Thursday, December 27, 2012

Metacriticism: Reviewing Reviewers

I am not sure how rare my condition is, but I am someone who loves reading/watching/hearing reviews. Even when they’re about something I have no actual interest in. For instance, I have spent more time reading about the Twilight phenomenon and watching the Honest Trailers, than I ever will spend watching the movies or reading the books. There is something appealing to me about analyzing culture (be it of the ‘pop’ or ‘high’ variety) and picking apart what makes something work or fail. It’s also what makes me write reviews myself. Though this may surprise and shock, I am not making any money on this blog, it’s mainly for sh*ts and giggles. And maybe worldwide fame.

But how much does someone else’s opinion matter, as there is no accounting for taste? Well, ultimately the only way to be certain if you would like something or not is to experience it yourself. The problem is that there is a LOT of entertainment out there and there is no way you can absorb all of it, past and present. To get the best out of your time investment, you’ll want to have the worst crap weeded out before you dive in. The distinction between good and great may generally be in the eye of the beholder, but the distinction between toxic waste and something worth your time is a fair bit more universal. And though there are rumored behind-the-scenes shenanigans going on at sites that group together reviews – sites like Metacritic, which covers tv, movies, video games and music – meaning you have to take the accumulated scores with a grain of salt, they do give you a good general idea about quality. And as you follow a certain reviewer you like, you will discover how his or her taste relates to yours and how you should interpret their opinion. The best reviewers realize that their reviews should be a form of entertainment. Here are a few I have been following and enjoying.

Roger Ebert - Though it’s fun to root for an underdog, sometimes there’s a reason someone is at the top of the heap. Though I don’t always agree with his ultimate judgement, he writes about movies thoughtfully and passionately and doesn’t forget to entertain. His reviews can be found online and collected in books, either by year or by rating. Though he refrains from cheap shots, occasionally he does rip a deserving movie apart and the collections of those kind of reviews will likely have you smiling the most.

Comedy Film Nerds - This is a podcast hosted by two stand-up comedians: Graham Elwood and Chris Mancini. They talk about upcoming movies and review new ones currently in the theater or premiering on BluRay or DVD. Generally there is a guest from either the movie industry or the comedy circuit. Breaks in the regular podcasting schedule are covered by less topical shows that discuss a movie genre or contain interviews with someone in showbiz. The banter is easy-going and funny, as you’d expect from two stand-ups, and it’s a great way for movie buffs to get informed while commuting, working out or otherwise multi-tasking.

Other good sources for movie reviews: The Internet Movie Database, Rotten Tomatoes, Rolling Stones’ Peter Travers, Catherine Reitman, MovieBob and DVD Verdict.

Zero Punctuation - It’s not often that a reviewer spawns imitators, but Yahtzee Croshaw (not actually his birth-name, as you may guess) has managed to do so. His reviews of video games are animated videos that run around the five minute mark. Against a bright yellow backdrop, simple black-and-white characters illustrate (or humorously add to) Yahtzee’s breathlessly read, sardonic opinions. These tend to be blunt and contain a creative collection of (sometimes self-made) swear words. Unlike in ‘normal’ reviews of games, there are no screenshots or videos of gameplay. A picture of the cover will pop up somewhere in the video and is likely to get savaged in one way or another. The reviews are impressionistic and more free-form than you’d get from a site like Gamespot or IGN. Assuming you’re on board with his brand of humor, you may find yourself binging on his videos at first and though the novelty wears off a bit, the charm remains. He posts a new review (almost) every week.

The Angry Joe Show - A clearly very enthusiastic gamer, Joe likes to get in-depth with his video reviews, which often run longer than twenty minutes. Standing in front of a related backdrop and aided by some nifty computer animations, he passionately describes his experiences. Unlike Yahtzee, he does show actual gameplay video, so you get a clear idea of the look of a game. There may also be dressing up and there may be little skits, which are sometimes funny and sometimes slightly off the mark. But as he is very articulate and engaging, the occasional joke falling flat isn’t a big deal.

Other good sources for video game reviews: GameRankings, WTF is..., Machinima, IGN, Gamespot, PocketGamer

The Dice Tower - Tom Vasel is a board game fanatic. His video reviews show the components of a game, give an overview of the rules and conclude with his opinion on what about the game in question works and what doesn’t. His videos are very family friendly. He apparently comes from a religious background and was even a pastor, which as a gay guy makes me slightly queasy about his non-board game related opinions. But I am just making assumptions as the reviews don’t stray at all from the topic at hand. The videos may occasionally co-star one of his six (I think) daughters. He’s a likeable guy and the leading reviewer in this field. There is also a podcast, though I haven’t listened to it.

Other good sources for board game reviews: BoardGameGeek, Board to Death TV

Comic Book Queers – This is a podcast on which a group of gay guys offer their (often conflicting) opinions on new comics and talk about current happenings in the comic book industry. As someone who used to be a big comic book fan, but now only occasionally picks up a graphic novel, it’s nice to hear what’s going on with all kinds of characters I used to read about. It’s telling that I enjoy listening to the podcast more than I enjoy reading comic books these days. (ps: there is also a – unrelated – Comic Book Bears podcast, but I haven’t checked it out yet)

Good source for book reviews: GoodReads

Mind you, the stuff I mention here is a fairly limited selection of what I have stumbled upon. I have skipped television and music entirely as I tend to through Metacritic to find reviews on these topics. I hope you will enjoy some of these reviewers – and hope you will still be reading my reviews as well, of course.

Please feed my ego by following this blog through Twitter, to get notified whenever I post a review here.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Movie Review: Looper

Looper is a futuristic action thriller that combines criminals, hover bikes, time travel and telekinesis to interesting effect. It starts both Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis as Joe, a ‘looper’. Loopers assassinate people that are sent back from the future by a criminal organization, for clean disposal. When they come to the end of their employ, the older version of them is also sent back in time in a process that is called ‘closing the loop’. They kill their older self, collect the gold that comes packaged with their matured version and enjoy an early retirement until such time that they get killed by their younger past self. See how this could get confusing? Well, things certainly do get complicated when older Joe (Willis) manages to escape and runs rampant in the past, trying to set things right for the future, requiring younger Joe (Gordon-Levitt) to go after him.

There’s a lot that works about this movie and there are only a few minor things that annoy. The telekinesis angle seems superfluous at first, but starts to make sense later on. The related special effect that’s used a few times to make a coin hover, looks glaringly fake however. Considering that it seems like such a simple and probably not too expensive special effect, that boggles the mind. But as nitpicks go, it’s a pretty small nit. A larger one is the make-up that was applied to Gordon-Levitt’s face to make it more believable that he would age into Willis. In a movie that requires us to buy into complicated time-travel scenarios and other flights of fancy, it seems odd to think that the audience needs face-altering make-up to go along with Joseph turning into Bruce. If anything, it’s distracting until you get past the “hey, that’s Gordon-Levitt, but he looks kinda weird” phase.

The acting is solid all the way round. You expect as much from the big names that come attached, but the show was stolen by the most ‘real’ and likeable precocious kid I’ve seen in a long time. He is completely believable, both when he’s being unnervingly mature and when he suddenly shows his actual young age and acts like a vulnerable kid.

Getting into the plot in detail… well, it’s hard to discuss it without avoiding spoilers. So instead, a note about time travel: there are only two approaches to this that avoid a paradox. The first one states that you can’t really change the past. If you go back in time to change things, it will turn out that you were in fact already a deciding factor in how things turned out initially. The second one states that you can change the past, but this will not affect your own past. Instead, it will create an alternate reality spinning off from the moment where you intervene (See: Star Trek). Any other form of temporal causality is likely to have you scratching your head. Changing your own past is bound to get fuzzy when it comes to logic. In Back to the Future, when time-travelling Marty McFly messes up how his parents initially meet, he should have disappeared. (I’d say instantly, the movie says gradually.) But then, if he never existed, he never would have derailed their meeting, so he would have existed as before and messed up their meeting again. (Sidebar: scifi comedy series Red Dwarf cheerfully thumbs its nose at this kind of temporal logic by having Lister be his own dad.) I could go on about time travel a lot longer, but just read my reviews of Doctor Who and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles for more ranting on the topic.

