I've been playing chess on and off for as long as I can remember. I always fell in the habit of getting into it for a year or so, and then not playing for several years. I used to belong to the Internet Chess Club, and found it to be a lot of fun. But I haven't had the chance to join a physical chess club because of my work schedule.
Since we now have three Americans in the World Top 10, and two very strong contenders to compete for the International Title next year, I decided to get back into it. It's always a great distraction from writing because it takes total concentration.
I decided to join Chess.com, which is the big alternative to ICC. And wow, am I impressed.
I pay the most expensive dues, which are about $100 a year. But you can play on the site for free if you want, and they have cheaper subscription packages as well.
I pay for the top package because I've found that their learning tutorials are excellent. They have tons of them, covering every aspect of the game. They give you a lessons rating that dips over time if you don't take more lessons or do tactic puzzles. This gives you the incentive needed to keep learning.
The best feature of the site is their analysis computing. They have a motto: There is no losing if you're learning. I love it. After every match, whether against a human opponent, or the computer (whose rating you can set), you can choose an analysis depth (the more in-depth, the longer it takes, but they only take minutes), and the computer will go through the entire match and show you your mild discrepancies, your errors, and your blunders. It will tell you what the better moves are, and show you why as it'll explain the lines of play. It's absolutely fantastic for learning.
The site also does an excellent job at broadcasting tournaments. I watched the final round of the Pro Chess League, and I'm now watching the early rounds of the U.S. Chess Championships. They have chess analysts that discuss the moves in depth. It's very fun to watch, and much more professional than I would have expected it to be.
I hope that my work schedule will someday allow me to join the local West Valley Chess Club. But, for now, I'm very happy with Chess.com, because I feel like they have the tools to not only make me a better chess player, but to allow me to understand the game at a deeper level so that I'll gain a better appreciation of watching the Grandmasters play.
If you haven't played chess in awhile, I highly recommend checking out Chess.com. It's a terrific place to learn.
It's been a couple of years since CD Projekt RED released The Witcher 3, a game which won multiple Game Of The Year Awards, and was my favorite video game of 2015. I still play it regularly.
There's a card mini-game within The Witcher 3 called Gwent. It's an outrageously fun game that is a bit more complex than similar card games because players utilize three ranks: a close combat rank for swords, pikes, etc, a ranged combat rank for archers and such, and a siege rank for catapults, ballistae, etc. Players can gain weather cards that affect different ranks, use leader cards that can give bonuses, and start the game with one of five different decks, each based on a group (like a kingdom or monster) each of which has unique abilities. There's a nice, but not an overwhelming amount of complexity to it.
It's a tremendously well-thought out game that is very fun to play. Once you sink a hundred hours or so into The Witcher 3, you kind of run out of challengers to play. Thankfully, CD Projekt RED announced that they were going to make a stand-alone Gwent game, that would have a free-to-play aspect to it. It was supposed to come out late last year, but was delayed. This week, the closed beta came out. When I first tried to play it, I was able to get through the tutorial, but it would lock up every time I challenged someone to play. Today, I tried again, and was able to play a few people.
CD Projekt RED has taken an excellent game and has expanded on it, making it even better. There are many more types of cards. So when you first start playing, it goes a bit slow, as each new player has to figure out what the cards do. I'm sure that after playing for a few days, the cards will be thrown down at great speed. Overall, it works smoothly, and it's fun to see the strategies that actual humans use when playing a round or two.
I can't overstate how fun this card game is. I can't wait for the actual game to come out. I'm assuming you'll be able to win better cards and buy packs of superior cards. I'm probably going to be one of the guys forking down a little money on this one.
The beta is cross-play between Xbox, Playstation, & PC. They have to bring this to Android soon. It'll be a blast of a game to play on a tablet, or even a large phone. I'll definitely write another post once the final product comes out. But, by the looks of the beta, CD Projekt RED doesn't have much polishing left to do before releasing what should be a huge hit with the Hearthstone crowd.
The history of weapon balance in video games has been fascinating to me.
In the early days, there were large variations in the balance of power and effectiveness of weapons. Think Counter-Strike. From its inception in 2000, there were ridiculous differences in the various guns—so much so that the vast majority of players only used the slight few of them that were most effective. As video games evolved, more balance was found, and guns started to become adjusted after the game release to find what developers considered to be the sweet spots.
After several years, as people got better with sniper rifles, it became harder to keep a good general balance. The problem with sniping is that a small percentage of gamers got really good at it (including quick-scoping), so it worsened the flow of games, because it was too easy to die quickly after respawning. Nerf the sniper rifles too much, and they're of little use to people who haven't sniped for years.
Although I loved sniping in the first three Halo games, it wasn't until Black Ops 2 that I started pouring dozens of hours of sniping into a current-day-themed first-person-shooter. That was in 2012, which was many years after most gamers fell in love with the sniper rifle.
Fast-forward to today, and I really love what Respawn has done to weapon balance in Titanfall 2. The main guns are more or less balanced. But the sniper rifles are slightly weaker and/or slower compared to other games. Since you unlock a pro-screen (which shows lifetime kills with the weapon) once you regen it, you still want to attempt to level up every weapon. But since the sniper rifles are much harder to use effectively than the regular guns, it's never a snipe-fest, so the flow of the game isn't negatively affected often.
