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.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

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.

Video Games: The Art of the Future

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Westworld Season 1 Review

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

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

 

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The show is based on a 1973 film by Michael Chrichton

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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Evan Rachel Wood as the host Dolores

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

 

 

Thoughts on H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Tomb”

It has come to my attention that I have not written about any novels. Though I love the visual splendor of movies and video games, I am still a fan of the printed word. However, since reading a book requires more time commitment than watching a two-hour movie, I have only managed to read a short story.

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Many quandaries are spinning through my head after having read “The Tomb”, by HP Lovecraft, one of the most well-renowned and brilliant writers of the twentieth century. What initially hooked me was the way the first paragraph was established. It began with the words “In relating the circumstances which have led to my confinement within this refuge for the demented, I am aware that my present position will create a natural doubt of the authenticity of my narrative. It is an unfortunate fact that the bulk of humanity is too limited in its mental vision to weight with patience and intelligence those isolated phenomena, seen and felt only by a psychologically sensitive few, which lie outside its common experience. Men of broader intellect know that there is no sharp distinction betwixt the real and the unreal;that all things appear as they do only by virtue of the delicate individual physical and mental media through which we are made conscious of them, but the prosaic materialism of the majority condemns as madness the flashes of super-sight which penetrate the common veil of obvious empiricism”. What is fascinating about this premise is that before even telling the story, the narrator gives a reason for deniability in his account. Often times in stories we are presented with an unreliable narrator, but one that is always unraveled by the reader at some point during the story. It is rare to see a story in which from the beginning we as readers have reason to doubt the narrator’s account. This statement, however, is followed by the narrator’s declaration that the “bulk of humanity” is often too easily dismissive, due to its limited scope and understanding of its environment, of phenomenon that would be deemed supernatural or out of the ordinary. He goes on to state that individuals of greater understanding are aware that there is no true distinction between what is real and what isn’t, and that which is tangible to the individual can be viewed as reality. Everything that the individual sees is only a combination of the physical senses and its perception by the human mind. The tragedy highlighted by the narrator is that in a society of matter and “obvious empiricism” where only seeing is believing, the “flashes of super-sight which penetrate the common veil” are condemned as madness. The premise introduces the reader to the narrator and his mentality. The narrator believes himself to be of heightened intellect and understands that everything that he sees he can acknowledge to himself to be real, and that the rest of humanity is misguided in its attempt to deem him insane.

    The narrator introduces himself as Jervas Dudley, an unnecessarily wealthy daydreamer who would spend his childhood “apart from the visible world” and instead buried in books and ponderings. Dudley considers his company to be among the non-living and spent his time by a wilted and haunting hollow tree. By the tree, in the darkest of the hillside thickets lies a tomb of a great and exalted family whose last descendant died long ago, the Hydes. The door to the tomb was rusted shut with the door slightly “ajar”. The family’s mansion was burnt in a fire and only one man perished and the ashes were brought to the tomb. Jervas forms a bower by the tomb where he would spend time sleeping and thinking. He eventually discovers that he is linked to the Hydes family on his maternal side. This stirs the notion that the tomb is for him. One night he finds an old chest in his attic containing the key to the tomb. He unlocks the tomb and finds a grave marked with one word, Jervas. He feels a sense of belonging in the tomb and a realization that his peace and final resting can be found only within the tomb. On one particular visit, he is seen by an unknown observer, but Jervas continues to the tomb anyway. However, upon visiting the dark hillside thickets, Jervas comes across an astonishing sight, the old Hydes mansion was rebuilt and brimming with light and reveling guests. Jervas enters with comfort and familiarity and takes part in the revelries, however at some point, a bolt of lightning strikes the ceiling and the house is set ablaze. Jervas attempts to escape but is burnt to ash. He suddenly finds himself struggling in the arms of two villagers and sees his father looking disdainfully at him. Before being whisked away, Jervas notices a chest containing a statue of a mirror image with an inscription “ J.H” Jervas is taken to an asylum where his father tells him that his visits to the bower were familiar to everyone and that the lock to the tomb was rusted shut and had been for ages. Jervas concludes that he would have resigned to being mad had it not been for his trusty servant within the asylum who broke the lock to the tomb and found within a grave marked with only one word, “Jervas”.

