Category: television

The First Few Hours: High Maintenance, Far Cry 5

I don’t have a lot of time today but I did want to put down some thoughts before they vanished from my brain entirely.

1. High Maintenance.

My brother told me about this show over the weekend, and so last night after we put our kid to bed we ended up watching a few episodes.  (I should add that, on his recommendation, we started with Season 2, Episode 1, rather than starting from the very beginning – the show itself is non-linear and episodic and somewhat Black Mirror-ish in that it’s got a mostly different cast in every episode.)  (I should also add that the aforementioned Season 2 opener is fucking incredible and is what got us hooked on watching the rest of it from the beginning; I should also add that even for an HBO show it contains a rather startling amount of sexual content – it makes Game of Thrones look like Sesame Street.)

Anyway, some thoughts.  On the one hand:  it’s a brilliant idea.  The show is basically a series of short stories about the lives of New Yorkers who have nothing to do with each other except that they have the same weed dealer.  Often the “weed guy” is barely in the episode at all – indeed, one particularly moving vignette takes place entirely through the POV of a dog.  It’s a funny show but it’s not necessarily “stoner humor”; instead, the thing I love about it is that it lingers in those ambient and transient moments that occur between other moments, which is the sort of thing that a stoner might find interesting.  It certainly captures those weird 10-15 minutes of hang-out time between the dealer’s arrival and departure.  And if nothing else, it’s the first show I’ve seen since moving out to the suburbs that’s made me miss living in New York City, because it captures the rhythms of city life more accurately than anything else I’ve seen.

On the other hand:  one can’t help but notice that the weed guy is white, and you’re almost never, ever, EVER worried about him getting arrested.  I’ve only seen a handful of episodes, so maybe this gets brought up at some point.  I’m not saying the show ignores race – indeed, the show has a wildly diverse cast from episode to episode in terms of the weed guy’s clientele, and many scenes are filmed in other, native languages with English subtitles, and the accompanying culutural rhythms are presented realistically.  But it’s the sort of thing that, in this current cultural moment, is very hard to ignore.

2. Far Cry 5.

I don’t know how to write about Far Cry 5.  I’ve only dabbled with it for a few hours, so I don’t yet have a full sense of where the game is going.  But it certainly feels like a Far Cry game – well, let me rephrase that.  It feels like an extension of 3 and 4, and that leads me to ask an obvious question:  what is a Far Cry game supposed to feel like?

I can’t pretend to answer that question fairly, because of the 6 and a half Far Cry games that have been released (the half being Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon), I’ve only actually seen the credits roll for one of them (that being Far Cry 4).  I’ve played maybe an hour of the first one and even less of the second; I understand that quite a few critics love Far Cry 2, and if nothing else they call it one of the most avant-garde AAA first-person shooters ever made, but I’ve only seen a tiny sliver of it, and that was at least 3 apartments ago.   I got somewhere near the end of Far Cry 3, but then the shooting at Sandy Hook happened and the act of firing a gun made me feel sick to my stomach, and FC3’s bloodlust felt particularly brutal in that context.  I’ve seen maybe the first half of Primal, which is certainly an interesting experiment, though mechanically it doesn’t necessarily do anything that the other games haven’t already done.

That said, I’ve played enough of 5 to recognize its rhythms.  You meet the game’s villain in the beginning – as you do in 3 and 4 – and then you make a violent escape and eventually take him down by reclaiming the land for the native citizenry.   This time around, of course, the action takes place not in some far-flung tropical island or Himalayan plataeu, but rather in rural Montana; your villain is a cult leader, and you – a lowly police deputy – find yourself forced to take him down in order to escape (since, for some reason, you have no cell phone service and can’t call backup).

