Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Another Earth

Lowdown: A woman deals with her killing a boy and ruining a family through an accident that took place just as an earth like planet showed up in the sky.
Review:
Rhoda is a young woman with great prospects ahead of her: her path into an MIT astronomy degree is already paved. Such success can get to one’s head, though; and as Rhoda hears the news of an earth like planet showing up to the naked eye in our sky, she keeps her focus on it. Problem is, she does it while driving. She ends up ramming into a family car, killing the boy and his pregnant mother.
Turn the clock four years later, and Rhoda is released from jail but still feels and acts guilty as hell. MIT is the last thing on her mind; if anything, she is disgusted with her life and seeks redemption through pain and suffering. An opportunity to redeem herself pops into her mind when she sees the broken father at the place of the accident during its anniversary. Through lies, she enters the father’s life. Something develops, but can it really go anywhere? All the while, that earth like planet is getting closer and closer to our earth, grabbing people’s attention as everyone is curious to know what this other earth’s story is.
While Another Earth has some rough edges about it, I thoroughly liked it. I guess the main reason is the utterly convincing portrayal of Rhoda: actress Brit Marling managed to truly make me fill in her character’s shoes, wondering how I would cope with the lives of others on my hands. Reminding me how close I was to being in Rhoda’s position and what I would have done if things turned out the wrong way. It is rare for films to take me so far into their depths, but Another Earth really made me ask myself what would have happened if I was to live on another earth in which B happened instead of A.
Another Earth is also a proud member of a genre that’s at the very top of my cinematic preferences: the subtle science fiction story. Not the one with aliens and space ships, but rather one where just a tiny bit of reality is fantastically altered to make us reconsider particular aspects of our lives as we know them today. Another Earth sure plays the subtlety card in its application of science fiction spicing; I won’t discuss it for fear of bloopers, but I consider it very well applied.
The application of the sci-fi spice makes the whole experience that is Another Planet stand out even further. Another Earth stands out because while it is obviously an American film, it smells very indie in nature: there are no familiar faces in its cast, no flashy special effects, and one person (Mike Cahill) is in charge of direction, production, cinematography and editing. I wouldn’t be surprised if he did the catering, too. The main point, though, is that Another Earth stands out from your average American film: where flashy mediocrity is the name of the game with the bulk of Hollywood’s exports, Another Earth is the exact opposite. And thank the gods and the goddesses for that!
Worst scene #1: There are several scenes in Another Earth that just cry out for nudity, like the scene where a naked Rodha lies down on a sheet of ice. Yet Another Earth does that usual American cinema trick of using all sorts of weird camera angles to avoid a forbidden limb from popping up on our screens. It is as if the film is trying its best to remind us that as indie as it is, Another Earth is still an American film.
Worst scene #2: Why do stories such as Another Earth’s have to always culminate in a sex scene? (No nudity, though.)
Overall: Bring me more films like Another Earth and my faith in the potential of American cinema might be restored. For now, I will grant this film 4 out of 5 stars and warmly recommend it.

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Attack the Block

Lowdown: A London youth gang protects its block from invading aliens.
Review:
Attack the Block is a sci-fi horror comedy meant to be watched with a smile on one’s face. It is an obviously low budget production utilizing cheap special effects, avoiding complicated shots, and lacking in famous stars to credit (with the exception of Nick Frost on a minor role). It is a very British film, with its entire plot taking place at the area around a commission housing style monolith apartment block at South London (hence the name). Doesn’t sound like much? True. Worth watching in spite of that? Very true. Think Shaun of the Dead.
We start off on New Year’s eve. A lone woman is walking back home through London streets lit mainly by fireworks when she’s confronted by a gang of teenage goons that mug her at knife point. That gang is led by Moses, who shortly after finds a car that’s been totally smashed. He looks inside and finds a weird creature – an alien. After a brief struggle he shows the alien who’s boss; the now dead alien is his trophy. Then the big aliens start landing, and they’re not happy with what happened to their little mate…
Naming the center character Moses is no coincidence. The rest of Attack the Block revolves around the unlikely redemption of Moses, the unlikely hero. The guy who grew up in commission housing surrounded by drug dealers could just be the one who saves the earth. Or at least the block.
Look, Attack the Block is a very simple film. Given its English setting and the background of its key characters, it is often hard to keep up with the English (?) spoken here. However, it is also amazing to see how much can be derived out of so little: Attack the Block is original, damn it, in a manner the bulk of Hollywood's films cannot even dream of approaching. It shows just how far a film can go when it has decent depth about it even if it doesn't have the greatest special effects ever.
Attack the Block is not only a tame horror film with lots of comedy about it, it is a file story that packs a very clever biblical allegory. Given last year's riots at London, that allegory is bombastically relevant; it is aided by the image of the authorities, hidden throughout the crisis and showing up only after the real people unite to sort things out for themselves.
Best scene: Attack the Block is making the most of its setting and its characters of teen juveniles mixed with drug dealers that use their own products way too often in order to create fine comedy. My favorite joke is the one that touches a personal nerve: the one where the hero, tired and scared of fighting nasty aliens, declares his preference for enclosing himself in his room and playing FIFA.
Overall: Attack the Block is worth watching much more than its 3 out of 5 stars rating would indicate.

