And I keep coming back...

As you can probably see, I am back to blogger again. After moving around for quite some time between Blogger and Wordpress, I found it surprising that I could not make up my mind on where to reside permanently.

While there were lots of positives for Wordpress such as the ability to have any number of separate pages, the possibility to add numerous widgets (some of which are unavailable here) and so on, I also found myself hindered by some of its limitations. Firstly, the default Wordpress blog site has only a handful of decent themes that I found to be to my liking. Moreover, the ability to edit the CSS for themes required an upgrade which costs money, severely curbing my enthusiastic attempts to modify the default template. And finally, there is no way to add any custom themes you come across on the web which again was not suited to my taste.

In moving back to blogger, I found all those abilites that I had overlooked available to me. Adding custom themes is as easy as downloading it from a third-party site and uploading it in the CSS Editor here. Similarly, the ability to edit CSS allowed me to modify the font-size, face etc. and generally the overall appearance to my liking. And finally, one of the features I had overlooked in my previous stay here was the ability to add labels to our posts - the "Categories" ability in Wordpress was one of the reasons for my move - which made categorization of posts very easy.

On the plus side, I have been coming up with posts on a more regular basis in recent times. Though much of that is attributed to the fact that I have not yet joined the company in which I was selected in a campus interview during my final year. And in the current financial climate, it looks like it may be a few more months before I join up. Until then, I hope to continue producing posts regularly.

Xbox 360 Wired Controller (PC) – Thoughts

Ever since I bought the Xbox 360 Wired Controller for the PC, I have been playing around with it in a variety of games (not always to satisfaction) and wanted to post some surprising thoughts from someone who is PC gaming through and through.

One of the main reasons I bought it in the first place was for Action-Adventure games and it has entirely replaced my KB/Mouse setup for such games. Ideally, these games are best played comfortably leaning back on your chair and taking in the atmosphere and I find the X360 controller perfect for that. I played Assassin’s Creed, Chaos Theory, Prototype, Arkham Asylum demo and quite a number of other games and had a blast in all of them. Though I had completed AC before with the KB/Mouse setup, the X360 controller made free-running just more of a joy to pull off. Same goes for moving Sam around in Chaos Theory (gave a few tries with KB/Mouse but the sheer number of key mappings in this game is overwhelming). And using the left analog stick instead of mouse-wheel to control Sam’s speed greatly adds to the tension when sneaking up on enemies which I absolutely love to do. I could go on adding to the list but you get the idea.

Then, I moved on to games (sports/racing) that are obviously suited to the controller. Again, another game that pushed me towards buying one is Burnout Paradise. I initially played it with a KB/Mouse but it just wasn’t fun to do those crashes in Road Rage/Marked Man and I stopped for a while. The 360 controller with the rumble made pulling off those insane crashes even more awesome and provided the adrenaline rush that the previous setup clearly lacked. I also played around with the Grid demo (having previously played it with KB/Mouse) and got the same feeling. When it comes to sports games, one thing I always find unintuitive about Fifa is the WASD key mapping for shooting/blocking/passing and I have never really gotten into them because of that. Playing the Fifa 09 demo (in anticipation of Fifa 10) opened my eyes on just how much the KB/Mouse lacks when it comes to this type of games.

Another reason in going for the gamepad was GTA-IV. I have played both Vice City and San Andreas and never had a problem with driving, but with this game, driving became really unsatisfying with the KB/Mouse. And GTA-IV is one of those games I mentioned earlier which is played best leaning back and taking in all the joys of Liberty City. After playing around for a while, I decided to use the controller for the shooting portions also. It became boring to put the pad down and move on to the KB/Mouse for shooting. Although shooting with the KB/Mouse is still better; the way availability of ammo/weapons in this game is worked out, it just made more sense to go for the comfort of the pad/auto-aim versus the KB/Mouse because shooting is nearly not as important as a standard FPS.

Finally, I moved on to the acid-test, that of playing a standard fast FPS with the controller and this is where I thought it failed for me personally. I tried out Escape from Butcher Bay with it and the initial portions were decent and the melee combat was actually more satisfying with a controller. But once I picked up a gun and got into some actual firefights the shortcomings of the analog stick/aiming became blatantly evident. I know this may just be because I am so used to the KB/Mouse setup and gave it some time. Sadly, I couldn’t do it as even on Easy difficulty, getting past the first proper firefight without getting reduced to one stick health (or worse, dying) was nearly impossible. Switching to the KB/Mouse setup, I realized how much better FPS still are with this setup. I am sure some people will disagree but, you know, I got past all the initial firefights (and this time on Hard) without breaking a sweat.

