Thursday, December 23, 2010

It's been done - Megamind Review

I don't know what made me feel this way but for some reason I actually wanted to see Megamind. It just sort of captured my interest and after How to train your Dragon I was convinced that Dreamworks maybe had the potential to bring greatness onto the screen as well.

I wasn't sorely disappointed but still pretty much disappointed nonetheless. Megamind is quite predictable. From the trailers you can see that that blue-headed supervillain is far too charismatic to actually be the villain of this movie and you're not mistaken. Then you have a little love story thrown in, evil turns good, big amazing fight scenes, whatever you wish for in a superhero movie. And there have been a lot of superhero / supervillain movies. Of course The Incredibles, which dealt with the theme of the blurry line between good and evil in superherodom springs to mind first. Then there is also this year's Despicable Me but I find that comparison to be a bit difficult because it doesn't quite add up. Both movies, however do infinitely better than Megamind, which ultimately feels way too late. And those were just the computer animated movies that I mentioned. Don't forget the large amount of superhero movies beyond that medium that were made during the last few years.

For consciously and purposely (how could you not be aware of that?) entering an overcrowded genre of movie that has had its fair share of really exceptional and entertaining movies already, Megamind just doesn't bring enough to set it apart from the rest. It's a mediocre superhero movie with no surprises. Sure, we have celebrity voices for people who actually care about that and the whole thing is in 3D as well. I haven't seen it in 3D so I don't really know whether it managed to pull off that technique nicely but it's actually because I avoid 3D. I think 3D has to be the trend of the year that got very old most quickly and I am eternally greatful that instead of adding some botched 3D they completely scratched that feature for the new Harry Potter movie. Even if Megamind had pulled off 3D perfectly it wouldn't have been enough to save a tired and unimaginative plot.

The panorama pictures are pretty and some of the special effects that Megamind uses to enhance the performances of its main character are really awesome to look at. What really started bothering me halfway through the movie however is the face animation of ALL the characters. I couldn't help but think "they look like Sims" all the time. Now I know Sims3 actually has nice graphics and is a good videogame but how can you think that that kind of basic face animation is alright to use in a movie? There are a lot of squinty eyes. Always the squinty eyes and the exagerated eyebrow and mouth-movements. It just looks really bad and fake. I was quite shocked because the faces of the characters should be the number one thing that are done with the utmost care and desire to create perfection. If the faces look lifeless and basic, no amount of quirky voice acting is going to save these characters. I sort of want to watch a behind the scenes feature of that movie just to get to know how they did the face animation, whether they used a new previously untested technique or whether something went horribly wrong, I just want to know why they screwed up so badly.

Still, Megamind is not an unwatchable movie. It's very watchable. It's funny at times (though I guess it's fair to say that it's one of those movies that wastes all its funniest bits in the trailer already) and the story in itself isn't even that bad. It just has been done before ad nauseum. If Megamind had been one of the first computer animated movies and one of the first movies to deal with this facet of the superhero genre then it might have actually had something new to offer. Now after all these years it comes a bit late and thus frankly disappoints.

Dreamworks showed that they can make really beautiful and lively movies with How to train your Dragon and it's very disappointing to see that studio fall back to mediocrity with that predictable and lifeless movie. I wonder what kind of movies we can expect from them in the near future. Since I am starting to more and more become a fan of computer animated movies I will be sure to keep an eye on it all.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Classic or Insider's Tip? Three Wishes for Cinderella

Here comes another Christmas recommendation. First and foremost I have to say that I do not belong to the people, probably the generation, for whom the 1973 Czech / German coproduction Three Wishes for Cinderella is a classic that has to be watched every Christmas. I have only recently seen that movie for the first and only time, even though it is one of those movies that is on German TV every Christmas, just like Dinner for One is always on on New Year's Eve. I am not really aware of how it is for the anglophone countries. When I tried to check it out on youtube there were also English comments claiming that that movie was a childhood favourite and the upload was much appreciated. However, since I wasn't even aware it was such a popular movie in Germany until my mother told me about it, I really can't make a guess about its international popularity. I am not even sure if there is a proper English dub available.

Cinderella deviates from the "original story" that we know from, for example the Disney movie, in the fact that Cinderella doesn't get a visit from her fairy goodmother but instead by chance she is presented with three magical hazelnuts. Each of those hazelnuts will grant her one wish, which in the story are a huntsman's outfit, the famous Cinderella ballgown and finally a beautiful wedding dress. Plus, the Cinderella in this story is a much more feisty and bold young lady, throwing a snowball at the young spoiled Prince when she comes across him for the first time. But more on the character of Cinderella later.

The overall movie, even though it is of course not comparable to the movies of today just exudes an air of real magic and beauty. Most of the movie was filmed in Saxony, Germany and the real snowy landscapes are some of the most beautiful landscapes I have seen on TV. The German expression "wie im Märchen" - like in a fairytale - springs to mind immediately. Then there is also something extraordinary about the costumes that I just can't quite put my finger on. I think it may have to do with the fact that today's productions that are set in medieval times or fantasy worlds always aim for a sort of grimy and realistic factor, making everything look a bit damp, cold and uncomfortable... the way the actual middle ages were after all. But in that old movie, naturally, all the costumes are done really beautifully, even if realism might suffer a bit from that. But paradoxically, for some reason the costumes from this movie look "more real" to me than the costumes that you will find in movies these days. I can't really explain it, I guess you have to see it for yourself.

What I find really extraordinary about the movie however is how the role of young Cinderella is changed. Maybe Cinderella is one of the most active "princesses" to begin with, if you look at the canon of Disney princesses, but Three Wishes for Cinderella takes it all a step further. When Cinderella meets the Prince in the forest for the first time she throws a snowball at him, preventing him from shooting a deer with his crossbow. Together with his friends he tries to chase her down but she cleverly escapes the guys numerous times and when she is finally confronted with the Prince she just laughs at him instead of being intimidated by his authority. The second time they meet is at a hunting party and she disguises herself as a young huntsman. She sets her sights on the eagle that the Prince is trying to shoot and manages to capture it before he's even ready. Then the hunting party asks her to show her marksman skills some more and she earns a jewelled ring from the Prince, still not telling him her name. Finally, as Cinderella goes to the ball at the castle she wears a veil that hides her face and the Prince is very intrigued by her. While he dances with her, he declares that he has already decided to marry her. But Cinderella stops him and reminds him that he has forgotten the most significant thing: To ask her if she wants to marry him! She leaves him with a riddle about her identity and runs from the palace at midnight.

The Prince, puzzled, picks up her slipper and vows to find her no matter where she is. When he finally does find her and she is waiting for him in a beautiful wedding dress, he does solve the riddle about her identity and it is only then, when he realises that she's been both the little insolent girl and the remarkable young huntsman, that she can accept him and they can live happily ever after. Even though at heart, this is still a silly little fairytale, the added elements really make it quite valuable, especially since Cinderella in that adaption isn't your usual inactive princess that is just desperate trying to get married. I guess this film shows some of the better elements of socialism - the ideal of gender equality and the disdain for monarchy, as the Prince is mostly depicted as spoiled and silly. Even though the reality might have looked different it is still great to see such an adaption and if you consider that this movie will soon be 40 years old, its depiction of a strong female overtakes many depictions of females we get in contemporary cinema.

In the end Three Wishes for Cinderella is an extremely beautiful movie and if you have a chance to catch it on TV I definitely recommend watching it. I feel like every country has brought forth some really nice productions at some point and for Czech cinema that's probably this movie as well as imaginative productions like "Arabela" (German title: Die Märchenbraut), which were very popular on German TV as well.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

A Sweet Movie to watch on a lazy Sunday Afternoon: 1234

1234 is a cute little movie (you know, one of those movies that you'd just like to hug close) about a bunch of twentysomethings trying to form a band. It's actually mostly Stevie who tries to escape his boring every day life of working in a call centre by trying to create that band and he has to convince his friend Neil, a morose guitarist named Billy and an artsy bass-player named Emily to join him and make it work.