Looper doesn’t avoid paradoxes in the end, though things seems neatly wrapped up at first glance. The narrative falls apart when you start to think things through, in ways I can’t explain without spoiling the ending. But the movie is undeniably entertaining, so it’s probably best if you don’t give it a second thought and just enjoy the ride.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Game Review: Max Payne 3

When Max Payne is around, any glass that’s half-empty is soon to be entirely empty, literally and figuratively. The guy can’t catch a break and has decided to drown his grief in alcohol. Having lost his family in the previous installments of the Payne franchise, he gets entangled in all sorts of nastiness again this time around, when a gig as a bodyguard in Sao Paolo goes south. In a gravelly voice and with a gloomy, sardonic demeanor, he narrates his woes to the player, who mostly gets to take control during the parts of the story where there’s shooting to be done. The monologue has a distinct hard-boiled/noir detective feel to it and Max’s world is one of double-crossing crooks, in which innocence is a rare commodity. Odd visual glitches occur and spoken words float across the screen from time to time, visualizing his feeling of being hung-over and off-balance.

Despite being a grade A boozehound, as well as addicted to painkillers which magically heal bullet wounds, Max’s reflexes are apparently still superhuman. As before, his speed and marksmanship are portrayed in the form of Bullet Time. This gameplay conceit was made popular by the first Max Payne game and has been incorporated in so many games since, that it has almost become cliché. It means that you have the ability to see things happen in slow-motion while you can aim and shoot in real-time. So you can take a leap sideways or forwards, sailing majestically through the air, while strategically pumping bullets into various parts of your enemies as their bullets whiz past you slow enough to see them travel. You will need to make use of this tactic a lot. A mechanic that allows you to take cover has been added this time around, giving you a few more strategic options, but because your foes tend to come running at you and silencers aren’t effective, stealth is short-lived and things tend to get hectic. Thankfully, you also have the option to blow up cars, gas tanks (and so on) near your enemies by shooting them, meaning you can cut down enemy numbers at a good pace.

Max has a low tolerance for bullets, by game standards (though he is still a fair bit more resistant than people are in real life), meaning you don’t last long at the normal firing rate. So you will find yourself suspended in midair quite a bit, possibly ending your journey sooner than planned by embarrassingly crashing into a wall or some other obstacle that you didn’t notice before taking flight. Though it looks silly, it does give the action movie acrobatics a charmingly realistic counterpoint.

Seeing how your survival often depends on taking out multiple targets on the go, before time resumes its normal speed, it’s annoying that the game doesn’t make it clear when an enemy is down for the count. When you hit someone, they will drop to the ground, but the amount of bullets it takes to keep them there is unpredictable. You are likely to find yourself getting shot in the back now and then, because one of the guys you thought was dead – a reasonable assumption after emptying a clip on him – was actually just mildly inconvenienced.

Max Payne 3 looks great. The beautifully detailed surroundings invite you to look around and there are rewards when you do so in the shape of ‘clues’ to be found and parts of guns that – if you collect them all – give a bonus on damage and ammo capacity. But the game is schizophrenic when it comes to pacing; often, if you take a moment to wander off the beaten path to find these goodies, either Max’s voice-over or a character you have with you, will remind you that time is of the essence and that you really should be hauling ass.

Unfortunately the game is not without bugs and glitches. Some are hilarious one-offs, such as the time when Max, after landing on the floor on his back, started spinning around like a break-dancer on speed. (Other players have encountered the same glitch in different spots.) I also had a moment when, right after coming back to life, I was glitched to the wrong side of a wall and found myself at the end of a level, not able to proceed. There are a few recurring problems that are more annoying though. There is a targeting aid, that on the normal setting provides just about the right amount of guidance given the fast-paced shooting. But it did on occasion lock on an enemy that was out of range while there were other, more viable targets right in front of me. And most critical is a bug that started occurring in the last couple of chapters and raised the difficulty level from challenging to frustrating. Apparently at random, Max would seize up while in cover, able to reload his gun but unable to otherwise move, aim or shoot until someone came along to put a few bullets in him and trigger a ‘last man standing’ slow-motion shoot-out. (This mode itself also has a recurring bug: you sometimes will be looking at your assailant while your gun appears to be stuck in a different direction.) These bugs don’t spoil the experience ultimately, but they are surprising given how polished the game looks and sounds otherwise.

Essentially, Max Payne 3 is a very well-presented and very linear procession of shooting galleries that tells a convoluted and somewhat hard to follow story. Max is a well-drawn character in both meanings of the phrase and his gloomy attitude makes sense considering his history. Most chapters of the story see him failing at his main objective, only adding to his troubles. But listening to narration by someone whose demeanor is basically ‘Eeyore with a gun’ for an entire game, does start to grate a little. The combination of Bullet Time and cover-based shooting is fun but does get repetitive, despite a large arsenal and despite special sections that shake up the formula. On normal difficulty it’s pretty challenging to someone like me who sucks at shooters, but if you have to replay a certain part often, the game self-adjusts the difficulty level momentarily by throwing you some extra health. Because of this and because your enemies always start out at the same position, you’re unlikely to get stuck for long (well, maybe literally; if that bug acts up).

At one point, Max says: “Sometimes a complicated problem is best tackled with a simple solution.” His solution is always the same: shoot a whole bunch of bad guys. That is great fun for a while, but by the end of it, you’ll likely be craving something less restrictive and linear.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Movie Review: Ted

The movie Ted was written and directed by Seth MacFarlane, the creator, writer and main voice actor behind the animated series Family Guy. This series is basically a politically incorrect version of The Simpsons. The latter isn’t afraid to satirize and poke fun at all kinds of topics, but Family Guy fights with the gloves off. It’s more crude, more surreal and less afraid to take taboos and rub them in your face. Kinda like South Park, really. There’s a fairly good chance your gender, orientation and/or ethnicity will be on the receiving end from time to time, so there’s no point in watching it if you can’t laugh at yourself as well as at others.

Though the movie Ted is somewhat tame by comparison (no marathon vomiting scenes here), it carries over a lot of familiar elements and doesn’t skim on the absurdity and political incorrectness. There’s a free-flowing “Wouldn’t it be cool if…” vibe to the entire undertaking. The plot: a young boy named John Bennett wishes for his teddy-bear to be his best friend forever, as a falling star passes by. Magic ensues for some reason - and the bear lives! Years later, the boy (now played by Mark Wahlberg) and his toy have grown up to be a couple of immature potheads. Despite this, John has managed to snag a hot, funny and smart girl, played by Mila Kunis (who also happens to do the voice for Family Guy’s Meg). But man-child John is at risk of losing her if he doesn’t put aside childish things. Things like Ted.

It’s hard to be absurd and crude and still keep your audience invested in the fate of your characters and the workings of your plot. Ted just about manages it. The story is simple and a bit predictable, but the main joke of a walking, talking and misbehaving teddy-bear doesn’t wear as thin as you would think, because Ted actually has a personality. His voice was done by Seth MacFarlane and with typical self-awareness, the movie contains a joke acknowledging that Ted sounds a lot like Peter Griffin from Family Guy (who is also voiced by MacFarlane). Not all of the tangents the movie goes off on hit their mark (I didn’t really connect to its Flash Gordon subplot, I guess you had to be there) and it’s puzzling that near the end, the movie decides to turn from romantic comedy into a tongue-in-cheek thriller for a while, before reverting back. Ultimately the epilogue, featuring a voice-over by Captain Picard, reminds you that the plot didn’t really matter and that anything goes as long as it’s good for laugh. And Ted does indeed have enough of those to make it worth watching, with characters that are likeable enough to make you care. Despite knowing that you should know better.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Gamer Rant: XBLA vs. Steam

I love console gaming. For me, this involves hanging out on the couch, in front of a big screen with all the lights turned off and my headphones on. And until recently, playing games on my PC seemed like a stupid idea. I have a midlevel computer which lacks an especially impressive graphics card and I have a traumatic past filled with games crashing to the desktop for no apparent reason or even refusing to start up. So how did I learn to stop worrying and love PC gaming?

