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Gears of War (2006)
One of the ultimate multiplayer military strategy games
In GEARS OF WAR you control Marcus Fenix, a disgraced squad leader of the forces of the Coalition of Ordered Governments (COG). After his cohorts help him to escape from prison, he takes his squad to attempt to thwart the onslaught of the Locust Horde and to destroy their network of tunnels within Planet Sera. An optional second player can join in and control comrade Dominic.
In this third-person shooter, you must make judicious use of all available cover in order to succeed without being wiped out very quickly. When under cover you can shoot from behind it either by poking your head out to have a look at what you're shooting, or you can blind- fire (meaning that you can just poke your gun out without having to look, which is safer but lacks the accuracy of viewed firing). You can also roll to one side or the other to hopefully get to the next bit of cover quicker, if you are on one side of a door you can quickly spin to the other side, or you can jump over your cover (if it's low enough). There is even an option to run lower and more quickly towards the next bit of cover (provided that it's not too far away), which can be advisable if you are in the open too long as being lower and quicker makes you harder to hit.
You have a multitude of weapons at your disposal, most of which have limited ammunition (which can be picked up if it's lying on the ground, or you can top up a lot of weapons for which you do not have full ammo). There are various kinds of pistols and other handguns, although really these are only advisable if you don't have a bigger gun to use. Bigger guns come in a variety of sorts, with possibly the most well-known one being the Lancer, which has the much-talked-about chainsaw bayonet for close-quarters combat. Whereas with some of the other weapons you can strike with the butt of the gun, with the chainsaw bayonet you can rev it up and enjoy something of a guilty pleasure as your character swings the blade into the foe, ripping its skin apart and sending dark red blood jetting upwards, even spraying your screen! (Don't worry, you can still see through it and it does quickly fade). There is quite a bit of gore in GOW, but by far the chainsaw bayonet is among the goriest imagery in the game.
Other bigger guns include (but are not limited to) the shotgun and the sniper rifle, although its chamber can only accommodate one bullet, so you have to reload after every shot.
Reloading presents an extra facet which, when mastered, will allow quicker reloading and more powerful shots. When you start to reload a reload bar appears, with a meter running from left to right; when it reaches the right of the bar your gun will be reloaded. However, if you can stop the meter when it's within a small marked section of the bar which is about a third of the way across you will gain the aforementioned quicker reload and the accompanying benefits.
Also available are frag grenades, although you can only have up to four of these. When you use these you can either just throw them or you can aim using an on-screen arc that shows where your grenade will bounce and where it will explode.
There are also some other more powerful weapons, which I won't give away, but these should understandably be saved for the more troublesome foes.
When you take a hit you start to see a red cog appear on the screen; the more complete it is the closer you are to dying, so get under cover quickly! If it turns into a fully intact cog with a skull in the middle the screen goes bright red and you are dead (unless you're in multiplayer mode, where another player can go up to you and revive you).
Graphics are dark and moody, sometimes genuinely scary and very gory. There are bits later on where a small swarm of creatures known as Kryll will kill anyone who strays into shadowy areas for too long. Sound is equally cool, although some of the dialogue has voices that aren't quite up to the same standard.
Gameplay is simple enough to pick up, and all the various actions are well thought-out, with one button being a context-sensitive button, where your character might flick a switch, kick open a door or turn a valve. Before too long you will be ducking under cover and taking pot- shots at the foes like a seasoned COG war veteran.
If I did have one minor complaint, the scenes in rocky sections (e.g. caves) seem too artificial, almost as if they had been designed to contain cover (I know they have, but it still seems artificial). In the building-related scenes the cover is justified and logical (e.g. church pews in churches, fountains outside, pillars, bits of broken walls, windows etc), but when you see conveniently-placed rocky outcroppings to hide behind it somehow detracts slightly from the immersive experience that GOW otherwise offers. Another complaint involves the grenades in multiplayer mode; some details of the aiming arc can be off-screen if playing using two-player split-screen, which can make them harder to use than normal.
