Jade's Trick

Reviews, Spotlights, and Randomosity of all things under the sun.

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Location: Hartford, Connecticut, United States

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Sunday, April 24, 2005

"Do you wish to have your victims bound to an altar, or would you prefer them free-range?" -- The Road to El Dorado

We've had this movie basically since it came out on DVD, but it was only recently that my sister excavated her room and found it in a bag in a box at the bottom of a pile of clothes. How it got there, I don't know. Lucky for you, though, since now I can review it.

The Road to El Dorado is Disney done right. Good animation, relatively stock characters and plot, much funny, and good music coalesce into the cliche of "a movie everyone in the family will like." Trite but true.

Requisite plot summary: a pair of con men, accidentally stow away on Cortez's ship bound for the new world, are discovered and jailed, escape, reach South/Central America, follow a map they conned someone out of to El Dorado (the City of Gold), are mistaken as gods, and use this error to try to con the city out of a boatload of gold (in a very literal sense, as they need that boat to get back home to Spain). And there's a sociopathic bloodthirsty evil High Priest thrown in, just to mix things up. The plot is fairly stock Disney, but that's part of the charm.

Let's talk more about the protagonists: Miguel and Tulio. We meet these two con artists at the end of a game of dice against some sailors (they are using loaded dice, of course). Always wheeling and dealing, our duo of swashbuckling glib-tongued rapscallions manage to carry the film for pretty much every moment they are on screen together. Their banter really makes the movie. Miguel (voiced by Kenneth Branagh [which surprised the heck out of me], who does a darned good job of it) is the more soulful of the two. He's a dreamer, a risk-taker, a musician, a ladies man, and a basically nice guy. Tulio (voiced by Kevin Kline, who also turns a superb performance) is more analytical, happiest when following a plan that will lead to lots of gold. He's a little more selfish, but he's also more level-headed and realistic. Both characters carry the same amount of appeal, however, which is generally how buddy pictures work best.

I mentioned their banter. Funny as hell, their interplay is. Every line is golden (ironic, considering the movie), funny, interesting, clever, and perfectly delightful. Although this is the source of the funniest funnies, other types of funnies also reside here. Slapstick, of course, can be found in abundance. There's some deadpan, some pure absurdity, some situational humor, and even a little black comedy here and there (see the title of the post for an example), among others kinds. There really is something for everyone here.

You couldn't possibly review this movie adequately without at least mentioning the sweet original music. As a Disney Wannabe, this movie must have a good song sequence every twenty-or-so minutes or it gets its card revoked. A lot of the time in Disney movies, the songs drag on and add little, if anything, to the picture. They are boring diversions, nothing more. However, Elton John, Time Rice, and Hans Zimmer (the same dudes who did the totally righteous music for Teh L10n K1ng, yo) supplied the tunes for El Dorado, and the quality shows. Although undoubtedly not the best Disney-esque music ever, it's still quite good; rather catchy, interesting lyrics, beautiful melodies, and great poignancy make it all work well. Most importantly, these songs don't drag, and they sometimes even help move the plot along (for example, the journey of Miguel and Tulio through the jungle). Interestingly enough, Kenneth Branagh and Kevin Kline actually sang their parts of the duet (separately, I assume). Just goes to show how much range they have.

Finally, it is important to go into the movie with your level 15 Suspenders of Disbelief on. You're gonna need it for everything from the typical Disney elements (ie semianthropomorphic animals) to the language (ie "it's convenient how everyone speaks perfect English with almost no accent appropriate to their geographic area at all, isn't it?") to the amazing luck these guys have (ie right when they are called upon to produce a miracle, a volcano nearby erupts for a moment) to the moments of pure fantasy (ie bizarre animals). I don't think this is necessarily a bad thing, but it is something you need to watch out for if you are to enjoy this movie at all.

Action: 3/5 flying horses (Pretty good, but not the focus of the movie).
Acting: 4.5/5 loaded dice (I am speaking of course of the voice acting, which is exquisite).
Humor: 4.5/5 blazed trails (Hilarious. Even side-splittingly hilarious, from time to time).
Story: 3.5/5 gold chalices (Although it's pretty much Disney norm, El Dorado has made some improvements that score it an extra half-point).
Sound: 4/5 improvised guitars (With the team assembled, what do you expect? Very good music. That's exactly what you get).
Visuals: 3/5 rubber balls (Although the animation was certainly well done, it's not really anything special).

