Sunday, November 21, 2010

Sex and the City vs. Sex and the City 2

Yes, I freely admit it, I do like the TV series Sex and the City. I know it probably isn't the most sophisticated kind of entertainment around but there is just something about watching the series with your closest friends and eating homemade ice cream. Furthermore, I'm really puzzled that one of the most persistent reactions when I do amit to liking it in front of people of the opposite gender remains to point out the supposed misandry of the series. Excuse me? You can call Sex and the City a number of things (distasteful, stupid, bland, stereotypical and decadent spring to mind) but misandry is most certainly not among them. Of course, men and their actions are occasionally criticised, yet they are only one of many things that is criticised in the series, more prevalent maybe being the fashion choices of people around our four protagonists, their own behaviour and certain sexual kinks that they may come across. In fact, it is often in themselves that the protagonists seek fault and try to find the reason of why their relationship isn't working out, finally blaming themselves more often than not. Now I also wouldn't go as far as saying Sex and the City is openly misogynist, as some people claim, either. Personally I have found that watching Sex and the City is mainly an ambivalent experience.

But I didn't want to write this review about the entirety of the series, in fact I wanted to compare the two movies that have been released after the series ended. Let's get right to the point of it, shall we? I enjoyed Sex and the City 1 very much, enough even to go and watch it at the cinema and buy it on DVD for repeated viewing! But even though I did want to enjoy Sex and the City 2, I was left completely disappointed. I was completely puzzled that the same writers and directors could bring forth such different movie experiences. It felt like a whole other team had been working on the second one. I do think that maybe the underlying difference as to why I liked the first one and didn't like the second one might have been the underlying message in the movies. In the first movie, the underlying message of the main storyline (which is Carrie's wedding being planned, Mr. Big not showing up, her being abandoned and finally in the end marrying after all) is that this wedding turned into a monstrous and exagerated thing, suddenly being more about the form than about the content, being more about the big brandname wedding dress and the sophisticated guest list and all the insignificant things instead of being about two people who want to be together and thus it couldn't work out anymore. When the two people remembered the true reason for getting married they realised they could do it just like that, without a fancy schmancy designer wedding gown or make a spectacle of whom will be invited. So in the end the message goes against that blind materialism, actually identifies it as a reason as to why the pair couldn't get married. In a quite clever way, it doesn't let either part of the pair off the hook and places all the blame on the other person, both made mistakes and had to apologise for them. To me, that is a fairly good message. I also liked the secondary plot lines, one for each character. Samantha struggles with having moved to the other coast and being away from New York and finally has to decide where she really wants to be - with her friends or with her boyfriend. Miranda kicks Steve out when he miserably admits to having cheated on her once and must ask herself whether she wants to end it with him permanently or take the hard path of trying to forgive him eventually. Finally Charlotte is pregnant even though doctors have told her before that this is very unlikely to ever happen and she has to find a way to deal with her worries that anything she might do, such as daily jogging or stress might be bad for the baby. Alright, that last storyline really isn't that exciting and insightful but nevertheless, they are all storylines that dealt with topics that I could relate to at least in some way and they also dealt with them in clever and honest ways.

Overall I did enjoy the first movie a lot and naturally I was excited for the second one. Sadly, it didn't live up to my (admittedly high) expectations. One of the things that I felt was really difficult was getting into "the flow" of the movie because for the most part it just felt as if there was none. The movie starts out with a gay wedding which is funny but extremely stereotypical and nearly the antithesis to the humble cute little wedding that we saw in the movie before that, completely bombastic with swans and glitter and Liza Minelli. After that wedding we get the exposition to the storylines that are going to be pursued through that movie. Charlotte's new baby is constantly bawling and even though she has a nanny available almost 24/7 she feels extremely upset by it. Samantha is starting to feel the onset of menopause. Miranda is frustrated in her job, which leaves her almost no time at all for her family. And finally Carrie and Mr. Big have problems settling into their married life. While she wants to go out and have dinner at glamorous restaurants (at least once in a while) he prefers to stay in, eat take-away food and finally things escalate when he buys a big flatscreen TV "for Carrie" at their anniversary.

