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.
I'm sure that under normal circumstances, I would never have watched Gilmore Girls. I'm obviously not the targeted demo. However, in the early 2000's, I was working at Warner Bros. in the main network control room which aired The WB, so I saw every episode, several times.
I actually enjoyed the show. It was witty and had great characters. After the original show-runner, Amy Sherman-Palladino, was replaced after Season 6, it became obvious that Season 7 would be the last. I always felt like the show didn't get the chance it deserved to run its full course.
Fortunately, Netflix, like they often do, came in several years later to save the day. They brought back Sherman-Palladino and let her do her thing. The reviews for what resulted, Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, were terrific, as was the estimated views, and after watching all four feature-length episodes, I can understand why.
It took about a couple of scenes for me to fall back into the show, but once I did, I was hooked. The writing was as sharp as it ever was. Palladino wisely chose to skip forward to Rory's early thirties, where she's struggling to find her way, not only in the competitive NYC journalism space, but in life in general. Lorelai has her crossroads ahead of her as well, both with the inn and with Luke. Emily, along with the rest of the Gilmore family, has to deal with the death of Richard, which is handled in tremendous dramatic fashion throughout the episodes.
There are some minor problems. There are timing issues which seem odd. Characters seemingly travel long distances instantly. Rory writes an inch thick part of a manuscript overnight. Some scenes are tied together in similar unfortunate, clunky ways. Although most of the humor is terrific, some of it falls flat, like when Lorelei fires one celebrity chef after another. It's one of the few sets of scenes that should have been left out.
Most of the scenes work tremendously well, however, At times, Sherman-Palladino even lets us dislike Lorelei and Rory, more so than had ever been the case in the show. Rory is having an affair with Logan, who is engaged. But it fits, now that she's in her thirties and her world is crashing down around her. It leads to the ultimate question, will her poor decisions lead her to repeat the life of her mother?
A Year in the Life does a stunningly good job of bringing back so many of the old characters, even if for a scene or two. The characters have for the most part moved on, but Stars Hollow stays stuck in its eternal time warp, The town was always a central character to the show, and now that Rory is at her inevitable what-am-I-going-to-do-with-my-life? phase, it is even more important. Could Stars Hollow be enough for her?
I think A Year in the Life is the finest season of Gilmore Girls to date. Sherman-Palladino deserves major credit for this accomplishment (and her husband as well). Some of the tense scenes where the Gilmore family fights to come to grips with the death of Richard are the best of the entire series. And in fitting fashion, it ends on a wallop of a note, so we must hope that Netflix allows for future seasons so that Sherman-Palladino can end the series in the way she feels it must.
My rating: 9.5/10
Sometimes the stars align in the most magnificent of ways.
My work week starts on Thursday afternoon. My typical routine is to go to the grocery store on Thursday morning, cook my lunch for the next few work days, and then head off to work. However, this last Thursday, the water was shut off at my condo complex for maintenance purposes, so I didn't do any cooking.
On Thursdays, my employer gives out free bagels. I decided to eat one this Thursday, since I didn't bring my lunch. I was thinking about going out and getting something else small to eat, but decided to go for a walk during my lunch break instead, something I almost never do.
During my walk, which was at night, I strolled by the Westin Hotel on Century Blvd., just downstreet from LAX. There was a little black kitten, sitting in the grass in front of the hedges alongside the hotel, crying loudly. Several people just walked by her, without even looking. I decided to leave her for the time being, since I didn't want to take her in case her mother had left her there while going out to hunt.
After work, at 11:30pm, I walked back to the front of the hotel. I didn't see the cat, but I whistled, and it replied. So I put out a can of tuna, and after a few minutes, it came walking towards me. I let it eat for a bit before grabbing it and taking it home.
My previous cat had passed away at age 18, early last year. I wasn't planning on getting a new cat for another year or so. But, I figured I certainly wasn't going to pass up the opportunity to save this very frightened little kitty. It had been left on a very busy street, and I'm sure hundreds of people walked by it, ignoring its pleas for help.
She is doing well. I took her to a vet on Friday, and she's a healthy 5-6 week old female kitten. She's getting braver by the day, is eating copious amounts of food, and is a very playful, black ball of fur.
So, as fate would have it, because those water valves at my condo happened to be replaced on Thursday, I was able to rescue a beautiful little kitty who I've named Miss Daisy Buchanan High Dragonborn Metal Cat of Apocalyptic Supernova Thunder, or just plain 'Daisy' for short. You can follow her on Instagram: @missdaisykitten.
There has been a noticeable shift in first-person-shooters to not include, or to make it somewhat difficult to view, a player's Kill-to-Death ratio. The old Call of Duty syndrome, where too many players focus on their own K/D's over their team's goal, made shooters less fun to play over the years. The players who took great pride in their K/D often camped or sniped, even if it was hurtful to their team. The great thing about FPS's that have small teams, is one person can oftentimes make a big difference—but can be a great hinderance, as well.
Blizzard's Overwatch has no visible sign of any K/D, and that's a good thing, as the game modes are non-Team Deathmatch in nature. I never feel stressed about dying in Overwatch. The penalty for dying is a time fine, because you don't get back to the battle very quickly. This can hurt your team, but it has no lasting effect beyond the current game.
When Titanfall 2 first came out, there was no visible K/D stat. In a recent update, they added it, both a total K/D and a pilot vs. pilot K/D. The stats page is not hard to get to, but it's not brightly highlighted either.
