Category Archives: Spoiler-free

Reviews that don’t divulge sensitive plot information; unavoidable spoilers are always specially marked so they can be skipped if you don’t wish to read them.

Topkapi (1964)

I sat down to watch Topkapi based on a confluence of two events: I had just bought the DVD in an attempt to add to my Dassin collection, but with no particular plans to immediately watch it, and the film had just been admiringly mentioned in an episode of the TV show Bones. Not that that show could be called an arbiter of good taste (not even mine for watching what is, at best, a guilty pleasure), but the coincidence amused me and got me to pop in the DVD when a two-hour window of free time opened soon after.

As told in a somewhat psychedelic introductory sequence, an apparently wealthy “cougar” (Melina Mercouri) with few sexual or criminal inhibitions and a love for emeralds has her sights set on a new object of fascination: a jewel-encrusted dagger showcased in an Istanbul museum. To acquire it, she contacts an on-again-off-again lover (Maximilian Schell) and hatches a plan. It is decided to rely on amateurs instead of professional thieves to steal the weapon, in order to escape unwanted attention by investigators.

In a different movie, another reason for that might be that the more naive and inexperienced colleagues would make it easier to betray and dispose of them afterwards; this idea is briefly implied by the movie, but not spelled out explicitly or executed, and wouldn’t fit its tone, anyway, which is far too light-hearted for such a noir-ish twist. Continue reading

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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

Technobabylon (2015)

About 70 years from now, Technobabylon predicts, nuclear wars will have become commonplace. In that world, the U.S. and China will both have violently split apart. The European Union, interestingly, stays together, but apparently at the expense of some unspecified liberties (an extrapolation, perhaps, of the current European attitude towards GMO). Newton, a new city-state implied to be somewhere in the area of what today is southern Somalia, is a place of refuge both for people fleeing from conflict as well as people aiming to test – and widen – the limits of what science can, and should, accomplish. Even the police detectives there are scientists.

This spot at the vanguard of research where almost anything goes technologically is also a remarkably diverse place, with people from all different corners of the world coming together. Because of budget restrictions and the fact that most of the game takes place at night, there aren’t particularly many crowd scenes where one could really observe this, but the main characters and the handful of NPCs are pleasingly varied in skin colour and sexual identity. As the Technobabylon of the title, the city is the setting for the newest game by point-and-click adventure-game publisher Wadjet Eye (developed by James Dearden from an unfinished series of freeware installments).

With its science-fiction noir trappings, the game’s story is difficult (and would be spoilery) to summarize. Suffice it to say that it involves deception, a string of weird murders, duplicity, a man accused of a crime he didn’t commit, treachery, a digital network more advanced than the internet (albeit looking like an 80’s cyberpunk vision of virtual reality), double-crosses, and a highly advanced artificial intelligence and the forces arraigned against it for reasons that are at odds with each other. All of these elements crisscross in the plot and ultimately prove to be the ripple effects of a decades-earlier betrayal. It’s all very engaging even if I saw the central plot twist coming halfway through (thanks to a painting and a name I correctly identified as foreshadowing and thematically relevant, respectively).
Continue reading

Winnie the Pooh (2011)

The confusingly-titled Winnie the Pooh is currently, and probably for the foreseeable future, the last traditionally-animated feature to come out of Disney. That is a somewhat more fitting (temporary?) ending than The Princess and the Frog, which, though overall okay, seemed torn between upholding the company’s traditions and injecting modern sensibilities. The new Pooh, on the other hand, is very definitely a film looking backward to the studio’s past and, for adult viewers, to the simpler time of childhood (the original trailer hits the nostalgia pretty hard). Disney even made a point of hiring Burny Mattinson, probably today’s longest-tenured Disney employee and who had worked on the original Pooh films back in the 60’s and 70’s, as head of the story department for the new instalment.

That adherence to traditions shows. The film opens, like the original The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977), with live-action shots of Christopher Robin’s room, including all the stuffed animals to feature in the story. It is also somewhat episodic, though the subplots (getting Eeyore a new tail, “rescuing” Christopher Robin from a scary creature, and Pooh’s pursuit of honey) are more interwoven than the three originally-separate short films. There are even similar story beats (like a stylized song sequence illustrating the characters’ understanding of a fictional nightmare beast and Tigger… “expressing” himself). Continue reading