Thursday, March 24, 2011

Off Topic Thursday: My Favorite Movie

Being the resident "film guy" in pretty much every group of friends I have, there's one question I get a lot, namely, "What is your favorite movie?" For the longest time, this question was the most surefire way to get me stuck in some sort of mental 20 goto 10 loop, but luckily, I seem to have found a way to escape that one. How, you might ask? I have decided my very favorite movie, and unless something changes, I now have an answer. So, my favorite movie? 12 Angry Men from 1957.
12 angry men is the story of twelve men on jury duty as they try to reach a consensus in a case where a young boy from a bad neighborhood is accused of murdering his abusive father. At first, the vote is 11 for the boy being guilty, but Juror #8, played by  Henry Fonda, is not so sure. Slowly, but surely, he convinces his fellow jurors that the case is more complicated than they assumed, and that there's room for reasonable doubt. Maybe one of the most interesting thing about this movie is how it's set almost entirely in one small room, the juror's room. As one might be able to glean from my posts about Devil and Buried, I find the thought of movies set entirely in one set to be fascinating, if nothing else for the sheer skill it takes to make a coherent, exciting story without being able to cut away, not to mention the challenge to all involved to make the thing interesting both story-wise and visually.

12 Angry Men delivers everything I require in an one-set film in spades, the dialog is informative and engaging without being on-the-nose, and the exposition is presented more as a puzzle than a laundry list of what happened, and that's possibly the thing that makes this thing tick, we're not as much told what happens as much as we experience the main characters going over what they know and trying to judge the value of the evidence and witness statements, it ties the plot regarding the crime together very well although, of course, we never get any definitive proof that the rising theory, that the boy is innocent, is correct, and he could, in fact be a murderer for all we know, but since there's reasonable doubt in the case now.

Another thing I love about this movie is the characters. Granted, not all of the 12 jurors are all that fleshed out, but we still have some very memorable characters. There's Juror 8, of course, our hero, a strong-willed man that resists peer pressure in the name of justice, Juror 3, the most obvious antagonistic character with some unresolved family issues clouding his perception of the case, Juror 4, who remains calm and analytical to the end, and actually presents a coherent and logical case for the boy's guilt, Juror 9, an elderly man who sides with 8 early and provides the final clue, actually, I realize most of the characters are interesting, although there are one or two that at least aren't very prominent.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Before And After I: Amnesia: The Dark Descent (After)

It might have been a bad idea to chose a game as my first B&A, considering how you usually have to spend longer time on a game than a movie, if nothing else because the game takes longer time to complete. So, no in-debt review from me, but a suitable first impression? Probably.

Anyway, I learned two things while trying out this game, one, my general lack of courage in video games might make testing this game more difficult, and two, this game is downright fucking terrifying, but we'll get back to those points in time. First, some gameplay thingies. The whole thing is in first person, almost ridiculously first persony, actually, considering you push & pull objects with your mouse, allowing you to pretty much pick up anything you want, throwing it around is also an option. It really does wonders for the immersion, not to mention the soothing feeling of being able to do a little property damage when the going gets a mite too tough for you.

Another large part of the game is light and darkness. You see, being in the dark damages your character's sanity, causing his vision to blur and distort and creepy noises to be produced, or at least I think the noises was due to the sanity loss. For us Lovecraft fans, the concept of sanity-drainage may not be alien, but something as relatively simple as darkness provoking it? I guess our hero is afraid of the dark. To combat the darkness, you have two tools at your disposal, a lantern, which needs to be resupplied with oil fairly regularly, and tinderboxes, which you can expend to kindle a light source, providing a somewhat more permanent light to a small area. I guess it's somewhat hypocritical of me to lambaste the main character for getting freaked out in the dark, considering how much I used the lantern, but hey, it was partially to prevent the poor sod from going insane, too.

To get back to the story, very briefly, I did not learn all that much more in the relatively short time I played, but what I got sounded good, there was the amnesiac getting a letter from himself to go kill some old guy who he apparently used to dislike before he amnesiaed (probably not a word) himself, but there's also references to an archeological dig that apparently didn't go quite as planned and an ancient godless that I'm willing to bet, dollars to doughnuts, is more or less eldritch and unpleasant, Cthulhu-style. All in all, it very much seems like something Lovecraft himself could write, except excessive amounts of racism and cascades and cascades of purple prose, neither of which I miss to any degree, so it's good so far.

It's time to get back to the horror aspects of the game, and boy, does this game not pull any punches. From the first minute, you find yourself in this spooky castle, completely empty save for yourself, or at least so you're fairly certain. Sure, there's the odd warm-up scare, like the wind blowing open a door, or blowing out a torch you lit with one of your precious tinderboxes, but it all ties together, giving the impression that there's some malignant intelligence out there that's pretty determined to make your day worse. Combined with eerie audio flashbacks and the occasional vaguely ominous sounds from distant rooms and corridors that does not exactly invite curiosity, it's a pretty eerie and atmospheric trip. Of course, the subtle ambient music doesn't help either, it's very obvious the makers of this game did not want people skipping around, thinking about puppies and rainbows.

