Thursday, September 17, 2009

Whiteout (2009) - Kate Beckinsale stumbles on a VERY cold case

Early on in “Whiteout,” there is a scene in which U.S. Marshall Carrie Stetko (Kate Beckinsale) strips off all of her clothes and hops in the shower for our guilty pleasure.

Later on, Stetko has an innocuous and unnecessary conversation with a character that is given a good chunk of dialog, but is never heard from again.

Hmmm. I wonder who that guy could be.

“Whiteout,” directed by Dominic Sena and based on a graphic novel of the same name, is a dull, formulaic crime thriller that hopes against hope its Antarctic setting will distinguish it just enough from other crime thrillers to attract an audience. Here is a movie you already know the melody to, even if you don’t quite know the words.

The plot has to do with Stetko, U.S. Marshall for an Antarctican research station, investigating a corpse that is found in the middle of the ice fields. When the investigation turns up another body, Stetko enlists the help of U.N. official Robert Pryce (Gabriel Macht) and rookie pilot Delfy (Colombus Short) in order to find out what’s happening.
Pryce (Macht) and Stetko (Beckinsale) investigate what the frozen-heck is going on.

No cliché is unturned during “Whiteout's” 104 minute runtime. On the cliché wagon is a scene where another minor character refuses to tell Stetko what has happened, but instead tells her to come over to his research center: “you’ll understand everything.” I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by saying that he is promptly murdered before he can tell her anything.

Also included on the cliché list are some very flagrant red herrings about who the villain may be near the end, a plot device centering on someone Finding Something He Wasn’t Supposed To Find, and the obligatory faux-nudity scene that so many 18–25 year olds hanker for with their violence these days.

Beckinsale, looking beautiful as ever, manages to carry herself with dignity and brings a strength to the character, and does her best with the material given. As Stetko’s friend Dr. John Fury, Tom Skerritt brings a sort of aged calm to his character, and handles the screen charismatically.
Always a talented actress, Kate Beckinsale uses her exceptional chops on an exceptionally under-written character.

Everyone else has little to do but wrestle with the dialog, which alternates between off-the-shelf peril-speak like “Nobody knows we’re down here?” and odd, lady-doth-protest-too-much lines to remind us that we’re in the arctic, like “It’ll lower your core temperature.” Also included for the audience’s benefit is a helpful explanation of exactly what a whiteout is.

The film works best when it’s covering CSI: Antarctica territory. Early scenes where Stetko and Fury examine the body to determine cause of death provided me with a twinge of intrigue.

Less effective are the thriller sections, where Beckinsale is chased (all while looking absolutely gorgeous!) through a frozen research station by a bundled-up man with an icepick. And the less said of the film's anticlimactic third act and Stetko’s forgettable backstory, the better.
The thriller sections of the movie don't really gel well.

The film certainly looks pretty, though. Filmed in Montreal, “Whiteout” includes several wide, panning shots of Canada’s barren, frozen landscapes. It’s ironic that a movie filmed in such a bright environment could house an atmosphere for a murder mystery, but “Whiteout” uses the scenery effectively on this front.

There is nothing really wrong with “Whiteout;” the actors perform competently, the soundtrack provides emotion when it is needed, and the film never makes any glaring missteps. This is a reasonably serviceable crime thriller for people who really like reasonably serviceable crime thrillers.

However, poor pacing, clichéd story, and a general lack of interesting plot developments make “Whiteout” hard for me to recommend. Give this one the cold shoulder.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Super Metroid (SNES) + Testermix - Fall '09

Super Metroid has been a game that I've heard for what seems like forever; I think the first time I remember someone singing its praise was when I first subscribed to Nintendo Power in 1996. Yeah. It's been around a while. It's become popular because of its deft combination of intense action, creative platforming, and deep (literally) exploration, along with its polished graphics and atmospheric soundtrack. Moreover, the game imparts a sense of isolation on the player that sticks around through the adventure; Samus Aran is without a doubt all alone and fighting for survival from the moment the player presses start.

Super Metroid has received lots and lots of hardcore gamer love, and I think they have several points. There is undoubtedly a huge sense of accomplishment in finding all of the hidden items, and the run-and-gun action makes for some intense boss fights. The game is also gorgeous, with some great looking sprites and creative art direction. However, I have a couple gripes regarding the gameplay, though they may have to do more with my gaming preferences vs. the actual quality of the game (aka, it's fun for others, just not for me).
Greatest game ever?