Friday, 25 May 2012

iZombie: Dead to the World

Lowdown: A young woman/zombie trying to find her place in the world.
Review:
Gwen Dylan is not your average firm breasted and perky nippled comic hot chick. Gwen is a zombie! She passes for human in an otherwise normal world, but she still needs to feed on brains about once a month or she goes mental. Lucky for her, she works as a gravedigger, so food is just around the corner. She’s also lucky to have friends: a ghost of a girlfriend as well as a wereterrier. Still, her life, so to speak, is full of challenges.
Those brains she eats? She inherits their memories, which can be a bit tricky to digest when one consumes the brains of a murder victim. Then there are the people of the world, normal people like us, who live their lives unaware of the existence of creatures like Gwen in their midst. Nor are they aware of the killer vampires that roam between them. But Gwen has to deal with them all, mummies and zombie hunting crusaders included. In between trying to lead a normal life!
iZombie: Dead to the World is the first trade paperback in a series that, by now, includes three paperbacks with a fourth to come late this year. Unlike the recently reviewed Mass Effect comics (see here and here), iZombie has to explain its world settings to the reader first; it does so eloquently, creating a detailed world with interesting round characters I grew to care for. There’s tension, there’s some great graphics with its own unique style, and there’s a plot that left me asking for more.
That final point is the problem: Dead to the World leaves its reader hanging in the middle with no ending worth talking about. Indeed, there are even subplot and characters that don’t link to the main event yet; it feels like Magnolia would feel if you stopped watching just before the various stories start combining. Sure, this sent me to order the sequel right away, yet I could not avoid feeling things could have been better dealt with in what would have otherwise been the best comic I have ever had the pleasure of reading.
Am I angry? Yes, but… But not as angry as I was upon realizing the book I was reading did not have an ending (as was the case here and here). First, when one reads comics one has to remember that having no proper ending goes with the format’s turf; they want to sell you the next in the series. Second, comics reading does not require half the commitment a full blown modern [read: long] book takes.
Overall: A cool story of a zombie that’s the most human like of all the real people around her, but a conclusion-less story at that. 4 out of 5 stars.

21/5/2015 update:
Having now read the whole of iZombie (four books), I can now say with confidence this is great comics. It starts off with a brilliant idea, and although feels like it's not going anywhere in the middle ends up with a bang - a great ending to an excellent, well developed, comic.
Highly recommended; my previous rating still stands.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Star Trek: Insurrection

Lowdown: Events around a mysterious planet force Pickard to rebel against Star Fleet.
Review:
Hot on the heels of First Contact came 1998’s Star Trek: Insurrection. Like its series predecessor, this is a Star Trek – The Next Generation movie. Like its predecessor, it’s directed by Jonathan Frakes (i.e., TNG’s Riker). Like its predecessors, Insurrection is full to the brim with bad acting. Like its predecessors, it is full of the silly stuff Star Trek always fed us with. Unlike its immediate predecessor, though, Insurrection seems unable to rise above the crap and deliver a fine film.
The plot has the crew of our Enterprise drop by to this planet after its android Data seems to have gone berserk there. Data was a part of a Star Fleet expedition sent to investigate this old style agricultural society when he turned on them and exposed his fellow Star Fleet humans & aliens to the innocent locals. Or are they innocent? There is something very weird going on this planet, a conclusion that’s virtually inevitable given the casting of Amadeus’ killer F. Murray Abraham as the alien leader to the expedition. We can relax, though: trust Captain Pickard & Co to sort the situation out, even if sorting requires him to take off his Star Fleet uniform and hold a rifle (a silly looking plastic one at that) against the institution that made him what he is.
There is one chief factor standing in favor of Insurrection: it is a Star Trek film. However, against that we have too many other things: a silly plot, the bad acting I was talking about, even more crap than usual about mysterious particles and such (perhaps not more than usual but definitely more than required to sustain the plot), and what pass as cheap special effects by today’s standards. Frankly, to these contemporary eyes, Star Trek: Insurrection looked more like a cheap imitation of the Mass Effect video game when it is actually the latter that is copying Star Trek (albeit using the latest technology).
The comparison with Mass Effect drove me to an inevitable yet sad conclusion. At the time it first appeared, during the mid eighties, I was of the opinion Star Trek The Next Generation far surpasses the original Star Trek of Captain Kirk & Spock. Where Kirk would throw a punch, Pickard would outsmart his opponents. However, The Next Generation seems to fail the test of time: it’s just as outdated now as the original is, and worse – by virtue of it taking itself way too seriously it renders itself unwatchable to critical eyes. In comparison, Kirk and the original series are still watchable today by virtue of the whole thing being so obviously silly to be taken seriously.
Worst scenes: Pickard's love affair with one of the natives is so cliche it's sad.
Overall: I’m giving Insurrection 2.5 out of 5 stars, and that includes a lot of credit for merely being a part of a formerly glorious Star Trek franchise. To the neutral viewer, though, Star Trek: Insurrection has so little appeal it is probably unwatchable.