One particular horror beat that got my heart racing was when I, fairly early on, investigated some sort of library, only to be confronted with two puzzles in a row after which... well, I'm not certain what it was, but I'm pretty sure something snarled in the next room. At this point, I booked it. This scene is interesting, because if this had been your typical game, I'd probably be investigating, safe in the knowledge that I could fill whatever was snarling in the next room with bullets and probably find some more lead, ready for delivery into the brainpan of some monstrosity, in the very same room for my troubles. In this game, though? Fuck that noise, although if I get brave, I might test out throwing books at the whatever-they-ares, but not today.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Before and After I: Amnesia: The Dark Descent (Before)

Decided to try out something new. In these B&A segments, I'll be writing about something I'm watching, reading or otherwise enjoying, in not too long. I'll inform you of what I think about the hype, the trailers, preview, sales blurb, whatever I've picked up that might shape my expectations. This is partially to make myself aware of how my perception of a work changes based on my preconception, and partially to be entertaining with my insistent backpedaling or snarky "I told you so," whatever works.

The first target is something as unusual in this blog as a horror game. This game is called Amnesia: The Dark Descent, produced by an indie company called Frictional Games, who as far as I can tell are Swedish. Now, Scandinavian Pride being what it is, I'm pretty much obliged to give this one a try, since it's produced by Norway's nearest neighbour cum sitcom nemesis. This is, of course not the only reason I've decided to try this game, no, one will find no small amount of praise for this game on the internet.

One of the things Amnesia gets a lot of praise for is how scary it is. For various reasons, I never really got into horror games, mostly since most horror games also has some variant of the Shotgun, which mitigates the horror of nameless uglies somewhat. Sure, horror movie protagonists are occasionally armed, but for one, it seldom does them any good, and secondly, the whole movie is seldom (with some notable examples) centered around this having and using of guns. In games like Doom or Dead Space you might start out with a dinky pistol against the forces of The Adversary, or Space Satan or whatever, but by the end, you're pretty much shoved so full of guns that your fart bullets, and the feeling of dread usually goes out of the window, the game twiddling it's thumbs and providing the occasional JUMPSCARE to pretend it's still horror, which is the horror equivalent of making an inane pop culture reference every once in a while and pretend you're comedy (looking at you, Seltzerberg.) I've heard the Silent Hill series is better in that regard, but I currently do not own a Playstation 2, so I haven't tried them myself.

But to get back to Amnesia again, from what I'm told, this game is different, in that you do not have weapons of any kind and, unlike Penumbra, also made by Frictional,  you can't even McGyver yourself something resembling an instrument of murder. I'd say it says some dodgy things about the games industry when a game that does not involve grievous bodily harm (to others, anyway) is something extraordinary, but that's a whole other chestnut, and probably a topic for a OTT some day. So, with no weapons and, I assume, something shambling around, trying to eat you, or worse, the only alternative would be to run and hide, so here's hoping the game handles stealth in a way that does not make it hair-tearingly frustrating, as a lot of games do.

Storywise, I don't really know much. You play as a guy with amnesia, no big shock, perhaps, who finds out that prior to this, apparently self-caused, amnesia, he wrote a letter to himself, stating that he had to get to this other guy in this creepy old castle-thing and kill his ass. That's about it, though, although I assume that at some point, this plan will be complicated by some sort of monster or monsters, and also, probably puzzles. Doesn't look like it'll blow my mind, storywise, but as long as it tells the story it has in a sufficiently skillful way, I'd say it does it's job admirably.

So, let's see how this turns out. Part 2: After will probably be up some time this week, but I'll have to see how much I need to play to get a good impression of the game.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Black Swan

Now, being the snarky indie film nerd that I am, I can, at times, be rather hostile to the concept of the Academy Awards, better known as The Oscars. I mean, the idea is good, rewarding good craftsmanship, good artistery, good movies in short, but the execution? Not so thrilled. The concept of Oscar Bait is very much alive, and the fact that the Academy seems to have a raging hate-on for anything resembling fantasy, not to mention the sheer meta politics bullshit that shows that there's few things Hollywood can't fuck up royally and still peddle like it's hot cross buns made out of gold and cocaine.
Ok, I got kinda sidetracked there. Still, this year, I agreed with some of the winners, and with others... eh, let's just for brevity say "not so much." One of the winners I very much agreed with was Natalie Portman's award for Best Actress for her performance in Black Swan. I had seen the movie once prior to the awards, and once after, this time in theatres. See, the thing about Norway is that our cinemas get movies rather late and that certain movies, often Oscar nominees or blockbusters, get plain unreasonably long runs, so I could catch it on the silver screen. And boy howdy am I glad that I did.

