Wednesday, September 18, 2013

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Sunday, June 30, 2013

Game Review: Uncharted 1 and 2 (PS3)

Tomb, sweet tomb.
The Uncharted and Tomb Raider games owe a lot to each other and to Indiana Jones. With a small tweak to their back-story, Nathan Drake and Lara Croft could easily be revealed to be Dr. Jones' grandchildren. They are ancient artifact-chasing adventurers who spend an inordinate amount of time climbing around giant rooms activating very complex mechanisms that somehow didn't break down despite being inactive for centuries. Why be straightforward when you can put together cryptic clues and have the time and budget to get dramatic about it? Some of these previously sealed rooms even feature mysteriously lit fires that seemingly have been burning forever. These must hold the secret to an unlimited energy source that could save our world, but our heroes don't ponder such details. It's also a wonder that the ruins these contraptions are found in, have always declined to the point that there is only one single, precarious path to get to the target.

In any case, having just finished Lara Croft's latest adventure, I decided to give the Uncharted series a try. While playing Uncharted: Drake's Fortune (2007) I was reminded a lot of the two Tomb Raider games from around the same time: Legend (2006) and Underworld (2008). The climbing around feels near-identical, including things like ridges that crumble as you cling to them and vines or chains that allow you to run along a wall to the next ridge. But Uncharted is a lot more gun-happy, constantly throwing you into arenas littered with convenient places to take cover, where you shoot at generic baddies. They come in orderly, highly predictable waves. Honestly, I got bored with the shooting and just wanted to get to the next bit. I am not sure if this is the game's fault or an accumulative effect of playing too many shooters. The story is like that from an old adventure movie and the characters are interesting, but not fully fleshed out yet. There are plot holes, like characters turning up in places they couldn't logically have reached. And Nathan leaves a buddy in dire straits at some point, without a second thought. The friend miraculously escapes, but it's never made clear how he managed it.

The climbing around can be awkward in that it's often not clear which parts of the scenery you can actually climb. This means you will sometimes find yourself oddly humping a wall or hurling yourself to your death. As in the Tomb Raider games, the camera often tries to be cinematic by going to a wide angle that may prevent you from seeing where you're going.

Uncharted 2: Honor Among Thieves (2009) takes the formula from the first game and improves on it. The graphics are more polished and pacing is better. It switches between platforming, puzzles and shooting constantly and smoothly, while making sure there is enough variation to each section to make it different from previous ones. The dialogue is less wooden than in the first installment, even though the comedic timing can be off on occasion. Hearing Nathan say a funny one-liner just after snapping someone's neck, makes him come across like a dangerous sociopath. And I guess he is indeed dangerous, leaving a massive pile of bodies in his wake. But then, these guys were all trying to kill him, so turnabout is fair play.

The game has imperfections. There's a weird gleam to people's eyes that makes them look like cyborgs. Jumps you can barely make, show you getting pulled towards walls the last inch, like they possess their own gravity field. There's an impatient Hint system, that all but goes 'Hey, stoopid - do THIS!' when you dally for a moment. The way you always get handed the weapon you need at the exact moment you need it, becomes a bit obvious. The final Boss fight is a tedious slog. There's a frustrating 'run for your life' section where the camera angles backwards in a way that is very cinematic but doesn't let you see where you're supposed to be going. And I can't quite reconstruct the cause-and-effect of how the hero actually saved the day in the climactic scenes.

Old statues. They tend to harbor secrets. And look really angry.
Finally (kept vague to avoid spoilers): if you had the key to a door that the Bad Guy should not be allowed to open, would you: a. try to beat him to his end goal, possibly leading him there in the process or b. simply destroy the key, ensuring that the door could never be opened? If you picked 'a' - congratulations - you could be a character in this game.

But Uncharted 2 is like a great roller coaster ride. Whether you find yourself in a collapsing building, climbing all over the longest train in human history,  taking down a helicopter, having a gunfight while hanging from a street sign or improbably reconnecting with your ex-girlfriend, you'll have a very good time. On to Uncharted 3!

The longest train in human history.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Movie Review: Behind the Candelabra

Behind the Candelabra is a biopic about Liberace, a diva who spent his life lingering in the glass closet, at a time when that term did not exist yet. He was a piano-playing showman, into kitsch and glittery things to an almost pathological degree. Despite being flamingly gay to the point where satellites orbiting Earth would nudge each other and go 'You think he's…?' 'Well, DUH.' he somehow managed to slip under the radar of grandmothers everywhere. His public image was that of the ideal son-in-law.

Liberace had flings with various younger, twinky guys over the course of his life and this HBO movie tells the story of perhaps the most significant one: his six-year relationship with Scott Thorson. (It is based on an autobiographical novel written by Thorson.) For a television production, Behind the Candelabra is heavy on stars: Michael Douglas plays Liberace, Matt Damon plays Thorson and if you look behind various forms of dubious facial hair and/or make-up, you may recognize Scott Bakula, Dan Akroyd, Paul Reiser and Rob Lowe. In a production that features a lot of creepy-looking characters, Lowe edges out the competition as a cosmetic surgeon whose skin is pulled back so tight that his eyes have turned into cat-like slits. Gay-fave Debbie Reynolds puts in an appearance as Liberace's mother. The director also comes with a pedigree: Steven Soderbergh. He has made a fair amount of great movies like Ocean's Eleven and Traffic and has had a few misfires, like Ocean's Twelve and Thirteen.

