The Allied Invasion

The winter holidays rolling in generally signals an uptick in movies for me. Whether it's heading to the theater with friends or family, November and December tend to be big months for actually heading to the local multiplex, as opposed to kicking back with some Netflix. This year is no exception; I've seen a trio of new movies in the past few weeks, all of which have to do with the challenges of interacting with a mysterious Other.

The first was Arrival, Denis Villeneuve's adaptation of an existing story about a linguist (Amy Adams) who is recruited to decipher the language of an alien force hovering just above the Earth's surface. Adams' character Louise is excellent at her job, but leads a solitary existence. Still, she can't resist being roped into the effort to understand the newly-arrived aliens and what their plans might be. The extraterrestrial beings are not the only complicated life forms to deal with, as she must contend with the military and the responses of other countries who may not have as measured a response as she wants to have.

It's a fascinating movie, and I was a big fan of its tone, which combines intellectualism with a dreamy emotional bent. That said, it does suffer from some plot flaws that keep it from being the cinematic marvel that a lot of reviewers are claiming it is. There are some unnecessary obstacles that are thrown up as pure contrivance, which held the movie back a bit. Also, as a purely petty complaint, I'm not sure whose idea it was to have Forest Whitaker play his character (Colonel Weber, the head of the US military presence) with a grating Boston accent, but it was a mistake. Arrival is well worth your time. It's probably one of the better movies I've seen this year. It just wasn't as rapturous a success as everyone's making it out to be.

After that, it was time to dive back into the world of Harry Potter with the kickoff to a new series, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. I love the Potterverse, though I waffle back and forth on how well the movies come off in comparison to the books. In this case, there's somewhat of a combination, as this one marks the screenwriting debut of J.K. Rowling. The movie follows the American adventures of Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), the eventual author of the titular book that Harry Potter and his contemporaries use in their studies.

Scamander is obsessed with the study and conservation of magical creatures, and has come to 1920s New York to... Well, actually, there's no real reason for him to be in New York. He just is, okay? An accidental briefcase switch with a Muggle (or a No-Maj in American parlance) leads to several creatures being let loose on the streets of Manhattan, which could not come at a worse time. The wizarding world is under intense pressure to remain secret from the general populace and deal with escaped dark wizard Grindelwald. Local governmental employee Tina (Katherine Waterston) assumes the duty of wrangling Newt, his animals, and the No-Maj Kowalski (Dan Fogler), with limited success.

As a family-friendly, effects-heavy popcorn flick, you could do a lot worse. As a tentpole that's supposed to anchor a full series of movies, it's pretty disappointing. It's not that I was bored or pissy about the giant plot holes (of which there are plenty). There just isn't enough interesting story to sustain the character, so it essentially becomes a bunch of video game fetch quests. Alison Sudol is extremely impressive as Tina's mind-reading sister Queenie, but beyond that, this one was a bit of a letdown.

Finally, over Thanksgiving break, there was the World War II romantic drama Allied, starring Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard. The two play Max and Marianne, a Canadian and French spy respectively, who are paired up in order to take out a Nazi operative in Casablanca. The first part of the movie is all about their mission, but once that's complete, the two get married and move to London. Later, Max is informed that it is believed that Marianne is in actuality working for the Nazis, and is asked to set up a sting operation to discover her true motives.

I enjoyed the movie far more than I thought I was going to, even if the plot points are pretty paint-by-numbers. You can elevate a certain amount of rote story with good acting, and Cotillard is reliably fantastic (Pitt is fine, too, but she's the one who really shines). This would normally not be a movie I'd choose for myself, but unlike some other recent offerings that I agreed to tag along for, I didn't walk away from this one feeling like it was a waste of time.

Arrival: B+
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: B-
Allied: B

Speed Reading

The world is full of so much bad news lately that retreating into the world of entertainment and pop culture is one of my few respites. One of the best ways to avoid hearing about...well, absolutely anything going on around you, is to stick your nose into a book. My last post about my current reading list was way back in March, but I haven't been avoiding the library. Far from it! So let's dive into these lifesavers that have been able to keep me from going completely insane.

Simon Vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda - Becky Albertalli (2015)

Let's get the worst thing about this book out of the way first: It's got a bad title that doesn't relate strongly enough with the story to justify its use. But please don't let that put you off, because this is easily the best of the books I've read lately. It's incredibly difficult to write a character with a different gender. It's incredibly difficult to write a character with a different sexual orientation. It's incredibly difficult to write a believable teenaged character (especially one who isn't an annoying ass). And yet, somehow Becky Albertalli has pulled off the trifecta. This book is about sixteen-year old Simon, a closeted gay teen who doesn't belong to a popular clique, but neither is he an isolated loner. He just keeps to his small circle of friends. (Gee, I wonder why I relate so much to this book, huh?) Simon begins to email with a mystery boy at his school, and the two begin to get closer and closer, while still being unsure of the other's identity. When one of Simon's emails is discovered by a classmate who indulges in some mild blackmail to get Simon's help with his own dating life, the situation becomes a lot more tenuous. I'm always mildly surprised when I enjoy a YA book this much, but given that I had similar experiences to Simon in high school (minus the hot mystery boyfriend), I suppose it's understandable. I'm not sure if someone who couldn't relate as much to the character would enjoy the book as much as I did, but it was definitely a highlight of my reading year.

