random thoughts to oil the mind

Month: December 2017

Star Wars VIII: The Last Jedi

I’m clearly getting too old for blockbusters. Seriously, I walk out the cinema wondering what it was the scriptwriters wanted to show me in their cobbled together action flick, and search in vain among the sea of beaming faces for someone who shares my lack of enthusiasm. ‘It was entertaining,’ is what most of them defensively tell me, usually suffixed with ‘but I’m not a Star Wars fan,’ presumably when I don’t respond the same way, as if fearing I’ll proceed to bombard them under a geeky tirade of lore and canon.

Granted, I was a fan of the original trilogy which I devoured in my youth, but I wouldn’t rank myself among the Empire’s legions of loyal nerds. And while some of my annoyance with The Last Jedi certainly based around how it interacted with what we know of the existing universe, mostly I was disappointed with the film in and of itself. Just because you’re not a fan of the series, does that mean you don’t care about watching a flimsy script? Can you enjoy this flick more if you don’t watch any of the previous outings? Or do I just need to learn to disengage my brain before entering the cinema?

Warning: spoilers ahead!

I wasn’t a fan of the previous episode. Far too many parallels with A New Hope, far too many far-fetched plot points and chance encounters, far too many overt crowd-pleasers. In my eyes, The Force Awakens was like the original trilogy on steroids, everything was bigger, better and ultimately faster than everything which went before it, all wrapped up in a storyline that didn’t only seem unnecessary, but entirely inexplicable. Despite the obligatory rolling credit introduction, I was left as clueless after walking out of that film as when I walked in. To all intents and purposes, The Force Awakens was like a series reboot with everything set to hard mode. Aside from the few interesting new characters introduced, the whole the film fell flat with me.

Fast forward a few years and the next episode is out of the stable doors. The overarching story remains as illogical as ever, but the problems with The Last Jedi are even greater in that the film doesn’t seem to have anything to tell us. That’s largely embodied in the opening volley of scenes which sets up the backdrop for the film. The rebels or resistance or whatever it is they’re calling themselves now – I gave up trying to follow any semblance of logical politics in the previous film – escape from yet another base just in the nick of time, with almost certain annihilation waiting in the skies above them. Apparently the ability to bombard the planet falls on a special Dreadnought ship, which is conveniently destroyed in the ensuing conflict (we’ll need this later!). Its destruction comes down to a bit of insubordination from rising star Poe (we’ll need this later!) who orders an attack using, err, bombers.((Seemingly defenceless lumbering hulks which issue explosives from a bombing bay which wouldn’t look all too out of place in a WWII drama and seem to have no problems ‘dropping’ things in space.)) Fortunately, to keep us on the edge of our seats, the mission almost goes belly up were it not for some last-minute self-sacrificial heroics from the final survivor of the bomber wing (we’ll need this later!).

So much of what follows seems like an exercise in pointlessness except when viewed through the prism of the scriptwriters’ checklist. The rebel fleet is pursued through hyperspace only to find itself running out of fuel and unwilling to jump again (previously on Battlestar Galactica…). Fortunately, Finn bumps into the dead bomber pilot’s sister who works out in a flash what secret technology is in play and how to stop it (deus ex machine room). Meanwhile Vice Admiral Holdo gives Poe good reason to continue his insubordinate streak by deliberately pretending to be doing nothing about the dire situation, allowing him to send the other two off on a wild goose chase. And the destruction of that Dreadnought in the opener forces the First Order to repeat the Hoth landing in the finale, launching a land assault against a knock-off Helm’s Deep in a salt crystal desert. Poe’s earlier insubordination gives him room for some character development when he later calls off the suicidal attack against said landing party.

The scriptwriters have littered enough of Chekov’s pistols throughout this script to fill a small arsenal. Knowledge about technology which shouldn’t exist gives Finn and Rose a random mission to accomplish and occupy a bit of screen time. Their docile mission is only pepped up by them getting a parking ticket, which apparently is sufficient offence to lock them up and bother initiating some hare-brained helicopter chase when they break out of prison. Although it comes to naught, the situation is sufficiently contrived to allow Rose to show her dedication to the cause and give up her medallion, and Finn has an opportunity to take on Captain Phasma for a little grudge match. Those scenes could’ve wound up on the cutting room floor just as easily, and the film wouldn’t have been any the poorer for it.

