Highlights of 2015

blog photo
After a lengthy and unplanned, but personally productive hiatus (slogged through graduate school applications and played a LOT of Fallout), I am back to wrap up 2015 and put a bow on it. This year saw the release of a number of highly-anticipated games, films, books, and television shows as well as plenty of surprise hits and a few disappointments. As just one person with highly subjective opinions, I will not be attempting any kind of top ten list or ranking system. There are so many wonderful pieces of media out there that it would be absurd for me to even pretend I could evaluate them all. But I am a big fan of taking time to look back and wallow in nostalgia, so I decided to talk about some of my personal highlights of 2015 as they relate to nerd culture and this blog.

In no particular order, here were some of my favorite moments of the past year:

Master of None
While not sci-fi, fantasy, or fairytale, Aziz Ansari’s single-camera sitcom about the experience of Dev, an Indian American actor in New York City, has plenty to offer for film-nerds and pop culture connoisseurs. The cinematography and soundtrack call back to 1970s American films, and the scripts/dialogue take some cues from Richard Linklater (whom I love), but Aziz Ansari’s contemporary content, diverse casting, and willingness to address social issues help the show feel fresh. Each episode focuses on a different ‘topic’ ranging from family relationships to racism to sexism to long-term romantic relationships, and each except the last two are directed by a different person. The show is consistently funny throughout its first season and its surprising and somewhat risky finale only makes me more excited to see where it goes from here.

Life is Strange
Since this blog was inactive until midway through Life is Strange’s episodic release, I was only really able to talk about episode 5 here so far, and what I did say about it was highly critical. But this was easily my favorite game of 2015 if only because of the emotional impact it had on me. Although I’d played Remember Me, Dontnod and Life is Strange weren’t really on my radar in January, a friend recommended this game to me and I was immediately hooked. The sci-fi premise, artistically rendered environments, and well-curated soundtrack drew me in but it was the authenticity of the Chloe and Max, and the nuanced performances by their voice actors Ashly Burch and Hannah Telle, that kept me hooked. While the pacing, puzzles, and dialogue missed the mark at times, moments like breaking into the school and going for a swim with Chloe or playing detective in her room were a pleasure to play. For all its eccentricities and missteps, Life is Strange was one of the most compelling games of 2015, as its passionate fans who spent months speculating, theorizing, and creating art and follow-up projects can attest to.

SXSW Gaming Expo
This was my second year attending the SXSW Gaming Expo in Austin and it was just as entertaining and content-packed this time as in 2014. The indie game corner is my favorite portion, but the panels were interesting and the table-top area is really fun; they’ll teach you games like Magic the Gathering if you’re a first-timer or you can play competitively if you’re experienced. You can try Oculus Rift/VR if you haven’t had a chance, and explore exhibits of older game and computer technology. I almost didn’t want to mention the event here since it is one of the only Austin-based festival activities that isn’t horrendously crowded, one of the coolest conferences/expos/game things I’ve attended, and totally free, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge it as one of my favorite parts of 2015. Plus, in case I haven’t mentioned it 12,000 times, I met Felicia Day!!!

The Martian
I have not read Andy Weir’s novel of the same name, and took my sweet time to see this movie, but I am so glad I did. I was less than impressed by both Interstellar and Gravity, but this film has earned a place in my list of favorite space movies. While the decision to cast non-asian actors in the roles of Vincent Kapoor and Mindy Park was very disappointing to me, and the tale of the sympathetic white man who the world saves/who saves the world has certainly already been told, The Martian was an engaging story with a diverse cast that emphasized the power of humanity to come together and use our knowledge and compassion to address incredibly complex issues, and that was something I appreciated. Rather than feeling dumbed down, sensationalized, or derailed by seemingly shoe-horned romances (although it does contain one of these), the film felt like it trusted and respected its audience. And Jessica Chastain as Commander Lewis is probably as close as I’ll ever get to seeing FemShep on the big screen.

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens
Speaking of space movies, the latest installment in the Star Wars saga was quite a satisfying one. While talking with people about this film before its release, I got the feeling that each of us was holding our breath, hoping that we wouldn’t be disappointed. Upon leaving the theater after watching the movie, I imagined a collective sigh of relief as we all realized J. J. Abrams actually did a really great job of rooting this film in the Star Wars tradition while opening up room for new chapters of the story to unfold. Nothing about the movie particularly surprised me, from the climactic battle to the binary of good and evil to who lived and who died, but it was quite refreshing to see beneath the Storm Trooper helmet to a black man, and to watch a woman inherit the Jedi legacy. I’m really looking forward to seeing where the story heads, and now that we’ve established that Star Wars can handle sequels and we can handle them, to the surprises I hope Episodes VIII and IX will bring.

And of course, I haven’t even mentioned the indie PC game Her Story (which I’ve written about pretty extensively on this blog), the choice-based horror for PS4 Until Dawn, the lovely Adventure Time mini-series Stakes, or the countless other 2015 productions that deserve a place on a highlights list.

There are also quite a few things from this year that I haven’t gotten to check out yet and am really looking forward to, like:

  • Tales from the Borderlands
  • Rise of the Tomb Raider
  • Assassin’s Creed Syndicate
  • It Follows
  • Carol
  • Sicario
  • Orphan Black Season 3

While I’d say we’re ending 2015 on quite a high note, I have a lot of catching up to do without even beginning to touch on all that next year will bring, so don’t be surprised if things stay a little quiet around here through the winter. The blog remains a priority of mine and I hope you guys will stick around as we continue reading, playing, and watching in 2016.

As always, thanks for reading! Your comments are welcome below. Happy holidays!

