Wednesday, December 20, 2017

My Overly-Long And Detailed Review Of Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)

It’s been quite a weekend. After devoting so much time, energy, and thought into Star Wars: The Last Jedi these past few days, it’s shocking that I’m not even tired of talking about it yet! It’s a good thing too, as there is a L O T of ground to cover, and the extreme reactions from people loving and hating it are only making me more anxious to get my thoughts out there! Before I proceed, I just want to make a couple of disclaimers: Everything I state below is simply opinion. I am not trying to pass anything off as gospel, and I certainly don’t believe I represent all the fans out there. This is simply me, a longtime fan, putting out my personal thoughts on a series I’ve known and loved since I was about 8 years old (I’m 30 now, just for reference!). As I promise to be respectful as I can be to fans from all sides of the field, I only ask that you do the same in this instance. Star Wars is nothing we should be arguing about; quite the opposite in fact! With all that said, let’s get down to business.

The Relationship Between Luke And Rey

Right from the moment we resume Rey and Luke’s meeting for the first time, director Rian Johnson is already there to say “Hey, that thing you were expecting to happen here? Nope.” Luke takes back his lightsaber, only to immediately toss it behind him and walk away, leaving Rey quite shocked and confused. This was already not the Obi-Wan/Yoda-like encounter many fans predicted in their heads. Instead of being the hopeful and optimistic Luke we remembered in Return of the Jedi, we see a very different kind of person here. This Luke is aged, distant; clearly filled with dread and regret. This was (in my opinion) clearly hinted at in The Force Awakens, but I feel like people only just started to really get the impact of it now. We already knew that Luke had left, due to his feeling of regret in failing to train Ben Solo (aka. Kylo Ren) properly. But we also knew there had to be more to it than that. Why else would the hero of the original trilogy straight-up leave and abandon his friends? Well, it turned out the reason was a bit more complicated than we may have expected.

After telling Rey about the flaws in the Jedi's entire philosophy (something I will be revisiting later), he begins to explain that he believed he could train Ben, just as he had once been taught. But something went wrong... Luke sensed a great darkness in Ben, slowly manifesting itself over time. He said that Ben eventually used that dark power against him, causing all kinds of chaos, and provoking him to flee. But that wasn't the whole story, as Ben/Kylo would later expand on.

In Ben's version of the story, he reveals that Luke had in fact activated his lightsaber, allegedly planning to kill him in his sleep (!!!). This gave a completely different perspective on what could have happened, causing Luke to explain the situation in better detail once more. In Luke's revision of the story, he acknowledged that what Ben witnessed was correct; but there was still just a little more to this. Luke did go to Ben while he was sleeping, to see this darkness manifesting for himself. It frightened Luke, causing him to activate his lightsaber in a knee-jerk reaction to the darkness he felt around him. He tells us that he immediately realized what a mistake this was, but unfortunately, it was too late, as Ben had already seen Luke and the lightsaber out. This caused Ben to retaliate, solidifying the cycle of Kylo Ren's descent into the dark side of the force.

What we witnessed in this plot thread of the movie was along the lines of the "Rashomon Effect." It's an instance where two or more characters tell their side of a story, with each person having a different perspective than the last, sometimes leading to a completely different story altogether. It also leaves you to wonder if one story was truer than the other, or if they were both completely fabricated. While I do believe Rian Johnson meant for Luke's retelling of the story to be the definitive version, it doesn't necessarily confirm that's all there was to it, and makes the story all the more interesting to think about, in my eyes. Could there have been more to it all? Something else that led Ben astray before his retaliation against Luke? Whether this will get revisited later or not is up in the air.

Luke’s other internal struggle involved a much deeper issue; one I was pleasantly surprised to see get brought up: Jedi culture was flawed. It was always flawed. It was so flawed that it would eventually cause their own downfall in the prequel trilogy. This is something I don’t hear people talk about often, but they absolutely should. If you can stop and think back to Revenge of the Sith for a second, you may understand what I’m talking about. The Jedi council were in existence to keep peace and order in the galaxy, but they were arrogant in their ways. The Empire slowly crept up on them from within because those very ways were put in doubt. Lest we forget these people allowed slavery on places like Tatooine to continue. Why wouldn’t the Empire seem more appealing by comparison? Palpatine tempted Anakin to the dark side of the force, but it was only after the Jedi council had instilled that doubt and mistrust into him in the first place. Darth Vader was born. Palpatine took control. The Jedi were almost completely wiped out. The Empire took over.

Rey’s counterpoint to what Luke said (about how he came out of this situation for the better and allegedly brought balance back to the force) was no doubt true, but it didn’t change any of what Luke said either. It certainly seems that the reason this backstory was even brought up, was for the sole purpose of Rey and future heroes learning from past mistakes. Learning from failure. In fact, that appeared to be the theme of the entire movie. Let’s examine some more.

Some people find it very hard to believe that Luke Skywalker, the man who once took on Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine, and brought peace and order back to the galaxy, could have taken this turn; not to mention the idea of him turning on Ben for a split second. I can sympathize, as that was my initial knee-jerk reaction to the whole thing as well. (I think it’s also safe to assume this is the reason Mark Hamill himself was initially against the idea of Luke’s direction, before he later came around to the idea.) But as the movie went on, I began to understand the things he was saying a little clearer. I myself have had experiences where I felt hopeful and optimistic in my life, only to have those hopes dashed from me by one circumstance or another. I don’t always recover from those situations so easily, and Luke was clearly having one of those moments as well. I don’t find it too hard to believe that even the heroes can still have moments of weakness like this as life goes on. Could there have been more development that lead up to this moment? Absolutely, and I hope we get it one day (whether through a tie-in novel, comic, or other media). One of the biggest flaws I had with this movie was some situations simply “happening,” with not enough development to give us a full impact. But again, I at least feel that I understand what the director was trying to do here, and I can appreciate the idea behind it.

None of this is to say Luke didn’t turn himself around later, of course. Rey reminded Luke of the optimistic outlook he once had, and he eventually agreed to help her to control her abilities. This power initially frightened Luke (for fear of another “Ben” situation), but he slowly came around to see the good she could still provide for the galaxy. It wasn’t quite the “Yoda/Luke” experience that some were hoping for, but it certainly gave Rey more time to learn about her force powers, and eventually tap into more of their potential. Like The Empire Strikes Back, Rey came out of the encounter still having a lot to learn, and left early to confront Kylo, believing he could be saved. Also similar to Empire, was Rey's mysterious encounter in the strange pit on the island. Reminiscent of Luke's confusing encounter on Dagobah, this sequence left us with more questions than answers, but clearly took an emotional toll on Rey.

The Relationship Between Rey and Kylo Ren

While we're on the topic of Rey, I feel this would be a good time to jump into her dynamic with Kylo. There is without a doubt some type of (force?) connection bringing them together, but we're still uncertain as to why at the moment (Yes, Snoke claims he was behind their force encounters, but that only tells us so much). Throughout Rey's time on the island, we were made to be quite confused when Rey and Kylo would keep encountering each other, due to an unexplained force ability. This led us to believe they may be related in some way, but it's still uncertain. Putting further doubt in our minds was Snoke's revelation that he had in fact been connecting them through his own force ability, after Kylo went to turn Rey in to him. It was also clear that Rey was becoming more sympathetic to Kylo, as she was still convinced that there was good in him somewhere. You could even say that the scene played out similarly to Return Of The Jedi (Rey saying she believed Kylo could still turn, Snoke sitting in his throne, holding Rey's lightsaber hostage, Kylo's decision to overthrow and kill Snoke, etc.), but the result was not quite the same.

