Tuesday, July 22, 2014


Spoilers follow, obviously.

I really, really hoped I wouldn't be writing this. I love this series since it began. I found the first four episodes well-written and compelling and fun. Which is why, the further I went into episode five, the more my heart sank until I could feel it beating against the sympathetic embrace of my pancreas. Little bits of bad writing, unheard of even at the weakest points of previous episodes, started popping up like harbingers of doom.

It began with a nitpick that denotes a larger problem: Bigby Wolf and his magical power of making an exact replica of his clothes materialize next to him whenever the need arises, and arise it does thanks to his penchant for turning into a wolf several sizes beyond the skill of any tailor. The writers clearly reasoned that, in this story about a community of Fables that includes a talking frog and a talking pig who can turn into one another if they want by using a magic spell, it would be too absurd for Bigby to return to his normal self fully-clothed. So, whenever he loses his temper and finds himself naked as a result (as you do), he looks to one side and there's a clothesline with an outfit identical to his own just hanging there. Surely this is the least contrived of all possible solutions to this problem. In fact, let's make this happen twice in the episode.

Next to the real problems, however, the one described in the previous paragraph pales like a piece of chalk being threatened with a gun.

Colin, seen here perfectly portraying the look on my face 
as the real problems began to show up.

Let us begin with the Vivian Cop-Out, as I call it. To recap: it's revealed that if Vivian removes her neck ribbon she will die. However, all the other girls who are wearing similar ribbons will be free of its enslaving spell, which keeps them from divulging secrets. Among the enslaved is Nerissa, who insinuates to Bigby that she has secrets to divulge in the same way the eruption of a volcano insinuates cloudy weather. Therefore the episode presents you with the apparent moral choice of taking the ribbon off Vivian's neck or, if you're not feeling particularly murderous at the moment, saying you'll find another way. Observing the lack of any urgency whatsoever, I pick the latter option, at which point Vivian has a sudden crisis of conscience that, thanks to Telltale's animation, looks like a distressed marionette in dire need of oiling its joints. At the end of her remorseful speech, she proceeds to take the ribbon off her own neck and dies.

This is the equivalent of forcing the player to choose between the lives of two characters and having the one you didn't choose survive anyway thanks to a piano falling on whatever the source of the danger was. Telltale's THE WALKING DEAD airbombs that kind of choice in front of you and actually goes ahead and kills the character you don't choose. And it does that in the very first episode of season one.

Yet, in episode five of THE WOLF AMONG US, the writers lazy their way out of a serious moral quandary, seemingly satisfied with letting you know there was one. And it gets worse. A brief look on YouTube reveals that, if you try to take the ribbon off Vivian, she will move away from you and the scene happens the exact same way it does with the non-homicidal choice.

Let us take a moment to point out that visual design is
not among this game's problems.

When the first opportunity to kill the Crooked Man presents itself, a different cop-out strategy is used: you get the option to kill him, but there is nothing at stake. The only reason to murder him is the emotional wish to see the Crooked Man pay for his crimes, which are not yet fully proven. Killing him would destroy what Bigby is supposed to stand for, his attempts to turn over a new leaf, and whatever affection Snow has for him. Besides, narratively speaking, it's the kind of choice that may pave the way for a reveal that The Crooked Man was a good guy all along, so full of love and beauty that if he forgets to flush his toilet you will find nothing but rainbows floating innocently within. So I gave the murder option as much thought as I did the last time I scratched my nose.

What follows is The Crooked Man's trial. He attempts to convince all present that Bigby, Snow and the floundering institution that they represent are the real villains, while The Crooked Man is the only alternative they have to survive the failures of government. This is the thematic centerpiece of the episode and indeed the entire series. And once again there is barely any urgency to it.

Those overzealous little hints on the top left corner of the screen (which, contrary to THE WALKING DEAD, you can't turn off) warn me that The Crooked Man can turn the tide of the trial in his favor. It's never a good sign when you need text popping up on screen to directly tell you what is at stake. And even then, the scene feels barely alive. Perhaps I was too nice to the people of Fabletown; the text pop-up is the only indication I have that The Crooked Man has any chance at all of winning. Even the things I did "wrong" get a cursory comment at best. I make Bigby mention that he killed Georgie - I expect him to explain that it was a mercy killing, but he surprises me by making himself sound as deranged and psychopathic as possible. The only response this elicits is a shocked "What?!" by Snow... and the scene moves on. The fact that I killed Tweedle-Dum - or Tweedle-Dee, who cares - is treated trivially as well and nobody bothers to mention that I ripped off Gren's arm - including Gren, who's standing right there.

Even if I had been as nice as possible to absolutely every living thing in Fabletown, the trial scene needed urgency. Bigby's history of righteousness should save him from the noose, but instead it ensures the complete absence of a noose in the first place. The payoff for your good deeds is an anticlimax. And, as evidenced by the Vivian cop-out, maybe it’s an anticlimax even if you act as an asshole to everyone.

So I just go through the motions until Nerissa shows up, free from the ribbon's spell - as she would have been regardless of anything I did -, and exposes the Crooked Man's crimes to everyone. With his crookedness now certain, you are given the option to lock him up, throw him down the Witching Well, or "rip his head off", as the choice menu tantalizingly puts it. Someone asks what will happen if the Crooked Man escapes captivity, but before I can welcome the appearance of any stakes whatsoever, Auntie Greenleaf quickly defuses the notion because Magic. So choosing to lock up The Crooked Man is, once again, a no-brainer of a choice. I elect to do so and the Crooked Man tries to throw Bigby down the Witching Well. After overpowering him, I am once again presented with the same choice. Notice that there is still no urgency at all. All that the writers try to do is make you hate the Crooked Man enough to make a rash decision, but they don't build the slow-burning tension needed to keep the player from thinking straight - something they did so well before they gave you the option to rip off Gren's arm or kill Tweedle-Whatever. So I lock up the Crooked Man. I half-expect him to summon a hamster and crush it in his hand as the game offers me the choice a third time.

"Observe as I kneecap this pregnant bunny, Mr. Wolf. My,
my, I wonder what way to kill me would be the most painful,
don't you?"

And, at last, we get to the final scene. Ah, the final scene. A poorly-delivered twist if I ever saw one. Here's a good rule of thumb: if you need a flashback sequence so we'll piece the mystery together, you should revise your script to see if you can achieve the same effect without a flashback sequence. THE WOLF AMONG US resorts to a flashback sequence. And, unbelievably, it still manages to fail.

In a well-written mystery, Nerissa saying, "You're not as bad as they say you are" would have sufficed. After all, Faith says that to you in episode one and, with competent storytelling, you'd remember all the relevant details by yourself. The problem is that, after episode two, Faith fades into the background and becomes just one of the victims in all the evil perpetrated by The Crooked Man. Other characters take the stage. So I simply forgot that she'd ever said that vital line. Bigby never remembers it, and it would have been narratively meaningful if he did, since his very motivation is not being as bad as Fabletown says he is. Even worse: in what may constitute the greatest mystery of the series, the pre-episode recap doesn't remind you that Faith said the line. It goes as far as showing the scene in which she says it, but not her saying it.

So when Nerissa repeated it, there was no subtextual meaning at all to me. The flashback sequence that followed became gibberish because I didn't know what to look out for. Maybe if it actually showed scenes, but it just recapped dialogue from the entire season as the camera zoomed in on a thoughtful Bigby. Then he had a silent epiphany that was utterly confusing to me, and the game presented the choice of letting Nerissa go or going after her. Of course I went after her, I wanted to understand what the fuck just happened. Then the game ended.

The game, ending.

Obviously I did what any self-respecting student of storytelling would: I went to the internet. In my defense, I did give it some thought before I resorted to that, and didn’t get very far because, once again, I had no memory of the “you’re not as bad” line. 

