Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Unboxing the RetroEngine Sigma

I've bought a few books via crowdfunding, but I've never purchased any hardware until I saw the RetroEngine Sigma back in December.

It promised a "plug-and-play" experience with several video game emulators. It comes pre-installed with a few of its own licensed games, but you'd have to provide your own ROMs (a gray area, of course). I was most interested in emulators for the Sega Genesis, Sega CD, Sega 32X, Game Gear, Super Nintendo, NES, and N64.

I owned an NES and a Sega Genesis/Sega CD. I almost bought a 32X when it was on clearance thanks to Sega's botched long-term plan that saw the 32X and Sega Saturn released just months apart. The RetroEngine has several other emulators, too, like the Atari 2600, Gameboy, TurboGrafx, Neo Geo, Intellivision, and Sony PlayStation.

I'd looked into getting a Raspberry Pi and making my own emulation box, but this sounded like a less labor-intensive product.

The units were supposed to ship in June, but I didn't get mine until August 14 due to production delays, according to Doyodo, the company that ran the campaign on Indiegogo. I wasn't happy about the delays, and neither were the other backers of the project.

When units finally started shipping, the comments didn't look good. Most people appeared to have problems with their units, with the biggest problem being a Wi-Fi error. Some backers couldn't get their units to boot up out of the box, which was a troubling proposition.

The RetroEngine box isn't anything special. Not glossy, not flashy. It's just a cardboard box with the logo.

This is everything that came in the box: the system, two controllers, an HDMI cable, a power adapter, and a bag containing the MicroSD card, MicroSD card reader, Bluetooth dongle.
To set up the RetroEngine, you're supposed to connect the unit to your home Wi-Fi via a phone, tablet, or computer. The included "quick start" guide wasn't very helpful in that regard, so I went to the RetroEngine website and followed the steps.

My unit booted fine and I saw the initialization screen. However, the screen stayed up for much too long (about 30 minutes) and I restarted the unit. After that, it booted. I was able to connect it to my Wi-Fi using my Microsoft Surface and selected the option to install the emulators, which weren't pre-installed on the 32GB MicroSD card that came with the RetroEngine.

My first impression of the unit was favorable. It was packed well and everything came wrapped accordingly. I didn't find any loose parts or SD cards, which was a problem other backers experienced. The unit is tiny--even smaller than an Xbox One controller!

The unit isn't very big at all.
The perk I ordered comes with two controllers: the default Dual Shock-like RetroEngine controller and a six-button Genesis/Saturn-style controller. The RetroEngine controller feels just okay (has just a little bit of heft...a little) and the other one feels pretty darn cheap (it's super, super light).

I'm not really sold on either controller, to be honest, but I'm glad they give me something to tinker with.
This controller feels okay. I'll probably get a better one somewhere down the line.

This controller feels very cheaply made. I think it'll break if I try to use it. We'll see.
I had my choice of a silver shell or a blue shell; I opted for the blue one. I thought it would be a more metallic blue, but it's pretty much just blue. As you can see, it resembles a (non-copyright-infringing) blue mini-Sega Genesis. Maybe that's why I was attracted to the product in the first place!

The resemblance to the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive is no coincidence, I think.
Installation started at 1:55 p.m. on Monday, August 14. I kept thinking it would get everything loaded within a few hours, but by the time I went to bed at 9:55 p.m., I still saw the loading screen. When I got up for work in the morning at 3 a.m. Tuesday, the unit had finished loading the different emulators.

Get used to this screen...

...you're going to see it for a long time.
My biggest complaint about the product is that it's not, in any way, a "plug-and-play" device. Setup worked for me, but it hasn't worked for others. The emulators have to be downloaded, which took several hours. That wouldn't be a problem if Doyodo didn't claim it would be ready to play pretty much when you took it out of the box.

This was supposed to be "emulation made easy," but it's basically just like any Pi 3/RetroPie kit you can buy on Amazon or eBay. Those kits, by the way, include a more powerful board (the RetroEngine is an Orange Pi Lite board) and cost about the same or are cheaper. I was intimidated by the assembly and setup process, but I think I could've pulled it off after taking a closer look at it.

That said, I did have some different ROMs for a few systems, and they worked fine. I put my Genesis games in the Genesis folder, but they weren't recognized. I had to move them to the Mega Drive folder, which made me feel so European. SNES and Sega 32X games worked great as well.

It wasn't perfect, though. The N64 games wouldn't load; one of the default emulators simply froze while the other would load the game to a black screen and let you dump out of the game. The pre-installed arcade games included "BurgerTime" and "Lock 'n' Chase," and while they played, they didn't have sound!

The system is also supposed to "scrape" metadata for games so they display nicely, but I'm having mixed results with that. Some of it, I think, has to do with how my ROM files are named, so maybe some light editing will help with that.

So I have to reiterate: it's not quite the easy-to-use product I'd hoped for. Several other RetroEngine owners have suggested getting a better quality MicroSD card and flashing RetrOrangePi to get rid of the buggy RetroEngine UI. I may get a new SD card and give that a try.

After all, the RetroSigma OS is basically just a splashscreen on top of the RetrOrangePi interface anyway. May as well just cut the fat from the equation. I'm wondering if that will help the N64 emulator run more smoothly.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

So, I've still been writing!

It's been a long, long time since I've blogged about writing.

Heck, it's been a long, long time since I've blogged at all.

My last post was for the new year, my annual "Studicus Selects" roundup.

Why have I gotten away from blogging? I'm not sure, really. I stopped writing about Indianapolis Colts games because I found myself so intent on analyzing them and making observations that I stopped enjoying the actual games. Seriously, I'd sit in front of the TV with a laptop and make notes, and then rush to post a story after the game was over.

It probably hasn't helped that the Colts have been completely mediocre since their memorable defeat at the hands of the New England Patriots in the "DeflateGate" game.

But while I haven't been blogging, I have been writing.

A lot.

I just finished the first draft of my 16th novel! It's pretty incredible to think about it. I have 14 books that I consider "ready" or "nearly ready" for submission. Two of the 16 are recently finished drafts that need tons of polish.