Monday, 21 May 2012

The Case for Copyright Reform by Christian Engström and Rick Falkvinge

Lowdown: Why current copyright legislation requires an update and what it should be updated to.
Review:
Shortly on the heels of the United States Pirate Party’s No Safe Harbor comes another Pirate Party affiliated release, The Case for Copyright Reform (available as a free download here). Its Swedish authors, Engström and Falkvinge, had a hand in the former as well; Falkvinge is perhaps the most famous of pirates, having established the very first Pirate Party in Sweden.
As its title implies, The Case for Copyright Reform delivers a message on the need to change our existing copyright legislations. To its credit, it delivers much more than that in its short breadth. We start with the authors throwing their suggested copyright policy reform; we then move on to read the actual case for this reform, a case presented at the philosophical level while making the most of historical facts; and we finish off by going back to the suggested reform, this time with explanations on how these reforms address the issues revealed in the case’s discussion. The resulting read is a very convincing, easy to read, interesting and totally sensical presentation of a business case to change a major player in the development of our culture.
To most people, the main interest in the book would be knowing what the suggested copyright policy is. In short, it talks about removing copyright off personal use and limiting it to commercial applications only. It also talks about reducing copyright to five years from its current life + 70, while allowing extensions for up to 20 years if the copyright owners register their creation at a publicly accessible database. Personally, I find the case behind the suggestions much more interesting. As I said already, it is very well laid out; what I haven’t said is how effectively it nulls all the various arguments coming in from the copyright industry as it tries to fortify its position. The Case for Copyright Reform clearly exposes these arguments for the meaningless and misleading spin they are.
By far the most interesting aspect of The Case for Copyright Reform are the argument against the current copyright legislations acting out as inhibitors of cultural development. Culture is, by far, the most important of human achievements (unless you fancy a trek to Stone Age times); it should be defended, and its ability to further evolve should be boosted rather than impeded as current copyright does. Follow this logic and you will arrive at an indisputable conclusion: being a pirate, file sharing and all, is not just an effective way to get to watch the latest Game of Thrones episode despite the contents industry’s mighty efforts to block you from doing so; it is also your civil duty as a responsible citizen that cares for his/her fellow humans.
If there was anything I found missing in The Case of Copyright Reform, it is the personal touch. I understand why society would benefit if Disney’s copyright protection is reduced, but what about the rights I have over the photo I took of my grandmother last year that I then uploaded to the net? I believe the concerned reader would have benefited from explanations on privacy vs. copyright as they apply to such personal cases. After all, not all of this book’s readers will have a firm concept for what privacy stands for.
Overall: Social cases are rarely this well presented, particularly in the evidence based department. The Case for Copyright Reform may tilt society’s perceptions enough in the right direction; I hear the Australian Greens have already expressed an interest. 4.5 out of 5 stars from me.
Adequate disclosure: Yours truly is currently a member of Pirate Party Australia.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Mass Effect: Evolution

