Red Dead Redemption 2: A Masterpiece

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If you’ve ever dipped your toe into anything game-related in 2018, then you just might have heard about Red Dead Redemption 2, a game developed by Rockstar Games that everyone has been raving about and that many have referred to as the best video game of 2018. What makes this game so special you might ask? I have to admit I was skeptical myself, but as soon as I decided to sit down and give the game a go, I was lured in by several factors. From the breathtaking visuals to the excellent exploration mechanics, to the variety of activities, to the powerhouse of a story, I cannot deny the hype and so I must say for myself that Red Dead Redemption 2 is, although not perfect, a masterpiece of a game and my favorite game of 2018.

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Red Dead Redemption 2 features an expansive and detailed open world to explore.

As I said, there are a myriad of things that contribute to the game’s success, and a few that detract from the experience, but the strongest element of the game comes from its open world depiction of the American heartland during the Wild West era. The game takes place in the year 1899 in a fictional state and has the player takes control of Arthur Morgan, a rough and gruff no-nonsense member of the Van Der Linde Gang. Throughout the game, the player has the freedom to explore an immersive open-world filled with side quests and in-game activities. You can do anything including riding horses, engaging in duels, starting bar fights, hunting and fishing, robbing trains, playing poker, herding cattle, cooking and crafting, and countless other activities. On top of that, this doesn’t take into account the things that you will be doing over the course of the game’s story missions.

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Golden rays, whistling winds, Red Dead Redemption 2 offers an incredibly immersive experience for the player. 

When I first dove into the game, what grabbed my attention was the game’s immersion. The way the snow fell on my character’s boots, to the footprints that were pounded into the ground, to the sleek glistening water reflected on my character’s coat. Everything from the wildlife to the trees to the particles in the air was materialized with immaculate detail and impeccable quality. This feature was only enhanced once I left the snowy mountain setting of the game’s opening and was allowed access to roam the entire massive world. The environments are truly diverse. There are grasslands with grazing buffalo, canyons with rattlesnakes, lowlands and mountains with dangerous cougars, swamplands filled with crocodiles, and industrialized cities filled with people. As you can see, the natural habitats are complemented by the creatures living within the world. Each region feels like an actual biome or ecosystem, filled with new and different kinds of wildlife that add to the immersion. As a result, the world doesn’t just feel open, it feels lived-in. In fact, the best part of the game is simply riding on your horse and trekking through the American Frontier on the way to your next waypoint or mission. This is because while on your way to said objective, there are an infinite number of side stories or incidents that will veer you off of your charted course and engage you in some other aspect of the world. To some, it may get distracting but simply based on the fact that wandering through the world gives you a new experience and activates a new mechanic or development in the game is a testament to how extensive the developers went in designing this world. There are a number of chance encounters that can happen while exploring such as attacks by rival gangs, getting robbed, or helping people in distress. Considering the rough time period, you will eventually have to get down to some good old-fashioned shootouts. This is where the game falters somewhat. While the game’s shooting mechanics are by no means terrible, they can be a bit clunky. Aiming is a little wonky especially with the hypersensitivity of the reticle display. It also takes enemies several hits to be taken down unless you aim directly for the head in which case they always go down with one shot. Still, I can’t count the number of times I kept aiming for the head and having shots graze by enemies due to the fidgeting reticle. One could argue that it adds to the immersion in not having your character able to aim perfectly with historical weapons that weren’t always accurate, but if that is the case then why would a mechanic like Dead Eye which slows down time allowing for the player to get in perfect shots exist? Regardless, the shooting mechanics are still serviceable, but not the most electrifying aspect of the gameplay. The choices that the player makes in the game also decide the story and the experience for the player. Unlike Rockstar’s other popular franchise, Grand Theft Auto, good behavior is incentivized through the game’s Honor System, which gives a scale between High Honor and Low Honor based on the player’s actions throughout the game. The honor system affects key gameplay and story decisions as well as higher or lower prices in stores based on high or low Honor. Causing too much trouble also leads to high bounties which means that a player with a very low honor system may end up being chased by the Lawmen in any region they visit.

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Though not perfect, the game’s fighting mechanics can still provide enjoyment. 

