Tag Archives: Review

Fall 2018 Creativity Roundup – 3 TV Dramas You Need To Watch!

These are some of my favorite posts to do, and at this point in my blog’s history they’re at least semi-regular. I’m always consuming media, and doing a roundup of the latest things I find inspiring has proven to be a great way for me to engage with my readers. It’s my contention that over the past decade or so, TV drama has entered a golden age. I think the overall production value, quality of acting talent, and the complexity of the writing are as good now as they have ever been. The last point is the most important one, in my opinion, as our dramas now are afforded the creative freedom to explore darker, more nuanced themes.

Here are three of my favorite shows that I’ve watched recently:


3. The Affair

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It’s hard to pick one TV series that I can definitively call my favorite of all time. Game of Thrones and The Sopranos are both good candidates, but when asked the question, the answer I most often give is The Affair.

In short, the show details a passionate, illicit affair between a struggling New York novelist and a small town waitress with a traumatic past. The setting is Montauk- a cozy resort town situated on the far tip of Long Island. For me, the show is as close to a superlative rating as anything else out there, especially the peerless first three seasons.

It brushes up on my personal criterion for perfection because it’s intriguing in layers; dysfunctional families, dark secrets, sexual awakenings, and even a murder mystery to name a few. But perhaps the thing that makes this story so unique is the way it’s told. The narrative shifts between alternating points of view that not only overlap with, but sometimes contradict, one another. This style captures the way two people remember the same events differently, so that we’re given an incomplete truth. The actual truth, as is often the case in life, remains out of reach.

 

2. The Man in the High Castle

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For me, this is a show that’s criminally underrated. I’m putting it above The Affair on this list because I was left disappointed by the latter’s most recent season. The Man in the High Castle, conversely, is a show that’s very much in the ascendency. I just finished watching season 3 and I can’t stop thinking about it. This show gets better and better with every episode, and no one seems to be talking about it.

Based on the Philip K. Dick novel of the same name (from which it deviates significantly, I understand), The Man in the High Castle is an alternate history in which the Axis Powers won World War Two. It’s the 1960s and the North American continent is divided between the German Reich in the east and the Japanese Empire in the west. This new world is one of the most fascinating aspects of the show, and the subtle societal changes that each half of America undergoes are explored in multiple story threads. There are the rebels in conflict with their respective oppressive regimes, there are the two oppressive regimes in conflict with each other, and there are also conflicts within each regime. What I’m trying to say is, we experience this new world through various points of view, with heroes and villains in each faction. Just because the system is evil, that doesn’t mean that everyone living in it becomes evil too. It’s fascinating because it’s a reality in which systemic evil becomes the norm, and being twenty years after WW2, many have simply accepted it. This is something that’s addressed in the show itself, with many resistance characters stressing how weird and shocking this reality is. One of the things that make this show so compelling is the fact that it takes a morally-complex approach to the conflict while still being a nightmarish dystopia. The resistance fighters aren’t flawless or morally-pure, and the fascists aren’t “monsterized”. Instead, there are just people and their choices. There are idealists trying to fight for a better world, and there are those that accept the new world order so as to remain safe, which is what happens in real life.

This is a show unlike any other on TV at the moment. It’s also very much a science fiction drama, with the German-Japanese Cold War serving as a backdrop to a mystery that every faction is trying to solve- the repeated appearances of film reels depicting a parallel universe in which the Allies won the war.

 

1. Sharp Objects

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Now I enjoyed Gone Girl as much as the next guy- but this is on another level. Sharp Objects is based on Gillian Flynn’s somewhat lesser-known debut novel of the same name. It takes the top spot in my list of TV dramas I’ve found creatively inspiring in the latter half of 2018 because it’s simply the most interestingly and effectually put together.

This dark miniseries features an alcoholic, self-harming journalist who returns to her hometown in rural Missouri to try and solve the disappearance of two missing girls. I won’t say any more than that because you should just watch it. It’s fucking brutal but also understated- which might sound like a strange thing to say, but if you’ve seen it you understand. And this brings me back to what I said above about it being the series that for me puts its pieces together in the most compelling way.

Jean-Marc Vallée’s direction reminds me a lot of Lynne Ramsey’s subtle approach to storytelling (particularly in her recent movie You Were Never Really Here). It’s a show that punishes the lazy viewer. You can’t give it anything less than your full attention, because one look down at the peach and eggplant emojis your Tinder match is sending you will leave you wondering what the hell is going on when you try and reengage with the narrative later. Vallée gives you the pieces in fleeting images and unspoken inferences. Nothing is spelled out or summarized for you- it’s a lot like reading the fiction of Raymond Carver. The characters aren’t mouthpieces for exposition; the story is told in a very visual way that requires an enthusiastic, active viewer. The cinematography is beautiful, and so important to how this story is told. I want to read the novel, but I also want to give myself a few years to try and forget the plot details as best I can, because there are some shocking revelations to enjoy here.

