From Russia With Love

Just a note – Stephen has asked me to publish these posts, one per month, while he is out of the country (Brasil) serving as a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  He left me strict instructions that I should publish one per month, and I apologize that I have failed to post the reviews for June and July.  So, here is the first installment, and within a week, I’ll post the review for July and then (hopefully) be on track for the balance of the two years.  Enjoy.  vlj

 

The lone moon shone high above the hedge maze, though despite its light, it could not dispel much of the darkness. This made it easy for Red Grant to move unseen. He knew his target and read up on everything about him. James Bond, codename 007, licensed to kill, or as the case may be, be killed. Grant spent an hour before Bond arrived just studying the area and memorizing its footprint. If Bond turned down a path, Grant knew where the path led and how to get there faster than Bond. If he wanted to, Grant could finish this in a minute. However, Grant enjoyed the fruits of patience too much. He wanted to savor this hunt and build up the thrill of the chase. Revenge is called for, and that’s exactly what Grant intends to serve.

From Russia With Love is very different in tone from the first film, and is considered the template of the films to come. It is also often regarded as the greatest of the franchise. This is arguable but it is definitely up there. Sean Connery agrees that this is the favorite for him, and depending on the day, it is also my favorite. Why is this so? Because it is a masterpiece.

Plot Summary: S.P.E.C.T.R.E., the organization from Dr. No, decides to hatch a plan to cause an actual war between the East and the West. The plan is simple. One Russian woman will seduce a British Agent and seem to defect over to them, along with a valuable code deciphering machine. The Russians will then launch a plan to go after the British, and the whole thing will escalate. The second reason for doing this is because the man who will most likely be assigned to the job is none other than James Bond; the man who killed Dr. No, who was a top ranking agent of S.P.E.C.T.R.E. Bond gets assigned to the case and travels to Istanbul, where a Russian cipher clerk named Tantiana Romanova claims to have fallen in love with Bond. Tanya (name shortened) was told by Colonel Rosa Klebb that this plot was to help Russia. Klebb works for S.P.E.C.T.R.E., but Tanya doesn’t know this.

A series of events occur where Bond foils the Russian’s plans to kill the head of Station T, Kerim Bey, because the Russians are lead to believe that the British killed one of their agents. Bond meets Tantiana, and they agree to go forth with the stealing of previously mentioned decoding machine called the Lektor. The plan occurs smoothly, but when Bond, Tanya, and Kerim board the train out of Istanbul, one of the Russians see them and goes after them. Once on the train, Kerim Bey decides to keep the Russian occupied in his compartment. Soon after, Bond discovers Bey and the Russian are both dead. This is the latest in a series of events where Bond is saved from death. Seems a bit coincidental; Bond sends a message off to his contacts to have another agent help them get to London safely. A young man named Nash conceives of a plan to get them to London, but drugs Tanya. He then turns on Bond. Turns out Nash is Red Grant, an assassin hired by S.P.E.C.T.R.E. to watch over Bond and then kill him and Tanya in order to ensure a war between England and Russia. Bond gets the upper hand using a gadget he received from Q Branch, and gets Tanya and himself to Venice, along the way dodging more and more S.P.E.C.T.R.E agents.

Finally, Rosa Klebb catches up to the couple in Venice and holds Bond at gunpoint. Tanya then turns on Klebb, having fallen in love with Bond for real. Bond kills Klebb and once again, S.P.E.C.T.R.E.’s plans are foiled.

The film uses tension rather than action to keep our interest. The director, Terence Young, knew that he had more of a budget and a better story this time around, (he directed Dr. No) and used this to his advantage. The film keeps S.P.E.C.T.R.E. mostly in the background, and uses the few appearances of Red Grant throughout to remind us of the overarching plot. We, the audience, are introduced to Grant earlier in the film and thus we know that Grant is protecting Bond until he can kill Bond himself on the Orient Express later in the film. Bond and Kerim are the main characters and without the reminders, we could be fooled into forgetting about S.P.E.C.T.R.E. It’s a different kind of battle royale, and it works.

Part of the problem with Dr. No is that it didn’t have very memorable characters, apart from the ones who would show up later again in the series. This isn’t the case here. Pedro Armendariz delivers a charming performance as Kerim Bey, and we really feel the weight of his death by the end of the film. Robert Shaw is a powerful actor, and his mostly silent Red Grant is one of the best villains in the series. Lotte Lenya delivers a great performance as Klebb and brings real menace to the part. We get introduced to series mainstay Desmond Llewelyn as Q. He doesn’t have the great relationship with Bond in this one that he will develop later in the films, but his appearance is fun nevertheless. We get introduced to Blofeld in this film; we never see his face in this one or later in Thunderball, but he acts as the arch nemesis of Bond throughout the first 7 films. To this day, he is the ultimate bad guy for Bond. Daniela Bianchi delivers a much better performance than Ursula Andress did in the last one and feels more like a real character. One of the things that make her standout is that the relationship between her and Bond feels like a real romance rather than the throwaway ones that will come later. Finally, Sean Connery is at his best in this film. He is debonair, delivers the one liners, and takes his job very seriously although there is room for the occasional joke.

This film introduced much of the other of the main elements that Dr. No didn’t. Dr. No gave us “Bond, James Bond”, vodka martinis, “M” and Moneypenny, exotic locations, beautiful girls, the gun barrel, and the main theme. This one gives us Blofeld, provocative main titles, sweeping music, likeable allies, Q and his gadgets, a helicopter sequence, and a pre-credits sequence. It isn’t until Goldfinger that we get the Aston Martin, but by this point, you have seen everything that people know James Bond for.

From Russia With Love is one of the few films in the series that references events from a past film. The Bond series are true sequels in an ongoing story; they are more like additional adventures featuring the lead character, much like the Indiana Jones films. Thus, it allows for the series to have greater freedom in the stories they want to tell, and they aren’t tied down to having to progress the overarching story. This was decided because the filmmakers weren’t interested in a dynamic character (one who goes through character archs) and just wanted to adapt all of the stories regardless of the release history of the novels. Dr. No wasn’t the first Bond book, but it was chosen because it seemed to be the easiest to adapt to film and also the smallest. The choice for the next film was actually pretty obvious. Though Russia actually preceded No in the print form, President Kennedy had chosen Russia as one of his favorite books. Being a Bond fan, I have read each of the original Fleming books and most of the ones done by other writers. I have to agree with Kennedy that Russia happens to be one of my favorite of the books, if not the best.

