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.

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.

 

 

Cuphead Review

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What can I say about Cuphead? Cuphead is a “run and gun indie video game” developed by StudioMDHR for the PC and Xbox One. Cuphead is incredibly fun, filled with beautiful colors and incredible music. It’s also INSANELY HARD. That’s right, Cuphead, disguised as an innocent little kids’ game is a harbinger of doom and frustration the likes of which has never been seen in any recent game I’ve played including the Dark Souls games.  It’s a game with very little room for error and no healing mechanics. Throughout my experience with the game, I found so many things that I absolutely adored and equally as many things that I absolutely hated. Its frustrations stem from its difficulty and in-game animations that cause problems during gameplay. There’s one more thing, I SUCK AT CUPHEAD. I’ve always been terrible at 2-D side-scrollers so I knew the game wouldn’t be a park, but I just had to play it after seeing all the hype and the comparisons to my beloved Dark Souls games. I’ll do my best to properly break down all of the aspects of the game, I can’t promise I won’t either gush about what I love or rage about what I hate about the game. Consider this an unbalanced emotional review about a game that evokes within me emotions on both sides of the spectrum.

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The story follows Cuphead and his pal Mugman who are both apparently living tableware. They gamble at the Devil’s Casino and lose their souls to the Devil. In an effort to save their souls, Cuphead and Mugman strike a deal with the Devil to collect the souls of other deviants running from the Devil. These deviants makeup the 19 bosses on Inkwell Island who Cuphead must take down. Inkwell Island acts as a hub world for the game, where Cuphead can move around freely and interact with the various playable missions. The player can either collect the debts owed to the Devil by fighting the bosses or playing “Run-and-Gun” levels where they move through obstacles and fight multiple enemies in order to collect gold coins and buy more weapons and abilities.

 

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Cuphead’s visual style feels right out of a 1930’s cartoon.

 

The uniqueness of Cuphead is due to its visual and musical style paying homage to 1930’s animation. It’s obvious that the creators were heavily influenced by early Walt Disney animations like Steamboat Willie, and they executed their vision perfectly. The overall animation is flawless. All of the movements of the characters are seamless and if someone were to watch gameplay footage they might think they were actually watching an animation from the 1930’s. The screen is always filled with color, the visual flair of Cuphead makes it a spectacle of a game that is not only entertaining to play but also to watch. Accompanying the brilliant animation is the music, the other half of the aesthetic whole. Cuphead’s soundtrack, composed by Kristofer Maddigan, features original jazz, big band, and ragtime music that resembles the works of Scott Joplin, Duke Ellington, and Benny Goodman. As a jazz musician who’s played a couple big band gigs, I can genuinely say that the charts here are spectacular. Every instrument has an audible and distinct sound and the selection of instruments vary from tune to tune. The tunes themselves range from whimsical calliope/circus-like to lightning fast swing or bebop tracks. In the boss battles, jazz has never sounded so intense, the upswing tempos and shredding saxophones create a frenzied pace as you desperately try to dodge a barrage of attacks. The ragtime and waltz-like pieces in Inkwell Island connect well with the movement and give you a nice change of pace from the intense action.

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Speaking of the intense action, Cuphead tries to crush you with it. The difficulty, in my opinion, is through the roof. I say this having played through all three of the Dark Souls games multiple times. By the way, this game has drawn a lot of comparisons to Dark Souls in terms of difficulty so I won’t hesitate in drawing them myself. As I’ve said, Cuphead is way harder than anything from Dark Souls, and the reason why is because Dark Souls gives the player a lot more control. It is an RPG you have the freedom to move around, explore, run away, gain distance from enemies, and dodge attacks in three dimensions. If you’re having trouble with a boss, you can upgrade your weapons and buy armor and level up stats until you can face the boss on a better playing field. In Cuphead, your movement is usually limited to the area that is on the screen, half of which is usually taken up by bosses. This gives you little room for movement or error, forcing you into corners and platforms and giving you mere inches of space to dodge multiple projectile attacks. There is no leveling up, and you can only choose from six abilities and six weapons. Oh, and by the way, you can only take three hits before you die. Considering that each level features about twenty thousand projectiles flying at you every second, I’d say three hits means little breathing room for the player.