Michael Douglas. In some shots (though not this one) his
head is superimposed over that of an actual piano-player.
Almost seamlessly - but not quite.
Given the star-power behind and in front of the camera, Behind the Candelabra is unexpectedly subdued. When Liberace is on stage, there is spectacle. When he is off it, there are strange-looking and not all that sympathetic people having mundane conversations in gaudy surroundings. Matt Damon's face looks oddly shiny in the beginning - presumably an attempt make him look young - and looks just odd after he gets cosmetic surgery later in the story. His stomach also draws the attention: it goes from flat to belly and back again, not very convincingly, by Damon temporarily wearing something pillow-like under his shirt. Michael Douglas is bravely unattractive as Liberace. On stage he looks like a doll and off it - especially when the wig comes off - he just looks fragile and old.

The real Liberace with Scott Thorson.
Interestingly, this HBO movie doesn't castrate Liberace, as popular culture tends to do with gay men, especially the more effeminate and older ones. He is a horndog and we do get to see Michael Douglas en Matt Damon kiss, simulate anal sex and have a discussion about who gets to top and who gets to bottom. All of this is refreshing to see, but it also left me feeling a bit queasy. This isn't a sweet, romantic story. Liberace and Thorson were definitely using each other, even if there was some real affection. The movie is non-committal about the amount of love versus cold self-interest, but as romances and relationships go, it was a bit of a car-crash, with a fair amount of sex, drugs and piano-music.

Behind the Candelabra is an interesting oddity, definitely worth checking out. But in the end it feels a bit flat. Like Liberace's stage persona, it's about the surface and it does not really engage emotionally.


Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Movie Review: The Parade

The Parade is a Serbian tragicomedy about a homophobic gangster who, through a series of unlikely events, ends up having to protect the first attempt at a Gay Pride parade in Belgrado. It won Best Feature during the Roze Filmdagen (a gay film festival) in Amsterdam in 2013 and deservedly so. It is both a farcical buddy movie and a call to arms and it manages to balance these two elements skillfully. There are stereotypes all around, from boorish straight blokes to screechy queens, but as everyone operates on the same level of comical exaggeration, it works. The characters are sympathetic and there is genuine heart in the way the little group that will be in the parade bonds with their reluctant bodyguards.

It's sad that the movie had to end with a turn for the dramatic, as so many gay-themed movies do, but the intent here is clear: the makers mean to make you angry. Generally speaking, Eastern Europe is still a shitty place to live for lesbians and gays. The scenes in the movie depicting ruthless homophobic violence and blind hatred are chilling. Watch The Parade; you'll laugh, you'll cry and then - hopefully - you'll realize there's much more work to be done for gay rights and contribute to the fight in whatever way you can.

Movie Review: Resident Evil: Retribution

I just observed Resident Evil: Retribution. I say 'observed' rather than watched, because I knew going in that I would enjoy it more on an analytical level than I would enjoy the story or characters. I knew this because the previous four entries in this franchise all contained a lot of loud noises, kinetic energy, slightly too cheap special effects, flat characters and lacked any real emotional point of entry for the viewer. It's not that the franchise lacks plot, it's just that it's a massively convoluted and badly thought-out one, which keeps getting twisted and turned in awkward ways.

The movie picks up right at the moment its predecessor stopped, and after one artsy scene it has the leading lady (Milla Jovovich) recapping 'the story so far' for the viewers, including shots from previous entries in the franchise. That's pretty lazy storytelling and it doesn't seem all that necessary as the film quickly resolves the last movie's cliffhanger in a sloppy and unsatisfying way and then reverts to the 'let's escape from a big base'-scenario from the first movie.

So what is the franchise about? The evil Umbrella Corporation had a virus that accidentally spread from an underground vault and turned most of the world population into mutated zombies. The A.I. from that ill-fated vault decided to stop the mutation by killing everybody on the planet and the head of the formerly Evil company now wants to stop it. Meanwhile, Jovovich first escaped from the vault, then got injected with the virus but it gave her superpowers but then those have been taken away again. Or something. I may have glazed over at some key points in the narrative.

I am not entirely clear on how she is being all Neo and doing slow-motion backflips and in general kicking martial arts-style ass if she is just a simple human now, but then I am not entirely clear on a lot of things in this movie. Such as: why does a big monster waste no time killing a few people, but then doesn't kill the one person still necessary to the plot, dragging its victim to its nest instead? Why is this monster first impervious to bullets and then temporarily incapacitated by them? Why does an A.I. need to create an actual physical representation of people and a city to simulate a viral outbreak? Why doesn't it run virtual tests and infect some of the army of test subjects apparently at its disposal? How is this massive base run by just a handful of people?

Much like the previous flicks, this Resident Evil entry strings together action sequences that have the semblance of Cool, but lack rounded characters or a coherent bigger picture to give them meaning and make the viewer care. It comes with enough plot holes in the central storyline to make even the most hardcore suspenders of disbelief snap.

But maybe I need to just speak for myself, as the movies are apparently successful enough to continue churning out new ones. And director Paul W.S. Anderson and his wife/ lead actrice Milla Jovovich keep koming back for more, so it seems they are having fun with this franchise. Which is romantic, I suppose. The next entry is rumored to be the last one, but I'm sure someone down the line will reconsider if it's successful enough. Just like some of the villains in this movie, the Resident Evil series seem almost impossible to kill.

Things go 'boom'. A lot.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Game Review: Tomb Raider (2013, PC)

Lara Croft is an ambivalent creation, like most female characters in video games. She is empowered and doesn't need a man to come to her rescue, but she has also been designed to please hormonally bothered teenage boys. Traditionally, she had a tiny waist and sported considerable cleavage. And though she went about kicking ass, there were flashes of what seemed to be misogyny in the elaborate death scenes that would occur when a button prompt was missed or a jump went wrong. There are even gleeful collections of Lara's death scenes on YouTube.

