The Guillermo del Toro film is getting much critical acclaim as award season approaches, and deservedly so.
Minor Spoiler Summary:
Set in the 1960's, a mute custodian, Elisa, works at a government lab, which has recently received an amphibious/human-like creature called 'The Asset,' which was taken from a secret location in the Amazon. The evil Colonel who captured the Asset, tortures it, and attempts to convince a general to have it killed so they can autopsy it for research purposes. Elisa must find a way to sneak the creature out of the facility, and eventually set it free.
It's a beautiful story about a lonely person who finds companionship in the strangest of ways. The characters are well written, and well cast. Del Toro doesn't pull punches in creating a terrifically mean antagonist. And as always, his setting is beautifully crafted.
The Shape of Water works best in small moments, as we see how isolated Elisa is from much of the world, and how much simple interaction with the Asset means to her. It works wonderfully when we see Elisa willing to risk what little she has to save the Asset. And it brings a tear to the eye when she tries to explain to her hard-to-convince friends how important this mission is to her.
There are some areas that trip the film up a minor bit. The free flowing camera movement is far overused. The film runs long, as, like so many recent movies, it tries to cram in two Act 2's &3's into one film. And it does push the boundaries of believability a bit too far at times. I thought the ending was especially problematic.
However, The Shape of Water is clearly one of the best movies of the year, and will go down as a classic love tale. This is the type of film that could only come from the mind of Guillermo del Toro. It will make you laugh, cry, and cheer, in truly creative ways. It's especially impressive given its modest $20M budget.
Del Toro is one of the best creative minds of our day. Don't miss out on his latest work. Catch The Shape of Water in the theatre, if you can.
Typically, I rave when storytellers try something different. When they stick to the basic three-act paradigm, with flawed characters growing through an arc while fighting through their obstacles, it all tends to be stale, unless it's somehow taken from a fresh angle.
Three Billboards smashes the basic rules. Often it's done in satisfying ways. However, as a whole, it's a hot mess, where the sum is not greater than the value of the often creative pieces.
The story is of a divorcee, whose daughter was raped and murdered. She decides to rent three billboards outside of her rural house to put controversial messages, bashing the local Sheriff for not solving the murder. That's the setup. After that, it's complete chaos for two hours.
Three Billboards excels in moments. The characters are well developed. But not a one of them is likable, except in short moments. In fact, much of the time, you'll dislike every character on the screen. They're just not slightly flawed, they're assault-people-who-disagree-with-them flawed. And they don't evolve much past that ugliness.
Yet, seeing them act like savages does have its moments. In fact, it's charming at times. Though by the end, you'd wish that there would have been more complete arcs. For me, you can create wonderfully flawed characters that you can easily fall for, but if they don't arc, it's just a trip that doesn't seem to go anywhere satisfying. That is the ultimate flaw in Three Billboards. (Along with an absurd coincidence in a key moment that is just horribly lazy writing).
That being said, if you're looking for unique moments, and like watching heavily flawed characters, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, MO is for you. You have to look past the typical Hollywood stereotyping of flyover land as a place where everyone is a racist, bumbling idiot. You have to not expect satisfying character arcs. You must not be in need of a typical three-act structure. But, if you're into moments that disturb, often very interesting ways, give the movie a shot. You just might like (parts of) it.
2017 was a mixed bag. I did get a decent amount of writing done, but as always, not enough. I played a bunch of chess, and studied a lot of chess in the first half of the year, but should have studied more. I found out I'll be losing my day job in early 2018, so that was a bummer.
Videogame-wise, 2017 was a clunker. Just think back to the best games of the year in previous years: 2013 Bioshock Infinite, 2014 Titanfall, 2015 The Witcher 3, 2016 Titanfall 2. There wasn't a game released in 2017 that came close to any of these classics. But we do get to look forward to Red Dead 2, maybe in early 2018, so I guess that makes up for it.
My favorite movie of 2017 was Blade Runner 2049. I was so glad that they nailed that sequel. Easily, the best sci-fi movie in many years.
Favorite TV show? Well that's easy. Game of Thrones Season 7 is just about as good as TV gets.
Goals for 2018?
Well, I gotta find a decent day job. That'll be of primary importance. I'm hoping to pivot out of what I've been doing for such a long time, and get into something a little new and a little more exciting.
I've got a couple of writing projects I'm working on that I want to make significant progress on. I'd like to get a little better at chess. Get in a little better shape. That sort of stuff.
It seems like every year looks like it's going to be a year of transition, but never lives up to that expectation. For good or bad, 2018 will be that transition year for me. I'm excited to see where it leads.
I finished watching Season 2 a few weeks ago, so I've had a good time to process it. Like most people who have seen it, I really liked it, but have the same complaint as a lot of others do.
Stranger Things seemed to come out of nowhere back in 2016, and was one of Netflix's many mega-hits. It resonated with people due to its wonderful nostalgia factor, but also because it was a solid mystery, with some pretty great characters.