If you’ve played PC games in years past, you probably know first-hand about having to deal with bugs and unpredictable technical incompatibility. But as I found when finally giving PC gaming another go, these problems are getting less common and will likely be becoming even more rare. (If the promise for the future holds, installation of games may no longer be required as you will play online from a server, presumably on a remote computer with much better specs than your own.) And I finally realized that the current generation of consoles is ancient now by technology standards, so even a fairly cheap PC will be able to yield a better performance than a console with most games.

But the real clincher for me is this: the greatness of the Steam store (PC) versus the crappiness of the X-Box Live Arcade (XBLA) experience. As legally downloading games becomes more and more common, as opposed to running out to buy a physical copy, the importance of the sales platform greatly increases. Steam knows how to make people glad to spend money and entices them with very good temporary deals, making the sport of grabbing a great game while it’s on sale almost a game in itself. It’s also laid out well, making browsing of popular and/or cheap titles a snap. In a smart move, it lists the averaged score a title received at reviews-site Metacritic, even if it is a low one. It’s a convenient and honest piece of info, regardless of how much you think the score is worth. (There are occasional reports of reviews not being impartial and about good games being overlooked just because of a bad review or two.) Payment is easy once you’ve registered and there is a variety of options, like PayPal/CreditCard and iDeal (where applicable). When payment is complete, Steam lists the title you bought in your Library: you can download and install the game then or later. You can also buy a game as a gift for a friend, passing it to them right away or putting it aside for a while. And if you ultimately want to keep it for yourself, that is not a problem. Installing is automatic and requires no effort on your part. You can delete games if you need the hard-disk space and can re-download them later on. When you have Steam running it is also very easy (even for a novice like me) to see when friends are online and join them in a game. The only downside (which is admittedly a big one) is that Steam wants you to be online to start up your games and that you will be in trouble if you for some reason irretrievably lose access to the Steam account to which your games are attached. I thankfully haven’t needed to contact them about something like that, so don’t know how good their support team is.

You don’t have to be online to play on the X-Box 360, though it pays to connect to the internet for a moment when booting up a new game as there may be updates/bug patches to download. (Games are rarely released in a bug-free state unfortunately.) If you want to buy a game on XBLA, there is the stupidity of Microsoft Points (MS Points) to deal with. You have to use a creditcard or a scratch card bought at a store to put bundles of these points into your account. The amount you have rarely is in sync with what you want to buy, so you are likely to have unused point in your account most of the time. Compared to Steam (and to the iTunes store), prices on XBLA are high. There are a few special offers at any given time, but still nowhere near the price-level of Steam, where you are likely to find the same games a lot cheaper. It is also more work to find them: Microsoft recently gave the X-Box 360 a new, less user-friendly menu to put it in line with its mobile phone and Windows 8 design. Casually browsing through a lot of titles on the console becomes annoying fast, so I never do. It’s better to walk to your PC and browse and buy the games on there, after which they are added to your account. Admittedly, installation is as easy as it is through Steam; simply download and play. And it also leaves you the option of deleting a game to clear up space and re-downloading it whenever you feel like it. I have had the misfortune of locking myself out of a X-Box account once and in this case I can report on the customer service: it both sucks and blows. There was no response to my questions about options for getting back into my account. I ultimately had to start a new one and won’t have access to the handful of games I bought under the old one if my X-Box 360 breaks down at some point.

To be able to play with friends online, Microsoft wants you to pay for a subscription. Considering that these days money increasingly comes from people making in-game purchases while playing online in multiplayer games, you’d think Microsoft would want as many people online and playing as possible. But no. As I only play online maybe one day out of a month at most, I’ll stick to the PC on that front and buy my multiplayer games through Steam. In fact, I found that I spent a lot more money during the last two big Steam sale events (they go crazy with their prices a few times a year) than I ever spent on XBLA in my five years of owning an X-Box 360. On Steam, I ended up buying games I would never have considered full-price, simply because I was curious about them. Because of the bargain prices, I would sample a game just because of an interesting concept or presentation and not feel cheated if it ultimately wasn’t my thing. Bad for my wallet, smart of the Steam-team and a sign that XBLA is doing things wrong. I strongly doubt that apart from the occasional add-on for a game I bought for X-Box 360 before discovering Steam, they will get any more money out of me. They totally had me, but by now they have totally lost me. It’s time Microsoft stops trying to squeeze money out of their customers in obvious, unfriendly and ultimately counter-productive ways. They need to convert to a system where gamers are actually happy to buy things, because it’s made easy – even fun – and because prices are reasonable enough to encourage impulse buys. No more of that Microsoft Points crap for me. XBLA = nay. Steam = yay.

PS: To be fair, a downside is that Steam sometimes gets laggy or even crashes when it gets too busy, like during the current Halloween sale. I was unable to visit the site just now when trying to add the Steam link to this praising blogpost. Oh, the irony.

PS2: the PS3 and the store that goes with it are both unfamiliar to me, so your experience there may vary.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Movie Review: The Hunger Games

The The Hunger Games franchise consists of a trilogy of young-adult books, which are being made into a quadrology of films over the next couple of years. The first chapter has already passed through cinemas and features an odd central concept: a bunch of kids is forced to kill each other until only one survives. There’s a bit of Battle Royale to be found here and even a hint of The Running Man, but those films weren’t aimed at a young audience. Admittedly, the franchise is not lauding juvenile violence and there is a societal satire lingering in the background, but still: it’s kids reading about - or watching - kids killing kids. Eepy-cray.

The story takes place in an alternate future. The brutal Hunger Games are a penalty for an uprising among part of the populace against their leaders. You are rooting against the dickey upper-class straight away, as they all sport silly haircuts and wear clothes that are way too colorful. It’s like a futuristic revenge of the eighties. By contrast, the former revolters lead a poor, minimalist, woodsy kind of existence. They have been sorted into districts and from each one a girl and a boy is selected yearly to do battle. The main heroine of the story is a girl (Katniss Everdeen) who gets drafted for these games – well, actually she volunteers; it’s complicated – and mostly because of her winning personality, she manages to gain a fan base among the viewers. She also threatens to spark another revolution, making the people who are coordinating the Hunger Games feel perturbed.

I have not read the books, but the first film has the violent central concept clashing awkwardly with an unwillingness to taint the heroine. Once Katniss gets thrown into the arena, she obviously can’t kill other innocents, but she does hang back while a small group of sociopaths does the dirty work for her. (By the way: it’s odd that a group would band together like that, as ultimately they would have to turn on each other until just one was left.) She only kills in self-defense and only people who deserve it. The writers seem to clear the way for her, taking care of any obstacle that could make her have to act immorally to survive. She’s not just lucky in this way, but also in that she tends to come across people or things that help her just as she needs them. Once you realize that the universe conspires to retain her virtue, the movie loses any edge it may have had apart from the occasional unclear or very short shot of a dead or dying kid. Very luck then, this lady, except for her love life: a complicated triangle seems to be getting set up for the sequel.

