‘The Last of Us’ Diary: Part IX — The End, The Verdict

June 2, 2015 in Best Of, Game Reviews, Reviews

last of us poster

Note: This is the ninth part of a multi-part series detailing my experiences, observations and thoughts on The Last of Us on PS3. Part 1 can be found here, Part 2 can be found here, Part 3 here, Part 4 here, Part 5 here, Part 6 here, Part 7 here and Part 8 here.

Day 15 (May 19, 2o15)

Here we go. The home stretch.

Joel and Ellie’s journey take them to Salt Lake City, the final stop of their epic adventure. As with previous locations, the city is in ruins, but you get the feeling that the purpose of all the walking around in this last chapter is to provide that final burst of character and relationship development before the inevitable climax.

Salt Lake

And so the first part of Salt Lake is mostly wandering around and watching conversations unfold. Joel has clearly opened up and is finally comfortable with that Ellie means to him, while Ellie is starting to fear what may happen once they finally meet up with the Fireflies.

The highlight of this “slower” portion of the game is an encounter with a pack of giraffes spoiled by most trailers and promotional photos. Still, it’s a beautiful and awe-inspiring moment, not just because of the impressive visuals, but because it reminds you that despite everything, Ellie is still a child who grew up in this broken world and has never seen things we take for granted.

Eventually, action arrives in the form of a watery underpass section filled with runners, clickers and bloaters. While you can stealthily sneak by the majority of them, you might also want to let it rip because it’s the last time in the game you’ll see a zombie. That said, there are a lot of them, so just going in guns blazing could lead to you getting surrounded. Strategy is needed since there are no second chances when it comes to bloaters.

Once you get past that, it’s more wandering until an accident automatically leads into an unavoidable meeting with the Fireflies and a reunion with Marlene.

Marlene's back!

Marlene’s back!

I’ve been reminded that you can spoil a game that’s been out for two years, but just in case, I’ll warn those who want to experience the game for themselves that major spoilers are coming.

So, as it turns out, the only way to even attempt to use Ellie’s immunity to develop a vaccine is to do what Anthony Hopkins did to Ray Liotta — except for the feeding part — by slicing open her head and messing with the brain. Joel ain’t taking any of that shit, thereby setting up a final rampage through the hospital to rescue Ellie.

Yum!

Yum!

I admit to being a wee little disappointed with the relative sameness of what is supposed to be the climax of the action. It’s by no means a cakewalk, though if you’ve been saving up your ammunition and items it won’t be very hard to smash anyone who dares to get in your way. There’s really not that many of them either, maybe about a dozen to 20 tops.

At the same time, I can understand why the game makers decided to do it this way. While the survival horror action is fun and all, The Last of Us, since the very beginning, has always been about the characters and their relationships. It’s clear from the way they’ve handled the final chapter that they wanted to go back to the essence of the game and not overwhelm the narrative with all-out, over-the-top carnage. Perhaps they considered the battle with David in the previous chapter as the “final boss”, though I would have personally preferred a more challenging conclusion.

I like the idea of an old-fashioned hospital shootout, but I think it would have been even better with some added spice, like an enemy or enemies with full body armour, making them extra difficult to kill, or some kind of enemy with martial arts skills you need to take down without guns. Alternatively, it would have been even more awesome had zombies somehow managed to get into the hospital — perhaps intentionally let in by Joel to help him out with all the Firefly soldiers — to create a chaotic battle where you have to take on both types of enemies and use your wits to pit them against each other. Throw in a newly mutated boss if necessary. The makers of the film adaptation should totally be reading this!

Feel the wrath of my assault rifle, mother...

Feel the wrath of my assault rifle, mother…

Alas, the real climax was more subdued and more subtle. Enemies had assault rifles (which you can start using if you kill one of them), but apart from that it was largely more of the same. Instead, there was a surprising level of storytelling, as Joel would constantly stumble across notes and voice recorders that would reveal more backstory and explanations.

All of this culminates in a surprisingly anti-climatic showdown against three helpless surgeons in the operating theatre. You can kill them if you want, as I did, with an assortment of weapons, but the game effectively ends when you pick an unconscious Ellie up off the operating table and carry her to a hospital elevator. (This actually led me to think — what if I just waited outside for hours? Would they never start the operation? I wasn’t bored enough to try it out)

This ain't no episode of Grey's Anatomy

This ain’t no episode of Grey’s Anatomy

The game’s big storyline “twist”, if you can call it that, takes place entirely in cut scenes. Just as Joel prepares to leave, he runs into Marlene (of course he does), who begs for him to do the right thing for humanity and allow them to pop open Ellie’s head. I guess he could have mentioned at this point that he had killed all the doctors anyway!

