Video Game Review: Spelunky [PS Vita/PS3]

Spelunky [PS Vita/PS3]

Spelunky
System: PS Vita/PS3 (also on PC and Xbox 360)
Genre: Action/Adventure, Platformer
Developer: Derek Yu, Blitworks (PSN)
Publisher: Mossmouth
Price: $14.99 (cross-buy on PSN)
Release Date: August 27, 2013

Spelunky is one of the most infuriating games I have played all year.

It’s also ridiculously fun and insanely addicting.

Originally a 2009 PC game, the 2D cave-exploring sensation known as Spelunky received an enhanced release on the Xbox 360 last summer. Last month this upgraded edition made its way back to PC while also hitting the Playstation Network for the first time. The PSN release happens to be a cross-buy title, meaning one purchase nets you both the PS3 and Vita versions. For the sake of this review, I focused on the Vita, and for good reason: Spelunky is especially efficient in bite-sized gaming sessions (and it’s only ~100 MB!).

The game’s general concept revolves around you, an unnamed adventurer, who must make his way from top-to-bottom in a series of randomized dungeons, all while collecting loot and upgrades along the way. Each level is full of a wide variety of dangers. The first world, the mines, is filled with snakes, spiders and spikes, just to name a few obstacles. Falling into the spikes results in instant death, forcing you to start all the way back from the beginning. Later worlds, such as the jungle and an ice cave, present even graver difficulties.

Spelunky [PS Vita/PS3]

Every new game starts you off with four hearts (touching an enemy = loss of one heart), four bombs and four ropes. The bombs are incredibly helpful for paving your own way through each area, and they can be used to wipe out enemies and find hidden treasure. The ropes are used to get to locations unreachable by jumping, or to descend lower without having to take a huge fall. More of these items can be found within each level, and occasionally a shopkeeper even shows up with new upgrades for sale. His items are random, and they range from machetes to jetpacks to cameras, all of which can be crucial survival tools.

Each level has its own little quirks and secrets, and because of its randomized nature, you never know what you’re going to get. There is one constant, however; hidden somewhere in each level is a damsel in distress (which can amusingly be turned into a pug in the game’s settings). Rescue her and you’ll get one extra heart added to your life — these are critical to your success, and it is almost always worth the effort to save her.

Spelunky [PS Vita/PS3]

Spelunky has so many secrets, such as hidden rooms and characters, that there is *always* something new to discover. I’ll never forget the first time I stumbled upon the black market — a new room where seemingly every item in the game can be purchased. Too bad I didn’t have much gold on me at the time.

Now, as this is a roguelike title, the permanent deaths and constant restarts can be an exercise in patience. The obscene difficulty can be a huge turn off at first, but if you stick with it, the game is immensely rewarding. I can’t say I have ever played a game that made me jump for joy just for being able to reach the second world! It takes time to learn the behavior of every enemy, as while as how to avoid booby traps, but with every game you will get better. The game never feels cheap, as everything acts as it is supposed to. Enemies can fall to their death onto a bed of spikes just like you. It’s because of these consistencies that Spelunky truly works — it doesn’t resort to cheap tactics to raise its difficulty.

Outside of the main adventure mode, there is an option to play deathmatches. This throws four characters into a cramped environment where they fight to the death by throwing bombs, using powerups, etc. It’s basically a throwaway addition to the game, but it can be a fun diversion with friends.

Spelunky [PS Vita/PS3]

One nice perk about the PSN edition is that the game can be played LAN-style between the Vita and PS3. This means that two players can do a co-op campaign with one person using the Vita, and the other playing on the PS3. It’s an incredibly cool addition, and it’s something I would love to see other games do. There is no online multiplayer, unfortunately, but that’s not a huge loss given the game’s splendid local options.

In the end, Spelunky is a clever little title that works perfectly on the Vita. Its addictive exploration gameplay and randomized dungeons offer seemingly endless replay value, and its small download size means it will earn a permanent place on my memory card. There is a demo available so you can try this for yourself, but chances are you will get hooked just like I did.