I've sent out several query letters for books, and I've come close a couple times. A partial request here. A full request there. Just nothing that quite makes it all the way.

A few years ago, I probably would've sulked and stopped sending queries. But you know what? Books don't publish themselves. You can't get published if you don't submit.

So I keep at it.

I've got a funny superhero series with the Crimsonstreak books. The rights have reverted back to me, and I'm going to finally resolve the huge cliffhanger from book two with the third book. Can't say much about it right now, but expect some news soon.

I have another series that's superhero related, but it's more serious in tone. For a long time I referred to these books at The Franchise series, but I've rebranded them as the OMNI series. They've got a cool retro-futuristic vibe and I'd describe them as a more hopeful Watchmen.

I've written in some genres I didn't expect. I churned out a paranormal fantasy and a YA epic fantasy. I wrote a middle grade book based on a "novel" I wrote when I was in sixth grade (obviously, I expanded the story and characters quite a bit).

I even wrote, God help us all, a book called Timey Dancer based on some interactions I had with a friend and my brother on Facebook. It's about a male stripper who goes back in time to save Julius Caesar through the power of pole dancing and 80s music.

It is ridiculous.

That's pretty much where things stand right now. I attended the Midwest Writers Workshop last year and had a blast. I also went in 2010, when I thought I knew a ton about writing and publishing. I'm a lot smarter now and realize that there's a bunch of stuff to learn. I couldn't quite make it for the 2017 edition, but I'm hoping to attend Imaginarium in Louisville in October.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Studicus Selects 2016

Once, long ago, I posted on the internet as Studicus, an in-joke nickname related to a skit from high school. When I first started blogging, I called my year-end entries "Studicus Selects." The tradition has continued since 2005...although I skipped 2006 for some unknown reason.

You'll find past entries here (scroll down for the 2016 picks):

Studicus Selects 2015
Studicus Selects 2014
Studicus Selects 2013
Studicus Selects 2012
Studicus Selects 2011
Studicus Selects 2010
Studicus Selects 2009
Studicus Selects 2008
Studicus Selects 2007
Studicus Selects 2005

Worst pre-ordering fail, large online retailer category. I usually don't pre-order items because you'll usually find plenty of stock at the store (NES Classic excepted, of course). However, I was super excited about the arrival of Star Wars: The Force Awakens on Blu-ray and pre-ordered it from Target.

While friends who ordered their copies from Amazon got them on the day of release, I waited and waited for my precious copy to arrive. It finally came Saturday morning. The Blu-ray was released on the previous Tuesday.

I'm still ticked off.

Best sports adventure, brothers category. Proving that 2015 was a giving year, my brother and I went to see the Cincinnati Reds on Star Wars Night. This was a 2015 Christmas gift from our mother that combined our two favorite things: baseball and Star Wars.

It was notable for a couple reasons: 1) the Reds won (they didn't do that a lot last year) and 2) there were fireworks set to John Williams' iconic Star Wars themes. It was awesome.

Best sports adventure, father-in-law category. Before 2016, I'd never been to Hinkle Fieldhouse. That all changed when my father-in-law took me to a game in February. The Bulldogs lost to Xavier, but it was a great experience. We even got t-shirts because it was a "whiteout!"

Best spoof, Star Wars: The Force Awakens category. I'm so happy Adam Driver was game for this. He reprised his role as Kylo Ren for a fake episode of Undercover Boss. First Order Force wielder/patricide enthusiast Kylo Ren portrayed "Matt the Technician" for a truly memorable sketch with some laugh-out-loud moments.

"I'm 90% sure Matt is Kylo Ren."

"After the rain comes the rainbow. Sorry I killed your son."

"Kylo Ren is a punk b****. That guy looks like he weighs 30 pounds soaking wet underneath that little black dress."

Best get out of the house experiences, couples category. My wife and I haven't always had the opportunity to get out that much, but we did a couple really cool things this year. In July, we saw Beauty & The Beast at Beef & Boards. One of our first big dates in college was going to see the traveling version of the show in Indianapolis. Anne loves Beauty & The Beast!

She's also always wanted to see the stage version of The Lion King. We traveled to Dayton to see that. I bought Anne the soundtrack, which came with a free Lion King tote bag.

Most touching welcome back ceremony, great uncle category. My Uncle Morrie took part in an honor flight to Washington, D.C. Anne and I traveled to Columbus, Ohio, to welcome him and a large group of veterans back from their trip.

These men fought for their country and we're losing more of them by the day. I think they got the heroes' welcome they deserved, no matter which war they fought in.

I should probably also mention that we used the trip as an excuse to "do history" and stopped by the Rutherford B. Hayes home in Fremont, Ohio. By the way, there's no quick way to get between Fremont and Columbus.

Saddest passing, family category. We said goodbye to a good man this year when my brother's father-in-law, Mark Gardner, passed away in December. Mark was an incredibly smart man with a great sense of humor.

We loved him even though he was a Kentucky Wildcats and Pittsburgh Steelers fan. He always had a kind word and a quip whenever I saw him, and he never failed to ask how Anne and I were doing--and he genuinely cared about the answer.

We mourn the loss, but we know Mark's in a better place free of pain and watching over his family from above.

Remarkable comeback, knee surgery category. My father has had bad knees for as long as I can remember, and things had gotten worse over the last few years to the point where he's been in pain and unable to enjoy much.

He had knee replacement surgery in June at Ortho Indy, and it's been great for him. A few months out of surgery now, he's walking about 90 minutes a day--which is a big deal because Dad loves to walk and hasn't been able to because of his knee.

The picture above was taken in July a little more than a month after surgery. He wasn't walking long distances then, but he was way ahead of schedule.

Best 100th anniversary event, Indianapolis 500 category. The Greatest Spectacle in Racing reached a milestone in 2016 with the 100th running of the race. I've worked a fair amount of Indy 500 Sundays because I work in TV news, but this year I got to go to the race as a spectator.