Far Cry 5 could be a really interesting bit of social commentary, if it had any courage.  If you say the word “cult”, chances are you’ll think of David Koresh and Waco, Texas – or you might think of Heaven’s Gate, or Jonestown.  If you consider the idea of a gun-crazy group of militiamen who abhor the federal government, you might recall the Bundy family, who took over that wildlife preserve just a few years ago, basically daring the feds to come in shooting.  If you think of armed citizens, you might be tempted to think of any of the dozens of mass shootings that have taken place in the last 6 months.  If you think of the idea of a policeman forced to shoot their fellow Americans, you might be reminded of any of the hundreds of unarmed black Americans that have been killed by police in the last few years.

Far Cry 5 addresses literally none of these things.  It exists in an entirely self-contained universe that, while taking place in the modern United States, has literally nothing to do with the country that we currently live in.  It feels, instead, like a videogame; you shoot the same 3 or 4 grizzled rednecks who are heavily armed but also run in straight lines.  You perform silly side missions for the locals after you liberate their towns from the cult (one early mission I’ve stumbled across requires me to harvest bull testicles for an upcoming town fair).  The most interesting parts of the game (as in 3 and 4 and Primal) are the hidden caches, which usually involve some sort of light environmental puzzle solving.

As a game, it’s fun enough; it’s certainly gorgeous on the X, and the gunplay is solid and you’re never at a loss for things to do.  But as a bit of social commentary – which you can’t help but feel like it should be, considering the subject matter – it comes up wildly short.  One can’t help but wonder what this game would be like if, say, Rockstar had made it.  (Well, I suppose one could just play GTA V in first-person mode and find out.)

Further Adventures in Adulting

1. Hey, so, we bought a new car over the weekend.  I feel like I’m finally an Adult.  Yes, we have a child; yes, we bought a house.  But now we bought a new car, from a dealership, by ourselves.  I’m so terrified it’s going to break!  It’s not going to break.  BUT WHAT IF IT DOES?

Anyway, yeah, that happened.  And I know this is a cliche, but still – that new car smell is no joke.  There’s something kinda awesome about that smell.  It… smells like victory.

101-Apocalypse-Now-quotes

2.  Because we bought a new car, I had to take a personal day yesterday and get our parking stickers sorted out, and also deal with some pet/vet stuff.  And in between all that, I finally got a chance to watch Blade Runner 2049.  My short version:  it is a beautifully shot film, and even with its slow pace it’s still more engaging than the original film (which, I’m sad to say, is a film that I respect more than I enjoy).  But it’s also a bit problematic with how it shows women (they are either robot love slaves, ball-busting bitches, or trapped in literal cages), and quite frankly I never need to see Jared Leto in anything ever again.

3.  Speaking of problematic media, we also finally watched the first episode of the new season of Black Mirror last night – the USS Callister episode.  I have a weird uncomfortable relationship with that series, specifically because of Season 1’s “The Entire History of You”, which affected me in an unexpectedly deep and emotionally unsettling way, especially as I was in the process of re-reading my college diaries at the time for an unrelated creative project.  (If you’re familiar with the episode, you might understand why a sudden influx of forgotten memories might be emotionally traumatic.)  In any event, this new episode was quite good – the twist was genuinely unexpected and the ending was, unusually for this series, quite satisfying.  I’m not 100% sure I’m going to watch the remaining episodes, because there’s only so much technological dread I can handle at any given point, but still – it was nice to be pleasantly diverted for a little while.

4. So I finished Nick Harkaway’s “Gnomon”, and even if it didn’t quite stick the landing, it’s an excellent read; he’s a marvelous writer and this is a very smart book.  Now up – a 2nd attempt at reading Zachary Mason’s “Void Star”, which from the book’s description is right up my alley, but in practice is a bit difficult to follow.  I’m kinda just padding for time – what I really want to read is the new Brandon Sanderson volume in the Stormlight Archive, but I feel like I need to re-read the first 2 books and then the mini-story that connects them to this new one, and as much as I like reading big books, knowing that I’ve got at least 2500 pages in front of me before I start reading anything new is a bit daunting.