    An easy explanation is that Jervas is clearly insane. On the surface, this story can be seen as a depiction of a troubled mind driven mad by an unsightly tomb. Or it can be seen as the classic story of the person who may be crazy but may be telling the truth, but if we recall the first paragraph of this story, we would be falling in line with the bulk of humanity, dismissing the phenomena that exist outside the common experience, and declaring the perpetrator of the super-sight to be mad. The truth of the story is that whether the events are supernatural is irrelevant, because the story is about only one individual, Jervas. Jervas is the sole pair of eyes by which we witness the events, and from his perspective, everything he has seen exists. If we step back from his view and observe as a skeptic of society, he is crazy. However what Jervas sees is what we see, and what he sees is real to his senses, therefore by the transitive property what Jervas sees is the truth. “The Tomb” is an exploration of thought and perspective as it pertains to the existence of the individual and the faith in society that we uphold. It begs the question of what real truly is. Perhaps there is no real. An individual cannot live in the body of another individual, therefore cannot know if the other individual truly exists. All he knows is that he himself is conscious and him alone. Therefore, on account of his consciousness and existence, everything that he sees and feels can be deemed real to him.

 

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Responsible for such works as The Call of Cthulu, and At the Mountain of Madness, H.P. Lovecraft is known as one of the greatest horror-fiction writers of all time.

 

Review: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (Spoiler Heavy!!!!) A Lesson in Moral Complexity

 

 

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Mildred Hayes, played by Francis McDormand, standing with the billboards

 

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is Martin McDonagh’s latest home run film. It follows up the masterpiece that is In Bruges by deftly blending dark comedy and dark drama. Featuring one of the most outstanding ensemble casts in recent memory, Three Billboards educates the viewer on how hate can affect one’s life.

The story follows Mildred Hayes, a mother who is dead-set on finding the men who raped and killed her daughter, Angela Hayes. To rile up attention for the case, which has gone on for seven months, Mildred rents three billboards on an unfrequented road and prints the messages: “How Come, Chief Willoughby?”, “And Still No Arrests?”, and “Raped While Dying”. The billboards serve as powerful iconography, especially since they’re really all the information we have about what happened to Mildred’s daughter. We never see the violent act of her death actually happen, and her presence is rarely felt throughout the film. McDonagh conveys the horrific nature of the crime through the ominous presence of the billboards. The camera pans out of order to show the first billboard “Raped While Dying” last in order to create a bigger shock value amongst the audience. Though the boards aren’t very high or very large, they are first seen through low angle shots which gives them a monumental perspective. The backgrounds of the boards are bright red with black text, which are not only eye-catching but also splash the film early with the color of blood. And so, the limited information combined with a showcase of how determined she is to find her daughter’s killer creates an immediate understanding and sympathy for Mildred. Despite all of the harsh or misguided actions she carries out in the film, there is always an element of forgiveness at play for the audience in knowing her pain and suffering. In fact, pain and suffering are factors associated with many of the characters in the film.

 

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Woody Harrelson’s Chief Willoughby has a conversation with Mildred

 

The billboards draw negative attention toward Chief Willoughby, played by Woody Harrelson, who is a respected officer within the community. Willoughby happens to also be dying of cancer. His relationship with Mildred isn’t antagonistic, and the viewer is made aware that he hasn’t been intentionally neglecting the case, however, Mildred is unflinching in her decision to keep the billboards. In a conversation with Willoughby, Mildred claims that all the men in the country should be put in a database and investigated whenever they’ve committed a crime. It’s clearly preposterous, yet you understand that Mildred wants to see more action from the police department. Her position stands unaltered even with Willoughby’s condition in consideration. To add another piece to the puzzle, Willoughby’s fellow officer, Jason Dixon, played by Sam Rockwell, is an apparent racist and all-around douchebag. He consistently tries to find ways to pressure Mildred into taking down the billboards. The first half of the film serves as an effective look at conflict where both sides have sympathy. There is sympathy for Mildred, played wonderfully by Francis McDormand, as she stands her ground on her daughter’s case. There is also sympathy for Chief Willoughby, who is conscious that his time with his wife and kids is dwindling. Woody Harrelson captures the pain, compassion, and love that embodies Chief Willoughby. In fact, as he appears to be the only one of the three central characters living without hate, his role transitions from an active character to more of an arbiter of wisdom. In a shocking twist, Chief Willoughby shoots himself in the head after spending one last day with his wife and children. In a letter, he explains that he would rather avoid his family having to see him slowly suffer and wither away in a hospital bed. His suicide is advocated by him as an act of bravery, and it shifts the film’s focus towards the redemption arc of Sam Rockwell’s character.