My father-in-law, mother-in-law, brother-in-law, and sister-in-law went to the 100th running, which was full of pageantry and great racing. In the end, rookie Alexander Rossi took the checkered flag, somehow defying the laws that say you have to have fuel to win the race.

Best Star Wars movie, non-episode category. For the first time, Disney-Lucasfilm released a Star Wars movie that wasn't part of the episodic Skywalker story. In essence, Rogue One is the very first Star Wars spinoff movie.

While it's tied to the events of the first Star Wars (that's 1977's A New Hope), it's not the continuation of a story and there won't be a sequel (or you could consider A New Hope to be the sequel).

I absolutely loved it. We got to meet some great characters, even though they weren't, um, long for the Star Wars world. And we got to see Peter Cushing again!

I thought Grand Moff Tarkin would make an appearance, but I never expected he'd have such a large role.

Best anniversary, marriage category. Incredibly, my wife and I have been married for 10 years. I really can't believe it!

While we didn't do anything remarkable for the anniversary itself, we had plenty of adventures throughout the year. I also put together a video of our wedding day (October 7, 2006).

Best short nonfiction novella, 40 Years of G-Man category. To my utter astonishment, my brother turned 40 year this year. I wanted to do something special to mark the occasion, so I came up with 40 different memories and wrote a short book with 40 chapters, one for each year.

Our mother even retroactively grounded us after learning about a couple of those memories, including Home Plate Collision, a baseball-themed game we used to play where a runner came in from third base and tried to knock over the catcher. My brother knocked me out cold one time when we were playing this. Not coincidentally, that was the last time we ever played Home Plate Collision.

David Pumpkins. I mean, Davis. S. Pumpkins. To be honest, I don't even know what this is. I've watched it a bunch of times, and I have no idea why it's so funny.

Is it Tom Hanks' dedication to the bit? The dancing skeletons and absurd music? I'm not sure.

Any questions?

Best movie experience, awesome AMC chairs category. I think AMC's new chairs have spoiled me forever. These things tilt back and let you put your feet up. They make every other theater chair seem inconvenient and uncomfortable.

I went to an IMAX movie with my brother-in-law, and we didn't have these chairs. That theater-going experience was definitely inferior as a result.

Movie Year in Review: The Good. I won't get into extensive reviews for any movies, but I'd like to mention some of my favorites. Rogue One, Captain America: Civil War, Moana, Deadpool, Dr. Strange, Sully, Star Trek Beyond, Zootopia, Finding Dory, and The Jungle Book are a few that stick out.

Marvel had a solid year with its latest entries. Dr. Strange was visually very cool and Civil War gave us some of the best superhero moments in the history of superhero movies. Deadpool was so right yet so wrong on so many levels.

I think it was a strong year for animated movies, with Finding Dory, Zootopia, and Moana giving us some of Disney's best. While Star Trek's 50th anniversary passed with little fanfare (thanks CBS/Paramount, losers) Star Trek Beyond was a terrific return to the big screen for the franchise.

Movie Year in Review: The Bad. While Marvel continued its roll, DC continued to try to find its footing. Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice was a mess. I couldn't wait for the credits to roll on that one. It was long, ponderous, and made zero sense. I will say the Ultimate Edition significantly improved the film, but that cut was nearly three hours and that's still way too long.

Suicide Squad appears on several "worst movies of the year" lists, and while I thought the villain was weak, I liked the characters enough to keep it off my worst list.

I didn't care for Warcraft. I don't remember much of the movie, and it was just kind of bland. Independence Day: Resurgence tried to mimic The Force Awakens template by mixing new characters with old ones but forgot to give us new, likable characters. Jeff Goldblum was Goldblumming hard, and it still didn't help. Brent Spiner appeared to be the only person in that movie who was having any fun at all.

I didn't like the BFG, which tried very hard but was sort of all over the place. The Ghostbusters reboot committed the ultimate sin of being simply mediocre. A couple of good laughs in there, but the story was thin and things never clicked. Too many distracting cameos as well, although the leads were likable.

Gods of Egypt was awful in that so-bad-it's-good way.

Writing Year in Review. I finished a few drafts of novels this year and polished a few manuscripts in need of some love. I had a short story published in an anthology and had some more nibbles on some of my novels.

I also attended the Midwest Writers Workshop for the first time since 2010. I pitched projects to agents and met some new writing friends. Toward the end of the year, I took a writing break, but I'll get back to it at the start of 2017.

Best impulse buy, Microsoft Surface category. When Anne's phone broke, we went to the AT&T store to get her a new one. At the time, they were running a deal on the Microsoft Surface, so I went ahead and bought one.

It's a great tool that's replaced my clunky (but faithful) laptop computer. I'm writing this blog entry on the Surface, in fact. It's compact and you can use it as a tablet or traditional laptop. The model I bought, the Surface 3, doesn't have the power of a Surface Pro, but it definitely gets the job done.

I found the keyboard cover--sold separately for an absurd $120--on clearance for $30 at Best Buy.

Unexpected purchase, replacement oven category. Appliances eventually break down. Nothing lasts forever.

Our gas oven bit the dust in July, and we replaced it with an electric stove. It's so shiny!

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Who knew?! Batman v. Superman: Ultimate Edition turns out to be an improvement

Spoiler warning: Contains spoilers for Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice theatrical and Ultimate Edition versions

I didn't care much for Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice when it hit theaters. I found it messy and disjointed. I really didn't have much of a desire to see it again.

Anecdotally, when I go to see a Marvel film, people stick around for the credits. They know an after-credit sequence is coming or there's something Marvel has thrown in there as an Easter egg. When the credits rolled during my BvS screening in March, people couldn't wait to get out of the theater (myself included).

I thought the character motivations were murky and poorly drawn. I thought Jesse Eisenberg was beyond annoying as Lex Luthor. Batman's visions were weird and out of place. The Martha Moment was contrived and silly, as was the battle between our titular "heroes." Luthor's grand master plan made zero sense. The congressional hearings convened about "Superman's Great Adventure in Africa" didn't make sense. Bruce Wayne/Batman dominated the screen time, shortchanging Superman in his own sequel.