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How Detroit: Become Human Put an End to my Gaming Slump

I was hesitant about the idea that Detroit: Become Human would be the title that broke my gaming slump. I’m also hesitant to spend full price on any AAA game these days- especially something I’m not familiar with. The rhetoric from my most trusted reviewers (“wildcard” Youtubers Yahtzee Croshaw, Jim Sterling, & Angry Joe) was that David Cage games were pretentious orgies of QTE’s, resembling laughably-bad interactive movies rather than actual games. And the opinions of reviewers I tend to regard with suspicion (IGN & Gamespot) were that Cage’s body of work represented not only his staggering genius, but an entirely unique and innovative approach to storytelling. Perhaps the truth lay somewhere in the middle, I thought. Or perhaps it all depends on the kind of gamer you are. I knew right off the bat that I’d be sympathetic to Cage’s mission statement, since I always give a greater importance to story than to gameplay.

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I kept an eye on the promotional footage of Detroit up until its release and I was very impressed by its visuals. The game came out and I waited for the reviews. I just needed to hear that the story was decent. Androids were in vogue with me at the time, and it may just have been my joyful experiences of Blade Runner 2049 and Westworld season 2 that sealed the deal. I needed a rich world to get lost in. At the time I had no real outlet for escapism in my life. And I hadn’t played a game I really enjoyed since Horizon: Zero Dawn was released over a year ago.

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It seems strange that one could have a gaming “slump”, but I honestly can’t think of any other word for it. In 2016 I was staying up all hours of the night pursuing the platinum trophy for Fallout 4. My PS4 was the material embodiment of my laziness. I spent so much time running around the Commonwealth chopping off the heads of Gunners and Super Mutants with my electrified Chinese Officer’s Sword “Brunhilde” that the irradiated wasteland felt more real to me than my actual life. But fast-forward a year to mid-2017 and I’m unable to play anything for more than 20 minutes. I was bored of gaming, if you can believe it. I tried Mass Effect: Andromeda, and it was probably the worst gaming experience of my life. I’ve never felt so let down by a game. I then tried Wolfenstein: The New Colossus, and that left me somewhat lukewarm. I wondered if I was truly falling out of love with video games or if I simply couldn’t find the right one to play.

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I took a chance on Detroit: Become Human and my overall verdict is a pretty positive one. Is it a game so close to my heart that I end up taking it more seriously than my career prospects and personal hygiene? No. Unlike The Witcher 3 and Bioshock: Infinite, I won’t take it personally if you don’t like it. But did Detroit: Become Human restore my interest in gaming? Yes.

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There are a number of things this game executes very well. The musical score is excellent; each of the three playable characters has their own soundtrack, and each piece of music has a distinctive tone reflective of that character’s narrative. As I’m writing this review I’m listening to the moody cyberpunk-noir music composed by Nima Fakhrara for Connor’s storyline.

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The visuals for this game are also excellent- and on a number of levels. The artistic design depicts a Detroit that is both grittily-familiar and slickly-futuristic, and the raw imaginative power of the concept art is rendered beautifully in the game’s state of the art graphics. Every location feels unique and interesting- and more than that- like a place that is lived in. This is achieved by little details about the way everyday things function being given special attention. For instance, the blank-faced androids crowded in at the back of the buses, the way the signal on their foreheads changes color based on their stress level, the maintenance drones vacuuming the office carpets, the monorails, the articles on android basketball, and the CyberLife emporiums that look like a cross between an Apple Store and a 19th century slave auction. Perhaps my favorite locale was the urban farm you have to chase a deviant android through during “The Nest” chapter.

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In addition to the stunning environments, the facial animations in the game are as good as any you will see today. I haven’t been this impressed by a game’s use of motion-capture acting since L.A Noire back in 2011.

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So what do we know so far? We’ve established that the game is a success on a technical and artistic level. But what of the gameplay? Most of the game consists of making dialogue choices TellTale-style and executing a sequence of Quick-Time Events. The story is entertaining, but not without its flaws. It brushes up on some complex themes- such as the nature of consciousness, whether or not a loving relationship can be established between a human and a robot, and the rising economic inequality brought about by mass unemployment- without really going deeper into those issues. The game misses the chance to say something original and profound as it seems more interested in pursuing a clumsy civil rights allegory. The story is definitely exciting, but it also has a tendency towards contrived melodrama. I enjoyed the creepy vignette where the player character has to escape a house of synthetic horrors, but found myself laughing at scenes where the humans started acting inexplicably cruel towards random androids for the sake of melodrama.

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For me, the biggest drawback of the game is its implementation of motion controls. I didn’t mind them so much in Until Dawn, where you had to keep the controller as still as possible or face getting discovered by Native American demons intent on repurposing your jawbone as a coat-hook. That to me replicated quite well the tension of having to hold your breath, and therefore enhanced immersion. However the motion controls in Detroit are wholly unnecessary. They don’t add anything to the experience and their inclusion actually detracts from the sense of immersion. They suddenly pop up in the game’s action sequences and are finicky as all hell. So if the controller doesn’t register you moving it down in exactly the way it wants you to, your favorite character gets shot in the forehead. That’s what happened to me at least. A character’s death carries no emotional weight when it occurs not because of the player’s choice, but because the player wasn’t quick and accurate enough. And I became even less enthusiastic when the game rolled out another model of the android for me to play instead, because all of the character development I had taken a part in was wiped clean.