I'll be honest and say it was mainly Ian Bonar, playing the protagonist of this movie, who made me want to watch it. I really enjoyed Ian Bonar's performance in Going Postal and he's also very cute in this movie. His character is believable and likable and it's just fun to watch the little story unfold. Not a whole lot will be happening in this movie but it's really fun to have a look at all the different and kind of strange characters and their way through life. Being twentysomething I can definitely relate to the position that all of the lead characters are finding themselves in in life: Not knowing exactly what you want to do with your life, despite being an "adult" already or maybe knowing exactly what you want to do with your life but the fact that what you want to do isn't considered a real career.

There are a few quite funny scenes in that movie. Personally, they had me at the moment where Stevie has to join a game of LARP in the woods to convince Billy to join his band. It is quite a surreal idea at first but it fits very well to the theme of quite unique and yet not unrealistic characters that populate this movie.

I also liked Emily, it's interesting to have a look at all the art projects that she is working on throughout the movie. It's not every day that you see art portrayed within art (such as a movie) and I always find it to be quite interesting. Overall the movie has some really beautiful shots as well, be it a dark city skyline or pale and cold looking streets. Of course the music is pretty much a core topic of the whole movie and thus you will experience a lot of music while watching and if you like Indie music it might be cool to check it out just for that.

In the end 1234 to me seemed to be a very sweet little movie to watch on a lazy Sunday afternoon, when you are recovering from whatever you have been doing and not quite ready for the week to begin again on Monday. Frankly, some people might claim this movie is very boring and I have to admit not a whole lot is happening but sometimes it's just extremely nice to be watching a calm movie and if you decide to do that you might as well decide to watch a good one. 1234 is perfect for such an occasion. I'm really surprised that nobody I know has ever heard of that movie and I have never heard it being mentioned anywhere. For that fact alone I feel like it's my duty to write about this movie. People should watch it. Go watch it!

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Gender in The Walking Dead (part 2)

I know this post is coming a little bit late but I can explain! I've been busy reading through the first The Walking Dead Compendium, which contains the first 48 issues of the comic book series. Still, the notes that this post is based on date from before I have read the comic and it's still a look at the TV series only.

In the last post I examined the depiction of gender images in the first three episodes of The Walking Dead. It already became obvious that the dominant themes in this TV series seem to be fatherhood and the benevolent patriarchical group leader.

Now in the following post I want to continue analysing relevant scenes from each following episode and confirm the first impression on gender images in The Walking Dead that I obtained by analysing certain scenes from the first three episodes.

Episode four of The Walking Dead starts out with two of the female characters, Andrea and Amy, sitting in a boat on the little lake near the camp. They are catching fish for dinner. While waiting for the fish to bite they start a conversation in which we find out that their father taught both of them how to fish when they were younger, however he taught them different knots. Andrea at first suggests that this was just a coincidence but then they come to the conclusion that their father probably taught them different fishing knots because of their differences in personality. Remembering their father and childhood memories, they’re both starting to cry but the scene ends when a fish bites.

In this scene we also see the father figure as a strong, nurturing and benevolent motive. It is nice to have a father going fishing with their daughters, especially when this is usually known as the typical father and son activity to do. However, the complete absence of their mother in that nostalgic and slightly painful conversation is striking as well. When they think back to their normal comfortable life before the zombie apocalypse the first thing that comes to their mind is their father, not their mother.

What I liked about that scene where they return from the lake was that they had actually managed to catch a big bunch of fish. At least as many as Daryl managed to catch squirrels on his hunting trip. One male camp inhabitant even comes up to them and says: „Thank you! Because of you, my children will eat tonight“. This is a single instance where we can see the typical role model of nurturing father subverted and it’s actually the women getting food on the table. However this is also relativised a bit by them stating that it was Dale’s boat and fishing rods and that after all it was their father who taught them how to fish.

Since Rick has left the camp again together with Glenn, Daryl and T-Bone to go back into the city and save Merle and bring back that bag of guns as well, it is Shane who has to deal with Jim, who obviously is developing some mental problems. Jim had been keeping himself busy with digging graves near camp all day under the hot sun and Dale already reached out to him and asked whether he maybe wanted to take a break or at least drink something.

When Shane confronts Jim together with the group he doesn’t just ask Jim, he doesn’t accept no for an answer. His handling of the situation starts to appear a bit questionable especially when Jim calls him out on beating up Ed. This is also a moment in which the domestic violence coming from Ed is relativised and Jim says that „it is their marriage“ and none of Shane’s business. Finally Shane restrains Jim by force and ties him to a tree. As viewers we realise that there is danger coming from Jim, at the very least for himself but we also question the way Shane is dealing with the situation. In contrast to the way Rick always used to handle things Shane’s attempts look heavyhanded and not thought through. It becomes clear that Shane is not as good a leader as Rick.

There is also a brief moment in the scenes from the city in which an old woman appears through one of the key moments. Rick, Daryl and T-Bone are having a face-off with what seems to be a Latino street gang, who have kidnapped Glenn and set their eyes on the bag of guns, and the situation is approaching escalation quickly, when an old latino woman appears seemingly out of nowhere and walks into the middle of the scene. At that point all men put away their gun as there seems to be an emergency. The latino street gang is actually revealed to be employees at a nursing home and relatives of the old people who have been abandoned there. It’s a pretty imaginative scene but it seems a bit badly pulled off. It also does rely on the stereotype that latinos are generally more connected to their family and traditional values, etc.

The old woman defuses the situation and does appear as a positive figure. However, since she is so old already she is not exactly regarded as a woman, more as a grandmother or general mother figure. The men don’t stop fighting because she exudes some sort of power or authority but rather because she is old, helpless and pitiful. Thus, her positive influence on the scene also stems from her being understood as a traditional role for a woman – a mother or grandmother.
Finally the episode ends with a scene of great catastrophe. The zombies start to invade the camp. This scene undoubtedly stands for action and progress and has probably been hoped for by numerous people already. Ed, who refused to join the group for dinner, ashamed of his horrible bruises, is eaten first in his tent. Then Amy, who has gone away from the camp fire as well to go to the toilet is bitten by a walker. Some random guy gets eaten as well but I am not even sure he had a name.

The fact that Ed is killed first can be seen as his ultimate punishment for the domestic abuse of his wife. However, until the end we don’t see any development in his character and again evil is not punished through reason or criticism but by brutal force. The fact that Amy is killed seems to mean that she wasn’t that important after all. She will in the following episodes work only as a trigger for her sister Andrea, much in the way that a lot of women in movies solely exist to die and give the male main character a motivation to do something or a background of melancholy. But as of the end of season one we can not see Andrea getting any kind of motivation from the death of her sister, we will only be able to see her mourn for the rest of the season.

It is this mourning process that starts episode five. When the episode begins we see Andrea still kneeling by her sister Amy while the rest of the group is busy tidying up their camp, disposing of the corpses of both the zombies and their dead. The survivors are starting to get increasingly restless because Amy hasn’t been properly disposed of yet. If her brain is not destroyed she might come back as a zombie any time.

Now this is a mechanism very familiar to the fans of zombie stories. Fans are trained to quickly favour the decision of killing infected people. After all, that is the only way to contain the infection and not endanger oneself. So the long drawn out scenes of Andrea staying by the corpse of her sister will either bring great tension to the audience or great frustration at the unreasonable and sentimental behaviour of Andrea.

When Rick tries to confront her she pulls a gun on him and assures him that this time she has not forgotten to remove the safety. Thus Rick leaves her alone. Dale also tries to reason with Andrea. He comes to pay his respects to Amy and tells Andrea his own personal story of the loss of his wife. Finally he concludes that since that loss he hasn’t felt love for anybody but the two of them. Andrea and Amy are constructed to be the surrogate daughters for Dale, who has lost his wife (children are never mentioned). Thus Dale is also constructed as a father figure in the same way as Shane accepted his role as a surrogate father when he believed Rick to be dead and took care of his family.