I don’t understand the mass appeal of this franchise, though it apparently has it. To me, it seems too toothless for adults and too morbid to let young-adults read or watch. But the action and the acting in the movie are okay, especially the solid performances by Jennifer Lawrence as the leading lady and by Woody Harrelson as her trainer. I guess I am curious to see where they go with it next, as this doesn’t seem like a formula you could just repeat as-is. But when the sequels roll around, they are likely to linger on my ‘I’ll get around to it’-list for a good, long while. In short: meh.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Movie Review: Hope Springs

The romantic life and especially the sex life of married people in their sixties is not a topic oft-encountered at the movies. Going by romantic lore, I guess you are supposed to have settled into your happily ever after by that age already, no questions asked. So it is refreshing that the rather sappily titled Hope Springs focuses on these relatively taboo topics. The movie is about a couple who find themselves in a marriage that has lost any semblance of vitality long ago. Kay (Meryl Streep) is a sad and lonely woman longing to have a real connection again with her husband Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones), but has been afraid to speak up. For his part, he is going through his daily routine like a sleepwalker. He doesn’t seem especially happy, but is oblivious to her feelings or to the fact that things could or should be different.

When Kay comes across a book written by a lauded relationship therapist (played by an unusually subdued Steve Carell), she sees a week of intense marriage counseling with him as a last resort to save her marriage. Arnold begrudgingly comes along, convinced it is a waste of time and money, but as they go through their sessions something starts to happen. I don’t want to spoil whether it brings them back together or makes them at peace with breaking up, but it is a sweet character study acted to the hilt by Streep and Jones, with great support from Carell. Neither party is to blame for them growing apart exactly, but as the therapist has them reflecting on their past, it does become clear how the slow process took place. There are some gender cliché’s at play, but certainly among an older generation, those are likely indeed still valid. Going by the audience in the theater I was at, the movie mostly appeals to women in the 50+ category. There was a group of said category in the row behind me and going by the enthusiastic feedback they were giving each other, it hit home.

I really liked this movie, but do have to agree with other reviews that point out the horrible use of introspective pop songs on the soundtrack. Tunes with very blunt, obvious lyrics are applied to emotional scenes on a few occasions, to hammer home what the characters are feeling, even though the actors are doing a very good job of bringing that across already. It’s a bit like having great chef cook you a delicate meal full of subtle flavors and then pouring an avalanche of generic ketchup all over it. It wouldn’t matter in a soppy teenage romance movie, but is completely out of place here and you wonder how no one during the editing of the movie caught it. A studio underestimating the audience perhaps? In any case, go see this movie if you’re in a long-term relationship. And avoid getting to the stage of estrangement Kay and Arnold were at.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Game Review: The Walking Dead: season 1, episode 1-3

The Walking Dead is a comic book series about the survivors of a zombie-apocalypse. While the shambling, hungry corpses loom as an ever-present threat, the series is really more about the behavior of people in a desperate situation. (Note that the title possibly refers to the survivors rather than the zombies.) The comic has been adapted for television and is now also a point-and-click adventure game which is being released in five installments, each part taking a couple of hours to play through, together forming a ‘season’. So far, three of the five chapters have been released and this review is based on those chapters. The fourth chapter is being released for PC the day I post this.

While the comic and the television series focus on the story of former policeman Rick Grimes, his young son and the people he encounters, the game serves as a spin-off prequel to both. One of the characters that will go on to appear in both the comic and television series pops up before heading off to his twofold fates, but the lead is new: Lee Everett. He was on his way to prison when the world went mad, gets liberated because of it and soon stumbles onto an abandoned little girl (Clementine) he feels compelled to protect. Like Rick Grimes, he becomes part of a group with more than its share of power struggles and infighting, while taking care of a kid. He finds himself continuously having to take sides and make life-or-death decisions. Who does he pick when he can only recue one out of two people? When he spots a woman too far off to save, being attacked by zombies, does he let her die screaming to keep drawing attention to herself and away from him as he gathers vital supplies for his group? Or does he mercifully shoot her, which would draw the zombie-mob his way?

More than anything, The Walking Dead in its game incarnation is about interactive storytelling. There generally isn’t an obviously right or wrong solution to the morally muddy questions it asks and no matter what option you go for, you’re likely to piss off someone in your group. This isn’t necessarily something new and has been seen in games like the Mass Effect and Dragon Age series. But unlike in those games, where the dialogue and interaction between characters serves as an enticing backdrop to the action-packed meat of the experience, here the story is the main course. Sure, there are some bursts of action to keep you on your toes and there is the occasional traditional point-and-click problem-solving along the lines of ‘find this item and then use it on this person or thing to move the plot along’. But it’s all in service of the tale being skillfully told: it looks like a well-drawn, gritty graphic novel, the people Lee encounters are interesting and are always a bit more complex than they seem at first glance and the voice-acting is great. The combined effect is that you feel involved as you make your choices and see the sometimes unpredictable consequences. You care about the members of your little group. While kids can easily grate if written wrong, Clementine does make you want to keep her alive at all costs. And when the game makes you pick between two likeable people, knowing the other person will die, it hurts.

A very effective gameplay mechanic, which is a new one as far as I know, is that you only have a limited time to pick a reaction/response from the up to four options you get when having to make a decision. How much time you are given exactly, is contextual. If you are asked for your opinion in the middle of a discussion, you don’t have forever, but longer than when you have to convince someone to jump off a bridge onto a fast-moving vehicle. This forces you to be fairly spontaneous and in-the-moment, making your responses more honest: you tend to go with how you think you would really react under the given circumstances. This way, I discovered I would likely be very diplomatic, protective, suspicious and mostly very moral, though occasionally giving priority to pragmatism. And I did kill someone I didn’t technically need to. But he was a very, very bad man. The speed at which you have to read and respond make this game unsuitable for people with dyslexia and you are likely to accidentally select an unintended response once or twice. If you feel really annoyed about that, thankfully you can ‘rewind’ to the beginning of the chapter you messed up and set things right. Or as right as they get in the The Walking Dead universe, which is fuelled by hope, but dotted with the violent deaths of people who don’t deserve such a fate.

Speaking of gameplay issues: I have heard grumblings about them and the technical performance on various platforms, the iPad version being especially choppy, but my PC version was mostly fine apart from one memorable occasion on which I got eviscerated by a zombie for about ten times in a row because it was unclear which contextual button I was supposed to press in the second or two allotted to me. It ultimately is just a minor annoyance though and it won’t ruin the game for you.

The makers of the game claim that by the end of the five-part ‘season’ players will have much- different sets of survivors and allegiances. Much as I am enjoying the game, I unfortunately have to call shenanigans on this. Playing is engrossing and as addictive as reading a great book, making it hard to stop because you want to know what happens next. But the further you get into the story, the clearer it becomes that a lot of your choices don’t really matter in the long run. Circumstances beyond your control wipe the slate clean partly and invalidate a lot of your earlier hand-wringing. It makes perfect sense that the writers can’t let the plot get away from them and evolve into entirely separate stories, so like in Mass Effect they find ways to lead the various narrative paths back to the same seemingly fated main events. Different characters may fulfill the same roles and scenes may play out differently but have the same outcome. The flavoring is different, but it’s mostly the same dish. One day, someone will hopefully succeed in the nigh-impossible task of combining very tight storytelling with giving the player a lot of freedom, but The Walking Dead doesn’t quite crack that nut.

Due to the big success of the game version of The Walking Dead, a second ‘season’ has already been announced and I have mixed feelings about this. Though the franchise was always conceived as a zombie movie that doesn’t end, this makes it seems likely they will kill off all but one or two of the current cast in the end to have players start in the exact same place in season two, all previous decisions null-and-void. Then again, they may have an open ending, leave this group to their unknown destiny and jump to a fresh set of characters. Either way, despite not quite making good on the promise of wildly diverging paths, I am hooked and will be there to see where it all leads.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Movie Review: The Woman in Black

Daniel Radcliffe is immensely likeable. He doesn’t just have the specter of saint-like Harry Potter still hovering over him, he is also very outspoken about potentially controversial topics like gay marriage. He has made sizeable donations to – and starred in public service announcements for – The Trevor Project, which supports gay teens. And there is a charming rebellious streak apparent by him copping to being drunk quite a bit while filming the last chapter of the Harry Potter-saga and by going full-frontal on stage during a production of Equus. He is clearly trying to put some distance between him and his bespectacled alter-ego and his first movie on that path is The Woman in Black.