Unfortunately the absence of meaning to the film leaves the characters treading water for lack of purpose. General Hux is relegated to comic relief as the very angry henchman™, who wouldn’t look out of place in an Austin Powers film. Supreme Leader Snoke fulfils his mission of bringing Rey and emolord Kylo together before snuffing it in a scene which suggests the authors don’t even care about the characters they’re creating. Meanwhile the scriptwriters missed a trick for killing off Princess Leia after jettisoning her into space, only to have her finally use the Force and rescue herself. Presumably she’ll have to succumb to her ordeal before the next episode, unless the CGI lobby is particularly vocal.

Or how about Holdo? What purpose does she serve apart from being a foil for Poe’s character development? Her saying nothing provides the excuse for half of the action in the film. Even her demise is one of the most heavily regurgitated tropes, straight from the recipe book. When all others evacuate the ship, she stays behind on the bridge to ‘pilot’ the cruiser. Which makes bugger all sense, but, you know, drama. Unsurprisingly, when the time comes for her big sacrificial moment, we see her stood on the bridge twiddling her thumbs before she turns the cruiser around and hyperspaces it through the pursuing enemy fleet. How convenient! It’s a dramatic scene, a great idea, but surely if that were possible it would’ve been weaponised decades ago?

Which brings me to a personal peev, but just what’s going on with the physics? Dropping bombs in space? Laser beams which dip like artillery? Massive steel doors protecting a base built into a brittle salt mine? Even the entire fleet chase around which this film is built doesn’t stand up to any kind of logical scrutiny. Why is the fleet running out of fuel when it isn’t doing anything? Why can’t the Imperial First Order’s fleet catch up to inert objects in space? But who needs Newtonian physics when you can have ships dramatically tilt after running out of fuel? And what’s surprising about tracking a ship through hyperspace? Isn’t that what happens in A New Hope? Aren’t they holding a tracking beacon for Rey? That would surely be their first suspicion when followed, rather than assuming some newfangled technology has been developed.

Sure, there’s nostalgia and pink goggles clouding my judgement of the original trilogy. There’s plenty to detract from the fantastic reputation those films earned, including clunky dialogue, nonsense science, cheesy plot devices and Ewoks. But the story Lucas told in those films was tightly constructed and worthy of telling. The latest incarnations don’t seem to know where they’re heading or what to do with the passengers on board. Kill ’em off, send ’em round in circles, does anyone really care? The whole situation portrayed begs far more questions than it can ever answer. By now I’ve given up trying to find any answers. But no doubt I’ll be here again in twelve months complaining about the next encounter, because of the few things we can be certain about, The Last Jedi won’t be The Last Star Wars Film.

2017 in Review

Why not make a habit? The forum hasn’t exactly seen much use over the past twelve months, but as there’s nowhere else I’d post this, following on from 2015 and 2016, here’s a short wrap up of the past twelve months, of no particular interest to anyone!

Summary

Words translated: unknown

PC games played: lots

Best PC games: Mini Metro, Turmoil, Tropico 4, Tomb Raider, Call of Juarez: Gunslinger, Her Story

Worst PC games: Cities: Skylines, Dustforce, Far Cry 2

Board games played: 91 plays (36 games)

Best board games: Exit (series), Kneipenquiz, Saboteur

Worst board games: The Resistance, 7 Wonders

Films watched: 16

Best films: The African Doctor, Dune, Love Actually

Worst films: Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Leaves of Grass, The Inbetweeners 2

Books read: 40

Best books: A Walk in the Woods, The Gods Themselves, Freedom Next Time, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, The Great Dune Trilogy, There Was a Country

Worst books: The Tipping Point, Me Talk Pretty One Day, How to be German in 50 Easy Steps

Countries visited: UK

A Year in Gaming

It’s strange really that I feel like I didn’t play many games this year, yet I’m sure my hours wouldn’t bear that out. Aside from our usual Thursday night bashes, I’ve put what feels like hundreds of hours into Heroes of the Storm with Steffi, some weeks literally playing a few rounds every night, though maybe averaged out over the year it’s not that much. Still, in terms of trying to whittle through my backlog on Steam I haven’t been particularly successful.

Having said that, my Steam list suggests I’ve hopped around quite a bit over these past twelve months. Certainly I played a fair few relaxing solo-player adventures. Mini Metro is one of those simple yet slick titles which is ostensibly easy but quickly ramps up the difficulty. All you need to do is build an underground network and get passengers to stations where they want to go. It doesn’t even matter which station per se, as long as the round peg goes in the round hole. It doesn’t quite satisfy me as a solid game of OpenTTD would, but for a quick ten minutes it’s fun trying the challenges.

In a similar vein I really enjoyed playing through Turmoil, which has a bit more scope in that there’s a campaign and more strategic planning about how you build up your oil business. More of a medium-weight title, there’s enough depth to sink several hours into, but after one playthrough I couldn’t really be faffed starting again on the harder difficulty.

