Movies

This Is Transformers Age Of Extinction

Is it good?  Not really.  It is about an hour too long?  Absolutely.  Does it have a robot fist-fight atop a moving robot pterodactyl as it flies over Hong Kong while Optimus Prime rides a fire-breathing Dinobot Rex beneath it?  Yes.  Yes it does.

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Board Game

This Is Shadows Of Brimstone

I thought I understood pain.  As a former attendee of the high school educational regimen, an attendee who was not terribly liked nor disliked, I thought I understood apathy.  Demoralization.  These feelings are mere constructs when laid bare against the foundation of Brimstone, they facsimiles of an emotion which is only a shadow-sliver of its true strength.  As a frequenter of the streets of Arkham, I have become hardened against the potential dark waiting with its maw and its suckers and its gaping hate, and in those things I find no fear.  Only resolve.  But in Brimstone, in the mines outside the dust of an old west town where inspired abominations pull at the fabric of our world, my will was tested.  It was broken.  There is no love for my avatar now.  No bond forged by tribulation.  Having suffered defeat upon defeat in the face of these eldritch terrors, I dash my pawn willingly against the beach of that sharp shore, thinking not of their sacrifice, but of my lust for revenge.

My brother and I have approached the first scenario in the game – the basic, introductory scenario, I might stress – a total of eight times, and in those eight attempts, we have come close to victory twice.  Those two, that bleak twenty-five percent, is close only in the way a tornado missing your home before changing its trajectory is close, a brief moment of hope before realization settles, and the inevitable quiet follows.  We would reach our objective ahead of the curve: in good health, sound mind, and with our “continue” (a Revive token) still in hand.  Things were up.  Then the card draw, the Fate-capital-eff of our heroes decided by what it read, what monsters we would face, and the overwhelming crush chasing after.

Rinse.

Repeat.

There were times we made it only one tile into the mine, a series of terrible rolls drawing Darkness cards which unleashed poisonous gas through those narrow shafts, the putrid air sickening us so deeply we collapsed, quite literally per the flavor-text’s painting, in pools of our own vomit.  There were times we were outnumbered, and in a fit of strategic brilliance I’d lit my stick of dynamite and sent it howling into those devil hoards only to overshoot my mark, that stick taking one unlucky bounce, a second unlucky bounce, a final unlucky bounce before detonating at the feet of my partner, around a corner, turning his fine black suit into red mist.

I respect a certain amount of luck in my games.  I even respect a certain amount of luck in my life.  A small part of me understands my making it safe to work is a roll of infinite cosmic die, my car a working heap of human-constructed parts surrounded by hundreds of other heaps of human-constructed parts all traveling at an incredible pace, all driven by people with more vying for their attention than the person racing next to them.  In my own life, however, I have some semblance of control.  That control may be mythical, the idea of balance where none exists, but an idea is still a powerful thing, and in that idea, I feel control.  It is one thing to roll the dice and witness the result.  It is another thing entirely to believe you chose the result.  This concept is the root of my love and my hate of Brimstone.  This, like so many of Flying Frog’s other games, are wholly dependent on a six-sided cube.  Eight-sided if you’re playing the Marshal, a cube which statistically lands on the number two far more than odds or science or whatever dictates this sort of thing professes it should.  All the planning in the world will only carry you so far.  My choosing door A over B for a strategic purpose matters little when Hell comes shooting from it, a Hell spawned by the roll of a seven and not a six, or a poorly timed series of doubles, and my actual decision held no weight in the outcome.  Things like that make me want to crawl into an Elder God’s belly and be devoured for millenia.  This is a game of random outcomes, and there’s very little planning you can do which will affect your Fate.  Chances are you were dead before you set foot in the mine, you just didn’t know it yet.

