Spotlight: “Luke Cage” Season One

Warning: some spoilers for the first season of “Luke Cage” follow.

I’ve been a big fan of how the Marvel Netflix shows each have distinct feels so far.  Far too often superhero stories fall into the same basic storyline: hero starts as not hero, confronts flaws in character, becomes hero, throws bad guy through a building or two (wait I think I made that joke already).  The Netflix shows may not stray too far from that formula, but they manage to explore their characters in ways that are far more intriguing than any we’ve seen on the movie screen thus far.

And going into “Luke Cage”, I was fascinated to see a modern superhero story actually deal with the character’s race.

“Luke Cage” is set within the Harlem neighborhood of New York City, which is well-known for its largely African-American population.  It is considered a huge center for black culture within the city as well, and that is displayed prominently in the first season of “Luke Cage”.  Famous musicians from R&B, rap, and other genres even show up on the show as themselves and play their songs.  Their music is often used to underscore a montage of action within the show as well.

 

 

It’s an impressive display of culture from a genre that typically doesn’t get much deeper than “good guy fight bad guy…overcome shortcomings”.

The first half of the season is great.  It centers around Luke Cage and a club owner known only by the name Cottonmouth.  Cottonmouth is a lot like Wilson Fisk from “Daredevil”, in that he is a complex character who isn’t totally evil.  Early on in the show a respected member of the Harlem community is killed and Cottonmouth is visibly shaken by it, due to the fact that it happened as an indirect result of his actions.  He didn’t want it to happen, but it did.  And that’s what makes him a great character.  He’s not outright malevolent.  He’s obsessed with his reputation sure, but he’s not at all someone who just wants to destroy things or kill the hero.  In fact, when the season begins, Luke Cage actually works for Cottonmouth as a dishwasher before things hit the fan.

 

Cottonmouth

 

And speaking of the Harlem community, that’s another aspect of the show I liked.  Compared to the other shows, “Luke Cage” has a very good sense of place.  It attempts to capture the look and feel of Harlem and make that an integral part of the show’s plot.  In the end, the battle between Luke and Cottonmouth is essentially a battle for the future of Harlem.  This is reflected in the title sequence as well, with various icons of Harlem being overlaid over Luke’s body.

 

The title sequence also hints at the show’s connection with African-American culture and history.

 

Luke himself is a very quiet character.  He doesn’t say much, and when he does, it’s short and to the point.  He’s stoic, but intimidating.  His abilities are two-fold: superhuman strength and unbreakable skin, which leads to an impressive sequence early on where he storms a criminal headquarters and strolls through a hail of gunfire like it’s nothing.

 

Luke Cage doing his Terminator impression.

 

The first half of the season does a great job balancing action with character drama that feels nuanced and believable.  Unfortunately, “Luke Cage” starts to fall apart during the second half.

At around the halfway point in the season, Cottonmouth is removed from the picture and we are introduced to a new villain.  With no foreshadowing, we are suddenly cued in to the fact that Luke somehow knows him.  And, in a move similar to Blofeld in the James Bond movie “Spectre”, he proclaims that he is the mastermind behind the bad times in Luke’s life.  Luke going to prison for a crime he didn’t commit?  All him.  Cottonmouth?  Also all him.  If there was a bit more setup to the character and his introduction, I might be more willing to buy into the whole business.  But as it stands, you can’t just shove a new character into my face and pretend he’s some kind of mad genius.

More to the point, he’s a boring villain and a terrible replacement for Cottonmouth.  All he wants is revenge on Luke for some vague, past transgression that we don’t get much information on until near the end of the season.  And even then, all it really amounts to is “daddy issues” (which brings “Spectre” to mind all over again).  Instead of actual character depth, he just walks around spouting Bible quotes to give the illusion of depth.

A villain who feels vindicated in his actions by religious belief?  Gee…how original.

The show starts to suffer from some pacing issues as well later on.  Right before Cottonmouth leaves the scene, we have an episode that ends in what would appear to be a major triumph for our heroes.  But then it’s all undone within the first ten minutes of the next episode, which makes it pointless and a waste of the viewer’s time.

And then there’s the climax, which commits one of the worst sins a superhero story can commit.  Out of nowhere, the villain dons a suit that gives him the exact same powers of Luke Cage.  There’s no lead up to this.  There’s no hint at it ever happening.  It just…happens.  He just opens a crate, mutters a Bible verse, and then later on he confronts Luke with his goofy new attire.  Instead of actually having a tense standoff between the two characters, the show cheats and gives us a bog standard fist fight.

Speaking of the ending, I enjoyed that “Luke Cage” tried to go with a not-so-happy, unresolved ending that showcased a more grim attitude towards things.  But at the same time, with “The Defenders” releasing in just a couple of months, it makes me wonder how this is going to stand the test of time.  It’s obvious that they’ll have to resolve the cliffhanger-ish ending of the season in “The Defenders”.  What’s going to happen if someone five years from now sits down and watches the first season of “Luke Cage” and thinks “man…I want to know how what happens next”.  Are they going to start up season two and be utterly confused as to why everything already seems to be resolved?  That’s the problem with these massively interconnected universes…unless you research the chronology you’re likely to get confused.  Because the shows don’t really offer much of a hint as to which one takes place.  Even looking at the year on Netflix isn’t really going to help because of how much content Marvel generates.

