Libertarian endorses theocrat for U.S. Senate

October 19th, 2017

Rand Paul is a Republicans I’ve spoken in favor of in the past. There’s generally little about which I agree with conservatives, but Paul has always espoused a more libertarian-leaning version of conservatism with which I found at least some common ground. In particular, he impressed me during the Republican primary debates last year, when he appeared to be the only grown-up in the room whenever the subject turned to foreign policy, in that he was the only candidate whose approach didn’t boil down to “bomb as many Middle Eastern people as possible.”

Rand Paul

But now he’s thrown all that good will away by endorsing Christian theocrat Roy Moore for Senator. Moore previously served as chief justice on Alabama’s Supreme Court, where he was twice removed from the bench. The first time was for installing a Ten Commandments monument in the courthouse. But he ran for the position again, whereupon Alabama voters returned him to the bench. He was eventually suspended again for defying the U.S. Supreme Court by instructing Alabama judges to enforce Alabama’s ban on same-sex marriage, in violation of the SCOTUS ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges.

Roy Moore

Either of those cases, the latter in particular, ought to be enough to make Moore’s candidacy a non-starter for any libertarian. But it gets worse: In 2002, the Alabama Supreme Court heard a custody case. The mother was a lesbian, but her sexual orientation was not at issue. That didn’t stop Moore from authoring a concurring opinion in which he quotes the Bible (the Old Testament, of course) and writes this lovely passage:

The State carries the power of the sword, that is, the power to prohibit conduct with physical penalties, such as confinement and even execution. It must use that power to prevent the subversion of children toward this [homosexual] lifestyle, to not encourage a criminal lifestyle.

That’s right, Moore thinks gay people should be imprisoned or executed. And “libertarian” Rand Paul thinks Moore would make a fine addition to the United States Senate.

The Super NES Classic Edition midnight release

September 29th, 2017

Today marks the release of the Super NES Classic Edition. I’ve been excited about the console, and determined to get my hands on one on release day, but have had trouble determining just how hard they’d be to come by. Nintendo has announced that they’re manufacturing them in greater numbers than last year’s extremely scarce NES Classic, and I called a few local stores, none of whom seemed to be expected anyone to line up or camp out overnight or anything. But there was a lot of hype surrounding the release and I’d seen a fair amount of chatter online about people camping out early for one.

My local Wal-mart is open 24 hours, and told me when I called earlier this week that they would begin selling the SNES Classic at midnight. I would have considered going there straight after work yesterday, but my company’s kickball team was playing in the league finals. (We won!) So I headed to Wal-mart straight from the kickball field and ended up arriving at about 10 o’clock to find myself 24th in line. (I would find out later that the first person in line had arrived at 6 o’clock, about the same time I’d have shown up had I come straight from work.) I asked the one of the employees manning the electronics department how many consoles they had available, and he couldn’t give me an exact number but assured me I had arrived in time to get one. Two more people showed up within minutes of my arrival, whereupon an employee started counting the number of people in line and suggested that all of the store’s available consoles were accounted for. He still didn’t seem certain about the exact number, but told us there were “about 25.” Two more people arrived together and got in line, though at this point the new arrivals were becoming anxious about the store actually having sufficient stock for them to get one.

I and a few others in line had been keeping an eye on BrickSeek to monitor store inventory. Most Wal-marts in the area were listed as having 2030 SNES Classics in stock, but strangely this Wal-mart did not appear in BrickSeek’s listing at all. People started speculating about how the consoles were shipped to stores, and how that would affect the available quantity. Someone said that they arrived from the distributor in boxes of four, so “about 25” probably meant that there were 24 or 28 available. But someone else thought it was boxes of six, which meant 24 or 30. But BrickSeek showed some local stores has having an odd number of consoles in stock, so maybe the shipping configuration wasn’t really a factor. Basically, no one knew what that status was and there was a lot of confusion about availability, especially among those around my position as the 24th in line.

People continued to line up throughout the night; by the time midnight rolled around, there were at least 50, and probably 60 or 70 people in line. Even without an exact count I assumed most would go home disappointed. I think employees should have started turning people away long before that point, but those in the electronics department had disappeared, presumably to load the SNES Classic consoles onto a cart and prepare them for sale.

When the employees reappeared with a cart of the consoles, they had been stacked neatly such that it was easy to count how many there were: 28. A sign on the cart was unequivocal: “one per customer.” People around me in line started frantically counting again to make sure they knew exactly where they stood. There was even a police officer on hand to keep order, which never became an issue—everyone was polite, friendly, and well-behaved. Only a small number of people abandoned the line even after it became clear that there were far fewer consoles available than people who wanted them. I left the store immediately after purchasing mine, so I don’t know how things went down after they were sold out.

Super NES Classic Edition consoles ready for sale

Obviously I’m happy to have gotten my hands on the SNES Classic, but it’s disappointing that Wal-mart didn’t manage the release better. I would not have been happy to be one of those who waited in line only to be turned away at the last minute (and I was closer to being in that position than I’d have liked). Apparently other stores like Best Buy and Target use a ticketing system that takes the guesswork out of these large-scale releases. A few of the people in line behind me were vocally displeased that Wal-mart didn’t have a similar system in place.

Still, it was actually a fun experience and I enjoyed talking with the people in line around me. There was a group of college-age kids in front of me who were very friendly. Right behind me was a pleasant man who even left the line while we held his spot to get some folding chairs from another area of the store so a few of us could sit while we waited. And behind him was a mother with her two children who was excited to play the games she remembered from her youth and share them with her own children—I was especially glad to see that she was able to get one.

Super NES Classic Edition

Because it was nearly 1 o’clock in the morning by the time I got home with my purchase, I went straight to bed and have not actually played it as of this writing. But I’m looking forward to spending time playing some great games this weekend.

Chicago drops the hyphen from "e-mail"

September 8th, 2017

Via the indispensable Grammar Girl podcast, I’ve learned that The Chicago Manual of Style has recently been updated, and that one of the changes in the latest version is the removal of the hyphen from the word “e-mail.”

This follows The Associated Press Stylebook’s 2011 change on matter, and is certainly in line with popular usage and other style guides. But I remain a curmudgeon on the issue and lament the change. The natural pronunciation of “email” is very different than that of “e-mail,” and other hyphenated words with single-letter prefixes have not undergone similar transformations.

Alongside Chicago’s change, the AP themselves have instituted a similar change to the word “e-sports,” which now loses its hyphen also. This means that the two words are now exceptions to the AP’s general rule of hyphenating “e-” terms.

Oh, well. At least we know it wasn’t an easy decision.

