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The Pop Culture Wing of Hot Corner Harbor

Sunday, December 10, 2017

The Best Pokémon Missing from Pokkén Tournament DX

I’ve been playing a decent amount of Pokkén Tournament DX for the Switch as of late. Fighting games aren’t always my jam, but I’ve found myself liking it a lot so far, which maybe isn’t surprising given my love for Pokémon as a series. And given that love of Pokémon, I have some opinions on the roster that was chosen for the game. Granted, the roster as it is isn’t bad or anything. At 807 total species in the series, narrowing it down to about 20 is a difficult task, and the 21* that were included in the game do as good a job as any others.

*Well, 19. Two of the characters, Pikachu Libre and Shadow Mewtwo, are variations of other Pokémon already on the roster. So they don’t really widen the total scope of species represented, even if they are unique characters in their own right.

But at the same time…since DX is a port of an earlier game, a part of me hoped it would include a couple of new choices to expand the roster into at least the mid-20s. Instead, we basically just got one new character (plus four others that were in the arcade version but not the Wii U one). It would have been nice to have seen a little more added in to this updated version*

*I didn’t really play the original version all that much, so I feel like I can’t complain too much since it’s all new to me either way. But still.

There’s still hope, of course, in the way of things like downloadable content, but there’s been no news on that front. Given all of that, I assembled a list of my thoughts on the most notable Pokémon omitted from Pokken Tournament DX’s playable roster.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Meet the Robinsons Is Two Clicks Off of Being a Disney Classic

I love Disney movies (that may have been obvious already, not sure), and I love time travel movies (may not be as obvious), so I figured it was long overdo for me to revisit what remains to this day the only film in the Disney Animated Canon to tackle time travel, 2007's Meet the Robinsons.

The movie has kind of been forgotten, which maybe isn't too surprising; it did come out at a rather low point in Disney's history, after all, on the heels of a string of failures in the first few years of the millennium.* But, it came right before the turnaround that lead to the re-invigoration of the studio, where we find it today once again something of a juggernaut, and appropriately enough, contains a lot of very strong points in what's otherwise a solid but occasionally uneven movie.

*I don't feel like getting too into the nitty-gritty of each movie, but I feel like it's pretty safe to say the only unqualified success for the studio in the early 2000s was Lilo and Stitch. And while there were some good movies in that stretch that underperformed, I don't think I'll run into too much resistance in saying that the three films immediately preceding Meet the Robinsons, namely Chicken Little, Home on the Range, and Brother Bear, are all among Disney's weakest feature films.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Super Mario Odyssey: Review and Game Design Analysis

Super Mario Odyssey is a burst of joy, in the purest form. I don’t know any better way to describe it than that.

In that vein, the closest comparison I can make to anything is the feeling of playing on a playground when you’re little, exploring each new part; there are the slides, there are the swings, there are the jungle gym, and so on, and here’s how it all fits together. Here, Nintendo has created the their own digital playground, much more intricate and detailed and interesting than the real world ones people are used to. And then, they went and did twelve more times.

The level design work in Odyssey is superb, a case study for anyone who’s interested in video games as a creative medium, with hundreds of things to pull apart. In my article on Splatoon, I alluded to my desire to see more games return to using well-constructed “hub worlds” in navigating to the levels. Mario Odyssey doesn’t do that, yet I hardly found myself missing them.

All of the care that normally went into designing those massive, connecting levels is instead here applied to each individual world, making each feel massive without actually making them large or cumbersome. The amount of things to do in each one is deceptive, and contributes to the illusion of feeling grander than it is; even the largest world could be completely be circumnavigated in less than ten minutes, but each is so densely packed with interesting challenges and exploration that it feels more massive (again, just like a little kid in a new playground).

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Splatoon 2, Its Place Among 3D Platformers, and the Legacy of Super Mario Sunshine

I’ve been playing a lot of Splatoon 2 lately and enjoying it a bunch. One thing that I’ve done so far that I didn’t get to do as much in the first game though was play the story mode; I mostly just didn’t have time then, more than anything. Naturally, I decided to correct that with the sequel, and I found something interesting within: the level design is highly reminiscent of another game I had been thinking about recently.

I’ve had Super Mario Sunshine on my mind lately. There’s no specific reason, it’s just been a handful of small things that bring it to mind on occasion. It got a lot of flak at the time of release, some of which was due to changes it made to the beloved Super Mario 64’s formula, which is to be expected with Nintendo. They’re constantly tinkering with their franchises, and won’t release something unless they feel like it brings something substantial to the series.

