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Astounding peaks with low valleys.
Had I stopped watching midway through the 50 episode span to pen this review, you would read an overall lukewarm reaction.

The story frequently seems to get distracted with a large cast of characters from the lead protagonist Saya, her family, the Red Shield, the Chevaliers, the Cinqfleche corporation, and the Schiff. Saya, herself, struggles to remember her past, what she is, her fighting potential, and her destiny across a painful span of over a dozen episodes. Inconsistencies abound, especially in regards to characters inexplicably seeming invincible until the next encounter where they suddenly have weaknesses. In episodes 20-30, poor Saya exists to be beat up on to show how tough the rest of the crew is. The chiropterans can only be destroyed with Saya's blood giving way to a pointless gun fight once every half-dozen episodes or so. Sometimes the bullets slow them down; sometimes they don't even flinch. It all depends on what characters are in danger.

But long before any faults popped up, Blood+ introduces the ever sympathetic Saya Otonashi, an innocent girl discovering she's an otherworldly warrior. And when her eyes turn red after tasting blood, when she unsheathes her katana for the first time and springs into action to Mark Mancina's adrenaline rush of a score, I knew I was in for something special. Sure, the series would wander into waters I didn't much care for, but on the promise of those early episodes, I stayed with it.

I wanted to stay with Saya.

Despite the action-oriented premise – Saya and her sister, Diva, waging war with one another in the world of humans – Blood+ remains forever focused on the characters, their relationships, and their individual conflicts. Her 'brothers' Kai and Riku, love her as a member of their own family, wish to help and protect her, but what can they do against creatures Saya, and Saya alone, can destroy? Their conscience tell them to be there, to stand beside her, yet they only seem to get in the way and put themselves in unnecessary danger.

Saya's faithful servant and Chevalier, Hagi, harbors a long held unspoken love for his mistress. Expressing his feelings through quiet, unquestioning, obedience. "When this is all over," Saya pleads in one of the most potent flashbacks, "I want you to kill me, Hagi." He embraces her and answers, "if that is what you wish." But in the meantime, he doesn't hesitate to jump in the line of fire to protect her. Should he need to sacrifice himself, Hagi won't even blink. He'll do it without question nor regret.

The one-armed Chevalier of Diva, Carl has an ongoing blood-feud with Saya. In flashbacks, we discover he lost his limb to her long ago which fuels an obsession-like lust for revenge. But even though early on he outmatches Saya, he refuses to deliver the killing blow. "You don't remember yet" he laments and retreats, vowing to finish Saya after she's regained her memories … after she comes to full strength. Anything less would be a hollow victory.

Solomon, another of Diva's Chevaliers, falls in love with Saya, leading him to strive for peace between the two sisters and ultimately forcing him to choose between his mistress and her eternal enemy. Does he side with Diva and murder the woman he loves, or does he betray Diva and pursue an impossible love with she who has no reason to even trust him?

Along this epic journey, Saya and her companions meet up with experimental chiropterans called the Schiff who broke free from their captivity, but face an artificially shortened lifespan. In Saya's blood, they see their salvation, and being created as weapons they seek it the only way they know how: through violence. But then a human shows them another way.

Of course, more allies stand by to assist and guide Saya (David, Julia, Luis, Joel), and others stand to oppose her (James, Nathan, Van.) All are interesting in their own right (David and Joel's heritage interwoven with Saya's history) and have interesting quirks (Van's obsession with candy, and Nathan's … flamboyance?) All fight for their own reasons, and those reasons are threaded through the fifty episode span of Blood+.

With so many long-running interesting tangents to deal with, I'm not surprised director Junichi Fujisaku seems to get side-tracked on occasion. But here's what's interesting: though the build-up almost always struck me as mishandled, somehow when it came to the payoffs Blood+ delivered. Throughout the story, characters grow and evolve. Saya and Kai in episode 50 are not the Saya and Kai from episode 1. Characters die, and the tragedy resonates with a very real sense of loss.

The series has plot problems, yes. Pacing issues, faulty logic, and an almost self-parody habit of characters ominously looking out only to say "Saya" or "Diva." But you know what? The strength in its characters never wavers. They're fascinating in and of themselves, and their dynamic relationships with one another only magnifies that fascination.

When Saya and Diva finally stood across from each other, swords drawn and dripping with their own blood for the final battle, I'm glad I stayed with it. Blood+ truly was something special.

Black Widow

Dull , predictable, and boring
About midway through Black Widow, I realized my eyes constantly fell upon Gene Tierney during her scenes. Even when Van Heflin or another actor delivered his pivotal and emotional speeches which would otherwise command attention, I found myself watching Tierney's quiet reactions. Sometimes her presence in a scene amounted to nothing more than subtle eye movement; nevertheless, I found her mesmerizing.

I state this observation not to draw attention to Tierney's performance (a fine actress, indeed, but she does not have much to do), rather, I mention this to criticize director Nunnally Johnson's utter incompetent frame. An artist controls his canvass through focal points; he commands the viewer's eye to journey through the image across a predetermined path. This sets up a visual rhythm, helps the audience take in and process the imagery, and motivates the viewer to continue, you know, viewing.

Johnson's frame, though, remains bland, flat, and uninteresting—a non-descript street where a parade of characters will march, deliver their lines, and rigidly move the plot along to a monotonous drum. Never does the camera linger on the sights or appreciate the visual aspect of the medium. Characters appear, they move around, and they talk. Oh, do they ever talk. They talk so much that Black Widow could transition to a radio drama with minimal altercations.

Some films, such as Blade Runner, are so visually spectacular one could mute all sound and let the images speak for themselves. With Black Widow, one could shut off the picture and lose absolutely nothing. Since Johnson failed to provide a frame worth looking at (much less a focal point), is it any wonder why the eyes might settle on Tierney even when she's just part of the background? I know, I know. Not all movies are equal, and not all movies are supposed to be Blade Runner caliber demonstrations of artistic virtuosity. The focus—nay, the entire point—of Black Widow is the plot. So, a young attractive writer (Peggy Ann Garner) moves into town and turns up dead in producer Peter Denver's (Heflin) apartment. In traditional Hitchcockian fashion, the innocent man must clear his name, get to the bottom of the accusations, all while avoiding the authorities.

This brings me back to Johnson's directing (and writing) where a lack of subtlety all but announces the killer, which proves fatal in the telling of a murder mystery. The deceased woman had a relationship with the husband of a famous Broadway actress. Well, there's a whole two men in the movie that fit that bill, and we know one did not do it. Now throw in ominous lines of dialog like, "no darling, I'd never cheat on you. You'd strangle me in my sleep." Is it a coincidence that the victim also died by … nevermind.

Like all murder mysteries, the ending is a series of monologues explaining what may have happened and, ultimately, what did happen. And when the audience has pieced together the puzzle twenty minutes ago, it gets quite boring watching the characters play catch up. You just want to sit down next to Gene Tierney there in the background, chill out, and wait for the plot.


To Dream of Another Time.
When I was 10 years old, I remember seeing Terminator 2: Judgment Day in the theater. And when Arnold first saves John Connor from the T1000, I recall the vivid awareness that I wasn't just watching that Summer's action Blockbuster. It was something more. At the time, I didn't really know or understand that feeling. But years later, when I'd revisit T2 it would click into place.

I wasn't watching a movie. I was watching a Dream.

Across the years, I've been blessed to encounter a handful of other films that gave me that same feeling—the feeling that I could close my eyes, and awaken to a new world of distilled imagination. Blade Runner, Pan's Labyrinth, Metropolis, and Nosferatu are a few names on that short list. Early in Avatar, when paraplegic Jake first links with his Na'vi avatar and races across the Pandoran landscape, exhilarated to be running again, I leaned forward in my seat and smiled. Once again, I wasn't watching a movie. I was watching a Dream.

Avatar uses the classical narrative structure of a man who must step beyond his culture, become one with a society alien to his own, and ultimately make a stand with his new brothers. And unlike previous telling of this tale, Jake can literally step outside of his human skin and take on the form of a blue-skinned and golden-eyed humanoids called the "Na'vi."

Neytiri, a female Na'vi, guides Jake in the ways of her tribe, and as they make this journey together a bond forms between them. "I see you," she whispers to Jake. "I see you," he whispers back the way two lovers might exchange "I love you"s. And there couldn't be a more appropriate expression of affection for these characters. "I see you." Director James Cameron wants to open his audience's eyes, as Neytiri opens Jake's eyes, to the breathtaking sights of Pandora. But unlike visual effects masturbations like G.I. Joe and Revenge of the Fallen both of which throw CGI out randomly in an effort to create the most/biggest/boomest explosion, Avatar aims to recapture the child-like wonder of experiencing a *vision* that, to quote Manohla Dargis, "really is bigger than life."

Another director would be content to show the majestic floating "Hallelujah" mountains in the distant background, but not James Cameron. He goes further and invites us to climb them with Jake and the young Na'vi hunters. After dangling perilously from vines and rock faces and clawing our way to the top, Cameron then lets us ride on the back of winged dragon-like creatures, the Mountain Banshees, and soar above and between this magical landscape of towering miracles and impossible valleys.

But more importantly: amidst the overabundant spectacle, Cameron never loses sight of that child-like curiosity driving all fantasy. Do you remember staring at the cover art of your favorite book asking, "What would it be like to fly? How exhilarating would it be holding on to a Banshee for dear life while it dove 300 feet straight down? To feel the roaring wind rush past with the intensity of a hurricane as you fly—really, truly, honestly fly?" James Cameron remembers asking those questions.

He's filled the world—the vision—of Avatar with sights both grand and subtle. This is a movie that will go full throttle into an epic battle where a legion of Banshee-mounted Na'vi fly fearlessly through the airborne mountainscape while the military gunships unleash a hellstorm of missiles, and yet it also has the patience to let Neytiri reverently pause to observe where the drifting Seeds of Eywa fall. It will show you giant colorful dinosaur-like creatures smashing through trees in the all but obligatory stampede sequence, but look closely when the Na'vi get ready to ride a Banshee and you'll see gill-like orifices through which the creatures breathe. The world of Avatar feels bigger than life, yet I felt like I could reach out, grab a sample, and take it with me.

Is Avatar perfect? Far from it. It blatantly contradicts itself during the climax and brushes a little too close with propaganda in places. But like a dream, it didn't matter. When you've looked across the Pandoran landscape at night and absorbed the mystical beauty of the self-illuminating flora, when you've felt the thrill of watching Jake command the meanest predator on the planet and unite the Na'vi tribes, when you've *seen* Avatar … you don't care about its logistical faults.

It's a movie about sights, and James Cameron isn't shy about that point. It's the heart of the film. It's in every frame—in the very fabric of the film. Hell, it's even spelled out in the dialogue.

"I see you."

In the cold mechanical adult world of unforgiving cause and effect, Avatar is the movie to reawaken the forgotten child of so long ago. The child who believes in searching for undiscovered frontiers to explore, who believes dragons and magic exists, and who believes dreams are real. It's always refreshing finding out our inner child is still alive, that the jaded real world hasn't killed him off entirely yet.

Thank you, James Cameron.

The Mangler 2

It mangled something all right.
Mangler 2 contains a great metaphor for itself. Midway through the movie, tensions run high, accusations fly, two female characters nearly get into a scuffle, and then we cut to fingernails dragging across a chalkboard … and they keep dragging, inflicting that irritating screech upon the poor helpless viewer.