The internet reminded me of it and presented two theories: one is that the Nerissa you talk to in the ending is actually Faith, glamoured. Her decapitated head, found in episode one, was actually Nerissa's, glamoured as Faith’s. The logic being that Faith found dirt on the Crooked Man and revealed it to Nerissa. Nerissa, fearing the Crooked Man's retribution in case he found out, ratted Faith out to Georgie... ensuring the Crooked Man would find out. And so he orders Georgie to kill Faith. Somehow aware of this, Faith uses glamour to switch places with Nerissa. Georgie kills Nerissa thinking she’s Faith and the actual Faith spends the rest of the game glamoured as Nerissa. Read all this again, I'll wait.

No, it doesn't make much sense and severely overcomplicates things. How would Faith have convinced Nerissa to switch places? It couldn't have happened after Georgie killed Nerissa because Georgie wanted to kill Faith, not Nerissa. Also, how could Faith have done this so coldly? It doesn't really fit what we know of her character. And it would be especially dumb of her to give Bigby that final hint at the end, since she is admitting to who she really is and to the psychopathic implications of that.

The second theory is the opposite: when the game begins, Faith is already dead. Georgie killed her for the same reasons as in the first theory. And when Nerissa found out, she glamoured herself as Faith and created a ruckus with the Woodsman to lure Bigby into meeting her in a way that makes sense to him. She then spoke about herself (i.e. Faith) and made Bigby like her. After parting ways, she left Faith's head on Bigby's doorstep and went back to being Nerissa, hoping Bigby would be emotionally hooked into solving the murder of someone he'd felt sympathy towards. In the ending, Nerissa reveals a lot to Bigby, feeling guilty. As she walks away, she decides to reveal one final thing, and repeats to him the line she'd said as Faith. The final piece.

That makes much more sense, frankly, and it's genuinely elegant storytelling. And maybe both theories are intended by the writers as an ambiguous ending, for the player to act on whichever one feels more likely. In which case it is a great ending, one that could have made up for the episode's faults had it not been a victim of the same sloppy storytelling that caused those faults.

Nothing disappoints me more than a story almost making it. It’s on the verge of greatness and then it stumbles. Those are the ones that really, really hurt.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013


(Mild spoilers for the MASS EFFECT series in the first two paragraphs. THE WALKING DEAD's writing is discussed in general terms with no plot details (which vary depending on your choices anyway), although this is not the text for you if you want to start the series completely in the dark. Whatever you do, though: start it.)

The ending of MASS EFFECT 2 is a vital example of what separates videogames from other entertainment. You may care about the characters in a book, a comic or a film, but you're powerless to do anything for or to them. You can only see how the story unfolds and hope for the best (or for the worst, if you happen to hate the characters).

In MASS EFFECT 2, your actions have a definite outcome, and the game builds up to an ending in which the lives of everyone in your crew fall into your hands. I remember being scared shitless of what came next. It was a fear I had never experienced outside of real life. This is an emotional reaction no other medium can pull off this well. And carrying out that mission was absolutely exhilarating because of that fear. It's simply one of the best endings I've ever seen in a videogame, and one of the best points against the ending of MASS EFFECT 3. It's not just the pulled-out-of-an-arse plot elements; the final mission is a repetitive shootout against the game's strongest enemy units, in which none of your teammates are in any danger. It's as linear as MASS EFFECT gets, and one of the main reasons the finale truly sucks. The fear of what comes next, of being responsible, is evoked beforehand in the game, but not in the end.

It bothered me that few videogames were attempting to evoke a powerful emotional response such as that. It's problematic, of course, because it requires good writing, and that is still rare in the videogame industry.

Enter Telltale's THE WALKING DEAD, which makes the feeling of opressive responsibility its entire point.

I just finished the fourth chapter. I'm afraid of the fifth, just like I've been afraid of every chapter since the second. Sometimes the writing must bend itself to videogame logic, but except for that it's not just good: it's exceptional by any standards, powered by intelligent and consistent characterization. In an industry that's so often racist and sexist (often due to fucking idiotic marketing beliefs that the white male demographic only buys stuff starred by white people and plenty of cleavage), THE WALKING DEAD is starred by a varied cast of men and women of diverse skills, personalities and morals. Not only that, the protagonist is an African-American teacher who adopts and protects a young child of mixed ethnicity. Yep, in a move that must have made marketing teams scratch their stupid heads, they refused to make either the protagonist or his adopted child white.

And what's more amazing, they succeed at that most daunting of tasks: writing a child that strikes you as a child. Clementine is one of the best-realized child characters ever written. I often surprised myself at the fatherly stance I kept taking almost by instinct whenever she was concerned. And at some points, she says something so innocently hopeful I actually cried on more than one occasion. Hell, this series has made me cry more often than every other videogame I've ever played, combined.

Aside from writing excellent and consistent characters, the writers are equally good at being unpredictable (unless you check that ridiculous option in the menu that tells you what may happen depending on your choice, which I obviously unchecked). One of the reasons this game is scary to play is because the consequences of your choices are not easily foreseeable. In a cliche-ridden story, one can quickly guess what comes next, but THE WALKING DEAD sees what you're thinking and subverts it. Then when you expect them to subvert it? They see that and don't. If the writing was bad, one wouldn't expect that kind of sophistication. But the writing is great, and for that reason I never know whether I'm making the "right" choice or not. Whatever choice I make, the game is often good at guessing why I made it, and incorporates this into the dialogue.

Another great thing about the series: there is no "right" choice. There's only what I want to happen. This game is far too clever for black-and-white moralism. It engineers the most complex, difficult situations and tells you to make a snap decision that may or will result in someone's death. And with this, THE WALKING DEAD becomes the scariest game of its generation. AMNESIA may be frightening (to say the least), but its initial two hours are shallow. I was viscerally scared by genuinely clever game design, but that in and of itself is not a source of entertainment for me.

Being scared in the way THE WALKING DEAD does it, though, is. And more importantly, it's incredibly insightful. I learn not just about the characters, but about myself. It's no wonder the series has achieved its much deserved status as one of the greatest games of its generation. It pulls off an emotional intensity that no other medium is so capable of, and it does so masterfully, as if it's standing on the shoulders of other games that have tried that for years. And the really impressive thing is that it mostly isn't. No game series that I know of has tried to pull off what THE WALKING DEAD is trying to pull off. They're swimming in uncharted waters and never getting lost. Hell, they're fucking skiing in it and doing back flips.

This is absolutely inspiring.

Episode five, here I go. Wish me luck.


Sunday, December 16, 2012


It's not as good as the LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy, but it doesn't need to be. THE HOBBIT is a lighter story and does exactly what it sets out to do. There are things it could have done better but the same is true of the LOTR trilogy. Doesn't prevent any of these films from ultimately working very well.

In fact, I was pleasantly surprised by Peter Jackson's restraint. He showed a worrying addiction to solemnity in KING KONG, yet in THE HOBBIT he adopts lower-key storytelling. The warmth and humor of the dwarves is always the spirit of the film instead of the doom and gloom of their destination. Jackson makes no attempt to give the journey a scope more epic than it deserves, and I applaud his courage in taking his time with every scene. Frankly, I did not think the film was bloated, with the exception of some moments in Bilbo's house. Initially I did think it would be, but it grew on me and I felt the film ended exactly where it should.

The humor is a more constant presence than it was in LOTR. The scene with the three trolls is delightfully hilarious and the scene between Bilbo and Gollum is simply superb, also managing to be fairly tense even though one knows neither of them will die in it. And beside the wonderful feeling of revisiting Rivendell as Howard Shore's magnificent theme swells, the entire duration of the characters' stay is never tedious and the meeting between Saruman, Elrond, Galadriel and Gandalf is expertly conducted and ends with one of Sir Ian McKellen's most memorable facial expressions.

And I'm thankful that the many dwarves are not individually developed. They work better as a group than they do separately. Not knowing which dwarf was onscreen didn't bother me for a second. I liked them. I knew the ones that individually mattered for this chapter of the story and that's enough. The scene with the three trolls was enough to endear me to all of them, and their underlying pain of being homeless is brought up by the film at the right time and with the right weight.

And finally, Bilbo. I think his participation in the story is just right. He's passive enough that the dwarves can be forgiven for considering him pointless, but active enough to matter in subtle ways that become increasingly important in accordance to his dramatic arc of finding the adventurer spirit in himself. His arc is about becoming the protagonist of the story, so it's important he doesn't feel like the protagonist at first. Jackson, Boyens, Walsh and Del Toro pull this off in a way that worked perfectly for me.

