Monthly Archives: November 2014

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

TwoTowersPosterElijah Wood as Frodo Baggins
Sean Astin as Sam Gamgee
Ian McKellen as Gandalf the White
Viggo Mortensen as Aragorn
Christopher Lee as Saruman the White
Andy Serkis as Gollum
Orlando Bloom as Legolas
John Rhys-Davies as Gimli and the voice of Treebeard
Brad Dourif as Grima Wormtonge
Billy Boyd as Pippin Took
Dominic Monaghan as Merry Brandybuck
Bernard Hill as Theoden
Miranda Otto as Eowyn
Karl Urban as Eomer
Bruce Hopkins as Gamling
David Wenham as Faramir
Liv Tyler as Arwen
Hugo Weaving as Elrond
Paris Howe Strewe as Theodred
Cate Blanchett as Galadriel
Jed Brophy as Sharku*

If I were to rank the Lord of the Rings movies, I’d definitely have to place The Two Towers last. It’s a little less well-polished than the first or last movies. But worst in a great series is still much better than best in a crappy series like, say, Baby Geniuses.

We begin a few days after Fellowship ended. Our heroes have segmented into three groups. Merry and Pippin have been captured by uruk-hai and are being taken to Isengard. Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli are in pursuit. Meanwhile, Frodo and Sam are continuing their journey to Mount Doom, although things are much more difficult with neither Gandalf nor Aragorn to guide them, so it’s ironically fortunate that Gollum has been shadowing the group for some time to get the Ring, or to him, “my precious.” He has been in and out of Mordor, so he knows where to go. Can he be trusted? Better question: do Frodo and Sam even have a choice?

TwoTowers1

Looking back, I can’t believe how many people were worried by the promotional images that he would be another annoying Jar Jar Binks. I’m not kidding about that.

Meanwhile, the others have their own problems that force them to forget about the Ring and hope for the best. Merry and Pippin escape when the uruks are under attack and meet up with the wise but short-sightedly isolationist tree-like beings known as ents. While they try to convince the ents that they must be a part of the war effort, Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli meet up once again with Gandalf. And just in time! Saruman the White is using magic and an informant/spy named Grima Wormtongue to control King Theoden of the nearby country of Rohan and, failing that, Saruman’s army of well over ten thousand uruk-hai will conquer it.

Rohan pretty much appears as I had always imagined it. It is a land of lush plains and farmlands. Similarly, fan favorites Eomer and Eowyn are done well. Eomer, as a guy who faces exile for being a threat to Wormtongue’s treason, Eowyn, as the warrioress in a male-dominated culture. Meanwhile, Brad Dourif is a hit as the treacherous Wormtongue. Bernard Hill seems perhaps a bit too young to be Theoden, but is otherwise quite good.

TwoTowers2

TwoTowers3

I’ll never doubt the power of makeup again.

Perhaps the top performance is Andy Serkis as Gollum. This is a character with a split personality. It’s difficult to do this convincingly, but Serkis does it quite nicely. The way Gollum’s dark side ultimately wins out is very sad. It’s a tribute to Serkis’ acting that the viewer feels sorry for poor, evil Gollum.

This movie showcases hope despite bleakness, with Saruman’s giant army storming the people of Rohan, and Frodo and Sam having to sneak by an even larger force, all the while having another companion who may be out to tan their hides as well. The hopelessness could have been cliche, but things are kept fresh enough that it never seems that way. The movie shows that though problems may seem bigger than life, you can’t give up. The solution may become clear to you at any time. For instance, Frodo, Sam and Gollum are discovered by a Gondorian lord named Faramir (brother of Boromir), but overcoming his own people’s historic lust power, Faramir sends Frodo and his friends back on their way upon coming to truly understand the Ring and its power.

Gollum and the ents are textbook examples of well-done mystical creatures. Through CGI, they actually look real, especially by 2002 standards.