First things first, a description for the uninitiated. Super Metroid is a 2-D sidescroller for the Super Nintendo that follows the exploits of bounty hunter Samus Aran. The previous two games for the NES and Game Boy involved Samus hunting down dangerous, life-sucking aliens called Metroids. In the first one for the NES, space pirates had stolen the creatures from the Galactic Federation in order to turn them into weapons (think "Aliens"), and it was up to Samus to destroy both the pirates and the Metroids they stole.

In the second one for the Game Boy had Samus traveling to the Metroid's home planet of SR388 (sounds like a zip code to me) in order to destroy all of them. At the end of the second game, Samus discovered a newly-hatched Metroid, which mistook Samus for its mother. Samus lead the Metroid back to the Galactic Headquarters so that scientists could study the creature.

Super Metroid picks up shortly after the end of the second game. It begins with Ridley, an uber badguy from the pirates, stealing the Metroid away, and hiding out on the planet Zebes. Samus vows to finish it this time, once and for friggin' all.
Justice has a blaster for an arm.

The gameplay was unique for its time in its emphasis on exploring. Instead of progressing from left to right as in most platforming games (Mario, Sonic, Donkey Kong Country, etc), players were dropped into the world and had to find their way on their own. The player progressed by defeating area bosses and earning new items, opening up new areas that couldn't be accessed before. For example, the player comes to a the bottom of a tall canyon without providing a way to get to the top. The area is inaccessible at the time, but when the player defeats the next boss and gets the Ice Beam, he can come back and freeze the floating enemies, creating platforms to jump on so that he can get to the top.

Further adding to the need to explore are the hidden items. Scattered around the environment are hidden items that increase the players life, how many missiles or bombs he can hang onto, or other powerups like that. The game can be beaten without finding all of these, but they provide an incentive for exploring everything you can in the game. Also, when the game is beaten, it displays a) the time it took you to beat the game, and b) the percentage of items you found, adding an element of competition to the game; contests of who can beat the game the fastest while finding all the items are STILL going on to this very day!
This sort of TV-picture-taking happens surprisingly frequently with games like this.

So what did I think of it? Alarmingly similar to my previous post regarding The Beatles: I can understand why it is revered, but I'm not as head-over-heels about it as some are. Let me explain. I did have a fun time exploring the environment, finding hidden items, and watching my initially blank map become filled. I also enjoyed the platforming elements of the game, as I'm always a sucker for jumping on things.

However, there were a couple things about Super Metroid that just didn't gel well with me and my gaming steez. The biggest of these is the complete and total absence of direction in the game. When I say that the game drops you in, I mean that you step out of your spaceship at the beginning of the game without a CLUE of what you're supposed to do first. There are moments in the game where you defeat a boss, and you stare at the screen wondering what happens next, not realizing that the boss drained the lava in another (very far away) part of the map, and that you have to backtrack to a specific area in that part of the map and try to find some hidden door to let you progress.
This is the map screen. You and it will be BFFs by the time the end rolls around.

This is something that gamers just did back in 1996, but I'm not sure if I've ever been a fan of this style of progression. At least tell me where to go next! I don't have time to look at every single corner of the map where I think I might be able to use a Power Bomb! Sure it's rewarding to finally find the elevator that takes you to the next area, but unless I set aside an evening where I know I'm going to get frustrated looking around for a stupid hidden breakable floor (and keep in mind, I play games to unwind), I'm probably not even going to bother to play this game very often. The world record time for finishing the game is 32 minutes and 27 seconds. In the nine months from when I bought it and when I finished it, my game-beating time was 9 hours and 32 minutes. Most of that was aimless wandering. Fun.
You wouldn't know by looking at the picture, but there's a hidden passage way to some hidden power-ups under those real-looking-but-totally-fake spikes. How would you even figure that out?!

Apart from that, the game was pretty fun, but I sure wouldn't put it at the top of my list. When I knew where to go (EXACTLY where to go), I had fun. When I didn't, well, I looked online for a friggin progression guide with pictures. At the very least, this game is worth a playthrough by hardcore gamers who want to know their roots about the Metroid franchise. If you're a casually gaming person with a limited amount of time to commit, though, I'd recommend it only if you have a Player's Guide handy.