Yes, Black Lives Matter and Antifa are helping the Hurricane Harvey relief effort

September 5th, 2017

In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, opportunistic demagogues have been using social media to highlight the lack of response from liberal groups like Black Lives Matter and Antifa, suggesting that this betrays a lack of the compassion that these groups profess to believe in. One meme even characterizes them as “extreme hate groups” and lumps them in with the KKK, an obviously asinine position. Leaving aside the specious logic (why would an anti-fascism group be expected to respond to a natural disaster more than any other organization?), these assertions are wrong on the facts: both BLM and Antifa have been helping the relief effort.

I’ll leave the KKK to defend themselves, however.

If you wish to contribute the the Hurrican Harvey relief effort, I suggest donating to Foundation Beyond Belief, a humanist charity organization.

Video game review: Ultra Street Fighter II

August 31st, 2017

Ultra Street Fighter II: The Final Challengers, the latest in a long line of revisions to the all-time classic fighting game, was released for the Nintendo Switch earlier this year. Like 2008’s Super Street Fighter II Turbo: HD Remix, Ultra SF2 is based on Super Street Fighter II Turbo, the fifth and final version of Street Fighter II released in 1994 before Capcom finally moved on to Street Fighter III three years later.

Each version of Street Fighter II introduced various gameplay tweaks compared to their predecessors. In additional to general balance adjustments, Super SF2 Turbo specifically added Super Combos, especially powerful special attacks that could be performed only after filling a gauge by performing attacks and receiving damage. Super combos would go on to become a crucial part of subsequent Street Fighter games. It also introduced the secret final boss Akuma, who would become an important recurring character in the franchise.

Capcom brought Street Fighter II into the modern age by hiring Backbone Entertainment to program an updated version of Super SF2 Turbo for the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3, and UDON Entertainment to completely redraw all the game’s graphics in high definition. The game included the option to play in the original 4:3 aspect ratio, or in 16:9 widescreen mode, mainly by cropping the screen vertically but in such a way that the original gameplay is preserved. It included the options to play with the original character sprites instead of UDON’s new artwork, although the backgrounds, HUD, and other graphical assets remain in their updated versions. It includes both the original soundtrack and a remixed version provided by a variety of artists through Overclocked Remix. And of course it includes online play, via the GGPO netcode.

It also included two different versions of the game. The first is completely faithful to the original arcade release of Super SF2 Turbo in terms of gameplay, although it includes certain interface improvements, such as allowing the player to select the alternate version of a character (as they appeared in Super Street Fighter II, the version which immediately preceded Super SF2 Turbo) via a straightforward menu option rather than having to enter a code. The second has been completely rebalanced, with tons of gameplay changes, some minor, some relatively significant. Lead HD Remix designer David Sirlin even wrote a series of articles thoroughly describing the changes and explaining the reasoning behind them.

Ultra Street Fighter II screenshot

I am not a competitive Street Fighter player, and I understand that the fighting game community has largely forgotten about HD Remix, but for my money, the gameplay tweaks it introduced were almost uniformly an improvement. In particular, I was a huge fan of the easier inputs for most of the difficult-to-perform special attacks. Street Fighter is kind of know for its complicated button inputs, but as Sirlin explained:

Inside Street Fighter, there is a wonderful battle of wits, but many potential players are locked out of experiencing it because they can’t dragon punch or do Fei Long’s flying kicks, or whatever other joystick gymnastics. I’m reversing the trend. There’s only so far I can go with this and still call it SF2, but wherever I could, I turned the knob towards easy execution of moves. Let’s emphasize good decision making—the true core of competitive games—and get rid of artificially difficult commands.

That brings us to Ultra SF2. Again, like HD Remix, it is based on Super SF2 Turbo specifically. But notably, while it repurposes UDON’s HD graphics, it otherwise goes back to the drawing board, and retains none of the other HD Remix updates or changes. Since I mostly liked those changes, I consider Ultra SF2 a downgrade in many respects. Whereas HD Remix segregated its changes in a separate mode, with the original gameplay version selectable from the main menu, Ultra SF2 includes only one main gameplay mode, and while it is mostly faithful to the original incarnation of Super SF2 Turbo, it still includes at least one tweak: the addition of the ability to “tech” throws and avoid the attack. In Super SF2 Turbo, you could “soften” a throw, receiving less damage from the attack and recovering more quickly, but in Ultra SF2 it’s possible to avoid the throw altogether. In practice, I’m finding that this change actually makes throws, traditionally a very powerful attack in Street Fighter II, harder to deal with, not easier, because the window to perform the tech is very small and not as forgiving as Super SF2 Turbo’s softening window.

One major addition is the introduction of two new characters to the roster: Evil Ryu and Violent Ken. These are alternate incarnations of the existing Ryu and Ken characters, borrowed from later Street Fighter games. In Ultra SF2, they are basically palette-swaps of Ken and Ryu, with a few additional moves borrowed from Akuma. Interestingly, Ryu and Ken were palette-swaps of one another in early Street Fighter games, becoming increasingly distinct from one another over time, particularly with each new updated version of Street Fighter II. By Super SF2 Turbo, they were appreciably different. Ultra SF2 also adds Akuma, a hidden character Super SF2 Turbo, to the character select screen as a freely-selectable player character. Strangely, the character select screen is one place that does not use UDON’s redrawn art from HD Remix, instead reverting to the original character profile images from Super SF2 Turbo.

Like HD Remix, Ultra SF2 allows you to toggle between the original graphics and the redrawn HD art. Unlike HD Remix, this includes not only the character sprites but the backgrounds as well. However, it still does not include the HUD or other interface elements like the character select screen. Additionally, the aspect ratio changes with the graphic setting but is not independently selectable: the aspect ratio is 4:3 when playing with the original graphics, and 16:9 when playing with the HD art. In practice I don’t find this particularly bothersome, as players who select the original graphics presumably want a more faithful experience, while those using the HD graphics are probably okay with the more modern widescreen ratio, and the aspect ratio change has no perceptible affect on gameplay. Nevertheless, there doesn’t seem to be any good reason Capcom couldn’t have simply given us the option, and the inability to play with the HD graphics in 4:3 mode means that some of the HD background art goes unseen, cropped from the top of the screen. More bothersome, 4:3 mode is framed on the side by borders which say “Ultra Street Fighter II,” and they cannot be removed. While graphical borders are pretty common in modern releases of older games, they are almost always optional, and I generally disable them, preferring to play with plain black borders.

Also like HD Remix, Ultra SF2 includes both the original and a remixed version of the soundtrack, but it includes a completely new set of remixed tracks instead of the OC Remix ones. I prefer the OC Remix tracks, which sound more “intense” and seem more fitting for a fast-paced fighting game. Still, the new soundtrack is serviceable, and of course the original version is still available as an option. Another change from HD Remix is that Ultra SF2 also includes updated character voices borrowed from more recent Street Fighter games. As with the graphic style and aspect ratio, the music and voices are not independently selectable. You can have remixed music and new voices, or original music and original voices, but you can’t mix-and-match the two.

