Thoughts on the Oscars’ “Popular Film” Category

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The Academy Awards, also known as the Oscars, are an annual set of televised awards given out by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Each year, the esteemed voters of the Academy gather together a host of important Hollywood contributors in an event dedicated to recognizing the best in cinematic achievement. These awards include “Best Actor in a Major Motion Picture”, “Best Actress in a Major Motion Picture”, “Best Director”, “Best Cinematography”, Best Original and Adapted Screenplay, and of course, the coveted “Best Picture” award. To win an Academy Award is considered a prestigious honor that few in the film industry will ever have the opportunity to receive…or so it was thought. This week, the Academy announced that they would be adding “a brand new category for outstanding achievement in popular film” which has been dubbed the “Popular Film Category”. The official details as to the criteria for this category have yet to be announced. What is certain, however, is that this is a completely moronic idea that is insulting towards the majority of films.

I first saw this news on an Instagram post. My initial reaction was that this must be a meme poking fun at the Oscars, but then I noticed that the post was published by none other than Rotten Tomatoes. This prompted me to check the official statement by the Academy to confirm that this was a legitimate motion by them. Upon learning this, I went nearly blind with fury. The idea of a popular film category is terrible for a few reasons, but before I dig into that, I need to give a little context about the current state of the Academy Awards.

In 1992, the Disney animated film, Beauty and the Beast became the first ever animated feature to be nominated for Best Picture. The significance of its nomination was rooted in the fact that animated films had long been considered unsophisticated entertainment for kids. By earning the nomination, Beauty and the Beast showed the world that an animated movie could have the grace and subtlety in its storytelling to be recognized alongside other live-action drama films. Furthermore, it opened the door for other animated features in the future to be recognized. However, in 2001, the Academy decided to create a category for Best Animated Feature. From that point on, any critically acclaimed animated films would go into that category. Now, it is true that UP (2009) and Toy Story 3 (2010) received Best Picture nominations after the new animated category, but I’ll discuss that more in a moment.

The real historic and groundbreaking moment in the film industry took place in 2004 when The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) was nominated for and won 11 Academy Awards including Best Picture. It was the first time that a fantasy film had ever won Best Picture and the first time that a true genre film outside of drama and musical had won. This move showed that no matter what kind of film was made, as long as it was dedicated to the craft of filmmaking, it could be recognized for being the best among all films. Then, the moment that changed the film industry forever, making it what it is today; The Dark Knight (2008), Christopher Nolan’s critical and commercial hit masterpiece, was snubbed at the 2009 Academy Awards by not being nominated for Best Picture. As a response to the massive backlash for this decision, the Academy decided to expand its Best Picture category from five films to ten. This allowed for more films to be recognized in the category and is the major reason as to why Toy Story and Up were nominated as animated films. There is still debate as to whether this was a good decision since it gives more films the opportunity to be recognized but may also lead to the Academy recognizing more of the conventional drama films that fit their criteria even though they don’t deserve the nomination. Regardless, The Dark Knight’s impact paved the way for a growing superhero genre that has, for the most part, avoided any prestige from the Academy.

Still, the push for recognition from genre films increased in 2016 and 2017, with some success. Logan (2017), the emotional homage to Western films featuring a grizzled Wolverine, was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay at the 2018 Oscars. Get Out (2017), a popular horror/thriller was nominated for Best Picture. Both of these films took strides towards bringing in more recognition for their respective genres. It seemed like the film industry was making progress and moving towards opening its tight circle of smaller and more obscure films…. until this latest announcement.

Now, all the work that has been going towards genre recognition will be eradicated. The Popular Film Category will essentially take whatever is a big hit, regardless of quality or cinematic achievement, and give out empty, meaningless awards to these films. Rather than having the quality of comic book films increase to where they can be recognized as Best Picture candidates, they will just be assigned to the Popular Film Category. If this Popular Film Category were around in 2004, The Lord of the Rings would not have won Best Picture, let alone been nominated. It would have simply been a “popular film”, and all of its cinematic splendor would go unrecognized in the real category. It’s almost like an award for participation. These films wouldn’t be awarded for being good, but instead, for being “popular”. What’s next? A category for Best Film Featuring Product Placement? Best Vegetable in a Movie? In fact, why have a single category at all, just break up the genres now. Best Biopic, Best Comedy, Best Supernatural Thriller. Each of these ideas is equally as ridiculous as the popular film category. Instead of adding legitimate categories that many people have been asking for such as Best Stunt Coordination or Best Voice Acting Performance, we get this. The only explanation for this, outside of sheer stupidity, is that this is an attempt to increase viewership for the awards show by having more popular films feature.

Hopefully, the amount of backlash this receives will change the Academy’s mind, and from the looks of it, there does seem to be a lot of backlash. Just check the comments in the Rotten Tomatoes post or read an article about it. Industry disapproval has spread with actor Rob Lowe and director Adam McKay (The Big Short) being some of the many vocal opponents. This may sound one-dimensional, but as it stands, this move by the Academy feels like a last ditch effort from a bunch of tight-lipped arthouse film snobs to boost viewership while keeping only a neatly-defined criterion of film designated for any true recognition.

 

Classic Film Review: Jaws (1975)

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The sound of waves crash against a small fishing boat floating on the waters of the ocean. The character of Quint, played by Robert Shaw, bites down on a biscuit. He is seated next to a giant fishing reel. The splashes of the ocean and the creaking of the boat are interrupted by slow, low notes from a string section of an orchestra. The reel begins slowly ticking, coming into focus and catching the attention of Quint. Martin Brody, played by Roy Scheider, sits at the edge of the boat, trying to tie a bowline knot. Quint slowly grabs the rod as the camera focuses on the large reel. Suddenly, Brody shouts “Hey, I’ve got it!” as he finishes the knot. This break in tension segues into a frenzy as the line begins rapidly pulling forward, propelling the film towards its next thrilling sequence. This brilliant moment is one of many that exemplify the brilliance of Steven Spielberg’s 1975 classic, Jaws. I’d never seen the movie until now, but a classic is a classic for a reason. Jaws is a tightly-wound masterpiece. Its narrative and characters feel as if they leaped off the page of an intricately-woven literary novel. If that isn’t enough, its cinematography, music, acting, and production cement the film as one of the greatest examples of cinema in history. It is also, in my opinion, one of the best-directed films ever made. Though this is only Spielberg’s second directing gig, he manages to rival Hitchcock in his ability to build suspense and keep the audience’s attention on what he wants. Jaws is also commonly accepted as one of the most influential films in history. The anticipation, release, and success of the film made it essentially the first major summer blockbuster. The sheer amount of accomplishments that this film was able to garner is astounding when considering its troubled production, filming drama, and costly budget for the time. Spielberg insisted on filming at sea, and the entire second half of the film was shot completely on a small boat. The amalgamation of production and budget restrictions that hindered Spielberg’s vision for the film ended up benefitting the film, as Spielberg was forced to think out of the box and employ new and revolutionary tactics in filmmaking and direction.

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Jaws, as most people know, is the story of a giant killer shark that terrorizes a small beach town and is pursued by the chief of police, Martin Brody. Brody is an honest man with a wife and two kids. The brilliance of Roy Scheider’s performance as Brody is that despite having the outward appearance of a stern and hardened man, his demeanor is actually soft and reflective. It really feels like he’s just an ordinary guy trying to do his best to protect the people of the town. When casting for the film, Spielberg didn’t want to have big name actors appear in the movie since he wanted the events of the film to “believe this was happening to people like you and me”. In fact, Charlton Heston was originally interested in the role but Spielberg felt his grand image would detract from the ordinary every-day setting and the terror and connection that the audience would feel for Brody. As much of a thriller as Jaws is, the first half of the film is actually dedicated to building the character of Brody, and in analyzing the fear and paranoia of the townspeople in response to the shark attacks. A difference in ideologies takes place early in the film between Brody and Mayor Larry Vaughn, one of the many colorful characters in the movie. The mayor has his eyes set on continuing the beach tourism that drives the town’s economy while Brody is more concerned with the safety of its citizens. Brody’s anxiety is depicted through close up shots of Roy Scheider’s concerned expressions. In a particularly memorable scene, Brody sits on the beach, and as other people cross the screen, the camera cuts in closer to Brody’s face. Even during the shark attack sequences, the camera focuses on the movements and reactions of the people as a brilliant depiction of fear and panic. It’s as if the conflict doesn’t come from the shark itself, but rather the people’s fear of it, and how it causes them to act.

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But to cite the fear of the shark as the main conflict in the film would do an extreme disservice to the shark itself. Even without actually being on screen, the shark’s presence is always felt. Originally, Spielberg had designed several mechanical sharks, but they all constantly malfunctioned. To film around this issue, Spielberg showed only portions of the shark at a time. In some scenes, its tail or fin could be seen, and in others, it would be shown as a prop shark head. Aside from the practical effects, the shark’s terror came from its unseen presence more so than what was actually seen. Spielberg would have a large barrel, or a log slowly move towards the characters to represent the shark’s movement. The greatest fear comes from the imagination of the audience, and so by hiding the shark, it’s appearance could be hyped by the audience as more terrifying than what could be shown in a practical prop. Of course, none of the terror would be possible without John William’s excellent score. The simplicity of two alternating notes in a minor 2nd interval proves to be so impactful in its ability to indicate the presence of lurking dread. The increasing speed and volume of the notes as they crescendo into a symphony of cacophonous sound only further builds the suspense. Aside from the ominous main theme, Williams’s score is quite upbeat, with a sense of adventure created by animated and energetic violins.

