Tuesday, April 23, 2013
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.
Sunday, March 31, 2013
Arkham City is a direct sequel to Arkham Asylum, a wildly successful game from 2009. The graphics haven’t changed much, but then they were great to begin with. The game marries the grittiness of Nolan’s Batman movies with the more outrageous designs found in Tim Burton’s version. When Robin puts in an appearance, however, he seems photocopied out of Joel Schumacher’s cinematic attempts, minus nipples on the suit. Every part of the design seems to have been carefully, lovingly pondered and despite the blending of the visual style of various movie versions, it forms a cohesive whole. Think dark, dirty gothic with splashes of neon.
Of course, in terms of realism, there is plenty here that is ridiculous. Most people like Batman because he is just a guy, allegedly lacking superpowers. This makes you wonder how he can beat up hundreds of thugs and various of his most deadly enemies over the course of one night, without so much as a nap or a toilet-break. And realistically his arms should be close to falling off by the end of the game, from ziplining all over the city for hours on end. But even though Batman remains in top-condition (outside of the cut-scenes, in any case, where he looks a bit more troubled), his costume does start to show wear and tear as you go, which is a very cool, subtle touch.
The second outing in the Arkham franchise is more of a sandbox game than its predecessor. There is more space to explore in-between the missions that advance the main story and this exploration is even necessary to wrap up a couple of side-quests. Evil mastermind The Riddler has left little trophies all over the city, as he did last time in Arkham Asylum. Some are easy to access, just needing to be found, others require combined application of Batman’s gadgets to grab. Getting them unlocks challenge levels, art designs and other treats. The game is so generous with extra content, that you’re actually likely to ignore part of it. It all becomes too much of a time-sink and takes away focus and urgency from the main narrative. Without spoiling things, going by story logic, Batman shouldn’t be wasting precious time. Though the game doesn’t put a timer on you, it just feels odd for him to be hanging around on rooftops, figuring out how to get his hands on a trophy. The designers have crafted every alley with obvious care, but they seem to expect that you will spend hours of your life admiring every inch of their work. This seems a bit greedy.
If you just follow the main story, tackle a couple of the less time-intensive side-mission as they pop up (some are inaccessible later on) and collect some trophies you stumble upon while you ignore the rest, it is a jolly good game. There’s some mild detective-work, some exploring, some puzzles and a lot of non-lethal fighting. The latter is as smooth and satisfying as ever, and it doesn’t surprise that so many other recent games have copied the franchise’s approach to it. Arkham City improves upon its predecessor when it comes to the Boss fights. The previous game upped the difficulty level towards the end by throwing more and more waves of samey enemies at you until it turned into a frustrating slog. Here, there is more variety.
If you bought a non-used copy of the game, you get to play a few missions as Catwoman, which is a nice change of pace. And if you buy the Game of the Year edition, you will also get a DLC mission that takes place after the ending of the main game. It picks up on the very interesting way that things were left off, but it poses more questions than it answers and throws in one of those massive arena fights that the main game had mostly dropped. As I understand, the writer of Arkham City and its predecessor (Paul Dini) wasn’t asked back to plot the DLC and it shows. Even though writing is generally one of the weakest elements in games, the importance of an interesting story to hook you and keep you invested, should not be underestimated.
Arkham City is the continuation of a trend where I really like a game but I am done with it long before it seems to be done with me. Games these days tend to give you a percentage of completion as you go, to show you far you have advanced. I tend to be ‘done’ at slightly over 50% which generally means that you finished the main game, but didn’t bother with any multiplayer, trophies and achievements. Of course, it’s great that all that extra content is there for those who want it. But as a 35+ year old gamer, it does make me look back nostalgically at a younger age when it seems people have all the time in the world. In any case, I’m on to pastures less neon.