The Eighth Day - Dianne K. Salerni (2014)

If there's one thing that disappoints more reliably than other flaws, it's a book with an excellent premise that collapses in the execution. It just makes me think about what could have been. The Eighth Day is the first book in a series that explores an intriguing possibility: What if there were some people who experience time differently than the rest of us. They get an extra day between Wednesday and Thursday while the rest of us jump right over it. Not only that, there are other people who live exclusively in this extra day, so a great deal of the population just seem to disappear each week. Sounds like rich material for a series, right? Unfortunately, the story veers into deeply silly territory having to do with Arthurian lineage and an out-of-nowhere apocalyptic plot to destroy the seven-day world. It's an eminently readable book, and doesn't have any issues with structure or anything like that. It just has nothing interesting to say. It's disappointing that such a promising idea landed with such a thud, but there's no way I'll be continuing with the series.

Sorcerer to the Crown - Zen Cho (2015)

Speaking of series that I'm dropping after the first entry, here's another one. This one was slightly better, though, coming off as a slightly less-dry version of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. Zacharias Wythe is a freed slave who apprentices with the Sorceror Royal of Great Britain, and who later attains the same position. Naturally, this doesn't sit well with the staid, white magicians who make up the majority of magical society. Part of Zacharias' duty is to undertake the task of figuring out why magic is drying up in the land, and along the way, he meets Prunella, a young lady with some remarkable gifts of her own. It could be a ripping story, but unfortunately proceeds in too slow and plodding a fashion. As a stand-alone book, it's not bad, but as the kickoff to a series, it's a slight letdown.

Swamplandia! - Karen Russell (2011)

Let's round out the disappointments with the biggest one of all. Proof that being popular doesn't always mean a book will hold your attention, Swamplandia! was so stupefyingly boring that I almost couldn't get through it. At first, it appears to be about the diminishing fortunes of an alligator wrestling-themed attraction in the Florida swamplands, and how the family that runs it responds to its flagging popularity. But once the tourists stop visiting, the family splits off into separate directions, and the book follows each of them. To be fair, the third of the book that focuses on the protagonist Ava Bigtree's brother Kiwi is quite decent. So, 33% credit! Unfortunately, the third that focuses on Ava herself - as well as the portion that follows the spiritual romance her sister Ophelia pursues with a local ghost - are the world's greatest cures for insomnia. I somehow managed to drag myself to the finish line on this one, but the best part about reading Swamplandia! was the part where I got to give it back to its owner.

The Clasp - Sloane Crosley (2015)

I needed a palate cleanser after that one, and luckily, Sloane Crosley was there for me. I've liked her previous books of essays, so I was excited to give her first fiction a whirl. College friends Kezia, Nathaniel, and Victor reunite at the wedding of a mutual acquaintance. They have a complicated romantic past with each other, and their lives have been proceeding in wildly different directions, and with varying degrees of success. Sad-sack Victor passes out in a bedroom, where he is discovered by the groom's mother, who tells him the story of a lost heirloom. Adrift in his life, Victor decides to track it down. Kezia has issues with a controlling boss, and Nathaniel is trying to establish himself in the dog-eat-dog world of entertainment. Victor's quest eventually wraps them all up, and forces them to re-examine both their own choices and their relationships to one another. This book combines the fun of an adventure story with Crosley's perfectly acerbic brand of humor, and was a really enjoyable read.

The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks - Toni Tipton-Martin (2015)

This one's tough to grade, because as a compendium of the historical record of cookbooks inspired by and written by African-American authors, it's excellent. But being good reference material and being a good book to read are two vastly different things. Tipton-Martin does the food world a service in putting these cooks and nutritional pioneers center stage, as so many of their achievements were either ignored, or the credit stolen from them. If this book had focused on the early days of African-American cooking, and how we should celebrate talent and intelligence over the cultural insensitivity of the Magical Black Woman Who Instinctively Knows the Secrets of Home Cooking, I think I'd have liked it even more. It does go into that, but after a while, morphs into more of a rote almanac, which is kind of a shame. Anyone who's interested in the world of food will find a lot of the information in this book fascinating, but it's more valuable as an informational resource than as a reading experience.