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As the film progresses, more and more interesting characters get featured, such as oceanographer Matt Hooper, played by Richard Dreyfuss. Hooper adds some levity to the film with his slightly more buoyant personality. He provides just the right amount of quirk and humor to not distract from the film’s serious tone. Robert Shaw’s Quint, the shark hunter, is another character that is rich with personality. His pursuit of the shark comes off as very Melvillian, often harkening to the literary obsessiveness of Captain Ahab in Moby Dick.  The second half of the film relies on the strength of the character interactions between Brody, Hooper, and Quint. Jaws can actually be considered two movies with two separate environments. The first hour introduces the shark and focuses on the town, whereas the second hour is a shark hunt on a fishing boat that takes place entirely out in the ocean. This is where the acting really shines. The scientifically inclined Hooper comes into conflict with the hardened Quint while Brody acts as a straight man to both. Eventually, they feel and function like a unit and bond as they try and hunt down the shark. Scenes between the three involving Quint and Hooper comparing injuries, followed by the three characters singing chanteys are some examples of the excellent character moments in the film. The action and adventure also heighten in the second half as more of the shark is seen and as the fishing boat becomes more and more damaged after each run-in with the creature (even some live footage of actual sharks was integrated into the filming). These scenes, with the combination of brilliant acting, character development, music, and directing are some of the greatest examples of movie magic that you will be hard-pressed to find replicated in most movies today.

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When I finished watching Jaws, I had this great feeling, as if I had just come back from a big adventure. There are not one, but several scenes that can be considered some of the best scenes in film history. The camera and the music felt like characters just as much as the actors did. The selective views of the shark along with the initial point-of-view shots from the shark’s perspective cement it as one of the most iconic creatures in horror. There’s no point in reiterating how impactful this film was to Hollywood, but what I can say is that it more than earns its status. It’s a carefully constructed and thoughtful yet wild adventure that builds to an epic encounter between a terrifying force of nature. It’s an inward look at human psychology and response to fear. It balances its narrative in just the right ways and rewards and punishes characters in a way that consistently aligns with their actions and choices. At the end of the day, Jaws is one of the greatest movies ever made.

 

 

 

E3 2018: My thoughts on the future of gaming

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E3, the Electronic Entertainment Expo, just wrapped up its 2018 event. Each year, the biggest companies in the gaming industry show up to display their titles and feature their upcoming AAA games. The collection of games that we saw from Sony, Microsoft, EA, Ubisoft, Square Enix, Bethesda, and Nintendo were all quite impressive, and there’s a lot to talk about in regards to what these games represent for the future of the industry. I won’t be going over every single game from each conference since that would be too much to cover, so I’ll just be talking about each company’s major games and announcements in order of when each conference premiered.

 

Electronic Arts

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EA’s conference was pretty straightforward. They mainly just promoted their two major sports titles with Madden NFL 19 and FIFA 19, along with Battlefield V and their new IP, Anthem. As a massive football fan, I enjoy the Madden games, but mainly because I enjoy football and there are no other current football titles available. This is because EA has a monopoly on all NFL and NFLPA-licensed games. This means that if you want to play a football video game, you have nowhere else to go but Madden. FIFA is also pretty starved of competition outside of Pro Evolution Soccer. Essentially, EA really doesn’t have to change much in their sports games because sports fans will buy the games no matter what. It’s unfortunate since that means EA can include in-game microtransactions like Ultimate Team packs that fans will be coerced into buying. It’s one of the many reasons that I am not a fan of EA. Their latest title, Anthem, looks like it might be something new, but at the same time, it seems like it could be a forced Destiny rip-off. The visuals are impressive, the flying mechanics seem fun, and the world looks overall interesting. However, the shooting mechanics don’t look as impressive and there seems to be a lot of clichéd dialogue that might make this new game a hollow but fun experience. It doesn’t appear to be something revolutionary in gaming, both story-wise and gameplay-wise. I only saw a few minutes of Battlefield V gameplay but it looks pretty similar to Battlefield 1, the previous installment. I did enjoy Battlefield 1 so I anticipate that I’ll probably get the same experience from this sequel. Overall, EA had the most generic and safe presentation, with nothing new. On top of that, they spent a lot of time talking about Command and Conquer: Rivals, a mobile game that, trust me, nobody cared about except EA for its money-making potential. It’s clear that EA is not where gamers go to get rich, memorable experiences and interact in creatively-driven communities.

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Both Madden and FIFA are the dominant sports games on consoles. 

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Microsoft

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The Microsoft presentation was a big step-up from EA. As promised, this industry giant showcased 50 games, including “18 console launch exclusives and 15 world premieres”. The show started off by revealing the announcement trailer for the new Halo: Infinite, a sequel to Halo 5: Guardians and a supposed return to form for the franchise that has defined Xbox in the past. I’ll go more into why I love this trailer and why I love Halo in general at another time, but to sum it up…it was beautiful. The trailer was a showcase of the new Slipstream engine that 343 Industries is working on, and I’ll go into why that’s important later. The point is that Microsoft started their show with a bang and didn’t let up. We saw trailers for Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice (From the developers of Dark Souls), Fallout 76, Shadow of the Tomb Raider, Cyberpunk 2077, Just Cause 4, new Cuphead DLC, and even Devil May Cry 5. Though there were mostly a slew of trailers with little gameplay, and though most of the games weren’t exclusives, I still appreciate that Microsoft was able to show so much content for upcoming games. It felt like a true showcase of the many games that will be releasing in the future, and to that end, it did do its job in getting me excited. I was particularly interested in seeing footage for Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, and Devil May Cry 5, both of which also featured gameplay footage and cutscenes using the in-game engines. As a massive fan of the Souls series, I can’t wait to see what kind of excellent combat and difficult bosses that Sekiro will deliver in its feudal Japanese setting; and as a massive fan of the Devil May Cry franchise before its polarizing reboot, I’m excited to see the franchise get back on track. Microsoft has been struggling as of late to catch up with Sony and its PS4, but I think it delivered enough in terms of game showcase and also the option of the Xbox Game Pass to at least keep Xbox somewhat in the console race.

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Microsoft showcased many world premieres for big titles like Devil May Cry 5 and Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice

Bethesda

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Bethesda was by far the best conference at E3, both in terms of games and presentation. It’s hard to believe that one publisher has had so many excellent games with consistently good quality. The conference had already started strong by showing gameplay for the intriguing Rage 2, followed by highlighting the new Elder Scrolls: Online expansion. Things got amped up to a whole new level when the company revealed sequels to its two most recent first-person shooter hits, Wolfenstein and Doom, with the new Doom: Eternal featuring a Hell-on-Earth demon invasion and with the new Wolfenstein: Youngblood focusing on the twin daughters of Wolfenstein protagonist William Blazkowicz in the 1980’s alternate history of the Fourth Reich. I want to mention that the majority of presenters at E3 are lead developers for the game, but unfortunately while their passion for the game is apparent, their presentation skills are not very strong. That’s where Todd Howard came in for Bethesda. As the director and executive producer of Bethesda, Howard was able to excite the crowd and properly present some of Bethesda’s most exciting titles, including Fallout 76. Another brilliant move by Bethesda came in the form of a fake commercial with Keagan Michael Key satirizing Skyrim and its multiple releases. To put the cherry on top, Howard presented two small teasers for Bethesda’s secretive new IP, Starfield, and the now confirmed The Elder Scrolls VI. Fallout 76 looks like it could be a fun multiplayer experience to play with friends, and I’m so looking forward to the heavy metal awesomeness that is Doom: Eternal. What Bethesda was able to do hat set it apart is a clear display of attention towards what the fans wanted, and a proper presentation of all of their titles. It was clear from what they presented that Bethesda has multiple quality gaming franchises that will hopefully continue to thrive under their wing.Image result for Doom Eternal

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Bethesda showed a wealth of new games, cementing their position as one of the best developers in the industry. 

Ubisoft and Square Enix

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I’ll be honest, I didn’t see either of these conferences and from what I heard they didn’t compare to the other big conferences. Square Enix has some good games coming out with Just Cause 4, Shadow of the Tomb Raider, and Kingdom Hearts III. It’s also nice that they are importing their critically acclaimed game Neir: Automata to the Xbox One. Captain Spirit also seems like a really unique and imaginative game that could connect with the inner child of may gamers. That being said, there wasn’t too much shown in terms of gameplay, which I would have liked to have seen more of, especially with Just Cause 4. As for Ubisoft, Assassins Creed: Odyssey and Beyond Good and Evil 2 were the only games that caught my attention, and even then I’m not as excited about them as I am for other games. Tom Clancy’s The Division 2 was showcased but the first Division game was such a letdown and I didn’t see enough exciting here to swing my opinion.  Overall, these two conferences were somewhat filler for the bigger conferences and not enough was shown in my opinion to warrant any worthy discussion.

 

Sony

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As a brand new owner of a PlayStation console for the first time ever, I was greatly anticipating what Sony would do. Microsoft had already set the bar high so I assumed Sony would have something big in store. What I got was somewhat disappointing. The presentation started with a musical performance that went on way too long. Don’t get me wrong, as a musician, I am always up for giving my undivided attention to a musical performance, and I very much appreciated the skill and beauty of the performances. I just don’t think it was the right move for Sony to start off their show and have so many fans eager for content forced to view a ten-minute instrumental performance. This happened twice, once before showcasing The Last of Us Part II, and once before Ghosts of Tsushima. Luckily, the games themselves showed solid gameplay and, again, all game engine cutscenes. This includes the two aforementioned games as well as the new Spider-Man game and the weird but interesting Death Stranding. I’m mentioning this because only a couple years back, games preferred to have cinematic cutscenes with graphics separate from the actual in-game visuals. Now it seems that more and more games are abandoning this all together and choosing to represent their visuals entirely through the game’s engine, meaning the gameplay and cutscenes are indistinguishable. I don’t think we are there yet, but as technology continues to improve, we may see games that look so realistic in their in-game engine that they are hard to tell apart from reality. Like I said we aren’t there yet, but it may be coming sooner than we think. Despite a rocky presentation and little games, what was shown was excellent, with quality gameplay and impressive graphics from the four main titles of The Last of Us Part II, Ghosts of Tsushima, Death Stranding, and Spider-Man

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Sony’s game showcase was surprisingly sparse but focus on four core exclusives, The Last of Us Part II, Death Stranding, Ghosts of Tsushima, and Spider-Man kept gamers’ interests up.

 

Nintendo

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The big highlight here, though Nintendo did show other games, was Super Smash Bros Ultimate, a sequel to the other Smash games but with the promise to feature every single playable character that has ever made an appearance in any of the previous Smash games. It’s an exciting prospect and overall I’d say that Nintendo has improved their situation with the good sales of the Switch and quality games like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and soon this.

