Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Is This Just Fantasy?

So this year, like every year, I've signed up for two Fantasy Football leagues.

This year, like every year, I'll enjoy it for like two weeks and then it becomes a chore.

As I've talked about in the past, I have a weird relationship with professional football. I grew up in a very decidedly non-sports oriented environment, and I don't think I watched a full game of any pro sport until I was in college--not even a Superbowl. (It's possible I watched a game of the Stanley Cup finals in 1991-1992 or so, but don't ask me under oath.) It took a while, but I eventually warmed up to football and hockey and (less so) baseball.

Anyway, even though I watched football fairly regularly for a while, I never got into it into it--I know about the players in Pittsburgh and I kinda know the players in Baltimore, Cleveland, and Cincinnati,* and I maybe know some of the quarterbacks and star players. I just can't bring myself to care all that much who is on the O-Line of a West coast team that we may play once every four years.

This is all a little weird. Y'all know my interests at this point, and it would seem that professional sports wouldn't rank very high. And I've found myself rather disinterested altogether for the past few years--a lot of the decisions made by the NFL has left me unimpressed, and while I know for the most part they can only do so much, I can't not feel a little disappointed.

Fantasy football, however, would seem like it's right up the alley of people like me, who love playing weird games and also somehow like to watch athletic competitions. And that's part of the reason why I do it every year--there's something a bit fascinating about the entire concept of fantasy football. The best part of football specifically is that there's a pretty hard deadline each week, unlike, say, baseball, where as far as I can tell each team plays sixteen games a day.

I actually sometimes stress about fantasy football (for no good reason!). So help me if there's a week where both of my QBs are on a bye week. And, really, in the end, it means nothing. I've never won a championship, although I once made it to the finals in a 16-player league, which was fun because I totally forgot about it for two weeks straight. And at the end of it all, there's no prize or glory.

I occasionally wish that I could come up with a fantasy version of some other competition, but there's nothing good out there. I thought about having a political fantasy league, where people draft words that will be said during a debate. If we had a decent steady schedule and a way to automate it, that might be...interesting, although we'd only get to play every four years. (Maybe that's enough.)

So this year, like most years, I'm going to put in  minimal effort, probably get minimal returns, with a small but not trivial chance of making it to the big leagues. I like to think of it as the world's least efficiency metaphor for life. 

*For you non-sporters, these are the other teams in the same division as the Pittsburgh Steelers, so they are played against more often. If you don't know what a division is, that's okay; Portland has all sorts of other forms of entertainment.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Netflix Series Review: Stranger Things

The recently released Netflix series, Stranger Things, is available now for those who have the service. It's a sci-fi/horror series that borrows greatly from the movies of that type from the 80s while also weaving an elaborate and fascinating tale.

The series, set in Indiana in the early 1980's, involves the disappearance of a child, Will, in a small town. It focuses on several groups: mainly, it deals with the group of the Will's friends and their quest to find out where he went. In addition, it deals with Will's mom Joyce and Sheriff Jim Hopper (played by Winona Ryder, the only name in the cast, and David Harbour, who you probably recognize, respectively) and Will's older brother, Jonathan, and his relationship with Nancy. And finally add in the existence of Eleven, a mysterious child who seemingly has special powers. Each have their own unique methods to find Will, but more importantly in the age before cell phones they all act independently (and largely unknowingly) of each other as they uncover different bits of evidence and unravel the mystery.

It's hard to go too far into the plot without spoiling a lot of it, but suffice it to say there's an entity in the small town of Hawkins, and the local office of the Department of Energy probably has a lot to do with it. As encounters with the entity get more frequent and dangerous, the stakes get higher as it becomes increasingly clear how much trouble Will is truly in. 

Stranger Things is one of the most iconic series I have watched in a long time. It manages to be a remarkably solid homage to the 80s while not making a big deal about it--if it weren't for the wood paneling and the lack of helicopter parenting it would hardly be noticeable. One can almost telegraph the tropes--the reluctant authority figure who eventually finds the truth; the two-grades-higher bullies who pick on the kids; the hysterical mom who knows the truth but no one will listen to her; and yet it never comes across as trite. Even the more overt nods to 80s films (Eleven is basically E.T.) don't come across as such until you think about it well after viewing.