Lowdown: A Mass Effect comic providing the Illusive Man’s background story.
Review:
As far as comic books whose purpose it is to fill in the background story behind computer games, the second Mass Effect comic book, Mass Effect: Evolution, does quite an intelligent job. It almost goes without saying this comic will not appeal to those unfamiliar with the Mass Effect world.
This time around the focus is on the character of The Illusive Man. Hey, the book even explains the name's weird spelling! It also adds a bit more to Sarin’s background story, explaining why this alien does not favor humans even at the pre Mass Effect 1 times described in Mass Effect: Revelation.
The story is set during the First Contact War. Humans have just started venturing into the galaxy; they step on the Turian race on their way. The Turians fight back, and bloody war results until the Council (the galaxy’s UN) steps in to restore peace. Before that peace is achieved our would be Illusive Man captures a Turian general and finds himself and his friends in the thick of a mystery involving ancient artifacts with a will of their own. Yes, included in the human characters is the Mass Effect obligatory big breasted woman, this time with a constantly varying zipper running her cleavage's operations. The resulting struggle tells us where The Illusive Man’s “racist” Cerberus came from.
As with Mass Effect: Redemption, the art in Evolution is fantastic. I would say it’s even better with things looking less animated and more realistic but still maintaining that arty look I love about comic books. Where Evolution lacks in comparison to Redemption is character identification: there is no Liara like characters to carry the plot on her shoulders; no one here is particularly lovable.
Mass Effect: Evolution carries with it an extra punch is the form of two other short Mass Effect world comic book(lets). The first is Mass Effect: Incursion, which follows Aria just before the plot of Mass Effect: Redemption takes place. The second is Mass Effect: Inquisition, which fills in some background on the Citadel’s Captain Bailey and Ambassador Udina and sets the scene for Mass Effect 3.
Overall: A worthy addition to the Mass Effect canon. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Mass Effect: Redemption

Lowdown: Mass Effect comic following Liara and setting the scene up for Mass Effect 2.
Review:
One of the rare things going for the Mass Effect 3 video game world is players forming attachments to Non Playing Characters (NPCs). By far my favorite Mass Effect 3 NPC is Liara, the blue skinned asexual but obviously female alien that’s built like an Amazon and does the cold blooded smart doctor thing so well. Sure I’d like to know more about her character! Lucky for me, the first comic published for the Mass Effect series, Mass Effect: Redemption, does just that.
Set in order to set the scene for the Mass Effect 2 video game, it tells the story of Liara as she is looking for the body of Commander Shepard (the character you play in all the three Mass Effect games). Always the devoted friend, Liara has to go a long way to locate the body; on her way there she’ll make unlikely allies such as the pro-human Cerberus organization and the criminally inclined Aria. Unsurprisingly, she will also bump into the mysterious Shadow Broker (about whose relationship with Liara we learn more in Mass Effect 3) and the Collectors baddies. Action and biotic powers prevail in this short tale.
I liked Redemption a lot, but I am worried as to whether I liked it for the wrong reasons. In the eyes of this relatively inexperienced comics reader the quality of the art is best described as awesome; just like the games it is very rich. I am also appreciative of the opportunity to learn more about my favorite character as well as learn more about the Mass Effect back story. However, there was always the nagging feeling the comic Liara is not the game’s Liara: the comic portrays “my” Liara as a babe, for lack of a better word, always emphasizing her body’s curvatures and also giving her a tiny bit of that good old “hot but dumb” stereotype. Reading Redemption left me wondering whether I’ve enjoyed it so much because it felt like reading porn!
It seems the problem is not limited to this comic. Bloggers have already raised the alarm bells in relation to Liara’s action figure, released outside the main Mass Effect action figures series (in a very odd way, given the character’s centrality in the whole affair). You can read and view a detailed comparison between the game’s Liara and the totally different figure Liara here (if you can’t be bothered to read the link, I urge you to check this image out instead – it is a study of implied sexism). Sadly, this comparison applies to the Redemption comic as well; definitely not as much, but still too much. It is even evident from the cover, which portrays the game’s Liara and is different to the Liara you will find inside the book.
Overall: I’ve enjoyed Mass Effect: Redemption, but a smarter and more game like portrayal of Liara would have done this comic a whole lot of good. As it is, I’m giving this titillating read 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Saturday, 12 May 2012