Overall (not necessarily determined by the above categories): 4/5 row boats (If you like Disney, you'll probably like this more than at least most of the new Disney movies. If you don't like Disney movies, you just might like this movie because it does many things Disney does, but much much better and without those trademark Disney flaws).

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Tuesday Special: "See you in the funny papers." -- John Q

This is in recompense for missing last week due to a retreat I was on. Yes, it's a little short. Pipe down. There's not a whole lot to say. Don't forget to read the one just before this if you only check ones a week!

John Q is a movie about how much HMOs suck. How shocking. Who knew? All joking aside, John Q's a pretty good drama talking about pretty important issues in a pretty adult way.

The basic premise is thus: John Q Archibald, played by Denzel Washington, is a blue-collar factory worker who's been cut to part-time employment. His son collapses at a Little League game and it is discovered that he needs a heart transplant. Price tag: $250,000. John and his wife go through the run-a-round of paperwork and fundraising and eventually the hospital decides to send his son back home to die. With no other options that involve the continued existence on this Earth of his son, John takes the emergency ward of the hospital hostage and demands they give his son a new heart. Eventually, that happens and he's taken off to jail. But plot summary is boring and boring is bad. No more badness.

Overall, I liked this movie. Admittedly it gets a little preachy* from time to time**, but at least it doesn't try to hide it. The acting is pretty good, and therefore so is the drama. The script doesn't usually try to be overly clever but instead goes more for realism; most of the lines I can see someone actually speaking.

Denzel Washington really makes this movie work. Although it has a lot of recognizable faces (and voices. James Woods, who here plays Dr. Raymond Turner, was the voice of Hades in Hercules), he dominates the movie. I particularly admired his ability to start crying without breaking down into sobs, to waver his voice just a little bit before picking it up again. He doesn't portray his character as a saint but merely as a good guy backed into a corner, which is nice to see.

This movie also has merit as a good example of Stockholms Syndrome, or at least the general perception of it. Although he's holding a gun to them and threatened to kill them off one by one if the police don't bend to his demands by a certain time, they become increasingly aligned to him and his cause, one of them even going so far as to impersonate John and allow himself to be arrested in his place so he can watch the doctors operate on his son.

Action: 3/5 grinders (What little action there was was decent).
Acting: 4.5/5 Berreta 9-mm's (Denzel Washington was the shining star, but pretty much everyone did a darned good job).
Story: 3/5 killer 18-wheelers (It did its job adequately).
Sound: 3.5/5 hospital stretchers (The music was most non non non heinous. I rather liked it).
Visuals: 3.5/5 color TVs (The camera angles, lens choice, lighting, etc. were all rather good. I rather liked them as well).

Overall (not necessarily determined by the above categories): 3.5/5 bogus forms (A rather nice movie and a rather good way to spend a pair or so of hours).

* And by "gets a little preachy" I of course mean "bashes you over the head with its agenda."
** And by "from time to time" I of course mean "from the time the movie starts to the time the credits roll."

Sunday, April 17, 2005

"Those who will remember, will speak fondly of the warm morning breeze." -- Guild Wars

Now, today I review not so much a product as an event that foreshadows a product. Oh, and I'll have a movie review tomorrow (to make up for the one I missed last week), so be sure to look for that. EDIT: Something's come up. I'll have to postpone the Special for Tuesday.

The Guild Wars beta test that took place from Friday April 15th to Sunday April 17th was very, very fun. As you all probably know, the beta test is a stage that most games go through in which it is released to a limited portion of the populace for stress testing. Basically, they fill the cup that is the game with water and see where it leaks. Guild Wars chose its beta testers by giving out passwords for it with the preorders. My brother was good enough to preorder it a few weeks ago, and since it comes with a Guest/Friend pass, I was able to play in it.

Let's start with some basics about the game (the next several paragraphs are merely explanatory. If you already know about how the game works, skip ahead until I bold for you to stop): Guild Wars is a new type of Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game ("MMORPG," or just "MMO" for short) which is set up in such a way as to not only eliminate many of the grievances gamers have had with traditional MMO's (such as camping at spawn points, kill-stealing, spending hundreds of hours leveling, et al) but also offer the game with no monthly charges. If NCSoft is able to turn a decent profit, Guild Wars will set a new industry standard which pay services (such as World of Warcraft) may find difficult to top.