But that’s a topic for another time.  Overall, I would say “Luke Cage” was solid to good.  The supporting characters were all well done, and I liked the inclusion of Claire, the nurse (you’ll remember her from “Daredevil” seasons one and two as well as her brief appearance in the first season of “Jessica Jones”).  The culture and the setting were all interwoven with the plot and the character to create a unique show that, despite being a superhero tale, also manages to deal with topical issues relating to race.  Even though the season falls apart in the second half, I never felt like I wanted to shut it off entirely.  There were still parts of the show that were interesting to watch.

All in all, still worth a watch in spite of the problems.

 

Thanks for reading!  Check back next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week.

You can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here or follow me on Twitter here.

Spotlight: “Jessica Jones” Season One

Warning: some spoilers for season one of “Jessica Jones” follow.

The Marvel Netflix shows are some of the most interesting takes on the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU for short).  They represent more grounded takes on a world that includes Norse gods and hulking green steroid monsters.  They represent a moral ambiguity that underscores a franchise typically full of characters whose main struggle is “I’m not powerful enough” before they discover “oh wait, yeah I am” and then promptly throw the bad guy through a building or two.

I’ve already talked about “Daredevil” season one and two.  “Daredevil” was the start of the Netflix shows, representing a darker, more nuanced superhero story.  And while season two started to collapse under the weight of its multiple plots, season one still represents some of the best Netflix has to offer.

So, going into it, I had no idea that “Jessica Jones” would feel so different.

Like “Daredevil”, “Jessica Jones” is dark, but even from the show’s title sequence you can tell its tone is different.  The opening sequence for “Daredevil” showed the world being filled in bit by bit, which was a representation of the main character’s unique perspective.  By contrast, the title sequence for “Jessica Jones” plays with shadows and silhouettes.  It features many shots of windows and perspectives that imply being watched or observed, which ties into Jones’ career as a private investigator.

 

A shot from the title sequence.

 

 

It was about midway through the first episode when it hit me: “Jessica Jones” is essentially a modern noir story.

The aspects of the show line up: a private investigator with a tragic past, a piano-heavy soundtrack underscored with hints of jazz, and voice-over narration done by Jessica herself.  I’m not familiar enough with the character or the comics she comes from to say for sure, but it feels to me like the show is steeped in that tradition.  At its core, “Jessica Jones” is still a superhero story, making the noir elements mere icing on the cake.  But it’s enough to give the show a unique style all its own amidst the other Marvel Netflix shows.

“Daredevil” season one was all about Matthew Murdock coming to terms with who he wanted to be as a hero and the lines he was willing to cross.  We followed him as he grew into the hero he needed to be.  By contrast, “Jessica Jones” keeps things from us and much of the season is about uncovering those parts of her past to better understand her as a person.  It becomes clear by the end of the first episode that Jessica tried the hero thing before and something went terribly wrong.  The bad times in her past are centered around a mysterious figure named “Kilgrave” who has the ability to control people’s minds.

Jessica is guarded and masks her feelings with sarcasm.  At the outset it seems that she’s done trying to play the hero, but she’s quickly drawn back in when a new client sets her on a collision course with her old nemesis, Kilgrave.

 

Jessica, brooding as always.

 

They could have easily pulled Jessica too far down the sarcastic, gloomy route and made her an unlikable protagonist.  But her sarcastic quips and grim worldview are punctuated by glimpses of a person who wants to believe better, who wants to do good.  During one of the episodes, we get flashbacks of Jessica before Kilgrave that show how she gradually comes to the realization that she wants to help people.  Even her job as a private investigator after the fact clues us in to her inclination for helping people, despite her outward attitude.  The show succeeds at bringing us into Jessica’s world and letting us learn who she is bit by bit.

One aspect of the show that worked better than I would have expected was the introduction of Luke Cage, another Netflix Marvel hero who was later given his own show.  I’ve talked before about the inter-connection of Marvel’s universe and how that could become a problem, but that isn’t the case here.  Rather, the inclusion of Luke Cage feels natural.  His past and Jessica’s intertwine, which is evident from the start when we see Jessica spying on him in the very first episode.  The progression of their relationship and how it ties in to the greater plot of the season is done very well here.  It never feels forced or added for the sake of tying it in to the larger Marvel universe.

Another aspect of the show I was surprised by was the villain, Kilgrave.

 

Kilgrave.

 

Played by David Tennant, Kilgrave is a very different beast from Wilson Fisk in “Daredevil”.  Fisk was a character who believed he was changing the city for the better, albeit through extreme and violent methods.  By contrast, Kilgrave has no such noble goals.  He’s selfish.  He’s vain.  He’s unhinged and positively psychotic.  And he has an unhealthy fixation on Jessica, especially considering she’s the only one who’s ever escaped from his control.  Tennant was a great choice for the character too, providing that charming yet unpredictable nature to the character and making him a memorable villain.