Cuphead
There are several aerial boss fights using a bi-plane.

To beat an especially hard boss, sometimes you just have to be perfect. Your dodging and firing have to be exact and you need to anticipate the attacks before they come and be in a position to exploit them; Only then do you feel like a badass when you beat the bosses. Often times the difficulty is so frustrating you end up following a side-scrolling platforming version of “spraying and praying” which hurts the game just a bit. In Dark Souls, when I beat a really difficult boss I always feel this moment of overwhelming relief and joy. But because sometimes I’m just randomly firing at the bosses and hoping for them to die, I don’t feel as powerful or overjoyed as I was beating bosses in Dark Souls. Instead, I’m more relieved that the Cuphead bosses are done. Some of the difficulty issues stem from the in-game mechanics. The button to shoot on the Xbox One is X, but the button to jump is A, which is right next to X. It’s not a major hindrance, but it does take some getting used to since the buttons are so close together. The right analog stick not being used is another issue of gameplay. In order to aim, you have to hold down the RB button to lock the character in place while you shoot. This could easily be avoided by having the right analog stick to aim and RB or RT to shoot instead of X. Another issue is that sometimes the space is so small that you feel you are getting hitboxes in places where you shouldn’t. The animation, though very fluid especially with the bosses, can sometimes obscure important set pieces needed to defeat the bosses. I find myself getting hit for no reason until I notice small little projectiles almost completely blended into the background. Yet another issue, is that the backgrounds, though visually interesting, can sometimes interfere with the platforming. In at least three different boss fights, the platforms on which I had to stay on where lightly colored and melding into the light background. This would often be a frustration when I would jump to what I thought was a platform but was actually nothing, causing me to take a hit.

 

Cupheadmovement
Aiming requires standing still.

 

Despite the faults with some of the aspects of the gameplay, I still have to chalk up a lot of the difficulty to the fact that I suck at the game. All art is subjective, and when it comes to something that is complicated to figure out, whether it’s an intricate thriller film or a hard video game, peoples’ subjective views on what they see will often be affected by the obstacles that they faced in understanding the experience. I know some people who think Dark Souls is the greatest thing ever (me) and others who think it’s a terribly clunky game series with unnecessary difficulty. The experience of a game will be affected by the player’s ability to play through the game. Dark Souls is not for everyone, and neither is Cuphead. That being said, I still think Cuphead is a fantastic game. Aside from the few frustrating difficulty and gameplay issues, the game is wildly entertaining and a joy to look at. It’s a near flawless product if you consider sound design, graphics, story, pacing, etc. Being a big fan of early swing and jazz music, and early cinema and animation (I love Tom & Jerry), the style and aesthetic of Cuphead clicked with me more than anything else in the game. If you’re a fan of arcade-style games and aren’t afraid to die a few times (or a lot), then I would definitely recommend checking out Cuphead. Especially considering its price of $20, the game is a steal.

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Arpeggios and TV Themes: Repetition in Music

My Post (1)

I could make up a clever anecdote about how something interesting sparked my thought process and motivated me to write about this but that just wouldn’t be the truth. I was walking around my college campus earlier when a random thought just popped up in my head: TV show themes copy each other. The Flash TV show theme sounds a lot like The Walking Dead theme, and also a lot like a track I’ve heard from Game of Thrones, and Stranger Things. As a vocal critic/commentator of derivation in pop culture, I spent the extra time I had today listening to and analyzing the structure of the TV melodies that all sounded eerily similar to each other. I’m sure there are movie soundtracks that follow the same pattern I’m about to show you, but since this is such a recurring thing in TV, I thought it would be more interesting to focus on. To make it easier to analyze, I’m transposing all of the arpeggios into the key of C.