But this is still one of the best buys for me in a long time. Combined with a nifty little software called the Pinnacle Game Profiler, it makes playing even older games without 360 controller support a very simple process. Download one of the pre-defined game profiles (or better create one yourself) and you’re good to go on games like Splinter Cell, Pandora Tomorrow and even Oblivion. And all the newer Games for Windows titles come with built-in support for the Xbox 360 controller. Even though Microsoft’s driver software still sucks, it is amazing when you press a button on the pad, all on-screen instructions are delivered in that format and moving on the KB/Mouse immediately switches them over to that setup (this applies for all recent games like GTA-IV, Fallout 3, Prototype, Arkham Asylum etc.).

I still don’t think I will be able to play any kind of first-person shooter (including similar games like Mass Effect or Dragon Age) with the 360 gamepad and it is obviously unsuitable for strategy games, but I can safely say that it has taken over a large majority of my gaming time for pretty much all other types of games.

Kanthaswamy (2009)

There is little doubt that Vikram is in the most critical stage of his recent film career. While his nearly one and a half year wait for Anniyan in 2005 proved worthwhile with the movie becoming a box office success, his later movies have not fared well. Majaa released in the same year was average and Bheema, his collaboration with commercial director Lingusamy, released early last year was a critical and commercial flop. With no movie befitting his place in the top-tier of Tamil actors in the past 4 years, he has put all his hopes on Kanthaswamy to restore his share of the Tamil market.

Unfortunately, that faith has proved to be misplaced. Director Susi Ganesan’s previous movies were not exactly what one could call commercial and his last movie, Thiruttu Payale, had an interesting protagonist, though the movie itself was average at best. With Kanthaswamy he has tried to move into mainstream commercial cinema with a mega-star and I have to say he is very unsuccessful in the attempt. Kanthaswamy’s story of the hero taking money from the rich and giving to the poor in order to solve their troubles is similar to every vigilante movie that has appeared before. It actually borrows liberally from a variety of similar movies like Ramana, Anniyan and Sivaji. While that itself would not have been a bad thing had the director been able to serve the old wine in a new bottle (yes it is a cliché but one that fits right in here). However, with a very uneven screenplay and an insanely long running time, the movie has very few things going for it and I definitely left the theatre feeling very underwhelmed at the end.

The plot is very basic and threadbare to say the least. By day, Kanthaswamy (Vikram) is a CBI officer working in the finance wing. His job allows him to track the financial records of almost all big-wigs in the state and conduct raids on their properties to see where their illegal money is stashed. By night, he is also a superhero taking said illegal money from big-wigs and delivering it to the needy and the poor. The people in turn believing that God is helping them write their problems on a letter and tie them up in a tree in Lord Kanthaswamy’s temple, from where our hero retrieves them and solves their troubles. This rubs the police the wrong way and the DIG (Prabhu) wants to prove that this is the work of a mortal man and no God.

Meanwhile, the CBI persona of Kanthaswamy also traps a state big-wig, PPP (Aashish Vidhyarthi), for stashing illegal money which sets him up for a direct confrontation with the latter’s daughter, Subbulakshmi (Shriya). Subbulakshmi, aiming for revenge on the person who humiliated her father, tries to woo the hero into falling for her, while the hero realizing this makes sure not to get caught in her web of love and deceit. This sets up a battle of wits between the two which looks like it will be interesting for a while, but ends up conventionally with the hero taming the heroine’s ego.

Arguably the most disappointing aspect of the movie for me was how little screen-time the Kokkarokko super-hero persona had. For a movie that had the superhero tagline during the opening sequence and has been touted as the first superhero movie in Tamil cinema, the actual character was very poorly etched and failed to give us the yearning for such a hero in our real lives (which is the ultimate success for any superhero character). The fact that the real-life Kanthaswamy had more to do than his alter-ego made me feel like I was cheated at all the hype that the movie had generated for itself and the character especially.