And here's what I wrote in my review of the theatrical version:
Snyder says there's a three-hour cut of the movie that he wanted the studio to release, but the studio balked at the running time. I think a solid 45 minutes of this movie could've been cut; I can't imagine three hours of it, unless that three-hour cut has tons of character moments that are lacking in the theatrical version.
You know what?

It turns out Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice: Ultimate Edition does exactly that. I had a 50% credit from Google Play that expired on July 1, so I bought BvS: DOJ: UE (ick on that title, WB!). I will never go back to the theatrical version, though I should probably watch it one more time to see if it holds up any better now that I've seen the Ultimate Edition, which is a far, far superior version of the film.

As it turns out, the 30 minutes cut from the movie were almost all character moments, many of theme featuring Clark Kent/Superman. Luthor's manipulations make much more sense; while Eisenberg is still grating at times, his Luthor comes off as more of a master manipulator and sinister force, something the theatrical Lex Luthor lacked. Even Bruce Wayne/Batman, who I thought was the best drawn character in the theatrical version, comes off as an improvement. We understand even more that this Batman is broken; the death of Robin years ago embittered him, and he's not in his right mind. Luthor uses this against him, and that Martha Moment is what breaks Batman out of his fevered psychosis; he realizes Luthor has manipulated him, and it changes his entire conception of Superman and his desire to kill him.

It's not just as simple as, "Hey, our moms have the same name--we're best friends now!" I'm not saying the Martha Moment works on every level, but it has a better payoff than the theatrical version because Luthor, Batman, and Superman are better drawn in the UE. The moment has more impact and you understand Batman's quick turn; he misunderstood Superman because he was embittered and manipulated. The Martha Moment snaps him out of it. He's willing to give the Kryptonian a chance.

So when Bruce Wayne says he's failed Superman in life, you understand; it has more impact.

Clark Kent is also more clearly drawn in his version. One of the biggest complaints I had about the movie was the central conflict between the two superheroes. I wrote in my original review that the conflict should have been one of ideology; not one made because Lex Luthor kidnapped Superman's mom. While Martha Kent's abduction is still the regrettable crux of the Superman-Batman fight, it's not the only reason behind it. Clark Kent spends more time as a reporter in the Ultimate Edition as he tries to track down the Batman and investigate his impact on Gotham City and Metropolis.

The Bat-branding, we learn, is another of Luthor's manipulations. An inmate died because Luthor ordered it, making Batman's new, more brutal methodology look even more so. Clark talks to people in the neighborhood frequented by Batman; some of them are scared while others say you have nothing to be worried about it as long as you're not doing something bad. The girlfriend of an inmate who was Bat-branded and killed in prison tells Clark there's no reasoning with Batman; he only understands violence. This goes a long way toward establishing Superman's viewpoint on the conflict, something that was implied but not really touched upon in the theatrical version.

And as for that bizarre Africa situation? This is one of the most important changes in the reworked version of the film. Luthor manipulated the whole plot (we see Lois Lane, yet another character who suffered from a lack of development in the theatrical version, investigate the Africa incident and put the pieces together). His people made it look like Superman killed several people, using a flamethrower to simulate heat vision. The bullet subplot, a weird side story in the theatrical cut, makes more sense now. In the theatrical version, you don't understand why the bullet is important--if Superman killed several people, he sure as hell wasn't using a gun. The UE fixes that; the bullet is important because Lois believes an outside force, possibly one connected to the government, masterminded the Africa situation.

And another subtle plot point--that Superman doubted himself because he didn't see the bomb in the hearings--gets an explanation: the wheelchair was made of material that was lined with lead and thus impervious to Superman's X-ray vision. Superman, who thought he'd been careless, hadn't missed it because he wasn't looking; he missed it because he couldn't have seen it. Lois also figures out that the anti-Superman character played by Scoot McNairy couldn't have planned the bombing by himself. Luthor manipulated the poor man.

Somehow, the three-hour version of a movie I didn't think I'd want to see again turned out to be a far superior version of that movie. If the theatrical version was a five for me, I'd give the Ulimate Edition an eight. It made that much of a difference to me.

Even Superman's death, which I felt was shoehorned into the movie to give it a "big dramatic ending," means so much more. Clark Kent/Superman says the earth is "his world" and will do whatever is necessary to protect it. That motivation felt lacking in the theatrical version, but in the new cut, his words carry so much more weight.

The movie isn't perfect. It's still flawed. If you hated the original because of the tone or because you don't like the direction of the DC Cinematic Universe, then this new cut won't change that. The characters are still dour and the tone remains dark. You won't find many moments of levity among the film's aspirations to pose philosophical questions about the nature of heroism and the impact a godlike being would have upon the world.

There are also things I don't like about the movie. While the "Knightmare" is a cool sequence, it still feels out of place and the Flash's brief cameo comes out of nowhere. Lois Lane's role in the final conflict is pretty damn stupid; she throws the Kryptonite spear away and then has to go retrieve it. She gets trapped underwater and has to be rescued. Surely there was a better way to do this. The Batman-Superman fight still comes down to the fact Lex Luthor kidnapped Superman's mom (in the ultimate cut, however, this feels like a necessary tipping point for Superman as opposed to his entire motivation for the fight).

The Martha Moment, while much more impactful, still has problems. Who calls their mother by their first name? A dialogue tweak would've fixed this ("My mother... he's going to kill my mother... save her... save Martha Kent."). Also, Superman goes into berserker rage mode too early in the Batman-Superman fight. He does try to talk to Batman and explain things at the very beginning, but he gives up on the idea much too quickly. Another line or two of dialogue (along the lines of "Bruce, you have to listen to me. Luthor's pulling the strings. He's got my mother.") would've helped. I understand now that Batman is too far gone to listen to reason--he's made up his mind--but the audience needs to be shown it. We need to see that this is a fight Superman doesn't really want.

While Wonder Woman is fantastic--probably the highlight of the movie and one of the few "fun" things about it--having her sit down to watch YouTube videos of other potential Justice League members was clumsy. Actually, you can pretty much tell when something teasing a Justice League movie has been shoehorned into BvS because it usually doesn't work that great (The "Knightmare" and Flash's portentous appearance, Wondy's fun with YouTube, etc.).