The music I found was from The Flash, The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, Stranger Things, and Westworld. Now, when I say similar, I don’t mean identical (actually two of these are identical). They simply have the same rhythmic and melodic patterns.

To start with, here is The Flash theme:

THE FLASH

The Flash TV theme

Now here is the Walking Dead theme:

THE WALKING DEAD

The Walking Dead TV Theme

Sound pretty similar? If you look at the notation, you can see the similar sixteenth note structure. The Flash plays an arpeggiated version of a C natural minor scale, also known as Aeolian mode. Here it is below:

c-aeolian-mode-on-treble-clef

An Aeolian takes the seven notes of a major scale and flats the 3rd, 6th, and 7th, so it ends up looking like 1, 2, b3, 4, 5, b6, b7.

The Flash theme plays the 1st, 3rd, 5th, and 6th of the scale then back down. So it plays the C, Eb, G, and Ab.

The Walking Dead theme is in a harmonic minor scale, it’s the same thing as a natural minor except it turns the seventh note of the scale back to a natural instead of a flat. So it becomes: 1, 2, b3, 4, 5, b6, 7.

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The Walking Dead theme plays the 1st, 5th, then goes up an octave to play the 2nd and 3rd of the scale. So it plays the C, G, D, Eb, then back down.

Aside from the fact that the rhythm is exactly the same with the three sets of sixteenth notes, both of these themes start and end on the same note and feature a half step movement from 5th to 6th in the flash and from 2nd to b3rd in The Walking Dead.

Next, I want to take a look at “Here Me Roar” from Game of Thrones.

HERE ME ROAR (GAME OF THRONES)

The Flash TV theme

Now for references, here is the sheet music for The Flash theme:

THE FLASH

The Flash TV themeYup, they are exactly the same, note for note, beat for beat. Obviously they vary as each piece plays on but the core idea and the central theme of each piece is identical.

Another TV theme that’s still kind of similar but not as much as the other three above is the Westworld theme. The theme itself is composed by Raman Djawadi, the same composer for Game of Thrones so all of the similarities between the two themes could be a study on its own. Going back to the main ideas though, the Westworld theme also features a few elements that resemble the other TV themes.

WESTWORLD

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It includes nearly the same successive sixteenth note rhythm, however if you notice the lack of a double line on the last note means the arpeggio ends with an eighth note rather than a sixteenth note. Aside from the rhythm, the theme plays an arpeggio of the harmonic minor scale much like The Walking Dead. In the case of Westworld, it plays the 1st, 3rd, 5th, 7th, and 8th of the scale. So, it’s not entirely like the other themes, but it is a lot like the next theme below.

 

The Stranger Things theme is the least similar out of all the themes I’ve mentioned because of one simple fact, it’s in major.

c-major-scale-on-treble-clef

The Stranger Things theme plays the 1st, 3rd, 5th, 7th, and 8th exactly like the Westworld theme only instead of being in harmonic minor it is a C major scale. The flat 3rd is the only note that changes to make the arpeggio major. Just look at the notation and notice the missing b symbol.

STRANGER THINGS

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WESTWORLDScreen Shot 2018-03-13 at 7.46.35 PM

My Post (1)

I guess what I’m trying to say is not that these TV show themes copy each other blatantly, but rather that music in itself is a medium based in repetition. Art is created from inspiration and imitation. Repetition is the key to understanding what makes something truly beautiful. The arpeggios that are used in these themes exemplify the effectiveness of music, and how memorable and powerful pieces can be created by simply rearranging a few notes in a scale. In the rapidly developing medium of television and film, music that matches the intensity of what you see on screen is essential. So, sometimes the music will be similar and have the same notes and chords, but its nothing that hasn’t been happening since the birth of music. The arpeggio motiff in telivision has become a memorable repetition that joins the likes of the minor 2nd and 2-5-1 as elements of music that can be used to bring significance to a piece. These TV themes do sound the same and thats ok, however, I still see it as an interesting thing to point out. It reminds me that music is a complex and ancient art form where patterns of beauty can be found much like a golden ratio or a tesselation.