The Punisher Season 2 Review

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

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Jon Bernthal as Frank Castle/The Punisher

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

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

 

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Ben Barnes as Billy Russo/Jigsaw

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

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

 

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel Season 2 Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Bohemian Rhapsody: My Favorite Movie of 2018

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts on the Oscars’ “Popular Film” Category

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Classic Film Review: Jaws (1975)

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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.

Avengers: Infinity War Spoiler Discussion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Avengers: Infinity War Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4/5 Stars

Westworld Season 1 Review

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

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

 

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The show is based on a 1973 film by Michael Chrichton

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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Evan Rachel Wood as the host Dolores

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

 

 

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.

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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.

 

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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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