Season 2 adds a handful of new characters, and like the original players, they're very well cast. The show does a fantastic job of juggling so many characters all within the relatively tight confine of a smaller town. Almost instantly, the audience is sucked back into that wonderful creepy vibe that Stranger Things does so well. And I think this season does an even better job at digging into who these people are that are dealing with this horrible supernatural problem.
Though the show is well acted throughout, there is a standout. Millie Bobbi Brown, who is a such a terrific young talent, is given the most to work with, as her character, 11, has to deal with the outside world that she is unaccustomed to. However, this is the one part where the Duffer Brothers push it too far. They take 11 out of town in episode 7, and it doesn't work at all.
However, that's a small price to pay, for most of it works quite well. Yes, the CG effects still look a little underwhelming, and in key moments it does harm the believability. But through most of it, the terrific writing, acting, and cinematography make Season 2 a very fun and creepy ride. And the last major scene of the season is probably the best Stranger Things scene yet.
Stranger Things continues to deserve its massive critical acclaim. These kid actors rock. They are incredible. And never has a TV show so effectively brought back someone of my age to their youth.
If you haven't watched Stranger Things yet, do so now. It's one of Netflix's best shows. And that's saying something.
I'll mark the point where I start adding spoilers further on, below the safe stuff.
I saw the film at a midnight showing last night. Even though the reviews were very positive, I had low expectations, given my dislike of Episode VII: The Force Awakens. Fortunately, it turns out at that The Last Jedi is much better written and directed than Episode VII.
The Last Jedi actually does what The Force Awakens failed to do: it decently develops these new characters which felt so flat in Episode VII. I had thought there was miscasting done in The Force Awakens, but I now realize I was wrong: these new actors just didn't have enough material to showcase their skills. I now dig Rey, Finn, Poe, and Kylo Ren, whereas before I felt ambivalent about them all. And our new antagonist, Snoke—well he steals the show.
The Last Jedi is long, to the point of being a bit bloated. But most of the journeys are a lot of fun. There is humor mixed throughout, and most of it works. Where it doesn't, it's awful, because they stick it in some of the most serious points of the story. In that respect, I wish they would have learned from Rogue One, which benefited from keeping it serious.
One of the most awful parts of The Force Awakens was all the recycling of A New Hope that was done. There is some of that in The Last Jedi, but not enough to ruin the movie. And unlike The Force Awakens, the CG all looks good.
What The Last Jedi does best, is it effectively pushes characters into the struggle between the light and the dark side of the Force. Witnessing their internal battles with their identities in the mix of epic external battles is Star Wars done right.
And it needs to be mentioned: Mark Hamill's acting is superb.
I'd put The Last Jedi in the same territory as Rogue One, not as good as New Hope, or The Empire Strikes Back, but about as good as Return of the Jedi, and definitely better than the Clone Wars garbage trilogy.
Catch it in the theatre while you can.
Some things are just so dumb, they're hard to buy:
1. Why do bombers move so slow in space?
2. Why do bombs drop below the bombers in space?
3. Why are Rebel ships out of range of lasers from the Destroyers when they're still in visible range? What's exactly degrading these streams of photons in a vacuum? You can fire a laser and destroy a whole planet from space, but can't shoot a few ships that are a little ways out there?
4. What exactly was this BS that Rose and Finn figured out about the tracking?
5. If the Rebels were so close to an impenetrable base, why didn't they just go there in the first place?
6. How can there possibly be a wall considered impenetrable?
7. Why would Snoke allow himself to be killed so easily?
8. Why is Rey this incredibly powerful Jedi all of a sudden, and how did Rose become a first-class fighter pilot?
I can't believe they killed off Snoke. He was the best new character in ages, and they off him so easily like that? Off the flat characters and keep the good ones.
The entire side-trip to Vegas didn't fit the tone of the film at all. I would have rewritten and reshot that part with an entirely new concept. Benicio Del Toro's character was little more than a cheap stereotype.
I wouldn't have killed off Luke. Killing off a main character every episode in the trilogy is going to get very old.
Why is BB-8 still grossly underdeveloped after 2 films? We know who R2D2 and C3P0 are. BB-8 is pretty damn flat for being so round.
Even with all my complaints, I still loved the film. Rian Johnson did a stellar job with the writing and directing.
I'm actually looking forward to the third installation, and that's saying a lot, because after the first, I thought I'd never see another Star Wars film ever again.
I finally got around to watching the 2014 WW2 tank movie, starring Brad Pitt. I remember wanting to see the film at a theatre, but not getting around to it. Thinking it to be more grand of a film than it is, I'm not crushed that I saw it on Blu-ray.
I dig the concept: a medium-sized film about a new recruit joining a veteran tank crew, to face some of the fiercest action near the end of the war. Pitt plays the hardened veteran who started killing Nazis in Africa, and now must finish the job in Germany. His crew is tough but beat up, and has obviously aged decades in the few years they've fought. And now, in the last leg, they're forced to train a new guy.