According to the game's website FAQ, it might be more correct to call this a "Competetive Online Role Playing Game" rather than an MMO, and not just because it has fixed many problems and doesn't charge a monthly fee. All, or at least mostly all, of the fighting done in Guild Wars takes place in what I am told are called "Instances," special private versions of sections of the game generated for you when you step through certain gates. You and other players can form a party in one of the cities and then set off on an adventure together, helping each other to face challenges that would otherwise be difficult, or perhaps even impossible, alone.

The game has two character types: RP or PvP. RP characters start from scratch and spend most of their time going on quests to grow in power and advance the story (which, thanks to Instancing, now has personal continuity: you won't see someone else kill a unique monster that you already killed, for example), although they can compete in head-to-head matches in certain places. PvP characters only have one option available to them: fight other players in tournament-style encounters. In the beta, the player had access to all abilities and items and started at the maximum level (20) for PvP characters, but rumor has it that in the real game, you will only be able to use the abilities and items that you discovered in the RP half of the game, and you cannot exceed the level of your RP characters.

Yes, the maximum level in the game is 20. Yes, this is rather low (although it becomes more and more difficult to level, as always, it still takes relatively little time to get there, at least according to my estimates). Yes, this is good. This means that victory is a function of skill, not simply hours invested. Anyway, every level you gain health and ability points (which you spend improving your profession's or secondary profession's areas of expertise, called, surprisingly, Abilities). You do not gain energy/mana (not automatically, at least. You can gain energy/mana by putting points into Energy Storage, which only primary Elementalists have access to, or equipping special items). This kinda sucks for certain character types, such as the Monk who exclusively heals, but overall works out well: none of the abilities cost more than a starting character can afford (as far as I know, anyway), and they improve as you spend more ability points.

Speaking of which, Spells are here called "Skills" (because they are not always magic, and everyone, even the warrior, has them). These do various things, mostly centered around gaining health or removing health in various ways. The casting/use time for each is different, some taking 10 seconds or longer to use and others taking no time at all. Most also have a recharge time, and some even charge something beyond energy (specifically, some of the warrior's skills cost something called adrenaline, which you gain by hitting things). This system is very slick and works fairly intuitively.

The game has no mining, crafting, smelting or other such skills. Instead, you can salvage materials from items you pick up off dead creatures with a Salvage kit and give them, along with some money, to Crafter NPCs to make stuff.

Finally, even as a beta this game offers much variation in personal look. Although everyone of a profession must start with the same body type (Warriors are beefy, Mesmers are lithe, etc), you have a number of choices between different hair styles and colors, faces, skin colors, and size (as well as Sex, of course). Everyone starts with the same clothes, but you can find other clothing throughout the game, and you can also use Ink to change the color of your clothes. This all boils down to a very diverse-looking bunch of people.

Ok: summary over. The part of the review that's actually a review starts here.

This game owns. It succeeded my wildest expectations and then some. I was hoping for something at least halfway decent and got something extremely enjoyable for every single minute I played.

Let's start with the most superficial of levels, and yet increasingly the most important: graphics. Everything from the character models to the insignificant backgrounds to the sky to the grass to the monsters was stunningly beautiful. My computer is coming up on it's fifth birthday, which forced me to bring every single video setting to the minimum (and I still experienced some lag time here and there), but even then, the graphics were very very pretty. Once I switched to my brother's computer (a 1.7 GHz P4, 756 MB RAM, 256 MB Video Card), which can easily handle every setting to the max, the game really jumped out at me.

The music was also very nice, very listenable. I can easily see spending a hundred hours playing with it in the background.

Ok, ok, no more stalling. Let's talk about the meat and marrow of the game: the gameplay. Wow. Simple and intuitive with plenty of variation, the gameplay in this game is stellar. Combat works basically like this: click the enemy, you two trade blows. You each continue to trade blows with your equipped weapon until one (or even both) of you decide to either run away (which doesn't usually work well, in my experience) or use a skill. Using a skill is simple: either click its little icon at the bottom of the screen or press its corresponding number on your keyboard (I find the latter to be far more effective). Your character then goes through all the necessary motions and the skill is used. The AI does this intelligently, too; you won't accidentally heal an enemy or harm a friend, for example, and if an ability can only logically effect one character nearby, you won't usually have to select that character.

I really like the leveling system, to a degree. It is simple and intuitive (that could probably be the game's motto), and leaves you some room to correct screw-ups. Once you hit 20, you can level no more, but I'm pretty sure that you can continue to gain ability points if you get enough XP. That's really my only concern: abilities start costing more and more points, but it appears as if you never gain more than 5 ability points per level, which means you might not get anything from a level except more hit points.