I liked a lot of the new stuff, and unfortunately, there hasn’t really been a game since that quite capitalized on some of the things they introduced. The water/jetpack-thing that Mario wielded was one thing in particular that I minded a lot less than everyone else. The level design was also notably different than most subsequent 3D platform games. Sunshine built on Mario 64’s system of a hub world (Delfino Island in Sunshine, Princess Peach’s Castle in 64) with extensive connected levels, which was pretty ubiquitous to the genre at the time.

Sunshine seemed to almost build an entirely connected world; unlike in earlier games like 64, where levels were simply represented by paintings, you could see the levels in Sunshine from each other, way out on the horizons of the stages. Dummied-out data even reveals a planned train connected the world even more; were it not for size-limitations, the game might have been even more interconnected. But this aspect seemed to sort of dead-end with the game.

The one aspect of the game that many people at the time seemed to really like about Sunshine at the time though was the bonus levels. These were collections of floating platforms in a space-like void, stars in the distance, where you’d be stripped of your F.L.U.D.D. waterpack (for the first run-through, at least) to focus on precise jumps and maneuvering. It’s not hard to see how this fed into the design of the follow-up game, Super Mario Galaxy. Every level in the game was collections of planets floating in space, each focusing on jumping and maneuvering without the distraction of a waterpack.

Consequently, the main hub world of Comet Observatory was scaled back to a fraction of Isle Delfino, with a fraction of the areas to explore and tasks to navigate. This was something that the follow-up, Super Mario Galaxy 2, would take to even greater extremes, leaving something that was in total not even the size of the first section of the Castle from way back in Super Mario 64, with most of the navigation of worlds done via selection screens.

And this has sort of been the state of 3D platformers since. Super Mario 3D World got an overworld sort of similar to Super Mario World from way back on the Super Nintendo (maybe it's own topic one day, given my love of Super Mario World), but nothing quite like those original hub worlds of 64 and Sunshine.

And that’s where the Splatoon series and its story mode ties in, in my mind. These games seem to be going back to the days of Super Mario Sunshine and exploring a divergent evolutionary path from the Mario series.

The most obvious change is in the central mechanics of each. Given that people complained about the mechanic of an advanced water gun strapped to Mario, Nintendo apparently decided it was worth separating out into its own game, where it could be fleshed out and played with more extensively and without disrupting the core of the Mario series. In turn, that became a game centered entirely around the mechanics of a Super Soaker-esque water gun and tank strapped to your back, albeit with the ammo changed to ink to fit in with the squid theming of the new game. And, thanks to focusing on this mechanic, the game instead veered more towards the third person shooter genre rather than the 3D platformer.

But it didn’t totally abandon those roots. The level design in story mode is heavily indebted to the same bonus stages that inspired Super Mario Galaxy, as a set of floating platforms suspended in some sort of void that need to be navigated, the main difference being that this time the challenges are a little less based on deft maneuvering and more based on the this-time-included gun mechanic.

And of course, there’s the overworld system. Both Splatoon games moved away from Super Mario Galaxy 2’s primarily-menu based navigation. Instead, there’s a central hub world of a city plaza serving as the menu for each game, with the story mode getting it’s own set of “mini-worlds” in which you navigate to different levels by finding grates to travel through, and completion of a set of levels opens up new “mini-hubs” with their own sets of levels, much like Super Mario 64’s castle with paintings for individual levels and different sections of the castle with new sets of paintings to travel to. And in the case of Splatoon 2 at least, you can see other points from where you stand; the main square is off in the distance, as are the other “mini-hubs”. It’s definitely reminiscent of Super Mario Sunshine’s set-up. It's still not quite on the level of Isle Delfino, which was set up to feel like a real place, while the hubs in Splatoon (outside of the main plaza) are still technically just floating blocks in space, but it's definitely moving back in that direction after a long time away from that design.

It’s worth noting that the Splatoon games may just be a preview of things to come for Nintendo. This fall, they’ll release Super Mario Odyssey on the Switch, and while we don’t know the exact specifics of how it will play, it looks like it might take the design of Sunshine a step further, with small worlds serving as both the individual levels of the old games and the hub worlds. So instead of one major central area with a bunch of different “spokes” coming off it, instead we may get several interconnected worlds that are both their own “hubs and spokes”, with their own missions and goals throughout.

If so, I couldn’t be more excited; it’s been a decade and a half since Super Mario Sunshine, and things like Splatoon 2 seem to indicate Nintendo is itching to return to their old ways. I can’t see what big ideas they can bring back to the 3D Platformer; I've missed seeing this genre push itself in new ways.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Music Monday: Getaway Car Playlist (Inspired by Baby Driver)

Edgar Wright might be my favorite director of all-time. Naturally, I was super excited when I found out that he had another movie coming out this summer, but even more exciting was finding out that it was going to be a musical about car chases.* Sure enough, Baby Driver lived up to all my expectations when I saw it earlier this summer.