The movie is contained, but in a decent way. Instead of massive battles, it's a handful of tanks against a couple other tanks, or a few hundred troops taking a town instead of thousands. Though it would have been nice to see the contrast between massive cinematic war scenes and those of a tight space within a tank, the film works fine in its non-huge scope, especially in an extended scene within an apartment in the ruins of a German town where the tank crew meet a couple of German ladies—a scene that is paced very well, and is written and acted in such a satisfactory way. It's in some of the slower moments that the film works best.
The different members of the crew are interesting, moderately well-developed characters, and you start feeling for them as they push through their horrific journey. I was hooked, waiting for the inevitable monster of a third act that would complete the film. But unfortunately, what played out in the last 30 minutes or so, was just far too unbelievable for me.
I still recommend the film. I think it's good. Brad Pitt, as usual, is great. But, it would have been much more satisfying for me had the third act been far more believable. I invested 100 minutes into the story, was hooked, and then the final thirty minutes played out, and I was left shaking my head.
I'm sure I'm a tougher critic on this sort of stuff than most. And budget may have had something to do with it. But, had the third act been a gem, this film would have gone down as classic. It just came up 30 minutes short.
I wish I would have had the time to see the Jordan Peele horror film in the theatre, but I just didn't. I'm a big fan of good horror in the sub $10M range, and Get Out certainly fits that bill. It was shot for only $4.5M, and grossed $254M worldwide. We've seen a few of these super-successful lower-budget horror films as of late, and I say keep them coming.
There are many things I love about this film, and one pretty major thing I didn't like at all. The script is terrific. It's creepy throughout. It's well written to be done on a very modest budget, with limited locations and characters. It gives the actors moments to shine. And they do, as the film is well cast. Like any great horror film, it starts slow and innocent, and ends up in a satisfying blood bath. Jordan Peele wrote a fantastic story with engaging characters.
But, the direction is pretty mediocre. Peele does what I absolutely abhor: he shoots everything too close. This makes the film look and feel cheap, when it need not be. The actors rarely have enough room to take full advantage of setting as the camera is stuck on MCU's and CU's far too often. Some of blocking and editing is clunky, especially in key moments in the third act. For a script that wasn't this good, I wouldn't have minded it so much. But this script deserved better.
I still rate this film highly, and strongly recommend it. It's a very good horror film. But it would have worked stronger had it been crafted better. This film screams 'first-time director.' And there's the rub: you have to learn by doing, and I'm sure that Jordan Peele will get much better at directing in time.
I hope the hell that he continues to do horror. Peele will probably move on to bigger budget dramatic stuff, which is fine, but it sure would be nice if he kept the horror films coming as well. I want to see where he can go from here.
If you haven't seen it yet, watch Get Out, but taper your expectations. The 99% RT score is a bit too high. That being said, it's well worth a watch, because it does have a frightening vibe throughout, and in the horror genre, that's what counts.
It's been thirty years since I read the Agatha Christie classic. I was not a big fan of the 1974 film, but I sure did get excited when I heard that Kenneth Branagh was taking a shot at a remake, using 65mm cameras, no less.
The reviews were very mixed, so I went in with tempered expectations. Having loved the novel, and still remembering who committed the murder, clear as day, I was anxious to see this film, and to see not only how Branagh tackled the story as a director, but to see him as Hercule Poirot, one of the most loved protagonists in all of literature.
The film is much better than the reviews. The cast is stellar, although I do agree with some critics that the players don't seem to have the number of shining moments that they could have had. The pacing is actually terrific, with ample time given to the setup, and a pretty tight amount given to the mystery. The conclusion is handled well, with a wonderful teaser snuck in at the end. The film doesn't drag.
Branagh does a commendable job as Hercule Poroit, the perfection-driven detective that is pained by his own rigid personality which allows him to be such a world-class investigator.
There were some issues I had with direction, however. Since the bulk of the story happens within the tight confines of a train car, Branagh overcompensates with the exterior shots, which are far too grand, usually with video-game-like crane camera movements, and with far too much CG. Mixed in with an awfully bland color grading, the film doesn't feel as serious as it should.
Yet, I really enjoyed it. I don't know at what point in the story I would have figured it out. Maybe not until the final reveal. Though like any Agatha Christie mystery, the clues are numerous, and after the end, you certainly feel like a dummy if you didn't figure it out. The mystery unfolds in such a satisfying fashion.
I recommend seeing Murder On The Orient Express. It's solid. I don't think hardcore Agatha Christie fans will ever be fully satisfied with any film adaptation, but this one is definitely worth the watch. With a modest $55M budget and a solid opening weekend, hopefully, we haven't seen the end of Branagh as the amazing Hercule Poirot.
American Vandal is yet another piece of quality original programming on Netflix. It spoofs such real-crime docs such as Serial, Making of a Murderer, & The Keepers. After watching the trailer, the immediate thought was, how can this concept hold up over an 8-episode season? Well, fortunately, it does, and in a pretty creative way.
