Wednesday, May 23, 2012

B-Movie Marvels: "The Fantastic Four" (1994) - You Won't Believe How Bad a Movie about a Man with Stretchy Arms Can Be.

I've been teasing/threatening this one for a short while now and well, here it is. My review for the 1994 "The Fantastic Four" movie/catastrophe.

I'm going to get right to the point here, folks: This film is really, really bad. It's REALLY, REALLY, REALLY BAD.

I've spoken at length about various comic book movies that were either so bad they were good, or just downright unenjoyable. This one sort of transcends all of that. In 90 arduous minutes, this film dances around being traditionally mediocre to showing flickers of promise, to being completely unenjoyable to being one of the most spectacularly, gasp-inducingly, jaw-droppingly, dick-losingly, face-forgettingly atrocious pieces of celluloid every edited and packaged together with the intent of creating a moving picture for public consumption.

Essentially, this film is a fucking disaster.

First and foremost, in case there's any confusion, this review has nothing to do with the more recent Fantastic Four films (starring Chris Evans as the Human Torch which has undoubtedly caused confusion for people watching him in "Captain America" and "The Avengers"). Personally, I had no major problem with those films. They were decent popcorn flicks that just didn't really try to be anything more than that. They certainly could have been a lot more and it's a bit of a shame, but overall I think there are worse comic book movies.

To refer to this as one of those "worse comic book movies" seems as much of an understatement as to refer to the Hulk as "a trifle miffed".

"The Fantastic Four" is so bad that apparently someone went back in time and prevented it from ever even being released. According to the timeline of the universe I live in, the reason the film was never released is because "It was never even SUPPOSED to be released."

Apparently, the company that made the film had owned the movie rights to the Fantastic Four franchise for a number of years and their option would lapse if they didn't produce a movie within a given time. Their 'solution' to this was to hire infamous B-Movie God Roger Corman to produce a "film" at lightning-speed (which he was well-known for doing) assumedly so that they'd be able to hold on to the rights for a bit longer - maybe with the intention of making a better film? Who knows? Essentially, from the beginning of this film's production, it was never supposed to be more than a leverage tool, a stamp on the production company's loyalty card so they could get a free latte at that year's SAG Awards. Personally, I don't believe any of this. In my own personal canon of the universe, I believe that Stan Lee, so completely horrified by this film's comprehensive woefulness, sold his soul to Mephisto in exchange for the ability to go back in time and fabricate some mad story about how the film was only made to retain the movie rights to the comic.

I've tried and tried to examine this movie's story, but it's too bizarre and has too many WTF moments where I just can't believe something that was made by industry professionals could be so terrible. Admittedly some of the stuff in the movie bears the stamp of seeming like the writers and actors were at least trying (the scene where Reed suggests that their powers have backgrounds in their individual psyches, is at least ambitious), but most of the movie is just total bullshit. There are episodes of Power Rangers with better, more ambitious production values.

Here's a few key moments of Complete Nonsense in this film:

- Reed Richards and Ben Grimm are 10-15 years older than Johnny and Sue, and visit them early in the movie when they're CHILDREN. Later, when Reed is arguing that it makes absolutely no logical sense whatsoever to bring two inexperienced 20-somethings (with no knowledge of astrophysics) into space with them, Ben argues that "Johnny won't forgive you if you don't take him," as if they were going to "Space Mountain" at Disneyland AND NOT OUTER SPACE. Reed changes his mind when he sees how beautiful Sue is. That's right: Mr Fantastic in this movie is kind of a paedophile.

- There's this completely arbitrary secondary villain named "The Jeweller" who serves almost no purpose whatsoever in the movie except to drive some of the movie's "plot" points. When Ben Grimm falls in love at first "sight" with a blind woman (oh, brother) so too does the Jeweller, who kidnaps her and makes her his "queen" (I couldn't make this up).

- Alicia (aforementioned blind woman, who actually is a character in the comics) meets Ben (in human form) once, at a bank, where he bumps into her and helps her pick up the things that she's dropped. After this, she randomly decides she's in love with him (see the video at the end of the review).

- The film is RIFE with kind-of inappropriate touching and weird moments of intimacy between all the characters. Almost every character in the film hugs every other character at one point or another. More signs that the writers were drunk when they wrote the film.

- Three actors play Doctor Doom in different stages of the villain's story arc. In no way were three actors needed.

- This.

- This.


