Monday 5 March 2012

The Monday Miscellany | Another Earth, The Burma Chronicles, Rayman Origins

For a more formal introduction to The Monday Miscellany, feel free to click here.

Truth be told, though, but there's not really so much to tell. The Monday Miscellany is basically a space for me and you and we to talk about things that I either can't summon a thousand words' worth of stuff and nonsense to say about, or are so very far outside the purview of a blog at least ostensibly about speculative fiction that I'd have a right cheek trying to pass said off as such on anything more than an occasional basis. 

What more do you need to know?


Let's get things started with another Oscar oversight: Another Earth. A shoe-in for Best Picture, if you ask me, but no one did, and in the end it didn't even make the longlist. This is the third and final proof I'll offer - after my reviews of Project Nim and Take Shelter, here and here - that the Academy have taken a brain vacation.

On our Earth, Brit Marling is Rhoda Williams, an astronomy aficionado and Another Earth's lovely leading lady. Her life has been shaping up pretty nicely - she's just been accepted to M.I.T. - but after a party one night, news breaks that a new planet has appeared from the other side of the sun. It appears identical to our own, and Rhoda can't resist a stupefied skyward stare. Thing of it is, she's driving, and she's drunk. Inevitably, she smashes into a parked car with a happy family in it, killing everyone but the father.

Four years later, Rhoda is released from prison, but the overwhelming sense of guilt she feels still has a hold on her. After several suicide attempts, she resolves to face up to her train-wreck effect on the planet; she visits the surviving father in his home, ostensibly to apologise, but balks at the last second and says she's a cleaner. To her surprise, John Burroughs takes her on, and in their time together - with this terrible secret between them all the while - Rhoda helps him get over his grief.

Meanwhile, the other earth has inched closer and closer to home, and United Space Ventures is giving away a single ticket to the first flight there.

Another Earth is one of the best science fiction films I've seen since Moon, but beyond the synopsis, it's not really about the science. The implications of a parallel world play a part in Rhoda's motivation, particularly in the hypnotic last act, but largely, Another Earth is about a pair of broken people who find comfort in one another's company. It gets uncomfortable on occasion - use you imagination - but however perverse the idea appears, there's a curious beauty to the scenes they spend together, brought to life by a spare script, two terrific actors and a first-time feature director with an eye on the sky.

Kudos too for the stunning soundtrack by Fall On Your Sword, which I immediately added to my playlist of awesome instrumental music, alongside Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross' score for The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and the last couple of albums The Chemical Brothers put out. Clearly Cahill was aware of its excellence as well, because he integrates Another Earth's opening credits with the powerful title track, 'The First Time I Saw Jupiter.' Those three minutes alone are award-worthy, and Another Earth only gets better.

Not so Guy DeLisle, the graphic memoirist who gave us Pyongyang and Shenzen, a duo of terrific travelogues chronicling the author's working holidays in China and North Korea. The Burma Chronicles is longer than either of its predecessors, but I'm afraid quantity does not equate to quality in this case.

And that's the first problem: The Burma Chronicles feels thin. Slight despite its size. Distracted, perhaps. I wouldn't go so far as to say ill-informed, but the circumstances of DeLisle's time in Burma - or Myanmar - are such that he has little of value to impart, beyond some anecdotal stories about parenthood and the same sort of inoffensive social commentary he's put better before.

That isn't to say that The Burma Chronicles is a waste of space. On the contrary, it's a rare look inside another little-seen society, complete with some wonderful moments of wit and insight, but because DeLisle is traveling with his family, the reader isn't often afforded the opportunity to see beyond the surface of this place, and these people.

And that other pillar of Pyongyan and Shenzhen's success - the occasional glimpses into the working life of an international animator - is almost entirely absent. Given that DeLisle's trip to Burma came about because of his wife's work with Médecins Sans Frontières - basically Doctors Without Borders - I suppose that's not terribly surprising, but DeLisle is excluded from this world as well. He's surrounded by stories, as ever, little and large, but he can't quite draw them out as deftly and elegantly as he has in the past.

Still, DeLisle is a solid author when the right circumstances present themselves, and the beguiling simplicity of his Herge-esque art is in full effect in The Burma Chronicles. He sees the key frames of every encounter, and renders them excellently... if, one senses, a little lazily on occasion. A good non-fiction graphic novel, then, but Guy DeLisle is capable of great.

Speaking of great... after several weeks of sessions short and long, my fun-sized companion and I finally beat the triumphant return of Rayman, aka Rayman Origins. It took us quite the while - it didn't half get tricky towards the end there - but I wouldn't take a second of the experience back. Not even the several hours I spent soloing the unlockable Land of the Livid Dead levels; my platforming skills haven't been stretched so thin since Super Meat Boy, but all the same, I loved this game, to the point that I have a hard time conceiving of a single soul who wouldn't.

And don't think I'm some rabid Rayman fan. If anything, I'm the exact opposite; before now, one of my guiltiest gaming secrets was that I'd never played a Rayman game. Not even a Raving Rabbids. Well I'll tell you this for free: I'll be playing the next one now.

The first thing that strikes you about Rayman Origins is its dreamy appearance. Particularly considering that it began life as a downloadable Wii-Ware affair, it's a gorgeous game, lavishly lit, perfectly rendered and smoothly animated. The seemingly simplistic appeal of side-scrollers like this and Mario and all the other console mascots is such that they don't need to be beautiful. The fact that Rayman Origins is so artful and aesthetically fetching is just the icing on the cake.

But cake has rarely tasted so great, and I don't mind saying I've tasted some great cakes in my time. The actual platforming mechanics are easy to pick up yet demanding to master, and you do a lot more than run and jump in Rayman Origins. You also swim, wall-run, float, slide and shoot; indeed, eight of the ten worlds you speed through unlocks a new ability, which the subsequent levels teach you to use. All of which means that things are rarely as straightforward as they appear. For a minute it might look like all you need to do is run to the right, but then you have to hop onto a handy mosquito and the bullet hell begins. For serious.

As it happens, Rayman Origins is actually an incredibly difficult game, and surprisingly substantial. The first couple of worlds are easy-going enough, but just when you think it's all over, the developers pull a Zelda, and it's not, not by a long shot. From here on out, however, the pure fun of the experience so far becomes punctuated by moments of utter frustration. It's not that Rayman Origins is unfair, or even cheap... it's simply a much more hard-core platformer than its appearance and sense of humour suggests, along the lines of Splosion Man or Team Meat's aforementioned masterpiece.

Credit to it, then, that the drop-in, drop-out couch co-op is as well implemented as it is. I mean, can you imagine the hell of Super Meat Boy with two to four players on the same screen? Rayman Origins could have been that in a heartbeat, but instead it takes a leaf from Nintendo's book, allowing players who've fallen behind or lost a life to bubble up, a la New Super Mario Brothers. Saying that, some of the later levels simply do not allow for two players to progress, and that's a real problem.

Beyond that, though, I couldn't bring myself to say a single mean thing about Rayman Origins. It's clever, it's pretty, and pretty funny to boot. I had an absolute blast shooting through it. But more importantly, so did the casual gamer who played every last minute of it with me.

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