Finally when Amy does come back alive the viewer almost expects Andrea to be bitten. We expect Amy who is just waking up into her new life as a zombie to quickly grab and bite Andrea at any moment, as we have seen it happen in a lot of zombie movies before. However, Andrea just says goodbye to her sister and at the very last possible moment she takes her gun and shoots Amy in the head. At that point we realise that she has been in control of the situation all along. This is maybe one of the only moments where we see a woman completely in control of her situation, even despite her heavy grief.

In that episode the conflict between Rick and Shane is also deepening. As they continue to dig graves to bury their dead Shane tells Rick he blames him for leaving and thinks that not as many people would have died if he had stayed. Rick however reasons that without the guns he brought back even more people would have died. Touché. Later as Rick and Shane scout the woods they have a conversation about either leaving camp and going elsewhere or staying there and sitting it out. Shane is in favour of staying, while Rick prefers to leave.

One very significant sentence almost sends Shane over the edge: „You don’t know what it’s like, you don’t have a family.“ Shane gets extremely angry at that and tells Rick that he HAS had a family, Rick's family, that he had taken care of when Rick was gone. It is almost implied that after all it was Rick who now has taken that family away from Shane again. Frustrated, Shane even points his shotgun at his colleague, when they hear a noise in the woods and Rick goes on to check ahead. Shane struggles for a moment and the anger is very visible on his face. He is clearly considering shooting Rick and finding an excuse for it. But then he takes down his rifle and to his horror realises that his moment of plotting murder has been observed by Dale. Dale is completely shocked by what he just witnessed and Shane sheepishly tries to escape the situation by calling out to Rick and suggesting going back to camp.

We can see from that scene how important that father role was for Shane and how much of his self-worth he drew from that. Now that Rick, who is better at being a leader, better at taking care of a family and better at solving group problems, has come back he feels that he is not the alpha male anymore and has lost a significant amount of his masculine power. The father and group leader role is depicted as the ideal for a man. We also see Dale as a passive father figure (possibly because of his age) but a moral authority nonetheless. In the end Shane submits to Rick's authority and supports his decision to leave camp.

In the final episode of the season the group is briefly allowed to enjoy a bit of civilised comfort as they find shelter at the CDC. They have electricity, warm running water, books and can sleep without being afraid of waking up to a zombie trying to eat them. In this episode we can see Andrea still mourning her sister Amy. It becomes obvious that she has given up on the whole world and even herself in a scene where she throws up in a bathroom and has a conversation with Dale. She suggests that everything is gone now, there most probably are no other research facilities around the globe trying to find a cure for the zombie disease. Dale however tells her that he sees this apocalypse as a chance to make a second life after his first one ended. In that scene Dale is also further established as somebody who is there for Andrea, which is a dominant theme in this episode, as it plays a significant role in one of the final scenes as well.

But we also have Shane further slipping away into self-doubts and anger. He drunkenly tries to confront Lori about their relationship, tries to tell her not to shut him out after all that happened between them but Lori refuses and the scene ends in an attempted rape, only stopped by Lori actually defending herself. Shane leaves the room in shock and anger. The next morning somebody confronts Shane about the wounds on his neck and he says he must have scratched himself in his sleep. Rick says that he has never seen him do that before and Shane answers "Me neither. Not like me at all." at which he looks Lori in the eye. The fact that he does meet Lori's eye in a sort of reproachful way tells us that he isn't ashamed of what he did. If he was ashamed, he'd maybe state the same thing but he wouldn't aggressively meet Lori's eye in a way of saying "we both know that you did that to me". I believe that Shane at this point is beyond redemption (which is further confirmed in a later scene where he flips out and Rick has to actually physically restrain him) and I really wouldn't know what to say if the creators of the series decided to "redeem" him in the next season. I really do wonder why the creators of the series keep him around, as the whole Shane-problem is much more easily solved in the comic books, before they even leave camp. I have heard words like "love triangle" been thrown around but in both the comic book and the TV series Lori does nothing but hate Shane's guts so I have no idea what the creators of the series are thinking right now. You better not come forward with some rape-apologism here, guys.

The final scene I want to have a look at is the scene where Andrea tells the group that she doesn't want to leave the CDC, effectively choosing suicide, and Dale stays with her to convince her otherwise. It is also very striking that nobody cares about the black woman, of whom we don't even really know the name. I know she has a name but next to nobody would remember it when talking about this scene. Nice to see that she doesn't merit a little "you can't stay here, come with us"-talk by Dale. Dale however tells Andrea that if she stays there he has no reason to leave either and Andrea tells him to get out and leave her alone. In the end she decides to leave with him after all. Thus Dale is sort of portrayed as a saviour to Andrea but the way through which he did it is also problematic. Ultimately he blackmailed her into going with him, he completely overruled her own judgement. Of course this means that Andrea will survive (and I am happy at that because she seems to be the only female character that isn't stuck in a mother-role so far and could get really badass) but we know that it will always be Dale who saved her. In this scene we can also see the final cementation of Dale's role as a father figure for Andrea and Andrea as his surrogate daughter. Or so I thought, when I had seen the series. Let's just say they will have to bring forth much better writing if they want to convince people that things can go the way they go in the comic book without being creepy or at least mildly inappropriate. But maybe Dale and Andrea will remain in their father/daughter relationship forever in the TV series.

So this was pretty much it, the first season of The Walking Dead. We can see that the strong underlying themes are fatherhood, as it is portrayed in the roles of Rick, Shane and Dale and the benevolent patriarchical group leader as it pretty much culminates in the main character, Rick. The reason for all of them to live are their roles as paternal authorities, protectors of the groups and their leading qualities. Rick for example, explicitly states at some points that he is "just a father looking for his family" and that all other things are less significant to him. He is fairly confident and powerful as a father and it is also from this role that he draws his masculine power over the group.

Shane is along for a bumpy ride. At first he is empowered by his role as a surrogate head of family for Lori and Carl but then he experiences an extreme loss of masculine power when Rick comes back and takes back his family and also proves to be a better group leader and decision-maker than him. This loss of his traditional role as the head of the family and indeed the head of a whole group of people, which he had never experienced before during the time before the apocalypse, makes Shane go mad with anger and we see him actually becoming a secret enemy to Rick.

Dale is a quite passive person who never gets to make big decisions, his role is more that of a protective father and not an aggressive authority. This may very well be just due to the fact that he is old and thus maybe rather fits into a "grandfather" role than a father role. However, by "adopting" Andrea as his daughter he is also clearly portrayed as a father figure. Even the little test you can take at the AMC webpage for The Walking Dead describes Dale as a "father figure".
The relevant women in the first two seasons are Lori and Andrea. Lori at first doesn't seem like a very good mother but as soon as she is reunited with Rick she goes back to her role as a protective mother and shuts out Shane, completely severing ties with him. It is also interesting that the relationship to Rick suddenly seems to be an ideal one, old relationship problems (which we knew existed from the car conversation in the first episode) are never mentioned anymore and the family becomes the most important thing to everyone involved. All in all Lori is depicted as relatively strong but only in her role as a protective mother. When she tries to argue decisions made by the group leaders, she doesn't get anywhere. So Lori is extremely passive and also very much dependent on Rick.

With Andrea, it is maybe significant to also have a look at her name. "Andrea" means "manly" and "virile". Thus it is not surprising maybe that she is the only female character so far that gets to show some backbone. She is easily the strongest female character in the first season. She criticises Ed for beating his wife and she is completely in control when she takes care of her sister Amy. Also it is not insignificant that in one episode Andrea and Amy manage to catch a lot of fish, thus satisfyingly filling the roles of nurturer for the group. Finally during the last episodes of the season Andrea becomes quite passive but this understandable as she is mourning the death of her sister. Still, if we hope to see a strong female character in the next season Andrea is probably our best bet.

