Avatar: The Last Airbender, Season 1 Review

Aang, Katara, Sokka, and Momo standing on a stone wall looking out to the audience.
Image Source: https://www.rottentomatoes.com/tv/avatar_the_last_airbender/s01

I finished Season 1 of the Avatar: The Last Airbender a couple of days ago, so I thought I’d take a quick moment to talk about Season 1 of the show. I’ve seen the entire series, but this will be the first time that I will have seen every episode.

65% – 75% of Season 1

So, when the show originally aired, I felt like I’d seen most of Season 1, and now that I’ve seen the entire season, I feel like that is mostly accurate. There are episodes that I did not see (like the 2 part season finale) that were crucial to the plot and to the development of the characters, but on the whole, I do feel like I saw more than enough episodes originally to have a fairly good context who who the characters were along with their motivations.

Aang The Airbender

One of the things that I don’t think that I saw/understood was how much Aang would be affected by the decision of the Airbenders of his temple and how their decision caused his own actions which ultimately lead him to vanishing (I’m being intentionally oblique here to avoid spoilers), but I think this is what George Lucas was trying for (and, unfortunately, ultimately failing) when trying to show the trauma that a young person goes through when they are forced to “grow up” and “train” at the cost of their “family.” Basically, I feel Aang’s pain and anguish in this season where I never felt it in Anakin in Star Wars through any of the 3 prequel movies. I think this might be because Aang is an older character than the version played by Jake Lloyd and younger than the character played by Hayden Christensen. Based on what I’ve seen this season, Lucas seems to have gotten his own character’s age and temperament wrong in order to accomplish the pathos that he wanted to show. Here, however, I feel the pain and anguish of Aang’s character.

Water

While the name is in the episode titles, I don’t think that I really picked up the through line trajectory of the show. Obviously, I assume each season will show Aang learning more about the element that is featured in the title (including the culture associated with it), but it goes deeper than just the plot “through-line.” It also serves as a thematic tie into the show and we see how water and water bending is a preservation. There are a lot of stories dealing with water or have a water-related aspect to them. I really like the way it is integrated into storyline.

Doing it this way allows the show to use continuity at a time when most children’s shows were still episodic. In many ways, this show was ahead of its time by creating a longer narrative and trusting that its audience would follow even if they missed episodes. This is not the first children’s show to do this, but it one that mixes both a episodic and longer form narrative. There are many other shows that have tried this (children’s), but they rarely have been planned this way from the beginning. For instance, Pirates of Dark Water have a similar type of story (finding the 13 treasures), but the show didn’t last long enough for the crew to find all 13 treasures.

I really liked Season 1 and I feel like I have more context for the story now that I’ve seen all the episodes. Looking forward to season 2!

Sidney


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Mini-Movie Review: Gemini Man

Will Smith with a "face capture" rig performing "Junior."
Image Source: https://www.fxguide.com/fxfeatured/face-it-will-gemini-man/

Over the Fourth of July Holiday weekend here in America, my family (my mother and my step-father) and I watched Gemini Man. I was leery at first as it didn’t get very good reviews, from professional reviewers (26% Critical; 83% Audience). Now, going in, I’d seen the trailers, but I didn’t really know anything about the script (apparently, a 1997 script that had been bought, shelved because the technology wasn’t good enough at the time, and then attached to many different stars), nor did I now anything about the preferred way it was shown (4K, 120 frames per second, and 3D).

The Script

Okay, so I should be clear–my mother and step-father liked the movie; me–not so much. Most of my issues stem from the script. While I liked the action scenes, I felt there were too few of them based on the movie’s concept/trailer, but really I had two major problems: the dialogue and the pacing. The dialogue actually factors into the pacing–there’s too much dialogue. In most movies, dialogue reveals character. Here, however, the dialogue is mostly exposition. For instance, there was a great scene where Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s character and Will Smith’s character are discussing a “wire” that Smith’s character just found. Very witty and very real–and then, (minor spoiler). it is revealed that she really is spying on him, which just undercut all emotion, characterization, and wasted 3-5 minutes of screen-time setting up something just to throw it away on the very next scene. Maybe have some doubt for a while until it matters, and then reveal it when she has to make a choice–save Smith’s character and reveal her identity or keep her identity secret? How about that, script? No? Okay–your call. 26% Rotten Tomatoes score–just saying.

Also, I think that it really feels its age as it seems to make more of “cloning” without actually getting into the science behind it. It’s almost a “cloning = bad” situation going on without actually taking into account some of the real-life “horrors” that have happened as recently as the Chinese doctor (Dr. He Jiankui) who “gene-edited” babies. There’s none of that “real world” world-building going on.

