Ian's Movie Reviews
Short Reviews of Movies, Board Games, and Other Stuff

Aug
07

This is the third such post of best and worst TV episodes lists I’ve done, the others being for The X-Files and Game of Thrones.  This time I am applying this ranking to The Simpsons.  However, it is important to note that this is not including the entire run of the longest running animated program.  Heck, that’s well over 600 episodes by now!  I don’t have THAT much free time.

Instead, I’ve decided to limit it to the first eight seasons of the series’s very-long run.  These are what I, and many other Simpsons fans, consider to be the golden years of the show.  During these years, The Simpsons was probably the best show on television.  Afterward, however, it really started going downhill and is so far removed from the quality of its past that its practically a different show now.  Season 9 still has some gems, but its pretty close to 50/50 for great vs. not so great episodes, so I just couldn’t include it.

So what I’ve done is rank all the episodes from these golden years, but what I am presenting here are the top ten and bottom ten for these eight seasons.  If you are interested in the full list, let me know, but otherwise see if you agree with these twenty choices, breaking down the best TV show ever.

The Top Ten Episodes

10. Treehouse of Horror V

Season 6

The Halloween episodes have become a staple of The Simpsons, telling three stand-alone stories usually touching upon well-known fiction.  The best of these came in season 6 in which The Simpsons did their brilliant send up of Kubrick’s The Shining, told a creepy tale of the school staff serving trouble-making kids in the cafeteria, and my favourite of the Halloween shorts, Homer creating a time-traveling toaster.

9. Who Shot Mr. Burns? Part 1

Season 6

Cliffhanger finales were not something The Simpsons ever bothered with…. except once.  This brilliant send-off of the infamous Dallas season finale managed to create an interesting mystery atmosphere in which many different motives for the titular crime were established.  From Burns’ ridiculous plot to block out the sun to Homer’s ridiculous obsession for Burns to know his name, this episode was chock full of great stuff.  Part 2 which followed it up was also great, but didn’t quite meet the same levels of quality.  The summer after this was quite fun, trying to follow the clues and figure out whodunnit.  Ah, good times.

8. The Way We Was

Season 2

The Simpsons has some great flashback episodes under their belt.  One of the show’s most touching moments came from the Maggie flashback episode where its revealed where her baby pictures are.  But the best flashback remains the first one they did, where the story of how Marge and Homer met is retold.  It speaks a lot to who those two characters are and the foundation of their relationship, which is the cornerstone of the entire series if you think about it.

7. You Only Move Twice

Season 8

One of the best one-shot characters The Simpsons ever gave us was Hank Scorpio, Homer’s short-time boss/global supervillain.  There’s some fun stuff going on here with James Bond spoofs, but told from the perspective of a really friendly bad guy.  This episode is pure funny from the moment Hank throws his shoes to when Homer gets the Denver Broncos as a gift.

6. Lisa’s Substitute

Season 2

Seasons 2 and 3 were really great at not only being funny, but having strong emotional cores behind their weekly stories.  The epitome of this was when Lisa made a connection with her substitute teacher Mr. Bergstrom, voiced brilliantly by Dustin Hoffman (back when guest stars actually gave performances and didn’t just speak blandly into the microphone).  This does a lot to explain the relationship between Lisa and Homer, as well as Lisa and herself.  Its an excellent half-hour of television.

5. Last Exit to Springfield

Season 4

“Dental Plan!”

Many have made an argument for this being the best  of all Simpsons episodes, and watching it again its easy to see why.  Its just great comedy from start to end with tons of iconic gags like the dental plan repetition, Homer needing to use the bathroom, and the Grinch parody at the end.  This is a textbook example of why The Simpsons at its peak is the greatest TV show ever.

4. A Streetcar Named Marge

Season 4

Their fourth season was probably The Simpsons at its height.  It had great episodes like Homer the Heretic, The Itchy and Scratchy Movie, the previous pick Last Exit to Springfield, one other big on still to come(…), and this one, where Marge takes part in a community theater production of A Streetcar Named Desire.   While Last Exit to Springfield was chalk full of brilliant comedic writing, Streetcar also has the personal story underlying it.  many episodes have dealt with the relationship of Homer and Marge, some are good, some are bad, and some are great.  This one is the best of them.

3. Homer at the Bat

Season 3

This is definitely more of a personal pick.  I have always had fond feelings for this episode for some reason.  There’s an ethereal feeling to the baseball/wonderbat stuff, but there’s also some damn funny gags involving the cast of ball players that join Mr. Burn’s softball team.  Steve Sax’s run in with the law is probably the best of these.  And of course there is that great song over the end credits.  Masterpiece.

2. Cape Feare

Season 5

Fans’ favourite returning character is of course the dastardly Sideshow Bob, who always has some crazy scheme to get revenge on Bart (who’s only 10 and already has two mortal enemies).  This is by far his best outing and indeed one of the best episodes ever, as almost any Simpson’s expert will agree.  Cape Feare goes beyond simple movie parody and really creates its own entity here.  This episode is chalk full of memorable lines (“Use a pen Sideshow Bob”), gags (Bart, wanna see my new chainsaw and hockey mask!”), and sketches (“Now remember, YOU are Homer Thompson).

And of course the rakes.  Ohhhhhh, the rakes.

