Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

Book Review: The City of Ember

  • Author: Jeanne DuPrau
  • Genre: Science Fiction / Fantasy
  • Demographic: 9+

Even though I don’t quite fall into the appropriate age demographic for many fantasy novels that are intended for young adults readers, I would be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy them one bit. Harry Potter, The Chronicles of Narnia, and His Dark Materials trilogy are among my favorite books in my bookshelf. They are powerful and perhaps deeper than some literature books I’ve read in my entire life. The City of Ember (part of Book of Ember series) is one of my latest findings in the young adult section; when I read the synopsis, the book resonated with me as a deep fantasy adventure with ambitious themes that might strike as a “younger version” of George Orwell’s 1984. Unfortunately, what I got at the end was different from what I perceived, but the book definitely kept me entertained and intrigued until the very end.

For over two hundred years, the citizens of Ember have lived in darkness, save for the great lamps and flood lights that illuminate the city by day. But now, the lights are flickering, and blackouts are occurring more often. The buildings are crumbling, and the stockpiles of food and supplies are scarce. Enter the twelve-year-old Lina who discovers the remains of an ancient message that was feared lost long ago. The message, left by the Builders of Ember, contains the instructions on how to escape the city. With the threat of eternal darkness looming, Lina and her friend Doon work together to decipher the message. In doing so, they discover the secrets of why and how Ember was built, and many others that are darker than the city itself.

First and foremost, it is important to disclose that The City of Ember has all the elements of a great young-adult novel. The book is fast-paced and there is such life-threatening urgency in the plot that readers will be engrossed from beginning to end. Thus, The adult nature of the setting, combined with the young, resourceful protagonists, makes this book appeal to a wide age range of readers. However, when it comes to style of the writing, and the elegance of the story, the book somewhat falls short. Respectively, it seems DuPrau purposely dumbs down her own script to appeal to a much younger audience; despite the mature plot, the book doesn’t read like one. Furthermore, despite the rich context of the City of Ember, DuPrau was incredibly vague in her descriptions but she does manage to gradually unfold the realm of the city in an intelligent way that doesn’t distract us from the main plot. Other minor criticisms would be the simplicity of the mechanics of the city and its inhabitants; you will stumble to many aspects that you will question if it is possible for people (specifically adults) to behave in the manner they were shown. For example, DuPau does not provide any type of religious dogma or laws that prevent the inhabitants from experimenting and questioning the authority of the city and its illogical built; certainly humans are constantly curious creatures and always investigating their life as they live it.

~Parting Words~

Nevertheless, despite the criticisms, The City of Ember managed to become one of the most fascinating stories I’ve read recently. The plot ends with an enchanting cliffhanger that would leave most of it readers in a desperate need for a sequel. As a matter of fact, as soon I finished the book, I couldn’t help but not to pick the sequel (The People of The Sparks) in order to find what happens next. Thus, The City of Ember is definitely an engaging tale of mystery and exploration, just don’t try to explore deeper in its realm too much, because all you will find is a dark abyss with no “movable light” to guide your way out.

~Rating~

Review: Silent Hill: Homecoming

  • Genre: Survival Horror
  • Developer: Double Helix Games
  • Publisher: Konami
  • Platform: Xbox 360 (Version Tested) – Playstation 3
  • Rating: M (For Mature)

Visiting the foggy town of Silent Hill, despite being the epitome of a living Hell, has always been a gaming pilgrimage that survival horror enthusiasts adore to the heart. For them (me included), Silent Hill games aren’t just games that aim to scare the hell out of people; it’s more than that. Each installment explores the darkest abyss of human emotions such as guilt, redemption, and atonement. Thus, we can easily marvel the varied topics that Silent Hill fans tend to share and contribute in gaming forums about the different symbolism and manifestations within the game. With the new inexperienced, American-based developer Double Helix taking charge of the 5th console installment, it is expected to report that there’s fear among Silent Hill fans as they are expecting a different formula that might ruin the series for them. After finishing the game yesterday and unlocking all the endings, I can confirm that the atmosphere remains true to the world Silent Hill, but the gaming mechanics, unfortunately, are far from perfection.

Silent Hill: Homecoming follows Alex Shepherd, a war veteran returning home from an overseas tour of duty to investigate the mysterious disappearance of his younger brother, Joshua. His travels lead him through the small, insular community of Shepherd’s Glen and eventually through the hauntingly empty streets of Silent Hill. Building upon the series’ trademark foundations of atmosphere, adventure and storytelling, Silent Hill: Homecoming introduces players to a frightening new experience introducing new monsters and weapons with a returning favorite of Pyramid Head (dubbed as Bogyman in this installment).

