Stranger Things – Season 2

Finished it late last night.  Thoughts included.  Slight spoilers.

  • Bob (Sean Astin) is really an interesting character.  I think he’s the dad most geeks would have wanted.  There’s a particular scene that is 80s horror trope, and you see it a mile away, and it really drives home the theme of this season.
  • Joyce and Hopper seems forced.  Joyce finally moves away from hysterical to driven, and goes deep into mom-mode.
  • Hopper spends an entire episode making horrible decisions.  Narratively required, but not justified.  There were other methods to reach the same end point, this was a poor writing decision.
  • Jonathan, Nancy, and Steve triangle doesn’t work as well as it should.  Jonathan and Nancy clearly have better chemistry.  It’s forced and corny, but you can see it underneath.
  • Nancy provides too much exposition and little character growth.  Until the last 5 minutes of the series.  Seems a tad wasted.
  • Jonathan does a serviceable job and surrogate dad, big brother.  He moves further away from self-doubt.
  • Steve.  My man.  If they made a series just about Steve, I’d watch it.  He is the star of every scene, and continues to bring a level of realism/grounding to the surreal events.  His character arc is just amazing, coming to terms with the mortality of his fame, his role in the big picture, his openness with Dustin.
  • Dustin has highs and lows.  There’s some good growth here, and he’s that trash talking kid everyone got along with.  His buddy comedy with Steve is the backbone of the tail of the season.
  • Luke is great.  The rage he felt in the former is replaced with trying to protect people in the second.  His relationship with Max is believable, full of the same hurdles all teens go through.
  • Max is interesting but takes a bit too long to develop, then just seems to stall.  Everyone seems to have a role, but hers goes away too quickly.
  • Billy is something else.  Our version of the upside down monster.  There’s just enough there to realize that he has his own demons, and that he’s riding a knife’s edge to keep sane.  Borderline psychopath.  Some solid potential.
  • Mike.  He’s there at the start and there at the end.  More of a lost puppy than anything of real value.  He’s the heart of it all, certainly, but that’s about it.  His dislike for Max seems forced… he’s a team leader but rarely acts like it.
  • Will.  I won’t spoil it but he needs a character arc that makes sense for the next season.  He’s only there for exposition and story purposes.  Well, minus the first 3 episodes, where there’s potential.
  • The supporting cast is top notch.  Paul Reiser goes against type and delivers.  Kali (8) hits the right note for someone who had to grow up alone and is full of anger.  Her posse isn’t too bright, minus Funshine (Kai Greene).
  • Eleven has 2 solid episodes of growth.  The 2nd one feels forced, and teaches her the difference between killing and being a killer.  Her relationship with Hopper works, from her perspective at least.  She’s a bit too much the “golden gun” for the overall arc, as most of the other characters provide minimal value (‘cept Steve, that boss!)

The overall horror arc has bits that work, others that don’t.  The start is more John Hughes, and the middle gets into Steven King land.  Overall, I’m certainly satisfied but it does less than the first season.  The main issue is that we know 6 of the main characters in many situations (Mike, Dustin, Luke, Eleven, Nancy and Steve), and how they act here isn’t exactly new… and when they don’t stay in character it’s jarring.

It is still binge-worthy. It still makes you want to see what comes next.  It’s still one of the better series that we have available.  And any series that has a Mindflayer as a main villain, I’m in.

Blade Runner 2049

Related from Isey

Spoilers ahead.

Seriously.  King Kong dies at the end, Superman comes back from the dead, Maggie shot Mr Burns.

I watch the original Blade Runner every month or so.  It’s the director’s cut most often, the voice over junk is really quite poor.  It may be my favorite all-time movie, and I am vividly aware that it is niche/cult in nature.  That said, you cannot help but watch it today and realize how much influence it has had on the sci-fi genre over the past 35 years.  I mean, the Matrix would not exist.

Further, I’ve read pretty much every book from Phillip K Dick.  He clearly had an episode during his life where he went off the deep end.  He stayed sane enough to try and tell some stories.  VALIS… jeez.  Good luck with that.

I’ve watched most of Ridley Scott’s films and frankly, he’s had some really bad writers in the past few years.  Denis Villeneuve is an incredibly strong pickup to helm a complicated story.  Arrival is clear indication of that.

