One of the moves I made in 2015 was to finally dump Charter cable. I paid their ridiculous rates for a few years and the high Directv rates for many years before that. The prices got so out of control, and realistic alternatives finally came to fruition, so I, like many Americans, cut the cord.
I still use Charter as my internet service provider because I can't get fast internet from anyone else in the area (and I live in Burbank/Glendale, fifteen minutes from downtown Los Angeles). We desperately need more ISP competition in this country, and it's slowly coming.
So I thought I'd take a minute and explain my setup. I run my services through my Amazon Fire Box. They're $100, but you can get one for $50 if you sign up for SlingTV. It connects to your wi-fi and your tv, and you download apps onto it. Here are the ones I use most:
SlingTV: $20/a month for 20 channels, plus I pay an extra $15 to get the HBO library.
Netflix: the best deal in all of media. I still pay for the Blu-rays as well because I like a lot of obscure movies.
TuneIn Radio: this is the most underappreciated app out there. You listen to radio stations from anywhere around the world, for free. I often listen to one that's broadcast from Palmer, MI, and another from the Ukraine.
Pandora: I have multiple Pandora channels set up so I can listen to various music genres depending on my mood. Another terrific free app.
CBS News: They have their own app that you can use to watch clips from there various news shows. Plus they have their own 24/7 online news channel on it.
Amazon Prime: I pay for Amazon Prime for the shipping, and don't use their mini-Netflix clone often enough, but I do occasionally watch something on it.
BBC News: Just to get some international news every now and then. There's some good stuff on there.
NBC: It's something to hop on to watch an episode of Meet the Press or Jimmy Fallon. I'm not big on most NBC shows.
MLB.tv: I pay the $130/year to watch my Tiger's play.
I'm also planning on getting HULU as a test-trial. I need it to watch season 2 of Fargo. If I like it, I'll keep it.
There's a bunch of other apps out there that focus on everything from documentaries to kung-fu movies. Once you start using apps for TV and music, instead of cable, you quickly realize that apps are the future of media delivery.
I can watch CNN on my SlingTV or whatever Netflix show I'm into at the moment at home on my TV via my Firebox, or on my tablet or phone wherever I happen to be. Best of all, many of the apps are free, and the ones you do pay for, you don't have to bundle in a bunch of nonsense channels that you don't want. The demise of cable is real, and it's only going to accelerate.
2015 was the year that I cut the cord. I have a feeling many of you will be cutting it soon too. Apps are where it's at. Take my word for it.
Don't read on if you haven't seen the movie yet. Come back after you have.
Seriously, don't read it.
******* MAJOR SPOILERS BELOW ********
I had a tremendous amount of hope for Star Wars: The Force Awakens for about a minute. When Michael Arndt was hired as the scribe, I really thought this would be a fantastic film. Arndt is known for two things: ridiculously well fleshed-out & developed characters, and well-written emotional scenes. When Arndt was dropped from the project, a split rumored to be over a disagreement with the direction of the story and the time needed for it to be written, my hope was gone. JJ and Lawrence Kasdan reportedly finished the first draft of the script in only six weeks.
Once the movie premiered in Hollywood, the tweets from people who watched it were very positive. The reviews came out, and they were rather good. Everyone I knew who saw it ranged from liking it, to loving it. So I almost had a bit of hope again.
Unfortunately, I had to work Thursday through Monday, swing-shift, with a couple of long shifts in there, so I could not see the movie until Tuesday. Several people kept yapping to me about the film, even though I told them not to. One coworker even told me that he had heard that a much-loved character dies at the end (and gave me two options as to who it might be). I instantly knew it was Han Solo. Disney was not going to repeatedly pay him $25M a pop when they could get away with paying the other actors a few million per picture (and when they could put anyone in a Wookie or droid costume). The movie was ruined for me before I ever stepped into the theatre. The psychology of people who ruin narratives for other people is something else, and will be talked about in a future discussion.