I'm not saying that I'd like to build a summer home here,
but the trees are actually quite lovely.
The new Tomb Raider game, supposedly a reboot of the franchise, downsizes Lara's bra and gives her a more believable appearance, even though she is still very, very pretty. The odd mix of girl power and gruesome failure is maintained. Like Lara Croft herself, this new game was created based on two separate approaches. There is the storytelling aspect and there is the gameplay. The story introduces us to a younger Lara Croft than the previous games, but it seems to take place in the present-time. Her back-story is unchanged in so far as it is discussed: adventuring parents gone, silver spoon present. Within a few cut-scenes she finds herself stranded on an island with some violent factions and hints of a Lost-like mystery. From just trying to survive, she goes through challenge after challenge until she grows from a hapless victim into a pro-active predator. At least, that is the story the cut-scenes tell us. The gameplay didn't quite get the memo.

She's going deeper underground.
It's not much of a spoiler that Lara gets hurts badly very early on, getting impaled on an iron bar that runs through her side. This would put most people out of commission for a while, if not for good, but the pain is forgotten. It takes Lara longer to walk it off than the average action hero, but the game takes place over the course of a day or two and she takes so much abuse that her being mobile, alive even, beggars belief. Despite all her wounds, she pretty soon learns to fling herself at walls with an axe and climb her way up them without wear or tear, among other amazing feats. She also turns out to be a really good shot with a bow (or a gun) even at long distance, right from the start.

Not only does she have the constitution of The Terminator, which undercuts the semblance of realism, her psychological journey also doesn’t come across so well in the gameplay. Much is made of the first time Lara kills a man, even though he really had it coming. She agonizes about this and her next couple of kills in a cut-scene and a few lines of dialogue. Then she proceeds to rack up a body-count throughout the game that most serial-killers would be envious of. It doesn't help that, as a player, the kills are actually fun, because you are given a lot of options to get creative with it. It distances you from the character you're supposed to be.

Nothing's gonna stop her now.
That's not to say this isn't a great game. The story and gameplay don't mesh very well, but are a lot of fun when compartmentalized. The gameplay is varied and polished and there's an interesting mix of exploring beautiful and varied environments, mild puzzling and action. (Though I would have preferred a bit less action and some more complex puzzles, like those featured in the last two Tomb Raider games.) There are the usual collectibles strewn about, which help you upgrade your equipment, gain experience points to level up or give back-story on the island and its inhabitants. The places they're in often make no sense contextually, but they're fun to track down.

I've never played any of the Uncharted games, but allegedly this Tomb Raider incarnation has taken more than a few pages from its book. It's a roller coaster ride of an adventure, but it manages to retain the familiar Tomb Raider flavor, even if it is a bit low on raiding actual tombs. (And most of the tombs here are small and optional.) There is an ancient civilization featuring mysticism that may very well be factual, there are gory deaths and there are personal losses, which are also a staple of the franchise. Quite why Lara has a taste for more when it is all over, is not clear. But unless the entire next game is about her going through a severe case of post-traumatic stress disorder, maybe the franchise is better off dropping the pretense of realism.

PS: I haven't bothered with the multiplayer, which I've heard is okay. For me, the Tomb Raider franchise was and is (despite the current emphasis on action) mostly appealing because of the sense of isolation and wonder that comes from wandering alone through overgrown tombs with clues about ancient societies all around. And, of course, it appealed because of her giant rack. Phwoar! Am I right, guys!?

Ancient civilizations. And a hot babe.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Movie Review: Cloudburst

If you angle the candelabra that is affixed to my ancient oak bookcase just so, and tip-toe down the winding stairs that this action reveals, then cross the bridge over the alligator pool, pass the Bieber dartboard, pass my geeky game room and my naughty gay room and then open the door just to the west of the giant Vin Diesel pin-up, you will find a shrine dedicated to Olympia Dukakis. In other words: I am a fan.

I am not quite sure what it is that generally makes gay men admire strong women. We don’t want to be them (speaking for myself, in any case) and we definitely don’t want to sleep with them, but we would love to knock back some beers with them (or maybe appletini’s, if that’s more your thing) and bitch and laugh about men in general and straight men in particular. Olympia Dukakis has this quality and in the role of Anna Madrigal in the Tales of the City tv-series, also has shown a maternal warmth. She seems like someone you could tell all your sordid secrets to and who would give you a reassuring hug afterwards, without judgment.

Playing a butch dyke, she is the best thing about Cloudburst, a road movie about an elderly lesbian couple. Her character Stella is crass and blunt, aware of this but unable to help herself, and she is softened and redeemed by the clear love for her partner, who is near-blind and dependent on her. When a scheming family member in denial about their relationship tries to place Stella’s partner in a care home against her will, the couple decide on a trip to Canada. Getting married there would give their relationship more validity and better legal standing, they think. Along the way, they meet an attractive young hitchhiker with a troubled past who is on his way to visit his ailing mother.

The ancient cliché applies to Cloudburst: it is not so much about the destination, it is about the ride. The mood is more important than the script, which is a bit lightweight. The movie meanders, the scenes loosely sketching out the characters and their relationships. We learn more about the history of the couple, their travelling companion and watch the beginnings of a friendship. There are shots of landscapes, scenes with mild suspense and there are some farcical scenes, notably one in which stuntman Randy Bolivar is plastered across the windshield of a car while full-frontal nude. (Going by the mostly lesbian audience I saw this with, male genitalia do very well as comic relief.) Both this scene and the insertion of an attractive guy as the third lead, seem intended to capture the interest of gay men, widening the potential audience.