Still, all the movie’s flaws could have been forgiven easily had Susi Ganesan been able to narrate the story swiftly and entertainingly. However, new characters and villains are introduced at regular intervals and it feels like he is unable to keep a tight hold of proceedings as the screenplay takes weird directions. Vadivelu’s comedy track and songs arrive at all the wrong times further interrupting the pace. Yet, had the movie provided a nice conclusion and climax, the movie would have worked out better, but, with a message that feels tacked on and a rushed climax just for the sake of wrapping up everything, the director fails there too. And with a running time of 3 hours and 20 minutes, all the movie’s flaws appear magnified which make for a very incoherent and wholly unsatisfying movie.

I cannot help but pity Vikram in the movie. With the movie being as important as it is, he does look to have put a lot of effort in getting his character right. Still, his sincerity is largely wasted in a role which does nothing to bring out his talents and is pretty much like any commercial-hero type character. As I mentioned earlier, with the superhero character having such a small time on-screen, he is unable to do anything worthwhile with that too. Also the much hyped multiple roles of a woman and an old man have inconsequential (I mean they are really small, like tiny) side appearances to make any kind of impact on us.

After nearly 3 years in Tamil cinema, Shriya still cannot deliver one complete sentence without going out-of-sync with the voice-overs and that is just one minor problem I have with her. It also looks like she wants to “show” her way to the top of the Tamil cinema heroine ladder. In every song — almost nearly every scene — she appears skimpily clad in an effort to bring out her curves to the forefront and it does get boring after a while. When combined with the fact that she absolutely, positively cannot emote, her appearance does not make for a good viewing. Prabhu and Aashish Vidhyarthi sleepwalk through roles they have probably played in countless movies before. Vadivelu provides what is easily his most unfunny comedy track in recent memory and Susi Ganesan’s cameo appearance as a supporting character at the end is as forgettable as his movie.

Technically, the film is again a mixed bag. Cinematography is excellent throughout and is especially highlighted in the sequences in Mexico and in the usage of innovative camera angles during the superhero appearances. The film editor is largely responsible for the movie’s problems with sudden cuts from songs to comedy tracks to Vikram’s grand appearances. It is almost as if he cut everything and pasted them together in any way he pleased. I didn’t think too highly of Devi Sri Prasad’s songs (with Vikram’s voice to accompany it) before the movie and watching them onscreen didn’t change that opinion. The Kanthaswamy theme is pretty decent but excessive usage robs almost all of the shine from it.

Kanthaswamy follows other big-name movies with megastars in failing to live up to the pre-release hype, while we were hoping for the exact opposite thing to happen. Here’s hoping that Aayirathil Oruvan at least bucks the trend and turns out to be every bit as good as the hype it seems to be getting now.

L.A. Confidential (1997)

NOTE: While I try to avoid any major plot points or spoilers in this review, for people looking for a fresh and uninitiated viewing of this complex thriller, it would be wise to read this post after watching the movie.

For any film noir/murder mystery/thriller movie to work and be successful, it has to have the following elements going for it. First of all, it has to have strong plot which draws the viewers attention to the film never letting go of it till the final credits roll on-screen. Secondly, it has to have strong characterization with a set of central characters which the viewer can identify with and care for. Thirdly, and most importantly, it has to have a very strong and cohesive screenplay which brings all the elements of the movie together and ties up all the loose ends successfully. Though it is nearly impossible to pull off all the above elements to perfection, any movie which can do so even with a certain degree of success is surely going to be a very engaging thriller. L.A. Confidential (1997) is one such movie and is probably one of the best examples of a movie where all the elements are worked out to near perfection and, for that reason, it is one of the best crime thrillers that I have ever seen.

L.A. Confidential can be primarily classified as a film noir thriller but, in my opinion, that would be desperately selling it short. Sure all the elements needed for such a movie are present such as drugs, sex, multiple homicides, prostitution etc. complete with cinematography full of diluted hues and a background score that will distinctly remind you of older noir thrillers. However, by setting the story against the backdrop of 1950’s Los Angeles, the director also explores some elements of the city we are now familiar with but were just starting out in that time period such as police & political corruption and sensationalist journalism while also focusing on the glitz and glamour of the city. This gives the movie a sense of character that few other movies have because the city is an integral part of the movie and parts of the complex story are woven directly around it.

