Monday, February 28, 2011

Blu-ray Series Kickoff: Blu-Balled

As an in-training tech nerd, I loves me some shiny gadgets. Granted, I don’t always buy the things (that costs money!), but I generally try to keep up with the Next Big Thing in the consumer electronics world. A few years ago, when the media was calling Blu-ray the Next Big Thing, I took notice, but was ultimately uninterested. Why, I thought, would I want to pay for an expensive piece of technology I could only appreciate with an even more expensive TV? Sure, I can always get a PlayStation 3, but at $599 US dollars, it’s still way out of my price range.

Time passed, and several things happened. Many months of savings (and a hard-fought refund with Westinghouse) rewarded me with 40” of Samsung LCD. I moved in with a roommate who actually had a PS3. And most importantly, Blu-rays started becoming super cheap. Not pawn shop cheap, but cheap enough. My inner techie yearned to jump on the HD bandwagon; it was now practical to do so! I still held back, though—I’m not sure what I was waiting for, but I knew that if it was meant to be, a good, definitive reason would jump out at me.

And jump it did. Slowly, surely, and decisively, Disney DVDs started to receive fewer and fewer bonus features in favor of their Blu-ray counterparts. Movies like The Princess and the Frog shipped their Making Of featurettes only in hi-def, and the supplemental extras that had long been DVD’s siren song started drifting to a new format. Well bugger, I though, I guess I’m making the switch.

That was seven months ago, and my initially-modest Blu-ray collection has swelled to a still-modest-but-not-bad size. It’s not what you’d call a large collection, but my DVD catalog ain’t exactly that big either, so it doesn’t suffer much from comparison. Mercifully, major retailers like Target and Wal-Mart offer Blu-ray movie specials on a regular basis, making it even easier for me to build a library of HD goodness.

What does this have to do with you, my beloved audience? Well, I need to write about something while I wait for Oliver & Company to arrive in the mail; why not make a new series based on the home theater impulse purchases of a rural twentysomething? Okay, there’re plenty of reasons not to, but this way I can keep myself sharp, writing, and active, while you folks can formulate your own disparaging opinions based on my taste in movies. Everybody wins!

Bottom line: new blog series, filled with movies old, new, and (hopefully) cheap. This series will be in addition to our regular cast that includes Our Feature Presentation, video games, and Terrible Movies. As with that one article that kicked off that one Disney series, I’m still trying to decide a name for the thing, so feel free to offer one up in the comments. Stay tuned—yet more internet movie kerfuffle awaits!

PS – My pool of movies is fairly shallow at this point, and I’m open to suggestions of what to fill it with. As always, leave ‘em in the comments where I can find them, unless, of course, you want to send them to me on Twitter.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Our Feature Presentation (14/50) -- The Rescuers (1970)

Confession time: I am not a fan of the Disney xerography movies. I love the lushly animated backgrounds of the Gold and Silver ages, and marvel at the sheer beauty the CAPS system brought to the films of the 90’s. This doesn’t leave the xerography movies many places to go; I find the visual style off-putting, and it doesn’t help that the main xerography movie I used to watch growing up wasn’t all that great, either. That said, I remember vaguely enjoying The Rescuers back in the day, so I was able to approach it sans my usual anti-Xerox baggage.

The Rescuers opens with a brief scene in a swamp, where a young girl throws a bottle into the river. After the opening credits, which chronicle the journey of the bottle through fierce storms and rogue ocean liners, we find the message wash ashore in New York City. Goodness knows what kind of currents are needed to carry a bottle all the way to New York from what is clearly Deep South, Louisiana (or, more likely, New Jersey. Ohhhhhh!), but never mind.

The message in a bottle is found by the delegates of the Rescue Aid Society, a mousy offshoot of the United Nations, held in the UN building. After determining that the note is a plea for help, the Rescue Aid Society assigns two mice to the case: Hungarian representative Bianca (Eva Gabor), and American, er, janitor Bernard (Bob Newhart; Bernard is also wearing what appears to be Mario’s outfit during his early portion of the movie).

Sorry Bernard, but our orphan is in another swamp.

The two mice find their way to Penny’s old orphanage, where they interview the resident cat, Rufus (John McIntire), about her last whereabouts. More sleuthing leads them to a sketchy pawn shop, owned by Madame Medusa (Geraldine Page). Medusa, in a one-sided phone conversation, informs the mice that Penny has been kidnapped in order to fetch a diamond from a particularly snug hole in the ground, and that she is being held in a swamp called Devil’s Bayou.