Gone is the possessed laundry machine from the first film, replaced by an even more ridiculous unrelated premise: a private school receives a new state of the art security system which, in traditional horror fashion, goes haywire and starts killing everyone. Yes, a new security system that automates everything from the doors to the refrigerators to, presumably, the motion detector auto-flushing toilets. This of course means those darn "'puters" factor heavily into the narrative, which means the script requires the characters to interact with the computers, which translates to scenes of actors standing around monitors, reading information off the screen, and telling the audience what they're typing as they're typing it.

Note to filmmakers: while computers may provide fun and exciting direct interactions such as video games and other applications, there's few things as boring as watching someone else interact with them.

The protagonist, Jo, is a rich girl outcast who hates even her own little clique of stereotype horror staples, leading her smiley bodyguard to muse aloud, "it's kind of sad that I'm your best friend." Then again, said clique threatens to blame her for a website vandalism prank, prompting Jo to unleash the Mangler 2.0 virus upon them. Tight knit group, non? Now, I'm all for a bitter anti-social protagonist (especially one who goes all out and embraces her dark side). It's certainly more interesting than the typical PG13 heroine plaguing horror movies these days … but if you're going to venture into those waters, go all in and make it a dark movie. Not long after Jo has stormed off at the brink of tears, she's sitting around the pool, chatting with those same "friends" who would rather make her their scapegoat so they can go to prom.

Yet, I might—might—forgive all of the above. That is until time comes for the first kill and we see Mr. Bob Fix-it working on a lawnmower, but he has the wrong wrench size. So he walks out of the room, across the hall, into another room to fetch another wrench. Personally, I'd have the toolbox next to me, but never mind. He hears some funny sounds coming from down the hall, goes to investigate, and … it's just the French chef in the john. So, false scare over with, Bob goes back to his lawnmower and, again, wrong wrench size. Back out of the corridor, into the other room, into the toolbox, and he comes back with another wrench. As he returns to the lawnmower, we see a pair of garden sheers following him. And what's supporting these garden sheers? Why, a snake-like cluster of wires and cables. Goodbye suspension of disbelief, and goodbye any chance of overlooking premise/character shortcomings.

I hesitate to mention this, but clearly director Michael Hamilton Wright intended to pay tribute to the much superior garden sheer scene in William Peter Blatty's Exorcist III (itself, a much superior film, incidentally.) And so goes the long parade of ideas either ill-conceived (synchronized escape from the evil security cameras? the "snowflake" analogies? the "hip" slang and "Scream" explanations the Mangler 2.0 virus has picked up?) or ill-executed (a murder in the dark, illuminated only by the brief inadequate flash of a still shot camera? the murder by hanging that shows only bikini bottoms?) It all leads up to the underwhelming climax featuring an uninspired nod to Hellbound: Hellraiser 2 (reminding us, yet again, there are better time investments within the very same genre.) It's funny how when a competent director quotes another movie within his own, the attentive viewer will pick up on it and smile appreciatively. In the case of Mangler 2, it feels like Michael Hamilton Wright is physically molesting the memory of better movies.


Epic without a direction
Pauline Kael infamously wrote of Star Wars, "it's an epic without a dream." While inappropriate for Lucas' 1977 film, it certainly holds true of Peter Yates' Krull, a nonsensical sci-fi fantasy hybrid which indulges in the superficial aspects of both genres without tapping into the common heart of either.

We start with a Stars Warsesque opening where a vast ship moves across the frame. A ship that much resembles a strange rock formation like, say, a mountain. And while this mountain/spacecraft lands, a voice-over invokes the fantasy genre with a prophecy of a Prince who shall defeat the intruders, slay the beast, save his bride, and their son shall rule the galaxy.

Thus begins the formula: Prince + Mentor + Princess to be Saved + Ragtag group of unlikely allies + Monstrous Villain = Fantasy (throw in rotoscoped lasers, and voila: Sci-fi.) Now, I don't have any problem with said formula if said film can convince me to suspend my disbelief for it. Who is the Prince we're supposed to follow? Who is the Bride he's supposed to save? Why should I give a damn about them? I do not need (nor do I expect) full blown character bios and witty Shakespearian asides, but at least give me interesting little character quirks to separate these people from every single bland-to-mediocre fantasy novel, every single fantasy video games, and every single D&D campaign I've ever played.

Give me characters with conviction.

Unfortunately, everything exists to satisfy the formula, and the movie almost never takes a step further. The prince embarks on his epic quest to gain the glaive, find the seer, track down the fire mares, and engage the black fortress with an adventure loving smile … nevermind that the villains have his bride and are doing God knows what to her. The mentor imparts no wisdom upon the young hero, rather, exists to connect the dots and keep the plot moving by informing everyone where to go next. When the villainous slayers die, a strange creature bursts from their skulls and burrow themselves into the ground, but no one questions what they are or why this happens. The beast kidnapped the young bride for the sake of kidnapping the bride (why the hell do they care about this planet to begin with, anyway?).

Yates introduces a Cyclops, and sets up a potentially magnificent pathos – that these creatures long ago made a pact with the Beast to see the future. Betrayed, now all they can see is the moment of their own death. In passing, this Cyclops speaks of his curse, but the film never explores it. "I must stay here," he informs while everyone else rides on to the black fortress, but never does he state why he must stay there. Then a few minutes later, we see him riding to the rescue for an anti-climactic climax that carries the weight of a man deciding on decaf seconds before the 7/11 clerk pours his coffee.

The only character with any development and anything resembling pay off lay in the comic relief. Yes, Ergo, who describes himself as "Ergo the magnificent! Short in stature, tall in greatness, narrow in focus, and wide in vision." Early in the film, we see the extent of his magic as he shuffles through scraps of parchment, mumbling some arcane words, and presto! He magically changed … himself into a goose. Over the course of the movie, he buddies up with a depressed young boy who lost his father figure. The boy says if he could have anything in the world, he'd want a puppy. So on the road, Ergo turn himself into a cute little beagle, and the boy is delighted. Later on, the two are trapped (inexplicably abandoned by the Prince) with Slayers approaching. Ergo changes himself into a tiger, and strangely steals the sympathy right out from under Prince-what's-his-name who left them both to die.

Yes, the Prince flat out abandoned his companion and a small boy, and the scene doesn't bother conveying a sense of loss. The prince starts to go after them, but when it's apparent he'd be trapped with them he hops out of the hole so fast you can almost hear the MST3K crew throwing out the line, "Eh, screw this!" Is this prince going to tackle rescuing his princess with that level of commitment? What about their marriage? Some happily ever after.

Since the film fails so epically on the character level, one can't help but notice the premise's absurdity. Medieval knights will fend off enemies capable of space flight. The bad guys, the Slayers, slowly approach with spears that fire off long range energy projectiles, and then when close these stiff and stilted creatures then use their spears as melee weapons. Why not just stand back and fire until everything is dead? And why have they mastered spaceflight, but not – I dunno – cannons? Heat rays? Atomic and biochemical weaponry?

That's not to say Krull entirely lacks any redeeming features. Quite the contrary, when the character's actions take a backseat to show off Peter Suschitzky's breathtaking photography of magnificent landscapes, and when the lifeless dialog yields to James Horner's primitive (but charming) score, Krull stands with the best cinematic experiences.

It's strangely ironic that Krull is strongest, most riveting, and most inviting when the characters shut up, fade into the background, and just move from point A to point B.

BloodRayne II: Deliverance

Wiener Schnitzel Western?
The original BloodRayne opened with a promising montage and effective establishing shots – it showed a flicker of hope before collapsing into a pile of mediocrity. This sequel opens with an uninspiring montage of faded photographs, it introduces a nails-on-a-chalkboard city boy writer who just arrived in the old west, and like its predecessor it goes downhill from there.

Like a baby learning to walk, Uwe Boll has taken a few unsteady steps away from blatantly ripping off better films in hopes that somehow a bit of Peter Jackson, Sam Raimi, and Michael Bay will rub off on him. Boll fell down, got scared, and ran back to his most primal instinct: leaching. Look out Sergio Leone, since this is a Western, guess who's next?

Contrary to what the credits say, the star of BloodRayne II: Deliverance is not Natassia Malthe who plays the titular character. No, the star is the Western clichés, themselves. All of them.

An outlaw, Billy the Kid, has gripped the poor town of Deliverance. A lone gunslinger (sword slinger?) Rayne rides into these desolate, dusty streets. The sheriff issues her a stern warnin' "not to cause trouble in these here parts. Sade don't like trouble." So Rayne moseys on over to the saloon where she runs into another outlaw, a rival. And they'll settle them thar differences over a game of cards. Yes, cards. Because even if evil vampiric Billy has kidnapped all the children as he holds a town hostage and builds an undead army, there's always time for five card draw.

Rayne whips out a four-of-a-kind (aces, no less) as all these films require, trumping her competition's full house. Of course, villains don't like losin', so they settle this civilized style with an ol' fashioned showdown at noon—er midnight, or … whenever. That thar Sheriff don't like that much, so he arrests Rayne and sentences her to hang but not before giving her time to make peace in the jail because no Western is complete without a jail scene. Naturally, the heroine is destined to escape and round up the magnificent seven – er, magnificent four – for the obligatory hero's walk down the main dusty road.

Clichés alone are not any reason to fire off criticism; however, when the plot is nothing more than a game of "connect the clichés" then you're asking for trouble. Compounding this, Uwe Boll decides to imitate the immortal The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly which is really asking for trouble.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is a fifteen minute plot sustained across three hours by the directorial virtuosity of Sergio Leone (helped immensely by the energizing and exhilarating score by Ennio Morricone.) That film is the ultimate triumph of style over substance.

While Uwe Boll can be a stylish director, he lacks any sense of discipline (or common sense for that matter.) Thus, Boll ripping off a movie that often flirts with overkill and parody (but knows when to stop) spells disaster.

Prime example: Good, Bad, and the Ugly draws out its final showdown with close ups of eyes, guns, and itchy trigger fingers. So BloodRayne II's finale is a dual narrative where Rayne's posse waltzes into a barn where Billy's posse awaits in the rafters with a small arsenal, meanwhile Rayne sets off a trap that threatens to hang the town's children. It's up to Rayne to hold the rope in place and keep the kids alive. Cut back to the barn, Rayne's posse of two stand around waiting to die, exchanging last moment quips and lighting up a cigarette at a leisurely pace while a redundant tragic motive whines like a dying coyote in the soundtrack. Cut back to Rayne still holding the rope while Billy gets up to give a villain's speech. Cut back to the posse, they're being told to turn around for the tenth time. Cut back to Billy, he still hasn't shut up yet, and Rayne still stands there holding the rope while the shortest of the brats hangs and dies (then Billy feeds on him.)

On their own, either scenario is painfully drawn out; together, they're unbearable. Oh, and now we're cutting over to the townsfolks and city boy who are arguing whether or not they should get involved. Two people run outside, one gets shot, the other runs back inside. More talk ensues. Wonderful.

Someone – anyone – for the love of God do something meaningful.

But the greatest sin is how poorly the titular character is handled. Rayne is pathetic. She beats one outlaw just fine, and then magically turns into the most worthless action hero ever. The sheriff bops her on the head, and she's out cold. She escapes the gallows, dives into the river, bad guys shoot in her general direction, and when she surfaces she's on the brink of death (nope, we never see any bullets actually hitting her either.) During the film's climactic confrontation, Billy gets bored of fighting Rayne with his letter openers and decides to beat the living crap out of Rayne with his bare fists in front of the villagers – villagers who two seconds ago vowed to make a stand … standing on the porch, watching Billy hold Rayne up with one hand, repeatedly punching her in the face with the other.

Rayne, you know those blades you've kept on your back through the whole movie? You might try using them.

