Friday, 30 September 2011

Mario Party 8

Lowdown: Snakes & Ladders set at Nintendo’s Mario world.
On paper, Mario Party 8 for the Wii doesn’t sound like much. As in, why would anyone fuss over playing a very Snakes & Ladders like game on their TV? For a start, by the time we are five we feel like we’ve outgrown such luck dependent games, don’t we?
Nintendo would beg to differ. They do so by setting the familiar Snakes & Ladders theme in the Mario world with all its characters and charms, and by throwing in the occasional mini-game to spice things up. Up to four characters can take part in Nintendo’s party, assuming the guise of their favorite Mario world character; depending on the exact mode chosen, players can utilize their Mii characters instead (if that is their wish). Again, depending on the mode, the Wii might fill with NPC characters to create a four player game.
Your character then commences its stroll down one of five incarnations of a Snakes & Ladders like board. These range from the fairly ordinary to the interesting, like a board that is actually made of train cars and where the cars occasionally change their order. The goal is always the same: capture stars located at the end of the board and gather money as a secondary target. On the way to achieving your target you would encounter many Snakes & Ladders like treat or tricks coming at you in Mario style. For example, Donkey Kong is a treat while Bowser is rather nasty, stealing your stars away.
At the end of each round of play, or as the occasional trick, players go into a bout of mini games. These come in various shapes and sizes: some times it’s just a two player mini game (potentially even two NPCs), some times it’s two against two, sometimes its four each playing separately, and sometimes it’s one against three. The mini games are rather simple yet they tend to make adequate use of the Wii Remote. I have found the mini games to be less than stellar when played on their own (as one of the modes allows), but in the context of the Snakes & Ladders settings they are great fun. What’s more, their relative simplicity allowed our four year old to play most of them, often with results that wouldn’t shame us grownups. Between the kid friendly nature of the mini games, their charming Mario world settings, and the party type fun of an effective multi-player, this family found itself surprised at the amount of fun it managed to derive out of this simple sounding game. Once again I found myself puzzled as to how come Sony and Microsoft, both with significantly superior hardware, are so obviously incapable of creating the simple fun that Nintendo recreates so often and so effectively with its Mario setting on a seemingly archaic console.
The beauty of the mini games is that they tilt the game from being entirely luck based into something that, in the long run of the numerous turns it takes to finish a game, is somewhat skill and strategy based. The strategy comes in the form of buying and using magic candies that allow your character to perform certain tricks, like stealing money from other characters at a duel. But if you think results are predetermined by relative skill with the joystick, think again: between the large variety of mini games, each with its own style of joystick manipulation, and the Wii coming in occasionally to help the less successful players in some creative way, you will find characters keep changing places on the leaders’ table.
Perhaps you might find yourself the way I did: excited. And constantly smiling.
Overall: Not much to look at, so I would have said Mario Party 8 deserves 3 stars. However – given the great fun that us there for all to enjoy, especially little children, I think the game more than deserves 3.5 out of 5 stars. 