Wasting no time, Bernard and Bianca book a flight to the Bayou with the local air service: an albatross named Orville (Jim Jordan). Our heroes quickly find Penny, and set out to live up to their namesake and save the poor girl. Their exploits will take them through thick marshland, a riverboat pipe organ, and a dark cave filled with pirate treasure.

The scene where Penny retrieves the Devil’s Eye diamond is surprisingly well-paced

Given all of the comparable junk this movie is surrounded by (Robin Hood and The Aristocats before, The Fox and the Hound and The Black Cauldron after), I didn’t have high hopes for The Rescuers. Imagine my surprise, then, when I found it rather enjoyable. Perhaps it’s nostalgia, perhaps it’s because I know what the Disney Dark Ages are capable of; regardless, The Rescuers not only fails to be a total crock, but is also actually pretty good.

One thing that jumps out at me about The Rescuers is how completely 70’s it feels. It’s very odd for a Disney film to be so accurately carbon dated; most films seem to take place in some sort of timeless Disney Land (as opposed to Disneyland), and even the ones with “modern dates” on them don’t feel terribly entrenched in their respective time periods.

The Rescuers, on the other hand, could not have been made anywhere but the mid-70’s. Most of it comes from the visuals—the movie’s artwork, coupled with the general murk of the xerography process, makes the film look fairly gritty, similar to other films in the same time period. It’s a bit odd that a Disney movie would remind you of, say, The Warriors, but that’s exactly what happens.

Rescuerrrrs, come out to plaaayyyyy

The sound, too, is rather 70’s. Most of the songs have a light, 70’s soft rock feel to them, reminding me of Carly Simon or The Carpenters. In particular, the light horns and acoustic guitar in “Tomorrow is Another Day” create a tune that would be perfect to listen to while reading “A River Runs Through It” and watching “Match Game” after getting home from the roller rink.

Far from the pedestrian soundtracks of the previous two films, The Rescuers also has a decent, active score. It generates suspense and comic relief in all of the places it should, and even reuses certain themes, which is one of my favorite movie score tricks. Though still sparse in places (like many films of the time), the background music in this movie was a pleasant surprise.

Though sleepy, the songs from The Rescuers are rather pleasant, if only in a 70’s nostalgia-inducing way.

Aside from the obvious callbacks to the era of Chinatown and Electric Light Orchestra, The Rescuers has a few features that distinguish it from its contemporaries. For starters, it has the best-realized central characters out of any film from the Disney Dark Ages that I can think of. Bianca is a strong, though still rather feminine, female lead, and I loved Bernard’s superstitious nature (“Oh no, there are thirteen steps on this ramp”). Both are well-portrayed and instantly sympathetic, making it easier to follow the rest of the movie.

The Rescuers also enjoys one of the strongest villains since 101 Dalmatians (Shere Khan was more of an idea than an actual villain, so he doesn’t count). Falsely sweet, totally sour, and absolutely enormous in character, Madame Medusa sashays wildly about the film, leaving no bit of scenery un-chewed. Her over-the-top animation coupled with an excellent vocal performance from Geraldine Page hoists Madame Medusa to the top of the villain pedestal, where she will remain until Ursula comes along (who, coincidentally, also looks like a man in drag).

I’ve heard of alligator shoes, but this is ridiculous

The supporting characters, on the other hand, don’t fare so well. With the exception of Orville (who I liked quite a bit more I remember), the secondary cast is replete with Jar Jars. For the villains: Snoops, the stuttering, cowering fat bloke who acts as Medusa’s henchman. For the heroes: Ellie May, a rolling pin-wielding swamp mouse whose high-pitched trill frequently reminded me of Edith Bunker.

Lastly, and most damning, is Penny (Michelle Stacy), one of our chief protagonists. Granted, she’s not as bad as she could be, and her character arc is a good one (little girl wants to be adopted, but is afraid that no one wants her), but she is just pants. On. Head. Aggravating. I have a huge bias against child characters that are played for adorable points, and it’s unfortunate that Stacy wanders so far into the Preciousness Danger Zone. It takes a deft hand to successfully pull off the cutesy, na├»ve act, and Penny’s hands show a decided lack of deftness (Judith Barsil is the only actor or actress I can think of who can sell this kind of character).