Here’s the good news: it’s fun.  A lot of fun.  For all the hours spent exploring and dying and repeating, I don’t see any of them as wasted.  There’s something wonderful about playing a Saloon Girl (yes, a Saloon girl) with a hidden pistol who lays waste to a creature with tentacles for a mouth.  There’s even something wonderful about a stick of dynamite with a vendetta against my family.  Or a portal ripping open to unleash sadness into an otherwise innocuous room of bones.  Moan though I may about performance issues, I understand nothing here wishes my success, and the mountain and the climb to save the world is great.  This is a stacked deck.  A number of stacked decks, come to think, the Darkness cards, Growing Dread cards, Encounter cards, Threat cards, even Scavenge cards all sorted and randomly filed to shut your excitement down the moment you start shaking those dice.  What could make for a miserable experience is mitigated by the enjoyment when something goes right, the ability to string this curiosity of a story together and finding laughter in its retelling, and the presentation.  I like the miniatures.  Yes, I wish I didn’t have to assemble them myself because I’m terrible at it, but whatever.  Having finished with the setup, I’m incredibly happy.  The components are typical Flying Frog and very well done.  The setting is outstanding.  Like I mentioned in a previous post: western meets Lovecraft equals yes.  My only legitimate complaint as far as game design goes is also something of traditional Flying Frog stock.  A lot of care has gone to make you feel as though you’re in a roleplaying game.  Between the personal items your character begins with to help flesh out your history, and the ability to go to town between missions and further these adventures as you travel, you’re meant to become attached to your person.  Again: any love I once held is gone and they are now merely vessels for my hate, but the intent is there.  Trouble is, all the other stats your character comes loaded with – Agility, Cunning, Spirit, so on – are there only for use when an encounter occurs.  Rather than use my Agility to nimbly thread the grip of a Strangler in an effort to buy myself distance and set-up a kill shot, that Agility goes unused unless I’m told to make a skill check due to some environmental hazard.  Like I said, this is something all FF games do for the most, and I’m not surprised nor really put-out by it, but with such a heavy focus on the craftsmanship of self alongside all these other stats, it’s tough not to be a little disappointed said skills are a rarely used trigger rather than a choice in the Player’s arsenal.

There are two base sets: City of the Ancients, and Swamps of Death, both of which are independent experiences with the ability to mix/match should the fancy strike you.  I have the former.  I think Swamps comes with some lady who shapeshifts into a bear which I’m a little disappointed about, but Saloon Girl > Bear-Lady.  My copy was about $90.  Worth it?  Totally, if you can handle the sheer size of garbage you’ll need to dodge in a string of lucky rolls.  I don’t mean to sound as though there are no decisions you make which will change the outcome, there are, though these are very few and very far in comparison to some well-placed prayers.  I get my pure strategy fixes elsewhere, and while I’d be happier if the needle was tilted ever-so-slightly further in that direction here, I’m mostly involved to posse it up against the coming dark.  And that’s exactly what I get.

If I ever manage to make it through the ten missions included, I would absolutely get any and all expansions for this thing.  Even if not, I like the game enough to just put them on my shelf and stare at the potential dangers inside.

Recommended.

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Art, Music

This Is The Decemberists’ “What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World”

Colin Meloy is an incredible lyricist.  It’s what made and continues to make The Crane Wife my favorite album of all time, it incidentally being the first Decemberists album I heard.  My wife and I were driving from Ohio to Wyoming to go see Yellowstone when I bought the CD, one of only three we brought with us for the entire trip.  The car we rented had a six CD disc changer, something which admittedly blew my mind at the time as both miraculous and exorbitant, and we began each new day listening to The Crane Wife (a tradition we continue, at least when first starting out, for each of our road trips).  There’s some chance a bit of brainwashing/conditioning bled into those repeated hours of listening, but the careful craftsmanship of Meloy’s storytelling is something I had yet to experience prior to.  I came to the genre later in life than most, I think, which accounts for some of my educational absence here, an absence I’ve since sought to remedy, but at the time, it translated into one of those fabled “Ah Ha!” moments, a moment I’ve clung to ever since.

Their latest album What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World follows the typical Decemberists pendulum of maudlin and whimsical, this falling closer to the former in tone.  Given Meloy’s penchant for the narrative, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the relationship pitfalls discussed were experienced things.  Much of the arc feels strangely familiar at the moment given the places both my wife and I are in our lives, and there was a time I had difficulty listening to the first track released from their album, “Make Me Better”.  Too, “Lake Song” makes parting ways for a time beautiful, curiously, it’s lyrics my favorite from the album, and possibly my favorite Decemberists song to date.  One particular set which stands out each listen is: “Come to me now/And on this station wagon window/Set the ghost of your two footprints/That they might haunt me when you’re gone”.  Every line in there from start to finish is perfectly crafted.  And alternatively, “The Wrong Year” reminds me of my wife in a happier way, the story of a girl born out in the country and refusing to let anyone change who she’s determined to be.  Makes me smile every time it comes on.