It's nice to see an action movie willing to hurt it's hero, and even nicer that it's brutal in the beating, but an action movie's hero still needs to be tough. Bruce Willis got ripped apart in the first Die Hard, and the Predatory beat the hell out of Arnold Schwarzennegar … but Arnold and Bruce also fought back.

Rayne just stands there and bleeds. I guess that explains the title.

Saw II

If it would just shut up, I might have enjoyed it
Well, I didn't much care for the original film; however, I had a glimmer of hope for the sequel. I felt the original lacked ambition as though it just ran through the motions (and did a pretty damn good job of running through said motions) but ultimately didn't deliver anything new. Superficial? Sure. Genuine? No.

Saw II commits my ultimate pet-peeve of horror sequels. It explains … and explains … and explains. Great, we get it. The Jigsaw killer does what he does to make people appreciate their life. Did you see what I just did? I explained the entirety of the Jigsaw's motive in a single sentence. Saw II spends the bulk of its running time explaining that one sentence. And you know what? I distinctly remember the first Saw over-explaining how technically the Jigsaw has never pulled the trigger himself, yadda, yadda, yadda.

Honestly, who gives a damn about John the Jigsaw being a cancer patient and his attempted suicide when there's poisoned characters running around through a trap-filled house looking for the antidote? When one of these characters is a complete psychopathic nutcase who will inevitably snap and start killing everyone else (a la Cube)? It's great that the villain isn't a faceless killing machine, and indeed Tobin Bell brings great charisma to the mastermind role (side note: he might be the only character in the film with charisma). It's great that he has an actual motive and a logic behind what he does (regardless of how warped said logic may be.) That makes Saw II all the more depressing. It's not that the writers did not give their killer a reason, it's the fact they don't know when to shut up about it.

What's the point of that expository montage at the end when the entire movie is an elongated expository montage? I know, I know – it's not supposed to be great literature. Cut it some slack for at least trying, right? Well, if a die-hard fan has made it this far before clicking "No, this review was not helpful" out of spite, then here's the good news: this ain't no sissy PG13 "horror" flick. Saw II knows exactly who its fans are, and delivers the gore along with scenarios that make the squirm-inducing original look like a day at the spa. From the thought of someone cutting open their own eye, to a pit full of syringes, to a character cutting off a large chunk of his own flesh, again Saw II delivers the bloody goods. And here's a bonus: most of the trapped characters hits those annoying archetypes the scenario demands, making their deaths all the more satisfying.

Also to its credit – Saw II is slick and polished, but at the end of the day all Saw II has done for horror is trade in the 80s-naivety/motiveless killers gimmick and the 90s hyper-self aware "Scream" rip off gimmick for the current fad: the trendier over-explained "gotcha" twist ending gimmick.

And, who knows, maybe I wouldn't be complaining too much if the film would have actually, you know, surprised me. Then again, the first Saw actually did surprise me, and I still wasn't impressed. Oh well…

Day of the Dead

Well, it didn't disappoint, but …
I admit it. I had it in for this film early on. No, not because it's a remake of the Romero zombie flick. The words "A Steve Miner Film" popped up on the screen, and I was tempted to switch the movie off right then and there. With the exception of Warlock, the guy has basically directed the same horror film for 20 years. Then my misplaced optimism kicked in, "Give him another chance. You've found some gems in unlikely places. After all, you hated Romero's Day up until the very end when it blasted you with genius and completely reversed your opinion." Okay, okay, fine.

And so the film opens with two young couples making out in some backwoods cabin not unlike the trademarks of some other movies Steve Miner has directed. You might have heard of them. They're called "Friday the 13th parts 2 and 3." Zombies meet cheesy 80s slasher clichés? Uh, huh. At this point I banged my head against my laptop's keyboard and muttered, "I hate being right." Again, the temptation to axe the Netflix stream beckoned for me. The movie has made its thesis statement – it's declared it's intentions – and it's planning on indulging in my pet peeves within the genre.

Turn it off, Jay! Make everyone happy! Why, oh why, keep watching a movie you know you'll hate? Answer: sometimes in genre crap you find something special. Like Sleepaway Camp 2, April Fool's Day, and Wolf Creek. Optimism must prevail ... even if I am a pessimist.

Thus, I descended into a small town on the brink of a zombie epidemic. A long line of cars await at a blockade, trying to escape a quarantine. Many people have fallen ill, an ominous sign in this genre. A few wandering corpses litter the forest and dark alleys. But the full blown undead outbreak has yet to occur, and I couldn't help but wonder, "why not take a cue from Romero, and just start the movie post-zombie apocalypse?" I mean, what part of discovering a zombie infestation is still interesting? Nevermind.

We meet Sarah, played by the petite Mena Suvari whose acting ability might be able to convince us this blond bright eyed woman has not only been through boot camp but is a commanding officer if only the script didn't undermine her performance with lines that suggest she's a still a little girl in high school. Then there's Nick Canon, whose acting talent has no prayer of convincing us that he would have survived basic training with his "gangsta bad self" attitude. Nick, I hope the zombie of Lucio Fulci bites your testicles off and eats them. Don't worry, though, you'll have company because the staple dorky white vegetarian played by Stark Sands really needs a violent castration too.

But what am I saying? That would be creative gore. It's not like a movie like this would have the balls to – oh wow, a zombie just ate his own eye. Huh. Okay, maybe an appropriate gruesome end will befall them after all.

Films of these nature require at least one scene of utter undead chaos, and Day of the Dead sets up the bulk of its carnage in a hospital where all the zombies-to-be have congregated. As the mayhem revved up and zombies went wild on the survivors with the frenzied intensity of an epileptic seizure enhanced by an LCD overdose, I couldn't help but notice the uncanny resemblances to the genre crap parodied by Robert Rodriguez's half of the GrindHouse doublebill. Then it struck me: this movie would be an absolute blast if it had a sense of humor. What's that? A vegetarian Zombie? Right. Give me sec so I can revise my previous statement: "this movie would be an absolute blast if it had a *good* sense of humor." (and a chick with a gun for a leg couldn't hurt either.)

For the climax of the film, the leftover fodder descend into an underground lab for the obligatory explanation behind the current situation. Cool. Now I know a scientific experiment went awry causing all this chaos. Thanks. But, I don't suppose there's also an explanation as to how this lab can go unnoticed under a seemingly secluded building in the middle of the woods where kids dare each other to enter so they can spy on big brother and his girlfriend who come here for sex all the time.

Believe it or not, there is such a thing as being an optimistic pessimist – someone who continues to watch out of hope while knowing it's only a matter of time before Super Zombie shows up to do battle with the hormonal Veggie-burger Zombie. Of course, you probably know us optimistic pessimists by our more common title: morons.


Bite me again, Junebug
Every so often I have to completely shut down my movie intake to preserve my enthusiasm for the medium. It's not that I expect consistent high art, deep existential narratives, and labyrinthine complex characters and am frequently let down. I enjoy great trash as much as the next guy. But after awhile the sameness of mainstream cinema just gets to me. The feeling that I've seen this movie before. That I can look down at a stopwatch and recite verbatim the events as they unfolds on screen without ever actually observing them.

The feeling of "Why am I watching this movie?"

Perhaps that's why I react so strongly to films like Juno who, like it's quasi-animated opening credits, strolls along on a whim at its own quirky pace while downing a jug of SunnyD. Sure, like all stories, there's a conflict, complications, and a resolution, but Juno does so while whistling to its own goofy guitar riffs and gets to the inevitable destination whenever it feels like it with refreshingly little fanfare. So let me grab my guitar, a 64oz blue slushie, and a vase to throw up in, and we'll get this review under way.

The film understands a fundamental principle of human nature that many formulaic tear-jerker fail to get – that grandiose posturing doesn't necessarily resonate with the audience, nor does it capture the imagination. We've heard that song and dance before, and because of blatant whoring and oversaturation, we now dial it out. But those weird and awkward tidbits? Those freaky bits of nonsense trivia? Those are the things that make us stop and ask, "say what?" Soon after discovering her pregnancy, Juno goes to an abortion clinic where she runs into a classmate protesting, chanting the Pro-Life agenda – how babies have hearts and feelings, yadda, yadda, yadda. Juno sighs, rolls her eyes, and presses on. And, you know what? Babies have fingernails too. Now Juno pauses, furrows her brow and turns around, "fingernails?" Then suddenly, everywhere she looks, those blasted fingernails haunt her, scratching at her, rapping on a noisy surface impatiently just to p*ss her off.

This scene and Juno's decision to keep the child rolls by without letting the pro-life/pro-choice debate dominate the narrative. It carries the appropriate weight it should for a girl in her shoes, but never stoops to propaganda for one side or the other. It's a part of Juno's story, it helps shapes who she is, thus it's an unavoidable tangent handled with grace and subtlety.

Going on the hunt to find adoptive parents, I expected Juno to interview a number of potential parents in that obligatory montage of freaky-rific, hill-billy-tastic, and spaz-happy couples that these movies seem to require. It never came. Instead, her and a friend read through personal ads, dismissing the prospective parents as though deciding what CD they're in the mood for, and then Juno comes across Mark and Vanessa. That's it. That's the couple. Can we get some happily ever after music? What? Still have to go through with the rest of the movie? Okay, fine.

As Juno and her dear old dad drive out to meet the aspiring parents, we detect something amiss as we see towels and cuff-links straightened, magazines strategically laid out on the coffee table, and an obsessive compulsive attention to tidiness. It resonates with almost sinister intentions like the pair are hiding something, and this feeling underscores the narrative through the following conflicts.

Though impressed in general, none of these efforts really resonate with Juno ... until she spots a Les Paul tucked away in another room. I watched with fascination as a connection bloomed between Juno and Mark during their brief jam session. That is before obsessive-compulsive Vanessa breaks up the party. The seeds of that friendship further develop when Juno stops by to show off her ultra-sound, and she gets into a discussion with Mark whether Argento or Gordon reigns as the grandmaster of horror. It's not the relationship one would expect from a man and woman spending time with each other in one of these films, rather a kinship. She treats Mark like a strange cross between a father and a best friend and really wants her child to be with this pair because they're more mature than she is (they're old, after all) and, hey, this guy has good taste.

Hanging out in a mall, the film defied my expectations again. Juno spots Vanessa shopping with some friends who happen to have children of their own. Juno curiously looks on, watching this woman interact with kids. No doubt hoping to get a hint of how Vanessa will treat her baby. Every moment we've seen Vanessa, we've seen only a presentation, a façade which is inherently suspicious. Through Mark, we've seen signs of Vanessa's imperfections and hints to her tyrannical reign over his life. But now Juno can see her outside of the meticulously constructed illusion. Now Juno can observe who Vanessa really is.

I honestly expected to see a cruel woman with no patience, an evil control freak who makes kids screech with misery when they don't abide by her will. As Juno watches, though, we see a woman radiating with affection, and we realize that Vanessa's misguided efforts to paint a perfect household were the work of a woman who truly believes she was born to be a mom. A woman desperate for motherhood. She'll make mistakes, but she'll learn from them. She's a woman who will give this thing her all.

The plot eventually brings Juno and Mark together in a scene where conversation leads from comic books to music and they wind up slow dancing to a song played at Mark's prom. And I thought to myself, "You know, in a lesser movie Vanesse would walk in on these two, see them in each other's arms, and interpret it as something it's not."

She didn't.

Dreamfall: The Longest Journey

...is but a dream within a dream.
Like those nights when you lie in bed and sleep lingers just beyond your grasp, Dreamfall's appeal remains elusive. The camera has a mind of its own and requires some adjustments in the option's menu; the battle and stealth mechanics feel awkward and terribly primitive but, strangely enough, appropriate considering this is neither a battle nor stealth based game (and it also helps that said mechanics rarely come into play.)