After Kylo had successfully killed Snoke (and the two of them took on Snoke's remaining guards), he reached his hand out to her, in an attempt to get her to join him. For a second, the movie had you believe she was really going to do it, but instead, we see she was really reaching out to force pull her lightsaber back toward her hand. In a tug-of-war force grab for the lightsaber, we finally see it split in two, showing us that these two are clearly powerhouses, despite neither of them seeming to be in total control of it yet. Unfortunately, we don't get to see much of them interacting any further after this point. But the message is clear: These two will meet again and the fate of everyone will be resting on their shoulders at some point in the near future.

The Rise And Fall Of Snoke

Snoke has of course been a popular topic among Star Wars fans, ever since his first appearance in Episode VII. For two years, fans tried to consider who he could possibly be, coming up with all kinds of theories and predictions. In the end? None of it mattered. Yes, you heard me right. As far as we are aware, he was just a powerful force user, who tried to claim his place as another Emperor Palpatine, but it makes little difference now that he's gone.

Another knee-jerk reaction of mine was say "... What??? All of that buildup with him was for nothing!?" After taking a little more time to process it all (which is obviously hard to do as you're watching the movie), I started to come around to it a little more. Hear me out on this one: Was this really meant to be about Snoke to begin with? Does it matter as much as we initially thought it should have? To answer these questions, it's important we look at the scene with more detail.

After flailing Rey around the room like a ragdoll, Snoke talked about how he was able to look into both she and Kylo's minds with ease. This was also revealed as part of his plan to go after Luke Skywalker. As Snoke was holding Rey down and saying that he sensed Kylo's desire to kill her, he eagerly waited for Kylo to force pull the lightsaber toward himself and finish her off. Instead? He used his force ability to turn the lightsaber on its side and pierce straight through Snoke's body. After that, he force pulled it toward himself, effectively cutting Snoke's body in half, confirming that he is mostly likely very VERY dead.

Here's why that's so significant, and why it was easy to miss what we're really looking out for in this scene. My first reaction was to say "Either he got completely lucky, or Snoke just got careless. There's no other way..." But that's just the thing: Right before this, Snoke proudly exclaimed that he was able to read all Kylo's thoughts because he was so much more powerful than them. Kylo still being able to kill Snoke under this circumstance confirms there was no luck involved in that moment. The director was trying to tell us that Kylo's ability (whether in that moment or earlier on) had actually surpassed that of Snoke's. I think part of the reason some fans felt cheated by this scene was not only the lack of substance regarding his background, but rather, the way the scene itself was executed. If there had been a clearer sign that this was what we were witnessing, I believe it might have resonated better with some people. I also question if scenes like this were initially different or more fleshed-out prior to editing.

Personally, I never thought he was much of a compelling character to begin with (something I attribute more to Episode VII than this release). We've got so many characters that represent traits of past ones throughout this series, that losing someone similar to the Emperor before the third installment of this trilogy actually has me feeling relieved. Again, I DO understand the backlash on this one, but I've come around to be all for this change up.

The Subplots Of Finn, Rose, Poe, & Others

This is the area where the movie started to really lose some people. Many of the biggest complaints (outside of Luke's characterization and the series' direction itself) were from fans who felt most of these stories were unnecessary to the main plot. I thought this at first too, though I ended up changing my mind on some of them. I'm not going to into as great a detail for these (as this is already a long blog post, and we'd be here all night!), but I'll still try to cover my thoughts on each of them.
One hand, I absolutely feel like Finn's character had some excellent progression, but on the other hand, I don't at the same time. His role wasn't nearly as big as what we saw in Force Awakens, though I was expecting that to some degree. On the upside, he had some truly heroic moments in this, which did surpass the previous movie. We got to see him take on Captain Phasma and come out triumphant, nearly sacrifice himself to save the entire group of remaining Resistance members, and even help free some animals that were being used for gambling and profit (think in the style of horse racing).
On that note, let's get into Rose for a bit as well. Though we didn't get much time to learn about her yet, I felt like she fit in with the cast perfectly, being just the kind of push in the right direction some of the other characters (especially Finn) needed. You could think of her as caring and hopeful, but also firm and strategic all at once.

So, there were complaints abound, regarding the arc for these two. They were essentially sent down to a casino-like world to locate a hacker who could get the First Order's lightspeed tracking device out of commission. The issues weren't so much over that, as much as the amount of time that was spent here. This would also couple onto the fact that people saw the whole plan as a waste, due to the events that would later transpire and ruin everything they had worked to achieve.

Although I do agree that the dynamics involved here could have been shortened a bit, I don't believe we can simply dismiss this part of the story as "pointless." For one thing (though some may see this as subtle), I believe the main message behind this entire trilogy may have been contained in it. Throughout this part of the story, Finn learns that there is corruption outside of just the First Order. On top of the way those animals they freed were being used for profit, there was also clear child slavery going on (as shown with the orphan children they met while freeing said animals from their stables). And worst of all, we witnessed arms dealers selling weapons to both the Resistance AND the First Order, clearly profiting from both sides with no remorse. But it's the orphans I really want to focus on here. You may have noticed these details in the final scene in the film, before the credits started to roll. One of the orphan boys (made to represent bright, young, and hopeful children of the world) uses a slight bit of force energy to pull a broom toward his hand, just before he holds it like a lightsaber and points it up toward the sky. This moment is absolutely everything with regards to the trilogy's message. It's showing us that you don't have to be from a special bloodline (or say, a Skywalker) to be a force user. This is very likely a hint about the next path the series will take. Despite the low remaining numbers of Resistance members, there are others out there who hear their pleas, and make no mistake; will come to aid the Resistance in their time of need. Oh, and that entire third act of the movie? It couldn't have happened if Finn and Rose weren't caught by Hux, revealing Holdo's plan to escape. So, no, I don't believe it was "pointless" in the slightest, no matter how inconsequential the circumstance may have been.

The animosity between Poe and Holdo did feel a little forced and unnecessary to me, though not to the point of ruining the movie or anything. Poe's character seemed much more cocky and forceful in his demeanor, despite getting many of his comrades killed earlier on. Some have told me that his personality changes make more sense if you read his tie-in comic from Marvel (and I probably will read it at some point), but I hardly believe I should have to in order to understand where this slightly glaring change came from. Unfortunately, Holdo's personality didn't seem to help things either. Again, this was nothing too major for me, but I did feel a little at odds with it.

The buildup to Holdo's sacrifice scene also felt a little at odds with the plot that been setup before it, but it was clearly done so we could get that shot of her ship using lightspeed to destroy the First Order's ship in the process. Did it make sense? Maybe not entirely, but... come on, that looked pretty damn cool!

So, About That Leia Scene...