The story opens up with Senior misfit Jimmy Tatro being accused of vandalizing several cars in the faculty parking lot by spray painting dicks on them. A couple of student documentarians, thinking Tatro to be innocent, decide to research the crime, and hence the hashtag: #whodrewthedicks?
This is not a one-joke story. What unfolds is a fascinating mystery (you really start trying to put the pieces together), which is filled with humor, not much of it laugh-out-loud, but certainly in moments. Weaved into that mystery, however, is the true genius: American Vandal isn't primarily about spoofing crime docs. It's true purpose, which it does brilliantly, is to show us what modern social-media-driven high school life is all about. It's fascinating.
This is a show about modern high school culture. You get to see how students of today have to function, and it's absolutely intriguing. Putting together clues is putting together people's Instagram posts in a timeline, or seeing what they posted on Youtube or Facebook at a particular moment. You see how social media drives almost every aspect of their life. But you relate to your own high school experience, but wonder what it would be like if it happened today.
I recommend American Vandal, not only for its humor, of which there is plenty, but even more-so for it's peek into what students have to go through today. Along the way, you'll be trying to figure out the crime, and if you're observant, and pick up on all the clues, you'll have a great idea of who did it, relatively early on. I did not.
I hope there's a Season 2 of American Vandal. It's yet another binge-worthy Netflix show.
I had such low expectations for this film given the modern state of the movie industry. However, when the initial reviews came out stating that this was a worthy successor and an instant sci-fi classic, my expectations started to rise, but I pushed them back down, knowing all too well I was bound to be disappointed.
I then watched the film and realized it's one of the best movies in years and is easily one of the best sci-fi movies of all time. Denis Villeneuve and company knocked it straight out of the park.
A superbly cast Ryan Gosling plays a replicant LAPD blade runner. This newer model of replicant is designed to fully obey, and to track down older replicants who could pose danger to humans. He uncovers a mystery–one that could lead to significant consequences to the world, and must solve it by finding the old blade runner, Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford). The answers found to the mystery are wonderful. The whole concept is clever. It's storytelling done right.
The casting of this film is exceptional from top to bottom. From Robin Wright who plays Ryan Gosling's boss, to Ana de Armas who plays his simulated girlfriend, to Jared Leto who plays the very evil founder of the Wallace Corporation, one part after another is acted in ways that continually impress. There is no weak link.
But the real icing on top of the cake is the film's epic look and sound. Roger Deakins, one the most acclaimed cinematographers of all time (Shawshank, Fargo, No Country for Old Men, Skyfall), absolutely stuns you with one amazing visual after another. And the great Hans Zimmer, along with a very talented sound effects and design team, finely craft the future world with amazing sounds that go straight to your core and keep you on continual edge.
Now, as a point of warning: this is not a film for the Instagram generation. It's slow, long, intelligent, and relentlessly punishing. If you favor sugar candy over a fine filet mignon, this film will not work for you. It can probably only be appreciated by moviegoers who prefer substance and depth over sparkle.
That being said, if you are a grownup who appreciates deep stories and characters, and appreciate amazing visuals and sound, Blade Runner 2049 is an absolute must-see. It's beautiful and brutal enough to make you cry. It will make you think long after you leave the theatre. It is, finally, a deserving sequel to a classic that we all loved—which in Hollywood history, is but the rarest of gems. Catch it on the big screen while you can.
At some point, an item is priced so low, it's too good to pass up. That's what's happened recently with MoviePass.
I've always loved going to the movies. It used be much more affordable to me, especially the first showings of the day. At some point, even the matinees got to a price point where I'd feel guilty going that often. Fifteen years ago, I probably saw 35 films a year at the theatre. Last year, maybe it was ten. And I live right across the street from a large AMC.
So when MoviePass announced a few weeks back that they were lowering their price to $10/month, I knew it was too good of a deal to pass up. I waited awhile, since I knew demand was heavy, and then a week ago, I ordered my card, and I tried it out today for the first time.
It's awesome. Once your card arrives, you download the app, then select the theatre you're going to (the nearest ones will be on top of the list). And as long as you're within 100 yards of the theatre, you select the movie you want to see (and the time). That activates your card to work for that particular purchase. You can then use the kiosk, or stand in line at the window. It's easy. See as many movies as you want, as long as they're not IMAX or 3D. All for only $10/month.
Now, my small drink still cost $6.10. So, hopefully they come up with a monthly service to pay for that too. But without having to pay the $10.50 for the matinee ticket, I didn't feel too guilty about buying an overpriced cup of syrup water.
If you love going to the movies, MoviePass is too good of a deal not to get. I believe it works at any theatre that accepts MasterCard. If I didn't have a full day of stuff to do tomorrow, I'd go right back to the theatre. I anticipate my films/year will head right back up to 35 or more.
It's a killer deal. I'd highly recommend it. Go see more films.
I recently watched the four-part HBO series The Defiant Ones, the doc that tracks the careers of Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine. It's pretty darn fascinating.
