A Galaxy Far, Far Away – The Mandalorian Review

Star Wars is one of those franchises that I struggle to maintain interest in despite having a deeply held nostalgic attachment to nearly anything set in the galaxy far, far away. Although I successfully avoided seeing the latest mainline episodic movie Rise of Skywalker, I’m only a man and could not resist watching Disney’s The Mandalorian when it was released on their newly minted streaming service. After a series of disappointing films, I was fiending for a television show with a budget set in the Star Wars universe that had nothing to do with the Skywalker family and I just didn’t know it yet.

The story follows a mysterious bounty hunter, called the Mandalorian or Mando for short, who befriends a small alien child. Instead of the series’ signature epic space battleship battles and lightsaber duels, The Mandalorian opts for a more steady-paced adventure with plenty of time to stop and smell the roses. The episodic nature of the show gave plenty of room for the writers to develop specific characters and relationships, something that is often lacking in the films with strictly rationed 2 hours and change runtimes. Like most experiments, what begins as a novelty slowly starts to drag in places, but other than a few episodes that felt more like the plot to a videogame than a TV show, the slower pacing was a welcome reprieve. 

For a show with an anonymous and enigmatic protagonist who refuses to reveal his face from under an ornate helmet, Pedro Pascal puts in a remarkable performance despite the obvious limitations. All of the actors, the nearly perfect casting, and the special effects combine together to fully capture what it would be like to live in the Star Wars universe outside of the sphere of influence of the main story’s protagonists. The set and costume designs perfectly replicate the lived-in sci-fi aesthetic of the classic trilogy while offering plenty of new twists on old themes, such as the designs of each Mandalorian’s individual set of armor.

If you’ve somehow avoided getting swept up in the Baby Yoda and Kuiil memes and have a passing interest in Star Wars, give The Mandalorian a shot. If you don’t enjoy following the adventures of a ruthless bounty hunter turned babysitter after an episode or two, then wars in the stars may just not be your cup of tea and that’s totally acceptable as well. For everyone else, brace for “I have spoken” and “this is the way” jokes during watercooler conversation again as soon as season 2 is revealed.

The Mandalorian is now streaming on Disney+ with a second season currently in the works.

All Aboard the Z Train! – Train to Busan Review

With Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite racking up Oscar accolades and bringing renewed attention to Korean cinema, it felt like the perfect time to watch another film that I’ve had my eye on. Like a good horror movie, Train to Busan explains its premise just enough for us to jump right into the story; an absentee father promises to bring his daughter to see her mother in Busan for her birthday, but not everything is as it seems. Tension begins to ramp up as a sickly woman flings herself onto the train just as it’s about to depart, only to be followed by a swarm of zombies rushing the train platform.

Like Parasite and Snowpiercer, Train to Busan delves deep into the struggles of class and politics while also telling a thrilling tale. In fact, the similarities between the two most popular train-based Korean films to break into the international market are hard to ignore. Both take place on a train and use the convenient separation of the train cars to both physically and metaphorically distance the characters from one another while taking full advantage of the limited space to create an unnerving sense of claustrophobia.

In terms of the zombies themselves, Train to Busan decides to take the World War Z approach of fast, mindless, and twisted undead who trample over one another in a mass of flesh and rapid hunger. This helps keep the characters and the audience on edge, but the world-building isn’t as internally consistent as it could have been. As the protagonist struggles to understand the situation, I also had a hard time stitching together clues to figure out the origin of the outbreak or even the terms on which the plot was progressing forward. For example, there is a scene that involves soldiers falling out of helicopters, only to rise as zombies a moment later and attack nearby civilians that left me wondering if the whole incident was an accident or a direct attack by weaponized zombies.

As the story and train get moving, plot points slowly fall into place and become a lot easier to predict. The occupants of the train are widdled down to a small cast of plucky survivors, including a baseball player, a cheerleader, a pregnant woman, and her husband, and a narcissistic COO of some corporation. Although they fit neatly into archetypal horror movie roles, each brings a personality and charm to the film that helps keep it from being just another zombie gorefest.