"Fantastic 4" certainly isn't the worst film I've seen, but it's without-a-doubt the worst comic book movie I have ever seen (although I've never seen "Elektra"). There are so many elements of total badness in the film (including entire characters, like the Jeweller) that could have easily been rewritten but were left in; there were so many special effects that just didn't cut the mustard and shouldn't have even been attempted without a bigger budget (the Human Torch's full flame-on being an example) and there's just generally a conflicting, depressing atmosphere of certain people (like the actors) really trying to make something special out of this mess, while others (the production crew, probably the writers, the company that ended up never releasing the film) never really believing in the product they were trying to create, to the point where it's just a total mess that can't stand up right.

As I said in the beginning of the review, it's hard to even classify this as a "So Bad It's Good" film like Captain America or The Punisher. It absolutely belongs in that genre and should be watched with that frame of mind, but even the pace of the movie is bizarre, with long, lumbering scenes of exposition completely annihilating even an ironic interest in the film. Pretty much every scene with the Jeweller comes close to being totally unwatchable. And yet...I absolutely recommend this film to Bad Film enthusiasts (I am going to rewatch this with my friends and many, many beers in the very near future). It's the bacteria on the knee of a flea scraping at the bottom of the barrel of comic book movies and it shows in absolutely every way. While the film does have a scant few redeeming factors (compared to the other films I've reviewed, this one is really close to the comics, outside of the fact that it randomly introduces a new villain), in almost every respect it is a supernaturally bad film that haunts the viewer for days after they've seen it. "The Fantastic Four" is The Worst Marvel Movie Ever Made.

So that's tentatively the end of "B-Movie Marvels", although I may revisit the title later for other, more recent Marvel movies I haven't seen (like "Elektra"). But, if you're still interested in bad superhero movies, I'll be taking a look at the movie that may have inspired Marvel Studios to make their huge crossover epic "The Avengers" (no, I'm joking. It so totally, absolutely didn't). Yes, my loyal followers, next week I'll be taking a look at the "Justice League of America" TV movie pilot from 1997, described by many as "a really shabby version of 'Friends' with superheroes in it".

Sunday, May 13, 2012

"Spider-Man: Web of Shadows" (2008) Game Review

I was delighted to hear that the game based on "The Amazing Spider-Man" movie is going to be a free-roaming epic, similar to "Spider-Man 2" which I've reviewed in the past and which I still believe to be one of the very best licensed games of all time. Lately, the Spider-Man games have taken a step back and have avoided the free-roaming approach in favour of simple, level-based brawling (Shattered Dimensions and Edge of Time). After swinging majestically through the open-world streets of Manhattan, I had no interest in dialling down the virtual experience, so I never bothered playing either of these games.

I've often wondered why Activision ever decided to abandon the free-roaming option in the first place. With my excitement surrounding this upcoming game, I decided to examine the last Spider-Man game that used a free-roaming premise; another game I've never played for one reason or another: "Spider-Man: Web of Shadows".

Unlike the trilogy of movie-games, this game isn't based on an existing storyline, giving it free reign to tell its own unique story. The game sees Spider-Man reacquainted with the black symbiote costume after a small piece of the villainous Venom's skin attaches itself to the wall-crawler. Herein lies the primary hook of the game: the ability to switch between the traditional red and blue Spider-Man costume and the black symbiote costume at will. You don't have to go through the main menu or even pause the game to trigger this change - a simple press of the left-analog stick causes the black suit to quickly wrap itself onto Spidey's body.

The two suits have their own distinct moveset, completely distinct from each other. Red n' Blue Spidey is swifter and more skilled at aerial and web-based attacks while the black suit is more about sheer concussive power while Spidey has his feet on the ground, as well as giving Spidey ever-increasing mastery over the black suit's creepy symbiote tendril abilities, allowing Spider-Man to grapple enemies from far away or whip them into submission with vine-like tentacles. When you first play the game, your first instinct is to use the black suit as often as possible. As you progress through the game and level-up the abilities of both suits, you find yourself using the red suit more and more, as it has a wider range of skills and abilities.

In-keeping with the dark psychology of the black symbiote suit, the game gives the player the ability to choose between clean cut justice and darker choices, reflecting the control the symbiote suit has over Spidey. This is where the game really excels, as the outcome of the game depends on the choices you make. It's no Mass Effect, but it gives you a lot more control over what you're doing as Spider-Man. While I dearly love the Arkham games (and while both of them are far better than this game), I often disagree with the decisions forced upon me in those games. Sometimes while playing the story-mode, I don't feel like I am Batman, I feel like I'm taking orders from him. In this game, you get to decide what kind of hero Spider-Man is going to be. In this respect, it makes much better use of the black suit than Spider-Man 3, doing everything that I hoped the latter game would do.