There are several new features and modes of play. “Buddy battle” allows you and a friend to take on a computer-controlled opponent in two-on-one match. There’s also a gallery containing over a thousand images from a Japanese Street Fighter art book. The gallery’s interface is decent and you can listen to any song from the game while browsing the illustrations.

Ultra Street Fighter II cover art

One welcome new options is a character color editor. Early versions of Street Fighter II included only two different color palettes for each character (to distinguish between them when both players selected the same character), but Super SF2 introduced many color options per character. Ultra SF2 retains all of the existing palettes, but also allows you to completely customize them. It’s a lot of fun to play with. The color editor allows you to assign virtually any color to each of three or four major areas per character. For example, when customizing Ken’s color scheme, you can independently recolor his hair, skin, and gi. The custom colors work with both the classic and HD graphics, although I’ve noticed a small amount of miscolorization on the edges of characters and between differently-colored areas when using the HD graphics. The classic sprites look just fine with custom colors. The character profile images on the character select screen and pre-fight “vs.” screen reflect the chosen colors only for game’s built-in color schemes, and use a psychedelic-looking rainbow-colored version for all custom palettes.

One completely new feature is “Way of the Hado,” a first-person 3D mini-game in which you control Ryu, using the Switch’s motion controls to perform special attacks and fight through waves of enemies. I think this was intended to be a pretty big selling point for Ultra SF2, but I didn’t find it to be anything more than an interesting diversion. The motion controls don’t seem to work particularly well, making it difficult to perform the intended attack (to be fair, you could say the same about Street Fighter II’s complex button inputs). It comes across as a kind of half-baked proof-of-concept for a more fully-featured 3D Street Fighter game, though “Way of the Hado” does nothing to make me particular anticipate such a game. It’s neat that Ultra SF2 includes an additional bonus game, but I wouldn’t consider it a major selling point.

There are a couple of other missteps. The game has a lot of modes, features, and options, which is good in itself, but its menu system is not well organized. The main menu alone has eleven items to choose from. And while of course the game allows you to customize the button configuration, it does so “the wrong way.” Here’s Sirlin again, talking about the button configuration screen in Street Fighter IV:

The right way is for the screen to list functions, then you press the buttons you want to assign. The wrong way is to list buttons, then you scroll through lists of functions to assign. The reason that one way is right and the other way is wrong is pretty clear when you watch people try to configure buttons. I’ve had to watch what must be thousands of people do this over the years in all the tournaments I’ve helped run (not to mention local gatherings). When the config screen says “Jab” and requires you to press the button you want, you just press the upper left button on your stick (or whatever button on your gamepad). This is a one-step process. But if the screen lists “X” and then requires you to scroll through functions until you find jab, it requires a two step process. You have to know which button on your controller is labeled “X.” When this screen is the right way, no one has to know if the upper left button happens to be X or A or B or whatever else.

If you think this is negligible, you have never seen people set buttons. The wrong way turns what should be a 3 second task into a fairly confusing affair.

It’s one of those things that doesn’t really affect gameplay once you’ve got everything set up the way you like, but it suggests a lack of thoughtfulness on the part of the developer. There’s also an option to use “lite” controls, which allows special movies to be assigned to buttons, so they can be performed with a single button press rather than the complex input normally required. When using the standard dual-Joy-con setup, or the Pro Controller, the Switch has eight action buttons (four face buttons and two shoulder buttons). Street Fighter II uses a six-button control scheme, so you can assign up to two special moves without having to give up one of the standard attack buttons.

Ultra Street Fighter II buddy battle screenshot

The Switch’s Joy-con controllers are novel, and they help make the switch a hybrid portable/console system, but they are small, and I find them less than ideal for most games. I don’t like having four separate directional buttons instead of a single pad, and while the analog stick is serviceable, I don’t like using it to play games that lack analog controls, like Street Fighter II. So the Pro Controller, which is more traditional, is a far superior choice for playing Ultra SF2. Of course, the idea way to play a Street Fighter game is with a full-sized arcade stick, and to that end, Hori has released a Switch version of their Real Arcade Pro V Hayabusa stick. I imported the Japanese version as soon as it was released, and it immediately made Ultra SF2 easier and more fun to play. In fact, I refused to play “ranked” matches online before I was able to do so with the Hayabusa, sticking “casual” matches only. At $150, it’s a bit pricey, especially for a platform that doesn’t seem likely to be a popular choice for competitive fighting games (though it is also compatible with PCs). 8Bitdo is soon releasing their own N30 arcade stick for the Switch, and at $80, it’s only a little more than half the price of the Hayabusa. I have not tried the N30 myself, but it seems like a good option at a more affordable price.

Speaking of price, Ultra SF2’s $40 price tag has been the target of ire in most of the reviews I’ve seen. And perhaps that’s fair; while it’s been dolled up with plenty of bells and whistles, it’s still basically a 23-year-old game (even older if you count its earlier iterations), and games of this vintage are usually sold much more cheaply, or as part of a collection. For me, I like Street Fighter II enough that I’m willing to pay a premium for it, and I was always going to splurge on the arcade stick to go along with it, anyway. Additionally, Ultra SF2 got a physical release, which is by no means a given these days, especially for what could probably be considered a niche title. So while I understand the concerns about its price, I still thought Ultra SF2 was worth it in the end.

Despite some flaws, Ultra SF2 is still the same Street Fighter II we’ve been playing since the early ’90s. It’s an important, seminal game, and it’s as fun and exciting to play as it ever was, especially with online play against opponents around the world. It’s a little expensive for what you get, and the most enthusiastic players will have to invest in an even more expensive arcade stick to get the most out of it. Those caveats notwithstanding, I recommend it.

Prayer is the religious equivalent of alternative medicine

August 30th, 2017

Among all the news about Hurricane Harvey, I came across this story about a Texas Pastor who opted not to evacuate because “we’re just praying and believing that it’ll slow down or something miraculous will take place.” In reading the criticism of his decision to rely on prayer in lieu of action, I was struck by how similar the argument is to that against alternative medicine.

Pastor Freddy Naranjo

Like alternative medicine, we know that prayer doesn’t actually work. (By which I mean it has no measurable, external effect; it can certainly be psychologically beneficial for the person praying, and can have placebo effects.) Like alternative medicine, it’s usually harmless in itself. (Though a lack of regulations means that you don’t always know what you’re getting with alternative treatments such as dietary supplements, so they certainly have the potential to be dangerous—that is different from prayer, at least.) But also like alternative medicine, using it to justify inaction can cause real harm: this year alone, there were at least two high-profile cases of children dying when their parents opted for faith healing instead of medical treatment.

This is why the “what’s the harm?” defense fails for both prayer and alternative medicine, as well as for pretty much every pseudoscientific, supernatural, or paranormal claim out there. Leaving aside that believing false things is bad unto itself, these things do in fact cause harm sometimes. And even when they don’t, they’re still promoting the same kind of dangerous thinking, and for no real benefit.