Young Will Smith (aka “Junior”)

So, most of my problems with the movie come from the script. Some of it comes from the CGI in the movie. I liked the performances and the look of “Junior” in the night scenes, but in the day scenes, it was clear that it was CGI and dipped (for me) into “Uncanny Valley.”

I thought that the beginning scenes almost worked at times, but the ending scenes, while I liked the dialogue, didn’t quite work for me.

Another thing, I also thought that it took too long to get “Junior” into the action. The first 30 minutes are mostly set-up and, as I mentioned above, it wastes scenes and time when it could get right into the action–there’s not enough action for it to waste so much time, nor is there enough complexity for the amount of time it takes–to me, it all feels like wasted time.

Overall Rating: (C 75)

Rating: 3 out of 5.

I don’t have the option to give half stars because really, this would be a (2.5 stars otherwise). I think this is movie is one that needed to be held and it needed reshoots–a “revision” of sorts). It needed less dialogue and more action–probably one or two more action scenes and less dialogue, or at least, dialogue that was more relevant to the idea/horror of cloning. It also, in my opinion, needed another pass at the daytime scenes for “Junior.” I really had high hopes for this one, but it was the actual script that (mostly) let me down.

Sidney


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Mini-Review: The Last Witch-Hunter

Vin Diesel walking at night in dark clothes and long black trench coat on a wet city street full of puddles with a car behind him that has its headlights on full beam.  He is walking in front of the car, towards the camera.
Image Source: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1618442/

Sorry this blog post is a little late, but I didn’t really have time yesterday to work on it. It will be a little shorter than normal today as I have a couple of deadlines that are today (6/30) and one tomorrow that I need to be sure and meet. However, I did see a movie over the weekend–The Last Witch-Hunter–that I’ve been wanting to see for a while. It is currently streaming on Tubi–a free streaming site supported by ads that play during the movie (more on that later).

Vin Diesel “Vehicle”

This movie is primarily geared around Vin Diesel as the star of the movie. It focuses and spends quite a bit of time with Vin’s character. In many ways this is a good thing, as Vin is always likable in this role. However, the focus on his character means that we see little-to no character development or motivation for the other characters. The “twist” is poorly set up, coming through expositional dialogue rather than being organically revealed via the plot and the villains have almost no motivation, especially the Witch Queen who serves as the movie’s “Big Bad.”

While there are other named actors in this movie, such as Michael Caine and Elijah Wood, they aren’t really used to great effect in the roles they play and their screen-time is greatly diminished do to the almost relentless focus on Kaulder, Vin Diesel’s character. For me, the highlight of the movie was actually the performance of the female lead, Rose Leslie, who played Chloe. I enjoyed the “pluckiness” of the character and thought that it turned something that was fairly familiar into something that was enjoyable.

Highlander By Way of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

When I say familiar, I mean it. Essentially, this movie is a compilation of many of the scenes/ideas from both Highlander and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. There are even flashback scenes evoking the lost “love” of Kaulder’s life during his “sword and sorcery” days just like in Highlander. The modern day elements play out more along the lines of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, but there still shades of Highlander even there.

While I’m sure the movie nodes to other modern day “undying heroes” movies and tropes, these are the two in which I kept seeing the most references for as I watched the movie. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially if you happen to like those two movies. If you’re unsure at all, then watch how the history of the hero unfolds and keep track of how the character is introduced and interacts with the love interest, and in both instances, you’ll see similarities within what I’m going to refer to as the “Undying Hero” genre.

Commercial Breaks Really Hurt

This is the second movie that I’ve watched on Tubi, and I have to say that while they have movies that none of the other streaming services have (especially ones that I’m interested in watching for the most part), their model while free, really hurts them in terms of me watching them on a long-term basis. While I don’t agree that every network needs a streaming service–CBS AllAcess, why do you even exist, except for corporate greed as your star show, Star Trek Picard is available on Netflix everywhere else in the world–I would be willing to pay a small fee for Tubi (no more than $2 a month), or have them added on to Netflix, again for a nominal fee. I stopped watching movies on commercial TV a while back because commercial breaks began to become onerous and the networks would edit content. While not quite as egregious as normal network TV (and certainly no editing of content), the ad break would happen in places that broke the tension. I don’t recall an ad break happening in the last half hour of the movie, but I think there were a total of 7 or 8 breaks over the run-time of the movie.

Overall Rating (B- 80-82)

Rating: 4 out of 5.