Joel appears to hesitate before the screen fades to black, and the next thing we see is Joel driving. This is a brilliant storytelling device from Naughty Dog because it leaves you hanging, wondering what decision Joel makes in the end. Save humanity by sacrificing the one person he has left in this world, or selfishly do what’s best for himself and Ellie?

Drive

So…?

What do you think happens and what do you think should have happened?

I never expected Joel to betray Ellie by leaving her behind, and I was proven to be right, as we soon hear Ellie stirring in the back seat as she awakens from anaesthesia. What happens next, however, is a betrayal of a different kind, because Joel goes on to lie to Ellie about why they left the Fireflies, saying that there were dozens of other people like Ellie and that they had given up on finding a cure. His explanation is interspersed with flashbacks of what happened in the parking lot with Marlene, whom Joel shoots with a gun and begs for her life before he caps another one in her skull, saying that she’d just keep coming after Ellie.

I found this twist to be kinda poetic and true to who the characters have been from the very beginning. Joel has always been a survivor; he’s not a saviour and he’s not a hero. Call him the villain of this game, if you will, but his actions actually make a lot of sense if you’ve been paying attention to the kind of person he is. I found it interesting that some people didn’t get it and weren’t sure whether Joel was actually telling the truth.

I thought the game was over, but there’s actually a tiny epilogue after this segment. It’s another one of those creative choices made by Naughty Dog that surprises. You play as Ellie and there’s no fighting involved, just strolling through the woods as they make their way back to Tommy’s. You can tell from their conversation that Joel is fine with his decision, but Ellie remains torn by survivor guilt. The game’s final scene is a mini-masterpiece in which Ellie demands that Joel swear that what he said about the Fireflies is all true. Joel swears, and the final shot lingers on Ellie’s face as she says, “OK”, before the game fades to black.

Ellie Final

Ellie’s haunting final expression

Everyone’s going to have their own interpretation of what the ending means. Did Ellie believe Joel or did she know she was lying? And if she thought he was lying, what does that mean for the future of their relationship? The brilliant thing about it is that Ellie’s facial expression could be taken in several ways. It could be fear, it could be horror, it could be sadness, or it could be relief. Or perhaps it was a mix of all those things. Whatever it is, it’s powerful stuff.

My personal take is that Ellie knows Joel is lying and has known all along, but wants him to say it again to her face one more time. But confirming her suspicions doesn’t mean she no longer trusts him or would make her want to get away from him. To the contrary, I think knows she’s stuck with him, for better or for worse, and she’s conflicted about how that makes her feel. On the one hand she knows he will keep her safe no matter what, but on the other she’ll always feel guilty about living at the potential expense of finding a cure. She’ll survive, but she’ll feel horrible about it. It’s a morally complicated question with no right answer.

Kudos to Naughty Dog for doing something so unconventional and daring. There’s no cure. There’s no happy ending. It’s just ambiguity and a lot of mixed emotions. It’s a revolutionary ending for a revolutionary game, and I like that the game doesn’t offer alternative endings because it would cheapen the impact of the one they went with.

The Verdict

If you haven’t figured it out by now, even after I’ve written a nine-part series about my experience playing it, I’ll spell it out for you: The Last of Us is the best video game I’ve ever played. There are games that may have been more addictive, games that might have been more fun from a pure action perspective, games that have had better graphics or sound or whatever. But nothing beats The Last of Us when it comes to the overall gaming experience.

It’s simply unparalleled when it comes to storytelling, characters and immersiveness.  To be able to achieve this kind of emotional resonance in a video game is something I’ve never seen before. It’s the only game I’ve ever played where I haven’t been able to get it out of my head even days after I’ve finished it. It’s the only game I’ve played worthy of in-depth analysis like a book or a movie. I’ve looked up videos about the game and watched the documentaries about it YouTube. I’m obsessed.

And I’ll let you in on a little secret. Between the time I finished the game on May 19 and the writing of this post, I’ve played the DLC add-on Left Behind — which I will discuss in my next post — AND played the entire main game all over again in the “plus” version that allows you to keep the upgrades you made to your weapons and skills the first time around. It actually makes the game easier, but the reason I played it again, apart from experiencing its awesomeness one more time, is so I can savour the dramatic moments more. I was far too nervous the first time I played it, so in the second playthrough I made sure I focused on nuances and all the little things that make the game so great. I also killed everything in sight instead of using stealth. That’s probably about 35-40 hours of total playing time (the first playthrough was a little over 17 hours and the DLC was under 3 hours), and I still can’t get enough! Now I understand why some people also get the remastered version to play on PS4 (and if I had a PS4 I would too, dammit!)

ashley-johnson-avengersavengers32jpg-spptbun3

Ashley Johnson in The Avengers. She had a bigger role but most of it ended up on the cutting room floor.