That being said, I found it strange that they decided to not reveal his face until near the end of the third episode.  Anyone who knows David Tennant or has seen him in other shows will be able to tell that it’s him from the moment he says anything, so waiting on that reveal just seems a little pointless.  Even the pre-release stories for “Jessica Jones” had already confirmed David Tennant would be playing him.

All that being said, Kilgrave is a great villain and provides a very personal adversary for Jessica to face.  But not everything is perfect with the first season.

I’ve mentioned before how “Daredevil” season one decides to refer to the day when literal aliens invaded and blew up half the city in the first “Avengers” movie simply as “The Incident”.  It’s a weird, out-of-place choice that almost feels like they’re trying to distance the Netflix shows from the movies because of their wildly different tones.  “The Incident” shows up again in Jessica Jones, this time in the form of a minor character (read: very minor…as in they only appear in one episode) who has grievances with super powered people because of losing someone during the siege of New York.  It ends up feeling forced and has no purpose other than being a red herring.

There’s also a subplot featuring a police officer Jessica saves early on in the show.  It’s revealed later on that he is part of a mysterious research group with a doctor that developed some kind of combat enhancement drug.  It comes out of nowhere with no real buildup and doesn’t resolve itself by the end of the season.  Rather, its whole purpose seems to be to tease a future plot, as very late in the season it’s revealed that this mysterious group may have ties to Jessica and how she got her powers.

And that’s another thing that bothered me with the season.  Early on, after Jessica learns that Luke has powers as well, they have a brief conversation about where they got them.  Luke tells her his came from an experiment and Jessica says hers were an “accident”.  For much of the season, I assumed Jessica knew exactly how she got her powers and it would be revealed later on.  But as it turns out, Jessica has no idea.  During the final episode, she has a line where she mentions that she looked into her past before but kept hitting dead ends.  But it isn’t until near the end of the season that there’s any hint of that.  So when she says “accident”, we’re not really clear what she means by that.

Despite these issues, “Jessica Jones” is well worth a watch.  The pacing takes a dip during the last few episodes and the final confrontation doesn’t feel as climactic it should be, but overall it’s another great entry into the Marvel Netflix shows.  Its style and tone are quite different from “Daredevil”, so if you go into it expecting a similar outing, you might find yourself surprised and put off at first.  But if you give it a chance, “Jessica Jones” provides you with a wonderfully deranged villain and a gripping personal story.

 

Thanks for reading!  Check back next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week!

You can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here or follow me on Twitter here.

Spotlight: Daredevil Season Two

Warning: spoilers for Daredevil season one and two follow.

Season One of Netflix’s Daredevil was nothing short of amazing.  It was a dark, gritty superhero origin story that managed to weave an intricate plot with complex characters.  Even the villain, Wilson Fisk, was a well-rounded character who had a compelling reason for doing what he was doing.  Daredevil was the show that put Netflix originals on the map, the first one that everyone was talking about.  And for good reason.  It was a breath of fresh air in a genre that has commonly been full of cheeky, light-hearted stories.

It showed us a whole new side to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).

Coming off of season one, expectations for season two were sky-high.  Everyone wondered where they were going to go, what characters they were going to introduce.  Daredevil spent the entirety of the first season coming into his own as a superhero, so what conflict would season two bring to the table?  How would season two fare compared to the stellar season one?

Unfortunately, perhaps in part due to season one’s excellence, season two comes off as disappointing in a lot of ways.  That’s not to say season two is bad.  It’s still very much watchable, but compared to the first season it feels a little lopsided.

Let’s start at the beginning.  As season two opens, we get to see Daredevil doing his work, taking on crime in Hell’s Kitchen.  Matt Murdock (Daredevil’s true identity) is still trying to make it as a lawyer, and his friend Foggy Nelson is still coming to terms with the fact that Murdock is Daredevil.  At the start of the season, we are introduced to a new threat.  An apparent army of people is going around and killing off gang members in professional ambushes.  Murdock, Foggy, and Karen Page (their secretary whom they met in season one) take on a client who managed to survive one of the attacks.

Season two starts off great, following in the footsteps of season one.  If you know anything about what season two’s story is, you’ve likely guessed that the “army” doing the ambushing is really just the work of one man: Frank Castle, AKA The Punisher.  His reveal is great, as the shows spends almost the entire first episode teasing the danger of this new threat before dropping the revelation of “it’s just one guy”.  Immediately following that revelation we watch as The Punisher storms a hospital, looking to kill the client our main characters have taken on.

The Punisher serves as a foil to Daredevil’s character.  In many ways he’s the man Daredevil almost becomes in season one when he considers whether or not he’s willing to kill Wilson Fisk.  The Punisher challenges his notions of right and wrong.  Most of the third episode is Daredevil being chained to a rooftop arguing with The Punisher about the morality of being a vigilante.  There’s a fascinating difference between the two, and The Punisher is a great tragic character in his own right.