Yes, that scene. We all believed General Leia to be dead after getting her ship blown up, only to see something... very interesting happen. Okay, I admit it. My first reaction to seeing Leia pull herself through space was a big "What... the... f-...," as I'm sure it was for most people in the theater. It obviously looked a little silly in its execution, so much so that people mistook her force pull for "flying." But you know what? It allowed Carrie Fisher to be in the movie longer. For that reason alone, I'm okay with this. She’s always had potential force ability within her, so I don’t think the idea was too far contrived. Honestly, they could have given the excuse that she was really a space-breathing lizard all along, and I would have still been okay with it, if it allowed her to be in the movie for just a few more minutes. The only scene in this entire movie to almost bring me to tears was a single moment, that had no bearing on the main plot. It was simply Leia saying something along the lines of "We don't need any more losses," while consoling Holdo. Celebrity deaths rarely hit me on a personal level, but Carrie was an exception. Meeting her at New York Comic Con less than a month before her passing was such a wonderful moment for me, and I'll never forget the love and joy (and glitter!) that she brought to those around her. R.I.P. General.

The Jedi Temple

The Jedi temple of Ahch-To was a very interesting choice of place for Luke to run away to. On top being literally the first Jedi temple in existence, it also housed the oldest known texts about the Jedi Order. This is no doubt how Luke was able to learn about and describe the flaws in the Jedi's logic and philosophy. When I was speaking about wishing for some more details behind the Luke/Ben relationship, this is an aspect I was hoping for some more background on. What really prompted Luke to pick this temple in the first place? Did he not really intend to run away and simply come here looking for answers that he never got? Was it out of anger and contempt for the Jedi Order (which would admittedly go in line with his notion that the Jedi need to "die.")? Star Wars Battlefront 2 (the video game from EA) did explain how he was able to find the temple, but I don't believe we ever got an official explanation as to why he wanted to find it in the first place.

Based on what was said about Luke above, it was no surprise to me that he would proceed to try and burn down the Jedi temple, and all the texts contained within. What I wasn't expecting to see was the sudden return of Yoda's force ghost form. It was a very confusing moment (though not a bad one by any means) for a few reasons. For one thing, Yoda seems to have gone back to his original personality from when we first met him in The Empire Strikes Back, loud and excitable; ready to jump up at any moment and do something unexpected. While this didn't really make much sense (since we've seen Yoda as a wise old hermit in every other context past their first meeting), I'd be lying if I said it didn't make me happy to see anyway. I really missed that side of Yoda, and honestly thought I'd never see it again. Kudos to the team for using an actual puppet for the character as well. It was also interesting to note when Yoda stated that there was nothing in those texts that Rey couldn't learn herself.

There was one more very odd (but again, very interesting) thing to take from this scene as well. As Luke tells Yoda his intention of burning down everything, Yoda responds by... creating a lightning bolt that zaps the temple into a fiery haze. Never in Star Wars history has this type of ability been presented to us. I'd be very interested to see if anything else comes from it, now that Luke has joined their ranks. And speaking of this, we should be moving on to one more important topic…

The Final Showdown

When Luke said to Rey "This is not going to go the way that you think!," he was certainly NOT kidding! While not in the way most people were expecting, Luke appeared in the Resistance's most dire hour of need (which is really saying a lot when you consider how much they had already lost up to this point!). He had a brief, but wonderful reunion moment with Leia, gave a hilarious wink to the camera, and made his way outside to face Kylo and his troops alone. After a multitude of blasts failing to put a dent in Luke, followed by another hilarious brush of the shoulder, Kylo goes down to face Luke alone, demanding that no one else interfere. It's at this moment that the team realizes Luke is buying them time to escape. While trying to literally run out the back door, the group reaches a dead end, due to pile of large rocks in their way. Luke proudly tells Kylo that he will not be the last Jedi, cutting back to Rey lifting the large rocks with her force powers and clearing the Resistance's path for escape. By this point, Kylo now realizes that he has been fighting a convincing projection of Luke. This is yet another Jedi ability we have very rarely seen in action before (I believe the last time it was done was by Darth Maul in Star Wars: Rebels, though I could be wrong).

This scene caused another knee-jerk reaction in me at first (as I'm sure it did many others). On one hand, the writing absolutely hinted that we would not be seeing a real battle between Luke and Kylo at this moment. On the other hand, I think most of us wanted to see it happen so badly, that we ignored all the signs. I initially felt cheated by the whole thing, but then I started thinking about it more and came to a very different conclusion.

What changed my mind? Well, a lot of things. For starters, if Luke actually HAD come there to fight, there would have been only a small number of possible outcomes, with the most obvious being Luke's death at Kylo's hand. Would you have wanted to see that? Part of me wanted to say yes at first (as seeing one of your favorite heroes go down fighting is an awesome thought, and fitting with the samurai culture that the Jedi ideology was partly based off of), but in the end, I came back to the conclusion that this was a much better and more fitting path. It was a non-violent approach to victory (which I will never cease to find beautiful), it robbed Kylo of any satisfaction he would have gotten from ending the life of his former master (as Vader did to Obi-Wan so long ago), and we didn't have to think of Kylo as having killed TWO fan-favorite characters in a row! This isn't even mentioning that Luke succeeded in his mission to buy enough time for the Resistance to get away.

Unlike Han's abrupt and unfortunate death scene, I found Luke's transition at the end to be quite wonderful. What could be a more fitting end for a Jedi Master, than to go out with an incredible (and mostly unheard of) force power, save the ones you set out to protect, pass the mantle on to a new child of the force, and get one final moment to stare into a double-sunset, just like the one on Tatooine so long ago? This may be one of the most beautiful moments of any Star Wars film I've ever seen. Even if you didn't enjoy his road to getting here, I hope you could at least see what I saw in this final moment.

Last, but certainly not least let's go back to…

The Criticisms

As I started to elaborate above, there are definitely things you can nitpick and critique about this new movie. What's been so fascinating to me is how many different types of criticism I've seen throughout the internet these past few days. Even if you check out the fan reactions now, you'll get an almost even mix of "It was the best Star Wars film ever, or at least since Empire Strikes Back!" alongside "This was the worst piece of crap I have ever seen. It ruins every character and the franchise will never recover!" Whoa. Those are some big extremes, right? So, what's got everyone so conflicted? This isn't a matter of "hardcore vs. casual" fans, or "true fans" as every elitist has started referring to themselves as. In fact, I'm seeing just as big of a split among longtime fans as well. While I don't have all the answers, I can at least elaborate on what I do know.

It's easy to write this off as “You can never please the fans anymore,” and there might be some truth to that, but I don’t believe it’s as simple as that. The largest amount of backlash I saw against Force Awakens was that fans felt it was too much a carbon copy of the original, despite others loving the callback to the classic trilogy. In the case of the Last Jedi, it seemed to go the opposite route, with some fans complaining that the direction taken was so far left field, it didn’t even feel like a proper Star Wars movie to them anymore. This was next to just as many people proclaiming it to be a masterpiece and a sign of great change, with new unexpected things to come. That’s quite a divide! Is it even possible to find common ground among such a disagreement? Well, maybe not, but I’m going to damn well try at least!

There are some that liked the ideas behind the story, but hated the way it was executed. This (to me) is probably the most valid criticism I can give the movie. It doesn't change how I feel about the events themselves, but scenes like Kylo's overtaking of Snoke, or Luke's immediate and fearful reaction when drawing his lightsaber in front of a sleeping Ben, would have been ideal for more buildup and analyzation.

