Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Game Review: Assassin's Creed II

I just finished Assassin’s Creed II, which was released quite a while ago (2009), with two sequels AC: Brotherhood and very recently AC: Revelations) already available. So never let it be said I’m not a year or two behind the ball. But at least this means you can pick up the 'Game of the Year' edition of it, which includes all the downloadable content, for next to nothing. Here goes.

I like games I can dive into, with a high level of immersion. This is a tricky thing when it comes to gaming. Generally it is helped by games keeping their mechanics out of sight as much as possible and just letting you go about your business as – say – an assassin in 15th century Italy. But the more complex a game wants to be, the more it will need to get a little abstract, explaining how it needs to be played and giving the necessary information at the right moments without throwing the player out of the game too much. The Assassin’s Creed franchise cleverly solves this conundrum by creating an extra level of reality within the game world: Desmond is a current-day descendant of a long line of assassins and through the help of a machine which can read *cough* ‘genetic memories,’ he relives key events from the lives of his ancestors. This enables him to learn secrets of the past and gain the skills of those who came before him, to fight an evil organization in the here and now. However, you spend relatively little time as Desmond and are mostly running stealthily along the rooftops and streets of the Florence and Venice of yore as assassin Ezio, offing people who are taking part in an evil conspiracy.

Because you are seeing things through the eyes of Desmond - who is in turn linked to a computer interface - the little map pointing out objectives, the health bar, the shimmering boundaries to the area you are confined to and the special mode of vision which points out your intended victim as well as guards in the middle of a crowd all make some sense within the story. (Even if the gimmick of ‘genetic memory’ in itself makes you giggle like a maniac and the little map-circle on the main screen looks distractingly like it was copied straight out of GTA IV.) Additionally, you can opt to turn off these little helpers if they bother you. The atmospheric music and great visuals which lovingly create various old cities, manage to draw you in and successfully make you feel like you are running around on a clear day subtly slaughtering villains as well as truckloads of anonymous guards, no doubt orphaning many unseen, blameless children.

That’s not to say the game is averse to reality-bending silliness. A few examples: as you are seen murdering people, your infamy grows and guards will attack you on sight. You can greatly reduce your bad reputation by ripping a few ‘wanted’ poster off walls. Not too farfetched so far. Except these posters tend to be a bit hidden because this ups the challenge of finding them for the player. Which – of course - means people wouldn’t actually see them and be influenced by them. And when you manage to slip your blade into a conspirator, time slows down while you have a short heart-to-heart with them as they breathe their last, any nearby guards apparently respecting your right to privacy during this intimate moment, only jumping you once the cut-scene is over. (I also encountered one such death scene after which all the nearby guards had mysteriously evaporated, though I suspect that was a glitch in the game.) The guards in general are a terribly dimwitted bunch, with bad hearing, memory and eyesight – forgetting who you are after losing track of you for a moment and not hearing or seeing you as you eliminate a shouting colleague on a nearby roof, while clearly in their sights.

Also not the best of friends with believability are the little glowing chests with money left lying around everywhere. Assassin’s Creed in particular can’t be blamed for this phenomenon however, as it’s a gaming cliché: resources which would have obvious value to a lot of people just lying around for the taking, be it currency, equipment or health packs. ACII at least limits the free giveaways to money; the other stuff you have to buy from vendors or pick-pocket from your victims. Pick-pocketing can also get you some cash, but it is far more time-consuming and the amounts you get are much smaller than those you get from looking for treasure in unlikely places, so it is hardly worth it. You can also choose to renovate a small town bit by bit, reinvesting what you start to earn by doing so, until more money is constantly pouring in than you will know what to do with.

The main event is clambering around a few beautifully rendered cities like a monkey whose arms don’t ever get tired and who will never miss a jump unless you press the wrong button. The controls for this are fairly intuitive and dependable, though the context-sensitive buttons mean that Ezio may occasionally start climbing a wall or an obstacle during a chase when you get too close to it, instead of running along as intended. And I did spend a good ten minutes at one point jumping around on a balcony, before managing to make my usually astonishingly nimble alter ego grab a wooden beam which was right in front of him, with no other route available to advance the game. There are indoor obstacle courses which apart from the different setting seem lifted straight out of Prince of Persia or Tomb Raider, in which you have to find your way to the top of a church or dungeon by jumping around. These are fun, except – like in the games mentioned – the camera may sometimes decide you are only allowed to see the parcours from one awkward angle which isn’t the best to actually see where you are jumping to. (Fun fact: the Assassin’s Creed franchise evolved out of an idea for a Prince of Persia sequel.)

ACII being a so-called ‘sandbox’ game, you have a fair amount of freedom to do what you please, when you please, apart from ultimately taking on the missions which advance the story. I have to admit I mostly ignored the optional assassination contracts, races and fights as there is plenty of that woven into the main narrative and I was aware that there are two more mostly similar AC games following this one, which would allow me to have my fill. I also mostly ignored the distractingly glowing feathers scattered about to collect: apart from it getting you an ‘achievement’ I couldn’t see how hunting them all down would serve as anything but a waste of time. I enjoyed finding the highest viewpoints, which open up the maps of the various cities and give a good vista. Thirty ‘codex pages’ add up to a giant puzzle and are fun to hunt down and some buildings contain hidden symbols which unlock a short (and ultimately silly) video called ‘the truth’ by way of thematically vague and somewhat obtuse brainteasers. By trekking through various dungeons, you can unlock the powerful threads of Altair, the anti-hero of the first AC game.

The main story missions are fun and just about varied enough, even though the basic activities of killing, platforming and collecting started to feel a bit repetitive near the end, making me wonder if I’ll get bored playing the sequels. The details of the conspiracy – the names and the ways in which they were connected – didn’t really stick with me. Though that meant I didn’t always understand why exactly I was eliminating someone and even though I generally feel bad about doing morally dubious things even in a game, I had no problem going ‘dark’ this time, since that was the entire point. I even offed a pushy minstrel or two, only partly by accident. The various ways you can approach a kill – hire a group to fight with you, hire ladies to distract guards, attack from above, blend in with a crowd as you approach your target – keep things interesting. Oh, and you get to hang around with Leonardo DaVinci, easily the most personable character in the game. Machiavelli puts in an appearance too.

I can recommend ACII as a fun, pretty easy and atmospheric game that mostly allows you to set your own pace. I enjoyed the platforming aspect more than the fighting, despite the occasional tendency to put a timer on you, which can be frustrating given the sometimes willful camera and context-sensitive controls. But no matter where your preference lies, ACII is worth your time. Quick word of warning though: the climax of the story is actually a somewhat silly cliffhanger, serving as a hook to get you playing the sequel. Not so much because of this as because of the gameplay, I’ll definitely rejoin Ezio in Rome for AC: Brotherhood sometime soon.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Ye Olde Television Review: Farscape

Farscape is a scifi-series which ran for four full seasons (1999-2003) and then got hastily wrapped up in a mini-series. I’d missed out on the original run but have now finally gotten around to watching the series from beginning to end.

American astronaut John Crichton (Ben Bowder) accidentally drops himself and his space-shuttle through an inconvenient wormhole while on a mission called ‘Farscape’, ending up somewhere quite far indeed. Before he can even get his bearings on the other end of the universe, he is implicated in the death of the brother of a certain Captain Crais, who carries a grudge and uses his authority with the awkwardly named Peacekeeper army to hunt John down over the span of quite a few episodes. John bands together with a group of aliens – this being a relative term of course – who had all been captured by the Peacekeepers and are now on the run on board of a ship called Moya: a ‘live’ ship akin to a space-whale, which has been bonded to an alien to serve as her pilot (who appropriately is simply named ‘Pilot’). There is a blue priestess called Zhaan, who likes to show off lots of her intricately textured skin, has a dark side and is technically a plant. There is D’Argo: a red-faced, passionate warrior with tentacles on his face who resembles a Klingon, but has more of a sense of humor. And there is a small slug-like puppet who floats around on a motorized sled – he’s called Rygel and is a lying, cowardly, greedy little egomaniac who used to be quite a big deal on his home planet until he was deposed. Rounding out the merry little band is John’s love interest Aeryn Sun (Claudia Black): a raven-haired Peacekeeper who despite her dedication to the cause is booted from the Peacekeepers because contact with John has supposedly ‘contaminated’ her. Note to intergalactic organizations intending to establish peace among all species: if blanket xenophobia is part of your statutes and at obvious odds with your main goal, you may need to rethink your basic approach.