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In conclusion, I think I can only recommend this game based on what you’re looking for. The pace is slow to begin with, and the chapter in which you spend most of your time washing dishes and cleaning up vomit will definitely put off some gamers. They’re probably necessary components of the narrative’s atmosphere and pacing, but I can’t blame you if you switch off the Playstation and start watching Blade Runner 2049 instead. You’ll find a far superior story there too. But for what it’s worth, Detroit: Become Human does have some exciting moments- enough that I enjoyed the game and wanted to play it when I wasn’t doing so. If what you’re looking for is fun gameplay, then perhaps this game isn’t for you. I would recommend this game to those that simply enjoy science fiction stories, and have at least some tolerance for QTE’s. As for me, this game ultimately broke the dry spell I had endured for over a year, and ended up being interesting and immersive enough that it occupied my thoughts when I wasn’t playing it.

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My Thoughts on Solo: A Star Wars Story

This post is about a month late, but perhaps that isn’t such a bad thing. Hopefully it means that most of y’all have gotten around to seeing Solo: A Star Wars Story and can therefore appreciate what in tarnation I’m rambling on about. If you haven’t yet checked out the latest Star Wars flick because you’re some kind of flawlessly-extroverted sexual Tyrannosaurus too busy hosting wet t-shirt contests to give the time of day to space westerns, then I suggest taking off the star-shaped sunglasses and getting an Uber to one of Panama City’s movie theaters. You might even enjoy it! Then, come back to this site, disable your Ad-Blocker if you haven’t already, and continue with the post, because I will be covering major spoilers.

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I liked Solo. I wouldn’t say it’s a great film- but I liked it. I’ve heard it described as a “fun” movie and I’d certainly concur with that. It’s lighthearted and a little swashbuckling in tone, which to be honest is what I would expect from a film that styles itself as a space western. It’s got a couple drawbacks- which I will discuss later- but nothing so diabolical that it completely ruins the experience (like The Last Jedi for example). It’s not the movie I asked for, but I do think it’s a worthy addition to the franchise, and even something I’d like to see more of.

When I say I didn’t ask for it, what I mean is that I was hoping for Disney’s budget to be allocated to exploring events, characters and places farther removed from the main saga than an origin story of one of its most iconic heroes. However- it was exactly the type of story that I wanted. Everyone loves Star Wars in a different way, and for me the aspect of the franchise that I love the most is simply the world itself. That’s the defining characteristic of my profile as a fan. More than anything else I’m attracted to the vastness of its universe and the potential it has to tell any story you want. The proof of its potential is in what I consider to be the greatest Star Wars story ever written- Knights of the Old Republic 2: The Sith Lords. The game is a perfect example of what you can do with the Star Wars template, and it’s the reference I use for illustrating that there is room in the franchise for telling stories that are nuanced, original, and dark. So even though I wasn’t initially excited about the prospect of a Han Solo movie, I found myself warming to the idea when the details of how this story was going to be told emerged in the initial marketing.

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Solo is crime movie. It’s a heist movie. It’s a wild-west movie set in outer space. It explores different worlds and different characters than what we see in the main saga. I’ve long wanted a film with Disney’s budget that focuses on the criminal underworld of the Star Wars galaxy. And the benefit of that hefty budget is seen straight away in the movie’s excellent set and costume design. I love that both this film and Rogue One capture the clunky 70’s-inspired aesthetic of the original trilogy in a way that is beautiful and fresh. That’s the first thing I noticed about this film- how beautiful it is. I’m glad they are committing to that crude and clunky sci-fi art style as opposed to something slick yet bland.

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The film opens on Han’s homeworld of Corellia- a planet that I have long wanted to see adapted for the big screen- and it looks incredible. The artistic design really brings life to the planet and its people, with a thick, industrial atmosphere. Han and Qi’ra are young lovers with big dreams. They live in an orphan community in thrall to a local crime lord, making a living stealing scrap parts from the city’s massive Imperial ship-building warehouses. One day they find a rare and valuable material that they hope to bribe their way off-world with. Han makes it out, but not before the whole thing goes tits-up and his missus is captured by the neighborhood bully and his pet Staffordshire Terrier. They’re separated for several years Cathy & Heathcliff style, until a chance reunion on a gangster’s luxury barge in which Qi’ra reveals that in order to escape she’s had to do terrible things at the behest of said gangster. Yada yada yada, and the two of them find themselves in a situation in which they have to pull off the heist to end all heists or face getting shanked by Paul Bettany’s vibroblade. It’s a pretty good plot and the action sequences in particular are fantastic. The train heist was probably my favorite. However there were a few issues I had with the story.