Listen, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice will never be a fun movie. It'll never be Captain America: Civil War. The conflict between the two heroes, while more impactful in the new cut, will never have the sad gravitas of Tony Stark vs. Steve Rogers because we've spent so much less time with Batman and Superman than we have with Iron Man and Captain America. That said, if the theatrical cut of BvS left you scratching your head, give the Ultimate Edition a look.

You may actually like it.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

10 great moments from Star Wars: The Force Awakens

After years of waiting, a new Star Wars movie arrived in December 2015. I saw it seven times in the theater, and one day Target will actually deliver my preorder of the Blu-ray.

So while I wait for that to arrive (Update: it FINALLY arrived on Friday), giving me the key to untold treasures in the special features, I thought I'd run down my 10 favorite moments from the seventh episode of the Star Wars saga.

10. "This will begin to make things right."

The great Max von Sydow delivers the movie's first line, giving gravitas to an important but brief role in the movie. I would call it a thankless role except for the fact that it's freaking Max von Sydow. He shares a brief exchange with Poe Dameron and comments on General Leia Organa: "General? To me, she's royalty."

And depending on what you believe, the first line of the film has an extra layer of meaning. "This will begin to make things right" certainly refers to his character's desire to bring balance to the Force. However, you can also read it as a promise from J.J. Abrams and company that this new Star Wars movie will "make things right" in terms of the poorly received prequel trilogy.

9. Kylo's rage

When kids throw a tantrum, they usually lie on the floor and kick their legs or hold their breath until they get their way. But that wouldn't be good enough for Kylo "Ben Solo" Ren, son of two of the galaxy's greatest heroes.

When confronted with bad news, the Darth Vader fanboy ignites his lightsaber and goes to town on the nearest wall. This happens twice in the movie, showing the villain's unhinged nature and poor control of his emotions.

8. "This is not how I thought this day was gonna go."

When Han Solo and Chewie find the Millennium Falcon ("Chewie, we're home" gets an honorable mention), they also encounter a pair of stowaways in Rey and Finn. Before long, they also confront another threat: a pair of intergalactic gangs fed up with Solo's swindling ways.

After some destructive beasts called rathtars get loose on their freighter, Han and company climb aboard the Falcon. And when one of the creatures tries to swallow the cockpit whole, Han admits he didn't see any of this coming.

7. Threepio ruins the moment

For a droid trained in etiquette and protocol, C-3PO sure doesn't have any manners, interrupting the touching reunion between Han and Leia. They haven't seen each other in who knows how long (definitely years, unclear how many), but before they can share a moment together, Threepio barges right in and ruins it.

But really, you've gotta love it as a Star Wars fan because it's pure, clueless Threepio, who's more concerned about pointing out his red arm than letting Han and Leia share a bittersweet moment. He finally gets a clue, however, and walks off.

6. "Who talks first? You talk first, I talk first?"

Need a spiritual successor with the swagger of Solo and the piloting skills of a Skywalker? You'll find him in Poe Dameron, an awesome addition to the Star Wars universe. Poe, sent to Jakku to retrieve a map that could lead to the missing Luke Skywalker, gets captured by the First Order.

When Kylo Ren confronts him, Poe doesn't look one bit scared. He's a little unsure about the protocol for questioning, however.

5. Back on the Falcon

One of the quieter moments in the film shows Han Solo in the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon, pausing for just a moment to reclaim his beloved ship.

The melancholy smile on his face tells you he's missed his baby and couldn't be happier to get her back.

4. BB-8's got your back

BB-8 is awesome. That is all.

3. The weapon of a Jedi/the Force awakens

After Kylo Ren defeats Finn in a lightsaber battle (Kylo was totally toying with Finn until the "traitorous" former Stormtrooper managed a lucky shot), the lightsaber of Anakin Skywalker sits tantalizingly in the snow. Kylo, obsessed with Darth Vader iconography, wants it so bad.

But a funny thing happens on the way to galactic domination: the lightsaber flies past his head and ends up in Rey's steady hand. When the music swells here and I realize I'm seeing the rise of a powerful Jedi, I get chills every time.

2. "That's not how the Force works!"

It's safe to say this is the exchange my wife and I have quoted the most. We even bought shirts that say "that's not how the Force works." It's just the perfect setup: Finn says he worked in sanitation at Starkiller Base, leaving Han to wonder how in the world they'll bring down the shield and preserve the Resistance.

Han: "People are counting on us. The galaxy is counting on us."

Finn: "Solo, we'll figure it out. We'll use the Force!"

Han: "That's not how the Force works!"


Han: "Oh, really? You're cold?"

1. Luke!

I stayed away from major spoilers for the movie, but I couldn't help but notice the absence of Luke Skywalker. He wasn't on the poster, he didn't have an action figure, and he was basically nowhere to be seen.

Then the opening crawl cleared things up: "Luke Skywalker has vanished."

I had no idea he'd end up being the film's MacGuffin! Luke is the Holy Grail or the Ark of the Covenant; the sought-after object that propels the plot. When Rey makes her way up "Stairmaster Island" (hat tip to my brother-in-law, Tom), she encounters a solitary figure at the edge of the cliff. Jedi Master Luke Skywalker is back!

Rey reaches out with the lightsaber that once belonged to Luke and his father. What's he feeling at that moment? Sadness? Grief? Loss? Regret? Hope? Love?

I believe it's all of these things.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Thoughts on Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

This post contains spoilers for Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice

I saw Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice on opening weekend, but I'm only now writing about it. By now the internet has dissected the movie far more adeptly than I could ever manage, but I still wanted to get my thoughts out there.

I thought it was a mess. From the editing to the dream sequences/visions to the whole reason for the Batman-Superman smackdown, I thought the movie failed on several levels. The high points weren't enough to keep the movie from collapsing under the weight of its dour nature and faux-complicated plot.