Where the story diverts from horror tropes, however, also happens to be the film’s weakest point. For a movie that otherwise left little room for sentimentality, I was surprised at the sharp left turn towards the end of the film that plays more like a Korean day-time drama than an apocalyptic horror flick. It suffices to say that Train to Busan desperately wants to tear at your heartstrings, almost to a melodramatic degree. The dragged out ending with borderline nonsensical character decisions and goofy sentimental moments only helped sour what would have otherwise been an outstanding film.

All that being said, the good aspects of Train to Busan are hard to ignore despite its obvious flaws. It’s a zombie flick with a fun premise, interesting characters, and a great sense of pacing that only falters towards the end, long after you’ve stopped caring about the plot. If you’re a zombie/horror fan or want to explore some of what Korean films have to offer, this would be a hard title not to recommend.

Train to Busan is currently streaming on Netflix.

5 MMO Lessons from the Success of WoW Classic

If you had told me in 2004 that in fifteen years World of Warcraft would be re-released to as much fanfare if not more than modern MMOs, I probably wouldn’t have believed you. At the time, WoW seemed like a natural extension of the success of Warcraft 3, but it would be impossible to correctly guess just how culturally significant the game would become. Even Blizzard, the company best known for adopting successful ideas and polishing them for a mainstream audience, didn’t see the prize-winning goose that they had sitting in their lap. “You think you do, but you don’t,” is the infamous line uttered by Allen Brack, now president of Blizzard Entertainment.

Oops.

As someone who played lots of World of Warcraft, both on retail and on a myriad of private servers, I scoffed when I first heard Mr. Brack’s condescending comment to Warcraft’s most devoted fans. “If that’s what they really thought about the fans of their original product, then screw them,” I thought. Thankfully, Blizzard came to their senses and released WoW Classic to a resoundingly enthusiastic response a few years later.

And low and behold, the original World of Warcraft is rumored to be outperforming the retail version of Battle for Azeroth 15 years after its initial release. I hope Blizzard executives feel just a little guilty every time they cash their humongous checks from the success of WoW Classic. While they’re wallowing in their riches and cursing themselves for their complete lack of foresight, there are also a few other lessons that Blizzard and other MMO developers can learn from the success of the return to Azeroth.

5. World Player Vs Player Content

While open-world PVP has been fetishized by the MMO community to a dangerous degree over the past decade, there is a reason it has been generally phased out of modern game design: there are only so many sheep that are willing to be preyed on by wolves. Theme park MMOs like WoW thrive off of catering to as many players as possible, but whether it’s because of players queuing for dungeons in major cities rather than exploring the world or because the griefers chased away all their victims, world PVP just doesn’t feel the same anymore.

Although I don’t think that the conflict between Tarren Mill and Southshore is the epitome of PVP action, there is something unique to WoW Vanilla that brings people back to the wilderness to either gank or be ganked. Perhaps it’s the glee of picking off enemy faction raiders, forcing them to reapply all of their buffs or picking off lowbie questers, but either way, it’s clear to see that WoW Classic fans were excited to jump back into the midst of old-school PVP chaos.

4. Class Identities

One of the biggest successes of WoW’s original design are the archetypal class fantasies that were ingrained in each specialization and talent tree. Nowadays, thanks to the constant “quality of life” improvements, most classes play similarly, most racial bonuses don’t matter, and the only real differentiating factor is how you’ve transmogrified your gear. Class-specific quests, class-specific raid utility such as Mage’s conjuring beverages, and non-combat abilities made each class/race combination feel unique and interesting.

Sure, if you get down to the brass tacks, there isn’t much reason to keep non-combat abilities or class quests if your goal is to bring in as many new players as possible (many of which ignore all quest text and treat WoW like a murder simulator). However, filing down those edges has resulted in a bland, repetitive, and homogeneous experience. If some kid doesn’t like having to travel across the “world” to complete their quests, they can go play a game that isn’t explicitly about that very thing.