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The first problem is right at the beginning. One of the golden rules of writing dialogue is not to have the characters of your story act as mouthpieces for the plot, in which they end up saying aloud things they already know for the sole benefit of the viewer. It’s the sort of thing you get a lot in soap operas, where the characters are constantly puking information into your lap. For the most part, Solo adheres to this golden rule, but in the opening scene it gets violated like your Nan at a thrash metal concert. It’s a tough one, because the plot sort of writes itself into this hole by the nature of having the opening so fast-paced. I get that they don’t want to spend too much time going into Han’s childhood, but these are the kind of holes a good writer is expected to navigate. However, this was the only instance of this kind of thing that I noticed in the film’s dialogue.

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The second problem, for me, is in how Han and Chewie form their relationship. I wanted them to go more in-depth with the concept of a Wookiee Life Debt, which is a huge part of Star Wars lore. I expected it to manifest in a scene in which Han chooses to save Chewie’s family or something, but it never happens. Given that this film is the origin story of Han Solo, the establishment of his friendship with Chewbacca is something of paramount importance, and I just feel like this could have been done better. The film lacks any one strong and defining moment that we can point to as the birth of their bromance. For the most part they just seem fond of each other, and I don’t recall a particular scene where this fondness evolves into something more profound, that you know will last a lifetime.

The third problem I have is with Han’s character arc. For me, the heart of this film must absolutely be the transformation of a young, optimistic and naïve Han into the cynical, distrustful, self-centered rogue we see in A New Hope. Otherwise, this movie is essentially pointless. There would be no purpose to a Han Solo origin story without this specific arc. And it’s not that this inward journey isn’t there- I just feel as if it could have been done a little bit better. I know the movie wants to maintain its lighthearted tone, but the Han at the end of the film is not as jaded as I would have liked him to be. If you re-watch A New Hope, you realize just how much of a cold mercenary Han Solo is. For me, he’s still a little too hopeful by the end. I’m not saying he displays no growth, because clearly getting betrayed by Beckett and abandoned by Qi’ra changes him. I just wanted that growth to be more apparent.

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Where this movie succeeds, aside from its creative action scenes and stunning visuals, is in its performances. Woody Harrelson is perfectly-cast as the grizzled mentor type with dry wit and suspect moral values, but for me the standout performance was Paul Bettany as the film’s primary villain. He’s a different kind of villain to the kind we’re used to- which for the most part are variants of evil warlock figures. Dryden Vos is a more familiar antagonist for moviegoers, because he’s a purely human villain with human motivations. He doesn’t wield the mysterious space magic of Palpatine or have the samurai skills of Darth Vader, and yet he’s so menacing. His unnerving stage presence comes entirely from his unstable, psychotic persona, which Bettany does an awesome job of portraying. I was genuinely nervous every time our heroes were in a room with him.

No review of Solo would be complete, however, without a mention of the movie’s twist at the end. So it turns out that Dryden Vos in fact was serving as a kind of lieutenant for Darth Maul, who apparently survived getting sliced in half in order to reinvent himself as a cyborg Pablo Escobar. Within the context of the movie the twist doesn’t bother me that much, and it’s cool to think that Emelia Clarke might be seen again as some kind of Dark Jedi, but I’m not really a fan of Darth Maul surviving. Even within the realm of science fantasy there’s got to be a certain level of believability, and beyond that, as a narrative device I think resurrecting someone is weak. I loved Darth Maul in The Phantom Menace because he was so mysterious. But whenever you get a badass that doesn’t talk much- like Boba Fett for example- you can bet your ass someone will contrive a way for them to inexplicably survive in order to milk the fanboys for a quick and easy cash-grab. It cheapens Maul as a character, and it annoys me that he’s probably out there right now in other Star Wars media, dancing around with his iconic double-bladed lightsaber like some kind of circus monkey that should have long ago been put to sleep. This is the guy that got beat by a padawan Obi-Wan (an important part of his character growth), so there’s no way in hell he’d last ten seconds going toe-to-toe with Vader, Dooku, Windu, or an older Kenobi. I also thought it was particularly cringe-worthy that Darth Maul felt the need to activate his lightsaber during his hologram exchange with Qi’ra. She knows who he is, so that little display he did was just another wink toward the audience, and another example of the fact that this Maul is not really Maul at all- he’s Disney’s trick pony they’ve trotted onto the stage to ring a few more pennies from the masses. However, I’m not opposed to the idea of Dryden Vos serving a Sith Lord, and given that Maul has already been reintroduced in other media, it didn’t spoil my experience of the movie.