Many other reviewers have said that this is the best because it avoids the formulaic comic book style of some of the later films. I wouldn’t necessarily agree with that, but the film’s small Cold War focus does help. It doesn’t seem like a stretch to say that this film could have happened in our world. Each character is played down to earth, and it helps to make the film seem more grounded in reality than the rest of the series.

The music in the film is great. John Barry, who wrote the definitive arrangement of Monty Norman’s Bond theme, was called in to do a grand orchestra score. The strings and Turkish instruments help to remind us of the setting and draw us into Bond’s world.

All of the scenes in this film are memorable, but the three standout scenes of this film are the gypsy camp, the fight on the train, and the boat chase. The film’s action scenes are some of the best in the series, and none deliver the fun of the gypsy camp fight between the two girls and the subsequent attack of the Russians. It is sexy, tension filled, and full of gags. The fight on the train is widely known as one of the best fights in screen history. Connery and Shaw performed most of the fight themselves, and it is brutal. I’m surprised Bond isn’t in pain after this. Part of what makes this fight so great is the buildup to it. Grant taunts Bond, and Bond provokes Grant in a fun way. The scene’s great acting reminds me of the dinner scene in Dr. No. Finally, the finale where Bond shoots the gasoline in the water and blows up the boats is a classic moment, and Connery’s one-liner is a great way to cap off a scary scene.

From Russia With Love may not be the greatest in the franchise, but it comes pretty freaking close. It is one of the few films I can watch over and over again and never get tired of. It is such a breath of fresh air and injects some much needed tongue-in-cheek into the franchise. If you have yet to watch this, get off your lazy butt and go rent it or buy it!

RATING: 10 out of 10. I tend to save this rating for true cinematic masterpieces, but this is so much fun and classic that I can’t give this film anything less. The characters are great, the story is a wonderful diversion, Istanbul and Venice look amazing, and the music is some of my favorite in the series.

Dr. No – Review

Minimalism is a risky thing for films to try. It either makes the film seem cheap, or everybody overlooks it. More often than not, I’ve been extremely impressed with a film because it effectively carries my interest and I’ve been entertained despite the fact that its budget or story was small. Dr. No is perhaps the greatest film that uses minimalism. Yes it was filmed in the 1960’s, but it was filmed on a budget of just under $1,000,000. Think about that, and it is truly an achievement and a testament to the Bond films started on such a humble film.

Subtle, right?

Plot Summary: Commander Strangway is an MI6 spy undercover in Jamaica who disappears along with his secretary. Bond is sent to Jamaica and immediately beset by deadly hired hands looking to kill him. After teaming up with CIA operative Felix Lieter, Bond learns about the mysterious recluse Dr. No who has his hands expertly placed throughout Jamaica. Bond picks up on the trail of death leading to Dr. No, who is organizing a scheme to disrupt space shuttle flights from the US for his evil masters from the crime syndicate known as S.P.E.C.T.R.E. Along with Honey Ryder, a local seashell collecting girl, Bond foils this plan, kills the Doctor, destroys his secret base, and gets the girl in the end.

Dr. No is perhaps the closest to its source novel than any other of the movies. The plot is a very low-key detective story that just happens to feature two car chases, sex, murder, exotic locations, and involves space rockets. Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, the producers of the movie, knew the kind of film they needed to make if they were going to embark on their quest to adapt the successful Bond books from Ian Fleming. Bond, at the time, was a charming, arrogant, and worldly man who disposed of his women after ferocious adventures and shot men without a second thought. Dr. No was made during the early 1960’s, before the troubled days of the Vietnam War, and thus needed an action hero who was fun to watch. So they took the best elements of the character that made him likeable and adapted the character to the screen.

Sean Connery was an unknown before the movie, and thus had to work hard to make his name one that would come to mind. He recognized that playing James Bond would be a great opportunity and thus worked extremely hard on this film. Just watch his introduction as Bond in the Casino. I could talk at length about Sean’s performance in this and subsequent films, but it is sufficient for now to note that James Bond is recognized as the third best hero in film because of THIS movie. Not Goldfinger, not Thunderball, but this film! Joseph Wiseman delivers a memorable performance as the first villain for 007. He is cool, collected, and hardly has emotion. Ursula Andress is a poor actress, but she wasn’t here to deliver an impression based on her character. She was there for one purpose: sex appeal. She looks great coming out of the sea with a white bikini. Jack Lord delivers a fine performance as Lieter. The rest of the cast is none too standout, with the exceptions of Bernard Lee as “M” and Lois Maxwell as Miss Moneypenny. Bernard and Lois are terrific actors and bring a definitive interpretation to their roles. “M” is the boss who knows the asset that Bond is to his agency, and Moneypenny is the office flirt.

The standout bits in this film for me are two scenes involving Bond and a bad guy. The dinner scene with Bond and Dr. No is well-written and well-acted. I can’t help but be awed and nervous at the prospect of their meeting. Bond provokes Dr. No in cleverly crafted phrases and Dr. No gives answers that invoke bare minimum tolerance of this annoying “policeman”. The other scene is the cold blooded murder of Professor Dent. Bond is in complete control of the situation and gives no regard to the Professor trying to get to his empty gun. When Dent fires his gun, Bond delivers one of the best lines of the franchise. “That’s a Smith and Wesson, and you’ve had your six.” He fires one silenced bullet and Dent drops to the floor. He then fires one more round into Dent’s back very callously, as if to either assert his authority or to make sure the job is done. Bond has a moment afterwards as he takes off the silencer where he looks at the body and just casually stares at the body. Such a great moment.