Of special mention should be the core cast of kids. Child actors tend to...well, not be good, but these kids are good. Noticeably, remarkably good. It's hard to have kids carry a movie, but these actors knocked it out of the park. But that's not to trivialize the rest of the cast--everyone does a standout job. Harbour in particular impressed me, but Charlie Heaton (the older brother Jonathan) managed as well.

In addition, there's a lot of mystery after it has been "solved." Not everything has an answer, and things aren't tied up in a tidy little bow; in fact, some of the so-called tropes I mention above get explicitly and satisfyingly averted in the resolution.

For the most part, don't let the 80s vibe turn you off. While the music, effects, and setting evoke a very specific time period and genre, you'll hardly notice it. This is a show infused with a certain kind of nostalgia that most definitely doesn't use it as its main driving force, even if it is something that legitimately sets it apart. Even if you're not a huge fan of sci fi or horror it's worth a shot--I would explicitly call it an adventure mystery with occasional sci fi moments.

I've been trying to scrape together something bad about the series, and I can't really say that I can. There's a few weird plot points and character act uncharacteristically dumb at times, but it's relatively minor and hardly worse than nearly anything else out there.

At a thin eight episodes, it doesn't drag on too long, although I'd have been perfectly fine watching an extra few episodes just because the writing is that good. In any case, it's a short investment in time and totally worth it.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Go For The Gold!

The Olympics are almost over! Yay!

Now, anyone who knows me knows that I am a born Olympian. Oh, sure, things like practice or drive or desire or ability or fitness or actually making an attempt stand in my way, but overcoming adversity is what makes a good Olympian story, no?

Greece is falling apart, and Rio, Vancouver, London, and Sochi are now barren cultural wastelands thanks to the international goodwill of the "regular" Olympics. Who needs the stress? I mean, really? And what's up with all these sports--running? Swimming? Who swims anymore? Is this the Fishalympics or what?

Which is why I'm now soliciting bids for the 2020 Crankalympics.

Here are my rules:

1) Competitions should be things that I could conceivably get a gold medal in.
2) The Crankalympic site must be within an hour's drive of my home.
3) Doping is allowed as long as I get some.
4) No out-of-pocket expenses for me.

I will gladly get corporate sponsors to name the events, so get ready for the Chik-Fil-A 500 Meter Dash or the Heinz Ketchup Badminton Tournament.

Well, no, because those won't be contests in my Olympics, because I can't do any of that stuff. The only thing I'm 500 meter dashing towards is the $5 20 piece McNugget special.

Here's my first thought about the events:
  • Freestyle Complaining About Economics On Reddit
  • 100 Meter Eventually Mosey On Down To The Post Office To Get Stamps Like I Should Have On Monday
  • Playing 500 Hours Of Civilization V (i.e., one game)
  • Playing 500 Hours Of Arkham Horror (i.e., one game)
  • Obscure Political Referencing
  • Excel Formatting
  • Nap And Field
  • Greco-Roman Wresting With The Source On The TV So I Can Watch The DVD Player
  • Posting More Than One Blog Post Per Week*
  • Dad Joking
  • Archery (i.e., knowing trivia about Archer on FXX)
  • Beach Smoring
  • Something with horses. I dunno, but the horse ends up dead, whatever it is.
  • Competitive Not-Giving-A-Shit-About-The-Real-Olympics 
I look forward to seeing the bids for the 2020 2024 2028 Crankalympics!

*On second thought, I'm not sure I can handle this.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Review: Suicide Squad

The much-anticipated next installment of the DC Expanded Universe opened this past weekend, to somewhat dismal reviews but decent box office numbers. I contributed to those numbers, and my verdict: A pretty good movie.

Warning: Mile spoilers ahead. But nothing particularly important or that you can't deduce from one of the three thousand trailers. 

Also, fair warning: I'm not familiar with the source material, here. If you're looking for an assessment of the fidelity to the cartoon or comics, you aren't going to find it here. Go to one of the thousands of comic-book fan wanks sites out there for that. Take this review as someone who has a tangential relationship, at best, with comics.

The plot is relatively basic, if a unique spin on the superhero movie. Intelligence agent Amanda Waller proposes creating a crack team of "metahumans" made up exclusively of bad guys. By being expendable, they can be sent on high-risk missions to combat other metahumans (sigh) with zero guilt, with the promise of a reduced sentence and not getting killed as incentives to do the mission.