I do also see many people saying that they believe Finn and Rose's scenes were mostly "pointless." As I stated above, I don't agree with this, although I admit that the scenes could have been shortened a little, and would have probably had just as good of an impact. I still remember The Empire Strikes Back quite vividly (as I watch it all the time!), and I don't see anyone complaining about the amount of time Han, Leia, and the group spent running away from Imperial forces, only to get caught inside the belly of a large creature. Lest we forget, Empire also caused a bit of a split among fans and critics alike when it first came out. The main difference was that we didn’t have the internet to raise a soapbox platform on.

I've seen the argument of "plot holes abound" getting thrown around a lot too. You want to know the funny thing about this? Every Star Wars movie made has "plot holes abound" in it! If you were to re-watch A New Hope right now, you would likely find more plot holes in that than just about any other movie of its type. Part of loving Star Wars has always been acknowledging that it has plot holes and still being able to enjoy it, despite. I consider this movie to be no different in that regard. Analyzing can be fun (as I’m obviously doing so right now!), but I don’t think we need to do it to the point of ad nauseum, arguing about the technical specifications behind lightspeed tracking.

Another issue that people seemed to have was with the humor in the movie, claiming it felt forced and out of sorts in multiple places. I partially agree, as there were some moments that had me scratching my head at the choice of comedic timing. However, I did find some moments to be downright hilarious as well. Perhaps my favorite “silly” moment was seeing Luke squeeze a blue-ish milk (like the one we saw him drinking in A New Hope) out of a strange looking alien creature with giant milk sacs. The way he confidently (and awkwardly) stared at Rey while drinking it was priceless.

Rey’s parents and background were another point of concern. People were annoyed to hear Kylo tell Rey that they were nobodies, who sold her off. While we technically don’t even know if this is true (as it would make sense for Kylo to lie to Rey here, intending to manipulate her into joining him), Rey’s reaction proved that this comment clearly struck a nerve. Whether that’s because there’s any truth to it or not, we’ll hopefully find out down the line. Either way, I am okay with this scenario. There’s no reason to believe that strong force users can’t come from anywhere. (In fact, when you think about it, they had to! Jedi weren’t even allowed to love, yet there used to be an abundant number of them, prior to Order 66.) What leads me to believe there could still be more to this however, comes from Rey’s dialogue. When walking into the first Jedi temple, she quite clearly states that she felt as if she’d been there before. What’s that about? We still have at least one more movie to find out.

The other most common complaint I've seen is that some people believe they are "ruining" these classic characters, while paving way for the news ones. I can sympathize with the people who feel this way, though I respectfully disagree. I was in the group of people who enjoyed The Force Awakens, but was longing for a different approach that would truly separate this from the original trilogy. While I don't think it's done that completely (as rehashes of old plot points are still riddled throughout even this film), I did find this to be more of a step in the right direction.

That brings me to my last main point about the criticisms here. A large majority of them (outside of the structure of the film) seem to revolve around things not playing out the way some fans envisioned for them to. It’s not too hard to see why this is such a sore spot for some. As fans, we ALL have different ideas of what directions Star Wars can take, and would love to see come alive. When it doesn’t go that route, this can immediately confuse, especially when you see such drastic changes as you did in this new entry. I personally believe that it’s going to come down to the way people view this on a second or even third viewing. Whether people will see it again and start to come around to the new perspective, or not be able to look past its faults will determine where we go from here. I’m in the camp that believes more viewings will help people come around to the new ideas presented, but there’s no way to really tell.

The actual message of this movie was to accept that failure is going to happen, but to take that failure and learn from it. This movie was a constant barrage of the main characters going through one failed scenario after another. The “extremely luck hero moments” simply didn’t happen much this time around, up until the movie’s final scenes. That was off-putting to some, who believed they were going to get a completely different experience altogether. Yoda himself said that failure is our greatest teacher. On board with it or not, that message was clear.

Again, I ask that whatever side of the scale you see yourself on with this movie, please be respectful to others. There is obviously no definitive "REAL FANS THINK THIS!" or "REAL FANS THINK THAT!" in the equation, otherwise you wouldn't see everyone at such odds about this. I am admittedly happy with a lot of the changes I saw in this movie, but I am also understanding of those who are not, and am sorry to hear they didn't experience the same level of joy I got out of this. This is a property that's existed since the late 1970's, and it's obviously resonated with many of us in all kinds of ways. I don't blame the fans for getting a little defensive sometimes, but we can still do it without become that to which we hate. Remember, only a Sith deals in absolutes!

I’m basing my review score of this movie by how much I personally enjoyed it. If I were to base it on a typical point system, removing points for each flaw I witnessed or issue I had with the editing, I don’t think it would accurately convey my real feelings about the movie. That’s why even with all its flaws, I give Star Wars: The Last Jedi a solid 9/10, and can't wait to see where we go from here. I’ll even go as far as to say this is the first time I’ve been legitimately excited about Star Wars’ direction in a very long time. As always, thank you for reading, and feel free to share your thoughts on this obviously divisive film with me for more discussion!!!

Sunday, November 19, 2017

My Thoughts On New Jersey Comic Expo 2017!

I was debating if I would do another write up on this local convention, since I'd already done so back in 2016 (with very positive things to say), but so much happened in such a short amount of time this year, that I simply couldn't imagine avoiding it! Everything in this post happened on Saturday; I didn't get to go on Sunday.

To be honest, I wasn't even sure if I could go to New Jersey Comic Expo this year. Despite having some very fairly-priced tickets, I admit I have not been in the best place with money right now, and wasn't sure if I would be able to fit this in with current budget constraints. Thankfully, things worked out enough that I could still manage this, and I'm so thrilled they did.

I got to the convention center a little after 11 AM, with an iced coffee tightly gripped into my hand for dear life. There was virtually no line to get in, so I was able to go right up to the ticket booth, scan my paper, and head on in. I started by doing a quick survey of the place, just to see where most things were (dealer's booths, artist alley, cosplay corner, etc.). Some of the first people I see happened to be Sal and Dave, the two behind Garden State Comic Fest. I pretty much see them at every local convention (as they are of course busy promoting their own, especially with their upcoming show in Atlantic City next year), but they're always a pleasure to talk with too. While I don't see myself heading out to Atlantic City for their new con, I'll be happy to attend their next one at the William G. Mennen Sports Arena once again.

The next table I stopped by was Scott Hanna's. He's one of my favorite inkers in comics, and worked on J. Michael Straczynski's Amazing Spider-Man run (the run that got me back into comic books in general!), so needless to say, I owe him quite a bit of gratitude. He's signed other issues for me before, so I only brought my copy of Amazing Spider-Man #500 this time. We both talked for a bit and agreed that he got off of the book at just the right time, as all of the following story arcs (seriously RIGHT after his departure) had a severe drop in quality, all the way through to One More Day, which I still complain about to this day.

After talking with Scott, I noticed my cosplay friend (also named Justin) had his own table in the artist alley, where he was selling sculpts he made of various things like Pokémon and Rick and Morty. I first met him at C3, where he did an excellent Obi-Wan Kenobi (prequel movie version). I love seeing friends of mine try and succeed in doing the things they love, so I really wish him the best. 

I walked around a bit more, and caught up with my friend Candice, her brother Kevin, and their friend Jordan, who I hung out with last year and was really happy to see once again. They're a great group. I always feel like I can be myself around them, without fear of being judged for all my nerdy/introverted quirks (not that there was anyone even remotely mean at this convention, that I'm aware of).

