Wednesday, September 18, 2013

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Sunday, June 30, 2013

Game Review: Uncharted 1 and 2 (PS3)

Tomb, sweet tomb.
The Uncharted and Tomb Raider games owe a lot to each other and to Indiana Jones. With a small tweak to their back-story, Nathan Drake and Lara Croft could easily be revealed to be Dr. Jones' grandchildren. They are ancient artifact-chasing adventurers who spend an inordinate amount of time climbing around giant rooms activating very complex mechanisms that somehow didn't break down despite being inactive for centuries. Why be straightforward when you can put together cryptic clues and have the time and budget to get dramatic about it? Some of these previously sealed rooms even feature mysteriously lit fires that seemingly have been burning forever. These must hold the secret to an unlimited energy source that could save our world, but our heroes don't ponder such details. It's also a wonder that the ruins these contraptions are found in, have always declined to the point that there is only one single, precarious path to get to the target.

In any case, having just finished Lara Croft's latest adventure, I decided to give the Uncharted series a try. While playing Uncharted: Drake's Fortune (2007) I was reminded a lot of the two Tomb Raider games from around the same time: Legend (2006) and Underworld (2008). The climbing around feels near-identical, including things like ridges that crumble as you cling to them and vines or chains that allow you to run along a wall to the next ridge. But Uncharted is a lot more gun-happy, constantly throwing you into arenas littered with convenient places to take cover, where you shoot at generic baddies. They come in orderly, highly predictable waves. Honestly, I got bored with the shooting and just wanted to get to the next bit. I am not sure if this is the game's fault or an accumulative effect of playing too many shooters. The story is like that from an old adventure movie and the characters are interesting, but not fully fleshed out yet. There are plot holes, like characters turning up in places they couldn't logically have reached. And Nathan leaves a buddy in dire straits at some point, without a second thought. The friend miraculously escapes, but it's never made clear how he managed it.

The climbing around can be awkward in that it's often not clear which parts of the scenery you can actually climb. This means you will sometimes find yourself oddly humping a wall or hurling yourself to your death. As in the Tomb Raider games, the camera often tries to be cinematic by going to a wide angle that may prevent you from seeing where you're going.

Uncharted 2: Honor Among Thieves (2009) takes the formula from the first game and improves on it. The graphics are more polished and pacing is better. It switches between platforming, puzzles and shooting constantly and smoothly, while making sure there is enough variation to each section to make it different from previous ones. The dialogue is less wooden than in the first installment, even though the comedic timing can be off on occasion. Hearing Nathan say a funny one-liner just after snapping someone's neck, makes him come across like a dangerous sociopath. And I guess he is indeed dangerous, leaving a massive pile of bodies in his wake. But then, these guys were all trying to kill him, so turnabout is fair play.

The game has imperfections. There's a weird gleam to people's eyes that makes them look like cyborgs. Jumps you can barely make, show you getting pulled towards walls the last inch, like they possess their own gravity field. There's an impatient Hint system, that all but goes 'Hey, stoopid - do THIS!' when you dally for a moment. The way you always get handed the weapon you need at the exact moment you need it, becomes a bit obvious. The final Boss fight is a tedious slog. There's a frustrating 'run for your life' section where the camera angles backwards in a way that is very cinematic but doesn't let you see where you're supposed to be going. And I can't quite reconstruct the cause-and-effect of how the hero actually saved the day in the climactic scenes.

Old statues. They tend to harbor secrets. And look really angry.
Finally (kept vague to avoid spoilers): if you had the key to a door that the Bad Guy should not be allowed to open, would you: a. try to beat him to his end goal, possibly leading him there in the process or b. simply destroy the key, ensuring that the door could never be opened? If you picked 'a' - congratulations - you could be a character in this game.

But Uncharted 2 is like a great roller coaster ride. Whether you find yourself in a collapsing building, climbing all over the longest train in human history,  taking down a helicopter, having a gunfight while hanging from a street sign or improbably reconnecting with your ex-girlfriend, you'll have a very good time. On to Uncharted 3!

The longest train in human history.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Movie Review: Behind the Candelabra

Behind the Candelabra is a biopic about Liberace, a diva who spent his life lingering in the glass closet, at a time when that term did not exist yet. He was a piano-playing showman, into kitsch and glittery things to an almost pathological degree. Despite being flamingly gay to the point where satellites orbiting Earth would nudge each other and go 'You think he's…?' 'Well, DUH.' he somehow managed to slip under the radar of grandmothers everywhere. His public image was that of the ideal son-in-law.