Then as slumber finally slithers around your consciousness and takes hold, the charms of the Longest Journey's sequel are unveiled like the unknowing surrender to a dream. After a cameo appearance of Bryan Westhouse in the prologue, we're introduced to young Zoe Castillo, college dropout extraordinaire whose sexy British accent is music to listen to (provided by Ellie Conrad-Leigh). Lost in the monotony of daily routines – same faces, same places, no direction – what's the point of it all? Zoe gives in more and more to apathy, lamenting that she's not seen some of her friends in ages because she doesn't feel like making the trip … and she hates herself for it.

After the obligatory introduction to Zoe's home, Casablanca, fate offers her a road to redemption when her good friend Reza, an investigative reporter, vanishes. She vows to find him no matter what the cost. "I may not like the Zoe I'm becoming," she tells one of Reza's contacts, "but I couldn't live with the Zoe who does nothing when her friends need her." What draws me to Zoe and makes her one of my favorite characters across any narrative medium is how she touches both a negative archetype of the spoiled rich girl who has everything, and she simultaneously embodies the spirit of the poor everyman who refuses to surrender. She has everything, yes, but if you look beyond superficial materialism, you see she has nothing.

Zoe can walk away at any time and continue her comfortable lifestyle, but instead she chooses to fight her descent into irredeemable lethargy, she chooses to take the reigns of her life back from autopilot, she chooses to make a stand. And, being a spoiled rich girl with no obligations, she has both the time and the resources to travel to hell and back. If that's what it takes to save Reza – and, in doing so, save herself – then so be it.

Reza's trail leads her to Newport Venice with familiar faces in familiar places for TLJ fans – Charlie, Emma, the Border House, and the Fringe. Then it's across the divide to the wintry landscape of the magical parallel realm, Arcadia, where I found myself on the edge of my seat waiting for the heroines of Dreamfall and Longest Journey to meet face to face. I would not be disappointed. Sarah Hamilton reprises her role as April Ryan, and hearing her voice again after eight years I marveled how vividly I remembered this character. Her voice brought a stream of nostalgia that made me want to replay Ms. Ryan's original adventure.

The veteran shifter assists Zoe in returning to Stark where she can continue her search for Reza. Meanwhile, the narrative changes hands to April Ryan who goes on to investigate a brewing conspiracy in Arcadia while dealing with her own emotional turmoils (saving the twin worlds takes its toll on a girl, you know.) Their journeys bring both women to dungeons they must explore alone in their respective worlds – Zoe into a secret underground lab, April into ancient ruins of a forgotten civilization. The narrative masterfully cuts between them, revealing through juxtaposition that both dungeons are linked – that the threat in Stark has a mirror image in Arcadia – yet the game never answers how.

With the return of April also comes the return of the lovable sidekick, Crow (again voiced by Roger Raines). And, yes, he's still got the gift of the gab. "My beak is a finely tuned instrument of love." He tells Zoe, "When I speak, girls tremble … also guys. Guys tremble too, but not in the same way." And it was almost magical to see April and Crow's silhouette against a shift again as they visited familiar territory straight out of key scenes in The Longest Journey, and again I found myself longing to revisit the original game.

Like its predecessor, Dreamfall assembles a colorful cast of characters, somewhat toned down from TLJ; however, they better suit Dreamfall's darker vibe. That's not to say Dreamfall is lacking in amusing exchanges – the Chinaman, the wonderful-fantastic Spice Merchant, Theoretically Blind Bob, and a cameo from Roper F Klacks, himself. But Dreamfall has another, bleaker, agenda.

Despite a few brief detours with April, Dreamfall is Zoe's tale to the point that even the game mechanics take a backseat to her development and storyline. So it's only appropriate to return to our heroine and discuss what makes this dramatic narrative work so well: Zoe's vulnerability. She's still a lost soul, a college dropout, up against worlds-spanning corporate conspiracies. When Zoe discovers a blood-splattered room, or when armed guards chase after Zoe, the danger resonates more vividly because she's not a Lara Croft or a BloodRayne. If they catch her, she's screwed. Game over.

Make no mistake though – Zoe may be vulnerable, but she is not helpless. Throughout the game, Zoe will call upon her wits, her charms, and (every once in awhile) her fists to get herself out of a bind. Because she's not helpless, she chooses to embark on this journey despite her weaknesses, despite being way out of her league, despite the apparent hopelessness of the task.

Little rich girl Zoe Castillo chooses to fight. For Reza. For herself.

The Longest Journey

Awesomeness, thy name is April
Twas the Spring of 2001. I'd not played an Adventure game since 1995's Phantasmagoria, and I'd had enough walking around, clicking on items, solving obscure nonsensical puzzles to last me a lifetime. It was fun while it lasted, but good bye Adventure games. Good riddance. Have a nice life, and don't call me.

By chance (or was it fate?) I ran across a friend playing The Longest Journey. A quick glance at the interface revealed the genre and immediately turned my interest away … and then April Ryan, the protagonist, spoke, "Storm clouds. Even the weather sucks in my dreams. I feel so charmed." Whoa, a cynical smart ass heroine? Okay, okay, April. You have my attention. Let's see what you got.

I began TLJ just to ride along with Ms Ryan so I could listen to her commentary (delivered with style and flair by Sarah Hamilton), but she was just the hook. And soon she drew me into a classical story arc supported by quirky colorful (not to mention frickin' hilarious) characters, environments that provide their own sly social commentaries on our world, and the Adventure game's knack for, um, "creative" uses of the mundane.

The Longest Journey spans two parallel worlds, one of a magic and one of science – a clever device used to bring the realms of science fiction and fantasy together in a single game. April discovers that she is a "shifter", possessing the ability to cross between worlds to embark on the titular journey. Yes, it's the age old tale of a protagonist who, guided by a mentor, is destined for glory. Predictable and overused as this formula may be, I can't help but marvel at the power it still wields when done right.

In Stark, the sci-fi half of the game, April encounters scenery reminiscent of Blade Runner (Metro Circle), a car alarm that informs her "I've just been charged with a *bleep* load of electricity – touch me again, and you're toast!" She gets trapped in a bureaucratic hell of Union rules, mundane paperwork, and secretaries who don't want to deal with her … and yes, she accurately voices our frustration (in an appropriate vocabulary, to boot!). Eventually, the conflict will lead her from her humble beginnings as an art student into a conspiracy involving a megacorporation aiming for world domination. After all, it wouldn't be an epic without an empire in there somewhere, now would it?

Over in Arcadia, the fantasy half of the game, our heroine encounters a scene right out of Hanzel and Gretel, the Venar who exist in all moments of their life simultaneously giving their speech serious grammatical problems regarding proper tense, stickmen who want to follow the cow over the moon, and, of course, an evil Wizard. And every single one of these memorable characters can go toe to toe with April's wit. Facing Roper Klacks, the powerful Wizard (Alchemist, whatever), April, utterly powerless against him, remarks, "Oh yeah? Uh, I can pull a rabbit out of a hat!" Klacks answers, "I can pull a hat out of a rabbit. What's your point?"

Even throwaway characters like the map's merchant makes his mark, giving April the most convoluted directions imaginable like something out of a Monty Python skit.

No review of TLJ would be complete without dedicating a paragraph to the greatest VG sidekick of all time: Crow, the talking bird (a real lady's man, er, bird) who shoots his beak off faster than his small brain can keep up with, which in turn gives us a character who is paradoxically savvy and naïve at the same time (voiced to perfection by Roger Raines.) "We can't help them!" Crow protests, "They're savages! They eat birds!" April informs, "Crow, I eat birds. You probably do too." "Yeah, I do love roast duck in a tangy … okay, I see your point."

Both worlds are deliciously tongue-in-cheek, but not outright goofy. Rather, the humor builds a common foundation – dare I say camaraderie? – between April and the gamer (particularly towards the first half of the game.) But pay attention as the story progresses, watch as the narrative subtly drifts to a more somber tone, and observe how much more deeply these later moments resonate. This allows the game to remain an intimate tale despite its epic scope. April's path, she is told, leads through both greatness and tragedy, and as we journey with April, we learn the price destiny requires her to pay … and we almost don't want her to make that sacrifice. She doesn't deserve this fate. Because we've laughed with her, we'll want to cry for her.

I've mentioned the great voice work by Sarah Hamilton and Roger Raines, but believe me it doesn't stop there. The quality of the voicework is unprecedented, and the consistency phenomenal – Ralph Byers as the eccentric Roper Klacks and the drunk Bryan Westhouse, Andrew Donnelly as crazy genius "the Flipper", Jeff Meller as the Maps Merchant and Abnaxus of the Venar to name a few. To date, The Longest Journey hands down has the best voice acting of any game I've ever played.

If I had to level a complaint against TLJ, I would have to say the prerendered movies leave something to be desired. While the in game graphics and character models are fine – the prerendered backgrounds, stunning in their design and execution (not to mention full of life with little touches such as animated water, characters moving about, signs blinking, and cars zooming by) – the prerendered movies, land in uncanny valley territory (especially in regards to the characters.) Close, but not quite.

I guess I could complain about some of the illogical puzzles, but I knew that was coming from the get go – this is an adventure game, after all. However, April Ryan's feminine charms and no BS attitude made up for the genre's inherent frustrations. Hail to the Queen, baby.

Mass Effect

The game for Sci-fi geeks.
ME combines the spectacle of Space Opera with the explorative spirit of Science Fiction.

The game is laced with little touches to make us fans smile – casting genre legend Lance Hendriksen (Bishop, from Aliens) as Admiral Hackett, presenting narrative parallels between Prothean beacons and the monoliths in 2001, and let's not forget the Thorian. Sci-fi has often explored the concept of plant life that challenges our ideas of what a plant's characteristics are. Oh yeah, and the Thorian has the ability to control people … an indirect nod to Invasion of the Body Snatchers? The makers of ME knew their genre.

And how about weapons named after Chess Champions? Don't make me break out my Karpov ...

In addition, ME's world sports little spices of realism that makes this future feel like a genuine possibility for our world. For example, the alliance uses naval terminology for interstellar travel even though the setting renders the words obsolete ("shore" party?). There's also a consistent naming scheme for Alliance vessels (named after significant battles). Our ship? The best in fleet? It gets named after the most significant battle in human history – The Normandy.

The universe is populated by some colorful alien races like the Elcor who speak in an eternal monotone, Solarians with an upside-down blink (the lower eye-lid is the more articulate lid), the Volus completely enclosed in space suits due to the living on low pressure worlds, the insect-like Rachni deliver a delightful homage to the Alien franchise while exploring Novaria.

Then throw in a codex where, if a player cares, they can find explanations that approach HG Wells levels of detail – things like why you never run out of ammo, to history of the various alien races, to stupid little pieces of trivia. If the player does not care, they can safely ignore it. There will be no quiz later.

While the setting is firmly established in the realm of Science Fiction, the story and presentation is distilled Space Opera. You take control of Commander Shepherd, an established hero in the human world about to make his mark on the intergalactic stage. A newly inducted "Spectre", you're charged with hunting down the traitorous rogue, Saren. The odds are stacked against you, and the fate of all sentient life hangs in the balance. May the force be with you.

As for the gameplay: you wander around the outposts racking up Mission Objectives and Side Quests ala any other RPG in existence. Mass Effect contains barely a handful of friendly outposts (located exclusively on Mission worlds), which is a plus in my book. I never liked needle-in-a-haystack RPGs. The combat side of the game is divided between the landrover vehicle named "Mako" (which the controls and the camera do not like) and battles on foot. Both take place in pause-able real time.