Oh for Pete’s sake.

The film more or less works, though. Bernard, Bianca, and Medusa do enough to elevate the action above their mediocre colleagues, and the film has some fairly exciting set pieces, like a scene near the end where Penny and our two mice need to extract a diamond from an old pirate skull, all while the water level slowly rises. It’s a shame this movie hasn’t seen the amount of re-releases that other films around it have, because it’s a surprisingly good time. Though uneven in spots, The Rescuers is well worth discovering if you haven’t seen it, and more than worth revisiting if it’s been a while.

Top 3 Songs:

  1. “Tomorrow is Another Day”
  2. “The Journey”
  3. “Rescue Aid Society Anthem” (this bugger’s been stuck in my head for the last week)

Favorite scene:

  • Bernard, Bianca, and Penny struggle to recover the Devil’s Eye while fending off the rising tide.

Favorite character:

  • Bernard (it was a close call between him and Medusa, but an outstanding villain is par for the course in a Disney film, and I enjoyed Bernard’s character tics)

The Jar Jar:

  • Three way tie: Ellie May, Snoops, Penny

How I Watched It

I plucked this edition of The Rescuers from Amazon (like I have for so many of these flicks). It’s currently the only edition of The Rescuers available, and you should have no trouble buying it in-print. The picture quality looks pretty good (I rather liked the use of different-colored lines for certain characters, like how Bianca was outlined in purple), and it sounds good enough for most regular users.

Bonus materials are both sparse and ample. On one hand, there is no Making Of featurette, which is unfortunate, though par for the course with movies that aren’t considered True Blue Disney Classics. Anyone jonesing to get an inside look at the film that helped phase-out the remaining Nine Old Men (Ollie Johnston, Frank Thomas, etc.) in favor of new Disney animation talent (Glen Keane, Ron Clements, etc.) will be sorely disappointed.

On the other, there are several fun, non-film related extras. Included is a Silly Symphony cartoon (“The Three Blind Mouseketeers”), and a Walt Disney True Life Adventure on water birds (presumably because Orville is an albatross. I dunno). Also included is a photo gallery of concept art, animators at work, voice recording sessions, and the film’s debut, which is neat. It’s not definitive by any means (and something I’d like to see corrected if the film is re-released on Blu-ray), but it’s a damn site better than Robin Hood’s bonus material.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Our Feature Presentation (13/50) -- Fantasia (1940)

As unusual as it is beautiful, Fantasia is unlike anything else in the Walt Disney Feature Animation canon (except, of course, its sequel), or any other animated film I’ve ever seen. It is, in essence, a series of music videos, but with Beethoven and Tchaikovsky in lieu of Usher and Lady GaGa, connected not with a narrative of any sort, but with song introductions and explanations, similar to what may be found at a concert.

This is just as well; Walt Disney intended for Fantasia to be cinematic event, and its original title was The Concert Feature. It enjoyed a chilly reception during its original release, and wouldn’t attain popularity until it reached stoner movie infamy in the 60’s and 70’s, when dudes used to turn on and go see it, lying on the floor the whole time. Since then, however, Fantasia has since reached bona fide classic status, and is regarded as an artistic achievement.

This is all well and good, but is it entertaining? Myself, I love this movie. Granted, it’s nothing that I’ll want to watch when I’m having Movie Night with friends, but it’s one of my favorites to watch when I’m tired or in need of cinematic comfort food.

Fantasia is broken up into eight segments, each with an in-between segment from radio personality Deems Taylor. Taylor introduces each selection and provides a little bit of background information, tidbits like the piece’s themes or performance history. The songs are as follows:

Toccata and Fugue in D Minor – Johann Sebastian Bach

Described by Taylor as “music for its own sake,” the Toccata and Fugue (aka, that one ominous-sounding organ song that Captain Nemo plays in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea) is a series of abstract visuals timed to the music. The piece begins with the orchestra playing the song, backlit by several multicolor lights. After a few minutes, the visuals segue into floating violin bows, rolling hills, and steam updrafts.

