Sunday, October 27, 2013

Movie Review: Gravity (2013)

Gravity is the most technically brilliant film of the year. It is a spare, intense story about adversity, hope, and the terror of space -- both the unforgiving space beyond the planet's atmosphere, and the emotional distance that damaged humans put between themselves and others. Director Alfonso Cuarón has crafted another masterpiece, ably assisted by Emmanuel Lubezki's cinematography, Steven Price's music, and Sandra Bullock and George Clooney's performances.

I recommend watching Gravity in 3D. It is so beautiful. Moments of camaraderie, fear, destruction, and serenity are perfectly constructed. One scene in particular made me think, "Michael Bay, eat your heart out!" Nothing I've seen so far compares to the achievements made by this film in visual and sound effects. The script also does a great job of balancing harrowing scenes with lighthearted one-liners, some of which are only funny because of the sheer enormity of what immediately preceded their utterance.

This movie relies on atmosphere, so our viewing experience was slightly soured by the annoying couple behind us. The girl kept kicking my seat, and the guy would go off on long explanations about what was happening on screen. Fragrant Husband had to turn around a couple of times to hiss at them, "Do you mind?"

ANYWAY. Gravity is a stunning testament to cinematic skill. Highly recommended. 

Friday, October 25, 2013

Book Review: At the Mountains of Madness (1936)

H.P. Lovecraft is a hidden giant in the shadows, his name whispered reverently in the dark recesses of readers' minds. I was first introduced to Lovecraft during the nineties, when I discovered fanfiction. In those days, after the required prayer for the modem to connect, I would hurry to the desired website and immediately save the fanfic as a text file, in case someone picked up the phone. One fanfic writer in particular, Alan Harnum, creator of the magnificent Waters Under Earth, wrote Turning the Wheel, which he described as "1/3rd Stephen King, 1/3rd H.P. Lovecraft, and 1/3rd Rumiko Takahashi." Who?, said I. Anyway, 'twas a tale of eldritch terror from the watery depths, betrayal most foul, and the monsters in our midst. Happily, it was also well written.

At the Mountains of Madness is a good introduction to the Lovecraft legacy. Although written in almost bombastic horror-prose and heavily reliant on the adjective "decadent," it's an engaging novella that touches on the themes of human curiosity, folly, and the vast unknown. The story questions our origins, and the origins of life on earth itself. Unlike the movie Prometheus, Lovecraft's work builds toward the revelation of the source of all things. It ends on a bleak, sober note.

The story is told from the first person point of view. A geologist, Prof. Dyer, purports to describe in full his experiences with an Antarctic expedition in 1930 to prevent another team from launching an expedition there. Dyer relates the team's many amazing discoveries during their own explorations, chief of which were specimens of mysterious lifeforms that they could not classify as purely plant or animal, found by a group separated from Dyer. When the group goes radio silent, Dyer takes a graduate student, Danforth, to investigate. What they find in the camp prompts them to go deeper into the mountains, and they find ancient structures that detail the history of the Elder Things, and their own terrible struggles.

Lovecraft's rich imagination brings readers new mythologies and unexplored civilizations. However, I do agree with the publisher who called out its excessive length. Because I’m a giver, I will rewrite and condense the entire story for you (spoilers ahead, obviously):

###

Fragrant Elephant Presents: A Very Fragrant Rewrite of At the Mountains of Madness

I am William Dyer, a geologist from Miskatonic University. I was previously part of an expedition that went horribly wrong. I am writing this now to prevent anyone else from going into the Antarctic and meeting the same fate.

We discovered a ruins and got some weird rocks. Then a small advance team broke off and found a bunch of ancient life forms completely unknown to science. After a while they stopped talking to us so young Danforth and I went to check it out. The camp was a mess, the sled dogs were dead, some of the life forms were buried upright in the snow, and the rest were missing.