I will mention one other thing. By the way, if you can’t tell by now, I grew up in a house full of talented musicians. Thus, part of the things I always look for is a great score to the movie. Monty Norman does the music and, like the film’s minimalistic approach, uses it sparingly. The great James Bond theme is introduced to great effect here, and the first time we hear it is a crowd pleasing moment, reminding us that we are here to have a great time. This isn’t because of the popularity of the theme, but because John Barry’s definitive recording opens up the picture with the blaring chorus, if you will.

Two other things to mention. The opening shot of each Bond film (minus a few) is known as the gun barrel shot. I didn’t catch this until I saw the inside of a cannon at an old fort. The opening titles of the film set a precedent that each film needs to have an elaborate title sequence. This one is fairly simple, but it does get us in the mood for the film.

Dr. No isn’t as great as some of its sequels, but it is a classic in every sense of the word. The plot moves along maybe a bit slower than you might hope for and some of the cast is forgettable, but there are enough good things in here to recommend it to any film fan.

RATING: 8 out of 10 – Sean is the standout of this film, with Joseph Wiseman being the backup. It’s always fun to see the film that started the franchise.

Tune in the first week of June!

An introduction to the Bond marathon

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James Bond is a phenomenon in the biggest sense of the word. No other character (other than Sherlock Holmes) has had so many films, books, video games, and TV specials about him. Many things about him, like his license to kill, his girls, his drink, his cars, his gadgets, and everything else is so integrated into our minds that we cannot help but hum the Bond theme when we see them. It is one of the biggest franchises in movie history, and unlike things like Star Wars and Harry Potter, there will always been new films on the rise.

I must stress this: this film franchise is successful because it delivers exactly what its target audience wants, not because they are excellent films. Critically, Bond films have become uninspired and frankly quite laughable in many ways. However, these are first and foremost action films and fairly entertaining nonsensical ones at that. Thus, most of these reviews will be short and to the point; no more of the interesting psychological thoughts we get with Batman, or story elements like we get with Star Wars, or the morality messages we get with Star Trek. Unfortunately, this is the only way I can think of to continue this blog, since I’ll be leaving the country for two years due to a calling in my church starting May 1st. I’ll be covering a film per month (sorry about the monotony of that), though I’ll throw in the two unofficial ones as well as one of the video games.

James Bond started as the creation of Ian Fleming as a distraction from his new life as a husband, and the books he wrote show this. The Bond of the books is kind of like the one in the films: he smokes, drinks, sleeps around, and delivers chases and shootouts. However, the Bond of the books is a darker agent of good than the spy of the films. Book Bond has dimension and depth to him. He doesn’t like killing, he won’t settle down after his experience with his wife, Tracy, he realizes the unhealthiness of his actions, and he would just as soon quit his job as a 00 agent if his own life wasn’t so boring. Movie Bond is dismissive and has no real dimension. He is an action hero; a framework for telling exciting adventures. There are films that try to explore his psyche, but most of the films don’t. Interestingly enough, the films that do explore him tend to be better in my mind. Some of these films are based on books, though many take as much liberty as they wish. The Bond books aren’t exactly works of arts either, and so nobody really minds that these aren’t straight adaptations. The first few started off as such, but after Thunderball they slowly started to become their own stories with some of Fleming original material thrown in, like For Your Eyes Only, or abandoned entirely, as is the case with The Spy Who Loved Me. Some use the original plot, like Dr. No, or use the title and nothing else, like Quantum of Solace.

With that in mind, I’ll be reviewing these films in order of release, once per month starting the first week in May with Dr. No. The next, From Russia With Love, will be posted the first week of June. Goldfinger in July, and so on. I’m sorry about the complete focus of Bond for two years, but this is the only way I can continue regular posts about this blog and thus keep up interest. There probably won’t be pictures. Plus, this is a film series that I love and know really well. A mostly review oriented blog of mine wouldn’t be complete without these films.

Let’s get started….

Assassin’s Creed II – Review

History is universally known as one of, if not THE, most boring subjects in school. The further back you go, the less interesting it seems to get. Also, pretty paintings and religious conflicts are also on that list. This guy, however, grew insane and loved learning about history, and especially religious conflicts. (Can’t speak for pretty pictures, though.) I also had never been outside of North America before 2009. I got accepted for a three week honor band tour of Central Europe, including Germany, France, and Italy. Imagine the cultural shock for me. Plus, the best part of the trip was looking around at the tourist traps, which are filled with Renaissance pictures. Those things are absolutely gorgeous. One of the most awe-inspiring sights you can have is to see an old church filled with Renaissance pictures depicting the majesty and intimacy of many scenes from religious tales. Venice, though transformed into a big outlet mall, still has some leftover links to that rebirth of human enlightenment.

“But Stephen, why are you wasting our time talking about your good fortune and not talking about Assassin’s Creed II?”

–          Some poor sap reading this review and not just searching it for pictures.

“Hold on, I’m getting there!”

–          Master of this domain.

I was skeptical (as always) of this sequel. I liked the first game and looked forward to finding out more about Desmond and doing some more killing. But there were three big detractors of this game. 1. No more Altair, 2. New setting and 3. Less Desmond. I never thought the Renaissance was a ripe time and place for an assassin’s work and so I tuned out any announcement made by my brother about this one. I decided to humor him once he put it on the Christmas list and I heard rave reviews about this one. It took me two days to beat this game, and I got to say: My impressions were completely off. Assassin’s Creed II is not only an impressive sequel that was my runner-up for Game of 2009; it stands as the pinnacle of the series and all others only aspire to be this good.

The plot: Desmond Miles of 2012 gets busted out of Abstergo Industries by Lucy Stillman, who has turned traitor to the Templars. She then recruits him to become an Assassin, by absorbing the skills of one of his ancestors through an updated version of the Animus. That ancestor is Ezio Audtiore Da Firenze.