All the above comes with a but: it’s uneven.  This is in part due to how good the front end of the album is, as it’s front-loaded with what I’d argue are some of their most lyrically powerful songs, but the change in both tone and style plays a part in this shortcoming as well.  Songs like “Better Not Wake The Baby”, “Anti-Summersong”, and “Easy Come, Easy Go” almost feel like after-thoughts when they arrive, the longest of the three coming in shy of the two-and-a-half minute mark.  And though I like them, “Carolina Low” which plays just before these has such a heaviness to it, the rapidity of what follows is jarring.  When they’re played away from the album as part of a Shuffle, say, I think they’ll work just fine as they are absolutely Decemberists in nature.  It’s the jump in emotion which blunts them for me.  Now, having said that, the final songs bring the collection back together quite well, and perhaps after spending more time with it, I’ll find stronger unity.  They do add some needed levity, admittedly, and the overall placement of them would be tough no matter where they chose.  Having said, I find the album’s pacing to be a strength overall, counter to how that may seem given what I’ve just said, which I’ll get into a little more below.

If I had to place Terrible/Beautiful, it’s a mix of Crane Wife’s narrative, Her Majesty’s more lighthearted aspects, and The King Is Dead’s roots in Americana.  There were fans who complained over The King Is Dead, finding the sound, among other things, too far a departure from what they’d grown to like or expect from the band.  Terrible/Beautiful opens with “The Singer Addresses His Audience”, speaking directly to the those complaints both candidly and with some good-natured ribbing.  I enjoy watching artists grow in how they choose to approach their craft, and I further enjoy being able to watch these changes while finding the core of what I like so much about a band.  “The Singer Addresses His Audience” is a good explanation of that growth, making its use right from the start perfect.  After, Her Majesty makes its appearance, “Calvary Captain” reminding me a fair bit of “Song For Myla Goldberg”Those more autobiographical songs follow (“Make Me Better”, “Lake Song”), crowing much of the album’s middle before spilling toward The King Is Dead and it’s quicker, breezier feel.  The last track, “A Beginning Song”, is an excellent capstone however, falling back onto the personal, a song keenly aware of relationship strengths and differences, and in them a reconciliation of those separate pieces.  Life and marriage can create such a tumult, especially when we realize people are not stagnant things, our wants and our needs evolving as we allow new experiences to shape our dynamic outlooks.  When those begin to split, two halves of a whole bending like a wishbone as they’re tugged toward different interests, we easily lose sight of what brought us together in the first place.  I have a terrible tendency to grow mired in the Now without settling myself, and the line in the final song which says “Condescend to calm this riot in your mind/Find yourself in time” shouts to me in another of those “Ah Ha’s”.  Just… being.  I need to hear that, hear it and often, as it’s something I continue to lose sight of.  I need to be more okay with letting go of Old Me.  Even Old Us, as it pertains to my wife and I.  For me, at least, evolution seems a scary thing, good only when we’re in sync with one another, and I’m coming to realize it needn’t be.  “A Beginning Song” makes for a great ending as it lures me to just listen, stripping away all excess and just resting with emotions reminiscent of what it was like to fall in love with that person I did so long ago, and doing so again for a second (or third, or fourth) time.

This is an album I see a good deal of myself in.

Recommended.  What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World reminds me why I love the Decemberists so much.

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Food

This Is Campbell’s Chunky Roadhouse Chili

When I first began working at Starbucks, there was an older woman who worked across the way who would bring us baked goods every week.  Cookies, brownies, that sort of thing.  I’d like to believe this was done out of the kindness of her heart, though the way she would place her mug on the counter and expectantly ask for “her tea” suggested otherwise.  And while the gesture itself was sweet, the outcome left quite a bit to be desired.  In some magically inexplicable way, every one of her pastries tasted identical to the last.  Not between cookies, no, but rather new item to new item, cookie mirroring brownie mirroring cupcake mirroring lemon bar.  The results were remarkable, and would have been impressive if not for the disquiet there on the tongue after realizing what you were about to eat, out of politeness, held no distinguishing factor of its own.  Were the pastry to commit murder, the crime would go unsolved, the DNA too inadmissible, too inconclusive.

So too is the case ehre.  Nothing in Campbell’s Chunky Roadhouse Chili sets it apart.  I do not say this in comparison to their competition, though this too is the case, but between bites, each spoonful of Chunky is as uninteresting as the last.  While I don’t go into canned soup expecting something miraculous, I balk when I need to add my own spices in order to, well, spice up the dish, and give the stuff some complexity.  There was a recipe on the back of the can for using their soup as a garnish of sorts to be placed atop some other meal, so the case could be made I’d approached their soup incorrectly.  Perhaps it was not meant to be soup, I don’t know.  But while Hamburger can be a Helper when called upon, it stands stoically on its own as a separate entity, a feat this Chili appears incapable of.  I remember nothing of my meal, only that I became both further depressed and buoyed the closer to the bottom of the bowl I drew.

Campbell’s Chunky Roadhouse Chili is food for someone looking to sustain life, not experience it.