Danforth and I followed their trail via airplane and landed in an abandoned stone city. We found out that the aliens were very mathematically advanced and made big carvings that told of their history. Sometimes they lived on land, sometimes under the sea. They created polymorphs to do their bidding, but the Shoggoths rebelled and had to be put down. Also they fought Chtulhu. Also they stole stuff from the advance team camp.

Danforth and I went deeper and discovered six-foot-tall albino penguins. Then we found a dead Elder Thing plus one of our colleagues and a dog, both preserved and wrapped. We heard cries of “Tekeli-li! Tekeli-li!” and ran like hell. It was a Shoggoth and it probably wanted to eat us.

We escaped the city, but not before Danforth turned around one last time and went insane. I still don’t know what he saw.

Please do not go to Antarctica.

###

Obviously, my feeble attempts don't capture the wildness and exhilaration of the journey into the macabre. For all his denseness of prose in this novella, Lovecraft still spins a fine yarn. And that, dear friends, is always worth one's time.

This post brought to you by TGIF.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Movie Review: Prisoners (2013)

Prisoners is a crime/mystery drama anchored by excellent performances courtesy of Wolverine and Donny Darko. Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal are ably supported by an all-star supporting cast, including the ever-amazing Viola Davis, Terrence Howard, Maria Bello, an unrecognizable Melissa Leo, and the reliably creepy Paul Dano. The writing is equally wonderful until the third act, when it appears to get confused and goes down into the quagmire with the audience in tow.

The first act of the movie is skillfully set up, and establishes Jackman as a family man with strong ideas about preparation and doing what is necessary. Jackman, Bello, Davis, and Howard are neighbors and parents of two teenagers and two young girls each. An incredibly warm and genial gathering further develops the typical middle-class comforts that both families enjoy, before an ominous shot of the front door heralds the arrival of the main plot: the two young girls have gone missing, last seen going off together to retrieve a whistle.

The rest of the first and second sections of the movie cover the intersection of Detective Loki's (Gyllenhaal) persistent and low-key (get it?? get it????) investigations, and Jackman's character's increasingly desperate acts to find and save his daughter. When he crosses a line, the movie posits hard questions: how justified is it? What sacrifice becomes too great when the reward is your child's life? Why are the police such morons?

The best part about the movie are the main characters' development. Jackman's Keller is capable, competent, and unrelenting. His equivalent is Gyllenhaal's Loki, who understands the rules and plays by them when necessary. As the days pass without any clue about the girls' whereabouts, both men become more and more frustrated, with unexpected results. Keller reminds me of the character played by Brad Pitt in World War Z -- he knows what's at stake, and he will resort to what to him is the most expedient means of achieving the objective. While Keller does get emotional and shouty, it's usually when dealing with the calm Loki, or with [SPOILER ALERT] his prisoner, played by Dano. Dano's character's stubborn silence adds to the mystery: how much does he know? Why won't he talk?

While all the supporting characters are heavy hitters in Hollywood, the story doesn't give them as big a role to play. Howard is clearly the conscience, while Davis' character is more in the moral gray line: willing to overlook circumstances if it helps bring their daughter back. Meanwhile, I found Bello, as Keller's wife, annoying with her debilitating inability to cope, but in retrospect, her very vulnerability is likely a factor in Keller's drive to do whatever it takes to find their daughter.

Prisoners is an enjoyable film. It keeps the tension at a constant simmer, and its characters are believable and relatable. The film would have been better served if the main conflict remained solidly within the Jackman/Dano dynamic, rather than the cliché. Argh.

I apologize for the massive spoiler to the canny moviegoers, but...but...it could have been better. Still, there is much to recommend in this film, so please, give it a chance and go see it.

Now if you'll excuse me, Gronkowski just got a first down and I will be cheering my lungs out while wearing his jersey.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Game Review: Resonance of Fate (PS3)

More like Resonance of Crap. This sad misfire (wink, wink) of a gun-focused JRPG tries valiantly to be original, and ends up being frustrating instead. Here’s my litany of rants:

Pointless Melodrama
The opening was typical fare: a fight between two androgynous men, with lots of graceful slow-motion leaping to impossible heights and distances. The cinematic even had the restraint to pan the camera upwards when the kill shots came.