1. Marge vs the Monorail

Season 4

I wasn’t really sure when I started ranking these which would end up on top.  There are so many great episodes, and honestly any of the top 5 there would have been excellent candidates for the #1 spot.  But I had to go with the Monorail episode.  This is just comedic gold all the way through.  Every joke lands jut the way it should, it has a great musical number, it has tons of memorable lines (“I call the big one Bitey”), it involves the whole town but still keeps the Simpsons family at the core, and has a great narrative arc which includes tension, relief, and connected plot points.  Its a great half-hour of television anyway you look at it.

Monorail has tons of iconic Simpsons “stuff” in it, like donuts, Homer having a wacky job, celebrity cameos (thank you Mr. Nimoy, even though you didn’t do anything), and a great silly ending.  Its so good.  Again, the best of The Simpsons really only differ by the tiniest of margins, but for this go around I am giving the crown to Marge vs. the Monorail.

The Bottom Ten Episodes

Again, I remind you that these are the bottom episodes for the first eight seasons, otherwise none of them would be here as the last 20 or so years would encapsulate many, many worse episodes than these.  Its also worth noting that I did watch and rank all episodes in these seasons, and even ones that didn’t make the top 100 were still excellent episodes.  There is a LOT of quality here.  But every once in a while, even classic Simpsons had some episodes I wasn’t thrilled with.  Here they are.

10. Homer’s Night Out

Season 1

A lot of people like to get down on the first season of The Simpsons.  I understand why, even if I don’t entirely agree, as the animation is pretty crude and the characters and writers needed some time to find their groove.  But looking back on some, they are sort of just… meh.  And that’s what Homer’s Night Out it: meh.  It sees Homer become a notorious party animal because of a lewd picture taken with him dancing with a stripper at a bachelor party.  Its pretty tame.

9. The Old Man and the Lisa

Season 8

There are a few episodes on this bottom list that are reflective of the show’s later tendencies in the crappier seasons leaking out a bit.  This is certainly one of those.  It feels more like season 10 or after.  I just don’t care for it very much.

8. The Simpsons Spin-Off Showcase

Season 8

This was an interesting idea in theory, but in execution it really isn’t that great.  We get a 3-story structure similar to the Halloween episodes, but in each one this time we get a possible spin-off.  The best of the three is Chief Wiggam in New Orleans, but the Moe show and the variety show are really quite lame.  I mean, I know they are supposed to be, but its just too much.

7. The Simpsons 138th Episode Spectacular

Season 7

As awesome as the title for this episode is, its really just a clip show.  But at least it has Troy McClure introducing the segments.

6. Homerpalooza

Season 8

Some hallmarks of “bad” Simpsons includes trying desperately to capitalize on certain cultural touchstones and having soulless celebrity cameos, differing from the actual guest performances from earlier years that are there to play a character not to just show up for people to recognize them.  Homerpalooza is probably the origin point for these problems.  This is The Simpson’s trying to be hip-and-now, as it does so often these days, instead of creating classic TV comedy.  The cameos really feel like name dropping and checking celebrities off a list.  Its a sign of things to come.

5. Some Enchanted Evening

Season 1

While I actually like most of the first season episodes and don’t really agree with much of the criticism, I do confess that this episode sort of encapsulates or me what all those complaints are.  The animation is really quite bad, the story is beyond lame, that babysitter bandit is awful, and this just doesn’t work.  I don’t like it.

4. Burns baby Burns

Season 8

So this is the third Season 8 episode that is on here because it represents the problems that the later  years would have in abundance.  Burns Baby Burns really feels like it should come from one of the seasons in the teens.  It focuses entirely on a celebrity, makes up a lame plot contrivance like Mr. Burns having a secret child, and sees the beginnings of Homer’s decline as a character.  Homer here is getting into crazy schemes just because, something that he would become famous for later on.  In the good years, Homer gets into schemes for actual story reasons most of the time, and is usually a lot more subdued.  This is the beginning of “wacky” Homer, who frankly just isn’t as good.  And this is very obviously them writing an episode specifically for a celebrity guest star (Rodney Dangerfield in this case) and having them do their shtick, instead of formulating an episode with The Simpson’s and having cameos which make sense.  They made this work with Michael Jackson earlier on, but it really doesn’t work here.

3. So Its Come to This: A Simpsons Clip Show

Season 4

I mean, come on, its a clip show.  At least Bart shaking up the beer in the paint shaker was funny.

2. Another Simpsons Clip Show

Season 6

Same as above really.  The reason the first clip-show is above this one is that the framing device is a little more involved and interesting.

1.  Supercalifragilisticexpiali-d’oh-cious

Season 8

And so we come to the worst of the best.  The Simpson’s has always had a history with musical numbers, most of which are successful like “Who Needs the Kwiki-mart?” or “Monorail”.  But they just took it way too far with this Mary Poppins spoof.  There’s not much I like in this episode.  The story of Marge’s hair falling out is dumb, Sherry Bobbins is annoying and so is the singing.  So while the Simpsons has made over 150 great episodes in their first eight years, not all of them were gold unfortunately.

Still, when all is said and done, The Simpsons seasons 1 to 8, the only ones that really matter (though to be fair season 9 does have some gold), is very likely the best years of any television show I’ve seen.  While there may be some chinks in the armour, there really aren’t many, and they are far outweighed by many, many episodes that are pure cinematic gold.  But not only was this the funniest show ever made, at its best it is also top-notch storytelling that defied television expectations.