This also goes for the Titanfall 2 cannons (which they call grenadiers). They're powerful, but they're unGodly slow. It's almost impossible to get the first shot off. But, this lack of balance creates a challenge for the better players, who are going to sink hundreds of hours into the game, and who are going to want to regen every weapon at least once.
I see a sniper rifle maybe every two rounds, and a cannon maybe every ten rounds that I play Titanfall 2. I've regened all of the guns except for a couple of the sniper rifle and cannons, which are a fantastic challenge at this point. I love the fact that they're so hard to compete with.
So we've come full circle. At first, pure weapon balance wasn't important in FPS'ers. Then it became too important. Now we're settling into a time where the longer-range and the more powerful weapons have to be nerfed or slowed down so that they're underbalanced. It's been a fascinating history.
The Hemlok BF-R, to me, is by far the most effective weapon in Titanfall 2, like the M-16 was in so many FPS'ers. But, to my surprise, it isn't used much more than the other weapons. I think gamers have advanced too. As K/D ratios become ever less important, and as developers work on giving us nice goodies for regening weapons, variety of weapon use is alive and well, and that's great for gaming. The overall gameplay of FPS'ers keeps advancing, and weapon balance is a huge but oftentimes understated part of that.
I'm glad developers have gotten it right over the twenty-five-year history of the first-person-shooter. For all that I loved about Counter-Strike, all those hours that I sunk into it, it got to a point where I never wanted to see an AK-47 or a Desert Eagle ever again. Thankfully, in modern games, we rarely run into that problem.
When I think of my favorite songs of all time, they all tend to have a few things in common:
1. A relentless beat.
2. A mighty guitar riff.
3. Dark, powerful lyrics that tell a narrative.
In my previous post, I mentioned some of my favorite Metallica songs. They tend to all have the above attributes. Whether its Creeping Death and its dark tale of ancient Egypt, or Blackened and its frightening tale of nuclear war, for some reason, these types of narratives tend to really engage me when incorporated in music.
I'm not a fan of happy, pop music at all, especially that which has a weak or missing narrative.
Every now and then, a rockish song that is far from being metal, does hit those requirements. Usually it's something that has lyrics which aren't easily understood by most people listening to it. Third Eye Blind's Semi-Charmed Life is a good example. I don't think most people listening to that song realized what it was about.
Another good example is Weezer's Hash Pipe. It has some of darkest lyrics I've ever heard. That wasn't a song about a Hash Pipe. It was about a Crack Pipe and some horrible stuff going down on Santa Monica Blvd in West Hollywood. What a bold narrative to hide in a top 40 hit, though.
Watch the video below, then click HERE to read the lyrics, and see if you'll ever hear the song the same way again.
There are numerous 'Best of Metallica' lists on the internet, and they are all utter crap. Every single one of them.
So I thought I'd take the time to write the real-best-of-Metallica list, once and for all, including music off of their latest album. Here is the only definitively true Best Metallica Songs Of All Time list that exists:
15. Broken, Beat, & Scarred
14. Moth Into Flame
13. Spit Out The Bone
12. Invisible Kid
11. Atlas, Rise!
10. Welcome Home (Sanitarium)
9. Fade to Black
5. Leper Messiah
4. Creeping Death
3. Master of Puppets
1. Disposable Heroes
And that is the definitive list of best Metallica songs that currently exist. Notice that there isn't any off of their off-track The Black Album, Load, Re-Load period. Thankfully, they're back in true form, and we should expect more absolutely fantastic classics off of future albums.
The setting is what attracted me to Frontier. A story about the 1700's Canadian fur trade, involving The Hudson Bay Company, and starring Jason Momoa of Dothraki fame—what could be better than that?
The reviews were mixed. I understand why. Parts of this project were done well, but others were clearly affected by what must have been a very limited budget. The characters, as written, are mostly engaging. Much of the casting is excellent, including Momoa, and especially Alun Armstrong who excels as Lord Benton, the antagonist.
However, the locations are very limited. What results is drama that seems forced and repetitive at times. The story lacks the expected grand XXL shots of the Canadian wilderness, and much of any sign of large amounts of money spent on sets and locations. This is unfortunate.
But there was enough there to intrigue me. I'm definitely going to tune into Season 2, and hopefully, there will be the expanse of locations that will allow the writers more latitude to play with the story. The six episodes of Season 1 effectively established the main characters and their goals/obstacles. The setting, though limited, felt authentic. And we got of glimpse of what will be the inevitable love stories. There was enough in the first season to hook me.
I have to wonder, though, if the budget was grander, how much better that first season would have been? I think much. I can only hope more money is put up on the screen for Season 2.
My rating: 7.0/10.
I've been in a documentary state of mind of late. Today I watched another classic doc, Project Nim, made by James Marsh, who is probably best known for his 2008 doc, Man on Wire.
The 2011 film documents a project led by Herbert Terrace in the early 1970's at Columbia University, involving teaching sign language to a chimp named Nim Chimpsky. Many assistants come in and out of Nim's life, all of whom become very attached to the chimp as its ability to communicate grows. However, after a few years, chimpanzees become too dangerous to keep as pets. After Nim becomes too aggressive, the doc follows the mostly sad tale of what happened to him post-Columbia.