This film just worked for me. It worked very well. What many consider flaws -- the deliberate pacing, Bilbo's passivity, the number of dwarves -- I consider strengths. I do remain skeptic about there being enough material for two other films, or for an extended cut of this one, but I'm happy with what I've seen so far.

As for the High Frame Rate (HFR) technology.

It makes 3D images less dark, which I would consider very important if I saw aesthetic beauty in 3D. I continue not to. It still kinda feels like objects on the foreground are paper cut-outs. The depth is there, but it doesn't feel immersive or pretty to me. In fact, 3D works best with a large depth of field, but I still think a 2D frame with narrow depth of field looks much prettier. Depth of field is a rich part of cinematic language and aesthetically gorgeous if used right. Nothing I've seen 3D do beats it.

And then there's the fact that I never thought a character was a part of the wall they're standing in front of. Meaning, we can see depth without 3D. (Edit: although 2D and a large depth of field can lead to some very useful or accidentally hilarious optical illusions) The technology just makes it more obvious, which I find completely pointless. And distracting because it doesn't feel like real life depth. It looks fake. Divorced from the image like a bad special effect.

But HFR isn't pointless. At all. I'm definitely against it as a new standard, as I think 24 FPS and 48 FPS can be a choice based on the needs of each project, just like aspect ratio or shutter angle are. Neither needs to dominate the cinematic landscape. 

But the advantages of 48 FPS are undeniable. The image retains definition even as the camera pans or moves quickly. The reduction in motion blur and the increased fluidity of movement have their own kind of beauty. But so does 24 FPS. Think the opening scene of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN. How Kaminsky and Spielberg combined atypical shutter angle to 24 FPS to create a stark image that made the violence and brutality more striking. 24 FPS and 48 FPS have distinct feels to each, and neither will require getting used to because of the other. I can go back to 24 FPS just fine, and once I've seen enough 48 FPS films I'll get used to the tech without losing my ability to admire the other. One obvious use of each, for instance, would be 24 FPS for a slow-paced drama that evokes ennui and melancholy, and 48 FPS for fast, psychedelic or hyperreal stories. These hardly need to be the only uses and the above examples can be reversed with interesting results, but the point is: the existence of 48 FPS does not make 24 FPS obsolete.

As long as that mentality is held, I consider 48 FPS a welcome option. Otherwise I'm worried.

Monday, November 19, 2012



Once a character hooks me, I'm done. I have to follow the bastard to the end.

DEXTER gave me all the reasons I could possibly need to stop watching it, even going so far as to break the characterization of both the title character and Debra Morgan many times (not with what they become, but how they become it). And yet, every week, I feel drawn to the next episode of a series that completely fell apart throughout its last two seasons.

I do this out of morbid curiosity, mostly. My enjoyment of the series has been almost entirely ironic for a while now.

In fact, DEXTER has been bad enough for me to question my own memories of its initial quality. So I re-watched the first season. And a few small flaws aside, the first season really is exceptional. A very focused and thematically-rich story told with a uniquely quirky sense of pitch-black humor and a great cast of characters (it was wonderful to see Doakes again). There was some clumsiness with flashbacks and a few plot points that didn't really click, but overall, it still feels fresh, funny and powerfully humane. The last scene of the last episode -- a colorful representation of the universal wish to be accepted for who we are -- is nothing short of magnificent.

The second season, though, was worringly derailed by the character of Lila, who is used by the writers as a plot device to keep Dexter from killing Doakes -- a decision that would establish Dexter as a character willing to kill innocents in order to save himself. They didn't want to establish him as that, so the way they found was to have Lila kill Doakes. Dexter does welcome the turn of events, but later avenges Doakes by killing Lila. And the writers make sure to demonize her even further in order to make the kill more "palatable". Which it shouldn't have been.

The third season had one of the stupidest plot twists in the history of humanity. After a cliffhanger in which Dexter has a bag pulled over his head and is thrown in the trunk of a car, the next episode reveals that his kidnapper is... Masuka. With the purpose of taking Dexter to a surprise birthday party. And you remember the worst part? Someone actually says something like, "How could you not have expected this, Dexter?" Yeah, how could he not have imagined that he was being kidnapped to his own surprise birthday party. How could he be so stupid as to think he was in actual danger while trapped in the trunk of a stranger's car, a stranger who managed to overpower the martial-arts-trained Dexter despite being Masuka. And the icing on top of the cake is that, in his inner monologue, Dexter actually thinks, "I'm an idiot." Every strength of the third season stands in the shadow of this braindead plot twist.

The fourth season refreshed my hope that the series could regain its initial quality. It's the one other truly good season of DEXTER. No important flaws come to mind, just the things it gets right.

And then, then it all goes irrecoverably to shit.

The fifth season was a confused mess with an awful ending that destroys the character of Debra Morgan. She has her gun pointed at two murderers. She can't see who they are because a few plastic curtains are in the way, blurring her view, but she has them. And she lets them go. Why? Because she "understands" why they've done what they've done. Nevermind she doesn't know their identities or their full motives. Nevermind she could easily find out who they are by taking a few steps forward and peeking through the curtains. She "gets it" and therefore lets them escape, not knowing whether they may go on to kill innocent people. All of the season's conflicts are solved in such an aggressively idiotic manner, condemning the sixth season to be an exercise in damage control.

It added twice as much damage, hinging on a plot twist that manages to be cliché, predictable and thematically contradictory all at once. "Oh, the villain isn't an asshole because of religious fanatism! He's an asshole because he's full-on schizophrenic! Sorry we ever implied religious people could ever do anything as heinous as he does!" It's rather amazing backpedaling and the final nail in the coffin of a season that was already ridiculous to begin with, even adding an out-of-motherfucking-nowhere subplot implying that Debra is in love with Dexter.

Throughout the seventh season, it seemed like the writers had thankfully scrapped that if nothing else. Unfortunately they kept fucking everything else up. And now, on the eighth episode... they brought the subplot back in full force. The one fuckup they had avoided.

Except they used it to reveal the theme of the season: the irrationality of love.


... and it kind of fucking works.

Bear with me here, this is a enormously mixed feeling. Which is very fitting, in that the entire season is about mixed feelings. This is kind of a genius metalinguistic trick that is probably not intentional, because in order to be intentional, it would have to mean that the writers deliberately did a terrible job of execution for seven episodes in order to reveal the theme of the season and make it all seem to fit together in hindsight. And even if that was the case they'd still have fucked up. But again, bear with me.

My biggest problem with this season has been mischaracterizations, which can now be explained by the theme: all of the characters who are acting weird in this season are in love with someone or something. Yep, they even add a montage in the ending to show this off. Their actions are supposed to be contradictory and apparently nonsensical.

This doesn't take away the several problems of execution, namely how every plot detail is kind of just summoned into place, as if the writers are saying, "Okay, this is what needs to happen now, so... voilá." It feels mechanical, by-the-numbers in its construction. It's a matter of "Can this happen in this situation, with these characters? Sure. Does it feel natural that it happened? Not in the slightest." Plus the dialogue in some episodes was truly atrocious and please, please get rid of Dexter's visions of his fucking dad.

But the writers nailed one thing: Isaac Sirko. This one was masterful. Simply masterful. He seemed like your average villain with a grudge, seemingly motivated by a sense of honor or pride, but always staying classy. Just a threat to keep the season tense. The revelation that he's actually gay and was in love with the man Dexter killed? I never, ever saw that one coming. And it's perfect. It fits him into the theme of the season and makes his character all the more interesting and necessary. The conversation he and Dexter have at the bar to the sound of a Bossa Nova song surprised the shit out of me in many levels, not just for revealing the theme (and therefore Sirko's purpose as a character, as well as Hannah McKay's) but for its mood and its beauty. At that moment, something just clicked. The theme revealed itself and all the pieces are in their proper place, even if they got there very, very drunkenly.

None of this saves Debra Morgan as a character, though. After all she's been through (dating a serial killer, losing a man she loved, etc.), finding out that her stepbrother, for whom she has romantic feelings, is actually the most prolific serial killer in history and that he was taught by the father she idolized?

