Star Wars The Last Jedi Mini-Review (No Spoilers)

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Star Wars The Last Jedi Movie Poster, Image Source: Slash Film

So, everyone’s in a tizzy about The Last Jedi.  I finally saw it on Saturday, but I wanted to get my head around the movie, the story, the experience, and yes, the controversy that is surrounding it.  My local theater showed it only in Imax 2D as has been there wont lately, so I can’t tell if 3D would have made an impact–I suspect not (as you’ll see below).  A note on Spoilers–there aren’t any (hopefully).  I tried to talk about more my impressions and be as oblique as possible, but that comes at the expense of really delving deeply into what I thought was right/wrong with the movie as I’d have to point out specific examples from the film to make the points that I wanted to and that would make this post far too spoilery–so I chose not to do it.  I may revisit this movie with a post in the future with full spoilers, but for now, this review is as spoiler free as I could make it.

In a nutshell, am I disappointed in the movie?  I’m ambivalent towards it.  There are good things to like and there are bad things to dislike.  In the original trilogy the good far outweighed the bad, while (for me) in the prequels, bad far outweighed the good.  So while I see these new movies as “okay,” I don’t really feel that they are close to greatness that the originals achieved.  I’d say these rank solidly in the middle for me–better than the prequels, but not nearly as engaging as the originals.  Now, on to a more nuanced discussion of The Last Jedi.

Strong Visuals
This is where the movie excels–say whatever you will about The Last Jedi (TLJ), but it has very strong visuals and visualization of the actions.  It is a very striking movie and looks very good in terms of how a “modern” Star Wars movie should look–even more so than the Prequel Trilogy.  I love the color scheme and the look of the characters and the integration of practical effects with CGI effects.  It all looks amazing and has a strong visual flair to it.  I think that perhaps JJ Abrams reboot of the Star Trek franchise is slightly more visually appealing than TLJ, but not by much although that’s a pretty subjective determination on my part.

Okay Story 
So this is where it begins to get a little dicey–yes, TLJ has a coherent story that has a beginning, middle, and end, but (without spoilers) it felt a little disjointed in places.  It is as if there were several different plot threads running through the movie, but none of them have a solid through line.  I once read/saw something that said after The Force Awakens there was nothing written (i.e. a roadmap) for the rest of the trilogy.  If that is true, that’s what this seems like.  A set of striking vignettes/subplots all rolled into one movie in which “moments” happen, but nothing “big or revelatory” happens.  The story just exists, but doesn’t actually “say” anything once its finished.

Not sure about the Characterization
So, the characterization feels off to me for some reason.  The characters are all there, but they don’t necessarily act in ways that I would expect them to do so having seen all of them, the infamous Christmas Special, the Muppet Show Episode with Mark Hamill, the animated Droids, and pretty much everything else (except the latest episodes of the animated SW show on Disney XD because of the hefty price tag).  The characters are sometimes on note and sometimes are way off.  I don’t want to throw the director under the bus (as many websites and fan review videos are doing right now), however, he wrote Looper, which was among my least favorite Sci-Fi movies of recent years–although it was (to be fair) critically lauded.  However, while he may be a good Sci-Fi writer that doesn’t immediately give him cred. for being a good SW writer.  Sci-Fi comes in different “flavors” and there was nothing in Looper that said that he would be a good fit for SW as a time travel story is much different than a science fantasy story.  Without spoilers, Finn lurches between cowardice and unrelenting heroism, Rey is sometimes really strong, yet really naive, and Po gets to be a “rebel” with a cause, but his plans never come to anything substantial in the story.  I won’t even get started on Luke’s character–suffice to say, many SW fans are not happy with the way he’s portrayed.  I personally felt ambivalence.  When a major thing happened in the movie, I just watched, but didn’t actually feel anything.  It was as if I was just watching someone move figures around on a chessboard–I didn’t engage/root for the characters and the story didn’t seem to make me want to care so it was as if I was just going through the motions.

Overall Grade: B-.  Hey, it’s a SW movie, so there’s a ton of nostalgia built up for the movie, but I look at it this way–when I was a child, the wait between Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi was interminable.  However, no matter what Episode IX will be called, I can wait for it–easily.  In fact, only the fact that my mother wanted to see it in the theaters and it is because of her prompting that caused me to buy tickets for it.  I was content to just watch it on bluray/streaming based on the weak trailer.  There are no burning questions/characters that makes me want to find out what happens to these characters right now.