I imagine the ideal viewers for this movie are lesbian couples, curled up together on the couch, imagining themselves growing old together. It is about equal parts sad, sweet and comforting. I would have preferred a slightly more upbeat ending, as it seems all too many gay and lesbian films end on a maudlin note, rather than leave you smiling. But it’s a trip worth taking. And now I am off to take a trip of my own, to light a new candle at my shrine dedicated to Olympia Dukakis. Because the lady still kicks ass.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Game Review: Batman: Arkham City

The first word that comes to mind when thinking of Batman: Arkham City is ‘stuffed’, possibly even ‘overstuffed’. The second is ‘detailed’. The game crams a plethora of Batman’s foes into a part of Gotham City that has been rendered in beautiful detail. The area has been cordoned off to serve as a penitentiary, for reasons that become clear later in the game, though they don’t quite convince. Bruce Wayne (aka Batman) purposefully gets himself thrown into this dangerous place to put a stop to all sorts of nefarious shenanigans.

Arkham City is a direct sequel to Arkham Asylum, a wildly successful game from 2009. The graphics haven’t changed much, but then they were great to begin with. The game marries the grittiness of Nolan’s Batman movies with the more outrageous designs found in Tim Burton’s version. When Robin puts in an appearance, however, he seems photocopied out of Joel Schumacher’s cinematic attempts, minus nipples on the suit. Every part of the design seems to have been carefully, lovingly pondered and despite the blending of the visual style of various movie versions, it forms a cohesive whole. Think dark, dirty gothic with splashes of neon.

Of course, in terms of realism, there is plenty here that is ridiculous. Most people like Batman because he is just a guy, allegedly lacking superpowers. This makes you wonder how he can beat up hundreds of thugs and various of his most deadly enemies over the course of one night, without so much as a nap or a toilet-break. And realistically his arms should be close to falling off by the end of the game, from ziplining all over the city for hours on end. But even though Batman remains in top-condition (outside of the cut-scenes, in any case, where he looks a bit more troubled), his costume does start to show wear and tear as you go, which is a very cool, subtle touch.

The second outing in the Arkham franchise is more of a sandbox game than its predecessor. There is more space to explore in-between the missions that advance the main story and this exploration is even necessary to wrap up a couple of side-quests. Evil mastermind The Riddler has left little trophies all over the city, as he did last time in Arkham Asylum. Some are easy to access, just needing to be found, others require combined application of Batman’s gadgets to grab. Getting them unlocks challenge levels, art designs and other treats. The game is so generous with extra content, that you’re actually likely to ignore part of it. It all becomes too much of a time-sink and takes away focus and urgency from the main narrative. Without spoiling things, going by story logic, Batman shouldn’t be wasting precious time. Though the game doesn’t put a timer on you, it just feels odd for him to be hanging around on rooftops, figuring out how to get his hands on a trophy. The designers have crafted every alley with obvious care, but they seem to expect that you will spend hours of your life admiring every inch of their work. This seems a bit greedy.

If you just follow the main story, tackle a couple of the less time-intensive side-mission as they pop up (some are inaccessible later on) and collect some trophies you stumble upon while you ignore the rest, it is a jolly good game. There’s some mild detective-work, some exploring, some puzzles and a lot of non-lethal fighting. The latter is as smooth and satisfying as ever, and it doesn’t surprise that so many other recent games have copied the franchise’s approach to it. Arkham City improves upon its predecessor when it comes to the Boss fights. The previous game upped the difficulty level towards the end by throwing more and more waves of samey enemies at you until it turned into a frustrating slog. Here, there is more variety.

If you bought a non-used copy of the game, you get to play a few missions as Catwoman, which is a nice change of pace. And if you buy the Game of the Year edition, you will also get a DLC mission that takes place after the ending of the main game. It picks up on the very interesting way that things were left off, but it poses more questions than it answers and throws in one of those massive arena fights that the main game had mostly dropped. As I understand, the writer of Arkham City and its predecessor (Paul Dini) wasn’t asked back to plot the DLC and it shows. Even though writing is generally one of the weakest elements in games, the importance of an interesting story to hook you and keep you invested, should not be underestimated.

Arkham City is the continuation of a trend where I really like a game but I am done with it long before it seems to be done with me. Games these days tend to give you a percentage of completion as you go, to show you far you have advanced. I tend to be ‘done’ at slightly over 50% which generally means that you finished the main game, but didn’t bother with any multiplayer, trophies and achievements. Of course, it’s great that all that extra content is there for those who want it. But as a 35+ year old gamer, it does make me look back nostalgically at a younger age when it seems people have all the time in the world. In any case, I’m on to pastures less neon.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Movie Review: Tensión Sexual, Volumen 1: Volátil

Tensión Sexual, Volumen 1: Volátil is a collection of vignettes, mostly about bulges in underwear that travel dangerously close to someone who might be interested in the contents of said underwear. The viewer is made complicit, as the bulges often get close to the camera and linger there. There is even some full-frontal nudity on the part of some sexy Argentinian men, which doesn’t displease. There is no release to the tension, at least not on screen, as these charged, short encounters between men fizzle by design, apart from one or two pieces where a well-timed fade-out leaves you wondering.

At its best, Tensión Sexual is playful and manages to be erotic, but it does fall flat on occasion. For instance, there is a wordless story about a male nurse who replaces a sexy man’s usual nurse. The nurse proceeds to soap and shower his patient in an extended sequence that had me checking my watch. It doesn’t help that the nurse has something creepy about him, and that his sexy patient mostly looks bored. Chemistry can be hard to bring across on screen, especially if you can’t fall back on kissing and sex, because the general theme here is ‘missed opportunities’. There may be as many lingering stares here as there were in the infamous Twilight. Not surprisingly, the couple of stories that forego dialogue are the worst offenders in this respect.