Scarlett Epstein Hates it Here - Anna Breslaw (2016)

Hey, it's a YA novel about a teenager who just doesn't fit in at school! Finally! I mentioned up in the Simon Vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda entry how hard it is to write a realistic, unannoying teenager, and here's proof, as the eponymous Scarlett is both somewhat unrealistic (a perfectly normal-looking, intelligent girl with no friends) and somewhat annoying (simultaneously insecure and snobby). Scarlett spends her free time writing fanfiction about her favorite supernatural TV show, and when it is canceled, she tries her hand at writing fictionalized stories transparently based on the people around her at school, instead. Naturally, this leads to complications. It's not a bad book by any means, but did have me rolling my eyes a fair amount. It can be challenging to enjoy a book with an unrelatable protagonist, but with a fairly decent plot, this book manages to rescue itself from its less-successful elements.

Three-Martini Lunch - Suzanne Rindell (2016)

As someone who enjoyed Mad Men, how could I resist a book set in the publishing world of 1950s New York? Plus, I won a free copy in a Goodreads giveaway! The book follows three characters: Cliff (a privileged editor's son with a healthy ego about his own prospects), Eden (a secretary who attempts to rise above the obstacles sexism and jealousy pose while trying to become an editor), and Miles (an African-American writer with plenty of talent, but who's struggling with his romantic life and his father's past). The three of them become entangled with each other and the challenges of making it in such a competitive field, having to make tough choices and sacrifices along the way. It wasn't the most remarkable book I've ever read, but it's a solid, entertaining read. It also really captures the mood of the era, which is a tough feat to accomplish.

Why Not Me? - Mindy Kaling (2015)

I don't watch The Mindy Project, but since I liked Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? so much, I wasn't about to pass up Mindy Kaling's second book of essays. It gave me plenty of chuckles, and was the perfect book to read on a plane ride. She always seems to be really good at straddling the line between gossiping about the celebrity life and being a well-adjusted, normal person. In this book, she dishes on a lot of the aspects of being famous-but-not-that-famous and about Hollywood's crazy standards. It wasn't as great as her first book, but it was still a lot of fun.

The Unfortunates - Sophie McManus (2015)

What is it about seeing rich, white, Northeastern, upper-class families fall apart that appeals to me so much? Whatever the allure is, I was definitely drawn to this book about...well, exactly that kind of family. The Somners are a wealthy family, but the money and power mostly lie with matriarch Cecelia, who finds herself battling a rare disease. As she attempts to maintain her high standards while dealing with the inconveniences of ill health, her son George starts to flounder without her around for support. It starts off as a really engaging story, but takes some less interesting turns, culminating in a very poor plot twist that threatens to derail the whole thing. Overall, it was still worth the read, but its flaws are pretty glaring.

Simon Vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda: A
The Eighth Day: C
Sorcerer to the Crown: B-
Swamplandia!: C-
The Clasp: B+
The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African-American Cookbooks: B-
Scarlett Epstein Hates it Here: B-
Three-Martini Lunch: B
Why Not Me?: B
The Unfortunates: B-

Hot Takes

Now that we're fully immersed into the fall television season, I need to get into gear and mention all those shows that helped fill the summer doldrums. Summer TV has the reputation of being awful, but thanks to the rise of streaming, it's become a season of debuting interesting experimental shows, and for catching up on all those shows we missed over the previous year. I had a healthy mix of both of these types of programming, and for the most part, everything was pretty good! There is one internet sensation that needs a little air let out of its balloon, but otherwise, it was an entertaining season.

First up was the new version of Voltron: Legendary Defender. I never watched the '80s show, so I came in with zero expectations and zero nostalgia to live up to. Maybe that's why I wound up liking it more than the general population. Five teenagers discover an affinity with five mechanical lions, each with their own special powers. When the lions combine, they form Voltron, a mega-robot who comes to the defense of helpless citizens of the universe. The bad guys are your run-of-the-mill imperialistic overlords trying to seize control of Voltron themselves, while the teens are mentored by Princess Allura, who directs them to wherever they're needed. It was a perfectly decent inaugural season, that did a lot more with interpersonal relationships than you'd expect in a show about battle robots. None of the episodes left me doing cartwheels, but as far as lore-based cartoons go, you could do a lot worse, and I'm looking forward to seeing if a second season is being planned.

Next up was the sophomore season of Steven Universe. You may remember my strong feelings about Season 1, and I was itching to see if it would maintain its firm grip on my heartstrings. Long story short: Yes, to an extent. Season 2 continues to build on the town and its denizens, with detours into stories about Onion's family and Connie's family. The real expansion, though, comes with a long story arc about Peridot. In Season 1, Peridot was just a slightly-villainous nuisance. In Season 2, she reluctantly joins forces with the Crystal Gems to track down the potentially Earth-destroying Cluster. The episodes are as warm and emotional as in the previous season, but none of them hit me in the gut as much as the Season 1 episodes did. It remains a hugely compelling show, though, and if Cartoon Network ever gets their act together when it comes to making their shows more widely available to cord-cutters, I'll willingly dive into Season 3.