However, GOW stands out as a brilliant game in its own right, and is probably the main reason for investing in an XBox 360, especially in multiplayer mode.
Tom yum goong (2005)
Doesn't have the same effect that ONG-BAK had on us.
Kham (Tony Jaa, ONG-BAK), who spent his childhood raising elephants with his father, has two stolen and taken to Sydney, Australia. He then catches a plane to this city in an attempt to rescue his beloved pachyderms.
His trail takes him to a Tom-Yum-Goong restaurant, and he recognises one of the guys that was exiting the building -- Johnny (Johnny Nguyen) -- as one man responsible for the elephant stealing. He inadvertently gets in trouble with the police -- one of whom is officer Mark (Petchtai Wongkamlao, ONG-BAK) -- but is soon back at the restaurant, fighting his way to the upper floor in possibly the most memorable scene (more about that later). But when he encounters Johnny and his gang he finds something more horrific and sinister...
Let's get one thing out of the way: whether we like it or not, this film is going to be compared to Tony Jaa's previous outing ONG-BAK, which really blew audiences away upon initial release, especially as we were being treated to martial artistry completely unaided by wires or CGI in a film world populated by the likes of HERO and CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON where fighters floated and ran up walls using wires. We were also introduced to Tony Jaa and his incredible agility, gymnastics and Muay Thai (admittedly combined with other styles) in a way that just grabbed the imagination. Somehow that same freshness is not there in WARRIOR KING, and there isn't really anything that rivals the superb market chase in ONG- BAK.
Also not as good this time around is the general performances of the cast. Tony himself is called upon to get really upset at a couple of intervals, and he simply does not convince in these bits. Petchtai Wongkamlao, who speaks English a lot in this, is neither as good nor as much fun as his Humlae character in ONG-BAK, and bits of his English were hard to make out. There is, however, a nice cameo from the other main ONG-BAK co-star, the young girl Pumwaree Yodkamol, whose brief appearance involves her speaking English, and her English was crystal clear. But its the Australians whose acting is the worst; just fortunate that it's not nearly as bad as in the Jackie Chan film MR NICE GUY.
The only thing that really saves this from being a low-point is the action. Tony Jaa is still fun to watch when he kicks butt, and he still finds moments that leave you astounded; there just needed to be more of them (maybe he showed too many fancy tricks in ONG-BAK?). The fights here are much more brutal than in ONG-BAK, particularly one scene where he takes on a whole gang and leaves almost all of them nursing a broken bone of some kind. There is also a very exciting fight between Jaa and Capoeira expert Lateef Crowder, which is possibly the most evenly-matched fight scene due to both being very agile, which actually makes us believe that Jaa has a worthy foe that could really be a problem for his character.
But the scene that will probably stand out most in my mind is a true cinematic accomplishment: the scene where Jaa fights his way up the restaurant. When you see it you will be treated to a fun-filled action sequence that lasts about four minutes and is all in one shot! The planning for this scene alone must have been a challenge!
But, ultimately, as a film it falls a bit flat. Only the mighty action saves it.
Magnificent 7 (2005)
Autism and other psychological disorders handled with care...
MAGNIFICENT 7 is not a remake of the classic 1960 western, but, rather, a film based on a real-life family of seven children and their single mother Maggi, played by Helena Bonham Carter. Being a sufferer of Asperger's Syndrome, I felt compelled to watch this one-off when it appeared on British television recently.
Like in the aforementioned real-life family (mother Jacqui Jackson, who, along with her children, helped make the 2003 documentary 'My Family And Autism' -- she and her son Luke Jackson have also written relevant books, and Jacqui herself oversaw this film), Maggi has three girls and four boys. The 'catch', for want of a better word, is that all four of the boys have some kind of disorder, especially the likes of Curtis (he is allergic to Christmas and is panicked by anything that is red in colour), Christopher (he has Asperger's Syndrome, is very naïve and trusting, responds awkwardly and sometimes inappropriately to social situations, and cannot understand idioms and sarcasm), and (if I remember correctly) Davey has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
The film itself follows the family over the course of a year in its 90-minute length, complete with some of the struggles as the boys cause (usually unintentional) problems and this understandably all strains Maggi a bit. Christopher, who is unsurprisingly being bullied at school, soon finds a friend in foreign caretaker Dmitri (Bruno Lastra), who somehow seems to click with the family and know a lot about Maggi herself...