Then for some reason our four protagonists fly to Abu Dhabi to take some time off and relax. In perfect imperialist manner they reside at the finest hotel available and each have a personal servant, which takes care of them 24 hours a day if they so instruct them. This was maybe the first thing that made me sort of uncomfortable. A bunch of rich girls fly to the Arab Emirates and live there like princesses. There is even a scene where they drive by a pair of (presumably poor) goat shepherds in a big white Mercedes Benz (if I recall correctly), cheering and waving at them. Am I the only person who finds this highly tasteless? I really don't know. Carrie is also faced with the release of her new book, which gets a bad review but somehow it's hard for the audience to care about such a minor thing, when they are in a country where the gap between rich and poor is so big and yet they are sitting there and living in complete decadence. Of course you could also say the same thing about the episodes that take place in the USA, but in that movie you also have this exoticising orientalist gaze on the foreign country, which makes me uncomfortable, especially in the light of the most recent wars that the USA participated or is participating in. I just didn't feel like "rich girl comes to strange country but look how luxurious everything is!!" was a tasteful depiction of the Middle East at all. To be fair, Carrie also seems to be uncomfortable at the thought of having a servant but it doesn't make up for how gratuitous they make use of the luxury that is offered to them.

I also have to say that the storylines all progress in a kind of bland and stupid way. Samanthas heat flushes and vaginal dryness magically disappear when she encounters some hot guy and Charlotte and Miranda's storylines pretty much peak in a drinking night where they complain (or some may say 'bitch and whine') about how hard they have it in life, Miranda with her job and Charlotte with her unruly child. Carrie runs into Aidan at a bazaar and ends up having dinner with him and kissing him. This is played up to be something hugely dramatic and finally all four protagonists unite to debate whether or not Carrie should tell Mr. Big about this. In the end she does tell him, he doesn't pick her up from the airport, they aren't talking for a bit and then they get together again, Miranda quits her job, Samantha has sex with the new guy and Charlotte occasionally takes some time off and feels more relaxed. The end. Seriously, all of these storylines, compared to the ones that they dealt with in the first movie were just plain stupid and the resolutions that they found weren't very innovative at all.

Then of course you also have the social commentary on gender politics in Abu Dhabi. I think that they meant well but everything comes off as rather hamfisted. It all ends with our four protagonists entering a secret hideout of Arabian women, who throw off their burkas to reveal... the latest fashion collection from New York! See? These women, even though they wear burkas, are just like us! Awww! Yeah, I think they really did mean well, but it just came across as completely stupid. At least to me. Equalling fashion with femininity or even with feminism is rather questionable.

What I enjoyed the most about the first film, which was the dealing with problems of every day life in a believable and intelligent way, was completely absent from the second movie. Moreover, we have a lot of really questionable stuff. I think the way in which the other culture was portrayed in this movie was very insensitive and generally dumb. In the light of recent events I think it's just uncomfortable to watch such a careless depiction of the Middle East on screen. And where the message of the first movie was "less is more" and "content over form" the second movie comes across as the antithesis of this. Thus it wasn't very surprising for me in the end that I didn't like it at all. The first movie was a piece of heartwarming and clever entertainment but my verdict for the second movie is: soulless, materialist and dumb piece of junk.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Penumbra Trilogy

One of the things that I really regretted the most about attending Gamescom 2010 was not being able to go to Paradox Interactive's booth! Sadly, they were only in the press area and not in the entertainment area, so as a mere mortal, I was not allowed to go by their booth and say hi or whatever it is I may have done. I have to admit, out of all the fun and innovative games that they published I only really know Penumbra. Penumbra is a trilogy consisting of Penumbra Overture, Penumbra Black Plague and Penumbra Requiem and it mainly takes place in an underground mine and later an underground bunker in the remote icy plains of Greenland. We don't get to know a whole lot about our protagonist named Phillip, except that he inherited a bunch of files from his father, who apparently had been declared dead for 30 years already, and who asks him to burn all the files and ignore the undecipherable information that is hidden inside of them. Naturally, Phillip indulges his curiosity and while he cannot crack the code and find out what it is he is supposed to burn and destroy, he finds a location marked in the notes: The above mentioned abandoned mine in Greenland.