8.25 / 10
33 / 40

On a slightly more positive note, here's the playlist for a mix I made the other day. It's a collection of some of the jams I've been listening to recently. Enjoy!

1) T.I. - Live Your Life feat. Rihanna
2) Weird Al Yankovic - CNR
3) The Lonely Island - Space Olympics
4) Outkast - Bowtie feat. Sleepy Brown and Jazzy Pha
5) Missy Elliott - Slide
6) Jonathan Coulton - Skullcrusher Mountain
7) Thin Lizzy - The Boys Are Back In Town
8) Forever The Sickest Kids - Whoa Oh! (Me vs. Everyone)
9) Team Teamwork - Pimp C, Li'l Keke & P.O.P. - Knockin' Doorz Down (Hyrule Field)
10) Team Teamwork - Slim Thug & Mike Jones - Still Tippin' (Great Fairy's Fountain)
11) S.S.H. - The Decisive Battle
12) Bomani "D'mite" Armah - Read A Book
13) Goodnight Sunrise - Leave The Ground
14) Beyoncé - Halo
15) The Material - No One Has To Know

Saturday, September 12, 2009

I Ain't Got Nothin' But Rock Band, Eight Days A Week

The Beatles were always a band that I appreciated at arm's length. I respected what The Beatles were and what influence they had on rock and roll (or, at least, had heard about this a great deal), but I never really experienced my share of Beatlemania.

Which is why I was greatly surprised when I found myself getting excited for The Beatles Rock Band as the game neared release. E3 came and went with little reaction elicited from me, but as the release date came closer, the hype train started chugging, and I thought about what this game could be for me.
Ringo Starr and Sir Paul McCartney promoting The Beatles Rock Band at E3

First off, it's Rock Band, which is a great place to begin with. Second off, the game represented a good jump-off point for me to get into The Beatles beyond their "1" compilation that came out a while ago. And lastly, I have at least two friends who are VERY much into The Beatles, so I figured we could all split it and it wouldn't be so expensive. And so last night, after a particularly hectic day, we all decided we'd order pizza and purchase The Beatles Rock Band, just to sing away (or in my case, drum away) the stress.

The Beatles Rock Band is more than just Rock Band with The Beatles skinned over it. The game takes you from when The Beatles first started out in The Cavern club in Liverpool all the way to their final rooftop performance, touching on many highlights of their career along the way. However, we didn't get a chance to experience any of that last night, as we leaped RIGHT into Quickplay; we're planning on getting around to the Story mode sometime, though.
During the early years they perform at live backgrounds, but their later work
involves psychedelic "dreamscapes." Very trippy.

My initial reactions to is one of cautious optimism. This game is probably one of the most self-explanatory I've ever heard of: The Beatles Rock Band; it's Rock Band, with The Beatles. I do appreciate some of the small tweaks, though. For example, when you first start the game, it immediately asks if you want to calibrate the settings so that your notes are accurate, instead of finding out that the game is wrong and having to adjust for it later. Also, No Fail mode is selectable from the Everybody Press The Green Button screen instead of buried in the menus, and there's a small countdown from when you pause the game and when you start it back up.

I don't think that I'm totally blown away, but I also don't think I was supposed to be. The game is more or less Rock Band with The Beatles. That said, though, I can see this being a great hook on getting my parents into Rock Band, as well as some of my non-video game friends. This'll also give me a good chance to become better acquainted with The Beatles' catalog so that I can hopefully appreciate them better. And, it's another batch of new songs for Rock Band, which is never ever a bad thing.
There's no way this + Rock Band can turn out sour.

All in all, while The Beatles Rock Band didn't completely reinvent the Rock Band wheel for me, it still feels like a worthy purchase, more-so when we're all able to start Story Mode together. At the very least, the game rekindles some of my curiosity about The Beatles, and that's where this game succeeds the most: it effectively introduces them to a new generation of potential fans.

Here's one of my favorite episodes of The Powerpuff Girls. I think you'll find it theme-appropriate.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Mix CDs: My Thoughts On Them and Why They're More Important Than I've Been Treating Them

I was chilling out at Jordyn and Nicole's room tonight, and while Kelly played Wii Fit, Jordyn started rifling through a large stack of mix CDs that she's made herself over the school years. Now, when I say large, I mean one of those huge (and I mean HUGE) spindles that's meant to hold at least 75 or so. Anyways, she pulled off like half the stack and we started listening to them one after another, occasionally stopping to listen to a part of a song, but mostly just skipping through after like three seconds of recognition.