Ezio is a late 15th century Italian nobleman who loses his father and brothers to a scheming family friend’s aspirations. He decides to enact revenge on the “friend” and afterwards must leave Florence to seek a new life. He stops in Monteriggioni to stay with his uncle, Mario, who sheds light as to why Auditore Sr. was killed. Giovanni Auditore was an assassin who uncovered a plot by well-placed Templar knights to take over control of Italy. Ezio is convinced to stay and help out. Guided by a list of names, Ezio eliminates each templar he comes across. Through this journey, he stops the Pazzi Conspiracy of 1478, kills Marco Barbarigo, becomes friends with Niccolo Machiavelli and Leonardo Da Vinci, halts the Bonfire of the Vanities, and encounters the leader of the conspiracy, who is none other than Rodrigo Borgia (Pope Alexander VI)! Ezio decides to spare his life however and comes to meet a ghostly image of the goddess, Minerva. Minerva delivers a message intended for Desmond, since she somehow knows he will be listening. Desmond is tasked with saving the world from the apocalypse in December of 2012 by following in her society’s footsteps.

Though the message makes little sense, Desmond agrees to the task and is ready to begin. However, Warren Vidic of the Templars attack Desmond and the assassins with him, forcing them to go into hiding once more.

This game feels vastly different from its predecessor. No more assignments from an old man, no more sitting on benches to get information (human race be cursed for not wanting realism in games!), no more flags and no more long horse rides through the country. Everything in this game is designed to be faster and more engaging. Some people complained that the last game was too slow, and so I feel this one was doing everything necessary to not feel slow. There are a few vehicle sections, free running is a tad faster, and now the water is open up to you to explore. Gondolas are now available and are easy to use, the vehicle sections include a flying machine, fast-travel stations that deliver you from city to city are dotted around the various cities, and did I mention this game feels faster. That’s not a bad thing entirely, but I feel like I can rush through that game pretty quickly. What doesn’t help this is the fact that the game is pretty easy. The first time you play this game, you feel like you’re doing really well cause you rarely ever die. Once you go back through and try some of these missions on a second play-through, you find that unless you walk straight in front of your target and do a musical selection from “Singing in the Rain”, you can pretty much do anything you want and still kill your target in silence.

It is the best of the series, but it does have glaring problems that future games fix. First off, the game isn’t that difficult. I breezed through it the first time without any real problems, except for the first few stealth-stalking missions. Once I got the hang of those, I felt like the ultimate B.A. of the universe. That is good fun for the first few playthroughs, but it gets old and you will be screaming for a difficulty setting after awhile. Also, the economy system is a cool idea, though it isn’t very well thought out. It’s there so you can get more money and feel like you’re making a difference. You can buy armor, weapons, and other upgrades for your character, which is all fine and good. However once you renovate your city and add the upgrades, that’s all that money is used for. The money is acquired too fast, too often, and too much. Your pocket will be stuffed long before you complete the game.

The game is a bit uneven in its pace. The first assassination has you avoiding all the soldiers in order to get to the traitor who is responsible for your family deaths, and those soldiers are EVERYWHERE! Also, there is really only one entrance, and the method for getting in isn’t obvious. This is at a point when you are still learning how to operate as an assassin. The training is handled very well and you learn all the moves before you reach Venice. Tuscany and Forli don’t get nearly enough screen time, and though some of this is fixed in the DLC, it still persists for everyone else. You can’t replay memories (game missions) like you can with the rest of the series, so you don’t get to spend enough time doing the things you want to be doing, like the excellent and atmospheric (pun intended) flying mission over Venice. You can play through the sidequests, sure. But if you want to fly the machine again, you have one of two options. Get the DLC with a renewable flying mission or spend 7-8 hours in another play-through getting you back to that point in the story. Finally, the graphics. Don’t get me wrong, the cityscapes are a pleasure to look at. I really have lost count of just how many times I’ve sat around looking at the city from a tower I just climbed. However, this engine does a terrible job with faces. The lip movement is off, the faces look rubber and there are some cases of bug-eye. This will only affect the cut scenes though, as most of this game is being seen from the third-person perspective.

Special mention. The actual landscape vs. the one presented in the game is hit and miss, at best. The main buildings are very accurate to their real counterparts, and in one part where you visit the Vatican in 1499, the developers stick to historical accuracy and leave out the famous Sistine Chapel paintings, as they were not completed till later. I went to Venice only months before this game, and so the topography was still fresh in my mind. Some the islands surrounding the San Marco plaza are off, both in location and size. (Can’t chalk that one up to time’s effect, much as I would be willing to for the rest of the game’s cities.) Also, it’s laughable that there is suddenly a huge waterway from Forli to Venice that’s within throwing distance. (Check your Google maps; Forli is still at least 5 miles out from water.)

Now comes the praising bit. (You know; the bit where the reviewer makes it sound as though Christmas came early and you didn’t have to pay for presents?) The atmosphere that this game sets is inspiring and awesome. I’ve never felt more immersed in a pseudo-historical world, and I felt as though you could get some valuable insights into 15th century life when you’re not stabbing people. I love the voice-acting, especially the assassin himself. Roger Craig Smith does a convincing performance of an Italian nobleman turned world-weary assassin. The rest of the actors sound authentic for their characters. Kristen Bell does a great job with the few bits she is given, Danny Wallace delivers some pretty hysterical lines, and Nolan North doesn’t get in the way too much.

Finally, I have to talk about the music. Jesper Kyd gave a very airy score to the first Assassin’s Creed, complete with ethnic party pieces and some truly exceptional ambience music. My only gripe with that game is the action music. Here, Kyd gets to flex his musical muscles. His first great move was adding a solo female vocalist, which really defines this score and sets it apart from the monk chants of before. It’s haunting and beautifully epic. His Ezio’s Family theme ranks among my favorite pieces of music ever and it gets some nice variations throughout, most notably during the foot chases and the first time we see the Assassin costume. The action music is much better this time around, and there are multiple pieces which each belong to a different city. This helps make each of these cities distinct, which can tend to be a problem with these games. The score has been released in a digital 2 CD set available from iTunes and Amazon, and I would highly recommend getting that.

All-in-all, my reaction to this game is very similar to everyone else’s. It is an excellent sequel, and though I enjoyed the first game more than most, this is really the kind of game we were hoping for the first time around and we should have got.