I'm a big fan of Man of Steel. I realize that's a dangerous opinion on the internet, but I liked that movie. It told a story--a hero's journey--and it told it well. We saw a Clark Kent/Kal-El/Superman conflicted over his purpose in life. He didn't just show up at the Fortress of Solitude one day, find an outfit, and turn up a decade later as Superman, as Christopher Reeve's iconic version of the character did. They tried to humanize Superman with the pitfalls of a human being. I get why that didn't work for a lot of people, but it worked for me.

The reason it worked for me because I thought we were seeing a Superman in training. I thought we were seeing a guy who couldn't quite bear the weight of being a hero but who would one day stand tall. One day he'd inspire hope among the people of Earth. "You will give the people of Earth an ideal to strive towards. They will race behind you, they will stumble, they will fall. But in time, they will join you in the sun, Kal. In time, you will help them accomplish wonders," his father, Jor-El, tells him.

The hopes and dreams of his Kryptonian father are counterbalanced by the all-too-real concerns of Jonathan and Martha Kent, goodhearted Midwesterners who don't really know what to do with a son who has special gifts. They don't want him to show his powers because people fear what they don't understand. Jor-El speaks from an idealistic place; the Kents speak from a realistic one. When Clark saves a school bus full of kids and his father suggests maybe he shouldn't have, it's a reality check for everyone. He doesn't know what to do with his son, and that suggestion rings false from him. There's no way Jonathan Kent thinks that way, not really, but he wants to protect Clark.

In the end of Man of Steel--about the last five minutes or so--we see a hero who wandered for so many years finally find his place. We saw hints of the wink-wink, nudge-nudge nature of the Clark Kent-wears-glasses-Superman-doesn't charade we're familiar with. You got the idea that Clark Kent was ready to embrace his role as Superman and balance the well-intentioned but divergent philosophies of his two families. Superman represents the Kryptonian in him, that ideal to make the world a better place. Clark Kent represents the everyday Midwesterner who can make a difference without bringing attention to himself.

Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice throws every bit of that character development out the window. We see a Superman who hasn't, in fact, found his way. We meet a character who hasn't developed at all. He's a sulking, conflicted dispenser of vengeance instead of a hopeful beacon of light. Even the fallout from the Battle of Metropolis and the destruction it caused gets only lip service in the movie, replaced by tacked on debates about a mission in Africa and a plot involving a disgruntled man injured in the Superman-General Zod fight who eventually blows himself up and kills several people in the process.

Even the main thrust of the movie, the conflict between Superman and Batman, makes very little sense. Let's pretend for a moment that the writers and producers of the movie remembered the character arc they sketched in Man of Steel. The movie would've presented a Superman who actively cared about humanity and didn't feel so isolated. Maybe he wouldn't be saving kittens from trees, but he'd do random acts of kindness and take joy in it. He'd still realize he couldn't save everyone, but he'd put his best foot forward and prove that the world really does need a Superman.

If we had that Superman in this movie, the showdown between the two heroes would hold up to scrutiny. Let me make this clear: Batman/Bruce Wayne's viewpoint is very well represented. It makes sense as presented in the movie. Bruce Wayne watched people he cared about die; he saw Superman and Zod tear apart Metropolis and neighboring Gotham City. This Batman, older, cynical, jaded, views the newcomer as a threat. His paranoia makes sense. You understand why Batman would consider Superman a threat and try to take him down. No complaints there--Batman's ire against Superman is earned.

This battle should've been a philosophical one: the brighter, inspiring heroics of a Superman who found his way in the world versus the violent, dark methodology of the Caped Crusader. Two opposing worldviews, two opposing forces. Superman a brighter reflection of Batman; Batman a dark harbinger of what Superman's powers could become if warped. The conflict wouldn't need an external agitator in Lex Luthor because it would foster a natural rivalry.

But the movie isn't interested in setting up something that makes sense or with true stakes.

Instead, BvS gives us a Superman and Batman who aren't all that much different. They're basically the same person, one just a little older and angrier. They're both dour, dark, conflicted men with deeply rooted personal issues and warped senses of justice. As such, the conflict between them isn't all that interesting, and the movie contrives a plot from Lex Luthor to make it all happen. The movie would have you believe that Mark Zuckerberg slowly drove Bruce Wayne insane with notes about the dangers of Superman and also fed information to Clark Kent suggesting the Batman was out of control.

Luthor, manipulative? Sure, no problem. If the contrasts between the two heroes had been more pronounced, this could have even been interesting. But that subtle manipulation is undercut by the movie's decision to have Luthor kidnap Lois Lane and Martha Kent. Kill the Bat, or Martha dies, Lex basically says. Thus, Superman doesn't fight Batman because he wants to or because their conflicting worldviews finally come to blows in a satisfying way. They fight because Lex Luthor kidnapped Superman's mom.

I can't state enough how much of a misstep and missed opportunity this was. The movie didn't even need Luthor, not really, but I understand the desire to work him into the plot. I just don't understand his ultimate endgame here or what the hell Jesse Eisenberg was trying to do with the role. Luthor feels superfluous and tacked on. Even his proclamations at the end of the movie that clearly hint at the arrival of Darkseid end up unsatisfying.

And then, hey, let's just throw Doomsday in there and kickstart the Death of Superman storyline.

And then, hey, let's just throw in Wonder Woman (although she was awesome and that music)!

This movie disappointed me more than I could have ever imagined. Zack Snyder and company had all of the ingredients in place for a movie that had a cohesive emotional core. We should've been having a 9/11 panel-type commission on Superman and the Battle of Metropolis instead of some silly debate about a random incident in Africa. We should've had an immovable object versus an irresistible force instead of the "by the way, I know who you are and kidnapped your mom" conflict we're treated to. We should've had a Superman confident in his abilities and role in the world--you know, the Superman hinted at during the conclusion of Man of Steel.

Snyder says there's a three-hour cut of the movie that he wanted the studio to release, but the studio balked at the running time. I think a solid 45 minutes of this movie could've been cut; I can't imagine three hours of it, unless that three-hour cut has tons of character moments that are lacking in the theatrical version.