The most pleasant surprise of the summer was Man Seeking Woman, an FXX show that I was able to stream through Hulu. The book this show is based on was my second-favorite read of 2013, and the television version does a great job of adapting the absurdity and surrealism of the stories. Jay Baruchel stars as Josh, a guy who can't seem to make anything about his life work, from his near invisibility at his temp job to his lack of skill in relating to women. All of the woes Josh goes through in his dating life are taken to their extreme. If you're forced to attend a wedding at which your ex-girlfriend is seated at the same table with her perfect new man, you feel like you're in Hell, which is exactly where the reception is. Having wandering thoughts when you're supposed to be devoted to your girlfriend feels like being hauled into court, and so Josh is. And of course, no matter how nice someone's personality is, she can still be...shall we say "not your type"? So Josh is set up on a date with a literal troll.

It takes a certain kind of personality to hook into this type of storytelling device, and I am definitely on board. I've always been a fan of magical realism, and using it to wryly comment on the challenges of modern dating is all kinds of genius.

OK, I've been putting it off, but it's time to talk about Stranger Things. If you haven't heard about this show, please allow me to congratulate you on finally escaping that rock you were living under. Stranger Things is a throwback love letter to the sci-fi of the '80s. A group of nerdy kids stumble across an young escapee from a military installation who has creepy powers, and with her help, begin to untangle the dark designs the agents have for their town and the monster that lurks beneath it. Everyone has been collectively having spontaneous orgasms over this show. It's the biggest hit of the summer, if not the year. I've already seen Stranger Things cosplay and Halloween costume ideas. All of this for a show that was...fine, I guess?

I have absolutely no complaints about the production design. Everything from the sets to the costumes to the hair is perfectly '80s. The story premise works, too. Mix ET, The Goonies, Super 8, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and you'll have a good idea of the aesthetic this show successfully achieves. So what's the problem? The writing, mostly. All of the dialogue is completely unnatural. People react to things in ways they never would in real life. The action beats work, but whenever those stop and people start talking, I found myself losing interest rapidly. And while I tend to like Winona Ryder, she's at a level 11 of hysteria throughout the season, which got grating.

I didn't dislike this show. It was worth the watch, and I'll be tuning in when Season 2 is released. But when a gazillion articles are written about a character who has seventeen lines and four minutes of screentime, I get rankled. I tend to treat things more harshly when they're getting praise I don't think they deserve, but I'm trying to fight against that urge here. Stranger Things was an eminently watchable show. But it'll inevitably be added to those best-of-the-year lists you see in December, and it shouldn't be.

Voltron: Legendary Defender - Season 1: B
Steven Universe - Season 2: B+
Man Seeking Woman - Season 1: A-
Stranger Things - Season 1: B

Prove It

With the autumnal TV season upon us, I really need to get into gear to wrap up and talk about the shows I watched over the summer. I've got one episode left of a massive cultural hit that I will have some...contrary opinions about. For today, though, let's talk about an old favorite. The other shows might get rolled into a single post, but something as special as The Great British Baking Show deserves a space of its own.

Any regular reader already knows how I feel about this show, but for the uninitiated, I think it's the best show in recent history, and when it entered my life, it skyrocketed to the top of my favorites list. There are metric tons of both food shows and reality shows on the air, but none of the others come close to capturing the warm, life-affirming tone this show does. You can even listen to a friend and I wax rhapsodic over it if you like.

If you follow the show at all, you know that nothing good lasts forever, and the better something is, the more you'd better treasure it while it exists. We'll get to that momentarily, though. For now, let's talk about this most recent season. As far as the general structure goes, it was as fantastic as ever. Beautiful photography, engaging contestants, good challenge design, fair judging, fun hosts... You've heard it all from me before, and nothing's changed. The initial contestant pool was perhaps not as stacked with intriguing personalities as in seasons past, but once we got down to the final handful, I was as in love with the bakers as I always am. Early standouts included Flora, who often sacrificed flavor for ornate decoration, Paul the prison warden who struggled in early challenges but consistently nailed the Showstopper, and Mat, the adorable fireman. The final three were also an intriguing bunch. Ian was inventive, Nadiya was intensely-focused, and Tamal was a wizard with flavors. Oh, and on a personal note...also super-hot.

So, everything was top-notch as far as the production went, but circumstances surrounding it impeded some of the joy I'd usually get out of my favorite show. Whoever is in charge of scheduling at PBS is clearly in the final throes of dementia. Episodes had no consistency in their airing, be it the day or the time. When it came down to the final two episodes, my local affiliate decided to take a few weeks off from airing it at all. The season's winner was spoiled online. It was as if people were actively trying to ruin a good thing.