RATING: 9.25 out of 10 – a truly great game regardless of taste issues. The score, main story, voice acting, and locations make this game the best of the franchise.

Assassin’s Creed Review

2008 was a strange year for me. Though I enjoyed moments of its entertainment field, I was hoping for an entirely new experience with our family upgrade to an XBOX 360. Halo 3 and The Force Unleashed were the only two things that I was excited to play. To be honest, I was a neophyte in the gaming world to this point. I knew of Halo, World of Warcraft, and the XBOX games of the past. Beyond that, I knew none of the fantastic games that had been, or were being created. I have to credit my brother Joe for two things that year. The first was Gears of War. I’ve spent so many mindless hours on co-op play and Horde mode that I’m actually frightened of what I would have become if I had access to XBOX Live. The other was a struggling IP known as Assassin’s Creed.

The concept sounded cool. A next-generation assassin focused game starring the Holy Land? I was hooked. The story was mature (as was some dialogue and violence) and the game had a striking look to it all. The thing that got me hooked most of all was the aftermath of my first assassination in Damascus. I had the entire City guard chasing me on the rooftop. The skills I possessed reminded of the amazing opening action sequence of Casino Royale. Running, jumping across the roof tops, leaping from the tops of buildings into haystacks, climbing the buildings, running over scaffoldings, dodging the crowd, going through alleyways, evading the crowded marketplaces, and finally ending the chase by blending in with some scholars. From the moment that chase ended, I had such a blast that I had to continue playing. Yes, the game suffered from some repetitive slower parts, but it more than made up for it by the intensity of the action scenes. Wow, just wow.

The plot is two-fold: The first is a modern-day setting with a kidnapped man (Desmond Miles) undergoing sessions in an Animus, a machine that renders genetic memories in three dimensions (Bit of Matrix here). The kidnapped is part of the Assassins, though he ran away from that life. The kidnappers are Templar Knights, (Warren Vidic and his lovely assistant, Lucy Stillman, played by Kristen Bell) though here they are depicted as the evil side of a “cold” war. They are searching his ancestor’s memories for an artifact that is capable of bending people’s free-will. The other storyline follows that of the 12th century assassin known as Altair, a disgraced protégé’ that has to regain his honor. Over the course of his mission, he figures out that his targets are all under the command of the Templars, and that their leader was the very man whom Altair saw as a father, Al Mualim. The leader of the assassins was the one who made this mission necessary. Altair defeats Al Mualim and takes his prized possession: the Apple of Eden. This was the artifact that the modern-day Templars are searching for, and Vidic decides that Desmond is no longer needed. However, Lucy pleads for him to save Desmond, which he gives into. Desmond uses his secret skill (Eagle vision, which his ancestor Altair shared with him) to identify Lucy as an undercover assassin and Vidic is the true enemy. Desmond also discovers hidden blood is his room, showing cryptic messages heralding a far greater disaster in the not-too-distant future. What could all this mean?……

As per title, the big selling point of this game was to deliver an experience of being an assassin, so thus the excitement of this game is being stealthy. Quietly walking around the streets, stalking people and stabbing them is a dark alleyway is morbid, but can be incredibly fun. Altair is given assignments throughout the Holy Land and that’s where the fun begins. Once you arrive at a city, you must reach the assassin’s bureau who gives you info about where you can find your target. You head to those areas, accomplish a few tasks, go back to the bureau to get permission for the assassination, and then you kill the person. The biggest criticism about this game is that it is repetitive. Maybe so, but I never minded. For me, it was a case of active gameplay being sacrificed for story. Not necessarily bad, but not typically recommended for most games. Since Assassin’s Creed is a highly cinematic experience, those slower bits (sitting on benches) added to the story and made it better paced. Games like Call of Duty’s campaigns really have no slower parts; it’s intense action almost all of the time and thus is exhausting. I appreciate the Assassin’s Creed games for placing the focus on the tension of silence before the chaos.

These games have a bit in common with the Matrix. Both deal with virtual reality, both deal heavily in futuristic apocalyptic scenarios, and both feature protagonists that have duty thrust upon them. (The protagonist in this case is Desmond Miles) Nero was running away from his hacker life, until caught by “government” agents and rescued by a rebel group and made out to be their savior. Desmond is running away from his life as an assassin until picked up by Abstergo agents and rescued by the Assassins (who are made out to be the underdogs). Desmond is special because of his heritage, which will be revealed later.

The first game in a series has a few tasks. It’s supposed to entice you in, and it’s supposed to promise more exciting things later on. The main question that comes up with people who play this game is, “Why should we give a crap about Desmond?” Desmond is the frame work around this entire series, and thus is the most important character. We’re supposed to care about this person and want to know what happens to him. The bad thing is that Desmond’s bits don’t offer any intrigue for newcomers and they can only make sense if you’ve played the other games, or play this one a lot. Basically, the one thing left for us to remember about the game is Altair. If you’ve played the other games, you know exactly what happened to him. The creators decided to bring in someone new and leave Altair behind. Each game afterwards came with a decent recap of the previous games, and so thus you could start with Assassin’s Creed II and not miss a thing. I guess my point is that Assassin’s Creed fails to make itself standout enough that you must play through it in order to understand the overarching plot.

I loved the historical aspect of it, I loved the feeling I got at the beginning that I was in the middle of a bigger story, and I even liked the twist with Al Mualim. However, this game has one major problem for me. Namely, the ending. Altair is left just staring at a hologram of the world, Vidic and Lucy just leave Desmond alone, and Desmond stares at a wall wondering why there is blood at the wall…WHAT? What is the tantalizing piece of left-over story to bring us into the next game? The ending of the game was just flaccid and abrupt. I also don’t like that there is really is no replayability in this. All the other games have 15 things to do after the story. This game just has flags for you to collect, and the most you get out of that is an achievement/ trophy.

The rest of the game is fine. A fine start to a memorable series and one of the most unique in the modern era.