Distrustful of each other at first, the group of convicts grows into a highly dysfunctional family in the end even as it loses some members and gains others. The most substantial late addition is Chiana, a white-haired, grey-skinned, playful sex-kitten. Lesser and more temporary ones are a rather hysterical fellow who can commune with the dead (Stark), a red or orange-haired – literally depending on her mood - spoilt brat whose screams melt metal (Jool), a kooky grandma who has a way with herbs as well as spit (Noranti) and a morally ambiguous special agent whose limbs can be reattached after removal (Sikozu).

Farscape presents a large and messy universe as seen through the eyes of astronaut John, full of truly alien-looking aliens with odd habits and cultures. And he doesn’t have it especially easy: after sorting out the wrongful accusation of murder, an ancient alien race decides to plonk the secret to making wormholes into his brain which makes him a target for the deliciously Evil Scorpius (Wayne Pygram), who proceeds to chase him unflaggingly for the duration of the series while wearing what looks to be a very tight leather S&M outfit. Scorpius gets inside John’s mind both figuratively and literally, planting a ‘neural clone’ of himself and making John go insane for a bit. All the while, John and Aeryn circle each other as her cold exterior starts to defrost and their mutual attraction becomes undeniable. But there is always something in their way, be it an emotional issue or a second John Crichton or quite simply death. Can these crazy kids get it together while keeping the wormhole technology – which could be used as a horrible weapon – out of the hands of all dubiously interested parties?

Farscape has a unique look because of the studio behind it: The Jim Henson Company. It was originally meant as a showcase for their creations and some of the scripts had their origin in the design of a particular puppet, rather than the other way around. This means a lot of the aliens look spectacular and there is more variety than you’ll find on Babylon 5, Stargate or Star Trek. However, because the puppets do tend to look as such, it gives the show a deceptively childish first impression. In reality Farscape is fairly adult in a fun and coarse way: bodily fluids of various kinds feature, there is a lot of exotic swearing and the aliens seem to be a kinky bunch sexually, not fazed by variations in physiology or race. Then again, in a galaxy with so much diversity, an intrigued and open-minded attitude seems to make the most sense.

Rather than come up with one potentially interesting idea at a time, Farscape tends to throw handfuls of them at the screen to see what will stick. The more far-fetched concepts make you work hard for your suspension of disbelief and it’s best not to ponder some of the sillier ideas too closely: trying to figure out how Moya the space-whale would actually operate or how she could get pregnant and give birth to an emotionally confused warship, could give one a headache. Farscape is about emotions more than logic: it is the ‘id’ to Star Trek’s ‘super-ego’. This extends to the scripts as well, where character-moments supersede clarity or story flow on occasion. But the fearlessness in trying new things is exciting as a viewer, even if it means you do occasionally sit through an episode which you have to write off as a failed experiment. It’s the price you have to pay for original high-adventure elsewhere.

As is the case with a lot of series, there are episodes which strongly push the overall story arc and some which are relatively self-contained. A not-so exciting sub-category of the second variety is the recurring ship-under-siege set-up, in which Moya and her crew must fend off a threat on the outside or inside of the ship. These stories tend to feature the main cast running around the samey corridors of Moya. A lot. Though a few are done well, mostly you can sense the need to save money powering these adventures, which does make a lot of sense considering how expensive this show must have been to make. The ambition of showing a vast galaxy full of alien creatures while on a tv budget is a lofty one, but can’t have been easy to pull off.

The show originally survived through some complex international funding, season by season, but just as the producers got cocky and took a next (fifth) season pretty much for granted for the first time, the house of cards came tumbling down as the final episode for season four was being shot. Without any closure to running storylines and ending on a massive cliffhanger, it would have been a bad note to leave the universe on. Thankfully, fervent fans managed to make enough noise to get financing off the ground for a miniseries which would wrap things up and could serve as a launch pad for more Farscape. It wasn’t enough of a ratings success to do the latter, but did serve to give a proper, if somewhat rushed, ending to Farscape’s tale of intergalactic high adventure. Even now, years later, there are the occasional rumblings of a web-series or some other form of live-action continuation, but nothing has actually been produced. If you are jonesing for more Farscape after seeing the series, check out the recent comics published by Boom! Studios, which pick up the story where the series left off.

All in all, the show has aged pretty well and the humor, larger-than-life characters and chemistry between the leads – especially John and Aeryn – still stand. The main ‘wormhole’ intrigue does start to wear thin near the end of the series, but doesn’t spoil the fun. If you can get past the puppets which look like puppets and sets which often do clearly look like a set, the series rewards you with many, many ‘arns’ (that’s ‘hours’) of joyful escapism. And with the sight of hunky Ben Bowder running around in leather pants. A frellin’ good time!

The full series, including the mini-series which ended things, is available as ‘Farscape - The Definitive Collection’ on DVD and soon on BluRay.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Television Review: RuPaul’s Drag Race, Untucked & Drag U

An ex once told me: “You’d make a great drag queen.” Upon seeing my puzzled expression, he added: “Oh, not a convincing one but one of those dignified ones, like Terence Stamp in Priscilla – Queen of the Desert.” Now, many years later, I still do not own a kimono or any kind of make-up and after watching all three seasons of RuPaul’s Drag Race, I am more convinced than ever that I would suck at drag. It takes a certain kind of mentality to do it: you have to crave attention, be willing to risk ridicule and not mind the large amount of time and money that goes into it. Being a drag queen is a whole lot of work, especially if you paint your own face and make your own outfits. It’s a bitch to turn yourself into a glamorous bitch. And you have to have courage to femme yourself up in a world that demands that men are masculine, which strangely seems even more true within the gay scene than outside of it. Likely this is because a lot of gay men feel they need to overcompensate for ‘not being a real man to begin with’. They may appreciate a guy in drag for the spectacle and entertainment value of it, but it’s not likely to be a turn-on. (Fun fact: if two drag queens hook up, which is supposedly a rare occurrence, this is called ‘kai kai’.)

RuPaul’s Drag Race showcases the shiny outer appearance of drag but – more interestingly – also explores the characters behind the façade somewhat. It has been roughly modeled after America’s Next Top Model and Project Runway: each season a group of drag queens is put through a series of challenges, testing their skills at performance, their ability to follow instructions and to work together and their ‘technical’ skills at putting together an impressive look in a short time. They are judged each week by a jury led by the titular RuPaul herself (full name: RuPaul Andre Charles) – who you are most likely to know from the 80’s hit ‘Supermodel (You Better Work)’. Also present are a gay-friendly C/D-list ‘surprise’ celebrity and some recurring stylists: Santino Rice, Michelle Visage, Mike Ruiz and Merle Ginsberg (seasons 1 & 2). Each week, one performer is named the ‘winner’ and two end up in ‘the bottom two’. This duo is then told to “lip-synch for your life”: a final battle to win favor with RuPaul or else risk getting banished. The one who performs better is spared: “Shante, you stay.” The other one has to “Sashay… away.” In the last episode of each season ‘America’s Next Drag Superstar’ is chosen from the final three contestants.