 

Jul
22

How great are movies? Am I right? They have the ability to thrill us, wow us, and make us feel like we are part of the experience.  Christopher Nolan wants us to feel Dunkirk, not just watch the events unfold, and he has put all his film-making powers towards that goal.  What resulted was me needing to catch my breath and my mom simply staring at the screen for a few moments in silence as the credits rolled.  Dunkirk, as it turns out, is an outstanding cinematic experience.

Nolan chooses an unconventional chronology era, using three different time frames to tell the story (land, air, sea) but syncing up the tension within each so that even though we know they are happening at different moments in time, it still flows.  This was a neat way to balance all of the threads and it works quite well.

Dunkirk is less abut the personal stories involved with Dunkirk (though those are there), and its not about learning about all of the events and military strategies that transpired, its about putting the audience on the beach and making it feel visceral.  Think of the D-Day scene in Saving Private Ryan to understand what I mean here. We are meant to sense the fear when we hear the enemy planes making their way to the beach, we are meant to feel the gunshots when they ring out suddenly, we are meant to understand the vertigo of an open sea dogfight.  It all works so well.

And the sound!  A big part of creating these experiences is the incredible sound design, which is definitely enhanced by a theater viewing.  The bullets ring out, the fighter engines emit doom, the ocean waves sound of desperation.  The visual cues are also great, with little details like all of the rifles lined up along the pier, and the sea foam!  Oh the sea foam.

I don’t give out 10 out of 10’s very often, but this movie deserves it.  I am a big Nolan fan, but to be honest I was skeptical when I heard he was making a war movie, not sure that he would be able to set himself apart from all those other war films out there.  I should have known better.  Dunkirk is its own thing, for sure, and a spectacular way to capture on film such an important moment in history and such a great story of ordinary citizens answering the call of duty.

10/10

Jul
12

Our hobby is filled with games of all sorts, designed for many different situations. And while sometimes its great to have a battle of strategies between a few friends in a deep, complex brain-burner, its also nice to just have a great time with a large group of people. That’s where Mascarade comes in.
Mascarade works with anywhere from 6 to 13 people, proving an interesting group experience. There’s bluffing, deduction, and quite a lot of confusion. Not confusion in the bad sense, but more like the kind that you will easily laugh about at the end of the round. Mascarade is similar to a party game, in that it is more focused on creating an experience than the game itself, though the game elements still matter.

Components

Mascarade is a pretty small box as it really only holds cards and coins. There are thirteen character cards, all wonderfully illustrated. The icons on each card are generally clear on what that card does, but reference sheets are also provided. The coins are, well, coins. There is also a cut-out of a courthouse, where your penalties go if you are caught lying in the game.
The characters are set in an era of decadence that you’d imagine the Vienna court to be like in the times of Mozart, for example. They include the kin and queen, the bishop, the judge, the spy, and other such roles. They are designed with elaborate costumes which are quite impressive.

Gameplay

Mascarade is made up of a deck of character cards, each one doing something different, but the ultimate goal is to make money. The first person to 13 coins wins, so the trick is to use the characters you have to get there.
But which character are you?? This is where the spark of the game comes in. Once the game starts, people’s roles are hidden, and most of the trick is trying to figure out who everyone is, including yourself! You are allowed to do one of two things on your turn: swap roles with someone, use your characters ability, or look at your own character card (though this is certainly the most boring option and I never bother with it).
The reason the role switching works is because when you do so you swap the cards secretly, which means that you may or may not have actually switched with them at all. This casts just enough uncertainly to make it more difficult to predict who everyone is,, which makes it much more enjoyable. However, it is very possible that while mixing up the cards, even you will forget yourself!
Using your ability works because you don’t actually have to be the right character to use their ability, you only need to pretend that you are. The only way you won’t get away with it is if someone else claims to be the same character and proves it. This adds a bluffing element to the game which, tied with the uncertainly to people knowing who they are all the time, can be fun to try.

Conclusion

Mascarade fills a particular niche of gaming experiences, one in which its more about the social interactions, while still providing a game element and goal. It had secret roles, similar to game like The Resistance, but can mix them up and combines it with bluffing. It plays well with a large group, and you can either really try to pay attention to who everyone is, or completely forget about it, and either way you will have a good time.
Its not perfect mind you. Some people may not like the inherent confusion that games with the game if they are not able to just let themselves embrace the chaos of it. I also think that the bluffing part should be emphasized a little bit more, as pulling off a good coup of a character is usually the best part of the game. The start of the game is also a little annoying as the first four players have to switch cards in order to cause some initial disruption, but then the next players moves are also telegraphed or else the first players after that could get to their first turn knowing exactly who they are.
These are ultimately minor squabbles which maybe prevent it from being a master design of a social game, but it is still a really good social game nonetheless. I mean, a game where thirteen people can play is pretty rare, and the game moves fast enough and has enough actions between players and struggles to figure it all out that it makes it fun for everyone, so long as your table Is ready to have some fun.

Jul
03

I liked it. The biggest reason why is probably Gal Gadot, who I thought really nailed this role. Its very clear that she fights out of compassion and a true desire to make things better in the world, and that’s pretty refreshing. She’s really good at creating those little personality moments that casually give her character some depth (far more than her justice league comrades have shown thus far, thats for sure).