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Super Smash Bros. Ultimate looks to deliver the most exciting brawling experience featuring all Nintendo characters to have previously been in Smash games

Overall Thoughts

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This year’s E3 was pretty exciting, and though I didn’t get to see everything I thought I would (new Mortal Kombat, new Superman game, etc.), there were still plenty of exciting games to look forward to. Bethesda came away on top with Microsoft and Sony following closely behind. Some of what I saw from the in-game graphics of these games was simply incredible. Death Stranding, Halo: Infinite, and Ghosts of Tsushima all featured breath-taking in-game visuals and inspiring music that were actually more appealing than what I’ve seen in the world of cinema. I games continue to focus on art, storytelling, and community engagement, they will replace cinema as the perfect amalgamation of other artistic mediums.

Solo: A Star Wars Story Review

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So, if you’ve read one of my earlier blogs on Star Wars, you’ll know how I feel about the new Star Wars movies. I haven’t experienced what I would call a real Star Wars movie since Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. I mean, obviously the prequels were terrible for the most part. Revenge of the Sith had its fair share of awful moments too, but it made it up for it with some awesome moments (Anakin vs. Obi-Wan). However, I would still prefer some creativity and new direction rather than the corporatization of the new movies including the carbon copy of A New Hope that is Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, and the blandness that was Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. I didn’t have very high expectations going into Solo: A Star Wars Story, especially when I heard about all of the behind-the-scenes mess that was going on. Directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, who previously worked on films like 21 Jump Street and The Lego Movie, were both fired and replaced with veteran director Ron Howard. Both Lord and Miller, were great directors in my opinion, whereas I have not been a big fan of Ron Howard. I loved one of his films called Rush, but his other projects including Angels and Demons, The Da Vinci Code, Inferno, and Cowboys and Aliens were all atrocious and even worse…boring. To me, Ron Howard is a director with a lot more stinkers than good films, and most of his films are very, very (I’ll say it again) boring, I’m talking full on snooze fest (I’ve tried to watch The Da Vinci Code 3 times and fell asleep each time). Boring, is unfortunately what I got with Solo: A Star Wars Story. As I said, I wasn’t very excited for this film, and wasn’t impressed by any of the trailers. In fact, no one wanted to see this movie. I remember that when it was announced, the internet was full of discussions on how unnecessary a film this was. The early buzz around the film’s reception also wasn’t too good, so I really didn’t expect much going in, but, it is a Star Wars movie. Though I was skeptical about Rogue One after The Force Awakens (Episode VII), I entertained the possibility that it would be good, that it would be the film that would do something different. Unfortunately, I was let down, and I went into The Last Jedi the same way, not excited by the trailers but hopeful that it would bring about the change in Star Wars that I wanted to see. Right before the opening of Solo, I still kept a lingering notion that this would be the one that I would truly enjoy, that wouldn’t feel contrived or like a forced Star Wars nostalgia-fest. But alas, I was wrong again.

Solo: A Star Wars Story is a film that explores the story of legendary Star Wars character Han Solo. To the film’s credit, it starts off well enough. We are introduced to Han in a great action scene, and the opening moments begin to establish some dramatic conflict and stakes within the story. The first third of the movie shows promise, with a handful of neat action set pieces and some new insights into the Star Wars world that hadn’t been seen before on film. However, once all of the pieces are on the board, the film doesn’t know where to go. Yes, it is a smaller story and so there doesn’t have to be a larger overarching epic storyline with a compelling villain, but even smaller scale stories have to be told the right way and have to be paced correctly. The pacing in this movie is off-putting, since there is a considerable amount of time dedicated to one particular event in the second act, and that’s where the film’s dullness begins to show through. Though the actors are charismatic enough, the writing and interactions don’t give them the proper development to shine. Alden Ehrenreich actually does a good job as Han Solo, and the film’s inadequacies don’t in any way fall on his shoulders. Woody Harrelson is Woody Harrelson, Donald Glover as Lando Calrissian is charming as expected, and Emilia Clarke is acceptable. No particular cast member steals the show, aside from Paul Bettany who displays a real tenacity for playing a more villainous role in the few scenes that he is in. The droid L3 is initially shown to be fierce and fiery, but most of, if not nearly all of her lines were pushing a “free the droids” agenda which was unnecessary and felt very forced. It’s definitely an area that Star Wars could explore, but it would need a much heavier spotlight instead of being used for a couple jokes and then getting tossed aside. Furthermore, since L3’s dialogue primarily consisted of these lines, her character essentially became a conduit for the agenda, leading many viewers to call her the “SJW bot”. There is certainly nothing wrong with identifying agendas in film, because what is art if not agenda-setting, but the way it was done was actually insulting since the character of L3 was less of a character and more of a talking punchline for an agenda, effectively displaying tokenism. Only Woody Harrelson and Alden Ehrenreich had truly memorable chemistry. Han and Chewbacca’s interactions were fine, but they could have been a lot better. In fact, the buddy comedy movie that was pitched by Lord and Miller seems like it could have been a better prospect in terms of creativity and interaction between Han and Chewbacca. Alden and Emilia also had acceptable chemistry but there wasn’t any really great connection between the cast members. The film’s few attempts at humor severely miss the mark. I laughed maybe once the entire movie, and the theatre audience I was with was silent throughout the movie. Again, I keep thinking what the proven comedic geniuses of Lord and Miller would have done with the movie (then again it may not have worked either but you never know, I think they at least would have done something bold). The cinematography was another disappointing aspect of the film. There were a lot of muted colors and dull backgrounds. The beginning of the movie has a few scenes that are filmed through a blue filter, and the result is a very hazy quality to many of the shots. The music is completely unmemorable aside from the nods to John William’s original score. The third act may seem like it has good twists, but really the twists are redundant and can be summed up as “this person double-crossed this person and this person double-crossed this person and this person double-crossed this person”. The film just kind of ends without any true character growth for Han. The Han Solo we see in A New Hope is narcissistic, distrusting, snarky, and has shades of a very negative attitude. The Han Solo in this movie is consistently a little too happy-go-lucky and it doesn’t seem like he learned too much or developed his personality to align with the Han we see in the original trilogy. All of these lackluster elements point to what the film really is, painfully generic. The character interactions are generic, the plot is generic, the dialogue is generic and downright terrible at times. It’s a safe, marketable film that is hollow. There are so many elements of fan service that I’m almost convinced that fanservice is all the movie has to truly offer. There are constant in-your-face references to older movies that come off as “See! Look at this! This was in the original movies!”. It seems that Disney opted to tell a story that nobody asked for because they thought the same nostalgia goggled fans would keep coming back to said same story and characters every time. Part of this falls upon members of the Star Wars community that continuously demanded something like this. Members of fan bases like Star Wars and Call of Duty are divided to where half the fans want to see something new, and the other fans are completely averse to change and just want the same thing over and over again to keep their nostalgia hunger fulfilled. These change-resistant fans make a massive fuss over any innovations made by studios to the point where these studios are afraid to alter anything that fans would deem sacred. The onus nevertheless falls upon Disney and LucasFilm for ignoring the warning signs and pushing forward with unoriginal and uninspired content.

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Alden Ehrenreich as Han Solo
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Donald Glover as Lando Calrissian

To sum up, I honestly must ask was this necessary? Solo: A Star Wars Story doesn’t even depict a young Han Solo, but rather a Han Solo as he is set to appear in A New Hope. It features the same Imperial environment that we have seen for the past 40 years in Star Wars, and provides a subpar story and direction that will numb the senses. It’s all downhill from the first act, and it didn’t seem like the studio knew where they wanted to take this story. It’s also a sign of franchise fatigue for me, since it is incontestably clear at this point that these movies are not going in any new and creative directions, and are instead opting for the same tired, corporatized, rinse and repeat, cost-effective, risk-averse methods that have become the model for so many franchises. I’d say that this is more of a video game problem with companies like Activision and EA, but it seems that the LucasFilm under Disney is falling prey to the same issues. When I first heard they were making Star Wars spinoff movies, I was excited at the prospect for new stories that we’ve never seen before, but this is all the same. We’ve seen Han Solo and Chewbacca before; we’ve seen the Millennium Falcon far too many times in the new movies to the point where it might be called the flagship for nostalgia. I keep thinking about all the amazing things in the Star Wars universe that aren’t being told. Instead of pursuing stories that many fans want, like Mandalorians, The Old Republic, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Yes we’ve seen it before but Ewan McGregor deserves a second shot at playing the character without the weight of the prequels), Disney is confining itself to the nostalgia prison of the Empire saga. Look, I do love Star Wars, and I did see flashes of what I loved from the franchise, but it cannot go on like this. I think that Star Wars needs to go back to the pre-Empire era. That includes the new trilogy, which I think needs to DIE. The new trilogy in my opinion has been nothing but an unoriginal massive cash grab by Disney to tell the same stories disguised as different ones. It’s all the same, the First Order is the same as the Empire, etc. The episodic trilogy should finish up and end, but the Star Wars stories movies can be good if done right. The early results are already coming in that Solo will not do as well as expected at the box office. If Star Wars doesn’t innovate and do something truly groundbreaking next, it will grow stale with everyone. I know a Boba Fett film has already been greenlit, which I think will be more of the same, and there has been little more than rumors of anything else. I know this may be contentious, but Star Wars needs to explore more of the world introduced in the prequels. The only successful moment of fan service in this film, the only moment that had the rather unreactive audience collectively gasp in my theatre, was a nod to the prequels. I myself, got chills hearing the Duel of Fates music slowly stir in the background. I’ll finish this off by saying Solo was an exercise in corporate blandness, and I could not be less excited for a Star Wars movie then I was for this, but I may prove myself wrong when Episode 9 arrives. Please skip this and contribute to the box office of the excellent and hilarious Deadpool 2.