One of the coolest things about the game is how New York changes as the story progresses. In the beginning of the game, it's the same NY we've seen in other games, with typical gangbangers and other more souped-up villains causing grief here and there requiring Spider-Man's intervention. As the game continues, the symbiotes get more and more control over the city, until all of Manhattan is deserted by its citizens, with only creepy symbiote zombies remaining. Even some of the buildings have been mutilated and covered in symbiote slime with hives sprouting out of them.

The combat is greatly improved on Spidey 3. Spider-Man uses a brand new 'web-strike' attack that is quite familiar to how Spider-Man would attack villains in the Spider-Man animated cartoon of the 90s. He shoots a webline at them from mid-air and uses the gained momentum to smack into them at force. The game mistakenly places too much emphasis on this move, however, making it a necessary part of the gameplay, rather than just being a cool new move you can use. I really didn't like how Spider-Man had no concussive projectile abilities like in most of the previous games. You still have impact webbing, but it's not as effective as it was in "Spider-Man 2".

The aerial combat was probably my favourite ability of the Red n' Blue Spider-Man. It's a lot more like the aerial combat in Spidey 2, as opposed to the useless, forced counter-system in Spidey 3. Most of the combat in the Black Suit is great. It's easy to find yourself using the black suit for most of the fights, as Black-Suited Spidey eliminates his enemies quicker and neater than Red n' Blue Spidey. It's a little bit less of a precise science however, and you're not quite as athletic in the black suit, but that's kind of the point. The ability to switch between suits is great overall, but can become very irksome in heated combat situations if your thumb slips and you accidentally trigger a change without meaning to, completely throwing off your momentum and the moves you intended to pull off. In this respect, it was probably a bit of a mistake making the left-analog stick the button you press to trigger the change. Surely the less-used right-analog stick would have been a lot more appropriate as a change-triggering button.

The biggest feeling I had during the combat stages of this game was that compared to the other games' reasonably realistic, credible uses of a man who can shoot webs and walk on walls (heh), this game was just completely overblown and ridiculous. It's like a videogame of a Spider-Man comic from the 1990s where the emphasis was on everything being as "EXTREME!!" and "EPIC!!" as possible, even if it didn't make any sense. A lot of Spider-Man's special web moves in this game make no sense whatsoever given the character's powers and abilities.

Generally, the combat in Web of Shadows is a big improvement, but it still falls into the same familiar trap as "Spider-Man 3" did, by putting too much emphasis on gimmicky context-sensitivity and not enough old-fashioned freedom to the player. Web-strike is great every now and then, but it was a mistake to make it such a central, necessary part of the gameplay.

(from "Spider-Man: The Movie" for PS2. Note the 'invisible ceiling'.)

One of the most iconic things about free-roaming Spider-Man games is the ability to swing around New York like you're really Spider-Man. One of the few things "Spider-Man 3" got absolutely right was how it perfected this mechanic, improving the already-great system in "Spider-Man 2". "Web of Shadows" is still good, but it's not nearly as breathtaking as it was in Spidey 3. There's no button to speed up your swingspeed like there was in previous games (Spider-Man just becomes increasingly faster automatically as the game progresses), which was always one of the most fun aspects of the control-system of the previous games. Not only this, but the developers severely dumbed-down the realism of the web-swinging by bringing back the most maligned aspect of the original PSOne-era Spider-Man games: "Invisible Ceiling-Swinging" whereby Spider-Man's weblines don't anchor to specific buildings and he appears to be hanging out of mid-air. It's nowhere near as ridiculous as in those early games and for the most part, Spider-Man appears to be swinging from building to building, and usually you can't swing in totally-barren buildingless areas, but there's a few notable exceptions to this, unlike the previous two games. It's just really off-putting when you tilt the camera upwards and you can clearly see that Spidey is swinging out of the clouds in the sky.