Then it went into a seriously embarrassing scene where one religious leader, the one with bangs and a ponytail, reveals Le Truth to another religious leader, the one with bangs and no ponytail, and bangs-only goes into a tortured whine about how he couldn’t possibly deceive his flock now that he knows that God is a giant, elaborate, gear-driven and presumably steam-powered mechanical device with lots of pretty jewelry. It was so awful that even Fragrant Husband was appalled, and this is a man who will watch cheesy sci-fi and horror movies for fun.

The rest of the cut scenes involving the bangs couple are just as bad. Maybe they got better, but I’m not about to find out.

Steep Learning Curves
The combat style of Resonance of Crap takes some getting used to. It's a hybrid of real-time and turn-based, and is 100% craptastic. First, you have all the time in the world to plot out where your characters will run/walk/leap during their attack. Once they get going, they will shoot like gangbusters and have zero chance to counterattack or defend when they’re done. Some sort of algorithm having to do with damage dealt will restore HP, but frack if I understand it.

It will also take a while to figure out that the world map, where your noble characters are represented by a hovering pin, needs to be “energized” by hexes so you can traverse it. Hexes can be won in combat, and they only come in particular configurations depending on where you fought for them. As a sop to the poor saps who fight endlessly for hexes, developers reward them with treasure chests whenever they energize specific spots, like corners that are completely unimportant. Insert tiniest hurray here.

Scratch Damage
There are two types of gun damage: direct damage and scratch damage. Handguns deal direct damage, while machine guns do scratch damage. So machine guns are basically for “scratching” enemies enough to be killed by pistols. Huh?

Critical Mode
In combat, the characters are hobbled by (1) bezels, and (2) limited movement range. Bezels are little counters at the bottom of the screen that go away when characters perform Hero Actions, which is when you plot out a predefined path through the battlefield for your character to follow, shooting all the way. You often have to do Hero Actions because the enemies are out of range. One Hero Action removes one bezel, and you get three to start with. If you use them up, you go into Critical Mode, which is the single most annoying thing I have ever seen in all my time as a JRPG fan. The characters crouch and tremble, their ability to inflict damage is greatly reduced, the music goes into a frenzy, and the enemies can collect the shards of your bezels to restore their HP.

To avoid this last indignity, I replayed battles as soon as I hit Critical Mode. It costs money, but as a dogged grinder, I wasn’t concerned about funding. Those bezels are mine, frackers.

Prosaic Customizations
You can use items collected in combat to pimp out your guns. How innovative. /eyeroll

You can also change your character’s clothes, accessories, and hair color. /shrug

Creepy Characters
Every major character in this game is creepy. All the Cardinals are creepy, the lead character is a cold-blooded killer, the girl has no personality outside of her pre-programmed shoujo (young girl) archetype, and the youngest group member has terrible posture. Also, I’m pretty sure he got two bullets in his mouth even before the game started, so he should not be slouching around and non-killing enemies with a machine gun.

Jarring Tonal Shifts
The lead characters often do goofy stuff, like walk in on each other during bath time, but their lighthearted antics stand in stark and uncomfortable contrast to the dismal color palette of the entire game, and the darkness of the plot. They just come off as clueless, and not in an endearing way.

In Conclusion
Vagrant Story is an RPG that excelled at combining a steep learning curve, grim color palette, murky villain motivations, oddly-dressed main character, unusual customization options, and the themes of memory, self, and fate into a compulsively playable package.

Resonance of Fate offers so little in terms of engaging gameplay, challenging combat, appealing characters, or interesting story that I, an obsessive completionist, stopped at Chapter Three. I just quit. This is the first game I have ever just given up on, and hopefully it will be the last. May this review assist you in avoiding my mistake.

Fortunately, I have the fabulous Tomb Raider to wash the distaste from my brain.