Mass Effect: Revelation by Drew Karpyshyn

Lowdown: An Introduction to the Mass Effect world through an action packed story.
Review:
Hungry to know more about the universe in which Mass Effect 3 takes place, I sought my refuge in some of the books and comics released to support this video game trilogy. The first of these, a book that was released around the first Mass Effect game back in 2007, is Mass Effect: Revelation. The book tries to set the scene for the game, but as no one would have read it before playing the game you should already have an impression of what Revelation would be like: a commercial product tailor made to make the most of the success of its video game namesake.
Revelation’s main hero is David Anderson, a young and recently divorced lieutenant this time around (gamers would know he would go up the ranks later). Anderson is sent to investigate a mysterious attack on a human alliance research station. In parallel, we follow Kahlee Sanders, the station’s only survivor, as she is trying to escape from whoever it was that attacked the station. The two will meet, and the reader will meet multiple other characters from the games in this Star Trek like universe of aliens and villains. If you were to play your Mass Effect 3 you would encounter the aforementioned characters relate to events taking place in Revelation; Revelation is thus a proper member of the Mass Effect canon.
The best impression I can give for what the Revelation experience is like is to say that it mirrors the Mass Effect games. There are multiple characters from multiple species, there is lots of detailed action scenes featuring much blood and gore, and there is the diplomacy and negotiations from the games’ role playing side. The obvious catch is that what counts as a detailed and deep plot for a video game is not worth the same credit in book form. Revelation is thus shallow, with too many glitches and inconsistencies (e.g., a key character accusing humanity of something us readers only learn about through other characters the accuser has no contact with). One should take this into account when opting to read Revelation. Indeed, one should take into account this is no pure and distilled science fiction: you will not find original explanations as to how all the various species speak English so fluently and why they are all of similar bipedal structure. Let it never be said Mass Effect did not borrow from Star Trek!
So, is Revelation good for nothing? Not at all. First, although this is not Shakespeare you probably will find Revelation an exciting read. There is too much action for that not to be the case. Besides, I don’t like Shakespeare; I can appreciate his work, but it’s too damn hard for me to read. Revelation is easy reading that delivers. Second, and more importantly, Revelation explains a lot about the Mass Effect world: it tells of the different races, their political background and their histories. It even explains things like Specters and biotic powers. In short, the Mass Effect fan should find plenty of sweet reasons to chew on this one.
Overall: Revelation has to be taken in the context of the commercial product that it is. As such, it is good entertainment that will reward the Mass Effect fan and is well worth 3 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Contagion

Lowdown: A lethal highly contagious virus hits modern society out of the blue.
Review:
The most interesting question to ask about Contagion is whether this is a science fiction film or not. That question is testimony to the qualities of this film, a film that depicts a horror that could actually hit us but also a film that is far from good enough to inspire more interesting questions.
As many a reviewer said before me, Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion follows the classic Poseidon Adventure horror film formula. Just like The Towering Inferno, our victims don’t know what hit them until it’s too late; just like The Towering Inferno our remaining victims are saved through the heroics of a few; and just like The Towering Inferno, Contagion uses star power with a sledgehammer like subtleness. The difference? This time the calamity is a virus. This time the entire human race is at risk. This time its personal and very documentary like: one can clearly imagine how the events depicted in Contagion can take place tomorrow morning. We actually saw some of them unrolling before us at the outbreak of SARS a few years ago!
As with SARS, Contagion’s malice breaks loose at or around China and Hong Kong. As with SARS, the virus is spread around the world through international flights; in particular, it is brought over to the USA in the body of a Gwyneth Paltrow that doesn’t last too long. Her husband, Matt Damon, has to deal with the reality of losing his wife as well his son’s to the virus just as the world starts to come to grips with the new reality of this biological threat. In parallel, scientists like Laurence Fishburne, Elliott Gouldand and Kate Winslet start working to find a cure while informing the public, just as fame craving bloggers like Jude Law are trying to make a name for themselves through the same virus. We see both humanity’s best and humanity’s worst. Given the international nature of the affair, we have international health agencies send their operatives (e.g., Marion Cotillard) to track down the bug. Thus the plot thickens through a collection of sub plots featuring many characters with limited screen time as we follow multiple events from close range.
The problem? The whole thing doesn’t really work. I mean, the tale is nice and all, but Contagion failed to captivate me with either story or characters. The only thing it has going for it is that specter of authenticity, the “this could happen to us tomorrow” type feeling. I respect that, but I would have expected more from Contagion and Soderbergh in particular.
Notable scenes: A film about a virus is a film where everyone can die in the next scene. Indeed, many do just that – one minute they’re up and running, the next they’re in a body bag. Contagion makes the most of the circumstances it depicts.
Overall: Contagion’s alright, but it proves applying the formula to the letter is unlikely to produce artistic success. 3 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