The most significant change comes in the character movement and combat controls; playing as Alex Sheperd (a veteran solider) you’re given abilities far outshining those of previous SH protagonists. This may be a sticking point for fans of the series’ previous, more helpless heroes, but putting a more combat capable character at the forefront feels like a positive evolutionary step for the series. Unfortunately however, that doesn’t seem the case. The game suffers from an atrocious low frame rate and unpolished combat mechanics that might entirely put you off and never touch the game once again. Other than that, the so called revolutionary “combat mechanics” will get old very quick as you will only dodge, attack, defend, and attack until the end of the game; you will certainly grow tried quickly. Thankfully, the camera, now far more in the player’s control, doesn’t aggravate these situations.

Puzzle solving, fortunately, is well implemented but less challenging. Most of them will require you to do simple puzzle mini-games such as sliding panels and rearranging wires and so forth. There are some obstacles that require you to decipher some messages collected in your journal, but in all honestly, there were quite easy and uninspired. Later half of the game will see you navigating a series of symbols and it is up to you to understand their meaning; it is appealing but slightly feels outdated.

When it comes to story and characters development, the game falls into a mixed ground. The premise of the story feels like a Silent Hill game with a mind-melting tale that will leave you hanging in there through the murky moments. In fact, for the first time ever with a Silent Hill title, I completed the campaign with a full understanding of what just transpired in the cursed town. And that’s my main problem with the story: Silent Hill games are deep and usually don’t follow Hollywood’s presentation of horror and thriller movies; there’s always some aspect that lingers afterward, and it is up to the gamer’s imagination and understating to fill that void with creative solutions. The good news is that the game gradually uncovers the twists and turns with each progression of the game’s twelve chapters, which thankfully will leave you coming back for more even if it means struggling with the game’s horrendous mechanics. However, since you will probably come to a full understanding of the story before the end of the game, the endings (all five of them) feel less rewarding and somewhat silly.

The presentation and the atmosphere is present in full blossom, but for some reason, it doesn’t feel the HD Silent Hill we have been asking for, and the reason is that the previous offerings of Silent Hill are considered technical marvels that pushed the PSX and PS2 to the fullest. For example, the characters design in Silent Hill 2 and 3 are much polished and detailed than Homecoming, but thankfully, the monsters and bosses remain as horrifying as ever, with few memorable ones that are bound to chase you in your dreams. The audio and the soundtrack still one of the most pivotal aspects of the game, with Akira Yamaoka returns as the main composer. The themes are memorable and daunting, which compliments the fear-inducing sound effects. In short, the music is a manifestation of dark magic and horror, which should gain the thumb-ups of Silent Hill fans even if they were a little shaky regarding the overall experience.

If you can cope with the atrocious and the slightly broken game mechanics, Homecoming will certainly provide you the fearful tour of Silent Hill that you have been asking for the last three years or so. The story is polished but forgetful, the presentation is beautiful but incomplete, and the overall experience will always leave you wanting for more, for good or for worse. The new developer Double Helix has stayed true to the series’ foundation while also taking steps in a brave new direction, but unfortunately, they failed to implement their vision perfectly. Regardless, the game deserves at least a single playthrough for those who are craving for a High-Def survival horror, because the game doesn’t disappoint from that aspect.

Overall Score

8.0 out of 10

Review: The Duchess

Those who loved or hated the biographical film Marie Antoinette will certainly find a compromising ground in The Duchess. Based on the life of the 18th-century English aristocrat Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire (where many historians parallel her life with Princess Diana of Wales), the film remains an exquisite exhibit of women’s testament and of course, flawless sense of aristocratic fashion. With big stars such as the lovely Kira Knightley and the veteran Ralph Fiennes, the film is destined to draw a respectable group of movie enthusiasts and historians alike, but is the final picture as faultless as the sense of fashion, or intolerable as the cold marriage relationship that was portrayed?

Based on Amanda Foreman’s bestselling biography, The Duchess tracks the life of Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire; she was ravishing, glamorous and adored by an entire country. Determined to be a player in the wider affairs of the world, she proved that she could out-gamble, out-drink and outwit most of the aristocratic men who surrounded her. But even as her power and popularity grew, she was haunted by the fact that the only man in England who didn’t seem to adore her was her very own husband, the Duke, as she couldn’t births a male heir to him. As their relationships grew troubled, a series of resulting controversies and convoluted liaisons would leave all of London talking.