Liberace had flings with various younger, twinky guys over the course of his life and this HBO movie tells the story of perhaps the most significant one: his six-year relationship with Scott Thorson. (It is based on an autobiographical novel written by Thorson.) For a television production, Behind the Candelabra is heavy on stars: Michael Douglas plays Liberace, Matt Damon plays Thorson and if you look behind various forms of dubious facial hair and/or make-up, you may recognize Scott Bakula, Dan Akroyd, Paul Reiser and Rob Lowe. In a production that features a lot of creepy-looking characters, Lowe edges out the competition as a cosmetic surgeon whose skin is pulled back so tight that his eyes have turned into cat-like slits. Gay-fave Debbie Reynolds puts in an appearance as Liberace's mother. The director also comes with a pedigree: Steven Soderbergh. He has made a fair amount of great movies like Ocean's Eleven and Traffic and has had a few misfires, like Ocean's Twelve and Thirteen.

Michael Douglas. In some shots (though not this one) his
head is superimposed over that of an actual piano-player.
Almost seamlessly - but not quite.
Given the star-power behind and in front of the camera, Behind the Candelabra is unexpectedly subdued. When Liberace is on stage, there is spectacle. When he is off it, there are strange-looking and not all that sympathetic people having mundane conversations in gaudy surroundings. Matt Damon's face looks oddly shiny in the beginning - presumably an attempt make him look young - and looks just odd after he gets cosmetic surgery later in the story. His stomach also draws the attention: it goes from flat to belly and back again, not very convincingly, by Damon temporarily wearing something pillow-like under his shirt. Michael Douglas is bravely unattractive as Liberace. On stage he looks like a doll and off it - especially when the wig comes off - he just looks fragile and old.

The real Liberace with Scott Thorson.
Interestingly, this HBO movie doesn't castrate Liberace, as popular culture tends to do with gay men, especially the more effeminate and older ones. He is a horndog and we do get to see Michael Douglas en Matt Damon kiss, simulate anal sex and have a discussion about who gets to top and who gets to bottom. All of this is refreshing to see, but it also left me feeling a bit queasy. This isn't a sweet, romantic story. Liberace and Thorson were definitely using each other, even if there was some real affection. The movie is non-committal about the amount of love versus cold self-interest, but as romances and relationships go, it was a bit of a car-crash, with a fair amount of sex, drugs and piano-music.

Behind the Candelabra is an interesting oddity, definitely worth checking out. But in the end it feels a bit flat. Like Liberace's stage persona, it's about the surface and it does not really engage emotionally.


Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Movie Review: The Parade

The Parade is a Serbian tragicomedy about a homophobic gangster who, through a series of unlikely events, ends up having to protect the first attempt at a Gay Pride parade in Belgrado. It won Best Feature during the Roze Filmdagen (a gay film festival) in Amsterdam in 2013 and deservedly so. It is both a farcical buddy movie and a call to arms and it manages to balance these two elements skillfully. There are stereotypes all around, from boorish straight blokes to screechy queens, but as everyone operates on the same level of comical exaggeration, it works. The characters are sympathetic and there is genuine heart in the way the little group that will be in the parade bonds with their reluctant bodyguards.

It's sad that the movie had to end with a turn for the dramatic, as so many gay-themed movies do, but the intent here is clear: the makers mean to make you angry. Generally speaking, Eastern Europe is still a shitty place to live for lesbians and gays. The scenes in the movie depicting ruthless homophobic violence and blind hatred are chilling. Watch The Parade; you'll laugh, you'll cry and then - hopefully - you'll realize there's much more work to be done for gay rights and contribute to the fight in whatever way you can.

Movie Review: Resident Evil: Retribution

I just observed Resident Evil: Retribution. I say 'observed' rather than watched, because I knew going in that I would enjoy it more on an analytical level than I would enjoy the story or characters. I knew this because the previous four entries in this franchise all contained a lot of loud noises, kinetic energy, slightly too cheap special effects, flat characters and lacked any real emotional point of entry for the viewer. It's not that the franchise lacks plot, it's just that it's a massively convoluted and badly thought-out one, which keeps getting twisted and turned in awkward ways.

