Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Uncharted 4: A Thief's End (2016)

The latest and (perhaps) final entry in the Uncharted franchise pushes the bar for action-adventure games higher with its spectacular vistas, lovable characters, and its decent gameplay mechanics.

It took Naughty Dog four and half years after Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception (2011) to develop the sequel. Despite the internal conflicts and changes in direction (Amy Hennig being replaced by Neil Druckmann and Bruce Straley) during Uncharted 4's development, it is still a near perfect game.

I say near perfect because of a few major flaw. Of course, nothing is perfect; but if the flaws affect the experience, then they should be brought up. The gameplay and shooting mechanics in Uncharted series have never been at the pinnacle of gameplay design - Gears of War, Infamous, Grand Theft Auto, and other games have done it much better. But gameplay has always been decent and respectable in the Uncharted franchise. The highlights of this series were the set-pieces, environment design, and character development.

Uncharted 4 did not have as many exhilarating action set-pieces as its predecessors, but it almost doubled the gameplay hours. Previous Uncharted games could be completed in eight hours on normal difficulty, while Uncharted 4 took me 16 hours. Uncharted 4 is a magnificent game, but is too much of a good thing always good? Maybe not. I was at points frustrated with the repetitious climbing, having the ledge break under Drake's foot, hanging to another ledge, and then rinse, repeat... Particularly the last 6 hours of the game could have been condensed - these chapters happened on an island, with a terrain similar to the first Uncharted (2007) or Tomb Raider (2013).

The environments are spectacular and breath-taking. Suffice to say that Uncharted 4 could be the most beautiful game ever made.

The characters of Nathan Drake, Elena Fisher, and Victor Sullivan are the same lovable people from the previous games. Elena's personality - although unpredictable - was simply "perfect". In this fictional story full of fantasy elements, maybe believing that an Elena could exist in real world requires the biggest suspension of disbelief... Sully was also great, but it was a pity that you do not get to spend enough time with him. The companion for the majority of the game is Sam Drake - Nathan's lost brother. I neither liked, nor disliked Sam. I just found him a conduit for telling the origin story of Nathan Drake. Maybe writers failed in this regard as they obviously wanted to make Sam one of the main protagonists of the franchise.

To wrap up this review, I'd say Uncharted 4 is a must-play. People who have played the previous entries would get much more from this experience, but new comers could also connect with the characters. The game could have been shorter and leaner (with fewer ledges breaking). Undoubtedly Uncharted 4 is a better product than Uncharted 3, but I enjoyed my experience with Uncharted 3 more (due to fewer frustrating segments, and more exciting set-pieces). Overall, I'd give Uncharted 4 9.5/10.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Opinion Piece: Reviews, Batman v Superman, Captain America: Civil War

I plan to write more opinion pieces in the future, and I promise to make it flow better. Keep in mind that the current text was initially a part of my Captain America: Civil War review. After I saw it grow, I decided to dedicate a separate space to it... So without further ado, here it goes:

I consider myself a hardcore fan of DC comics. There was a time that I used to read 4-5 comics every week; now I read maybe four per month... So I cannot objectively compare Batman v Superman with Civil War. DC characters mean a lot more to me as a fan. Seeing the Trinity of Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman on the screen literally gave me goose bumps... Obviously I did not feel such excitement when I watched the Civil War.

I have a beef to pick with ; their ratings build false expectations for the viewers. They gave BvS a 28% rating, while Civil War got 91%. Maybe one of the reasons that I didn't enjoy Civil War that much was the ridiculously high expectation that RottenTomatoes had built for me.
A simple definition of satisfaction is when one's experience was better/greater than the expectation. My enjoyment of Civil War was definitely not on par with the 91% rating, thus I left the movie theatre unsatisfied.

RottenTomatoes uses a binary system for aggregating reviews; if it was a favourable review (e.g., 3/5), they code it as 100. If the review was a little less favourable (e.g., 2/5), it would be coded 0. This coding scheme is polarizing and surely has a high variation in the result.

Instead, I recommend MetaCritic. Instead of binary coding, they simply convert the review score to a percentage (e.g., 2.5 stars out of 4 is 62.5%). They also use multipliers (or weights) to reflect the importance of some reviews (e.g., Richard Roeper's reviews are given  more weight than some unknown reviewers'). Their approach is statistically sound (relatively), and perhaps gives a more accurate impression of the critical reception.