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In conclusion, Solo is definitely worth your time. I think it struggled financially because it wasn’t marketed very well. In my opinion, it should have been released in the fall of 2018, which would have distanced it from The Last Jedi and given Disney enough time to build some proper hype for the movie. I would be interested in a sort of loose sequel centering on the adventures of Lando Calrissian. I’m also curious to see what becomes of Qi’ra’s character. I hope that Disney continues to make standalone Star Wars movies and that they venture further from their comfort zone. Where would I rank Solo? Better than The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi by far, but not quite hitting the heights of Rogue One and the Empire Strikes Back. I’d put it on par with the prequel trilogy- highly watchable but not without its flaws.

Cross-Atlantic Co-Op with my American Roommate – A Way Out

When I first saw footage of A Way Out at 2017’s e3 showcase, I was instantly sold on the idea. I felt like I had been waiting a long time for a unique, innovative and layered co-op experience tailor-made for my specific tastes. And having completed A Way Out, I’m still waiting for that experience. I guess that tells you my overall takeaway from the game already. In a way, nothing has really changed for me since I watched the gameplay demo at last year’s e3, except I’m thirty bucks poorer. I distinctly remember that I was drawn to the game on a conceptual level. I loved the idea of A Way Out, and I still do.

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I checked a few reviews before buying it, and if anything they reinforced my enthusiasm for the title. I knew this wasn’t going to be the game of a generation or anything like that. It’s a niche idea, with a thirty dollar price tag that’s justified. It’s not a AAA title. I just wanted assurances that it was a solid game that ran smoothly and wasn’t complete ass. The reviews I watched gave scores in the region of 7-8, which in the gaming industry is considered about average (for some reason). So I bought the game and pitched it to my on-and-off American roommate Aaron during a phone call.

This, I said, would be a cooperative game in the truest sense of the word. We’d be playing as two prison inmates trying to escape and then evading capture once on the run. It’s not a shooter, it’s a game with a narrative focus, so we’d be completely reliant on each other throughout the game. We would be making decisions that affected the story together, we’d be working together to beat tasks specifically designed to be two-man jobs, and we’d be strategizing together.

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I love prison dramas like the Shawshank Redemption, Cool Hand Luke, and Escape from Alcatraz, so the setting was a massive draw for me. I loved the idea of a prison escape game, and it was a setting I thought perfect for co-op. One guy hiding in the laundry cart while the other pushes it, that kinda thing. It just looked different to anything else I’d seen.

What I found really intriguing, I told him, was that this game didn’t have a fixed genre. Most games are built around a specific way of playing. God of War is based around the solid core of its hack-n-slash combat, The Walking Dead its branching narratives, and Battlefield its first person shooting. By contrast, the developers of A Way Out decided to write the plot, and then utilize whatever style of gameplay best fitted a particular scene. I thought this was really interesting as a concept, and even if the game proceeded to shit all over itself, it could still- in my eyes- retain a sense of dignity at trying something new. Some missions had us racing cars, others had us stealthing around, and some scenes were 2D platformers.

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Best of all, I told Aaron, he wouldn’t have to pay a dime. I had bought the game and he would be able to experience the whole thing with me for free. The game gives you a token you can give to a mate.

We started with pretty high hopes. We laughed at the shower scene at the beginning where one of the playable characters gets hosed down like a disobedient chimp teetering on ironic self-awareness. We had fun talking to NPC’s in the prison yard and debating whether or not to be jerks. But as the game progressed, particularly once we left the prison, we realized that we were laughing at the game and not with it. The characters are shallow and utterly dull, the plot increases in ridiculousness all the way until a climactic twist that makes a mockery of the entire narrative, and you’d find more believable dialogue in an Evil Angel spoof of Star Trek: The Next Generation. The whole thing is infused with this 1980s-era B-movie camp, which didn’t sit too well with me considering the 80s is probably my least favorite decade of all time.

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I realized that for this game to really be a hit, it had to be well-written. The gameplay isn’t the draw here, because there is no central gameplay mechanic. Every chapter is a watered-down version of a different genre, the shooter sections about as polished and nuanced as a mid-90s CD-ROM title. I wondered if the game was trying to be intentionally silly, but if that’s the case it doesn’t really work. GTA: V had godawful writing, but no one cared because no one played it for the story- folks were there to rob banks, build their dream house, and reenact the Dukes of Hazzard on their way to the next meth lab. A Way Out doesn’t have that. And without any kind of immersion, we had little reason to play the game at all except to laugh at it.

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However, I’m still glad I played it. And like I said, my stance remains unchanged since I saw the e3 demo. A Way Out is a good idea- it’s just not executed all that well. There’s a lot of potential in the concept, and I hope someone tries something similar again. My favorite moment in the game was a sequence in which Aaron and I had to steer a canoe on a perilous, white-water cascade. It was the scene which best fulfilled what I wanted from a co-op experience- we had to communicate quickly and make split-second decisions about which side to paddle in order to avoid crashing into jagged rocks. It reminded me of the second video game I ever played- Wild Rapids for Playstation 1.

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In conclusion, I’m not sure I would recommend A Way Out like I did Vermintide, but I do want to stress that I don’t think the concept is inherently flawed. I just didn’t fall in love with this game the way I thought I would.