It seems I did a fair bit of building this year, with Cities: Skylines and Tropico 4 also on the list. Skylines was a bit disappointing, at least with the base game I was playing with. It felt like I’d pretty much done everything there was to do after a few hours, and aside from setting up a new district and repeating the whole thing, there wasn’t much incentive to continue. Tropico on the other hand is nicely packaged up into specific scenarios which force you to play a certain way. Of course it’s just as repetitive in its own way, but having to tune your island paradise towards fat American tourists or greedy industrialists at least offers a different tack.

When not building, I’ve tried to run through a few of the solo-player games on my list. Tomb Raider turned out to be an enjoyable surprise, just the right blend of action and puzzle elements, the feeling of open adventure without having too much space to get lost in, a wonderfully weird storyline, and about the right length to enjoy playing it through without getting bored.

Surprise hits of the year? Call of Juarez Gunslinger doesn’t really count as a surprise, given as I’d really enjoyed Bound in Blood, but it’s a counterfactual pure action Wild Western romp, with barely a moment’s rest between gun fights, showdowns, wild chases and the like. I think it only took 6 hours but I ended up sticking around for the achievements, it was that much fun! Antichamber is a fantastic puzzle game, and one which I’d probably play more of if Steffi were interested as well. Unfortunately the puzzles are a bit too abstract for my meagre mind and I either got stuck or lost and ended up leaving it. But I’d recommend it nevertheless! Another neat surprise was Her Story, which is almost better described as an art project rather than a game. There’s nothing I can say about it without really spoiling the surprise, but the game will take probably only 3 hours to play, which is definitely worth the few pounds it costs if you enjoy adventure games or mysteries. (Side note: the recommendation came from watching Mark Brown, see below.) The final oddball I’ll mention was Party Hard, an ultraviolent 8-bit title in the vein of Hotline Miami, where the premise is essentially that you’re fed up of the kids making noise at the party, so you go in and MURDER EVERYONE! I played it as a two-player coop with Steffi and had an absolute riot, often just trying to work out what the hell we were doing.

Worst games of the year? There wasn’t really anything which stuck out as being ‘bad’, though there were a few I gave up on quite quickly. Far Cry 2 just felt way too open, a game you could sink hours into without getting anywhere, and which didn’t grab me sufficiently from the start. I played a few missions and forgot about it. Dustforce I probably picked up for free somewhere or had in some bundle. A weird premise, it’s like a race platformer which you could probably sink hours into mastering the moves, but I really could not be fussed!

A Year in Boardgaming

Didn’t play quite as much this year as usual, a lot of those 100 plays including smaller lightweight titles. Probably the Exit games are the ones which stand out. We’ve played three now – The Secret Lab, The Pharaoh’s Tomb and Murder on the Orient Express – and each is an enjoyable few hours deciphering clues and working your way through the puzzles to the end. We messed up the first game a bit because we were unsure how we were supposed to approach the materials in the box and ended up being too cautious (not looking at things when we were allowed to), but the second was a real blast. The puzzles are nice and varied, some quite tricky and abstract, others you look at and can solve without really needing to think about them, but overall the difficulty was about right to keep you guessing and not frustrate anyone. There are clues for if you get stuck, and normally we only needed one hint to put us back on the right track, since sometimes you end up convinced you need to combine two elements in the box which have nothing to do with one another. I imagine we’ll pick up a couple more of these in the year to come, and even though you can only play them once, at about €10 a pop it’s a decent price for the fun you get out of it.

Another game we’ve played a fair few times with different people is a pub quiz coop called Kneipenquiz. Essentially you form one team and play against three other imaginary teams through 5 rounds of 5 general knowledge questions. Aside from answering questions, you have to judge which ones you’ve answered correctly and make sure you earn the most points from them (or alternatively, that your opponents earn the least), meaning that even if you only get about half of them right, you can still sneak victory. Makes a nice alternative to the standard every-man-for-himself trivia games, though I don’t know if they’ll make an English version.

We didn’t play much in the way of standard Eurogames/strategy games this year, at least nothing new. I’d picked up a cheap copy of Caverna and got that to the table a couple of times, and Space Alert remains a regular favourite with our group. We managed to get a 6-player game of Battlestar Galactica going at long last, and although it was a fun evening, it again didn’t really deliver as it should’ve. One of the players deliberately half-pretended to be a Cylon just to keep the tension going, but otherwise it was completely obvious to him that there was only one Cylon in the game and that person had 0 chance of winning. Luck of the cards again, but I think the game sadly lacks a bit of depth to make it interesting enough beyond the traitor element (though theme and mechanics meld really well).