Full marks to the amazing work of creative director Neil Druckmann, who absolutely should be a consultant on the film adaptation, and the acting of the cast, led by Ashley Johnson and Troy Baker. Johnson, whom some of you might know from her cameo as a waitress in The Avengers, actually won the BAFTA Games Awards for Best Performer (male and female compete in the same category) for her role as Ellie in back-to-back years, first in The Last of Us and then in Left Behind.

Here’s her acceptance speech in 2014.

And again in 2015.

Of course, The Last of Us also took home Best Game, Best Action and Adventure, Best Audio, and Best Story. In a year that also gave us GTA V, that says a lot. There’s another 2oo+ awards the game has won, but I’m not about to list them all here. Suffice it to say that they are all well deserved.

I have a feeling I’ve already said too much, but the fact is that I can’t say enough good things about it. Granted, it’s not perfect — no game is — but The Last Us is about as close as it gets.

10/10

Mayweather-Pacquiao: Dud of the Century

May 3, 2015 in Best Of, Boxing, Sport

Manny Pacquiao failed to deliver two promises on Saturday evening at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. The first was that he would hand Floyd “Money” Mayweather his first defeat in 48 professional fights. The second was that he would give fans an exciting fight. While he could blame Mayweather for failing the first promise, Pacquiao was just as much to blame for the second. And so after five years of speculation, close calls, failed negotiations, name-calling, lawsuits and serendipitous meetings at Miami Heat basketball games, the so-called Fight of the Century turned out to be one huge stinking dud.

Before the Fight

The atmosphere before the fight lived up to the hype. Just about all the biggest names in sports and entertainment were there (see this link for a full list with pictures), either due to their connections (ie, Floyd’s buddy Justin Bieber, Showtime stars like Claire Danes, boxing royalty like Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield, or sponsor-related celebs like Jake Gyllenhaal, who’s there to promote his new boxing flick Southpaw) or their huge wallets capable of paying the exorbitant ticket prices (Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Tom Brady, Andre Agassi, etc). It was the richest gate in sports history (ticket sales alone generated US$74 million), with even the shittiest ticket in the nosebleeds section costing just under US$3,000 according to StubHub.

The PPV numbers are not yet available, but they are expected to blow away the record of 2.48 million buys from the De La Hoya-Mayweather fight in 2007. The actual money amount will be astronomical, considering PPV prices are also significantly higher than for other bouts, with people paying US$90 for the fight (and US$100 for it in HD) in the United States and slightly cheaper prices in most other places on the planet (only a handful of countries such as Mexico, China and the Philippines aired it for free).

PPV

The demand was so high that the start time of the actual main event was delayed by approximately 45 minutes due to troubles encountered by people trying to order the PPV from their providers.

I was rooting for the Filipino and predicted a Pacquiao victory not just because he apparently possessed all the tools on paper to give Mayweather trouble (southpaw, speed, power, footwork, stamina, high work rate, awkward angles), but also because the American seemed to be genuinely spooked by the occasion. Mayweather appeared nervous at all the public events and even told reporters he no longer had the passion for the sport and was looking forward to retiring after one final fight in September.

He was uncharacteristically polite and passive, a far cry from his old ways of trash talking and acting brash and disrespectful towards opponents, and he continued to be plagued by reports that dredged up his history of domestic violence. It seemed like Pacquiao, who acted relaxed and confident throughout the promotion, had won the psychological battle, and I felt the Mayweather camp was rattled judging from the last minute reports claiming that it had tried — unsuccessfully — to block Pacquiao from using his commission-approved gloves for the fight. It also didn’t help that reports surfaced today alleging that Mayweather attempted to block certain female journalists who harped on his domestic abuse charges.

Pacquiao also appeared to land the first blow — figuratively speaking — when he entered the ring smiling and with plenty of confidence as his coach Freddie Roach snapped a selfie on his phone. He even allowed talk show host Jimmy Kimmel to take an unsubtle jab at Justin Bieber, who is part of Mayweather’s entourage and infamously crashed the introductory press conference a couple of months ago.

kimmel bieber

Jimmy Kimmel joins Manny Pacquiao’s ring entrance entourage on May 2

bieber mayweather

Justin Bieber pops out of nowhere during the kick-off conference in March

The Fight

Everything I said above may have been true, but none of it mattered once the two fighters got into the ring. I hate to break it to those still in denial, but the fight wasn’t close. You can hate on Floyd Mayweather Jr all your want, but you can’t deny his skills. Tonight, Mayweather proved he was the best boxer of his generation. Five years ago, who knows what the outcome would have been, but all that matters is what actually happened. For the record, I believe the outcome would have been the same because Mayweather’s just that much better and his physical advantages are too difficult to overcome.