The Woman in Black is an old-fashioned haunted house horror movie that aims to make you squirm not by throwing entrails at your face, but by having carefully lit, spooky surroundings through which the camera creeps, dropping in the occasional unexpected burst of movement or a blast of sound to make you jump. Radcliffe’s primary role is to be the one who guides the viewer through these environments. Rather than run off screaming, he keeps stealthily sneaking towards whatever inexplicable noises echo through the house, which turns out to be less abandoned than advertised. His curiosity is ill-advised perhaps, but also necessary to keep the movie from being really, really short.

The primary motivation for his character to hang around is that he works for a law-firm and has to sort out the paperwork to be able to sell the mansion or lose his job and therefore the means to support his young son. Also, he is still grieving for his wife and is intrigued rather than scared by the idea of ghosts, as that seems to point to an afterlife in which he could be reunited with her. The locals of the town neighboring the house seem very keen to be rid of him, but rather than vocalizing exactly why that is, the writers prefer to have them make vague, ominous comments in an aggressive tone. Looking back, there is no convincing reason why they wouldn’t just spit out the entire back-story of the mansion and run him off. Radcliffe has to find out the slow, roundabout way what happened there and why children die violent deaths in the town at a higher than usual frequency.

The movie is not exactly an acting stretch for Radcliffe, his moods being fairly muted for the most part and switching primarily between sadness, apprehension and fear. But he does make you forget about Harry Potter for long stretches at a time, helped by a period look (end 19th century) that makes him appear more mature. He shies away from anything like glasses, that would remind you of his acting legacy. The Woman in Black isn’t a classic: it feels a bit slow despite being not all that long and though it sets the mood very well, it gets a bit more hokey near the end when the action is upped. But for a relaxed movie night at home with the lights off, on a big screen, curled up against a date, this nostalgic, atmospheric creepfest just about hits the right spot.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Movie Review: The Amazing Spider-Man

Did we really need a Spider-Man reboot so soon after the Sam Raimi-shaped trilogy? Probably not, but the company behind it (Sony Pictures) did, to retain the rights to the character and to keep them from defaulting back to Marvel. Bad news for those hoping to see him join The Avengers anytime soon. And the movie may also have been needed to purge the bad taste left by Spider-Man 3, which was a major letdown after the spectacular Spider-Man 2: the people at the showing I attended even laughed out loud at what was supposed to be a very emotional death scene. And let’s collectively suppress the memory of Tobey Maguire as ‘evil’ Spidey, shall we? Repeat after me: It. Never. Happened.

In any case: The Amazing Spider-Man is actually surprisingly entertaining, considering how unnecessary the entire undertaking feels, basically retelling the superhero’s origin story again while remixing it with new elements from the Spider-Man universe. It gives us The Lizard/Dr. Curt Connors as the supervillain du jour, played by Rhys Ifans. By the way, this must be frustrating for actor Dylan Baker who lingered in the background during the Raimi trilogy as the same character, foreshadowing his ass off, fruitlessly waiting for his time center stage. Andrew Garfield makes for a younger and hipper-but-still-underdog Peter Parker and Emma Stone as Gwen Stacey is a less doe-eyed, more assertive love-interest than Kirsten Dunst was as Mary Jane Watson. Parker discovering his powers is also done better here than it was the last time, with more of a sense of wonder. Spidey’s webshooters, which were creepily organic in the previous incarnation, making for all kinds of pubescent symbolism, are mechanical and somehow less practically believable in this one.

The script is very much by the numbers and at no point was I especially surprised. Like in The Dark Knight Rises, there are big displays counting down to something bad happening, miraculous recoveries and various other unlikelihoods, but because this movie has a more playful and comic-booky feel to it, it seems to hurt less here than it did there. Nevertheless, there are some eye-rollers: I could have done without a sappy moment involving cranes that went for the heart-strings a bit too bluntly. It seemed to ape a similar, but more effective moment from Spider-Man 2. And it is odd that this version of Spider-Man still has a secret identity in the end as he finds himself without his mask in (semi-)public, quite likely within the reach of a camera. But then he doesn’t seem to be all that concerned about remaining anonymous and is soon more out of the closet about it than his predecessor was.

Where will the franchise go from here? Will it re-use the same villains or introduce new, less well-known ones? It’s worrying that The Goblin is getting set up as the villain for a future movie, considering that he wasn’t the best of villains last time, even if he is a main-stay in the comics. The first time around, the character wasn’t served well by the head-covering mask. Going up against the equally masked Spidey, there was an embarrassing whiff of Power Rangers to their fights. If he is indeed headed for this version of Spider-Man, that could spell trouble for Gwen Stacey, going by comic book lore (spoilers). But then, that infamous moment from the comics was already toyed with in the previous trilogy, so the series would be repeating itself. The question remains: will the franchise stick to safe and predictable remixes or actually throw the viewers a curve-ball and prove it has a right to exist? Fingers crossed for the latter.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Movie Review: The Dark Knight Rises

The Dark Knight Rises is the last movie in a trilogy, a series directed and crafted by Christopher Nolan. His take on the Batman legend was to make it gritty and semi-realistic, even if the situations and characters were larger than life. He made it seem psychologically plausible that a kid orphaned by crime would be motivated to spend his adult years running around in a bat costume battling dastardly villains. But the problem is that the grittiness clashes with some of the more outlandish elements of the plot this time around, making the weak spots hard to miss.

Realizing that the finale needed to be bigger in scale to meet inflated expectations, the evil scheme concocted by Batman’s adversary is truly grandiose, unlikely and riddled with plot holes. It just seems the writers didn’t really think things through or skimmed over certain bits in the hope people wouldn’t notice. Among other things: there is an ill-conceived prison, a miraculous healing (actually, make that two at minimum) and there is a chemical that degrades in such a predictable, linear manner that a big, glowing timer can predict to the second when it will suddenly turn catastrophic. This process is also explicitly noted to destabilize the substance progressively, but it stays surprisingly inert while being knocked about with vigor right before the aforementioned catastrophic moment.

All this is not to say The Dark Knight Rises is a bad movie. (I wouldn’t want to get death threats from dangerously fanatic fanboys.) It’s a bit too long but entertaining throughout and a cut above the standard summer blockbuster fare. The attention is spread nicely among a large and capable cast, Batman not even being on screen all that much. Michael Caine (Alfred the butler), Gary Oldman (Commissioner Gordon) and Morgan Freeman (Lucius Fox) all reprise their roles with enthusiasm and Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Anne Hathaway are game as a capable cop and a charming but duplicitous Catwoman respectively. Matthew Modine pops up and had me realize that I would really like to see him in a movie again, but that his character is entirely superfluous in this one. Tom Hardy makes an interesting vocal choice for his imposing muscleman of a villain, sounding like a posh English bloke. It teeters on the edge of ridiculous but works in that it sounds a bit creepy. Covering up his mouth may be in line with his comic book design and serve as a plot-device, but seems like a mistake to me: he can only emote só much with just his eyes. Christian Bale dials back his infamous gravely Batman voice and is fine both in costume and as Bruce Wayne, even if he seems to lack charm as the latter.