Candice and I happened to be looking forward to the same guests (particularly Gail Simone and Garth Ennis), so we both set out to find their booths. When we finally reached Gail Simone's table, we were convinced that we were seeing things: She had absolutely no line whatsoever! Seriously, after multiple years where I missed my chance to meet her at New York Comic Con, it was almost unbelievable. She was just as nice as I've always heard, and had a really great spirit in the way she talked about comics. We all agreed that smaller cons can be so much nicer when it comes to breathing room and getting more time to chat with fans. She was kind enough to sign my Batgirl #1 (New 52) and take a picture. I would actually end up seeing her multiple times throughout the con, just from walking around, getting lunch, etc.

Garth Ennis's table was right around the corner, so Candice and I went to line up for him (since he would be arriving in less than 10 minutes). Thankfully, the line moved pretty fast once he got there, and he signed my copy of Preacher Vol. 1. I wish I had copies of his Punisher MAX series as well, but Preacher was more than enough for me. Garth was another person I tried to meet at New York Comic Con, but never managed to get to. It was funny how well that continued to work.

After this, we started to make our way over to the cosplay area. Every year, I see more and more people I know in this area, but this may have been the most I can ever recall. The Jedi with Saber Guild alone were impressive... Most impressive. Two more friends of mine also named Justin (that makes a grand total of 4 if you include me!), and a James were there. They do all kinds of shows and performances throughout the country, and they're always a lot of fun. I recommend checking them out if you're ever looking for some great Jedi action, or if you want to become a Padawan yourself.

While I was talking with my Jedi friends, I happened to notice Ming Chen of Comic Book Men walking right past us, and called out to him. We had a quick talk about how he was doing, and how I completely missed all of them the one time I did go to their store (commonly referred to as The Stash). He also took a quick picture with me.

I also spoke with Lua Stardust really quick. I've seen her at a billion other local cons at this point, so I always make it a priority to say hi and show some support. Trying to turn cosplay from a hobby into a full-time job is no easy task, and I really respect her for how far she's come with it.

On the way to find Tom DeFalco's table, I ran into my friend Lily, and her friend Scarlet, who were both cosplaying Disney princesses (Lily was Rapunzel and Scarlet was Elsa). I didn't get to talk with Lily for very long, but the minute or so I did ended up being my favorite moment of the entire convention! A little girl (had to be 2 or 3 years old) walked right up to Scarlet (Elsa) with such a look of awe, and gave her a big hug. As we geeks continue to get older, it's easy for us to forget that we all started out as tiny kids with big dreams and imaginations too. It was those bits of inspiration as children that would later help shape us into who we are today. That little girl just got a huge dose of that inspiration, and seeing it happen in front of me was everything. This is what it's all about.

After getting up to Tom DeFalco's table, he happened to hear Kevin and I talking about Amazing Spider-Man #252, as well as Secret Wars #8. Turns out, I had a misconception about the black costume, that Tom was happy to correct me on! While Secret Wars #8 was chronologically showcasing the first time Peter acquired the black costume, its first actual appearance in comics was in Amazing Spider-Man #252, which predated Secret Wars #8 by about 7 months. I've had both issues for years and honestly never knew this, much to my own embarrassment! Tom also proceeded to tell us a funny story about how he was working to co-write the black costume into this issue, while getting told from above that fans would hate it and it would never work out. They even went as far as to say he'd be to blame if sales plummeted as a result. Needless to say, the rest is now history, and I personally thanked him on behalf of all Spidey fans for sticking to his guns, and for helping (alongside many others) to give us one of the greatest Spidey costumes of all time! Encounters like this are simply priceless to me. There's nothing like hearing stories straight from the creator's own mouths!

The rest of the event mostly consisted of walking around in circles and interacting with all kinds of great people and cosplayers. Off the top of my head, I remember speaking briefly with Cliff Galbraith (of East Coast Comic Con), an amazing Obi-Wan cosplayer (who absolutely made Kevin's entire weekend), Robert Bruce, and even an old friend of mine from high school, Kristen Accardi. I also couldn't help but smile every time someone complimented my Cuphead/Pulp Fiction mash-up shirt, which was at least 6 people that I can recall off the top of my head. Honestly, even when I'm not one of the guests at an event like this, all the friendly and helpful people there make me feel like I am one. It's one of the few types of places where I know I can truly be myself and actually be respected for it.

So thank you to all those who attended and helped brighten my day with each passing moment. My only hope is that I was able to brighten other people's day out there as well. It's been fun, and I'll gladly see you all again next year. Take care, and thanks for reading!

Monday, November 13, 2017

The Relevance Of .hack, Both Then And Now

When Namco Bandai announced it would be remastering all of .hack//G.U., I was beyond ecstatic. Not known for having the most stellar gameplay out there, the .hack series always had a huge place in my heart, with its unique (for its time) setting and fascinating story premise. The first four entries in the series focused on the original version of "The World," the online game in which the .hack series takes place. Its sequel, G.U., took place in the second, with an all-new story and gameplay enhancements to go with it. After foolishly selling all seven copies of the PS2 games years ago, I finally had another chance to revisit The World once again. Was it worth it? Can a series that came out in the early 2000's (with notably outdated technology) still hold relevance as we approach the end of 2017? I believe the answer is yes. Not including the fact that G.U. takes place in 2017 itself, there is so much more ground to cover.

While hosting numerous differences, both stories focused on characters who got involved in playing The World, only to face a strange circumstance that would bring a close friend of theirs to get attacked in-game, and put the actual player into a coma back in the real world. This set the stage for a new type of storytelling back in 2002/2003 that has continued to impress. On top of playing the game and leveling up your characters, players would view an actual desktop interface, complete with forums and news sites, to gain further clues and insight into the mystery behind The World. I'm continually shocked by how well it holds up.

It's very easy to screw up a setting like this. All it takes is a bunch of robotic forum posts or poorly written news stories to take a gamer right out of the experience. I'm happy to say that was never the case with this series. For example: Multiple forum posts were started by someone who went by the username ωRICE. The character in front of the word rice means "O-h-m," but another forum poster stated that it looked like a butt to them, and began to call the user "Butt RICE," causing multiple "LOL's" from the other users, even though it had no relevance to the post or the story's plot. Little moments like these really helped keep the illusion going.

I was even more impressed by the relevance of the news articles you would read throughout each title (especially in G.U.). For a game made in 2006, they were pretty darn accurate with their predictions of what 2017 would look like (technologically speaking). One story talked about people farming and trading in-game items for real world currency, which is very much a thing people do in gaming today, not even including micro-transactions.

On top of all this, the main story is also worth revisiting. The .hack games have a knack for giving you an enticing mystery (with surprisingly high stakes), following it up with a relatively satisfying conclusion, and leaving you with many other questions after you leave. I think this is the perfect setup. One of the things that made the original .hack story so engaging was the way it kept you continually guessing. Game series' such as Silent Hill have always relied on this type of model to keep each entry fresh and new, and it's worked quite well for them. I'll never forget the way my jaw dropped the first time I took .hack//Infection for a spin, and how surprisingly grotesque the earliest parts of the game were, despite not having any actual violence in them. Lackluster gameplay or not, I knew I was in this for the long haul.

The story would not have the "oomph" it really needed without a great cast of characters. While each game certainly had a few duds to go with it, the great characters far out-weighed them. Alongside your regular interactions and experiences with these character in The World, you also had the option to talk with them through your email. These conversations would lead to the reveal of much more personal information about each player (things like favorite foods, hobbies, goals, what inspires them, etc.) and once again, add to the illusion that I mentioned above. Again, it was not a perfect setup, but I was absolutely blown away by how well-structured the whole thing was.