Director Allen Hughes does a commendable job at structuring the tale which covers Dre's and Jimmy's careers from the beginning, to their intersection, and beyond. Told via interviews of a lot of very famous people who witnessed the duo's rise (Springsteen, Cube, Snoop Dog, Tom Petty, Stevie Nicks, David Geffen, Bono, to name just a few), mixed with fascinating archival footage (Dre spinning records in his youth, Jimmy working on his first big gig with Bruce, etc.), the tale that is told is pretty epic.
We find out that these men went through a lot of pain, a lot of growth, and had to reinvent themselves at several points in their career to stay relevant. Their common denominator: a relentless drive to succeed.
Great fiction usually involves intriguing characters defeating obstacles in order to achieve a goal. The Defiant Ones does exactly that; only it's a tale that really happened. It's a fascinating part of history that can't help but be inspiring.
If you have HBO, check it out.
I skipped Alien: Covenant at the theatres because of the mediocre reviews. I finally caught it last week while on a plane ride from MI to CA. I'm glad I watched it for free on a very small screen because I would not have been happy if I had sacrificed time and money to see it on a big screen.
The film has a very promising premise which I won't give away. But almost every scene felt like it needed further work. I'm guessing it was grossly under-written, and at $97M, under-budgeted. They should have added another couple million for rewrites alone.
One of the biggest problems with the film is that it was hard to care about any of the characters because they were so one-dimensional and underdeveloped. A lot of the writing seemed downright sloppy. For instance, Danny McBride plays a guy named Tennessee. What an annoying, cliched name. There's one scene where the other character calls him by his name about a dozen times. The cliche was hard to handle the first one or two times. By the end of the scene, it was so annoying, I almost stopped watching.
Another big issue was that there wasn't an A-list star to carry the film. Michael Fassbender is a terrific actor. He lacks A-list shine, however. And there was nobody even close to a Sigourney Weaver. In fact, after watching Covenant, you realize how much she carried the first three films.
I'm even going to complain about the effects. At times the Aliens looked awful. Other times they looked alright. Maybe another few million would have fixed that issue as well.
The premise was clever, however. I can see why the pitch was bought. But, this is yet another classic case where the film went into production long before the script was ready. My guess is that if Fox had ponied up another $50M for bigger stars, better effects, and most of all, better writing, Ridley Scott would have had a lot more to work with.
I've been a big fan of the Daniel Craig Bond movies, especially of Skyfall, which I thought to be the best film in the entire series. When Spectre came out, I passed on seeing it in the theatre, primarily because of the mediocre reviews and word-of-mouth. I finally watched the 24th installment in the series, on my tablet, while on vacation, and I now regret not seeing it on the big screen.
The opening scene takes place during the Day of the Dead in Mexico, and it's an extraordinary series of long, epic, tracking shots that effectively pull the viewer back into the Bond universe. The main aspect of the plot is set up rather quickly, as is the ovearching mystery. Another tremendous, tense, action scene unfolds in Italy, complete with the requisite eye-popping car chase.
Sam Mendes excels at making these huge, action films. The cinematography is top notch, with one stunning composition after another. Though most of the complex action sequences are cut well, there are issues, which get to the core of the film's main problem.
Spectre has all the elements of a grade-A Bond film: intriguing plot, terrifying antagonist, excellent acting, grand action-filled scenes, a beautiful femme fatale. But the second half of the film has something that is the Achilles' heel of these type of movies: believability issues.
There are a handful, maybe more, of instances that are ridiculously unbelievable. These almost all happen in the second half of the film, and the closer you get to the end, the more frequent they are. And it's a shame. You spend millions of dollars setting up an elaborate action sequence, but blow it on the writing, because the escape is far beyond the scope of believability. It's a few instances of lousy writing that end up preventing Spectre from being a fantastic chapter in the Bond series.
That being said, I enjoyed it much more than I had anticipated. It's better than the critics gave it credit for. And I still have enormous hope for the next installment now that Daniel Craig has finally signed on. And I do wish I had seen those action sequences on the big screen, even with the let-downs.
Spectre is one of those rare cases where a movie costs $250M, and you look at it and say, I can see where all that money went. Perhaps another $500k on another draft would have been money well spent, however.
Benioff & Weiss went off on their own plot path for Season 7, and decided to cut it down to just 7 episodes. That had me fearful. So much could go wrong, at such an important time in the overall arc. We've waited years for Daenerys to arrive on Westeros to lay to battle on the continent. How would such an important event, especially the long-waited meeting of the Mother of Dragons and Jon Snow, unfold?
After episode 1, Dragonstone, I knew we were in good hands. Benioff & Weiss took the characters, crafted so well by George R.R. Martin, and did what was necessary: further develop the story at a satisfying pace (with one big exception). There was not one weak episode in all of Season 7, and it could be argued that episode 4 (Spoils of War) was one the best episodes, not only in the series history, but of any series.
What Season 7 did exceptionally well was grand scale epic combat, whether is was battles in the south of Westeros or north of the Wall—the scale was truly awesome. It was some of the best combat we've seen in the entire history of television.
The long awaited character interactions were handled well too. I didn't feel let down by any of it. The tension was further built through tremendous writing and acting. We finally truly fear the Night King.