Looking back at the whole analysis one can see that the traditional role of father / benevolent patriarch / group leader is depicted as ultimately ideal and desirable within the series. Women are mostly depicted as passive, problematic, very emotional and impulsive, which has to be balanced out by the reasonable males. Also the collaboration of father and mother to form a traditional family are very important. This is of course also owed to the fact that during a zombie apocalypse society does revert to a rather premodern state. As some people have worded it "feminism bullshit isn't relevant during a zombie apocalypse!". Of course, this could be a fact. However it is interesting to see that the zombie genre, as a genre that is very popular with the younger male geek generation and could even be understood as a sort of counter-culture to the mainstream popular culture, relies on the traditional values of family and masculine power. It is even experienced as a point of pleasure to see how modern society mechanics are removed and a group of people must revert back to life in a premodern world. People who feel unaccepted in today's world might not feel a big loss at having the current society structures vanish and be able to put their own brush on the canvas and finally be considered useful by whatever peers they may encounter. But why are traditional family values the ones that are being depicted as ideal then, when there has previously been a feeling of frustration at the way in which modern society works? This is a very interesting subject matter that I definitely want to look at in more detail with other products of the zombie genre as well. What I also found striking is that all the other characters, which don't fit into a clear mother/father role, such as Daryl or Glenn get very little development. Especially Glenn with his cute geekish ways should be an easy figure of identification for the target audience, yet he remains very passive and doesn't get a lot of chances to shine.

Now having read the comic book I have to say that I am glad I didn't read it before watching the series as I would have been disappointed in all the quite unnecessary sub-plots that are being added into this series. I know a TV series can't always be completely like the comic but the underlying feeling does suffer some and certain additions just look clumsy and bad.

However, there are of course also redeeming qualities in the TV series. For once I thought the dealing with basic humanistic ideals was very interesting. There we can see that the zombie genre definitely benefits from having a bit more time to spend on relatively calm scenes. Humanistic ideals such as "not killing people even if we don't like them" aren't necessarily present in today's society and are especially not on the mind of the audience of a zombie story. One of the very basic things that viewers of zombie stories are quickly taught is that you don't have time to wait to shoot somebody when they are infected and pragmatism is the key to survival. Thus, I found it quite interesting that the group did decide to go back to Atlanta and save Merle, even though I bet it was a source of great frustration for the audience. I know from the comic book that the theme of humanism and humane decision making is a very important one to the series and despite the TV series being quite different I appreciate it that they tried to keep that aspect even though it will frustrate a trained zombie-movie-audience.

Another thing that's very similar to the humanistic ideals of the group is the humanisation of zombies. We can see Rick showing sadness and regret at killing the bike girl zombie as well as taking a minute to find out who he zombie was that they are chopping up to take the guts. The very long drawn out scenes of Andrea saying goodbye to Amy also belong into that category. In your average zombie movie there is almost no time for scenes like this so it is a really welcome change to see the survivors take some time to deal with their emotions from time to time.
For the next season we can expect some interesting developments. My hope is that Andrea will develope her potential to be a strong female character and I also hope there will be a satisfying resolution to the situation between Lori, Rick and Shane. So let's wait and see what they have in store for us next Halloween!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Gender in The Walking Dead (part 1)

My fingers have been itching to write about this but I wanted to wait until at least the first season of The Walking Dead was over. Now I have seen all the episodes and I want to write down my observations and impressions about how the issue of gender is being dealt with on The Walking Dead. I will do this by not fully analysing every episode but rather dealing with a few key scenes that I will take a closer look at. Episode by episode an underlying theme and motif should become clear.

Before I start writing away however I also have to mention that I have not read the comic book. I did this on purpose so that my experience of the TV series wouldn't be influenced by any preconceptions.about the characters. As I understand it towards the end of the season the storyline has started to deviate a lot from the comic book anyway, so I might still read the comic books at some point. However all that I write here is only about the TV series as I have seen it and I don't know how this corresponds to the comic books at all.

I want to begin with episode one. The first scene with actual dialogue in it introduces the main character Rick and his colleague Shane by letting them have a conversation in their cop car about "the difference between men and women". Shane starts talking about how women are too stupid to turn the lights off. All of this is done in a joking way, an assholeish joke maybe, but a joking way nonetheless, which is probably supposed to be endearing or something. When Rick starts talking, things immediately go serious and he talks about his relationship problems between his wife Lori and him, finally coming to the conclusion "the difference between men and women? I would never say something that cruel to her". What starts out as a funny conversation about women being too dumb to turn the lights off turns into a dead serious declaration that women are fundamentally crueler than men. Now of course you can say that this is supposed to show that these guys are a bit fucked up and have problems with women but I think it is a pretty risky thing to have the first conversation in a new series, which is simultaneously supposed to introduce two male lead characters, make such a bad and one-sided statement about women. Personally it just gave me the reaction of: "Okay, maybe you guys are just getting what is coming to you". Let's just say that in terms of gender images we aren't off to an all too great start with this series, even though I can also acknowledge the kind of ambivalence this first scene has when it is seen in context with later scenes. Still the first impression that the viewer gets is that this Lori must be a heartless bitch.

Another significant scene in the first episode (and sort of the only other scene where a woman has any significance) is the camp scene where we are reassured that both Shane and Lori (and her son) are alive. We are also introduced to the fact that they have started a relationship. This does not come in favour of our already slightly prejudiced image of Lori. First she is cruel to her husband and now she has an affair with his colleague, just like that? I feel like most people will first start questioning her morals and maybe as an afterthought we will get our first doubts about Shane's morals as well. This scene is significant as well because it shows a difference of opinion between Lori and Shane. The one time in the pilot episode that a woman gets to suggest something significant (wanting to go warn Rick, who is approaching the city, about the danger that lies there) and she gets talked down to by Shane and she finally obeys him. It's a bit of a buzzkill and it also vaguely depicts the woman Lori as impulsive and emotional, while Shane is the voice of reason in this scene. This fits together a bit with the general depiction of women later in the series.

So the pilot episode does not pass the Bechdel test. It doesn't have a whole lot of women in it and the way they are talked to and talked about is mostly, let's be honest, bad. However, much of this can also be explained or at least relativised by context and later episodes do shine a light on the relationships between certain characters. So let's look onward at episode two.

In episode two we have a kind of uncomfortable scene in the beginning with Lori going into the forest to look for mushrooms. She hears a noise and starts looking around for zombies. The experienced viewer knows that this is the moment where not a zombie will come but instead a cat will jump out at the character or something similarly mundane as that. However, it is a tense moment and it turns out to be Shane who jumps Laurie. He holds her down for a moment to keep her from making a surprised noise, alerting the rest of the group, so they can have a bit of "private time". Before they have sex on the forest ground Lori takes off Rick's wedding band that she still wears as a memento. The viewer realises that Rick or at least his memory still holds some kind of significance for Lori but she does have sex with his colleague nonetheless. Her image doesn't really change from watching that scene but I felt like Shane is starting to get increasingly creepy.

One of the earlier scenes in the city has Andrea confronting Rick about his careless behaviour in the city filled with zombies, holding a gun to his head. She is angry at him for attracting a lot of zombies and making it difficult for her group to get out of the city alive. There we find the same pattern of women being portrayed as impulsive and emotional when under pressure. The only guys portrayed in a similar way in that series? The racist Merle and his slightly less offensive brother Daryl. But those guys actually do something, they fight, beat up people and kill zombies, while women rarely get a chance to fight in a similar way to men. But more on that later. In a later scene we also hear from Rick that he remained so calm with a gun pointed at his face because the safety was still on. Women... always leaving on lights and safeties! But nonetheless, the viewer can empathise with Andrea because she does get to tell a bit of her backstory, we realise she has a sister and she even gets to crack a little joke. She is introduced as impulsive but not cruel or unfaithful.