The game does have an issue with information (namely that it doesn't give you enough of it). Often, I would get into a situation and not know what the monkeys was going on (thankfully, the goal was usually pretty obvious). Many of the features of the game were left for you to find (for example, it was not readily obvious that you gain ability points when you level. You had to stumble upon that all by yourself). And often, the precise function of a skill would not be totally obvious from the little blurb given. Hopefully, this is an issue that will be fixed by release.

Instead of classes, Guild Wars uses Professions. I played for at least a few levels of each profession, and they seemed by-and-large fairly well balanced with each other. The Ranger and Warrior had a harder time soloing and the Monk seemed like it might be a little bit overpowered, but the power level mostly seemed fine. I started out as an Elementalist (hoping for simplicity as I learned the game system), then I did the Monk shtick for a while (which was more fun than I thought it would be), then Warrior (more complicated than you might think. His adrenaline skills were very cool), then Mesmer (which required more combo sequences than the others, but was fun despite, or because, of this), then Necromancer (which has some very cool and potent skills) and finally Ranger (which I had been putting off because my brother played one a great deal and I thought I might be pressed for time. I didn't like this one quite as much as the others, as it seemed like his initial skills weren't enough). All the classes were fun, and each offered its own tactical challenges. I eschewed duel-classing due to time, but I would want to know more about it before using it anyway (I do not currently know of a single downside to duel-classing).

The quests in the RP part of the game were always fun and interesting with a very low frequency of "Fetch" missions. You could always count on having a good time doing them. Teaming up with another person or two increased the fun, although it was a bit of a hassle using the Chat feature (you have to click the bar every single time you want to type a message)

And finally, the PvP part. If ever there was an good MMO for Player-versus-Player action, this would be that game. Because of the level cap, you didn't have to worry about going up against someone 40 or 50 levels higher than you. Because you fight as one party against another party, you can create specialized characters that still contribute quite well. I was very impressed with the PvP part of the game, although I never made it past the third round.

Combat: 4.5/5 broken flutes (Very well done, with the just right mixture of strategy and action).
Graphics: 4.5/5 waterfalls (Extremely well done, even at the minimum settings).
Balance: 4/5 fiery explosions (For the most part, the Professions and skills seemed balanced, although there were a few things that seemed a tad off).
Story: 3/5 flaming swords (It suffices).
Sound: 4/5 swooshes (Good, solid game music that's easy to listen to as you play).
Price/Value: 5/5 golden coins (Retail is about $50, which is the industry standard for big-ticket games. However, it's an MMO without the monthly fee, and that is a feat worthy of a great many accolades).
Humor: 3/5 exploding gnomes (Although there wasn't a whole lot of humor in the game itself, the way the beta ended deserves a mention. Essentially, gnomes appeared that exploded and killed everyone, then fireworks, then a rain of money and XP, and finally death by giant flaming worms).

Overall (not necessarily determined by the above categories): 4.5/5 Monty Hauls (This game should be at the top of ever gamer's wish list).

Saturday, April 02, 2005

"Maybe after I pull off /that/ miracle I'll punch out God." -- Sin City

I've been told that naming posts after lines in the movies I review makes them more difficult to navigate, and although that was partially my intent (so you all have to read them ALL >:->), I suppose it's best if I index them or something by title. I'll get around to that one of these days . . . like, when I learn HTML. Which is never. Eh. EDIT: Screw that. Too complicated. I'll just add the titles of the movies to the titles of the posts, but not the most recent post. Just 'cuz.

Frank Miller's Sin City (here's another site) is a digitized love song to the noir flicks of the '40s. It's also damn good. No, scratch that. It's great. It's fudging great. It's the tour de force of cinema. If you don't hate film noir and you can stomach some very graphic violence, see this movie at all costs.

But first, a disclaimer: I have not so much as seen from the street in passing a Frank Miller graphic novel, much less read the Sin City series. The first I heard of this world was two weeks ago when I first saw the trailer on TV. Thus, this review is completely and utterly devoid of all fanboyism, which is good for those of you who are also Sin City virgins but bad you those of you who are devotees and want me to crucify the film for its slight errors (assuming, of course, it has any).