I won’t lie: as a kid, Toccata was not an essential part of the viewing experience, and I remember either fast-forwarding through it, or severely zoning out until it was done. Since then, it has grown on me, but more because of my appreciation for the song, rather than the animation itself. Sure, the whole “abstract animation” thing is pretty neat, but I place it further down on my list due to its plotless nature, though it's still quite enjoyable. A rocket start it isn’t, but instead settles the viewer in and sets expectations of what’s to come.

The Nutcracker Suite – Pyotr Tchaikovsky

The Nutcracker Suite is a series of excerpts from the ballet, rather than the whole thing. Its pieces include:

  • “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies”
  • “Chinese Dance”
  • “Dance of the Reed Flutes”
  • “Arabian Dance”
  • “Russian Dance”
  • “Waltz of the Flowers”

Rather than retelling the ballet's story, Nutcracker goes with a general nature theme; its performers range from goldfish, to dancing lilies, to little, shuffling mushrooms (and damned if they aren’t the cutest little buggers in the entire picture).

For my money, this is my favorite segment. I love the variety brought on by having six different songs in the same piece, and Nutcracker is host to several of Fantasia's prettiest bits of animation, such as the frost-dancing fairies during the “Waltz of the Flowers” sequence. The tunes in Nutcracker are also some of my favorite pieces in all of classical music, which can hardly be a bad thing.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice – Paul Dukas

Arguably the most famous piece in Fantasia, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is the one that kick-started the entire project. At this point, everyone is familiar with Sorcerer’s story: Mickey Mouse is a sorcerer’s intern, carrying water to fill his boss’s cauldron. Boss man goes to bed, and Mickey decides to enchant a broom to carry water for him. Unfortunately, Mickey can’t figure out how to make the broom quit, so he does what anyone would do under the circumstances: go to town on it with an ax until it stops moving. The broom, in a display of zombie-like resilience, reforms itself out of its splinters, and continues to flood the place with water until the boss returns, putting a stop to the chaos and giving Mickey a good whack on the ass for his troubles.

Apprentice was conceived as a short that would introduce Mickey’s new character design (he received, among other things, eyes with pupils in them), but the short ended up costing an incredible amount of money (something like $125,000; the most expensive short produced before that, The Three Little Pigs, was $62,500). Wanting to make the most of his investment, Disney, at the suggestion of Fantasia composer Leopold Stokowski, expanded the project to include the rest of the segments.

Though I would agree with some of the folks that say it’s overrated, I love Sorcerer’s Apprentice. As a kid, I loved Mickey Mouse, and Sorcerer is a damn fine Mickey Mouse cartoon. Hearkening back to when he was a rambunctious, well-meaning scamp, Mickey in Sorcerer is a far cry from his dull, sanitized image that audiences know today. Not only does he try some mischief he knows he probably shouldn’t, he tries to solve his problem by (again, I’ll repeat for effect) going to town on said problem with an ax until it stops moving. Suppose, instead of a broom, it had been a particularly bothersome insurance agent. Puts the short into a different light, doesn’t it?

The Rite of Spring – Igor Stravinsky

Notorious for its harshness and difficultly, The Rite of Spring is the lengthiest (and likely most ambitious) piece in the film. It tells no less than the entire story of evolution, from before life began, and all the way up through the dinosaurs. The Rite of Spring is perhaps the pokiest of Fantasia’s eight works, with many slow, less-eventful stretches in both animation and music. Despite all of that, I still like it; it lacks cohesion, and is sometimes uneven, but the lulls and dynamics in both music and animation help set up for the more exciting bits (like the sweet dino-on-dino action that acts like 1940’s Jurassic Park).

The Rite of Spring is one of the most fascinating pieces in all of Fantasia. True, there are some definite lulls in the experience (the segment begins by zooming in from waaaayyyy far away and goes for almost three minutes, leading me to believe the viewer starts the piece sitting next to God Himself), and it goes on for quite a while. However, I think I like Rite because of these flaws, and because it’s so unlike any piece of animation put out today; it’s not a series of hyperactive, quick-cut pop culture references, and I find that sort of thing alarmingly refreshing (The Aristocats also benefited from my “Oh thank goodness, it’s not Hoodwinked” gratitude).