*A lot of the initial weirdness one assumes when hearing this conversation dissipates once you remember that The Blues Brothers exists. Apparently, this is a much more natural combination than it first seems.
I wanted to write something about the movie, but I never quite got a better idea than just a page of me just cycling through all of the synonyms for “really cool” that I know. So I finally decided that maybe the best thing to do would be respond to it.

Most of the film’s soundtrack caught me off guard, in a way. For those who haven’t seen it, the main character, “Baby”, is a getaway car driver who is obsessed with music, and needs to sync up his drives with carefully-selected songs. It’s a neat conceit, and I loved it. But thinking back to the movie afterwards (as well as looking over the soundtrack), I sort of had an epiphany: my idea of songs I would use in his place was totally different.

I mean, I had never really thought too hard about what made something a good “getaway car song” before Baby Driver, but my first clue was how little of the soundtrack was something I personally would have picked. Not that any of it is bad; it’s mostly just a matter of taste and frame of reference, if anything. But outside of maybe “Radar Love”, my hypothetical list would have little overlap.

So I put more thought into it: what would my “Getaway Car” Playlist look like? After thinking it over for a while, this is the result. It’s not one of my normal playlists, in that there isn’t really a flow or an “order” to this, and I didn’t spend hours honing the song-to-song transitions; by nature, it’s supposed to be a little stop and start, something you can listen to on shuffle (because, you know, a car chase probably shouldn’t last long).

I’m pretty happy with the end result. Despite not being one of my original “themes” or ideas, I think I put my own distinct spin on the subject. A full text list can be found below as well.

Run with the Bulls-Smallpools
Sins of My Youth-Neon Trees
Stolen Time-Gemini Club
Started a War-Gemini Club
Sex-The 1975
Let’s Make a Lot of Money-Junior Prom
Dance, Dance-Fall Out Boy
Kill V. Maim-Grimes
Next to You-The Police
I Will Follow-U2
Got to Get You Into My Life-Earth, Wind, & Fire
You Dropped a Bomb on Me-The Gap Band
Mirrored Sea-Passion Pit
Something’s Bout to Change-Strange Talk
You Will Leave a Mark-A Silent Film
I Love You to Death-Five Knives
North American Scum-LCD Soundsystem
Leave the Lights On-Mainland
I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor-Arctic Monkeys
Turn It On-Franz Ferdinand
Hang Me Up to Dry-Cold War Kids
All of This-The Naked and Famous
Let It Go-Dragonette
Help Me Run Away-St. Lucia
Paddling Out-Miike Snow
Drive It Like You Stole It-Sing Street
Bounce-Calvin Harris ft. Kelis
My Type-Saint Motel
Try to Lose-Penguin Prison
Making the Most of the Night-Carly Rae Jepsen
Mr. Brightside-The Killers

Friday, August 4, 2017

What Would a Hypothetical Backyard Baseball 2017 Look Like?

I'm not going to repost the whole thing here since that seems a little redundant, but I wrote an article about one of my favorite video games growing up, Backyard Baseball. It's more the type of thing that goes over on Hot Corner Harbor, but I figured since it was a video game post, it deserved at least a mention here, so go check it out!

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Music Monday: "The Beautiful Game" by RAC feat. St. Lucia

A month ago, I published my Summer 2017 Playlist, and I think it turned out pretty well, all things considered. Except for one thing: the perfect song for a Summer 2017 Playlist came out two weeks after I published that. I hate it when stuff like that happens, except we got a great song out of it, so it’s hard to be too mad about it.

RAC is the stage name of André Allen Anjos; it used to be an actual group of musicians under the full name “Remix Artist Collective”, but as far as I can tell, both of those things are in the past. Now it’s just one guy and three letters. I started listening to them/him (I’m always confused on which pronoun to use for “bands” comprised of one person) in 2014, after they/he released the album Strangers. That wound up being one of my favorite albums of the year.*

*Although, surprisingly, nothing from it has found it’s way onto one of my playlists yet. Maybe someday…

I waited for the follow-up anxiously. In 2015, RAC started releasing some new songs once a month, with the intent to have a 12-song album at the end of the year completed, but that trailed off after six songs in seven months. Finally, a full album was announced along with the debut single “This Song” featuring Rostam, which was a promising start. Three more songs would be released in the lead-up to the release of EGO last Friday. After a couple of listens, it’s probably one of my favorite releases of the year so far, but I want to focus on the third song that same out pre-release:

“The Beautiful Game” (featuring St. Lucia)

I was a little underwhelmed by the first collaboration between these two. St. Lucia and RAC are two of my favorite artists/bands*, but “Ready For It” was outshone by so many other songs from Strangers. “The Beautiful Game” works so much better, thankfully. From its opening, bouncing bass notes, it grabs your attention with an instantly distinct sound and builds anticipation for what’s coming. From there, it’s a slow layering of guitar, drums and vocals from Jean-Philip Grobler, and more guitar accents (I especially love these little whammy bar hits, which play into a larger, sort of off-kilterness of the song in contrast with how tightly it’s structured and orchestrated) into a chilled groove that feels perfect for a summer song and made me instantly regret not being able to include it on my list.