Freddie Roach claimed that he had the perfect game plan — one he had been honing and perfecting over the past five years — and that Pacquiao was probably going to win every round. Well, it became clear after round one that Pacquiao had an uphill climb ahead of him. The Filipino needed to get off to a good start and probably should have rushed Mayweather from the opening bell to assert himself, but instead he was overly passive and spent too long posturing and feinting. Mayweather won the first three rounds, or at least two of the first three, with his accuracy, counterpunching, and ability to dictate of the pace.

Pacquiao had his moments in the next three rounds, but only when he managed to trap Mayweather against the ropes so he could launch his patented flurries. Most of the heavy blows, however, were either blocked or deflected. In terms of jabs and single shots in the middle of the ring, however, Mayweather dominated. It was simply a master class in how to control distance and range. Mayweather perfected using his 5-inch reach advantage to keep Pacquiao at bay, and clinching or arm-locking whenever Pacquiao got too close. Having referee Kenny Bayless, who typically allows Mayweather to get away with a certain amount of holding, didn’t help matters. It was frustrating and boring, but it was a brilliant strategy.

Before the fight, I thought Pacquiao had a decent chance because of his volume punching. I believed if he kept punching and overwhelmed Mayweather’s output he would be favoured by the judges. But against Mayweather, his punch rate suddenly came crashing down. It’s not an anomaly because it’s happened to every volume puncher Mayweather has ever faced. It goes back to Mayweather’s ability to control range, because Pacquiao knows there’s no point in throwing punches that have no chance of landing. It also says something about Mayweather’s underrated power. If those counterpunches didn’t sting, Pacquiao wouldn’t have grown so reluctant in coming forward. He knew he couldn’t be reckless and try to walk through Mayweather’s punches in order to land his own because he knew those shots could hurt him.

Mayweather’s not the same type of counterpuncher as Juan Manuel Marquez, the man who gave Pacquiao fits in their four fights and brutally knocked him out in their last matchup. JMM takes huge risks and gambles on his counters, which is why Pacquiao’s had success against him too, but Mayweather is a counterpuncher who plays it safe because he can.

The result was as one-sided as many of Mayweather’s other fights. 118-110 one one scorecard and a generous 116-112 on two others for a unanimous Mayweather victory. I had it 117-111 on my sloppy unofficial scorecard. Here’s how the judges scored each round.

mayweather pacquiao official scorecard

Anyone claiming that Pacquiao won — including himself — or that it was a close fight is deluding themselves. Your eyes or heart may deceive you, but the stats don’t lie. Compubox is not a perfect science, but in this case it’s an accurate indication of what took place.

floydpac compubox

Mayweather landed 67 more punches than Pacquiao at 15% more accuracy. The most startling stat is that Mayweather ended up throwing more punches than Pacquiao did overall. In a fight where just about everyone thought Pacquiao would need to throw 800 punches to win, he ended up throwing barely half that. Full credit to Mayweather for turning the usually tornado-like Pacquiao into just another fighter who thought he could outbox the master.

I mistakenly predicted a Pacquiao victory partly because big boxing matches usually turn out to be unpredictable, but the it ended up being one of those rare fights where everything pretty much went according to how fight experts predicted it could go. Pacquiao would have his moments early, when his best chances were available, but Mayweather would eventually figure it out — as he always does — and dominate the rest of the way. The only thing unexpected was that Pacquiao would be so passive to start the fight and allow Mayweather to claim those precious early rounds.

Unfortunately, Mayweather’s dominance — and Pacquiao’s reluctance — turned the Fight of the Century into a total bore. Brilliant performance? Sure. Exciting? Hell no. I can appreciate technical skills better than most, but for a fight of this magnitude the fans deserved more. A lot more.

Boos rained down on Mayweather when he proclaimed victory at the end of the fight and when they announced the decision, and while some of them were aimed at him as a person, I believe a lot of them were directed at the way he turned the fight into a snoozefest. There was no genuine action, no serious exchanges, nothing close to resembling a knockdown, and no one was ever in serious trouble or hurt from a big shot. Mayweather danced around, held, and ran some more, not just avoiding action but actively preventing it from happening. There may have been some natural tension early on, but even that evaporated as Mayweather’s tactics became a predictable pattern.

Mayweather deserves the bulk of the blame because that’s his style, but the typically exciting Pacquiao isn’t fault-free either. Perhaps it was his brutal KO loss to JMM a couple of years ago that made him so wary, but when the fight was clearly getting away he didn’t exactly go for broke either. With US$100 million-plus heading into his bank, Pacquiao probably decided it wasn’t worth risking his health for glory. I would have much rather seen him get knocked out trying to score the knockout himself rather than trying to feint Mayweather to death. And that’s what 80%-90% of the fight was: feinting and posturing. It was a chess match that was more boring than watching actual chess matches.

