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10 - Masterpiece
9 - Great
8 - Very good
7 - Good
6 - Watchable if you like the genre
5 - Mediocre, don't bother
4 - Bad
3 - Terrible
2 - Garbage
1 - Genuinely offensive
How to play: 1) You need somewhere to write; 2) For each slide, you will be asked to choose a number - pick one randomly, without peeking below; 3) Check the option corresponding to that number on that same slide; 4) Write everything down as you proceed. By the end, you'll have a perfectly serviceable Bond movie.
Notice that I'm not including stories with an unreliable but single point of view of what happened (i.e. The Usual Suspects) or with multiple but all reliable overlapping accounts (i.e. Boomtown).
Good movie, bad ending
Major spoilers follow!
What do Minority Report, War of the Worlds, A.I., Oblivion and Edge of Tomorrow have in common with Interstellar? If you answered "either Spielberg or Tom Cruise (or both) had their hands on them"... well, true but not my point (although the fact Spielberg was attached to Interstellar time ago is very telling); the answer is "fine sci-fi movies with a weak final act".
You can distinguish between two kinds of fiction. The first one is essentially consolatory; characters may face dangers, but at the end of the day they ride into the sunset and live happily ever after as order is restored. The second one is more problematic and offers no easy resolution; by the time the story is over, events have taken a major toll on those involved (and I'm not merely talking about surviving dangerous set-pieces). The first kind soothes, the second provokes; one is Spielberg, the other Kubrick; one is Nolan of Memento, the other Nolan of Interstellar.
Now, of course both kinds have their place and there is NOTHING wrong whatsoever with more lighthearted fare - I'd rather watch a well-crafted popcorn flick (a cozy experience) than a poorly done "serious" movie - as long as it is tonally and thematically consistent. However, in a story about time, entropy and loss which aspires to depth and poses itself as the spiritual successor of 2001, the kind of conclusion Interstellar dishes out feels sappy, cheap and plain wrong next to the somber 150+ minutes preceding it.
Oh, neat! Cooper saves mankind! And survives the BLACK HOLE! And reunites with his daughter (who is now old and can serenely pass on surrounded by her family)! And the cute robot is there too! And they go fetch Anne Hathaway! I'm kinda surprised they didn't resurrect John Lithgow as well while they were at it. It's fluffy and tone-deaf. I won't even go into the usual "science, plot holes, etc.": storytelling is the real issue here.
Pity, because I was really on board with this one. Acting is great, with an excellent McConaughey and a special mention to young Mackenzie Foy. At its best, Interstellar provides moment of awe (the oceanic planet with giant waves), compelling dilemmas (which site visit next?), tension (the Matt Damon subplot) and real pathos (the scene with Cooper leaving in bad terms with his daughter is moving and effective); exposition is clunky-but-interesting in an Inception kind of way. But the movie lost me completely with its epilogue, which, worryingly, falls into the same kind of maudlin Nolan provided in The Dark Knight Rises, except it felt less inappropriate there.
No doubt wars and revolutions, like any other human activity, can be derailed by the emotions of those involved at its higher levels: jealousy, fear, revenge - even love triangles. I guess it could be a compelling premise, to see how far someone can be distracted by his personal feelings and forget the big picture while Rome burns, but this doesn't feel like what Mockingjay is doing - at all. The movie just assumes you are very, very interested in Katniss' (Jennifer Lawrence) angst over choosing between gloomy Gale (Liam Hemsworth) - the stoic alpha male and guerrilla companion - and milquetoast former Hunger Games partner Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) - the endangered, sensitive one, now prisoner of the government led by white-bearded boogeyman Snow (Donald Sutherland).
While the idea of a protagonist who is supposed to lead a revolt but lacks natural charm and charisma is kind of interesting, too much of the running time is devoted to a weepy Katniss brooding in an underground base as she is torn between Gale and Peeta. We get it - will you please go back to your revolution, lady? Never thought I'd miss murderous monkeys and poisonous fog, but there you are.
A fine cast is mostly wasted, with Woody Harrelson, Julianne Moore, Jeffrey Wright and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman having relatively little to do and the electric Jena Malone - the stand-out of Catching Fire - getting a few seconds of screen-time.
For all their flaws, I rather enjoyed the two previous movies (while Katniss spent an inordinate amount of time worrying about Peeta in them as well, at least the context was more cinematic); now, those had cliffhanger endings too, but at least they felt like complete entities in terms of structure. This is just truncated, a "to be continued" bridge to the next chapter.
Wiedzmin 3: Dziki Gon (2015)
Lives up to the hype
See, I enjoyed The Witcher 2 (TW2) as much as the next guy (stupid Kayran boss fight notwithstanding), but I felt the game wasn't as great as the first title of the series, the developers' eye-popping debut. So, although perfectly fine in its own right, it felt like a small step backwards. (Okay, so maybe I did enjoy it slightly less than the next guy).