Yes, there was one huge problem: the writers took exceptional liberty with keeping travel times believable. Apparently, the only two things that can travel faster than the speed of light are ravens and dragons. It was truly an awful mechanical cheat used far too often, but it didn't ruin anything for me.
Season 7, for its spectacle alone, was the best season yet of Game of Thrones, and that's saying a lot. Now they just have one more season to go, and I have no idea how Benioff and Weiss are going to top what they did this season.
About a year ago, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis hit the scene and quickly became one of the most popular books of the last year. Written by J.D. Vance, a 33 year old former Hillbilly who grew up in a very broken family in Kentucky and Ohio, and who overcame immense family dysfunction and poverty to eventually join the Marine Corps, get a B.S. from Ohio State, and then eventually a law degree from Yale, the story is heartbreaking, hopeful, and above all, intriguing.
Part of the reason why this book is resonating so strongly with people on both ends of the political aisle is because Vance attempts to explain why his culture, the one that extends from Louisiana, up through the hills to upstate New York, has had such a hard time financially. It's a mix of broken families, culture-inherent conflict, mixed in an environment where the manufacturing factories & coal plants shut down during a major opioid crisis. This creates a scenerio where people feel there's no chance of getting ahead, and therefore many just give up.
The story is full of conflict. J.D.'s mother is in and out of his life, and many men are in and out of her life. His beloved and tough Grandma is the only solid parental figure that stays with him. Being so separated from the white-collar class, J.D. didn't even realize that one was to wear a suit to a job interview. He goes in-depth as to the many ways in which the Hillbilly culture is so separated from the rest of society, that it's hard for many of them to function well with diverse and more upscale cultures when they leave the hills.
If you want to read an interesting story about a fascinating American culture in crisis, I'd recommend Hillbilly Elegy. It reads like a good fiction tale, but one that turns out to be true, and gives you a deeper understanding of our nation.
The critics were pretty brutal towards the second season of Netflix's Wet Hot American Summer, a series based off a ridiculously funny 2001 indie film. Though those same critics loved the first season (which I did too), for some reason the whole concept seems to be wearing thin with many of them.
I can see why people who are high-brow film lovers don't dig this kind of stuff. The plot meanders. The characters are over-the-top. It often feels like a first or second draft of a cheap comedy. It's absolute ridiculousness. But this is what Wet Hot is all about. It's different, it's goofy, it's only about the moment, and when the jokes land, it's some of the funniest stuff you've ever seen.
Yes, Season 2 isn't as funny as Season 1, which wasn't as funny as the movie. That being said, it's eight half-hour episodes that fly by, and you get more than enough laughs to make it worth your while. Season 2 actually has more heart than the first, Through the goofy plot of Ronald Reagan and George Bush trying to blow up Camp Firewood with a nuke, and our returning campers trying to save the day during their reunion, we actually get to see them grow through the absurdity of it all, and laugh all the way.
I hope to hell there's a Season 3. The problem with having a TV series based off an indie film from so long ago, is many of the actors are now huge stars, and even when they want to do the series, it's a scheduling nightmare. Fortunately Wet Hot has such a strong following that it's able to attract other stars as well.
I recommend all of Wet Hot American Summer. It's one of my favorite comedy films/TV series. And though the ending of Season 2 was something to behold, I sure do hope we haven't seen the end of Camp Firewood.
Respawn CEO Vince Zampella recently gave an interview with Gamespot in which he admits that Titanfall 2 sold well, but not as well as it should have, and that Respawn is moving on to work on other stuff. So we're looking at a (at least near) finished product. He are my final thoughts on the game:
As you can see, I've played the game for about 187 hours (which is pretty good since it's been out for about 10 months):
Even after all that time, I'm enjoying the game more than ever. It never fails to be fun.
The updates have been frequent. The new maps have mostly been old Titanfall 1 maps, but they're all well designed. The first big new game mode, Live-Fire, was released in February. It's pilot vs. pilot on small maps with no respawns. I never really got into that mode at all. But the second major added game mode, Frontier Defense, released in July, is a co-op, wave-based, horde mode that is utterly fantastic. There's a new Titan ranking system called 'Aegis Ranks' that allow your Titans to get more powerful so you can play tougher hordes. It's an incredibly fun mode that forces you to work together to defeat the five waves of increasingly difficult NPC's. It's exactly what the game needed.
And playing Attrition is still a load of fun. Yes, I wish there were more maps. Obviously, since it didn't sell a ton, it was cheaper to recycle Titanfall 1 maps. But that's better than nothing. I still play at least a round almost every day, and never get bored of it.
Will there be more Titanfall? Zempalla hints at it, but doesn't seem to commit to it. It's clearly the best first-person-shooter on the market. They botched the release horribly, both with the awful pre-Alpha tech test, and with the launch date sandwiched in between Battlefield 1 and the new COD. That being said, the user-base hasn't diminished, and if another chapter is written in the Titanfall saga, there will definitely be a hardcore group of old-time players that will jump on the game, and if marketed right, it could be a huge hit.