Until the next post, be well, and remember: guns don't kill people, people with guns kill people.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Electric Run 5K

Last Friday night, the noble team Splendiferous, led by makeup expert and neurobiology PhD candidate Special K, ran a 5K. That's about three miles, which is barely any distance at all if you're a regular runner. What made this non-race so special was the fact that (a) it was at night, (b) it had glow-in-the-dark courses, and (c) everyone was there to party. Welcome to Electric Run.



I took the above images from the Electric Run website to offer an idea of what the funsies looked like. Electric Run Boston took place at Gillette Stadium. The event was supposed to start at 7:15 PM, but at that time Splendiferous was still doing photo-ops. Despite all the extra glow-in-the-dark gear we brought -- mostly bracelets and night sticks -- we still couldn't hold a candle (wink wink) to the other, younger participants of this event. One guy had re-purposed a biker helmet into a giant bug's head, complete with glittering eye appendages. Many folks had glowing mohawks. And tutus were very popular for some reason. Special K wore one, which, combined with her neon hoodie, made her fairly easy to spot.

As for the "run" itself, no one really took it seriously. People stopped frequently to take pictures against the backdrop of lighting effects, and no one was shy about strolling. There were even mommies with their tiny humans in baby carriages. The only thing missing was dog participation, which is probably a good thing because nervous dogs would have gone insane in those crowds. There must've been at least 10,000 kids in this thing. There were so many people that we just resorted to bellowing out our friends' names to keep track of where everyone was. "Crispy! Crispy!" "Here!"

I lost Fragrant Husband at one point, and while I was hollering for him, one dude yelled, "Christian! Raise your hands!" Without thinking, I waved my hands around like an air traffic controller having a seizure. "You're not Christian!" said the guy. "I was raised Catholic!" I replied gaily, before resuming my search for my mate.

Electric Run organizers plotted a course that started out straightforward, and then became an exercise in uphill exertions. We had to run around some paths that were tricked out with glowing balloons or laser displays, and sometime around the 3K mark, people started pointing and gasping. We looked over and saw dozens of little lights bobbing up and down on ramps. "We have to run up the stadium!" someone panted. This was when Special K and I decided that we were going to get slightly less silly. Until then, we had been freely skipping, jumping, and waving our arms madly, but at that moment, team leader and I just buckled up and ran. Up and up and up we went, and when we got to the top... we discovered that we then had to run down the opposite ramp. So we scrambled to the bottom, only to discover that the finish line was nowhere in sight. "Where does it end?" we grumbled. Eventually, we found out.

The organizers could have used more volunteers, especially when it came to herding us toward the starting line, and it would have been nice to get sandwiches or something at the end. We got Rock Star energy drinks throughout the course, and there were a few water stations, but once we triumphantly crossed the finish line -- which did not even pretend to time our run, unlike actual 5Ks or marathons -- we were starving. We managed to find a sandwich shop that did a really good job of feeding all the crazed runners and non-runners. Special K wanted to stay and join the rave afterparty, but the olds (me and Fragrant Husband) voted for home and hearth.

Electric Run promised an experience, and it delivered. 5Ks out of 5K. Fragrant Elephant out.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Book Review: The White Queen (2009)

The White Queen is a femme-tastic story of intrigue and fighting during the 15th-century War of the Roses in England. It is the first book in the Cousins' War trilogy by Philippa Gregory, author of The Other Boleyn Girl. The main character is the newly widowed Lady Elizabeth Grey, who seeks her lands restored to secure the fortune of her two young sons. She goes to plead her case to Edward, the York upstart fighting for the throne. As both Elizabeth and Edward are young, blond, and have super sexy faces, they immediately share a mutual attraction that further complicates the already protracted battle for rulership in England.