I have to also mention that the concept of hacking in this game was quite interesting, and really did make me feel like I was doing something "wrong" as the game moved along further. It's a special kind of dread that I can't properly put into words; you just have to see it in action for yourself.

You may have noticed that review scores for the .hack games have never been very high. I have no problem talking about why that is, here (as they do have some valid points among them):
  • For starters, (and as I have already alluded to above), the gameplay is clearly not that interesting. The original series had you limited to one main attack button, and a menu to select special attacks/items from. That. Was. It. The G.U. series thankfully improved on this formula greatly, with multiple types of attacks to choose from, as well as options like holding down the attack button to unleash a more powerful strike.
  • The worlds/dungeons you explore in these games can become very repetitive very quickly (especially in the original series). While each zone feels like a random generation, there is simply not much to do in them, other than carry out the same objectives again and again. It doesn't help that they all look like the same three designs going back and forth either.
  • Each entry in the series simply felt like an expansion to the last, with no major changes in the gameplay mechanics. (Though this is more typical of some downloadable content today, we need to remember that these were being sold as full-priced games with each additional installment.) This would cause the review scores of each entry to be lower than the last. G.U.'s scores were especially low due to this, as people were already burnt out from the multi-volume setup, and lack of enhancements with each entry.
I don't blame the reviewers for having issues with the games. In fact, if you look at the typical criteria to which game review scores are made up, the low numbers should make plenty of sense. On paper, it sounds like a lousy experience. I'm explaining all of this because I truly believe that the series is worth checking out, even despite these (obviously) glaring issues.

When a story pulls you in to the point where you feel you NEED to see how it all plays out? I believe this series has accomplished that. When you want to stick with something because you feel the people involved in it have become your own best friends, realistic personality traits and all? I believe this series has accomplished that as well.

I used to attribute my love for this series to the way it related with my own personal life, back around the same time (getting into more online games, internet forums, etc.). By the time G.U. came out, I realized it was more than just that, however. These games can have the same effect on you as a really great book, and leave you feeling that infamous "What am I going to do with myself now!?" attitude that you love to hate.

I hope my words have proven insightful for those who were on the fence about giving it a try. If you do have previous experience with the .hack games, or trying them out for the first time, I'd love to hear your thoughts as well! Thanks for reading, as always!

Sunday, October 15, 2017

What Cuphead Meant To Me

I've been talking about Cuphead a LOT since it first came out. Even after beating it on my PC last week, I still keep coming up with more and more thoughts about the whole experience, and what went into making it. I'm hoping to put the remainder of my thoughts on the game here, so I can finally move on to new topics (as well as stop annoying all of my friends by not shutting up about it!).

I'll get the obvious out of the way: this game is a visual masterpiece, and deserves every bit of praise it gets for that. I used to watch some of the very cartoons from the era that this game was based off of (i.e. the 1930's), when I was very young. My grandma used to buy VHS tapes with old cartoons on them, which I'd happily watch while eating whatever cookies she kept in her jar in the kitchen. Some were very fun, cutesy and silly (I especially loved the Fleischer Superman and Popeye cartoons), but others... Wow. When people tell you that 30's cartoons are very trippy and even scary at times, they are NOT lying. I remember being a little disturbed by a few of them, but continued to watch anyway. Years later, I still can't help but be intrigued by hand-drawn animation. There's an artistic quality and freedom of expression that I have a hard time finding in most of today's CG dominated platform. That's not to say CG animation is bad to me of course; it just doesn't capture the same level of imagination. So yes, seeing this style represented (and represented WELL at that!) really took me for a ride.

Something that does not get talked about as much with regards to Cuphead, is it's surprisingly great soundtrack! It's a wonderful combination of free-form jazz and big band music, that further sucks you into the 1930's aesthetic. I had never heard of Alana Bridgewater before, but after hearing her amazing vocal performance in "Die House," you can now call me a fan. The animation is what will likely get the most attention from gamers (and understandably so), but I personally feel the soundtrack is just as important in a case like this.

Cuphead also got me to feel nostalgic in a way I wasn't expecting: old-school difficulty! The game is tough, but not in the way that some modern gamers may be used to. The gameplay clearly channels classic run-and-gun shooters, such as Contra and Metal Slug, which I also have some pretty fond memories of (even though I couldn't really beat either of them without some kind of cheat codes handy!). People saying it's "like Dark Souls" are kind of missing the mark, since there are really no comparisons to make to it, other than "it's another hard game."

To be honest, I wasn't sure if I initially wanted to go back to a gameplay style this difficult. I used to have much more time for games when I was younger, and could easily sit around all day and learn the patterns I needed to for completing them. Now, I'm an adult (or so I'm told), with adult responsibilities and less time to blow on difficult games. That didn't stop me from completing Bloodborne after its release, but it took me over 3 months to actually get there, due to said time/responsibilities.

But I did it. After streaming Cuphead on Twitch for a couple of hours in the course of three nights, I finally completed the game, and didn't regret playing it for a second. What convinced me to go all the way? It's hard to say. I absolutely wanted to see what every level and bossfight in this game looked like, but I think there may have been more to it. Perhaps that feeling of gaming nostalgia really hit me when the bosses in World 2 were already giving me serious trouble. Maybe I just wanted to see it all myself, without having to resort to walkthroughs or videos of other people playing the same thing. I may never really know, but whatever possessed me to do it, I'm glad. I don't remember the last time I felt such a sense of accomplishment from even beating a game. It could be due to the lack of games actually made like this anymore, but it's hard to say for sure.

The difficulty will turn some people off to this game, and that's understandable. I have seen far too many so-called "gamers" out there berating others for not being as good as them at a title like this, or not willing to invest in the fairly large amount of time it takes to "git gud." Please, don't be one of those people. Gaming is for EVERYONE. Some people look for a challenge, but others may just want to get away with some escapism, and have fun while doing it. They're all valid reasons. Nobody is more or less of a gamer for that, and the toxicity is getting out of hand.

With all of that said, I'm really happy that I got to play something like this, and even more so that I got to finish it. Not only did it bring me back to a time where beating a game meant repeating a sequence over and over until you mastered it, but it showed me that I'm still capable of winning a game like this, even now as I'm over 30 years old. I used to think that I was no longer as good at the older titles as I used to be, and I'm glad to discover that's not actually the case.

The experience I got from this was well worth the $20 asking price, and I hope other people at least got some level of enjoyment out of it too. But again, to the people who find it too hard, that's okay too. The game IS hard. There's no shame in having trouble with it. I had trouble with it, and I'm pretty sure I've been a gamer for about 28 years now.

WHEW, okay. I think I've finally gotten it all out of my system now. It's been a blast talking about Cuphead with others, and learning about what it means to them. The answers are very rarely the same, and it's always fun to get new perspectives about it, no matter what side of the fence they come from. Feel free to share your experiences in the comments below as well. Until then, look forward to lots of spooky/survival horror game streaming from me during the rest of the month (and maybe even beyond)! I'll see you all then!

Monday, October 9, 2017

What Can You Accomplish In Just One Day At New York Comic Con?