Moving on to the story, the element of the game that I thought would be the most lacking ended up being the most surprisingly brilliant. I was watching a game awards video recently and was astonished to see that Red Dead Redemption 2 had been crowned with the title of “Best Narrative Game” over games like God of War. Now after playing the game, I wonder how I could have ever thought differently. While God of War’s narrative is strong, the story in Red Dead Redemption 2 is so passionately constructed and filled with rich character development and philosophical themes that it rivals classic Spaghetti Westerns like A Fistful of Dollars. The story follows a gang of outlaws led by the prideful Dutch Van der Linde. You play as Arthur Morgan, one of Dutch’s earliest followers. All in all, there are several members of the gang, both men and women, and pretty much each member is given a distinctive personality and character trait that makes interacting with them a fun experience. There’s Hosea, the sagacious veteran with a diplomatic mindset and a tactful approach to situations, Micah, a loose cannon with a malevolent nature and an itchy trigger finger, Mrs. Grimshaw, the tough and uptight upholder of the rules within the camp, and many more. The game gives you the feeling that the gang is only a gang by name and actually operates more like a family, with each member looking out for the other. Despite the dire circumstances, there are several moments where the gang rallies together for a happy moment or shares a bond in an auspicious occasion that gives you hope that they can make it through as a unit. The plot follows the gang after an incident gone awry in the town of Blackwater. They make their way through the American heartland following Dutch’s plans for gaining money so that they can eventually have enough to settle in a tropical paradise. At first, you really root for the entire gang as they make their way through the harsh world and try to survive in an uncompromising environment. You really want to believe in Dutch’s views that civilization is not a place for everyone and that some people are just meant to live freely, able to roam the wild lands and settle within the elements of their own making. You want to see the gang succeed and eventually find greener pastures, however, this view is deeply contrasted in our main character of Arthur Morgan.  To put it short, Arthur Morgan is one of the most compelling and interesting video game protagonists of the decade. He initially comes off as an abrasive and grizzled frontiersman with a short tolerance for others and an untrusting nature, however, as the game goes on we learn more about Arthur’s sensitive nature and free spirit by playing in his shoes. Arthur, though initially a staunch supporter of Dutch and the gang’s values, admits to the idea that the time for outlaws has passed and that sooner or later, the idea of living free in nature in a world without the strict laws of civilization would not be possible with the turning of the century. As the game progresses and things get more desperate, so do Dutch’s half-laid schemes. Over the course of the game, Dutch slowly becomes more and more unhinged and resorts to increasingly harsh methods. This is where Arthur’s moral compass stands strong against Dutch’s unbridled vision of a free world. The story plays out like an epic and spans several years where Arthur’s philosophy contends with Dutch’s idealism. Throughout the game, the player witnesses Arthur’s character and softer nature not just through the story missions, but through the various side-quests. We learn that Arthur Morgan has a simple appreciation for the beauty of the country, and a poetic view of life as something that should be appreciated. His sense of loyalty is also deep; however, we see that he is only willing to go so far as to do what helps others the most without hurting innocent people. It’s clear that what Arthur wants the most is for a peaceful existence for him or the ones around him. He wants good people to be treated kindly in a society that often rejects that characteristic. The concept of redemption is embodied within Arthur Morgan, as he defies the savage nature of outlawry and follows his beliefs of morality in saving those who deserve better lives. At first, the player may be saddened by Arthur’s musings that their gang’s way of life is coming to an end, but by the end of the story, the player will most likely realize that the outlaw way of life needed to end and couldn’t have survived the developing world. The game comments on the nature of living outside the laws of society and how there is a fine line between idealism and the corruption of the idea itself. It also comments on the displacement of entire groups of people due to the rapidly changing and uncompromising beliefs of American exceptionalism and Manifest Destiny. This is heavily exhibited in a large section of the game dealing with the plight of a Native American tribe and its conflict with the U.S Army. Sometimes, getting through the story missions can be a bit of a slog, but the best solution is to pursue side quests for a while and come back to the story missions later. What’s interesting about the narrative in Red Dead Redemption 2 is that it feels less like a video game and more like a ten-episode long Netflix series that details the rise and fall of the Wild West outlaw in a spectacularly dramatic fashion.

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Subtle, restrained, and brimming with courage and spirit, Arthur Morgan is a relatable and extremely likeable protagonist. 

Unfortunately, as gripping as the story is, there are aspects of it that take away from the overall experience in regards to choice. Most of the story missions play out very linearly, with little room for players to play the game the way they want to. For example, you may want to approach a mission by going in guns blazing but instead will have to be stealthy. There are occasions where killing a character will start the mission over, or trying to stay and fight off enemies instead of running away with the gang will lead to mission failure. Considering how tightly woven the narrative is, it makes sense that the game wants you to follow it as closely as possible. However, given the variety of character choice and exploration with the other areas of the game, more player choice in the story missions would have only enhanced the game’s quality.

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Nevertheless, these few flaws are but a small chink on the wonderful suit of armor that is Red Dead Redemption 2. The game captures the spirit and essence of the time period. You will most definitely feel like an outlaw of the Wild West by playing this game. It offers an incredible, sometimes too immerse open world with endless hours of gameplay and variety. It follows one of gaming’s most memorable new protagonists and offers a reflection of the American way of life as well as a commentary on how our society treats entire groups of people with a less than appropriate amount of care and consideration. Quite simply, Red Dead Redemption 2 is a masterpiece. Despite its flaws, Red Dead Redemption 2 is primed to take its spot on the gaming pantheon in gaming Mount Olympus alongside games like Skyrim, The Last of Us, Dark Souls, and the original Red Dead Redemption. In fact, I can’t remember having a video game story resonate with me this much since 2007’s BioShock, which I consider to be my favorite video game of all time.

 

 

 

Us Review

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Jordan Peele’s directorial debut, Get Out, took the world by storm. It was lauded by audiences and critics alike for its social relevance, unique ideas, and thrilling twists. It even garnered Peele a Best Director nomination and Best Original Screenplay win at the Academy Awards. Naturally, his sophomore effort has caused collective anticipation from enthusiastic audiences. Us focuses on a family that is attacked by seemingly alternate malevolent versions of themselves. Lupita Nyong’o plays the lead role of Adelaide Wilson, a mother of two children, who is disturbed by the return of the doppelgangers since she once encountered her evil counterpart as a young girl. As the fight for survival between the original family and the counterparts continues, Adelaide must face the dark secrets of her past and uncover the truth behind why the doppelgangers are attacking.