So, “Your Mileage May Vary” definitely applies here. Your enjoyment of the movie will probably hinge on two very important factors: 1) do you like Vin Diesel and his acting style and 2) do you like the “Undying Hero” genre, or in other words, do you like Highlander and/or The Sorcerer’s Apprentice? If the answer is yes to both of those (like me), then this is going to be a fairly enjoyable watch, if your answer is yes to one of the two questions, then you’ll probably find it bog-standard average–nothing special, but totally watchable, but if your answer is no to both of these things, then you’ll probably want to watch something else as there’s no escaping either of these two factors.

Sidney


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Mini-Movie Review: The Dark Knight

Heath Ledger in white green and red face paint as the Joker, sitting on the ground, against a white brick wall, looking up menacingly at the camera.
Image Source: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0468569/

Full Disclosure: I saw this movie earlier this year and I’m just now getting around to reviewing it and posting this on the blog.

So, let me just say right now and upfront: 1) I am NOT the target audience for this movie, 2) if you think this is going to be another glowing review of this movie, you might want to stop reading now, and 3) I have an inherent bias against this type of movie–which I will explain in the blog post. In other words, if this is your favorite movie, I will NOT be complimentary towards it–so I’m just warning you upfront.

Also, before I begin, I should note that I can separate and appreciate the actors’ performances in this movie, especially Heath Ledger. Having seen and enjoyed his work in other movies (notably The Knight’s Tale), I find it sad that he is not still with us. All the actors do a phenomenal job–no, I have stylistic and philosophical problems with the movie.

Why Am I Torturing Myself?

This is a GREAT question. Life is too short to watch movies that I don’t enjoy (or know that I’m not going to enjoy). Well, unfortunately, The Dark Knight is one of those seminal films that someone who is a “film scholar” has to see. It is very much a modern “reference” film to see how film-making “changed” with its release. My dissertation director has already asked me if I’ve had a chance to see Joker yet, so I know that that film is also in my future at some point. However, The Dark Knight was on Netflix, but was pulled towards the end of March, so I decided I would go ahead and just watch it and get it out of the way. I knew I wouldn’t like it–but I thought that I could hold my nose long enough to get through it. Well, I did, but it has been a real struggle.

Stylistic Problems

While my problems are mostly philosophical, I do still have some real issues with the style of the movie. The hero does nothing to solve the problem. Batman, and by extension, Bruce Wayne is a very passive hero who does very little to solve the problem.

Also, the costuming of the Batman character looks really weak. Very few of the actors portraying the character really look good in the suit–I think because it is a “movie” suit rather than a vigilante costume designed to inspire terror. Remember, Batman was conceived in 1939, when Gothic movies were popular and where the image of a bat would be considered horrifying to the psyche. However, in 2008, when the movie was released the world is entirely different and the suit in now iconic rather than imposing. I guess my point is that I don’t see this Batman as able to inspire the type of fear that he does in the criminals of Gotham.

Finally, it is a long movie. At 2 hours and 32 minutes, it tested my patience–breaking it actually. So much so, that I actually had to break the movie up into 2 sittings. I don’t see how critics can complain about The Return of the King’s runtime 3 hours and 28 minutes and not have an issue with The Dark Knight’s grueling length. Yes, the latter is almost an hour longer, but I was so engrossed in the world that I didn’t notice it, while I was so weary of the Dark Knight’s world that I could hardly believe it when I turned it off, only to discover I was only halfway finished with it and would need another whole session just to finish it.

Ugh!

Philosophical Problems

This is where I can really cut loose on the movie. We might as well had titled this movie The Joker as well because the Joker gets all of the good lines and all of the screen time. Heck, the Joker basically becomes the hero of the movie in a very post 9/11 fashion. Heath Ledger’s Joker becomes an embodiment of the two things I hate most about “Real Life” (RL): the “bully” as hero and the hero as one who can’t act because they have rules. Let’s take on the bully as hero idea first. So, the Joker is essentially “The Superman of Bullies.” From the very first instance we see the Joker in the movie, he kills the leader of the first mob (an African American, btw, continuing the trend of black characters dying off first in movies)

The Joker’s appeal comes from his “power“–he doesn’t have to follow any rules. He can just do whatever he wants. For some unknown reason, that seems to be a “fantasy” of this generation. Rules only apply to others and not to me. A digression: I see it all the time with drivers making U-Turns all the time. When I was a child, a U-Turn was a major no-no (almost taboo) and it was very rare when I saw it–now I see it sometimes 2-3 times a day (even though it is dangerous to other drivers on the road–hence, the reason it is illegal). This is exactly what the Joker embodies–that only “fools” follow the “rules.” He wants chaos, he wants disorder, he wants to just destroy for the sake of destroying. This is also what 9/11 is about–terrorist want to cause fear just to disrupt lives, so as to change behavior. In some ways, this movie is fighting the war against terrorism all over again, just with the Joker standing in for the terrorists and the need to get revenge.