3. Simplicity

Games as a Service is a mixed bag in terms of its mutual benefit to both game developers and their fans, but one major issue with that approach is how quickly complexity creep starts to catch up with them. Having to release new content every few months to keep people subscribed results in bloated games that either force players to slog through years-old content or clear a clean slate every few years, all but erasing older content entirely. Either way, you slice it, MMOs have a complexity issue and going back to the very beginning when rocks were soft and games were simpler is bound to appeal to fans of older titles. Vanilla World of Warcraft isn’t a “simple” game by any means, but some players are more interested in proper positioning, preparation, and teamwork than how many buttons they’re required to press when executing their rotation.

2. Gameplay Over Graphics

Although retail Battle for Azeroth hasn’t strayed very far from its roots aesthetically, it’s clear that World of Warcraft’s initial success can at least partially be attributed to its ability to run on just about any machine back in 2004. Add an extra 15 years to that mix and you have a game that can probably run on your Apple Watch at this point, and yet, WoW Classic and Vanilla WoW’s popularity throughout the years has shown that good gameplay trumps graphics, at least in regards to long term longevity. A game’s graphics will look dated in 2-3 years, and that shelf life is only decreasing as technology improves. Blizzard instead took the success of Everquest, made it more accessible, and slapped on their signature stylized aesthetic and commitment to polish.

1. Quality of Life Improvements Erode All Things

World of Warcraft is a great lesson in how to draw the line between quality of life improvements and creating an immersive and believable world worth exploring. That is to say that Blizzard was really bad at dancing that line, instead deciding to leap even further past it with each new expansion pack. While there are many factors in an MMORPG’s loss in subscribers, many attribute the beginning of WoW’s decline to Cataclysm’s attempt at recreating Azeroth.

Through a combination of dungeon finder queues, flying mounts, instanced single player areas, removing quests with any sort of scale or difficulty to them, removing class quests, favoring instanced PvP over Open World, and a myriad of other “features,” World of Warcraft became less and less about exploring the actual world of Azeroth and more about completing daily objectives, AoE clearing dungeons with a pickup group, and AFKing in the same exactly major city as everyone else despite the plethora of other interesting places to inhabit and explore.

World of Warcraft Classic’s popularity is a clear lesson that some of the best parts of playing an MMORPG are overcoming obstacles with others. Remove the obstacles and any meaningful way to interact with strangers and you end up with a single player chat room simulator. Players are willing to put up with archaic game design decisions, dated graphics, and humongous time investments to play an MMORPG that actually plays like one.

1917 – Movie Review: The Best Movie from Last Year

(Universal Pictures)

I’m a sucker for a well-executed gimmick, especially films meant to look like they’re filmed in one long shot. Children of Men and Birdman both come to mind as great examples of this style, but rarely have I seen an artistic gimmick so perfectly match its story as with Sam Mendes’ latest creation, 1917. To call it a gimmick is actually a disservice to the emotional weight that it carries in terms of getting the audience intimately familiar with what the characters are experiencing.

Besides the opening scene, which is meant to introduce the single-shot idea as well as the main characters and the relatively simple plot, most of the movie takes place in tight, restrained environments that put the camera directly in the midst of the action. The film does an amazing job of capturing your attention and not getting too caught up in its own brilliance to tell a good story. That is to say, the film’s gimmick is in service to the story, not the other way around (I’m looking at you, Hardcore Henry).

To be frank, I was surprised to like 1917 as much as I did. I knew exactly what to expect going in, yet found myself in awe of the technical marvel unraveling before my eyes rather than trying to catch every hidden cut out of boredom. For a story that is almost entirely “spoiled” in the synopsis of the film, Sam Mendes shows that excellent writing, likable characters, and believable conflict are more important to a good story than subverting the audience’s expectations.

1917 takes very little time in cluing the audience in on just how awful it was being a soldier in the First World War. Although the “good guys” win in the end, the stakes rapidly escalate as our protagonists slog through trenches and into bunkers, facing death at every turn. With the introduction of every new character, you begin to wonder just how much the protagonists can trust them and where their motives truly lay, even those in British uniforms. The tension ramps up to a grand crescendo that both fills you with joy and also rips your heart out from your chest and makes you stare at it. War is hell, alright?