Unfortunately, after the excellent fourth episode (Penny and Dime), things start to go downhill.  The fourth episode almost feels like it could have been a season finale.  It’s epic, dramatic, and full of great character development.  But then, The Punisher is almost unceremoniously pushed to the sidelines for the introduction of another character: Elektra.  Compared to the epic reveal of The Punisher, Elektra’s introduction just comes across as silly.  She appears at the end of episode four in Murdock’s apartment, literally throwing a knife at him before basically saying “what’s up lover?”  And Daredevil reacts like he’s dealing with a freeloading college buddy who wants to crash on his couch.

I was never able to buy into his relationship with Elektra.  Considering how mild-mannered they made Murdock seem in season one, it just seems strange that he would so easily be swept off his feet by someone as frankly psychotic as her.  In the flashbacks detailing their former relationship, it takes her literally trying to make him kill someone before he starts having second thoughts.

And Elektra’s plot line is rather dull by comparison to The Punisher’s.  Once she shows up, the show devolves into Daredevil and Elektra running around to different places and beating up either Yakuza thugs or ninjas who are part of a mystical cult known as “The Hand”.  But despite all the action, very little actually happens during the middle part of the season aside from some pointless drama.  For some stupid reason, Murdock decides not to tell Karen or Foggy about Elektra, which just leads to a bunch of drama over him being late for court over and over again.  Of course, he eventually tells Foggy but it’s too late at that point.  Things start to fall apart and both Karen and Foggy harshly rebuke Murdock for his actions.  And not only that, but Elektra appears immediately after Murdock all but confesses romantic feelings toward Karen, which creates this barely touched on “love triangle” element.

Oh, and remember how I said I didn’t buy the fact that Murdock and Elektra got into a relationship?  That’s actually explained later in the season as being part of some plan, which leads to the groan-inducing “it started as a mission, but then I fell in love with you” line.  Some of the writing later on in the season feels so ham-fisted, which pales in comparison to the excellent first season.

And that’s part of the problem I think.  Season one was just so good that expectations for season two were through the roof.  Even so, the rough patches are hard to ignore.  The Punisher plot line, which in my opinion was the far more interesting one, doesn’t get nearly as much attention as the plot involving The Hand.  And while The Hand plot gets interesting later in the season when they start showing some of the weird, creepy stuff they’re doing, it still feels like a disservice to The Punisher.  In fact, The Punisher is relegated to the sidelines so hard that he literally shows up during the final fight sequence of the season just to snipe a few ninjas in the head and say “see you around”.

I really wish they would have devoted a whole season to The Punisher and then a whole season to The Hand (or the other way around) instead of trying to cram both of them into one season.  But I know why it ended up being that way.  The Hand is going to be the main enemy in The Defenders, which is a cross-over show featuring the four Netflix Marvel heroes teaming up.  And the first season of that show picks up a few months after Daredevil season two.

As I said, season two isn’t terrible or unwatchable.  It’s just disappointing because it could have been so much better.  Here’s hoping The Defenders will be worth it.

 

Thanks for reading!  Check back next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week!

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Spotlight: Stories Untold

Dude…this game?  This game dude.  THIS GAME.

It’s been a long time since I’ve been legitimately surprised by a game.  Stories Untold is a game I just stumbled into one day when browsing the Steam store.  It’s actually a very recent game too, as it came out at the end of February this year.  Reading the description on its Steam page doesn’t tell you a whole lot.  But that’s the point.

You see, Stories Untold benefits from you not knowing a lot about it.  It’s a game that revels in its mystery and in messing with the player’s head.  It’s an anthology game of sorts divided into four short “episodes” that you play through, each with their own kind of theme and setting.  For example, the first episode has you playing a fictitious text adventure game called “The House Abandon”, which of course features an empty house that you have to explore (fun fact: The House Abandon was a free game made by the developers before they made Stories Untold).

But the fact that you are playing the game on a computer WITHIN the game should cue you in to the fact that things are not going to be what they seem.

 

 

That’s a big part of the reason why this review is so hard to write, because the game works best when you don’t know what to expect.  So to that end, I’m going to be as spoiler-free as I can.  But I will tell you this: by the end of the first episode I was hooked.  I wanted to play more.  I wanted to see what other spooks and tricks the game had in store.

Stories Untold is classified as a horror game, although some would probably say it’s not that scary.  But that’s fine, because Stories Untold doesn’t rely so much on jumpscares and loud noises to scare you.  It’s a psychological game that gets under your skin as you play.  It creates a kind of tension that gnaws on you, especially after the first episode because you start expecting things to go pear-shaped at any moment.

 

The second episode involves a mysterious laboratory experiment.

 

The episodes all play out in the same fashion (for the most part).  You are put into some kind of setting, rooted in one spot, and you have to figure out what you’re supposed to do.  The first episode is pretty straight forward if you’re even slightly familiar with text adventure games, but the other episodes require you to think a bit more.  This is especially evident in the third episode.  In it, you have to decode a bunch of radio frequencies, which requires you to use a finicky microfilm reader.  The tasks get more and more complex as the episode goes on, and at one part has you translating Morse Code.  I enjoyed the episode, but I can see why it would get tedious for some people.

 

Damn you microfilm…DAMN YOUUUUUU!