Overall Rating (D 65-69)

Rating: 2 out of 5.

You have to understand, while this was competently crafted and acted, and received near universal praise, I have to say that I was not impressed. Yes, the dialogue was slick and Heath Ledger’s Joker was mesmerizing as a performance, that is ALL I saw it as–a performance. This type of movie embodies all the aesthetics that I dislike within a movie, but unless I need to watch it again for a class or scholarly work, this is one movie I will not be revisiting.

I know it is, for many, their favorite movie of all time, but for me, I did not enjoy it. When I mentioned that I’d not seen it, I got looks of amazement from the circle that I was with at the time. Next time this movie comes up in conversation, it is likely me who will be giving that same look of amazement for those extolling its virtues and praise.

Sidney


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Movie Mini-Review: Jurassic World: The Fallen World

Picture of a T-Rex standing over the male protagonist with a volcano erupting in the background.
Image Source: https://www.cinemablend.com/news/2423581/jurassic-world-fallen-kingdom-has-screened-here-are-the-early-reactions

Over Memorial Day weekend, I watched this movie as I missed it during the original theatrical release. My mother and stepfather loved–they loved it better than the first Jurassic World movie. While I also liked it, I found that I didn’t like it as much as the original movie.

A Tale of Two Movies

I think one of the reasons why I didn’t like it as much as my parents is that the movie actually seems to be two different stories broken into two discrete parts. The first part of the movie is a more traditional Jurassic Park type movie, where the protagonists go to an exotic island, interact with dinosaurs, and do their best to survive. Jurassic Park, in my opinion, is at its best when it is operating at this level. I think that I really enjoyed this first part of the movie.

However, there is a second part of the movie where they move the dinosaurs back to the mainland. It makes up a significant chunk of the 3rd act of the film, and while I understand the reason (plot-wise) for why they did it this way, I really think that it lost some intangible magic of the movie when it did so. They did interact with dinosaurs better in this movie than in Jurassic Park: The Lost World, but still, the modern setting, while having several good set pieces in this section, just loses something when it isn’t an isolated story.

The Problem with Dr. Henry Wu & Owen Grady

So, this includes a slight spoiler that you might want to skip if you want to go into movie completely “fresh.”

Skip in 3, 2, 1 . . .

SKIP

Okay, if you’re still here, then you don’t care about spoilers or have seen the movie. So here goes: the characterization of Dr. Henry Wu is a problem here. Now, I really like the actor B. D. Wong, and I’m glad he’s in the movie, but the way in which his character is articulated in this movie is a problem. His character has morphed into a villain and I just can’t see his character making that change. As articulated in the original movie, Henry Wu is a very smart, very interested researcher that has, over time, morphed into a Dennis Nedry type character (greedy and amoral) that I just can’t believe and it always brings me out of the movie when it is called for by the script.

In addition, Owen Grady as a protagonist to me is just a blank slate. Unlike Grant, Ellie, or Ian Malcolm from the first movie (Jurassic Park), I don’t get a sense of personality from this character. He doesn’t really stand out for me and is just another generic “hero,” which (I can’t believe I’m calling out) just isn’t very interesting in this case. There are so many wonderful characters in the first movie, and the characters in the sequels and rebooted franchise always seem to take a backseat to the dinosaurs. The first movie had its focus squarely on the humans, but here the characters seem “flat” in a way–their arc isn’t nearly as pronounced as Jurassic Park.

Overall Grade: B (85)

This isn’t a bad movie–it just doesn’t (in my opinion) achieve the same heights as its originator movie of Jurassic Park. While the 2nd half of the movie isn’t nearly as strong as the first, it is still a good, action-packed movie, that still has characterization issues that keep me at a distance. It is a fun movie that just doesn’t hit in all areas for me. The action is strong, the setting is hit or miss, but the characterization seems a bit weak (bland/generic) for my tastes.

Sidney


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Mini-Review: Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan, Jack Black, and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson all look out in amazement with a forest as their background.
Image Source: https://www.vox.com/culture/2017/12/18/16780992/jumanji-review-welcome-jungle-rock-jack-black-kevin-hart-karen-gillan

I’ve been wanting to see this movie (the new one with Dwayne Johnson (“The Rock), Karen Gillan, Kevin Hart, and Jack Black. I finally got it for Christmas. Outside of one small issue, I think that it was a very fun and enjoyable movie. It has the right amount of humor and action. While it is ostensibly about being inside a “video game,” there’s very little CGI even though they do make fun of several overused tropes in the video game/gamer community. They even manage to touch on the idea of “lives” in a meaningful way that is both thoughtful and inspiring.