So what’s wrong with The Two Towers? The fact that it (both the movie and the book) is decidedly less solid than the other two portions of the trilogy. For instance, even though The Battle of Helm’s Deep is choreographed well, it does have its share of action movie cliches like that the main characters never even get touched unless the script says that they do. The bad guys, meanwhile, are knocked off left and right.

You'd think that armor would protect you. Was Saruman too cheap to get real steel?

You’d think that armor would protect you. Was Saruman too cheap to get real steel?

Another objection I have is to the use of Saruman. Not to take anything away from Christopher Lee’s great performances, but these movies portray him as just a lackey of Sauron. In the books this wasn’t the case. He was planning on taking the Ring and using it to destroy Sauron and take his place. That is why the uruk-hai don’t like Sauron’s orcs — their loyalty is to the white wizard, not the dark lord. Hence, we have uruks and orcs failing to get along. There is less reason for this

So The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers isn’t the best movie ever made, but it’s a great sequel. It makes you eager to see the conclusion to this trilogy.

Overall: 8 out of 10

*I don’t believe this character is ever referred to by name in the actual film, but he is in the credits. He’s the leader of the warg-riders.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

FellowRingTitleI was going to do a review of the video game adaptation of The Two Towers, which, despite its title, goes over the first two films. Yet I seemed to recall a largely forgotten game based on The Fellowship of The Ring that was published at the same time as that game. I also remembered nothing about it except some very unimpressive promotional images. Still, I decided to check it out. And unfortunately, I have come to see why this game has been forgotten.

Plot: 4 out of 10

Released a year after the movie of the same name, I always assumed that this game was an adaptation of the Peter Jackson classic. Instead, it translates the novel its own way. While it gets the basic nerve of the story right, the characters are another matter. For instance, Sam, Merry, and Pippin keep getting lost, and others have to find them. This doesn’t make them look like ordinary people who are in over their heads. It makes them look like cretins who are in over their heads. Pedestrian dialogue and lame sidequests don’t help.

I have to admit that they got Tom Bombadil right. And yes, he's in the game.

I do have to admit that they got Tom Bombadil right. And yes, he’s in the game.

Graphics: 2 out of 10

Adjusted for available technology, I don’t believe that I’ve ever played a game that had character models as bad as the ones in this game. Hell, some later N64 games pulled off better models despite having half the power and a fraction of the memory of this PS2/Xbox/Gamecube game. These models are truly blocky and ugly things.

The landscapes also have serious problems in their structure and detail. While nowhere near as bad as the models, they still suck some serious nuts.

Just get a load of this AWFUL Aragorn model.

Is that a nose or an arrowhead?

Sound: 3 out of 10

Lame yet forgettable music does not begin to compensate for awful voice acting. Since this game isn’t based on the movies, it makes sense to not use the cast of those movies. Instead, what we get is a bunch of posers who are always off-key. You know how I said that three of the four hobbits are often in trouble? Well, their voices never show any sense of urgency.

Gameplay: 3 out of 10

You shift between Frodo, Aragorn, and Gandalf. All play similarly (obviously Frodo is the weakest). You can collect items to heal yourself along the way and talk to people. There’s also a save feature that seems to start you precisely where you left off in exchange for no automatic checkpoints. Most of the game is you finding your way through mazes and hackin’ and slashin’ through the opposition.

The controls aren’t so good, especially with Aragorn. He has a side kick designed to knock over an opponent even if he parries your sword slashes. Trouble is, Aragorn tends not to kick where you mean to kick. All three characters have a certain clumsiness, slow striking, and long lag time.

And yet, these are the minor problems. The real issue is with the camera. It has a tendency to get off-target and can’t keep up with you when you make sudden moves. A stick-and-move strategy is often a good idea, except that the camera wreaks havoc on it.

Look at how easy it is for the camera to miss most of the body. Ugh.

Look at how easy it is for the camera to miss most of your body. Ugh.