It’s no-nonsense though, jumping into the chorus around the forty-second mark. And what a chorus it is. Patti Beranek, the other vocalist of St. Luica (and Jean-Philip’s wife, which is kinda sorta significant here) jumps in, and crescendoing multi-voice choruses are always great in my book. The words are memorable, especially their delivery, with almost a pause between the syllables of the last words in the first two lines. It’s just strange enough to catch your attention and stick in your mind.

To mark the start of the second verse, we get a slightly-detuned piano, another unusual accent that catches your attention. Then we get the vocals, with Jean-Philip and Patti trading off on “It’s too fast/It’s too slow”, which I really like for reasons that I can’t fully articulate other than it’s a really cute symmetry between a married couple (of course, in the opening verse, we get the line “But symmetry looks good on you”, which makes this feel like a tie-in). The interplay of their vocals is great; “Ready For It” in comparison feels really disconnected. “The Beautiful Game” in contrast feels like something sung between the couple of a rom-com, and just makes you feel really happy as a result.

More layering of synths happens throughout the second verse as it builds up to that fantastic chorus again. It leads into a bridge of “oohs”, a shimmery synth riff, and a riff from the super-tight marimba-sounding synth that came in during the back half of in verse two, which again gets at the sort of contrast I mentioned between sounding “wobbly” and incredibly balanced.

And then, we get the spacey, slowed-down bridge that offers a nice break, and just as inevitably leads into the song’s big finish. Everything gets brought in for the finally; a new synth sound, vocal samples, all the previous stuff, en route to a final repeat of the full chorus. And then there’s the final chorus repeat that starts stripping parts out of the dense orchestration until it’s mostly just the two vocalists, drums, bass, and a few accent parts. And then, the song slowly works into a fade-out, shedding parts as it works into an airy sound, then a new guitar riff that transitions into the next song on the album (which I found out on Friday is the also-fantastic “Johnny Cash” featuring Scavenger Hunt, but maybe that’s a story for another day).

Something about “The Beautiful Game” feels cinematic in it’s grand lusciousness and contrasts. Add in the chemistry between the vocalists and you can easily conjure up an entire visual scene. That and the feelings it brings up, combined with the relaxed groove at the center, makes it feel like a perfect song for a summer day, the perfect compliment of good feelings to go with any variety of summery activities.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Some Thoughts on Protagonists and Antagonists, via Cars 3

This is just going to be a short piece, but it’s something that bugged me while I was watching a movie, so I might as well put into words why I didn’t think it worked. It never hurts to think things through and try and learn from them.

I saw Cars 3 over the weekend, as part of my Pixar completionist streak, and was pleasantly surprised. In all honesty, I enjoyed Cars*, but don’t really remember anything about Cars 2, so my expectations going in were pretty tempered. Add in a pre-release campaign that seemed…unclear at best, and I think it’s fair to say that this was the least excited I had been for a new Pixar movies in a while.

*I don’t know if I’d put it all that high among Pixar’s in-studio rankings, but that’s as much a reflection on their strong track record as the movie itself.

In the end, the movie turned out mostly good. It will definitely stick in my brain longer than Cars 2 did, so at the very worst, so it has that going for it. However, there were just some minor complaints I had, most of which are tied to some of the thematic things going on. This will contain some light plot spoilers as a result.

Basically, it all boils down to this: the villains of the movie just don’t work. This isn’t the end-all, be-all, of course. The personal growth arcs of the main mostly work… except that they insist on using these “villains” as the end demonstration of that growth, which sort of undermines the arcs a little, in my opinion.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Summer Playlist 2017

June 7th marks the third anniversary of Out of Left Field, and I struggled to think of something that would mark the occasion as well as my Hot Corner Harbor seventh anniversary post the other day. In the end, I decided to instead go back to a feature that I’ve critically underutilized so far, playlists. I love sharing music, after all. The amazingly nice weather recently had me thinking about summer songs again, so I decided why not try and build off of last year’s post and do a new Summer Playlist for 2017.