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Movies

This Is Hercules

Like Log, Hercules is better than bad.  I don’t know if I would go so far as to call it good, though it has enough working in its favor to overlook some of the rougher edges.

A big pleasant surprise is the film’s dissection of legends.  We’re treated in the opening with what most know of Hercules: his being a demi-god born of mortal and Zeus, attacked by snakes as a child from an angry Hera, and his Twelve Trials where Hercules bests some of the bigger names in mythology.  This is all handled as a quick montage before we learn everything he’s known for is bogus, Hercules being the leader of a small band of close mercenaries who’ve built his reputation to such heights through a simple game of telephone.  It’s an interesting direction in what I assumed was going to be an over-the-top rehash of Hercules via highlight real, and one which drew me into the film more than I otherwise would have been.  We’re shown the reality of myth, a behind-the-scenes, more, even experiencing some of the potential awe and uncertainty in what’s real/isn’t ourselves when the adversary is introduced, and seen commanding an army of centar.  There’s a suspension of disbelief here, yes, as already we’re allowing such things to be, but in the context of that world, it’s an engaging exploration of how even some of our own mythologies are grounded in the explainable truth.  Now, it’s not nearly as heady as I’m maybe making it out to be, just a deeper tract I’d have thought it capable of digging, initially.

There’s a nice blend too of sword and sorcery, though the leaning is much closer to sword than it is the latter.  I couldn’t help but feel I was watching a less gritty Conan, Hercules wanting to be raw without the personality to be so.  This isn’t a mark against him, necessarily, but more an observation against the film itself where it never seemed to choose a distinctive side for him.  I mean, you know from the outset he’s a good guy, so perhaps the comparison isn’t entirely fair, though we’re presented with a man who supposedly follows the gold, but more seems to follow his heart.  There’s just enough of a disconnect between Mercenary Hercules and Hercules Hercules to appear uneven in his character’s delivery.

The special effects have a strange cartoonish quality about them.  It says enough of how far technology has come where I still feel a little uncomfortable making such a statement, but they stood out rather than in, like watching something animated where the interactive object is slightly off-color than everything else.  I wasn’t pulled out as a result, though the final execution is a little off-putting and sloppy when the rest of the film is as nice to look at as it is.  Combat is fine.  It too has a cartoonishness, resting somewhere between Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, a space I’d argue the first Narnia film falls as well, if that gives you any sort of compass.  For a film hoping to be epic, Hercules settles on mostly grand, never having enough oomph to make the final push.  Again: this is better than I thought things would turn out as my bar was set at “likely to be bored” and coming through entertained, but I could easily see an argument for boredom too.  Just very middle-of-the-road.

Cast is good.  Surprisingly so.  John Hurt, Ian McShane, and Rufus Sewell all appear, and all do quite well.  I expected a phone-in, and was given fun instead.  I believe Dwayne as Hercules.  That’s as much of a character stretch as Robert Downey Jr. playing Tony Stark, so the leap is logical and not much of a leap at all.  When I assume you’re already Hercules, we’re off to a fine start.

This falls under hesitant recommend territory.  I think if you’re forgiving and go in with little expectation, you’ll be fine.  It’s not even quite popcorn-flick status, unfortunately, the movie itself being popcorn without the butter, but popcorn is still popcorn, and not wholly worth complaining about when you have some, which is how this seems to settle.  The few misdirects with the story again elevate Hercules further than it should have been, so bear that in mind if you decide to venture forth.  Better than it deserves to be, and not quite as good as it could be.  Still: hesitantly recommended.

Disney did it better.

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Television

This Is Marco Polo Season One

Since this is meaty, I’ll try and be succinct.

I liked it.  Mostly.  The views are both breathtaking and sweeping, the immersion into this strange new world a communal experience with Marco as we move with him plucked from home and thrust, bartered, into his foreign life of servitude.  When he learns we learn, growing to better understand the machinations of the palace and politics.  Like a slow-spanning spiral our radius of understanding widens alongside his.  That piece of the journey works exceptionally well, and even at the close of the season, continues to do so.  With a benefactor as ambitions and far-reaching as Kublai Khan, the possibility of what’s left to be revealed is great.