The pieces I enjoyed the most were the ones that showed a sense of humor. There is the fairly unbelievable story of one supposedly straight guy teaching another supposedly straight guy how to make love to a lady, by getting near-naked and acting things out with him. And there is a story where it becomes clear that one of two muscled training buddies is sneakily seducing the other. The fun here is that it takes the audience a while to figure out that one of them is doing it, and that his friend doesn’t catch on even after we do.

You do have to be a somewhat shy and patient person to identify with most of the characters in this movie. Once or twice I rolled my eyes wondering why someone was playing coy and didn’t just make a move already. By the end of it all, despite some lulls that lead to mild boredom, Tensión Sexual mostly delivers on its title. It is extended foreplay without the release of sex. It leaves you titillated, a bit frustrated and in need of a good shag.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Movie Review: Silver Linings Playbook

Silver Linings Playbook is about two troubled people (one with a borderline personality, one an emotionally wobbly widow) who end up orbiting each other. Will they be able to help each other or even *gasp* fall for each other? No, seriously, take a guess.

SLP is an interesting movie. Or rather, two-thirds of an interesting movie and one-third of a generic romantic comedy. It spends a good long time building up nuanced, troubled, believable characters (even the ‘sane’ characters turn out to be a bit kooky) and then suddenly decides to chuck realism in favor of an all-out upbeat ending. It ends up as one of those movies where the camera rotates around a kissing couple to signify the passion and intensity of the kiss. It’s a shame that the first, more realistic part of the movie makes it hard to believe that all problems have been resolved, as the ending wants us to believe.

Is the movie worth seeing? Well, yes. The performances are great, especially those by the leads. Apart from being convincing as someone with borderline syndrome, Bradley Cooper is dreamy enough that I could watch him read aloud from a dictionary for two hours and still not nod off. Jennifer Lawrence seems a little young to be paired up with him, but then that’s the way Hollywood likes it. And her performance easily makes you forget about the age gap, as there is more than enough chemistry to bridge it.

Speaking of chemistry, it is a bit suspicious how drugs seem to be the silent heroes of the film, used to fabricate the happy ending. And it is odd how drinking two glasses of Wodka doesn’t impair someone’s ability to dance. Alcohol apparently disappears right out of your body when a script calls for it. But then, that’s a silly romantic comedy for you. If you can roll with the switch from fairly realistic dramady to romance-fixes-everything (as most people on the IMDB seem able to) then Silver Linings Playbook will leave you with a big smile on your face.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Movie Review: The Hobbit - An Unexpected Journey

Is it a good idea to take The Hobbit, a relatively simple story for children contained in a single, not especially thick book, and then to spin it into three epic, connecting movies? The answer from an economic perspective is, of course, “yes”. After all, the three movies will form a prequel to the hugely successful Lord of the Rings trilogy. It means three tickets sold per viewer by the end of it all, instead of two. (To just make one (1) movie out of one (1) book would be madness. And more importantly, bad for business.) That’s not to say I believe returning director Peter Jackson had dollar signs for eyes when he decided to make it a trilogy again, just that he was over-indulged by a movie studio with less than artistic motives.

The Lord of the Rings was basically about a hobbit bringing a ring to a volcano to save the world. The Hobbit is about a related hobbit originally finding that ring and helping some dwarves reclaim their homeland by taking on a dragon. The Hobbit (or there and back again) was written by Tolkien as a children’s story, though he was consciously laying the foundation for something more, while The Lord of the Rings was a full-fledged attempt to create a new mythology for England, and was aimed primarily at adults. (To Tolkien’s horror, it ended up having the most impact on hippies and stoners at the time of publication.) Not surprisingly, considering the source, there is a different, more playful tone to Peter Jackson’s newest outing into Middle-Earth. While there was already some silliness to the first trilogy, here it is more prominent and it doesn’t quite track with other scenes that are deadly sincere. There is a delicate balance when getting people on board for a story about goblins, elves, trolls and the like. You want them to take it seriously, but most people will need an occasional wink to acknowledge that you are asking them to take a large leap of faith. This time around, there are a few too many ‘yeah, right’ moments in the recipe, that we’re expected to take at face-value.

Not helping matters is that real danger seems to be lacking. The group of heroes at the center of the story go from one deadly situation to the next and emerge pretty much unscathed. Tension starts to drain away with each unlikely victory. Gandalf makes things worse, and you understand why Tolkien sidelined him for large parts of The Lord of the Rings. While I love Ian McKellen for both his acting and his work as a gay rights activist, his wizard character serves as a Deus Ex Machina too often. He is powerful, though his powers are ill-defined, and he can always save the day in a seemingly hopeless situation. (Though, oddly, not before it has actually started to seem hopeless.) Despite feeling too ‘safe’, the movie is not really for kids, as there is a fair amount of graphic violence.

A lot of extra content has been added to the original tale and back-story has been added, delving into Tolkien’s mythology. This doesn’t disguise the fact that the main narrative is being stretched to near the breaking point. Lots of exciting things happen to the heroes, but large chunks of the movie could have been removed without impacting the rest of the story. One thing happens after the other, and it doesn’t feel like all of it is intricately connected. Admittedly, spending time in this beautiful-looking realm again is fun regardless, as is meeting up with characters from the original trilogy. All the actors are game, joyously throwing themselves into their roles, and Martin Freeman is perfect as Bilbo. But forward momentum is missing, and though the end goal is noble, the stakes are not on par with those from the previous trilogy. The element of surprise is gone and it all feels very familiar. There are only so many sweeping shots of people in fantasy-gear trekking across imposing landscapes that one has patience for.

By the end of this first chapter, the heroes’ journey is far from over. (Even though they seem to have an opportunity to reach their destination quickly, which is oddly ignored.) There will no doubt be many more roadblocks on their path, but it’s going to be a long slog. For them and the viewers.