 

Dixon
Dixon, played by Sam Rockwell, confronts Mildred

 

Upon Willoughby’s death, Dixon initially reacts by senselessly beating Red Welby-who rented Mildred the billboards-and throwing him out of a window. When Dixon gets fired for his actions by the new chief, his character seems to be headed towards a downward spiral of potential villainy. When the billboards are burned down, he seems to be a likely suspect. However, when Mildred retaliates by burning down the police station with, Dixon unbeknownst to her, still inside, it creates a symbolic moment where Dixon reads a letter from Willoughby while oblivious of the fires burning behind him. Willoughby’s letter urges him to let go of his anger and the pain in his past and instead work towards becoming a good police officer. When Dixon plunges through the flames with Angela Hayes’s case file, it’s as if the singes and burns on his body become a literal embodiment of his bad self, which he will always carry with him. In one of the best moments of the film, Dixon ends up in the same hospital room as Red Welby, the same guy he threw out of a window. He apologizes, and in a poignant scene, the initially upset Welby pours a glass of orange juice for Dixon, providing him with a token of forgiveness. From then on, Dixon tracks down a suspected rapist, gets beaten within an inch of his life in order to get the suspect’s DNA, and notifies Mildred that the suspect may be “the guy”.  When word comes in that the suspect, though a rapist, is not the same man as Angela’s killer, Mildred assures Dixon that the hope that he had given her was more than she had had in a month. She concludes that it was better to have that feeling of hope-however fleeting it is-than have nothing. The efforts that Dixon had made to find her daughter’s killer were the kind of efforts that she wanted out of the police. In the film’s resolution, when Dixon and Mildred decide to go after the confirmed racist, they debate whether it is worth it to take his life and ultimately agree to decide on the way to confront him.

 

The film ends ambiguously as to whether Dixon and Mildred decide to kill the rapist. In the end, it’s not about justice, or vengeance, or even finding the killer. It’s not even a story about learning to let go of hate and embrace love.  It’s learning to live with hate, learning to temper it and not let it consume you. Mildred will always carry hate in her heart, what happened to her daughter will always stay with her and keep the coals burning in the furnace of her heart. She’s unhinged, aggressive, and a danger to everyone around her. Dixon is still that racist asshole, just a more focused asshole, with a clear perspective on his goals of being a detective. Feelings of racism don’t just magically go away. Neither of them are heroes, neither of them are villains. They simply have more clarity in their goals, they are aware of their hatred, aware that they will always carry it with them. They’ve developed moral codes. Keep in mind, moral codes don’t necessarily mean righteous codes, they mean codes that a character follows and doesn’t break, good or bad. Their codes are also still developing much like everyone’s are, as they haven’t decided whether to take the life of the scapegoat racist. Even characters like Willoughby aren’t necessarily martyrs, since the act of suicide is generally considered a coward’s way out rather than the brave act that Willoughby feels it is.

 

The morals of each character are identified by the actions they undertake in the film: Willoughby’s suicide, Mildred’s arson, Dixon’s “redemption” (All Oscar-worthy performances by the way). Each character no matter how small has a moment of sympathy or relatability. Red Welby, played by Caleb Landry Jones has his moment when he hands Dixon the orange juice, and Peter Dinklage has a small surprise role as James, a car salesman attracted to Mildred. When Mildred botches the dinner with James, he goes into a rant of how he knows his position as a dwarf and how he’ll never be a “huge catch”, yet his stature and demeanor still outshine Mildred’s rage and foul temperament. Three Billboards, like In Bruges, is a character study. It doesn’t focus on finding mysteries or on Mildred finding inner peace. Three Billboards is about the effect of an unforgettable tragedy, and one mother’s response to that tragedy, on the lives of our characters. The story teaches that people are not perfect, and no matter how righteous the cause or effort, everyone has a point of darkness in their heart, or a different perspective that goes against the generally expected code of society. Even after being burnt down, the billboards are put up again. They stand just as the hatred in Mildred’s heart still stands.

MARTINMCDON
Director Martin McDonagh

 

When asked by Variety about the character of Dixon, McDonagh claims, “At the end he’s still the asshole he was at the start of the film, but hopefully by the end of it he’s seen that he needs to change. But the film isn’t about simple heroes and villains, and in no way does he become a hero in it. Part of the whole idea of the story is, ‘Who are the heroes and who are the villains and is anyone really that heroic?’ I wanted to explore the idea of a strong woman going against the police in the South, and I think the racial angle is one of the weapons she would throw at them. But the idea that there’s hope in a story like this, even with characters as despicable as Sam’s, I thought that was an interesting thing to explore.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kong: Skull Island-What Makes A Better Movie, Visual Elements or Literary Elements?