Because there are various equally valid styles of drag, the judgment calls can feel subjective. It’s easier to predict who is going to be in the ‘bottom two’, than to predict who is going to be coming out on top, since a ‘hot mess’ is generally obvious but it’s harder to distinguish between types of ‘great’. Some performers adopt larger-than-life looks and persona’s, putting the emphasis on spectacle, while others seem to strive towards being a professional high-class fashion model and occasionally a performer seems to just want to be a convincing girl. Some have a sense of humor about the whole thing, while others play it straight. Going by RuPaul’s Drag Race’s track-record, the fashion models rule the roost and someone with a strong emphasis on humor like Pandora Boxx is likely to get culled. Since the winner will be representing a company ultimately, as part of the prize, I have a feeling that glamour is an unspoken demand imposed by the sponsors. And speaking of sponsors and plugs: a lot of brand names get thrown around each week on the show. It’s heartening to see that corporate America is embracing drag. Also expect to hear a lot of Rupaul’s music, from the albums Champion and Glamazon for the moment, because – damn – that lady knows how to self-promote, as is evidenced by the fact that she sticks her name in the title of all her programs. She herself stars in the show both as a scarily thin man with a pencil moustache and as a glamorous Diva.

RuPaul’s Drag Race comes tied to a behind-the-scenes program titled Untucked. It shows more of the interpersonal drama happening backstage and adds character. If you just see the main show, you will form a different opinion of certain contestants than if you watch both shows, since more is explained about people’s motivations and background. I am pretty sure that a lot of the drama is fabricated in the editing room though, as happens with all reality television.

But there is a far more artificial third program on RuPaul’s roster, called RuPaul’s Drag U. In this program, a weekly selection of the drag queens from Drag Race – here dubbed Drag Professors at Drag University, where RuPaul is the President and Lady Bunny is the Dean - give three downtrodden women a make-over, to bring out their fierceness, self-confidence and to upgrade their mojo. The women tell their sad story, homilies are said, hugs are given and then the three ladies compete with each other for ‘draguating’ with top honors and some nice prizes. It is an odd concept, since after all the uplifting chatter two people are being sent home a ‘loser’, sort of deflating the niceness. Since the teachers have nothing really at stake apart from their honor, real tension is lacking even though there are some forced attempts at making them throw each other shade. (In other words: making them do or say something to take a rival down a notch.) While during Drag Race you start to have favorites to root for as the shows progress, these contestants don’t stick around long enough for you to care who wins. And generally it tends to be the one with the most depressing story who takes top honors, making the actual make-over seem somewhat irrelevant. Two seasons have been wrapped, but the formula is in need of more fine-tuning, as opposed to Drag Race and its Untucked add-on, which after three seasons run like a well-lubed machine.

One thing is certain: RuPaul has built an empire for herself and a flock of gender bending talent. The Drag Race set-up is a very addictive one, even – and maybe especially – to people like me and my boyfriend who would never dream of slapping on make-up and slipping into a dress, but are fascinated by these extravagant, extravert creations and the sometimes surprisingly shy and introverted people behind them. What I would love to see is a more Real World-like program starring the drag queens from Drag Race; following them on the road as they do shows, getting behind-the-scenes and learning about their day-to-day life. Rather than take away from the mystery, I think the contrast of life on-stage and off-stage would be fascinating. RuPaul, don’t rest on your laurels – there is more to be done. Fashion those laurels into a Caesar’s crown and expand that empire. As a magnificent bitch once said: “you better work”!

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Movie Review: RENT

I recently saw the movie version of RENT, an adaptation of a Broadway play I did not see. It is about a group of Bohemians in New York at the end of the eighties, trying to keep their head above water and a roof above their head without selling out. Director Chris Columbus (Home Alone, Mrs. Doubtfire) filmed it shortly after directing the first two Harry Potter movies but doesn’t leave a distinctive mark. The original play was cruelly spoofed in the puppet-comedy Team America, which showed a musical number called ‘Everyone has AIDS’. And a lot of people in the movie do indeed have AIDS and are on the then new - and fairly toxic - drug AZT but are far from guaranteed to beat the disease. It’s odd to have the word AIDS thrown around so much, when nowadays people have HIV and only get diagnosed with AIDS if treatments fail and they get into more trouble. But then RENT definitely feels like a period piece, set in a time of anger and activism. Its family of friends are angry at corporate America while fighting – and singing – amongst themselves about matters of love and politics.

Saying this may cause someone to come and take my Gay Card away, but I generally don’t like musicals. It’s jarring to have people burst into song for no apparent reason and even sillier when other people start to join in with the singing, knowing the lyrics through some neat trick of telepathy. The cast of RENT does this kind of impromptu group harmonizing with alarming frequency. The sometimes daft and forced lyrics don’t help. (Sample: “Who do you think you are? Barging in on me and my guitar”) And while a musical like Moulin Rouge cuts all ties with reality and moves into a circus-like hyper reality, making it easier to just go with it once you have taken the initial jump, RENT clings to realism uncomfortably. To hear people sing how cold they are, burning precious belongings to generate some heat, only to then topple these burning goods out into the streets as a form of ineffectual though visually interesting protest, seems – well – just stupid. Grittiness and musicals are not an easy mix to pull off.

RENT is considered to be a classic, but it left me feeling decidedly ‘meh’. Most of the melodies didn’t stick in my mind for too long and especially the rockier numbers handed to ‘Roger Davis’, a character seemingly molded after Bon Jovi, left me cold. Actrice Tracie Thoms comes off best and is graced with two of the more interesting songs: ‘Take Me or Leave Me’ and ‘The Tango Maureen’. Of course, music is a matter of taste more than most other arts and maybe on second viewing the numbers would reel me in and get me humming along, but the sometimes daft rhymes and overall lack of a good first impression, discourage taking a second listen.

It seems that the songs get in the way of the story in RENT: building nuanced characters through lyrics is a tricky business and this musical doesn’t quite succeed. The cast comes off as a vehicle for the songs more than a collection of living and breathing individuals, each with their own complex personality and goals. You don’t feel that you really get to know them, the movie just skimming their stereotypical surface. Together with the frequent song-breaks derailing reality, this makes it hard to get involved in the story.

However, if you don’t mind the silliness of someone who is on the edge of death from shooting up heroin – found at just the right dramatic moment by her friends - opening her eyes and going straight into a duet with her star-crossed lover, you may want to check it out.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Television Review: Wonders of the Solar System

In Wonders of the Solar System, Brain Cox explains things scientists know about the past, present and future of our extended habitat. This series consists of five episodes, each being led by a theme, such as how order was created out of chaos, why we have an atmosphere protecting us or the possibility of life on other planets. It was followed by Wonders of the Universe, which I haven’t checked out yet. I mostly bought the first series on BluRay because I figured it would be informative and more importantly, because it would look awesome in HiDef, along the lines of the BBC Earth and BBC Life series.

Brian Cox is the Jamie Oliver of the scientific world, be it a bit less of a bloke and a bit more of a geek (even though he used to play keyboard for D:Ream, which is of course very cool). He is one of those ‘nice boys’ who would be a big hit with your parents and grandparents. Maybe he is a bit tóó nice even: the wide-eyed, sincere fascination with which he talks about planets and constellations and the physics that hold our universe together is charming generally, but can start to grate when taken in too large a quantity. The words ‘wonder’, ‘wonderful’ and ‘amaayzing’ pop up often and lead to increasing amounts of eye-rolling. There must be a connection between this and the word ‘wonder’ in the title, but I am not sure if he keeps using it to explain why the series is called thusly or if they just figured afterwards: ‘Well, we may as well just stick it in the title.’ In any case, if you manage to get across with images and information how magnificent and ‘amaayzing‘ something is, you don’t need to point it out explicitly every time as well. We get it.