Blade Runner 2049 runs for 2:45.  I was in a cinema with full bore sound and reclining chairs.  It felt like a 30 minute TV episode.  It has incredibly drawn out scenes where nothing happens.  I don’t think a word is even spoken until 10 minutes in, as every step taken is deliberate.  In a world of Transformers explosions and a complete absence of character growth or story pacing, this is abnormal and hard on the senses.  We’ve been trained to expect a certain pace in sci-fi.  BR2049 bucks that trend, at nearly every corner.

The movie’s sound, art, pacing, direction, acting… all of it jives with the nervous confusion of the first one.  The director of photography deserves an award here… it’s on Mad Max level of quality.  It does not feel like a sequel, just like the Two Towers was not a sequel to The Fellowship of the Ring.  That is a masterful achievement after such a long period of time.

High level plot.  It’s 35 years after the first one.  The previous robots are all supposedly dead.  Tyrell is bankrupt.  Wallace bought him out and designed perfectly subjected robots instead, with unlimited lifespans.  Oh, that can’t be bad, right?

Agent K (Gosling) tracks down the remnants of old models that have fun.  Finds one.  Blurb about witnessing a miracle.  Turns out Rachel (secretary from first movie) had a kid with Deckard, something that was thought impossible.  Repercussions ensue.

The movie deals with a caste system, what it means to be “human”, what it means to live a lie, what the Turing test actually entails, and how the line between AI and humanity is much thinner than anyone accounts for.

We typically define life through four main criteria.  Eating (or metabolizing), Growth/Adaptation, Survival, and Reproduction.  Replicants, in the movie universe, only have the first 3.  When the prospect of Reproduction shows up… things get interesting.

K and his AI companion Joi have an neat relationship.  It starts off really simple, just to add some “life” to his apartment.  It clearly grows over time, with Joi seeming to evolve to meet K’s personal needs.  She is a clear enabler of his fantasies – and this is taken to the literal extent.  Her death, and following alternate virtual ad presentation, using the same keywords, makes K doubt what was actually real.  Same for me.  She clearly passed the Turing test, but was she an isolated and unique representation, or simply a tool that self-adapted?

Deckard gives up his child to protect it.  I know I missed some key parts in this story, as his involvement seems somewhat aloof considering he’s the genesis of it all.  His scene with robo-Rachel is even more confusing.

The Replicant hidden alliance wants to protect the child.  For some long-term purpose that isn’t quite clear.  Wallace (Jared Leto) wants to have her in order to provide pro-creation to all his replicants, and sends Luv (Hoeks) to do whatever is necessary to get that info.  Wallace has twinged of mania, but the end goal in the context of the entire movie, actually puts him in a grey light.  If all replicants could procreate, and all replicants can go through the character growth of K (and Rachel, and Sapper, and…) then that would be a hell of a story to see.  The base premise that Wallace would somehow have controls over these replicants is laid to waste by the end of the film.  I am either missing some underlying message, or this is a lost opportunity.

When you finally figure out who the child actually is… things just click together like a Sherlock mystery.  The clues are rather evident.   There is a lot of show rather than tell, which is good.

The end result, similar to the original movie, is that by the end of the film (and for most of it too) you are left wondering who is human and by what definition.  You can see the start of a civil war, one that can dramatically swing in one party’s favor depending on that child.  There are a whole lot of “what ifs” that remain unanswered.

Good movies tell a story with interesting character choices and growth.  Great movies tell it for multiple characters and then make you question how that impacts you.  It isn’t a perfect movie, but it certainly is a great one.  And one that I will need to watch multiple times a year.

Tomb Raider Movie

Has anyone else played Tomb Raider (2013)?  This movie appears to be a near direct adaptation.  My guess is that the trailer spends more time on the setup than the actual film will spend on the island.

I’m trying to think of any game-to-movie direct adaptation and none are really coming to mind.  Plenty have been adapted… but a near copy?  This is really strange.