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Source Code

Lowdown: An army helicopter pilot goes through a train ride repeatedly in order to subvert a terrorist attack.
Director Duncan Jones gave us the wonderful Moon a couple of years ago. With Source Code he’s providing us with a consecutive science fiction flick featuring a favourite actor of mine, Jake Gyllenhaal, in the leading role. Yes, you could say I had high expectations of Source Code. But no, I was quite disappointed.
Essentially, Source Code offers us September 11 graduates a more serious take on the familiar Groundhog Day theme. Colter (Gyllenhaal), an army helicopter pilot, thinks he should be in Afghanistan but instead he keeps waking up in this Chicago bound passenger train. Opposite him every time he wakes up is Christina (Michelle Monaghan), and it’s clear there is some unrealized potential for something between them. However, there is more urgent business at hand: you see, shortly after Colter wakes up on this train that train blows up. It is up to Colter to check what exactly is going on with the train in this recursive waking up mission of his.
I said already that I found Source Code to be rather disappointing; now it’s time for me to explain why. The first reason is originality: we really did see this film before, and Groundhog Day was funnier; it certainly didn’t take itself as seriously as Source Code unjustifiably does.
Second, the film’s 90 minutes plus do not give enough room for character development. Sure, we learn a thing or two about Colter, but the supporting acts – Monahgan in particular – are as flat as a plush dinner table. If it wasn’t for the looks they could have cast any person off the street instead of her.
Third, and by far the worst offender, is this entire “source code” thing. That is, the excuse made up by the film, of which we are informed in an entirely serious manner, in order to explain how come a guy who should be in Afghanistan is in Chicago instead and how come this same guy keeps on going back through a few select minutes in space/time in order to change events that already took place. As expected, the magic words of “quantum physics” are used in the quoted explanation, as if anything and everything can be explained through those two words. Well, things don’t work this way, and the Source Code explanation is as bullshit as bullshit comes; it’s a pity the film gives this explanation center stage (check the film's title, for a start).
When all that is said and done there can be no denying of Source Code’s entertainment value; it’s just that it is not a stellar entertainer. There can also be no doubt as to Source Code’s good intentions in it being a film about us having to live with the mistakes of our past but us also being lucky to be able to live in the first place, with or without our mistakes.
Best scene: What best scene? The whole movie is based around reenacting the same scene again and again.
Technical assessment: A mediocre Blu-ray with poor quality picture, featuring distorted colors aplenty. The sound is way too non aggressive for a film of this genre.
Overall: Source Code is entertaining but not half as good as I’ve expected it to be. 3 out of 5 stars.

Monday, 26 September 2011

Robocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson

Lowdown: The story of the war between robots and humanity.
Taking place in the near future, Robocalypse is your classic science fiction book. That is, it's a book that tells a story of a potential and perhaps not too unlikely future, but even more than that a book that tells us something about our present day selves.
As Robocalypse starts we learn that there has been a war between humanity and its former robots. The war has been terribly bloody with most of humanity now gruesomely dead, but it was humans that ended up victors. One of those winning human soldiers takes it upon himself to tell us the story of the war, based upon recordings he had retrieved from the robots. The story is told in a rather unique way: we catch glimpses of the war through the eyes of a few heroes, both robot and human, who tell us of their personal experience. It is as if Robocalypse is a collection of short stories, only that later these short stories converge and we find ourselves coming back to meet characters we met a while ago. Earlier they were taken by surprise as their toasters attacked them, later they fight back.
As far as being a representative to the war sub-genre of science fiction (ala Old Man's War), which probably happens to be one of the better selling sub-genres there, Robocalypse does a pretty good job. It tells a good story in a good way that left me thrilled to know what’s coming up next despite the fact we already know who won. One can argue the story of a robot uprising is not that original – after all, isn’t that what the Terminator series (see here and here) is all about? However, let us not forget that the Terminator world never got to show us the computer uprising itself; we only caught glimpses of its aftermath. Robocalypse does offer the uprising’s details, and in a very convincing way.
Ultimately, though, Robocalypse is a book about humans. It’s a book that’s there to point out that humanity never gave any of its minorities or weaker demographics power without a good fight: in Robocalypse’s case, this is what the robots are fighting for in the first place. That good fight takes its toll on both sides, after which neither has a choice but to respect the other. Sadly, it is my opinion that Robocalypse is quite correct with this grim view of humanity.
Does that mean I foresee the war between humans and robots as inevitable? Is the future predicted in Robocalypse our future, too? I suspect Robocalypse’s future is a very possible one, especially as it is only a matter of time before artificial intelligence eclipses ours (it already has in chess and other less practical forms). However, I also foresee the future of humanity to be well integrated with that of artificial intelligence: instead of being potential rivals, I see the next main evolutionary step of humanity to be its physical convergence with technology. I doubt it would take too long for that to start in earnest.
Overall: I like well told apocalyptic tales, I like well told sci-fi war stories, and I like the debate on matters of technology as well as matters of humanity. I therefore give Robocalypse 4 out of 5 stars.
P.S. According to imdb, Steven Spielberg is going to direct Robocalypse's movie version. I wonder if its going to be as visceral in its violence as the book is; I doubt it.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