His method of showing and telling: travelling around the world to places which illustrate some force at work in the universe at large, possibly aided by placing some grainy photographs around him for further clarification. Occasionally rocks or condiments may be used to create a facsimile of our Solar System. The worldwide locations make for some beautiful imagery, but you can’t help but occasionally scratch your head at the necessity of it. Did Cox really have to travel to the South Pole to show us what a clear, flat piece of ice looks like? Or to a seasonal flower market someplace exotic to show how having seasons impacts life on our planet? It’s the visual sugar that makes the medicine of information go down, but I could have done with a bit more of the second and a little less of the first, great BluRay images or no.

If you are going for density of information, a book on the Solar System is a better bet – you will teach yourself more in less time. However, if you have some patience, are visually inclined and are looking for an affable, mild-tempered scientist to tell you interesting things about the universe in a slightly dreamy voice while roaming the planet, then Wonders of the Solar System (and likely its sequel Wonders of the Universe) is where it’s at.

Movie Review: Final Destination (Number 1 to Infinity)

Franchise plot summary: a big accident causes a load of people to die. A teenager has a vision beforehand and manages to save a small group of the future victims. An unseen force then proceeds to restore order by offing these people in a series of creative freak accidents. Rinse, lather, drown, repeat.

It’s not exactly a cheery thought, but the moment we are conceived, our death becomes inevitable. Whether you believe your fate has already been decided for you or you feel like you are in full control of it, your demise is at an unknown point in the future, drawing ever nearer, the form in which it will come unclear. A ‘natural’ death at a ripe old age is what we generally hope for: gently drifting away in our sleep, perhaps, with no Freddy Krueger in sight. But there is always the nagging fear we may be taken out of the game prematurely: an accident or a medical condition suddenly dragging us down and laying waste to our plans for the future. The Final Destination franchise plays on that fear, at least on the more sensational ‘accident’ part of it.

The killer in these movies is creepier than any number of slightly supernatural movie psycho’s with a pointy weapon and an antisocial attitude. There is no corporeal evil and no clear purpose, just an unstoppable force that wants you gone. Call it Fate, Destiny or simply Death – it’s ultimately an amorphous personification of our mortality. In this most basic of terms, the concept behind Final Destination is genius. It takes all the fatal freak accidents you ever heard of and makes you wonder if there wasn’t some kind of ingenious domino effect preceding it. And in a lot of cases, there likely was: cause and effect multiplied by the passing of time can take one cause which leads to a totally unforeseen and apparently unconnected effect down the road (Also see: The Butterfly Effect). Everything seems predestined when looking backwards, tracing back to a cause, though there’s more likely to be a complex network of causes, each with their own causes and so on until the dawn of time. Of course, the domino effect in real life tends to be a lot less sensational than the instances portrayed in Final Destination: a marriage slowly turned sour may lead to a fight in a car, which in turn may lead to a moment of carelessness at a traffic light, a crash and a dead biker who just ended up in the wrong place, at the wrong time.

Final Destination gets a bit silly when it tries to detail Fate’s process. There is apparently a very intricate plan for all of us, which gets upset when random teenagers have visions of their impending demise and manage to save a bunch of people. Who is giving the teens these visions? No one knows. Maybe some other force is teasing and challenging Fate or the vision is part of the plan to begin with, something Fate does to amuse himself. Instead of giving all the unintended survivors of the calamity a massive coronary or brain hemorrhage to clean up quick, he starts to set up massively complicated webs of causality, taking out his victims one by one even if he has an opportunity to blow them all up together in the same room by – for instance – planting a gas leak in advance. Since Fate seems to be able to predict the future, offing more than one victim at a time should not be a problem. But Fate seems hell-bent on being unnecessarily creative, varying the way he kills and sometimes even setting up a red-herring set of circumstances, only to strike in a simpler way moments later, like he decided to throw an improv and is trying to keep spectators entertained. In other words: Fate is acting suspiciously much like a screenwriter. The creepiness of Fate as a killer is lessened in the couple of instances where the screenwriter/Fate cheats and gets hand-on with the disaster in the making: visibly turning a screw loose or otherwise interacting directly with the world. He is at his best when totally invisible.

Going by the franchise, Fate seems to be hung up on the original order in which people were intended to die, replicating the order on his second try. It’s a neat way to set up tension in the scripts, but doesn’t make much sense when you think about it in terms of causality, where the original order of dying would be less important to the Grand Scheme than the amount of disturbance any specific survivor was causing. For instance: you’d think Fate would take out that pesky person who was having the visions first. It makes sense that the characters in Final Destination try to figure out the method behind’s Fate’s blood thirst and that they try to make sense of it all is also necessary for the movies to be more than just a string of roundabout executions, even though that is the bloody meat of the story. But Fate always ends up on top and the characters six feet under, like we ourselves will all face death one day and ultimately, inevitably lose.

The Final Destination series may make you a bit paranoid after watching an installment, wondering if mopping up that drink you just spilt will somehow end up killing you. It will also make you ponder death in a morbid way: what is the worst way to go? Getting burnt, eviscerated, decapitated, skewered, crushed, choked, drowned, blown up, run over or ripped apart? The terminating force in Final Destination doesn’t care if you have been naughty or nice, which also seems to be true enough in real life. The amount of pain with which someone checks out doesn’t correlate to their karma: someone who has never done anything wrong may slowly get roasted to death, while a real bastard may get off easy by getting quickly splattered by some kind of blunt force. Bloodiness may be the most disturbing factor visually, but the time it takes to die ultimately decides the amount of suffering for the person checking out. Death is less scary than dying and if you’re going to check out, you may as well do it on the fast track. By the time you’re in your eighties, would you want to start going slowly senile, feeling yourself slipping away or prefer to suddenly keel over from a heart attack? Personally, I am hoping for a gigantic glitter ball to fatally hit me over the head during disco night at the old folks’ home. At least that should give people something to smile about.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Movie Review: Pina

I am more pop culture than high culture and am allergic to pretentiousness, especially if it doesn’t come with some self-awareness and a sense of humor about itself. I also am someone who appreciates directness when an artist is trying to bring something across. None of this vague ‘insert your own meaning here’ for me, unless the aesthetics are so breathtaking that the meaning doesn’t even really matter. These qualities make me a bad fit for poetry and for most of modern art, be it theatre, music, paintings, sculpture or dance. But the trailer for Pina intrigued me: a movie about dance shot in 3D by Wim Wenders, as a tribute to leader of a dance troupe. Pina Bausch was a dancer, choreographer, teacher and the artistic director at the Tanztheater in Wuppertal. She died in 2009. Being a cultural barbarian, I had never heard of her, but that didn’t stop me from going to see her choreography.

Pina admittedly isn’t the first movie to realize that dance would benefit from the extra dimension to play around with on screen, allowing a projection to approximate the experience of a live performance, but as far as I know, it is the first one aimed at an art-house audience. It feels more intimate than its grand-scale predecessors and doesn’t really have a ‘story’; it is a collection of ‘best of’ fragments from her choreographies, interspersed with shots of the dancers reminiscing about Pina. The viewpoint of the virtual audience isn’t fixed during the performances, stuck to a seat as they would be in a theater, instead the viewers leap in between the dancers and move around, making for a more dynamic event.

To start with the negative, of which I don’t have a lot: there were a few choreographies I didn’t ‘get’. In particular the piece in a large grey room littered with chairs – titled Café Müller – didn’t grab me in either aesthetics or meaning. Unfortunately, this was one of the longer pieces in the movie and considering that the movie overall does end up feeling long, it could have been whittled down a bit to give Pina as a whole more forward momentum. The other on-stage pieces - one with a tribal, earthy flavor taking place on a layer of red sand, one featuring water and a big rock and one which contrasts and plays around with dancers of different genders and ages – hold your attention but feel a little confined in contrast to the pieces that take the dancers outside or at least let the outside world pour in. These pieces are more visually striking and uplifting, most of them shot towards the end of a crisp, sunny day it seems. There is a glass-encased dance studio which shows a bright explosion of leaves just outside and there is a metro on a rail through Wuppertal which is put to great use. Though the movie doesn’t crack a smile for the most part, there is at least one short, very funny sequence in which a woman stomps onto said metro with a pillow.