At the end of the day, reviews, statistics, and statistics do not matter. Maybe it's best to experience a movie/tv show/video game first hand, and then read others' impressions for additional insight... Just my two cents.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Captain America: Civil War (2016)

Avengers 2.5 is an entertaining "comic-book movie", with 12 superheroes and one underwhelming villain. I liked the Winter Soldier (2014) much better because it was not just a "comic-book movie"; it had elements from the spy movie genre and a 70's thriller (*). Civil War, however, is a stylized popcorn flick that depicts the ultimate fantasy of kids playing with their action figures.

(*) Of course the gold standard of a comic-book movie that rose to become a masterpiece (of film in general) was The Dark Knight (2008). I'm not even going to compare Civil War with it...

Russo brothers (the directors) have been truly successful in making Captain America (typically a two-dimensional character) interesting in the last two movies. The action choreography has also been breathtaking. I have no doubt that they will do a great job with Avengers Infinity War I and II. But the fault of the movie is mostly with the plot.

In the comics, the event that incites the Superhero Registration Act involves a team of untrained vigilantes whose actions lead to death of 600 innocent civilians. In the movie, Avengers fail to fully contain a situation in Kenya and because of that, the UN suddenly remembers the Chitauri invasion (Avengers I), Ultron's plan to destroy Sokovia (Avengers II), and the fall of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s helicarriers (Winter Soldier), and decides to exert more control on the Avengers. In the comic, recklessness of the so-called superheroes was the reason for that loss and it made sense to put them in check. In the cinematic universe, however, the punishment did not fit the crime. Of course there was collateral damage, but even if the Avengers were controlled by the government, those events (e.g., Chitauri invasion) still would have happened... Long story short, I found the motivation weak.

Now let's put the comics aside and just focus on the cinematic universe: Based on the 12 movies preceding the Civil War, actions of Captain America and Iron Man were contradictory to their character and personality. I didn't expect Captain America - the super-soldier, war propaganda - to go rogue against the government, while the renegade "billionaire, philanthropist, playboy" becomes a puppet... Cap and Iron Man spent a lot of time discussing their points of view with each other (and they had some intersting points), but this 180 degree shift in character didn't resonate with me.

Besides the main two characters (Captain America and Iron Man), the writers put in 10 other heroes in their script and they managed to give each of them some time to shine (and set up their future movies). Among the supporting cast, Ant-Man and Black Panther were the breakout characters. Spider-Man was also great - some say that this interpretation is most faithful to the comics. But I never connected with Spider-Man (whether it be in the movies, cartoons, or comic books), and I know I'm in a minority on this.

The villain of the movie, Helmut Zemo, was a let down. The comic book version of Baron Zemo is a high-ranking Hydra leader with numerous underlings. Zemo in the movie (Daniel Brühl) is a former Sokovian special-ops agent who single handedly orchestrates some of the events that incite the conflict... In general, you need to take a leap of faith to enjoy superhero movies, but seeing this underwhelming version of Zemo be the puppeteer of 12 superheroes required a GIANT leap of faith! Particularly when you remember the first Avengers movie (2012) where only five heroes managed to stop the invasion of an alien race... Were 12 heroes really necessary to get involved with the right or wrongful conviction of Bucky Barnes? I don't think so.

Okay, I've been a little nitpicky, but overall, Captain America: Civil War is a very enjoyable movie. My ultimate measure for escapism (as I've mentioned in some of the previous reviews) is the number of times that I look at my watch during the runtime of a movie. I looked at my watch only once when I was watching Civil War; I thought it was 30 minutes into the movie, but my watch told me it was 75 minutes...

It was an 8/10 for me, and I highly recommend it.

*SPOILER* Obviously this movie is going to be compared with Batman v Superman countless times. I will post a short opinion piece soon on this. But there is one key plot point that both of them use: a son's love for his mother. In BvS, when Superman says "save Martha", Batman stops fighting and suddenly becomes rational. In the Civil War, after Iron Man sees the footage of Winter Soldier killing his parents, he says "you killed my mom", and then goes into berserker mode... In both movies, a character did a 180 flip for mother-love. It would be a double standard to brand one of them ridiculous and the other justified.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

The Voices (2014)

Voices is an underrated, dark, and twisted comedy - words simply cannot describe the nuances and eccentricity of this movie.

