Maximum Regression: DotP 2015


magic2015announcement610

Let me ask you, dear readers, a question.

What happens when you fundamentally misunderstand your audience? When you think you know what people want… and you’re… just wrong? Or is it not a lack of understanding, but a lack of interest? Is it just that you know one way you can make some money, and you don’t really care what quality your product turns out to be?

Magic: Duels of the Planeswalkers 2015 answers pretty much all of these questions, by being one of the fundamentally worst games published yet this year. While I might have spent some energy making fun of Diablo, I didn’t understand how cynical, how shitty, and how worthless a moneygrab could be…. apparently… until I played Magic DotP 2015.

This is ten steps backward – in virtually every way – compared to even DotP 2014, a game which I did not have as much fun with as I would have hoped.

Duels of the Planeswalkers was touted for years as a beginners’ introduction to Magic. Obviously, Wizards would prefer for serious players of its CCG to get invested in Magic The Gathering: Online, instead… if they’re not going to play paper Magic. Speaking from experience, I can say that MTG:O has its own ups and downs. Its interface is shockingly primitive. At the time I last played a Draft tournament on MTG:O (admittedly, at least a year and a half ago), it was more primitive than free, user-generated programs to play cards on the internet. Not exactly a glowing endorsement. I preferred (greatly) to simply log into Xbox Live and fire up a game of Duels of the Planeswalkers 2013.

Nowadays, I’d rather play neither. Regardless of how MTGO might have improved itself, this isn’t an economic climate in which I want to spend money to stay competitive in Standard format Magic; nor is it a format where I would like to regularly pay for draft cards. This makes it all the more egregious, then, when my annual bill of roughly $10 US for Duels of the Planeswalkers is compromised by a ridiculous new microtransaction element. Most of the rare cards available in the game’s card pool are now, quite literally, unavailable unless you’re willing to shell out cash for additional “booster packs” full of rare cards.

Are you serious, Wizards?

Can I get my initial $10 back?

And none of this even addresses the fundamental problems in gameplay. Instead of the (already incredibly grind-y) card unlocking process from previous games, you now must take a limited starter – one you are locked in to! – against fully comprised enemy decks in order to unlock random boosters of around 3 cards – sans the aforementioned rares – which may or may not even improve your deck in any functional way. Hooray?

Beyond that, where are all of the modes? Multiplayer boasts 1v1… and that’s it? Where is 2HG? Where is … anything else? Remember how people complained that 2014 didn’t have cool mutliplayer modes? One of my most favourite things about DotP is the ease of running some low-maintenance 2HG with my friends. Now that’s gone, too? Why did I buy this game? It’s pretty much horse shit. I know that they already have my money, but hopefully I can save you from spending yours.

As far as I’m concerned, there’s basically nothing to like here. This game is a waste of your money, and you should exercise your power as a consumer by not spending it. Don’t fall into the same trap that I did.

Wasted Youth : Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood”


MV5BMTYzNDc2MDc0N15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwOTcwMDQ5MTE@._V1_SX640_SY720_

It’s safe to say that there’s no film other film in 2014 that I was more predisposed toward liking before ever having seen in that Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. Anyone who follows my “byline” at any of the various sites I write for (please! Get something better to do with your time!) even occasionally will know that I’m a tremendous fan of the director’s other works — from his superb animated efforts such as A Scanner Darkly  and Waking Life to his honest and heartfelt live-action films such as BernieSchool Of RockFast Food NationDazed And Confused, and his breakthrough hit, Slacker (which I just recently reviewed through decidedly rose-tinted nostalgic lenses),  the guy just has the magic touch, in my opinion. Heck, even his Bad News Bears remake was kinda fun, if you ask me.  And, of course, the three films in his hopefully-still-ongoing “Before” series aren’t just great movies, but flat-out events in my life when they come out. I love ’em to pieces and make no apologies for it. Jesse and Celine may not be real people, but they’re still my fucking friends, goddamnit.