While some bits would undeniably be exaggerated (something I always expect in dramatisations of subject matter of this ilk, especially when it's based on a true story), and there are some faults that somewhat watered it down a bit (including the school bullying of Christopher being a bit too tame -- I felt that it needed to be just a little more vicious to bring it closer to reality; and the other noticeable fault is that we are not satisfactorily told just how Dmitri seems to know so much about Maggi on first speaking to her), the fact that this was made and televised at all should, I hope, further enlighten the nation -- and maybe the rest of the world -- to the autistic spectrum disorders and give some indication of the problems -- and sometimes joy and surprise -- those that have such disorders can bring.
Other than that, most people should find this intriguing and informative viewing.
Little Quacker (1950)
Cool cartoon marking the first appearance of the duckling
Tom steals an egg from a nest while the mother duck goes for a swim, delighting at the prospect of a fried egg, only to find that when he cracks the egg a little duckling appears. He then has a sudden change of mind and decides to make a duck dish.
The duckling escapes Tom's clutches and hides in Jerry's mouse-hole. Jerry then tries to keep the little duckling away from Tom in various amusing ways.
This was the first appearance of this little duckling, who would appear quite a few more times throughout the T&J series. I just love his voice (which was done by the same guy that voiced Donald Duck and his nephews), with that unique, cute, 'quacky' twang to it!
The cartoon's enjoyable and funny too. Check it out!
Snoopy Come Home (1972)
Snoopy never left my heart...
This feature, as you probably gathered, largely centres around Snoopy, Charlie Brown's dog.
Charlie Brown has been becoming ever more resentful of Snoopy's recent independence (in particular going to the beach to spend time with Peppermint Patty), and, after cutting his thumb while trying to open his can of dog-food, he gives Snoopy a scolding and makes him feel guilty and worthless.
The following day, when Snoopy tries to go to the beach to see Peppermint Patty again as promised, suddenly a sign has been put up saying that dogs are not allowed on the beach. This starts a chain reaction that begins a string of frustration within Snoopy...
More snubbing comes from other members of the Peanuts gang when what started off as being a bit of fun with Linus and his security blanket soon turns sadistic and nasty, once again with Snoopy on the losing end.
Snoopy then has a bit of fun with Linus' elder sister Lucy, who is using boxing gloves, and they have a bit of a light-hearted spar, but again Snoopy pushes things that little bit too far and ends up upsetting Lucy and she spits the dummy at him.
Shortly afterwards, Snoopy receives a letter from a mysterious girl named Lila, who is in hospital and for some reason craves his presence. Snoopy and his bird friend Woodstock (making his animated film debut here) suddenly set off to meet her. Their journey is plagued by quite a few of the famous 'No dogs allowed'-type signs, which again do little to heighten the spirits of our favourite beagle!
Eventually, however, Snoopy and Woodstock reach the hospital where Lila is staying, and her spirit does indeed rise when the dog suddenly appears by her bedside and enriches her enthusiasm. However, little does Snoopy know that she will practically coax her into doing something that will really tug at his heart-strings...
I first saw this film as a boy in my early tens, and even when I watch it now it has lost none of its ability to endear and -- in particular -- choke. There is one particular section that still makes me cry to this day at a party for Snoopy, where poor Charlie Brown is just too choked to say anything. Even just THINKING about that scene induces tears...
As a whole, though, the film is enjoyable fare. It's not a classic, but it's still memorable, and has some actually quite good songs that are not in the least bit intrusive and only add to the overall charm. There is also some spot humour, much of which is caused by Woodstock's erratic flying and Snoopy's constantly being taunted by the 'No dogs allowed' signs permating his venture.
Recommended, but don't expect your eyes to be anything other than moist at some point in the film!