And that's not even getting into what's coming next. News is still rolling in about this, so by the time I post, it may well have changed again, but here's how it stands now. First, BBC had the rights to the show bought out from under them by Channel 4. That means it's going from a station funded by governmental license fees to an advertising-supported one. If you're American, this would be akin to Masterpiece Theater going from PBS to NBC. That's not a good thing.

Know who else doesn't think it's a good thing? Hosts Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins, who quit the show when it was announced it was making the move. Know who else doesn't think it's a good thing? Judge Mary Berry, who quit shortly thereafter. Right after that happened, it was announced that Paul Hollywood is sticking around as judge of whatever the new version of the show will look like, and that Mel and Sue have already scored a new show of their own.

A new season of Great British Baking Show is currently airing in Britain, so we've got that to look forward to. Plus, there are the three initial seasons that never aired in America, so tracking those down could keep this amazing program in our collective consciousness for a while. But as far as what the future will bring in terms of this franchise? It would appear that the cookie is crumbling.

The Great British Baking Show - Season 3: A

Shorties #20

The days are rapidly getting shorter, so that must mean it's time for some Shorties! OK, fine, that was a weak transition. Give me some coffee, and I'll do better. In the meantime, how about we take a quick look at a handful of movies?

#1: World of Tomorrow: This 2015 short film (it clocks in at 17 minutes) was nominated for an Animated Short Oscar for last year's awards. It was made by Don Hertzfeldt, whose work I've liked before. It becoming available on Netflix streaming was the final incentive I needed to watch it, and I'm glad I did! It tells the story of a little girl who is visited by a future version of herself. Future Emily tells Emily Prime in a flat, dispassionate voice about all the wonders and horrors that await in the future world, but since Emily Prime is just a little kid, she's more interested in pretty flashing colors than in the plight of clones. It's amazing how much pathos and story can be packed into just a handful of minutes, and World of Tomorrow is definitely worth your time. (Grade: A-)

#2: The Heat: I liked Bridesmaids and Spy, and Ghostbusters was decent enough, so I felt I had to fill in my final Paul Feig/Melissa McCarthy gap with 2013's movie about mismatched police partners (McCarthy and Sandra Bullock) attempting to take down a drug ring. It was okay, and I laughed out loud a few times, but it didn't blow me away. It seemed like an excuse for Melissa McCarthy to cut loose with some off-the-cuff profanity for an hour or so, and the humor that can be wrung from that is limited. Still, it was worth a Netflix watch. (Grade: B-)

#3: Force Majeure: This 2014 drama from Sweden made waves in international film chatter, and I remember reading how surprised everyone was when it wasn't nominated for an Oscar. My friend Kyle and I were looking for a movie to watch after dinner one evening, and this one had floated to the top of both our lists. A Swiss family is taking a ski vacation at a resort in the French Alps. One afternoon, as they sit on the patio enjoying lunch, a minor avalanche descends on the guests, freaking everyone out. Nobody is hurt, but when he sees the snow coming, the dad Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke) hightails it out of the restaurant, leaving his wife (Lisa Loven Kongsli) behind, along with his children. At first, everyone is relieved that no harm was done, but the fact that Tomas' first instinct was to abandon his loved ones pulls a thread that threatens the entire family dynamic. It's a really fascinating movie that leads in interesting and realistic directions about how people react when their fight-or-flight response kicks in, and what that means about our relationships with others. (Grade: B+)

#4: The Peanuts Movie: I'll admit, I was suspicious of a modern take on Peanuts, which is such a classic property. Most remakes of childhood favorites are terrible, and I didn't want a smudge on Charlie Brown's legacy. But when this 2015 movie started getting decent word-of-mouth, I decided it was worth a Netflix rental. Happily, the filmmakers know how special these characters are, and were very respectful of the source material. That doesn't mean nothing's changed, of course. The animation has been updated, and for the first time ever, we actually meet the little red-haired girl that Charlie Brown has been so enamored with for decades. Though there was too much focus on Snoppy over the the kids, I know I'm in the minority on that opinion. Overall, though, this movie really captured the heartfelt, sincere tone of the original comic strip and cartoon specials. (Grade: B)

#5: The Overnight: I read a couple of things about this 2015 comedy, and figured Adam Scott was enough of a draw to check it out. He and Taylor Schilling play husband and wife, who are new in their neighborhood, and are looking for other friends. Their kid sparks an acquaintance with another child, whose dad is Jason Schwartzman. He invites them over for dinner with him and his wife (Judith Godrèche), and after a lot of liquor, the relationship forming between these people who find each other so fascinating starts to take a strange turn. The movie has its charms, and wasn't a waste of time or anything, but it seems to think itself really daring for "transgressions" that aren't that wild. It's not a bad movie, but nothing about it stands out as particularly noteworthy. (Grade: B-)

This World is Worth Fighting For!