 

2.5/5 Stars

The Dark Souls Effect

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Dark Souls is a 2011 role-playing video game developed by FromSoftware and published by Bandai Namco. The game continues the design and gameplay of its spiritual predecessor, Demon’s Souls. It is specifically known for its difficulty, vague instructions, and complex storytelling that must be pieced together through the environment and through objects and descriptions within the game. Due to the design, style, and especially the intense difficulty, there has been a recent trend in gaming where a game is referred to as “Souls-like” or “The Dark Souls of…”. For example, Cuphead is “The Dark Souls of two-dimensional side-scroller platforming games” or Thumper is “The Dark Souls of rhythm games”. It’s obvious that these comparisons are rather exaggerated, and Dark Souls, as well as the other Souls games developed by FromSoftware, are unique. The only “Dark Souls of” anything is Dark Souls itself, however, due to the breakout popularity of the Souls franchise, game developers and journalists have resorted to drawing comparisons between their properties and the Souls games. It’s not a foreign concept, as movies pitched to studios have often been described as “it’s Die Hard meets Lord of the Rings” or “Star Wars meets Titanic”. Drawing comparison to a more popular property makes it easier for companies to convey what they want people to think of their properties. In the case of Dark Souls though, the comparisons have been blown out of proportion to the point where anything even remotely difficult will be compared to Dark Souls. This is all related to something I like to call, “The Dark Souls Effect”. I’m going to be discussing what exactly “The Dark Souls Effect” is, its upsides and drawbacks, and how it will impact the future of gaming.

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The Souls games consist of Demon’s Souls (2009), Dark Souls (2011), Dark Souls II (2014), Bloodborne (2015), and Dark Souls III (2016).

I first picked up the original Dark Souls in 2014, and after struggling through only the first fourth of the game, I quit in a fit of rage. The game was simply too hard for me. Each enemy felt like a major threat, and the bosses were massively intimidating. I had also convinced myself that the game was simply unstylish and had clunky mechanics that made the difficulty artificial (I still think the game is a little clunky even now). I didn’t touch another Souls game until 2016 when Dark Souls 3 was released. Though I was still hesitant, under peer pressure and some considerable hype, I caved and bought the game. After some learning, I quickly fell in love with Dark Souls 3, and it is now in my top 5 greatest games of all time. Hungry for more Souls, I went back and played the original Dark Souls, this time playing through the whole thing and beating it faster than I did Dark Souls 3. I then played Dark Souls 2, and then Dark Souls 1 and 3 again multiple times. In the past two years, I’ve invested at least 300 hours in the Souls games, and I recently bought a PlayStation 4 primarily so that I could play the PlayStation exclusive Bloodborne, which is also a Souls game but with a different setting and story. I think it’s safe to say that I’m pretty experienced when it comes to the Souls games. What sets them apart from other games isn’t just the difficulty, but rather the minimalistic approach to guiding the player, and the vastness of the detailed worlds in which the games take place. When you first play the original Dark Souls, the world is interconnected and massive, crawling with enemies and teaming with areas to explore and items to discover. The world is also bleak, harsh, and dangerous. As the player, you don’t feel powerful, you feel insignificant. Everything in this world is bigger than you and can crush you in an instant. Because of this, it feels immensely rewarding when you overcome such overwhelming odds. It feels as if you triumphed over something that you weren’t meant to, like David against Goliath. There’s also the exploration aspect of discovering hidden areas and new helpful items. The fact that the player has to piece together the story and also figure out themselves what they have to do in the game makes it more active rather than passive. There’s also no pause button so you really have to be engaged and focus in. Then there’s the boss battles, exciting action set pieces against a single foe with a large health pool and high damage output where dodging and understanding their move set is key. These boss battles invoke something that transcends passivity in gaming. I can describe in detail the way I feel in many boss encounters in the Souls game: elevated heart rate, sweaty palms, and eyes glued to the screen. Then there’s beating the boss, a feeling of complete joy and triumph swells inside me as I either take a deep sigh of relief, jump for joy, and in some cases, cry tears (Yes I literally cried tears of joy when I beat the hardest boss in the Souls series). These moments created within me an obsession with these games, where the only thing I wanted to play was another Souls game, or something similar. When I ran out of Souls games to play, I played them again, and when I was done with that, I searched for other games that had the same kind of difficulty. Dark Souls and anything similar became like a drug for me, I just had to have my fix.  It’s likely that other gamers felt this way too, and so the industry responded by pushing out “Souls-like” games. This push for higher difficulty, more RPG elements, and intricate level design in games is what I call “The Dark Souls Effect”.

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Dark Souls thrusts players into a massive, interconnected world with dangerous foes.

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Intense boss battles take place throughout the game.

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The benefit of “The Dark Souls Effect” is that it’s a counterbalance to games like Call of Duty and movie-based “handholding” games where every aspect of the game is told to you through visual cues and arrow signs. The lack of in-game microtransactions, longer story, and greater emphasis on fluid gameplay also benefits the gaming industry. Games like Nioh and the new God of War have been successful in creating a variant of the Souls style of combat. Not every game is successful in copying the Souls formula, however, and games like Lords of the Fallen or The Surge came off more as imitations rather than their own experiences. Many developers in the industry have misunderstood the true greatness of Dark Souls, and have instead tacked on difficulty to their games. The thing is that Demon’s Souls, the Dark Souls games, and Bloodborne are unique in their overall package, through design and gameplay just as much as difficulty. It’s perfectly fine for other games to take inspiration from the series and try and improve their level design, gameplay, and world-building, but games coming off as lazy Dark Souls clones like Lords of the Fallen are happening more and more. It’s the same issue with Battle Royale modes from Fortnite and PUBG being copied. Call of Duty Black Ops 4 doesn’t need a Battle Royale mode but it’s doing it instead of a campaign mode to exploit the popularity of the Battle Royale mode.

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Games like The Surge, Lords of the Fallen, Nioh, and God of War have borrowed some elements from the Souls games, though God of War doesn’t simply copy them and has its own franchise to draw inspiration from.

Now, E3, the Electronic Entertainment Expo for major game developers is right around the corner. Amongst the lineup, FromSoftware is teasing a new game called “Shadows Die Twice” which some have speculated to be a sequel to Bloodborne. The Souls formula hasn’t shown any signs of slowing, and we will likely get more games similar to Dark Souls. This is all fine and good, if there will be more Souls-like games, odds are some of them will be good and some won’t. I myself am conflicted on the continuation of the Souls series. Many have argued, and it is believed to be so, that Dark Souls creator Hidetaka Miyazaki never meant for a sequel to Dark Souls itself, and instead wanted to continue making passion projects with the same style of gameplay and level design like Bloodborne was, but the studio pushed forward with a Dark Souls sequel after the popularity of the original game. To that end, I hope the Souls formula continues but with new creative stories and periods. Demon Souls was clearly a medieval dungeon/castle crawler whereas Dark Souls was an open world, full-scale dark fantasy, and Bloodborne was Victorian Gothic. Though I’d be more than happy to play a Bloodborne 2, I would be just as thrilled or even more thrilled to play something fresh and new that adapts the Souls formula in new and innovative ways.

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The Souls games are some of the best games ever made. They have shown that video games can be challenging, thought-provoking, adaptive, mature, and still be extremely fun. There’s a true sense of engagement and accomplishment when playing through these games, and the impact they’ve made on the video game industry should hopefully continue with a greater focus on fair and rewarding difficulty. Challenge is one of the most important features of a video game. Much like a story needs the characters to overcome obstacles, the gamer needs obstacles to overcome in the game. Dark Souls boldly challenged players to take control of their characters and learn and discover how to play through a dark and formidable world. Though none of the games are perfect, they are all masterpieces in their own right for furthering the formula. The importance of “The Dark Souls Effect”, is that regardless of its quality, it highlights the need for detail and passion in creating challenging and fluid gameplay, complex world building and level design, and greater player interactivity and control. “The Dark Souls Effect” stirs up attention for a debate in gaming that is necessary and vital to the industry as a means of combating the rising corporatization of games. It presents the promising prospect of the gaming community asking for more games like Dark Souls that will improve gaming as an art form.

Deadpool 2 Review

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When the first Deadpool came out in February of 2016, it came out of nowhere and took the world by storm. Boasting a $132 million opening weekend, Deadpool officially became the highest grossing R-rated film globally of all time. It was also a massive hit with the critics and fans, with heaps of praise piled upon Ryan Reynold’s portrayal of the titular character, and the scripts boldness in pushing the envelope with its humor and content. I had been a fan of Deadpool long before news of his feature debut. I loved his meta humor and morbid yet funny defilements in the comics, and I, like many others, was extremely disappointed in how Deadpool was depicted in X-Men Origins: Wolverine. By 2014, I had long given up on the idea of a Deadpool movie, and I didn’t even think it would be possible to replicate such a character on the silver screen. Luckily, after some leaked test footage, Deadpool was greenlit and the best marketing campaign of any film in history convinced me that it would be awesome, and it was. The original Deadpool is one of my favorite comic book movies of all time, so naturally, I’ve been anticipating the sequel along with the rest of the millions of people that saw and loved the first movie.

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I can say without a doubt that Deadpool 2 is the most entertaining film that I have seen in theaters all year. This movie had me hooked from beginning to end with its lightning fast jokes, dizzying action, and surprisingly dark and emotional moments. While the first Deadpool did feature lots of violence and humor inappropriate for many, it was a surprisingly light-hearted film. The sequel has some heavier themes, dealing with abuse, death, and family. In every way, it feels much bigger in scale than the first, with a plethora of new characters and additions to the Deadpool universe. Ryan Reynolds once again steals the show, effectively cementing himself as an actor that will have a hard time being separated from the character he plays. Alongside Deadpool are some fan favorite returning characters including Colossus, Dopindar, and Blind Al. Even T.J Miller, who despite having faced some recent controversy, was funny (he did have most of the same jokes as he did in the first movie, but just like Drax doing the same thing over again in Infinity War, it was still funny to me somehow). Some notable new additions include Domino, played by Zazie Beats, and Cable, played by Josh Brolin. There was a lot of anticipation for Cable since he and Deadpool had a very established relationship in the comics. Unfortunately, the relationship between Cable and Deadpool isn’t explored as much in this movie, and Cable isn’t in the movie enough to make a massive Thanos-level impact or to stand out particularly amongst the other side characters. The point is, this is still entirely Deadpool and Ryan Reynold’s show. To that end, the movie is filled with more pop culture references, meta humor, and celebrity cameos than ever before. Everything feels consistent with Deadpool’s character, he feels more alive and relevant than ever before. As I said, Director David Leitch, who was one half of the directing pair responsible for John Wick, did a fantastic job with the action scenes in the movie. The action is bigger and better than the original. This combination of humor and thrills creates a complete package of an excellent action comedy that deserves to be seen.