Finally, episode three! In that episode we have the big family reunion of Rick, Lori and Carl. This scene and this episode are very significant to the development of the relationship between Lori and Shane, now that her real husband has come back. When Lori and Carl suddenly see Rick standing there in their camp their joy is very visible on their faces. But with all that joy in Lori's and Shane's faces we also see a bit of shock. We come to realise that Lori is really and honestly very happy to have Rick back and that she very deeply regrets having slept with Shane. This earns Lori a bit of sympathy already.

Then there is another very significant scene, which also gave the whole episode its title. Tell it to the frogs! In that scene Lori comes to fetch Carl from the lake where he has been trying to catch some frogs with Shane as was arranged earlier. Lori tells him to go back to the camp and severs ties with Shane. This is a big turning point in our image of Lori, as we realise that Shane told her that her husband died FOR SURE. Suddenly it even seems a bit like Shane wanted to get his hands on that happy family (as he has always been plagued by girlfriends who left the lights on and as he remarked in the car, Lori is really good at turning the lights off!) and has no qualms whatsoever to jump into the gap when his colleague is disposed of. Or at least, if the thing wasn't planned then at least Shane didn't seem to wait for long. No matter how we precisely interpret Shane's intentions, in this scene he very much appears like the unethical one in this situation. Lori is also suddenly portrayed as a very strong and protective mother, trying to keep everything that harms her family out. And Shane no longer belongs to this family.

This, together with Rick's return leads to a very difficult situation for Shane. On the one hand, he is not the only cop in the camp anymore. He is not completely in charge anymore. Now I bet Dale also always had a say in things but from the way things were being handled when Lori suggested to warn Rick when he approached the city, it becomes rather obvious that Shane was the authority in the camp. That's probably the way things would go, if there's a cop still alive people would look to him for guidance. Now Shane has to share his power with his returned friend. On top of that he loses his newfound "wife" and "son". He doesn't only lose a part of his masculinity by losing authority over the camp but he loses the ego boost he gained by suddenly being in the role of a family father and protector as well. We can see that this takes a very harsh toll on him when he flips out at the wifebeater in the next scene.

This is also a rather important scene when one wants to talk about gender images in The Walking Dead. The scene begins with the women from the camp sitting at the lakeshore and doing the washing. They talk about what they miss from the life that they had before. Ding ding ding, I think we might have a winner here! This might be the first scene with which The Walking Dead passes the Bechdel test! Halfway into the first season, that's not so bad. To be fair, it's a very short season, too. Eventually the conversation strays to why the women have to do the washing while men stand around and smoke a cigarette (as Ed does) and Shane plays around with Carl in the water. When Carol admits that she misses her vibrator, too, the women break out into laughter. Annoyed by that, Ed, Carol's husband, comes along and tells them to laugh less and work harder because this isn't a "comedy club". The women don't immediately talk back at that but the scene instead cuts back to the scene between Lori, Shane and Carl. Then when the scene cuts back to the washing women Andrea gets up and tells Ed he can do his laundry himself and questioning what his job at the camp is. Ed reacts by telling his wife it's time to come back with him but Andrea objects and tells him she doesn't have to go anywhere. Ed threatens Andrea with violence and the situation quickly escalates when he punches his wife in the face. Of course at that moment, Shane who has witnessed the argument from afar comes running to save the day. He beats up Ed pretty badly. This is a very significant scene as it shows all that frustration that Shane feels now that his authority is standing on clay feet and that he has lost his would-be father role to Carl. He reinstates his masculinity by being the benevolent saviour of a bunch of harassed washing women. Ed is the perfect punching bag as nobody will, rightfully, feel sorry for him.

Now I have heard that this scene wasn't originally in the comic book, so adding a segment about domestic violence in which the offender is at first criticised and then also punished seems pretty progressive and praiseworthy, doesn't it? However, when you look at how the scene is solved it leaves a stale aftertaste. The criticism made by the women in the first place, about the division of labour within the camp and about Ed's treatment of his wife doesn't go anywhere. They can not protect Carol from being harmed and they can not defuse the situation once it starts to escalate. Instead they need a man to reinstate order. They need masculine violence to fight masculine violence. So in the end, even though I don't doubt it was meant well, the scene doesn't actually deal with domestic violence in a very progressive way. Now most people will agree that Ed deserved that kind of punishment and I am not even sure he didn't but the fact remains that women in that scene got nowhere with their talk and criticism and only male fists solved that issue.
Overall in the first three episodes we generally see women being portrayed as quite helpless, even if they try to be strong. They obey what men say and even if they try to fight they don't get anywhere. The two female characters with the biggest amount of lines, Lori and Andrea, are still quite ambiguous. Lori had a very bad image from the very start, being introduced as "cruel" and as the episodes progress we also see her having sex with her husband's colleague. However when we realise that Shane told her that her husband was dead for sure, thus seeminglylying to her and as we see how much she regrets having slept with him we get more sympathetic towards her case. Shane in contrast loses some of our sympathy and finally at the end of episode three we can see him become increasingly unhinged as he tries to rebuild his hurt masculine pride. Andrea didn't get a whole lot of lines yet but she comes across as probably the strongest female character of the series, confronting Rick angrily at his careless behaviour and also standing up to a wifebeater. There is no reason why the viewer would dislike her, we only laugh at her a little bit when we realise she had forgotten to remove the safety of her gun. Another thing that is increasingly stressed is the role of Lori as a protective mother. This is a quite conservative role for a woman to fit in but in the coming episodes we will also see that The Walking Dead relies heavily on the themes of fatherhood and as an opposite to that naturally motherhood as well.

My impression from the first three episodes is that it has already become quite visible that this show is aimed at males, with women getting significantly less screentime and not having as much background info and significant roles as the males. But of course a series isn't immediately sexist because it has male lead characters. I will however continue to analyse the underlying themes and motifs in that series and aim to come to a final conclusion about the whole first season in the next post. Then I will of course also deal with episodes four to six in detail.

I actually really enjoyed watching the series, because I like watching stuff about zombies. Also I'm not even sure the handling of gender images was the worst thing about this series. What kind of bothers me is that Rick so far feels like sort of a blank. Maybe it's just because I'm not exactly the target audience of The Walking Dead, but most of the time I can not fill his blank emotionless stares with content and put myself into his shoes. It's still the series I've been looking the most forward to watching during the last few weeks since Halloween. Rest assured, people can criticise aspects of products of popular culture and still be a fan.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

A look at League of Legends

Who likes free games? Me! And it's not just a boring browsergame either, it's a legit game: League of Legends.

Inspired by the Warcraft III scenario Defense of the Ancients back in 2005, League of Legends has become a stand-alone game but still works by the same basic principles. You control your own hero, or Champion, and try to keep the opposing team from destroying your defense towers, while also trying to destroy their towers with your team. Simple, easy, fun! Even though strategy games usually aren't my area of expertise it was easy enough to get into League of Legends and win a reasonable amount of games. The learning curve really isn't as steep as is it the case with some games in the strategy genre. After a while you are familiar with the biggest nonos and basic moves to ensure victory.

However, there are also a bunch of things that WILL get on your nerves in League of Legends. Thus I compiled this short list of tips for successfully getting started with the game:

First: Don't ever listen to anybody who starts yelling noob. Only the stupidest people use that word, there is absolutely nothing you can learn from these players. Ignore them completely, no matter what they are trying to tell you. Unfortunately a lot of people are like that until you reach, say, level 10. On the other hand they are easier to ignore than a bunch of raging teenagers over microphone as you might encounter frequently in games like Left 4 Dead. Fortunately since League of Legends doesn't support voice unpleasant people are easy to ignore.

Second: Don't start a game if you don't really have at least half an hour of uninterrupted gaming time available to you. It's hard to tell how long a game of LoL will last, my average is somewhere between 35 and 45 minutes. If you join a game, you should be able to play without interruption as much as possible to not let your team down. Even one missing person from the team makes it almost impossible to win the game, so kindly think of your teammates.