After the Fight

Everyone was disappointed. “Underwhelmed” was an extremely popular word on Twitter. I may have rooted for Pacquiao but the thing I wanted above all was an exciting fight that would come at least 70% to meeting expectations. This fight was about a 15%.

There were the Pactards and blind boxing novices claiming that Pacquiao had been robbed, that the sport is corrupt, etc, with some even going as far as slamming ESPN’s post-fight interviewer Max Kellerman for daring to press Pacquiao about how he could have possibly thought he won. Can you imagine the same thing happening if Mayweather was in Pacquiao’s position? Not hating, just pointing out the hypocrisy.

The internets was flooded with the same arguments Mayweather has faced for years — that he ran like a coward and didn’t dare to exchange in a real fight, like a real man. But that’s where his genius and understanding of the rules of boxing come into play. Do you think his career would have lasted as long as it has if he decided to go toe-to-toe with every foe? Do you think there would be as many people hoping that he would get knocked out every time he stepped into the ring?

The biggest flaw with the running argument, at least in this fight, is that Mayweather was actually more active than Pacquiao. Forget that he landed nearly twice as many punches. He actually threw more punches than Pacquiao. If he simply ran, how could he have won? It wasn’t as though the judges awarded Mayweather for evading Pacquiao’s punches. He landed a lot more at greater accuracy in almost every round. End of story.

That did not stop the excuses from rolling in immediately after the verdict. The Pacquiao camp revealed that the Filipino fought with a tear in his shoulder and that he was denied an anti-inflammatory shot before the fight. Not to be outdone, Mayweather claimed that both his arms and hands were injured either prior to or during the fight.

My Facebook feed became flooded with articles slamming Mayweather’s character and his woman-beating tendencies, and claims that he will never be respected no matter how many Manny Pacquiaos he beats. I suppose it comes with the territory of having been a complete prick for so many years, but even I felt all the media attacks in the aftermath of a career-defining victory were below the belt.

I haven’t had a chance to watch the fight again and I’m not sure I want to put myself through the pain for a second time. Big fights often disappoint; I can think of a few I was really amped up for that failed to meet expectations, but none were as disappointing as Mayweather-Pacquiao. Accordingly, my final impression of the fight will likely be Mayweather’s best blow of the fight — when he thanked God first in his post-fight interview. As someone irked by Pacquiao’s repeated “God will deliver him into my hands” remarks before the fight– no offense intended to any of my lovely Christian friends — I kinda liked that final insult to cap off all the stinging right hands and counters he fed Pacquiao all night.

Where to Now

floyd-mayweather1_3289966b

Mayweather insists he will fight just once more, this September, before riding off into the sunset for good. He seems genuine about this, and I believe he will carry through with the promise unless he desperately needs money again in the future — which is quite likely if you’ve heard the stories about his spending habits. Potential opponents include American young gun Keith Thurman, a 26-year-old heavy-handed fighter also with an unblemished unbeaten record (25 wins, 21KOs and 1 no contest — from an accidental headbutt in the first round), as well as Brit Amir Khan, who has a glass jaw but the height (5’9″), reach (71″), speed and boxing skills to potentially give Mayweather trouble on paper. Personally, I’d like to see him take on both guys to erase all doubts and retire at 50-0, breaking Rocky Marciano’s celebrated record.

As for Pacquiao, he said he’ll take a break and leave the rest to his promoter Bob Arum. To be honest, this loss doesn’t affect his legacy all that much. He lost to a better boxer on the night, not because he’s over the hill or a shot fighter. He’s still loved in the Philippines, where he’ll probably become president one day, and people still love to watch him fight. Against the right opponents there’s no reason why he won’t still be a massive PPV draw.

Roach and Pacquiao said they would like to push for a rematch in light of the shoulder injury revelation. There’s no rematch clause in the contract, but considering how much money the two will make (estimates for Mayweather are as high as US$180 million), the temptation must be there to do it all over again. Given how one-sided this fight turned out to be — and especially seeing that Pacquiao no longer has one-punch knockout power to give himself a puncher’s chance — it’s not something I want to see.

PS: The most exciting fight of the night was actually on the undercard. Vasyl Lomachenko, Ukranian amateur star, proved once again that he’s going to be the next P4P best fighter on the planet with his impressive destruction of the game but outgunned Gamalier Rodriguez. It was just Lomachenko’s fifth professional fight and the featherweight displayed an offensive aggression reminiscent of the Pacquiao of old and the technical brilliance and precision of Mayweather. Check out the highlights from that fight.

(Spoiler Free) Movie Review: Interstellar (2014) (IMAX)

November 7, 2014 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews

interstellar-poster

Well, it looks like I have to reshuffle my list of the best movies of 2014 – again.

Memento. The Dark Knight trilogy. Inception. Time and time again, Christopher Nolan proven to be one of the most creative and visionary directors of this generation. His latest, Interstellar, is his most ambitious project to date, and also arguably the most rewarding.