The Center of Everything by Laura Moriarty

It’s been a while since my last book review here on TumbleweedWrites, and I’ve always considered the sharing my reading adventures to be the backbone of the blog. Life has been a little crazy recently. I’ve got a new job and I’m still getting used to being on my feet for 9 hours every day. The physical nature of the work threw my writing schedule out of kilter for a week or two, but now I’ve restructured my schedule and settled into a new routine. I write in the evenings and on the weekends, and I read whenever I get a chance- usually on my lunch break. I should have finished this book a good month ago, but I struggled to distribute my energy in several directions at once. But I think having this new job has made me a better reader- I’ve got less free time than I had when working at the pub or traveling the USA- and it’s when you are faced with such obstacles that you become more efficient. So as soon as the boss would holler “Break time, lads,” over the din of power drills, claw hammers and thrash metal, I’d open my book as fast as I could and get reading.

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But what have I been reading exactly? For a while now, I have been borrowing books from my American roommates and trying to get a little book club going. Faithful readers of my blog will remember that last summer Anne-Marie lent me her copy of The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty. It was an excellent read, and it was made all the more enjoyable by having my best friend around to discuss it with. Anne-Marie would get home from the clinic and I’d be like “Oh my God, Tess totally just slept with that P.E teacher.” As I stated in my review for that novel, Anne-Marie is a big Liane Moriarty fan. While she was out at the bookstore one day looking for more Moriarty novels, she was ecstatic to find one she hadn’t yet read: a beautiful hardback called The Center of Everything. It’s a gorgeous-looking book, with a striking cover of an inverted tree with big flowers on its branches. I can see why my roommate grabbed it instantly. It was only later that she realized that it wasn’t a Liane Moriarty book at all. The name on the cover in fact read Laura Moriarty. This, however, turned out to be one of the best mistakes Anne-Marie had ever made.

Before I left Texas, she lent me this beautiful mistake. I got home, and I let my mom read it first as I worked through my backlog. My mom is a thoroughbred reader, and breezed through the novel in a couple days as she relaxed poolside in the Cretan sunshine. Before she even finished it she was filling my lughole with snap reviews about how great the book was, how the writing style reminded her of To Kill A Mockingbird, and how I had to read it as soon as humanly possible. After enduring several months of these frenzied reminders, I decided that the time was right to read- and blog- about this other Moriarty the women in my life were raving about.

The Harper Lee comparison is an apt one. The Center of Everything is a blue-collar coming-of-age story set in 1980s Kansas. It follows the life of Evelyn Bucknow from middle school to college as she lives with her mom Tina in a low-income apartment complex off a highway. I’m drawn to character-driven novels, but this one might just take the cake. I can’t remember reading a book with such complex and compelling characters. The fact that this isn’t a memoir astounds me. If you just picked this book up off the floor and started reading without knowing anything about it, you would assume that all this stuff actually happened. Every character is just so vividly brought to life- from Evelyn’s troubled, curly-haired crush Travis to her zealous, Bible-believing grandma Eileen. In many ways the novel is about how each of these quirky personalities has an effect on the way Evelyn sees the world. It’s exactly the kind of book I want to be reading, because it examines the minutiae of human behavior and how we are all sculpted by our experiences, our circumstances, and our peers.

What Moriarty does so well is weave the overarching themes of the novel into almost every scene. It’s an example of masterful storytelling; each scene feels like the natural consequence of the last, nothing contrived or out of place, and yet each one exists as a microcosm of the novel as a whole. Evelyn’s life is a patchwork of hormones, intellectual curiosity, poverty, the need to be loved, the search for identity, and the tendency of the human psyche to desire simple, absolute truths in a world of infinite complexity. In short, it’s about growing up. I think almost anyone can relate to Evelyn at some point. This book captures adolescence with a razor-sharp authenticity. It’s a book that’s both hilarious and poignant in equal measure, but above all it’s a book with a big heart. As good as it was, The Center of Everything was actually a struggle to read for me sometimes; not because it was hard to understand, but because I was so invested in it that my eyes kept jumping ahead to the next paragraph or the next page. It’s never really happened to me before, but I had to physically stop myself from spoiling the events of the novel and making sure I read every line. My eyes just wouldn’t behave. As a writer, this book was both inspiring and demoralizing. Inspiring because it was just so well-crafted, and demoralizing because every time I finished reading I did so with a sigh and a pang of despair that I could never write anything as good as this.