Sunday, March 24, 2013
At its best, Tensión Sexual is playful and manages to be erotic, but it does fall flat on occasion. For instance, there is a wordless story about a male nurse who replaces a sexy man’s usual nurse. The nurse proceeds to soap and shower his patient in an extended sequence that had me checking my watch. It doesn’t help that the nurse has something creepy about him, and that his sexy patient mostly looks bored. Chemistry can be hard to bring across on screen, especially if you can’t fall back on kissing and sex, because the general theme here is ‘missed opportunities’. There may be as many lingering stares here as there were in the infamous Twilight. Not surprisingly, the couple of stories that forego dialogue are the worst offenders in this respect.
The pieces I enjoyed the most were the ones that showed a sense of humor. There is the fairly unbelievable story of one supposedly straight guy teaching another supposedly straight guy how to make love to a lady, by getting near-naked and acting things out with him. And there is a story where it becomes clear that one of two muscled training buddies is sneakily seducing the other. The fun here is that it takes the audience a while to figure out that one of them is doing it, and that his friend doesn’t catch on even after we do.
You do have to be a somewhat shy and patient person to identify with most of the characters in this movie. Once or twice I rolled my eyes wondering why someone was playing coy and didn’t just make a move already. By the end of it all, despite some lulls that lead to mild boredom, Tensión Sexual mostly delivers on its title. It is extended foreplay without the release of sex. It leaves you titillated, a bit frustrated and in need of a good shag.
Monday, March 11, 2013
SLP is an interesting movie. Or rather, two-thirds of an interesting movie and one-third of a generic romantic comedy. It spends a good long time building up nuanced, troubled, believable characters (even the ‘sane’ characters turn out to be a bit kooky) and then suddenly decides to chuck realism in favor of an all-out upbeat ending. It ends up as one of those movies where the camera rotates around a kissing couple to signify the passion and intensity of the kiss. It’s a shame that the first, more realistic part of the movie makes it hard to believe that all problems have been resolved, as the ending wants us to believe.
Is the movie worth seeing? Well, yes. The performances are great, especially those by the leads. Apart from being convincing as someone with borderline syndrome, Bradley Cooper is dreamy enough that I could watch him read aloud from a dictionary for two hours and still not nod off. Jennifer Lawrence seems a little young to be paired up with him, but then that’s the way Hollywood likes it. And her performance easily makes you forget about the age gap, as there is more than enough chemistry to bridge it.
Speaking of chemistry, it is a bit suspicious how drugs seem to be the silent heroes of the film, used to fabricate the happy ending. And it is odd how drinking two glasses of Wodka doesn’t impair someone’s ability to dance. Alcohol apparently disappears right out of your body when a script calls for it. But then, that’s a silly romantic comedy for you. If you can roll with the switch from fairly realistic dramady to romance-fixes-everything (as most people on the IMDB seem able to) then Silver Linings Playbook will leave you with a big smile on your face.
Tuesday, February 12, 2013
The Lord of the Rings was basically about a hobbit bringing a ring to a volcano to save the world. The Hobbit is about a related hobbit originally finding that ring and helping some dwarves reclaim their homeland by taking on a dragon. The Hobbit (or there and back again) was written by Tolkien as a children’s story, though he was consciously laying the foundation for something more, while The Lord of the Rings was a full-fledged attempt to create a new mythology for England, and was aimed primarily at adults. (To Tolkien’s horror, it ended up having the most impact on hippies and stoners at the time of publication.) Not surprisingly, considering the source, there is a different, more playful tone to Peter Jackson’s newest outing into Middle-Earth. While there was already some silliness to the first trilogy, here it is more prominent and it doesn’t quite track with other scenes that are deadly sincere. There is a delicate balance when getting people on board for a story about goblins, elves, trolls and the like. You want them to take it seriously, but most people will need an occasional wink to acknowledge that you are asking them to take a large leap of faith. This time around, there are a few too many ‘yeah, right’ moments in the recipe, that we’re expected to take at face-value.
By the end of this first chapter, the heroes’ journey is far from over. (Even though they seem to have an opportunity to reach their destination quickly, which is oddly ignored.) There will no doubt be many more roadblocks on their path, but it’s going to be a long slog. For them and the viewers.