It's not that the Mako is unplayable, but it very noticeably lacks the precision you would expect. A simple task like driving out from behind cover, firing, and returning to cover is far more difficult than it needs to be. Also, when you have the main cannon's scope engaged, it's not uncommon to drive into an obstacle, nearly flipping the whole Mako over while Geth Armitures bombard you. Can't someone else drive while I aim and fire? I mean, c'mon Bioware, in this same game I can get Ashley and Garrus to charge into an ambush, Ashley lay down suppressive fire and use her Immunity ability to soak up more damage while Garrus Sabotages the enemy's Weaponry rendering them temporarily useless all while I bombard them with Singularity fields from a distance … can't we get some basic coordination going in the Mako?

Anyway, Mass Effect lacks the flashiness of, say Final Fantasy's magic and summons, but there is a certain charm to "Lift" which simply elevates an enemy into the air so you and your allies can fill them full of lead. "Just call me Darth Shepherd." And there's something satisfying about using "Throw" to push two Krogans over a railing to their deaths when you're standing 20 feet away. Or use AI Hacking to turn drones against each other.

As much fun as I had with Biotics and Tech abilities, I most enjoyed taking out a Mercenary Camp from a distant hill with the Sniper Rifle. A close second would be standing in the middle of a field with said Sniper Rifle while zombies (Thorian Creepers, whatever) raced towards me. "Run Forest!" Kaboom! "Aw, so close …"

On the negative side, inventory is a royal pain in the ass. Like other games in the genre, you outfit not just yourself but the rest of your team, and the amount of loot you acquire can make this a tedious and time consuming task made worse by some downright stupid menu behavior. For example, let's say you open a crate and find out you've exceeded the 150 item limit. Well, you're stuck in that window until you reduce that loot to omni-gels (essentially, destroying the items you just acquired.) Why can't I waste older, cheaper, and less effective crap? Or here's an idea – why can't I leave this new crap in the crate where I found it and come back later?

Also, while the main objectives take place on unique world with their own specific landscapes and features, all of the side quests feel like copy and pastes of one another. All the worlds have painfully similar terrain, the only difference being the color of the sky and the color of the ground. Same goes for the explore-able structures on the worlds – exact same building, exact same furniture … only the furniture is in different places. Hello monotony.

Oh well, minor complaints. It wasn't enough to stop me from immediately replaying it … and I haven't done that since Chrono Trigger thirteen years ago. Take that for what it's worth.

Dead or Alive 4

How to kill a good fighting game
DOA4 is the tragic case of a spectacular fighting game whose single player modes completely and utterly ruin the entire experience. Unless you A.) are a hardcore veteran of the DOA world, B.) have friends who play the game and/or play online. Or C.) enjoy learning by the "if you don't have perfect timing and execution, I will smash your face in with a baseball bat" school of teaching, then you might want to find something more worthwhile to do with your money (like using it as suppositories for your pets, for example.)

In fighting game's past, the player was presented with six to eight difficulty options. Dead or Alive 4 has three options, and on "Normal" (the easiest) you can expect to be stunned, staggered, popped up, juggled for a nine hit combo, slammed into the wall twice and 75% of your life is gone. When you get up to retaliate, assuming you make it up, you can expect the AI to counter your attack, putting you right back down on the ground. Meanwhile, it plays a mean mix-up game making it nigh impossible to counter them.

And once you dredge through seven matches of fighting game hell, you might get the privilege of facing Alpha-152 who can teleport out of range of the first hit of your combo into the path of the second hit and teleport out of range (again) where she counters. That counter? It takes off 75% of your health. No, I'm not exaggerating. Her teleports also have a knack for throwing off your button input, which really doesn't matter because she teleported off camera and punishes you before you can even see where she went (much less have time to retaliate.) In other words, there is no conceivable way Alpha-152 could lose unless you get lucky.

And that's how the entire single player experience feels. A game of luck. Forget skill, forget timing, forget mixing up high/mids/lows, punches/kicks. If the computer wants to counter you, it will. If it doesn't, you might win. Might. Do you feel lucky, punk? Oh, and by the way, much of the unlocking involves beating this insane Russian roulette of a challenge multiple times per character.

That's all fine and dandy for veterans of the series looking for steeper competition from the easy AI of DOA's past, but um, Team Ninja … what about those of us who have to work out the cobwebs from when we last played DOA half a decade ago? Or what about people just coming to the series cold? Team Ninja's answer is apparently for the rest of us to "F*** off."

Now be careful because I'm not complaining about the difficulty – I'm complaining about the lack of a choice. Again, challenge is nice. There's nothing wrong with a challenge. But to take away the freedom of meeting said challenge when the player is ready? That is unforgivable for a fighting game.

DOA4's lack of a choice and it's "challenge" had an interesting side-effect: for the first time in my fighting game career I actually cared that the endings are irrelevant animated anecdotes that have nothing to do with the, ahem, "story." I'll accept a laughable excuse for a plot – read my review of Symphony of the Night or Soul Calibur IV for proof. But, Tecmo, if I have to give up part of my soul to beat your frickin' game, you better deliver more than half-assed endings and a stupid bonus costume.

It pains me to write a review so negative. It really does. I do like the franchise and, as stated in the first paragraph, it is a spectacular, fast paced, fighting game.

One of the major standouts of the DOA series is the detailed interactive environments – environments so well done they actually overshadow the character models. Not only can you smash your opponent into a wall, send them flying through a window, falling from a narrow rope bridge, or tumbling down a flight of steps – now you can also knock them over furniture, railings, or a street median … and then jump over and drop kick them as they get up. Oh, and now environment can finally hit back – most notably on a city street where drivers aren't afraid to plow through pedestrians or combatants (10 points for nailing a pedestrian, 50 points for a combatant, and infinity points to run down the SOB who thought Alpha-152 was a good idea.)

Initially, you get control of sixteen colorful characters, including wrestlers (Bass, Tina), street brawlers (Bayman), ninjas (Hayabuse, Kasumi, Ayane), the obligatory Bruce Lee impersonator (Jan Lee), an assassin (Christie), and a bit of everything. As per fighting game tradition, the roster expands as you endure story mode time and time again, opening up Ein, Helena, Leon, Gen-Fu, Tengu, and a Halo cameo. While the environments are spectacular, the character models all look like animated figurines and not flesh and blood characters. They're okay, but it's hardly the graphical step up a next gen system's fighter could take.

As much as I like the fighting engine. I absolute despise the god-awful one-player experience. I can't say it enough. It ruins the game. If DOA4 did not have an online mode, it would not be worth your time. Much less your money.

Street Fighter III: Third Strike - Fight for the Future

Still my favorite 2D fighter.
Note: this review applies only to Third Strike.

I must confess, there are aspects of it that I hate. Let's get those out of the way first – I loath this game's hip-hop score to the point that I have it completely disabled. And as much as I did not care for the similarly hip-hop-ish announcer either, I have to admit he's nowhere near as annoying as, say, Alpha 3's salesman recording on crack … or Super SF2's oblivious and upbeat optimist for that matter. Neither the music nor the announcer bother me enough to knock it down a peg on the rating scale – the core of SFIII is a fighting game, and it's being reviewed as a fighting game (not a jukebox) – however it is worth mentioning.

More negatives (this one actually pertinent to the fighting):Gil, the red and blue / fire and ice final boss. More specifically his rainbow-of-death Super Art, which takes away about a quarter of your life *if you block.* And let's not forget the counter-able, but still irritating "Resurrection" SA which gives him a second shot at the round with anywhere from a quarter to a full life bar (I advise learning how to preempt this SA to actually be able to beat Gil.) Neither SA would be too big of an issue if the AI didn't read your button input and counter appropriately (I also advise learning the art of parrying before jumping in) … and even that wouldn't be a problem if he didn't have 2nd best range, and 4th best speed … and even *that* wouldn't be a problem if he didn't have highest priority, and supreme damage, and – sorry, Capcom, I thought ridiculously overpowered bosses was SNK's territory?

Nevermind. On to the positives: After releasing five iterations of Street Fighter 2, Capcom took the hint and came through with a unique new fighting game. Not a retread (gasp). A new fighting game. It has its roots in Street Fighter, don't get me wrong (shotos are still around, unfortunately), but the subtleties in the game mechanics are worlds apart from its predecessor(s).

Enter the parry system, which all but defeats the snooze-fest fireball wars of fighting game's past. Tap forward on the joystick the moment an attack (or fireball) is about to hit, and voilà! A parry. You take no damage, your super-meter fills up and their's does not. Now you actually have to use fireballs strategically. For example: jumping in with Akuma, tossing out an air hadouken, and then performing a crouching forward as soon as you land. The air hadouken and low attack will come roughly at the same time – will your opponent defend against them in the right order and be able to time both defenses? And if the crouching forward lands, you can unleash the Instant Hell Murder (or "Raging Demon" as it is erroneously referred to.) But standing across the screen tossing fireball after fireball will get you nowhere.

SSF2T introduced overhead attacks to hit the crouching turtle's all but unbreakable blocks, and SFIII continues the tradition which keeps mindless turtles on the losing end of the fight where they belong assuming their opponent has a good mix-up game. Crouching attacks defeat standing guards, overheads and air attacks defeat crouching guards, and thus monotony gets punished.

Third Strike brings the SFIII character roster up to twenty diverse and mostly unique characters, and even though a few bear a passing resemblance to SF2 characters (like Necro with his stretchable limbs reminiscent of Dhalsim) they do play very differently. And even though the button input is the same, the timing and range in landing Hugo's Gigas Breaker is far stricter than Zangief's Super Spinning Pile Driver.

The cast is an uncomfortable mix of realism, freaks, and everything in between – all drawn beautifully in large sprites featuring the uncontested most fluid animation of any 2D fighter. On the more serious side of the roster we have Yun and Yang, small, quick, and acrobatic Hong Kong martial artist brothers; Dudley, the swift rose-tossing British gentleman boxer; Alex, American street brawler/grappler hybrid; Ibuki, Japanese ninja-in-training and queen of poking games; bikini-clad African Elena and her capoeira style; and Sean, the Dan-stand in, who looks, sounds, and plays like a joke character.

Over to the oddball side of the fence, let's look at Q, the masked trench coat-wearing enigma who likes to charge across the screen for his attacks; Necro, the flexible zombie-colored experiment who can channel electricity through his skin; Twelve, the helmet-headed pale-skinned synthetic life form with the ability to X.C.O.P.Y his opponent and fight as them; and Oro, a small bouncy old man in a sheet who fights with one arm and can summon a kitchen sink to fight for him (don't ask.)

And the inbetweeners include Urien, muscles in a speedo with insane corner-combo potential using his Aegis Reflector; Hugo, the Final Fight cameo and Andre the Giant tribute, slow as a sloth on downers but God help you if he connects with a Gigas Breaker; Remy, the Frenchman Guile-clone in leather with blue hair capable of throwing out a storm of sonic booms; and Makoto, the Ranma1/2 tribute who specializes in charging in and hitting with lightning fast fists.

Let's not forget returning characters – the obligatory Shotos (Ryu, Ken, Akuma – need I go into detail?), and Ms Lightning Legs, herself, Chun-li who can all but guarantee connecting her Houyokusen with a crouching forward.

Despite some serious aesthetic flaws, the core of Street Fighter III is the best of any 2D fighting game. Yes, I hate the music with a passion, but – call me crazy – I spend most of my time *playing* a fighting game, and think it should be judged upon its game play merits. If I want to listen to good music, well, that's why I have an iPod.