Advertisements

What I’m… Wednesday: Mike and Max

What I’m Watching

I’m a little late to the party, but Sunday I saw Magic Mike XXL and damn if that wasn’t the most delightful experience! I’m sure they were making some of the ‘progressive’ choices based on what they thought would make the most money, but the fact that they catered to/represented bisexual women, women of color, gay men, and people with different body sizes and types was so refreshing to me. I also loved the dialogue throughout the movie about all that women deal with and how important it is to ask them what they want. Of course, the many talented and attractive dancers didn’t hurt either. This movie certainly didn’t have a strong plot or the same levity as the first Magic Mike film, but it was incredibly enjoyable.

What I’m Playing

life is strange ep 4 title screen

In case you haven’t heard me screaming it from the rooftops, LIFE IS STRANGE EPISODE 4 CAME OUT YESTERDAY!!! I have completed my first playthrough and I am excited to do some critical thinking and writing about it, but for now I’m still kind of processing how I feel about what transpired. I can say this episode is fast-paced and dark–darker than any previous installment–and many aspects of the game this time around felt more emotionally meaningful to me, whether a choice the player had to make, a line of dialogue, or an item or location in the game. I find it difficult to successfully theorize about single episodes when the season or series they belong to hasn’t finished yet, but I promise there is more to come from this blog on my favorite episodic game to date.

What I’m Listening To

Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of covers. It’s always interested me how songs change when another artist performs them, and many of my favorite arrangements of songs are not the original versions. Of course, sometimes covers cannot be found on music streaming services like Google Play or Spotify, so please enjoy this YouTube playlist curated by yours truly.

Thanks for reading! What did you guys think about Episode 4? What is your favorite cover of a song? Let me know in the comments below!

Review: Catching Fire

Warning: This review contains spoilers for the book series and the movie series The Hunger Games.

I just saw The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and I can’t stop thinking about it. While it got better reviews and had a much larger production value than the first film, it didn’t get me quite as excited as the first movie did, and here’s why. First of all, it is the 2nd book/movie in a trilogy, meaning it is a stepping stone from beginning to end, made up primarily of exposition. (Don’t get me started on the fact that their splitting the last book into two films–ASFDGHJKL;WPOJN!!!) I think my biggest problem, however, is that the book is told from the first person point of view, while the movies are told from the third person point of view, switching between limited and omniscient perspectives.

In the films, we usually see things from Katniss’ POV, but sometimes we see President Snow, a rebelling district, or the gamemakers when there is no way Katniss is seeing them (i.e. when she is in Victor’s Village, in the arena, etc.). This difference in perspective doesn’t have to be a bad thing. After all, it’s really hard to do a big blockbuster film from first person, and if your script and actors can’t convey the subtleties of someone’s inner thoughts, you end up having cheesy voice overs like in Twilight. Unfortunately, I think the change in Catching Fire ends up sucking much of the nuance out of the story.

The use of the fictional pregnancy as a ploy is totally brushed over in the movie, while in the second book it is a big reason that Katniss and Peeta both survive. The love triangle is also seriously exaggerated; Katniss doesn’t know how she feels about Peeta or Gale in the books and, while her uncertainty and lack of awareness was sometimes frustrating for me, it made sense considering she was in constant danger of dying/being asked to kill her peers. If I was trying to save my ass from getting stabbed 24/7, I wouldn’t spend much time thinking about cuties either. In the movies, however, we lose some of that depth, especially in the relationship between Peeta and Katniss.

Credit: brightandwild, Source: deviantart.com

Credit: brightandwild, Source: deviantart.com

My other big problem was that the switch to the third person perspective meant the action and political and cultural satire became heavy-handed. Instead of slowly revealing the reasoning behind President Snow’s actions, we saw really straightforward and almost unbelievable conversations between Snow and Plutarch that basically spelled everything out. I wanted the movie to trust the viewers more, especially when using amazingly subtle actors like Philip Seymour Hoffman. Just because the audience is mostly teenagers doesn’t mean they aren’t able to use deductive reasoning.

Source: catchingfiremovienews.com

Source: catchingfiremovienews.com

Of course, there were things I really liked about the movie. I thought Jennifer Lawrence gave an excellent performance and I loved the casting and writing for Joanna and Finnick. I think their characters were more interesting and more sympathetic in the movie than the book; both actors did a great job. I thought the pacing was good too, and considering there was a lot of back story missing from the film, it was surprisingly coherent as a whole. I also am totally in love with the off-screen friendship between Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson. Adorable!

Credit: Albert L. Ortega/Getty Images, Source: usmagazine.com

Credit: Albert L. Ortega/Getty Images, Source: usmagazine.com

As I mentioned before, both the book and the film Catching Fire are middle installations and thus, mainly serve as bridges from The Hunger Games to Mockingjay. We get a lot of plot, and the story is basically a reimagining of the first book/movie. This inevitably makes it the least compelling of the trilogy, but I think the book still offers more than the film adaptation. Good YA fiction gives credit to its readers, treats them like adults, and challenges them creatively and intellectually. That’s what made me fall in love with The Hunger Games even though I was no longer a teenager when I read them. Sadly, Hollywood doesn’t challenge or trust anyone, especially the target audience for this series: young women.

I really love film and have seen a few really great film adaptations of literature (Brokeback Mountain, anyone?), which is part of why I was disappointed by this movie. I was really pleased with the first Hunger Games film as an adaptation of the book and a standalone product, but the second one was just too Hollywood for me: too little substance and too much gloss. Either way, we can look forward to two more movie installments of The Hunger Games in the near future, so keep your bows and arrows at the ready.