I've noticed that having the stats available has caused me to adjust my play. During the first prestige of any FPS, I'm always under 1.0 with my K/D, regardless of the game. Not knowing the maps or weapons burdens me more than the average player. Then in subsequent prestiges, I tend to turn positive. During those first couple of prestiges, I tend to check the K/D stat far too often.
When the Titanfall 2 update hit, my total K/D was 2.5, and my pilot vs. pilot K/D was 0.8. Now they're both, as expected during the second prestige (regen), creeping upwards. But what's changed is my anxiety when I have a horrible game. It tracks the last ten games you played, and I'll go a game or two where I'm 3.0/1.2, and then one where I'm 4.5/2.5. But when that one awful game hits where I'm 1.5/0.6, it definitely affects my play for the next few rounds, as I become more conservative with my play, and as I switch to weapons/Titans that I'm better with. My gaming brain doesn't accept that I was just having a bad game, probably against better players. The odds of going up against a stack of superior players in the next few rounds is low. And sometimes the flow just works against you for a game, even against average players.
I think a wise thing would be to put the winning percentage up front and center. For a game like Overwatch, or any game without Team Deathmatch, K/D doesn't belong at all. But for something like Titanfall, it's useful. I don't hear people bragging about their K/D or their worry over it dropping. It would nice if it was burried further though, so its psychological ranking would be below other stats that are more important to team play.
Kill-to-Death ratios had their heyday. The time has come for them to be put in their place, however. How good of a FPS player you are, especially in our current gaming era, depends on far more than your ability to live and die. It depends more on your ability to achieve the objective of the game mode. We probably need a whole new order of stats to measure our competency at doing this.
And for the love of God, game developers, please come up with a way, even if it's minor, to punish frequent campers. Having a camping stat that everyone can see, so they know how awful of a human being you are for sitting behind that doorway because you're too much of an ass to play the game like it was meant to be played, would be much more useful to the gaming world than any K/D stat ever was.
I finally finished the first season of Netflix's Stranger Things, the 1980's fantasy themed, Spielberg-esque drama.
I loved the retro feel of the show. It felt like every minute of it, from the Dungeons & Dragons basement stuff, to the cheap wood paneling in the houses, took me back to my teenage years. The production artists did a fantastic job. This is nostalgia done right and is a huge part of why so many people love the series.
The casting is great too—especially the kids, who are terrific throughout. There are some relatively dark, heavy scenes, and the child actors seemingly handle them with ease. The adult actors do a fine job as well, especially David Harbour who plays the local police chief trying to figure out the mystery.
I felt Stranger Things shined in tense moments of wonderment and confusion as to what exactly was going on. When the kids were looking at each other, and you could feel their minds churning, trying to figure stuff out—it was pure awesomeness. The more it tried to explain what was happening, especially from a scientific standpoint, the more trouble it got into. Believability issues extended to other areas as well, such as the police chief easily sneaking into a top secret government facility. The special effects were at times great, and at times mediocre. I'm guessing Netflix will pony up a higher budget for season two to address some of these issues.
The concept, sans the scientific explanation of it, was absolutely terrific for such a period piece. These kids are playing characters that were my age at that time. I could strongly relate to so much of what was going on, and I loved it.
Eight episodes was fitting for this first season. The tension was effectily built up over the season's arc. I'm glad Netflix is keeping Season 2 to nine episodes, so we won't get unnecessary lulls in the emotional buildup.
Overall, I give Stranger Things high marks, especially in terms of 1980's fantasy nostalgia. Except for a few, and sometimes major, believability issues, I enjoyed the hell out of it. Netflix did things right, yet again.
My rating: 8.6/10
Ever since the positive buzz surrounding the film during its premiere at the Venice Film Festival in September, I've been looking forward to seeing Arrival, a movie that critics and audiences have both seemed to love. Intelligent, emotional, astonishing--or so say many of the reviews. Since well-produced sci-fi is so hard to come by, my expectations were high.
I'm not going to give much away. Arrival is a story that begins with alien ships arriving in different parts of the world. Amy Adams plays a linguist who is hired by the federal government to try to figure out what the aliens are saying (their speech sounds like whale grunts, and their writing is a series of very complicated looking circles). There's a love interest played by Jeremy Renner who is some sort of scientist, also hired to figure out what the aliens want.
To be honest, this was the first film I fell asleep during, in many, many years. I don't think I missed much, as my snoring quickly woke me up in the crowded theatre. One could easily snooze through fifteen minutes of the first hour of this film and not feel like you missed a beat.
Hence the problem: this is an alien movie with little excitement. Adams decodes the alien language in a ridiculously and completely unbelievable short period of time. We don't feel part of this finding, as it's just shown that she has the moment where the circles make sense. Awful story telling at this key moment ruins the entire film.
Though Adam's performance is terrific as usual, it can't save this story, whose last act is exactly the opposite of what the critics claim it to be. It's not intelligent. It's dumb. It's very dumb.
This film tries so hard to be something from the mind of Terrence Malick or Christopher Nolan, but ends up being a poor man's version of either. I hadn't believed an ounce of it throughout, and the big attempt at a spiritual conclusion fell extremely flat with me. Arrival ended up being a solidly-crafted, well-acted film, that suffered from poor story conception by the writers.
I'm glad an adult sci-fi drama is doing well with critics and audiences, however. Hopefully, we'll see a bit of resurgence with the genre. And with a bit of luck, every ten years or so, we'll be able to see a top-quality epic like Tree of Life or Inception, and a bunch of films, like Arrival, that attempt to be such a masterpiece, but end up falling far short.
My rating: a very generous 7/10.
Jon David Rosten, author of
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