5.  Game-wise, I’m still in this weird limbo of having this fancy new TV but nothing new to play on it.  I’d been putting Forza 7 through its paces, and that’s a fun game in limited doses – and since the last game I’d played in earnest was probably Forza 3 or 4, it’s kind of a neat deja-vu effect to revisit the same courses in radically improved fidelity.  Likewise, I saw that Forza Horizon 3 got its own Xbox One X Enhanced patch yesterday, and that game is definitely more up my alley.  The graphical enhancements are nothing to sneeze at, either; it looks utterly amazing.  Beyond that, I’m kinda half-heartedly going through my backlog, not feeling particularly attached to anything.  (Indeed, I keep forgetting that I have a ton of shit to play on the Switch.)  The next big AAA release that I have my eyes on is Far Cry 5, which is still a ways off.

That’s what I’ve got, folks.  Hope you’re well.

Subterranean Fallout Shelter Blues

1. Remember last week, when I was excited about getting new glasses and we weren’t living in a constant state of anxiety wondering if our President was gonna livetweet about Crooked Hillary in an attempt to distract us from the coming nuclear apocalypse with North Korea?  Well, my new specs still haven’t shown up, and at this point I’m actually kinda hoping everything goes to shit so that I don’t have to pay off my credit card debt.

Seriously, though, now might be a good time to reach out and say hello to people you haven’t talked to in a while.  Even if we aren’t about to die in a blaze of hellfire, you should touch base with people you might’ve lost contact with.  I’ve been trying to get back into lyric writing, and it occurs to me that an idea I’ve been toying with for years – songs as letters I never got around to sending – might be the key to finishing this goddamned thing sooner rather than later.

2. I’m not as up on current TV as everyone else, but I am happy to report that the wife and I were able to finish the new Wet Hot American Summer: Ten Years Later thing.  And we loved the shit out of it.  It is weird and random and breaks the 4th wall all over the place and Chris Meloni is fucking AMAZING.

3. I’d love to be writing about Tacoma right now, but I appear to be one of the people affected by a nasty bug in which I can’t get past the “Press A to Start” screen.  So instead I’ll offer some very brief first impressions of Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, which I can load properly.  I am intrigued by it, certainly; I’m a fan of Ninja Theory’s previous work and would give them the benefit of the doubt anyway, and at first glance the game’s presentation is outstanding – both visually and aurally.  The idea of exploring psychosis and mental illness through gameplay is novel, to be sure, and while I’m still only in the game’s opening hour I’ve already seen some subtle yet mind-bending things.  Tonight I hope to get to it while wearing headphones.

4. Hey, whaddya know, Spotify is now available on Xbox One, and it’s about goddamned time.  Now I can feel a little less sad about continuing to play Clicker Heroes, because I no longer have to play it in silence.

5. Kotaku says there is no longer a best time to play a video game, and I agree with most of the points in that link even if my primary concern (Fear of Missing Out / Fear of Being Out of the Loop on Twitter) is still valid.  In any event, ever since I finished Watch Dogs 2 I’ve been in an open-world state of mind, and I’ve been revisiting some older open-world games just to stay with that vibe.  GTA V continues to be the best open world I’ve ever seen, even as the story continues to be repellent and repugnant; Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate continues to be my 2nd or 3rd favorite game in the franchise (while also being a useful refresher for the upcoming Origins) and I’m also finally getting around to giving Mafia III more of a real look.  That game is pretty good, even if all the controls feel backwards.

6. I’ve also had a strange pull towards revisiting Headlander, of all things; I wrote about it briefly last year and while I haven’t gotten far enough to encounter those boss fights, I am still loving the hell out of that game.

7.  I finished Patti Smith’s “M Train”, although I should admit that I kinda skimmed through the back half, as it mostly seemed to be the same as the first half.  I’m happy to read about a real person’s idle hours, watching detective shows and drinking coffee and taking naps, but there wasn’t much more to it than that, and even though her prose remained gorgeous it just lingered on and and on and on, like a very slowly deflating balloon.  Not sure I would recommend it to anyone that isn’t a die-hard Patti Smith fan, though if you’ve got a library card you could do worse than read the first third of it or so.

the payoff

[EDIT:  I realize that, as I’d guessed in the first paragraph, I’d forgotten to talk about a bunch of things; those work-related interruptions did indeed screw up my train of thought.  Additional thoughts will be added below.]