And yet for one reason or another it seems Linklater always flies below the radar. Maybe it’s because his naturalistic, unforced style doesn’t command attention. He’s not one to overpower you with sentimentality or melodrama, and the almost nonchalant nature of his work trusts the audience to be smart enough to make up its own collective mind about the stories he’s bringing to the screen. I like that. I think we need more filmmakers who aren’t out to either manipulate our emotions or “wow” us with their technique. Linklater goes about his business with respect for his stories, his characters, and his viewership — and while that may not win him a ton of awards, it certainly earns him my respect.

All that’s changing now, though. After over two decades operating, for the most part, on the margins (not that he doesn’t have a devoted fan base, it’s just not a terribly large one, comparatively speaking), the finished result of his grand 12-year-epic centered on young actor Ellar Coltrane as he ages from 7 to 19, Boyhood (originally titled 12 Years but re-named at the last minute to avoid confusion with recent Academy Award best picture winner 12 Years A Slave) is finally here, and Linklater’s richly-deserved moment in the spotlight has finally arrived. He’s made it to the to the top of the mountain. He’s the talk of the town. The man of the hour. The toast of Hollywood.

And ya know what? He deserves to be. I’m just not so sure he deserves it for this particular film.

b42cc340-cc96-11e3-8c33-07445b2e2595_boyhood-main

Don’t get me wrong — Boyhood is pretty good stuff in many respects. What Linklater’s pulled off here is certainly remarkable — getting essentially the same cast together year in and year out (the principle players being Coltrane as growing boy Mason, Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke as his divorced-from-the-film’s-outset parents, and the writer/director’s own daughter, Lorelei, as older sister Samantha) to make a series of short films that would eventually be assembled into one “grand work” is ambitious and bold and frankly just plain tough to work out logistically. So my hat’s off to to him for even realizing a project of this scope and magnitude.

I just wish the finished product were anywhere near as powerful, affecting, and awe-inspiring as we’re being told it is by the paid dictators of consensus opinion out there. The exploration of aging and the different stages we go through on, to sound unbearably pompous for a moment, life’s journey aren’t even particularly new themes for Linklater to explore — as a matter of fact, it’s what the “Before” series is all about, and they tackle the subject much better than this flick does. So maybe the folks who make their living telling us all what to think are just making up for lost time by showering accolades all over Boyhood after largely ignoring last year’s Before Midnight. Or maybe they honestly just like this one better because their taste isn’t all that great, I dunno.

In any case, I’ve still got a few good things to say about this before I lay out my gripes, so let me say that Linklater is to be commended for the smooth, easy flow with which he transitions from one scene to the next, and for letting events in the story take their time and “breathe” a bit without resorting to strict formulas of, say, 15 minutes per year or somesuch. Each and every actor is also to be congratulated for their work here, as the performances are quite simply astonishing. Yeah, Coltrane is obviously the star of the show, and watching him grow up in front of our eyes is every bit the amazing experience everyone makes it out to be, but all the other major players turn in terrific work, as well, as do many of the minor ones (Marco Perella deserves special mention here for his role as Mason’s troubled — and troubling — stepfather-for-a-time). So kudos to everybody involved for some truly great work.

Here’s the rub, though (you knew it was coming) — the material they’ve got to work with just ain’t all that hot. Linklater has taken his non-manipulative approach (you know, the one I was just praising him for) to  near-pathological extremes here and the end result is a film that feels almost clinically removed from its own subjects. Add in the disappointing fact that many of his characters are one-note ciphers — Mason’s mother gets an education and improves her economic and social standing over the years but still can’t help but marry one alcoholic loser after another, while his father  laregely remains a go-nowhere “slacker” for ages (Hawke spends the first half of the film essentially playing Jesse Wallace) before undergoing an instant transformation and getting a new wife, new baby, new mustache, and, apparently, his shit together all at the same time — and what we wind up with is a movie that never transcends its origins as a cinematic experiment,  as well as one that’s populated not by leaving, breathing people so much as specimens floating around in a celluloid petri dish.