The story is pretty basic superhero fare. The setting will remind a lot of people of the first Captain America movie, right down to the “small band of stereotypes”, though even more pronounced this time. That really does weaken the fabric of the film that was built so far. I did like the aspect of the story where a soldier is washed up on Amazon island and introduces Diana to the world.I honestly think the movie would have been stronger if they focused more on her simply entering the fray with him, and took out the goofier aspects like the goofy villains and the Irishman, Egyptian, and Native American walking into a bar.

The movie looks really good, though a little dark at times. I really wish I didn’t see it in 3D, because it made a lot of the action fuzzy. (Stop with the 3D already!!!! ) But the character of Wonder Woman herself it really what makes the movie shine, despite its cliched elements.

8/10

Jun
18

(Honestly, just call it Pirates 5…)

About 10 years ago, George Lucas made a statement that soon the Hollywood blockbuster would be dead.  It appears that the opposite has come true instead.  Blockbusters are sinking their claws into us, so much so that I walked out of this fifth film in a massively overblown series feeling perfectly fine about what is ultimately not a good movie.

Alright, to say its not a good movie is a little unfair.  Its half of a good movie, half of a really bad movie.  The first act had me almost groaning out loud in the theater (I didn’t because I’m not completely an asshole).  It is very clear at this point that Jack Sparrow has become a cheap parody of himself, purely an imitation where his quirks have been extrapolated to the point of ridiculousness.   He’s become the clown version of the character we all fell in love with 14 years ago.  This problem around our main character does dissipate as the movie continues, but boy is it noticeable off the start.

Other glaring problems have to do with both the directing and writing.  In the directing based on a lot of awkward timing of jokes and dialogue.  Again, this is very evident in the first half, like when the kid gets back on the rowboat and for some reason mentions Jack’s name, cause, hey we all know that guy!  The writing is also chock-full of plot contrivances, like how giving up the compass frees the baddies for some reason, among many others.

But here’s the thing; it seems to get better.  Yes it does overstay its welcome, as seems to be par for the course with Pirates films.  But I was much more interested in the last half of the film.  As ridiculous as the storyline is, with the hunt for some magical trident on some secret island, I got caught up in it.  I quite enjoy all that mythological tales of the sea idea.  I also liked the idea of the ghost ship hunting down Jack, though I’m not really sure I liked Bardem’s Salazar character.  There was something annoying about it.

But the reason I left this movie feeling fine, was that the action scenes were getting back to the inventiveness of the first two films.  There’s an over-the-top scene with a bank at the start which was goofy fun.  There was also a really neat sequence later involving a guillotine that excited me quite a bit.  And the location of the final action climax, which I wont give away, is really quite cool, despite it reminding me of a certain animated movie I really like.

And so, in the end, I was able to accept a clumsily made film and embrace its goofier side.  I’m not really a Pirates fan, yet in some weird way, I like the mythology and world building of these movies.  I do admit though that they should probably stop soon before Jack Sparrow degrades to Harry and Lloyd levels.  But the guillotine was really cool.

6/10

 

May
24

*Warning:  This review will have spoilers

Prometheus, this ain’t. While Prometheus had a strong theme about the question of where we come from, Covenant takes that theme and beats it like a rug. I will say it adds a lot to the Alien mythology, but I’m not really sure I like where it is taken. The idea of David behind behind their biology is sort of dumb, and to be honest I think the series works better if the alien race is just a threat that exists out in the galaxy.

I do like that they didn’t ignore Prometheus, but now I sort of understand why some fans were so pissed off at Alien 3 for haphazardly killing off the characters who fought so hard to survive the second film. That happens here as well. I was also quite disappointed at what happened with their contact with the engineer race.

Now lets be clear, this is a competently made thriller in many regards. The film looks great, especially the Alien creatures, with one exception: Billy Crudup’s chest-burster. That looks terrible, and the scene that chaperones it is eye-rolling. Most of the tension works, though I would argue that the second climax here feels really tacked on, even though we all knew it was coming.

I also really didn’t like the end twist.  It feels like its only there for shock value (for the 8% of people who didn’t figure it out already), but will really just piss you off after everything these characters went through.

6/10

May
08

This movie is pulling me in both directions. On the one hand,m there is a lot of stuff that would normally have me hating a movie like this. On the other hand, the stuff that’s good is so good that it pulls be back to somewhere in the middle.

What I didn’t like:
This is likely to be a common complaint, but it really feels like the humour is out of balance this time around. Its like they said “people really liked the funny parts” and so cranked it up past a level where it works (look no further than the guardian’s opening scene). There are jokes constantly, but some are in poorly chosen spots while others are just nonsensical (like most of Peter’s earth references).

This next point is more of a personal preference, but I don’t care for the character of Yondu, and he was a big part of this second film. I felt like all the attention given to him detracted from the other characters I wanted to spend time with more.*SPOILERS* Also, an inordinate amount of focus was spent on his death. They needed to scale that back a bit. *END SPOILERS*

What I liked:
Ultimately, the saving grace of this film are the main characters. The 4 primaries are really a great cast, and their interactions with each other feel earned and special. Rocket remains the bet character in the series, while Peter and Gamora provide a solid central core. Drax is used a little more for comic relief this time, but I was mostly okay with it.

The point is that these characters and their relationships are why I enjoyed the movie, even if it started to lose sight of itself. So I suppose its a pass when all is said and done.

