Game review: Transistor

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For all its possibly divisive qualities that people may disagree on, there is one thing about this game that no one can deny: Transistor is absolutely beautiful. Almost every frame is splashing with lights and colour that breathes life into Cloudbank, the futuristic cyberpunk world where this game takes place.

Transistor is made by Supergiant Games, who previously released the highly successful Bastion. So it’s hardly surprising that Transistor plays a lot like Bastion, but with a lot of added features. Both games are isometric games with melee and ranged combat. But while Bastion plays mostly like a hack-and-slash, Transistor is more of a hack-and-slash and turn-based RPG hybrid.

You play as Red, a singer whom we first meet in media res as she discovers the Transistor, basically a talking sword, or sword-like object that she wields to fight off machines which the characters call The Process. With the right trigger (RT), you can pause the game and plan out your actions. Then hit the right trigger again to execute your plan. Combat proceeds in real-time as your cooldown restores your option to go into pause/plan mode again. It’s a nice balance for someone like me who isn’t typically interested in turn-based combat, and a bit reminiscent of Bioware games like Mass Effect which has a similar balance of paused-planning vs real-time combat. The game also have a huge variety of Functions (essentially, the game’s jargon for weapons), which, in the context of the story, are characters whose consciousness are uploaded into the Transistor.

These Functions can be equipped as one of your four main weapon slots, or be used to augment other Functions or as passive enhancers. So with all the various Functions available, there’s a multitude of ways you can mix and match all the different skills and upgrades to your attacks. It’s quite fun trying out the various combinations to see which ones are best suited for my play-style.

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The story, or its narrative devices of Transistor is the kind of thing that different people might have differing opinions on. To me, I do find the premise and world-building to be excellent and gripping. But the actual story that runs within it leaves something to be desired. Many elements of the plot are vague, perhaps intentionally so. But the cost of this vagueness is that we lack the emotional investment of the characters. The main voice acting comes from the Transistor itself, talking to the mostly-silent Red (she lost her voice), and making comments about the things she sees and does throughout the levels. But during character moments, like when the Transistor talks about Red’s past actions, or hopes, or desires, seem vague and out-of-context. So it wasn’t as easy to care about the characters as I did in Bastion.

Almost all other characters besides Red and the Transistor are encountered when they’re already `dead’ and absorbed into the Transistor as the aforementioned Functions. While each of the character/Functions have their own backstory, we only learn about them through flavour-text within the in-game menu. So, it’s kinda sad that we hardly ever see Red or the Transistor interact with the other Functions. This was quite a departure from Bastion, where we do meet some side-characters, and even get to interact with them.

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Nevertheless, the artwork and music more than makes up for it’s lack of story. Every single level was drawn with exquisite detail and the entire game looks breathtakingly gorgeous. I found myself taking screenshots of the game every few minutes as potential desktop wallpapers.

Despite it’s vague story, the gameplay and beautiful art style makes Transistor a great game. It’s not often that I like a game for its mechanics more than its story, and its game mechanics is definitely an improved and expanded version  of what they did in Bastion. And so far Supergiant has maintained a solid track record of making great looking games in fascinating worlds across different genres. I can’t wait to see their next game.

16 of #52FilmsByWomen: Concussion

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Concussion (2013, written & directed by Stacie Passon)

[16 of 52 in #52FilmsByWomen]

Concussion opens with Abby (Robin Weigert) getting a…concussion from an accident involving their children. This seems to be the final straw that forces Abby to finally acknowledges her boredom with her monotone suburban family life and begin seeking a life of adventure on her own. One that doesn’t involve her wife Kate (Julie Fain Lawrence) or their two children.

Abby begins working as a call-girl under the name Eleanor, entertaining clients at a secluded loft away from their suburban family home. There she meets various people, some of them have fairly interesting personalities, where Abby relishes in her alter-ego as Eleanor.

 

Movie Review: The Jungle Book

the_jungle_book_poster_key_artThe Jungle Book is a story that most of us are already familiar with. The life action/CGI remake of the Disney classic is about a boy named Mowgli (played by child actor Neel Sethi) being raised by a pack of wolves, and trouble comes when Shere Khan (Idris Elba), a menacing tiger, considers Mowgli an enemy. To avoid bringing trouble to his pack, Mowgli decided to leave and journey to the nearest human village, where he supposedly belong to.