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Lupita Nyong’o steals the show as Adelaide Wilson 

Us is an extremely well-directed, exciting, and suspenseful film that unfortunately has a confusing resolution that doesn’t give the satisfying final “oomph” moment that the rest of the film was building up to. I won’t be going into spoilers in this review until the very end. First, the good things in the movie start with the absolutely breathtaking performance of Lupita Nyong’o. She conveys vulnerability and then strength as Adelaide Wilson, and manages to elicit a steady dose of fear as her malicious doppelganger. There is already early Oscar buzz for her, and after seeing her incredibly compelling performance I am not one to argue. Winston Duke plays the part of the comical and blundering father of the family, with Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex as the two children. The interplay between the family, especially thanks to Winston Duke’s comedy, helps to build empathy for them and allows us to root for them when things go sideways. After an initial slow build that creates intrigue, the second act of the film is easily its best, as the family is confronted by their doppelgangers and have to frantically grapple with their counterparts. This is where the scares and horror stylings are their best. Peele litters this film with references to Jaws, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and The Shining. The directing is expertly executed, as Peele can go from expansive shots of devastation to small and claustrophobic moments dripping with suspense. There is a particularly important reason for cutaways in the film that leads up to the big revelation at the end. The music is also well done, with the sharp staccato notes of the violin as the film’s main theme creating terror with its shrill sound. There are quite a few twists and turns that are sure to surprise audiences. Some of them are welcome, however as I said, some of the twists at the end are a little head scratching. Specifically, the reason behind how the doppelgangers came to be and are doing what they are doing is disappointing and unfulfilled. It seems there was a lot more that could have been filled in and the end product creates a major suspension of disbelief that hampers the quality of the film slightly.Image result for Us jordan peele family

The build-up to the end is incredible, everything from the comedy to the drama, suspense, and horror, however, considering that the film is predicated upon the fact that the secrets of these doppelgangers would be a groundbreaking revelation that puts the story into perspective, there just isn’t enough to leave the kind of impact that I expected. The ending of the film isn’t bad or terrible per se, but the meaning of the narrative could have certainly felt much more powerful had the end not been so filled with needless exposition and inconsistencies that were created despite all of the exposition. For example, there is a scene between Lupita Nyong’o’s character and her doppelganger where the doppelganger is explaining certain things that she shouldn’t have been able to explain given the fact that she was a doppelganger. It seems that in order to sell the twist in the film, certain glaring inconsistencies were left open, especially when exposition is being given by characters that can’t be giving that exposition since they were never in the position that they are describing, as confusing as that all sounds. In the end, I enjoyed the film, but Peele is asking me to ignore too many inconstancies and plot points that don’t make sense in order to feel the weight of the narrative. Us delivers a powerful message that is unfortunately kept short of tying up a brilliant first two acts due to several irregularities with the film’s final act. It ends up being too contrived and focused on selling a big twist rather than finding a natural resolution to such an interesting premise.

Warning: The rest of this review contains spoilers so read no further unless you’ve already seen the movie or just don’t care.

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So, going into spoilers, it’s revealed in the end that Adelaide’s encounter with her doppelganger back when she was a child turned out quite differently than we were led to believe. It turns out that on that night, the doppelganger attacked her original, crushing her throat and dragging her back to the underground facility where the doppelganger trapped the original. Thus, the doppelganger Adelaide, known as Red, actually switched lives with Adelaide and lived her life on the surface world while the real original Adelaide was forced to live her entire life underground with the rest of the Tethered. This suggests that nurture reigns over nature, as with enough connection to society and family, the Tethered Red was able to develop into a fully functioning person with a family whereas the imprisoned Adelaide became a menacing psychopath. While this is certainly a good reveal, it doesn’t make sense why the real Adelaide who we thought was the doppelganger the whole time should be explaining what the Tethered are to Red, since Red already knew what was down there as she had grown up in it until she switched lives with the real Adelaide. It seems that the closer someone is to their tethered counterpart, the more likely they are of encountering each other, or at least that’s the case with Adelaide. So why didn’t any of the other Tethered wander up to the surface? How was Red able to go up there in the first place? And if Red was able to go up and escape, then why wasn’t Adelaide also able to go up the escalator and find the surface. Another confusing element is how the Tethered seem to mirror the movements of their surface world counterparts, so how come Red wasn’t controlled by Adelaide’s movements. The implication perhaps is that when Red went to the surface world the power struggle shifted in her favor, but that still doesn’t explain how Adelaide was able to just escape after all that time. Once the switch is revealed, it strengthens the beginning of the film since it makes sense that Red would be scared of going back to the place where she left Adelaide, but then why would she go at all and risk the chance of her counterpart resurfacing for revenge? There is also no explanation for how Adelaide was able to organize and communicate with millions of grunting vapid Tethered and convince them to organize the “Hands Across America” movement. The facility seemed to be one of many, so how was she able to get across to the millions of Tethered how to escape their facilities and link up? It’s also not explained why the Tethered exist in the first place. It’s simply stated that “The government started cloning people to try and control us but couldn’t replicate the spirit so they just let millions of zombies wander underneath the surface of America”. What exactly were they trying to control in people? Why couldn’t they replicate the spirit through education and nurture? There are so many leaps in logic and suspensions of disbelief that it is simply too much, in my opinion, to truly drive the film home. The answer to all of these questions seems to be, unfortunately, “because, it just works so that we can have a movie”, which doesn’t quite cut it for me. What I believe Peele is trying to do is force us to reflect on the nature of our situation, and the status and comforts that we have as a result of other people suffering and doing the difficult work that keeps our luxuries belonging to us. The Tethered making a statement is reminiscent of protests from unions and blue-collar workers. The underground facilities and scissors are potential mirroring’s to sweatshop labor and the mistreatment of sweatshop workers, especially children. It reminds the viewer that the clothes on their backs and the ground that they walk on have been shaped by people, some of whom do not have the prosperous lives that we have. Unfortunately, in regards to the film, there is too much left in the air, and too little explained for the dramatic effect of the ending to be truly resonant