Pastoral Symphony – Ludwig Von Beethoven

The Pastoral Symphony was written by Beethoven as a tribute to the countryside of his homeland, Austria. Of course, what better way to convey a work of music about Austria than to give it an Ancient Greek setting? Pastoral is one of the more cartoon-y pieces of Fantasia, showing the audience an average day on Mount Olympus; unicorns and satyrs gambol about playing music and dancing, centaurs do their best to find a mate, and Dionysus (called Bacchus here) hosts an Ancient Greek kegstand. This all goes to hell when Zeus shows up to eff with the mortals; he showers the party with lightning bolts, before getting bored and going back to bed.

I find it interesting that the two most gender-divisive pieces in the film are back-to-back. Growing up, I never cared for the Pastoral sequence—let’s face it, an eight-year-old boy isn’t going to have much use for flying Greek ponies. Conversely, my friends who are girls absolutely loved those Greek ponies, but were bored to tears during The Rite of Spring. This, ladies and gentlemen, represents the difference between boys and girls: ponies vs. dinosaurs.

The Dance of the Hours – Amilcare Ponchielli

If Pastoral was one of the more cartoon-y bits in Fantasia, Hours is easily the closest the movie gets to Looney Tunes. A much needed laugh break, Hours is an interp of Ponchielli’s famous ballet (trust me, you’ve heard it; does “Hello muddah, hello faddah, I am here at Camp Granada” ring a bell?). The Dance of the Hours, like its name suggests, is a dance about the different times of day: the morning, where the dancers are ostriches, the afternoon, with dancing hippos, the evening, with elephants, and the evening, featuring sinister, dancing alligators.

The energy in this one is absolutely manic, especially near the end, and the whole thing is plain silly, brushing aside the stuffy atmosphere of The Rite of Spring and The Nutcracker Suite. Elephants dance about in surprisingly graceful fashion, ostriches fight over a bunch of grapes, and the alligators all but throw their hippo partners around during the finale.

Night on Bald Mountain – Modest Mussorgsky

Bald Mountain represents some of the out-and-out freakiest animation to be found in the Disney canon. Demons and other ghoulish nasties fly two and fro, shrieking and causing chaos. A town transforms from a provincial hamlet to a wicked harbor for spirits of the night. And the whole thing is presided over by Chernabog, a nocturnal devil who is clearly having the time of his life.

Aside from the appeal of watching dark Slavic deities torment other demons… well, no, that is the appeal. Of course, a genuine horror animated segment was unheard of from Disney at the time (and since), and it’s a great piece of scary, occult-looking animation that bears watching on Halloween sometime.

Ave Maria – Franz Schubert

A companion piece to Bald Mountain, Ave Maria shows Chernabog and his ghostly crew being chased off by the sound of church bells, and follows a long procession of monks through a forest. Though very pretty, it ends the film with a whimper instead of a bang, making the segment seem like an anticlimax. That said, it still is a fine piece, and provides great contrast to the absolute darkness of the previous segment.

Similar to how I used to skip Toccata in order to get to the active stuff, I seldom, if ever, made it to Ave Maria when I was growing up. Mostly, it’s because the film is so incredibly long—two hours is nothing to sneeze at for a kid, especially for a movie as episodic as this one. Anyways, Ave is a fine sendoff.

The trouble with Fantasia is I can’t quite explain why I like it so much. Much of the film is hardly what you’d call “exciting” or “hilarious” in the way you describe other movies. True, it has bits of comedy, bits of action, and general nuggets of entertainment sprinkled throughout, but its lack of a cohesive narrative (as well as dialogue) don’t do much to temper the notion that we’re not watching a movie, but instead having an experience.

It is fortunate that Fantasia is not nearly as pretentious as this last statement makes it sound. It is also fortunate that the experience is so damn entertaining, and so comforting. Perhaps I’m a minority, but I don’t see the film to be quite as stuffy as its detractors. With Fantasia, viewers can put in as much or as little investment as they want into the film, with equal incentives for both. On the surface level, it’s beautiful artwork over beautiful classical music, making it easy to drop in and drop out of paying attention; here is an ideal movie to have on while cooking, doing homework, etc.

However, Fantasia rewards active viewers with stunning animation from Disney’s Golden Age. In particular, the effects animation in Fantasia is a thing of wonder: the film absolutely fills the corners with small, atmospheric details, like the dewdrops during the “Dance of the Sugarplum Fairies” part of Nutcracker; or the sloshing, splashing water effects in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice; or the sparks and lava bursts in The Rite of Spring.

Fantasia is bursting at the seams with beautiful effects and small touches.