Soulcalibur IV

Trimming the fat.
When I first popped in SCIV and watched the obligatory opening cinematic, I felt a twinge of disappointment. Namco only featured a sparse handful of characters whereas previous entries have showcased all the characters. Then after a moment, I thought – does it really matter? This is a fighting game. The point of the game is the interactive exchange and not watching pretty cinematics.

Over and over I found myself asking that same question – does it really matter? Gone is the "Soul Arena" and the fancy battles where you collect coins, fight a giant statue. Gone is the pointless (not to mention redundant) "Time Attack" mode. Say goodbye to "Versus Team Battle", "Battle Theater" where you could set the computer to fight itself, the Tutorial (?), the extra fighting styles from SCIII's Create a Soul feature, and curiously also missing is the ability to adjust the difficulty in Arcade Mode (?!).

It feels like Soul Calibur did some serious introspection -- a line by line audit of all its features -- and asked itself, "Do I really need this to be a good fighting game?" A noble, if flawed, effort. The Tutorial would have been nice to keep for newcomers, and an adjustable difficulty would be just dandy in case players get bored of fighting the ridiculously easy AI (I guess this is a step up from SCIII's ridiculously unforgiving AI.) I would trade all the guest and bonus characters for those two features, but whatever.

With a few glaring exceptions (Yoda, Vader, Apprentice, Bonus Characters – I'm looking at you), Soul Calibur IV is what I've been waiting for from a fighting game for some time now. Especially with how fighting games lately have decided to throw everything at the player (including the kitchen sink) to the point that the core fighting elements feel more and more neglected (Soul Calibur III, MK Armageddon). I want to play a fighting game that cuts through the crap, cuts through the superficial fluff, cuts through the cheap propaganda – I want a fighting game to focus once again on fighting. Did Namco skimp on the extra features? Oh, absolutely! Is the story complete and utter nonsensical crap like most other games (especially fighting games) that hit #4 (technically #5) in the series? You bet. Do the character's outfits look god-awful? Indeedy-do! Now ask me how the game plays.

The aforementioned introspection extended even into the fighting engine where the excessive number of (mostly useless) moves from Soul Calibur II are consolidated into a smaller list. For example, in SCII Taki's 3+B* was a static uppercut move, while 1,1+B* could be chained into her possession stance for more options. The static uppercut was axed, and the combo-able uppercut replaces it entirely.

In fairness, SCIII tried this and felt like a step back from II; however, IV feels far more polished and solid.

Do I miss the deleted moves? The static uppercut from the above example? Nope. In SCII Taki had a nice little 8-way run combo, 2,2+A,A,A, that looked cool (kinda useless against veteran players, but served me well against everyone else). I kinda wish that was still in the game, but it doesn't affect the fighting that much (I used it more for aesthetics when I could get away with it.) And of course, new moves are introduced for old characters – some more drastic than others. Taki more or less receives tweaks and refinements while Tira, for example, now changes moods mid-fight which affects how her combos pan out. Ivy has received a major overhaul as well, giving her three base stances depending whether her sword is in solid, whip, or coiled state … not to mention completely reworking her command throws.

Hilde is an interesting addition to the cast, using a short sword (horizontal attacks) and spear (vertical attacks) and the range difference of those respective weapons makes playing as her a unique experience (if lacking an immediate attack.) In early matches I found myself attacking when the enemy was in range of the spear, forgetting that 1+A* is a short sword attack, and paying for it when the sword whiffs.

Algol, the new boss, is a mishmash of good ideas and horrendous ideas. He is one with the swords, whose hands turn into their respective blades, and he can sprout more blades from his body – it would be a neat new take on the old Soul Edge/Inferno/Abyss idea where the swords possess its wielder. Instead, Algol is intertwined with the already convoluted plot, and revealed to be the origin of Soul Calibur with his soul infused into the sword sleeping in a tower to be resurrected when … yeah, this is approaching the Plan 9 standard of bad writing. Fortunately, story is irrelevant to a fighting game.

So on to something relevant: the stricter buffering system, which requires more precise button inputs than previous entries. Perhaps to counterbalance the smaller move set? Might be a turn off to newcomers and quasi-button mashers who might not be able to get their combos to work, but won't phase veteran players.

Lastly, Character Creation which I've never really cared for in past games, finally strikes my interest. Mostly because now you can rework the hair and outfits of existing characters. So if Namco gave your favorite character a stupid look (Elvis-impersonator Maxi, anyone?) or maybe even if they grossly misproportioned their anatomy (Taki, Ivy, anyone?) or if they gave them a neat outfit with ridiculous colors (Raphael) … chances are you can fix it, or at least hide it.

In the end, despite the glaring exceptions (Guest/Bonus characters), SCIV trimmed the useless excess of previous games to deliver a more solid fighting game experience which makes it the best Soul Calibur thus far.

*Standard net notation for Soul Calibur; see any SC FAQ for explanation if you don't already know it.

The Postman

Superficial Epic in the key of "too damn long"
This is the type of film I absolutely despise. The Postman is a nice little sci-fi parable that wants to be epic so much that it forgets the word "subtlety." It presents itself as epic far beyond historical epics, beyond sword and sorcery epics. Yes, we have reached the definition of "epic" as applied in comic books. "Here he comes to save the day! It's the Postman!" No, Kevin Costner doesn't fly or wear a cape. Not in the literal sense. He does come eerily close at times, however. At one point a boy holds out a letter – holding it up towards the heavens from an ultra-low angle (a la a comic book frame) – as the Postman rides at full gallop (in slow motion) past the kid and snatches his letter up. Later, Costner flies – er, "rides" – in a cable car across a river so he can pose for the uplifting montage where hope is spread across the land.

You can feel every inch of the celluloid about to break a blood vessel in its intense strain to touch the audience (or impress the Oscar voters.) It's quite disheartening when the story is quite the stroke of genius and quite capable of standing on its own without all the dramatic posturing, thank you very much. In true sci-fi form, David Brin exploits a mundane aspect of everyday life and uses the unthinkable as the salvation for a scattered and dying race. In a post-apocalyptic world where most technology (and with it, long range communication/transportation) has fallen, governments have collapsed, a simple letter reaching its destination inspires an entire town which in turn inspires a revolution.

So, my question is: why the hell is this movie so eager to run over this brilliant concept for the sake of the hackneyed spectacle that is its presentation? Early in the film (okay, about 45 minutes into this 3 hour journey) Costner swears in Ford L. Mercury as a fellow postman. Costner, of course, only stumbled upon the Postman uniform by accident and wore it because he was cold, wet, and the skeleton didn't need it anymore. Thus, he's a fraud standing face to face with an aspiring lad who wants to be a post man just like him! So in typical Hollywood fashion Costner makes up a story in the typically awkward and unconvincing delivery that such scenes require; he eventually swears the lad in with an oath he reads off the engraving on a nearby wall … and Costner quite blatantly reads it off the board. In a comedy, I'd of gone with it and laughed. In this movie, I wanted Ford to – I dunno – notice and call him on it.

In fact, when all the sheep were following this horrible liar, and when the audience should be touched by the good-heartedness of the film's intentions, I just wanted someone to say, "Hey pal! You're full of crap! Get the hell out!" and actually stick to his guns. Yes, I rooted and cheered for the Sheriff of Pineview right up until he pulled out a letter in a dramatic after thought, after which I started counting the Hollywood gimmicks.

In all fairness, many films I like fall victim to these same contrivances without complaint. It's simply amazing how much these things bug you when you're no longer on board.

Blade Runner

A frame to die for.
I spent a weekend with the new DVD set of Blade Runner. Watched all four versions pretty much back to back (minus the work print version) starting with the US theatrical and finishing with the Final Cut. And across those eight hours I spent with the film, I did not get tired of watching – just watching – that futuristic film-noir vibe: deep dark shadows and majestic use of light and color used to make a run-down polluted cityscape look so beautiful. In fact, when I got to the Final Cut, which had been cleaned up, restored, and remixed, the picture and sound quite literally took my breath away.

Blade Runner is easily one of the best looking films ever made.

In some ways, many ways, Blade Runner strikes me as silly. Particularly in its more climactic moments where the protagonist faces off against a replicant. Pris's acrobatic means of attacking Deckard? When Roy Batty chases Deckard in his shorts (when a few moments before he was fully clothed?) The film goes over-the-top to the point where I find myself asking, "why in the world would the characters do that?!" But here's what's interesting: as silly as Blade Runner may get it never betrays its own world. Everything that happens, in some queer way, feels natural to this strange futuristic world.

I like the movie in its action scenes, but I simply adore it during the quieter moments – the parts where not a whole hell of a lot is happening, and you can simply watch and absorb Jordan Cronenweth's marvelous cinematography. My favorite scene comes when Rachel has saved Deckard's life. An emotional wreck of killing another replicant on top of the revelation that she, herself, is a replicant – she stands by a window where light floods in, so much light that the whole screen goes white, and then it recedes again and we see the characters again. Later in that same scene, she sits at the piano, plays for a bit, and then lets her hair down. Hearing Deckard stumbling in the other room, she looks out of the corner of her eye … and shot after shot after shot through this entire sequence demonstrates absolute mastery over the frame.

Plus some of the other quiet moments resonate with a truer low-key science-fiction feel such as the scene in Tyrell corporation where Deckard applies the Voight-Kampff test to Rachel. More or less a mundane questionaire/interview with a typical sci-fi gadget sitting on the table, but Ridley Scott and Terry Rawlings compacts the lengthy endeavor into a few short moments using a stunningly simple montage.

Later on, Deckard sits in front of a voice-activated screen analyzing a photograph. The task is presented as a dull monotonous job (made especially evident in Harrison Ford's delivery), yet the scene, itself, never bores. The voice-activation not only serves as a staple sci-fi device, but cleverly allows Deckard to take the audience's hand and guide them through this investigative process. And perhaps what I like most about the scene: the audience, and even Deckard himself, doesn't even really know what he's found. Things don't magically fall into place with a Scooby-Doo moment of revelation. He finds another clue that might lead somewhere (albeit, since it's a movie it's a good guess the clue does lead somewhere.) In my mind at least moments such as the Voight-Kampff scenes, Deckard's briefing, the photograph analysis, both of Rachel's scenes in Deckard's apartment gives the world of Blade Runner a solid grounding so later on it can get away with the absurd.

Which brings me to the replicants. Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) in particular, whose strangely sympathetic in that his murderous tendencies spawn directly from his fear of dying. This is a man who possesses a strong conviction that he deserves life perhaps because he looks around on earth and sees people squandering their existence while he knows he only has a few short moments. Why should a shmuck like Deckard live for 50+ years when Roy in his 4 short years has seen attack ships burning off the shoulder of Orion and seen C-beams glitter in the dark … "If only you could see what I've seen with your eyes," he proudly and warmly tells one of the scientists who helped create him.

As for which cut of the film, I don't think any single one is perfect (and I'd honestly watch any of them in a heartbeat.) I prefer the "Final Cut" over the others and admire Ridley Scott's restraint in his definitive DVD release. Most of the modifications are fine-tuning tweaks the casual viewer won't even notice unless watching two version back to back, and most of said fine-tuning improve the film (although, admittingly, Roy's beckoning of Sebastian could've been left out.) But hell, all versions of Blade Runner are included, so people don't have much room to complain about the changes. And no matter what version you go with, it's still a beautiful film to just … watch.

Heart of America

The king of overkill strikes again.
"Why do I watch these movies?" people ask, "especially if you already know the director has a tendency to produce crap!" Simple Answer: there's more to learn from something done badly than something done brilliantly.