7/10

Apr
29

The Founder is essentially an “absolute power corrupts absolutely” story with the setting of an American fast food franchise.  And not just any American fast food franchise, THE American fast food franchise.  This films tells the tale of how businessman Ray Croc took the revolutionary ideas behind a fast service burger joint and took it national.  But in doing so, he leaves the original owners, the McDonald brothers, in his wake.

There are a lot of interesting tidbits in a movie like this, which shows the origins of something so well known to everyone.  Perhaps the best part of the movie was when the brothers describe how they turned McDonalds into the restaurant it became.  Neat stuff in there.  Ray is fascinated, however the rest of the movie deals with him undercutting them to get the franchise he envisions.  By the end he becomes a complete asshole.

I will admit that there is nothing overly special about The Founder.  Its storyline is rather predictable, and the personal life aspects of Croc’s life isn’t particularity interesting.  But Michael Keaton elevates things with a really good performance, and Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch are sympathetic as the brothers, and the fact that they are dealing with something as familiar as McDonald’s provides some weight, like when Croc describes what the real appeal of the restaurant is.

This movie, and ultimately the story it is based on, has a lot of tragedy.  The brothers really get screwed while power-hungry Croc gets what he wants.  Nice guys finish last seems to be the message, while rich assholes get what they want (just take a look at the current White House occupant for proof of this).  Its not really a feel good message, and while of course movies don’t always have to end in a good place, the way this one was set up really made you pine for some sort of silver lining.

8/10

Apr
25

There are some themes that board game designers are drawn to far more than others: medieval times, fantasy adventures, war simulations. Trains is definitely one of those themes, one which countless games have been made for and which has been an important part in our current board game history.
Steam is a product of this board gaming history. Train games allow for literal network building in board games, which has lead to the crayon rails series as well as the much more complex 18xx series. Out of this sprang Age of Steam, a harsh game which managed to be a little more mainstream than its 18xx cousins. After this, simpler games like Ticket to Ride sprang up, leading to a further distillation of the genre, turning age of steam into the Steam you see before you.
Let’s take a look.

Components

The components for Steam leaves something to be desired, but its not as though we are playing with pen and paper here. Its all high quality, just a little on the bland side, although that doesn’t bother me nearly as much as it bothers others. The train track hexes come in a variety of track directions and look good for what they are. The player pieces that go on the tracks are simply wooden discs. Wooden trains would have probably made more sense, especially when they tease us with a single wooden train used as the turn marker.
The game comes with a double-sided board; one side showing New England, the other Germany. The map isn’t flashy, but it shouldn’t be. It shows the landscape nicely while still being functional. It fits the game quite well. The various tracks around it could be overwhelming for first timers, but it all makes sense once you know what’s going on.
The goods are wooden cubes of various colours, which is fine. They don’t need to be fancy. However, it would be nice if they were designated as something; steel, or wool, or whatever. It just would have helped with picturing the theme a little more.

Gameplay

The core of the gameplay is straight forward: you are building track and then moving goods across those tracks to cities to score. The interesting thing about the scoring is that you get to decide whether to use the points you get as actual points or as income. Therefore, there is a watershed point at which you must decide your economy is running well enough to start scoring.
What makes the game complicated are all the aspects surrounding this central idea. The banking mechanism, for example, isn’t very intuitive and can take some time to get your head around. Once you do its quite neat though. Even the scoring itself can be confusing, as it all depends how far away you are from the city you are delivering, and hos tracks you use to get there.
Another big part of this game are the jobs that are chosen each turn. Each job allows a player to do something the other players can’t, like be the first to build track even if you aren’t first in order, increase your locomotive abilities for cheap, or even build a whole new city. These tiles can either be chosen in order or can be bid for in an auction. Deciding what job is best for you at what time is where a lot of the strategy come into this game, but its not easy.

Conclusion

Steam is a difficult game; there’s no getting around this. It is hard and unforgiving and it constantly feels like a struggle to get anything going. Therefore, this is not necessarily a game for casual gamers, and serious gamers will need a few plays under their belt to feel confident.
As such, there can be a lot of frustration that comes with Steam as its hard to have a feeling of accomplishment when you are barely getting anything done. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, as some people will love tackling that challenge. Others however may be completely turned off by it.
I’ve heard that the other child of Age of Steam, Railways of the World, is a little more user friendly, but I don’t have experience with it myself. I have tried Days of Steam which is a simpler version, but not as strong a design. But for gamers who want a challenge without the length and intricacies of Age of Steam or 18XX, Steam may be for you.

Apr
08

Sorry, I’m quite late to the party on this one.  First, let’s face facts: 2016 was a disappointing year.  There are probably 5 or 6 films from 2015 I would put over any of the movies this year.  But nonetheless there were still some solid movies to entertain us.  Lets take a look.

10. Star Trek Beyond

I suppose this is my summer blockbuster/franchise pick for the year.  I wasn’t even overly impressed with it off the bat, but this third of the new Star Trek’s grew on me.  I really appreciate how they have decided to focus on the relationships of the charactrs more, which is where the strength of this series lies.

9. Zootopia

And now for my animation representation.  I really enjoyed Zootopia.  I don’t love it like I loved Inside Out last year, but I found it interesting and fun to look at.  To be honest, in other years, neither of the first two movies would probably had made this list.