9/10

 
(A copy of this game was provided for review.)

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Movie Review: Crystal Fairy [2013]

Crystal Fairy [2013]

Crystal Fairy [2013]
Director: Sebastián Silva
Writers: Sebastián Silva
Genre: Adventure/Comedy
Starring: Michael Cera, Gaby Hoffmann, Juan Andrés Silva
Running Time: 98 minutes

One of the biggest highlights in this year’s surprise comedy hit, This Is the End, is Michael Cera’s out of control, coked-out cameo. With his starring role in the Sundance selection, Crystal Fairy, Cera continues his recent on-screen drug binge, this time trading in James Franco’s mansion for the vast Chilean coastline.

Cera plays Jamie, a college-age American who has traveled to Chile in a quest to find the illustrious San Pedro cactus, the inside of which contains the hallucinogenic mescaline. Jamie is a stereotypical boorish American, the type of guy who is only thinking of himself and his object of desire (the cactus). It’s a wonder that he has managed to make any Chilean friends, but he does find himself in the company of three mild-mannered and polite brothers, the oldest of whom offers to help Jamie.

Crystal Fairy [2013]

At a party the night before their planned road trip, Jamie notices another American dancing by herself without any inhibition whatsoever. This amuses him to no end, and he starts cracking jokes about her to anyone who will listen. Eventually, he starts a conversation with her, discovering that her name is Crystal Fairy (Gaby Hoffmann). Still tickled at the idea of such a radical free spirit doing as she pleases, Jamie jokingly throws out the idea of her joining them on their cactus hunt. Surprisingly, she accepts.

Sure enough, the next morning he gets a phone call from Crystal, and she is waiting to be picked up in a nearby park. Jamie, further proving his selfishness, suggests ignoring her request and not bringing her along. His friends immediately discredit this notion, as they agree that would simply not be the right thing to do. And so the journey goes with two completely different Americans and three Chilean brothers.

Crystal Fairy [2013]

What follows is an easy-going road trip movie that manages to remain enjoyable despite taking its sweet time to get anywhere. The culture clash is very much at play here, but the biggest disparity is between Jamie and Crystal. Jamie is especially taken aback by her carefree behavior and casual nudity, and this seems to embarrass him far more than the others. Although both American characters are never really fleshed out all too much (and come across as little more than stereotypes), they are still just likable enough to make the film work.

The script is bare-bones at best, and much of the film is at least semi-improvised. This gives it an air of authenticity that helps remain engaging (it also probably helps that the cast members did in fact trip on mescaline for this film, some of which made it on screen). When the film does attempt to dig into a character’s back story, it feels unnecessary and tacked-on, providing a resolution that leaves something to be desired.

Still, sometimes it’s nice to just go along for the ride, and Crystal Fairy left me guessing throughout. I wasn’t sure where these characters would end up or what might happen during their adventure, and it was rare that I didn’t have a smile on my face. Sometimes that’s all that is needed.

7/10

Video Game DLC Review: The Walking Dead: 400 Days [Xbox 360]

The Walking Dead: 400 Days

The Walking Dead: 400 Days
System: Xbox 360 [also on PS3, PC, i0S and Vita (soon)]
Genre: Point-and-click adventure
Publisher: Telltale Games
Developer: Telltale Games
Release Date: July-August, 2013

Meant to bridge the gap between seasons one and two of Telltale’s The Walking Dead (my pick for 2012 game of the year), 400 Days is a much-welcomed expansion that plays out like a short story anthology. Rather than focus on a couple of characters like Lee and Clementine from season one, here we are introduced to five completely different people who are all brought together in the end.

The game gives you the option of playing through their stories (all of which take place at varying points of the zombie outbreak) as you see fit, and each segment lasts about 15-20 minutes. This gives just enough time to start caring for these characters while also craving more time with them.

Each story offers up a unique situation. One involves a prison bus being attacked by zombies en route; another revolves around a car accident. The characters are a diverse group, and all of them are well-written even though their appearances are brief.