The lesson once again is "lack of restraint." If you as an artist find yourself wondering where that invisible line is where things go from "good" to "too much" then I must urge you to pick up one of Boll's films where he boldly crosses that line so you don't have to. And before too long, indeed, we're being introduced to too many characters set in a high school so I bet you can guess the dozen stereotypes before seeing the film. Don't need an introduction, much less any development for these stereotypes, right? Too bad. Not only do you get introduction, but everyone's role gets spelled out so thoroughly that everyone gets that metaphorical name tag. I'm sorry – I shouldn't use the word "metaphorical" in a Boll review. It'll give the false impression of sophistication and subtlety both of which the director lacks.

And since these characters lack sub-text, Boll attempts to create interest by cutting away from a scene prematurely not unlike those hack-storytellers whose narrative goes something like this: "…the girl reached the dark and creepy door at the end of the spooky corridor, she reaches for the handle and THEN … meanwhile, Billy up the street …" And not only do we get a full entourage of characters who need no introduction, we also get full blown back-story on a number of them complete with black & white flashbacks haphazardly intercut with the present narrative. Take for example what should be a powerful flashback when the typical class losers are subject to humiliation and harassment from the bullies. This is intercut with the painfully long and monotonous series of shots of our loser/shooters … walking … and walking … and walking. You could almost – almost – stick it in a comedy, and it could be a joke about how long it takes the character to get from point A to point B (you know, cut to a wide shot and show that it took him an hour to go five feet.) That said, it's amazing both how much and how little power remains in the film. The power that is there is, no doubt, attributed to the relevance of school shootings in American society. It's simply inherent to the subject matter just as a movie about Pearl Harbor would have been in 1942 or a movie about 9/11 released in 2002. Not even Boll's passion for ODing good concepts on steroids until they become hideous freaks of nature like Barry Bonds can't completely drain the power. That said, given the subject matter and the time spent building up to the actual shooting, it's amazing how little impact the film's climax has.

Perhaps one reason lay in the contrived "surprise" that the film spoils almost from the opening scene. A kid wakes up to a phone call. "It's the last day of school. Don't punk out on me." And he immediately powers on his computer so the same things can be exchanged in an IM. Why? Because it's easier to hide the identity of the last shooter if communication is only shown via computer screens. As the lead shooter is getting the guns, he looks up to his off-screen accomplice and smiles, "I knew you wouldn't punk out on me." And I'm left wondering, "Gee, Boll is going through great pains to not show someone's face … I wonder which of these spelled-out characters it could be?" Just like many films of this nature, the ending features a superimposed paragraph (which gets read to us by an unseen narrator) about a real school shooting … then another brief paragraph about another real school shooting … then another … and another … and another. Once again, a nice ending spoiled by the fact that Boll doesn't know when to quit and his knack for taking good ideas to a ridiculous self-parody caliber extreme. And that, dear readers, the upcoming film Postal just might work.

When a Stranger Calls

All ring, no bite.
Remember the story of the boy who cried wolf? The little brat who got a kick out of screaming "Wolf! Wolf! Wolf!" and all the villagers would show up to kill the beast, and there was no wolf. The kid just wanted to get everyone worked up? And after awhile, the villagers started calling the little brat's bluff?

Well, When a Stranger Calls is that annoying little loudmouth brat. "What's that in the kitchen? Creep closer … closer. I heard a sound! Something's there – gasp – oh, it's just a cat. Wait!!! What's that shadow over there? Gasp! Oh, it's only the coat rack. Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God! What's that?! Oh, it's only (fill in the blank)." Yes, it's an hour of false-scares on parade, and before too long I started calling the film's bluffs.

"Wolf!!! Wolf!!! Wolf!!! I see a light on in the guest house—"

No one's there.

"Wolf!!! Wolf!!! Wolf!!! But I have to go through the dark windy jungle-ish trees of this gigantic property—"

So what? No one'll be over there.

"Wolf!!! Wolf!!! Wolf!!! The phone rang! Who is it?! The stalker or a friend—"

Oh, who the hell cares?! It doesn't matter either way.

"Wolf!!! Wolf!!! Wolf!!! There he is—"

Yes, just standing there in 'creepy' silhouette doing absolutely nothing.

"Wolf!!! Wolf!!! Wolf!!! But—"

Oh stop it. This film doesn't have the courage or the balls to look me in the eyes, much less let anything bad happen on screen (or let "anything" happen on screen period.) It's a PG13, politically correct, safe "horror/thriller."

"Wolf!!! Wolf!!! Wolf!!! But—"

Now you're just being annoying. You're bluffing. You know it. I know it. We both know it. The killer will remain in deliberate silhouette, walk slowly, and do nothing more than reach out and grab Jill. And once he has a hold of her she'll get free. I repeat: this screenplay doesn't have the balls to let anything bad happen on screen. Knock it off already.

Let's revisit Hitchcock's famous analogy for suspense – there's a bomb under the table, and it goes off – that's surprise. There's a bomb under the table and it doesn't go off – that's suspense.

"Wolf!!! Wolf!!! Wolf!!! Just kidding! There's no wolf, and I didn't really have a bomb under the table."

I know.

The Hitcher II: I've Been Waiting

Left behind again.
Since I didn't like the original, I popped in the sequel with my typical optimism. See, whenever I happen to dislike a movie with a cult following, I go to the sequel and remake thinking "It'd be funny if I wound up liking the hated and evil sequel/remake more than the original." Why? Just because many people dislike sequels and remakes on principle alone. Well, as it turns out … I didn't like the sequel (or the remake) either.

The Hitcher 2 is the cinematic equivalent to the equation (X * 0 = 0). Some ideas just don't lend themselves to sequels. The idea of a God-like Hitchhiker with the mystical power of popping up whenever and wherever the plot needs (sorry, *demands*) him to make the protagonist's life hell? Yeah, no matter how you cut that it's an obedient repeat of the first one. At best the sequel can bring superficial changes that, in the end, count for nothing. No matter what number X represents (X=5, X=50, X=500, X=50Bajillion), the equation always yields 0.

In the first film the Hitcher needs to materialize in the backseat of a car belonging to a nice family; in the sequel, the Hitcher needs to appear at a farm belonging to a nice old couple. And so on, and so forth.

Jim Halsey (C. Thomas Howell) returns to the scene of the original crime to face his demons, and joining him this time is Maggie (Kari Wuhrer.) Jim's demons materialize in the form of the new Hitcher (Jake Busey who tries too hard to play a psychopath.) The Hitcher this time around is apparently a former master of ceremonies at a carnival freak show, or maybe even a Nickelodeon game show host on crack. I dunno. All I know is that Busey made me better understand the notion than an actor has to "become" the character because here he clearly just "plays" crazy in the most artificial sense.

Like its predecessor, The Hitcher spends most of the film killing everyone around the protagonist, framing the protagonist, chasing the protagonist, and pushing her to the brink of sanity. The sequel continues the trend of good cinematography (even if it is overly stylized for the sake of over stylization). More than anything I wanted the nicely done effects and neat scenarios to thrill me … but I couldn't believe in them enough for that to happen.

No fan of the thrillers watches them to disbelieve. I don't watch Indiana Jones, Die Hard, and the Alien films (among many others) for absolute logic. Hell, I liked Torque, Half Past Dead, and most of Michael Bay's films. And I was keenly aware of this when Maggie flies a plane around the Hitcher's massive 18-wheeler, and the soundtrack kicks into overdrive with intense chase music while the plane just circles and circles and circles. I thought, "Okay, what's the point?" Whooshing by the truck isn't going to do anything even if the music tries with all its might to convince me otherwise. This isn't an honest presentation – it's a cowardly act of trying to punch up tension that doesn't exist. It's the score that cried wolf.

And since the movie indulged on a punched up and pointless (thus thrill-less) fly-by sequence, it gave my mind the opportunity to note the plane realistically couldn't threaten the truck without crashing (probability favoring Maggie dying before the Hitcher). Plus since the film wanted to cry wolf, I stopped listening entirely. So much for the film's climax.

Thrillers can ride amazingly thin plots with amazingly thin characters and get away with it. A film has to literally split hairs to cut them too thin, and amazingly many do.

The Hitcher

Another remake strike-out
I looked forward to the Hitcher remake since the original didn't quite get it right. It had moments and great ideas that I liked, sure. But overall, transparent gimmicks won out over exploring a wonderful premise. Maybe the remake would fix things? Iron out the details? Do things right? Yeah, these hopes came crashing down when I realized it would only compound the problem with even more gimmicks starting with an additional character, Grace.

Now, Grace by herself? No problem. Grace with Jim against the titular Hitcher? Problem. Big problem. Two main characters means dialogue, which for the typical formula screenwriter means opening up Pandora's box. The thriller's plot slows to a crawl so they can chatter, and really, who the hell wants to listen to two characters hysterically informing each other of things we, the audience, can see ourselves? For example, the couple comes across a car on the side of the road. They know the Hitcher has struck. Jim approaches the car, telling Grace over and over (and over) again to, "Stay there! You don't want to see this!" To which she questions, "What is it? What's there?" "Stay there Grace! You don't want to see this! Oh it's horrible!" For all the time spent discovering the car, the bodies inside, and listening to these two, there's surprisingly little there except for the traditional jump scare.

And if you're going to include another character to run around with Jim, write the scenes to play out for two characters instead of mindlessly regurgitating the original (written quite specifically for one character.) The whole "Say: I want to die" sequence, one of the few things I liked about the original loses all of its potency because the knife is on the wrong damn character. Granted it could theoretically play out that way, but as it stands in the film it wants to mimic the original with half-assed sloppy changes so it can make the shallow claim, "Look! I did something on my own." If you're going to change something, have the balls to follow through.

One beef I have with remakes in general (like, The Fog for example) is the tendency for filmmakers to show more under the false pretense that this brings something worthwhile and original to the remake table. A key to any art form (whether it generates art or not) is the idea of restraint – knowing when to show something, knowing when to keep it in shadows, and knowing when to not even bother. The 2007 Hitcher wants to show you everything that happened off screen in the 1986 (the dead family, the equivalent to Nash's death, and how John Ryder escapes from custody) and it forgot to ask, "why did the original choose not to show these things?" and, more importantly, "would it be a better movie if it did?" Another gripe (also in the Fog remake) – the "bigger, badder" phenomena where the remake feels obligated to one-up the original. More explosions! Bigger explosions! More blood! More guns! More cars! Faster! Badder! Yay! Funny thing about the ridiculous, like for example Rutger Hauer taking down a helicopter with a revolver – outdoing it looks just plain stupid. I mean, someone got paid for this script? Why bother when any idiot could take a bottle of white out and some sticky notes to the original and get the same thing? And at the risk of turning this review into a list of complaints, lastly Grace, herself. Certainly the Hitcher had done enough killing, stalking, and taunting throughout the film to take a normal person to the brink of violence, certainly she had motivation for extracting revenge, strangely enough I did not buy that she'd actually arrived at that point to heartlessly pull the trigger despite everything else in play.

Like many remakes, the Hitcher feels like an imitation. The 2007 version may have its hands on the wheel, but the 1986 original is the one really driving.

The Hitcher

Drove off without me.
The Hitcher has a great premise, which it promptly abandons in favor of numerous road-rage action set pieces where John Ryder miraculously pops up whenever and wherever the plot needs him. Maybe I needed to see this back in 1986 to appreciate it, but in 2007 I've seen enough unmotivated car chases, gunfights, and phantom villains for one life time. Thanks.