8. Everybody Wants Some

Again, an enjoyable picture.  I don’t know how memorable of a film its going to be, but when I watched it I had a fun experience spending a weekend in the lives of these college students.  Its really just hanging out with a group of friends for a couple hours, and that’s just fine.  It reminds me of classic films in a similar vein, like MASH and American Graffiti.  Its not on the same level as those, obviously, but still quite good.

7. Green Room

I didn’t really know what to expect with this movie, but what I got was a tense thriller with lots of shocking moments and tons of tension.  We see our main characters get themselves into a bad situation and do their best to deal with it and get out.  Its very engaging.

6. The Witch

The Witch is an effective creepfest, helping to further the return of quality horror to our theaters.  I love that it is set in colonial times and that it feels like its time period.  It plays on much deeper fears than just scary surprises and actually has soething to say.  This is a solid movie.

5. Hacksaw Ridge

Not a lot of my fellow cinephiles are with me on Hacksaw Ridge, but I really latched on to this story of a man who refused to hold a weapon but still wanted to serve his country.  We see his struggles with his unit during training, and though reactions were predictable they still worked for me.  Then we get his heroic deeds in battle which were very moving.  I know not a lot of people are on board with me, but I really enjoyed Mel Gibson’s return to the director’s chair.

4. Hunt for the Wilderpeople

From the director of What We Do in the Shadows, we get a comedic film which is both adventurous, heart-felt and hilarious.  Its the whole package.  I was recommending this to everyone after I saw it, but I really think that almost anybody could get on board with Ricky and Hec and their adventures.  “Are you gonna manslaughter him??”

3. Arrival

Arrival turned out to be a very popular and very acclaimed film, and for good reason.  It has a pretty mainstream movie premise, aliens visiting earth, but it deals with it in such a unique way.  The effort is in communication rather than conflict, and personal connections rather than large scale action.  And it all comes together really well.

2. Manchester by the Sea

Now whereas I felt comfortable recommending Wilderpeople to anyone, I did not feel the same about Manchester by the Sea.  Its a superbly directed and acted film about dealing with loss, but it doesn’t necessarily have the beats that most people expect a drama like this to have.  This will frustrate some, but be very refreshing for others.  Its worth it to watch for the performances by Afflect, Williams and Chandler.  A naturally gripping movie.

1. The Nice Guys

So I thought about what my movie of the year should be for a while.  Manchester is a really moving drama, and Arrival is a great sci-fi with a deeper meaning, but when it comes down to it, what is the movie I am the most excited about revisiting?  Which movie really made me feel a connection to what was happening on screen while being very entertaining?  The answer is The Nice Guys.  Its hilarious with great characters, great set pieces, and interesting story to tie it together.  Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe work brilliantly together.  This may be the only 2016 movie I actually bother buying on bluray, and as such it gets my top spot.

Mar
23

A while back I ranked every episode of The X-Files and posted by top ten and bottom ten.  After giving the Game of Thrones series a full rewatch, I thought I would do the same.  Now this is only up to and including season 6, as this post is being written before the release of season 7.  I suppose I will likely edit this once the series is completed.

Now when we get to the worst episodes, keep in mind that this term is relative to other Game of Thrones episodes.  They’re still pretty good.  But some of the bottom ones do have some very questionable material, to be sure.

As far as the top ten, picking the ten was actually quite easy, but ordering them was pretty difficult.  Its possible they will shuffle in the future.  But anyways, here we go!  There may be spoilers.

The Top Ten Episodes

10. Winter is Coming

Season 1

As a big fan of Martin’s book series, I was cautiously optimistic about the TV show.  But the pilot episode soon put my fears to rest as it was quickly apparently they were going to do this story justice.  This was such a fantastic first episode; they established the major players, solidified the Stark family and their values, introduced the politics of the world and the looming threats.

One thing they do so well is to establish the Starks as a family. If you think about it, that is the only episode where they are together as a family. But they do such a great job establishing the bonds between them and showing them as a unit, that it reverberates with us throughout six full seasons.  It also creates the impression of the vast, rich history without feeling the need to go into lengthy explanations.

9.  Hardhome

Season 5

Usually the second to last episodes in the seasons are the big, spectacular episodes, and while in season 5 it appeared it would be the same with Danaerys’ scene in the fighting pits, it turned out that the ep before it was the big one.  Hardhome saw Jon and the Night’s Watch sail north to rescue stranded wildlings, only to come face to face with The Others.  And it was great.  There were two moments of terrific tension and foreboding; the first when we first see the white walkers on the cliffs, then when all the dead stand up at once.  This is great television directing.

8. The Door

Season 6

Game of Thrones more than often proves to be thrilling and intriguing, but every once in a while t can also be emotionally devastating.  By Season Six the show had pushed past the books and was now on their own, which means myself as a viewer didn’t know what was coming.  So when The Door happened I was taken completely by surprise.  They managed to take the beloved background character of Hodor and built a moment around him that proved to be one of the most moving moments I’ve had for a television show.  It wasn’t just his death that wrecked us; it was the realization that his entire live and identity had been sacrificed because of this moment, and that it was all Bran’s doing.  And even the title of this episode, which seemed pretty ordinary at frist, is suddenly imbued with meaning now.

7. Blackwater

Season 2

Season 2 was certainly a dip in quality from the show’s freshman year, but they sure got the battle of Blackwater right.  This was the first time GoT focused an entire episode on one location, and that was the right decision to allow us to invest in the characters wrapped up in this battle and to build the ever growing tension throughout.  We got some great visuals, great acting, great moments, and great suspense.  Blackwater is the shining jewel in an otherwise lackluster season (for Game of Thrones at least).