The Little Orphan (1948)
A classic cartoon with Tom, Jerry and Nibbles
This classic, Oscar-winning cartoon has the little grey orphan mouse Nibbles visit Jerry. Nibbles has a little note asking Jerry to feed him, as he's always hungry. A veritable banquet has just been prepared by Mammy Two Shoes, the black maid, and Nibbles starts to go into overdrive at the sight of so much food! It's not long, however, before Tom, dressed up as an Indian (as in Cowboy enemy, rather than person from India), gets in on the act.
This cartoon is so cool, has plenty of laughs, especially when Nibbles' appetite gets out of hand.
The version of 'The Little Orphan' that I am reviewing here is the uncensored original that I have been fortunate enough to see and appreciate before the political-correctness brigade supposedly forced the distributor to cut a scene where a candle scorches Tom and turns him black. The cut is very clumsy and the result is that this section of the cartoon no longer makes much sense. (Some versions have Mammy Two Shoes' fleeting appearance removed for similar racial reasons).
Great cartoon, but definitely preferable in the uncut version.
Truly amazing Wing Chun-themed kung-fu film
Sammo Hung's classic 'Warriors Two' features Korean super-kicker Casanova Wong in his biggest role as Cashier Hua (the 'Zhao Qian Hua' of the title), who works in the bank run by Banker Mo (Fung Hark-On). One evening, just as he was about to pack up for the day, he inadvertently hears a discussion between Mo and some of his other employees where he plots to take over the whole town and become the new Village Head by disposing of the current one.
Hua tries to warn the Village Head, but instead falls into a trap where some of Mo's henchmen beat him up quite badly. But Hua escapes, albeit seriously injured, and bumps into Fei Chun (Sammo Hung), who hides Hua in the home of his master, Mr Leung Tsang (the 'Zan Xian Sheng' of the title, played by Leung Kar-Yan), a Wing Chun master and healer.
Mo and his cronies go about trying to lure Hua out of hiding by murdering his last remaining family member (in Chinese customs of the period it was traditional to avenge the deaths of murdered friends or family -- something exploited in a lot of the period kung-fu movies of this era), but Fei Chun eventually makes Hua see sense, that he doesn't stand a chance of avenging death as his fighting skills aren't good enough. That's where Mr Tsang comes in -- but Hua's quest for revenge makes Tsang reticent about teaching Wing Chun to him, as kung-fu (like all martial arts) is not supposed to be used aggressively. Will Fei Chun be able to make Tsang capitulate and become his Sifu?
This movie was where Sammo's early promise as director and action choreographer shown in his directorial debut 'Iron-Fisted Monk' comes to the fore, as he steps up the quality of the fight choreography and overall structure of the film, and came up with a true masterpiece. Sammo's ability to choreograph the performers in such a way that they come across as powerful as they would ever look on-screen is something that fans of his work are used to (even his former Peking Opera classmate Jackie Chan has benefited from Sammo's excellent choreographic genius), and 'Warriors Two' is no exception, with some superbly crisp fights that contain shots where fighters perform well over ten carefully-timed moves before a cut occurs! But what's most amazing is that Sammo has actually managed to transfer Wing Chun to the screen successfully (some arts don't translate that well to the screen without some minor changes due to the limitations of film -- something that Hong Kong film-makers, especially those of Sammo's ability, have acknowledged over the years and allowed for accordingly), and has actually depicted Wing Chun very accurately in a way that you would appreciate even if you're not a dedicated martial artist.
Casanova Wong's acting ability is a bit limited, but in my mind is not enough to completely hamper the film as a whole, and his kicking, combined with the hand techniques his character would learn throughout the movie, is superb. The bit most people talk about is his amazing jump-spinning back kick over a table (in one shot!) which even I rewind and watch again and again!
As Banker Mo, Fung Hark-On gives what I believe to be his best bad-guy role outside of Jackie Chan's 'Police Story' (1985), with a menace he never really matched again. His character even provides a bit of a twist at the end!