Fantasia also has an absolutely killer soundtrack, representing from some of the biggest names in classical music (Bach, Schubert, Beethoven, etc.). Moreover, the selections are wonderful, pulling from pieces of music that many have at least a passing familiarity with (though if you were familiar with the melody of The Rite of Spring prior to watching the film, you are truly more cultured than I). I used to listen to this soundtrack at least twice a week at work, and I’m still not sick of it.

Though it sounds about as pretentious as calling Citizen Kane one of my favorite movies (it’s not, by the way, but you should see what it actually is), I consider Fantasia to be one of my absolute favorite Disney movies. To be precise, it’s my second favorite, though I’m holding off doing my number one until the very end of the series (which, at this rate, will be in 2014). Similar to a favorite album, Fantasia’s appeal isn’t in its cinematic thrills, but in its nuances, and it gets better and better every time I watch it.

Top 3 Songs:

  1. “The Nutcracker Suite”
  2. “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”
  3. “The Rite of Spring”

Favorite scene:

  • The “Waltz of the Flowers” segment of The Nutcracker Suite (there’s something thrilling about the way those ice skating fairies careen about)

Favorite character:

  • Hop Lo (that ‘ittle bitty mushroom guy from “The Chinese Dance” segment of Nutcracker)

The Jar Jar:

  • Bacchus and his donkey (they function as a unit)

How I Watched It

Fantasia was released on Blu-ray back in November, and this is how I recommend watching it. The visuals are an absolute explosion of color (natch), making each shadow, sparkle, and splash look its very best. The film also sounds pretty good; Fantasia was the first major film to use stereophonic sound, and though it’s about 70 years old at this point, it still sounds great on Blu-ray.

A quick note on this edition of Fantasia. The version of the film found on this disc is the original 1940 “Roadshow” edition, meaning that it’s about as close to the original film as can be found nowadays. When Fantasia was first released onto home video, it was edited slightly; each of the eight pieces (and the little bit with the Soundtrack in the middle) were left fully intact, but the between-song segments were cut short. This Blu-ray edition restores everything, almost to the film’s detriment; the bit where the orchestra exits for intermission has been put back in, and Deems Taylor’s narrative exposition on The Rite of Spring and the Pastoral Symphony borders on almost two minutes. Still, for completists, this edition of Fantasia will be more than sufficient.

Fantasia comes with several amusing extras. While there’s no true Making Of featurette, it features no less than three (3!) commentary tracks. The first is a new track from Disney historian Brian Sibley, which is nice and expository, though a bit dry. The second and third are taken from the previous DVD release of Fantasia. One is from Roy E. Disney, animation historian John Canemaker, conductor James Levine, and film restoration manager Scott MacQueen; everyone involved offers their take on the film in places, giving the track some nice variety. The last track is a compilation of archived interviews with Walt Disney about Fantasia, as well as stenographed notes from story meetings.

Also included is a featurette on a recently-discovered notebook from one of the Disney animators, which details some of the creative tricks the animators used to capture Fantasia’s trickiest shots. Last is a screen-padding extra called DisneyView, which fills the sides of the movie with new artwork.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Reach for the Staa-aaars! -- Halo: Reach

It started on November 15, 2001. I was visiting my friend Luke in Missoula, and he had just bought Microsoft’s first game console: the Xbox. He was at Best Buy, trying to decide which game to get, and before long picked out a racing game by Bizarre Studios called Project Gotham Racing. I suggested that a racing game’s appeal might be limited (read: it would get super repetitive after a while), and he decided to go with his other choice: a shooter by Bungie called Halo.

So began my experience with Halo. We both did not go gently into that good night (sky) alone, but instead joined each other in campaign co-op, resulting in what is still one of my most vivid, memorable gaming experiences ever. Over grass, snow, and repetitive corridor (damn you, “The Library”) did we wage war, capping fools and showing The Covenant what the human race was capable of. We had the technology. And we shoved it right up their ass.

I open with this vignette illustrate what Halo means to me: good times with buddies, where shooting at each other is fun, and shooting with each other is even better. Halo: Reach, Bungie’s final title in the Halo universe, captures this spirit perfectly, with a tight, focused single player campaign and a robust multiplayer mode—Reach takes everything I loved about the first game and polishes it to a mirror shine. I started the franchise with a buddy back in 2001, and put the franchise to an end with a buddy in 2011. The circle is now complete, and it rocks.