Overall, I am not the intended audience for this movie methinks, but if you have any interest in modern dance whatsoever, Pina deserves a good, long look.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Movie Review: The Butch Factor

The Butch Factor does what a good documentary is supposed to do: it makes you think. It does so by asking a complex question, presenting a variety of different, interesting viewpoints and leaving you to form your own opinion. It asks the question: what is masculinity and how do gay men perceive it? Especially for this group it is a loaded question. There is social pressure for a man to be manly, and this can be extra tough on gay guys, as they are not seen as ‘real’ men to begin with. After all, sleeping with another guy is seen as intrinsically girly, especially the ‘bottom’ role if there’s anal sex involved - even though ironically no girls are participating. It makes gays more self-conscious about feminine traits they may have and can lead them to shun their more effeminate brethren for fear of being associated with them and losing the respect of their straight peers. The documentary crew talks to musclemen, sportsmen, regular joes, ‘sissies’ and to a female-to-male transman about what makes a man.

Does a ‘real’ man have to have muscles and physical strength and is that all there is to it? We’ve all seen pumped up guys who look butch right up to the point when they open their mouth and then a purse falls out. There are gay guys who look masculine at first glance but show feminine traits when it comes to body language. Is a real man just a regular guy, doing things a stereotypical straight guy does? Does it necessarily mean getting excited about beer, sports, being hairy and possibly growing a gut? Does it mean not following your own interest, going out of your way to conform to the manly standard, turning away all things labeled as gay or unmanly by others? Isn’t someone who is preoccupied by appearing masculine actually showing he isn’t confident about his masculinity to begin with? And doesn’t that insecurity in itself hurt his ‘butch factor’?

Is it about strength of character? The outwardly most feminine gay men, have no choice but to grow a pair as they can’t pass for straight and have to fend off the aggression that brings out in people. Being regarded as a ‘real’ man is never an option for them, though they have all the required parts and likely have more of a fighter mentality than most men who pump iron. Is your level of masculinity set at birth, something you just are or aren’t and can’t influence all that much? But then: is a transman who has been through hormone therapy and starts acting and thinking like a man not as masculine as the next guy, apart from the genitalia?

There is a lot of shame about femininity within the gay scene; not only do some seem to think that interacting with a feminine guy would suck the masculinity right out of them by association, but a lot of gay men - including the feminine ones - are attracted to stereotypical masculine markers and behavior, passing over the queenier of their kind. Possibly it’s because they are seeking masculinity in others that they fear they are lacking themselves. Then again, there may be something more biological going on, hormones being set to respond to masculinity on a primal level: no perceived masculinity, no arousal. However, that ‘perceived’ caveat is an important one. Is masculinity something you intrinsically are, because of how you look, move, talk, smell… or is it subjective, something you are judged to be by others on the basis of culture? And is it ultimately something anyone should worry about or should we just get on with our lives and be ourselves, regardless of how people perceive us? Watch this very interesting documentary and discuss.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Movie Review: X-Men: First Class

The X-Men movie franchise has had it rough lately. X-Men: The Last Stand showed a great drop in quality after the pretty good first two X-Men movies: director Bryan Singer had decided to bail on the series after X-Men 2 to direct the very disappointing Superman Returns. He left the reins to Brett Ratner, a man with a reputation for making generic blockbusters and Ratner created a rambling mess of an X-Movie, losing a lot of goodwill for the series. X-Men Origins: Wolverine also underperformed, sinking plans for X-Men Origins: Magneto. The project was morphed into X-Men: First Class.

It shows how the X-Men team first came together in the sixties and how Magneto and Charles Xavier went from being friends to being enemies. In the comics – and in the continuity set by the first two movies - these two were friends for a very long time, but here it doesn’t seem more than a few weeks. It’s symptomatic of how the movie takes the continuity of the previous X-movies, gives cheeky nods to it and then just as easily disregards elements of it. Very funny blink-or-you’ll-miss-it cameos by Rebecca Romijn and Hugh Jackman tie the movies together, but for each bonding moment, there is an incongruity to push the movies apart. By the end of it, I still wasn’t clear on if I had been watching a prequel or a reboot of the X-Men movie continuity.

Magneto is well-served by the story and is acted well by Michael Fassbender. His traumatic childhood in a concentration camp (which ‘borrows’ the first scene from the first X-Men flick) and the ensuing hunting down of his Nazi tormentors make for some of the most interesting scenes in the movie. Maybe Magneto is a bit too sympathetic even, as I think you are supposed to be on Xavier’s side by the end of the story, but you may well end up on Magneto’s. Charles Xavier is entertaining as played by James McAvoy though I have trouble picturing his version of Xavier physically and mentally changing into Patrick Stewart. Other characters of note getting an origin here are Beast and Mystique.

Yes, there are a lot of other characters here as well, but frankly most of them don’t have much of an impact. The X-Men comic universe is a grab-bag of mutants both good and evil, but the grabbing here was oddly random. We get Alex Summers as Havok, in comics lore Cyclops’ younger brother and a much later member of the X-Men, but here one of the first to join with no mention or sign of his elder sibling. We get Banshee and Emma Frost, the sonic scream and diamond form respectively not translating particularly well to the big screen. The sparkly features of Frost never fail to look like an intricate but unconvincing special effect. Darwin and Angel – a different Angel than the one from the first trilogy – have no apparent purpose, are not especially personable and could have been any number of more interesting characters. The bad guys underwhelm: Riptide is mute and occasionally lets rip with bursts of air by waving his hands and Azazel looks like Nightcrawler painted red, which makes sense if you know he will end up being his father, but most viewers won’t know of that comic book connection. Kevin Bacon as Sebastian Shaw – leader of the evil pack – is more smarmy than intimidating.

The sixties’ setting of the movie and the tying in of the Cuban missile crisis are interesting, but certain more touchy aspects of the era – sexism and racism – are conveniently ignored, making it feel more contemporary than perhaps it should. There are the usual plot holes and inconsistencies along the lines of: ‘Hey, if he could do that earlier, how come he doesn’t do this now?’ For instance: Magneto can rip apart a boat with an anchor, but can’t rip a hatch off a submarine and sink it? And why didn’t Magneto kill his main tormentor when he clearly had the opportunity to do it as a kid at the beginning of the movie?

Now, all of this sounds like I didn’t enjoy the X-Men: First Class, but despite the nitpicks I did. I got more excited about it than about Thor in any case. Though it barely holds together in some spots, there is a lot more going on and there is more of an interesting moral grey area, plus the standard, none-too-subtle outsider metaphor to work with. Being pretty familiar but not entirely up-to-date with the comic book version of the X-Men I had fun trying to unravel the messed up continuity and figuring out where they would be going with all these remixed elements. I am curious if they will follow up this movie with a sequel to the prequel – which could be good, if they ditch a lot of the dead weight – or an actual X-Men 4. I would probably prefer that, as it could wash away the bad taste of X-Men: Last Stand and maybe give the saga a proper ending.