Implications for My Writing
Twofold–1) practice at different forms of the genre and know my limitations.  While I like history, I’m probably never going to be able to write lots of strong Victorian Steampunk.  The Victorian era, while I know quite a bit about it, isn’t an area where I really find myself drawn to in writing works or reading various works.  So I’d have to do a lot of work to really make sure I hit my marks, knowing that there are other writers who could hit it out of the park far easier than I ever could.  2) Characters–Johnson’s visuals could only carry him so far, but in the end, the lack of affinity that he had for the characters really was distracting.  I wonder if what I feel towards Rey, Finn, and Po right now are what editors are feeling for my stories–just sort of ‘blah.’  I really need to work on characterization and truly getting awesome characters in order to combat this problem.

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Nostalgia Review: AD&D Pool of Radiance (SSI Goldbox AD&D Game) for the Commodore 64

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Box Cover Artwork for Pools of Radiance (Warrior fighting a Dragon), Image Source: YouTube

This is quite possibly one of my Top Ten games that I played in my childhood.  It was the first in the loosening of the D&D/AD&D brand that I can remember.  D&D/AD&D (from now on abbreviated as D&D) was a tightly controlled brand as I recall.  I had the original D&D board game and somehow found (at a reasonable price) the AD&D Players Handbook (1st Edition), so I’ve always been a D&D player.  There were some small attempts to match D&D to the new world of home/personal computers as they were rising in popularity at about the same time.  However, Strategic Simulations’ (SSI) “Gold Box” games (so called because of the “gold” coloring on their boxes) were the PERFECT realization of the D&D ruleset at the time.  No other games series had taken all of the rules (from spell memorization, to spell effects, to combat, to handling ability roles, etc) and so completely merged them into a game that had fantastic combat along with a mysterious story.

Me and My Uncle Loved D&D
Okay, so this might be a slight exaggeration.  loved D&D and my uncle tolerated it, but as we got other RPGs such as The Bard’s Tale II, he also began to be a fan of the genre.  So when I got this game, we both created separate parties and did solo runs of the game and we both beat the story with our individual characters, passing strategies and tips back and forth on the best way of beating certain monsters.  Imagine playing chess, but instead of competitively, you played it cooperatively, each against a computerized foe that was out to destroy your lowly band of digital creations–that was part of the fun of the game.  A sort of “multiplayer” experience before online was even a “thing” in gaming.

 

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Image from C64 Version of Pools of Radiance, Image Source: The House of Games

 

Friends in High School Loved D&D
Okay, so this is actually true, although it wasn’t everyone.  We had a core group of “RPG” players who played D&D and Warhammer Fantasy RPG and who allowed me to be GM.  I was a fan of the Palladium Books series of Games (Rifts, Heroes Unlimited) and they dutifully switched whenever I bought a new game system and wanted to run it–looking back, I realize they were a patient lot!  However, a few of us had computers so we also began playing Pools of Radiance at the same time, so there was shared experiences as we would (again) talk about strategies and tips from what we learned in the game.  Even then, however, I was fairly resistant to spoilers, so I don’t recall talking a lot about the plot of the game, but even still, it was still awesome to be invested in this game on multiple fronts.

 

 

While I went on to buy other games and branch out from the “Gold Box” games, I still remember Pool of Radiance specifically as one the best times that I’ve ever had in gaming and will always have fond memories of this game.

Sidney



Everyday Writer

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Man writing on a laptop, Image Source: LinkedIn.com

So (hopefully today won’t jinx it), but everyday this week I’ve sat down and wrote.  I know, I know, from a writer that’s not much news, but for me, a person who usually writes in “spurts,” it’s a big deal.

Hobby Writer vs Professional Writer
I don’t really know if writing everyday is the best for me, but in this case it is a matter of expediency.  I have approximately 3 weeks before school resumes and I promised to have the short story for Project Skye done upon returning for school.  Once the holidays hit, my time (like most) will be restricted to family activities, so it is imperative that I carve out some time to simply write on the story everyday in order to finish it.

When Life Gives You Lemons, Make Lemonade
I’ve used this quote as the title to a blog post, but I’m using is again as inspiration to actually getting the writing done.  My computer is old–it was top of the line when I bought it, but it is old now and really needs to be replaced.  However, it still functions (mostly) and I usually don’t like replacing something until if finally breaks.  So my laptop battery, like many laptops, has decided it really doesn’t want to hold a charge anymore so that when I take it off its charging cord, it has about 45 mins of power before it needs to be recharged again.  That’s the window of time I’m using to write.  I simply disconnect, write until my computer warns me that it is about to go to “sleep” due to lack of power, then reconnect it back to the charger.  Simple.  Easy.  Effective.  No internet because the WiFi adapter is “borked,” no real time to do any other processor intensive tasks like Keynote or searching for files, just the time I have remaining on the battery sensor vs. me getting the words down.