The Debt

Lowdown: A Nazi fugitive is getting the better of the Israeli Mossad agents that captured him.
Review:
You can’t blame director John Madden for doing the same film again and again. He may have won his fame with Shakespeare in Love, but The Debt is totally different. It’s the exact opposite of a film, even if it is also a fictitious story based on some whiffs of truth.
Back in the sixties, three Israeli secret agents come back from Eastern Europe reporting they have eliminated Vogel, a sadist Nazi doctor that experimented brutally with Jewish inmates during the holocaust (and, like the baddie from Marathon Man, is modeled after Josef Mengele). Forward the clock to today’s time, and we meet the elderly version of the three (Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson and Ciarán Hinds) in Tel Aviv. Things are weird at first but turn clear very quickly with Hinds jumping in front of a fast moving truck (in Israeli traffic!): the three have been traumatized by their past escapades.
To answer the question of what it is, exactly, that blemished their souls, we venture back to sixties’ East Germany in the company of our three heroes’ younger versions (respectively, Jessica Chastain, Marton Csokas and a Sam Worthington copying Eric Bana's Munich type role). The team’s woman engages Vogel (Jesper Christensen), now a gynecologist, and uses his fertility treatments to have him captured. As the trio hold Vogel in their apartment, desperate to find a way out of East Germany and bring the doctor to justice in Israel, cracks start to appear. Slowly but surely Vogel is getting at them.
The result of everyone’s efforts is The Debt, a thriller with a tiny spec of action, lots of good acting, and a serene feeling of authenticity in the air. As in, I don’t know where they shot East Germany at, but the Israeli parts of the shoot felt very Israeli (and according to the credits, at least some of these were actually shot in Israel itself).
Moving on to the philosophical realm, it is clear The Debt is one of those films that pose to beg the difference between perception and the truth. I won’t go further there because it would totally bloop the film for you, but I will say that asking this question in the context of the Jewish/Nazi question puts in under interesting light. Then again, putting it in the light of contemporary Israel automatically generates in the viewer's mind a certain comparison between the young Israel fighting with its ex Nazi nemesis and the Israeli/Arab conflict. Although this last analogy is not explicitly implied at by The Debt, my opinion is that it is this ambiguity of the film’s dealings with this question that is The Debt’s weak spot: given the setting, the question will be automatically raised in the minds of most viewers; yet it does not receive adequate treatment. It is as if The Debt is trying to be perceived a smart film through ambiguity.
Best scene: A visit to the gynecologist turns sour for the gynecologist. As analogies/metaphors go, this is probably the best I’ve seen in a while.
Overall: A solid thriller with some inherent issues. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Sunday, 6 May 2012

Horrible Bosses

Lowdown: Three disgruntled employees agree to kill each others’ bosses.
Review:
Most of us prefer not to think about it much, but the reality is that us – the 99% - tend to spend the bulk of our conscious hours at the service of a dictatorship, our workplace. This major grip with the capitalist system is regarded as a necessary evil in our otherwise democratic and free lives; or is it? How can we truly claim to be free if we are only so for a minority of the time? It is therefore nice to see Hollywood rise up to the occasion and attack some key ideas of the American Way through Horrible Bosses, even if this attack is only done Hollywood style – the toothless and confrontation averse way.
Horrible Bosses tracks three guys who happen to be best friends and who also happen to work for horrible bosses. The first (Jason Bateman) works for a boss (Kevin Spacey) that makes him work from sunrise to midnight, dangling the carrot of a promotion for years but then choosing someone else for the job – himself. The second is a dental assistant who is constantly sexually harassed by his dentist boss (Jennifer Aniston) and whose criminal record prevents him from looking for a job elsewhere. The last mate works for a chemical plant whose caring and responsible owner (Donald Sutherland) dies suddenly and is replaced by his criminally selfish son (a made to look ugly Colin Farrell). What can our friends do? Illumination comes from an unexpected source (Jamie Foxx), who suggests they kill one another’s boss to help clear themselves of the crime. Thus the plot thickens, and as employees and bosses intermingle comedy happens.
Horrible Bosses is not a film that would make you laugh out loud. Nor is it a classic drama. However, the combination of fine actors obviously having themselves a good time, the generally good story and the occasional laugh do work. Together with the idea at the core of the film, Horrible Bosses delivers in the entertainment department. Pity it didn’t aim a bit higher in the making a statement department.
Best scenes: I thought Jennifer Aniston did a particularly good job at explaining why doing something that’s on every straight guy’s wet dreams is far from a good thing.
Overall: This nice yet Parve movie gets 3 out of 5 stars. I also have to add that Jason Bateman is growing on me.