Fun Movie (and Funny too!)

So, at its heart, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is a fun movie that leans into its idea of being a game/video game. The characterization makes sense (with one exception) and the chemistry between the actors really helps to sell the script. The story is isn’t revolutionary, but it doesn’t need to be–it is the characters and their interactions that is at the heart of the movie. Once they get into the game world, then it’s the opposition between their inherent real-world characteristics and their in-game characteristics that provide the humor and the double-layered characterization. It works well–although as noted, there is one problematic element kept me from enjoying it as fully as I might have wanted.

To be clear, however, I liked the movie, especially the action, comedy, script, and actors.

The Messages (Themes) Were at Odds With What was Presented on the Screen.

So, there are several messages playing though out the film. The main one is that you should be true to yourself as you only get one life and you should try to make the most of that life–exemplified by the two main characters being encouraged to act on their burgeoning “romance” in the real world. This is backed up by the fact that both the “female” characters (you’ll want to see the movie if you haven’t already to see why female is in quotation marks) bond and push the idea of “girl power” forward. I have no problem with this subplot & theme and it works well in the story.

No, the problem I have is with the guys. While I’m fine with the squabbling of the two initially based on the reversal of their formal relationship, I’m much less enamored with the idea/intimation that the African American character is “poor in school” and only loves “sports” and “needs someone else” to do “his schoolwork for him” in order to pass. That is a stereotype that is definitely at odds with the feel good “one life to live so make the best of it” theme that the movie wants to push. It is also detrimental as it (continues) to promote the idea that African American males are one-dimensional, non-scholastic creatures who are only interested “in gaming” the system (esp. the educational system).

While personal experience is not nearly as strong as experiential data, I can say with confidence that this is a stereotype that simply needs to die. Not even using me as an example, I can think of the star basketball player in my high school whose grades were as high as mine (probably higher in the freshman and sophomore years as it took me a while to adjust to not being one of the smartest people in the school anymore when I got to the high school level). I have to say that this one choice, while setting up an oppositional dynamic, did NOT ring true (nor was in keeping with the story’s tone–yes, I know you needed a “detention” scene, but there are many other ways to get there (telling the teacher the assignment is stupid or simply stating that you are going to do it at all are two surefire ways of getting to that detention scene.

In a movie as good as this one was, this type of lazy storytelling and characterization irked me, but ultimately, it wasn’t enough to sink it for me.

Overall Grade: B

While it should probably be lower because of the lazy stereotyping, I liked the characterization and rise of Karen Gillan’s character, the humor, the action, and the overall story construction enough to forgive (or at least minimize) the characerization of the African American male as a “poor student” who needs “help” (i.e., “cheating”) in order to pass. Had not the Karen Gillan section been in it, I probably would have scored it lower. Still, looking past that one faux pas, I found it to be an enjoyable movie.

Sidney


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Gene Roddenberry’s Andromeda Series Review

Image of the Andromeda Crew all lined up and staring into the camera.
Image Source: https://andromeda.fandom.com/wiki/Andromeda_(TV_series)

Okay, so this one is going to be an interesting review, although it might be fairly similar to my review (in tone) of my review of Farscape. So, for me, Andromeda was much closer in tone, story construction, and characterization with Farscape than other sci-fi shows that I’ve seen such as Babylon 5, the various Star Trek shows, or even the Stargate shows. There is a more fun vibe going on and less serious vibe in the show where I think the other shows tended more towards seriousness with comedic elements. This show, along with Farscape in certain episodes, tended more toward the wry comedic element rather than full on seriousness. Now depending on my mood, I felt this lightness of subject matter either funny or irritating, depending on how much I just wanted a good, old fashioned, nuts & bolts sci-fi story.

A Story of Two Series: Before Tyr and After Tyr

So, there’s just no way around it. The series can be broken up into two parts (actually 3, but we’ll get to that in a moment. Tyr, a character from the beginning of the series and what I would assume was the “pilot” episode, and a “foil” for Dylan Hunt (captain of the Andromeda) looms large in the discussion of the show. I don’t know the reaction to Tyr during the show’s initial run, but I do know that being the “foil” to Dylan, he had the chance to be redeemed to Dylan’s cause, but being the type of character he was portrayed as, also had the capacity to betray Dylan at any time. The problem is, in year 3, they actually had a storyline that dramatized his choice.