I’m having one of those days where I’m not particularly busy, but I can guarantee that as soon as I start getting on a roll here, I’ll be given some work to do.  I’ve been wanting to write here all week, frankly, and the whole week has been in this same sort of vein; I’m terribly idle right up until the moment I decide to be personally productive, and then I’ll get handed a large project within the next 1-5 minutes of that decision.  If I’m stalling here in this introductory paragraph, it’s because I’m reluctant to suddenly lose my actual blog-worthy trains of thought.

As it happens from time to time, I’m starting to have trouble articulating this blog’s primary purpose.  I like having a blog, and I don’t plan on deleting this one; it’s just that I simply don’t have the time/inclination to do any serious criticism here.  I’ve noticed lately that to the extent I write anything even remotely critical at all, it’s mostly just “I like this, I don’t like that.”  Superficial, not particularly hard-hitting, shallow.  Again, it’s difficult for me to find time to write the way I’d like to, and I’m currently in this phase where I’m having trouble really getting into things the way I used to, which has a tendency to result in apathy.  I’m not sure if this is a side effect of my new head meds or not; one positive side effect of these head meds is that my ability to simply let things be what they are is a lot stronger.

  • Westworld:  I’ve started to notice (on Twitter, at least) that there are regular watchers of this show who are becoming angry and impatient at the show’s very slow doling out of information.  There are too many mysteries and not enough answers, they say, even though we’re only halfway through the first season.  There is now a struggle between the pleasure of anticipation and the need for instant gratification, and I can’t help but wonder if Netflix and the culture of binge-watching has ruined the ability for a television show’s cliffhanger to be effective.  Westworld reminds me a lot of Lost, in this way, but Lost suffered from a different problem; Lost’s mysteries overwhelmed the show itself to the point where there were no answers that could ever possibly be adequate.  I remain very optimistic that Westworld will not suffer this fate; each episode has been meticulous in its construction and I remain confident that the showrunners know exactly what they’re doing.  (The show’s only made one real blunder, as far as I’m concerned – the dopey and crude lab techs from this last week’s episode are gross and annoying, and their scenes aren’t nearly as well-written as everyone else’s.)  In any event, I’m just grateful to watch Anthony Hopkins kill it on a weekly basis.
  • Cubs:  I am no longer the die-hard sports fanatic that I used to be; among other things, I found my intense superstitious behaviors to be an impediment to the simple enjoyment of watching a game (i.e., if my team needed to score a run / goal / touchdown, I’d have to leave the room and pee; I could only listen to the Yankees on the radio, even when the radio broadcasting became abhorrent to listen to, etc.).  Also my wife and I cut the cable cord a few years ago and live sports, for the most part, became something I simply couldn’t watch, which made this transition into the non-sports-caring person I am today that much easier.  In any event, I’m still terribly superstitious, as it turns out, and so even though I was rooting for the Cubs, I was terribly afraid of saying or doing anything that might jinx them.  The most I could allow myself to do was to “Like” the various Cubs-related Facebook posts that my family and friends posted, and that was it.  I know it’s ridiculous, and this is why I’ve forcibly stopped myself from caring so much.  [EDIT:  So, anyway, GO CUBS!  Very happy for all my Cub friends and family.  I, of course, didn’t watch.  You’re welcome.]
  • Games:  It’s big-budget first-person-shooter season, and as such I’ve decided to give in and rent the big three.  I’m still in the first mission of Battlefield 1, and while it’s technically very impressive I’m not, like, craving it.  My rental copy of the new Call of Duty is en route, as is Titanfall 2; I ordinarily would be happy to ignore both of these games except that their single-player campaigns have been getting surprisingly great reviews, and that’s the only bit of those games that I tend to get involved with.  So be it.  [EDIT:  I also ended up giving up on XCOM 2I can tell it’s a good game, but I also know I’m far too intimidated by it to give it its proper due.  I may pick it up again during a release lull, but I wouldn’t expect myself to get much farther than I already did.]
  • Books:  Man, it’s been a while since I’ve talked about books here.  The last thing I mentioned was The Nix, which I adored.  Since then, I’ve read:
    KLF: Chaos Magic Music Money J.M.R. Higgs A-
    The Tresspasser Tana French A
    Death’s End Liu Cixin B+
    Pym Mat Johnson B-
    His Bloody Project Graeme MaCrae Burnet B