Final nitpick (SPOILER): I defy anyone to explain to me how Xavier and Co. managed to escape off the besieged island at the end of the movie.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Movie Review: Thor

The movie Thor serves as an introduction to the superhero character from the Marvel comics. I don’t know much about him in his print form, so I can’t say how much liberty was taken with him. I do have a feeling he was an actual God though and not an alien from another part of the galaxy who was just seen – together with his extended family – as holy beings by the primitive Vikings, thus making their way into silly Norse mythology. I assume this was done to sidestep any criticism from viewers with a different set of beliefs. (Our current religions are of course a lot less goofy. *cough*)

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) has some family issues. He and his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) are both up for the throne of Asgard currently held by their father Odin (Anthony Hopkins), but of course there is only one seat to be had, leading to some resentment. When Thor is picked by his father, he spoils things at the very last moment by getting warmongery and impulsive and his father banishes him to Earth to learn a lesson. It’s all very Shakespearian and operatic, so it’s fitting the movie was directed by British thesp Kenneth Branagh, known for filming Shakespeare’s plays and who now gets to play around with pop culture.

On earth Thor meets a rather hot astronomer (Queen Amidala – aka Natalie Portman) who ends up serving as his guide while lusting after his muscled body. There is much ado about a big, powerful hammer called Mjölnir. Meanwhile Loki – further egged on by an unsettling revelation – takes advantage of Thor’s absence and seizes power. Brotherly strife ensues.

Thor is perfectly serviceable entertainment and it serves as a good primer for Thor, who is slated to appear in the upcoming The Avengers movie, directed by Joss Whedon. I saw the movie in 3D and while the fantasy vistas of Asgard look good with depth to them, I have a feeling I wouldn’t have missed much if I saw it in just two dimensions. The movie isn’t without its faults: tension is lacking for one thing. I was never quite sure of the power level of the characters so it seemed anything could potentially happen, making what actually díd happen seem a bit arbitrary. The romantic tension between Thor and Jane is underwhelming and perfunctory; there may be a glowing ember there, but it could have used a lot more fire. Additionally, though the emotional turmoil within Thor’s family is well-handled and played out, the actual fates of Asgard and Jotunheim (don’t ask) that hang in the balance, don’t carry much weight. Despite various shots of a large world, we only meet a few of Asgard’s inhabitants and it seems empty apart from Thor, his family, his four friends and some random people milling about in the background. The potential destruction of icy Jotunheim left me even colder.

Pet peeve: There is an extra scene at the end of the credits, leading into the The Avengers movie and guest-starring Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, the leader of SHIELD. I was the only person who knew to hang around for it at the screening I was at, tipped off by a review I read. I understand the business reasons for sticking extra scenes at the end of the credits: it’s a great way to get movie-nerds excited, giving them something people not as in-the-know will miss out on. For people who heard about it too late, it may be an added incentive to get the Blu-Ray, DVD or even to go see the movie a second time. (Especially X-Men Origins: Wolverine tried hard to lure rabid fans back for a second viewing, by having one of two extra teaser scenes stuck to the end of each movie print, making it impossible to not miss out on anything the first time around.) I felt pretty stupid sitting there in my lonesome while the lights came up and the guy who was supposed to start cleaning up hovered impatiently in the back corner of the theater. Yes, the extra scene is fun, but it would have been just as fun spliced into the credits at a third of the way in and a lot more people would have gotten to enjoy it. It seems odd to me that someone who wants ‘the whole experience’ is willfully inconvenienced like this.

Temporal nitpick (SPOILER): How come the Vikings knew about Thor and Loki? A picture of the latter flashes by in a book being leafed through. Does time pass a lot slower in Asgard, the centuries flying by on Earth while they grew up just a little more? Or, since they are immortal, are Thor and Loki really old but just kind of immature for their age? And how did the Vikings get to know Loki better than Thor does? In Norse mythology Loki is known as The Trickster while his brother seems to have no clue about his deviousness.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Television Review: The Librarian: Return to King Solomon's Mines

I really like Noah Wyle, the actor best known for his long run on ER who is soon to be back in the spotlight with Falling Skies, the new Steven Spielberg-produced series. And I love the first three Indiana Jones movies. (Let us not speak of the fourth.) This should make me the ideal audience for the Librarian trilogy, a fairly obvious Indiana Jones rip-off made for television, starring Noah Wyle. However, I hated part one a little, part two a lot and I think it will be a good long while before I feel masochistic enough to check out part three, though I’ve been told it’s better than its predecessors and co-stars that nice lady from Castle.

The Librarian: Return to King Solomon's Mines (2006) - the middle part of the trilogy - is a perfect reminder why I tend to avoid television movies like the plague: mediocrity to the max. The dialogue, acting, sets and special effects are all half-baked. The script consists of lame one-liners, some cheesy emotional scenes, very obvious foreshadowing of things to come, believability stretched beyond repair and too many coincidences; the crutch of any bad writer who dug himself a narrative hole. To sum up the plot: Wyle works as a ‘librarian’ at a place where mystical, ancient artifacts are stored. He is sent out in the field to obtain one such artifact, hooks up with a sexy archeologist and confronts some demons from his childhood. There is perfunctory globetrotting, though most locations seem to be on the back lot of a movie studio.

The story culminates in a large ceremonial cave, with elements suspiciously similar to the finale of Raiders of the Lost Ark. The budget strained to keep up with the script from the beginning and at this point it coughs up the last of its petty cash for some laughable these-looked-snazzy-circa-the-eighties special effects. A ‘big’ adventure like this requires something visually spectacular when it peaks, but Librarian II limps to the finish. The climactic scene involves what seem to be fireworks superimposed on some mountains, to signify stuff blowing up real big. Wyle’s charisma is the only thing compensating for the craptastic nature of the rest of the movie, but even Harrison Ford in his prime would have been dragged down by something this dire. It’s a shame, as Wyle is clearly enjoying the chance to play a cheeky adventurer and is pretty good at it.

Productions like this are an exercise in frustration to watch: you can see what they were going for and how they could have made it work at least somewhat better, given a thorough script polish and a larger budget. As it stands, the time, money and effort actually invested seem completely wasted on a half-hearted product that won’t raise anyone’s pulse. The lesson here is: do something well, or don’t do it at all. This is exactly the kind of generic, inferior movie that life’s too short to waste time on.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Movie Review: Bear Nation

I recently caught the documentary Bear Nation at a gay and lesbian film festival. It’s about the international community of ‘bears’ - heavy gay gentlemen, generally furry – but also about their fans and about how they relate to other gay men.The topic fascinated me because of the idea of a subculture within a subculture and because I was interested to see how it would frame the generally very lookist gay scene and the bears’ place in it. Also, I am a fan of Kevin Smith’s podcast Smodcast and a few of those shows featured director Malcolm Ingram (a gay bear himself). For Bear Nation, Malcolm did interviews with bears and admirers and visited various places where bears gather, including a bear convention.

When it comes to the interviews, my feeling is that he got in too close with the camera, to the point where the (literal) closeness gets claustrophobic. I assume he was trying to make the conversations feel intimate and personal, but having the camera right up to someone’s face is mostly just distracting, especially when the face is then blown up to cinema screen size. A bit disappointing was the lack of depth to the documentary: a selection of men within the scene air their opinion and we follow some of them ‘in the wild’, but an outside perspective is pretty much lacking and the documentary seems to be cheerleading the bear scene, rather than giving an in-depth analysis of it. The fact that being heavily overweight could be detrimental to your health, for instance, is pretty much ignored. As is the story of how the really heavy bears got into that shape. Was it a conscious choice, a rejection of the norm or a different idea of beauty? Did it just happen to them and is it now a question of self-acceptance and owning it? However, there are a few contrary thoughts – such as: why are we segregating ourselves and turning away others, when that is exactly what we dislike about other parts of the gay scene? But the overall tone is one of collected opinions, rather than any overarching conclusion.