6. The Rains of Castamere

Season 3

The episode that is more commonly known as “The Red Wedding” was a major turning point in the show, but I never really considered it to be one of the great episodes apart from being shocking.  However, as I was going through my series rewatch, I realized just how fantastic of an hour of TV this really is, depressing as it may be.

The episode if infamous for the Robb and Catelyn story at The Twins of course, but we often forget that there is also a fantastic side story in the north where Jon’s time with the wildlings reaches its climax and he and Bran come very close to finding each other again.  Meanwhile, back at The Twins, the tension is played up so beautifully that I almost wonder what would have been the best way to experience this: knowing what was coming, or being taken by surprise.

5. Baelor

Season 1

This episode probably has the best claim out of all of them for being responsible for the popularity of this show.  Baelor is a very strong episode in which all of the conflicts that the season has built up to reach their peak.  We get Robb’s victory at the whispering woods, Tyrion preparing for his battle, Dany tries something desperate to save Drogo’s life, and of course Ned meets his fate.

The very ending of this episode was quite the shocker for show-only viewers, and as it should be.  To kill off your main character after only one year is a bold move.  In retrospect we see that it had to happen in order to set the rest of the Stark stories in motion, but at the time people couldn’t believe they just saw what they saw.  Quite the game changer.

4. Watchers on the Wall

Season 4

Season 4 saw what they did with Blackwater and took it to the next level as the wildlings finally attacked The Wall.  In this action packed episode we once again stay at one location and get a thrilling battle, including giants and massive scythes.  We also get the emotional payoff of the Jon-Ygritte story, and some other moving moments as well (Grenn!).  This is television at its most epic.  Well, until they do it again in a couple years…

3. The Winds of Winter

Season 6

After the powerhouse penultimate episode of season 6, we expected the season finale to be another wrap-up episode like they usually are.  But instead what we got was a roller coaster ride of plot twists, taking us by surprise at each step.  There were some epic moments in the latest hour of Game of Thrones to date, including Cersei’s wildfire plot, Tommen’s fateful decision, and of course the Arya reveal.  And we also have Jon’s parentage revealed, and though book fans who have been paying attention already knew this, they way it was done was excellent.

2. Battle of the Bastards

Season 6

So a couple spots ago when I said it was television at its most epic?  Well then Battle of the Bastards came out and GOT topped themselves once again.  Not only do we see Dany’s dragons at their fiercest, we also see The North at its bloodiest.  The showdown between Jon Snow and Ramsey Bolton that had been building up all season paid off… big time.   What we get is a Braveheart-level build up to a Punic War style battle, culminating in a face off between the series’ most prominent hero and most hated villain.  But the film-making here is something to really be in awe of, with the small details in cinematography and editing which make us hold our breath throughout.  This was damn near #1.

1.  The Children

Season 4

While most people would choose Battle of the Bastards or one of the other high concept episodes as their favourite, I keep finding myself drawn to the season 4 finale.  There’s a lot of great moments in this episode: Stannis saving the Knight’s Watch, The Hound fighting Brienne, Bran reaching the one-eyed raven, and of course Tyrion’s final meeting with his father Tywin.  And all these stories are told with quality writing and directing.  There’s great action, deep emotion, and a  lot of catharsis.  This is Game of Thrones at its best.

There’s the best, now to the not so good.  Now remember, when we are talking worst episodes here, it is relative compared to the rest of the series, not necessarily the rest of television in general.  Game of Throne is a solid show, and even the bottom of the barrel has a lot of quality.

The Bottom Ten Episodes

10. The House of Black and White

Season 5

I guess the biggest crime with this episode is that its just sort of boring.  arya arriving in Braavos isnt that big of a deal, since we already saw Davos and Stannis there earlier.  Jon’s election didn’t have the intrigue it had in the book, and then we get unrest in Meereen.  More unrest in Meereen.  And it won’t be the last time…

9. Walk of Punishment

Season 3

Not much to say about this one.  Other than a pretty shocking ending, the episode is rather bland.

8. Mhysa

Season 3

I usually enjoy the season finales of Game of Thrones quite a bit, but the exception was the capper of season three.  After such an intense hour where most of the Stark’s hopes were literally stabbed to death, the fallout wasn’t nearly as interesting as it should have been.  And the very end where the slaves leave the city and embrace Daenerys as their queen was kinda dumb.  Considering we ended the previous seasons with her emerging from fire with dragons, and seeing an army of undead emerge from a blizzard, this was a bit of a letdown.

7. The Night Lands

Season 2

So what do we get in this episode?  We are introduced to the ironborn bravado, which gets to be a bit much.  We get Dany and her minions traipsing through the red waste.  And we get Arya running away.  Nothing overly exciting.

6. Valar Dohaeris

Season 3

I realize that most of the shots taken against these episodes so far is that they’re just kind of boring, which isn;t really that bad.  And this is another episode in that vein.  We do get to met Mance for the first time, which is cool, but otherwise its Tyrion realizing he’s been shafted out of power, Dany arrives at Astapor, and Stannis licking his wounds.