Other musings:

  • Trinity is in the 2nd game (Rise of the Tomb Raider)
  • Alicia looks like she put in a ton of work to get into fighting shape.
  • She holds the bow with the left hand, then in another shot draws with the left hand.  I feel bad that I notice these things.
  • That is not how any bow is drawn, unless it’s a kid’s version
  • That axe is impressive
  • Half of the trailer seems to either be slow-mo (for super jumps) or poor exposition
  • The CG isn’t too bad
  • I like the lighting and framing of the shots
  • Generic sound/music isn’t too enticing
  • The trailer appears to give away the entire plot of the movie

An interesting film from a meta perspective.  I’m just not terribly interested in seeing it.

Wonder Woman Does It Right

Very similar thoughts to Isey on this one, Wonder Woman is just an excellent super hero movie – full stop.  My wife was super pumped before the screening, and even more so after.

The film is good for numerous reasons – though the majority are due to comparisons to previous DC films.  Zack Snyder films comic books, he likes painting pictures and slow pans.  There’s very little character development, and way too much exposure.  Suicide Squad was a change of pace, though there were still some rough spots.

WW has a good story.  Diane’s child-like innocence and growth is well paced.  (Minus that one scene that is never referred to again in the movie).  The supporting cast all have their own quirks, which is really quite nice to see.  The enemies suffer from the traditional “why are you a bad guy again?” issue that all super hero movies have, but the context of WW1 helps fill in the blanks.  I like that there are real stakes in the film, and that the happy ending is bittersweet.  Diane is extremely principled, and there’s a relationship built with her throughout.   DC comics were always about people relating to the heroes, and that was not achieved until this film.

The film itself is well done technically.  The scenes are really well shot, the lighting is great, the action is fluid.  There is a lot of orange and brown.  The brown is relative to the setting (WWI) but the amount of orange really caught my eye.  The music is well timed with the action pieces, and works really well to punctuate what’s happening on screen.

I really enjoyed the final act.  It’s a relative mess mind you, but the consistent casting and choices that are made by the characters generally work.  It feels like something was achieved.  And lordy, that final blitz that WW does on the soldiers is all kinds of cathartic.

I don’t get to see many movies at the cinema.  This is one of the few that made the top of list, and one of the few that I’d actually pay to see again.

I am ever hopeful that the DC-film masters pay attention to why this film works and apply those lessons for the next versions.  Joss Whedon is doing the final part of Justice League – so there’s some minor hope there.  Aquaman still has time to be tweaked, though I have less doubts on that one to start.  I think it’s safe to say that the days of heavy exposition are done – people want to have relate-able characters.  Sorry Zach.

Marvel & Netflix

I’ve watched both seasons of Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and now Luke Cage.  All of them are rather highly rated, and I can see why that is.  That said, all 3 series are filled with dumbness.  Let me explain.

All 3 are superheroes with marginal powers.  By that, I mean that they are strong and have some toughness to them (DD is a bit more complicated).  That makes them more human than say, Spiderman or Thor.  Them being human means that we can relate to them more, and they are supposed to have flaws to support that theory.

DD has some form of OCD.  JJ is an alchoholic.  LC suffers from anxiety.  The issue here is that none of them ever seem to address those issues. They start flawed, go through the story, and remain flawed.

Let’s start with DD.  He begins innocently enough, then it just escalates to a personal vendetta to save the city.  And it never stops, no matter the sacrifice.  There is no epiphany here.  He loses the girl (s), his best friend, and the bad guys win by the end of the last season.  The reason that the Punisher stands out so much is because he actually has a character arc.  Hell, everyone has a character arc but the hero.

JJ is 5 episodes too long of moping.  The best progression is on her sidekick.  Killgrave is neat when you learn the backstory but after the 60th person that he mindcontrols to kill themselves, I get it.  He’s a douche.  I still don’t get the ending.

LC is JJ time two.  The entire series is about him being committed, then backing out of helping his community.  I dunno, but if I was 100% immune to bad guys, I would just walk in, take everything they had, burn down the house, and never look back.  The one where he takes the cash and then let’s the bad guys come back worse is just dumb.  The cops are dumb.  Cottonmouth and Shades are well-written.  Claire (Rosario Dawson) is well written.  Zip is not.  He tried to shoot Luke Cage in a half dozen episodes.  Like, at what point do you realize that he’s immune?

