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.