I rushed to see the first session available of Interstellar this morning, not knowing what to expect other than a 169-minute sci-fi starring Matthew McConaughey. I intentionally avoided the trailers, the reports, and the early reviews. In fact, I didn’t even know who else was in it. Going in blind was the best decision I ever made, and so I am going to make sure there are no spoilers in this review so that your experience, if you haven’t already seen it, is as fresh and awe-inspiring as it can be.

Interstellar is the very definition of an epic. The ambition, the scale, the scope, the cast, the special effects, the storyline — even the running time; everything about this film is huge, which makes it perfect for the big screen, and in particular, IMAX, which I fortunately saw it on. It is not available in 3D (which I hate anyway), but this is one rare situation where I do wonder if the added dimension could have enhanced the visual experience even more.

I don’t want to give away the plot, so all I will say is that Interstellar is first and foremost a space exploration film. I liked the fact that there was no arbitrary exposition at the start of the film explaining the world the film was depicting. There’s no voice-over, no subtitles, no Star Wars-like opening crawl. It immerses you into the story straight away, while at the same time creating an intriguing mystery that needs to be slowly pieced together. And while the progression of the narrative is relatively simple, there are some exciting twists and turns along the way.

Interstellar is also a great big adventure flick filled with excitement, action, drama, and emotion. There are big set pieces, jaw-dropping landscapes and seamless effects, though all of these things feel like they are there because they are integral to the story, rather than simply to provide candy for the eyes.

My number one film of last year, Gravity, is probably best characterized as a space survival film. That was a thrilling spectacular which had some of the above elements, but Interstellar just takes it to a whole other level in every way. And it’s even twice as long! Interestingly, the film that first popped up into my mind when watching Interstellar was another McConaughey classic, 1997’s Contact, another one of my favorite sci-fi films. Both are about exploring the unknown with a health dose of hope and fear, and pose thought-provoking questions about human nature and humanity.

I don’t know much about the science the film rests on, though I assume there are going to be a lot of gaping holes, inconsistencies and flaws in logic. But the silliness of the science is beside the point. The important thing is that Nolan made me believe in it. Like he did in Inception, Nolan takes some very complex ideas and concepts and boils them down in a way that ordinary audiences can understand. Perhaps not fully comprehend or even grasp everything that is happening, but at least enough to be able to suspend disbelief and not get lost in the storyline. To me, that is the key to the film, and my guess is that if you did not enjoy it, it is because you were unable to buy into the film’s ideas in the first place.

Nolan’s films have been accused of being too cold and emotionless in the past. That is definitely not the case with Interstellar, which is powered by a surprising amount of human drama. Not all of it was effective — some of the dialogue came across as a little mushy, a little sentimental, and shall I say, McConaughey-esqe, though in the grand scheme of things I cannot fault Nolan for trying, because the film’s ultimate pay-off and message would not have worked without emotion.

I know I have not been the biggest Matthew McConaughey fan, and I admit I cringed a little when he first opened his mouth in the film (I expected his dialogue to be “Alright, alright, alright” on an endless loop). Smugness like that is hard to contain, even for an Oscar-winning actor. Slowly but surely, however, McConaghey managed to grow on me, and by the end of the film I was convinced he was the right man for the role. I cannot say much more about the other performances without mentioning their names (not knowing the whole cast adds to the pleasant surprises), so I will simply say that there is more than one Oscar winner in the cast and that they are all very good and go a long way towards mitigating the flaws in the dialogue.

Interstellar might not be perfect. It may not even be as intriguing, action-packed or ground-breaking as some of Nolan’s other films. And it even stars Matthew McConaughey. But man, I don’t think I’ve been more entertained more by a film in years. Nolan really reached for the stars with this grand epic. Some may think it was a spectacular success; others may think it was an admirable failure. For me, I’m just glad I was fortunate enough to be on the journey.

5 stars out of 5

‘Dreams from My Father’ & ‘The Audacity of Hope’ by Barack Obama

August 5, 2014 in Book Reviews, Reviews

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My plan to read a lot of books this year was derailed by Barack Obama. I started tackling his first book, Dreams from My Father (published way back in 1995), in early June, and I didn’t finish his second book, The Audacity of Hope (published 2006), until this week.

Like everyone fascinated with Obama’s rise to become America’s first black president, I had wanted to read both books for years, but I have to admit that I found parts of them, in particular Dreams, to be a little dry. Having said that, there are some marvellous insights and ideas in these books that help shed light on the type of man and leader Obama is, and the things that have shaped his political philosophies (which I admit I find myself aligned with regularly). And so I thought I’d tackle the reviews in a single post so I can compare and contrast them a little.