This is not the kind of thing that you shrug off with some vomiting and a tense conversation. A complete nervous breakdown was warranted. This is not so much her world being turned upside-down as spun out of its axis and into the sun. She's a strong person, but not to the point of withstanding this much so easily. Right after she finds out, she's already covering for Dexter, and on this episode she asks him to kill someone for her. For the entire season her character is treated as though she'd never seen the justice system fail, as if people getting away with their crimes is somehow a new thing for her. It's like someone hit a reset button in her skull and she's a young beat cop once again, suddenly finding herself in the role of lieutenant.

In light of the season's theme, I can buy Joey Quinn turning corrupt. I can buy Dexter being reckless. I can easily buy LaGuerta going back to the Bay Harbor Butcher case to clean Doakes' name. And I can happily buy Isaac Sirko's motivation to kill Dexter.

But I cannot buy whatever the fuck is happening to Debra Morgan. "Oh, she loves her stepbrother!" Yeah, all the more reason not to take the news of his true nature as well as she did. "Oh, her sudden wish to kill people is motivated by her disillusionment with the justice system!" She was always well-aware of its failings. Not a new thing for her. Dexter may be showing it to her in a new light, but she's enchanted by it in a way that is completely incongruent with her character and with the fact that she knows her brother keeps blood slides of his victims and calls his urges "the Dark Passenger". Y'know, the kind of thing that makes it less about "justice" and more about "sadistic enjoyment of killing". Also, she knows Dexter was the real Bay Harbor Butcher. Yet she doesn't ask him what really happened to Doakes, even though LaGuerta won't stop wondering about it to her face.

The handling of Debra's character is a huge gaping hole in the season that hurts it beyond recovery. It damaged the long-awaited moment of the series: Debra discovering the truth about her stepbrother.

But parts of this episode have shown that the rest may yet be salvageable into something worth watching.

Up to now, I had been watching this season because I still like the characters (and Michael C. Hall and Jennifer Carpenter are always a pleasure to watch) and I had a morbid curiosity to see just how low the writers would sink. And up to now -- except for a few and far-between good moments -- they had been tunnelling into the shit with a confidence that was actually embarrassing to watch, but also wickedly entertaining.

However, I'm not watching it ironically from now on. I'm genuinely interested in seeing where it goes. The writers have something to say and, if the scene between Dexter and Isaac in the bar is any indication, they may pull it off to some extent despite this season's many failings.

And I'm actually wondering if "despite" belongs in that sentence. Because the conversation between Isaac and Dexter is so well-written, so well-directed, so well-acted, so above the quality of everything else in the season... that it feels like the scene is speaking directly to the viewer. Like it's saying, "You're supposed to be confused about all this. You're supposed to question it, to have mixed feelings about it, and to like it even though it has many flaws. This is precisely what we're talking about."

And I wonder if the scene would have worked as well as it did for me if I wasn't feeling exactly the way I'm feeling about this season. I wonder to what point the characterization problems were deliberate contradictions to make the theme ring true. This kind of thematic ambition doesn't fit the recent shittiness of the series, so I'm probably being too optimistic.

The next episodes will say. But Isaac Sirko has hooked me. He was already a fairly interesting character in a season that barely needed him. But now it does. Badly.


Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Movie Review - DREDD

(This is an in-depth analysis of the film and contains big spoilers. This is meant for people who have watched the film. And you should be one of these people. Get your ass to the theatre.)

It's rather curious that this film is co-produced by Adi Shankar, who also produced the regrettable Punisher short film DIRTY LAUNDRY starring Thomas Jane and Ron Perlman. While the latter film seemed to celebrate the existence of its sick title character, expecting the audience to cheer for the brutal homicides he commits, DREDD is unafraid to delve deep into the moral complexity of its premise: a chaotic megacity where the law is enforced by judges who have the power to arrest and sentence, executing criminals on the spot if they consider it necessary, as adapted from the long-running British comic 2000AD.

The moral implications of that aren't dealt with in a few token scenes amidst cathartic showers of bad guy blood. The graphic violence in DREDD has surprisingly consistent thematic purpose. When Dredd and the rookie storm a room full of drugged Slo-Mo users, director Pete Travis uses the drug's effects to depict bullets shredding people in super slow-motion. At first this seems to be purely for the cool. Anthony Dod Mantle's cinematography makes it all look gorgeous. But then Travis shows us the rookie's horrified expression, and it becomes clear that this film isn't violence porn. 

In fact, DREDD uses its cinema-friendly drug to depict death in the most evocative and terrifying of ways. In one early scene, we see a POV shot of a man falling two hundred stories while drugged on Slomo. Falling at one percent of normal speed, his last moments are multiplied a hundredfold. Several minutes of watching the ground inch closer and closer. Of knowing he's going to die and there's nothing he can do about it. It's simultaneously frightening and liberating, and it could be seen as a representation of the slow death Mega City One itself seems to be suffering.

The film's commitment to its theme is such that it hurts the narrative every once in a while. Dredd and the rookie falling on the only skate ramp in the entire building, right below the floor they were in -- one of two hundred floors - is somewhat hard to accept. However, the scene depicts a bunch of kids playing outside the building in which hell is currently breaking loose. It comes off as a literal representation of a child's personal world, isolated from the horrors of real-life. I didn't think of that right away, but I felt it, and it eased the rather clumsy coincidence.

In another scene, the rookie reluctantly executes a criminal who had, according to the law, done enough to deserve a death sentence. Not long after that, she and Dredd hide in the apartment of a woman who turns out to be the man's wife. The coincidence is a bit jarring, but aside from it being more believable than the previous example, the scene is infused with purpose that is clear right away: to humanize the criminal that the rookie had just killed, to her and to the audience -- and it works so well that the coincidence is forgotten and the scene becomes one of the best in the film thanks to its intelligently ironic execution ("Don't thank me").

Travis and screenwriter Alex Garland are also effective in portraying the status quo of Mega City One. Violence is so common it has become almost casual. Right after a brutal shootout, a public address system warns residents that everything will be cleaned up in about thirty minutes. The building in which Mama runs her empire could easily be a sci-fi version of some Rio de Janeiro slums: an HQ for drug producers and traffickers, but mostly populated by average people having to deal with crime in order to survive.

With that and other plot elements such as the corrupted judges, DREDD not only avoids black-and-white storytelling, it embraces the grey area and makes it the point of the film, rising above most of the action genre without betraying it, because it's also an excellent action film. Always entertaining, well-paced and with a sporadic but effective sense of humor. Director Pete Travis depicts the action in an intense and brutal manner, particularly when Mama uses miniguns to obliterate an entire floor and everyone in it, civilians or judges. The super-slow-motion shots are beautifully composed and colored by Mantle, and editor Mark Eckersley avoids the inexplicable tendency to overcut that has consumed modern filmmaking, opting instead to let the same shot last as long as it needs to. Paul Leonard-Morgan's music pumps energy into the film most of the time, but also changes style to beautifully convey the effects of Slo-Mo (yeah, okay, it does sound like that Justin Bieber song that was slowed down 800%, but goddamn it, it works).

As Dredd, the ever charismatic Karl Urban does a mostly competent job, without overdoing the character's signature arched mouth and never wasting an opportunity for deadpan humor. The only problem is his voice, which changes depending on volume: when speaking normally, his voice is raspy. When speaking loudly, it remains deep but noticeably smoother, betraying the actor's composition. Which is just a blemish on a rather good performance, really. When Dredd is shown on a rare moment of vulnerability, Urban subtly manages to convey an inkling of fear, or at least aprehension, using nothing but his mouth. As the rookie Anderson, Olivia Thirlby uses her naturally innocent appearance to make her character feel like a rookie, but the actress also pulls off a rather convincing tougher attitude when her character arc calls for it. Her role is more challenging than Urban's, and she proves herself up to the task. Wood Harris as the prisoner Anderson and Dredd escort for most of the film also deserves applause for an interesting performance that is varied in its cruelty. Same goes for Domnhall Gleason as the man with huge robotic eyes and a constantly fearful expression that make him sympathetic even before his tragic past is revealed.