I was somewhat disappointed with the movie, but I think that was just because my expectations were too high. I was hoping it would be a classic, trumping the previous two movies and going all out, because a reboot seems likely after this trilogy in any case and Nolan had the opportunity to craft a definitive ending to his Batman saga. That the plot didn’t hang together all that well was an unexpected hitch. Admittedly I should have expected it, as I have heard people point out that the previous two movies also weren’t perfect in this regard, featuring plot holes I missed on first viewing. However, this time there was no missing them. The movie also didn’t flow as well as it could have by cutting some unnecessary scenes involving fringe characters and giving the villain(s) a less anti-climactic exit. I am curious to see if the next Batman film picks up on the interesting way The Dark Knight Rises leaves things or will be a straight-up reboot as happened with the Spiderman franchise. As long as there are no nipples on the Batsuit, I’ll be there to check it out.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Movie Review: Triple Bill

During a transatlantic flight, I recently watched three movies in a row on the little screen embedded in the seat in front of me. My long legs in combination with cramped Economy seating made it impossible to sleep, so I pushed through the night by focusing on the tales I was being told. In order, I saw: Men in Black 3, Snow White and the Huntsman and Dark Shadows. A short review of each seems appropriate. I won’t be commenting on cinematography though, as movies are butchered/adapted to fit on the small screen, meaning 2.35:1 (cinema size) turns into ye olde television size (4:3). Shots that show two people having a conversation turn into a succession of shots cutting back and forth between them and large parts of the screen get snipped off. I am not sure why they still do this as people are now used to watching movies in the original format on their various teensy pad-devices. In any case, here were my sleep-deprived impressions:

Men in Black 3 – Agent J (Will Smith) and Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) make as good a dynamic duo as ever, policing aliens who are living on earth undercover. Mostly they do this, it seems, by zapping them with guns that make them explode into colorful goo. There is a hitch in operations when a criminal from K’s past escapes from space-prison and wipes him out of history, necessitating that J travel to 1969 to set things right. Here he ends up working with a younger version of K, played by Josh Brolin. Seeing Brolin do a dead-on impersonation of Tommy Lee Jones is pretty much enough on its own to make this movie worth your time. MIB3 feels like a return to form after the bloated and chaotic MIB2, with a pretty tidy script that has charm, loads of comic-booky action and a sweet little twist at the end. MIB4 is already being planned and if they can make it as engaging as this chapter, I’m all for it.

Snow White and the Huntsman – This is a somewhat confused retelling of the well-known fairytale. The tone veers between gritty action and cheesy fantasy sequences. For a while it even feels like it wants to be part of the Lord of the Rings franchise. Highlight of the film is Charlize Theron’s wicked performance as the Evil Queen Ravenna and she is supported by some cool and creepy visual effects that reminded me of the Brothers Grimm origin of the Snow White story. A love-triangle is set up between Snow White, the Huntsman and her childhood best friend but this thread is left dangling completely at the end, very obviously baiting a sequel. However, making one has gotten tricky: the married director of the film (Rupert Sanders) had a much-publicized affair with his lead (Kristen Stewart) which got more publicity than the film itself and broke up Stewart with her Twilight co-star Robert Pattinson. The affair was extra-awkward as the director’s wife played an admittedly minor part as Snow White’s doomed mom. A spin-off just starring Chris Hemsworth as The Huntsman is now likely to be made instead.

Dark Shadows – This homage to a supernatural soap-series from the sixties reunites director Tim Burton with actor Johnny Depp for what was at last count the umpteenth time. Burton’s wife Helena Bonham Carter also stars, as does Michelle Pfeiffer. The basic plot: when the head of the renowned Collins family (Depp) doesn’t return a witch’s love after an ill-advised thryst, she rather creatively curses him with vampirism. He gets buried alive (or rather ‘undead’) and only by chance resurfaces a couple of hundred years later, during the swinging sixties, gaining acceptance surprisingly easily with his Collins descendants even though he undeniably looks and acts strange and is not averse to the occasional killing spree. But then, there is more than one oddball in the dysfunctional family. The witch has also survived through the centuries and continues her feud against him, his descendants and their business, which is in direct competition to hers. All she demands is his love… Dark Shadows is fun to observe, but you feel like you’re on the outside looking in at a group of actors having a hell of a good time - which admittedly is entertaining in itself - rather than getting in on the story. As with most of Burton’s movies, the designs are great, with this time a blend of gothic and sixties elements. But there’s no sympathy to be had for a character who feels only marginally guilty about killing a bunch of innocent people or for a family who turns a blind eye to it. The ending also doesn’t really satisfy and is annoyingly open. Dark Shadows is not Burton’s best, but if you just focus on the surface and don’t give the plot too much thought, it is weird and funny enough to keep you smiling during a sleep-deprived transatlantic flight while stuffed into Economy seating.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Movie Review: The Cabin in the Woods

The Cabin in the Woods is a horror movie that comes with a pedigree, albeit not one rooted in straight-up horror. Director Drew Goddard was a writer for Alias, Lost, Angel and Buffy – The Vampire Slayer, the latter two being franchises created by his co-writer on this movie: Joss Whedon. As I have already declared my devotion to The Whedon recently, I am not getting into it again, but my expectation of snappy dialogue and inventive thrills was met. The movie’s release was massively delayed (by three years) because of bankruptcy of the studio that made it (MGM) and then by a later abandoned plan to convert it to 3D, so you’ll be seeing a surprisingly young, pre-Thor Chris Hemsworth.

The Cabin in the Woods is to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre as Scream was to Halloween, although it is less afraid to completely break the format in the end. The viewer is tipped off straightaway that (s)he is watching more than just a generic teen slasher flick, by odd scenes of a couple of scientists who are gearing up for an important day at work. What that work is and how it relates to a small group of teenagers who are getting ready for a weekend of fate-tempting fun at a remote cabin, is not yet clear. I won’t reveal more to avoid spoilers, but suffice to say that from then on, there be twist upon twist. Some critics have said that there are in fact a few twists too many and that the entire thing gets a bit ridiculous. Admittedly, I’d be hard-pressed to explain the logic and exact workings of what is going on in the finale and I suspect it doesn’t hang together all that well on closer inspection. But for me, the way that things get hysterical and unapologetically over-the-top near the end is the best thing about the movie. There is a satire here with some moral points to make, but mostly The Cabin in the Woods is about laughs, gore and gallons of blood. It doesn’t expect you to take it at all seriously, just to follow along until its goofy conclusion with a grin on your face. Scares are secondary, and there wasn’t a moment that made me jump in my seat.

If the movie has a fault apart from fuzzy logic, it’s that the constant overlay of irony keeps you at a distance from the characters. You don’t feel all that invested in keeping them alive. That it just as well as it is a given that most (potentially all) of them won’t make it to the finish line, but it does leave you observing more than feeling the horror. Which fits neatly with the framework of the movie, but makes it lack emotional impact. The first third or so of the movie sticks close to horror cliché, necessary to subvert those same cliché’s later on. But on their own, the scenes moving the teenagers into position for bloodshed would have been a bit boring, only holding the attention because of the assurance that something more complex is going on.

This movie is destined to be a classic along the lines of Evil Dead, be it with a bigger budget. The writers have set themselves a bit of a challenge should the studio ask for a sequel, but then I guess a prequel that addresses some of the many questions it leaves viewers with could be interesting. However, it may be better to leave this as a one-off; an innovative pallet cleanser that reminds us that horror doesn’t just have to be a repetitive string of meaningless deaths being dropped off the conveyor belt of entertainment into your local cinema. May The Cabin in the Woods serve as an axe to the atrophied brain of the mainstream torture-porn horror genre and leave it with a fresh perspective when it rises up again. As horror always must: to explore our fascination with death and dying.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Game Review: Saint's Row: The Third

I tend to have a hard time being a bad guy in video games. Whenever there is a choice between doing something moral and something immoral I tend to go with the first, because it helps my feeling of immersion: my character is acting close to the way I imagine I would in similar, far-fetched circumstances. (Even if in reality I’m more likely to hide under the bed hoping the problem will go away.) My aspirations to Heroism and being a Good Guy hold true even if the character I’m being handed is a morally dubious anti-hero, like Niko Bellic from Grand Theft Auto IV. Though the world of GTA IV is that of a gangster movie and definitely larger than life, there still is a kind of grittiness and realism to it. Because of that, I felt bad if my car swerved and accidentally hit an innocent bystander. For the rest of the time, you were mostly killing other criminals so the violence was justified. Sort of. However, any semblance of virtual morality went straight out the window while I was playing Saint’s Row: The Third.