The film definitely gets a high nod for its gorgeous depiction of 18th century England that was glorious with hair feathers and hats, colorful dresses with intricate designs, and tasty wines and addictive gambling. Indeed, the costumes and stage design definitely deserves the Oscar buzz it’s been greeting. Of course, such shallow depiction won’t save the film from harsh critics, and thankfully, the film managed to pull some strings and notable performances that in the end saved it from mediocrity. Kira Knightley’s presentation of 18th century English aristocrat is certainly believable but there are few moments where we couldn’t even generate some sympathy toward her character. Alas, this is not to say that her depiction was off, in fact it was excellent, but perhaps witnessing her next to Ralph Fiennes might be the problem, because he certainly commanded the whole film with a certain, few amount of scenes and sentences; his movements alone can formulates the script with ease. The story, unfortunately, is slightly predictable and uninspired; I’ll be amazed if someone named the film “original” or “extraordinary”. This might have been avoided if the newcomer director Saul Dibb focused on the political life of Georgiana a little more instead of heavily focusing on her love life. We can definitely detect this sentiment when the film comes to its finish and leaving us wanting for more. Thankfully also, the soundtrack was as engaging and moving as the high point of performances administered from the role players, and that alone can be incredibly satisfying.

Incomplete biography and sagging (although mostly great) performances might not make this film a royal treat, but witnessing the chemistry and the engagement between Knightley and Fiennes can alone make up for the price of the admission ticket. The life of The Duchess of Devonshire was modestly brought to life with an excellent showcase of costumes and décor that would certainly please most fashion enthusiasts. Fans of historical drama will cherish this movie, but probably not as long as they hoped for. Regardless, the film is delightful, rich, and thankfully not as preposterous as “The Other Boleyn Girl“, and thank God for that.

The Bottom Line

B-

Review: Vicky Cristina Barcelona

After the recent slew of almost-disappointing movies from the acclaimed writer/director Woody Allen (i.e. Cassandra’s Dreams, Scoop), I almost lost faith in his films, and started reminiscing the great times I had with his classics such as Hannah And Her Sisters and Everyone Says I Love You. Luckily, however, there was an instant love attraction I had with Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Whether it was the charming cast or the beautifully divine location, the film had me from its first scene, and from there, I was smiling all the way to the end.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona sees two young American women; Vicky and Cristina who come to Barcelona for a summer holiday. Vicky is sensible and engaged to be married; Cristina is emotionally and sexually adventurous. In Barcelona, they’re drawn into a series of unconventional romantic entanglements with Juan Antonio, a charismatic painter, who is still involved with his tempestuous ex-wife Maria Elena. Set against the luscious Mediterranean sensuality of Barcelona, Vicky Cristina Barcelona is Woody Allen’s funny and open-minded celebration of love in all its configurations.

Indeed, probably the movie’s pivotal aspect is that it doesn’t pursue the already worn clichés of the recent romantic comedies; instead, it opens up new possibilities and conflictions that are familiar to us but never got to see them in an intelligent direction. The threesome relationship that develops in the film wasn’t inscribed to make us laugh, but more like to open our hearts, minds, and eyes to the complexity of human relationships. The characters are extremely flushed out and totally likable and believable; looking all macho but speaking mostly in a tender, sincere way to his women, Bardem is a thoroughly convincing and affable ladies’ man, while Johansson and Hall demonstrated their polar-opposite personalities but perfect friendship in a most practical and credible matter. The cinematography although not extraordinary, it provided us the sheer enjoyment in exploring Barcelona’s laundry list of celebrated spots (i.e. Gaudi creations, the Miro Museum, the old amusement park, etc.), all of which shimmer with summer luster and a bustling Spanish soundtrack that oozes sexiness and lustful love. Harsh critic might be turned off by the semi-novella narration that accompanies the movie from start to finish, seeing how interesting it would be to see if the film could play without the commentary altogether, but I found it seemingly necessary yet enjoyable and not disrupting at the same time. The ending however is almost original as it is funny, and the open-ended aspect of it would provide an amusing discussion among your friends.