We've all played THAT game before, where you're cruising through someone else's mix while on the bus or in someone's room, not to listen to the songs, but to listen to see if you can recognize anything. This is something that is starting to wain a little in the era of iPods and Pandora-suggested music binges, which is ironic because the ability to create a mix has never been easier. Playlists seem like they're meant to bridge the gap between a burned CD-R and a 120-gig iPod Classic, but there are too many small differences; you have to force the person to listen to your playlist on YOUR iPod, which cuts down on the sharable nature of the mix, and playlists have the potential to be INCREDIBLY lengthy, whereas mix CDs have to be 80 minutes or less, no questions asked.
Nine steps forward, but one step back

I was a huge mix fan when I was younger. All throughout middle school and into my freshman year of high school, I made mixes for myself and other people. I specifically remember having a mix titled "Road Rock" that I would throw on when we drove to Missoula for a Grizzly game (it had "Satellite" by P.O.D. and other stuff like that), and I always had a different mix for when we would go on the road to a track meet in 8th grade. Even into high school, I still made a few mixes here and there for my trusty DiscMan. Heck, I even made myself a radio-recorded mixTAPE during the summer of 2003!

Then I got my iPod, and that sort of thing went out the window for a while. This was also the time when I started getting really heaver into music, specifically into albums. I loved the coherentness and tightness that albums represented, so I slowly moved away from random collections of songs, to bodies of work that could represent themselves out of context. So for a while, I stopped making mixes and went with regular albums.
Let's face it, these don't look as good in CD wallets

Then in 2005, my friend Jeff's sister Amy asked if I could give her any bands that she could look into. Since I'm always sort of a hoity-toity highbrow when it comes to finding new music for people (I also like listening to more obscure, discoverable bands), I was only too happy to put together a collection of songs. This time, instead of haphazardly throwing all of the songs I wanted onto a disc, I sat down and deliberately thought out the genres I was representing, the sequencing of each song and how well they flowed into each other, and if I had a good balance of "lead single" songs versus "supporting" songs. It was a bit of work, but it was very rewarding. So much so, in fact, that I decided to christen it with a title: Testermix.

That sort of kicked off a mix Renaissance for me: I would make mixes for people at their request, sometimes with better results than others. It was fun to share music, and interesting for me to try and revisit my songs and rearrange them into something that felt cohesive and different. However, since I was making them largely for other people, I couldn't experience the thrill and nostalgia of seeing what the next track was, mostly because I didn't keep a hard copy for myself.

It wasn't until last month that I finally realized the pull that mix CDs have had on me, and how much I really value them. It started with Regi giving me a crapton of music when he visited Bozeman in August. Naturally, when you give someone a crapton of musc, there's a good chance that you can become lost in all of it. Fortunately for me, though, Regi was thoughtful enough to put together a companion mix to help introduce me to the artists he was putting on my hard drive. I ended up listening to the mix way more than I anticipated, which helped remind me of how useful and entertaining a good mix can be if executed properly.

The second thing happened a few weeks later, when I was visiting down in Colorado and stopped by Regi's. I figured I'd return him the favor, so I scoured my library and turned out another Testermix, only this time, since I was using some recent favorites, I ended up listening to the whole thing multiple times over the course of the trip. I made a couple minor tweaks to that mix and gave it to a coworker at RightNow, Joelle, as a means to introduce her to Goodnight Sunrise. I remember when I gave it to her, she said something to the effect of "Awesome! No one does this sort of thing anymore, so thanks!"
This woman is chock full of unconventional wisdom

The more I thought about what she said, the more I realized that people DON'T do mixes much anymore. This is a shame to me, because mixes are some of the most social things you can do with your music: you can share it with people and help them find new music, or at least give them memories of you. I remember a couple mixes from Luke's friends much better than I remember the actual people!