5. Blood of my Blood

Season 6

Now we get into episodes with some really poor decisions or bad storytelling, and the latter is the problem with this one.  They way they bring Dany back with Drogon is one of the shows worst moments of writing.  It was so… awkward.  It was like ‘hey guys, I’m gonna head off over there a sec and…. bam! I have a dragon!”  A very unearned moment played like it was supposed to be something special.

4. Breaker of Chains

Season 4

The Hound is mean to peasants, rape controversy, and an uninteresting raid on Mole’s Town, this is the weakest episode in what is perhaps the show’s strongest season.  And then at the end they shoot collars at the city. Yup.

3.  A Man Without Honour

Season 2

Jaime is one of the most intriguing characters on this show, but did they ever do a disservice to him here  They have him make a failed escape attempt by killing his cousin for seemingly no reason.  It was stupid.

2. The Garden of Bones

Season 2

So now we are getting to parts I really hated about the show.  This episode is full of torture, which I don’t particularity find compelling to watch.  We get pretty nasty torture at Harrenhal, but then we get one of GoT’s worst moment when Joffrey gets really sadistic on two prostitutes.  We really didn’t need that, we already knew he was horrible.  It was just gratuitous nastiness.

1.  Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken

Season 5

Okay, so now we get to the worst episode in an otherwise awesome series, and I think most fans would agree with me on this one.  First, we get the climax of the very disappointing Dorne story-line from season 5 with some terrible fight choreography more fitting for Xena: Warrior Princess.  We get a cringe-worthy scenes with the Tyrells on trial.  But then we have Sansa being married off to Ramsey and once again being made a victim, even worse than before.  But… she already went through being a victim, it really doesn’t do anything for her character arc to have to go through it again.  But that’s what happens, and it made everyone very uncomfortable.

 

Mar
06

This is about as serious a comic book superhero movie as anyone is going to make. And because of the history we have with these characters, it works. Its an interesting question to ask how well it would work if we had never encountered Wolverine or Prof X before, but regardless, that’s not the case here.

In this third wolverine movie, Logan is now old and his powers are waning. And to be honest, that is a really interesting idea after watching this character be able to hack and slash through people without any real consequence. We also see Xavier as a broken old man grabbing for any sort of happiness; also interesting. This movie also has Dr. Carter from ER. Interesting.

So anyway, what we get is a pretty hard-edged X-men film which really hints at notes of deep sorrow, defeatism, and even nihilism. But it still remains a superhero movie. So its still fun to watch, but its also not at the same time somehow.

As far as the ending, all I will say is that they could have went two different ways, and I think either one would have suited. They had to choose one way, but I can’t help but think if I would have preferred the other. Still, a very strong last effort for Jackman in these X-Men films. What a great wolverine he turned out to be.

9/10

Mar
04

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Mel does it again. What an excellent addition to the WWII film canon. Hacksaw tells the story of a conscientious objector who serves in the military without even holding a gun. And since they made a movie about him, you can imagine that there are some heroics involved.

Andrew Garfield plays Desmond in a manner which is very “shucks, golly”, but I will admit it grew on me. The first half of the movie he has to deal with everyone around him thinking he’s a coward without them realizing his courage come from standing up for his convictions. Of course we know that they will make that realization eventually, yet its still damn satisfying when they do anyway.

It actually takes half the movie before they reach war, as Gibson spends that time establishing Desmond’s life with his family, including an awesome performance by Hugo Weaving as his father, and his budding romance with Dorothy, played charmingly by Teresa Palmer. We also see the legal battles he faced inside the military.

I’ve heard lots of complaints about how slow the first half is or how schmaltzy or stereotypical it is, but I didn’t feel that way. I was engaged the whole time. In the second half when they reach Okinawa things get really intense and Desmond’s story comes full circle. The battle sequences are impressive, but its his story at the center of it which really made it special.

9/10

Feb
26

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Lego Batman is a much more juvenile outing than The Lego Movie of three years ago. The Lego Movie worked on a thematic level that was surprising, but don’t expect this Batman spin-ff to be in the same ballpark.

Nonetheless, I can’t say I didn’t enjoy it. There was enough here that kept my interest, though to be honest most of it was pop culture references and the like. Will Arnett’s commentary over the opening logos was a funny way to start things off, and the various moments where they look back into the history of Batman were cool as well.

There was also a sort of funny relationship here between Batman and the Joker where Joker is trying to get Batman to admit that they are arch-enemies. That worked. There’s also some good relationship stuff with Robin and Alfred, though its pretty standard family movie fare.

Lego Batman also doesn’t look as good visually as The Lego Movie, which seemed more refined, but there is enough eye candy to satisfy.

7/10

Feb
13

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An enjoyable sequel to an enjoyable action flick. John Wick 2 continues almost immediately where the first film leaves off.  John is brought back into the fray when an old debt is called in and he has no choice but to honour it, including a little jog over to Rome.  There’s lots of inventive set pieces here, like starting out with 7 bullets and needing to keep stealing guns, trying to shoot his opponent in secret in a subway station, etc.

There’s also lots more world building in this installment, expanding on the assassin’s only hotel chain and underground. There’s a great triple-cut scene where Wick is preparing for a job at three different locations.  I am a big fan of world-building in general, and that was clearly a goal of this second film.

Also, how great is Keanu? He really brings a lot to this role, always speaking and responding in a way which is always just slightly off of what you expect.  When you look at the actors around him in this movie, he really seems a step above all of them.Its easy to appreciate what he does here and the character he creates.

8/10