But the biggest disappointment of the year for me was our weekend in Scotland, when we seemed to be on one long treachery trip. One Night Ultimate Werewolf is a fun enough game, the rounds are short enough that it doesn’t drag, there are enough roles that it doesn’t get stale, but I quite often found that with so many players, the villagers or werewolves had more chance of winning/losing through random luck than through clever deduction. The werewolf would argue themselves into a hole and get lynched, only for someone to have swapped their card at random and the new werewolves to surprisingly find they’d won. Enjoyable, but just a bit dissatisfying to vote to kill the werewolf as a villager, and discover you’re actually a werewolf who’d got away with it.

Still, that game was 100 times better than The Resistance. I’ve been itching to play that game for a few years (and even own an unplayed copy here!) having read the reviews, but the actual experience, at least with those rules and that number of people, just felt like an exercise in frustrating pointlessness. I imagined it would be a cross between Werewolf and Mastermind, with traitors waiting to be unmasked by the voting, but in the end it felt as random as hell and way more about talking trash than really finding spies.

Saboteur on the other hand was a positive surprise and one where the mechanic worked really well. Certainly there was a decent amount of luck involved with the way the cards fell, but there was usually chance for the Saboteurs to do a bit of damage or at least keep people guessing without it being too obvious. Even when revealed, there’s still some tactics in how to use up the remaining cards. I think the game is perfect with five players, which helped with my first impressions, since it keeps open the number of Saboteurs present in the round. With four players it’s far too easy to lock the one Saboteur down once they’ve been revealed.

A Year in Cinema

My film list looks even bleaker than usual this year, with just 16 films (and most of them watched in Scotland!) Probably the favourite on the list was The African Doctor, a fairly touching story of a black doctor trying to integrate himself and his family in a rural French village. Comedic ups and downs, its also quite poignant without being overtly depressing.

Another was probably Dune, which I only watched because I was reading the trilogy. I’d watched some or maybe all of it once before as a child, but too young at the time to understand any of it. It’s a crazy story, and Lynch’s film version is a fantastic rendition, even if it can’t quite capture the sheer epic drama and depth of the novels and made a few strange choices in what was changed for the film (the ending in particular is really off the wall).

The two worst films on the list are at different ends of the spectrum. The Inbetweeners 2 was one I caught while in Scotland and frankly as puerile as they come. Reminded me of that dreadful Kevin and Perry Go Large for pure/poor toilet humour. At the other end of the spectrum was Star Wars VIII: The Last Jedi, which again just took away from the amazement I held for the original trilogy. To my mind, it’s as if they took a recipe book for making a successful film and followed it step by step. I’ve no doubt it will rake in millions at the box office, but in my eyes it was a soulless slog which added nothing to the Star Wars saga (and rather took more away) and only continued where the previous films left off on their quest to hoover up the dollars.

Perhaps the last film worth mentioning though is one of those annual favourites: Love Actually. We watched it in German this time for Steffi’s parents’ benefit, but it was a reminder of what you can do with a decent story. Yeah, a cheap and cheesy feel-good film, but the screenplay is nicely interwoven. Just quality.

One of the reasons we haven’t watched many films this year is probably for watching more telly. Nothing particularly exciting, aside from Steffi becoming a Doctor Who addict the only notable series we’ve watched was Broadchurch. I’m not normally a fan of series as they usually drag their plots out too thin, but the saving grace here is that it isn’t too long. The acting is great, they pack a lot of drama into a small space, and the biggest disappointment is probably when it’s over. We gobbled up the first series which I’d heartily recommend, the second isn’t too bad though I probably wouldn’t go out of my way to watch it. Steffi got the third for Christmas, so I guess that’s our televisual viewing for January covered!

A Year in Books

What I haven’t been consuming through flickering images I made up for through the written word this year, again reading over 11,000 pages. Since we’d been walking a fair bit this summer, I decided to re-read A Walk in the Woods. I love Bryson’s writing style, and this is one of his finest, laugh-out-loud funny, occasionally informative, even slightly inspiring given the epic undertaking he sets out on, recounting his efforts to walk the Appalachian Trail with an old school friend. I’d like to think I might achieve something similar one day!

Sticking with non-fiction but a rather more depressing read was Chinua Achebe’s memoir of the Biafran War, There Was a Country, an intelligent look back at one of those gruelling episodes of history so sadly invisible in the western conscience.