Oh, and that one trailer with Doomsday totally outlined the plot of the movie. Seriously, WB, that trailer left me with exactly one surprise in the film: Superman's death.

But despite the disappointment I outlined above, there were a few things I liked:

  • Ben Affleck worked great as Batman, and that warehouse fight scene was phenomenal
  • I really enjoyed Wonder Woman
  • Despite everyone's collective hatred of him, I believe Henry Cavill is a good Superman; I feel that in an "I super believe in you Tad Cooper" kind of way
  • We need to see more of Jeremy Irons and his snarky Alfred
  • The "Knightmare" was a sumptuous visual treat
  • I found the use of the Man of Steel theme inspiring at all times

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Studicus Selects 2015

Once, long ago, I posted on the internet as Studicus, an in-joke nickname related to a skit from high school. When I first started blogging, I called my year-end entries "Studicus Selects." The tradition has continued since 2005...although I skipped 2006 for some unknown reason.

You'll find past entries here (scroll down for the 2015 picks):

Studicus Selects 2014
Studicus Selects 2013
Studicus Selects 2012
Studicus Selects 2011
Studicus Selects 2010
Studicus Selects 2009
Studicus Selects 2008
Studicus Selects 2007
Studicus Selects 2005

Most surprising movie, Marvel Cinematic Universe category. Everyone knew Avengers Age of Ultron would be one of the summer's big movies. I enjoyed it, although it wasn't nearly as fun as the first Avengers flick because we had to inject way too much Joss Whedon-angsty stuff into the movie.

What I didn't expect was how much I enjoyed Ant-Man. It reminded me a lot of the first Iron Man movie in the way it was constructed. Plus, it may be the most humorous of all the MCU movies. Every once in a while, it's nice to have a superhero movie where the stakes are huge for a single character but don't hinge on whether or not the world will get destroyed. I highly recommend it.

It also gave us this bonkers promotional video:

The can of Pam is for scale

Largest jar of peanut butter I've ever seen, big jar peanut butter category. My father retired this year and now enjoys the slow-paced life of a retiree with three grandchildren who live less than 30 seconds away. Dad ate a lot of peanut butter sandwiches at work, and his coworkers certainly noticed. Upon his retirement, one of them gifted him this large jar of Peter Pan peanut butter. I imagine this lasted about two weeks, tops.

Best family outing, retirement category. Not only did my father retire in September, my mother retired in June. That meant the Adams family (if you hum the theme song, I will Kylo Ren you) took a trip to celebrate the occasion. My brother and I bought tickets to see the Cincinnati Reds play the St. Louis Cardinals at Great American Ball Park. We got some bonus baseball: the previous night's game couldn't be completed, so they played the rest of it before our game started. The "second" game commemorated Pete Rose night, and we all got Pete Rose bobbleheads. We don't get to do much as a family these days, so it was nice for Mom, Dad, Greg, and I to have a throwback weekend together at the ballpark.

This was definitely one of our most memorable family trips...and the only one involving a group selfie

The Pete Rose bobblehead was indeed buckled in for the trip back to Indy

Most satisfying movie experience, space opera category. "There has been an awakening...have you felt it?" Star Wars is back (as if it ever really left us in the first place). Star Wars: The Force Awakens was by far the most satisfying movie experience of the year. Not only did we get a lot of high quality Han Solo and Chewbacca action, the new characters were great, the movie had a ton of heart, and it's probably the funniest Star Wars movie out there.

Seeing the old gang back on the big screen was an emotional experience for me, as I've always been a huge fan of the original trilogy. I even saw each of the prequel movies multiple times. At one point in my life, I owned all of the action figures from the "Power of the Force" line and had read each and every one of the expanded universe books. After college, I cooled on those things a little bit, but the new movie has really reignited my love for the franchise. I think The Force Awakens deserves its own post one of these days. Maybe I'll write one after I see it...again.

Best website inventory stalking moment, Star Wars: The Force Awakens toy category. Two new Star Wars characters caught my attention when the new toys were released earlier this year: Kylo Ren and Captain Phasma. I thought both looked cool, so I wanted to get their action figures. This proved to be a pretty daunting task. I think everyone wanted these two characters.

"X" never marks the spot, but the Target inventory website doesn't lie

I couldn't find them anywhere; at one point, Kylo Ren and Captain Phasma were going for $60 bucks each on Amazon! I stalked the online inventories of Indianapolis-area Walmart, Kmart, Target, and Toys R Us stores to see if anyone had them in stock. No dice. Both figures were always "out of stock." Then, one magical day, I checked the Target website and Kylo Ren was in stock at one of the Target stores in Greenwood. I happened to be on vacation that week and went to retrieve them. I found two of each figure there and bought the other set for one of my friends, who was just as excited after scouring Chicago-area stores for them.

Sometimes a treasure hunt is REALLY exciting.

Is this an Xbox One or a cardboard box filled with a lack of productivity?

Most self-indulgent Christmas gift, home entertainment category. I wasn't sure I would hop into the "next gen" of videogame systems. My Xbox 360 has been collecting dust upstairs ever since the summer, and I felt the Xbox One was overpriced when it was first released. Then, the Microsoft Store offered a killer deal for the holidays: they slashed $50 off their console bundles, threw in a free game, and offered a $60 store credit for anyone who bought the system. I thought the deal was too good to pass up, so I talked it over with my wife and decided to go for it.

I'm glad I did. The Xbox One is a great system. I bought the Tomb Raider bundle, which came with both Tomb Raider games. The system also came with Assassin's Creed Unity. I used the store credit to buy Batman: Arkham Knight and Lego Batman 3. I ended up getting some gift cards for Best Buy, where I bought an extra controller, a charging station, and a media remote. Basically, the Xbox will replace the Roku since it has most of the same apps. This year, they're also supposed to add DVR functionality for over-the-air TV, which will be great since finding a good OTA DVR is challenging.

So far, I've played through the first Tomb Raider game, and it's fun to be back in the world of gaming. Now I'll have to juggle that with writing.

They mock me every time I write. Every. Stinking. Time.