The story will make your eyes moist, though it's not as tragic as you might think going in. This film hits a very important topic, though, as Nim became the first animal to be able to communicate with humans with something close to structured sentences. Moral issues abound, The film does a good job at hitting on the complexities of thoughts, feelings, and greed with regards to both humans and chimps and their interaction with each other.
One of the most touching moments to me is when one of the assistants was recalling the time he spent with Nim, over thirties years ago, and stated that it was the absolute best time of his life. The strong bonding between the species was pretty amazing.
The doc would have benefited from a bigger budget and more time spent describing Nim's last five years. But, as is, I enjoyed it, though at times it did make me sad. It's a very unique topic, and through the human interaction with this very special chimpanzee, we inevitably learn more about our species than our very close Earthly relative.
My rating: 8.2/10
HBO's critically acclaimed documentary: Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills came out in 1996. I'd never seen it, but often heard about it. There were two sequels: Paradise Lost 2: Revelations, which came out in 2000, and Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, which came out in 2011. I recently decided to watch all three of the much-hyped films.
The story is of the trial and conviction of three wayward teenagers, known as the West Memphis Three, accused of murdering three eight-year-old boys in West Memphis, AR, and dumping their bodies into a creek bed. It was a brutal, sadistic killing. The first film does a good job of immersing the audience into the rural setting and showcasing how devastating the events were to the community. The accused, a group of social misfits led by a blood-drinking Satanist, clearly had an uphill climb in their defense, not only given the religious climate of the area, but the great amount of evidence against them as well.
The filmmakers, like those of Netflix's Making of a Murderer, play fast and loose with the facts in order to portray the accused as innocent. Unfortunately, the producers of Paradise Lost go even further down that slanted trail, accusing not only one, but two of the parents of the murdered boys of actually committing the crimes. It was one of the most vile, dishonest, atrocious claims I've ever seen in a documentary.
So it's hard to rate this HBO trilogy. It's well crafted. It's very interesting. It does give a stark glimpse into the lives of the community members who have had to deal with such evil. But it's so extremely unethical in its nature, that I can't strongly recommend it.
If you liked Making of a Murderer, and understand that the purpose of these documentaries is to let people guilty of murder walk free, I think watching Paradise Lost would be worthwhile. Outside of the disgusting dishonesty, it's a fine documentary. The characters alone are fascinating, as is the trial, and the bizarre celebrity-fueled cult following of the imprisoned, post-trial. If you're looking for a non-biased look at the incident, however, I'd look elsewhere.
My rating: 2.3/10
I had a mild interest in a game that was released on Tuesday. Ubisoft Montreal had been working on For Honor for several years. It's not exactly my cup of tea, since it's a third-person game, but it does happen in the Middle Ages, of which I'm a big fan. The trailers looked good, and the Beta went over okay. But...
Ubisoft refused to allow reviews before the game's release. In fact, the reviewers didn't even get advanced copies. To me, this is just absolutely unacceptable.
There is one, and only one reason why you wouldn't let advanced copies get into the hands of reviewers: you think the advanced reviews won't be good, and that they'll tank sales.
So now most game sites have reviews-in-progress for the title. My chances of purchasing the game dropped from about 40% to 5%. In fact, if those reviews aren't 9.5's, I'm not spending the $65 to purchase it. I'd rather protest Ubisoft by not buying it at all.
There's an ongoing online movement to not pre-order games that don't have reviews out. I'm solidly in that camp. If I can't get multiple reviews of what I'm buying, then I'll pass on the sale. It's that simple.
I think the only exception to this rule would be a game the magnitude of Red Dead Redemption 2. Rockstar, unlike Ubisoft, has a long history of ridiculously high-quality releases. Their reputation speaks for itself.
This was a horrible move by Ubisoft, which I'd bet cost them more sales than it gained. Whether it's a video game, TV show, or film, give us reviews. Otherwise, don't expect us to pay for the product.
I recently watched two films that had to do with prisoners escaping. Both were done well, but one was done much better than the other. I think it's a good case in film study.
The first film was The Great Escape, the 1963 star-filled movie which follows the true WWII story of a mass escape of Allied soldiers from a gulag in Poland. The iconic scene we all remember is Steve McQueen jumping his motorbike over the fence attempting to escape Germany to get into Switzerland. But the bulk of the 172 min. movie is about the planning of the escape, which gave the filmmakers time to well develop the multitude of characters, something they decided not to do.
I feel the script, based off of the 1950 Paul Brickhill book, spent far too much time during the first two acts on the minutia of developing the escape plan, at the expense of deeply developing the characters. This is compounded by the fact that the Nazi Commander seems far too light-hearted about the multiple escape attempts. This is a classic case of a too-reserved antagonist, which hurts the entire story, because the stakes never feel as high as they should.
I enjoyed The Great Escape. Though each of the three acts dragged far too long, it was mostly engaging from beginning to end. But if the characters, both Allied and Nazi, had been better developed, the film would have worked at a much higher level.
The second film I watched is the much beloved The Shawshank Redemption, the 1994 Frank Darabont film based off of a Stephen King short story. It seems eternally stuck on the top of the IMDB250. You rarely hear a bad word about it, except from the extreme film snobs who dislike it because of its popularity.