One Day by David Nicholls

Lowdown: A relationship sampled over the course of twenty years.
One Day is a romantic story, or at least as romantic as I would ever dare to come in close proximity to. This atypical genre raises an important question: what is a book like this doing with me, a guy that tends to read cold hearted science fiction and non fiction? My answer to this question is of a romantic nature, too.
I was visiting the UK recently when I first heard of this book while reading a Guardian review of its newly released movie version. The review wasn’t favorable, but it was clear the book had some emotional impact on the movie reviewer in the sense that they treated the book as a very British affair. Couple the review with me bumping into the book wherever I toured, promoted at every book shop on the British isles, and you can quickly understand why it didn’t take long for me to associate One Day with Britain; from that point onwards it occurred to me that reading the book might enhance my visit of 2011 UK and allow me to better understand this place I'm touring.
I thus went ahead, opened my wallet wide for the $10 asking price, and downloaded One Day to my Kindle while in the course of my UK visit (at this point I would like to thank my wifi hotspot for allowing me to stay in touch with the internets while overseas). I am making the specific point about the book’s asking price because One Day turned out to be the first ebook I got to buy where the asking price was more than its dead tree version. Not only was Amazon itself selling the book for a bit less than the ebook, I was able to buy the paperback for 3.5GBP at any bookstore around me. I chose the Kindle version for its comfort, but I hope this is not the beginning of a trend: after all, one of the main advantages the ebook has over its conventional partner is its reduced manufacturing and logistical costs; there is absolutely no justification for selling it at a premium. If the trend continues I am sure both publishers and distributors would learn to regret this mistake, the same way music lables have been losing out on potential sales ever since digital contents became available over the Internet.
Back to the main matter at hand, the book. After multiple failed science fiction reads I was looking forward to something different, but I had my concerns with romance. One Day, however, quickly delivered: it became clear from the start that although this is the story of a love affair it is also a serious piece of literature. In other words, if I am to read a romantic tale, having a book of One Day’s caliber is a good way to tackle the matter.
The story follows two people, Emma and Dexter. She is from Yorkshire, he is more of a central England character with a privileged background. We start off on the night of their Edinburgh university’s graduation, where they spend the night together but through one thing or another don’t get to have sex. Something does happen between them, though; we are kept in the dark as to the fine details there. We don’t know them because the book plays a trick on us: instead of telling us the linear story of what transpires between Emma and Dexter, it tells us of what happens to these two characters during a single day (15 July, if I am not mistaken) each year. We thus follow our duo 15 July’s events over the course of twenty years.
A lot happens over those twenty years. Life happens! Indeed, one of the reasons I liked One Day so much is its authentic, life like nature: unlike the fodder that passes for romance or romantic comedy in Hollywood, this is the real deal. Our heroes live an authentic life, having to deal with issues that affect each and every one of us: parents, death, career, finding their own feet, finding their professional destiny, feeling miserable for themselves, getting married, having kids, relationships, and of course – love. As a bonus, events are properly tied to their set time: things taking place during the eighties have that eighties feel to them, and the same goes for following decades.
I particularly liked author David Nicholls’ point of view. It mirrored mine too often to be a mere coincidence. I liked the way he sarcastically described the wedding ceremony trend of having to outdo whatever extravagant ceremony everyone before has had. More importantly, I liked the way he frames his main characters with well defined supporting characters: be it the people Emma and Dexter think they fall in love with when they’re in denial about being in love with one another, or be it their parents’ characters. In particular I liked the way Nicholls emphasizes how much of an effect random like events outside the sphere of influence of our heroes have had on the characters. We think we are in control of our lives, and especially when we are young we think we are the masters of the universe, but we’re not; we can only make the most of what the circumstances imposed on us offer.
Needless to say, One Day’s main story is the story of the relationship between its leading characters. The catch is that although to us, third party observers, it is dead obvious the two should just get together to celebrate their mutual lives, to them things are significantly less clearer; hence the book managing to span over twenty years. Personally, I have found Emma’s character to be quite convincing as it develops over the years: I could very easily identify with her to the point of seeing myself in her despite the gender differences. I cannot, however, say the same about Dexter’s character: I accept him being a bit sleazy and him having an agenda of mainly getting laid with any woman that passes through his airspace, but I had a problem seeing eye to eye with a character that spends more than half the [thick] book drunk.
That, however, has been the only weak spot I could find in an otherwise extremely interesting read. Before concluding, I would like to praise the way One Day deals with the concept of love; it's probably the one thing I loved the most about the book. I have already mentioned the book deals with love, I have mentioned how different it is to American movies, and I mentioned how authentic and life like One Day feels. One Day's love story brings all these points together; however, instead of offering us the familiar single dimension Western concept of love, as in the two partners kissing into the sunset, One Day offers a complex array of love variations. In its way it evokes the various niches of love thought up by Greek philosophers (see here). It's refreshing to encounter a popular book that allows itself to step out of conventionality and offer some depth, especially on a matter that touches everyone as profoundly as love.
One Day certainly managed to enhance my experience of visiting Britain; I severely doubt the film would be able to reproduce or even come close to this book’s achievements.
It’s hard for me to rate a book coming from a genre I read so little of (it’s just so mainstream!), but I can confidently say I liked One Day 4 out of 5 stars much.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Deadline by Mira Grant