Third: Pretty much connected to the second fact, don't leave the game. Once the game is running nobody else can join, so your team will suffer a harsh loss when you leave. Plus, once you join the serious games, every leave will be counted in your profile and when you're in the lobby of a game waiting for it to start people are able to see that, which might result in them kicking you from their game.

Fourth: Finally, an actual gameplay tip! Always be careful, try to keep minions between you and opposing Champions. Not dying has the highest priority at least in the beginning of the game, because a kill will earn the other team money to equip themselves with awesome new items. Even if you feel like not much is happening in the beginning of a game, not dying should be considered a great achievement already!

Once you take heed of those basic rules there is not much to stop you from enjoying the game. Within every game you will level up your chosen Champion to level 18 and you earn gold by killing enemy Champions and minions. With that gold you can buy a variety of equipment. If you don't know which ones to choose, there are always items suggested individually for your Champion but as you level on and become more experienced you might choose different items altogether, finding new ways to effectively play your chosen Champion.

There are 65 different Champions to choose from to date. Per week you can however only choose 10 of them for free. They're always on rotation, which is actually a nice feature since I am still relatively new to the game and haven't had a chance to play all the Champions I wanted to try out yet. You can also unlock Champions in the shop by either using Riot points (which can be bought with cash) or Influence points (which are earned by playing games). So even if you want to unlock some Champions you don't have to pay any money. You have to pay money for special skins for your Champions however, but I'm fine with buyable alterations to games as long as they don't give the player who spends money a notable advantage over the player who doesn't.

Overall League of Legends is a very fun game and considering that it is absolutely free, it's very nice that they do keep adding new Champions and new content. You can play the game completely free of charge or you can choose to spend your money on little boosts, a big selection of Champions and fancy skills. It's a great game to play together with your friends because communication and teamwork can very much tip the scales in favour of victory! If you've got some time to kill, I definitely recommend checking out this fun little game.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Christmas Recommendation: The Hogfather

Halloween and Thanksgiving are over so it's going to be Christmas soon! As experience teaches, once December starts it will be over very quickly so I am sure it's not too early at all to start with the Christmas movie recommendations. Maybe this list will be woefully short since I am generally not too fond of Christmas movies. There are so many of them out there, some that you really enjoy watching every year but a large portion of movies that you could easily do without as well. Whenever they make new Christmas themed movies these days I feel really skeptical about them. Such as The Polar Express. Never seen that one, even though it has Tom Hanks in every role and I generally like Tom Hanks.

Anyway, my first Christmas movie recommendation is Terry Pratchett's The Hogfather. Since I already recommended Going Postal in this blog, once winter comes it should be mandatory to recommend The Hogfather as well. It was the first movie of the three live action adaptations that The Mod has done and even though I like Going Postal a lot, I do like The Hogfather better. I even watched it dubbed in German when I saw it for the first time and it was still a funny and enjoyable movie. That means it must be good! Like all of their adaptations it's a two part television production and a damn good one at that. For sake of simplicity however, I will refer to it as one movie in this entry.

I watched that movie before I was into Terry Pratchett, so I had pretty much no knowledge of Discworld or Susan Sto Helit or Death or anybody else that makes an appearance in the movie. One of the main points of critique that I find in amazon reviews for the DVD is that the plot is adapted very faithfully which supposedly has the disadvantage that it is very hard to understand for people who are unfamiliar with the book. I was not only unfamiliar with the book but with the whole world that the movie takes place in and still I had little trouble understanding the plot and following the movie with ease. When one watches the two parts together it is however advisable to take a little break between the two parts or it might get a bit long after all.

The plot isn't easy to explain but I might just try to give you an overview. The Hogfater - Discworld's equivalent of Santa - has gone missing on Hogswatch's Eve (of all nights!) and Death takes it upon himself to help out and deliver presents to all children on Discworld and asks his granddaughter Susan to help him find out what happened. Alright, up until here it does sort of sound like Nightmare before Christmas but believe me, it takes a whole different direction then. They also have to face the evil Mr. Teatime, who will in the end get a much worse idea into his head than just killing the Hogfather. But who would want the Hogfather dead (or inhumed) in the first place?

The Hogfather is similarly beautifully done as Going Postal, most sets look lovely and believable, only the castle of the Toothfairy stands out a little but I think it was the intention to make it look strange and even a bit nonsensical since it is after all the castle of a Toothfairy! It's only natural that the effects can't be as marvellous as in your average cinema blockbuster but I think the TV production quality suits the overall movie quite well and it never appears unintentionally bad.

Death is one of my favourite characters and I really like his depiction in this movie. His mask is very nicely done, including the two tiny glowing orbs in his eyesockets and since his face is unchanging while he speaks, the actor hidden inside the costume makes sure to use gestures that keep the character alive and believable at all times. His assistant Albert is a funny guy and having read about him in the book now as well I can say that I think his portrayal is very welldone, too. Mr. Teatime is appropriately creepy and might even frighten younger children. Whenever people mention his creepy eye I don't know which one they mean because they are both creepy. Finally Susan Sto Helit is portrayed by an amazing young actress. When I first saw her i had the reaction of having seen her somewhere before in a big Hollywood production but having a glance at her imdb I think I was mistaken. It's surprising too, because I liked her very much and she has a very memorable face. She plays an amazing Susan, one of my favourite characters as well, a stern young lady who isn't afraid of monsters or evildoers.

Overall, The Hogfather is one of the good Christmas movies, one that you don't mind watching again each year. It's funny and clever, maybe a bit on the complex side but it manages to captivate the viewer until the very end at which it turns surprisingly serious and dramatic. Since it has been released for four years now (and hasn't been a fancy big budget movie in the first place) you can get it quite cheap on DVD and it would make a nice Christmassy movie evening as well as a sweet present for somebody who leans towards the fantasy genre.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Sex and the City vs. Sex and the City 2

Yes, I freely admit it, I do like the TV series Sex and the City. I know it probably isn't the most sophisticated kind of entertainment around but there is just something about watching the series with your closest friends and eating homemade ice cream. Furthermore, I'm really puzzled that one of the most persistent reactions when I do amit to liking it in front of people of the opposite gender remains to point out the supposed misandry of the series. Excuse me? You can call Sex and the City a number of things (distasteful, stupid, bland, stereotypical and decadent spring to mind) but misandry is most certainly not among them. Of course, men and their actions are occasionally criticised, yet they are only one of many things that is criticised in the series, more prevalent maybe being the fashion choices of people around our four protagonists, their own behaviour and certain sexual kinks that they may come across. In fact, it is often in themselves that the protagonists seek fault and try to find the reason of why their relationship isn't working out, finally blaming themselves more often than not. Now I also wouldn't go as far as saying Sex and the City is openly misogynist, as some people claim, either. Personally I have found that watching Sex and the City is mainly an ambivalent experience.

But I didn't want to write this review about the entirety of the series, in fact I wanted to compare the two movies that have been released after the series ended. Let's get right to the point of it, shall we? I enjoyed Sex and the City 1 very much, enough even to go and watch it at the cinema and buy it on DVD for repeated viewing! But even though I did want to enjoy Sex and the City 2, I was left completely disappointed. I was completely puzzled that the same writers and directors could bring forth such different movie experiences. It felt like a whole other team had been working on the second one. I do think that maybe the underlying difference as to why I liked the first one and didn't like the second one might have been the underlying message in the movies. In the first movie, the underlying message of the main storyline (which is Carrie's wedding being planned, Mr. Big not showing up, her being abandoned and finally in the end marrying after all) is that this wedding turned into a monstrous and exagerated thing, suddenly being more about the form than about the content, being more about the big brandname wedding dress and the sophisticated guest list and all the insignificant things instead of being about two people who want to be together and thus it couldn't work out anymore. When the two people remembered the true reason for getting married they realised they could do it just like that, without a fancy schmancy designer wedding gown or make a spectacle of whom will be invited. So in the end the message goes against that blind materialism, actually identifies it as a reason as to why the pair couldn't get married. In a quite clever way, it doesn't let either part of the pair off the hook and places all the blame on the other person, both made mistakes and had to apologise for them. To me, that is a fairly good message. I also liked the secondary plot lines, one for each character. Samantha struggles with having moved to the other coast and being away from New York and finally has to decide where she really wants to be - with her friends or with her boyfriend. Miranda kicks Steve out when he miserably admits to having cheated on her once and must ask herself whether she wants to end it with him permanently or take the hard path of trying to forgive him eventually. Finally Charlotte is pregnant even though doctors have told her before that this is very unlikely to ever happen and she has to find a way to deal with her worries that anything she might do, such as daily jogging or stress might be bad for the baby. Alright, that last storyline really isn't that exciting and insightful but nevertheless, they are all storylines that dealt with topics that I could relate to at least in some way and they also dealt with them in clever and honest ways.