So, meet Nina, played by Portman. She's a ballet dancer with a stick up her ass and ambitions to play the Swan Queen in the ballet Swan Lake. Of course, getting this role isn't easy, as it requires her both to play the frail, innocent and controlled White Swan and the seductive, wild and unpredictable Black Swan, in addition, the arrival of Lily, played by Mila Kunis, who has the free, unpredictable qualities Nina lacks. Nina gets the part, but she starts going through a change, as if she's becoming more like the Black Swan, both figuratively and literally.

The story's pretty simple on the surface, but there's so many layers piled up here that it can keep a film geek, such as yours truly, happy for a good few weeks on that movie alone. For one, we have Nina struggling as her dark Id surfaces, turning her from a talented doormat to a self-harming, potentially murderous diva, all the while struggling with her smothering Stage Mother and a budding sexuality that quite frankly came (no pun intended) a good couple of years too late. Another interpretation is that it's the story of a young woman who is quite literally willing to destroy both her body and her mind to preform the best she possibly could. Or it could be a different interpretation of Swan Lake where Nina is the White Swan and the Black Swan is... actually, I'm not quite sure, the role of the prince and the role of the Black Swan is sort of interchangeable... yeah..

Anyway, this movie really plays around with what's real and what's not. In most movies that do this, there's usually pretty strong clues what's real and what's not. In Black Swan, though, the movie just shrugs and tells you "I dunno, what do you think?" It gets to the point where one starts to wonder if anything of what we've seen in the movie is real. I chose to believe so, because movies that turn out to be "all just a dream" makes me a sad, sad film nerd. In more than one way, it's very similar to Perfect Blue, that Satoishi Kon brainfuck of a movie. I keep arguing with myself which of the two is the biggest mindfuck, currently I'm leaning Perfect Blue, but I'm not quite sure still.

Actingwise, both Kunis and Portman does a really good job, and it really shows that the director, Darren Aronofsky, the man behind Requiem For A Dream (which I SWEAR I'll watch one of these days) and The Wrestler, did a smashing job at making them seem like rivals. Of course, it Portman played less than amazing, this movie just wouldn't work, but luckily, she does really sell the part, and it helps.

Another thing that really impressed me in this movie is the  cinematography. This was one of the main parts why seeing it at a cinema was awesome. The movie's fairly impressive in its own, but towards the end... oh my. The big climactic ballet scene is just plain brain-meltingly gorgeously filmed and combined with the music and the acting and dancing and what have you, it's awe-inspiring, too bad you're most likely traumatized by some of the previous scenes at this point, and the movie's still unnerving.

Ah yes, this movie also brings the horror, quite frankly it's one of the scariest movies I've seen in this year. As one is want to do, the whole thing starts of slowly, tiny inconsistencies, pictures or mirror images that seem to move in the corner of your eye, it builds up, little by little. It fits very well with the theme of slowly increasing madness, to the point where the audience ends up uncertain if they're imagining things. All the buildup comes together in one glorious set of scenes, by the soundtrack identified as the "Night of Terror," a fitting moniker if I ever heard one. In these scenes, Nina goes to visit the former star of the ballet to give back some minor items she had nicked from her and things... sort of goes downhill from there, without spoiling too much, there are facial stabbing, stalkerish pursuits, hallucinations that may or may not include the two former, and more. The segment is wonderfully filmed, and really pulls on you into the terror, partially because you sympathize with the main character at this point, and partially because the movies aforementioned tendency to not give you any complete answers as to what exactly is real and what's just fantasy.

Not to dive too deep into the symbolism, but as I write this, alternative theories starts to form in my head, and this is a movie that really does that to you. Then again, you're reading from a man who have more miscelaneous theories about Repo! The Genetic Opera than he'd ever admit to in public, so you might want to take that with a pinch of salt.

I should start summing this up before the TL;DR fairy comes around to break my keyboard. It's rare to have a movie that's both deeply thematically intertwined with the struggle of the artist while also being ridiculously well-crafted and quite frightening. It's a movie everybody who can stomach it should watch. Also, if I'm allowed to be controlled by my hormones very very briefly, I should add that the Mila Kunis/Natalie Portman sex scene was... a plus.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Off Topic Thursday: Homestuck

Another thursday, another OTT, huh? I'm a little bothered that I didn't actually get in any on topic posts in between, but I just can't stop writing that Black Swan post I'm working on, so... look forward to that, I guess. The topic today is a webcomic, but just not any webcomic. Hoh no, we're talking about Homestuck, a series that is odd and unusual series, but it's not all that easy to put across why it's so different, so if it sounds standard, rest assured that I'm telling it wrong.