What Shawshank does so much better than The Great Escape, is it focuses heavily on character development. It's able to do this because there are few main characters to develop. Though we remember Andy and Red, perhaps the most important character is the antagonist, Warden Norton, who we quickly come to hate. The prisoners suffer greatly, and because of this, the stakes are sky-high for the escape.
I believe both of these films are slightly overrated. I enjoyed both, but not as much as most people. Shawshank is clearly the best of the two, for many reasons, but mainly because of character development, which becomes evermore important as audiences become more sophisticated.
My Great Escape rating: 7.5
My Shawshank Redemption rating: 9.0
With a 98% RottenTomatoes rating and an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture, I was looking forward to seeing Hell or High Water. I hadn't heard a negative thing about it, but unfortunately wasn't able to catch it during its short run in theatres. After all, who could pass up seeing Jeff Bridges play a Texas Ranger in West Texas? That alone sounds like a formula for great success.
The story covers two very seasoned Texas Rangers, one played by Bridges, the other by Gil Birmingham, who chase a couple of young bank-robbing brothers played by Chris Pine and Ben Foster. The relationships between each pair of partners is what makes the film. The brothers, in dire straights, have nothing but deep, open love towards each other. The Rangers, coming from a more reserved generation, show their fellow admiration through more strained methods. Bridges, as we would expect, is absolutely terrific in the role. We feel his pain as he nears the end of a career that is the prominent part of his life, in a vast, barren world that doesn't seem to give a damn.
The open plains of West Texas are the perfect landscape for this story, and DP Giles Nuttgens captures them well, allowing the film to play much bigger than its meager $12M budget. But, this movie isn't at its best in the grand exterior scenes. Where Hell or High Water really shines is in the confined hotel room, where the two Rangers have to indirectly discuss life, or in a backcountry steak house, where they have to show ultimate respect to an old, ornery waitress who commands nothing less.
If I had to nitpick the movie, I'd point to the soft ending, which I'm sure many people found underwhelming. It was a creative choice that plays on the long, slow life of the Rangers in that part of the country. It's delivered with a little tack hammer that I'm afraid will keep this movie from having a chance of winning Best Picture. But I was okay with it.
The four leads did a fantastic job. However, I feel that if a bigger name was attached, the movie would have had better success at the box office. This is a modern Western, and any Western tends to run into trouble with the international box office. Having a not-too-successful domestic release, the foreign release was very limited. When a critically-acclaimed Western sputters with movie-goers, that doesn't bode well for green-lighting future pictures in the genre.
Yet, I still loved this film. Yes, a greater punch in the gut at the end would have made me love it more. That being said, I do feel Hell or High Water is very deserving of its Best Picture nomination.
My rating: 9.1/10
M. Night Shyamalan, after getting caught up in a near historic downward spiral since 1999's The Sixth Sense, finally started a reversal in terms of quality with 2015's The Visit, a $5M horror film which had mixed reviews but was actually a darn good flick which grossed $98M worldwide. To keep creative control on his next project, M. Night agreed to make The Split for just $10M for Universal, and it opened to generally positive reviews and a $40M weekend.
The Split, it turns out, is a pretty fantastic & smartly written horror film that combines the right amount of humor, jump scares, psychological horror moments, and plot complexity to make it a film well worth watching.
The opening series of scenes, excellently crafted, set the dark tone. It is clear from the beginning that this is the role that James McAvoy was born to play. He kills it as Kevin Wendell Crumb, an out-of-control person with an extreme multi-personality disorder. It's when the evil people inside of him take over, that you have to watch out.
Though not perfectly cast throughout, most roles are cast damn well. Betty Buckley does a fantastic job as Wendell's psychologist, a very difficult role to play. Anya Taylor-Joy plays the lead, a young girl named Casey who comes with a very troubled past. She weirdly relates to Kevin in a way that others can't. Taylor-Joy plays this complex role fine at times, and terrifically in some of the more emotional scenes. These three main characters are so well written, so well established, and so well acted, that the others pale in comparison. I think M. Night would have been better off playing some horror story stereotypes (more than he did) just give some flavor to the minor characters.
By far the worst casting misstep is the role that M. Night chose for himself. Although brief, it was more than enough to kick me completely out of the movie—something that happens every damn time I see him on screen. He's far too recognizable, and just not good enough of an actor to pull it off. Like Tarantino, every single time he casts himself, it's a monumental error of judgment.
I was enthralled throughout the movie by how it was written so effectively to be shot on a low/medium-sized budget. M. Night accomplished this by writing fantastic characters and putting them in extreme situations. His directing is phenomenal. The blocking and lighting are excellent. The compositions are what we expected of M. Night when he was in his prime. He now has fallen in love with the slow XXL zoom, but smartly doesn't rely on it too heavily.
And the ending...oh that ending. I'll try not to ruin it, but I will mention that instead of a hardcore M. Night twist, he relies on a couple significant reveals, and the last one is a doozy. Of course, some will love it, some will hate it. Either way, you'll be thinking about long after you leave the theatre. And that's always good.