'Warriors Two' features an all-star cast including Eric Tsang (who would appear as Roundhead in the 'Lucky Stars' series), Lau Kar-Wing (Liu Chia-Yong; he's the real-life brother of Liu Chia-Liang), Fung Hark-On, the late Lam Ching-Ying, Yuen Biao (who would later co-choreograph the action in 'Shanghai Noon'), Mang Hoi (a.k.a. Randy Mang!), Dean Shek... Oh, and let's not forget Lee Hoi-San as seemingly-invincible Iron Bell fighter Ya Chao!
Being a Sammo film, there are also some moments of broad comedy (some of it dark), but it works within the film, and was still fairly unfamiliar in Hong Kong movies in 1978.
Mark my words: 'Warriors Two' is a cast-iron classic. It doesn't QUITE have the polish of Sammo's other Wing Chun movie, 'The Prodigal Son' (1983), but it's still an enjoyable film in its own right, and is different enough from the other kung-fu movies out there to help it stand out, and it still looks wonderful all these years later.
Lo foo chut gang (1988)
Hong Kong Lethal Weapon?
'Tiger On The Beat' is considered by some to be the Hong Kong version of 'Lethal Weapon', in which Chow Yun-Fat plays Sergeant Francis Li, a police officer who has not had a promotion in 11 years due to his constantly chasing women with his irrepressible charm instead of knuckling down to his work. His supervisor gives him his big case that he needs to earn a promotion -- a drug heist that may or may not involve a group of local Thais -- and is put with antagonistic martial-arts cop Michael Tso (Conan Lee).
Unfortunately, Francis and Michael really do not see eye to eye, and clash frequently over many things. But when things hot up, can they put their differences aside for long enough, especially when their trail leads to that of a possible link to the crime, a woman named Marie-Donna (Nina Li Chi ['Twin Dragons'], who's now best known for being married to Jet Li), is thrown into the mix?
This is more of a comedy than an all-out actioner, and some possible unintentional comedy can be found in the 1980's fashions (bright yellow trousers, anyone?). The intentional humour will depend on whether you are watching an English dub (which, like many other English dubs, loses some of that comedy) or its original Cantonese with English subtitles (and those will depend on who released the version you watched). Some of the humour doesn't travel that well outside of the Cantonese-speaking market, but there's still some great one-liners in the version I saw (the DVD release by Hong Kong Legends, which also has an audio commentary from Bey Logan explaining some of the more obscure gags), and one particular one from Chow when up against a Western kung-fu fighter had me in stitches when I first saw it -- just the timing of it! Chow is actually a gifted comedy performer, and for those used to his work in 'The Killer', 'Hard-Boiled' or even 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon' may be surprised at this difference. He does still get to do some action himself, though.
As with many Hong Kong 1980's movies, the main reason people lapped up these movies was because of the action sequences, and that's largely where Conan Lee comes in, although he really doesn't get that much fighting to do in the movie. He still gets to do a one-on-one encounter with Gordon Liu (recently seen in 'Kill Bill') in which they are both armed with some very unique weapons in one of the most memorable battles of this era (I won't give it away but it's crazy!). Still, there are some bits that make you really wish that things had worked out better for Conan (who's also known as Lloyd Hutchinson in other movies) in terms of his potential career as an action superstar.
One thing I should warn women in particular of, however, is a scene where Francis and Marie-Donna have a bit of a disagreement. It's something that played well to local audiences in Hong Kong, but many Westerners may object to it and it may leave an unpleasant taste in the mouth, and it wouldn't surprise me if even some Chinese-speakers found it over-the-top in today's climate.
All in all, though, while not completely great, it does have a certain retro charm, and the action in it is enjoyable.
Hardly the cat's whiskers...
Based on the comic strip created by Jim Davis, which first saw the
light of day in the public eye on June 19th 1978, this rather limp
offering stars Breckin Meyer as Garfield's owner Jon Arbuckle,
Jennifer Love Hewitt as Dr. Liz Wilson (the vet Jon falls for), and
the tubby feline himself is voiced by Bill Murray, who to be fair gives
a pretty good stab at it (the man who voiced Garfield so brilliantly in
the cartoons in the past -- Lorenzo Music -- sadly passed away in
In the story, due to a misunderstanding when Jon takes Garfield to
see Liz, he ends up adopting a dog named Odie. This causes a rift
for Garfield, understandably, as it seems he is being replaced by
this new arrival.
