanghai are amazing. The camerawork during a brilliantly-choreographed fight between Master Huo and Master Chin is as kinetic as the two fighters themselves, and then instantly calms to frame them in a rainstorm, eying each other before they return to battle. The accompanying score is wonderful throughout the film.

But what makes the film even better are the messages contained within the film. The uselessness of pursuing empty personal glory over your family and friends. The destructive results of revenge and the never-ending circle it can create. The corrosive influence of unchecked industry and technology on an agrarian society (the thirty-year difference you seen in Tianjin is shocking, and quite accurate historically.) It does not take a lot to see why modern China is still so wary of the West.


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