Edge of Tomorrow (2014)

“Through readiness and discipline,
we are masters of our fate.”

The exposition for this film (which is more prominently labelled Live. Die. Repeat. on the Blu-ray cover, the tagline from the posters, but retains the Edge of Tomorrow title in the credits), starts even before studio logos have cycled through, with tiny clips of TV coverage explaining that tentacly and clairvoyant aliens have overrun much of Europe and that only the development of new battlesuits has stopped them from crossing over to Britain (and, ultimately, the rest of the world).

Tom Cruise plays William Cage, a US military officer whose job is not to fight, but to disseminate propaganda about the war effort on television talk shows. When a general orders him to cover a large-scale invasion of France from the front, Cage reveals his cowardice and lack of compassion for regular soldiers. All his attempts to weasel out of the assignment achieve, though, is a deployment to the very tip of the charge. Without his rank or job protecting him, and because the enemy somehow knows of the surprise attack in advance, Cage promptly… dies. Horribly. Within minutes of touching down.

And then he wakes up again, a day earlier, with the memories leading up to his death intact. The reason: he came in contact with one of the aliens’ blood during his death. But nobody believes him, so on to battle he goes… to die again. And again. He knows what’s coming, to a degree, but no matter how he changes his ever-renewing present, he still always winds up dead. Continue reading

A Golden Wake (2014)

A Golden Wake is a change of pace for Wadjet Eye, which has previously mostly published fantasy or science-fiction games. Their new point-and-click adventure game is neither of those, but rather a historical story set around the real-life land boom around Miami in the 1920’s, with a jazz soundtrack and jugendstil decorations to prove it.

The main and only playable character is Alfie Banks, a young man eager to make his name in the world (or live up to his family’s name, anyway). Ousted from his late father’s New York real-estate firm via jealous co-workers, he decides to pack up and go to Florida to seek his fortune. It’s 1921, and the local housing market is booming, especially the development of Miama-near Coral Gables, masterminded by one George Merrick. Merrick is one of several historical people who appear as fictionalised versions of themselves in the game and functions as a sort of father figure for Alfie, giving him things to do. Continue reading

Master of Magic (1994)

Along with point-and-click (and the occasional text) adventures and RPGs, my favourite genre of PC game in my younger years was strategy, especially long-view titles like those from the Settlers, Anno, and Heroes of Might and Magic franchises. I particularly remember spending months at a time playing turn-based “4X” games like Alpha Centauri (1999) and editions of Civilization . 4X, that means exploration of the environment, expanding one’s reach by building new settlements or conquering those of opponents, exploiting the landscape (and, sometimes, your conquered subjects) in order to gain a technological advantage, and exterminating all enemies. There may be a combat component, but it’s typically secondary to the broader, more strategic managing of one’s empire.

Master of Magic is a little older than the games I used to play, which explains why I didn’t own it back then, but follows the same basic principles despite taking place in a fantasy, rather than a quasi-historical, setting. It also adds a dash of Populous in that you play a powerful being (here a wizard) who competes with others similar to him for people and territory (which is changeable via magic and technology).

There are two win conditions. The easier one for most races is destroying all enemy wizards militarily (or rather, conquering the cities their towers are in), something that is complicated by the fact that there are not one, but two procedurally-generated worlds where opponents can lurk. Without powerful plane-shift spells, one may have to almost start from scratch if a wizard has built his empire in a different dimension with a completely different map. The two worlds also lead to interesting tactical challenges, though; for instance, the detail that one need not conquer all enemy towns, just his capital, can considerably shorten the time until victory if you have control of one of the planes, because you can plane-shift an army of elite unites to the enemy’s doorstep and conquer his tower in a surgical strike without having to engage any troops in the way. That is true for the AI as well, of course. Continue reading

Belle (2013)

In the late 18th century, a British gentleman about to set sail in service of the king turns up at the English country estate of an older relative, the highest judge in the land, to submit unto the latter’s care the former’s illegitimate daughter. Who is the result of a union with a black slave. The young girl, soon a young woman, as well as the racism she has to endure, inspires her surrogate father to pave the way for an end to slavery in the British Empire. It sounds rather fanciful, doesn’t it? But it happens to be true. Or at least plausible, given that very little is known about the actual Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay and her actual role in the Lord Justice’s ruling is unclear.

