Friday, May 15, 2015


M. Night Shyamalan is pretty much a joke now, after the colossal failures of his last few movies, but there was a time when he was thought of as a Spielberg/Hitchcock hybrid for a new generation, mainly due to the unthinkable success of 1999's The Sixth Sense, which got him Oscar nominations for Screenplay and Director. His career has been seen by most as a steady decline since then, with many pointing to 2002's Signs as his last good movie (though that movie has plenty of detractors, myself not among them). But with superhero movies the genre of choice at the box office over the last 10 or so years, I'd been wanting to revisit his 2000 movie Unbreakable, which I finally did last night.

Unbreakable concerns David Dunn (Bruce Willis) being the only survivor of a train derailment (eerie timing to watch, considering the tragic Amtrak derailment that took place this week), and the attention that brings from Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), who tries to convince David that comic books are just exaggerated stories taken from real life, as ancient myths often were, and that David is the equivalent of a comic book superhero. We follow as David's marriage to his wife Audrey (Robin Wright) has frozen and they try to figure out whether to start over together, or to separate. Also, as David's son Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark) is the only one who believes Elijah's seemingly ridiculous claims.

Elijah has a (real life) disorder that causes his bones to be weak and easily broken, and he assumes that if there's someone like him, there must be his opposite, who is unbreakable. Many feel like the ending, revealing that Elijah is the one who set up the train derailment in his search for an Unbreakable, was another Shyamalan twist, just like The Sixth Sense had famously had (and his later The Village would ridiculously have), but it really isn't, even if Shyamalan foreshadows it with Elijah's mother buying him a comic book as a boy and excitedly saying "they say this one has a twist at the end". Elijah being revealed as a villain has been obvious the entire time. We are just conditioned by others movies to have seen the type of relationship between Elijah and David as mentor/student, with Elijah helping David realize his potential as a hero. But Shyamalan sets up every step of the way that Elijah is the villain, we just weren't paying attention. We never wonder "what are Elijah's motives?" because other movies spoon feed us everything, but Unbreakable doesn't spell out with big letters that Elijah is the villain until the final scene, but it's not really a twist because the movie hadn't been hiding anything the way other twist movies do. It's all out there and it's not cheated or hidden, we simply assume one thing when another is the truth.

Still, the way the movie is laid out is just classic superhero stuff. There's even a scene where David and Audrey are out on a date trying to rekindle their romance and she asks him if he knowingly keeps she and their son at a distance. He says yes, but he doesn't know why. You almost sit there now and shout "to keep you safe! If the villains can't get to the hero they go after the hero's loved ones!" But superhero lore wasn't as common on the big screen in 2000 as it is 15 years later, when many of the tropes are obvious at a distance. There's the "discovering his powers", "first foray into actually acting the hero", and "confrontation with the villain" sequences just like in every other superhero movie. But Shyamalan took the same deliberate pacing he'd had success with and applied it to this burgeoning genre. People didn't take to it so much.

Although it was technically a box office success, it was less so than The Sixth Sense, much less well reviewed (mixed, but still positive), and ultimately forgotten in the huge success of Signs two years later, and Shyamalan's ultimate downfall afterwards. Also, the movie was marketed like a psychological thriller, instead of the serious comic book movie Shyamalan made and wanted it to be marketed as. So many left the theater a little puzzled as what we'd expected wasn't what was delivered. I have always loved comics, but even I was a bit let down when leaving the theater, though that could've been because my 17 year old self hadn't developed as a movie goer like I have since. But still, the marketing didn't help the word of mouth of this movie, which has thankfully developed a passionate cult following since its release.

Watching this movie it was obvious that Shyamalan had genius within him. This is the best superhero movie ever (only The Incredibles can challenge it in my mind), and it's because it has not only the serious dramatic weight that Christopher Nolan would get credit for introducing to the genre 5 years later with Batman Begins, but also the visual audacity not seen in any other entry to superhero movies. There are deliberate multi-minute shots, definitely not seen in the hyperkinetic work of the genre today. For instance, it's just over 9 minutes into the movie when we get to shot #3. Then there are the motifs like Elijah and glass ("the kids called me Mr. Glass"), where we see him often reflected in mirrors, glass panels, TV screens, etc. The color motifs of purple for Elijah, green for David, and pops of color (red, orange, blue, whatever) from the normally dreary palette for when David senses someone bad. There's that simple attention to visual detail and depth that no other superhero movie has. This is really masterful filmmaking, no matter what happened to Shyamalan afterwards.

And then there's the acting. This is not the typical wise ass, John McClane style Bruce Willis. He's quiet, insular, but with a strength that we can easily believe in him as the square jawed hero Elijah believes him to be. Sam Jackson does some of his best work in the movie, especially in the final scene where he sees David's good deed in the newspaper and says "It has begun" and we see him slowly show that maniacal gleam in his eye as he talks to David about it being scary to not know your place in this world. "Now that we know who you are, I know who I am." It's really terrific work from both actors, and probably the best work of Willis' career. Robin Wright has a great scene where she confronts David about wanting to restart their marriage, really showing a lot of uncertainty, pain, vulnerability and how hard it is to put yourself out there after you've been hurt. It's the kind of scene a woman doesn't normally get in a superhero movie, and not just because something as real as confronting marital troubles isn't normally really dealt with in a movie like this. Even so, like every superhero movie this comes down to the hero and the villain and they're absolutely perfect here.

I believe Unbreakable should stand atop the mountain of superhero movies, despite being an original creation and not a Batman, Superman, or Spiderman adaptation. It's steeped more in comic lore than any other, and it is steeped in greatness more than any other comic book movie.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Top 10 Nintendo (NES) games ever

A lot of games made the shortlist, but I couldn't include them all. Some, like Duck Tales, I love but are really just copies of other games (Mega Man, in that case) with a different skin on them, so I went with another game.