In all three series the hero makes decisions that go against all logical judgment.  They make a choice, then go back on that choice for “reasons” that make no sense.  To be honest, this reminds me a lot of the final two Matrix films.  At the end of the first, Neo understands his power and his responsibility.  He has a mission.  Then the 2nd one starts and he doubts everything.  What?  I get that bad things happen, I do.  Even with the best laid plans, things can and will go wrong.  But when the errors happen because of the heroes, repeatedly, that’s where it gets annoying.  Let the bad guy outsmart you.  Let the ally betray you.  Let the assumptions be proven false.

And I think the main issue with this is padding – stretching of material.  The movies have 2.5 hours to tell the story and a single bad guy plot.  The Netflix series have 13 hours to fill, but only a single story and only a single bad guy plot.  I can understand that the movies have really crappy bad guys.  Netflix addresses that by dedicating a whole hour to their backstories and motivations.  Fisk is extremely well done.  Cottonmouth is a solid one too.  Diamondback makes little sense.  Killgrave has some sense of pity.  Electra is solid.

Ok.  That leaves 12 hours to go. In each series you could cut it in half and it would be better for it.

The really sad thing about it all, is that it’s still miles better than anything DC/Snyder has released.

First Post of the Year

Half way through Jan and not a post to be seen.  I need to get on that.

The final stretch of the holidays was a blur, followed by the stomach flu, then more work than I expected.  Being able to write has been a challenge, one I need to actively make time for.  Still, some minor updates.

Grim Dawn

I’ve played a ton of this game.  The higher difficulties are quite challenging compared to normal mode, which is nice.  My lightning shaman is fun to play, though I’m looking at building a pure tank for the next run through.  While the maps themselves are not randomized, the enemies generally are, and the loot certainly is.  I rather enjoy that depth in the game, especially the ability to re-configure your skill layout.  That’s one of my pet peeves in Path of Exile, you’re stuck with a specific item set based on your locked-in skills.  Mind you, leveling in PoE is a lot faster than in Grim Dawn, so it sort of works out.

New Tablet

My youngest daughter took a couple tries but successfully broke my table in the fall – or at least the digitizer.  I’ve been unable to repair it, so I spent some time looking for a replacement.  I don’t generally like to buy equipment unless there’s a good deal to be had, and I’m not one for a $90 tablet either.  Things worked out when I found the Nvidia Shield Table K1 for $199.  Spec-wise, it’s comparable to tablets in the $400 range, and it has an optional controller (which works great).  I ordered it shortly after the holidays and I am quite impressed with it.  The only real downside is the lack of a charger.  Since it’s a tablet, it needs a solid 2ma plug, and cell phones are not often above 1.  I have 1 charger that’s making due but the other ones are darn slow to charge it up.

Games play and look amazing.  Spending some quality time with KOTOR now.  For a game that came out in 2003, it’s aged remarkable well.  The tablet controls are more than adequate, with the exception of swoop racing.  For that, I absolutely need a controller to get ace times.  Otherwise though, superb port and worth every penny.  Now if only I could get XCOM to work on it…I’m sure there’s an APK somewhere.

Force Awakens

I was able to see this with my family at a VIP cinema.  It’s one of those that you sit in leather recliners, they serve food and beer and overall a much better experience.  I’ll be honest, I had shivers watching it.  It’s not the best movie ever made, far from it, but it hits every single note required for a solid boost of nostalgia and “newness” to make it work.  It was enough to convert my wife to Star Wars fan and my kids are certainly interested as well.

I won’t post any spoilers but it’s fair to say that’s it’s eerily similar to Ep4 in the paces.  There’s only minor merchandising in the movie (BB8 notably, and he’s a great R2 surrogate), the acting is pretty solid, and the visuals are impressive.  I look forward to the next installment.

Board Games

This is in 2 parts actually.  Over the holidays my kids got some board games and I wanted some as well.  Junior Monopoly is pretty good at teaching counting and the games are fairly quick.  Junior Catan is about trading gains today for gains tomorrow, which is interesting to see a kid figure out (even adults).  The staples of Uno, Trouble, Perfection, Kerplunk and Rebound are also additions to the pile.

For myself, I picked up an expansion to Imperial Assault, Twin Shadows.  That came with 2 heroes, 2 villains and some extra baddies (Wampas!).  There was a pretty big sale on acrylic paints at the craft shop over the holidays, so I’m making my way through all the miniatures now.  I’d say I’m about ¾ of the way through now, in terms of actual miniatures, but only half of the way through painting, as what’s left is individual models.  Painting 9 Storm Troopers is slightly more work than painting a single hero.