The Punisher Season 2 Review

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People would probably consider a review of this kind of content to be a far cry from the content which I last reviewed, however, I like to consider myself omnivorous in taste. Also, there is more than meets the eye where it comes to this Marvel Netflix series. Frank Castle aka The Punisher, a Marvel Comics vigilante, first appeared in this Marvel Netflix Universe in the second season of Daredevil as a vengeful man looking to eradicate anyone involved in the death of his wife and children. After his success in Daredevil in large part due to the excellent writing of The Punisher episodes and the fantastic performance by Jon Bernthal, the character received his own Netflix show. Particularly known as a character that discriminately kills bad people with a wide arsenal of guns, the first season of The Punisher was surprisingly quiet and gradual in its storytelling. Rather than come off the bat with blazing action and over the top gore, the show took its time, building the story as a slow political thriller rather than an intense action series. More than that, the show was also unafraid to shy away from controversial content. It focused heavily on the treatment of veterans in our modern American society and the importance of overcoming traumatic experiences through support, and how neglecting to give that support means turning our backs on people. It also was able to have a real, rational discussion on gun laws and the different sides of the argument. In the end, it was still able to stay true to the character’s violent roots and deliver the rampage and fiery destruction that everyone wanted to see. To date, it is my favorite season of a Marvel show.

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Jon Bernthal as Frank Castle/The Punisher

The Punisher Season 2 continues the first season’s formula of having a reflective and steady build to the story. It starts with Frank lying low after brutally taking down his former friend Billy Russo, who betrayed Frank and was involved in the death of Frank’s family. An interesting start to the season occurs when Frank meets a woman named Beth, played by Alexa Davalos, and the two develop a relationship. It’s the first time that Frank can be seen as moving on from his vengeful motives, but unfortunately, trouble eventually rears its ugly head. This time, it comes in the form of a girl named Amy, who is on the run from a group of hired goons led by a chilling preacher-looking character named John Pilgrim. Meanwhile, Homeland Security agent, Dinah Madani, is still recovering from her manipulation at the hands of Billy Russo, when he escapes from a hospital. The season itself feels very bisected in that the first half involves Frank and Amy running from Pilgrim and the second half deals with Billy Russo more. However, both arcs in the season somehow don’t seem to intrude upon each other, and while they aren’t necessarily perfect at being complementary, they nevertheless seem to work well together. It’s inexplicable, but the narrative doesn’t feel like it’s all over the place even though it technically is all over the place. Part of it may have to do with the excellent acting and charisma by the leads. Amy, played by Giorgia Wigham, develops a strong rapport with Frank as the series progresses. I was initially skeptical about how well they would play off of each other, especially considering the character of Micro, played by Ebon Moss-Bachrach, had as good chemistry with Frank in the first season as you could find in any TV show. Another character that gets a bigger role in the second season is Curtis, one of Frank’s war buddies formerly in the Navy and now operating a PTSD counseling group. Though featured in the previous season, Curtis tags along with Frank this time around and through their actions and interactions, the dichotomy between the two characters is accentuated. Frank’s destructive, violent, uncompromising, kill-happy personality contrasts with Curtis’s generosity, willingness to see good in others, and belief in healing those that society has rejected. It’s clear that Curtis just wants to make it out alive and to help Frank move on from his vigilante ways.

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Giorgia Wigham plays the character of Amy Bendix
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Jason Moore as Curtis Hoyle

 

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Ben Barnes as Billy Russo/Jigsaw

Ben Barnes returns as Billy Russo, now with a somewhat scarred face after being brutally beaten by Frank. The character of Billy Russo aka Jigsaw is known in the comics for having a severely scarred and disfigured face. Fans of the comics might be disappointed, since the show decides to have a different take on the character, showing Russo as more psychologically scarred than he is physically. Again, despite all accounts suggesting that the decisions made by the showrunners shouldn’t work, it comes off as convincing and in line with the character that they had established in the first season. Josh Stewart delivers a cold and eerie performance as John Pilgrim. Pilgrim as a character walks a line that is closer to Frank’s, however, he is a conduit for more powerful forces that run abound in the background. Both the villains, Russo and Pilgrim, seem to be dark reflections of Frank Castle himself, and it causes Frank to reflect on his ways. However, this Frank, unlike in Season 1 and Daredevil, is done trying to find his identity. He is sure of who and what he is. Of course, what he is, is an unhinged and brutal killer who doesn’t give a second thought to taking a life yet he and everyone else around him knows that. The Punisher isn’t watered down or shown to secretly have a soft heart. It is clear that Frank is willing to cross the lines that others wouldn’t be willing to cross, and what separates him from his enemies in the end, is his compassion for innocent people and his ability to care about other people and put his life on the line for them. His biggest fight has been against a system that he believes is wrong, allowing powerful people to abuse their positions and create chaos that ripples across the city and negatively affects the innocent bystanders.

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Since this will most likely be the end of The Punisher Netflix series, I’d like to mention how unique the show was. It took a character that is a rampaging vigilante and added layers to his story and identity. It immersed viewers into a complex world where the lines are blurred and good people trying to do the right thing don’t always get the best results. It also continues to highlight the plight of veterans living in America, and the idea of being forgotten. The Punisher is bold in its stance. It acknowledges that there are parts of our infrastructure and society that are harsh and uncompromising; not simply in terms of crime and poverty, but more because of the people in power and the games that they play, power struggles for selfish gains with the lives of the powerless caught in the crossfire.