    I am now currently reading I.Q. by Joe Ide, and even though I’m in the early going I’m enjoying it quite a lot.

The Week In Review: Stranger Things Indeed

1. My buddy Sara returns serve with more Uncharted 4 correspondence over at Videodame.  I hope to volley back later next week.

2. I’m busting outta the ‘burbs and will be at the NYVCC summer shindig at Barcade this coming Monday, July 25.  If you’re in town, come on by!

3. I’ve been wanting to write about Stranger Things all week, but knew I should wait until I finished the season; my wife and I started on Sunday after the kid went to bed and pushed through 2 episodes per night, and so we finished it on Wednesday evening.  I woke up later that night at 3am and had one of those middle-of-the-night timeless intervals trying to figure out what I wanted to say about it.  Now it’s Friday and I’m still floating out to sea, somewhat.  (There’s a reason for that, though.*)

If you don’t know what Stranger Things is, here’s my very abbreviated elevator pitch: imagine Steven Spielberg directing a Stephen King novel, with a John Carpenter soundtrack, in 1983.

This essay from Paste goes into a bit more detail, especially in terms of what exactly it’s stealing from; here’s a TL:DR excerpt:

If you were a child of the ‘80s and ‘90s, chances are you’ve seen Stranger Things before. An eight-part sci-fi spectacle and shiny new Netflix original from filmmaking brothers Matt and Ross Duffer, Stranger Things is spooky supernatural entertainment unashamedly in the 1980s popcorn mould. It won’t be a problem for today’s kids less familiar with that period in film, but for those that recognize the influences—anyone who’s been paying attention to pop culture over the last 30 years, probably—there’s nothing surprising about Stranger Things. In fact, there’s barely an original idea across its six-and-a-half hours. Instead, it constantly recalls old stories.

There’s an argument to be made that this is in fact Stranger Things’ ‘original’ concept: arranging shopworn ideas in a new and interesting way. Collaging is considered an art, and it no doubt takes talent to make a worthwhile season of television almost entirely out of borrowed parts. Which isn’t to say Stranger Things is like some scrappy mish-mash; like Quentin Tarantino, the Duffers only cadge ideas from the best, but are more importantly talented enough as storytellers to use those ideas in effective ways.

I don’t know if I would count it among the greatest seasons of capital-T Television I’ve ever seen, but it was incredibly fun, and I guess the thing I appreciated the most is how, while it’s obviously borrowing heavily from a lot of 1980s tropes, it’s also incorporating a lot of today’s story-telling methods.  Let’s be honest – if you go back and revisit a classic 80s movie that you haven’t seen in a number of years, a lot of them haven’t aged particularly well; they are better in your memory of them than how they actually are.

A few key examples of this:  the first Tim Burton Batman movie, from 1989.  I saw this movie in the theater as a kid and LOVED it, but hadn’t watched it again until a few years ago.  And for all its stylistic Tim Burton-ness, there’s just a whole bunch of nonsense that 14-year-old me just didn’t notice at the time.  There’s a scene in the back half of the movie where Jack Nicholson’s Joker pays Kim Basinger’s Vicki Vale a menacing visit.  But there’s literally no reason for him to show up there.  The scene doesn’t accomplish anything.  It’s a fabricated excuse to give Jack and Kim a scene together, and when you watch this with the benefit of watching 20+ years of movies in the interim, suddenly it sticks out.

Or, alternately, Big Trouble in Little China, which I loved to death back in the day.  It’s still fun, and it’s visually interesting, but the movie itself barely hangs together.