The Witcher 3, however, is an improvement over TW2 and captures the same kind of fun I had in the first episode. The game features a Bethesda-like world in terms of scale and detailed locations, and BioWare-like attention to narrative and characters; the freedom of the first Witcher and the better combat of the second. Writing is stellar (the two intertwining main missions in Velen, for example, are phenomenal), NPCs memorable - they never feel like quest-delivering automatons. And Novigrad is the BEST city seen in a cRPG since Baldur's Gate 2.
Also interesting is how the monsters' local Wikipedia is not merely a curiosity for lore fans, but an asset when confronting those creatures, as you learn their weakness to "signs" (magic) and alchemy. There is a certain amount of preparation before each major fight which goes beyond the usual "get your best equipment and a ton of health potions".
My main gripe is how the "Witcher sense" used during investigations (to find clues about monsters) feels too much like an instant-win button. The lack of challenge drains some fun from these segments in terms of gameplay (although narrative connected to them remains compelling). For example, you follow the tracks of some hunters and find a griffin's abandoned nest, then protagonist Geralt automatically deduces everything there is to know about the creature. It's not possible to MAKE A MISTAKE and prepare poorly, unless you deliberately ignore the suggestions; every footprint and piece of evidence is highlighted in bright red, so it could be challenging only in case of daltonism.
Soundtrack is atmospheric, voice acting brilliant - one of the rare fully-voiced game where I follow every dialogue instead of just reading subtitles and skipping through dully-delivered conversations. Graphics are solid, loading times perfectly acceptable (shorter on my PC than those in Dragon Age: Inquisition, for example): certainly nothing like the first Witcher's endless pauses.
It's possible to import a save from The Witcher 2, but also to recreate previous choices made in the second game (but not those in the first one) in a conversation in Vizima during the prologue.
Pieces of Eight
The best entry in the series after Assassin's Creed 2, Black Flag proves a game can overcome several flaws as long as it manages to be fun.
A high-budget pirate sandbox action/adventure where you can sail around the sea from Kingston to Nassau, board enemy ships during naval battles, roam crocodile-infested swamps, run parkour-style on the roofs of Havana, dig for buried treasures in small atolls... I mean, how can one not love a premise like that? It's an instant winner.
Characters are vivid, voice acting solid, dialogues written with surprising flair. History provided here is the usual "based on real events" baloney; pirates are romanticized into brave rebels. Whatever - don't play Assassin's Creed expecting reliable history lessons. Sadly, the modern-day Abstergo plot, the series' tiresome framing device, just refuses to go away and die. What would you rather do in a pirate sandbox - take control of your ship in the middle of a storm or speak to your boss in a corporate office? Every time the game shifts to a modern-day sequence (thankfully, not often) it's like getting commercials in the middle of a blockbuster.
Black Flag features some dubious design choices. Insta-failure stealth missions are grating; they would be less annoying if the stealth system was exceptionally well thought-out, but this isn't the case. Enemy AI has its issues: for example, sentinels are remarkably unaffected by the disappearance of their comrades. Combat is once again dominated by the stupidly overpowered counter attack; and, speaking of overpowered, special mention goes to berserk darts, which allow to complete many missions with absurd ease. Overall, you'd think stealth and combat would be more polished in a series about assassins.
Still, the game is better than the sum of its parts and highly enjoyable - in particular, its mix of naval and terrestrial exploration (journey to far away islands to visit jungles filled with jaguars and Mayan ruins) is fantastic. The series is still coming short of greatness, but its high points (this and AC2) are undeniably compelling.
For another entertaining (but sadly underrated) sandbox in the same setting, try Pirates of the Caribbean (2003).
Dragon Age: Inquisition (2014)
A proper sequel to Origins
Talk about overcompensating. Fans (rightly) complained Dragon Age 2 was too short and small, and BioWare developers dish out one of their biggest RPGs yet. Strongly inspired by Skyrim, Inquisition is overflowing with locations to visit and things to do... too much so (the irony!). Quests are everywhere, sprouting from every conversation; however, many are of the "collect 10 wolf pelts" MMO variety. One could argue those are not mandatory, except they kind of are: you need at least SOME grinding to gain enough "power" points, which unlock progression of the vastly more interesting main quest.
Overall, while not as good as the first chapter of the series, Inquisition is a step forward from the second - it feels like DA2 done right (without cutting corners). Lore is interesting (although the codex collecting it is very poorly organized); voice acting is strong, companions mostly well-developed; exploration is back (climb mountains, ride mounts, find secret locations); the strategic elements of being a faction leader (planning quests through counselors, managing a stronghold, holding trials) are simplistic but compelling. Combat is on the easy/chaotic side, but at least friendly fire is not tied to difficulty setting anymore; character building isn't that deep, but race selection is back; companion approval level is wisely hidden from the player.
A special praise for the Dragon Age Keep, which allows to customize decisions from previous games to import in Inquisition.
La decima vittima (1965)
Sheckley, not stirred
Robert Sheckley's The Seventh Victim is one of those short stories which, along with The Veldt, Sentry and The Test, made dystopian science fiction one of my favorite genres as a teen.
La Decima Vittima turns this terrifying tale of a future where murder becomes a social game into a campy farce. A few clever bits aside (probably courtesy of satirist Ennio Flaiano, who has a writing credit), this feels like Blade Runner lampooned by Austin Powers.