Technical note: This movie made history by being shot at double the usual frame-rate. This was supposed to render a sharper image, without motion blur, but ended up taking away movie magic. It allegedly makes the film look like a documentary and makes special effects, costumes and make-up look unconvincing. I chose to see the film at the regular frame-rate, in 3D. The 3D is fine but doesn’t add a lot to the experience. Ps: I am going to bitch-slap the next person with perfect vision who whines about having to wear 3D-glasses for a couple of hours. Cry unto me a river.
Sunday, February 3, 2013
You play the apparently mute bodyguard-turned-assassin Corvo Attano. After a trip abroad, you return to the city of Dunwall. This is a seaside place that is preoccupied with whaling, as whale oil is a very important energy source. (And a rather explosive one, as you will discover.) The city is having a hard time, slowly getting overrun by rats that are spreading a deadly plague. You arrive just in time to get framed for the murder of the Empress you were supposed to protect. Her young daughter is kidnapped by conspirators who want to take control of Dunwall and it is your mission to rescue the heiress to the throne and either restore order or simply avenge.
Your situation seems hopeless at first, but thankfully, there is a shadowy guy from another realm at hand, to creepily watch your progress and gift you awesome powers as a reward for collecting ‘runes’. The most important of these is ‘Blink’ which allows you to zip from one place to another (within a certain range) instantaneously and invisibly. Others allow you to slow or stop time, see enemies and other things of import through walls (‘Dark Vision’), blow enemies away with a gust of wind or to turn them to dust. Dishonored tells its tale as a succession of missions you are sent on. Each gives you a target and drops you in a couple of connected areas, which contain a smattering of guards to avoid/incapacitate and resources to find.
The non-violent approach does make more sense for the story, admittedly, as you are most often fighting guards who are not evil so much as misinformed or innocent (albeit aggressive) victims of the plague. And, from what I’ve heard, the game doesn’t fault you for assassinating your main target for each mission. (Even though there is always a non-violent way to get rid of them as well.) But the story could have been tweaked to have a few levels where you would fight some kind of steampunk robots, for instance, enabling you to cut loose without getting punished for it. Discouraging the more creative way of play, seems like a sneaky way of making you spend more time on the game, making you have to play it twice to experience all it has to offer. This is made less enticing, however, by the fact that you will also have to hunt down all the collectibles again to unlock the same powers you acquired in your previous game. Probably the best way to go about it – if you have the time and patience – would be to replay each mission twice right after each other. Once the violent way and once the stealthy way, choosing to activate the appropriate powers for each approach. It doesn’t really benefit the pacing of the story though, and requires managing of game-saves.
I used to be an adventurer like you, but then I got an arrow in the knee”? Having a voice actor record a larger amount of more generic lines, would seem like an easy and not all that expensive fix.
The guards also suffer from terrible memory, poor peripheral vision and an overall lack of curiosity. If they spot you clearly, but you manage to slip away quickly, they tend to just stand in place for a moment until their suspicion dissipates, rather than go investigate. Anything that happens outside of their official cone of vision (which is visualized in your Dark Vision mode) doesn’t register, even if a door swings open right next to them. Previously closed doors that are suddenly open also go unnoticed by guards doing their rounds, as does the disappearance of colleagues. And the simple act of crouching makes you significantly less visible and audible, even in places where this doesn’t make much sense. I get that these and some other abstractions are necessary to make the stealth approach less frustrating, but it does make the guards look amusingly incompetent. Despite the various behavioral oddities you come across, taking out the opposition or slipping by unnoticed is addictive and fun.
Wednesday, January 23, 2013
As you see: despite both being an experiment in storytelling, we have an apple and an orange here. I enjoyed Dear Esther more, because of the atmosphere. It’s funny that simply the act of moving yourself through the environment makes it a compelling experience, when the minor adjustment of watching the game as a movie would likely make you fall asleep by the midway point. Important note: the save system was messed up. If you don’t complete the story in its entirety at first, you may only be able to start at the beginning instead of at one of the other three chapters. Thankfully, there’s a work-around for this.
Anyway – I am off to be Batman again. As one does.