Come November, I'm sure a big chunk of my FPSer time will switch over to Star Wars: Battlefront 2. But I don't see myself giving up Titanfall 2 anytime soon. It's just too great of a game. It has legs. And it's so cheap now that anyone who hasn't tried it yet, should pick up. This is a rare game that's worth much more than the original price. It's a game that you can easily sink several hundred hours into, and still love the game.
Incredible reviews aside, the reality is that Dunkirk is an excellent film, but not an excellent film compared to other Christopher Nolan films.
Nolan made an interesting choice in approaching this story. He took the enormous historical event of the Battle of Dunkirk, and decided to tell it via three relatively small plot lines. Each is well crafted, and the glue that holds the harrowing scenes together is Hans Zimmer's wonderfully chilling score. The acting is solid. There are great moments of visceral impact. At times the cinematography is excellent. At times it's a little blasé. Though at its best, as in scenes of ships sinking, and soldiers fighting for their lives via canted angles, the film delivers brilliance.
Dunkirk is a showcase of a monstrous event. There are few character arcs, few deep relational interactions, few moments when a character's growth wows us. Instead, the wow factor is in the showcase. Therein lies the problem. Dunkirk is a $100M film. It plays much smaller than a recent $40M war film, Hacksaw Ridge, which had the deep emotional arcs satisfyingly imbedded into it, along with wow moments far more impactful than those found in Dunkirk.
I recommend seeing Dunkirk. It's much better than the vast majority of war movies out there. Yet, coming from whom many consider to be the best director of our day, Mr. Nolan was outdone by Mr. Gibson, and not by a narrow margin.
Awhile ago I read the Frank Brady biography of America's chess champion. It was an intriguing read, to say the least.
Fischer grew up in a fatherless home; his mother was far too busy to spend much time with him, so he found love in the Brooklyn & Manhattan chess clubs, on the board. His home life gave him little chance of becoming a well-rounded human being, and the pain from his broken household negatively influenced the rest of his life, as he quickly became the best chess player in the U.S., and one of the best in the entire world.
Fischer was a huge component of America's Cold War battle against the Soviet Union. His 1972 World Championship match against Boris Spassky was much more than a battle of wooden pieces—its was a battle to see what side had an intellectual advantage. It took the news headlines away from the Vietnam War and the nuclear arms race. It was that huge.
Fischer won the title, and then turned down over $15 million in offers to live in utter poverty in the Los Angeles area, dropping completely out of the chess world. Brady does a good job of following Fischer's life through the madness, giving us what answers he can. Yet, at the end, we're as frustrated as the rest of the world was, because we'll never know how great Fischer could truly have been. And above all, we wish a better human being would have represented the United States in that epic battle of the minds.
It's a fascinating journey of human exploration for chess fans, and non-chess fans alike. I highly recommend it.
Unfortunately, after a short three years, Netflix's Bloodline has come to an end, a victim of the termination of Florida's film incentives program. Obviously, shooting in the Florida Keys isn't a cheap proposition, and given the nature of the show, there was no way to shoot it elsewhere.
The first season of Bloodline got widespread critical praise. The next two seasons were much more mixed. Netflix doesn't release ratings, but the rumors are that the show was not widely watched.
This kills me. I loved all three seasons. Bloodline is simply one the best-acted shows I've ever seen. I cannot praise it enough.
'We're not bad people, but we did a bad thing' is the show's tagline. The details of what that bad thing is, goes to the heart of the entire arc of the show. The revelations that are squeezed out over the show's entire run floored me, right up to the very end. (The last two episodes are rated very low on IMDB, yet they were an incredible finish to me).
Kyle Chandler and Ben Mendelsohn have gotten much deserved praise for their acting in the series. However, all the leads, including Linda Cardellini, Norbert Leo Butz, & Sissy Spacek excelled throughout the show.
Bloodline was too slow for many. It didn't have the big action sequences or special effects of some of the more popular shows of our time. But for a pure adult drama, Bloodline is about as good as it gets. It clearly deserves to be in the same elite category as GOT, Breaking Bad, & The Wire.
If you have the patience to watch a slower-placed show, I highly recommend giving Bloodline a chance. It's terrifically crafted, from beginning to end. This disturbing look into the dark underside of the Rayburn family is as powerful as it is haunting. The show will stay with you long after you finish watching it.
And on a last note, Kyle Chandler is one hell of an actor. He's clearly on of the best in the entire game.
My final rating: 9.8/10.
The Microsoft presentation was impressive. Looks like after some stumbles with the current-gen, they're doing the next-gen right.
The key to the Project Scorpio debut was that its graphics looked like real next-gen, and boy did they ever. From the Forza 7 footage, to the new Assassin's Creed, to a new BioWare game called Anthem, the 4k footage wowed, in every sense of the world. The eye-popping specs of the new Xbox One X do show up on the screen, and that's what will ultimately drive sales.