I sat down in the luxury lounge chair and reclined back with a diet coke and a Sam Adams on my table. The film started, and like every other Star Wars movie, I was immediately sucked in by the prologue roll. Unlike every other Star Wars movie, I was immediately kicked back out during the first scene.
It was instantly apparent that this film was not going to be well blocked or well shot. Every, and I mean every single fucking shot of the whole damn movie, should have been shot at a shorter focal length (wider angle). This is a space epic, not a damn soap opera. The set and costumes in the first scene looked so fake that I almost cried. Never before had storm trooper armor looked like cheap plastic. Like the rest of the movie, the first scene felt entirely too small in scale. Some of the framing looked so amateurish I wanted to yell at the screen. And I completely missed the fact that Finn was an actual Stormtrooper. I thought he had somehow just stolen the cheap, plastic, armor.
Compare the first scene of Force Awakens with New Hope. In New Hope, we're at the edge of our seat the whole time because it's so well shot and written. It's full of tension. Darth Vader is immediately established in a powerful way. The droids are well established as well. The scene is a true inciting incident that pushes the story forward in an unabashed way. The opening scene of Force Awakens does nothing well. Absolutely nothing.
The rest of the first half of the movie is a series of ridiculous coincidences, poorly constructed scenes, and almost no serious development of our two new main characters, Rey and Finn (who are well cast).
Rey is tough. We eventually learn that she is strong with the Force. But who the hell is she? She's waiting for her family to come back. Is she Skywalker's daughter? If so, that doesn't have to be revealed, but we need to know something about her. We need an establishing point, and an arc. Otherwise she's boring, just like all of the characters in episodes 1, 2, & 3, who were all grossly underdeveloped.
Finn. Well, turns out he was an actual Stormtrooper. He's running from it. But what else? Who is he? He flirts with Rey. Okay. What else is he? What is his arc? What are his multi-dimensions?
Compare this to how Han and Leia were established in New Hope. You knew in very short order who the hell they were as human beings. You knew their strengths, their weaknesses. You believed what came out of their mouths because it fit the characters that were developed. You believed the tension between them because you knew who the fuck they were. And best of all—they had arcs.
Remember this Obi-Wan line from New Hope?: "Mos Eisley Spaceport. You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy. We must be cautious." First off, Obi-Wan was terrifically established in short order (as was Luke) in the first act of New Hope. Not only that, this one epic line of dialogue establishes Mos Eisley better than a dozen scenes ever could. What line in the first half of Force Awakens even compares to that? Not only are the characters not well developed, the environments aren't either. What the hell is Jakku? It's a cheap clone of Tatooine. Tatooine represented a far-away, safe, mostly rural place away from the macro-conflict of the universe, where Luke could grow up to become Luke Skywalker at the start of his arc. Once again, what the hell is Jakku? Well, it's a place where Rey and Finn can steal (coincidentally) the Millennium Falcon, so it can be bounced off of stuff in very CG-looking scenes. Weak.
Even when Rey and Finn finally meet Han and Chewie, the scene isn't amped up emotionally like it should have been. In that scene, Han is written like a caricature of himself. The conversations with the bandits that want Solo really don't do anything. Han is already established. We're not learning anything new there. And the coincidence of the monsters being able to be released between Solo and his attackers—that's just plain dumb.
The interactions between Rey and Solo finally gives us some insight as to who she is. She knows the mechanics of the Falcon on the same level as Solo. Because he's been so well established, that's actually telling us something about her. But where Solo is so satisfyingly flawed as a human being (and as a protagonist), she doesn't seem to be at all. This the mark of an amateur writer (I'm guilty of doing this as well).
Han, Chewie, Rey, and Finn, fly down to planet Takodana (why would you name a planet Taco Dana? That sounds like cheap restaurant), another underwhelming location. They meet Maz Kanata, who for my money steals the show. Kanata is efficiently established, intriguing, and most importantly of all, helps to finally give us some interest in Rey. The vision scene with Rey and Luke's light saber is the best scene in the film, and from that point on, the movie actually looks and feels much better crafted.
I loved seeing Leia again, and seeing her connection to Han. It was well acted and very moving. Then the movie switches to the reveal of yet another spherical bad-guy mega-weapon that must be destroyed by a design flaw. Holy shit. They even have a war room that looks straight out of New Hope. The same fucking X-Wing fighters are going to destroy it after Han and crew sneak into it to drop its shields.
This isn't an homage to New Hope; this is downright fictional theft.
Somehow, Han, Chewie, and Finn, sneak into the enemy base. Han meets his evil son and attempts to convince him to come with him. Then the murder. It's emotional, but not nearly as emotional as it should be. Why? Because Han's son hasn't been well established. None of the bad guys are. We know how they look (menacing). We know they have anger problems. That's about it. A tremendous opportunity comes up short.
So then the day is saved (imagine that). Rey flies off to find Luke. We end with drone shots of Rey handing Luke his light saber. Nice ending, especially because we think she may be his daughter. But...
...imagine what this could have been if Arndt was kept on as the screenwriter. Imagine what it could have been if he had been given time to develop these new characters and worlds, and if this project wasn't rushed by Disney. It could have been spectacular.
That being said, I realize that I'm in the minority. I'm not calling The Force Awakens a bad movie. The first half was horrible. The second half was actually darn good. I'm just really disappointed because it could have been fantastic. If Arndt had been given free reign to write, and if Fincher or Nolan had been hired to direct, this movie could have been absolutely amazing.
When it comes to stories, I'm hard to please. I wanted more. Fortunately, I may be the only one.
****** END OF SPOILERS ******
Did I mention that I loved the opening prologue roll?
Figured I better get around to talking about Fallout 4 before Christmas. It's been out about 6 weeks. Most people are pretty deep into it. I'm about 40 hours in (currently at level 20) and have covered about a third of the map so far.
I think we can all remember stepping out of the vault in Fallout 3 (over 7 years ago, already) and experiencing something unique at that time. The game didn't have the finest graphics or the best story line. What it had in spades was an immersive experience that was different and addicting. It also had intriguing characters and a VAT system that added an interesting aspect to first-person-shooter combat. New Vegas came out a couple years later and gave us more quality post-apocalyptic adventure.
We've been waiting a long time for Fallout 4. Upon its release, the reviews were very positive, many in the 9.0 to 9.5 range. Bethesda doesn't mess around--with the Fallout and Elder Scrolls series, they consistently make some of the best open-world games out there.
So...Fallout 4 (or better put, Fallout: Boston)...how is it?
It's pretty damn great. First off, the negatives:
Once again, the graphics feel about two years dated. It definitely doesn't look as good as the latest Metal Gear Solid or Battlefront. The map, although twice as big as Fallout 3, unfortunately doesn't overwhelm in size. The sexually suggestive songs of yesteryear (i.e. Rocket 69, Sixty Minute Man, etc.) that play nonstop on the radio station are a blast, but there's far too few of them. There are still load screens when entering buildings (how 2013). Some of the interactions with NPC's are frustratingly limited.
Here's what the game gets right:
Like its predecessors, the second you walk out of the vault and into the wasteland, you're hooked by the atmosphere. The fun of exploring the ruins, of dealing with the radiation showers, of using the beloved VAT system, of fighting one type of freakish monster after the next, is as thrilling as ever. I don't know what the primary story line even is at this point, but it certainly has to do androids called 'Synths,' that are designed by something called 'The Institute' to replace people. They can look very robotic, or very close to the humans they mimic. It's intriguing, at least at this point in the game.
The biggest new feature is something called 'The Workshop.' In certain sections that have Workshops, you can build settlements. You break down items (trees, buildings, chairs, loot that you grab, firearms, etc.) into things like wood, steel, crystal, circuit boards, etc., and then build up structures: buildings, crops, furniture, defensive turrets, and the like. As more people come to your settlements, they're attacked more frequently by outsiders, so you have to pay attention. If you choose to establish multiple settlements, soon you're splitting precious time between adventuring and taking care of your citizens. It's a neat added layer to the game.