The upper brass, skeptical at first, immediately approves the project after a violent disturbance wrecks most of downtown, and the Suicide Squad is activated. The group consists of mentally fragile Harley Quinn, high-end hitman Deadshot, the mysterious Enchantress, the pyro El Diablo, the cannibalistic Killer Croc, the master thief Captain Boomerang, and escape artist Slipknot. They are lead by Colonel Flagg (who has the detonator that will blow up any necks of members who try and escape) and joined by bodyguard Katana.

Where's Joker, you may ask? Well, the Joker is around, hatching a plot to get Harley Quinn out of the mission and into his arms. (OK, that might be a bit overly romantic for two crazypants villains, but you get the idea.) He shows up periodically to stop the squad with the singular mission of rescuing his girl, but otherwise isn't a member.

The Enchantress (spoiler, I guess) very quickly goes rogue and ends up being the very thing the Suicide Squad is fighting against. As the group inches its way towards the panic in the city, they endure internal strife, a few escape attempts, a little bit of self-reflection, but mostly shit gets blown up.

First things first: I liked this movie. I thing the mediocre reviews have some points, but the bad reviews seem to be out of a bit of spite. (We'll get to that in a moment.) The concept is nice, the acting is well done, everything works to its logical conclusion with just enough surprises to make things interesting, and the concept of "good" and "evil" are toyed with even if they aren't particularly deep.

Still, there are some valid criticisms. Overall, the movie clearly has some pacing and dialogue issues; rumors that it was hastily recut after the dismal reception of Batman v Superman, if true, clearly show. Characters arrive suddenly, some exposition is unnecessary and then completely ignored for other, more important things. None of it breaks the movie, but it's noticeable. 

One issue right off the bat is the character introductions--each of the first six villains are given introductions ranging from less than a minute to two or three minutes--add that up and that's 10-15 minutes of exposition right off the bat. It's a little overwhelming. And throughout the movie the constant reminders these are the bad guys gets a little tiring--as is the rather contradictory notion that at least Deadshot is a good guy, given the screen time they spend on his relationship with his daughter. It's not a bad idea, but it stands out to the one-dimensional characterization they give, say, Killer Croc and Captain Boomerang, both of whom are barely more than mild ethnic jokes.

The "surprise" of the Enchantress escaping and becoming the big bad is also a little forced--it would have flowed much easier had she just been the enemy from the beginning, and making the catalyst the releasing of her heart (just...never mind.)

But once the movie finds its groove, it flows pretty well--it certainly doesn't feel like its two hour length. Even when the Joker shows up (a plot thread that, in the end, contributes nothing to the overall story) is still fun; Jared Leto's performance is good enough that you don't really care.

The movie is carried, ultimately, by Will Smith and Margot Robbie. Both characters soak up the screen time, taking huge bites out of the scenery, and loving every minute of it. Their performances make you forget about the plot holes and the odd pacing, which is impressive. While Leto's appearances were fairly interesting, he just wasn't in it long enough (and ultimately incidental to the plot) that he's, in my mind, clearly third place, if even that.

All this ends with a movie that ends up being a solid B, maybe even a B+. The characters are interesting, the plot, while a little shaky, is pretty standard for comic book movies, and the performances are good enough. Tightening up the script and maybe re-editing the re-edit would have done wonders, but as is I was pleasantly surprised.

Now, after that assessment, we have to hold this movie up to the mirror of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Marvel has done so well for so long that they've practically become the gold standard of the modern superhero movie--their only sin, as yet manifested, is oversaturation* When done, Suicide Squad pales quite a bit. When you see what could have been done, it's rather disappointing.

I have a ton of ideas that I think Marvel would have done better (mostly involving the Enchantress, whom we spent way too much time on for her to end up the villain and fleshing out the Joker), the big missed opportunity was waiting. For a movie like this, it would have infinitely been better had DC made a few movies first, introducing the third-tier roster of villains over time. They might not be more than cameos but they'd establish the characters (requiring less exposition) and also make people anticipate it more. I understand that the point of the Suicide Squad was that they weren't top-tier characters, but still--Marvel knows how to balance fidelity to the comics with making interesting movies.

In the end, I recommend it fairly heartily. My main gripes are generally of the "what might have been" category, and Suicide Squad is hardly the only movie guilty of that.

*and maybe Thor: The Dark World