As we know, Hurricane Harvey has turned out to be every bit as devastating as predicted to Texas’ gulf coast. I have been unable to find information about Pastor Naranjo, his congregation, or his church since Harvey’s landfall last week. I hope (but do not pray) that they are safe.

Video game review: Sonic Mania

August 17th, 2017

This week saw the release of Sonic Mania, the latest entry in the long-running Sonic the Hedgehog series of video games, and a throwback to the franchise’s earliest entries on the Sega Genesis. It’s built on the Retro Engine, a platform which brings modern console features like 16×9 widescreen support, 60-frames-per-second animation, and online functionality to retro-style games. Sonic Mania lead developer Christian Whitehead originally developed the engine for a Sonic fan game, then worked with Sega to produce a port of 1993’s Sonic CD to modern consoles using the engine in 2011. Similar ports of the original Sonic the Hedgehog and Sonic 2 followed.

I picked up the Nintendo Switch version of Sonic Mania, and I was immediately hooked. Its controls and gameplay feel just like those of a classic Sonic game. That’s a good thing, because Sonic’s simple control scheme, using only the directional pad (or the analog stick, in this case) and a single action button, has always been one of the series’ strengths. Of course Sonic Mania includes the spin-dash technique introduced in Sonic 2, and it features Sonic 3’s elemental shields. It also adds a new “drop dash,” which allows you to perform a spin-dash immediately after landing from a jump. As in Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles, you can choose to play as Sonic, Tails, or Knuckles, each of whom has different abilities. Tails can fly briefly, while Knuckles can climb walls and glide through the air. You can also play as Sonic and Tails together; you control Sonic directly while Tails is controlled by the computer, but a second player can join in and take control of Tails instead. This effectively gives Sonic Mania a two-player cooperative mode, which is welcome, although not having tried it extensively, I suspect it will be of limited fun for the second player, since the game is very fast-paced and the camera always follows player 1, meaning player 2 will inevitably be lost off-screen fairly often.

Its graphics are also reminiscent of the style of its predecessors, but upgraded to take advantage of modern hardware. Sonic Mania runs in 16×9 widescreen at 60 frames per second. And of course it includes the requisite CRT-scanline filters (a much more subtle pixel-smoothing filter is enabled by default, but the graphical filters can be disabled altogether). The game features a lot of smooth, detailed animation (not to mention the fully-animated intro, clearly inspired by the one from Sonic CD). It also includes a vibrant color palette which invokes the look of the Genesis games, but which I’m pretty sure could not actually have been pulled off on the 16-bit hardware. There are a handful of instances which use more advanced graphical techniques, such as polygonal models. These are chiefly employed to add subtle perspective effects to stage backgrounds and the like, so they don’t usually stand out as anachronistic next to the pixel graphics. If you haven’t played a Genesis-era Sonic game in years, Sonic Mania looks like you probably remember those older games looking. It’s the perfect combination of old and new.

Sonic & Tails in Sonic Mania

Again borrowing from earlier titles in the series, Sonic Mania includes twelve themed “zones,” which include two “acts” each. Most zones are repurposed from previous Sonic games, while a handful are new to Sonic Mania. However, even the repurposed ones have been rebuilt and “remixed” from the ground up. They usually include recognizable segments integrated into a new layout and with new stage elements. Green Hill Zone returns from the original Sonic the Hedgehog, but can now be traversed via zip line. Chemical Plant Zone is back from Sonic 2, but features pools of chemicals that Sonic can bounce on to reach higher areas. And Sonic CD’s Stardust Speedway Zone now includes giant man-eating (hedgehog-eating?) plants for Sonic to climb. Within a single zone, the two acts are often visibly distinct from one another. For example, the new Press Garden Zone is covered in snow and ice for its second act, while Stardust Speedway Zone uses the “past” and “present” graphical themes from its Sonic CD incarnation for acts 1 and 2, respectively.

The level design itself is outstanding, and is easily on par with the best of the Genesis-era games. The Sonic games have always emphasized speed (of course), but at times that emphasis has clashed with gameplay—while it can be exhilarating, it’s not very exciting to “play” through an area of the game that doesn’t require you to do anything more than hold right on the directional pad. But Sonic Mania deftly avoids this trap, and throws lots of interesting puzzles and obstacles in for players to traverse along the way. Each stage also includes multiple paths, some of which are accessible only by certain characters due to their unique abilities.

Every act ends with a boss fight, which means there are a lot of bosses in Sonic Mania. Fortunately, the bosses are creative, unique, cleverly-designed, and fun to fight. One early boss in particular is a nod to an oddball Sonic spin-off game that made me giggle uncontrollably when I saw it—I’m grateful not to have had it spoiled before encountering it myself. Some of the bosses fairly tricky, but the “you’re safe as long as you have at least one ring” mechanic combined with the ability to retrieve up lost rings after taking damage means you always has a fair shot at winning.

Sonic Mania cover art

Sprinkled throughout the game are two different styles of special stages. Passing a mid-level checkpoint lamp post with at least 25 rings gives you access to the “Blue Sphere” mini-game first seen in Sonic 3, a pseudo-3D affair in which your character runs forward automatically, and you must turn left and right to collect blue spheres and avoid red ones, with the gameplay gradually becoming faster as the stage progresses. This special stage plays exactly like its Sonic 3 incarnation as far as I can remember, but I’ve apparently become terrible at it in the intervening years; though there are many lamp posts in Sonic Mania, and therefore many opportunities to play Blue Sphere, I’ve only managed to succesfully beat it a handful of times. Your reward is a medallion of some kind which has no discernible affect on gameplay. A tally of the medallians you’ve earned appears on the game’s “extras” menu; I presume that some extra features are unlocked after collecting certain amounts.

Slightly less common are giant rings, jumping through which sends you to a special stage reminiscent of the one from Sonic CD. In these 3D stages, the camera follows behind your character who must chase a UFO around a track in a limited amount of time. Initially, you runs too slowly to catch it, but collecting blue spheres increases your speed, while collecting rings gives you more time. Catch up to the UFO, and you’re rewarded with a Chaos Emerald. I have not collected all of the Chaos Emeralds, but in previous Sonic games, doing so would allow you to transform into “Super Sonic,” granting invulnerability and increased speed, and change the ending of the game upon completion. I presume that collecting all of them in Sonic Mania produces similar effects, though I have not yet had the gumption to find out.

The Sonic series has long been known for its great music (and that’s even before Michael Jackson’s involvment in the Sonic 3 soundtrack was known). I’m happy to report that Sonic Mania lives up to the series’ reputation on this front. A lot of classic Sonic songs appear, particularly from the returning stages. But there’s plenty of new music, too, and all of it fits right in, invoking the FM synthesis of the Sega Genesis’ distinctive Yamaha sound chip. Since the first time I heard it, I’ve been unable to get the theme from the first act of Press Garden Zone out of my head, which is pretty much my measure of how effective a game’s soundtrack is. The soundtrack is even available on vinyl.