It can be a challenge to review video games without a story (and thus, without an ending). You're never truly "done", and the mechanics could change at any moment, so any judgement calls you make could be irrelevant in a month. Still, I have to make the attempt, because I've been playing Overwatch for more than a month now, and it doesn't seem to be waning at all. I'm far from the only person it's hooked; currently it sits as Blizzard's best selling game ever (even topping World of Warcraft) and has something like 10 million players worldwide.

Normally, I'm on record as enjoying the more quiet, single-player, narrative-based games. What would I be doing playing a shooter with other gamers, a lot of whom are complete garbage humans?

Easy! All you have to do is make an impeccably-tailored game that excels at character design, sound design, map design, and has intuitive controls for beginners while leaving room to improve into an expert role. That's all there is to it! That's not to say the game is perfect, but a lot of its flaws aren't the designers' faults. Most of the issues result from those other gamers I just mentioned. When the entire game is based on teamwork with strangers, may of whom are basement-dwelling teenagers with inflated egos, of course some of the matches will be less than civil. Really, there's only one business practice that I've had a problem with, which I'll mention below. First, let's get to the good stuff.

I cannot overstate how cool this game's cast of characters is, and how much thought clearly went into it. You can play as any of twenty-two characters (with more in development!), and you can tell from that pic up there how diverse they are. They range not only in nationality, age, and abilities, but in temperament. Want to play as a wise, salty old woman? Meet Ana. An anarchic pyromaniac? Junkrat! A kindly Swiss doctor? Mercy! A semi-intelligent robot fascinated with birds? Bastion! Currently, my favorite character to play is Mei, a Chinese research scientist with an ice gun that excels in frustrating opponents by freezing them to the spot or walling them off from their destinations. In a lesser game, I'd figure out the three characters I enjoy playing and just focus on them. So it's an incredible feat that I've found something to enjoy about each and every one of these heroes. Sure, I don't really play as Genji or Bastion much, but there isn't one who's wholly unplayable to me, and I don't think I've ever seen that before.

Each character is adept against some of the others, and is vulnerable to some of the others. You and five other players form a team of six and either attack or defend an objective on one of thirteen current maps (again, more are in development, and each of the thirteen have multiple locales). Whoever is able to remain in control of a certain spot (or is able to escort/prevent a moving object from reaching a destination) wins, and then it's on to the next match.

It's deceptively simple, yet there are countless strategies to employ. There are also multiple game modes. You can play against AI robots. You can play a goof-around match against other people. You can design your own custom match. Or you can join the competitive ladder and work towards rewards for the best players. This is also a game that emphasizes positive teamwork; it features good plays and doesn't display your mistakes for others to see. There are built-in ways to congratulate and thank people. There really isn't much to criticize in the way of gameplay. It's all been terrific so far.

The only sticking point has been the leveling/loot system. Each hero has a bunch of cool cosmetic things to acquire, from voice lines to costumes to spray paint tags. Every time you level up, you receive a loot box with four of these items in it (or credits that can be used to purchase them). But the loot system is random, so it'll often give you the crappy little things you already own, offering a miniscule credit bump to compensate for duplicates. This is obviously a ploy to get people to spend real money on loot boxes, which I'm ashamed to admit I've done. It's irritating, but it was only a real problem during the Olympics, in which they offered games-themed items. Again, they were randomly generated, often duplicated, and you're not allowed to use in-game credits to purchase them. That means people who just want a simple costume could either spend an inordinate amount of money to get the chance to obtain it, or they can wait a year and try again. That seems overly greedy to me.

Besides that, Overwatch has been a joy to play, and has been sucking up all of my free time. Even as I type this, I wish I could go home and fire up a match, and am still thinking of ways to cajole my friends into joining up. Lines from the game have been infecting my everyday speech. Like I said at the top, though, this is a dynamic game, and they could change it whenever the whim strikes them. For now, though, it's been an extremely pleasant obsession.

Overwatch: A

Song of the Summer 2016

Well, it's dark by dinnertime now, so that must mean that summer is soon drawing to a close. As always, it's been a musical mix this season, between the catchy pop tunes, the inexplicably popular tracks, and the songs that aren't by a Big Name and thus fly under the radar.

And as always, the song that wound up most appealing to me is somewhat of a bridge between the pop and indie world. The songs that tend to draw me in have aspects of both worlds: It generally has the hook and earworminess of a pop song, but isn't an overplayed anthem on commercial radio.

I'm a big fan of Tegan and Sara, so it comes as no surprise that the winner of this year's Song of the Summer contest in my heart goes to their song, "U-Turn".