But it's Lena Headey who steals the fucking show. Avoiding any and all histrionics, her Ma-Ma is a terrifying kind of calm, as symbolized by the gorgeous slow-motion shot that introduces her. So when she takes the minigun and contributes to the destruction of an entire floor and its inhabitants, it's a stark contrast. It's at this point that it becomes clear: her seeming indifference to the suffering she causes is not due to never causing it directly. She's not some kingpin so far above her henchmen that she never has to get her hands dirty. She does get her hands dirty. And she's at peace with it. That makes her infinitely more threatening. And Alex Garland intelligently explains her backstory early in the film, resulting in a richer, truly fascinating villain brilliantly played by Headey.

But Garland's true stroke of genius is the parallel he draws between Ma-Ma and Judge Dredd.

Throughout the film, their actions and methods are eerily similar: the use of the public address system to intimidate, the killing of bad guys as an example, the willingness to execute pleading human beings. Dredd and Ma-Ma are both ruthless and display little to no humanity. Neither him nor her show any enjoyment as they kill people, but the thing is, they don't need to. Pete Travis goes as far as to show Dredd and Ma-Ma -- who are supposedly facing each other in that particular scene -- facing the same side of the screen in what constitutes a reversal of the camera's axis, and a very meaningful one. It doesn't really equate them. Dredd will only indulge his sadism within the freedom the law gives him, and he's quite simply not as cruel as Ma-Ma is. But their actions draw a fascinating parallel between criminal violence and state violence.

In what is the best instance of this throughline, Ma-Ma throws three men off the highest point in the building to make an example out of them. Not only does Dredd do the same to a criminal, he does the same to Ma-Ma. Inspiring himself on Ma-Ma's methods, Dredd drugs her with Slo-Mo and tells her the crimes she's guilty of, finishing with "How do you plead?"

Ma-Ma's scarred face is naked. The monster she has become, offspring of a broken society, plain for all to see. Aware that whatever pain comes next won't be worse than the pains that came before. She stares defiantly at Dredd, as if to say, "I have no illusions about who I am. Can you say the same from behind your mask?"

And then he throws her through the glass. She falls inch by inch, contemplating every floor of her empire on the way down. Watching her life go by as death approaches. And then Pete Travis and Anthony Dod Mantle deliver one of my favorite contre-plongée shots of all time: Mama closing her eyes, at peace with her death, as her face is crushed against the ground, the blood taking over the entire lens and morphing into another shot that depicts her heartbeat stopping. Unrepentant to the end she always knew would come.

This is one of the best scenes this year had to offer.

Garland and Travis don't need to point at their thematic intentions and go "This is what we mean!". They've succeeded in making me feel what they were trying to say. This is storytelling at its finest. They've managed to make a terrible person's face smashing into the ground in super slow motion something poetic and meaningful and sad instead of going for the cheap "bad guy dies horribly" catharsisAnd they managed to do that in a hardcore action movie. It never feels like there's been a change of tone. It all blends together beautifully.

DREDD is a superb action film. Of course that it is possible I'm reading too much into it, but it's to the film's credit that it can comfortably support my interpretation. And one thing is for certain: it's a far smarter film than it's being given credit for, as several film critics seem to be either taking it at face value or more interested in describing super-slow-motion headshots.


Monday, September 10, 2012

Webcomic Hiatus (Again)

I am now working on two webcomics. PITCH BLACK has gained a little sibling called LITERAL METAPHOR. Three strips into the latter, though, I must take a break from both. My other job as an independent filmmaker has hogged all my time and twice as much patience as I have. We're redesigning our logo and in the middle of editing two short films, one of which is heavy on special effects. Additionally, Rio Film Festival looms over us, promising to devour two weeks whole. Throw in the fact that, for me, September is stuffed full of birthday celebrations, mine included, and I think I have enough excuses for another goddamn hiatus.

But wait, there's one more: the upcoming 200th PITCH BLACK strip. I have very stupidly established that every fifty strips are celebrated with a longer comic. The first one was about fifty panels long and still drawn in the old, simpler art style. Same goes for the second one, except that it was roughly eighty panels long. The third one was in the new art style and a hundred and ten panels long. But hey, at least it wasn't colored, right?

The 200th will be. I haven't written the script yet, but from what I have in mind, it will probably be longer than at least the first and second special editions. And in the new art style. Point being, I'm fucked.

I won't give any predictions other than "as soon as possible" for the return of both strips. But they will be returning.


Monday, August 20, 2012


My relationship with Tony Scott's work is inconsistent, but of his talent, I had no doubt. Well, I did, at first. I watched MAN ON FIRE a good while ago, but I remember the visual style being an absolute mess. Almost like the director was actively trying to destroy the footage he shot. And DÉJÀ VU, quite frankly, is just fucking silly.

But then I watched TRUE ROMANCE. And this scene was the moment my opinion of Tony Scott changed for the much, much better (spoilers follow):

When I learned of his death yesterday, I decided to fill two immense gaps in my familiarity with his filmography: TOP GUN and CRIMSON TIDE.

The first only made clear what a competent aesthetician he was -- something that I never would have gathered from MAN ON FIRE. The script of TOP GUN is merely entertaining, and the music is used very cheesily, but the film has some breathtakingly beautiful shots (with credit going as well to cinematographer Jeffrey L. Kimball):

It's CRIMSON TIDE, however, that truly shows Scott at the height of his talent. He directed the shit out of that film, delivering a jolt of electricity to a script that was already sharp and relevant (again, spoilers follow).

Aside from his work as a filmmaker, and as pointed out by Film Crit Hulk in his eulogy, the man stood behind many great films as a producer. We're talking THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD and the recent THE GREY.

He leaves behind a great contribution to Cinema and he will be missed.

Rest in peace, Tony.


Sunday, July 1, 2012


(Spoilers for the entire MASS EFFECT series)

It's an improvement. Bioware got that much right. Then again, if they hadn't managed to improve that steaming shit of an ending, I'd strongly advise the writers to get examined for brain injuries. They stuck to their original finale, but this time they at least bothered to clear up what happens to your crewmates during the run towards the beam, how the Normandy finds itself in transit when the Crucible fires, what happens to the species that were apparently stranded around a ruined Earth by the destruction of the Mass Relays, along with several other inexplicably ignored and glaringly obvious plotholes and omissions.

More importantly, Shepard now reacts with more bewilderment at the choices presented to him by that fucking Starchild, and he can even refuse them now, resulting in a brief fourth ending. His original willingness to just roll with everything the Starchild told him was absolutely baffling and lent credence to the now sadly debunked Indoctrination Theory. He questions the child and demands explanation, which the thing provides with the expected buckets of plothole-addressing exposition.

Also importantly, your crew finally notices that Shepard died. They're seen mourning him instead of walking on a lush planet and happily hugging each other. Joker is even shown hesitating to fly the Normandy away from Earth without Shepard onboard. Bizarrely, in my case, it was Ashley -- Shepard's love interest in my playthrough -- urging Joker to leave, but still, at least they don't just leave their beloved commander behind without even blinking.

Regardless, this is all stuff that a decent writer would have addressed the first time around. Mystery is a vital narrative tool, yes, but there's mystery, and then there's cheating.

The extended finale does offer more closure and makes the consequences of Shepard's choices far more distinct from one another. Meaning, they're not differentiated only by what color explosion we get in the cinematics.

Problem is, the ending still sucks.

The plotholes were just part of the problem. The ending of MASS EFFECT 3 is inherently bad. It takes a sub-theme of the series -- the synthetic vs. organic dichotomy -- and makes it the central theme out of nowhere, in the last twenty minutes of the game. The series was always about tolerance and unity between different species that put aside their differences and come together to take down a common enemy, and then all of a sudden, synthetics will kill everything and you must choose what to do about it said by a goddamn holographic Starchild in a magic pick-your-ending room during a space battle in which synthetics are aiding organics.