Several of the bears who are interviewed, have a strong view of the ‘mainstream’ gays, in particular with regards to the ones who are obsessed with cultivating muscle and showing it off. Though the bear scene is said to be more accepting of everyone, appearance not being an issue, there seems to be a combination of bitterness and envy when it comes to gym bunnies who cling to the traditional ideal of the buff or lean and defined male. A few of the interviewees see those guys as girly by definition, not really manly like a great big bear. The documentary registers this opinion but doesn’t point out the lack of logic behind it: there is no correlation between muscles and masculinity, but a big belly doesn’t make someone masculine either, in and of itself. There are bears on display within the documentary who by their existence disprove this ‘bear = inherently masculine’ theory. (Note that femininity is seen as a bad thing here.) Though there is pride connected to being a bear, you still wonder by the end of the documentary if the subculture is primarily based on that pride or based on rejection by the gay mainstream.

I can’t really say I learnt anything new from Bear Nation. I was hoping for a sharper discussion between (especially) gym bunnies and bears, both sides making arguments and pointing out the flaws in each other’s worldview. As it stands, it’s just about interesting enough to stick with, even though some of the points it makes get repetitive and it struggles to fill its 87 minutes. But it is nice to have someone put an often neglected subculture center stage, even if the only real conclusion is somewhat obvious: everyone deserves to love and be loved, regardless of – literally – the shape they’re in.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Gamer Rant: Easy Now!

Oops, it happened again. About three-quarters of the way through a game I was really enjoying, there was a difficulty spike and I got stuck. Not the kind of stuck where an online walkthrough would help, the kind of stuck that would require dexterity and a very quick trigger-finger or failing that: lots and lots of time and some dumb luck. I tried until irritation and frustration throttled the life out of my enthusiasm and interest, then I took the game out of my X-Box 360 and shoved it among other games mentally tagged as ‘maybe I’ll try it again someday… but probably not'.

The game in question: Enslaved – Odyssey to the West. I picked it up on the basis of good reviews which praised the engaging story, genuinely likeable characters and great graphics, while lamenting the just-average gameplay. And I was really enjoying the experience, right up to the point where I ended up wanting to pitch my controller through my flat screen television. Unfortunately, the same thing has happened to me before, most recently with Batman: Arkham Asylum, where a fight threw one too many waves of mindless minions at me for me to push through.

Of course, it is hard to set a proper, slowly climbing difficulty curve for a game, since you are dealing with a wide variety of players and not everyone is equally skilled. (For instance: I am aware that I am relatively weak when it comes to fighting games.) You are also trying to please people with a range of different mindsets. There are the hardcore gamers who thrive on exploring every inch of a game, replaying the entire thing on the hardest difficulty setting, collecting achievements and extra’s to impress themselves and their equally hardcore friends. These are presumably people with more time than money to spend on new games. On the other hand, I – as a 35 year old gamer working fulltime – have more money to spend than time. I couldn’t care less about impressing anyone when I am gaming and I avoid getting riled up and competitive with complete strangers online. For me, gaming is also about being challenged – sure – but primarily about relaxation, entertainment and immersing myself into an interesting story, with ditto characters and environments and about experiencing novel and diverse gameplay. I prefer a great, short game to a good, long game and I don’t think I am the only thirty-something with this approach to gaming.

The one thing I hate to waste is time. By which I mean: spending it doing something I don’t enjoy. Like replaying a level of a game (or a part of it at least) over and over again. This is why I avoid games I am interested in purely on the basis of reviews mentioning a badly handled ‘save’ system. The kind that forces you to replay a lot or increases the chances of you getting stuck somewhere. I remember the enjoyable Buffy – The Vampire Slayer game for the original X-Box having a tricky series of instant-death jumps too far away from a save point. 90% into the game, my patience ultimately caved and I buried Buffy in a digital graveyard. The world did not get saved. It’s really a shame because something like this retroactively sucks a lot of the joy out of the parts of the game you DID get to enjoy. The story, the adventure feels unfinished. I’ll likely end up passively watching some of the later cutscenes from Enslaved on YouTube instead of experiencing the whole game and recommending it to friends.

Recent games have gotten better at setting up forgiving save systems and now it is time for more game developers to do the same with difficulty levels. It is fairly stupid that you have to select the difficulty level before starting up a game, when you have no idea what the benchmark is. Starting with ‘easy’ would make me feel like an infant and I have beaten plenty of games on ‘normal’ so that is what I tend to go with. However, if a game is deceptively easy at first, only to slam you into a brick wall when the end is in sight, you may be well and truly screwed. Some games like Batman: Arkham Asylum and Enslaved leave you just one option: restart from the beginning at a lower difficulty level. What should be standard is a system like the one employed by – for instance – Dragon Age: Origins: when I ran into a frustrating boss, I simply lowered the bar to ‘easy’ to make it past, then raised it to ‘normal’ again. Did it hurt my pride to do that? Not really. I am an adult: I weighed fun against frustration and made a rational decision on how to spend my time. Did it allow me to enjoy the rest of the journey? Yup, and that’s what matters. Give away all the achievements you want to hardcore gamers for going through the entire game without fiddling with the difficulty level, I just want to enjoy the ride and see how it all ends. As of now, I will be checking to see if a game that seems of interest has the option to fiddle. If It does not, it doesn’t get my money: no more dead ends for me. Life’s too sho

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Book Review: Sex at Dawn

The Savage Love podcast pointed me to the book Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá. It takes a critical look at traditional assumptions about men and women and their actual behavior when it comes to sex and relationships. If monogamous marriage is the ideal, then why does it fail with such alarming frequency and make even a lot of the people who stick with it unhappy?

The book provides the following answer: men and women are not naturally monogamous and centuries of being in denial about this has culturally put our psyche and sex drives through the wringer. The authors quite convincingly posit that scientists throughout the centuries have been guilty of ‘Flinstonization’: projecting their opinions into the past and distorting things to make them fit the worldview of their own era, which generally was seen as far superior. For instance: primitive (‘savage’) cavemen were supposed to have lived short and violent lives. Likely not true: since groups of hunter-gatherers had large areas to forage, with a plentiful supply of food, there would have been no need for violence. The short life-span is a statistical distortion caused by adding child mortality into the total average, dragging the life expectancy of adults way down. A very similar thing happened with the calculation of how tall people used to be thousands of years ago: not as big of a difference as is now generally assumed. We did not come as ‘far’ as we may want to think.

The pop culture cliché of a caveman dragging a woman into his cave by her hair is baseless. The authors theorize (again, quite convincingly) that it is far more likely that men and women lived in a sort of commune, on equal footing if not in a matriarchy, in which both men and women had various sexual partners at any one time and raised children together. The fact that it wasn’t clear who the father was in any given case, meant the children belonged to the group as a whole and everyone felt responsible for them. There are some interesting indicators for this. Why, for instance, do men generally last a lot shorter in the sack than women, the man needing recuperation when the woman is just getting warmed up? And why are women a lot more vocal than men, as if to call attention (and maybe further partners) to the activity going on, even if in the wild this would have been at the risk of attracting predators as well? And at the risk of getting too graphic: why are the heads of penises designed to suction out the semen previous partners may have left behind and why does semen have elements in it that would neutralize that of another man while protecting the own team from one that might drop by shortly after? This kind of sperm competition is generally seen in polygamous species.

The coming of agriculture and personal possessions to be passed on ‘within the family’ changed a lot of things and not in a good way: to make sure the children doing the inheriting were not ‘bastards’, women suddenly needed to be controlled, their sexuality vilified or simply denied. Masturbation – a natural and even (by current research) healthy drive – was seen as Evil for centuries, through various forms of rationalization by some deeply twisted ‘scientists’. Reading the chapters about this, you can’t help but feel angry at the physical and mental torture people went through in the name of pious morality.

That’s not to say the authors end the book with a plea for us all to run into the woods and resume living in communes like those we lived in thousands of years ago. Culturally speaking, in any case, we are too far removed from those roots. But they point out that society has expectations that run contrary to our natural drives and that this has to be acknowledged if nothing else. Being honest about our drives and feelings can actually help marriages and save people a lot of heartache.