Weekday Drafter vs Weekend Writer
So, all I’ve done this week is draft, that is put words on the page.  I have several projects that are already finished that I need to revise, however.  I’m experimenting with doing that on the weekends.  If it works out during this Winter Break, I will work to continue it during the upcoming semester.  If nothing else, I’d like to become a more productive “Hobby” writer and finish more of the projects that I swirling around in my head.  By revising and making my stories better on the weekend, including submitting them, and just using the weekdays to draft whatever I’m currently working on, I hope to increase my productivity, at the very least.

 

Back to Basics Writing Approach

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Back to Basics written on a chalkboard, Image Source: Comealive365.com

Sorry that I’ve been away from blogging for a while, but between grading, students’ presentations, my own Final Exams and related schoolwork, I’ve been too overworked to get much in the way of writing (for this blog or for myself) done.  However, I realize after getting a particularly “hard” rejection letter that I’m probably never going to be much more than a “hobby” writer despite my best efforts.  I like different things than what editors and audiences want apparently (as seemingly confirmed by the Rejection Letter that found its way into my inbox not more than 5 minutes ago).  What I like are heroes and what’s popular are villains who masquerade as heroes, so with two different competing philosophies, the one who controls the “gate” (aka the “gatekeepers”) win.  So be it.  Since it looks like I’m not going to be doing this for the “money” and only for the “love,” I intend to do this my way.  Rereading a book on writing and the writing process as I brainstormed how I would set up my next class, I came across a simple statement of the writing process that I’m going to adhere to: research, prewriting, drafting, and revision.

Research
Most of the time, I’m inspired to write something based on something external, so I do research, but I don’t really make it a formal step.  For instance, All Tomorrow’s Children was inspired by a Special Report on Sky News about Jihadi Brides.  However, rather than have a formal “research” period, I took the idea and started writing.  I think now I’m going to actually take a period of time (a week, two, whatever is necessary) and find out all I can about that topic.

Prewriting
I generally start here with an outline.  I think the outline comes too soon.  I think here is where I need character traits, motivations, etc.  Once I nail this down, then I think my outline will work better.  There’s nothing wrong so much with my plots (to me), but I think my characters leave a lot to be desired.  I feel that the characterizations are consistent and adequately explained, but the rejections notices would say otherwise.

Drafting
Here I think I’m pretty good, although I’ll look for places to get better.  I can write a rough draft in a day or two usually, and (when school isn’t too rough), I can write a submission draft in a couple of weeks to a month.  Drafting isn’t really a problem, except when life comes pounding at my door, demanding that I do X, Y, and Z all in one day or the entire world will explode–that’s when I don’t do drafting well (as this past Finals Week has illustrated).

Revision
Again, I feel I’m pretty good here too, although I feel that I have work to do.  I usually only revise or change when I feel it is necessary, but I’m trying to be more receptive to feedback that I get back from editors.  There’s a danger in listening to someone who’s rejecting your story as they don’t have a vested interest in seeing it succeed (as opposed to someone who offers to publish it if it is revised.  However, I’m trying to submit to markets who seem to give good feedback (say, Cosmic Landscapes) as opposed to markets whose comments have been “nitpicky.”  I think this is where going to the Writing Center and running it by a Consultant that I trust is also helpful–it helps me see it with an objective eye, something I can’t do no matter how much time passes between my writing it and my revising it.

 

Finals, Grading, and Papers

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Picture of Gandalf preparing for battle, Image Source: smudailycampus.com

So, this week is Finals Week.  I have two Final Exams, two papers, and grading of my students Final presentations, so my posting will be spotty this week.  Just an update on why I may not be posting on regular schedule this week, but I will do my best.

FINALS
I don’t usually have Final Exams, but this semester it worked out where I final exams in both of my classes.  I will actually be studying for my Spanish Final once I finish writing this blog post.  Both Finals have a take-home component to them, but my Spanish also has an in-class Final Exam component to it as well.

GRADING
I’m in the middle of grading my students papers as well.  I usually have them already done, but I added in revisions so I’m working my way through those who have turned in their revisions as well as grading Final Presentations.  I intend to rework the way I do revisions as I feel that while it is a good opportunity, it just didn’t work out well with the timing of my other classes/classwork.