Knuckles in Sonic Mania

The story plays out mostly through brief in-engine cut scenes between stages, with a more detailed plot summary in the accompanying electronic manual. But it hardly matters. As always, Sonic and his friends are going after Dr. Robotnik/Eggman and his robot minions, and have to save a bunch of cute animals along the way.

Sonic Mania is reasonably long for a side-scrolling platformer, certainly longer than most players will want to tackle in a single sitting, so it includes save system very similar to that of Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles, with a whole bunch of save slots. It also includes some additional modes, such as a time trial mode and a two-player head-to-head mode, plus a variety of extra features and secrets, most of which I still have yet to unlock (there’s both an “extras” menu and a “secrets” one, both of which are mostly filled with question marks so far).

I absolutely love this game, and I was ecstatic the entire time playing through it. It perfectly captures everything that was great about the 16-bit Sonic games, builds upon them with great new content, and serves it all up in a gorgeous package that will make you feel like a kid again. I even got goosebumps at certain moments that were especially nostalgic. This is what 2010’s Sonic 4 tried to do, with some success, but Sonic Mania blows it out of the water. I don’t have a single complaint about this amazing game, except the lack of a physical release. There is a “collector’s edition” that includes a Sonic statue and a replica Sega Genesis cartridge with a gold ring inside, but even that release includes only a download code for the game rather than an actual physical copy.

Sonic Mania is available now for the Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One, with a PC version coming next week. At $20, it’s a steal and I cannot recommend it more highly.

Street Fighter II animated film released on Blu-ray disc

August 14th, 2017

I don’t know how I missed this least year, but I recently learned that the Japanese animated Street Fighter II movie was released on Blu-ray disc in October. This film has a long and complex history of Western releases, varying greatly in content and quality.

Following its 1994 theatrical release in Japan, SMV Enterprises released two versions (As Street Fighter II: The Animated Movie) on videotape in the US in 1995: a PG-13 version, and an urated version. Both versions were English-dubbed, and completely replaced the soundtrack with songs by Western artists like KMFDM and Alice in Chains. The PG-13 version included milder language for some scenes that included harsh dialogue in the unrated version, and it edited out the more graphic violence. But, even aside from the dubbing and soundtrack, neither version was faithful to the Japanese original—even the unrated version trimmed a number of shots, presumably for pacing rather than content in most cases, though the infamous Chun-Li shower scene was also truncated. The unrated version was also released on laserdisc, and eventually on DVD.

Chun Li vs. Vega

In 2006, Street Fighter II was re-released on DVD by Anchor Bay, in an edition that was labeled “Uncut, Uncensored, Unleashed.” This was a double-sided DVD containing the original Japanese version of the film (with optional English subtitles) on one side, and the English-dubbed version on the other. However, while this DVD’s English-dubbed version was not identical to the previously-released unrated version, neither was it completely uncensored. Instead, it was the version of the English dub originally released in the UK, which contained even harsher language than the US unrated version, and left all of the violence intact, but still trimmed incidental scenes for pacing. The shower scene was also more explicit than that of the US unrated version, but still edited compared to the Japanese original.

Then last October, Discotek Media released the film on DVD and Blu-ray, its high-definition debut in the US. Finally, this release consolidates just about every previous release, both English and Japanese, into one comprehensive package. The flim itself is uncensored, including all of the violence, nudity, and incidental shots that were omitted from previous English releases, and it includes no fewer than five different audio tracks:

  • the original Japanese audio
  • the US PG-13 English dub
  • the US unrated English dub
  • the UK unrated English dub
  • the English dub with the Japanese soundtrack

The Blu-ray’s producers went to great lengths to make this release so comprehensive. The three previously-released English dubs were all re-edited and re-synced to match up with the fully uncut version of the film, since all had previously been paired with censored versions. And the English dub with the Japanese soundtrack is a brand-new track, created from scratch especially for this release. Interestingly, this track’s English dialog isn’t a perfect match for any of the three existing English dubs. Instead of, say, using the UK version as the basis for this track just because it’s the most explicit, the producers decided to pick-and-choose the individual takes that were most faithful the original Japanese dialogue.

The Blu-ray's slipcover and case

The disc similarly includes an array of different subtitle tracks. For those watching the English versions, there’s one track that only translates signs and other on-screen text, and another that translates signs and text as well as the Japanese soundtrack’s song lyrics. For viewers of the Japanese version, a brand-new English subtitle translation was commissioned, which is presented here in two versions, reflecting both the Japanese and US versions of character names (the US version of the Street Fighter II video game upon which the film is based confusingly has three characters’ names switched around compared to the Japanese original).

The Blu-ray also includes a number of supplemental features, many of them focused on the film’s myriad versions. There are five trailers, three in Japanese and two in English, both of the latter from the UK. Also included are text-based notes covering the film’s original production and English translation, as well as biographies of the Street Fighter characters. Several production art galleries are also provided, including one especially interesting one dedicated to the film’s depiction of the game’s cartoonish, over-the-top special moves. The opening and closing credits from the original English home video releases are included as well. Since the main feature is sourced from an original Japanese print, these credits present the version English-speaking viewers remember from their old videotape or DVD. There’s also a version of the film’s ending without credits—in the film proper, the end titles play over this bit of animation. The US PG-13 version of the film is also included in its entirety. Unlike the main feature presentation, which includes the PG-13 audio track but pairs it with an uncensored version of the video, this is a faithful reproduction of the edited-down version from the old videotape release. It’s actually been recreated from scratch from the same HD master as the main film, rather than sourced from the old VHS master. So while this is the same version of the film fans will remember from their old videotape, it looks better than ever.

There’s also a collection of cut-scenes from the “Interactive Movie Game,” a Japan-exclusive video game based on the film, which included a lot of animation from the movie, but also had some new and unique scenes that weren’t actually used in the film itself. All that unique footage is compiled here. There’s a compilation of “alternate takes.” While the three different English-language versions of the film use a number of different takes between them for certain scenes, especially those involving profanity, there are just as many alternate takes that went unused. Some of them are interesting, and have nothing to do with profanity, like characters shouting the name of the attack they’re performing in English vs. Japanese. Finally, there’s a featurette titled “The Different Cuts,” which explores the many different releases of the film, particularly the numerous English-language versions, and exlpains how they were leveraged to create the disc’s verious audio tracks.

This release is virtually definitive, with almost nothing additional I can think of that could have been included. It would have been nice to have the original US & UK unrated versions included in their original forms, in addition to the US PG-13 version. But that’s a minor oversight in light of all the other great content on the disc and the lengths to which the producers went to present so many different versions of the English dub with the full-length, uncut version of the film.