The problem was, for me, the storyline wasn’t the greatest articulation of that choice and, then it became the basis for the rest of the storylines of the show moving forward and those didn’t seem as grounded as ones before. Slight spoiler incoming (please skip to the next paragraph if you want to stay unspoiled about ANYTHING in the show–has nothing to do with the resolution of Tyr’s story or the resolution of the series in general).</spoiler>In fact, the whole founding of the “New Commonwealth” (while fine), didn’t really seem fleshed out very well and the idea that Dylan Hunt was a “traitor” and had to go away from the “Commonwealth” simply happened too quick for my liking. It would have taken at least a season of build up for me to have really engaged with that plot line. It all just happened too quickly for me to believe.

Can We Talk About Season 5?

So, taking a “spaceship show” and grounding it in a solar system with a limited number of planets might not have been the best thing for the show. The last 3 episodes were very good in my opinion, but that meant that I had to sit through a lot of “brown” planets to get there. Also, the same sketchiness of storytelling of the previous season was there meaning that sometimes time and character motivations didn’t seem to match up for me, but like I said, the last three or four episodes were masterful–especially when then go into an artificial sun to repair it–now that is what I’m looking for in my science fiction!

Overall Grade: B-

So, like Farscape, I thought the stories weren’t all that great usually, but the characters and the acting were pretty good and fun. I wish that there had been more of Star Trek vibe, with everyone having even more clearly delineated roles and flaws that dovetailed with the plot more often than they did. I would loved to have seen Andromeda as a “dysfunctional” Enterprise–yes, they saved the day, but there individual quirks made it much more difficult that it should have been. On the Enterprise for Star Trek, we see the crew band together to solve problems. It would have been nice to see the crew of the Andromeda try to solve problems, but have their own quirks (or other crew) get in the way, but always somehow overcoming in spite of everything and becoming more of a “family” in doing so. I also think some characters were under-used. I would have liked to have seen more storylines with Becka Valentine’s character, especially with her dealing with her substance abuse–but that arc was dealt with and was only mentioned in subsequent seasons, but not shown.

Still, the show was fun, if a little campy at times, and I say, for me, a darn sight better than Defiance with its “edgy” storylines that don’t seem to work nearly as well for me. I did enjoy my time with the show, but just wished that it could have stayed a little bit more serious.

Sidney


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Assassin’s Creed Origins: Finished and Mini-Review

A picture of Bayek with a white hood, shield, and bow standing in front of a golden wall of Egyptian Hieroglyphs.
Image Source: https://www.forbes.com/sites/insertcoin/2017/10/28/ten-things-i-wish-i-knew-when-i-started-assassins-creed-origins/#65554fcb6eb8

While these mini-reviews for finished video games (recent) that I’ve finished never do all that well (in terms of people reading them), I still enjoy writing them because my goal for most of my games is to finish them (i.e., to see the credits roll), then reviewing/explaining the good and bad things about them is a fun way to recap my experience with the game and to reflect on why I felt the game was fun, effective, etc. (or why not). This game review is for Assassin’s Creed Origins which tells the “origin” story of the Assassin’s Guild. I actually like the formation of “the good, the bad, and the ugly,” so that’s what I’ll use for this review.

The Good

The characters are really well done in this story and when I say characters, I really mean the main characters, Bayak and his wife Aya, and the other main protagonists in the story. They are from Egypt and their coloring indicates they are of African Descent. As they work towards self-determination (although it is through violence, using assassinations to accomplish their goals), I would still argue that this could be seen (in a less restrictive canon) as an Afrofuturistic text. This, however, is not central to the storyline; at heart, this is a revenge tale, pure and simple along with the ramifications of what happens to love and life when a “bad thing” happens. I also like the fact that the narrative is fairly strong and kept me interested throughout the story. The graphics were also well done along with the gameplay systems. I only ran into sporadic instances of glitches and I don’t think it ever froze on me, although it did push my Playstation Pro fairly hard and made the system rev up as if it were an airplane engine on idle.

The Bad

So, much of the bad will feature into “The Ugly” section as well, so I won’t go too deeply into it here, but length is a definite problem. Simply put, it was too long and took too long to complete. Also, the fact that some story elements are gated off by level, meaning that one needs to “grind” (there’s that word again) and do side quests to build up his or her level in order to tackle ever increasingly difficult story elements. Thanks to “training” open world games (like the InFamous series), I’ve learned that it is a good idea to do a good mix of side quests before going back to the main/story quests, but here it is required. Unless you are within at least a two to three levels of your opponent, the difficulty of the encounter will be close to impossible, especially early in the game. The side missions are of varying quality, but you’ll need to complete them in order to advance, no matter how you feel about them. You just have to hope that you don’t get too many average ones (esp. in a row).