PAPERS
This is where I really fell down this semester.  I still have time and my deadline isn’t until tomorrow, so I should be able to get them done, but I will be rushing far more than I really needed to do so.  Much of this came because the papers were due at a time that was super stressful (when the phone went down) and all my attention shifted to getting the phone fixed when it should have been on my school work.  Not my finest hour, but it is what it is, so I just have to get it done, somehow.

Barbarian At The Gates–Barbarian C64 Game (Nostalgia Review)

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Barbarian (C64 Version) Box Art, Image Source: Moby Games

So this is one of those games that I didn’t really play a whole lot growing up.  I got it based on the strength of reviews and screenshots from a Computer Magazine, but it was based on the Amiga version and back in the early days of computers, there could be a whole world of difference between one system’s game and another (not like today where most games produced by companies other than Sony or Microsoft have virtual parity with their counterparts),  Barbarian (Commodore 64/C64) was a game that was essentially a side-scroller.  As I recall, you moved right or left and tried to defeat enemies on the way to a specific objective.  I don’t really recall all that much about it–except that I remember being disappointed that the game didn’t have more depth to it.

Compare the Differences

This is the Commodore Amiga Version:

and this is the Commodore 64 version:

You’ll notice that the title of the C64 video is Bad Conversions.  This is very accurate as the game does not stay true to the original and was poorly executed.  I remember that this game was released not too long after the original Conan The Barbarian movies with Arnold Schwarzenegger and while the Amiga version recreated the experience of the movies as faithfully as possible at the time, the C64 version did not.  I can’t recall if this was a Christmas present or a Birthday present–like most children, I got my games as gifts as presents and I remember the potential of this game being so great (I was, of course, into He-Man, Conan, and even Red Sonja along with all things warrior related at the time).

This is why I now rely on Reviews rather than screenshots–I learned early that media, especially advertisements can be manipulative and that it is up to the buyer to beware.

Caveat Emptor!

 

Economics of Buying an EA Game

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Example of the dread “Loot Crate” (with prices), Image Source: ImageTech.com

So, Electronic Arts (EA) has taken a lot of heat in the past weeks for its decision to go all in on Loot Boxes and Microtransactions.  For those not aware, the major controversy in the video game industry right now is the fact than an already (comparatively) expensive hobby like video games where you are expected to pay $60.00 upfront for the product (compare with a movie that is anywhere from 7.99-19.99, a novel that is 9.99-24.99, a season of TV 9.99-39.99, or a streaming subscription, 9.99-14.99, etc.) and then buy “additional” Loot Boxes for the chance of substantially improving your character (or “grinding” for a long time by playing the game in a monotonous way in order to earn the same chance improving one’s character).

Basically, EA is changing the nature of the game (pardon the pun), from playing the game to continually paying for the game (“games as a service”).  Unfortunately, not only doesn’t the gaming public like this, EA doesn’t realize this isn’t a sustainable model.

The Economics of Buying a Game

I’m not boycotting EA games, but their tactics make it clear that I can’t support their economics any more–especially after releasing a game that clearly needed more development time: Mass Effect Andromeda.

How so?

So, I’m rarely into multiplayer–yes, I’ll sometimes dive into the multiplayer component of a game, but outside of select titles (Burnout Paradise, CoD: Modern Warfare, Destiny, and a select few others), I don’t really dive into the multiplayer components of games for any real length of time.  So you can subtract $20.00 from the game value right there.  So, a game that EA charges 59.99 for, is really only worth 39.99 to me as I don’t really delve into the multiplayer.

Okay, so now we’re down to 39.99, right?  Well, you can subtract another 10.00 for the “grinding” in this “new” system.  I buy games for fun and for diversion, not to endlessly “grind” in order to complete the game.  So, your new system that you put into to make you more money in addition has actually wasted you 10.00 because I want to be engaged, not bored–so now that I know I’m going to be “grinding” and bored, I knock off 10.00 with what I’m willing to pay.  Now we’re down to 29.99.

Add to the fact that I have a backlog of games to play and there are more coming out from other publishers that have lessened versions of or no Loot Boxes/Microtransactions altogether and as such, seem like they’re going to be more fun than the current crop of EA games, so now I subtract 10.00 more for the game (I still need to finish incredible games like Metal Gear Solid 5, Horizon Zero Dawn, Final Fantasy XV, etc.).  Now we’re down to 19.99.