I did like the beginning of the film when Jim Halsey (C. Thomas Howell) first picks up the Hithcer aka John Ryder (aka Rutger Hauer). Trapped in a claustrophobic car with a madman wielding a knife – again, an awesome premise with ample suspense. "I'll do anything," Halsey begs for his life. And so Ryder sets the terms, "Say four words: I want to die." A nice little psychological dilemma – can he bring himself to say words expressing a desire to die in an effort to save his life? Well played. Kudos.

The cinematography looks great, and paints the titular character into more than just a psychopath – it paints him as an icon (on top of a creepy performance from Hauer.) C. Thomas Howell does fine as the vulnerable kid who slowly hardens (not to mention loses part of his sanity) until the ultimate confrontation at the film's climax. The film nicely communicates a disturbing bond slowly forming between the victim and the stalker. And lastly, deserving applause, the film's willingness to create genuine sympathy for the sole character who gives Jim support, and then strike a tragic chord with a unique and creative kill (Hollywood, I hope you're taking note.) But I did not like how damn near every single remaining element of the film served the plot. Actually, "served" isn't even the word. Everything in the Hitcher is enslaved by the plot. John Ryder shows up wherever and whenever the plot *demands* him to show up – if Ryder misses only one of his predestined appointments the entire film does not work. Jim makes stupid decisions that get him deeper into trouble because the plot *demands* his bumbling – if just once he decides not to further incriminate himself by running or picking up a gun the entire film does not work. Every other character in the film exists to persecute and harass Jim because the plot *demands* such prejudice because if only one cop gives him a chance to explain (assuming the Hitcher doesn't pop up to kill him) the entire film does not work. Now, I don't have terribly high standards for thriller plots – many of my favorites wear similarly flawed plots – but good God this is so flimsy that I was afraid just looking it would make everything come crashing down.

After awhile it becomes painfully obvious that the sole motivation behind *everything in this entire world* is to bring on another doomed attempt at an explanation, another attempt to "wow" and "awe" the audience with a surprise that isn't so surprising, or an action sequence that's, well, another action sequence.

Let's be frank. This is a thriller. Thrillers, by nature, are absurd. Nobody goes to the theater or pops in the DVD wanting to be the reality-snob or the artsy critic championing high art. I watch thrillers to be, as the genre title implies, thrilled. Give me energy, give me wit, give me suspense, take me to the edge of my seat, and let's just have a fun ride. While the genre doesn't require the most sophisticated stories or the most sympathetic characters, there is still a baseline. And, yes, a film can fall below that baseline, which is very very dangerous in a genre that all but dares the audience to disbelieve.

The Hitcher sinks below that baseline, which is a real shame because the action looked pretty cool.

Sleepaway Camp III: Teenage Wasteland

Chores for a crazy person.
Fairly early in the film, our lovable murderess asks, "Why did I think this year would be any different?" And this unlocks why part 3 still works: gone is the chipper camp counselor and her hopes of making good clean friends. Now, returning incognito as a camper, she realizes the world is a terrible terrible place filled with terrible terrible people. Round 3 of the chaos, and she picks up her axe with the same sigh and groan you might hear from a daughter assigned to "wash the dishes, make your bed, clean the toilets, and take out the trash." Why can't she find people who deserve to live for once?

That's not to say Sleepaway Camp 3 has lost its sense of humor. Far from it. It delights in exploiting a silly trust building exercise: Angela gets to tie up and lead her blindfolded partner through the woods. "You do drugs?" Angela quizzes her buddy. To which the girl replies, "Doesn't everyone?" Like the good girl-scout she is, Angie leads this poor misguided soul to miraculous deliverance, and I say miraculous because of how far fetched the murder is (but it's still a treat to watch.) Angela, herself, still has her sly wisecracks and all-too-honest answers to questions (questions like "where'd you learn to chop wood like that?"), only the delivery has changed from cheerful optimism to "why me?" (although she does sing the Happy Camper song over one of the murders.)

And this time she gets to play with more colorful, over the top, (read: annoying) fodder! We have a perverted old man, lazy hypocrite, a rapper, a rich snob, a dufus, a—why I am even bothering? Never mind, them. Angie'll get to them sooner or later (hurry up on the rapper … please, God, hurry up.) The group of campers split up into 3 smaller groups, and our heroine dispatches each sub-group one at a time and then shows up to the next group like a lost puppy, "I was told to switch with someone from this group" and the fun starts again.

Unlike most slashers, the kills largely take place in broad daylight giving the whole scenario a matter-of-fact quality that I liked. This *is* Angela's day job, after all. She's not Jason or Freddy – the girl has to sleep sometime. Besides, I like the idea of her moonlighting as a jazz musician or a dance instructor or a cop with Stendhal Syndrome or something.

Once again the series misses a number of opportunities to really rip into the genre's shortcomings (like poking fun at the gore obsession.) But the film's unwillingness to do anything significant with Barney (father of Sean in the previous film) bothered me the most. Here was a chance to actually build up a sympathetic character – someone we'd actually root for to stop Angela. Or perhaps even build him up as a character we really despise who could actually threaten Angela (early in the film he's asked what he would do if he came across Angela Baker. Without hesitation he answers, "I'd kill her.") War of the killers? Who do we root for – the wickedly fun Angela, or a revenge-driven father? This would take Sleepaway Camp into entirely new territory, allowing it to stand apart from the existing entries. But, nope, Barney exists as another victim for Angela, and after a brief unsatisfactory confrontation it's a moot point.

Like it's predecessor, SC3: Teenage Wasteland never hits the grand slam it should. But, what the hell, I love it anyway.

Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy Campers

She's a Happy killer!
I went into Sleepaway Camp 2: Unhappy Campers expecting another run-of-the-mil 80s slasher (or if you prefer "dead-teenager movie"). I expected the worst. C'mon, middle of the forest? Busty campers way too old to be sent to summer camp? The obligatory ghost story around the fire which recaps the original film? Girl wanders off alone and loses her way? That's when the movie knowingly winked at the audience, and I grinned as the first murder took place. Yes, the killer had become the hero, and the horror had become comedic. Thank you, oh thank you, thank you director Michael Simpson and writer Fritz Gordon.

Angela Baker returns, this time played by Pamela Springsteen, as an overly chipper (dare I say "dorky") camp counselor who looks on the verge of spraining something with that wide smile. Wait, it gets better: she sings a goofy "happy camper song" with enough enthusiasm and good cheer to power the Monsters Inc city for centuries. Were this woman not a homicidal maniac with a demented sense of humor, you'd want to slap that smile off her face. Instead she's kinda lovable (admit it, you sick jerks want to see a horror-movie with a shotgun-wielding psycho dressed up in a Barney suit just as much as I do.)

As for everyone else in the film? We know they're fodder, the director and writer know they're fodder, hell the actors know they're fodder, so everyone says "screw it. Throw in a bag of slasher archetypes everyone hates and let Angela go to town." And there lies the joy of Unhappy Campers. Go Angie! Kill them! Kill them all! Wait, lemme get some popcorn. One more sec, need a Dr. Pepper too! Okay, now we're set. Massacre away!

A few of the campers decided they'd scare Angela by dressing up as horror movie icons which made me giggle with glee. These nitwits made their "scary costumes" at the arts and crafts table – the crayons were a nice a touch. "Ooh, this is going to be so scary!" They tell one another. "Yeah, this'll scare her for sure!" One goes with a hockey mask/machete combo; the other goes with the dirty fedora/bladed glove. Angie wants to play too, so she shows up to the party with a chainsaw and a leather face. And for the first (probably last) time ever, I cheered for TCM.

Oh, and you haven't lived until you've seen this frustrated female killer stomp away with her chainsaw. She finds another victim, and the thing just won't start! *sigh* Or when Angela realizes she has to kill the gossipy character in the next room, and she goes on the hunt for a suitable weapon, testing all the mundane everyday items lying around, weighing each in her mind, trying to find just the right one. So casual in her selection – she might as well be going through her closet deciding, "Hmm, what blouse would go with this skirt?" Let's not forget when Angela chases one of her victims through the forest and calls out, "Wait! I just want to be your friend!" You hear Angela's voice, and she sounds like she really truly means it … never mind the knife in her hand.

On the down side, while Angela is very entertaining, the movie doesn't go far enough. Sleepaway Camp 2 calls attention to the over-indulgence of boobs by indulging in boobs, but it never offers its own comments on the low standards of DTMs. The violence blindly mirrors the violence of its parent films, but never evolves beyond it – nothing like the geyser of blood from the wall (of all things) that made Evil Dead 2 so pointed. SC2 was there, had these silly slasher staples in its sights, but didn't pull the trigger – why not go gunning for these things while blasting everything else? The horror genre, and especially the slasher sub-genre, gives parodies so much ammunition. Sleepaway Camp 2: Unhappy Campers spots a machine gun, which is fun … but better movies, like Evil Dead II, notices someone left the keys to a frickin' tank just lying around and goes for a joyride.

El laberinto del fauno

Caressed by a Lullaby
The paradox I usually face with Guillermo Del Toro is that I rarely like the stories he chooses to tell even though I adore how he tells them. His talent as a director is undeniable. And many times I find myself coming away from his films feeling a weird mix of satisfaction and disappointment, wishing I could like the story as much as I liked the telling. And I always wondered, "what if, for once, one of the stories clicked with me?" Now I have the answer – I would be swept away entirely.

Pan's Labyrinth is an ingenious juxtaposition of dreamlike fantasy and nightmarish reality. Innocence and violence. Mythological beasts and human monsters. It sets up a dual narrative to explore the world of young Ofelia's fairy tale that exists within (and beyond) the cruelties of a fascist regime. Ofelia arrives at her new home with her pregnant mother, and soon finds herself face to face with a faun who unlocks the rest of Ofelia's adventures. Alone, she descends into a dark underworld, facing exotic (yet charming) mythological creatures whose horrors curiously pale compared to the monsters of the intertwined story.

While the young Ofelia fulfills her destiny with magical stones, mandrake roots, and chalk-drawn doorways, the world around her unravels its parallel plot of a war between freedom and fascism with instruments of torture, cold blooded murder, and oppression spelled out in excruciatingly graphic, yet not gratuitous, detail. Here resides the sadistic Captain Vidal, human only in appearance, who early on states "… I want my son born in a clean, new Spain" with a not-so-subtle invocation of atrocity's past. Is it any wonder we soon see Vidal washing his hands in the blood of the innocent? Is it any wonder Ofelia pursues the promise of the faun – the only ray of hope in the film – despite the dangers she faces? And is it any wonder that the single most terrifying moment comes when Ofelia faces not a fantastic mythical beast, but Captain Vidal alone in the labyrinth?

Pan's Labyrinth is an intimate exploration of the dark side of human consciousness, both childlike (represented by Ofelia) and mature (Captain Vidal), and, more impressively, it's not afraid to deal with the consequences when these two worlds collide.

I adore this film. The virtuoso cinematography, score, direction, editing, writing, and performances combine to paint a beautiful picture of the most vile and ugly human attributes. I loved watching Vidal ride off to strike at the resistance, and the camera pans past a tree, where upon it cuts to Ofelia wandering alone through the forest. And when Ofelia tells a story to her unborn brother, her head resting upon her mother's belly, and the camera sinks down showing the unborn fetus in the womb, then pans over to visually represent the tale Ofelia tells, finally drifting back to the reality of the bedroom bedtime story.

And I loved that the movie possessed an unmistakable awe and wonder for its material. Del Toro energizes this bedtime story with the same dreamy fascination of a youth succumbing to sleep, listening to his mother's soft voice caressing him with a lullaby. Many films present fantasy and fairy tales, but Pan's Labyrinth genuinely believes.

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