Additionally, this movie is an ultraviolent gorefest with some highly disturbing situations mixed in for good measure. It is the most solidly Rated-R movie I have seen in a long, long time, although it misses the illicit drugs and superfluous naughty language necessary to make it the R archetype. The movie does its violence pretty darn realistically, although the Black/White coloring obscures it just enough to keep it from overwhelming you. For particularly brutal sequences, the camera mercifully switches into pure black/white silhouettes. Clearly, these effects have more primary purposes, but they also tend to make the movie more easily watchable. So, in short: don't watch this if you have a problem with extreme violence.

Let's start with the story. Stories. Three stories of overlapping spheres in Basin City, the quintessential cesspool. Everyone and everything here exhibits corruption on a scale that puts D.C. to shame. The cops, the politicians, and the mafia are the obvious sources of corruption, but the clergy and the, er, women of ill repute (known in some circles as "prostitutes") also contribute (greatly, as it turns out) to the pooling cess. So, Marv (this big guy the size of a great ape) gets framed for killing this prostitute that was nice to him and decides to kill whoever killed her and whoever ordered the kill. Dwight follows his girldfriend's abusive ex-boyfriend into Old Town, the section of the city rules by the whores, and all hell almost breaks lose (fortunately, only the upper three circles get away, and that's not all that much trouble to fix). And finally, John Hartigan decides to sacrifice his life to save "little Nancy Callahan." These three stories have interlocking characters and are told nonlinear with respect to each other. All three are engrossing and use very likeable tough-guys as their protagonists, two of whom are antiheros and one of whom is a regular "Galahad." You can probably guess which goes to which. As a nice little bookend, Josh Hartnett plays the part of a character who shows up in the very first and very last scenes. Saying more would cause spoiling, and my lips are tightly sealed.

The most striking feature of the movie, however, is also probably the one many of you want to go see this: the cinematography. It's Black/White, which is different from Black-and-White in that Black-and-White is a misnomer whereas Black/White is apt. Black-and-White films never have black and they never have white; it's all just a bunch of grays. Sin City, however, toggles between extremes; Robert Rodriguez cracked open his computer and jury-rigged it so that he could turn the contrast up way beyond what the manufacturer intended, if you will. And as you should know from watching the trailer, spots of technicolor break through here and there; Goldie's hair, the cop sirens, a woman's dress, a hooker's eyes. All that makes for some damn beautiful frames, but add to this some innovative and interesting camera angles and movements and you get something that is well and truly art. Take any frame you want and frame it; you've got something that would sell in a gallery exhibition.

Now for the acting. Just about everyone delivered perfectly. There's not really much else to say. Some of it was corny, but then again: some of it was supposed to be. Alexis Bledel was, I feel, the one sore spot here, but she didn't do that badly.

The sound, like everything else, fit wonderfully. The music never took over, but it did its fair share of support. I really liked pretty much all of it. I felt kinda cheated, however, that the awesome song from the trailer wasn't in the movie (it mighta been in the credits, but that hardly counts). Oh well.

Strangely enough, Sin City made me laugh with abandon just about every ten-to-fifteen minutes. In a manner extremely reminiscent of Shakespeare, it hit you with the funny during the moments of greatest tragedy. I can't really give any examples without spoiling, but I can tell you that these little jokes helped lighten the mood. Don't get me wrong: this isn't a tragedy that needs jokes to keep the audience from committing suicide. The bad guys Get Theirs and when the good guys die, they die doing something noble. But the jokes still helped. I left with a smile on my face and a step in my spring.

And if it isn't blatantly obvious from the trailer, this movie is almost as quotable as The Godfather. Every scene has at least one highly memorable line.

Action: 4.5/5 broken tail lights (Very excellent, stylized fighting. By the way: the style was basically "The good guys don't die until they're supposed to," and it works great).
Acting: 4.5/5 silences pistols (So many actors did such a darn good job to make this movie work).
Humor: 4/5 blaring sirens (It affirmed that the movie is a drama and not a tragedy. Oh, and it's really freaking funny from now and then).
Story: 5/5 IVs (Despite the stock situations and expectations that noir brings with it, the movie managed to throw quite an interesting story our way).
Sound: 3.5/5 tar pits (The music was really good and supported the action very well. Docked for not including the song from the trailer).
Visuals: 5/5 katanas (Clearly one of the best parts of the movie, and oh what a part it is).

Overall (not necessarily determined by the above categories): 4.5/5 electric-shaveresque Mercedes' (If this movie doesn't get at least three Oscars, Justice will demand the death of the Academy).