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.

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.