 

And that’s how each episode progresses, through different kinds of puzzles.  Unfortunately, this is where Stories Untold sometimes drops the ball.  Occasionally the puzzles are frustratingly obtuse, with no clear indication of how you’re supposed to progress.  This is especially true with the text adventure bits, as the word parser it uses sometimes won’t recognize the phrase you’re using even if it is the right thing to do (i.e. typing “open door with key” won’t work but “use key” will).  I know I ran into a minor roadblock near the beginning of the first episode.  The game was telling me to find a generator around the back of the house, but when I went back there the description didn’t say anything about a generator.  Turns out I had to type in “look around” as a command before I could find it, which took me a few minutes to figure out.

Occasionally frustrating puzzles aside, the presentation in this game is fantastic.  Everything has a retro science-fiction feel to it, from the computer interfaces to the glossy shine everything has over it.  The stories have an old-school sci-fi vibe to them as well, reminding me of anthology shows like The Twilight Zone or Outer Limits.  The story does sometimes get a little trite and cliche (especially in the final episode).  But I’ll say this: while Stories Untold might not always tell the most original story, it certainly tells its story in an original way.

So if you’re interested in unique storytelling and horror, I highly recommend giving this game a look.  It’s one of the more unique video games I’ve come across, and I thoroughly enjoyed playing through it.  It’s not a very long game, clocking in around two to four hours long (I completed it in just under three).  But it’s something that should be experienced.  Sure, you could go read what it’s all about, but that would spoil the magic of the game.  I’m glad I went in not knowing a lot about the game because it blew my mind, especially with the first episode.

If you like stories in video games, give Stories Untold a shot.  You won’t regret it.

 

Thanks for reading!  Check back next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week!

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Spotlight: Person of Interest

Television is changing.  With the advent of streaming services like Netflix and Hulu, the way we watch our TV shows has shifted.  And now that these same streaming services have begun creating their own shows, the very format of a television show has changed as well.  The length of a television show season is usually around twenty-two episodes or thirteen episodes, depending on the network.  But with Netflix’s Stranger Things, we got a season that was only eight episodes long.  There’s more freedom now to create as short or as long a season as the creators need to or want to.  Shows on broadcast television networks, with their twenty-odd episodes in a season, are starting to feel outdated.

In a sense, you could consider Person of Interest to be a member of the “old guard”.  The show had its run on CBS, which meant that each season (with the exception of the fifth and final) was twenty-two to twenty-three episodes long.  Person of Interest is a procedural crime drama with a science-fiction flair and some spy thriller elements thrown in.  The premise of the show is as follows:

After the terrorist attack on September 11th, 2001, the United States government began looking into creating a system that would monitor the public at all times.  They wanted a system that could alert them of any potential terrorist attacks before they happen, giving them a chance to stop them.  Their system is created by a man named Harold Finch (Michael Emerson), but it comes with an unexpected side effect.  The machine sees not just potential terrorist acts, but crimes of an everyday nature as well, crimes involving ordinary men and women.  To deal with this, the machine is programmed to split them into two categories: relevant and irrelevant.

When the show opens in 2011, Finch approaches ex-CIA agent John Reese (Jim Caviezel) and offers him a job: help him track down the irrelevant numbers, figure out whether they are a victim or perpetrator, and stop whatever crime is about to happen.

That is the central conceit of the show.  Every week Finch and Reese receive a number (which equates to someone’s social security number), which leads them to a person.  They then do the work of finding that person and whatever it is they’ve gotten themselves involved with.  There is a greater plot thread in play, even during the initial seasons of the show, but it’s not very evident.  In fact, it’s not until near the end of the third season that a massive serialized arc takes shape.  If you’ve ever watched the show Fringe the format is pretty similar: procedural, standalone episodes detailing a “case of the week” and then the overarching episodes which impact the path the show takes as a whole.

The procedural aspect of the show is undoubtedly a product of the broadcast television format.  With twenty-odd episodes to make, it isn’t entirely possible to make them all about the main story, at least without making the main plot convoluted and overbearing.  This is the issue I expect most people to run into with this show, as it is the same issue I ran into later on when the main plot got to be really interesting.  There is a lot of filler in this show, episodes that have no real purpose whatsoever aside from being entertaining for that week.

Personally, I don’t mind procedural episodes that much as long as they’re well done, but I know that a lot of people get bored by them.  However, even when the show is at its most procedural, it is still a technically proficient one.  Gone are the days of X-Files, where one episode could be amazing and spellbinding, and then the next makes you question why you ever started watching the show in the first place.  At worst, the procedural episodes of Person of Interest can come across as bland and unoriginal.

And there are some really great procedural episodes in the show, ones that delve deeper into one of the characters.  For example, later on in the show there’s an episode that takes place almost entirely as one of the characters is dying from a gunshot wound.  At first, you don’t even know it either.  What you initially think is just a flashback to a conversation turns out to be a part of the character’s hallucination.  It’s a gripping episode and one of the show’s strongest in my opinion.  It goes to show that even procedural episodes can surprise you.