The main focus of Voices is mental health; while it does justice to and never undermines this important topic, it remains funny and unpredictable throughout the 104-minute runtime of the movie. Marjane Satrapi - author and director of Persepolis (2007) - does a phenomenal job switching gears from dark dramatic scenes to lough-out-loud moments in a span of seconds. The cast, particularly Ryan Reynolds and Gemma Arterton, are perfect in their roles. Ryan Reynolds' character is an innocent man-child who suffers from schizophrenia, and as a result, deals with 5-10 imaginary characters. This is by far Ryan Reynolds' best acting performance to date.

I accidentally stumbled upon this title while browsing the Netflix catalogue. It's a pity that this movie has not received the recognition it deserves. I'm not sure if it has a cult following, but it certainly deserves one... This is a movie that needs to be visually experienced (the ending number alone justifies sitting through the film). I give it a 9.5/10.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Sleeping with Other People (2015)

Is it a remake (or as some say, rip-off) of When Harry Met Sally? I disagree... While acknowledging certain similarities, I found Sleeping with Other People to be a new, smart, and well-made romantic/comedy/drama.

Our two characters (played by Jason Sudeikis and Alison Brie) are in their early/mid thirties who met each other briefly at college. They both are stuck on some issues from their pasts that have lingered on till the present day. Through first and second-hand experiences, I have seen people go to certain lengths trying to resolve complex emotions shaped during formative years of their lives... So I found these characters realistic and relatable.

Sleeping with Other People's core is the emotional psyche of its characters and this is what differentiates Sleeping with Other People from When Harry Met Sally. Yes, the male characters in both movies have similar views on the relationship between men and women - namely, that they cannot be just friends. Both characters ignore their rule and become genuine and supportive friends for the female protagonists of their respective movies, but that's where the similarities end. Sleeping with Other People shows how these characters help each other overcome their issues from the past and break those shackles. In a sense, they help each other grow... This development is what made Sleeping with Other People a distinct movie for me.

The ending (particularly the last five minutes) was a little cheesy, but that aside, this was a 8.5/10 for me - in the rom-com-dram category.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Better Call Saul - Season 1

This prequel to Breaking Bad is almost everything you expect it to be; it has the same story telling beats, same scenic shots, same type of misleads and then reveals, and the list goes on... It is of course good TV, but not a much-watch like Breaking Bad.

As the name suggests, this is the story of Saul Goodman, or as he was known back then, Jimmy McGill. The show is set five years before the first season of Breaking Bad, which means six years before Saul meets Walther White for the first time. So the showrunners have a rather large window for telling their story until we catch up with Breaking Bad. And of course, they could show what happened to Saul after the finale of Breaking Bad. We only see a short glimpse of that in the pilot, but I found it pointless - why would they just show him for three minutes and then never do another flash forward? It's a cheap trick to assumedly keep the audience interested...

Coming back to the show itself: At the beginning of the season Jimmy is a lawyer who has recently started his practice. He is a shameless, opportunistic, down on his luck ambulance chaser... Through some flashbacks and dialogue with Jimmy's brother (Chuck), you learn that Jimmy used to be scheming charlatan back in Chicago. After an altercation with the law, he absolves himself of the "Slipping Jimmy" persona and tries to walk on the path of righteousness. But as we all know from Breaking Bad, Jimmy is one day going to become Saul Goodman the criminal lawyer.

If I want to summarize the arc of this season, and perhaps the whole show, in one sentence, I would say: Jimmy became righteous for a while, but then broke bad again.

The show is well made, but it is a little too similar to Breaking Bad. I wish it had a more distinct voice. They initially proposed it as a 30-minute comedy series. Wish they had experimented with that idea... As I mentioned, it is still good TV and perhaps in the 80% percentile of what is on TV, but I don't think I'd miss much if I had skipped this show altogether. Overall, I'd give it 7.5/10.

"Need a will? Call McGill"