And so, to close, I'm setting up a new suggestion for myself: I'm going to try and create more mixes for myself and eventually burn them onto CD. Lately I've been having a hard time of choosing what to listen to on the way to class, so this could be just the fix I need. I think I'll also pass the benefits on to my dear readers, as I will be including further mixes in future blog posts; that way, you can follow along at home as well! In the meantime, here's a nice 7-song EP of some old-school Andrew joints to get you started:

1) Autopilot Off - "Make A Sound"
2) Jurassic 5 - "Great Expectations"
3) Little Brother - "The Becoming"
4) The Roots - "Get Busy"
5) Thrice - "Staring At The Sun"
6)Black Star - "Definition"
7) Fall Out Boy - "Grand Theft Autumn"


Wednesday, September 2, 2009

For A Few Dollars More (1965)

I've recently acquired an affinity for Westerns. Or at least, I've acquired an affinity for acquiring an affinity for Westerns; I've wanted to start liking them for a while now. However, the Western isn't exactly the most burgeoning genre nowadays, and I haven't had a whole lot of incentives to drag myself to Hastings' Westerns shelf and try to decide which of the myriad movies would be a good place to start.

A couple months ago I was reminded about "The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly," and so I decided to start from there. "The Good," however, is the third in a trilogy of spaghetti westerns from Sergio Leone, so that meant I had to go through two movies before I could make my "official" start. If this seems anal, you should ask me about my "24" viewing habits sometime.
Clint Eastwood as The Man With No Name

I started on "Fistful Of Dollars" a couple weeks later, but I wasn't terribly impressed. Granted, the movie had a certain grit that I hadn't always associated with the genre (my mind always jumps to shows like "Gunsmoke" or movies like "Blazing Saddles") and those wide-open vistas sure were pretty, but (and I blame this on my starting the movie at like 11:30pm) I found the movie to be a trifle slow for my taste. I thought the plot didn't evolve much over the course of the movie, and the character development was either very shallow or too subtle for me to notice.

Now comes "A Few Dollars More," the sequel that improves on its predecessor in almost every way. This one I started at three in the afternoon, and even though I was more awake this time around, I still feel that "Few Dollars More" is a more enjoyable movie than "Fistful."

The plot is almost as barren as the first one: two very professional and very deadly bounty hunters (Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef) partner up to track down an claim the reward for a notorious bandit who has escaped from prison, El Indio (Gian Maria Volontè). While the story is fairly pedestrian for the most part, the real draw of the movie is watching what happens to the characters and how they react to it, particularly Van Cleef.
Lee Van Cleef as Colonel Mortemer -- This guy puts the "bad" in "badass."

Van Cleef adds so much to this movie, it's not even funny. First and foremost, he gives Eastwood someone who act with and create character interaction. During "Fisful," Eastwood certainly did a fine job of screwing with the bandits by himself, but after a while I grew weary of exclusively spending time with a guy who didn't say much anyway. Van Cleef's character adds a wisdom and world-weariness to his character that contrasts with Eastwoods brash, stoic manner. Consider the scene in which they first confront each other involving their hats... ah, but I won't spoil it here.

"Few Dollars More" also benefits from a much more compelling villain that "Fistful" had. El Indio is a total scumbag almost from the get-go; he kills guy who helps him escape from prison, and then kills the man who helped put him behind bars, but not before murdering his wife and small child in from of him. This is a guy you just love to hate. Or just plain hate.

El Indio also does a curious thing before killing his victims: he gets out a pocketwatch that plays an eerie, haunting, theme, telling them to draw when the music stops. The music, while not seeming important at first, gradually gains significance through the film, until by the end we have become intimately familiar with El Indio and everything that watch means to him. A repeat viewing would enhance these early scenes tremendously.
Gian Maria Volontè as El Indio. He's a twisted son of a crap.

Like "Fistful" before it, "Few Dollars More" was shot in Almería, Spain. Leone uses his backdrops well, with many wide-open shots of blue skies and unforgiving landscapes; the scenery is practically a second character in the cast. Also returning with much fanfare (literally) is Ennio Morricone, who composes the music for the picture. In addition to the already-mentioned watch, Morricone fills the speakers with iconic whistled melodies and dramatic punches, making the film a treat to listen to as well as watch.

I still have a couple issues with this movie, though. The plot is a bit thin for a movie almost two and a half hours long, and the movie loses a bit of momentum in bits of the middle (the beginning and ending are rock-solid, though). Also, the pace of the movie, while faster than "Fistful," is still fairly slow; this is a movie that is meant to be sauntered through.

My minor kvetches aside, I found this movie to be fairly entertaining, and a good primer for "The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly." At this rate, I may get into the Western genre yet.