Overall I did enjoy the first movie a lot and naturally I was excited for the second one. Sadly, it didn't live up to my (admittedly high) expectations. One of the things that I felt was really difficult was getting into "the flow" of the movie because for the most part it just felt as if there was none. The movie starts out with a gay wedding which is funny but extremely stereotypical and nearly the antithesis to the humble cute little wedding that we saw in the movie before that, completely bombastic with swans and glitter and Liza Minelli. After that wedding we get the exposition to the storylines that are going to be pursued through that movie. Charlotte's new baby is constantly bawling and even though she has a nanny available almost 24/7 she feels extremely upset by it. Samantha is starting to feel the onset of menopause. Miranda is frustrated in her job, which leaves her almost no time at all for her family. And finally Carrie and Mr. Big have problems settling into their married life. While she wants to go out and have dinner at glamorous restaurants (at least once in a while) he prefers to stay in, eat take-away food and finally things escalate when he buys a big flatscreen TV "for Carrie" at their anniversary.

Then for some reason our four protagonists fly to Abu Dhabi to take some time off and relax. In perfect imperialist manner they reside at the finest hotel available and each have a personal servant, which takes care of them 24 hours a day if they so instruct them. This was maybe the first thing that made me sort of uncomfortable. A bunch of rich girls fly to the Arab Emirates and live there like princesses. There is even a scene where they drive by a pair of (presumably poor) goat shepherds in a big white Mercedes Benz (if I recall correctly), cheering and waving at them. Am I the only person who finds this highly tasteless? I really don't know. Carrie is also faced with the release of her new book, which gets a bad review but somehow it's hard for the audience to care about such a minor thing, when they are in a country where the gap between rich and poor is so big and yet they are sitting there and living in complete decadence. Of course you could also say the same thing about the episodes that take place in the USA, but in that movie you also have this exoticising orientalist gaze on the foreign country, which makes me uncomfortable, especially in the light of the most recent wars that the USA participated or is participating in. I just didn't feel like "rich girl comes to strange country but look how luxurious everything is!!" was a tasteful depiction of the Middle East at all. To be fair, Carrie also seems to be uncomfortable at the thought of having a servant but it doesn't make up for how gratuitous they make use of the luxury that is offered to them.

I also have to say that the storylines all progress in a kind of bland and stupid way. Samanthas heat flushes and vaginal dryness magically disappear when she encounters some hot guy and Charlotte and Miranda's storylines pretty much peak in a drinking night where they complain (or some may say 'bitch and whine') about how hard they have it in life, Miranda with her job and Charlotte with her unruly child. Carrie runs into Aidan at a bazaar and ends up having dinner with him and kissing him. This is played up to be something hugely dramatic and finally all four protagonists unite to debate whether or not Carrie should tell Mr. Big about this. In the end she does tell him, he doesn't pick her up from the airport, they aren't talking for a bit and then they get together again, Miranda quits her job, Samantha has sex with the new guy and Charlotte occasionally takes some time off and feels more relaxed. The end. Seriously, all of these storylines, compared to the ones that they dealt with in the first movie were just plain stupid and the resolutions that they found weren't very innovative at all.

Then of course you also have the social commentary on gender politics in Abu Dhabi. I think that they meant well but everything comes off as rather hamfisted. It all ends with our four protagonists entering a secret hideout of Arabian women, who throw off their burkas to reveal... the latest fashion collection from New York! See? These women, even though they wear burkas, are just like us! Awww! Yeah, I think they really did mean well, but it just came across as completely stupid. At least to me. Equalling fashion with femininity or even with feminism is rather questionable.

What I enjoyed the most about the first film, which was the dealing with problems of every day life in a believable and intelligent way, was completely absent from the second movie. Moreover, we have a lot of really questionable stuff. I think the way in which the other culture was portrayed in this movie was very insensitive and generally dumb. In the light of recent events I think it's just uncomfortable to watch such a careless depiction of the Middle East on screen. And where the message of the first movie was "less is more" and "content over form" the second movie comes across as the antithesis of this. Thus it wasn't very surprising for me in the end that I didn't like it at all. The first movie was a piece of heartwarming and clever entertainment but my verdict for the second movie is: soulless, materialist and dumb piece of junk.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Penumbra Trilogy

One of the things that I really regretted the most about attending Gamescom 2010 was not being able to go to Paradox Interactive's booth! Sadly, they were only in the press area and not in the entertainment area, so as a mere mortal, I was not allowed to go by their booth and say hi or whatever it is I may have done. I have to admit, out of all the fun and innovative games that they published I only really know Penumbra. Penumbra is a trilogy consisting of Penumbra Overture, Penumbra Black Plague and Penumbra Requiem and it mainly takes place in an underground mine and later an underground bunker in the remote icy plains of Greenland. We don't get to know a whole lot about our protagonist named Phillip, except that he inherited a bunch of files from his father, who apparently had been declared dead for 30 years already, and who asks him to burn all the files and ignore the undecipherable information that is hidden inside of them. Naturally, Phillip indulges his curiosity and while he cannot crack the code and find out what it is he is supposed to burn and destroy, he finds a location marked in the notes: The above mentioned abandoned mine in Greenland.

Penumbra is one of the very rare games that I have not actually played myself. My boyfriend and me played it together, which means, he takes care of the controls and I occasionally pipe up when he is stuck somewhere. Because Penumbra does contain a bunch of really interesting riddles! You can't even really define the genre that Penumbra belongs to because to me it is a game not quite like anything I have ever experienced before. If pressed, I'd also group it under Survival Horror and Adventure Game. I'm mainly going to talk about Penumbra Overture here because that was the part that I enjoyed the most. We also played through Black Plague and liked it well enough but we were a bit disappointed with Requiem and didn't even finish playing that one.

Anyway, the first thing that probably springs to mind is the quite special controls of Penumbra. Penumbra actually has a working physics engine and the game also makes practical use of that engine, as opposed to "only" using it for realistic effects. Which means, as only a few games have fully made use of the physics engine before, you will have to block doors with barrels or stones that you will actually have to haul all the way over to where they are needed, by dragging them with your mouse. The controls of Penumbra are much less coded than it was the case with games of the same genre in the past. When you want to use a key, you don't just select it in your inventory. You take it into your hand and have to guide it to the keyhole. When you want to fight you actually have to swing the weapon around as opposed to pressing or holding an attack button. And maybe most memorably, if you want to open a door, you have to grab it and pull or push it open with your hand. The fact that doors aren't opening by themselves when you interact with them in a certain coded way is probably one of the things that makes the game the most immediate and creepy. Because the interaction with the game is much more direct and demands of you to actually perform motions such as attacking and opening of doors, everything feels much more real.

Then you have to mention that while the graphics aren't completely amazing as you might expect from super expensive games it is a very clever play with atmosphere and setting that makes up for any graphics shortcoming that you might experience. Penumbra Overture is a game that has the balls to never have you interact with another human shaped being face to face. You enter that abandoned mine in Greenland and soon start to feel that complete loneliness and isolation from the rest of humanity. There is no going back, there is only going deeper into the mine to finally chase down the information about your father and why it was so important to burn the files and never have the information contained in them known to mankind. After a while, you really start to feel the pressure and between big spiders, flayed dogs and mutant rock worms little breaks between game sessions are definitely advisable.