Honorable mention:
Tecmo Super Bowl
Possibly my most played game, as a football loving kid growing up. My brother and I would always play a season being in control of multiple teams, often having 3 or 4 at a time each. Still, even playing so many games we'd go through multiple seasons a day as we had this rented from the video store (that's an old fashioned sentence nowadays), since games usually took about 5 minutes. But sadly, the game hasn't aged well, as many things you want in a sports game have come in and have been done better in the years since. Still, nostalgia couldn't keep this game off the list in some way.

10. Metal Storm
The main character of this game, the M-308 Gunner robot, is, I think, one of the coolest video game robots ever. Bulky but still humanoid and awesome looking, he has a badass laser gun and can find the usual upgrades that action shooters bring to the genre. But the M-308's greatest tool is the ability to control his own gravity. Some puzzles and parts of the game require you to change from jumping from the ground or jumping from the ceiling and back and forth to get the right angles and to evade enemies. Because this was one of those games, like many NES games, where to say you've beat it was really saying something, since one hit and you're dead, I boasted often that I beat this. An underplayed game, Metal Storm is a must play and well remembered by those who played it in those great old days.

9. Blades of Steel
Okay, I know I bumped Tecmo Super Bowl off the list saying sports games have improved so much in the years since its release, but Blades of Steel is still awesome. You don't even mind that this was in the pre-licensing days, so this isn't an NHL partnered game and the teams don't even have mascots, it's just New York, Chicago, etc. The hockey action is fast and engaging and the fights are still fun to this day. I also love that the guy who loses the fight is the one who goes in the penalty box, a great incentive to win the fights.

8. Contra
Making the most famous use of the most famous video game code in history, Contra is near impossible at its normal setting of giving you just 3 lives to make it through 7 blisteringly amazing levels. But give us 30 lives (whether solo or co-op) and the game is a blast. Switching from side scrolling and faux-3-D behind the back levels, Contra is great to look at. Obviously influenced by Predator and the Alien franchise, the jungle setting and alien villains are well done and memorable. The gun upgrades are fun to mess around with, the differing levels and constant difficulty keep us always engaged. I have no idea how many times I've played through this game, but it's a bunch and I'd happily do it again right now.

7. The Legend of Zelda
The beginning of my favorite franchise, The Legend of Zelda introduced most of the elements present through the rest of the series: hero Link, damsel in distress Princess Zelda, the Triforce, and so on. Revolutionary at the time for its seemingly open world, hidden passages, and ability to save your progress on the game's battery, it's hard to say something about this classic that hasn't been said countless times before.

6. Final Fantasy
Though it became more famous on SNES and eventually Playstation, my favorite Final Fantasy has always been the first. The epic scope of the game, constant fighting, and different vehicles you can acquire are a lot of fun to experience. And that you can have different team combinations of your 4 characters from 6 character classes lends it a great replay factor. It gave birth to one of gaming's most successful and famous franchises but I love where it all started.

5. Crystalis
Heavily influenced by one of my favorite movies, Hayao Miyazaki's Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, Crystalis didn't get the recognition it deserved. It had an epic story, changeable weapons, with one of the coolest, most atmospheric, and "I want to play this game right now" opening cut scenes ever. It can be a grind to play, killing countless foes to level up in this action RPG, but that's part of the fun, the amount of work it took to beat it. Combining Zelda's dungeon crawling with a post-apocalyptic sci-fi fantasy setting and world exploring, it's one of the NES's richest games, and one that I wish I didn't get so many blank stares about when I try and talk about it.

4. Mike Tyson's Punch Out!!
One of the first games I remember playing with my family, we all loved gathering around and watching the crazy characters this game paraded in front of us. Although I always had problems with Bald Bull, I would still just play up until then over, and over, and over again. Of course, Mike Tyson is one of the hardest "boss battles" in gaming, but I still remember 007-373-5963 (the code to cut straight to the Tyson fight) as though it were my social security number.

3. River City Ransom
Another that not enough people know about, River City Ransom is a goofy, awesome, difficult action/RPG/beat 'em up that you didn't forget once you played it. It takes a long time to build up the money you need to buy food and upgrades in this game, but the fighting is so fun and satisfying that it never seems like a slog to do. The different gangs you fight on your way to save your girlfriend each give different amounts of money upon their defeat so it was often about finding a gang you could beat up without dying and making your money that way. Again, a game that feels open world-y, setting the stage for all the great sandbox games of today. The only real question is, are you a Dragon Feet or Stone Hands kinda player?

2. Mega Man 2
Some point to Mega Man 3 as the pinnacle of the franchise, but I say it's this second entry. It's my favorite set of villain robots, and may have even been the only one I played enough to beat when I was young (again that theme of games now being made to be beaten, whereas in the NES days it was really saying something when you beat these much, much shorter games). One of the most prolific franchises in gaming history, there have been literally dozens of Mega Man projects over the years, but in my book this one was never bested. Also, Metal Man's saw blades are my favorite weapon in the series.

1. Super Mario Bros. 3
One of the most hyped games ever, Super Mario Bros. 3 debuted in a Hollywood movie (The Wizard), and instead of being a letdown by the time us gamers got to it, it actually exceeded beyond the hype. Impeccably designed levels with endless secrets to discover, I loved playing this game at age 7 when it came out, or age 31 that I am now. It is simply the best NES game, and might get my vote as single best game ever made. And that's with knowing that I'm almost sure I've never beaten it, even with the Game Genie. Or maybe with the Game Genie and I just didn't count it because of that.