Moriarty states that a book that influenced her writing of The Center of Everything was Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World, and I can see how. Carl Sagan was one of the most brilliant minds of the 20th century, and an important proponent of the skeptical movement. In The Demon-Haunted World he stresses the importance of critical thinking and maintaining a skeptical disposition. He makes clear distinctions between science and pseudoscience, and that any idea should be able to stand up to rigorous scientific and skeptical testing before it can be accepted as valid. They’re important values for our society moving forward, and ones I absolutely hold dear to my heart. It reminds me of my old philosophy professor from college who said “While everyone has the equal right to an opinion, not all opinions are equal. If one theory states that we evolved from apes and that we can measure this evolution by examining fossil data, and another states that God made us, because a dusty old storybook called the Bible says so, then the former is clearly a better opinion.” Throughout the novel Evelyn is torn between the liberal professors that feed her burgeoning passion for science and her grandma Eileen’s religious doctrine. As the school debates whether to teach evolution or not, Eileen cries that it’s unfair to teach the kids one theory and not the other. The scene reminded me of my professor’s words.

I didn’t like the character of Eileen, because she seemed to represent the sinister nature of organized religion. She’s sweet and smiley in appearance and voice, but when you listen to her views you realize that she’s a shockingly hateful and bigoted person. It’s difficult for Evelyn to reconcile Eileen’s kindness and generosity with her subscription to a belief system that castigates homosexuality and pre-marital sex as being evil. In contrast, Evelyn’s free-spirited mom Tina preaches nothing, but practices tireless love. To my mind, she emerges as the true heroine of the narrative. She can be childish and impractical, but she has a heart of gold. The crux of the novel, I believe, is Evelyn’s journey to understanding that no one is wholly good or bad, that in every person’s wake there lies a trail of bad decisions, hypocrisy, and the search for truth.

What I’ve Been Up To Recently

My vision for 2018 is for it to be my most ambitious year yet. 2017 was all about recovery; it was about finding my productivity and finding my happiness. But none of that was planned from the outset. It just sort of happened. And because of that progress, I now hold myself to a higher standard. I figured out that I want to live and do something with my life, and now it’s all about getting to work to achieve what I want.

One of the ways I want to improve my life this year is simply to do more. My problem the past few years has been my tendency to hibernate between my travels to the USA, counting down the days until I get to taste root beer again, until I hear cicadas at night. Now I want to make up for all the time I wasted while I was still in the UK and refusing to get out of bed. I want to fill my life full of vivid experiences. I haven’t got much money, but I have been looking to do small things in my spare time. I don’t want my weekends to slip by in a haze of basketball highlights and potato chips. It’s as simple as just saying “Yes” more often. It’s things like going for a walk with my kid brother Frank before he moves out, traveling to Stamford Bridge to watch Kanté tear it up with my old writing buddy from Winchester, or finally trying out Bingo and Trivia Night at the pub where I work.

Of course, I’m most interested in things that are creative, that light a fire in my soul. So here are three things I’ve seen this year so far, that I consider to be of artistic value:

 


Humanity – Ricky Gervais Stand Up Tour

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In January I went to the Colston Hall in Bristol- the place where I both sang and danced in three separate shows when I was a kid- to see my first stand up gig. I just couldn’t turn down the chance to see one of my favorite all-time comedians in the flesh. What was great was that Ricky Gervais was in the best form of his life- the quality of his material hadn’t dropped at all since the likes of Animals and Science. I can see how a comedian might not be able to keep up with the times, but Gervais is as sharp and relevant now as he ever was. During Humanity he told stories about celebrities, which to the average person like me, was so interesting, because it was like he acted as bridge between the real world and Hollywood. He’s worked with so many famous people, and yet he comes across as a very down-to-earth guy. It was like he was our man on the inside, sharing the juicy details of the bizarre existence of the famous. I don’t want to spoil any of the material, so go watch this show now (it’s on Netflix!).

 


Loveless – Andrey Zvyagintsev film

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About a ten minute drive from where I live is a cinema called The Curzon, in a Victorian seaside town called Clevedon. It’s one of the oldest continually-running movie theaters in the world. They’ve got this old organ from the 1930s and sometimes a fellow in a bow tie comes down to play it before the movie starts. I went to this cinema a few weeks ago to see a Russian movie called Loveless. It was the only night they were showing it, and I really wanted to see the film. I think it’s the first foreign-language movie I have seen in the theater, and maybe the first I’ve seen since my days in Film Studies class at City of Bristol College. The film was beautiful and bleak. It’s all about a kid that goes missing during his parents’ bitter divorce. It’s one of the best films I’ve seen in recent times, and it gives a very cynical portrayal of domestic life in Putin’s Russia. It’s not about Putin or politics per se, but you can feel it ticking in the background. Fleeting glimpses of current affairs, from car radios or TV sets, contribute to a general impression of national sadness. The dialogue in this film was great; the adults rip into one another like Siberian Lynxes. It’s a whole lot of sex, swearing, and darkly-humored nihilism.