Oh, yeah, the Ring is available as an item. you can put it on to become invisible (except to nazgul, who instantly sense you when you’re trying to avoid them). This lasts until the meter runs out, at which point you fail the game.

Challenge: 7 out of 10

Your first trial by fire is escaping Frodo’s home town of Hobbiton without ever getting spotted by a nazgul/ringwraith/black rider/whatever. This part is broken because The Fellowship of the Ring is the kind of game that has its own idea of stealth. More than one time I was somewhere I shouldn’t have been spotted, but was. On the other hand, there was this one nazgul I couldn’t lure away with my decoy rocks (by the way, you can throw them forever from a safe place and they won’t suspect). How’d I get past him? By using those rocks to lure him to not far behind me, then running full sprint to the next area. Makes sense…

He just needs to look to his right... actually it kind of looks like he IS looking to his right! Whoopsy!

He just needs to look to his horse’s right and he’ll see Frodo. I guess this is supposed to be chilling, but my conclusion is that the nazgul is an idiot.

But the rest of the game is a fairly challenging experience. You have modestly difficult normal enemies leading up to tough bosses. Despite the early nazgul hiccup, the challenge is the only redeeming factor in this game, despite the extra difficulty the controls and especially the camera present.

Overall: 4 out of 10

Being able to use improvement in the artistic areas, and absolutely atrocious on the technical side The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring isn’t a good experience. It’s not horrible exactly, but a generally lack of competence ultimately damages it. Look elsewhere for your fantasy fun.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

FellowshipRingPosterElijah Wood as Frodo Baggins
Sean Astin as Sam Gamgee
Ian McKellen as Gandalf the Grey
Viggo Mortensen as Aragorn
Christopher Lee as Saruman the White
Sean Bean as Boromir
Orlando Bloom as Legolas
John Rhys-Davies as Gimli
Liv Tyler as Arwen
Billy Boyd as Pippin Took
Dominic Monaghan as Merry Brandybuck
Cate Blanchett as Galadriel
Hugo Weaving as Elrond
Lawrence Makoare as Lurtz*

In anticipation of what is most likely the last Peter Jackson movie about the J.R.R. Tolkien books, I have decided to do a bunch of reviews of The Lord of Rings movies and games. We begin with the beginning of Jackson’s first trilogy. Once thought impossible because of the scope of the story, Jackson pulled it off because he was afforded a giant project. Not only would many resources be granted, he would do three movies, each of which lasting three hours. The result of this is nothing less than fantastic!

You probably already know, but the story is about Frodo Baggins who is entrusted with a magic ring acquired by his now-retired uncle, Bilbo, on one of his adventures. Unfortunately, the ring turns out to be the evil lord Sauron’s One Ring that is the key to his existence. This ring can only be destroyed in the fires of Mount Doom in which it was made, so Frodo has to carry it. He must also resist its allure, an obvious play on the corruption of power. What’s more, Frodo is of the three feet tall, simple and mild-mannered hobbit race, making him quite the underdog, at least as much of an underdog as an upperclassman can be. Perhaps that’s why he is assisted by Sam, his blue-collar gardener and friend.

FellowshipRing1

The 99% and the 1%.

But other companions come with time. Eventually, everybody reaches the elven city, Rivendell, to regroup and plan the journey to Mount Doom. By that point, this group numbers nine people. The other recruits (named in the above cast) are two other hobbit friends of Frodo, a man of the woods, a wizard, a lord of men, and elf, and a dwarf. They are The Fellowship of the Ring.

The acting is remarkably strong. There are too many characters to get into, so I’ll say that everybody understands their parts and plays them excellently.

One character that may come as a bit of a surprise is Arwen. She appears very briefly in the books and requires an appendix to explain her. In this movie, though, she replaces Glorfindel and helps the Fellowship to Rivendell. The reason is obviously to build up the romance between her and Aragorn. Also, the wizard Saruman, played by Christopher Lee, is a supporting character in this movie, whereas he was barely even seen in the books. He plots, betrays Gandalf, and has his orcs create an army of mutant man/orc crossbreeds known as uruk-hai. Because after all, this is a movie, not a book.

Had to squeeze the "YOU SHALL NOT PASS!!!" meme into this review somehow.

Had to squeeze the “YOU SHALL NOT PASS!!!” meme into this review somehow.

Actually, the way Tolkien springs Arwen on you in the books shows that despite having created the fantasy genre of books, he was an eccentric person. He actually wrote the books as a bit of a doodle (this was not the case with The Hobbit, a children’s story). This is why so many appendixes were needed in the first place. So it’s no surprise that The Lord of the Rings doesn’t translate perfectly to film.

In fact, Tolkien was often rather vague about what people and things were supposed to look like. Still, Jackson probably comes reasonably close to what Tolkien meant.

FellowshipRing3

Other than size differential between this hobbit and his dog. Can’t believe I’ve never seen anyone else notice this mistake.

 

As far as filmaking goes, it’s also top-notch. The atmosphere, dialogue, and character interactions are always just right. I favor story and characters over design when it comes to movies, but i have to admit, everything looks amazing! I still remember The Shire looking how I had always pictured it. I mean in a vivid sense.

Yes, the trilogy that The Fellowship of the Ring started was the three most hyped-up movies of the 2000’s, but for once it was deserved. Not only is it a solid adaptation, it’s even better as a standalone fantasy film. Just be aware that it’s only part one, so plan on seeing the sequels if you want any closure.

Overall: 9 out of 10

*I don’t believe this character is ever referred to by name in the actual film, but he is in the credits. He’s the leader of the uruk-hai.

The Republicans win an election of limited meaning

RepublicanLimitedMeaning1Midterm elections happened last night. That means that some people are now happy and some aren’t, but you’d be surprised by how many are like, “That was yesterday?” The reason is that turnout is always terrible in these elections.

But those who did vote? Well, they voted in a new United States Senate. Specifically, the Republican Party gets its first Senate majority in awhile. What does this mean? Actually, not too much. President Obama is still in office for two more years, and the Republicans lack the votes to override a Presidential veto.

One area that is quite important is nominations. Republicans can prevent appointees from being seated by refusing to confirm anyone. It’s no government shutdown, but it will be a major annoyance. I only hope we don’t see a Supreme Court vacancy being held up for over a year, rendering the third branch incapable of doing its job.

Here's surprising advise for these old vets: don't step aside.

Here’s some advise that these old vets aren’t used to hearing: don’t step aside.

(Some think I’m forgetting the possibility of impeachment, but they must not understand that this would require sixty-seven votes for the Senate conviction but only a majority for the House indictment. So this situation hasn’t changed much.)

So what lead us here? Ebola, ISIS, and long before that, of course, the healthcare.gov snafu of a year ago all played a part. But the way I see it, the Republicans benefited from having a large number of targets in red states. Let’s assume Democrat Mary Landrieu loses the runoff in Louisiana (given that turnout will be even older and whiter than yesterday, you probably can assume that). it’s a nine-seat swing. But here’s the thing: only two of them were in states won by Obama in 2012. In fact, he lost most of these states in landslides. In the ’80s and ’90s, that wouldn’t be insurmountable. But political polarization appears to be complete. In other words, Republicans managed to win the Senate by mostly fighting in their own territory.

This probably also means the end of a significant conservative wing of the Democratic Party. Really, with the Blue Dog House Dems having lost almost two-thirds of their members in 2010 and 2012, this political class was on borrowed time as it was. The dominant force in Congress in the 1940s, 1950s, and early 1980s, conservadems may be about to become as extinct as the progressive Republicans. If they can neither get elected in red areas nor win nominations in blue areas, how can they possibly survive?

RepublicanLimitedMeaning3

Possibly on Fox.

