Sunday, March 25, 2012

Movie Review: Skoonheid / Beauty

Skoonheid (Beauty)is a movie about South-African ‘Boer’ Francois van Heerden who forms an unhealthy obsession with his attractive, twenty-something nephew. The viewer follows Francois as he lives his frustrating life: saddled with a woman and a daughter he does not seem to particularly care for, working at the wood mill he owns, occasionally hooking up with other closeted gay men in the area for what is depicted as very mundane and depressing group sex. We see that he feels disconnected: both from his family life and from gay men who are open about their sexuality. The viewer gets a knot in his stomach watching his awkward attempts to get closer to his nephew, knowing that this is going to end badly for one or both of them.

Skoonheid is interesting and has a complex central character who holds you attention even as he ultimately repulses, but the movie is agonizingly slow. I checked my watch twice to see how close Skoonheid was getting to the end of its advertised 105 minutes runtime, which is not a good sign. When painting a mood picture, rather than putting together a heavily plotted piece, it’s not always clear when you’re ‘done’, because structure doesn’t provide much in the way of guidance. In this case, less would have been more: there are scenes that seem to hit the same notes a few too many times. Despite this, the movie manages to stay narratively vague: even though we are observing Francois up close and personal, what is going through his mind remains a mystery at some crucial points. And it’s not just what’s happening in his mind that is sometimes unclear. There are a few ambiguous scenes at the end of the movie, that leave you guessing as to what is actually going on because you are deliberately not being given complete information.

Art-house movies sometimes get a bad rep for being boring and pretentious and up to a certain point, Skoonheid is guilty of these sins. But it offers up an interesting character study and gives more food for thought than your average generic blockbuster. Its open-to-interpretation later scenes may frustrate, but it’s worth seeing once. And then likely never again.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Book review: Extra Lives: why video games matter

I just finished reading Extra Lives: why video games matter by Tom Bissell. It is a curious book: part gamer memoir, part behind-the-scenes interviews at various game studios and part ponderance on the medium of video games. Bissell’s love of video games is obvious and infectious and his reminisces about playing various games are entertaining. The fun of games is obviously primarily in the playing, but there is also satisfaction to be found in analyzing how they work and why they affect you the way they do. I am not sure that Bissell answers the question he references in the title though and the various chapters don’t form a whole that is greater than its parts. Anyone not already interested in games is unlikely to be converted by this book, but then again: these people would not be reading the book to begin with. Gamer enthusiasts who pick up Extra Lives will likely smile in recognition at well-worded observations, but are unlikely to learn anything new.

Being a writer, Bissell is mostly fascinated by the narrative possibilities and limitations of video games. You can tell a beautifully crafted, carefully paced story, but this will tend to severely limit the freedom the players have to create their own experience. The more you allow them to shape their own narrative, the more unforeseen variables come into play, meaning you have to loosen your grip on plotting and pacing. There is an ever-present tension between narrative control and player-induced chaos. The book doesn’t provide a solution to this conundrum, as there doesn’t seem to be one. Still, it is an interesting topic which resurfaces a few times and is discussed at length.

Conclusion: if you are a gamer who has a candle or flashlight at hand during a power outage, this is a very good book to keep you busy until you can fire up your pc or console again.