The Ugly

This game is subject to Ubification and/or “Ubisoft Bloat.” Like most recent entries of the Assassin’s Creed franchise, there’s simply too much in terms of “map clutter.” The game litters the map with a ridiculous amount of content for you to engage with, and to be honest, most of it is simply “clutter.” Ubisoft wants you to engage with it as a “games as service.” They don’t want you selling the game back to used game/used book stores, they do want you buying their DLC and interacting with their in-game store, and they really want you putting time into the game world for this reason. Now, to be fair, you can do everything you need to without spending additional money (well, except for the additional story missions unless you get the Season Pass or whichever “Super-Deluxe” edition that includes the season pass. There’s simply too much clutter and things to do. I will probably work on it periodically (just to earn the “Platinum” trophy since the requirements aren’t too onerous this time), but this game wants to be the only game you play for 6-8 months, whether or not the content is actually compelling enough to support it.

Overall: B (85)

I liked this a great deal–they just need to do something that Ubisoft never will: they need to shorten the game and tighten its focus. While I don’t mind that they’ve turned it more into an action rpg rather than a strict stealth game (I actually like action rpg as a genre more than I like the stealth game genre), there’s just too much “padding” and “clutter” to make the game artificially long and artificially extend the game’s shelf life so that one can’t trade it in quickly and there are more opportunities to sell (either overtly or implied) more content to the game player. This game could have received an A had it treated game players as actual players and not consumers and tuned the experience accordingly.

Sidney

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Aquaman Review (No Spoilers!)

Aquaman Poster  -- Aquaman (Jason Mamoa) with Trident and Princess Mera (Amber Heard) both standing in waist high water.
Image Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aquaman_(film)

Over the Easter holiday, I watched Warner Brother’s next big movie, Aquaman. I bought Justice League (both were on sale at iTunes), but I only had time to watch one and we decided on Aquaman as it was newer and better rated. I really liked it and felt that it was a fine addition to the comic book genre.

DC is “Darker” than Marvel

One of the things to remember is that DC, as a comics publisher, tends to publish “darker” storylines than Marvel in their heydey. Audiences reacted negatively to these darker storylines (see Batman vs Superman), but fans don’t realize that this is normal for the DC Universe. When DC tries to be jokey and fun (Justice League from what I’ve heard), they move out of their comfort zone. However, Aquaman is a nice balance between “light” and “dark.” There is enough humor and silliness to help the audience laugh and relieve tension and there is a fair bit of “darkness” in terms of the story and dramatic tension to drive the plot/characters forward.

DC Needs to Do More Solo Movies

Part of DC’s (DCEU’s) problem is that they see the success Marvel is having in the movie industry and they want the exact same success without having done the prep work. A lot of the MCEU’s success with their movies comes from successfully setting up two or three movies for their solo characters before moving on to their team-up movies. DC wants to jump straight into team-up movies without understanding that it is the solo movies that build up audience familiarity with the characters and makes them want to see them team-up and face off against a bigger (i.e., “world ending”) threat. They’ve done a good job with Wonder Woman (WW) and now Aquaman, but they really are going to have to understand that mega-billion dollar profits don’t come overnight and they’ve got to do the hard work of successfully putting out movie after movie with their solo characters before they even begin to match Marvel’s box office dominance.

Aquaman = Underwater Thor

So, too me, while the plot isn’t quite the same, much of the action and the plot reminds me of the Thor movies from Marvel, down to the no-good brother who would be king. Instead of the “arrogant King-in-Waiting” of Thor, you now have the “reluctant King-in-Waiting” in Aquaman. Unlike WW, the filmmakers for Aquaman play it safe and they don’t really say anything new in the genre. I’m currently rereading the Memory, Sorrow, Thorn by Tad Williams which is a Fantasy series from the mid-90s and early 2000s that has much the same set-up (at least in the initial book of the trilogy) and Aquaman says much the same thing (with many of the same beats) as this fantasy story told 20-25 years ago. WW, by contrast, had something new to say about the idea of femininity and how it was constructed (and reconstructed) in the WWI era. When your main characters comes from a society outside of the social conventions and mores of the time, you can then use that character to illustrate the inanities of said mores/conventions. Aquaman does none of this, but plays it safe and is a fun, but ultimately predictable, movie, hence the mixed reaction where some really loved it and some thought it was a step backwards from WW. Also, on a pure special effects level, some of the work is uneven. Quite a bit of it was good and transported you to another world, but some effects, especially some of the fighting effects which showed “sped up” motion, were distracting. Still, it was a fun movie that I enjoyed watching and, while not my favorite, still compared to some of the “lesser” Marvel movies.