How epic is this game? Pretty damn.

The plot of Halo: Reach (which 87.3% of gamers will not give a pair of fetid dingo’s kidneys about) concerns Noble Team, a group of Spartans on the planet Reach. You play as Noble Six, a last-minute replacement for a recently-deceased commanding officer in the group. In the beginning, Noble Team is called to investigate why a relay station went offline. It turns out there are Covenant on Reach, which is bad news bears: Reach is humanity’s big military force in the galaxy, and if anything happened to Reach, it would probably mean curtains for the entire human race.

The rest of the game’s narrative follows Noble Team as they attempt to defend Reach from The Covenant, watching as the threat grows from small groups to a full-on invasion force. Reach will fall (if you think this counts as a spoiler, you’re about ten years late to the party), and watching it happen is much more exciting than I thought it would be. It’s like a movie about a famous disaster: you already know what’s going to happen in the end, but the characters and small twists help propel the story along. All’s not entirely predictable, though—in true Back to the Future Part II form, your behind-the-scenes actions have a huge impact on the rest of the series.

Unlike previous games, your teammates are actual fleshed out characters.

Reach’s single player campaign is, for my money, the best in the franchise. It spins a tight narrative, and strikes and almost-perfect balance between Covenant slaying, tension-building downtime, and clever diversions (manning a chopper turret, piloting a spacecraft, etc.). The Covenant have been stripped of their ability to speak English, and their alien grunts and yells make them all the more strange and terrifying. Level design is beautiful and far more intuitive than in the past; no longer will you need arrows on the floor to know where to go next. Also (SPOILER ALERT), there are absolutely no Flood in this game, mercifully kicking my least favorite part of the series to the curb.

Reach also simplifies the gameplay to a great extent, removing almost all unneeded game mechanics introduced in subsequent entries in the series (read: almost all game mechanics introduced in subsequent entries in the series). Rather than juggling four grenades, add-on equipment, dual-wielding, and who knows what else, you’re back to the original trilogy of guns, grenades, and melee, and the game plays much better for it.

Reach does introduce one new mechanic, though: the equipment-replacing Armor Abilities. A nice diversion in single player, and absolutely essential in multiplayer, Armor Abilities are perk-like skills players can activate to shake things up on the battlefield. They range from the basic Sprint (which I’ve been wanting since 2007) to the useful Cloak (invisibility ON!) to the tricky-but-awesome Armor Lock (an ability that makes you invulnerable for a set period of time while standing still), and each of them is useful in their own special way.

Rain death from above with the Jetpack ability. It's as awesome as it looks.

Multiplayer is incredibly bitchin’. The matchmaking in Reach is absolutely top-notch, with filters for almost everything, including for those jerks that can’t stop using the microphone. Players can vote on which map to play on between rounds, giving the experience little bits of variety, as well as democracy. Maps are well-balanced, and don't repeat as often as they did in Halo 3. Moreover, the matchmaking from Halo 3 has been streamlined, and players no longer have to experience 2+ minute waits between matches while the game finds different people to play with. Lastly, Halo: Reach allows for split-screen online multiplayer, allowing you and three of your on-the-couch buddies to duke it out with the world on Xbox Live. As someone who was reared on GoldenEye 007, local multiplayer is what it's all about, and Reach allows for the same smashmouth, social gaming that got me into shooters in the first place.

The game's not entirely perfect, though. The campaign can feel a little short sometimes (though, make no mistake: it's EXACTLY as long as it needs to be), and it's easy to feel like you're being shuttled from one battlefield to another. Also, there's no way for friends to join an already in-progress multiplayer match, putting a slight kink in the social multiplayer hose. Finally, Reach's tone is fairly somber compared to the rest of the series; fans of Halo 3's humor and antics will be disappointed (that said, I was never a fan of said wacky antics, so this decision suits me just fine).

These small quibbles aside, Halo: Reach still stands as one of the best games of last year, and everything you would expect from Microsoft's little space marine that could. As casual as it needs to be, or as hardcore as you want it to be, Halo is one of the rare One Size Fits All franchises in gaming, and Reach is easily the finest entry in the series. Bungie may be leaving for the more Helghastian shores of Activision, but they've left us a hell of a parting memento with Halo: Reach.