Give us Good Games and We’ll Give You Money

The equation is simple–the publishing (book) industry relies on a stable of good to great authors pumping out books on a consistent basis.  You don’t get “gimmicks” such a Loot Crates with Stephen King’s latest novel.  You know his books are going to meet a certain level of quality and entertainment value.  This is what EA has lost and must get back if they really want to connect with gamers.  Otherwise, they are going to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs and then where will there shareholders (and their dividends) be?

Sidney




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Mini-Review: Dark Matter, Season 3 (No Spoilers)

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Cast of the TV Show Dark Matter, Image Source: The Verge

Without realizing it, I finished Dark Matter (DM) Season 3 (S3) last night, and overall, I liked it.  In my mind, it was a little more uneven than the previous two seasons were, but I think it is because they are trying to set-up multiple story threads to touch on in upcoming seasons (if the show has been renew–need to check as I haven’t looked to see if Syfy has renewed it yet).  Otherwise, the season had some ups and downs–more so than in the previous two seasons.

Permadeath & Exit Stage Right
They used death in S3 much as they had done in S2 to emphasize the (I guess) the capriciousness of the universe and to illustrate that they universe that the characters inhabit is a dangerous place.  The problem is, they used the deaths throughout the series, rather than at the traditional places where one might expect it, in order (again, guessing here) to keep viewers on there toes and to emphasize that no character is safe in this narrative.  However, they also had a fairly robust cast of “side characters” who existed in the world for a few episodes (or played a major part), who often left the ship for whatever reason, while others (new ones) would come on-board.  So this gave the episodes a less stable feel and very few characters on the ship were actually stable.  This contributed very much to the uneven feel of the episodes.

No Single Narrative Thread
There were many different plot lines running through DM: S3.  One such plot line (an important one that I won’t spoil) literally got introduced two episodes before the finale.  I think it (and another related “prophecy” plot line) should have placed earlier in the season, perhaps even in the first or second episode, and I think that would have gone a long way to giving the show a consistent plot “through line” to build on throughout the season.  As it was, there were many different elements going on–from double and triple crosses, to colonists rights vs corporate rights, to the idea of a good ruler vs a bad ruler, to searching for vengeance, to surviving, and et. cetera, that it all just came off just a bit jumbled.  A good kind of jumbled (for me, at least, as I love it when plots get convoluted), but still jumbled when compared to something that has a full season long arc that all the episodes have been building to (say, the final season of Star Trek Enterprise or Deep Space Nine).

Humor and Characters
One of the things that I really like about the show is that while DM can be a “dark” show (i.e., perma-death and all that), it isn’t all about blah, blah, world is such a bad place, blah, blah, blah, “Red Wedding,” blah, blah, blah, “hate all my characters, let me kill them all of in horrible ways,” blah, blah, blah.  (Yes, I know that this is a very unsubtle dig at Game of Thrones, but I’ll take any shot I can to restore a more “balanced” view of Fantasy that is more in line with tradition High Fantasy a la Tolkien, than the dreary, grim dark muck that we mostly have right now, even if that includes cheap shots).  DM allows its characters, particularly the character of the Android, but other characters as well, to inhabit an almost comedic space that one might find in a sitcom, rather than a drama.  Make no mistake, this is a sci-fi action show with the requisite space battles, warping, light speed, AI vs human conflict, etc., show that you might expect, but there are some truly hilarious moments that all characters get to participate in.  However, the Android gets to have some of the funniest lines, reminiscent of Data from Star Trek The Next Generation.  The actor’s deadpan delivery makes some of the lines truly laugh out loud funny.

Overall Rating: B (Above Average): Okay, so I was going to give it a B-, but then I got to thinking about all the fun that I had with the characters, especially the Android and I raised the grade slightly.  All it needs is a single through line for the season and less of a “revolving door” secondary character policy–let them stay on for an entire season.

Edit: Just discovered that Syfy has cancelled Dark Matter.  There will be no Season 4.  To be honest, I’m not really surprised, although it has more to do with Syfy than it does with DM.  To me, Syfy is just the television equivalent of EA at this point, with executives who care more about their investors and share prices that their audience.  I learned this the hard way when Syfy cancelled Star Gate: Universe just as it was finding its footing.  It put on the show Alphas as a replacement (only to cancel it after just two seasons).  Too bad, I really liked DM and thought it had room really grow.  I should let anyone know who might be interested in starting it though (a potential minor spoiler, but I don’t really guess it matters now): S3 ends on a cliffhanger (that is now likely to go unresolved).  Just thought you should know.

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