Overall Grade: B

I should probably give it a B- if I’m honest, but I really like Jason Mamoa (I’ve liked him since his role as Ronon Dex on Stargate Atlantis (SGA). I know he’s on Game of Thrones, but as I dislike that show, I don’t really have any interest in his role there. I’m glad to see him “graduate” to movie roles as I really like what I saw on SGA. I also liked his costars, but I haven’t really seen the others in their other roles per se (Dafoe being the notable exception). Also, having been a fan of Superfriends and getting to see nods back to Aquaman’s powers from that show as well as his more recent graphic novel incarnation was a nice touch that boosted the score a little higher for me. Your mileage may vary from mind, but as I don’t have a dog in the Marvel vs DC “fighting fandoms,” I have to say that I enjoyed the movie for what it was–a fairly predictable superhero story with (mostly) above average special effects.

Sidney

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Series Review: Babylon 5

Babylon 5 Cast Photo
Image Source: https://www.syfy.com/syfywire/an-oral-history-of-babylon-5-the-beloved-tv-novel-that-showed-a-different-way-to-tell-sci

Over the weekend, I finished the entire run (all five seasons) of Babylon 5. I thought I’d take a moment and give my impressions of the series as a whole and how I feel it fits into the Sci-Fi TV landscape. There are some light spoilers–basically, just plot arcs across the series, not individual episodes. I couldn’t avoid them in order to give a thorough review of the series, but I still tried to be as spoiler free as possible. Those wanting to go into the series completely fresh, should probably stop reading now, bookmark this page, go watch the show for yourself (as of this writing, it is streaming on Amazon Prime), and then come back. If you’re not bothered by knowing season arcs, then read on.

Seasons 1 – 4.5 : The Shadow War

I think this is where the show shines–“The Shadow War” storyline shines as an impressive piece of storytelling. While Season 1 isn’t the strongest as I feel much of that season was setting up the characters’ relationships. I liked the character of Sinclair (& initially, during the first run of the show, I was a bit turned off by the introduction of the new B5 commander, Sheridan, upon re-watching the show and understanding the struggle of the actor who played Sinclair, I found it to be fine). What really impresses me about this story arc is the way Season 1 drops little hints that the War is coming (foreshadowing) and Season 2 fully delivers on it. Now, it seems a bit archaic with so many shows having multi-season arcs, but at the time, it was almost revolutionary. I found the whole arc to be quite impressive and filled with drama and tension, with both humor and heart. I honestly liked all the actors and while I didn’t necessarily like each and every episode, I feel this is where the heart of the show is contained. I would rate these as 9 to 9.5.

Season 4.5 – 5: Earth Alliance Civil War

I’m simplifying here–some of these episodes are actually earlier in the season 4 timeline (and hints have been dropped about this upcoming confrontation earlier in the season). This where a bit of the seams come apart in the show. While the actual civil war is handled well and takes the show into a new, interesting territory, the whole Mars/Earth subplot feels forced and a bit strained. I wish that I could say that I enjoyed every episode, but (outside of the space battle scenes between Earth Alliance and the former B5/Mars Colonies), this storyline seemed to drag. There were some great scenes in this part (Delenn facing down the Earth Alliance is a particular highlight), but there are places (especially the Mars sections that drag), but overall, still enjoyable. These I would rate 8.0 to 8.5.

Season 5: Telepath “War”

So, to me, this is where the series grounds to a screeching halt. I didn’t buy the whole Bester/Garabaldi arc wherein (*spoilers*) Bester overrides Garabaldi and makes him act contrary to Garabaldi’s normal persona. Yes, I know that set it up in the show, but it still didn’t ring true for me. However, after the resolution of those episodes, the show seemed to get back on track, only to be hit with the character of Byron. While I have no particular animus towards the actor, I think the character of Byron was probably the worst in the Babylon 5 show and completely undermined what should have been a tense drama. I didn’t believe his “Messiah” complex, nor did I believe his “Malcolm X” switch when he found out about the truth of the true role of Telepaths in the story. That whole arc really took me out of the story. The only reason I didn’t stop watching the show was because of the Lyta Alexander character. While I wanted her arc to go in a different direction, she was still (by far) the most interesting character in the story arc. Once that was done with, the show finished strong by focusing on the “ending” of the show–characters moving on while new characters would ostensibly take their place for the future (which we wouldn’t get to see). The Londo story arc was quite good as was the 2-3 episodes leading to the finale. I also liked the finale as it was a satisfying conclusion to the series (& hearkened back to the themes of the “Shadow War.”

Sidney




  • Current Work-in-Progress–February 2019: Project Dog  (Sci-Fi Short-Story – 1st Draft)
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