For starters, both books were written before Obama was first elected president in 2008. Dreams from My Father was offered to Obama because he had been elected the first black president of the Harvard Law Review, and written at a time when he was just about to embark on a serious political career. It is first and foremost a memoir, a 442-page epic that traces his mixed-marriage birth, his unconventional upbringing in Indonesia and Hawaii, as well as his African heritage.The latter portions of the book are about his foray into politics at the grassroots level, through community organizing and church groups.

It’s not entirely chronological and it’s also not a blow-by-blow account of Obama’s life, but you do get bits and pieces of information that paint a (somewhat incomplete) picture of his life. The subtitle of the book is A Story of Race and Inheritance, so naturally race is a central theme of the book that fuels much of the discussion he has with his readers.

Hope, on the other hand, at a leaner 363 pages, came about because Obama had become a US Senator and a rising star in the Democratic Party. It would be two years before he would rise to the presidency, but I assume at the time the book idea was tossed around it was envisioned that Obama would eventually run for president, with a solid chance of making history.

It’s a completely different book to Dreams in that it’s less about Obama’s life and upbringing and more about his political and spiritual beliefs as well as his views on different aspects of American culture. He doesn’t shy away from the controversial issues such as homosexuality, abortions and religion, not to mention the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (and he admits to taking drugs, including cocaine), though some readers may be frustrated because most of the time he simply outlines the complexities of the issues without expressing a clear cut view or providing concrete solutions (but let’s face it, who can?). The last chapter on family is really the only time in the book that Obama divulges sizable chunks of his personal life (only snippets before this), but it’s arguably the most honest and heartfelt chapter of both books.

True to their respective titles, Dreams is more more personal and centered around family, with a more contemplative, reflective tone, while Hope is more about his audacious vision for the country and filled with optimism about the future.

And so it was an interesting experience reading both books in the context of when and why they were written. It’s interesting because we know who this man will eventually become, and even in the decade or so between the two books were written we can see how much he has matured and evolved as a politician — from someone with grand ideals but apprehensions about a political career to someone who is all-in and much more aware of what compromises he has to make both in the office and at home to make it to the top. It also made me wonder what type of book Obama would pen now if had the opportunity, and whether he is now a lot more cynical and disillusioned with the whole thing.

But if Obama didn’t become the most powerful man in the world, would the books be just as interesting? Of course not. It’ll just be the life and opinions of another intelligent, articulate black man. It would still be insightful, but not nearly as exciting or compelling.

Obama’s writing is solid. He’s an excellent writer on a word-by-word, sentence-by-sentence level, but his ability to piece together a clear narrative thread is sometimes lacking, particularly in Dreams. He also tends to be, as he admits, verbose at times, meaning the experience could be lacking if you are stuck reading a topic you don’t have a real interest in. These are common issues for most writers, especially first-time writers, which is why I feel Hope is the superior book. Given that the subject matter is more defined and written more like a series of essays rather than themed-biographies (ie, more up Obama’s alley), the voice is much stronger and more confident. You can tell he is trying to craft the persona of a future president, and when I read his words I could almost picture Obama saying them to a crowded room.

So, Dreams could have been even more personal, insightful and captivating, while Hope could have been bolder and contained more innovative solutions, but on the whole they are solid reads I’d recommend to people anywhere along the political spectrum, and together they paint an illuminating picture of who Barack Obama is and what he stands for. You might not agree with what he says or believes in, but anything that encourages positive political debate and discussion can’t be a bad thing.

Ratings:

Dreams from My Father – 3/5

The Audacity of Hope – 3.75/5

Movie Review: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

July 17, 2014 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews

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Those who have read an article or two on this blog might have noticed that I have what you might call a bit of a Planet of the Apes infatuation. I declared the franchise reboot, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the best film of 2011. I declared its long awaited sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, my most anticipated movie of 2014. I’m not quite sure what it is, but there’s just something about the story, the franchise, that has me going all ape.

This time around, the story takes place about a decade after the end of the previous film, when the so-called Simian flu — the same virus that gave the apes their intelligence — has wiped out the vast majority of the human population. All that remains, as far as we know, is a group of naturally immune survivors living in San Francisco led by a man named Dreyfus (Gary Oldman). Desperate for a source of power, a band of humans led by Malcolm (Aussie Jason Clarke) venture into the woods, where they run into the protagonist of the Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Caesar (Andy Serkis), and his growing tribe of smart apes.

Just like its predecessor, the humans in Dawn take a back seat to the apes, who are far more interesting and dominate the narrative. It was a necessary decision to abandon the human cast from the first film, in particular James Franco’s Dr Will Rodman, the man responsible for creating the Simian flu in the first place (Franco is too busy posting nude photos of himself on the internet anyway). This is because, as an ape film, it’s important to see Caesar’s continued growth into the great revolutionary leader he’s destined to be. In Dawn, he has established societal order in his ape tribe, built a home, and started a family. He is compassionate, loyal and intelligent — but he can still be a total badass when he needs to be.