It’s not going to be exactly, the same of course. I made sure to stick to stuff not on either of my earlier playlists* (even though I was really tempted to feature “Weekend” by Neon Trees again, it’s really perfect for this, and Scavenger Hunt got crowded out partly because of two features on last year’s list). And it wound up being a little less thematically laser-focused, meaning a larger list with sometime more abstract connections to the summer theme. Some of them feel more like “good songs to listen to during summer” rather than “summer songs”, but I can’t really explain in words what that difference is exactly, other than it’s an instinctual feeling. Just know that it occurred to me during my brainstorming and bugged me a little.

*Or upcoming playlists, in a few cases; I have several more in the works, maybe I’ll eventually get around to posting them.

 A few blurbs on the songs now:

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Event[0] Video Game Review & Analysis: Combining an Amazing Central Mechanic with a Neat Little Story

A while ago, I finished the video game Event[0], and I found it interesting enough that I want to write about it. I feel like I don’t write enough about video games*, despite playing them at least semi-frequently, and I’m interested enough in the medium that I’d like to change that. Apologies if this article winds up a little rough as a result, but I figure it’s better to try it and learn from the experience than never bother. But more over, I think there should be more in-depth analysis of video games, as there is in other mediums, and I’d like to chip in, so this seems like a good chance to try.

*I really, really wanted to write something last year about Undertale, but I could never get an angle to approach it from other than “this is just so good in every way, play it”. I still don’t have anything else to say other than this, but it’s still worth saying I think.

First, a general introduction to the game. Event[0] is a first-person/environmental narrative* science fiction game created by Parisian developers Ocelot Society**. Set in an alternate 2012 where commercial space travel has been going strong since the 1980s, you play as a space traveler who is forced to evacuate a doomed ship at the start, only to eventually drift to a mostly-abandoned decades-old ship.

*I’ve heard a bunch of names for this genre, and these two seemed the most common, so I split the difference.

**Also of note: the game was financed, in part, by the Indie Fund, a group that specializes in helping fund smaller video game projects. In under a decade, they’ve already built up a pretty good library of titles. And if you’ve seen the very-good Indie Game: The Movie, it’s worth noting that one of the founders is Jonathan Blow, one of that documentary’s focus, as well as notable creator in his own right of titles like Braid and The Witness.

The catch is, there’s one member of the crew left: the ship’s artificial intelligence, Kaizen-85. You have figure out how to work with Kaizen to repair the Nautilus to get it running again, all while determining what happened to the rest of the crew.

Having to butter up or coerce an in-game character into helping you isn’t anything radically new in a video game. What is new is the central system Ocelot Society has built the game around: Kaizen (and the rest of the ship as a whole, including things like doors) can only be interacted with through discussion. Specifically, by typing into various consoles scattered around the ship to “talk” with Kaizen. Not picking pre-set choices or anything like that that you might see in another game; you have free reign to converse with Kaizen in just about any way that you’d like. It’s really quite amazing.*

*For anyone curious how this works, the always-amazing Game Maker’s Toolkit has a fascinating video that digs into the nitty-gritty of this a little more.

With all that description out of the way, I want to discuss my thoughts on the game a bit more. There will be some spoilers eventually, so be warned, but if you find this interesting so far and want to discover things for yourself, I’d definitely recommend checking it out. It’s a little on the short side as a warning, so if you aren’t sure, maybe hold off until it’s on sale or something, but one way or another, it’s worth a look. Also, I’ll start on the game’s mechanics and design before moving on to story stuff, so if you’re more concerned about narrative spoilers, you can read a little further.

And with that…

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Colossal, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, and Empathy

(spoilers marked as they appear)
I’ve been experiencing a whole lot of great art lately, and I’d love to comment on a lot of it, so I might be doing a few short articles like this just to get my thoughts and recommendations and what I liked about them down. Thankfully, two recent movies that I’ve seen and loved are pretty thematically linked, so it made some sense to do them in tandem.

Part I
Let’s start with the more recent, wider release: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. I’ve seen some mixed reaction to this one, but I liked it a lot. I mean, I did really like the first one, but from what I can tell, that hasn’t been a one-to-one indicator of what people think of the new one. In any case, I’d go as far to say it’s the best movie since the first Guardians, and in the upper tier of Marvel movies.* I mentioned that I saw Doctor Strange, as a bit of a bounce back from a few weaker films, but this one finishes the rebound.

*If I actually had to put the Marvel movies into tiers, I think I’d put the Guardians movies, The Avengers, and Iron Man 3 in the top one.

It’s definitely feels like everything on the first one turned up to 11, including being sillier, more visually stunning, and more touching all in one. I can also see the point of some people about some of the jokes being weirdly placed, cutting into dramatic moments, but I actually appreciated that in some way. Maybe it won’t sit as well on re-watches, but I loved those rapid juxtapositions, and felt like they added to the humor and made some jokes better than they should have been.