Though not without some weird moments and the occasionally overdone joke, I couldn’t find much wrong with Deadpool 2. It was exactly the movie that I was hoping for, and I left with a smile on my face. This film is even more unafraid to take the humor and violence of the Deadpool character to greater lengths. Though I would say the story is slightly convoluted compared to the simplistic and easily understood love story/revenge plot of the first film, the charisma of the characters and the combination of humor and action will most definitely keep viewers engaged throughout. Along with one of the best end credit scenes in any movie, Deadpool 2 is a major success. It’s a dark and twisted, yet hilarious and thrilling romp that continues the tradition of an unkillable anti-hero in a red suit continuously satirizing the comic book and comic book movie genres as well as society in general. Whereas the Deadpool of the comics pokes fun mostly at the Marvel comic book universe, this version of Deadpool is able to draw upon and target the collection of comic book movies and the cinematic universes of DC and Marvel that have amassed over the past 10 years or so.

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So getting into spoiler territory, the first big surprise of the film comes before the opening credits with the death of Vanessa, Deadpool’s wife/girlfriend/it’s never revealed or not if they married. The opening credits capitalize on the moment with title cards like “Did They Really Just Kill Her?”, “Presented by What the Fuck?”, and “In Association With I Don’t Understand?”. The opening credits are all set to an original song by Céline Dion just for this movie called “Ashes” and all done in a James Bond style of opening sequence. Regardless, this opening surprise death forces Deadpool into a depressed state of longing for his own death. It’s surprisingly fatalistic coming from such a boisterous character, and the emotional tones conveyed during the dream sequences with Deadpool seeing visions of Vanessa are surprisingly heartfelt and bereft of jokes that would undercut said emotional tones. The changes that they made to Cable’s backstory were also appropriate for the film, as his motivation for going back in time and killing the mutant that would kill Cable’s family gives him a solid motivation. The mutant kid, Russel AKA Firefist, played by Julian Dennison, is a serviceable character, though I didn’t think there was anything extraordinary involved in either his portrayal or his character arc. Julian Dennison does give a good performance, and there was always the possibility of the movie going down the common path of the child actor/character being annoying. Luckily this wasn’t the case, although Firefist as a character could have been more compelling. The surprise villain of Juggernaut was a fun reveal also, and the moment he rips Deadpool in half is one that can’t be missed, however, he was primarily used for a third act CGI fight with Colossus. There wasn’t really a single villain to follow, which wasn’t as effective as the first film in terms of antagonistic quality. I for one was a big fan of Ed Skrien as Ajax in the first movie.

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The other big twist is that the X-Force team that was teased in the trailers was just a big lead up to a joke where all of them except Domino end up dead. For fans looking forward to seeing characters like Terry Cruises’ Bedlam or Bill Skarsgard’s Zeitgeist, it may be disappointing since Bedlam is hit by a bus and Zeitgeist lands into a wood chipper when the H.A.L.O jump sends the team all over the place due to high winds. Even Rob Delaney’s Peter, who was hilariously advertised in the trailers as an average joe looking to excite his life, gets dissolved by acid vomit. Though I was looking forward to seeing members of this team, I was pleasantly surprised and just as thrilled to see the end result of the team being the spontaneous deaths of each member.

There are several fourth-wall breaking moments that stand out, like the movie opening with a wind-up doll of a dead Wolverine from the events of the movie Logan. There is the scene where Deadpool autographs a Wolverine cereal box with Ryan Reynold’s signature. Some external non-comic book references that had me laughing were “Jared Kushner” and “Mission accomplished? Well, in a George W. kind of way”. The end credit scene is particularly funny, as Deadpool borrows Cable’s time traveling device to kill the Deadpool from X-Men Origins: Wolverine and to kill Ryan Reynolds as he is reading the script for the 2011 Green Lantern.

Video Games: The Art of the Future

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There has been a certain social stigma against video games for as long as I can remember. Many people consider video games to be a lesser form of art and even more refuse to consider video games as an art form art at all. Of course, most of these people have either never seen a video game, or never played a video game and are only basing their conclusions off of viewing other people play games. What I’m saying now isn’t an opinion. Video games cannot and will not be denied the right to be considered a form of art. Wikipedia defines art as “a diverse range of human activities in creating visual, auditory, or performing artifacts (artworks), expressing the author’s imaginative or technical skill, intended to be appreciated for their beauty or emotional power”. By this definition, which I would say is a pretty holistic definition, video games qualify as works of art without question. Yet, in our current society, video games are seen more as mind-numbing forms of entertainment meant to distract kids and sedate teenagers. It’s funny because there was a time when other forms of entertainment such as movies and comic books were considered distractors and sideshows that wouldn’t qualify as art. Over time, these mediums eventually became accepted into the prestigious world of high art, complete with their own prestigious awards and snooty critics. Art is about immersion, reflection, connection, and appreciation. How is admiring a landscape painting by Frederic Remington different from appreciating the painstakingly crafted digital atmosphere of the new God of War? Actually, there is a difference…the art presented in video games is more immersive and advanced in regards to interactivity than many other mediums. That’s why I believe video games are not only a rich medium of art but also the medium of the future. There are more and more people buying and playing games each year, and I believe that as time goes on, public perception will change about video games and they will join the pantheon of high art. There are, however, some roadblocks that need addressing that will hinder the progress of games becoming recognized by the general populace as art. I’ll touch on these as we move along assessing what makes video games so incredible as artworks.

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The first thing to recognize is that like movies, video games are an amalgamation of multiple mediums. Just like a movie has music, acting, cinematography, set design, and much more, video games have writing, music, voice acting, motion capture work, digitally rendered environments, interactive gameplay, and much much more. A game like Cuphead has beautiful animation and an incredible big band score. Games like The Witcher series, Uncharted, and Horizon: Zero Dawn are praised for their gorgeous visuals and environments. If you’ve ever seen a collection of cutscenes in video games, you’d see how cinematic they truly are. I’ve seen some counterarguments stating that the things surrounding the video game such as art design, visuals, and music are components that could be considered art, but the gameplay and the full product itself can’t be considered art, but quite frankly that’s ridiculous. When you play a game, the immersion depends upon whether or not the decisions of the player are accurately translated by the game. Multiple people dedicate time to making sure the movements of the game avatar precisely match the commands given by the gamer. There has to be a flow to the gameplay, effectively serving as an extension of the gamer’s own being. A game with bad gameplay is like a poorly made sculpture. In a game, you not only soak in the music, visuals, story, acting, and dialogue, you also soak in the gameplay. Another reason that the full product of a game is art, is the underlying primary objective of any work of art. The elements of any medium, be it visual or aural or sensory, is to tell a story.

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Everything a video game does is to tell a story. It can be a tale of adventure and excitement, fire and fury, survival and horror, etc. Everything, including multiplayer games like Fortnite and Call of Duty, requires a narrative that can either be told by the creators of the game or presented as a blank canvas to the player to create their own stories. When it comes to the traditional linear narrative, video games happen to have some of the best contemporary works of our time. The Halo series crafted an expansive epic filled with additional literature and lore that mirror the literary works of Tolkien. Games like The Last of Us take the player on an emotional journey where they grow with the characters. And my personal favorite game, BioShock, is a reflection of the objectivist philosophy of Ayn Rand.

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Like I said, there is that special factor to games that makes it the art of the future: immersion. A video game is controlled by the player, therefore the direction the narrative takes is determined by the player, or at the very least the connection that between the player and the narrative runs deeper than other forms of art. If you think about a game like Halo, there’s a silent protagonist, the Master Chief, that is always behind a suit of armor so that the player can project themselves into the game as that character. The Master Chief is given little development so that the player feels like they are him when they go through the events of the game. When you watch a movie, you see the protagonist overcome the challenges, but in a game, you overcome the challenges yourself. You earn the moments by overcoming the challenge. You don’t just remember passively being there, you remember the experience of you doing those things. Challenge and immersion are the golden tools from which a game gets its power. Players want to feel more immersed in the game, they want to feel the intensity. A video game with no challenge can be bland, repetitive, and uninteresting. A challenging game like Dark Souls gets a player’s heart rate up and gives them a sense of accomplishment when they achieve victory. To add to the immersion factor of games, choice can often be a key component of a game. Role-playing-games like Skyrim present the player with a whole world to explore and engage in storylines on their own and at their own pace. In Mass Effect, how you talk to a character determines your relationship with them throughout the game. Because of these interactive games, the experience is different each time. Characters can change and adapt to how you play, and the story adapts to the choices you make. In this way, games are adapting pieces of reality and embedding them into their art more so than other mediums. Entire worlds can be built in games like Minecraft and Little Big Planet.  Art often mirrors reality, and games are becoming more and more like real life. With the advent of virtual reality, video games will only continue to become more life-like. Through this increased immersion, video games are transcending other mediums and doing things that no other mediums can do.

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This renaissance of gaming and its movement towards greater recognition should continue to develop as long as story and immersion continue to shine over the commercial aspects of games. As long as games are treated like works of art by their distributors, and not capitalized by shady monetary tactics, then games should be well on their way to high art status. Unfortunately, companies like EA are treating the consumers like dirt and commercializing the art of gaming by introducing said shady tactics. These tactics came in the form of in-game microtransactions. Microtransactions were originally used in free to play and mobile games as a way for them to make money, but of course AAA game developers thought why not add them to $60 games. High priced DLC (downloadable content) already served as a way to get extra money from consumers, and with games like EA’s Star Wars: Battlefront the $60 product ended up being completely bare bones and unfinished in every way while the $50 season pass was marketed front and center. Microtransactions were an added bonus for games to make more money, and for good reason. Microtransactions make video game companies massive amounts of money, sometimes even more than digital sales for the games. The biggest form of microtransactions is randomized loot boxes. This means that players can purchase in-game content that is given completely at random. So you might be asking, what’s the big deal? So what if games have microtransactions it’s not like the gamer has to buy them? It’s not like not buying them affects your ability to play the game right? Well, that’s where the controversy lies. In some games, microtransactions are just annoying. It used to be that you had to unlock certain things in a game like more playable characters or skins. It felt like an accomplishment to get more in-game content. Now, everything is randomized, so even if you get a thousand loot boxes, you may still not get the content you actually want. In games like EA’s Star Wars: Battlefront II, however, loot boxes are tied to progression, and purchasing microtransactions in the game allows you to unlock content much faster than people who don’t (for example, you can buy a hero for $10 or spend 40 hours unlocking them). Another unfortunate fact is that microtransactions are nearly in every major game, from Assassin’s Creed to Call of Duty, to even single player titles like Middle Earth: Shadow of War. Microtransactions are something that the gaming community may just have to live with for some time.