The show’s serial episodes are obviously what people are going to remember, and they are definitely riveting.  Initially, the show’s serial episodes focus on the nature of government surveillance, but later on the show’s science-fiction element takes center stage.  The show’s latter seasons focus on the power and dangers of artificial intelligence and grandiose reflections on the nature of humanity.  I won’t go into too much detail, but let’s just say that one side believes humanity needs to be forcibly guided while the other side believes humanity deserves to make its own choices.

Most of my complaints with the show are minor, although I did have one thing that kept nagging at me.  At times, the show’s procedural nature was at odds with its serialized plot.  This became increasingly evident in one of the later seasons.  Without spoiling too much, the events of one of the season finales requires that the main characters essentially go underground and keep a low profile.  And the first episode of the next season goes to great lengths to make that point, with Reese being scolded for doing what he normally does because it could blow his cover.  However, after all that, some of the procedural episodes seem to pretend that this isn’t even a problem.  Some episodes do make a point of it, with a character saying something along the lines of “you can’t just go in there and do that, you’ll risk exposing your cover!”  But then other episodes have them running into a place, shooting it up, beating the crap out of dudes and the like, and there is apparently no consequence for it.  It created this weird disjunction that once I noticed it I couldn’t stop noticing it.  Maybe I’m just nit-picking, but it really bothered me after a while.  I guess I just wanted to see more of the main plot instead of random, case-of-the-week episodes.

My other complaints are very minor.  Some of the episodes, particularly early on in the show, have weird abrupt endings that seem out of place.  The “plot bubble” effect in the show is strong, meaning that main characters (even bad guys) miraculously escape from harm because their pursuers suddenly have terrible aim with their weapons.  It just seems strange that John Reese can kneecap people with perfect accuracy but at other times can’t even manage to hit the person at all.

My only other complaint has to do with one of the main antagonists of the show.  At the end of one of the seasons, there’s a plot twist that reveals that he was basically planning things for years, working towards things from a time before the show even started.  Which makes no sense when you think about the fact that he had another plan a season earlier which utterly failed.  So that would mean that he knew his plan would fail or at the very least that he had a secondary plan in place in case he failed, which makes even less sense because that would mean he created a terrorist group for no reason.  It’s one of those things where when you start thinking about it, the bad guy’s “brilliant plan” actually ends up seeming really dumb.

In the end though, Person of Interest is a show that is definitely worth watching.  It takes a very nuanced approach to its themes (for the most part), and is consistently well-written.  It’s also not afraid to experiment.  One of the later episodes takes place mostly in the mind of the machine itself as it hypothesizes scenarios in an attempt to find an escape plan for our heroes.  At one point, the machine realizes it’s running out of time, so it simplifies the simulation.  This leads to a bizarrely funny bit where the characters are walking around speaking in strange placeholder dialogue like “flirty greeting” or “general statement of mission success”.

Person of Interest manages to surprise many times throughout its run.  It’s an action-heavy show that’s fun to watch but also has a lot of depth to it.  And I must say that the series finale is one of the most immensely satisfying and powerful finales I have seen in a long time.  It’s definitely worth a watch.  And hey, it’s all streamable on Netflix.  Isn’t that convenient?

Now I’m going to get out of here before I start sounding like a spokesperson for Netflix…

 

Well thanks for reading!  Check back next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week!

You can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here.

Spotlight: The Babadook

Indie movies are often hard to recommend.  They tend to be very different from the usual fare you see in theaters, and not always in a good way.  In some ways they can be more rough than their big budget counterparts, often having to rely on their uniqueness rather than flashy special effects.  Sometimes this works.  Sometimes it doesn’t.

The Babadook is one of those times where it does.

Let me get something out of the way: I’ve been planning on watching this movie for a long time but due to multiple factors (including my own laziness) I never got around to it until now.  But I’m glad I did, because The Babadook is something that I’ve wanted out of modern horror movies for a while.  It’s actually about something.  It has a point, a theme behind it that drives the movie and its horror.  Compare this to most modern movies, like Paranormal Activity or Insidious, where the sole point of the movie is to scare you.

The Babadook is an Australian indie horror movie that centers around Amelia Vanek and her son Samuel.  The movie opens with Amelia having a dream about her husband, who we find out a little bit later died in a car crash while rushing Amelia to the hospital to give birth to Sam.  From the very beginning of the movie you can tell that the relationship between mother and son is a little strained.  When Sam hears monsters in his room, Amelia reads him a bedtime story and then sleeps with him.  But in the middle of the night, she brushes his hands off her and scoots to the other side of the bed.

As the film progresses we see that Sam has some emotional issues.  He insists on creating weapons to battle imaginary monsters and Amelia is actually called in from her job as an assisted living nurse to his school when he brings one of his creations there.  Frustrated with how they’re treating the situation, calling Sam “the boy” instead of by his name, Amelia pulls him out of the school and vows to find him a better one.

But then, one night a red book mysteriously shows up in Sam’s room.  Its title is “Mister Babadook” and the monster it describes becomes Sam’s new obsession.