And it’s more heartfelt than the original; basically each member of the team (now expanded to eight guardians, with Mantis, Yondu, and Nebula joining the original five) get emotional arcs to them, which makes the long run time worth it. It’s technically just as “grand” in scale as the first one, but the focus on the characters gives it, in spite the universe-level stakes, an intimate feel that I don’t think any of the other Marvel movies have been able to actually pull off (although the Avengers movies have tried, and come close). This work pays off, and the characters give the movie and meaningful emotional connection, both with the audience and with each other, which really helps to serve the movies’ focus on family and familial connections. In fact, I think this was only the second superhero movie I teared up at (after Logan; 2017 has been pretty great for superhero movies so far).

And even the villain gets a decent amount of focus, and as a result we get the second-best villain of the Marvel universe after Loki (I realize this isn’t saying a lot, but it’s still something). Sure, the tonal shifts make for a jerkier feel than the first one, and the soundtrack is weaker, and some of the novelty is loss, but writer/director James Gunn has turned in a funny and moving script with some very pretty and colorful visuals, and overall there’s a lot to dig into thematically as well (in true comic book fashion, in blatant, larger-than-life metaphors, and with some fighting involved, but that’s part of the fun). Overall, I wouldn’t hesitate now to call Vol. 2 the equal to the original Guardians of the Galaxy.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

I...Actually Liked the New Power Rangers Movie?

Apparently, I’m just going to be writing defenses of every at least vaguely-genre-ish, fairly-big budget action movie that sees semi-polarizing reviews from now on.* Last weekend, I saw the new Power Rangers movie, and I…actually liked it? That was probably the last thing I expected, and yet, it still somehow happened.

*Behind-the-scenes factoid: I came this close to writing one for X-Men: Apocalypse last year.

I mean, I watched the series back when I was little (a decade and a half or more ago at this point), but it’s not something I followed very closely as I got older (I could tell you it was still running, but that was about it), and I am under no illusions today about its quality. If not for rainy weather, a cheap ticket, and some sense of morbid curiosity, I might not have seen it at all. But I did, and it’s become probably my most surprising film of the young year.

My apprehension sprung mostly from early trailers selling the movie as some sort of dark, grim, serious take on the material, which seems like the worst idea possible. After all, at its core, Power Rangers is about a bunch of twenty-somethings pretending to be teenagers fighting ridiculous monsters in colorful costumes, then fighting the same monsters only larger, this time in colorful giant robots. That is the last thing that sounds like it needs a “serious, gritty” adaptation. But those trailers did the actual movie a disservice, as they did not fully capture the movie’s actual tone, which is the key to why it works.

See, the movie itself is “serious” in a way, just not in the way that I’ve been using; rather, it takes its characters seriously. Instead of giving everything a somber tone, it instead takes the characters totally earnestly, which is why they not only work, but are also one of the strong-points of the film.

I’ve seen some people say that the movie feels “embarrassed” to be a Power Rangers movie, and I totally disagree. This is, after all, a movie that not only fully indulges in multi-color battle suit martial arts battles and giant robot/monster clashes*, but even recreates shots from the original theme song and intro, complete with an arrangement of the awesome-but-totally-over-the-top theme song playing.

*Not only does it have giant robots fighting a giant monster, it also has it in clear daylight; as much as I loved Pacific Rim, the constant rain/nighttime aesthetic made it a bit of a headache to follow the action at times. None of the fight scenes here quite top those, but there’s something to be said for not straining your eyes too.

No, this isn’t “embarrassed” to be anything. Instead, it knows that the things that make Power Rangers, Power Rangers probably won’t translate to a two-hour movie, and something must be added. Dean Israelite and company decide the way to build up the story is to dig into the characters a bit.

If we’re being honest, the sort of characters used in the show are usually not interesting enough to support a two-hour movie. That’s not to say the movie’s Power Rangers are the most well-developed, compelling, three-dimensional characters, but they are definitely better than the original show, given that I had my mind blown while looking back and realizing that Rangers were sometimes swapped out for new casts mid-season. I have no memories of this; the characters just weren't distinct enough for me to feel especially strongly about the changes.

Instead, the young actors here turn in memorable and instantly-likable performances, to the point where I would be okay with more time being spent on just them hanging out together. They have a real chemistry. And the character arcs given to the Rangers are a little angsty and melodramatic…but they’re also playing teenagers, so it feels more understandable, and the actors do a pretty good job at getting you invested. And moreover, their reactions don’t feel too disproportionate, given the struggles they each face. I’d say that overall, the five Rangers feel like a good representation of today’s youth, in representation (even building off the tradition of the original), problems, attitude, and so on. The overall effect is that the movie feels something like “The CW’s Kung Fu X-Men, with a $100-million+ budget and a Giant Robot Fight Finale”, and I mean that in the nicest way possible.