Thursday, 3 May 2012

The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn

Lowdown: Tintin, the comic book journalist, arrives at the big screen.
Review:
My main conclusion after watching Steven Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (henceforth “Tintin”)? He lost it. Spielberg. His ability to create an exciting film out of nothing, not to mention the great heritage of the Tintin comic books. Gone.
Allegedly in a similar manner to the books on which it is based, Tintin offers no introductions or background settings. We follow an investigative journalist / child, Tintin, as he buys a ship’s model at a flea market. That model turns out to be sought after by at least two others, at least one of which would not hesitate to apply violence when something – or Tintin – stands in his way. This starts a rollercoaster of an adventure that sees our Tintin and his loyal dog Snowy in ships, on motorcycles and all over the world.
Tintin is all set in a very Indiana Jones like world and everything that happens is very Indiana Jones like. Given Spielberg was in charge of both ventures, the inevitable comparison leads me to the conclusion I started this review with. Like Spielberg’s previous film, Indiana Jones 4, Tintin is full of seemingly exciting events yet it is a rather un-involving affair; it’s a marvel to watch but I didn’t care much for what was taking place. Now, compare that to Raiders of the Lost Ark or Temple of Doom, films that made me and still make me dream of becoming an archaeologist!
Perhaps the fault is with me growing old rather than Spielberg losing his touch. I, however, would like to offer an alternative explanation: perhaps it is Spielberg fixation with the technology behind his film that is at fault here. Tintin is very spectacularly animated using Avatar like motion capture of live actors. Being entirely virtual, this allows Spielberg to offer us camera angles and movements virtually impossible to achieve with live shots, all of which are being extensively deployed with Tintin. Clearly, though, there is more to a film than looking spectacular, no matter how spectacular these looks are.
In other notes, some of the voice acting and live modelling talents here are worth mentioning: Andy Serkis as the drunk ally, Daniel Craig as the baddie, and the duo of Simon Pegg + Nick Frost as the incompetent police officers Thomson and Thompson (their very British manifestation made me wonder if that was the original intent of the comic, given its Belgium/French origins). The jazzy music by John Williams is excellently recorded to add flavor, but even that – as well as the rest – do not manage to turn Tintin into anything half as exciting as the original Indiana Joneses were.
Overall: A technical masterpiece, perhaps, that proves great technicalities do not make a film great. 3 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Mass Effect 3