Boyhood Image

I’m not foolish enough to think that unfairly-high expectations going in didn’t have something to do with why I left the theater feeling so flat after this one — shit, a 99% score on Rotten Tomatoes is flat-out unheard of — but even if this had been made by somebody I’d never heard of and landed on our screens out of nowhere, I’d still be less than awestruck by the finished product. I fully appreciate everything Linklater was trying to do here, sure, but what he’s ended up doing is completing what amounts to a 12-year-long sociological study that’s so concerned with preserving the integrity of its ground rules (don’t force anything, adhere to faux-documentary stylings at all costs, let things play out as absolutely naturally as you can possibly manage given you’re still working from a script, etc.) that it forgets it has an audience to win over. I admire Linklater for protecting his characters from directorial heavy-handedness, to be sure, but it’s a shame he wasn’t able to find a way to share their story that would have let us in while still keeping the melodrama and schmaltz out.

richard-linklaters-boyhood-movie-film-still-ellar-coltrane

So yeah, Boyhood definitely came up short for this armchair critic, despite the fact that I was rooting for it as hard as anyone. Walling off your characters to prevent Lifetime-movie-of-the-week-style syrup from oozing into their protective membrane is  one thing, but walling them off from from genuine viewer involvement results in a film that feels oddly disconnected, even divorced, from events that could be so much more effectively communicated if given even an ounce of immediacy. We want to care about Mason and his family beyond the level that Linklater allows us to , but he never lets us, or himself, get that close, and its  for that reason that Boyhood will always remain much more interesting for what it does than for what it actually is. Maybe he’ll give us another installment in 2026 that corrects the mistakes he made here?  Chuckle at the idea all you want, but no one saw a sequel to Before Sunrise coming, either.

 

Sailor Moon Crystal: Act 2: Ami – Sailor Mercury!


SailorMerc

Yes! We’re back! And let us all breathe a collective sigh of relief that the incredible full-length intro sequence has gone nowhere. It’s also full of straight-up awesome images. We see the various Sailor soldiers at war, and glimpses of the Dark Moon’s generals. It’s a pretty compelling sequence. I’m a fan. I had a lot of time to contemplate it, because Hulu is full of fail, and I think I had to watch 14 minutes of commercials before the episode resumed again. Apparently Lifetime has a new series called The Lottery, which seems to have the same premise as Children of Men.

Anyway. The cold open introduced us to Ami, who is drawn really beautifully in her Manga style. We all knew she was coming, but it feels very quick to have her arriving in episode 2. I’m already going to say that I’m a fan of the condensed format.

Just as importantly, it looks like we’re going to be introduced to some of our major villains: Jadeite is the cloaked figure we saw in Act I. He is, of course, the first of the Dark Kingdom’s four generals (Kings! according to the subtitles. Maybe that’s accurate! I don’t know!) to take on Sailor Moon. Giving him orders is Queen Beryl, who is herself the servant of a power still darker, and still yet unintroduced. Don’t worry, I’m sure we’ll get the full picture soon. Jadeite’s mission is to recover the legendary silver crystal, the same object that Tuxedo Mask, Luna the cat, and the monster in Act I all mentioned already. Seems like a big deal.

Meanwhile, Luna is concerned about Usagi. The whole ‘Sailor Moon’ thing is kind of important, but Usagi is still… well… Usagi. But Luna mentions once again that there are allies, and a princess who we have no clues whatsoever about the possible identity of whatsoever. Usagi is starstruck by the idea of joining forces with Tuxedo Mask, and with Sailor-V, the vigilante superheroine. Luna, meanwhile, is much more interested in Ami, a student at Usagi’s school. Ami is pretty much the best student ever, much to the chagrin of Usagi’s peers, including that annoying Umaro. However, whatever her other faults may be, Usagi is friendly, and quick to introduce herself to new girl Ami after a little help breaking the ice from Luna. Usagi is naturally charming, and when their hands touch, Ami sees a sudden vision, much like the ones Usagi herself has seen. Hmmm. Odd.