 

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel Season 2 Review

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Really? Is that it? Surely there must be more right? These were the questions manifesting in my head after another stellar season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, a show that provides far too much joy and entertainment in such small doses. The first season of this show was as close to a masterpiece as masterpieces go. We were introduced to the character of Mrs. Miriam “Midge” Maisel, a 1950’s Jewish woman in her 20’s with two supportive parents, a happy marriage and two children. Unfortunately, her world gets flipped upside down when her husband Joel admits to having an affair and leaves her. Fueled by the problems of her personal life, Midge discovers an outlet through stand-up comedy and meets the irreverent but hilarious Susie Myerson, a tomboyish club manager who decides to become Midge’s manager. What was magical about the first season of the show was how relatable of a character Midge was. Like any millennial today, she’s a true multitasker, trying to balance her family life, kids, a job, and of course, her passion for comedy. Her pursuit of her comedy career, however, is where we see the difficulty she has to go through in being not only a woman in a male-dominated society but also a woman in a male-dominated industry. Seeing how she overcame these challenges and struggles was a highlight of the show. Unfortunately for her, the challenges she faces especially in regards to her gender are only amplified in Season 2 alongside all of the family drama that is constantly surrounding her.

Season 2 picks up right where the first season left off and carries the same amount of charm and wit and style. One important thing to note is how lived in the world feels. 1950’s New York has never been replicated so well on television. From the fast-moving upper West Side to the lower streets of Greenwich Village, every setting is filled with activity. It’s truly effective in reminding the viewer of the living history of New York City. On top of the rich atmosphere, the characters themselves are perfectly embedded into this breathing world. Mrs. Maisel walks with the typical gate of women of that time period, and Joel Maisel quips in the fast-talking style typical of the 1950s. There isn’t a modern idiom or suggestion in sight. In fact, the entire show comes off more like an old movie or a stage play from the 50’s itself. In short, there could not be a more perfect period piece for this era.

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Combined with the perfect setting is some absolutely brilliant directing. This season also decided to become slightly more experimental with long takes, sweeping shots, extreme long shots where characters are spouting dialogue moving in and out of a house, and many more interesting and unique ways to convey the experience. The music is excellent as always, the soundtrack brings in many more key pieces appropriate to the time period. The score itself adds to the levity or intensity of each scene. I noticed a few musical references calling back to earlier tracks from the first season during scenes that were also harkening back to moments from the first season. The show also switches things up by changing locations and having part of the season take place in Paris as well as at a family getaway in the Catskills. The Catskills was actually a prominent vacation spot for Jewish Americans at the time and so, of course, that also had to be captured as a living and breathing locale by the show. It’s another example of how excellently this series integrates its fictional characters with real-life locations as well as some real-life characters as well (i.e. Lenny Bruce).

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Speaking of characters, now we get to the real heart of the show. Rachel Brosnahan delivers another phenomenal performance as Mrs. Maisel, and Alex Bornstein continues being awesome as Susie. Their chemistry together also continues in stride however this time around with a little more conflict. One character that stole the show in the first season and comes back again for a full course is Abe Weissman, Midge’s fastidious father. Some of the best humor from the first season resulted from Tony Shalhoub’s portrayal of Abe, and the same case applies for season 2. Joel continues to be a character of contention, garnering sympathy at times while also coming off as a bit of a loser. It’s clear that since the first season he has realized his mistake and is now afraid to let go of his love for Midge. Some new characters also grace the screen, Zachary Levi of Chuck fame is particularly noteworthy as a character with a major role.

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Despite the constant barrage of humor, there is an equally impressive display of drama. In fact, another feature of the show’s brilliance is how it manages to blend drama and comedy so deftly. There will be moments where you will cry, and moments where you will laugh. There will be moments where you immediately go from laughing to crying, from crying to laughing, and doing both at the same time. At times, it can start to feel like everything is too episodic in nature and that there is a stagnating of the narrative, however, the very moment that you might feel that is when the narrative hits the hardest. There is very little fault to be found in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’s second season. If there were anything to nitpick about, it would be that the season concludes with another cliffhanger of an ending in a similar way to the first season. Still, the ending is understandable as a means to build anticipation for the already confirmed third season.

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There are a million more things to say about The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel but all of these things can’t convey what can be conveyed by simply watching the show. If you haven’t seen it yet and have Amazon Prime, watch it. It’s a magnificent period piece, a witty comedy, a socially aware drama, and a wonderful work of television.

 

 

Bohemian Rhapsody: My Favorite Movie of 2018

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I’m just gonna jump right out and say it- Queen is my favorite band of all time. I have yet to encounter a musical group with more perfect vocal harmony, energy, and versatility. No one song sounded the same with Queen, and each piece felt like an evolution of the band’s ideas. The centerpiece of all of this was Freddie Mercury, the iconic frontman with a voice so powerful it could shatter a glass building. Naturally, when I heard that a biopic was being developed based on the band and with a strong focus on Mercury himself, I was beyond excited. What I didn’t anticipate was 2018 being a somewhat slow and disappointing year for movies, at least in my opinion. Luckily, sitting down to watch Bohemian Rhapsody was the cinematic highlight of the year, as not only does the film do justice to the legacy of Freddie Mercury, but it also brings the brilliance of Queen back into the forefront and into the public conversation. It is without a doubt one of my favorite musical biopics of all time, and may even be my favorite if not for the genius of the 1985 Mozart biopic Amadeus.