The movie picks up right at the moment its predecessor stopped, and after one artsy scene it has the leading lady (Milla Jovovich) recapping 'the story so far' for the viewers, including shots from previous entries in the franchise. That's pretty lazy storytelling and it doesn't seem all that necessary as the film quickly resolves the last movie's cliffhanger in a sloppy and unsatisfying way and then reverts to the 'let's escape from a big base'-scenario from the first movie.

So what is the franchise about? The evil Umbrella Corporation had a virus that accidentally spread from an underground vault and turned most of the world population into mutated zombies. The A.I. from that ill-fated vault decided to stop the mutation by killing everybody on the planet and the head of the formerly Evil company now wants to stop it. Meanwhile, Jovovich first escaped from the vault, then got injected with the virus but it gave her superpowers but then those have been taken away again. Or something. I may have glazed over at some key points in the narrative.

I am not entirely clear on how she is being all Neo and doing slow-motion backflips and in general kicking martial arts-style ass if she is just a simple human now, but then I am not entirely clear on a lot of things in this movie. Such as: why does a big monster waste no time killing a few people, but then doesn't kill the one person still necessary to the plot, dragging its victim to its nest instead? Why is this monster first impervious to bullets and then temporarily incapacitated by them? Why does an A.I. need to create an actual physical representation of people and a city to simulate a viral outbreak? Why doesn't it run virtual tests and infect some of the army of test subjects apparently at its disposal? How is this massive base run by just a handful of people?

Much like the previous flicks, this Resident Evil entry strings together action sequences that have the semblance of Cool, but lack rounded characters or a coherent bigger picture to give them meaning and make the viewer care. It comes with enough plot holes in the central storyline to make even the most hardcore suspenders of disbelief snap.

But maybe I need to just speak for myself, as the movies are apparently successful enough to continue churning out new ones. And director Paul W.S. Anderson and his wife/ lead actrice Milla Jovovich keep koming back for more, so it seems they are having fun with this franchise. Which is romantic, I suppose. The next entry is rumored to be the last one, but I'm sure someone down the line will reconsider if it's successful enough. Just like some of the villains in this movie, the Resident Evil series seem almost impossible to kill.

Things go 'boom'. A lot.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Game Review: Tomb Raider (2013, PC)

Lara Croft is an ambivalent creation, like most female characters in video games. She is empowered and doesn't need a man to come to her rescue, but she has also been designed to please hormonally bothered teenage boys. Traditionally, she had a tiny waist and sported considerable cleavage. And though she went about kicking ass, there were flashes of what seemed to be misogyny in the elaborate death scenes that would occur when a button prompt was missed or a jump went wrong. There are even gleeful collections of Lara's death scenes on YouTube.

I'm not saying that I'd like to build a summer home here,
but the trees are actually quite lovely.
The new Tomb Raider game, supposedly a reboot of the franchise, downsizes Lara's bra and gives her a more believable appearance, even though she is still very, very pretty. The odd mix of girl power and gruesome failure is maintained. Like Lara Croft herself, this new game was created based on two separate approaches. There is the storytelling aspect and there is the gameplay. The story introduces us to a younger Lara Croft than the previous games, but it seems to take place in the present-time. Her back-story is unchanged in so far as it is discussed: adventuring parents gone, silver spoon present. Within a few cut-scenes she finds herself stranded on an island with some violent factions and hints of a Lost-like mystery. From just trying to survive, she goes through challenge after challenge until she grows from a hapless victim into a pro-active predator. At least, that is the story the cut-scenes tell us. The gameplay didn't quite get the memo.

She's going deeper underground.
It's not much of a spoiler that Lara gets hurts badly very early on, getting impaled on an iron bar that runs through her side. This would put most people out of commission for a while, if not for good, but the pain is forgotten. It takes Lara longer to walk it off than the average action hero, but the game takes place over the course of a day or two and she takes so much abuse that her being mobile, alive even, beggars belief. Despite all her wounds, she pretty soon learns to fling herself at walls with an axe and climb her way up them without wear or tear, among other amazing feats. She also turns out to be a really good shot with a bow (or a gun) even at long distance, right from the start.

Not only does she have the constitution of The Terminator, which undercuts the semblance of realism, her psychological journey also doesn’t come across so well in the gameplay. Much is made of the first time Lara kills a man, even though he really had it coming. She agonizes about this and her next couple of kills in a cut-scene and a few lines of dialogue. Then she proceeds to rack up a body-count throughout the game that most serial-killers would be envious of. It doesn't help that, as a player, the kills are actually fun, because you are given a lot of options to get creative with it. It distances you from the character you're supposed to be.