RATING: 8 out of 10 – Great concept, good stealth based action, and really engaging assassin story. However, the repetition can be a problem, Desmond’s beginning isn’t that intriguing, and the ending is poor.

One Week; Three Movies

One week; Three Movies

Tuesday night: Tuesday marked the 70th anniversary of Casablanca coming to Theaters. Naturally, being a minor film buff, I spent $25 to take me and my sister to see it. I’d seen it before, but I was excited by the prospect of seeing a classic up on the big screen. We got there 10 minutes late (I’m hesitant to trust phone GPS again) and Bogart was speaking lines from the film. We simultaneously cursed the phone, but as it turns out, it was a 15 minute tribute to the movie before it played.

The print was very dark; you couldn’t see the actor’s chins most of the time in the night scenes. However, it was such a treat to see it on the big screen. Bogart is fantastic in his Oscar-nominated role of Rick. The cynicism could have gotten annoying, but Bogart plays it so well, and I have to give kudos to the screenwriters for giving us enough reason to buy this trait. Claude Rains is fantastic as the kiss-a** French Captain Renault. The sex-obsessed man becomes a key figure in the events that transpire and delivers some of the best lines in the film. Paul Henreid plays the most dashing man to ever have a scar. He is such a larger than life figure, and Henreid only appears a few times in the film. It is quite a feat to give such a well-rounded character and yet get less screen-time than Renault. Conrad Veidt gives a charming performance as the Nazi captain. I’ve always liked Peter Lorre as the cut-throat character of Ugarte. Not much to say about Sydney Greenstreet as the other night-club owner, other than a good job. I found Ingrid Bergman to be luminous and wonderfully graceful as Ilsa Lund. In many ways, she is essential for the film to work; Ingrid is able to carry this feat effortlessly.

This film was the black-and-white version (not that weird color version) and there is something about the way Casablanca was shot that makes it work only in black-and-white. A fun time was had by all and we walked remembering how great of a film it was.

Friday Night: I don’t remember seeing more hype for a film since the final Harry Potter movie last summer. The Hunger Games is the first in a series of books to come to the big-screen and it doesn’t disappoint. Unlike Twilight before it, the love triangle is not the focus of the film and if it was for the ending, you might have forgotten about the first guy. Jennifer Lawrence does a really solid job as the silent macho 16 year-old girl who volunteers herself in a deadly competition in order to save her sister. Woody Harrelson and Stanley Tucci were the only other standout actors in this piece and each was very memorable.

The plot is kind of simple: A post-apocalyptic world has 12 districts send a male and a female to compete in a life or death competition for fame and glory. Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is the first volunteer from District 12 to participate in the games. She grows attached to several other competitiors, but knows in the end that she will have to kill each of them in order to survive and win the games.

The resolution of the games was predictable, but the way the movie built up to it was fantastic (I won’t spoil it for you). I was a little confused on what was rewarded at the end as the movie spends its final minutes setting up for a sequel. I’m excited to see where this series goes and I recommend it to those who want a better action thriller than usual. The best new film of the year so far.

Saturday Morning: As most of you may or may not know, I love Superman. Especially the Richard Donner films. I loved his cut of the second film and I had heard about a “director’s cut” of the first one. I was excited to see it and hunted it down. I’ve finally watched and my report is…..barely any difference. Eight minutes were put back into this cut and most of it is filler shots throughout scenes already in the film. The two highlights were an added scene with Superman and Jor-El in the Fortress of Solitude and a death trap scene. The added stuff featuring Christopher Reeve was no different in acting quality from the rest of the film. He is a joy to watch and the highlight of the franchise for me. Marlon Brando, despite being a jerk about the movie, brings his signature acting ability to Jor-El. The scene was very reminiscent of one in the Donner Cut of Superman II featuring an argument between the two. I believe that these characters were really conversing with each other, and although I don’t understand how it works, what it means is far more important than how it works.

The death-trap scene was something of a minor gem. Chris plays it with absolute silence and cool, while Gene Hackman shoots bullets, fire, and ice at Superman as he walks through the underground of Metropolis. It doesn’t add any substance to the film, but it is awesome to see the deity-like character walk through these things like he was just caught in a rain shower.

All three films are great and were highlights of this week for me.

Short Scores:

Casablanca: 10 out of 10

The Hunger Games: 8.5 out of 10

Superman (2000 Expanded edition) 9 out of 10

Batman Arkham City Review

Note: ENDING OF THE GAME REVEALED IN THE PLOT SUMMARY AND IT PART OF THE GAME’S DISCUSSION. DON’T READ THIS REVIEW UNTIL YOU HAVE EITHER PLAYED THE GAME OR DON’T CARE ABOUT SPOILERS.

The dark crime infested city of Gotham has always been a major character in the back for most of the greatest stories written about the Caped Crusader. His relationship with it is not unlike that of him and the Joker. Neither is ever complete without the other. If it is not paid attention to after too long, it becomes sick and must demand the Batman’s attention. Thus it is incredibly poignant when The Joker falls sick to a terminal disease and Gotham inherits a tumor that threatens to destroy the delicate balance that has been set up by the frankly incompetent police force and the overwhelmed team of the dark avengers.

Welcome to Arkham City.

I wanted a sequel to Arkham Asylum. The groundwork had been laid for something glorious and something that could stand as a pillar of great gaming in the world. It is something that hasn’t really been explored in gaming. I was becoming annoyed with the delaying-of-the-inevitable story of Assassin’s Creed, the overhyped buildup of Gears of War, and the know-it’s-coming feeling that occurs every November for Call of Duty. The only game I continued to play in my library was Arkham Asylum. It wasn’t perfect, but it was the only conduit for me being Batman. I missed the opportunity for flying across Gotham, seeing more of the colorful villains, and the feeling of always being needed. The announcement of Arkham City, however, had me thrown back into a wait and see approach. I hadn’t expected a follow-up this quickly and I feared that Rocksteady was just trying to cash-in on their success. Plus, as noted by Zero Punctuation, I also felt that they were trying to expand just for the sake of trying to deliver something bigger. The overwhelming angle has worked in the past. Many a game have I played and loved because it was bigger. However, Rocksteady listened to the silent prayers of this new Bat-Fan and my fears became unfounded. Arkham City was not only hands-down the best comic book game ever; it was the best game I had remembered playing since Knights of the Old Republic II back in 2006.