Lowdown: A gang of bloggers investigates a zombie conspiracy.
I quite liked Mira Grant’s Feed; it won my vote for this year’s best book Hugo award for a start if you ask me, it was the only worthwhile nominee). Better evidence for me liking it comes in the shape of me buying and [relatively] quickly reading its sequel, Deadline, even though Feed had a proper ending and didn’t scream out for a sequel.
Deadline takes off some months to a year after Feed finishes. The story is told in first person from the point of view of Shaun Mason, the master blogger whose sister Georgia told us the first person story of Feed. By now the presidential candidate they were blogging about in Feed has become president and Shaun has himself a new gang of fellow bloggers to replace those that turned into zombies at the end of Feed. Oh, didn’t you know? Feed and Deadline are post apocalyptic zombie science fiction books.
As the book starts, a visitor knocks on Shaun’s door. She carries a secret with her: it seems as if all humans carrying benign infections of the virus that turns people into zombies die prematurely of unnatural causes. Our team of bloggers quickly jumps at the queue to investigate matters and find the truth of the matter, but just as quickly find themselves being hunted down by elusive foes that stop at nothing to stop the truth from being exposed. Thus begins a saga that is pretty similar in nature to the saga described in Feed.
It’s very much the same story, only told from Shaun’s point of view instead: each quarter of the book tells us of another escapade in which the heroes venture into some zombie laden territory (and then get out). The exception is the middle bit, in which we have a long and thorough break during which Shaun has sex with a fellow blogger. And throughout it all, we have the voice of Georgia popping up in Shaun’s head. Just in case you haven’t caught my drift here: given that my main complaint against Feed was its tedious nature, that complaint is quadrupled in Deadline.
It’s actually worse. I could smell something fishy the second the “cloning” card was drawn at the book’s very beginning; usually, stories that have nothing to do with cloning and which draw this card do so in order to get out of a particularly tight corner they get themselves stuck in. That smell grew into a stench as my reading of the book progressed and I began to realize it would take something special for this book to be able to offer a satisfying ending. Then, at the very end, I realized I found myself in the middle of this gigantic dumpster: Deadline does not have an end; it has a weird and unexplained twist (of a rather fantastic nature) and it just stops.
It stops without giving us any explanations about absolutely anything concerning the conspiracy at hand. Virtually all Deadline does provide, given that lack of detail, is the story of 3-4 zombie encounters and a detailed sex scene. That is not what I am after when I read me a thick book.
Deadline is actually worse than that. Shaun is a bit fucked in the head, you see, since the time he had to do what he had to do to his sister (back in Feed). He constantly has to show us this nature of his, and thus he spends half the book banging his fists against walls, banging his fists against his colleagues, or talking to his inner sister’s voice. Sure, there is nothing wrong with having a mentally ill person as the hero of a book, but it sure is hard to identify with them. And it sure is annoying to read for the fiftieth time that their knuckles hurt from hitting the wall.
I was willing to live with it in order to see how things end up, but then again – things don’t end up with Deadline, do they?
I may be behind the times. Maybe it is the contemporary formula to make a trilogy off everything, with the first part being a good all around book and the second being nothing but a tool to make you buy the third. Maybe.
I will not succumb to the formula, though. If someone sells me a book then that book has to stand up for itself; if they want to sell me a book that is meaningless without its sequel then they have to tell me very clearly about it in advance. Deadline didn’t, and therefore Deadline does not pass as a book by my standards.
I therefore see no choice but to grant Grant 0.5 out of 5 stars. Do not come close to this one unless you’re already in possession of its yet unpublished sequel!