It’s remarkable how much skill progress I’ve had these past weeks though.  Looking at what I started doing, compared to what I’m doing now… it’s neat.  I can paint twice as fast and it looks a whole lot better.  I’ll post a picture of my Nexu (the cat from Ep2) soon to show an example.  To finish them off, I need to restock on some flock and rocks to fill out the bases.

The next post up should deal with 2016 predictions.

Inside Out

This weekend we babysat my wife’s cousin’s kid, so it’s a nephew that’s twice removed I think.  I’m not terribly good at family tree math.  I have 2 girls, so the added “Godzilla in the city” of a little boy was fun to watch.  Not that my girls are princesses mind you, but they certainly don’t have the same aggressive nature little boys have.

Easy enough of a day, Santa Clause parade, good weather, crafts, legos, food.  Then we sat down to watch a movie in the basement.  Kids love popcorn and the 8 foot screen helps too.  My wife suggested we watch Inside Out, that there Pixar movie.  It certainly had some positive reviews from critics.

Pre-amble before the ramble.  I’ve seen nearly all Pixar movies.  They strike a nice balance between kids movies about exploration and some adult jokes inset as well.  My kids generally like them, in particular the Toy Story series and Cars.  As a general rule, they follow the same plot arc in each movie.  Picturesque situation to start, disaster for the main character, lessons learned (and hijinks), 2-3 spots of ups and downs, revelations, back to beginning.  While it’s a simple formula, it’s the character’s strengths and weaknesses that make a film work.

Inside Out has a single lesson learned in the movie, it’s OK to be sad (or perhaps that you can feel more than joy and be happy).  And it’s the most depressing kids movie I have seen in years.  From the moment Riley steps out of the car to see her new house, until the moment she steps on the bus, it’s disaster after disaster.  The kids kept asking questions as to why everyone was crying all the time, why they kept falling and losing things.  When Bing Bong goes away…the hell man, is this ol’ Yeller?  This isn’t to say it’s not a good movie, it’s really quite a good one.  It’s more than the concepts are not ones that a kid can appreciate until they are quite a bit older.  It’s a psychoanalyst’s dream mind you, and I think that’s my issue.

Riley (and her parents) aren’t on screen enough.  They are complex people.  Riley’s emotions on the other hand are clearly one-dimensional – that’s the whole point.  Seeing Anger shoot flames is funny the first and second time, after time #6 you’ve had enough.

It’s a weird thing watching kids’ movies as an adult.  You’re not looking for the same thing anymore (well, maybe I am), so you sort of lose the ability to appreciate it on the same level.  I like to watch my kids watch a movie.  Their reactions and questions say a lot about what they are thinking and how they are absorbing the material.  I guess we’ll come back to Inside Out in a few more years.

Running Around in Fallout 4

I just seem to be wandering around lately in game.  There’s a whole lot of “oooh what’s in here” going on.  Mind you, I completed the Fort Hagen part of the main quest, so I’m seeing more synths and the Brotherhood of Steel’s vertibirds are showing up all over.  As I’m exploring further into the land, more difficult enemies are starting to show up.  The far north east corner had a neat little tower protected by raiders.  I made my way to the top and notices a fight between 2 deathclaws and some legendary raiders take place.  Deathclaws won, I sniped from afar and collected some nice loots.

I found a fish packing plant on the NE corner, completely surrounded by dead raiders.  So that’s a good sign right?  Anyways, I stepped in, searched around and nothing except a giant pit in the middle.  So of course I head down.  About 30 syths later I exit the pit and get ready to leave.  Opening the door has an ambush attack force of synths waiting for me too.  Every darn corner in that place had something waiting to kill me.  Even when I thought it was all over, more combat.

It’s these neat little adrenaline rushes that are a ton of fun in game.  You’re never really quite sure of what’s on the other side of that wall.  There’s a 50% chance there’s nothing there, but if there is something, odd are very high that it wants to kill you.  That the game is able to insert so many areas of silence and slowing of pace allows the firefights to mean more.  This isn’t a Michael Bay movie, that’s for sure.