The Walking Dead: 400 Days [Xbox 360, 2013]

There is a lot crammed into these little segments, and as expected, there are a number of difficult choices to make. Once again, your stats will appear at the end of the episode, allowing you to compare your decisions with the rest of the gaming public. In fact, in terms of gameplay, there are little differences between the mechanics of this and the first season. Telltale added a couple of missable achievements, but other than that, the gameplay is pretty much the same. That’s not a bad thing.

If there are faults to 400 Days, they are stemmed in it being almost *too* short. The episode can be finished in under two hours, even when exploring every dialogue option. The epilogue feels a bit rushed as well, though it will be interesting to see how/if it ties into season two. Still, I’m happy to get any bits of The Walking Dead experience that I can, and 400 Days is a satisfying appetizer until season two arrives in the fall.

8/10

Movie Project #12: Sullivan’s Travels [1941]

The 50 Movies Project: 2013 Edition

In what has become an annual tradition, I have decided to embark in a third round of the 50 Movies Project. The premise is simple — I have put together a list of 50 movies that I feel I absolutely must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. With so many films to see, it’s easy to get off track and forget about some of the essentials. This is my way of making sure I watch those that have been on my “must see” list for too long.

Sullivan's Travels [1941]

Sullivan’s Travels [1941]
Director: Preston Sturges
Screenplay: Preston Sturges
Country: USA
Genre: Adventure/Comedy/Drama
Starring: Joel McCrea, Veronica Lake, Robert Warwick
Running Time: 90 minutes

Reason for inclusion: I had never seen a Preston Sturges film.

Accolades: Inducted into National Film Registry in 1990, ranked #61 on the AFI’s Top 100 Movies, #39 on AFI’s 100 Laughs, #25 on AFI’s 100 Cheers

There are a lot of movies about movies, but what makes Sullivan’s Travels so endearing is that it tackles the subject from a number of angles. This is a film that has its fair share of drama and screwball comedy antics, but it does so through a well-preserved satirical lens.

Joel McCrea stars as John L. Sullivan, a hot-shot Hollywood director who has grown tired of making mindless comedies, even if they are incredibly profitable. In an effort to differentiate himself, he gets the wild idea to make himself “poor” and take a cross-country road trip to learn more about the homeless as well as those living in extreme poverty. Naturally, his studio boss, Mr. Lebrand (Robert Warwick), is against this idea — after all, why not just stick to the traditional moneymaking formula? It doesn’t help that Sullivan is completely out of his element here, as he has never experienced hard labor in his life.

Sullivan's Travels [1941]

Sullivan sticks to his guns, however, and goes on an adventure against their wishes. He dresses up as a hobo and starts hitchhiking. There’s one problem though — he keeps winding up back in Hollywood.

It’s here where “Sully” meets a young failed actress known only as “The Girl” (the sultry Veronica Lake). She becomes his unwanted traveling companion, and the two of them hit the road again, this time finally escaping Hollywood.

Sullivan's Travels [1941]

While much of the film is lighthearted and full of misadventures, the final act takes a surprising, much darker turn. It is here where I fell in love with the film, and its ending ranks as one of the best I have seen. Rather than just settle for the same type of screwball comedy the movie itself is poking fun at, it shares its own brand of social commentary, capping off with a classic moment that really drives home the film’s message.

Some of the slapstick humor does fall flat, but when the film is on top of its game, it doesn’t get much better. McCrea and Lake have great chemistry, and Lake’s deadpan delivery only adds to her sex appeal. Also, it should be stated that without this film we likely would have never been blessed with the Coen brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou?. Not only does their film share a number of similarities with Sullivan’s Travels, but it has the same title as Sullivan’s proposed film.

“There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh. Did you know that’s all some people have? It isn’t much, but it’s better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan. Boy!”