I will always have a special place in my heart for New York Comic Con (NYCC). The Jacob Javitz Center marked the first "big" convention I ever went to. It's grown steadily over the years, to the point where tickets that used to be available at the venue DURING the weekend of, have since become unavailable within the first hour or two of online pre-orders going up. It's been quite a wild ride, and somehow, I'm still here to talk about it, even now. The removal of weekend passes, forcing con-goers to purchase individual tickets for each day of the event, really struck a chord with many, including myself. My finances haven't been the best as of late, and I originally decided this would be the first year I would NOT be attending as a result. So, what happened? Well, as time went on, Thursday passes continued to stay in stock, up until the last few days before the convention. I happened to catch one of the guest announcement emails, stating that Peter Capaldi and Pearl Mackie would be attending on said Thursday. After that, I decided "Okay, I guess if for anything, I can at least go to take a photo op with them. Let's give this a try!" So, how much can you accomplish at New York Comic Con in a single day? More importantly, how much can you accomplish on a Thursday!? The answer may surprise you.

After arriving at the Javitz Center around 11:00 AM or so, my friend and I were thrilled to see there was no delay getting inside (other than everyone being directed around the building to reach a specific entrance. It was a little annoying, but I admit it helped move the line along smoothly, so I really couldn't complain. Having TWO entrances instead of one this year was also a godsend). We wanted to approach the show floor first, in order to see if it was too late to get in on a signing. This was for Koji Igarashi (of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night and the upcoming Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night), signing a small art poster for Bloodstained. We had assumed we were going to miss out on this one (since it began at 10:30 AM) and had figured the line would be capped by that point. To our amazement, it was not. Stranger than that, the line wasn't even very long! My friend and I got to the front in less than 20 minutes, with beautiful signed posters, and a great picture with Igarashi himself!

Keeping our eye on the clock in order to make a 12:45 panel, we looked around the Show Floor some more, in order to see if any exclusives we wanted were still lurking around. At the Oni Press booth, I picked up a variant cover of the Rick And Morty comic, designed to look like the cover art of Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door for the Nintendo Gamecube. We also had a great discussion with some of the people working the booth (who have worked with Oni Press for years), who explained just how they've grown off the sales of Invader Zim and Rick And Morty alone. It was really insightful, and I'm glad we had enough time to chat with them before heading back downstairs to the Main Stage.

My friend happened to win a lottery for the Batman Ninja panel at 12:45, who was also able to include me as a guest. The good news is that even if he hadn't won, there was still plenty of room left to get into the panel, up until the final minutes before! I admit, from the second I had heard about the team behind this project, I knew I was going to be interested. It includes Takashi Okazaki (Afro Samurai), Kazuki Nakashima (Gurren Lagann and Kamen Rider Fourze), and Jumpei Mizusaki (JoJo's Bizarre Adventure), making this one heck of a lineup. All three were able to attend the panel, with an excellent translator to tell us their thoughts on the movie. They did not allow us to record the teaser trailer (though I admit, being among the first in the world to see it was a nice tradeoff), but it was quite a sight to behold! I am not typically a fan of CG-styled anime, but this one immediately won me over by being so stylish and interesting. (If you are familiar with any of the JoJo's Bizarre Adventure openings, it's very reminiscent of that, only more fluid.) Seeing many of the Batman characters we know and love in armor and sword-fighting was also quite a treat. The Joker in this trailer actually reminded me of Kefka from Final Fantasy VI in his appearance, and I mean that in the best way possible. Near the end, I even got to ask the panelists a question of my own: Whether or not we were going to be seeing any new characters (or even villains?) alongside the classic ones that we know. While they admitted that was not really the focus in this case, Kazuki Nakashima noted that I was "very observant." Having the writer of such famous shows as Gurren Lagann and Kamen Rider Fourze tell you that, is quite a unique feeling.

After the panel, we were all invited to go up to the Bandai booth for a free signing with the panelists, and it was a ton of fun! We got to thank everyone up close for their efforts, and even got a nice signed postcard for coming up. It was overwhelming how many famous Japanese creators I got to meet in a single day, by this point. But we weren't done yet; not by a long shot...

After grabbing some quick lunch (because food is important; don't forget!), my friend and I headed over to check out the new Artist Alley location. Since the old one got closed down, it was now located to the left of the Main Stage room. I admit, there were a few times I felt like this location was more cramped than the previous one. I can't actually confirm that though, so I wouldn't try to pass it off as a fact. This section of the con was always my favorite in previous years, and though I didn't have much time in it, there was still great fun to be had. I already had my first issue of Batman/Superman signed by Greg Pak, but this year, I also got to meet Jae Lee. He was happy to sign my issue, and a very nice guy to talk with. I also found Joe Benitez's booth, and finally got my first four Lady Mechanika issues (#0-4) signed by him. It's an excellent series that's not nearly popular enough. I hope that changes as time goes on. Although I had missed my chance to meet Tom King and David Finch for the day, their booth was actually selling signed copies of Batman: Rebirth Vol. 1, so I decided to go with that. As much as I would have liked to talk with them in person, it was still a nice opportunity, and it's not like these two are going away anytime soon. I also got to briefly meet up with my friend Sarah (with her own booth in the Artist Alley!), who I hadn't seen since around the time Batman Vs. Superman came out. She makes cute buttons and you should all buy them.

No time to breathe! It was now around 4:30 PM and I had a photo op with Peter Capaldi and Pearl Mackie (of Doctor Who) at 5:00 PM. This may be the only part of the convention I had some hassle with. While pre-purchased photo op tickets have always said to come about 15 minutes before your photo op starts, this was the first time I ever saw the policy seem to get implemented. I was told to come back "closer to the time of the photo op," even though it was less than 20 minutes to. I basically stood with a large crowd of people, all waiting to get into the right line. It seemed all of the line spaces were completely filled up for other things (and the majority of it appeared to be for Mark Hamill, though I may have been wrong about that). As a result, we were finally directed to line up, but couldn't do so from the front. Instead, we were told to go all the way around from the middle section of the room, to the back of the now empty section, and walk up to the front to line up there. If that sounds confusing, it's because it was. None of us were certain that we were even in the correct line, and it didn't help when they started lining up more people for the same photo op in a separate line to fill up the spaces. While we did thankfully move right in at 5:00, that was a huge anxiety attack that I didn't feel had to occur. I've done photo ops at this convention for many years, and never run into any issues like this before now. Despite all this, things still went smoothly once we got in, and Peter and Pearl were both delightful to talk with. (They also give really big hugs too!)

After that anxiety attack was diluted, I decided I'd go get some iced coffee to keep up the pace for the remaining hours. Ironically, this was the longest line I stood in the entire day! I couldn't even be mad, since I was too busy laughing about the fact. During my time there, I got a text from my friend, saying he had just talked with Pete & Pete (yes, THAT Pete & Pete!). I sighed, took a large gulp from my plastic coffee cup, and made a mad dash to the booth he told me they were at. Sure enough, it really WAS Pete & Pete (with their real names of Mike Maronna and Danny Tamberelli). They were some of the most casual people I met the entire day, and I even got into a great music discussion with Mike (since he turned out to be a huge fan of The Replacements, one of my personal favorite bands)!

You would think the excitement would have died down by now, but you'd be wrong! Following one more run through the Show Floor, I got some free JoJo's Bizarre Adventure postcards for doing a pose and getting a picture in front of their giant Jotaro statue. I was also accompanied by an excellent Noriaki Kakyoin cosplayer for this shot. With about 40 or 45 minutes remaining until our next panel, my friend and I decided to head back toward the Main Stage to begin lining up.