I really like this film. It's better than the critics state. And thankfully, we now have hope for a full M. Night Shyamalan resurrection. Thank God, he's back.
My rating: 8.9/10.
I recently rewatched The Sixth Sense for the first time in years. I remember seeing it in the theatre in 1999 and being absolutely wowed. I've seen it several times since and have read the script more than once. I still absolutely love this movie. Everyone raves about the twist, but I love everything else about it as well: the pace, the dialogue, the compositions, the acting—it's all fantastic. It's one of my favorite films of all time.
Although officially M. Night's third film, I feel to most of us, it feels like it's his first. It gave us enormous expectations for his future films. They came, and each one, unfortunately, seemed to be a little worse than the previous. For every person that loved Signs, a few less loved The Village, and a few less loved Lady in the Water.
None of M. Night's movies resonated with me nearly as much as The Sixth Sense, but I found some amazing quality in all of them (I didn't see The Last Airbender or After Earth). I did see The Visit, M. Night's 2015 low-budget return-to-horror flick, and liked it a lot. I'll go see his upcoming film Split as well. I think for too long he was far too intent on smacking us with a twist ending. None could ever live up to The Sixth Sense reveal.
M. Night comes out with a new film about every couple of years. That means that he's probably only taking six months or so to write each script. I wonder what would happen if he took a couple of years to write each script and came out with a new film every 3-4 years. I'm not sure he could afford to do it, but I bet it would increase the quality of his films dramatically.
I'm still an M. Night Shyamalan fan. I hope he ends his career with films that are his best yet. That will be tough to do. A good sabbatical might do him well in the mean time.
My rating for The Sixth Sense: 9.7/10
It's been awhile since I finished watching Westworld, and I wanted to process it a bit before writing down my thoughts. Here's what I think (spoilers included):
The series is very ambitious. That I like. A lot of people that I've talked to thought the first few episodes were too slow. I had the opposite impression. Though the pilot was a hot mess (it truly needed a better director), I was hooked early on. The concept is terrific: a Wild West theme park filled with robots playing humans. Guests can do whatever they want with the robots. The twist is that the robots' memories are wiped clean after every visit. However, some old memories happen to remain, causing the robots to be confused about their own existence.
I did have a few problems. First and foremost, the characters didn't wow me enough to allow me to remember their names (outside of just a couple of them), so I often got lost in conversation. I also got slightly bored in parts, which is not a good thing in such a complex narrative. I thought there were far too many twists, which cheapened the narrative. And finally, the biggest reveal (Teddy standing at the train station amongst the bodies) was something I didn't even understand when watching it. After talking to a coworker who explained it to me, I realized it would have been very impactful had I understood it. Zoning out due to boredom during long parts of the series certainly didn't help.
I also don't believe the casting was top-notch throughout. Some parts were exceptionally cast: Ford, Dolores, Man in Black. Others were not.
When Westworld works well, it is fantastic. It does stuff at a deep level that we're not used to seeing on TV. But at times, it gets too deep for a first season. It tried too hard. I wish Jonathan Nolan would have scaled back the ambition and depth. I felt like it was Game of Thrones giving away who Jon Snow's parents were in season 1. It's too much. Restraint would have been beneficial.
So will I watch Season 2? Yeah, I will. I respect the ambition. But, like Season 1, if I get bored, it'll be weeks before I get to the next episode. And honestly, since so much reserve was given away in the first season, I have no idea what they're going to do from this point forward.
This is a hard series to rate. When it works, it works terrifically. It just has a hard time consistently staying on the rails. Yet, it is still leagues above the average TV fair.
My rating: 9.0/10
The Crown, Netflix's story about young Queen Elizabeth 2, is Netflix's most expensive series so far, with a budget rumored to be north of $100M. Having won the Golden Globe for Best Dramatic Series, it seems the gamble paid off.
You can definitely see the money up on the screen. I'm not a royal expert by any means, but whatever castles they shot this series in played true to me. Rarely did any scene play too small, and never in the interior scenes. The shots were gorgeous, often with striking symmetries. Sure some of the exterior shots were cheated to the small side, but never too small.
The drama runs thick, as a young and naive Elizabeth tries to do the job she has been handed while dealing with enormous personalities, like that of Winston Churchill, Phillip her husband, Margaret her sister, the Queen Mum, and the various male chauvinists who advise her. Claire Foy handles the role well, as do almost all of the main cast. Matt Smith shines in his role of Phillip, who struggles to maintain any resemblance of manhood while his wife takes in the entire spotlight. The vast halls of Buckingham Palace can be a very lonely place.
The Crown's main focus is Elizabeth's arc, and it's a fascinating one indeed. How does she balance doing her job as a monarch when doing said job often conflicts directly with being a decent mother, husband, sister, and daughter? She quickly learns that she's being used by people in power to advance their own interests, and how will she grow to the point where she can stand up to those often monstrous personalities? It is her personal growth in such extraordinary circumstances that makes The Crown so intriguing.
Though the pacing may be too slow for some, if you're into well-crafted historical dramas, The Crown will probably be for you. It's a beautiful, well-acted series, that deserves a spot in the top-tier of the Netflix offerings.