Example of a relationship going horribly wrong: a woman may fall in love and couple up with one type of guy while on the pill, go off the pill to get pregnant and then find her hormones uninterested in her partner but interested in an entirely different type of guy. Often by this time there will be a marriage and kids to deal with. Meanwhile, her partner may feel frustrated by his lack of sexual variety and lose sexual interest in his wife. Happiness does not ensue.

Sex at Dawn is a fascinating read and I have just scratched the surface in this review. (For instance, I didn’t get to mention that, while lesbians, gays and straight men have a generally pretty fixed sexuality past the formative age, (mostly-)straight women’s sexual response turns out to be highly unpredictable and all over the map. And don’t get me started on the Bonobo’s…) The book is written in a very accessible way and though the middle bit feels just a touch dry compared to the rest, there is humor and a large amount of interesting factoids to keep you reading. (Random quote: ‘Darwin says your mother’s a whore.’) Sex is not always the big deal it is made out to be and confusing love and sex can lead to dramatic complications for all involved. Open discussion is key. So: discuss. This book makes an excellent starting point for that.

Note: The paperback edition of Sex at Dawn will be published in June.

(Written for the ABC Blog.)

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Movie Review: Scream 4

‘New Decade, New Rules’ the poster for Scream 4 claims. But then again, the poster for Scream 3 claimed: ‘Rules of a trilogy: Chapter one sets the rules. Chapter two bends the rules. But in the finale...forget the rules.’ This did not prevent the ‘final’ chapter in the trilogy from rehashing rules all over the place and being the least fresh. Scream 4 promises a reassessment of the current state of horror-movies and there are indeed references to recent humorless, gory horror-porn franchises, like the Saw series. However, in between an impressively ‘meta’ opening (commenting on horror that comments on itself) and a pretty inventive – if not totally satisfying – ending, the viewer gets more of the same ol’, same ol’. Sidney returns to Woodsboro to promote a book about how she got over the traumatic experience of the first three (!) killing sprees she lived through. Cue a killer (or killers) wearing the infamous Ghostface mask, who run(s) around after hysterical teenagers with a sharp knife, slaughtering them if at all possible, occasionally pausing to make menacing phone-calls in a gravelly voice.

The main ‘new rule’ is said to be that ‘the unexpected is now expected’. Which doesn’t really mean much, when you think about it, since it’s circular. Tension is created here as it is in most horror movies: by toying with expectations. There are some set-ups that don’t pay off, some that do and there are some surprise shocks thrown in, all to keep the viewer a little off-balance and enjoying their ride on the rollercoaster. It’s skillfully executed, but it doesn’t feel like the Scream franchise is treading new ground, mixing somewhat predictable pop culture references, with self-referential laughs and violence. Much like in Scream 3, the humor and scares tend to step on each other’s toes, causing some jokes to fall flat and the violence to lack impact. It doesn’t help that the movie fails to make you care about the new characters - who make some amazingly dumb decisions - and makes the returning trio of Sidney (Neve Campbell), Dewey (David Arquette) and Gale (Courteney Cox) less relatable than they were in the original movies. It’s hard to get invested in a horror movie if you don’t actually care who lives and who dies. To its credit however, you do keep playing the ‘who is the killer’ guessing game throughout and don’t feel cheated by the answer.

Considering that the movie seems to be treading water, it’s surprising that screenwriter Kevin Williamson (Dawson’s Creek, The Vampire Diaries) pitched this movie as the first of a new trilogy. It seems to indicate that he still has some new tricks up his sleeve. If so, he’d better start pulling them out in greater amounts for the next chapter or risk the audience getting too bored. The movie had a so-so opening and it’s not clear if he will get the opportunity to spread out the plot in the way he intended to do. What does seem clear, is that the franchise lives or dies with the writer in this case: Williamson was barely involved in Scream 3 and only partly in Scream 4, resulting in a noticeably less tight script, the balance between funny and scary being off in ways that did not seem intended and in the dialogue being less sharp.

The movie is getting relatively good scores on the IMDB from ‘regular’ viewers, who I imagine must mostly be new to the series (so it feels fresh to them) or dedicated fans, sticking by their franchise. In any case, this could indicate there’s more life in the Scream saga yet, as long as it manages to make money.

NITPICKS (very mild spoilers): We have had four killing sprees now, perpetrated by quite a few separate killers, if you add them up. Where did all these people get the training to sneak around without a sound and the ability to disappear into thin air when someone looks away for a second? Is there a Ghostface School of Murder somewhere, teaching these tricks? Why would you go out on the town and get drunk, knowing there’s a killer after you? Why – in gun-happy America – doesn’t any of the victims-to-be grab a gun and just shoot that Ghostface motherf*cker already? Wouldn’t at least Sidney be carrying one around at all time, just in case? And speaking of guns: giving someone who has his/her finger on the trigger of a gun an electric shock, would result in the finger cramping up and pulling said trigger. You’ll see why this is problematic if you go see the movie.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Television Review: Fringe (Seasons 1-3(ish))

As seems to happen with a lot of series, Fringe didn’t find its footing straight away. It appeared to be a half-hearted X-Files rip-off, with science that stretched believability to the breaking point and with a less charismatic cast. The first episodes focus on the formation of the Fringe team. Agent Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv) gets drafted into the Fringe division of the FBI, looking into events that seemingly defy explanation. Borderline crazy scientist Walter Bishop (John Noble) is picked to aid her, who is looked after by his son Peter (Joshua Jackson) and assisted in the lab by agent Astrid Farnsworth (Jasika Nicole). Olivia’s boss, her FBI partner and a shady lady who runs the Massive Dynamic science corporation complete the main cast.

Initially the series jumps from strange event to strange event without quite making connections between them, while awkwardly handling its leads. Tradition seems to demand romantic tension between Olivia and Peter but it’s barely there. Peter and Astrid aren’t given much to do, Walter seems a collection of tics and oddness in need of a personality, Olivia is a little flat and her FBI colleagues don’t register much either. The pseudo-science occasionally leads to prolonged bouts of eye-rolling. Example: in one episode Peter succeeds in playing back sound waves supposedly caught in a slightly melted window, forming grooves like those on a record. He is able to recover an actual conversation this way, while the weary viewer just shakes his (or her) head in utter disbelief.

Just as I was about to bail on Fringe, it hooked me and reeled me back in. An overarching plot, which had previously only had been hinted at, comes to the fore near the end of season one and saves the day. As it turns out, there is an alternate reality that has dubious intentions with our version, for reasons too spoiler-filled to get into. This new revelation is spun in such a way that Peter becomes a pivotal part of the plot and Walter becomes a more complex and sympathetic – if very flawed – character. Olivia’s personality gets fleshed out as well, as she discovers a unique aspect of herself. Alas, Astrid still remains a bit one-dimensional until well into season two; no wonder Walter always has trouble getting her name right. Because of the extra layers that the alternate reality story arc brings to the interpersonal relationships all around, the crew starts to feel more cohesive, almost like a family, which allows viewers to emotionally invest in the series.

I am currently watching the first half of the third season and the set-up is creative and interesting: each week the show jumps from one of the two warring realities to the other. So one week will tell a story in ‘our’ universe, the next in the other, then ours again, then the alternate and so on… It is without a doubt the best string of episodes so far. To the relief of fans, Fringe was recently picked up for a fourth season. It was touch-and-go for a while, as the series is struggling in the ratings; the amount of back-story and the playing around with alternate versions of the main characters is the best part of the series, but may also baffle someone who is tuning in for the first time. It will be interesting to see if the show drops some of the more complicated plotlines in order to survive or will continue along the road it is on, focusing on the dedicated fans. The second route would have my preference, as long as the story ultimately gets finished and is not suddenly cut off, as happens all too often with endangered television series. Fingers crossed that Fringe gets to tell the full story it was created to tell.