There’s no deny that Vicky Cristina Barcelona is beautiful film; the actors are attractive, the city is magnificent and the love scenes don’t get all sweaty. It certainly provides the perfect conclusion for the summer. It’s sincere, delicately funny, but a little staid, just what would you expect from a Woody Allen movie

The Bottom Line

B+

Review: The Diving Bell And The Butterfly

There are numerous movies and films that speak the truth about the man’s testament and ever lasting courageousness, yet few can truly resonate those complex emotions with the viewers and deliver them perfectly. The Diving Bell And The Butterfly belongs to this mighty minority. This film illustrated the final years of a paralyzed Magazine editor so beautifully, that elegantly morphed the film from what would be considered a nightmare to an everlasting painting brushed by a gifted artist.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is the remarkable true story of Jean-Dominique Bauby, a successful and charismatic editor-in-chief of French Elle, who believes he is living his life to its absolute fullest when a sudden stroke leaves him in a life-altered state. While the physical challenges of Bauby’s fate leave him with little hope for the future, he begins to discover how his life’s passions, his rich memories and his newfound imagination can help him achieve a life without boundaries.

First off, I feel it is very important to commemorate Mathieu Amalric’s extraordinary talent in creating a character that was so convoluted, so engaging, and so mesmerizing without moving a muscle. He commanded the screen so perfectly with his excellent captured narration of his thoughts and the events that happens around his character. He easily translated the pain of the Locked-In Syndrome without ever grossing us. He truly demonstrated his merits in capturing the spirits of Jean-Dominique Bauby and honoring his struggle. Next comes the outstanding direction and cinematography. Despite the fact that the first-person perspective isn’t new, it is still very hard to do well without turning it into a melodramatic gimmick. At precisely the right moment the film’s perspective changes, and the film adheres more closely to the demands of traditional biography. One by one, screenwriter Ronald Harwood introduces friends and family from Bauby’s life, never in ways you can predict, never in scenes that rest on cliches. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen such a fluid blend of flashbacks and dream sequences all merged with scores of marvelous original piano themes. The vision that the direction Julian Schnabel saw with this in unbelievable; from the first artistic shot to the tearful ending scene, his imaginatively-made motion capture is viscerally emotional and sensational, and that’s what movies should be all about.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly proves that our capacity for joy, and our ability to process it through whatever senses are available to us, are more durable than we think. While being Simultaneously uplifting and melancholy suffused, the film invites us to witness the marvelous that is the human spirit and to listen to our inner senses as Bauby noted in his autobiography: “My hearing does not improve, yet I hear them better and better. I must have butterfly hearing.” Outstanding!

The Bottom Line

A+

Review: Braid

  • Platform: Xbox360 (via Xbox Live Arcade)
  • Genre: Puzzle / 2D-Advanture
  • Rating: Everyone (10+)

If you take it purely as entertainment, Braid is nearly flawless. Taken it as an artistic work, it’s like an ambitious film that just overreaches its limits, flawed in an interesting and compelling way. As a whole, it is gripping and original far beyond conventional videogames, and is the perfect antidote for the current sequel-driven industry. At first blush, Braid seems like an exceptionally beautiful Super Mario Brothers knock-off, but there are numerous twists that extend its definition far beyond that.

To put it simply, Braid is a 2D platform game stars a guy named Tim. In this game, you can almost run through Braid‘s levels without a problem, but the true objective is to search out the puzzle pieces in each level, which you can then assemble into still photos that connect thematically to that level, and in order to do that, you control time. Simply by pressing the X button, the time rewinds almost everything, Tim, the enemies, the environment and even the music. This is the pivot point of some of the game’s best puzzles, and it becomes the primary tool you will be using until you reach the game’s shattering conclusion. As you progress through the six or five worlds, you will notice that you will have to think about time manipulation, and especially how to manipulate time with objects that respond differently to it, as each world produces a specific theme or mechanic for time manipulation. This consistent underlying logic ensures that you hardly ever feel cheated by the design. Braid certainly feels like a game that spent a year or two being polished.

By virtue of the imagery alone, Braid presents a true special experience. From the first moment you boot up it up, as it bypasses a title screen in favor of beginning play immediately; you’ll be struck by the look. Braid is like a painting in motion, with lush swirling colors and expressive caricatures. What’s most impressive is how effectively the visuals convey the mood of every area. From light and breezy meadows to disturbingly lifeless parodies of levels you have completed before, there’s instant emotional impact every time you enter a new area. It works as the bridge that gives you to a sense that there’s more going on here than just some tricky puzzles. You’ll also appreciate the soundtrack. Like the visuals, they capture the desired mood, though with it switching between being played forward and backward at the whim of the player, it never quite hits a rhythm. Still, the music is an appropriate mix of mellowness, melancholy, and nostalgia. An absolute musical masterpiece!

It’s pretty important to say that the puzzles can be incredibly frustrating sometimes to the point you would think there is a flaw in the game’s mechanics, and there are moments where will you reaching for GameFAQs every so often. My advice: don’t do it. Braid isn’t about the puzzles and the jigsaw pieces; it’s about the collective, emotional experience you receive at the end. In the later levels, you will absolutely have to think outside the box and try to reflect creatively to solve each puzzle you encounter because the game demands you to be creative.