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Directed by Bryan Singer, the film began with some production troubles. Actor and comedian Sacha Baron Cohen was originally slated to play Mercury however differences arose between what the surviving members of Queen wanted and what Cohen wanted and as a result, Cohen left the project. I’m not sure how Cohen would have done in the role, however actor Rami Malek does such a phenomenal job as Freddie Mercury that he may as well be a lock for the Best Actor award at the Oscars. Malek simply becomes Mercury in every way, from speech to facial expressions to mannerisms. Malek’s performance is not only the best performance by an actor this year but one of the best in the last decade. The film leads up to the 1985 Live Aid performance, and when comparing actual footage of the performance to the scenes in the film, it’s clear how dedicated the filmmakers were in nailing every aspect of Freddie and the band’s movements, and how well Malek mimics Freddie’s style. Surrounding Malek, however, is a strong supporting cast consisting of the other three members of Queen: guitarist Brian May played by Gwilym Lee, drummer Roger Taylor played by Ben Hardy, and bassist John Deacon played by Joe Mazzello. Mix in a few other good performances by Tom Hollander as the band’s lawyer and Lucy Boynton as Mary Austin, Freddie’s longtime friend, and former wife, and you end up with a not so star-studded cast giving absolutely star-worthy performances. Credit also has to be given for the make-up and costume departments for replicating Freddie’s iconic outfits and recreating the looks of all of the band members. Each actor in the movie looks like a mirror image of their real-life counterparts (Gwilym Lee is nearly indistinguishable from a young Brian May). The core band members themselves have infectious chemistry. There are great moments not only where the band interacts with Freddie, but also where the other band members are interacting with each other.

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Where Bohemian Rhapsody truly shines is in its focus on the most important aspect of Queen and Freddie Mercury, the music. Throughout the film are several scenes showing how some of Queen’s most famous songs came about and who was responsible for composing them. Whether it’s Brian May’s foot stomps for “We Will Rock You”, or John Deacon’s bassline for “Another One Bites the Dust” or the musical ponderings by Freddie that led to the song that inspired the title of the film, there was a lot of insight into the musical process of the band, how they kept innovating, how they worked as a unit, what inspired their music, and of course, how they went about creating the music. Most musical biopics play slight snippets of music but focus more on the personal lives of the musicians whereas, in Bohemian Rhapsody, entire songs of Queen are performed and to great effect. If there were ever a film about a band where the songs should feature heavily, Queen would be the band.

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Films based on true stories often exaggerate and embellish for dramatic effect, and that is still the case with Queen. Without going into what inaccuracies exist within the film, I will say that with whatever liberties were taken, the end result of added drama pays off with the exception of a few key events in the second act. Most of the drama surrounds Freddie’s personal life, and though many have criticized the way Freddie’s life was tackled, I think there was just enough of it that was explored without derailing the film and taking away the importance of the band. There were even some additions like Freddie’s family that helped to tie the film together including a powerful yet subtle moral lesson from Freddie’s father. The exploration of Freddie’s background also helped to give perspective on the struggles and poor influences that Freddie had while also not interfering with the mystique of Mercury. In fact, the entire journey of Freddie’s character in the film only enhances the larger than life persona of Freddie Mercury.

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By the end of this movie, there is a clear message to the audience about the powerful nature of Queen’s music, and the kinship of the four members of Queen that kept them together. This is all related through a beautiful climax that solidifies the legend of Queen and the legendary status of its members. Technically, Bohemian Rhapsody can be thought of as a two-hour advertisement for the band itself, but the subject matter of the film is more than worthy of a little more recognition. Based on the box office results of the film, it’s clear that there are more than a few people who have some love for Queen and their cornucopia of iconic and brilliant songs. So all in all, despite some muddled plot and lack of focus in certain parts of the film, Bohemian Rhapsody succeeds in paying homage to the legacy of Queen thanks in part to the brilliance of Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury, a talented supporting cast, and a dedication to concentrating on the music itself rather than other elements of a more tantalizing and provocative nature that is often explored in other biopics for shock value or intrigue.

Daredevil Season 3 Review

 

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The much anticipated new season of the Marvel Netflix Daredevil is finally here. After the much acclaimed Daredevil Seasons 1 and 2, Season 3 picks up right where the four hero crossover The Defenders left off. Matt Murdock, the blind lawyer who is secretly the vigilante Daredevil, is both physically and psychologically damaged after the events of The Defenders (a skyscraper fell on top of him). Recuperating under the city church where he was fostered, Matt must now regather his strength and return to his crime-fighting career. The only difference is that Matt has made a radical decision, to let go of his identity as Matt Murdock and to instead fully embrace Daredevil, cutting off all ties to his friends. To top it all off, Wilson Fisk, the dreaded crime lord, has cut a deal with the FBI that allows him to be freed from prison and moved to a penthouse in the city under surveillance.

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The past few seasons of recent Marvel shows have been disappointing to many, but what many people forget is that Daredevil has been consistently great in its two seasons. This third season is no exception as it manages to bring both the series and the Marvel Netflix universe back to its gritty, crime-filled roots. Everything from the psychological torment of our heroes to the in-depth look at the seedy underbelly of New York City, Season 3 is filled to the brim with realism. This time around, things get real dark, almost too dark to the point where half of the series has our beloved characters experience pure hopelessness. Luckily, the darker turn of this series is just what it needs. Despite some minor bloating, once things get going, they really get going. It’s like a shot of adrenaline straight to the heart once you get into the frenetic action scenes and massive conspiracies. All of this wouldn’t be possible without fantastic writing, wonderful performances from our returning cast members, and some new life and new blood injected into the series.