Marcello Mastroianni and Ursula Andress costar. Director Elio Petri nailed the oppressive atmosphere appropriate for Sheckley's classic... but did so in a different movie (his remarkable Indagine Su Un Cittadino Al Di Sopra Di Ogni Sospetto).
At least La Decima Vittima shows how brilliant Truffaut's Fahrenheit 451 adaptation is: to see how terribly wrong it could have gone, you need to look no further than this.
Masha i Medved (2009)
Not since Disney and Looney Tunes classics an animated series aimed at children made me laugh so much.
This Russian cartoon about a grumpy but good-natured bear dealing with hurricane-like toddler Masha is a gem: hilarious, breathlessly paced and visually compelling, with a color palette of rich greens and browns.
The stroke of genius was keeping the bear mute (along with all other animals), which somehow makes his straight man attitude - and annoyed reactions to Masha's disasters - ten times funnier. Comic timing is impeccable.
Add to this a catchy soundtrack and secondary characters like two loser wolves, a thieving rabbit and a disco-obsessed pig, and the result is amusing for both kids and adults.
The 'Burbs (1989)
What have you got in the cellar, Herr Klopek?
You know that little movie you've watched dozens of times? The one few of your friends know, but you could quote all day long? (My brother and I still refer to weird neighbors as "Klopeks").
That's The 'Burbs for me. A small gem by Joe Dante, this black comedy follows a bunch of nosy neighbors investigating a strange family. Ominous noises erupt from their cellar at night; dark shapes dig in the garden at unlikely hours; when an elderly man disappears, schlub Ray (Tom Hanks in one of his best comedic roles) and his pals get increasingly suspicious.
The movie co-stars a young and pretty Carrie Fisher as Ray's wife Carol, Corey Feldman and Rick Ducommun as a petty conspiracy theorist. Best of all is the great Bruce Dern as unhinged senior veteran Rumsfield, a mix between John Goodman from The Big Lebowski and Clint Eastwood from Gran Torino. In a sort of casting gag, Henry Gibson as the Klopek patriarch sees the other side of his famous Fright Night role.
Thanks to Dante's deft touch and to the sly performances, even little moments shine. My favorite is probably the sardines scene: Carol attempts to take charge of the situation and have a civil meeting with the Klopeks, who offer them a nasty-looking snack with pretzels and sardines. Rumsfield keeps badgering and pushing the neighbors ("Hans! A FINE Christian name... Hans Christian Andersen!"), with Ray uselessly trying to deflate tension with the most trivial excuses; when the situation escalates, Ray jumps from the couch and rushes to the bathroom. It's silly, but has me in stitches every time.
Even throwaway lines are brilliant ("He is not coming out until he resembles the man I married!" says Carol about Ray; "We don't have that kind of time!" is the casual reply).
Jerry "Earworm" Goldsmith provides one of his best comedic soundtracks, throwing in everything from sinister organs to Morricone-inspired electric guitar blasts.
Brisk, clever and endlessly quotable.
The Boxtrolls (2014)
This visually impressive stop-motion animated movie puts a spin on H.G. Wells' classic The Time Machine: its underground-dwelling Morlocks - here a diminutive race called Boxtrolls - are harmless beasties with a penchant for steampunk, unjustly feared and discriminated by their smug Eloi - here class-obsessed citizens of Cheesebridge. A boy adopted by the creatures, with the help of a surface girl, fights against the attempts of ruthless town exterminator Snatcher to destroy the Boxtrolls.
Vocal talent assembled is impressive; as much as I like Nick Frost, Simon Pegg, Elle Fanning and Isaac Hempstead-Wright (Game of Thrones' Bran), the standout is an unrecognizable Ben Kingsley in a magnificently loathsome, scene-stealing turn as Snatcher.
Much like the authors' previous effort Coraline, this isn't aimed at small children. It's not as creepy as the brilliant Gaiman adaptation, but it features a certain amount of grotesqueries - like a character's face horribly swollen after an allergic reaction - not really suited to toddlers.
Shadowrun: Dragonfall (2014)
Hugely improved expansion
Forget dragons, shady corporations and cyberpunk shamans: the biggest mystery about Shadowrun is why Dragonfall was initially marketed as a DLC, which usually implies "short and overpriced". Far from it, Dragonfall is actually an EXPANSION, longer than the original campaign (Dead Man's Switch), and a huge step forward from every point of view: plot, characters, gameplay.
Isometric RPG Dead Man's Switch (which I enjoyed overall) started as pleasantly low-key, but the final act took a turn into something fairly cheesy and fanservice-y (with famous characters nonchalantly joining your group). In Dragonfall, premise, development and twists are far more compelling. You also get a crew of interesting, well-developed party members to interact with. Setting continues to be awesome: a cyberpunk Berlin where technology and magic coexist, with elves, trolls and droids roaming the streets.
Turn-based combat is fun, varied and well-designed. While the game is still very much railroaded, the player gets a bit more freedom than in the original campaign.
If this is where Shadowrun is heading, I'm along for the ride.