Penumbra is one of the very rare games that I have not actually played myself. My boyfriend and me played it together, which means, he takes care of the controls and I occasionally pipe up when he is stuck somewhere. Because Penumbra does contain a bunch of really interesting riddles! You can't even really define the genre that Penumbra belongs to because to me it is a game not quite like anything I have ever experienced before. If pressed, I'd also group it under Survival Horror and Adventure Game. I'm mainly going to talk about Penumbra Overture here because that was the part that I enjoyed the most. We also played through Black Plague and liked it well enough but we were a bit disappointed with Requiem and didn't even finish playing that one.

Anyway, the first thing that probably springs to mind is the quite special controls of Penumbra. Penumbra actually has a working physics engine and the game also makes practical use of that engine, as opposed to "only" using it for realistic effects. Which means, as only a few games have fully made use of the physics engine before, you will have to block doors with barrels or stones that you will actually have to haul all the way over to where they are needed, by dragging them with your mouse. The controls of Penumbra are much less coded than it was the case with games of the same genre in the past. When you want to use a key, you don't just select it in your inventory. You take it into your hand and have to guide it to the keyhole. When you want to fight you actually have to swing the weapon around as opposed to pressing or holding an attack button. And maybe most memorably, if you want to open a door, you have to grab it and pull or push it open with your hand. The fact that doors aren't opening by themselves when you interact with them in a certain coded way is probably one of the things that makes the game the most immediate and creepy. Because the interaction with the game is much more direct and demands of you to actually perform motions such as attacking and opening of doors, everything feels much more real.

Then you have to mention that while the graphics aren't completely amazing as you might expect from super expensive games it is a very clever play with atmosphere and setting that makes up for any graphics shortcoming that you might experience. Penumbra Overture is a game that has the balls to never have you interact with another human shaped being face to face. You enter that abandoned mine in Greenland and soon start to feel that complete loneliness and isolation from the rest of humanity. There is no going back, there is only going deeper into the mine to finally chase down the information about your father and why it was so important to burn the files and never have the information contained in them known to mankind. After a while, you really start to feel the pressure and between big spiders, flayed dogs and mutant rock worms little breaks between game sessions are definitely advisable.

But after a while you also stop thinking so much about the reason why you have entered the mine in the first place because the strange ongoings in there and the meeting of a new "friend", which is only present through a staticy voice over a radio, you just start wondering what the hell has been going on in that mine. Penumbra is very subtle here. While some games would quickly point the viewer to the popular and quite overused trope of "Nazi superscience", Penumbra leaves it at subtle hints like supply sacks with "Thule" written on them and a typewriter from 1933. We always hope to find more information to what has been going on in the mine, what the research was for in the end and we are especially looking forward to the meeting of our only "friend" within the whole game, an ominous person named "Red" who guides us through the labyrinth of tunnels and caves, never quite knowing what he wants us to meet him for. The combined effects of the very involved physics engine and the psychological impact of constant isolation and imminent danger are guaranteed to grip you and make Penumbra Overture a trip that you won't forget quickly.

Apart from the general action of the game it is noticable that Penumbra is a game that has been made with a lot of love and out of the raw desire to just create a fun videogame. The voice acting is sometimes funny in a way that the voice acting in the first few Silent Hill games was slightly off in moments as well, but fans will grow to love these little quirks most certainly. Then there are some sweet little easter eggs to be found, one being a little sort of Space Invaders style game on one of the PCs in the abandoned shelter. Another one being a cute reference to a certain wellknown hero with a crowbar. Any game that makes a reference like that is cool by default.

Some people might find the ending of Penumbra Overture to be really disappointing. You could say that Frictional Games has been making this up as they were going along, especially when you consider that Penumbra Black Plague throws your protagonist into a completely disconnected scenario, having gone from the abandoned mine into a seemingly abandoned shelter and thus entering a whole different plot line. Fear not, the resolution of Black Plague is much more satisfying, but looking back I just can not help but be sad that the ending of Penumbra Overture has been kind of anticlimatic.

Still, Penumbra is a game that I can wholeheartedly recommend to anybody who is even slighty interested in Survival Horror or just a really well made game, different from most that we find on the market these days. Since the game has been out for some years already it's available for quite a cheap price at amazon so it's definitely worth having a look at, even if you, like me, turn out to be a bit too chicken to play the game yourself. It's the perfect game to play with a friend to keep encouraging each other to go on, go deeper into the mine. You're gonna have fun and will feel very glad that you aren't alone.