That’s not to say the movie is perfect. If you aren’t a fan of the over-the-top ridiculous that the series entails, this will do nothing to sell you on that. If you can’t stand teenage melodrama stories, same thing applies. On the less-dependent-on-personal-taste end, the third quarter of the movie moves away from the melodramatic and into the straight serious, which…doesn’t work as well, and it comes close to falling apart before recovering, and then we follow it up with the big action sequence, so it mostly washes the bad taste out of your mouth. Still, I sort of wish that third quarter had been cut down to give the first half more room to breathe. It feels rushed at times.

In the “not actually a problem, but I’ve seen people complain about it anyway” department, the heroes technically don’t go full “Power Rangers” until the last half-hour, but I’m okay with that, as it gives the conclusion an epic feel. My general stance is that if your superhero story isn’t interesting when the hero(es) isn’t in costume and fighting villains, it’s not a good story. And the melodramatic real lives here feel very at home in the world of comics and superheroes as a whole.

And one final (spoiler-free) note on the finale, while we’re on the subject: I can’t express how relieved I am that this movie tells a complete story. Sure, from what I’ve read, Saban is planning on making at least five more movies, which…may be a little much, but okay, sure, whatever, that’s just the day and age that we’re living in now, but the important thing is it doesn't bleed into this movie. There are small sequel hooks, but they’re the good kind, the sort that feels natural, and more like a shout-out or reference to the backstory that could easily be ignored if the creators decide to go a different direction rather than crucial scaffolding being set up to support an entirely different movie. Even Marvel, whose movies I generally enjoy, suffer from this at times. Instead, Power Rangers knows to tell a single complete story rather than leave all of its plot threads dangling for “To Be Continued”s.

So, overall, I’m definitely pleasantly surprised here. It’s by no means perfect, but if every major studio blockbuster were of this quality, we’d be much better off overall. The characters are interesting enough that I would be super interested in spending more time with them, which is always a good sign, and it delivers on all the awesome silliness you would want from a Power Rangers movie. If/When Power Rangers 2 comes out, I’m totally on board. The series seems to be in good hands.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August Review

I finally finished The First Fifteenth Lives of Harry August by Claire North (the pen name of Catherine Webb) and figured I would take a few moments to jot down my thoughts on it. Let’s break this down into three sections.

The shortest review:
Yep, I liked it. Check it out if you get a chance!

The not-quite-as-short review: For those of you who need things like plot details or specific reasons a reviewer liked things, fine, I guess I’ll elaborate. As you might have been able to guess from the title, the titular Harry August is a special individual born in 1919, one who, upon dying, finds himself back at the moment of his birth with all of his memories from the life that he just died in. He meanders through life (er, lives) trying to figure out what this means and what to do about it before finally meeting a mysterious club of similar individuals. And after discovering this secret society, he learns something even more shocking: the end of the world is accelerating. Something has affected the future, and is drawing the apocalypse closer and closer to the modern day. And with this, we have our hook for the plot.

In actuality, the book drops this last bit of info immediately with no context before backtracking to explain, so the proper investigation into what’s destroying the Earth faster and faster comes sufficiently later in the story. A lot of time is spent explaining the nature of Harry’s ability and what he does with his many lives, followed by setting up the world and history of the Chronus Club.

A quick search online tells me that not everyone is fond of this fact, but I actually liked it quite a bit. It sets a nice, leisurely pace that gives you all the details necessary to feel immersed in this intriguing society. No part of it feels extraneous, and despite covering a lot of ground, it actually moves rather quickly, like a brisk but winding trek through beautiful and unexplored territory.

And the layout, which bounces between lives in a more thematic rather than chronological way, keeps you on your toes. Despite all the overlapping lives to keep track of, it’s actually pretty straightforward once you get a feel for things, and North does a good job of knowing right when the reader will have everything under their thumb and can take new, large developments on for consideration.

It helps that Harry makes for an interesting narrator, something of a curious philosopher who is forced into frequent deep introspection due to his condition; he’s too different to fit in with the “linears” (those who experience time once, then die), especially those of his era, but more inquisitive and restless than his peers. He takes on a wider range of experiences in his many lives than most of them, which gives each life a distinct feel. This has the interesting effect of giving a story with a very minimal main cast the feel of a more sprawling story with a wider, more spread-out cast. And each one being many of the same characters in different situations makes it feel like a series of “What If” stories. I’m a big fan of both things.

About halfway through the book, once the conflict proper has been brought to the forefront, the story shifts into something more chronological and driving, something of a multi-generational, science-fiction “Count of Monte Cristo”-esque revenge tale where we get to see a methodical and cunning protagonist slowly lay down the pieces to a large plan, which I am once again all for in a narrative.