In order for this ending to work, the series would have needed -- well, first of all, no Starchild and no magic pick-your-ending room, but mainly it would have needed to be about the creation and evolution of synthetics to the point of surpassing their creators. Every species would need to be shown facing the difficulties caused by their technological experiments becoming living beings. Yet, the only technological experiments that become living beings in the span of the story are the Geth, who become your allies if you play your cards right, and EDI, who is your ally from the start in the fight against the Reapers. All the other potential threats in the story, as far as I can remember, are organic beings.

Pretty much every species in the game is a threat to another species before the Reapers show up, so there is no synthetics vs. organics dichotomy at the heart of the story. Therefore, there's no thematic buildup to the ending. For that reason, it falls apart. It feels like it belongs in another game entirely. It doesn't help that the final mission is atrocious from a gameplay standpoint; its idea of difficulty is just throwing strong enemy units at you repeatedly. You have no idea what your crew is doing throughout the fight, just the two squadmates you were allowed to take with you -- and why in the name of fuck wouldn't Shepard take everyone on a mission so important, like he did in MASS EFFECT 2?

"But then," you may be asking, "how could they have ended the MASS EFFECT trilogy in a fitting way?"

One idea: the Reapers' goal could have been to unite the galaxy by giving them a common enemy to fight. But that leads to war, which kinda defeats the whole purpose. Hilariously enough, trying to prevent a war between synthetics and organics by killing most of both -- their actual goal in the game -- also does.

So, a better idea: the Reapers are an extremely advanced species of harvesters that collect older species and wait for younger ones to develop so they can do the same to them and keep repeating that cycle forever.

That's it.

What was wrong with that? I mean, there's plenty wrong with that, it's monstrous, what I mean is, what is wrong with that thematically? The game introduced the Reapers as that, why couldn't it have been simply that? It's a great villain for a story about tolerance and unity. Sauron's purpose wasn't to kill most of Middle-Earth so there would be peace among whatever was left of it. He wanted dominance and power. And the threat this represented got the different cultures and races of Middle-Earth to unite against him.

This is not an original theme, but, y'know, neither is synthetics-vs-organics, and one of them fits the MASS EFFECT series as a whole perfectly.

You could argue that the Synthesis ending is thematically adequate since it, well, unites every species at the DNA level. Except it's a forceful solution and also a very stupid one. "Oh, I can see circuits on everyone's skin so now we all understand each other!" What the fuck?

No, it really would have been fine if MASS EFFECT was about a galaxy uniting against a dangerous enemy who wanted nothing more than power. Sure, complex motivations fueled by misguided good intentions are always more interesting than just plain evilness. Maybe the Reapers could argue that all the civilizations they harvested resulted in a single, phenomenal civilization that is the closest there is to a Heaven and they want all civilizations to be a part of it for their own good. That would have been interesting too and thematically fitting. They advocate the homogenization of all species into a great, single one, while their enemies fight for their right to keep their identity and evolve on their own terms despite the conflicts that arise from their differences.

But nooooo, let's be LORD OF THE RINGS IN SPACE for three games and then turn into BLADE RUNNER in the last twenty minutes.

There's no fixing the ending of ME3. Its main problem is the lack of thematic buildup for it throughout the series. The rest -- the stuff Bioware fixed with the extended cut -- were just aggravators. Okay, gigantic aggravators, but they're gone now, and the ending is no longer lazy and confusing. However, it remains weak. A new one would be too late now, and it would come without the confidence of original vision.

What we got was Bioware's original vision, and I don't doubt its sincerity. I just think it sucks.

Still, I applaud Bioware for fixing what they thought was broke, and sticking to what they thought wasn't. And I applaud them for a game that, up to its ending, is as amazing and enthralling as the two that preceded it. On to new adventures.


Saturday, June 16, 2012

MEDIA RAMBLE - June 16th 2012

- I have resumed my webcomic PITCH BLACK. I'm back on a regular-ish schedule because the alternative clearly didn't work out. Updated Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

- Narrative-wise, MAX PAYNE 3 may be Rockstar's worst triple-A effort. The plot makes no sense and the tone only pretends to be dark, carefully manipulating events so things never get emotionally heavy for the player. As a result, Max's constant moaning about himself never resonates and his amusingly sarcastic assessments of every situation ensure the absence of any dramatic weight. This kind of narrative shallowness is so unbecoming of Rockstar I can't help wondering whether it was done out of fear that a relentlessly depressing narrative would make people take some time away from the game instead of jumping into the multiplayer, where the bulk of the DLC is. Still, very, very fun game.

- (This entry has PROMETHEUS spoilers, skip to the next one at your discretion) I thought about reviewing PROMETHEUS, but its many inconsistencies and plotholes have already been pointed out amusingly and in detail, particularly here and here (many spoilers on both). My two cents are that Ridley Scott seems to have lost his sense of pacing. The scenes that are supposed to be tense happen way too fast, with no buildup and no development. Only Noomi Rapace's surgery scene manages to convey some urgency and terror. Scott has seemingly lost his sense of ridiculous as well. He used to know how to make a talking decapitated head creepy instead of absolutely hilarious. And then there's the biologist who tries to pet a newfound alien species and the pilot who agrees to sacrifice himself without even batting an eyelash and who is joined by two other crewmembers who didn't even need to be there. What a sorry film.

- HITMAN, one of my favorite game franchises, could be in the hands of appalling idiots. The trailer with the armed nuns who make sure to reveal their sexy outfits to absolutely no-one but the camera before being taken out one-by-one in extremely violent fashion by Agent 47 is not a gameplay trailer, but the Nunssassins could still be an actual enemy in the game. It's not just sexist, it's appealing to sexism in order to sell, which is disgusting. I really, really hope this was just the idea of some moron of a marketing drone and that the actual game will be sensible.

- TOMB RAIDER is a different matter entirely. Crystal Dynamics hasn't really handled accusations of sexism well, what with a producer saying that the hell she goes through (including attempted rape) is meant to make players want to "protect her"... but they do seem to be trying to humanize one of gaming's most iconic characters instead of fetishizing her suffering. With all the appalling sexism that plagues this industry, I totally understand the skepticism and even share some of it, but I also believe in the possibility that the new TOMB RAIDER game will at least try to pull off a well-rounded female character. I refer you to this excellent Destructoid article on the subject.

- There's a pattern in Stanley Kubrick movies that always hits me. I've recently watched THE KILLING and there it was: brilliant at innovation, not so much at execution. The jittery P.O.V. shot after a shootout was striking for the time, and so was the non-linear structure, but there was also a recklessness to the film that bothered me. The clunkiness of the fight scene at the bar, the sudden inclusion of a parrot during a pivotal scene in the ending, a character's ridiculous reaction to being shot on that very same scene -- it all left me with those familiar mixed feelings about Kubrick's unquestionably important but flawed work. I felt the same way about the laughable coincidences in the third act of A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, the sudden shift between the first and second halves of FULL METAL JACKET (which didn't bother me so much on the second time I watched it, I must say), the ludicrously huge number of establishing shots in the beginning of 2001 - A SPACE ODISSEY (yes, it's a landscape, I get it). Mind you, I respect Kubrick tremendously, but the blind love some people have for him is strange to me.

- BREAKING BAD is an amazing show. Like LOST, its qualities vastly outweigh its flaws. The second season ended clunkily, but the fourth left my mouth hanging open. It's a show with teeth, great characters and a lot to say.

- DEXTER, on the other hand, has imploded. The long-awaited twist of the series has come at the end of an astonishingly poor season. Even the characters are becoming shadows of their former selves.

- My good friend Brittanica has pointed me to a video that features some of the world's most famous voice actors reading the script of STAR WARS. So you get to hear Bubbles as Darth Vader, Christopher Walken as Han Solo, William Shatner as C3PO -- it's just too fucking funny. Watch it. Also, is it just me or is the excellent Maurice LaMarche a living impersonation of Robert De Niro?


Monday, June 11, 2012


I'm starting to give up on the movie theatre experience. I used to think that a huge screen in a dark room full of people to share the laughs, the tears and the thrills with was the way to watch a film. I'm not going to put on my bullshit-tinted glasses and say there were never problems, but now when I enter a movie theatre, I feel anxious. My thoughts go something like this:

"Will they remember to turn the lights off? Will the projectionist use the correct wattage? Will they set the volume properly? Will the people behind me shut up? Will the person in front of me keep texting during the film?" And if the movie is in 3D, "Will the image be too dark?"