This could have been a very interesting movie examining the dynamics of the relationship between humans and animals, as well as the question of nature vs. nurture. At the very least, it should be fun. Unfortunately, the episodic nature of the storyline made the movie draggy and disjointed.

Making matters worse was Neel Sethi’s inconsistent performance. Sure, he nailed it at times, but for most of the movie, I was never convinced he is Mowgli. It didn’t help that Mowgli, as the protagonist and the only speaking human, came off as rather whiny at times. After the millionth time of hearing him complain about not wanting to leave the jungle, I was beginning to think that Shere Khan might be right after all.

I suppose that right now it sounds as if I do not like the movie, but that’s not quite the case. The movie is saved by brilliant voice acting, where each of the talking animals seemed more likable than Mowgli. I especially enjoyed Ben Kingsley’s stand-out performance as Bagheera the panther. Idris Elba, as usual, is ever reliable, channeling much malice and ferocity. Between Zootopia, Finding Dory and Bastille Day, it’s good to see that Idris Elba is having a productive year. The rest of the cast – Scarlett Johansson, Lupita Nyong’o, Bill Murray and Giancarlo Esposito – were great as well, holding the movie together when Sethi failed to do so.

The CGI is good, although in some scenes it was quite easy to tell that they cut some corners. My favourite scene involved the first appearance of the elephants, where they emerged from the mist. It was easy to see why Bagheera revered them; you too, will get the sense that these creatures are not quite of this world.

In the end, the movie is alright. It could have been great, but considering that this is Sethi’s first appearance on the big screen, I could cut him some slack. After all, it’s not everyday that a non-white actor gets the role of an Asian character. There might be a sequel coming up, but you can bet that I’ll be more excited to see Bagheera than Mowgli.

One final note: I watched this in a crowded theater, filled with parents and kids. I personally do not think this movie is suitable for young kids, judging from how restless they got. Most of the issues discussed were probably too deep for most kids below seven years old. Therefore, the movie will fail to hold a kid’s attention during the duller moments.

Movie Review: Bastille Day

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While realistically, we may not ever see Idris Elba becoming James Bond in the near future, Bastille Day puts him in the action-spy role in Paris. Albeit an American CIA agent with a bit more grit and less glamour than James bond. I came in expecting a mid-tier, generic pre-summer action-thriller, but was pleasantly surprised by it.

When it comes to espionage action thrillers, it’s nearly impossible by now to set up a completely new premise that has never been seen before. But Bastille Day gives us an fairly interesting plot where a pickpocket Michael Mason (Richard Madden a.k.a. Robb Stark from Game of Thrones) stole a bag which turns out to be a bomb. It explodes, killing four people and he inevitably becomes the prime suspect. Idris Elba is CIA agent Sean Briar who is tasked to find and protect him from the real terrorists behind the plot.

The story moves forward at a brisk pace with good action scenes. Elba proves that he’s more than capable of being an action star, taking down bad guys Bourne-style. Anyone who is familiar with his previous work already knows he’s a good actor, but unfortunately the story doesn’t seem to allow him to show any of this off. There aren’t many character moments for anyone in this movie.

That might be my main complaints about the movie, though competent as it is as a spy thriller. There is hardly any character development happening in the movie. The movie establishes a few basic facts about Elba’s Briar, being `brash and irresponsible’, and that’s about it. It sets him up to be sort of a loose cannon and acting against orders while on the streets of Paris. Never do we really know him as a person, or get invested in him as a character. Briar’s character is mostly blank, as if to accommodate the audience to project themselves into the action movie role. He does not have much motivation throughout the movie aside from preventing a terrorist attack, which feels almost like an arbitrary mission objective for a video game, and Briar being a video game protagonist without personality.

The pickpocket Mason does get a bit of a backstory, which for his case is absolutely necessary since he is the focal point of the entire story. Though he mostly did a good job portraying a scared, young crook that’s in way over his head in the terrorist/spy intrigue, again I don’t really feel invested in that character either. He doesn’t even show that much guilt or regret after causing an explosion that killed four innocent people. In fact, he seems to only care about himself, and doesn’t really bond with Briar throughout the movie. (Not that the plot gave them any breathing room to do so.)

Perhaps the one character that has some semblance of an arc is Zoe Naville (Charlotte La Bon). She’s an activist who was manipulated by the terrorist to deliver the bomb that was eventually stolen by Mason, and she’s the one showing guilt over causing the death of those four people. As the story progresses we understand her actions and reactions to various events in the movie. So, she seems to be the only person whom we understand the character motivation at a deeper level than simply functioning to drive the plot.