8.5/10

Movie Review: Oz the Great and Powerful [2013]

Oz the Great and Powerful [2013]

Oz the Great and Powerful [2013]
Director: Sam Raimi
Screenplay: Mitchell Kapner & David Lindsay-Abaire
Genre: Adventure/Family/Fantasy
Starring: James Franco, Michelle Williams, Rachel Weisz, Mila Kunis
Running Time: 130 minutes

Oz the Great and Powerful begins with a wonderful black-and-white prologue. In 1905, a hack magician named Oscar Diggs (James Franco) performs a small-time circus act in between trying to shag the local women. He flirts with the wrong girl, however, and ends up running for his life. Diggs (also known by his stage name, Oz) escapes in a hot air balloon, only to get sucked into a nearby tornado. Somehow this tornado takes him to the Land of Oz, and it is here that the film pans out to full technicolor, bringing this magical new world to life.

Oscar, confused but grateful to no longer be in danger, wanders around his new surroundings before meeting the witch, Theodora (Mila Kunis). She believes that Oscar is actually the wizard that has been prophesied to return and overthrow the Wicked Witch, and she brings him to meet her sister, fellow witch Evanora (Rachel Weisz). They send him to the Dark Forest to destroy the Wicked Witch’s wand, but he discovers that this witch is not so wicked after all — she’s actually Glinda the Good Witch (Michelle Williams). Now Oscar finds himself caught in the middle of a battle between the two sides, all while being forced to masquerade as the powerful Wizard of Oz.

Oz the Great and Powerful [2013]

As a film, Oz the Great and Powerful is likely exactly as you might expect it to be. It works well as a kid’s film — Oscar meets some crowd-pleasing fantasy characters on his way, including a china doll and a flying monkey — though its 2+ hour running time might be a burden for some little ones. The Land of Oz is colorful and vibrant, and the Munchkin inhabitants of Emerald City are sure to be a hit (despite having a very small role). In this regard, the film succeeds.

However, it’s hard not to expect more in the hands of director Sam Raimi. The characters are hardly interesting. James Franco makes Oz come across as a total sleazeball, and it’s hard to buy in to the fact that he has any ‘good’ values underneath. Michelle Williams and Rachel Weisz do well with their material, but Mila Kunis is completely out of her element as Theodora. Kunis isn’t given much to work with, but her performance is devoid of any real emotion.

Oz the Great and Powerful [2013]

I also noticed some issues with the CGI — there were multiple occasions where the actors’ interactions with the artificial characters were completely off (i.e. Franco trying to shake the china girl’s hand but there being a noticable gap in between). For a film with a budget north of $200 million, these quirks are inexcusable.

And so goes Oz the Great and Powerful, a superficially pretty film without any real depth. Judging from my audience’s reaction, the kids seem to be digging it, so the film has that going for it. It’s just a shame that it isn’t as magical as it could have been.

6/10

Video Game Review: Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath HD [PS Vita]

Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath HD [PS Vita]

Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath HD
System: PS Vita (HD version also on PS3 and PC)
Genre: First-person/third-person action-adventure
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: Just Add Water
Release Date: December 18, 2012

Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath HD is an upscaled version of the 2005 Xbox title of the same name. In this, you play as The Stranger, a Clint Eastwood-esque bounty hunter — complete with poncho! — who is looking to raise some cash for a life-saving surgery. In order to get this money, he visits various towns to accept bounty contracts, most of which have high payoffs for bringing back the bounties alive (though they pay well for dead captures, too).

Gameplay consists of both first-person and third-person shooting, and the transition between the two is seamless. Instead of using the L2/R2 buttons (which don’t exist on the Vita), a simple double tap of the front touch screen will move between the two views. The third-person view is critical for advancing between areas, as the Stranger will plop down on all fours and run extremely fast. Switching to the first-person view opens up the gun-play, with standard controls like many other shooters.

Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath HD [PS Vita, 2012]

As this is an Oddworld title, weapons are anything but conventional. The Stranger’s main weapon, the crossbow, can use several different types of ammo, all of which are actually live creatures. Boombats, zap flies and stunkz are just a few of the different types of critters that can be hunted and captured as live ammo, and each one has its own unique characteristic. Some work as rockets, some work as cannon balls, and others are used to stun and knock enemies down. As such, there are enough options to suit multiple styles of play, though most will likely find two or three types that they will want to use exclusively.

The game takes place in a relatively large world full of weird little anthropomorphic characters. Many of the towns are inhabited with chicken-like creatures — their ridiculous voice acting never ceases to amuse me — and they will give you helpful hints if you get stuck. In fact, it’s near impossible to get lost, as pushing the square button will prompt the Stranger to remark on what he’s “gotsta” do next. Another handy Stranger function is the ability to beat his chest in order to heal himself (this is done by pressing the triangle button rapidly). He’s quite a handy little character, and he makes a good central protagonist.

Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath HD [PS Vita, 2012]

Most of the game revolves around finding and acquiring bounties, but just as this becomes repetitious, the story goes in a completely different direction and introduces an all-new set of allies and foes. This is a refreshing twist, even if the final act relies more heavily on shooting than ever before.

For $15, Stranger’s Wrath HD offers a lot of bang for its buck. The campaign can last anywhere from 15-20 hours, and it’s a fun ride throughout. The game is incredibly well-suited for the Vita as well, as it is easy to pick up and play in short bursts, and the HD graphics look pretty damn slick on the OLED screen. If not for the dated CGI cut-scenes, this would blend in perfectly as a brand-new title.

On a system starved for shooting games, Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath HD stands tall. There certainly isn’t anything else like it on the Vita.

8/10

Movie Project #2: Stagecoach [1939]

The 50 Movies Project: 2013 Edition

In what has become an annual tradition, I have decided to embark in a third round of the 50 Movies Project. The premise is simple — I have put together a list of 50 movies that I feel I absolutely must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. With so many films to see, it’s easy to get off track and forget about some of the essentials. This is my way of making sure I watch those that have been on my “must see” list for too long.

Stagecoach [1939]

Stagecoach [1939]
Director: John Ford
Screenplay: Dudley Nichols, Ben Hecht
Genre: Adventure/Western
Starring: John Wayne, Claire Trevor, Andy Devine, John Carradine, Thomas Mitchell
Running Time: 96 minutes

Reason for inclusion: I finally watched my first John Ford/John Wayne film, The Searchers, at the end of last year’s project. Rather than just stop there, I thought it would be a good idea to see another classic from them.
Accolades: Seven Oscar nominations (two wins — Best Music, Scoring and Thomas Mitchell for Best Supporting Actor), rated the ninth greatest Western of all time by the American Film Institute, inclusion on Roger Ebert’s Great Movies list

Well, I guess you can’t break out of prison and into society in the same week.

Stagecoach is a film of many firsts. It is director John Ford’s first sound Western, his first collaboration (of over 20) with John Wayne, and his first Western shot using the gorgeous Monument Valley of the Southwest. The film is also widely considered to have single-handedly elevated the Western into respectability. Nearly 75 years later, Stagecoach still stands as one of the finest of the genre.

Although John Wayne is inarguably the biggest name on the bill, he is merely just one of many who are given equal footing here. The film tells the tale of nine strangers, all of varying backgrounds, who are riding in a stagecoach together through dangerous Apache-infested territory. There’s Dallas (Claire Trevor), a prostitute who is driven out of her hometown by a catty group of ladies that dub themselves the “Law and Order League.” There’s Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell), an alcoholic doctor who would be excellent at his job if he could just stay sober for a minute. There’s a pregnant woman, Lucy (Louise Platt), who is heading west to be with her injured soldier husband. Other travelers include a whiskey salesman (Donald Meek), an embezzling banker (Berton Churchill), a Confederate gambler (John Carradine), a U.S. Marshal (George Bancroft) and the stage driver (Andy Devine). Then, of course, there is John Wayne.