Technical note: This movie made history by being shot at double the usual frame-rate. This was supposed to render a sharper image, without motion blur, but ended up taking away movie magic. It allegedly makes the film look like a documentary and makes special effects, costumes and make-up look unconvincing. I chose to see the film at the regular frame-rate, in 3D. The 3D is fine but doesn’t add a lot to the experience. Ps: I am going to bitch-slap the next person with perfect vision who whines about having to wear 3D-glasses for a couple of hours. Cry unto me a river.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Game Review: Dishonored

Dishonored is a rare thing: a successful, big league game that is not a sequel. That’s not to say that the game is entirely original, as it remixes a lot of familiar elements. When it comes to gameplay, imagine a more stylized, steampunk version of Deus Ex: Human Revolution with gloomy flavoring reminiscent of Bioshock (though it actually looks more like the upcoming Bioshock Infinite).

You play the apparently mute bodyguard-turned-assassin Corvo Attano. After a trip abroad, you return to the city of Dunwall. This is a seaside place that is preoccupied with whaling, as whale oil is a very important energy source. (And a rather explosive one, as you will discover.) The city is having a hard time, slowly getting overrun by rats that are spreading a deadly plague. You arrive just in time to get framed for the murder of the Empress you were supposed to protect. Her young daughter is kidnapped by conspirators who want to take control of Dunwall and it is your mission to rescue the heiress to the throne and either restore order or simply avenge.

Your situation seems hopeless at first, but thankfully, there is a shadowy guy from another realm at hand, to creepily watch your progress and gift you awesome powers as a reward for collecting ‘runes’. The most important of these is ‘Blink’ which allows you to zip from one place to another (within a certain range) instantaneously and invisibly. Others allow you to slow or stop time, see enemies and other things of import through walls (‘Dark Vision’), blow enemies away with a gust of wind or to turn them to dust. Dishonored tells its tale as a succession of missions you are sent on. Each gives you a target and drops you in a couple of connected areas, which contain a smattering of guards to avoid/incapacitate and resources to find.

So what approach will you choose? You can seek revenge by going on a murderous rampage or take out your opponents by non-lethal means or slip through the entire game as a shadow, undetected. The more people you kill, the more the plague spreads, presumably because of all the dead bodies. It makes the amount of guards you encounter increase as well, and it ups your ‘chaos’ rating. Awkwardly, a happy ending can only be achieved by mostly reining in your killer instincts, maintaining a low chaos rating. It’s odd that the creators are encouraging the stealthy, less bloodthirsty way of playing the game, despite the fact that this gives you less possibilities to get creative. Dishonored hands you a lot of fun, deadly toys and then chides you for using them.

The non-violent approach does make more sense for the story, admittedly, as you are most often fighting guards who are not evil so much as misinformed or innocent (albeit aggressive) victims of the plague. And, from what I’ve heard, the game doesn’t fault you for assassinating your main target for each mission. (Even though there is always a non-violent way to get rid of them as well.) But the story could have been tweaked to have a few levels where you would fight some kind of steampunk robots, for instance, enabling you to cut loose without getting punished for it. Discouraging the more creative way of play, seems like a sneaky way of making you spend more time on the game, making you have to play it twice to experience all it has to offer. This is made less enticing, however, by the fact that you will also have to hunt down all the collectibles again to unlock the same powers you acquired in your previous game. Probably the best way to go about it – if you have the time and patience – would be to replay each mission twice right after each other. Once the violent way and once the stealthy way, choosing to activate the appropriate powers for each approach. It doesn’t really benefit the pacing of the story though, and requires managing of game-saves.

The guards you encounter as an interesting bunch. For one thing, they seem to share a hive mind. Guards at different parts of the city can be overheard uttering the same weirdly specific phrases, like “Think you will get your own squad after what happened last night?” It’s hard to miss the recurring chatter, so it’s unlikely this slipped by unnoticed during the game’s production. Were they hoping for free publicity? A meme along the lines of Skyrim’s “I used to be an adventurer like you, but then I got an arrow in the knee”? Having a voice actor record a larger amount of more generic lines, would seem like an easy and not all that expensive fix.

The guards also suffer from terrible memory, poor peripheral vision and an overall lack of curiosity. If they spot you clearly, but you manage to slip away quickly, they tend to just stand in place for a moment until their suspicion dissipates, rather than go investigate. Anything that happens outside of their official cone of vision (which is visualized in your Dark Vision mode) doesn’t register, even if a door swings open right next to them. Previously closed doors that are suddenly open also go unnoticed by guards doing their rounds, as does the disappearance of colleagues. And the simple act of crouching makes you significantly less visible and audible, even in places where this doesn’t make much sense. I get that these and some other abstractions are necessary to make the stealth approach less frustrating, but it does make the guards look amusingly incompetent. Despite the various behavioral oddities you come across, taking out the opposition or slipping by unnoticed is addictive and fun.

Dunwall is an interesting place to roam and the look of it and its inhabitants is distinct and memorable. The story that drives the game is pretty straightforward and it ends with a whimper rather than a bang, especially if you manage to keep your ‘chaos’ rating low. Nevertheless, the resolution is fitting and satisfying, and it seems like there are a lot of interesting places to go with this game world, in the almost inevitable event of a sequel. I’d be very happy to see one, maybe in a different city from the same world and featuring more options for non-lethal playthroughs or no penalty for being lethal. Some sites have called it their ‘Game of The Year’ for 2012 and while I wouldn’t quite go that far, it is a very satisfying way to blow through some free time.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Game Review: Thirty Flights of Loving & Dear Esther

I just took a break from being Batman and running around Arkham City to cross two non-games off my to-do list. I say ‘non-games’ because each of the two in its own unique way is an interactive experience rather than a game. They don’t so much tell a story as strongly hint at one, tickling your imagination by giving you just enough elements to suggest a narrative without quite connecting the dots for you. In both cases, there is room for interpretation of how it all ties together.