But after a while you also stop thinking so much about the reason why you have entered the mine in the first place because the strange ongoings in there and the meeting of a new "friend", which is only present through a staticy voice over a radio, you just start wondering what the hell has been going on in that mine. Penumbra is very subtle here. While some games would quickly point the viewer to the popular and quite overused trope of "Nazi superscience", Penumbra leaves it at subtle hints like supply sacks with "Thule" written on them and a typewriter from 1933. We always hope to find more information to what has been going on in the mine, what the research was for in the end and we are especially looking forward to the meeting of our only "friend" within the whole game, an ominous person named "Red" who guides us through the labyrinth of tunnels and caves, never quite knowing what he wants us to meet him for. The combined effects of the very involved physics engine and the psychological impact of constant isolation and imminent danger are guaranteed to grip you and make Penumbra Overture a trip that you won't forget quickly.

Apart from the general action of the game it is noticable that Penumbra is a game that has been made with a lot of love and out of the raw desire to just create a fun videogame. The voice acting is sometimes funny in a way that the voice acting in the first few Silent Hill games was slightly off in moments as well, but fans will grow to love these little quirks most certainly. Then there are some sweet little easter eggs to be found, one being a little sort of Space Invaders style game on one of the PCs in the abandoned shelter. Another one being a cute reference to a certain wellknown hero with a crowbar. Any game that makes a reference like that is cool by default.

Some people might find the ending of Penumbra Overture to be really disappointing. You could say that Frictional Games has been making this up as they were going along, especially when you consider that Penumbra Black Plague throws your protagonist into a completely disconnected scenario, having gone from the abandoned mine into a seemingly abandoned shelter and thus entering a whole different plot line. Fear not, the resolution of Black Plague is much more satisfying, but looking back I just can not help but be sad that the ending of Penumbra Overture has been kind of anticlimatic.

Still, Penumbra is a game that I can wholeheartedly recommend to anybody who is even slighty interested in Survival Horror or just a really well made game, different from most that we find on the market these days. Since the game has been out for some years already it's available for quite a cheap price at amazon so it's definitely worth having a look at, even if you, like me, turn out to be a bit too chicken to play the game yourself. It's the perfect game to play with a friend to keep encouraging each other to go on, go deeper into the mine. You're gonna have fun and will feel very glad that you aren't alone.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Halloween Recommendation: The Walking Dead

Pictures by AMC

Oh my, it's nearly Halloween already! Time really passes fast. That's why I have to get another Halloween recommendation off my chest quickly. Here they come, The Walking Dead!

The Walking Dead begins in a manner very similar to another of my genre favourites: 28 Days Later. A man, a cop actually, wakes up from a coma in a hospital and has to find out the hard way that while he was unconscious the hordes of the undead, just referred to as 'walkers', descended upon his small hometown. Now he has to make his way in this new society, trying to find his family and work together with any survivors that he might find along the way.

I am not really sure what I think about the premiere date of AMC's new series The Walking Dead. On the one hand Halloween is perfect for the premiere of a zombie TV series, on the other hand, won't the primary target audience of this series be busy being dressed up, having a party and stuff like that? (I surely am planning on being Zoey from Left 4 Dead for Halloween) Still, even if they don't catch it when it first airs then at least the VCRs will be sure to preserve it for later viewing.

AMC, what I have seen of you so far (and my experience ends with Mad Men) I have really enjoyed and you are surprisingly high quality for a relatively small cable channel. Will The Walking Dead be able to fill the sad void that has been left behind after the season finale of the latest season of Mad Men aired?

At first glance it has to be said that the genres are extremely different. Subtle drama on the one hand, bloodthirsty zombies on the other. However, a look at the moderately paced pilot of The Walking Dead could make you think again. Veterans of the zombie genre are often used to a movie spanning 90 minutes. Now the first episode of The Walking Dead is pretty much just as long, but compared to your average zombie movie the plot progresses very slowly. Which is natural and a good thing, actually. Since all in all we will get six episodes in this first season, there is no need to spill all the beans in the first one. I think the genre really benefits from having time to breathe occasionally.

From what I could see so far I think The Walking Dead might surprise us with how far it actually is from your average zombie movie. I have really high hopes for the series and I am also excited to find out how that material does outside of movies, videogames or comics. I haven't read the comic book that The Walking Dead is based on, but all around you hear that it is outstanding and thought-provoking. Maybe it will be a good replacement for Mad Men after all. And it has zombies, on top of that!

I have of course also heard claims of sexism towards the comic book, but I don't think I have seen enough to pass judgement on that just yet. All I can say is The Walking Dead is a treat that zombie enthusiasts should not miss out on this Halloween!

Cross-Overs... always a good idea?

Recently I heard that Eminem and Rihanna are apparently doing some music thing together and I started wondering about the phenomenon of "crossovers" in general. I can't say that I really know what Eminem's songs are about and I am not sure I have ever listened to a single song of Rihanna but I wondered what kind of effect a collaboration of these two would have. I repeat, I don't actually know in which relation the work of those two artists stands, I just couldn't help but wonder: Hey, wouldn't some fans of Eminem boycott the single because they don't want anything to do with Rihanna or the other way around? In the end I thought that two large fanbases would be combined by a collaboration and even if a portion of those fans boycotts the product, then there is still the combined fanbase which ensures more profit in the end.

I guess crossovers or collaborations are always profitable for every party in the deal, but are they always good?

My initial reaction to the crossover of Ace Attorney Phoenix Wright and Professor Layton was: Hell to the no, this has to be a joke, what the fuck were they thinking?! I mean, those two don't really fit together at all. Fine, the genre is sort of similar. In Professor Layton you solve a case by solving puzzles and in Ace Attorney you sort of solve a case by finding clues that help you defending your client. Yet, one of the big things that attracted me about Professor Layton was the very distinct setting somewhere in the early 20th century, strongly influenced by French music, some almost steampunky elements and a general old European feel. Ace Attorney on the other hand isn't even set in a similar timeframe, it doesn't sport the same drawing style or colour palette. It's set in present day and drawn in your typical Anime drawing style, while Professor Layton, at first glance, seemed very much like having come from the pen of a francophone comic artist. They are just so different! The trailer also didn't reassure me, I thought the different styles clashed wildly. I bet that there is going to be a plausible explanation as to why both protagonists and their sidekicks find themselves in the same world but I am not so sure I might buy it.

What about crossovers like Marvel vs. Capcom? Sure, I can easily imagine characters like that beating each other up, no matter where they came from. It has been a little treat of fighting games to have unexpected hidden characters that don't really fit into the universe of the game but are nevertheless available to choose as your avatar for a long time now. Thus, it's not really unusual to have two worlds of superheroes or fighters clash with each other at all. However, to put Professor Layton and Phoenix Wright against each other makes them clash in a way that not everybody might find to their taste.

I just don't know. Marvel vs. Capcom, sure! That's a fitting cross-over game. Eminem and Rihnanna making a song together? Why not, people will buy it for sure. But Professor Layton and Ace Attorney, I am not so sure about that. I just think it clashes too much and in a way that I don't find aesthetically pleasing. If the story will prove to be good enough to captivate people who were thrown off my the cross-over at first remains to be seen. Either way, so far I can see that fans of both the games are happy about the announcement. So in the end both parties will at least have a financial gain from this crossover.

Plus, you have to get a Nintendo 3DS for it? Is that why you combined your mighty powers of successful franchises, to boost the sales for your new console, Nintendo? Hmmm? Well, experience shows that Nintendo's console sales hardly ever need boosts and I expect the same will apply for the Nintendo 3DS. I, however, am still sticking to my old trusty Nintendo DS Lite. I have never even touched one of these Nintendo DSis and they are already bringing out the next console. Always one step ahead, Nintendo, eh?

P.S.: Layton kicks Wright's butt!