Stagecoach [1939]

Wayne plays the role of The Ringo Kid, a fugitive who is picked up by the Marshal on charges of murder. Even though he is a criminal and escaped convict, we never get the impression that Ringo is a bad man. He never puts up a fight against the Marshal; instead, he seems more interested in making sure this stagecoach — namely, the women — make it to their destination safely. Wayne plays this character in a way that only he can, and he makes for a great hero in a carriage that badly needs one.

That isn’t to say the other characters are worthless. The prostitute Dallas (of whom Claire Trevor’s performance was actually given top billing) does well in the face of adversity, even as the others treat her as if she were a leper. The Marshal is a handy man with his gun, and even ol’ Doc Boone proves to be an asset, even if he is forced to down copious amounts of black coffee to sober up in a crucial time of need.

Stagecoach [1939]

In many ways, Stagecoach feels like a road movie, and it has a big payoff near the end. The Apaches — portrayed as nothing but savages, unfortunately — make their first appearance and begin chasing down the stagecoach. The ensuing action scene is nothing short of remarkable, even when viewed today. There are visual stunts that simply would not be attempted anymore, including one death-defying moment where an Apache is knocked off a horse directly in the path of the stagecoach and the other running stallions. By all accounts, the stuntman seemed to be okay, but holy hell that looked dangerous.

Stagecoach runs at a brisk 96 minutes, and there is never a dull moment to speak of. The film has excellent pacing; because of this, it could stand as an excellent introduction to the Western genre. John Ford, John Wayne, a memorable cast of characters and an outstanding action setpiece — what else is needed?

9/10

 
Bonus trivia: Orson Welles famously stated that he watched Stagecoach over 40 times while filming Citizen Kane.

Video Game Review: The Walking Dead [Xbox 360]

The Walking Dead: The Game

The Walking Dead
System: Xbox 360 (also on PS3, PC, Mac OS X, iOS)
Genre: Point-and-click adventure
Publisher: Telltale Games
Developer: Telltale Games
Release Date: Throughout 2012

The last time I cried was at my father’s funeral five years ago.

There have been times since then where I would get choked up, particularly after some painstakingly depressing films (i.e. Grave of the Fireflies), but nothing has made the tears really start flowing. I don’t like crying, and I have a tendency to fight it even when it feels like a natural reaction. After completing The Walking Dead, once again I found myself holding back tears, albeit less successfully this time. No video game has ever come close to evoking this type of emotion in me.

It’s funny, I shouldn’t even like The Walking Dead. I tried watching the AMC TV show of the same name, and found it embarrassingly amateur. I gave up after the first season. I’m also burnt out on the whole “zombie” fad, as it reached the point of over-saturation long ago. Yet I found myself drawn to Telltale’s episodic video game series. It grabbed a hold of me and refused to let go.

The Walking Dead [Xbox 360]

My initial plan was to review each of The Walking Dead‘s five episodes individually — I wrote about numbers one and two last year — but it began to grow tedious. How could I possibly write about each episode without using spoilers? There are groundbreaking revelations within each episode, with characters coming and going at a breakneck pace.

At its core, however, two characters remain constant: Lee and Clementine.

Lee is the player-controlled protagonist who essentially “adopts” Clementine, the eight-year-old he finds alone in a treehouse during the first episode. With her parents missing, Lee becomes something of a father figure to the young girl (later episodes even give the option of introducing her as his daughter). The relationship between these two grows with every moment, and I found myself doing everything I could to protect her.

Every episode forces Lee to make crucial decisions, most of which offer two choices that essentially equate to “bad” and “worse.” After my playing sessions, I found myself questioning some of my choices. Should I have saved a different character’s life? Should I have really stolen food from that car? I tried to do everything in the interest of Clementine — in a world that has gone to hell, the only important thing was to help this little girl survive.

The Walking Dead [Xbox 360]

In reality, that’s what The Walking Dead is about: survival. It’s near impossible to trust anyone else because that is ultimately their goal as well. Everyone is looking out for their own interests, as well as their families. Relationships are often forged but remain shaky as tensions flare up.