Nothing's gonna stop her now.
That's not to say this isn't a great game. The story and gameplay don't mesh very well, but are a lot of fun when compartmentalized. The gameplay is varied and polished and there's an interesting mix of exploring beautiful and varied environments, mild puzzling and action. (Though I would have preferred a bit less action and some more complex puzzles, like those featured in the last two Tomb Raider games.) There are the usual collectibles strewn about, which help you upgrade your equipment, gain experience points to level up or give back-story on the island and its inhabitants. The places they're in often make no sense contextually, but they're fun to track down.

I've never played any of the Uncharted games, but allegedly this Tomb Raider incarnation has taken more than a few pages from its book. It's a roller coaster ride of an adventure, but it manages to retain the familiar Tomb Raider flavor, even if it is a bit low on raiding actual tombs. (And most of the tombs here are small and optional.) There is an ancient civilization featuring mysticism that may very well be factual, there are gory deaths and there are personal losses, which are also a staple of the franchise. Quite why Lara has a taste for more when it is all over, is not clear. But unless the entire next game is about her going through a severe case of post-traumatic stress disorder, maybe the franchise is better off dropping the pretense of realism.

PS: I haven't bothered with the multiplayer, which I've heard is okay. For me, the Tomb Raider franchise was and is (despite the current emphasis on action) mostly appealing because of the sense of isolation and wonder that comes from wandering alone through overgrown tombs with clues about ancient societies all around. And, of course, it appealed because of her giant rack. Phwoar! Am I right, guys!?

Ancient civilizations. And a hot babe.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Movie Review: Cloudburst

If you angle the candelabra that is affixed to my ancient oak bookcase just so, and tip-toe down the winding stairs that this action reveals, then cross the bridge over the alligator pool, pass the Bieber dartboard, pass my geeky game room and my naughty gay room and then open the door just to the west of the giant Vin Diesel pin-up, you will find a shrine dedicated to Olympia Dukakis. In other words: I am a fan.

I am not quite sure what it is that generally makes gay men admire strong women. We don’t want to be them (speaking for myself, in any case) and we definitely don’t want to sleep with them, but we would love to knock back some beers with them (or maybe appletini’s, if that’s more your thing) and bitch and laugh about men in general and straight men in particular. Olympia Dukakis has this quality and in the role of Anna Madrigal in the Tales of the City tv-series, also has shown a maternal warmth. She seems like someone you could tell all your sordid secrets to and who would give you a reassuring hug afterwards, without judgment.

Playing a butch dyke, she is the best thing about Cloudburst, a road movie about an elderly lesbian couple. Her character Stella is crass and blunt, aware of this but unable to help herself, and she is softened and redeemed by the clear love for her partner, who is near-blind and dependent on her. When a scheming family member in denial about their relationship tries to place Stella’s partner in a care home against her will, the couple decide on a trip to Canada. Getting married there would give their relationship more validity and better legal standing, they think. Along the way, they meet an attractive young hitchhiker with a troubled past who is on his way to visit his ailing mother.

The ancient cliché applies to Cloudburst: it is not so much about the destination, it is about the ride. The mood is more important than the script, which is a bit lightweight. The movie meanders, the scenes loosely sketching out the characters and their relationships. We learn more about the history of the couple, their travelling companion and watch the beginnings of a friendship. There are shots of landscapes, scenes with mild suspense and there are some farcical scenes, notably one in which stuntman Randy Bolivar is plastered across the windshield of a car while full-frontal nude. (Going by the mostly lesbian audience I saw this with, male genitalia do very well as comic relief.) Both this scene and the insertion of an attractive guy as the third lead, seem intended to capture the interest of gay men, widening the potential audience.

I imagine the ideal viewers for this movie are lesbian couples, curled up together on the couch, imagining themselves growing old together. It is about equal parts sad, sweet and comforting. I would have preferred a slightly more upbeat ending, as it seems all too many gay and lesbian films end on a maudlin note, rather than leave you smiling. But it’s a trip worth taking. And now I am off to take a trip of my own, to light a new candle at my shrine dedicated to Olympia Dukakis. Because the lady still kicks ass.