First and foremost my favorite thing about The Babadook is that it relies on tension and spooky visuals rather than cheap jumpscares.  If you read my review of Blair Witch that I wrote last month you’ll remember that was one of my primary complaints about the movie.  It was obvious that it was an artificial experience meant to scare you rather than tell an interesting or meaningful story.  It focused too often on jarring audio cuts and things jumping out in front of the camera rather than atmosphere or tension.  Not so with The Babadook.  The movie keeps you unsettled, especially with its scenery shots, showing dark and unnerving shots of the house at night.  At one point it shows a time-lapse of dark clouds filling the sky, creating a surreal feeling as you watch.

 

the-babadook-3

 

As I said, the movie prefers tension over shocking the viewer with loud noises.  In fact, it’s not really until the movie hits the half hour mark that anything notably supernatural starts to occur.  Up to that point there’s a few bumps in the night and such, but that’s it.  Things really start to get creepy after Amelia tears apart the Babadook book, frustrated with how it has affected Sam.  But later on, she hears a knock on her front door.  And when she goes to look, she finds the red book sitting on her front step, pages taped back together.  Not only that, but there are now new pages made with the intent to taunt her, saying that the more she denies the existence of the Babadook the stronger it becomes.

For fear of spoiling any more, I’m going to stop talking about the story there.  Suffice it to say, it’s not always a fun movie to watch.  It’s gut-wrenching and raw.  And it does all of this without any gore or exaggerated horror elements.  For example, the scene with the cockroaches coming out from behind the fridge could have easily veered into cheap gross out territory, but it thankfully doesn’t.

 

Nah I'm not creeped out. Are you creeped out? I'm not creeped out, no way.

Nah I’m not creeped out. Are you creeped out? I’m not creeped out, no way.

 

And the movie also holds back when it comes to the appearances of the monster.  You never get to see a whole lot of it during the film, usually catching only quick glimpses (although you see a decent amount during its first major appearance while Amelia is in bed).  And on top of that, the Babadook says very little throughout the movie, making the creature even more mysterious.  Interestingly, I found out that for the monster the director decided to use stop-motion effects, as she wanted the movie “to be all in camera.”  Initially I thought the approach was a little goofy, but the longer the movie went on I realized that it enhanced the surreal nature of the experience.  In fact, if there’s one thing I can really complain about with the presentation of the monster it comes from the sound department.  One of the noises the Babadook makes is a strange, stock dragon roar that I know I’ve heard somewhere else (from a video game I think).  It seems out of place compared to the rest of the sounds, and every time it briefly pulled me out of the experience.

 

Speaking of being surreal, the movie plays with light and shadow at times, creating an interesting atmosphere.

Speaking of being surreal, the movie plays with light and shadow at times, creating an interesting atmosphere.

 

Speaking of criticisms, the only other major problem I had with the film involved the ending.  The ending works as it is, showing us the resolution between Amelia and Samuel’s characters, but we don’t really get any resolution with any other characters in the movie, which I thought was strange since the movie spends a lot of time showing how things fall apart between Amelia and others, specifically with her sister Claire.  It seems like a missed opportunity to me.

The other thing that bothered me about the ending has to do with the Babadook itself.  I won’t go into specifics, but part of the ending feels like it happens simply out of consistency for the rules they made up relating to the monster.  It probably has a deeper symbolic meaning, but for some reason that bit of the movie’s ending just stood out to me as being different from the rest of it.

But in the end The Babadook has a lot of heart in it.  The actors who play Amelia and Sam are great, convincingly portraying the strange relationship between mother and son.  Amelia always appears tired and worn, but tries her best to take care of Sam and truly does love him.  Sam in turn loves his mom and says more than once that he wants to protect her.  He speaks his mind, which as the movie shows doesn’t always have the best results.  But together the two of them form a sympathetic pair that serve as the driving force of the entire movie.  It might sound cliche to say, but The Babadook is more than just a spooky movie.  It’s about something altogether human.  And the Babadook itself is more than just a monster.  It’s a metaphor waiting to be interpreted by the audience.

I highly recommend this movie if you like horror movies.  Even if you don’t I still would because of how unique and powerful it is.  It has a greater aim in mind than simply being a scare fest, although I will say it certainly succeeded in getting under my skin at times, especially during the latter half.  But it succeeds because substance and style work hand-in-hand to create a truly atmospheric experience.

It’s not always a pleasant movie to watch, but it will certainly stick with you for a long time.

 

Thanks for reading!  Check back next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week.

You can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here.

Spotlight: Salt

If you were to ask someone what the point of a video game is, they’d likely say something along the lines of “getting to the end”, “completing the story” or “beating the game” as it were.  Ever since Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) came out back in the 1980’s, games have largely been about journeying to the end.  You played through a set series of levels with your mission being to beat the final level.  This is the mentality that many gamers like myself grew up with.  Even Myst, one of my favorite games of all time, was still about getting to the end in the long run.  That sense of completion is what games are all about.

Or are they?  Modern games are a much different beast.  With their sheer number and the influx of independent developers, video games have taken an interesting turn in recent years.  The market has shifted towards being digital rather than physical, with people being able to purchase games online and download them directly from the internet.  With Steam’s Early Access program gamers can buy a game that’s still being developed, play it, and give feedback to the developers.