I was emotionally drained by the end of the game. This series really puts you through the ringer, never letting up at all. It’s fantastic storytelling, and it’s unlike any other found in a video game so far. The writing is excellent, the voice acting top notch, and the characters unforgettable.

I had never felt the way I did upon completing The Walking Dead. I wasn’t sure that video games as a medium could evoke that type of reaction out of me — hell, very few movies have, and I have seen a lot of ’em. For this alone, The Walking Dead is one of the most important games to come out in 2012, and I have absolutely no reservations about calling this the Game of the Year.

10/10

Movie Project #48: Lawrence of Arabia [1962]

Due to the surprising success of my initial Movies Project, I decided to do a part two for 2012. This time around I put a greater emphasis on directors I am not familiar with, but I also tried to compile a mix of different genres and eras. This will be an ongoing project with the finish date being sometime this year.

Lawrence of Arabia [1962]

Lawrence of Arabia [1962]
Director: David Lean
Writers: T.E. Lawrence (writings), Robert Bolt, Michael Wilson
Genre: Adventure/Biography/Drama
Starring: Peter O’Toole, Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn and Omar Sharif
Running Time: 216 minutes

The word “epic” is thrown around a lot these days, especially when it comes to film. Just this year alone, Cloud Atlas, The Hobbit and The Dark Knight Rises were recipients of this buzz word. But if there were one film to truly deserve the “epic” moniker, it would be Lawrence of Arabia.

Arguably the most intimidating entry in my project — largely due to its nearly four hour running time — I waited until just the right time to finally see the film. Thanks to this year being the 50th anniversary of its release, a fully restored version has been making its way around select theaters nationwide. As such, I spent my Christmas evening at my favorite cinema, the Music Box Theatre, taking in Lawrence of Arabia on the big screen as it was meant to be seen.

Lawrence of Arabia [1962]

The film tells the story of T.E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole), a man who I knew little about beforehand. Set during World War I, we follow along as Lawrence rises from being an eccentric British Army lieutenant to an improbable leader of the Arab revolt against the Turks. The journey there is anything but conventional.

Lawrence befriends a number of desert leaders along the way, including Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif) and Prince Feisal (Alec Guinness). He earns their trust and respect thanks to his noble actions. In one pivotal moment, the Arab group notices a man has fallen off his horse quite a ways back. While the general consensus is that it is too risky to go back for him, Lawrence takes matters into his own hands and rides back alone. He emerges, a small blip in the seering desert horizon, no longer alone, but with the man clinging to his back. This response cements Lawrence’s status as a leader, and soon the Arabs become even more accepting of him.

Lawrence of Arabia [1962]

The fact that Lawrence is able to emerge as a crucial figure in the Arab revolt is nothing short of fascinating. He is anything but a traditional military hero, and it’s easy to see why director David Lean wanted to film his story. Peter O’Toole, in his first leading role, delivers an unprecedented performance as Lawrence, bringing about an unusual form of charisma. He is enigmatic, a rebellious figure who is also a bit effeminate. He’s a man of action, and some of his behavior near the end of the revolt is startling.

The supporting cast is phenomenal as well. Omar Sharif plays a key role as Lawrence’s main compatriot in the desert, with Alec Guinness and Anthony Quinn also performing admirably as important Arab leaders. On the British side of the spectrum, Donald Wolfit and the always reliable Claude Rains play military and political leaders, respectively. Arthur Kennedy makes an appearance as an American war correspondent, looking to make Lawrence out to be a hero. Special mention should be made of José Ferrer, who is only in the film for five minutes but is a driving force in one of the most memorable scenes.