The first problem hasn't been happening to me recently. All of the others tend to happen simultaneously. I'll realize that the photography is way darker than it should be and that the volume is not letting me fully appreciate the sound design and mixing. My attention will be diverted by the bright touchscreen in front of me and the voice behind me that provides the charitable service of loudly narrating what's happening onscreen on the assumption no-one else in the theatre can understand it without help.

As my favourite movie critic Pablo Villaça teaches, there are a number of conditions that make the movie theatre a vital part of Cinema. As a big screen surrounded by darkness, it's designed to offer the most immersive experience. Yet my recent experiences have been anything but immersive. The audiovisual quality is a disservice to the creative team's original vision and the story becomes a confusing mess when you're seething with hatred for the assholes texting and talking around you.

In other words, my love for movies is starting to forbid me from going to the movie theatre. This is how bad things have gotten. And now that the options to watch the film in 2D and -- for fuck's sake -- in its original language are starting to disappear, I feel like the movie theatre experience has become the exclusivity of people who see Cinema as simple escapism.

OBS: Some people may be confused by my outrage at not being able to see a film in its original language, as I hear that dubbing is extremely widespread in some countries. Which is an absolute disgrace.


Tuesday, April 24, 2012


This is a translation of a real article about THE AVENGERS published by Brazilian magazine Istoé. Behold journalism.

Among Hollywood's most wanted characters, superheroes from comics have been somewhat tired -- and the screenwriters that create their adventures, even more. Ran over by the frantic rhythm with which these blockbuster sequels are made, the big studios are now betting on the collective adventures of a bunch of men with special powers, which leads to more effects and spectacular stuff. The new example is "The Avengers", to be released this Friday 27th and which sends no less than six unbeatable heroes into action: Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Hulk, Hawkeye and Black Widow. They are part of a same league, in other words, a group of "titans" united by a same ideal -- and by the same publisher, in this case, Marvel.

Betting on the group's mission makes sense, since the film, directed by TV series veteran Joss Whedon, brings together at least four heroes that resulted in fantastic box office earnings. Within ten years, the "solo career" titles with Thor, Iron Man, Captain America and Hulk add up a profit of US$ 1,5 billion. To start production on "The Avengers", Marvel Studios, in association with Disney, spent US$220 million and expects a high return, as was the case with the "X-Men" franchise, which never earns less than US$ 400 million per film (Can't resist a note here: it did, three times). There's no shortage of action. Faced with an alien invasion commanded by the villain Loki (Tom Hiddleston), captain Nick Furry (sic) (Samuel L. Jackson) gathers combatants with special abilities to create the league that names the film. Used to acting alone, Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) take a while to get along -- and their shenanigans make viewers laugh. When the team finds their footing, though, the plot catches fire.

The "powerful leagues" vein is so heated up that two new Fantastic Four adventures are on the release queue, result of another partnership between Marvel and Disney - the productions involve US$ 4 billion budgets (sic). The rival DC Comics is running against time and already called Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman and Spider-Man (sic, I swear to God) to their old project, the much-awaited reunion of "The Justice League" - which in the sixties inspired the creation of "The Avengers" comics. The cast for the film was selected in 2008, but everything was postponed because of the Hollywood studios strike (...sic). Sometimes rumors appear that the idea will be resumed, but the studios are not showing eagerness to activate this superhero lineup. After all, it's through Warner itself that Batman and Spider-Man (s... s... sic) should come back to the big screen in individual missions still this year.

(Also, the infographic that accompanies the article also brings this priceless description of Invisible Woman: "is capable of dematerializing herself and creating force fields on her feet".)
UPDATE: They changed the article, taking out all mentions of Spider-Man. The description of Invisible Woman remains. Also the US$ 400 million earnings of every X-Men film. Also the US$ 4 billion budget for the new FANTASTIC FOUR movies. And Nick Furry. But, y'know. Baby steps.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012


(Again, massive spoilers for MASS EFFECT trilogy, particularly MASS EFFECT 3)

That Indoctrination theory that's been doing the rounds and being largely dismissed as wishful thinking? It actually makes quite a bit of sense. Enough to fill out the twenty freaking minutes of this remarkably well-edited YouTube video. It certainly uncovers hints that cannot be accidental, such as the bullet wound that Anderson and Shepard share even though only Anderson was shot; the completely nonsensical rooms in the Citadel that seem to belong to other ships in previous games; that fucking Star Child saying he's the Catalyst, but at several points implying he's a Reaper, and saying it with three simultaneous voices, two of which are the male Shepard and the female Shepard; the reversal of colors in the three choices, with The Illusive Man being portrayed as a Paragon and Anderson as a Renegade; and finally, there's the extra ending that can only be obtained by players with a high Effective Military Strength rating who choose to destroy the Reapers (the "Renegade" choice) -- an ending that shows Commander Shepard waking up in the ruins of a warzone that is very likely Earth, suggesting that he never actually went up to the Citadel. It's like Bioware wanted to reward the more hardcore players with an extra hint that there's more coming.

All of a sudden, the ending makes sense and is remarkably clever to a point that cannot be coincidence. Hell, the theory not only explains the ending, it also explains ME3's weak beginning. Now there is a narrative reason for that ridiculous child to show up inside a vent and inexplicably refuse help. If it turns out this child is Harbinger trying to manipulate Shepard's emotions all along? I will kiss the writing team in the mouth. Considering the high standards I've come to expect from them throughout the MASS EFFECT series, the Indoctrination theory is to me more plausible than Bioware actually coming up with the ending as it currently stands, and saying, "Yeah, that'll work." It's too much of a narrative and thematic clusterfuck if taken at face value.

Since ME3 was released two weeks ago, people have been trying to figure out what exactly is going on in the ending, and together they came up with the Indoctrination theory that establishes the "Renegade" choice as the only one that breaks the Indoctrination's hold and thus allows the story to continue. Many think that this is bullshit, that this is denial, and that Bioware just fucked up and that's it, get over it.

Do you see how the doors are open for an absolutely brilliant and unprecedented metalinguistic prank?

If it turns out this was indeed all planned, then the game successfully "indoctrinated" a legion of gamers. Who will, of course, be very unhappy if the "real ending" DLC comes at a price and takes too long. If Bioware releases it soon -- thus revealing that its was already done or at least near completion when ME3 was released -- and doesn't charge for it? I think they'll be applauded for their cleverness and their sheer brass balls even if the actual ending also sucks.

And they've been interestingly vague when questioned about this. They were implying the ending was intended to be final. But now, they're thinking of changing it. I'm hoping their next step is to reveal it. Because as much sense as the Indoctrination theory makes, it can only be proven if they actually finish the story. If the ending was intended as final and the hints were just dropped to make it open for interpretation, Bioware disastrously failed to pull it off. But that doesn't sound like them.

Seems too good to be true, yes, but also too good an opportunity to miss.

We shall see.

Further info:

Incredibly detailed analysis of MASS EFFECT 3's ending from a logical standpoint.
- Interesting blogpost on Destructoid. 
- Another excellent Gamefront article analyzing the Indoctrination theory.
- Jimquisition episode in which Jim Sterling, quite correctly, says it's awesome for videogames that people care this much about MASS EFFECT even though the ending sucks. And this is why it would be so, so genius if it turns out there is an actual ending DLC planned.


Monday, March 19, 2012


(Massive spoilers of all games in the MASS EFFECT series follow)

This post was updated here.

When it comes to the infamous ending, Gamefront has an excellent article I completely agree with. The finale of MASS EFFECT 3 is so poorly thought-out the game itself seems not to realize that all three endings result in the Reapers winning, since the destruction of the Mass Relays cuts every species off from one another, ruining galactic trade and stranding a gigantic fleet comprised of several species around a semi-destroyed Earth.

Thing is, the problems start way before Shepard ever meets that ridiculous starchild.