For the next panel (StarTalk Radio with Neil deGrasse Tyson and Adam Savage), I happened to have won another lottery, allowing my friend and I some spots inside. Once again, even if we had not won these lotteries, there was still room to get spots for the panel earlier in the morning/afternoon. Though it did fill up much faster than the Batman Ninja panel, it was still open for a reasonable amount of time. (With that said, I DID appreciate the peace of mind, though!)

Although we were much farther back in the line to get inside, my friend and I made our way to the left side of the stage, and still got seats very close to the front. My phone's camera is terrible (and my friend's phone had completely died by that point), so I didn't get any great pictures from this panel. That said, it was well worth the wait! Dr. Tyson, Adam Savage, Chuck Nice, and S. Matthew Liao all had a fascinating discussion on human augmentation, the concept of giving various forms of enhancements to humans; some for increasing our natural capabilities, and others for simply allowing those with disabilities the same opportunities as everyone else. They went into the topics of how far we've come, how far we are going, and the question of if we can or will ever go too far. Don't fret however, as there were plenty of laughs along the way (especially from comedian, Chuck Nice, who had the audience howling with laughter more than a few times). I wish I hadn't been feeling so tired by that point of the convention, as the discussion was truly insightful, and it left you with a lot to ponder once all was said and done.

With the last panel of the convention finished up, it was time to get some (late) dinner and finally head home. My ears were ringing, my voice was a little shot, and I was pretty sure my calves were never speaking to me again. (So far... No, they're still not.) When I finally had time to process all my thoughts from the day, I simply looked back in disbelief at everything we had managed to accomplish in just one day of this convention. While it's true that experiences from Friday-Sunday may have varied, Thursday was an absolute blast! If anyone tries to tell you that you can't get anything done in one day of this convention, I hope you'll be able to show them just how wrong they can be. One day or four, this con is always a blast to attend, and I'll never forget the new friends and experiences I met along the way. I only hope your future con experiences are as fun as mine! Let me know of your NYCC experiences in the comments below!

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Book Review: Trust Me, I'm Lying: Confessions Of A Media Manipulator By Ryan Holiday

'Trust Me, I’m Lying' ruined the internet for me, and I couldn’t be happier. For years, we’ve all known something was “off” about the blogs/articles we read, but it hasn’t been as easy to put a finger on exactly what (or at least be able to properly articulate it). It took a while before I finally got to reading this one; not due to what I stated above, but rather the fact that I didn’t really know how to feel about the author, Ryan Holiday. While it’s true that the intent of this book was to put out information on how the media gets the info that we later perceive as news, I couldn’t stop thinking about the fact that Ryan himself previously contributed to this very situation. In the end, I decided that I should give it a shot, based on his current attitude of at least trying to prevent this sort of thing from ever happening again. The approach actually reminded me of Kevin Mitnick’s “The Art of Deception,” in which Kevin (known as the “World’s most notorious hacker” at the time) revealed how he performed all of his various acts of hacking in the 80’s. This book goes a bit beyond that type of idea however, as it not only goes into Ryan and his personal experiences with bloggers and media, but into how just about EVERY major news outlet gets its “sources” and “breaking” stories.

Just the fact that I’m even writing up a blog about this might be a little silly to anyone who’s read the book before. That’s because it talks all about the ways bloggers have changed the way we receive news, through posts without (usually) any hint of credibility behind them. Sources are almost a joke of a term under this regard. It’s easy to read a news story and assume the source is accurate (especially if it comes from a fairly large news network that’s been around since before most of us were even born). Here, Ryan talks all about why you should never, EVER assume.

Holiday, of course, is aware that this kind of topic could also cause one to question his words, as well as his motives. He uses many of the book's chapters to go into great detail, with example cases to back the data up. It wasn't uncommon to find a site getting exposed for using a bogus source, and (more frighteningly) still getting away with it most of the time. In fact, many of these sources didn’t even remove their provenly fake stories after the case.

How do big sites and news networks allow stories like this through in the first place? Surely, they have people to stop them and say “No, that’s not a verifiable source; you can’t use that,” right? Not necessarily. At least, not if those people believe it will get their site a lot of page clicks. If I told you that sites focus more on their ability to generate page clicks than accurate news, would you believe me? You don’t have to, as the business model pretty much writes itself. That’s their very lifeblood. The more pages clicked, the more advertisement revenue generated by the ads placed on each page. Some sites try to make you click through a “slideshow” of 10+ pages to get the entire story. Others will force a page to reload after a minute or two, so it can load more ads on the same page you’re already viewing.

It would be one thing if the forcefulness stopped there. On top of all those factors, sites (as you may already realize) post headlines and stories that are designed to evoke an emotion more than they are to simply report the news. This has been going on since far before the age of the internet (as any classic newspaper headline can show you). These sites and articles prey on your anger, fear, and even your hopeful nature, all for the sake of getting more clicks. Have the more shocking headline, get more viewers as a result, profit. Getting people’s attention through hate was proven to be one of the most effective methods. Why? Negative press from everyone who shares it. Ryan himself started a negative campaign for a friend of his when trying to promote a movie. Since he had little resources to promote the movie with, he purposely angered feminist groups in order to make them rally against it. This, in turn, got the attention of a smaller amount of people who actually agreed and went along with the hateful things Ryan was promoting in this form of advertising. The controversy caused it to reach more people, making the project a much bigger success than it ever should have been.

Have a site that you frequent for news? Ryan likely exposed it in this book through some example. The truth is that as noble as some may claim to be in their act of reporting, it won’t bring in enough revenue if they’re not following all the strategies I mentioned above. It’s an awful truth that I admit I still have trouble accepting sometimes. It’s not that I believe ALL news posted is somehow fake, but there is clearly a large spin on more stories than we may realize. Again, this is all to create an emotional response from us, and maybe even get us to share it with others and continue the cycle.

So why even give people this information? The book literally tells you how to manipulate the media for your own personal gain. That much is true, but like the act of hacking, one must learn how said hacking works before they can properly fight against it. This book’s methodology is no different in that regard. And admittedly, our brains have already become so tainted, that even when we see something and know it is not true, we can still have an emotional response or reaction to it. It’s an alarming situation that I never seem to find enough people talking about.

This book has now become a requirement for many classes involving journalism, and it’s not hard to see why. The information contained is invaluable. With that said, I could more than understand someone finding issue with the person who wrote this book, as (once again), he himself contributed to the very mess we now find ourselves in. There are also parts of the book where Ryan can come off a bit condescending, and I admit, I usually avoid reading anything where I get that type of vibe from someone.

The other final complaint I can make here is that some parts of the book felt like a regurgitation of material Ryan already covered in past chapters. It was at the point where I felt the book could have been at least a quarter-length shorter if he had wanted.

With all of that said, in today’s modern age of information, the material covered here is absolutely essential for anyone who looks to the internet for news (as WELL as news networks on television, since their sources typically come from the same questionable places), and any aspiring journalist who wants a clear understanding of what they're currently up against. For its small faults, it’s hard to not recommend this to just about everyone I know, so we can finally paint a clearer picture of not only what’s going on around us, but WHY it’s happening, and what we can finally do to rise above it.