The movie opens as the city’s biggest crime lord, Mickey Cohen, is arrested and jailed for income tax evasion leaving the spot vacant for anyone to take over. This small sequence is narrated by Hush-Hush magazine chief editor Sid Hudgens (Danny DeVito) which leads us to suspect that possibly the entire movie could be narrated by him. However, those suspicions are immediately laid to rest as the movie moves its focus to Bud White (Russell Crowe), Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) and Edmund Exley (Guy Pearce) who are going to be the three principal protagonists in the movie.

Bud White is possibly the most intensely likable character of the three even though he is also the most violent. He is the kind of person who acts first and thinks later (something which certain people use against him) and is not afraid to deliver his own brand of justice if he sees it fit. He especially has a deep hatred for men who abuse women and these guys get to see him in all his fury. Jack Vincennes is the most glamorous and sleazy of the three who also works as technical advisor for Badge of Honour which is a cop-based TV show. He also cuts win-win deals with the aforementioned Sid Hudgens, wherein the reporter provides information on celebrities doing drugs and he gets to arrest them in the act while also getting his photo on the cover of Hush-Hush boosting magazine sales in the process. Ed Exley is the extremely intelligent son of a decorated ex-cop who wants to play everything by the book even if it means he is going to be an outcast in the department’s homicide division. He is the kind of politically-correct person who does most things right and follows all the rules but still can end up in the viewers’ bad books in the process.

The entire story is built around an incident called the Nite Owl Massacre, where six people (including Bud’s ex-partner) are killed in the Nite Owl Coffee Shop. The department opens up investigations in which all three are involved to varying degrees which culminates with the case getting closed and the primary accused being killed while trying to escape. However, something doesn’t feel right and each of the three open up separate investigations. Bud follows an angle involving his run-in with one of the women who was killed in the massacre. Jack is set up for arrest of the district D.A. by Sid which ends up with a budding actor being murdered forcing him to get involved while Ed Exley just has a gut feeling that he got the medal of valour for the wrong reasons and that the case is still open.

Each of their investigations also connects to a multitude of subplots prevalent throughout the course of the movie. Pierce Patchett (David Strathairn) is a rich businessman on the outside who also runs a high-class call-girl service by turning girls into Hollywood actress look-alikes. One of these is Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger), a Veronica Lake look-alike, who was friends with one of the Nite Owl victims and who also becomes romantically involved with Bud White. Another subplot involves Captain Dudley Smith (Jack Cromwell) who uses muscle cops like Bud to rough-up gangsters from out-of-town forcing them to flee from the city.

Curtis Hanson (serving as Director and Screenwriter), along with co-writer Brian Helgeland, deserves all of the praise for a truly amazing screenplay. With so much going on, it would have been overwhelming for the viewers if we had been forced to think about them during the movie, but, by focusing our entire attention on the characters right from the first scene, the director makes sure that we don’t think much about the subplots until he is ready to tie them all together. The only thing we as viewers care about is what happens to the three main protagonists. And when the screenplay does tie up everything together neatly, with no deus ex machina or other plot contrivances of any sort, the only thing left for us to do is stand up and applaud the depth and complexity of it all.

Although Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce have become famous because of their appearances in blockbusters (Crowe in Gladiator and Pearce in Memento), both of them were relative unknowns in Hollywood in 1997; still, their acting quality shines through in this movie. With nary a hint of their Australian accent in show, their performances are one of the main reasons we are drawn into the movie and relate with their characters in the first place. Crowe certainly looks the part of the rough-n-tough cop with a bulky body and delivers a solid portrayal which allows us to sympathize with Bud White. Pearce’s intense performance is very effective in showing that Ed Exley means business in the department. Kevin Spacey was the most famous of the three in 97, yet he is also stuck with the least screen time. He still develops Jack into a charismatic person who still has some honor left in him to go and find the truth even if it means moving out his comfort zone as the slick and famous celebrity cop.

Of the supporting performances, Kim Basinger’s is the most effective, for which she won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. She portrays Lynn as a sympathetic individual who is immediately attracted to Bud White because of his kindness towards women which overshadows his rough-cop appearance. One of the best scenes in the movie is Lynn’s monologue to Ed Exley on why she fell for Bud in the first place. Senior actors Jack Cromwell, David Strathairn and Danny DeVito all provide solid and credible supporting performances.

It is hard to find fault with a movie of the quality of L.A. Confidential. All the elements required for a great movie in general are on full display here with a complex plot, a multi-layered screenplay and top-class performances. I would heartily recommend it to anyone who wants to watch one of the finest thrillers in recent memory.