It is during a canine talent show that a TV advertisement star spots
Odie performing and tries in vain to get Jon interested in allowing
Odie to work for him. The scheming advertisement guy then gets
the idea to steal Odie after he runs away from Jon's home. It's up
to our cat to save Odie.
This is really a pretty naff way to bring the Garfield universe to the
big screen in a live-action environment. Problems for me include:
(a) the animal characters other than Garfield himself are real
dogs, cats etc (Nermal, who's supposed to be the world's cutest
kitten, is not that cute as a beige cat with a black face; and Arlene,
who's supposed to be Garfield's love interest, suddenly changes
from pink to grey and loses that big lipstick smile with the gap
between her teeth). This makes them less interesting than they
could've been (mind you, even the CGI Garfield is not particularly
(b) the villainous TV advert guy's really not that menacing. Now, I
know that, given the target audience, it couldn't be too mean, but
when you have excellent villains in the likes of Ursula in Disney's
'The Little Mermaid' or even Maleficent in 'Sleeping Beauty' -- those
were animated characters and were more menacing! -- this guy
comes across as too cuddly and cheerful to really pass as a bad
guy (although his reference to lasagne later on in the film is worth
(c) some other things had been changed that might have made all
the difference, such as Liz agreeing to go out on a date with Jon
(while this did happen in the strips, the number of times she
rejected his advances was not even used here), the constant
eating being reduced somewhat (if Garfield could've had more of
his trademark snack attacks -- or even nap attacks -- it could have
made a difference to the otherwise very basic humour), Nermal
doesn't taunt Garfield with his constant references to his eternal
cuteness, and Arlene's relationship with Garfield is completely
(d) the humour itself is, as I just mentioned, very basic. Anyone
aged from about their teenage years and beyond will find very little
to laugh at here. Jon and Liz really don't get that much to do.
The biggest problem is that I honestly feel that keeping it as a
cartoon would have been preferable. I would imagine that Bill
Murray's voice would have sat well in any of those earlier cartoons
had Lorenzo Music not been given that role, so it could work.
What a shame...
Johnny English (2003)
A lame spy spoof with no real laughs or surprises.
Rowan Atkinson stars in a film version of a spy he portrayed in a load of adverts for a credit card in the 1990s, and, as those brief ads were quite entertaining, one would think that this would undeniably translate well into a film. What a shame that it ultimately turned out to be a missed opportunity. Actually, that's a big understatement, as we shall see...
Atkinson plays Johnny English, the secret agent assigned to prevent anyone
from stealing the Crown Jewels. Unfortunately, being him, and this being a
comedy, he stuffs up in spectacular fashion and the jewels disappear. His only real assistance comes from Bough (Ben Miller) and Interpol agent Lorna
Campbell (Natalie Imbruglia). But can they catch prime suspect Frenchman
Pascal Sauvage (John Malkovich) and foil his plans?
OK, that's basic plot out of the way. And I do mean 'basic' -- and that's being generous.
'Johnny English' really is a pretty lame effort, and you wonder what kind of
substances the makers were taking when a potentially great idea is reduced to juvenile and/or predictable humour. The sight gags and so forth can be seen a mile off, and the over-use of jokes about bottoms and poo really do not endear grown-ups to this (in fact, when I saw this in the cinema I don't think I heard even so much as a titter from the adults there). And, to be perfectly honest, I really am getting seriously ticked off with the overused idea of spoof spies practicing martial arts moves whilst doing lame Bruce Lee-style wails; THAT GAG'S BEEN
DONE TO DEATH! The film is also undeniably racist and I wonder what certain
countries made of it.
Not even the title song (sung by the one and only Robbie Williams) can save it from being anything more than dumb. It's not awful, and it's not boring, but it could, and should, have been a lot better than it is.