Anyway, back to Stranger Things.  Here is a bullet-pointed collection of thoughts, which I am currently too distracted to properly formulate into an actual essay.  (See the above-referenced footnote below.)  It’s hard to be specific without getting into what are technically spoilers, but I should also note that this isn’t the sort of show where you’re being knocked over by plot twists; there’s a tremendous amount of forward momentum here and so anything spoiler-y is less about a BIG REVEAL and more about a moment of character development.  Still, be warned.

  • This story could certainly have been told in a 2-hour movie.  But by stretching it out to 8 episodes, we’re able to have these characters actually talk to each other.  And, in what feels like a genuine first, we’re having characters have conversations where they actually say all the things I wish that characters would say.  I don’t know if that’s a testament to the writing, or the acting, or if it’s simply that I am the target audience for this show and so I related to every single goddamned pixel on my television screen.  But, like – it’s great to be able to follow Winona Ryder into what for all intents and purposes looks like a psychotic break, and to have her fully acknowledge to anyone who asks that yes, she is very much aware that she knows what she looks like, but for us to know that she isn’t.
  • How great is the casting?  This is some of the best work Winona Ryder’s done in her whole career – and while casting her is no accident, she knocked it out of the park.  The kids are great: the girl who plays Eleven looks an awful lot like young Wil Wheaton, wouldn’t you say?  And of course the older brother looks a lot like young River Phoenix.
  • OH GOD THE MUSIC.  Obviously one of the things that makes this show so great is how it mixes lots of 80s things together, but especially how it takes a Spielberg-ian look at childhood in the 80s but eschews the John Williams orchestra and instead goes for the John Carpenter minimal-synthesizer thing.  I only wish they could’ve gone a little bit further and added some David Lynch/Twin Peaks weirdness, though I suppose having this story take place in an unusually strange town might’ve been pushing it a bit too much.
  • As noted above, I am the target demo for this show – a child of the 80s, thoroughly steeped in 80s movies and music and clothes and Trapper Keepers and D&D (well, in my case, piano lessons), and so I of course related to both the junior-high AV Club kids and the high school hormonal teenagers.  (And on behalf of all the teenaged girls I knew when I was a teenager:  I’m so, so, so sorry.)  But I am also currently a 40-year-old parent, and I also thoroughly related to the adults on the show, especially with regards to how those parents care about their children.  Like the scene between Nancy and her mother where the mother knows what just happened to Nancy and her boyfriend and desperately wants to reach out to her daughter because she’s been there and wants to be cool about it, and how heartbreaking it is for her to have the door shut in her face.  Or the deep sorrow that Chief Hopper carries around with him in losing his very young daughter; I don’t know what that feels like first-hand and I hope I never do, but I can certainly imagine what it would like to lose my son, and jesus I have to move on because I can’t finish this sentence.  Point being, I related to everyone, in intensely different ways.
  • BIGGEST SPOILER, SINCE IT’S ABOUT THE LAST TWO EPISODES:  In the last two episodes, how great was it to have all the good guys, who’d previously been in their own groups, finally come together?  And to also appear in completely different pairings than they’d been in for the rest of the season?  It’s so nice when people don’t have to keep secrets from each other.  The sense of relief the little kids must’ve felt when not only did Chief Hopper rescue them from the bus, but that he believes them.

I loved the show; you should watch it.


* This week’s been a shitshow – work has been busy, and the RNC is a waking nightmare, but on the lighter side of things I’ve also been pleasantly obsessing over music, which carries its own set of distractions.  I know I’ve talked numerous times about how impressed I am at whatever algorithmic alchemy Spotify manages to achieve for the weekly Discovery playlist; the hit-to-miss ratio is more than acceptable, especially considering that the songs that qualify as “hits” more often than not end up becoming profoundly affecting.  Part of the reason why I couldn’t write anything yesterday is because I spent, like, 5 hours just listening to the bridge in Moses Sumney’s “Everlasting Sigh”.