Even though I usually don’t state anything about the ending of the games, but I’d like you to pay attention at what happens during the end, and also go through the books that were presented at each chapter because the conclusion that you will derive eventually will shatter any thought you might have had of enjoying Braid only for its gameplay. I won’t spoil the end, but do you remember all those times when you spent a great deal of skill and brainpower to finish a game, and were rewarded with a pleasant, tidy ending. Well, Braid‘s ending is the precise opposite. And it is powerful in such a way that you will more likely than not want to start digging into the story a lot more than you did. If you start digging enough, you’ll find out about an alternate ending, which puts an even more interesting spin on things. Without spoiling anything, what you must do to get it affects your understanding of the ending itself.

Life is short. Time is precious yet we waste plenty of it. There’s plenty of money in the world, and fifteen dollars worth of Microsoft Points isn’t much. With beautifully crafted and wonderfully realized mechanics, Braid is a shining example of the intersection between art and technology, love and loss, desire and despondence. In other words, Braid is beautiful. Beautiful is Braid.

Overall Score

9.5 out of 10

Book Review: My Name Is Red

The American Bookcover of My Name Is Red

The American bookcover of My Name Is Red

It’s so unfortunate that your average Arab has based his facts and intuitions about Turkey through a portal of a TV show, that even though it captivated the hearts of many people, it also agitated many to the extent it won several fatwas from several Saudi and Gulf clerics, condemning the show upon the level of secularism that “exposes”. It’s so unfortunate that your average Arab has neglected the fact that despite that Turkey has one of the most successful democracies in the Muslim world (you might hold a different view in that regard), it still holds its Islamic identity dearly: from breathtaking, magnificent mosques that rival the beauty of churches, from the elevated level of spirituality of the influenced Sufi tradition that would put any sect to shame, and finally, to the superlative paintings and captivated poems that Turkey brought to the Islamic art and culture. Which brings me to the context of this great book that was brilliantly printed by the Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk. This historical novel has brought a plethora of information to me through its fictional story that combines the elements of mystery, art and romantic novels.

My Name Is Red is set in 16th century of Istanbul where The Sultan has commissioned an illustrated book to demonstrate his power to the Venetian Doge. Because it will employ controversial aspects of the Frankish style, head illustrator Osman has been bypassed and the project given to Enishte, who coordinates miniaturists nicknamed Elegant, Stork, Olive, and Butterfly. But when Elegant suspects the orthodoxy of the final page and threatens to denounce the project to the followers of the conservative preacher Nusret Hoja, he is murdered by one of his colleagues. Enishte’s nephew Black, newly returned to Istanbul after twelve years absence, is asked to investigate. To complicate things, he revives an old passion for Enishte’s daughter Shekure, who is technically still married to a husband missing in battle, and who has other suitors. The brilliance of this novel comes to light with its distinctive narrative where each chapter is told by the perspective of those mentioned main characters, along with minor ones including the murderer and the subjects of the illustrated book (a dog, a gold coin, a horse, Satan, etc) given voice by a storyteller in a coffeehouse.

As a mystery and a reworked folktale, My Name Is Red has some surprising twists and turns, powering a readily engaging plot; as a historical novel, its setting in late sixteenth century Istanbul is convincingly detailed; and as a novel it offers some memorable characters and complex relationships. But what is most notable about My Name Is Red is the extent to which it is a novel about art, indeed almost a study of Islamic illustration. It contains descriptions of paintings, some of which verge on prose poems. It is full of stories about the great miniaturists and their history, going back to Bihzad and the Chinese influences brought by the Mongols. And it is riddled with discussions and debates about form and style, the relationship of art to morality and society and religion, the effects of Western ideas, the future of Ottoman illumination, and the significance of blindness. Even though Pamuk is a western modernist, his intention wasn’t to destroy his 16th-century artists, but instead, illuminates their world as no one has before. It brilliantly captured the past and present contradictions, but also its terrible, timeless beauty that makes it so perfect that it is deserved to be taught in history courses. Unfortunately, the length of book (500+ pages) and the rigid use of vocabulary and terminology are bound to turn off some people in seeing this novel to the end.  As much I want to recommend this book to everyone, it would be a futile effort to convince those who crave straightforward historical mysteries to pick up this book. Regardless of that, this book deserved the Nobel Prize that it won for, and a permanent place in your bookshelf.

~Rating~