Before I get to that: MASS EFFECT 3 is an amazing game. The choices you made in previous installments come back in important ways, and the characters who could have died in the second game are given proeminent roles (although, understandably, not too proeminent -- after all, Bioware had to finish this game sometime this decade). The amount of variables being juggled is impressive, and there are moments when the three-game narrative pays off in ways that the worst possible ending couldn't ruin, such as witnessing Wrex's delight at seeing the cure for the Genophage snow over the surface of his home planet or the Quarians and the Geth standing side by side in the closest thing to friendship they've ever reached. So as harsh as I'll be in the following paragraphs, do bear in mind that MASS EFFECT 3 delivers a lot of what the series promised. Sadly, it trips within inches of the finish line.

And this is particularly galling in light of the previous game; I consider the final mission of MASS EFFECT 2 the best in videogame history. The story spends most of its duration introducing you to well-developed squadmates and ensuring you care about them; it proceeds to put them all in very real danger. Any of them could die, and if they did, they'd be gone from MASS EFFECT 3. The ambition of this is impressive on every level, and Bioware pulled it off brilliantly.

As the ending of MASS EFFECT 3 approaches, London seems like your next and possibly final warzone. Before the mission, you get to say proper goodbyes to your squadmates. But when you embark on the mission itself, you can take only two. And while you're fighting off wave after wave of annoying "heavy" units, you have no idea what all the others are doing. There is no narrative reason for them not to be with you.


I can't believe Bioware really missed this opportunity.

Why not take all of them? Every surviving squadmate you've ever had in an all-out warzone as you fight your way to the beam that can take you to the Citadel? And even better, what if any of them can die in the battlefield?

Of course there would be a few gameplay changes. Get rid of the orders panel -- instead, you can ask for help,  at which point a few random squadmates would be assigned to attack the enemies attacking you. Similarly, when they're in trouble, they ask for help too and you get a navpoint to find them and help them. If their health bars reach zero, you have a time limit to revive them and you have to get to them in order to do so. There could also be a limit to revivals for each character, including Shepard himself. In this case, you could even go further: if Shepard dies, that's the ending you get.

This would not only reinforce the trilogy's themes of interspecies unity and tolerance, but the amount of squadmates available to fight by your side would be dependant on the choices you made throughout the entire trilogy. It would be as exhilarating and tense as the final mission of MASS EFFECT 2, and it would lend way more weight to the scene in which Anderson and Shepard, tired and injured, sit side by side. Whether Shepard dies next to Anderson or gets rescued could be a consequence of previous player choices. And whether the Crucible destroys or controls the Reapers could also be decided by the dialogue with the Illusive Man. And finally, perhaps an epilogue in which we get to see what happens to the surviving squadmates.

So, had Bioware been sufficiently ambitious, we could have had an ending that provided closure and payoff: epic, tense, thematically resonant and dependant on player choice.

Instead, we get a fucking starchild claiming that the Reapers don't want synthetic life to kill off all organic life, so the Reapers come along every cycle and kill almost everyone to prevent that. It's so eye-burningly stupid I think I lost IQ points just from typing it out. Project Director Casey Hudson claimed he wanted the ending to be unforgettable. Well, congratulations, Case. It certainly achieves that, if nothing else.

Still... he and Bioware deserve a standing ovation for the overall excellence of the series and the universe it created. And for the entirety of MASS EFFECT 2, really. As bad as the ending of the trilogy was, all three are impressive and unprecedented achievements, and I thank the developers for the opportunity to live on such an interesting galaxy and know such amazing characters.

That is the good kind of unforgettable.


Friday, January 27, 2012


Perhaps I am too inclined to like THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN after sitting through the unbearably sappy THE HORSE WHO UNDERSTANDS ENGLISH, but I really like TINTIN immensely. Spielberg takes the merely decent script and directs the holy fucking shit out of it. It's wonderful to see the veteran director showing us his prodigious skill for spectacle without the caveats of a sentimental bullshit ending or surviving a nuclear explosion at ground zero by hiding in a fridge or having characters aim walkie-talkies at each other.

Despite having the talented Edgar Wright as one of its writers, the script also authored by Joe Cornish and Steven Moffat is barely funcional. It succeeds at coming up with setpieces but not at building up to them believably. In fact, it seems like the screenwriters don't particularly give two shits; in the very same scene that Thomson and Thompson mention a pickpocket, that very same pickpocket shows up to advance the plot; as soon as Tintin uncovers a clue, another one literally unfolds in front of him. Even the script's humor would fall flat in the hands of a less talented director. Fortunately, Spielberg takes every opportunity and makes the most of it, as seen in the dormitory whose occupants remain asleep even as their bodies slip up and down the room with the sway of a cargo ship, and during a well-paced argument between Thomson and Thompson as they ignore an important thing that is being said to them. Additionally, this gives the film a charming cartoonish feel that abates the occasional preposterousness.

However, despite Spielberg's inspired efforts, Tintin's habit of talking to either himself or his dog Snowy -- which he does incessantly for the film's first twenty minutes -- is a nod to the comic that the film uses as a lazy expositional device devoid of wit or insight. The young reporter remains a mystery from beginning to end, and only the slightest hint of a character arc is insinuated for Captain Haddock. The delightful characterization of the INDIANA JONES trilogy -- sorry, did I say trilogy? I meant trilogy -- is absent in TINTIN, although its protagonists remain entertaining and likeable in their attempts to summon the next setpiece.

Spielberg's attention to all the elements of an action scene, no matter how complex, never ceases to amaze. He's capable of coming up with an exciting sequence out of something as trivial as a cat wreaking havoc around a living room. When given an actual setpiece to work with, the man is unbelievable. The scene in which two ships engage in battle is not only inventive -- just look at all the things Spielberg comes up with after the masts of the ships become entangled -- it also alternates with another scene in the desert through a number of gorgeous transitions.

And even that is surpassed by the superb sequence in which Spielberg decides cutting is for pussies and commands a large-scale chase scene across an entire goddamn city on a single long take. If you think this is easy for an animation, you are looking at it from a strictly technological perspective and badly underestimating how difficult it is for directors to keep up with a complex action scene even if they allow themselves the luxury of the cut. Spielberg thrives on the long take and doesn't overlook a single thing. He even remembers to justify the camera's spiraling movements throughout the sequence, always letting some element of the action guide the frame. At the beginning of the long take, he keeps the camera simultaneously focused on a foreground element (Tintin and Haddock) and on a background element (an oncoming body of water), preparing us for the moment the two elements will meet and set off a chain of events which interconnect and guide Spielberg's lens seamlessly across miles. And when the camera is forced to descend several feet without a character to focus on -- an unjustified movement that could call attention to itself, distracting the viewer -- it follows the movement of a gush of water pouring from a hole all the way down to where the characters are until they meet the frame. It's masterful filmmaking aided by an extremely skillful crew of animators. I also can't forget to mention three of Spielberg's usual collaborators: director of photography Janusz Kaminski, editor Michael Kahn and composer John Williams, who makes up for his melodramatic work on WAR HORSE with a score that beautifully contributes to the flow of TINTIN, going from a majestic track for the ship battle to an excitingly fast-paced composition for the chase scene. It's also important to mention that the second unit director of the film is none other than Peter Jackson.

The members of the cast, wearing the CGI skin of their characters, are only identifiable by their voices. Except Daniel Craig, who changes his and is completely unrecognizable as the villain Sakharine. All the actors immerse themselves comfortably and competently into their characters, particularly the master of motion-capture Andy Serkis, who has been delivering a string of brilliant performances in films and in videogames since his work as Gollum earned him much-deserved fame. As Captain Haddock, the English actor adopts an entertaining Scottish accent and displays excellent comic timing. And to complain that Haddock is not originally Scottish would be as pointless as complaining that Tintin also isn't originally English.

With an ending that stumbles a bit in its clunky attempt to wrap up the rather generic story, THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN is nevertheless a much-needed reminder from Spielberg that the genius who gave us the INDIANA JONES trilogy is still a genius, even if he's been indulging in his worst vices lately, such as excessive sentimentalism, invulnerable action heroes and working with George Lucas. It was great to see that TINTIN not only delivers the adventures promised in its title, it does so without any attempts to make you cry.