I have no illusions about the quality of the film, but Street Fighter II has always been one of my favorite video games, and I was exactly the right age when this movie was originally released, so I have a soft spot for it. I’m ecstatic to finally have a definitive, high-quality version accessible to English-speaking audiences.

Nintendo announces the Super NES Classic Edition

June 27th, 2017

Yesterday, Nintendo announced the Super NES Classic Edition, a miniature version of their popular 16-bit console with 21 built-in games, and the successor to last year’s popular NES Classic Edition.

Due to its overwhelming popularity, the NES Classic Edition was notoriously difficult to find when it was released last holiday season, and Nintendo infamously stopped producing them before they ever became widely available. Nintendo has promised to produce “significantly more units” this time around, though they’re being characteristically cagey about what exactly that means and whether they will continue to manufacture the SNES Classic past the end of the calendar year (the NES Classic stopped production the April following its release).

Super NES Classic Edition

For those who could get their hands on one, the NES classic lived up to the hype, though there were a few criticisms, chiefly the short length of the controller cables. The cables for the SNES Classic’s controllers will be two feet longer than those of its predecessor, which is a distinct improvement, though still on the short side. As with the NES Classic, I’m sure there will be many third-party solutions, including wireless controllers and extension cables. And unlike the NES Classic, the SNES Classic comes with two controllers packed in the box.

The NES Classic’s controllers were newly-manufactured replicas of the original NES controller, but they used a different connector—the same one used to connect accessories like the Nunchuck to the Wii Remote for their more recent Wii console. The Wii Classic Controller and Classic Controller Pro were even compatible with the NES Classic Edition. Interestingly, the SNES Classic is also “compatible with the Classic Controller and Classic Controller Pro accessories,” though images of the mini console itself show what look like the old SNES controller ports. It may be that those are just for show (like the cartridge slot, which is non-functional since the games are all built-in), and the controllers plug in elsewhere on the console, like on the back or side. On the NES Classic Edition, the new controller ports replaced the originals with the same physical placement on the miniaturized console.

The SNES Classic includes fewer games than the NES Classic did—21 instead of 30–but the actual lineup is absolutely stellar:

  • Contra III: The Alien Wars
  • Donkey Kong Country
  • Earthbound
  • Final Fantasy III
  • F-Zero
  • Kirby Super Star
  • Kirby’s Dream Course
  • The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past
  • Mega Man X
  • Secret of Mana
  • Star Fox
  • Star Fox 2
  • Street Fighter II Turbo
  • Super Castlevania IV
  • Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts
  • Super Mario Kart
  • Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars
  • Super Mario World
  • Super Metroid
  • Super Punch-Out!!
  • Yoshi’s Island

That’s 14 Nintendo games and seven third-party titles. There are four that I haven’t personally played (Final Fantasy III, Star Fox 2, and the Kirby games), but of the remaining 17, every one of them is very good, and I’d easily put eight to ten of them in the “all-time greats” category. The most notable title is Star Fox 2, which was famously shelved and never released. While an incomplete version of the game was leaked online years ago, it will make its official debut on the SNES Classic.

I’d like to share a few random observations about the game lineup, especially those that are part of a series:

Only the first of the three SNES Donkey Kong Country games is being included. That’s probably the right one to include if you’re only going to include one, but the omission of DKC2, regarged by many as superior to the original, is a real bummer. It would have been nice to have the whole 16-bit trilogy.

Earthbound is a personal favorite. It’s a quirky, humourous role-playing game set in the modern day but released at a time when RPGs were heavily associated with medieval-type settings. It’s the second game of a series known in Japan as Mother. Interestingly, the first Mother game, for the NES/Famicom, was completely translated into English and localized under the tile Earth Bound, but never released. That English translation leaked onto the Internet years ago, but it never saw an official release until Nintendo released it on the Wii U Virtual Console as Earthbound Beginnings. Given the inclusion of the previously-unreleased Star Fox 2 here, I’m not starting to wish that the NES Classic Edition had included Earthbound Beginnings. Oh, well—the SNES Earthbound is actually a much better game, anyway. One interesting thing to note is that the Virtual Console version of Earthbound had some of its flashy graphical effects toned down compared to the original—I wonder if that change will carry over to the SNES Classic version?

F-Zero is a fun game, and I’m glad it’s included (it was actually the first SNES game I owned, aside from the pack-in Super Mario World), but the lack of a two-player mode has always been a real shame. It’s a fast-paced, futuristic racing game, the perfect candidate for a head-to-head competetive mode (which was naturally included in the game’s sequels). It was an early SNES game, so I suspect that there may have been technical limitations that prevented it (or maybe they were just rushing to get it out at the console’s launch), but it’s going to stand out as one of the few things in the whole package that hasn’t aged well.

Megaman X is a pretty good choice to represent the Megaman franchise. I’d love for some of the other SNES Megaman games to have been included as well, but it’s a third-party title and Capcom has actually been actively mining the Megaman archives lately, with the SNES game Megaman 7 being reissued in the upcoming Megaman Legacy Collection 2 compilation. Megaman X was the first game of the “X” spinoff series. The first three games in that series were all released on the SNES, so X2 and X3 would have been welcome inclusions, but maybe the X series will get its own compilation on modern consoles if Legacy Collection 2 sells well (which I suspect it will). I can’t fault Capcom for keeping most of the titles in one of their most popular series in-house.

Secret of Mana is another good one, and one of the few games to take advantage of the two included controllers with a two-player simultanous mode. Actually, the original game supported up to three players using a multitap, a feature I presume will be lost in this version. Secret of Mana is actually the second in the long-running Seiken Densetsu series, the first of which appeared on the Game Boy and was released as Final Fantasy Adventure in the US. But the series’ third game was also for the SNES (actually the Super Famicom, its Japanese equivalent), and never saw an official English-language release. I suppose it would have been too much to hope for a new English translation, especially given the lack of a Western release for the Nintendo Switch’s Seiken Densetsu Collection, which includes all three games.

Secret of Mana artwork by Hiro Isono

There were five different incarnations of the seminal fighting game Street Fighter II released in arcades back in the day (plus more recent updates like Hyper Street Fighter II, Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix, and the just-released Ultra Street Fighter II for the Switch). Three of those five (Street Fighter II, Street Fighter II Turbo, and Super Street Fighter II found their way on to the Super NES, and I think it’s interesting that the SNES Classic includes the second of those three. I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad choice, though I think it’s fair to say that Super Street Fighter II was an upgrade in most respects. The SNES ports were not arcade-perfect, but they were very good. Of course, today it’s trivial to emulate arcade games of this vintage more-or-less perfectly, so while Street Fighter II Turbo’s inclusion here is a fun throwback, the console port is obviously not the idea way for modern players to experience it. Also, I cannot imagine trying to play Street Fighter with a handheld controller, anyway. Actually, I can imagine it, because I played it that way back then, and it wasn’t very fun. Investing in a nice, solid arcade stick is critical for getting the most out of this sort of game. But obviously this was never going to be the ideal platform for die-hard fighting game fans, and Street Fighter II Turbo is still a good choice for it’s important place in SNES history

Yoshi’s Island is an important inclusion. Not only is the game itself an absolute masterpiece, the pinnacle of 2D platforming, this will be the first-ever reissue of the original version. The game was ported to the Game Boy Advance, but with a number of concessions to the less-powerful hardware, particularly the graphical effects which leveraged Nintendo’s “Super FX” chip in the original SNES version. It’s this inferior port that was the basis of subsequent re-releases on the 3DS and Wii U Virtual Consoles.