If this still all sounds good to you, then you should definitely give it a shot. If you want to read any more, though, stick around for part three…

The even-longer-still-but-still-short review, this part of which contains plot spoilers, so maybe hold off if you want to keep it all a surprise: Some other stuff that I want to discuss about the novel:

Monday, February 13, 2017

My Favorite Movies of 2016

For the first time in 2016, I kept a list of every movie that I watched.* It was mostly out of curiosity, after having one too many experiences saying “oh right, I totally forgot I saw that movie” (I do not have the best memory). The end result was that I reached January with a record of just about every movie I saw for the year and some vague notion that it would be worth writing about in some capacity. And the natural extension of that idea was to release some sort of year-end list.

*I would eventually expand it to other mediums as well, so maybe I’ll have another article or two up my sleeve.
However, it feels weird to call it a “best of” list, since there were so many movies from this past year that I didn’t get around to seeing. Meanwhile, a good chunk of the movies I saw this year were just me catching up on things from the past few years that I hadn’t seen. Not to mention that I don’t think that I’m enough of a film scholar to be able to definitely, objectively say one film is “better” than another. So, this list will more so be the films that I liked the most from 2016/the tail-end of 2015 (with a few other movies I saw for the first time this year thrown in), and with at least a couple thoughts on each one. If nothing else, some of these were the germs for full articles that I just couldn’t build off of; maybe finally writing them down will lead to more on them in the future?

Sunday, February 5, 2017

xXx: Return of Xander Cage, Overwatch, Sentinels of the Multiverse, and Dealing with a Large Cast (plus a review!)

I recently watched xXx: Return of Xander Cage, and found it extremely satisfying. It’s the best kind of dumb action movie, the kind that knows what it is and pushes itself to be the dumbest and action-iest it can be.

Trying to paint a picture of it is incredible. It’s a James Bond movie where James Bond assembles his own Mission Impossible team, and when they go out for drinks, they eschew the martinis for Red Bull and Everclear. It’s a Fast and the Furious movie that wants to be Super Smash Bros. when it grows up. It’s a movie where a dirtbike get used as a weapon in hand-to-hand combat, and that’s still only the second craziest thing done with a dirtbike (the number one being, of course, when the later dirtbike chase reaches the ocean and both participants convert their vehicles into jetskis to continue unimpeded, because what else were they going to do?). It’s the Avengers, if normal, sort-of-everyday abilities like “great at soccer” or “fantastic DJ and people person” or “real good at crashing cars” were considered superpowers.

As someone who had no prior allegiance to the franchise (indeed, I hadn’t even seen xXx 1 or 2, and I don’t feel particularly compelled to go back and change that at the moment), I am super excited by this movie’s existence and eagerly await any sequels that may come.

But the characters are one of the aspects that I specifically wanted to focus on. xXx 3 has a large hero team at it’s center, and they’re an interesting and diverse bunch, representing a variety of nations and abilities. I wasn’t kidding when I drew the Smash Bros comparison earlier; it very much reminded me of the type of lineup of interesting characters a multiplayer game would draw up. In fact, there was even a specific video game I had in mind.

I started playing Overwatch over the holiday season (a team first-person shooter with 23 (and counting…) playable characters to choose from, for those not in the know), and the rosters of each had some hilarious overlaps. Sure, they’re an action movie and an FPS, so you have the range of weapons used in each, from normal pistols to grenade launchers to sniper rifles. And then there are the goofier overlaps, like both teams including an incredibly-out-of-place DJ, or both teams having female hackers who use similar weapons.

And all of those overlaps made me realize: I really liked both sets of characters. xXx: Return of Xander Cage basically has its own two hour run time to establish the entire cast (since the first two movies are barely leaned on at all for support), including the 9(-plus?) person xXx team. Overwatch includes no story mode in-game, and excluding the outside comics and lore that are available but unnecessary, all characterization is done through in-game dialog. That’s not a lot of room to work with, so how did they get such wide and interesting casts? Obviously, none of them is super-detailed, but they’re all compelling enough to draw you in, and that’s the important thing when making these types of teams for a work of fiction.

So, I wanted to pull that apart; how does one economically make these large main casts work on such limited time constraints? In addition to xXx 3 and Overwatch, I also looked at Sentinels of the Multiverse, so a quick word on that. Sentinels is one of my favorite board games, a card game where players take control of various original heroes (36 in total) to fight different also-original villains. Like Overwatch, these new heroes (and even the villains, in this case) are given surprising depth for existing only in a handful of decks of cards.

So, how does this happen? How do these works manage to juggle so many different people and make them compelling? I’ve got a couple of ideas: