Friday, July 27, 2012

Humour: The Dark Knight Rises Ending

**Obligatory Spoiler Alert**  

I am glad I wasn't the only one who saw the connection between Nolan's heroic ending to the campy roots of Batman.   I suppose this is what critics such as the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's Eli Glasner, who otherwise gave a glowing review of the film, meant when they noted that despite the gritty realism of Nolan's direction, the film's comic book roots shows.

It certainly does in context.

**UPDATE** The YouTube video was removed by the author due to a copyright claim.  So in lieu of the video, here's a short version animated gif of the scene from the Batman movie.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Decent men in indecent times: The Dark Knight Rises

So much of what The Dark Knight Rises is about is a culmination of a story arc that started in 2005 with Batman Begins.  The Dark Knight Trilogy, as it is now being called, is really one story, told over sixteen years  with one central villain in his many forms. It is ultimately a battle of ideas between Bruce Wayne’s belief that Gotham is filled with decent hardworking people and the countervailing argument that Gotham is corrupt, beyond saving and must be cleansed to make way for balance.  

Of the three Batman films, The Dark Knight Rises is the only one to truly capture the sense of hopelessness that engulfs a city, a society after a long period of uncertainty.  If The Dark Knight ended in an uplifting note of hope for Gotham, The Dark Knight Rises descends into despair from the first scene and continues to do so until the very end-- Drawing upon the imagery and themes of the great recession of 2008 and the terrorism and recriminations in the Middle East.  Of the three films, The Dark Knights Rises is the bleakest film of them all.  It channels despair in a way the first two did not.

There is a scene where the films main antagonist Bane beats the living senses out of Batman, set to nothing but the sound of punches and Bruce's agony.   In another scene, the ‘takeover’ of the city government by Bane is done with such deftness it starts to become a little scary, especially when civic leaders, police officers and civilians are assassinated and hunted down and the film barely stops to take note.  

In a film with the visual scope and scale of The Dark Knight Rises, a few scenes stand above the rest. The most iconic to me was an all out brawl near the end of the film.  It was simply spectacular-- Batman and Bane duelling in the midst of an army of police officers charging into Bane’s men, set in the dead of winter, flakes of snow falling as the music swells.  The brawl can be read as a homage to Burton’s Batman Returns setpiece, also set in winter.  But whereas Tim Burton used snow as dressing in his parade of the exotic -- clowns, jugglers, penguins with rockets strapped to their back -- the winter in The Dark Knight Rises is an allusion to death and despair at the height of Bane’s occupation of Gotham, the winter of Gotham’s existence, but also to the coming spring. 

In an election year, politics has also managed to creep its way into the film.  The script certainly doesn’t shy from using the language of the Occupy movement by Bane, leading to some left-leaning bloggers to despair about the film being a tract against the ninety-nine percenters.  Not that rightists like Rush Limbaugh is smiling in agreement either.  He had pre-emptively accused the film ‘s use of Bane as a plot to associate more negative things with Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s Bain capital. 

On analysis, the film’s key inspiration was of a tumult far older than the great recession.  It was the French revolution and the reign of terror that ensued.  There is  Robspierre’s courts, hauling the aristocrats for trial and execution on the slightest suspicion, in Dr. Crane’s kangaroo court.  The storming of Blackgate prison by Bane can be seen as an allusion to the storming of Bastille prison by the revolutionaries.

Fanboys, aspiring  film critics and armchair directors will argue over details, canon, Inception-like scenarios, and quibble over how to cut the ending for ‘effect’, but in a movie about superheroes, the truly super-human thing in this film is how Bruce Wayne has managed to rise at all to become who Alfred and his parents would have wanted him to be given the losses he sustained over the span of three films.  In Nolan’s Batman, Bruce’s rise from his fall so many years ago as a child into the abyss of the underground bat cavern is only completed in the final act of the third film.   Set to Hans Zimmer’s epic, albeit somewhat derivative score, it is a fitting end to the Nolan’s vision of a realistic Batman.  We’ve all fallen and remember how it was like to get up again.

Thursday, July 05, 2012

Theatrhythm : Final Fantasy

The Final Fantasy brand may be struggling elsewhere but Theatrhythm: Final Fantasy reminds us why the brand has endured for so long.

Bringing a large repertoire of battle, theme, and event music from the thirteen Final Fantasy games the game is easily one of the best entries to the brand.  Developed by IndiesZero (Electroplankton, Game Center CX) Theatrhythm has the right mix of challenge while remaining accessible to more casual players.  The format is deceptively simple, yet hopelessly addicting as you try to redo a track to get a perfect score or to raise your average.  The nostalgia factor is excellent especially for fans of many of the Final Fantasy entries. 
Square-Enix has kept the music faithful to the source.  8 and 16-bit Final Fantasies sound like they were indeed playing back from the NES/SNES and full on operatic scores are true to form.  They even went so far as to use in-game footage of the event music stages for the older Final Fantasy entries, eschewing the new CG cinematics for remakes of entries like Final Fantasy IV.

The basic premise of the game is for players to play through each of the 13 Final Fantasy scores, consisting of an opening/ending theme where players can skip or tap the crystal to earn notes (the game’s currency).  The real meat of the game however are the  three stage types: Battle, Event and Field Music stages.  Each stage type has their own gameplay quirk, but generally involves timed tapping, flicking in specific direction and holding on the touchscreen and a combination of all three for some really intense and complex sets.   This may sound simple but when the difficulty ramps up, you’ll be using these basic skills in rapid fire succession.  The game is definitely designed with a stylus in mind and I find the large pen-like stylus of my DSiXL a better fit for the skinny telescopic stylus of my 3DS.

To clear the stages, players create a party of four drawn from a collection of key characters from all 13 Final Fantasy entries.  The character design is a homage to the tradition of rendering the characters in Chibi (small) format  as a companion to character designer Yoshitaka Amano’s ‘official’ designs during Final Fantasy entries in the SuperFamicom Era. 

There is an experience system. Your party ‘levels up’ as you clear stages. Landing lots of ‘Criticals’ and generally not missing any of the notes will let you clear more enemies on screen in a set musical piece. Clearing more enemies means more EXP, which allows you to equip spells, abilities and increase stats which will help you survive even longer on the really tough challenges such as the Chaos Shrine stages.  The key is that although one could complete a music stage, playing it with levelled up characters and the right abilities will allow players to clear more enemies and in the battle music stages kill boss characters, which drops more items and experience points.

As noted earlier, the game includes Chaos Shrine stages which is a separate area from the main game. These stages mixes 2 themes randomly, usually a field and battle music set,  but are significantly harder.   Clearing Chaos Stages earns players access to new randomly generated chaos stages which can then be exchanged via Streetpass.  In a bit of a headscratcher, players must clear at least 1 Chaos Stage to access Streetpass.  This seems like an unusual hurdle to put infront of players given the relative difficulty of clearing the first set. 

In addition to the music game, there is also a fully featured theatre, a card collecting side-game, and a music player.  Finally Theatrhythm has a DLC feature. On launch 8 of the 50 planned DLC songs are available for purchase at 0.99  per track. A relatively good bargain given these are real DLCs and the download are substantial including brand new scenes, and of course, the music track itself. 

Coming from someone who isn’t and was never big into rhythm games, I have no reservations in saying that I highly recommend Theatrhythm: Final Fantasy.  Pick this up if you’re a Final Fantasy fan.