All in all, there’s little to complain about in this lineup of great, classic games. Of course there are going to be some omissions. Chrono Trigger in particular seems to be on everyone’s “they should have included…” list, and rightly so. But given the limitations Nintendo surely faced in licensing third-party games, you’d be hard pressed to come up with a better list of 21 games that could have been included.

Assuming you can get your hands on one, the SNES Classic Edition is something to look forward to. Nintendo is releasing it on September 29 for $79.99.

Star Wars' 40th Anniversary

May 25th, 2017

Star Wars is 40 years old today. The special edition came out in January 1997, just over 20 years ago. So the special edition is now older than the original was when the special edition was released. Greedo shooting first and Han stepping on Jabba’s tail have been with us for the majority of Star Wars’ history.

Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, and Harrison Ford in _Star Wars_

Appallingly, there is still no convenient, accessible way for modern audiences to watch the original version of the film. As nerds and fantasy fans around the world celebrate the anniversary of one of cinema’s most important franchises, most of them won’t even be able to do so by watching the movie that came out on that day.

Mayim Bialik on science and religion

May 9th, 2017

Actor and neuroscientist Mayim Bialik recently recorded a video in which she defends her religious beliefs and their apparent inconsistency with her work as a scientist:

It sounds like Ms. Bialik thinks atheists don’t “have a tremendious sense of gratitude and humility for our place in the natural and scientific world.” She asks, “Do you ever get that feeling like ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t believe we exist’?” I do, and it instills in me a profoundly humbling sense of awe. But of course it would be wrong to think that’s evidence for the divine. In fact that’s such a common error that there is a specific name for it.

She goes on to name all of the ways she benefits from her religious beliefs (among others, she’s “inspired by the notion of a responsibility to a universe that is governed by something bigger than me”), and of course that’s a personal value judgment that is completely valid and which no one can discount. But that has nothing to do with the scientific question of whether those beliefs are true, so in that sense, I think she fails to reconcile her belief in religion with her practice as a scientist. Yes, religion and science are compatible “in the trivial sense that both attitudes can be simultaneously embraced by a single human mind.” That’s a testament to the power of compartmentalization, and has little to do with the ability of religion’s emprical claims to withstand scientific scrutiny.

A new low in obnoxious Internet advertising

March 23rd, 2017

Yesterday I was reading Dispatches from the Culture Wars, one of my favorite blogs, when I encountered a strange error. The page appeared to load fine initially, but after only a second or two was replaced with a “page cannot load” error message:

Patheos

The site had obviously already loaded (and its title was still displayed in the browser tab), so what exactly was the source of the connectivity problem? My suspicions were heightened by the error message itself, which (a) didn’t look like any Chrome error message I’d seen before, and (b) conspicuously focused on ad blockers as a potential source of the problem.

For context, Patheos (“the premier online destination to engage in the global dialogue about religion and spirituality,” according to their about page), the site which hosts Dispatches, is one of the worst offenders when it comes to obnoxious Internet advertisements, so I’ve always used an ad blocker when browsing it. In fact, Patheos is the main reason I bothered to install an ad blocker in the first place. It’s similarly the main reason I switched from Chrome to Firefox as my mobile browser, as the Android version of Chrome does not support extensions like ad blockers.

So I did a little digging and confirmed what I suspected—that error message is fake. Patheos is using JavaScript to replace the entire web page with an <iframe> containing the message, hosted on an external domain. I presume it includes a check for the use of an ad blocker, though the code is obfuscated and I didn’t look closely enough to determine how that works. I simply disabled JavaScript for patheos.com in my browser and all was well again. The main downside is that Patheos uses Disqus for its comment system, and Disqus relies on JavaScript. So I won’t be able to see comments on any posts. Some might argue that’s a good thing.

I’m sympathetic to the argument that advertising pays the bills, and that bloggers like Dispatches’ Ed Brayton rely on ad revenue to keep the lights on. In fact, I paid for an ad-free subscription to Freethought Blogs back when Dispatches was hosted there. But I have no patience for intrusive ads, and those on Patheos are among the most intrusive I’ve ever encountered from a “legit” site. They hijack your browser, take up bandwidth, automatically play video & audio, and generally make browsing the site an unpleasant experience. This fake “page cannot load” message represents a new low, flat-out lying to users in an attempt to manipulate them into disabling ad blockers altogether, and yet is completely in line with the contempt Patheos already shows to its users.

It’s sad how integral advertising has become to everyday internet browsing, and how many otherwise useful sites become virtually unusable due to obnoxious advertisements.

Jordan Peele’s Get Out

March 16th, 2017

I watched Jordan Peele’s sleeper hit Get Out last night, and I really enjoyed it. The central character is Chris, played by Daniel Kaluuya, a young black man anxious about meeting his white girlfriend’s parents for the first time. They spend the weekend at her parents’ rural home, and while the parents at first seem good-natured but awkward, Chris comes to suspect that things are not as tranquil as they seem.

The movie’s genre is a mixture of comedy and horror, which seems odd at first but turns out to serve the film well (think Scream or The Cabin in the Woods), with the lighter parts being laugh-out-loud funny (especially Lil Rel Howery as Chris’s best friend, a bumbling TSA agent, which sounds dumb now that I type it out but actually works really well) without watering down the genuine horror. There are creepy, unsettling moments, and the plot that unfolds is deeply disturbing.

Daniel Kaluuya as Chris Washington

I had a few minor reservations about the film. One of the film’s central mysteries is in the strange, Stepford Wives-esque behavior of certain characters throughout the first half. The audience expects that the explanation for their peculiar manners will be revealed, and there is a big reveal in the film’s climax, but it doesn’t really seem to fully explain the events from earlier in the film.

I was also slightly put off by the seeming lack of connection between Get Out’s important racial elements and its suspense/thriller plotline. At one point late in the movie, the protaganists flat-out asks one of the villains why they target black people. The response was basically “who knows?” and a shrug. Maybe that was the point—that so much of racism today is not overt and explicit, but subconsious and incidental—but I think the film’s critique of racial bias would have been that much more effective had it been more organically integrated into the main plot.