But more so than that, games today can be about more than just “beating the game”.  They can be adventures.  They can be involved stories where you make your own choices.  Or they can be nearly story-less, focusing instead on a player’s individual journey rather than a shared destination.

Enter Salt.  Salt belongs to a genre of games known as “survival games”.  In a basic sense, these games are about building a shelter, finding food and water, and generally surviving within the game world.  You can trace the origin of this genre back to Minecraft, a game where you built structures out of blocks.  Originally, Minecraft was about the survival element, forcing you to deal with the native wildlife of the game while trying to find food to eat and build a place for sleeping as well as storing your items.  But nowadays, Minecraft seems to be more about the building aspect, with people building large and elaborate structures solely for the fun of it.

Salt, on the other hand, takes a different path.

 

salt-6

 

Rather than survival, Salt is mainly focused on exploration.  The game’s world consists of an infinite number of randomly generated islands that you can search for items, food, and other characters that will give you information, quests to do, or sell you items.  The game’s pace is very relaxed, trying as hard as it can to not pressure you into anything.  Part of my issue with many other survival games is that they can feel kind of obnoxious, constantly forcing you to deal with your hunger, thirst, or even body temperature.  I like to explore, but often I find that my food stores are running low and then I have to spend time taking care of that instead.  These games are a lot about micro-managing your needs, which can be fun and interesting, but sometimes it can feel more like a chore than anything.

Salt, on the other hand, doesn’t fall victim to that.  It does have a food meter which depletes over time (the green bar at the bottom left of the screen), but it goes down so slowly that it’s rarely a problem.  The game also tells you that if your food runs out, all it really does is make it so that your stamina regenerates more slowly than normal (the blue bar).  Funnily enough, I’ve never had to deal with it so far when playing the game, which shows you how unobtrusive it really is.

As I said before, the game’s primary focus is exploration.  At the beginning of the game you wake up on a small island with a strange journal in your pocket.  The journal was left by a stranger who found you lying unconscious.  It states that you should probably make a raft and get off the island as staying there is probably not in your best interest.  It gives you some hints of what to craft first as well as tells you about a chest filled with items that you can scavenge.  It concludes by suggesting you sail to the nearby islands to locate an inn and speak with the innkeeper as he will have stuff for you to do.

 

The game has a very relaxing atmosphere to it, due largely in part to its colorful aesthetic.

The game has a very relaxing atmosphere to it, due largely in part to its colorful aesthetic.

 

What you do after that point is up to you.  Right from the start you can see that Salt is not forcing you in a direction, basically telling you “hey there’s a thing somewhere out there that you should find, go out there and find it if you want”.  Finding the inn isn’t a necessity, although it will give you something to do as well as help you figure out what certain items do.  Crafting is another element of the game, which consists of taking two items and putting them in a “crafting menu” to create a new item.  If the combination can be turned into a new item, its icon will appear on the right side of the menu.  This is necessary to the game, as you will need to do this in order to create a simple raft which will allow you to traverse to new islands.  As you play the game more and more you will stumble on new recipes that you can use to create new and more powerful items and weapons.

But more than anything, Salt is about puttering around and experiencing the world around you.  You can scavenge the islands for materials to craft, food to eat, or you can just sail onward looking for anything of note.  You can even pause in the middle of the ocean to do some fishing if you need food or if you just want to relax for a little bit.  And speaking of sailing, while you may have to start with a small raft, you can upgrade to a small sailboat later on and you can even find derelict pirate ships to repair and commandeer.

 

Start with a raft, move on to a sailboat, and eventually...

Start with a raft, move on to a sailboat, and eventually…

 

...to a big pirate ship (even if it does look a little beat up).

…to a big pirate ship (even if it does look a little beat up).

 

Speaking of pirate ships, you will occasionally come across pirates in your travels.  This is where your weapons come in, as you will have to fight them.  Honestly, this is the weakest part of the game: the combat.  It usually comes down to “swing once or twice, block, then swing one or two times and repeat until either you or the enemy is dead”.  The combat doesn’t have a whole lot of weight to it, so it just feels clumsy.  But this game is part of the Steam Early Access program, so things are subject to change as the game’s developed.  And hey, at least the enemies have items you can loot off their bodies (although so far I haven’t found anything too remarkable).

 

Not only that, but some enemies (like Buffbeard here) can be really tough to kill. Fortunately, you don't lose your inventory when you die, keeping the game from being too frustrating.

Some enemies (like Buffbeard here) can be really tough to kill. Fortunately, you don’t lose your inventory when you die, keeping the game from becoming too frustrating.

 

In the end, Salt is all about the experience of exploration.  You use a compass to help keep direction, a sextant to learn your coordinates in the world, and you have to actually fill out the map as you go, placing islands on the map at their respective coordinates and adding markers for what you found there.  You also have a journal that you can add entries into.  You can use it to mark down coordinates you learn in conversation with other characters, jot down cool things you’ve seen, or just leave a long and rambling diary of a man slowly succumbing to his inner insanity…

What?  No?  Just me then huh?  Lame.

 

Well that’s all I have for this time.  Check back next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week.

Salt is available on Steam here.

You can also like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here.