Perhaps one might wonder about the sensitivity of a plot which involves a bombing in Paris, given the recent events in real life. At least the villains in this story aren’t stereotypical Muslims or people from Middle-East. But rather very specific characters with their own agenda which has nothing to do with real-world events. Nevertheless they do dip into subplots about how Muslim communities are targeted by the police after the bombing, and how citizens star to protest police brutality. These are used as a backdrop and a plot point, and the film doesn’t seem to want to make any significant commentary out of it.

It’s starting to sound like I didn’t like the movie, when I really did enjoy it. After all, this is a fairly straightforward action movie that doesn’t have a blockbuster-level budget. The plot and action scenes are executed fairly well, which is all I wanted for a straight-up action movie. To put this into perspective, I found this movie much more enjoyable than other mid-range action thrillers, like Tak3nNovember Man and Survivor.

Women’s stories as the driving force of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)

 

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Although frequently described as a `martial arts epic’, the term `epic’ probably wouldn’t be applied to the story of Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon under today’s common usage of the word. There isn’t a huge war between nations, or an evil villain hatching a huge scheme, or a magical McGuffin that everyone is chasing after. Part of why this film is great is that it’s a weave of fascinating character-driven stories. Particularly, the stories of three women.

[Warning: Spoilers for Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (2000). The 2016 sequel will not be mentioned anywhere]

Continue reading Women’s stories as the driving force of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)

15 of #52FilmsByWomen: Gabrielle

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Gabrielle (2013, written and directed by Louise Archambault)

[15 of 52 in #52FilmsByWomen]

In this movie, we follow Gabrielle, a young woman having the Williams syndrome. She lives in a center with other people with the similar condition. The story begins as they prepare for a choir performance with a famous singer for an upcoming music festival. Along the way, Gabrielle falls in love with Martin, who has the same condition and is also in the choir.

My only minor criticism is that the film seems to end without the feeling of anything being resolved. Unless, of course, we view it as a slice-of-life type of story. Nevertheless, this was a charming and heartwarming movie about people and their families coping with the syndrome. It is an important learning experience for the audience who are not aware the lives of these people.

The Huntsman: Winter’s War

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Evil Queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron) has an innocent sister, Freya (Emily Blunt), who believed in love. After a tragic betrayal in which she lost her baby, Freya’s dormant ice powers surfaced and she became the Ice Queen. To compensate for the loss of her daughter, she had children kidnapped from their families, and trained them as her Huntsmen. Two of her Huntsmen, Eric and Sara (Chris Hemsworth and Jessica Chastain), fell in love, only to be separated by the bitter Freya. When Ravenna is resurrected, it is up to the heroes to save the day.

In theory, the movie could have been a critical success, boasting a star-studded cast. Unfortunately, the script couldn’t live up to its potential. One critic called it a mash up of Frozen, Brave and Narnia, and I agree. The plot is paper-thin, and barely coherent. The biggest problem was that it was both a prequel and a sequel to the first Huntsman movie. Despite some great acting, mostly by Emily Blunt, the movie failed to move me beyond casual indifference to the fate of any of the characters. The only time I felt compelled to pay attention was when Ravenna and Freya interacted with each other. They should have just based the story on the two sisters instead.

I went into the cinema with low expectations, because let’s admit it, the trailer itself doesn’t stand out to begin with. Yet, even with my low expectations, I was disappointed. The pacing was poor, with what little action we had interspersed with long periods of characters talking to each other. Worse, there were hardly any chemistry going on between Eric and Sara.

The action was just so-so. In the trailer, we are treated to some glimpses of epic battles and cool, albeit generic, fight scenes. Unfortunately, what you see in the trailer is pretty much all that you will get in the movie itself. Even the supposedly epic final confrontation turned out to be lackluster and disappointing. It felt like the action director/choreographer has used up all his or her best ideas early on and ran out of steam.

Another aspect that I like about the movie is the costume designs for the Queens, particularly Freya’s. Perhaps it’s partly due to Emily Blunt’s strong screen presence, but I had a hard time taking my eyes off the screen whenever she appears. From her chain-metal cloak to her icy-owl mask and her beautiful silver hair, she was a sight to behold. Ravenna was alluring, regal and seductive, thanks to Charlize Theron’s effective portrayal of the character. Unfortunately, these solid performances from these two accomplished actresses could not save the bland storyline.