Thirty Flights of Loving – In this highly stylized short story that takes about fifteen minutes to ‘play’ from beginning to end, you’re part of a trio executing a heist. There is no dialogue, barely any text and you see everything from a first person perspective. Most interesting about this flight of fancy is the use of jump cuts. You may find yourself running down a hallway only to suddenly be in a different scene, be it one taking place earlier or later. Apart from moving around and being able to click on things to move the plot forward, you have no influence on the course of events. Thirty Flights is the sequel to the equally experimental Gravity Bone, which shares its colorful, primitive graphics but has a few more traditional gameplay elements and a great, cinematic final scene. In this earlier game, you play the part of a contract killer, but things get silly; at some point you have to take photographs of birds which afterwards explode for some unknown reason. On Steam, Gravity Bone comes packaged with Thirty Flights and there’s a text commentary option for the latter that gives insight into the making of it but does not clarify the story. ‘Playing’ both stories and reading the commentary will not take more than an hour in total and it’s certainly worth picking up for the curiosity value, assuming you find it on sale. I don’t quite get why the reviews have been so massively positive though. Granted, it’s novel to apply artsy cinematic ideas to a slightly interactive animated short story, but the end product doesn’t seem all that substantial from a story perspective. To me the ‘games’ seem to be stuck in a weird and slightly uncomfortable Limbo between a game and a short film.

Dear EstherDear Esther tells its ambiguous story in a totally different way. You don’t click or interact with anything or anyone, you just observe as you move around the stunningly detailed landscape (or possibly mindscape) around you. The abandoned island you find yourself on, contains strange sights for you to see as you follow a long, winding way to a beacon blinking on the horizon. There are signs painted with luminous paint, lit candles in unlikely places and stranded boats of the wooden as well as the paper variety. A voice joins you now and then on your walk, dropping pieces of a sad and spooky story that must somehow be related to the island and its strangeness. The connection gets clearer as you go, but never completely solidifies. Apart from the voice, there are only ambient sounds and the occasional piece of piano, violin or choral music to break the silence. The sky is grey, overcast, with a ray of light in the distance. There’s a beautiful sadness to it all. The path you walk is very linear, the environment laid out in such a way that you can make a small extra detour, but never wander off in an unintended direction. There is no running, you move at a slow but steady pace. Those short on patience need not apply. Dear Esther only works if you give in to the mood of the piece: put on headphones, turn off the lights and preferably have a large, high-resolution monitor. Don’t expect action, more a meditation with hints of story. This meditation will take about 75 minutes to complete.

As you see: despite both being an experiment in storytelling, we have an apple and an orange here. I enjoyed Dear Esther more, because of the atmosphere. It’s funny that simply the act of moving yourself through the environment makes it a compelling experience, when the minor adjustment of watching the game as a movie would likely make you fall asleep by the midway point. Important note: the save system was messed up. If you don’t complete the story in its entirety at first, you may only be able to start at the beginning instead of at one of the other three chapters. Thankfully, there’s a work-around for this.

Anyway – I am off to be Batman again. As one does.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Movie Review: Skyfall

Convoluted plots and unlikely action sequences have always been a staple of the James Bond franchise. (As well as hot women, exotic locations, gadgets and shaken-not-stirred martini’s, before sponsoring by Heineken perverted the latter.) But since Daniel Craig has taken on the Walter PPK of 007, the movies have tried to head into a grittier, relatively more believable direction. Skyfall, more than previous installments, puts the emphasis on characters and is unusually introspective. Respectful nods are made to Bond movies past and both Bond and his boss ‘M’ (Judi Dench) are reflecting on a career that is closer to the end than the beginning. As the story progresses, the scale of it seems to be shrinking and getting more personal, rather than growing bigger and being of import to the world at large. Unfortunately, as with The Dark Knight Rises, the realism makes the somewhat more ridiculous parts stand out in uncomfortable contrast.

For starters: what’s the deal with Evil Masterminds? Why do they feel the need to set up complicated webs of intrigue and precarious plans, full of unpredictable factors, when their end goal could obviously be reached in a much easier way? Because then there would be no movie, that’s why. Both MI6 and their adversary show some true foresight at points in the movie, while having strange blind spots at others. There were a few instances in which a car was at the ready to pick up someone at just the right place and time, despite these people just exiting a chaotic, unforeseen situation. And the way a mode of public transport is used effectively for a quick, spectacular escape at one point seems to give up completely on probability, sacrificing it on the altar of coolness (and, admittedly, it does look cool). There is an IT component to the plot and, as usually happens in movies, the sequences which attempt to make hacking look visually exciting seem to have no bearing on reality either. And dear screenwriters: our hero gets taken into an Evil lair, but no one thinks to give him a thorough body search? That signifies either sloppy henchmen or sloppy writing. (Who in their right mind would pass on a chance to give Daniel Craig a body search?)

While I do like Craig’s gritty Bond and the self-awareness about getting older and possibly having peaked already, I don’t like some of the characterization he’s been handed. Without getting too specific, there is more than one occasion in the film when Bond seems all set to act the hero, but only springs into action a moment or two after it’s too late. Maybe this was done to humanize him and make him feel more fallible, but it’s a jarring shift between this and his action hero mode. Also worrying, given the more realistic tone, is the disregard for collateral damage, be it of the material or innocent bystander variety. Must be a ‘greater good’ mentality.