Before you know it, the two girls at the arcade, immersed in the Sailor-V video game. Usagi remains incompetent, but Motoki (Usagi’s pleasant friend, who works at the arcade) rumbles by. Both Motoki and Usagi are taken aback by Ami’s skill at the game, which she has evidently never played before (beginner’s luck! hah!). Ami scores a cool prize, and Usagi puts the machine on tilt until she gets one too. This scene is actually really cool, it’s a nice moment of bonding, where we definitely see Usagi and Ami become friends. It’s easy to like Usagi in this version of the anime; she has a natural charm, and is genuinely pleasant, and very little petulance seems to come through here. I really enjoyed it. Luna, of course, has other reasons to be interested in Ami…

… As does Jadeite’s monster, who (nobody was confused by this, right?) has apparently taken over Ami’s extracurricular studies.

During the break, I was reminded for (all numbers approximate) the 74,000th time how much I hate eSurance commercials. Also, how do I get targeted for Navy Federal Credit Union commercials? I have nothing but respect for the armed forces, but I didn’t serve… and uhh… neither did anyone else in my family. It’s been a while. I feel like the targeting has failed on this one.

Anyway. It seems that people are being sucked into the evil study program. Jadeite must be thrilled. Usagi spots Ami, studying away, and invites her to get some ice cream. Initially thrilled by the idea, Ami soon goes robotic and walks away. I’m sure someone will start to see the pattern in this “energy sucking” thing sooner or later. Oh wait, Usagi and Luna see the pattern, pretty much instantly! Yay! Usagi also has another random meet-up with the tall, handsome black-haired, could-he-possibly-be-Tuxedo-Mask dude on the streets. They have a weird connection. Please don’t make it weirder by reminding me what ages are involved.

Usagi is using a very modern-looking laptop (yay!) while she and Luna pretty much accidentally discover Jadeite’s evil brainwashing. Luna reveals that Usagi’s pen (she won it, by playing TILT, guys!) actually is another cool Sailor Moon toy. She can use it to disguise herself. She uses this convenient newfound power to infiltrate the academy where Ami has been studying… and looks like is now being hooked up to total brain-drain by Jadeite’s monster. Usagi intervenes… and then transforms into Sailor Moon. One observation I immediately have here is that Usagi seems like much less of a coward than I recall her being early in the original anime run. Her question to Luna about transforming is not: “Oh, do I have to?” or “Oh, I’m scared of this horrifying weirdo” but instead, “In front of Ami? Is that okay?” I think it’s a positive change! She can have flaws without having to be weak all the time!

Her transformation sequence still basically takes forever though I guess we’ll probably see some abbreviation once there are multiple Sailors doing their thing. Also she kind of goes right back to crying. In the context, it’s kind of funny; I won’t lie. Soon enough, Sailor Moon is overwhelmed, and threatened with death by the monster. This breaks Ami’s brainwashing, and she (with a little assist from Luna) becomes Sailor Mercury! Her transformation is the soul of brevity, by comparison. Hmm.

Sailor Mercury shows off her new powers to sow confusion, we get a roughly five second assist from Tuxedo Mask (no, really), and then Sailor Moon hurls the boomerang of death for the win, and Sailors Moon and Mercury are left to talk it out, while a defeated and annoyed Jadeite looks on. Usagi and Ami are now friends for realsies. …And then in a coda, we see a vision of fire, and a young woman with dark hair. I wonder who she could be?

The subsequent Kay Jeweler’s commercial just makes me mad. The Starburst minis commercial does make me desperately crave some Starburst though. I guess that’s all for this week. Join me next time, as I continue to worship at the church of Sailor Moon Crystal, aka the greatest thing to happen to me this year, as I strive to continue to be in love with a show that I already saw once before.