The novel begins with steamy romance novel-esque hidden glances and manipulations and gradually becomes a dark exploration of the depths of ambition at the heights of power. Once Elizabeth becomes Edward's queen, over the objections of the king's closest and most powerful ally, she and her mother place their relatives in high positions to enrich the family and solidify their hold on the throne. Edward and Elizabeth have frank conversations about the nature of power and the steps necessary to keep it -- in his case, win battles; and in her case, arrange marriages to ensure alliances. Also: pop out many babies, preferably sons, although daughters are pretty great for marrying off, too. Spoiler: she is a baby-making machine.

But no one can be trusted, as events in the novel show. The promise of the crown brings the death and/or downfall of numerous families, and contenders fail only to be replaced by others. Magic comes into play: Elizabeth and her mother are rumored to be witches, and the author hints at the reality of the claims in a few instances. Gregory begins every significant section of the book with an excerpt from the legend of Melusina, a French water goddess that birthed Elizabeth's line, and who is thought to be the precursor to Ariel, our spunky red-haired Little Mermaid. While an interesting narrative device, the whole point of Melusina seems to be that she can never be fully what her husband wants her to be (i.e. not smell like a fish), whereas Elizabeth appears to move seamlessly into the role of queen and even argues with her daughter about the lengths she would go to just to stay in that position. So it works as a juxtaposition rather than a parallel, and enhances the dramatic tension whenever Elizabeth hears Melusina "singing" when a family member dies.

The theme of love propels the book in the first half and falls to the wayside as more urgent matters take its place. Perhaps that's just as well, because Edward seems a little too ideal as a husband. He does bed other women, but he's extremely attentive to Elizabeth, and even his top hoor tells her that she's the only one in his heart. Small comfort, but probably the best a woman in the Middle Ages of Christendom can hope for, even a queen.

Supporting protagonist characters are vivid and sympathetic, such as Elizabeth's mother, Jacquetta of the royal line of Burgundy; her pessimistic but dependable brother Anthony; and her eldest daughter, also Elizabeth, shows promise as the heroine of the third novel in the series, The White Princess. Meanwhile, the antagonists are properly villainous, especially Edward's two brothers George and Richard, whose chances of succeeding him to the throne diminish every time Elizabeth gets pregnant, which is pretty much every other year. Margaret Beaufort, the protagonist in the second book of the trilogy, The Red Queen, perpetually hovers in the background as she works toward getting her son back from exile. Oh, his name's Henry Tudor, if that means anything. (innocent whistle)

I had only two issues with The White Queen: one, it got boring for a little bit when Elizabeth has to go into sanctuary again; and two, practically everyone important has the same name. There are multiple Edwards, Richards, Georges, Elizabeths, etc. I got so confused at one point that the idea of drawing out a map of the characters flashed through my head, only to be promptly dismissed by the powers that rule me, laziness and indifference.

Strong character development is probably the novel's greatest strength, especially the description of the myriad relationships that fuel all the drama and warring. It also offers a fresh perspective into the inner workings of royalty and influence, and reminds readers that back then, victories on the battlefield needed to be bolstered by successful machinations at court.

Gregory's redundancy when it comes to certain adjectives is probably the book's most glaring weakness in terms of writing. "...she said bluntly" and "...he said bluntly" get tossed around with wince-inducing regularity. Editors! Get it together! Stop mooning over Edward's dreaminess and use that thesaurus!!!

Speaking of dreamy, The White Queen can now also be enjoyed without the exhausting process of reading entire paragraphs. It's a 10-part series available on BBC One, or Starz if you live in the US. Obviously, I will watch it in between marathon sessions of Babylon 5, because:


(swoon)

Is it wrong that I'm crushing on Richard (far right, in blue)? Oh, Aneurin Barnard, why does your name sound like Aneurysm Barnyard? I don't care. I SHALL BE YOUR QUEEN. (checks history book) Oh, wait, never mind, uh, I'm married, just like you! God would totally disapprove of our union.

But seriously, from the little I've seen of the series, Rebecca Ferguson seems to be holding it all together as strong-willed and scheming Elizabeth, and British TV is fabulous no matter what. Color me interested.

Now go forth, fellow citizens of Earth, and conquer the day!

Movie Review: Black Panther (2018)