 


Macbeth – Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory

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The Tobacco Factory in Bristol is one of our go-to theaters, along with the Old Vic. I try to see Shakespeare as often as I can, and so far I’ve seen about 15 of his plays (almost half!). However until last Thursday, I had never seen Macbeth. I’ve wanted to check out this gory tragedy for years and years, but it just kept eluding me. In 2016 I saw the Michael Fassbender film adaptation with my roommate Aaron, but I loved it so much that it only made me want to see the narrative on stage even more! I got my chance this week and went along with my dad and brother. The Tobacco Factory is a modern theater, but it’s perfect for Shakespeare because the seats are arranged around a small, central stage area. You get to see the actors up close and it gives the plays this real sense of intimacy. I liked this adaptation of Macbeth– the stage floor was covered with a deep layer of blackened wood chips, the sound effects had the diseased, deathly tone of buzzing wasps, and the WW1-inspired costumes were low-key and utilitarian, in a way that contributed to the bleak atmosphere. Best of all were the three witches with their heads wrapped in gauze. It was creepy as fuck. Also, the play featured my favorite stage actor- Simon Armstrong- who I have seen in Bristol dozens of times in everything from Moliere to Chekhov. I also only just realized that he plays Qhorin Halfhand in Game of Thrones (the Night’s Watch ranger that Jon Snow serves under in Season 2!).

My Thoughts on Phantom Thread

I can’t remember the last time there were so many movies out at once that I’ve really wanted to see. I still need to see Loveless, Hostiles and I, Tonya. I’m also looking forward to seeing Annihilation, You Were Never Really Here, and Solo: A Star Wars Story, which come out very soon. I’m confident I’ll enjoy them all. So far the only movies I’ve had the time to see are Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri and Phantom Thread. The former was good, the latter was better. And it’s the latter of those two films that’s inspired me to blog today.

At first glance, Phantom Thread didn’t look to be my kind of film. It’s set in the couture business of 1950s London. It’s a romantic period drama about a fancy dressmaker who makes fancy dresses for the fancypants people of high society. The kind of movies I usually watch tend to have a higher density of people face down in a gutter drowning on their own blood. But then I noticed something: this film starred Daniel Day-Lewis and was directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. The last time these two hooked up we were given a brutal drama set against the harsh backdrop of the Southern California Oil Boom, ending with the unforgettable image of a preacher getting his head caved in with a bowling pin. There Will Be Blood is a contender for my favorite film of all time, so I knew I had to give this a go.

And Phantom Thread did not disappoint.

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It’s a slow, meditative drama that’s admittedly not for everyone. But what really makes this film is the intensity of the performances from its two leading actors. Daniel Day-Lewis demonstrates yet again that he is the most talented and versatile actor of his generation, and he brings this absolutely dominating screen presence that turns even the most subtle scene into a hair-raising, edge-of-your-seat affair. You can feel the goosepimples crawling up your arms every time he does something as seemingly mundane as giving his opposite number a closed-mouth glare. And as good as Day-Lewis is, I thought that his co-star Vicky Krieps was right there with him. She matched his raw intensity and produced one of the most powerful performances I’ve seen in years.

Day-Lewis plays a famed dressmaker, and Krieps a waitress who sort of becomes his mistress and his muse. He’s wholly dedicated to his art, but Krieps is determined to have a piece of him for herself. The movie essentially follows her attempts to have a relationship with him- one that she gets something out of. She doesn’t want to ruin his art, or stop him from making dresses, but she just wants a little piece of him that is hers and hers alone. The film is a fascinating portrayal of the struggles of having a relationship with an artist. Day-Lewis is kind of a narcissistic- yet brilliant- genius, but Krieps has a profound effect on him, and ultimately he is shocked at how she changes his life and completely disrupts his routine.

Phantom Thread reminded me a lot of another film I watched recently. The other week I finally got around to watching the 2013 documentary Salinger. Funnily enough, Salinger was originally meant to be a feature film with Daniel Day-Lewis in the starring role. In Phantom Thread, Day-Lewis’ character is very particular, adhering to a strict and exact sense of routine. His every waking day, his every living breath, is dedicated to the art of dressmaking. And it pushes anyone away from getting too close. There’s no room in his life for intimacy; everyone comes second to his art. And it’s this aspect of the film that reminded me of Salerno’s documentary of one of my favorite writers- JD Salinger. The film portrays the novelist as being so obsessed with his art that it pushes away his wife; he would supposedly spend weeks at a time writing inside a windowless bunker, which neither she or anyone else was allowed in. Both movies seem to raise the question: is that lack of intimacy the price one pays for achieving true, lasting greatness? Can you live a normal life and be dedicated to your art? What are you willing to sacrifice for immortality? The most touching part of the documentary, for me, was a reported quote from Salinger to the effect that he wished he had never written The Catcher in the Rye. It made me sad, because it suggested to me that perhaps he wished he had lived a more normal life, without all the media scrutiny and the burden of being America’s greatest novelist.

Phantom Thread, however, ends on a much more optimistic note. In the end, Day-Lewis and Krieps have found a way to make it work. Theirs is a dark love in which he willingly allows her to feed him poisonous mushrooms so that he becomes so ill that he is completely dependent on her. It’s a crazy kind of passion, but then genius often comes hand in hand with madness. Despite all the difficulties of living in his world, she is determined to make a place for herself- and that’s what makes Krieps’ character so compelling.