My ratings: 9.3/10
This morning I rewatched Rogue One, this time in 2D on a normal=sized screen. In my previous review, I pointed out the two biggest flaws I found with the film: weak character development and an almost complete lack of LS's. Since 3D tends to make big shots look small, I was interested to see the film in 2D to see if it played larger.
During the second viewing, I had the exact same problems I had during the first. The character development was thin. Who the hell is Saw Gerrera? Why is he in this film? Cassian Andor? What's his backstory? At least we learn a little about Jyn, but not enough to make her as satisfying as she could be. Bad-Guy Orson? Why wasn't he developed at all?
Seeing the film in 2D did very little to hide the fact that besides the large XXL CG shots, 90% of this film is shot too close.
When low-budget indie filmmakers shoot their films, they often rely heavily on MCU's in order to hide the fact that they can't afford extensive sets to paint the background with. It makes the film feel low-budget. There is never an excuse to do this in any large action film that you don't intentionally want to feel cheesy.
An example: what does Saw Gerrera's HQ's look like? We only see tight shots of it, along with terrific XXL's when it comes crumbling down. But we never get a feel of size and shape like we did inside of Jabba's chambers.
This is most noticeable in the first two acts. By the third act there are so many CG shots, it covers it up some. Having to squeeze in a big Walker does force the LS. But in crucial moments, the MCU's are used as cheats and it's very annoying. One example is when Jyn jumps onto the data storage tower. We correctly start with a LS of her jumping, and then cut to a MCU of her arm and head as she grabs the tower. This is a cheat. They then do it correctly with Cassian, showing his whole body make the jump. It's much more satisfying.
If 20% of the shots were shot too close or too zoomed in it would be annoying. But with a Rogue-One, it's the vast majority of shots. I guess the director, Gareth Edwards, and the cinematographer, Greig Fraser, have to share the blame. There just isn't any excuse for a movie with a $200M budget to be shot like this.
I still loved that third act though. And of course I still loved Felicity Jone's performance.
Although a very good film, with an outstanding third act, Rogue One has some serious flaws. But I guess with the subpar quality of the last few Star Wars films, we should be happy with the greatness that does exist within it.
Two viewings of Rogue One is satisfying. A third would be too many. That puts the film close to Return of the Jedi quality, and a huge notch below New Hope and Empire Strikes Back, yet far above the other films.
Now, this is very interesting. Look at the complete setlist for Metallica's Jan. 11th concert in South Korea:
They played five songs off of the new album! That's fantastic. They opened with Hardwired and Atlas Rise!, two songs that were certainly expected. They also played Now That We're Dead, a terrific song, Moth Into Flame, another single we'd expect, and the slower epic Halo on Fire.
I'm floored that they played that amount of new material. That's exciting. I guess the only disappointment is the one they didn't play: Spit Out The Bone.
The biggest classic from yesteryear that they skipped over, in my opinion, is Creeping Death. I'd certainly like them to keep that on the setlist, but you've got to get rid of something. There are now whole albums that aren't represented, which I guess comes with the territory of being around for so many decades.
I can't wait to see them play new material live. I'm thinking that the Dead and Halo slots will probably be rotated with more new songs. It'll be interesting to see the next few setlists.
It's great that the band is so proud of their new stuff that they're willing to squeeze more than the typical one or two songs of it into their concerts. You gotta wonder though—at what point are we going to hear the first live performance of Spit Out the Bone? That is what everyone is going to be waiting for.
The classic Rogers and Hammerstein play is concluding its run in Hollywood to glowing reviews. It was my first time seeing the production, which has been running on and off in some form since 1951.
The story is that of an English widow who travels to Siam to work for the King to teach English to the children in the royal palace. She soon finds out the King is a true male chauvinist, and a battle of wills ensues, to great comedic effect.
Yul Brynner had owned the role of the King of Siam for years. The key to any successful revival was to find an actor who could fill those gargantuan shoes, and the current production certainly did with Jose Llana, who excels in the role. Llana commands the stage and his comedic skills are terrific.
The downside of having someone so talented and powerful in the role is that every scene that he's not on stage feels like mere filler. But when the King does take the stage, struggling to get this strong-willed English woman to understand his need of having to control everything, it's a blast.
The set design is rather minimal. Many of the stronger songs are classics, though some are not as memorable as others.
The ending, though satisfying, is certainly not predictable, and that I like.
The King and I holds up well in its current incarnation. Though not as consistently funny as something like Book of Mormon, it gives plenty enough laughs to make it worth the admission price.
My rating: 8.1/10
A day after its dominating performance at the Golden Globes, I watched La La Land, the sure front-runner for Best Picture of the Year at the upcoming Academy Awards.
I had gone in expecting a large-scale musical that showcased the best of Los Angeles as two young lovers danced across their inevitable Hollywood disappointments only to find themselves in their own coupling. Was I wrong.
La La Land is a story of two people who do connect while chasing their Hollywood dreams. However, it's tightly focused on their personal stories. Instead of seeing an epic musical number with hundreds of dancers in front of the Hollywood sign, we see Emma Stone break into a small somber musical number by herself in a casting room. This tightness works, because it reinforces a hard truth—the forced joy of an imagined dream, and its inevitable decay as its realization slowly drifts further away from us.
Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are the perfect cast for this story, even if they're no Ginger and Fred. You believe their hope and their despair as they try hard to find their right footing in the Hollywood machine which chews up millions of young souls. Their stumbles hit you hard, and when it becomes apparent what their paths must be—it hits you harder.
While not all of the songs are classic in nature, the ones that count certainly are. The key again is restraint. La La Land never tries to be something larger than it should be.
This film encapsulates more than just a Hollywood journey—it shows us the unfortunate trade-offs that must be made as we enter adulthood. Life isn't always pretty, though in brief moments it can be. The last scene in La La Land hits this hard, as we are shown what must be lost so that the characters' lives might be found, and inevitably we are left to ponder which dreams are truly the ones we should be chasing.
My rating: 9.3/10
Here's a screenshot of my Titanfall 2 stats a little more than 55 hours into multiplayer:
After all that time, I've won 50% of the games, and my k/d vs. players is 1.0 (and weirdly a 3.0 including NPC's). Talk about a zero-sum game.
This doesn't prove that I'm a perfectly average FPSer player. As I was about to prestige (regen) for the first time, my win-% was only 43%, and my k/d was down at 0.7. I tend to be horrible before I prestige because it takes me an absurd amount of time to learn the maps, guns, and gameplay. After I prestige, I tend to go positive.
What's fascinating about this is how one person can have such a significant impact on a team of six. During those first 15-20 hours, I was a major cause of my team losing. After that time, I was helping them win.
When you max out your guns, you earn a pro-screen, which is an attachment that shows the total lifetime kills you've obtained with the weapon. I've earned them for the better guns—the R-201, Hemlock, Devotion, Bolt, L-STAR, etc. Now, I'm working on obtaining it for the slower weapons—the sniper rifles, canons, shotguns, etc. I could just keep using the carbines and push the k/d up high, but I'm trying to get comfortable with the guns that are not in my comfort zone while remaining positive with the k/d. As I get to the guns I'm worst at, it's inevitable that it'll drop, but I'll get it back positive with the better weapons.
Titanfall 2, easily the best game of 2016, will most likely earn more than a 100 hours of my time in 2017. Fifty hours is nothing but a warm up.
My writing goals of 2016 were to build a better writing space, to take a couple of writing trips, to release my thesis novel on paperback, and to make progress on my fantasy novel. I made some progress in some of those areas.
I did accomplish gaining a better writing space, having bought a condo, which along with fixing up said condo took up much of the second half of my year. But, it was a good thing. Now I can sit out at the pool and read or write all I want. And better yet, I feel a lot more secure about my future remaining in Los Angeles. With the soaring real estate market in Southern California, I had to take the time to get this done, and I'm glad it's behind me.
I did make progress on my fantasy novel, though I haven't worked on it in six months. The break was fruitful, though. I thought about the story and characters a lot. When I do get back to finishing up that first draft, the plot is pretty locked down, but the framing of how the story is told will change. I'm glad I had the time to work that out.
I only took one writing trip this year. It was short, but I enjoyed it and made good progress during it. In 2015 it was Big Bear, 2016 San Simeon. Don't know where I'll go in 2017, but it'll probably be somewhere not too far away. Maybe Santa Barabara or San Luis Obispo. At some point in the future, I need to go to a writing conference to see what they're all about. Won't happen in 2017, but at some point, hopefully.
I did get the technical stuff worked out with releasing 'The Wicked Trees' on paperback. I'm currently going through the digital proof, and will then go through the physical proof. I expect that this Spring is a likely release time.
I hope I'll finish the first draft of my fantasy novel in 2017, but I'm not confident I will. I also have to get back to my horror script at some point and write another draft of that.
As long as I'm pushing forward, I'm happy. 2016 turned out pretty good for me, but I hope that 2017 will produce a much greater volume of writing.
Few things are as frustrating as what has been done to the Star Wars universe, post-Revenge of the Jedi. While most people seemed to think that The Force Awakens was adequate redemption for the three films which preceded it, I disliked the film, and thought it to be a squandered opportunity.
Hence, when I walked into the 3-D, AMC-mini-IMAX viewing of Rogue One, I came with low expectations. Very few films would justify my losing of a Jackson and +2 hours of my time. But Star Wars still holds a strong place in my heart, and I wasn't going to wait around to watch this film on my TV.
First the bad news: Rogue One mostly squanders two acts on mediocre film craftsmanship and character development. There are far too many MS's and MCU's prior to the third act, making the film look cheap. The occasional XXLS looks fantastic, but there is an extreme dearth of LS's, to the detriment of the film.
There is not one character in Rogue One that is as well established or as engaging as Luke, Han, Leia, Ben, R2D2, C3PO, or Vader. Though I liked many of the characters, they were awfully thin. Some of the casting was great. Felicity Jones was fantastic in the lead as Jyn, and Ben Mendelsohn of Blood Lines fame, is terrific as a higher-up Emperial officer. How the hell they returned Peter Cushing from the dead, I'll never know, but they did it in very convincing fashion.
To repeat: the biggest flaw of this film is the weak character development.
After those two very mediocre first acts comes some of the best Star Wars filmmaking we've ever seen. The third act is an enormous, world-class crafted, epic masterpiece that is as great as any of the previous Star Wars films. It's a battle that happens on land and in space, with a well-paced build-up of tension, that leads to a fulfilling transition into A New Hope.