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Charlie Cox expertly portrays Matthew Murdock/Daredevil

Charlie Cox is once again masterful as Matt Murdock/Daredevil. He turns in an even more intense performance than ever before. It’s a difficult task since it asks him to turn down his previous likeability and instead act more irrational and unapologetic. Nevertheless, Charlie Cox prevails and manages to portray a fragile and unhinged Matt Murdock. We see some of the difficult decisions that he makes, and the frustrations and anguishes of a man who chooses to walk a lonely path while also feeling abandoned and rejected by the parental figures in his life. There is a clear dichotomy set up between Matt Murdock and the Daredevil persona, and how it comes to play in regards to Matt’s closest friends, Karen Page and Foggy Nelson, is a driving force of the show. Karen Page, portrayed terrifically by Deborah Ann Woll, has really come into her own as one of the stronger characters in the entire Marvel Netflix pantheon. Her role as a journalist propels her alongside the more interesting elements and discoveries of the plot, and her personal demons and past traumas come together to give her character a sense of instability that parallels Matt’s own rashness. Elden Henson as Foggy Nelson serves as a moral balancer in this season, acting as the ultimate by-the-book optimist who believes the best way to beat Fisk is through the system. It’s a refreshing character arc that stops Daredevil from being a show full of moral ambiguity. Among the new cast members, there is Joanne Whalley who plays Sister Maggie, a nun who nurses Matt back to health and may have a deeper past connection with him than is initially let on. The two most interesting new additions, however, are two FBI agents. The first is Benjamin Pointdexter aka Bullseye, played by Wilson Benthal, a sharp shooter and projectiles expert. The second agent is Rahul “Ray” Nadeem, played by Jay Ali. Nadeem is Daredevil’s most human character this season. He’s shown to be the every-man, going through his own struggles to make ends meet and provide a good life for his wife and son. Experiencing his trials and tribulations and seeing his decisions and how he reacts to them creates a sense of relatability that what is happening to him-being in extremely tough no-win situations- could be happening to anyone of us. But, it also gives us hope that we can end up doing the right thing when it counts. He is this season’s most sympathetic character, almost acting as the heart and soul of what this season is all about, good people making hard choices and struggling to be the best versions of themselves. Bullseye is also introduced in a very unique way in the show, and his ability to use anything from a pencil to a baseball in order to efficiently take out targets is incredibly fun to watch. Not only that, Wilson Benthal turns in a chilling performance as a deeply disturbed character that is pushed against a corner and manipulated by Wilson Fisk. What’s remarkable about Daredevil’s cast of characters is that no one character feels like they’re a throwaway or are unnecessary. Another remarkable thing is that no one is shown to be perfect. Every character, from Karen Page, to Foggy Nelson, to Ray Nadeem, to Matt Murdock himself walks a hard line and has questions of morality. Even the traditional old wise characters, like Father Lantom (played by Peter McRobbie), whom Matt has often sought out for guidance in the past, is shown to have made some past mistakes that affect the present. This choice by the showrunners really cements the realism and shows that even the heroes that we look up to will not always be shining beacons of hope, hope is instead found by conquering our everyday struggles and trying to do the right thing, hoping that your decisions will leave a good impact and lasting legacy on those who follow. In the end, we are all just people.

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Karen Page (Deborah Anne Woll) with Daredevil (Charlie Cox)
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Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson) is confronted by FBI agent Ray Nadeem (Jay Ali)

But even amongst the imperfect characters, there is also the pure evil, and that is where Vincent D’Onofrio once again shines as Wilson Fisk, the greatest Marvel villain ever put to screen. Last time we saw Fisk, he was plotting his return from prison, but in the first season, Fisk was portrayed more sympathetically as a man damaged by his abusive past and inability to connect with other human beings. That all changes this season. We finally get to see Wilson Fisk become the true evil criminal mastermind and live up to the name of the Kingpin, a name which he finally officially receives this season. We see Fisk spread his influence and create waves of terror in maniacal ways, predicting and planning every possibility, and constantly being one step ahead of the heroes. There’s no more relatability or sympathy, you know who he is at this point and so does he. This makes Kingpin a completely relentless and unhinged character, fully aware of the fact that he is the “ill intent”. What’s also great is Kingpin’s relationship with Bullseye, and how he is able to manipulate and guide this tortured soul under his wing. There is an especially gorgeous sequence that is set up like a stage play in black and white where Fisk explores Bullseye’s past. Instead of going into a complete flashback, the scene remains in Fisk’s penthouse but shows Fisk observing Bullseye’s past experiences, giving us these views from Fisk’s perspective. Bullseye is a personification of Matt’s inner demons; he is everything that Matt could have become if he had gone down the wrong path. During their confrontations, it’s especially clear that Matt is fighting a version of himself which makes it thrilling not only in terms of fight choreography but also in terms of stakes as it makes Matt realize who he could end up becoming if he doesn’t curb his rage.

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Vincent D’Onofrio as Wilson Fisk
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Wilson Benthal as Bullseye

Speaking of fight choreography, the action in this season is taken to a whole new level. More like the first season rather than all of the ninja fights in the second season, it manages to keep things gritty and in close quarters. The camera always hovers closely and lower to the ground, and the set pieces are in claustrophobic rooms or cramped corridors, emanating a sense of tension and uneasiness. Two fights scenes are particularly awe-inspiring, one being an extremely long 11-minute one take scene, and another being a fight between Daredevil and Bullseye. Bullseye’s expert aim comes into play as a new danger for Matt, as he can turn anything from pencils to prayer beads into deadly projectiles. It’s necessary to give real credit to the showrunners and choreographers, since in a time where CW shows and superhero shows in general (including the Marvel Netflix shows) are continuously pumping out subpar fight sequences, Daredevil always attempts to find unique ways to depict their action, and the result is cinematic quality fighting with a television budget.

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Overall, Daredevil Season 3 succeeds with flying colors. Daredevil as a series is head and shoulders above the majority of superhero shows, in fact, it is likely the best superhero shows ever and one of the best shows on TV right now. It flourishes as both an elaborate crime thriller and a dark and personal look into a damaged hero. The show starts off a little slow but never drags too much, and by taking its time instead of starting off swinging, it avoids the common Netflix issue of the midseason drag where around episode 6 of a season, the show starts to lose stamina. There are several reminders as to how our societal systems are a work in progress, and how someone with enough money and power can avoid every aspect of the law and can exist above the system. Kingpin, though still a genius, can also be a sadistic child that believes he can get away with anything, and he pretty much can. Luckily, it’s seeing how our heroes persevere against such overwhelming power while trying to stay true to their character that makes Daredevil so enthralling a series. Though not perfect, Daredevil continues to prove time and time again that it is a consistently thrilling series with riveting action, a relatively concise plot, and brilliant characters portrayed by brilliant actors. Charlie Cox’s performance as Matthew Murdock is deserving of Emmy recognition at this point.