Monday, 19 September 2011

Sucker Punch

Lowdown: A gang of chicks wages imaginary fights in order to escape an asylum.
Director Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen) has earned his fame through his films’ style, and Sucker Punch is no different. The question that applied to his previous films still remains, though: can Snyder come up with enough substance to support the style, or are we in for a stylish yet hollow couple of hours?
With Sucker Punch, Snyder switches the style lever to maximum as of the word go. The introduction scene, taking place to the tune of a rather awful cover of “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” (there is an ongoing theme of awful covers in Sucker Punch) sets things up rather too quickly. We see how a vile husband kills his wife for her money and then pins the crime on step daughter Baby Doll (Aussie Emily Browning). No one believes Baby Doll, who ends up at an asylum. The evil father pays the asylum’s boss a nice fee to have his step daughter lobotomized, which leaves our Baby Doll just a few days to escape.
At the end of the introduction we meet the gang of girls Baby Doll is imprisoned with, led by Sweet Pea (Aussie Abbie Cornish). Together with a female doctor, those girls are arranging a play; Baby Doll soon imagines that play to be reality, and we see things through her illusion – Sucker Punch turns out to take place at a Moulin Rouge like brothel where the soon to come lobotomizer is represented as a high end boss that requires special "attention" from the girls.
Our Baby Doll quickly works out a plan to escape the brothel/asylum, but the plan calls for some artifacts the girls need to acquire. The trick for acquiring them are Baby Doll’s special dances: her dance, which we never see, mesmerizes those who watch it while Baby Doll herself feels as if she is waging some heroic battle with her fellow chicks in some comics like world. These battles are where the Sucker Punch feels most at home, a dream inside a dream home (did anyone mention Inception?). Each of the battles take place in another imaginary world: a steampunk World War 1 universe, or a Dungeons & Dragons like universe to name two. There is ample room for much stylistic celebration with these battles.
However, these battles also expose the hollow nature of Sucker Punch. There are just that many times that I could watch our fantasy heroes fall from up high into an earth shaking split. There are just so many times I could withstand watching them fight monster after monster knowing fully well that they have to beat that particular monster in order for the film to get anywhere. The repetitiveness exposes the awful truth behind Sucker Punch: It claims to offer style and it claims to offer substance, but in actual fact it is nothing more than a film whose claim to fame is limited to showing us minimally clad good looking young women having a fight. If that sort of thing turns you on then Sucker Punch would be a two hour orgasm; if you’re after more you may end up like me, yawning.
At this point I will add that my interest in watching Sucker Punch was triggered by bit-torrent. According to TorrentFreak, a leading bit-torrent blog that runs weekly charts of pupular bit-torrent downloads (see an example here), Sucker Punch was a very sought after download. According to another TorrentFreak post (here), there is a good relationship between the number of bit-torrent game downloads and the grade the games receive in major gaming websites. I was therefore out to see whether the relationship between quality and number of downloads that applies to games works with movies, too. Judging by Sucker Punch, it doesn’t.
Adequate disclosure: This blogger does not download films via bit-torrent. While my belly is full of contempt towards the movie studios and the way they treat their best customers, I prefer to wait out and rent the Blu-ray version. I'm a sucker for quality.
Technical assessment: A very flashy Blu-ray in both sound and vision departments.
Overall: Meh. 2.5 out of 5 stars.