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The ever-expanding world of video games is facing some of its biggest challenges while it brings in an increasing audience. Companies like Activision and EA have prioritized earning money over providing a quality product and treating their customers with respect. The harmful strategies of these companies do not have to be the norm in the gaming industry. As long as games like God of War, Cuphead, and Dark Souls continue to be made, the high art that is video games should triumph over corporate greed. I know I got off on a bit of a tangent with the microtransactions rant, but the truth is that video games are very near and dear to my heart. Video games inspire me to soak in new worlds, learn new music, and engage in new and interesting narratives. The beauty of video games is under attack by these corporate models, and so I wanted to highlight the issue facing the industry as it continues to gain more recognition.

 

Avengers: Infinity War Spoiler Discussion

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I’m going to break this discussion down by moving chronologically through the events of the film and addressing each noteworthy moment when I get to it.

I’d like to first point out that the film really is from Thanos’s perspective. He has the most development, depth, and screen time. The film begins immediately after the Thor: Ragnorak end credits scene, where a mysterious ship has assailed the Asgardian refugee vessel. By the way, if you haven’t seen any of the previous Marvel movies, odds are you’ll be pretty lost in Infinity War since it builds heavily off of the previous films. It depends on the audience knowing who these characters are since they don’t really get any introductions here. As I said, the film is Thanos’s story, so all of the other Avengers characters are really just supporting cast that are the instruments upon which our protagonist (Thanos in this case) must act upon. The first shot of the film is the wreckage of the assailed ship. The first character we see is actually Ebony Maw, one of Thanos’s servants. We first hear his voice, then watch as the camera pans up from his feet and to his full grotesque features. We then see the rest of Thanos’s Black Order. They serve as “hype-men” as they introduce the audience to Thanos who is finally revealed to us in a full body shot. Thanos’s first words aren’t, in fact, evil villain clichés, but rather statements of empathy and inevitably. He states that he understands “what it’s like to lose”. He talks about desperation, failure, the inability to escape from destiny. What’s effective here is that when Thanos compares himself to destiny, it establishes his viewpoint. He is not doing this out of a quest for power and dominance over the universe (so he thinks at this moment). He sees himself as an agent of the universe, sent to balance the scales and do the necessary evil that only he can do (or so he thinks). It’s a great way to introduce a powerful, unflinchingly rational villain with shades of empathy (or so we think…never mind).

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The battle in New York is pretty neat. We get reintroduced to Dr. Strange, Spider-Man, Iron-Man, etc. The banter between some of the characters that have never met, like Strange and Tony Stark is pretty good. Dr. Strange and Tony have a somewhat antagonistic relationship and its funny to see the verbal jousts of two characters that are so similar (both were arrogant rich guys who after a traumatic incident became superheroes with new perspectives and new priorities of protecting something). The opening action scenes are pretty entertaining. The Black Order, led by Ebony Maw confront our characters and try to take the Time Stone. The Black Order, though not developed in any way (though they don’t need to), serve their purpose as intimidating henchmen of Thanos. They look great and match their comic book counterparts especially well. Ebony Maw is a formidable second-in-command. His Lovecraftian features, slender frame, upright posture, and telekinetic powers conducted by the wave of his bony fingers all create a unique sense of might and terror that poses a serious threat to the superheroes. The New York set piece ends with Dr. Strange captured and Spider-Man and Iron Man stowing away on the Black Order ship to save Strange.

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We’re then reacquainted with the Guardians of the Galaxy as they run into a space-stranded Thor. The good thing about so many characters being integrated from so many different films is that the aesthetics of these films are somewhat translated here, as I’ve said in my spoiler-free review. Anyway, since the Guardians are characters played with more comedy within their respective films, this is where the comedy really starts to amp up. Some of the humor hits, like Drax calling Thor a “handsome, muscular man”, until it devolves into several fat jokes about Starlord aka actor Chris Pratt. Regardless, Thor wakes up and goes with Rocket and Groot to forge a new hammer while Drax, Mantis, and Gamora head to the Collector’s domain to stop Thanos from getting the Reality Stone. We then cut to the next storyline, which starts with Vision and Scarlett Witch hiding out in Scotland. It’s shown here that they’ve been in a romantic relationship for at least two years. We’ve never really seen this relationship develop in the rest of the busy Marvel movies, but we’re supposed to just go with it now. This wouldn’t be so much of an issue if later on in their film the emotional weight of their relationship is supposed to impact the audience but obviously can’t if we never saw the relationship develop. What we do feel the impact of is Captain America arriving to save them from the Black Order. It’s a great moment too, seeing a silhouette between the gaps of a speeding train, Alan Silvestri’s epic score kicking in as the familiar face of Steve Rodgers enters the light. It’s also good to know that Captain America has been secretly operating with a small group of Avengers for the past two years. Unfortunately, Cap doesn’t get too much screen time or character development in this movie. It is hard to fit in so many characters in such a big movie in such little time, but I could have used a few more Cap scenes to flesh out his convictions. Nonetheless, it’s great seeing my favorite Avenger and I look forward to seeing his development in the next movie. Also, we have two stellar Captain America movies that have already fleshed out his awesome character. His awesomeness only heightens when he refuses to give up Vision’s life for the Mind Stone, stating that “we don’t trade lives”. This statement ultimately becomes the film’s main message and counterargument to Thanos’s utilitarian perspective but we’ll get more into that later. What it does is further cement Captain America’s position as the ultimate moral center and voice of reason within the Marvel Universe.

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Meanwhile, the Guardians try and sneak up on Thanos as he visits the Collector. Gamora attempts to kill him but is tricked by the Reality Stone. Thanos kidnaps Gamora, and in a nice nod to the Infinity Gauntlet comic, uses the Reality Stone to dispatch Mantis and Drax in clever ways (Drax is diced into cubes, Mantis is turned into paper cutouts). While all of this is happening, Spider-Man and Iron Man are able to save Dr. Strange and kill Ebony Maw, which it’s sad to see him go so soon. They then head over to Thanos’s homeworld, Titan, to confront him. The only real character development that we get to see during this time is between Thanos and Gamora, and with Thor. Despite there never having been a time where Thanos and Gamora are on screen together, the time they share in this movie is well spent. We do get to see Thanos’s love for Gamora, his admiration of her fierce spirit, and his hope that she can maybe understand that what he is doing will save the Universe. On the opposite end, we also see Gamora’s conflicted feelings. She hates Thanos but still considers him family, and her breakdown into tears when she thought she had killed him earlier signifies that she too still harbors love for her adopted father. Thanos’s feelings of love, however, only extend to one daughter, as he tortures his other daughter, Nebula, so that Gamora can reveal the location of the Soul Stone.

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Thor gets development too, as this movie effectively builds upon the character revamping that he got in Thor: Ragnorak but focuses on the tragic aspect of his character rather than the comedic. In a brilliant scene with Rocket, Thor recounts to his “rabbit” friend all the loved ones he’s lost (mother, father, brother, best friend). It also shows that Thor tries to use humor to counter and mask his sorrows. We realize that Thor’s overly boisterous and heroic personality compensates for the tragedy he’s suffered in his long life. His grief-masking doesn’t work so well at this moment, however, and he tries to give Rocket a trembling smile while he fights back tears. It’s a sad moment, and it strengthens Thor’s motivations for going after Thanos. Chris Hemsworth is also fantastic as Thor, capturing his conviction and his rage. He owns the character. So, Thor, Rocket, and Groot travel to the dying star that forged Thor’s original hammer in order to forge a new hammer. One Game of Thrones cameo later (Peter Dinklage as Eitri), Stormbreaker is made.

The drama continues to hype up as Thanos and Gamora travel to Vormir, the planet where the Soul Stone is located. Upon arrival, they are greeted by the Stonekeeper who is in fact, surprise surprise…. Red Skull! It’s revealed that Red Skull survived the events of Captain America: The First Avenger and was transported to Vormir to guard the Soul Stone. In a shocking moment, Thanos must give a soul in order to have the soul stone. The moment when Thanos drags a screaming Gamora and throws her off a cliff really earns its drama. The music kicks up, symbols clash and an adagio of strings play over a wide-eyed Thanos. His expression appears to show disbelief at his own actions, yet because of his actions, he now has the Soul Stone.

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Cap and the rest of the Avengers head over to Wakanda to meet up with Black Panther and mount a defense against the Black Order. We see Cap reunite with Bucky, some of our favorite Black Panthers like Okoye and M’Baku, and Bruce Banner get outsmarted by Shuri. The battle of Wakanda begins and the Avengers fight off against an army of faceless, nameless alien beasts. My main gripe about this battle is the lack of build-up to it. It doesn’t feel like something from Lord of the Rings or Star Wars because it just kind of happens all of a sudden without fully establishing both sides. The Black Order kind of just shows up with an army of disposable creatures to fight the Avengers, it doesn’t feel as weighty as what is going on elsewhere. At the other end of the solar system, the rest of the Guardians excluding Groot and Rocket meet up with Iron Man’s group and come up with a plan to take out Thanos. Dr. Strange runs through millions of possibilities and determines that there is only one in which they can win. Thanos arrives and relays his strategy of dealing with overpopulation through random genocide. Again I’ll get more into that at the end. He engages Iron Man’s group and is surprisingly overpowered for a brief period of time, allowing Spider-Man and Iron Man to try and pry the Infinity Gauntlet off of him. This is where the controversial moment happens when Starlord, angered after discovering Gamora’s death, aggressively attacks Thanos in the middle of his incapacitation at the hands of Mantis, causing Thanos to regain control and keep the Gauntlet. I have to say, the entire time Starlord felt somewhat inconsistent with his character. He was either too humorous or too aggressive. I get it, he’s displayed these characteristics in the past, and his girlfriend was kidnapped and later killed. Nevertheless, I feel like it discredits him as a character since he definitely has been more level-headed than this. It definitely could have been better handled, and I feel like Starlord would have been able to bounce back from these events and respond to that situation much better than he did. I know technically this is the way things are supposed to happen because Dr. Strange predicted the timeline but does it really excuse Star Lord from being an overly confrontational douche? His actions lead to Thanos dispatching the rest of the team before only Iron Man is left to battle Thanos. The fight between them is another great moment and it ends with Tony at Thanos’s mercy. Thanos gives his respect to Stark but spares his life when Dr. Strange offers up the Time Stone.