4-75-stars

 

 

 

God of War Review

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I started this game back in May, but thanks to a long summer internship, it was hard to get fully invested in the game so I thought I’d wait until that was done. God of War, the surprise sequel to the God of War game franchise was released in April of 2018. Ever since then, it has been met by nothing short of reverence and acclaim, particularly for its story, world, and visuals. People are hailing this game as the biggest PlayStation exclusive since The Last of Us. The hype for this was beyond compare. So having finally finished the game, I can say that without a doubt this game lives up to its massive praise. God of War is one of the most visually breathtaking games I have ever played. On top of that, it is an emotional rollercoaster filled with both heartbreaking and heartwarming moments. The game’s biggest strength, however, is in its characters, and the strong bond between father and son as they go on their epic journey. Throughout the game, the dialogue is subtle yet powerful, and the atmosphere and tone only enhance the emotional beats. Creative director Corley Barlog has succeeded in reimagining an already established franchise and elevating it to new and unimaginably wonderful heights.

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The story takes place several years after the events of the last God of War game. Kratos, the angry, Greek-god killing protagonist who is a god himself, has settled down in the world of Norse mythology. He has a wife and fathers a child who he names Atreus. The game begins with the death of Kratos’s wife, and the plot is set in motion as Kratos and Atreus must journey throughout the realms to spread her ashes from the peak of the highest mountain. The initial interactions between Kratos and Atreus are of a cold and distant father harshly drilling his young and inexperienced son as they embark on their journey. However, much happens on their journey, including several surprise twists and revelations that change the nature of the relationship between father and son. As the game progresses, these two characters learn to work with each other and understand one another. By the end, the bond between Atreus and Kratos matures to the point where both have tremendously grown as characters. Throughout the story, Kratos is trying to suppress his violent past and must learn to temper his anger and hatred, and the realization that he must do so comes when he sees Atreus begin to follow in his path of rage. Kratos learns just as much from Atreus as Atreus does from Kratos. Together, the two characters find a balanced view.

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The story, though the strongest aspect of the game, isn’t the only thing that makes the game appealing. God of War also has the luxury of being one of the best looking games I have ever played, if not the best. The art design is intricate and flowing, the colors are vibrant, and the cinematography would make an Academy Award winner jealous. What makes the visuals so dynamic is that there are multiple worlds to explore, each with their own unique color palette and art style. There are areas that are lush green and red, snowy white, rustic brown, and even in areas where the colors are a little drabber like dull green, there is enough contrast in the surroundings or in the colorful apparel of our characters to give some vibrancy to the overall image. Speaking of colorful characters, Atreus and Kratos aren’t the only ones. Throughout your journey, you encounter a host of fleshed out and interesting characters like the dwarf brothers Sindri and Brok, Freya, and the talking head Mimir. All of these characters add to the fantasy and enhance the lore, making it more interesting. There is a general feeling of this world of Norse mythology that the gods are not saints, but rather selfish and detached entities that often embroil the rest of the world in their own problems. The entire tone and progression of the game made me feel like I was reading an old fantasy adventure novel along the lines of The Hobbit. The music is fantastic, at times soaring and soft and at times forbidding and heavy, hitting both enchanting and epic cinematic beats.

 

Unfortunately, the combat is where the game falters just a bit. It’s not bad by any means, but it isn’t entirely fluid or satisfying to play either. It comes down to the tradition light attacks using R1 and strong attacks using R2 with target lock on enemies with R3 on the PS4 controller. What’s missing, however, is the movement and move set. I don’t really feel the impact of the blows as I dish them out to my enemies, and the actual attacks themselves don’t seem to do enough damage to enemies to take them out quickly. The best and most effective elements of the combat come in the form of runic attacks which act as kind of super moves with powerful energy blasts or longer animations. Using the runic attacks can be fun, but I often found myself less interested in combat and more interested in exploring the world. The combat sections, especially in the beginning, felt kind of like a momentum stopper and I constantly wanted to get back to progressing through the story. However, the combat can get very fun towards the end when new weapons and attacks are introduced. The story itself also drags slightly in the middle but it wasn’t too glaring. The world, although filled with beautiful creatures and locations, felt empty in terms of people. Considering that Midgard is a realm for humans, there weren’t exactly many that were seen in the game. The RPG level up system is adequate, although I didn’t pay too much attention to it as it became a little convoluted with the multiple upgrade steps and multiple resources and currencies. The final nitpick is with the difficulty, which in Normal mode, can be quite hard. Sometimes the difficulty gets a little cheap and you can die in one or two powerful hits but it’s nothing too frustrating.

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Overall, where God of War thrives is in its character depth and the beautiful cinematic quality of its aesthetic elements. The narrative is intricate and comprehensible, with themes of family, love, vengeance, and learning to let go of hate. The literary and aesthetic elements combine to evoke complex and powerful moments throughout Kratos’s journey with Atreus. There are even some surprising twists as well as some big epic spectacle fight scenes that are expected of the God of War franchise. In short, the hype is all true. This game is a fantastic experience, one that will blow away and tug at the heartstrings of anyone who has the pleasure of playing it. Creative director Cory Barlog and the team at Santa Monica Studios delivered a work of art that stands out as a soon to be classic while also spearheading the franchise into bright and new directions.

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.