So what can we expect going forward? Gridlock will go on, but one interesting thing is a Politico piece released before the elections that indicates that the right believes that without a Dem Senate, there’s no excuse for John Boehner and Mitch McConnell not getting ‘er done. Simply put, leading Republican civilians seem to expect their leaders to act as if Obama ain’t there.

Nonsensical or not, to those who like a little entertainment value in their politics (myself included, I must confess), this is definitely a positive development. What we’ve got is yelling on the floors of the House and Senate, veto fights, possibly even another government shutdown.

Wait, a shutdown isn’t so amusing. Oh, shit.

Jumping Flash!

 

JumpingFlashTitleThe first Playstation was a serious breakthrough. Despite having very little video game experience, Sony was able to revolutionize the industry and make it more mainstream. Final Fantasy VIITwisted Metal, and Metal Gear Solid are all remembered as Playstation hits, each of which played a part in starting a brand new era in gaming.

And yet, Jumping Flash! also deserves recognition as one of the early 3D platformers. Before Mario went 3D, this was the game that allowed people to jump around in the third dimension.

Plot: 2 out of 10

“So it’s not the best plot ever”  would be quite generous to this game. We have someone named Baron Aloha using machines to lift up huge spots of land so that he’ll have his own private resorts. Our hero is a robotic bunny named Robbot. There’s a lot of humor, but you should have a sense of the game’s comedic wit at this point. Which is basically nil.

Masses of land held up by cables. No scientific errors here.

Masses of land held up by cables. No scientific errors here.

Graphics: 7 out of 10

A Great-looking game. They definitely got the cartoonish look they were striving for, and for 1995 technology, the models and landscapes are quite fleshed out. The only problem is that the lack of textures make it difficult to tell where the ground ends at times. But since you jump high enough to often have room to spare (see Gameplay for more details), it’s not super-serious.

JumpingFlash2

A rabbit vs. two frogs — the battle of the hoppers!

Sound: 8 out of 10

Catchy songs will keep you entertained throughout the game. Voice acting in the cutscenes is pretty bad, but is overshadowed by the competent and energetic narrator.

Gameplay: 8 out of 10

Jumping Flash! has six worlds, each of which with three stages. The first two stages of each world are platforming stages. The third is the boss. The exception is World 6, which has one platforming stage and two bosses

The platforming stages are wide-open and allow you to move anywhere. This is handled very well. Controls are responsive and the 3D aspect serves the game well. You can shoot lasers and have a maximum of three bazooka type weapons that you can use, though it’s probably best to save those for the bosses.

As you’d guess from the title, jumping is a really big part of this game. Robbot has a double jump that causes the camera to switch to a birds-eye view. You also go sky-high. The birds-eye view was often done poorly in other games, making it difficult to see where you were going to land. Nonetheless, it works just fine here.

JumpingFlash3

Looks like a Pilotwings landing.

Double jumping is important because every level requires you to look high and low for large carrots called Jetpods. After you get enough of them, the exit becomes active.

The bosses are hit-and-run battles with a stronger but not too bright opponent. Since Robbot is basically a mechanical Bugs Bunny, this is fitting.

The only problem with the gameplay is that it’s first person. This poses a problem because the sense of your environment that allows people to do acrobatics in real life is not in this game. But you can get used to it and besides, this was one of the earliest attempts at a 3D platformer. Furthermore, it’s decidedly not as bad as awful cameras that the subgenre can’t seem to shake (see Sonic 2006 to get an idea of what I’m talking about).

Challenge: 6 out of 10

There is some challenge your first time through a stage, but once you know where the Jetpods are and the patterns of the bosses, the challenge is over. So there’s really not much replay value, I’m afraid.

JumpingFlash4

Look at Monocle! He’s Evil!!!

Overall: 7 out of 10

If you can look past the godawful story, Jumping Flash! will give you a nice experience. It’s no classic, but it was pretty influential regardless.