Plot Summary: (Spoiler Warning) Professor Hugo Strange returns to Gotham and influences the Mayor to build Arkham City by sectioning off the worst part of the city. The sole purpose is to keep the criminals in one place. All that separates Gotham from total destruction are 5-foot thick, 200 foot high concrete walls with guns lining the outside of the walls permanently poised towards the cesspool. Batman knows that he must keep this situation in check and thus decides to get himself thrown into the city so as to keep order. He puts on a press conference as Bruce Wayne campaigning for the closing of the “city” and sure enough, Hugo Strange captures him. However, Strange reveals his trump card for keeping Wayne inside. He knows that Bruce Wayne and Batman are one and the same. He reveals that after he initiates Protocol 10, Strange will be heralded as a hero. Batman thus begins the search for any information on this security measure. The Joker finds Batman, lures him in, and poisons him. The Joker has been working with Mr. Freeze on a cure for his sickness, which is a remnant of his Titan transformation from the end of the last game. Thus, by insuring Batman’s fate as his own, Batman will now have to go search for Freeze, who has gone missing.

Turns out Penguin took Freeze. Batman rescues Freeze, who reveals that he has found a cure, but cannot keep it fresh enough to work on the Joker. It needs a certain enzyme, which then needs to adapted and bonded to human DNA, which could take decades. Batman recognizes the enzyme as a key component to the Lazarus Pit, and thus Ra’s Al Ghul is the answer to the puzzle. Ra’s has made camp in Arkham City, and Batman eventually finds him through Talia Al Ghul. After some trouble, Batman gets a sample of Ra’s blood and returns it to Freeze. Freeze makes the cure and makes Batman have to fight for it. During the fight, Harley Quinn takes the cure back to the Joker. Batman chases her back to the Joker and finds her tied up. He discovers the Joker, looking cured but showing a sick reflection in a mirror. The Joker fights Batman, traps him and has him at his mercy. At that moment, Talia walks in and offers the Joker the secret to immortality. Batman sees Talia put on a tracker but can’t get free. Catwoman, who Batman rescued earlier, returns that favor and Batman chases after Talia, only to come across Protocol 10.

The plan was to kill everyone in Arkham City once they had all been collected into one area. Batman reaches Strange and stops him. When this happens, Ra’s Al Ghul appears and reveals to Batman that this was his goal and that Strange was his puppet. Ra’s cannot abide Gotham and feels it must be destroyed. Strange is killed and so is Ra’s. Batman escapes and finds Talia at the mercy of the Joker. The Joker demands the cure from Batman, which confuses him. Suddenly, Talia turns the tables and kills the Joker. Batman is troubled by the inconsistencies between his encounters with the Joker. Out of nowhere, Batman figures it out and tries to save Talia from a gunshot, which he fails at. The real Joker appears, still succumbing to the disease. Clayface reveals himself to be the mask in front of the man and a battle ensues. Clayface is defeated, Batman gets stabbed by the Joker, and the only vial of the cure is dropped and broken. (Batman took some of the cure earlier.) With the Joker lying at his feet dying, Batman divulges that even after everything the Joker has ever done, Batman still would have saved him from death. The Joker dies laughing and Batman carries his dead body like a procession through Arkham City and outside the gates, where Gordon and the rest of the police force stand in disbelief. Gordon enquires about the events that lead up to this, but Batman walks silently back into Gotham.

Wow.

Three things stood out to me. The amazing opening of the game, the extreme faithfulness to the world, and the jaw dropping ending to the game. Like I said before, I was getting emotionally stagnant to games at that point. Gears of War 3 didn’t quite hold up to its momentum, I couldn’t get excited about Modern Warfare 3 (despite absolutely eating up the other two), and I didn’t have high hopes for Assassin’s Creed Revelations. I had heard about the game’s ending almost a month before, and thus I knew what was coming. However, I still highly enjoyed the game and was stilled stunned that Rocksteady would do such a thing to not only one beloved character, but three. Kudos to you guys. You can now do no wrong in my book.

I mentioned in my Arkham Asylum review that I was surprised by the faithfulness of the characters. Like everything else in that game, Arkham City topped it. Every line, emotion, and action was now so true to the characters. Batman is a grim dark detective that is also a world-class expert in combat. The Joker revels in his long-standing relationship with Batman and is still random to the point of annoyance. Harley Quinn becomes lost without the dominant Joker. Mr. Freeze is a scientist who morns the tragic fate of his wife. The Penguin is a laughable, collecting, evil little monster (a phrase that I have heard ascribed to Woody Allen.) Ra’s Al Ghul is not afraid to kill in order to further his version of world peace. Catwoman, in her own way, is obsessed with Batman. Talia believes herself to be the soul mate and intellectual equal of Batman. I could go on for a while with all of the other characters in this game. Even the characters that don’t appear in this game (i.e. Scarecrow) have hints dropped about them that is absolutely in line with their personas. I know most of you may not care, but it made a huge deal to us Bat-fans and comic book nerds playing the game. You’ll still enjoy both Asylum and City without the fanatic devotion and love to the characters, but it does enhance the experience if you know about these characters.

(SPOILERS!)

With the end of the game, I was stunned. How could this be real? I had read and seen the Joker’s death through The Dark Knight Returns, Tim Burton’s Batman, and Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker, and other than TDKR I didn’t feel satisfied with his death. Arkham City plays it risky with these characters and delivers a scene of biblical proportions. In the very first shot of the game (that is, if you have Catwoman installed) you see a painting of Cain carrying Abel in his arms, thus foreshadowing the end of the game. It is a striking image, and although the situation of the first murder on earth doesn’t apply here, the Joker dying at the feet of Batman is equally epic. Batman would have saved Joker, even after the man killed Jason Todd (Robin #2), Sarah Essen (Gordon’s 2nd wife), and paralyzed Barbra Gordon, and killed countless others. Like Jason Todd tells Batman at the end of Under the Red Hood, if any of Batman’s enemies deserves death, it would be the Joker.