Homestuck is the story of four young people, John, Jade, Rose and Dave, all thirteen years old, when they install a computer game capable of manipulating each other's enviroments, these kids find themselves thrown into a quest to save the world from imminent destruction, although it rapidly becomes obvious earth is pretty much fucked as it's pummeled by coments right out of the blue, spreading the four friends and their guardians over strange worlds where they have to face challenges of many sorts, all the while being pestered by a strange group identifying themselves as trolls, alien trolls as a matter of fact. When I say there's more to the story than that, that's a considerable understatement, because there's more twists, turns and reveals in this thing than you can shake a stickkind at. I won't get into that, though, this plotline has to be seen to be believed.

This webcomic is unique in many respects. For one, large parts of how the story goes is determined by the readers, and for another, it updates often, about 5.5 one-panel updates per day, if my sources are correct. Now, that's... a lot of updates, and paired with a lot of the updates being followed by lengthy chat logs, which is the series only dialog... well, let's just say I'm not optimistic to reach the newest update before the whole thing is completed, and heavens knows when that will be.

That's another thing, though, me and Homestuck have kind of a rocky relationship. I dive into this whole thing, reading I don't even know how many pages until the story reaches some sort of lull and I think to myself "ok, this thing officially lost me... again" then a while passes and suddenly the thought strikes me "Oh hey, I should read more Homestuck, that was a fun series." Coupled with the series' tendency to have eye-wideningly awesome final updates before an "Act" is over, before having a long, considerably less interesting story arc that takes at least a good threescore updates to get back to why this is relevant to the main plot, or at least it feels that way. An especially annoying part was when we learned more about these Trolls. Some of them were interesting characters, hell, some of them were even sympathetic, and I'd never thought one of my favorite characters in the whole thing would be an ICP fan in everything but name, but my GOD, the thing dragged on, and spent way longer time describing the mechanisms and pitfalls of Troll romance than anything actually plot-related, and that was a definitive "Ok, this is stupid, do something else now"-moment. Still, the thing tends to recover, usually with a super-nifty epic animation with awesome music, so I can't quite find it in my heart to dislike the thing.

All in all, though, I recommend Homestuck. You need to know roughly what you're going to, without being spoiled too bad, but it's a good read, well, at least as far as I've read.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Off Topic Thursday: Role playing games

As astute readers of my blog might already have gathered, I am somewhat of a nerd, not that it neccesarily should come as a surprise to anybody, what with my constant movie-related blabbering, or the fact that I do indeed have a horror movie blog, for that matter. Well, as a geek is want to do, I do quite enjoy roleplaying games.

"What, like Final Fantasy?" Is a question one might get while presenting such an interest, and honestly, I'm not really sure what to answer to that. I mean, strictly speaking, Final Fantasy is of the RPG genre, although it really doesn't reflect the role playing experience all that well. This isn't to say that I haven't played games with people who seemed to believe that the Final Fantasy mold was the only way to role play, but let's not talk about that, because I'm pretty sure that'd lead me into a rant about game protagonists, and that's probably better suited for another OTT.

Anyway, the kind of games I am talking about are the likes of Dungeons And Dragons, Fate, Call of Cthulhu, D20, and the like. We're talking good old fashioned pen and paper roleplaying, in which a small group of players match wits with a player/game master, who tells the story, keeps track of the rules, resolves combat and in general puts up with the other players' shenanigans. Yeah, I tend to GM a bit, can you tell? It can be kind of hard work to run a game, because you have to make a story that's flexible enough to survive whatever shenanigans your players come up with while still having a point and, hopefully, both challenge and engage the players. Sure, you could also improvise, if you're good at that, but I'm not... so I  plan profusely.

GMing in general has its high and low points. Sure, it's pretty annoying when your players attracts a sudden and unwarranted hate at a NPC you were planning to use later and fills him up with holes in all the wrong places, or insist to try peddling gnomish Kama Sutras to everybody they meet (long story), but at the very worst, you'll have a funny story to tell your fellow geeks later, and hell, if you're good at improvising (that is: If you're not me) you could make something interesting with it. Of course, for every moment of random NPC hate, there generally is a few moments of greatness. It's hard to put your finger on, but when you really have a grip on your players, and have managed to pull them into your world, you can screw with their mind like nobody's business.

As a horror fan, I find the opportunities endless in this respect, thus my love for the Horror-based Call of Cthulhu board game, but even if your interests doesn't lie in scaring the living daylights out of people, you can do some really nice storytelling when people are in the zone, as it were. Also, a very nice part of roleplaying is that the GM isn't the only one to create a story. Sure, the GM makes the framing story and supporting characters, but the players come up with the main characters, and what is a good story without a good main character?