If only the characters had been crafted as well as the ones in New Hope.
However, this is a one-off, and as a big spectacle popcorn movie, it greatly succeeds. I couldn't fall into it during the first two acts, but I'm sure most people did. I enjoyed the hell out of the third act up on that big screen. To me, it is easily the fourth best Star Wars movie, and is a much better film than The Force Awakens.
Perhaps one of the biggest mistakes that Disney has made with the Star Wars franchise was separating from Michael Arndt during the early stages of pre-production on The Force Awakens. He is exactly the type of scribe they need to bring Star Wars back to where it deserves to be.
Though I had my issues with it, Rogue One, if for but 30 or 40 minutes, brought me back to the Star Wars of my childhood. And for that I'm happy and satisfied. And just to be clear: I think Felicity Jones is a huge star in the making.
My rating: 9.3/10
We've had a pretty awful year when it comes to celebrity deaths. Going forward, I think it'll just get worse as so many of the stars of the '60's, 70's, & '80's are now entering their golden years. The heavy toll that the fast celebrity lifestyle brings, as always, is causing too many of our beloved celebrities to die far before they should.
The death of Carrie Fisher is going to hit many hard. Not only did we fall in love with her amazing wit and sharp attitude over the years, but she, as Princess Leia, was nothing short of a monumental part of many of our childhoods.
I don't think that Millennials had anything like Star Wars in their childhood. Harry Potter was huge, but it wasn't Star Wars huge. Virtually all of us kids growing up in the '70s and '80s lived and breathed Star Wars. We begged our parents to buy us the little plastic figures and space ships which we played with for hundreds, if not thousands of hours. There is nothing today, not even close, to the anticipation of The Empire Strikes Back or Return of the Jedi being released. They were enormous cultural events—around the world.
And as these main Star Wars actors pass, so does a little part of our childhood. It's crushing. It's not just that it reminds us of how mortal we all are as human beings, It reminds us that the beloved parts of our childhood were just a temporary moment in time that will one day be forgotten forever.
Unlike so many of the celebrities we see on the TV all of the time, Carrie Fisher truly seemed like a person who would be an absolute blast to have lunch with and hear her stories, so many of which will now never be told. Now we just have the iconic images of her that will never leave our brains: bending down to give R2D2 that all important message, fighting in the Rebel base on Hoth, being chained to Jabba the Hutt.
It's a sad day, but it puts into perspective how truly special our childhoods were, in large part because of this monumental sci-fi space series that happened so long ago, in a galaxy far, far away, that changed our lives forever.
Gamespot's top five games of 2016 are:
5. The Last Guardian
4. Dishonored 2
3. Titanfall 2
2. Unchartered 4
I don't play the Dishonored or Unchartered series, though obviously they're well liked. I didn't play The Last Guardian either.
I am very glad that Titanfall 2 and Overwatch scored so high. I love them both. I'd give the strong edge to Titanfall 2, though Overwatch was designed for a much broader audience. Both games can easily be played for dozens, if not hundreds of hours and still feel fresh.
Overall, 2016 was a solid year for videogames. 2015, to me, was the year of The Witcher 3, Fallout 4, and Star Wars: Battlefront. 2017 is the year of Titanfall 2 and Overwatch.
What will 2017 bring? I think Red Dead Redemption 2 and the new Battlefront will be early contenders for game of the year. What I am pretty sure of is that a year from now, I'll still be playing Titanfall 2 and Overwatch, just like I still play The Witcher 3 now, a few months short of two years after its release date.
It is free trial weekend for Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, the 13th installment in the series which started way back in 2003. I had been a long-time COD fan, from the beginning. I gave up after Ghosts and Advanced Warfare because it became obvious that Activision was putting the series into profit mode and out of innovation mode.
I really loved the Infinity Ward versions (COD-IV, Modern Warfare 1 & 2) back when Vince Zampella was still around, but after he left to form Respawn, Titanfall became the obvious FPSer series to jump to.
Although I haven't been happy with COD for some time, I decided to download Infinite Warfare to see if it was as mediocre as the reviews claimed it to be. It was Infinity Ward, after all, so maybe it wasn't so bad?
I could only play a few rounds. It was horrendous. The graphics, the map design, the game flow: it felt like something straight out of 2006. I stopped playing it, and went back to Titanfall 2.
To be clear: COD: Infinite Warfare isn't worth the price of free. It's garbage. The series is dead to me.
Thankfully, Respawn and DICE are still pushing the genre forward. Call of Duty had a terrific run. The series is a significant part of videogame history. Unfortunately, after Black Ops 2, it started a deadly quality slide. I hold out no hope for a return to glory.
In its heyday, nothing was better than Call of Duty. It'll be missed. It's highly unfortunate to see it suffer so badly in its later years. Activision should put it out of its misery. Unfortunately, as long as there is a penny to be made, that is unlikely to happen.
Total time put into Infinite Warfare: less than 30 minutes.
Total time (so far) put into Titanfall 2: over 40 hours, and still loving every minute of it.
Jon David Rosten, author of
Order "The Wicked Trees" off of Amazon, today!