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I just saw Kong: Skull Island, a very entertaining and interesting movie. The action scenes are on point. The visual style is attention-grabbing and the cinematography is splendid. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts does an admirable job of recreating the 70’s Vietnam Era aesthetic, and he exceeds in his ability to depict human characters in sweeping long shots that indicate their vulnerability. However, where the visual elements of the film soar, the literary elements fall flat. The characters are almost nonexistent, the narrative is kind of all over the place and the dialogue is just TERRIBLE in some scenes. Now, keep in mind, this is a monster movie. We came to see King Kong fight a bunch of dinosaurs and attack some soldiers, so why should the film’s success be measured by a good story and characters? Furthermore, is a film with superior visuals, sound, and direction a better film; or is a film with superior writing, story, and characters better?

To go back to Kong, the story is straightforward, a team of scientists and soldiers go to Skull Island, damage the ecosystem, get attacked by Kong, and have to survive a rough landscape of monsters and dinosaurs. The characters are either one dimensional like Samuel L Jackson (a hardened veteran), Tom Hiddleston(a generic badass), and Brie Larson(a photographer…that’s basically all there is to her character); or the characters are plot points used to move along the story like John Goodman, Toby Kebbell, and Cory Hawkins. By the way, I’m using the actors’ names because of course, I don’t remember any of the names of the characters. I’m even good with names so it’s not like I wasn’t trying (I know literally every character’s name in Game of Thrones just try me).  In fact, what happens with these characters is something that I wrote about recently where the actors are so good they make you think the characters are better than they are. When John Goodman and Samuel L Jackson are talking to each other, the dialogue isn’t good, there’s little insight into their characters, yet it still sounds intense. That’s because the actors are intense, and they can make terrible dialogue like “I am the cavalry” sound somewhat plausible. If you just look at the cast for the film: Brie Larson recently won an Oscar, John Goodman should win an Oscar, and Samuel L Jackson is…well, Samuel L Jackson. These are all amazing actors, and the only reason I wasn’t falling asleep watching these characters is because of who they were played by.

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But again, we don’t need the characters to be Shakespearean good, it’s a monster movie, so why be overly critical? Well, just because a film’s purpose is to scare people with monsters, it doesn’t mean it’s a good movie even if it succeeds in its purpose. I’d like to compare this film to the 2005 Peter Jackson directed King Kong movie. In my opinion, Jackson made a better film, with a better story. You actually cared about Kong as the film did its best to establish a true connection between Kong and the female lead. However, to the film’s detriment, the third act isn’t as good as the rest of the movie and it often becomes too slow and sappy. The action is good, but the film tends to drag and is overly long. With Kong: Skull Island, the action is unrelenting. It seems like every few minutes there’s a new scary creature leaping out at its victims. The story is barebones but the pace is intense and focuses on the visual creativity and scope of the creatures rather than the struggles of the characters. Kong is an unstoppable, overpowered death machine and it’s awesome. Rather than get bogged down in the third act, we get treated to an awesome action scene between Kong and a giant dinosaur-lizard thing. With the Peter Jackson Kong movie, you have a thoughtful, more character driven film that wants to shed light on the gentle nature of the giant ape. With the new movie, you have a pretty straightforward monster movie with epic action scenes.

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So what does make a better film? Is it the visual elements, or the literary elements (story and screenwriting, etc.)? I think it varies from person to person. If you’re like me, and you can’t appreciate a film as much if it doesn’t have a strong narrative and well-written relatable characters, then you probably swing more towards literary elements defining films. If you’re more interested in the art and the crafting of a scene, the cinematography, the visual effects, the music, the production design (I love all these elements too, don’t get me wrong), but you might then define a film through that lens rather than overanalyzing the story and narrative. This would also apply to Kong: Skull Island, which I wouldn’t even consider a bad film. I would consider Kong an ok film from a story point-of-view and a very enjoyable one from a visual point of view. The purpose of many films is to entertain, and if that is the case, then Kong: Skull Island passes with flying colors. If you as an audience member are looking for something more in a monster movie, I would suggest looking elsewhere; but for all you monster movie lovers, Kong: Skull Island is another good addition to the pantheon of monster films, and I can’t wait for this version of Kong to fight Godzilla.