Microsoft's decision to have full backward compatibility, including accessories, is going to help soften the $500 price of the new box. When Scorpio was first whispered about, people threw around much higher prices, given the specs, so though it won't be cheap, it'll be a significant bang for the buck.
Of course, for people like me, purchasing a 4k TV will be a must. That's going to be an additional $800-$1,500, though I'm sure they'll have package deals at the end of the year.
What really impressed me though is that Scorpio is designed to make current games looks better. And on top of that, MS announced that several developers are going update current titles to 4k just for the new box. I think this will be huge, especially if the biggest games of the day are updated (Titanfall 2 & Witcher 3, please).
Microsoft had a lot on the line. Because they focused on the Kinect with the Xbox One instead of raw power, their sales significantly lagged behind Sony's. I think that's going to change since the Xbox One X will be far more powerful than any other console.
So I'm saving up. I don't know if I'll buy one right away since Red Dead 2 has been delayed until Spring. But it sure would be fun playing Star Wars: Battlefront 2 on a 4k TV come Christmas.
Microsoft, you've done good.
The Hollywood Reporter states: 'The Keepers is fascinating and often gripping because it makes the argument that shining a light on enshrouded horrors takes many forms and doesn't have a statute of limitations, even if the law does.'
Variety calls it 'The best true-crime docuseries yet.'
Time accurately state why The Keepers is superior to another popular Netflix crime docuseries: '...that's the crucial difference between this show and, say, the 2015 Netflix sensation Making a Murderer, whose directors clomped heavily over a complicated story. Their aggressive point of view goaded viewers toward certitude. White, by contrast, isn't asking us to be the sleuths. He's depicting the process of discovery among mourners. The "detectives" we follow are Cesnik's former students who set out to solve the case. This isn't just more respectful to the victim than other true-crime stories, with their breathless delight at new clues. It's also more effective.'
The Keepers is a 7-episode Netflix documentary that explores the unsolved 1969 murder of Sister Cathy Cesnik, who was a teacher at the all-girls Archbishop Keough High School in Baltimore. I won't go into the story, other than it involves unbelievably heinous abuse and cover-up by the Catholic Church, Baltimore Police Department, & the city and state governments. What I will say is that this documentary is leagues above some of the prior crime docuseries that have been so popular of late.
What this documentary does well is it tells the story through recollections of the players involved. It doesn't purposely leave out evidence like Making of a Murderer did. It doesn't force a view down someone's throat. It just lets the story reveal itself, point by point, through people's spoken word. Because the story is so shocking, so horrific, and so engaging, this style works wonderfully.
This isn't a story for the faint of heart. It goes deeply into how purely evil human beings may be. But it's a well-crafted trip, and therefore I highly recommend it. Perhaps a few episodes drag at points, but within moments, they get right back on track.
This isn't a documentary that's going to make you feel good. Nonetheless, it's something I feel should be watched. Yes, you will cringe. But at the end of it, you'll understand a little more about what human beings are capable of doing than you knew before the ride. If you think you can handle it, please give The Keepers a try.
My rating: 9.3/10.
Last week it was announced that a new series is coming to Netflix; one based off of The Witcher novels—a fantasy series written by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski. The books are widely popular, having been translated into 19 languages. Perhaps most people are familiar with The Witcher, however, because of the video game series. The Witcher 3, which was released a little over two years ago, won many Game-of-the-Year awards. I recently finished the main quest (and have started the first expansion pack), and it's easily one of my favorite games of all time.
Everyone needs to become super excited about this Netflix series. I'm sure they're going to throw a ton of money at it. But right now, millions of people have to be anxious as hell over the casting.
What makes The Witcher special is the wonderfully crafted characters. The story is that of the no-nonsense Geralt of Rivia, the White Wolf, who is a Witcher. Witchers have special abilities they use as hired monster hunters. Though the monsters are varied, the real color comes from the humans. Yennefer, the strong-willed sorceress and sometime love of Geralt's. Ciri, the feisty and rebellious princess, who Geralt thinks of as a daughter. Triss, also a sorceress, who is madly in love with Geralt. Dandelion, the often clueless and coin-stricken bard. Zoltan, the much-too confident dwarf. It's an ultra wide-varied cast of characters that rarely fails to intrigue.
If done well, this could be Netflix's Game of Thrones. The characters are that good.
So get excited. The Witcher will relieve some of the pain of Bloodline ending too soon. It could become Netflix's signature show.
I am truly horrible at blitz chess. I will blunder, it's just a matter of when. But I'm working on it. I like studying a bit of chess on most days. I'm trying to train my mind into reading positions more quickly. It's just that I'm not consistent under tight time constraints, so I'm always rated several hundred points lower in blitz & bullet than I am at slower times.
This game, though, might be one of my quickest wins ever. It's a great example of the dangers of not grabbing control of the middle when you can, and of how quickly, especially under blitz conditions, one blunder can lead to disaster.
Gbell619's resignation came after move 8:
Jon David Rosten, author of
Order "The Wicked Trees" off of Amazon, today!