The continuity between Bond movies remains somewhat baffling. It is understood that ‘M’ and ‘Q’ are codenames for a certain position within MI6 and that the title is passed on from one person to the next. Even Ms. Moneypenny could potentially be a code-name. But does the same count for the 007 moniker and the name James Bond? The numbers signify agents, but are we supposed to assume that the previous incarnations are all pushing up daisies? That doesn’t seem the case, as it’s made clear in Skyfall that James Bond is 007’s actual birth-name. (Weird that he would use his real name to introduce himself - “Bond. James Bond” – while on the job.) So then it seems that all James Bonds are indeed meant to be the same person, duplicating in slightly varying forms throughout the last 50 years, in what must be alternate realities. So there you go: it’s a scifi-franchise.

Is Skyfall the best Bond movie ever, as some people claim? No, I wouldn’t say so. But it is one of the most interesting ones, fleshing out the characters of Bond and M more than usual. It gives Judi Dench a lot of screen time, which is always a good thing. And it is notable for an unusual ending, that I unfortunately can’t get into without major spoilage. Despite a script containing plot holes that are hard to miss, as well as a generous helping of silliness, the movie is definitely worth seeing, for newbies and die-hards alike. The latter will likely get out of it the most out of it, though, being able to appreciate its cheeky winks to its heritage. I have it on good authority that James Bond will return.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Game Review: Spec Ops: The Line

I do not like military shooters and tend to avoid them like the plague. A lot of them are morally awkward, featuring mostly white Westerners shooting at whichever group of ‘others’ seemed the most threatening at the time the game went into production. Also, the online-multiplayer seems to be the main selling point for most of these games, and I don’t enjoy getting continuously ‘fragged’ or ‘pwned’ by foulmouthed teens who have spent all their time online practicing instead of developing social skills or getting laid. And finally: realistic shooters tend to bore me with their machismo and rabid patriotism. But then along came Spec Ops: The Line. It’s a military shooter, but it gathered so much buzz for its unconventional storyline that I decided to pick it up when I spotted it on sale.

You are Captain Martin Walker, a guy who at first seems like a cookie-cutter all-American hero. You lead a squad of three into Dubai, which has been hit catastrophically by sandstorms. Your job is to covertly find out what happened to a previous team – the 33rd battalion led by a certain John Konrad. It was sent to Dubai to evacuate the inhabitants that were left behind after the rich and powerful had fled the city. As you walk into an unclear situation with multiple factions fighting each other, mistakes are made which escalate the situation, including one as harrowing as I’ve ever witnessed in a video game. Walker’s mind and body take a severe beating and his team begins to doubt him. Depending on what you do during the final mission and the sequence that follows after the credits, it leads to one of four downbeat, existential endings. None of them include bunnies, rainbows or unicorns. Despite this, all of them are worth watching and profound in their own way.

Having been pre-warned by reviews that the parts where you shoot a literally unbelievable amount of opposing soldiers are fairly generic and turn into a slog near the end, I played through the game on ‘easy’. I can actually recommend doing that, if – like me – you just want to optimally experience the story (‘enjoy’ seems the wrong word). It improves the pacing as you won’t have to replay any of the lengthy and increasingly grim battles more than once. From a gameplay perspective, the actual shooting is indeed pretty standard apart from a mechanic where you can shoot glass that has sand on or behind it, to pour an avalanche over your enemies. Some people have complained about the fact that vaulting and melee combat were mapped to the same button, but I wasn’t hindered by this too much, engaging long-distance by preference. Dodging hand grenades is a pain, however, because sticking to cover, getting out of cover and running are all controlled by the same button. So if someone lobs a grenade at you, you have to carefully un-stick yourself and amble away from your cover far enough for you start running when you press that button again, instead of going right back into cover and getting blown up.

The game has been criticized for being hypocritical, discussing the horrors of war, while at the same time trying to entertain by way of gunfights. But the context of the shooting matters. Odd as it is, you feel somewhat guilty as you go through these sequences, but compelled to keep going because you want to see what happens next. And yes, there is heroic rock music playing on the background at points, which is obnoxious if taken at face value, but which contextually is clearly ironic, along the lines of that ‘America, f*ck yeah!’ song from the South Park guys. The gore may be entertaining to some people (and in some other games it is to me too), but here it mostly feels painful. The faces of the soldiers you kill are generally detailed enough that they become individuals when lying dead on the ground. At some point you hear a couple of guards having a very normal, humanizing conversation, right before you inevitably have to kill them. If you’re not engaging with the game intellectually, all you’ll see is a bland shooter. And you’d be missing the point entirely. In a strange way, it would be less fitting if the killing was very creative and a lot of ‘fun’. Admittedly, the fact that you can get ‘achievements’ for certain kinds of kills is a bit dubious, but to avoid a financial loss with expensive-to-make games like this, you have to please gamers of all kinds, not just the ones with a philosophical bent. So, yeah, the game does make a few concessions that slightly weaken its point.

Though some of the things you will see in Spec Ops: The Line are hard to watch, the graphics themselves are impressive and the sand swept environments are outright beautiful at times. For the atmosphere, the visuals and the story, I really recommend picking up the game if you catch it on sale. Run through it over the course of an afternoon on ‘easy’ to get the most out of it (and forget about the allegedly mediocre, tacked-on multiplayer component, which I ignored). Of course, alternatively you could just look up the cut scenes on YouTube. But when taken out of context and without the interactive element, I don’t think these scenes would have the same impact. To feel that, you have to identify with Walker, at least up to a point, and feel responsible for his actions. It’s not often that a war game lets itself get inspired by something as thoughtful as Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. (Note that the name of the ambiguous leader of the 33th battalion is Konrad.) If you’re a gamer on the look-out for something with substance, don’t miss out on this experience. Even – or maybe especially – if you normally hate military shooters.