Writing year in review, still nothing new published category. I was pretty darn productive in 2015! I wrote four novels: two of them in a superhero series I started a couple years ago, one about a drug that extends a person's lifespan, and a young adult fantasy novel about a vaguely medieval world filled with magic and unicorns. If you check out my Twitter stream (you don't tweet enough, @statomatty), you'll see a pretty consistent tally of word counts. When I'm on a project, I'll often write six or seven days during the week. I took a break in November because I needed to go back and polish some of my existing work instead of starting something shiny and new. In addition, I spent some time submitting work. I got a few bites on one of my projects, but nothing came of it.

I do need to get back to writing on a consistent basis. If I hadn't stopped in November to do some revisions, I'd probably have written a fifth book in 2015. I will get back at it in 2016.

Strangest obsession, it's clearly a cult category. The HBO documentary Going Clear absolutely captivated me. I'd heard of Scientology before, but I didn't quite grasp how nutso the whole thing was. After watching the HBO doc about the "religion" (ahem) created by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard (LRH!), I couldn't get the whole concept out of my mind. I read the book that served as the basis for the documentary and got sucked into the internet rabbit hole that is Scientology. The whole thing is unbelievable.

See, most religions tell you the creation story right away. It's kind of the first thing you learn about. In Christianity, you pretty much start with Genesis and go from there. God created the Earth, you know? Well, in Scientology, they hold the origin story from you until you reach a certain level. After you spend thousands upon thousands of dollars and endure countless "audits," you learn the "creation" myth of Scientology, which involves an intergalactic warlord named Xenu. I won't get into it, but this Wikipedia page has a nice summary if you feel like gouging your eyes out.

We love Walt, but Henry Standing Bear is our favorite character

Most surprising Netflix addiction, Matt and Anne category. Anne and I fell in love with the TV show Longmire. We binge-watched the series in just a few weeks. No one was more excited that Netflix was going to produce a fourth season than the two of us. When it was released, we couldn't wait to blow through the new episodes. Netflix picked up the show for a fifth season, and you can bet we'll watch it when it comes out.

I'll also make an honorable mention with Halt and Catch Fire. Anne's in love with Lee Pace, so that's pretty much why we started watching it. Turns out, it was a great show. Another really good one: Turn. We liked both of these shows enough that we bought season passes for their second seasons because we couldn't wait for them to make it to Netflix.

Depressing sports news, Colts and Reds category. We said goodbye to Reggie Wayne this year, and he briefly toyed with the idea of joining the Patriots. After seeing the team overpay for Andre Johnson, you wonder why they just didn't keep Reggie around. So that was depressing.

Also depressing: a season that reminded me of such quarterbacking luminaries as Kerwin Bell, Paul Justin, Kelly Holcomb, Kerry Collins, Curtis Painter, and Dan Orlovsky. The Colts let their star, Andrew Luck, get pummeled and miss half of the season. Then his 40-year-old backup, Matt Hasselbeck, got pummeled. His backup, Charlie Whitehurst, strained his hamstring and ended up on injured reserve. The team with (delusional) "Super Bowl aspirations" instead ended up as a complete disappointment. I think Jeff George is starting Week 17 against the Titans. That guy's always waiting by the phone, you know? They still have a chance of making the playoffs, but I think it involves a few teams winning and a human sacrifice or something.

And then you have the Cincinnati Reds. A few years ago, they had this great core group of players. Now, they're just terrible. They traded fan favorite Todd Frazier in a move that makes me sick to my stomach. The team is trying to move Brandon Phillips as well, also making me sick to my stomach. Closer Aroldis Chapman got shipped to the New York Yankees. I'll miss the flames on the tall stacks for his 103-mph fastball, although losing him isn't the gut punch of the other two. Basically, the Reds are a mess. I'm sure they couldn't afford Frazier once his contract was up, but you hate to lose a player you brought up through your farm system and who became a fan favorite.

Best YouTube discovery, uproariously funny anti-highlights category. The 2014-2015 New York Knicks "highlights" video is a thing of beauty. Set to "One Shining Moment," it shows the "best" of a terrible basketball team. I laugh until I cry every time.

Seriously. Just watch it:

Most ambitious undertaking, home media server category. I watch a lot of Seinfeld. I have the complete series on DVD, but I HATE flipping through and switching discs and hunting for certain episodes. I solved that problem by digitizing all the episodes and putting them on a Plex media server. Now, I can use the remote to find the episode that I want. Anne and I watch "The Chicken Roaster" episode way too much.

Very few products actually change your life. Plex changed mine.

After that, I went completely bonkers and digitized my entire DVD collection. Every movie I own is now available on Plex and accessible at the touch of a button. I've streamed a lot of my movies on the Roku, though the Xbox One will probably do the heavy lifting from here on out. The only drawback: I don't have a Blu-ray drive for my PC, so I can't digitize my Blu-ray discs. Still, a small sacrifice for a great user experience.

Best dates, married couple category. Anne and I had our share of great times this year, but a few definitely stick out. In January, I took Anne to see Disney on Ice. She's seen it before, but this time I went with her. She wore a tiara and everything, just like all the little girls who were there with their parents.

Princess Anne, everyone

During a vacation in March, we visited the new Giordano's on the north side. We've been to the one in Chicago a couple times, and we really enjoyed the one in Indy. Actually we need to go back, come to think of it!
In December, we went to see A Christmas Carol at Beef and Boards. I love that show! My favorite version is the one that aired on TNT in the 90s with Patrick Stewart (Anne gave me that on DVD this year!). The Beef and Boards production was pretty great, though, and it came with a dinner buffet. Carved roast beef for the win!

And of course, we also saw Star Wars in a packed theater in Greenwood, and that was a lot of fun. I especially enjoyed the postgame discussion at the Oaken Barrel.

Best meme, requested by Anne category. We are devoted Game of Thrones fans, and we were devastated by what happened to Jon Snow. I made an off-the-cuff remark after the episode: "You know nothing, Jon Snow"/"I know I got stabbed like 75 times." Anne demanded that I make it into a meme, and so I did.