Is this the most important war movie of all time? That’s not for me to say, especially given that I rarely watch war movies outside of the star variety, but I can say that it is easily the best movie I’ve seen so far this year and I’m excited to see it again. Will I be as caught up in the commotion and forget that I’m watching a movie or will the cracks start to show when I’m not spending half of the movie watching over the character’s shoulders for potential threats? That’s hard to say too. What isn’t hard to say, however, is that you owe it to yourself to see 1917 in theaters.

Uncut Gems – Review

Although I wouldn’t call myself an Adam Sandler fan, I was nonetheless drawn to the trailer for Uncut Gems when I originally saw it in theaters. I immediately wanted to see what he would do with a serious role that was tailored specifically for him. The psychedelic visual motifs in the trailer and the fact that the directors were relatively unknown all but secured my ass in the theater seat to see this flick.

What I thought was going to be a cautionary tale about the dangers of gambling addiction and stealing from the mob seemed to be more in favor of the protagonist’s behavior than not by the end of the movie. In fact, I would go so far as to say that Uncut Gems has a lot of anti-intellectualist vibes. An obvious clue would be the fact that the movie’s plot is centered around the idea that a fictionalized version of Kevin Garnett thinks that a rock will give him magical basketball powers. 

If reveling in the lives of skeevy con men and superstitious imbeciles doesn’t make you uncomfortable, then the borderline pretentious cinematography gimmick of zooming in on subjects until they are out of focus certainly will. This isn’t the say that the film isn’t self-aware enough to effectively convey the morale of the story that gambling is bad, but rather that it spends so much of its run time focused on that idea that it fails to mention the other elephants in the room.

Ultimately, Uncut Gem’s main selling point pays off in spades, both in Adam’s ability to slip into such an interesting character and in his supporting cast’s ability to bring life and believability to an otherwise comically ridiculous bunch of characters. Julia Fox’s acting is superb, especially given that this is her first role in a feature film. I suspect that Mr. Sandler will receive most of the praise for his performance in Uncut Gems, but Ms. Fox shows that you don’t have to make three decades worth of bad movies first before putting on a killer showcase of raw acting talent.

As I sat on this review, I began thinking about how the marketing and trailer specifically affected my expectations going in, my thoughts during the film, and my opinion on it after the fact. There is a powerful scene in the movie that was mined for Uncut Gem’s marketing campaign where Howard says “This is how I win!” If this were a more traditional movie, I would expect that line to cap off a redemption arc for an otherwise unlikeable anti-hero who is down on his luck.

While the trailer presented Howard’s “winning” scene as an example of his prowess and confidence, the actual movie portrays it very differently. What comes off as a self-congratulatory brag without any context is actually Howie awkwardly floundering as he explains how he conned Kevin Garnett and himself out of a significant amount of money over a stupid rock. In fact, Howard doesn’t win in the end at all. 

What left me with a sour taste in my mouth after immediately leaving the theater has now turned into an appreciation for clever marketing more than anything. Sure, the movie could have been an extra thirty minutes longer with a redemption arc for Howard in which he regains control over his finances and fixes his life. In the end, I don’t think I would have seen that movie, however. The ending left me with a Seinfeldian sense that the plot ultimately didn’t matter, but that may very well be the point. Maybe Howard was doomed from the start and watching his rapid downward spiral is enough of a thrill ride by itself without having to manufacture a happy ending for him.

I’ve had a lot to say about this movie, but I would absolutely recommend seeing Uncut Gems even if it’s just to witness the movie first hand for yourself. I didn’t enjoy the flick half as much as I’ve enjoyed talking about it, but that’s still enough of a pro in my book to warrant a recommendation. Seeing Adam Sandler enjoy acting again is worth the price of admission alone, but you’ll also enjoy the claustrophobic cinematography, a variety of interesting side characters, and an ending that you both see coming from a while away and still gasp at when it finally hits you in the face like a brick.

Uncut Gems could be an incredible movie with a few adjustments (namely punching up the pacing a bit and letting Trent Reznor compose the soundtrack), but on its own, it’s still a pretty damn good movie with a lot of great actors and a plot that will keep you pulled along for the ride. It does all this despite the fact that its foundation is pretty flimsy under further inspection and you definitely could have gone to see 1917 instead.