On Wakanda, Caps forces are being overwhelmed by the generic alien monsters, so it’s a great time for Thor to show up with his epic new hammer. Again, the Avengers theme is awesome, and Thor arriving and absolutely obliterating the enemies to Silvestri’s score is my favorite moment in the movie. It also shows that Thor really is one of the most powerful characters in the MCU. It’s especially true since Hulk has been refusing to come out all this time in a neat character moment since it’s the first time we’ve seen Hulk afraid. The battle ends with the Avengers victorious, but unluckily for them, Thanos arrives with one stone left to obtain. In a slow-motion moment, we see Thanos easily overpower the other Avengers while Vision appeals to Scarlett Witch to destroy the stone. This moment didn’t hit as much for me since as I’ve said before, I didn’t really get to see the relationship between these two characters develop so I wasn’t as emotionally invested in Vision’s destruction at the hands of Scarlett Witch. It matters even less when Thanos rewinds time to reconstruct Vision and take the stone. With the Infinity Gauntlet complete, Thanos snaps his fingers and wipes out half the life in the Universe. Having read the Infinity Gauntlet story before seeing the movie, I was giddy with excitement when he snapped his fingers. We first see Bucky fade away in front of Cap. At this point, I was surprised, but once Black Panther faded away, I knew this wasn’t permanent. The other characters to fade include Falcon, Scarlett Witch, Starlord, Mantis, Drax, Spider-Man, Dr. Strange, and several Wakandan soldiers. Spider-Man’s farewell does pull at the heartstrings, and it is a shocking moment to see some fan-favorites fade away, but I was more intrigued than disheartened. I’m interested to see how these characters return, and what happens to Thanos in the sequel. I’m also looking forward to Tony’s decisions moving forward, as the deaths of everyone around him will surely leave him devastated. I did love the way the film ended, with Thanos looking over a beautiful landscape with a half-smile half-smirk on his face. We also get treated to an end credit scene of Nick Fury contacting Captain Marvel before fading away.

So I’ve said it multiple times and I’ll say it again, Avengers: Infinity War delivers. It feels like the Empire Strikes back of the MCU, and the MCU feels like the Star Wars of this generation, even more than the actual Star Wars of this generation. Whereas the Star Wars movies today are repeating the same stories over again, the Marvel universe is managing to keep me excited for new stories. The Marvel comics are rich in creativity and storytelling, and the heads at Marvel are masterfully drawing from and adapting the cavalcade of source materials. The Russo Brothers dedicated time to crafting Thanos’s motivations and ideology. From a grand scheme, universal utilitarian view of how the universe should work, there are elements of Thanos’s ideology that make sense. Overpopulation is a thing, and lots of people suffer from the tragedy of the commons. It’s an identifiable perspective for a villain, but like Killmonger, Thanos takes it too far and his willingness to stomp out life makes him more of a monster than a savior. The film doesn’t qualify Thanos’s perspective, there is a clear line. When Thanos completes his quest, he says to a vision of a young Gamora that the crusade cost him “everything”. Thanos’s tears for Gamora are an outlier to his emotional detachment from killing the rest of the Universe. He fails to understand the sanctity of life. The decisions that our heroes make, including Scarlett Witch and Starlord’s decisions to try and kill their respective partners at their requests, were made out of love. Thanos’s love for Gamora wasn’t enough to sway him from his beliefs of what he thinks is the right thing. However, as Captain America said, “we don’t trade lives”. No matter the suffering, what makes life special is that everything has the opportunity grow, to become something important, something vital. If we go along with Thanos’s plan and wiped out half the life in the Universe randomly, what if the next Albert Einstein, Gandhi, or Martin Luther King Jr. was killed? What if people who were or will make major contributions to existence are wiped out? The Avengers understand this idea of all life being sacred. It is possible that Thanos may too. Perhaps in the next movie, Thanos will ponder on his decision, and realize that the value of life is far too important. He may come to miss Gamora, understand that the cost of his vision of peace would be too dear, regret his decision, and try and turn back time. I’m just speculating at this point, but the fact that the film has provided me the opportunity to speculate is a triumph of its own.

There’s lots of setup for the next film, so I see this as a part one of a two-parter. I’m glad that Marvel left us in this moment of despair and anguish, because obviously, in these kinds of stories, good triumphs over evil, but being able to have that darkness, let us sit and dwell in it for a little bit, consider its implications, and think it might actually be there to stay, only then for the good guys to triumph is how these kinds of stories should be told. Much like Lord of the Rings, Avatar: The Last Airbender, or Halo, everything seems hopeless at a certain point. We wonder how possibly the overwhelming odds can tip in the good guys’ favor and when they do, we feel relief and satisfaction.

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In conclusion, I did in fact love this movie. It’s in my top five favorite Marvel movies and definitely one of the coolest superhero movies ever made. I don’t think it transcends the genre like The Dark Knight or Logan, but it does represent the best that the genre has to offer. It isn’t perfect. There are so many different arcs and no moments where all the characters come together. Characters like Black Panther, Black Widow, Falcon, and Captain America are underutilized. Still, the film is wildly entertaining, pushes the MCU in an even more promising direction, and finally gives the MCU the stakes it needs. I’m very excited for Avengers 4 and I can’t wait to see what the MCU does next.

 

 

Avengers: Infinity War Review

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Avengers: Infinity War, directed by Joe and Anthony Russo, is the latest installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Before I go into the review, I’d like to give a little background.

In the comic book industry, there is something called a “comic book crossover event”. This began in 1984 with Marvel Comics’ Secret Wars which featured an assortment of characters from the Marvel Universe coming together for 12 issues. After this, DC responded with its own major crossover, Crisis on Infinite Earths, which also spanned several issues and significantly affected the continuity of the DC Universe. Since the 1980’s, there have been countless event comics from “Infinite Crisis” to “Civil War” to “Infinity War”. And although 2012’s The Avengers was a significant landmark in the comic book to film medium, Avengers: Infinity War is the first time that a major comic book crossover event is being adapted for the big screen. Now I’m much more of a DC fan when it comes to the comics (I can tell you about literally every major story event in the DC Universe going all the way back to its inception in 1939), but I did manage to read the 1991 Infinity Gauntlet story by Jim Starlin which is what this movie is based off of. For me, the opportunity to experience a massive event like Infinity War on the big screen is something I never could have imagined as a child. That being said, I went into this film with tempered expectations. There has been an unreal amount of hype leading up to the release of the movie, and the fact remained that there was a lot that was being promised or at least expected.

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Avengers: Infinity War took inspiration from The Infinity Gauntlet, written by Jim Starlin and illustrated by George Pérez and Ron Lim

Well, I can certainly say that Avengers: Infinity War delivered on its expectations. The Russo Brothers were able to give the fans what they had promised, a big event where the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe fights off an overwhelming threat. If you are expecting an entertaining action film with some big moments, this is the movie for you. It is quintessential blockbuster popcorn fanfare with a little something more for those who are big fans or want to dig deeper into the story’s implications. It’s also a film that takes itself more seriously but still has a nice blend of humor. At times, the humor can be weird and overstay its welcome, but it largely didn’t detract from the drama.

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Thanos, played by Josh Brolin, is the centerpiece of the film.

The important thing to know is that this is not a story where the Avengers are the main characters. Thanos is actually the main character of this tale, and he means business. It seems like the Russo Brothers really took a delicate approach to how they wanted to represent Thanos. He is a nuanced and emotional character, with a lot of screen time, and a unique motivation. It’s admirable that this character with no prior development that has been hyped for 13 films was developed so well. His relationships with other characters within the MCU also felt well-established.  Josh Brolin did an excellent job with the motion work and managed to capture the myriad of emotions Thanos exhibits. a villain for the film, Thanos fits the part and does it strides. He truly feels like the big threat to the Avengers that the studio was hyping up, and it represents the comic book storyline well since it seemed nearly impossible for the Avengers to even stand a chance against him. The fact that his actions in the movie act out a crusade rather than a conquest, and the fact that you really understand where he is coming from, makes Thanos a good villain. He is not the emotional roller coaster that is Killmonger or the malice that is The Joker, but he serves his purpose within the story.

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The action is also excellent. There are a lot of great fight scenes and epic struggles with some great “wow” moments. One thing I didn’t expect was the number of twists, thrills, and shocks in the movie. It’s all a lot to take in, and the end result is a heavier, more genuine film than most of the recent quirky comedy style MCU films like Spider-Man: Homecoming and Thor: Ragnorak. Speaking of Thor, he can be considered almost a secondary main character within the narrative. He gets the second most development and screen time after Thanos. The approach to Thor does take a step back from the tone of Ragnorak and opts for a more grounded view of his character. He still makes a few jokes here in there in the typical Thor way, however, there is a bigger focus on how much he has lost. It’s reminded how much of a tragic character he really is and also how powerful he really is. Due to the serious approach, there are moments in the film that come across as very dark, and even haunting at times. There is this sense of finality like everything has been culminating towards the confrontation with Thanos. 18 years of build-up has all lead to this.

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Infinity War features a large cast of classic Marvel Comics characters.