Belle wastes little time with setting up the meat of the story. There is only a short prologue showing Dido meeting her biological father and being handed off again; Mansfield, the judge, is irritated at first, but quickly grows to like the girl, as does her white cousin Elizabeth, also a ward of the childless Mansfield’s. Less than ten minutes after the film’s opening moments, a lovely match cut magically grows the two girls into young ladies, who display a naive interest in men even as the social rules for women of their position heavily restrict any contact between the two sexes.

Dido is no Rosa Parks, and Belle no Spartacus (1960). Because the film mainly sticks to the historical record, the main character can’t be a great public leader in the abolitionist movement, as maybe she would have been were she and the movie’s premise entirely fictional. The slavery question is part of the film, but more on the margins. What’s in the centre instead is a Jane-Austen-y story about good matches and courtships and engagements or almost-engagements and pining for, or being wooed by, the wrong man. The photography is lush, the costumes lovely to look at (if maybe less conservative cleavage-wise than they would have been in reality, was my initial reaction, but maybe that was wrong of me), the music (by Rachel Portman, familiar with period pieces and romances) beautiful and the language charmingly old-fashioned. The romantic portion of the film, in short, is pretty, if conventional. Continue reading

Futurestates, season 5 (2014)

What’s Futurestates? To quote its producers, “For four epic seasons, FUTURESTATES ha[d] taken us on a journey to explore possible futures through the prism of today’s global realities. Written and directed by veteran and emerging indie filmmakers […], this groundbreaking series of science fiction shorts invite[d] the public to envision the future.” I didn’t like every single episode – who can say that about an long-running anthology show (see my reviews for seasons three and four)? -, but overall, the series was a worthwhile collection of thought-provoking science-fiction short films. It never really gained any traction with viewers, though, so maybe that’s why producers decided to change things up for the fifth and final “season”.

They tasked an emerging-media company “to reboot the series as an immersive, next-generation project. For the first time, it utilizes a shared storyworld between each of the individual films, a rich backstory, and an immersive web experience across multiple online platforms to tell a larger story. The goal was to experiment with a new narrative form and a nonlinear storytelling structure, yet allow each of the films to still stand on its own.” The success of the latter goal is debatable (I’ll get to it further down), and that of the first, well… Continue reading

M (1931)

M announces from the get-go what the film is going to be about. Before we even see a moving image, we hear a child counting out a playmate with a gruesome rhyme about a bogeyman who will soon come grinding down those present. A woman who overhears the kids cusses them out, but that only stops them until she’s out of sight, upon which they resume their game. To them, it’s abstract entertainment with no connection to real life, a naivety that carries through the rest of the film. To her, it’s a reminder of the very real threat of a serial child murderer (played to great effect by Peter Lorre) on the loose in Berlin, then one of the largest cities in the world.

This beginning also signals the importance of sound to the internal structure of the film, one of Germany’s first using the new technology. There is no non-diegetic music, something that would have been weird for a silent movie, much less one that could finally play back the same background music in synch in every cinema showing it. In fact, there are even stretches of the film that are fully devoid of any sound: no music, no speech, no effects. Those are quite eerie, certainly for a modern viewer not used to complete silence in films, especially when briefly broken by individual sound effects. The lack of non-diegetic music also accentuates every moment in which music is being heard, mainly in the form of whistling. Most prominently and famously, Hans Beckert, the killer, whistles a portion from Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt (1876) when in pursuit of his compulsion; while not heard in its entirety, only in broken segments, the full piece is played ever faster and more chaotic until its conclusion, a fitting melody for a man forced to kill by his inner demons. Continue reading

She’s All That (1999)

Zack (Freddie Prinze Jr.), the most popular guy in a California high school, is dumped by Taylor, his shallower, female equivalent, shortly before graduation. Eager to prove both that he’s over her and that he still has a way with the ladies, he agrees to a bet: he is to turn a girl on the lower social rungs of school into the prom queen within a few weeks. The young lady picked is Laney (Rachael Leigh Cook), daughter of a single-dad pool cleaner, aspiring artist and standoffish loner with few friends except for a romantically non-threatening heavyset boy who would probably be depicted as gay in a modern film (cf. Mean Girls).

With a little bit of squinting, this premise is recognizable as a take on Pygmalion (both the Greek myth and George Bernard Shaw’s 1912 play, which itself formed the basis for My Fair Lady). But it’s quite remarkable that, despite the supposed march of progress since then, Shaw’s circa-turn-of-the-century Eliza Doolittle remains the most feminist of the popular Galateas (the figurative statue turned into a real woman by Pygmalion). Continue reading