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.