Saint’s Row: The Third is not surprisingly the third installment of a franchise, one which ran parallel to GTA for a while: in both series you play a gangster in a big, sprawling city that is your playground and you can engage in various criminal activities all over the place to your heart’s content. There is a storyline running through the main missions and there are optional activities that can also be played separately from the story as mini-challenges trying to beat your own initial score and to evolve your character while gaining assets. Most GTA games were somewhat serious even if they cracked more of a smile during the San Andreas and The Ballad of Gay Tony incarnations. Saint’s Row started out serious, got goofy in the second installment and in its third outing has cut ties with reality completely and exploded into an orgasmic celebration of absurdity. The game is crass, juvenile and a whole lot of fleeting fun.

It starts at full speed with a spectacular bank heist gone wrong, then sees you skydiving through the length of a plummeting plane and have a gunfight in midair while holding a teammate who is cussing you out for being an inconsiderate asshole. It plays like a parody on action movies. The story boiled down: you want to take over the city of Steelport with your gang and are eliminating competition while fighting the authorities who are trying to take you down. Absolutely no one cares about collateral damage, be it to property or civilians. To call the main concept a story - with a proper beginning, middle and end - is actually giving it too much credit; it’s more like a series of ludicrous vignettes strung together tenuously. Consequences of plot don’t impact your free-reign activities all that much. Early on you get a penthouse for you and your homies, which is later besieged and blown up. However, it is magically restored once the mission in question ends and you can still go out on the town without getting instantly apprehended.

As if the situations you end up in aren’t silly enough as-is, the game encourages you to keep pimping your character to look as odd as possible, making the cutscenes he is placed in look even more crazy. For most of the game, my counterpart was a shirtless, black muscleman with a big dragon tattoo on his chest, runny mascara under his eyes and an odd hat. He proved he could maintain a good sprint while in high heels and carrying a rocket launcher. You can also decide on the look of your gang, making them as outlandish as you feel like. However, the design of your main sidekicks, who follow you on the story missions and feature in the cutscenes, is non-negotiable and interestingly, the game does manage to make you care about them a little bit at least among the vague suggestions of a plot. This is because the voice-acting is decent and though some of the jokes fall flat, a lot of the dialogue is at least smile-worthy. I didn’t use the ‘default’ voice offered for my alter-ego, but selected one (‘Male Voice 2’) that seemed to fit better with my look as described, so I can’t judge on the quality of the other leads. The game offers three male options, three female ones and there is even a ‘zombie’ voice option, making you simply groan unintelligibly whenever you would normally speak. Have I mentioned yet that the game doesn’t take itself seriously? Special voice acting mention goes out to the woman playing the nasally radio newscaster who always reads out a drily comical synopsis of whatever crazy event just happened.

Identification with your alter-ego gets a bit complicated as he comes with a spinning moral compass. On the surface, he seems a charismatic and friendly guy who cares about and is loyal to his sidekicks. Undeniably, however, he is a drugs and arms dealing pimp and a gang leader who slaughters untold numbers of innocents in pursuit of his self-interest, without a second thought. Mass murdering psychopath just about covers it. The general populace in Steelport seems to have extremely mixed and fluid feelings about him and his gang The Saints: one moment he is a hero, the next a menace and back again. There are stores selling Saints merchandise in the game, which is likely supposed to be a cynical comment on fame.

Given the overall tone and the fact that you are being handed toys to cause mayhem on a grand scale at every turn, it is nearly impossible to resist the cathartic urge to cut loose and act like a supervillain. I bought the game during a Steam sale, bundled with some extra DLC. Among other things, I was handed a bonus car that sucks up people when you bump into them and then allows you to shoot them out from a cannon mounted to the top and a gun that shoots chum, causing a shark to burst out from the ground underneath, dragging whatever victim I was aiming at down implausibly. The game is good at delivering these short-lived visceral thrills, throwing as many of them at you as it can come up with, terrified that you will get bored. And indeed, you are always veering between excitement and boredom because a lot of it seems a bit pointless. The main missions keep throwing stuff at you as a reward, adding cars, planes, weapons, outfits, allies and strongholds to your inventory and some of these can be upgraded to be even more cool, but it starts to feel like overkill. There is much more stuff than there is use for. And the mini-challenges that are left for you to take part in all across the city once the main story runs out, lack a purpose. You’ll level up your character, take over more of the city and get even more money to buy even more stuff, but for what? The pacing seems off, the game giving you a bit too much, too soon. On the other hand, if you enjoy the game as just a violent, crazy sandbox with plenty of options to act out in, without any real context, that is what the game provides pretty much from the beginning.

Though this caricature world of bimbo’s and himbo’s is ultimately somewhat insubstantial, I did have a great time playing around in it. The fact that I finished the main missions, unlike during my GTA experiences, is an indication of that. I kept being curious about what weird stuff they would come up with next. Because it doesn’t take itself the least bit serious, I could feel guilt-free about giving in to my more Evil and destructive side. Fans of lamely funny, politically incorrect humor, bizarre flights of fancy and incoherent action will definitely get their money’s worth. It’s a shame that the narrative – such as it is – hits a brick wall ultimately: it ends with little advance warning and plenty of dangling plot threads. Probably the intent is to wrap it up in a sequel or with DLC. (EDIT: Actually, I just realized that there is an alternate ending (SPOILERS) that does provide more closure, but requires you to make a painful sacrifice.) As for how long you’ll stick around once you’ve finished the main campaign and tried all the different types of activities once or twice – probably not that long. But Saint’s Row: The Third makes for a fun and imaginative walk on the wild side while it lasts.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Movie Review: Prometheus

The scifi-horror movie Prometheus didn’t lack hype due to a very good trailer and the reunion of Ridley Scott with the Alien franchise he himself launched. What exactly the story would be was a source of much speculation. One early rumor had him rebooting the Alien-saga halfway by picking up where the second movie (James Cameron’s Aliens) left off, another had him making a prequel, explaining how the crashed spaceship that played a role in the first two movies ended up on the planet with the doomed colonists. As it happens, even after watching it, I still am not quite sure how exactly the movie ties in to the franchise. It’s indeed a prequel going by the year in which things happen and it does give some vague background on the species that crashed the spaceship, but for the rest, it’s speculation ahoy.

The condensed surface story, under which metaphors lurk: the ever-morally-ambiguous Weyland Corporation dispatches a team to investigate a faraway solar system which may give a clue on the origin of mankind. Two bright-eyed scientists whose discovery got the ball rolling, soon find out there is nefarious scheming going on and that on this mission scientific discovery is taking a back-seat or rather that it is clinging precariously to the back bumper. As one might suspect, soon everybody is in way over their heads and said heads start taking a fair amount of graphic abuse, thinning out the cast severely. In a way, the characters are asking for it as they seem to be averse to safety measures, taking off their helmets in an alien environment because it ‘seems’ safe (microbiologists will cringe), are not especially strict with quarantine and enjoy playfully teasing unknown local wildlife in a way that not surprisingly proves to be unwise. And there’s an android named David who delights in poking and prodding ancient devices without pondering the possible consequences even a little, or maybe he just doesn’t give a toss.