Seeing as how this game doesn't exist within the continuity of the movies, this gave the developers more freedom to include other elements and characters from the Marvel Universe. Unfortunately, most of the classic characters we know and love, such as the Fantastic Four, the Avengers, most of the X-Men, Nick Fury, Doctor Strange and Daredevil are all absent. All we get is Wolverine, Black Widow, Black Cat and...Moon Knight? Moon Knight especially feels like someone the developers used because they weren't allowed use a better character because of all the different films coming out around the time the game was made. It's also a shame the developers weren't allowed to use Nick Fury (unsurprising, seeing as how the first "Iron Man" came out that Summer) and had to settle for Black Widow as the director of S.H.I.E.L.D. (this was long before ScarJo immortalised her on the big screen, remember). This is all a bit disappointing, as it feels like you're travelling through a second-rate version of the Marvel Universe, compared to the amazing sightseeing romp "The Punisher" game was.

The biggest problem in the game is its script, its story, its characterisations and above all else, its voice performances. None of these elements are anywhere near as magically strong as in "Spider-Man 2", which showcases the one of the best examples of a script enhancing the playthrough of a game. Storywise, the basic plot of a symbiote invasion of New York is fine and is typical comic-book fare, but we're never given a reason as to why Spider-Man suddenly trusts his symbiotic black suit, which he so desperately tried to rid himself of before. He frequently defends the suit and his choice to use it throughout the game, with no reason given to us as to his change of tune. He also never exhibits any guilt for bringing the symbiote to Earth in the first place, indirectly causing the invasion that serves as the game's plot. Characters frequently call him out on this throughout the game and Spider-Man just jokingly shrugs off any suggestion that he's to blame for this citywide catastrophe. It's an offensively out-of-character representation of Peter Parker.

The actor playing Spider-Man gives the worst, most exaggerated, cringe-inducing performance as Spider-Man I have ever heard (and that includes 1970s Nicolas Hammond and his Japanese counterpart, both of whom were nothing like any Spider-Man I've ever seen or heard). He sounds just about as stereotypically dorky as possible and completely repels you from wanting to watch the game's cutscenes. On the subject of cutscenes, they are among the worst edited scenes I've ever seen in a game. The dialogues are frequently subject to bizarre pauses or interruptions and sometimes it doesn't make any sense what characters are saying. It gets better and more cohesive towards the end certainly, but there's generally an extremely unfinished feel to the game's presentation.

Also, an absolutely staggering misstep in how the game is developed is that it doesn't allow you to continue roaming freely through the city playing side-missions after you've finished the story like all the other free-roaming Spider-Man games (not to mention other free-roaming superhero games, even the really bad ones) allow you to do. The story ends in such a way that the only way to continue playing the game is to play from the start, losing all of the upgrades you achieved throughout your first playthrough. It's bizarre and insane that the developers expected players to just play through absolutely every nook and cranny the game has to offer within the confines of the main story. When it comes to games like this, I always breeze through the story first to see how that part of the game unfolds and THEN I focus on the smaller stuff for a comprehensive experience. It's baffling that the developers didn't feel this way when they were developing the game. I know it would have been difficult to explain the state of the city or how Spider-Man is still able to switch between suits after the climax of the game's story, but frankly I don't care. They should have found a way to make it work. This is my biggest problem with the game. Instead of happily continuing on from my original progress, I've turned the game off and started replaying the Arkham City challenges, instead.

So is this game worth playing?

For the most part, yes. I think it makes much better use of the capabilities of the Black Suit than in the Spider-Man 3 game and while there's certainly plenty wrong with the story, the overall plot is epic and lots of fun to play through. This game captures the silly over-the-top feel of the kinds of Spider-Man stories I grew up with (in the comics and especially in the 1990s animated series) in a way that perhaps the more serious gameplay design of previous Spider-Man games did not. Where the presentation fails, the action succeeds. And as we all know, action is Spider-Man's reward.

It's by no means the definitive Spider-Man game that "Spider-Man 2" comes so close to being. Too much is wrong with the presentation of the story, the combat, the swinging and the absolutely dumbassed decision to effectively steal your progress away from you after you've finished the story mode, but I can't deny that "Spider-Man: Web of Shadows" has a charm all its own. It's not a great game and there's a lot wrong with it, but it's still a really good Spider-Man game and if you're craving some more web-swinging around New York, you could do worse than checking this one out.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Thoughts on the new "The Dark Knight Rises" trailer

So yesterday, the new trailer hit for "The Dark Knight Rises".

This isn't going to be one of these "Here's what I think's going to happen based on every individual shot in the two-minute trailer" posts. I hate people who waste their time on such rubbish (ahem). I just thought I'd post a general reaction to the overall feel of the trailer and the direction the film seems to be going in.