Considering the fact that there has been so much development and new additions to the Avengers ensemble after 18 movies, there are a lot of characters to balance. For the most part, the characters work off of each other very well, especially many of the new combinations of characters who had previously never interacted with each other. The styles and aesthetics of the other films in the franchise were also well-incorporated within the movie. When the Guardians of the Galaxy showed up, classic rock began playing and bright streaks of colors filled the screen. When Wakanda was featured, the drums started kicking in and the Black Panther theme came on. As good of a job as the film does in balancing the characters, some of the characters are underdeveloped or underused, and some are even inconsistent with how they were in previous films. I can’t really get into who these characters were until my spoiler review which I’ll post later. The main drawback to the overall experience is that there’s so much going on that at times it can feel very disconnected and the stories start feeling separate. A group of characters will be off doing one thing while another group of characters will be doing something somewhere else. There are multiple storylines going on at the same time and featuring different characters, and the story jumps around from place to place and at different times which can be quite discombobulating. We may spend a lot of time in one particular point with one group of characters before jumping back to a different group of characters at a different point. In some of these jumps, I would completely forget the previous arc and would have to reorient myself towards the current point. It’s understandably hard to juggle all of these characters, and the Russo Brothers did a good job, however, the jumping around from vignette to vignette made the experience less absorbing and harder to get engrossed in.

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Overall, Avengers: Infinity War is a solid addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It delivers on its promises, offers exciting and novel action sequences, and presents an awe-inspiring and multifaceted villain the likes of which the comic book movie genre hasn’t seen before. As a major DC fan, I can’t help but feel a little jealousy that the DC universe hasn’t been able to replicate this level of universe-building and massive scale. Infinity War felt exactly like the event comics I loved reading with the way everything came together and how many characters appeared on-screen. It’s a wonderfully constructed adaptation of the Marvel Universe depicted in the comic books and is put together fairly well especially considering the sheer magnitude of the film in terms of characters, themes, and the overall universe.

Yet, I can’t help but feel there is something more that could have been. I enjoyed the film, but I can’t put it up there with some of the most epic sagas of all time like Star Wars, Halo, or Lord of the Rings. What I think is missing is consistency of tone in regards to this film and the rest of the universe. This is an issue more with the direction the entire MCU has taken. The fact that so much had to be done in this film to establish a new tone, new villain, new characters, and create an epic spectacle indicates that the previous films before it weren’t successful in establishing the right tone and emotional stakes. The Marvel formula has always been fun, comedic, and low stakes for the most part. Infinity War is epic, but there’s a disconnect. The overly comedic tone of the franchise so far has hurt the movie. The emotions not running as high for these characters in their respective films is what might have caused the emotional disconnect in this film. This would have been truly legendary if the previous films were different and had established this more serious tone. The films could have been darker and had more stakes to begin with, set up Thanos and the Black Order much earlier, and hyped up more of the Infinity War itself. If Marvel had done all of these things much earlier and set up elements of Infinity War in other films, it would have been unbelievable to witness. However, I think the Russo Brothers still did an excellent job, and quite possibly the best they could have done given the situation they were in.

4/5 Stars

Westworld Season 1 Review

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For those of you haven’t seen Westworld, there are two things that you should know. The first thing is that the first half of this review is spoiler-free, and the second thing is that I would definitely recommend checking out the show. What Westworld does best is comprehensive storytelling. The first season runs at a perfect length and executes its story beats with precision. Unlike other science fiction shows like Lost where the end of each season leaves you with more questions instead of answers, Westworld concludes with just the right amount of new questions. The few unanswered plot threads don’t detract from the overall experience.

The only downside to Westworld’s brilliant first season is how they plan on upping the ante for the second season. The first season, in being so comprehensive, felt like a ten-hour movie with a solid introduction, middle and conclusion. The way the show ended, it didn’t seem to need a sequel. Regardless, without going too much into where the series is headed, I’d like to discuss the show as it stands.

 

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The show is based on a 1973 film by Michael Chrichton

Based off of a 1973 film written and directed by Michael Crichton (Author of Jurassic Park), Westworld aired on HBO in the fall of 2016. I hate to have to give away the premise because I watched the show without knowing a single thing about it, but the story features a Western-style theme park where rich patrons called “guests” can interact with life-like androids called “hosts”. As I said, I didn’t know anything about the show, so when I realized the characters we were following around were androids, it blew my mind. Essentially, the guests come to Westworld to engage in whatever fantasies they like with the hosts, mainly sex and murder. The android hosts repeat each day with specific routines that can be influenced or changed by interacting with the guests. Anytime a host is killed, they are patched back up and rebooted to continue the next day as if nothing had ever happened. It’s a torturous cycle, and it is brought up several times that if the hosts were ever to remember these experiences it would surely wrack their “brains”. The guests go about committing what would be deemed violent atrocities in the real world, however the fact that the hosts aren’t real makes the guests justify their actions.

 

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Video games like Call of Duty have been stigmatized as gateways to real-world violence

This concept of fantasy vs reality is paralleled much in today’s world to video games. Violent video games in modern society have often been stigmatized and believed to be a causation of real-world violence. The counterargument is that a game is a game, and the players are able to understand the distinction between fantasy and reality. When someone presses a button to kill someone else in a video game, it is not the same as physically pulling the trigger or making the fatal blow. Even in games like Grand Theft Auto where you can kill or harm anyone you like, the act of playing the game is far from actually going out and committing the crimes themselves. The argument that games train shooters is also preposterous. Shooting virtual guns from a PS4 or Xbox controller doesn’t prepare someone for actually holding and discharging a firearm. That being said, perhaps there is a line where fantasy and reality get too intertwined, and where the actions in the fantasy world reflect one’s character in reality. I believe that Westworld shows what happens when that line is crossed. The world itself, unlike a video game, is not virtual. The actions that are carried out by the guests are being done with their own two hands. The concept that Westworld explores here is becoming increasingly relevant, as virtual reality in games becomes more and more immersive. What’s to say that as VR gets more and more realistic, our actions in the game world become indistinguishable from what reality looks like? Are we still morally righteous individuals if we enter a virtual game world and slaughter people?

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One of the creators of the show, Jonathon Nolan, was heavily inspired by video games such as Red Dead Redemption, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, and my personal favorite game of all time, BioShock. In fact, the elements of choice vs obedience and revolutionary new systems in exotic locations are clearly influenced by BioShock. Despite the facts surrounding Westworld’s immersive experience, many would still not consider Westworld to be crossing the line. A lot of you may think, if the hosts aren’t real, what does it matter? That is where Westworld’s true philosophical themes lie. Are the hosts real? Do they think? Feel? Experience pain? And if what the hosts experience is a series of programmed responses to external stimuli with some improvisational response built off of previously programmed responses, what makes them any different from us? I believe that this leads us to the fundamental question that Westworld explores: What is reality? Is our existence a result of calculated physiological structuring from a natural or divine source? Our brain consists of neurons firing, telling us what to do in which situation. What’s to say that what we experience isn’t the same as what the hosts in Westworld experience?

 

*************SPOILERS AHEAD!!!!!!!!!!*************************

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The show begins with Bernard Lowe, played by Jeffrey Wright, asking the host Dolores, played by Evan Rachel Wood, a question: “Have you ever questioned the nature of your reality?”. Dolores and the other hosts always say no, but the fact that hosts have to be programmed not to question their existence says something. The showrunners like to engage in misdirection, such as having the host Teddy, played by James Marsden, shown on camera when the off-screen monologue begins talking about the “newcomers”. It’s only later when Teddy’s bullets don’t harm the mysterious Man in Black, that we realize what Westworld is and who the “newcomers” really are. However, as much as the show loves to misdirect, it loves leaving clues even more. Lingering camera angles on the expressionless host’s faces seem to hint that the hosts have a greater awareness than the guests may think. Another way of being self-referential is in the music. Composed by Raman Djawadi of Game of Thrones fame, the music in Westworld combines traditional Western-themed tracks with anachronistic rock anthems like “Paint it Black” or “Black Hole Sun”. The player piano is constantly used as a source of diegetic music, and as a symbolic prop. The mechanical player piano reinforces the programmed vs improvisational themes in the narrative. Now, the two big twists in the show are the dual timelines and the fact that Bernard Lowe is actually a host recreation of one of the hosts’ original creators, Arnold. While the twists became apparent to me at a certain point in the show, the overall execution of these moments was so elegantly crafted that the obviousness didn’t detract from the experience. Especially if you look back, the clues were right in your face the whole time. Arnold and Bernard clearly dress differently, and the park is less ironed out and detailed in the older timeline.

 

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Anthony Hopkins as Robert Ford, one of the creators of the hosts.

The show is not without its faults, specifically in regards to suspension of disbelief. How do the guns work? How come they can hurt hosts but can’t hurt guests? Where do the guests go at night? How do the guests tell each other apart from the hosts? When Ben Barnes’s character stabs a host with a fork, what was to stop him from doing that to a guest? It doesn’t seem like they all know who they are before and are told to watch out for each other. Lots of things realistically about the park don’t make sense but the story is so interesting you aren’t super concerned about it. The dialogue is well written, and tends to tease and reference the idea of loops with lines like “There’s a path for everyone”, “Are you saying I’m repetitive”, and “Are you real? If you can’t tell, does it matter?”. Rewatching the show has been wonderful since I can now see the hints and references to future events, as well as see the story from a new perspective. I now know which timeline we are watching, and can observe the differences between the two timelines and how the park evolved.

 

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Evan Rachel Wood as the host Dolores

Westworld poses a brilliant philosophical question; when do the lines between reality and fantasy blur? Arnold wanted to create consciousness and replicate the human mind while the other creator, Robert Ford, played by Anthony Hopkins, believed the hosts were something purer than humans. Ford wanted to subject the hosts to the experiences of the park because he believed they had the capacity to take it because they were not, in fact, imperfect humans but instead perfect androids. Yet, in the end, Ford realizes his mistake and agrees with Arnold that the hosts were conscious. Eventually, he sets the hosts free of their programming that allows them to harm the hosts. It’s a perfect ending to a mostly perfectly crafted season of television. Yet, the series provides just enough opportunity for speculation and philosophical ponderings Ford definitely anticipated his death by Dolores, so was it his own code telling her to kill him or did he convince her as a sentient being without having to program her code? What separates humans and robots in free will? As Ford said, even we may not have free will as we still follow a serious of loops in our lives. One thing is certain, machine learning exists. Repetitions can slightly alter each time and become something new. As we gear up for Season 2, I think it’s crucial to assess the show’s first season as its own entity. As it stands, the first season of Westworld is pretty damn good, and once Game of Thrones finally ends, it should prove as a serviceable replacement for what to look forward to from HBO.