Prometheus starts off well and atmospheric, slowly building tension. It’s when things turns more action-packed later on that the story comes apart at the seams. I think there are two main problems. First off: the movie is bad at handling its characters. They often come across as empty vessels for the plot, behaving as they need to for the movie to end the way it does, rather than organically, taking into account logic and personality. Then again, a fair amount of the characters barely have a personality, some being so flat it’s surprising the actors manage to stay upright. The relationships between characters are also a bit sketchy. For instance, at one point noble sacrifices are made based on sparse information given by someone whose trust didn’t seem earned. (Spoilers prevent me from being more clear.) The person filling in the ‘Ripley’ role here, can’t live up to that iconic status and I am not at all sure why Guy Pearce is in the movie in dodgy old-person make-up, when it seems they could have just cast someone actually old. I’m sure there must have been a reason. As it stands, Michael Fassbender steals the show as the creepy but fascinating David, with corporate, cold-hearted Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) and charming captain Janek (Idris Elba, television’s Luther) coming in not too far behind.

The second problem is that the movie is clumsy at imparting information. Towards the end, the viewer is getting clued in about the explanation for what it going on by various characters blurting out bits of exposition. It’s not always clear how they came about their information, other than making intuitive leaps or maybe attending a not-pictured general meeting in which the crew pieced things together. However, when all is said and done, the reveal doesn’t reveal nearly enough, leaving you with a multitude of questions, about both details and the big picture. ‘But if… then how….? And why…?’ To be fair: this may have been the intent. There is enough Obvious Symbolism scattered throughout, mostly concerning Religion and Good and Evil, that it invites looking beyond the surface and speculating. The first scene of the movie doesn’t even make sense unless you go beyond what you’re being told directly. However, a more coherent and convincing surface, would have inspired more motivation to look beyond it.

Despite me being so down on Prometheus, I do recommend it, especially on a large screen in 3D. There are beautiful visuals, there is some impressive action and there are interesting concepts. Just be prepared for the storytelling to be a bit of a mess, nowhere near as simple and creepy as that of Alien and, for that matter, nowhere near as tight and streamlined as that of Aliens. It is frustrating because it feels like there is a better movie hiding inside of this one. I suspect a lot was left on the cutting room floor (speaking in ancient celluloid terms) and that at some point there may be a (much) longer version which fleshes out characters and explains apparent lapses in logic and story. But even then, there will remain some crucial moments that teeter on the edge of silliness, in particular a scene involving a nigh-magical Operate-Thyself machine, which seemingly is able to perform almost any emergency surgical procedure without having a doctor around. It is mentioned only a few were made (Why? It was too useful and life-saving?) and it is also mentioned that it is configured for a man even though the owner is Theron’s character, presumably a woman. Or is she? Oh, so many unanswered questions…

Ps: if you have seen the movie and want some answers look here. (Contains spoilers of course.)

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Movie Review: The Avengers

Before I start this review in earnest, I need to confess to something: I am a Whedonite. A follower of The Whedon and all things Whedonesque. Who is this Whedon, you ask? Oh, you silly agnostic. He is Joss Whedon, the semi-deity who created Buffy the Vampire Slayer, spin-off Angel, the two short-lived series Firefly and Dollhouse and Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. More recently he wrote the post-modern horror movie The Cabin in the Woods and directed some of his favorite buddy-actors in Much Ado About Nothing. Hallowed be his scripts. I am not following blindly however. I have to admit that I never quite swallowed the basic concept behind Dollhouse, for instance. (Why would you implant personalities in people when it would be easier to hire an expert for whatever task was at hand? And how were clients finding the Dollhouse, if it was so top-top secret that even government organizations couldn’t track it down? But I digress.) And I do have to admit that his characters tend to share one ‘voice’: they pretty much always have a quick wit and a snappy turn of phrase. But though a world full of cunning linguists doesn’t quite jibe with reality, it does make for very entertaining and quotable viewing.

He has had somewhat of an odd career, worshipped by a considerable if not huge amount of people but waylaid at crucial points by tv executives (who summarily executed his most loved project Firefly long before its time) and by movie-producers manhandling his drafts of scripts (as with Alien Resurrection and X-Men). On the basis of quality, his massive movie breakthrough should have been the scifi movie Serenity, which somewhat unusually wrapped up a story started in a tv-series (Firefly again), but could also be enjoyed as a stand-alone. It was everything the new Star Wars movies should have been but weren’t: funny, smart and full of interesting characters. Alas, it didn’t do so well at the box office, despite fanatic support from fans. A movie based on a failed tv series without major stars was apparently too hard a sell, Whedon attached or no.

I am not sure how he ended up writing the screenplay for and then directing The Avengers, but looking back on it, it makes oodles upon oodles of sense. Whedon is a confirmed pop culture nerd and has experience working on comics, writing and plotting for titles such as The Astonishing X-Men, Runaways, the comic book sequel to Buffy and his own creation Fray. He is great at bringing the funny, at fantastical stories and at juggling a lot of characters without short-changing any of them. He also know how to nail the core of a character with just a quick scene or two and a minimum of inelegant info-dumping, a big plus in the fast-paced superhero action-genre. And he has experience shooting a technically complex movie. Without him, The Avengers could easily have turned into one of those flat, boring exercises in kinetic energy along the lines of the truly bad Transformers sequels.

Despite the movie being nearly two-and-a-half hours, it never bores or feels long. Action sequences and character moments alternate and even merge with impeccable timing and when the superlative and destructive finale rolls around, you are invested in the mayhem because you like and feel for the characters who got caught up in it. Though all of the Avengers get enough attention, Iron Man clearly comes off best. This is not surprising, given that Robert Downey Jr. does well with fast and witty dialogue (also see his stint as Sherlock Holmes) and Joss Whedon loves to write it. Iron Man and members of the team who already had their backstory told in a previous movie, get a quick recap sneaked in and some extra character development, but nothing major. The movie properly introduces Black Widow (who had a supporting role in Iron Man 2) and arrow-slinging Hawkeye. I wouldn’t be surprised if a prequel giving us the alluded-to backstory on these two is already in the works. Mostly the film delights in having its cast of superpowered heroes bounce off each other (sometimes literally) and ultimately forming a team.

That’s not to say there are no weak spots. The bad guys are a bit *shrug*. Loki (imported from the Thor movie) admittedly makes for an entertaining baddie, even if the details of his plan remain somewhat vague. But his alien collaborators lack personality and don’t evolve beyond a visually pleasing narrative device needed to get the action going. But then, in an already long movie overstuffed with personalities, short-handing the bad guys’ evil scheme was the right call. This movie is about the team rather than the threat-of-the-day. And within its fantasy-action framework, the movie manages to be fairly believable. Ultimately, the only time I really rolled my eyes at something was when the Hulk turned out to simply need a pep-talk from Iron Man to get his transformations under control. But this was more than compensated for soon after by a short and mostly wordless scene in which the Hulk confronted Loki in his own unique way, which actually left me giggling helplessly in my seat. (Whedon is also known for setting up a scene in one way and then turning it on its head to surprise you or make you laugh, subverting your expectations.)

This team-movie does an impressive job of tying together the previous solo-movies without it seeming forced; it’s a neat trick that hasn’t been done before. Where the franchise goes from here will be interesting to see. And it will definitely be going somewhere as the movie is already close to becoming the highest-grossing movie ever. In the comics, there are various heroes on the roster who occasionally get switched out to shake things up and create a new dynamic. I foresee some members getting more solo-movies (Hawkeye & Black Widow, please) and a new member or two being added to the inevitable The Avengers sequel. For instance – both Spiderman and Wolverine were part of the team at some point in the printed universe. Iron Man, Spiderman and Wolverine, now there’s a combo I am sure Joss Whedon would love to write for and one that I would love to see.

PS: I have mentioned before that I don’t like extra scenes added at the end of the credits, which require you to hang around until the people coming in to clean for the next showing start giving you judgmental looks. (“Oh right, you’re one of those sad, completist nerds who keep informed about these things.”) A lot of the previous Marvel movies were guilty of this. However, it’s even worse when there turns out to actually be no extra scene. I duly stayed behind because I’d read that after the mid-credit bonus scene, there would be a second bonus scene at the very end. But alas, ‘my’ copy lacked this scene. (But at least there’s YouTube to show me the excitement I missed.)