Lowdown: A third person shooter, a colossal space opera.
Review:
In retrospect, I find it hard to believe I did not hear of Mass Effect before early March this year. Things have changed somewhat since: I have completed the game’s campaign and then some; I have collected some of its action figures; I ordered Mass Effect comic books; I’m reading a Mass Effect book on my Kindle; and most importantly, Mass Effect 3 managed to transform itself from a game I play late at night after everyone else has gone to sleep and into a family event the entire household is interested in – my four year old and my wife as well as yours truly. The purpose of this review is to try and answer a basic question - how (and why) was all of the above achieved?
Mass Effect 3 starts by designing your character, Commander Shepard. You have a choice of male or female, and you also have a choice of designing the way they look and the details of their personal histories (Mass Effect 2 players can choose to import their old characters through). I would recommend opting for the female Shepard: not only is its voice casting much superior, by my reckoning, I also regard the mere availability of playing such a kick ass character in female mode to be a breakthrough. Not many other games of this scale offer such a prominent female option! Besides, given the dominant place role playing has in Mass Effect 3, I’ve enjoyed taking the role play one step further.
You also need to choose your character’s class. This is equivalent to D&D’s choice of playing a fighter, magic user or cleric: your choice affects your character’s special powers. Me, my preference is firmly with the thief option, dubbed Infiltrator, armed with a sniper rifle and cloaking abilities allowing for that special surprise attack. Once done with the pleasantries you’re taken to a futuristic earth as it comes under the attack of The Reapers: an alien race hell bent on destroying all advanced life in the galaxy and choosing to start with us humans first. Nothing on earth can pose these Reapers a challenge, so following some short tutorial like action you escape the earth on board your good old Enterprise look-alike spaceship, the Normandy. Your mission: try and get as much galactic support for the human (and galactic) cause of defeating the Reapers prior to an ultimate showdown for the fate of our planet.
You start by getting your ass to Mars, where you uncover the first clue and find a friend from previous episodes, Liara. You also get to practice the concept of Mass Effect third person shooting action for the first time: you’re in charge of a squad of three fighters whom you choose as per your mission’s needs, arm and cultivate special powers for. As you go about trying to achieve your missions’ goals you encounter enemies of various types, whom you can dispatch or deal with using either your weapons or your special magic like powers. From time to time you even get a mission that's more than your average shoot-'em-up, like this Tron like mission taking place inside a computer.
Progressing from Mars, you go through the galaxy collecting hints of missions that you can perform. These missions have you finding a galaxy divided with many races fighting their petty quarrels; it is your job to unite them or pick a side that will stand by you when the final call is made. This aspect of the game exposes the other half of Mass Effect 3, the rich world of its interactive cut scenes.
I find it hard to communicate this aspect of the game in its full glory. Essentially, you move about as a person on board your ship or on board whatever planet/station it is that you are visiting, and as your encounter others you interact with them. Cut scenes play and at various points you need to choose how to direct your conversation or, more critically, how to direct your actions. Your behavior does make a difference: people are affected by your choices; entire alien races end up living or dying through your calls.
Personal relationships are thus developed, too, adding a lot of spice to the game. Mass Effect 3 is perhaps most renowned for its portrayal of gay relationships, and I can vouch for that: my female Shepard had herself a girlfriend with whom she shared a bed and the occasional shower. As one can expect, that side of things is handled rather clumsily (unless you prefer to shower with your bra on), but again – as far as the world of gaming is concerned, this is a breakthrough. For the first time I can remember I can have my choice of exotic and meaningful relationships in a game that is at the highest ever level of the cutting edge. I am not saying these relationships are the thing that turns Mass Effect 3 great; I am, however, saying that these are the symptoms of true greatness.
You want to know what the single thing that turns Mass Effect 3 into a great game is? In one word, that would be “richness”. The look of this game is spectacular, putting Star Wars in shame (especially in the grand space battles department). Every place you visit is detailed; every character has its background and looks the part. There is a 40 hour or so plot to keep you going, and that plot is more sophisticated than the bulk of stuff that comes out of Hollywood. It's not a Tolkien world, but it is certainly more then Disney World. The result is that you have your own, personally choreographed, extra long Star Wars / Star Trek action adventure that is, in my book, far superior to those sources of inspiration by virtue of its interactivity.
Single player campaign action is further augmented by multiplayer action, which I am only beginning to explore but seems addictive just the same. Your multiplayer action has [mild] impact on your single player adventures, which is nice; you can also download the free iPhone app that will let you interact with game characters as per your campaign status and allow you to improve the galaxy’s readiness through a simple mini game. My point is that Mass Effect 3 offers a complete package to a level higher than any I have previously encountered.
That last point brings me to the main problem with Mass Effect 3, which is not a problem with the game itself but rather an ongoing issue with Electronic Arts, the company releasing the game (and the owner of Bioware, the game’s developer): Not content with selling you the game once, Electronic Arts charges an extra for each additional time you want to register for multiplayer action (or, for that matter, for iPhone action). You get your first round for free with a special code that comes with the game, but if you were to resell the game it would lose a lot of its worth; not doubt this is exactly what Electronic Arts had in mind. This is actually a recurring problem with Electronic Arts’ releases, which leads me to express my hopes those behind the policy will receive a wedgie a day for their appalling disrespect of consumer rights. Who is the real pirate in this equation?
Other than that the most famous problem with the game is its ending. You have to bear in mind this is the ending of a trilogy that managed to get a lot of devoted fans over the years; however, personally I fail to see how the series could have been completed in any way which would have been more satisfying. I would definitely hate a cliché ending much more! Continuing with the personal, my biggest grip with the game is to do with its character portrayal: all the women, for example, look like the Amazons. A special breed of the Amazons, actually, given that there seems to be nothing alive with less than a D cup. I can argue Mass Effect 3 continues a long line of sexist games aimed to attract the average male teen, but it has to be said that the game treats male characters in a similar manner with bulging muscles aplenty.
Overall:
Mass Effect 3 managed to create the best interactive movie experience ever. The fact this game plays like a science fiction space adventure flick makes it even better. In my opinion it is clearly the best video game I have ever seen or played.
Obviously, that last statement doesn’t stand to much by itself. For example, Space Invaders used to be the best game of its time although it is clearly inferior to Mass Effect 3; on the other hand, it is also clearly the more historically important of the two. In these times of ours when new bombastic games are released at regular intervals it is likely Mass Effect 3 will not stand as the best for long; it is also clear there is nothing inherent to Mass Effect 3 to totally revolutionize the world of gaming as we know it. However, the way I see it Mass Effect 3 is the best by virtue of producing a game that combines familiar gaming elements, combining them to create an unprecedented impact, and enriching them beyond any other. It is not revolutionary but rather extremely evolutionary, enough for me to deal it a unique 5.5 out of 5 stars. Enough for me to be happy to lose myself to this fictional world.

Added on 4/5/12:
I wanted to add a few words to my review now that I have several multiplayer hours of experience under my belt.
I like it! The multiplayer mode, that is. I like it primarily because of it being a cooperative effort against the computer, rather than a human against human affair. I like it because this noob doesn’t just get repeatedly slaughtered by some twelve years old with months of experience under their belt. I like it because it is nice to see veterans whom I don’t know come to my aid when this beginner gets injured.
On the other hand, the multiplayer experience is essentially a collapsed version of the Mass Effect 3 experience: play is limited to battles and special powers’ grooming, with the whole role playing aspect dispensed with. The experience is not unlike that of playing Halo, which is nice, but it is still a far cry from the very fulfilling single player campaign mode. There you’re not only battling (albeit on your own), you’re also carrying the weight of the entire galaxy on your back.
These thoughts made me pinpoint exactly why I like Mass Effect 3 as much as I do. It’s not only that it is progressive enough to offer gay relationships; it is the whole liberal, and dare I say even secular, world view that oozes out of the game. It is a game that is all about forgetting the differences between us in order to unite for the benefit of everyone. It is that philosophy that drives the entire game, and it is that philosophy that makes Mass Effect 3 the good game it is.