More recently I finally got around to reading Freedom Next Time by John Pilger. Published back in 2007 and looking at injustices in places like Palestine, the Chagos Islands and post-Apartheid South Africa, it’s amazing how relevant it remains a decade down the road. So much obviously broken while the wheels of change grind on the gears of conservatism. The chapter on Palestine seems almost prescient in light of big yin Trump’s decision to recognise Israel’s occupation of Jerusalem.

In a less political vein, I read Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? by Frans de Waal. Basically a summary of the previous decades’ study of animal cognition, it’s also fascinating as an anthropological study of the hubris of humankind, the constant battle against the raw egocentrical arrogance of the human condition. Highly recommended.

In fiction it seems that my favourites of the year were all science fiction. The aforementioned Dune is a stonking work which well deserves its place at the top of many people’s lists. I didn’t care much for the first sequel, the second was fairly interesting again, but the sheer scale and attention to detail well warrants this universe’s comparison to the likes of Lord of the Rings. I wouldn’t say it was a favourite, but I’ve got nothing but respect for it.

More of a guilty pleasure perhaps, but the other 5-star sci-fi romp this year was The Gods Themselves. Asimov had such a fertile mind and such prodigious output, even if his writing style wouldn’t win any beauty awards. The background in this case is an exploration of interactions between parallel universes simply sparked by someone mentioning an isotope that couldn’t physically exist in our universe. From that he managed to extrapolate an exciting little novel which contains more interesting ideas than some writers manage in a lifetime. It’s almost the antithesis of Herbert’s writing, but it scratches entirely different neurons for me.

There weren’t any serious stinkers on my reading list this year, but a few disappointments. The Tipping Point is one of those popular sociology books which hits the top of the bestsellers lists for its entirely unwarranted buzz. I hate the journalistic style which pads out a simple idea into a book, a book which is nevertheless brief and devoid of serious content. There are a few interesting titbits here, but all in all I’d prefer to read the brief summary (or just the blurb!) and have done with it. Nor has it particularly aged well, being published in 2001 before the virality of the internet really fledged.

Another book which didn’t meet expectations was Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris. I’ve no idea how this ended up on my Amazon wishlist (I should really add notes as to where they come from!) but after probably a decade I finally got around to getting a copy and reading it. And it’s… meh. Allegedly humorous, I found the author to be fairly obnoxious and decidedly unfunny in the vast majority of the essays in this little collection. Only at the end does it pick up a bit, when he moves to France and starts trying to find his feet in a new country with a new language, probably because it’s something I can somewhat relate to.

The final book in the “non-recommendation” pile isn’t so much there because it’s bad but because I could probably do better if I weren’t such a lazy bastard! How to be German in 50 Easy Steps is one of those light-hearted Michael-takers, a bit like the Xenophobes’ guides but nowhere near as polished. Seriously nowhere near. There’s plenty to giggle about, particularly as someone living here, or even for someone just interesting in different cultures, but the episodes in each chapter are way too short and leave a permanent sense of missed potential. I’m sure I couldn’t do better really, but the overall effect is poor enough that it gives me the feeling I could.

*A Year in casts

A new rubric for this year, though it isn’t new to my schedule, and those are just a few of those ‘subscriptions’ that have kept me going over the year. Podcasts, YouTube feeds, bloggers and whathaveyou.

I’ve started actually subscribing to channels on YouTube rather than always searching for stuff I want to watch manually, which means I actually end up watching a fair amount of trash while making pancakes on a Sunday morning. CinemaSins is always a blast when covering films I’ve seen, I dunno how long it takes them to produce an episode but it’s beautifully condensed into about 15 minutes of succinct critique. He’s totally on my wavelength about so many things. For gaming I have a few feeds, but one which I really enjoy is a series by Mark Brown on game design. His Game Maker’s Toolkit takes apart game mechanics and looks at how intelligent design can really make or break a game, from the tiny annoyances that interrupt the immersion, to the subtle and cunning tactics designers employ to get players to play the game the ‘right’ way. Seriously well worth watching if that at all interests you.

In terms of audio, I’ve been devouring two podcasts in particular. One going under the curious title No Such Thing As A Fish is related to the QI TV series. It’s basically a show run by the ‘elves’ who find out all those crazy facts that are covered on the show. The main crew are a delightful bunch and both their banter and the mad things they discover make it a seriously entertaining listen. The other podcast I’ve been listening to is Revolutions by Mike Duncan. I listened to his History of Rome series last year on my walks to the tram, and although I’m not quite as gripped by the subject of his new series, I enjoy his narrative style (and am so used to his voice by now!) that it fills a nice gap in my listening schedule! Only history buffs need apply here though.

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