First off, I really hoped they'd adjust and improve the visual of Christian Bale's Batman, but they haven't. He's wearing the exact same costume he wore in the last film and it looks completely ridiculous.

I know what you're thinking "Blah, blah, blah all superhero suits are ridiculous." Well, that's as valid an opinion as any, but personally I think compared to other superhero uniforms and even other Batsuits, this one just doesn't cut the mustard. The Batsuit in Batman Begins was amazing, imposing and intimidating. In "The Dark Knight" they slimmed it down into something that looks more like something from Power Rangers than the world of Gotham City. Batman just looks too skinny and the cape just doesn't drape on his shoulders the way it did more effectively in other films. And the mask/helmet makes the Dark Knight look like a Ninja Turtle. I just don't get how people think it's an improvement on the first Christopher Nolan Batsuit.

My other problem with Bale-as-Batman is his nasally, lispy voice. Again, in Batman Begins, the bat-voice was perfect. It was a throaty rasp, perfectly suited for urban crimefighting. In the second film, it uncomfortably deteriorated into the ridiculous lisp, so often lampooned online. It's the one flaw of the film that no one can even come close to defending.

I've heard talk that Nolan was aware of this and planned to adjust the voice for the film and just never quite go around to it. I had hoped that this would be rectified for the new film, but again, Batman sounds silly in the trailer. Listen to him say "Not yet." It's as if he's being choked by the mask.

As for Catwoman, I think she looks great. I love the idea that the cat-ears on her costume are actually night-vision goggles, and I generally love the Julie Newmar-feel they're going for with the costume. It really helps to differentiate the look of this Selina from that of Batman Returns. People have complained that her mask just doesn't disguise her enough, and that's certainly fair, but as a professional thief (again, assuming that they go in that direction with the character in the movie) is she even really trying to be seen at all? I just hope her acting ability stands up, as she's rarely excelled in that department (although she was fairly good in "Brokeback Mountain"). Aside from that, the trailer seems to indicate that she's going to be some kind of field-partner for Batman, which I like and which ties in well to the more anti-heroic direction the character's headed over the past twenty odd years. People are calling her this movie's answer to the problem of Robin and they're not wrong.

Personally, while Catwoman looks to specifically be Batman's sidekick in this film, I'm fairly certain that Joseph Gordon Levitt's mysterious character 'Detective John Blake' is going to act as a stand-in for the feel and spirit of Robin in the comics. He looks like Dick Grayson, he's a cop in the GCPD (which Grayson has been in his career as Nightwing) and he seems to be every bit the clean-cut, honest-living young man who believes in Batman's mission that Grayson is. In the comics, Robin provides Batman with a link to grounded humanity; the kind of outlook that escapes him the longer he spends scrambling around in the darkness. I suspect Blake will provide Batman with a similar outlook. People have opined that Blake might also act as an Azrael/Terry McGinnis type of character and will actually take over from Batman after he falls in this film...I really don't think the film is going to go in that direction. This is Bruce Wayne's mission. The hard lesson he had to learn in "The Dark Knight" is that he's the only man who can save Gotham. Batman has to come from him, not a successor.

And then there's Bane. A lot of people complained that his dialogue was unintelligible in the previous trailer, so they seem to have isolated it in this one. I think he sounds great in this one, although I certainly preferred him in the last one. I'm keeping a completely open mind about Bane in this movie. The character in the comics was effective and credible both psychologically and physically as someone who could defeat Batman. Unfortunately, his eventual downfall led a lot to be desired and within Batman's world they haven't really done anything particularly noteworthy ever since. I'm looking at the character in this movie as a blank slate, and I like that. This movie has the impossible task of having to carry on from a villain as culturally and aesthetically iconic as Heath Ledger's Joker. With Bane, they seem to be taking a streamlined, toned-down approach. He's much more of an invisible villain than the Joker, indicating that they're taking a quieter, streamlined approach to topping their previous film.

The last thing I'll say is that I think a lot of people are going to be disappointed by this film. I don't believe this will be the grand-standing epic the last film was. I'm personally hoping for a smaller, more personal, more Batman-centric story, than another extravaganza and I have a feeling that that could be the film we get. If "Batman Begins" was the prologue, than "The Dark Knight Rises" will be the epilogue, leaving "The Dark Knight" as the central, magnum opus in-between. The main thing this film provides is an appropriate ending to a really significant time as a comic-book fan, when one of the two or three most iconic characters of the medium was elevated in the public's eye to the stuff of legend. I'll see you all on opening night.