I think the film would have benefitted from sticking with the original ending, which would not have directly addressed this concern but would at least have underscored the racism angle and drove the point home that much more strongly.

If I’m focusing on the film’s negatives, that’s because so much has already been writing about how great it is (it currently holds a 99% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes). I completely agree with all of it. Get Out is worth seeing, and I recommend doing so.

Best Picture Showcase 2017, Day Two

February 26th, 2017

Yesterday was day two of the Best Picture Showcase, and featured back-to-back screenings of the remaining five Oscar-nominated films: Moonlight, Lion, Hacksaw Ridge, Arrival, and Hidden Figures. (I previously reviewed the first four films.)

Moonlight follows a young man living in a poor neighborhood in Miami though three vignettes occurring at different stages of his life. I understand this is probably the next-most-likely victor after La La Land, and I understand why. It was an interesting character study with strong performances.

Lion stars Dev Patel as a young Indian man who was adopted by an Australian couple as a young child following the failure of all attempts to track down his family after he becomes separated from them. 25 years later, he uses modern technology to try locating them again. It’s based on a true story, and while I don’t know how faithful it is to the actual events, the ending credits feature photos and footage of the real people portrayed and I was struck by how similar the actors portraying them looked.

I am very sentimental and I found Lion’s story to be very emotionally affecting; I was in tears at the end of it. I thought there were a few strange editing choices, and some character’s motivations were hard to scrutinize in a few scenes, but it was still very good overall. Incidentally, it reminded me a great deal of Pixar’s Finding Dory, also released last year, and which also had me bawling.

Hacksaw Ridge is Mel Gibson’s war movie about a conscientious objector during World War II who saves the lives of many fellow soldiers despite his personal refusal to carry a weapon. In many ways, it was a quintessential Mel Gibson movie: jingoistic, brutally violent, and featuring a deeply religious main character. While the violence was extremely graphic, I did not think it was gratuitous; it was in service of a point about the brutality of war. However, I did feel the movie had other flaws: I usually don’t have a good ear for detecting phony accents, but Hugo Weaving’s American accent was completely distracting every time he appeared onscreen. The dialogue was ridiculously hokey, though that’s most apparent during the beginning of the film; it actually turns around a bit once Vince Vaughn appears as an over-the-top drill sergeant, a genuinely funny character. Probably my biggest criticism is the cartoonishly simple and stereotypical portrayal of the Japanese soldiers. I suppose on some level I should expect that from an American film about World War II, but I would also expect an Oscar-caliber film to have more nuance and thoughtfulness.

Arrival was the movie I was most looking forward to, and it did not disappoint. It’s a science fiction film about a linguist recruited to help in communicating with an alien race following the arrival on Earth of several extraterrestrial crafts. It’s based on the Ted Chiang short story “Story of Your Life,” which I actually read last year in anticipation of the then-upcoming film adaptation. While the story is nominally about alien contact, there’s a much deeper personal story about the linguist, played in the film by Amy Adams, which I dare not say anything about lest I spoil the joy in allowing viewers to discovery it on their own. I’ll note only that, after reading the short story, I was skeptical that it could be faithfully adapted for film, and I am in awe of how effectively the makers of this film did so. Even the elements that were changed for the film, such as the increased focus on international tension, were done in service of the story and did not feel artificial or forced. Arrival is captivating, complex, and rewarding. I suspect it also holds up to multiple viewings—having read the short story, I picked up on various elements of the film’s story that would have come across differently to a viewer without that foreknowledge. While I don’t expect it to actually win the Best Picture Oscar, Arrival is my personal pick for the best film of 2016.

Finally, Hidden Figures is the story of the black women who worked at NASA as mathematicians, playing crucial roles in several critical missions during the Cold War space race, a time when people of color were highly marginalized. It was a good movie about an important subject, but I couldn’t help but feel it was a shallow, sanitized “Hollywood” version of events. There’s an early line of dialogue which references the year in a very self-conscious way, and another scene in which one of the women blows up at her boss over her treatment. She’s completely in the right, of course, but it’s hard to imagine such a scene playing out that way in real life at the time—it seems more like a moment contrived to elicit cheers from modern viewers. Maybe I’m wrong—as with Lion, I don’t have a good idea of how accurately this film portrays the real events—but it doesn’t feel genuine to me. Again, it’s a good, enjoyable film, but I see little in it that raises it to the level I would expect of a real Best Picture contender.

On the whole, 2016 was a good year for films. Even if I thought some of the nominees were not quite worthy of the honor, I enjoyed all nine of them.

Best Picture Showcase 2017, Day One

February 26th, 2017

The Oscars are this weekend, which means that AMC Theatres is holding its annual Best Picture Showcase, a two-day marathon of the contenders for the top honor. Day one was last Saturday and included screenings of Manchester by the Sea, Fences, Hell or High Water, and La La Land. I’d seen none of them before, and enjoyed all four.

Manchester by the Sea tells the story of a man’s strained relationship with his nephew, whom he is placed in charge of after the death of his brother. Casey Affleck plays the main character in a performance that is itself Oscar-nominated, but I was unaware of the praise it had garnered and thought he was a bit stilted. Nevertheless, the movie was poignant and charming, and the revelation of the Affleck character’s background was moving and effective. I enjoyed the film.

Fences, starring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, is about a black garbageman in mid-20th century, and the pain he causes his family. Washington is a great actor, of course, but Davis completely stole the show with a powerful performance as his wife, one which I hope earns her the Best Actress Oscar Sunday night. The movie as a whole was pretty good, but extremely dialogue heavy and tended to drag in parts, particularly at the beginning. I enjoyed it but thought it could have benefited from some judicious editing.

The biggest surprise of the day was Hell or High Water, which I knew nothing about beforehand. It’s about two bank-robbing brothers in rural Texas, and the Texas ranger who’s after them. The case was uniformly excellent, but Jeff Bridges was the highlight as the ranger (another Oscar-nominated performance). The characters were well-written and relatable, and while the climax was a bit intense, the movie was surprisingly funny overall.

Finally, La La Land is the apparent frontrunner to win Best Picture. It’s a musical about a down-on-his-luck jazz musician and an aspiring actress who fall in love, and it very consciously evokes the classic Hollywood musicals. It was very fun, and I particularly enjoyed one important scene which prominently featured the ’80s classics “Take On Me” and “I Ran.” I’ll be vague so as to avoid spoiling it, but the ending was unexpected, and will probably disappoint some viewers, but I found it very realistic, relatable, and moving.

Given the film’s subject matter, I feel that La La Land’s likely Best Picture win is a bit self-serving on the part of the Academy, similar to Birdman’s victory a couple of years ago. Nevertheless, I think La La Land is much more deserving than Birdman was, and it was my personal favorite of the four, edging out Hell or High Water.

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