Bits which worked: the package.  Between the vistas and the costumes and the overall palette, I felt saturated immediately by the culture.  Again, to repeat myself above: immersed.  The story progression had a natural flow.  Perhaps it’s a result of a ten episode season, but the narrative was a tight one without forks which appeared to break from the main supply for any reason other than to convolute and stir drama.  I’ll say there are some near exceptions to this, mostly in the character of Jingim, Kublai’s son and heir, who struck me as a less malevolent and bratty Joffrey Baratheon, his distrust of Marco in line with what I’d assume the prejudices of the period to be while nearing a xenophobic quality, lending his decisions a vaguely unbelievable air.  Distrust for sake of distrust.  We’ll eventually learn how some of his emotions were manipulated, making my argument moot to a degree, but even so, I found him exaggerated.  Each character is distinct, another good mark.  Combat is just the right balance of spectacle and tightness, the use of wires done subtly so as to offer a glimpse toward the fantastic without relying on them purely for showmanship.  Hundred Eyes should have his name changed to Mongol Matt Murdock.  Triple M.

Things I wasn’t wild about: the large-scale battle scenes were weak.  I understand a budget is being watched, and I’m not expecting Helm’s Deep here, but the directional choices of tight shots and few combatants shrunk the scale to a terrible degree.  In one particular scene, the fight is more a brief series of shots with a piece of art showing the outcome used as means of narrative, which worked well save the fighting.  Had it just been the sound of war overlaid with the art, the grandness could have been saved, allowing the audience to use their imagination to bolster that scale.  As it stands, this great conflict becomes a schoolyard spat.  One other quibble is the tension.  There are a handful of times the audience is led to believe a character is about to be removed both from show and body.  The difficulty with a period piece like this is anyone can easily see what happened to who and when, making many of the more weighty moments… exercises.  Perhaps it’s a little unfair, this criticism.  We should focus maybe more inside the framework of the known to the smaller pieces moving across the board, and I get that, but it’s an issue which struck me just the same.  To reuse The Two Towers, there’s no fear of Aragorn having been dashed along a cliff.  I mean, it’s Aragorn.  Don’t draw out the moment unnecessarily.

And last: the ending.  It’s a solid wrap-up, though the final reveal seems counter to the character we’ve seen throughout the series.  I’m being intentionally vague so as to avoid spoiling things, but someone who’s shown as pragmatic, thoughtful, decisive, and calculating, is made to be sloppy and incredibly overt.  I just don’t see that decision being made by him, and it feels like a poor addition.  Obviously we have a whole new season to see that kernel become fertile.

I’ve heard the show gets some flack.  I’m not familiar with what those criticisms might be, but we’re not talking about a perfect product here.  Is it enjoyable?  For me.  Was it better than a chunk of what I’ve seen on television these days?  Again, for me.  I still prefer Netflix’s House of Cards and Orange Is The New Black, but Marco Polo is a solid effort from them once more.  Recommended, if for the setting alone.

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Movies

This Is The Second Avengers Age Of Ultron Trailer

I didn’t even realize we were getting a second trailer for this thing.  In a time when trailers feel the need to reveal the entire plot of the film, it’s refreshing to see them handled right every now and again.  It’s what made the new Star Wars trailer so good.  Well, Star Wars made the new trailer so good, even with the prequel taint, but the point stands.  See: a trailer should be all about the smells of a kitchen.  Scent and anticipation.  Maybe hearing the rattle of dishes or the pot coming to boil, drawers opening and closing as ingredients are added, searched for, and catching the beep of an oven.  This is the lead-in experience to a meal.  Trailers need whet the appetite, not drown it in so many appetizers the full course becomes an afterthought.

A buddy of mine mentioned how much more exciting the first Age of Ultron trailer was compared to the second.  And he isn’t wrong, even when wondering if part of that excitement stems from the action within the package or the newness of it.  Both can be true.  What I enjoyed here, though, is the slowness.  The first gave an idea of what to expect, and the tone is certainly darker than the first movie, but I found this trailer to be one of mood, taking the darkness into more dire, more desperate, more grave, (more synonymous) avenues.  The palette of the meal is revealed with dishes still being hinted at: Black Panther, Scarlet Witch, Hulk potentially charmed by Scarlet, all things for fans to mull and discuss, not be outright shown.  Though the habit today seems to go Teaser -> Trailer -> Trailer 2 -> Film, the Teaser has always seemed redundant to me, at least from a practical standpoint.  The entire reason a trailer exists is to tease, to swell our excitement until we all but clamor to hand over our money.  There’s a study I read I’m not going to take the time to re-find, but the gist was we are happier looking forward to the vacation than we are on the vacation itself.  For me it’s true.  Not that I don’t enjoy the event when it arrives, only there’s something innately infectious about speculation.  Both Age of Ultron trailers have handled the speculation spectrum (eh?  eh?) perfectly, with this newest helping shift assumptions around and get my mind better straight.  More straight?  Whatever.

It needs to be May.

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