The Joker is the pure opposite of Batman. Batman is methodical, a force for good, and born out of righteous revenge. He is focused, team based, and grief-stricken. His dual-persona is a very famous man who strives for good and can never escape the limelight. The man denies all personal feeling, so when something strikes close to home; it hits him harder than it would for most people. The Joker is random, an agent of chaos, and born from a tragic accident. He is unfocused, solo at heart, and denying of grief. He has no dual-persona and he embraces the madness with a gleeful smile. The whole joke to him is that anything in the world can affect you without your allowance, so why let the world bother you? Do what you will, when you will, and how you will. Everything is permitted in his world. It has been beaten into comic-book nerds that the Joker is the mirror image to Batman. I respectfully say that he is like Syndrome to Mr. Incredible: so obsessed with this man that he becomes his worst enemy in order to laugh in his face. He needs to prove that everything the hero does is wrong and that he needs a nemesis to be his therapist.

(END SPOILERS!)

The game play is very finely tuned. It already was pretty tight in Asylum, but City has a few new things to bring to the table. New gadgets, the dive-bomb mechanism for gliding, and additional side quests make for a very full game. 400 Riddler challenges with an additional 40 for Catwoman and 12 side quests featuring Mr. Freeze, Deadshot, Mad Hatter, Azreal, and many more characters keep you very busy after the main story is over. Catwoman, of course, has her own side missions that interweave through the mainstory. After that, there is the challenge maps featuring combat and stealth in which you can play as Batman, Catwoman, Nightwing, and Robin (the last two through downloads). I mention these only because one of my few tiny nitpicks about Asylum is that after you finish the main story, there only were the trophies and the challenge maps (you could only play as Batman). Here, there is way more to keep your plate full. I always liked the challenge missions in Asylum, but in Arkham City, there are more maps just for combat than there was for all of the challenge section of Asylum. Wow.

The voices in this game are wonderfully well-done. The standouts are the usual. Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill could do these characters in their sleep, but they each deliver amazing performances through-out the game. The rest of the cast don’t shine as much as these two, but each voice is appropriate for the respective characters. I did miss Arleen Sorkin as Harley Quinn, but Tara Strong delivers a nice tribute to Sorkin’s work. Two-Face’s voice changes between personas. The Penguin has a disgusting sophisticated voice (done by Nolan North of Uncharted and Assassin’s Creed fame). Mr. Freeze impressed me the most out of the entire cast. He is not my favorite villain, nor do I care about Michael Ansara’s performance of him in the animated series, but his (the game’s character) voice matched the man perfectly. Catwoman is dripping with a confident slightly hyper-sized sexuality tone. Ra’s Al Ghul and Talia’s voices weren’t my imagined versions of the characters, but I bought them shortly after I listened to them.

I didn’t really talk about the score in Asylum. It was a dark and brooding score that fit the world. Beyond fitting the narrative, I couldn’t say much else about it. This game’s main theme is an action based rhythmic string and horn piece, with choir overlaying it. It reminds me of the standout theme to The Dark Knight, and thus is right in line with how I imagine the character would sound like musically. The slightly disappointing thing is that the rest of the score mostly blends in with the background. I really fell in love with two songs that played during trailers of this game: “Short Change Hero” by The Heavy and “Get Some” by Lykke Li. Catchy and perfectly mirroring aspects of the universe.

Part of the marketing promotion for this game included a “Music inspired by” album featuring music by Coheed and Cambria, Panic at the Disco, and Serj Tankian (System of a Down). These aren’t featured in the game, but provide a soundtrack motivated by aspects of the Batman Universe. “Deranged” is a first-person poem on Batman’s dependency on Joker. “Mercenary” highlights the Batman’s brutality. “Drown in You” reminds me of Gotham’s constant degradation. It has a few fun things, but is a very so-so album. The chorus in “Deranged” rings out true for the respective relationship: “Who will be your pretty little enemy when I’m gone? Your world will prove empty; I promise you will always remember me. The joke’s on you…We’re one and the same: deranged”

I only have two nitpicks about the game. I wasn’t put off by most of the brief appearances of some of the villains, but I was expecting Two-Face to have a larger role. He is one of my favorite villains and the marketing hyped up his appearance in the game. He has a whole poster dedicated to him, and several trailers give him a semi-large role. He did get a little more to do in the Catwoman missions, but not enough. The other nitpick has to do with the Riddler challenges. The Riddler prides himself on being the smartest person alive, and yet the actual riddles he has in the game are child’s play. I figured all of these out very quickly. Even the trophy “traps” (for lack of a better word) weren’t exactly brain-stumpers. I had the same problem with Asylum; and maybe because if you make people think at these games they may be less-inclined to buy them. I don’t know how you could fix it without alienating most of your main audience, but it did rob me of some satisfaction when I solved this riddles.

Arkham City is the ultimate tribute to Batman for video games. If you haven’t played it or own it, drop whatever you’re doing at your house and get it now! It is worth every bit of those dollars. Think about it like this. I used to buy games solely for the single player because the multiplayer portions of video games required a steady internet connection and a subscription to its community. It’s only been within the last month that the multiplayer section of games has been opened up to me. Thus, games had to prove themselves through the single player section only. Thus, Assassin’s Creed, Tomb Raider, and a few others were the only games that made it into my collection. While Arkham City only has single-player, I felt more comfortable with spending $60 on it than I did Gears of War 3, where most of its value comes from the online gaming.

Simply put, you need to own this game.

RATING: 9.75 out of 10 – The near-perfect Batman experience and one of the best stories in years for the Caped Crusader. It doesn’t hurt that the game is packed and fun to play. One of my top 5 favorite games ever.

Special Addendum: Mark Hamill has left the Joker behind with the release of this game. He will not be playing the character again, unless he gets called for an adaptation of The Killing Joke. Way to go out on a high note indeed, Mark. You will be missed.