Key returning ape characters include Maurice (Karin Konoval), the big, clever orangutan who acts as third in command and the apes’ voice of reason, as well as Koba (Toby Kebbell), the tortured, mutilated ape Caesar liberated in the first film who understandably has trouble containing his distrust for humans and his violent temper. The most important new additions are Cornelia (Judy Greer), Caesar’s partner, and Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston), their rebellious son.

On the human side, the central character is Jason Clarke’s Malcolm, but apart from him everyone else is underdeveloped. There’s his second wife, Ellie (Kerri Russell), and his teenage son, Alexander (fellow Aussie Kodi Smit-McPhee), plus a stereotypical human a-hole named Carver (Kirk Acevedo from Fringe), but none of the supporting human characters get to do much, not even the legendary Gary Oldman.

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To be honest, I was pleasantly surprised by how much of the film is driven by the characters and their relationships. Apart from the bond between Caesar and Malcolm, which forms the heart of the film, there’s also well-executed conflicts between Caesar and his son Blue Eyes and with his second-in-command Koba. This could have very easily been a big, dumb action flick with lots of loud explosions, pointless violence and flashy effects (in the vein of Michael Bay), but director Matt Reeves (Cloverfield), who took over the reins from Rupert Wyatt, managed to keep his focus on the things that truly matter.

Dawn is not just a humans vs apes story — it’s a tale of survival that traverses universal themes such as ingrained discrimination, tribal loyalties, political complexities and familial bonds. It’s Reeves’ ability to craft these themes amid the chaos and action that enable the emotions to resonate, and it’s also what makes Dawn more memorable than your average sci-fi.

There were perhaps some missed opportunities to explore relationships on the human side (in particular Malcolm and his son), and some audiences might be disappointed with the lack of prominent female roles (Cornelia, in particular, felt like a wasted character), though on the whole I felt like the script by returning writers Amanda Silver, Rick Jaffa and new addition Mark Bomback (who has s chequered history with Die Hard 4 and the crap Total Recall remake but also the underrated Unstoppable and last year’s The Wolverine on his resume), was more than adequate.

Part of the reason the ape characters are so compelling to watch is because they come across as real people (even more so than the humans), but at the same time we are constantly reminded of how different they are and how dangerous they can be. All wonderful ape performances are again done by motion capture, and the technology is even more impressive than it was last time as the apes have a more expansive vocabulary and hence more facial movements and expressions. I’m sure real apes don’t look quite like the apes in the film, but what matters is that they look incredibly realistic, not only in their physical appearance but also in the way their bodies move and interact with their surroundings. There was not a second during the film when I thought anything looked unnatural or out of place, and full credit must go to the special effects team and the understated performance capture of the actors.

And it is thanks in large part to the special effects that Dawn contains some of the most epic battle sequences and fight scenes you’ll see this year. As the number of apes have increased dramatically, the scale of the action dwarfs that in Rise, with several sublimely choreographed scenes that had me staring in awe from the edge of my seat. Further, the violence was never without reason or purpose, so unlike some action flicks (cough, Michael Bay) I never felt like I was getting numb from it all. Apes against humans, humans against humans, apes against apes. It’s pure, satisfying, mindblowing entertainment.

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Having set myself up for disappointment by living in ape hype for the last three years, Dawn actually lived up to my unrealistic expectations. Yes, I admit I am partial to the franchise, but how rare does a blockbuster of this magnitude turn out to be as good as you predicted? While the film was different to what I thought it would be, it was still bloody freaking sensational. As tense, emotional and exciting as I had envisioned. As visually stunning as I had imagined. As epic as I had hoped. Sure, if you want to you can nitpick all day, about the weakness in the script, the lack of development of the human characters (especially the females), the Hollywood stereotypes and cliches, the too-obvious exposition in the dialogue, the untied loose ends, and so forth.

Ultimately, however, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is about as close as you can get to the perfect summer blockbuster. This goes beyond just living up to its excellent predecessor — Dawn is to Rise what The Empire Strikes Back is to Star Wars, what The Godfather: Part II is to The Godfather. It might not be as intelligent as it wanted to be, but it’s still undeniably thought-provoking. It might not be as emotionally involving as it could have been, but it still tugs at the heart strings. There could have potentially been more action sequences earlier on or a more climatic ending, but you can hardly complain about what’s already there. When you factor in everything the film got right and the complete-package experience that it provides, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is simply the most flat-out awesome movie of the year.

5 stars out of 5!

PS: Now it’s another 2-year wait until the next instalment in the series, currently scheduled for July 26, 2016 release date.

 
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