Just ignore the goofy video and enjoy the music. It had some competition, though. I'm also awfully fond of Lizzo's "Good as Hell", Wolf Alice's "Freazy", the Miguel/Kacey Musgraves version of "waves", and naturally, Carly Rae Jepsen's entire "Emotion - Side B" album.

It's been a pretty mellow season, musically, which I enjoy. There's plenty of lighthearted summer tunes, but nothing that smacks of trying too hard to capture the seasonal market. There also hasn't been an outright terrible song that other people like for some reason, so I don't have to walk around carping about kids these days. That's always refreshing.

So let's all grab a glass of wine, kick back with a 2016 summer playlist, and welcome the incoming season of amazing autumnal foods!

Young Adult

One of the themes of my entertainment consumption is that I like to pinball between genres pretty rapidly. If I've just read a weighty non-fiction book, the next one will likely be light and funny. If I've just shotgunned a bunch of sitcom episodes, I'll probably follow it up with a pensive drama. This pattern held firm with my two recent visits to the theater, with a duo of animated movies that couldn't have had more different tones.

The first was Sausage Party, the latest movie from Seth Rogan and Evan Goldberg. I found a lot to like about This Is The End, though I'm not as enamored with "funny" gore as these guys are. But hey, here's an easy way to get around that problem: Make an animated movie about food. It's a lot easier for me to handle the death of a cartoon carton of milk than a live action evisceration. The hero of Sausage Party is Frank (Rogen), a supermarket hot dog that desperately wants to be chosen by Human Gods alongside his bun girlfriend Brenda (Kristen Wiig) to go to the Great Beyond, where they'll finally be free to consummate their relationship.

It's not just them. All the denizens of the store assume that nothing but wonderful things await them once they're chosen. When a jar of honey mustard returns with tales of the horrors that really await the chosen food, it sets off a chain reaction of events involving a murderous douche (Nick Kroll), a lesbian taco shell (Salma Hayek), and the solution of the Israel/Palestine conflict via vigorous rimjobs. Nope, not kidding.

The movie isn't bad, per se. It's just so...obvious. The metaphor about blind faith in religion is fine, but pretty low-hanging fruit (no pun intended). And the rest of the comedy is derived from a combination of food puns, racial and sexual stereotyping, and extreme violence. Which, if you're into that, is fine. It's just not my bag, generally. I'm actually glad I saw this movie in the theater, because I wouldn't have liked it half so much without having the reactions of the other audience members to bounce off of. I'm already on the record as being emphatically fine with stupid comedy. But the best stupid comedies have a lot of brains behind them, and Sausage Party doesn't really have anything on its mind. It's just an excuse to goof around.

A few days later, it was time for an animated movie that has plenty on its mind. I'd heard a recommendation for Kubo and the Two Strings from the /Filmcast podcast, and based on that (plus it coming from the studio that made Coraline and ParaNorman), I sprinted to the theater with some friends for a 3D screening of it.

Kubo and the Two Strings is basically an Asian hero's journey movie, with all that entails (legends, fairy tales, epic heroism, ancestral heirlooms, and so on). Kubo lives in a small cave with his taciturn mother, who warns him never to venture to the nearby village past dark, because his grandfather and aunts are powerful enemies who have already plucked one of his eyes and are now after the remaining one. Kubo has the ability to animate origami paper with his music, and puts on shows for the delighted villagers, but when he spots the community conducting a twilight ritual honoring their dead relatives, he can't help but become enamored with participating to honor his dead father. This keeps him out past dark, and the shadows come for him. What follows is his journey to collect the mystical armor necessary to fighting off the evil. He's helped by a monkey (a figurine brought to life by his mother's magic) and an amnesiac soldier who's been cursed to be half beetle.

It's a terrific story, at times hauntingly sad, but always visually stunning. If there's one complaint to be made, it's that most of the Asian characters are voiced by white actors, which seems unnecessary at best, but in all but one case, it doesn't distract from the performances, which are excellent. Nobody knows quite to make of this film. It's too adult to be a kids' movie and too quiet to be a summer blockbuster. That doesn't mean it's any less gorgeous, though, and I wish more people were seeing it.

Sausage Party: C+
Kubo and the Two Strings: A-

Manic Depressive

When television shows want to make an attempt at addressing deep psychological issues, the traditional method would be to produce an intense character drama. Gritty, serious scenes are delivered by actors whose faces are perpetually grim, and the air hangs heavy with weighty dialogue.

Recently, though, television shows have been branching out into a new way to explore mental anguish: Comedy! And it's been working! Last year, I described how Steven Universe could take a simple show for kids and use it to reach in and yank my heartstrings. This year, it's the adults' turn, as two shows mined our common psychoses for giggles.