Lawrence of Arabia [1962]

Perhaps the most important figure in Lawrence of Arabia is the desert itself. The cinematography by F.A. Young is simply amazing, and the landscape is used to maximum efficiency. Several scenes show the sun beaming down on those below, with long, sweeping shots that show just how minuscule humans are in the grand scheme of things. An especially memorable moment happens when Sherif Ali is introduced. At first, we see a tiny dot in the distance. In the hazy heat, it’s difficult to tell if there is actually something there or if it is an illusion. Slowly but surely, the small dot grows bigger, and it isn’t too long before Ali enters the scene. What happens next is unexpected, but this moment perfectly encapsulates just how daunting these massive deserts truly are. I can’t recall another film that so effectively uses Earth’s own natural beauty.

Lawrence of Arabia was nominated for ten Academy Awards, winning seven of them (including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Cinematography). It’s one of the most widely recognized films of all time, with unanimous praise from most. The accolades are more than deserved, as this is a near flawless work of art. As of this writing, the film is still being shown in a handful of theaters. If it’s playing anywhere near you, this is a cinematic viewing experience you must not miss.

10/10

PC Game Review: To the Moon [2011]

To the Moon [2011]

To the Moon
System: PC
Genre: Adventure, Visual Novel
Publisher: Freebird Games
Developer: Freebird Games
Release Date: November 1, 2011

It’s always interesting when a new game comes out that tries to do something different with the medium. With last year’s indie hit, To the Moon, actual gameplay was basically scrapped in favor of telling an emotional story. Many fell head over heels for this, and it even won “Best Story” in Gamestop’s 2011 “Game of the Year” awards. It’s clear that the game struck a nerve for most. Unfortunately, it seems everyone is grading on a curve here because of the medium and not for the actual quality of the game.

To the Moon tells the story of a dying old man who has a lifelong dream to go to the moon. In a setting not unlike that of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, there is a company that allows artifical memories to be constructed, letting its recipients live out their dreams. Two employees of Sigmund Corp. — Dr. Eva Rosalene and Dr. Neil Watts — are sent to help this old man get his one wish.

To the Moon [2011]

In order to do so, they have to go back through his actual memories in reverse chronological order by picking up “mementos” along the way. This allows the scientists to learn about the man’s life while discovering exactly why he wants to go the moon. Without getting into spoilers, it isn’t a happy story, as the old man has suffered from a number of traumatic events throughout his life. In fact, by the end, this becomes a bit of a tragedy, with a few scenes included specifically to tug on the ol’ heartstrings. Unfortunately, these big reveals feel forced, and I felt little empathy for the old man, who wasn’t much of a likable fellow.

The game’s dialogue, mostly between the two scientists, is laughably bad. Neil, in particular, is a poorly-written character who acts incredibly immature — to the point of sheer annoyance. The writing is full of weak attempts at humor, as well as references to internet slang and acronyms that will surely be dated in a few years. In short, it comes across as amateur, and it is a significant cut below the films and novels that undoubtedly influenced it.

To the Moon [2011]

As for the actual gameplay, there is little. It mostly consists of walking around different areas in the old man’s life, talking to characters and picking up random “mementos” throughout. There are also half-assed attempts at sliding puzzles between each stage of his life, and they never increase in difficulty. There are a few diversions here and there, such as a brief “whack a mole” mini-game and a segment that involves riding a horse, but they just feel tacked on, and they add little in terms of entertainment.

While I am willing to overlook certain gameplay limitations if there is a good narrative to back it up, To the Moon lacks in both areas. It’s clear the emphasis here is on the story, but it cannot hold its own when compared to other dramatic works. Are we so starved for quality plot devices in video games that we are willing to grade anything resembling something different on a curve?

To the Moon [2011]

I will give the game credit for its aesthetics. Despite using the dated RPG Maker engine, the 16-bit graphics work well in this setting, and I enjoyed the throwback to days gone by. The original music score is beautiful and fits with the game’s more serious moments wonderfully, even if the title theme is played a bit much.

I hate to talk down an indie game, especially one that tries to differentiate itself from the rest, but To the Moon doesn’t come close to reaching the stars it so desperately seeks. The in-game writing, highly praised by most, would get laughed at in any other medium, and the actual gameplay is far too simplistic. At a brief four hours, at least the game doesn’t overstay its welcome.

5/10