Forty hours in, I'm thoroughly enjoying the game. Finding and crafting better armor and weapons is a blast. I already have too many guns to carry. As with the older Fallout's, you get to develop your character by what bonuses your select as you level up. I tend to skew towards melee abilities first, scavenger abilities second, and firearm ones after that. But, if you want a character that is based on charm, or sneak abilities, or commerce, or whatever, you can choose those directions as well. It gets pretty in-depth, which adds to the fun.
Thankfully, Fallout 4 is not anywhere near as buggy as Fallout 3 was at launch, and certainly not anywhere close to how buggy New Vegas was. To this day, I remember entering the wasteland in New Vegas, and within minutes seeing an NPC shaking while being stuck halfway into a rock. Oh, Bethesda, please don't do that anymore.
So is Fallout 4 worthy of the extremely high reviews? It is a time-sink that you just don't want to get away from. It does keep much of the good from Fallout 3 and adds a bit more to it. I'd say it's definitely worthy of a 9.0, and one or two hundred hours of your time.
Can't wait for Bethesda to take on Los Angeles. Let's see if they can do a better job than Rockstar did with Grand Theft Auto V. Wouldn't that be a challenge?
EA DICE's Star Wars Battlefront has been out just short of a month now. I've played it almost every day since its release. This is one game where I think the mediocre reviews are off.
Battlefront, like Titanfall, is essentially a multiplayer-only game. For some reason, this causes reviews to be dropped down a couple notches. I don't fully understand why. Gamespot gave the game a 7.0. IGN handed it an 8.0. Forbes had an article that suggested that it was only worth $20. This is ridiculous.
There's an impression within the video game critic's circle that a game can be single-player only and be worth $65, but it can't be worth that amount if it's multiplayer only. I don't understand this logic.
Battlefront is an excellent game. Almost all of its modes are fun. The larger map modes, like Supremacy and Walker Assault, are incredibly addictive. The worth is in the game design. The maps are beautifully laid out. There's an actual front that moves on many modes, which adds to the overall feel. The combination of heroes and regular players adds interesting strategy to the mix as well.
Plus, the game looks absolutely gorgeous. The bottom line is that Battlefront is extremely fun, and is well worth its $65 price tag. It deserved a 9.0-9.5.
I think part of the problem with multiplayer critical reviews is that the reviews come out before the game is released, and therefore it's hard to gauge how fun it'll actually be once all the game servers are full. There's a certain line of quality that a multiplayer game must pass in order to be played a lot. Under that line and it'll hardly be played. Over that line, and it's easily worth 100+ hours. Battlefront is over that line by a significant margin. It's a must-buy in my book.
I'm a week into my new shift at work, having moved from an early morning day shift to a swing shift. It's been wonderful so far.
The last ten years, since I've worked the day shift, I've had major sleep issues. Part of that was taking on too much—full-time job, long commute, completing two graduate degrees. The major issue, however, was that the shift just didn't coincide with my natural sleep cycle.
The last week, I've been falling asleep when I'm tired (which is something new to me), usually around 1am or 2am, and I've slept 6-8 hours every night. It's been a miracle. The amount of sleep I've been getting has instantly doubled while working the new shift. Plus, I've gained over an hour a day because of the decrease in commute time.
I haven't written at all this week, but that's okay. I've been working out and playing a lot of video games (and since this is best release schedule in eight years, there's no excuse not to be playing a lot of video games). But soon I'll get back into the writing habit. I've been working out plot lines and characters in my head, and will dive back into my fantasy novel soon enough.
I also have to get 'The Wicked Trees' released on paperback. I'm in no rush to do that, but will probably get it done in the upcoming months.
This has been a tremendous reset for me, giving me much more energy and focus to take on life. I'm really looking forward to see what I can accomplish, now that conquering the sleep issue is hopefully finally behind me.