I've enthused over the first one before. Season 2 of Bojack Horseman ranked among my favorite shows of 2015, and Season 3 is similarly incredible. Bojack is riding a temporary high from the Oscar buzz surrounding his "performance" in Secretariat, and plenty of Hollywoo hangers-on are happy to ride his coattails. Those who know him best, however, know that Bojack excels at destroying anything positive in his life, and despite their best efforts to help, his depression and narcissism continue to drag him down, taking his friends with him. Sounds like a hoot, right? It actually is. Though the show is often intense, it never forgets to throw in plenty of jokes, visual gags, and anthropomorphic animal humor. But just as it builds up a steady stream of laughs, it pulls the rug out and hits you with some truly dark material.

I keep encouraging people to power through the relatively blah set-up of Season 1 to get to this wonderful stretch of episodes, and after watching another strong season, I'm going to keep at it. WATCH THIS SHOW.

The other journey into mental illness comes courtesy of Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), now that the first season of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is finally on Netflix. This show does a lot of off-kilter things. As I mentioned, it uses humor to describe some pretty serious emotions, but that's just the beginning. It also has hour-long episodes, which is unusual for a comedy show, and every episode is peppered with insanely catchy songs.

The songs parody all sorts of styles, from Broadway to Disney movies to rap battles to bubblegum pop groups. But as joyous as those songs usually are, in this show, they can be describing insecurity, terrible advice, or smug arrogance. Though Rebecca is ostensibly the heroine of the show, she's often doing awful things in order to get her hooks into her childhood crush. It's a unique take on the romantic comedy genre, and the fact that the music is so goddamn good turns what would be a clever show into an unmissable one.

Bojack Horseman - Season 3: A-
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend - Season 1: A-

Stars and Bars

Being in an era of "Peak TV" has made master schedulers of us all. We now need to conscientiously put aside time for specific shows to keep up with as they air, time for shows we know we'll need to catch up with later, and shows we'll allow to pass us by. This past week, I was able to put away multiple shows, and feel absurdly good about myself, as if I've just completed an important work project or something.

One of the show I just wrapped was the fourth season of Orange is the New Black, but in looking at this blog, I also realized that I'd never written about a show I watched several months ago, Making a Murderer. Since both shows revolve around the justice system, I figured I'd roll them together now.

I was among the people that rather liked the slower pace of Season 3 of Orange is the New Black, but I do have to admit that raising the stakes certainly got tongues to wag. The tension in Season 4 is significantly heightened. Loads of new inmates have arrived, and the problems they bring with them are far more dangerous than mere overcrowding. Adding to the powder keg is a new batch of guards, most of whom alternate between laziness and sadism.

As usual, there are so many stories to tell in a season that I can't mention them all, lest this wind up being a laundry list of who's up to what. But there are major changes afoot in Season 4. Piper is convinced that she's queen of the yard after her success with the panty business, and is clearly setting herself up for some major comeuppance. A new, famous inmate named Judy King (Blair Brown) appears to be a blend of Martha Stewart and Paula Deen, and is given special treatment, a move that both frustrates the other inmates and gives them ideas about cashing in. A figure from Alex's past comes to menace her, with far-reaching consequences for everyone in the entire prison.

With everything that's been in the news recently about how our law enforcement and justice systems treat African-American citizens, Orange is the New Black does not shy away from depicting the depressing reality of the abuse that minority populations suffer, taking it to a shocking and saddening extent. That doesn't mean that this is a Homework Show, though. It's still thoroughly entertaining, at times hilariously funny, and always a good watch.

I should have mentioned the Netflix true crime documentary series Making a Murderer back when everyone was talking about it, but it somehow slipped through the cracks. This show explores the story of Steven Avery, a man who was unjustly locked up for 18 years for sexual assault. Two years after he was exonerated, he was arrested again, this time for murder. His trial was a circus of inept police work and prosecutorial malfeasance, and yet he was convicted.

That's not to say that Avery is obviously innocent. Though the documentary goes to great lengths to show just how much reasonable doubt exists in this case, it still seems as though Avery is most likely guilty. That's not how the judicial system is supposed to work, though, and this documentary makes an almost unassailable case that Manitowoc County, Wisconsin did everything in their power to put Avery away, no matter what facet of the system they had to corrupt.

It's a very sad state of affairs, where nobody comes out looking good, and nobody wins. By the same token, though, it's an utterly fascinating case, and an extremely well-made show. It's certainly edited to be one-sided, but hey, it's a TV show, not an affidavit. The saga of Steven Avery continues, and they've announced that they'll be making more episodes, which I'm certainly looking forward to. Though I won't be one of those tiresome internet commentators who proclaim to know the truth of the situation, I will be one of those tiresome internet commentators who urge you to watch this show. It's gripping.

Orange is the New Black - Season 4: B+
Making a Murderer - Season 1: A-
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